I Don’t Know How to Talk to My Kindergartener About Race

T included a classmate in a drawing at school. He wrote the child’s name and put a label beside the picture. Black. Another student informed the teacher who took T aside and explained they do not use terms like white and black at school because those words can hurt feelings. His teacher assured me he was using the word as a descriptor and not out of meanness.

I get it. And I don’t get it. And I get it.

We live in a city. T goes to our local public school. It is very diverse, both economically and racially. Every child in the school receives free breakfast and lunch. Since the beginning of the year he has had a lot of questions about his classmates. Only occasionally are they about race, but those are the ones that I remember. What does black mean? What color am I? What does white mean? Do we have any black people in our family? Why not?

In our school there is a correlation between race and privilege. It is uncomfortable and impossible to ignore. There are extracurricular events arranged by the PTO; STEM night, mini academies, the neighborhood 5K, marching in a local parade. The same kids and parents are always involved. Of course the segregation is not 100%, but again, impossible to ignore.

Forget my kid, I don’t know how to talk about race period. I notice a gap between the experience of T and some of his peers. I notice the gap only widens by the higher grades. Does it help to talk about it? Do I dare talk about it as a white woman who is incredibly privileged? Can I do something to help? Is trying to do something to help an example of privilege trying to solve problems it doesn’t understand?

How do I explain race issues in America to a five year old when I can’t wrap my brain around them myself?

If the rule is we don’t use color as a descriptor at school that is fine. It is easy to tell him that the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with who that person is. It is harder to explain why addressing race is a minefield in America.

“We need to talk about something serious, T. I need you to focus.”

“Ok. But can we stop at Target after swim lessons to get one of those squishy Transformer things? From the dollar section?”

“You are not listening. And no, no toys. You need to focus.”

“Aww…….Ok.”

“You know how we have talked about women being treated like less than men?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“So 100 years ago women couldn’t vote. Women used to belong to their husbands. They couldn’t own property. You know how Daddy and I own our house together? A long time ago I wouldn’t be able to own a house.”

“Yeah.”

“It used to be like that for black people. Actually the white people came to this part of the world and they took the land from Native Americans. And then they brought people here from Africa and made the those people slaves. You remember what slave means?”

“Yeah. Um…uhhh. To take somebody away and never let them go back?”

“Yes, to own a person. Which is terrible thing. So white people were in charge and they made really bad choices about how to treat people who looked different from them.”

“If white people were in charge were white women in charge, too?”

“Nope. Not for a long time. If you were a white woman or a person who had darker skin you were not treated equally. And the problem is that even though now there are laws to make people treat women and darker skinned people equal it doesn’t happen all the time.”

“If I went back in time I would be really nice to women and people with different colored skin.”

“I really hope that you would be.”

“And I would be mean to white men to teach them a lesson.”

“Oh baby. No. I don’t want you to be mean to anyone. I wouldn’t want you to go back and be mean to white men. Maybe if you went back in time you could try to change their minds about the way they treat anyone who is different.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, there are good white men and bad white men and good women and bad women and good black people and bad black people. Because we are all human and we are all born equal to each other. And there are good people and bad people in this world, but that has to do with who we are on the inside, not what we look like on the outside. Just because white men made bad choices a long time ago doesn’t mean that all white men are bad. Is that daddy bad? Is granddad? Is grandpa? Are you?”

“No.”

“Dude, this is so complicated. It is so complicated that using colors to talk about people’s skin can be hurtful and we need to be extra careful at school not to do it because those are the rules. But it is ok to think about how people look different. It is ok to talk about it. You need to be aware that people with darker skin are still treated unfairly too often and we need to speak up when we see that happen. You need to understand that you will be given extra opportunities as a white man that have nothing to do with how hard you work. And that is not fair. It also isn’t your fault, but you need to be aware of it.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

“Okaaay!”

“OK.”

“Stop it Mom!”

“Ok.”

“Ugh!”

Is this enough? Is what I said appropriate? I have no idea. How do you explain institutional racism to a 5 year old? The amount of discomfort I feel about it tells me we need to be talking about it. Even if I screw it up. We need to keep talking until we get it right. I don’t want him to carry the guilt of the choices his ancestors made. At the same time he must understand he occupies a place of privilege in this world that he did not earn, but that he was born into.

IMG_6570

This kid is trying to figure stuff out.

Syracuse Half Marathon

A couple of weeks ago I took a spur of the moment trip down south and was at my sister’s house in NC for an evening. My best friend from high school lives about 45 minutes south of B and was able to drive up for dinner. We haven’t been in touch for a couple of years, but we have the special sort of relationship in which it seems no time at all has passed between visits. I opened the door to greet her and she commented on the change in my appearance.

My face got read, “Yeah, um….I started running.”

She burst into hysterical laughter.

Please understand there was not a trace of unkindness in that laughter. It was the perfect reaction. She has known me for 24 years, even though we have been out of touch she still knows me better than most people. Actually, her shock at my news illustrates how well she does know me. She would have had an easier time believing it if I’d told her I was pregnant with one of the Nelson Twins love child. And yes, let’s just get this out of the way, we did go see Nelson when we were in 8th grade. It was 1991. What do you want from us? They were beautiful!

She texted me a couple of days after I got home. She went running. I couldn’t stop smiling. Turns out a bunch of people I know have started running either again or for the first time after being kind enough to read about me blundering through the process. I’m more proud of helping motivate folks (just like my friend Kelly motivated me) than I am of the running itself. The reason I think friends have decided to give it a try after seeing my struggles and little victories is because it is so unlikely that I’ve stuck to it. It is impossible to look at me without thinking “If she can do it, I can definitely do it!”

These friends that have started running? A lot of them are way better at it than I am. A lifetime of inactivity, almost a decade of being overweight, never being physically fit all add up to a very slow runner indeed. Sheer will that I didn’t know I possessed keeps me going, but my name should be tortoise. I am slow and steady.

One of these friends, T, decided to come visit and run the Syracuse Half Marathon with me. She had done a few 5Ks. She injured herself in January and came back from it, training outdoors to be ready for the race. This was her first half.

She and I watched the weather report last week as the high for Sunday dropped from the 30s to the 20s to the low 20s. The race started at 8am. We wouldn’t even be touching the highs. The cold wasn’t my only issue. Our winter was so harsh that I skipped many training runs. I was woefully unprepared. The night before the race we followed the race map and drove the course. Fear settled like a brick in my stomach. It was hilly. Really really hilly. Super hilly. Frighteningly hilly.

T and I did a quick 15 minute run to loosen up a bit on Saturday. It was clear she was much faster than me. She also said that this was the only half she was interested in running. She wanted us to stick together, but this was her only shot. I wanted her to rock it. On Sunday we stayed together for less than a mile, partway up the first never ending hill of the race, before she took off.

The conditions were brutal. Temps held steady at 17 and it had snowed an inch overnight. T rocked it. She finished 20 minutes before I did. She was incredible. It is pretty great to be proud of someone and in awe of them at the same time. It’s pretty great to know I played a small part in her decision to start running. It’s pretty terrible to feel a twinge of jealousy that she is so much faster than I am. Thankfully the petty jealousy exists outside the pleasure I feel for her.

And it turns out I PRed the race. Barely a minute faster than last time, but with the cold and the hills and the undertraining I’ll take it. For most of us non-elites the only one we are competing with is ourselves. I might be jealous of T’s speed, or my friend A’s speed, or my friend K’s, or my friend N who ran for her university and with a semi-pro club for a time. But they all run their own races. And I want them to do the best they possibly can. I just wish my best looked a little bit more like theirs.

T might have started running in part because of me, but I look at her and see the kind of runner I hope to be someday. To be honest, I look at her and see the kind of mother and person I hope to be someday as well. Don’t know how I got lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who are such extraordinary people. But I will keep on learning from them as long as they let me hang around.

syracuse half marathon

Finishers!

And a big thanks to the wonderful folks who supported us yesterday. Z for kid wrangling. E for making us post-race soup. L and E and D for cheering me on at the finish. E and E and R and E and L for joining us at lunch. I don’t know what I did to deserve you guys, but I love you all.

Report Card

A couple of weeks ago I trudged through the snow towards the kindergarten door at T’s school. A gaggle of middle school girls breezed by and I noticed one of them waving a small manila envelope. Goosebumps erupted from my scalp to my toes.

It was a report card envelope.

In the fall we had parent teacher conferences and the first report cards were distributed then. Seeing the envelope in that girl’s hand was a complete surprise, and I could not wait to hustle T home to see if he had one too. I wanted to peek into his bag as soon as we were back in the car, but I made myself wait, savoring the anticipation and excitement. By the time we got to the house I was lightheaded and giddy.

At the thought of looking at my kindergardener’s report card.

When I was growing up I was not a popular kid. I was not a beautiful kid. I was not an athletic kid. I was a smart kid. Everyone looks for an identity as we grow. Honestly, I would have loved to find mine as a popular kid or a beautiful girl, but smart is what I had. So I clung to it.

Over the years I’ve come to realize I am not anywhere as smart as I thought I was back then. But in childhood being grouped with the smart kids made me feel like I belonged. Excellent academic performance was not just expected, it was required. If we weren’t in the National Honor Society how would we get into a great college? My sister and I were good girls. We got into great colleges.

This is the baggage I hauled into the kitchen with me as I opened T’s report card. It was excellent. T is a bright kid. His preschool teacher called him her little thinker. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Most of the 3s he got in the fall had turned into 4s. At the parent teacher conference we were told they don’t give 4s in the fall because it doesn’t give the kids any room for improvement.

“They don’t give 4s in the fall, but T got one 4.” I bragged to my friend.

“Wow. What was it in?”

“Homework. I always make sure he hands it in early.”

“Oh, so YOU were actually the one who got a 4.” My friend is incredibly smart, way smarter than I am. She nailed it. My pleasure in that 4 could not have been a clearer red flag that I was being nuts when it came to T’s performance in kindergarten.

The second part of T’s report card was a series of standardized test results. Like in the fall, his scores were terrific. All but one. He was a few points below the expectation in one.

The room started to spin, my ears started ringing, the lightheadedness increased.

That one score invalidated every good thing I’d read. I panicked. Should I call Z? My parents? What were were going to do? What had I failed to teach T? When was the soonest I could get a parent teacher conference with his teacher? Should I email her right away or talk to Z first? What were we doing to do?

I gulped in some big, deep breaths. My mind cleared a bit.

What the hell was I doing?

T is five. He is in kindergarten. He is happy and learning and figuring out how to be a student. He is thriving. I am so proud of him.

Do I want him to see me losing it over one score out of many on his report card? Do I want to put that kind of pressure on him? On the flip side, do I want him to see me being thrilled over the good marks? Do I want him to think that my approval is tied to his academic performance? Is that fair to him? Is that the kind of Mom I want to be?

I called my parents and told them the whole story. They talked me off the ledge. Near the end of the conversation I told them I was still probably going to contact the teacher to come up with strategies around the lower score. Obviously I had not really internalized my big realizations about not pressuring my five year old. They gently helped me see that there was nothing to contact T’s teacher about. T was fine. I was obviously an insane helicopter mom, but T was fine.

That night I got an email from my dad with a link for a news story out of Staten Island. A mom allegedly threatened to bomb her daughter’s high school after learning that the girl failed a standardized test. My father, sarcasm oozing off of the computer screen, indicated her reaction was completely reasonable. I laughed so hard I cried. And then I cried for real.

T is not me. He is not a chance for me to relive and improve upon parts of my childhood. My son’s kindergarten report cards have no bearing on his academic future. Being a smart kid in kindergarten doesn’t mean he will always be a smart kid. Intelligence is not a measure of worth. This is a time for T to grow and learn and not be faced with pressure, especially additional pressure from his mother. My husband and I came up with a list of three things the boys need to do in order to make us proud: Be kind. Try hard. Treat girls the same way they treat boys. The three things are a mantra in our house. There is nothing about report cards or intelligence on that list.

I screwed up big time. Big time.

In the five short years I’ve become a mother a chasm has cracked open separating the kind of Mom I want to be from the kind of Mom I am. Five years doesn’t feel long enough for it to have become so deep and wide. Seems like I have much more work to do than T does.

airplane T

This kid’s report card doesn’t matter.

100 days of kindergarten

What matters is how much he loves kindergarten. The class made crowns celebrating completing 100 Days. At first he was crushed because he thought kindergarten was over and he didn’t want it to be. But he got into the celebration when he learned he has months left. His love of school is the only rubric we need right now.

T thrown in the snow

Playing in the snow after school.

Crisis of Confidence

My body rebelled as soon as my feet hit the treadmill. I spun around and darted down the stairs and back to the locker room to swallow some Imodium and rush to the toilet. A few minutes later I forced myself back up the stairs and onto the same machine. Less than half a mile in I felt like I was dying. At two miles I couldn’t bear it any longer and walked for the next quarter of a mile.

The Syracuse Half Marathon is just over a month away and I haven’t completed a long run over 8 miles since the half I did in October. Last week I ran 8 total. Today’s 4 was the first running I’ve done this week. And I walked a half a mile of that.

Today I realized I might not finish the race in March. I just might not have it in me. There are a million excuses why, the weather is freezing and snowy, I can’t hack treadmills, T is on winter break, we traveled to see family and brought the snow and cold temperatures with us more than 600 miles south. This is the point in the training when I am supposed to be doing more than 30 miles a week. My week so far: 4, really 3.5.

Tomorrow the windchill will be -30 and we will have several inches of fresh snow on our poorly plowed streets. We haven’t had temps above freezing since January 29th.

All of that sucks, but like I said it is also excuses. Running gives me something to hold onto, a semblance of control. If I can force my body to go ten miles without stopping I can force myself to muscle through the anxiety. Without it I am unmoored. The anxiety washes over me in waves. I call Z almost in tears from the YMCA, interrupting him while he is teaching, to tell him I don’t know how I’m going to get through the day until he gets home. I am jittery and have no patience for the kids as we make our way through airport security. I punish myself by denying myself rescue medicine for hours as the anxiety takes over and ruins the day for the whole family.

Nine more days until this evil month, the longest of the year and you cannot convince me otherwise, is over. It is exactly 0 degrees as I type this. On March 22nd I may not be able to run 13.1 miles, but it will certainly be warmer than it is today or tomorrow or the next day. If I don’t finish the race I will still be working my way back to the place where sweating through the miles proves that I can do hard things. If I can run for two hours without stopping I can face life outside the carefully constructed routine that comforts me and restricts Z and the boys.

photo (51)

Pissed.

last week snow

Last week.

 today snow

Today.

silhouette C

Beautiful C in the big bay window at my in-law’s house.

Teeth Brushing

T didn’t want the tooth fairy to take his teeth away because he is planning on bringing them with us when we visit his Granddad and Grandmom. Last time we were down there Granddad pulled out one of his microscopes and T was mesmerized as he looked at treasures found in the yard magnified many times over. In the cavity of one of his teeth blood is visible. T is giddy about getting a closer peek.

The teeth are in a round metal craft container with a glass lid. They live next to his bed and he looks at them often. Last week he brought the container into the bathroom and informed us he needed to brush the two teeth after he finished with the ones still in his head. Bedtime was rushed that night because Z was headed to a band practice, so we told him he could the next morning. Next morning we were running late for school. And so on and so on. Until last night when he finally got his chance.

I had been hurrying to get a small load of the boys’ laundry folded before we started the reading portion of our bedtime routine. T caught my eye as I began to bustle past the bathroom door, my arms filled with his clothes.

He stood with his floppy hair dangling in his eyes, his body both tiny and so unbelievably big not yet dry from the bath. His electric Transformer toothbrush buzzed away in his hand, the other hand gripping his tiny baby tooth firmly as he gently brushed away. He had a look of fierce concentration on his face.

I watched him at the door and the stress of dealing with two stir crazy boys on a snow day was forgotten. I was filled with a breathtaking feeling of tenderness. Five plus years into this parenting gig and I still get overwhelmed by how much I love these boys. Most days I’m frustrated and whiney and bitchy, but that is all bluster and noise.

I love them enough to put aside sarcasm and my impulse to make everything into a joke for a moment to be nakedly sincere. Since the day T was born my capacity to love has grown exponentially. In the moments when I feel the full weight of that love I can almost see it, it tethers the boys to me. There is a hole in my chest, exposing my internal organs. It makes me feel frighteningly vulnerable and invincible at the same time. My love for them makes me feel fully alive. And I am so grateful.

teeth

He added the little legos and calls them his jewels.

post haircut

Post haircut on a snowy day.

Running While Anxious

Before joining the masses at the start of the half marathon last October I took half of a benzo. To run 13.1 miles in a crowd of other people I had to take a controlled substance that works as a sedative. I also took 3 or 4 Imodium, can’t remember which.

I have an anxiety disorder and IBS. The benzos are prescribed to me by a medical professional and I use them responsibly. The way I pop Imodium like candy is probably worse for my body. But I’m not interesting in shitting myself. Again.

The benzo brought my anxiety to a manageable level and I was able to run the damn race. But it pisses me off that I needed it. After more than two decades I’m still angry that I have an anxiety disorder. Angry and really embarrassed. And then angry that I am embarrassed.

Nearly half way through another training program for a half marathon in March, and I am discouraged. It has been weeks since I’ve completed the distance assigned for a long run. The weather hasn’t been cooperating. I suck at the treadmill under regular circumstances, but I simply don’t have it in me to do 12 miles on one.

At some point along the way I have started to tie my emotional well being and self worth to running. If I don’t do what the running app on my phone tells me to do it means the anxiety is winning and that I suck ass. Running still provides me with many more positives than it does negatives. This fall it helped me function through some intense anxiety. It has made me feel easier in my body. My self confidence has improved a bit. I have more energy.

Like all good things in my life the anxiety tells me not to trust it. Slowly running has become an adversary. If I reach my running goals, well good for me. But if I fail that is a victory for the anxiety. When the anxiety is in control I want to give up. I want to fail to provide irrefutable evidence that I am worthless and pathetic.

Well fuck that noise. Fuck it.

I have this friend who is a fantastic person. She is funny and good company. She is smart and interesting and successful. She is the kind of person that others want to be more like. In conversation she casually mentioned that she has great self confidence. A couple of minutes later I really digested what she said. And I wanted to ask her how that works. I wanted to know what it is like to look in the mirror and think the person who is looking back at you rocks. I want that so badly. But the conversation had shifted, the moment had passed.

My anxiety tells me if I think anything good about myself I am vain and self absorbed. But my friend is not vain and self absorbed. That is not what confidence means no matter what that bitch anxiety has been whispering in my ear for more than 20 years.

Last week I signed up for the Empire State Marathon. On the eve of my 37th birthday I made a resolution to run a marathon before I turn 40. October 18th is the day I try to meet that goal. And if I don’t do it that day? I still have exactly one year and two months to make it happen.

Anxiety is not going to take running from me. I am fighting back.

frozen water

Only managed 8 of the 12 I was supposed to do yesterday. It was so cold my water started to freeze.

yaktrax

Wearing Yaktrax means avoiding the treadmill for another day.

running pasta

My sisters-in-law gave me running pasta for my birthday. It made dinner a lot of fun.

Kindergarten Drop Off Part II

“Mom. Mom. Mom. I don’t want to.”

“Ok. How about I bribe you?” My patience had already evaporated so I went straight for the truth as I dragged a brush through his hair, a complete waste of time performed every school morning to make me feel like a good mom. When he arrives at school the hair is a snarled mess no matter what it looks like as we walk out of the bathroom.

“What does bribe mean?”

“You do something I want and I’ll do something you want.”

“Can I have a Lego minifigure?”

“Are you kidding me? For walking into the school by yourself one time? No way. You can have a marshmallow after school. But! If you walk into the school by yourself for the rest of the week you can have a minifigure after school on Friday.”

“Deal.”

Every morning a police car hides out in a driveway across from T’s school. Every morning it nabs one of the many cars that ignore the stop signs that flip open from the sides of the buses as the kids stream out of the doors. For some reason last Tuesday the police car wasn’t in the driveway, but rather parked on the street. I pulled behind it, hopped out and unbuckled T. As I heaved him out he looked at me.

“I can’t do this.”

“Yup. You can.”

His hand in mine I looked both ways, hustled him across the street, gave him a quick kiss, and told him to walk into school. The car was still running with C inside. I darted back across the street and turned to look for T.

He was like a statue, standing in the middle of the driveway where I left him. The temperature hadn’t yet climbed above zero. He must have been shivering, but he stood like his feet were nailed to the ground.

“T! Go! Go into school!” I hollered across the road.

“No!”

“T! Go! You can do this!”

“I can’t!”

“I am watching you! I will watch you the whole way! We will not leave until I see you get into the building! Go! You’ve got this!”

He had not moved an inch. He was so tiny.

“I’m shy! I can’t because I’m shy!”

We were yelling across the road at each other as kids and their parents streamed by towards the school. The parents were kind enough to avert their eyes. I stood by the door of my car. My car that was illegally parked behind the police car. And I yelled at my kid to walk to school.

“Mom. I can’t! I really can’t! I’m too shy!”

I totally lost it. “IF I HAVE TO TURN OFF THIS CAR THERE IS NO LEGO MINIFIGURE ON FRIDAY! THERE IS NO MARSHMALLOW AFTER SCHOOL! YOU GOT THAT? NOW WALK TO SCHOOL! WALK! GO!”

My tiny son turned around and trudged slowly towards the building. I slid behind the wheel and my throat burned as I watched his snail paced trip to the side door, his little body bent over as his gaze never left his shoes. I felt like a monster. When he slipped inside the school I started to cry as the mess of a scene played over in my head. Him standing stock still in the bitter cold, me yelling, him yelling, the cop car, the parents and kids watching the whole ridiculous performance. Suddenly I was laughing as well as crying.

He earned the marshmallow. And the minifigure. He also lost two his two bottom teeth. It’s been a week full of developmental leaps.

This morning the cop car had already pulled over a stop sign runner by the time we arrived at school. I kissed T, grabbed his hand, and started to run him across the street.

He shook me off halfway to the sidewalk. “Mom. I’ve got this.” He trotted towards the school without a backwards glance. My throat burned again as I watched him.

Could I have handled the drop off last Tuesday better? Um, yes. In fact, it would be hard to come up with a scenario in which I handled it worse. But T needs a push to try new things. A week and a day later and he isn’t just comfortable with the drop off, he is blasé about it. A week and a day later and I’m the one struggling not to walk up to his teacher everyday at pickup to find out how he is doing and what I missed. A week and a day later and I’m laughing at the person I was before parenthood. The one who would say, “I’ll never be a helicopter mom!”

goodbye front teeth

Beautiful boy without some teeth.

laughing with dad

And suddenly he looks like a little kid again.

hogwarts journal

Until the next moment when he is back to being a big kid.

My dear friend D and his family took a vacation in Orlando. He sent me the awesome Hogwarts journal from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Thank you again, D. You really made my January!