I am what I like to call a “Professional Child.” I work with kids, and I take the business of play pretty seriously. My old boss used to love to say that we get paid to play, and the phrase has definite weight. I’m in the business of fun, but that doesn’t mean all I do is giggle and supervise. When working with such raw flows of imagination, shit can get real.
There was the time a grinning kindergartner who fancied himself clever drew 9/11—a plane crashing into the Twin Towers—during a game of Pictionary, and the time another child with golden brown skin asked me, “What’s white?” in reference to race.
I’ve worked with kids wrestling with culture and gender identities, kids with autism and ADHD, adopted kids and kids with parents who won’t even look at each other anymore. Kids who fight non-stop with their siblings and kids who are dealing with the everyday struggles of figuring out what it means to be alive.
I've worked at a couple of private schools in different cities, both in and out of the Bay Area. Being in such close proximity to some of the most liberal and progressive minds around, you'd expect a Bay Area private school to be extraordinarily forward minded—and you would be far from disappointed at the phenomenal way some of the societal issues that accompany race, gender, and sexuality are taught there. Other schools I've taught at desperately need to reimagine what an inclusive community looks like, however.
Last summer, I returned to an old camp I used to work for out of love for my kids and coworkers. It's a camp at a school with so many aspects that I love; a school that has extended arms of graceful acceptance, and which I have returned with gratitude for my employment. Unfortunately though, frank discussions about the social constructs is not among the aspects that I can claim takes place there.
And so, I was faced with the challenge of attempting to answer more questions and comments on race and gender identity from my kids than ever before. I know part of it is me—I love that they’re asking questions and always encourage their discussions about why it's not okay to say something is "just for boys" or "just for girls." And I gently reassure my kids that they are not going to get away with nonchalantly making remarks like, "Korean, Chinese, same thing." It could also be because I have been working recently with kids right on the cusp of middle school and double digits. Maybe it's the school itself. Maybe it’s just winds of social acceptability shifting and blowing down warm gusts of awareness and acceptable conversation.
We live in a world that only spins one way: forward. Shutting the door on kids who don't fall within the confines of "the norm" is not a viable option. In light of ongoing acts of harassment and violence against young minority members and children, it's more important now than ever to weed out alienating tactics and reassert pride in variety.
* * *
"When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing." —Adrienne Rich
Let me invite you to peer into a window on my world:
The day camp at the elite private school where I’ve spent the last four summers is a whirlwind of theme days. Each year, the theme day before the Fourth of July is a sort of red, white, and blue homage to America. Not wanting to blend into the background, my friend and I concocted a plan to be George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—powdered wigs and all.
I spent most of the day flailing my arms in dramatic gestures, adopting a horrific British accent and humming the Team America theme song. I was also singing a lot of "Proud to be an American" when one brown girl I was just getting to know, a fifth grader, turned to me and said:
“Well, I’m not really American.”
“Oh, were you born in another country?” I asked.
“Well then, you’re American,” I happily reassured my new friend.
“Are your parents from Africa?”
I made a face of confusion with a wrinkled nose and brow.
"Are you saying you're not American because you're African American?" I asked and she said, "Yes."
“No, that’s not a thing. Just because you’re African American doesn’t mean you’re not American.”
I was suddenly heatedly agitated. Who was telling this girl being brown made her un-American?
“I’m African American and I’m American. *Greg is German American and he’s American. We’re all Americans because we were born here and this is where we live.”
The girl didn't bring it up again. She seemed to be mulling over this new information.
Someone was putting it into this girl's head that she was ancestrally an outsider. And I’m not down. I wanted this girl to know she had a right to be freely black in America, despite the view of diversity represented at the school.
In that same vein, I find it frustrating when audible gasps are released at the mention of legitimate ethnicities. Statements of fact are totally acceptable. Acceptability can change in a heartbeat with context and inflection, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with just being who you are.
I had an African American coworker at this same school who had a baby girl a few years ago. Once, when our kid to counselor ratio was low, she and I had some time to talk about natural hair care.
“I wonder what her hair is going to look like,” she daydreamed aloud. “Because I have really thick coiled hair but her dad is . . .” she lowered her voice dramatically and held her hand to the side of her mouth in what could have almost been a mock stage whisper and said:
“Mexican.” Like it was a dirty word she wanted to shield from our kids.
"Mexican is not a bad word. He's just from Mexico," I said to her, baffled at the uncalled for shame she was passing along.
* * *
I was playing Scattergories with my second through fifth graders and the other counselors. Hyping up play is part of the profession and I was doing a whole rivalry rally to pump up the kids on my team. We were getting deeper and deeper in with obscure items to add to our lists and we got lost in laughs and whispers and spiraling replies. The category was things at the zoo that start with the letter "A."
Of course we got the easy ones down quick: animals, ants, alligators. But you don’t win Scattergories without more imagination than that. I demanded them to, "think harder!" and they met my challenge (and yes, Scattergories aficionados, we let them use adjectives): air, art, awesome exhibits, aardvarks, Australian kangaroos, African elephants . . .
“African Americans!” one of my caramel colored, mixed race girls whispered through a triumphant smile.
I wrote it down. It was the last thing on our list.
(It wasn’t until I retold this story to other adults that the idea of comparing African Americans to caged animals was brought up. Kids don’t think like that. I don’t think like that. Sometimes I think the reason I love working with kids is due to the shared naiveté in our minds.)
“That’s racist!” the one other black kid in the group cried from across the room, his favorite mantra of the summer.
“Why?” I asked with faux innocence in my questioning eyes.
He sputtered his reply. His point was, essentially, that calling out people for being what they are is racist.
“If the letter was ‘I’ and you had written down ‘Irish’ I wouldn’t be offended,” one of my third graders piped in.
Another counselor of Irish descent murmured his agreement. “It’s not racist to just, say races,” she added.
I gestured to myself. “I’m African American, I go to the zoo, I’m not offended,” I gestured to the boy who had suggested I open this can of worms in the first place. “*Kate's African American, she’s not offended."
The boy across the room was quelled, but not satisfied.
"It's okay to feel happy and good about being African American," I told him. I don't know what he thought of that. Any kid who has grown up feeling put on display would have reacted like that. I just wanted him to know there’s no need to whisper his own race.
In contrast, last school year while working at another school, I was sitting at the table where parents can sign their kids out for the day when my eyes drifted towards a group of four first graders playing a game of tag in teams.
“Look!” one girl squealed. “It’s two brown people against two light people!”
The brown girl, her friend, looked down at her arms and let shine a big, toothy smile.
“Oh, yeah!” She laughed, and the game went on.
My kids challenge me to be a better citizen of the world as deeply as I challenge them to do the same. Now you tell me—where's the danger in recognizing that variety exists?
* * *
*Lacy, one of my incoming fourth graders called out to me at recess recently, using that upwards inflection that meant a favor was about to be requested.
“My camp shirt is too big and it looks like I’m not wearing pants . . . Can I have a rubber band or something so I can tie it up?”
We were going on a field trip to a bounce house emporium, and to this girl, one of my long time campers, this was call for concern. I didn’t blame her one bit.
“Yeah, totally, I’ll grab you one before we get on the bus,” I told her. Done and done, I thought.
“Uh, haha, you don’t want to tie your shirt up like that.” The sneer came from *Andy, one of my other fourth graders—another kid I’ve known since I started at the school.
“Why . . . ?” Lacy was hesitant.
“It looks very homosexual,” he said matter-of-factly, enunciating each syllable with a smirk.
“Excuse me?” I spun around.
“What? What! What does it mean?” Lacy and her friend standing by pleaded to know. *Nate, who sat with Andy, scoffed, laughed, and said:
“You don’t want to know.”
I was shocked. These were my sweet, sweet boys. When did they get like this?
“I’m sorry, I am not hearing this—” I began to say above the chorus of questions from the girls.
“It means gay, and there’s nothing wrong with it.” I was hurt by the fact they would even say that, and I was mad. Not mad in a yelling kind of way, but upset because what they were saying was intended to sting and I recognized that.
“Friends, we are not using ‘gay’ as a word for ‘bad.’ It’s totally unacceptable. You don’t know what the people at this school or people out in the world do with their lives and it’s entirely unacceptable for you say ‘gay’ like there’s something wrong with it because there’s absolutely not.”
Murmurs of “sorry” wafted over from where they sat.
That one went to the higher ups. Someone had to be told about the attitudes toward race and sexuality being grown inside the minds of babes. I'm not saying that schools are solely responsible for the behaviors and language that kids exhibit while on campus, but a place of learning cannot deny the contributions they make to the dialogue surrounding race and gender. Silence and indifference toward intolerance is the same as saying these sorts of issues just aren't worth the time, as far as I can tell.
I spent a lot of time wondering where Andy and Nate got the notion that tying your shirt up around your waist is "homosexual." I wondered if comments like that had ever been made in their direction and if their behavior was a mimed act of a hurtful experience of their own. Kids are infinitely moldable. And it's hard to watch when ignorance is met with impatience and blindness is met without explanation.
*All names have been changed.