I was so excited about writing a happy-happy-joy-joy post this afternoon. Ursa Major, in his 2-year-old muchiness, has been absolutely astounding over the last few days and I’ve saved up a few precious moments just for today. Wednesdays are also drop-off playgroup day, so I had 2 hours without him to go about my business, so I figured I’d get some writing done in that time, too.
Well, two things happened that took the trade winds out of my big wide sails:
1) Remember that teacher’s aid that I wrote about a few posts back? We had another funky encounter with her.
2) I read this freaking article from The Atlantic and it scared the hell out of me.
In great coincidence, it all sorta fits in. Let’s take a trip down the rabbit hole, shall we?
Ursa Major has been pushing boundaries, but he has also had a lot of wonderful moments of late. As I’ve written before, thanks to singing the ABCs twice a day every day, Ursa Major knows his alphabet. Thanks to the absolutely wonderful Word World and Sesame Street, he’s begun to see letters in our environment and he now understands that letters that are bunched together are words. Suddenly, when we are at the park or if we are walking around our neighborhood, he’s stop and say “I see letters!” he’ll point them out and tell me what they are. Most of the time, he’s right. He gets his “M”s and “W”s mixed up and a few other funky rare ones, like “Q”s and such…but for the most part, he’s spot on. We talk about words on signs and stuff now, and he’s intrigued that there are words all around us all the time. When walking around, he points to words and says to his brother “See, [Ursa Minor], these are words. Words!” Flippin’ adorable and wonderful. His early intervention tutor (who now sees us just to help us get ready for pre-school) thinks that he may, if we keep up the good work, have a few sight-words by the time he turns 3. Unbelievable.
In other areas, Ursa Major is noticing other important parts of his world. Note this funny but poignant interaction last week:
Scene: Ursa Major needs a diaper change. I’ve got him on the changing table and we’re almost done. Ursa Major is looking at my arm and elbow with intensity.
Me: That’s my elbow…you know what my elbow looks like. What’s so interesting that you see?
Ursa Major, contemplative: Mommy, you’re brown!
Me, giggling: Yes, I am brown. I have “warm cocoa dream skin”
Ursa Major: Cocoa dream skin?
Me: Yup, warm cocoa dream skin. I really like my skin. Do you like my skin?
Ursa Major, still serious: Yes, I like your skin.
Me: What color is your skin?
Ursa Major: Brown.
Me: You have brown skin, too?
Ursa Major: Yes, I have brown skin, too!
Me: Do you like your skin, [Ursa Major]?
Ursa Major, nodding vehemently: “Yes, I like my skin!”
Me: Oh good. I like your skin, too!
Thank God for the wonderful book The Skin You Live In, which was given to us when Ursa Major turned one. It is beautifully written, totally happy, and while some parents aren’t excited about the figurative language, I think that it is perfect. Ursa Major knew exactly what I was talking about when I said “warm cocoa dream” skin. It gave me a really positive piece of language to use to talk to him about what he was seeing. This is the first time that he noticed that skin before. It was a moment that I’ll never forget, but I know that it is only the beginning of a very long, winding, arduous journey of racial identity for him. Indeed, I was hoping that he’d notice it a little bit later in life…it makes my nervousness about our new suburban preschool that much more heightened now.
And speaking of preschool, let’s go ahead and talk about this morning’s playgroup.
We didn’t attend playgroup last week because The Husband had to take the car that morning to go look at the townhouse that we’ve decided to move into. Don’t get too excited–it’s a rental. I’m just grateful that we’ve found something and, as it is, we’ve called in about four favors to make this happen. The thought of packing up this apartment over the next four weeks makes me want to crawl up in a ball under about twenty blankets.
But I digress.
We didn’t attend playgroup and Ursa Major was disappointed. So when we woke up this morning to go, he was all about it. Ate breakfast quickly, got right with getting dressed, practically skipped out the door. We saw his teacher in the parking lot and he was so excited. She was happy to see him, too. “We missed you last week,” she said with sincerity.
I take him in the building, he washes his hands before he enters his classroom, and he immediately goes to his favorite toys. Meanwhile, he’s greeting other kids and otherwise being pleasant. There weren’t any teachers in the room yet (only parents) so I stuck around before I said good-bye. Well here comes that teacher’s aid who I wrote about earlier–the one who yelled at Ursa Major though I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. The one who was otherwise pretty disengaged with him until she decided that he was behaving out of some sort of bounds. I wrote in my post that while the motherly protectiveness wanted to come forward, the cool-headed teacher helped me to restrain myself.
So this woman walked into the classroom this morning, happy as any teacher should be , in the middle of saying something before she got a look at me. She literally stopped in her tracks, mumbled something, and then started shuffling through papers absently before exiting the room. I raised an eyebrow. Seems that she was a bit disappointed to see me. As a matter of fact, she didn’t talk to me at all. I made a mental note of it but didn’t say anything else. I decided to pop to pick Ursa Major up early, just so I could peek in and see how he was doing. While other children were engaged with the aids (the teacher was in the bathroom, dealing with a child who had an accident), Ursa Major was (happily) playing by himself, fully engaged in a toy. This didn’t seem to be a formal instruction time and Ursa Major often prefers to play alone, so I let it go.
These are just observed behaviors, not confirmations of anything. But I have a feeling that this woman just doesn’t like my son.
And that’s hard to swallow.
Especially because my son is only two.
I really don’t know if I need this woman to like my son. I don’t know if I need that. I want it, but I don’t know if I need it. And this playgroup is pretty low-stakes–he’s learning social behaviors and gearing up for preschool. This playgroup doesn’t determine his life trajectory. However, it’s a wake up call for me. Not everyone is going to love my son. Not everyone is going to like my son. What do I do when someone who doesn’t necessarily like my son is responsible for his school experience? The good news is that Ursa Major seems to still love playgroup. Whatever this woman’s feelings are, they haven’t trickled down to how my son feels about going to a school environment. But as we keep going through this process, I’m worried that there may be a point where an adult’s actions and feelings could change the way that he looks at school and schooling.
and that brings me to The Atlantic article that I linked to at the top of this post. Discipline in schools is often disproportionately given to boys rather than girls in our K-12 classrooms. We’ve known it for years and now there is a lot of data to prove it (and fortunately, a lot of data about what works that will hopefully counter it).
When I was a middle school teacher, I loved teaching boys. I found them to be a lot more interested in the material (which was about oppression and war and big thoughtful men) than the girls would (though I made sure to include women in the history that I taught). I tried to keep them engaged through movement and activities. I spent a lot of time thinking about male identity development while I was working on my master’s degree. I think that more teachers should take the time to specialize in “male” teaching, especially teaching boys in urban schools. There were many teachers in my building who had a hard time teaching our young men. It was a daily power struggle, and frankly, it was a power struggle that the teachers lost over and over again. They lost control through over use of discipline. They lost control through dismissing their students from their classroom and thus no longer teaching them. They lost control through giving up on them, no longer rewarding them for good deeds and basically doubling down on punishments that didn’t work. One of these days, I’m going to write about my experiences at my school. Today isn’t that day, but suffice it to say, I’ve seen what happens when teachers lose control of themselves and thus lose control of their classrooms. It scares me to think about what could happen if Ursa Major ends up in a classroom where a teacher doesn’t know how to deal with young men.
Obviously, I will teach Ursa Major how to behave in a classroom, but I’ll also teach him to have a firm and unwavering sense of self and justice. He will have to learn how to balance those things while receiving an education that he absolutely must have in order to navigate the world as a grown man.
The way that we approach teaching our young men has to be thoughtful. Just as thoughtful as any curriculum that we choose to write and teach. The way that we approach disciplining our young men has to be systematic and thoughtful as well. We walk a fine line between further aggravation and encouragement of deviance, and actual movement toward more successful behaviors on the part of our pupils. No matter what, though, we as teachers should be happy to see our students. I’m sad that this teacher wasn’t happy to see my son today.
As much as I was excited about sons instead of daughters, I am realizing more and more just how precarious the K-12 journey for both of my sons will be. When it comes to boys, the line seems to be a lot more narrow, the discipline seems to be more swift and harsh, and our patience seems to be ever so much shorter. As a teacher/mother, I’m going to be constantly evaluating my own words and deeds but also weighing that of the men and women who I will entrust my son’s education to. His life’s trajectory. His education is not a game. Neither is my participation and reflection. I must be a guardian, not a helicopter. I must be a counselor, not a bulldozer.
My eldest son is, currently, kicking the nursery wall instead of choosing to take a nap. Boycotting the nap means that we’re both going to have a pretty tense afternoon. He gets hyper and less attentive to directions. I feel like my voice gets louder and louder until daddy gets home. There will be a lot of “no”s today from both my mouth and my son’s mouth. We’ll get through it, but it will be intense. After bath, he’ll give me a kiss and tell me he loves me, and I’ll return it. He’ll sleep and wake up in the morning, and I’ll walk into the nursery genuinely happy to see him. Because I love him and he astounds me.
Hopefully, on Friday, I’ll have a happy post to write. Until then, you are saddled with my many, many worries.