Jul 29, 2011

A Friend is a Friend

Flickr photo by  soopahgrover 
Friendship is a gift. The longer the friendship the more precious the gift. I am lucky to have some very precious gifts in my life.  One particular friend has been in my life for more than 35 years...since kindergarten!  This post is about that friend, whom for the sake of anonymity I will refer to as "B." Please note that my friend gave me permission to share this story.

B and I were both raised Catholic. B's parents wanted their children to attend Catholic schools, but our local parish elementary school didn't offer kindergarten. Her parents had to send B to a public school--where she met me. After beginning our friendship at five, B transferred to the Catholic school for first through sixth grade. We still saw each other, though, because girls from our two schools were in the same Girl Scout troop. We became friends, discovering that we had a lot in common: we both liked to ride bikes, hike, canoe and camp.

In seventh grade we were reunited for junior high. School was bigger and scarier, and I was happy to see B's familiar face. We hung out together at lunch and in between classes, and we always introduced each other as, "my friend since kindergarten." During those two years I had some health and family problems that greatly interfered with regular attendance. It was hard for me to make friends, but B was always there for me. She was nonjudgmental, caring, and just...a friend. If I unloaded my feelings about the things happening in my life, she didn't run away or make fun of me--she was unflappable, a true friend.

When it was time for high school, I was pretty lost. I'd missed a lot of school and didn't feel very comfortable around most of my peers. The first day of ninth grade I got on the school bus, scared to death of riding into unfamiliar territory. I was the third person on the bus. As I climbed the steps, peering at the bus driver, I got extremely anxious. I looked warily towards the back of the bus to see who was there and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that it was B and her older brother. I was so thankful to have my friend and her brother--a senior no less!--to make me feel more at ease in my new surroundings.

B and I continued our friendship throughout high school. B even continued in Girl Scouts--camping, canoeing and biking all over the country. We still saw each other daily and hung out some, but our teenage rebellions were of a different variety: she hung with what we called the "burn-outs" and I hung out with the "punkers." Our paths crossed often (rebels are rebels, after all!) We still talked, still introduced each other as, "my friend since kindergarten."

After high school, B and I went to different colleges in different states. We lost touch. I attended a high school reunion or two hoping to see her, but she never made an appearance. When the information superhighway opened, our alma mater started an online directory.  I input my information hoping that some old friends would contact me. I was eventually rewarded by an email from B in my inbox! Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Internet is the way it helps to reunite old friends. I was so happy to reclaim my friend of 25 years! But that email from B wasn't a regular "hi, how are you" email.  B's email was a confession: a coming out. B wrote that she was living happily with her partner in Oregon, where they were raising dogs together and doing the things that B has always liked to do--hiking, biking and camping. 

In my mind,  that email changed nothing. She was still B, one of my oldest friends. Who am I to judge one of my oldest friends for who she falls in love with? I fell in love with a black man. Many people in the world see that as something unnatural. I cannot judge B for falling in love with a woman.

B and I emailed back and forth a couple of times, but that was it...until one of my colleagues convinced me to join Facebook. Soon after my first login I got message from a guy named D, who happened to have the same last name as my friend B. I mentally ran through B's brother's names in my head and soon realized that there was no D in that family...hmmm...who was this D?  Curious, I read the message and discovered that D and B were the same person. 
Flickr photo by PhotoComiX 

I can't imagine the emotional pain B went through before finding the courage to become transgendered. I can't imagine the physical, psychological, social and emotional upheaval that must go along with such a change. I know that it has cost a lot of money, caused a lot of hardship, and taken a long time. But I do believe my friend is happier now. I have followed the latest news of his transformation on LiveJournal. I am amazed to read on Facebook about the difficulties he's encountered: D is over forty and has no credit history. B has a credit history, but B is no longer a functional identity. Without a credit history or job history, D has trouble getting loans to pay for housing, vehicles, and medical procedures. It is not an easy life. I am impressed by the courage of my old friend.

It took me a few months to remember to call him "D" instead of "B," and to say "him" instead of "her." But the bottom line is this: names and pronouns are simply functional parts of speech. They are not the important human stuff that comprises my friend. For more than 35 years I've known the spirit of a person. That person and I grew up together, shared experiences together. I respected my friend's spirit when we were five and I respect it now. Just because the external package housing that spirit has changed, it does not mean that the spirit inside has changed. My friend is still my friend.  

Jul 27, 2011

Featured on BlogHer: An Open Letter to the Mattel Corporation

Sometimes kids say things that are so unexpected that parents are literally left staring, open-mouthed. We may do all the right things, consider every angle and point of impact that our decisions could have on our children, and we may think we know exactly how our children will respond. But kids always find a way to surprise us. It seems like children are determined to send their  parents into that wild realm of the unknown, making us doubt ourselves and worry that we are scarring them for life.

Flickr photo by joanna8555 
As a woman, I had my doubts about bringing Barbie in to my home. I read, soul-searched and rationalized the implications of having the iconic doll in my house. Even after all of that thinking, Barbie made her way into my girls' lives. From the musical movies where Barbie is hero to the dolls and accessories that have made her such a popular toy for decades, we bought into it all. I thought a lot about exposing my girls to this warped image of womanhood, but was impressed by how much Mattel has done to make Barbie a confident young role model for girls. And that's why I was so surprised when I gave my daughters new Barbies as gifts and they gave me such a shocking response. It was so shocking that I felt the need to write to the Mattel Corporation about it. 

Featured on BlogHer.com"An Open Letter to the Mattel Corporation," was first featured on Multicultural Familia and was recently picked up by BlogHer. You can read the letter and discuss it with the huge community of women on the website BlogHer.com, on Twitter (@BlogHer and @BlogHerCultures)
 and on the BlogHer Facebook page.

You can also read the original post at MulticulturalFamilia.com, a wonderful e-zine dedicated to sharing information and ideas with modern families.

I encourage any readers wo would like to share their thoughts on Barbie to send their own letters to the Mattel Corporation.  I sent this post to corporate.communications@mattel.com and received a response from ConsumerServiceCenter@fisher-price.com.  The more they hear from concerned parents, the more likely they are to make positive changes to their products.

Have your children ever shocked you with their response to something you gave them? Have they ever shed light on a slice of humanity that you'd never before considered? Out of the mouths of babes can come some very insightful things...

Jul 23, 2011

A Little Game of Blog Tag--Siete/Seven

 Flickr photo by Leo Reynolds

I have been tagged! My amiga, Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi included me in a fun game of sharing.  I recently started following a lot of new blogs, and this game has been a great way to read posts that I missed. I am excited to share some of my older posts AND to tag some of the blogs I've just started following so that I can become more well-acquainted with them! Thank you, Ezzy, for tagging me <3 and I hope that the bloggers I tag will enjoy sharing in this Game of Seven.

The object of the game is to find posts in your blog archive that you think satisfy the seven categories listed below:

Most Beautiful Post
A tribute to my husband, who is a wonderful father.

Most Popular Post
I wrote this post so that I could share it with other alternative educators at a conference where I was presenting. I thought it would only be viewed by a small number of educators in Iowa. Since then it has been viewed by educators all over the world and has even been translated into other languages! It has been an honor to see this post used as a resource worldwide.

Most Controversial Post
This post led to some very interesting conversations with Ezzy and others about the ability to empathize. It started with one thought: should President Obama be more empathetic towards gay people because he is of mixed heritage? 

Most Helpful Post
My fellow Iowans find this post very helpful in dispelling some common stereotypes about our state! There is much more to Iowa than corn :-)

A Post Whose Success Surprised Me
A post that shares some of my experiences being the only white person in a room or a family.

A Post that Didn't get the Attention I Felt it Deserved
This post discusses one of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind--white flight.

Post I am Most Proud Of
It was a proud moment, indeed, when Heidi Durrow herself DM'd me on Twitter to thank me for writing this post. I was also proud of myself for sharing some strong emotions about how it feels to be the white mother of mixed children.

Tag! These blogs are now invited to participate in the game! Please come back and link your posts to this one if you choose to participate.

Jul 21, 2011

Failure and Success

“Success is dependent on effort.” Sophocles
My whole life I've believed that hard work will lead to success. Not the kind of success that means I'll be raking in the dough, living a life of luxury; but the kind of success that makes me comfortable to live in my own skin, feeling good about myself and the work that I do. No regrets. Inner peace. Satisfaction in a job well done.  

I want my children to achieve success--not necessarily the kind that is measured in dollars and cents or popularity, but the kind that comes from knowing they have put forth their best effort and achieved a goal. Self-satisfaction, happiness, and continual growth are what I wish for them. To help my children become lifelong learners who know what it means to try their best, I send them to school. Most Americans send children to school so that they can learn and succeed. But how do we measure learning and success in schools?

Some rights reserved by Wayan Vota
Schools are places where teachers and students put in tremendous amounts of effort each and every day. Kids try their hardest to learn and achieve. Amazing things happen in classrooms where teachers are passionate, and they work closely with their students. A student can start the school year only able to read 10 words and end the year able to read hundreds. She can start the year not knowing how to complete a long-division problem and end it knowing how to solve any long-division problem she sees. Miracles of learning happen every day in classrooms all over the world! Yet in our current education system, those miracles don't always count as successes.

According to current U.S. educational policy,  a child who learns long-division after months of struggling is not necessarily a successful student. The teacher who patiently helped that student learn, trying multiple teaching strategies, never giving up until she found the right one, is not necessarily a successful teacher. A school that is filled with students and teachers who grow together, performing miracles of learning each day, is not necessarily a successful school. Why? Because our government doesn't count any educational success that can't be measured by a standardized test.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) requires schools to test their students each year and report their test scores to the federal government. Every student in every school is supposed to meet government mandated proficiency levels. Any school receiving Title I funds and not meeting those proficiency levels is required to notify parents, and give them the opportunity to transfer their children to another school that is meeting proficiency requirements.

  Some rights reserved by Matthew McVickar
According to the government guidelines, by 2014 all students are supposed to be at 100% proficiency. That means everyone will be perfect. Everyone will be successful because all kids in the U.S. will be getting perfect scores on their standardized tests...and if they aren't? Those schools that do not achieve 100% proficiency will be sanctioned. They might get shut down. Those teachers might get fired. And those kids? They will be failures who attended a failing school. They will get a new staff or get bussed to a new school in hopes that they will eventually pass the test. Forget about the miracles of learning, the tremendous effort, or the amazing growth they've shown. If it can't be measured on a test, it doesn't count as success.

Across the country this month, schools that receive Title I funds and are not meeting proficiency on standardized tests will notify parents that they are failing to meet the government requirements. Parents receiving those letters will have the option to transfer their children to another school. If you are a parent who receives such a letter, I encourage you to talk to parents in your neighborhood, call the principal at your school, and find out what goes on in classrooms. You are bound to find examples of success that can't be measured once or twice a year on a standardized test. Look for proof that students are growing and performing daily miracles of learning.  Ask yourself--how do I measure success? Is your definition of success based on standardized test scores? Is your child's success dependent upon how they do at filling in bubbles? Was your success measured in that way? 

If there is more to your definition of success than test scores, consider staying in your neighborhood school and celebrating the incredible effort put in by hardworking students and teachers every day. Celebrate the real successes--the kind that come from doing the best you can... rather than the kind that come from filling in the dots on a score sheet.

Vincent Van Gogh said,
 "Happiness...it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."
I agree.  I want to measure my children's success by their happiness and growth...not by their test scores. 

How do you measure success?

***Note*** Three states (ID, MT, SD) refuse to sanction schools who don't meet the standards set by NCLB. They may lose federal funds, but they will no longer have to measure success by standardized test scores. This article discusses those states and their decision.

Jul 9, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

Reading this book is like remembering the past through a dream-like fog. It's hazy, yet crystal clear at the same time. You know that something bad has happened to Danish mother Nella and her children, but you don't know exactly what. You know that Nella's daughter Rachel, is a survivor; but you don't know how or why. You know that Nella's husband is black, that her children are biracial, but you don't know exactly how that fact impacts her family. The story slowly trickles out in a series of flashbacks, rotating perspectives between Rachel, Nella, a young boy who named himself "Brick", and Nella's boss, a black woman named Laronne.  Rachel remembers her mother, remembers her Danish heritage, but is living with her black grandmother. She is made fun of at school for being blue-eyed and too light-skinned (not black enough.) She is also called by some derogatory terms that white society uses for people of color. We watch Rachel grow from child to teenager, struggling to make sense of her history and her identity.

Image via GoodReads
Heidi Durrow really captures the voices of her characters. Rachel's voice as a child is marked by shorter sentences and has a child-like quality that evolves as she gets older. Nella's voice is recognizably one of a non-native English speaker. Grandma's voice is undeniably African-American. By the end of the book, Rachel's voice is a definite mixture of it all--the Danish and the African-American--and as a reader, you want another chapter, another book, so you can watch her as she strengthens that mixed voice.

Books like this aren't easy to read. I was fascinated both by the story of Rachel, who searches for a place to fit in, but also by the story of her mother.  Nella learns some hard lessons about being the white mother of biracial children in America, and her voice really spoke to me. Her character voices concerns that are not easy to talk about due to our society's difficulty with the subject of race. At one point in the book, Nella finds out that her daughter knows what it means to be black:
 "She knows the word. She is black. I know she is not a word. If she is a word then she doesn't have me."
Here's the thing: I can relate to Nella's feelings. I don't know how to talk about those feelings very well, but here it goes:

As an educated white mother of biracial children, I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to help my children love their brown-ness. We talk about African-American culture and history. They've always had books with brown children in them, and played with brown dolls. They attend school in a building where white people are the minority. Most of their friends look like them. My husband and I are honest with them about what society is like and how they might be treated. But in all of that discussion and appreciation of their brown-ness, I sometimes feel like they are losing me. They are my children. I carried them in my womb, nursed them all until they were toddlers, and I hold them close to me each and every day. 

Adults in our world (both brown and white) seem to see them as only one color. Brown people all offer the same advice, "Prepare them for this world where they will only be seen as brown. They need to learn to defend themselves; they need to learn to be strong." They say, "Look at our president--he is biracial, but our society treats him as black! Of course he calls himself black." They remind me of history, "For generations, our society has adhered to the 'one-drop rule' and your kids need to be ready for that."

I hear all of that, but here I am. Their mother. White. I want them to be ready for whatever the world throws at them, but I also want them to know that they come not only from their father--they come from me. They carry my blood and the blood of my ancestors. There is more to them than their brown-ness. There is also German, Lithuanian, English, and Irish a blood in them. I want them to embrace it all--everything that is in their history, their genetics, their heritage. And I do not say this because of any sense of white privilege...I say this because I feel there should be some kind of "Mother Privilege." I believe this: if you have grown a human being in your body, and you have given your heart, mind, soul over to one purpose--making that human being grow up happy and healthy--why should they be asked to deny you as their blood? Why should they allow society to take away the fact that you are their mother...that you are white...that half of them is white?

I want to thank Heidi Durrow for writing this book, for her work on Mixed Chicks Chat and with the Mixed Roots Festival. Hearing Nella's voice, listening to the podcast, and reading about the Festival shows me that there is a group of people willing to call themselves Mixed, willing to honor all of themselves and all of their heritage. I hope my children can follow their courageous example.

Jul 5, 2011

Iowa: Same Difference

Image via Wikipedia
When I lived in Miami, a visiting New Yorker asked me where I’d come from.  I said, 
I moved here from Iowa.

She replied, “Isn’t it supposed to be pronounced... Ohio?” 

Despite public perception, Iowa is not a state filled with uneducated, redneck hicks. Though a toothless farmer in overalls seems to be the media’s go-to guy when they are reporting stories from my home state, the reality is different.

I think it’s time for progressive, educated people everywhere to learn more about the state where I live.

In the blogosphere and on Twitter, it often seems that Iowans’ experiences are not regarded as relevant. In the case of my own life as a tweeter/blogger, the reactions I get from people are often doubt-filled: I must not know much about diversity in public education because I teach in Iowa. I can’t have much experience with multiculturalism because I live in Iowa. I obviously don’t know what it’s like to teach truly challenging students because I teach in Iowa. The urban tweeting/blogging majority seems to perceive that educational issues in the middle of the country are not as relevant or important as the educational issues that happen on either coast.

I don’t buy into that mindset. Here are some of the many reasons why Iowa should be recognized as one of the most progressive states in the nation:
  • Interracial marriage was legalized in 1851 (Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage in the U.S. in 1967)
  • Slavery was abolished in 1844, (The abolition of slavery was included in the State Constitution before Iowa actually achieved statehood. The Constitution, including the abolition law, was finally fully ratified in 1857, 8 years before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed)
  • 96 years before Brown vs. Board of Educationin 1868, Iowa ruled that separate was not equal and our schools were integrated

Buxton, Iowa integrated school (note the African-American teacher)
Photo via African-American Museum of Iowa website

  • Women were allowed to enroll at our state universities as early as 1871
  • 80 years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus Emma Coger, a mixed race woman, was asked to leave a whites only dining room on a steam boat. She fought the decision and in 1873 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that she could not be denied the right to eat wherever she wanted to eat
  • Iowa was the first state to name Barack Obama as a Democratic nominee for president
  • Iowa was the third state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage 
Iowa is definitely a very white state. But don’t let our overall statistics fool you: we are home to some very diverse communities. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, our population is rapidly changing. Many communities in our state boast minority populations of 20-30% --and those numbers are growing.  A town not far from where I live has a Latino majority—only 48% of its residents are white.  My children attend an elementary school that is 58% non-white.

As in other parts of the country, Iowa struggles with growing poverty. As in other parts of the country, we are seeing that poverty and minority status seem to be linked. We have gangs, we have drug problems, and our prisons are overcrowded. As in other parts of the country, we believe that education is the best way to cure wait ails our society. Throughout Iowa's history, civil rights and education have been intertwined.  Iowa strives to be independent from the rest of the nation by doing what is right instead of what is popular. Can other states say the same?

Jul 1, 2011

Obama's gay marriage flip-flopping | Fred Karger

I came across an article this morning from The Guardian that got me thinking:

Obama's gay marriage flip-flopping by Fred Karger 
The author says:
"I am puzzled that a man who is the product of a biracial marriage, whose own parents could not have married in 16 states before 1967, seems unable to understand the extreme pain that bigotry causes."
That comment makes me think about something that has bothered me for a long while--President Obama does not identify himself as biracial. He identifies himself as black. Throughout his presidency, multiracial people have shared their feelings about his choice. Some feel offended, let-down and discouraged. Some argue that his decision to self-identify as black is proof that the "one-drop" rule--that originated in the era of slavery--still thrives today (in other words, if society sees him as a black man, why shouldn't he identify as a black man?)

Here are some opinion pieces that got me thinking even more about the issue:
  • An NPR podcast (with transcript available) from 2008 argues that the term "biracial" is too vague for many. "Biracial" could mean Jewish-Korean, Filipino-Mexican, or some other mixture that isn't specific enough for the President.
  • An Op-Ed from the LA Times that discusses the fact that Obama's personal history--being raised by his white mother and grandmother--led to him being labeled "not black enough" in Chicago politics. The author speculates that maybe this accusation pushed the President to focus on his black heritage.
  • truthdig piece that tries to tie Loving Day history to current same-sex marriage debates. (The author also mentions another story that has stuck with me: my favorite artist, Jill Scott's comments regarding the pain she feels when she sees interracial couples.)
When I put all of these thoughts together, and then I go back to Fred Karger's comment from The Guardian about how he doesn't understand how President Obama, the product of a biracial marriage, could be "unable to understand the extreme pain that bigotry causes," I wonder... What happens to that logic when you factor in that Obama doesn't identify himself as "the product of a biracial marriage?" If he doesn't identify that way, can you really argue that the Loving's legacy should make him  sensitive to the pain of LGBT people?

What about another explanation altogether: what if the extreme pain of bigotry is what caused the President to identify himself as only black?  Maybe carrying that kind of pain around makes it hard to empathize with the pain of others.

I don't know what goes on in the mind of our President. I do know that his choice to identify as only one race impacts both black culture and mixed culture.
Is the impact good? bad? indifferent? What do you think?

**Note** After originally posting this, I found yet another article on the same topic. Check out this article by a mixed race gay man, writing about his experience in London. A judge asked him, point blank, to choose whether he is "black" or "mixed race." What's Race Got to Do with Identity? | Same-Sex Couples News - gay & lesbian couples, marriage equality, gay weddings worldwide


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