How to be a good-enough parent

”This kid was whining, saying his mom’s name over an over again. She couldn’t even get him to stop.”

All it takes is one of those comments, usually about the bad behavior of kids or families with children getting in the way and a flood is unleashed. Whether the person making the original comment was judging the parent or not, most people jump to the conclusion that the child’s parent is to blame.

Parent shaming is more popular than fat shaming. It’s the most socially acceptable form of public shaming in our society.

If you’re like me and not made of dried rawhide, you probably want to avoid it pretty bad. Fortunately, I’ve read just about every parenting book on the market, and according to some flatterers, I have quite a few parenting tricks up my sleeve.

So here is my fool-proof guide to avoiding parent shame and winning the coveted twenty-first-century “good enough” parent medal.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Before you start

  • One of the main reasons parents are shamed is because of overpopulation. Before you start, consider whether or not you should. Our world is suffering from population explosion and ecological collapse. It could be argued… and in practice will be argued that you are selfish for insisting on procreating your own special genes.

  • The easiest way to avoid parent shaming is not to become a parent. Sure, we need to have a next generation to keep the economy going while those virtuous adults who choose not to burden the earth with their off-spring get old, but you might want to leave that up to someone else.

  • Another way to avoid the overpopulation and ecology shamers and still be a parent is to adopt. But you’ll be shamed for adopting too. There are stories about adoptive parents exploiting poor people in other countries and buying children. Even though you personally might not have done that, you can be sure that every time the subject of how you adopted kids is brought up, this issue will be rehashed and you’ll be publicly shamed about it.

  • If you either already have kids or still think you can have kids and avoid shame too, read on.

The loving foundation

  • Most people at least claim that they believe the most important part of parenting is love. It all starts with love and the worst shame any parent can have is to be accused of not loving their kid enough, or heaven forbid, loving one kid more than another. There should be nothing your kid could do that would cause you to stop loving him or her. Well, a school shooting, yeah, then you should stop loving them but other than that. Be unconditionally, unendingly, inexhaustably loving.

  • But not too loving. Don’t smother. Don’t be biased in favor of your kid at public events. Lots of shame comes to those parents who cheer too much or protect their kid from criticism or favor their kid over others.

  • Be loving but know precisely when your child doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged anymore. Physical affection is essential. Just because your child pulls away or shouts obscenities at you doesn’t mean they’ve grown out of the hugging phase. They still need loving hugs, up until the point that they don’t. You have to know where that invisible line is. Stop hugging too early and you’re cold and creating needy sociopathic monsters. Too late and you’re a pathetic cliche.

  • Be loving from a distance when they decide they don’t want to have anything to do with you as young adults. Be loving but have no emotions. Love but don’t expect love back. Be immune to screaming, hateful diatribes. Accept them with equanimity.

Balancing parenting and career

  • Provide for all of your child’s physical and emotional needs. Make sure you have a job that pays well, so that your child never has to be exposed to black mold, a leaky roof, a dangerous neighborhood, cheap and unhealthy food, bully-target clothing or unsafe, cheap toys. Financially poor parents are among the first to be shamed everywhere. If you didn’t have good job prospects, you never should have had the off-spring, so buck up and make money.

  • Moms, be especially sure to have a prestigious job, Set a good example for your daughters. It is unforgivable to give girls the impression that their options are limited. And boys need to see women as powerful and prestigious providers too. Feminists are great at shaming moms who break ranks and don’t get a career. Half-time and place-holding jobs don’t cut it. You’re sending a message that women are limited by their biological childbearing function.

  • Not only must your job be prestigious and keep you out of poverty, it must guarantee a stimulating environment for your child, including expensive educational toys and legos, toddler foreign language and music classes, memberships to sports, arts and crafts clubs and courses, and vacations to exciting places. If your child lags in academics, you clearly missed some of these requirements and it’s all your fault.

  • At the same time, you must be present and attentive to your kids pretty much all the time. If doing this while satisfying the points above requires breaking the space-time continuum, tough beans. Nannies are a lazy-parent trick. Parents who rely on nannies for more than emergencies deserve the shaming they routinely get.

  • Make sure you are home with your kids for at least the first three years of their lives and that you are there when they leave for school and when they get home. In fact, while exercise is good, not driving your kids to school is shame-worthy if you live within a 200-mile radius of any historical child-kidnapping incident, which defines every inhabited place on the planet, except maybe some remote cabins in Greenland.

  • What your kids need more than anything is your constant, reassuring and playful presence. It is the single most important factor in the development of their self-confidence and their educational success. Of course, their day at school needs to be as short as possible and not lengthened by after-school programs, so that you can selfishly work longer hours. They are just children after all and their growing brains cannot handle long days the way adults can. You know who those whispers at pick-up time are about.

Tackling the housework

  • If you were thinking that you can game the previous section by working from home or running a business out of your home, this point is specifically for you.

  • Embrace the mess. Kids are naturally messy and it is unnatural and harmful to deny them the right to be messy or to force them to live in too sterile an environment (defined as spaces in which more than 50 percent of the floor area is walkable). When social workers enter a home on a child-abuse tip, a too-clean home is one of the red flags they are looking for. Shame on those clean-freak parents!

  • Also cleaning does not count as being present and attentive. You need to be playing with your kids, engaging in child-led activities (such as being the evil queen, lady’s made, monster or bad guy running from miniature cops). Cleaning must be kept to a minimum and done only when the kids are asleep, which rules out most home businesses.

  • Ensure a hygienic and stimulating environment for your child. Those same social workers are also looking for cluttered and dirty homes. That goes right on the form. Parents who are slobs and have clearly not washed their floor since it was puked on and who have clutter covering a lot of grime will certainly get shamed.

  • Also clutter doesn’t count as a stimulating environment. If your kids can’t find their educational toys or the pieces to all those games or the wheels of their lego sets, they won’t get the advantages those toys provide.

The care and feeding of littles

  • Ensure that your kids get good nutrition. Processed and prepackaged foods are the worst. Restaurant foods are also highly salted and sugared and full of harmful GMOs, white flour and trans fats. The harm these foods do to a child’s body and brain is truly horrific, including the development of allergies, neurological disorders, obesity, immune disorders and lifelong risks for diabetes and heart disease. (In fact, if your child already has any of those conditions or autism or ADHD, you are pretty much sunk on avoiding parent shame. You will inevitably be told that all they need is a better diet.)

  • You really need to cook from scratch. Bake whole-grain breads, but make sure you test for gluten sensitivities and learn to bake the gluten-free kind, if necessary. Note that cooking, like cleaning, doesn’t count as being present and you’ll need to do it while the kids are asleep or at school.

  • You’ll also have to satisfy both the vegetarian shamers and the “kids need a lot of protein to grow” shamers, but I’ll leave that one up to you.

  • Always keep in mind that sugar and nutrient deficient simple carbohydrates like rice, white bread, noodles and fries must be kept to a minimum. Did I mention that ketchup is mostly sugar? A lot of bad parents around you will be feeding their kids pretty much only these foods—right in front of your kids unless you keep them locked away from society. Because these foods are specifically designed to be attractive and biologically our bodies crave simple carbohydrates, your kids will beg for them. The shame is so easy to slide into.

  • And the most important rule about food is that you must never ever force your kids to eat something. You must provide healthy food, while they watch other kids both in person and on TV consume junk food and fast food. But forcing your kids to eat is one of the easiest things to shame parents about.

  • Food can never become a point of controversy in your home, or you will be “creating eating disorders.”

Fostering education and self-confidence

  • Children are the future and even people who don’t have children will rely on your children’s economic activity when our generation is old, so education is a hugely important part of parenting—the most important part according to many. You must ensure not just adequate but excellent education for your child, if he or she is to have any hope of surviving in the competitive economy these days.

  • As a preschooler, your child needs bright, fun, educational classes in foreign languages, brain development, music and art, and you should be present or right outside the door at all times.

  • You should carefully choose your child’s school. The only consideration allowed when looking at cost or transportation times is the child’s comfort, not yours or your selfish work schedule. You must get your child into a high-quality school or all the rest is your fault.

  • Teachers will expect you to devote several hours to your child’s education every evening, to keep all records and projects in perfect order, to go through backpacks and school materials and replace anything lost in the classroom jumble and to ensure that homework is completed and that the child actually understands what he or she is doing, rather than just parroting answers you gave.

  • Remember while average academic success on an assignment gets a C, which implies that most kids will get that kind of grade, you must make sure your kid isn’t one of them. C students can’t expect professional or academic success and parents of C students are lazy slouchers.

  • Oh, and never pressure your child about academics. The most important thing you can do for your child’s academic success is to boost his or her self-confidence with lots of praise. Praise your child’s every effort and reward good grades but not to the extent that any other child who is not so successful will suffer low self-confidence. Excessive praise would be as unforgivable as pressuring your child to succeed.

  • If they don’t succeed academically, it is your shame, not theirs.

Screen time, consumerism and socialization

  • If a child has social problems at school, it is the parent’s fault. Usually the parent has not provided the right kind of or new enough clothing, school supplies, accessories or toys. That or the parent is extreme and doesn’t allow the child to watch the popular entertainment of the day or play the current video games. Such a child cannot keep up with what the other kids are interested in. Kids will often be unpopular or even experience bullying when they come from extreme households that don’t allow these modern influences.

  • But of course you shouldn’t allow your child to be indoctrinated by consumerism either. There is nothing worse than a whiny, consumerist brat, constantly demanding this and that and thinking only of themselves. You need to identify the exact amount of toys, clothes and consumer items your kids need to survive socially and yet not become spoiled brats. It’s up to you and shame on you if you miss the mark!

  • You’ve no doubt seen the studies about the harmful effects of too much screen time on kids. You must carefully limit your child’s exposure to television, movies, video games and social media. Fifteen to thirty minutes per day might not be harmful but you have got to shut it off after that.

  • Also make sure the experience of shutting off the screens isn’t traumatizing to your child. That’s another reason parents get shamed.

  • And make sure that the denial of this forbidden fruit doesn’t result in your child being obsessed with screen-based entertainment. One more reason.

Morality without forced religion

  • Instead of consumerism and entertainment, make sure your child has a spiritual grounding and a healthy desire to help others. Involve your child in groups and communities which are focused on spiritual values. And above all teach your child right from wrong. This is one of many areas that parents are shamed for neglecting when their children get into trouble.

  • But never ever force a religion or spiritual beliefs on your child. Spiritual abuse is real and often turns kids away from spirituality entirely, which is also the parent’s fault. You can take them to a place of worship a couple of times, but don’t force them to go once they are old enough to wish to play video games instead. They will have to develop altruism and ethics without the structures that every previous generation of humanity relied upon for their spiritual development, and it’s your job to make sure they do (without the help of clergy).

The big one: Behavior and discipline

  • When it comes to separating right from wrong, it is important that you understand the difference between discipline and punishment. You must ensure that your child is disciplined but never punished. Punishment destroys self-confidence and thus higher brain functions.

  • You must teach your child how to behave well, or you will certainly be shamed. But you must never be harsh or punitive. You’ll not only be shamed. You could even be investigated by the authorities, the ultimate shame.

  • There are truck-loads of parenting books about how to ensure respectful and responsible behavior without harsh measures. They all rely on the idea that if you approach your child properly, they will inevitably respond reasonably and logically. Any childish lack of logic or other abnormality that causes your child to misbehave despite the expert strategies. reward charts and carefully phrased respectful reminders is probably your fault too, possibly something you did during pregnancy.

  • You may remind your children of the rules, ask them to sit in “time out” if they become too upset, ask them to ‘do over” whatever they did with poor behavior and provide positive reinforcement when they do behave well.

  • You will be held personally, legally and morally responsible for each and every one of your child’s misdeeds, but you are never allowed to punish them for it. You must be consistent with your rules and guarantee their sanctity, but you must never physically force or confine your child. You can gently remind them of the benefits of following your hard-and-fast, but punitively revoking privileges is no different from punishment.

  • You must at all times treat your child with the same respect you accord to well-behaved adults, even while your child is screaming insults, throwing food in your face and poking his or her siblings in the eye for fun. Respect, say the parenting rules of logic and reason, begets respect, and if it doesn’t, you must have done it wrong.

  • Don’t be a helicopter parent. Allow your child to take risks, so that they understand natural consequences. Natural consequences are the key part of non-punitive discipline. Instead of your punishments, your child should incur the natural consequences of their actions.

  • Of course, you should not allow your child to incur any of the consequences on the following list, or you are a criminally neglectful parent: physical harm, cold, dangerous heat, sunburn, tooth decay, malnutrition, allergic reactions, exposure to dangerous organisms, illness, exposure to dangerous substances, consumption of unhealthy food and its long-term health effects, sleep deprivation, educational failure, social ostracism, emotional trauma or public shame and disgrace. The public shame must be all yours when you fail at parenting. You must protect your child from all of the real consequences while not punishing and not helicoptering.

  • When your child does something even mildly annoying in public, you will be shamed. You need to ensure that your child does not annoy others. After all, you cannot impose your life choices to have a child on those who chose not to have children, even if they are counting on the next generation to keep the Social Security system ticking when they’re old. If your child whines, repeats annoying words, pesters you for attention, fidgets, taps things or otherwise is seen or heard in an annoying fashion, it is clearly because you failed at the point on discipline. You must be attentive and stop the annoying behavior one way or another immediately. However, you must remember to never be punitive or harsh. Otherwise you will not only be publicly shamed but reported to the authorities.

Keeping it all together

  • If doing all this, while working a sufficiently lucrative job, cooking from scratch and making sure your kids’ homework gets done, sounds tough, have no fear. Today people also shame parents for not doing self-care and taking time for their marriages.

  • You must take time for yourself. Go away for at least a couple of days per month with your spouse to ensure your family is rock solid. If your marriage falls apart, your kids will suffer and you’ll never live down the parent shame. (While planning this mandatory self-care, remember what happens to parents who hire nannies and sitters.)

  • If you’re stressed out, harried and gray-haired as a parent, your tone of voice will not be loving enough. Get enough sleep after the kids are in bed, the cleaning and cooking that you can’t do when they’re awake is done and the bills are paid. That’s the only way to avoid the shame of being willfully sleep deprived. You’ll need to use your skills with physics to stretch time in order to make time for reading novels, massage and other quality me-time activities. Remember there’s no excuse for not taking care of yourself, so you can be a good-enough parent.

My best tip is that the next time someone parent-shames you, make them read this.

Good luck! You’ll need it.

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

What will tip us over into emergency mode?

I'm told it's not nice to discuss climate change in the midst of disasters caused by climate change. I have waited for a month and a half now, but one natural disaster after another has struck. When then should we discuss the climate change that we are creating?

It's as if by speaking of some mythical devil, I might be jinxing those struggling to survive. It's as if by trying to avert worse disasters or to save countless lives in the future, I am somehow detracting from ongoing efforts to help the evacuees of today.

In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, a few weeks ago, I posted a question to a forum made up of primarily wealthy American and British intellectuals and Mensa members to which I was invited by a no-doubt regretful writer-acquaintance. I asked simply, "What type of disaster would it take for you individually to throw off business as usual and devote yourself to fighting climate change?"

Creative Commons by Binny V A of Flickr.com

Creative Commons by Binny V A of Flickr.com

It wasn't the first time I had posted about climate change in the group and I knew most of the members were concerned yet apathetic about the issue. This time not one person responded to my embarrassing and socially inappropriate question.

Good intellectuals in polite society don't call out the economically comfortable over emergencies that require a frugal lifestyle to solve. It isn't done. 

Yes, I should know better. And I do. I didn't pursue the issue and I have held off, thinking I'd speak up more when at least the worst of the late-summer "disaster season" had passed. But after two record-breaking hurricanes, massive flooding and my home state of Oregon disappearing into smoke and flames, I've just about had it with polite society. And now Puerto Rico has been swallowed.

Every year the disaster roster grows. Every year the flood is the worst ever or in 200 years or in 1,000 years, meaning worse than the one the year before as well. Every  year fire season in the west gets longer and more deadly, with parched grasslands literally exploding like gasoline. 

Extreme weather, the most clearly identified consequence of human-induced climate change, just keeps getting more extreme. And each time scientists gather data so that they can later in their professional, polite manner explain with facts and figures--in long, non-soundbite quotes--how these events are connected.

And after each disaster people reset their inner alarm bells to a new, more extreme "normal." 

Very few people ever throw down their iPhone or car keys, stomp their foot and yell, "All right! That does it! I'm ready  to work on surviving and curbing climate change."

But this is what we will do someday. Life could have been easier if we'd done it ten or twenty years ago. But we will do it eventually, like my children finally doing their homework after much dithering. We only get to choose when we face our ecological debt, not if.

It's worth considering how much bigger or closer to home the disasters will need to be before we make a commitment of time and energy appropriate to the level of this crisis. 

If you are ready, here are some things I know of that each of us can do:

  • Speak to your friends about climate change every day. Don't be quiet, just because everyone else is quiet and the corporate-sponsored media downplays the findings of science and the truth of your own senses. This is a crisis as true as any war or medical emergency. It has to be front and center all the time. Pentagon analysts say climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism. The media, politicians and corporations don't want to focus on it because it isn't profitable, but we have to.
  • Write letters to the editor, call and write to political representatives and to corporations involved in fossil fuels, factory farming, automobile manufacture and other key industries and ask them to help curb climate change. Tell them your business will go to the companies that do the most.
  • Support high profile climate action efforts like Greenpeace and Standing Rock. Donate if you can, volunteer, send food and supplies.
  • Organize local groups concerned with climate change. Demand local discussion about climate change in local media, city halls and schools. Don't lose sight of the fact that we are fighting for the survival of our children, as surely as a parent researching a deadly disease that has attacked a child. This is a fight we have to win. 
  • Continue to recycle, insulate your home, upgrade your light bulbs and acquire solar panels. You have probably already done some of this. Technology keeps improving and this sector can also provide you with a good job, if you're looking. Encourage your friends, family and neighbors to take these actions and support local recycling and green energy initiatives.
  • Reduce as much of your consumption as possible. Hang laundry, rather than using a drier. Cook your own food, rather than buying heavily packaged, prepared foods.
  • Think carefully about necessary trips by car or plane. Invest in an electric bike if that would significantly cut down on the miles you have to drive a car. Do the math and you may be surprised at how easily you could bike as part of your routine. Take trains, buses or carpools whenever possible. Spend time researching the options and developing options with your neighbors. Our lives really do depend on it.
  • Buy many things second hand. Repair appliances, rather than buying new. Buy items that last longer. Avoid plastic products that will fall apart quickly. Avoid items with lots of packaging. It seems like minutia but don't loose sight of the fact that this is a fight for survival, primarily the survival of our children and grandchildren.
  • Grow at least some of your own food. Learn to can and dry food. Learn to work with wood and build things. Acquire--second-hand if possible--heavy-duty, long-lasting, non-electric hand tools. Keep chickens or other animals you may need. Step by step become as locally self-sufficient as possible. Enter into barter arrangements with others doing the same thing. Bypass the corporate world as much as possible. It is not only generally better for the environment, it is also good preparation for surviving the part of climate change we can no longer stop. 

This sounds like a lot to do. And it is. That is why I talk about it as a major commitment and a cessation of business as usual. If everyone was working on curbing climate change it wouldn't have to be a major full-time job for us, but for now it does need to be, until it is the focus of our governments and businesses as it should be. The only question before each of us now is whether or not this is my own personal tipping point. 

My list is clearly not comprehensive. Please add your own strategies for curbing and surviving climate change in the comments. Thank you.

A spring in dry country: Should we saddle our kids with the burden of saving the world?

I was fourteen when I went on my first overnight wilderness trip without an adult. And my only companion was eleven. We were unlikely best friends--an awkward, socially failed, legally blind teenage girl and an relatively normal eleven-year-old boy. But I like to think we had more fun than most.

On this particular occasion, we hiked to the top of Mount Emily on the western side of the Grande Ronde Valley in northeastern Oregon. The steep mountainside happened to extend directly from my friend Ethan's backyard 2,500 feet into the air. We did ask permission to do the overnight hike, but none of our parents believed we would go through with it... until we were gone.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

We climbed the mountain and emerged  on the breathtaking ridge line topped by a dusty road around midday only to find a water jug tied to a forlorn trail marker with a note from our mothers on it. They had driven the significant distance winding around the back side of the mountain to try to find us once they realized we were serious. We joyfully guzzled the water and walked giddily through the sage brush to the massive overlook rocks and sat swinging our legs over hundreds of feet of empty space. 

Then we headed for the campground. Ethan's eccentric artist/scientist father (the only adult we had really consulted with very much) had promised that the campground would have more water. When we arrived, we found the campground long abandoned and the hard, semi-desert rocks bone dry in the afternoon sun. A broken pipe was the only evidence that water had ever come to the surface there. We had not rationed either our original water supply or the gift dropped off by our worrying mothers nearly as much as we would have if we had known there was no water at the deserted, so-called campground. 

Now we had only a few swallows left, the afternoon was long and hot and we hadn't seen another human since we started up the trail early that morning. Quickly we scanned the outline of the mountain around us, looking for the tell-tale  dip of the horizon that could signal a water source... in theory at least. As I recall it, we spotted several dips and settled on one more or less at random. Then we set out for it, walking another forty-five minutes or so toward our selected goal. 

When we reached the place where the dusty wilderness trail we were following crossed the dip, we found to our relief and joy, a damp patch of mud and moss. We scrambled off the trail and up the shallow draw until we found a clear trickle of water that became "our spring." It was a moment of triumph, almost a coming of age for mountain kids. We had gone into the wilderness alone, encountered difficulty and found water in the semi-desert of northeastern Oregon. We had proved our survival skills and were elated and empowered. 

We camped at the spring that night under the stars. And returned home conquering heroes the next day.

But when we told adults about our water troubles and the spring we had found, someone callously mentioned that the spring would soon be dead and dried up, just like the water at the campground. There was a clear-cut logging project planned that would decimate that little draw and the mountainside around it. In this dry country, the spring, which was already no more than a seasonal seep, would almost certainly dry up.

I was shocked but still newly empowered by my experience. I grew up in an activist family and had already been to several anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s as a child. So, I got out paper and pen and wrote a letter of protest to the local newspaper. In many situations that would have been the end of it. But in this case, someone wanted to prove a point. A few months later, I found myself back at the little draw on the mountain in the company of two Forest Service employees. They had invited me along to view the aftermath of the logging.

I'm not sure what they meant to prove. They said they wanted to show me that I was wrong and that the clear-cut was fine. But clear-cuts are never pretty and this one was no exception. We never could find exactly where the seasonal spring had been. The landscape of devastated branches and torn top-soil was distinctly depressing. It was late summer by then and there was no water, but there wouldn't have been any water, even without the logging. The question was more about whether it would return the next spring. 

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

I knew I had lost that round. I was a kid and they were adults. I was just one individual, and they represented a state agency. They wanted me to prove there had been a spring or else be quiet.

For the moment, I was quiet... but I learned and I remembered.

Today I'm a mother and I have my own kids to bring up. In the years, since my first activist letter to the newspaper, I have immigrated to a new country, led a national anti-war movement there, participated in a Greenpeace blockade camp that successfully stopped a foreign military installation in a traumatized country, made a anti-racist documentary film, organized and negotiated with political parties and activists of many stripes from all over the world, and written thousands of articles and letters. 

I've seen a few small successes in my time. The Greenpeace camp and the campaign that surrounded it was a highlight. But I've also seen a lot of passion and work go for naught--or so it seemed. My kids are astute--apparently more so than I was--and they ask me if writing letters and going to protests works. 

We pick up litter in our little town. I volunteer at the school to do inter-ethnic coexistence workshops in an area with a lot of racial tension. I still write letters and have sign building materials on hand. Recently I published Shanna and the Water Fairy, a children's book for earth warriors and water protectors. The book essentially takes my experience as a teenager trying to defend a vulnerable spring and gives it a better ending. It's still realistic though. It could have happened that way.

Sometimes we do win. But mostly we don't win quite so overtly. 

There are some today who argue that I shouldn't even tell my children about social justice and environmental issues, that it is unfair to fill their heads with a desire to make a difference and supposedly "save the world." In my generation it was more common for parents to teach their children these things. Today in the twenty-first century, we are supposed to be beyond all that--a savvier,  brainier generation focused on kids being "gifted" and learning rare martial arts and musical instruments at younger and younger ages.  

But there is an emptiness I feel in my children's generation, something beyond the regular angst I knew as a child. Sure, I suffered because I championed lost causes. I cried over my little spring. But it never set me back. It is only as an adult that I have ever considered whether the struggle for a better future is worth the sweat and heartache of activism. As a child, I knew that it gave me hope and that was enough.

And so I tell my kids activist stories and show them little things we can do. I shield them from graphic images of violence and despair to some extent, but I do tell them about the horrors of today in terms that a six-year-old and an eight-year-old can grasp. I live my values in the small stuff as well as the big issues and that will have to do.

Learning interconnection: Where did we go wrong in trying to eradicate racism through education?

"She's kind of brown!" my daughter's friend from first-grade giggles, holding her hands over her mouth. 

My daughter giggles along with her, but covers her drawing with her hand. I'm glad to see my daughter adding realistic skin tones to her drawings, but also frustrated at how quickly she is getting an embarrassing reaction from peers. What are the chances she's going to draw a brown-skinned figure the next time she draws with a friend?

We live in the Czech Republic where political correctness and multicultural education has never been a societal or political priority. Until recently, I had difficulty explaining the confused and even outright racist comments of many Czechs when writing for American readers. Even last summer, comments on my posts about racist or ableist problems in the Czech Republic were met with shocked disbelief. 

But this past winter that has changed for painful reasons.

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Jewish landmarks have been vandalized in the US. The winning presidential candidate called Mexicans "rapists and criminals" and publicly mocked a disabled journalist. The numbers of people killed by white supremacist vigilantes because they are or were mistaken to be of Middle Eastern background grows every other day. And of course, there hasn't been this open a display of racism against African Americans or Native Americans in decades.

We are no longer shocked by what used to be almost unthinkable. We thought our system of multicultural education was enough, that general social norms had shifted and that racism, ableism and faith-based discrimination was fading, if not entirely gone.

We've been rather rudely awakened to reality as Americans. The situation begs the question. If racism is still so alive and well in the US after so many years of celebrating Black History Month. teaching a unit on the Holocaust and a chapter on Native American history in elementary school, where did we go wrong and what should we do differently in the future?

I have thought a lot about these issues for the past ten years because I have been living in a country where racism is much closer to the surface and I am the adoptive mother of children who are among the primary targets. Their situation is like being an Arab Muslim in America. I worked as a journalist for years before I adopted children and I knew very well what I was getting into. I had seen Romani children harassed in schools, segregated by teachers and sometimes physically attacked.  I had seen them bravely and cheerily go off to first grade only to be beaten down and in complete despair by third grade. 

I knew that if I made my family this way, I would have to deal with the issues daily. I would have to educate teachers, schools, other parents and even my children's classmates. I have now begun that work, talking to teachers and volunteering to do multicultural education in the schools. The situation is so tense that I am lucky to be allowed to broach these subjects in a classroom at all. 

I know that my efforts are too little alone, but my experience has given me some understanding of what can actually change attitudes. Here then is my recommendation from the trenches on what can and should be done to provide real diversity education: I call this model "interconnection education."

Creative Commons image by Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by Oregon Department of Transportation

  • Start in preschool. This is the time for multicultural exposure programs. Use holidays and events from various faiths and peoples to create a lively and fun multicultural curriculum that will serve students well both in understanding the society they live in and in future history and geography courses that are crucial to general education and responsible citizenship.
  • Require teacher training in bullying-prevention, understanding the roots of prejudice and cultural sensitivity from preschool on up. In designing such programs both the perspectives of people of color and of those who have experienced a shift in understanding from isolation to diversity must be heard in order to design programs that are both sensitive to vulnerable groups and accessible to those without much experience in multiculturalism. A moralistic "we are multicultural because we're not bad racists" approach may silence prejudice temporarily, but it will not erase it from the classroom or from society. Teachers must be the first to understand how interconnection works and why we take these issues seriously is a matter of self-preservation.
  • When conflicts arise between children over sensitive cultural, racial or faith-based issues, avoid an immediate punitive reaction and call parents from all involved sides in to discuss the issues with involved children and trained teachers present. Be staunch in support of vulnerable groups in these situations, but ensure that complaints by parents and students of majority groups are addressed fully rather than being quashed and swept under the carpet without discussion. We will not solve prejudice by labeling those who have less cultural experience as bad and further isolating them.
  • Many holidays are primarily religious and so they are a difficult point in non-religious, diverse schools. There is always the issue of holiday programs in elementary school. We want our children to experience community holidays and yet it is logistically difficult to include the holidays of all groups. One way to ensure a better balance is to focus on a given holiday fully for a day and move on to another the next day, rather than spending weeks on majority holidays. Another way is to have a general seasonal holiday program and assign students or small groups to learn about and reflect a holiday from a particular culture through art, costumes, food and song that can be shared with the rest of the class.
  • While holidays extend beyond the individual and thus must be dealt with by the group in some way, individual differences that point to culture, race or faith must be allowed expression by individuals. There have been extensive arguments about the wearing of garments required by one's faith in public schools. One argument is that allowing, for instance, Islamic head coverings for girls promotes the oppression of women. If other parts of the program are open and diverse, it must be noted that whereas it is possible that a girl might be pressured to wear religious clothing by a family, being included in a diverse school would certainly provide greater multicultural education than a requirement to conform to a dress code would. I still see no reason for the restriction and significant harm can come from imposing it. In many other cases, the wearing of identity-specific jewelry or other symbols is simply a means of ensuring confidence and should be encouraged rather than discouraged. 
  • In elementary school and high school, diversity education need not be a separate program. It should be an integral part of language arts, social studies, history and geography programs. If we hope to have a democratic and multi-racial society and if we hope to weather the currents of international relations as a nation, the next generations must have an understanding of history and geography that is balanced. rather than focused through the lens of immigrants to our nation from one particular continent and their struggle for freedom from Britain. Each piece of the puzzle that is history and geography should be set in its context. History is not about blame or victimhood, but rather about an understanding of social, economic,religious and political currents that affect us today. Historians from a wide variety of backgrounds MUST have real and active input. A balanced account of history would require significant changes in history textbooks and teacher education. But it is crucial. Without that our current troubles will recur. 
  • In each of these tactics it is crucial that we recognize the need for identity concepts for all students, not only those from backgrounds outside the majority of a given community. A healthy sense of one's own cultural roots and appreciation for one's traditions as specific rather than "the way everyone does it" is the best defense against resentment of other groups. Students should recognize specific origins within larger continental or racial backgrounds. Africa is not one culture, any more than Europe is. People of European descent differ in cultural perspective, just as various groups from Africa differ. An understanding of culture as the complex ecosystem in which the various parts move and affect one another will go a long way toward practical understanding in the social sciences as well as diversity education. In music, language and art, students should be encouraged to combine cultural influences consciously rather than by automatic cultural appropriation and learn about the natural mixing and divergence processes of human history. 

Clearly these methods and strategies are far beyond our current capabilities. We must have clear-eyed goals. We can also use the concepts of this type of "interconnection education" even on the smallest scale. 

One of my current projects in this direction is the Children's Wheel of the Year series. This is a set of books aimed at families in the earth-based or Neopagan traditions. This is the fastest growing religious group in the United States and Europe and in many areas has more adherents than more widely recognized groups such as Buddhists. This is also a group struggling internally with racial and historical tensions. 

The stories in the Children's Wheel of the Year series are first and foremost engaging and fun for children. High quality educational materials are those that encourage learning through genuine interest. Secondly, they provide a realistic, modern view of how families in the swiftly growing earth-centered religions may celebrate eight major holidays. Each holiday embodies important cultural and ethical values that are important to the adventure story of the book. 

Throughout these stories there runs a common thread of interconnected diversity. While the stories focus on one particular faith, they are inclusive and irrepressible in the joy of connections to others and supporting others in their own strong and unique identities. The Children's Wheel of the Year attempts to provide a model for addressing specifics within an overall interconnected diversity program.

The story Shanna and the Pentacle specifically addresses the issues of multicultural and diversity education in the schools, while focusing on a practical issue many earth-based families report encountering in the United States--namely the banning in some schools of pentacle jewelry. While this story addresses a difficulty encountered by one group and the responsible methods children and adults can use to solve such difficulties, it does so while bringing the reader closer to the perspectives of other cultures in the story, emphasizing the need for mutual support. 

Our need is clear. We must foster an interconnected openness and the strength of diverse identities in our society and in our schools. No matter which group we belong to, we need this and our safety depends upon it. If any group is marginalized or denied expression of their identity, we know it is only a matter of time before that same marginalization and denial is visited upon others. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

The door to the school

There is a single photograph of me from my first day of school back in 1982. In it my best friend and I embrace eagerly on the front steps of the red-brick school building. Our dresses are simple but bright. It looks like something out of Little House on the Prairie

But a glimpse of that photo brings a stab of agony. I can't remember the day itself, but I remember the sunshine of the summer before, the bike rides and the tree forts. Then I remember nothing

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz 

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz 

As if I had fallen and been knocked unconscious for several years.I remember only dizzy snatches, fleeting images, fear, confusion and terrible loneliness. I've written elsewhere about the extreme ostracism and bullying I experienced at school--due to a disability, unconventional family background and a stubborn personality. What I know of those experiences comes mostly from the testimony of witnesses rather than from my own memories, which are muddled but still not without their toll. 

Now I can't help thinking on that photo and the aftermath as I prepare to send my first child to her own first day of school in a few days time. I try to hold back my anxiety. It's natural that I should have my doubts, given what I experienced. Yet, my child does not have a significant physical disability. She is well accepted by other children and generally liked by teachers. She is suspected of having a learning disability, but that will have to come clear in time and most importantly we do not live in an isolated rural backwater where difference is a brand and a reason to be culled from the herd. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

No, we live in the middle of progressive Europe, where the school's motto is "a place for all." Sure, the school has some problems--very large, overcrowded classrooms, new and inexperienced teachers and a population steeped in racism and anti-foreigner politics. But my fear is surely larger than the hazards.

When I took my child for an evaluation to a specialist in learning disabilities, I was told that she is quite bright and probably only has a minor issue with attention that should pass within a few years. But then the specialist turned to me and suggested in completely innocent tones that I consider enrolling my child in the "Special School"  in a larger town, rather than in our local school.

Little did the specialist know how well I know the Special Schools. When I first came to the Czech Republic as a rookie journalist twenty years ago, a harried editor slapped a thick folder of documents down on my desk and grumbled that someone would have to deal with it and it might as well be me. I picked up the packet that night--it turned out to be a government report on Special Schools--and read it.

All the way through. In one night.

That was because of what I found within the first few pages: a staggering admission by the government itself claiming that it was channeling almost all children of Romani (ethnic Gypsy) background into substandard schools designed for children with developmental disabilities. My article on the report was in the forefront of a flood of condemnation and criticism of the Czech government by the foreign press. I later produced a documentary about Romani children fighting for a rare chance to leave the segregated, substandard schools and gain a place at regular elementary schools. 

Documentary film 2000 - Czech Republic The stories of nine-year-old Karel and fifteen-year-olds Anezka and Pepino as they fight to escape from the segregated special schools

I spent years going into these Special Schools, watching with rage stifled into a hard lump in my throat as bright children were forced to study table manners and preschool motor skills in sixth through eighth grades--merely based on the color of their skin. I interviewed officials with a straight face and printed their self-damning words in foreign newspapers, quoted by Amnesty International and the European Commission in their judgments against the Czech state. I was a foot soldier in the wave of largely foreign pressure that finally broke the wall and forced through anti-discrimination legislation.

And eight years after the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Czech state to end such discrimination, a specialist suggested my adopted, Romani, slightly brown-skinned child be placed in a school for those with developmental delays, just after she assured me the child had no such delay. 

And now, I try to tell myself my fear is only paranoia based on my own hard childhood on the front-lines of another battle for integration on the other side of the world. I was a foot soldier of another kind then and I took many wounds--wounds I'd rather my child could escape. 

Just as I experienced as a child, legally mandated integration does not necessarily mean willing and welcoming integration. The first to integrate public schools in the United States--whether they were African Americans in the 1950s or disabled Americans in the 1980s--often paid a heavy price. Today the Czech Special Schools continue under slightly different names and most Romani children are still segregated in them. But the law says I--as the parent of a Romani child--can defy the social norms and send my child to a regular elementary school.

Image from the film Walls by Arie Farnam

Image from the film Walls by Arie Farnam

If I dare.

We attended a Romani culture camp and support group for a week this summer. During the adults-only part of the program in the evenings, we were told in no uncertain terms that we must admit the harsh realities to our children. Both psychologists and a very credible Romani man who rose from a ghetto kid to be the first Romani city council representative in his heavily divided city told us we must tell our children.

They are proud to be Romani. They sing Romani songs and know the Romani flag. Last spring my daughter proudly told her kindergarten class that she is Romani. They smiled. They don't know the word "Romani."  They only know the insult " Gypsy" and my daughter doesn't know it because we don't speak such words in our home any more than I'd use the N-word. 

Once my children came home talking about how some people called Gyps steal and saying they heard it at preschool. I gently explained to them about prejudice and poverty and social exclusion. But they clearly did not understand. I stopped short of saying, "They mean you. Don't you get it? They mean you."

I wanted to spare them the trauma. I wanted them to be proud of their roots... for just a little bit longer. The harsh words and judgments will come soon enough. I tried to get my kids to homeschool but my daughter refused. She thinks only about being with her friends all day.

And now the door is before us. Looming in my mind, hard red brick.  I know that behind that door bad things will happen. Maybe some good things too. But there will be pain.

Creative Commons image by Michael Davis-Burchat 

Creative Commons image by Michael Davis-Burchat 

So, I sit down with my little girl and tell her. I tell her that Gypsy means Romani. I tell her some people have a sickness in their minds that makes them believe lies about people who are a different color. I tell her about the school segregation. We've read about the segregation of schools in America. She has two great story books about Ruby Bridges and can quote the tale. I explain that when I first came to this country, that was the way it was here, that Romani people--like Black people in America--went through slavery and prejudice and school segregation in substandard schools. 

She turns to me, her face still unconcerned, and reaches a hand up to my hair, turning gray. "But, Mama,,that was a long, long time ago," she says.

Oh, my child. No, it was not.

The primary anti-discrimination law has just passed and it goes into effect September 1, 2016. That law mandates integration for children of all backgrounds and abilities. Because of that law, my daughter can have an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) if she does turn out to have a learning disability. And she cannot be barred from our local primary school based on ethnic background. But even five years ago, segregation was almost universal and today it is still widespread, due to the lack of legal knowledge and advocacy skills among Romani parents. 

My child, you will be the first Romani child to attend your school, much as I was the first child with a significant physical disability to attend mine. 

But I smile and give her a hug. "You will do fine," I say. "You are smart and you have many friends. Only remember that if someone says otherwise, it is against the law. The law is about them and the problems in their heads, not about you. You will do fine." 

We must both believe it.

The unsung deeds of teachers

Given that I"m a writer and a language teacher, many people might well be surprised to know that I got mostly Cs in elementary school. I was not considered a good student. I was often accused of not paying attention because I doodled instead of facing the blackboard. 

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

I couldn't see the blackboard and the fuzziness of the open air was very boring. I often "took notes" with my doodles. Before I could write, I drew diagrams of things the teacher talked about. My second-grade teacher recalls coming over to scold me for not paying attention during his lecture on the solar system, only to find that my doodle was actually a reasonably good diagram of the planets. 

To his credit, I vaguely remember his lectures on the planets, whereas I remember little else from my elementary school years. But most teachers did not have the patience to observe first and scold later, as he did. So mostly I was a very poor student. 

Because I had a physical disability, I had an IEP and when I was in the sixth grade someone put "typing" on my IEP because my handwriting was still atrocious. I still can't make out handwriting to this day with my eyesight. And that was how a special education teacher named Irene Froyd was assigned to teach me to type. 

We had an hour a week in an airless room in the basement of the elementary school with an electric typewriter. I remember hating those lessons. The room was stuffy and dim and the work was grueling. But I also remember going to them dutifully and without complaint. I knew in some deep part of me that it was necessary. . 

Still I was reportedly very difficult. I was stubborn and contrary and I didn't want to type difficult things. I gave the teacher grief. We agreed in September that I would type The Night Before Christmas as a holiday present for my mother, because it has so many semi-colons and plenty of difficult letters in it.

Okay, I remember agreeing to that, but I don't know for sure how much argument there was beforehand.

Creative Commons image by Jay Woodworth

Creative Commons image by Jay Woodworth

I did try. I remember sitting there sweating, picking out each letter, week after week in the dim, gray, overheated room. And I remember my teacher's endless patience. She was not terribly inspiring (how could she be with the task of teaching typing?), only kind and gentle and endlessly patient. 

My typing of The Night Before Christmas was not finished until Easter. But it was finished. 

And I knew how to type. I started typing my assignments for school the very next year. And an amazing thing happened.

I became a straight-A student. By the time I was in high school I was two years ahead in math and English. My GPA and test scores won me full-ride scholarship offers from several universities. 

Was Mrs. Froyd the only one? Probably not. I don't remember much of my teachers from middle school but childhood memory is notoriously unfair. Some were probably very good and they no doubt helped in this transformation. But when I see young children struggling so much in elementary school I often think of that stuffy gray room and the endless patience of the teacher who gave my fingers wings.