Note to younger self

If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell yourself as a child being bullied?

I was recently asked this question as an intellectual exercise, but I had to wonder at the deeper reasons for the question. Is there something we can learn from adult memories of bullying or retrospective advice that might provide some practical help for those in similar circumstances today.?

My experience is only mine. It is particular and specific, possibly too specific to be applicable to others. But I do know this. There are things I did not hear from adults or peers that would have helped and some things I heard a whisper of but not enough. I know there are ideas that would have helped because I eventually found these ideas myself and they helped a great deal.

But I had to invent this wheel and the chariot that rode on it. No one gave ,me the pieces. It is possible, of course, that someone tried and I didn’t listen. Or that I wouldn’t have understood these things as a child, even if someone had told me. But I don’t think so. I think these words would have helped.

So for what its worth and in case someone out there must give advice to a child facing pervasive bullying or social ostracism, here is what would have helped me: .

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

1. It is not you. It is them.

2. It is not you. It is them.

3. It is not you. It is them.

4. Even if there is something you could do to make them bully and ostracize you less, it would only be less. You didn’t do something to “bring it on yourself.” Adults who say that want to believe it because they don’t want to believe kids will really do this to a disabled child for no good reason. It makes them really uncomfortable about the state of the world and the nature of humanity. And they don’t want to take responsibility for making ethics education a major priority. It is not your fault. You don’t have to figure out how to be more perfect. They are the problem.

5. “Social skills” are good. You should pay attention to well-meaning adults who try to tell you how to respond in ways that will help you. BUT those adults do not know what it is like. The social skills are a band aid to an epidemic. They are not worthless but your social skills are pretty average. You can figure out how to be a little more perfect, and maybe that will help. It will definitely help you win in job interviews someday. But it is still not your fault. It is them.

6. You are being bullied and ostracized because your eyes look different, because you are physically different and because of your family background. None of those things are actually bad about you. You are not the problem. The problem is in the minds of other people, in how they were brought up to be judgmental and bigoted and in the kind of society we have. It is not you. It’s them.

7. All the constant hype about how the most important thing in life and happiness is your friends, their number and their fun-ness, is wrong. People are only saying this to help kids who don’t get good grades feel that they aren’t a failure. There are plenty of ways to be happy without a bunch of friends. Find fun by yourself and with one or two friends. Being alone is not shameful or a failure. It can be lots of fun.

8. You are inherently an introvert. Even if you didn’t have a disability and you looked just like everyone else and you came from a typical family, you wouldn’t be the life of the party or the center of a crowd of friends. Some people get their energy from being with people. Some people get their energy from being alone. You will have fun with people but you need to be alone a lot. Being alone is not shameful or sign of a failure. Being alone will help you to be energized and to have fun with your friends when you do go hang out with them. Look at the things you actually like to do. Most of your hobbies, the things your really love, are hard to do in a big group and work better alone or with one or two friends.

9. Decide to be happy, even if no one will accept you. You will one day do this and you will be much happier. No one told me this, so it took me a long time to get. Maybe you could do it earlier and be happy sooner. Build yourself a happy life. Discover the joys of creating, art, writing and nature. Find work you love, no matter how little it pays. Focus on your passions and those good people who will stand by you, even if they aren’t perfect or if they live far away. You don’t need the rest of them to be happy.

10. Bullies shame themselves. Bullies destroy their self-respect. Self-respect is crucial to happiness. Your self-respect gets battered and bruised by being bullied but at least you still have yours. Theirs is gone forever, at least any honest self-respect. They can only ever lie to themselves about being a good person. I never did stoop to their level. but there were times I wanted to.

11. Don’t worry. Those adults who tell you that you have to fight back to stop bullying, even though you’re blind or one against ten and it is clearly a stupid idea—those people are just wrong and they think bullying is something completely different from what it really is. You really are worthy. Their sickness is their own problem.

12. You will be told to be quiet a lot. The people you trust most, your family and close friends will tell you to be quiet because it is hard for them to hear what is happening to you. When people exclude you, they will tell you to be quiet. They will tell you they are excluding you BECAUSE you are not quiet enough. They want your silence. A lot of people who have a disability or other difference have been silent. It does not help. Silence can help you to survive for a moment or two. Don’t be ashamed of the times you were silent to survive but know that it is not what you have a right to. You have a right to speak the truth. You have a right to be heard.

13. Those who love you need to listen, but it is hard for them to hear when you have been hurt so much that mostly what comes out is screaming. Start with “I feel…” State the feeling first. That helps them hear. When they still don’t listen, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that you are emotional or that your words don’t come out all concise and coordinated. Keep working at expressing yourself in ways people can understand. It is helpful. But there is no perfect. Being gentler and calmer will help sometimes. Sometimes it will make them comfortable with dismissing you. Being concise will help sometimes. Sometimes it will let them make their own assumptions.

14. You are enough. It won’t go away because it is them, not you. And you can’t change them without a major change in society. But you will escape from the power of bullies someday.

As i said, this is not a universal message. Bullying comes in different forms. For some kids it is only a few times. For some the physical part is worse than the psychological part, and for others it is visa versa. This is just my message to myself. It would have helped. Now I know what I needed to hear, what could have saved me a lot of dark years, but no one knew it then.

Those who meant well, meant well. They couldn’t know but maybe someone who knows a bullied child will discover a bit of transferable truth in it. I hope so. Feel free to share.

Her War: The day the dream died

What goes through the mind of a parent in the moment when they find out that their child's difficulties are not "a phase" or something she'll grow out of? What are the thoughts of the captain of a tiny vessel with a crew of four struck by a hurricane? 

This mother sat in a park outside City Hall to hear the verdict of the specialist over the phone. The child, who she called Chickadee in moments of tenderness because she came one spring eight years ago to save the mother's grieving and broken heart, was with her. The mother made Chickadee sit on a bench a little distance away and gave her a tablet with games to play--a rare treat to keep her occupied during the call with the psychologist.

Creative Commons image by Paul Stainthorp

Creative Commons image by Paul Stainthorp

She was too young to overhear her own fate.

"I disagree with the findings of the previous report on her intelligence." Those were nearly the first words spoken over the cell phone.

The mother's heart leapt with momentary hope. She held her breath, waiting to hear that the child who had brought such joy and then so much chaos and conflict, was troubled, learning disabled, hyperactive BUT exceptionally bright. How many times do you hear such stories. She would fight for such a child, fight with every last reserve and--by all that is holy--they two would win. 

The next words hit her like a sucker punch. "In some areas she has average intelligence, but in many areas she is far below average. She may have the symptoms, but to be diagnosed with dyslexia, there has to be a certain minimum intelligence."

The mother kept notes, scratching at a notebook, frantically trying to record the specialized terminology, even though she would receive a written report. It felt like the only thing to do. She knew most of the terms. She had done piles of research already. She was one of those parents, the kind that take a threat to a child as a call to arms. She would document, read, discuss, advocate anything into submission.

"Very low scores in visual/spacial skills. Very low auditory processing, and short term memory is far below normal. That goes along with the attention disorder," the psychologist is not dry on purpose. She is hurrying between meetings, giving this mother as much information as she can in a short space. Her interjections are friendly, checking to see that the mother is following and not drowning in the information.

She says she is fine. She has the notes down, and she understands the terms from her research. 

But she is drowning. She doesn't know it yet, but she is drowning as sure as the captain of the tiny swamped vessel at sea--gulping in mouthfuls of brine and salt spray.

"She is very immature, half her chronological age. If she was four or five and she behaved this way it would be fine. She is very impulsive. She will need constant attention, careful monitoring at every moment."

The mother looks up and sure enough the child is not on the bench where she was supposed to wait. She gets up, turning around in the dappled sunlight of the park. The light and shadows blur before her eyes. She feels sick.

"She will have great difficulty copying from a blackboard. She cannot understand auditory instructions or information of any significant length. She will not understand lectures or audio books. She will always have difficulty reading. Yes, she should be tested for dyslexia anyway, but she may not have the intelligence for that diagnosis." 

The mother wonders if she herself will fall to the ground, but she doesn't. She walks by instinct. She knows where the child's impulses will take her. She has spent eight years connected symbiotically to this child. She knows her better than anyone else. She notices the path the child's distractable brain would grasp at and she goes down it. She finds the child on the steps by the rushing traffic. 

Safe. For now. No one picked her up this time.

"I recommend a psychiatrist, special education services, testing for reading disabilities. There may be medication for ADHD. You may be able to apply for educational accommodations.. The one positive thing is that she has some episodic memory. Sometimes I see individuals who can't remember much of anything. She can remember those things she experiences, but she will not understand anything abstract."

The call ends politely with tasks assigned to both sides and assurances of further contact. The mother takes the child's hand and they hurry from the park with promises of ice cream. 

That very afternoon, the school holds a ceremony, graduating the first graders as "readers." A local children's author visits and places wide turquoise ribbons over the children's heads. The children sing and the parents clap. Chickadee does not perform a poem alone, but a friend helps. They have developed hand motions to go along with it. 

Then the results of a standardized test are put up on the screen in the classroom. Reading and comprehension scores. The class is one gentle curve--some a bit below average but more than half well established as strong readers. Only one is the far outlier, far behind the others. 

She's a pretty girl with striking eyes. She stands in the middle of the class with their proud reading ribbons. But she cannot read much. She may never get beyond that stuttering, gasping pace. 

Only the mother knows which child the outlier is, silent in the crowd of parents. Most are quietly relieved. It is not their child left behind. Some are vocally disappointed, their children below the average line. They promise extra rigor at home. They are troubled and motivated to work harder. No one wants to think about the outlier. 

What goes through this mother's mind?

Grief.

I looked forward to showing her the wonders of facts, history and geography. She has no interest and cannot grasp even the beginnings. I dreamed that we would do art projects together. She grabs the supplies and smears them in a random mess, shouting, “Look! Isn’t it great? Clap for me!”

The dreams are gone. The chipper, inspirational quotes about overcoming disability are lies told to absolve the rest of the world of the need to feel compassion.

Despair.

I love to read stories to my children. She doesn’t want stories. She doesn’t understand and has no interest in anything with depth. I can’t read to my son because she is screaming and destroying the house. My son isn’t disabled and yet his bedtime stories are curtailed.

Aching boredom.

Endless days of baby talk and the toddler in a child’s body that changes far too slowly if at all. Teaching the same simple things over and over day after day for years and years and years--knowing it is futile and that very little you do will ever make any difference.

Heavy exhaustion.

Serving and supporting her incessant, second-by-second needs means both parents are in deteriorating health and the second child, who is six, is mostly on his own. He has to be better than other kids, take care of himself, do with far less attention and grow up fast.

Utter isolation.

I’m supposed to be positive and “inspirational” as a parent of a child with this kind of disability. I will only be judged. No one has any interest in the reality.

I will never be one of those parents with older kids who can get back to their own life. I will never have time for myself again.

Fear.

“Dysmaturity” will mean she will never grow up but she isn’t disabled enough to be recognized as developmentally disabled and so protected as an adult. Extreme impulsivity will make her very vulnerable and a target for every scammer and abuser. She will be in debt. She may well be homeless unless she lives with me. She has no mental ability to plan even the most simple steps. She will never be able to plan how to prepare for school or get transportation to a job or cook a meal with more than one step.

The chaos of our daily life is not “a phase.” It is the way it will always be. It is unbearable and it will never stop.

Terror.

I know the fashionable thinking in the circles of disability rights is that disabilities, particularly neurological disabilities, should not be considered negative. They just exist, neither good nor bad. In a better world, we would all be "normal,"despite our differences.

Chickadee is a girl. She is not bad. She is not to be pitied. It is not her fault or a shameful thing.

But this is a disability. She cannot do all things. Without the blocks and missed neuro-pathways, she would have many more choices in her life. She may well have plenty of joy, if she is well sheltered by a family that designs an insular world to fit her needs. But let's face it, she will not have the choices others have.

Let us be honest about this. When a parent learns that a child has such curtailed choices a dream dies.

Don't become what you resist

As a journalist in the war-torn Balkans, one of my closest relationships was with a "fixer." That's an all-around term for driver, interpreter, cultural consultant and impromptu investigator. 

My fixer was a 50-something Albanian taxi-driver with mild manners and a pleasant grandfatherly face. We went through plenty of scrapes together, walking in single file to avoid landmines, driving fast down sniper-seeded roads, crossing the front-lines from one warring camp to another.

My fixer's sympathies could have been with the Albanian rebels and against the Macedonian home guard they were fighting at the time. He agreed that Albanians faced discrimination.

But he refused to take a side and felt that the rebels' violent radicalism would only harm his people. He could speak fluent Macedonian and often passed as Macedonian to keep us safe when we encountered pro-government patrols.

I recall how we once narrowly made it across the front, only to find that the first rebel sentry was a boy from my fixer's old neighborhood. Joy at meeting a good neighbor kid wrestled in his tone and expression with shock that someone he knew well had taken up violence. 

But after only six months of war with a few hundred dead on both sides, I sat in a baklava shop with the old man and he told me that he was now ready to support the rebels. Too much hurt had been done. He was depressed, having been pushed beyond some limit that allowed him to contemplate acting in a way he once saw as wrong.

Three years later, I too had been pushed, though not that far. My journalism job had evaporated with most others of my  generation. I was on the streets of Prague holding a hand-drawn sign to protest the invasion of Iraq.

By my side, was another man in the process of being pushed--an Iraqi refugee who had helped our international peace group on several occasions. His younger brother had been shot and killed by American soldiers in Iraq a few days earlier and I was one of the first people he called, an honor I wasn't sure I deserved.

These are the memories that come back to me when I watch clashes in American streets, neighborhoods universities and town hall meetings today.

Two lines of demonstrators facing off, spitting curse words at each other, fists clenched. One group has t-shirts with the name of Trump emblazoned on them and stars and stripes across their shoulders. The other group has a motley array of colorful clothing and scarves over their mouths. 

One of the Trump supporters gets particularly excited, yelling insults and inching ahead of his fellows. Faster than thought, a silver snake lashes out from the rank of colorful protesters and blood wells from a lash on the man's head. He cuts off a howl of pain and curls in on himself retreating back behind the lines.

The cell phone camera follows and his friends cry out for an ambulance. The buzz of anger is at fever pitch. In the camp of the Trump supporters there is injured solidarity and iron conviction. 

How many times have I seen this animosity play out? in different cultures and contexts, in different languages, and yet it's all the same. Hate on both sides.

I'm not a saint myself. I can hate if pushed far enough. I can feel it surge up inside me. And then I force myself to stop and to ask who is really doing the pushing. Those I am pushed against, are they really the ones I should hate?

In the days after the election I caught the brunt of just such hate. A friend from my days as a journalist covering inter-ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe turned on me on social media, ripping me for being "white" and declaring "You have been told your voice is not welcome here! Do not speak to me." 

We were both devastated by the election of Donald Trump. My friend had been pushed hard and long. I saw that and I didn't strike back. But the pushers of hate won anyway because the divide between us is still there.

I can't blame others because I have been there. As a child with a somewhat visible disability, I was heavily ostracized in public schools. Most of my friends had to pretend not to be my friends in school to avoid the same physical and verbal abuse that I endured. 

I remember one day in seventh grade with painful clarity. I had found a place where I could withdraw into myself during the lunch period. I would huddle on the steps of a stage set up in the cafeteria and draw with my treasured set of colored pencils. It may seem pitiful to describe, but to me it was solace and a delightful respite from the rest of the day. 

I sat there most days, ignoring the saliva, random kicks and insults hurled my way by other kids who had been ingrained with the idea that what is different or outside the herd is both disgusting and threatening. But on this particular day, my drawing was interrupted abruptly when someone came flying down the steps above me and landed on top of me, scattering and breaking my expensive colored pencils. 

I had ignored it. I had let the insults roll off my shoulders. All year I had kept my head down. And then I snapped. I was a tough kid, brought up with hard physical work and most days outdoors in the mountains. I grabbed the skinny town kid by the collar and hit him and hit him and hit him. 

It was the first and the last time I ever did such a thing and I pummeled his bent back, until a teacher hauled me away. The kid, a quiet, physically weak nerd, was bruised on his back. He had been seized by several bullies and thrown down the steps onto me. 

I don't know the boy's name. What I know is that we should have been friends. We were natural allies, set against one another by those who push hate. 

In the wider world today, I see this happening all the time. One group of the defrauded and abused is thrown against another group of the oppressed and beaten. And it is hard to stop and think. Very hard. You've been ignoring it and letting it roll off your shoulders for decades, not just one day. 

It is very hard to stop.

But what if I had been paying better attention in seventh grade? What if I had stopped to find out what happened and offered friendship instead of retaliation?

What if supporters of Bernie Sanders listened to Trump-voting coal miners the way Bernie did at one town hall that ended with both sides agreeing that single-payer health care is in their common interest? What if white women who desperately wanted a female president took the time to see how similar their needs are to women and even men of color? 

No matter which examples I give, someone is likely to feel put upon. Both sides have a choice but the biggest opportunity for resisting bullies lies with the one who is about to strike back, the one who currently feels most wronged. If you feel pushed around, silenced and beaten down, then it is likely that you are currently the one with the greatest chance to reach out a hand in friendship to someone who has been pushed on top of you by a bully. 

Resist the burning desire to strike back. Yes, resist. Stop and make sure you are not striking a potential ally--someone who is not winning in today's system, even if they appear better off then you. 

The bullies are pushing us around and as much as we talk about resistance, we are still striking at each other as often as we strike at the bullies.

First, we must know what is our core need, that which goes beyond politics. We need a way to live and relieve suffering. Second, we must avoid becoming like the bullies at all cost.

Interconnection: A child's encounter with new life


My normally hyperactive, constant-motion child sits for hours by the box on the back veranda--cuddling, cooing, coaxing. 

Once in a long while, I predict a parenting moment correctly. I decided to take on the responsibility of a litter of kittens during my kids' middle childhood. And it took planning. 

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Some might ask why i would plan to contribute to the overpopulation of small furry creatures. My first reason is that I always felt a measure of guilt that I had my first beloved cat spayed fourteen years ago, before she had a chance to have even one kitten.

I watched her pine and grieve over other kittens. She almost adopted a kitten who came to live at our neighbor's house. He followed her around a bit, but didn't stay attached to her.

All this was made extra poignant by the fact that I was struggling with unexplained infertility at the time and it eventually led to adoption. Some small part of me wondered if my inability to have children wasn't a kind of karmic retribution, even though I know all the theories claiming that spaying is the kindest thing we can do for our pets. 

I will get my cat spayed and I already have more prospective adoptive homes lined up than I have  kittens to fill them. But I feel a sense of relief having gone through with it.

My second reason has to do with my children, who I finally did find at the end of my own long road. Having a litter of kittens at home was one of my great childhood dreams (which went unfulfilled along with the shiny black dress shoes I coveted).  Beyond that, I believe that watching birth and the bonding between a mother and her young is a fundamental part of education that is often missed by human children today. 

If I could persuade my ducks or hens to exercise their parenting instincts I would have baby chicks as well. But the only easily observable mother around turns out to be our new cat, a flighty year-old adolescent herself. She was abandoned as a kitten and we adopted her after my first cat died. 

We waited to allow her a litter of kittens before being spayed--for her sake and for the education of our next human generation. 

The kids watched her grow heavy with a drooping belly. They wondered as her behavior changed, while she searched for security and struggled with the pain of birth. They ran to me at least twenty times, calling out that the kittens were being born. And each time it was a false alarm.

Finally one afternoon, my six-year-old son came to me with round, solemn eyes. "The kittens are there," he said. "They are already born."

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

I hurried to look and sure enough the cat, who in retrospect I realized had been strangely quiet that day, lay with four tiny vaguely rat-shaped bundles attached to the tits on her underside. 

Still it was my older child who was most overwhelmed. Though she usually has great difficulty controlling her impulses, she took to heart admonitions against picking up the newborns and sat occasionally stroking their backs with one tentative finger for as long as we would let her in the evening. 

Getting her to sleep that night was as difficult as it has ever been on the eve of a major holiday. She lay in bed wriggling with delight and anticipation, believing the tiny beings in the cat's basket would be running and romping with her the very next day.

Kittens do grow quickly, but not instantly. In fact, their timing is well calibrated to teach small humans--who can conceive of about a week but no more--the rudiments of patience. 

The children observed the chewed off remnants of umbilical cords on the kitten's bellies. Now they watch as the kittens totter about and open their eyes. They learned amazing amounts from this, so much more than they absorb from school or books. 

And the thought that so many children today never get to closely observe this process of new life gives me pause. No wonder we are so disconnected from life and our interdependence with the natural world. This seems to me to be such a fundamental building block--as crucial as reading or addition. 

The simple awe-inspiring beauty of kittens is nigh unto to universal. An acquaintance passing by on a bike ride thanked me profusely after my children showed her the kittens. I was momentarily perplexed, but she explained that seeing them was just what she had needed.

The calming and centering effect on children for whom every day at school is a struggle is clear. I do hope this time I have done right by all.

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. 

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

"I don't have to be friends with everybody!"

It's so common that many people might consider it normal. A group of kids are playing with a soccer ball and one boy--a bit taller than most and with a forceful personality--gives orders. The others follow the orders gladly and one of the orders is that they don't play with "that kid." 

But common isn't necessarily okay.

I was always afraid my kids would be "that kid" because they're different from the other kids in our town, visibly and controversially. But when it happened, it was at a support group for kids like them, kids of a minority background who were supposed to be their best allies. And my kids weren't the one left out. 

Instead it was one of my people. The kid with a significant physical disability. It wasn't due to his behavior or personality. He's a fun kid. Because he was booted out of the boys' fun and he loved card games, I played Uno with him. I could wish my kids were as quick with Uno. 

And no, there is no excuse. This was not one of those situations where the child left out was too timid or too aggressive, didn't ask to be included or just felt offended and left. He was told to leave.

The others chased him with sticks because they wanted to play cops and robbers and he was handy as a robber. If he was near them the game was always everyone against that boy. It was all in fun. They never hurt him physically, but they absolutely would not play WITH him. 

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

I sat my kids down privately to understand the issue. 

"The leader doesn't want him to play," my daughter said

Why does he get to decide?

"We want him to be the leader. He knows how to make fun," she explains.

My son, younger and less verbal, just shrugs. He admits he doesn't feel great about leaving that one boy out, but he wants to play with the boys. He'll go along with whatever, even if it makes him feel a bad sometimes.

Finally, I directly witnessed the ringleader directing kids to gang up on the boy with a disability. So, I told the ringleader he was in time-out. He went to time-out but told me, "You can't make us play with him." 

The mother of the ringleader arrived shortly and took over. She told him, "That's not nice," and let him go. 

I gritted my teeth and started another Uno game. 

It wasn't really a new issue in this group, except before the issue had been me among the grown-ups. We have come to this group for four years now. During the third year, I was extremely frustrated. The same group of people met each time, and I still did not know who was who because people were never introduced again and I couldn't see their faces. When I asked, I was given awkward answers and then avoided.

Other parents formed little groups of friends within the support group and I was left on the outside. Once I was even explicitly told to give up my seat at a lunchroom table because a large group wanted to sit together and I wasn't invited. I was directed to sit outside the lunchroom in an area where there were large tables but also wasps that made the area less desirable. 

It was far from a "support group" for me. I only went for the kids to be with peers like them. But then one of the organizers decided to make the theme of this year's meeting be "the inclusion of people with disabilities," because her friend with the disabled child would be attending for the first time. 

I was asked for ideas for a disability awareness program. They wanted me to develop a blindness simulation, so people could see how rough it is to be blind. But the only ideas I am particularly interested in have to do with the social aspects of disability.

It isn't that rough to be blind. It's occasionally inconvenient. But it is rough to have people react to you being blind. 

The organizers weren't happy. My suggestions were ignored and the theme went ahead with little physical demonstrations of blindness and deafness. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the one thing I could explain in this context--that is the difficulty of recognizing faces when you are visually impaired. And somehow I managed to get through to the adults for the first time. By the end of the week, I knew everyone's name and could identify most by voice, stature or idiosyncrasies. It was a vast relief and I was even included in some conversations after that. 

Still, the child with a disability in our midst was left out and forced to play card games with the grown-ups. 

Toward the end of the week-long workshop, a guest came to give a presentation to our group. He was a man of the same minority background as the children in the group. Most of the guests to such a group are women, people in "caring" professions. So, having a male guest was a big deal.

The little boys were agog at this role model. He was buff, brash and a man. He had grown up in the ghetto and become the first minority city counsel member in his good-sized town.

He quickly noticed the disharmony among the children. As it turned out, once the disabled boy had been fully rejected from the pack of kids, the leader needed another target. And this time it was my son--quiet, not too well coordinated and younger than most. 

He joined me at the Uno table and pretended he didn't care much.

Our male guest gathered all the kids who had been involved in the shunning of the boy with a disability--and most of them were boys in this case--out on the soccer field and talked to them. The dynamics quickly became apparent. 

"I don't have to be friends with everyone," the ringleader said. "My father says I've got to be assertive. It's his problem if he's too weak to be in our club."

The man tried to reason with them and talked about compassion. He asked how they would feel if they were left out.

"I won't be left out," the ringleader said. "I'll make sure of that."

The other kids watched their leader and he did not back down. They learned. The adults were unwilling to lay down a law on this. Shunning may not be nice, but it isn't explicitly against the rules.

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

The session on the soccer field broke up without any resolution. But I held back from leaving because I wanted to get an email address from the guest, who I greatly admired, although he seemed a bit lost being called in to help mediate this conflict among the children.

As the others trailed away, the ringleader among the kids and one of his closest friends stood with the man from the ghetto, their admired role model. I waited patiently for him to finish with them, so I could ask for his contact information.

"My father says there are people called Neo-nazis who might hurt me because I'm not white," the leader of the kids' pack admitted to the man, his voice still strong but his stance clearly seeking some reassurance or support from this strong mirror of himself.

The man told him, "That's true. Some people are like that, but here is the thing you need to remember. Not many people are like that. Only a few. Most people are good."

I have a hard time with my big mouth. The man hesitated. He rocked from foot to foot, obviously struggling for words.

And the words popped out before I could stop them, "And that is a good reason, why you should be friends with as many people as you can. You never know when you'll need them at your back." 

The man jabbed his finger at me. "Yes! That is the thing! That is it!" 

He was clearly grateful to be rescued from an awkward issue of teaching morals to children--particularly a moral concept that adults don't actually observe all that well. We grinned at one another. A pact of the grown-ups with a quick comeback.

I do mean it though. Sure, no one can force you to be friends with the less cool, the ones who take a bit of extra effort--whether it's a kid on the playground who you have to work to communicate with or a grown-up who can't recognize faces. But hard times are coming and you may need just such friends. There is no friend more steadfast than those who have been on the outside.

Still. I acknowledge that mine was an easy answer, given to kids. I think back to my own childhood, when I struggled with social ostracism on a daily basis. There is a part of that memory I don't like to think on. There was a kid in my school for a time who was very strange in appearance due to a physical deformity.

He was smart and nice, but he looked strange even to my weak eyes. He was also not cool. He didn't have the kind of forceful personality that can negate physical difference. And so, even though I said "Hi" to him on the street and in the halls, I was never really friends with him. I yearned always toward the kids who were moving and doing things. Even I, who should have known better. did it. 

Now I swear I'll do better. Instead of looking around for who I want to be with, I'll look around for who is there and ready.