He Astounds Me While the World Scares Me

I was so excited about writing a happy-happy-joy-joy post this afternoon. Ursa Major, in his 2-year-old muchiness, has been absolutely astounding over the last few days and I’ve saved up a few precious moments just for today. Wednesdays are also drop-off playgroup day, so I had 2 hours without him to go about my business, so I figured I’d get some writing done in that time, too.

Well, two things happened that took the trade winds out of my big wide sails:

1) Remember that teacher’s aid that I wrote about a few posts back? We had another funky encounter with her.

2) I read this freaking article from The Atlantic and it scared the hell out of me.

In great coincidence, it all sorta fits in. Let’s take a trip down the rabbit hole, shall we?

Ursa Major has been pushing boundaries, but he has also had a lot of wonderful moments of late. As I’ve written before, thanks to singing the ABCs twice a day every day, Ursa Major knows his alphabet. Thanks to the absolutely wonderful Word World and Sesame Street, he’s begun to see letters in our environment and he now understands that letters that are bunched together are words. Suddenly, when we are at the park or if we are walking around our neighborhood, he’s stop and say “I see letters!” he’ll point them out and tell me what they are. Most of the time, he’s right. He gets his “M”s and “W”s mixed up and a few other funky rare ones, like “Q”s and such…but for the most part, he’s spot on. We talk about words on signs and stuff now, and he’s intrigued that there are words all around us all the time. When walking around, he points to words and says to his brother “See, [Ursa Minor], these are wordsWords!” Flippin’ adorable and wonderful. His early intervention tutor (who now sees us just to help us get ready for pre-school) thinks that he may, if we keep up the good work, have a few sight-words by the time he turns 3. Unbelievable.

In other areas, Ursa Major is noticing other important parts of his world. Note this funny but poignant interaction last week:

Scene: Ursa Major needs a diaper change. I’ve got him on the changing table and we’re almost done. Ursa Major is looking at my arm and elbow with intensity.

Me: That’s my elbow…you know what my elbow looks like. What’s so interesting that you see?

Ursa Major, contemplative: Mommy, you’re brown!

Me, giggling: Yes, I am brown. I have “warm cocoa dream skin”

Ursa Major: Cocoa dream skin?

Me: Yup, warm cocoa dream skin. I really like my skin. Do you like my skin?

Ursa Major, still serious: Yes, I like your skin.

Me: What color is your skin?

Ursa Major: Brown.

Me: You have brown skin, too?

Ursa Major: Yes, I have brown skin, too!

Me: Do you like your skin, [Ursa Major]?

Ursa Major, nodding vehemently: “Yes, I like my skin!”

Me: Oh good. I like your skin, too!

Thank God for the wonderful book The Skin You Live In, which was given to us when Ursa Major turned one. It is beautifully written, totally happy, and while some parents aren’t excited about the figurative language, I think that it is perfect. Ursa Major knew exactly what I was talking about when I said “warm cocoa dream” skin. It gave me a really positive piece of language to use to talk to him about what he was seeing. This is the first time that he noticed that skin before. It was a moment that I’ll never forget, but I know that it is only the beginning of a very long, winding, arduous journey of racial identity for him. Indeed, I was hoping that he’d notice it a little bit later in life…it makes my nervousness about our new suburban preschool that much more heightened now.

And speaking of preschool, let’s go ahead and talk about this morning’s playgroup.

We didn’t attend playgroup last week because The Husband had to take the car that morning to go look at the townhouse that we’ve decided to move into. Don’t get too excited–it’s a rental. I’m just grateful that we’ve found something and, as it is, we’ve called in about four favors to make this happen. The thought of packing up this apartment over the next four weeks makes me want to crawl up in a ball under about twenty blankets.

But I digress.

We didn’t attend playgroup and Ursa Major was disappointed. So when we woke up this morning to go, he was all about it. Ate breakfast quickly, got right with getting dressed, practically skipped out the door. We saw his teacher in the parking lot and he was so excited. She was happy to see him, too. “We missed you last week,” she said with sincerity.

I take him in the building, he washes his hands before he enters his classroom, and he immediately goes to his favorite toys. Meanwhile, he’s greeting other kids and otherwise being pleasant. There weren’t any teachers in the room yet (only parents) so I stuck around before I said good-bye. Well here comes that teacher’s aid who I wrote about earlier–the one who yelled at Ursa Major though I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. The one who was otherwise pretty disengaged with him until she decided that he was behaving out of some sort of bounds. I wrote in my post that while the motherly protectiveness wanted to come forward, the cool-headed teacher helped me to restrain myself.

So  this woman walked into the classroom this morning, happy as any teacher should be , in the middle of saying something before she got a look at me.  She literally stopped in her tracks, mumbled something, and then started shuffling through papers absently before exiting the room. I raised an eyebrow. Seems that she was a bit disappointed to see me. As a matter of fact, she didn’t talk to me at all. I made a mental note of it but didn’t say anything else. I decided to pop to pick Ursa Major up early, just so I could peek in and see how he was doing. While other children were engaged with the aids (the teacher was in the bathroom, dealing with a child who had an accident), Ursa Major was (happily) playing by himself, fully engaged in a toy. This didn’t seem to be a formal instruction time and Ursa Major often prefers to play alone, so I let it go.

These are just observed behaviors, not confirmations of anything. But I have a feeling that this woman just doesn’t like my son.

And that’s hard to swallow.

Especially because my son is only two.

I really don’t know if I need this woman to like my son. I don’t know if I need that. I want it, but I don’t know if I need it. And this playgroup is pretty low-stakes–he’s learning social behaviors and gearing up for preschool. This playgroup doesn’t determine his life trajectory. However, it’s a wake up call for me. Not everyone is going to love my son. Not everyone is going to like my son. What do I do when someone who doesn’t necessarily like my son is responsible for his school experience? The good news is that Ursa Major seems to still love playgroup. Whatever this woman’s feelings are, they haven’t trickled down to how my son feels about going to a school environment. But as we keep going through this process, I’m worried that there may be a point where an adult’s actions and feelings could change the way that he looks at school and schooling.

and that brings me to The Atlantic article that I linked to at the top of this post. Discipline in schools is often disproportionately given to boys rather than girls in our K-12 classrooms. We’ve known it for years and now there is a lot of data to prove it (and fortunately, a lot of data about what works that will hopefully counter it).

When I was a middle school teacher, I loved teaching boys. I found them to be a lot more interested in the material (which was about oppression and war and big thoughtful men) than the girls would (though I made sure to include women in the history that I taught). I tried to keep them engaged through movement and activities. I spent a lot of time thinking about male identity development while I was working on my master’s degree. I think that more teachers should take the time to specialize in “male” teaching, especially teaching boys in urban schools. There were many teachers in my building who had a hard time teaching our young men. It was a daily power struggle, and frankly, it was a power struggle that the teachers lost over and over again. They lost control through over use of discipline. They lost control through dismissing their students from their classroom and thus no longer teaching them. They lost control through giving up on them, no longer rewarding them for good deeds and basically doubling down on punishments that didn’t work.  One of these days, I’m going to write about my experiences at my school. Today isn’t that day, but suffice it to say, I’ve seen what happens when teachers lose control of themselves and thus lose control of their classrooms. It scares me to think about what could happen if Ursa Major ends up in a classroom where a teacher doesn’t know how to deal with young men.

Obviously, I will teach Ursa Major how to behave in a classroom, but I’ll also teach him to have a firm and unwavering sense of self and justice. He will have to learn how to balance those things while receiving an education that he absolutely must have in order to navigate the world as a grown man.

The way that we approach teaching our young men has to be thoughtful. Just as thoughtful as any curriculum that we choose to write and teach. The way that we approach disciplining our young men has to be systematic and thoughtful as well. We walk a fine line between further aggravation and encouragement of deviance, and actual movement toward more successful behaviors on the part of our pupils. No matter what, though, we as teachers should be happy to see our students. I’m sad that this teacher wasn’t happy to see my son today.

As much as I was excited about sons instead of daughters, I am realizing more and more just how precarious the K-12 journey for both of my sons will be. When it comes to boys, the line seems to be a lot more narrow, the discipline seems to be more swift and harsh, and our patience seems to be ever so much shorter. As a teacher/mother, I’m going to be constantly evaluating my own words and deeds but also weighing that of the men and women who I will entrust my son’s education to. His life’s trajectory. His education is not a game. Neither is my participation and reflection. I must be a guardian, not a helicopter. I must be a counselor, not a bulldozer.

My eldest son is, currently, kicking the nursery wall instead of choosing to take a nap. Boycotting the nap means that we’re both going to have a pretty tense afternoon. He gets hyper and less attentive to directions. I feel like my voice gets louder and louder until daddy gets home. There will be a lot of “no”s today from both my mouth and my son’s mouth. We’ll get through it, but it will be intense. After bath, he’ll give me a kiss and tell me he loves me, and I’ll return it. He’ll sleep and wake up in the morning, and I’ll walk into the nursery genuinely happy to see him. Because I love him and he astounds me.

Hopefully, on Friday, I’ll have a happy post to write. Until then, you are saddled with my many, many worries.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. zeudytigre says:

    I removed my son from an expensive and highly rated day nursery when they took me aside to discuss the ‘issues’ that he had. He wouldn’t concentrate on his letters. He wanted to play with the trucks and wouldn’t sit still. He was two years old. I put him in a local, volunteer run playgroup where a fabulous mum sat down on the floor with him and his trucks and spelled out the letters on the trucks, colouring them in and making them into rockets. He thrived, learning to read, write and count for the fun of it. Boys suffer from the need to calm our classrooms down. My daughter loved the routine but my sons hated it. I don’t think that our education system allows for this discrepancy.

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      I totally agree with you (and power to you for knowing what was best for your son! I’m so glad that he’s thriving!). I think that our schools, especially our early-childhood institutions, aren’t behaving with the appropriate flexibility that our boys need. I’m really worried about the in regards to the preschool that I’m enrolling Ursa Major in in the Fall. I’m going to give them the chance, though. I can’t assume that they’ll be bad. I mean, the place where I send him to right now is GREAT with the exception of this one woman (I think).

      Then again, I feel like there is something to be said about structure. The world is a structured place. I’m very torn about all of this…

  2. I think when I realize someone doesn’t like my child, it will be devastating for me more so than for him or her. As parents, we can’t imagine someone not loving the person that we would give our right arm for. So, that’s going to be a tough one. But, I’m sure it’s one that we will all have to go through at some point!

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      It’s been a crazy revelation…one that I am very torn about. The rational side of me thinks that this is normal. I don’t like all people. Why should all people like my kid? Then again, I feel like Ursa Major is very likable. That’s my bias, I guess.

      The bottom line is that if this woman doesn’t LIKE Ursa Major, she needs to RESPECT him. She hasn’t done anything to indicate that she doesn’t, so I guess I’m cool. We have a few more weeks of this before we move to another town…I just want him to have a good last few weeks.

      1. And hopefully he will! I am HIGHLY sensitive to how others treat my kids too. I totally get it.

  3. I can’t really comment on the “schooling boys” issue because I can’t honestly say I’ve ever come across it myself, but I wanted to comment on your little constellation’s recent achievements. 🙂

    It’s awesome to hear that he’s got his letters almost down! I know a ton of kids at my daughter’s playgroup who are going to be starting school soon and most of them only know about half their letters, which I can’t help but be disappointed in. 🙁

    I strongly suggest (if you don’t already have it) “Bert and Ernie’s Word Play”. It’s a Sesame Street special that focuses on putting words together, and because of this show my 2-1/2 year old daughter recognizes a bunch of the words they focus on. Sesame Street all the way! lol

    Also, while it might concern you a bit, I personally think it’s sweet that your son noticed the difference in your skin and was able to express it in a loving way. I think it’s a good step toward seeing – and ACCEPTING – the differences in others.

    Sounds to me like you’ve got a sweet, smart little constellation there. 🙂

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Tracey! i’ll totally look into that. I love Bert and Ernie (SO much better than Elmo. Elmo is on my last nerve). I’ll absolutely pick that up. It’s on DVD, right?

      You know, Arnie Duncan wants us to have our kids “read ready” by kindergarten. When I heard that, i was like “then my boys better be reading!” and now I’m kind of like “holy crap, slow down! I can’t keep up with your awesomeness!” Just 30 seconds ago his biggest achievement was turning from his back to his stomach…where the hell does the time go?

      I think that it’s sweet that he’s noticing skin, too. I guess i’m just surprised that he is noticing it NOW. A lot of the literature I read has stated that while children this age may sometimes notice it, usually they don’t start articulating that noticeing until around ages 4 or 5, so when he said it, I was like “whooooaaaaa, dude.” He hasn’t, by contrast, looked at his father and said “Daddy, you’re white.” I think that’s interesting. I wonder if he’ll ever say anything.

      I think that it’s also interesting that he decided that HIS skin is brown, too. While he CERTAINLY looks brown when he stands next to his father, he doesn’t look terribly brown when he’s standing next to me. Curiouser and curiouser…

      1. I think what’s important here is that he said “brown”. Never use “white” or “black” to describe your selves. Those are not true descriptor’s. Our children will learn to describe people using the words we provide them. Everyone is different, but no one is “black” or “white”. I’m blessed to come from a mixed family. Even my grandfather was half Cariacounian and half Scottish. My mother is Trinidadian and my Father is Scottish Canadian. I have NEVER in my life chosen one or the other. I am mixed, always have been and always will be! I’ve never felt compelled to choose. We are all shades of the same, regardless of how light or dark, and I think it’s important to teach our children that. Yes there are people in this world who will say differently, but who are our kids going to believe?

        1. K.C. Wise says:

          You are totally right, Candice. It’s easy for us, as adults, to just go with the easy “black” and “white”–My husband and I naturally joke in that language. I’m grateful that Ursa Major had a moment of genuine clarity and curiosity. He saw my skin for exactly what it is. I’m so excited about that.

          Your family sounds absolutely beautiful. I’m curious about how you came to your identity–I know that you said you never chose, but surely there were moments of difficulty? Confusion?

          1. I never really thought about it when I was very young. We are who we are, that’s it. Even when people would joke about my brother and I having different dads (we have the same dad, but Joey is much darker than I) I was only ever upset that people would think we were somehow less siblings. (Obviously not, but still;) In high school I think I thought about it most. My cousins (mostly older) don’t like the same things I do, for the most part. They were finding their identities as “black” people and there were moments when I felt left out. If that’s the word for it? Although I think it also helped me to feel stronger and more confident in who I am. It wasn’t about the shade of our skin but about the people we are. The things that truly make us different. One day my light skinned toddlers will have there questions and moments as well, but I hope they will be so filled with a sense of themselves by then that it won’t be as traumatic as it is for some. It’s parents like you and I that will make it safe for them to be proud of who they are. My mom was a 17 year old black girl walking around with a pudgy white baby. The nanny question was one she dealt with often, but all I ever saw was that we have the same shaped eyes, and the same high cheekbones. The same eyebrows, and the same feet:) I say, focus on who they re, not on who someone, somewhere might think thy are supposed to be, and they will grow up happy and confident.

  4. Chill! I can say this because I taught in Primary school, for about 10 years. All children are different. Yours is intelligent and sensitive and you’re doing all the right things at home to help him feel secure and loved and worthy of being loved. As for the preschool, well, it’s a good job he’s only there for a short time, otherwise I would have suggested removing him if you were not happy with the attention your son is getting. I don’t know if you’ve spoken to the person who runs the preschool, but that would be another person to have a chat to if you’re concerned about how your boy is being treated. And I’ll say one more thing…if an ‘educator’ is not treating your son the same as any other child in the group, regardless of his/her feelings for him, then they are being UNPROFESSIONAL and this is something to really complain about. But you know this, because you are also a teacher. This woman needs confronting. So maybe, I shall take back the “CHILL” and say…you need to have a quiet word with whoever is in charge of that place. Good luck and lots of good wishes to you and yours.x

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      I really am trying to chill. It isn’t easy, but I’m trying. I agree with you that the behavior is unprofessional, though I think that her behavior is very subtle. They are so little that Ursa Major clearly hasn’t noticed, and I wonder if it is my own sensitivity that makes me see the behaviors as negative. That’s why I’m trying to take a step back. I also really don’t want to teach Ursa Major the lesson of “when it comes to teachers, it’s Mommy versus anyone else.” It’s not healthy, and that kind of lesson would stick with him for all of his schooling.

  5. Joyce says:

    A few observations here…first, when I was working on my BA in Elementary Ed, a professor once said that it’s OK to not like every child that you come across, just as you don’t like every adult that you come across…but you CAN’T LET THEM KNOW IT. I admire your restraint thus far. Another thing, I’m reading this book called Positive Discipline, and it’s addressed to both teachers and parents. The author frequently references power struggles that are routinely and often unwittingly orchestrated by the adult. I really think teachers should read this book.

    But mainly, I share your fear of my son some day finding himself in the classroom of someone who doesn’t like him. I have an older friend who vividly recalls her grown son’s 4th grade year with a teacher who decided she loathed him, calling him out and humiliating him at every opportunity. He went from loving school to feeling physically ill when it was time to leave in the mornings. Nothing my friend did, including going to the school board, could prompt a classroom change for her son. So she made a habit of popping in at least once a week. This has become one of my greatest fears. So far, his teachers from his first two years of school have adored him. I pray our luck holds out for the next 11 years.

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      Oh my God, Joyce, that story is EXACTLY what I’m afraid of! I know that there are a LOT of students out there who experience that kind of thing with teachers–bullying is absolutely NOT just about peers, it’s TOTALLY about teachers, too, and people don’t seem to want to talk about it. Worrisome indeed! I’m glad that your son hasn’t experienced anything like that. I sincerely hope he never does!!

      I certainly didn’t like every single one of the students that I taught. I did, however, respect them and knew that my role in their life was incredibly important. The way that I behaved would have ramifications for how they thought about school, teachers, and history. That was important to me and weighed heavily on my shoulders. I don’t even think that I WANT every one of Ursa Major’s teachers to like him (I mean, who goes through he world that way?) but I do need them to respect him and to see him as a person worthy of their attention. That’s all I’m really asking for. I feel like that’s a minimum threshold for the profession.

  6. Dude you are wound as tight as a guitar string and playing a worrisome tune. Don’t fret about the skin-color thing. You’re doing it right. Take him out people watching, and see if he can invent new colors for all the skin he sees. The fact that people aren’t black and white will sink in and stick as a comforting, positive memory to give him a leg up when racism hits him in the face later.

    And if I read this post correctly (and your previous one) the teacher’s aid made a mistake last time; but when she seemed disturbed today she wasn’t reacting to Major, she was reacting to you. Major didn’t notice one way or another, he just got on with his life and back to the business of gettin’ on the fun bus. The two adults, however, might be acting like two year olds that want the same toy. You’re a teacher and a damn, skilled one from the sound of it. Break the tension, go ask her how she’s doing? Be kind, and maybe pass on some wisdom if you find her open to help. If you the adult can’t deal with her the adult, then you can’t really expect her to always be spot on with Major. Even you wanna kill him some days haha. Perhaps last time she was having one of those days that frazzle nerves, or dealt with some family drama that morning. Coulda been anything. Cut her some slack, she might be really awesome.

    If she’s not, give her a wicked snake bite until she yells, “Mercy”

    As far as people not liking your kids, y’all need to suck it up on that one asap. Darn straight they won’t, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it more than what you’re doin’, Momma Bear. We can’t please everyone, and the world is full of a-holes. That’s the breaks.

    As long as he knows his mother truly thinks he’s amazing, and he knows his mother doesn’t lie, he will move through the slings of life like Teflon Man. He will cry, get punched in the eye, fail an exam, and get his heart crushed. And when he’s done, he will be wise and strong, confident and beautiful, just like his parents.

    And Lord Almighty woman, ditch the worry. It’s not doing you any favors.

    Let him fall down. Let others fall down. And for Pete’s sake let yourself fall down, preferably onto a pillowy bed of tranquility surrounded by chocolate and massage therapists…

    Thanks again for the post and link. Teaching fascinates me. Learning enthralls me. School Boards p*ss me off. 😉

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      Oh dang, Leah!!! You got real hype on my blog this morning! GOOD MORNING TO YOU, TOO, MA’AM!!!!

      I’m gonna make sure that allllllllll of my posts from now on are just like this. Juuuuussstttt foooooorrrrrr yoooooooouuuuuuuuuu!

  7. You are a lady after my own heart! My greatest teaching moments have come from teaching boys. Having two boys of my own also, I know I am bias. There is something so raw and simplistic about the male mind and at the adolescent level it is all about mutual respect. They will not give it…unless they get it. You are so right about teachers who ‘overuse’ discipline, they most definitely lose control. I saw this so many times from those in leadership positions whilst teaching in extremely low socio- economic regions. The problem was, there were always those teachers from privileged backgrounds, taking pity and patronising the boys. The boys could see they were a world away from their mentors. They didn’t need to be pitied they needed to be heard. I have never thought about the day that someone will ‘not like’ my own boys….but you;re right, that day will come, if it hasn’t already. It will break my heart and I will fight for them as I would fight for my ‘naughty boys’ all those years ago.

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      We really should swap war stories. I’d love to know what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. One of these days I’m going to write about my classroom days. I’ve got to figure out a way to do it in a way that doesn’t demonize the people who really did do an amazing job, and also in a way that doesn’t make the monsters identifiable. (Because I’m too poor for litigation!)

      Boys are the best, if you have the patience to get through to them. If I were going to build an Ed School, I’d make teacher candidates dedicate at LEAST one semester to learning about teaching boys. Their identity development, best practices, and motivators. Whole curriculum needs to be dedicated to them.

  8. Jessica says:

    I feel the same way as your title indicates each and every day. And I’m not even a parent yet.

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