A little backdrop...
Our second oldest, let's call him #2, is in 8th grade in one of the two public middle schools in our suburban community. We live in a fairly nice home, modest and clean and...us. When people come to visit or hang with us, they seem to feel fairly comfortable and often compliment the style that we've (okay, I'VE) decorated it in. By those standards, I would argue that we fit the middle class, suburban lifestyle of many families like ours in the community in which we live. We of course don't look like every other family but we aren't aliens or a circus attraction by any means. Well actually some days it feels that way, but in reality we aren't too far outside of the American middle class ring of "normal". We are a blended family with four kids. We have an interracial marriage, my husband is the white to my black - opposites attracting in so many more ways than this, but necessary for you to know as I continue to clarify the context of this disturbing situation.
So, apparently #2 had a rough day at school yesterday. He witnessed one of his friends verbally and physically explode on another student. #2's friend has accused the other student/bully of teasing him and saying how ugly his girlfriend was. Middle school behavior, bullying, whatever you want to call it - it happens and will likely happen again. The part that stuck with me was how disturbed our child was. He talked about it with #1, his dad and with me and really wanted to work it out in his head and heart, all of it. Bless his heart, so tender.
Since he doesn't really ever talk about school this way, it stuck with me and I wanted to check in on him. Fortunate to have the day off from work myself, I went over to check-in on him. I signed in as a visitor as expected with the recently tightened security measures at all of our nation's schools, got his whereabouts from the office assistants and then set out on my way. I went to Room 219 and he wasn't there. In fact, it took a good 15 seconds for the adult in the room to even realize that someone had opened the door and was waiting to have a conversation with her. When students in the class finally got her attention in that special middle school way and she walked over to me, we spent a solid three minutes trying to figure out where he was since she didn't really know who he was. Granted she was a substitute teacher (fine) but this is what she felt would clear up where my son might be...
As she turns her body square to me and folds her arms across her chest, she leans in close to me and just above a whisper says, "Is your son in a remedial reading class where he might need to pulled out for additional literacy, I mean, reading and language, support?"
Read.it.again. Oh, yes she did!
I told her 'no' and smiled a little bit. It was a terse smile, but one that I'm looking back on and acknowledging that I've smiled many a times. I am so used to comments like this. Per standard cool and collected black woman requirements, I shoved the 'ick' aside and walked away accepting and internalizing the loaded assumptions that others feel comfortable verbalizing. It is out there and I carry away this feeling inside me.
As I had time to step outside of the situation and reflect on it, I can now admit that it hurts. There was no reason for her to assume that about him. She doesn't know me but saw me and saw my blackness and spoke from her belief and mindset that if he wasn't in her predominantly white class, with her white self, then either I was lost or my kid was in a class getting 'extra help'.
Let me say this and be clear in sharing that there is absolutely nothing wrong with receiving extra help. We all need it to grow in areas of weakness, but unfortunately in many schools - there is a widespread mindset that 'extra support' means problems. Well, for some. Who look a certain way. Extra for some means "Gifted and Talented" and others means "Remedial and Below Grade Level". Today, I felt like she was telling me that because of my being black, because of what she could see in briefly interacting with me, my son had to be someplace else and not someplace good.
Sigh. Scream. Head shake. Disgust. Disappointment.
Now, before you say, "she probably didn't mean anything by it" or "you're reading too much into this blogger girl", I want to break it down and ask you to consider it in pieces.
- The woman did not know who my son was.
- The woman did not assume the best. If he was being pulled from class, could the child of someone with my skin color have been being pulled for Gifted and Talented Programming?
- The woman whispered her question to me, no other part of the conversation required her crossing her arms and leaning into me talking softly so only the two of us might hear.
- The woman repeated herself, apparently I look like I may be hard of hearing too.
My point? I left the interaction tempted to believe that something was wrong with me/my son. The negative assumptions made with so little information was damaging to me and done in less than 10 seconds of her speaking her thoughts about us - people she really doesn't know.
I almost feel that those of you who don't know me might need some justification from me; how was I dressed, did I have my hair up in rollers, was I poppin' my chewing gum, talking loud? And then I realize that I'm answering to some of the stereotypes that come with having skin the color of mine. And THEN I decide that I'm not going to speak to those because it shouldn't matter how I show up, but that's exactly the point. It does.
Fast forward to tonight.
#2 is recounting a few lowlights of his day and interrupts himself to say, "Oh yeah, Mom, Ms. Ladywhoshallnotbenamed told me that you were pretty." Me: "Really, that's interesting. When did she tell you that?" #2: "When I came to class later in the day, she said that she met you and that you were really pretty." Me: "Huh. That's interesting."
Head shaking. It is taking all that I have in me not to judge this comment, to take the compliment and leave it on the table as just that. Not as an attempt to backtrack and undo the harm that she probably sees in hindsight. To leave it as a minor incident, just how he presented it - as another thing that happened in his day as an 8th grade boy. No big deal right? His substitute teacher thinks his mom is pretty. A compliment, surely my mom will be encouraged; that's what he's thinking. Shouldn't it be that simple?
Why doesn't it seem simple?
I will continue to wrestle with this situation and be better prepared to answer as these situations pop up in the future, because they will. In the meantime, I'm praying to make sure that I am at peace within myself knowing that how God sees me and my children is of importance what people say and think. That whatever unintended hurt comes from people's intentions, His heart for me is above all.