Tag Archives: schools

That Damn Family Unit

Family-Tree-Poster---Englis.JPGIt’s that time of year again. For Texas families with elementary-aged kids, back to school season means the obligatory curriculum on families.

My son, Waylon, is in third grade, so we’ve been around this thorny mulberry bush a few times before. But this year the path took a new turn.

“Mom,” Waylon asked, “how come some people don’t have kids?” He was hanging on the back porch door and swaying in and out of the house in a fidgety eight-year-old kind of way.

I was in the middle of draining a boiling pot of noodles into a colander, but I still wanted to provide a wide-ranging answer. It came out something like this: “Maybe-they-don’t-want-to-or-they don’t-have-the-money-or-the-support-or-the-interest. Maybe-their-pet-is-their-baby-or-their-work-or-their-art…or something else.”

“But what about carrying on the generations?” Waylon asked.

Perpetuating the ancestral line is not something we discuss much in our donor-inseminated domestic domain. As far as I am concerned, my family’s dominant genetic traits are early baldness, alcoholism, and a propensity for moles. If the Schilt line had stopped with me, the chief mourners would be rich dermatologists.

It didn’t take me long to surmise that Waylon’s preoccupation with generation was a by-product of the classroom curriculum on families.

As a teacher, I can understand why a unit on families makes sense at the beginning of the school year. Getting students to talk about their backgrounds creates opportunities to examine similarities and differences. Direct talk about differences (and similarities across differences) is one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes and create real community in a diverse setting.

A unit on families is also a way to encourage students to connect to their cultural heritage. The other day, in the middle of a play date, Waylon’s friend Jimmy solemnly asked me if I would like to hear his cultures. He listed them on his fingers:

“Hopi, Cherokee, German, Polish, Canary Islander, Spanish…oh, what’s that one, oh, oh, um…French…”

All in all, Jimmy reported eight different “bloods.” Waylon was extremely disappointed that we did not have a similarly compelling list for him. He refused to be mollified by the fact that his great great grandfather was a polygamist with two wives, because Canadian Mormonism could not be distilled into a specific bloodline.

I was happy for Waylon’s buddy because I could tell that their classroom unit on families had given him a sense of confidence and pride. Theoretically, the family curriculum could work the same way for kids from nontraditional families, including kids from LGBT homes.
In reality, however, we live in Texas.

In a state where nontraditional families are decidedly outside the official curriculum, classroom discussions about family structure can be a source of anxiety instead of pride.

jocks.jpgThe beginning of third grade has meant the dawning of a new self-consciousness for Waylon. Last year he told us, “I love being from an odd family.” This year he told us that he wasn’t going to correct kids who assumed that his genderqueer mommy was his dad.

He’s more strategic about how he comes out to other kids now. He prefers to wait until he’s established a level of comfort and trust before he tells them that he has two moms. A few weeks ago, he let us know that he was planning how to break the news to an older kid in his after-school program. When the deed was done, Waylon expressed relief. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to stop being my friend or anything.”

Luckily, Waylon has never experienced anything more malevolent than skepticism (“that’s weird”), or incredulity (“that’s impossible.”) But I suspect that will change as he gets older. And, if the school curriculum continues to feature families at the beginning of the year, I suspect it will continue to be in tension with his desire to come out about his family at his own pace.

(On a side note, if I could ask one thing from traditional families who want to be allies, it would be that you talk with your kids about all kinds of family structures – including single parents, divorced parents, gay parents, trans parents, absent parents and multigenerational families – so that little kids from nontraditional families don’t have to bear the burden of educating their peers.)

At the end of the unit on families, Waylon had to interview family members and write a paragraph about his family heritage. I tried to suggest a few questions, but – as usual – Waylon had his own agenda for inquiry.

“Where did I get my blonde hair?” he asked. It was a logical kind of “where did I come from” question, because neither Katy nor I are natural blondes.

“I think you got your blonde hair from your grandfather,” I replied. “Or maybe from Uncle Brian,” I added, referencing Waylon’s sperm donor. (Waylon has a dazzlingly handsome blonde donor sib.)

“But what about from Mommy’s side? What did I get from my Koonce blood?”
Back to blood again! I was torn between being factually accurate and honoring the spirit of our queer family tree.

“Well, you don’t technically have Koonce blood… but you’re definitely a Koonce!” I hastened to add.

“I know I’m a Koonce,” he retorted, as if I’d just said the most obvious thing in the world. “And I do have Koonce blood in me.”

“Oh really,” I said cautiously, “tell me about that.”

“When you and Mommy kissed, some of her blood got inside you. And then it got inside of me when you made me.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling thoroughly enlightened and instructed.

Third grade is definitely a turning point. I remember it as the year I looked up every single cuss word in the dictionary. The year I learned what “virgin” meant and realized that I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. It was also the last year I really believed in Santa Claus.

Maybe it’s wrong, but I hope he’ll keep believing in his own magical version of his family “blood” for just a little while longer.

(Poster image from the LGBTQ Parenting Connection. They have a whole host of inclusive alternatives to typical family tree assignments. Check it out.)


Two Worlds in Texas

I recently returned from a visit with the Mormon side of my extended family–an experience that I’m processing by obsessively watching Big Love on DVD.

I should hasten to say that the Mormons on Big Love don’t actually remind me of my family. In fact, it’s kind of like watching the L Word, because the people on the series are so much richer and skinnier than any of the people I know. Nevertheless, Big Love is addictive, and lately I’ve been pondering which of the show’s three wives I resemble most.

I wish I could say I identify with Barb, the smart and sexy first wife. Or Margene, the young and spunky third wife. But, in my heart of hearts, I know I’m most like Chloe Sevigny’s character, Nicolette–the cranky middle wife who is passionately attached to her otherness and suspicious of integrating into mainstream society.

Which is why, when my son emerged from his first grade classroom last week wearing a Cub Scouts sticker, I ripped it off him like it was the mark of Satan.

“Hey, why’d you do that?” Waylon asked, looking stricken. “I want to go to Cub Scouts. You get to shoot BB guns and bows and arrows.”

Perhaps a cooler, more experienced mom would have taken a deep breath at this juncture. Perhaps hypothetical mom would have asked her son a few questions and then backed off, waiting to see whether the desire to join Cub Scouts was more than the passing whim of a seven-year-old with a short attention span.

But I wasn’t feeling like hypothetical mom.

I was feeling like an edgy, sleep-deprived lesbian mama who just returned from an Arizona family funeral where everyone treated her as if she were a slightly suspect single mother.

“You can’t join the Cub Scouts,” I said, marching him down the sidewalk towards the car. “They don’t allow families like ours to participate and they discriminate against gay kids.”

“Well maybe we could pretend to be straight,” Waylon said. “Because Mommy is both, a boy and a girl.” The crossing guard gave us a funny look.

“Waylon! Even if Mommy and I were straight, we still wouldn’t let you join because they discriminate against gay kids,” I scolded as I opened the car door. “They’re injustice,” I added, trying to appeal to his comic book sense of ethics.

Waylon began sobbing in his car seat. I felt like the meanest mommy in the world.

Back home, I emailed the parents of Waylon’s close friends to find out whether every other boy in his class would soon be sporting a yellow kerchief. My hands shook and my heart raced as I typed. I was outraged that public school children would be recruited into an organization that discriminates against whole classes of kids and adults. I was angry that much of the situation was beyond my control. I was scared that Waylon was going to feel excluded because of his family. And I was ashamed for losing my cool and making him cry.

In a testament to our community of straight allies–or at least to the laidback ethos of South Austin–none of Waylon’s friends’ parents were jazzed about Cub Scouts. And once Waylon realized that his buddies weren’t joining up without him, the sting was gone. By dinnertime, he had transitioned from wanting to join the Cub Scouts to wanting to “destroy” the Cub Scouts. And I had transitioned from a nay-saying harpy to a warm, compassionate mother who calmly counseled him to respect other people’s choices and to refrain from visiting superhero-style vengeance upon people with different beliefs.

But, despite my calm fa├žade, I was rattled. My son had been beguiled by an organization whose leadership believes that people like his parents are unfit role models for children. My feelings of anger, vulnerability, and fear grew as I attempted to follow up with the principal, the Campus Advisory Council, and the Cub Scout recruiting lady.

(Cub Scout lady, I know you don’t read LGBT blogs, but I just want to use this forum to apologize for trying to explain my objections to your organization in the school corridor. That was inappropriate. And here’s a tip: in the future, if you want to calm an outraged lesbian mama, don’t tell her that your policy for gay kids is “don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

In response to my initial inquiries, I learned that the Boy Scouts’ presence in public schools is federally protected. Back in 2002, when schools with nondiscrimination policies were banning Boy Scout troops from their campuses, the Bushies slipped the “Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act” into No Child Left Behind. (Ah, the Bush administration and No Child Left Behind–two gifts from Texas that just keep on giving.)

Luckily, the Boy Scouts’ federally protected status only mandates that they have “equal access” compared to other extracurricular activities. I was assured that other extracurricular programs were not allowed to market directly to kids during the school day and that this kind of thing would not happen in the future.

Which should, perhaps, have calmed me down.

However, most everyone I spoke with persisted in likening the Cub Scouts recruiting visit to other recent “controversies,” like the sticker machines in the school lobby. Their failure to make an ethical distinction between discrimination and the distribution of Pokemon decals made me crazy.

The Cub Scouts recruiting visit didn’t shake me up because I have some intellectual or political disagreement with their policies. Rather, their federally protected presence in the school reminded me how perfectly respectable it is to insist that queer folks have no business being around children. That’s essentially what their policy says. And it cuts right to the heart of my fitness to raise a child. My fitness to be Waylon’s mom.

I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m sending my kid to public school in Texas, a state that just made Phyllis Schlafly a mandatory part of the social studies curriculum. On television, right-wing pundits have been waging a witch hunt against Kevin Jennings, President Obama’s openly gay appointee to the Department of Education. And hate groups like the Traditional Values Coalition have been inciting moral panic over transgender teachers as a major tactic in their battle against ENDA. What else did I expect?

Intellectually, this is pretty much what I expected. Emotionally, I’m having one of those moments when my defenses have been stripped bare and every little bump leaves a bruise.

If I was unprepared for how personal something like Cub Scouts in public schools would feel, it’s partly because, in most of my day-to-day life, I’ve managed to carve out my own queer social world. I’ve worked in LGBTQ professions. I attend a gay and trans-affirming church. I volunteer for queer and feminist organizations. My friends are queer. Heck, three out of four people in my family of origin are queer.

Public school is challenging for me because it’s the only significant institution in my day-to-day life where queers and allies are not woven into every fiber.

I know the stock recommendations for LGBT parent involvement in their kids’ schools. Get involved. Join the PTA. Volunteer. Work extra hard to build credibility and goodwill so that you can try to create a supportive environment for your child. But, although I am something of a community junkie, I sometimes find myself avoiding opportunities to be involved in Waylon’s school. When it comes to how I’m going to apply my civic energies, I’d rather do it in a context where I don’t have to deal with other people’s ignorance and discomfort around LGBT issues.

Don’t get me wrong–I value the culture shock of public school. I want Waylon to grow up around kids from different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. I want him to grow up knowledgeable about other ways of life and comfortable around all kinds of people. I want him to have options in terms of how he lives his own life. In my dreams, public school is a place where he can learn the skills to play and communicate and collaborate with people who are different from us.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about that hippy school on the edge of town where lots of my friends send their kids. Waylon wouldn’t be the only kid in his class with gay and trans parents. He could read books about families like his, and the rest of the class would read them too. There’d be no Boy Scouts. No “don’t ask, don’t tell.” No forms that ask for “mother’s name” and “father’s name.” No shuttling between two worlds before 7:45 each morning.

Life would be a lot easier.



Boys and Buddy Time

Yesterday I spent the morning perched on a tiny plastic chair, observing my son Waylon’s yoga class. Although I have studied yoga for years, kindergarten yoga was most enlightening. For instance, I learned that the lotus position can also be called “criss-cross applesauce.” And kindergarten apparently presents an exception to the ancient injunction that yoga must be performed barefoot. (I suspect that convincing a group of five-year-olds to put their shoes back on would challenge the inner calm of even the most accomplished yogi.)

But the most fascinating lesson occurred when the class paired up for “buddy time.”

The girls ran to their girlfriends with wide eyes and huge smiles. They hugged and swayed and held hands while they waited for the teacher to call out the next pose.

And the boys?

Same exact story. From the looks of joy on their faces, buddy time might have been Christmas morning. I watched as Waylon and his friend Charlie wrapped their arms around each other’s waists. Between poses, Charlie rested his head on Waylon’s shoulder.

I checked the other pairs of boys and found that they, too, were beaming and clinging to one another. Their happiness was infectious, but it also made my heart hurt. I took a deep breath and tried to stay in the moment, but I found myself already anticipating a future when this easy intimacy between boys would disappear.

Waylon is my first child, so I can’t say exactly when it might happen–second grade? fourth? middle school?–but I fear that, far too soon, the majority of these boys will have internalized the implicit and explicit rules of our culture’s version of masculinity. No more lounging with their head on their buddy’s shoulder, no more looking deeply and directly into his eyes.

Watching their little bodies lean against each other in supported bridge pose, I grieved for all that they might lose: the sense of trust and openness, the comfort of a friend’s touch. Girls have their own real and harrowing challenges in our culture, but I don’t think they are expected to eschew intimacy with same-sex friends as a rite of passage.

As adults, we sometimes defend against the awfulness of this loss by telling ourselves that these gender differences are inevitable, natural, even biological. But I defy any observer of kindergarten yoga to tell me that boys do not have the capacity to develop close, nurturing friendships with other boys. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that it is cultural forces–namely sexism and heterosexism–that threaten to impoverish the emotional lives of our sons.

At the end of class, the instructor asked the kids if they remembered the intention that they had set at the beginning. “To be happy!” they called in chaotic harmony.

As I walked out the door, I wanted to collar every parent in that class and plead with them:

Don’t teach your sons that boys can only touch when they are fighting or playing sports.

Don’t teach them to hold themselves stiffly and keep their eyes to themselves.

Don’t teach them by teasing and example.

Don’t do it for their future friends and lovers.

Don’t do it because you want them to be happy and because it diminishes the sources of comfort and support that are available to them in this hard and crazy world.


Teaching Kindergarteners About Gay Marriage

I’ve been holding my tongue for a while now.

My son, Waylon, started kindergarten this past August. Until two weeks ago, his entire public school career had overlapped with the campaign against Prop 8. Although we live all the way across the country in Texas, we heard the rumors about focus groups in California: lesbian and gay families with children weren’t testing well and were asked to keep a lower profile while more palatable spokespeople made the case for our marriages.

Now that we know how well that strategy worked, I can finally talk about my latest obsession: insinuating gay marriage into the kindergarten curriculum.

As adults, I think we tend to repress the trauma of the first day of kindergarten. When we dropped him off in the cafeteria for the first time, Waylon looked like a deer in the headlights. One of his classmates was crying so hard that his tears literally made a puddle on the polished institutional tile.

Watching our baby navigate a new place, new people, and a new routine was heart wrenching for us too. For the first week, my wife, Katy, and I stood in the hallway every morning until his class trooped by in their single file line. We blew last-minute kisses, wiped away our own tears, and exchanged hugs of solidarity with the other parents.

With all of these emotions swirling around, we had little time to think about how conspicuous we were–nor could we spare much thought for how to instruct Waylon and his classmates in the virtues of gay marriage.

Luckily, Waylon’s first assignment was to create a “me” collage to introduce himself to the school. A demanding and opinionated artist, Waylon insisted on including a printout of his first ultrasound, when he was just a tiny bean in the womb, as well as a staged photo of himself standing next to the Obama sign in our front yard. He selected sandbox snapshots of his three best buddies, a formal portrait of our dogs, and two family photos: one from our annual outing to the Nutcracker and one from our vacation trip to the Space Needle.

Once this unapologetic propaganda for alternative lifestyles was adorning the halls, we didn’t have to wait long for our next point of entry. The second unit in the kindergarten curriculum was “family.” I’ll admit that we felt some trepidation about this topic – who wouldn’t, when conservative commentators are constantly reminding us that this embattled institution is the cornerstone of all civilization? Katy checked in with Waylon’s teacher, who encouraged us to supplement the classroom’s collection of family books. Being a bleeding-heart social worker, Katy went a little overboard; she donated books on adoptive families, interracial families, single parent families, and penguin families. How better to spread the gay agenda of inclusiveness?

Luckily, our careers as LGBT activists and intellectual elites also give us the flexibility to volunteer in Waylon’s classroom. Katy’s favorite gig is field trip helper, and mine is guest reader. Just the other day, I brought in notorious gay author Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice. You should have seen all those five year olds, sitting in a circle and calling out the refrain of this unabashed paean to the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name: a boy’s passion for chicken soup.

But, to paraphrase George W. Bush, where’s the accountability? How do I know that Waylon and his classmates are really learning about gay marriage? The answer is clearer than a standardized test. One fall evening, about six weeks into the semester, we were at the PTA’s backyard concert. Katy and I were setting up our lawn chairs next to the soccer field when we were suddenly surrounded by a roving band of five-year-olds. “Waylon’s Mom! Waylon’s Mom!” they called indiscriminately. Their questions betrayed an unwholesome interest in our marriage:

“Where’s Waylon?”

“Will you tie my shoe?”

“Can I have a dollar for a glow bracelet?”

“Where’s Waylon?”

Finally, one extremely promising pupil clarified the homosexual subtext of the entire exchange. “I know Waylon has two moms,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Because I have seen you both!”


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