Of puppy crushes and hard-on – Let’s Talk About “S” Bebe

Parents, guardians and educators of young minds, let’s imagine this happened to any of you. I will not disclose my sources…but as a mother of a seven-year old, it gives me cause to worry.

Here we go…retold in [first person]

“I am wounded. Terribly wounded!!

I just had a talk with a six-year old about sex, crushes and hard-ons. Can you believe it? No! I cannot. I am crying, internally. My tear glands are not doing me a favor; I want to sob.
M. I still have butterflies about Leigh [Not real name].” [Followed by shy giggles.
“How do you feel when you have butterflies about her?” I asked
“When I think about her, my pee pee gets hard. Right now, my pee pee is hard”

That’s the moment I panicked, and realized that I need help. 
“Well, I am not a man, and I do not know what to do when your pee pee gets hard,” I responded to him. I am going to ask a friend, who is a man and a teacher for advice on what to do.”

Hitherto, I was playing it cool and silly. In fact, I might have stirred him up on his ’silly’ infatuation, and resultant “hard-on”. For one, he’s had a ‘girlfriend’ since pre-K, that he dropped for a new one in Kindergarten, I bet there’s gonna be one from 1st Grade. 2) I imagined, his ‘love story’ was similar to mine back when I was five.

When I was in Kindergarten, I got myself duped by a grown man that he was going to marry me. The next day, I came home from school, took a shower, packed all my bags and waited outside our family home for Mr. Y to pick me up and take me off to his home, our new marital home [Never mind that he was probably over twenty years of age]. Not only didn’t he show up that day, it took a while before he showed up again on our block.  So, I had to face repeated humiliation from my bigger brother and sister, mocking me for dropping out of school in Kindergarten, and going off to get married. I bet Mr. Y did not even give [the marriage] a second thought, because it was joke to him. He probably forgot his “proposal” as soon as he’d stepped away from our neighborhood.

Interestingly, I grew up without a love for men or marriage, not because Mr. Y stood me up. My own family drama speaks volumes about this. But that is a story to be told and re-told many times elsewhere. 

Anyway, this time I freaked out, and wrote to a friend, who is both male and a teacher. A bonus, he is an American, with a multi-cultural background, who has lived and taught in several countries outside the United States. I feel he would be best positioned to give a male opinion, but also with a cultural context to it. I do not have personal experience of little male boys  talking about “crushes and hard-ons” to their parents.

As someone from a different generation, I am quite slow to catch up with this seemingly “hyper-sexual” generation. Young minds of today know a lot about sex than I knew at their age, and perform more sex than I did back in the days. Thanks to the abundant ‘open’ and [il]liberal media, which is exposing to children as young as three to daily love stories – watch Madagascar, The Lion King, Lego Movie, Incredibles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Frozen, you name it! There’s a love story with someone getting married, heartbroken or kissing, followed by eewws and eewws, from the young watchers.

I know a thing or two about what goes on in the Elementary School System, where kids express or act out their crushes with classmates, or tell their friends, who often tease them about who they have a crush on. Unbeknownst to me, the teasing can grow into infatuation and feelings of love and desires for kissing their crush!

As I waited for “expert advice” from my friend, I decided to engage my six-year old into a “Let’s Talk About Sex, bebe”

Mom: “Do you know what sex is?”
6-yr-old: “Yes. When people lie on top of each other.”
Me ; [oh oh TMI -internal panic]. “Where did you see that?”
6-yr: “On TV, one of the shows. Even Simba had Nala [in The Lion King.] They loved each other and made a baby.”
Me. “Uhm! But the people you saw on TV were not young, right? They are adults who are married or living together?”
6-yr: “Yes. But some kids also talk about sex [coyly answered]. Even my classmates.”

Overwhelmed, I could not run away from the talk anymore. I had to break the ‘innocence’ to protect the ‘innocence’. Does that even make sense?

I told him it is normal for pees pees of young boys to young boys to get hard. I let him know that, it is ok to have feelings for girls. It means we appreciate others.
I asked, “Does she feel the same about you? Does she want to be your boyfriend?”
“She did not say that to me,” he responded

I told him, “It is important to be careful because if the girls does not feel the same, she could tell her mother and her mother may not like it. Then she would tell the teacher, and you might get in trouble. I might also get in trouble for exposing you to movies or TV that have sex.”

I went on, “Plus, you are still too young to focus too much on sex and loving a girl. You have many years to go. You should wait until you are an adult, then you can get married and have a wife and then you can start engaging in sex. It is a huge responsibility for a six-year old like you.”

Yes, I mentioned that some young boys have sex with girls, get them pregnant and then have to take are of them. So, they drop out of school to start working for their family. Sometimes it does not work out, and if they cannot afford to take care of their family, they could be sent to jail. 

At that moment, I realized that he was scared. “I won’t talk about sex anymore,” he told me.
“It is ok to tell me how you feel,” I said. In fact I am glad that you told me, that means you trust me. But don’t think about sex too much. You are still young.” 
Another thought occurred to me, to ask him how he feels about each of the girls who were in his Kindergarten class. 

Ki- I don’t really like her because she cares a lot about fashion, make up, and sometimes she is mean. She also likes to sit next to K all the time
Vi – She gets in trouble so much. Other people, Q, A and E say mean things to her like, she has sludge on her hands (the things you have in the nose) 
Bri and Eli- They have too much braids! 
H – She’s kind of shy, like Jac
Ab – Her eyes look big when she has glasses on
Gr – She’s kind of weird. Sometimes, with her right eye, she’s looking left, and with her left eye she’s looking right
Ch – She’s mean. Remember when you were teaching in my class, and she was being mean to some people!
Ln – Too much K! She always wants to sit next to K. I sit with all my best friends, A, J, V, E, But she wants to sit only next to K.
K – She’s a good person, she’s good in school, beautiful, stylish and nice 

Then, I suggested that we check the internet for guidance, “What to do when your six-year old has crush?”

We read all info together. Most of the information we found reiterated what I had told him: that all young boys experience erections; they also get infatuated with girls. But I also learned that it is important not to make your child feel guilty about their feelings, and not make them feel it is wrong to share how they feel with you.  It was good for him to hear a written opinion from the authority even kids like him know, “Google”.
http://www.steadyhealth.com/topics/erections-in-young-boys-is-it-normal

Moreover, my “expert teacher/guidance counselor” wrote back to reassure me that the body is taking charge, and he has no way of controlling it. He told me it is good to let him know that it is natural for an erection to happen when he gets the butterflies, but he should keep his private part private. Like me, my “Expert teacher” agrees it is great my six-year old trusts me enough to confide in me.” 

There you have it! How I dread this story happening to me, with my seven-year old! That one day, he will come to me, crying about his crushes, at this tender age. I would want to tell him, you still have all the way to college before you start worrying about girls. You should wait until you get married.

Interestingly, last weekend, COM asked me, “how does one pick the girl they wish to marry. How do they decide on the one?” I had to tell him about meeting somebody, getting to know them, their family and friends, and treating them nice. Then you can ask the person, if they will marry you?

“Then, how do you meet the people who you went to Elementary school with, when you are grown?”

Sometimes, people keep in touch. That is, keep communicating. Sometimes we lose contact. Many people do not marry the people they new from elementary school, but meet people in other places like college, work, gym, community, on the bus or train.”
“Once you are married, I continued, then you can have sex with your partner and have children, if you like.” [I hope against hope that he would not ask me, but why did you and daddy have me without being married…]

Just as I was getting to pat myself on the back, he told me, “Mommy, I know you can be married and still not have sex.”
“Really? Why? I asked.
“Co’s dad and mom do not have sex,” came his response
“How do you know?” I am getting freaked out.
“Co told me!” COM says.

Oh well! It is really about time we have the “BIG TALK”. One of these days, I will sit down COM And tell him, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Bebe”

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Internationalizing Black History Month

I Inspirational_Black_kids_jpgbecame more inspired to teach my six-year old about Black History Month, after I read the February Newsletter from the Class Teacher.  It said,

     “We learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We will learn about Chinese New Year, the presidents, …”

Wait, isn’t February Black History Month? I thought I would read about plans to Teach Black History Month? Martin Luther King Jr. is not exactly the full “Black History Month”. He is part of it, not all of it. There is more to BHM than MLK. And since Black History has only one assigned calendar month out of the twelve, wouldn’t it be great if the Class Teacher exposed child and classmate to other historical black figures, black lives, and histories, culture and achievements of Black people? uhm!

Anyway, I had set plans to give Child several lessons about “Black People” and their histories. My lessons are not limited to Black Peoples of the United States, but includes Black peoples of the Americas, Africa, India, Europe and Asiatic subregion. I want child to know there is more to black history and black people than their story in North America- specifically the United States.

Primarily because Child is of two Diaspora Africas: the new [mom from Uganda] and the old [African American father] Diaspora. Child’s history and present is broader than America. My lesson plan explore significant Black people with influence the world over, as survivors, inventors, activists, independence fighters, nationalists, freedom riders, farmers, anti-colonial crusaders, writers, poets, teachers, child prodigy’s.Black_American_Leaders_jpg

I am going to teach him about MLK, Jr. as much as Barack ObamaMalcolm X, W.E.B. Du BoisJames BaldwinHarriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. Mo’ne Davis comes to mind, as does The Kid President and Lil’ Bow Wow. We will cross The Big Pond to learn about Kwame Nkrumah the PanAfricanist, Nelson Mandela and Steve Bantu Biko the Anti-Apartheid crusaders, Sekou Toure who sent colonial France packing from his Guinea, and Patrice Lumumba, assassinated for defending the right of African peoples to govern themselves. African diplomats on the international stage like Kofi Annan, the first Black UN Secretary General, Graça Macel, international elder, diplomat and teacher, as well as Africa’s royalty like Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II of Buganda Kingdom to which I belong.

I want to teach him about luminary continental Africa Blacks who have penned a mark on the world of writing and academia: public intellectual Ali Mazrui (RIP), the first Okot P’Bitek‘s Song of Lawino, Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of WoodWeep Not Child’s seminal author Ngugi wa Thiong’oWole Soyinka’s manifesto in Trials of Brother Jero and cosmopolitan-Africana Chimamanda Adichie’s Americana.The great astronomers of Timbuktu, who existed way before Europeans invaded, colonized and miseducated the African mind, and the Pharaohs of Egypt, who built the world’s most wonders, the pyramids, the original home of the mummies. The first university at Alexandria, Egypt, and the origin of all human civilization, is Africa.

Black_African_Leaders_jpg   I will let Child know that Europe, Asia and South America all have Black population, original inhabitants or shipped over thorough [slave] trade. We will reach back into our history for notable figures like Shaka Zulu, Maummar GaddafiAlice Lakwena who transformed the African landscape, and events, specifically within their geographical boundaries. Additional coverage of Black African children who have overcome war, suffering and economic hardship to headline global news as engineers, inventors, scholars and activists.

I want Child to know that “Black History Month” is not just about Martin Luther King but the Black World beyond one person, and one geographical space. And how about a start with ABC of Black History https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9rQ544fDqI 

African_intellectuals__writers_and_wonders_jpg

Dear Parents, Your Kids Celebrations Are Not About You…!

I typically do not write about family affairs. I have a self-censored rule that “I shall NOT wash my family dirty linen in public. Even with all my multiple identities: as a humanist, a Pan African, a Black person, a woman, a cosmopolitan, an internationalist, I still believe in the “private-public dichotomy. Yes, in my world, there is still a “public” and a “private”, and the private should be spared and jealously safe-guarded from public eyes and ears, and scrutiny. The more I have come of age, the more I realize that I do not have to say everything I feel or think. I am grateful that the heart is hidden inside our bodies; nobody can claim to know my feelings. Although, those who seek to find fault, will always claim knowledge of your sentiments, feelings and intentions. Nor, do I need to offer an opinion on everything that I read, observe or hear of. I am grateful that my fingers, mouth and head allow me to excuse myself from uncomfortable situations, until such a time when I am ready to resurface. As my mother always told me, who can claim that you hurt them when you did not say a thing? [Apparently some still take it personal, mommy].
N’way, allow me a minute to break my Code of Silence about “The Private”, and say,
“Dear Parents, your child or your children’s celebrations are not about you. Nor are their intrigues, their excitements, or their dreams. It is their moment. Please do not feel offended if they would like to play with their toys, friends or cousins instead of sitting around chatting with you. If you are on a phone call with them, please do not expect them to maintain a long attention span, unless of course they are talking to you about something that excites them, like their favorite fictional characters. When you give them presents, please let them enjoy the occasion for receiving your gifts: perhaps it is their birthday, they lost a tooth, Easter Bunny visited, it is Halloween or Santa came into town. That is what kids talk about; please allow them to enjoy their childhood. Sometimes they might offend you by saying that they wished for “Pokémon” instead of the “Spiderman” you got them. Please find a constructive way of reminding them the importance of being grateful, and hopefully they will receive what they had wished for next time. Although, as we all know, our children’s interests change as quickly as their attention span. The next time you think of gifting them, or another celebrations comes around, they might wish for snow or white sand from the forest!”
Why I am saying all of this? I presume that if you are a parent, you probably already know all these facts about your children. Though, I have learned that not all absentee parents have these facts at their finger tips. Some want their children’s excitements, beliefs, celebrations and interests to be centered around them. They want their children to follow their own trajectories, as scripted from their childhood, even when they have never spent an equivalent of a month per year, since their children were born! When the kids do not respond per their expectations, the custodial parent is to blame!
Perhaps the same is true that custodial parents also want our children to ‘be like us’. I must say though, I have learned to “let my son be”, allow him to dream as wildly, explore as wide, and seek as far and beyond. I have put on hold my needs and comfort for the sake of my son until that time when he comes of age, or says he does not desire me anymore. I have opened up my son to venture into territories I had abandoned long ago or had excluded from my lifestyle. For instance, I was never a cheese-easter, but I started eating cheese regularly while pregnant with my son, because my OB/GYN said I needed to eat more protein, particular cheese and eggs. I had vowed myself as a cosmo girl, who would never fit or be caught living in suburbia away from the bright city lights, until that all changed in pursuit of “the school district”. I abandoned my geographical place of comfort, in the name of “raising my child around his family”. I have even learned to make, and sometimes taste pancakes, pizza, muffins and donuts, for the sake of my son, although I ensure to make them as healthy as it comes. If you had told me six years ago, that I would be spending my Xmas morning googling, discovering and reading about action figures/fictional characters: Sonic the Hedgehog, Ninja Turtles, Pokémon, Spider-Man, …. Thank You Santa! Or that I would be consciously celebrating Christmas, again!
Talking about Christmas, I ceased celebrations when I parted ways with Christianity umpteen years ago. In my entire stay in America, I had never celebrated Halloween until after my child was born, and I partook in Thanksgiving fetes because friends or family invited me to share with their families. Generally, my personal politics and convictions determined my response to many celebrations and traditions, even though I respect the choices of those who follow these traditions. Halloween to me was a “ghostly blood sucking ‘orgy”, which I always skipped because I hate blood and was fear dead people. Thanksgiving robbed Native Americans of their lands and culture by invading colonialists, whom I did not wish to honor. Christmas and Easter were channels of institutionalized control, miseducation and European colonization of the black mind and erosion and denigrating African culture and traditions. I could say the same about Eid, but since I was not born into Islam [like Christianity], I embraced it, whenever it welcomed me to partake, until my recent departure from consciously seeking to enjoy it or any other inklings of organized religion. [Did I say that I was once engaged to be married to a Muslim African man? Uhm! Story for another day!] I believe the stronger basis for our existence is the fact that we are all humans first born onto this planet in human flesh, with one life to live, before we vanish, or perhaps re-incarnate or hang around our loved ones as spirits.
So, I have learned to let my son live his dream. I do not force him to adopt my own beliefs or confine him to my desires. Well, there are a few exceptions; to protect him or encourage him to learn, or teach him to be a strong and respectful man. I often tell my son that it is important to be polite, respectful and appreciative, than to have high academic grades. As a member of society, there are certain requirements I am gonna impose on him, to learn, to live and excel in human society. As a single mother raising a man, when I have never been a man, moreover a young American man, I am gonna go beyond his wishes to ensure that he becomes a man he, myself and well-wishers will be proud of.
I emphasize to him the importance of “Please”, “Sorry” and “Thank You”, drinking water with his meals, at least between meals, eating vegetables and fruits, getting his homework done and doing his weekly chores of cleaning the bathroom sink, toilet and wiping dressing mirror. I offer no apologies for that!
Still, I let my son dream his dreams. To him, Christmas is about “Santa coming down the Chimney to bring presents to kids who behave well.”  Who I am to tell him otherwise? The “Tooth Fairy” rewards kids who lose their teeth, Halloween is a “Trick-Or-Treat” moment for little kids, the only passport to going out very late at night, on Thanksgiving, it is time to eat turkey, even when mom would rather we ate “Tofurky”, and a Birthday is a very special day to eat cake and receive as many presents. It does not matter that I do not celebrate Christmas, which according to me it is a Christian holiday, my son will celebrate it for as long as he wants, and because I have plenty of family who are Christians. The same way I let him celebrate Eid with his muslim paternal family, [I too have muslim family and friends].
I am not gonna bombard him with the religious symbolism of Christianity or Eid; I parted ways and have no interest in exploring that with my son at this age. In fact, I tried to let him share his paternal families Islamic culture, until grandma gave us the ultimatum, “If he cannot attend Sunday School regularly, he should not come at all.” My intention was to give her an opportunity to spend some quality time with her grandson, since she did not see him a lot in his five years, and she does not ask to spend one-on-one time or take him out, until her other grandkids are visiting.
For as long as I am expected to be the sole parent for this child, I will continue allowing him to believe as he imagines, that Santa came down the chimney and dropped off all the presents, including any entrusted with me to ‘secretly’ give to him. I remain protective of my child’s excitements and wildest dreams, from unnecessary scrutiny and criticism, especially coming from anyone who offers no help or support in parenting him. I know and believe it takes a village to raise a child, but let the village not only come in to condemn.
Hopefully, we as parents will learn to support our children’s dreams and fantasies in their imagination, rather than stifling or suffocating them with our mystical convictions derived from religious dogmas that do not unite but divide us as humans. After all, I am learning that most of what my child is fascinated and get hysterical about is from interacting with age mates, exposure through reading, visual and digital images, his classroom teacher interaction, and lastly from myself as a parent [I know some might disagree]. Perhaps our children’s excitements will enable us to look back eighteen or twenty-one years later and say, “Job Well Done!”

Kids are Cultural “Whores”: Wait, can you say the “W” with Kids…?

It is amazing how quickly kids switch cultural identify. Well, if like me, you believe that “language is culture”, that’s what I am talking about. Last summer we returned to the US, after three-and-a-half years globetrotting. We left the US immediately following my child’s first birthday, for a much deserved break and scholarly experience around the world.
About last Fall, I noticed my child’s accent changing, become less  “Ugandan” and more “American”. My friends did not help me feel better; they said it would be gone by December. I felt a ‘teeny weeny sadness’, at the thought that my son would no longer “be a Ugandan” with ‘the brand’ accent gone. Alas! I have not been good at making the accent stay! I did not realize how tough it is to teach a child another language in another country with a predominant language. Especially with my multi-national child: African [by ancestry] and American [by birth and ancestry].
Power to parents who succeed at nurturing multi-lingual/multi-national children. Sadly, not many of us Africans are good at keeping children fluent in our first languages, especially when born or raised abroad, but even when born and resident in our own countries to same nationals or foreigners. We get into the stupid “western culture superiority” complex, and deny our children a chance to become fluent in our Africans languages, arguably because ‘they will not develop’ or ‘compete in the globalized world’. Forgetting that we were born and raised speaking our mother tongue, or of parents who spoke our mother tongue.
Yet, many like me, become surprised that our children are ‘losing our culture’ or are becoming culturally distant and lost! I am always shocked when talking to my child, that recollection of our time spent in Uganda are not forthcoming! At times, he cannot even remember part of my family, the playmates he had, we had bathrooms or a kitchen, or that we ate food similar to what we have here in America. The worst, but without blame, he does not remember that we lived in South Africa (before Uganda) during the last couple of years abroad.
So, I decided to give him a “Lesson about South Africa” while we were at our local library recently. I pulled out a book, “South Africa by Pat Ryan”, which talked about how “Africans lived happily” [of course there is an element of romanticization typical of a western writers about Africa]. Then white folks came to South Africa and began fighting with the blacks, took their land, culminating in a system of “Apartheid”, where whites lived, worked, played segregated from blacks.  Black people became poorer than whites, lived in terrible housing, and could not shop in the same places as whites. I showed him the grass thatched huts where black people lived, and still live in the countryside; he thought they were “Weird”.  [btw, thanks to this young man, my love for the word “weird” no more!]; I showed him clothing of f the black people made with beads, which was strange, as well as the men racing on Ostriches. That made him laugh so hard! Well, at least he laughed; which means he learned something, right?
We discussed the book after reading, and I asked him what he had learned from the book. He told me that “brown” [not “black”] people were poor, while white people were rich. “Why did he swooped “black” with “brown”?” I asked him. He said, “Black is like darkness, when you cannot see properly or like the black shoes. But the people in the book were not black; they were brown.” I asked him, whether he knew of any black people, and he said, “I am black.”[ If you know my son, he is not “black like darkness”.] Surprising to me, since he has thought of himself as white, until our conversation not to long ago, about “black-and-white” in America’s racial conception.
Kids are smart ‘cultural whores’; telling it as it is, using their wit to make sense of nonsensical labels. To him identity is defined by color not the labeled per race. He sees brown, chocolate, and pink, He has protested before when I said his playmate “C”, classmates “M” and “S” are white, because “they do not look as white as paper,” he said. For now, he has accepted that label, since the conversation with mom following a class reading about Martin Luther King Jr.
Anyway, happy to inspire a young generation of thinkers, readers and critics. We hope that the reality of his eyes is followed by the reality of race relations when he comes of age. I hope he does not become a victim of racial profiling and racial injustice blatantly metted out against black folks in America, particularly our young black males. I think I am doing all I can to keep him openminded, culturally international in thoughts, ideas and experiences, and innocent to the brutality of life. Yes, I do agree to myself sometimes that “Ignorance is Bliss”!
Still, as a parent of a young black male growing up in America, particularly suburbia America, I worry very often whether this country will allow him to live and grow up without the preconceived injustices? Will he still be that “cute boy” at 12, 13, 14, free to skate around the neighborhood without anybody calling the police on him? Or would he be a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, that even the neighborhood dogs bark uncontrollable at him, just like they do with me. Would he still comfortably ware his jacket or sweatshirt hood over his head? Or walk in the neighborhood without an encounter from nasty neighbors. I believe this is the beginning of a lifelong education about the American culture, that he so innocently takes on as part of him, but that one day, he will fully recognize that it labels him [in fact labeled him since childhood], as a person to be feared, dreaded and be monitored all the time! Perhaps then, he won’t have as much luxury to ‘whore up’ this American culture, and would have to find another geographical and culture to experience and become a part of….?

Learning about Veterans Day from my sixth grader

I cannot recall the last time I went to church, so the order of events at my neighborhood celebration of Veterans Day 2014 caught me off guard. Not because I was unaware we were meeting on religious ground – Our Lady of Victoria Roman Catholic Church; I assumed our event would be independent of any church business. I thought we were only using the church grounds out of convenience, and because this year, the Cub Scout Pack, to which my son belongs was running a food drive benefiting the church pantry. Which reminds me of something that I recently learned at our Cub Scout meeting; the Boy Scouts of America is a Christian Organization. Yes! Our little Cubs promise all …”For GOD..” What does this non-religious mom do….?

Anyway,  the blessed Father of Our Lady of Victory, our host, spoke at the opening ceremony of our Veterans Day celebration. Thereon, the activity was a Scout-Veterans affair. I attended, as a chaperone to my son, the Tiger Cub Scout. Once we got to venue, we waited for about twenty minutes before start. Most in attendance were members of the Catholic Church, and from within our local community, who appeared n-synch with the whole nine yard of church-dos. It took me back to my early days of elementary school attending Catholic school, where we started every morning with mass at the area Catholic Church, performing routine stand up, sit down, stand, then sit, then stand and sit…

That is not the gist of my writing, dedicated to how celebrating Veterans Day through my son took me to another place of personal revelation. For the first time in my life, I am increasingly proud of belong to a country [oops! did I Michelle O-that😜]. I feel a sense of belonging to a people, a community and a country more than all the years of my life living in my country of origin – Uganda and coming of age in America! Particularly since having my son, I have engaged in more Americansque activities here and abroad, as an American. I recall being in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup [Soccer/Football], and waving the American Flag at the opening of the games, supporting Team US throughout the tournament, even when they were playing another African team, to the [un]pleasant surprise of fellow African spectators!

Back in Uganda, I had an overdose of love, care and attention from my Ugandan people. I felt a higher sense of family more than all my years growing up. Not that I did not know or like my family already, but living with my family together with my son gave me a profound understanding, love and appreciation for my family. They cared for my son like he was their own, and loved him with the same zeal as I love him. They made me comfortable recalling the famous African saying, It takes a village to raise a child.” I thank you family! Yet,  I felt that “I am an American” feeling, sometimes, especially perpetuated by my own family and friends, and anyone who met my or my son.

Since coming back to the US, after a short sojourner abroad, I have new-found love and appreciation for this country, discovering more America than the many years I lived here before having my child. I am increasingly “living the American dream”, enhanced through my son born in the Peach-state, and a product of two Africans continental and ‘old diaspora’.  I am allowing myself to experience plenty of mainstreamed American holidays and cultural celebrations: My first Halloween experience was when I took my fifteen-month old son on “Trick-or-Treat” in the neighborhood in GA. We did it again last year in our current neighborhood, and twice this year “Trunk-or-Treat” with our Cub Scout Pack, and our with neighborhood family friends. Yes! I buy my son these exorbitantly priced Halloween costumes I would never have thought of before, and dress myself up too, as a superhero or ninja, depending on the theme my child gives me!

I have breached self-set taboos against engaging in religious festivities, becoming “Santa” at Christmas. I do this to allow my son to dream and imagine wild and free, of ‘hardworking mysterious fairies, one who rides deers with elves, and descends down the chimney on brings presents to “kids with good behavior during the year”, and another who rewards kids with $$ for dispensing out their tooth. I tell him not to bother himself that his non-magic-believing muslim cousins say santa and tooth fairy aint real! Yes, I now support Hollywood, taking him to movie theaters.

Participating in Veterans Day celebrations with my son this year gave me a more intrinsic appreciation and a feeling of belonging to a community and a country. I grew up in a country where the patriotism is owned by the generals, the self-avowed ’liberators of the nation’ from previous autocratic regimes. The same generals are still running the country, twenty-eight years and counting! They hold everyone in the country at ransom, to accept their form of national patriotism as sacrosanct, non-derogable and non-contestable. The country is theirs, independence day celebrations are ‘dispensed’ only to those who agree with them, heroes are decided by them, and rewarded on their terms, and national resources are managed and appropriated on their terms.

Our Veterans Day celebration was a community affair, conducted by men and women not identified in overt display of military regalia, except a few that wore their uniforms for the prestige of having served the nation, decorated with lapels of awards/accomplishment. The Catholic Father, retired military and the scouts and girl guides were in charge, with equal participation of ordinary citizens. We were not intimidated into thanking the men and women in military uniform who served our nation. We were not obliged to kiss the feet of generals or shut up to their pronouncements.

Instead, we Pledged Allegiance to the Flag with pride, sang Star-Spangled Banner and America The Beautiful in joy and celebration, and deeply thanked whose people who put themselves in harms way to liberate the nation, protect and uphold the spaces that we enjoy. Beautiful memories filled me about the men and women who bore arms to protect their countries, like my younger brother, who might never get real recognition for daring to put himself in harms way. On my son’s side is Grandpa Mendez and Great Grandpa Samuel Arnold (RIP), and grand-uncle [is that the American word?] Sam, all who served in the US military.

Our Veterans deserve more appreciation and protection. They deserve to return safely and admirably, and never have to lack food, shelter, clothing or paid employment, because they put their lives on the line, believing it is their duty and calling to protect the lives of all Americans!

Teaching Children about Columbus Day in an era of Contested Knowledge and Truth Formation

This past Monday, October 13, 2014, was Columbus Day, when America remembers Christopher Columbus. So, my first grader and I engaged in a learning session about why every second Monday of October is a [Columbus Day] public holiday, when government business and public schools in the fifty states take a day off. I told him that on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed in a boat across the Atlantic from Europe, to find out about the Americas. According to official pronouncements, Columbus’ voyage instigated European settlement in the Americas. I showed him the world map on my computer, and together, we located the Americas – North and South. I asked him to point to North America, the United States and Pennsylvania where we live, which he ably located with much success and delight. I also showed him the European continent and Italy, where Columbus originated, and the big Atlantic Ocean that he crossed to come to America. I explained to him that after Columbus, many more Europeans followed to settle in America.

Yet at the back of my mind, I knew this story of Columbus Day is circulated with varying degrees of truths, controversy and contestation. So, how does one teach children about Columbus Day in an era of contested knowledge and truth formation?

Here are some versions of the “Christopher Columbus Discovery story”. The mainstream hails Columbus for ‘discovering the new world’ also known as the Americas, including North America and the United States of America where we reside. This version credits the arrival of Columbus to the official beginning of European colonialism and exploration of the America. As well as paving way for European exploitation of the Americas, the extermination of pre-existing indigenous populations commonly referred to as “Native America”, disenfranchisement of their property and land, and pushing many into reservations.

Some contest the use of ‘discovering’, arguably because it wrongly assumes there were no people living in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. Another view emphasizes that Columbus was not the first European explorer to arrive in the America; many more had come before him, but possibly never settled permanently or actively sought to colonize the Americas.

Yet, the most under-asserted version of the ‘discovery story’ profiles the arrival of Africans and black people before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas. Black people from present-day Africa sailed across the Atlantic as far back as 445 BC, and during the 19th century (1292 BC), engaging in trade, contributing greatly mathematical scholarship, writing, the calendar, shaping the political and religious systems, and the architectural structures of the Americas by importing their pyramid technology from Egypt. Indeed Columbus’ own writing cited by renowned American historian and linguist, Leo Weiner of Harvard University, acknowledged the pre-existence of the ‘black-skinned peoples’ in the Americas, arriving in boats in the South East to trade in gold-tipped spears. The story about the existence of black-skinned peoples in the Americas prior to Columbus seeks to refute the prevailing privileged knowledge that black presence in the Americas started with the Atlantic Slave Trade post-Columbus.

But this is all a mouthful for my First Grader! While I seek to ‘emancipate’ his learning, knowledge formation and creation, I strive to make it as simple and appropriate for his developmental stage. Here I am assuming I really know his developmental stage, although sometimes he speaks and acts way much wiser than I can fathom!

For our learning about Columbus Day, I told him how Christopher Columbus’ settlement in the Americas opened up mass migrations from Europe into the Americas, and later from other parts around the globe. Thousands of years after Columbus, I, like many Africans migrated to live in America, changing the peoples of America. United States now has people from all over the world, including Uganda, my country of origin.

While learning about Columbus Day, I showed my first grader google images of Native Americans, and asked him if he had ever seen such people – the most prominent images featured people with piercings and sticks through their mouth, nose and ear, wearing different kind of colorful clothing and some half-naked. He said he had never seen any such people! And yes! This from a child who spent the last three years and a half living around Africa [goes to tell, not all Africans are the stereotypical “Masaai, Karamojong or San” popular on many postcards and TV documentaries popular in the United States!] I explained that the reason he does not see such Americans very often is because when Christopher Columbus arrived in America, they were pushed into reservations and forced to change their clothing, culture, language and look. They were forced to speak English and other Europeans languages, dress and behave like Europeans.

I also showed my First Grader pictures of ‘The New Americans” dressed in business suits, swimsuits, shorts, jeans, t-shirts and baseball hats, and asked him if he had seen that kind of America? Yes to all, except to  my surprise, not the ones dressed in business suits, not even at his school! Then he said that he had seen Captain America before, one of images on the page we googled. His focus diverted to Captain America, and he inquired more about why Columbus not Captain America saved America? I had to tell him Captain America is a fictional character, developed to allow kids and adult dream big, wild, and to entertain. We spent sometime on CA and other fictional characters.

Then he asked me why Columbus did not walk from Europe or take a plane? I told him that one cannot walk across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, and planes were not invented then. Beside, Europe is too far and would take many days to walk. We recalled our return journey from Uganda to America that took several days, stopping over in Scotland, then England, until we finally crossed to Atlanta by plane.

Talking about Scotland, we saw a picture of Scots wearing Scottish skirts, then he asked me why men wear skirts? I explained that just like women wear pants, men can wear skirts. I showed him pictures of men wear mandresses, shuka/sheets, long skirts, jeans and shorts.

“Do men dance ballet? That’s weird!” he asked upon seeing a picture of male ballet dancer. “Yes bebe, men can things women do, just like women can do things men do.” I told him there is no dance that men can dance that women cannot dance. Similarly men and women drive cars, cook, and fly a plane. Then he recalled, “In my Karate class, there are girls and boys. We all do the same things!”

Mission accomplished! Lesson learned in a very relatable style! 😀💪🙌 At the end of it all, I was proud that we had achieved the goal of the lesson: “To diversify my First Grader’s classroom learning, beyond the usual subjects of English, Maths, Science, by including current affairs, history and important national events. We learned about the world and the different peoples, different cultures, and different activities that exist. I stimulated his curiosity to seek new knowledge, and emancipated his brain to see things differently, create meaning and relate the learning to his own experiences. I let him wander off to different topics, then bring back the conversation to why school was on holiday on a Monday, which according to him is a school day.

As a global citizen, it is very important to me that my son learns beyond the little ‘country world’ in which he rotates. Most importantly, as a very open-mind person, dedicated to “love for humanity first”, I want my son to know the different peoples and experience that shape our world, controversial or not, real or make-believe. I want to allow him better prepare for a world beyond his childhood experiences and imagination. Whenever he brings me knowledge I had not introduced to him yet, like the time he asked whether, “A child can have two fathers but no mother?” as Adam [his classmates] told him, I bounce the question back to him. “What do you think?”Then we handle it according to his responses.

While I am pretty much open and tolerant, I am also conscious of the world we live in. I do not want to shape his mind with hard facts about things I do not believe or care for. I will neither knight Christopher Columbus as a “savior” nor malign him as a terrible man. I will openly explore his question whether a child can have a two fathers or two mothers, similar to how we speak about living with a single parent. And yes, he is allowed to continue thinking of mommy as chocolate, others as dark chocolate, and himself as white!

Maybe School, but Learning is Not All About the “Benjamins”

You have heard that song before, It’s all About the Benjamins, from Puff Daddy (P. Diddy aka Diddy aka….) No Way Out 1996 album, right? Ok, forget all about the lyrics and let’s focus on the title, “It’s All About the Benjamins”.

Often when we talk about going to school and attaining an education, they are correlated with having “The Benjamins”. Not just the $100, but enough to get you a quality and rewarding education and post-graduation experience. Granted there is public education in this country, where we do not have to pay to go to school, thanks to the taxes dollars paid by our parents, relatives, local community, state, and federal government. Even then, parents have to make a financial investment into their children, providing school meals, school uniform (if required) or regular clothes, scholastic material, transportation to school or school bus, and fees for participation in school activities. Let’s not forget though that, most public schools require proof of address of abode in the school district where one is applying for her/his children!  Private education has similar costs, in addition to tuition fees and other optional costs for educational trips organized by the school administration. For both private and public schooling, many parents incur costs related to after-school programs or extra-curricular activities like sports, art, music and drama, or give-back-to community. In essence, there is no “absolute free education”.

For plenty of potential learners, financial obligations constrain access and participation in formal schooling. Quite often from Education Research on “Improving Teaching and Learning” and “Curriculum Design” reveals that money makes a big impact on whether, how and what students learn. The “when” are students going to learn is  also a vital consideration and determinants of learning. While some parents have the luxury to make choices about “when” they are comfortable starting off their children in school or defer school for alternative “sources of gratification”, like a paying job, travel opportunities and personal growth and social commitments, it is not true for every learner or parent of a learner.

Some parents defer enrolling their children in pre-school, if it is not publicly-funded, until they are of age to start the publicly-funded kindergarten. Parents, as well as adult learners defer school to when they have the financial resources and time, then enroll or resume later at a later age, work-study students, mid-career students or lifelong learners. In countries like Uganda, most low-income parents send their children to publicly-funded schools, which provide “Universal Primary Education” and “Universal Secondary Education”, even when the education is substandard. Others enroll their children much older than the normal school-starting age, when financial resources become available or when it is economically viable to let them go for a few hours of the day, when they can exempt them from providing family labor.

Still, it is possible that “Learning is not all about the Benjamins”.  Schooling, we could agree requires more financial commitment than learning. Learning, defined herein as the active comprehension of education material and study opportunities in a study environment. The environment can be in the form of homeschooling, in a formal school classroom setting, informal arrangements, online or on study tour. The power of money could become secondary to the attainment of learning. Just as not all school-going children from high-income households learn or excel in their education, not all children from low-income households learn nothing or fail.

Here are a couple of illustrations that, sometimes learning is possible ‘without the money’, and that learning equalizes students across many socio-economic divides, including social status, school district, international origin, racial composition and family background. A friend from Inglewood, California, raised by a single mother in a low-income and socially broken-down neighborhood made it into a Harvard PhD in Sociology. We have heard of Khadijah from LA homeless shelters and Liz Murray from the Bronx streets, both of whom made it to Harvard, by ‘churning their miseries into reading books and revising for school testings from public libraries within their geographical locations. In former western colonies of Africa (and in the Caribbean), schools still largely operate on a western education curriculum but in under-resourced school environment. Yet, school children excel in learning and go on to compete with students at western universities. These illustrations speak volumes about the determination to learn and excel, beyond one’s economic status or conditions. The challenge is to broaden the scope of strategies for improving learning [and teaching], not giving up on those without high financial status or access to learning resources but incorporating them and meeting them “halfway”.

Making an investment in our learners should not necessarily require enrolling them into expensive schools, buying all the books, electronics, spending every weekend, school holiday and summer vacation on education trips, an after-school full schedule of extracurricular activities- music recitals, dance, fencing, harp practice. Though, all of these resources and opportunities are highly recommended and appreciated for enriching the learning experience. Learning may require spending more time with your school-going or school-age children, listening to their excitements, reading with them, encouraging and participating in their fantasies and exposing them to the world through family, friends, neighborhood activities. Or taking them to the public library to read and participate in children’s activities and signing them up for community children learning activities.

Parental involvement in their children’s learning is vita to augmenting their school experience, providing emotional support, connecting and following their learning progression. Learning starts before the child is born, through reading to the developing fetus inside the womb. By the time s/he is born, books, words and sounds are already a constant in her/his environment, and a ‘default’ enforcement of their curiosity to learn on their own and with their parents. While we all agree that “time is money”, “money makes the world go round”, let us not lose sight of the power in decentralizing “The Benjamins” as the driving force in the making of learning.