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!”
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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….?

Different shades of Special Needs

“There is no one student who is similar to the other. And no one student behaves the same everyday,” so she said to me.

I cannot agree more! Picture being in any classroom of Students with Special Needs. Whatever special need you can think of: Autistic Support, Post-Hospitalization, Life Skills, Early Intervention or Multiple Disability Support. Or so you may believe! Turns out, that is not always the case.

Even when a class is categorically labelled as “Autistic Support”, the students come in “Different Shades of Special Needs”. Each with own disability, no uniformity, and with varying needs that a class teacher who has not one, but possibly eight or ten students is expected to ably manage every single day. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any one of the children will display consistent behavior and attitude on every other day, or throughout a  single day. Happy in the morning, sad by mid-morning, and erratic, violence and explosive in the afternoon. Happy one minute, crying the next, then bouts of laughter!

I, for one, had no clue what “Austin support” entailed before I ventured into a classroom of elementary autistic support students. I imagined that they are similar to students with Multiple Disabilities, till I found out about a special category called – Multiple Disability Support (MDS). Still, I wanted to experience dealing with and teaching autistic children. My fears and initial reservations were not in vain! Challenging, scary, traumatizing and soul searching, are among the many thoughts that come to my mind reflecting on my experience in two separate classrooms of K-4th grade students with autism.

No! The kids did not throw stones at their teachers, although they were capable of hurting with the same zeal as they were loving in the same instant. Like any other humans, they hurt the people they love and care for! They pinched, scratched and punched their teachers, then smiled and asked for special favors with barefaced shame. They screamed, cried and ignored authority, but expecting the teachers’ attention and kind heart to give in to their demands.

In one classroom, I experienced different shades of autistic children. One boy scratched me (and other teachers) several times with his blackened nails. Yet, he obeyed when told to sit down on the ‘calming chair’, until he was asked to stand. When he was asked to eat, or when the TV showed scenes he did not like, he yelled. He became distraught, restless and cried repeatedly when he saw school buses pulling up in the parking lot an hour before official close of school. To calm him down, we told him to put to put on his jacket and prepare to go home, or just ignored him.

Then this kid with a beautiful smile, picked up his mess whenever he was told, and agreed to sit down but after persistent reminders and supervision.  Yet, every after lunch, he became erratic, rolled himself on the floor, took off his pants and underwear, put his hand in his pants, threw books off the shelves, ripped the classroom apart, spewed out plenty of obscenity and stormed out of the classroom, running and screaming down the hallways. A minute later, he was a calm lovely boy, apologized for his nastiness, and said he wanted to see mommy! Another kid, generally calm and obedient, responded to instructions quickly, did great one-on-one class activities, and excelled in his academics. Except when he was not engaged in classwork, and every after lunch, he was unsettled.

The room teachers did a great job managing their classrooms and responding to the needs of their students, especially in comparison to:  a) my prior experience in other special needs classrooms; and b) with the insurmountable challenges they had to deal with. Only two teachers, one permanent and her Associate – for eight autistic students! Yet, they used various activities and techniques to engage their students in learning as much as possible, as a group and one-on-one at individualized level. They taught their students to work for special privileges, counseled them when they were acting up, and rewarded them for good behavior. Still, that did not deter the explosive students from going off, or the cool ones from staying calm.

I wonder if after the experiences, thus far, my expectations of transformative teaching are dwindling following my in-class observations and interaction with the teachers and students?

I know for sure that each student is different from another, and from each time of the day. For many kids, adjusting their program to half-day and returning home in the early afternoon, might be helpful for both the kids and the teachers. After all, many are restless after lunch and hard to keep interested or attentive within the same classroom environment, even when teacher substitutes rigorous academics with age-appropriate infotainment, TV programs, internet videos, iPad and hands-on learning. For some kids, their medication seems to wane down by lunchtime, making them more agitated and uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon.

Beside the dire need for human resource enhancement for classrooms with autistic children, introducing half-day programs for some kids might be. They could return home after lunch to their parents, breaking the monotony of staying for a longtime in one physical, human and learning space. With additional human resource, the teachers would afford to split roles, and take the kids with capacity to participate in mainstream classroom special activities.

Or more exercise and stretch routines should be added into the classroom schedule, to reduce the length of disposable time. Plus, a little one-on-one massage might also do the magic. Though, it is a heavy task engaging students one-on-one, given all the work required of the teachers in a day to fill out daily paperwork on each students, plan the next day, clean up, cater to students with extra-special care needs, and prepare student for pick-up or drop-off at the end of the day. Sustaining transformative learning is a challenge without parental cooperation and participation of parents in reinforcing the skills learned and taught at school.

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!

In Defense of the “Word Value of Time”: From a Soccer Mom

Big BenFotorMy friend Simon Kaheru (http://skaheru.wordpress.com) recently blogged about “the real value of time vs. the word value of time” following his business trip to Amsterdam in The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Simon fell in love with the abundance of “the real value of time”, where business meetings start on scheduled time, phone calls happen on time, and trains also run on schedule. A two-minutes train delay would be announced by the rail station attendant! He contrasted that with “the word value of time”, typical within Ugandan society, which largely swears by “Ugandan Time”. He argues that appointments are verbally agree to, with never the intention of honoring them because time is relative, no apologies for tardiness, as one is “better later than never”, is the popular saying!

I feel for all the sentiments Simon expressed! Though my comment to Simon was, come to America….with plenty of versions of Uganda, especially with public transportation..which is now creeping into some people’s time management skills!

I have had my share of fights with “Ugandan time”: tardiness makes me mad; time keeping makes my heart jump with happiness! I strongly believe that anyone who fails to show up per schedule appointment shows a lack of respect for their party. It is simply rude! I have walked away from meetings venues, when the other party did not show up on time. I once left my sister in the bank without notifying her, after waiting over two hours for my mother to show up to open a family bank account. I refused to return when they called me back.

I get enervated being the first to show up for meetings, or parties or other events, waiting around for thirty-minutes, one hour, three hours, five hours before more people show up and the event to ultimately start. Which is why I loathe formal events, particularly (no offense) organized by peoples of Ugandans, Africans, Blacks or colored! I remember one time while visiting my sister in Atlanta with my ex, she invited us to attend a  dinner party with her at a Ugandan friend’s house. The dinner was scheduled to start at eight O’clock in the evening, but by eight, we were still at her house, an hour’s drive to destination. Ten, still at my sister’s house, as she kept picking out what to wear. She assured us that that the party had not began, so at eleven o’clock we set off. True to her word, we arrived past midnight, right about when the party had just started!

Poor time management is beyond “Ugandan time”, it is ‘conveniently’ embedded in several African countries as “African time”, among Blacks people in America as “Black People’s Time” and people of color as “Colored People’s Time” or CPT.  Yes, it has even invaded our public service system here in America, where services in some public offices start sluggishly, and buses and trains in many big cities never run on time, including in the fast-and-furious “Big Apple”. Yet, we do not always get a courtesy apology or  “announcement of a delay”!

On my part, I must confess that, “the real value of time” keeper was me, some six years ago, a luxury I do not seem capable of affording since becoming a soccer mother. No! I am not going to blame it on my son, but it has a lot to do with him and the society in which I live, into which I am sometimes co-opted.

So, how did I cross to “the word value of time” people? While I not permanent there, I find myself cornered in by friends or my household. Those who know me will tell you that I pretty much run my son’s life on schedule. Dinner is served at six o’clock, then comes bathroom time with reading and brushing, child off to bed at seven o’clock, latest seven-thirty after sharing a bedtime. I would like him to have as much sleep as possible!

Not anymore! My time management skills have changed since I had my child. All his birthday parties have started later than my scheduled time, with guests showing up earlier than the hostess! Until child turned one year, I arrived late at literally every scheduled appointment because he would start popping just as we were getting ready to head out of the house. He had constipation, which meant another fifteen to thirty minutes of helping him push! From the one who always left for the airport two-and-a-half hours in advance, to avoid any mishap, I missed my first flight in life on a trip to South Africa in 2009 with my then fifteen month old child. We got to the airport check-in desk shortly after the baggage desk had closed because I was packing till the last minute; six suitcases, only one of which was mine!

Lately, Simon’s detestation for “the word value of time” comes glaring at me surreal, as I go about my “soccer mom” lifestyle. Child is now six and in first grade with more activities. Going to bed at seven in the evening is increasingly a luxury, with the changing school and after-school demands. I have enrolled him in both Karate class with a three days per week commitment, and in Cub Scout five days a month. Plus, now he has homework to return to school every morning and other class projects. And he still wants to have a snack, when he comes home from school, before he sits down to do his homework, with spare playtime before dinner is served. With our new routine, after-school is: snack in the car, Karate class, dinner in the car, daily homework to be submitted the next day, dinner, bathroom time, bedtime story and goodnight!:(
Amidst all of this, adhering to my sworn commitment to “the real value of time” is a luxury I seem incapable of affording, anymore. I wish I could! Now, I plan on leaving the house not at the hour but between time periods – between 6:00p and 6:30p, leaving a margin of error so that I do not go crazy over myself. A couple of times when I am running late, I have had to call up people I am meeting to apologize and ask for extra time or reschedule. Sometimes even when it seems we are doing great with time, with a projected extra fifteen minutes before our usual time to catch the school bus, we find ourselves running out of the house three minutes to the bus arrival. Thankfully, my son loves running, helping me warm up for my morning run. Sometimes we miss the bus, like happened today, and I have to keep breathing in, to avoid berating child or mourning about missing the bus.

With all the activities lined up each week, I worry that child will get overwhelmed and won’t get enough sleep in the night. Perhaps my consolation is, yes! I still make it on time to most official appointments, to our doctor’s appointments before time, child has not been late to school, and I am getting just about the entire “to-do” list accomplished. Still I think “the real value of time”, as “standard time” for social and business etiquette was created by a man, clueless about “The Surreal Life of a Soccer Mom”.

Not Everyone is Sophie, John, Jane or Matt: Diversity Consciousness in the Classroom

Recently, I was at an teacher training workshop, where the speaker for a session on “Qualities of a Good Substitute Teacher” mentioned the importance of identifying and connecting one-on-one with pupils in the classroom. In explaining why a teacher should know her students by name, she mentioned Sophie, John, Jane or Matt, as the four names off-the-cuffs in her classroom example. 

For me, that triggered something about the ingrained assumptions teachers might make about their students profile. Many of the assumptions reveal conceptions and misconceptions derived from one’s ‘comfort zone’ and surroundings. My assumption is the speaker comes from an ‘environment’ where most children are either Sophie, John, Jane or Matt. Or perhaps her education background was filled with students that fit such profile. That in a way creates an “illusive comfort” that knowing the profile of one’s classroom correlates with being in touch with the needs and special circumstances of each student. Yet, in a classroom environment, each child needs to be acknowledged and catered for/ included to their comfort.

How does a diversity conscious teacher make the classroom experience all inclusive for each one of these children? I asked myself the same question during a visit to the area elementary school. Of the two classrooms I observed: 1) First Grade class had one black kid, a young girl called Hannah; all the other kids were visibly white. 2) A Third Grade all-white classroom. Both classrooms had white teachers, as was the School Principal, and all the school staff I came in contact with.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with an all-white school, if that is the general population around the school district. My concern is whether and how children of other colors in the same school are included in a predominantly-white classroom. Particularly given the potential influence of the preschool experiences and home environment on shaping knowledge formation, knowledge generation, teaching aides and one’s comfort with the teaching and learning environment. In many places, the classroom environment has evolved beyond, S, J, J or M, the typical ‘blonde and blue-eyed’ and Judeo-Christian, thanks to desegregation and immigration of the Abequa, Biko, Horacios, Happy, Ijeomas, Lakisha, Özil and Muhammad into the same classroom. Our classrooms today represent children of varied backgrounds as immigrants, children of immigrants, first generation or generations of American-born or native to this country. They bring varied experiences from their homes, communities and experiences, all of which need to be represented for an enriched classroom experience.

Going back to Hannah, the only black girl in the First Grade classroom I visited. She seemed comfortable with her classroom and classmates, but had another story not visibly captured in the teaching aides and classroom environment I observed. While checking on her writing assignment, she read to me her story about her best friend, “I like playing with my best friend Usnuah!” To me, there was a different story with friendships not represented by SJJM. I wondered if her teachers take time to learn about Hannah’s friends, family and neighbors! Or whether she is offered a chance to share her ‘unique’ family and community background in a predominantly white classroom!

That is not to suggest that all white kids have the same family experience, although their differences [while paramount] are not as visible to the eye as Hannah. Moreover, when we got to engage with “disabilities”,  five students with varied developmental disabilities were ‘paraded’ in front of our seminar room, so we could ask questions for ‘our learning pleasure”. Perhaps the intentions were innocent, but the scenario reminded me of times when black people were caricatures of white audiences as, ‘strange’ study subjects, ‘caged entertainers’ [Sarah Baartman aka Venus Hottentot], the “Human Zoo” [most recently replicated in Norway], entrainment at lynching picnics popular in the South. And up until now, through international aid campaigns and hollywood movies that depict “the black victim” awaiting a ‘white savior”. Interestingly as well, our diversity trainer did not find anything controversial with showing a clip from the movie “Blind Side” to make her point about ‘developmental disability.

Which brings me to another topic covered about English Language Learners (ELLs), the now politically correct replacement of “English as a Second Learning”. The change was pre-empted after realizing that while ESL focused predominantly on immigrants and immigrant children, ELL recognized that some US-born children come from households where English is not the first. The basic assumption, as stated during the seminar was that [first-generation/immigrants] children “have difficulty learning not just English but the entire school curriculum.”

Granted there is truth to it, but with misguided assumptions that: 1) Simply because one does not speak English, they therefore, do not understand anything nor have sound knowledge to contribute to their classroom experience. 2) English Language Speakers are conversant with the English Language and do not need enhancement classes, which as a writing coach is not true.

I work with full-blooded American school children, those whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents and beyond were born in America. Yet, it is appalling that they cannot spell a simple word like “Pail” in Third Grade! I have found out that their school did not teach ‘phonics’, which I believe is great language learning tool. Nor are they offered English Language ‘Enhancement Classes’ at the Charter School they attend. Yet with ‘diversity’ more focused on ‘cultural’ and ‘developmental’ differences, such cases are fall out of the cracks of ‘special needs education’.

A diversity conscious teacher should ably pay attention to the non-verbal cues from their students, cater to their different needs, reach out and appeal to them, to make each one of her/his students feel included. Perhaps it starts with diversity training, which recognizes the changing needs of a classroom beyond the ’traditional’ diversities of “black or white” in America. There are multiple layers of diversity including physical or mental abilities, race, sex, geographical origin, family background, household and cultural ancestry. Today, classrooms composition includes children of immigrants, first generation Americans or migrant workers, Native American children, Muslim children,  inner-city kids.
Continued and refresher teacher training seminars would be helpful, as well as exposure to varied scenarios that stimulate “diversity awareness” and ultimately “diversity consciousness”. I thought for a minute, during my training, “Wouldn’t it be more powerful if the trainer on “diversity” were a minority? Yes, I am aware that white women in White America are included among the ‘minority groups’, but since the session focused on ‘civil rights’ and ‘disabilities’, a ‘racial minority’ or ‘personal with a disability’ as facilitator would have made a greater visible impact.

Diversity Consciousness would enable teachers and school administrators to understand that, immigrant children and children of immigrant parents might not actively engage in classroom discussions due to deferring cultural learnings about social interaction and authority. Immigrants from countries where authority is hierarchical might not engage as much with their children’s classroom teacher(s) ‘out of respect’ for the teacher or fear of challenging what in their upbringing is an ‘authority figure’ and ‘expert’ in their child[ren] education. I learned from working with Japanese graduate students as a Writing Tutor that it is not in their habit to actively participate in classroom discussions because it is considered rude to challenge ‘seniority’ in Japanese culture. One of my students settled for a lower class grade, even when he knew his response on a classroom test was correct because he did not want to challenge his professor that his response resonated with the experience of his home country. Diversity Consciousness needs starts with the school administration, selection of teacher or substitute teacher trainers, program administrators, school teaching staff and all organs in the school system in daily contact with our children.