Written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Amber Dorko Stopper, who blogs at http://voluptuousstoicism.com
Our two children — Claudia (African-American, three years old) and Béla (Korean, two and a half) attend an arts-driven preschool in Philadelphia. The school has existed for 25 years and until recently had a three-year waiting list; now openings are secured by yearly lottery. We love the curriculum, and in general are happy with the staff. A year or so ago, we brought an assistant teacher to the attention of her superior, because we were having minor communication problems with her.
This assistant teacher, whom I will call Anne, is a very nurturing middle-aged Ukranian woman whom the children love, but my husband and I had frequently experienced difficulty in getting reliable, and practical information from her about the kids’ days; even though Anne was the one who talked to us most frequently and longest, we usually had to go to a second source to find out “what had happened” during the day. Anne is a rapid-fire speaker, whose accent can be hard to understand, and whose English vocabulary is somewhat limited. She likes to talk to parents, but her stories are anecdotal and usually feature herself as the person who “saves the day” with words of wisdom or with her caring attitude with the children. It can be hard to get out of Anne’s grip until one gives her the feedback she is looking for, which seems to be “Thank heavens you were there, Anne.” My husband and I joke about this, for the most part; my husband says his way of dealing with Anne is to walk away while she is in mid-cycle.
We attended a birthday party recently where three other mothers discussed their inability to communicate well with this woman, so we knew we were not alone in our initial complaint,. Although nothing really changed when we had brought it to her superior’s attention last year, we recently had an exchange with Anne that we knew we had to document.
Our daughter Claudia is going through a behavioral rough-patch for a couple of weeks; a bit over-emotional, demanding things rudely rather than asking for them — testing-behavior, standard stuff. It seems more than anything to be growing pains, or the storm before the calm that we have seen many times before when she crests a new developmental peak. Anne was telling me, circuitously, how she had seen some of Claudia’s teary behavior during the day, and how she had dealt with it, but was really just talking on top of the teacher with whom I was trying to have a more productive conversation about the same topic.
Then, Anne announced, “Claudia said to me today, ‘I’m black,’ and I said to her, ‘There’s NOTHING WRONG with that!!!’
I could feel the teacher next to me wince. I’m not sure I did more than nod, but the yellow light had definitely come on in my head — even if Anne was just searching for a “reason” for Claudia’s behavoir, and assuming that any reason was better than none, we did not pay this preschool the money that we do to have such an outdated view of “positive” talk about race. Furthermore, I found it hard to believe that this woman could not know that what she had said was wrong, and might in fact be the first clue Claudia EVER had that anyone thought there WAS something “wrong” with being black.
Thirdly, and most importantly, something in the retelling rang false — the word “black”, which Claudia does not use. She corrects us when we use it; she says she and others are “brown”. Black, or brown, are fine with us — as recently as she has learned her colors, she may as well be literal about it, if that’s her choice. I wondered if Anne had just gotten it wrong, or if, perhaps — and there was only a tiny fraction of a second that this thought surfaced — if what I was hearing was not exactly true.
I told the other teacher I was speaking to that Claudia had been particularly belligerent with me lately, and that was a first, and it was wearing me down. This teacher had good advice, and relayed other similar experiences with similarly-aged kids, and was making me feel quite a bit better when Anne rejoined the conversation to tell me, “You know, today, Claudia told me she wanted to go home, and I said ‘Your Mommy will come get you soon,’ and she told me, “I don’t have a mommy.’”
Anne did, as per usual, follow this up with a detailed account of how her intervention righted the situation, but at that point, I was not listening. We were standing at the busiest spot in the whole school, with other parents and staff well within earshot. If Claudia had said something like this, I certainly wanted to know about it — in private. But the bigger problem was, that I didn’t believe, for a moment, that my daughter had said or even implied these words.
Claudia knows some things about her adoption. She knows she did not come out of my belly. She knows we first saw her as a newborn at “Debbie’s office”. She knows she is “brown” and we are not. She knows numerous other transracial adoptive families, including white parents with African-American children. From everything I know about my daughter, I felt that, at this point in her development and language, this would have been a very unlikely thing for her to say. And my instinct, strongly, was not to address it with my child; but to doubt that it had happened at all.
My silence on this matter seemed to end the conversation. Moments later, grabbing coats to leave, I ran into the teacher with whom I had been trying to communicate one-on-one. “You know,” I said, “I don’t believe that Claudia said what Anne said she did.”
“Neither do I,” said the teacher. And she looked uncomfortable, and out of her depth.
I spoke to my husband immediately, and he was angry, of course. And I wrote a strong letter to the administration of the preschool. Then, I consulted with our “team” — including other mothers, adoptive and otherwise, adult adoptees of various races, the woman I team-taught with when I myself taught preschool. I shared the letter I had written, with them, and it was deemed “restrained and eloquent”.
In the long three-day weekend that I’ve been given to get my game face on, I have come to the following, still malleable, conclusions:
– I am far, FAR more concerned about HOW this “information” was presented to me than as to whether or not Claudia actually strung these five words together in a meaningful manner. If she did, we’ll hear it again, ourselves or from a reliable third party, and we are ready to talk, at all times, about her adoption and her history — when she cues us. That is what we have done so far and it has worked well. She’s a fearless, people-loving kid with a tremendous sense of poetry to her, and she is good at letting us know, so far, what she is ready for. We know that emotional stormy weather is likely in the extended forecast for both of our kids, in relation to adoption, but what kind of parents would we be if we jumped into action at any third-party heresay mention of a cloud on the horizon? What would have happened if, acting on Anne’s reporting, I had come home to talk about this “incident” to Claudia — who might indeed have no idea what I was talking about — thereby planting the first seeds of doubt about whether or not she had ANY mother at all, much less more than one, in her head?
But HAD Claudia said this — or had ANY adopted child had, not just mine — are we really paying thousands a month to this preschool to have someone stand in a busy hallway and announce that a child said such a sensitive thing? And really — in 2011, do direct caregivers actually need TRAINING to know that saying “There’s nothing WRONG with being BLACK!” actually implies the OPPOSITE to a child?
– If I have anything to say as a general suggestion beyond the particulars of this event, it’s that my child — and anyone’s child — has a right to have bad days or even bad weeks that are NOT related to what some people apparently feel is her intrinsic brokennness as an adoptee. Claudia has been moody, and dismissive of me lately. She hates that I have dug in, as has her father, and that she now, along with her brother, must clean up their toys, on their own, every time they take them out. She’s not thrilled about all the play time that is lost from her day due to her being totally diaper-free. She’s definitely jealous of little, fat babies, and wishes she was one, flinging herself in my lap like a big spider and asking to be a “teeny tiny baby”. She’s tearful and has an iron hand on her wardrobe choices these days. And that, really, is about it. My guess is it will end soon, and I will be relieved. But I will now be ready to prepare every teacher and caregiver in her life, and her brother’s, that they do not need to respond to every growing pain with the pat and “unquestionable” diagnosis of adoptee-feelings of abandonment. My children have a right to more than just that. As do all adoptees, at any age. Sometimes, life just sucks — for NO good reason — and suddenly, I feel that my children deserve for other people to understand this–particularly if the alternative is to blame every sour mood and every moment of confusion in their lives on the fact that they were adopted.