The Big Report Card in the Sky

Written by LIE Guest Contributor Liz Rose-Cohen. Originally published at Foreigner in Buckeye Nation.

Just back from a trip to New England where we saw wonderful old friends and surrounded ourselves with family. But the best news is that when we returned to Columbus, I actually felt like I was coming home. Aaaahhh! More on that and our trip to come, I’m sure. But for now a story from June:

Hot Shot spent three weeks of summer camp at the King Arts Complex last month. The Complex is an African American museum, theater, gallery, Head Start, education center, you name it. Totally cool. It’s located in the area of town that was once the heart of African American culture in Columbus. The murals that peel off the walls of boarded up buildings along Mt. Vernon and Long Street offer images of what this part of town used to look like. With big bands and dance halls and lots of heads flattened down with lye. It doesn’t look much like that anymore. There are attempts here and there to stir up the ghosts that once lindyhopped on these streets. And some are successful. The King Arts Complex is one. And there’s the Lincoln Theatre down the street. And Urban Spirit coffee shop, where I have high hopes of becoming a regular. And the book store next door. Forgive me if I’ve missed one or two; I’m still new here. But I think that’s pretty much it.

Anyway, when we first told Hot Shot about the camp a few months ago, she was sad it would not be Camp Ketcha back in Scarborough, Maine, which will always have a special place in her heart because it represents so many firsts: first school bus ride, longest days away from home, first hikes through the woods without moms to let you rest or make you drink your water or tie your shoes or whatever else we know best. So like many things this year, learning about her new camp was a moment of loss. But we had her attention when we started telling about the visiting artists at her new camp. “You’ll have dance and art and music and drama every day,” I promised. “With real professional artists.” And she couldn’t help but love that. Hot Shot is, above all else, a creator at her core.

So she was already starting to get a little excited and then Darling Virgo told her a bit about the King Arts Complex. How it’s a building that’s all about celebrating African American History and art and culture and all that, and Hot Shot grew a big grin, showing off that beautiful gap she got from her father, right there between her two front teeth. “Ohio’s all about African American pride,” she said, all starry eyed.

And then we laughed. (Don’t laugh at your children! Don’t laugh at your children! Don’t laugh at your children!) But we laughed, picturing as we did the cornfields that surround our city and all the good white folks who grow all that corn and go to Bob Evan’s for brunch after church on Sunday mornings. And Hot Shot’s eyes were suddenly full of questions. That’s why we moved here right? Because there are more black people? Because you wanted me to live someplace where I would be with black people? She had learned our rhetoric and was returning it to us, wasn’t she? Why had we laughed?

Darling Virgo was quick and full of care. “Is that how you feel here?” She asked Hot Shot. “Does it make you feel proud of being African American?”

And then our girl considered the question given back to her. Forgoing, for a minute, the two scripts she has in her head. The first being her allegiance to Maine. The second being the words we have taught her to explain our decisions. But she seemed to be letting go of these and actually considered how she felt about her blackness, here at the nine-month mark of our sojourn.

“Well,” she said. “I guess I’m starting to feel normal.”

And yes, though we did laugh earlier when we weren’t supposed to, here we managed to contain ourselves while in her presence. But let it be known that minutes later, safely secluded in the kitchen, Darling Virgo and I offered up a small dance of joy, letting ourselves believe, for a tiny second, that this was it. The big gold star. The verdict. The final report card in the sky.

But of course this is not the final report card. Maybe it’s a mid-term progress report. Or a little note home from the teacher saying it was a pretty good day. Because, alas, there will never be a final report card in the sky; this is a grading period that will never end. There have been signs along the way and there will be more–moments that tell us we’re on the right track or we better get our act together–but never a final grade.

So we took it for the joyous second that it was. And moved on.

But when the end of school came and Hot Shot started camp, it wasn’t everything we hoped for. There weren’t as many different art and dance and drama classes as I had told her. And it was mostly the camp counselors, not guest artists, who were leading the activities. And it was kind of like school in that, well, there was a lot of yelling.
Yelling has been one of the unforseen challenges of our move. And none of us are ready to put our finger on why. But there’s more yelling here and we’re not used to it. Parents yelling at kids. Teachers yelling at kids. Bus drivers yelling at kids. Lots of yelling at kids. It was the hardest part of Hot Shot’s transition to her new school last Fall. “All the yelling,” she would say. “The more the yelling the more the disrespect. The more the disrespect the more the yelling.” She came home from school unraveled by the angst of it all. And it didn’t take her long to hypothesize that the yelling difference ran along racial lines. She saw some parents in our mostly black neighborhood yelling at kids. And she heard her mostly black friends at school talking about getting spanked. And her afternoon bus driver was black. And the disciplinarian from her school who had to ride the bus because it was so out of control was black. And they were both yellers. So she decided she didn’t want to go over any one’s house if their parents were black. And here was another one of grades on the big report card. We didn’t run into the kitchen and do a happy dance, but we weren’t surprised either. That’s why we moved here right? Because we don’t know enough African Americans.

It reminded me of the afternoon years ago when Hot Shot was pretending to run a vegetarian restaurant and announced that Christians were not allowed. You know, because they eat meat. We spent some time sorting out the Jews and the Christians we knew and examined their eating habits. And now here we were doing the same with the whites and the blacks and the yelling.

“What about your principal?” I asked. “Does she yell?”
“Tons.”

“And she’s white. Right? And what about your teacher?”

“She yells all day!”

“And she’s white. And what about Kanisha’s mom? And Mr. Chat? And Ms. Ruby down the alley. Do they yell?”

“Noooo,” she groaned. “Okay, okay I get it, they’re black and they don’t yell. Enough!”

So it seemed as though the change was regional, maybe. That back in New England where everyone’s all free-speech, closed-curtains, and democracy, we make room for our kids to have feelings and opinions and don’t dare impose authoritarian rules and regulations just because we happen to be parents. And then here in the Midwest where everyone’s all stop-crying, here’s-a-Twinkie, go-Bucks, it’s pretty clear that the expectation of adulthood is to call the shots. And it’s not like her teachers and principals back in Maine didn’t hold or wield authority. But it’s definitely a different flavor of authority. And so it’s taking some getting used to.

For the first few days of camp I felt reluctant. I was supposed to be sending her off to a happy land of creative discovery where all the good fairy artists were black and waiting to discover her talent and take her in as an apprentice, and…. Instead I felt guilty for sending her away when she could just as well be at home with me and Moon Boy and Ankle Biter, complaining that she’s the b-word (bored) and feeling like I should stop spending my time refereeing the boys’ wrestling matches and start building actual electronic robots out of the contents of our recycle bin and a few sticks from the back yard. We would see how camp went. Give it a week before deciding for sure if we sent her back for more.

And then, of course, Hot Shot taught us (and herself) how much she’s learned about adaptation. That, yes, there was yelling, but there were also popsicle stick collages, and paper mache Earths, and friends who know the same hand clap games as she does, and friends who taught her some new ones. And she learned that the best part was recess, when one of her teachers would bring a boombox out to the playground and teach the kids dances like the Cupid Shuffle, and the Cha Cha Slide, and (Hot Shot’s favorite) the Wobble. I got to see some of the dancing at the second recess when Moon Boy, Ankle Biter, and I arrived to pick her up every afternoon. “Be appropriate!” her teacher would yell when the music for the Wobble came on. And then thirty girls with cornrowed heads and bouncing ballies would pump their hips forward and giggle with the delight that is the line between appropriate and not.

So I’m learning, little by little, what it means when I say I want my kids to know (actually know, not just experience) how to be part of their community. I want them to be able to attend a camp where all the teachers and all the kids are black… and feel welcome. And at home. And like they belong. Normal. Right? Isn’t that the thing we want most for our kids? Just plain normal. So even though I wanted it to be the best, most enriching arts experience ever, and even though it wasn’t, there is my girl: doing the Wobble, surrounded by proud friends (black friends) and smiling teachers (black teachers), and I remember that if I want her to know other ways of being I have to loosen the reigns on my own ways just a little. So I dismount off the back of my attachment parenting high horse and take a look at the view from the ground. I see a girl who has learned she can handle it. She knows now, at least for today, that people who yell are also kind, and fun, and good at making art out of trash, and can teach you the Wobble.

And I think about that big report card in the sky. I’m always checking it to see how she’s doing. How the boys are doing. How’s their body image? Their racial identity development? Are they happy? As if my work, the work of surrounding my family with our children’s people, will only manifest in their development, not my own. I’m expecting them to be my yardstick, when all the time I’ve got plenty of room to grow myself. So I look up at that big report card in the sky and decide to send home a little note to myself today: it’s been a pretty good day.

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