Thursday, August 5, 2010

Another F word

OK, so today I want to talk about the F word. No, not that F word. I want to talk about another F word. The one schools talk about all the time. Especially early in the school year.


Many of us, me included, were raised in what was, at one time, considered a "typical" family. Whatever that is. I had a dad, a mom, two younger sisters, a dog, and periodically some of those little turtles that lived in the bowls with the plastic palm trees.

Many (most?) families are not like that any more.

Take our family for instance. Our nuclear family consists of me (a short, chunky little Anglo gal) and the two huge and very handsome (or at least their mama thinks so anyway!) African American boys. One of the boys' football playing friends is being raised by his dad because his mom passed away two years ago. Still another one is being raised by his mama and grandmother, his daddy is in prison. Another one is being raised by his grandparents, yet another is being raised by his mom and stepdad, but his grandfather actually brings him to all of the practices and regularly volunteers for football activities. One of the boy's friends actually lives with a football coach. A girl that we love lives with her mom, stepdad and two younger stepbrothers, but spends weekends on the other side of town with her dad and biological brother. Last year, two little guys at my school were being raised by two daddies.

I think it's important that we as teachers acknowledge and honor ALL of these different kinds of families in our classroom. When we make comments, even seemingly innocuous comments such as, "Take this home to your mom," or "Remind your mom and dad that back to school night is tonight," we hurt kids who may already have deep wounds in their souls around the issue of family. In doing so, we alienate them. And make it harder for them to learn and grow into the people that they are intended to be. And that's just wrong.

And while we are talking about families, let's acknowledge the people who are outside of the physical home, but very much present in children's lives. My boys' family is way bigger than just the three of us. If I asked them to make lists of the people who love them and take care of them, Narcy, their longtime football coach, would be at the top of their list. Lance, a basketball and track coach, is another really important man in both boys' lives. The "football and basketball mamas" regularly school my boys on issues of conduct and life. Mr. Nelson, biological grandfather of on member of son #2's basketball team, but heart grandfather to nine more, stopped by the middle school to check on the boys on more than one occasion. Miss Christina, the young woman who babysat that first year regularly provides input on issues related to girls and relationships. And as teenagers, the boys' circle of friends-- football teammates, girlfriends, peers- are definitely part of their family. If I am really honest, I know there are lots of times my boys go to those people long before they come to me. All of these people, and probably twenty-five more, are members of the boys' family.

I make a point, then, of talking to kids about "families" very early in the school year, usually the first or second day. I show them pictures of my sons and explain that my boys don't look like me because they are adopted. I tell the story of our family-how I had always, since I was a very little girl, wanted to be a mom but was over 40 and had never married or had children, that the boys were students at my school, and that their own mom had had some problems and hadn't been able to take care of them since they were very little, that they had been living with a foster mom who didn't take very good care of them, and that I brought the boys home one Easter weekend, and they became my sons when they were seven and nine. We talk a lot about how sometimes even though people love you a lot, they can't take care of you, and that in those cases, sometimes a grandma, or aunt, or uncle, or a family friend, or foster can love you and take care of you better. And that's ok.

We spend time enlarging our definition of the word family. We talk about how families are really the people who love you and take care of you. I explain to kids that my own family- my mom and two sisters live two hours away and can't always be there for me. When I need something, I call on friends from my book club, or sometimes friends from work or church, because those are the people that love me and take care of me. I ask kids to make lists of the people that love them and take care of them. For some of my students, the list includes a mom and dad, but for many, it's an aunt, or an uncle, a football or basketball coach, a pastor, or former teacher, or best friend. And all of those are legitimate family members. All of those are people who can support the child academically and emotionally. And all of those should be considered legitimate family members. This year, I'm going to ask kids to make circular collages about their "circle of support." That will help me, very early on, to know about kids and the "families" that support them.

And while I am on the subject of family, I want to talk for a minute about hidden assumptions. It's been more than a little disturbing to me, especially over the last couple of years, the assumptions that have been made about my family. Teachers at the high school see two not particularly excited about school African American boys being raised by a single mom and immediately draw lots of conclusions about about who we are as a family. They assume, first of all, that I am not educated (I have a Ph.D.). Many teachers assume I don't care about my sons' education, even though I have not missed a back to school night, or parent teacher conference since the boys started at the school two years ago. My sons don't always turn in their homework, are not on the honor roll, and regularly fail tests. I care about those things too, and do my best to encourage success and provide appropriate positive and negative reinforcement, but sometimes I have to decide that my relationships with my sons are more important than their grades. And there are lots of people who are not honor roll students who are successful in life. And that being decent, caring, kind human beings is also important. That doesn't mean I am a bad mother, or that I am not supportive of my children's education.

Family is no longer about moms and dads, brothers and sisters, living in brick homes in the suburbs. Family is about the people who love and support and care for children, who feed and clothe them and read stories and do homework, but maybe more importantly, care for their hearts and souls. Those are the people we ought to be talking about in our classrooms…


Stella said...

Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!!!! I heart this post, and will make sure my friends read it as well because you bring some important points for today's society, world and expectations!

Susan T. said...

Go, Carol, go! I think these posts are wonderful.