Raising Little Racists

December 14, 2016

A child, or children, in the school district in which I live recently wrote the “n” word, as well as swastikas, on the window of a publicly-owned school bus. I don’t know what age/grade range we are talking here, although I am not sure it really matters.

That children of any age, in any locale, would engage in such behavior is awful, but the fact that it happened in MY home school district is pretty horrifying. I live in a suburban, middle class school district largely populated by children with plenty of food in their high-end refrigerators and two parents in their 4-bedroom, 2-car-garage, single-family homes. Our parents spend many weekends attending day-long soccer tournaments, pay for karate and piano lessons and educational enrichment at places like Kumon and Sylvan Learning Center. Back to school night is usually a zoo, teacher conferences are usually attended by both parents, and the PTA is a robust organization that probably has enough volunteers for three school districts. We have a Whole Foods. We have wine enthusiasts. There are many yoga studios.

Ours is a well-funded school district whose children routinely earn high standardized test scores. Our high school regularly sends its sports teams to statewide championships. We employ caring, qualified, devoted educators who are committed to providing the best possible education to all of their students, regardless of their limitations. Some older residents complain that school taxes are too high and criticize the forward-thinking decision to build new schools or update old ones so that they are state-of-the-art learning facilities. High schoolers have many AP options, most go on to college, and judging by the student parking lot, drive pretty nice cars.

My point being, this is a well-funded school district that largely serves the children of educated, well-heeled, high-end-luxury-car-driving parents who expect that their children will receive an outstanding, diverse, and mutli-faceted public education, from kindergarten through graduation. They believe themselves to be unencumbered by bigotry of any kind and strive to instill in their kids the values of kindness, respect, and acceptance of all people, regardless of color, race, or creed. These same parents, if you asked them, would likely insist that they do not tolerate racism in any form or from any source, including, and most especially, their children.

But now, at least one kid has written the “n” word, as well as swastikas, on the window of a public school bus.

That this happened probably shouldn’t be a surprise, even in my school district, given the current political climate in which a newly-emboldened segment of our country has learned that they can share the fact of their deplorability with the rest of the world without fear of criticism or negative judgment. At the same time, the person who emboldened them in the first place has refrained from condemning this conduct in any meaningful or effective way. Instead, he has remained uncharacteristically silent as to whether such behavior is consistent with the agenda he hopes to pursue as president, having apparently determined that the cast of “Hamilton” and “Saturday Night Live” present a larger and more invidious threat to civility and public discourse than the increasing incidence of racial epithets and anti-Semitic slurs by school children.

The blog by Dr. Munson is thoughtful and conveys the depth of understanding and insight required to generate awareness and sensitivity, which is the only way that such ugliness is ever erradicated. As a parent who has attempted to instill values and morality in my children by means of this type of respectful dialogue (as opposed to the “because I said so, and don’t argue with me” approach), I applaud Dr. Munson’s patience and good intentions in the hope of enlightening those who might otherwise add their voices to such hateful expression.

As a parent, however, I also understand that there are some moments when the “because I said so, and don’t argue with me” approach is an appropriate response to put an end to behavior which is unacceptable, such as running out into the street or jumping up and down with an open pair of scissors in ones hand. On those occasions when our children are doing or about to do something potentially life-threatening, we don’t stop to engage in a “teachable moment” dialogue, unless by “teachable moment” you mean, “STOP THAT THIS INSTANT, NOW, AND DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN.” If you want to sit down later, when all involved have cooled down and are sufficiently removed from the emotion of the situation to discuss why it’s not okay to play with razor blades or get into that stranger’s van to help him find his puppy, that’s fine. But perhaps the overriding message to be conveyed in such instances is that some things, you just don’t do, ever. EVER.

As a parent who has also raised millenials against the backdrop of the self-esteem movement, moreover, I have shied away from shaming my children, preferring instead to point out that certain behavior is not okay without suggesting that the child in question is an inherently bad person for having engaged in it. I think this is the right course 99% of the time, but there are circumstances in which shame is appropriate, and when children should be made to confront the reality and enormity of their conduct. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it should be addressed swiftly, unequivocally, and absolutely. For example, if your child were to call a friend a “retard” as shorthand for suggesting that said person, though of average intelligence, is nonetheless behaving in a way that casts doubt as to his or her judgment in a particular situation, an appropriate response would be, “That is not okay, you know better, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

And so, when I read the article in the local newspaper about some budding little anti-Semitic racist(s) living in my own backyard, I ultimately concluded that Dr. Munson’s blog was probably the right response. I believe that beginning a dialogue and creating a forum for honest and respectful discussion is a good thing. Facilitating all of us in becoming more enlightened and enriched by the sharing of our collective experiences is a good, high-minded approach. Perhaps it will even encourage us to rethink old attitudes and emerge as more loving, mindful, and inclusive individuals who, in turn, set an example of acceptance, tolerance, and caring.

But I had another response as well as regards the children who scrawled this filth on the windows of busses my tax dollars helped pay for and maintain, and to those who taught them such hatred:

Shame on you. You know better. This is not okay. Don’t ever – EVER – do this again.

Do All Lives Really Matter?

October 9, 2016

My daughter, Allison, is autistic. I had been aware from the time she was about three weeks old that there was something radically different about her.  Until we got the diagnosis, I tried to reassure myself that she was just an extremely demanding and difficult child, but when she was about three, we learned that she had some developmental delays. Then came the official diagnosis when she was 5. We were devastated.

But then we regrouped, and we resolved that regardless of the label, we would do everything we could to maximize her potential.  She spent most of her pre-school years attending speech and occupational therapy twice a week, saw a behavioral counselor once a week, attended both a special-needs preschool and a traditional preschool, and participated in a therapeutic riding program.  When she was ready for kindergarten, the Catholic school our older daughter attended wouldn’t admit her because they didn’t want any “retards” (you read that right), and our public school was not willing to provide any specialized services for her save a half-hour each week of occupational therapy.

So we bit the bullet an enrolled her in a private school for children with learning disabilities.  We couldn’t afford it, and we took on staggering debt to keep her there for 8 years.  When she aged out of the school, we sent her to a Christian academy that had a special program for children with learning disabilities.  The teachers, staff, kids, and parents were some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever met, but the school was not able to provide the level of support Allison needed, so we sent her to our public middle school, and then high school, where she received outstanding, focused attention by determined and devoted personnel.

Through those years, Allison continued with therapy and attended a special after-school program for kids with disabilities at a local gymnastics center.  She was made to feel welcome at a performing arts workshop and summer camp that she attended for many years.  She kept up with her riding and participated in social, community, service, and advocacy activities with a group of other young adults with disabilities.  Allison graduated from high school, completed a year-long internship in a job skills program for young adults with disabilities, and then realized her dream of attending a vocational training school in West Virginia for people interested in working in the equine industry.  After receiving her trainer’s certification, Allison returned home to continue her internship at the barn where she rides.  It is her goal to obtain a paid position as the assistant to the therapeutic riding instructor and, perhaps someday, to become a therapeutic riding instructor herself.

Since Allison’s birth, years, a huge percentage of our family’s life has been focused on helping her set and work towards goals.  It has not been easy, or cheap.  We have attended many, many doctor’s appointments, therapist appointments, IEP meetings, and meetings with vocational resource personnel to make sure Allison is getting what she needs.  We have been through numerous medication trials and too many medical interventions to count.  We have hired tutors and coaches for Allison to work with her on a one-on-one level to supplement her educational, vocational and therapeutic services.  Over the years, I have shed many, many tears over Allison – for what I can’t fix, what I can’t make better; the comments I’ve heard made about her, the looks I’ve seen directed at her; the low expectations of those who think she’s unemployable, the refusal of her instructors at “pony college” in West Virginia to acknowledge her limitations or go the extra mile to help her keep up.

I haven’t been a perfect mother, or, in some instances, even a very good one.  What we have always striven to do, however, is to instill in Allison the conviction that she is not defined or limited by her diagnosis, that she should set goals without regard to her disabilities, and that while she may have to work harder to achieve less than her chronological peers, there is no reason that she should not live a fulfilling, meaningful, and independent life.

Although Allison has made huge strides towards her career goals, social interactions remain painfully difficult for her. She has trouble making and keeping eye contact or carrying on a conversation that strays too far from one of the few topics about which she feels confident in expressing her thoughts (Harry Potter and horses figure largely in her repertoire).  She has some unusual tics, and her verbal expression and physical carriage are indicative that she is not neuro-typical. When our family considers how much progress she has made, how many obstacles she has overcome, however, we burst with pride for her bravery and determination, and we believe that there is still much she has left to show us about what she can accomplish despite such a terrifying diagnosis. We also feel enormously grateful that the combination of a sheltering childhood and a team of teachers, therapists, doctors, and other helpers who have given their heart and soul for her have largely protected her from the kind of teasing she might have experienced had she been born 30 years earlier. In our experience, so many families have been confronted with the challenge of a child with special needs that they have raised siblings who are compassionate and inclusive; as well, the increased sensitivity and awareness of autistic spectrum disorders in the last ten years has meant that Allison has not had to face the cruelty of and ignorance of those who think it’s okay to mock a disabled person, so much so that I naively thought that such people no longer existed.

Which is why, when I saw Donald Trump mimicking his version of Serge Kovaleski, a reporter who is disabled, I was—first and foremost—just plain shocked.  Trump’s gesticulations, intended to approximate the manner in which Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis manifests itself, were absolutely astonishing to me.  If not because he was a sensitive and decent human being, then at least for the sake of his image, did Trump not appreciate the message he was sending? And when it was pointed out to him that this behavior was not acceptable, did that reporter get an apology?

No, he didn’t. And neither did the Muslim, Jewish, Mexican/Latino, Black, or LGBTQ communities, and neither did women.  The hateful words we heard issue from Donald Trump’s lips during the campaign and now see spilling out of the mouths of some of his supporters, emboldened by those words in the aftermath of the election, have apparently ceased to be shocking.  It’s a new normal, and not a good one.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump for a lot of reasons.  For one, I questioned his lack of relevant experience.  I found his ceaseless self-aggrandizement and brand promotion tasteless.  I questioned whether he understood, or cared to understand, the complexities of the job for which he was interviewing.  I had doubts about his attention span and ability to remain committed to and interested in the role of commander in chief – it’s a thankless job subject to stringent, intensive scrutiny.  There were a lot of reasons why I pushed the button for another candidate, but the main reason – the surpassing, deal-breaker, no-way-in-hell-would-I-ever-vote-for-him reason came down to this:  He thinks my daughter is sub-human.  Someone to be mocked for things she has no control over.  A freak.

There are many out there who have excused Donald Trump’s many caustic, horrible remarks – they say that those remarks don’t represent who he really is.  They say that those who belong to the groups he offended should grow up, toughen up, lighten up, and move on.  They say that they may not like some of Trump’s comments, but that he represented the better alternative by virtue of his economic, immigration, and foreign policy positions.  They say there are able to overlook those statements and see all of the good things Donald Trump wants to do for our country.  That’s mighty big of those people, most of whom don’t belong to any of the groups about which he’s made such hurtful and searing statements.

There are many ways in which a person reveals his or her character to the world.  One of them is by the things they are willing to overlook in service of their own self-interest.  To me, a vote for Donald Trump spoke volumes about how that person felt about people with disabilities in general, and my daughter, in particular.  It was beyond incomprehensible to me that otherwise good and thoughtful people (of the 61 million who voted for him, there must be at least a few) could choose for president a man who did not feel deeply, appropriately ashamed, for stooping to such depths as to make fun of a person with disabilities.  What Donald Trump’s election communicates to me is that there are 61 million people in this country to whom my daughter’s dignity means nothing.

I’m certain that most of the people who voted for Donald Trump never stopped to think about how his words affected so many of our country’s citizens, because a lot of them probably don’t know many Muslims, or Latinos, or Jews, or LGBTQs, or disabled people, or if they do, then not very well.  I’m pretty sure that when people cast their ballots for The Donald, they didn’t stop and think about how a Trump presidency would impact the lives of people with disabilities, including Allison – I guess I shouldn’t expect them to, nor would I imagine that they ever considered how that vote might be perceived by Allison, and others in the disabled community, but I know, because she’s told me. It goes something like this: “I guess people like me don’t matter.”

There’s a long list of things Donald Trump needs to do as president – and assuring the disabled that their issues are important is probably well near the bottom of his list, but it shouldn’t be. As so many who supported him are fond of saying, “All lives matter.” To all of those people, I say, let it be so.



Up By Your Bootstraps

September 29, 2016

There’s a video making the rounds on Facebook…I’ve seen it a number of times…it’s supposedly “hilarious.” The gist is that Smart, Liberal Democratic college student berates her hardworking, wise old dad because he’s voting for the Republican Party presidential candidate, and she doesn’t agree with his economic policies.

Now, you’re going to have to suspend credulity at this point that Dem Daughter’s biggest concern about the other candidate is his economic policy (what with the fact that, in the 16 months since he announced his candidacy, he hasn’t actually articulated one), as opposed to all that niggling evidence that he’s a bigoted, ignorant, bloviating sexual predator, but let’s go with it and see if there’s something to be learned here (spoiler alert…no).

Dad chuckles at his simple-minded progeny and begins to mansplain to her why he’s supporting a presidential candidate who wasn’t aware that Russia had invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, or that the Central Park Five were exonerated and released from prison based on DNA evidence years ago (he still thinks they should be executed).

So he reminds his daughter, the hard-working Liberal Democrat (Wait! Is there such a thing?!?), that because she takes tough classes and studies all the time and never does anything fun, she has earned a perfect 4.0, whereas her Slacker Girl roommate who never goes to class, parties all the time, and only takes easy courses, has, not surprisingly, ended up with staggeringly bad grades.

Dad then jokes that Dem Daughter should put her economic policy where her mouth is by instructing the Dean to give Slacker Girl some of her hard-earned GPA so that Slacker Girl will not have to face the consequences of her poor choices. And of course Dem Daughter sees the error of her ways and decides that she, too, will vote for her dad’s guy, even though he’s creepy and looks like a giant circus peanut.

What troubles me about the message here is the assumption that those who would benefit from the “wealth redistribution” touted by Dem Daughter have precisely the same opportunities as those in the top 1%. This is a false equivalency, as many who are at the lowest level of the economic spectrum aren’t necessarily there because they are lazy or make self-indulgent, poor choices.

In many cases, familial support, access to good education and healthcare, or quality employment simply don’t exist. Those of us who were blessed with loving parents, intact families, top-notch schools, regular medical and dental care and good nutrition, don’t always understand that what we take for granted as the norm is only a dream for many, many people in this country.

This video also wrongly assumes that those who are wealthy got that way because they worked hard, which is also not necessarily the case. Certainly, the Bill Gates of the world can point to years of backbreaking hard work, but a great deal of the 1% inherited their wealth and have never worked a day in their life. Still others have used family wealth and connections to launch (or bail out) businesses that might otherwise have failed.

Hard work is certainly a virtue, and in many cases is indeed a path to success and prosperity, but not always. It bears noting, moreover, that those who have worked the hardest for their wealth are often the first to want to give it away for the greater good, while others establish “charitable foundations” to which they themselves do not contribute and which they utilize to commission large portraits of themselves or to settle lawsuits.

Finally, this video unfairly and inaccurately attempts to characterize the ideas of those like Bernie Sanders, who has never suggested that the rich should simply be stripped of their wealth and have it handed over to all those lazy poor people so they can blow it by making the same poor choices that led to their poverty in the first place.

At their most basic, policies designed to combat income inequality seek to implement a minimum wage that can actually provide the fundamental basics of food, clothing and shelter, while eliminating income tax loopholes that allow the top 1% to avoid paying their fair share. No one is suggesting that all those on Wall Street who played Russian Roulette with mortgage-backed securities and in turn created the worst economic downturn is 50 years should be forced to sell their homes in the Hamptons, but would it be too much to ask them to contribute, proportionately to their income, for the cost of roads, schools, law enforcement, government salaries, etc.? And seriously…do we really think it’s okay that the CEO of Aetna, Mark Bertolini, took home $17.1 million in 2015, while Wal-Mart holds food drives…for its own employees?

So, no, I don’t find this video “hilarious.” I find it arrogant, overly simplistic, and uninformed. But maybe that’s because I’m a Liberal Democrat who can’t help wondering whether Slacker Girl is okay, and whether her behavior isn’t a cry for help, but I digress.

Hard work, yes. But also, paying your fair share. Oh, and maybe some empathy and compassion, too.

In Praise of Hypocrisy

January 7, 2015

So I understand that Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, after “challenging” married couples to “take a happily married picture and post it” on their Facebook page, have now removed photos shared by gay married couples. Apparently, this “challenge” came as the result of some raised eyebrows following a photo posted by their newly-married daughter, Jessa, on her Instagram account showing her and her new husband (the one she famously was not allowed to kiss, and was only permitted to “side-hug,” prior to their nuptials) locked in a steamy embrace (okay, it was actually a pretty tame, and, frankly, sort of awkward, closed-mouth smooch). Because of the internet, this has now become a bit of a thing, which I suppose I am only serving to perpetuate by posting this blog, which is something worth thinking about—later, that is, after I’ve said what I have to say about this particular issue.

As an initial matter, the Duggars certainly have a right control the content of their Facebook page, and the rest of us are free to support or oppose their words and viewpoints, or (perhaps the better choice) to simply ignore them altogether. After all, I’m not sure that any of us gain very much from paying too much attention to reality television stars whose fame is premised entirely upon the fact that they’ve been very successful at procreating.

As well, since I’ve watched their television program for a grand total of about fifteen minutes, I’m not sure I feel qualified to render an informed opinion about who the Duggars are or what they stand for. From what I did see, however, Michelle and Jim Bob seem to be loving, caring parents who have taken full economic responsibility for their many offspring and live within their means by making careful financial decisions and doing themselves what many of us hire other people to do. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they are featured on a wildly popular television show, the earnings from which probably go a long way towards feeding and clothing those nineteen children). They also seem to have raised thoughtful, creative, kind children who appear to be well-adjusted and happily help in the work of running a large, busy household (and who each also play a stringed instrument). Perhaps somewhere down the road one of the kids will pen a “Mommy/Daddy Dearest” sort of tome, and we’ll learn that things weren’t so rosy in the Duggar household after all; from what I can tell from my admittedly limited knowledge on this point, however, the Duggars seem to be making it work and setting an example of a close, loving family that is a sort of refreshing thing in today’s world where it seems that every time I log onto Huffington Post, I read about some man killing his pregnant wife or some mother leaving a newborn in dumpster.

But now the Duggars have officially expressed their opposition as to gay marriage (which I guess anyone with half a brain could probably have anticipated), and in support of that stance have offered the following from Rick Warren: “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. Second is that to love someone means that you must agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

I agree with Rick Warren, whomever he is, and I don’t fear or hate the Duggars simply because they have (not surprisingly) espoused a position I find repugnant, nor do I believe that they should be pressured by anyone to change that position. Perhaps we should even congratulate the Duggars for remaining strong in their convictions, even though I doubt they will be faced with much opposition within what I gather is a fairly tight-knit, like-minded community, such that it’s probably not all that difficult or brave for them to promulgate their beliefs. It would probably have been a lot more difficult, and would have required a lot more bravery, for them to have joyfully accepted and welcomed gay couples in their celebration of married love, but anyone who is surprised that they didn’t is sort of naïve, and to get too riled up about their behavior is kind of stupid, not to mention a waste of time, since in the history of the internet, I don’t know of a single instance in which someone read an viewpoint contrary to their own, considered it, and then said, “maybe I should rethink my position on this one.” Instead, it seems we do just the opposite by figuratively sticking our fingers in our ears and running around the back yard shouting, “I can’t HEAR you” like a three-year-old. That’s pretty much where we’ve evolved in the age of the world wide web.

Neither do I believe, moreover, that loving someone means you have to agree with everything they believe or do (just ask my husband), and I suppose this statement is encouraging, because it suggests that the Duggars do in fact love all gay people despite their gayness. I suppose this is something of an improvement on groups who just flat-out, and unabashedly, hate gay people and are proud of it (Westboro Baptist Church, I’m talking about you), even though the “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude is just a tad bit condescending, communicating, as it does, “I’ll love you even though you’re defective.” I’m just not sure that it’s terribly “compassionate” to exclude an entire segment of society from your Facebook page celebrating happy marriages in order that your “convictions” remain uncompromised, but, then, I guess that pretty much sums up what’s been going on in our country since, like, forever.

As I noted above, the Duggars’ position on the issue of marriage equality is hardly surprising, but I find myself disappointed nonetheless. I’m not a religious person, but I do have tremendous respect for people whose lives are a testament to integrity, honesty, kindness, and love in the name of their faith. My mother- and father-in-law are such people, and so are the Duggars, I think, and so I guess I would have hoped that when they saw the photos of gay couples on their website, even if those photos made them uncomfortable, they would have celebrated the love they saw as worth celebrating. I would have hoped this especially given how blessed Michelle and Jim Bob have been by the recent marriages of two lovely daughters whose weddings were showcased in People magazine as the joyful celebrations all married couples hope to experience on their wedding day, but which are still denied to same-sex couples in about a third of our United States. It would have been so wonderfully inspiring if Michelle and Jim Bob had just left those pictures on their Facebook page for everyone to see, and if anyone said a word about it, would have urged their critics to embrace their brothers and sisters in Christ, or Allah, or Mohammad, or Zoroaster, or whomever, and say, “there are two people who are trying to make it work. Isn’t that great.”

I guess I was overly optimistic, and if I’m disappointed by people to whom no one would pay any attention if they’d had only two kids, instead of 19, then that’s on me, and I’m an idiot. And who knows; with nineteen children, the oldest of whom are already at work on creating their own double-digit families, there’s bound to be at least one child or grandchild who’s gay, and perhaps that child or grandchild will be the impetus for some soul-searching and an opportunity to rethink the party line.

I don’t think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are monsters, I don’t think they’re hateful, and I have a feeling if I met them, I’d like them just fine. But I would have liked them better, and respected them more, if they’d been able to tolerate a harmless picture of a same-sex married couple on their Facebook page. Since they didn’t, I’d like to invite any married couple—gay or straight—to post their “happily married picture” on mine.