Thursday, January 17, 2008

revolution? only the strong need apply . . .

my daughters have taught me more than a lil something about resistance and revolution.

i used to think that being an activist was all about marching, chanting, carrying large posters dressed with catchy slogans, writing letters, and speaking aloud to large numbers of people. in high school, i read malcolm x speeches during class and held frustrating conversations with friends about conspiracies and strategic take-overs. in college, i considered outreach the best route to revolution, spending my weekends in dc's shaw neighborhood, taking the youth to museums, the zoo, the baltimore aquarium, and waking early on those mornings to pack brown paper bag lunches for them all. as a professor, i have practiced resistance through literacy and critical thinking campaigns. and as an artist, i choose my truth raw and bloody. and there have been times when i have been able to share meditation techniques with women who, like me, have experienced abuse.

i love a beating heart.

but my daughters have taught me more about resistance and revolution than any of these experiences. and while i find it daunting to imagine a world informed by my intimate experience of rebellion against myriad systems of oppression in defense of my children, my prayer is that my voice will somehow make it to the ears of some who will agree - there is no greater responsibility than the choice to nurture and protect the lives of children, even if you have only the time and energy for your own.

evidence (causes and effects):

for some time, i raised my daughters in d.c. we lived in a neighborhood called columbia heights. the neighborhood was experiencing gentrification. i sent my daughters to capitol city public charter school. the school claimed an experiential learning program, among many other highlights and cool sounding benefits. it was well integrated . . . white, black, and latino kids shared classrooms. the one concern -- the school was staffed by white teachers and administrators primarily.

when school administrators and teachers encouraged me to have my youngest daughter tested because she was constantly being suspended from school at age 4, i surrendered. i found myself at my wits end - recently separated and struggling, seeking direction and guidance - i surrendered. i knew it was a bad idea the moment i met the evaluator, an elder white woman who consistently referred to me as "the mother" when holding conversation with a third party in my presence. i could also see the error when i watched my child interact with the woman. she put up her guard; it showed in her eyes and body language. she looked back at me like, "and who is this you've got sitting here in front of me. do we know her?"

my daughter has seen alot. she has learned that not all adults are meant to be trusted . . . that tends to happen when a young child loses a parent to societal ills and intimate domestic warfare. i don't necessarily consider this a bad thing in these times. though it is a difficult lesson for a four year old, it's one that is better early than late.

at any rate, my child proceded forward with the test. when we received the results, i learned that she chose not to answer the simple questions; she got the difficult ones correct; and she tended to answer questions about word meaning and context based on the experience of an urban child accustomed to alleys, helicopter search lights, sirens, and dangers lurking in familiar spaces . . . like home. the results of the test marked her as a potential criminal. she was marked for occupational therapy, and an independent learning plan was put in place for her. this independent learning program exiled her from the classroom setting whenever the teachers had difficulty understanding her . . . or when she had difficulty understanding them . . . they also made her a special weighted blanket with sand inside pockets to put over her when she could not be consoled. they told me brushing her with a baby brush would soothe emotional disturbances.

we continued with this for awhile. the additional attention seemed to placate her anger. and then, the phone calls started again . . . "ms. mercer, you must come get your child. we cannot keep her at school today." by this time, she was being suspended every week. and i was crying at night . . . i would have to bring her to work with me, and she would lose another day of schooling. eventually, i was told that she should be placed in a school for "special children." the predominantly white teaching staff had studied this phenomena, and a school catering to the needs of career criminal four year olds was the only way. they also suggested medication . . . quietly.

i had become a parent to avoid by this time. my scowl, questions, and stormy walk sent the principal into her office whenever she saw me. and when i dropped my child off at school in the morning, her youthful walk of enthusiasm became withdrawn to hunched shoulders and a pout that spoke of potential violence and disruption, making the teachers' mouths twist into nervousness.

when they suspended her for the last time, i learned that the school counselor had used an illegal basket hold on my child when she would act out. it was illegal because he was not trained to use it. nor had i approved of its use. a basket hold consists of grabbing a child from behind and holding them close to your chest with their legs folded; the holder's arms are placed right beneath the knees. after putting her in the basket hold, she was placed in an "office," which used to be a closet - no windows - where she would turn over the table and scream. when basket holds are used, there should be padding on the walls for the decompression, i've heard. clearly, the child who has experienced this hold feels threatened and violated. the padded walls allows them to act out these emotions without endangering the self physically.

at any rate, it was only my confidence, literacy, and access to information which caused me to question the evaluation of my child and the choice of remedy. instead of following the independent learning plan, evaluation, and advice provided by the school and its counselor, i immediately withdrew my child from the school and placed her in a new school staffed primarily by people of color, many of whom were much older than the young teachers and administrators at her previous school. i had her tested there. no disturbances were found - emotional or otherwise. but these teachers were not afraid of her; they did not speak to her with song in their voices; they spoke to her with authority. and these teachers did not look at her with condescension simply because she had seen some struggle; they simply demanded that she perform well and rewarded her with a measured love when she did well.

i wonder sometimes about the many children who are medicated due to diagnosis and evaluation in our public school systems (both public charter and standard). i wonder sometimes about the countless children who are abused at school, because their teachers are not trained well. i also wonder about the students who fall victim to gentrification, populating schools designed for predominantly white students but attending them regardless because they are still in the neighborhood. and i am also concerned about the parents who have not had the benefit of being educated in this nation's history of oppression and resistance. those who have know that the school is not always right and that they have the final choice in how their child will be educated, even if they have to fight for it.

my daughter is now a thriving fourth grade student at a public school. she hasn't had to visit the counselor's office once. and granted, i have worked hard to get her to a point where she is free to unleash her frustrations through creative expression at home -- through writing, visual art, and performance -- i am certain that so many of our children could share her success . . .

if only we could become more revolutionary in our thinking, if only we could become more cohesive in our focus.

last week, my oldest daughter broke a house rule: she had a friend over while i was not home. i had her call the friend so that i could speak to her directly. i explained to the friend the importance of following my rules and why. i also explained that when i was growing up, my parents helped to raise the community of children in our neighborhood, that she need not feel uncomfortable because i chose to speak to her, because it is my responsibility to teach her what she does not know. and i believe that fully. though my daughter was embarrassed, i told her that i did this out of love. what kind of adult would i be if i simply punished my child and said nothing to her friend?

sometimes i think that we have become so individualistic and fast paced that we have forgotten what worked before. we don't have time for it. we'd rather retreat from the chaotic world whenever possible . . . it's more peaceful that way . . . at least for the self.

yeah. and you know what? sometimes i trouble the fact that i have difficulty dating because men don't seem to be too enthusiastic about dating a woman with kids . . . they would have to contend with someone else's children. and damn, these kids today can be wild. yeah, i will take it there, because it matters. our society is driven by an accepted reality - men leave; women struggle forward. i think it's all just pitiful and a shame . . . i think it is also a testimony to the selfish culture we have chosen to promote. and no one ever really feels bad about it . . . at least not enough to make a major life change. i mean, sure, people can talk a good game . . . but when it really comes down to it, communal intimacy is not a favorite choice; revolution is a poem or slogan for a tee shirt these days.

and i think that is so weak.

i suggest starting small . . . try looking someone in the eye everyday and asking how they are doing . . . try really hearing it . . . then try making an important choice that has an impact on the life of a child who needs love. and then, maybe, we can move forward from there.

i suggest living with an open and honest heart for a change -- sure there's more chance to get hurt that way. but there's also more chance for healing, too . . .

and i think that is so strong.


LBG said...

Yes, yes, revolutions are stickers these days...but, then again, revolutionaries seem to only have a sticker concentration span.

Start small...this, I am learning. Make something local and watch it grow.

nina angela mercer said...

i see you, loud black girl/woman. honey, you may have started small, but you sure did grow real good! onward.