Not Just a Ball Player

{For all my followers that got the first part of this in an email last night, my apologies! While attempting to execute a ctrl-i on my laptop to turn off the italics, my finger slipped and WordPress interpreted whatever I did as a desire to publish immediately. Oops.}

I had a favorite professor in college. I loved the way he taught, the way he managed his classroom. I loved his sense of humor, his outlook. I loved how I never felt odd or unwanted or unequal or lacking as a woman in a heavily male-dominated field of study.

He was special to me. I worked as his teaching assistant for the basic class that all engineering majors had to take. I sat in his office and talked about my future, about the world, about his past. His was the office I ran to, closing the door and bursting into tears, when an insensitive professor made a harsh comment about a personal decision I had to make as I neared graduation. He was important enough that I stayed in contact for several years after I graduated.

I don’t know for sure but I’m fairly certain he has since passed away. I lost contact at some point and don’t think about him much anymore. He’s mostly relegated to those moments in time when folks tell funny college stories to each other – he provided plenty of great fodder for such interaction.

But I’ve been thinking of him a lot today. And not really in a good way, which is something I’ve been wrestling with and is why I’m writing for the first time in weeks. Months? Too long.

Earlier this week, I was scrolling through Facebook’s friend suggestions. I don’t add new friends often. This scrolling is something I do when I’m bored and rarely results in me clicking “add.” There were few people I recognized, mostly because I had recently added 4 people who all attend the same large church. Facebook was now convinced that I might know everyone at said church. So this scrolling activity was a guessing game as to which of the new candidate friends likely went to that church.

Then I came across a guy I graduated from High School with. That’s rare too. Despite it being a very large class, I’m either already friends with people, already rejected them for whatever reason, or they aren’t on Facebook. But this guy hadn’t been suggested before – that I recall. I barely knew him; I’d say really that I just knew of him. But I remembered him being a fun guy and, especially in today’s climate, I was interested in adding a fun person to my feed. He accepted the request and the next day, I saw this:

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And that’s what got me thinking back to my old professor. You see, I know a few tall people who never had an interest in playing basketball. They are annoyed by people either assuming they do or asking if they do and expressing regret when they answer no. As white folk, though, it never appears as though the asker expects basketball to be their entire identity – just something that surely they did while working through their education.

What’s this got to do with my professor? It’s a hazy memory. It’s actually taken me a little while to decide whether I was present for the interaction or he just related it to me (I’ve settled on the latter). You see, there was a young black man in the class I was working with. He came to my study sessions and it became very evident to me that his math skills were not up to snuff for the class or, indeed, most of the engineering program.

I went to talk to the professor about it. It seemed to me that he needed some remedial math before trying to press through the program. My professor seemed to have a different perspective – one that made me uncomfortable, although I didn’t have the words or awareness to call it what it was.

He had had a conversation with the student. He had taken the man’s large hands in his and turned them over and said, “You see these hands? These are large hands. They are made for holding a basketball.” That’s the only part I remember verbatim. The rest is just an impression – he gave a comparison of the professor’s strengths (intellect that made him good at engineering) vs. the student’s (physical strengths that made him good at “ball” as the meme above put it).

While I was uncomfortable at the time and felt he shouldn’t have shared those thoughts with the guy, I hadn’t really let it reflect poorly on my image of the professor. He was just misguided and maybe had a blind spot. Now I see it for what it was. Racist.

You can quibble and say that he might have said the same thing to a tall white man who wasn’t good at math, but I have my doubts. Strong doubts. See my comments about my tall white friends above. Instead of considering that the student might have come from a school district that had not adequately prepared him, he deemed him “not smart enough.” His size and – I firmly believe – skin color painted him an athlete. Period. At no point did the professor show any interest in learning about his hopes and dreams. Why was he in the engineering program? What did he want out of life? What did he need to get there?

So now I wonder – what happened to that guy? Without some help, he wasn’t going to get through the engineering program. Not when he didn’t know how to solve two basic equations with two unknowns. I’m convinced that anyone can learn math though. What many can’t overcome is discouragement. Was he the kind of person that would take comments like that and feed it into his determination? Or was he the kind that would feel crushed and defeated and think, “Who am I to think I could become anything more than I am right now?”

White people seem to have a hard time reconciling racism in people we love and respect. We tend to only label it when it’s big and obvious: angry white men yelling “Jews will not replace us” through the glow of their tiki torches. And shockingly, not even then sometimes.

We want to explain away the day-to-day examples. We want to believe it doesn’t exist – that we are “post racial” in this country. (Anyone who still believes that now is seriously sticking their head in the sand.) I’d like to think that if you could grade a white person on their attitudes about race, I’d be above average, but what does that matter? Why should that be “good enough”? How can I even measure that?

With regard to my professor, I sometimes think, “Well, he was a really old guy. He came from a different time.” And while that might explain it, it should not excuse it. But I also don’t think one flaw in a person should spoil the whole. As a country, we are trying to come to terms with the fact that so many of our “great” Founding Fathers owned slaves.  We somehow have to hold in balance that their ideas and dedication formed this country and they deserve to be revered for that while at the same time they “owned” other human beings and they shouldn’t get a pass on that failing. (Yes, they were a product of their time but other people in that time fought to end slavery, so even then, many people knew it was wrong.) Some of us want to cling to the greatness while ignoring the slavery while others want to dismiss the greatness because of it. Is there room to do both?

We can change. Both our country and the individuals in it. I remember back in 1999. My great-grandmother was 99 years old and living in a nursing home. My mom (or one of my aunts?) was visiting her when one of the nursing assistants came in. As she left, my great-grandmother said, “That {N word} nurse is pretty good.” There was a brief pause. “They don’t like to be called that anymore, do they?” My mom responded, “They never liked being called that, grandma.” Great-grandma nodded thoughtfully. Even at that age, beset with dementia, wondering why God hadn’t called her home yet, she was learning and changing. Surely we all can too?

My thoughts on this topic are all muddled and in some cases contradictory. I know we have to do better and that includes me. There aren’t any easy answers, but the first pivotal step for white folks is to quit thinking we know it all. We don’t know the black (or brown) experience in this country. We are arrogant fools to tell them they are wrong about what they observe with their own eyes, what they experience in their own skin. We need to listen and watch and learn and grow and THINK. It’s not just the tiki-torch wielding bigots. It’s even more so all the little assumptions and slights made by each and every one of us every day.

Playing the Game

We found ourselves in Kansas City for a wedding this past weekend.  My husband had done some homework and found that the Kansas City Royals would be playing the Detroit Tigers that Sunday afternoon.  For reasons that we do not understand, the Tigers is Daryl’s declared favorite team.  We do not understand this because a) we live nowhere near Michigan and b) we never watch baseball.  Our only guess is that they were the opposing team when we went to a Rangers game last year and Daryl likes to be contrary.

I had concerns about getting home sometime after midnight on a school night, but my husband insisted that the “family day” activities would be a great experience and a lot of fun.  And they could sleep in the car.  Right.

Anyway, he was right that it was a lot of fun.  We enjoyed the free face painting and balloon animals, carousel rides and miniature golf.  All the kids got a souvenir and got it signed by Slugger, the mascot.  We shared “nachos in a helmet” – a plastic batting helmet full of nachos.

As we settled in for the start of the game, however, I had a conversation with Jane that made me sad.  We had great seats – up high, but directly behind home plate.  They were announcing the players and people were finding their seats.

Seemingly out of the blue, Jane commented, “I can see why Auntie Grace gets so upset about equality.”

I looked around, wondering if there were some scantily-clad “cheerleaders” somewhere, but I didn’t find any.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, all the big sporting events that people go to see.  They are always men.  I mean, there are softball teams but there aren’t big stadiums and professional teams that people go to watch.  And women can’t even play football at all.  It’s really not fair.”

“That’s true,” I said.  And I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

In fact, there’s not much to say that would make her feel better.  Here’s a girl – a very strong and athletic girl, who is just reaching a competitive sporting environment and what does she see ahead of her?  Those boys playing football are not working harder than she is.  They aren’t more competitive than her or more dedicated.  They practice more than her team does, but not because of a lack of dedication on the girls’ parts.  They practice more because we live in Texas and this state is bat-s**t crazy about football.

No, the fact is that this is the society we live in.  People go to watch men’s sports more than women’s sports simply because that’s the way it’s always been.  They grew up rooting for their favorite football or baseball team.  You can start a women’s professional basketball or soccer league and the players can be really good, but people aren’t going to go because… well… they aren’t invested in those teams.

Add to that the persistent perception so many have that women are the “weaker” sex.  And that most sports spectators are men and many of them have this fear that an interest in women’s sports might somehow reduce their manliness.  And then there’s just the general skew of society toward all things male and things aren’t likely to improve too much in her lifetime.

So what can I say?  I can point out men who do support women’s athletics, like my mom’s boyfriend.  I can remind her that in the long run, she’s better off depending on her mind than her prowess on the volleyball court anyway.  I can urge her to stand up for equality when she can.  I can try to teach her the nuances of living in this world female.  I can encourage her to fight for change but not get disheartened when it is slow to come.  I can point out how much better off she is than her great-great grandmother was.  And I can agree, that yes, it really is not fair. Now, honey, let’s enjoy the game anyway.

The Best Christmas Ever

Our Christmas tree is still up and decorated. In fact, Hal just turned the lights back on today. The first week after Christmas was spent out-of-state, visiting family. The next, out-of-town to celebrate our anniversary. The most recent was full, first with a funeral and then with resuming school and work. I am telling you this so that you understand it is still Christmas at this house, and thus not inappropriate at all for me to finally get around to blogging about the best Christmas ever. I was too busy enjoying it to write about it at the time.

Christmas 2012 did not get off to a particularly auspicious start. The 11:00pm Christmas Eve service was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. We all attended in our pajamas, including my husband in his footed smiley-face PJ’s that I had just given him. That drew a few looks.

No, the service that heralded the arrival of Christmas Day was nice and the drive home was uneventful. I was worried about what such a late bedtime would do to the day, but not too much. The problems started when we got home. Hal did not want to use the bathroom before retiring to his bed and a tantrum ensued.

Once all the children were settled, I needed to wrap just two or three presents and stuff the stockings. That took well over an hour. I finally went to bed around 1:30 or 2:00 and wondered how late the children would let me sleep.

Not long, as it turned out. A serious thunderstorm moved in by about 2:30, waking Hal. I stumbled into his room to comfort him. I struggled for a long time before I got back to sleep. The wind picked up and a loud metallic thwacking sound woke me around 5:00. I asked my husband if that was the new roof coming undone.

“Probably.”

“Do we need to do anything about it?”

“Like what? I’m not going out there in this.”

He had a point. Besides, the old shingled roof was still under the metal of the new one. No way I was getting back to sleep, however. I lay there listening until the sound changed to something bounding down from the roof. And then silence.

“There,” my pragmatic husband said, “It blew off. Happy?”

Before I responded, the next strip of the crown began to rattle. Sleep was a distant memory by this point.

Things improved once I gave up on sleep, though. My husband had once again managed to slip something under my pillow undetected. He hates wrapping, so this has become our new tradition. I already knew I was getting a Kindle Paperwhite, but I still don’t know when he managed to slide it under there.

As I passed through the living room, I saw a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in my stocking that I had not put in there the night before. So he hadn’t forgotten about my stocking either – another nice surprise. I added the toppings to the breakfast strata started the night before and put it in the oven.

Then it was stockings and presents time. Hal passed out the stockings, such a good Santa’s helper. All of them distributed gifts. Just like last year, though, there were no names. Last year were numbers and they’d have to ask me which number was whom. This year, they were letters. Perhaps this will become a new Christmas puzzle. As they heard who was each letter, I asked them what the formula was. I gave them a hint that I couldn’t put the appropriate leter on Daddy’s gifts because it was a duplicate of someone else’s. Daddy figured it out (2nd letter of their middle names). No one else did.

Jane unwrapped four nested boxes, each wrapped individually, before uncovering her mp3 player. Daryl received a used Nintendo DS, given to us by a friend to give to the kids. He immediately declared this the best Christmas ever.

And so it was, but not because of the gifts. When we were done unwrapping, we ate the strata. And then… then we just were. Most Christmases would have seen the hustle and bustle of preparing for a long trip. We would have been packing suitcases and piling into the car to travel the four hours or so to relatives in Oklahoma.

But Oklahoma was forecast to get hit by a blizzard. We had decided the day before that we would delay our trip by 24 hours. We had no idea how life-changing that decision would be.

After breakfast, we just enjoyed ourselves. We set Pandora to play Christmas music. People tried out their new electronics. We played some games and worked some puzzles and read and ate and relaxed. And shouted in excitement when we looked out the window and saw snow! Snow, on Christmas Day, in Texas. No one even changed out of their pajamas, except to go play in the snow.

I looked up at my family at one point and wondered, Is this what Christmas is like for other people? Christmas has never been a relaxing time for me, not even in childhood.

As a child, I remember opening presents at home and then almost immediately leaving the house to go… somewhere. Christmas Day usually included 2 or 3 extended family gatherings. The usual routine was to head over to my maternal grandparents’ house for lunch and Christmas with my mom’s family. At some point, sometimes before lunch and sometimes after, mom would drive us to my paternal grandmother’s house and we’d have Christmas with my dad’s family. Mom would then pick us up and we’d have dinner and Christmas at my step-dad’s parents’ house with his family.

It got even more complicated when I married. My husband brought with him Christmas obligations to his dad’s family, his mom’s family, and his step-dad’s family. Some families adjusted to celebrating Christmas on a day other than the 25th, but we usually still had at least two places to be that day, often more.

Shortly before we had our first child, we decided that we wanted to be able to attend our own church’s Christmas Eve service. That meant attending worship and then hitting the road, arriving at my mom’s house around 2:00 Christmas morning.

When the kids arrived, my husband began to agitate for change. He wanted to celebrate Christmas at our house. I wanted to avoid hurting people’s feelings. The compromise that stood for years was the Christmas Day travel. This allowed us to worship at our home church, open presents at our house, and still make it to Christmas obligations back home. I had been trained to believe that the right thing to do was to cram everyone in, jumping from one place to another, making sure we made an appearance everywhere.

This time, though, we actually found ourselves with no family meeting on Christmas Day. We still planned to travel that day, so suggested to my dad that we celebrate that night. And then we got word of the weather. There was no problem changing plans with dad. No reason we had to travel that day. No place to be until 6pm the day after. Why not stay home? It was such a novel idea for us.

The experience was ground breaking for me. Earth shattering. Tears-down-the-face significant. I sat at the table, watching my family just exist, with no place to go, no obligations to meet, no phone calls or appointments or errands, and I cried. My husband looked at me and smiled.

“Do you need a hug?” he asked. I nodded and he rose from the table.

“I’ve never had this before,” I said into his chest as he hugged me tight. “Not ever, not once in thirty-eight years. I’ve never just stayed home and relaxed on Christmas Day. This is amazing.”

We didn’t have to speak the words then or now, but we know what we are doing next year. The 26th is soon enough to travel for family. The peace of Christmas will descend on our household again. It is the only day that we can truly just be still and be together. I never understood how special that kind of time is. But now that I’ve experienced it, I am not giving it up.