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:

67916581_10156290324810778_1471174556856090624_o

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.

Circle Time

20150929_210640

Well, yes dear. That certainly is a set of more than 6 circles. Now if only you had applied the same creativity and extra effort to your writing homework…

 

20150922_071421

“Well??!!” he exclaimed. “I was trying to use all those words!”

“Ok, so maybe you try ‘I was at home and then I went to school, where I saw my teacher and gave her an apple. Then I saw my principal…” I started.

“Who had a monkey on his shoulder!” my husband added in.

“And that monkey handed me a book to read! It was the weirdest thing ever,” I finished. “Isn’t that a much more interesting story?”

“Yes.”

“When they tell you to use all the words, it’s still ok and probably a good idea to use other words too, sweetheart.”

Gotta love first grade.

Home Room Mom

My husband took our youngest child to kindergarten orientation one morning this week. He came home with a folder full of learning materials and a very excited little boy.  He also came home with a story that’s become a minor source of irritation for us.  It wasn’t even a story that upset him particularly – more a little resigned aside about people that still haven’t figured it out.

He’s been a stay-at-home dad for four years now.  While he does run a business out of our home, his primary focus is on the kids.  Before that, he worked in a nearby town and almost all matters pertaining to the kids such as drop-off and pick-up or school functions fell to me.  Now they are all his.  He doesn’t do it the same as I would and I sometimes feel left out, but he does a good job.

He gets them to school each morning.  He picks the oldest two up from school and shuttles them to any after school activities.  He’s the one who first hears how the day went.  He’s the one to run stuff back up to the school when they forget.  He attends their music lessons at school.  He’s the one that would help with class parties or presentations, etc.  If anyone was interested, that is.

And so off to kindergarten orientation he went, with his kid and about 30 or 40 adults with their kids.  At one point in the proceedings, the PTA President stood up to speak.  She was our middle child’s Pre-K teacher some five years ago.

“She kept going on about Home Room Moms and about how we need people to step up to be Head Home Room Moms and I was just thinking, ‘Really?’  I mean, about a third of the adults in that room were men,” he said.

My husband is a very helpful and involved guy.  He is.  But if you make it clear you are after moms, you’ve lost his help.  He shrugs you off and decides that you aren’t interested in his help.  And why shouldn’t he?

If the roles were reversed and some guy was actively requesting help from men when it was something you could do, would be willing to do, would love to do?  I can already hear the indignant outcry from the feminist quarters!

My husband is a feminist.  A true one, in my humble opinion.  One who recognizes that feminism is about giving everyone a level playing field, about making opportunities available to everyone.  About not treating people differently because of their gender when gender, quite frankly, is irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Some men would push their way in, just like the women of old did.  They’d defiantly sign up anyway.  They’d push the issue.  My husband’s perspective is this: I’ve got plenty to do and they are the ones asking for help.  If they can’t figure out on their own that they are missing out on a source of help… not my problem.

Some people have figured it out, at least on a semantics level.  Over the years, we’ve attended many a Meet-The-Teacher night.  There’s always a sign-up sheet for people interesting in helping with the PTA’s involvement in that room.  If the sheet says Home Room Moms, we move on – me included.  If it says Home Room Parents, he puts down his name.

Now… progress is slow, to be sure.  He’s put his name down a time or two, but I don’t know that he’s ever been contacted.  But I think that’s more a matter of small-town cliquish behavior than anything.  Or perhaps the use of “Home Room Parent” was simply an attempt at political correctness and they weren’t sure what to do once a man actually did sign up.  Baby steps, I guess.

Then again.  This is 2014.  A third of those adults at Kindergarten Orientation were men.  A third of them!  There are men stepping up to the parenting table all across this country and some people still haven’t noticed.

Happy Trails

I’m an intelligent woman. I’m well educated and I know plenty of information other people don’t know. Unless it’s pop culture. Or more specifically that stuff that people know without ever saying how they know it. The underbelly of society stuff. The stuff best researched in The Urban Dictionary.

When it comes to that stuff, I’m the clueless girl that everyone likes to laugh at.

My sister-in-law loves to play Cards Against Humanity with me. That game is like a version of Apples to Apples that has gone very, very bad. I honestly don’t know too many people who could play that game without getting offended. At least a little bit. Every once in awhile.

She likes playing with me because of a rule that says a person can turn in a card if they don’t know what the card means… provided they fess up to the group that they don’t know the term and listen to someone explain it to them.

She loves hearing what terms I’m not familiar with. And then enlightening me.

I was shocked several years ago to find out that my husband actually knew who you could buy drugs from in our high school. I seriously didn’t have a clue. No, beyond that, I didn’t think there were any fringe people at all. We were a wholesome bunch, I tell ya. All 2000 of us. Well, except maybe that guy that wore all black and had a chain hanging between his ear and nose piercings. But even him, I didn’t want to judge too quickly. Maybe he just wanted to be unique. Surely he wasn’t on drugs.

This trait of mine is apparently not genetic, however.

Jane was talking about a Skyping conversation she had with three friends: one male, the others female. I wasn’t listening too closely but I heard her say that the boy was talking and made a joke about his Happy Trail.

“What’s a Happy Trail?” I asked.

What’s a Happy Trail?!” she asked. “You mean you really don’t know what a Happy Trail is?”

“You don’t know what a Happy Trail is?” my husband called from the other room, dissolving into laughter.

“She doesn’t know what a Happy Trail is!” my daughter called back to him. They both died laughing.

“Am I ok with my daughter talking to a boy about a Happy Trail?” I asked him later.

“Probably not,” he said.

“How do you people know these things? I mean, how does it come up?”

“We just listen,” he said.

I’ve come to the conclusion that they are listening in all the wrong places. I’m just too high-brow for them and I’m okay with that. I may not know what a guy’s Happy Trail is, but hey! At least… At least I don’t know what a Happy Trail is. Or… I didn’t. Now I do. And I’m honestly confused how stuff like this reveals itself to them but not me. Am I really that clueless?

(Dear sister-in-law… don’t answer that! *grin*)

I Let Them Win

Jane had math homework tonight. The kind of math homework that requires parental involvement. I did not realize that there was such a thing, but now I know.

The homework was concerning x-y coordinates. There were four grids on the paper and places for “Player 1” and “Player 2” to record the coordinates for each of their moves. We were to play connect-4 on the grids, taking turns placing dots and writing down coordinates.

I told my husband that I’d take the first two and he could play the second two. She let me go first. I didn’t tell her that was a mistake. After my fifth turn, the game was over. She wrote “MOM” at the top to indicate that I had won.

For the second grid, she went first. It took a couple more moves, but I still won. When it became apparent to me that I would, I asked, “How am I winning when you got to go first?”

“I don’t know!”

Daddy sat down for grid three and she let him start. He won. The fourth grid took a little longer. She started and while I was in the other room, he called out, “I think she’s finally figuring it out!”

She managed to win that one. He explained to her that whoever goes first should always win.

I called from the other room, “Unless they are Jane?” We all laughed and then analyzed the progress of the games to see where she had played wrong. I suspect that was beyond the scope of the assignment, but probably a more useful education than the recording of grid coordinates.

She showed me the paper before she put it away. She had written “I let them win” at the top.