August 20, 2017: I am re-posting my conversations from two-years ago with Michelle S. Hite, friend and Assistant Professor in the English Department at Spelman College. It is back-to-school season and the topics we discussed are just as relevant, in fact they are timeless. This is the second of a three-part discussion. Click this link for Part 1 of our conversation.
Check out Macy’s back-to-school commercial. The soundtrack is Tears for Fears “Everyone Wants to Rule the World” with new lines including: “Everyone on their best behavior.”
Curt Smith, founder of Tears for Fears on the song: “The concept is quite serious – it’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes.”
Kari: How do you raise Miles using oppositional consciousness?
Michelle: Raising Miles to have an oppositional consciousness requires, as you noted in the comments, being deliberate. What he thinks, feels, likes or dislikes matters because they provide information about what makes him happy, uneasy, confident. It would be arrogant of me to tell him how he feels in his own body. I hated it when people did that to me as a child. Most of the adults who were in my life supported children’s voices and their experiences in the world.
I’m very direct and open about my feelings. When I’m sharing in this way and Miles is around, he usually affirms what I’m saying. I never let the conversation end there, however. I always spend time explaining that he doesn’t have to agree with me. Then I’ll share my reasons for disliking a book we might have read that night through a deliberate effort to communicate with Miles–whereas before, I was speaking for my own benefit. Usually, he doesn’t really understand exactly what I mean, and THAT leaves him to his own devices, with the language available to him for creating a rationale separate from mine. I’m not doing anything exceptional in this regard. I’m mostly adopting the model from my own rearing for Miles’s sake.
I direct my energy toward what I know I can enforce. On a daily basis my son is who I can impact. He is worthy of my energy. I work on Miles, not others to influence.
Kari: Michelle, I didn’t answer your question before: “How do you respond to people’s attempts to marginalize Thorin?” because it was the entire orientation of his schooling. Some of this I have never written about.
People say to us all the fucking time: in grocery stores, at school, in parking lots, other people’s homes, etc.: “There always so happy aren’t they?” To which I usually say, “Children?”
In sharp contrast to that absurd belief — Thorin didn’t have many reasons to be “happy” at school. We filed a formal complaint against an Ed Tech who bullied Thorin in school and nothing was done. When we met with our Superintendent he said: “If you tell anyone this I will say you are lying, but until these women retire I can’t really do anything.”
We found out he had to eat lunch at the “naughty boy table” for boys who couldn’t control themselves. Thorin’s sin was tapping and nudging other children to get their attention. Let me remind you he was picked up and hug so much they had to talk to repeatedly to other students. He was offered high-fives about every two seconds in lieu of actual conversation. Apparently there was no: “inappropriate touching lunch table”.
His first grade teacher said to me more than once: “He really isn’t my student. I have no idea what he does.”
They lost the only other child with Ds at the school one afternoon I happened to come early. I saw the posse that was sent out. I saw the hysterical aide who lost him. I saw a staff member just unload on this boy when he showed up. I saw everything. I told the child’s parents and the school said he wasn’t ever lost. The parents believed the school.
They promised us inclusion but what they really did was stick him at the back of the classroom all day with an Ed Tech. Essentially with regard to school they saw him as diminished, sub-par and not equal. He knew that.
Michelle: O.K., it seems as though you operate in the world with the expectation that people are rational. That may have a little to do with what looks deliberate about how I’m raising Miles. I typically lean towards assuming that most people are irrational and foolish. I assume that they are consumers of everything and anything sold in American culture. I don’t expect them to be reasonable, thoughtful, supportive, or empathetic. The world that I see beyond my doors is cruel, cold, cunning; it’s ugly. I recognize that this isn’t always the case…but when it isn’t, I’m genuinely surprised. To that end, I do not think that I have to participate in such a world as if playing by its rules always serves my interests.
To that end, there’s nothing about my participation in the world that would suggest that I have any interest in being liked. When I meet people, I tend to be formal, polite, and pleasant, but not necessarily friendly. I already know that I’m loved and liked by people who matter to me so there’s no reason to keep up the game of winning friends. Being detached in this way helps to facilitate my reading of the world that, like my reading of a book, I claim out loud. I think my direct approach to sharing my reading of the world is greatly informed by my position on inclusion. In all honesty, I know that I don’t want to be included in the foolishness that consumes some people and that influences how they behave in the world. The people you’ve described and those folk at Thorin’s former school are older versions of their mean ass kid [self]. I wouldn’t waste my time trying to point this out to the crowd; they’re too self-satisfied. I would, however, spend time pointing all of this out to Miles. “See,” I might say, “the foolishness never stops.”
Kari: I wished I had talked to you two years ago but then again maybe I would not have believed you. I have been operating as if people are rational. I was constantly disappointed in how our school system saw and treated Thorin. I thought they needed to be educated or brought along somehow. It took me too long to realize they don’t care. And they are an immovable force.
It actually took Thorin falling apart to make me realize 7 year-old boys do not make good social change agents. In fact it is not his job to change any system. There is this pressure I felt — real or not — to make this work for Thorin and for other children with Ds everywhere.
Michelle: Lots of folk never see this. There were many civil rights activists who saw their children as “social change agents” when the children didn’t want that fight. There are people who are deeply invested in realizing social change. I’m good with realizing in my own life. The agency that I have to make my world, I think, clears a space for Miles to determine where he stands.
Kari: What I find exciting– a relief actually – about oppositional consciousness is that my energy is solely toward Thorin. That is an easier way to live.
Coming next up in Part 3– we talk about acceptance as a universal need.