Part One: Are You Buying What Back-to-School is Selling?

August 18, 2017: I am re-posting my conversations with Michelle S. Hite, friend and Assistant Professor in the English Department at Spelman College, from 2015. It is back-to-school season and the topics we discussed are just as relevant, in fact they are timeless. This is the first of a three-part discussion.

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I met a mother in the comments section of a post I wrote for The New York Times Motherlode blog this past February. Isn’t that how we meet people now?

Her comments were aligned with my own but more than that they were knowledgeable, challenging and potent. I wanted to know what informed her ideals and beliefs. After some searching online I found her email. Fortunately for me, Michelle didn’t think: Stalker. But, instead she thought: Kindred spirit.

Two weeks ago Michelle introduced me to the notion of oppositional consciousness in parenting. I was intrigued primarily because it challenged my ideas about educating and advocacy. We decided to discuss this more through the timely topic of: Back-to-school. This is a three-part conversation I will be posting throughout the week.

I am having a conversation with Michelle S. Hite who is a Assistant Professor in the English Department at Spelman College. She has been married for fifteen years and is the mother of a six-year-old boy named Miles. 

Kari: It’s hard not to notice that what permeates any back-to-school commercial is purchasing the coolest and most coveted school supplies and the necessity of dressing on trend. The message is fit in, even rise above or else. Consider Famous Footwear using ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as the soundtrack to remind the anxious they will be noticed—“This isn’t just the start of school this is the New Year.”

For the cautious consumer, a great deal of skepticism surrounds being noticed. How will my child be recognized? How will my child be treated by others given how s/he is perceived?

Given all that, Michelle, how do you prepare Miles to be himself on that same day?

Michelle: Miles knows that he has a choice of fitting in, rising above, hanging out, or staying around for any foolishness pertaining to social expectations. I think he understands that because I tell him as much. I never suggest to him that his life isn’t already full; that he needs more of something. In fact, I tell him that he is over-flowing with love from home. When kids are mean, he doesn’t own their behavior. We talk about such things as being “out there,” and not here where it matters. For me, that strength to move so confidently in the world is the work of HOME.

Kari: If a child is marginalized– by society’s standards– in some way that deems them “Other” how do they stand a chance with the uniformity that is promoted?

Michelle: I think that depends on where the source of the “othering” is coming from. If it’s coming from other children and their false authority is being sanctioned by adults with true authority, then you fight for them. If the end game of your fight is for acceptance and inclusion, then you’re playing a game whose outcome is out of your hands. You’re on firmer ground when you say to yourself, “my kid is whole.”

Here’s an example from my own life: I pick Miles up from school one day, and he reveals an incident that took place involving [a substitute teacher]. The substitute accepted the reporting of another student that my son said that he hated her. Even in recounting his story to me, Miles was pleading his case. Rather than allow for this defense, the teacher hushed him and forced him to accept his classmates blatant lie.

Interestingly, this scenario was not documented in his agenda like the other petty offenses. If Miles had not told me the story, I never would have known about the behavior of the adults whose judgement I found questionable. In speaking with the teachers regarding this matter, I was sure to identify race as a factor in the teacher’s acceptance of a child’s lie, the attempt to suppress my son’s voice, and the erasure of the episode from the record. Even though we made the choice to enroll Miles in a predominately black school, we also understand that faulty notions of racial superiority are ideological. White people, black people, and all kinds of people maintain and perpetuate crude ideas about human subjectivity as it relates to identity. Among his peers, Miles does not have to explain his skin color, hair texture, family configuration, speech, or academic readiness. This is not always the case with his teachers, and that is where I come in.

How about you, Kari? How do you respond to people’s attempts to marginalize Thorin? Have you found your response effective? What results have you sought in correcting poor judgement, tacit acceptance of cruelty, or abuses of power?

Kari: Let me tell you this first. The only time I placed undue emphasis on back-to-school was when Thorin’s entered kindergarten a couple years ago. In preparation for the first day, I spent way too much time deciding on what he should wear. If I had left it up to him that day — control freak parent here– he would have dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. Instead he wore a brown Hawaiian wedding shirt with white stitching, brown and yellow madras shorts and leather sandals accessorized by a Avengers backpack. I fretted. I wrung my hands. I paced in the kitchen.  Ward said: “Kari, no matter what he wears they will know he has Down syndrome.”

That was it. I wanted his outfit and his backpack to be stand-ins for what is normal. They would signal what we believed in our family about Thorin: he is no different than other children. My husband also reminded me: “Thorin is okay with Thorin.”

I am ashamed to admit that year I was grateful for him being treated kindly. In fact they did more than that. He was treated by his peers as a Rock Star which I was also grateful for and later I found my son found degrading. He said it made him feel like: “a baby.”

Michelle, I keep thinking about ‘oppositional consciousness’ — this gift you have given me to consider. I think I have been moving toward that target unconsciously — namely with home schooling. And– just in the last few days I realized Thorin has always been there.

Is oppositional consciousness solely a political process? Is it organic? Is it what our hearts and souls move toward naturally? Tell me your thoughts.

Michelle: Rather than accepting the inevitability of the values and goods being marked as desirable, having an oppositional consciousness enables you to challenge any generally assumed mandates.

Just as Thorin was able to report his own reading of how he was treated by his classmates, having an oppositional consciousness means that you are rather confident in your ability to assess your world and your experiences in it.

It would be nice if all hearts and souls naturally moved towards organically developing habits of being in the world rooted in freedom, truth, and peace; this isn’t the case. If it were, all old/elderly people would be wise; at peace and certain of themselves.

Capitalism does not welcome those with an oppositional consciousness given its goal of creating strong markets. Those with an oppositional consciousness aren’t buying what is being sold without questioning its value, significance, or use; like how I’m not buying beauty being observable through the embodiment of those undernourished women who model Victoria Secret underwear.

Kari: True! And, funny. I also find it funny that WordPress will not recognize the word ‘oppositional’ as existing. It puts a red underline whenever I type it. I think it’s a conspiracy:)

Part two tomorrow: Picks up with raising a child using an oppositional consciousness

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