Last month my daughter told me she was searching for something new to read. My memory lit up like a Christmas tree as I thought of books from my childhood that might interest her. I requested several of them from the library, and picking them up felt like receiving a collection of nostalgic gifts.
Wouldn’t you know she didn’t open even one.
I couldn’t bring myself to return the books unread, so one by one, I reopened pages that seemed as connected to my past as any other memory. Homecoming...Bridge to Terabithia...Hatchet...Homesick...My Side of the Mountain...and...Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
And it’s funny. I noticed that aside from overwhelming nostalgia, I barely remembered the texts. I recalled my local children’s librarian commenting on how she had a very different experience as an adult with the books she first read at a young age.
But as I made my way through the short stack of childhood classics, I noted repeated themes and considered how they shaped my interests and the way I live my life. It could have happened the other way around. I could have already had the interests that attracted me to these books in the first place. But either way, noticing the connections drew these characters -- and the authors behind the stories -- even closer to my heart.
Dicey Tillerman (Homecoming) and Jess Aarons (Bridge to Terabithia) both have a love for running. Many of the stories (Homecoming, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) involve survival strategies -- whether in the city or in the wilderness or in a hostile and segregated society. These stories value imagination and time spent in nature. They involve siblings relying on each other (Homecoming, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), or kids relying on themselves (Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain). They all share a longing for home, for a new home or for a restored home.
At the end of several journeys, characters learn independence. They also learn how to be contributing members of a group. All of the characters draw closer to their families and see themselves more clearly as members of those families. Some of the characters are also challenged to question how they fit into society.
I’m not sure I picked up on the theme of community during my first reading of these stories. This time through though, I also paid attention to the changing attitudes of the societies the characters found themselves in...as well as those societies’ attitudes toward change. I read these stories in the context of time, noting their publication dates and the origins of their authors.
It’s funny how when you’re a child, the past constitutes anything that was yesterday or before. And today is the only today you know. To a child, the world is much more black and white.
As an adult I read these stories in the context of our living history, where even centuries produce very little change, and where most of us live in the gray.
Mildred D. Taylor based her work Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) on her father’s memories from the Great Depression. She describes grownup issues like WWI and racism and reconstruction and the Civil War and slavery. But she presents them through a child’s eyes and through a child’s troubles. As Cassie Logan learns self-respect and independence, she also learns about expectations society forces upon her. The Logan children, like most children, spend a lot of time and energy into making friendships and trying to figure out what makes a good friend. They learn that their society has placed limits on who they can be friends with. Their dad describes the way things are. He adds that someday things may change, but that they haven’t yet.
“We Logans don’t have much to do with white folks. You know why? ‘Cause white folks mean trouble. You see blacks hanging ‘round with white, they’re headed for trouble. Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends, but right now the country ain’t built that way. Now you could be right ‘bout Jeremy making a much finer friend that T.J. ever will be. The trouble is, down here in Mississippi, it costs too much to find out….So I think you’d better not try.” (158)
I cried more and felt more indignation at the injustices in Taylor’s story than I remember feeling when I was a child. It may be that I have a better understanding of history now, or that I have a better understanding of how these issues are ongoing, how the roots of racism still flavor the culture of today. Or maybe it’s harder to read now through the lens of being a mother -- it’s so hard to explain injustice and crime to your kids. For example, after the Las Vegas shooting in the fall of 2017 my kids noticed that the flags in front of the schools were flying half mast. I decided to tell them why. They were quiet for a moment, and then my oldest son asked in a small voice, “Then Mommy, bad guys are real?” It was a moment of crushing reality.
Decades later, when the Logans are grown and when Sam Gribley from My Side of the Mountain (1959) runs away from NYC to live off the land in the Catskills, society still hasn’t changed. Toward the end of Jean Craighead George’s tale, Sam’s English Professor friend breaks the reality of it to him:
“Let’s face it, Thoreau; you can’t live in America today and be quietly different. If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you and you won’t be different anymore.” (168)
These characters bravely fight for the change they can, even when you know it’s futile or slow-going. As Cassie’s father explains,
“I want these children to know we tried, and what we can’t do now, maybe one day they will.” (165)
These books also touch on the theme of learning to trust. Dicey Tillerman doesn’t trust policemen or any grownups; she finally takes a chance on a couple of college students and shares her story. Jess Aarons is taught not to trust rich people. Cassie Logan is taught not to trust white people; her brother is told not to be friends with them.
I think of this from a parent’s perspective now and realize that who we teach our kids to trust depends on our socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Take this example: if your child finds himself lost, who would you advise he seek out for help?
Would you buy him a smartwatch with texting/phone features to contact you directly and so circumvent the problem? Would you tell him to stay put where he is and that you will find him? Would you tell him to seek out a police officer or some other official in uniform? Or would you tell him to avoid the police?
The advice I’ve latched onto is to have your child memorize your phone number as soon as they are capable and then advise them to seek out a mother and ask if she can call home. In a recent discussion on safety, my family brainstormed where to go for help in different situations -- places like libraries, schools, and neighbors’ homes. And I did tell my kids they could speak to someone in uniform, like a policeman or fireman. (I am also preparing bright neon shirts with our phone numbers printed on them for our upcoming trip to Disney World.)
Now, to tie all of these themes together, I have a love for running...and for disaster films where characters have to work out how to survive in intense and ever-changing circumstances (2012 and The Day After Tomorrow are two all time favorites!). I remember trying to run away from home at least once...and not getting beyond the packing process (there was too much I wanted to bring with me!). I remember enjoying multi-day excursions into the Northern Wisconsin wilderness as part of overnight camp. And since then, I feel the restorative value of the great outdoors every time I getaway for a nature fix.
I have learned that I value having community around me. I want my own kids to have a better understanding and sensitivity for how communities form within the norms of society. I want to foster our imaginations to dream of how society still needs to change and then help work towards those goals. Then maybe someday my children will reread the books of their youth and see how far we’ve come.
In the spring of 2018, members of the Black Student Union at our local high school posted videos on the internet of students describing experiences of racial discrimination and microaggressions. Shortly following this, a group of parents came together to ask how they could best support these students and how they could work for change throughout the school district to foster a sense of belonging and value to all students. I sat in on that initial conversation and left prompted to ask my children’s elementary school if we could form a discussion group around race. The school said they would be happy to form such a group during the following school year.
Through no further effort of my own but through the collective effort of those already involved in this work, last month my children’s elementary school hosted an event called “Courageous Conversations”. A flyer invitation to the school community and family members asked us to consider how race and culture affect us. It also asked us to consider how we talk to our kids about these topics.
On the evening of the event my husband and I filed into the classroom arranged for the event. We were invited to partake in a buffet dinner and mingle with the school staff, teachers, parents and other community members in attendance. I was a bit nervous because I knew I’d likely need to share something from my own experience. At least I knew enough now not to hide behind the “but I don’t really have a race or culture” assumption that I held for much of my youth. My book club’s reading and discussion of Debby Irving’s Waking Up White helped a lot with my own awakening and awareness of the culture I both live in and create with my actions. Still, I didn’t know what would be worthwhile to share in this setting.
I pushed my fears to the side as I chatted with the parents around me, meeting some new faces and reconnecting with some I had met several years back at community playgroups. I realized then that I knew many more people and had made more connections in the City of Cambridge than I ever had in the sleep bedroom community where I was raised. Age and intentionality had a lot to do with that, I suppose, and it made me feel good to know I was surrounded by such a supportive, diverse, and friendly group of people.
The facilitators did a beautiful job introducing a sensitive topic with a smile and encouraged those in the room to get to know each other through a few different small group discussions, beginning first by sharing a personal goal for the evening. Did we want to meet someone new? Ask for advice? Not feel alone?
Meet someone new! That sounded like a safe goal. I had already done that in fact. It was in the bag. But as I rose like an obedient school child to find a couple of faces to sit with, I wanted to be a little more open with them. Earlier that week my five-year-old and seven-year-old kids and I had discussed race and history in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr., whom my kids had learned about in school. I had that conversation foremost in my mind.
Knowing we didn’t have much time in our small groups, I quickly shared my concerns about how to talk to my kids about race. I shared that I often didn’t know where to start. I know they have questions, and I wondered if I could learn from other parents techniques for approaching discussions.
There. I exhaled. There was a start.
And then I listened to other parents share concerns that their children sometimes felt different or treated differently because of their race. I listened as they shared that they wondered if they were alone in those feelings.
I froze. And realized that I think I could say that my kids haven’t ever felt like they were treated differently because of their race.
The moment passed and we reassembled as a large group. We were next asked to grab three pipe cleaners each and bend them into shapes that define parts of our identity. Then we were supposed to interweave the three parts. Once finished we sought out new faces once again, and we shared core parts of ourselves. I had made a house with a book and a cross connected to it to symbolize my identity as a housewife, a reader and a Christian.
Once back in a large group formation several people shared their creations with the greater group. Some people had depicted hobbies but others had representations of their race or culture. We laughed about our lack of artistic ability and we applauded other people’s creativity.
But the mood changed when a facilitator asked anyone with a red pipe cleaner to please hand over that part of his or her identity. She circled the room with a bucket to receive the red pipe cleaners and asked each person to name the part they had to give up. The bucket came closer to where I was at the bottom of the horseshoe of chairs. I held my pipe cleaners in plain sight to honestly show that I didn’t have a red pipe cleaner, but I held my breath anyway, a little worried she might still take something from me. The bucket passed me by, and when the collection was completed she placed the bucket outside the classroom in the hallway and closed the door. She then calmly explained how every day children are asked to leave pieces of themselves outside of the classroom.
The classroom was now silent but the emotion was palpable.
“How does that make you feel?” our facilitator asked.
And we noticed some of us were crying. Some of us were angry. And I felt both guilty about the relief I’d felt when I was spared and helpless to assist those who were affected.
We transitioned to watching a two-minute video about the importance of talking to our kids early and often about race, and it was in yet another small group discussion following that when I identified and named many of my struggles with talking about race and culture. First, I shared my hesitation to name the color of a person’s skin. Do I use the term black or African American? Do I talk about skin color as dark or light? Or in terms of colors from the crayon box? Peach? Brown? I didn’t voice it then but I also realized that I usually had conversations about race in segregated groups. I felt unpracticed and on the spot discussing these things in an integrated group.
But I shared a bit more -- because somehow as fate would have it my kids and I had had several conversations about race that week already, beginning with a discussion about how a child’s skin color can differ from his or her parents’. We can’t assume that kids are adopted. But how can I acknowledge naturally that white women can bear brown skinned children? And how do I describe the parents? Do I call a couple a mixed race couple? Or an interracial couple? I shared my hesitation over which language to use and how I always second guess myself after I do describe someone.
I shared my burning question to know how to talk to kids about race. I was searching for the right words, the right amount of history to dole out at a time in a way that would be developmentally appropriate.
Another parent pointed out that I perhaps shift my focus slightly. She thanked the woman leading our group for her constant smile as an example of how to approach this topic naturally. She noted the importance of relaxed body language and how that invites our children to ask questions -- questions we might not have the answer to but should encourage discussion of anyway. I silently acknowledged that I have an easier time discussing hard things with my kids while we’re in the car and they can’t see my face or body. The car conversation leaves room for silence. It leaves room for me to say, “I don’t know, but that was a good question.” Perhaps the how is more in the way you speak, I realized, and not solely in the choice of words.
As we returned to the large group one last time the facilitator encouraged us to talk to our kids early and often about race. She noted a study that found that black children come to a racial awareness around age 3 whereas whites come to a racial awareness around age 38. There was a collective gasp in the room, and I somewhat sheepishly cheered for myself since I beat the average by a few years (I read Debby Irving’s book when I was 35).
She suggested we can change that if we are intentional and natural about our children’s education of racial awareness. She recommended books for our reading -- Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey for adults, and Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin to read with our kids.
A perfect ending, I thought to myself. I would order those books from the library. We could do this. Books are a great way to begin.
I also remembered that we had other materials in the house that could spark conversation. Borrowing an idea I read about in Banaji’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People which I wrote about here, we gave our kids a memory game called “I never forget a face” depicting faces from all over the world. The idea is to put in sight pictures of people you might not run into every day. One of Banaji’s examples remains stuck in my mind: that of a construction worker wearing a hard hat nursing her baby.
At home over the next few weeks I wondered if we were already beginning to change the culture. My five-year-old is especially full of questions about race, and I have to hope that immersing ourselves in an integrated community is a great place to start. And when we read The Day You Begin and another picture book by Jacqueline Woodson called The Other Side, I tried to point out the themes and silently noted the similarities between The Day You Begin and Woodson’s memoir Brown Girl Dreaming which my book club read earlier this fall. The Day You Begin features a main character who at first feels too different and uninteresting to speak. By the end though, she discovers she has a story to share with the world. She also learns that in sharing it she makes unexpected friends.
A couple of years ago one of my pastors and his wife were speaking about how to talk to our children about God. They encouraged us to just make it part of our regular conversation -- to be natural in spiritual things and spiritual in natural things, to always be on the lookout for a conversation.
I now think it might be the same with racial education -- to be natural about it we need to be looking for opportunities. And wouldn’t you know, not two days later I found one while my children and I were reading Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox by Susan Blackaby. This children’s book centers around two animals who begin as enemies but learn to find common ground and embrace differences. Embedded in a story about nature and seasons and learning to cope with change and waiting are beautiful metaphors for the work we can do in our own lives to the benefit of our own communities. If we would just have the courage to begin the conversation.
Last month my family was able to participate in our church’s Winter Family Getaway at a local hotel. Our family and marriage pastor organizes two retreats a year for families -- one in the winter and one in the summer. We attended both events last year and made such fond memories that we definitely wanted to sign up again. We also anticipated the annual post-Christmas energy crash and knew it would be helpful to have a big event to look forward to come mid-January. Turns out, when registration opened for the Getaway back in November, we were the first family to sign up!
This year I had very clear reasons for setting aside the time and energy for this trip. Here was an opportunity to play together as a family, to get to know other families in the church, to spend time praying and worshiping God together and to have dedicated teaching time for the adults in the areas of parenting and marriage. Here was a chance for our kids to play with the other kids in the church and learn from middle school, high school and college-aged role models who performed skits and led games and crafts.
And when I saw theme for this year’s weekend -- Home Tones -- I felt like the weekend was designed for me personally. I have been struggling to maintain a good attitude at home given the constant challenges of navigating the emotional and physical needs of small children. I find myself grumbling and complaining a lot and spending little time delighting in my children. I could definitely use a recharge and a few new techniques, especially heading into winter when everything becomes a bit more difficult from lack of sunlight and feeling cooped up in the house.
Wouldn’t you know that on the first night of a two night stay I came down with a stomach bug and spent our one full day of the retreat semi-conscious in our adjoining hotel rooms. And after Kyle threw up at breakfast on the first morning, he joined me in the time out zone. It turns out though that a hotel is a good place to be sick. They sell ginger ale and Instant Noodles in the lobby. There were activities to amuse those who were healthy as well as meals to feed them (so I didn’t have to cook!). And when a snowstorm whipped through and left single digit temperatures in its wake, we didn’t have to go anywhere.
But I missed half of the teaching -- the teaching I knew I really needed! Post-retreat and once healthy again, I decided to reflect on the material, beginning with the featured Bible verse:
“Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.” Colossians 3:16 (NLT)
Our pastor selected this Bible verse for the kids to memorize and then wrote a song to drive home the core message embedded in its words as well as practical ways to brighten the tone of our homes. Filled with the message of Christ and thankful hearts, we are equipped to follow these practices:
1. Playing together
2. Praying together
3. Giving our treasures
4. Learning to forgive
Together we play
First, we can create great home tones by having fun together! Our family reviewed a handout of suggestions with instructions to pick a few. Our kids immediately latched onto the option of a video game tournament. (We don’t yet have any game system, although I think this in our short-term future.) Hide and seek ranked pretty high in our priorities too.
To God we pray
Second, we can pray together. This was one of the lessons I missed, but from the handout I gathered that the idea was to learn to pray in a broader way that just asking God to fill our wants and needs. The handout suggested considering four types of prayer:
A = Adoration (praising God and expressing our love for Him and His attributes)
C = Confession (repenting of our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness and grace)
T = Thanksgiving (thanking God for his many blessings)
S = Supplication (praying for your needs/desires and the needs of others in our community and our world; seeking the strength to be his ambassadors to build his kingdom)
Our treasures we give
Third, we can give our treasures -- our time and our money. The corresponding handout gave suggestions for ways kids can serve and work around the home, according to their age level. For kids who receive an allowance or who work for money, it also suggested teaching the concepts of tithing and savings. Further, it gave suggestions for how to spend money well -- to divide the money between using it to bless others, to buy things we need and to buy wants.
We learn to forgive
By the fourth lesson (and final morning) of the retreat, I was back in decent enough health to make it down to the ballroom to participate. We learned a technique for practicing forgiveness called The Peace Walk. Our kids were a bit too exhausted to fully engage in our pantomimed peace walk, but I think they got something out of it anyway. Here are the steps of the walk to follow after a conflict:
There were so many great takeaways, too many to put all in practice right away, but these lessons gave my husband and I ideas for what to change in our household.
We wanted to renew our efforts to play games with the kids after dinner.
We already pray with the kids before bed, asking each to thank God for something, but we thought we could start to add prayers for people outside of our family.
We have been considering giving the kids an allowance. If we ever get to it, we can approach a conversation about how to divide and spend and save money. We have tried to be transparent at relevant times with our kids about how we give and save regularly, so they understand it as routine practice.
And with forgiveness? We need continual practice, and the peace walk idea, while lengthy, reminded us to take the time to foster a community of repentance and forgiveness in our home...especially since it can be too easy to give a reactionary authoritative reprimand or punishment in response to an offense.
I have to thank the mom who designed the amazing logo for this Winter Family Getaway. Such detail and dedication go into planning these events! We are signed up for the Summer Getaway later this August, and all six of us are thrilled for the chance to continue times of fun and teaching with our church family.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.