How do I explain this so the masses understand my fixation on school…ok here goes.
I love school; even when it was hard I loved school. I like learning. I’m curious. I watch historical shows, google subtopics and gobble up Wikipedia pages right down to the footnotes. I appreciated the challenge that school brought. When it came to my doctoral work, I actually liked the rhythm and pace of things even though it was grueling. The writing and rewriting…I was creating something, and it was and remains awesome.
I love school.
I’ve benefited greatly from my academic pursuits. Good job, buying a house, got a car, planning for retirement. Definitely enjoying the material trappings of hard work and earned accolades. I’m proud of my accomplishments. I had big aspirations when I was a little girl. I thought I would be an attorney someday. I realized early in college that I didn’t want to do that, but I also believed that I would earn a doctorate in something. I would one day be Dr. ABM. I have always been ambitious as hell. #heymomImadeit
Walking across that stage being hooded was an amazing feeling.
And then there’s there the reality of what it means to me to be educated.
One of the things I value most about all this schooling is that I feel like it gives me a little social privilege which can counterbalance the reality of living in black skin. I’m a little more welcome in white spaces. The education does not make me better than anyone, but it makes a lot of white people see me differently. And if white folks think I’m safe because I’m educated, well then, I might actually be a little safer while walking around in this skin. I move in circles that are sometimes uncomfortable, but I have the right letters, the right credentials, I “belong,” and so I’m safe.
It’s true what we tell our kids about working two or three times as hard to get half as far. I busted my ass, and loved it, to get *here* and one of the fruits of my labor is moving a little easier in white spaces.
Hope came along right as I was finishing my doctorate, and as helpful as being Dr. ABM at work has been these last few years, the real benefit of having $70K in educational debt comes when I step across the threshold off Hope’s school. Hope’s first summer here, she got into trouble at her summer camp and they were planning to kick her out. I met with the camp director who immediately started berating me. I held my hand up, insisted that we start over with proper introductions because I’m not going out like that—“Let’s start over. Hi, I’m Dr. ABM and you are?” By the time it was over he was apologizing profusely, Hope was allowed to stay in camp and got a promotion to junior camp counselor and I didn’t have to pay for the rest of the summer. Maybe it was the Dr, maybe not, but I know everything changed when I introduced myself as Dr. ABM. That was a moment when my privilege was extended to Hope.
I’ve found that my educational privilege has played out in numerous ways shielding Hope and I from a lot of drama. It was a lot easier for me to be *that* parent with the Dr in front of my name. The conversations always change when meeting participants who initially see me as some kind of stereotype black mother progress to seeing me as an educated professional mom. It’s always clear when some kind of back story for me and Hope is challenged and somehow the acceptable version of us is welcomed …my education somehow makes us safe, different and sadly, respectable.
This is the reality of racism, and it’s so utterly apparent to me since I finished my degree. It’s nearly stunning. In my 45 years, 8 with a president who looks like me, I’ve never been as afraid for myself or my kid’s future. I dreamed of what having kids would be like. I worried a lot about countless things, but these last few years, my fear of racially motivated harm has escalated sharply. I feel like there’s a part of me that’s always unsettled and looking to avoid the inevitable hurt that racism brings.
So, when I wrestle with my emotions around Hope’s academic experiences it’s largely motivated by fear, not by any expectations of Hope in particular. I am terrified that she won’t have this little buffer of safety that I feel like education can provide (even when it doesn’t, really). What happens when Hope isn’t covered by what little privilege I have amassed to buffer us from some of racism’s ugliness? I already worry about her various vulnerabilities. It’s not just that I want her to do well for the sake of doing well, I just worry myself sick that someone will read her wrong and she will end up in trouble or worse…dead. I don’t know if doing well on her SAT will protect her from being harmed, but my sense is that not trying will certainly not offer any protection.
I’ve started to see school as an avenue for self-protection.
So, when well-meaning, kind of shared experience having white parents urge me to let it go, to not worry about school, to let Hope handle it all and fail on her own…it’s not that I disagree, but I feel like there’s a huge part of the story of my worry that is completely unheard or not even considered.
Their stories are considered universal—everyone can and should relate because well, I’ll be frank, white is normative. Their kids fail and it’s heartbreaking. It is, but it’s not failing in a system that already doesn’t give two shits about you.
My worries about school are very different; this is about Hope’s survival in a racist world. This is about amassing elements of protection that can provide small buffers of the worst of a life routinely disrupted by racism. This is about being considered safe enough to be granted entrée into white spaces where more opportunities and resources await. This is about liberation and freedom.
The stakes feel so much higher and not just because I’m an absurd high achiever, but because I’m scared shitless. So, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely let the school thing go.
And Hope is starting to understand this. It isn’t really just about her performance; it’s about the long game. I know she struggles with her interpretation of my academic push; I also know that somewhere in there she wants to do well. I’m also keenly aware that there’s an additional layer of pressure on her because of what I’ve achieved. People see me and wonder why Hope isn’t doing better; they often assume she’s rebelling.
My desires for Hope are expansive, but honestly I just want to keep her safe. Education is one avenue to help do that. I don’t know how it will all work out. I have no idea.
I do know that being educated and working in academia doesn’t always offer the protection I wish it did. Even in my job, I feel it. I had hate mail too; I’ve had students say nasty things about me and to me. I’ve had professors say I was a “troublemaker.”
And yet, I still think it’s one of the best options we’ve got.
So, this is why I fixate on Hope and school. This is why it’s so important to me. This is why I can’t just let it go.
May 3rd, 2018 at 7:47 am
Thank you for opening my eyes. I didn’t understand the deeper issues but now I “get it” even better.
May 3rd, 2018 at 8:51 am
What a heartbreaking post. I hadn’t considered the extra layers that race adds to the problem of dealing with a kid who’s unmotivated in school. Of course, there’s always the fear of what will happen to your kid if they flake out. But now I understand that there are extra layers of fear for you about Hope.
LOVE the picture of the two of you with you in your robes. That must have been an incredible moment.
May 3rd, 2018 at 8:26 pm
It was amazing! ❤
May 3rd, 2018 at 4:49 pm
This one chilled me to the bone. What a scary place the world can be! Thank you for letting me glimpse out of the window through which you view the world.
May 6th, 2018 at 2:25 pm
This is such an important post because so very many people in this country simply do not have any idea of the reality of what comes with not having white skin. Thank you for putting the truth out.
Hoping for the best outcomes for your and daughter….. and all the children/grandchildren/great-grands still to come. It is a scary world today, I hope and pray equal humanity begins growing, rather than shrinking, again. Your post will be part of what encourages it.
May 23rd, 2018 at 10:15 am
I know this is an old post but I still wanted to reply to it. I get where you are coming from with Hope and school, because I went through it with my older daughter, who struggled tremendously in school. I had sleepless nights wondering how my daughter was going to be able to have any kind of life with her 4th grade reading level. It was not at all clear she was going to succeed in graduating with a diploma, even though she was trying. In her case, she has severe learning disabilities. It sounds like Hope’s challenges may be a little different from that, but I know how worried her struggles have made you as a mom.
The thing that I eventually realized though, is that my fears about her future and my need for her to achieve better, were running hard into the brick wall of her limitations. She sensed that I wanted her to do better, and she tried so hard to, but she couldn’t. And I think that felt awful for her.
I hoped for her to be able to go to college, which would give her a better chance of a good quality of life, and yes make her safer in this racist society we live in. But she can’t. We’re just going to have to find another way forward. And so far, somehow, it has been all right.
Hope will struggle, but she will find her path, even if it doesn’t happen in the order, timeframe or way you thought it would, or the way you think it has to.. And part of why I have faith about that is because Hope has you in her corner and always will. Just…you might not be able to see how right now, but it will eventually be ok.
May 25th, 2018 at 5:41 pm
I know I’m a broken record, but I wanted to throw out another plug for Formed Families Forward. I’ve met a couple black moms of adopted black kids with school struggles who volunteer or work with FFF, so maybe it would be a place you could connect with other parents who understand more of the intersectionality? https://formedfamiliesforward.org/about-us/