Adoptive Families is running one of my old back-to-school blog posts as an essay in the September/October issue of the magazine, so it seems like a good time to share it again here also. What do you think? Do you try to check in with your child's teacher about adoption and/or race issues at the start of the school year? Here's my take, from my other blog, Be Bold or Go Home:
Parents are supposed to cheer when the kids go back to school, and though I relish the kid-free hours this time of year brings, it simultaneously fills me with dread. My to-do list triples overnight, and I struggle to get back in the swing of packing lunches, overseeing homework, fielding volunteer demands, and on and on. By far the most pressing task hanging over my head is the need to schedule get-to-know-you meetings with the new teachers of my three children. I feel it’s vital to be proactive in addressing the issues of adoption and race that may arise in the classroom, but I look forward to these sensitive talks about as much as I look forward to my annual mammogram.
Four years ago when my daughter Didi entered kindergarten, I felt ridiculous bringing up adoption with her teacher, a beloved figure at our school who had logged more than 30 years in the classroom. I assumed Mrs. H had heard it all from past adoptive parents, but I asked the questions anyway: Was she planning any family tree assignments that could put Didi on the spot? Would she be asked to bring in a baby picture that we didn’t have? Would she please try to keep an ear out for adoption-related teasing? I can still recall the look on Mrs. H’s face, an odd mixture of receptivity and shock.
“Have any adoptive parents brought up these issues with you before?” I asked.
With time, I’ve gotten used to seeing stunned looks on teachers’ faces. I fear that I come across as a hyper-vigilant nut each time I slide a stack of photocopied articles about adoption and school across a desk, but I persist.
Raising the specter of race in the classroom is even dicier because not only is race a subject that most people think they know all about, but it makes a lot of folks uncomfortable. Almost all the teachers at our school are white, and though nearly 20 percent of the students are children of color, I always get the feeling that I’m one of the only parents who has ever thrown the subject of race out there with a straight-forward, yet complex, question like: “My child looks different from most of the children in the class. Have you dealt with race-related comments or teasing among students in the past?”
Every time I’ve posed that question, the teacher has simply blanched before quickly recovering to reassure me that nothing like that has happened, ever. This is the moment in the meeting when I’m certain that I’ve totally screwed things up by making the teacher feel insulted or marking myself out as a rogue officer with the PC police. In these moments, I take a deep breath and share an anecdote or two about race-related comments that my kids have endured at summer camp or in the park, right here in our lovely community. I try to reassure the teacher that I’m not expecting this kind of problem at school but that I know from experience such things are possible. If any kind of teasing or bullying happens at school, including race-related incidents, I would like to work with the teacher to address it appropriately.
Invariably, I leave these meetings feeling jangly, worried, and exposed. I may actually be a hyper-vigilant nut.
Then, a week or two later, something magical always happens. Ms. M thanks me for an article in a way that tells me she read the handout and she gets it. Mr. G makes a point of mentioning that my daughter is well-liked by classmates, and I know he understands my concerns and he’s watching out for her. Ms. K excitedly shares the news that a new African American boy has just joined the class, because she recognizes how positive it will be for my son to have a classmate who looks like him. A feeling of relief and gratitude washes over me then, the sweet payoff that gives me the courage to keep putting those dreaded back-to-school meetings on the to-do list every September. In these moments, I know we're going to have another great year.