That Day my Son Felt Too White for his School: When “Belonging” and School Integration is Just Really Hard…..By Courtney | December 12, 2016
Lest anyone imagine that our school integration story has been smooth, that my offspring are always on board and willing, that all this talk about awareness and multi-racial/classial friendships has been easy, today my son came home and told that he doesn’t want to go to school there anymore.
I’ve devoted so much to this program and pushing the integrated school idea. It has become my community, and, in a way that surprises me, a big chunk of my identity, too. This is more than my son’s education.
But it IS my son’s education. First and foremost, this is his.
So I put on my best loving-mom face (but, because he is 13, I try to not look “too” caring) and casually ask him why he wants to switch schools.
Boy: Because. Because I am white.
Mom (losing all casual affect and with way too much shrill): WHAT?!? Boy, you want to go to MiddleClassSchool because you’re white? What does that have to do with anything?
Boy: The kids tease me because I am white. They say I am the teacher’s pet WHICH IS WHY I DON’T WANT TO MAKE HOLIDAY ORNAMENTS FOR THE TEACHERS LIKE YOU ALWAYS MAKE US DO. And they laugh because I don’t know the things they do, they say I don’t understand things because I am white. They think I am rich and watch rich white tv. All of it.
Mom: Rich… television???
Boy: Well, yes. But that’s not the point. I’m too white for there.
Mom (still confused): Wow, okay, but I need to know about this “rich, white tv”…
Boy: Mom! Seriously, Project Runway!?!
Mom: Oh. Right. Well… Have you told your friends that this hurts your feelings?
Boy (with eyeroll): Oh, Mom. Really!? I’m 13. WE ARE 13!
Mom: Right. Have you, you know, just owned that you are white? Like when we showed up “on time” for that party only to be told by, well, the only other person there, that these parties start at least an hour later than the invite time? Remember, we just laughed about the differences of our white people ways?
Boy: It’s not that simple. It’s just… It’s just… At MiddleClassSchool there will be other kids who are more like me. It seems easier.
Doorbell rings, dogs bark. Boy goes to finish homework, I make dinner. Moment passes. My stomach hurts.
If we need to enroll him at MiddleClassSchool, we will. But how do I know if that IS the right thing to do?
I recall my middle school years with a profound sense of horror. I was a wreck. I attended three middle schools: partly due to a move and partly because I felt, quite dramatically, that I didn’t fit in. I couldn’t fit in because I was somehow altogether different from those (also white middle class) kids. My deep belief that I would never fit in beget mysterious stomachaches and the impulse to rearrange the furniture in my room at 3am while listening to really bad rock ballads. I was soooooooooo different.
Early in high school, a popular football player friend privately confessed that he felt like a fraud and just knew he would lose his place at the cool table any minute. I realized then, in my 15 year old way, that the feeling of “not belonging” might just be one of those things that many of us share. If “Todd,” the paragon of all that is socially enviable in high school, believed he didn’t fit in, then we were all doomed to feel that, too.
My boy is in a geometrically compounded liminal space right now, everything is in-between. At 13, he is neither child nor adult; he is (bad at) both. He goes to a school that is neither middle class nor poor; it is both. He lives in a neighborhood that is both and neither, too. While I love all those neither/nor, gray spaces (in another life, I might have been a middle school teacher), it certainly must be hard to be an adolescent stuck in lots of them at once. Is this Liminal Space Effect (making that up) just too much? Or is this simply no longer working?
Maybe my son’s “not belonging” is taking the form of race/class simply because those are the most glaring places of difference in the Division-is-King land of early adolescence in IntegratingSchool? Certainly at MiddleClassSchool, middle schoolers who are just so good at noticing would find something else (the wrong socks, for example).
Maybe, too, the kid is being just being completely this age: totally self-involved. He might not be hearing how the kids harass AH for being a terrible soccer player or CF for getting sweaty when he eats spicy food or PM for getting food stuck in her teeth every day, etc. etc. If he only registers the stories in which he is implicated, his relative victimhood becomes greatly exaggerated. Is my son being overly sensitive or does he just need more support in how to deal with these things?
Though I am wondering whether this whole thing has been a misfire, too. I mean, if all integration is doing is reinforcing stereotypes, then what IS the point? I recall a study done with undergraduates who were polled before and after taking a university Introduction to Anthropology course: turns out, much to our anthropologist-chagrin, those courses often strengthened rather than challenged stereotypes. So, then, is this Integrated/ing School project just doing the same?
Or, alternatively, would we be bailing on integration when the going gets tough, right at the moment of The Real Test?
I need to listen to him, to “honor his feelings” as they say, but I also need to be the stable, sensible parent.
This Integrated/ing Schools thing does feel like a bigger “risk” than attending MiddleClassSchool. At MiddleClassSchool, I doubt I would be asking myself all these questions… I would just be talking to him about how challenging growing up can be, how this can be difficult but he is loved. I am not sure how to disentangle it all.
I broached the subject again as my son and I cleaned the dishes. I told him about my experiences, that this can be a hard time, and that his problems and feelings might well follow him to MiddleClassSchool, even if the particulars might be different. We talked about how his friends, who laugh because he doesn’t know all the Mexican-American cultural rites, are also middle schoolers who are smack in the midst of shifting from kids to young adults. All the kids are trying to figure it out…
Shockingly, he said he felt a bit better. So we will give it awhile, see what passes, and decide later.
When I am in the midst of these big feelings, it seems so huge, so all-encompassing, so dramatic. But this isn’t trying to escape Syria or deciding between spending our last bit of cash on food or medicine. It matters, yes, but it also kind of doesn’t. Trying to have perspective…. But I am not sure I feel better. This is hard.
To be continued…
**** December 2016 ~ 1 Year Later ****
He’s still at IntegratingSchool.
Throughout the second semester of 7th grade, I checked in with kid every few weeks and each time he would say that while things aren’t much better, he’s fine to wait it out. We talked at length over the summer and he admitted that things were better; in part because he was able to hear that everyone caught shit from everyone and that it wasn’t ever just his. Still, he wasn’t looking forward to going back to school but wasn’t interested in switching schools either. Maybe could he just sleep until 10am and screw around all day and not ever put away his laundry? Hahahahahaha, I hear you, kid. No.
My stomach was in knots his first day of school, terrified that the problems would have somehow amplified and that we had made the wrong decision. I tried my best to play it cool when he got home, desperately wanting to ask about his day and yet knowing that an afterschool snack would be foremost on his mind.
He came home happy – startlingly, happy (I know!). Each day that first week, he walked in the door laughing about something funny someone had said, telling me about his new teachers, talking talking talking. By that Friday, he casually admitted that he was glad we hadn’t switched schools. When I slid in some question about feeling like he didn’t belong, he replied “I think we just all grew up over the summer.”
At the end of September, we had another of our ritualistic VideoGameCutback conversations. He had been gaming online with a bunch of his school friends for hours on end and I suggested that perhaps he invite his friends over and hang out in person like, you know, people. He adamantly refused. They liked playing online. I made him look at google images of “40 year old gamer living in parent’s basement” and suggested a different trajectory for his life. I said “computer relationships are no substitute for human contact.” (Honestly, I spend a lot of time building meaningful relationships over the cyberweb and text machine and yet I was discounting his. *sigh*)
Pushing for me to reconsider my stance, the boy said “Mom. We LIKE playing online. It works for us. Can that be okay?”.
And it occurred to me that these kids had found a place where they were “equal,” where everyone started out as some blue alien on the same planet with the same set of weapons, where it wasn’t relevant whether they were playing in their own room with matching curtains/throw pillows or … somewhere else. These kids had done it, they had discovered a neutral zone where they could connect, where their differences were minimized and their similarities amplified. This was the place where they could all go on a quest together. (Yes, of course there is privilege in that these kids had access to the internet … For many of the kids growing up in poverty in our area, even as cars get repossessed or sold to cover rent, this connectivity is a valuable family priority).
Now it’s December again and a full year since the boy wanted to leave. With the distance of time and all that “growing up” the kids did over the summer, he says “I think I’ve been playing the victim card too much. It’s real that I’m the only white kid, but it’s not the only thing. It’s not, like, it’s not the only thing that has ever mattered. I’m done with that.”
I am glad he stayed. And I am glad he struggled.
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