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All books end

Warning: spoiler alerts ahead.

Our family loves to read Elephant and Piggie.   I dryly read the part of Gerald the Elephant while Blitzen reads Piggie the Piggie with exuberant expression.

Our most-read title is “We Are In a Book.”  Our heroes romp playfully together until Piggie mentions that the book will end on Page 57.

“ENDS!?!” screams Elephant.  “The book ends?!”

“Yes,” says Piggie.  “All books end.”

We read those pages again and again, Piggie/Blitzen wisely helping her friend Elephant confront his existential dread.

 

Our latest read has been the story of Marley, a rambunctious, joyful 100-pound dog who lived life in a big way.  Before we started, Carrie and I sat down and talked to Blitzen about how the story would end.  After a few days of reading, we reminded her of the sad ending ahead and asked if she wanted to keep reading.  She responded “Yes!   I can’t stop now.  I have to keep reading about Marley!”

We read about the time Marley’s owner rode a toboggan down the snowy hill behind his house. Naturally, Marley jumped on and the two sped down, hanging onto each other, out of control, screaming, laughing and trying to steer clear of trees before landing in the river.   Blitzen loved every page of Marley’s misadventures.

We finished the book last night and the three of us sobbed together in bed, talking about endings.  We talked about our dog Stan and scattering his ashes under a tree in Central Park.

Blitzen drifted to sleep, then woke up.  “Marley was as wild as the wind,” she announced.  “I hope my dog is wild as the wind too.”

 

There will be many more Blitzen-tagged posts on Carrie’s brilliant blog.  We’re still inventing our family, still learning from one another, still in the middle of our story.   But all books end.   Foster families, like Blitzen’s beach sculptures, are monuments to uncertainty and impermanence.

Carrie and I have made a choice to live and parent like page 57 is a long way away.   When you speed downhill with someone wild as the wind you hang to each other and savor the ride.

Blitzen’s Evaluation

People in relationship with Blitzen quickly recognize that she’s brilliant in many ways — curious, creative, quick to make connections, adept at learning new skills with her body, a divergent thinker, a problem solver.  Carrie and I don’t spend much time talking about her intelligence; it’s taken for granted by all who know her, and we move on to the important stuff.  Where do mermaids swim?   When do you feel joyful?  How do you make cartoon characters?  How do you be a friend?  What do you do when you feel really angry?  How do you make Dolphin Cove into a real island?  What makes a family?  How do we change patterns of behavior?  In the book Ingo, why does the sea call to Sapphire?

Blitzen and the wonderful folks in her life are wrestling with those questions every hour.  That’s the work, that’s the joy.   We’re Team Blitzen and this is what we do.

Yesterday we received a Department of Education evaluation by email.  It came in upside down, but it can be read if you print it out or stand on your head.  It’s filled with numbers and clinical-sounding words designed to distance and intimidate.  The word deficient is used a lot.

Reports like that shouldn’t matter.  Blitzen’s brilliance is an ontological reality; her intelligence and glee exist whether or not they’re acknowledged.  My instinct, as a privileged, educated white man who does well on my culture’s bubble tests, is to ignore the upside down email and channel ee cummings:

While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

The problem is that our measuring is not benevolent.  The systems of dominance embedded in our education and child welfare institutions are have consequences in the lives of kids like Blitzen.  Evaluations like that have the effect (and, I’d argue, the intent) of separating undesirable kids from their peers and offering them an education with less creativity, less critical thinking, less joy, less humanity and less possibility.
This disproportionally affects traumatized kids, kids of color and kids in foster care.  (If you’re a footnote type, 40% of kids in care are in special education and 50% of kids in care don’t graduate from high school.)

Blitzen and those of us lucky enough to be on her team won’t have the privilege of  kissing, singing and swimming in Dolphin Cove without spending time, energy and creativity in the soul-sucking battle against the measuring instruments that prop up systems of inequity.

Andrew and I were asked to speak to a group of new recruits at our agency this weekend .  You know, break in the fresh foster parent meat.  We joined the group at the end of their last MAPP training class to share a little bit of our story, discuss some of the challenges (especially the unexpected ones!) of foster parenting and to give the group some insight into therapeutic foster care which is pretty foreign to most folks.

We talked a lot, we always do, about many things.   But I didn’t really talk about something that has been, particularly at this moment in our journey, very difficult for me – the ‘starting in the middle’-ness of fostering.  I feel as though I have picked up a great novel, perhaps War and Peace, only to begin reading on page 347  of 1498 (or whatever it is).

I have been dumped into the drama  well past the starting point.  In addition to the sense of disorientation that comes from knowing that there is a whole lot that I do not know and may well never know, there is a sense of helplessness that comes from knowing that because I missed the beginning, I am going to be clueless, and make a whole lot of stupid assumptions and corresponding missteps from now until this fine story ends.  Of course,  I understand that all parents make mistakes – that is just a human thing to do.

But it feels different.  The fear of these future errors,  looming somewhere in the distance, coupled with my very complicated feelings about Blitzen’s family of origin, have created a great and genuine sadness in me. To have been there at the beginning, not only to know, to learn, and to understand but also to have witnessed the many early, wonderful moments of Blitzen-ness, what a magnificent gift that would have been.  But alas, I am here on page 399, slowly working my way through, trying to pick up on the context clues and figure it out as I go along.

Hair

Blitzen woke up sobbing and screaming at 1:00 this morning. “I hate my hair.  Why won’t it stay straight?  Why does it have to be ugly?  I want straight, beautiful hair. Andrew, you don’t know anything about girls or hair.  You don’t know how to take care of me.  Fix it, Andrew!”

Blitzen wants straight hair.  White hair.  Disney princess hair.  The first week we met her, she called us to the tv: “Look at these girls — they have pretty hair just like me!” One was blond, one was red-headed, both had long straight flowing hair.

Fast forward to yesterday.  Blitzen’s hair had been in braids for a few weeks.  She went to the salon to get de-braided, and got her hair blown out.  Yesterday afternoon her hair was straight as Barbie’s.  We worked to cover her hair before she went to sleep, but I didn’t tie the scarf around her head right and she woke up 1:00 am with her hair back to normal: curly, gorgeous and alive.  She was furious that she didn’t look like Taylor Swift or Beyonce, and furious at me for causing the problem.

Our struggles with hair don’t make the blog much, in part because they’re obvious to the point of cliche.  Of course a black girl growing up in a patriarchal, white-dominant society that objectifies and blames her is going to have internalized racial inferiority and a complex, oversized relationship with her body and hair.  Of course that relationship will be intensified by the identity issues that come with loving both your black family and your white foster family, plus the rage and pain that come from witnessing abuse.  Frankly it’s a wonder that Blitzen giggles as often as she does.

Sadly, I play my role in this cliche: the oblivious, naive, not-so-bright well-meaning white man with an intellectual interest in racism and sexism and a bookshelf full of literature.  Today, in my sleep-deprived state, prodded by two hours of tears from a loved one who’s educating me, I feel the pain caused by white supremacy.  Tomorrow, I’ll have the privilege to intellectualize it again.

In this rare moment of being human, here’s some of what I feel.  I’m pissed that women are defined first and inevitably by the way they look. I’m pissed that Blitzen will spend her life comparing herself to a standard of beauty built and perpetuated by northern European white men.  I’m pissed that Blitzen will be exoticized, sexualized and othered before she can be listened to.  I’m pissed that Blitzen, who notices everything, get messages every day that tell her black people are thugs, criminals, bad students, bad parents, poor, dependent, superstitious, helpless and undeserving.

I’m pissed about the recordings in Blitzen’s head: “You’re not pretty.  You’re not smart.  You’re not lovable.  You’re not able to make it.”   Those are the voices of institutional racism, and they’re not from 1850, they’re in Blitzen’s head right now as she stands at the mirror with a hair dryer and a brush hoping that her hair turns straight.

What I’m really pissed off and embarrassed about is my role amplifying and reinforcing the voices in Blitzen’s head.  Blitzen moved into a home where every single photograph on the wall was of a white person; it’s pretty clear what I value.  I’ve worked exclusively for culturally white institutions, even when, damagingly enough, I’ve been “serving” primarily kids of color.

Blitzen sees me wield my white privilege like a blunt instrument every time I  sidestep the line, every time I casually break a rule knowing it doesn’t apply to me, every time I tell our agency or our school exactly what I need.  My white privilege has gotten me jobs, credit, housing, access to power, and the opportunity to raise another parent’s brilliant child.  I don’t have to use words to tell Blitzen it’s better to be white.  She notices everything, and my internalized white superiority isn’t that well-hidden anyway.

You fall in love with a kid and it means you have to get better and make the world better.  We white people, in accountability to kids and people of  color, have work ahead of us.

Even if I had tied her scarf around Blitzen’s head correctly, her hair wasn’t going to be straight this morning.  But she’s right to be furious at me.  Me and my white friends built and sustain the world that makes her hair wrong.  If we want to sleep through the night, it’s our job to fix it.

Blitzen’s School

I love Carrie’s last post, where she described Blitzen’s school as a “controlled not controlling environment.”  A couple of commenters (we love commenters) asked about the school, which is probably my cue.  I feel Carrie nudging me from 8,000 miles away.

Blitzen attends a progressive independent school that believes that education begins with the individual kid: her experiences, interests, questions, hopes and fears.

Her school values community — Blitzen works in close partnership with her nine delicious, diverse classmates and with a team of brilliant, diverse teachers.

Her school thinks that learning should be filled with exploration, discovery, collaboration, creativity, passion and joy.

Her teachers have the autonomy to follow their own talents and passions, and that of their students.  There is no pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all curriculum.  There is no standardized testing.

Her school tries to connect learning to the real world, believing that kids can make a positive impact on society right now.  It operates from a place of great privilege, and tries to acknowledge privilege and power while striving for equity and justice.

One commenter asked how Blitzen’s school compares to KIPP, a network of charter schools targeted to families in underserved neighborhoods.   My least snarky answer is that Carrie and I, like most higher SES families with an array of educational options, don’t send our kids to schools that organize around constant testing, rewards/punishment, behavioral control and classroom call-and-response. Instead, we typically choose schools where kids can create, invent, make choices, build independence and develop higher level thinking skills.  I believe that underserviced kids deserve the same thing Blitzen deserves — schools where the environment is controlled but not controlling.

Carrie and I are happy to talk about education or NYC schools with anyone interested.  Not to get all bibliography on you, but a couple organizations I appreciate are IDEA and Rethinking Schools.

Mermaid Mural

Totally awesome, applied by Blitzen and Carrie.

"An african american mermaid, just like me" said Blitzen

Creation Myths

I am in red rock country, settling, centering, quieting myself. I visited the same petroglyphs that I wrote about a year ago. And once again, I am awed by the beauty of the art carved deep in the rock, equally awed by the need of human beings to connect and communicate through space and time. To reveal their story and explain (or maybe discover?) their origins.

Lately, Blitzen has been fairly obsessed with hearing the story of the day we met. She will ask Andrew and I to tell the tale, from our own point of view and then, she’ll ask to hear it again.

I try not to get too much inside Blitzen’s head. But this new, oft repeated topic of conversation, really has me wondering what she is thinking and feeling. On some levels, it is pretty transparent, as she struggles to feel like a part of our family, this memory is something big, important, a moment that we all share. And, of course, it is the beginning. Hard to know where you should go next, if you can’t come to terms with where you have been.