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Saturday
Apr302016

Being Black and White: A Brief History of Troublemaking

 1. 

I am 4 and sitting atop my father's shoulders. I tell this story all the time. If you know me at all then I have probably told you this story. If I haven't told you this story and ended it with tears in my eyes then I haven't properly told the story. Sometimes I am guilty of that. He is taking me for ice cream and I have begged to be picked up and get a ride. He does so and I ride all the way into the shop, ducking even when we get to the door. My father is tall, well over 6 feet and even as a young girl I was "tall for my age". Later, people will comment on my height and tell me to play basketball and I will not want to play basketball. I will love volleyball. But, at 4, I know nothing of sports. I know of making friends at the park and holding hands with other little boys and girls. I know of playing and swinging and teeter-tottering on the equipment at the playground across from where we get ice cream. 

I am 4 and he is my father and I am his daughter. I am used to the stares at 4. I think that's the way everyone is and I learn to stare at other people until one day a girl slaps me at school because of it. Sometimes, I imagine that we're famous and that's why they stare. The hard looks and angry eyes come because they are jealous of my mother who is a film actress and also an opera singer and maybe a magician, too. We hold fancy parties on the weekend with champagne flutes and tiny food on toothpicks and everywhere we go there are cameras taking our picture. But, none of this is true.

We are normal and I hate it.

But we are also a mixed-race family in the progressive area of Hyde Park where the University of Chicago brings immigrants and so much diversity that when we move to the suburbs later I ask my mother, "Where did all these white people come from?" 

And my mother is white but this doesn't bother her. She laughs at my question because I am a silly girl.

The white lady who yells at my father while I'm riding atop his shoulders points her finger in his face. She gets THISCLOSE to him and now I am frightened. It is the first time I feel the tightness in my chest that will take decades to identify as a panic attack. She makes me panic. I am panicked at her behavior and everything about this encounter scares me.

We don't get the ice cream because I keep crying and my tears have ruined everything.

 

 

2. 

I am 6 and foolishly believe that when someone calls me an "oreo" that it means I am sweet and desirable in a cookie form. My mother laughs when I tell her but this time it's not because I'm silly. She is hurt behind the eyes.

I try the word out for myself along with half-breed which my Aunt Cora calls me and my sisters. Neither of these end well. 

 

3. 

I am 10 and we have moved out to the suburbs. It is a big house with a giant yard we will have to mow for the first time. A crabapple tree is out front and when my father paints the garage door in late fall of that year I have on a pair of my mittens and touch the door to see if it's dry yet. It isn't and I leave a mark, lying about it when asked later. The next summer my aunt comes for a visit and spends a lot of time out on the porch next to the kitchen. She drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes and writes. She's a writer which means she is also a people-watcher. 

I have explored the neighborhood with friends and we fracture off, some people going home for lunch or heading back to get their bikes so we can meet up at the bridge later. The street we live on makes a huge S and winds around for what seems an eternity but from where I am it's easier to cut through yards to get home. Everyone else is dropped off and now it's just me and a white boy from a block not too far from our house. 

Whatever conversation we were having turned into something devastating for me because, by now, I know the word nigger when I hear it. It's not the first time. The first time I am far too naïve but it drips off their tongue and out of their mouth with venom attached. The first time I don't know what to say so I don't say anything. I'm just a child, how would I know how to respond to such a slur?

The white boy takes it upon himself to use the word against me and by this time we are cutting through the yard between our house and the one next door. I don't see my aunt there. She is quiet, listening to the entire conversation which is quickly escalating into an argument and I only remember looking down to make sure my tennis shoes are tied and on tightly so that if I am faced with the choice I will either:

a) beat him up and leave his bloody pulp face for the next yard-cutters to find

or

b) run like hell until I can find my older sister

My mother tells this story all the time now. Her sister witnessed him calling me a bad name and then she witnessed me finding my legs and making the decision, for the first time, to take someone on when they are mean to me. I don't have my father's long legs below me from my perch on his shoulders. These legs are mine.

When my mother asks my aunt how I responded she tells me that she narrowed her eyes and leaned in to my mother's face and shakes her head slowly from side to side and says, in a whisper-raspy voice, "She gutted him like a fish."

My mother is proud of me. She is then and she is now when she tells people how strong I am. 

We have ice cream for dessert. I think it is a prize. I will try to win at this again.

 

4. 

In junior high I begin to hear a phrase coming from some friends. Not Black enough. Sometimes, it's followed by laughter. Sometimes, it isn't. 

I don't understand when that's supposed to apply to me so every time a racist joke is told I laugh. I like Your Momma jokes. 

I shouldn't.

I try out some bad words of my own. Sometimes I get caught. Mostly, I like the way the hard consonants feel in my mouth. Too much Catholic school has made me afraid of cussing. 

But I still jump on top of a boy at the pool who calls me a nigger. I gave him a bloody nose. His mother doesn't let me cut through their yard anymore.

 

 

 

5. 

In college I am asked to declare a race. When I applied I looked for the "2 or more races" box and couldn't find it. My mother tells me that my birth certificate reads "white" because the nurse refused to put "mixed" on it. She said that since my mom is white, so am I. At the time, I looked it. Blonde hair and blue eyes that turned greenish-hazel later on. By kindergarten I had an Afro and after that it was a hair disaster. 

My mother is mad, even now, that none of my father's Black relatives or friends helped her do my hair. 

I am taken to the beauty salon my mother goes to and the stylists squeal at my curls and run their hands through it and ask, "Can I do your hair?" and when it's wet it looks like white girl hair. When it begins to dry, their faces take on a confused look of terror because WHAT IS IT DOING RIGHT NOW?

I leave every salon in tears. The always cut too much off and they never moisturize it.

My mother doesn't have to pay for any of my haircuts. Guilt makes them free.

I am 18 and have begun to fill out my own paperwork for college. After the FAFSA and taxes, I'm on my own to pick classes and take the writing sample entrance exame and get my own textbooks. My schedule is on a card, torn off from the computer printout everyone gets. 

My race reads "White" because, when I went to register, the lady saw me as white. I have giant 80s hair (but not the feathered kind because my hair won't do that) and pink lipstick so, yeah, I can see that. But I don't want it to read "White". I ask several professors and my counselor about it but the only answer anyone has is to go down to the registrars office and change it.

I go to the building shaped like a castle and take a seat until it's my turn. I tell the girl behind the counter, the one doing work-study, that I want to be "Mixed" on my paperwork. She doesn't know how to work the system and gets her supervisor who gets a "Huh?" look on her face.

I am adamant. I will gut her if she doesn't give me what I want. I ask her why she can't make this happen.

"There's a code for each race. A number. I punch it into the system and this is what it pulls out. I can't make it say 'mixed' for you."

Every semester after that one I return to the registrar's office. 

"I want my race changed. I am Black."

They are angry with my constant requests. They roll their eyes and sigh when I come in and one time a new work-study girl is there. "You're not Black." she tells me studying my face after I have made my request.

"Do you have to put down what I say you have to put down?" I ask.

She is silent. I already know the answer is yes because the lady who works there told me. 

"I've changed my mind. Put me down as Hispanic." I tell her.

The next time I am Asian. Then, Hawaiian. One time I am a Pacific Islander. 

"Are you going to keep coming back and changing this?" a cranky white lady asks me one time.

"Yes. You programmed that computer. You're supposed to be smarter than the computer. You can fix it if you want to. See you next semester!" I chirp, walking out.

No need to gut her today.

But I'll treat myself to some ice cream for the small win. 

I am normal and I love it.

 

with thanks to Anne Thériault for the format

Wednesday
Apr132016

Financial Literacy & How To Achieve It

As April is Financial Literacy Month, I am partnering with WeAreTeachers and the PwC Charitable Foundation to help students in the classroom become financially literate. This is a sponsored post on financial literacy resources for middle and high school students/teachers and all opinions are my own.

****************

Back in the early 90s when I was still in college there were a ton of ways college students felt independent from their families. In my case, it was a time when I had practiced using my checking account and figuring out how to sock away some money in my savings account for the future, whatever that was to hold. The first time I was strolling through our college quad to go to the library and noticed the tents set up with credit card companies, I knew it would spell trouble.

They handed them out like candy and you could get some free gift just for signing up with them. I got frisbees, lock boxes, and one time an umbrella which, for a poor college student who mostly put her hoodie up to keep dry from the rain, seemed like a good idea at the time. 

We all know how that turned out, right?

Students were now racking up debt in college and being held captive by the possibility of getting a credit card to buy things that would immediately gratify us. BAD. IDEA. ALL AROUND. 

Luckily, this became completely outlawed and many of us students were left to clean up our debt and we had no one to help us navigate this. But, what it did was give many of us our first taste of financial freedom that tasted like bad decisions and a walk of shame. As a side effect, we also learned about credit scores and what many of us had done to ruin them. It would take a very long time until that was remedied for me personally.

What I hated about it was how predatory that was and how I, and many of my friends, felt like we had no instruction on how to navigate this. Some learned lessons harder than others but the consensus was that we felt led astray with no possible way to fix it.

And this experience of mine is precisely why I would have appreciated something like what the PwC Charitable Foundation does to spread the word about their brand new financial literacy modules. 

FINANCIAL LITERACY. WHAT A CONCEPT.

Here's how it works: The Earn Your Future Digital Lab is a new interactive curricula designed to empower young minds with financial and economic knowledge and it does so in a way that I desperately wish I had in my early 20s. It's presented by the PwC Charitable Foundation, which supports education and financial literacy.

 


The Earn Your Future Digital Lab is a comprehensive financial literacy program designed for students in grades 3-12 and the ones I played around with the most during my demo were in the Intermediate Level 2 range. In it, students engage with financial literacy concepts through innovative self-paced modules featuring custom videos, animations, and interactive activities. Some of the concepts are Mortgage Mystery, Can I Afford a Phone, and What's Your Interest? which, to me, are pretty much what I wish someone would have walked me through a few decades ago.

 

When you go to the site you'll notice a Level 1 for grades 3-5 but I learned that those won't be available until the Fall. It's forthcoming, so I didn't get to try it out.

Level 2 is for grades 6-8 and Level 3 is for grades 9-12. Level 3 helps students learn about credit, budgeting, home buying and insurance. There's more, but those were the ones that interested me most to be able to share with students. The first module, Give Me Some Credit, was the first one I tried in that section. It begins with a video of a girl getting a credit card for the first time and who is asked if she wants to apply for a store credit card in order to save 20%. 

When I was in my 20s I would have applied for those all the time. Now, I know better and I think it's important we teach students this concept as well. 

There are currently 7 different modules for middle school classrooms and families to interact with and learn from, and 8 different modules for high school. Real world financial literacy is something that isn't tested in schools through assessments nor is it a requirement in Illinois except to take a one-quarter class on Consumer Education. These modules are perfect for a course like that especially if it gives parents the tools at home to teach their children. Most of what I was taught was DON'T APPLY FOR A CREDIT CARD and I saw how well that worked out. Telling me not to do it without context or tools or videos (I'm a visual learner) wasn't the best way for me to become literate about finances. 

Thoughts

Each of the modules is short with vivid graphics and easy vocabulary. While not everything will be of interest to students (though it should be), I can see how teachers and parents can go through them and pick the ones they're currently teaching. The content is very relatable and I was happy to see that they're aligned with Council for Economic Educators standards.

They relate to things like being able to purchase your own cell phone or even an apartment. When my own children were transitioning to adults and would be able to apply for their own accounts for their own cell phones I admit that parenting through that rough terrain was difficult. The first time one of my sons tried to get one he was denied and I would have appreciated the module on credit cards to help him. There are quizzes to find out how much you know and interactive pictures that allow students to move at their own pace.

Students can get immediate feedback and check their progress as they work through them. This would be beneficial to teachers assigning each of them to check for completion.

I'm really interested in how they're going to complete the elementary age version but I know there are foundational financial literacy skills to be taught so when it's done I plan on reviewing those as well.

How to Start

Teachers can create a FREE account and sign in here to be able to access the middle and high school teaching materials. 

Luckily, all those college debts finally got paid off and I found a way to repair my credit so that after I saved enough money to buy my first house I was approved. Considering the grief I could have been spared I wish I had something like this to walk me through the things educators don't always get a chance to teach students. I mostly enjoyed this program from the parenting perspective, though. While I got to teach my own children with the benefit of my experience, having support from something like the Earn Your Future Digital Lab would have come in really handy.

Try it out and see if you like it. If you don't, let me know in the comments so they can get feedback on how to make this better. 

Wednesday
Apr062016

Writings & Awards & Stuff

There's been a lot going on in my life and I have a couple of blog posts in the hopper (is that what we say? hopper?) to publish in the next week or so. In the meantime, here's a quick update in bullet list form:

 

  • My daughter that I placed for adoption when she was a baby got married last month and my family got to be a part of that.
  • The Cuban and I celebrated 7 months of marriage. 
  • He turned 50 and I turned 45 last week. Our birthdays are only 4 days apart.
  • My youngest son also turned 21 last month. I keep having to say that aloud. MY YOUNGEST CHILD IS NOW OLD ENOUGH TO ORDER A BEER.
  • Locally, I'm leading a group of community members in constructive conversations on race and it's been a fascinating experience with others doing the work of anti-racism.

I'm working some writings and book proposals (plural!) that aren't ready for the public right now, but some of them are and I'm writing in other places.

Jessica Lahey interviewed me for a piece in the New York Times that was published today under the title 3 Things School Counselors Want You to Know About Their Jobs. It may not be a big deal to some people but I'm excited to be quoted in the NYT. Here's one of the quotes from that article:

Kelly Wickham Hurst, counselor at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill., said in a phone interview that she believes parents and teachers need to do a little less telling, a lot more listening and forgive children when they mess up.

Ms. Wickham Hurst said she left classroom teaching to become a school counselor because she felt she had an opportunity to multiply her influence for her students. She is black and said she thought she had particular impact among minority students. “Often, when a kid arrives in my office sad or angry about how he is being treated, my job is to give him back his humanity. I tell him that what he is feeling is normal,” and that he may be being treated differently than his white classmates. “I listen, help him manage his emotions and teach him how to move through the world we live in today, even when it’s not fair.”

During my very first year of transitioning from teacher to guidance dean (or counselor since many places use the terms interchangeably) I was forced to reckon that race was going to be an issue no matter what. Part of the job is listening to parents when they have concerns but I didn't think about how many of them would bring that up on their own. Students, in my experience, have been much the same. In the space of 2 months on the job I found myself faced with a teacher who, on the 2nd day of school, asked me to remove 5 Black males from her advanced Literature class because she didn't think they belonged there and then when I went on a home visit for a runaway girl I was stunned when her mother casually mentioned that her daughter ran away from home a lot with a "colored boy". 

Even though my mouth was hanging open at that, she pressed on. 

"God just don't want no mixing of the races is what I say. It just ain't right."

She said this to my face. While I was on a home visit doing my job of helping her and finding support for her child. When I mention race it's because it comes up constantly. I will never unsee or unhear this stuff. It no longer surprises me but there are times when it catches me off guard.

I wrote a piece for Tue/Night on the topic of censorship and talked about managing the shame of placing a child for adoption and how much it wasn't even mentioned in my relationships. You can read that here under the title The Silent Pain of Missing a Child. When I was asked about something I would share with that theme I knew immediately what I would write about. 

Just before I left for college, my mother and I had the biggest fight we’ve ever had. At the time, I didn’t understand it. It was about nothing, and each time I countered with whatever she complained about she switched it up on me and brought up something else I’d done wrong in the last four years. High school was a terrible time for me, and she was still mad about something I did. Twice.

The ThreadMB interviewed me under the title Mocha Momma Educates Us to the Bitterness of Racism where I actually mentioned that I don't normally write for other sites anymore and here I am doing it. Ugh. I'm a contradiction and a foregone conclusion all at once. 

Then, I was nominated for two Iris Awards this year! I wanted to put it in the bullet list up there but it deserves it's own space. Here are two truths about that: one, I am absolutely thrilled to be nominated in a space where I've written for a decade and two, every single other category nominee is a personal friend of mine. When I say that I am surrounded by women whose writing I love that is another truth. When I say that I'm cheering for every other nominee and wouldn't mind if any of them won out over me, I mean it. It's a weird feeling but maybe that's what it means to be 45 now. Maturity and growth wins out over my competitive nature.


The two categories I was nominated for were Influencer of the Year and Most Informative Content.

So far, April is going well I'd say. 

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