Thursday, March 11, 2010

Breaking Away

Today, I’m packing up my boys and sending them out of town for a week for Spring Break, and, like mamas everywhere, I’m facing a universal dilemma: What will happen if their Nintendo DS runs out of battery power? And, God forbid, I didn’t send enough fruit snacks?

It’s a new day for travel and travel expectations for kids. Passports and luggage designed to fit in the overhead bin on a plane are a must-have for this generation of kids.

Road trips were more the norm for families when we were growing up, although, since my parents are Jamaican, my sister and I did begin traveling by air at an early age.

That was before 9/11, of course, when you could bring fireworks, an industrial-sized bottle of lotion and keep your shoes on going through what was then considered “security” - and you got a real meal on the plane.

But most summers were spent in the station wagon with not only my immediate family, but at any given time, cousins, grandmothers and friends could be piled in as well. My father’s goal was to visit all 50 states and most of the Canadian provinces. And we did. Those cross-country trips are the basis for some of my fondest memories.

I remember one trip in particular when my first cousins, Kara and Susan, hit the road with us. I think we were in Kentucky, and I convinced them to leave the hotel and wander through the vacant field and jump a fence to check things out. The phrase “explore our environment” was born from that adventure, and I guess that is what I love so much about traveling. Exploring new places and learning about different people and cultures has always been a huge thrill for me.

And I’m glad that I can do the same for my children. I just don’t know when it got to be so complicated.

When it comes to my two, let’s just say it’s not my daddy’s family vacation.

Not to imply that my daddy wouldn’t try to run it if he could. The last vacation we all took together, he sent out a mandate that no one would be able to check luggage for a one-week trip to Jamaica. Now, you’re dealing with three grown women and six kids, but Dad had a plan, and that included one bag of checked luggage for all of our liquids - and trust me, there comes a point in a woman’s life when there are some liquids you don’t want your daddy knowing about. But, as always, once my dad settles on a goal, it is going to be accomplished.

If I take into account my boys’ game systems, the chargers, cell phone, etc., they’re rolling with enough technology to turn a TSA worker’s hair gray. That, compared to my She-Ra: Princess of Power backpack filled with candy, gum, lip gloss and a Word Search magazine.

And of course, it all falls on me. Never mind the fact that my break begins as soon as their plane takes off, and I have to search for matching bras and panties, get a pedicure, wax and thread - don’t ask. Right now, my mind is on making sure their sword-bearing Star Wars characters won’t be confiscated and figuring out how long Lunchables can hold up off of ice if there’s a flight delay. It's literally keeping me up all night.

But my kids aren’t losing any sleep. Air travel for them is second nature. At ages six and eight, they have they’ve already flown alone four times, versus me ..... having taken my first solo flight in college.

My youngest has flown so much, he may not be able to land a plane, but he sure can tell you what to do in case of an emergency. He studied that laminated sheet of instructions so thoroughly, once it prompted a woman near him to say, “If something goes wrong, I’m following him.”

Most of their friends are heading some where out of town for Spring Break too, which raises another question: What are they really breaking from? College kids taking a Spring Break makes a lot of sense, but I’m wondering whether first- and second-graders need a respite from addition and subtraction. On the other hand, their mamas sure do, and when I look at it that way, it makes a win-win situation.

Back when fewer moms worked outside of the home, Spring Break was really a time for kids to bond - with rags, furniture polish, brooms and Windex. And it made perfect sense. Mom did the bulk of the cleaning all year long, and she had to look forward to a week of free labor. Today, a lot of mamas I know - married and single, me included - take the week of Spring Break to grab some much needed and deserved Mama-time for ourselves. Whether they are turning it into a girlfriends get away or rejuvenating their relationships with their men, the no-kid zone cones are up and in full effect. So, when we reunite with our little loved ones when Spring Break ends, we all appreciate each other a little more.

Sometimes I meet moms who say they can’t imagine spending days, let alone a week or two, away from their children. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around that one. Spending time away from each other makes me a better mom, and I think it makes my kids better too. I admit there are sometimes challenges to contend with. No one does everything exactly like you do, and that’s something you and your kids need to come to appreciate.

There’s a chance of you missing out on them losing a tooth or, if you have girls, other landmark events as they get older. And sure, they make pick up some colorful language, a new dialect or even come back dressed in an outfit that makes you shudder. But all in all, we get a lesson in trusting others, letting go, and reclaiming our respective grooves. If only for a week.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Tyler, Today You Are a Man

There comes a time in every black person’s life when it truly hits home that you’re black in America.

My eight-year old son, Tyler, has now joined the ranks of those who have been initiated and is now a proud, badge-carrying member. But I’ll get back to that a little bit later.

I wasn’t sure I was going to even write a blog about Black History Month, and, as you can see, it took me a while to wrap my mind around the whole topic, seeing as we are now into March. But after I attended a Black History Month program with my two sons, my oldest son turned to me and asked when we were going to celebrate White History Month. My response: Baby, we celebrate White History all the time. They cleverly disguise it as American History.

His mouth formed a small O, but I could tell his brain was working overtime, so I started listing examples from his recent social studies test – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln ...

And then the inevitable happened: My precious eight year old pointed out that since we are American, we should be included in American history. He stubbornly ended with "Having just one month for brown people isn’t fair."

Tyler isn’t the only one wondering why we still focus on just one month to bring black history to the forefront. Both black and white critics are still raising the question, "Is Black History Month still needed?" Some say that it’s necessary because African-American history still isn't yet fully integrated into American history, and we still have to have a Black History Month to remind people how much we contributed to this country. Others disagree, saying that black history is intrinsically American, so much broader than just one month. Having a Black History Month has become a tradition, but we have to seriously consider whether or not it is time to move on.

But let’s backtrack.

Last week, in a major discount retail center, as I tried to give my eight-year-old a lesson on shopping for deals after Valentine’s Day, he got another lesson altogether. As we were checking out, the cashier noticed the tag was missing on the $2.25 stuffed animal. Tyler offered to go get another one so the cashier didn’t have to. And then - three weeks into Black History Month - it went down.

The white woman in charge of checking receipts stopped us and says to Tyler, “I need to make sure you paid for that animal because I saw you running back and forth with it. And we have problems with stealing.”

I immediately went to see the (young, African American) male manager to explain the situation, and he was very apologetic. I asked for the GENERAL manager's information, and he was mortified. But when I handed him my business card, he almost peed on himself. It was a little bit of comfort, but not nearly enough when I considered my son’s hurt feelings and my outrage at being treated poorly based on the color of our skin.

The bigger point is that even though I sure saw it as racism, I’m pretty sure my son didn’t.

And that’s part of the dilemma. How do you tell a wide-eyed child, who has nothing but love in heart, that he will be disliked, judged, rejected, detained, profiled and sometimes worse because of the color of his skin? He’s got white friends, white teammates, white teachers. How scary would it be for him to feel he needs to have a sudden distrust of people he cares about and looks up to?

But in the end, all my son really knew was that he was accused of something he would never would have done by someone who didn’t know him well enough to know whether he would have or not — which, when you think about it, pretty much defines prejudice. The mean old woman pre-judged my boy.

Tyler, because he is a black male, will also potentially be pre-judged by admissions directors, job interviewers, recruiters - you name it. And I won’t always be there to make it better.

Stephen Covey says that “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children – one is roots, the other wings.”

I admit I take a more WHOLE-istic approach to teaching our history to my children. They come from a rich history on both sides of the family – African-American and Jamaican. It’s extremely important to me that they are aware of those that came before and to have pride in their roots.

When they found out their grandfather was the first African-American mayor in the town we grew up in and that my maternal great-great-grandfather helped to found a city in Jamaica, their little chests puffed up with pride. And yes, they eat their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a little more purpose now that they know that a black man was the inspiration behind one of their favorite foods.

The truth is kids who have a strong sense of self and understand their heritage feel validated and don’t look for that validation in unwise places.

When we discuss discrimination and diversity, we sometimes forget that the world we are living in does not belong to us, but rather, our children. They are the ones who inherit our fears, loves, prejudices, etc. They learn it by watching us. In short, children remind us of how simple, complicated and absurd intolerance is. They inspire us to change.

And a change is still needed in the world. Yes it starts with us - and maybe a month. Although I think that learning about who you are and where you come from should be ongoing – 365 days a year – I think some still need an in-your-face reminder about the contributions that African-Americans have made.

In fact, after the in-your-face, impromptu lesson my eight-year-old got this February, I’m sure of it.