A White Girl and the “N” Word

July 15, 2013 § 5 Comments

Diverse kids

When I was in elementary school in 1970’s Brooklyn, NY (maybe third grade?) a kid (who was white) told me I had “n*gger lips.”  It felt weird, because I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not, but I kind of knew something wasn’t right about it.  Honestly, I don’t remember how I responded.  Maybe I looked confused or maybe I tried to be cool about it.  I was seven or eight.  I was also kinda socially awkward and, frankly, just happy to be getting some attention from a peer – that much I do remember.

This led, however, to an exchange with my sister I’ve never forgotten. She’s two years older than I am, and we walked home from school together.  To say I looked up to her is an understatement.  So we’re walking home that day and I tell her, “Guess what?  So-and-so told me today I had n*gger lips!”

She stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me in shock.  Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”  And she kept walking.  (Yes, that is exactly what she said, and yes, she was articulate and mature enough in fifth grade to deliver the line that effectively.)  That’s when I knew it was bad.  Then I knew I’d said something terrible.  And Rachel disapproved.  That was just as bad.  Now I can’t even write the word without substituting an asterisk for the “i.”

Years later, I had my own opportunity to teach someone younger than I about using that word.  When I taught eighth grade civics in Virginia, I had some kids in my class who were black.  One day, before class started, they were joking around with each other, and the “N” word was being bandied about.  They were very clearly using it to refer to themselves and each other without the slightest degree of animosity or insult intended.

They were surprised when their 24-year-old white teacher told them to knock it off and watch their language.  I don’t remember many of the details of this conversation, but in essence, they said it was fine for them to use that term, since they were black.  I responded something to the effect of, “I don’t care what color you are – I’m offended by that word used by anyone, in any context.  As a teacher, it is a racial slur, and not permitted in my classroom.  And for your information, referring to each other using that term makes it easier for racists to justify the term to describe you.”  Or something like that.  They were very good kids and gave me no problem about it whatsoever.  The issue never came up again,  but I’ve often wondered about the complexities of that exchange.

Just like my sister Rachel knew she needed to respond the way she did in fifth grade, I knew I was within my rights, and even obligation, as a teacher to forbid certain language in the classroom.  As a civics teacher especially, I couldn’t resist adding a lesson in social commentary.  Did I overstep in telling them they were sort of providing racists justification (rightly or wrongly) for their use of slurs?  Maybe.  No parents contacted the school in outrage, and the kids seemed to be over the incident as quickly as it happened.

I still sometimes wonder, though, if I did the wrong thing by possibly placing part of the burden of racism on their 13-year-old shoulders by implying they were contributing to it. It involved a critique of my students’ language, but it was an attempt to empower them, regardless.  (Had I heard a white kid using the “N” word, I’d have gone into orbit and they would have been scraping me off the ceiling.)

I guess the reason why the incident still sits with me 20 years later (okay, now you know how old I am) is that I give a lot of thought to the importance of the source in a lesson like that.  Would that statement have had more impact if it came from a black teacher?  From a male teacher?  Did the fact that I was a young white woman delegitimize the criticism?  Probably to a degree.  I certainly don’t agonize over the incident, nor do I think I did much damage, if any, but it stays with me nonetheless – as an exchange in which I’m pretty sure (and I definitely hope) I did the right thing.

This post originally appeared on The Broad Side on June 27, 2013.

Image via iStockphoto/Jani Bryson



Silver Bullets? I’d Rather Have Chocolate Ones.

May 26, 2013 § 3 Comments


A seven-year-old boy named Myles wrote a letter to Vice President Joe Biden with his solution for gun violence. Chocolate bullets. The Vice President is completely on board with this idea, because, as he says in his letter back to Myles, “People love chocolate.”

Some fellow writers at The Broad Side had very strong reactions to this story. Danielle declared “If someone shot me with chocolate…they would be my new best friend.” Karen insisted “must be milk chocolate. Dark gives me migraine.” It did strike a nerve, though, with Rebekah, who claimed that “…now I’m all bitter that my son never got a response when he wrote to Obama saying we should have ‘no more guns in this world.’ Also, I want chocolate.”

This conversation took place right before I rushed out the door to pick up my youngest at elementary school. My newly found mad reporter skillz kicked into high gear, and I wrote out a few questions to ask fellow parents at pick-up. After giving them the low-down on this new gun control development, they agreed to answer a few of my questions.

  1. What flavor chocolate do you think the new ammunition should be?

Parent #1 – White chocolate (she doesn’t like regular chocolate.)

Parent #2 – Dark chocolate (she is lactose intolerant.)

Parent #3 – Didn’t like the idea of anyone shooting anything at her. Even chocolate bullets. Was adamant it would feel like an assault. Even if it were shot through a Nerf Gun. Upon further questioning, she did admit that if someone handed her a chocolate bullet, she would, in fact, eat it.

  1. Do you think there should be child-proof safes for this chocolate ammunition?

Parent #1 – No.

Parent #’s 2 and 3 had no comment.

  1. If someone shot you with chocolate, could you see pressing charges against them?

Parent #1 – Yes. As she stated earlier, she doesn’t like chocolate.

  1. Can you see global application for chocolate bullets?

Parent #2 – Carnivals? Feeding the hungry?

It was at that point the little ones began to spill out of school and no one wanted to talk about chocolate ammunition with the children around. Also, I got the sense they were all beginning to think I was insane, so I thought it best to cut the interviews short.

When I got home, however, I decided to conduct an interview with a friend of mine who is an extremely knowledgeable gun enthusiast. Chris Cataudella is one of my token Republican friends. (I must have Republican friends, or else my street cred as an “open-minded” liberal is seriously compromised.) He, completely coincidentally, this very afternoon published a blog post about his proposal for common sense gun laws.

Anywho, I posed the same basic questions to Chris, with some follow-ups, of course. Because his answers were so…rich. (ba dum bump)

1. What flavor would you recommend for chocolate bullets?

With today’s advances in bullet construction and bullet manufacturing, milk chocolate coating with peanut butter in the center would be the most logical choice for general purpose ammunition (GPA). Bullets can be named “Death by Chocolate.”

2. Do you think there would be a need for child-proof safes for these chocolate bullets?

Absolutely – can you imagine if a child got into that ammunition cabinet? The rise in obesity would bring a whole new round of medical and legal questions.

3. If someone shot you with a chocolate bullet, could you see pressing charges?

What if there was a peanut allergy? Of course I would press charges. (We just established there would be peanut butter in the bullets.)

3a. What if it was a York Peppermint Patty bullet? Dark chocolate on the outside with minty cream on the inside?

I would “Get the sensation!”

4. Can you see global application for chocolate bullets?

The Dutch would be way ahead of us. Would lead to a whole chocolate arms race. Chocolate-tipped ICBMs? Then the government would have to pay off Hershey to not sell to our chocolate secrets to other countries.

Think about Belgium – Germany’s chocolate isn’t nearly as good, and they would want to invade Belgium all over again!

  1. What would be the domestic implications for chocolate bullets?

This raises many questions. For example, would candy sellers at malls and other places be required to have a Class III Firearms License?

Another issue might be that California requires lead-free bullets, to protect the wildlife who didn’tget shot by the bullet from eating the bullet which, if it contained lead, would be harmful. (He said that without the slightest trace of irony or sarcasm.) So, if you go duck hunting with chocolate ammunition, there are serious implications for health problems for wildlife in the future. Not to mention, no one wants to hunt ducks that can’t fly because they’re out of shape from eating so much chocolate.

On the plus side, if you’re hunting in the woods and no deer come around, and you run out of munchies, you can always eat the chocolate bullets. On second thought, though, the object of hunting is to hunt an animal in its natural environment where the odds are equal for both hunter and wildlife. If a hunter is loaded with chocolate ammunition, the animals would come running. The scales would tip, and hunting would become baiting.

So many chocolate questions, so little time!

This post was originally published on The Broad Side on Friday, May 24th.  

(Photo Credit: Guy J. Sagi/Shutterstock.)

If Not Now, When?

December 14, 2012 § 12 Comments

Dear America,

We need to talk.

I love you very much.  You are a magnificent place to live, grow up, and enjoy freedoms the strongest democracy on earth can provide.  Like any human body with an illness, though, as much as you’d like to look away, you shouldn’t.  You have complex and deep sicknesses afflicting your vital organs, and they need to be addressed.  These vital organs should not be removed – they should be healed.  The medicine is difficult to swallow, but if you are to continue to thrive, swallow it you must.

To ALL your citizens – Please do everything you can to drop the stigma associated with mental illness and mental disabilities.  Remove the shame associated with having to see a counselor, psychiatrist, whatever.  Banish all derision and fear you might feel in your hearts for people who seek help.  If someone you love needs help, stand by them proudly for seeking it.  Smile at someone who seems alone.  Befriend them, even.  Be the person who stands up for someone being taunted.  Here’s something you can say to a bully, for example – “Seriously?  You have nothing better to do?” and give the victim a smile and a wink.  Do it.  Be the person who raises their hand in class and says, “Actually, I’m in therapy, too, and it’s really helping.  You got a problem with that?”  Yes, these matters are private, and I’m not suggesting people bare all.  I do think, however, that a little more openness about the need for help for those suffering would go a long way.

To the 2nd Amendment protectors:  I’m one, too.  I have no desire to repeal the 2nd Amendment. I do think it’s funny to watch strict Constitutionalists go insane when some people dare to suggest that literal interpretation of the 2nd Amendment might mean that owning guns should be allowed only if you are part of a well-regulated militia.  “Interpret the Constitution literally EXCEPT for the Second Amendment, okay???”  No, no, I get it.  Guns are legal, and I stipulate that part of the argument.  However, anyone who DARES to suggest there aren’t HUGE problems with the oversights and implementation of gun laws is living on another planet.  Gun owners – step. up.  Do something.  PLEASE support the strong enforcement of existing laws, and perhaps even be open to stricter controls where possible.  Weapons dealers – step.up.  Are you such sociopaths that your desire to make money trumps your willingness to make sure guns don’t fall into the wrong hands?  I hope to God not.  I hope to God not.

To the Entertainment business: I beg you to resist all urges to make any money from telling this story.  While I fear you are already casting the movie, I hope you will stop feeding the sickness that makes your audiences crave more made-for-TV specials.  If you must tell these stories, tell the stories of the victims pro bono.  Have anyone working on the movie/book/magazine article who makes more than a school principal’s salary donate their time, and have any profits from the venture donated to the care and nurturing of the victim whose story is being told.  Perhaps this would help break the cycle of incessant coverage, needless barrages of interviews, and gross exploitation of tragedy.

Finally, to the Media:  Please, please, please, for the love of all that is holy, STOP interviewing the children.  The ONLY ones who should be surrounding these kids are their immediate families and those entrusted with their medical and emotional care.  Do you really need that story badly enough to shove a camera in a child trauma victim’s face?  Is a moving image and haunting words coming from a child whose wounds have yet to be seen and dealt with worth the views?  Will you contribute EVERY. SINGLE. PENNY. of profit your news outlet makes because of your reporting of this story to the healing and welfare of these families so traumatized?  Why?  Why must you show these children to us?  The photo of the children in a line, some hysterically crying outside their school – why?  Do you have the right to wrest control of these children’s images, caught in perpetuity by your camera lens, from them and their shellshocked parents?   I would argue not.  No, goddamn it, you do not.

I dispute anyone who says, “It’s not the time to talk gun control, healthcare, the economy.”  Oh, it’s time to talk about it.  It is time right this very minute.  It’s time to talk about ways to eradicate the shame this multi-faceted cultural disgrace evokes.  The indescribable, the unimaginable, the evil, and the mourning.  The heroism, too – there will be stories of heroism and self-sacrifice.  But right now, dear America, please take your medicine like a grown up. If not now, when?

All my love forever,


Stranger Danger – Part Deux

May 2, 2012 § 12 Comments

Before I began blogging, I wrote a Facebook note about my experiences with “stranger danger” – first as a child, then as a parent.

Yesterday, I met my local Patch editor for lunch and to catch up.  We talked about lots of things, but among them were a bunch of ideas I had for future blog posts.  (No, silly.  After my friend, Mara’s aggravation with plagiarism, I’m not sharing the ideas here…)

Then this happened.  The list of ideas went out the window.  (Click on it to enlarge if your eyes are challenged, like mine are…)

Now, I consider myself a moderately cautious person.  I figure if my kids think I’m overprotective, and my parents don’t think I’m careful enough, I’m probably striking a decent balance.  I recognize the risk of putting my writing into a public forum, but I figure stalkers would have to work pretty hard to find me, since I am pretty small-time in the writing world.

Yes, I also realize this person may, indeed, simply be a harmless, lonely guy starving for human interaction.  Maybe he really did see in my postings a charitable heart and approachable manner, and was reaching out for some kindness.  Even if that is the case, though, I don’t really have time for charity friendships – especially ones that fall so far outside my natural orbit as this one does.  Also, I’m not big on safety risks.

I heed the privacy warnings – reveal only where I have been, and not where I am going in terms of location.  I never tweet or put on Facebook that we are on vacation or otherwise away from home.  My posts are not available to the public, unless I make them so (which I do when I put a blog post up.)  I don’t do “check-ins” or “Foursquare”.  I have advised my kids to never tweet or put on Facebook the fact that they may be babysitting or home alone and why.  I have repeated that warning and checked their pages in the past to make sure they are obeying that rule, despite the guaranteed eye-rolls.

The above interaction took place with one of the EXTREMELY FEW Facebook friends I accepted without knowing the person.  “Oh, that person’s friends with my friend, wants to be friends with me, what’s the harm?”  I usually don’t do this.  Seriously, maybe three times I’ve become friends with someone I don’t know.  (In my defense, the person above has a name that in English, is usually a girl’s name.)  If I’ve never met them in person, these Facebook friendship requests come from friends of friends I know, trust, and with whom I have an established relationship.  I assume these friends of friends have been vetted in some way to ensure they are not creeps.  Yet, even this weeding out process is unreliable.  Anyone can stop paying attention for 5 seconds and allow the wrong person to fly in under the radar.

However – and this is a big, bold HOWEVER I have accepted with relative complacency the fact that my kids have hundreds upon hundreds of facebook friends, many of whom they have never met in person.  Friends of friends of friends who like their pictures or comments on their friends’ of friends’ pages, and thought, “Hey!  This chick is funny!” or “Wow – that dude seems really nice!” and sent a friend request to my kids which I suspect my kids pretty much automatically accept without discrimination.  I protested this weakly when they first joined Facebook, warning them against being FB friends with people they’ve never met.  Scarily, like so many other things, it is extremely difficult to keep track of, let alone enforce.  I’ve decided to (for the most part) trust their judgement.  Consider, though, the number of friendships they’ve accepted in the same way I’ve accepted THREE?  You do the math.  Yikes.

I showed this interaction to my 13 YO, with no introductions or set-ups.  Within a fraction of a second, his brows furrowed, and he said, “Wait, do you KNOW this guy?”  I said, “No.  But I accepted his friend request on Facebook anyway.”  I didn’t have to tell him it was stalker-ish.  He looked a little freaked.  Thank God.

I did, however, tell him that I was lucky this person was exceptionally bad at trying to strike up a friendship –  to elicit personal information – without red flags going up.  That even if he had been good at it, better at English, and done a better job making me feel at ease with our mutual connection to this actual friend of mine, I think (and hope) I still would have verified with my friend what this guy’s story was.   That that’s exactly what I SHOULD have done before I even accepted the friend request.

I sent this conversation to our mutual friend, and asked, “Do you know this guy?”  She was shocked, and said, “No!  Let’s BOTH block him!  But this would make a GREAT blog post…”  Done, and done.  Now please excuse me while I take my children out of school, take their electronics away and lock them up until they’re 35 in their rooms.  Which are located in a house on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Second-graders and Truck Drivers

September 27, 2011 § 16 Comments

Clearly, I missed the memo.

Apparently there is a special bond that formed over the summer.  It wasn’t like this on the last field trip I chaperoned…towards the end of first grade for my youngest kiddo, I don’t know, in May or so.  Surely if the signs were there last time, I would have seen them.

Were there letters back and forth?  Is there something in the second-grade curriculum about this?  Why wasn’t I informed?  Is there a secret informational conduit between second-graders and truck drivers?  (I’m picturing something like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, here…)

Maybe it’s just the grapevine – one kid on one bus happened to know the universal sign for “Hey, Truck Driver!  Honk your horn!” was a fist in the air, pulling down on an imaginary cord.  Another kid saw him do it, and started doing it too…and soon, entire busloads of kids were completely transfixed on the traffic around them.

It’s as if they were WILLING the trucks in the lanes behind them to go a little faster . Using their incredible mind powers to move cars that dared to be between the school bus and the truck.  They squinted.  There were lookouts.  “There’s one 3 cars behind us!”  And then the mental maneuvering began.  Some kids were quiet about it, an intense look of concentration on their faces, their hands in their laps.   Others were unconsciously moving their hands and leaning their bodies towards the lanes into which they were hoping the offending cars would move.  Still others were slightly less subtle, bouncing up and down and begging the cars, “MOVE!!!!  MOVE!!!!”

As each car moved out of the way, there were bursts of little happy sounds, but they quickly changed back into the concentrated hush that preceded them.  There were still more cars to move.  And when that was done?  Oh, there was still the work of the master puppeteering of the truck.  Half the kids are already making the universal sign, practically breaking a sweat as their little fists pumped up and down in the air furiously.  I’d say these efforts were a bit premature, as I don’t think the truck driver saw them, but it was hard to fault their enthusiasm.

And then?  Then…there…was…EYE CONTACT.  This was the job and sober responsibility of the kids sitting in the very back of the bus.  Waving their arms wildly, and some shouting, “Hey!  Hey!  Truck Driver!!!!” a connection was made.  The truck driver noticed the school bus.  He gave a small smile, nodded his head, as if he now understood his mission and its importance.  He began checking his rear-view mirrors.  He was safe and stealthy as he moved into the lane on one side of the bus.

It was now almost impossible to contain their excitement.  All signs of decorum and dignity usually displayed by second-graders had fallen away.  The school bus itself was practically bouncing up and down through the sheer force of dozens of  7-year-olds pumping their fists in unison – it was inevitable and undeniable.

The trucker smiled.  He smiled big.  He reached up, and grabbed the cord, and HOOOOOOOONNNNNKKKKKKed!  The kids absolutely dissolved into giggles and cheers, and the truck driver looked like he had just been awarded the Heavyweight Championship Belt.  And he had – at least the second-grade version of it.  There’s not much time to bask in the glory, though.  Within a few seconds the high-pitched alarm was sounded: “There’s TWO trucks behind us!!!”

And just like that, their tireless work began again.

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