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



A Jewish Kid in Catholic School? Nothing But Nachas.*

April 18, 2013 § 3 Comments


My son Nicky loves baseball. He’s really, really good at it.

Despite the looooong list of Jews who made it big in baseball, we were shocked to learn our town was not overflowing with Jewish schools that have viable baseball programs. My husband’s old Catholic school, however, (“The Hall”) has a very well-respected baseball program. So does another Catholic school nearer to us (“The Mount”). Mark Teixeira is a hometown boy who went to The Mount. We forgive his playing for the Yankees.

Nicky wanted to apply to these schools because of their baseball programs. So he took the Catholic School entrance exam, applied to, and toured both schools. He struggled, though, with what to put on the part of the application that asked for his religion.

You see, right after we were married, Dave and I sought out counseling from both a priest and a rabbi, and they both gave us the same advice. They felt that which religion we chose for the kids was much less important than that Dave and I agreed on which religion we chose. Twenty-two years into the marriage, it’s pretty clear that even though we decided back then our kids would be Jewish, we did next to nothing to raise them with religion. I’m sad about that, but we’re still incredibly proud of the people they have become.

So when it came to Nicky’s school application, Dave suggested “Jewish, non-practicing.” That worked. Nicky got into both schools and chose The Mount.

The kink at this point was only in my conscience. I had a hard time reconciling the fact that I’d be sending my son to a school whose governing church preached certain views I found abhorrent–especially regarding homosexuality, the role of women, and legalized abortion. In fact, I had written a blog post that ran in my local Patch, called “An Open Letter to Pro-Lifers.” Hilarity ensued. (Not Really.) So, not only was I uncomfortable supporting this organization financially, I was reluctant to be viewed as a hypocrite in my local community.

To whom could I turn for guidance? Naturally, John Shore–a powerful voice in the Christian Left movement. I enjoy his blog, and am always impressed with the advice he gives to people facing situations ranging from sticky (mine) to downright gut-wrenching. He offered me the following guidance:

“…Personally, I don’t think you should lose a moment’s sleep over the choice you’ve made….My understanding is that…local Catholic-affiliated institutions are…self-sustaining, grassroots entities. They’re not funneling money upwards to the Pope….

“Life is complex. Needing to do what’s best for your son isn’t. As long as he understands the complexities and subtleties involved in the decision to send him to the school, and he’s cool with it all, then…boom. Done.” Leave it to the unfundamentalist Christian to help the non-practicing Jew make sense of sending her son to Catholic school.

While Nicky’s likely the only Jew in his class, he’s not the only non-Catholic. He’s got company when he sits out communion. He’s not feeling any pressure to convert–only to learn. No pressure to actively participate, only to be respectful of his Catholic surroundings. Enthusiastic teachers, many of whom graduated from The Mount themselves, have clear and deep loyalty and appreciation for the school and the kids. There are high expectations and a loving community. There’s the fact that when anyone asks how he likes high school, he answers, “I REALLY like it!” We couldn’t be happier. Baseball tryouts were in February, and he made the 9th grade team.

Here’s a clip from the second game he pitched for the Mount.  (Music, courtesy of Billy Joel at Shea Stadium.)

This post originally appeared on Kveller.com.  I’ve updated to include information since it was published in October.  🙂

*Nachas is Yiddish for the joy children bring to their parents.

Ballerinas on the Moon

December 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

In honor of Thank A Teacher Day:  the following is a slightly edited version of a post I wrote for Catonsville Patch over a year ago.    You can read the original version here.


The lilting, closing notes to Brahms’ Waltz in A Flat Major still rang in the air.  (We had an actual pianist playing an actual grand piano in the studio when I took ballet.)  We would have just completed our rond de jambe exercises at the bar, and we would be waiting.  Silence.  We’d stand like statues in our closing pose, hands down delicately, elbows gently bent, feet in fifth position, head tilted just so.

A few of the braver and more impatient 10-year-olds among us would break the pose slightly to check on his reaction.  One of them would giggle a little, nervously, and then we all knew what we’d see when we turned to look at him.

Mr. Andros, sitting on a stool in the front of the room, beefy legs crossed at the knee.  One large arm flung around resting on the barre behind him.  The other large arm in the other direction, bent at the elbow and also leaning on the barre.  The bridge of his nose resting between thumb and forefinger, pinky in the air.  Eyes closed, but eyebrows raised.

And then we would hear it – the voice that was a cross between Squidward from Spongebob and Bert from Sesame Street.

“Laaaaaaay-deeeeeeeeez…………………. If you can’t count to four, I suggest you take upknit-ting.”

(No one bothered to point out to him that you also need to count to four when you knit.  You didn’t quibble with Mr. Andros.)

Gray-ish beard and moustache, black unitard, white socks, white ballet shoes, and a little sheer scarf tied around his neck if he was feeling dressy, age placed by me at anywhere between 40 and 90 years old, Mr. Andros was my favorite ballet teacher.  Ever.  In fact, my parents and I did as much as we could to make sure he was my ONLY ballet teacher, though over 8 years of classes at the New York School of Ballet, that was tough to accomplish.

We were young, but we all took dancing pretty seriously.  This was not a ballet school for sissies.  He, in turn, was demanding, but mindful of our youth.  His exasperation wrapped up in mock agony did absolutely nothing to hide how much he adored these groups of hopeful little girls.

He would ball up his hand into a fist and walk around us asking, “How would yyyyyeeeeewwwwwww like to be the first ballerina on the moon?”  We’d giggle, but try harder.

He would explain how a grand jete is done, and demonstrate the leap for us.  Then he’d roll his eyes and say, “Of course when I do it, it looks like the Hindenburg flying through the air…”  We had no idea what the Hindenburg was, but we’d try to do it better than he did.

He sat down with parents of this pre-teen girl, and spoke the words I knew he would, when they asked if I had any sort of shot in hell of being a professional ballerina.  I cannot begin to explain how badly I wanted with all my being for the answer to be yes.  Deep down, though, I knew I didn’t, and I think my parents did, too.

I wasn’t in the room, but I imagine it was the utmost gentle kindness he told them I would never be a prima ballerina.  While I was really good at duplicating moves demonstrated by him, I lacked strength, flexibility and the grace required.  I just didn’t have it.

Cordelia had it.  Cordelia was the same age as I was, but destined to be a ballet dancer.  Cordelia likely emerged effortlessly from the womb with her entire body in the perfect fifth position.  I’m sure as soon as her nose and mouth were suctioned out, she began pirouetting all over the delivery room.  She was proportioned perfectly for a life of dance, the flawless combination of delicate yet strong and flexible.  She was allowed to do our class in pointe shoes, while the rest of us were still years away from going on pointe.  She was that good.

Yet, on one Parents’ Day (we didn’t have recitals – we had a couple of days a year when parents could come watch the class in session) I’ll never forget the time we all did a combination in the center of the room.  When it was over, Mr. Andros was in his pose, sprawled all over the barre in exasperation, eyes closed.  Then he said something like, “Would the Lirtzman sisters (Rachel and me) please come to the front of the class?”  We did, and in front of all the parents and the rest of the class, he cued the pianist and had us perform the combination.

When we finished, he said, “Thank you.  That is how it’s supposed to be done.”

Most teachers help you succeed.  The rare ones help you fail.  Mr. Andros helped me see my limitations while making sure my self-worth and dignity remained intact.  I could let go of a dream without feeling like a failure.  Lesson learned.

(Epilogue:  Years later, my parents ran into Mr. Andros on the Upper West Side.  They were happy to see each other, but my parents told us he didn’t look at all well.  As I began to write this, I assumed he died many years ago.  I Googled him this afternoon for the hell of it, and was surprised to learn he only passed away in 2009, and had left a lot of writing behind.  I am so sorry I didn’t try to get back in touch with him to let him know how much he meant to me and my family, as it would have been so easy given the advent of the internet.  

I’m happy, though, that he lived such a long life, and that he was kind enough to leave behind writings about it. I never knew until this afternoon that he studied with George Balanchine and also taught the likes of Cynthia Gregory, Veronica Lake and JoAnn Woodward.   I learned that and when Mr. Andros was in the army, he was assigned to the Special Service Division of General Douglas MacArthur’s Headquarters Company and that his older brother, Plato Andros, played for the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s a pleasure to get to know him better, even if it is posthumously.  R.I.P., Mr. Andros.)

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