Friday, August 7, 2009

The Beginning of the Trajectory

Yesterday was our daughter’s first day of school! It marks the beginning of a whole new stage of our lives. She is now officially plugged into the public school matrix – in Georgia of all places. We will have to be hyper-vigilant to ensure that the beautiful flames of curiosity, inquiry, budding logic and self-confidence that all children have are not extinguished in her by the school system. It is a shame to have to view public schools in that way, but the reality is what it is. For so many black children, independent of class, the public school system can be a danger to their natural intellect and thirst for knowledge. The damning and persistent achievement gap between black and white students is evidence of this danger.

My wife and I experienced the bundle of emotions that you would imagine from parents sending their children off to the first day of kindergarten. We wondered about how well we have prepared her for this first step into the world? How have we supported her self-confidence? Have we encouraged her to ask questions and be reasonably critical of things? We even took bets about who might cry. The school organized a “Kiss and Cry” for parents to support each other after dropping their kids off.

Our little girl looked even more beautifulicous and smart in her crisp and clean school uniform. Her braids were interwoven with the precision and inertia of centuries of black women prettying up their little girls for new beginnings. Her face was shinny with Jergens Original Scent. Her uniform issue K-Swiss sneakers were immaculate. All was happy. She found several friends of hers in her class, her teacher was energetic, very welcoming and highly organized. The other children looked equally eager, sharp and ready to begin.

There are three girls’ classrooms in kindergarten at her school. Two of them are the same and one is for students who need a little more attention. The two regular classes (I recognize that I am guilty of assigning labels already) are very mixed as is the school. While the school is predominantly black, the incoming classes are reflecting the changing neighborhood and are increasingly white. My daughter’s class is majority white and the other is probably half black and half white. The third class is for children who haven’t yet grasped or been exposed to the basics of the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes etc.

After leaving my daughter’s class and sticking my head in the other class which is right next to hers, I was happy. Looking at all the children and the proud parents was a beautiful and emotional experience. Then I went to take a look into the extra needs class which is across the hall. All the happiness of the moment was immediately knocked out of me. That class was nearly exclusively black. Of the 20 or so girls, there was one white girl who was obviously white and two others whose ethnicity I couldn’t discern. The public school system and its specter of brutality was sitting at one of the desks smiling wickedly at me.

How is it that at 5 years old, on the very first day of school, black children are already behind? It is possible that if their teacher is exceptional, they will be able to catch up to the others and level the playing field. In this school their teacher is. The problem is that in the system in general, the worst teachers are those offered to students with the most need. As groups, the learning curves and academic achievement curves between these little black girls and their “regular class” counterparts are likely to never intersect.

Their trajectory may have already been set and their first day of school was yesterday.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Caribbean Man, Father In-Law and Golf

My father in-law is a typically Caribbean man in a lot of ways. His “name” is Rugged. He is from the poor and black side of St. Kitts and grew up during the days when the English tricked a lot of Caribbean people into thinking that the closer you were to them in color, occupation and physical proximity, the better you were. He damned that whole way of thinking and came up with the distinctly Caribbean combination of poverty, pride, a burning respect for education and an impeccable sense of family values. Since I married his daughter, he and I have always been relatively close. In my mind, one of my shortcomings has been that I don’t drink and I don’t play dominoes. For a man of Caribbean extract to not do those things has not only lead me to a life of endless teasing, but I think may have put an invisible constraint on our relationship. Despite that, as far as black men in the 21st century go, having a father in-law at all is an anomaly, so being able to think about our relationship is admittedly a privilege.

Not only is Rugged really rugged, he is a life-long athlete…football, cricket and now golf. He is a real deal golfer. He wins tournaments throughout the Caribbean and is one of the recognized talented senior players at the Royal St. Kitts Golf Club. He is also one of the kind of men that wouldn’t do well trying to teach a sport to a person with no natural athletic abilities. He is patient with a lack of technical knowledge, but frustrated with a lack of talent.

Recently I’ve been encouraged to try golf. While I don’t drink and play dominoes, I do have the black man’s gene and am a naturally gifted athlete (with a Ph.D., smile. That’s in our genes too!)

My father in-law and I went to play golf together the other day while he was visiting us. It was the first time that we were playing together, just the two of us. Throughout the round he was giving me tips on this and that about the game and my swing etc. A few times he would say do such and such and I would, and the ball would take off as he predicted. Then he would smilingly talk about people who are coachable or who have natural gifts. All the while as we walked from hole to hole I was thinking that this is relationship building stuff. My relationship with my wife’s father could go to a whole new level because I am trying to learn a game that he loves and can interpret his instructions to produce immediate, and hopefully lasting, effects. I also learned on some of the walks down the fairways how much he detests the Colonial imposition on the mentality of Caribbean people. I am sure he can see my interpretation of those views too and how they have affected my parenting style.

As we approached the 17th hole he said, “Alright Mr. K, let’s par these last two holes!” I said alright and joked, “lemme lash dis ball wid a 4 iron, right now!”

As I stood at the tee, 4 iron in hand looking at the ball, I was thinking that a whole new level of relationship was on the line. Strange, what pressures and thoughts swirl through someone’s mind as they prepare to tee off. On all the other holes he had some comment – “remember to transfer your weight,” “try not to pop up,” “make sure you swing through the ball.” This time he didn’t say anything. The future trajectory of our relationship was resting entirely on me and on the trajectory of this shot. I’ve never been in a golf tournament, but I had my first experience of tournament nerves.

I brought the club back with a turn not a sway, which naturally shifts my weight to my back foot without knocking me off balance. I kept my eye on the ball as I brought the club down and my weight transferred forward. I watched the club hit the ball, which meant that I didn’t pop up and had stayed down long enough to see the contact. I looked up on the follow through which is the end of the natural swing.

Rugged immediately exclaimed, “DAT IS A GOLF SHOT MY BOY!!” “A thing of beauty to watch and remember!”

I made par on the hole and solidified a new trajectory for our relationship.