What Jim Said

Reading, Righties, and Righteousness

In the first few weeks of school, my 7-year-old twice came home with news that gave me pause. The first time, he announced that his class had practiced "locking down," in case there was an intruder in the school. The second time, he brought home a sealed envelope and stood anxiously by as I opened it.

The letter from his teacher said that the class had read a series of books on different kinds of families. The class was talking about one of the stories, about a girl who has two mothers, when the teacher told them he was gay and was in the process of adopting a child with his partner. The kids' reactions varied, the teacher wrote; some were disrespectful and we might expect to hear about it at home.

When I was done reading, my son asked if he could see the letter. When he was done, I asked him what he thought. It came out in a second-grader's convoluted way, but what he thought was that it was suddenly interesting that his Uncle Randy and I are adopted, and that he had come to suspect that being adopted might bear some relationship to the other family oddity floating around in his head, that Uncle Randy has brown skin and I don't.

My stomach rolled. We were headed toward the sticky stuff at the bottom of the parental toy chest: Where do families get babies, anyhow, and if Grandma got you at the Indianapolis airport where did you get me? You could see the inevitable question forming in his brain, but then he must have decided he's not ready to know, because he changed the subject.

My son hasn't brought it up again, but in the last few days the episode has taken on a life of its own. Two of the mothers of his classmates complained to the principal of the school, Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis, and asked to have their children moved to another class. She demurred, and a media maelstrom was born, complete with a protest comprised mostly of people school staffers say they have never seen before. As Jim Walsh has already noted several posts down, Katherine Kersten weighed in on the saga today, implying in a virtually context-free column that there was some "real irony" involved--presumably because the two angry mothers, who she describes as "a group," are African American.

Let's not bother with Kersten's questionable use of the word irony, let's move straight on to the monster in the closet. Was it Freud who said that all children fantasize about the act of their creation? (I do know that it was Bill Maher who quipped that if a man is going to stick something in another man, it had better be a bullet.) I don't remember exactly, but it's unarguably true that we've all wondered what those grownups were doing in the next room, and how it would make us feel to do it. Because my boy keeps tiptoeing up to the keyhole, so to speak, I haven't had to frame The Talk. But it looms, and I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that after we grow up, find out, and procreate (or adopt), we all also feel every bit as squeamish and awkward and small and childlike when junior finally does ask about Tab A and Slot B. And that's really the problem here, isn't it?

As it happens, I agree with Kersten on two points: Adults shouldn't project their agendas on to children, and parents have a right to frame The Talk as they see fit. But I also happen to think that it's a parent's place to answer a kid's questions about the things he sees and hears out in the world, and if you think you're going to get out of this part of the job by imposing a Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on teachers, your head is firmly up Slot B.

Here are a few things not noted by any of the news stories on this I've seen. The teacher did not gather everyone around for a coming out session; he answered a question honestly. The books were written with the express purpose of helping kids learn to respect each other; other titles in the series are about adopted families, single parents, foster parents, and so on. The parents of the other 21 kids in the class aren't angry; several have expressed gratitude that their children came home talking about how it turns out they're not the only ones whose family somehow looks a little sub-nuclear.

And if it matters, I hear that "Asha's Mums" doesn't talk about things that go bump in the night, but about the puzzles that arise when a little girl with two mothers can't get a field trip permission slip filled out to her teacher's satisfaction.

It's explosive stuff for kids and parents alike because the question of how families get formed is central to so much: How we order our personal lives, who we invest in, how we order society, and on whom we bestow privileges and obligations. Historically, marriage has meant an economic and social alliance within which children are created and reared. That has changed, of course, sending ripples everywhere. And not even homeschooling is going to keep the kids from noticing. The toothpaste is not going to go back in the tube.

If you've spent any time at all watching the Lord of the Flies atmosphere on the playground at recess, you know kids are quick to use differences to bully one another. And it's a quick hop from bullying to the other news from school that made my stomach tighten: That the air-raid drills of yore have been replaced with instruction on responding to an armed intruder. The intruders often seem to have been the targets of the bullies, kids who were forced to ride it out alone.

And have you seen the statistics for suicide among gay teens?

My son's teacher told the truth in an appropriate context. In doing so, he taught his class a lesson in self-respect. And while the grownups may still have their knickers in a twist, second grade has moved on to liquids, solids, and gases.

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