About five weeks ago, we were still in the throws of attempting to complete the assignments sent home from school. It was before fatigue had completely set in and we had our plans as to how things should look, what it meant to have a ‘successful’ day of quarantine school (I can’t even call it homeschool because what we had is NOT what homeschool looks like.) In short, we were still hopeful and resilient.
About that time, my son’s third grade was given an opinion piece writing assignment – a ‘which would you rather’ sort of response, based off two essays provided. From the essays, he was to choose which famous figure in history he would rather go back in time to meet. It felt like a promising way to entice a nine year old to write a formal essay. And then…the choices were…drum roll please…George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.
My heart sank. And my belly tightened – a sure sign something wasn’t in alignment for me.
This assignment wasn’t local to just our school – this was a nation wide test prep curriculum – this was a national third grade essay. And out of all the choices in our rich and diverse history, once again, the choices given were two of the old white men who got to make the rules and tell the story.
I’m not discrediting their importance in our history, of course, they are essential to the birth of America, and they are fascinating people to study. But we already know that. This timing just felt so off. So tone deaf to our times, so uninteresting for any child across this country who still has to wonder “where do I fit into this story?” And, having had my ear to the ground for a while now, learning about quiet yet insidious ways we keep the systemic racism alive (one being the preservation of our history from a white-centric lens) I could immediately feel the exhaustion of parents who have to continuously teach their kids that they matter too. That these weren’t the only figures in history who shaped our country. Not by a long shot.
I took a deep breath and scanned through the essays myself. Probably, in light of all those things I just mentioned, the creators of this curriculum had decided to offer the stories in an updated way, a more “contemporary” way, a conscious way. Maybe they were going to shine a light onto the fact that people can be complicated and a product of their times, and yes while George Washington was a hero who led the American Revolution, he also owned numerous slaves and used their labor for his own advantage. Both could be true at once – now that could be an interesting conversation.
But upon reading, my heart sank further. Nope. It was the same old story that I read thirty-some years ago in my 3rd grade classroom, the same story that my parents probably read too, 30 years before that.
All I could think of was how easy it would have been to throw just a shred of diversity in there. Perhaps a Black man and a White woman to make it inclusive of more of the child sized souls sitting there reading these stories. Maybe one musician and one scientist – shake things up a bit – it really wouldn’t be hard. What a missed opportunity to include a deeper, richer history into an everyday assignment – instead of highlighting diverse voices only during “Black History Month” or “Women’s History Month.”
I sat back, trying to decide how to proceed, as the assignment as given wasn’t going to work for us.
Then my son read the essay. He looked up after the sentence that said something to the effect of “George Washington owned a lot of land and was a very hard worker.” He paused, looked at me questioningly, and asked “But didn’t George Washington have slaves? So…technically, weren’t his slaves hard workers?” Yes. Yes they were. Good observation. Then he asked “So why doesn’t this say that he had slaves? It just skips that part.”
And that’s when I decided our course of action. We weren’t doing the essay. I affirmed his suspicion. Yep. They just skipped that part. I went on to say that if I were a 9 year old Black girl, given this assignment, I would feel really left out of history. I would feel a bit like ‘who cares, they left the parts out about me (again)’ and if I were that girl’s parents, maybe would be feeling a sense of “Here we go again, haven’t we discussed this?”
I let him tell me verbally which man he’d rather meet and why, (Benjamin Franklin because he invented interesting things and he likes to invent things too) and then we spent the rest of that time talking about how some stories in history aren’t the whole picture. And that for a very long time, our history stories have focused on a particular group of people, who were yes, very important, but also not the whole story. I told him that more and more people were waking up to the fact that we haven’t been completely truthful about our history, and that continuing some of these stories continues to cause harm to the people left out. I wanted him to understand that he has a voice that matters, that he is allowed to speak up when he notices something that feels off – like a biography of Washington that leaves out some of the hard stuff. We talked about it being ok to celebrate someone’s good points while also allowing room for the fact there are also not-good points to that same person. People are complicated. And we can be mature enough to acknowledge that.
I let him know that sometimes the right course of action is saying No, this doesn’t align with my truth right now.
If I’m being honest, throughout this discussion with him, I had a tiny voice in the back of my mind asking do you think you might be overreacting? Maybe this is only a school assignment and not really a big deal. But I couldn’t shake the nagging discomfort in my gut, nor the heaviness in my heart imagining myself as another mother, leading this assignment with a child who looked nothing like the heroes of this story. (for probably the fiftieth time by third grade)
And then the following week, riots and protests erupted across this same country who has their third graders of all backgrounds complete assignments like this on the regular.
I heard so many (white) people say “I’m shocked! Aren’t we past racism?” And in that moment I knew our small protest – our saying no to an assignment that perpetuated white-washed half truths – had been a big deal after all. That allowing these played out stories to pervade the narrative in our children’s textbooks is a form of subtle oppression. A morsel of ‘I’m the normal and you’re not’ – like a toy store filled with only blonde and blue eyed dolls, like when kids search for themselves inside a picture book or any Christmas cartoon made before recent years, like ‘skin colored’ BandAids that only match light skin.
What I’ve come away with, lately, is none of this is a little deal. The way we speak, the way we treat each other, our willingness to open our own hearts to discomfort, the words we choose to read, the assignments we choose to participate in – nothing doesn’t matter. It all matters. When we say oh well, that’s just the way it is, and continue on our merry way, it matters. Every interaction shapes who we are, who we are evolving into being, and the course of action our lives will take. As mothers, our small actions, both taken and not taken, speak volumes about the world we want to create for our children. It is a task I don’t take lightly.
Mommas, we have more power than we think we do, and our children already know so much within their beings. They are the revolution. They are so ready for a life filled with consciousness, with honesty, with compassion, with Love. Big big big Love. This next generation – my goodness, they are powerful. I, for one, am feeling more committed than ever to supporting them in bringing forth the world we know is possible.
Much love to you and yours.