When I was in junior high, my mother bought me a t-shirt proclaiming "A Woman's Place is in the House ... and in the Senate!" I just barely understood the pun, but I was very clear on the principle. Equality was important, and some people didn't want women to be equal. I wore that shirt with pride, and I clearly remember some of my male teachers snickering about it. I knew it made my dad prickly. And I kept wearing it, precisely because it made them uncomfortable.
At the time, I knew no people of color and I knew no gay people. I grew up in a very small town in rural northern California. Our world was limited in many ways. Some people I grew up with became staunch conservatives, afraid that big government was going to fly its black helicopters in and take away their guns. I argue with these folks on Facebook from time to time. Their fear makes me sad.
My eyes were opened when I attended college in the SF Bay Area. Suddenly, I was living in downtown Oakland and surrounded by people of many colors, people whose lives were completely unlike my sheltered rural childhood. The hardness of the street people and the sharpness of the economic divides pained me. And then there were the other students at the university, light years ahead of me in terms of family money, privilege, and knowledge about the wider world. It was too much for me to cope with at the time, and I bailed out, finishing school at a smaller suburban university where the multiple learning curves weren't so steep.
In the new school, I gave myself the education that I did not receive in my small-town high school. In addition to remedial math and science courses, I immersed myself in a wide swath of electives, including gender studies, Native American literature, and ethnic studies courses. Had I gone on to pursue a graduate degree, it would have focused on the literature of place, the way that one's upbringing shapes the person that you become and the words that you write, with an emphasis on those people who have traditionally been discriminated against, and the extra grit that it takes to reach a place of "success" when you're starting at the far end of the educational bell curve. In the years since college, I've come to the very strong belief that affirmative action needs to take into account the great gaps in urban vs. rural upbringings, in addition to the more accepted markers of historically under-served communities.
But I'm straying a bit from my point today. Four years ago, we were full of hope. My husband and I had just adopted a beautiful baby boy, and our president was just beginning what we all dreamed would be a glorious first four years. The end of the long Bush years coincided with our long struggle to finally become parents. Our son, who is African American, would never know a time when a mixed-race kid couldn't be president.
It's been a rocky time for us all since then. President Obama has surely faced some difficult moments, as has our nation (no one but no one wants to re-live the never-ending Republican primaries, am I right?). On the personal side of things, the economic downturn affected our jobs in ways we didn't expect, and our son didn't sleep through the night until he was three years old, at which point, our second child (a beautiful girl whose genetic heritage is half-Iranian) joined our family and the sleeplessness started all over again. In the past year, I've read these pages and rarely had the time or the energy to comment, much less post.
And what I've read has struck fear in my heart for my children. I see the death of Treyvon Martin, and all those other young black boys who have been killed since. The children of Newton. The NRA. Armed guards in schools (because, y'know, freedom). Where will the madness end? How am I supposed to explain this world to my kids?
It's hard enough talking about adoption and explaining why their genetic families, for whatever reason, were unable to raise them. Heck, it's hard just being parents and hoping our neighborhood schools are strong and helping the kids find nice friends and being careful what we feed them and keeping them from running out into the street without looking for cars first. How do we then go on to explain to my son that he has to be extra careful when he walks down the street as he gets older? How do we tell both of them that people will judge them based solely on their genetic heritages? What kind of world have they been brought into, and what kind of place will we be leaving them to live in?
Which makes this morning's inauguration such a point of strength for our family, a place where we can rest our parental worries for just a moment. Today, at this one point in time, we can be certain of our footing. We can pause and say "Look, here, listen. This is important." The baby is too little to get it. But I explained to our son that President Obama (who has hair just like his) was going to stand up and promise to do a good job as President of the United States, where we live. And that his daddy and I voted before Thanksgiving to make sure that he could stand here today, and that all of those thousands of people on the TV had traveled out in the freezing cold morning to watch him raise his hand up and promise. And, you know, my son is only four years old, but he paid attention. Not for long -- there was plenty of important four-year-old business to attend to today, and time was a-wasting -- but he paid attention for long enough, just like he paid attention on that day last month when I explained that our neighbors in Washington state would be able to get married to whomever they loved, regardless of their genders. He wanted to know if boys could wear sparkly dresses and throw flowers, and I said "you betcha."
He's a smart kid, our son. He'll remember this day. He'll remember that we stopped our busy lives for an hour on a weekday morning, that we turned on "grown-up TV" instead of Curious George, that he and his sister had special t-shirts to wear and that we took pictures of them, with the sun streaming in our windows (that in itself a rare gift in an otherwise grey winter), and, hopefully, he'll appreciate that we tried. That we made an effort. That we voted our consciences, and advocated for equality, that we did the best we could to ensure that his circle of important people include people of all races, creeds, colors, and sexualities. That we worked hard to explain the world to him while he was young, so that when he's older, he'll be able to hold his own on a base of self-assurance. He'll know that we believed in banishing fear and embracing hope, and that we always always believed in equality -- for him, for his sister, and for those whom the fearful still work to oppress.