By Tiffany Duncan
Cultural difference is a slippery thing
I want to digress here a little from the strict recounting of events. I think there are some important issues whose bearing on the experience of our particular family may be hard to determine but must be nonetheless brought out in the open.
Andrew is bicultural. And let’s face it, boys from more “colored” cultures tend a bit towards unruliness. For one thing, family life tends to be less structured, less punctual, less strict. This attitude, combined with the typical high energy levels of normal boys, makes for extra capacity for rambunctious behavior. The family and community culture, however, has tolerance for this kind of behavior and certainly does not see it as pathological or an imminent threat to the order of things. (Surely we have all seen our share of unconventional and rebellious white boys not to be excessively alarmed by them.)
What these boys face in “real life” (don’t you love this?), however, are two things. First, the “white” culture at large expects behavior that is much more under control. Energy must be harnessed, feelings checked, rules observed, directions followed. These are all good things to learn—it is only that kids, especially boys, will get around them if they can get away with it, and for as long as they can. In my view, this is far from indication of pathology. Second, as Andrew’s old preschool teacher put it, our school system, at least at the early childhood education level, is really set up more for the way girls learn. We expect boys to do the same calm, fine-motor activities that girls are good at. No wonder that the “problem” children in classrooms are overwhelmingly boys.
What you end up with, then, is an environment that is restrictive particularly to boys of non-white cultures. But then again, in real life—and this is cause for celebration—a teacher with experience, imagination, and love of children can maneuver around all kinds of differences and eccentricities, and work perfectly well with children of all kinds of backgrounds. They do it all the time. This is certainly what I expected from the well-compensated teachers at one of the most sought-after private schools in town.
The African American question
I will digress (or maybe not!) a little more. I recently read in a cover story of a national magazine that it is common knowledge that African American boys are punished more than any other kids in school. This is very disturbing—and corroborated by what I saw at Hillside School.
In March of our first year at Hillside, Thomas, the only African American boy in our group, was expelled. He had proved too much of a challenge for the teachers and occupied too much of their time. What I saw was a high energy three-year old boy, maybe too young to be in school full time (Hillside requires that all children attend full time), completely oblivious to classroom rules. I took secret pleasure in watching him drive the complacent teachers to distraction, but the truth is that nobody was having any fun. His poor mother, with a job and a younger child, made heroic efforts to make the situation work. In the end, the school bid them a smug email farewell (“Not a good match... We’ll miss Thomas…”) fairly late in the year—not only too late for the parents to find another school for Thomas that year, but also too late to apply to most schools for the next.
In the second year, Miles, also African American, joined the group. He too was high energy and very bright. One of the difficulties he faced was to be accepted into a group that had been already together for a year. He was also quite spirited and resisted submission to heavy-handed teacher authority. The offences he committed brought him daily banishment from activities and exclusion from the groups he desperately wanted to join. This was done, I’m sure, in the name of consistency—he was subjected to the same policy as other kids—but it was a glaring misapplication of policy. (Although, I must say, I never saw any kid being banished quite as often as Miles. But then again, I was not around while my kid was being disciplined!)
One day I helplessly watched as a teacher approached Miles, who had happily joined a game with a group of other boys, and yanked him away: “Miles, you know you’re excused from the block area…” I suppose he had done something wrong the day before.
Another day I watched Miles being banished to his lonely desk during circle time. He had elbowed another child and next thing I knew, he was sitting at his desk, far away from everyone. I could feel the whole room tremble with his rage and the tears he held back. All I could do was go over to him, pat him on the head and say, “You’re a good boy, Miles. You’re a good boy.”
My own son, who looks quite Caucasian, probably received the same treatment (“One strike and he was out…”), so it is hard to say that Miles’ exclusion was blatant racism. But it would take a blithering idiot not to see the effect Miles’ repeated expulsions from the group could have on the other children. The day he was banished from circle I watched as all eyes turned to him. It was done innocently enough of course, but I would neither want that gaze turned toward my son, nor that he should be part of a group directing that gaze toward others. Not surprisingly, to the day we left, Miles was not accepted by the other boys.
The conversations I had over time with both Thomas’s and Miles’s parents were quite enlightening. At a birthday party the first year, Thomas’s father made a comment about the classroom having the atmosphere of “army barracks.” In the second year, Miles’s mother, virtually in tears, said to me: “What do they want from my kid? Conformity? Docility? They want to break my son’s spirit.”
My husband and I had been discussing the school in practically the same exact words. (“’Celebrating diversity’!” my husband snorted. “Should be ‘celebrating docility.’”)But we were aware that addressing some issues—boot camp methods, submission, conformity, etc.—especially in the context of race and cultural difference, required a brutal honesty that was beyond the reach of the school’s limp liberalism. At any rate, we were quite sure that we did not want to take any chances on what our son was learning from the way African American boys in his class were being treated.