Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Strength in Compassion

Today when I picked up Truman from school, his 5th grade teacher met me at the door with an exacerbated expression and a long exhale. "Uh oh," I said, replacing my typical greeting — I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what came next.

I should back up. This week Truman takes his turn as the "Fabulous Face" in the classroom, which means he presents a visual display of his biography and personality in a large poster collage. On Friday, he will bring to school important artifacts which represent that which makes him him, and then he will stand before the class with a magic wand, pointing out the significance of each photo and item, after which the other students will interview him. Watching Truman create this project, I was struck by the bravery kids muster and the vulnerability they share when revealing cherished parts of themselves in such assignments. We adults rarely open ourselves up in this way, standing before a room full of peers, saying, here is my face, here is everything important to me: this is who I am. Kids are brave.

Anyone who knows Truman knows that he put a lot of thought and planning into selecting his photographs. Among others, he included shots of himself playing the saxophone, staring up at Mt. Rushmore, and jumping on the trampoline. One picture showed all of us traveling on our Massive Road Trip last summer, and another represented the wide smile and beautiful face of his brother Jukie.

This is where Truman’s teacher returns to the story. She described an incident where a student walked up to Truman's poster, pointed to the photo of Jukie, and made some disparaging comments, the details of which I won’t repeat here. To say that the teacher was angry would be an understatement; she was livid. In the moment that she explained to me what had happened, I felt more a familiar sadness than anger. Truman and I locked our sad eyes with one another, and I knew we were both dying to get off the school grounds so we could debrief.

Because of Jukie’s differences – his unusual behavior and facial features that are typical for children with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome – my family has occasionally encountered this kind of bullying and cruelty over the years, although rarely in our progressive and inclusive college town. For the most part, schoolchildren in Davis show love and respect toward kids who seem different. Seen often on adventures with members of his family, Jukie is known and loved here. So every time something like this happens, we feel betrayed and a bit stunned.

As we walked away from his classroom, Truman described how he handled the situation, and as his mom, I felt proud. Truman told me that he was in line a couple children behind the boy who had cruelly disparaged his brother, and that he had heard the whole thing. He said to me, "Well, I WANTED to punch him in the face...and I nearly did!" "What stopped you?" I asked. "I knew I had better options." He opted to talk to his teachers, finding support from adults who, in their measured ways, focused on the restorative justice that is made possible by an apology (in this case, both written and presented verbally).

Like any 11-year-old negotiating the social structures of the elementary school playground or classroom, Truman is concerned about his peers’ opinions of him. So walking through this world with an unusual brother has given him many more opportunities to display his bravery, to stand up for his principles. Truman impresses me the most, however, when he shows the sort of patience, kindness, and maturity that having a brother like Jukie has taught him. Truman’s kind-heartedness has helped him recognize the quiet (and sometimes noisy) dignity and value in every person, often because of our differences, not in spite of them. More children, and the adults they aspire to emulate, would benefit from time spent reflecting on the strength and bravery that can result from a commitment to genuine compassion.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Letter from Our President

At the end of this week, the United States will enter dark and uncertain times. Like millions of our fellow Americans, my 11-year-old son Truman and I are handling this time of governmental transition with a palpable sense of trepidation and foreboding.

We each have developed strategies to get through these days. Drawn to my favorite 60's folk music, I fill the house with its soothing sounds. We watch documentaries together, feeling inspired by the words and lives of our heroes. We make plans to attend the Women's March in Sacramento this Saturday. Truman can't wait to ride the train there. Knowing the power of gatherings of like-minded peaceful protests, I'm eager for him to discover this feeling too.

Still, Truman has been having trouble sleeping, and I'm at a loss as to how best to help him. Because I know he's worried enough on his own, I make a point not to discuss with my him my greatest concerns with the new administration and especially with the disastrous president-elect. Instead, I summon all of the positivity I can muster and focus on every encouraging aspect of our political lives that I can think of: we're Californians who are lucky to live in a state where our governor, senators, and representative reject the bigotry, discrimination, and lies we have heard spouted from PEOTUS. I remind him that nearly 3,000,000 more citizens voted as we did. We talk about the fight going forward and the ways we will continue to work to elect leaders who reflect our values.

Last night, as I tucked him into bed, my boy stunned me with this question: "Mommy, is there a place in Davis where we can hide out if there's an attack?" Instead of worrying about his math homework or something inconsequential and appropriate for a fifth grader, my kid was wondering if bomb shelters exist in our college town, and if his mom knows where they might be located. Truman fears that our president-elect's unstable actions could launch us into a global nuclear war. Unprepared and unequipped to field this surprise query, I attempted to allay his fears by telling him "you don't need to worry about that, honey — we're safe." But even I didn't find my response all that reassuring. His radar finely tuned to his mom's reactions, Truman didn't quite buy it either, asking, "ARE we safe? You're sure?" Sitting on the edge of his bed, I realized that he had entered a new developmental stage, the one where kids realize that their parents don't actually know everything, that they're wrong sometimes, or that sometimes they paint too hopeful a picture of the world.

And then today, just like that, hope and inspiration arrived in our mailbox in the form of a large envelope with Truman's name on it and the return address: The White House, Washington D.C. Truman had received a response to a letter he had written to President Obama the day after the election. Truman’s letter lamented the results, and reached out a hand of friendship, concern, and support to our 44th President of the United States. President Obama’s response was full of hope and encouragement, and the four included photos showed the smiling faces of some of his favorite famous people: President Obama, First Lady Michelle, and their daughters Sasha and Malia.

While Truman joins most Americans in bemoaning the recent course of events, he nevertheless has had his faith in humanity strengthened by this package sent from the White House. "The White House...I still can't believe it!" he said tonignt as I tucked him into bed. I’m sure many of his tween peers join him in his resolve to work to bring a role model back to the White House, someone to admire and, in 2024, to vote for to make sure that she or he can inspire us all with talk of hope and justice, just as his childhood hero Barack Obama did.

And tomorrow, we will head downtown to purchase some frames for his new photographs, and his letter, from our President of the United States.