A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (2016) by Sue Klebold.
August 30, 2017
How do we respond to unimaginable events, disasters, horrors?
We watch Houston, much of Texas, and Louisiana as they emerge from trillions of gallons of water left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, August 2017. (The very anniversary of the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in 2005).
We are reeling from the brazen racist violence of the August 12th weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia and continued rallies and marches of white supremacists and counter protesters.
The list of astonishing events seems escalated since November 8, 2016 and the placement of the 45th President of the United States. We reel and reel some more.
We search for reasons. We want to assign blame. We want to know, “Why?” We ask, “How could this happen?”
I want to direct our over stimulated sense of awe and awfulness to a recently released memoir. This will take us back in time, to 1999, and events that shifted everything for our national cultural awareness. U.S. school shootings are recorded as far back as 1764, the deadliest was in Bath, Michigan in 1927 (about which I had no idea until I did an Internet search). But Columbine High School haunts our recent history. Eighteen year olds, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, designed and implemented a massacre.
Sue Klebold is Dylan’s mother. She describes the unfolding of events for her family, the relentless quest to understand her son and his suicide, and to describe the unfolding of discoveries afterward. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (2016) is a challenge to every parent. This is not a Mom’s cozy love story. It is not a story of cruel or psychotic parents abusing children. It is a story of a mother’s devoted love for a child that ended in a blaze of bullets that killed twelve students, one teacher, ended the lives of the two perpetrators, and injured twenty-four other students. Dylan did not become a killer due to bad parenting.
We come into parenthood intentionally or unintentionally through desire, marriage, mishap, adoption, or step-parenting. The early days of parenting are a blur of tending to minute details and the wonder of a tiny infant exhausting grown adults merely by sleeping, eating, and requiring diaper changes. Then come the hazards of kids learning to walk, ride a tricycle, cross the street, engage with friends, attend school. Those years of fundamental learning and care go swiftly. Memories are made (good and bad) that last a lifetime.
A child’s unique temperament meets the community. Idiosyncrasies abound. What is a quirk a child will grow out of, what is serious and a sign of distress? Klebold has spent the years since the massacre at Columbine High School dissecting every moment and every memory. She could not fathom or reconcile her child as a shooter. He had friends, held a job, participated in family movie nights and dinners, was a tech for the school theater. He had just been to the prom. Dylan had his streak of depression, but she never saw him as violent or mean.
That is, until she watched the Basement Tapes months after the deaths. The boys made these tapes as they planned their massacre. There Sue Klebold hears a young man she cannot deny is her son, but cannot align with the son she knew, utter hateful words and show off with guns she never could have imagined.
Reconciling suicide, murder, hate. This has been Klebold’s life-quest since April 20, 1999. She isn’t asking for forgiveness; she knows she can never make amends for her son’s actions. She does appeal to her readers to understand that her son was brought up in love, with high standards, moral teachings, and within the bosom of a stable and loving family.
Klebold is warning us all: parents, teachers, professionals who work with youth, to attend. Wake up. Kids are cool, kids are geniuses at disguise, full of deception. Depression vs. the petulance of adolescent behavior can be difficult to discern and Dylan used all his guile to hide his depression and anger.
She recognizes the bullying culture of the high school, missed opportunities for intervention in educational/professional/judicial settings, access to guns, and Dylan’s resistance to therapy. But even if we look in every corner of a kid’s room we may not find the gun, the pills, the alcohol, or catch the thrumming of suicidal thoughts, or glimpse the deepest suffering that is lurking behind the cheery face. This memoir will wrench all readers as Sue Klebold takes us through each stage of her grief, shame, shock, awareness, and the depth of her reckoning.
Blaming the parents, blaming the school, blaming guns, blaming, blaming, blaming will not bring any of the dead teachers, students, shooters of any of the mass shootings back or heal any of those caught in the crossfires. Learning about the signs, the signals of brain illness (Klebold’s term for mental illness), and taking every moment to work with an individual is our social and community opportunity to create the change and establish the hope that mass shootings will be events of history, not weekly or daily occurrences (http://www.shootingtracker.com/Main_Page).
Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)
Imagine calming the storm raging in every cell of your body. Many years after being raped by a young man she loved, Thordis Elva found forgiveness and solace.
She was an Icelandic kid, just 16, falling in love for the first time. He was an eighteen-year-old exchange student from Australia. One night went wrong with 72,000 seconds of rape, and years later, the two come together. South of Forgiveness is a journal of that week in both their voices.
Elva’s determination to go beyond “getting over” the rape drove her to write plays and a book on gender-based violence. Her ruthless quest for truths set her on the startling path of reconnecting and confronting her perpetrator. She and Tom Stranger spend several years emailing back and forth, going deeper into honest appraisals. She had survived years of self-harm and the reprisals of post-traumatic stress. He was entrenched in guilt and shame and, eager may not quite be the term, utterly willing to drive through this uncharted territory with Thordis. They decide to meet in Cape Town, South Africa, a global half way point and, starkly, considered the rape capital of the world. Elva and Stranger break boundaries, dare to consider reconciliation and restorative practices, as they shatter the silence of victim and perpetrator.
They walk through fires of remembering, clarify times they spent together after the rape, and focus some blurred memories. They are both brave and a little crazy to endure this process. But they know their lives are on the line. Their future healthy relationships, joy, and forgiveness are at stake. The result is a respect and responsibility and an intensity of awareness few mortals will come to know.
Rape culture, globally and in the United States, is pandemic. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.” Girls, women, boys, men, Native American, White, African American, Latinx, Asian American, all races and creeds, LGBT, military personnel, incarcerated populations— all among the victims. Underreporting of incidents, re-traumatization of victims during legal proceedings, mistrials, media and judicial bias toward perpetrators is blatantly obvious. The emotional and psychic costs to men, women and children, to the perpetrators and the victims, is beyond any known approach to accounting. Due to a shortage of staff, funding, or national initiative, in the United States there are 400,000 untested rape kits awaiting analysis.The long-term health effects, personal economic, social, and emotional costs of rape are staggering. The loss to the GDP and the national creativity and happiness quotient—unimaginable.
Freedom from rape is a civil rights and health issue—for both victim and perpetrator. Elva and Stranger sleuth their truths, which are hard and honest. Stranger does not know why he raped Elva that night, he cared deeply for her and it terrorizes him that that ability was within his nature. Where did it come from?
This is a book for all who desire to end rape culture. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all model but it does offer inspiration to challenge legal, institutional, and social dead ends. What new venues can we create? Restorative Justice? Peer mentoring? A 12-step approach? The VOEG (Victim Offender Education Group) model used by Insight Prison Project? Masculinity education programs? We need all our creative, inspired willingness and awareness to bring justice, love, and well-being to all who have been harmed. Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger offer us their story of finding a path to resolution and peace. Their book and TED Talk challenge and encourage us to find ours.
In the Time Before November 8, 2016
On my tiptoes, I could scan the contents of the top dresser drawer. I was nine or ten years old. My parents’ room was not forbidden, just foreboding, so I’d never peered inside Pop’s bureau before. My mother was in the room. She was putting laundry away, folding and fussing over each item. We were convivial, having a lovely day. No tension, none of my usual backtalk or petulant attitude.
The landscape of the top drawer was spare; my father was not a man of clutter. I held each item to examine it and show my mother. The watch fob that didn’t work, she said, came from his father. There were silver cuff links and tie clasps. The slingshot he made when he was a boy in North Carolina was slack. He was proud to have made it, she said. It was his only totem of childhood. Handkerchiefs did not intrigue me, but my exploring fingers hit something solid. I lifted the small pistol from the back of the drawer and aimed it at my mother. Not intentionally, it was more like a compass needle seeking north. She gasped,
“Put that down! It could be loaded!”
Gaining more and more clarity on what I had just almost done, I uncurled my fingers from the grip. Was my finger on the trigger? Could I have killed my own mother? My horror gave way to tears. My mother took a quick step toward me, took the gun out of my hand and put it back in the drawer. The gun was for burglars, she said, along with the baseball bat behind their bedroom door. My father was lithe and very slight of build. He never hit anyone in his life.
When I last checked, perhaps a few weeks later, the gun was gone.
This memory hasn’t stirred for decades. But it did after a week in California as a participant in the Victim/Offender Education Group facilitator training. * We stayed with friends and commuted each morning across the Golden Gate Bridge into picture postcard sunrises. In a San Rafael church activity room we joined a circle of other participants. The group consisted of formerly incarcerated people who had spent decades inside, as well as employees and volunteers at other prisons. Our training followed the curriculum used inside with VOEG participants.
VOEG is a restorative justice program, focused on accountability and healing trauma. The starting point is to write a crime impact statement. This is a detailed accounting of the day leading to the crime that resulted in incarceration, the crime itself, and the aftermath, including the real or imagined impact on the victim, their family, friends and community. Listening to the stories of our colleagues who had been incarcerated, their naked truth, speaking the names of their victims through barely controlled sobs, was breathtaking. They also dove into understanding the harmful environments of their youth and behaviors that led to criminal activities and arrest. These were the steps leading them to emotional awareness. They had to dig deep and deal with the whole spectrum of their experiences and learn emotions. Then they could take full accountability for their actions, which allowed them to know empathy and practice compassion.
On the third day of the training, those who had been cleared went to San Quentin. We wore black, white, or brown as we had been instructed. No blue or denim like the men inside. We brought nothing in but our car key and driver’s license. No pens or paper, no device capable of picking up a digital signal. Getting inside meant a series of checks, one large iron gate closing before another opened. Once inside, we were escorted to the chapel, where we sat with twelve of the men who had completed, and now co-facilitated, the San Quentin VOEG program.
One by one, the men showed us how the program worked, which meant telling their stories. Every story I heard included easy access to guns and drugs. There were stories of single mothers working several jobs, abusive parents or step parents, or the lure of gang life that won over other life choices. The hardest stories to hear were of childhoods full of physical and sexual harm, shame and humiliation. Their hearts had hardened with these forms of abuse. How could they care about another person’s life when they had been raised with such meanness, disregarded, and provoked in their powerlessness? In other stories it seemed another youth or a girlfriend was killed without any more provocation than a look or a comment. This glance or snide remark proved to be life long humiliation’s last straw.
“Hurt people hurt people, healed people heal people,” was a constant refrain.
Each man I met was able to describe in detail the events that shaped his decisions and how he had come to take responsibility for his part in the events. There was liberation in all this truth telling, in listening too. Listening was learning for these men who had been boys with dreams and desperate intentions.
In the homework for the San Rafael group I shared vignettes from my younger days when I was caught in sexual, economic, and emotional power plays. I was drunk for the sexual un- pleasantries but not for the later relationships where I stayed despite economic and emotional abuse. I know that if I had continued drinking and doing drugs I would have landed in jail, died in a boating or car accident, or by an overdose.
Listening to the men in San Quentin and the people in our San Rafael group who had spent decades incarcerated also taught me the fragility of a fraction of a second. An impetuous trigger pulled. The gun goes off. Someone takes the bullets and dies in the instant of that decision or in the split second of that mistake.
Realizing how close I might have been to shooting my mother that day, or going deeper into addiction to either kill or die, only offers the tiniest mirror to understand how thin the line is between who is in and who is out of our jails and prisons. It was a line that I didn’t cross that summer day on my tiptoes. And I know now how so many men and women have crossed the line or been pushed by the accumulation of systematic oppressions, abuse, neglect, and denied expectations. VOEG works to bring those inside back to healing and emotional intelligence that is as inspired as it is enlightening. They told me that having healed in VOEG, not only have their lives been changed forever, they’ve been able to change the culture of the yard at San Quentin.
Healed people heal people.
*Insight Prison Project
This morning I received news that LaMerle Johnson, Sr., amazing, loving, caring, eye-twinkling, life coach, father, brother, friend died in a canoe accident on Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at the Rockwood Leadership Returning Citizen retreat.
I met LaMerle at the VOEG training. He opened my eyes and heart to all the possibilities of healing, coming out of a life of harm and prison and hurt and being a joyful man. He personified “healed people heal people.”
My heart is broken — more light is let in. Our work goes on.
Spring stayed underground through all of April. This was a long Vermont record-breaking cold winter. Then the spring bulbs exploded in a sudden mid-May heat wave. They danced up the driveway and over to the neighbors and down the road. Our eight-month old puppy had never seen spring, was startled by the grass. He and our older dog raced each other through the flowers. I left the dogs and the daffodils to go to town.
In town, we settled in at our favorite bookstore to listen to Abigail Thomas read from her latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. I had inhaled the book, as one does when the language is captivating, something quirky is being explained, the life of the author offers bits of your own, and you are pretty sure you better pay attention because other bits may be yours one day in the not so distant future. I’d pulled Thomas’ two other memoirs, Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life and A Three Dog Life: A Memoir from my bookcase. Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir, which is full of writing challenges — I mean, two-page writing exercises –was on my desk. Her sister Eliza Thomas’ memoir, The Road Home was also in the pile. I read that one to get a grip on being an adoptive parent when my toddlers were napping.
I pull out Thomas’ Safekeeping every time I want to write but just can’t, or don’t. That’s about five times so far. Maybe I’ll start it again tonight. I rarely stand in line for autographs, but I waited at the end of the line for Thomas to sign my copy of What Comes Next and How to Like it.
What is it? What’s so darn compelling about this author’s writing?
Take these opening lines. They are the dresses Abigail wears as she makes her entrances:
“Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola.”
“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt.”
A Three Dog Life
“I have time to kill while waiting for the sun to dry, and I’m mulling over the story I spent years writing and failed to turn into anything, trying not to be depressed.”
What Comes Next and How to Like It.
These books are all about the messiness of living. The children are caught up in spinach and scrambled eggs, a divorce, or the loss of a father. With each edition we glean the benefit of Thomas’ artful reflections, making sense of a life, rather than divvying tidbits up in the free form of fiction. We see life as complex and so often confounding with betrayals and cancer and grandchildren, and Oh, the dogs! Thomas’ sisters offer clarity. Doctors, nurses, and friends help her through. She is that whole constellation of wife, sister, mother, grandmother, friend, and woman alone dealing with the stark skies of reality.
As we all are. Yet these are not linear texts. The dogs are loud, restless, and destructive—just as are the people and events of her life. Utterly unpredictable, too, which is why wondering What Comes Next is followed by and How to Like It. We must, we always must find the way to get through the day, the years, the consequences.
How does Thomas manage to leap in the essence and stay in the crucial details too? Safekeeping and What Comes Next offer the reader a page or two at a time, a scene or reflection that advances the history, the locations, the honest truth of the moment. Each page is a clue, a piece of the puzzle stripped down to the bones. This is Haiku prose. Layers of images start to build and the portrait appears. But it isn’t still life, there is so much living going on. As we learn in that first page of What Comes Next, the sun dries and only then can she add the paint for the clouds around it.
At Bear Pond Books, after Thomas’ reads, I wait patiently in the line, watching the audience thin, wonder what is taking so long with the guy at the podium with her. I have no idea what to say to her. Let him take his time. Finally I am face to face with the writer whose honesty thrills me, who is just a little older, so I know of but didn’t live her references, and her musical taste is before mine. Our lives have similarities: smoking, drinking, Woodstock, NY (I lived there some twenty years prior to her residence and missed all that 1969 sex), roasting chickens, baking cookies for kids, her painting, my photography, love of language, love of students finding voice through writing. I’ve only two dogs to her three. I write about the life and death issues too, just different ones.
It is my turn and my mind is blank.
“I love you!” I exclaim to my surprise.
She beamed as she autographed my book. “Come to Woodstock,” she wrote.
Safekeeping: Some True Stories From A Life. Anchor Books: NY. 2000.
A Three Dog Life: A Memoir. Harcourt, Inc.: NY. 2006.
Thinking About Memoir. AARP Sterling: NY. 2009.
What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir. Scribner: NY. 2015
The Road Home. Delta, New York, 1997.
* from back cover of Strange Sisters.
Dear blog readers:
I was asked to lead a book group and of course I said, YES! (Vermont readers, please consider joining the discussion this coming Monday at the Kellog Hubbard Library in Montpelier at 6:30. details below!)
Little did I know the subject matter would be so perfect for Spring Fever! Lesbian pulp fiction is a genre from WWII train station and drug store book shelves. Lesbians wrote much of it but the script was determined by the publishers.
“What’re you standing there for?” Carol asked. “Get to bed, sleepyhead.”
“Carol, I love you.”
Carol straightened up. Therese stared at her with intense, sleepy eyes.
Then Carol finished taking her pajamas from the suitcase and pulled the lid down. She came to Therese and put her hands on her shoulders. She squeezed her shoulders hard, as if she were exacting a promise from her, or perhaps searching her to see if what she had said were real. Then she kissed Therese on the lips, as if they had kissed a thousand times before.
“Don’t you know I love you?” Carol said.
This Sapphic love scene appears, finally, after one hundred forty-five pages of leisurely literary foreplay in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. It was published in 1952 under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, to cover her shame and her true authorial identity. It would be thirty-eight years before Highsmith would claim this fairly autobiographical novel as her own.
Carol wanted her with her, and whatever happened they would meet it without running. How was it possible to be afraid and in love, Therese thought. The two things did not go together. How was it possible to be afraid, when the two of them grew stronger together every day? And every night. Every night was different, and every morning. Together they possessed a miracle.
In the world of lesbian pulp fiction, The Price of Salt stands out for defying the codes of the era. Neither Carol, the older woman with a five year old daughter at stake in a custody battle, or Therese, younger set designer, go insane; go back to husband or get married; or die a gruesome death by the end. The rationale of the times was that a realistic storyline of love and happiness had to be interrupted because the post office might seize the book as obscene. These were the Fifties. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap had fought the post office in their attempt to get James Joyce’s Ulysses imported to the United States from 1918-1921 through serialization in their magazine, The Little Review. The obscenity laws then were based on the premise that the officials would know what obscenity looked like when they saw it. Thus, for society’s safety, the only good lesbian was rushed to the alter, locked in an insane asylum, or dead by her own hand or some tragic incident. Readers had to know the code and revitalize the endings for their own sanity.
That night, talking over the road map about their route tomorrow, talking as matter of factly as a couple of strangers, Therese thought surely tonight would not be like last night. But when they kissed good night in bed, Theresa felt their sudden release, that leap of response in both of them, as if their bodies were of some materials, which put together inevitably created desire.
What “materials” could create such a spark? Two women! The McCarthy Era dominated the political and social scene at the time of publication. Paranoia was rampant as blacklisting by McCarthy’s extremism ruined lives. Homophobia was as contagious and dangerous as Communism, despite Roy Cohen at McCarthy’s shoulder and Herbert Hoover at the FBI: both gay men at helms of authority. The House of Representatives appointed the Select Committee on Current Pornography Materials, just as Carol and Therese were on their escapade traveling across country.
Thelma and Louise find their fate in a canyon river as late as 1991 and they never even kissed! Carol and Therese deny the devastating end.
Vermont readers: Come join the discussion —Monday, March 23th at 6:30. Bring your favorite tattered copies of The Twisted Ones, Strange Sisters, Beebo Brinker, The Well of Loneliness….
Dress for the Fifties if you like.
ALL WELCOME! It is not a prerequisite to be LGBTAQI to attend. Respect is required.
Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vermont presents: LGBTQ Reading Series. THE PRICE OF SALT, by Patricia Highsmith
 Reprint The Price of Salt. Made in the USA Lexington, KY 15 November 2014. P. 145.
 American mystery writer, born 1921. Biographer, Joan Shenkar declares Highsmith would have been a serial killer if she hadn’t been a writer. Stunning beauty until her diet of alcohol and cigarettes caught up with her. Embarrassed about being a lesbian, published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The novel is surreptitiously autobiographical. Copyright has never been renewed but did disclose her authorship in 1990. Patricia Highsmith died alone in 1995.
 Reprint. Page 163.
 Reprint. Page 171.
 The year being 1952. Jaye Zimet, Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969. New York: Viking Studio, p. 19.
He’s seventeen, handsome, graceful and smart, plays mid right wing for a very good soccer club. His shoulders are broad, so is his smile, and he is getting taller. He is African American and I am his white mother.
We live in Vermont, where hippies still thrive raising carrots and kids on small farms. This is a state with only 626,630 people, 95.2% of whom are white. There used to be more cows than people, but those days are gone — well, at least the cows are. Folks answering demographic surveys around here are predominantly well educated, and aren’t partial to organized religion, though we have a lot of Buddhists practicing in these hills. Despite such mindfulness, I hear comments like, “There is no racism here.” “Everyone knows everyone and everybody helps one another.” The state motto is Freedom and Unity; Kindness could rule if Vermont were a separate Republic.
Even so, the Southern Poverty Law Center gives Vermont a grade of ‘F’ for civil rights instruction in the public schools. It seems like teachers want to do the right thing and, along with most white people, they don’t want to say the wrong thing about race (or class or LGBT or adoption or disabilities) so they just don’t bring it up. Most white folks I know here don’t see any evidence of racism unless someone points to specific incidents or talks through the issues, like Driving While Black or Shopping While Black. Even then, some of my white friends, and many of my students, get exasperated, “Racism is so old-school,” I’ve been told. They don’t want to believe that racism exists. This essay is for them, and for my kids.
None of the parents I know have had to teach their white kids the skills to be safe in stores, schools, highways and neighborhoods, as I have. I thought about this as I read a piece by self-described upper middle class Attorney Lawrence Otis Graham in The Washington Post. Graham and his family are African-American. He offered a list of nine rules he and his wife have taught their children, among them, never leave a store without a receipt, keep your hands free and visible, and always be polite, even in the face of disrespect. Even with this careful preparation, Graham’s fifteen-year-old son called home terrified, having been harassed by white men in a car, shouting the N-word as he walked on the sidewalk of his elite prep school.
African American men and boys are incarcerated or killed by the weapons of racism in countless numbers. Most of us have learned about Emmett Till, brutally murdered for the possibility that he had whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in1955. His mother braved threats and opened his casket for the world to see what happened to her 14-year-old-son. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, walking home with a fistful of Skittles in Sanford, Florida in 2012 is in our more recent memory. The summer of 2014 presented us with many more dead black young men and boys: in Ferguson, Missouri. Staten Island, New York. Los Angeles, California. Beavercreek, Ohio. Victorville, California. 
I recently discovered the stories of two boys (they called them Negro then) shot after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. They are not remembered as are the four girls who died in the blast. The New York Times, September 15, 1963 article describes the shooting of one of the boys, 13-year-old Virgil Wade, “The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said ‘there apparently was no reason at all’ for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.” No apparent reason. General racial disorders. Our nation has a long history of bullets flying into innocent black youth. I knew this history, but it became mine when I became a mother.
I also have a daughter who is a year older than her brother. On my first trip to the grocery store in 1996 with my eentsy weentsy baby girl, a white employee collecting carts in the parking lot asked, “Is that a Negro?” I immediately responded, “Yes! And isn’t she beautiful?” Despite my initial (and intuitive) reaction, I have learned to be ever wary of the inexperience and obliviousness of other white people when it comes to my children. Sometimes I get a pleasant surprise; when my daughter was only a few months old, I steeled myself for a diatribe when a guy came over to my table at a diner. I confess, he fit the stereotype of “redneck” that I hadn’t yet overcome. The baby was too small to sit up on her own, so she was in my lap. He extended his finger for her to grab as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He was smiling ear to ear as he proudly showed off a picture of his biracial granddaughter.
On another occasion, my son came home from kindergarten to report he’d been washing his hands after art with other classmates and one told him his hands were still dirty. My son responded, “Mine are clean but yours are covered with paint!” Another time, an elementary teacher was adamant that “black” was the proper term for her to use when teaching civil rights. My daughter was uncomfortable, “But I’m not black, I’m brown,” she told me. I asked her what she’d prefer the teacher say. She thought for a moment and proudly said, “African American.” When I talked to the teacher, I suggested she talk to the kids in the future to find out what they liked to be called. I have had a lot to learn about negotiating the world crisscrossing color lines.
A pivotal moment in my awareness occurred one luscious summer night at the beach. The kids were two and three, we were walking along the shoreline as sunset approached. It had been a lovely day, just the three of us, strolling around town, playing tag with the waves, tossing stones in the water or watching construction on the wharf. We could while many hours away in these pursuits. Our after dinner stroll was the icing on the day. Big sister was leading little brother down the strand. As they wandered ahead, I followed along happy to be in the midst of their joy. The infant and toddler years were receding and I was thinking how big and independent they were becoming. A tall and very strikingly handsome African American man watched us approach. I waved and called, “ Hello.” He boomed from his doorway, “Are they yours?” When I nodded he continued, “They’re cute now but what are you going to do when people cross the street when they are bigger?”
I had no words. Was this one of the what- right-do-you-have-as-a-white-woman-to-adopt-black-children challenges I had heard before, or simply a bold forewarning? There was no way to have a conversation; his was not an invitation, and the kids were already far ahead. That man’s question has not haunted me with doubts about whether I was right to adopt my children. Their birth giver settled that for me when she decided their destination and made sure brother got to be with sister. No, his question has provoked all of my work as an educator, community member, and mother.
I don’t want women to fear, as Sandra Bullock’s character did in Crash (2004), the sight of my son on the sidewalk approaching her. I don’t want people to duck into a store when they see my kids coming. I’ve led ‘interrupting oppression’ workshops and classes to guide people to understand the amazingly complex intersections of all prejudices and to appreciate and honor the variety of perspectives and ideas a diverse group can inspire. The forewarning of the man on the beach, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea to have our children recognized for their character rather than their color—- are motivation to always be in conversation about understanding skin and gender and privilege and power. And fear.
The Color of Fear (1994), a documentary by Lee Mun Wah, features eight men talking about race in North America. They are African American, Latino, Asian American and Caucasian. The clothing and eyewear is dated but the dialogue is still, (sad to say), relevant. One of the men, African American Victor Lewis, tries to find the words that will get White David Christensen, to understand the depths of the differences between them. David only wants to see America as just, full of people with the kinds of positive experiences he’d had. He resists believing that the lives of men of color have been traumatically different from his experience as a white man. My white students get very uncomfortable watching the scene where Victor declares that he is black man, not white, as it seems to him white people want him to be. He says he cannot trust David until David is willing to really listen to the stories of the men of color in the room. After the film someone always says, “He is so angry!”
When I first saw the film, I saw anger too. But having lived the years since, learning to see the world through my children’s eyes and paying attention to current events, I now say, “I see him as frustrated and extremely passionate. Wouldn’t you get impatient and heated while trying to talk to someone who so resisted the truth of what you were saying, the truth of your lived experience?” I have learned that passion is often misinterpreted as anger. I have been thus misinterpreted, as I get riled trying to be understood. Every time I watch this film I also think of my son. Will he be misconstrued?
Just as that man leaning in the doorway on the beach knew he would, my son has grown beyond cute. Will people cross the street when they see him coming now that he is no longer a small child but a tall, graceful young man?
My son wanted airsoft guns when he was 13. I told him then of an 8-year-old I had read about who would not hand over his toy and was shot by police. My son immediately dismissed my concerns, “But Mom, I’m playing in the woods with my friends. And really, come on, we’re in Vermont.”
Is that enough of a safety net?
It’s true; Vermont is not Ohio or Mississippi. Men We Reaped is Jesmyn Ward’s (2013) memoir remembering five men in her family circle who died young. These African American young men were whole, until they were thwarted by the economic and educational apartheid of their Mississippi. The young men she describes were hindered and emboldened by stereotypes of masculinity and African American. Drugs, guns, despair or white men driving while drunk murdered them.
Guns and guys. Economics. Rural landscapes. There are differences and similarities between rural Mississippi and Vermont. Our winters are for sledding, skiing, reading by the woodstove. Folks in Mississippi rebuild after hurricanes and slog through heat no Vermonter could abide. If it reaches 98 degrees folks practically faint around here. Many Vermonters want to do right, be good, be green, be advocates for every cause. They take pride in the history of the stalwart New Englander. There are many markers of Civil War veterans in Vermont cemeteries. Vermont is the first state to approve of civil unions for same-sex couples. They want their guns for hunting. They tend to leave one another alone but help out in a pinch without being asked.
But perfect we are not. Vermont has a statewide problem of prescription drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers and an economy that prompts our young, educated population to go out of state to find good jobs. Vermont gets an “F” while Mississippi gets a “C” on the Teaching Tolerance report card. Drugs, guns, and economics are all factors confronting youth in Vermont and Mississippi. I have faith that, with support, Vermont educators will rise to meet this challenge, teach beyond tolerance and tests, to deep understanding of stereotypes and prejudice. It is time to inspire students to desire and create a society, a new civil social paradigm, which will address school shootings by white children with high powered artillery and which does not accept the shooting of unarmed children, young adults, and citizens of color.
Vermonters are proud of the state’s dedication to justice and hold kindness as a rule. I’m grateful for that. But if we are too attached to an image of being kind and progressive, we miss the real racism that occurs to those who are darker skinned. We miss opportunities to understand our privilege as white people to walk down the street and not have someone cross the street or call the police because we are here. We miss the fact that our white children are not being shot for holding toys, as seventeen more brown children have since I had that conversation with my son four years ago. 
We don’t have to wait for this to change. History offers examples of non-violent activism that resulted in fast-moving changes. In the early days of AIDS activism we shouted, SILENCE=DEATH. No media, government agency, or pharmaceutical company seemed to care that so many gay men were suddenly dying. Men and women organized to work with doctors, lawyers, medical researchers, poets, and playwrights so political activism started to bring change and hope to people who were HIV positive. The primarily privileged white, male, educated provocateurs of this movement were determined to get their demands met, they assumed they had the right to health care and attention. That civil rights movement was organized with unprecedented immediacy and voice. We need that kind of momentum to gain justice for black boys and men dying by excessive police force and incarceration.
As I write this, there’s a huge crescent moon in the clear Vermont sky. That same moon shines over all of us. It shines in Ferguson, Missouri still smoldering after the riots over the grand jury’s decision in the case of Michael Brown’s death by Officer Wilson. It glows over Cleveland, Ohio where just last week twelve-year-old African American, Tamir Rice, died when white officers didn’t distinguish his pellet gun from a real one at a playground. Why are lethal shots fired? Not one shot, but many?
Thousands of lives – my son’s life — depend on our not being silent.
We have wonderful mentors and models for our crusade for justice —Suffrage for Women, Civil Rights for Native Americans and African Americans, Women, Gays, Lesbians, Transgender, and Disabled, Peace Movements and the AIDS movement. None of these efforts has lead to permanent success though. Constant vigilance is our responsibility.
At seventeen I was marching against the war in Vietnam. Now, I see that we were practicing hope. Hope for change, hope for humanity, hope for kindness. I adopted my African American daughter because I wanted to walk into the future as the future would be—multicultural, full of difference. I adopted my son knowing I had to guide a boy to becoming a man. I became a mother in the anticipation of joy and hope in a bright future for my kids. I am an educator because I believe knowing history and social constructions provokes understanding, especially of people who are different from us somehow.
Every young person killed is a son or daughter.
Every shooter is too.
 Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States. http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014
 Lawrence Otis Graham
 Summer of 2014
Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.
Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York smothered in a chokehold.
John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio shot in the chest in Walmart holding a .177 calibre BB rifle.
Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, California shot in the back after an “investigative stop.”
Dante Parker of Victorville, California Tased repeatedly and died in the hospital.
Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Florida in February 2012 and, always, Emmett Till on August 26, 1955 in Money, Mississippi.
 http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0915.html (accessed 10.17.14) 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. Ten-year-old Sarah Collins, who was with the other girls, lost her right eye, and more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.
6 The Color of Fear. (1994). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nmhAJYxFT4
7 http://www.mydaytonailynews.com/data/news/17-shootings-that-involved-fake-guns/ (accessed 10.17.14)
Cute and Beauty came about while attending a workshop at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. Poet, essayist and memoir writer Michael Klein orchestrated The Original Idea: A Memoir Workshop. If you know Michael, music and poetry are what really surges through his heart, so conducting us in a symphony of creativity is an accurate description of the experience. We read essays, worked on assignments, and dazzled ourselves with ideas.
Although each member of the group had the same directives no two pieces were remotely alike. We all come to the writing from various life vantage points. What’s important to one person hasn’t crossed the mind of another. Perhaps that is why we all worked together so well.
It isn’t my usual nature to write this way but I opened the computer to begin and a playful, yet philosophical, sprite took over the keyboard.
Cute & Beauty
“Oh, isn’t that cute?”
“You look so cute today.”
“Did you see what they did? It was the cutest!”
I hate cute. It is so demeaning. It is so perky and wide-eyed, innocent and coy. Cute is soft. Cute is naïve.
Cute is dangerous for small beings in some situations.
Beauty, on the other hand, is laden with life, draped in knowing, saturated by light. Quiet beauty takes a seat while cute runs around in circles and wears out.
Beauty sits in the kitchen and peels potatoes while cute rushes to the store for parsley.
Beauty has time to listen.
Beauty knows disappointment, has the stitches to prove it.
Beauty loves cute, knowing the time will make the sharp edges smooth.
* * *
Mrs. Cardinal, the bird, is beautiful. Mister is flashy as all get out, while Mrs. is subtle in russet plumage, sassy crest and orange beak.
Cute is baby anything—except perhaps the sharp begging beaks of unfledged robins still in the nest.
Cute is an insult to an older woman, praise to the young gay boy testing his new tight pants.
Beauty is your profile when I see it out of the corner of my eye, when you don’t know I’m looking, and you are listening and thinking.
Cute is me in my wetsuit, showing off for the photographer. Maybe.
Two gay men walking down the street pass another guy by the telephone pole. “He has such a cute ass,” one says admiringly.
But isn’t that a throwaway line? What about a smart ass, a total ass, a firm and shapely ass? Would one use cute for any other body parts—a mind, an elbow, a foot? What a cute mind she has, just doesn’t work. Cute isn’t for everything. Some things are not clever.
How about a beautiful derriere? That might work. Handsome too.
Beauty is bolder, even if we are talking about the same cute thing.
I was invited to present the keynote speech for the April 17, 2014 Burlington Take Back The Night Rally, March & Speak Out Against Sexual Violence. I would like to thank the organizing committee, folks from the University of Vermont, HopeWorks, and Saint Michael’s College, for this opportunity. It really got me thinking. Here’s the text of the speech:
39 years ago –Microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth left her office on an April evening to walk home. She was alone, and she didn’t make it. She was stabbed to death by a stranger just a block from her house. Her murder in Philadelphia sparked the first Take Back the Night march.
39 Years ago and WE ARE STILL HERE—- what do you think about that?
What can I say that hasn’t been said over the past four decades—or is it the past few thousands of years? Talk about patience…..perseverance….resilience.
When it comes to sexual violence against so many of our bodies: women, trans, gay, lesbian, sex workers, those incarcerated, or in the military—men and women—-we are all still up for grabs. The elderly, the infirm, children too. We must continue this march and rally.
I am amazed at our patience –yeah—- I know change takes time……. THIS is a long, LONG time— and I want to say we need to start thinking differently about our approaches.
Talking about time —-Here is a little bit of my story—a little bit of why it is so important for me to be here tonight with you:
I attended my first march with other ten and twelve year olds in Woods Hole, Massachusetts one summer. It was against the war in Vietnam and we were kids and proud of our effort. It would be a few more years before that war was “over.”
It would be another few years before I understood how important our voices were for speaking out about women and gay liberation. Abortions were not legal and women died cloaked in silence. Gay bashing was a sport, also drenched in silence.
I walked down city streets in a boy’s cap and baggy pants. I counted on my androgyny and converse sneakers to protect me. I experienced date rape thinking it was my fault because I was drunk and I’ve been beat up by a girlfriend because I was leaving. I quit drinking and to this day, I am still learning to speak up.
In my first teaching job an older student talked about her upbringing, the abuse she encountered as a child. I encouraged her to write about her childhood. She chided me, adamant that her experiences were not interesting— “Why should I write my story? Sexual abuse is an occupational hazard of being a girl.”
NOT ANY MORE!
It is important to me that we are together—telling our stories, realizing we are not alone—refusing to accept that date rape, sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and murder is just the way it is and
living in constant fear is inevitable, to be expected. But too often it is still true.
We now know too well that sexual and physical abuse is equal opportunity-perpetrated upon all people. So this belongs to all of us! The Soccer moms I hung out with the other night *yes—totally— I am one! * were talking about being wary of running alone. One of them — a forty-something traditional woman, her hair getting just a little gray, talked about a van that slowed down next to her on a dirt road near her house, and she heard a voice from inside, “Never mind—she’s got a dog.” Yes—this is Vermont—and this story is so global.
We’ve accomplished so much through legislation, political awareness, and education— We wear our seat belts, don’t smoke so much, don’t pollute so much. We recycle, eat less salt, fat, sugar. Gays and lesbians can even marry—at least for the moment. We know legislation doesn’t always equal change—the real open mind and heart kind of change. That takes time, doesn’t it?
But when it comes to sexual violence, we are all vulnerable.
No mother raises a son to be a rapist, an abuser, or a violent criminal. A whole convergence creates the individual who harms another—and this convergence is where we have to incite our new revolution—we have to come together—queer, straight, trans, fundamentalist, fragile, male, female, macho—parents, neighbors, social workers, health care workers, government officials, bus drivers, educators—we have got to cross all barriers of thinking and believing to get to the root of this culture of violence, harm, and disregard.
Let’s gather the voices of the fathers of daughters and sons who have been raped. We need to hear the ER doctors and nurses who dress the wounds of violence. We need to inspire every teacher from preschool to college, the dentists, the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grands and friends who know the violence exists, who know from their own experience or the experience of loved ones, that this violence, random and premeditated—happens—and give them the courage to fight against being held hostage—being so afraid.
EVERYONE is harmed and all of us hurt—
Sexual violence is older than these hills, and we won’t snap into a new era overnight–however—
This pandemic of power is impacting all of us. There are messages all over the place dedicated to the eroticization of violence—how sexy to carry an automatic weapon, how cool to play with guns, gaming with killing, singing along with lyrics about sex that is demeaning and objectifying our bodies. And there also seems to be a renewed insistence on gender codes from the fashion and toy industries. Have you been shopping lately for kids’ clothing or toys? You know—all that PINK and camouflage……
Bully attitudes prevail -and paralyze- our democracy, our school hallways– and…. what do we call it????—this, this pandemic of power over –over— –over all of us—
How can we be creative and incite change?
How do we counter all of these messages—how do we be cool without the humiliation and violence?
Let me tell you a story—
My children, (teenagers now) at the ages of 3 and 4 were singing ‘Eric and Annie sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-I-n-g in a tree’….and I interrupted asking if they realized how heterosexual the song was, no baby had to come of kissing, protection is easy (So you see I started my safe sex and awareness training very early) and my daughter –all of 4—listened and sighed, “MOM—it is just a song.”
Little did I know then what we’d be listening to now! Like Blurred Lines—
“But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature”
You all know how it goes…..
“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”
…..It is just a song…….
It’s just a song, it’s just a movie, it’s just a word….and it gets passed down generation to generation, it is ‘just the way it is’…..and it has been 40 years and it seems the violence has only spread.
So how do we think outside the boxes we are popped into at a very early age?
How do we learn to cross the divides that have kept us from working together, kept us from hearing and knowing one another’s story?
Good beat/ denigrating lyrics—do we buy it? Literally and figuratively!
How do we claim our power, resist, create our own media messages?
How do we think carefully about our everyday assumptions –and even acceptance –of all this violence?
There is something happening that’s taking our nights and days. We are here on a college campus to learn. Okay, so let’s GO! Let’s learn. Let’s figure this out.
People in my generation have been working at this for at least 40 years, we need your fresh thinking. So here’s my challenge to you – take this question back to your dorm rooms, your apartments, your classrooms, ask each other the question: what is going on? How can we change it? You can find the way—create the right conversation—figure out new approaches—
Here’s an idea to start you off — You all know social media — can we turn that sword into a new ploughshare?
OH…and by the way I don’t want us to just take back the night—I want all day too—-we have work to do and —it will take all of us—-