My chest swelled and I cried when I opened the text: “Her artwork is displayed in the hallway.”
“Her” is my granddaughter, Skylar, in her first few weeks of 5K in the rural primary school serving my hometown. Skylar is biracial and her parents are divorced; her school sits in a relatively high-poverty area of Upstate South Carolina, about the 11th most impoverished state in the U.S. and a deeply inequitable state by economics, race, and gender.
Usually, still, Skylar climbs onto my lap or beside me on the couch, just to be physically against me; I often hold tightly one of her small feet or she hooks an arm through mine as if we are tumbling through space and she needs to make sure we are tethered together forever.
This past weekend I watched her play at a bounce house and party facility, there for my grandson’s (Brees) third birthday party. Skylar ran with earnestness to maintain pace with a some of the children, her friends, but balked at a few of the bounce houses.
She stood nervously at one before turning to me and asking, “Is it dangerous in there?”
At another bounce house earlier, she initially refused to go in, shuffling up against my legs and softly telling me she didn’t like it. Later, she scrambled in, and as she had on another trip there, became trapped so an older boy went in to help her.
She crawled out crying.
As I looked at this artwork of hers, I was reminded of the weekend party, the bounce houses and peer pressure that proved to be nearly unbearable delight and fright for my dearest granddaughter who I love far too much.
When my daughter began to light my grandson’s birthday cake, Skyler warned her to move the cake back with “Remember. Safety first.”
Skylar, you see, already exhibits some of the anxiety and hyper-awareness I know all too well. She is a deeply sensitive child who is powerfully drawn to and deeply wary of the world she inhabits.
She inspires in me as my daughter did the urge to lift her into my arms and hold her close to me. Forever.
Of course, that is not love and that is not even remotely desirable since it would be an act (literally or metaphorically) of denying this beautiful girl her full and complicated life.
As my existential self-education taught me, our passions are our sufferings; if we seek ways not to suffer, we then must abandon our passions.
My precious Skyler will hurt in her life, be disappointed in very real ways. That’s being fully human.
I am disappointed and even angry, however, that she like all children in the U.S. is being handed a country that remains far too calloused about children, girls and women, and the many inequities that much of the country simply pretends do not exist.
I am disappointed and even angry, however, that the schooling she can expect is almost never like her artwork being displayed in the hallways but more like a prison, or a hospital.
As I told a class last night, her 3K, 4K, and 5K experiences already contain assessments of her “readiness” and how well she meets standards—and ultimately, she must meet the demands of being on grade level for that most important grade of all, third.
Many loving, kind, and gifted teachers will work uncritically as agents of this terribly flawed educational system even as they show her their love and kindness. School, then, will be one of the things I cannot protect her from, one of the things that will hurt her.
Despite Skyler’s disadvantages of race, gender, and a fractured family, she has what Barbara Kingsolver calls a “family fortune” in the love and care offered by both sets of grandparents and access to race and economic privileges in that extended family.
I often look at Skylar and Brees, recognizing that Skyler will mostly be viewed as white (although people routinely mention her tan, even in the dead of winter) and Brees will mostly be viewed as black.
Their lives will remained colored by the centering of whiteness in the U.S., again something I cannot protect either of these children from.
Skylar will be pushed a little, or even a lot, behind boys just because she is a girl, and will likely grow up to earn a fraction of those some young men who more often than not are just a fraction of her.
So my heart ached at the bounce houses as I walked around just to keep an eye on her, just to be there when she wanted to say she was feeling shy or afraid.
And I cried when I saw the artwork now hanging in her school.
I am trying very hard with my grandchildren and reminded of the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”:
…Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.
And then the end of Smith’s poem, mixed as it is with tortured optimism:
This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
As I look at the artwork of a 5-year-old child, I am left with a question as well: Isn’t this what school should be about?