Dear Mari and Lila,
Some day, you’ll understand…
Why my heart swelled with pride when Lila trotted onto the bus, looking all smart and independent and cool girl charming on your first day of 4th grade…
And why, two weeks later, I burst into sloppy Mommy tears when Mari slammed the car door and trudged to the junior high school building, the warm, salty water nearly blinding me as I willed myself to drive away and leave you, my newly-minted middle schooler, to the business of being a seventh grader…
And why I fretted over your first-day-of-school outfits and your new backpacks—insisted your hair looked just so and all manner of eye boogers were gone when you slid into your assigned seats at your new desks, in your new classrooms, with your new teachers…
And why your daddy and I insisted on clearing our overwhelmed calendars to press our palms into those of each of your teachers at the veritable avalanche of “welcome to your kid’s school” parent/instruction nights spread out all across town.
These are the things most mothers do, granted, but my motives are inspired by my past—one filled with memories of parents who had neither the education nor the time nor the wherewithal to really be there for their studious daughter. Please understand, Gamma Bettye and Papa Jimy valued education like no other; they came from a generation of African Americans born and reared in the South—where black babies were relegated, by law, to substandard schools and books and jobs and neighborhoods and services. And so the first chance they could, they high-tailed themselves up North, first for jobs, second to find each other, and third to give their children the opportunities they were denied when they were little. But for your grandparents, there was no time for PTA meetings and school bake sales, no know-how when it came to writing essays or figuring out tough algebra problems, no advocacy with teachers. Maybe they felt like they couldn’t handle it. Perhaps it was what parents like them did in their time—trust that teachers are professionals capable of doing their jobs without parents getting in the middle of it all.
This tactic worked for the most part. But there were many times when I needed them to just, like, read the landscape—help me chart where I should be and what I should be doing to get there. On a few occasions, I needed them to fight for me—to understand that just because we were living in the suburbs and in a decent school system didn’t mean their daughter was immune to stereotypes, racism, sexism or adults who had low expectations for kids who looked like me.
What my parents did well, though, was inspire. They told me consistently that I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to—that I could be anything I wanted to be.
Most days, that was enough to get me through.
But I don’t want you to have to settle for “enough.” I need you to walk into your classrooms, shoulders squared, chins up. Ready. To be the brilliant girls your father and I are raising you to be. So there is absolutely no confusion between the two of you and all of the statistics that suggest children who look like you come from homes where parents don’t care about education, aren’t involved in the classrooms, and are incapable of raising kids who can finish school strong.
You are not statistics.
You are young, gifted and black—beautifully so.
And I vow this day and every day after that to remind you and anyone else listening to understand these things—by showing my commitment to your education through classroom volunteering, by making sure you both participate in extracurricular activities that make you well-rounded students, by helping you navigate the social scene of little girls and (gasp!) little boys, by surrounding you with like-minded families who are doing the same for their babies, by reminding you on a consistent basis that you are brilliantly and abundantly blessed with beautiful minds.
In other words, you can count on your daddy and me to be there for you at every turn, no matter what. We won’t embarrass you—at least not on purpose. And I’ll try to keep the tears to a minimum. But there are no guarantees.
Some day… you’ll understand.