Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Digging Deep

Dear Jules,

I'm very sad today: sad that a man who made fun of a reporter with a disability, a man who has said really hateful things about Muslims, about women, a man who joked about the act of rape, will be our next president.  I'm sad that you and I couldn't celebrate the first woman president of the United States, even though she won every single debate and had a much more complex, nuanced view of world issues.  I want to say more but need to acknowledge that I'm sad.

So where do we go from here?  Well, I think we need to dig deep, to figure out what it is we stand for and to fight for it.   This is, thankfully, something our family is really good at.

Both Nagyi and Nagyapa, your grandfather you never met, grew up in communist Hungary.  It was a very stifling, totalitarian government: they told everyone what books to read, what history to learn, what groups to join, what jobs to do, how to think, how to act, and more.  My father literally fought for his beliefs, joining in the 1956 Hungarian revolution and then escaping from the country, telling no one in his family so that the government could not persecute them.  He always sent presents and money to his family, including to my aunt, who was intellectually disabled.  At that time, and even now, people with intellectual disabilities were treated very badly in Hungary, but he always kept in touch with her and taught me to see her as an individual.  Her embroidery is something I remember and, to this day, envy.  She was a talented woman.

Nagyi also fought for what she believed in; when she applied to college, she was asked to join the communist party but refused.  This almost cost her the opportunity to go to college.  Your great-grandfather, my grandfather, also fought hard: he also refused to join the party and believed in the power and strength of education.  Although he was a Latin teacher and a school principal, he was forced to become a peasant and then work on the railroads.  He had precious little time with his family, but he always made sure to tell stories about Hungarian and world history (he even told some of them to your daddy), and he always made sure to play his violin.  Oppression and fear could not keep him from his music.

My grandmother, your great-grandmother, believed in her religion, Catholicism.  Even though going to church was looked down upon (and could even be punished), she went almost every single day of her life and raised her children as Catholics.

Growing up, I heard stories about communist Hungary.  It sounded horrible, it was scary when we went to visit to see all of the soldiers, and I wasn't sure it would ever change, but my family kept being true to their values, their beliefs.  Eventually, it did change; it's not perfect, but it's no longer a totalitarian society, and people are relatively free to speak their minds.

My point is not that Trump's America will be totalitarian; I don't want to get into that here.  My point is that, no matter what the situation, good people have always dug deep into themselves to figure out their core values, their core roots...and then they have figured out a way to maintain those and effect change in their worlds.  It's definitely easier when society is with you: it's the difference between running a 5K and a marathon.  But if we dig deep and stay true to our values, we can affect our friendships, our families, our schools, and, in some small way, our society.  So I will continue to advocate for disability rights, to make sure that bullying is never, ever tolerated in our schools, to do my best to treat people equally, no matter their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or station in life.  And, because I believe words matter, I will be very vigilant lest the discourse of this political campaign begin infecting our schools, our workplaces, our communities.  It won't be easy, it won't be painless, but it will be right.  

In one of my classes today, I was teaching the Ode and thought I would show this video of an ode read at Obama's 2008 inauguration.  It's about the small things we live with every day, and about how each little act results in a new day, new potential.  I honestly thought it would go well with Hillary Clinton's election, but I think it also works well now: it's good for us to remember that we are products of our ancestry and that, by looking back, we continue to move forward.  So here it is.

Love, Momma

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Personal Is Political

Dear Jules,

Politics is a messy game, but, as a famous person once said, the "personal is political."  In other words, people can say that they won't "talk politics," but the life choices they make, the people they choose to accept, the way they feel about government, the roads they use, even the schools they attend, are all political choices.  As a woman, the clothes you wear are often construed as a political statement; it's interesting, for instance, that a woman wearing a "pantsuit" is a big deal for some reason, whereas for me, a suit is just a suit.  Or that a woman can wear something and be "asking for" rape...I honestly hope that, by the time you read this, you won't understand that one.

This is my third try at writing this, but I want to explain to you why this 2016 election feels so intensely (even more than usual) personal.

Some people are born with privilege: they are men, born in the United States, are white, speak the language perfectly, and don't have any (visible) disabilities.  I honestly don't think that there are as many of these people as we would think, but these are the people targeted by the Trump campaign this year.   To be honest, I'm one of these people, but even those of us with privilege should be cognizant of those who don't have it: people who, like my parents, were immigrants to this country and had to prove themselves over and over again.  My mom used to tell me that, every time she spoke, people would answer her slowly, as if she couldn't understand them.  She had the equivalent of a Masters degree from a Hungarian university (a good one!), but she would have had to go back to a community college to teach in the USA.  The constant need to prove yourself wears you down and makes you feel like less than.  

My African-American friends also have to prove themselves all the time.  It's sad when my friend, a brilliant violinist, isn't appreciated for her talent, or when she has to teach her teenage daughter to be especially careful around the police.  This same friend attends Emanuel AME church, where her friends' kids knew to "play dead" during the deadly massacre that happened over a year ago.  Constantly afraid of the police, having to prove that you're not a criminal, having to prove that you are smart and talented, makes you feel less than.  

Our gay and lesbian friends have also struggled with this.  Only a few years ago, they were finally able to be married (some of them have been in relationships longer than my straight friends have). If they want to have children, they have to either pay a lot of money or try and find an adoption agency that will work with them.  Many of the "Christian" agencies will not.  And if they are "lucky" enough to have a child, they have to prove that their child will grow up "normal," whatever that means.  As my friend Leigh Moscowitz observed in her book, they have to take on all the conventions of a straight marriage.  Constantly being afraid to hold hands with your loved one, having to prove that your marriage is valid, that you are entitled to be a parent, makes you feel less than. 

As a woman, I've struggled with this.  I'm 5'3", and I look young for my age, so people constantly question my intelligence.  People at meetings have talked over me, people have called me "Julia's mom" without learning my name, people have even called me "Ben's wife" or, worse, "Mrs. Benjamin Rogers."  My students call me "Miss Rogers" all of the time, but they call male colleagues without Ph.D.'s "Doctor."  Constantly having to prove that you are equal, having to prove that you can handle being a mom and a career woman, makes you feel less than.

And then there's you.  While life for people with Down Syndrome is better than it used to be, it's still, as you know all too well, not great.  Right now, as you go to Kindergarten, we have to prove that you have "what it takes" to be included in a regular classroom.  However, you can't have too much, or your services (we have Medicaid to handle the therapy and the constant doctors' appointments) get taken away.  Other students don't have to prove that they are worthy of being in a regular, public school, Kindergarten classroom, but you do.  Constantly having to prove that you're good enough, that your Down Syndrome doesn't define you (you're NOT always happy!!!), that you are a worthwhile member of our society, makes you feel less than.

Finally, I get to "equal to."  Hillary Clinton's slogan is "better together," which implies working together:  not trying to prove anything, but using everyone's strengths for the greater good.  Whether she means this or not, I can't tell: the problem with rhetoric is that it's hard to tell.  But I DO know that you wouldn't be in Ms. Walpole's Kindergarten class if Hillary Clinton had not co-sponsored the IDEA Act: the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Basically, this act entitles you to be educated in the "least restrictive environment" possible, which, for you, is a regular education classroom.  We had to work hard and argue hard to make this happen, but without this act, you wouldn't even have the chance to prove yourself.

None of us should have to "prove" that we are worthy of being in the world, in the United States, in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces.  By virtue of being who we are, by virtue of being diverse, we are making our communities stronger: better.  So if anyone is reading this, or if, in future years, you have no idea why I voted the way I did, I want you to think about the IDEA act, about the wonderful work that Hillary Clinton has done for African-Americans, lesbian and gay Americans, female Americans, and Americans with disabilities.  The political IS personal, and her actions say far more than words ever could.