Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Katie's First Grade Class Picture

Katie brought home her first grade class picture.  They no longer get all the kids to stand in rows together for a group shot like they did when I was a kid.  I was always on the back row.  It would be cool to compare Katie's class picture to my own. To see if she'd be one of the tallest kids too.  But we can only compare portraits of her classmates to the group shot of me standing with my classmates.  Nowadays instead of taking a group shot, they send home an 8x10 photo sheet with each classmate's individual picture printed on it in alphabetical rows.

Still, it's nice to have a photo of her class.  It gives me insight into Katie's experiences when she's away from home.  As she gets older and older, her peers will become more of an influence.  I'm glad.  It's impossible for Will and me to be everything for Katie.  We can teach her what we know, but there is so much about life that the two of us don't know.  Katie's experiences away from home will ultimately make her a more well rounded person.

To me, the most noticeable change between the appearance of Katie's first grade class and my own first grade class is how much more diverse Katie's is.  Katie is one of twenty-two kids, eleven kids with white skin and eleven kids with brown skin.  That's amazing.  I had mostly white kids in my suburban Kansas City, Missouri class until in third grade an Iranian girl moved to town.  We became instant friends.  She moved away the next year.  Then in sixth grade when a girl with a white mother and a black father moved to my neighborhood, I again got to befriend someone who seemed exotic.  I've always been fascinated by people in cultures outside my own.  My friendships with this Iranian girl and this biracial girl were as close as I'd ever come to fulfilling my anthropological curiosity, growing up in such a culturally homogeneous community.

Then my family moved across the state line to Johnson County, Kansas in 1983, the summer before seventh grade.  My brother who had lived there a couple of years prior told me I'd hate it.  "Everyone's a rich snob," he warned me.

They were also all white.  More of the same.  Boring and blah.

I did indeed hate Johnson County, Kansas when we first moved here.  I had no friends, period, let alone any non-white friends.  When I finally did find a group of misfits that allowed me to hang out with them, they were all white kids like me.  I never made a conscious effort to hang out with only white people.  I was simply sheltered by suburbia.

Finally, in my early twenties, I cracked out of my shell.  I met a black woman at a lesbian bar and we hooked up for a few months.  She was bat shit crazy.  She could have said the same about me.  It's the one thing we had in common.  She was so hot and so smart and so funny.  But the bat shit crazy got in the way of any long-term, meaningful relationship, so we broke up and I haven't seen her since.

I ended up marring a white guy, which took me by surprise.  Always bored by convention, I figured if I ever did marry a man, he wouldn't be a WASP like me.  [Like my dad, interjects my subconscious.]  Will's not only white, he's also of mostly English protestant ancestry, just like me.  My surname at birth was Burton.  Will's is Carleton.  Mr. and Mrs. William and Rebecca Carleton.  We sound like puritans.  Sigh.  At least he's ten years younger than I am, so we've got that difference to make things spicy.

Will and I chose to settle in Johnson County, Kansas like good little white couples often do around here.  I never thought when I first moved here and hated it thirty years ago I'd choose to return in my adulthood.  When I first met Will I was living with another ex-girlfriend in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri.  We lived in a building that was owned and operated by a lesbian.  Not all of the residents were gay, but a vast majority of them were.  One of the lesbians who lived there was a young black woman.  I came this close to becoming friends with her, chit chatting in the elevator, in the laundry room, or in the lobby enough I felt like inviting her over for dinner some night.  But then my girlfriend and I broke up, I met Will, and before I had a chance to form anything more than a casual acquaintance with this black lesbian neighbor, I moved back to Johnson County.  Closer to Will.  Closer to work.  We got married.  We wanted to have a baby.  Johnson County has good schools.  It just made sense.

So here my white ass is, living with my white husband and our white kid in the historically all-white suburbs.  At first, I worried about raising our kid in such a stifling cultural environment.  I took her to story times all over the city so she'd get to meet other kids who didn't necessarily look just like everyone else in her world.  We watched "Little Bill," "Dora the Explorer," and "Ni Hao, Kai Lan" together on Nick, Jr.  I brought home books and videos from the library that featured a full array of diverse characters.  We took Katie out for soul food and for barbecue in the inner city.  To the great Indian, Ethiopian, Chinese, and Thai restaurants around us in the burbs.  I did my best to raise our child multiculturally.

After looking at Katie's class picture, it appears as if I didn't need to try so hard or travel so far.  If I had just been paying attention to the changing demographics of Johnson County, I'd have seen the neighborhood we live in looks much different than it did thirty years ago when I first moved here.  I used to think I'd have to move to some place like San Francisco in order to live in a more diverse community.  Now I think I'll just stay put and see what happens.