Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mommy-Ella Days!

"Justin's going to be out of town this weekend and next," I told my friend. "The funny thing is, we're so used to him being gone that we're not even really going to notice."

I quickly added that I wasn't trying to sound sorry for myself. It's just funny because when some women say their husband is going to be gone for a couple of nights on business they sound slightly panicked and downtrodden over the prospect of being on their own for a bit. I was saying it with a touch of pride--"No biggie, I've got this."

What's even funnier, to me at least, is that I'm actually having so much more fun with him out of town than I do on our usual Mommy-Ella days and it really is pretty much the exact same schedule as usual.

Justin left before 6 a.m., so when Ella woke up I was the only one home to take care of her. (Usually, Justin's home, but he's sleeping because he works a lot of swing shifts, so I do the daily routine without him.) She and I hung out all day, just the two of us, and then when she woke up from her nap I drove up to LA so that we could have dinner with him. (Usually, Justin leaves for work around 4:30, so sometimes she doesn't see him for more than thirty minutes when she gets home from preschool and he wakes up to see her before her nap. Often, he leaves before she wakes up from her nap. She and I do the nighttime routine, then he gets home around 3 or 4 a.m. and goes to sleep.)

I realized that the reason I feel so thrilled about him being out of town is that I get to sleep without him waking me up in the middle of the night because he's finally home from work.


To celebrate, Ella and I made pancakes for breakfast. Luckily, we found Daddy's recipe on a slip of paper in a cookbook. The Blueberry Oatmeal Pancake recipe. Ella helped me by "reading" the recipe (her favorite new word of the day) so that we could gather all of the ingredients and equipment necessary. She's big enough now to stand on a chair and help me scoop, measure, and pour the ingredients into the bowls. She even helped me hold the hand mixer. (Relax, Grandma, she just had one hand on my hand.)These are all things she first did with her daddy, who loves to cook.

Justin took this picture on Oct. 6, 2012, the first time I ever cooked with Ella standing on the chair to help me. We made waffles for breakfast that day--a Daddy-Mommy-Ella Day.
After breakfast, we did the dishes. She puts the cutlery into the dishwasher for me. Today, I figured out that I can put it on the dishwasher door and let her take her time, rather than handing each fork to her individually, which gets rather tedious. We did laundry. She helps me sort. We still have that big box she's been using as a boat, so she sorted while floating. (I handed her articles of clothing and said "pink" or "blue" as appropriate, so that she could toss the clothes into the right basket. For almost every single piece of clothing, she'd double check, saying, "That one?" Obviously, it was nothing but delightful to confirm every. single. decision. she. made.)

Somehow those two chores and getting us both washed up and dressed for the day brought us to lunchtime. For which she requested bread. I laughed at her and told her she could have bread if it were part of a turkey cheese sandwich, and that she had to eat the cheese and the turkey. (She's taken to saying, "I don't like it," and trying to give back whatever it is she doesn't want. We've gotten her to leave it on her plate instead of handing it to us or putting it on the place mat. She's still willing to try anything, and her "I don't like that" is sometimes so obviously just a test of her ability to reject something, that we just tell her to put it on her plate and then later she forgets she doesn't like it and she eats it. Plus, it changes every day. Loves it, loves it, loves it, doesn't like it, likes it, loves it... I can't keep up, so I just keep giving everything to her. As long as she's growing and eating a relatively decent variety of stuff during the week, I'm not going to worry.)

We sent this picture to Daddy, with a note for him to notice the happy girl, the clean kitchen, the washed dishes, the healthy lunch.
When Ella took her nap I managed to write the previous blog post and do more laundry, and then we drove up to a hotel next to LAX where Justin is taking a review course for the Oral Board Examination that he has to take next weekend in Chicago.

I'd been telling Ella all day that we were going to visit Daddy at a hotel. When he called at lunch to check-in he told us about the pond with the fish, ducks, and turtles, which increased the anticipation. Then, she woke up from her nap ever so slightly grouchy and it took us forever to get on the road. Justin called us at 5:37 when he was done for the day, and we weren't quite on the freeway yet. He sounded so disappointed that we weren't there already, and I was so frustrated that it was so hard to get out of the house. I'd hoped to get there early to surprise him.

I was supposed to call Justin when we got onto the 105, but there was a police car driving a couple of cars behind me in the carpool lane, so I was totally distracted. Are you supposed to exit the carpool lane illegally if way back there somewhere there is a cop car? It seemed best to stay in my lane, especially since he wasn't that close. When I finally was able to exit the carpool lane, the lights got closer.

"Ella, look at the police car!" It flew by, and I saw the writing on the doors. "Bomb Squad. Lovely."

Then, we saw the airport--sure enough, with a bunch of blazing lights clustered at one of the terminals. My thought: "Fantastic. I can't believe I'm following a Bomb Squad car to the airport. I wonder what's going on. I should put on a local FM station, instead of this XM country station. Hmm... well, I guess I'll just keep going. At least we'll all be together. Oh geez. The hotel really is across the freeway from the airport. At least no one we know is flying... oh. Wait. Mom and Dad's plane just landed. Good grief." Incidentally, Bluetooth voice activation dialing is a wonderful feature, but it doesn't work if your passenger won't stop talking. I called Justin when we were parked outside the hotel, dialing my iPhone the relatively old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, Ella was saying, "Hotel? In hotel? Out! Out! Seat belt off!" I let him drive to the restaurant.

Ella was so excited to see her daddy that she kept scooting in to sit closer to her. She couldn't stop smiling. She was giggling. She was sharing her crayons with him and looking so adoringly at him while they colored the children's menu together. Farm Stand, by the way, is an excellent restaurant in downtown El Segundo. I'm kind of surprised that in three years of living in Redondo Beach we never discovered that town. It's always just been a place to drive through on the way to the airport.
We ate dinner, went into the hotel lobby to see the pond with the koi, ducks, and turtles, and into the hotel room to brush her teeth, change her into her pajamas, read Good Night Moon, and say prayers together. Justin walked us to the car and kissed us goodbye, and when he closed the door she said, "Where's Daddy?" Again. I can't tell you how many times I told her Daddy was in Los Angeles today.

See the fish? See the duck? See the turtles? I love it when we get to see the glimmer of "I do see it!" cross her face.

So what is it that made this day feel so much better and different than all the other days I spend mostly alone with Ella? Maybe it was just the idea that it was different. Maybe it was seeing Justin wearing a shirt and tie instead of scrubs when he left the house. Maybe it was the idea of a business trip. Maybe it was the impression that doing it all alone everyday is a drag, but doing it all alone for that one weekend that my husband was away on business sounds like an accomplishment.

I don't know. I'd just like to bottle this attitude and use it on a regular basis.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Small Victory?

I decided to write an email to the Executive Director of The Gym, for the same reasons I wrote a letter to Coach instead of trying to have a quick conversation about the matter. I also figured this would give the Executive Director and his team a chance to consider my point of view before giving me a response. They could read the letter on their own time, think about it, and reply at their convenience. 

This is the letter I sent to the Executive Director, with copies to The Coach and other people listed as management in the Parent Handbook:

October 15, 2012

Dear Executive Director,

I am the mother of Ella Grace Anderson, a new student in the Toddlers class. I received a call on Friday from Coach saying that upon reading the letter (see attached) that I hand-delivered to her after the October 10 class, no changes to the Ten Little Indians song will be made. She said, “We are not going to change it. We have been singing that song for a long time, and we don’t think we are doing anything wrong.”

To be honest, I was rather taken aback by your decision. Initially, I accepted her offer to leave class early, before the song. However, upon further consideration, my husband and I have decided that leaving early is an unacceptable solution.

I realize that I did not mention that my parents are from India (my maiden name is Gupta), or that my husband’s father is part American Indian. In this day and age, a description of my daughter’s ethnicity seemed unnecessary, but I feel it is important that you understand the impact this decision has on my family. My two-year-old child is learning that she is Indian. Teaching Ella Grace about her heritage, while also teaching her to sing about Indians living in teepees, shooting arrows, and war-whooping with their hands patting their mouths is confusing at best. The heart of the matter is that Ten Little Indians is a racist song that perpetuates a stereotypical image of a very small minority of Americans. If “Indian” were replaced by any other ethnicity and stereotype, it would not fly so low under the radar.

I hope that you will reconsider your decision. If indeed no change will take place, then I am sure you will understand that my family cannot support your business and will not be returning to The Gym.

Please let me know your decision before our next class.

Olaina Anderson

After sending the email first thing in the morning, I spent the day doing our normal routine while suffering a stress headache and anxious heart, and carrying my phone around so I could get his call or read his email reply immediately.

By nighttime I was asking Justin what I should do if I didn't hear from him before Ella's class in the morning. We decided we wouldn't go until we got a response and that the tuition already paid for the month would have to be counted as a loss in the name of standing up for our principles.

In the morning, this is the response I got: 

Hi Olaina,

Thanks for your email.  I would have gotten back to you earlier today, however I just returned home from travel last night and had a number of things that required my attention today. 

I appreciate your concern as a parent faced with the challenge of delineating certain language to a child of such a young age.  Achieving a balance of tact and concise explanation isn’t easy and is certainly more difficult when a more personal subject such as one's heritage is involved.  I can only imagine the undertaking of explaining every historical difference between North American Indian and Indian-American cultural elements at all, let alone in terms that a two-year-old child can grasp. I apologize if the song being sung in class made that process more difficult than it already is, as it is the furthest thing from our intention. 

I realize that the lyrics, depicting “ten little Indian boys and girls” in every activity from building a tipi to shooting arrows to doing a dance around a fire, are dated and definitely broad, but they are in no way pejorative. While arrows, for example, were perhaps more universally used hunting implements across tribes, tipi building would better describe the practice of Sioux American Indians than it would, say, Apaches, who built Wigwams.  What I am saying there is that the lyrics clearly don't suffice as an all-encompassing history lesson on all indigenous peoples, their many tribes, languages and cultural nuances, but that the childish simplicity of those lyrics also indicates that they weren't intended to either.

The song sung in our Tots classes is a simplified children’s adaptation of the 60’s Beach Boys song “Ten Little Indians.”  I could not tell you if either version has any origins in the racially charged lyrics you found in your research, but they are certainly not the versions we sing, nor an homage to them, any more than the casual use of words like "vandal" or "picnic" are to their known origins as racist epithets.   

I appreciate that you do not presume us to be racists.  We aren't.  The Gym has a multi-cultural staff and student population-- it is something we celebrate.  And we have zero tolerance for racial discrimination within any facet of our program. 

I must say, though, that I disagree wholeheartedly with the suggestion that the song in question implies the racial inferiority of American Indians or fosters racial hatred or intolerance, or in other words “is racist,” as you described.  Had any member of our staff thought similarly of the song in the 22 years it had been used in classes, or had it been brought to our attention by any parent (or child) before now, we would have given the notion great consideration and raised the necessary questions and concerns amongst management. 

Now, having said all that, I should state what I probably should have at the very beginning of my reply, which is that we are not in the business of offending people, most importantly the children we teach or their parents and relatives who accompany them to class and support our organization.  We're here to offer a valuable and enriching activity for kids of all ages in our community.  It is also neither my place nor my desire to tell our esteemed The Gym families what they should or should not be offended by.  I only look to mitigate those very rare and unfortunate instances when they are and strive to prevent them from occurring again.

I'd like to do both of those things for your family by asking Coach to no longer use the song as part of the lesson plan for Ella's scheduled class time.  Meanwhile, the fate of this little nursery rhyme here at The Gym would remain to be seen as I continue to have conversations with our management and staff about it.  

I do hope that you will continue to have Ella participate in our Tots class.  Coach truly enjoys having her in the group, and we would be disappointed to see this matter prevent her from enjoying all that our program has to offer.  

I don't know that you would receive this email before tomorrow's class, but hopefully you do so that you would be able to have Ella continue enjoying her time at The Gym without interruption.

Thank you for your time and understanding, Olaina. 

Executive Director

 So, Ella and I got ready for gymnastics. 

I had such a headache. 

I asked for prayers and good wishes for peace from my Facebook friends. 

Ella and I saw a rainbow in the sprinklers at The Gym parking lot, which I took for good luck. There's no rule that the rainbow can't be artificially created for good luck, right? 

With deep breaths and smiles, I managed to focus on working out with my girl. She jumped across a long trampoline, and crawled through obstacle courses, and climbed a climbing wall, and slid down a slide, and swung from the rings and the bar, and bear walked across the parallel bars. 

At the end of the class, everyone gathered in a circle. Some of the parents were telling their kids to come to the circle so they could sing their song. Coach asked all the kids to scoot in so that she could give them their stamps on their hands and feet. People lingered a bit, not quite sure what was going on. Maybe Coach forgot about singing? I lingered, thinking she would just use a different song. People started to get up to leave (once they get their four stamps each, the kids are ready to go). Ella and I said, "Thank you," to Coach and were on our way. 

It was such a relief to walk out of that gym without feeling ashamed that I let my daughter sing that song. It was such a relief that no one said anything about missing the song. It was such a relief not to have to spend the rest of my day bracing myself for Ella to start singing the lyrics and then have to ask her to stop. It was such a relief not to have to say, "Ella, Mommy and Daddy don't like that song. It hurts some people's feelings. We're not going to sing it. OK?" and then break into another children's song. 

I felt partly victorious and partly still sick about it. It takes a while for me to recover from the emotional drain of confrontation and waiting. 

I am thankful that the Executive Director responded. A huge victory would have been if he wrote back saying he couldn't believe the lyrics were based in such a dark history, that yes, he realizes now that his gym is perpetuating racism, that no, he hadn't heard of my concern, that of course now that he knows about it all he will not allow that song to be sung in his gym ever again. 

But I'll take my small victory. 

I'll take a CEO (his other title) protecting his employees and his company while also not losing business.

I'm curious as to what his decision will be regarding the future of the song at The Gym. Partly, I want to know because I'm interested in seeing how much impact my research and opinion have on the place. Practically, though, I just need to know if they'll be singing that song if Ella ever has to take a make-up class. 

In the meantime, I am loving that Justin says he is proud of me. That he acknowledges that standing up for us was a hard thing to do and that it shows character. 

I am also loving that he told people at work about the situation and that they are all surprised that the song is being used. My favorite response came from the lone Indian ER doctor who happens to also be the father of preschool twin girls. 

Justin said, "The song Ten Little Indians."

His friend said, "Racist."

I know that Ella does not fully understand that we went through this challenge. Though, she might. We were talking about it at dinner the other night and she said, "No talking!" I looked at her and said, "What do you mean 'No talking?' Daddy and I are allowed to talk." Justin said, "Do you mean no more talking about gymnastics?"

"Yes," she said.

He leaned in and spoke directly to her. "Ella, Mommy and Daddy are talking about the song you sing at the end of gymnastics class. We do not like it because it hurts some people's feelings. We do not want you to sing the song and we are talking about what to do about it. But we don't have to talk about it anymore right now, if you don't want us to." 


"Yes, don't talk about it right now?"


So, we changed the subject.

All of us had to grow up a little bit this week, didn't we.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

None of us lives in a teepee

Because I am a much better communicator in writing and because it really isn't the time and place to address racism in society between toddler gymnastics classes, I decided I would write a letter to Ella's gymnastics teacher (names below disguised, of course) expressing my concerns and my hope.

Here's the letter and the attachments:

Dear Ms. Coach,

I want to thank you so much for this wonderful gymnastics class. Of all the mommy-and-me activities that Ella and I participate in, we have the most fun here. I am very excited to see her develop her large motor skills and athleticism at THE GYM, not to mention her confidence and self-esteem as the Mission Statement notes. I look forward to our future at THE GYM.

I do have one concern though, and I am writing a letter to you about it because it’s a subject that can’t be easily addressed in a quick word between classes. As a former high school teacher, I know how valuable those few minutes are and do not want to intrude on your time.

Since I didn’t know the words to the song we’ve sung at the end of class each of the three times we’ve attended, I looked them up online. I did not find the version used at THE GYM, but I did find some disturbing information about the origin of the song, as well as the impact of the modernized lyrics on children today.

I thought I should share what I learned with you, because I am sure it hasn’t been considered in the selection of music in what seems like an innocent enough choice of songs. Please know that I am not at all accusing you or THE GYM of racism, I was just stricken to read that the song Ten Little Indians can be so hurtful to people and didn’t feel right not saying anything.

I am attaching a printout of some of the information I found. Given what I have learned, I do not feel comfortable with Ella learning this song because of the stereotypical images it conjures. I hope that we can sing a different song, instead. Please let me know your thoughts. You can email me, or call me, or speak with me next week, whatever is most convenient for you.

Best wishes,
Olaina Anderson

When I googled the song title, a Wikipedia entry was the first link to come up (that alone was surprising!). Here’s a passage and the link:

The original piece, then called "Ten Little Injuns", was written by songwriter Septimus Winner in 1868 for a minstrel show and was much more elaborate:
Ten little Injuns standin' in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine;
Nine little Injuns swingin' on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
One little, two little, three little, four little, five little Injun boys,
Six little, seven little, eight little, nine little, ten little Injun boys.
Eight little Injuns gayest under heav'n.
One went to sleep and then there were seven;
Seven little Injuns cuttin' up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Injuns all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five;
Five little Injuns on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Injuns up on a spree,
One got fuddled and then there were three;
Three little Injuns out on a canoe,
One tumbled overboard and then there were two.
Two little Injuns foolin' with a gun,
One shot t'other and then there was one;
One little Injun livin' all alone,
He got married and then there were none.[1]

The next passage is from an article by a Head Start teacher, Bernhard Michaelis, Founder, Native Child. It is called “Teaching Kids the Wonderful Diversity of American Indians: The awareness teachers and parents need to teach Head Start children about American Indians accurately and respectfully”.  (This article is reprinted from Children and Families, Vol.XVI No.4 , Fall 1997, the journal of the National Head Start Association. Children and Families is published quarterly for NHSA members.)

Inaccurate and often offensive representations of American Indians are deeply rooted in the American consciousness.

As a result, we have become desensitized to terminology and imagery that is offensive to American Indians. For example, we might not think it's odd to ask our kids to line up Indian file. And we might not see any reason our kids shouldn't dress up and play Indians.
American Indian children who frequently encounter stereotypical images of their cultures are hindered in developing a feeling of pride in their heritage and a healthy self-image. When asked, there are American Indian preschoolers who will say they are not Indians. Why? Because they have already learned from popular movies and cartoons that Indians wear feathers and face paint and live in tipis and carry tomahawks. Preschoolers don't look like that, so they don't consider themselves Indians.

Young children believe what they see and hear. As Head Start teachers, we are in an excellent position to teach children factual information about American Indians and at the same time dispel any myths or stereotypes that have entered our classrooms.

This passage is from an article called “RACISM & STEREOTYPING: The Affects On Our Children On Our Future” which I found at

The song is an Indian annihilation song that the Pioneers sang to their children to soothe their fears. If you remember the song, they count up and then they count backwards until there is only one Indian boy left. Today most people do not even know about the hidden message of eradicating the Indian people in the song; however, this song still plants seeds of racism and stereotyping in the minds of our children. This song must be stopped from its use in schools today!

When my kindergarten teacher showed the class how to war whoop like an Indian, she was further stereotyping Indian people as being war-like, and she was embedding the seeds of racism by having children think that Indians are savages. The image of the Indian pumping one hand over their mouth while the other hand is clasping a war club is a very common Indian stereotype, which needs to be stopped in our schools. I can remember teachers, in later grades, telling the class to stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians, as I sat quietly at my desk. I remember how these stinging words made me feel, for it hurt my self-image and my feelings.

The letter was one page, the attachment two. I took a thank you note card from my stash of stationery, wrote "We love gymnastics!" on it with a green Sharpie, and let Ella color the heart with a pink highlighter. 

Justin came to gymnastics that day--a surprise for us girls, who were only expecting to see him in the afternoon. He watched the class (only one parent is allowed to participate, to keep the gym from getting too crowded). At the end, I couldn't bring myself to sit in the circle with Ella to sing the song, but I let her join the class while I watched from the sidelines. Justin gave me such a quizzical look (hadn't we decided we wouldn't let her sing that song?) and when the singing started he turned his back on the class and looked over the balcony at the other classes on the first floor. I got the card, waited for Ella to get her stamps (which she showed me very proudly), gave it to her to give to Coach.

"Are you leaving?" Coach asked. I guess she thought it was a goodbye-thank you note. 

"No. It's just a card."

"Oh! Did you make it for me?" she asked Ella.

Ella smiled.

"I'll open it right now!"

"You don't have to do that..." I said. I hadn't considered this moment. She opened it, and the letter fell into her hands as she unfolded the card to see the pink heart. 

"My glasses..."

"Yeah. You can read that later. I just wanted you to have it. Say 'thank you', Ella."

On the way home, I told Justin I couldn't think of a way to pull Ella out of the class before the song and still give Coach the letter. 

"That makes sense," he said. 

For the rest of the day, I practiced mindfulness--living in the moment, not dwelling on what I had no control over. I had taken action. Now I just had to wait to see the reaction. There was nothing I could do about it. 

I missed her call, which came during a late dinner at a sushi restaurant with Justin and Ella. I was given the opportunity to practice mindfulness for two more days, before Coach called again on Friday afternoon. 

I'd been napping during Ella's nap because I wasn't feeling well, but when I saw the number I guessed it was her again. I didn't want to have to keep wondering, so I took the call.

"I'm calling about the Indian song. We are not going to change it. We've been singing that song for a long time and we don't think we are doing anything wrong."

"OK." What was I supposed to say? "I'm sorry you feel that way," came to mind, but it didn't sound very friendly, and I didn't know what to do, so I just said, "OK."

"If you want, you can take Ella out of the class before we sing the song. Just remind me, and I'll give her her stamps then--"

"That would be great." I think I cut her off. What was I supposed to say? I should have waited to see if she had another offer. "Thank you."

I texted Justin to come into the room when he had a chance (seriously, I was not feeling well. I didn't want to get out of bed until absolutely necessary.). 

"They're not going to change it," I told him, relaying the conversation. "What should I do?"

"Well, you can do nothing and let her sing the song or you can take it to the New York Times."

"OK." Great. "Those aren't very plausible choices." 

"It's a range. You can do anything in between. What do you want to do?"

"I can't let her learn the song. I told Coach I'd take Ella out early, but that doesn't seem great, either. And there's nothing to gain from going to the newspapers with it. I mean... I'd love to go to the newspapers with it. This is my kind of cause and I know how to do it, but what would Ella gain from it?"

"I don't know." 

"I don't want to be That Mom. I don't want her to feel isolated or awkward because of it."

"So then just take her out early or drop the class."

"But I like the class! But it's so awkward to take her out early. She's going to be so mad. What would you do?"

"If I were the parent who had to take her, I'd drop the class."

"Oh. Why?"

"It would be too hard to take her out early."


"It made me uncomfortable when they were singing it. I couldn't do it."

"Yeah. Well..."

You can see this isn't one of those easy parenting decisions like which brand of diapers to use. (Yeah, you know I did research on that one, too.)

I talked to some friends and family about it. 

I was told that I had "already made the decision before I gave Coach the letter that I was going to keep Ella in the class and just take her out early." I could "give her my own little stamps." But it was important that I didn't "act moody around the teacher." 

I was told to "vote with my money" and drop the class.

I was told that I had already been tricked by Coach into believing there was a "we" when I really didn't know if it was just Coach who had seen the letter. I had no way of knowing whether she had shared it with anyone. It was time to go to the director. It was time to make sure there really was a "we" behind this decision.

I was too sick and too tired and too stunned to do anything about it, so I just let it sit for a couple of days. I needed to gather my thoughts. I needed to process this information. I needed to plan my next steps. 

Now, it's Sunday night and I'm already dreading Wednesday--gymnastics day. I'm finding the dread lets up, though, if I plan on taking some kind of action rather than just pretending nothing is wrong during class and then trying to slip out without anyone noticing at the end that Ella is getting her stamps early and not singing the song. Pretending this plan is OK is making me sick to my stomach and my heart.

And then, there's this: 

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A 14-year-old Pakistani girl who at age 11 became an activist for education and women's rights when girls were banned from attending school, was shot in the head by the Taliban because they do not believe girls should be educated. The Taliban vows to assassinate her if she survives this attack, from which she is in critical condition. 

And I'm not brave enough to ask the director of a gymnastics facility in Orange County to change the children's song at the end of class?

A few interesting factors have come up for consideration:

A) Two of Ella's grandparents were born in India and live down the street from The Gym. They do not live in teepees, shoot arrows, or war-whoop. 
B) Ella's grandfather on Justin's side of the family has American Indian heritage, and he has never lived in a teepee, either. 
C) I remember singing this song in elementary school and being confused about the teepees and war-whoops. When I asked my mom about it, she said the song was about a different kind of Indians--American Indians--not us. 
D) Ella's Godmother has American Indian heritage and while she does live in Colorado, she does not live in a teepee, nor does her mother.

Also, my mention of being a high school teacher (and therefore respecting Coach's time) is also an indication that I know something about education and when I quote educators about children's development and self-esteem I'm not just copying random stuff from the internet. 

Also, the scenario that the two Native American writers describe in the last two articles I quoted in my research for Coach, where kids feel confused and stereotyped by this song, isn't just hypothetical.

Incidentally, I hadn't considered my own Indian heritage in my initial reaction to the song. I really was just coming at it from the perspective of some crazy liberal white girl. It was a sorority sister who brought up the possibility that Ella would be confused about being Indian and not living in a teepee. I said she didn't even realize she was Indian, but who knows. I just remembered that after Ella's first gymnastics class we went to my parents' house and then drove to Little India to have lunch together. She has a couple of Indian outfits. Throughout our home, photographs that I took in India are on display. She's met some of my Indian aunts and uncles and cousins. She knows what I mean when I say "Indian food," and when we are deciding between the Indian restaurant and the American restaurant across the street, she's pointed to the Indian one and said, "That one!" And then she eats her Tandoori chicken, curry, rice, naan, and raita happily. She wants a lassi and a gulab jamun, too. So maybe she's got a little bit of an idea that we're Indian. 

Justin's the one who said, "I'm the one who should be offended!" when he reminded me of his American Indian ancestry. 

Ella's godmother is personally offended for all of us. It's 2012. How is it that someone is teaching kids to war-whoop with their hands over their mouths and pretend they're dancing around a fire and building teepees?

So, now I have to figure out who the director of The Gym is and talk to him. Or her. 

I need to know if they are aware of this decision that Coach said "we" [they] made. If they are unaware of my concern, then I need to make them aware of it. Hopefully, they will be concerned as well, and want to make their gym a place that is more inclusive or at the very least politically correct. (Yes, I'll settle for politically correct. Obviously, I'd prefer enlightened, but if all I can get is people pretending to be PC, I'll take it.) If they are aware of my concern and this really is their corporate decision, then they should know that I will not be giving them my business. 

And maybe, just maybe, I'll go to the papers. 

That question I asked Justin, "What does Ella have to gain by me making a big deal out of it?"

The answer is a lot. 

If the song is changed and Coach doesn't like her because of it, that will be a drag, but we'll find a way to make it work. We have a million friends outside the gym, so we don't have to make it an overly social experience. (Though, I do so hope that if she comes to love a sport or an art form that she also comes to love the place and the people where she practices that craft. But right now we're talking about 45 minutes of our week at a mommy-and-me class. We can just take the class.)

If the song is not changed, Ella will see that it is important to live by your principles. She will see me acting on my beliefs. (Yeah. She's two. She will maybe notice that we're not doing that thing that she thought was so fun, but I'll find something else for her to try. Maybe another gym, but I've done a little research and The Gym is really the best of what I've seen so far. Except for that little bit about indoctrinating racism, of course.)

For years, I've had that square quotation magnet that says, "Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi." 

Ya'll probably already know that I'm only sort of joking about going to the papers. The Gym is an institution in Orange County. Olympians come out of that gym. It's been around for almost 50 years. Coach has been working there for 20 years. I can hardly fathom that I am the only parent who has ever been concerned about this song, though given how difficult it has been for me (of all people!) to voice my feelings to anyone at The Gym, I suppose I might actually be the only person who has ever said something about it. So yeah, if really the corporate "we" thinks children should learn that song as part of their gymnastics training, I might have to tell someone about it.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Lessons in racism for the two-year-old set

Last week, I asked my Facebook universe for help with a situation. Here's the gist of the conversation and how the experience is playing out thus far.

My post: 

Help, please. I LOVE Ella’s gymnastics school. I always wanted to go there when I was a kid, Olympians come from there (not my goal, just by way of explaining its quality), and she and I have the most fun of our week’s mommy-and-me activities at that class. That said, they end the class with the 10 kids sitting in a circle with the teacher (who may very well have been teaching the little kids 20 years ago, when I was in high school across the street) and singing a song. We’ve had two classes, and both times the song has been “Ten Little Indians.” “One little, 2 little, 3 little Indians, 4… 10 little Indians, more.” And then they make this war whoop kind of sound and pat their palms to their mouths. You know. Then the teacher gives the kids stamps on their hands and feet and we all go home. In this age of sitting “crisscross” rather than “Indian-style,” I’m a little uncomfortable, to say the least. It feels like this is one of those moments where I can do nothing, or stand up for something, and if it were the original lyrics (no Indians, N-words instead) or an issue I’m known to boycott restaurants over, I wouldn’t have a question. I’d at least say something or ask for a different song. But I don’t want to be “that” mom. Or do I?

My friends' answers ran the gamut from "I vote leave it alone. The song isn't meant to be hurtful. I'm sure the teacher's intentions aren't hurtful either" to "I'd say something. For sure."

Ella's godmother (not surprisingly) made a point that really clarified the situation for me: "I have mixed feelings, but the real litmus test is to imagine how you would feel if Ella starts belting out the tune at your next playgroup, or the grocery, or at church. If you are okay with people believing you taught it to her, you are okay. If not, it shouldn't be too hard to ask if you can take her out of class just before the song. That way you get all the good gymnastics, and you can give her your own silly song!"

When a friend whose daughter was a student in that class for two years posted the lyrics that the teacher uses, I thought perhaps I could just let it go--the lyrics don't tell the story of genocide (I misspoke in my original post, when I said that the original lyrics were about N-words--that was actually derivative of the original lyrics, which makes sense in the historical order of things. The original song was used to teach children that they didn't have to be scared of Native Americans because they all die off in a countdown from 10.), but the gym's lyrics are still a very stereotypical caricature of American Indians. 

 Here's the song as they sing it: "One little, 2 little, 3 little Indians, 4 little, 5 little, 6 little Indians, 7 little, 8 little, 9 little Indians, 10 little Indian boys and girls. Jumped in the boat and the boat tipped over (repeat 3x), 10 little Indian boys and girls. Swam to the shore and built a teepee (repeat 3x), 10 little Indian boys and girls. Danced around the fire and they all went ooh wee (repeat 3x), 10 little Indian boys and girls. Ooh wa, ooh wa, shoot an arrow (repeat 3x), ten little Indian boys and girls." 

When I read those lyrics in my friend's comment, I was relieved. Perhaps I was making too big a deal of it. Perhaps I could live with it. If Ella belted it out in church, at least she wouldn't be telling the story of genocide. 

Ella and I went to class on Wednesday. We had an amazing workout. Then, we sang the song. Because I can still pretend I don't know the words, I didn't sing them, but I tried to help Ella with the hand movements. Boat tipping over: open palm with opposite hand's fingers on them tips over, repeat on other side. Swam to shore: pretend to swim with arms. Teepee: hold your hands over your head with your palms pressed together. Dance around the fire: make circles with your hand around a pretend fire. Shoot an arrow: clap your hands together and have the right hand fire off an arrow into the sky using your pointer finger in an upward motion. 

I didn't like it, but I thought I could try to live with it. I'm very conflict adverse, and while I will post my political opinions all day long, I really hate confronting people. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, I could live with it. 

That night, Justin was home for dinner. Ella was jabbering to herself as we sat down at the table, and she started saying, "Shoot the arrow, shoot the arrow!"

It took my breath away. 

I looked at her and said, "Ella, I don't really like that song."

She stopped singing it and moved on to another song, as she does these days. My life is a medley of Wheels on the Bus, Old McDonald, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Skinamerinky-dinky-dink.

Justin and I exchanged looks and decided we would talk about it later, so as not to draw attention to a song we don't want her to sing. She's already old enough to do something just because we ask her not to--just to see what will happen. 

We agreed that it was not acceptable for Ella to sing that song. Even if the lyrics aren't murderous, they are stereotypical and, at their heart, racist. 

The trouble is, we really like the gymnastics program, so we don't want to pull Ella from the school, which seems a little extreme anyway. One song in a 45-minute class shouldn't be so powerful, should it?

The trouble is, it is. 

We decided that we could keep Ella in the class, let her sing the song and get the stamps on her hands and feet, and ask her not to sing the song anywhere else. We could tell her, as we did that night, that we didn't like that song and didn't want to sing it outside of class. She's two. How can we explain this all to her? We can tell her we don't like the song because it hurts some people's feelings or that it isn't very nice. She's smart. She'll understand. Right? At the very least, she'll listen to us, as she did that night. Right?

It was late. We had just tucked her into bed and finished the dishes and picked up the house and all we really wanted to do was sit on the couch with a couple of drinks and watch the DVR of the Presidential Debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was so nice that we agreed and had come to such a simple conclusion about our little problem. Plus, no confrontation!

Then, the debate sucked.

Then, I called Ella's godmother in the morning to commiserate over President Barack Obama blowing it in the debate. Conversation turned to our kids (hers are old enough to watch the debate (as homework! in fourth grade!)) and then, the song.

There is a reason this woman is Ella's godmother. We have the same moral compass (you can call him Jesus). Her kids (Kindergarten, fourth grade, seventh grade) are awesome role models for Ella. Our husbands are the exact kind of perfect that each of us needs. We are all blessed. 

She delved into the idea that I have to be comfortable with people thinking that I taught her this song. "Because you did." 

While Ella is two, and I am sitting with her and a teacher, and she is learning something, I am giving her that knowledge. I am saying, "It is OK for you to learn this concept, or this trick, or this tune. I am with you and I believe it is good to learn this lesson." 

I am still with her. 

When Ella is five or six, when Ella is in school on the playground she will be learning from her peers. But how will she know not to make that racial slur that someone else is saying? If when she was two I said, "You know what? In this case, in this scenario, when I'm really uncomfortable and I think singing this song is wrong, but I'm doing it anyway because everyone else is doing it and I really want to be liked and be part of this gym, in this particular set of circumstances, it's gonna have to be OK," how will she know?

Fortunately, I have several friends who not only have a good sense of right and wrong, but also good strategies to help me do what is right.

Alternative lyrics have been suggested. Count pumpkins, toes-ies, airplanes, or bubbles. 

Tell the teacher my reservations about the song. Mention being sensitive to other cultures.

Take Ella out of the class just before the song. Give her our own silly song. 

Send an email. If I can't send one to the teacher directly, send one to the director, even anonymously, and the information will be passed along from a supervisor role.

Pull the teacher aside, saying something "like, 'Thanks so much for another great class. Ella really loves the singing at the end of class, and I like the idea of the activity. Do you know what the song is referring to, though?' Explain its origins and ask if she would consider a different song. If you can keep it friendly and supportive, and let her know that it makes you uncomfortable, and you are not judging her, you will not be 'that mother.' Just keep saying 'we love the class' if she gets defensive."

"Fix the problem without being 'that mom.' Print a reference from the Internet describing the meaning of the song. I doubt she has any clue. After class thank the coach for doing such a great job with the kids. Then give her the print out. Tell her (not the gym owner or anyone else) that you are sure she must not know what the meaning of the song is, but she also might not realize that some of these girls in the class are descendants of Native Americans. I bet it stops...who knows what other song you'll get in its place!?" 

And there was encouragement: "I'd say something. For sure. But, I'm always 'that' mom. And proud of it. :) What's the worst that happens--you speak your mind, provide some enlightenment, perhaps change some things... or they just keep singing the song and you then decide your next move of living with it vs. taking her out early or not supporting the business. Can't hurt to bring it up is my point."

I knew that having a child would challenge me in so many ways, but I did not expect this particular challenge--at least not already, when she's only two years old. I thought the big moral and ethical questions would come later. I don't know when. Maybe in elementary school? Definitely in junior high. By high school I'd be praying that her upbringing gave her the foundation to make the right choices in the face of peer pressure and everything else scary to a parent.

Who knew her upbringing had already begun at this level?

So, my dear Ella, I know that you love to sing and you love teachers giving you stamps or stickers at the end of class. I know that I have been teaching you to look the teacher in the eye at the end of class and say "thank you." I know that you are likely to be angry and confused if I usher you out the door the minute the coach tells the class to finish what they're doing and come sit in a circle for their song. I know that you might even throw a fit.

I also know that I want you to appreciate all people for their real qualities. I want you to respect your teachers and do what they say, but I also want you to respect yourself and do what is right. I want you to know the difference between right and wrong. I don't know how to teach you these lessons except by example. So, even though I am really scared of authority (seriously? it's a mommy-and-me gymnastics class and I'm the mommy, but somehow the idea of speaking to a teacher who is also an elder makes me feel small), even though I want to be liked and I hate to make waves and I don't want to create a difficult environment in a place you might choose to spend a lot of your time in the future, I have to say something. 

I cannot sing that song because it is rooted historically in racism. I cannot sing that song because even in its modernized version it plays on stereotypes that reinforce inaccurate and demeaning images of what it means to be Native American. 

I spend my life hoping to make this world a better place. I have always worked for that goal. It's why I was a journalist. It's why I was a teacher. Now, as your mother, it is really all that I am meant to do. I want the world to be better for you. I want you to help make it better for others. It is my legacy. You are my legacy. 

So we have to learn this big lesson today. We have to learn to be sure of our principles. We have to decide what is right. We have to act on our decision. We have to be gracious and delicate and strong and confident all at once. 

It's gymnastics for our minds and souls.