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.
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:
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.
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.