Returning from winter break this week, one of my students who every morning comes in for a hug and hello said to me, “Ms. C., I saw lots of patriarchy in my house during the break. My daddy said to me, ‘I want you to grow up and find a good man to take care of you,’ and I said, ‘Daddy, what am I going to school for if you don’t think I can grow up to take care of myself?’ Then he said, ‘But you’re my baby and I want someone to watch after you,’ and I said, ‘You think I’m a baby?’ and he said, ‘Well, you’re my baby’ and I said, ‘You think you own me?’… ”
Pity that poor papa. And from all that I’ve heard, I believe he’s no doubt a tender, loving father who’s been informed and instructed by the culture of his time. But it struck me that upon a single unit of study, this independent twelve-year-old is imagining a different culture for herself. It’s inspiring and it’s the reason I teach.
Yet, even as I so often teach culture and change, I find myself oddly unaware of the cultural shifts that have informed my own children. I was born to a Southern religious sensibility that took me down a path of religious service to the “heathens” of Tokyo who rightly stood up to my Southern Baptist teachings and said I don’t think so. But even as I was questioning my own culture, I saw how Eastern religion seemed to function in the same hierarchical ways of Western religion–in the way that it privileged male heterosexuals of the dominant race.
Coming home from that experience then starting a family at the same time that I began reading Virginia Woolf, it’s really no surprise that I was beginning to imagine a different culture for myself and for my children. And I wasn’t alone. Although gender expectations persisted, there was, at least, an opening, and the political bend of Central Denver in the 90s and beyond was toward greater tolerance and inclusion. Even still, one of my biggest fears coming out a few years ago was how my children would take the news—actually, how my younger son, just entering adolescence, would take the news; my older son slipped out just in front of me, so I suspected it would be no issue with him.
I took him to Chipotle for a burrito, and here’s how the beginning of that conversation went:
“Honey, you know how I’ve been seeing someone the last couple months?”
“Well, that someone is a woman.”
His face twisted into the confusion I’d been fearing.
“Honey, I’m gay.”
Long pause, eyes on burrito, and then he asked, “Then who’s Chris?”
“Chris is Christy.”
And finally, a smile and, “It’s cool, Mom.”
It didn’t end there. He had questions that he was careful to qualify with “Mom, I’m totally okay with it…” but he was rightfully curious about the perceived switch—how I’d been married to his dad, clearly had sex with him (two children being evidence), and now lesbian. When I explained as best I could and told him there were things I didn’t fully understand myself, he asked simply, “Will I get to meet her?”
No tantrums, no you’ve-destroyed-my-life-and-I’ll-never-be-able-to-go-out-in-public-again, just “Will I get to meet her?” The culture of my childhood is not the culture of his, and although his is not perfect (evidence abounds), the rules, at least, have softened somewhat.
My students are about to read the novel, Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the experiences of a young slave during the Revolutionary War period. In preparation they’re watching a portion of the PBS documentary, Slavery and the Making of America. The 2nd episode of the series captures the various ways that slaves resisted domination—arson, poison, suicide, escape—and the most intriguing to me just now… culture. They created a new culture about which Tulane University historian, Sylvia Frey, said this: “What it did is create an internal universe which is separate and apart from, and beyond the control of a white master.”
Beyond the control… of masters and preachers, commerce and religion—beyond the control of institutionalized power. They created and insisted on a voice that was their own and over which they themselves had power and control. Culture is ever moving, and I’d like to believe, spurred as much by the courage of the oppressed as by any other element of society. Spurred by the belief that any one of us can begin something new—something just, and kind, and generous—at any moment.