My 2-year-old daughter Penrose divides the world by parenting role and gender. If she sees a picture of a big and a smaller caterpillar, the big one is the mommy and the smaller one is the baby. If there are three of the same thing—her three toy spatulas, for example—(why does she have three toy spatulas?), the largest is the daddy, the medium one is the mommy and the little one is the baby.
Our family has a daddy, who is the tallest at 5’5”, a 4’10” mommy in the middle, and a 32” toddler, so her categories make a lot of sense. But I worry sometimes, in our isolated Maine island community, that she is only seeing that traditional nuclear family model.
Similarly, my high school English students are infrequently exposed to people outside of what might be considered the norm. I’m the only Jewish person most of them know, and while we do have out gay and lesbian community members, none are yet raising families. There are a handful of non-white people living here year round, but our percentages are even lower than the statewide average, and Maine is 94.4% white, according to the 2010 Census.
I took it upon myself to teach a year of social justice curriculum to my English students. We started with Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” reading “Lord of the Flies,” and examining the conditions that can lead to violence and radicalization. We talked about freedom of religion and the refugee crisis as we read “Persepolis.” We discussed racial inequality with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son.” We explored the abduction of girls in Nigeria by looking at a similar case in Uganda, reading and discussing “Thirty Girls,” by Susan Minot, and incredibly getting to Skype with the author. Students studied LGBTQ history and read “The Laramie Project.”
We talked about disability rights, Hollywood whitewashing, and food injustice. It was invigorating, and for some students, completely new information. Some preferred to remain comfortable in their old paths, while others took on projects to make the school more inclusive, but at least they had all been exposed to the injustice in the world and some action steps to work towards change.
I feel the need to incorporate some of this purposeful tolerance teaching into Penrose’s upbringing. She won’t get it organically, at least not the whole picture. I want her to know that, like her Ahma and Papa, sometimes the woman is taller than the man. I want her to know that families don’t necessarily mean Daddy, Mommy and Baby. They might mean Mommy and Baby, or Daddy and Baby, or Mommy, Mommy, Baby, or Daddy, Daddy, Baby, or gender non-conforming people and tiny adorable gender non-conforming people. Or no babies at all. Or grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends all together.
There are books that exist to tackle this subject, there are (occasionally) characters on TV shows or in movies. What’s rare is to find a book or character outside of the perceived gender or sexuality or family model norm who doesn’t exist to prove a point. Normalization is the challenge. As our island grows and changes and becomes more diverse, there will be more normalization of, well, everything, but the broadening of Penrose’s mind can’t wait until then.
When the first of my friends in a same-sex relationship has a baby, I want it to already be a known quantity for my daughter. I don’t want diversity to be new information for her in a high school class.