For the last three years, I’ve been a volunteer board member of our kids’ public school Parent Association, first as secretary, now as president. When I started, I thought the job would be mostly bake sales and book drives. And sure, there is some of that. But recently, my experience with the Parents Association has taken on a deeper significance. It doesn’t feel like just helping out anymore. It feels like politics.
I call it politics because while everyone agrees that we want what’s best for the kids, deciding what that actually means can be a complex negotiation. Our school is in western Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country, and our PA is like a mini UN, with practically all of our families originating somewhere else: South America, South Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe (at least half of our kids spend the summer on the other side of the world). We have every kind of family structure: single parent, nuclear, foster care, extended multigenerational (at dismissal, the kids are picked up by parents, grandparents, babysitters, siblings, cousins, family friends …). We have families of many faiths: Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses (almost everyone believes in the divine). On the surface, our school looks like diversity at its most intense.
But in my time on the Parents Association, I’ve discovered that underneath the apparent diversity is a kind of unifying worldview that’s very traditional: It worships God, reveres family, and honors discipline, hard work, and self-reliance. It values group identity and thinks race and ethnicity are important aspects of a person’s character. It believes gender is a natural fact, not a societal construction: boys are tough and rambunctious; girls are pretty and demure. It’s a perspective that understands the world is an unfair hierarchy, but insists you still have to do your best, because no one owes you anything. It’s a conservative mentality, straight from the old world, and dealing with it has been the most interesting part of my experience helping to build our school community.
I’m a white, middle-class, liberal from Canada. My outlook is postmodern skeptical, with everything open to debate and deconstruction. I value individuals more than groups, understand gender as a spectrum, and don’t believe in God. I enjoy doubt and embrace uncertainty. Because I’m Canadian and polite (stereotype!), I don’t like to mention my opinions, let alone force them on anyone, but in my role as president, it’s amazing how often they just seem to come up. Turns out nothing reveals who you really are like dealing with children and how to raise them.
It happens all the time. Recently, I had T-shirts made to sell as a fundraiser. They were plain white, with the school’s name in cartoon letters across the front. I chose the design because it was simple, classic, and obviously, importantly, gender neutral. One day, as I sat in the school foyer selling the shirts, a mother in a niqab came over and, holding up a shirt, asked, “Is this for boys or girls?” When the mother who’s asking is wearing a niqab, it doesn’t feel like we’re talking just about a T-shirt. Suddenly, it’s a question fraught with meaning, deep with subtext. I want to be respectful, but I also want to tell her that I don’t think it matters what boys or girls wear (or men and women, for that matter). The best response I could think of was, “It’s for everyone.” She nodded and put it down. I spoke my mind, but blew the sale.
The boys versus girls thing comes up a lot. Setting up the book fair earlier this year, a Latina grandmother suggested arranging the books by sex because “boys like trucks and girls like Barbies.” Again, I wanted to be respectful, but I also fundamentally disagreed with her premise; kids should be able to read whatever they want, free of traditional gender norms. But I’m polite, and the book fair didn’t seem like the place to get into it. “We can just arrange them by grade level,” I said, and made sure the books were all mixed together.
Sometimes, the traditionalism expresses itself in surprising ways. When the principal said the kids couldn’t give out Valentines at school because a romantic holiday isn’t appropriate for little kids, there was widespread disappointment that they were being deprived an important holiday ritual. Indeed, there is general disappointment that the school doesn’t celebrate more traditional holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
At first, I thought the disappointment seemed strange; much of the school doesn’t celebrate these holidays at home, why does it matter that they aren’t celebrated at school? But now I think that’s exactly why: For most of our families, school is where their kids become American, and for much of the world, America is understood by its holidays. They want that Charlie Brown/Norman Rockwell version of America that white liberals threw away back in the ‘60s. Sometimes, talking to my fellow parents feels like going through a time warp.
Especially when they want to talk about ethnicity. I am forever being asked where I’m from, and “Canada” is not an acceptable answer because anyone could be from Canada (everyone has at least a cousin in Toronto). They want to know the source of “my people” (Scotland, if you’re wondering). Just last week, a Romanian dad I know from school got talking to me on the playground. When my blond son came over to ask for some water, the dad smiled and said, “It’s good to see hair like that around here. I’m not a racist, but you don’t see it anymore. The neighborhood’s changed.” My heart sank; our pleasant chat was now an awkward drag. “Yeah, well, neighborhoods change,” I said, “but kids are kids. Hair doesn’t matter.” Meaning, leave me out of your lament for the changing demographics of the neighborhood. I’m a white gentrifier; people are lamenting me.
But I also didn’t walk away. He said his thing, I said mine, and then we changed the subject and continued talking. Conversations like these are why the Parents Association has taken on a deeper significance for me: without the PA, I would surround myself with friends and acquaintances whose experience, perspective, and values closely resemble my own; I’d be talking to myself. Even in the big city — perhaps especially in the big city — it’s easy to self-select until your only real interaction with diversity is food and public transit. I’ve come to learn that a strident insistence on principle is counterproductive; if I berate everyone I disagree with and stomp off every time someone gets problematic, we forever remain strangers and no one learns anything. There’s usually common ground somewhere. Finding it is what makes politics worthwhile.
My first year on the PA, the then-president, a young Latina mother, spearheaded an effort to adopt a school uniform. I opposed the idea, arguing that uniforms were an obsolete symbol of conformity, useful for the police and military, but stifling at an elementary school (I was a hippie, basically). The president countered that uniforms promoted discipline, fostered unity, and encouraged school pride. The discussion was heated and heartfelt, but over the course of a long meeting, we found our common ground: a commitment to the community. We decided to let the parents choose and put it to a vote, which came back 85 percent in favor. The kids have worn uniforms ever since, and I gotta admit, they look great. I’m glad my hippie stance didn’t win.
We don’t always agree, but we don’t stop talking, and from these accumulated conversations — often uncomfortable, always revealing — we’ve built a thriving school community. Total strangers thrown together because of our kids have managed to come together to make their world a slightly better place. When I talk about politics today, that’s what I talk about. I’m proud of us; our hope is earned. We put in the work.