From the Backseat: New Traditions, Holiday edition

I visited my niece at school last week. She’s nine and in the fourth grade. It was a holiday open house, and family was invited. Every student in the class had put together a diorama on holiday traditions, and families were welcome to come walk around the room to see how different households celebrate holidays. There were Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, strings of Christmas lights, elves on shelves, and more. Each diorama included a short history of the tradition highlighted, a smattering of interesting facts about it, and a personal narrative about how it looked in that student’s particular home.

And it wasn’t just Christmas — one little boy’s tradition was tacos on Easter. Another boy wrote about snowball fights. Another wrote about his birthday, which falls the day after Christmas. A little girl wrote about raking leaves in Autumn and jumping in the leaf pile. This was a celebration of all kinds of holidays and all kinds of traditions.

Several students chose to highlight their favorite holiday food, Eid cookies and Eid cake, sweet treats to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

I was familiar with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, but I’d never heard of Eid al-Fitr. And I’d certainly never heard of purpose-built cookies or cake to accompany it. But for several students, it was their chosen tradition. One family brought in two Eid cakes for people to sample. The student, a little girl, sat smiling as her dad offered everyone a second and third slice. Her mom stood on the other side, also smiling, her head wrapped in a hijab.

I remember my own versions of these elementary school dioramas. It wasn’t that long ago, in a school much like my niece’s. But in 1990s Maine there were far fewer brown and black faces, and even fewer Muslims. Almost every featured tradition showcased a Christmas theme — wreaths, mistletoe, Christmas trees, etc. Maybe someone would stretch so far as to highlight the Fourth of July or share a New Year’s tradition, but in all the years no one shared anything about Eid al-Fitr, Ramadan, or the Hajj. Before last week I’d never heard about or seen, much less tasted, an Eid cake. A teacher might bring up Hanukkah, but the only Jewish student was a grade below so even those traditions remained a mystery. The worlds of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-European religions never made an appearance — my first introduction to Islam didn’t come until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. Buddhism came around the same time, through Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Other religions like these were always embodied by books, not people. It took until adulthood for them to become as real as the people I would meet throughout my life.

My niece, however, will be spared such ignorance. Her world is more diverse than mine. Her best friend, whose diorama was set up right next door to hers, is black. A number of her classmates are Muslim. Several of the girls wore headscarves, as did parents and family members who came in to visit. To her, these differences in culture and religious belief have faces. They are people, not just ideas. She interacts with them every day, plays with them at recess, collaborates with them on assignments. They are her friends. It is a level of diversity I would not have imagined existed inside a Maine classroom, the sort of cultural education Mainers a generation ago could not access. It gives me hope. I walked into my niece’s classroom and saw the promise of mutual appreciation, the possibility of a shared interest in the diverse cultures.

Because what is school for but to learn? To learn about the world around us. Few books are as interesting as learning from life. And that is the gift my nine-year-old niece gets — a global education, right here in Maine.

That might be my new favorite tradition.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

From the Backseat: A look back

2016 began a long time ago.

Remember the primary, when Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were all looking to overtake Donald Trump’s rambunctious start? That was one beginning.

The other beginning, my 2016 beginning, was in Cuba. After President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in late 2014, I spent the next two years working there, guiding cultural exchange trips to the former pariah state. I spent New Year’s Eve in Havana and flew back home a few days later. 

Now, President-elect Trump is poised to roll back expanded ties with Cuba. On the verge of opening fully, the door might once more swing closed. That’s 2016. What a year.

What else has 2016 brought? Not just the election, surely. It’s not just because of Trump’s win, but 2016 has carried a whole host of hints about a long-hushed and covered topic: race. America’s dividing line. This past year has made discussions on race ring quite loud.

Trump is part of it. He won despite xenophobic statements about Muslims and Mexicans. His rise has been with the support of white supremacists and his election has emboldened their dangerous ideologies. But that is only part of the race picture. He teased out race in politics, but elsewhere in 2016 the threads were beginning to show.

Like when police in Dallas and Baton Rouge were targeted and murdered following the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by police in Baton Rouge, and the shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, by police in Minnesota. 

At the time, I was working in Belize, running youth literacy programs that brought American high school students down to run summer camps for Belizean elementary and middle schoolers. The American students had limited access to Internet, so when these racialized incidents occurred, it fell to me and the other staff to let the group know about the tumult at home.

Belize is a former British colony populated by the descendants of slaves and indigenous Mayans. The American students were there to teach, and not one of the kids they were sent to guide were white.

Our group of 26, meanwhile, were predominantly white girls. There was a sprinkling of Hispanic, Arab, black and Asian kids, many of whom attended through the support of scholarship programs that provide opportunities to underserved urban students, but most of the students came from upper-middle-class white families.

Race was always on our doorstep, but it wasn’t until police started shooting and dying that we got to talking about it. Ferguson was the straw the broke the camel’s back, and that was well over two years ago. 

And we did talk about it. These were smart, thoughtful, engaged kids, not quick to shy away from hard conversations. But when it came to discussing race, the differences were striking: the students of color were well-versed and had a vocabulary around the subject, a familiarity grown over time. It was a constant reality in their world, and they knew how to express themselves, their feelings, and their frustrations.

Many of the white students, meanwhile, struggled to find a foothold to speak from. These were smart young women, but when the subject turned to historical subjugation and persistent inequity, they went silent. I did my best to get them to open up, but most were unwilling to engage. Their discomfort with race was so large it became a muzzle. One-way conversation, dominated by the students of color, was the best we could do.

That, perhaps, is 2016 in a sentence: Race and the struggle white Americans face in its stark and uncomfortable reality. The fear of it. The fear of talking about it. The struggle in reckoning with inequity, the persistence of it, and the opportunity and power race carries.

These are conversations white people are not all well-versed in. We are not all equally articulate. And these conversations include risks — in a world of scarcity, white America stands to lose. At least, that’s their perception. There is great fear associated with that risk; 2016 makes that clear.

But 2016 has also left the coverings of this most American rift threadbare. Race is in our founding, in our very fabric, and it will take Americans of all shades to make sense of it. But this long one-way conversation brings nothing to a close. We must all be willing to speak up, and when appropriate, listen.

I’m anxious to see what 2017 will bring. 


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.