When my son Zach started kindergarten, he made friends with two boys named Sam. One day in September, as we walked home from school, I interrupted his report on a particularly complex game of tag to ask which Sam was involved. "Sam from 101," he said, referring to the boy's homeroom. I felt a pang of guilt because in my mind I had unconsciously categorized them as "black Sam" and "white Sam" and had expected my son to do the same.
My 5-year-old still saw the world through rose-tinted glasses where we are all the same color, but I had to learn to differentiate them as Sam from 101 and Sam from 102.
I'm a big supporter of Black History Month. I believe in celebrating every culture in this wonderfully diverse society. Yet when I look at my young son, I find myself wishing to postpone the day when he loses that rosy view of the world - to hold on just a bit longer to an innocence that seems to pass so quickly.
Last February the kindergarten class put together a play about Rosa Parks for Black History Month, and Zach was called upon to be a racist on the bus. At the same time, I noticed whenever he summed up the day's African-American History Month lesson he often followed up with, "But lots of white people supported Dr. King, too, right?" I reassured him that his grandparents marched with Dr. King, they had fought for open housing in our all-white suburb, and both his father and I had worked to elect the first African-American mayor of our city.
He seemed so eager to hear this that I wondered whether it bothered him to have to pretend to abuse his friends every day in rehearsal. But when I asked him he said no, he only wished he had more lines. "It's not fair that Tessa gets to be the policeman, and I only stare out the window," he said resentfully.
All of this laid the groundwork for a lot of discussion at the dinner table, and afforded us the opportunity to talk about important values we want to instill in our son.
But I still had a nagging feeling we were tearing something down prematurely, because Zach seemed to be naturally color blind. "What happens if you have a white mom and a black dad?" he asked me one night after one of these talks. I pointed out two sets of friends who fit this description - whom he sees often. But he'd never noticed that one parent was black and the other white.
One day when I reported to lunch duty, I didn't see Zach in the lunch line. Sam from 102 piped up when he saw me. "He's in the music room," he told me. "He's crying about slavery."
Just then a red-eyed Zach approached us holding the hand of a teacher. He told me they were talking about African-American history and how the European-Americans made them into slaves. "Well, Mom, it just bothers me because I'm European - and I'm the only one in my class. It just makes me feel bad that we keep talking about it."
While several of his classmates come from various European backgrounds, our son was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He takes pride in being "European." We lived in Belfast for six years before the Good Friday accord was signed by the main political parties and the British and Irish governments. They were frightening years, punctuated with broken cease-fires, riots, and targeted sectarian violence.
When our Protestant neighbor heard we'd named him Malachi Zachary, she "suggested" we call him something else to avoid getting a Molotov cocktail through the window. Apparently. Malachi was a bit too Catholic for our Protestant neighbors. Never mind that it's also a Jewish name, that his grandmother fled Nazi Germany at age 6. In the narrow sectarian world of the troubled '90s in Belfast, you could be on only one side or another.
When we discussed where to raise our child, my husband and I agreed we missed the cultural diversity of America. When we moved back to Chicago, we chose our neighborhood carefully. I cried when I left him on that first day of preschool. After six years in Belfast where you could be killed for having a different first name, it was an indescribable feeling to see my son among children of Chinese, Korean, Latino, African-American, Indian, and various European backgrounds in one room.
When I tried to console Zach at lunch that day and reassure him he wasn't to blame for the sins of his ancestors, I wondered if I should ask his teachers to talk about abolitionists. Maybe February should include people like my parents, who were nearly run out of their suburb in 1963 for supporting Dr. King.
On the last day of school, everyone was buzzing that Sam from 101 and Sam from 102 were both destined for Room 115 for first grade. "Oh, no! How ever will we tell them apart?" I asked in mock horror.
We all laughed, and one African-American dad shook his head and said somewhat wistfully, "Oh, I'm sure they'll figure it out."