Dying to Learn

Malala Yousafzai is 14 years old, and so is my daughter.  Malala means “sad and melancholic”.  Imani means “faith”.  Both girls are beautiful, intelligent, and well spoken.  They have much in common.  They have one important thing not common to both of them.

Malala just had a bullet removed from her head.

Malala dared to speak out about wanting an education and her beliefs that education should be her birthright as much as it is a boy’s.  Malala dared to ask for something that my daughter often complains about — school.  She took a bullet because she spoke out and the Taliban issued at fatwa — ordering her assassination.

My daughter has been in school since she was 2 1/2 years old.  She’s now a freshman in high school.  Over the last 12 years, she has grown intellectually, spiritually, creatively, artistically, and in many other ways.  She has travelled the world and seen some of the world’s greatest works of art.  She has taken her education farther than many girls in this country are able to, and I am thankful for every opportunity she’s gotten over the years.  School has not always been a cakewalk for Imani, but she has done well overall and she has a bright future ahead of her in college and beyond.  She comes to the table with the cards stacked in her favor.

My educational journey was similar to my daughter’s, but I did not have the support and resources that she does.  I did, however, achieve a rather high level of education (a Masters degree from Juilliard) and I made a decent career for myself afterward.  Clearly, I have made life better for my kids than it was for me, which is the goal of most parents.

My Grandma had an eighth grade education.  She was raised poor on a farm in the South.  Grandma once told me that at age three she was put out in the field with a sack around her neck.  “Pick that, leave that alone” were the instructions she received.  At five, she was “promoted” to the kitchen, where she learned the skills that she later used as a domestic, and eventually used in our kitchen before big holiday family meals.  My grandma’s dream for me was that I go to college and leave behind the ghetto as she had left behind the farm.  College was spoken like a mantra, and I had no choice other than that destiny.  It was a lot of pressure sometimes, but I thanked her for it later.  I credit her with my success and for the drive and determination to achieve a better life for my kids (my girl as well as my boy).  I wish she’d lived to see all that my family has achieved.  I know she would’ve been proud of me.  That’s all I ever wanted.

So, where does Malala come in?

My grandmother was taken out of school because she was needed at home, and because her family saw little point to educating girls.  Girls were meant for the kitchen, and later, as wives, for the production of children (read: sons).  Girls were valued for their beauty because it would increase their chances of marrying well.  Girls helped mom with younger children, cleaned house, and cooked for the men who had worked all day.  Her life was, in many ways, like the one that Malala and girls like her all over the world live everyday.  Our country is not as far from treating its girls like Malala as it would like to think.  Still, my grandmother wouldn’t have been shot for asking to attend high school (though, perhaps, beaten and ridiculed).

I don’t believe that the more “traditional” cultures of the world should be Americanized to improve them.  Our world benefits from the differences between people: our different cuisines, religions, languages, and customs.  Yet, there are many cultures that still practice traditions that are oppressive and take away basic human rights.  The education of girls and women should not be a privilege, but rather a given.  Women do not flee from tradition.  They flee from oppression.  They flee from those who would take away their rights and keep them as second class citizens.  I believe that the men of these cultures fear what will become of their society if women are educated and allowed to do the things that are now prohibited.  If those prohibitions were not oppressive, I doubt there would be quite so much fear.  Women are given very little credit for their common sense.  We just want the same chances and opportunities as men.  We don’t want to be men, and we certainly don’t want to be the sex and power crazed whores that some men think we will become if we are not kept ignorant, housebound, and pregnant.  We are more than breeding machines, and we just want a chance to show the world what we have to offer.

When I look at Malala’s beautiful face in pictures, I cry knowing that this girl could be my daughter.  She is everyone’s daughter and we need to hear her voice and the voices of all the Malalas that risk their lives to read a book or learn to write.  I think of my own daughter’s beautiful face and I thank God that she was born here and not someplace where she would be denied her rights.  I think of my grandmother and her dreams for my future — because in America things like that are possible.  I am two generations away from poverty and one away from the ghetto.  America is not perfect, but if I am any indication at all, there are possibilities and there is progress.

I hope that Malala’s story will open the eyes of the rest of the world and begin a serious outcry for justice for all the world’s Malalas.  I pray that she will not die and become a martyr, but that she’ll live to see the changes she had the courage to ask for.  I hope that girls like Malala will speak up and demand justice, despite the risks.  I pray that I can do something in my lifetime to help these girls achieve their dreams, like my grandmother did for me.  Do not be sad and melancholy, Malala.  Take a page from my girl’s name, Imani, and have faith.  The world has heard your cry, and we will respond because justice denied to one is justice denied to all

Peace be with you, Malala.  Be well and rest easy. 

Taking it to the Woodshed

I first heard the term “woodshed” with regard to music when I was about 11.  For those who don’t know, woodshedding a piece of music means to practice it and learn it.  Here in Oberlin, the Woodshed is the name of a local music studio where Kevin Jones and Aidan Plank teach music lessons, host jam sessions, and provide access to musical education and performances to the community.  Many kids in the area come to the Woodshed to study guitar, banjo, bass guitar, drums, and keyboards among other instruments (I once saw a friend of mine taking a dulcimer lesson!).  Even adults in Oberlin come to the Woodshed to take lessons and (perhaps) realize long held dreams of playing like a pop star.  Clearly, the Woodshed is a community staple and asset, giving so much to so many.

Why, you may ask, am I providing the Woodshed with such glowing praise and free publicity?  It’s simple, really.  My son takes lessons from Kevin Jones, and today was my little man’s first recital.  While most folks wouldn’t consider this a reason to write a blog entry, I do.

My son Iain is autistic, as I have shared in previous blog entries.  Iain was diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) at age 5, after having been evaluated as a child with PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder — not otherwise specified) at age 3.  He has been evaluated and re-evaluated many times over the years.  We have told many things about what Iain’s limitations are and what he would never do.  We have been encouraged to “mourn” the child we thought we had.  We were told our son would never be what folks consider “normal”.  Essentially, we were encouraged to give up on Iain and treat him like an invalid.

I wasn’t buying it.  These psychologists and neurologists may know about autism, but they did not know my son.  I knew him from the beginning of his life, and I had seen him grow and develop like any neuro-typical child until he was two and a half.  Right around that time, Iain’s development slowed down and he began to have trouble focusing and making eye contact.  While he never regressed, it was apparent that something was going on that needed medical attention.  John and I endured years of not knowing exactly what what was happening with our son, fearing that he would be lost to us forever and locked in his own world.  We spent hours every week dealing with the NYC Board of Education and its bureaucratic bullshit — just to get our son into kindergarten.  In New York, Iain would have been doomed to an education that was spent segregated from neuro-typical students.  He would have been put together with other students (almost exclusively all male) with the same communication impairments as him.  There would have been no contact with kids who not just like him, so there would be no true glimpse into the “real world” for him.

While I was afraid of how our move to Ohio would effect him, Iain was able to go to “regular” school for the first time.  He has been mainstreamed since entering kindergarten.  The school district provides him with a paraprofessional to help him negotiate his way through the school day, and with small group instruction in reading and math.  In this atmosphere, included with all the other kids, Iain has thrived and grown.  He is able to do what all the other kids do.  Yes, he is different.  Iain sees the world in his own unique way, but he is funny, loving, and sweet.  He has friends.  He is a cub scout.  He swims and rides horses, and he loves art.

About 15 months ago, Iain asked for drum lessons.  I was worried about his ability to focus and commit to music as a discipline.  Focus is a big challenge for him, and I was torn between hoping music lessons would help and worrying that he wouldn’t be able to do them.  A close friend of mine studies with Kevin, as does his son.  I met Kevin and spoke with him about Iain’s special needs.  Kevin seemed up to the challenge and we started the lessons in June of 2011.

As always, I worried about Iain and how he was doing.  Something inside me has always worried that folks would treat him like he was slow or stupid.  I have always worried about whether or not he was in the realm of “normal” like the other kids.  Perhaps this is not healthy for me or for Iain, but I truly believe that he will live up or down to whatever is expected of him.  If he fails, fine.  I’ll help him learn to accept failure.  But he’ll never know what he’s capable of if folks pity the handicapped kid rather than pushing the kid who’s different.  So I push him.  Hard.  He’s never failed to amaze me with his intelligence and talent.

Kevin pushes Iain too, and he pushes me.  Kevin pushes me to let Iain go and do things for himself.  He has very kindly and gently asked me to back off of my vigilence and let him be Iain’s teacher.  As a teacher myself, I know he’s right.  As a tiger mom, I needed to hear him tell me it was okay to let my baby go.  So I watch Kevin work with my son, and I watch the magic happen.  Kevin is so patient, but firm at the same time.  He holds Iain to a high standard while still acknowledging his quirks.  He once took away Iain’s favorite part of the lesson — playing the drums — because Iain had been so unfocused and uncooperative during the keyboard portion of the lesson.  I didn’t mind at all.  It showed me the respect Kevin had for my son.  He knew Iain could do better and he chose to discipline him rather than coddle him.  He made Iain deal with the consequences of his actions like any good teacher would do.  While this might have angered another parent, it couldn’t have made me happier.  Kevin saw my son, not his handicaps or differences.  He saw what I saw and he challenged my boy.  The next week, Iain snapped to it.  Mission accomplished.

Today, Iain got up on stage at the Woodshed and played his first recital.  He paid attention, focused, and performed admirably at the drumset.  As I stood there taking a video, my heart swelled with pride.  There was my boy doing something I’d been told he wouldn’t do.  He was, once again, defying the odds and proving wrong every naysayer who’d written him off.  I fought back tears as I watched my baby have yet another victory over the disorder he has that doesn’t have him.  He was right there in the moment with Kevin — smiling, laughing, and having a great time.  He was not only in the world with the rest of us, he was giving us all something that made our world a little brighter.  He was sharing his talent and hard work with us.

At the end, he clearly enjoyed the applause.  He even took a bow — the cutest one I’d ever seen.  He left the stage beaming.  John, Imani, and I were all proud of him, but (more importantly) he was proud of himself.  Perhaps no one else in the room knew how huge this was for Iain, but John and I knew.  We truly knew how special this was.

I cannot thank Kevin enough for his patience and kindness toward my son.  The Woodshed is a blessing in the lives of so many folks because of what Kevin gives to all of his students.  We are grateful for the special blessing it is in our Iain’s life.  We are happy to take it to the Woodshed, week after week, and to get better and better every day.