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My Most Pressing Back-to-School Task

After bringing up race and adoption with my children's teachers at the start of each academic year, I always feel worried and hyper-vigilant. But, invariably, they get it.

by Sharon Van Epps

When the kids go back to school, my to-do list triples overnight. I struggle to get back in the swing of packing lunches, overseeing homework, fielding volunteer demands, and so on. By far the most pressing task on my list is scheduling get-to-know-you meetings with the new teachers of my three children. I feel it's vital to be proactive in addressing the issues of adoption and race that may arise in the classroom, but I look forward to these talks about as much as I look forward to my annual mammogram.

Four years ago, when my daughter, Didi, entered kindergarten, I felt ridiculous bringing up adoption with her teacher, a beloved figure at our school who had logged more than 30 years in the classroom. I assumed Mrs. H had heard it all from past adoptive parents, but I asked the questions anyway: Was she planning any family tree assignments? Would Didi be asked to bring in a baby picture that we didn't have? Would she please try to keep an ear out for adoption-related teasing? I can still recall the look on Mrs. H's face, an odd mixture of receptivity and shock.

"Have any adoptive parents brought up these issues with you before?" I asked.

No, they hadn't.

With time, I've gotten used to seeing stunned looks on teachers' faces. I fear that I come across as a hyper-vigilant nut each time I slide a stack of photocopied articles about adoption and school across a desk, but I persist.

Raising the specter of race in the classroom is even dicier. Race is a subject that most people think they know all about, and it makes a lot of folks uncomfortable. Almost all the teachers at our school are white, and though nearly 20 percent of the students are children of color, I always get the feeling that I'm one of the only parents who has ever asked the straightforward question: "My child looks different from most of the children in the class. Have you dealt with race-related comments or teasing among students in the past?"

Every time I've posed that question, the teacher has blanched before quickly recovering to assure me that nothing like that has happened, ever. This is the moment in the meeting when I'm certain that I've screwed things up by making the teacher feel insulted or marking myself as one of the PC police. I take a deep breath and share an anecdote or two about race-related comments that my kids have heard at summer camp or in the park, right here in our lovely community. I reassure the teacher that I'm not expecting such a problem at school, only that I know from experience such things are possible. If any teasing or bullying happens at school, I would like to work with the teacher to address it.

Invariably, I leave these meetings feeling jangly, worried, and exposed. Maybe I am a hyper-vigilant nut.

Then, a week or two later, something magical always happens. Ms. M thanks me for an article in a way that tells me she read the handout and she gets it. Mr. G makes a point of mentioning that my daughter is well-liked by classmates, and I know he understands my concerns and he's watching out for her Ms. K excitedly tells me that a new African-American boy has just joined the class, because she recognizes how positive it will be for my son to have a classmate who looks like him. Relief and gratitude wash over me then, the payoff that gives me the courage to keep putting those dreaded back-to-school meetings on my to-do list every September. In those moments, I know we're going to have another great year.

Sharon Van Epps is an adoptive mother of three. She blogs at adoptivefamiliescircle.com and whateverthingsaretrue.typepad.com.

Photo: Kaiden (6, Guatemala) is full of smiles as she steps off the school bus.


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