my daughter Aretha just graduated from first grade. I sat with the other amazed parents in Room 7 at Longview Elementary, listening to them chant aloud: "And now I'm 6, and I'm clever as clever, and I think I'll be 6 forever 'n' ever."
Just how clever are they? Well, ordinarily, if my daughter called me a nasty name in public, I'd have a swift punishment all lined up to deliver. But when she wrote "Mommy is a Pig" in purple felt pen on her self-decorated bedroom walls, I was close to tears of joy. My baby is expressing herself! And she already spells better than many of her adult relatives! I always told Aretha she could draw on her walls, and now she fills them like the pages of a diary. She is the living embodiment of the First Amendment.
Aretha learned more this year than the strange rules of the English language -- she was inculcated with the even stranger rules of American values. The ideas my daughter brought home this year on the subjects of sex, race and religion made me want to wash out the entire mouth of our sick little society with the strongest soap I could find.
Take the last week of school, for instance. I picked her up on a Monday afternoon, tears and snot running down her face. "What happened?" I said, a phrase I've repeated like a broken Chatty Cathy doll all school year long."We were playing the power game," Aretha sobbed, which as she described it further, sounded like a sadistic cross between Synanon and Simon Says. One person has "the power," and they get to make all the other players do whatever they say, complete with insults and much dissing. The goal of the other players is to "take it" with as much stoicism as possible -- not to crack. Aretha was in post-tournament pieces.
"Who plays this horrible game?" I asked, and Aretha paused her crying for a moment. "It's the power game," she said, as if that explained everything -- and then, as if it were an afterthought, "No Mexicans can play, though."
I have to watch it when we have these conversations in the car because I'm wearing out my brakes. "It's a POWER game and no MEXICANS can play?!" I plowed into a curb. "Who came up with this crap, the social policy board of the Central California Coast?
Our family lives in a beach town that's part university village, part hippie haven, a lot of farmland and a sprinkling of Silicon Valley interests. Like most of the state, it's a Hispanic majority population with an overwhelmingly white political and business elite running the show.
The first thing I did with Aretha when we got home was to look at a map of the world. I showed her where Mexico is, and reminded her that she is half Mexican/Native American herself, on her birth-father's side. I gave her a thumbnail history of Mexican and California Indian history, which I'm afraid she got a bit mixed up with the Disney Pocahontas script -- but I'll take my anti-bigotry lessons where I can find them.
I explained that none of the kids in her class are "Mexican," that's just something ignorant, prejudiced parents say who don't know better. I know all the students in her class and they're U.S.-born except for one Yugoslavian. A handful live with parents who are primarily Spanish speakers. Her homeroom is a bilingual classroom, where all language is treated with respect. At the same time, it's true that the white and white-passing kids, like my daughter, are picking up social cues that they are the real players.
The hardest part of these talks with my daughter is when she asks me the hardest questions -- why the Spanish treated Indians like slaves and children, and why the British went ever further, exterminating tribes like vermin.
"Why did they treat them like that, how could they be so cruel?"
"Yeah, well, why are you playing the asinine power game?" I ask back. "You don't even have any money at stake."
On another afternoon, Aretha announced, "I'm going to clean up after the boys today so that we can get ice cream. Miss Rogers says if we don't clean up our snack, no ice cream -- and the boys never do it, so I'm going to clean up their mess too. "
"I'll give you a double dip of anything you like if you promise me you'll never clean up after a boy again," I say, in the first spontaneous bribe I've ever made to her. "You start now and it never stops."
"Mommy, all the girls at Longview giggle when someone says 'sex,'" Aretha says later, in the car, sitting next to her girlfriend Katie.
"DO NOT say that word!" Katie squeals.
"That's because some girls get taught by their parents to be embarrassed and scared of sex. But you don't have to be silly about sex because you know better."
"And Katie," I say, risking who knows what repercussions with her parents, "If it wasn't for sex, YOU wouldn't be here, so maybe you should lighten up."
"But sex is for when you get married," Katie insists, and this makes Aretha jump in with some special schoolyard gossip on the subject. "Lorena is going to KILL HERSELF if she doesn't get to marry Rafael!" I gather that this is a direct quote from Lorena.
"Does Rafael know about it?" I ask. Aretha and Katie burst out laughing. Of course not, the boys are clueless, off playing kickball while the three princesses-in-training sit at a lunch table and formulate their wedding plans.
Aretha doesn't yet have all these ideas strung in a row. She's in awe of wearing a wedding dress, but her favorite T-shirt is emblazoned with the slogan "GIRLS RULE." She's got a yen to influence the masses, just like me, and I think the Room 7 recess crowd can thank our family for making the word "clitoris" as commonly understood as "penis" on the playground. Those kids talk as much about sex during recess as any crew of construction workers on their lunch hour. But sometimes Aretha has her own entirely independent opinion, separate from me or her school, and that's really the most inspiring of all.
"How come Sandy and Cody don't take their clothes off when we go in the pond?" she asked one time.
"Because their family believes in the God that thinks the human body is shameful and we don't," I answer.
"But do you believe in God, Mommy?"
Another one of those impossible questions! "I don't think so, sweetie. I mean, I believe that there are big things I don't understand, and I believe in being humble, but I don't believe in some God in the sky telling people how to live."
She looks sideways at me, uncharacteristically shy. "Don't you want to ask me? Don't you want to know who I believe in?"
I'm a little scared. We're sitting on my bed underneath my gigantic, five-foot-long, hanging plastic rosary. There's a bronze Krishna figurine on the dresser next to my Classic Barbie and a book of Greek myths lying on the floor in a pile of dirty laundry.
"OK, Aretha, do you believe in God? What do you think?"
"I believe in ALL of them," she whispers, lifting her arms around her in a swirl. "And I pray to them, too." Her eyes are really shining this time. I can't wait to see what she'll be writing on the walls.