By Dawn Turzio
I was washing breakfast crumbs off my daughter’s highchair tray when a newscast replaced the high-pitched inflections of Elmo. Thinking my four-year old was fiddling with the television remote, I continued cleaning as my sleep deprived mind wandered.
“Mommy, why do they hate Daddy?” my daughter said, running into the kitchen.
I shut the faucet and grabbed the dishtowel, drying my hands as I knelt down. “What do you mean, sweetie?”
Her eyes scanned mine. “The people. Why are they fighting?”
I placed an arid palm in hers. “Show me.”
She led us into the living room where coverage of riots in Baltimore sprawled across the television. Upon seeing the newsreel of yet another outrage roaring through an American city, I hurried to turn it off, blocking the screen and nervously jabbing at the controller. I didn’t want to believe that another black person died senselessly at the hands of a white law enforcer, but I was wrong. My heart immediately went out to the parents who’d lost their son. How could I explain the racism that led to the violence my child was watching?
“Ice cream!” I declared, a stalemate tactic until I could wrap my head around the enormity of my task.
As the wife of a fireman whose teaching career has been in an elementary school in a low socioeconomic section of Brooklyn, I showed my students the different roles that service members provide to our neighborhoods to keep us safe. We’d dressed up as police, firefighters, nurses, postal workers, all of the important contributors to our society. We participated in live demonstrations when my husband Jim visited my classes with his bunker gear and fire safety coloring books. To my horror, when my preschooler accidentally changed PBS Kids to CNN and saw the civil unrest that included fire trucks, she came to me in panic; suddenly the cool red apparatuses and the people like Daddy, who rode in them, were in trouble.
My little girl gobbled her vanilla cone as I peered out the window, pondering how to explain the complexity of social injustices to her. I needed a better narrative than the good guys versus the bad ones. Yet my inner teacher and motherly instincts were experiencing temporary paralysis. Maybe Jim will know. I grabbed the phone and dialed.
“This is a tough one, Dawn,” he said.
After his heavy sigh (which induced a twinge of guilt that I was at fault for getting us into this) he suggested I seek counsel from former colleagues.
“Great idea,” I said, and hung up to log onto Facebook. As I was about to contact my best friend, an expert in education, I saw a breathtaking picture in my news feed of a small African American boy distributing water bottles to the line of officers suited in riot gear. I leapt from the chair and ran to my daughter, ready to deliver a lesson necessary for her understanding of delicate matters. “Honey, what do you see here?”
She took the cell phone and studied the image. “I see a boy giving a drink to a policeman.”
“I see that too. Why do you think he’s doing that?”
She stared again at the photo and shrugged. “I think the man is hot in those clothes. He’s thirsty.”
Now that the physical aspects of the photograph were out of the way, I zeroed in on the emotional portion. From those years in early education, I’d encountered children engaged in disagreements of all kinds. Whether debating over the right answer to a math equation or a dispute in a friendship, I’d have them identify their feelings, guiding them through their thinking during conflicts so they’d take ownership of their emotions and formulate cohesive responses they truly believed in.
“I agree. That officer sure looks thirsty,” I said, examining the snapshot with her. “So how does the picture make you feel about the boy and what he’s doing?”
“It makes me glad that he wants to help the policeman. And the man is happy he’s getting water.”
“So they are, in a way, okay, right?”
“Well, what you saw on TV was sort of different. There are people, like this boy, who don’t always feel safe. And people like Daddy and the police officers are trying to figure out what to do. I believe they’ll be okay soon. But right now they are nervous and angry, and are forgetting to be nice to each other.”
My daughter handed me the phone, her eyes filling with optimism. “Will you help them remember, Mommy?”
I looked at her, the educator in me now brewing with ideas of how to imbed acceptance and kindness into our daily lives. The curriculum would not only include visits from my husband and his coworkers, but also from other prominent community members especially those from African American decent.
“I will sure try, sweetie, and you can too.”
Dawn Turzio is a NYC-based wife, mother, and teacher whose busy life led her to writing in order to capture the fleeting moments. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in many publications including Salon, Parents Magazine, and New York Magazine, which can be found on www.dawnturzio.com and social media.