Dog Days in Frogtown

My ex-husband and I are not a pair known for our superior communication skills. Hence, the responsibility of finding someone to watch the kids for the month of August got lost. We We both non-comittally agreed to do something about it, and we both sort-of tried, but when the first of the month rolled around, we were still pretty much screwed. We hired a babysitter, but it became quickly apparent she wasn’t cut out for the job.

I called Dave and had a very stupid conversation in which nothing was resolved that left me angrily huffing on a cig and bitching to a neighbor. Robyn, a mother from down the hall, tells me about a program at the rec center across the street that offers free afternoon programs. Summer Dog Days Shangri La. OK, the next day is Friday I am taking the kids.

We show up and walk into the cool of the Scheffer Rec Center. It is your typical cinder-block box,   coated in institutional paint, a mural along the back side of kids playing sports. Inside, younger kids huddle around a foosball table and older ones linger in clumps, messing around. I find a woman in a baseball hat who looks like she knows what’s up.

“Hi, my neighbor told me you have afternoon programs? For kids?” I am embarrassed by how little I know about what is going on right across the street form my home.

“Yeah, that would be Summer Splash.” She says to me and then, “ANDRE! Put that chair DOWN!!” Andre freezes with chair held aloft, wide eyed, then slowly puts the chair down. I like this woman. She continues, “But that’s Monday through Thursday. Today is Friday and we’re taking the Circulator bus to a water park.” Ivan, standing next to me whispers, “YES!” and pumps his arm.

“Oh, well, can they go? When do you leave? I can get suits and towels, I just live across the street.” She nods and starts grabbing registration forms, permission slips, and hands me a pen, “We leave in about a half hour.” I take the forms into the next room and start filling them out on a ping-pong table. Veronica crowds in and says quietly,

“I don’t want to go mom.” I look up from writing, surprised. It is a water park after all, “Why hon? What’s up” She hesitates for just a moment, looking around the bustling room,

“Um. We’re the only white people here.” She is not lying. We are absolutely the only white people there. I crouch down to meet her eyes,

“You know, this is true. But that’s no reason to miss out on something fun.” Just then a tall, brown girl comes over to the table, points at Ivan and asks me if he has a life jacket.

“No, but he’s a good swimmer, he doesn’t need one.” She has giant, kind, almond-shaped eyes. I ask what her name is.

“Shaughnessy.”

“Well Shaughnessy, this is Veronica, and this is Ivan. Veronica is feeling a little shy about going along today. Do you think she should go?”

She smiles widely, “YEAH! It’s awesome!” Oh thank you nice girl! I look at Veronica pointedly. See?

I finish filling out the forms and we hurry home to pack towels and swimsuits. Veronica continues to voice her concern, “I feel happy and excited and upset at the same time,” she says as we hurry to our door.

“That’s called anxiety.” I tell her, “It’s normal when you try something new and you don’t know anyone.” As we’re cramming towels into backpacks I say, “You know, the town I grew up in almost everyone was white, but the few black kids didn’t let it stop them from doing cool stuff.” This is a half-truth, I realize as I say it. I have absolutely no idea how the one black boy at my grade school felt, but he kept mostly to himself and his few friends. But this is the truth I want for her, so I leave it at that. Ivan jumps on the bandwagon too. Gesturing with his hands like a lawyer he says,

“You have to try new things Veronica. Otherwise you’ll never know if you’re going to like them.” He is lobbying hard for the waterpark.

“But mom,” Veronica pleads as we head back to the center, “What if they forget us, and the bus leaves without us?” I can’t help but smile. “Oh honey. They won’t forget you.”

I shuffle them into the room where everyone is waiting. As I look around, I know, it is more than skin color that divides my kids from the rest of the crowd. Most of the kids are older, middle-school aged. The rest of the kids have been coming to this rec center all summer, they know each other’s names and are friends. And I am self-aware enough to know we are whiter than even most white people. Well screw it. We live here, this is our neighborhood, and my kids are just kids. I seek out the guy in charge, wearing a powder blue staff t-shirt and holding a clipboard. I make sure he knows their names. Veronica hangs back against the wall at the back of the line and Ivan bounces on toes. They look impossibly small, and pale, but I know they are going to be fine.

Our little slice of Frogtown, Census tract 327, has the following make-up: Black: 40%, Asian: 34% White: 19%, Hispanic: 4%, Other: 4%. By comparison, the neighborhood we moved from in St Cloud was about 86% White, and the area I grew up in, Hartford, Wisconsin, is about 95% White. Needless to say, it is, by far, the most diverse place I have ever lived. And I do, without reservation, love that.

I love watching the tiny elderly Hmong couples with sun umbrellas walking to work in the marketplace. I love that the Hmong Marketplace is so far out, I can’t even figure out what to buy there. I love watching the shirtless men of varying shades play pick-up basketball at the playground across the street, and not in an entirely innocent way. I love the chaos of the local Holiday station and the crush of humanity that flows in a constant, CONSTANT, stream through it. I love that as I bike through my neighborhood, people turn their heads to see me biking through, because well, I suppose: “there goes that fat white lady on the bike again!” I also like that living in Frogtown challenges my assumptions –about my self, about other people. Like many progressive white folks, I don’t think I am racist. I try hard not to be. But that is easy to say when you live around a bunch of other people that look exactly like yourself. Now when I catch myself factoring people’s race in as I see them, meet them, it’s like getting my clothes snagged on a nail. I have to stop and unravel my thoughts, reconsider. Maybe I am old to be learning this, but I am at least learning.

And though I am free to embrace the diversity, deconstruct it and measure it against my own experience, I have wondered what my kids make of it. I’ll never know what it is like to be on a bus, playground, or a field trip where I am the only white kid. Which is why I was so glad Veronica had the insight to name her feeling, that she felt comfortable enough with me to say it plainly and openly.

When I went to pick them up four hours later, Ivan was playing foosball with some boys, and Veronica was bossing around some younger kids by the vending machine. When they saw me they ran up and hugged me. “How was it?” I asked.

“It was awesome! Can we go back every day next week?” And we did.

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13 thoughts on “Dog Days in Frogtown”

  1. There is an area of St. Cloud, now, that is only 86 percent white?

    Growing up in St. Cloud, as one of three black families that moved there AND STAYED, I can give you a clue about walking into the all-white room of strange kids, made even stranger by the fact that the apartheid was of cultural intention if not by the design of the parents who filled the room with their kids. My sister and I were Veronica and Ivan’s ages in the late 1960s and early 1970s. EVERYONE was white or at least hid the fact of their Native American past–the relative(s) that don’t get mentioned, left behind.

    It is hard knowing that there are children there who have learned form their parents not to like or want to be with us. It is hard that the kids who have not learned that lesson yet have no clue about our tentativeness at letting our feelings run freely into a fray of barbed wire hostility hidden in a few meager hay stacks of fun.

    We did not dive in. I carefully poked around, tested each pile, checking to see if it was okay to plop down and almost relax. It was different for my sister, who was more extroverted, a born dancer who dared (me and the rest of the world) to accept her dancing at the bus stop, so conspicuously–and even more so as a deep-brown skinned child. Meanwhile, I lived with the illusion that we could ever be so inconspicuous.

    Having fun in those situations was an issue of navigation and management: finding and navigating sources of hostility and unwelcome (more than we’d rather not hang out with you; more like we don’t want your kind in our parts and it is only our Minnesota nice that lets us wait for the “other” to be uncomfortable enough to leave). Manage emotions, mine and theirs; manage perceptions; prove I’m a good person, better than they expect, better than the picture that was painted by their parents’ fears or base hatred.

    Ivan is lucky. He is young enough to have escaped that lesson, one that is so pervasive and gets to people as they begin to merge into adult-like (and often immature) consciousness. We were not so lucky, maybe because our lesson was so stark, immediate and too often uncloaked, even in that Minnesota Nice. I knew it before I went to pre-school. My sister, if she did not know before, learned it the next year when the woman who we suspect is a relative-in-law of a current Congresswoman who will not be named here decided that my sister could not ride in her car with the other four-year-olds to the Bethlehem Lutheran Nursery School with her grandchild. It was more than just an inconvenience of car-pool disintegration.

    Dis-integration. Segregation. Yes, it is easy for us progressives to say we have not problem with race, gender, ethnicity, religions identification, social views, class, privilege and the rest when we don’t have to deal with it: when we are in the comfort of ourselves, when our nice German Catholic town was suddenly “overrun” with THOSE Vietnamese refugees who came to our school, before a dad’s high school, college or professional diploma was enough to support the family and before we even knew what gay was.

    Today, Veronica and Ivan are a mile ahead of us, better equipped to deal with the real world and the people in it–their lives, feelings, rights and dreams. Not that they will have it easy.

    Oh, crap, I wrote too much. I have my own blog. I should not hog this space. Sorry, but I just felt the need to describe the mountain that you and your family have stepped over. More mountains to come, but it’s a good day’s work.

    And I know why this is my favorite blog. (I am envious of your sense of humor–or your funniness.)

    1. Clarence, I was also thinking of you – truly – when I compared Veronica to that classmate of mine in grade school. And I also realize, of-course, that my children are still living in a world where their whiteness is a much more comfortable “minority” than if any of the other kids in the rec center had been suddenly transported to St Cloud. Still, one of the most interesting insights to me was her perception of otherness. That in her mind, it was definitely not motivated by negative feelings towards the other kids based on race, but the singularity of hers. That is the result (I think) of going to schools and other social milieu of increasing diversity. Even in her Montessori school in St Cloud there were children of color, and her public school was almost as racially diverse as her St Paul school. And I suppose I hope it is also the result an ever so slightly more integrated world they live in. And of-course my own choice of books, movies and an ongoing dialogue about race, equality and history. It might have been her first expression of awareness of her own race, but certainly, we have talked about race many times in a variety of contexts. I do think (I remember hearing) population trends show that caucasians will be in the minority in the near future, statistically speaking. Even if it doesn’t even out the socio-economic divide, I do hope that my children’s experiences growing up in Frogtown prepare them to function in that multi-culti society better than I or your classmates might. Yeah, there will be tough times of all kinds as we forge on as a family, but it was a good day in the neighborhood. Thanks for your thoughtful response, as always.

      1. My son “lives” part time in the same building as Jennifer and her kids, with his dad, and he attended school two blocks away at the school “with the blue park” for three years. As a white person who grew up in whitewashed central Wisconsin, I am pleased thinking my son is growing up in a much more colorful world and has had different norms as his early impressions in life. His first school reflected the kinds of ratios Jennifer describes, and when we transferred him to the charter school by his dad’s place, he was one of maybe 2 or 3 caucasian kids in the entire school. It was maybe an odd choice, sending a very white off the charts intelligent kid to a school populated primarily by Hispanic children and “English Language Learners,” but it provided some very important environmental and structural things he neded up needing that were not provided at the “fancier” Monessori school he’d been in. The staff were top notch and I knew they would pay attetion to meeting his academic needs as well as closely monitoring his development in other ways. I liked the thought that my child would have the experience of being the minority, and learn more about the “real” ness of the “other”s young enough so it might become part of an assumed fabric instead of something he’d have to struggle to overcome as a teen or adult. A lot of that came true. We didn’t talk about race, or color, much. Once in a while he’d refer to someone as “the brown-skinned girl” – . I also hoped he would have the experience of learning appreciation and compassion for those who were less advanced academically or in language due to lack of experience or opportunity. He was assigned to help a child who was in their first year of school after coming to the United States from a refugee camp and learned English as my son watched and listened. I hope some of these lessons will stay.

        But these things are never simple. While we did not experience major prejudice or apartheid (we were after all members of the elite social class), the cultural gaps were undeniable. And harder to cross than just showing up for the parent or family night would do. My son spent his days going down halls where the majority of the language being spoken for social communication was Hmong – broken occasionally by Spanish. And no one was teaching him. Class time was needed to help these kids close the English gap – so for my son, the social gap remained. And at the parent teacher and family nights, when it was time for discussion after the tri-lingual presentation, there was the Spanish group and the Hmong group. When I was lucky someone translated for me.

        For both of us, it was a (mercifully mild) lesson in being on the outside. Neither of us ever really got in. Second grade and third grade passed with relative ease – and, in comparison to his previous school, the place was a godsend – for what he needed then. But in fourth grade it started to show. My son did well enough in academics to not have “worries” but we were getting to a place where a gap between his potential and the school’s ability to nurture appropriately could end up with permanent marks. He fielded bullies, with remarkable grace, but did not have the relief of a real friend to take refuge in. In three years, we did not have a single family we contacted outside of school. In three years not a single play date, sleepover, or birthday party invitation. He did not know what he was missing, but I did. I wanted us to be part of a community, but we were not. Not really. Did these things mean I was prejudiced?

        He could have stayed at that school, and it would have been OK – we would have worked harder to “get in” – we would have created opportunities academically – somehow. I did find a different school and we did take a chance. The change was immediate. Suddenly there were rooms filled with other children who spoke the same “language” – read the same book series – it was an instant peer group. And parents we really connected with. The two most important kids were at his birthday party this summer.

        I’m still glad my son had the experience that he did. I’m glad it was not any harder than it was. But I’m also glad for where he is now. Are there more white kids at this school? Yes. But that’s not what it is all about.

        I’m no expert on prejudice, but one thing I remember someone saying is that the thing that makes the biggest difference is having a personal experience with someone, something that allows you to change your preconceived notions of “other,” to make you care, to realize the similarities because of what you actually share, basic humanities. I wish we could have gotten to more of that. Maybe there is more of it embedded in my son’s deep inner psyche than I will know.

      2. And, just for the record, I will bless the day when I see Clarence White dancing at the bus stop….

  2. Wait, I have to blow my nose and wipe the tears. What a wonderful writing. Bravo for you and for Veronica and Ivan. That was a wonderful lesson.

  3. Barbara: We struggled with school placement, and hearing your story confirms some of my expectations. That loathsome NCLB wound up helping us, in that we found a school the kids are really happy at, which is an art magnet. However it looks as if it may close soon, and we will see what happens after that.

    More importantly, yes, Clarence at the bus stop. Maybe Sid can get him to do it.

    Thanks for your reply, and for reading the piece.

    1. Jennifer – I tend not to say much – at least not in public electronic fora like this. Something made me hit “send” this time. Hope I didn’t overstep or oversay.

      Here’s to “dancing at the bus stop” – wherever, whenever, however it may come to be.

  4. Love the piece, Jen. You might want to check out the book “Honky” by Dalton Conley. White guy who grew up in the projects in New York. Lower East Side, if I remember correctly.

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