Last year I followed a woman and her toddler out of our baby yoga class and onto the downtown mall. When they turned into Eppie’s, a restaurant that serves jerk chicken and cornbread, I nearly broke out my church shout. There she was—a ram in the bush—my potential new bestie.
That’s racial profiling, I know. But you’ll have to forgive me. The truth is, I stalk Black people. It’s sort of a calling.
You should know I stay on the less psychopathic side of the stalking fence. I never said a word to that woman and didn’t follow her into the restaurant, but I don’t forget a kind brown face, and now we’re friends. We formally met several months later at a dinner for our professor husbands, and it turns out she and her family live down the hill from us. Told you I have a sixth sense for this stuff.
Inherent in my search for Black friends is a twisted yet necessary sense of self-importance. All of a sudden, I am Abram. I’ve packed my bags, left my home in Northern Virginia, and must bargain with God on behalf of Charlottesville. I throw all introversion to the wind, because I am on… a mission.
God, will you spare this city if I find just one Black friend?
I feel biblical—face shining and tablets crashing and hip fractured from wrestling with an angel—and then God is all:
Hold up. Who. Is. You? (He sounds like Chris Tucker.)
Sometimes I need that deflation. I need to stalk someone who doesn’t think about race the same way I do. It reminds me that I’m not Abram or Moses or even the talking donkey. I’m not saving the world one Black friend at a time, and what’s important to me has never made the sun set one minute early.
As a parent, though, I do have a say in shaping my child’s world. I help determine what’s critical to her healthy development. Lately that’s meant accosting strangers at Starbucks in hopes of finding a diverse preschool for Elie Mae.
Hey, do your kids go to preschool around here?
I find this much more tasteful than calling a preschool to ask, “Are y’all getting any brown kids in this year?”
So far, I’m one for two. The first woman I intercepted by the pastry case also moved here from Northern Virginia and is looking for a preschool. We’ve since met for coffee and will likely keep in touch. The other woman lives in Maryland and told me she pays $20,000 a year for her daughter to attend preschool in Virginia. Did I ever pick my jaw up? No, it must have stayed on the floor because she left without saying goodbye.
When it comes to preschool, Paul and I want these things: diversity, flexibility, and affordability. You get the diversity part. As far as flexibility, Eliot just needs a couple half-days a week with some kids her age. And with diapers, formula, and student loans, we can’t shell out a mortgage payment for our two year old’s socialization. I’m a stay-at-home mom, after all. I should practice staying home (with the kids).
While some schools have the diversity we want, the tuition and schedule keep us from applying. Others cost less and offer a half-day schedule but are racially homogenous. The school I told you about last time fits this second description. And they’ve accepted Eliot for the fall. (Hold your confetti.) We have until the end of March to make a decision.
I sound so anti. I’m not really. It’s a nice school—spacious, clean, kind teachers. But we’ve found something else. Remember those things Paul and I wanted? Behold, The Other School We Toured:
The morning we visited, the director greeted us in a narrow hallway lined with backpacks, little coats, and a bulletin board. To save space, we parked Tophs and the double stroller in a 3s classroom for circle time. His chill demeanor allows us to leave him in preschools, dark alleys, and liquidated Dress Barns as long as we return in time for his next meal.
I learned in grad school that people don’t smile hello. They say hello. My instructors never met this director. She smiled every word but not in the used-car commercial way. Some folks exude warmth. Not the huggy, coochy-coo, let me grab your toesies warmth. Eliot abhors that kind. She will give you the toddler stink eye for it. This woman gave Eliot her space, but her nonverbals said, “I’ll be here when you miss Mom or Dad.”
I taught Pre-K for a year in a Northern Virginia daycare with all the bells and whistles. We’re talking sandpit movie theaters, HABA® wooden toys, hand-painted murals, and several age-appropriate playgrounds. This preschool was not that.
It was the school my mother would have sent me to: newspaper clippings, photographs, trucks, easels, and book corners. Two teachers in every room, a make-your-own pizza activity following a parent read-aloud. A director who talked about diversity without saying, “I see you’re a Black family, and I’m going to give you the spiel about inclusion now.” (It didn’t seem like she was thinking that, either.)
As we walked through the small space at the bottom of a downtown church and exchanged stories, she mentioned the Pakistani triplets in her 2s class. We walked farther, and I saw Black boys with ‘fros and twists. We headed back toward the front hallway and a beautiful, brown girl with pigtails ran past us, headed for el baño.
Sometimes you don’t have to try. You already are. This school is that.
Eliot would certainly add culture, character, and a serious downward facing dog to this or any school she joined. But they don’t need her here. She would truly add. That’s comfort.
Needless to say, we applied. We prayed and applied. We baptized that application in our bathtub, dressed it in a pretty white envelope, and sent it off.
We got waitlisted.
Here’s the thing: I am the laziest perfectionist you’ve ever read. I applied to one college, early decision. I wanted none of the multiple applications and waiting business, so I don’t know how this all works.
But I do know we are in the lowest category of applicants. Meaning we have no legacy, no church membership, no direct line to King David’s throne. Suddenly, I am MacGyver: There must be a way, there is always a way to get where you need to be while wearing a bomber jacket. Let’s see what I’m working with: paperclip, ear hair trimmer, video of Eliot ordering an Arby’s sandwich in Farsi.
I see how parents end up calling college admissions offices. They’re not crazy. They’re out of tricks. They’ve exhausted the power of their inner mullet. They’ve taught their children that with hard work, success follows, and now they’re staring a waitlist in the face with nothing but a miniature hand grenade. And it’s filled with Gold Bond Medicated Powder.
Seriously, you don’t want to be an entitled helicopter parent. You want to be the parent who does just the right thing. You want to sleep well at night.
Calling forth to me in my third year as a parent is the sound of my younger self—a voice reaching ahead of its years, gently steering me to this thought: Eliot must know her worth.
She must know her worth as a girl, as a Black girl, as Eliot Mae Harris. I don’t know how to do this. But I can do this. By the grace of God, I will do this. And how can it ever be too early to start this?
We visited a warm and colorful preschool in Charlottesville. We’ve been waitlisted. We are keeping in touch with the director, emailing weekly to see if a spot has opened up. I’ll tell you one thing: It feels good to set aside the malaise for a day, to let it wash away with the chilled February rains. It feels good, in this season, to hope.