Friday, February 3, 2012

Your Father Will Not be Entered into the Father of the Year Contest

It's February. If you have a child in Chicago Public Schools, this means that you are now partway through the long stretch of winter weeks with more days off than you'd ever imagined possible. Fear not, though. There's a heart-lifting early February tradition too: the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative "What My Father Means to Me" Essay Contest. Here's how it works: sponsored by the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, it asks K-12 schoolchildren to write an essay about a Father, Grandfather, Stepfather or -- in case all of those options are delinquent, nonexistent, or otherwise unworthy of an essay -- a Father-Figure. In return for participation, each child gets a voucher for 2 Chicago White Sox tickets. If Mom, Grandma, etc. wants to come, she'll have to pay her own way, though. This is about fatherhood, not family.

You'd hope that every kid in Chicago would be able to identify at least a father-figure, even if it is Lovie Smith or Rahm Emanuel, but, heading off the desperate emotions of a child who has not even that, the official contest essay form offers an alternative. "If you do not want to write about one of the four categories listed above, don't feel bad! Instead, tell IFI what qualities would make 'My Ideal Dad.' Put an X here ___ if you are writing about 'My Ideal Dad.'" But caution: if you had hopes of attending the White Sox game with pop, grandpa, or your basketball coach, do not put an X here. As the form continues, "Please note: If you choose this option, your father, grandfather, etc. will not be entered into the Father of the Year Contest."

Lest you go away thinking that men get off easy here -- free White Sox tickets, and all they had to do was not be so terrible that they got replaced by imaginary dad! -- read on. A page is provided for the K-12 student, followed by a response section for Father/Father-Figure Response, called: "My Reaction to this Essay," or "The Behavior I Intend to Change is." Every year when my daughter brings this home, I use it as a legitimate opportunity to make some suggestions to my husband. "How about 'I will stop leaving banana peels on the coffee table,'" I helpfully suggest. Or, "I will not eat the rest of the cookies without first asking whether anyone else wants one?" In response, my husband facetiously proposes more demanding aims: "No more than one six pack of beer on weeknights, and I will only smoke when standing at least 25 feet from the door."

February is also, of course, Black History month. Next month is Women's History Month. Essay contests like this one, though, remind us that messages about race and gender extend throughout the school year. "What My Father Means to Me" gives my husband and me the giggles every February as we compose our own imaginary responses (and, I'll add, a rush of love when we read my daughter's actual response, which this year included lines like "When my sister tackles me, he says STOP and helps me get my sister off me. . . This makes me feel very happy inside my heart"), but the implicit messages it offers children are troubling. The contest simultaneously tells kids that some fathers are great and that overall men are still pigs. What CPS implicitly says about fathers: they might be ok, but quite likely they're not, and even if they are, they're still not ideal. If you insist on the ideal dad, well, kid, you're going to that White Sox game on your own. As for race, the National Center for Fathering website offers special links for dads in different "situations", including "urban dad." There is no link for "suburban dad."

The incessant backpedaling (if not father, then stepdad, and if not stepdad, pretend dad; if dad is a lemon, then make lemonade with promises of self-improvement; and in the end you get the White Sox tickets no matter how poor your showing because our expectations were pretty low anyway) stands in distinct contrast to the other school-sponsored performance of fatherhood scheduled for February: the "Father/Daughter Dance." (Need I add that, in the most segregated city in the US, my daughter's school is mostly White, and situated in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where houses now sell for prices only two-parent families are likely to afford?) At the bus stop in the morning, a mother innocently asked my husband whether he was going. He was not going, he said, because he did not think it made sense to protect his little girl from early sexualization by dolling her up and taking her out on a date, and he found all the "promise keepers" associations really disturbing. When he recounted this conversation, I asked him if he really used the word "sexualization" at the bus stop, and he said yes, and that's what you get for sending your kids to school with the daughter of professors. I did not ask him to reform his behavior.

I wanted to post last month about the Girl Scouts policy of full inclusion for transgender children, but I couldn't think of anything to say except "Hooray for Girl Scouts!" In light of the fact that a young friend of mine left school in tears yesterday because, with two moms, she couldn't go to the Father/Daughter dance, I'll say this: our schools should show commitment to reform of gender stereotypes at least as courageously as the Girl Scouts. No back-pedaling. To win those baseball tickets, or better yet a box of Thin Mints, commitment to improve expected by Monday.

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