Although “Mazel Tov,” a Hebrew phrase, translates literally as “good luck,” the expression really means “good fortune has occurred,” hence its use as a term of congratulations. I had a baby girl 8 months ago: Mazel Tov to me! I have been lucky enough to be able to stay home with her since her birth, and with the exception of the nine hours a week that I teach and hold office hours, I will continue to be her primary caregiver until she is at least 15 months old. At that point, I will need to take more hours out of the day for work.
I had it all planned out: at 15 months we would enroll her in the on-campus day care program, a mere 5-minute walk from my office. We live near campus, so there would be no commute; only a leisurely stroll across well-manicured lawns to her classroom. I could stop by to have lunch with her, or stop by, just because. She would never be too far away, and she would never have to stay longer than necessary. At the end of the day, we’d walk back across lush campus greens together.
Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans. The on-campus daycare has elected not to renew its NAEYC certification (the gold-standard for child care facilities), it is losing its manager of over 20 years due to retirement, and faculty are starting to pull their children out, citing a decrease in the quality of care, insufficient “free-play” for the children, and an environment that is not as warm or nurturing as other day care facilities in the area. I am no longer mapping out our walk to school together in the mornings. Instead, I am now considering one of the best Jewish day-school infant programs in the city. Although the program is described as secular, a non-Jewish colleague who enrolled her child fondly recalled that her child grew up singing “cute Jewish nursery rhymes.” I now envision my daughter doing the same, using Hebrew words to tell me about body parts and manners.
Jewish religion and culture are as beautiful and relevant as any other religion and culture, and have impacted my own life in both significant and superficial ways. The problem is what consideration of a Jewish day care program has forced me to confront: I do not have access to a “Haitian” day care program; there is no “black” day care facility. For much, if not all, of my daughter’s education, she will engage with a curriculum that will, at best, ignore her experience as a person of color, and at worst, focus only on the oppression of people of color in this country. As if to signal things to come, there is not one picture of a black child in the day care program’s brochures.
Raising a black child is not for the faint of heart. A mere 8 months into her life, my husband and I regularly question the choices we make regarding the formation of her identity: is she playing enough with other children of color?; should we only hire black babysitters?; Spanish is nice, but maybe we should expose her to French or Kreyol…; does she see enough women of color?…does she meet enough women who look like me? We are committed to creating an environment that will affirm the color of her skin, the shape of her lips, the texture of her hair: the artwork on our walls intentionally feature black women; her bookshelf is filled with stories about children of color; we will not be bringing the March 2010 issue of Vanity Fair into our home.
And now, we must start thinking about the educational environment that is best for her. What does “best” mean? Surely, it must mean a day care that meets the highest child-care standards. It must also mean a day care that gives her a couple of minutes to stack the darned blocks whichever way she wants. But does it also mean a day care that will celebrate the beauty and worth of her cultural background? I am under no illusion that the on-campus facility would have taught her songs about Haitian independence, the words to “Frere Jacques,” or the accomplishments of black women in the Americas. It is one thing, however, to be one of several black children in a mainstream day care program; it is quite another to be the only black child in a Jewish day care program. Can I enroll her in this program without somehow undermining the sense of pride we are trying to instill in her regarding her own racial and ethnic identity?
We have officially entered the morass of steering a child of color through the American education system. Good fortune has certainly occurred, but moving forward, I now need wishes of good luck.