What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and if left unchecked, destroys our democracy.
— John Dewey
The app on my phone tells me that you are, physically speaking, entirely you. A butternut squash with all your organs accounted for and operational, only in miniature. You have all of the usual marvels—tiny toes and fingers, button nose and belly—but that’s not exactly what I mean. The parts of your personality that you’ve inherited from your mom and me, you already have. So much is finished about you, and you’re not even born.
And yet, with all of this already arrived, I write to you today feeling how open your future is. I know almost nothing about you, which means so much is possible for you. Only the sonogram tech knows if you are female or male, and even she can’t tell us anything about who you will feel you are as you grow into a fuller person. You are simultaneously almost anything. Because you are white in the United States, and your parents are white, you will be afforded more control over how the world sees you, more grace for your mistakes. With these and other privileges, you will have the freedom to slide into many ways of being a person.
This, baby, is not a thing to be proud of. The time and the space to choose your own way, and be loved for it, is a gift that everyone deserves and that is denied to so many who sit, like you, waiting to be born. As I imagine the constellation of your possibilities, I know better than to wish too vehemently for any one thing for you—I’ve read too many memoirs by indoor sons about their sports-hero dads’ disappointment, to lay down the burden of concrete expectations upon you. But this one point I need you to understand: I wish that your happiness will not stand on the backs of others. I wish that when you feel limitless, it does not require limitation elsewhere for some other father’s child. I wish for your happiness to be pure. I wish for your happiness to be dependent on others, not propped up by their sacrifice. Stand tall. Be you, but don’t throw your shadow so far as to not make room for others.
I have been told—usually by neighbors and strangers, but by friends as well—that once I meet you, “Everything will change.” They assure me that I will switch from the measured logic of my political beliefs to an animal dad. Animal dad is fierce and protective. He will stop at nothing until he has pulled the best from the world and brought it home to you.
Love, they assure me, is a fist when it meets the world.
My white baby, this message is part of your cultural DNA. You will be told that to live well is to compete and protect what you claim for yourself. You will be told that the world sits at a table with too few desserts. If you want any, you’ve got to take it. That’s what getting the best is, they say.
Don’t believe them.
Of course I want you to have what you need. But I wish to my core that you will be free of the rippling violence of seeking the best. I want you to seek the deepest. The most varied. The fullest. The roundest. The calmest. The truest. The best? The best is an expression of power that fundamentally depends on someone getting the worst. The best leads to paranoia. To jealous anxiety. The best is a desert.
Will your mom and I be able to teach you this? What will you see when you’re old enough to imagine yourself as one of us? What sort of models will we make? Will you see two teachers with too much to grade? Up too early and up too late? The ones in the room who didn’t get the dark joke that school isn’t for learning, it’s for sorting? Will you only notice the days when sustaining this work has ground your parents a bit too fine, leaving us heart-tired and worried for our students? Will you choose a job in money management instead?
Or, will you see that I chose, and choose, to stay with my students because I like it here in the heat of the classroom? My child, the threads of my work, my love for your mom, the connections I feel with the families of strangers, the creativity of being an educator, and the rhythms of the years as they pass—they all twist together, inseparable. And all I feel is gratitude. I feel it even as I’m confronted by how imperfect the world can be. How will your mom and I ground you in this message?
You will go to public school, where I wish for your joy above all, with friends who can teach you things that I can’t. I will not martyr you there, but in school I hope you will learn to be curious and scrappy. I hope you have feisty, subversive teachers who like kids and don’t yell too much. I hope you understand success as a collective goal and that complacency at the sight of others’ sadness makes you poor. It makes you lonely.
But you won’t be lonely, baby. The adults you will meet—your uncles and aunts, your grandparents and great-grandparent, our friends—work in the world and serve it, not the other way around. How can I not be excited for the future you? You’ll sit with us at the end of meatball night, ringed by post-dinner debris, as we adults surround you with our earnest talk of a better way. Then you’ll speak up and join with something you learned from one of your teachers or something you learned by yourself. Will you hold your tongue until you make the cutting observation, like your mom? Will you speak circles until you land, like me? I can hardly wait.