By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
If you’re looking for a post to help you get your new school year off to a smooth, positive start, this isn't it.
I dread the beginning of a new school year, and this year is especially difficult (more on this later). I am known to go into depressive states until around October, when the realization hits that I have to let my beloved summer go and move forward—even if painfully—with the rest of the academic year.
Summer is my F-A-V-O-R-I-T-E time of year. Unlike other seasons, I’m not bound by the schedule of my son’s school or limited by heavier traffic patterns on my usual routes or overwhelmed by an exhausting list of tasks for home and school. Though I teach a lot in summer out of necessity, I am privileged to be able to work mostly on my own terms. I actually have time to rest, exercise, write, and think.
I consider myself a better mother in summer, but a more accurate way to characterize how I feel is that I struggle less with mothering. I make fewer mothering mistakes in summer. I am more patient, more forgiving, and more kind toward my child. I am less likely to say something I have to apologize for, and I am less likely to act in unkind ways.
My number one reason for loving summer so much is that I have been able to more carefully take note of Nicholas’s growing up because of our long stretches of uninterrupted time together. He’s starting to imagine himself in college because he’s visited my campus so many times; with a little “encouragement”—really incentivizing—from me, he has broadened his summer reading choices to include actual literature and not just junk book series; he has had time to do some deep diving into learning about things he loves like roller coasters, cruise ships, and airplanes; and though still a work in progress, he is becoming more practiced working through his fears and trying new things.
Not all changes over our summers together have been easy to negotiate, however. He is talking to me a lot less; he will no longer allow me to hold his hand in public; he says he has a constitutional right to his own opinion, which is not always an opinion I share; and his dad is now his go-to parent for advice. Times are changing, and I am writing this post to celebrate my son’s continued childhood and to lament what is most likely in front of him.
The beginning of this school year marks a very important shift; Nicholas has begun middle school, which is simultaneously frightening and exciting. I am excited because he is excited about this next chapter. He is beginning to think about what being his own person means—our repeated message to him about being confident in his own skin and making his own decisions. Heading into next school year, Nicholas is deciding on a different path, and while this decision is literally about what being his own person looks like, it has come to mean something much more to me.
Nicholas has asked to loosen the rules around his hair. Last year he asked to cut his hair into a Mohawk style and to dye it blue. I gave in on the former, but blue dye was and forever will be a hell no while he lives in our house. Our previous understanding was that he could do what he wanted in summer with his hair, but when school started we always went back to his regular hairstyle, which we call the “Even Steven” (also known as a “Caesar” or a “Regular”). For those unfamiliar with Black barbershop lingo, this is basically an almost bald shaved cut over the entire head. This summer he asked to grow out his hair into an afro. He also asked to renegotiate our agreement because he did not want to shave off his summer fro when school started this year.
An afro on a Black child marks him/her—positively or negatively, depending on who’s doing the marking, and the bigger the fro, the more complicated meanings the fro engenders. To some (his dad and I are in this group), the fro is a visible marker of Black pride that connects the wearer to a political and cultural past and present. For others, it prompts fear, shame, disparagement, among other negative responses.
We decided that Nicholas could keep his summer style. It is a visible reminder to me every day that my child is growing up, a sign of his growing independence, a marker of the (Black) pride he feels when he looks in the mirror. [By the way, the fro had a short life and has morphed into a high top fade. For those of you who know Nicholas, be sure to tell him how much you like his new hairstyle.]
As this new school year begins, I must face that my child is heading into a new stage of his (educational) life and that the choices he makes as he grows older may have different meanings than before. Because racism too often causes the adultification of Black children, Nicholas will become more and more vulnerable to misperceptions related to how he presents himself and how he chooses to present his growing racial consciousness in what he wears, what he says (he's adept at code-switching), how he walks, what music he listens to, how loud he plays his music in public, and…a whole host of other choices. Imagine my fear that at such a critical time in his life—the beginning of adolescence—he has to figure out who he is within/against our current national context.
I’m working hard to make sure that my fears don’t get in the way of us having fun as we navigate this exciting new journey together. He deserves to not feel pressured to protect me as I try mightily (and oftentimes in vain) to protect him.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.