Monday, September 25, 2023

How Do You Say Potato in Sign Language?

Kids are curious. They get you hemmed up and pepper you with rapid-fire questions, most of which have highly philosophical answers, and expect you to juts know everything. It's daunting and sometimes annoying, but it can serve a purpose as well.

For the past few years, I've been trying to learn more languages. I've been at least conversational in Spanish since I was a kid, partly because of taking the subject in school and partly because of growing up in North Miami. But when we moved out of the neighborhood, I worried that I might have fewer opportunities to speak it, so I joined Duolingo and started working on it a few minutes a day. Then, as I started realizing how many people around me speak Haitian Creole, I started working on that, too. Duolingo has a new module on Kreyol now. Pretty basic, but a great starting place.

In addition to those languages, I've been trying to learn ASL. At first, it was because the interpreter at my previous church got injured and couldn't sign for so long anymore. I'd already been interested in learning, so I decided to make a study plan and try to get ready to fill in for her. I mean, I'm pretty good with languages, I'm committed, so how hard could it be?

Apparently, really hard.

Three years later, I can sign well enough to have a conversation, so long as the person is really interested in food, animals, clothing, or our feelings. There are a lot of local and online classes, as well as YouTube channels and apps that teach the language. Lately, I've been using an app called ASL Bloom that's been really effective for me. I just work on it a little every day, and I'm getting better.

This is where the littles come in, the ones I affectionately call, "The Riddlers." The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone who knows less than you do. With that strategy in mind, I started buying them children's books in Spanish and Kreyol, as well as some resources in ASL. It caught on like a grease fire in a motel diner. My four-year-old now knows her ASL alphabet, and she's constantly asking how to spell things. (Helpful Note: She thinks spelling and signing are the same thing. We're working on that, too.) Whenever she gets a word stuck in her little head, she asks me to spell it, and she's pretty accurate. If we're in the car, I can just fingerspell where she can see it, and she gets it pretty much every time. It helps that I'm pretty slow at fingerspelling. We can even sing the alphabet song on the way home from school - her singing and me trying to keep up with signing. If we're at home or somewhere that we won't die if I use both hands, I'll spell the word for her, and then show her the sign for the word. If I don't know the sign, then I have to look it up, but that's the beauty of giving in to her constant questions. I'm forced to learn something or look stupid to the one person who still thinks I know everything, she gets to use her brain and her fine motor skills, and we have a little something in common.

In fact, she's learned enough signs now, beyond the basic baby signs she learned before she could talk (want, milk, more), that we can communicate a little, just between us. We were sitting across a table at a party a while ago, loud music forcing everyone to shout their conversations, and the two of us were able to communicate about the food, just she and I. It helps that food is one of my go-to subjects for vocabulary. 

We can also play tricks on people. Anytime someone comments on how smart she is, I tell them she's a champion speller. Just give her any word to spell, no matter how long, and she can spell it. The mark always gets so hypnotized with the four-year-old spelling a word like excellent or birthday, they don't even notice me behind them fingerspelling the word for her.

Sometimes, she turns the questions up to eleven, or the other littles are with us, and I get outnumbered. Sometimes, they want to know how to say the word in ASL, then Spanish, then Kreyol. I have to keep the apps in my quick access tray on my phone when they get together. It's like a flipped classroom, but instead of the materials being switched, it's the people. They challenge me to remember what I should already know, and force me to learn new words and signs to keep up with their voracious appetite. And that's the best thing about it. Not only are they keeping me on track with my quest for language learning, but they're also keeping that same fire alive in themselves. Most kids lose that curiosity and stop demanding to know things once they start school, but I'm hoping that indulging them will hold off that decay just a little longer. But if I can harness all that curious energy and channel it to my benefit, they might grow to love learning before homework sucks the joy out of it.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

See Our Tea

I spent Labor Day weekend in one of my favorite places. Disney World. In fact, I dipped into that PTO stash, pulled the kids out of school for a couple of days, dashed up to Orlando on Wednesday evening, and checked into our hotel to make an extra long weekend out of it. We had my daughter and the grand-kids there, all of us celebrating a few September and October birthdays, including my fiftieth (hard to believe, I know). Then, the craziness started. My brother's family from Florida, my sister's family from Minneapolis, and even my aged parents from Kansas all surprised me on Friday, ambushing me in the theme park. We rolled through Epcot, twenty-three deep, a surprise birthday party/family reunion with everyone from the two-year-old talking to Crush the sea turtle to ninety-one-year-old Grandpa scooting around on his motorized chair.

And we do look a sight together, strolling through the international pavilions, from France to Mexico, with our international party. My Jewish, second-gen immigrant mother, my Jamaican and white American daughter, my African-American wife, the light-skinned mixed kids and the dark-skinned mixed grand-kids. Then my sister's family, with her half-Japanese husband and her kids, some mixed and some Zambian. Pretty much everyone biracial in some way or another.

Rides got crushed, snacks got devoured, tantrums got thrown (but only a couple, and only one was from a kid), and then it was time to go. Usually, our exit from Disney World is pretty nostalgic, saying goodbye to the big banner sign on our way out and talking about our favorite rides and best memories. This time was different, and far less nostalgic.

This time Nazis camped around the sign, shouting obscenities and waving around hate symbols.

Just a couple of days before our vacation, a racist attacked customers and workers at a Dollar Store in Jacksonville, after being turned away from an HBCU, where he could have caused so much more terror and bloodshed. Our governor held a press conference to deliver a weak statement about it, and got roundly booed for his efforts. 


He and his office have spent years attacking Black history in the school system, watering down the teaching of the history of slavery, trying to highlight its "benefits" to the enslaved. He's been a one-man army against the boogeymen of "wokeness" and "CRT," which he seems to think is the biggest threat to kids today. But, to paraphrase that famous statement from Muhammad Ali, wokeness didn't round up my ancestors in concentration camps and murder them. CRT didn't string up my wife's ancestors. Or, more recently, CRT didn't fire my wife from an accounting firm because she decided to go natural with her hairstyle soon after Obama's inauguration, coincidentally, and some perceived her new look as a "statement." No, white supremacy did that, and in his speech, the governor, after years of winking at it, couldn't even name it as such.

All I hear on the subject is the concern that teaching the truth about slavery, about the history of racism in our country, will make white kids feel bad. I'm starting to think it's not so much about preventing white kids from feeling bad, as it is about preventing kids of color, especially Black kids, from feeling good. Where is the concern for my kids, grand-kids, nieces, and nephews? How are they supposed to feel when their history is attacked, censored, and watered down so that their classmates don't have to be inconvenienced by the truth? How can they even celebrate the resilience and strength of their ancestors, which CRT opponents love to point to, if they're denied access to the knowledge of what those ancestors overcame, not just in their classrooms, but libraries and other venues as well?

Who's concerned about my eighty-seven year old mother, the daughter of a Jewish woman who fled Germany during Hitler's rise to power, having to see the very symbols of that hatred, hear the same slogans and curses, that forced her family to leave their home in the first place?

I'm hearing a lot of concern, from the governor and from others like him, about math books being too woke, or beers being trans, or kids feeling bad about learning of the atrocities of slavery and apartheid in this country, but I haven't heard him or them stating any concerns about the Nazis who have been so emboldened lately that they publicly shout their hate from overpasses, park entrances, and street corners, in dozens of instances.

This is why I'm opting out of the culture wars. The major threat to my family right now does not involve bathroom choices or SEL in science textbooks. I'm becoming numb to any politician shouting about wokeness and CRT, partly because I'm not convinced that they even know what those words mean, and partly because I can't hear them over the literal Nazis shouting threats to my family and waving swastika flags.