What color is your paradigm?

Waverly Plantation, 1984
Waverly Plantation, 1984

“Mama, if someone, say a friend, wants you to do something that you don’t usually do, that would mean changing your paradigm, and we should think very carefully before changing our paradigms.”

This was my daughter’s response, a few weeks ago, when I asked about her school day. My follow up question was, “how would you define a paradigm?” to which she responded, “it’s your way of looking at the world.”

I don’t know what you and your third grade teacher talked about, but I can guarantee you that in 1974 Mrs. Harris, my third grade teacher, did not once discuss paradigms at Miss Hutchison’s School for Girls. In fact, I’m pretty certain that the first time I ever consciously thought about paradigms was when I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 20 years after I finished third grade.

Topics like paradigms are common for Mrs. Neal, my daughter’s teacher. One day each week the girls remain in the classroom for lunchtime to have “Girls Talk;” the next day the boys do the same for “Boys Talk.” They cover interesting ground on these days, talking about peer pressure, working out issues and learning how to resolve conflicts. In these talks, and in the classroom generally, they spend a great deal of time identifying things that are important to them as individuals.

I’ve learned many things about Mrs. Neal and her students from my daughter. I know that Mrs. Neal’s a mom, a nurse, and a sister. I know that one of her siblings learned the hard way not to open a pressure cooker too soon. From my daughter’s reports I could catalog a thousand things, like who prefers a healthy lunch, who’s allergic to nuts, who needs quiet time to regroup, who keeps three pencils on her desk, and so on. In this inventory of personality traits, character attributes, and talents there is also, farther down the list, detail about the race and physical appearance of each and every member of the class.

My parents, considered by their peers to be fairly progressive, had Indian friends, Jewish friends, and even a couple of gay friends, but not a single African-American friend. By friend I mean someone who is invited to your home for dinner and coffee, someone welcome to stay in your guestroom when their power goes out.

I remember coming home from my freshman year in college, in 1984, and wondering how I would tell my parents about one of my closest friends, a dark-skinned Liberian native. I worried because, despite what my parents said about everyone being equal, I knew they would be afraid for me to put it into practice.

Once I accepted that I would be raising children in Memphis, my hope was that I could show them through real experience, not platitudes, how we’re all the same. I wanted them to see, through our friendships, our social networks and our professional lives, all the things we people have in common with one another instead of things that make us different.

And then my children shifted my paradigm. I had imagined a world in which they would see through a softer lens, one that would blur lines into harmony. Instead, they have shown me an acute clarity that brings into focus the multitude of distinctions that make each of us uniquely, and equally, human.

Mrs. Neal, Valentine's Day, 2013
Astrid and Mrs. Neal, 2013

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