The year August began middle school, Delicia enrolled Zoe at Valencia Park, a K–5 dance-and-drama magnet school, two miles away. The population at Millennial Tech is 41 percent African-American, 37 percent Hispanic, 11 percent white, and 11 percent “other.” At Valencia Park, those numbers are 37.5 percent African-American, 42 percent Hispanic, 4.9 percent white, 6.8 percent Laotian, and 4.9 percent Filipino.
When I ask if these demographics make a difference, Delicia says yes without hesitation. “They’re used to it now, but when we took August to visit, he was, like, ‘Oh, my God, there are so many black kids here.’ I think it’s important for him to know he’s not the only smart black kid in San Diego.”
I glance at August, who’s been sitting quietly in his seat. His expression is as straight as his spine.
Of her daughter, Delicia says, “No matter where Zoe is, she’s popular, because she’s friendly and she talks a lot. But I also think it’s important for her to be in a place where she’s not exotic, where she’s just one of the girls.”
Zoe just completed fourth grade, where she had her first black teacher.
“It’s the small things,” Delicia says. “Like, when Zoe did a project about ‘What’s your favorite food that boils in water,’ and Zoe wrote ‘grits.’ Her teacher gets that,” Delicia laughs.
“Yeah,” Zoe says. “Mrs. Crockett told another teacher that I’m a little Southern girl, because I’m always talking about how I love grits, because grits are awesome.”
“My Southern California Southern girl,” Delicia says.
Mrs. Crockett, they tell me, is responsible for stimulating Zoe’s love of math, where she used to feel only fear. Now, her confidence in the subject rivals her confidence in most other areas of her life.
“I’m oozing geometry,” Zoe declares.
How does she feel about her new school, in general?
“At my old school, people weren’t into as many things as they are at the school I go to now.”
“I mean, like, at recess, basically. Because academically, it’s pretty much the same to me.”
How are they different at recess?
Zoe sighs. She slides her elbows down the table, until her chin is resting on it.
Suddenly, she sits up.
“I know!” she says. “Before I went to Valencia Park, I never tried Hot Cheetos, because I thought they were going to be too hot. Now I love spicy food!”
This inspires Jerry to remark on the “army of ice-cream and snack trucks that descend on the school” as soon as the last bell rings.
August waits patiently for his turn to speak. Or maybe he’s just waiting patiently, in general. Zoe again spills herself over the table. August, the dry noodle to her wet one, the starched collar to her loosie-goose, retains his impeccable posture.
“I don’t see much of a difference,” he says of the demographics at Millennial Tech versus those at Pacific Beach Elementary, “because I see people as people. I appreciate that some people like to celebrate their culture. I’m not really one of those people to say ‘I’m black and I’m proud and saying it out loud.’ Because I don’t really think about my race unless prompted to.”
It would be easy to assume that August feels this conversation is a waste of his time, but I also sense a goofy kid below the surface of his serious faÇade.
Delicia confirms this hunch. She shows me a photo of what the family lovingly refers to as “Auggie’s Afro.” In the photo, August is hamming it up. The large, full, mass of curls that grows up from his scalp and hangs down over his eyes adds volume to the…ham. That mass of hair has since been replaced by a shorter version, which Delicia informs me was a punishment — “because he doesn’t care about anything else.”
Jerry admits that he’s happy with the kids’ change of schools, partly because he is more comfortable in the kind of working-class community he grew up in. He also says he likes having the kids in schools with larger black populations, especially August, because as the boy continues to pursue math and robotics, his school world will get whiter and whiter.
“He’s going to get plenty of that,” Jerry says. “I’m happy to have him around more black kids, and [I want him] to go visit his cousins in Texas more often, so he can know more about the world from their perspective.”
“Our cousins,” Zoe says, “who watch VH1 every morning.”
Delicia tells the story of a friend of hers who grew up in San Diego, a black woman who left home and went to Spelman, a historically black college for women in Atlanta.
“Her friends were, like, ‘Who the hell is AC/DC?’” Delicia says, laughing.
Which moves the conversation on to music. Zoe lists LMFAO, Bruno Mars, Jill Scott, and Pink among her favorites. August doesn’t get excited about any of it.
“I don’t really listen to music,” he says.
“He likes NPR,” Zoe says.
Us and Them
When people find out I’m from Idaho, they usually respond in one of four ways. For each of the four I have a response.
Them: “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
Me: A patient smile until the laughing stops.
Them: “There are black people in Idaho?”
Me: “Not anymore. I left.”
Them: “I’ve never met anyone from Idaho before.”
Me: “Well, now you have.”
Them: “That must’ve been hard.”
Me: “It was what it was.”
It took me years to get to the place where I could sum up my childhood — I am biracial, adopted by a white family — as “it was what it was.” And while I believe it “made me the woman I am today” (and so on), I wouldn’t mind sparing my kids the self-doubt.
The other day over lunch, Delicia, who grew up as “The Preacher’s Kid,” told me a story about coming home from school and using “the teachers are prejudiced” as an excuse not to participate in something or other. She’d heard her friends say it. But her father looked at her, and he said, “So what?” In the end, “Why would you let that stop you?” was the message she internalized.