It was 95 degrees in the parking lot at the base of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site on the June day my daughters and I visited. We sprinted for the air conditioning of the visitor information center. As a documentary of Douglass’s life played and we roamed the lobby exhibits, I casually mentioned to my children, “I teach his books to my college students. I’m happy to answer any questions.”
Piper, 8, rolled her eyes. Her mother, the teacher, always tries to teach. Isabelle, 14, reminded me that she’d already read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and knew everything. They wandered off to read the many Douglass quotes that decorate the walls. “A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people,” I quoted. “That’s my favorite.”
My daughter scanned the quotes. “That’s not on the wall,” she pointed out.
“I know. But do you know what he means? About the value of education? About the harm done to people when they lack access to learning?” Before I could launch into a lecture, one of the park rangers called us for our tour. My daughters rushed past me to meet the expert.
How can I be a teacher when I can’t even teach my own children?
As we climbed the steep steps to the Frederick Douglass House, a breeze blew at the top of Cedar Hill. The panorama emerged: the Capitol, the Potomac River and the Washington Monument. Douglass bought the mansion in then all-white Anacostia and claimed the best view in town for the 17 years he lived here. After escaping slavery in 1838, he spent his life writing and lecturing about justice and equality and enjoyed the access this house gave him to influencing D.C. and the abolitionist movement.
Cedar Hill is a testament to all that Douglass valued. As an author, he stacked his library and desk with diaries and books, including his Bible. Portraits of influential people are prominently displayed. Games and music wait to be enjoyed. Keepsakes from his many travels as an orator and public figure add another layer to his life’s story. On the tour, my kids mostly wanted to know about his kids. “Where are the toys?” Piper asked. The tour guide smiled. “His grandkids visited. Those rooms are locked on the third floor, but I’m sure there are toys there.”
“How come there are two wives’ bedrooms?” Isabelle wondered, looking over the ropes of the ladies’ rooms. Although he moved into the home with his first wife, Anna, the mother of his five children died in 1882. He then shared Cedar Hill with his second wife, Helen Pitts, his younger, white clerk. Isabelle raised her eyebrows. “What did his kids think of that?”
“Douglass’s family never approved of their interracial marriage, but he went on to live here happily until 1895,” the guide explained. Then she told the story of how Pitts rescued the home for preservation.
“That’s complicated,” Isabelle said. She’s right.
As a teacher, my job is to approach complicated subjects and to build critical-thinking skills in students that enable them to wrestle with contradictions. Many of my students know African American history only through the civil rights movement. They often don’t feel comfortable discussing race, inequality and prejudice, but literature like Douglass’s can begin the conversation. We have to be willing to have challenging conversations in our classroom and homes and humble enough to learn alongside our students and children.
And sometimes we have to let others, like tour guides, do the teaching. I struggle to give feedback on thesis statements on my daughters’ work, something I do every week in my college classroom. When my kids bring me an essay to proofread, they may well up in tears if I mention a missing comma. Uncle Peter, though, taught them how to ride bikes in less than five minutes on a family vacation. My husband had failed at the task for more than a year. As their mom, I have to wait for the questions rather than begin with answers. It’s difficult to teach my kids because even constructive critique threatens our bond. At home, I lack the luxury of professional distance.
“How come we’re the only white people on the tour?” my daughter asked as we exited Douglass’s kitchen. Her question reminded me of how often my first-year students claim they’ve never discussed race before, either in their classrooms or in their homes. It’s true even for minority students. Not talking about issues such as race can be a dangerous prejudice. Our quiet speaks loudly. According to Brigitte Vittrup, associate professor of child development at Texas Woman’s University, “silence about race removes the opportunity for children to learn about diversity from their parents and puts it in the hands of media and misinformed peers.”
As a parent and teacher, I understand. I’m scared to say the wrong things. Even good intentions can go wrong. But my daughter’s question handed me a teachable moment. She’s not racist for noticing skin color, and I’m not naive enough to believe that she’s colorblind. My daughters attend a public international baccalaureate school that we chose because of its diversity. Her classroom looks like a billboard for the United Nations. My comfort level with her question didn’t matter; my answer did. “Maybe more African Americans are interested in Douglass because they relate to his struggle. I think his message about freedom and abolition is vital, but I think it’s important for everyone to hear.”
After the Cedar Hill tour, of course, my daughters wanted to browse the gift shop. Isabelle chose postcards of Frederick Douglass to send to her grandpa. Piper bought a BrainQuest Black History question-and-answer pack. We sat on a shady bench in the visitor center garden and took turns reading. We were surprised by what we knew, and aware of how much more we need to know.
Teaching my own kids may sometimes be a challenge, but learning with them is often easy.
Melissa Scholes Young teaches writing at American University. She lives in Washington with her husband and children. Her first novel, Flood, is scheduled to be published in 2017. Find her at melissascholesyoung.com. She tweets @mscholesyoung.
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