Thursday, November 19, 2015

That Day I Met Ruby Bridges

It's not every day that I get to meet one of my heroes.
Back in September, the mother of one of my African American friends wrote on Facebook that Ruby Bridges would be coming to speak at BYU in November. I've loved learning about the Civil Rights movement ever since I read We Were There Too!: Young People in U.S. History back in eighth grade, which is also the year I started blogging about age. My first period was history and I got in early a lot, so I'd flip through the book to pass the time. It had over nine hundred pages and only eight of them mentioned a teenager or child. At the end of each chapter was what I called the "minority half page", where they'd mention what women or racial minorities had been doing during that particular span of history.
So I went to the library and found myself a better history book. I tracked down We Were There Too on my own, but I later realized my history teacher had a copy on his shelf, right next to a book about Ruby Bridges. When he found out I was interested in minority histories he offered to loan me the first and I took the second.                    
So I marked the date of Ruby's speech in my planner and for the next few months I ran around campus telling my white friends, "Guys! Ruby Bridges is coming in November!"
And then my white friends said, "Cool. Who's that?"
Lots of people know the story once you start talking but she doesn't have name recognition.
Fast forward to today, when my friend Edie and I stood in the Line of Doom outside the art museum to get wristbands. College tip: Just because all your friends on campus don't know who a speaker is doesn't mean every white parent of an adopted black child within a twenty mile radius doesn't know. It doesn't mean that every fifth grader who did a report on Ruby Bridges doesn't know. It doesn't matter that every black law school student who already met her in fourth grade doesn't know. And they'll camp out in front of the museum. So show up early.
I hadn't thought to bring homework, so we passed the time watching people in the crowd. Especially the kids. When I was little, I had a lot of "day friends"-kids I met at the park or pool and never saw again. I've started using the term again in college to describe people I meet for a half hour in the cafeteria. I watched day friends from every ethnicity climb fences and cartwheel across the grass. Kids don't judge, I thought. Anyone your size is a good friend.
Me and Edie waiting in the Line of Doom. And we're happy about it. 
Displaying IMG_2831.JPG
Displaying IMG_2831.JPG
Ruby talked a lot about friends. She was six years old when the NAACP asked her parents to let their child help integrate the first desegregated school of Louisiana. She was one of over one hundred and forty volunteers, but "the opposition", as she called them, insisted all the candidates take a test. Six girls, including Ruby, passed. They were split up. Three went to one elementary school and Ruby was supposed to have two friends, but their parents pulled them from the program out of fear.
Nobody really bothered to explain to a six year old what was going on. All her neighbors were strangely excited for her first day of class and kept saying "She passed the test!" So Ruby thought she'd tested out of twelve grades and was headed straight to college. That would explain why the building was so much bigger and nicer. And maybe it explained why she sat in class all alone with Mrs. Henry. She knew there were other children in the school (five of them, the rest had been pulled out) because she could smell food cooking in the cafeteria. It wasn't for her-she had to pack her own lunch in case of poison. Sometimes, if she stood in the coat closet, she could hear children's voices on the other side.
White students walking into Ruby's school. Images taken from her book Through My Eyes.
After many arguments with the principal, Mrs. Henry got permission to move the cabinet that blocked the coat closet's connecting door. Ruby stepped over to the other side. All the kids were white. She said. "It never crossed my mind what the kids would look like-I just wanted to make friends." She asked a boy if he would play with her. "My parents won't let me," he said. "Because you're a nigger."
At this point, a young white girl named Rebecca sitting on our row whispered, "Mom, what's 'nigger'?" Her mom explained. I'd asked Rebecca before the talk if she knew who Ruby Bridges was, and if she'd learned about her in school. I'd always thought Ruby Bridges was a Black History Month staple and every elementary school child should be able to name her alongside Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But apparently some of my college friends never learned about her or didn't remember. So I wanted to ask a kid. Rebecca said she'd learned about her "a little bit" in school but most of her knowledge came from a book.
Ruby has multiple books, but if it's the most popular one, the one I'm holding in my lap as I type, it contains that hateful word. And Rebecca stared at this Norman Rockwell painting for a solid hour before Ruby spoke.

But she'd skimmed over the word to read the story and looked past the graffiti to see the girl.
Ruby said she didn't blame the boy for his refusal. If her parents had told her not to play with a kid-Asian, Hispanic, mixed race, white-she would have obeyed. That's what kids do. That's the moment she finally realized she wasn't in college. That it was all about her. The angry mob chanting racist slogans and hoisting a coffin with a black baby doll didn't clue her in. A child did.
Protesters outside Ruby's school. I really hope that girl is smiling because there's a camera and not because her family has her holding a Klan cross. 
Ruby now travels and speaks to schools, from colleges like ours to elementary schools. She shared stories of all the children she's met, how the schools today have progressed so far, and one quote of hers stayed with me: "Racism is a grown up disease. Let's stop using our kids to spread it."
Tonight I got to shake her hand, get a book signed, babble about how she'd been one of my heroes since eighth grade, and then a museum official let me step behind the table to hug her.
It shouldn't fall to children to correct the errors of our parents. But it does. Children are the only ones of us who are truly unbiased. When I was nine, I went to a family reunion that was crashed by two black girls who lived near the park. The ate our food and played our games, so I thought I had two new cousins. More then half of the adopted kids in my neighborhood were black. Their race didn't clue me in. My mom had to explain they weren't related.
Ruby wasn't the first child to desegregate a school. She wasn't the only one in her city. But she stands as a symbol of a generation and a movement. It's partly because of her perseverance that Edie and I can go to the same school.
Childhood is the best time to learn anything, including racial tolerance. Not just to be taught but to learn. A white fifth grade girl in the row behind me said that like Rebecca, she'd learned a little bit about Ruby in school, then she'd gone and read all her books. In her talk Ruby described a school visit where she met a girl who hadn't learned the term "biggest fan" yet. "I've been your very best friend since I met you on the book", she told her.
I think adults have a responsibility to educate the rising generation. But adults have a responsibility to do many things for children, and topics fall aside. Even if you cover racial tolerance you'll be missing something else. I believe we're also responsible for our own education. Your teen years and college years are just as good of a time to find heroes. If I hadn't hit up the library for a more inclusive history book in eighth grade, I wouldn't have become passionate about teen and minority history. I wouldn't be blogging about it today. Ruby Bridges wouldn't have signed my book today.
But she did, and I plan on using it to teach my children.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Nineteen and Counting

Note: Post written on November 10th but not published until the following day, because complications.

It's here.
Nineteen is never a number I looked forward too. I knew I'd have high school years, and they'd end at eighteen, and after that would come my twenties. Now I just look at this number and think, "What am I supposed to do with you?" The more I think about it, the more I'm sure I'd rather stay eighteen for the rest of my life. The last year has been rough socially and emotionally, but I like the number. I like the technicalities of being an adult while still having one foot in the teen world. After eighteen there's really nothing to shoot for. Maybe I'll just be transaged.
"Ma'am, how old are you?" "I'm a transaged individual identifying as eighteen." "Uh huh, cause you look eighty four."
Birthdays hit me hard. I haven't wanted one since fifteen because for some reason I saw sixteen as the great dividing number. I keep thinking I'll stop celebrating them as a sign of personal protest, but I keep doing it as an excuse to gather my friends together. My school friends in high school were pathetic layabouts and my birthday was one of the few times a year I could get them to plan a social activity. But I've got a better crowd now. That's one of the things I love about college. Everyone's always looking for a party. Just spread the word and offer food.
Which is fabulous if you're capable of eating food. I made grand plans to take my friends out for Indian food, and later invite dozens of people for brownies, but my stomach had other ideas. In addition to all this stuff:

My roommates gave me stomach flu. Diagnosis pending, but I'm pretty sure I have what they had.
So for the first time in nineteen years I am sick on my birthday.
One of my friends put "Wish Erica Smith a happy birthday" signs all around the building. Which is pretty useful when the chocolate pineapple delivery guy wants to know where you live. I've got so much junk food strewn about my room and all I can put in my body is ginger ale and crackers. Other than answering the door, I've spent my entire evening laying in bed, watching either TV or the backs of my eyelids.
Nineteen isn't a threshold birthday like eighteen. I'm a non smoker so there's nothing for me to do. The only other threshold I'm aware of for nineteen is it's the minimum age for a girl to be an LDS missionary. My first friend has already left and I've got a few more on the way. But I don't plan on leaving until after winter semester so I've got time to kill. Girls serve for eighteen months, and with my timing, I'll miss two birthdays. Mother's Day and Christmas are the only holidays where we get to call/skype home. 70% of missions are served outside the US, so this is definitely the last birthday I'll get to talk with my family and quite possibly the last one I spend in the country for the next three years.
And I spent it sleeping and vomiting.
That, combined with the fact that I was having another birthday in the first place, put me in a bad mood. I broke down crying while listening to 100 Years to Live, one of the age progression songs I grew obsessed with my sixteenth year. 
But today also reminded me why we have birthdays. Not to celebrate being "ex-bodymates with your mom", as one of my well wishers put it, but to celebrate being alive in a world of other people. So many people came through for me today. My only healthy roommate gave me a hug and let me cry on her shoulder, my extended family called me up, and, thanks to the advertisements, I had complete strangers walking up to me and wishing me a happy birthday.
I'm a big believer in our best days being the "up and down" ones. Maybe today wasn't the party I wanted, maybe I won't get a good, traditional birthday until I'm twenty two, but I had friends today. And I'm grateful for that.
Now for the question I ponder with as every chronological and school year comes to a close. Am I still young, and how long will I keep up my blog? Right now the answers are yes and yes. Nineteen is still a teenager. I'm still passionate about youth and fiery when it comes to ageism. so until I'm shipped off to Tennessee or Thailand for my mission, you'll keep hearing from me.
And at that point I'll probably start a mission blog because writing is a really hard habit to break.
Here's to one more year.

Also, last year on my birthday I blogged about my Growing Up Girl dolls. My grandma started giving them to me consistently at age five, so for the last few years, she's been filling in the years she missed. Here's the complete set.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Gianna Jessen: Teen Abortion Survivor

In the wake of the Planned Parenthood expose videos, I've been doing a lot of research on abortion. I've consulted both pro life and pro choice sources, not because I think it's important to balance out opinions, but so I can get all the facts. Pro life sources tell me the stories pro choicers won't. But pro lifers focus on the morality of the issue and I need to know the medical details. So I consulted Planned Parenthood, health sites, and testimonies of maternal abortion survivors for that.

I also discovered another kind of abortion survivor and read her biography. Gianna Jessen's birth mother, Tina, became pregnant at seventeen. She knew about the pregnancy early on and planned on carrying her full term. But at an appointment with Planned Parenthood, Tina was told she shouldn't try to raise a baby while living her mother, who was on welfare, and she didn't have the means to support herself. This was seven and a half months into her pregnancy. For perspective, I was born at eight. Her local Planned Parenthood wouldn't perform an abortion that late in the game, so they referred her to a clinic that could.
It has a haphazard, chop shop kind of place. After injecting a saline solution into Tina's womb, which was intended to choke and burn Gianna, the doctor went home. The nurse on duty fell asleep at her desk. When Tina came to fetch her after her water broke, she said "Okay" and put her head back on her pillow. So on April 5, 1977, Tina delivered her child alone.
Gianna during a recent congressional heading and an image of a saline birth used as a visual aide

Gianna's body should've been charred and mottled by the saline at this point. But by some miracle, she not only lived, but did so with minimal scarring. She does have cerebral palsy as a result of the solution cutting off oxygen to her brain. But it's less severe than many cases. After intense physical therapy and several surgeries, Gianna can walk unaided and played softball in her early teens. She stopped because at age fourteen, she began traveling the country, speaking and singing at benefit dinners, rallies, and debates.
Gianna performing at a Right to Life rally at age sixteen
At first she preached to the choir. What prolife organization wouldn't want a living, breathing witness standing in front of them? But before a year passed she accepted calls to speak on panels where she stood alone. She endured ridicule, booing, bullying, media skepticism, and was arrested multiple times for peacefully protesting at clinics around the country. As a teenager she was accused of being her adoptive mother's prop, although she usually spoke and performed alone, and her mother was accused of exploiting her for the prolife cause. In fact, Diana DePaul traveled around giving prolife talks before she ever adopted Gianna, and her daughter didn't know her birth story until age twelve. Diana's own activism gave her an idea of what Gianna might face some day. She encouraged her to adopt her stage name (Jessen) in middle school to keep her personal separate and avoid harassment. It hasn't worked, I follow her on twitter and see her fending off people who wish her dead daily. I've received such a retort myself when I sent an ill-worded tweet that made it sound like I didn't think she had a right to live.
I do. I've known for a while that babies have survived abortions. At fourteen I heard the story of Ana Rosa  Rodriguez, who made it out of the womb mostly intact, in casual conversations with a girl who'd recently graduated high school.

When I began researching abortion, I kept running into stories about Ana, Gianna, and a handful of other prominent survivors. I saw the same names so often I thought they were the only ones in existence. But after reading Gianna's story, I learned there's an Abortion Survivors Network that serves an estimated 44,000 former aborted babies living in the United States. A tiny handful, like Gianna, have made abortion their crusade and travel the world sharing their stories. Most are hair stylists and lawyers and homemakers and teachers quietly living their lives.
Many have disabilities and medical issues caused by the abortions. And many do not. A good number of survivors are twins. If you want to survive an abortion, it helps to have a brother or sister sitting in front of you.
Abortions done as late as Gianna's are generally frowned upon. I've only found one clinic in the country that advertises procedures past twenty six weeks. But under Roe v Wade, states can't forbid a woman from an abortion at any point in her pregnancy if she decides it's problematic to her health. So what's health? According to Doe v Bolton, a Supreme Court companion case decided the same day as Roe, health includes "all factors-physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman's age."
If I found myself pregnant several months from now, I could justify an abortion just because I'm unmarried and think I'm young. No actual health problems required.
I've been blogging about ageism since eighth grade, almost five years now. In all that time, I can't think of a single topic I've covered that showcases more blatant prejudice and discrimination. Abortion is the ultimate example of ageism. At no other time in an American citizen's life can the fourteenth amendment consider you a nonperson. At no other time will your age matter so much that the laws dice it down to weeks. At no other time is your status as a minor such a strike against you.
I can understand the pro choice mindset. I'm not entirely sure when a lost pregnancy is the death of a soul. But even if you don't believe life begins until some certain moment, you can't deny that Gianna is alive and human today. You can't deny that she wouldn't have been so if the saline succeeded. Isn't abortion murder because it cuts off a life that would and could have been?
There are more abortion survivors living today than we care to admit. But not all them get the chance to live. ANS founder Melissa Ohden, who testified with Gianna before the House of Representatives, spoke on how she could've been drowned in a bucket of formaldehyde. But she didn't. And no matter how inconvenient her existence may be to pro choicers, she's here today.

Gianna: Aborted, And Lived to Tell About It, was first published in 1995, and she was seventeen at the time it was written. Beyond a few chapters dealing with her birth and adoption, it's entirely focused on her activism as a teenager. I was the same age as Gianna when I started caring about world issues in general and ageism in particular. But while I simply turned to blogging she became an activist. I'm glad that the world has teenagers strong, determined, and passionate enough to make a difference in the world.
Especially when they're fighting for fellow children.