Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Letter to the Parents of Trayvon Martin

Dear Tracy and Sybrina,
I have never met you, and I probably never will.  My name is Leia Johnson, and I am married to a man named Scott.  We have two sons, ages six and three, named Will and Ben.
I read the story about your son, Trayvon, about one week before the national media began covering the story.  I can’t even tell you how I stumbled onto the story, but I read it several times through before shutting down my computer to go to bed.  With each reading, I kept searching for the details I missed--surely there had to be more to the story--and as I realized the truth of the story, that a child was murdered and the man who murdered him was still walking the streets, my gut started to churn.
I lay awake for nearly two hours, sorting through the details in my mind and getting angrier by the second.  
I cried.
And I prayed for you.  The article didn’t mention Trayvon’s parents, but I prayed for you anyway because I knew you had to exist, that you had to be somewhere in FL, mourning this monumental loss.  The first time I saw you, Tracy, in an interview, I cried again because there you were on my TV screen confirming that there was a human being experiencing the torture of losing a child.  As the story began to slowly unfold on the internet and TV, my feelings intensified, and I, along with the millions of Americans who have now become invested in your son’s story, waited to hear that justice was being carried out.
But it hasn’t been.
I was raised in OK by parents who taught me to love and accept all people.  When I was a child, racism was an abstract concept to me, something that I truly believed was mostly part of our history.  As I got older, I was more aware of an ingrained, covert racism that exists among educated people.  It took the form of racist jokes told in whispers.  I saw the shock that registered on some people’s faces when we talked about traveling to certain parts of town.  It is a kind of racism that feeds off unfair stereotypes, that relies on ignorance as a reliable source for justified assumption.  It is a polite and deeply dangerous racism.
My husband began his active duty Air Force career in 2003, and our first assignment out of pilot training was to Charleston, SC.  For the first time in my life, I saw obvious, ugly, overt racism.  And I was shocked.  
In one instance, while we were test-driving new cars, the salesman told my husband that a store we passed along the way was owned by niggers.  He said the word just as easily as if he was telling us the sky was blue, and the implication was that we should avoid shopping there because the store was inferior to white-owned stores.  This happened in 2005.
One morning in a Sunday school class at our church a couple of years later, I was part of a conversation with an older, educated woman who had lived her entire life in the south.  She made a point to say that the Bible actually never says slavery is wrong.  I was so appalled I didn’t even know how to respond.  I was shocked into silence, and it has haunted me ever since.
In reading the news reports each day about Trayvon, I have seen these mindless debates suggesting that this was not a race-based hate crime.  My life experience says otherwise.  George Zimmerman, your son’s murderer, was a disturbed individual.  The evidence of his 911 calls and erratic behavior point to a mental imbalance, but the fact that he shot a gun at an unarmed child speaks to the racism that I believe was ingrained in his psychology.  I also believe that he would have shot your son whether he was black or not because he was clearly unstable.

Several of my cousins serve in law enforcement in different states.  My best friend’s husband is a police officer.  I have the deepest respect for the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way daily, but there is this sense that if we question the police or disparage them in any way, we are being disrespectful.  This case has been so poorly handled by the police involved, it is almost impossible to believe the facts are true.  The police officers in this case have made monumental mistakes, and this is where Trayvon's race plays a huge role in my mind, and they need to be held accountable.  It is not disrespectful to speak the truth.  The mishandling borders on absurdity.  A friend of mine commented in regards to the police work that we are “not asking for a guilty verdict, just the chance for our justice system to run its any family deserves.”  So far, justice has not been served--sadly, it hasn’t even been attempted.
The Air Force moved us to Olympia, WA this year, and my sons, Will and Ben, wear hoodies every day because we have a lot of rain.  We have a jar on our kitchen counter of Skittles.  It’s what I reward them with when I “catch them being kind” to one another or for a special treat when we have family movie night.  After living the majority of their short lives thus far in the south, they are both fans of sweet tea.  Not a day has passed since I first learned about Trayvon’s death that I haven’t seen him in the faces of my children.
There is a difference, though.  The statistics tell me that my sons are more likely to go to college.  They are more likely to run corporations or become influential politicians.  They are less likely to go to prison.  How did my children come out on the right side of these statistics?  By being born white. 
Unfortunately, if justice is not pursued in this case, your son, Trayvon, will be a statistic.

Let me take a moment to apologize.  I am sorry that your son was murdered.  I am sorry that you have not been treated with the respect you deserve by law enforcement.  I am sorry that some people have chosen to use your son as a sensational story.

I am sorry.
I read one article in the New York Post, in which, you, Sybrina, were quoted as saying, “I’m not strong.  I’m a mother.”  And I will not be one of those people who tell you to be strong.  I am a mother, a good one like you, and I believe it would be completely acceptable for you to fall apart.  If there has ever been a time when people would understand any level of kicking and screaming and loss of control and weakness, it is now.
Know this, though: I believe that for every racist or simply insensitive person who is trying to turn your son’s death into a forgotten news story or excuse to spark debate on Facebook, there is a person who is thinking about your son and praying for your family.  Let us be strong for you.  Rely on us to be your strength in this time when no reasonable person would expect you to be strong.
There is a collective rage that is spreading like wildfire.  As more and more people hear the story, more and more people are motivated to see justice.  More and more people are staging rallies and signing petitions.  We are taking on your cause in the best ways we know how.  
We will never meet you, but we are here for you.  Because we, the mothers and fathers of America, recognize how you have been wronged by another human being and by a failing justice system.  We are not okay with this.  Despite what it feels like, as you are still waiting for justice after your son’s death, we are trying to make this right.

Much love to you,
Leia Johnson

(Dear readers, if you have not yet done so, please click the link included in this article and consider signing THIS PETITION.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What to Expect: Kindergarten Logic

The boys and I ran to the commissary today for a few things.  As we approached the check-out, Ben asked for some M&Ms.  I told him no, and that was the end of it.  Will asked for some jelly beans.  I said no.

That was not the end of it.

He started with a tiny “please?”  That was followed by a louder “pleeeeease?”  When I said no again, he said (a little too loudly for my taste), “BUT I SAID PLEASE.”

At that point, I leaned into the cart, cupped his cherubic face in my hands and calmly said, “Will, I said no.  That is the final answer.  There’s no reason to add anything else to this conversation.”

After paying, I wheeled the cart around to leave the building, and Will did his best impression of the most spoiled child on the face of the planet.  He crossed his arms over his chest and growled--like a deep belly growl, something akin to the noise that the wolf, Gmork, makes when he is about to attack Bastian in Neverending Story.  The check-out lady laughed and nearly sang, “Whoo-hoo!  That one is mad!”  Several of the baggers waiting their turn laughed among themselves, as Will’s scowl threatened to connect his brow to his top lip.

At the car, I loaded Ben and my purse into the car as the bagger loaded the groceries in the back.  When I returned to the cart to help Will out, he had tears--TEARS!--streaming down his face.  I put Will on the ground, so he could get in the car and gave the bagger her tip.

When I turned around, he was still standing outside the car.  I said, “Come on, buddy.  Let’s get in the car!”

He fixed his gaze on my face and said, “I’m. Not. Getting. In. The. Car.”  Very slowly.  Very calmly.

I walked around him and opened my door, saying, “Then, I don’t know how you’re going to get home.”

Stomping the three feet to the car and screamcrying, he said, “FINE!  BUT I’M NOT PUTTING ON MY SEATBELT!”

These are the moments--the moments when my six-year-old is screaming at me in a public parking lot--when I enact a code RED strategy:
  • Remember I am the adult.
  • Empathize with my child’s true needs.
  • Don’t strangle my child.
After a breath and a mental pep talk (I am the parent.  I am the parent.  I am the parent.), I responded calmly, “That doesn’t sound like a very safe idea.”

My response was met with this: “FINE!  I WILL PUT MY SEATBELT ON!”

As we drove home, Will continued to screamcry off and on for about one minute before I pulled the car over to the side of the road.  From the rearview mirror, we locked eyes, and I spoke firmly.  “Will, if you would like to have a normal conversation in a normal voice about this, I am more than willing to listen, but I WILL NOT listen to you fake cry.  You are not communicating anything with me by crying.  You are six years old.  Not a baby.  When you are ready to talk to me like a six-year-old, I am ready to listen.”

This is what I know about my children: 1) When I inform them of their boundaries, they stop acting like idiots more quickly, and 2) When I am clear about my expectations, they live up to them.  Every single time.  (This is what I know about myself: 1)  I have the ability to create appropriate boundaries, and 2) I have the ability to create fair expectations.  Because that’s what a good parent does.)

I didn’t hear another peep out of Will for about ten minutes.  Part of me wanted to re-engage, to push him to respond.  But the part of me that is most like him knew that the best thing I could do was let him reconcile this on his own time.  I knew he probably had some feelings he needed to express, and he definitely needed to apologize for his behavior.  But he didn’t need to be forced into it.  So I waited.

Ten minutes later, he started (as if only seconds had passed since I last spoke), “It’s just that we did a shopping trip, and we didn’t stop even once to look at the cool things.  We just got food and more food and no fun food.”


“And I didn’t even get a candy or toy.”


“And I just wanted to look at some cool things and get a candy or toy.”

“So, were you frustrated and disappointed?”

“Yes.  And sad.”

“I get that.  Were you also mad?”

“Yes. Really mad because you said no.”

“I get that, too.  Do you want to know how I was feeling?”





“You were sad and mad.”

“You’re exactly right, buddy.  Why do you think I was sad and mad?”

“Because I was yelling.”

Kids are so, so very smart when we let them be.  I went on to talk to him about the fact that sometimes when we go to the store, we get something we want, and sometimes we don’t.  We talked about accepting mommy’s answer the first time.  We talked about the fact that we bought strawberries and cookie dough, two things that we love, so in the end, we DID get something we liked, even if we didn’t think we did in the beginning.

When I thought the conversation was nearing its end, I said, “How about when we get home, we put away the groceries, and we can play a little Wii or jump on the trampoline?”

Will wouldn’t meet my eye in the mirror.  He said, “I’m still a little mad.”

When we got home, Will asked for some white paper.  He found a red pen and started working on his:
Book of Rules
I was informed that I am the “unfairest mom in the entire world and universe and even Mars probably.”  At first, he had plans for twenty rules, but this is what he came up with:
  1. 2 candy
  2. 2 sweat driks
  3. 2 ho video games
  4. en chiyld 2 toys
  5. a sweat and a book
  6. no shcool
  7. wh you want on your br
Here’s the funny thing.  These rules are only slightly different than the rules we already have.  
  1. Everyone is allowed two pieces of candy or sweet treats per day in our house.  You can have it at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or somewhere in between, but once you’ve had two, that’s it.
  2. We can only have ONE sweet drink, but it was a nice try.  There are certainly days when I could use an extra glass of wine Coke.  
  3. We are allowed ONE hour of video games, but we’re lenient on this one if we’re all playing together.
  4. Will explained to me that he decided to use some “aburviations” with some of the bigger words (which tells me he’s been paying attention in our geography lessons!).  So, this one is a rule for the adults in our house.  We are to enjoy two toys with each child every day.  Pretty good addition to the house rules if you ask me.
  5. We frequent bookstores, and the rule has always been that you can have a sweet thing OR a book.  Not both.  I had to shoot that one down and explain (for the umpteenth time this week at least) that he is always welcome to pay for the other thing out of his allowance.  The thing that I buy for him is a privilege because I don’t have to do it.  I just do it because I am, in fact, a very nice mom, probably one of the nicest this side of Mars.
  6. When Will was three, he told me he wasn’t going to college.  He was just going to be a Daddy and get married.  His attitude has changed over time as we have impressed on him the importance of education.  The kicker was when he found out he couldn’t be a space ranger without going to college.  He’s six.  We’ve got time to work on this.  I told him it wasn’t possible to have “no shcool,” but that I would compromise.  We could have “no shcool” all week and the week after that while we have relatives in town.  He thought that sounded like a great idea (which works out for me because that just so happens to be when I wrote in “spring break” for our homeschool lesson plans).
  7. Whatever you want on your birthday (more aburviations).  Absolutely.  I think this should actually be made into federal law.
At one point in discussing our book of rules, I had objected to the “two sweat driks” a day rule based on the fact that it’s important to our family to be healthy, and that would not be healthy, and Will said, “I should just throw this in the trash!  You’re never going to live by these rules!” (Complete with a very dramatic throw of the hand in the air, followed by placement on the forehead, head shaking.)
I put down the cheddar cheese I was about to put in the fridge, sat on the floor in front of him, and cupped his cherubic face in my hands.  “Absolutely not!  We will NOT throw these rules in the trash.  We are going to finish talking about them.  We are going to come to a compromise.  You know why?”


“Because that’s not just a piece of paper.  Those are your thoughts and feelings on that page, and I am never going to throw your thoughts and feelings in the trash!  You have good thoughts and feelings, and even if my thoughts and feelings are different than yours, yours are never, ever trash.”

We finished talking about our rules, and when he asked for a snack, I suggested some milk and Oreos.  After all, he had already had a sweat drik at lunch, but he still had one candy left for the day.