Booksmart

By: Ted Peterson

Mikey gets two books at bedtime, but finds time to read all day long.

Youtube, like Wikipedia, IMDB, and other vast databases disguised as websites, sucked me in the other day with a series of legendary music videos, movie moments, and TV commercials. A new modern classic I had almost forgotten is the Yes on Proposition 8 one from 2008, where the child comes home with a book called “King and King,” and tells her mom, “Guess what I learned in school today? I can marry a princess!”

The mother gives the same expression moms have been giving in commercials since the 1950s when faced with the horror of dish pan hands, ring around the collar, and that not so fresh feeling. The mother evidently believes that her elementary school-age daughter is on a one way road to Lesbotown because Proposition 8 failing = gay marriage becoming possible in California = school kids learning about there being different kinds of families = some kids who are little same-sex-oriented deciding to go for it. And that’s a bad thing, because it would be preferable for her daughter, if she indeed had gay tendencies, to stifle her feelings for Snow White, and see if she can make a loveless life with the Huntsman work. In that lesson taught for decades, it’s better to be unhappy than gay.

The variation on this commercial’s message is that some folks objected to homosexuality “being taught” in schools at all. In editorial after editorial, from then and now, you can read about parents objecting to this, as if homosexuality were in itself a field of study with films, text assignments, and lab work. The fear is real enough, I believe they believe it, even though to my mind, that makes them quite clearly stupid.

Teachers have a tough time in schools, dealing with parents and their strange beliefs. I understand from Mikey’s preschool teacher that one child several years ago shared with his or her classmates, “My mom says that the world is going to come to an end in 2012.”

As a teacher, you’re supposed to respect different religions and belief systems, but sometimes, you gotta say, like Mikey’s teacher did, “That’s not what we think here.”

The truth of the matter is that there’s a reason why everyone who has the best interest of tolerance for gays at heart encourages people to come out of the closet. It’s harder to hate and fear The Other if you have a gay or lesbian as a friend, family member, or neighbor. Mikey’s friends at school know that he has two fathers because we drop him off at school every day together as a family. They know which one of us is called “Daddy” and which one is called “Papa,” and they discuss it with their parents. If it were true that they were being “taught homosexuality” by our very existence, they would pass the subject with all A’s, since they recognize that there are at least two grown-up men they know who, like their own moms and dads, love each other so much, they have enough love to share with their child.

I do have a little bit of sympathy for the parents who wish to shelter their kids, at least for a little while, from the facts of real life that they might not fully embrace themselves. Because people know that Mikey loves books, we get boxes of books from friends whose kids have outgrown them, and subjects of some of the books are, let’s just say, not always what I would have chosen. I want Mikey to know the Bible, even though we’re not religious. It’s right up there with Shakespeare and Greek Mythology as the foundation of all western literature. I’m not crazy about the fact that he’s already been given some books with pretty heavy religious overtones, but so far he’s taken it as the same fantastical fiction as talking animals, pet dragons, flying lost boys, and small men who tirelessly stalk you to urge you to eat green eggs and ham.

Mikey’s favorite book right now combines a bit of fanciful religiosity with a theme which we fortunately haven’t had to face yet – death, and specifically, the death of a pet. It’s obviously the sort of book good Christian families give their kids while they’re grieving from such a loss, and it’s titled, “Angel Cat.”

Our not-dead cat Floyd is no one's idea of an angel.

The good Christian family in the book has a pair of cats with oddly Taoist names, Yang and Yin. Yin, perhaps fuzzled by her dark cosmic feminine energy, doesn’t look both ways crossing the street, and we see in the distance the blurred shape of a car heading right for her. Silly cat. The next page, we see the big maple tree where they’ve buried her, and the kids ask the parents where the cat is. Obviously, the parents could point towards the lump of earth on the lawn quite plainly visible in the illustration, but instead they say, “In heaven.”

The kids then ask whether she’s an angel. The parents agree she is.

It’s not really clear yet whether the parents believe this or not. It’s a bit of unorthodox scriptural reading to say so, but we are told that the kids in the book, Gillian and Matthew, felt better by being told this. Far better to assure the kids that that’s the way the universe operates, the book seems to be arguing, that to either say, “I don’t think so” or even “No one knows, but I hope so.”

I always pause at that moment in reading to consider this, the analgesic advantage that religion offers to children at these moments, but Mikey encourages me to keep reading.

The story moves on to winter, and – spoiler alert – describes how Yin, as an angel cat complete with wings, sees a spark from the fireplace set fire to the downstairs rug, and flies upstairs to wake up and rescue the family. Actually, only the little boy sees the angel cat, and when he later tells them that angel cat woke him up so he could wake up the rest of the family, they react with laughter and skepticism. Evidently, the family’s belief in the divinity of the souls of domesticated animals was just a very thin white lie.

We’ve been reading this book for a couple weeks now as part of our regular rotation, and Mikey loves it enough that several nights, like tonight, when I couldn’t find it on the bookshelves and tried to substitute another beloved book for it, my son wasn’t having any of it. Fortunately, we found it. As I was reading it tonight, once again, the religious aspect gnawed at me, and I began to feel like the mom in the commercial, faced with her daughter loving the book, “King and King.” What was it about this book that was filling a void in Mikey’s soul? What were we postmodern, alternative parents out here in the wacky West Coast not supplying? Could we start with Unitarian Universalists and work our way?

Finally, I asked him, “Why do you like the book so much? Is it the cat? Do you like that she has wings, and that she became an angel when she died?”

“Hold on,” Mikey said. He flipped some pages back until he found the page he wanted. “I like the snow.”

That was it. Our son who has only lived in southern California loves this book because it’s the only one with snow.

I wonder what anti-gay-marriage parents would learn from their kids if they actually asked and listened themselves. It might just be that they like the snow.

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Comments

  1. says

    So funny that all this time you were having these heavy conversations with yourself when all Mikey wanted to see snow. Take him to the mountains so he can see it really before it melts away and you have to wait until next winter. I love that you asked the question and got a great answer. So much for depth. I think if you ask you will find what they really want to know and it clearly is not as heavy as you imagined.

  2. says

    Thanks! Today, I was filling up my car and Mikey was in the backseat. He saw Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology, which is Mobil’s symbol, and yelled, “Look! It’s Angel Cat!”

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