There are many powerful images from the recent Baltimore race riots that left an impression on me. But none more so than the mother who flew into an angry mob of stone-wielding, police-hating students and dragged her son out of the melee, pelting him with her open hand and shouting obscenities along the way.
There’s been a lot written and discussed about Toya Graham, the 39-year-old single mother of six children. Most people have commended Graham for her courage and commitment to disciplining her child. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said he wished there were more mothers in Baltimore who took charge of their children. Conservatives lauded her as a parenting role model. She has been called a hero and “mother-of-the-year.”
But all these people missed the point.
Toya Graham wasn’t trying to discipline her son. She was trying to save him.
In the moment when Toya Graham saw her son walking toward the police—stone in hand, black hoodie pulled up to half cover his face—she knew that she was the only thing that stood between her son’s life and the fate of Freddie Gray, the man who died in the custody of Baltimore police. She wasn’t thinking about her favorite go-to discipline strategies or the latest parenting techniques. She was fighting for the future, maybe even the life, of her much-loved son.
This is why I like Toya Graham. She fights for her children. No excuses. No reservations. No mercy. America’s children need more parents like Toya Graham. Not because she disciplines her children, but because she loves them enough to fight for them. There’s a difference.
Discipline suggests order, purpose, and restraint. Most of the time, children need discipline. But, occasionally, when times are really tough and desired outcomes critical, children don’t need your discipline. They need you to fight for them.
In America, parents, even good ones, don’t always fight for their children. We persuade, cajole, beg, and nag. Facing the worst of situations for our children, we argue for better circumstances and work the system on their behalf. We are civilized and patient.
Wonder if we “went in swinging” instead? Maybe not literally, but with so much indignation and fervor that we turned every head in the room, including those of our children and the people who control their lives. Wonder if we really fought to make our children’s lives better?
If we did, I think parents could change the world. Instead of developing parenting strategies for a broken system, we could change the system.
The biggest, “baddest” system that needs changing in America is its schools. They are failing in every way. Parents send their children to school for 12+ years to be “educated” and the results are woefully inadequate. And it’s not just the academics. We don’t like the atmosphere, the standards, or the values. We don’t like the lack of choices, the stringent rules, and the institutionalism. We don’t like the high-stakes testing and the incessant homework. We don’t like the bullies, the drugs, and the violence. We don’t like the dress code, or the honor code, or the social code.
But where’s the indignation? Where’s the fight? Shouldn’t we be a lot more upset about the state of America’s schools than what we are?
I have this “what if” dream I like to revisit from time to time related to my oldest son’s experience in public school. It’s a fantasy, really, a dream where I say all the things I should have said and wanted to say (but declined to say) to my son’s teachers when he was struggling with severe anxiety and health issues in school.
Here’s the dream: When my son’s public school teacher assigns him one more piece of irrelevant homework or makes one more ridiculous demand of his time (like missing recess because he dared to stir two foods together on his lunch plate), I say, “no.”
That’s all. “No.”
How come nobody ever says “no” to a school? As a school parent, I never said “no” to a school. As a school teacher, no parent ever said “no” to me. Does anybody even care?
Schools are the place where our children live the majority of their waking lives for the majority of their childhoods. Shouldn’t we be fighting to make them better? Shouldn’t we question more, refuse more, expect more, demand more? Shouldn’t we at least say “no” once in awhile?
I have another dream. In this dream, it’s not just me, but it’s a whole column of angry mothers saying “no” to the schools. All of us look like Toya Graham. We may not be swinging our fists and shouting obscenities, but we are acting with such determination and urgency that the whole world pauses to watch and listen.
If we want to change our schools and save our children, we need to fight like Toya Graham fought for her son on the streets of Baltimore last month.
Until next time…Be fearless.