Caught Off-Guard

7

December 2, 2007 by multiracialsky

I took Jaja, Rico, and Gretel to a children’s play. I knew little about it, just that our babysitter was helping out backstage. We sat in the center of one of the front rows. As the lights dimmed, I glanced at the program Jaja was holding and noticed more than half the cast was listed under the title ‘Orphans’. I shifted in my seat, took a better look at the program, and found no additional information about the storyline. The play was titled ‘The Christmas Bus’. I mentally kicked myself for not researching the play more (at least looking it up online) before we agreed to attend.

The play began, and my heart started to pound. There was an orphanage (in the U.S.) full of orphans. The orphans were described–repeatedly–as ‘hooligans’, and the point was driven home that the orphans were both messy and out of control. The fictional town was named ‘Peaceful Valley’ but it was not actually peaceful because of the orphanage and the orphans (the orphanage is continually referred to as ‘a madhouse’). It is said the town sheriff spends the majority of his time ‘dealing’ with the orphans. Loud, dirty, and in trouble with the law; we were not off to a good start.

I realized I was going to have to vacate our front row seats when they began to ‘introduce’ the orphans, and we met (in a casual, off-handed, semi-comical manner) the teenager who had arrived as a baby, but no family had ever wanted him, and then the child who carried a potted plant around with him all the time because there had been a fire in his family home and the plant was the only thing (besides him) that had lived. My kids weren’t phased (they were more concerned with how much make-up the young actors were wearing) but I was about to cry.

I went to the play, leaving wiggly and noisy Teri at home with Dad, hoping to have a relaxing time with my older kids. I was looking to get away from the intensity of the past ten days, all of which have included thoughts and tears and endless discussions about older child adoption. The relaxing evening was not to be.

I started a post a month ago entitled ‘Haven’t Gone There Yet’ about a major subject we haven’t broached with the kids. You guessed it–the subject was orphans and orphanages. We’ve managed to avoid Annie, although the kids have seen the animated versions of Oliver and the original Rescuers. (Really–what is it with Hollywood and orphaned kids?)

In a back row, I regrouped, and then at the first break explained to my kids what an orphan was in the context of this play: a child who is not living with their birthparents–some of them because their birthparents have died–and who also does not have adoptive parents. The orphanage is the place where orphans live, with adults who take care of them, but these adults are not their parents. I clarified that there are no longer orphanages in the United States, but that there are still orphanages in other countries. I added that in the United States, kids who cannot live with their birthfamilies (and have not been adopted) live with foster parents. We have talked about foster families before. I had maybe 30 seconds to come up with and deliver these important facts, and it went okay under the circumstances. I would have liked a bit more time.

The play, unfortunately, did not get better. The town’s people looked down on the orphans and their care provider, viewing them only as a problem. The orphans talked about all the foster families they had been ‘through’ (they each counted off how many they had been in), how as a foster child you just knew you didn’t belong, and things foster families dislike. One actor actually said, “They don’t like it when you wet the bed.”

The focus of the play was the orphanage director’s idea to farm each of the kids out to a different town family for Christmas Eve dinner, an overnight stay, and presents. (We never met any member of the receiving town families.) Then the next day, the kids all returned to the orphanage. There was a side character who suddenly at the end of the play became wealthy and decided to give each of the orphans a college education (and we heard what each of the main-character orphans goes on to be/do). One of the narrated ending lines was that each of the college-educated orphans goes on to be ‘a productive member of society’.

I found myself at an almost total loss for words trying to answer my kid’s questions on the brief car-ride home. Why, they wanted to know, were the town’s people mean to the kids (the orphans)? Why did people call them names?

How do you explain to children that some people (erroneously) believe that kids/people who are separated from their birthparents (through death or adoptive placement) are less valuable than people who grow up in their birthfamilies? How do you say to any child (especially your own child) that some people will think there must be something inherently wrong with them because their birthfamily was not able to raise them? This is a totally foreign concept to my kids. It is a totally foreign concept to me.

Then Gretel got hung-up on kids who don’t have parents. “No Mommy and no Daddy?” she kept saying. She understood that the children we saw tonight–the actors–all have parents here in our town. But the idea that there are real children out there who do not have a family . . . Rico put his sister’s crumpled face into words, “That makes me very sad,” he said. “Me too,” I replied.

We also talked about some of the kids’ friends who were adopted internationally who did live in orphanages before they joined their adoptive parents.

During intermission we ran into friends who told me there are several adopted kids in the cast, at least one who came through foster care and another through international adoption. My first thought was, Are their parents clueless? Or maybe they didn’t know the scope of the whole play because their kid just sings Christmas carols in the chorus–and the parents were as surprised as I was when they came to opening night? Or the parents think orphans as entertainment–regardless of their own child’s experience–is par for the (American) course?

I do not find anything amusing or entertaining about orphans. As my partner sarcastically said, “You don’t see the humor in a kid’s birthfamily burning up in a house fire?” (The orphan with the potted plant really bothered me.) I understand the plot device–kill off a child’s parents so they are free to have adventures the other parented children could only dream of. But there was no adventure in this play, just orphans used as the backdrop.

Why is it acceptable to keep carting out negative stereotypes and calling them entertainment? (There were several ridiculous female stereotypes in this play as well, including a gold-digging woman who even had the parents in front of me raising their eyebrows.) This children’s holiday play was a great opportunity, for the cast and the audience, to enlighten and educate while entertaining. Instead of spreading positive, beneficial ideas, this play reinforced old, false, damaging stereotypes.

A child who has been relinquished by their birthparents (or whose birthparents have died) has no control over their parental situation. They are not more or less valuable as a person because of this life circumstance. As I said to my kids tonight, and they all three nodded in solemn agreement, Every child deserves and needs a family.

And there is no reason anyone should be insensitive to children–or adults–who do not have a family to call their own.

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7 thoughts on “Caught Off-Guard

  1. The orphan as an iconic image is very unfortunately as popular around Christmas as the pilgrim is at Thanksgiving. The difference, of course, is that there aren’t a lot of pilgrims around to be offended by the stereotyping that’s happend since the last time people bothered to notice, and that’s not the case when it comes to various interpretations of “orphan” and the lingo that goes with.

    I still remember the day when I realized that orphanannie wasn’t one word, but referred to an individual named Annie who was something called an orphan, and my concern at the reality that was a child in such a circumstance.

    I actually don’t think there is wrong in kids learning something of historical facts that include some pretty miserable tales of woe … age appropriate, of course … and teaching that adoption as we know it is a relatively new option with a lot of good to it, as well. It’s not easy or comfortable, but as it is important for kids to know about slavery and colonialism, hearing about treatment of orphans even in the USA in the not too distant past, has value.

    Not that this play was any sort of good lesson, but that it might be a jumping off point for on since the water has gone over the bridge already.

  2. Susan says:

    Growing up as an adopted child, I was OB-SESSED with orphans in literature and film. I watched Oliver! the musical as often as I could, bought (and memorized) the entire soundtrack. Ditto with Annie on Broadway. I begged my parents to take me. Over and over. For me, it was a kind of “working things out,” somehow. When I was in senior honors English, I wrote my thesis about the use of orphans in Dickens’ work. If i saw or read the word “orphan” or “adoption” in ANY description of anything, I was alllllll over it, from the youngest age I can remember. Even if it was a harsh, stereotypical, false representation, it was a kind of representation and I was hungry for reflection of ANY kind. So… I probably would have loved this play, eve if it broke my heart.

  3. Kohana says:

    I am sorry that you found yourself having to explain those things in whispers, in the middle of a play! Unfortunately there are many things we would like to guide our children through the realization of, only to have them pop up in front of us with hardly enough time to swerve! I hope that meaningful and beneficial discussion comes from a bad situation. Poor taste and poor judgement on the side of the play producers, for sure!

  4. Marie says:

    Orphans as scourge of society? What an insanely unhelpful and irresponsible attitude! I’m so glad you were able to give your children a more accurate perspective.
    Wow…I’m temporarily speechless in disbelief at how bad this concept is for any kind of children’s theater.

  5. Ansley says:

    Wow, Sky! What a painful evening it must have been!

    I commend you for being able to turn a disastrous event into an important life lesson for your children. I’m sorry you were caught off guard, but praise your quick wit.

    Good job, Mommy!

  6. shortstuff87EBNSTT says:

    Unfortunately though, there are still children who live in settings where they do not have mom’s and dad’s who take care of them. They just don’t call them orphanages anymore. They’re called group homes, this especially affects some older kids who foster families will not take into their homes, and the social service sector has no where else to place them. This situation is just sad in all respects. I agree that every child deserves a family.

  7. Dri says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m the caucasian mother of one biological son, and my husband and I are currently in the process of adopting two sibling girls from Ethiopia, so I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit (as you can probably imagine!).

    I too had a bit of a rude awakening at a children’s play in December, but for a slightly different reason: it was “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and our family is non-religious. I remember feeling uncomfortable about the play when we read it in elementary school, but the reason why only hit me when I saw the play last month. The Herdmans, a family of children whose parents never appear (and are on welfare), and who are looked on with disgust by the entire community, are not religious. The kids are mean bullies. Their lack of Christian faith is given as the root of their juvenile delinquency, and the Herdman children only become “nice” after they find Jesus. I found this offensive as a non-religious person (who has a lifetime of experience of being told that I’m going to burn in Hell), but as my husband pointed out, the blatant over-simplifications and stereotypes in the play should be offensive to Christians, too.

    At any rate, this all stems from wanting to shelter our children from the rough stuff of life. I don’t want our children to be told they’re going to Hell, but in our community, I have to face the fact that they probably will get that message, in one way or another. The fact that we will very soon be a multiracial family only intensifies my protective urges. The only thing my husband and I can do is to follow the loving example of families like yours, who give children the strength to be themselves and to be kind to others. Thank you for your inspiring blog!

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© 2007-2014 All rights reserved by Natasha Sky. Posts, essays, photographs, and art may not be republished, reprinted, or repurposed without permission.
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