Walls Are Usually Bad

This week, my stubborn 4-year old walked out the door for her trip to the library sporting a romper with pastel stripes running horizontally across it. She thought it was the perfect match to highlight her new shoes that sparkle every time she takes a step.

That wouldn’t have been so bad, but she wanted to top her outfit off by putting a long flowy tie-dye style striped skirt with deep reds and oranges on over the romper. I tell my daughter constantly that real beauty comes from within, which is good because she looked kind of like a seizure-inducing bag lady. I tried to convince her of the generally accepted fashion rules about combining stripes and wearing skirts over rompers. She looked at me as though I knew nothing of fashion, pointing out quickly that I didn’t have any rompers or striped pants.

She was right. My wardrobe missed the recent male romper fad, and I don’t have any striped pants. What could I possibly know about how to wear a striped skirt?

But I thought I knew something about the walls and fences people put up in order to make ourselves look normal.

Simple things.

You probably shouldn’t put socks on with those strappy Teva sandals, stay away from the temptation to buy pants that can be unzipped into shorts, and, I thought, don’t make a habit of mixing patterns.

But my daughter hates these kinds of limiting social constructs, so she takes any opportunity to push through our parental attempts to make our kid look normal and act like all the other kids. We want other parents to think we are running a tight ship here, not some kind of place where people are throwing mismatched skirts on over their rompers. I've given a lot more credence to some of those walls or norms than my 4 year old. I love her for that. 

I listened to a podcast earlier this week from Malcolm Gladwell in which he was talking about immigration and the Mexico/US border. In his own style of deconstruction, he makes the claim that a tight and strict border actually works more to trap people in than to keep people out. For the better part of the last century, most immigration from Mexico was cyclical. People came to the states to work for a growing season, but then returned home each winter to be with their friends and families. Most immigrants didn’t want to stay here when the border patrol was looser. He claims that by tightening the border to keep people out, we drastically expanded the number of people here staying here illegally.

He quotes Robert Frost a lot, and while it is worth asking today if “good fences make good neighbors,” there is no doubt that our society really loves fences. We put them everywhere. The metaphorical ones are just as powerful as the real ones. Shoot, talking about them can win you presidential elections.

As I was running through the park next to my house and listening to Gladwell’s argument, I was thinking about the figurative walls we are so good at building up around us. Gladwell is right -the best kind of borders aren’t really walls at all. They are passable in either direction and allow us to know what things are like on the other side. My daughter was determined to see what was on the other side of my fashion walls. It might be easier for me and she may avoid a judgemental look if she stays on my “normal” side, but that might not actually be better. She gets to enjoy her color and comfort without worrying about what her uptight dad thinks looks good or normal.

Most of us don’t live like that though. Instead, we spend time and money trying to build real and imagined walls that enable our blindness and comfort. Most of these are far more damaging than my daughter’s questionable fashion choices. Many of the choices of privileged adult life are related to our imaginary fences built to keep things in or keep things out. We move to “safer” neighborhoods and look for “better” schools for our children. These seem like good and loving decisions, but they allow us to distance ourselves from those things we avoid. A wall goes up to hide what is less safe or less good. The farther we get from the wall, the harder it gets to pass back and forth.

Then, without even noticing, we forget that the other side exists at all. Walls are such a normal part of our life that we barely even notice them. They become an excuse for ignorance and a crutch to apathy. Gladwell made the claim that walls or strict borders are not a good way to deal with illegal immigration, but he could have went on to say that walls are almost never good. They rarely solve the problem, just separate us from it.

It’s so much easier to allow for injustice in our society when we can’t see it everyday or it is not impacting us. Horrible tragedies or evil simply becomes evidence or justification for the protective barriers we rely on. When, as happened near Pittsburgh this week, a vengeful police officer murders a 17 year old kid when he runs from a traffic stop, we might be tempted to avoid those things or try to weave elaborate explanations. We see the pain on the faces of children separated from their parents at the very real borders and we try to drown ourselves in a good book or to politicize the conversation. We see the failing schools in our neighborhood, or in a nearby city, and we try to believe it’s not our responsibility. And there are millions more walls that I am blind to, they are built with money on the backs of people and experiences, and they are every bit as damning as the ones I have listed.  

We are only afforded some guarded glimpses to the other side of these borders, and it is our duty to engage in these glimpses and pass through the existing walls. This is especially the responsibility of those of us with power and privilege in this society.  A teacher’s job might be to help boost our students over any of these walls that we can because real learning occurs when we are given chances to see the other side. We all get better when we can move in and out of these borders.

My daughter may be misguided in her fashion choices. My selfish vanity hopes that she soon learns to avoid some of these dreadful combinations. But, more importantly, I hope she holds on to her willingness to pass walls easily. I hope she keeps moving in and out of norms and fences and trying to learn about what it may be like on the other side. I hope she even gets the strength the tear a few walls down.

In my classroom and in my citizenship, I don’t want to be the kind of person worried about mismatched stripes.