Thursday, June 07, 2007

When Adoption Is a Joke

I've been mulling this experience over in my mind for the past couple of weeks to see if my initial reaction is overly sensitive or if it is justified. After considerable thought, I think it is justified. Here's the story.

A few weeks ago our second-youngest, sixth grade son Anthony asked if I would be a parent chaperone for their annual trip to the state capitol. Because I love history and generally enjoy the age group, I agreed to accompany the hordes of sixth graders descending upon our fair capital city.

On the way I overheard a conversation between three students and two of their teachers. Our son Tony was within earshod of the conversation, so I also heard his voice as well.

Student: "Yeah, whenever I do something dumb my parents tease me that I was adopted."
Other students: Snickering response
Student: "They say I was born to the Googlemeisters next door and dropped off when I was a baby."
Teacher: "The Googlemeisters?" [laughing]
Student: "It's just a made up name."
Teacher: "Couldn't they have come up with something better than that?!"
Student: "Guess not. It's the dumbest name they could think of."
Anthony: "Well I know that I'm adopted."
Student: [No response ... as in ignoring, not as in shamed]
Teacher: [No response ... ditto]

I was far enough away to hear the conversation, but not close enough to help frame the adoption issue, so I chose to let it go, although internally I was uncomfortable with the level of misunderstanding concerning adoption and the negative connotations of the conversation. Of course I was not nearly as disappointed with the students, who are, after all, naive and in sixth grade. I was considerably disappointed, however, in the teacher who did nothing to frame adoption in a positive fashion and who didn't even acknowledge Tony's commentary about his own life.

I was hoping that was the last interchange for the day about adoption I would need to overhear, but it was not. On the third leg of our day we visited historic Fort Snelling, established in the early 1820s (the first United States Fort west of the Mississippi after the purchase of the Northwest Territory). As we were walking along by some historic, unrestored buildings from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) days of the 1930s, replete with broken windows, rotting timbers and barred doorways, I happened to over hear the following snippet of conversation:

Student 1: "So, is that the orphanage where you lived after you were born" [in a sniggering tone].
Student 2: "[Laughing] Yep. Even the Googlemeister's would have been better than that."

Since I did not know the students well enough to confront them, and I was not a part of their conversation, once again I chose to say nothing. But I was once again reminded that in our culture there is a great deal of misunderstanding about adoption and those who have been affected by it.

Assumptions are rife that all adopted children have come from poverty-stricken origins, or that they were unwanted to begin with, or that somehow that only "dumb" or misbehaving children are dumped into the adoption world. It saddens me to think that so little progress has been made in our world that adoption would still be viewed as a joke.

The truth of the matter is, of course, that adoption is difficult. It is challenging for both the children involved and the parents. And yes, there are children who have been adopted who are difficult, or who have experienced poverty early in life, or who are neglected or abused by their birth families.

But ... does our culture really believe that adoption is an inferior way of family life? Are there not enough positive adoption stories out there to encourage people to see the joys and blessings of adoption, for both children and their parents?

I look to the day when adoption is no longer a joke, but seen as an exceptional opportunity for everyone to benefit. And by everyone I mean more than the traditional adoption "triad" (birth parent(s), adoptive parent(s) and child/ren). I look forward to the day when sixth grade boys don't see the need to talk about adoption in dismissive or derisive terms because it is seen as so natural and normal that it doesn't provoke such commentary. I look forward to the day when sixth grade teachers can present a positive case for adoption, and remind his/her students that the value of an individual doesn't rest upon their beginnings in life.

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