My first-grader is perched on the edge of our couch. He’s been logged into his remote classroom for approximately 2 minutes and already he’s focused on the giant red X’s he’s obviously drawing on a mental calendar in his head, counting down his time left attempting to learn times tables and reading within shouting distance of his LEGO set.
And the LEGO are winning.
We have spent a whole school year like this – When we moved to Baltimore last summer we bought this house just in time to register him for the school down the street, although he’s never set foot inside it, because of COVID. So he’s been not only learning trapped in a house with me, near the tempting toys and refrigerator and whatever is happening on the street outside the window, but his class friends are mostly just faces on a screen that he’s never met because he’s never been to school with them. It sucks. But it was what it had to be.
Sometimes when we go to the school on days when they exchange books or give out holiday pumpkins or stockings on the blacktop playground, we run into his friends, and he’s either really excited, or shy, or sad. The week in March after some kids went back in person – this was like a few weeks before my first vaccination shots (I am fully vaccinated now) and we live with my 73-year-old mom, so we made the decision to keep him at home – we walked past a kid bounding out of the school doors with his backpack, and he was sullen and angry for the rest of the week.
“Why does he get to go back and I don’t?” he asked me, sobbing, the next day.
“Because his mom made a different decision that yours did, and I only had the information I had, and I did the best that I could. And I’m so sorry that hurt you honey, but we’re alive,” I said, knowing that I literally just said “You can be alive, or you can be happy” and it sucks. But it was what it had to be.
It wasn’t all awful – When I’m making lunch in the kitchen I can hear him reading out loud, and he’s a proud, confident reader. He’s a science wiz, and has been inspired to watch documentaries about dinosaurs and planets. There’s also a lot of laughing, and even as the kids go back in person this fall – PLEASE LET THESE CHILDREN GO BACK TO SCHOOL IN PERSON – I know there are lots of Zooms in his future as a student and a professional, and he’s an easy conversationalist.
We are privileged to have good WiFi, technology, food, and a situation where I can work from home. His teachers are a joy – when we turned in his books on the blacktop last week, one of them gave him a class award that he was the most “Relaxed,” meaning he was calm and didn’t let things ruffle him. Lord knows that’s a skill! He has access to health care and family he can talk to. It may be easier for us to navigate this awfulness than others. But it’s been awful watching him try to meet people through a computer screen, watching him have to show a patience that even college students haven’t mastered, just to pass math. I want normal, but I don’t know what that is anymore.
So my kid is not the only one in my house who is counting down the days until virtual school is over, and whatever the summer’s supposed to be begins. We’re still in a pandemic, and since Powerball eludes me, I can’t afford a whole summer of camp. But there’s a week of baseball camp, and then a week of outdoor theater camp, and a few days a week with a fun arts teacher/sitter/nanny savior of my life. He will run and play and laugh with real actual children. He will be away from screens and from my couch.
And we will plan whatever normal school is now. And hopefully not be counting the days.
There’s many, many miles between being a visionary showrunner who’s made billions for one of the world’s largest corporations, and a high school junior washing trays down at the Burger King. But something about mega-producer Shonda Rhimes‘ interview in The Hollywood Reporter reminded me of the first time in my life – but not the last – when I was faced with the cold-water reality slap that my employer didn’t understand my value and was never going to.
So I bounced. Was my bounce, as Rhimes’ was, from ABC to Netflix? No. Most of the time, it was from fry rack to cash register. But always a better cash register. That’s solid advice, no matter how much money you’re making.
In her interview, Rhimes talks about how her relationship with ABC, for whom she created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice,” and more, had been souring for a while. She felt she was getting pushback and oversight on creative points that her ratings and income would seem to prove was unwarranted. She was at the end of her rope already, and then she had her camel back-breaking straw moment when a Disneyland comp ticket she’d secured – after a hassle – for her sister, a mere $150 perk over the two tickets she was allotted as an ABC employee, didn’t work. And when she called a top network exec for help, she was told “Don’t you have enough?”
Not only would it have been absolutely no problem for this man to just call Disneyland and let THE FAMILY OF THEIR CASH COW in, with some mouse ears and funnel cake for their trouble, but there was insult piled onto the injury. The exec didn’t just say no – he implied that Rhimes was asking too much, that she was an ungrateful peon who was stepping beyond her station, when at that time she had basically paid for the whole station. And all the monorails.
Obtuse social media commenters have tried to make this about Rhimes’ entitlement, as she could have bought that extra ticket with her lunch money, but they’re missing the point. She already had the ticket – she just wanted it to work. And she was slapped down for expecting even that. Sure, she had asked for one extra ticket than normal. Let’s be real real, son. Do you think no one else ever asked for one more ticket? And she wasn’t just someone else – she was ABC for a very long time. Y’all know that if, like, Brad Pitt, who was not an ABC employee, had showed up with all eleventy-three of his beautiful children, they’d have let them all in, given them the GOOD mouse ears, FastPasses and a gold cart personally driven by Goofy.
It was in that moment that Rhimes realized that she wasn’t valued, no matter how much value she added, so she called her agents and told them that if they didn’t get her a deal with someone else, she would be getting agents who would. Good on her. What’s appallingly familiar to many of us – and I’m going to say many of us are women – is the suggestion that we are asking too much to ask what we’re worth. That we are divas. That we are lucky to have gotten where we are and we shouldn’t ask anymore.
I have been called a diva many, many times in my career, and I don’t back off from that. Throw me those roses and hand me a glass of something bubbly, if that means that I ask for what I’m worth. I have made a lot of money for a lot of people, and it has been implied and sometimes plainly stated that I had all I was gonna get so I should be grateful and take it. Which is when I started re-doing my resume. I haven’t always done it fast enough, but this is something I learned back at that Burger King, where I had worked for almost two years. I dare say that I was among the most dedicated employees at the time – I never stole food, never snuck my friends extra fries, never developed a sudden “cold” when I didn’t feel like working. I actually remember calling, legit coughing, before a Sunday evening shift, and being told that not only could I not have off, but that they didn’t believe me. Teen Leslie was a Girl Scout, basically, and having my integrity doubted was almost as painful as my sinus headache.
And when I got there, coughing, the manager said “Oh wow, you are sick!” He also admitted that I had never given anyone reason to believe I was a liar – quite the opposite – but that it wasn’t worth trying to find someone else to fill my shift.
As awful as that was, I stayed there for a while, even though I never got the one thing I asked for, which was to be trained on the register. I was there for two years, and every time I asked, there was an excuse. They had too many cashiers. They would train me the next shift, but could I please for the moment go get the trays from the dining room, and maybe check the bathroom? (Note to Humpty Hump – Getting busy in a Burger King bathroom is nasty. Don’t do that.) The closest I ever got was handing out shakes and Dr. Peppers out the drive-thru window behind the real cashier.
It wasn’t just that I was being told no, but that it was implied that I wasn’t good enough to work the register, that there was something wrong with me that made me relegated to the bathroom and the dining room. So one day I just handed in my apron and quit, then found a job selling fudge and singing behind a register (finally!) at the late, great The Fudgery at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (For the record I wasn’t the best cashier what with the math and stuff, but I was honest, punctual and did good harmony.)
That moment laid the groundwork for me, to slowly claim my worth – I admit I was always better at this at work than in relationships. There was my first paper, a Black community weekly, who refused to pay me enough to move out of my parents’ home in Miami and questioned my loyalty to the community when I asked for a raise. “If that’s not enough, you can leave,” I was told. It wasn’t enough. So I left and moved to Pennsylvania. They implied that I was betraying Black people for wanting to be financially solvent. At least I think that’s what they said. I was walking out the door.
The lesson would come full circle years later, as I waited with other Central Pennsylvania reporters to do a satellite interview with Howard Stern, who was bringing his show to the area. There was a familiar-looking woman sitting near me who kept looking at me like I was familiar to her too. Finally she leaned over.
‘This is a weird question,” she asked, “but did you ever work at a Burger King in Baltimore?” YES THAT’S WEIRD. But I nodded that yes I had, recognizing her as a not-terrible manager.
“You’re that nice girl that quit and no one knew why!” she exclaimed. And the whole story came out, a decade later. Apparently I was not imagining the conspiracy to keep me off the register, but it wasn’t because I was a bad employee, but because I was a good one. I was reliable and spoke kindly to the customers in the dining room. I didn’t complain about the bathroom, or digging flaming burgers out of the broilers. They were afraid that if I was trained on the register, I would be valuable to another fast-food joint and leave. So they kept me down, taking me for granted and letting me think it was my fault. And when I left, they were truly flummoxed because it was so easy to take me for granted that they forgot why they were doing it and assumed that I thought I was worthless, too.
SCREW THAT. Shonda Rhimes knew what we all should – that we are worthy. That people are making money off us. And that it’s not even about the money, but about wanting not to be a chump. There aren’t enough FastPasses to buy that knowledge.
Forgive my impertinence bringing up a long-ago pop culture moment as the fate of our nature is hanging in the balance – and if you don’t believe that you aren’t paying attention.
But I am reminded, in this bleak time, of an episode of “Project Runway” from way back in 2006, which seems like a fairyland in the sky compared to now. A contestant named Kara was having a freak-out during a partner challenge, which was taking up valuable time from the work she and partner Zulema had to design. I don’t think there’s one person who hasn’t been faced with enormous pressure and felt like curling up on the floor surrounded by all the ice cream and wine and sobbing. All of the sobs.
Kara was having one of those moments, and Zulema, who hadn’t signed onto this show to be a therapist, figured out a way to acknowledge Kara’s frustrations while keeping it moving. “You’re gonna cry,” she said, “AND CUT.”
In other words, cry all the tears you have to cry, get in them feelings and let it out, but only if you can do that while cutting fabric and making a pretty outfit and not making me have to deal with Michael Kors’ efforts to be clever while crushing my dreams.
And this is where we find ourselves. We’re in a pandemic. We have elections coming up. The West Coast is burning. Our heroes our dying. Shenanigans are afoot. Racists abound. It’s not good here. We are scared. We should be scared. And it would seem appropriate to panic, give up, sob and flee to Canada. However, Canada doesn’t currently want us, so that’s not an option.
I want to cry – I have cried. But I know that sinking into despair doesn’t lead to much more than more despair and a very wet shirt. What we can do is to let that fear, sadness and anger turn into action. We must vote. We must raise awareness and use our voices and pain to inform each other. We must check in on each other and raise ourselves up. We have a choice to make about what kind of country we want to be, what kind of people we want to be.
Grief is tiring, strength-sucking and awful. But if we are going to survive, we have to gather the shards and make them into something. We have to rest when we must, feel our feelings and name them.