Twice a week, my 5-year old takes his place on a large, black and red checkered mat at his mixed martial arts school. With arms pressed against his sides, his feet touching and grounded on the mat, he stands strong among African descended, Latinx, South Asian, Hasidic, and White students of varying body types and ages. Surrounding them are adult assistants who are Afro-Caribbean, African American, East Asian, and White.
I take heart that when my son enters this school, he sees aspects of his identity – person of color, Asian American, Filipino, and Indian - reflected in other learners and teachers.
During his beginner class, I sit wedged between other parents and grandparents on tightly packed chairs arranged in a square U near the entrance of the school. In such close proximity, I observe side conversations, stacks of term papers, soiled workbooks, full body tattoos, kippahs, saggy jeans, and polo shirts, and sense that we, multi-racial caretakers, also reflect a range of income access, educational experiences, personal values, and years in the U.S.
About three-quarters of the way through each class, the school’s owner and lead teacher, a stocky, White, shaven-headed, black belt in his late 30’s, gathers his students around him. Once all the kids are seated and the younger ones who jostle for places closest to the teacher settle down, he offers a life lesson, occasionally followed by an event announcement.
In the late spring and mid-summer, the school offered special classes for mothers and fathers in celebration of Mother’s and Father’s Days. In the weeks leading up to the Father’s Day class, the teacher often asked, “Who’s gonna bring their dad to my special Fathers’ Day class?” Every time he did so, my son, who often sat directly in front of him would say loudly, “I don’t have a dad.”
The first few times he did so, the teacher would respond, “That’s ok!”, sometimes adding, “Do you have an uncle or grandpa? You could bring them!”
Early on in our time at the school, the lead teacher sat with me in his small corner office and pitched his weekly classes. Having seen my partner and me with my son on different class days, he asked with a wide grin, “So which one of you is Nishant’s mom?”
“We both are.” I said, instinctively noting which of the two office doorways was closest should a quick departure be necessary.
The teacher’s grin grew larger. “Oh!” he said. Slow nods of his head quickened as he added, “That’s cool!”
Since that time, the teacher has occasionally talked to the whole class about Nishant’s transformation from a distracted, fidgety kid who regularly left the mat to hug on his “moms” to a more focused and engaged student. Since I’ve never heard other same gendered parents mentioned in the nine months of our membership, I wonder if we are the only queer family within the school.
Last week, the teacher shard a lesson on the importance of respecting your parents. He asked “At home, who is the boss, your mom and dad, or you?” Like clockwork, my son interjected, “I don’t have a dad.”
“I know that!” the teacher said emphatically. With amusement and slight annoyance, he added, “You say that every time!”
From my seat, I smile at my son’s regular, small disruption of heteronormativity and take in the lesson he is imparting to me. As one who partners with organizations to facilitate processes that catalyze and nurture culture change, I sometimes forget the power and importance of small disruptions in our daily life. In his exchanges with his teacher, my son reminds me that the dismantling of heteronormativity requires these small disruptions which wear down the normalizing of straightness, gender roles, and gender binaries like ebbing and flowing tides which transform rocks and minerals into millions of soft grains of sand.