In his new book, When the War Came Home (Levellers Press), Bill Newman, a noted ACLU attorney, shows how the idealism of the anti–Vietnam War movement still lives—most importantly in the lives of the children of that generation. The title of the book refers to the spring day 44 years ago when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on anti-war protesters at Kent State University, killing four. Following is an excerpt from Newman’s book that looks at fathering, and raising daughters. He wrote it in the summer of 1998.
The painting consisted of two waveshaped watercolor brushstrokes—one a spectrum of purple—orchid or thistle melding into mulberry, then to lilac and violet; and below it, a second brushstroke consisting of a continuum of blue, from light to dark—turquoise and teal morphing into cerulean and cornflower and ending with the thinnest hint of midnight.
Underneath, graceful calligraphy said, “The only things that parents should give children are roots and wings.”
For five years that painting, a present from our friend Lynn to celebrate Jo’s birth, hung in the doorway to Jo’s bedroom. Ultimately the picture turned into part of a pile of ashes after our nook-filled Victorian home burned down, a fire in which, blessedly, no one was hurt.
We rebuilt the house much as it was, and for years afterward, when I’d walk past the place where that painting used to be, I thought about it. But in truth, I miss it less now because, notwithstanding the elegance of both the calligraphy and the aphorism, I think it’s wrong.
Parents, I’ve decided, cannot give kids wings—although we can rush to provide a full-length mirror so that they can see and celebrate them when they begin to sprout. And we can’t actually give them roots either.
Like vegetables or flowers or anything else, once kids start growing, they’re pretty much on their own. Besides, roots are particularly tricky to appraise. You cannot see how deep they are or where they’ve spread, and you don’t know whether they are strong enough to weather a storm until after the storm.
My teenage daughters and their friends, unlike their mothers at that age, play All-Star baseball and Suburban League basketball and soccer and tennis, go after state championships, swim in tournaments, and climb mountains. They win commendations in school for excellence in technology and prove themselves whizzes at math.
For garden-variety, coming-into-adolescence girls born in the 1980s, this is how the world is, how it is supposed to be. They have few historical reference points on feminism. They do not realize that in the fight for gender equality they are radicals, revolutionaries. They take for granted, they assume and presume, a world their mothers only dreamed of. They find nothing unusual in women being Olympic stars and believe that, of course, women can be governors, senators or president, and CEOs.
There is no sense being Pollyannaish. Soon enough, our daughters and their friends will encounter gender inequality in employment, sports, and relationships, too. Nonetheless, faced with discrimination, their assumptions about life and equality should prove helpful. These daughters, in overcoming bias and stereotypes, will succeed far more and far better than their parents, who were taught Icarus too much as parable and not enough as myth.
For a present for her fifteenth birthday, Jo wants a poster that she can hang in her room next to the one of basketball star Sheryl Swoopes. She told me I could find it at the Runners’ Shop downtown—a wide-angle view of NBA star Michael Jordan with his arms outstretched, a wingspan of almost seven feet. Jo also said—she was clear about this—that underneath him are the words, “No bird soars too high that soars with its own wings.”
When I went to buy the poster, I found that the quote at the bottom, from William Blake, actually is gender specific and male. The words below Michael Jordan are, “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Jo didn’t read it that way. Neither do her friends. Neither will her sister.
Bill Newman is an ACLU attorney, radio show host, newspaper columnist, husband, and father of two grown daughters. (Bill-Newman.net)