How My Second Grade Teacher Ruined My Family

My second grade teacher, Mr. Johnson didn’t know he was being an asshole when he told me I didn’t have “real” parents. It was quite nonchalant really, and I don’t know how we, as second graders, minus Mr. Johnson, even got on the topic. “Turn your books to page 153, and, oh yes, Julie doesn’t have real parents.”

In all actuality maybe he was talking about families; maybe he was approaching a lesson about non-traditional families; maybe he wanted me to feel like shit… Who knows?

“Who’s adopted?” Mr. Johnson addressed the class. There were two of us who raised our hands. But this story isn’t about Bobby Eno, this story is about ME, because I’m not white, and Bobby Eno had won the racial lottery [sarcastically kidding, but really…]. I mean, who could tell Bobby Eno was adopted? His parents were white, he was white. All white people look the same, so.

“When you’re adopted, you don’t have REAL parents.” Mr. Johnson rested one butt cheek on one of the student’s desks as he talked openly about familial structures. “JULIE DOESN’T HAVE REAL PARENTS.”

I slumped down in my chair and tried to not make eye contact with anyone as I felt 30 pairs of perfectly round eyes direct their attention my way.

I was a new student. I looked forward to moving, just outside of Flint, because up until then, I was living just outside of Detroit, and I had no real perspective on other cities, or other cultures, or Michael Moore’s cityopic Roger and Me.

Our last school district was tolerable. My sister and I were the only minorities at the time, which of course we experienced the expected amount of eyes-stretched gestures, “ching-chong” chants, and our favorite, being called Chinese.

As the concerned parents of two adopted Asian daughters, prior to our moving, my dad called the school district to see how our race, Asian, would be perceived. The woman he was talking to supposedly laughed and said there were lots of adopted Asians in Flushing Community schools. (Upon moving we discovered “lots” meant five or six, out of a thousand, but that was a subjective question.)

This was a fresh start, and I looked forward to meeting other Asians, I didn’t, not for awhile at least. I don’t know how many weeks had passed since I had started, but I was doing what any normal socially awkward, ethnic minority, new kid, would do. I just tried to blend in with everyone else.

Well it’s pretty hard to blend in when your new teacher, Mr. Johnson, takes time away from teaching us language comprehension, to talk about whether or not Bobby and I have real parents.

My mind must have shut down directly after that, because I have no memory of what happened for the rest of that school day. I do know though, as my mind shut down, today’s topic seemed to ignite new neural titillation in the rest of the class. Suddenly every child seemed to want to engage in today’s lesson. “Could your parents not have their own kids?” “Why would they want to adopt Chinese kids?” “Where are your real parents?”

As my mom tells it, I approached her crying and telling her, “She isn’t my real mom, blah, blah, blah.”

Being the Montesorri school teaching, highly communicative, devout mother that she is, she immediately contacted Mr. Johnson explaining the difference between biological parents and adoptive parents and how they are both parents. She even gave him a worksheet with appropriate versus offensive language when broaching the subject. It didn’t go so well as he started getting defensive and almost argumentative with her.

This was pre-Angelina Jolie’s caravan of adopted kids, so carrying a child from an “exotic” country wasn’t considered the latest accessory at that time. My parents adopted my sister and I (my Dad wanted a new Camaro, but my mom won and here I am) because they wanted to be parents, REAL parents. And they are amazing parents.

Is Mr. Johnson fired yet?

  1. I hope you are misremembering this incident, although I bet your memory is clear as a bell, because I cannot fathom any teacher making such an ignorant remark.

    1. Thank you for reading Ms. Sharrow! Unfortunately not… I think I learned that teachers are not always right that day.

  2. This piece was REALLY engaging. I shouldn’t be surprised considering the person you are and your journalistic background, but I really applaud your candor, introspection, and heart. Well done!

  3. TRUE STORY: I remember this incident. We decided that it was best for Julie’s mom to talk to the teacher rather than me. I would not have been nearly as nice to him.

  4. I hope he is at least disciplined. What a joy it was for me to see almost a plane load of American families with their newly adopted babies flying home from Hong Kong/China this past January.As a Chinese American I am tired of the incidents where my credit card is not real, I am not really an American, my kids said we always get double screened and triple screened at the Flint Bishop Airport, etc.

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