‘We had a very fortunate upbringing,’ says Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson. ‘It was filled with good times. We were like every other family. We had love and discipline. We had caring parents….It wasn’t unusual at all. It wasn’t that everyone had both parents in the house, but it certainly wasn’t like it is now, where you find single-parent families everywhere. Folks went to work, people were excited to get good grades….People would laugh about folks finding out you were getting in trouble. People had mothers at home. So if someone broke a window, you always found out about it. You had a secondary line of defense.’“American Girl,” p.51, We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
This notion of a secondary line of defense came up again three years ago, in November 2017, when I was at a student’s bar mitzvah. The ceremony was about more than celebrating this young man’s transition from boyhood to manhood. There were traditions that stretched back to God, Abraham, Moses, and the earliest Israelites. The shawl he wore during the ceremony was over a century old. The bar mitzvah was a reminder to this young man, and to me, that he has a secondary line of defense, a community beyond family that cares for who he is and who he becomes.
In August 1996, I left my primary line of defense – my family – to come to Asheville, NC to attend boarding school. I knew no one in Asheville at the time, no family or friends when I started there. We had chosen Asheville School sight unseen and based on the recommendation of one of my brother’s former classmates in Bombay, who had just graduated from this small boarding school. The first few months were difficult; I wore the wrong clothes, ate the wrong food, and spoke with a funny accent. In every way, I felt different and the outlier to everyone else’s normal. (That wasn’t true, obviously, but call those feelings teenage angst and add the layer of an immigrant boy far away from anything he knows and everyone who loves or cares for him.) On my first trip to the local mall, I put chili on my nachos, not knowing it was beef. It didn’t look like anything I knew and I didn’t know what to ask. I was a strict vegetarian then and had never eaten any meat, let alone beef. The move to the United States was an isolating experience, a lonely transition to a new culture and community and I didn’t have my safety net with me. I knew, of course, that I could call my parents and return home if I wanted. There’d be no questions or criticism, and no shame or embarrassment. I couldn’t do that, however, and frankly, I didn’t even consider it. I didn’t want to worry them anymore than they already were, my mother upset that she had just lost her youngest to a country 8,000 miles away, from which she was certain he would never return.
I made friends eventually, and the adults were kind and generous with their time and counsel. They still weren’t family and, at the time, I didn’t really feel I could confide in anyone, or expect that anyone could understand me. I wasn’t sure who was really looking out for me, making sure that my mental, emotional and social health were developing well. We had advisors, and there were teachers I felt close to, but those relationships were less personal and more academic or intellectual. I took comfort in the intellectual, something I thought I was good at; it also had to make up for, and to the degree any teenager can hide from his peers, my social awkwardness. I dreaded the usual holidays, especially the long weekends. They were too short to go back to India, and while I had extended family in New Jersey, I didn’t want to spend money every long weekend or longer holiday break to go visit. Calling home was expensive too; there were no computers or cellphones at the time. Instead, we used the payphone in the dorm common room, and I used a calling card, prices ranging from 60 cents to a dollar a minute, to call India. Every now and then a friend from school invited me to go home with him for the long weekend and I’d say yes. However, that wasn’t the same either and I never felt I quite fit in as this Indian immigrant going to boarding school in the 1990’s American South. If I was different to everyone else, everyone else felt different to me. America and I had yet to find our rhythm.
It wasn’t until college in St. Louis, and even later in 2001 when I started my career in independent schools, that I began to form relationships at work that felt on solid ground. Not family but I was past that initial awkward phase. Work – teaching middle school history in Dallas – also gave me confidence. I was good at it and felt accepted by my colleagues and my students. I had been in the United States only five years at the time and my first job was teaching American history to middle schoolers in Dallas, Texas, but neither students and their families, nor my colleagues question my capability or competence because of my immigration status. In 2005 I co-chaired the NAIS People of Color Conference when it came to Dallas, and since that year, I have built a network of friends and mentors in independent schools that has looked out for me, guided me, coached me and cared for me, when I needed them. They have been, and still are, my secondary line of defense. I rely on them, call on them, and know they will show up when I need them.
Every one of my moves in the United States since August 1996 has been driven by my choice of work. My personal life has always been secondary with each move for the last 24 years. With no immediate family – no primary line of defense here – personal life played less of a role in my decision making, something I’ve only begun to acknowledge and lament in the last few years. Dallas, the location of my first teaching job, was good to me personally too but it was by accident. One of my college friends lived in Dallas and decided to move back home after graduation. He and I rented an apartment together. And, one of my cousins, someone I was close to and became closer during my five years there, had just gotten married and moved to Dallas the same year that I accepted the teaching job. It was comforting to have her and her husband nearby, so when I had the choice between Alexandria, Virginia and San Francisco, I chose Alexandria, a big factor being the presence of another cousin and her family in the area. I couldn’t articulate it fully then, but I wanted someone close by, not some colleague at work, not something that was temporal but someone and something that felt more solid, more concrete and that’d transcend any job or my time in the job. I wanted that secondary line of defense since my primary would remain thousands of miles away.
Craig Robinson’s quote from “American Girl” resonates with me too, even though our two families couldn’t be more different. I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in a seven story apartment building in a Bombay suburb. Every evening, after finishing our homework and before dinner, my brother and I would rush down to play with the other children of the building. We played every possible game, like hide and seek, cricket, and marbles. For the most part, people stayed in the building for a long time and even passed on the apartment to subsequent generations. I grew up with those kids. Their parents knew my brother and me, and they knew my parents. The adults took an interest in other people’s children too, not just their own. If I left the building – and I could easily do so – without telling my mother I’m going somewhere, I knew that in any direction for at least a couple blocks on the street, there were several people I knew, and they knew my family. If I ever felt any danger, I could rely on so many around me. If I got in trouble, the strangers would rush to my aid but it wouldn’t be long before someone called my parents and found them. My mother never worried about us leaving the house or the apartment building; she knew this too. There were secondary lines of defense everywhere around us.
Neighborhoods like those feel like they belong, or exist, in a different era. Families, like migrants, are constantly on the move now. Professional tenures are down everywhere as younger generations change jobs more frequently. I wonder what, and who, continues then. As I make my transition from The Children’s School, at least for a year, I’m also leaving the world of independent schools. It’s the trade I’m making as I go back to Bombay, where I grew up and my parents still live, to reclaim and reconnect with that primary line of defense. It’s possible during this transition that my secondary line of defense in the United States will fragment, just like my relationship with my parents has over 24 years, and especially if this one-year hiatus from independent schools becomes two or five or more years. Or, maybe the whole purpose of having a secondary line of defense is that it comes with me everywhere I go, just like my student’s bar mitzvah ceremony assured him, even if where I go is to the other side of the world. I’m betting on the latter.