About a week ago Noah and June and I were sitting on the front porch enjoying a mild, sunny afternoon. He had just come off the school bus and I was inspecting the contents of his backpack when he said, “Tengo dos mamás y un papá.” He’s in a Spanish immersion program and we occasionally have short conversations in Spanish. This sounded like one I wanted to navigate in English, however.
“Who’s the papá?” I asked.
“The man who gave the…” he paused, searching for the word sperm, couldn’t find it in any language and waved his hand impatiently. “You know,” he concluded.
“The sperm?” I said.
“Well, we usually don’t call him a father,” I said. “We call him a donor.”
“Donor means someone who gave something and he gave something, but he isn’t raising you.”
“Oh.” He was quiet for a minute. I thought the conversation might be over, but then Noah was saying he wished he could meet his donor.
I told him that when he was eighteen he could contact the sperm bank and if the donor had kept his contact information current and consented, they could meet. “Would you like to do that?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, brightening considerably. He didn’t seem at all discouraged by the prospect of waiting more than twelve years. Just the prospect of a meeting, however iffy and far in the future, seemed to satisfy him.
What I didn’t tell Noah was that though the sperm bank will not put children in contact with their biological fathers until they are eighteen, finding half-siblings is considerably easier and can be done at any time through an independently-run online registry. The next day in a very short period online, I found a posting from a couple looking for vials of frozen sperm from Noah’s sold-out donor (a strong indication, but not proof they already have a child or children by him) and a whopping seven confirmed half-siblings for June.
I have known about the registry for some time, but I never looked at it since Beth gets prickly at the mere mention of any contact with either the children’s donors or their half-siblings. Sometimes I am baffled by this; sometimes I understand. Drawing attention to the other half of their genetic heritage underscores that she has no part in it. Even though I didn’t register Noah or June on the site, she was initially irritated that I even looked. I wanted to know, though, what information was out there. It might be useful the next time Noah asks me something. Beth and I do agree it will ultimately be up to the children what, if any, contact to initiate. For now, we are following Noah’s lead. If it occurs to him to ask if the donor helped make any other children, we will tell him what we know.
Then yesterday fathers came up again. Noah had stayed home sick after waking up vomiting. After his normal fashion, however, he seemed pretty hale and hearty shortly thereafter. At two o’ clock, there was an assembly, the culmination of spirit week at his school. He hadn’t wanted to miss it, so after lunch I asked if he wanted to go to school just for the assembly and he said yes. The last day of spirit week was “Put on Your Thinking Cap” day so after some careful consideration, he put on his wizard hat. We were walking on the path by the creek, about halfway to school when he said, “Some people in my class think it’s strange to have two mothers.”
“Yeah?” I said. He didn’t expand, so I said. “I bet Jazmín doesn’t since she knows Ari and Lukas and they have two mommies. Sometimes when you’ve never heard of something it seems strange, but then when you do, you get used to the idea.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Did anyone say anything that made you feel bad?”
“No, no-one said you have to have a father. But they said some things about fathers that aren’t true.”
“Like that fathers have to be strong.”
We were quiet for a little while longer and then he said, “Some people in my class have robots. I want to build a robot. Sean has one, but no-one has one that they built themselves.”
“I suppose we could look for a robot kit for your birthday. Would you like that?” Even as I said it, I wondered if we could find one appropriate for his age. If we didn’t and bought one anyway, Beth would end up doing all the work.
“Yeah.” A little more quiet. “You know, in the two times I left a tooth, I never saw the Tooth Fairy.”
“Well, she’s pretty sneaky.” He went on to announce his plans to try to stay up the next time he lost a tooth and catch a glimpse of the secretive sprite. By then we were crossing the little bridge that goes over the creek and we were in sight of the school. Noah hoped there would be a storyteller at the assembly, like the last time.
Neither of us was really prepared for what followed, however. It was a pep rally, gearing up the older students for the Maryland Schools Assessment they would be taking the next week. I parked June’s stroller next to the back row of folding chairs and we took our seats. It was hot in the room, so Noah removed his wizard hat. His curly, light-brown hair was full of glitter from the brim. Soon the rally started. The school mascot Terry the Tiger made an appearance and let me tell you that tiger knew how to work a room. Children cheered and reached out their hands to shake his as he walked down the aisle. It was as if he were a rock star, or Bill Clinton. The spirit stick was awarded to one of four classes with 100% hat participation, after their teacher’s name was drawn from a hat to break the tie. Teachers danced and performed a rap about the MSA. There was a parody of American Idol in which the contestants (played by fifth-graders) instead of singing, read their BCRs (brief constructed response, or in plain English, short essays) about the nutritional value of strawberries. The judges (played by teachers) then went over the strong and weak points of each essay, while staying in character as Randy, Paula and Simon. Noah, who has never heard of American Idol, was completely lost. I haven’t seen it, but I at least know enough about it to follow the skit. Next, a teacher quizzed students on how to write a three-point BCR (answer the question, supply evidence from the text, and extend your answer). Prizes were awarded for correct answers. Finally, inflatable sticks were passed out. It turns out they make an impressive noise if hundreds of elementary school students bang them on their palms at once while chanting “Go team! Do your best!” Throughout the rally I was in turns amused, inspired and heartbroken by all the hard work the students and teachers were doing and all the ridiculous stress placed on these tests. The stakes are high, especially at a school like Noah’s with its high proportion of poor and immigrant students. I’m not saying the teachers should be going about their preparation a different way. I just know that as we left I felt a little depressed.
As we walked home I thought about the things Noah wants this week: to meet the man who helped make him, to build a robot, to see the Tooth Fairy. Then I thought about all the tests he will have to take in the years to come. I resolved to stop at the playground on the way home and to look for a robot kit.