Una (the five year old) just started dance classes in West Liberty last week. West Liberty is a town of about 3500 in southeastern Iowa. It is a huge Latino immigrant hotspot, with about 40% of the community having Mexican roots. The town boasts a single main street with two or three Mexican restaurants, a drug store, and an old movie theater that smells inside like musty gym socks. The New Strand plays one movie per week Friday through Sunday nights for about $2.50 and kids five and up crowd the front rows of the theater and giggle and throw popcorn while their parents sit further back, on some sort of date.
The dance classes are offered by a local pastor's wife who happens to be a good friend of my friend Kate, who went to the dance instructor's church many years ago. The dance classes are low-key for five year olds, without a lot of emphasis on image like there is in the Iowa City dance studios (pink ballet shoes, black leotard, white tights, hair in a bun), and it's cheap, making the 20 minute drive down interstate 80 worth it.
Liberty Dance Studio is downtown, a block north of the main street, in an old storefront. It, too, smells like musty gym socks, but is painted brightly yellow to distract one's senses. Last week we got to the studio a few minutes after Una's class had started. She ran through the door in the yellow lobby to the dance floor, where Cindy (the dance instructor) was sitting cross-legged in a circle with the other 4 and 5 year olds. I plopped myself down in a white plastic lawn chair next to Kate in the lobby, which I could do only because she gave up her chair and sat on the floor next to her three month old, Claire, who sat curled up in a carseat. The lobby was packed with chattering mothers and siblings of the dancers. The children ranged in age from newborn to eight years old and they created their own kind of chatter.
I was almost instantly distracted by a young caucasion mother, early twenties, who grabbed her two year old by the shoulders, picked him up and plunked him in a chair while saying "YOU SIT HERE AND DON'T MOVE." Her tone sounded affected, liek I wasn't sure if she was really angry or just acting like it to get results with her toddler. I raised my eyebrows and looked at Kate, who raised hers back.
"Wow," I said quietly.
"Yeah. It was like this last week. The mothers here, they all talk the same way. Did you hear that?--" she paused so I could pick something out of the din of the parents and children.
"'Turd'. They call their kids 'little turd'. I sat through half an hour of turd name-calling last week." She laughed the way you do at something absurd.
We decided to leave to take Claire on a walk through the neighborhood, but this week I determined to come prepared to document conversations between parents and kids, if I could hear them in all that racket. I packed a pen and notepad in my purse.
Yesterday was part of "observation" week, where Cindy leaves the blinds up in the windows separating the lobby from the dance studio. So most of the parents were crowded around the windows watchign their kids. I found an empty chair next to two older mothers, maybe mid thirties or early forties, furthest from the windows. Before I could even get out my notepad I vaguely picked up that a girl, who looked about 8 years old, was standing in front of me, askign one of the older mothers for something.
"TAKE YOUR SISTER AND GIT ONE." The mother glared at the little girl and said this in an almost-yell. "I am gonna beat you when we get home."
I had the same feelign as the week before, of not being sure the mother was really angry. How could she be? The 8 year old hadn't misbehaved as far as I could tell. A few minutes later the girl and her little sister returned with long fuzzy thigns that looked like pipe cleaners with feathery ends.
"What are those?" I asked her.
"They'are pens--that can bend." And with that she began wrapping pens-that-bend around her wrists and her ankles and wandered off to sit with some kids.
A few minutes later she was back asking her mother if she could go somewhere.
"Okay. Go outside. Buzz off....[quietly] I dont' wanna beat you in front of everyone."
The woman the mother was talking to chimed in,"just like her father," with a cluck of her tongue, about the girl, I presumed.
"Ornery," the mother agreed.
The little girl looked from one woman to another and quipped in perhaps the only suitable and sane response an 8 year old girl could give her mother who was threatening to beat her over pipe cleaner pens: "How rude." She sighed and left.
I had reflected to Kate on our walk the week before, "What's the difference between them and us? Is it education? That's the way they were raised and so that's how they raise their kids and they don't know any better?"
She thought this was so. But it's stunning to me, that only ten miles away from Iowa City, where parents wouldn't think twice about taking their toddlers to therapy, there are parents who not only threaten to beat their kids, but are almost jocular about it, as if it is something so sewn into the fabric of their family life and parenting practices that their jocularity simply reveals what they believe to be inevitable and the natural order of things.