Teachers: Family Tree Sensitivity, Please

First grade has brought long, complicated, detailed school projects into our life. Alexandra’s first two projects for first grade were related to her family: a family tree and a timeline of the life of a family member.



As she did these projects (my god, they took f.o.r.e.v.e.r.), I was surprised to find the bile forming in the back of my throat just as it had always done when I was kid and it came time to do projects, essays, or any sort of academic work in relation to my family. Even though I am now 39 years old, all those feelings of confusion, discomfort, and I would be lying if I didn’t say a decent amount of anger (not at anyone in particular, just at the circumstances in general) and sadness associated with any sort of family trees/research. This is all very hard to do when you are adopted.

I was a white infant adopted by white parents therefore when people found out that I was adopted (I used to guard this information vigilantly, but my sister would blurt it out to anyone who’d listen) a slew of questions would follow. “What was wrong with your family–why couldn’t they keep you?” “You are so lucky–you could be in an orphanage!” “Can your parents send you back if you’re bad?” “What would have happened if you never got adopted? If nobody picked you?” The list went on and on. Any of you with elementary aged children probably know that they function like tiny drunkards in that they have little ability to self-sensor their thoughts. A sort of verbal diarrhea is present at all times, and that shit (pun intended) is very hard to navigate as a little girl. Each and every time we had to do a family tree or genealogy project at school, my anxiety level skyrocketed. Truthfully, I feel a tightness in my chest even writing this post. That’s how visceral it is.

It wasn’t until my last year of undergrad (and I did five years, so I was almost 23) in a studio art class that I was able to choose and  publicly present being adopted in a school setting. I did a performance art piece of me computing a family word problem on a wall while a taped phone conversation of me contacting Catholic Charities to begin the search for my biological parents played in the background. I barely held it together through that piece. I was shaking the whole time.

Family tree projects can also be complicated by death. When Alexandra had to do her family tree, I felt weird including my step-dad (whom I actually like) as her Grandpa, even though he’s the only Grandpa she will ever know since my dad died when I was 21. It seemed to negate my dad’s existence. Additionally, now that I am in touch with my biological mom (and close to her), in touch with my half-sister (love her), and in limited correspondence with my biological dad (long story), now that I have all that information, I didn’t know how to use any of it in her tree. Alexandra knows that Auntie Cathleen grew me in her belly and Auntie Julia is my half-sister, but to ask her to include them in her family tree project would just be silly, even though they are her family. I felt uncomfortable, agitated, angry, sad, and frustrated all over again.

Teachers: Each and every time you assign a project like this, students come face-to-face with these issues and many of these students have no way to articulate any of their feelings to you, their parents, or even to themselves. I struggled and suffered through these assignments for years and years, and, obviously, I still do. So when you put work like this into your curriculum, please find ways to also talk about adoption, death, foster families, aunties and grandmas as mamas, absent parents, sisters who aren’t your sister, modern families made of friends…I know, it’s complicated. But the more it’s normalized, the less painful it might be for those sitting silently in your class just praying for this lesson, project, unit to end.

Below is the poem I used in that art piece:

Word Problem

If you are 26 years old

and had 1 mother who gave

birth to you but then

was taken away and

married someone else and had

1 daughter and 1 son

Plus you had 1 father who

married 1 woman who was

pregnant with 1 child that

was not his,

but then had 2

daughters after that

who were and then

married another

woman and had 1


If all that happened,

plus, additionally

you had another

mother and father

who you knew and who

lived in a house that

you lived in also who

then had 2 sons;

How many mothers, fathers,

brothers, sisters, half

brothers, half sisters,

stepmothers, stepfathers,

aunts and uncles do you

have including the ones

you haven’t met yet?

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2 thoughts on “Teachers: Family Tree Sensitivity, Please

  1. Gorgeous. And I just came to your page to figure out how to do that silent wall assignment. XOXO

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