The moment I heard about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, I couldn’t help but think about two years ago when I was at a parent teacher conference with my wife. We were discussing our youngest, who, for the most part, was like living with a wild honey badger. She was a sweet kid, but sending her to preschool had proven to be a wild ride. We were near the middle of the school year, and Aspen had already been sent to the principal’s office twice — something I’d found remarkable considering she was in preschool, not even school-school. But with each issue the school called Mel, pulling her away from her teaching job, and I always found out about it later in the day, after work.
Anyway, as the teacher was talking about the challenges she faced educating our daughter, I couldn’t help but notice that she was only addressing my wife with each and every concern. Mel and I both sat across from her, but her body was angled, only facing my wife, and in so many ways, it felt like I wasn’t even in the room. This is the case with all of our children, and I’ll be honest, as an active father who is very engaged in his children’s lives, and education, I have always found it frustrating not only for myself, but also for my wife. She works too, and whenever there is an issue with our children, the school calls Mom. We never told them to do this, but for whatever reason, it’s the standard operating procedure.
A few days before that meeting, I was reading an online interview with Ginsburg on NPR. Apparently RBG ran into a similar problem with her children’s school. Naturally, she handled it like a boss. According to the interview, RBG was founding the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, teaching at Columbia University, litigating cases all over the country and in front of the Supreme Court, while also being a mother to two children. Her son James was often described by the school as “hyperactive” — however, RBG lovingly described him as “lively.”
She was getting calls from the school pretty regularly about James, and one afternoon, after being up all night writing a brief, she got a call from her son’s school as she was working in her office at Columbia. She picked up the phone, and I kid you not, she said, “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”
She then described how her husband went buzzing down to the school to handle the situation — a role he was more than happy to fill, despite it being against the norm at the time. In her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, RBG said, “I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s.”
But the part that really stuck with me about this story was what happened next. After she told the school to alternate calls between both working parents, the calls started to slow down, only coming about once a semester. RGB believed that the reason for this was because “they had to think long and hard before asking a man to take time out of his work day to come to the school.”
Let’s consider all the important work RBG was doing at that time, and what she went on to do — and then the fact that, because of her gender, the school was more than happy to call her about James, but they were hesitant to call her husband. That says a lot about how society then, and most likely now, views the work of women. And on the flip side, as a father, it says a lot to me about how society sees the role of a dad in the lives of his children.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to be getting calls home about my children getting in trouble. I don’t think any parent does. But at the same time, I would gladly take them because I am invested in my kids’ lives, and work be damned, my children take priority.
What I can say, however, is that this story from RBG had a pretty big impact on me. And midway through that parent teacher conference with my daughter’s teacher, as I was sitting there feeling like an outsider listening in, I went ahead and summoned the badassness of RBG. I tapped the table and said, “Hey, no offense, but I’m here too. You can address these concerns to me as well.”
The teacher paused for a moment. There was an awkward silence. Then she took a breath, straightened her blouse, and shifted her chair a bit so she was facing both of us — my wife and myself. Then she said, “Yes, sorry about that.” And suddenly, the dynamic of the meeting changed, and my wife and I had an equal seat at the table in discussing the concerns of our “lively” daughter.