By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the
side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
In honor of Father’s Day, my column this month offers a glimpse of our town through the eyes of a few of its dads. To bring this image into focus, I spoke with a handful of fathers who open their Gmail accounts on Sundays and spoke to me candidly.
It wasn’t until Xavier Donaldson moved to Montclair that he realized something about his own childhood. When he and his brother were growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s — first in Liberty City, Miami and then in the South Bronx, New York — his father was the only dad in the neighborhood. “I don’t recall seeing or spending time with anyone else’s father — ever,” he says. When he connects with childhood friends today, even those he hasn’t seen in 20 years, the first thing his friends ask is “How is your dad?” For Donaldson, the best thing about being a dad to two boys in Montclair is being surrounded by other dads. With fathers as far as the eye can see — coaching or cheering from the sidelines at Northeast’s Soccerthon, sipping lattes at Starbucks, barbecuing, or walking their dogs — Montclair is what Donaldson calls “Dad-town.”
For Ken Zimmerman, it’s been refreshing to raise kids in a place where dads don’t claim to have all the answers. Montclair is the reverse Lake Wobegon, Zimmerman observes, the fictional town which Garrison Keillor describes as a place were “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Zimmerman and his dad friends are open about challenges and shortcomings — their own and those of their kids.
Mark Hurwitz can relate. “I love the way Montclair makes being a dad feel like a collective enterprise. There is a strong network of dads (and of course moms!) who are continually comparing notes and collaborating,” he says.
Montclair dads also talked about the resources Montclair offers. Joseph Carter has three kids, including a son with special needs. In Montclair, his family can access a number of services and support systems easily. Jonathan Simon, who chairs the Montclair Public Library Foundation Board, calls our town’s cultural riches — including a museum, a film festival, a jazz festival — and of course, a great library — “gifts” to our children.
PARENTING AND PROGRESS
For all these plusses, being a Montclair dad presents challenges too. Tony Schuman, dad of twin boys, says that Montclair kids sometimes outpace the progressivity of their parent, for example, many call for abolition of the police. Fathering here is a balancing act — encouraging your kids’ aspirations for themselves and our society, and preparing them for a world that will push back on their dream.
Dads pointed to a paradox — the racial and economic diversity they love here spotlights realities they hate. George Kendall appreciates that his kids have “an assortment of friends that resembles a UN meeting.” At the same time, “all the ills of inequality are here and in your face,” Kendall says. “Why is club soccer overwhelmingly white? …[W]hy is there not more support for struggling students in our schools?”
Several dads noticed their kids had moved through Montclair’s Pre-K through middle school with diverse classroom peers and friend groups, only to enter racial silos once they reached
high school. Black dads are particularly aware of the challenges facing Black youngsters, especially Black young men. This awareness affects their parenting.
Black kids “need to stay armored with the reality that their experience may not be like those of others, even in Montclair,” according to Simon, a Black dad.
Donaldson, also a Black dad, knows the weight of that armor. As an adult he’s been stopped by police at least 25 times. And as a kid in Miami and the South Bronx, he says, he was stopped every couple of days. Donaldson — regularly, repeatedly — tells his son when (not if) you are stopped by police, “your job is to put your hands up, palms out, and make it home safely.”
But each of the dads I spoke to has hope that people across our community and our country are beginning to realize the relentless injustice and trauma Black people face and feel — on the daily — even in Montclair.