Raising Kids in Crown Heights

River, Megan, Phillip, and Soren

River, Megan, Phillip, and Soren


Running through the lives of Phillip and Megan Gay are two themes: one is of obstacles that separated them and the other is of coincidences that have helped them overcome those obstacles to the extent that one is tempted to use the word fate. Both of them were born in Beaumont, Texas a year apart in age. Beaumont was a coincidence, but the town kept them apart when they were growing up in it. Phillip was the youngest child in a Black family; he had a sister and a much older brother. He was a regular church-goer and his father was sometimes a preacher but did other things as well. Phillip regarded church as something one did on Sunday, but religion was not particularly important to him. He went to public schools that he found uninspiring, but he played the game and developed an interest in music that took him to Lamar University. Megan was from a white family and was the only child. She lived with her mother and step-father and went to a Christian school. She also found school to be unengaging, but she learned to please her teachers and did well. She also developed an interest in music and ended up at Lamar University.

If both of them were interested in music, they liked different kinds that one might say formed a crisscross pattern. Phillip became attracted to opera, which demands a trained voice, perfect pitch and is an adjunct to classical music. Megan, on the other hand, was intrigued by Black music, particularly Motown; she followed the Jackson Five and other groups from the legendary company. They were studying different kinds of music, but events put them in the came classroom. A teacher was out so two voice classes were combined. Phillip entered the classroom and saw Megan sitting in the back with a can of coke. He sat down next to her and smoothly thanked her for her thoughtfulness in supplying him with a drink. His approach must have seemed funny and led to the two dating for five years. However, if fate had finally brought them together, there were plenty of obstacles to come. First of all was the fact that they were from different races. Beaumont was a town in which the races kept to themselves and both sides felt that was the way it should be. Nearby was a town that the Klan thrived in and another town was one in which a Black man was dragged behind a truck until he was dead, an incident that made national headlines. Megan's mother told her she could be friends with a Black man but that was all. Phillip's parents were less direct. They said they were sure that somewhere there was a lovely Black woman who would make Phillip happy. Also the two were divided by their careers. Megan stayed in Beaumont to be a teachers and Phillip went to the University of Illinois at Champaign to get an MA in Music, but the relationship survived, and the lovers' persistence wore down their families' resistance by the time they married on New Years Day of 2012. Both families were in full attendance at the wedding wishing the young people well. Megan had moved to Brooklyn by then, but Phillip got a place in a program for young singers to study in Pittsburgh. Megan dutifully went to Pittsburgh, but abruptly burst into tears when they arrived. She still wanted to be in New York. If the start of life in Pittsburgh was difficult, the two soon came closer together. They found a church and in going to it they both had a religious awakening. The casual church-goers found Jesus and were “saved.” And their next move was to Brooklyn; Megan still yearned for the city and Phillip realized that to have a career in opera, New York City was the place to be.

Right from the start Phillip and Megan knew they wanted to have children and were open to it happening, and in 2015 River was born. They dealt with it fairly smoothly. Megan had experience with children as a teacher and seems to be a natural born mother, and Phillip has a busy schedule but does what he can to help out. River is a beautiful child with extraordinary grace and a love of music. One might see her in church watching her father sing and moving smoothly in time to the song. The Gays have survived in a small apartment without enormous difficulty, and two years later came Soren. Megan had the idea of bringing back a photography business she had hardly started, but the demands of

motherhood – feeding, clothing, getting the children to sleep and awake, dealing with illnesses – made that impossible, and Phillip found out something nearly all artists have discovered before him, that except for the lucky few, art does not support a family. He continues to sing and take jobs as they come, but is now on track to become a real estate agent, taking a course to get the certificate with the hope of developing a local business based in Central Brooklyn.

Another lucky coincidence for the Gays was finding Mosaic Baptist Church. They found it mysteriously online with a search that should not have worked. The church is filled with young couples who are having families. The Gays became close to their pastor Stephen Stallard and his wife Sonya who have just had their third child. The two families, along with other members of the congregation, have formed a kind of cooperative in they care for each others children as needed. The Gays have never hired a babysitter or a nanny. The church cares for its children as anyone who has been to service knows. Early on children are dismissed and there is always someone to be with them in the next room. And parents may come and go for some little emergency that may arise, but the system works well.

And it is perhaps from the church that the Gays have come up with their views on education. Stallard was home schooled and the Gays have decided to do something similar. The are following a philosophy called Unschooling according to which the child learns at home and the parents help the child to learn anything he or she expresses an interest in. This avoids the dull routine the Gays grew up with and means the child follows his or her own interests. One objection to home schooling does not apply, which is that child isn't socialized with other children. There are many other children in the church whom River knows well. Also Phillip found his own upbringing to be filled unnatural cruelty and bullying, horrible for the victims and the victimizers alike. With Unschooling the Gays hope to avoid the traumas some children face in school. Recently River decided she wanted to be able to spell her name and Megan found a way to make this happen by having her trace the letters. The Gays feel that by following their interests the children will fill in any gaps naturally. River loves music and dance; her parents feel if she becomes a good dancer with a love of music, she would find out many other things along the way – history, even math and science and much else could all come to her through dance and music.

So it has been a long journey with many detours, but the two Beaumont children, white and Black have come together in Brooklyn with two lovely children and perhaps more to come, with a supportive church and a strong set of beliefs that have emerged from a marriage that has overcome all obstacles. Rather through determination, the Gays have brought their two families around and found their own original way of proceeding based on their love for each other and a willingness to figure things out for themselves.


Competent and Confident

“I want my daughter to feel like she can do whatever she puts her mind to- to be and feel competent and confident”, says Tori Purcell, mother of almost 5 year old Sania.

Sania is in kindergarten at PS 9 in Prospect Heights, near Crown Heights. Tori’s hopes for her daughter probably echo many parents hopes and encompass a great many areas: physical, intellectual, social, emotional, psychological and spiritual growth. Sania’s father Tony was born and raised in Havana, and Tori comes from Virginia. These two places are culturally different and Tony and Tori want Sania to experience and appreciate both. She speaks both Spanish and English. The family travels to Virginia and Cuba frequently and Sania knows and loves her families and friends in both places. Tori says that what she treasures about Brooklyn is the diversity of people in all Sania’s worlds: school (both faculty and students), her extra curricular classes of dancing, drumming and swimming, parks and playgrounds and the surrounding neighborhoods. Tori did not have this kind of richness growing up in her small town of Louisa, and she is glad that this life is natural and normal to Sania.

Tori and Tony were clear that they wanted Sania to attend a Spanish immersion school where the teachers speak only Spanish. When Sania was three she went to a private school. However, the school took students under Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-k program, Sania’s school offered the only total Spanish immersion universal pre-k class and Sania attended that class when she was four, her second year at the school. Now in Kindergarten at PS 9, Sania’s class is bilingual. Tori and Tony are pleased and Sania is enjoying school. But not everything has been enjoyable and Tori finds that keeping a dialogue with Sania is crucial to knowing what is happening in school and how Sania is feeling. For instance, in pre-k the children learned about Martin Luther King- including his “I Have a Dream...” speech and also that he was killed for having his dream. The discussion about racism proved very frightening to Sania. Because she has one parent of color, Sania was afraid that she and her father might get killed. She also had trouble going to sleep- worrying that she might have a dream and be killed for that. Comfort, talking with her parents and time helped Sania move on but Tori and Tony were concerned that the developmental stage of their young child was not being addressed by the the teachers. Both parents felt it important to address their concerns with Sania’s teachers and the school.

Tori and Tony enjoy being parents and feel lucky that their child is communicative. One technique they use is play. Through playing with Sania, they hear about her interests and concerns in school. At one point Tori asked Sania if the lunch room is noisy. “Of course not, Mama, everyone is eating!” Sania is a playful, happy child. Still, Tori feels it is important to stay aware and involved in Sania’s education. She says, “The system is a big animal that’s difficult to manage and the struggle feels never-ending.” There are tests, applications and records to worry about along the way and the pressure on families is great. Balancing other aspects of life is also challenging. Both Tori and Tony are artists and have to struggle to find time for their own work. “We are lucky, though”, says Tori, “Tony works mostly from home and my job is fairly flexible. So if Sania gets sick, one of us can stay home with her.” They also share drop off and pick up at school. They have no regular helpers.

The pleasure Tori and Tony feel from raising Sania is evident and Sania seems well on her way to “feeling like she can do whatever she puts her mind to.”

Louise Kurshan - 10/1/2018


Welcoming Oliver

Justin and Michael had been together eight years and married three when they brought Oliver into their lives. He is a lovely child, self-possessed with a sly sense of humor. How in the world did these three people coalesce into a family?

First Justin and Michael met in a gym and Justin felt a connection right away. He watched Michael for a while and eventually got the nerve up to go over and ask him out to dinner, the answer was of course yes. They were married in 2013 and soon after decided to start a family and began the process of adoption.

For a single sex couple the options are more limited than for heterosexual couple. They began looking with Spence Chapin and were told that there was no foreign country that would allow them to adopt and Spence Chapin itself had nothing to offer. However, they referred them to a agency called IAC which acted at first, as Justin says, like a “dating site.” Birth mothers and families waiting to adopt to could meet and eventually “match”. Justin and Michael matched with a mother in California and Oliver was born two years ago.

Justin said the presence of the child in their home was not a shock. Oliver slept a lot at first and his temper was calm and contemplative. He walked at an early age, nine months and he spoke early as well. Also he spoke with an amazingly accurate intonation; there was no slurring or drawling, no cute mangling of the hard-to-pronounce consonants. Oliver has been learning in an orderly way. For a while he was interested in colors; he pointed them out as he saw them, and this sometimes refreshed their surroundings for his parents. They noticed more. Then he moved on to shapes, learning the basic geometric ones and again pointing them out as he saw them. Justin was surprised to notice that the ceiling lights in the subways are indeed rectangles. There are more triangles than one would expect once one starts looking.

Oliver is very observant and expressive and very aware of what is going on and finds things to do everywhere. Once when Justin was on the phone at Colina Cuervo, Oliver discovered the pile of napkins near the milk and sugar counter. He systematically fed the napkins into the garbage can until Justin realized what was going on. And as the parents discovered who Oliver was, they discovered more about who they were. Caring for Oliver is like putting together a puzzle. Justin takes off Fridays and has a looser schedule. Michael works regular hours so he is present weekends and evenings. A nanny comes in few days a week, and Michael's mother fills in some time. Oliver just started school part-time at the Co-op School in Clinton Hill which they love. For now it is a perfect fit.

Indeed their lives have been changed though not as dramatically as they thought. They used to love to do impulsive things like antiquing. Now there must be a plan with child care in it and the plan has be to set up in advance. One great thing about Oliver is that he loves to go out and it is fascinating to go with him and see things brand new. He is a regular at the Brooklyn Museum where there are so many interesting colors and shapes, and one favorite activity it just to get outside and take a walk around the block.

What strikes one about this family is that everyone has brought something to it and it all fits together so well. They all obviously enjoy each other, but each in his own way. And the family is fluid enough to include more people. Michael and Justin have been talking about adopting another child and they discuss this with Oliver. He is wide open to the idea, which speaks to the sense of security he has. And if they ask whether he wants a girl or a boy the answer depends on who is mentioned last. If they say, “Would you like to have a sister or brother?” the answer is a brother. Reverse the order and the answer will be a sister. Oliver has what he needs, which is a solid base to build on, and with that base his curiosity can take him everywhere. Nothing is too frightening, nothing needs to be hidden from. He is going to take it all in and classify everything – triangles here, squares there, rectangles over there. He will keep adding categories until he has encompassed the world. How lucky these three people are to now be in the family so that they can follow and participate in the growth of a human being. As Oliver learns so will Michael and Justin.

UpdatesJonathan Judge