The Science of Passing

Humanity is a learned species. It can calculate the curvature in the paths of celestial bodies, or decipher the meaning behind wheelbarrows and chickens with scratches of graphite. It goes as far as to explain its own many attributes with the help of karyotyping and Punnett Squares. We, humanity, divide ourselves into the havers of hitchhiker thumbs, the brunettes, the left-handed scissor-strugglers, and the unfortunate sunburners. Every characteristic has a biological explanation; there is no room for interpretation. Still, the nucleic acid in our cells cannot summarize the parade of humans who pass each other by on the street. Our species observes itself and sees what biology has bestowed upon it: curly hair, blue eyes, skin color. What it doesn’t see is what biology cannot explain: the inexplicable beauty in motivation, thought, and dream. Humanity may take one form as a struggling single father of three children, or another as a rags-to-riches businesswoman, and while science can measure their persons using the genetic code, there is no formula to tell the one craving pizza from the one reliving a children memory.

Thus, the human species has taken up the art of “passing;” we have decrypted our chemical makeup, but not our motivations. The ever rapidly-advancing technology that has offered us space travel, internet, and medical breakthroughs just isn’t certain about what goes on in those fantastic, intracranial organs we have. So we may have a disconnect between measurable facts and hypothetical assumptions, science and thought. In that space, passing emerged. Previous American societies, encouraged by humanity’s refusal to be restrained by limits, latched onto passing. The fragmentation of cell bars, bars that extend past biological prisons to include those of social status or wealth, is what passing embodies, and what gives it such enticing potential. It allows any passerby to wear a mask, and by doing so, enlarge their world. While it originally referred only to the subject of race, as it does in Nella Larsen’s Passing, in which antagonist Clare Kendry “passes” as Caucasian, the meaning of American passing has expanded. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, in his masquerading as a man born from wealth, represents the development of passing’s definition. As American culture gravitated toward self-reinvention, passing, in its expanding forms, took root in our society.  

Many of us might argue that we don’t “pass” at all. After all, doesn’t the very concept suggest that we aren’t satisfied with what we are? No, the human species cannot define passing just as a way of creating new identities for itself, because while we do have the power to dictate who we are, passing can be more than just that. Humans, as sentient beings, “pass” every time they tell a lie, keep a brave face, or pretend. We pass not to escape what we are, but to protect it. United States citizens, having lived in a country with an overall upwards trend in divorce rates over the past century, have come to use passing to protect themselves and their loved ones. In this form of passing, which has sprung from crumbled relationships, children of divorce take on the roles of the adults who look after them. While these role-reversals prompt children to mature early, they also represent an alternative form of passing rooted not in personal betterment, but in compassion.

The United States, as well as most of humankind, has only recently in its history become open to divorce. The revolutionary thought and development that makes our country unforgivingly American pulled the illicit subject out of the shadows of disgrace and blanketed it in modern values. Since 1870, national divorce ratings have surged from near-zero to 800,000 per year, a number representative of the fact that more Americans are unwilling to spend their lives dissatisfied with an irreconcilable spouse (Swanson). But, for Americans who are parents, their children remain a permanent obstacle that keeps them from cutting ties with their former spouse. For lucky children (and ex-spouses), parental contact remains cordial enough for the divorce not to disrupt the lives of the children. However, in many cases the “the less you have to do with your ex, the better” mentality takes over and leaves children stranded between two parents harboring negative emotions (Balduf).

When we’re kids, we read storybooks with anthropomorphic tigers that talk to us about prime numbers and how to tie our shoes. Once in a while, we play four-square at recess, or look through I–Spy books, or make domino chains at after-school. We’re children. We’re children, and forty-percent of us have divorced parents (32 Shocking). The most mild, even “pleasant” of divorces impact children. The human species’ brain continues developing into the twenty-fifth, twenty-sixth year of life – or beyond (GLOOM). Unsurprisingly, in comparison, the highly impressionable brains of children are even more succeptible to change, being at earlier stages of development (Hamilton). Children of divorce not only find that their allegiances are tested, but that their parents’ sporadic, unpredictable behavior starts to mirror their own. In place of mac ‘n’ cheese for dinner, children are fed nasty information about their other parent (Sedacca). Innocent and trusting, some find themselves confused when Daddy won’t make friends with Mommy.  

Because parents can stoop to a level of adolescent pettiness and discourtesy, children of divorce must pick up the slack. In most cases, that doesn’t quite mean paying taxes or doing the dishes, but sacrificing their innocence and becoming an emotional pillar of support. Exposed to a fragile, even bitter side of adulthood that their parents never intended for them to see, children of divorce tumble out of their protective bubbles. There, in a more honest, shocking environment, they come face-to-face with real-world problems that many of their peers have never imagined. Because of these situations, it’s no surprise that “research has consistently shown that children from divorced families exhibit […] greater maturity and greater independence” (J Am). Children whose parents have divorced see that the world around them does not always lie on stable ground. They know that their parents are hurting, and so they learn not to bring up their other parent, not to show preference, or even – as a form of emotional support – to show preference only to the parent they’re with at the time. They make these sacrifices as they become attuned to the separate wavelengths their parents run on. Just like Robert Weiss suggests, their demonstrated maturity in learning at a young age to cope with problems that they have no tools to solve confirms that “divorce makes children ‘grow up a little faster’” (Kirkpatrick).

The word “divorce” has been circling in my head since I was ten. My dad moved out when I was in fourth grade, and it took a year for me to realize that he wasn’t coming back. There was a final piece of blissful ignorance still holding on inside me, helping me to overlook what I would have seen if I had let myself. I didn’t want change, but we all needed it. In the past eight years that I’ve lived two separate lives, in different homes, as disparate versions of myself, I’ve come to understand that my experience having divorced parents wasn’t unique; we all saw and felt and hurt. For each of us, divorce stained our childhood.

I don’t want to be angry with my mom and dad for what their divorce did to me and my little sister. I don’t want to be angry because I know that it was not meant to hurt us. I don’t want to be angry because I have thirteen years of pent-up anger, and the people around me have already soaked up enough of it. But I also know that a lot of who I am is because of the sacrifices that I made for my parents. When I was nine, I stopped mentioning my parents’ names. I saw a counselor as a part of my parents’ divorce agreement for five years, and each time that I went, I did it with a little voice in the back of my head, whispering to me that if I could set an example for them, maybe they would go too. It seemed crazy to me that they didn’t think they had any issues to solve in counseling, that it was just me. That outrage, of course, stayed quiet and confined in my head.

A lot of me stayed quiet and confined. Fear of a raising a touchy topic became a fear of speaking, and eventually manifested itself as stage fright. I was nine the first time that I danced in the Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House; I quit ballet before the end of elementary school. When I was thirteen, I would wake up at five every morning to bike between my parents houses for school supplies or track uniforms. I had started to notice how much they hated when I asked to be driven between the two homes, how they grimaced at the word “dad” or “mom.” At night, I held my mom’s hand while she cried on our kitchen floor, asking for her own mother. One blistering summer afternoon she told me that she didn’t know if she could do it anymore. Five years have passed since then, and I still don’t know whether she meant fighting in court to keep us in her life, or fighting for a reason to keep her life at all.

My form of passing is one that many people – many children – experience, have experienced, and will continue to experience. But, unlike Clare Kendry’s racial passing to live an upper-class lifestyle, or Jay Gatsby’s form of it to reunite with the love of his life, this type of passing isn’t something I chose. When I heard my parents’ ugly words, I gave up my blind trust in them. When they lashed out at me, I let my reliance on them disintegrate. When I saw them hurting, I disregarded my own problems. When they were small, I promised myself that I would be the bigger person for them. By safeguarding their feelings at the expense of my own, I surrendered the innocence that, as a child, I was owed. Still, while some of my actions may seem voluntary, I never consciously decided them. Even as kid, something in me was programmed to respond. Biology kicked in. The human species – amazing, sentient beings as we are – has an inherent compassion waiting on the sidelines, ready to trigger our protective instincts. The biological prison in which each of us lives may just be our greatest asset. It’s true, humanity is a learned species, but it hasn’t figured out everything. There’s a gap between decoding genes and solving the scientific puzzle behind motivation and thought. When we cross it, we might find that passing was inherent all along.

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