I wasn’t going to write this one. I didn’t know if I could tackle it in a way that would truly give voice to my thoughts in the sentiment in which they are intended. But I have quickly found that when something grabs me and won’t let go, it is blog-worthy. So please bear with me as I try to put into words some thoughts brought upon by a simple game of tag.
Last Saturday I took my kids to McDonald’s with my friend J. and her two little ones. It was a cloudy, mild day so we sat outside and let the kids play in the outdoor playground. Because the day was beautiful there were several other families with children eating outside and quickly the playground was swarming with kids between the ages of 2 and 5. They were running, laughing, and having a great time, while J. and I caught up on news and chatted. As I was watching the games, I realized all the children would run out of the slide screaming and laughing, calling out for the “monster.”
“-He’s coming, hurry, run!”
“-Ahhhh….run! He’s coming!”
I was half listening to J. and half processing this game when I realized the “monster” they were all fleeing was my son, Noah. It looked like an innocent enough game but I noticed they were using his name:
“-Run away, Noah is coming!”
As any concerned parent, I wanted to make sure he was a willing participant and that he was not being shunned by the other children. I caught him as he ran past me and I asked him: “Baby, do you like being the monster?” He nodded, smiled at me, and ran away growling and making paws of his hands. Ok, no harm done yet. He obviously did not think anything of being the monster they all avoided and was enjoying the role. I silently prayed, as I watched, that he would always have that innocent, open outlook.
As I reflected upon the events of the day, I realized it is a natural thing that happened. Noah is usually the youngest, he enjoys chasing other children while growling, and he doesn’t get his feelings hurt easily. What a better combination to be nominated monster of the game? But I am, by my own admission, hypersensitive to my children’s future struggles because their situation is, in so many ways, unique. So my wheels started turning...
When I taught high school I used to do an activity to raise awareness among my students about the ugliness of stereotypes. We would openly discuss the origin and validity of stereotypes they had heard or even believed at one point about people of other races. I loved how open and honest the kids were and I always felt that, by the end of the hour, we all walked away better informed, and more compassionate. We got to know each other more deeply and we had a more sympathetic understanding of each others’ ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and struggles as well. One of the questions I would ask is how many of them had ever been followed in a store by a security guard, had noticed people changing sides of the street if they saw them coming, or had, in any other way, been made aware that people feared them or didn’t trust them. Invariably it would be my males of color (Black and Hispanic) who would raise their hand. Every now and then I would have females of color raise their hands as well (I, myself, was followed in a JC Penny when I was in high school). Many of the kids who would raise their hands were straight “A” students, good kids who did not get in trouble. Others were kids who looked rough but had hearts of gold. Usually, they expressed dismay and hurt that this was the case.
The reasons behind this phenomenon are multiple and I’m not going to get into that. It’s just that lately, the voices of my students have begun to hit very close to home. I started to think about how cute Noah is. He has always been. When he was a baby, people would stop on the street to fuss over him. He has a dimpled smile, big brown eyes, and a winning disposition. As he grows, however, he will turn from a cute little boy to an ugly-duckling elementary school child, to an awkward, moody, teenager. And not just any teenager: a Black teenage-boy. I wonder if the same people that right now flirt with him in the grocery store will clutch their purses a little tighter when they see him coming. My little boy, a threat? My sweet little, compassionate Noah? It is a hard pill to swallow and yet it may just be his reality in a few years. It is what it is and I alone cannot change these facts. This is not a rant against society or an attempt at making any kind of social commentary. These are just the ponderings of a wistful mother.
A few months ago Isabel came crying to me because her little friend had told her they were no longer friends. My heart broke with hers but I knew what to say and how to console her: friends may be mean, they may have a bad day, they may be grumpy. She understood; she had been grumpy herself, she has been mean to others before. In a few years, when Noah comes to me hurt and bewildered because a stranger played “monster” with him and he was an unwilling participant, what could I say to mend his little heart? How do I explain that one?