Two neighborhood nomads decided to make our yard their home last Friday evening. A girl I’d not previously met was shooting hoops with my sons and another friend in our alley after school. After I’d done the, “Oh, you’re in E’s class? Nice to meet you, I’m E’s mom” intro business with the older one, a smaller version of the new girl appeared. I’d begun putting dinner together, so I didn’t catch her name as I was busy tending to the needs of children to whom I’d given life. I am pleased that my kids’ friends feel comfortable at our home, but there are days (like each and every single one that I work, for example) that I would at least like to retrieve my purse from the trunk of my car before being designated the de facto day care provider.
After a short while, E comes inside to change his shirt because he had, and I quote, “ketchup all over the back of” his shirt. It didn’t seem interesting enough at the time to attend to as I was elbow deep in pasta sauce and my kid’s a slob, so the announcement really wasn’t all that startling. It became a big fucking issue an hour later though, when I threw laundry in and noticed just exactly how all over the back of his shirt it was. I
stormed strode briskly to our alley, but came up short when I heard this little girl laughing and shrieking, “What’s up, n-word?” on repeat. After the third pass, I was certain I hadn’t misheard her use of the n-word, so I said, shouted in my my honest and true, pissed off mom/you’re in serious trouble teacher voice: DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE SAYING? ANY IDEA? ANY I-D-E-A?? (pause for extended glare to ensure she wiped that smirk off her face) THAT IS NOT LANGUAGE WE USE IN THIS HOUSE, AND IF YOU SPEAK USING THAT KIND OF LANGUAGE, YOU ARE NOT WELCOME IN OUR HOME AND YOU WILL PLEASE LEAVE. Naturally my own children were horrified, and I’m not gonna lie, looked a little terrified, because I am not a yeller. My teacher voice comes out very rarely at home. And I’m certainly not a yeller of terms like “fat ass” referring to passers-by, as my neighbor heard this little girl yell. You guys, this kid was like 9 years old! Her language would make ME blush.
Little girl zips her lip, and appears contrite for about 1.3833404876 seconds. The silence was just long enough for me to present the gooey shirt held up high, presented like Simba in The Lion King “AND WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?” Realizing she’s busted when she eyes the ketchup-stained tee, she of the racial epithet hollers all kinds of tall tales that it was an accident. Now, folks, I flash instantly back to my own childhood, and hear the distant voice of my dear father: Wendy Ann, don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. No, I didn’t say that to her, but I made darn sure she and the rest of the gathering crowd (yes, two neighbors walking their dogs slowed waaaaaay down to observe my starring role in this chapter of life’s rich pageant), understood that I am not a stupid woman, nor one who tolerates untruthfulness. “THERE IS NO POSSIBLE WAY THAT KETCHUP RANDOMLY OR ACCIDENTALLY LANDS ON THE BACK OF A SHIRT.” After a few attempts at talking back, the girls mumble their “yeahs” in response to my exhortations to tell the truth, punctuated by “AM I CLEAR?”
I return to my date with my Maytag and tub of Oxi-Clean, which turned out to be a big mistake, except that part that saved my kid’s favorite shirt from staining. In my leave, this little girl proceeded to tear up our neighbor’s garden, stomping and flattening plants, uprooting bulbs, and stripping flowers from branches. To say that I lost my shit when I found out what had been done is an understatement. I would detail it for you, but I’m trying to block it out. To say that our neighbors were generous and decent about the damage their flower beds incurred is also an understatement. I felt shame on a few levels–one that my children were paralyzed to inertness by this child’s behavior, and two, that I myself didn’t supervise them sufficiently. After all is said and done, whether I wanted it to be the case or not, I felt responsible for the conduct of the masses. I didn’t know those girls, couldn’t vouch for them, yet because they were in our alley, I feel however default-ish the designation, that I should have prevented this chaos.
Let’s flash forward to the lessons learned, shall we?
- Parenting is effing hard.
- Adulting is effing hard.
- Use of the words “horrified” and “ashamed” are words I’d prefer never again to attach to behaviors my children are party to.
Actually that is merely the beginning of what came to light Friday. The phoenix risen from the ashes of Friday evening was a series of deep, meaningful exchanges between my children and us. I will attempt to remember what occurred after the unrest, not the vulgarity and vandalism itself. This is not easy because at present all I can see from my backyard is my neighbor’s trampled planting bed. Just breathe, Wendy.
Item 1: My kids had little idea why I was outraged at this kid’s use of the n-word. I asked them if they knew what it meant, and all they could say in response was that they knew it had something to do with black people. We ended up having a really deep discussion about race. It’s odd–my kids attend a very culturally and ethnically diverse school, so they don’t really attend to kids’ skin color so much. Maybe not talking about it because race rarely comes up wasn’t such a good thing; I’m not sure. But this girl’s language got my family talking about the power of words. Words can exalt and they can sting one’s soul–sticks and stones and all that. . . words can in fact hurt you. The kids asked me too about the r-word, and we talked about making judgments based strictly on the ways people are different. Why do people do that? I don’t really know, I said. How would you like it if people made fun of you because you wear glasses or because you have muscular dystrophy? Would you like that? Why would you make fun of someone who has a hard time learning or walking?
Item 2: Doing the right thing is HARD. My boys told the girls to stop tearing up the yard, but the girls persisted. What they didn’t do was take it to the get-a-parent-involved step, and while they did not perpetrate the destruction, they little else to stop it. The boys and I talked about how hard it is to do right in the face of someone doing wrong. They were both crying when we sent them to bed (because I was one cold, mean hardass when this all started), and couldn’t understand why I was disappointed in them. But I didn’t do anything! But I told them to stop! But it’s not my fault! All true, boys, and sadly sometimes it’s not enough. What if someone was getting beat up? What if you watched a friend doing drugs? Would you stand by and let it happen? Would you get an adult?
Item 3: Taking responsibility for your actions, even when, especially when it’s uncomfortable, is important. We marched the boys over to our neighbors to apologize Saturday morning. She knew our kids didn’t destroy her property, but they were part of the event. They apologized for not doing more to try to stop and for not getting an adult. They offered to pay for her plants and plant new ones. Eye contact was tough, and there were lots of deep breaths, but I am proud that they verbalized the words. Side note: my little one cleared out his wallet and had like $85 dollars in hand to give her. I was like, “why does my 10-year-old have $80 in his wallet?” But now I know where to score cash when the ATM is out of order, so hey, bonus!
Item 4: My children do have a conscience. Saturday morning into afternoon felt like a daytime talk show here. My big kid confessed pretty much every sin he’d ever committed. For reals. About every 40 minutes we’d hear, “Mom, Dad, this is really hard for me to say, and I’m trying to do the right thing, but it might make you mad, but I should probably tell you. . .” Every impure thought, every curse word, every giggle at something inappropriate, everything he tried to sneak his way in or out of–out there now. Of course part of me wonders if these disclosures were to clear his conscience or to avoid later trouble when I found out?? No matter. The big takeaway for me was that he understands right from wrong. I’d always believed that he did, but this evidence warmed my heart. When it didn’t frighten me. . . Kidding. His “sins” weren’t the kind that land someone in the eternal hot place, if such a place exists.
Item 5: Tell the truth. Even if it’s hard. Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. I’m familiar with gravity–I know that ketchup does not leap to someone’s back or fall horizontally through space. I’m older, I’m smarter–arguably wiser, and I’ve done all this shit before you. Learn the lesson earlier and faster than I did, OK?
I know kids are going to do what they’re going to do. I’m neither naïve nor stupid. I hate that Friday night happened, but I’m pleased it yielded conversations I didn’t know needed to be voiced. I feel that I’ll be better prepared for the next time. This was a hard one for me. I am sure I cried more than they did–and they really didn’t do anything wrong. Officially. Probably my tears were more of the looking down the road variety. Adolescence on its best day is a trial, and I don’t even want to think about it on its worst. Parenting is hard. Adulting is hard. Just breathe, Wendy.