Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nine-year-old Racists

My nine-year-old son came home the other day upset about the latest nonsense on the bus. Only this time it was serious nonsense. So serious I picked up the phone and called the assistant principal.

There are a few characters in this story that require a little explanation

First there’s my son. He has alopecia areata which the official name of the condition that cause him to have no hair. Lots of people don’t have hair for all kinds of reasons. Ian’s reason is that he has this goofy auto-immune disease that attacks his hair follicles. Because the disease is not physically life-threatening, research for a cure has been slow and thus far there is no treatment. Ian lost all his beautiful red curls when he was four. For the most part he’s taken it in stride. The only consolation given to his condition is that he wears an under armor skull cap whenever he is out in public. At home and with close friends, he loses the hat quickly. Remember the hat – it’s important for the story.

The other character is a classmate of Ian’s. I will tell you right up front that I know very little about this young man. I’ve volunteered in his classroom and know him to be a pretty decent student, although a bit of a wanna-be class clown. He’s very articulate and projects a confidence I doubt goes very deep. I’ve met his parents several times and mom seems smart, kind, and competent. Dad is loud, outgoing, and a bit intense. Apparently they are considering parting ways, though, and I’m sure this is painful for the entire family. I mention these facts because I think the hurtful actions of children are quite often motivated by their own hurt.

There are a few other characters, but as I don’t know either of them, I can’t speak to their motivations or situations. One is another classmate with a not-so-stellar reputation and the other is the bus driver who seems more focused on driving the bus than watching his charges (fair enough).

Apparently, the little boy I described above (let’s call him Fred) and the other with the questionable reputation (let’s call him Fred 2), sit behind my son on the bus. All year long I’ve listened to Ian tell me stories of the stories Fred tells. They are very tall tales believe me. I listen carefully to my son’s re-telling and then question enough of the facts to help my son see through the stories clearly. A few times there have been words between them, but other than being very annoyed by the incessant chatter of the Freds, it’s been relatively peaceful (for an elementary school bus).

Until this past Friday. On this day my son came home visibly upset.
“Fred called me a Jew!”
“What?” I asked not quite believing what I’m hearing.
“He said I’m a Jew because I wear a hat like one.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him I’m not a Jew.” (This is said with increasing intensity and tears on the edges)
“And then what happened?”
“He laughed and kept calling me Jew, Jew, Jew. And then Fred 2 started saying it too. And then they said I was a Jew and that I’m gonna nuke them or they’re gonna nuke me or something like that.”
“What?” (My voice is rising along with my blood pressure and I’m working hard to reign in my fury.)
“And then they threw paper at me and said other stuff about me being a Jew.”
“What did the bus driver do?”
“Nothing. He never does anything.”
I’m sure the driver’s busy keeping the bus on the road. I’ve thought for years that parents should be allowed to volunteer on buses as monitors. It’s not a job I’d want for all the tea in China, but it seems like a better solution than expecting ordinary humans to drive a bus while simultaneously watching the road and the 40 or so kids. No matter, the bus driver is not to blame. I can tell Ian’s tears are about to let loose, so I sit him down and look him in the eye.
“First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being Jewish. Nothing at all. Lots of people are Jewish. You have friends who are Jewish. Orthodox Jewish boys wear a little cap on their heads called a yarmulke. It’s smaller than your skull cap.”
“Are Jews Christian?”
“No, they’re not, but Jesus was Jewish and they read the same Old Testament that we do. And besides, everyone is entitled to their own religion. There’s no right or wrong religion, just right or wrong actions. And Fred and Fred 2’s actions were wrong.”
He nods, relieved.
“The way those boys were taunting you is more than just teasing, it’s racism. They don’t know you aren’t Jewish. Hopefully, they don’t even know what they were saying, but I have to call the school about this because it’s pretty serious.”
Ian’s eyes get big, but he nods and then the tears do come.

To her credit, the assistant principal was appalled and after clarifying the names with Ian, she called the families of both boys.

The episode ended with one of the families bringing their son to our house to apologize. I was impressed with the fact that the dad took this seriously and even more impressed by the sincerity of the boy’s apology.

The episode hasn’t ended in my heart, though. Two things keep rolling around my mind.

First, why would those boys ever think “Jew” was a bad word? Have we not gotten past this? I keep hoping that each new generation is going to see past the labels and judgments and hold us all up as people – more alike than different. The dad of Fred said he thought his son got this from Southpark. I’ve never seen this show, but know it is popular and truly hope it isn’t spouting anti-Semitism. I want so desperately to believe that people are getting kinder, more accepting, not less.

The second thing that has caused me to lose sleep over this episode is that this is the first time my son has been bullied for his alopecia. I am not naive enough to believe that he isn’t going to be teased about having no hair. Heck, kids get teased for all kinds of lesser oddities, so the teasing is a given. I guess I’m just not ready for it. I hadn’t anticipated how much it would hurt. I don’t know how to protect my son’s heart and self-esteem from the cruelties of growing up without hair.

Other parents of kids with alopecia don’t allow their kids to wear hats or wigs, figuring the other kids will get used to their bald heads and at least no one can take their hat or wig in a cruel gesture. Nick and I have said from the beginning, it’s Ian’s head and it’s up to him. He has no control over this crazy disease, so at least he should have some control over whether he wants to cover his head or not.

Most days I forget that Ian has alopecia. For the most part, at least since that first year, it has not changed our lives too dramatically. Ian has such a big heart and beautiful soul, that you forget he doesn’t have hair. It’s a non-issue. This episode on the bus has reminded me that it isn’t a non-issue for him. Every day he’s aware that he is different. Every day he chooses to put on a hat. As he becomes a teenager and ranges further from our grasp, there will less and less I can do to protect him from the stares, the insensitive people, and the mean ones. So that hurts a bit.

But I suppose every parent has some of these fears. I worry on a different level about my other two children who march so obviously to a different drummer than their peers. I remember my own experiences growing up covered in freckles. I endured all kinds of creative nick-names. But I held on to the words of a friend’s father who told me freckles were kisses from the sun and a camp counselor who noted (probably inappropriately) that some day my husband would have fun connecting the dots.

Experiences like this are just one more hit you have to take as a parent. If we want a pain-free life, we shouldn’t have children. Funny, before I was a mom I had an incredibly low threshold for pain. I avoided dentists, shots, sticker bushes, and anything else that might lead to discomfort.

But now that these three beautiful beings have blessed my life, I’d willingly endure just about any form of torture to prevent them from feeling any pain. Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way and the best we can do is be here for them when the tears come. And they will.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Balm for a Mother's Soul

The day does come when your children are able to do things for themselves. For years and years we do everything for them and then one day they learn to operate a knife, a can opener, the washing machine. And each accomplishment makes you less and less necessary. It’s very freeing.

I had a message from a friend who is home with a baby and a preschooler. She had an awful night and a rough morning. She wouldn’t be able to join me for a glass of wine on the porch that night as we’d planned. Her message catapulted me back to the days of early motherhood when it was an accomplishment just to get a shower or unload the dishwasher. You don’t think those days will ever pass. But in an instant you are reminding your teen to put on deodorant and arguing with your daughter about appropriate attire. (Wait! That’s a bad example, I argued with my daughter over appropriate attire when she was four!)

At our house, I am the parent who plays games. Not head games – Monopoly, Apples to Apples, Spit, Trouble, Risk. When the kids were younger, I always wrestled mentally as to whether I should try to beat them. Nowadays I have to fight for every property, point, and win I get. They are steadily gaining on me.

But what’s really awe-inspiring is when your child becomes better at something than you are. Last Friday night I watched with a smile pasted on my face, choking back tears as my daughter sang in front of a small crowd at the local library. I’ve been watching Addie sing for years, pretty much since she could talk. She sings even when she doesn’t know it – in the shower, as she putzes around the house, while she’s on the swing, in the car with her headphones on.

Last Friday she was participating in an Open Mic Night. She’s done things like this before and she does well – for a pre-teen. But that night she did well – for a human being. Let me back up and confess that I was a music major in college (the first time around). I spent years singing and performing. I did fine. Obviously, I never made a huge impact since you don’t own any of my CD’s. Eventually, I realized that no one was going to pay (much) to hear me sing and I got a real job. Music became my hobby, and soon just a memory.

When old friends hear Addie sing, they always say – “she inherited your voice” and I nod with pride. But let me be the first to tell you, my daughter can sing circles around me. She has a confidence and attitude that I never had behind the microphone. And she has a voice with depth and color beyond her years. Think I’m just an overly proud mom? Check her out on youtube.

It is a powerful moment when you see your child surpass you. My oldest son surpassed my math knowledge back when he was in sixth grade. And sometimes when I read his writing, I am awestruck that he could have this much talent at such a young age. I’m still struggling to write well, and he has a huge head-start on me. I tell him that someday when he gets published, he’ll have to put a good word in for me with his agent.

We all hope that our children will be happy and successful. But we worry – after all these are the people who can’t pick up their wet towels, wipe the jelly off the counter, or find their other shoe. How will they survive on their own?

Motherhood is an epic experience. Although it is never ending, it is rich with powerful moments and even more powerful memories. When we are given glimpses of their abilities it is balm for a mother’s soul. Maybe they will be alright. For Mother’s Day my 15-year-old vacuumed my car and helped his father cook me dinner. In only three years, he will head off to college (or somewhere). I am relieved to see him growing in to the young man I’ve dreamed he will be - even as I close up the cereal box he left out and trip over his sneakers in the hallway.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chicken Bullies

Third time’s the charm. At least I hope it is when it comes to chicken bullies. I put the puff-headed chick back in the pen with the other chicks one more time. The puff-headed chick is slang for the Golden-laced Polish pullet who will eventually be an egg-laying member of our brood if she survives adolescence.

The first episode was a month ago. The chicks were barely a month old, but most of them already had a thick coating of feathers and were working on their flying skills (they don’t realize genetics is against them on this). My youngest child came running in the house to tell me there was a bloody chick.

Shit. I didn’t say this out loud, but I thought it. A bloody chick means the other chicks have determined who’s the weakest of them all. Chickens are cruel animals. The term pecking order is not some cute farm saying, it’s real. The order and the pecking.

When I reached the pen, it was easy to spot the injured bird. Golden-laced Polish chicks are nearly white with big puffy feathers on their heads (hence “puff-heads”). Her bottom was bright red and featherless. The other chicks had pecked out all her tail feathers and were now working on the skin. If I didn’t act fast, they would kill her. Why do people think chicks are cute?

I pulled out the injured chick, dowsed her butt with hydrogen peroxide, and dried her off with a clean towel. Then I set her up in her own digs, scrounging around for an extra waterer and feeder. Most of what we own is already in use since we currently have two Pack-n-Plays full of chicks – one in the garage and one in the barn.

There was no more foul (ahem) play in the garage pen, and I kept a careful eye on the pen up in the barn.

A week or two later, when she was all healed up, I nonchalantly placed the puff-head chick back in the garage pen while I distracted the other chicks with fresh food. One day later, it was my daughter announcing there was a bloody chick in the garage pen. Shit. Again.

Now it is two weeks later and I’ve just placed the healed up chick in the pen up in the barn. Maybe these chicks are a nicer bunch. Maybe they won’t see her puffy head as a weakness. It’s only been a few hours and so far everyone is playing nice.

I am not at all convinced it will go any better this time. Like human bullies, chick bullies strike when authority is absent. Research on bullying says poor problem-solving skills, low-academic ability, or a marked physical weakness such as obesity are some of most common reasons victims are chosen. All chickens have poor problem solving skills due to their inherent low-academic ability, so I’m assuming it’s the puffed head.

There is something universal rather than species specific when it comes to bullies. They’ve been with us since the dawn of time. I see evidence of it all over the animal kingdom – amongst dogs, horses, and chickens, so I have to believe it serves some kind of purpose.

I suppose it helps the stronger animals survive. Survival of the fittest and all that. But we are surviving now, almost too well to judge by the girth line of most of us humans. And my chicks had plenty of food and water. It’s deeper than survival.

When I’m told about a bully at school, sometimes I’m shocked. I know that kid. I know his/her family. They’re nice people. How can that child be a bully? They’re sweet and cute – just like my baby chicks.

In the past decade or so since Columbine, there have been many anti-bullying efforts embraced by schools nationwide. A quick search of the internet turns up dozens of anti-bullying programs, curriculum, and facilitators – many with a hefty pricetag. My children’s school has signs in the hallways declaring the school a “bully-free zone”. And yet the bullies persist. The shootings continue. The problem is not solved. Research says there aren’t more bullies now than there were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. It’s just that now we talk about it.

What makes a bully? Experts say it’s kids who have a need to feel more powerful or kids who experience a bully-friendly atmosphere at home. How can any home be bully-friendly? More reading revealed what it means to be bully-friendly. A bully-friendly family has members who are quick to grow angry, belittle each other, and/or use cruel teasing as a method of manipulation.

TV shows encourage meanness too. Look at all the popular shows that make fun of other people for their looks or lack of talent. People are shunned, voted off, and fired for entertainment. I’ve always detested reality shows, now I have one more reason. Kids see this stuff celebrated, so what kind of conclusion will they draw? When we model judgment and cruelty as acceptable, can we really expect them to behave differently?

I remember as a kid, I watched as others were bullied, silently thinking “thank god it’s not me.” Now when I hear the stories, I think “thank God it’s not my child.” My own kids have been lucky so far with bullying, but I worry. My youngest child has no hair, my oldest plays D & D, and my daughter prides herself in dressing differently than her peers. They could become targets.

I can never be sure which chick starts the bullying, but once they see blood, all the other chicks join in the bullying. By not speaking up or standing up, we effectively do the same thing.

I know I’m not the only parent who tells my kid to keep a low profile in potential bullying situations. I instruct them to listen to their headphones or read a book on the bus, don’t engage other people. And there’s more to this than dodging a bully, it’s really self-preservation. If only one person stands up to a bully, that person can become a target.

Social pressure is a powerful force. We have collectively made it unacceptable to smoke, pick your nose in public, leave dog poop on the sidewalk, or drive drunk. The power to eradicate, or at least, reduce the presence of bullies is in our hands. What will it take to make everyone stand up to bullies? What will it take to make bullying unacceptable rather than inevitable?

Experts say there’s nothing we can do about bullying. It’s a fact of life. We need to dispute that. Instead we underline it with expensive curriculums, television shows that model bullying, and lip service like posters and slogans. Adults like to tell stories about the cruelty they experienced when they were young, as if it’s a right of passage. Meanness is never funny. The humor comes at someone’s expense.

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of anti-bullying curriculum for my chicks. I just have to keep a watchful eye on the pecking order. They are hard-wired to pick on the weakest. But are we?

Imagine if it were different. Imagine if we evolved.

Postlude: The injured puff head chick did fine for four days, but then was killed by the others on a beautiful afternoon this past weekend when no one was looking. When I went to retrieve the body, the other chicks ran right over her like she wasn’t there. No remorse.