Overhearing a mother talk to her son in a certain not-so-nice (but not-so-terrible) way brought our columnist to tears. But is that really the worst reaction? Leigh Newman sheds a little emotion on how to coexist with...everyone.
The other day, on the sidewalks of my neighborhood—a leafy suburb, rife with young families—I was walking behind a mother and child. The mother was encased in spandex, save for her tennis shoes with soles that implied they might allow you to bounce up to heaven and pull down a star.
I noted her firm step, her purposeful air, her toned and tidy stomach muscles, which I could not see, but I suspected she had. She seemed confident, powerful. I was so busy admiring her and wanting to be her that I almost overlooked her son who was trudging along beside her. He was 5ish, with round wire glasses and curly hair and a little scar on his temple. He looked like the kid that goes to the nurse every recess to avoid the horror show of the school playground. Worse, he wore an Iron Man T-shirt with the all-powerful metal figure surging over his chest that only made him look littler.
"Honey," the mom said, in the most loving, enthusiastic voice, a voice kindergarten teachers use for getting kids to clean up their toys. "You're going to love karate."
Nothing but trudging from the boy.
"Just think, you'll be walking down the street and nobody will know it, but you can defend yourself. You can hit them—pow! pow!—right in the solar plexus." She made a series of violent chopping gestures.
Nothing but trudging from the boy.
"They might think that they can hurt you, but really you'll be the one who can hurt them!"
Another woman moved up beside me. She was older, a grandmother. She caught my eye, shook her head angrily toward the mother, then plugged in her music and walked very fast away from all of us.
"It'll be you," said the mother. "Pow! Pow! Right where it hurts!"
Her son finally looked up, nodding desperately. The naked hope in his eyes, the hope that his mother's vision would come true, the belief in her—my heart died a little.
My heart died a little. In my imagination the mother and I had a conversation. It went like this:
Me: Do you know what you're saying to this little boy? That it'll be great when he can inflict bodily harm on people?
Her: Are you saying I'm a bad mother? Who are you, lady?
Me: A fellow human being! I'm worried about your boy. He's a gentle guy. He's a sweetie.
Her: Listen, he's my child! Butt out!
Me: Oh...you're right. I am butting in. I'd kill anybody who did this to me. Sorry.
So I walked along, saying nothing but silently crying. I have been a little worried about my crying lately. This is why I wear sunglasses. It's not to prevent wrinkles (99-cent sunglasses, named the Eliminators as if to make the wearer think of laxatives, do not, I suspect, help with undereye skincare) or to look like Nicole Richie. It's to hide my tears now that I am what I think of as an "easy weeper," which I find acutely embarrassing.
I was not previously an easy weeper. I was a tough, blank smiler. What happened? The birth of my last child? My recent and total transformation into my own mother—argyle socks in bed to mysterious, inappropriate clucking noises during movies?
The mother ahead of me moved on to sunscreen. After karate, this boy was going to day camp. "Once a day is not enough!" said the mother. "You have to reapply! Nobody is going to help you! You have to be responsible for your own protection!"
More nodding and trudging from the boy.
Next she brought up his scar, the one on his temple. "Mommy won't be there, honey. Your counselors don't care about your scar. Do you understand? You have to keep your scar covered at all times. All the time, got it?"
On I went, crying. That's all I could think of to do. The truth was, this woman wasn't physically abusing her child or verbally abusing her child. What she was telling him to do was to hurt people before they hurt him, to be responsible for his own protection, to keep his scar covered at all times.
I tried to tell myself, there was a lot of fear under these messages. Maybe something had happened to this mother that I didn't know about, something awful. Or maybe bullies were picking on the boy, and this was her way of trying to prop him up and make him feel strong. But I was never going to know what had happened. I was probably never going to see these people again—not even years later, the way I might fantasize about, when I would see the boy at age 10, playing softball on a team with my son, providing me the opportunity to casually suggest in between innings that there might be an entirely different way to experience life.
The truth was, I had to let that kid go, and let the mother go too. But I am getting older. I want to start understanding things a little more. I want to figure out how to live with other people whom I disagree with—not by trying to convince them of my point of view, or walking away because I can't convince them, but by feeling differently about the whole interaction. Let's say there's a Big Primary Mover up there—why did he/she/it show this to me? How I am supposed to go on and just buy a crappy decaf coffee and a bagel?
I stopped, right there in the street. I took off my sunglasses. And I cried all the way down the street—not hysterically, like a crazy lady, just quiet, subtle crying. Because I am not going to keep my scar hidden at all times. This may not be the best way or the only way, but it's my way to live with other people.