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.

No comments:

Post a Comment