My sons and I were at an end of the season basketball party for my 6th grader. The riot of boys, fresh from a hoops victory found their way to the host’s sport court and quickly devised a game of chucking balls at each other with great force. I never worry about my oldest son, a natural athlete and easy-going kid; but I am always keeping a special eye out for my middle guy. Sports are not his thing, nor really are group activities. He’s a sensitive and quirky boy given to wearing silly costumes and perfecting his Ninja moves when he’s not creating works of art on his Etch-a-Sketch. This sort of behavior doesn’t exactly put him in the main stream, or help him develop those instantaneous friendships that most kids seem to be able to strike up with absolute strangers. But for the moment, Willie seemed to be holding his own in the mix.
After chatting with some other moms for a while, I looked past my social circle, craning my neck to find Willie in the expansive back yard full of boys. I spotted his turquoise shirt far across the court. “Still at it, that’s great,” I mused, just in time to witness him take his belt off and start swinging it wildly towards a small group of boys near him. “Ooooh, that’s too much” I said out loud and began to hustle towards him. As I neared, his face came into focus and I could see that he was very upset. “Willie!!” I called out to him, “Come here!!” He found me with his teary eyes and rushed towards me. “Can we go, Mom, please, can we go now?” he begged as soon as we met, then buried his face in my shirt. “Sweetie, what happened?” “Please can we just go home?” he implored, chin quivering as he tried to hold himself together. “Let’s go to the bathroom and splash some cold water on your face and you can tell me what happened.” He pressed his body into mine and we walked as a unit towards the bathroom.
Once inside he explained in tearful gasps that this group of older boys surrounded him and started whipping balls at him and taunting him. He said he told them to stop but one kid wouldn’t let up. As upset as I was to hear this, my first reaction was to lecture him that the answer was not for him to start swinging his belt and making a bad situation worse. I impressed upon him that he always has the option of walking away. Though I counseled him towards flight, my own response was pure fight. Peering into my son’s tearstained face, I felt my hackles start to rise. A primitive instinct gripped me and sent a shot of adrenaline through my veins. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with my baby.
I am conflicted about situations like this. On one hand, I strive to be a responsible parent who raises good citizens. The Bible tells us not to return evil for evil and Jesus himself taught that if someone strikes you, you turn the other cheek. (Although with the utmost reverence and respect for my Lord and Savior, I do have to point out that though Jesus was the Messiah… he was never a mother… When people taunted or doubted him, I can’t help but picture Mary rolling up the sleeves of her tunic and yelling “Aw, HELL to the NO!!!” as Joseph struggled to hold her back…) But I get it, I really do. I have to teach my kids to take the high road.
Then there is this other part of me, this carnal and gritty part of me that’s from Chicago (ok, not exactly the syringe-littered, pockmarked streets of Cabrini Green; more like the petunia-lined, cobblestoned streets of Libertyville, but still) this hardened part of me that sees things differently. I grew up in a family of three older brothers and we were raised by our dad. It was a tough household to grow up in – there was a lot of aggression and hostility. You’ve heard of the whole:
“I can beat the shit out of my brother, but nobody else better lay a finger on him” mentality? My brothers were the goons who invented that.
Once during my freshman year of high school I had a run in with a kid named Peter Boone [name not changed to protect him, because he wasn’t innocent]. Peter was cocky and arrogant, with blonde stringy hair. And he was short. He made Napoleon himself look like he had one heck of a ‘Peter Boone complex.’ One day Peter Boone got a big laugh by making fat jokes about me in front of a group of his friends and I went home that night in tears, refusing to eat dinner. My normally detached father miraculously noticed my demeanor– or perhaps it was just that it was so very noticeable that I was actually skipping a meal– and tried to get out of me why I was so upset. When I told him of Peter Boone’s unkind remarks, he was quiet for a moment, then turned to my older brother, Jim.
Like the sensitive, insightful ex-Marine that he was, my dad asked my brother:
“You know this asshole?”
Like the caveman with an underbite he was, my brother grunted.
“Take care of it” my dad commanded ominously.
“Dad, NO!” I begged him, “Tell Jim not to touch him!” Wanting to in some way comfort his daughter-in-distress, my dad offered this: “Then eat your dinner and tomorrow you tell that Peter Boone asshole, that if he ever says another word to you, Iam gonna beat the shit out of him.” Ahhh, those were the good old days: when parents could threaten bodily harm against their children’s adversaries without fear of the SWAT team, the ACLU, and Dateline NBC coming to knock down their door.
Thirty years later I found myself in the role of parent, grappling with the very same moral dilemma: What to do about my son’s Peter Boone? I felt like I had an angel on one shoulder. And Don Corleone on the other. Just then there was a knock on the bathroom door and my oldest son stepped inside. “Is William OK?” he asked, his face registering genuine concern. I told him briefly what occurred. “Who was it?” he asked, and I noticed the almost imperceptible setting of his jaw. When William told him the kid’s name– the short, blonde kid’s name– there was no aggression in his voice, just calm resolve when John assured his younger brother: “That is not going to happen again.”
In that moment my 12 year-old morphed into a 6’5” gladiator, broad shouldered and strong. He turned on his heel and strode—I had never seen him strode before—but he strode away from us, towards the transgressor. It never occurred to me to try and stop him. This was his shining moment and I wasn’t going to dim his light by getting in his way.
All he had to say to the boy was “That’s my brother. You are not going to be mean to him.”
“What are you going to do about it?” the boy answered back, his voice suddenly small, and squeaky.
“You don’t want to know what I’m going to do about it.” And the little Petey Boone skittered away.
The next day John told me that when he saw this boy at school, the kid shied away and wouldn’t make eye contact with him. So John took it upon himself to go up to the kid and reassure him. “Dude, we’re ok. Just don’t do it again.”
That was all it took. A protective instinct embodied. A decisive statement delivered with confidence.
And one moment for a son to prove to his mother that he knows exactly where the high road is.