“Can I tell you this?” he asked, his head cocked to one side, a quizzical look on his face.
The question was usually followed up by a confession of some sort: he ate all the yogurt packets, ventured into the kitchen at midnight to hoover leftover Halloween candy, broke an extraneous piece of hardware off of the kitchen table…
Without waiting for a response, the boy launched into a circuitous tale about playing with some older boys at recess – wood chip throwing and unbidden tackling were involved.
And also, he’d learned all about Pennywise the “cloud.”
“But how does a cloud rip off kids’ arms and legs?” he finished, genuinely curious how a collection of innocuous water vapor could be capable of such violence.
She struggled to maintain poise, allowing all of this information to soak into her brain while dodging attempts by her youngest to regain her full attention.
“Wait…” she said, desperately trying to slow time itself so she could process all of the input and return an appropriate output. Why did she always feel so horribly ill-prepared and ill-suited to this work?
“Okay, first of all, Pennywise isn’t a cloud. He’s a CLOWN – like a ‘haha funny’ clown. Second, tell me again why you were being tackled against your will?” she inquired with as much neutrality as she could muster.
This was the ONE thing about kids she remembered from her own personal growing up experience: any whiff of pre-judgment and the information source would dry up like a desert spring.
But how could she possibly be expected to hear these things and NOT feel some sense of righteous indignation? Her firstborn had been immersed in the world of Stephen King. Fuck neutrality, this was war – and she’d already chosen her side.
The boy’s face screwed up in confusion. “Why would a clown tear off people’s heads?”
She regrouped and tried again. Summoning all the detective skills she’d picked up from watching years of crime dramas, she attempted a different approach: “I wanna know more about recess – were you and these boys playing a game?”
Against her will, her mind dragged her down cobwebbed corridors filled with horrific scenes of what might have transpired on that playground, away from the watchful eyes of the teachers and staff… she forced her brain to move toward higher ground.
This was just boys being boys. Nobody was guilty. Nobody was innocent. There was a bigger story here that, once she knew all the details, would set her mind at ease.
Mercifully, the boy finally offered up a direct answer: “We were playing Pennywise.”
Her: “Oh, I see. Like chase?”
The boy: “Yeah and then I got tired but the older boys just wanted to keep playing so they wouldn’t let me get away and I tried throwing wood chips and… can I tell you this?… I pushed one of them… but they wouldn’t leave me alone until I ran by a teacher so that’s what happened.”
Her: “Okay…” neutral… neutral… you’re just an outside observer gathering clues… “So what happens if you ignore them and go play with other kids?”
The boy: “Well, that’s what I was trying to do but now I need to come up with a plan to meet older kids – like six or eight older kids – so they can help me get away. Like beat them up and stuff.”
Her: Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. “I dunno if beating anyone up is really the answer…”
The boy: “Well, I don’t wanna get in trouble and I know we can’t punch but sometimes I don’t know what else to do and so I might do that.”
This was literally her nightmare.
She was a God-fearing Christian. A lifelong student (and former actual student) of peace-building and conflict resolution. And yet she’d never truly decided whether or when she would advocate violence to her children…
Her: “Listen, I trust you. I do. I don’t believe hitting is the answer most of the time. But if you feel threatened and like your only way out is to fight back… then, I say do what you need to and we’ll try our best to understand.”
The boy scratched his ear thoughtfully, probably thinking about what snack he might devour next.
She readjusted her legs on the couch, fighting off a sudden, seething anger toward the entire world – an unjust, unholy place where kids got cancer and mothers had to watch their children get shot up at school and little boys had to encounter nuanced issues about self-defense and violence that even a 34-year old adult woman couldn’t parse.
Slowly, she pulled back and reached up for perspective. She didn’t know the whole story. Maybe her son had been part of the tackling at first. Maybe he’d turn around and be best friends with these older boys the very next day. Who could say? Kids were nothing if not fickle.
What she wanted was to pull her son out of school, away from the whole mess. She wanted to tell him to stay away from those boys, go make good friends who respect personal boundaries and don’t encourage him to break the rules (or give him play-by-plays of horror movies).
Up and up her mind went, out of her cozy house, out of Montana, out of the United States, above the atmosphere, out into space. There, none of this mattered. It was quiet. It was safe.
She thought back to 4th grade… 7th grade… 10th grade… all of the close friends she’d made of whom her parents didn’t approve because they failed to understand them or see their good traits. They couldn’t possibly. As a parent, you can only focus on how YOUR kid is affected, how they’re changing, how they’re being influenced… you can only focus on who they might be becoming and the fear of where their choices will lead.
You can’t see the bigger picture. The bumping and jostling that your kid might need in order to escape their own boxed-in comfort zone so they can actually become who they’re meant to be.
Strong, resilient, empathetic people are forged through the fire of tough choices and impossible obstacles. She saw clearly that she couldn’t protect her son from everything, no matter how much she desperately wanted to. And she knew that if her son was going to get anywhere in life, these challenges were necessary – however unwelcome.
Later that night, she prayed silently over the boy as she rubbed his back at bedtime. God… help. Protect this kid. He’s my boy. He’s my baby.
From somewhere deep down, a strong sense of calm washed over her as she heard, ever so faintly, a quiet response: He is mine. I’ve got him.
As was customary, she gave the boy one last soft kiss on the “strawberry patch” at the back of his head – the same spot she’d kissed almost nightly since he was days old – and went to make herself a cup of tea.