Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fighting Words

Yesterday found us at Target buying Hollywood some new school supplies. Weeks ago we purchased the girls' things but, just recently, Hollywood has also decided to return to public school.

He left middle school, last January, when the bullying became unbearable, and he's spent the last eight months doing an online homeschool curriculum that was terrific, in that it taught him academic independence:

While I was always around to help him, often I would need to research subjects for myself, before I was any good to him. Hollywood soon figured out that by removing the middleman, me, he could get his work done twice as quickly. He began looking things up on his own, rarely turning to me at all, in the last few months. He learned to teach himself and think for himself--a fabulous thing to be sure.

But, he's been lonely. A 14-year-old boy needs other 14-year-old kids around, friends who speak his adolescent language and like the things he likes, video games, Nerf guns, cannonballs. So, he's returning to the public school system, again--having grown older, stronger and wiser to the ways of the world and the treacherous terrain of middle school.

"Keep your head down this time," I've warned him several times. "Try to fit in," I've said, in spite of myself. In spite of him, too.

Two binders, two packs of college-ruled paper, 24 pencils, a protractor, a science calculator and three other large bags of Crayola and Mead supplies later, we met up with Balthazar and the girls for dinner and a late movie, grabbing as much last minute summer fun as we could before school starts up again.

We saw The Butler, a movie that caused some mid-film seat shuffling, in order that Balthazar and I might field the questions that continually arose. It was early in the movie that The Storm leaned over with her first.

"What does that mean?" she asked, referring to the N- word.

"You've never heard it before because it's a very bad word," I said back, before I explained to her, as best I could in brief and whispered theatre tones, the word in its historical context. 

Then, settling back into my seat and reaching for another handful of popcorn, it occurred to me that I certainly had heard the N- word, and quite regularly even, by the time I was ten, and what a great thing it was that she hadn't yet, and what that said about society's progress. It was a line of thinking that the movie, opening up in a cotton field and concluding with the election of President Obama, went on to confirm.

The best thing about art, the thing that makes me so passionate about literature, beyond the prose--I'm crazy for good prose!--is not the story so much as the conversation that the story inspires, the bigger thinking that culminates.

"You know," said Hollywood, on the way home. "I was just thinking about the word gay."

"Ya? " I said. It was just us in the car. The girls were riding with their dad.

"Well, kids should find another word to use as an insult. It's not right," he said. "Like, when they called me gay, even though I'm not, I was offended by it."

"Hmm," I said.

"It's because of the way they said it. They said it in a mean way. But I don't think there's anything wrong with being gay." He paused. "Still, I was offended. I don't think kids should use that word that way. Like when something is uncool, they call it gay. Like being gay is bad thing." Another pause. "I think a person's sexual preference should be up to them and nobody else should care."

"I agree."

Then he said, "I think maybe I should try to change the way kids use that word." And my alarm bells started clanging. 

Part of Hollywood's problem, in middle school, was his intolerance for bullying. He couldn't let it happen to anyone, without speaking up. I remember teaching him, years ago, that this was the right thing to do. Now, I realize, I set him up: In defending the bullied, he became the target.

"I think maybe I should say something when kids use that word, that way," he said, while I scrambled for the right response.

"Maybe," I finally said. "But remember, middle school is a rough place. Remember you were gonna keep your head down?"

I want him to do what's right. I want him to be true to his strong, always dead-on accurate, moral compass. But, more than this, I want him safe. I want him happy. I want him to fit in.

Because it's so much easier.

But..., this isn't my decision to make.

"You know how, in the movie, and in history, the people who stood up for what was right were persecuted? How they were beaten and jailed and even killed? How hard it was for them?" I said.


"Well, you just have to know if you're gonna stand up for something, if you're gonna fight for something, well, you're gonna be in a fight. You've got to be ready for that. You've got to consider whether you want to take that on. And if now's the time," I said--because although he's bigger and stronger and wiser than he was eight months ago, and his confidence and self-esteem have been replenished, it was only eight months ago.

I didn't add, "For God's sake, please, keep your head down, my sweet baby boy."

Although, I desperately wanted to.

"I guess I need to think about it a little. Maybe there's something else I can do to make people stop using that word that way," he said.

"And remember, change doesn't happen over night."


We were quiet, in our own thoughts, for the remainder of the ride. He, thinking seriously about how to best make the world change for the better. Me, wrestling with my own moral compass; with my desire to tame the good in him, to make him better fit in a not-so-good world.


When we were at home, later, while he played on the floor with our miniature schnauzer, he asked me another question. Although, I now suspect, he already knew the answer.

"Mom, what's a mutt, exactly?"

"It's a dog that isn't a purebred. It's a mix of different breeds."

"You called Shadow a mutt, once, when you were mad at her."

...Point taken, my wise young man. Point taken.