Sunday, February 24, 2008

Everyday Kindness: I Am the Village

My son was 3 when I left his father. He drank and rarely worked, he was violent and abusive – I had left MY father only to take up with his double. Amazing how that happens.

I tried to create an environment where my son could have a relationship with his father. I even gave up on court proceedings for child support – I knew the money wasn’t ever going to come and dragging my ex into court just made him crazier. I arranged supervised visits, I tried to get him help for his drinking, and I begged him to show just a tiny bit of the love he swore he had for his child.

When my son was 9 – he sat, with the court appointed child advocate, at the mall for hours, waiting for his Dad. He was wearing his Little League baseball uniform and wanted to tell his Dad that he had been made pitcher. The coach said he had a great arm – strong and powerful, he had focus and was going to be a great ballplayer. His Dad was supposed to be there at 11. He never called, he never showed up. It was after 6 when the advocate, with me on the other end of a payphone, (Lord a cell phone would have been a blessing back then), finally convinced him to come home.

Drunken, threatening phone calls in the middle of the night was all my ex could come up with after that.

My son was so angry for so long – it was my fault his Dad “hated” him. I knew this was his way of deflecting the hurt and I worked like a demon to help him. I was young and surrounded by a chaotic family that I’d been dragging through life since I was a child myself. I turned to school counselors who babbled, pediatricians who wanted to medicate and psychologists who wanted to administer all the new learning disability tests – dyslexia was the big one back then. I had no problem with making sure my son had no additional issues BUT I had a huge problem with no one listening to HIM and to HIS MOTHER. You know – the people WITH the issue, the people LIVING inside the puzzle.

I finally found a wonderful child psychologist who specialized in anger management among children from abusive and neglectful homes. Of course he wasn’t covered by any form of insurance I had but the third job had been inevitable anyway. He helped us immensely by actually listening.

My son hated his Middle School music class – I thought that was odd since he loved music; he strummed the guitar I bought him; he fiddled with the old record player I gave him – “making like a DJ”. Turns out that his music teacher had labeled my son a “troublemaker” and had decided he was “dangerous”. Family folk lore now refers to this point in our history as “The Cello Bow Incident”

During music class my son sat in front of a little girl who loved to “mess with him” – she poked him with her cello bow and giggled. This went on class after class after class until the day my son took the cello bow away from her and threw it into the closet. He was immediately pulled out of class and sent to the office where he was given detention and told he needed to learn how to “control himself”. The school didn’t contact me about this and matters got worse. The music teacher told other teachers and parents that my son was “dangerous” and labeled him “anti-Semitic”. Seems the little girl with the cello bow was Jewish and my son, being very tall and dark (his father is African-American), must hate Jews – right!? makes sense!?. Talk about projecting your own prejudices and ignorance onto others! Onto children who look to you for guidance. Children who are told not to question you. Children who aren’t allowed to explain themselves.

I was feeling my son’s anger and isolation issues creeping back into our lives and all my spider senses were at full alert when he asked me what a “Semitic” was. It took a while to put the whole story together and then it was time to visit the school. “Don’t make a scene” was my son’s only comment on this incident. After relentless, exhausting discussions with school officials who all clustered around each other against the crazy parent I uncovered the truth. Little girl with cello bow had a crush on tall, good looking boy with brilliant smile. Boy didn’t want to be poked with cello bow anymore, girl was sorry she had gotten him into trouble. She didn’t know his color mattered – she thought he was “gorgeous”. He didn’t know what her religion was – he thought she was “cute and annoying”.

I threatened to call the local news unless this teacher was disciplined and counseled. I demanded and (eventually) got a public apology for my son. “Don’t make a scene Ma” was still his only comment. Other parents called me to tell me their children had similar experiences. It was always the boys – the taller and darker they were, the more trouble they seemed to be put into. Finally the entire school staff was ordered to receive diversity training. I never did tell my son that I had almost been thrown out of the district office while “requesting” this training. “Don’t make a scene Ma”

I don’t often think about either of these episodes. The image I have of my son, in his baseball uniform, waiting for his father still makes me catch my breath. The “Cello Bow Incident” was a small victory in a lifelong battle against prejudice, ignorance, fear and stereotypes. A battle that still wages on today – brought back to the forefront by my son’s in-laws, who I feel are racist, and by my hopes for and concerns about future grandchildren.

I usually feel alone when I think about these moments but yesterday I read a powerful piece. Please check out Michelle at Full-Soul-Ahead - she has a strong, clear voice and is an advocate not just for her child but for all children. She responded to my e-mail asking her permission to link her post by saying “we’re all in this together”.

And we are. Had I not found the right psychologist at the right time … What if I hadn’t been able to fight the school system?

There is a young man who passes my house a few times a day – on his way to school, on his skateboard, walking his dog. He always looks angry. He’s sullen, often rude, and when he’s with his friends he’s downright intimidating. Neighbors shake their heads about him – his family is “white trash”, he’s an “explosion waiting to happen”. I met his eyes one morning and he smiled! I smiled back but was too pre-occupied to do more. I’m going to make sure I talk to him – I’m going to tell him I love his vintage tees – I actually went to a Def Leppard concert. I’m going to ask him about his dog. I’m going to pay attention. If we get far enough, this angry young man and I, I’m going to tell him some stories of my old days and ask him to tell me his.

It does “take a village” but only if the villagers actually do something. And it starts with me.

Be Kind Out There

I found the image I used here


Akelamalu said...

What a wonderful post Dianne. Your determination to 'fight' for your son is a fantastic example of a mother's love. Such a shame his father couldn't be bothered, still your son has you so he's a very lucky young man.

I do feel it's a shame that kids get labelled without anyone taking the time or trouble to really find out what they are like. Do let us know how you get on with the boy on the skateboard.

Raven said...

Wonderful post on many levels. Your son is lucky that he had such a wise, determined mother.

Good luck with your quest to befriend the angry young boy who passes your house. I wonder sometimes whether if someone had done that with the boy who murdered my sister, if she might not still be alive and he living a life in the world instead of in prison. Small acts of kindness have great power and the mirror that we show people with our own acts often becomes the mirror through which they see themselves.

Don't get me started on the school system and it's enthusiasm for categorizing and judgment. Agggh.

But I ramble. Great article. I'll check out the post you reference.

SnoopMurph said...

It takes a village-no doubt about that. We all play a part. This post hit me on a million levels....I know the feeling of waiting for your dad to show up, hoping and the sense of deflation when he doesn't come. You feel the self-worth drain out of you and my dad did that for most of my life. I am so happy that you are such a strong advocate for your son and getting him the help he needed.

I am also a music teacher and WOW. I teach some middle school and it is quite a challenging age anyway. But, knowing the inside scoop, I really worry about sending my son to school-some teachers talk such trash about students, it sickens me. I am impressed with your persistence.

Definitely talk with the neighborhood boy. Everyone needs a great listener in their life-everyone.

Dianne said...

thank you akelamalu :) very kind words.

"...the mirror that we show people with our own acts often becomes the mirror through which they see themselves." - that is beautiful raven

snoopmurph - the "sense of deflation" - that nearly broke my heart, each time his Dad let him down my son seemed smaller. so much was 1 step forward, 2 steps back.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeni said...

Great post, Diane! I think now it was truly a blessing in disguise when my ex-husband moved out west as his being well over 2,000 miles away meant there was no way my kids would sit and wait for him to show up for a visit. However, that doesn't mean they didn't often sit and wait -and wait -for a phone call at least on a birthday or at Christmas. Calls that sometimes came, more often than not, he forgot when this or that kid's birthday was. There were times when a call did come but he was miserable to the kids, said hurtful things to them more often than not.
It was very difficult at times for me to try to teach the kids that there was a reason behind their Dad's actions and because he was sick, they still needed to be respectful to him, regardless of how he reacted to them. They could rant and complain to me afterwards. Their Dad finally got sober in September of 1993 and two months later, he reached out to them -a move he's been, thankfully, making ever since then. The youngest was the first to accept him fully back into her life; the other two took a little (or a lot) longer as they remembered more about him, the things he did to me, to them, and they were leery, still waiting "for the other shoe to drop" syndrome, ya know. Today, he tries to call each of the kids several times a month -tries very hard to reach out to the grandchildren now too and is actually very understanding of the issues the two little ones have. It's far from a perfect relationship for the kids, the grandkids too, to have with him but it sure as heck beats what things once were like with him too.
My son, the over-the-road-trucker, often travels near the area in Nevada where Dad now lives so he stops as often as he can to at least share a cup of coffee with him -sometimes, they even have enough time to go to a race or look at some of the vehicles his Dad has restored or is currently working on. I'm just damned grateful that things worked out the way they did and wish things like this could happen for others too.
The school thing -someday I will have to do a post about issues I had with our school here -especially with older daughter and my son! Amazing bunch of jackasses I encountered there at times.

Kerry said...

You...are amazing. I hope I can be half of the mother to my boys that you have been to your son.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
CG said...

I got tears in my eyes as I pictured that little boy waiting for his dad who never showed up. It just breaks my heart. I am in awe of your guts, determination and integrity, and your intention to look beyond the superficial. the world needs more diannes and I'm so glad I "met" you.

Dianne said...

You guys are all far too kind, except Jason who keeps posting his spam crap here. I believe he was stalking REH last week so I guess I'm in good company.

anyway - don't forget guys that the point in my sharing these 2 stories is that without the help and open mindedness (a word?) of the community children become lost. That was what struck me so about Michelle's post - and what raven said so beautifully.

Dianne said...

jeni: you should post about the schools - makes other parents feel better to know they're not alone. I have to say I did have a moment or two of loving it when I would make them nervous by threatening to call the news.

I'm glad your kids have been able to salvage a relationship with their Dad. My son had an emotional meltdown the night before his wedding because, as much as he's healed and is a wonderful man, that stuff doesn't go away.

kerry: anyone who cares as much as you do about doing every moment of her pregnancy the right way, and sharing it with others, is a natural - I am humbled by your kind words.

I don't know about more diannes CG - it might cause some form of an energy implosion or melting snowcaps (no wait - that's Bush) - well it would certainly upset some balance. BUT - thank you so much and I'm very glad I met you too.

Minnesotablue said...

Oh Dianne! How inspirational you are! I have a biracial grandson whom I love dearly and like you, his parents have had to take on the good fight. Your son is so lucky to have you as his advocate and also to have the love you have for him. You ROCK!

meno said...

You are the best mama tiger. I hope your son appreciates you.

Stephanie said...

What a great post...your writing always manages to put me right in your moment. You're just phenomenal!

Dianne said...

thanks minnesota, how did you know that "you rock" is my favorite compliment ;)

It's so easy to forget how many children do not have advocates - I hope that message came across. I look at some of the points in my life/my son's life and think "there but for the grace of ..."

He does meno, not always the way I want him to LOL - but he does. "don't make a scene Ma" may be his mantra but I do know how proud he is of many of my scenes.

thank you stephanie! that's what I wanted - for people to feel those moments and hopefully be inspired toward empathy and action for other children. we're criminalizing our children, isolating them rather than reaching them. there's just so much laziness going on in this country.

No Child Left Behind my ass!

kenju said...

BRAVO to you, Dianne, for taking up for your son the way you did. I did a similar thing when my son was 9-10, and I insisted that the teachers watch out for him so he wouldn't be bullied again. It worked out fine in his case, and he knew how much I cared for him, as your son must have too.

pink dogwood said...

It takes a lot of strength to do what you did. I hope reading about this rubs some mommy strength on to me. Do talk to the boy on skateboard.

Shelly said...

Diane, I read your post was great. I linked to you in my post today because of the relevance and inspiration. Hope that's ok!

bobbie said...

Well, you did it. You made me cry. I'm so with you, Dianne. We have to fight for our kids. No one else will. And I sincerely hope you are able to reach the angry young man. I think you will.
thank you for sending me to Full Soul Ahead. Autism is a subject few of us know much about, and we really should. Many of these children are so misunderstood.

Dianne said...

thanks kenju - bullying is such a huge issue - very relevant to what Michelle posted, which then inspired me.

pink dogwood: "rubs some mommy strength on me" - what a lovely turn of phrase ;)

of course it's OK shelly, thank you

I know bobbie, I know - but how wonderful that you care enough to shed tears. I'm glad you checked out Full-Soul-Ahead - she's a great writer and her thoughts are applicable to so many children, not just kids on the spectrum.

dollface design said...

what a truly wonderful, beautifully written, inspiring story, you really had me hanging on every word...the story about your son waiting for his dad just about broke my heart, i'm so happy you guys found someone who finally HEARD you and LISTENED to what you had to say...i work as a clinical social worker with adolescents and so many professionals are simply focused on spewing information, rather than actually listening...i'm glad that you guys connected with someone who could help and meet your needs. you're a wonderful advocate for your son and an amazing person for reaching out to that boy in your neighborhood...sometimes i think people focus on how "awful" teenagers are and "angry" they are, rather than looking beneath the surface and trying to figure out why they're so "awful and angry"...i love that you've actually taken the time to try and see him for who he really is, rather than be so quick to label and judge, after all, he's just a kid and all kids need adults on their side to love and support them in order for them to be successful...i just can't say enough good things about this post, reading it made me feel good and hopeful, so thank you for that. hope your day has been filled with kindness :D

Dianne said...

thank you so much layla ;)

Michelle O'Neil said...

Great post Diane. I hope you do talk to that young man. Everyone just wants to matter.

Jo said...

Your story broke my heart, then patched it up...I feel I walked a mile in shoes that have walked so very much farther---what an inspiration you are, Dianne. This post struck such a chord with me, and moved me...I think you're amazing.

I started volunteering "casually" when my son began Kindergarten. I ended up putting 50-hour weeks into public school reform for many years--overcoming cultural & economic barriers played a huge role in the battle. We're in L.A. Unified so the troubles of our diverse district are fairly well known. I was often asked why I did it, since I have a different career...Shame on someone if any child should be made to feel invisible---shame on us if he slips through the cracks on our watch. I think children belong to all of us. It does so much for my heart to know there are people like you in the world.

Dianne said...

your post inspired me michelle, and I will talk to "angry young man" - the weather is getting nicer and it will be easier to just bump into him - don't want to scare him off ;)

I feel the same about people like you jo - to work that many hours in the public schools is a huge undertaking but some many children will benefit from your efforts and your own children will have a hero to emulate right there at home ;)

Odat said... all I can say....some day your son, (if he hasn't already) will thank you for all this. And that boy with the skateboard? Yeah, talk to him....sometimes they just need a smile or some sort of an acknowledement that they count for something.
Thanks for sharing that.

Dianne said...

he has thanked me many times Odat :)

thank you

magnetbabe said...

This post really moved me. It sounds like you and your son have been through some tough times but have come out much stronger from them. I'm so glad you decided to scratch below the surface of the cello incident. I often wonder about similar incidents I recall during my grade school years that never sat right with me.