When I was nine my grandma made me a quilted fabric book bag, the kind with two handles that I swung back and forth on my way to and from school, ducking under the chestnut tree and brushing past the untrimmed lilac bush on the corner of Main Street and 850 North. The lilac print of the bag was as purple as the bush, changing shades in the outline of the flowers. My initials were stitched on neatly in green fabric, and stood out in contrast to their purple background. M R R— It didn’t take long for the other kids to realize that M didn’t have to stand for Mary, and that R’s could be easily transformed to stand for words of cruelty, satisfying the appetites of children in want as they ran out of banal taunts toward one another. M R R instantly became Mental Retard Reject.
One day my book bag disappeared. It wouldn’t have been so bad if my glasses hadn’t been in it. It was returned two weeks later as I sauntered home from school one day with my two girlfriends, one of whom claimed to have found it, broken glasses inside, the lenses popped out too neatly, the frames twisted in half and an earpiece torn from its hinge.
I suppose most of us experienced such boorishness growing up, and many of us inflicted it on others. I navigate this world now as a mother, guiding my own children through the minefields of the social landscape; helping them dodge bullets fired from the mouths of middle-schoolers, raining like the fire bombs of World War II upon their pre-pubescent heads. I have wondered where the line is between assistant navigator and pilot. But then one day I found it, a border marked like the barbed wire that separates harmful criminals from the rest of us, the line of social mores drawn clearly and enabling us to live together and thrive as a society without inflicting ill onto those we share this world with. The line isn’t so clear for middle-schoolers.
I picked up my sixth-grader along with two others in the afterschool carpool. He ran his fingers through his hair and slung his heavily loaded backpack onto the floor with few words and head hung low. I dropped the other two off, happy to be able to break the uncomfortable silence now that we were alone. I went through the usual list, “Kids hiding your stuff?”
“Taking your hat?”
“Where in the world is the teacher during all this?” And then the serrated words sunk deep, knocking the wind out of me.
“Jimmy* and other kids have been saying I’m gay.”
It didn’t matter that we were almost home, or that I still had on my gym clothes. It didn’t matter we’d be late for piano. It didn’t matter that this diversion would leave my nine-year-old and my two younger children locked inside with a movie for more minutes than I had calculated. I turned the car around and reminded myself aloud that I was still in the neighborhood, that there is a 25 mph speed limit as I drove back to his friend’s house. I could barely contain the tears when his mother came to the door.
“Jimmy has been telling kids that A. is gay, and calling him gay.” My son had tried to stop me. But I knew her. I knew she needed to know and would have wanted to know. After the confrontation, the door shut. It had been awkward and floundering, and not yet resolved.
“It’s just what kids do,” my son explained. “They all do it, er, mostly. The thing is he tells people I said I am gay.”
“Wait—kids just call each other gay? As a joke?”
“Do you call kids gay?”
“No! I wouldn’t mom!” He protested as I drive now over railroad tracks, grateful no train was there to infringe on my hurry, to encroach on my anger and force patience that I didn’t desire.
“ ‘Gay’ is not a slur,” the short lecture quietly seeped from my lips. My child gazed out the window as I assured him he could wait in the car, he didn’t have to come in with me. “This isn’t about you. I won’t even mention you. It’s the principle of it. You don’t use ‘black’ as a slur, you don’t use ‘gay’ as a slur.” It isn’t ok to employ an aspect of human identity as a derogatory term.
His fingers tugged on his hair, “I know, I know,” he interjected.
I pulled back into the middle school parking lot, rolled the windows down for my son and handed him my phone to keep his fingers busy while I was gone. I glided into the office and the conversation began.
*Name has been changed.
As parents, how do you know when to intervene in your child’s interactions with his/her peers as opposed to coaching from the sideline? When is it time for school intervention?