More Than Words

IMG_1162A week ago I had to explain what “rape” is to my nine-year-old.

He had heard the word on the playground—along with several others—and instead of bringing the words home and asking for clarification opted to hurl them himself in a moment of the poor judgment that often keeps company with nine-year-olds.

Consequences at school descended upon him—and rightfully so; but I knew he had no idea what he was saying, couldn’t even begin to contemplate the full impact of the word.

I sent him to his room and tried to breathe then went upstairs.

I sat directly across from him, looked into his weary eyes and asked him what he thought “rape” meant.  He told me and was, of course, so very far off the mark.  His definition was innocuous.  He had no idea.

And me?  I had to tell him.

I had to tell him what human beings are capable of doing, of the violence they are capable of inflicting on one another.

And as the words came out, I watched a tear fall from his right eye and on to the knee of his jeans.

Then another.

I have always been of the belief that we must live in this world and not in spite of it, and I don’t aspire to hide the ugly truths from my children.  But if you had asked me to name the “right age” to explain “rape” and other words with horrific connotations and histories to my child, I don’t think I would have chosen nine.

But I have learned this week I don’t get to choose.  At nine my son is wide awake, ears attuned and eyes open.  The best I can hope for is that he will come to us—while we still have his attention—and ask when he doesn’t understand, avoid acting before he has all the facts, to think for himself.

The world is coming . . . for him, yes, but also at him—as it did for and at us all.  And since stopping it is not an option, explaining it is the best I can do.

Explaining rape to a nine-year-old is, sadly, the best I can do.


Ignoring It Doesn’t Make It Go Away

Hello Samantha,


One of your neighbors has flagged the message you posted as “Commercial”. Your neighborhood Leads have been notified of this request that the message be removed. Deletion of the message is at their discretion. If you would like to remove or edit the message yourself, you can do so by clicking the “Delete” or “Edit” link below your message. If you would like to contact the Leads of your neighborhood to provide them with additional background, click the “Message” button next to their name in the Leads Directory. To learn more about what types of messages are appropriate or inappropriate on Nextdoor, view the Guidelines for Neighborly Behavior and our Guidelines FAQ.

Thank you, The Nextdoor Team


IMG_0440A quip recap to start: Several days ago a neighbor wrote a racially offensive comment on our neighborhood’s Nextdoor site. I wrote about it here, and the author wound up removing it. Shortly after, two neighbors weighed in with their thoughts. I responded to their comments here and provided a link to my response in a comment. One of the two neighbors about whose words I wrote accused me of “attacking” her. I provided what I hope was a polite response and heard nothing more . . . until this morning when I read “one of [my] neighbors has flagged the message . . . “ and has requested “the message be removed.”

The reason cited for its removal is “Commercial.” It has been over an hour since I read this notification and am still metaphorically scratching my head as to what is “commercial” about a link to a post on a personal blog that accepts no advertising and generates no revenue. (In fact, I pay a fee to my blog host to ensure no ads pop up—that’s how not commercial this blog is.)

So, I am left to ponder this: As if a racially offensive comment were not enough for one week, followed up quickly with folks accusing me of being the “PC police” and “attacking” them, now a request is in to censor my words.

I wrote to the Leads asking whether they were planning to remove the comment and am awaiting a decision. And while the comment’s removal would add another unfortunate layer to this already tangled saga, the fact that the request is there in the first place is worth noting.

Talking about these issues is not easy.

But talk we must.

Because we are all here together, all in this together . . . and talking is truly the only chance we have.

This Is Our Community’s Problem

“Never cut what you can untie.”– Joseph Joubert, essayist (1754-1824)

A friend sent me this quote this morning, and, quite frankly, not a moment too soon.

I am going to try very, very carefully in the next 500 words to untie, but I’m afraid it won’t be easy.

IMG_0789First the back story: Last week I opened a notification from my neighborhood’s Nextdoor private social media website and read what I construed as a racially offensive comment. I wrote about it here.

To the moderator’s credit, he flagged the comment; and to the author’s credit, she removed it.

If the story had ended there, it would have been a tidy closing indeed: An unfortunate comment was made, and attention was paid.

Newport Buzz, a local online news source, had made one comment then a second regarding the racist undertones of the initial post; and the net result (because the comments were posted under “Newport Buzz” and not the author’s name, which is a violation of Nextdoor’s terms of use) was their comments being removed and their ultimately being banned from the site.

The following two responses appeared yesterday:

“Don’t see the comment you refer to but . . . it could not have been as you designate ‘racist’; you must have misinterpreted it . What we don’t need any more of is PC police.  Sad state of affairs and not helpful in solving our community problems.”

 “Where did this business of racist come from? What is Newport Buzz talking about? When one calls the police, they are asked to identify the perpetrator; if answers are not forthcoming, you are questioned whether the person was white, black, Hispanic, Asian… Since when is descriptive language racist? Newport Buzz should answer for this very rude charge.”

There are plenty of responses that come to mind, but, again, I am endeavoring to untie rather than cut. The first point, and this is not a subtle one, is that the initial post referred to two human beings—who were doing nothing wrong let alone illegal—as “Hispanic types.” There is no misinterpretation at work here. The comment is racially offensive. In this context, there was absolutely zero reason to refer to anyone by their ethnicity. And while I will stop short of terming this an instance of racial profiling at work in my neighborhood, I will say that my son’s future as someone of Mexican ancestry walking the city streets I have called my home, the streets I love, gives me pause.

This is not the “’PC’ police.” This is a mother of a beautiful child who fears the very neighbors who give her a pleasant smile and a warm “hello” when she walks the street will not have the same for her son.

Community problems take many forms, and not all are as glaring as unwanted graffiti on the side of a building. Some are far more insidious—and, truthfully, sad.

Here’s a “Hispanic Type”

IMG_5686My son, a four-year-old Hispanic type, woke up this morning around 5:30 AM.

He walked his Hispanic type self downstairs, gave me a huge hug, and asked if he could watch Sesame Street.

Later, he and his brother, who happens not to be a Hispanic type, had toast and bananas and a little milk for breakfast.

My Hispanic type son then went off to preschool, where he worked on his shapes and letters. His current favorite is the rectangle, and he’s trying hard to master the letter “s.” He’s going to Kindergarten in the fall and is very excited.

I picked him up at 2:15 PM, got another huge hug, and brought my Hispanic type son home, where I opened an email notification from Nextdoor, an online social network forum whose mission it is to “[build] stronger and safer neighborhoods.”

In response to a neighbor who had left his/her car door unlocked and discovered $50 and a GPS missing the next day, one of my neighbors wrote: “I saw two Hispanic types the other day staring into cars but they were not doing anything illegal so [I] did not call [the] cops.”

One of my neighbors authored this . . . a neighbor who, in ten years, when my son, a beautiful soul who happens to be of Mexican ancestry and who happens to be her neighbor, is walking down the street, might see him, might watch him, may even disdainfully term him a “Hispanic type”—to herself, to a friend, in a public forum. At the very least she is a neighbor who wrote words my son may one day read, words that have the power to hurt and to divide.

Newport Buzz, a local online news source, sardonically quipped in the comment thread that “you have to watch out for those Hispanic types,” but the moderator of Nextdoor removed it—not the comment that is racially offensive but the one that pointed out that fact.

The purported mission of Nextdoor is to build stronger neighborhoods, and tonight ours fell very, very short.

Just Because You Can’t See It

This week I read a post on Facebook from a young man who had just earned his first “A” on an assignment in college.  He was proud—justifiably so—and wanted to let others know of his success.   As a teacher, I smiled, happy that an academic success compelled him to post.

Then I read further.

This was a young man who was proud, yes, but peppered in was discernible anger—also justifiable.  Accompanying his post was a narrative in which he revealed the words that were said to him—by an adult who should have known better, a teacher working with students with special needs—words that have been keeping company with him for nearly twenty years.  In short, he was told he would never amount to anything, that the best he could hope for was a job in a fast-food restaurant.

I grimaced, as anyone, teacher or not, would; but as the parent of child with an IEP, I was particularly pained.   Despite our son’s health challenges and resulting rocky start in the world of formal education, we have never wavered in our belief that he could do anything anyone else could and more.  While we acceded he may need—temporarily or not—a different path to get where he wanted to go, there was never a question he would get there.

At 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon I planted seeds in my backyard with my youngest son.  I explained to him how each seed held the potential for life, how with the right care each would grow into a beautiful plant.  IMG_7292When we were finished planting, he looked at the containers with the seeds then at the elevated bed already bursting with the transplants we had put in two weeks before, and said, “The pots with the seeds look plain.  I don’t see anything there.”

I asked him to remember what was underneath the soil.  He smiled and held the seed packets in front of his eyes.  “The seeds for these beautiful plants.”

I told him to give the seeds time.  Then I asked him to come out with me every day to check, to make sure they have everything they need so they can grow and be the most amazing plants they can be.

Last night we received our son’s latest reading and math scores.  He exceeded—exceeded–all benchmarks for his grade and is thriving—thriving because everyone around him has believed in what was within, what was underneath those top layers, the shroud of epilepsy, anti-seizure medication, and ADHD, and has been committed to giving him what he needed to thrive.

The woman at the garden shop told me not to be surprised if I didn’t experience success with my first attempt at planting seeds.  She shrugged and said matter-of-factly, “Sometimes it doesn’t work.”

I told her it would work if I believed it would.

Using Their Words

We were so, so good.

I mean, really good.

Though our vocabularies as perennial students were certainly “academic,” it is safe to say that for the longest time they were also rather “colorful.”

My husband and I could swear with the best of them.  And though it’s nothing in which I take particular pride, it is safe to say we could fit in nicely—at least conversationally– with any group of metaphorical sailors.

But everything changed in August 2004 with the arrival of our first son.

We made a commitment to stop swearing—completely.  And like anyone who quits anything cold turkey, we were unabashedly horrified if anyone deigned to utter an off-color word or phrase within earshot of our tiny, impressionable boy.

Our steadfastness to this new mode of expression continued unfailingly through the arrival of our second son in 2005 and our third in 2009.   And while disuse didn’t diminish our vocabularies, we simply refused to swear in front of our children.

IMG_3182That is until our children decided to start swearing in front of us.

I was ten years old when my first swear let loose—at least publicly.  My grandmother, herself a purveyor of the irreverent, heard it, and I was horrified.  She looked at me and instead of punishing me simply said, “Swears are a part of life.  Just tell me when you can swear and when you can’t.”

I posited, a bit weak having been caught off-guard, “Umm . . . I shouldn’t swear at school.”

She told me I was correct.

So I added, now able to bask in the glow of her magnanimity if not rationality, “I am guessing I can swear in front of you.”

She smiled a wry smile and left the room, and I was left with my thoughts.  I have always loved and been fascinated by words, all words.  As I grew older and began to understand the nuances of diction, of connotation and denotation, the myriad lines in the sand regarding which words were appropriate and when and where, I became more judicious.  When I have sworn, it was always deliberate.

But I didn’t want my children to hear me swear—at least not when they were children.  It struck me as a reasonable approach and an achievable goal.  Of course I knew “once they started school,” they would hear words from other children.  I just didn’t want them to be the playground instructors in the semantics of profanity.

Yet my plan has backfired—and then some.  And while I have yet to receive any “official report,” if their at-home vocabularies are any indication, they are fully qualified to teach.

We have tried ignoring their language lest we make too big a deal; we have issued consequences.  Nothing quells their expression.  Swearing does not make them laugh, doesn’t make them feel as though they’re doing something wrong.  They don’t seem to glean any sense of amusement or power from it.  It’s simply a mode of communication they have chosen to use with one another.

And I’m left with why.

Why, when we have been such paragons of right speech, are we currently presiding over three young boys who can hurl expletives with nothing short of complete aplomb?

I can’t say . . . though I suspect it has much to do with the fact parenting has less to do with simply modeling and more to do with instructing and empowering—precisely the approach my grandmother took so many years ago.

Controlling the words that come out of my children’s mouths is not my job.  Teaching them to control them is.