A few months back, I wrote that my son had never been bullied at his Texas public school. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that Waylon is in third grade now, but a week or two later there was an incident.
The story unfolded over dinner at our favorite neighborhood Texmex restaurant. Waylon was well into his second bean and cheese taco when he broached the subject. "Mom, B-- said that being gay is bad."
B-- is a familiar character in our dinner table conversations. He's an older kid who attends Waylon's after-school program. He has a prime position in the elementary school social hierarchy because his parents allow him to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Every day after school, B-- captivates the children of our hippy dippy neighborhood with his encyclopedic knowledge of military weaponry.
"What did you do when he said that?" I was trying to keep my voice calm. I was thinking do not freak out, do not freak out, do not let him see that you are kind of freaking out.
"I said, 'My parents are gay.'"
Oh my god, he's like a lamb to the slaughter!! What callous idiots taught our son to be so trusting and forthright?
"What did he say?" my wife, Katy, asked. She was using her professional therapist voice.
"He said that must be why I look like his dog when I smile."
I'm not going to lie; I wanted to track B-- down and shake him 'til his eyes rattled. Then I wanted to drag Katy in the next room and chew her out for convincing me to have a kid in the first place.
Instead, I said, "How did that make you feel?"
Which sounds like a stupid thing to say. But somewhere, in the little part of my mind that wasn't indulging in violent retributive fantasies or wallowing in guilt, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope that Waylon was willing to confide in his parents. I knew this wouldn't be the last incident, and I needed to convince him that I could handle the truth.
"I don't know," Waylon said, looking kind of vague. "Bad, I guess..."
"Well, I feel really mad," I said. My voice was calibrated to convey approximately 10% of my actual rage. "It's not okay for him to say that." I felt I was walking a tightrope, trying to help him identify his feelings without turning the whole conversation into the Seething Mom Show.
"Do I need to kick his ass?" Katy asked.
Waylon looked shocked. "I'm just kidding," she said. "Sort of." He smiled. I could tell he was glad that his mom had his back against a bully, even though he knew it was a fantasy.
Katy is a former bully herself, a gender nonconforming kid who kept people from messing with her by being the meanest, toughest kid on the playground. I emerged from a momentary reverie to hear her explaining about bullies, how they lash out because they're scared, how B-- was probably parroting his parents, repeating some version of the messages he'd received about himself.
Waylon was absolutely clear that he did not want us to intervene directly with B--. He wanted to see if he could handle the situation on his own before he risked antagonizing a powerful older kid.
The next morning, I was on the phone with the director of the after-school program. I didn't violate Waylon's trust; I didn't tell her the name of the kid or any identifying characteristics, but I did let her know what had been said.
The director promised to respond with a generic lesson about name-calling and respect. I suggested that a unit on family diversity might be more effective, and she made some vague placating noises. I sent her a link to a research-tested curriculum about different kinds of families. I'm sure she and her colleagues had a good laugh about that one.
This is, after all, Texas public school. No one, not even the most progressive teacher, seems quite sure what they are allowed to say to public school children about the gays. Last year, I asked if our school could print the district's nondiscrimination clause - which includes sexual orientation - in the school handbook. The principal deftly suggested that the school might run a statement in support of the nondiscrimination policy without actually printing the inflammatory words.
The next evening, when I picked Waylon up from aftercare, the head teacher approached me. He'd heard the details of the incident from his supervisor, and he wanted to assure me that they had a plan to respond.
"Yeah, we've got a whole bunch of worksheets for them. You're probably going to hear Waylon complain about how boring it is for the next couple of days."
Apparently, that's our response to bias in Texas - bore the victim.
I was angry all over again. I coldly suggested that there might be a problem if he could predict in advance that his lesson would be mind-numbingly dull. It's not, I explained, inherently boring material. Difference is actually pretty juicy.
But I knew I was barking up the wrong tree. The aftercare program is staffed by college students, and it takes training to facilitate the kind of conversation that these kids needed to have. It requires the freedom to acknowledge and describe all kinds of differences and the intense feelings they engender. I didn't have much hope that kind of freedom was going to blossom from a worksheet.
As we walked to the car, I was feeling pretty low. I was ashamed of myself for snapping at the teacher. I felt guilty for being a self-employed writer who sends her son to low-cost after-school care. I felt like a self-indulgent jerk who had saddled her child with the burden of a weird family.
There's nothing like parenthood for bringing out internalized homophobia.
Luckily, Waylon was in a talkative mood. "Did you see B--?" he asked. "I can't believe he said I look like his dog!"
"I know," I said. I stopped and looked him right in the eye. "I'm so sorry that that happened to you. I feel terrible."
"Wait," Waylon asked. "Why do you feel terrible?"
"I just think you're so great, and I feel awful that someone would say something that made you feel bad about yourself."
"Oh I don't feel bad about myself," Waylon said in a Mom-you-are-weird kind of voice. He opened the car door and tossed his backpack inside.
I've reviewed this moment many times. Was he feeling pressure to reassure me? Was he repeating something we'd said? Or could he really separate the slur from his own self-image?
When I was a kid, if people picked on me or called me names, I felt shame. I was afraid to tell my parents, because I didn't want them to know that something was wrong with me. I thought it was my job to keep everyone happy with me at all times, which is probably why I didn't come out until I was almost 30.
I'd like to believe that Waylon's experience has been completely different. I hope he knows that the problem isn't him - or even B--. It's about whole systems of power and inequality, privilege and oppression, which we try to discuss in everyday words on everyday occasions.
In any case, we've lived through the incident, and I'm sure we'll weather many more.
Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.
(Photo from Zoramite's flckr stream. Shared under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.)