18 May 2009

The momentum of ideas

This is what serendipity feels like. It's been so interesting to write my own truths, at last, without wondering what others will think or do if I say the things I remember out loud. And the effects of this experience are traveling like waves and creating actions in other places.

A dear friend said to me, "This is a watershed moment. You'll remember time as before and after this event." So far this is the truth of it.

The little one and I were reading Little House stories the other night and Nellie Oleson's lawlessness sparked a memory for her. My ears had been pricking up lately at her reports about her bus driver. Now she was wishing out loud she wouldn't have the same bus driver anymore. I noticed I had been picking her up more lately.

"He keeps saying stuff to me and to [the other kid], about are we each other's boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't like it."

"You're right," I agreed. "I don't like it either."

She then started telling me what her bus driver had been doing.

I said, "I'll go talk to him on Monday. I will pick you up at school, and I will talk with him after school."

After school, I met my child at her classroom and came back out to where her bus had pulled in, the last one, at the end of the bus circle. I stepped onto the bus and told him my daughter had said he had said some things about her and another kid that were making her feel uncomfortable.

Sitting back and affecting a relaxed slump, he smiled and said, "Oh, I think there's a misunderstanding. That wasn't it at all. This was just something the kids had started playing at, and I was just keeping it going." Winking a little, like he was in on their joke, their buddy, you know.

"OK," I said, in a neutral way (that I learned from watching the show Sports Night and that really means "OK, sure, you believe that, but no, I do not"). I looked him in the eye and told him that I had once had issues with that kid and I absolutely do not want anyone encouraging him in that direction.

"I think you're misunderstanding what happened," he insisted. "This was just a game that the kids had started playing."

Out of the corner of my eye while I was in this scene, I was also observing what my kid was doing. Initially, she had shyly stepped back, away from the intensity of the confrontation. But she stepped in closer and kind of perked up when he started to reiterate that "the kids had started it." This time he looked right at her when he said it.

I felt like the wizened old woman of the fairy tale, the questing hero groveling before her after having come up with the wrong answer. Only he wasn't groveling at all. He was saying, "I'm right. Believe me."

I didn't think my kid was having any of it either.

It was when he showed zero contrition that my hackles went up. I saw no mutual desire to protect our youth from the inevitable but a-little-longer-delayable confusion of hormones and desire and misinformation in equal measures.

"They're little kids," I insisted to the driver. "That kind of talk is inappropriate, and makes them uncomfortable."

He protested a little more, but I made sure I got the final word: "I don't want anyone to encourage any more of that inappropriate talk." He smiled and nodded. I left with my child, who will not ride the bus with that driver again.

"What he said wasn't true," my kid told me as soon as we had walked away from the bus. "The kids didn't start that game. The bus driver was saying that stuff. We weren't saying it." People, kids included, know when they are being lied to.

It kept on rolling forward, this little train we set in motion. We went home, after I'd left a note for my kid's principal to call me. He reached me half an hour later and I told him what I had just said to the bus driver.

"Who's the adult here?" he asked immediately. "Exactly," I said, glad he saw the problem as I did. He apologized for not always being out at the bus circle to see the kids off at the end of the day, and he assured me that he will talk to that driver tomorrow.

After this, my kid and I were both feeling good. Then I said, "I really do want to talk to the mom of the other kid the driver had been teasing along with you. I'd think she'd want to protect him just as much as I want to protect you. I want to protect him as much as I want to protect you."

"Okay," she said, totally game. "It feels really good to do this," she added, as we hatched our plan to talk to other parents of kids who ride that bus.

I felt the same way. I had taken my complaint to the instigator first but had not been heard. My kid noticed it too, saying, "I don't think he was really listening to you." (Some of that was going both ways by the end of that confrontation, wasn't it?) Now I had to work my way up the chains that connect him to these children.

We knocked on the doors where the kids live who ride the same bus. We surprised everyone with our story, but everyone to a person exhibited the proper disgust and outrage at the behaviors we described. One kid said she felt the driver had singled her out for teasing "a few times," too. I felt bad for my timing with a fellow mom who was in the eye of a hurricane of houseguests and activities, but she was concerned and said she'd definitely call me in the morning if she couldn't call back tonight.

After I had dropped a one-minute rundown of the situation as we saw it on hurricane mom, the other child whom the driver had targeted in his little "game" came up to me, looked me right in the eye, and said, enunciating every word: "I know exactly what you are talking about."

"Thanks for telling me that. I really appreciate it." I told him warmly, meaning every word.

I was bursting with pride by then, in every one of us. I told another neighbor mom, who was just as disturbed as I but added that her kids wouldn't be affected after this year because they were changing schools anyway and they'd be carpooling. I told her I told my kid she doesn't have to ride this bus ever again. I think she was chewing on that when we walked back home.

The details kept rolling in. The puzzle pieces weren't creating a picture I relished seeing, but it was one clear picture nonetheless. My little one remembered how the driver would act nice to her and say she looked cute, but she didn't feel like he meant it. She said sometimes he would "lie down across the seats" and block a kid from getting to the seats in the back "until it's time for me to drive the bus," he'd say.

She had started feeling anxious about having to ride the bus home, and they are only on the bus for about two minutes. She told me the driver never teased them during the times they were parked on the bus circle with the doors open, when a grown-up might hear him, or when they were getting off the bus where we awaited them at the park. "He always says things when we're driving." During the two-minute ride.

Now I think back to when I came down hard on a neighbor's kid for teasing my kid a certain way and I'm sad that the solution I advocated to her was to "sit up front near the bus driver." Ugh. This is a moment when parenting flat out hurts.

But I have been praising her to the skies lately for being so brave, for trusting her feelings and instincts, and for telling me what she needed me to know so I could protect her. And I didn't give her any special reward (unless you count the popsicle in the afternoon and the ice cream dessert -- it was hot today!). But I didn't associate the sweets with the events of the day. I wanted all that good feeling about doing the right thing and protecting our friends to be its own reward, and I felt like a good, strong mama for that, too.

Of course I also felt a little sorrow at my own loss, at the fact that I didn't always have someone who knew better in my court when it counted. That my mother didn't have anyone in her court either, until she started to see what was right and wrong and aligned with people who had her best interests at heart for the first time in her life. My mother still apologizes to me for what she could not possibly have learned from her own emotionally challenged parents nor my messed-up cookie of a father.

It is great to be all the mama bear I have become, though. I see so much value in protecting my little kid and letting her be little as long as she wants to stretch that out, because there's no going backward once you've left the land of little-kiddom. I see no reason to force her to watch scary, violent films early in her life, nor to make her aware of stuff she can't even conceive of yet. With my own experience and hindsight, I see no value in making her cross lines like these before she's ready, willing, and able. Before it's all about her choices.

One of the reasons I knew she was telling the truth, I told her, was that none of this was coming from her. She's not going around making eyes at the other kid, and the other kid's not doing any of this in her direction (and in fact has said he likes her as a friend). This is why I found it so inappropriate and disturbing that the bus driver was projecting this onto them. During their two-minute ride home. (That's the detail I'm choking on at the moment. Those seem to come in waves.)

Standard disclaimer: This all happened today; other events recounted occurred within the last two weeks. I stand by every detail. I can verify times, calls made and received, verbal exchanges, etc. My daughter's story hasn't changed since she has started telling it to me. (I told her she was a good detective. She's done a fantastic thing in recalling exactly what it was about him that made her feel uncomfortable.)

Tomorrow: Taking it Upstairs

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