A Parable for Our Times; or, My Response to My Toddler Being Bullied

My child is three. Full disclosure: in approximately one month, she will be four. But given that not so long ago we were counting her life in weeks, still, until her August birthday, she is three. I don’t know if this is relevant, but here it is.

All that established, I share this: as my three-year-old wonder of a child was standing in line at the diving board of the local pool and a group of junior high-aged kids started making fun of her, I all but lost my fucking mind.

She, oblivious to the fact that she was the one who was not like the others – in a fashion that has led me to cow about & celebrate her far and wide – was bookended by two or three maybe twelve- or thirteen-year-olds on either side. As she got to the end of the diving board, one of the boys rolled his eyes and noted “She’s probably just going to fall off.” And then laughed uproariously, as did a number of his companions. When she jumped, as she always JUMPS, he made a kind of “boom” sound, as though she was certain to have merely fallen in.

diving board

More full disclosure: I have rage inside of me. Maybe by nature, maybe by nurture. But it is a thing I have worked, I HAVE WORKED SO HARD to control in my adult life, and especially since I have become a mother – and thus, in my mind, a model, to my child. To the garbage teeny-bopper playing big to his buds by making fun of my girl, I shouted over, “Actually, she knows exactly how to jump. But how thoughtful of you to express such concern.” Since then, I have thought (as we do) of one million things better to have said – but all of them include profanity, so maybe they are not technically “better.” In my struggle not to swear before a pool of children, my response was limited. But it was a response. From the boy, obliviousness, I think, but a friend noted this and filed it.

Fortunately, my child had been at the end of the board, immersed in her forthcoming jump. I had heard the jokes at her expense – only me – and so she kept getting in line, jumping, swimming to me so I might lift her from the deep end, and returning for another round.  I seethed, but she just swam.

Again, minutes later, as she was preparing to jump, the junior high kids were behind her. As my girl – my three-year-old girl – bounced at the edge of the diving board, up and down, up and down, preparing to propel herself forward, a girl in the group started laughing, and hands on hips, asked incredulously “WHAT is she doing?!” The friend who’d caught my response last time around shushed her. Stop, he said, waving a hand in front of his throat and saying her name, a name I know, and so won’t reprint here.

What was my girl doing? Being three. And awesome. And joyous. And unconcerned with what others might think. The opposite of what those children – and yes, still children, I know – were doing.

I was and am heartbroken in the aftermath of this. I know the junior high age is notorious. And I know an easy way to feel big in front of friends is to belittle those who are a) unable to respond and b) on their own. These kids were unaware of my presence, excepting the one, who may or may not have spoken out only because of my presence and my response to the earlier slight. And so my girl was an easy target. I think, what if she’d been just a little older? What if she’d heard them and been made to feel self-conscious? What if other, bigger kids caused her to step back, to exchange fearlessness for fearfulness of being judged? And what if she’d then stopped doing a thing she loved because of the kind of hatefulness that motivates this kind of behavior?

All of this is shitty. So, so shitty. But even more:  a gang of junior high kids against a toddler seems such a harsh representation of the reality – and potential ongoing consequences – of this time and place.

On this day also, the President of the United States used his social media account to depict himself violently attacking a Fake News Network intended to represent CNN. In the past week, he’s gone after journalists who’ve dared to critique him. In the past weeks, he’s returned to attack the woman who triumphed over him by more than three million votes and yet graciously ceded the election. And we’ve seen him attack the foreign-born, the disabled, those who fail to fit his idea of the ideal physical specimen, and more. So many more.

I’m not drawing a line from the President of the United States to the rotten bullies who thought it great fun to mock my child. But there is something to be said for the model he – and others in public life – provide. When his outrageous behaviors are allowed to stand, merely a finger wag of a furrowed brow from his partisan colleagues, cowards who refuse to condemn his incivility for precisely what it is – they send a message that this kind of behavior is not only normal but appropriate and acceptable. And children, children who will have undergone formative years during this administration, will have learned that their adolescent misbehaviors qualify as suitable adult conduct.

The Way We Were & the Way We Should Be

There are many reasons to love The Way We Were. Number one: Robert Redford’s 1970s-era face. Number two: Barbra Streisand’s 1940s-era wardrobe (and in the name of equal opportunity, also her 1970s-era face). The 1973 film is a favorite of romantics and, among many women, is considered a must see (for reference, see, Sex & the City, season 2, episode 18, “Ex and the City”). For me, with my interest in romance and relationships and the 1960s and 1970s, the movie is a perfect representation of the shift from a happy ending-driven cultural world to a universe in which there is recognition that we may love and we may lose and the reasons for loving and losing are complicated.

thewaywewere

But the film is more than a tear-jerker and more than a representation of changed relationship norms, and I have been thinking of the movie non-stop in recent weeks (and months) because of the central tension of the film: Streisand’s K-K-K-Katie’s inability to be light, and Redford’s Hubbell’s ongoing reluctance to go heavy. Such is Katie’s desire to be with Hubbell, she joins him in leaving dark and serious New York City and embarks upon a new life on the ever-sunny and boundlessly optimistic West Coast. Integrating into the inner Hollywood circle, the pair inevitably find themselves amongst the lefties and intellectuals who’d long populated that biz. Katie, in particular, with her 1930s Popular Front background and fervent sense of social justice and the importance of free speech, becomes embroiled in this world. When she travels to Washington, DC to take part in the famed House Un-American Activities Committee interrogations of politically-minded Hollywood writers and producers and actors, she pushes Hubbell to his breaking point. He is exhausted by her talk of principles and encourages her to remember: there are principles and there are people. Katie is shocked. In a withering and syllabically-accentuated rebuttal, she responds: “People *are* their principles.”

If the world is divided into Katie’s and Hubbell’s, I am emphatically and without hesitation a Katie. True story: I was in a bar with one of my best friends; she left to go the bathroom; when she returned, I was finger wagging at the person we’d *just* met after he told me he neither paid attention to politics nor did he vote. Why had the conversation even gone there? Because I can’t not. And when I was a young Karen Dunak, I wished – man, I WISHED – I were not like this. But, baby, I was born this way. When I learn that people don’t talk about politics, I am aghast. What do they talk about? And I love books and movies and sports and other things that are not politics. But I am enmeshed in the world around us, fully conscious of its opportunities and inequalities and unable to ignore the ways in which American democracy and those we’ve elected to enact it live up to the nation’s values or fall short. Also: I am a historian; argument is my business.

And so I, like Katie Morosky, firmly believe people are their principles. And right now, and in the days and months leading up to right now, the seemingly endless time of and after the 2016 election cycle, people have revealed themselves fully. The political posturing of the Republican Party and its members, affected in an effort to shore up the President-elect, who ostensibly represents their Grand Old Party, has revealed the ideological fragility of that side of the aisle. In their willingness to wage and their determination to win a culture war, Republicans have stood by a bumbling but aggressive bully who is an affront to free speech and American democracy (and some might suggest, human decency). What’s more, the party of patriotism, as Republicans have claimed themselves for a generation at least, have shown an absolutely absence of concern for national security and, relatedly, for a clear division between public service and private gain. When I write to my representatives, I implore them to be people of principle rather than party operatives. But it seems my (and more than half the population’s) plaintive cries are falling on deaf ears. Now, more than ever, people are their principles.

I know there are those who look on, amused, to some degree, by the spectacle of American politics in 2017. There are also those who think four years isn’t so long. We’ll have the chance to get it right next time, they suggest. And four years isn’t really that long for the native born, the financially secure, the insured, the employed, the half of the population who don’t have to fear unwanted pregnancy, and all those who enjoy the various privileges a certain combination of identity markers can convey. The Hubbell’s would rather turn inward, to family and work, maybe even their local community, and allow the broader world to play out, avoiding difficult discussions or the cultivation of hard views. But this is the time and the place for hard views and the difficult discussions of those hard views. When Katie traveled to DC to support her friends at the HUAC hearings, she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, clearly and visibly with child. Hubbell berated her for the private risks she took in being so vocal in her public support of those whose rights were being violated. Katie’s views for her time and place hold strong for ours: There are risks to speaking out, but the risks of remaining silent are far greater.