“What did you just say?”
I could hardly believe the words that had spewed from the mouth of my precious four year old son as we began pulling out of the Staples parking lot. The hideous silence that filled the air after he’d said them made me immediately nauseous. Desperate to calm the pangs of panic that were poisoning my thoughts, I slammed on the brakes, put my car in park, and turned to face him.
“Say that again. Tell me what you just said!”
Looking somewhat startled, he lifted his little finger, pointed directly ahead at a man who was walking his dog in an empty section of the parking lot, and repeated the ugly words. “I said, ‘Look at that weirdo!’”
Worst fears confirmed, and already, it seemed, in full meltdown mode as emotions began waging a battle inside my body, I tried to get a grip on exactly what I was feeling so I could figure out what to do next. Anger and disappointment raged through me since it was the first time I’d experienced my little boy saying something deliberately unkind. I could only assume that the short quick breaths I was suddenly and involuntarily taking were my body’s effort to keep my heart from exploding. Another feeling that overwhelmed me, and the one that seemed to deal the final blow, was despair. Despair resulting from the realization that my son had, without my knowledge, come to not only be familiar with the word weirdo and its meaning, but had actually used it when speaking about another human being.
As is often the case, my anxiety took over and I immediately began thinking of every possible worst case scenario to explain how my little guy had become familiar with the term. Choking on images of him being surrounded on the playground by sticky faced three and four year old thugs mercilessly chanting, “Weirdo! Weirdo!” over and over again while they backed him up against the bright red curly slide, I made up my mind to write a strongly worded letter to the director of his daycare. The high likelihood that the children in those images all wore various versions of Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine overalls made their behavior no less a crime as far as I was concerned. I made a vow right then and there that if it was the last thing I ever did, I would see to it that those little heathens were punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Although it wasn’t easy, I forced the imagined playground war out of my mind and returned to the matter at hand. In a voice I almost didn’t recognize as my own, I began my inquisition. “Where did you hear that word, Owen? WHERE?”
Having gone from looking somewhat startled to downright confused, he wrinkled his little forehead, looked at me from behind two adorable brown eyes, and tried to explain. “I heard it from…I don’t know, Mom…me. I just said it!”
Not believing a word of it, I pushed further. “Owen, I want you to tell me where you heard that word, and I want you to tell me right now!” Lips quivering, he looked directly at me, raised his eyes to the ceiling of the car, and after a very long pause whimpered, “Me! I said it, it was just me!”
That was it. I simply couldn’t handle having to deal with the fact that in the last 45 seconds I’d been forced to cope with the reality that my child had clearly been bullied without my knowledge, and as a result, had learned to make mean comments about others. The last thing I could handle at that moment was him lying to me, too.
The fact that he had a terrible cold and was in the middle of a fairly impressive sneezing fit gave me time to think. I tried to remember that the situation I was in would very likely be the first of many difficult conversations I’d need to have about bullying in the years to come, and I knew I needed to handle the situation with care. Reminding myself that the smartest thing to do was to remain cool, calm and collected, I did my best to stifle my fury, panic, and sadness so I could do some detective work.
Except that’s not what I did at all. Instead, I lost it.
Unbuckling my seatbelt like a criminal getting ready to make a break for it at the end of a police chase, I whipped around, leaned as far into the backseat as I could, and loudly demanded, “Don’t you dare lie to me, Owen! Don’t you daaaaare! I want you to tell me where you heard that word and I want you to tell me RIGHT NOW!”
The startled and confused expressions he’d worn only moments before had been nothing compared to the terrified look that had replaced them. The fact that his face looked like it had been smeared with vanilla pudding because of the snot streaming down his cheeks made me feel little sympathy, but because I could stand the stricken look on his face no longer, I abruptly turned back around and took my frustration out on the steering wheel.
And that’s when the howling began.
Up until that point in his life, my son had never had any reason to engage in a full out sob session. Normally, if he cried at all, he worked up to it like a teapot coming to a boil; it simmered for a second and then lost its steam. Most of the time it was over as quickly as it began. But not this time. No. This time it sounded like someone repeatedly throwing fireworks drenched in lighter fluid into a wood stove; the cries were explosive and excruciatingly unyielding.
The sounds that filled the air inside that car were unlike any I’d ever heard, and after about a minute, I couldn’t take one more second of it. Releasing my grip from the steering wheel, I struggled to relax my shoulders as well as my own pained expression before turning to face him again. This time, however, the look on his face made me think that somehow, something wasn’t right. I can’t put into words just exactly what it was that I saw there on his face, but deep down, I realized I’d overlooked something. I was looking to solve a puzzle, but there was a piece missing. I needed to find that missing piece and I needed to find it quickly.
As I waited for his shrieks to cease, I did my best to look at him calmly. Once the tears stopped and the bellows subsided into a series of gasps as he tried to catch his breath, I decided to test my own voice and hoped like heck that I could keep it steady. Praying he was no longer terrified, I reached back, rubbed his knee, and said, “Owen, I didn’t mean to scare you, but you’ve made Mommy really sad.” Even before I was able to complete the sentence, his eyebrows shot up causing his eyes to form slits. Because his lashes were still drenched from all the tears, it gave the impression that his eyes had been drawn in ink. The cartoonish image only added to surreal nature of the moment. However, his look of consternation served as further proof that all was not as it seemed.
Not wanting to revisit the trauma of the last two minutes, I mustered up the courage to ask the question I desperately needed answered. This time, rather than asking him to tell me where he’d learned the word weirdo, I decided I’d take another approach. I’d ask him to tell me what he’d said and why, and try to get to the bottom of it that way. Using hushed tones reminiscent of those I’d used when rocking him to sleep as an infant, I carefully began my questioning. “Owen, I want you to tell me one more time what you said when you saw that man walking his dog.”
And there it was again.
That look of obvious confusion. But this time his face was drowning in it. The cartoonish expression he’d displayed only moments before now looked warped and out focus, but before I got the chance to speak, he stretched his body forward to try to look out the front window. Once again pointing his finger in the direction of the empty section of the parking lot, he said, “I wasn’t talking about the man walking the dog, I was talking about the sign. Look at the weird L!”
This time it was my turn to be stricken.
“Look at the wha…?” But again, before I was even able to finish my question, I saw it. I saw the Staples sign.
And I wanted to die.
As invisible chains of guilt coiled around my body like vicious snakes rendering me helpless, I sat motionless as the puzzle I’d been trying to solve came together with ferocious clarity. Oh, I’d missed something alright. I’d missed the fact that my son, who was on day five of a pretty bad cold, was having trouble pronouncing his words because he was so stuffed up. What I’d heard as “weirdo” was actually “weird L”.
Until the age of four, the most upsetting event in my child’s life had been the moment he’d realized that Greg, the character who wore the yellow shirt on The Wiggles, had been replaced by another man who didn’t quite cut the mustard as far as my little guy was concerned. But I changed all that one day in early December 2008. The same day I realized, as I bawled my brains out all the way home from Staples, that parents are simply not perfect. Sometimes the things we’re the most frightened of our kids discovering are the very topics we expose them to ourselves. All the way home the images of his darling little face contorted in fear played over and over in my mind like a broken reel of film, while his husky little voice stuttering,”Me! I said it….it was just me!” echoed painfully in my ears.
The realization that I’d repeatedly accused my four year old child of lying to me when all he was trying to do was make conversation still makes me physically sick. In my attempt to protect him after assuming the worst, I’d managed to do just the opposite. I’d allowed my own insecurities, angsts, and fears to rule my thoughts. The bottom line was, he hadn’t learned the unkind word from another child. He’d now learned it from his mother. And he hadn’t been bullied on the playground by kids at his daycare. He’d been bullied by me.
The reality of those truths quite honestly haunt me to this very day.
When all was said and done, I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to hear that the first question out of my son’s mouth after successfully pointing out the sign with the weird L was, “What did you think I said?” I’d had to make the very quick decision to either be honest or lie to cover my tracks. At the end of the day, I chose to take the honest route because he deserved an explanation of my behavior. I’d scared the heck out of him and it was important to me that I make him understand, even in some small way, why I’d become so easily and quickly upset.
These days, when I reflect on that day, it literally makes me laugh out loud to think about the fact that only an hour before that unfortunate event in the parking lot, I’d thought the most horrifying part of my day had been the moment when, after tasting a sample of pumpkin pie offered to him by an employee at Sam’s Club, my son had looked at me and loudly exclaimed, “Mom! I’m going to ask Santa to bring me pumpkin pie for Christmas!” Come on, let’s be honest. What child is so desperate for really good baked goods that he feels the need to resort to asking Santa for them?
Having said all of that, while I will never claim to be worthy of the title of Mother of the Year, I’ve certainly learned a lot about parenting in the last few years. I’ve learned that while it’s the single most rewarding role I will ever play, it’s also the most terrifying. My need to protect my son from the ugliness that he will no doubt encounter as he makes his way through life is always simmering just below the surface of my mind. I used to think that another role that I play, the one of a middle school teacher, made me more sensitive to issues like bullying and cruelty toward others, but in the end, I realize that the truth is….all bets are off when it comes to being a mom. I know I can’t protect my little guy from all the evils in the world, but what I can do is work to help him gain the tools he’ll need to handle them when they do rear their ugly heads. After doing so, I’ll only be able to hope that when he does face dark times, he’ll have the confidence and experience to face them with strength, character, and courage.
Just beyond the doors of a company that has made the motto that was easy. a common expression among Americans, I ended up having one of the most difficult and heartbreaking conversations of my life. And even though it’s an experience that all these years later is now just one of many memorable moments in my life as a mom, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy at all.