This is the first summer that my boys are going to camp.
It’s a New York thing, and I am not originally a New Yorker. Where I grew up, summer was about hanging around, making yourself useful and finding a way to entertain yourself with a paper cup and a stick. But in Brooklyn, early teenagers attend camp. Soccer camp, tech camp, baseball, math, music camp: each one offers a focused specialty, a set of skills that will give your child an edge in the competition to come. I confess that, when camp finally seemed inevitable, I, too, was eying the summer as an opportunity to introduce my younger son to a new and notable talent – digital storytelling? film? – that he might become passionate about just in time for seventh grade, when every New York child must find some way to stand out from the tens of thousands of other smart, wonderful kids who are applying to the same high schools.
Instead, my sons are attending an all-purpose “summer experience” day camp in Brooklyn, where my fourteen year old is a Counselor in Training. Which means, far from distinguishing himself as a prodigy, the bulk of his days are spent taking care of seven year olds.
“It’s awesome,” he says.
Why? I ask him. Why on earth? What person, especially a teenage boy, would look forward to spending his free time with a large group of little kids?
It just is, he says. It’s fun. They have a lot of energy. They like to hang on him, and pull on his arms, and cling to his legs so he can’t go anywhere without them.
The CITs, as they are called, do get time to play dodge ball and other games (my son tells me proudly that his group won yesterday) and they also have time off – during Arts and Crafts and Swim for example – when they can go to their own counselors and do something supervised for a half hour or so. Their counselors, I am told, are also awesome. But my son usually chooses to hang out with the kids.
There is a boy who can’t swim because of an ear infection so he and my son shoot hoops and hit baseballs. A young man who is taller than his mother and a kid half his size: “You’d never believe it, Mom. He can hit the ball up to the ceiling. He’s amazing!” Or he hangs out in art class to see what they are drawing. “That’s great. That’s a beautiful picture,” he says mimicking himself as he wanders among them.
This is his choice. This is not Facebook, or texting, or any of the things he usually likes to do. He tells me, as if it just occurred to him, that he hasn’t logged onto Facebook in the past three days.
Who knew that my son would find his best summer experience, not in soccer or tech, but in caretaking? In New York City, we are conditioned to focus on self-improvement, every child for himself, with self being the center. We are transient, high-tech; we are busy. By the time school and guitar lessons and homework are done every evening, there is not a lot of time for service, or for taking care of others, or for anything except going to sleep.
But this summer, in this camp, my son is practicing love. We didn’t plan it that way, but I am so grateful. He is finding new priorities. He is celebrating others. And he is enjoying every minute of what he discovers.
And it is awesome.
My son was shot three times – in school – by a BB gun, and I didn’t know it. He was shot in the back, and in the ankle, and at the base of his skull. This was not a single, isolated spree of a crazed shooter in the school yard. Five different sixth graders shot their classmates (three boys, two girls): at recess, on the subway to a fieldtrip, in the stairwells of the school building; while they were standing in line on the fieldtrip, flanked by teachers on either end. It was not a single day either. The gun came back to school again and again in the backpack of a child who sat at the same table, in the same homeroom, as my son.
Many kids were shot.
No one told.
This is not a case ripped from the headlines. This is standard, every day middle school bullying…with gun. For weeks, my son studied with the kids who shot him. He left for school knowing the gun might be there. He had to deal with the fact that a person he’d always thought was his friend sidled up to him at recess and shot him in the back at close range. What haunts me the most in all of this is: none of the kids said anything. When I first asked my son why he didn’t tell anyone, he said, “Because they said if I told, they would shoot me again.”
How could he believe that? I pointed out the obvious: you tell the teacher. You show the place where you got shot, supply the witnesses; she finds the gun and takes it away. Voila! There is no more shooting. This is crystal clear to me.
He looks pained.
He doesn’t believe me.
My son thinks: If it has happened, then it can happen. He doesn’t want to be shot again.
It shocks me that he conceives of a future where such a thing could continue to happen. My perspective is just the opposite: it will never happen again. I will make sure of it. I will take steps. I imagine scenarios of marching my son into the Principal’s office. The weapon is confiscated. Many relieved children begin to speak. Only later does it occur to me that the gun might not have been brought to the school that day, and that the other victims might been too afraid to break their silence. In this country, we are protected against false accusation, and what if we have no proof?
But even then, surely, there would be something I could do. Right is right, after all. We stand up for the innocent, and bullies get what they deserve – even if what sixth grade bullies deserve is compassionate counseling about how life is not a video game and hurting – hunting! – people is a bad thing.
What I have failed to notice in my headlong march down my imaginary hallway is that my need to take action and get this situation under control is fueled by exactly the same fear that I dismissed in my son: I, too, understand on some level that it can happen again.
What if no one listens?
Of course I will listen.
What if no one listens?
Of course the school we chose precisely because it is small and safe and teaches compassion and good citizenship will listen.
But what if they don’t? What if they don’t act, quick enough and with force?
The school in South Hadley didn’t.
Luckily for us, someone eventually told. I got the news first by telephone from the head of the middle school. My son is trying to feel comfortable in his school once again. And I am trying to use the incident to encourage him to ask for help when he needs it and to check in anyway even when he thinks he’s got something under control.
We need to talk about these things, I tell him: the good, the bad, the boring. Don’t leave anything out.
Of course, I have told him this before. I’ve offered my children other adults, who they love, in my place if they need to talk to someone who is not their mother. I’ve also kept him away from violent games and movies. I’ve insisted on empathy, and honesty, and coming to the aid of other children.
None of these things helped in the end.
So I ask him again, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s a hard thing,” he says. And a little later, he adds, “I didn’t know…”
This time, I listen because I don’t know either. Except, I know that it’s a hard thing because it seizes me up and sends me into a flurry of phone calls and emails –anything to get a handle on it. We have the same fear. Sharing it makes it seem more possible to overcome.
I told my son that I was sad, that I was deeply saddened for him and for all the children who felt they had to go through this, and struggle with it, all alone. We sat with that feeling together for a long time, and hugged. It’s not a solution to school bullying, but maybe it will keep us out of the headlines.
We can hope.
This post also appears on The Huffington Post. Please feel free to read it there, and share and comment there as well.
I made a deal with myself today to let my brain take a break and to be guided instead by my inner knowing, even if I ended up at the pizza parlor when I was trying to get to the dentist’s office. This experiment was to help me get back in touch with my writing voice, after several weeks away. And it would normally be quite safe and simple, since my usual day only takes me around and around my living room, and once to the mailbox.
But today I got a call from my son’s school saying that my son had been shot with a BB gun. Two weeks ago, on a school trip. A child has apparently been bringing this gun to school and shooting kids in parks etc., but they only found out today when the gun was seen inside the school.
So I ask my child why he never told me, and he says, predictably, that he was threatened that he’d be shot again if he told. “That would be four times, Mom. And it hurt.” Four times? It turns out three separate children shot him with the same gun in the same incident. They shot, it seems, “a lot of kids.” None of whom told.
My inner knowing doesn’t know what to do with this. Nor does my brain. How can it be that my son doesn’t assume I can protect him? And what if he is right?