Thursday, July 12, 2007


I like my lessons to be predicable. This is not to say that I like predictability as a course for life; on the contrary, I am easily bored and thirst for change regularly. And yet, when it comes to being taught, I prefer to choose when to define myself as the student. Control issues? Perhaps. And my student takes many forms.

On Sundays, I sit in the third row anticipating the sermon. Familiar arched wood and stained glass hold me in a space where even my breath feels softened and comfortable. Heart and mind open, I am ready to be enlightened, deepened, and infused with the Holy Spirit!

I arrive early for my appraisal classes with virgin notebook, yellow highlighter, sharpened pencil and large coffee. I slide into the small hard chair in rows of people ready to process conversions and formulas, definitions and concepts.

I slip silently into writer’s workshops, incense and candles float through gentle music. I choose a safe seat, tightly twisting my Kleenex; ready to be inspired, broken to tearful bits and rebuilt; strengthened in my purpose.

I even look for lessons in eight year old girls, baby blackbirds and ants when I am searching for the greater meaning. When I am searching for it. I have a difficult time when my role as student is not clear; when God thrusts a lesson in my lap and it is tightly wrapped and taped and tied for me to peel layer by layer to discover its relevance.

I was unsuspecting as I arrived at the field. It is an annual ritual like no other. Droves of people, young and old, families and friends, make the pilgrimage with varying degrees of preparation. The town fireworks are indeed an event not to be missed. They are set off on the fairgrounds, displayed directly overhead and it is not unusual to leave with a swell in your heart and bits of ash in your hair.

The heat of summer lifts off like a morning blanket at the beginning of day. Folks line up cars in neat rows, setting up chairs, tables and spreads of food; enjoying the preparation perhaps even more than the twenty minutes of flash that is coming. There’s wholesomeness to hunkering down on the ground in a field of cars and neighbors to share a brief and brilliant moment … the ramparts we watch, so gallantly streaming.

Ten years ago we planted our family tree here, its roots now stretching deeply into the soil that holds us; Smalltown USA. We have evolved since that planting and the experience here in the field has taken many forms. Our early ventures here toting squirmy toddlers, strollers and watchful eyes set us many rows back in the field; less crowded, safe distance. We were surrounded by parents like ourselves who were young and fresh to the scene.

The young and fresh parents never forget the sunscreen or bug spray, always have a change of clothes and Band-Aids in the car, and use phrases like “Eyes on me” and “Use your words.” These parents tend to avoid late night events as their children have actual bedtimes, but even they clamor to the field in the dark for the dazzling display.

Moving up in time and in rows, we became parents of middle-schoolers; parents of the “seasoned variety.” Seasoned parents possess a confidence in their Smalltown offspring and extend a retractable, onsite tether to their preteens as they group together to enjoy the social game of cat & mouse. The boys strut, the girls gather & giggle as the parents smirk and shake their heads.

Today, we see parents we have known for ten years. We all embarked on this journey together as “young and fresh” parents; kindergarten room moms and micro soccer coaches. We met through school open houses, play dates and little league games.

We grew together, bearing more offspring and venturing our firstborns into
the real world of middle school. We nervously inched our tethers longer, as
one of our tightly bound unit eagerly pulled for the horizon…for freedom.
We glanced at one another for reassurance and guidance and seasoning.

Now, however, we come here knowing that our older children will disperse and return at the end for a ride home. We decide to come early to enjoy the local talent, as three high school bands warm up the evening. Driving across the bumpy field, our car settles into in the second row. We set up our blanket in front of our car, arrange a small rustic wooden table, two chairs and top it off with a candle in a jar. Brad sets out the coolers and discrete bottle of wine as I sink into my blue soccer sideline chair.

Our youngest sits with us on the blanket for a while, but spies some friends and moves to a different blanket several cars down. The bands play as the crowd thickens and we sit. Row Two begins to fill with groups of teenagers roaming back and forth in a social runway marathon. Girls in clusters flirt and laugh, boys strutting indifference and longing at the same time. We have never sat this close and it is clear now that Row Two is reserved for the youth.

Dusk settles over the field and I am in uncomfortable awe by the scene rolling back and forth in front of me. Some are smoking; all are cursing, most toting cell phones. Brad and I eat our dinner in near silence, commenting here and there about kids we knew as kindergartners.

A group to my left catches my eye and locks me into a stare. There are six of them. They look to be about sixteen and pulsing with rough-edged attitude. They form a testosterone semicircle around a boy of similar age who lacks the “edge.” I cannot hear the words, but their bodies show the pack mentality; coyotes circling a frightened rabbit. The rabbit shakes is head, nods his head, shakes his head again while the coyotes leer, chins forward, fingers pointing, angry words I cannot hear.

Finally, they release their victim who turns and walks nervously in the opposite direction. They proceed to laugh and shove each other, pleased with their victory and they come closer. I hear them clearly now, snickering about the weakness of the rabbit and they change course to follow him.

“Those kids are trouble,” I say to Brad, tracking the coyotes with my eyes. I watched as they moved further, struggling to keep them in view in the sea of teenagers before me. I turned to Brad only to find that he was gone and looked back at the coyotes. Brad was trailing several paces behind. They found the rabbit and again formed a semicircle. “Are you laughing?” they taunted, pushing in closer, “Is something funny?”

Brad spread his arms like wings and placed them on the shoulders of the ringleaders. “Hey guys… How bout leaving him alone and moving along?” One coyote quickly grabbed Brad by the wrist and held his arm up in front of his face. In a second nature move, Brad spun his wrist under and over, now holding the coyote’s wrist in his hand. The coyote shook his hand free and pushed toward Brad, forearm to forearm.

I leapt from my seat grabbing my cell phone and dodged through the crowd, pushing myself in front of my husband and stood face to face with pierced aggression. Sweet and calm words of negotiation would have no effect here. I pointed to the two leaders and told them to take a walk before I called 911. One backed quickly down, eyes cast to the ground. The ringleader began to fire angry words about how Brad approached him. I let him know that I saw the entire scene and again told him to take a walk. “At least I’m not a stuck up, white, rich mother- #@^$%er!” He yelled and I proceeded to open my cell phone. “He put his hand on me first! I know my rights! I have the right to sue him!” He spewed as he turned to his pack and cursed some more.

I’m sure it took every ounce of will power in my normally passive husband not to grab him by the back of his droopy chained pants and hurl his angry little body out of the field. I convinced my husband to walk away with me as the rabbit was safely out of sight. Back in our seats, I kept my eyes on them as they stood in defiance, unwilling to move but no longer threatening anyone. The fireworks display began and I watched with a racing heart. Brad now ooooing and aaahhing at the brilliance in the sky and I hear my youngest screeching with delight. I find little magic in the explosions overhead, as I am fixated on the one that preceded.

On the way home, all offspring in tow, my husband urges me not to let the encounter spoil the evening. “Look at it this way,” he offers, “maybe it kept that kid from getting beat up and at least gave him a chance to get away from them.” My heart was heavy with the injustice. Celebrating “Independence Day” we are reminded of our freedoms through an elaborate display, and yet, the coyotes clearly missed the point. There was a time when a father’s intervention in such an event would have been met with a “Yes Sir” and respect seems to be a lost quality.

For days I hear the angry boy yelling in my head about "his rights." My mother reminds me that bullying is not a new practice. She tells me a story about her family growing up in a city where neighborhoods were defined by ethnic origin. Her large family lived on the third floor in an Irish neighborhood and fighting among the youths between neighborhoods was commonplace. Her older brother yelled something to a car full of boys driving from an Italian neighborhood nearby. The car screeched to a halt and emptied its passengers, equipped with chains and tire irons.

Somehow, my grandmother got wind of the situation and made it from third floor to the street in seconds, marching herself into the testosterone circle. “Don’t hurt the mother!” Yelled the leader. “And just what is going on here?” demanded my grandmother. Not waiting for an answer, she told the chained group to return to where they came from or they would be dealing with her. “Yes, maam.” They answered as they left. She then dragged my uncle in by the ear to the consequence that awaited him for his part in the drama.

The story only served to highlight my frustration. I was not met with the respect given to my grandmother because the young aggressor was high on “his rights.” Later that week, I sat with my son to review the Student Handbook for an art school he will be attending this year. At the back of the book was the STUDENT BILL OF RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITES.

As I read this bill, I understand the lesson to be learned from the night at the firework display. Rights do not exist without Responsibility.

1. Students have the right to be treated with respect, and the responsibility to ensure that others are safe from physical and verbal harm and harassment.
2. Students have the right to seek changes in the rules, and the responsibility to do so in a manner that will not interfere with the educational process.

The other side of ones rights carries a responsibility. Perhaps our founding fathers did not discuss responsibilites in the Constitution because it was inherently understood. Somehow, our politically correct society has created takers, not givers; claiming rights to everything and responsibility to nothing.

We do have the right to use the resources of this planet we call home, and the responsibility to take care of her.

We have the right to freedom of speech, but the responsibility not to harm with hateful words.

I have the right to live in this home, and the responsibility to work to pay for it.

Rights and Responsibilities in balance create Respect. The three R’s.

My lesson is clear and now I must teach.

“Yes,” I say to my son, “You have the right to ride your bike to the green, and the responsibility to call me in one hour."
"You have the right to clean clothes, and the responsibility to be sure the dirty ones make it to the hamper."
"You have the right to have a friend spend the night, and the responsibility to be sure you follow the rules and clean up after yourselves.”

If children are raised to see the responsibility attached to the right, perhaps respect will flourish.
I have the right to be a student, and the responsibility to let God choose the classroom.


Anonymous said...

This is a fine example of what's wrong with some of today's youth.
I applaud your intervention to help the rabbit. Your final line says a whole lot and simply said.

Anonymous said...

children must be raised to see the responsibility attached to the right, to give the respect. I love that line, because it is so very true, and is happening less and less. I admire you and your husband stepping in to help the child in trouble, I don't think many people would have done the same. Too much fear in the world, thus the disrespect is allowed to continue. I hope it did not ruin your night, it sounded perfect up until the confrontation. Be thankful they did not get violent.
It is such a sad and serious problem in our society today, a symptome of a much bigger problem. So very sad! Sorry you had to experience it.