Charney/My Turn: No break from hate
There is the wiggle-wiggle dance and the shuffling feet. I start to ask, “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” The question is cut off. His head shakes in sharp rebuke.
He gives me the look that says, “Grandma, don’t embarrass me again.” My whispers are tantamount to public announcements, a megaphone alert to all shoppers: “Attention all shoppers, my grandson has to go to the #*#.”
A short time later, he tells me, “I’m going to the bathroom,” in decibels suited only for bat ears. Of course, I had already gotten the message from body language and subsequent flight behavior.
In the meantime, I order our drinks, secure and clear a table in preparation for the math homework. This time, however, on his return, he appeared upset, leaned in close, “There were bad words written in the …”
“Shush Grandma. In the bathroom,” he says, mouthing the final word.
“What kind of bad words?” I ask imaging the usual swears, the usual f-bombs.”
“Racist words,” he reports.
“Tell me, “ I insist.
“About Obama.” The offensive words were about President Obama, he reports. They called him “an alien in the White House and other bad words I won’t say. Why do boys’ bathrooms have to be so bad?”
So why do they? What does it mean that our children must encounter hateful writings in the not-to-be-said-out-loud b-rooms? What is it that seems to be compelling more and more incivility in our shared spaces, even to be inked on walls, washed away with heavy-duty cleanser by the store manager one week, only to reappear a few days later?
This is not the first unhappy bathroom incident encountered on my watch. Years ago, I had taken an eighth-grade class to New York City to see a Broadway play called “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.” It was a brilliant rendition of American history told through tap dance and drumming. It was also a city adventure for eighth-grade students — a Central Park playground for a game of tag, a walk past fake Rolex watch-hawkers trying to ply their wares on not-so savvy children, hot potato knish carts and the lit up marquees of Broadway itself. Then to the theater and the climb up to cheap seats way up in the “nosebleed section,” to see the play, become mesmerized by the magic of a live performance — the real-life actors and the wizardry of stagecraft unfolding before our eyes. Afterwards, back into our chartered bus, in a buzz of tired excitement.
The incident in question occurred on the way home, when we stopped for dinner. Fred, one of the students, the first off the bus, made a beeline for the bathroom. “We have no bathrooms here,” he was told by the manager. Fred, dressed up in teen boy uniform, like his peers, except that unlike his peers, his skin was a deep chocolate brown. Too polite to challenge, he sat down and waited, in discomfort, for his classmates to arrive, who were pointed in the direction of the existing bathrooms.
Later, back on the bus, I asked him if he was OK, because he clearly didn’t look OK. He explained what had happened, a sense of anger and shame palpable in his manner.
“I was only joking,” the manager said when confronted.
“Did you correct your joke and redirect the child?” the teacher asked.
“Can’t you take a joke?” the manager repeated.
There is a virulent germ that lingers in our communities. It evolves into new forms, subtle shapes to survive progress, even the election of a black president. It takes on new vocabulary, the N-word replaced by “thug” for example, or slurs that question the integrity and even the legitimacy of our president. We may have convinced ourselves that we live in a post-racial age, but then a boy goes to the bathroom.
“Is it still there?” I ask my grandson the next time we return to our place for homework and snacks. “It’s still there,” he says. “Why do boys’ bathrooms have to be so bad?” he asks again, in his usual inaudible whisper.
Ruth Charney is a Greenfield resident.