Thursday, April 22, 2010

Things My Two-Year-Old Taught Me: Part VI

We often drive near the college campus in our town on our way to grocery shopping and parks.  Recently, we were on our way to the grocery store when we passed a girl walking to her college classes.  bug excitedly pointed out the window.
“Girl!”  He announced with enthusiasm.  “That a girl!”  I had noticed her too, and I had also noticed her dreadlocks, tattoos and ripped clothing.  “Yeah,” I responded, “it’s a shaggy girl.”  bug tapped on the glass.  “That a shaggy girl.  Uh-huh.”  He agreed.  
That gave me pause.  Did I just tell my son that someone was shaggy, only to have him repeat my pronouncement with conviction?  Was my judgement all it took to make something infallibly true?
I thought back over the week.  Did this happen often?  Well, there was that one guy lurking around the park.  I’m pretty sure I inadvertently taught bug to call him creepy (I mean, maybe there was a reason he shuffled instead of walked and squinted his eyes like he was glaring at everyone.  How do I know?)  And I think I might have called a kid at the store a “punk”... and I know I’ve called other drivers “stupid heads” only to have bug parrot it back.  What am I teaching my son??
While pondering my influence on my son’s perception of others, I thought back to a similar experience I had with a different two year old many, many years ago (about 12 years ago, to be exact).  (He may have been 2 and 1/2 or slightly older, but definitely NOT 3...) That two year old was my nephew and I was babysitting.  
I decided that the two of us needed to get out of the house, and as it was such a nice day, we went for a walk.  At this time he and his family lived about 10 blocks from me, so I was familiar with the neighborhood and many of the neighbors.  There lived in this neighborhood a man with an unfortunate disfiguration affecting the majority of his body - something like proteus syndrome (much like Joseph Merrick) (most commonly known as The Elephant Man).  As I had grown up in this neighborhood, I had been witness (and - although I don't like to admit it - sometimes participated in) some childish cruelty towards this man - generally “benign” in nature, with a focus on calling him nasty nicknames behind his back.  (I say “benign” in quotes, because as we all know, name-calling isn’t really benign at all.  I use the term really to illustrate that we never did this to his face and thankfully never actually did this man or his property any physical harm)  
While my nephew and I were out walking, our path took us directly in front of this man’s house.  He was sitting outside on his stoop, enjoying the warm day just as we were.  My nephew and I had been engrossed in conversation (most likely a deep philosophical discussion centering around Blue’s Clues and the then host, Steve.)  When I noticed that this man was outside, I gathered my wits about me and silently begged my nephew not to see him.  I knew this man didn’t deserve further scrutiny and probably did not appreciate the attention he generally attracted, especially by children (sometimes mean-spirited, but just as often simply curious due to a lack of understanding or exposure to people with this condition).  I had no idea how I would respond to my nephew's questions about the man (I knew there definitely WOULD be questions, since my nephew was inquisitive AND had quite the vocabulary) And so, I resolved to ignore this man and continue walking normally, as this was the “right thing to do.”
And then my nephew shattered my world.
He stopped, suddenly.  He looked.  He even pointed.  Imagine my mortification when he spoke.
“A man!”  He exclaimed.  I said nothing.  I didn’t stop.  I didn’t turn.  I didn’t acknowledge his comment at all.  I simply grabbed his hand and urged him forward.
He wouldn’t budge.  “Look, look!”  He insisted, continuing to point and raise his voice in excitement.
I think I probably would have died right there, had he not continued his enthusiastic ramblings with hardly a beat:
“It’s a man!  Hi, man!  Hi!”  He waved excitedly.  “How are you?”
I stopped.  I stared at my nephew.  And then I turned to the man, looking at him in a whole new light.  Looking at him through my nephew’s eyes.  Here was a man, just a man, basking in the warm summer day and enjoying the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.  Here was someone to say hi to, quite possibly a new friend.
The man smiled.  He waved back.  Through my shame I managed to smile and say hello as well, and then my nephew and I continued on our way.
I couldn’t help but feel an incredible amount of embarrassment at myself and my actions.  When I saw this man sitting outside, did I really see the man?  Or did I see his condition?  I was so worried about my nephew saying something inappropriate on accident that I acted inappropriately myself.  While I was busy ignoring the unpleasantness, my two year old nephew was busy seeing the real person.  
It made me think of this quote:  “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.”  (Doctrine and Covenants section 18, verse 10)
Was I seeing the true worth of this man?
Even if you don’t believe in God as I do, even if you don’t believe in a higher power at all, you probably still believe in - or at least hope for - human decency.  And decency dictates that we treat each other with respect.  Part of that involves seeing people as worthwhile - or in other words, looking past their flaws or imperfections, whatever they may be.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel that same shame wash over me as I heard my son call the college girl “shaggy.”  So she had some frizzy hair.  So do I first thing in the morning.  So she had a tattoo or two (or ten).  Some people would call that artistic expression.  So she had some ripped clothes.  Doubtless she spent good money for her clothes to look torn just so.  Who am I to judge what is shaggy and what isn’t?  I quickly told my son I shouldn’t have said that, and neither should he.  (Not that that reverses the initial affects.  Anyone with a kid knows they keep right on saying what you’ve said, even when you renege.  This is why bug continues to chirp, “oh my crap!” even though I’ve told him we shouldn’t say it anymore...)
Two year olds know a lot more than we give them credit for.  My nephew and bug were right to point out the people... I was very, very wrong to notice only the outward appearance.   

(My two year old nephew... long ago!  He's about 4 feet 
taller now and wears glasses.  Just as skinny though.)


Alisa said...

Such a good lesson. I cried a little. You should send your blog link to Alec so he can enjoy this one too. I really think he would...

Unknown said...

I did! :) Great minds think alike! Sooo, funny - I cried a little too, writing it. It's my favorite Alec story. I put the link on his facebook, so I hope he reads it.

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