Monday, May 16, 2016

It's all about the benjamins, baby

Having visited and lived in Third World countries growing up - particularly India - I'm well cognizant of how extravagantly I hit the jackpot in being born who I am.  American, solidly middle- to upper-middle class, with parents who were loving and supportive, who provided me with an amazing education, and who lived a life that allowed me to travel and experience the world in a way most people never get to. I was always well-housed, well-clothed, well-fed.  I've never had to worry about poverty or homelessness or deprivation.  I was praised for being smart and pretty and athletic, and made to feel like I could do anything I set my mind to.  I had every advantage.

I try to impart to my children how fortunate they are, but it's hard. When we lived in Venezuela, our house was down the street from a barrio.  Everywhere I went in India I encountered wretched slums, extreme poverty, and children begging in the streets.  But my children are rarely, if ever, face-to-face with children (or anyone, really) whose socio-economic status varies from theirs in any significant way.  Their biggest source of frustration is when I set the parental controls on their Kindles to only allow them an hour of screen time a day.

So even though yesterday's events were a little jarring, they also provided a valuable lesson.

I bought Josie a new bike on Saturday, so we spent the weekend riding around.  Yesterday we decided to ride along the South Platte River trail, which starts at the REI in part of downtown Denver.  It's a wide, smoothly paved path, perfect for tooling around with kids, and perfect for Josie to get the hang of her new wheels.  The trail takes you past Elitch Gardens, where we marveled at the scary looking rollercoasters, and past Mile High Stadium, where we marveled at the statue of the horse and talked about how great it was that the Broncos won the Superbowl.

After that, the scenery gets a little rougher.  Factories.  Power plants.  Industrial areas.

Then suddenly, about 2 miles down, we rounded a curve and saw an amazing playground.  The kids asked if we could stop and play, so we did.

When we took our bikes up, I realized we were smack in the middle of the housing projects (in fact, the headquarters for the Denver Housing Authority was right next to the playground).  But whatever - the playground was nice and it seemed safe enough, so I sat at one of the picnic tables while the kids climbed and jumped and had fun.

After a couple of minutes, a group of four kids came over and started playing as well.  They ranged in age from 2 to about 9.  There was no adult with them. The toddler had a full diaper.  The older kids were eating burritos out of tupperware containers.  They were all very sweet, and fell in comfortably with my kids.

Then a little girl came over and started causing trouble.  One of the other kids said she was 7, but she looked older.  Josie will be 7 in a few months and this girl outweighed her by at least 10 pounds.  She was at least as tall as Zeke, and looked strong and muscle-y.  I looked at her and thought, "in 15 years, she will look exactly the same, only taller and with worse skin." Dirty, stringy blonde hair, wearing fuzzy pajama pants out in public, with a shitty, mean look on her face.

She went over to one of the girls who looked to be about 7 or 8, and tried to snatch her food from her.  The girl backed off, but the mean girl followed and started throwing wood chips (from the playground), and then started hitting and kicking.

I ran over to break up the fight.  Mean Girl wouldn't stop trying to attack, so I stepped between her and the other girl and said, "you need to stop that nasty behavior right now.  Leave these kids alone and get away from here!"  She gave me a look that reminded me of a snake about to strike - cold, emotionless, and menacing.  But she backed off.

I went to comfort the little girl who had been attacked - she was crying and upset.  I put my arm around her and was trying to soothe her when Mean Girl returned, this time threatening one of the other kids.  I approached her again and told her to leave, and she backed off.

After that, she circled around the edges of the playground area like a shark, looking for any opening, any opportunity.  So I kept myself between her and the kids, and would step towards her and send her away when she started to approach one of the children.  Zeke and Josie were simultaneously freaked and in protective mode - they would put their arms around the other kids and yell at the girl to leave them alone.  But at no point did they say, "Mama, we're scared, let's get out of here."  I was kind of proud.

The kids were mesmerized by Zeke's and Josie's bikes, so we let them ride around the playground.  Mean Girl was continuing to roam in the background, but for the most part she kept her distance.  When she didn't, I would direct the kids to get behind me and order her to leave them alone.

I thought about taking my kids and riding off, but I also didn't want to leave the other children there unprotected.  Apparently their mom was off doing laundry, so I thought I'd wait a little while in the hopes that she came back.

Things came to a head when Zeke was letting the toddler sit on the seat of his bike while he pushed it around, giving the baby a little ride.  He was being incredibly sweet.  But he got about 15 feet away from me, and when he did, Mean Girl walked over to him and started kicking at him.  Because he was holding up the bike with the baby on it, he was powerless to respond.

I lost my shit.  I broke into a full sprint and screamed at her, "GET AWAY FROM MY SON!!" She started to run and I chased her until she had run behind one of the buildings about 200 feet away.

She never came back.  The other kids went home when they saw their mom coming back from the laundry.  And we climbed on our bikes and rode back to REI to get some lemonade at the Starbucks there, dragging our privileged white asses back to the safe, easy world we live in.

Later in the car, Josie said, "that girl was really mean.  She shouldn't act like that."

"I know, honey, you're right.  But the truth is, she's probably just behaving the way people in her home behave.  I bet she sees a lot of fighting and anger.  Her life is hard."

We talked about how lucky they are.  I explained that even though I knew it wasn't easy for them to deal with the fact that Daddy and I had split up, they now have two nice homes to live in, lots of people who love them and take care of them, nice friends, and plenty of food and toys and clothes and new bikes and books.

"You both live very fortunate lives compared to lots of other kids.  So you should try to be understanding.  Even though what that girl did wasn't OK, we should try to remember that her life isn't nearly as nice and easy as yours is."

After a minute, Zeke asked, "what if you or Daddy died?  Where would we go?"

"If Daddy died, you would live with me.  If I died, you would live with Daddy."

"What if you died and Daddy was already dead?  Could I go live with Jackson [his friend from across the street]?"

"No, in that case, you would probably go live with Josh or Sam, or Mimi and Papa.  I don't really know - I should really talk to them about it - but you would be with family and they would take care of you."

Josie said, "living with Josh would be fun.  He has a pool!"

Zeke was quiet for a while, deep in thought.

Then he piped up, "if we live with Sam, could I bring my Xbox?"

It's the important things we need to worry about, right?

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