“What do you do if your dishwasher stops working?”
The question seemed harmless enough. I was sixteen, and a junior in high school, and we were on a youth trip with my church. I invited my friend along, under the premise of converting him to Christianity, but in reality, I just wanted to have a friend with me. My faith in Christ (or more accurately, my faith in the Christians around me) had been dwindling for some time, and bringing this friend on the trip was more for my benefit than his.
The bus fell silent. All eyes and ears focused on my friend, who now stood in the narrow, sloped walkway, poised and ready to amuse us all with his Long Island wit. Silence. Anticipation. Punchline.
“Slap the Bitch!”
The air in the bus, already thick with Florida summer humidity, grew even thicker. Eyes met across the aisles. Faces, unamused and awestruck, looked to me for a reply. To break the tense discomfort, I laughed, nervously. It was not a natural laugh but forced through gritted teeth. My eyes, struck with fear and shame and alarm, scanned the bus for a friendly face to call home and found none. I laughed because I was young, and scared, and either unable or unwilling to voice the uneasiness which now permeated the greyhound. I laughed because I didn’t have a ready response.
What I should have done was pulled my friend aside and explained to him the hurtful nature of his joke. What I should have done was stood up and defended the women around me; the women not around me. I should have stood up and defended my mother, and my sisters, and my teachers, and my friends. But what I did was to laugh. And by laughing, I acknowledged his privilege. I perpetuated the stereotype. I encouraged the behavior. What I should have done was anything, anything but laugh.
We live in a community surrounded by conservation areas. Large sections of wooded preserve dissect the community. My eleven-year-old and his best friend spend hours in these woods, fighting zombies, or surviving apocalypses. They dress in camouflage and carry nerf guns and binoculars and walkie-talkies. In these woods, they find joy together.
Last week, a neighbor from across the street came over to play. Without hesitation, my son invited her to join them in the woods. The three spent hours in the conservation doing what they do, shooting nerf guns at each other, fighting zombies, imagining. He came home that night elated and exhausted. The next day, his friend came to collect him; apparently, the zombie outbreak had gotten worse overnight and required immediate attention. My son quickly changed into his camo and gathered his gear. Once ready, he told his friend to wait while he went across the street to gather their smaller, younger, third companion.
“I don’t want her to play with us today,” his friend said.
“She’s only seven.”
“So,” my son said. His confusion now showed on his brow. “She played with us yesterday. Didn’t you have fun?”
“That isn’t the point.” There was a long hesitation as if he was looking for a polite way to
state the next thought. “I don’t want to play with her, today. I don’t like to play with girls.”
And there it was.
The boys were in the living room, now, by the front door. I was in the kitchen, well within earshot, and close enough to intervene. Instantly, I thought of that moment on the bus. I thought of the way I felt when I didn’t do what I thought was right. I made my turn to head into the front room, fully prepared to intercede when my son replied.
“I don’t think that’s nice. We played with her yesterday and it was so much fun. Just because she’s a girl doesn’t mean that she isn’t fun.” There was power in his voice, and he spoke the words with confidence because he knew they were the right words.
“I just don’t think the woods are a place for a girl.” His friend’s tone grew more powerful now, and as he spoke the next words, he seemed confident about the reply. “You need to choose, are you going to play with her or me, your best friend?”
There was a pause. As I waited for him to respond, I thought about what my reply would be. Would I be willing to sacrifice a valued friendship to make a stand? Would I be willing to ignore the obvious answer? My son was not. “Well, then I guess we can’t be friends anymore.” Without another word, his friend turned and left.
As a father, I had never felt prouder. The love inside me was so overwhelming that it made me cry. My son came into the kitchen to see me standing there and asked what was wrong.
“Nothing,” I told him. “I am so proud of you. That must have been so hard for you to do.” I pulled him in tight and hugged him.
“Sometimes doing the right thing is hard, Dad.” He looked up and smiled at me. Then he turned and pointed at a sign hanging on the wall in the kitchen. “But, I can do hard things.” He left and went across the street to play with his friend, the seven-year-old girl.
The next day, his friend texted him to ask if he was ready to play, just the two of them.
“No thanks,” my son replied. “I already have plans.”
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