A boy named Christian spit on my youngest daughter Rosette yesterday on the school playground. When I went to the school this morning to see the vice principal, another mother whom I've known for ten years said, "How come it's always the boys named Angel
who are so bad?"
I didn't have time to look for him on the playground. I know what he looks like, because we've had trouble with him all year. He is a white kid, ten years old, stocky, and wears camouflage pants. His hair is streaked and highlighted and colored. (That always makes my daughters and me suspicious ? he's ten, shouldn't he be out riding bikes or feeding the dog or playing ball, rather than sitting for extended periods with complicated beauty products on his head? I mean, my girls all have hair to their waists and we don't spend that much time.)
In November, this same boy called Rosette a nigger. Now, the word seems offensive, even when written here, and we're used to seeing the coy version. The n-word. But he didn't call her the n-word. That's not what he said.
In November, when she came home and told me that, my older daughters were shocked, too. My girls are Swiss, French, African, Irish, Creek, and Cherokee-American. They have all gone to this same elementary school, and no one had ever called them that. Trouble has always come with boys in the fourth grade ? Gaila had a boy touching her all the time in line, trying to intimidate her by putting his hands on her butt. He was mixed race. I put on black clothes and sunglasses and caught up to him at lunchtime one day, and told him he'd better stop touching her or her father might have to speak with him ? at the correctional facility where he works. That was that. Delphine had five boys, all recent immigrants from Mexico, decide that she had pale brown skin and so should speak Spanish and be in love with them. They professed their desires by hitting her in the head with frozen water bottles and palm fronds. I tried to do the playground visit, but as I'm a thin blonde woman, they remained unimpressed in the most macho way. So Daddy had to stand outside the classroom door one day and study the boys.
My ex-husband is 6-4, weighs 300 pounds, has worked for twenty years as a correctional officer, and favors wraparound sunglasses and Big Dog shirts. He rarely has to say more than a few words to be effective. He stood near the door and asked Delphine, "Which ones are they?" Then he just studied them and nodded. They ran. The trouble ceased.
This time it's different.
In November, I went to the vice principal and told him what had happened. I said the word to him, and he flinched. He's a tall white man, eminently reasonable. He didn't want to hear this word. I saw how he wanted me to say "the n-word." He immediately said he would call Rosette and talk to her about it, and I made him more uncomfortable by telling him that then she'd feel worse. Not only did someone call her something that stings and penetrates and goes inside the cartilage, now she'd be the one called in and talked to first, grilled in a sense. She had already told me that's what would happen.
"Call Christian in first. Grill him," I said. "Don't make my child feel bad again because this happened."
It's nearly impossible to explain, unless you're speaking to a parent of a black child in America. I see people watching my mouth, but not understanding.
In November, after a few weeks, Rosette received an insincere sorry note from this boy. He avoided her for a time, and then, after Christmas, went back to subtle attempts at playground intimidation. Rosette is tall and fast and strong. There were incidents on the swings. We laughed them off. We called him pathetic.
Then yesterday he hawked up a practiced glob of saliva and spit on her jacket sleeve. Of course I asked ? anyone else? No. On purpose? Yes.
Christian. So well-named. My first inclination was to tell her to spit back. I did, and she gave me an incredulous look. "I tried," she said. "But I don't know how to do that."
Well of course she didn't. I haven't trained my girls to collect their spit and use it to insult people. It's saliva, it's the message, it's the tool used to deliver the message during all those years of segregation and civil rights and busing and riots. It's spit. It means something.
I would have liked to explain this to Christian, on the playground, but times are different now, and a parent cannot approach someone else's kid. (Though in our old neighborhood, any parent could discipline any kid, and that was community.) I would have liked to explain this to the vice-principal, but he was at another elementary school, doing double duty. So, sadly enough for both of them, I will call Daddy, as I would have anyway this morning, and tell him of the spit, and the boy again, and tomorrow morning they will receive a visit from him as it is his day off. My ex-husband still remembers with vivid clarity the first time someone called him a nigger. He was eight, and the boy was eight, and it was in our city park. It's in the cartilage and blood and memory. It's there now in Rosette, and I am washing the liquid off her jacket even as I write, and she knows tomorrow her father will stand on the playground, his arms folded, shoulders the width of the picnic tables nearby, and he will do what he does.