Monday, August 22, 2011

Jalen's First Racial Incident

On Monday, my seven-year-old son Jalen began second grade.

Behaviorally, the previous three months have been a bit of a mixed bag for him. He withstood -- with surprisingly good maturity -- the temporary parental abandonment created by my June
vacation to New York and Mrs. Bootleg's New York-Rome-Paris jaunt in July.

Unfortunately, one day Jalen also came home from summer camp with a note from his swim instructor reprimanding his overly-competitive nature and dramatically negative attitude when he didn't win at one of the kid-friendly water games. The note was quite pointed and more than a little embarrassing to read as Jalen's parents. So, you can imagine the near aneurysm induced by the note that appeared in his folder the following day.

This correspondence, however, was extremely vague. It was a polite, but terse request to contact the teacher. I'll admit to being more focused on the final line: "Jalen didn't do anything wrong!"

Obviously, Jalen was involved in something, even if he did nothing wrong. On the ride home, Jalen seemed somewhat withdrawn, but I chalked it up to the punishment I'd dispensed the day before. In the hours that followed, both my curiosity and the urgency of the moment evaporated.

The following morning, as I drove Jalen to camp, the note crossed my mind again. For whatever reason, the thought that another child had said something insulting to my son seemed to be the obvious answer. I knew it couldn't be any kind of physical altercation, since that would've merited a more immediate response from the staff. And, no one sends home a note specifically exonerating one party unless there's a second party involved, somehow.*

* -- Only took me 16 hours to figure that out, or roughly 2/3 of an average season of Law & Order.

I called the camp and received a summarized confirmation: two kids had made a racial comment of some kind to Jalen. Before I continue, I should probably point out that I know most of the staff pretty well and, as a result, I received some additional context and perspective that I probably wouldn't have received over the phone, otherwise.

This put me in a different frame of mind than my wife, as I was tasked with filling her in on the incident.

Now, my wife is infinitely more inquisitive than me and my inability to answer her queries ("Who was involved?", "What'd they say to my baby?", "Why don't you EVER ask any follow-up questions, Aaron?!") probably had her thinking that a hate crime had been committed.

We drove to Jalen's summer camp to meet with his teacher. She's actually a very sweet, well-intended older woman who taught our son from preschool through kindergarten. And, every conversation with her -- about anything at all -- inevitably turns into
this. She sat us down -- in those accursed kid-sized chairs that wreck havoc on my back -- and read directly from her [dramatic pause] "Incident Report".

For the benefit of those of you who've read this far, here's the short version: two kids told Jalen he'd have to be last in line because he had black skin. An emotional Jalen informed a different teacher who -- in our estimation -- handled the situation phenomenally well. She did such a good job of talking it out with everyone involved that Jalen didn't even mention it to me when I picked him up that day.

In fact, the "awkward" and "uncomfortable" didn't really begin until our meeting with the teacher and her incident report...continued. Oh, there wasn't anything else of substance in the report. We were assured that the parents of the children involved would be brought in to discuss what happened. And, Mrs. Bootleg and I had plans of our own to talk about it with Jalen.

Before we could leave with our son, however, the teacher had gone off script with us and somehow segued into a lesson on the physiological reasons behind darker skin. And, she went all the way back to the dawn of man for this one, y'all. I am not making this up. We've known her for years, we know she adores Jalen and -- not to put too fine of a point on this -- but, we've known her for years. Mrs. Bootleg and I would've been disappointed if we didn't get the "Grandpa Simpson" bit from her.

A few days later, Jalen and I had the following conversation over breakfast:

Jalen: "Can I write a thank you note to my friend? He got me a race car."

Me: "Why did your friend get you a race car?"

Jalen: "Because, he was saying 'sorry' for saying a mean thing to me."

Me: "Wait...are you talking about the little boy from summer camp last week? He got you a race car?"

Jalen: "Yeah."

Me: "Did you SAY 'thank you'?"

Jalen: "Yeah."

Me: "Then, I think we can leave it at that, J."

Jalen: "But, he wrote ME a note."

Me: "He wrote YOU a note? Where is it?"

Jalen: "Here."

Me: "Y'know what, J. Let's leave it at that."


mathan said...

That's some powerful stuff right there. It's stories like that that make me think twice about having kids.

It really sucks that Jalen had to go through that. It's a horrible rite of passage, but at least his first incident was a pretty mild one.

Mine was about the same age, involved the N-bomb and was definitely an eye-opening experience. I lost way too much of my childhood innocence that day.

At least Jalen's innocence and character are intact.

CrazyCanuck said...

VERY glad it wasn't really ugly. Nobody needs to go through that garbage.

Now the question is if his parents' innocence are intact. Well, as much as can be, anyways.

Other Joe said...

Wow. Like the others said, very glad it wasn't really ugly.

Also thankful that the Jackson/Sharpton entourage did not descend on this camp. Sounds like the teacher handled it about as good as it could be.

Aaron C. said...

It really was a nice gesture and Jalen appreciated it. I don't know if I could write a blog post on MY first racial incident. That one was pretty rough and didn't come with a unified kitten friendship card at the end.

On the flip side, I could write chapters and chapters on associating racially with my co-workers. My favorite: one of my co-workers suggested I follow his favorite hockey team and sealed the deal with, "They've got a black guy."

That was its own unified kitten friendship card.

Lew B said...

Wow, talk about being the last to know. This is the first I heard of this.