I walk into the recreation center to pick my son up from his aftercare program. It is around the corner from where we live—just a four-minute climb up some stairs, a trek through a couple of parking lots, and a hop inside one of several glass doors, but my son is too young to walk it alone. He is six and can’t yet ride a bicycle. He is six and refuses to take an empty subway seat unless there’s one for me beside him. He’s six and when I get inside and everyone wearing a red T-shirt with the word “STAFF” splayed across the back in big, white, block letters stares at me with disapproving eyes, I know he’s in trouble again.
“S. had a hard time listening today,” the woman in charge says, talking to me but glaring at my son. His eyes drift over to the front desk, then down the hall to the bathrooms but don’t meet hers. I take his chin in my hand and point his face at her.
“Are you paying attention?” I ask.
“He has to do better at listening to the directions and following them,” she says, annoyed. “I don’t want to see you in my office again,” she continues, her voice stern, her face straight, and her hair cut so low she is nearly bald. Clearly, she has no time for nonsense.
Finished now with admonishing my son, she lifts her eyes to meet me, his mother with the light voice, apologetic smile, and hair parted this way and that in a maze of elaborate twists that took so long to style, they must announce I take nonsense all day. As she feigns a smile and sticks out her hand to shake mine, I am relieved a talking-to is all S. gets this time. I grab his hand and pull him toward the parking lot, glad that this time S. is still just six.
At six, he’s in kindergarten where he sings songs, colors with crayons, and is surrounded by kids like him—too cute to be taken seriously. There’s the girl who greets him by first and last name every three seconds as if learning them for the first time, the boy whose adult teeth seem to have come in prematurely and are too big for his miniature body, and his best friend, who moves with the cautious hunch and shuffle of an old man though he hasn’t reached puberty.
My son’s cuteness is epic. He’s got eyelashes so thick and long, grown women with mascara blackening their lids approach him revealing their envy. He speaks with a slight lisp in a voice so airy and sweet it seems made from cotton candy. And when he laughs, really laughs, his chuckles shoot out as quickly and gently as the phosphorescent orbs from a bubble machine and are syncopated with an audible joy that lifts the spirits of anyone within earshot, instantly transporting them to a time without worry, only promise.
On the school bus, there’s a place saved for him and the other kindergarteners up front, just behind the driver, where they can be watched, protected, and kept safe. Six-year-olds are supposed to still be scared of monsters and need a lot of adult direction to do things right, after all; at least that’s what the research says. Any extra layer of supervision is warranted. So, from the front of the bus, my boy lifts his twiggy fingers and waves goodbye to me each morning; I stand on the curb and wave back, knowing he’ll return to me that evening, perhaps poorly behaved but in one piece, protected, just fine. But that’s while he’s still six.
It is a Friday and I open an email on my phone from my son’s teacher titled “S.” I’ve gotten nice end-of-the-week emails from her before, ones where her jubilation at his surprisingly good behavior is evident in every line, with every extraneous exclamation point. But this is not that.
She writes to tell me that S. was having a great day until recess. That’s when he and another student got into an argument on the playground. It ended with the other student being choked by my son.
“ Please talk to S. about keeping his hands to himself,” she writes, “and maybe go over some other strategies he can do when he is frustrated.
“Have a great weekend!” she ends her message, as if that is even possible anymore.
I turn off my phone, stuff it in my pocket, and march toward the recreation center to figure out just what the hell has gotten into him.
When I get there, it is no surprise that there’s more bad news, more disappointment from the staff in my son’s defiance, and even more to talk to him about. I grab his scrawny hand and we leave, trudging uphill through the parking lot. When we turn the corner and are no longer in view of the rec center’s wall of windows and all the watching eyes behind it, I try to get through to him.
“S., do you understand why you can’t choke someone, or hit someone, or kick someone, or hurt them in any other way?”
“Yes, because I have to keep my hands to myself,” he says in a voice just above a whisper, as if the lack of volume could minimize the impact of his shame.
“Because I can hurt them.”
“Right. Why else?”
He thinks for a moment. “Because I can get in trouble?”
“Yes. Because when you do that, that’s assault.”
I imagine my boy not six anymore but sixteen, his pretty eyelashes now like Tupac’s, insufficient cover for the menace that those who wish to will see behind them. His tender tone now like Nas’s, providing perfect narration for the inevitable pain brought on by his environment. His infectious laugh now like Lil Wayne’s, inadequate deflection from the wrongs he’s suffered and committed since he was a boy. Because of his skin and his gender, my son at sixteen will no longer be quirky and cute but delinquent and dangerous in the eyes of the officers who would come to arrest him and treat him as an adult after such an act.
They might say he “looks like a demon,” like former Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson said of Michael Brown after he shot the eighteen-year-old to death. Or that “he’s on drugs or something,” like neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman said of Trayvon Martin before shooting the seventeen-year-old dead. I don’t want to traumatize my son with the finality of reality so I tell him a lighter version.
“They would take you to jail,” I say. “Do you want that to happen?”
“Because then I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere or do anything fun.”
“That’s right. And you wouldn’t be able to see me or Daddy anymore either.”
With this, his face contorts into an extreme droop, lips downturned, eyes downcast, cheeks sagging as he opens his mouth and lets out a painful moan that summons the tears from his eyes. He keeps walking but I can tell he wants to fall onto the ground and give into the despair that such an unfair world would cause.
“You don’t want that to happen, do you?”
“No,” he says, wiping his face and dragging his perpetually untied Nikes slightly across the pavement.
“Good. Then act right.”
My boy turns seven soon. Truth be told, I like him just fine at six. At six, cardboard boxes and empty toilet paper rolls still enthrall him. He’s just as glued watching the sweetness of Doc McStuffins and Sofia the First as the crudeness in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Teen Titans . At the bus stop while six, he scavenges sticks and pinecones, more interested in discovering what the earth has to offer than in demonstrating his own toughness. The other boys do this; I bet they would be glad to be made of steel.
They pass a football back and forth, throwing it into the street, behind a passing car, just in front of the school bus as it rounds the corner and comes to a stop with red lights flashing and yellow “mother’s arm” outstretched to protect the kids, this time, from oncoming traffic. They discuss last weekend’s NFL game and last night’s NBA playoffs match. Then the other boys scoff at each other, “Shut the fuck up, nigga,” without batting an eye, as if they have been spouting profanity since birth. They are only eleven years old, or nine, or seven, and some the same age as S.
A handful of parents—not theirs—are scattered around, including me, but none of us chides them. We don’t say a word. We act as if we are not surprised, as if we believe they are already as wicked as society wants us to think they should be. In Maryland, where I live, for example, while one in forty-one black men is incarcerated, 72 percent of the state’s prison population is black, the highest in the nation, as reported by the Sentencing Project . The perception is that blacks, and black men in particular, are dangerous. So we, parents, mustn’t put ourselves at risk by trying to reel these black boys back into innocence from the popular depiction of black male guilt they are so intent on portraying, should we? It wouldn’t be right, we tell ourselves. They are who they are supposed to be.
But why do they want to grow up so fast, I wonder. Why would their parents want them to? They are black boys just like mine. Don’t they know that with every inch of height, every burst of acne, every octave dip of voice, these boys get pushed farther and farther into the danger zone, into being recognized as black men? I look over and my son is picking dandelions from the ground. Yes, I like him just fine at six. I’m in no rush for him to see seven.
It’s the middle of a workday and I’m on the phone in my office with my son’s teacher. The day before, I came home to her voice on my answering machine and a nearly exclamation-point-free email from her titled, “Incident at Recess Today.” Apparently, my son’s latest misadventure in unacceptable school behavior rose to the level of “a phone call home.”
“I’m sorry to be having this conversation with you,” she says, shedding the usual effervescent cheer I used to imagine possessed all kindergarten teachers—which she, coincidentally, personifies. Instead, she puts on her best disappointed voice.
“Yeah, me too,” I respond, unable to muster even half the interest in speaking to her that she has in speaking to me.
“Well, first, I wanted to apologize for getting some of the facts wrong in my email,” she says. “I had a chance to pull each of the involved students aside today and they explained that S. didn’t punch another student in the nose and make it bleed. He punched a student and that student bumped into another student, which bloodied his nose. So it wasn’t as bad as we initially thought.”
“Okay,” I say, unimpressed with the irrelevant change in consequence of my son’s actions. The fact remains that he hit someone. And worse, he committed this assault after I had already warned him about what would happen if he continued to perpetrate such acts. I wasn’t getting through to him.
Now, it seems that the school feels I am at fault for my son’s behavior; I am the one who needs a talking to. I sit at my desk with my head hung low, reluctant but prepared to accept the tongue lashing.
“Do you have any idea what’s going on with S.?” the teacher asks me.
I have put this question to myself time and time again: What is wrong with him? Why doesn’t he listen? Why can’t he follow directions?
Maybe I’m asking too much of him, I think. Maybe sitting down and staying quiet all day is beyond the capacity of a little, rambunctious brown boy of six. Perhaps even when six and a half, he didn’t have the skillset to adequately follow even single-set instructions.
But I need him to. At six and three quarters—nearly seven years old—I need him to stop being a baby and start acting like a big boy. That’s what the world will soon see when they look at him.
And their eyes might mistake his inattentiveness for belligerence and his hyperactivity for defiance. For either, they might shoot him dead in a car full of friends like seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis, or gun him down like twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in the middle of a park alone. Once he’s out of my sight, his twiggy fingers slipped from my grip, I can offer him no protection but the lessons I teach him now to keep him alive. The quicker he learns them, the better.
“I don’t know,” I answer the teacher, hearing my own voice fade to nearly a whisper, inadvertently registering my premature defeat. “He’s been having so many behavior problems lately.”
Maybe I’m sending my boy mixed messages, I think. While I want him to—need him to—grow up safely, at the same time, I want him to stay as sweet and soft and cute as he is now. He is my baby boy.
When I feel the faint grip of his Crayola- and Elmer’s glue-ready fingers around my knuckles as we walk neighborhood streets, and the way he sometimes flicks my overgrown fingernails with his fingertips, my skin tingles with reassurance that my son is still my own. When he insists that I take the lone empty seat on the subway, then climbs onto my lap with his body nestling into mine, mine supporting his with all the strength and steadiness I can muster, my heart flutters that my son still belongs to me. When I congratulate him after school for a good-behavior day and his smile beams with all the self-pride I wish to instill in him, I can’t help but smile back, warmed by the love of a mother for her first-born son. I am aware of the inevitability of adolescence and the teenage years, but I don’t want to lose that boy.
“We’ll just keep doing the best we can,” I tell his teacher before I hang up the phone. “That’s all we can do.”
It is raining; my son and I walk out of a museum and into the cool, early spring mist with our hoods up. I hold an umbrella above our heads with my right hand and sling my left arm over his shoulder as if the only way to keep him dry is to pull him close. I used to walk this way with my now six-foot, two-hundred-pound nephew when he, too, was not more than a waist-high boy, before he got so big I had to start standing on my tippy toes to hug him.
As my son and I begin our trek back to my car, dodging puddles like potholes ready to ensnare us in their treachery, a woman walking toward us catches my eye. She is white, plump, maybe sixty to seventy years old, and is smiling at us. It is not the smile of “hello”; that would have lasted only a second and her eyes would have shifted once she felt satisfied with the greeting. No, she smiles and stares while we walk wrapped up in one another like we are each other’s only protection from the rain—from the world. She follows us with her eyes even as we pass her by. I recognize the pleased curve in her lips and the admiring twinkle in her eyes.
I used to see it all the time while I helped my son toddle from one room of the local library to the other, or as I rolled him smiling and singing in a shopping cart down the aisles of the grocery store. I especially saw it whenever he made a break for it by slipping from me or my husband’s grasp and running at top speed away from us at the zoo or across the National Mall. But that was when he was two, or three, or four years old, and only rarely when he was five. Everything he did was so adorable then. His adorability never failed to elicit joyful smiles, even from strangers.
Looking at me with my son now, at six, I can tell that the woman has found something in us she can identify with. And she sees it even though my son has been giving me grief with all the trouble he’s been getting in lately, even though he is wearing a hoodie, even though his skin is brown, even though he is a boy. This older white woman sees that the little black boy in front of her is happy and loved. And that, somehow, fills her with joy.
Apparently, this is not so hard to see when he is six and still cute with long eyelashes, a bubbly giggle, and endearing inhibitions. It is when he turns seven, and seventeen, and twenty-seven that I will need her and everyone like her to recognize in my son qualities that will have begun to fade but those that will undoubtedly remain true: that he will still deserve to be protected, will still be worthy of being embraced, and yes, will still be as loved as he was when he was six.