Tobin goes to school year-round. This means that during the summer, Knox joins us on our trips to the city. We love our summers together. They are sacred days where we get one-on-one time, and we are in a place with so many things to learn and do and so much diversity and culture all around us. Every day is an adventure. And it’s wonderful.
During these summer weeks, I only do yoga two mornings a week, while Knox goes to my gym’s kids’ program. The kids’ program is amazing. There are lots of different activities and classes he can choose from, and he meets all kinds of new friends. It pushes him outside his comfort zone, just like my daily living in the city has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and we meet new people together. It’s fantastic.
Until the morning I picked him up and we had this conversation:
Knox: There was a mean kid there today.
Me: Oh, really. How do you mean?
(There are long pauses as we walk. He tells me about a dodgeball game… forming teams. This “mean kid” had taken one of Knox’s new friends off to the side… Knox is nervous and pausing and looking down. These are all markers for me that this is something important.)
Me: (I’m already feeling the feelings.) And then what happened?
Knox: (long pause) And then the mean kid says, “He has weird eyes.”
I swallow the ball of anger and emotions and start asking questions: The kid had left. He didn’t know his name. He hadn’t been there before. No one else said anything after. No one else said anything before. The coach hadn’t heard the comment. No one else had heard the comment. He wasn’t sure if the kid even knew he had heard him.
And so on.
We walk. We breathe. I listen. I process.
Knox: He was probably just curious, Mom. It’s okay. I’m okay. I just wanted to tell you.
Me: It’s not okay, Knox. It’s one thing to be curious… but when you use a word like “weird,” it’s mean.
I wish I could say this was the first time something like this has been said to my son.
I wish I could say this would be the last time something like this will be said to my son.
He’s at the age where kids really are curious. Where they ask questions and notice differences. We live in an amazing, supportive community that has loved our boys from the start; but it’s a place without much diversity, so he’s been getting a lot of questions this year. Innocent, curious ones. Insensitive ones. Cruel ones. Kids trying out new words. Stretching of eyes. And then that stupid little childhood rhyme…
And we have handled each instance differently, depending on the circumstances… sometimes we use it as a teachable moment with his friends, sometimes we talk with parents, sometimes we go to the teacher, sometimes we just handle it at home. It all depends on all the variables of the situation.
But we have always, always tried to use the moment to remind Knox of who he is.
We tell him his story. His beautiful story… the hards and the highs of it. We cry over the sad parts and smile and laugh over the happy parts. And we remind each other that this is what life is: the hard and the highs. You can’t just have one… they go together.
We talk through things he can say when someone makes an hurtful comment.
We talk through seeking out the adult in charge.
We talk through being proud of who he is and his culture and his story and our story of how our family is formed, giving him words he can say to express and defend and explain…
…and then give him permission to own his story… that he can feel free and proud to share it and also free and proud to keep it to himself.
Because it is his story and no one else’s.
We find ways to seek out different cultural experiences. We find ways to put ourselves in places where Brian and I are the minority. We find ways to show Knox families that look like ours.
We remind him that he is a beautiful Korean boy, with dark eyes that dance and dark hair that shines and a smile that can light up the whole world. We talk about the ways we are alike. We talk about the ways we are different.
And the beauty in the way it all comes together.
But it still stings. Still feels like a gut punch. Still knocks the air out of us.
On this particular morning, the conversation evolved in a different direction.
We walked to the car, turned on the air, and got our emotions out.
I held back the profanity in my head, as my inner bear was raging, and listened as Knox called the boy a jerk, mean, and stupid.
Because when you’re cleaning out a wound, it’s important to get out all of the debris. You lift up the skin and pour water on the area and get all the gravel and dirt out of the wound before you bandage it up so it can heal… so those particles don’t fester and become infected and you have to rip the whole thing open again and clean it again. You gotta just get it all out.
So we got it out.
And we talked through different ways we could handle the situation.
And then we talked about how it made Knox feel and we went through Knox’s story. And I reminded him of who he is. His beautiful story… the hards and highs of it, and that he is a beautiful Korean boy, with dark eyes that dance and dark hair that shines and a smile that can light up the whole world.
We talked about how “different” is not weird and that in fact, 60% of the world’s population is Asian… so…
We spent the rest of the day in a neighborhood with Korean restaurants, markets, bakery… in places where I am the “weird” one. Our conversations would circle around, always coming back to the root of the issue. And I’m noticing… I’m paying attention to how he is talking about the situation.
Knox wasn’t bouncing back as quickly this time.
He began calling the kid “the jerk” every time he would talk about it. Kept talking about how he didn’t want to go back to the gym. Kept using the word “hate.” Even when he would speculate on why the kid was so mean, he was using phrasing like, “I bet it’s because the jerk has someone at home who’s mean to him. Or maybe he has a jerk brother or a jerk friend.”
I let him go and asked questions. His smile would return and he’d talk about baseball and his favorite song on the radio, and then he’d go back to “the jerk.”
I realized, he wasn’t letting go.
A year ago, I would have handled this situation completely differently.
I would have raged inside and strategized for how we could “stop” this. How we could punish the little “jerk” and make the world perfect for my perfect boy. I would have put all my efforts into “fixing” this for my son and “making it right.”
Because I believed that if you do the right thing, the world would, too.
Now I believe differently.
Now, I believe “the work” is about what you do inside of you. And the world doesn’t always follow suit.
Knox wanted to know why: Why are people so mean?
It’s the question we all have.
And while I don’t have a really good answer for that, I don’t think it matters.
Because “why” can sometimes be helpful. It gives perspective, helps us see and understand people better… but ultimately, when you are dealing with internal wounds, the wounds are still there, regardless of why the person inflicted them.
Sometimes people are mean because someone has shown them this is how to treat people.
Sometimes people are mean because it gives them a sense of control.
Sometimes people are mean because of trauma they have experienced. Because they are fighting something hard in their life. Because they don’t realize their own sense of worth and purpose in the world.
There will always be mean people.
There will always be people who do mean things.
Because we are people and have freedom to say and do and think and feel whatever we want.
It’s part of the awful and the beautiful that is humanity.
What matters is what you do with the wound. Do you clean it out? Or let it fester? Or pass it back?
“I take a problem and I chew on it ’til all the flavor’s gone and then I stick it in my hair.” —Vivi from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
We stop at the Korean bakery and sit down to share our Patbingsu.
Knox: I think that jerk is mean because someone has been mean to him.
Me: You are probably right. But… it’s still not okay for him to treat others this way. It’s not okay to be mean to people just because someone has been mean to you.
Knox: I know. But still, I bet that’s why.
Me: Because here’s the thing. If someone is mean to you… and you carry it around with you… you don’t let it go… it can change you. Let me ask you something… how many times have you said “jerk” since we left the gym?
Knox: A lot.
Me: And that isn’t who you are. You don’t usually talk like that. But you’re hurting and we’re getting it out… but if you keep calling the kid a jerk in your head and in your heart… it will change you. Make you “mean.” And then… all we do is spread more hurt into the world. And that doesn’t make anything better for anyone… including yourself. It just makes the world worse. Remember, the only person you can control is yourself. You can’t control what anyone else says or does or thinks or feels. You can only control you. So it’s important to clean out the corners of your heart. Talk about how you’re feeling, and pay attention to where your thoughts go.
Knox: Are you going to eat the cherry?
It seems the very thing that makes TOB so beautiful is the very thing that can make it so awful.
We choose what we do with every part of our lives… the internal and the external.
And this means we have capacity for crazy amounts of kindness… and crazy amounts of cruelty.
And I’m learning that wounds are inevitable. People will do stupid things. Mean things. And when you receive a wound (no matter how deep), you have a choice:
You can wound back… make it worse, hurt them more. And keep swapping wounds until you’re both a bloody mess, and so is everyone else around you.
Or you can pretend the wound isn’t there. Keep shoving it down into the deep corners of your heart so you don’t have to think about it or deal with it. And the wound will fester and infect you, showing symptoms in other areas of your life.
Or you can keep it. Do the agonizing work and clean it out. Hold the hose down to get all the debris out. Put the ointment on it. Treat the bandage. And heal. Truly, deeply heal.
And then you look at your scar and it reminds you of the hard. And how strong you are. And how it changed and shaped you and gave you perspective.
A year ago, I would not have thought any of this. But now I know, we can’t protect ourselves from hurt.
But we can transcend it.
Forgiveness seems to be both a complex thing and a simple thing.
Sometimes it’s complete reconciliation.
Wounds are cleaned on both sides through conversations and conversations and intervention and conversations. Time is the balm. And the scars remind you both of where you have been and who have become.
And it’s the most beautiful example of Good.
Sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes the only way to keep the wound from busting back open is to draw clear boundaries. You still do the work on cleaning it out, treating it, letting time work its magic… but reconciliation involves two parties.
And you can only control one.
And reconciliation and forgiveness are two different things.
I’m learning that forgiveness is always about letting go.
And once you let go, you find out that the one you are letting go…
This is only the start of this journey for Knox.
I know and he knows that people will continue to ask rude and insensitive questions.
There are still mean people in the world.
We will fight for our boys when it’s time to fight.
We will cry with our boys when it’s time to cry.
We will intervene and we will equip.
We will fail and we will learn and we will try again.
We will continue to educate others and ourselves.
We will continue to build into our boys so that when the world gets shaky, they have a firm foundation of who they are.
We will continue to read and learn so that we can handle situations better.
Because these are things we have committed to.
But ultimately, we can’t change others.
We can only change ourselves.
But I believe that it’s in the changing of ourselves
in the doing of the internal work,
in the cleaning out and letting go…
that the world becomes a better place.