When my oldest son was in first grade, one of his best friends was William. Both boys were tall for their age, looking each other eye to eye. They both enjoyed romping around on the playground and playing kickball on the poorly kept baseball field during recess. And they loved to climb up their make-believe metal fortress that led to a monkey bar bridge where they could swing into battle or to freedom – depending on the fantasy of the moment. Perhaps some likeness such as height or outdoor/sports interests brought these two boys together in friendship. But nearly every afternoon, after I had picked my son up from after-school care, I’d get to hear about that day’s imaginary adventures – with the majority of them fondly including the name William.
One afternoon, when I arrived to pick my son up, I became concerned when I couldn’t spot him anywhere on the playground. One of the kids (most likely William) called out that he was inside. It was a magnificently beautiful day, so I couldn’t imagine why my son – who loved to romp outdoors – would have sequestered himself in the cafeteria commons. I didn’t have to wait too long for my answer, though, as my foot hit the first stair going in that direction.
The head of the afternoon daycare, Ms. V – a stern, matronly sort – sharply greeted me with, “He’s sitting inside, in time-out.”
“Okaaaay….” I drawled out, expecting to get an explanation as I continued ascending the stairway. When all I got was pursed lips and ‘the evil eye,’ I took a stab at, “May I ask why?”
“Your son made a very prejudiced remark today, and we don’t do that here,” she nearly spat at me, crossing her arms to emphasize her disgust.
Needless to say, I was horrified. My heart began to race; my palms became sweaty. My first real ethical confrontation as a young parent. Where had I gone wrong?! In no way had I taught my child anything about racial differences or prejudiced behavior. My best work friend (which is the only place I could afford the opportunity to have friends at that time in my life) was of a different race than me; and my husband’s best work friend (who he always found time to hang out with beyond work) was of a different race than him. These friends came to our house when life afforded it and socially interacted with us and our two young sons. I felt horrified, suddenly also recalling that my son, himself, had a dear friend at school (named William) who was not of his same race – though he’d never made mention of it, leaving me to hope that he was spiritually color-blind. Surely, there was some mistake here. I wanted – no, I needed – some clarification.
“Who did he make the remark about?” I nervously began.
“He called William a bad name.” I could feel her glare on the back of my neck, as I’d already walked past her around the corner, to the inside to find my son.
“William?!” I blurted. I was shocked and probably stuttered the next words. “But…William is one of his very best friends!” It was then that something didn’t feel right in my soul. I felt that B needed to have the ability to tell his side of the story and that I needed the ability to turn this into a learning opportunity for him. “Is this true, B?” I asked, coming upon my 6-year-old son, whose head was hanging low.
He looked up at me with tear-filled eyes and answered, “Yes, but he called me a name first, momma.”
I turned to the director. “Is that true?”
“It doesn’t matter. What your son said was racist,” she firmly responded, throwing her head up to emphasize her positional authority over us both. No sooner had she said it than I saw William timidly peeking around the corner.
“Hi William,” I greeted him. “Would you come over here and let’s talk about this together?”
He nodded, his eyes wide as he approached.
“Since B’s in trouble, I’m going to let him tell me what happened first, and then you can tell me if it was something different, okay?” I asked, worried as I said the words, wondering what horrible thing I was about to hear.
William dropped his head and nodded.
I looked at B, my eyes conveying that I expected to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I knelt down beside him so he couldn’t hide his face from me.
“We were climbing the jungle gym,” B tentatively began, “and…and…William was behind me, and…I wasn’t climbing fast enough. He wanted to get around me, so…”
I looked at William, waiting to see if he would affirm the story, thus far. He stepped up next to B and nodded his head.
B seemed satisfied at his agreement and continued. “So William said to me, ‘Move out of the way, you vanilla ice cream cone!’” (I had to purse my lips to hide the amusement, as B dropped his head in shame as he went on with his story.) “So I said, ‘Oh yeah? Well, if I’m a vanilla ice cream cone, then you’re a chocolate one!’”
The boys’ eyes caught one another’s and I saw that they, too, were both trying to hide an exchanged grin.
“And then…?” I pressed, bracing myself for the worst to come, wondering how much worse the progression in name calling was going to get.
“And then…well, Ms. V yelled at me to get off the jungle gym and come sit in time out – that I wasn’t to ever say that again because I was being p-p-…,” he nearly sobbed.
I was mortified, not even wanting him to say the word, or to understand its meaning – lest it could have the future ability to define something in him that would take away his innocence. I threw up my hand for him not to continue. I’m sure my cheeks were burning, as I was feeling pretty livid at the moment. I looked at both the boys, unable to address Ms. V in that instant. “So, let me get this straight. William, you called B a vanilla ice cream cone?”
“Yes’m,” he answered, looking a little embarrassed.
“Do you like vanilla ice cream cones?” I asked.
“Yes’m,” he answered again.
“Me too,” I smiled. “And B, you called William a chocolate ice cream cone?” I verified.
“Yes’m,” he answered, still looking ashamed.
“Aren’t chocolate ice cream cones your very favorite?” I pressed.
“Yes’m,” he looked up, his eyes showing a little light to them once again.
“Well, let me tell you both a little secret,” I continued. “My favorite kind of ice cream cone comes from using the handle in the middle – the one where it swirls the vanilla and the chocolate together.” I received two big grins at this revelation. “And that’s what you two ice cream cones need to go and do,” I said, poking them in the bellies. “Go swirl around and play nice together while I talk with Ms. V. And no more name calling – even if it’s one of your favorite things, so no one has to sit in time out again! And…if you two can get along, maybe we can all go one day soon and get us an ice cream cone after school together!” Their smiles went full force at this.
I didn’t ask Ms. V if B was dismissed from time out before I sent the boys on their way, which truthfully was a very uncharacteristic response for me. Being one of the youngest parents at the school, I’m sure I usually felt intimidated by the older and more child-experienced teachers. But on this particular occasion, I knew I was the one who had gotten it right. These kids weren’t jaded and I intended to keep it that way for as long as the matter was under my control. So I didn’t feel intimidated when I turned to this director and nicely chastised her by saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the worst thing the rest of the world could ever think to call one another was a vanilla or a chocolate ice cream cone? I’m sure we’d all be better off.”
I didn’t need to wait for her answer. I just turned and walked away.