The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Heard Said To A Child

I saw something profoundly ugly today.

Today was my nephew Aiden’s 9th birthday, held at a secret underground bowling alley (I am not exaggerating in the slightest). It was a great party, and the kids all had a ton of fun there. Sam tried bowling for the first time, which was cool. I was pretty stressed out by the end of it, something to do with a herd of toddlers and preschoolers grabbing heavy bowling balls and rolling and throwing them wherever they wanted and running with reckless abandon directly in front of people about to hurl the aforementioned heavy bowling balls.

On the way back to the car, I was enjoying the relative quiet and fresh air. As we crossed the street, I saw a pack of about half a dozen kids on bicycles approaching, followed close behind by a woman who was in charge of them. She was white, and some of the kids weren’t. I don’t know if some of them were her kids, but I guessed so.

As we loaded Sam into the car, some of the kids pulled about a block ahead of the woman, and she started yelling at them. Some of them didn’t listen, but one little black boy did, and he came sheepishly back to ride beside her in that way 6-year-olds do when they get in trouble. I’ll never forget what she said next, scowling, pointing right at him.

“Fuckin’ nigger.”

It took me almost a full second to realize what she just said, and I looked at Sarah and said something expressing my angry astonishment, I don’t remember what, as I felt the blood rush to my ears and face. I thought about what, if anything, I should do next.

This is none of my business. Right? I immediately thought of my little nephew Scotty, who’s of mixed race. I can’t even imagine somebody saying this shit to him. I wanted nothing more than to run over there and start screaming my head off at that waste of humanity. I thought this to be a bad idea, as I was already pretty stressed and I didn’t want to lose my temper and do something stupid. She’s not going to stop being a racist asshole terrible parent or guardian just because I chew her out. She’s going to yell back at me. And what then? If I successfully intimidate her into apologizing to this kid, she’ll take it out on him when they get home. And if she decides to respond to me with violence, I don’t want a half dozen kids (including mine) to see me beating up some racist jerk in the middle of a Walgreen’s parking lot. Or worse, seeing me getting knifed by some crazy racist jerk because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I honestly don’t think I’d want Sam to see me just yelling and otherwise completely losing my shit at somebody, whether I’m right or not.

I don’t remember where I heard it or exactly how it goes, but someone once told me that when you speak to your child, you are writing their internal dialogue for the rest of their lives. That’s been on my mind for awhile, especially since Sam’s been old enough to have a conversation with. There are some times when he’s cranky or doesn’t want to do what I tell him no matter what, that I can feel my composure start to unravel. I know he can tell when it does. Either he gets wide-eyed and listens to me, or he goes running for his mom.

Ever since Sarah and I got married, we’ve had a standing “no name-calling” rule. I can count on one hand the times either of us has broken it, even during fights. This goes double for Sam. I know I have to discipline him, but the look in his eyes when I tell him he’s not acting like a good boy and he understands that he’s messed up breaks my heart. I can’t even imagine what that little kid on the bike felt. When she said it, he looked like it was no big deal, like he hears it every day. I don’t doubt that he hears it every day. I hope he thinks of himself when he grows up doesn’t come from the hurtful shit spewing out of the mouth of a person that’s supposed to love and support him.

In the end, I reasoned I couldn’t do anything in that moment that is going to have any lasting positive impact on that poor kid’s life, and we drove off without any of them ever knowing we existed. It was part calculation and part cowardice. I cannot decide if I made the right choice or not, I don’t even know if a right choice exists, but I feel ashamed of doing nothing.