He is a 13-year-old white boy who wears baggy jeans and tends not to talk. I am his mother. When he decided to start riding the city bus home after school a few months ago, I worried.
I realize my fears were perfectly silly, minuscule compared to what other parents could worry about. But here’s the thing. I wasn’t worried my son would get lost or that he’d get off in a crummy neighborhood. He likes trying out different bus lines and his blood is from Brooklyn, N.Y. Last summer he and I took a trip to Chicago that basically consisted of getting on and off trains and buses with breaks for lunch and supper. I’m fully confident in his ability to manage urban landscapes.
This is what concerns me: I worry that other people will think he’s a hooligan. My son started riding the city bus on a daily basis about the same time he entered his scrubby teen-boy stage. To this day his long, greasy hair covers much of his baby face. No one can much tell that this kid’s features are so cherubic he could’ve been a Gerber baby. He wears Undead T-shirts and clunky sneakers, belying the fact that he can tame kittens and hold babies. When someone says hello to him, he responds with kind of a faraway look and a grunt.
I still worry that random city bus passengers will label him a reclusive trouble maker and treat him like one. When he gets off the bus and walks six blocks to our house, I imagine people wondering why this suspicious-looking kid is skulking through their neighborhood.
I realize my worries are mostly melodramatic mother’s fears.
When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in a Florida suburb last February while walking home with a bag of Skittles, I heard my friends-of-color talk about their fears for their own teenage sons, for how they might easily be mistaken for a thug. I’d never considered this fear before my own son grew into a broody teen. As my boy grows older and loses his obvious adorability, as he fumbles to figure out how to chat casually with the people around him, as he tries his hardest to appear bad-to-the-bone, as he desperately seeks to fit into the middle school mold of ultra-conformity — I worry.
Now well into his eighth-grade year, on many days my mysterious son spends more time on public transportation than with us, his own family. With two jobs, I’m a distracted mother at best and an absent mother at worst. Even with working long hours, my husband, Bob, engages however he can — biking, swimming, karate, church youth outings — but his fathering overtures are often met with mediocre levels of interest.
But there’s one more layer to this story. Our kid has mentors. The youth program in our church is designed in such a way that boys in confirmation class are matched with men in the congregation, girls are matched with women. All mentors are screened and trained. When I ask my son to name his mentors, the kid who barely talks can list them instantly: Rod, Donavan, Jim, and another Jim. Dentist, teacher, manager, publisher. Presently none of these men has teenagers, but they all volunteer to spend time with my son and the other boys in the confirmation program, thanks to our youth director who orchestrates it all. Bob and I realize that the more our son bewilders us, the more we need the mentor people.
I have visions of hosting dinner parties whereby we invite the mentors and their families. We’d eat spaghetti and take turns telling my son our hopes and dreams for him. My son would feel the love and support of an old-fashioned tight-knit family, like say, the Waltons, ever on his side. We’d eat garlic bread and my son would shed his quiet-boy act and launch into a monologue describing how thankful he is to be alive and for these people. He’d share his passions and dreams of the future. He’d smile and laugh and we would be assured that the protective cover of community would shield him from all the bad stuff.
Obviously, that chatty meal will not happen. The dinner might, but my son’s confessional won’t. Bob and I understand that we will never know his secrets, just as no one really knows anyone’s inner life. We do know he’s not a replica of us, but a new creation altogether. We do know he respects his confirmation mentors; so do we, and we pretty much leave it at that.
If you happen to see a kid on the bus — or in the mall or on your street or at your church — ear buds pounding out of the head and death mask images on the T-shirt, don’t worry, the kid is probably harmless. Like most everyone, he just wants to get home. And he likely needs a little guidance on the way.
Terri Mork Speirs recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. She is a writer and mother as well as a grant writer for Children & Families of Iowa.
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