Monday, November 4, 2013

Welcome to my blog. If you look (though you don't have to), you'll see that it's been several years since I posted here. Life got busy, I guess, and it didn't seem like it was worth the trouble to maintain this, since it was mostly an experiment. But recently some things have come up, and I feel like they deserve more thought than I can give them verbally or on Facebook. So thank you for following me here, where I can be a little more wordy.

First a little background. I grew up in a middle-class to upper middle-class suburb. Both my parents made more money than their parents had, and both of them worked in fields in which they felt strongly that they were making a difference. Equality was a big theme in our house, and we were strongly criticized when we were being intolerant in any way. The only exception, I have come to realize as an adult, is when it came to class. Though I don't think they realized it and it certainly wasn't on purpose, I grew up with some very definite ideas about what kinds of people were better: those who had more education, those who didn't smoke, those who spoke more articulately, those who measured up to middle class standards of "good." As an adult, I teach and practice humility and work very hard to remember that they are many ways to measure a person's worth, and grammar surely should't be one of them. But sometimes I find myself in a quandary and find myself wondering how I do, or should, feel about a situation.

A little more context now, if you can stand it. I live near a trailer park, one which is technically a very, very small town. My niece, who is in her 20s, lives there with a roommate. Next door to them is a family, and they have two children. I have only actually met the girl, who is in second grade, and I'll call her Jane. Jane is very friendly and seems very nice. She also has the worst teeth I have ever personally seen. They are stained, crooked, and several appear to be broken. She often comes out and greets me when I stop by to see my niece, and this is about all I know about her firsthand. My niece says that Jane likes to come over to her house and play computer games and that in order to help her with her schoolwork, she has instituted a rule that every time Jane comes over, she has to read an entire picture book before they can play. Jane doesn't have to do all the reading, and my niece takes over when she gets tired, but she wants Jane to get the reading exposure. She called one day because she was concerned about Jane's ability to follow a story (Jane didn't express any opinion at all when she was asked what she thought would happen next in the story). I did tell her that there were many reasons Jane might fail to offer an opinion, not just that she didn't know. She has also asked me to find out how she could suggest some free or reduced cost pediatric dentists for Jane and her family. And finally, she asked me how to handle concerns about Jane's safety. There is or was a restraining order in place against Jane's father, and she often hears loud arguments coming from the trailer next door, which is even less of a shock considering that they are extremely close together. I told her that I don't know all the details of when it is appropriate to call Child Protective Services and suggested that she call them to ask. They would be able to answer her questions, and if there is something going on there, a phone call might help to establish a pattern later on. Please keep in mind that most of the things I know about Jane are coming through my niece. She's not necessarily unreliable, but these are not things I can confirm for myself.

And now for the final piece of the puzzle that is this issue. This time it involves my son, Zachary. He is a very friendly kid who sometimes has trouble making friends. I think it is mostly because of his parents (us) and the world we live in. When I was his age, I regularly just ran around the neighborhood. Not only does he not roam the neighborhood, but our nearest neighbors with kids have preschoolers. He's had two best friends in his school years. I've liked them both very much, but both sets of parents have been simply awful about communicating. They don't answer their phone or return phone calls or emails. And when the first friend moved away, the problem started up as soon as he made the new friend. This means that socializing is hard for him. He seems happy at school, but he's in the fifth grade, and it seems like he should be getting more chances to hang out with friends than he has now.

Recently, in the last couple of months, Zachary has been talking about a new friend, "Jack." Jack is in his class at school, and though I try not to let it, this says something to me, because I know his classes are somewhat academically tracked, so a kid in his class is going to be one of the smart kids. They have fun together. Jack loves superheroes as much as Zachary does, and he even prefers Marvel to DC, which Zachary has recently decided is a very big deal. On Jack's birthday, a few weeks ago, Zachary came home and told me he'd promised to buy Jack a birthday present and give it to him the next day. I suggested that he make something, so he spent all afternoon making superhero paper dolls (from the Marvel universe, of course) to give to Jack. He was thrilled with the end product and was very excited to give them to Jack. On the same day, he told me that he had not known that the school had a social worker, but he'd met the social worker that day. He explained that Jack regularly has lunch with the social worker, and since it was his birthday, he'd invited Zachary to go with him. This was the sweetest thing I had ever heard, and I feel like it gets right to the heart of what Zachary is. If he makes his peers feel anything, it is safe. Zachary is utterly without judgment, and maybe Jack needs more friends like this.

So we were delighted with this budding school friendship, and I asked Zachary to get Jack's information so that we could get them together to play. It was at this point that he informed me that Jack is actually Jane's brother. And now everything is seen through some other horrible lens. For this family that may or may not be safe or smart or acceptable, however we define it, is not just a group of strangers. They are not just my niece's neighbors. Their children are my children's classmates, and their son is the boy my sweet son has decided he adores. Suddenly parents who don't call me back don't seem like such a big deal.

And that's when I wonder whether I am channeling my judgmental past. What do I actually know about this family? Very little, and most of it secondhand. But what do I do if Zachary wants to go play over there? My niece regularly invites him over, and it's near enough to walk. But I don't know these parents and the evidence isn't great. If I encourage this friendship but try to keep it at our house, am I just teaching Zachary that it's okay to be friends with people who are not like you, but only on your terms? If I try to get to know the parents, what am I trying to find out, given what I already know? And how much do you accept from your kids' friends' parents? How much are they allowed to be like you, and do you make room for intentional difference versus unintentional?

My husband had a similar reaction when he heard that these children were siblings, and he suggested that a play date might not be a terrific idea, despite the fact that both sets of children--Zachary and Jack, Ezra and Jane--really seem to like one another. I don't know, in the end, whether I am reaching conclusions based in a classist upbringing, or in a legitimate concern about my son's friends.