Now and again I like a McDonalds, I’m afraid. And there is nothing like a Friday afternoon in the Abbey Centre to provide this need.
We took a booth behind a group of giggling school boys whose infectious laughter lit up the place. They were very young secondary school age… firsties, I would say. They had smart little sports kits on and medals round their necks and big hair. They looked cute and cheeky and vibrant. My 3 year old looked at them adoringly, and so did I. I wondered what hilarious, albeit juvenile, snippets of conversation would come our way.
Well, what came our way was all about your mother, I’m afraid. Every single sentence.
I had, and have, some thoughts. I can’t quite untangle them. Here they come…
First, I thought this was the very crude your mother talk. It was not. It was “Your mother’s so fat she…” and “Your mother’s so stupid she…”. So I thought, phew, not so bad. Then I thought, noooooo, actually, bad.
I thought with rising panic, will this be my beloved thoughtful, quirky, fluffy-haired nephew Caleb in a few short years? I quickly decided, no. NO. (Though technically, maybe).
Then I thought with heightened panic, will this be what my beloved Caleb will have to sit in the middle of in a few short years? Will these be his friends? The talk of his peers? I knew the answer was probably, yes.
So then I thought, I’m going to say something. I know people who would SAY SOMETHING. I’m going to do it. But I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to say. What it was that bothered me. You shouldn’t talk like that about your mother? Or his mother?! You shouldn’t talk like that about women? Please don’t talk like that in front of my 3 year old daughter? Don’t call anyone stupid? Or fat?
And I saw their teachers huddled at a table near-by, purposefully tuning-out. I’ve been that teacher. I knew they probably deserved a medal round their own necks for being there, on a Friday evening, engaging their boys in something better than this talk. There was no way I was going to add a lecture from a member of the public to their day.
I felt like an old 30 (+) year-old sitting there in my green raincoat with my cross thoughts. Staring stony-faced at the youth of today. Trying to get my daughter to turn around and stop taking it all in.
Eventually they started firing their food boxes at each other and their weary teachers quickly rounded them up and out the door.
And so I pestered my husband for a few days after with my tangled up thoughts and my questions about boys and what they talk about, and what they talked about 20 years ago (20 YEARS!!!), and his thoughts on it all. I couldn’t decide whether to shrug my shoulders or get on a soapbox.
Initially he shrugged his shoulders. He said it’s just how it is, he said it was harmless really, he said it’s just the next step up from toilet humour. He said whatyagonnado?
And I said but, but, but, but, BUT….
I said yes it is, and no it’s not and REALLY?
And eventually he said I agree with you, I agree with you, I AGREE WITH YOU, WOMAN. But still, whatyagonnado?
Something in me thinks I should just shrug my shoulders. When I torment people with my thoughts on these kind of things, that’s what they do, then pat me on the head. Like I’m quaint, and naive. To get all bothered by Fat and Stupid jokes is one huge Overreaction, is it not?
There is much worse talk. And actions. From much younger kids.
And didn’t we all sit round that McDonalds table, at some time or other? Laughing at people? Calling names? Finding something cruel, funny? Or pretending it was funny? Competing to join in?
Maybe some of those boys were enjoying themselves and maybe some were having a horrendous time. If I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it, I don’t expect them to find the words. Or risk survival by saying it. I think of Anne Lamott wondering how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades.
I get it. I’ve been there. I know my nephew and my daughters will be there. And I’m not naive, actually. And I’m not easily offended. I love to talk about the kind of topics people don’t mention in polite company. I like colourful language. I like all kinds of people who say all kinds of things.
SO what has bothered me so? Maybe I was just paying more attention on Friday. Maybe my misguided first impression highlighted the whole thing in luminous. Maybe I have been too long on maternity leave in a bubble of toddler and babydom. Maybe the arrival of a 2nd little daughter has further softened my insides and increased my fear of the world they will go out into.
Or maybe what bothers me is that I don’t think calling people fat or stupid is funny, and I don’t think it’s harmless… and I just can’t figure out how to say it without sounding like … that person. Without sounding like a huge Overreaction.
Nevermind figuring out what we say to our daughters or the kids at the table beside us.
I don’t think there was any one line I could have said that would have been wise or helpful in McDonalds. I think it’s more about all our words, all the time.
And I think we have to think about the words that we do say, and when to say them, and how to say them.
We hear all of the time about cruelty online, about cruel, anonymous bullying. We are so concerned about it. We are SAYING SOMETHING about it. We are phoning in radio programmes and commenting and worried sick for our children. We are asking sites like ASK FM to change their policies and asking big companies not to advertise on them and then we shrug our shoulders about what is said out loud, in McDonalds.
We let bullying and cruelty take root in the things that we, the adults, say and value, we let it take root in humour, take root in one-liners, we let it be said about hypothetical mothers or strangers. We let it be. We shrug our shoulders.
We are more concerned about our children throwing their litter at each other, than some of the things that they say out loud.
We wait for the big stories. The sad stories. We wonder at the cruelty and where it came from? Whatyagonnado?