Boo turned 6 on Easter Sunday and the same weekend he discovered evil. Or at least he understood that there are some things in this world that are not as they should be.
As I reflect on it now, I realize that Boo’s awakening came in increments – as so many things do in childhood.
First came the book about firefighters. It’s an amazing compendium about starting with the history of fire (caveman) through the history of all the firefighting equipment. Towards the end of the book is a page on 9/11 – explaining the terrorist attack and role and bravery of the firefighters that responded. I find the book amazing – it’s for youngish kids, and there is 9/11 which obviously we remember in blistering detail served up as….history. So we explained about the bad guys. My boys, lovers of crashes and destruction as boys often are, were amazed by the planes into the towers. But the history is still raw and Boo understood that it was something serious.
The theme of his birthday party was Star Wars and everybody knows that Darth Vader is a villain we love to hate, and even more so because he’s redeemed during his death. Boo asks a lot of questions about what happens in the movies (we’re doing IV-VI, the original trilogy) and why. He’s making his map of right and wrong. (He's not the only one; I've spoken to numerous adults about our "Star Wars" experience and it's a moral map for many- that's proably a different discussion)
Easter Monday, a holiday in France, found us on the Croisette in Cannes, in the rain. It was not the Croissette of glittering sea and light and magic glamour but rather wet wet wet and quiet due to the rain and early season.
Low on cash we stopped at a cash machine on the street. Every since my days of pulling out 20s at the Wells Fargo ATM at 16th & Mission in San Francisco, I’ve been aware of vulnerabilities at the machine. I’m on my guard. Boo held the umbrella and I was cursing because I’d only brought one card and the account was overdrawn – our monthly pay hadn’t arrived yet. So no cash could be had.
A boy, 12ish, in grey hoody approached asking for money. In my grumpy voice (a little fear, a little irritation) I waved him off and hustled Boo into a nearby café for a promised sirop à la menthe. I had at least enough cash for that.
Oh – did I mention that Boo had been bugging me to pee? So as we settle, and order I finally give him a look across the table. He’s crying. But not a whiny “me, me, me” cry but something quiet and very sad.
"What’s wrong" I asked."Why didn’t you give that boy any money?"
Shit. I’m in trouble now. At the moment I realized how I answered would be important and afterwards I continued to wrestle with this question.
You see, I have no set policy on giving handouts. It’s not a blanket yes, or no. There’s also not a criteria I try to use to judge if someone is ‘worthy.’ My giving is always completely spontaneous (or carpricious). I almost never feel good about it – whether I give I feel like it’s either too much or not enough or anyway not useful for all the usual reason and if I don’t give then I feel like a heel and try to move on as soon as possible.
Boo, however, didn’t see it that way at all. With the simplicity of a child he saw another child in need. And I didn’t help him. In Boo’s mind here was a lost orphan (the noble orphan of Dickens) who needed my help and I refused him. He insisted we go look for the boy and give him 2euros. Out in the rain we walked up and down the Croisette but didn’t see the boy again. Meanwhile we talked. Boo threw the guilt at me: Jesus would not be very happy with you , Maman, because you didn’t help that little boy.
I did not want to explain vulnerability. Or the drug dealers and hookers I’d cross in the Mission, or the pickpockets and bag snatchers on the Riviera.
Since I didn't have any ready pat answer, I let him do most of the talking (A good tactic in many circumstances). I was amazed – it was the first time that I saw him really express sympathy for a stranger or to really try to understand a wrong and right outside of his sphere. The episode stayed with us for the rest of the day.
The next day, on our way to school, I made him a proposition. Since we weren’t able to help that boy in Cannes (who, let’s be frank, may or may not have needed our help) we could try to help other children. We agreed that we would not accept any presents for the aforementioned star wars party but rather ask our guests to donate a toy to charity. I was interested how this would go down; it’s one thing for Maman to her coins but now it was Boo’s turn. How would he react?
"Couldn’t we do both--A present for me, a present to give"
Ah, no. We can't ask our friends to buy two presents. Without much discussion he agreed. An email was sent to the parents who were so supportive. Boo made a box to collect the toys that would be delivered:
Boo learned, but so did I. I learned that Boo can handle truth, that his intuition for social justice is already intact and that it just needs to learn. And, that in the face of trouble he can be a helper.
A Note: As recent events in Boston, my former city, have shown, we may at any time be called to be helpers. As Dennis Lehan wrote in the NY Times: "...(the human) spirit merely trembled before recasting itself into something stronger." This is what I want to help impart to Boo and Little Guy.