Jake the dog and I are enjoying our afternoon walk when I notice two boys, about 9 or 10 years old, arguing across the street. They have school backpacks and appear to be headed home. One boy, his small face subdued, trudges forward. The other boy walks backward in front of him, muttering viciously. Suddenly he jerks forward and screams into the other boy’s ear: “Nigga!”
The harassed boy stops. “Don’t talk to me like that,” he says quietly. “I don’t like it.”
“Nigga! Nigga! Nigga!”
“Stop it,” the boy says. “I don’t want to be talked to that way.”
Most adults won’t admit it, but this is the point at which they hurry away. But I know that every child is mine. Adults are responsible for chaperoning all children and teens to maturity. We must help every child we meet to navigate a path into a rewarding life. So I cross the street with my dog.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I ask.
The boy who was cursing flashes a charming smile. “Nothing,” he says. It’s obvious to me that life has taught him how easy it is to dismiss adults. But I’m not like most adults.
“Nothing happening?” I ask. He nods agreeably. “Is it true nothing is going on? I heard you swear at him.” There’s no anger in me, just curiosity.
“I didn’t swear,” he says.
“Is the N-word a swear word?”
He ponders the question. “Yeah,” he says.
“Did you call him the N-word?”
His swagger droops. “Yeah.”
My gentle inquiry continues. “Did he ask you to stop?”
“Yeah, but that word doesn’t mean anything.” He boosts himself up on his toes.
I smile. He’s a good kid, I think, just one that needs the right kind of attention.
“That’s not an answer to my question,” I say kindly. “My question is, did he request that you stop?”
“He’s my cousin!”
“That’s not an answer to my question.”
“Yeah, he asked me to stop.” His feet are flat on the sidewalk now.
“Why didn’t you stop? He asked you nicely.”
“I’m just playing.”
“OK, I want you to know that that word is not to be used when you are playing.”
The boy who had tried to earlier defend himself, pipes in: “I don’t like that word. I don’t want to be called that.”
I smile at him. “I understand,” I say. Then I turn back to the boy who had been using the N-word and ask him:
“Do you want to be respected?” He nods. “I want you to be respected,” I say. “I want you to respect others. I want people to know that you know how important you are and that your talent and success is necessary for this world. So when someone asks you to stop doing something they do not like, stop. Do you understand?”
“Thank you, but I want you to apologize to your cousin.”
“I’m sorry,” he says to him.
As I walk away with my dog, something inspires me to turn around. When I do the boy who has been sworn at is looking back at me. He mouths, “Thank you.”
Dear readers: If we really want to get beyond conflict and the tragedies that often result from them, it’s simple—we must treat every child as our own. Let’s become people capable of calling forth the best of ourselves for others. Let’s lovingly recognize, celebrate and guide children and teens to maturity. Let’s be compassionate participants in the lives of all children who cross our paths. The time is now; we can’t wait. The only way forward is love.