On Thursday, I picked up my son from school and, as is customary, asked him how his day had been. "It was...okay," he said, sounding a little less cheerful than usual. I asked him what happened. "Well, Jack said that he won't be my friend anymore because he was trying to stomp on an ant and I stopped him."
Apparently a wayward and hearty ant found his way into my son's class that afternoon and made a home for himself under the couch. Despite the decibel levels, overexposure to Hello, Kitty backpacks and having to endure the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, I would say that that is one smart and fortunate ant to have found Ms. Roberts' kindergarten classroom. It is a tundra out here in Chicagoville: I'd hang out under a couch too if the other option was to burrow underground.
"So what happened?" I asked him. "I rescued the ant anyway and now he's safe." And Jack? "Jack said that he would still talk to me about aliens and spaceships, so we're still friends."
This might have been the first time I know of that my son was asked to put aside his convictions to maintain a friendship. This ant incident was no small thing as Jack happens to be my son's favorite classroom friend at the moment. Of course, I am very proud of his decision.
I think that it is very courageous for our boys to go down the path of nonviolence, something that in general our larger culture gives lip service to supporting but repeatedly fails to reinforce. From toy guns and war play to the notion that "boys will be boys" and everything that implies, those who actively swim against the popular current, whether by nature or nurture or both, often find themselves swimming and swimming, unable to find land upon which they can catch their breath. Every year, I realize, there will be more pressure on my son to "fit in," to squash that ant or just get out of the way when someone else does. But, for now, my six-year-old chose the path of civil disobedience, of Gandhian nonviolence, and he put his warm little body between the other boy and the ant. What happens next time? Or next year? Or the year after that? When will he decide that those lowly ants aren't worth the social risk?
As I wrote recently, I've become reacquainted with a lot of my old friends through Facebook. These are a lot of my crazy old college buddies, the ones who encouraged me to grow out my armpit hair and wear a tank top around Kansas with pride because, as a Semite, my pits were the most impressively filled out; these were friends who went to protests with me, plotted with me to circumvent any damn thing that vexed us. What I found is that everything my parents and their friends told me was just a phase - my vegetarianism (now veganism), my feminism, my far-left leaning politics - was not just a phase: it was here to stay and it only got more so as time went on. Now in many ways, we become more nuanced as we age: that is only natural as we get more exposed to different people and different views. It's not only natural, it shows growth and depth. Nuance, however, does not necessarily mean that one abandons her views: it helps buff off the sharp edges, that's all. Many of the fantastically leftist older people I know have assured me that they only get more left of center as they age.
Still, despite my outspokenness, I can't help but think about how many times I have bitten my tongue in order to avoid conflict, given my tacit approval of something I disagreed with because I didn't want to be That Person yet again. It can be exhausting to reject so many of our cultural values, to be honest, so I try to spend the majority of my time modeling what I do want to make manifest rather than protesting. This isn't to say that that I have become meek and complicit but that sometimes I have looked at that symbolic ant, shrugged, and said, "Go ahead. I just want to live my life. Do what you want." Sometimes I am tired of being the token vegan, the token feminist, out there in the decidedly omnivorous, misogynistic mainstream culture. This is why anything counter-cultural is so much more appealing to me, always has been. Still, there have been times that I've turned a blind eye to something I've disagreed with just to make my life a little easier. I'm not proud of this.
When will my son's essential goodness, his core convictions of compassion, start to erode a little in order to blend in more seamlessly in this world? It kills me a little to think of that gradual wearing away of his innocence. This is not to say that my son is an angel, but he really doesn't understand intentional meanness. Isn't that sane of him? The mama bear protector in me, though, worries that he is going to be targeted by bullies down the road and wishes he would toughen up just a little. He is still so tender, which is not exactly a quality that's encouraged in boys by society, and something that the meaner children pick up on like heat-seeking missiles.
How do we create real boys - complex, sensitive, multifaceted and courageous - for this world? How do we protect ourselves without eroding our values? I have no definite answers, but I will say this for now: I am proud that my son speaks up for the ants.