Last night my son Connor, who is ten-and-a-half years old, appeared at my bedside to say 1) he had heard a noise and 2) could he sleep in my bed. My husband is out of town, so I had room, so I said yes. By 2:00 a.m. I had regretted this decision; Connor is already five feet tall, and it seems he enjoys kicking in his sleep a lot, and grinding his teeth with a squeak that my half-dream turned into sneakers quick-stopping against a waxed gymnasium floor.
But I loved it too, lying there awake listening to him next to me. Despite how big he has suddenly gotten, he is still a little boy afraid of things that go bump in the night. A little boy who still needs his mom. He is both.
This week I’ve been thinking about that boy/man dichotomy a lot. Whether you think justice was served in the George Zimmerman trial or not, here’s what is beyond dispute: a 17-year-old boy walking home from the corner store was shot and killed. Right after he told his friend on his cell phone that he was afraid. Right after she told him to run.
To this mother, 17 doesn’t feel so far away from 10-and-a-half.
Here’s another reason I can’t get Trayvon Martin off my mind: this week, I don’t only have my (white) 10-year-old boy living under my roof. I have a 10-year-old African-American boy too.
Darrell (not his real name) is visiting us for his third summer courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund, which provides free summer vacations to children from NYC’s lower-income communities. It’s a terrific experience, and one that gets easier every year as Darrell becomes part of the fabric of our family’s summers. Life is more fun when Darrell is here. But this year, for me, it’s been a sobering reminder of what my own ten-year-old has to worry about, and what Darrell does. Last night Connor asked Darrell what he likes to do after school. Nothing, he said. My mom makes me come right home. It’s not safe to be out of our building.
And after the events of the last week, the realization hit me between the eyes: it’s not just that unsafe things happen in Darrell’s neighborhood, which of course they sometimes do. It’s that Darrell, being a young black man, is less safe than my own child, no matter WHERE he goes, or what he does. And as Darrell looks more and more like a man instead of a boy, that danger will grow too.
Last night the Fresh Air Fund hosted a barbecue for all the host families in the area, and hanging back from the Marco Polo marathon in the pool was this African-American man I took to be about 20. He had headphones around his neck. He was taller and larger than anyone else in the place. I’ll admit it: I found him a little intimidating. Until I learned (from his host mom) that he was 14 years old.
So I talked to him. He was sweet and polite and a little bit shy. He was having a great time at the party- he just wasn’t that good a swimmer. He had just finished eighth grade. He told me he missed his mom a little. He was fourteen. He was six-three. His size might make him safer in this world. Or less safe?
Fourteen is not a lot older than ten-and-a-half.
And it’s even closer to seventeen.
All these young men, grownups on the outside, boys on the inside, are our sons. And they deserve better that what we have been giving them.