For adults who have a fraught relationship with race, to hear someone referred to by their ethnicity
I’m so delighted to have been spending extended amounts of time with my young nieces of late, and as I’ve written about here, our increased time together has made me reflect on how much I adore children’s honesty. That same honesty can come across as harsh or brutal at times, but too often it is the reception of the adults around the child that can twist their truths into some perceived rudeness or hear a simple statement as a complex insult.
One of the more profound instances of this that I’ve experienced happened at a party a few years ago. At the time, I was dating a prominent writer who was not only decades older than me in age, but also quite significantly so in appearance. On this particular day, he had a group of friends visiting, a few more dropped in to say hello, and suddenly an informal day party had sprung forth from an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, complete with champagne toasts and tea sandwiches.
The group on this day was really delightful: a mix of fun, talented folks that included two children, his own young son and an older child, whom I’ll call Jack for the purposes of this little flashback.
Jack’s mother is an effervescent woman who is highly skilled at writing and socializing. She has other children, older than Jack, who were often spoken of but understandably off doing their own funky teenaged thing. Jack, on the other hand, could be frequently found in the company of his mother and her adult friends in many social situations where one might not have expected to find him.
Jack has autism, as well as an associated neurological disability that affects his motor skills and impairs his mobility and speech. Upon our first meeting, his mother told me as much with a smile on her face while waving her hand in the air as if she were saying, “Oh my, the weather’s awfully mild for this time of year, isn’t it?” I appreciated her candor. It was immediately clear to me that Jack’s mind and heart were functioning just fine, which made us fast friends, but I know that some strangers see someone moving or speaking differently from themselves and demand answers and explanations. Being a straightforward person myself, I respectfully clocked his mother’s choice to lay it out up front but with the appropriate air that while he isn’t defined by his disability, it’s a part of him like so many other things.
Jack was about fifteen at the time, though his effect was that of a much younger child. His mother christened him her little party buddy, but others often felt the need to sneer that she brought him everywhere, because it was hard to find people to care for him. His behavioral differences sometimes included frustrated outbursts, which is common for children on the spectrum, as well as an occasional burst of high-volume speech or repeated physical tics. He also loved to watch tennis and dance, and although it took his words some extra time to come out, they always made sense when they did, so we got along swimmingly.
This particular afternoon’s impromptu party was in full swing, and Jack and I were sitting and chatting at the end of a large couch that was the focal point of the living room. There was music and chatter, but the din wasn’t so loud that individual voices couldn’t be heard. All of a sudden, Jack pointed at my then-boyfriend and shouted at me, at his highest volume, “HE’S A LOT OLDER THAN YOU, ISN’T HE?”
All the air left the room. I didn’t see this part happen, but I imagine that birds flying by outside froze in midair and somewhere a needle was violently yanked off of a record. Everyone turned to stare at Jack, and no one said a word. His mother was the queen of brushing off any outbursts he had, but even she remained still for what seemed like an eternity.
That brief, neverending moment contained within it all the baggage of the tabloid gossip, relationship questions, and plain old personal insecurities we’d been dealing with. Jack had said something so simple and yet so complicated—he shouldn’t be scolded for stating that fact, but none of the other adults could even make eye contact.
I don’t relish that sort of awkwardness in a social setting, but I’m not afraid of it either. So there, in a private home and away from recording devices or gossip columnists who could use a three-word sound bite against me, I met Jack’s truth with more truth and simply said, “YES, HE IS!” Jack and I were the only two people who were delighted by this exchange, and we laughed riotously. Slowly, the other adults realized that whatever angst they had just filled the room with was borne of how they had heard it, not what he said.
The bottom line is that he was a lot older than me. And the sky is blue, and the grass is green, and oh my the weather’s awfully mild for this time of year, isn’t it?