Four and a half years ago, to my own immense surprise, I became the mother of a little boy. Once I recovered from the shock of having a boy, I quickly began to see that Freud had a point. There is – something about boys and their mothers.
As all little boys do, he grew. And grew. Right now, he’s about the size of an average seven-year-old. And in most respects, he’s pretty typical for his age. He likes anything Lightning McQueen of Pixar’s “Cars” and “Thomas the Tank Engine”. Look around my living room, despite all his parents do to the contrary, and you’ll find those toys – everywhere. Look in his room, and you’ll find five times as much.
He is, however, all – boy. He also, unlike his parents at that age, has charisma, that indefinable something that gets him noticed everywhere he goes.
The place where we live is perfectly laid out to send your children out to play with a minimum of anxiety attacks. There are car-less areas, paved pathways for bikes and tricycles, plenty of trees and copses to play in, fruit trees to plunder, several playgrounds spread around, large emerald lawns I don’t even have to mow. Most of them are in full view of our kitchen window.
So when Mommy and Daddy decided that he was old enough to go out and play on his own, we assumed he’d be perfectly safe.
There were, of course, a few near misses. One time, he was found well down the road and thoroughly lost, returned by a strongly reproving fellow mother. That afternoon, he remained on his mother’s lap for a good two hours and didn’t move.
He learned his lesson. He stayed. He played. He had a good time.
He’s popular outside, because as an only child, he gets spoiled with all the cool toys. Wall-to-wall “Cars” anything, whistle-controlled Thomas the Tank Engine etc. – and often, he’ll take them out to play.
That’s where the trouble starts. That’s where it started.
You see, I forgot, in my wannabe way-cool Mommyhood precisely what kind of neighborhood I live in.
So, I’ll tell you. According to a report published by the Danish Ministry of Social Services, my neighborhood is the third most socially burdened neighborhood – in Denmark. Upward of seventy percent of the inhabitants are on some kind of welfare – unemployment, disability pensions etc.
Around 60 percent of the inhabitants are, as they say in DK, “of non-Danish origin”. Meaning – a polyglot group of Bosnians, Turks, Iraqi, Iranian and Palestinian refugees who’ve settled in, Tamil Sri Lankans, Afghanis and – well, Danes who inhabit the lower ends of the socio-economic stratum.
Before 2000, I lived in the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Denmark, a trendy, lively section of Copenhagen. My greengrocer was Iraqi, my tobacco shop was Arab, my butcher was Egyptian (and cheap), and everyone, more or less, got along just fine. I had been raised by hippie-liberal parents in the spirit of moral relativism. Live, let live. End of story. I loved that neighborhood with a passion. I was ten minutes walk away from anything and downtown, and everything I wanted was – right there.
But by the time I returned in late 2004, carrying Damien, things had changed to an unsettling degree. Lines had been drawn in the sand. Immigration laws had changed in favor of restrictions, sanctions, questionable political decisions. Here, as everywhere else in Europe, tensions were building, and popular opinion was becoming increasingly polarized into a “Us vs. Them” mentality.
It usually boiled down to “European” vs. “Muslim”, thus conveniently lumping in a large and highly diverse group of people according to religion. Always a very, very bad idea. This goes against the grain of everything I was ever indoctrinated with in my liberal/secular/humanist world view, and absolutely everything I believe in as an individual. I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea that if the entire planet one day woke up with green-and-purple polka-dotted skin, we might get around to the important stuff for a change – like making sure our children, no matter what they look like, have a sustainable future. Just a thought.
Don’t believe me? You don’t think it can be that bad in Europe? Read this – and you might.
Back to the ‘hood. Here, too, is evidence everywhere of an increasing marginalization. I have to explain what side of the street I live on, or some people will stay away. The Buttkicker, all 6’ 5 1/2″ inches of redheaded, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered Viking prototype testosterone bomb, has been attacked by a gang of about 30 Muslim boys. Police were involved. They’ve been eyeing him askance ever since. There are certain places in his own neighborhood he will not walk through on his own.
His blond, brown-eyed son, who has no prejudice and likes everybody, became another victim yesterday. And all he had to do was go outside and play.
Watch the kids, on an early warm summer evening, and you will notice that even down to sandbox age, the lines are demarcated. Danes play with Danes. Muslim children play with other Muslim children. Rarely, if ever, do they get together to play. Rarely, if ever, do you see the parents of those children. Siblings, cousins etc – but never the parents.
Yesterday, the doorbell rang. Outside stood a gaggle of boys, all slightly older than Damien, asking if he was going to come out to play. Out he went, carrying a large toy truck. Peace descended over the household. Mom and Dad read and got dinner together.
About 45 minutes went by. The doorbell rang again. I opened it to find four girls – all Danish, all blonde, between the ages of 8 – 12, gathered around a bawling Damien. Apparently, those so-called “friends” had hauled him across the street (a definite no-go zone, and he knows it), taken away his beloved truck, and hit him several times over the head with it, for good measure. The girls, who’ve had a thing for Damien since he was a baby, took off across the street, grabbed his truck, tried to comfort him as best they could, tried to tell off those a-holes who did it, and took him home, because he wanted his Mommy and his teddy Pooh Bear, in that order.
We had a little discussion then, those girls and I, and even the Buttkicker got involved by one enterprising 10-year-old charmer practicing her best schoolgirl English. The bottom line was that it can’t possibly be right that you can’t send out the kids to play outside, just because some hoodlums who live across the street will beat him up for being blond and friendly. You can’t expect a four-year-old to know who’s nice and who’s not, because he assumes the best about anyone.
I wish I could say that yesterday was a single incident. But recently, one of the grandmothers in my apartment building sat next to me on the bus and told me that this sort of thing has happened before, with other kids out to take advantage of his age, his attitude and his toys.
The other day, I put him in the bathtub to wash his hair, because one of those kids had spit in his hair.
Damien can be wild, like all boys, but he is not aggressive. I have never known him to provoke any kind of fight, not even at kindergarten. Having said that, he has a mouth on him, and a large and fully bilingual vocabulary and a four-year-old’s tendency to use naughty words just to see what will happen.
I want, more desperately than you will know, to hang on to my innate faith in humanity. I want to believe that no matter what our origins and backgrounds, we can get along and co-exist peacefully. I want to believe, as Damien does, that anyone can be a friend, whether their name is Lukas or Abdullah, and share an interest in cars and “Cars” and trains and “Thomas the Tank Engine”. I want to believe that other cultures and other people can enrich our lives and expand our horizons and make our world a bigger and better place.
I want to believe.
Most of all, I want to bludgeon anyone and everyone who threatens my son with the biggest, baddest baseball bat of all.
I have begun by battering my own humanism. It’s not dying easily, or bloodlessly.
But man, does it hurt!