My son and I met my mother for breakfast at our favorite diner last week. We had just come from a session with a speech therapist who is teaching us both how to use an augmentative communication application on an iPad. My 7-year-old son has Down syndrome. His talking is progressing but he is not always understood. The hope with this program is that anyone will know what he is saying.
I was telling my mom about the session as he was quickly programming the iPad to say what he wanted for breakfast. When the waitress came to the table he pressed the sentence on the screen even before she asked what we wanted, "I want pancakes."
"Okay! Pancakes for you!" she said laughing and continued with the rest of the orders.
It was a triumphant moment. For the first time ever, my son had ordered his own meal and was understood. As the three of us sat at the table basking in his moment, I noticed my son's attention was drawn to the table behind us. First, he was smiling and then he wasn't. He was frowning. I looked and saw three teenage boys -- maybe 16 or 17 years old -- they were taking turns looking at my son and laughing. They were not trying to engage a cute kid in the next booth, they were literally pointing and laughing at a boy with Down syndrome. They were talking low enough that I couldn't hear what caused the outbursts of laughter. It was clear they weren't registering that he was aware of what they were doing. It seemed obvious they would not have cared regardless. They were that blatant.
I put my arm around my son's shoulder, "I've got this don't worry."
I stared at the two facing me until one of them pulled his eyes away from my son and saw me. Imagine Joe Pesci in anything. That was the look on my face. I think he was trying to compute it when it hit him: "Holy shit, that mother is going to kick my ass!" He blanched and looked down at his plate. I couldn't hear what he said to the others but their behavior stopped abruptly. They didn't look at our table once after that.
Seven-year-olds don't necessarily think things like: "They are making fun of me because I am fat or wear glasses or I have Down syndrome." It is much more global and potentially devastating: "There is something wrong with me."
I decided to put the focus on the offenders rather than my son. I said to him, "They're jerks. Don't mind them, Ok?" He nodded and went back to his iPad.
My mom asked what happened. I quietly told her. She said, "I'm sure their parents tell them how much better they are then everyone." I had also wondered about the parents of these three "nice, clean cut, middle class boys."
We finished eating and decided to go to the park a couple of blocks away.
At the park while my son alternated between the slide and the swings my mom and I sat on one of the benches talking. About 10 minutes later the three boys showed up at the park. When they saw us, they moved behind a large bush to play hacky sack rather than play out in the huge field directly behind us.
I'm a believer in signs. My thought was this is an opportunity to use reason instead of intimidation to explain why their behavior was wrong. I waited until my son was completely absorbed with the climbing wall to walk over to them.
The boy who I had engaged with my menacing stare saw me and immediately looked at the ground. I was no longer angry as I approached them. I was in education mode. My tone was neutral and my stand open.
I said, "Hey, I noticed all of you staring at my son in the restaurant earlier."
The one boy kept his head down. One of the others said, "What are you talking about?"
In a measured tone I said, "You were all staring at my son and..."
Before I got to say "laughing" the third one walked toward me with his chest out, his chin up and his arms stretched out, "We don't know what you are talking about, Okay?" he said.
I wanted to say, "Seriously? You make fun of little boys and take on their mothers when it doesn't go your way? What a man."
It also shocked me. Why the hostility? What had I done other than defend my child from bullies? I saw the one boy's eyes never left the ground. I walked away confused and disgusted. We stayed another 10 minutes and left. As I got in the car I saw they were completely engrossed in their game, still playing behind the bushes.
When we got home I called my husband shaking with anger. I talked it through with him. My husband said, "Bullies don't want to be called on their behavior."
"What if he can't stand up for himself when we aren't there?" I asked my husband.
"I guess we have to hope there is someone brave who will."
After the call I went to check on our kid. I peeked in his room and found him stretched out on his Captain American bedspread listening to the sentence he had composed on his iPad, "I want pancakes."
I forgot how this day started. I will try to be like our son and focus on the great thing that happened today instead of the awful thing I fear will happen time and again.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on The Good Men Project
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