"I don't think I want to do gymnastics today," Sky tells me as we wait for his class to start. Moments before he seemed fine, so I scanned the room to try to figure out what triggered the sudden change of heart. Then I saw William watching from the stands. William who keeps being mean to Sky at school. William who also happens to be Asian. William who has become the bane of my existence.
Of course, I say none of this to Sky, and instead respond, "What's up, Buddy."
"They'll make fun of me," he answers, without filling in the who or what or how. But I know.
Still, I ask, "What do you mean?"
"Well, last time William saw me at gymnastics, he told all the other kids."
"Really? What'd he say?"
"Sky does gymnastics."
Worse things could be said about Sky. Worse things have been said about Sky.
"Well, you do do gymnastics," I say.
"Yeah, but they laughed. And, they're wrong! Boys do gymnastics, even at the Olympics!" By now, Sky's getting fiery. And teary. And it's breaking my heart. But, I don't tell him this.
Instead, I say, "You're right. But, here's the thing: some kids are always going to be mean. And there will always be someone who tries to hurt your feelings. But, you. You are awesome, and you have already done amazing things. Be proud of who you are. You can't let anyone tell you who you should be."
I know he heard me. And understood me. But these are only words. Words from his mom who can't go out into the world with him, who can't really protect him from any of this, who sometimes forgets to be patient, and kind, and understanding.
How do I not fail at this?
At all of this. At helping a son--a son who struggles to fit in, who struggles to understand, and who is so breathtakingly sensitive--to become a confident man. At teaching my daughter not to equate her beauty and self-worth with the style of her clothes, with the color or her hair, and with the number of her friends.
I know this is an uphill battle, so I started early with my constant and not always subtle messaging:
Do what you like.
Be who you are.
Ignore the meanies and choose to be nice.
Embrace your cultural diversity.
Take joy in those things that make you different.
I know they hear these messages, but I can already see it's not really enough. My one single voice grows smaller, more difficult for them to hear, as they are bombarded with messages that tell them who they should be, what they should like, and how they can become popular. How long until my kids can't hear me pounding this drum, telling them they are so much more than any box others will try to put them in?
Oh, that we could change our society so that boys could cry and girls could fight and no one would bat an eyelash. Oh, that their sense of self worth would never be tied to what they are wearing or what sport they play or what grade they got on the last test. We are all, all of us, so much more than the ways our culture tries to define us, but how do our voices drown out the relentless messages that seek to silence us unless we choose to shout together?