During a sizeable period of my childhood, I had the distinct pleasure of growing up alongside our cul-de-sac’s “problem child.” In describing him to my school friends, I often agreed with them that he was the neighborhood bully; it’s only been recently that I’ve realized, most likely I was that person.
One summer evening, which began in the afternoon as evenings often do, I was running around the neighborhood with all of my cronies in one of the most epic water fights I have ever known. Super Soaker water guns had recently come into the collective childhood conscience, and my next door neighbor happened to have a giant one. Not your ordinary Super Soaker, but the souped up version in all of its neon, Nickelodeon cartoon colored glory.
In the periphery I saw him chasing down my little sister with it. Water fights, as most go, are an outright free for all, but this was the baby of my family so obviously my focus shifted. She ran, he sprayed, they both laughed. But then he ran out of water. So he pushed her down.
Let me stop there, because this wasn’t just a little guy with an attention disorder or too much energy. This was a deeply disturbed child. Episodes like the one unfolding, had repeatedly occurred, often at the expense of my siblings or myself. For example, the time he wanted to play “Fire Bomb” and filled up a styrofoam cup of gasoline, lit it on fire, and threw it against the most densely tree covered part of our family’s backyard fence. Or the time he got into a fight with his parents, stole his dad’s truck keys, snuck outside and promptly backed his dad’s truck right into the climbing tree in our front yard, killing it.
Or my favorite, “Sniper,” in which he crawled up onto the shed in his family’s yard with a bb gun and shot repeatedly at my sister and her friend, who had been happily playing with dolls in our yard. This kid had issues, much larger issues than your run of the mill third grader.
Back to the water fight. Seeing him push my sister down was one thing, but what happened next surprised even me. My sister, without her water weapon or stance to defend herself, did what any kid would do in that situation – fetal position. So he began to angrily jab at her with the empty Super Soaker.
The next events are a blur to me. I know I grabbed that water cannon and water cannon whipped him with it. I know he fell to the ground at some point, because an adult pulled me off of him from where I sat, knees pinning his shoulders to the ground, punching him in the face repeatedly with both of my tiny, bony fists. I know I ended up the bad guy, somehow, though I couldn’t work that logic out in my eleven year old mind.
Later, as I sat, mulling over my actions, something occurred to me. Usually when I had hurt someone in the past, I had been able to chalk it up as some sort of accident. But this was no accident. I saw someone I loved being physically harmed and I intentionally stopped it with force.
I was then forced to apologize, which was a struggle because I recognized that I was not in the least bit sorry. So it came out as this: “I’m sorry I hurt you, but I’m not sorry for what I did.” My intentions were clear to me. So was my mother’s frustration and disappointment with me (i.e., grounding). But my dad’s five dollar reward, and barely audible, “Good job,” reinforced something in me.
It’s not okay to just sit back and watch people out there with bad intentions hurt others. I’m not saying that I didn’t get carried away. It would have been more appropriate to just stop him, sans water pistol-whipping. I also understand now that the buildup of our neighborhood history played out too far by the evidence of his face.
Which brings me to now. I’m often curious about people’s intentions. Particularly when their actions read bad. I struggle quite frequently to remember that there is more good than bad in this world. It’s hard to see sometimes because we’ve become so individualized, that we tend to back down, avoid, stop seeing, stop helping when it’s not right within our sphere.
One of the scariest nights of my life happened when I was a newly expectant mother, living alone, and having overheard a fight between the tenants above me. The fight turned into a domestic dispute, and for the first time in my life, I heard a woman being beaten into sobbing submission, mere feet from me. Fear played out too many horrifying scenarios for me and my unborn child to call the police or tell the management. Instead I locked my place down, curled up on the bed, and sobbed too, mostly for my own lack of humanity and anger at my helpless vulnerability.
I know what it’s like to be too terrified to do something. But when I look back at the way I acted in both situations, it’s the one I did nothing about that I regret more. My intentions in both are clear to me now: one was self-serving, the other was not.
I think that the best way to build community, like I want to continue to do here in the Tri-Cities, is show more compassion, show more humanity. It’s the thing that makes us different from bugs or animals. That we care. And we care enough about each other to not only say, “That’s not right,” but to actually do something about it.
Acting with intention. It’s something I’ve been trying to do more. Even if it’s something as small as holding a door open for the person behind me, or stopping in traffic to let a young family cross. Showing my daughter that people matter, and matter enough to do the right thing, is my intention. Actively trying to make the world a better place for her, with what I can do myself is my motivation.
It’s perhaps naive, but it’s my hope that by showing her this, when bad things do happen in the world (and they will), she will be grounded enough by the goodness to still have hope. And she’ll be motivated to make things better.
I just sort of hope that doesn’t mean I’ll have to force any apologies out of her for beating up neighborhood bullies.
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