Sometimes you have give up control. Occasionally, a situation will come up and even though your heart pleads with you to take a specific course of action you know deep down that you have to ask for help from somebody who has experience with the situation. I’ve given control to surgeons, attorney’s, mechanics and many others. Today Charlie was called a ‘nigger’ for the second time in a week and I gave control to our barbers.
Charlie attends a relatively diverse elementary school on Fairbanks’ west side. He is socially awkward and kind of goofy. In other words he is a pretty normal fourth grader. Last Friday a close friend got very angry and dropped the N-word during a scuffle over a schoolyard football game. Today he basically yelled “MISS IT” when an older kid was shooting a basketball and then said “Nice try” when it fell to the pavement. The result was another racial slur and a short physical altercation.
I was called to come get Charlie because he went to the nurse with stomach pain. When I got there the principal immediately asked to speak to me. I was surprised. I have known this man for 4 years and for the first time ever he seemed upset. He told me what happened and how me the young man was facing discipline and how he was concerned about the incidents. I trust the principal. He is a fair man and he has his hands full. I decided to be part of the solution. I explained how unacceptable this is and how we expected Charlie to have a safe place to go to school, but we trusted him and were willing to give him a chance to fix it. Charlie was holding his stomach and had tears in his eyes.
I took Charlie over to see his mom at work. I wanted to talk to her about our options. First and foremost she is this boy’s mom and her initial reaction was all mom. She sat back in her chair and exhaled and got her composure. “He needs a hair cut,” she said. “Take him to the barber shop.”
Of course. My wife is really smart.
Charlie and Eli get their hair cut in a shop on the other side of town not far from my wife’s office. It is staffed by two black men and it is an oasis of masculinity with sports on the several televisions, the smell of hair tonic and the baritone sounds of laughing men. I love this place. I found this place after several people I trust suggested I find a black barbershop to take the boys for bonding and social connection as well as hair care. I know, I know . . . I was nervous about labelling a barbershop as ‘black’. But several people suggested it and I am glad I found them. Though the shop’s clientele is largely black, you will find a diverse group of customers. I love this place.
A few weeks ago, after Charlie’s last haircut, one of the barbers asked me about the adoptions. I told him our stories. He listened and said he thought I was doing a good job with my kids. I appreciated it. He also added that if I ever had a situation that I wasn’t sure how to handle to bring the boys by.
“At some point,” he said, “Those boys are going to ask questions you don’t have answers to.” I looked at him and nodded. “When that happens, bring them by.” He pointed towards his partner. “We’ll help any way we can.”
I walked in with Charlie and waved to the barbers. I don’t have permission to use their names, so I won’t. We sat down and waited our turn. A chair opened and Charlie sat down. I asked our friend if I could talk to him. In private I told him the story. I got part of the way through it and choked up. He waited patiently as I got my composure and continued. He nodded and asked a few questions.
“Was there a fight?”
“Nobody is calling it a fight, but Charlie pushed the kid.”
“Did you talk to the principal?”
I indicated that I did and I trusted him to handle it. I added that if I felt he wasn’t handling I would escalate. He nodded again. “I’ll talk to him.”
I went next door to get a soda. When I got back the barber was standing in front of Charlie.
“Did you hit him?”
Charlie lowered his eyes. “No”.
“Did you put your hands on him?”
Charlie looked around.
“You can’t do that, man,” he said. “As soon as you do that, you’re wrong. When a kid does that and you put your hands on him, you’ve made him a victim.” Charlie blinked. “Then what he calls you doesn’t matter. All the teacher or the principal or the police know is that you hit this guy. They might not like that he called you a nigger, but you’re the one getting in trouble.”
The other barber nodded. “You gotta stay cool, Charlie. Don’t let people control you.” The man in his chair nodded. I kind of backed off a little and let them talk. This wasn’t about me. I watched television. Occasionally I would hear a word like ‘dignity’ and ‘control’. Charlie asked questions and nodded his head a lot. Soon he was smiling as the men poked fun at his tightly curled hair and generally gave him a hard time. I wanted to be a part of it, but my part was allowing it to happen. This was a question I didn’t have an answer to.
Charlie was smiling when he got out of the chair with a new haircut. I let him get a star on his head and he was smiling ear to ear. I thanked the men in the shop. The barber put his hand on my shoulder. “No problem, sometimes you’ve gotta ask for help. Bring him by whenever you need to,” he smiled at me, “but bring him back in two weeks even if nobody is calling him names, you can’t let his hair go that long without cutting it.”
I laughed and thanked him again. Charlie got in the car and looked at his star in the mirror. I asked him how he felt. “I feel really good now,” he answered. “Thanks for taking me.” I smiled at him in the rear view. “You doing ok?” He smiled and looked out the window. “I can’t let anybody do that to me,” he said. “Nobody gets to tell me who I am but me. If I let them label me, then that’s my fault,” I looked back at a little boy growing up in front of my eyes. “I’m not a nigger just because somebody says I am.” His voice was a little different. I hated what happened, but I was happy for Charlie. I could have told him that a hundred times, but coming from the men in the barber shop, it was different. They were speaking from experience and I was only offering encouragement. My job is very important . . . I’m his Dad. I just need to know when to let somebody else take the wheel.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you again soon on This Side of the Diaper.