One mild evening this summer I sat on the front steps with a friend, enjoying the warm evening air while drinking a glass of chilled white wine. There was a party at the rental hall next door, and we enjoyed the backdrop of festive mariachi music coming from the open doors.
The rental hall is dark and windowless, which usually drives party-goers and their children out into the parking lot adjacent to my yard where it is cool. As I tossed a ball for Scout to catch, a group of children – boys – wandered over and pressed their noses through our front gate to watch.
The boys chattered with each other in spanish, which I don’t understand, and they continued to point and smile at my dog. Since I didn’t know what they were saying, I simply smiled back at them.
Soon a parent came by to shoo them away, but my friend and I both smiled and waved him off, saying “No, no, it’s fine, we don’t mind.” The parent went off and left the kids with us, and I continued tossing the ball for Scout.
Eventually the boys wandered back to their party, and my friend and I went back to our conversation.
A little while later, I saw the boys creeping along our chain link fence, hiding behind a bush that protruded out into the sidewalk. Suddenly one of the boys ran up to the gate, threw a plastic fork at it, then ran back to his friends as it landed on the sidewalk.
“Hey!” I called after him, coming through the gate and onto the sidewalk. The boys were running away, but stopped and stared at me wild eyed when they heard me call.
Softening my tone, I said “It’s okay.” I waved them back and pointed to the fork. “It’s okay,” I said again. “Don’t throw this at me,” I said, pointing at the fork and shaking my head. I didn’t know if they understood English. “Take it to the trash,” I said, pointing to the fork and waving it away with my hand. “Don’t leave this here, por favor.”
One of the boys walked over with droopy shoulders and got the fork, and I smiled at him so he knew I wasn’t mad. “Gracias,” I said. He and his friends walked away, and I waved cheerfully.
As I sat down next to my friend again, I silently congratulated myself for being gracious to the boy even though he was throwing his trash at me. Wasn’t I wonderfully hospitable to my neighbor even though he was acting rudely? We have, after all, endured beer cans tossed into our yard, broken glass on our sidewalk, and young boys pee’ing through our fence during many of these parties. I even found an abandoned pair of pants in our bushes once.
But as I sat down to write this essay, intending to go in a different direction with it, I’m suddenly struck with a thought – I realize it’s possible the boy was trying to throw a fork for my dog to catch, the way he saw me throwing a ball. And like the detective at the end of The Usual Suspects, I flash back through the montage of clues in my mind with this new realization, reinterpreting the entire scene —
The boys who are mesmerized with a dog who catches balls, the boys who run away suddenly and return sheepishly, the daring boy who is chosen to bear the risk, the unsuccessful toss that was intended to go through the fence, the signs of defeat that I didn’t embrace their efforts.
I am deflated by my tunnel vision, and I want to cry. How arrogant of me! Adorable boys were making friends with my dog, and I shoo’d them off! How confused they must have been with my contradicting actions – first smiling and welcoming them to participate, then scolding them when they tried. I wish I could go back in time and invite them in to play with my dog.
I feel foolish for not realizing their intentions in the moment. Obviously I was dealing with a language barrier, but I still kick myself for not being more observant. I allowed myself to define the moment by my assumptions.
And then I realize, this is Other-ism – racism, classism, cool kids against the nerds, whatever. This is how it starts – judging a person based on what you think you know about them. I made an assumption, and it was the wrong one.
I’d be curious to know about your experience with Other-ism. When have you felt judged? When have you caught yourself judging others?