As a child, I never knew what to say when kids picked on me. No, this quick wit you enjoy is a recent development. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kids would make fun of my frizzy hair or pale skin and I’d just stare straight ahead. Sometimes I’d pretend to be deaf.
Once in a while, I’d spit spitballs or punch someone. But a snappy retort? Not me. I always came up with something great to say about two hours after the incident.
When it became clear that kids enjoyed annoying me, I would go home and complain to my mother. I quickly realized that was a mistake, because advice from a nun with kids is polite, quaint and ultimately ineffective.
Me: Toby was mean to me today.
Mom: What happened?
Me: He says I’m ugly and no one is ever going to marry me.
Mom: You tell him someone will marry you.
Mom: John D. Rockefeller’s nephew.
The next day, I tried her pithy response. Total disaster. Toby had never heard of John D. Rockefeller and told everyone I was going to marry Bert and Ernie.
A few years later, in junior high, I hadn’t learned my lesson. The taunts grew ever more personal and my mother still didn’t know shit about the art of the insult.
Me: Allan was mean to me today.
Mom: What happened?
Me: He called me “titless.”
Mom: Tell him ladies don’t respond to such coarse language.
The next day, Allan said I wasn’t a lady until at least a “B” cup.
Somewhere in late high school or early college, I discovered ways to make people cry or laugh with a cutting remark. It’s a gift. And I was determined to pass it along to my children.
From the very beginning, I made a distinction between defending oneself with words and using violence to solve problems. My children will tell you that we are a nonviolent family. When Jacob and Zachary first started to shove or slap each other as toddlers, I would sentence the aggressive party to a few minutes of time-out. As they got older, if one of them smacked the other and started an all-out wrestling match, I’d have them write five, ten, or thirty-five nonviolent solutions to a problem.
Sometimes they would sit and interpret a Gandhi speech or one of those Beastie Boys songs recorded after a few of them began to appreciate Buddhism.
“Besides,” I told my sons, “it’s much more impressive to use your brain rather than biceps.”
Put that in your pipe and smoke it
When they were five, I took my sons to a birthday party at a local activity center that sits right off the highway. This place was a whole lotta Tea Party, Redneck Fun – batting cages, mini-motorway, miniature golf course, racist slurs on the bathroom walls, thawed pizza, and arcade all available for children and the occasional burned-out adult.
I supervised my children through the putt-putt experience when another child got aggressive with Jacob. My little boy looked at me as I pretended to pick something out of my teeth. I thought he should probably try to handle it himself.
He used his words and said, “Step off.”
I was so proud.
The kid kept at it and Jake finally said, “Mommy, he’s hurting my feelings.”
I looked at the bully, his nineteen year-old mother hitting on a maintenance man, and whispered in my son’s ear, “Tell him at least you have a daddy.”
Wince if you will, but something kicks in when your child is under attack. In my defense, I was trying to teach my children that words, used properly, are more powerful than punches. This will make being a liberal vegetarian in the south a hell of a lot easier.
Marc doesn’t always agree, and sometimes my motherly advice gets me into trouble at home. When Zachary had problems with a classmate for several days in a row, I had heard enough.
Son: Nathan was mean to me again today.
Me: What happened?
Son: He keeps hogging the basketball and won’t let me play with it until he’s done.
I knew Nathan’s mom. This was too easy.
Me: You tell Nathan to quit wetting the bed at night. Between that and the thumb – he’s got bigger problems than basketball.
My son smiled and all was right with the world. Marc and my mom looked horrified. I should have known something was wrong when Stepdad offered a high-five.
Sorry, but comebacks like “Take a long walk off a short pier” would have to come from someone else.