It was a Saturday morning, home from the job but busy with the usual weekend tasks. My kids at that time were much younger than now. My daughter was 12; my son 9. It was grocery time, and like everyone else on a Saturday morning the three of us were at the plaza for food.
I always like to challenge my kids with my idea of respect and reward. I turned to my daughter and asked her how many times she had come shopping with me, to which she rolled her eyes and said I dunno a million.
“Right Sar, enough to know how this works. So you know the budget is a hundred and ten bucks, and today it’s your turn to shop.”
“What do you mean dad?”
“Well you go into the grocery store get a cart and do it.”
“What if I screw up?” she asked.
“Sar, what’s to screw up? We eat the same crap every week.”
“Well what if I spend too much?”
“How can you if you only have 110 bucks? Tell you what, here’s another twenty just to screw up with. Phone me when you’re done and I’ll come get you – should be an hour.”
She looked really nervous, but hey, I know my daughter, she loves it when I pull this shit out of the blue.
Zach and I went down into the restaurant for some fries and a cup of tea to wait for Sar. Zach figured his sister would screw it up and call in the next ten minutes crying.
“Yeah,” I said, “We’ll see.”
The conversation turned to Zach asking if he could get one of those new sports jackets with the bulls on it. Those jackets are 80 bucks. He whined and begged for about ten minutes till I got fed up, so I told him if he could beat me once at x’s and o’s he could get it.
34 games later he was getting pretty distraught.
“I can’t beat you at this, this sucks.”
“Well Zach, I guess I want my 80 bucks more than you want your jacket. That’s why I’m winning and you’re sucking.”
He got pissed when I said that and drew another board.
“I’m going first this time,” he said.
Just then the waiter came over and asked if we wanted anything else, maybe another tea I said while I put down my X on the board and handed him my cup. Then I heard from Zach, “got you Dad.” He said Dad like I was some kid in the playground he was punking. I looked down as he drew his O and connected the three of them.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I was talking to the waiter, that’s not fair.”
“Well, I guess you wanted your tea more than your 80 bucks,” is all I heard. Followed quickly by, “so I want the black one with the “Bulls” in red letters.”
Man I just got walked on by a 9 year old. But really I loved the push and pull with my kids and when they beat me at my game, they got my respect.
We went back to the grocery store to pick up Sar and she was standing out front, groceries in the cart and the look of a wife on her face.
“Hey Sar, how did you make out?”
“I think I did pretty good Dad, but I called mom once to find out if we needed peanut butter so I got some.”
I thought wow this kid is pretty sharp so I asked her if she told her mother she was doing the shopping.
“No wa,”y she said,” if it’s screwed up it’s your fault, not mine, and you can deal with mom.”
I don’t think she realized the shudder that went through me. I asked her if there was any change. “Yeah, it came to 108 and change, she said, and handed me the buck and the coins. I stood there looking at her.
“Well?” I asked.
“What about the other twenty bucks?”
She looked me dead in the eye with a smile and said, “I screwed up dad.”
“What do you mean you screwed up?”
You said the 20 bucks was just for screwing up, so I screwed up.”
“OK Sar I get your drift, but do me a favour, when you’re older and get married try not to make it so surreal for your husband.”
“What does surreal mean?”
“Well surreal is when your 34 years old you go shopping and you end up getting jacked for an extra hundred bucks by a nine year old and a 12 year old. Sar turned to Zach and asked, “You got the jacket?”
“Yeah,” he said, “a buzzillion games of X’s and O’s, but I finally won.”
That was how Zach came to own his Bulls jacket. Fair and square.
The next week was a little more unnerving. We live in a little suburb called a hamlet and we were about a ten minute walk from the store through a backstreet and down a bike path. Sarah had asked Zach to go to the store for her about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday. We got a call from the video store about 20 minutes later, Zach was there he was crying on the phone said they took his jacket in a project near the store. I told him to wait for me and jumped in my car. I was on the scene in about 5 minutes. I parked the car behind the project got out and started to survey the area, I stayed calm and just walked like nothing was up. I passed a house surrounded by hedges and heard some kids talking behind the bushes.
I rounded the bushes and realized they were in an area that wasn’t visible from anywhere, I figured if I played my cards right I could trap them in the bushes and they wouldn’t be able to run. I stepped around the bushes blocking the exit and said in a friendly tone hey guys. They didn’t respond they all just turned and looked at me. I moved a little closer looking each of them in the face. I got a real serious look on my face and in a tone that only a father can use I said “which one of you is the bear hunter?”
Of course I got nothing but dumb looks in response. I’ve always found that when confronting kids the first thing to do is say something they won’t understand. It confuses them and gives you their full attention. That’s the moment to take control; the moment they’re confused.
“Who’s got the gun?” I said, in a tone that caused every one of them to freeze in shock. Four of them pointed to the one that had it. I stepped up to him and put my hand out flat and tapped it with my finger, while looking him in the eye with a threat of absolute annihilation. He looked down, pulled the gun from his pocket and put it in my hand, never once looking up at me, I put it straight into my pocket. Where’s the masks? One kid said they threw them away in the bushes. “And the jacket?” With the masks. You, go get them, you guys don’t fucking move or you’ll regret it.
Two minutes and I had the masks and jacket.
They all lived in the project, which was pretty much a community of single mothers on welfare. I just shook my head. OK guys lets go see your parents. Every one of these kids, the oldest was 14 – the youngest 10, lived with a single mother. Four of the mothers tried to pass it off as boys who won’t do what their told. With the fifth kid it was the same; single mother but she was out with her “new” boyfriend. He was 12 and left alone at home.
Surprize, surprize, he was the one with the gun.
I wanted to take him home last in case I had to call the cops and wait there. I had told each of the mothers that I would be filing a police report and expect to be hearing from them. All I heard in response was complaints about how hard it was to be a single mother. One of them pissed me off and I asked her what she thought it might be like to be a kid with less than half a parent who only complained about it. She slammed the door in my face.
The tragedy in this whole situation is the extent to which everyone is willing to accept the outcome. From the mothers to the cops it was just same old same old. For the boys there wasn’t one of them that copped an attitude with me at any point. Knowing a little about kids from having my own I talked to them like they were my own. What the hell were you thinking son? you think this shit ends here, look at the trouble you brought on yourself. If you were my son I’d have to keep you around me all the time till I knew you could figure out the difference. What were you planning to do with the jacket – take turns wearing it?
“No we were going to sell it.”
“So it’s money you’re after? Well, see that house? That’s where I live, you want money you come and see me I’ll give you work and pay you for it. At that time I lived in a Condo project, we had implemented a child employment program in grounds maintenance to reduce vandalism. We discovered that when you pay kids to do grounds maintenance, they lose interest in destroying the grounds, and develop an interest in personal economics.
I could tell by the way these kids responded to me that every one of them was a damn fine kid just bleeding for some attention, and specifically from a father. Anytime I saw them in the neighbourhood they would always say hello as polite as could be. I’d always chat with them ask how things were going for them at home and at school. One lad told me school was bad all he could get was a D in every class.
I stopped turned and looked him in the eye and said, “Forget teachers, forget school, forget everything. Are you telling me you’re a D? Just a D? Is that all you can imagine?”
Two months later the same kid came up to me in the plaza and spoke to me.
“Hey Keith, I got my report card guess what? I got 4 B’s!”
“Wow I said, I never did any better than C’s when I was in school.”
He stopped, looked at me and said, I thought you must have got all A’s.”
“No, sir,” I said, “You passed me.”
“That’s OK,” he said, “I’d give you an A.”
That was a ton of bricks for me, I could have broken into tears right there. It’s very humbling to give so little and receive so much in return. It was a privilege for me to be present at that transitional moment, as a witness to something more.