Tamir Rice is much in the news here in Cleveland, and in other cities where young black men have been cut down unfairly. It’s been hard over this past year – yes, it’s been a year – as a mother of a boy, to deal with this terrible story that unfolded in the city I have come to know and love over these past 23 years. I’ve seen the boy’s mother through my own “mother” eyes, knowing how much people might judge me, my past, my present, my choices as a parent – if something like this happened to my boy when he was only six years older than he is now.
Today I tried to stop and really think what it was like to be a kid his age. Not to think about it from a mother’s perspective, or an adult, or a concerned citizen. To try to remember what it was, to be in the 7th grade. Time makes it harder.
“Where were his parents?” some people ask. As though any 12-year-old kid wants their parents around. In 7th grade, when I wasn’t at school, I was often on my bike. My best friend and I would ride our bikes all over town. We rode down very busy streets and sidewalks several miles away to the Friendly’s ice cream, where we’d share a sundae and talk about boys. We’d ride bikes to each other’s houses and play Atari or pool or jump on the trampoline, or listen to music. We raked leaves and jumped in them, built snow forts, crawled through dead and dried sewer tunnels under a woods for miles that let out at the Long John Silvers, where you could get a bucket of crunchy fried batter bits for a quarter, and that was lunch. We rode to the Quik Chek and got Cokes and chips and stood around waiting for boys who were a little older and could drive who would show up and talk to us. Our parents were the furthest things from our minds. We were home before it got dark. We gave a brief explanation of where we were going before we left and where we had been when we got home, and then lost ourselves in TV, books, homework, or talked some more on the phone to each other, as if riding bikes around all day had not been enough time.
When I was only a little older than Tamir, I went on my first date to the movies with a boy. His twin brother had to come along with us, and their parents drove us there, went to a movie in an adjacent theater, and then drove me home after, but it was still so romantic to hold a boy’s hand in a dark movie theater, to sneak a special kiss. Electric.
I was only a few months older than Tamir when I went to my first semi-formal school dance. I had been interested in a boy for a long time and we had spent hours and hours talking in the hall and on the phone, and finally he asked me and we went. Me with my oversized, awkward wrist corsage and tight, painful, dressy shoes and him in a tie that looked as if it belonged to his Dad and which might choke him before the evening was out.
I worked on a farm on the weekends when I was Tamir’s age. I didn’t know why at the time, but my parents thought it would be good for me, as I struggled with their pending divorce and some nasty home situations as a result. We had a family friend who was kind of like an uncle, and his brother had a farm way the hell out in the middle of the country, and the uncle would pick me up on Fridays after school and take me out there to stay with the farmer and his family for the weekend once or twice a month. He had a daughter around my age, a little older, and she showed me what to do. We worked hard. We had even less supervision. I remember one of our favorite places to play was a nearby warehouse we could break into that had stacked up, rusting appliances people had thrown away. Big, rusty nails and metal everywhere, and we climbed all over it like it was our own personal mountain. I remember the girl got in trouble and got a spanking because she got her new church shoes all muddy when we were waiting in the dirt road for the bus to take us to her little rural church on sunday morning, but EVERYTHING was dirty and muddy out there, I didn’t see how you could keep a pair of shoes nice.
I remember going to school on some Monday mornings with the insides of my thighs aching so I could hardly walk, because we had spent so much time on the ponies at the farm. I never realized at the time what a unique experience that was, never thought to talk to anyone about it.
I was made fun of for not being cool, not having the right clothes. That was the year someone pointed out that I had worn the same pair of jeans to school on subsequent days, and I was embarrassed.
I got into trouble for calling my teacher an asshole that year as well.
In Home Ec, we learned how to make baking powder biscuits and how to pattern and sew a simple tote bag. In wood shop, we made a piece of art with a metal etching you rubbed over a form, and then nailed it to a piece of wood you had sanded. I chose a pretty horse head for my design.
I cut my hair real short that year and a guy in a restaurant called me “young man” and held the door for me to the men’s restroom, and I was astonished and embarrassed. My hair has never been that short since.
A girl threatened to beat me up. She didn’t like my name. Said it reminded her of something upsetting, though it wasn’t clear to me what it was. She said I should meet her after school so she could kick my ass. I found something else to do.
I was really interested in boys, all the time. There was a blonde boy I thought was way too cool to go out with me. He liked nice, pretty, good girls who used hot rollers on their hair and who wore nail polish; he could never like someone like me. (That turned out to be wrong, I learned years later once we had both grown up a bit.) I remember liking another boy who was really rich and from a nice family. I took an extracurricular class that I knew nothing about just because he was taking it. I actually asked him to dance at a school dance. He danced with me, but he didn’t even look at me, and it was worse than if he had turned me down.
Those were my problems, when I was 12, as best I can remember them. Going to the pool. Riding my bike. Trying to look cool. Smoking a cigarette for the first time at my girlfriend’s house when her parents had left us alone to go out while I stayed overnight. Being so awkward, at that in between stage of not really a little kid anymore but not a teenager either. Clothes. Boys. Kissing. Crushes. Dances. Cliques. Looking cool. Eating junk food. Going to school. Growing up. Crushes. Trying, so hard all the time, to look like a bad ass, to attract attention. To look cool.
To look cool.