by Lou Godbold
“… responded to another student's insult with violence,” says the message. Actually, it is about seven minutes long but since it is all in French, this was as much as I could decipher. Josh, Josh, Josh, what have you been up to now?
Unable to raise my son via his cell phone and a text message (“Call me — now!”), I am forced to return the Dean of Student's call. Josh's transgressions are listed:
“The other child mocked his LAPD T-shirt and Josh reacted with violence,” she explains. Uh-oh! Not the LAPD T-shirt. The other child is probably in casts. “And,” she continues, “this wouldn't have happened if he'd been wearing his sports shirt. The teacher says it's the third time he's forgotten it. And when I asked him for his Carnet de Correspondence,” (the book they use to communicate with parents) “he told me he'd lost it!” she states, resting her case. Obviously he's a hardened criminal who is hiding other transgressions recorded in his CDC, is the presumption.
“And how is the other child?”
“I have him and his mother in front of me now.”
“Did he need to go to the doctor?” I ask, wondering if I need a lawyer.
“No, it's not broken.”
“What's not broken?”
“His finger.” Finger! I mentally readjust the amount of blood in the scene at the other end of the phone.
“Yes, he was crying for an hour. He was in a lot of pain.” Hmm.
“Who is this other child?”
“Lucien.” It all becomes clear to me now. Lucien the cry baby, Lucien who is taller and stockier than Josh but acts like he's five years younger. I've heard about this kid. Josh says he's gay, but then the kids call anything they don't like 'gay.' In my day Lucien would have been called a 'sissy' and anything we didn't like 'spastic' — a term that is just as discriminatory and unkind, and was just as hated by our parents. But that's the whole point. It wouldn't be a cool word if your parents LIKED it. Duh!
I am summoned to a 3 PM meeting with the Dean of Students. She asks me and my son to take a seat at the end of the trailer she shares with yard staff and a parade of curious kids looking for water, soccer balls and if they hit the jackpot, humiliated mothers and their contrite sons. By this time I've managed to establish via a phone conversation with Josh that the insult was no more than the usual joke about a T-shirt that to the French proclaims 'I am gay.' (The slang for homosexual is 'un pede' — short for pederast — and it's not hard to get from there to 'la pe-de.') His response, he assures me, was also no more than the usual retaliation, a playful shove. He didn't mean to bend Lucien's digit, as the French so delightfully call it. The Dean of Students is not in the mood for excuses. It's ninety-eight degrees today and she spent the first hour of this insufferable heat listening to Lucien's wails. She is about to launch into some serious remonstration when I intercede for my child.
“It was an accident. Accidente.”
“I didn't hear ‘accident' this morning. I never heard that word once.”
“So who's saying it isn't an accident?” I demand. (My blood is up now.) “Lucien and his mother? Why does this school never believe my son? It's his word against Lucien's. It's not just!” Injuste is a word fortunately that I know in French and I am determined to bandy it about to good effect. The French never listen to you unless you get a little bit emotional, and besides which, I am sure I am streets behind Lucien's mother and her earlier performance. “It's always the same with this school! Toujours la meme chose!” I had been practicing that one in the driving mirror. But the French are nothing if not democratic and Lucien is immediately sent for.
“Bonjour madame,” he greets me obsequiously. Two of his fingers are in a brace.
“Tell us what happened,” instructs the Dean unwisely, unleashing a long, whining tale. When he arrives at, “I insulted Josh,” I jump in quickly before we can get to the part rated M for violence:
“But it was an accident, Lucien, yes?” He looks around uncomfortably.
“Er, oui.” Right you little swine! Why didn't you say so in the first place!
“All the same, I'm still giving Josh three demerit points,” pronounces the Dean.
“And what about Lucien?”
“Yes, yes, he has three points too.” Not for long, I imagine. Not when his mother comes back for Act Two.
Josh and Lucien are dismissed. The Dean still looks ticked off. “It was horseplay,” I offer, using Josh's term, which unfortunately does not translate into French as it is my turn to discover.
“Why is Josh so keen on the LAPD?” The Dean looks up from her notes quizzically. “Is it a prestigious profession in this country?”
“Er, no, not exactly. I think it's because he doesn't have a father,” I am about to start my whole ‘looking for a father figure in the macho culture and structure of the police force' psychoanalysis, but she jumps in ahead of me.
“Yes, this is what I thought! This is why he reacted so strongly to the insult.” No, no! She's got this all wrong!
“He wasn't insulted; it's just something they all say to each other. It was a joke. Teasing. Taquinerie.” That is one of the new words I looked up in the dictionary and then wrote on a post-it and stuck inside my bag, just in case.
“I was told this was a big problem last year,” she says, “the kids calling each other homosexual. We are vigilizing it.” I like that French verb, I shall adopt it: Vigilize world peace.
“So when Lucien teased him, Josh was, he…” I've run out of post-it note words, so I put my hands on my hips and play-act someone being mock angry.
“Yes, yes, possibly these movements are provocant,” she says, in her mind still fighting a battle against rampant homophobia, “but to respond with violence is inacceptable.” It's no use, she pegged my son as a violent homosexual due to my inadequate single parenting and there's nothing I can do to change her mind.
In the yard, I see Lucien standing next to a tall, thin woman whose sundress reveals very white skin. There is something of the aesthete about her, which makes me think she's either a church deacon or an academic. I can't bear it that she believes my son is a bully because her namby-pamby son wanted attention and cried foul.
“I'm Joshua's mother,” I say proffering my hand, “and I just wanted to tell you that I completely understand that your son calling my son a homosexual was a joke.” In other words, there is about as much reason to believe that the insult was real as there is to believe that my son deliberately attacked yours.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she agrees. “I only came to the school because they said he'd been hurt. I think this is something the children should sort out between themselves.” Ah, a sensible woman! I am prompted to kindness.
“I'm sorry for any anxiety you've been caused and, of course, I am sorry Lucien hurt his hand, but it was an accident.” I say the last part looking directly at Lucien who is standing to one side.
“I think the school needs to work on this issue of language. Lucien's always saying, “Oh, I can't wear that T-shirt because the kids will say it's gay.”” Of course it's gay. He's gay. Doesn't the mother realize this? “And I feel I should tell you, madame, that your son has un vocabulaire tres riche.” I almost say thank you, that he probably acquired it visiting his grandmother in France, but there's something about the way she says “riche” that stops me:
“What do you mean, rich? Vulgaire?”
“Oui, vulgaire,” pipes up Lucien. What a nasty little prig! I'm sorely tempted to bend back the fingers of his other hand.
“Probably when you are not at home he picks it up from the television.” When I'm not at home? Like, out with my boyfriends? Because that's what single mothers do, leave their children unsupervised while they continue to make rash and imprudent choices for their lives. “Last year my son came home using language I could not allow in the house. We have young children around! Other mothers have told me the same thing.” My heart sinks. Not only is Josh a violent homosexual but now he has a potty mouth to boot.
“Lucien is as bad as anyone else!” declares my son indignantly in the car. He does not fight the charge of bad language, just insists he does not use it inappropriately (like around me, when he'd suffer the consequences). I drive home berating myself. I did it again, accepted what someone else said about Josh instead of believing him innocent until proven guilty. Maybe somewhere deep in my soul I resist the idea that I could really have such a wonderful, if not perfect at least as-near-as-is-humanly-possible, son.
One day later, and I am taking Josh and the recovered CDC to the Dean for formal documentation of the demerit points. She writes in the book with the frigid air I thought had somewhat thawed during the discoveries yesterday. Over Josh's shoulder, I see Lucien and his mother coming up the path to the trailer. The Dean sees it too.
“You had a meeting with Lucien's mother?”
“Well, it would be nice to keep me informed.” What? Then I realize I've mixed up my tenses again. She's asking if I have a meeting with the mother now. I want to explain, but another wave of students arrive with clamorous requests and crowd around her desk.
Back in the yard, Lucien's mother has obviously decided to delay her visit to the Dean and is talking to the Number One Gossip on Campus. My Honda Civic is parked right between their twin black SUVs.
“Bonjour,” I sing out, looking the gossip in the eye as I walk between the two women. I'm sure she is speculating about how Josh is growing up delinquent, deprived of the proper paternal guidance and discipline. How I dislike these smug women with their luxury cars and luxury life-styles that afford them the time to stand around judging others. I am proud to be a single mother, I remind myself, proud that I've done it all on my own. Poverty is an adventure, a private joke against the wealth and privilege that could have been mine. It is a truth serum for revealing the hearts of others: Do they like me for who I am or for my status? Do they want to be my friend because they enjoy my company or because I'm useful to them?
“Mum, I would just leave it,” says Josh, seeing me write this. “It's making you sad and upset.” This morning, I installed a portable air conditioner on loan from a friend. I warned Josh that it eats electricity. When I go into his room, I discover he has switched it off despite the fact that the house is still ninety degrees. He can't make up for my humiliation today so he does what he can — saves electricity. I look at him in wonder and decide that even if no one else can see it, I am the richest, luckiest mother in the world.
All rights reserved.
I'm excited to have found a multicultural home at 'Second Tongue.' My son is not so excited about his bi-lingual education and the feeling that he is constantly at a disadvantage in his French school. But he'll thank me one day, right?