Speaking up for a child

Note: If you suspect a child is being abused, please speak up. 
Call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-ACHILD. 
If you're a parent under stress, you can receive help from the
same hotline.

toby_keith_wallpaperCountry singer Toby Keith would have been embarrassed to know that a man wearing a shirt bearing his name was abusing a child.

And if Toby Keith had been where I was, I think he would have done the same thing I did, which was speak up for the child.

It was chaotic situation and when you’re a six-year-old boy at a children’s museum being considerate of other people or of their exhibits isn’t the first thing on your mind. But the grabbing and poking wasn’t any more outrageous than the hundred other six-year-old boys who were grabbing and poking.

But to this boy’s father it was. And his father grabbed his arm. It wasn’t in the firm way that grownups do to bring a child’s awareness to a place other than what he’s involved in. This was the grab and twist your arm way that elicits nothing but a screech of pain and the automatic reaction of fight or flight for survival. And so that’s what this little boy did. He backed up as far away as he could from his father. And every time his father made a step closer to grab at him again, the little boy scooted backwards as fast as he could.

All in the plain sight of the general viewing public, which included me.

I’m a mental health counselor  and I established a local chapter of an advocacy group for kids in foster care because of parental abuse. So when I see things in public that cross the line, I conclude that in private it goes much further.

So I had a decision to make. Ignore it because it’s none of my business, or take a risk and speak up and do it in such a way to prevent further abuse for that incident.

With a sick feeling in my stomach, I chose to speak up. By this time, 220-pound dad had grabbed 50-pound son and carried him downstairs. Pregnant mom and younger brother were following behind. And I followed them, too.

What I wanted to say was “rednecks like you shouldn’t be allowed to have kids.” (Sorry, Toby, but you do sing for the red necks.) “How would you like me to grab your arm like you did your son’s?” “How about I just kick your ass.”

Instead, I joined up with the family on the museum’s first floor where the boy was hiding behind his mother screaming for his father to leave him alone and where father was trying to grab at him again.

I walked up to them and asked “is there anything I could help you with? It looks like everyone is a little upset…”

The parents looked at me like I was an alien but for that moment took their attention off their son and turned it to me. The boy’s mom with brown teeth shifted her stance towards me and explained it all by saying the museum was too much sensory overload.

I affirmed her opinion and encouraged them by acknowledging they had a lot on their hands as parents and that I was a parent and understood the challenges.

Dad just stood there and grinned at me. And then it was time to move on. And I said to them “it will be okay.” And with that, mom, dad, son and brother left.

And I wondered after they left if Toby Keith would have thought like I did that instead of being a redneck dad, that this man “should have been a cowboy.”  Because a true cowboy raises a family with respect and not abuse.


The gift of Maya

maya angelouI never shook her hand, but Maya Angelou revealed enough of herself through her books and public appearances that I feel like I have known her for a long time. The first time I met her, though, I did not realize the gift I was being offered.

In 1992  I was 26 and working in Clinton, Iowa. The Davenport, Iowa, NAACP hosted a free Black History Month event which featured Maya Angelou and folk-singer Tracy Chapman. For me, I was drawn to the event because Chapman’s work had become accessible on mainstream radio. Ms. Angelou’s reciting the poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration wasn’t until the following year.

The Black History Month promoters publicized the name of her most famous  work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and not its widely known content. I only planned to scan her book as a light reading Harlequin romance. My superficiality about it revealed my cultural illiteracy and not Ms. Angelou’s lack of notoriety. So I was unprepared for what she shared in the autobiography and I was deeply affected as anyone is who reads Ms. Angelou’s gripping prose. Later, I sat in the audience as a solitary young white woman with a desire to forge relationships within the black community (or with anyone who would be kind to me for that matter) and to overcome my own racist and, sometimes, abusive life experiences. I felt her presence deeply and excitedly. She vocalized my deep yearning to release a life and activism within me that had been imprisoned by others abuse of power.

Maya Angelou’s innocence was stolen from her as a child, but she found a way to transform it into a springboard to reach out to the rest of the world and sing for the freedom of all the other caged birds.  I give thanks to the Universe for the gift of Ms. Angelou’s life and for its generosity in lifting her high enough to fill the sky with her wisdom and power. And I give thanks I was able to hold a small piece of it for myself.