Thursday, January 1, 2015

Found in Translation

The Setting

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, early spring of 2004. It's just a few blinks after 9/11 and the neighborhood, hard hit by that tragedy is still in many ways shell-shocked. There is also a great deal of tension between the "old school" white Brooklyn residents and our Muslim neighbors, many of them new immigrants to the community.

The School Yard

Moms, dads, grandparents, and nannies gathered in the fenced-in courtyard of my son's preschool to wait for their children every day at pick-up time. Like all caretakers of young children, we were, at varying times: rushed, frazzled, late, desperate, in terrible need of adult communication. Before long, though, the invisible dividing lines of the self-selecting groups started to make the yard resemble a middle-school cafeteria. The separation was created by comfort and ease, Spanish-speaking moms talking to other Spanish-speaking moms, St. Anselm parishioners talking to other St. Anselm parishioners, and so on. You know how it goes.


A few months into the school year, my son Jake started talking incessantly about Tarek, his new preschool friend. The conversation morphed into a daily, "Mom, can Tarek come over to play?" query at pick up.

Tarek's mom always stood near the picnic table, where a group of hijabi moms gathered each afternoon. I always smiled and said hello to them every day, but honestly, I did not make much effort beyond that. I knew that Tarek's mom didn't speak a lot of English, had a toddler daughter in a stroller, and was also pregnant. I had no idea how to broach the topic of a play date with her.

The Best Laid Plan

As the weather started getting warmer, I thought planning a trip to the park together after school might be a good compromise. When Jake and Tarek came running out of school one day begging for a play date, I asked Tarek to translate for me. We went back and forth a bit and chose a date—Thursday. 

On Thursday at dismissal, Tarek's mom gathered a few of the boys from the class, then walked over to me and handed me a piece of paper. It had her address and phone number on it. She said, "I take Jake. You call. Pick up." 

I was confused. This wasn't the plan at all. "I'm sorry," I said. "He can't go. I thought we were all going to the park." She looked at me, hurt and confused. "Why?" she asked. She gestured to the other boys who were all going to her home.

The silent awkwardness between us felt like it lasted an eternity.

"Jake come to my house," Tarek's mom said again. I stood there, not knowing what to say. I didn't know how to explain everything that was behind my denial, and so I said the first thing that popped into my head. "I'm sorry, Jake's dad won't let him go." 

The Aftermath

It was a cowardly act. Not quite a lie, but totally pawning my culpability off on my overprotective husband, and it was wrong.

Tarek's mom looked teary as she walked away with the other boys. I took Jake to my car, strapped him in his booster seat, hung my head on the steering wheel and we both sobbed. I had hurt another human being, and I had no idea how to fix that. I knew that I had to, though.

The Fix

I went home and wrote my thoughts in a letter to Tarek's mom that said something along the lines of, "Thank you so much for inviting my son to your home. It is truly an honor and I am sorry about the miscommunication. We are overprotective new parents, and Jake has never been left with anyone but a family member, he has never even had a babysitter…"

A few phone calls later, and I had enlisted the help of a friend's mom who took the time out of her busy day to translate my words to Arabic. The next day, I walked over to the picnic table and handed the translated letter to Tarek's mom. Her friends gathered around as they read it together.

Suddenly, I was embraced in an all-forgiving group hug. Tears fell to the concrete. "I understand," Tarek's mom said. Another mother explained, "We're the same way. We would never leave our son with anyone but family. Don't worry."

Then, sadly, they asked me where I was from and shook their heads at my response that I was raised in Brooklyn. "You can't be American," they replied. "You're too nice to us."

The Lesson

I've reflected on the lessons of that day a lot. I came to the realization that to carry my baggage as a socially anxious girl geek to my interactions with other people is, in fact, quite selfish and ignorant of my inherent privilege. I now ask myself:
  • When I'm in a situation with new people, to whom do I choose to talk? Why?
  • Can I look at myself objectively? See myself the way others actually see me rather than the way I feel about myself?
  • What are some strategies I can use to connect with new people, especially people who may never feel comfortable initiating contact with me?
  • Would anything I say…or do…or write hurt another person? How can I anticipate that pain to make sure I change my approach?

The Journey

One of my husband's mantras is: When you admit you're wrong, you're right.  

I am a flawed human, but I am trying to be better at it. I will continue to make mistakes. I try to live by this truth. 

I was wrong that spring day in the preschool schoolyard. Acknowledging it not only helped me grow as a person, it opened up a world of new friends. I can only hope that, with practice and self-awareness, one day I will get it right.