I had to run some official errands last week, which necessitated my going to some state offices, the nearest of which are about an hour away, in a little blip of a town off the Interstate, filled with truck-stops, motels, gas-stations, and fast-food restaurants. Since I rarely get there, and I was finished early, I decided to treat Tom and myself to some of Taco Bell’s breakfast Crunchwraps, which we both like very much. I had no idea that my simple stop to get some carry-out food would end up as a nightmare for some innocent child.
As I approached the door, I saw a little boy, about 7, hopping and skipping merrily toward the door from the inside of the restaurant. He was grinning, and he seemed to be singing to himself. I smiled as I opened the door and held it for him: he happily danced out. He was, indeed, singing, and since it was a lovely, slightly warm, very sunny day, I felt happy for him.
Right behind him was a large crowd of people whom I assumed were his family, headed by a very unhappy-looking patriarch and matriarch. Since they were so close to the door, I continued holding it open, though I stepped into the restaurant while doing so, assuming that one of them would relieve me from the door-holding in a moment.
I heard the Angry Grandmother mutter something like, “I can’t believe…” and “the door…” and “shameful.”
I had no idea what they were talking about, of course, but my arm was getting tired from holding the door open for them while they continued to stand there, inside the restaurant, glaring.
I let go of the door and went over to the counter, where the clerk was standing, apparently unable to move, staring at the family.
Before I’d had a chance to figure out what was concerning the clerk, the Angry Grandfather pushed open — and held — the glass door leading to the parking lot, where his grandson was standing next to the back door of the station wagon, and screamed at him to get back inside.
At first, I thought the Angry Grandfather was concerned about the child’s safety, even if I didn’t think screaming at him about it was the most appropriate reaction. They were from out-of-state, as evidenced by the fact that their vehicle had a license tag in the front: this state only requires them in the back. I thought Angry Grandfather was going to teach the little boy about “Stranger Danger,” as I had often taught my Kindergarten students (before I became a University Professor, though, unfortunately, I still had to teach my college students about that, but that’s in another post).
What on earth had I done that concerned Angry Grandfather and his family?
Now the clerk and I were both watching the Angry Grandfather as he publicly berated, screamed at, and humiliated his grandson, who couldn’t have been more than 7.
The Angry Grandfather’s lesson went something like this:
Did you see that woman coming to the doors when you were running up to them? Well, did you notice that she was a woman? You did? And you didn’t open the door for her? How could you be so selfish and stupid? And you let her open the door herself and hold it open for you. And what did you do? You just waltzed right through, letting her hold open the door for you. What kind of man are you? Don’t you know that men are supposed to protect women because they’re weaker and smaller than us? We have to be the ones to take care of women. How many times have I told you that? You were the one who should have opened the door for the woman and held it open. Then you should have held it open for the rest of us. We were right behind you. But no… you were too busy being selfish and irresponsible and impolite. Now, you go over to that woman right this very minute and apologize for being the selfish, unthinking, irresponsible little boy you are. Apologize for being so impolite as to make her open the door for herself when she’s just a woman. Go on, get over there and apologize for not being a man. I’m so ashamed of you, I’d leave you here if we were at home. Get over there and apologize. Right now. Before I teach you a lesson you won’t forget.
Angry Grandfather was screaming at a 7-year-old little boy for not opening the door for a grown woman?
For going out said door when the grown woman was holding it open for him?
For not being a man?
For not being polite?
Before I could recover my equanimity, the little guy was standing in front of me, his tiny hands gripping the bar that forms the line to order food, staring down at the floor, mumbling his requisite apology, “Ma’am, I’m sorry I didn’t hold the door open for you.”
I put out my hand to shake his.
He tentatively took mine, glancing up at me.
“I really appreciate that your grandfather is trying to teach you to be polite and to think of other people, but I like to be polite and think of other people, too,” I said. “That’s why I was holding the door open for you and for the rest of your family, even if you were the only one who went outside. I like being polite to other people, even if I am only a woman. So I often hold doors open for men rather than let them hold them open for me. Just because it’s nice sometimes. Besides, I’m a big girl and can take care of myself.”
At this, the little boy’s face broke into a beaming smile, and he gazed up at me with something that was, at the very least, gratitude, and, at the most, adoration.
Angry Grandfather could not see the little boy’s face.
I continued holding the little boy’s hand as I shook it.
“Thank you very much for being so very brave and coming over here, like your grandfather told you to, and apologizing to me. But I actually like gender-role reversals where I get to do things that men don’t expect a woman to do. Just to be nice to other people. And I think you’re awfully grown-up and brave for coming over here and apologizing to me like your grandfather told you. That’s why I’m shaking your hand: you’re a real grown-up man, being so brave, and I appreciate that.”
Outside, the Angry Grandfather continued yelling at the little boy, who was standing next to the car, staring at the ground, while everyone else in the family was getting into the car from the opposite side.
Poor little guy.
That Grandfather has some serious rage issues.
He’s the type who could seriously hurt a woman, a child, a pet.
Instead of his grandfather’s anger and rage, I hope the little boy eventually only remembers that I shook his hand, that I was kind to him, and that I made him, however briefly, feel what looked like relief and happiness and gratitude.
Something he did not get from his family.
I hope that little boy remembers what I said to him every time he holds open a door for a woman — something his own grandfather did not do for the other members of his family, including his own wife — rather than recalling how his own grandfather humiliated and shamed him in public at the Taco Bell.
When I told Tom the story, he said that little boy wouldn’t even understand all the vocabulary I’d used.
But he certainly understood me when I said, “I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself.”
More important, he’ll remember the kindness.