Portions of this essay were published as comments to New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s column Heroic, Female and Muslim profiling Dr. Hawa Abdi, a woman taking a stand for and with other women and girls against Islamic extremists. I’ve seen her model of hero in middle-class America. Perhaps, you’ll recognize the type, too –
I’m a white-middle class Minnesota mother. Wednesday evening, as usual, I played basketball at my YMCA. As usual another mother, who happens to be Muslim, joined me.
Putting aside how odd we must appear on the courts with many more boys and men (of varied ethnicities), we are pretty good players. O.K., In truth, she is better than I. Though I had the benefit of playing on well-supported organized traveling sports as a middle-class American child. Which she, raised in Somalia, did not.
As we’ve become friends, this woman has taught me as much about parenting, spirituality, basketball and work as any of the many faith leaders, coaches, media figures, politicians, teachers and self-help gurus I know. (I shared more of her story in an earlier essay, Immigrants = Economics Assets.)
Monday night, frazzled by a particularly full-on few days, I dragged myself to the Y to work off my stress. A group of boys, led by two older teens: one white, one Hispanic and joined by others of numerous ethnicities are, if hyper-engertic and sometimes reactive, generally pretty well behaved. But Monday, they were more wound up than usual.
They were bullying other kids and creating general havoc on the courts and elsewhere for everyone. I became increasingly annoyed. Picking up on this, they became increasingly agitated, too. Taking turns getting in my way, throwing footballs at me, etc. I tried numerous tricks of avoidance, negotiating and redirecting to get them to stop. Including pulling my “Mom-card” and parking the series of footballs they continually produced to throw at me. At no point did any of the many adults at the Y intervene while this was happening. Except staff who had earlier separated the boys and did again later.
But when my friend arrived, she intervened by simply approaching me with calm and empathy. I was near tears and, as we often do, we commiserated. This time about how hard it is to raise our sons when so few intervene against bullying behavior. We well know our sons, being social beings, might someday be at risk for participating in or passively standing by bullying. She talked me through my frustration, teasing me about the fact that she and I are often the only mothers on the courts and, thus, it falls to us to parent all the kids on it.
Her point was intentionally ironic, as there are many men on the courts, too. In fairness, some are wonderfully and consistently engaged with the boys. But many ignore them and their behaviors.
This woman speaks from a place of deep life experience that I can’t possibly comprehend and being the mother of four very active but well behaved sons. She fled deadly Somalia more than a decade ago, sent to a safer life by her mother and escorted by her older, very supportive brother. I’m grateful she did.
Without her, I might have given up on going to the Y after Monday. Because she took the time to support me, I went back last night.
We commiserated and teased, again. Again she invited me to play pick up basketball with her. The bully boys were there, but, other adults — all men: one Hispanic, one black, one white — offered me support and promised to help if the boys got out of hand. Two were strangers. None, I found after asking, were related to any of the boys.
I suspect my friend, in her Hajib and long skirt on our suburban basketball court helped organize them to my “cause” after my difficulties with the boys. I think she knows some of the men because her teen son sometimes plays pickup with their group.
And I suspect the white man, a college football coach, who was the YMCA staff who responded to my request for help with the boys, might have as well. Months ago, he mentioned his observation of me. Noting that besides that I love to play basketball, he suspected I shoot hoops to work off my stress. He was right. Since then I’ve observed how he engages my son with teasing and football talk — and occasionally tweaking him in support of my parenting. Once in a while this young coach good-naturedly tries to teach me, a middle-aged mom, how boys think.
My son relates to this man so much, he once brought him cookies he made. Last night the man asked my son to make him more (while whispering to me he needed the cookies to assuage his own stress). Thus he taught my son, by inviting him to see and be the full spectrum of what a manly-man is. Strong, funny, cool, kind, real.
He, like my basketball-mom friend and Dr. Hawa Abdi is yet another of many quiet but life critical leaders of children (and adults, like me) here in the US and around the world.
I’m paying attention to the hand full of girls who show up, much outnumbered by boys and men, on the courts at my Y. I suspect the Muslims girls have inherited much of their mothers’ fortitude and quiet, but powerful inner strength. And the black girls have seem to have similarly inherited their mothers’ formidable ‘don’t play me for a fool’ strength and fearlessness. The Hispanic sister of one of the bullies is already a positive leader, playing football and volleyball with my son and other younger kids. And the white girl whose Dad plays pickup with her most every night–and smiles while running circles around men and boys twice her size–demonstrates unmistakable confidence in her power, already.
I hasten to note: none of them regardless age or ethnicity, can succeed to their full potentials without help from many others, and not only my friend and the young basketball coach.
Few such quiet heroes are profiled in national newspapers by famous columnists. Still, we should remember heroes like these are teaching us and our children–be they Muslims girls in the Middle East or white boys in middle class America–how they, too, could be heroes someday. It behooves us to give these humble leaders, however they look on the surface, due respect.
And our support, too. A good place to start would be to join their efforts, by following their lead.
Founder and co-leader DynamicShiftby