My son is many things.
He is funny and smart and sarcastic and kind. He’s an avid anime lover and can rattle off every statistic known and unknown for every character or card or deck imaginable, but he cannot remember his homework, or that he even has homework, or where said homework might be if he’s managed to even do it. He loves his cat, pasta, and debate. He hates doing chores and will play the game of “let’s see how high I can pile the garbage until it falls over or I get yelled at” as often as he can. I have given up on his room, but I’m adamant about his responsibilities in the rest of the house. It may be a losing battle.
He doesn’t believe in God, but he’s the most Jewish person I know. At 16, he views the world and all of us in it through a Jewish lens. He is intensely loyal to his friends and fiercely protective of those who need protection—the other, who is known by a wheelchair or a brace or a stiff awkwardness that many (including us grown ups) find uncomfortable. Although he got sick of the question, “Are you your brother’s keeper?” after the thousandth time I asked it, he learned to simply say, “Yes, mom.” He may have grimaced or rolled his eyes, but he got it.
He is black. Well, biracial, but he identifies himself as black, so that’s what he is. When we went to Activity Night just before he started in high school a few years ago, he grabbed information from the Engineering Club, the Anime Club, Thespians and Debate, the Friends of Israel Club, and the Black Student Association. It was all one to him, fascinating and fantastic all the same. He is who he is—a complex, wondrous teenager, annoying and giving and selfish and self-righteous and stretching mightily to find his place, his path, and where he fits.
And he doesn’t fit, really. Not quite.
There is no convenient box for him. In a society that prefers easy answers and one-size-fits-all sensibilities, he is the square peg in the rectangular hole. It’s the almost-fitting, the I-can’t-see-what-the-problem-is issue. It’s the why don’t you have friends and where are the party invitations?
Sure, there was bullying. Sometimes galore. And, now he tells me, now that we are far from the experience in time and distance, the bullies were kids and adults both, who saw him as different and other and not quite. In a community of few people of color and fewer Jews, he was clearly a target. And being my son, he clearly had no intention of letting me in on it. And he didn’t, not for years.
Perhaps I should have known. I am, after all, his mom, and a mom should know, without being told. She should feel it in the air, sense it on his skin, right? And maybe I would have, had we also not been battling all the other square peg issues, of ADHD and anxiety, of messy divorces and financial crises. And while those last two were less his issues and much more mine, he couldn’t help but feel they were his as well.
So to white folks, he’s black and therefore suspect. When he’s frustrated, he will mumble “privileged white folks” under his breath. Black folks often exclaim, “What do you mean you’re a Jew? You’ve got to be a Christian!” To Jews, he’s neither fish nor fowl of anything, falling through the cracks of fitting in—we don’t live quite in the bounds of all the other families at our synagogue, so no carpools to Hebrew school. We moved late to the area; he was already in middle school. Add to this the fact that no other kids from synagogue went to his school, we saw no invites to any b’nei mitzvah. The few years at Jewish day camps and overnight camps (when I could scrape up the money) yielded time in the woods, at the lake, in a cabin, but not one phone call, not one text from even one kid, after the sessions were over.
If there were some pointed disability, some “here-it-is-clearly-marked-on-this-timeline” issue, we could rally behind it and apply programs and time and resources to it. We could find the problem and fix it. Fix him.
Thing is, he’s not broken. Much to my utter amazement and eternal wonder, he sits quite comfortably in his own skin. He doesn’t quite fit any black/Jewish/white mold. He really couldn’t care less about those molds and whether or not he fits. He spends no time at all trying to fit into the boxes society seems to demand he crawl into. Instead, he is determined to make sure everyone has their own place to fit and be whole.