Sunday, March 21, 2010

Becoming Responsible

My son, Avishai celebrated his bar mitzvah this past week. He is a pretty serious kid and approached this whole process with characteristic seriousness. I couldn't help feeling incredibly proud of him as he performed a series of "firsts," tefillin, leading prayer services, reading from the Torah, etc. In the scheme of things, though these rituals require a great deal of discipline and skill, they are only building blocks in the real essence of bar mitzvah, becoming a responsible adult member of society. This act of becoming responsible is somewhat abstract. While our sages have handed down extensive and detailed discussion on the care of slaves, beasts of burden, lost and found items and even dead bodies, there isn't much guidance for a boy in the seventh grade to go on.
This is where things get mysterious. Parenting is a bit like planting grass. You scatter the seeds, and you hope for the best. The seedlings are exposed to many influences, most of which are beyond our control. How do we know what our kids take in? We don't. Particularly during the ever-annoying dance called "adolescence," we are showered with a great deal of attitude and, if we are lucky, blessed with an occasional glimpse of greatness.
Enter: Avishai. A few weeks ago he came home from school and asked if we could talk a little. I poured a cup of coffee and prepared to sit with him in the kitchen. "I mean, in your office."
Avishai: "There is a boy in my class who is, well, kind of awkward, and other kids pick on him. I was hoping you could give me some ideas, ways I could, you know, reach out to him."
Me: "Hunh?"
Ok, so I didn't exactly say "hunh," but that is pretty much what I was thinking for a solid 30 seconds. Then I regained my composure and came up with a few strategies he might try. The next day he came home and reported that he had done what we talked about and it all went very well. This boy has been to our home since and seems to be responding to Avishai's outreach.
Now, you could say my kids come by this kind of thing naturally. I'm something of a collector of people who need extra love, as is my mother. When we were teenagers it was not unusual for us to come home from school to find some stray sleeping in one of our beds. Following in this great tradition, I have tried to establish a home which is open and welcoming to everyone, and some of them look pretty weird. I have been taken to task for exposing my young children to weirdos, like the pierced and tattooed teens, some of whom are followed by a cloud of marijuana smoke like the "Pigpen" guy from Peanuts. But people are people and love is love and there's no way around the responsibility to also love those who may seem less lovable at first glance.
Back to the bar mitzvah boy. We had a great party in his honor last night. My husband spoke about Avishai's effort to reach out to this kid who had been picked on. The kid was present, as were a number of the perpetrators. It was a little tense there for a few moments, then it passed and we had music and margaritas well into the morning hours.
Tonight, Avishai finally told us what happened. After the speech, the picked-on kid took Avishai aside and said, "you changed my life." If that wasn't enough, one of the bullies also took him aside and said, "you were right. I was wrong to pick on this kid."
I was speechless. And for me, that's saying something. Sometimes we get lucky in the guessing-game of parenting, sometimes we get to enjoy the fruit of our labor. For me, this was a quintessential parenting moment. So, as much as my heart swells when I see my son, now taller than me, performing an ancient ritual with passion and joy, I am moved beyond words when he takes responsibility for another human soul.
Mazal tov, Avishai. I am so proud to be your mother.