Teachable Moment (My husband took the sweatshirt off a homeless guy. Was he right?)

Teachable Moment (My husband took the sweatshirt off a homeless guy. Was he right?)

Just because I sometimes write about having kids, doesn’t mean I have a clue what I’m talking about. I only know that it is exhausting and thrilling and, it turns out, kind of a big deal. So if you’re tired of being over-served when it comes to parenting advice, rest easy; It is extremely unlikely that you will ever encounter any of that here. Why? because I have no fucking idea what I’m doing, that’s why.

Case in point, the following story is a little something that happened recently:

My family and I attend the local Unitarian Universalist church. I’ll write more about it someday, but if you’re not familiar with UUs, we’re mostly a bunch of liberal tree-huggers, which is exactly why I love it. Anyway, on the way home from church this one Sunday, my son. who was around eleven at the time, realizes he forgot something.

“I left my sweatshirt at church.”

“Do you know where it is?” My husband asks.

T. thinks for a second. “Yeah, it’s on the bench in front.”

“Should we go back and get it?”

“Can we?”

A few minutes later, as we pull up in front of the church, we see a homeless man reclining on the wooden bench in the shade of a flowering pear tree. We’ve seen him here before because he often hangs out in this very spot. He never says a word and is not exactly what I would call a friendly person, but no one gives him a hard time and he’s always welcome to stay as long as he wants.

“That guy’s wearing my sweatshirt,” T. says. Peering out of the window of our Honda, we see that, yes, he sure is. For a few seconds we are all silent. I figure this is one of those “teachable moments” you hear about where the parent says just the right thing about the unfairness of our economic system and how some people have absolutely nothing and how that gentleman probably values that sweatshirt more than we know and we can just get a new one, how fortunate are we??

That would have made for a really lovely blog post. Here’s what happened instead:

“Do you want it back?” Asks my husband.

“Well, yeah, it’s my only sweatshirt.”

“Think you should go ask for it?” My husband says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. I shoot my husband a look. No he didn’t. No he didn’t just suggest that my eleven year old son, owner of ten thousand Legos and, I’m sure of it, more than one sweatshirt, go demand that this man relinquish what looks to be his only worldly possession.

“Can you help me?” T. asks his Dad.

“Ok. Let’s go.” And before I can stop them, they are out of the car and heading toward the pear tree and the man, who is lying on his side, propped up on one elbow with his head resting on his palm. I roll down the window so I can hear, while my younger son, fascinated, leans over my shoulder for a good view. I am mortified.

“Excuse me,” C. says. “I think that’s my son’s sweatshirt.” The man on the bench turns his head and looks up at my husband and my boy, saying nothing. I sink a little lower in the passenger seat. I can imagine a million ways we could have used this moment to teach compassion, generosity, respect for our fellow human beings— important stuff! That sweatshirt cost us, what, seven bucks? This sends me down another shame spiral when I realize that some ten year old in Bangladesh was probably paid four cents to make the thing. I am full of self loathing and pissed at my husband.

Over at the bench, C. smiles and says, “He’d like it back, please.” The man says nothing and stands up. He looks to be over six feet tall, so T.’s size ten zombie sweatshirt (“I eat brains for breakfast!”) rides up in the back, barely covering the top third of his torso, and the sleeves come only to his elbows. He doesn’t seem angry. He doesn’t launch into a paranoid rant or seem in any way upset, but turns around and holds his arms out behind him in a “here you go, take it” gesture. Next, my husband, partner of fourteen years and father of my children, takes hold of the sweatshirt and gently peels it off, as the man walks away. I am aghast.

The two of them return to the car, looking pretty much ok with what just played out. Me, not so much.

“Did you just take the sweatshirt off that guy’s back?” I ask.

“What?” He says, starting the car.

“Why didn’t you just let him have it? It’s like a five dollar sweatshirt.” I’m aware of our boys listening and while I don’t want to start a fight, I figure we’ve already missed one opportunity to model a little social conscience for our sons, the least we can do is talk about it.

“Well, it wasn’t his, that’s why. And it’s eighty degrees, so I think he’ll be alright.” I feel this so completely misses the point.

“Still. T. doesn’t need it either,” I say.

“Actually, Mom, that’s my only sweatshirt,” T. says from the back seat. My heart sinks. We have failed as parents. My son is marinating in white privilege and we have completely ignored it.

“Yes,” I say, “but you are fortunate enough to have a family that can buy you another one. What is not a big thing to us, might be a huge thing to someone like that man.”

My husband chimes in, while T. considers what I’ve said. “If you accidentally took something that wasn’t yours, wouldn’t you expect the person to ask you for it back?” He doesn’t seem defensive at all. He’s really asking. I feel both my sons’ eyes on me, waiting for the answer. “Or are you saying that this is different because he’s someone like that man?”

I stare out the window, not having the slightest idea what to say. I always tell my boys that doing the right thing feels good. It might not be easy, but if you listen, your gut will tell you what to do and, in the end, you’ll sleep better. Now I will hasten to add, “or not.” Because the truth is, I don’t feel good. I feel like we should have let him have the damn sweatshirt, or offer him a few bucks, or bought him a meal, something.

“Yes, he seems like he’s probably homeless,” my husband says. “But he’s also just a person, Maggie.”

Our kids run in the house and we are left in the car, with the engine running. C.’s words get me thinking. Maybe the way he approached the man, with the respect due to anyone, but some for himself as well, was the better way. He saw him not as a “Homeless Guy,” but as a person who accidentally took something that wasn’t his, and approached him as he would anyone, neighbor, stranger or friend. was I just a poser, looking to show my sons how to “be nice to the hobo?”

Before getting out of the car, C. reminds me that we do teach our boys about social responsibility, or try, anyway; We volunteer, give money to organizations that are helping, and do our best to teach our kids that we’re all in this together.

But honestly, are we really all in this together? The Us/Them aspect of some acts of social service sometimes make me cringe. When “We” (those who have enough food, shelter, mental stability) reach out to help “Them” (the ones without), we can fall straight into the pit of Us/Them, with our neatly wrapped sandwiches and crumpled dollars, given at off ramps.

So, there came and went a Teachable Moment and I felt completely unprepared. Not unprepared like the time I forgot to pack an extra diaper for the plane ride, but unprepared like sometimes I don’t even know what it means to be a decent human. You guys, I’m just crazy enough to ask this on the internet: what would you have done?