My birthday falls towards the end of the school summer holidays. Last summer I celebrated with my kids and several good friends by having lunch at a pub followed by taking the children to a popular playground right next to the River Thames. Our children played, mostly happily, while we caught up on what had been happening since we’d last seen each other at the end of the school year. Then we began to enter the time of day that many parents dread: the late afternoon, when children become hungry and tired, and parents begin to ready themselves for the tasks of dinner and bedtime. Our collective children started becoming more fractious, and bit by bit, we began saying our goodbyes. Vera and I, and her two and my two children, were among the last to leave. As we were walking towards the gate I noticed a toddler crying on the playground side of the gate. Her dad was speaking sternly to her older brother, who was probably in one of the first grades of primary school. They were all standing a couple of feet to the side of the gate.
“You don’t shut her fingers in the gate! What did you think you were doing?” the dad said angrily as Vera opened the gate. My children and her children filed through. “Sorry…” the boy said. I walked through the gate, shut it, and locked it behind me. “Sorry isn’t enough,” the dad said. I was about two feet past the gate, following Vera and the children. “You need to know what it feels like.”
“No, Dad, please…”
“No, Dad, I said I was sorry.”
“He isn’t going to close the kid’s fingers in the gate, is he,” I whispered to Vera. We were maybe ten feet from them now. There was a shout of pain. He had closed his son’s fingers in the gate. The little girl continued to cry and her brother had joined her.
“I can’t believe he did that…” I said quietly.
“No…” Vera said. “It won’t help.”
“It certainly won’t.” I agreed. We continued walking.
The incident reminded me of Tree Woman. During my second year as an undergrad, I lived in the North End of Burlington, Vermont. Burlington is a picturesque small city on the banks of large Lake Champlain. The stately peaks of the Adirondacks are visible across the wide expanse of the lake. But even Burlington has its seamy side, and that is the several blocks of town that make up the North End. Our apartment was in a poorly-constructed modern house. During the winter it was mostly quiet, except for the head-banging of the boy next door (at the time I didn’t realise, but he undoubtedly suffered from autism, a diagnosis that hadn’t yet become commonplace). But when the temperature began to rise, the locals began to congregate on the street.
One especially warm spring day, I was upstairs working on an assignment. My husband had gotten home from work and was reading a magazine. The windows were open and I could hear several voices on the street. “Hey, check this out,” called my husband, “One of those guys is trying to pull up the tree.” I went over to the window. There was a group of ten to fifteen people, mostly men in their twenties, standing on the sidewalk. Sure enough, one of the men, a brawny guy with short brown hair, was yanking at a sapling the city had recently planted in an effort to green up the city’s disadvantaged pocket. A couple of the other men were cheering him on.
He had been at it for only a couple of minutes when a tiny woman wearing a floral dress with shoulder-length hair came rushing up to him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted.
The man looked at her belligerently. “I don’t like this tree, so I’m pulling it up.”. Several in the crowd laughed. The man kept on tugging at the tree.
“You have no right to do that,” the petite woman continued. She had a New York accent. The crowd began to shift on its collective feet. “That tree was planted for the neighbourhood, and you have no business destroying it.” The man began to look uncertain.
“She’s really letting him have it,” I said to my husband.
“Those New Yorkers,” my husband said back, grinning.
Tree Woman carried on lecturing the miscreant for several minutes. He stepped away from the tree. The crowd loosened up, and began to disperse. Finally the man, looking sheepish, joined his last remaining buddies and began to sidle away. Tree Woman strode purposefully from the scene, flowery dress billowing slightly in the summer breeze. I went back to my assignment, and my husband went back to reading his magazine.
Tree Woman would not have kept walking on that summer’s day in the park. She would have rushed back to the gate and given that father a piece of her mind. Of course the rights and wrongs of parenting choices are not nearly as clearcut as the destructiveness of pulling up a sapling. It’s quite possible that the dad would have had a lot to say in favour of his approach, and that such a confrontation would not have ended peacefully. But Tree Woman would have done it anyway.
It’s not often that such glaring examples of times to emulate Tree Woman present themselves. More often it’s the small incidents. Do I say something when a friend makes a comment that I find offensive? Do I mention my concerns about the safety of a child in my daughter’s class? I know of many people throughout history who have stood up for what they believed in, sometimes at great personal risk, but reading about such bravery in a book or online is one thing– seeing it on a street corner is another. Tree Woman, next time I want to be more like you.