At 3:00AM Sunday morning, trapped in my office, sitting vigil like a solitary Peacekeeper cut off from my comrades, I heard boys calling girls on their cell phones. Girls I had known forever, girls whose mothers were my friends. “What are you doing?” I heard in a female voice, the encounter conducted by speaker phone for maximum exposure.
“Not you!” replied the boy, and the crowd went wild. I buried my head in my hands. They would go home in 8 hours. Just eight hours. A work day worth of hours, I thought. No, that was a bad thought; now it seemed long again. I rose from my chair and threaded my way into the living room, past the dining room table, where four of the boys I had ordered to sleep two hours ago were maniacally working the buttons of X-box controllers.
“No more phone calls, guys.” I put my hands on my hips as if I could back myself up that way, assert some kind of authority, restore order. The one in the corner, voice completely deepened, with a dating history more complex than mine, still spoke into his phone.
“…at Sam’s. Yeah. Well, are you guys going to stay up all night, too? Yeah, no, I don’t like her, like her; we’re just friends.” I fixed him with my best glare and slowly shook my head. “I gotta go” he said, flipping the phone closed with an audible “click.”
“I know those girls, and their moms are my friends, and I really don’t want to have to explain why you guys were calling them in the middle of the night. I don’t want to hear it again.”
“Then go upstairs and you won’t hear it again” came a voice from behind me. I turned around to blank and bland faces, not one of which radiated any sign of punishable guilt. They were that good.
“If I could trust you guys to behave yourself, I would. Believe me, I have better things to do with my time.”
“Hey Samples,” someone yelled from the other side of the room, near the stairs. “How do you get those pants on? I mean, where’s your dick at?” Again, I was too slow. I looked at my son, the Founder of the Feast, and reminded myself that this was a learning experience. Seven hours and fifty minutes.
The first problem was the invitations, because there weren’t any. In past years I had bought or printed out standard invites listing the relevant date and times. I balanced coolness and social suicide: there were no anthropomorphic bears in party clothes, no script too curvy, no colors too feminine. Tough, but not exactly String Theory. I had warned him, we had both warned him that his seminal guest list included a volatile mixture of personalities, that his relatively straight-laced, homework-doing, sports-playing friends might not get along well with the less supervised boys who seemed, perpetually on the edge of suspension and/or academic failure. He rolled his eyes and reminded me that I had criticized other parents for judging some of the very same boys. In the end, boys were invited verbally, and there was a constant flux involving flu, conflicts, and spaciness that resulted in a number of guests that could change from six to fourteen in the course of a day. By the afternoon of the party, I believed that 12 was the firm number, with one going home at 11:00 PM.
The first few years it was really a matter of planning and endurance. We could have ten boys sleep over for Sam’s 10th birthday, even though we have an old house with an unfinished basement and no “family room.” We could do it, tough it out, and move on, feeling that little rise in spirits that comes from making your kid happy and having a handful of parent-friends assure you that you are “a trouper.” The boys, at nine and ten, were smaller. One on the couch, one upstairs in Sam’s bed, the remainder fit like sardines in puffy polyester rectangles across the living room floor. We bought chips and soda, we ordered pizza for dinner, and I made plates of waffles for breakfast. They slept at night, maybe rather later than one would like, but I could report that they had slept. Their parents delivered their sons based on the reading and understanding of an invitation; they picked them up Sunday morning at the specified time, crowding the driveway, exchanging greetings, and calling to warn us, and to apologize if they might be five minutes late.
In three years, everything had changed. The boys we had know since kindergarten were no longer the Most Important Friends. There was a move to Middle School, and a mash-up of cultures, socioeconomic situations, and values that had always seemed to be a good thing. I wanted Sam to know all kinds of people, and to understand that not everyone was white, college educated, or upper middle class. I had been educated in a predominantly white, affluent public school district where the only people of any color other than white were Asians, whose parents were college professors or physicians. I was White and Guilty.
Here’s the thing, though, people who live differently from us don’t live like us. Their parents do not follow the unspoken set of rules that includes timely drop-offs and pickups, or last minute admonitions about being a courteous a guest. The boys I had encouraged Sam to befriend, and championed and made excuses for, were social mysteries to me; they had nothing in their life experience that would make them jump at the pleadings of an anxious, exhausted mother. They knew I wouldn’t “tell.” because I barely knew their parents, and if I did, frankly, their parents wouldn’t care.Their parents had been “told” all kinds of things by teachers and principals, and, in at least one case, by local law enforcement, and nothing had changed. The differences that had made these boys so appealing to me from the safe perspective of my personal social engineering fantasies turned out to be precisely what made them difficult, unyielding and untethered guests in my home. It appeared that liberal guilt had bitten me in the ass.
As I sat in my office again, trying to read the “Arts & Leisure” section of the Times, a song kept sliding into my head. Billy Joel singing something about “through the long… night… with, you.” I do not particularly enjoy Billy Joel. I was weak and shaky from too much coffee, sad and furious and knowing it was probably all my fault, that I deserved it. I had, before the start of the party, received a phone call from a mother who informed me that I should be “on the lookout” because her son had mentioned the exciting possibility that they would try setting Axe body spray on fire. Hours ago, before all the coffee and the solo shift in my office, one of the boys had intentionally smashed the screen of an old, but working laptop we were planning to give to my stepdaughter. The kitchen floor had been intentionally carpeted with M & Ms. I found myself in that fragile place of caffeine, fatigue and stress; I thought about which boys would “save” me if there was an uprising (aside from Rob, sleeping upstairs until it was time to relieve me). We were outnumbered, and I felt bad even thinking such a thing, because if I was the non-judgmental, big-hearted person I thought I was, I would accept them and love them all, no matter what they did. I would be The Buddha of The Sleepover, taking in what Was, expecting nothing different, refraining from any sorting of “good and “bad.” What, after all, was the point of encouraging a diverse group of friends if I wanted them all to behave like the children of our affluent, well-educated family and friends?
I considered my failed United Nations. All but one set of brothers could be classified as “people of color.” There was the one with the extremely young, and overwhelmed mother whose previous boyfriend had been dramatically taken to jail, whose mother was often unable to remember to get him where he needed to go (or was hung over). There were the brothers who had told Sam they weren’t coming to the party, and had then arrived two hours late in a van that slowed down long enough to discharge them at the curb, along with a volley of horn blasts; their older sister was one girl-fight away from expulsion at the high school. There was son of hard-working immigrants who did well in school, but had shot a sleeping boy in the head at close range with an unloaded Airsoft pistol, causing him to wake terrified and angry. There was the one in whose mouth butter would not melt, who called me “ma’am” and then disobeyed every rule I established. There was another set of brothers, the older of whom was the wearer of the tight pants, and the mutterer of complaints about how “lame” the party was, and his doe-eyed, diminutive younger brother, who was the smasher of the computer screen.
Who was I kidding? I hadn’t “saved” anybody, and they apparently weren’t even having a very good time because we were setting rules and monitoring their behavior. All I had done was to allow it all to happen, based on some naïve belief in the goodness of all mankind, or social justice, or something. Around 3:30 they were still calling girls, playing games, and forming factions to talk smack about other guests. From my desk, I heard “my party’s gonna be better than this, it’s gonna be at a hotel again like last year. We trashed the fuckin’ hotel.”
“Dude, that’s like so cool – your mom is awesome!”
“I know. So you want to come trash the fuckin’ hotel with me?”
My husband appeared at 4:00, bed-headed and un-rested, to relieve me. I hadn’t expected him before 5:30, and in my tender emotional state I felt tears prick the back of my eyes when I saw him. I trudged stone-faced past the boys, up the stairs, and into bed fully dressed, to sleep until I was back on duty at 10:00 or so. Grainy with exhaustion and anxiety, too recently caffeinated to fall gracefully to sleep, I could still hear feet thumping on the stairs, doors slamming, roars of laughter.
Had I really, honestly thought that I was just opening up my big ‘ole heart and hearth to the Orphans of the Storm, or had I subconsciously entertained fantasies of reforming them with my air of gentle authority? Had I had some underground drive to show these boys a better way of living, and to inspire them (to the strains of “If I Had a Hammer”) to care more about themselves, do well in school, and say “please” and “thank you?” After all of this, what would I tell Sam about his newest friends? I had encouraged him to get to know them, and explained that their behavioral and academic failings were probably due to the financial and logistical problems facing their families.
My duty to protect my own child and to give him every opportunity to succeed in life trumped the working out of my own guilt. But what would I tell him, what would I say that would convey, not judgment and disapproval, but a recognition that some values and behavior, no matter what their causation, were just not going to be part of our lives? I would, perhaps, become like the fellow parents who didn’t want their children to go home after school with friends inhabiting the subsidized housing on the edge of town. I would be That Parent. How far into the “love the sinner, hate the sin” spiel could I get before his eyes glazed, or (worse) before he accused me (again) of being a hypocrite?
Pickup followed a script I could have written by 9:00 the previous night. The parents we knew well were on the porch by the designated 11:00 pickup time, and their children thanked me for having them over. Those who had arrived in the honking van were collected 20 minutes late in the honking van, the brothers who had made no arrangements for getting home were driven home by my husband on his way to an appointment, and the last two were finally collected half an hour late, by the mom-with-hangover who had “gotten lost” driving to a house where she had been on at least four previous occasions. None of them thanked me, or even said “goodbye.”
“Are you going to yell at me now?” asked Sam, his face pinched with fatigue, his shirt stained with the liquid from a Magic Eight Ball that had been smashed at some point during the night.
“I don’t know what to say to you” I answered. “You know Daddy and I weren’t happy with what happened.”
“I know. I think I learned my lesson, though. Seriously.” He looked so young, and so tired, and frankly, I believed him. I’m not sure what “the lesson” was, quite yet, or where we go from here. I’m not sure what lesson I learned, quite yet. Part of it’s easy: invitations and RSVPs are necessary, fourteen boys is too many, and caving in to pressure from an adolescent about anything is ridiculous. Part of it is hard, and I’m still working on it. There’s a line, somewhere, between my bleeding heart and the reality that poverty, lack of education, cultural values and parental dedication can combine to shape children whose behavior makes me uncomfortable. No matter how beautiful their souls may be, they are unreachable by me in the course of an overnight, if at all.
But now what?