A couple of days ago, I picked Sasha up from her preschool in Chinatown. Lately, this has not been easy. Always always always, she won’t leave the school unless one of her friends is leaving at exactly the same time, which means we’ll often have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for the friend’s mom or dad to show up. This time, however, we were okay: twins Abby and Emma were going downstairs, too, so we descended in peace.
But outside, the nightmare began. Abby and Emma were standing with the school’s education director on the sidewalk, waiting for their mom to show up, and Sasha desperately wanted to go home and play with them. When told this was impossible, she—quite naturally—erupted in tears and screaming. I left in a hurry, dragging her down the hot street toward the subway. It sucked. She cried, she dawdled, I dragged, I tried to keep my cool in the 90-degree heat. By the time we’d reached Pike Street, she’d actually calmed down a little bit, and when I saw the walk signal begin flashing, I said to Sasha, “Let’s go! Hurry, hurry!” and started to jog. Sasha, however, was having none of this, and began wailing again, at which I finally lost it and yelled:
This was weird, and wrong, and I knew it instantly. Sasha’s crying suddenly changed. Where before it had been a frustrated bawl, now it was truly sadder, hurt. She stumbled across the street with me, quietly saying (to herself and to me), “Don’t say that! Don’t say shut up!”
She was right, and I should have known better. After all, when I was a kid, “shut up!” was the worst thing you could say in my family. Almost any other kind of outburst was okay, but to tell someone to stop talking was beyond the pale—a pure contravention of Gross family ideals. Needless to say, I told my little brother to shut up quite often, and always got in trouble for it. And I understood. If you can’t work out your differences by speaking to each other, even with anger in your voice and your vocabulary, then you’ve failed as a human being. “Shut up!” was a swear word with more force than any fuck or shit.
And Sasha knew that. Sasha herself has an angry word: stupid. She doesn’t know what it actually means, but when she’s pissed off at the world, she’ll mope about and just say “Stupid! Stupid!” simply because she knows it’s a word she’s never supposed to use. That, I guess, and “Shut up!”
What frustrated me most about my own “Shut up!” was that it worked against one of my larger goals: teaching Sasha that it’s okay to be angry. For me, this is important. As a kid, I often felt—from watching shows like “Sesame Street”—that anger itself was forbidden, and yet, for reasons I didn’t and still don’t understand, I was often angry, filled with rage and the need to break things. Mostly, I kept it in check, but when it erupted, it wasn’t pretty. Had I learned how to express anger, not in some hippy-dippy way but through other outlets (like skateboarding, which would later help quite a lot), I might have been a bit more settled. But now, with a single “Shut up!,” I was showing Sasha exactly the wrong thing to do.
When we’d made it across the street, I kneeled down, looked her in the face, and apologized. “I shouldn’t have said that, Sasha,” I said. “I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?” Then we had a nice hug and walked the rest of the block to the F-train station, tear-free.
Until, of course, we passed the bodega, where she screeched for a bottle of water, and then when we got onto the train and she demanded to sit down in a carful of people, and then when we emerged from the subway and she didn’t want to go home, and then and then and then. But did I yell at her again? Nope. This time the “Shut up!” stayed internal and silent, directed at the one who should know better: me.