On the bus going across town the other day, my husband and I sat behind a girl of about 13. No one sat next to her, even though a couple of folks were standing. This reminded me of my long-ago trip to Turkey. At that time, men were not allowed to take an empty seat next to a woman.
I don't know whether this was by law or custom, but the thinking seemed to be that men are too rude, easily excited and/or perverse to sit next to women. In other words, their entire gender is guilty, or at least gross, just by virtue of a Y chromosome. And I worry that that's the direction we're headed now, too.
Except instead of worrying about men around our womenfolk — hardly an undiscussed issue of late — we're worrying about men around our kids.
Lately, I have been hearing so many stories of people afraid of any men around their kids — moms who won't let their 9-year-olds use the men's bathroom, parents who won't let their daughters be the first or last kid on the school bus because the driver is a man and God knows what could happen. ("You know how men are.") I even heard of a parent who pulled her kid out of a preschool class taught by a male teacher — because why would any man want to help kids for any decent reason?
For the record, my younger son had a male preschool teacher — a gay male preschool teacher, even — who was the best ever. We're still in touch, and this is over a decade later.
Last week, I heard a horrible story from a mom — call her Ellen — whose own sister won't let her son be around Ellen's husband, ever. Why not? The sisters live several states apart, but on one visit, Ellen's husband taught this boy, his nephew, how to make shelves and then gave him some tools. Terrible, right?
A few years later, the uncle saw his nephew again and this time wrestled with him. That was enough for the sister to assume he was "grooming" her son for a sexual relationship, and now all bets are off.
So are all family visits.
Let us reiterate something here: Most people — male and female — are good. Prejudice is not. Do we want to become a country where we forbid men to sit next to kids on buses? Are we going to consider all men pedophiles until proven otherwise?
I worry that may be so. Last story: A friend's husband was volunteering at their church's Sunday school. One day, one of his very young students hurt herself. After he dried her tears, he kissed her forehead.
First black mark against him.
Then, another day, he had one of the students help him hand out some papers — a song sheet or something. "You're my special helper," he told her. She beamed. In fact, she was so excited that she went home and told her parents, "Mr. So-and-So said I'm his special helper!"
That was black mark No. 2.
There was no black mark No. 3. Two "strikes" and he was out.
"Being around kids while male" is becoming the new "driving while black" — a normal activity that excites all sorts of fear and conjecture in some folks, including the authorities. And the only way to fight it is by remembering that prejudice and hate don't make anyone any safer.