Today, in the late afternoon, I went grocery shopping with Asa, my 7-year-old son. It’s spring break so all schedules have been thrown out the window (i.e. it was 4:15 and he still hadn’t eaten lunch). No sooner had we started down the first aisle when he declared, “I am so hungry.” He grabbed for a big bag of potato chips and was eyeballing me for approval before he ripped apart the bag. I realized he hadn’t eaten in a while and should have a meal, not chips. Luckily, we weren’t shopping at just any grocery store, we were at the Berkeley Bowl.
Berkeley Bowl is an emporium. They have something for everyone. So we headed over to the hot foods counter to get Asa a corn quesadilla with some beans and rice. We asked the man behind the counter for just that, a quesadilla with beans and rice. The man said he couldn’t do that. I asked him if he had corn tortillas. He pulled one out and said, ” I have soft corn tacos”. I could clearly see behind the counter in the metal trays the black beans, rice, and cheese. I asked him to please melt the cheese in the soft corn taco and then add beans and rice on top. He said that wasn’t possible unless we had meat with it which would make it the “super taco.” I explained that Asa was vegetarian (he isn’t really but I don’t like him eating meat from unknown origins). He then insisted on putting in cooked vegetables. I explained Asa wouldn’t eat the vegetables (such a picky eater I have– literally picky; he won’t eat the veggies unless he picks them himself!). The man then said we had to have the beans and rice and cheese in a burrito. I explained that Asa was gluten-free and didn’t eat wheat tortillas which are the only burrito option. The man assumed I was going to give up and walked away from the counter.
But he didn’t know me very well. I followed him down the counter. “Excuse me”, I said, “Can you please take that soft corn taco and put the black beans, rice, and cheese on it?” The man was still very confused. He hadn’t seemed to have taken another order before from a gluten-free, vegetarian-who-doesn’t-eat-vegetables customer. He sighed deeply, looked both ways to make sure he wasn’t being watched, and then went ahead and did it. He printed out a label for the box which said, “super taco” — and he charged us accordingly. (I didn’t fight this one.)
After we sat down, I said to Asa, “boy, that was a lot of work, wasn’t it?” Asa agreed. I followed that up with, “You were lucky to get what you wanted. That was an example of a time when you didn’t fit into a neat little box.” Asa looked up at me quizzically, “a neat little box? What do you mean? This meal is in a box.” “No, that’s not what I mean” I laughed. “What I mean is there was no option on the menu for what you wanted to eat. And the food provider behind the counter was inflexible. They have neat little boxes (I held up my italics fingers for him) around the choices you can order: a super taco, a chicken burrito, a veggie burrito, etc. They get confused with how to charge us if we order something not on the menu.” I let that sink in for a minute before I continued.
“It’s not such a big deal. But… what would happen if, for example, someone in a wheelchair wanted to take part in a race? And when they went to sign up, they had to check a box whether they would be a walker or runner?” Asa replied, “Well then they wouldn’t check anything.” “But if they didn’t check either,” I answered, “maybe they wouldn’t be able to get the computer to go to the next screen until they made a choice and then they wouldn’t be able to sign up to race at all.” ”Or how about this”, I asked. “What if a person who felt partly like a boy and partly like a girl had to fill out a form about them self and the second question after their name was, ‘Check if you are a girl or a boy’.” Asa thought about it for a minute and said, “they could sign both boy and girl… or neither.” Yep, these are examples, my son, of neat little boxes that some people don’t fit into.
It was the beginning of an interesting conversation that had many directions to take, but I was happy to leave it at that and let the boy eat in peace. I just like to inject my perspective when I am with my kids. But to my delight, Asa was not entirely done thinking about the topic at hand. His eyes suddenly lit up and he said, “Hey! Handsome in Pink is another example of the opposite of a neat little box!” “That’s right!! I said proudly. “I created Handsome in Pink because when you were a little guy, you were not a neat box kid, you were a messy box! And rockets, firetrucks, and dirt bikes only existed on boring brown and dark blue t-shirts. And you loved pink and wanted all of those things in pink!” “I know, Mama,” Asa smiled. “And you know what? I’m happy you kept asking until I got the meal I wanted, even though I felt nervous. Then maybe at Berkeley Bowl, they can make more boxes on their menu!”
I think the lesson sunk in and my boy is right. More boxes is better than less boxes (although in an ideal world, there would be no boxes at all!) And unless establishments aren’t told that they don’t have a proper box for you, they don’t know. And of course there is nothing wrong with taking matters into your own hands and making a box of your own! I hope someday Asa will be able to shake things up a little bit on his own and get his needs met. He is such a polite kid who is fearful of authority.
I am reminded of the bumper sticker I see from time to time, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I always read that one out loud when my kids are with me, although clarify what well behaved actually means. Slowly but surely we will make the changes we want to see in the world, little and big.