October 01, 2015

The Leading Edge

Laurie Ristino

Small-Town Boy


This past summer, in what should have been the season’s languorous days, a classmate of my thirteen-year-old son spread a rumor that my son is gay. Whispered words, lack of eye contact, and the like seemed to lurk in the inevitable run-ins downtown, the community pool, the local pizza hang-out. My smart, sensitive boy was consumed by this labeling (from a kid who was once a friend, no less) and with the apparent shadow it cast.

I confess to you, I was upset. Given the progress of LGBT rights and the fact that we live in a college town, I had hoped that my own kids would be spared the fear I felt growing up because of the nagging knowledge that I was different.

Truth is that I don’t know if my son is gay. But, it does not matter. Of course, he should be free to love whom he chooses—with or without labels—when the time is right. (And, by “time is right,” I’m hoping for a long window.)

As tempting as it would have been to address my son’s tormentor (and believe me, it crossed my mind), it would have been a disservice to both my son and his former friend. My son, of course, has to learn how to navigate life’s challenges—without his mom holding up cue cards. The popular kid does, too. In the end, my son decided to confront his former friend. My son’s relief was palpable. It wasn’t that my son expected the other boy to change; rather, it was about my son’s own sense of efficacy.

This episode will be a blip in my son’s life—thankfully forgotten with so many other tween hardships. But, as a parent, it was a reminder to me about the ways in which we teach our children so that they may become successful adults.

Resilience cannot be given. Resilience is the part of us that we know exists even when everything else falls away. It helps us discern meaning from the wreckage. We earn resilience. It does not take the form of so many trophies that litter the world of kids today.

One of my first Leading Edge columns was about my childhood. I wrote with nostalgia about how my generation (X) grew up, largely unsupervised, in the “wilds” of suburbia. We left in the morning and played into the night. We explored the woods; we figured things out. We made our own fun with what we had. No one had money. We changed the channel on the black and white TV with a pair of pliers.

In my last Leading Edge column, I find myself essentially writing a bookend for you. Reflecting on two different childhoods, separated by more than a generation, and wondering if the fiscal and emotional price tag of today’s learning is extravagant (meaning excessive) in its cost with dubious results. My musing could be simply the habit of generational succession: The Baby Boomers surely lament my Generation X, as the Greatest Generation, likewise critiqued the Boomers. However, I think my reflection goes deeper than this. The imperative of a generation is the making of the next, and the primacy of its task is to teach those children well.

But, enough of this lamentation—I’m off to teach my son to mow the lawn.

Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is the Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and an Associate Professor of Law at the Vermont Law School. The views expressed in this column are solely the author’s own.