This poem, by Shel Silverstein, always made me sad. When I was a little girl, I had an audiocassette of him reciting it, and his warm, avuncular voice is the one I hear in my head when I read it.
The Little Boy and the Old Man
by Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)
Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the little old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
It’s hard not to feel heard. Little children sense that they’re being ignored even if they can’t express it well. They may do other things to get the attention of grown-ups: break something, have a tantrum, or find other ways to force that grown-up to take notice. Old men may quietly do what they want, or give up entirely, but they have an understanding of who they were when they were young men — that they ignored their elders, that they paid less attention than they wished they had, and the empathy they have might lessen that feeling of sadness. These are expected responses.
But what about women?
- When I was eighteen, home from my first semester of college, the father of a little boy I’d babysat — good friend of my father’s, member of my synagogue — came to stand behind me at the table in his dining room where our families had gathered for lunch. He put his hands on my shoulders, leaned down, and whispered wetly in my ear, “College has done gooooood things for you.” Then he kissed me on the neck, and flicked his tongue against my ear as he stood up.I told my parents, and they called him a pig, but they kept seeing him and his wife socially. I had his attention, and no one else was as interested in what he’d done as I was.
- At a job interview, once, my future boss looked at me starting from the bottom, from my calves raised up tight in heels to my above-the- knee skirt, past my loose-fitting suit coat and finally to my face. “That’s a great suit,” he said, grinning, holding my clean white resume in his hand. I had his attention. My legs had his attention, anyway.Was that better? Was attention from my legs enough? I got the job, but I was the same age as his daughter, and we worked alone in an empty loft office for over a year, and I always felt a little exposed. When he brought in cubicle walls, I felt my shoulders drop a little.
- In a meeting with another boss and our client, I began to explain that the project the client was proposing wasn’t possible on the timeline he suggested. As I started to speak, my boss put his hand on my forearm, looked me in the eye, and held his other palm flat out in front of my chest, a crossing-guard move. “Hang on, Debi,” he said, and told the client we would do exactly what he wanted.I told my male coworkers what had happened, and they hooted. “He gave you the Heisman!” they shouted, and brought out a small plastic football trophy shaped like our boss’ posturing earlier that day, complete with a coworker’s name they’d stuck to it when our boss had done this in meetings past. They added my name to the paper.I asked, “did he put his hand on your arm to stop you when he did this to you?” They admitted that he hadn’t. Apparently, the men didn’t need to be physically restrained from speaking.
- A man at a party gawked at my teenaged daughter and told me she had a lot to look forward to in life, openly staring at her curvy figure.”That’s my DAUGHTER,” I said to him, though he already knew.He apologized later, but now I have to stand between them every time we’re in the same room, guarding her body with mine.
- An excerpt from my book-in-progress:[As a newborn] Sammi breathed upward of sixty times a minute. Aside from the speed, I noted that her breathing was also quite noisy. It was as though she was saying a throaty “chhhhhhchhhhchhhh” in and out, in and out. It didn’t seem to upset her, but I couldn’t remember Ronni ever having done that. One day I took her in to see her doctor, the 60-something male pediatrician who had been Ronni’s doctor too.“Rapid breathing of the newborn,” he said, rubbing antibacterial gel into his hands at the door of the examining room.“Is that something I need to worry about?” I asked.
“Nah, she’ll outgrow it. See how pink she is? Look, Mom: she’s fine.” He waved me off, charged me $70 for the visit, and we were done.
Weeks later, we found ourselves in the office of a pediatric otolaryngologist, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor who diagnosed Sammi’s rapid wet breathing as a combination of laryngomalacia (extraneous and floppy tissue in her larynx) and acid reflux, which had turned her throat bright red. In the ensuing years, this otolaryngologist would be the only male doctor to ever learn my name. The pediatrician would fail to notice when my family left his practice rolls for one of his partners, a woman who always looked me in the eye.
- Last year, I talked logistics with the parents of a boy who had been tormenting my daughter for almost four years. He had worked to socially engineer her friends away from her, stolen and thrown away food from her lunchbox, started rumors about her being a racist, and tried to convince other students to participate in taking equipment away from her during gym class. His parents and I spoke briefly about a way to avoid invitations to each other’s parties despite the class rule of 100% inclusion. The conversation was uncomfortable.Finally, the dad told me, with a laugh, “This will all be over when they eventually kiss.”Even his wife shot daggers at him with her eyes.
What kind of attention do women want? Do we want to be on a witness stand in front of the nation, sharing the traumas of our youth? Is this the attention we seek from grown-ups? Do we want to write a blog post about how even now, a generation later, our daughters are wishing for the right kind of attention from grown-ups? Do we want to display our unimportance to important people on the internet; to admit that our bodies are both too valuable and not valuable, not entirely our own; to admit that when we needed to be taken seriously, people winked and ignored and insisted we were wrong?
That’s not what we want, and these stories are boring and no different from the stories of rooms full of women: football fields not full enough of women, board rooms not full enough of women, hospitals full of and also not full enough of women, courtrooms not full enough of women, legislative chambers not full enough of women.
I feel the warmth of a wrinkled old hand. I know what you mean, little old man.