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The shy kid who stands up to protect a mom who seems different

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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods: I worry that I am conditioning my son to be more concerned with my feelings than a child should be.
Courtesy Haddayr Copley-Woods

Haddayr Copley-Woods is communications director for a Minnesota nonprofit and a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.

My youngest son is shy. Painfully, agonizingly shy. Picture Day is a torment to him; raising his hand in class an impossibility. I once suggested he take a too-hot drink from the coffee shop out into the subzero temperatures to cool it off and rather than walk past all of those strange people's eyes to the door, he stubbornly scalded his tongue.

And this poor kid wound up with a mom who attracts stares everywhere we go.

I realized my son was noticing this the summer before he started kindergarten.

I sometimes do this thing I call the David Byrne — based on his trademark dance move in the "Once in a Lifetime" video: with no warning, I jerk my head backward with enough violence that the rest of me follows suit, staggering backward like a recoil. 

We were at a museum, which is often the perfect recipe for this symptom; I was tired, overwhelmed and surrounded by jostling people when I started to do the David Byrne like crazy.

I felt a chubby little hand steal into mine, pushing the crutch grip out of its way to grasp my fingers tightly, protectively.

I looked down and saw my 5-year-old boy glaring malevolently at a little girl of about 3 or 4 who was staring up at the twitching, flailing woman next to her, openmouthed. 

Usually, when kids are staring, I stop and talk to them if they aren't too frightened. They have urgent questions about why a grown woman is behaving so strangely, or why she's in a stroller, or why she uses those sticks to walk. If their squirming, agonized parents will let them, I happily answer their questions to help them understand and feel less fearful of disabled people.

This time, I ignored the little girl and knelt down eye-to-eye with my son.

"Are you upset that girl is staring at me?" I asked him.

He glared at her some more, holding my entire arm in a painfully tight grip.

"It is rude to stare," he said.

She ran off like a jackrabbit.

I explained to him that very young children who have never seen anything like me cannot help it; it is only rude when adults stare. Nearby, several adults jumped guiltily and moved to other sections of the museum.

My boy was shaking. Furious. Tears in his lashes. A 5-year-old, feeling protective of his middle-aged mom.

Three years later, on an airplane trip, I am moving far more slowly than usual and doing the David Byrne like crazy. I'm sure people are staring.

"Who am I?" my son asks loudly as he comes through security. "Who am I?"

He leans painfully on invisible crutches, jerking his head back at irregular intervals, his curly hair flying in all directions. 

I start to laugh. 

"I'll race you!" he cries, and begins to run in slow motion, fighting desperately against unseen forces that slow him down as his head continues to yank backward.

Twitching and jerking, stumbling on real and imaginary crutches, the two of us make our way to the gate, roaring with laughter.

I can hear, in our wake, the somewhat shocked and helpless giggles from the people who had been staring in pity. I can feel them smiling at us.

He has completely turned the tables. I am in awe of him. 

I have no idea how much it costs him, this extremely public display he uses to protect me as he did years before with his protective little hand and death glare — how much it costs him as an introvert, or how much it costs him as a kid.

I worry that I am conditioning him to be more concerned with my feelings than a child should be. I worry that his clowning whenever he feels uncomfortable might make trouble for him later in school.

But mainly I take it for what it is: a tremendous, creative, beautiful gift from my son. He says to the world, You wanna stare? Fine. But you'll be staring on my terms.

And they are his terms. And somehow, even as I worry, it feels right.