Intervening on Behalf of a Child in a
We were the only gringos on the bus. Ever since we'd pulled out of Rincon de Guayabitos early in the morning, Larry and I had been in deep conversation, barely heeding our fellow passengers. Traditional Mexican music from the driver's boom box became background noise that mingled with the drone of the engine as the miles sped on. There were stops along the way, when vendors came on board, interrupting our discussion with their calls of "Coka", "fruta fresca", "pina", hawking their wares of refreshments and newspapers for the weary traveler.
A mother with identical twins sat directly in front of us. She held one boy on her lap, while the other sat in the window seat, mostly looking at the passing scenes. It soon became apparent that her relatives were situated in single, nearby seats, judging from the contact that flowed between grandmother, grandfather, and the boy on the mother's lap. Occasionally someone stopped briefly in the aisle by her side, leaned down and to speak in quiet tones, before moving back to sit down again.
All this activity was on the periphery of our concentration until I noticed how sharply the mother reprimanded the twin who sat directly in front of me by the window. She spoke harshly and rapidly to him several times, seemingly without provocation. Although I knew some Spanish, I was too preoccupied to stop my conversation with Larry to determine what she was saying. The boy, on the other hand, seemed to be behaving like any four or five-year-old might. A little fidgety, perhaps, but we were in for a long ride to Guadalajara and it seemed normal for a child to squirm in his seat. I did notice the difference in her voice as she conversed with the boy seated on her lap. Soothing tones and a soft song were accompanied by patting him in a loving manner, as I could see between the seats.
We remarked on her distinctly different tonality as she addressed the two boys: one gently, the other, sharply. I was curious about her divergent treatment with identical twins, while Larry, a university speech professor, was attuned to voice variations. As the miles droned on, the vendor stops became fewer and we rested.
Both of us were startled out of personal reverie when we heard the child by the window cry out. The mother had grasped him by the nape of his neck, and was ramming his head against the seat in front of him. Her action was accompanied by strident directives. It took a moment for what was happening to register with us. But only a moment.
"NO MAS" ("No more!") cried Larry as he leapt from his seat and grabbed her chastising arm. "No mas!" he blurted again, standing over her, looking down. In response, she pulled her arm from his grip and said in perfect English: "I can treat my son however I want. This is none of your business".
"Oh, yes it is!", Larry shot back, moving around in front of her to make eye contact. "Any time a child is being abused, it's my business. I won't allow you to do that!" Perhaps because he was standing over her, she shrank from him then. She began busying herself with helping the boy she'd just battered settle into his seat.
It was all over in an instant. I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest. Larry quickly took his seat next to me, giving off waves of anger. In the bus the atmosphere felt charged but silent. No one turned to look at us. The whine of the tires on the highway was suddenly deafening; the music had stopped.
I knew a moment of fear as I wondered what might happen to us (for I knew I was a distinct part of this scenario). We were vastly outnumbered in a foreign country where methods of discipline were unknown to us. In a flash I marveled at the effrontery we exhibited, Larry daring to confront a mother whom we both understood to be a matriarch, certainly in charge of her family.
But nothing happened. Soon the sound of the droning wheels became hypnotic. The music began again. Here and there we heard pieces of conversations. Used to processing whatever occurred to us, Larry and I were soon analyzing the whole incident. We both were fierce advocates for children's rights. We supported each other in the intervention of abuse when we encountered it in public. We had both recognized for some time that after an intervention there was often shock, disbelief, and humiliation. But we also agreed on the principle that the drama of the intervention had the capacity to change people's beliefs, indeed, perhaps their lives.
After a few minutes the boy on the mother's lap slid down and went to a seat near the back of the bus. The mother took the other twin onto her lap and began to talk softly to him. I peeked through the slit in the seats and watched him rest his head on her breast. She seemed to be loving him.
It was dusk as the bus pulled into the Guadalajara bus terminal. Along with the
other passengers, we stood to begin gathering our personal effects. Then Larry
motioned me to sit down. "We're in no hurry," Larry said. "Let's wait
this out." As we did the woman who had appeared to be the grandmother came up the
aisle leading the boy who had gone back to sit with her. She stopped beside us, put
her hand on Larry's shoulder, and smiled, then moved on. We looked at each other,
acknowledging an unforgettable moment, a remarkable bus ride.
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Mary Maurer Lansing is a licensed marriage and family counselor practicing in Portland, Oregon.