Suzanne Tobias

September 1, 2011

Who will speak up against bad behavior?

It was just another morning in the carpool lane, and I was waiting to ease my car around the carefully choreographed circle to unload my kids and a friend who rides with us.

It was just another morning in the carpool lane, and I was waiting to ease my car around the carefully choreographed circle to unload my kids and a friend who rides with us.

A van in front of us stopped. Three kids got out. One shifted her backpack. Another adjusted her ID lanyard.

The third, a boy, threw a half-full can of pop to the ground, watched it splash and gurgle on the pavement, and started to walk away.

And here was the dilemma I face whenever I witness questionable behavior that involves someone else's child:

Say something? Or mutter and move on?

My daughter, sitting in the passenger's seat, saw the infraction and knew what I was thinking. She looked at the pop can, looked at the boy, looked at me.

"Wh-what?" I said. "Did you see that?"

Hannah nodded.

"He just... Did he just..." I sputtered. "Did he just throw that can on the ground?!"

More nods and a little gasp. I wondered if the kids were, like me, shocked by the brazen littering, or, like they have been during so many past episodes, worried about what I'd do next.

I tapped my car horn. The boy turned around. I motioned toward the pop can, then opened my hands and tilted my head.

This is universal sign language for, "C'mon now, buddy! What are you doing? Surely you realize the world isn't your trash can and that someone is going to have to pick that thing up and put it in a trash can or recycling bin. I mean, seriously?"

Just in case the young stranger didn't know sign language, I pointed once more at the can, looked at him and mouthed, as nicely as possible, "Pick it up, please."

He did, looking more annoyed than embarrassed, and my children groaned. There goes Mom again.

Sorry, but I'm not sorry.

If somebody litters right in front of me, or hits someone, or cuts in a line, or darts in front of traffic, or behaves rudely or illegally, I speak up.

Not because I or my children are perfect, because we're not. But to summon an oft-quoted and seldom-heeded adage: It takes a village.

Last winter after a heavy snowstorm, I was waiting in another carpool line (I spend a lot of time in my car) and saw two boys climb onto a mountain of snow that crews had pushed to a corner of a busy intersection. The boys wobbled precariously atop the snowbank, inches from traffic, and started throwing chunks of ice at oncoming cars.

A motorist parked beside the boys said nothing. Neither did a man parked behind her. I waited a minute, then got out of my car, walked over and shouted up at the boys.

"You guys need to come down off of there!" I said, and they stared blankly at me. "That is extremely dangerous, and you could get hurt."

They grumbled something and slid down. As I returned to my car, a woman parked nearby said, "I'm so glad you said something."

I smiled and nodded, but wondered: Why didn't you?

Have we grown so wary of casting aspersions, tempting litigation, inciting road rage or speaking out of turn that we hesitate to speak up at all? Are we worried about what the kids might think? What their parents might do?

Perhaps no one wants to risk being the grumpy grownup, Clint Eastwood's character in "Gran Torino," who squints and snarls, "Get off my lawn!" Ask people to quiet down in a movie theater, no matter how polite the request, and you're suddenly the crabby librarian hissing, "Shhhhhh!"

It's unfortunate. Because if one of my kids threw trash on the ground, acted rudely or cheated death on a snowbank, I'd want someone to say something. It could be a teacher, principal, coach or lifeguard. But if such authorities aren't around, it should be a neighbor, friend or responsible adult.

We're all in this village together.

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