Guarding against poison

Commuter trains in the Czech Republic are strange, almost surreal places. They are often packed so tightly that you are touching several other human beings and breathing their breath even if you are all trying not to.

And yet these trains are often utterly silent.

In some places where I've ridden trains, subways or buses--for instance in New York, the US west coast or Western Europe, not to mention the global south--commuter vehicles are noisy, crowded and full of local culture, often featuring someone making impromptu music.

But in the Czech culture, there is a social contract that holds silence and pretend privacy as the highest virtues.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

That was why the man sitting across from me yesterday sounded so loud. He was speaking into his phone, his voice pitched a little low but not nearly low enough. All around us everyone else was painfully silent. And this man's voice was audible throughout the train car.

"I told you, I turned it off... What you think you know is irrelevant. I know I turned it off... Well, listen to me. There are stupid people, as you well know. I am an intelligent person. I turned it off.... If you cannot accept reality, you are just what you are... I told you, I turned it off. I don't care. It's there on the counter. I turned it off. Maybe you turned it on in your sleep. I know what I know."

It wasn't so much his words, going on and, on mile after mile, that had me gagging on rising vomit. It was his sickeningly condescending tone. Superiority and contempt dripped from his every word.

I couldn't help imagining who he might be speaking to. Maybe a child or an elderly, senile parent... but most likely his wife or female partner, given the context.

The more I was forced to listen, the more I didn't give a flying rat's ass who he was talking to, how difficult they might be or what was the truth of his history with the device on the counter.

I couldn't hear the person on the other end of his line, not even a peep, despite sitting just a few feet from him. But shrieking would have been a reasonable response to his tone, in my view.

Am I oversensitive? Possibly.

I have known contempt. I am intimate with it. It is the natural child of delusions of superiority. I would wager that every person born with a significant disability has met contempt as well as its somewhat prettier but no less poisonous little sister, condescension.

Their existence is often hard to prove in a digital world. Reading the words of this man on the train, you may wonder why I was upset. Ninety percent of it was in the tone.

It often is that way. The person who wields contempt or condescension must maintain--at least for themselves--the illusion that they are superior, in-control and beyond reproach.

Last week, someone criticizing me for firmly insisting that my child not play in the water until she had changed out of her clothes and into her swimming suit used that tone on me. Parents of children with neuro-diversity are often judged by those who see the difficulties those children have and assume it\s all about bad parenting. Far too many people jump immediately to feelings of superiority.

A police officer patrolling a climate-crisis protest I was involved in used that tone on me just yesterday because he was convinced that I was holding a white cane as a media stunt and only pretending to be visually impaired. When people leap to conclusions about another, they are often wrong.

Haven't I ever felt contempt myself? Yes, to my regret. There is a fine line between disgust and contempt. Disgust arises when a we encounter something utterly abhorrent.

The man's tone on the train filled me with disgust, but not with contempt. I heard his abusive words and suppressed anger. I knew he wasn't doing well. I felt sorry for the person he was speaking to, but I also was well aware that I am not on a different level from him. I have to remind myself of that, which is why I know I am not "above" such negative thinking.

Contempt is disgust with the added punch of a belief in one's own inherent superiority. I didn't feel contempt that time on the train, but I think I have at times slipped down that slimy slope a little and had to pull myself back through shame and remorse.

The fact is that no one is superior to another in that way. It isn't easy to keep that belief firm in today's world in which so much is horrible. But the knowledge that I might be wrong in my perception, that I don't really know the experiences of others, keeps me back from contempt now.

I swallowed back bile on the train and spoke firmly and calmly to the man across from me. "Sir, I don't care who you're talking to or what they may have done. That tone you are using is inappropriate and abusive. I have to ask you to stop because that tone is poisoning the air for everyone here."

He glared at me for a second as if ready to argue or fight. Silence reigned all around us. The other passengers turned their faces a fraction more away from him. Finally he hung up his phone without any further comment, got up and left.

This is why I don't want to perpetuate contempt, no matter how disgusted, outraged and furious I may be at the injustice, greed and cruelty practiced by some human beings.

Simply put, contempt is poison. It poisons the one spoken to, the one speaking and all who hear or read it. It is the poison that has made social media toxic and broken our public discourse. Open display of contempt is the thing that most sets Donald Trump apart from very bad presidents of the past such as George W. Bush.

Contempt comes from a belief that one is inherently superior to another, who is irredeemable regardless of future actions. So, this is the first thing we must guard against, like the key component to a lethal poison.

It wouldn't even matter if true superiority and inferiority existed in humanity. The poison such assumptions create is too toxic, like hot nuclear waste. It cannot be born.

Superiority and contempt destroy families, communities and nations. "A little innocent superiority complex" is actually the diametric opposite of trust and goodwill.

Let us then set our hearts to a conviction of basic respect for others. This doesn't mean I don't tell that man on the train that his tone is poisonous. It means that I nurture the hope that he might question his assumption of superiority. Many people don't change. But everyone could change.

Make a scene: From bystander to assertive witness

At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.

I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street. 

I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.

"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device. 

To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.

I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks. 

"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened. 

I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."

"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.

"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"

"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.

I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.

For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.

The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?

In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.

But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.

I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.

I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.

When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family. 

These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.

There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.

I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened. 

I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not. 

Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night. 

It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.

I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.

Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)

Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.

A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying. 

I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.

My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.

We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding.  I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.

What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.

Do we still need feminism?

It took me a very long time to say "me too." on Facebook.

I have to explain this because many of my readers are old-school email junkies and don't frequent Facebook or Twitter much. So in case you were doing valuable non-screen-related things this week, this will get you up to speed. There is currently a movement on social media where women, and some men, post "me too," as their status if they are a survivor of sexual assault or harassment. 

It's a good idea. It comes as a response to revelations of celebrity rape and sexual harassment in the past few weeks, and it is meant to show that these are far from isolated incidents. Many, many women experience sexual harassment on a regular basis and far too many have been subjected to rape or assault. 

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Why didn't I quickly jump on the bandwagon then? 

First, I'm always skeptical of these social media campaigns, where you must change your profile picture to this or that or else be branded as a supporter of terrorism or some such. I decided long ago not to participate in those campaigns. It takes several minutes for me to change my profile picture, and being a working class mother of very demanding kids, I can't always guarantee that I'll be able to be on-line long enough to discover and abide by all such trends. I don't want my lack of response to some particular campaign to be taken as a statement. I also know many people with limited internet access for whom keeping up with these things is entirely impossible. If I refrain from all of them, we are all less likely to be blamed and labeled for neglecting one.

But posting "me too" is much easier and less permanent. It also isn't showing support for something but demonstrating a statistic in real-time. So, after some thought, I decided that this is a different situation.

But still I was hesitant. Most of the sexual harassment I've experienced is so mundane that it barely merits a mention and if one hundred percent of all women haven't experienced the same, it is only due to specific and fairly isolated social surroundings. I have been called fat in several inappropriate situations or had the same implied among professional colleagues. it has been many years since random men blocked my path and tried to force me into sexual conversation or made catcalls at me, which apparently means that I am no longer attractive. Either being catcalled or not is a sexual/social signal in a society where a woman's appearance and sexual allure is considered to be a large part of her worth.

I have been asked to clean up the kitchenette in an office where everyone else was a man and been GLAD to have a role because I felt otherwise left out, even though I had a specific professional job to do that had nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes I don't know what is worse--that men buy into this culture that demeans women or that we do ourselves. 

And that made me hesitate to post "me too" because I do know that so many other women have suffered so much more and I have not been exactly exemplary in my resistance to the male dominated culture. Mostly I have been glad to stand on my mother's and grandmothers' shoulders and accept those benefits of feminism that my generation was lucky enough to inherit without doing much to free my own mind from the treadmill. 

And then there is the fact that I did face actual sexual assault twice and managed to escape, using specific techniques from self-defense classes. This made me perhaps most uncomfortable posting "me too." I did not want to imply by telling my story that women who did not have the good fortune to have the training or who did have the training and either couldn't fight back or simply failed to overpower an attacker are somehow to blame. There is far too much of that blame-the-victim going around as it is. 

I do want women and girls to know that self-defense training can work though. Let's just be clear. I was mostly just lucky.

In one case, I was at a large outdoor festival at night. I was sixteen and had never been on a real date. A man at the party treated me nicely and acted like he wanted to be my friend. I was attracted to him and excited by the prospect of a romantic involvement. But then he very quickly pulled me away from others into a dark field. He squeezed my breast and kissed me forcefully. I tried to back away but he gripped harder. I said "no" and he ignored me.

I had grown up in a culture that said that if I was attracted to him and initially went with him someplace, that I had given my consent. The fact that I was sixteen and quickly decided that the pace of things had gone way beyond what I wanted was irrelevant. Not only my friends, the media and society in general would have judged me to be an impulsive girl who got what she deserved, I thought so too.

I told myself, "That was really stupid. No one would or should help you." As a result, it didn't actually occur to me to scream for help. But I had recently had one of those one-day crash courses in self-defense that parents sometimes put their teenage daughters in, and one of the techniques we practiced was startling an attacker by yelling right next to his ear. I did not want to continue with the encounter and "no" wasn't working. So, I leaned in a bit, got right next to his ear and let loose a wild yell, that went unnoticed by the partiers all around. I have quite a loud voice and it no doubt hurt. His grip loosened and I ran, easily evading him once I reached a more crowded area. 

That night I crawled into my sleeping bag in a pup tent on the edge of the festival, still shivering and alone. As I was settling down one of the older teenage boys I had traveled to the festival with brushed his fingers along my tent and said out loud, "Such a shame. A pretty girl going to sleep alone." His friends laughed and they walked away, not knowing that I had just had to use a self-defense technique to escape a non-consensual encounter. And yet as I lay there I knew those guys weren't dangerous and that they meant the comment in fun. I was even somewhat glad they would call me a pretty girl, even in jest. I had been heavily ostracized and bullied at school for having a disability and being called "pretty" was a strong lure. 

Three years later, I had gained and lost my first serious boyfriend, had lack-luster sex and was started on a life of feeling uncomfortable about--and generally disinterested in--sexuality. I was still occasionally called pretty, but even at 19 that was fading. My first boyfriend and others had called me "fat" many times, though I was actually well within the most limited version of the "healthy" range and I'd love to be that physically fit again. Still I took them at their word. I never felt happy with my looks. I just wasn't that interested. I had more important things to do and I spent my time writing, studying at college and wriggling my way into as many foreign exchange programs as possible. 

One of these was in Siberia. My second brush with sexual assault occurred on that trip. I was studying in a mid-sized city in Siberia called Kurgan. This was 1995 and it was a lawless period. The streets were largely unlit and there were many abandoned buildings and open sewer holes. Organized crime ruled and gangs roamed the streets. Night also fell extremely early, because we were so far north. One evening, I was returning to the place I was staying around ten pm from a small party. Mostly people did not go out alone at night, but I was never particularly popular in social settings and I had not managed to form any close friendships during my stay. I either stayed in my room alone or I walked alone. Those were my choices. Being an adventurous risk-taker who loved learning about other cultures, I just did what I had to. 

So just as with my previous encounter, there are a great many people who might say I deserved to be assaulted. I was after all taking extreme risks. This was not a safe place and I knew it. But that is part of the problem that we are trying to address with the "me too" campaign. Neither iinitial interest nor risk-taking is a justification for assault.

I was walking under one of the few streetlights in town when a man came at me fast from the side. He stepped up and took my arm in a way that could have seemed friendly except that he gripped quite hard. He asked me in a falsely friendly tone how I was doing and where I was going. He told me I shouldn't be out alone at night. He then started to talk to me in a sexual manner that was apparently supposed to entice me. 

I was a naive risk-taker but still smart enough to know this was a very dangerous situation. There was no help anywhere nearby and I knew I couldn't best this larger man in a direct physical confrontation. So instead I used another technique learned in self-defense classes. I pretended (this time entirely falsely) to be interested in him. I joked and laughed and told him I was meeting my friends and my brother. I kept him talking for two blocks, until I was near enough to the building where I lived. The doorways of the apartment blocks were entirely dark as was most of the street. At that time desperate people stole everything, including any unguarded light bulb. Finally, the man's grip relaxed a little as he became more confident of my cooperation. Then I called out cheerfully as if greeting my brother in a dark doorway. His grip loosened further and I judged the second, kicked him hard and ran. Being visually impaired helped in this case. The stairwell I bolted up was pitch black and I could hear him stumbling around as he tried to catch me but I knew every crack in the uneven concrete steps and I reached a door I could lock behind me by memory and by feel. 

I was taught to be prey. Many men are taught that women will flee and the only way they can catch one is by force. I was simply taught to be smart prey, but even so the assumption I held and the assumption of my self-defense instructors was that I would be prey. 

This is why, even though I escaped, even though I am far luckier than many women, I want to support the "me too" campaign. We should not be prey. Sexuality should not be about fear and force and conquest. Being a woman should not be considered grounds for any particular assumptions. 

This is one reason why we still need feminism today. 

We needed it before we had a president who openly declares that a woman's worth is primarily in her sexual attractiveness and appearance. And we certainly need it now that we have such a president. A few months ago The Daily Beast reported that Republican Rep. Robert Fisher (R-NH) wrote under the username FredFredrickson,  “I’m going to say it—Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”

This kind of attitude still exists today, even in places of power. Rape culture has not been successfully relegated to some small criminal element. Both women and men need to be on guard against it. Both women and men can be legitimate feminists. 

My generation has perhaps been living partly off of the achievements of past generations of women and there are so many other terrible problems in the world to fight against. It is hard to focus on the small, mundane assumptions or the hideous comments of politicians. The "me too" campaign shows how alive and well the scourge of assault and harassment is.

We still need feminism and we still need self-defense classes for our daughters.

Forging one's on solace

Almost nothing can be seen from my windows this morning. A few bits of trees poke out of the dense fog but everything else is shrouded in thick white. The air smells like wet compost and leaf mold. 

The contrast with the warm light of my fire and the dry, snugness of my little house is delicious. I tell my husband and children how fog was something so magical and exciting to me as a child, growing up in parched Eastern Oregon. Whenever we went on trips near the coast and drove into fog, I would shout, "We're in a cloud! We're in a cloud!"

My children are confused. I try to explain that fog is pretty much a cloud on the ground, but they insist that clouds are things with borders, skin and substance that you see up in the sky--not just white air.

My husband simply laughs at the idea of fog being exceptional in any way. He grew up in a marsh. 

I'll admit that fog has lost some of its magic for me. I am getting tired of the damp after eighteen years in this climate. I often long for the clean dryness of the high desert. Even after all these years, it hasn't left me.

Creative Commons image by Joshua Ezzell

Creative Commons image by Joshua Ezzell

But this particular morning I rejoice in the mist.

This week I had to draw the line in an unhealthy and manipulative relationship. Doing it required not just setting boundaries with one person, but choosing seclusion from a community--in fact a community that ties me to that high desert I love so deeply. 

I've spent so much of my life seeking community and struggling for inclusion that the act of choosing seclusion is boggling and yet on some level it is cathartic. The knowledge that you have a choice in every situation, even if that choice means exiting and taking the losses, is a bit of empowerment. 

I spent much longer at my morning meditation this morning than I usually do. Yesterday I missed it for the first time in many months, due to the pressures of rocky health and children.

And today I could not get settled. I felt a knot of anxiety and grief still in my gut and there was one distraction after another - the new-kindled fire threatening to go out (fog does actually make it harder to start a fire), the cat acting like it was going to vomit on my couch and so forth and so on. Even if you turn off your phone, sometimes the world just won't leave you alone. 

My meditation is a moderately active one. I don't sit and say "Om," though I know people who that works beautifully for. My mind chatter needs to be quieted, so I use recitation of poetry as well as simple ritual, candles and turning off all electric devices. Still I could not get settled, so I just did it anyway.

Of course, merely going through the motions is not really good spiritual practice, but "fake it til you make it," has its merits.

Finally I did make it, but not until I'd been at it for an hour (and I brought out the heavy artillery in the form of Tarot cards). Some days I don't have that much time. And today it was a near thing. 

But finally peace of mind came.

The fog closed around me and held me by my warm fire. The danger is at bay, somewhere beyond. I have forged my own solace--a chance for healing. And I do not need to struggle for now.

I know that when I step out again, I may have to face it all over. And soon I'll have to clean the school room and prepare for classes this afternoon.

But for now I have made solace by effort and design. This is woman-made peace without the use of mind altering substances or denial of harsh realities.

It's there somewhere. It can be forged.

Flight attendants can prevent children from being sold into slavery, especially at Superbowl time

The agent at the airport check-in desk was taking an awfully long time to input the information from my children's passports. Her hands moved slowly and clumsily. I sighed as patiently as I could.

Photo courtesy of Julie Farnam

Photo courtesy of Julie Farnam

Then I heard someone stop to talk to my two children, who were waiting behind me with their miniature roll-on suitcases. Being a watchful mother, I turned around to check it out. A woman in an airline uniform was asking my five-year-old son where he was traveling to. I thought her manner was a little too officious for talking to young children, but I wasn't really worried. She wasn't offering them candy or trying to lure them away. 

My son mumbled something but she gently insisted that he answer her while studiously ignoring me. And finally a light bulb went on in my tired brain. 

So, that was why the check-in agent was so slow. We'd been flagged.

My kids are trans-racially adopted and they have my husband's last name, which is different form mine. Of course, we tripped an alarm somewhere. I watched with interest. How well would my kids pass the "I'm not being sold as a sex-slave" test?  I was secure in the knowledge that I had birth certificates and adoption records stashed in my own carry-on just in case.  

My son finally managed to articulate clearly that we were going home to Papa and we had been at grandma's house. The uniformed lady moved on, the check-in agent was suddenly done and we were free to go. 

It might seem disconcerting to some parents to have their children questioned right in front of them in such a manner, but I was actually glad to see it happening. My kids could stand some practice in overcoming shyness when I'm standing right next to them.

Finally! A children's story that actually prevents harm to children! Shanna and the Raven teaches children how to use their intuition to avoid dangerous situations.

Finally! A children's story that actually prevents harm to children! Shanna and the Raven teaches children how to use their intuition to avoid dangerous situations.

But more than that, I know what's happening. As a journalist some years ago, I interviewed a few victims of human trafficking who had been able to escape a life of terror and slavery. If my kids can help stop such things by answering a few questions, all the better.

As it turns out, there was another reason for this special check. And that was our timing. Apparently the days and weeks before the Superbowl are the prime period for human trafficking in the United States and many of the victims are young children sold (and often resold several times a day) as sex slaves. The connotations of why this timing is so crucial are a bit too disturbing to dwell on in great detail but the fact is that airlines are on high alert looking for passengers who may actually be slaves being transported for sale at this time. 

While an adult traveling with children who don't match in terms of family name or physical appearance may seem like the most obvious way to tell, it isn't actually the best test. Flight attendants have a special set of criteria that can't be forged or falsified. Even other passengers may be able to notice the signs of human trafficking.

Here's what they look for:

  1. A passenger who can't or isn't permitted to speak for themselves,
  2. Someone controlling what another person says,
  3. a child who avoids eye contact,
  4. a passenger who is fearful, nervous, depressed, submissive,
  5. inappropriately dressed young passengers with few possessions on a long flight,
  6. a passenger who is constantly accompanied by someone who controls their every move, such as when going to the restroom.

One of the most common ways women and children being sold as sex slaves are discovered and helped is actually in flight. Flight attendants have a lot longer to observe the interactions than most other people a slave might encounter and trafficking rings often have to use commercial airlines. So, it is often actually up in the air where a flight attendant notices something is wrong, rather than during check-in.

Still, that was one reason I let my children speak for themselves. The bottom line is don't panic if uniformed personnel at an airport question your children. Do tell children where they are going when they're on a trip. It relieves anxiety for children in general (and you'd be surprised at how often we adults forget to tell children even the most basic things about plans that affect them). It also saves time and hassle if they are questioned. 

If you travel with children who don't share your last name or who differ from you in physical appearance or if you travel without both parents present, you may want to take the extra precautions I take and carry birth certificates and other documentation of the children's identity and reason for travel.