I'm not sure if the girl spoke English, or if she spoke at all yet. But she didn't move, and just kept on grinning and giggling as she shook up that soda. There was some buzz-- where was this girl's mother? A worker from the layaway desk called out, "She's in the Misses department. Since she walked in, she's just let her daughter walk around the store alone."
After another minute or two, one of the workers tracked down the girl's mother. "You have to watch her," the woman said. "She's just running around the whole store. You can't let her do that."
When it came my turn at the returns desk, I appropriately harrumphed and told the cashier how much it bothered me to see neglectful parenting like that. "You'd be amazed," the cashier told me. "We see it here all the time."
Armed with $7.10 in store credit, Sarina and I headed straight for the book aisle, of course. We took our time trying to select just the right thing-- a Disney compilation? A lift-the-flap book? I was halfway through reading her Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late (very cute, by the way) when the little girl appeared next to us. She wanted to hear the story, too. There were just two problems: (a) she was unsupervised again, and (b) she had a big foam rocket in her mouth. I have no idea where this rocket came from, but I assume she didn't bring it in herself.
"Uh-oh," I told her in my cartoony mom-voice. "That doesn't belong in your mouth."
Sarina backed me up. "You're not allowed to chew on that."
But the girl just giggled and smiled at us. I made some silly faces at her, and she laughed hard enough that the rocket fell out of her mouth. She picked it up off the floor and started to put it right back in her mouth, but when I made a move to take it, she instead tossed it into my cart and laughed some more.
"Where is your mommy?" I asked her.
She didn't answer me. She wanted to play. I looked around and didn't see anyone nearby who looked like a potential mother for this girl.
I should have surrendered to her adorableness, but at that moment, I just felt annoyance. Why was I babysitting? I summoned a nearby worker and explained the situation-- that this was the same girl whose mother had already been warned 20 minutes earlier. The worker assured me she'd take care of it, and as we took off for the children's clothing department, I heard the little girl worriedly cry out, "Mommy?"
I told Sarina that it was too bad that the little girl had a mommy who didn't take good care of her.
"But she has nice hair," Sarina said. I got a kick out of that. The girl's hair was dark brown and curly, pulled into a ponytail with tendrils falling out. Her clothes didn't match.
Sarina and I spent about 10 minutes debating which dress looked most like Sleeping Beauty's, and which color tutu was the prettiest, before making our final selections and heading to the register. Just as we got on line, I saw the worker and the little girl making their way up the middle aisle to meet up with the girl's mother, who had been checking out.
Yes, the girl's mother did all of her shopping, stood on a long line, and paid for her items without ever checking on her little girl's whereabouts.
"Mommy!" the girl called. The mother signaled for the girl to follow her out. I couldn't make out what she said, but whatever it was, the girl turned and started to walk in the other direction. And that's when it happened.
The mother grabbed the girl's ponytail, and yanked hard. The girl cried out. The mother dragged her several feet by her ponytail, then slapped her, then picked her up and headed for the door. I stood there dumbfounded.
Call the police, I thought... but a moment later, realized the futility of that idea-- the woman was leaving. She would be in the parking lot in 10 seconds. No way would she still be around by the time police arrived.
What do I do? What in the world do I do?
I looked at the people in line around me. They were all staring. The woman in front of me in line seemed frozen as I was, and the couple behind me were making nasty little comments, but clearly not about to do anything. I wanted to do something. My thoughts raced. Sarina was in the shopping cart with me. I couldn't run off and challenge this woman; I couldn't risk the confrontation. I'm not even sure if I would have risked it if she weren't there, though I'd like to think I would have.
So I did nothing.
"The only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."
I did nothing.
I stood there for those five or ten seconds or so that it took for the woman to get out the door, mind sifting through a hundred bad ideas and coming up with nothing, knowing that I was failing right then. Knowing that I might be blowing the chance to save this girl's life.
I worked on the book Bullyproof Your Child for Life with Dr. Joel Haber, and one of his key concepts is "good bystanders." Bullies thrive when bystanders stand around failing to act. It makes the victim think that everyone agrees with the bully's actions, and it gives the bully more power-- the bully now knows no one will intervene.
But, dammit, I'm not the type who stands around not intervening. Especially for a little girl, no older than my own, who just almost had the hair yanked off her head by the woman who's supposed to protect her in this world.
Yet I came up with no solution as I watched the mother carry her daughter out the door, crying all the way. That made two of us. The tears welled up in my eyes as I got up to the register and explained to the cashier what we had just seen, hugging my daughter tightly.
I don't know why I felt the need to reassure Sarina, but I did, over and over. "I would never do that to you," I told her.
"I know," she said. "I would never do that to you, either, because I love you."
We were supposed to go straight home from there, but I couldn't. We went to the grocery store next door instead, where I needed to decompress and talk things through with Sarina.
"I feel terrible for that little girl."
"Me too. She has a wicked mother, like Maleficent."
"You're right. What should we have done?" I asked her.
"That mother should be in time out forever."
More hugs. More talking about how I definitely should have done something. Something, but what? We talked about how important it is to stand up for people who need our help. She suggested that next time, we call on the Rescue Rangers, Chip and Dale, who will parachute in and carry the girl to safety. She said that she feels bad that she didn't catch the mother and put her in a big bag so the girl could get away.
I told her that I'm proud that she cares about other people, and that what happened to this girl should never happen to anyone.
"I'm lucky I have you for my mommy," she said. I wanted to soak in this compliment, but right then, I felt like I had let her down even if she didn't realize it. I want to deserve my daughter's pride in me.
We got blueberry pie and assorted comfort foods and headed to my parents' house, where I needed to check in to ask for... reassurance? I think I was looking to be let off the hook, for someone to tell me there's nothing I could have done, even though I knew that was a big cop-out. I thought about how the girl wasn't broken yet... she still laughs, she still smiles. There was hope. I thought about how sad she looked when we walked away. I held Sarina and retrieved our grocery bag... somehow I had forgotten that blueberry pie at the store.
"Don't forget to tell Grandma and Grandpa about that little girl," she told me. As if I could forget. We got inside and I explained.
"Did you get the woman's license plate number?" my mother asked.
I wanted to scream. The thought hadn't even occured to me. Of course that's what I should have done... followed her out to the parking lot and copied down the license plate number.
The main reason I'm sharing this story here is because I'm hoping you'll stop for a moment and think about how you would handle a similar situation. It does nobody any good if we all just freeze in horror. The more I look back now, the more I can see the steps I should have taken.
- I should not have left that little girl, and I should have asked her name.
- When I saw trouble, I should have taken a picture with my camera phone.
- I could have tried asking a manager to lock the door before the woman left so I could call police (that might or might not have worked).
- I should have asked the people around me to act with me.
- And I should have written down that license plate number.
I should have shown that little girl that she was not alone, and that the world isn't so cruel as to ignore the abuse of a child when it's right in our faces.
I have been in this situation once before, when I was just a young teen. I handled it the right way then. I was on a public bus when I saw a parent hit and scream at a child, and I got off at the next stop and called police, telling them the bus number and route. I called anonymously because the woman threatened me on the bus when I glared at her, so I never got to know if my tip actually "worked," but at least then I knew I had done what I could.
This time I don't get that reassurance. I am sorry I failed you, little girl. I hope someone else won't, and soon.
Photo shared on Flickr courtesy of Southworth Sailor.