During the five-minute drive home from after-school care Wednesday, there came a small voice from the backseat of my car.
“Dad?” said my seven-year-old son. “Can we go to Target? Pleeeeassse?”
I glanced at him in the rearview mirror.
“Because. I want to get (inaudible) and I have some extra money.”
“You want to get a what? And wait … extra money? How much? Where’d you get it?”
In my mirror, I saw him hold up two one-dollar bills.
“Two dollars,” he said. “Gretchen gave it to me on the playground.”
I had never heard him mention Gretchen (name changed).
“She … who? Why’d she give you money?”
What would President Washington have done if a first-grade girl had given him $3 for no apparent reason? (Pictured: One of the actual dollar bills gifted to my son by an admirer.)
He lowered the bills, sensing from my increasingly agitated and alarmed tone of voice that they would not be his to spend much longer.
“I don’t know,” he said.
But he knew, all right. Or, his tone told me he thought he knew. He just didn’t want to say. I couldn’t blame him.
“Come on, now,” I said. “Why did she give you money?”
Then something occurred to me. I actually had heard her name before. In fact, I had heard it just ONE DAY before.
“Wait,” I said. “Is she the one who gave you that coin yesterday?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I think … I think she just wants to be my friend.”
The coin was one of those brass-colored presidential dollars. You know, the ones that pay homage to all the unknown presidents ever to hold office. The coins you get back in change at the zoo and practically no place else on Earth. He’d mentioned the coin on Tuesday. I asked him that afternoon why she gave him the coin, and he just said she wanted him to have it. Then I immediately asked him what he had done with that coin.
“I bought a snack with it,” he had said.
Fair enough. It was only a dollar. Probably had Millard Fillmore on it. No big deal.
By Wednesday afternoon, though, the same first-grade girl had given our first-grade son three dollars in two days, for no apparent reason. And he had accepted that generous gift with no questions asked, apparently. I presume he asked no questions, anyway, because when I pressed him for a reason why she gave him three dollars, he repeated his theory that she just wanted to be his friend. So, he clearly had no Earthly idea. Or if he did, he wasn’t ready to tell me.
His four-year-old brother had another hypothesis.
“She wanted to kiss you,” said the four-year-old.
“NO!” answered the seven-year-old.
“But listen,” I started. “Why would she … ?”
I stopped pressing, because … well, sometimes even little kids just need space. Sometimes, little kids, especially, need space.
Yet, because it is wrong to accept unearned, unsolicited money from little girls on the school playground, we convinced our first-grader to give it all back, all three dollars, the next time he saw her. We emphasized that he shouldn’t be conspicuous.
“What’s conspic … conspicu … ?” he said.
We emphasized that he shouldn’t make a big deal out of it in front of a bunch of other kids, that he should just tell her, nicely, that Mommy and Daddy don’t allow him to take money from others. Then, give it back to her. Be kind, we said. Don’t hurt her feelings.
We didn’t ask him to tell her that friendship can’t be bought. We didn’t even ask him to tell her that he would be her friend, money or no money. If he wants to be friends with her, fine. If not, fine.
Sure, it crossed my mind. What if he stole it?
No. No chance. I felt sick just considering the possibility. He is honest to a fault, as honest as the family dog, as straight as uncooked spaghetti. He knows right from wrong.
But … what if it was a playground protection payoff? What if our seven-year-old son had, without our knowledge, broken into our Sopranos DVD set and learned the art of the shakedown from Tony and Paulie and Silvio?
What if she was paying him to quit bugging the hell out of her? Or what if he had done her homework for her, and this was the fee?
He accepted her money, whatever her reason for giving it. He clearly knew he hadn’t earned it. What kind of monster are we raising?!?
OK. Not a monster. A shark. He knows a sweet deal when he sees one. He saw the angle, which was free money from a girl at school, and he played it.
The “why” of it didn’t matter much. Besides, it’s probably exactly what it looks like.
It’s the age-old story. Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Girl pays boy cold, hard cash. Indifferent boy buys a snack and begs unsuccessfully for a trip to Target to spend that cash just as fast as he possibly can. Boy grudgingly gives cash back to girl. A classic tale of young love denied.