I know, I brought this on myself and I brought it on my children. My sweet children, my smart children. The two older ones brought home excellent report cards on Thursday, and I decided we would go to the mall to celebrate. “You can buy whatever you want,” I promised them joyfully. “A present.”

“I don’t want a present,” said my daughter, looking down at the ground. “You always do this!” shouted my son, thinking he was about to lose the promised gift and readying to pounce on his sister. “Whoa, cool it!” I said, grabbing him before he reached her. “She always does this!” he repeated, tears already welling in his eyes.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “We’re going to the mall and buying you a present. You can just get something to eat with us,” I said to my daughter with a smile, trying to dispel some of her anger which has been growing more incomprehensible by the day.

“I don’t want to eat anything,” she said in that same insidious, preteen tone of voice. “What’s the matter?” I asked, hugging her, having learned that at this age a hug is more effective than anger or punishment. “Nothing’s the matter,” she said, wriggling out of my grip and dashing the hugging theory I’d so recently adopted.

For order’s sake, I had my big girl sit in the front seat and fastened her brother, who just finished first grade, into the back seat. She didn’t say a word the whole trip. Her expression was unreadable and she kept her eyes cast down. I thought maybe it was because it was her last day at her old school − maybe she was a little sad and nervous about the new school she’d be attending in the fall. But when I asked, she didn’t answer, except to shake her head impatiently.

As we approached the security guard at the entrance to the car park, I turned up 88FM, as I always do, and put on my biggest smile. “Hello,” said the guard, peering in the car window.

“Everything okay?”

“Everything’s good,” I replied, as my daughter glared at me for a second.

“Go right ahead,” said the guard. “Yes!” shouted my son as we started to move forward, because again we’d won our little game and the guard hadn’t asked to look inside the glove compartment or the trunk. “We did it!,” exulted my son. “What’s wrong?” I asked my daughter, who said nothing, her expression continuing to darken.

My son spent a long time wandering the aisles of the big toy store. He tried out all kinds of things, sometimes getting excited and sometimes being disappointed, not knowing what to choose and getting totally confused.

“Maybe you want to take something, too?” I said to my daughter, venturing another hug. “I’m not a little girl anymore,” she said, removing my hand from her shoulder.

“Can you please tell me what’s the matter?” I tried again. “You know that you don’t have to switch schools.”

“I know,” she said. “But I want to.”

“So what’s the problem?” I was starting to lose my patience, next to the Power Rangers display.

“This one boy in my after-school class...” She started crying without warning. “I was just playing there and I accidentally bumped into him...”

“And what happened?” I hugged her again, and this time she let me. “What happened? Tell me already.”

“Then he said...” She tried to hold back her tears. “...oh, gross, the Arab touched me!”

“And what did you do?” I said, my blood starting to boil.

“Nothing. I acted like I didn’t hear him. I even smiled.” Now she broke into sobs.

“Hey, I don’t get it,” I said, annoyed. “Why didn’t you tell me right away when it happened?”

“And what would you have done?” Now she changed her tone of voice, became rebellious again, and pushed away from me. “What do you always do? You’re afraid, too, and you smile at them all the time.”

My son was enjoying his McDonald’s kids’ meal with his new Lego motorcycle kit on the table in front of him. My daughter sat there quietly, gazing around the food court at the Malha Mall. I wanted to ask her what she was thinking − was she thinking about the janitors there, the way I do whenever we go there? I wanted to tell her that she was wrong about me, that in the mall I see only the lowly workers, the simple salespeople, and it really pains me. I wanted her to know that deep down I’m still a revolutionary, that every day I think about how the world could be saved, about how to put a new gleam in the eyes of the poor, and about how a laborer should make just as much money as a contractor.

But my daughter is right, I don’t do a thing. And I don’t know exactly when hope gave way to despair, and courage to cowardliness. She’s absolutely right. What would I have done?

I wanted to tell her that I fight with words, but she’s smart enough to know that’s a lie. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t always this way, that at her age I, too, wanted to blow up the whole world. That at her age I believed in justice and went out to protest against injustice, but I know that won’t do any good right now. I wanted to say that, yes, I may seem like a coward, it may seem like I avoid confrontation, that I don’t tussle with security guards, that I ignore racists. But I wanted her to know that fear is one thing and pride is another. I wanted her to know that I have never felt inferior to anyone − quite the opposite − and that I never let anyone step on me. But I didn’t know how.

“Hey listen,” I somehow blurted out.

“What?” she replied without looking at me.

“I’m not what you think I am...” I tried to explain, but her gaze suddenly met mine and silenced me.

“I’m sorry,” I said as we were walking out. “When you grow up...” I began, but then realized there was no point.

On the way out I stopped the car near the security guard whom I just smiled at on the way in. I opened the glove compartment and started looking for a CD with Arabic songs. Then I searched the pockets in the door, and even in the trunk. I couldn’t look my kids in the eye when I came up empty.