Little storms in the door from school, a sullen look on his face.
“How was your day?” I venture, knowing that is a loaded question.
“Terrible! I suck at everything. Everybody hates me. Everybody is mean. I have no friends,” he says, louder than it needs to be. It’s already loud and prickly in my heart. It’s hard for a parent to hear those words coming from her child.
“What happened?” I ask, not really wanting to hear the gory details, but trying to be supportive.
“They said I suck. I can’t play goalie, and I missed a bunch of saves. Then they made fun of my goalie equipment. They said it’s cheap and dumb.”
Even the Tuuka Rask mask? I query incredulously.
“They said I was a ‘try-hard’, that I tried too hard and I still suck.”
Even his best friend? I ask. Not even his best friend had nice things to say. He pulled him aside and told him to leave his stuff at home so he wouldn’t be embarrassed when he didn’t make every save.
In truth, I am not surprised to hear this. This is 6th grade, the grade, by Bigs’ description, which was the worst of middle school for him, now that he can look back on it avuncularly from his 8th grade perch. It’s the apex (so far) of masculinity and identity issues that I could smell from a distance in 5th grade, where there already were brief skirmishes on the play ground for alpha male status.
Did I really believe that Little would be immune from it? Well, maybe I did, a bit. I mean, he’s a pretty socially adept kid. He’s the kind of kid who blends in with all sorts of groups, the birthday party ambassador who crosses a room to make friends with kids from another birthday party and then introduces everyone, and the kid who makes up nicknames for other kids who like to call themselves those nicknames. So why is this happening to him, and what should I make of it?
I once attended a book talk with Natalie Babbitt, who wrote Tuck Everlasting, she said, for 5th graders because that is when kids decide who they are going to be: either themselves – and try to discover, accept, and develop what that really means – or pale imitations of someone else, someone who is athletic, attractive, popular and cool. Someone whose feelings never get hurt, because he never lets anyone know who he really is, and therefore, cannot be rejected.
The cost of this, as I try to point out to Little, is that, if he chose option #2, no matter how many friends he would have, they wouldn’t be true friends because they wouldn’t really know him. They wouldn’t know that he loves babies and little kids, stays loyal to the Bruins – even when they lose – (like this season…), wants a gray, tiger striped kitten with all his heart, once followed the Star Wars trilogy like a religion, has a crush on ———- (do you think I’d betray his confidence here?!), and gets his feelings hurt pretty easily.
After some reflection and a cookie, we try to focus on the positives. He has to at least consider that his best friend might have been trying to help him out without showing his critics that he needed rescuing. Little might have felt things worse than they really were. (Though he insists it was Really That Bad.) And speaking of rescuing, I can’t do it. I can’t fix this. Only he can do it, or at least grapple with the big feelings that come with the sort of interaction that happened during gym class.
After a cap-off comment I make about how this is an opportunity for him to feel some compassion for kids who get picked on all the time, I run out of things to say, and I realize that the rest of this is work that he needs to do on his own.
And as much as I want, in my heart, to ensure that he never feels pain, that’s not possible. He has to live his life, and every human life, inevitably, includes pain. So I will sit on the sidelines and let him do that hard work that every human being has to do, and remind him, from time to time, that he is enough for the world, just as he is.