"What if I forget their names?"
It was the first thing out of Katie's mouth. No "good morning." No "what's for breakfast?" No "mom get off the toilet so I can pee!"
It was the first day back to school after winter break. Katie had been complaining all semester about how much harder third grade is than second grade, but after less than three weeks of winter break, she was jonesin' to go back. There are only so many times a person--even an eight-year-old--can watch iHasCupquake play a game where she throws poo into a toilet before their brain needs a little more stimulation.
"What if you forget whose names?" I yawned.
"What if I forget my classmates' names?" Katie said. She sounded annoyed, like I should be able to read her mind.
"Why would you forget your classmates' names?" I asked, heading down the hall toward the kitchen. I could tell where this conversation was leading, but I was going nowhere til I got a cup of joe.
"Because it's been so long since I've seen them!" Katie said, following me into the kitchen.
"It's only been two weeks--"
"THREE weeks," Katie interrupted.
"No, THREE! It's been three weeks since I've been to school," Katie argued.
"Why are you so upset, Punk? I thought you were excited to go back to school," I said.
"I am, but I'm sad about it, too,"
"Why do you feel sad?" I asked.
"Because Brady won't be there!" Again, the duh tone.
Brady. Oh yes, I remember. On the last day of school before winter break, I was in their classroom, helping out as a room parent during their winter party. I had brought sugar cookies and tons of icing and toppings so the kids could decorate their own cookies. This ingratiated me to Katie's classmates. I had a hard time hearing everything they were saying since they were all trying to talk to me at the same time.
"You mean WE get to decorate our own cookies?" they said. Here I thought I was just being lazy and making them do all the work.
After decorating cookies, everyone returned to their own desk except for Brady. He stood by my side nearly the whole time I was there, talking to me and packing up his cubby for winter break. I guess some kids are more tidy than others. I'm sure Katie will just leave all her crap in her cubby and deal with it when she gets back in January.
I recognized Brady as the boy who used to aggravate Katie in first grade. She'd come home from school and tell me stories of how they'd get into fights, how Brady would lose his cool and start tipping over tables and chairs in the classroom, how he had to go talk to the social worker pretty much every day to sort through his uncontrollable anger and frustration.
By second grade someone had figured out that Brady is allergic to most everything: wheat, dairy, soy, nuts. "Do they have any nuts?" Katie would ask as I'd pull her birthday cupcakes out of the oven. "Brady can't have nuts," she'd remind me. I overheard Brady's step-mom tell the teacher that Brady's been a lot calmer since they changed his diet and "switched his meds".
Before I had a kid, I was always one of those people who complained about our society's proclivity toward throwing pills at a problem child. Now that I'm on meds myself to treat PTSD and clinical depression, which I've had since I was four, I wonder how my life might have been different if I had the medicines available to kids today. I might have been able to get to class without sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom day by day. Or maybe not. But still, it would have been worth a try. I no longer begrudge anyone their meds. Whatever treatment works.
By third grade, Katie and Brady had become good friends. Katie sometimes has trouble controlling her temper too. They're both smart and funny and too mature for their age. It made sense. They understood each other. I was happy to hear the stories Katie would bring home from school since Brady had evolved from "the bad boy" in first grade to "my friend" in third.
"Well, I guess this is it," Brady said, swinging his backpack over his shoulder. I had begun packing up the leftovers. The office had just made an announcement over the intercom that the winter parties were over, everyone have fun on their break, and parents hurry and get out to your cars in the circle drive that are blocking traffic.
"What is 'it'?" I asked. Katie had made her way over to where we were standing, which was right in front of her cubby. She began to put her coat on and shove the remains of her candy into her backpack.
"I guess this is goodbye," Brady said. He's a funny kid. He talks too much like a grownup, just like Katie does.
"OK, goodbye. Happy holidays," I said. I patted Katie on the back, "Katie will see you next year!" I could tell my joke was lame as soon as the words left my mouth. Both eight-year-olds looked at me like I'm a total dork.
"No, Mom. I won't see him next year," Katie said.
"I don't mean in a year. I mean next year--2015--in a couple of weeks when you guys come back to school," I explained.
"No, Mom. This is Brady's last day. He's not coming back," Katie explained.
My first thought was surely they don't send third graders to military school, and anyway, I thought Brady's behavior had improved. "Why aren't you coming back?" I asked, looking at Brady.
Brady looked at his shoes. It was the first time I'd ever seen him avoid eye-contact. He's not like many kids their age who are shy around adults they don't know well. "I'm going to school in Topeka next semester. My family can't afford our house anymore so we're moving in with my grandma," he said.
"Oh no!" I said, too loudly, before thinking. I forget sometimes that as an adult I'm not supposed to overreact to every little thing. I was always the mom at the playground who rushed to her kid's aid whenever she'd fall. Or sneeze. Or look bored. Other parents would sit on the benches and yell, "you're fine!" when their kiddos would fall off the swing and start to cry. I'd sit there and dart my eyes back and forth between the tough parents and their kids, wanting to rush over and console the child but knowing that's not my place. More often than not, the kid would get up and stop crying and go back to playing. Tough little buggers. Katie, on the other hand, would need to talk about it for 30 minutes after she'd trip over a twig and twist her ankle. I knew my oversensitivity was rubbing off on her, but I couldn't force myself to care. I'm of the opinion that we need more sensitivity in this world. It's rough out there. Yes, it's my job to teach my kid how to take care of herself, but I can accomplish that better through empathetic parenting rather than tough love. Maybe. I hope. Now that Katie's eight she's finally learned how to shout "ouch" instead of crying every time she stubs her toe.
Katie and Brady were looking at each other like they didn't know what else to say or do. Should they hug? Should they just take off with a simple "goodbye".
"I'll be back to visit. Probably." Brady said. "My aunt still lives here so we'll come visit her."
I didn't say that generally when you visit your aunt that does not entail a visit to your former school. I could tell by both their faces they already knew that. Too smart. Too mature for their age.
"Well, I sure hope we see you around, Brady," I said. "It's been nice getting to know you, and I know Katie really appreciates what a great friend you've been," I said. I had to stop when I felt tears pooling in my eyes.
"Yeah, see you around," Brady said, looking at me, then Katie.
"Bye, Brady. I'll miss you," Katie said.
We turned and walked out the door. It was time to get my car out of the circle drive so the other parents could collect their kids.
I'd forgotten all this before Katie brought it up again the morning before school resumed. Oh yeah, Brady won't be there, I remembered as I filled my mug with coffee. Poor Katie, I thought. How can I help her get over this loss? Especially with my own hangups about losing friends.
My family moved from St. Joseph, Missouri to suburban Kansas City, Missouri when I was six, one month after first grade started. I was so miserable at my new school, my teacher wrote on my report card at the end of the year that I still cried too much. Ugh, she was such an awful teacher:
"I have enjoyed having Rebecca in my class. She has been a good worker. She is still easily upset and cries at nothing, but is doing better as we only have tears once in awhile. I think if everyone would discourage her instant outbursts she will learn to tell her problems without crying first." --Priscilla Nairn, first grade teacher, May 30, 1978
She didn't even bother to check to see if I have a nickname. I felt like saying, "It's BECKY" every time she'd call me Rebecca, but instead I'd just burst into tears. No one but Mrs. Nairn and one of my crazy ex-girlfriends has ever called me Rebecca.
As you can see, I'm still not over it. At any given time, I cannot find my car keys, my driver's license, my wedding ring, or my glasses. But I went right to the spot where I keep my first grade report card. Don't all forty-four year olds?
I cut back on crying enough to make a few friends. By sixth grade I was loaded with them. School friends. Neighborhood kid friends. I had friends out the wazoo. Then, the summer before seventh grade, my dad announced that he'd gotten a new job in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb about 30 minutes away. My siblings had all moved out of the house by then, so it was just me, Mom, and Dad when we moved. To this day I don't understand why my dad didn't just commute. When he worked in downtown Kansas City, his drive took about twenty minutes anyway, so I don't see how shaving ten minutes off your morning commute was worth uprooting the family yet again, especially since Dad was always up by 5am anyway. It's not like he had to deal with traffic. And God knows he had to deal with a super-sensitive kid.
When we had Katie, I told my husband I didn't want to move once she started kindergarten. I always wanted to be one of those kids who lives in the same house and grows up with the same friends until they head off for college. I wanted to provide this type of stability for our kid, too.
The problem is, every close friend Katie has made since kindergarten has either moved away or started homeschooling. So even though we still live in the same house, and Katie goes to the same school, she's losing her friends. I realize now instead of sheltering Katie from the realities of life by staying in one home, I must prepare her for how to deal with change.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and leaned against the kitchen counter. "That's right," I said to Katie. "Brady's moving to Topeka."
"Yeah!" she said like now you get it! "How come all my best friends move away?"
"Well, we live in tough economic times, Hon. People move around a lot. It's something you're going to have to learn how to deal with, losing friends and making new friends. I know how hard it is. You've heard me talk about how my family moved around a lot and how much I hated it," I said.
"Yeah," she agreed.
"But I got through it. And you'll get through it, too. You just have to learn how to make new friends," I said like it's such an easy thing to do.
"I'm not good at making friends," Katie frowned.
"Your problem is you expect your friends to be just like you, and there aren't too many people in this world who are just like you," I poked her in the belly and she giggled. "You're a unique person, very bright, very sensitive--"
"Yeah, and my classmates are so immature!" Katie complained. It's hard not to laugh at a person with an eight-year-old body who talks like this, but oh no, I won't do that. Once Katie came home from school fretting, "I wish kids my age had MORE EMPATHY." I had to point out to her that she was lacking empathy for them. "Most kids your age don't even know what that word means," I teased.
"So what if they're immature?" I asked. "You love to play with the little four-year-olds at church," I reminded her.
"Yeah, I like little kids," she said.
"And you like to play with older kids, too," I said.
"Yeah, just not kids my age," she said.
"That's because you're expecting them to be you instead of themselves. You know, you don't have to have everything in common with someone to enjoy their company."
"I know, but I can't find any company of theirs to enjoy!" Katie growled.
Don't laugh, don't laugh, don't laugh. "Well, I bet if you try, you'll find something you like about everyone. Even if it's small. Like, you both like cookies. Or you both like Minecraft--"
"Minecraft's not small!" Katie argued.
"I mean, you don't have to sit around and talk about deep things with other kids. You don't have to always talk about "mature" things. You can talk to people about anything," I said, feeling like a fraud. I hate small-talk, too.
After Katie didn't respond, I decided to give her some examples. "Let's say you see Mia at recess. What does Mia like?" I asked.
"Just a bunch of girly things. She's really sassy!"
"Well you have that in common!" I laughed.
"No, I mean she likes to walk around like she's wearing a lot of jewlery and she talks like she's a movie star or something...that kind of sassy."
"Well, does Mia like cookies?" I asked.
"Mom. Who doesn't like cookies?" Katie peered over her glasses to look at me.
"That's what I mean. Talk to her about cookies. Tell her about the cookies you had over the holidays--"
"Mom," Katie started to argue, but I cut her off.
"I know! Ask her how her winter break was. Tell her what you got for Christmas and then ask her what she got for Christmas."
"What if she doesn't celebrate Christmas?"
I remember when Katie was about five and she asked me why not everyone had Christmas lights up on their house. When I explained to her that not everyone celebrates Christmas, she was shocked. Now she's using her multicultural awareness against me.
"Then ask her if she celebrates something else, or what was her favorite thing about winter break."
"Mom, can I ask Adrienne or Emily--or anyone else these questions?"
"Sure. I'm just using Mia as an example because I've heard you talk about her."
"Good, because I don't think Mia and I will ever be friends."
"Well, that's OK. Just remember: you don't have to like everyone, but you have to treat everyone with respect."
"I know, I know. You've told me that a thousand times."
"Well, maybe one of these days it will sink in. I'm still learning it myself," I winked at Katie and she smiled. "Oh, look at the time! You better go get ready. I'll make you some oatmeal," I said.
"Mom!" Katie growled. "You talked to me too much and now I'm going to be late!"
"Oh, simmer down. You won't be late if you go get dressed right now. Would you have rather I just said something like 'eh, you'll get over it' when you told me you were sad about Brady moving away? Just so you could take your time getting ready?"
Katie smiled and said, "Yeah, you're right."
What I would give to have her say that on video so I could play it back to her a few years from now when she's a teenager and she's completely forgotten.