Every day at 2:10pm I trek out the door and place a screaming baby in the car to pick Wren, my oldest, up from pre-school. Every day I know that it only takes about 25 minutes to commute, but I allow for 35, because I’ve got to be the first one there.
It means a lot to Wren. At first I chalked it up as just another one of her anal rituals, but now I do it with a sympathetic understanding.
Each day on the way home I ask her specific questions about her day like what books they read, what pictures they coloured, who did something funny, or who had the best lunch. I do this to jog her memory (and to help with ideas for grocery shopping) but mostly to try to highlight the parts of her day that she enjoyed. Anyone with a kid knows, if I ask how the day went in general, she will say “Good,” “Fine,” or “I don’t remember” with 100% certainty.
Monday was different. She strapped herself into her seat without being asked and started eating her leftovers from lunch immediately. As we turned out of the school parking lot I began my usual Q&A, beginning with who she sat with at lunch. She didn’t respond.
I turned the music off, asked her to take her hair out of her mouth, and asked the question again.
“Well,” she started, “Jane let me sit beside her,” she responded with a whisper, and she placed the slimy tendril of hair back in her mouth and continued eating her dried fruit.
I held my breath as I signaled onto the highway, eyes brimming with tears, and turned the Christmas music back on.
I pictured her head down, hair in mouth, in the bustling cafeteria. I imagined her peers, already seated, and her timidly scanning the room for one welcoming face.
Stab me in the heart.
For the first time in a while, I was totally speechless. Unprepared to be hosting such a discussion, I dwelled on the sadness without trying to “fix” it. So many times before she had told me a kid wouldn’t play with her that day, or that they wanted to play with someone else. And every other time I’d come up with some excuse as to why that may have happened. But not now.
I could not get her choice of words out of my mind. “Jane let me sit beside her.”
She seemed to rebound quite quickly once we got home, but Justin and I, who both struggled with shyness at school, couldn’t stop thinking about it all evening. So I came up with the plan to secretly spy on her playground time the next day in the schoolyard.
So that next afternoon, I got a drive through lunch so not to look too conspicuous, and staked-out my daughter during recess. With Millie asleep in the backseat of the car, I pulled up into the furthest parking space in the lot and strained to find the pink coat and purple hat, in a sea of pink and purple swirls of moving children. One of twenty-seven children in her class, of average height and build, it proved quite a task to spot her.
And then I did. Off to the side, there she was. Standing still.
Too many feelings. I slammed my face into that Harvey’s cheeseburger to quell my bevy of emotions and instead let the mustard drip out the bottom onto my jogging pants. Better that than tears, right?
I looked to see if I could spot the teacher, and did, pulling a flailing boy aside for a talk. And then I spotted the teacher’s helper too, at the bottom of the slide, clapping.
As I watched her standing there, later clumsily chasing a little boy in blue, I thought back to our recent parent-teacher meeting. Her teacher let Justin and I know that Wren wasn’t participating very well in class and had the second fewest stickers to her name for willingness to speak up.
I thought it was a stubborn act of defiance.
The teacher was surprised to learn that at home, she’s actually showing quite a lot of interest in French. She asks us to quiz her on vocabulary, and we are constantly listening to French children’s songs on Youtube, upon her request. The reality is that she’s excelling academically at home, but is too uncomfortable to reveal that at school.
I instantly understood why. Turns out the kid actually does have a reason to be pissed.
As my eyes dropped tears into a greasy carton of fries, I at that moment realize that she is rebelling because she is hurting. It’s not about the academics. Among her peers, she feels invisible.
I know what it is to feel that, and that’s why I had to speed right the hell back to the Harvey’s drive thru for a second serving of fries. My own best friend, who attended the same school as me, admitted she didn’t know I existed until middle school. We only had about 45 kids in our grade.
For me, just thinking about the logistics of walking up to a kid at school made me hurt. My heart would race, my hands would sweat, my throat closed off and my cheeks grew red with fear. Anxiety is not chosen and is not easily navigated by a kid who wore Velcro shoes and whose life achievement, to that point, was compiling a book of Disney songs she dreamed of singing out loud to someone besides a tree. I remember wanting very desperately to put myself out there, but for someone with anxiety, it takes so.much.time. So.much.courage.
You would think, as the teacher suggested, that Wren would be interested in forging a relationship with some fellow “quiet souls”, so I have tried to help her do just that. But she’s not interested, and I can’t force a friendship she doesn’t want to have, just like I can’t force her to perform on cue. Lets remember, she may be shy, but the girl is anything but impartial.
So no matter how much we practice speaking aloud at home, Wren may not necessarily share that at school. Not until the other piece is in place.
Until then, she’ll continue to scream and roll on the ground at home. She’ll share the hell out of her feelings at home, and demand crazy shit out of me, her father and her closest circle because we are her safe space. What a backwards compliment that can be to understand, but that is why I have to get to school first. Always.
So no, my child won’t speak for stickers, and it’s not because she’s a defiant kid. The girl really loves those damn stickers. We just have some bigger homework to complete first.