My heart is, if not broken, at least fractured a little bit.
Caroline came to me last night with tears in her eyes and told me she's "depressed". I asked her why and she told me that she is "very lonely" at school. She has a friend she sometimes hangs out with, but this little girl is rather popular and naturally also has many other friends to take up her time. This is understandable, of course, and Caroline knows this, but it also leaves her alone a lot of the time.
And like any parent would, I asked her why she doesn't make other friends so she always has other poeple to lean on when her favorite is off doing her own thing. I expected her answer would be a shrug and an "I don't know", because I've just faced it: Caroline is a very one-on-one kind of person. She, like her mother and father both, is generally uncomfortable in a crowd and prefers the company and conversation of one person at a time; she's a little shy. And so what?
Her answer surprised me, though.
"Because everyone hates me."
"What? How can EVERYONE HATE you?"
"But how do you know they hate you?"
"Because they make fun of me and when they're not making fun of me, they're looking at me like I'm crazy, or just ignoring me."
Now, as her mother, I find this just absurd. How can anyone make fun of this beautiful, smart, loving little girl? She lives to laugh and make people happy. She has a fantastic sense of humor and a brilliant imagination. What's to make fun of?
So I ask her: "What do they make fun of?"
"They make fun of the books I read, and they look at me like I'm crazy when I talk about animals and science, and they make fun of me for the words I use because they say I'm showing off. And they make fun of my teeth."
Alright.....on the first three counts, I think it goes without saying what is actually behind those attacks. It's not worth discussing or dignifying the human tendency to shun what people don't understand or are jealous of. And I explained this to her; what else could I do?
As for the latter, the teeth? Caroline is a normal 8-year old who is in the process of losing and growing teeth. Like many 8-year olds, her teeth are not coming in straight. They're quite crooked, as a matter of fact, and she is probably going to need braces. But even with those teeth, which look like they can chomp up the world faster than a set of ginzu knives, she's still a beautiful girl. Her perfect olive complexion, her sparkling turquoise eyes, her long eyelashes, her adorable little nose (thanks to her Grandma Barbara) and her high-cheekbones (thanks also to Calvin's Native American family) are stunning.
There is nothing wrong with her. Nothing at all.
Having been made fun of myself, for most of my childhood, for my hair (which was too short) or my clothes (which were too poor) or my freckles (which were too numerous) or any number of other things, I can understand her loneliness and her dread at going back.
And it makes me sad. Sure it might build character, sure it might happen to a lot of kids, and sure I am clearly OK having been through it myself. I learned to like myself and survived without scars; I have never climbed to the top of a belltower and started dropping people with a rifle, and I have never stood up in church and announced that I hope the president dies and goes to hell.
But the point is, having been through it, I know the misery it brings when you know that the people you have to spend all day and year with can't stand you. I know what it feels like to walk down the hall and know people are whispering about you. And I know what it feels like to look in the mirror and hate what you can't help.
I am a firm believer that kids have to work out their own problems at school, so long as there is no violence involved, and so I won't march down to the office and embarrass her by demanding that all the kids be nice to my baby. It would only make things worse for her in the long run. All I can do is be there for her, to listen and to reassure her that this will pass. All I can do is explain that what other people think of her is really none of her business, and the only people whose opinions she ought to worry about are her own and those of the people who have proven that they love her and won't judge her based on silly things like her vocabulary, her reading level and......stupidest of all.....her teeth. I don't know how much of my reassurance is soaking in, but it's all I can do.
In the meantime, until she's stronger and has developed a thicker skin and an inner confidence, I will sit and watch and listen. And I have to tell you, it is painful watching this happen to her. Physically, in-the-gut painful. I would gladly take on this burden for her if I could. I'd gladly go through it all again, if I knew it would do her any good.
Being a parent, while mostly full euphoria and laughter, also has to be one of the hardest things I've ever been through. I watched her get on the bus this morning, her little Chuck Taylors taking giant steps to climb the bus stairs and her little blue backpack behind her. She seemed her cheerful and optimistic self again, having talked it out.
I am hopeful that today will be a better day for her and she'll come home with a big crooked-tooth grin on her beautiful face.