My oldest daughter – my JoJo – is the second coming of both my face and my fits. And she is struggling to find her place among the elementary elite.
It started when … well it started getting really bad with the arrival of a solution to an 8-year-old dilemma, the Nipit. The Nipit is a genius product my mom discovered through the power of Amazon that’s worn on the elbow and prevents a child from bending their arm enough to get their respective digits to their mouth to suck. While it lacks in discretion – it’s bright, primary colors with loud velcro straps – holy heck it works. I’ve seen my girl with her fingers in her mouth once in the last three months. For a girl who was getting her suck on in the womb, that is nothing short of miraculous.
But, as is the case with most red and blue arm braces, it didn’t take long for the kids at school to take note. It’s different, which means she’s different, which means she’s “weird”, which means she has a giant red target right in the center of her tiny little back. Thus, the bullying began.
I’ve thought about this a lot in the last few weeks, and I’ve come to some clarity. I think the issue is, when we look into our child’s eyes, we see someone different. We see an unborn baby that got hiccups every night during our 9 o’clock show. We see the little human who turned everything upside down in the best, scariest way possible, and made us a mother or a father. We see a toddler whose hair grew in from the back forward and stuck straight up while she watched cartoons on lazy weekend mornings. We see her first birthday and her tricycle. We hear the crinkle of her diaper between thick, wobbly legs coming down the hall and her first words … “dada” of course.
When I look at my daughter, I feel her letting go of my hand on the first day of preschool and her pleading eyes when big change came. I feel cuddles from the best spooner on the planet and hear her telling me, at 4, that she was heading off to college just like Steve from Blue’s Clues. I hear her laugh. I see her crooked, gappy smile and pure, well-intentioned heart. I see a thousand tiny little pieces of myself, with her daddy’s build, walking out the door every single morning.
But that’s what I see. And I am her mother.
What kids see is another little second grader in a sea of 7, 8, 9 year olds, crowding the playground and trying not to do anything odd enough to get noticed. They don’t find her to be special in any of the ways that really count. They aren’t looking for that. They’re looking for different. They’re looking for a crack, an opening. They’re waiting for her to get comfortable enough that she shows something they view as a weakness or an eccentricity. If it lends itself to a nickname or a chant, all the better.
When the tiny opening presents itself, they put their toe in first, maybe a snide comment or whisper to a friend. Then they put in their leg, then torso, and eventually their whole body busts down that door, lashing out with hateful, belittling words that feel so good to them, so empowering. Because kids know no consequence. They know instant gratification and survival of the shittiest. It’s jungle rules out there and everyone is potential prey.
In his book, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen”, Christopher McDougall wrote: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
I send my little girl out the door every morning as this special ball of memories and potential, and the second she steps off the porch she’s reduced to bait. And do I blame the kids being unkind? Hell no! They’re just relieved they aren’t the girl with the brace on her elbow. And I totally get it.
Because no one wants to be that girl. Growing up, I had spacey, jagged teeth and a swoopy, horrible set of bangs for a good few years. I had girls pass notes to my BFFs saying they shouldn’t play with me anymore. I had days where I curled up in my mom’s arms, as she rubbed my back in her mustard yellow fabric covered rocking chair with the melodic squeak. Ask any adult and they can name their bully. If they can’t, they were the bully. It’s a rite of passage in some ways. Unfortunately. Stupidly.
It all came to a head recently, as one particular girl turned up the torment on my babe. We’ll call her Delores for the sake of anonymity and movie trivia. Delores has a girl gang. They think JoJo’s a big baby for sucking her fingers (predictable, easy), and they make sure she knows it on a daily basis. We’d been doing the usual coaching behind the scenes … Don’t fight hate with hate … The meaner they are, the kinder you should be … If you feel sad, tell a teacher … Just ignore her … Maybe she was having a bad day or she’s sad about something. Nevertheless, it persisted.
It persisted until earlier this week when JoJo decided to express herself about it. In a drawing. On the back of her homework. Where she’s throwing a bat at Delores’ head. And it’s labeled “JoJo’ and “Delores”. Needless to say, her teacher wasn’t thrilled.
Spike was waiting by the door for me that evening. “Mom, I’m not going to tell you what’s going on, but I will tell you that JoJo got in trouble and she has to go see the counselor tomorrow and if the counselor wants to, she can send JoJo to the principal’s office.” I walked into the living room to find my little criminal, sitting on the couch, red streaks from old tears subtle on her pale cheeks.
“You’ve taken a situation where someone was bullying you,” I explained, “and turned it around so that you are now the one doing the bullying. Do you see why this is wrong?” She nodded, her bottom lip curving down like a fat, grumpy fist in an animated feature. JoJo is certainly my creative chick, and this devilish doodle was, I’m certain, just a way for her to express her frustration, but regardless, it’s not how we roll.
Her teacher referred her to the school counselor, which, to be honest, I was a little relieved about. Finally! A professional can step in here! Somebody equipped with a degree and Inside Out dolls.
The day she was scheduled to meet with the counselor, JoJo was pacing the kitchen, whining. “I don’t want to go to the counselor’s office, Mama. I’m scared. What if I get in trouble?” I challenged her to be brave, and to be honest. I challenged her to step up to all the feelings of anger and sadness and loneliness she’s been feeling and share them with a grownup who could help. (And who she’d listen to more than her own mother.)
And then, I watched her step off the porch and go back out into that dark, vast jungle. Exposed and vulnerable and wearing her Nipit like a juicy, raw steak around her neck on the grasslands. A giant piece of my heart went right onto the bus with her and drove away.
I thought about her all day. I waited for the phone to ring. Maybe the principal would call and say she was suspended for the drawing. A black blemish on her spotless record. Maybe the counselor would call and tell me what a bad mother I was for waiting so long to alert them to the situation. Maybe her emotions would swallow her whole and I’d have to come get her.
But the phone never rang, and soon it was 5 o’clock.
I can always read the general temperature of our household within seconds. When something is wrong with one of the kiddos, it’s like walking into a room carrying balloons and a birthday cake after everyone else was just told someone died. So on this day, I was very tentative coming in from the garage.
“Hi, Mama!” JoJo greeted me. My whole body unclenched.
“Mom, I met with the counselor today and it was great. I didn’t get in trouble for the drawing and she told me I should tell Delores that what she’s doing is hurting my feelings.”
“Right. That’s great, JoJo!”
“Yeah, I feel so much better! Can I call Dad and tell him?”
And just like that, progress. A touch of healing for a wounded little soul. She would live to roam the prairie another day.
I, of course, immediately sat down to type a teary note of appreciation to the school counselor, positive she had no clue how thankful I was for her 5-minute pep talk with my daughter. Positive I was being a little over emotional and positive I didn’t care a lick.
And the rest of this week has been better, though I know it’s not the last we’ll hear of Delores and her girl gang. The oldest child is such an experiment. They bring this stuff home to you, and you never know whether they’re being transparent or dramatic. You don’t know what’s normal and what’s a five-alarm fire. All you have to go on is your instinct and your own experiences as a child. (I mean, aren’t we all just projecting our childhood onto our own kids anyway?)
You just want to scream from the top of the school gymnasium, [in the voice of an Indian chief] “This is my daughter, JoJo! She is strong and funny and would be a really great friend! I am proud of her! And if you screw with her, I will squash your milk carton in your tiny horrible face.” But that’s not considered acceptable grownup behavior.
It will always be hard to hear. I’m the one who carries her stories, and because of that, I know what a treasure she is. I have the backstory. I’m invested, mostly because I grew her.
I’m the one who knows she called penguins “herbies” for years, even though everyone thought she was saying “herpes”. I’m the one who put her hair in long, flowing pigtails and cut the feet out of her penguin jammies so she could wear them a few months longer. I am in this thing for the long haul.
And I could sell her good points like popsicles on the Fourth of July. She likes to climb really tricky trees and eat Nutella straight from the jar and she can sing every word to every song from Descendents 2. She dabs like a boss. She’s a talented artist and can turn any strawberry into a rose too beautiful to eat. She always wears two layers of clothing, even in the summer, and changes into her pajamas within an hour of getting home from school. She did hygge before hygge was a thing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be friends with that girl?
There aren’t a lot of choices here. She has to keep going to school and I have to keep watching her step off our porch, bait though she may be. I can’t change the dichotomy of children, the hunters and the hunted. I can’t make my daughter’s skin thicker, no matter what I feed her at home. The only thing I can do is rock her when she wants me to and keep track of her stories, so she always has someone to remind her just how special she is. Someone who’s invested. Someone who isn’t going anywhere. Someone who, after all the deep lessons have been offered and her worries put to rest, will turn away from tiny ears and say the thing that everyone really wants to say.
“Ah, screw Delores!”