As he walked towards me, I could see that something wasn’t right.
That is not to say that I saw anything unusual, but my momtennae went up. There was something about his posture and his expression, something that telegraphed that all was not well.
His hair was a crazy mess. Nothing unusual about that.
He had a red popsicle ring around his mouth which matched the red splotches on the front of his t-shirt, also not so very unusual.
I took his backpack from him and slung it over my shoulder.
“Hi dude! How was your day?” I asked as we turned and walked towards the car.
“Okay,” he said unconvincingly. I noticed the spring in his step was missing. He did not run off and play tag with the other kids as he usually does.
Instead, he heaved a heavy sigh and watched the ground pass under his feet as he walked.
I decided not to push it and instead wait to see what he would offer.
He reached up and grabbed my hand as we walked along.
I looked at his fingers interlacing mine – dirty jagged nails, scraped knuckles, long slender fingers, red and sticky with popsicle and marker and who knows what all else.
I reflected back to the days when those same hands would reach up for my face as I cradled him and gave him his bottle. He would gaze into my eyes as though he were trying to figure me out and play with my chin as he slurped and gnawed on the bottle.
When we got to the car, he confessed.
“Actually Mom,” he said, “I had a bad day. A reeeeeallly bad day.”
“Oh no,” I consoled, “Tell me about it.”
And he did.
He told a friend at school a secret, that he liked a certain girl in another class. The so-called friend didn’t keep the secret, but blurted it to everyone instead.
The bandwagon was a 1956 Chrysler, big and wide, with room for everyone in the 1st grade class, save one little boy named Conor. There was chanting and teasing. He said he started crying, so he pulled his sweatshirt up over his face. He said he cried because he was embarrassed. I don’t know exactly how it all played out but the teacher sent Sean and Conor for a slow walk around the school while she chatted with the class.
We sat in the car and talked about what happened for a long time. As painful as it was for Sean, for me it was a gift – a golden opportunity to talk about trust and compassion and other important things, all wrapped up in a real life experience.
We talked about the importance of trust, of figuring out who you can trust and the importance of being someone who can be trusted. I told him that at school, at least, if you don’t want everybody to know everything, don’t tell anybody anything. I told him that first graders are notorious blabbers and that’s why there are no 1st graders in the Secret Service.
We talked about compassion, about how it felt to be teased and what a good and noble thing it was for Conor to choose not join in the teasing. I told him Conor’s mom and dad could be very proud of him and that is exactly how I would want him to respond if someone else was being teased or picked on.
We talked about how sometimes you have to just not care what other people think, that there will always be people who don’t like you or what you are doing and want to make you feel badly about it. We talked about how you can’t control what others think, you can only control your own response. Although I was quick to admit that that was a hard one, one he might have to work on his whole life if he is anything like his mother.
Then I told him the true story of how one time when I was in 1st grade, I had to go pee, but I was afraid of the nun and too scared to ask to go to the bathroom, so I just pee’d right there in my seat and it puddled on the floor by my desk and ran clear down the row to the back of the room. When the other kids saw it, there was a mighty uproar as they all laughed and made fun of me.
“What did you do?” he asked aghast.
“I cried,” I said as a matter of fact. “I pulled my shirt up over my head and cried.”
We both laughed about that just a little, because after 45 years, the humiliation has worn off a little bit and it’s kind of funny.
He looked me in the eye and squeezed my hand. His eyes shone softly with compassion.
“Mom,” he said, “I’m sorry that you pee’d, I mean, you know, that that happened to you.”
“Yeah, thanks buddy,” I said. And I squeezed his hand back.
And I tried not to cry.