She was young and pretty and sweet, and from the first day she stood up in front of my sixth grade class, I adored her.
I was at the height of my awkward stage, my self-esteem slipping on the shifting sands of hormones and changing social requirements. I didn’t fit in with my peers, whose movies of choice for sleepovers were Porky’s and Children of the Corn, who listed Duran Duran as their favorite band. I was a space adventure and Somewhere Over the Rainbow kind of girl, and even when no one was tittering behind their hands about it, I was painfully aware that I didn’t fit in. Mrs. L’s perfect acceptance soothed my spirit.
At lunch recess, while my classmates played “liberation” kickball, I attached to Mrs. L. On gray, dreary winter days we stood with our hands in our pockets and talked. About what, I couldn’t say now; all I know is that when I was with her, I felt loved.
And then one afternoon, she met my eager approach with a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Kate,” she said, “I think you need to go play with your classmates.”
The shock went straight to my core in one horrible burst of shame. I was a smart girl. I instantly recognized everything she didn’t say. I was pestering my teacher at her much-needed break time. We were not friends, we were student and teacher, and I had stepped over the line. For one moment, I felt rejection, and then I recognized that she was right to banish me. By hanging out with her, I was solidifying division lines between myself and my peers, looking like a holier-than-thou teacher’s pet…which I already was; no need to make it worse.
For all the world I wouldn’t let her know how much it hurt. I skipped off, swallowing my tears, and I never again tried to chum with her. I only adored her at a distance. And although the next year of my life was perhaps the worst ever, by the time I graduated eighth grade, I had begun to connect with people my own age.
Everyone thinks they’re awkward in adolescence. I can already see it beginning in Alex, even in the first grade, and I wince. It hurts to see my children suffer; my instinct is to do everything in my power to fix it, to shield them and make sure they never feel shame or hurt or heartbreak.
But suffering is part of life, and a crucial one. Some of the most important lessons of my life were learned, not in joy, but in suffering; not in affirmation, but in shame. Pain is instructive. So I steel myself against the future, and even the present, and I try to temper my heart with my head, and remind myself that my role is not to protect my son from those tough lessons, but to stand by and love him unconditionally while he learns the lessons he needs to grow to strong manhood.