I shaded my eyes against the yellow heat of the sinking sun and saw Alex, his big brown eyes simultaneously wide and droopy, pressed against chain link as if trying to squeeze through the backstop and draw comfort from me. I hitched Michael up onto my hip and got up from the bleachers, thinking fast. A first grader’s perception doesn’t necessarily equal reality, but neither can I discount the look on his face.
“Did you say something to him about it?”
He shook his head, looked down at his baseball glove. “He told me I was stupid,” he said again.
“I know it’s hard, but when somebody says something mean, you have to tell him ‘please don’t say that.'”
Coach called the boys then, and Alex returned to practice. But the name calling had sucked all the energy out of him. He didn’t catch one ball all night, and instead of scampering around the field after the missed throws, he trudged, as if the core of his being, that beautiful heart, had turned from brilliant radiance to cold lead.
When practice was over, he returned to me. I hesitated to bring it up again–mountain out of molehill, you know–but he saved me the trouble. “Another boy said ‘I hate being your partner.'”
I sighed and hugged him as we walked toward the car. Cleats and Keds tapped softly against asphalt, our twin cores hurting in unison. Although mine goes deeper, through thirty-seven years’ layers of slights both real and perceived. You think you develop a thick skin, but you don’t. You just hide the pain better. Pain is necessary, I reminded myself, and whispered a prayer for inSpiration.
“You know,” I said, “when people say mean things to others, a lot of times it means they don’t like themselves very much. If you say, ‘Please stop saying mean things,’ they’re going to realize you’re stronger than they are.”
He didn’t answer, but I’ve learned that lack of response from Alex doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t get it. I wanted to tell him it doesn’t matter if he’s not as good at baseball as the other boys, because his heart loves and his ears hear music and his fingers obey, and he’s intensely, beautifully creative and reads at nearly a third grade level. But dumping ointment upon salve until the wound on his soul is a gloppy mess doesn’t help. Kids can tell when affirmation is really just meant to distract them from their own weaknesses.
So we walked the rest of the way in silence, and I put my faith in the future. And I prayed I can shepherd him safely there.