This is my kid.
This is him in a rare moment of leaning into me while there’s a camera present, instead of leaning the other way. For me, this was like winning an Academy Award. “You like me, you really like me.” He doesn’t really think I’m cool. He’s right. Compared to him, I’m not.
A few important notes about this kid, for those of you who don’t know him:
-He strikes out four out of five times at bat (sometimes five out of five), but when he makes contact he can hit the ball so hard that the people in the bleachers inhale in unison before it occurs to them to cheer. Also, he still wants to play ball every summer, in spite of the many frustrations it brings him.
-He knows everything about military history from the Byzantine Empire to Afghanistan. Show him a weapon, a plane, a tank, and he’ll tell you when and where it was made. The last book he read for leisure was The Art of War by Sun Tzu. He said he thought the author contradicted himself a lot, but maybe that’s the art part.
-In spite of his fascination with battle, his most dominant quality is his gentle kindness and compassion. I’ve always said you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat babies and dogs and old people. That being said, he is a person of truly amazing character.
-He’s awkward around girls, but I once overheard him telling a pretty girl that he likes exotic foods. (It’s true, he does.)
-He is a genius in the literal meaning of that word. An actual, bona fide genius.
-He is relentlessly bullied at school.
When he was younger, in second and third grade, he mostly got picked on by the one cool guy in class. You know the one, the guy who’s good at everything, whose self-confidence radiates like a solar flare of charisma. That kid couldn’t stand him, and made sure he knew it at every opportunity. This is when I introduced him to the fallacy behind the idea that bullies secretly feel like crap about themselves and are so insecure that they pick on other kids to try to boost their own egos. In truth, most bullies feel just fine about themselves. Their self esteem is miles higher than those of the kids who get picked on. I told him the best way to fight a bully is to feel fine about yourself, too. Walk like a lion.
We moved when he was in the fourth grade. He was a champ about it. He settled in and caught up quickly on subjects that were further along than he’d been at his old school. He made a few friends and enjoyed his first year in our new town. In the fifth grade, alliances shifted, as they do in elementary school, and he was the odd man out. I listened helplessly as he told me day after day that no one would play with him at recess and that when he sat down at the lunch table with his old friends they rolled their eyes and snickered. Then I did what every sane mother does when trying to process that information about their kid. I stalked the playground. This was a grave error on my part. I parked up the hill from the school, slunk behind the wheel and watched his class when they came out to recess. Three days in a row I watched him by himself on the playground. Nothing will break your heart like seeing a kid alone on a playground. Any kid. When it's your own kid, though, driving back home is dangerous. Even if you could see the road through your tears, you'd never see it through the rage. On the third day I watched as a group of boys flanked him from two sides and kicked away the ball he was playing with by himself. Head down, shoulders slumped, he did not defend himself. You can imagine, I was not better off for having seen it, and it rendered me helpless to help him. I spoke with his teachers, his principal, even the mothers of the kids who were picking on him. Billy, as intuitive and sweet as he is, only felt guilty that I was so upset.
That night we had a talk. I told him that junior high would be better, that there would be new friends, friends he had stuff in common with, people who really liked to hang out with him. I told him it would get better, and I believed it.
I lied. It hasn’t.
What was I thinking? It’s junior high. These kids are rough and shrewd and they know how to fly just under the radar. They have figured out how to psychologically torture a kid with words that can’t get them into trouble. He never knows when or where it’s coming. Maybe once a week, maybe more, never less. Yet every day he wakes up before the rest of us, gets himself ready for school, ties his shoes, and walks bravely into the fire. What’s more, he consistently achieves near perfect grades. He’s never asked to stay home from school. He’s never complained that it’s too hard, that he doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t even have a crappy attitude about it.
Imagine for a moment that there are people at your job who, with some regularity and not because of any instigation on your part, go out of their way to hurt your feelings. Imagine that you have to always expect it, because you never know when it’s coming. Imagine that they make you feel inferior, like a misfit, like someone who’s not as good as they are. Imagine that you have to hold your head up and do your best to ignore them because you have a job to do and it doesn’t even occur to you that not doing it is an option. The faces change, but every year there’s someone new, just fucking with you for sport. It’s just life. How many of us would have the persistence and tenacity to keep showing up day after day after day? And if we showed up at all, how many of us would perform on the high end of excellent under that kind of anxiety?
He’s no angel, I’ll be the first to say. Actually, his sister would be the first to say that, but I’ll back her up. He’s an 11 year old kid. He’s got some bad habits, like trying to wear dirty shirts to school, and some obnoxious traits, like sounding eerily like Napoleon Dynamite when he’s irritated. But I’m telling you, this kid is cool. Sure, he’s smarter than anyone I know, but he’s also really, really cool. That’s how I know this is all going to be okay. Because I know him.
You wouldn’t know it from most photos of us, the ones where I’m clinging to him as he tries furiously to pry himself from my adoring grasp like the cat in Pepe LePew cartoons, but this kid and I have a good thing. I see him. I talk to him. He talks to me. We get each other. That is, I see every shining, glorious, perfect cell of his little being, and he gets me well enough to be annoyed by me.
The bullies run in a pack, whereas there is only one of him, but I’m pretty sure the intellectual tally is about even. Of course, my instinct is to provide him with a grab bag of insults to disarm his attackers. Being the queen of the snappy comeback, I’d like to gift him with my most tried and true burns, the ones that will leave them futilely stammering something about rubber and glue. I’m smart and mean. He is smarter, but he’s kind. If I give him the words to say, they won’t be his own. Inauthenticity will dilute their potency, and might even leave him more vulnerable. It has to come from him. I’ve given him my full permission to use whatever language is necessary to extract himself from the web of torment they’re weaving around him.
When I mentioned all this to a close friend who loves him as much as I do, she immediately reacted with love. Not spite, not anger, not resentment at the situation. Love. She said that she will wrap him in love.
Listen, I like to think that I’m a pretty good mom, but sometimes the answers are just not inside me. I would not have come up with this. Just love him? Not: beat on every door and fight, fight, fight until you fix it for him. Not: tell them all to go fuck themselves and when you get called into the Principal’s Office you will not be in trouble with me. Just love him. It took a few days for her words to sink in, but last night it hit me. I guess this is the 'takes a village' part. His refusal to engage in a psychological war with these kids is the stuff of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Jesus. He's on the high road. No need for me to drag him down to my snarky way of doing things. Just love him.
It all goes back to what I told him in the second grade: walk like a lion. Our job, as those who love him, is to build him up and up and up. It takes about a million atta-boys from your dorky mom to counteract one instance of the mean kids at school calling you names. Good thing I’ve got nothing but time.