Apr 9 2011

Standing Up

“Four bad things happened today,” Short-pants announced when I went to pick her up at school one day last week.

I resisted the urge to re-direct her to what was good about the day – an evaluation method I use in my profession suggests a thorough inventory of the positives before listing the concerns – instead, I let her tell me everything she wants to tell me, in whatever order she preferred. I want her to develop the habit of confiding in me. Correcting her syntax about how she reports the day’s events won’t help to keep the channel open. We’re still years away from her sullen adolescence, but I’m planting any seeds I can.

The liabilities of the day were not so grave, for an adult. She even seemed to have them in perspective. They annoyed rather than upset her, although the boundary between those two territories is rather thin. Somebody – a boy who often picks on her – was pulling on her hood as they climbed the stairs. When she turned to ask him to please stop he gave her the French shrug: “I didn’t do anything.”

Later in the lunch line, two girls behind her tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned around, acted as if they’d never touched her. “It bothered me,” she said, “that they would actually think I didn’t know it was them.”

And so it begins. I’ve suspected she’s a target for teasing. And since teasing often leads to bullying, I wonder if that’s possibly what’s ahead.

The other two incidents were equally benign (and probably normal) on the scale of mean things kids do to each other, but the accumulation of wasted gestures and silly pretending put Short-pants in a bad mood.

“Why do they pick on you?” Buddy-roo asked later, when we were talking about it at dinner. “Because I’m an outlier, a bit of a loner,” she answered, matter-of-factly. I regarded her with that mixture of pride and confusion. How amazing that she can so coolly describe herself, and how does she know that about herself?

“Papa told me I might get teased a little and that would be why.” I’m glad she talks to De-facto about it, too. She’s getting feedback from two genders of sounding board.

A few months ago I purchased a book and tucked it into my closet, waiting for the day that it would seem relevant to pass on to her. This felt like it was the right day. Despite the fact that it is from the American Girl franchise, one that’s over-the-top merchandising horrifies and impresses me at once, it is a well-conceived text. Straight forward, plain language, esteem-building advice for young girls about bullying, being bullied or just observing the act. Short-pants is a bookish type, you can talk to her about anything, but if she sees it in a book, it reaches some understanding place deeper inside of her than simple conversation can penetrate. So whenever I want to help her out, or make a point, I find a book about it.

She read the title of the book, Stand up For Yourself and Your Friends, and squealed with delight, “American Girl!” She cares little about the dolls and their accessories but has devoured the books – which contain great stories portraying how girls in other generations have grown up. She ran upstairs and I didn’t hear from her for over an hour. She read the whole book in one sitting. And then read it again. She came downstairs standing tall and empowered.

I have been waiting – obviously, since I bought a book about it – for the days when Short-pants would be teased at school. There have been a few incidents, the perpetrator always one of a handful of predictably mischievous boys. But what disturbs me is that maybe the girls are starting now to pick on her, and when pre-adolescent girls start, they get worse. And when they get mean, they get mean.

Up until now, the fact that she’s so sweet and kind and a little quirky has seemed to amuse her classmates as much as us. She is a loner, but not because other kids didn’t ask her to play. She often refuses their invitations, opting to wander around the school courtyard on her own, making up her own poems and rhymes, plunging into her rich inner life. But there you find the catch-22. As she refuses, repeatedly, they cease to ask her. And the less she is “with” them, the greater the odds that they will turn “against” her.

Whether kids are the most popular in class, the geek, the jock, the brainiac, the chatterbox (that would be Buddy-roo) or the loner, there is no way to protect them from the backlash of their particular role. The popular kids will be envied and bad-mouthed, the jocks adulated in person but derided behind their back for their “lesser” intelligence, the geeks ignored but stereotyped nonetheless. Protection is useless; it’s even counter-productive. The trials of childhood graduate to those of adolescence and prepare us for the occasional cruelties of life. How else would we thicken our skin?

I know I can’t protect her. But I can help her to be prepared, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. The question is, how do I prepare myself?


Oct 15 2010

The Love Note

She handed me the small sheet of paper, torn out of a notebook. It was creased from being folded and unfolded. I tried to make out what was written, the paper was ripped in such a way that none of the phrases were complete. Was it a code of some sort? It looked like it could be a practice test or part of someone’s homework, scratched in the deliberate fashion of a schoolchild working with the obligatory stylo-plume fountain pen.

“No mama,” Short-pants instructed, “turn it over.” On the other side, more words from (apparently) the same stylo-plume, but this message was clear: proclamations of her beauty and expressions of affection. Tu est super belle and bisous d’amour. The signature, from a boy in her class – call him Jean-luc – was written in the middle of a big heart.

I remember the thrill of all my schoolgirl crushes. What’s-his-name loved me, which meant we wrote notes back and forth and maybe talked on the phone. But at the age of nine that was enough to be an official couple, even if we never saw each other outside of the confines of the school building or schedule. These torrid pre-teen relationships were mercurial, lasting sometimes only a few days before I.D. bracelets were returned and another boy was the objective of, if not my affection, at least my attention.

“It’s a love note from Jean-luc,” she preened. “Olivier, who sits at the desk next to mine, passed it over. He told me that if I asked Jean-luc about the note, he’ll deny it because he’s so shy.”

I know Jean-luc. Last year he was one of the four classmates with whom Short-pants was teamed to produce an exposé. He’s very smart, very quick, rather precocious. Shy is not a word I’d use to describe him. He is the class boy-geek, and Short-pants could be classified as the girl-geek. They do make a nice pair, if you think in stereotypes.

“Well anyway, I didn’t do anything because Melanie Martin says that you don’t tell a boy how you feel because it will embarrass him. You just have to show him.”

You gotta love Melanie Martin. She’s the heroine of With Love From Spain, a book about a family’s spring-break trip during which the mother visits old haunts from her college year abroad. This entails introducing her husband and children to an old flame, which goes over (mostly) well, especially for Melanie who develops a crush on the son of her mother’s old boyfriend. I love this book because it introduces ever-so-gently the nuances and complexities of old relationships-turned-friendships and how it all works when the past meets the present. The book, which Short-pants has read no less than a dozen times, was a gift from none other than the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who wants everyone to love Spain as much as she does. Aside from Melanie’s wisdom about show, don’t tell, it contains a number of valuable nuggets about life in another culture. Like this one: Spaniards don’t believe in bedtime; they believe in nighttime.

The next morning Short-pants brought up the love note again. “Do you think I should tell Jean-luc that I like him, too?” I gave her the standard answer-a-question-with-a-question response, “What do you think?” She paced around the kitchen island, mulling this over in an active meditation. “I could ask Olivier to tell him that I like him.”

Now I knew I was in tricky territory, I didn’t want to burst her love-bubble, but here was a chance to prepare her for one possibility: that just maybe the note wasn’t for real, that the note was a joke. On her.

“Why don’t you think it’s for real?” De-facto had asked me the night before. I explained my theory about a note on pink paper and how maybe some girls in the class don’t quite get Short-pants and this kind of a joke would be a typical response. “Yeah,” he said, after considering it, “much too crafty to be perpetuated by a male.”

Short-pants is a prime target for teasing. She’s a bit of a loner. At school, during the récré, she often rejects invitations to play with her peers. She’d rather wander around the courtyard and talk to herself. She is über-sweet, kind, empathetic, angelic. The fact that she’s so nice, to everyone, could work in her favor – so far I think it has – but I’m waiting for the day when the girls in her class are old enough to get mean, the way pre-adolescent girls can be so mean. Short-pants will be an easy one to bully.

The recent incident at Rutger’s University is an extreme case, but it’s served to raise awareness about how bullying is a real problem in our schools. Back in the day (my day) you didn’t talk about it, you certainly didn’t tell your parents, you just suffered. But I think the bullying is more severe now, and as parent, I feel compelled to watch for clues, even if it’s just the seeds of something that turns out to be a harmless prank. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. But I believe there’s an important distinction between being overprotective and preparing our children so they can fend for themselves.

“I think Melanie Martin had you headed down the right track,” I told her. Bolstering my argument with her favorite literary character couldn’t hurt. Deep breath. Then I said it: “Do you think Jean-luc really wrote the note?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pondering the possibility that he hadn’t, “it looks like his writing.”

I brought up the pink paper. She admitted this was a bit of a stretch.

“You never know, though,” I softened my blow, “maybe it was some scrap paper he found.”

She studied me, taking this all in.

“Maybe it is a real love note, maybe it’s not. But if I were you, I’d wait and see before playing your hand. If you start asking around, you’re giving away too much. If it’s not real, you save face. If it is real, then Jean-luc will have to work a bit harder to get you to swoon for him.”

“Melanie Martin is right!” She marched out of the kitchen, turning back to offer a quick but heartfelt, “thanks mama.”

I grabbed the edge of the butcher-block centerpiece of our kitchen, as if to steady myself for any and all victories and heartbreaks ahead. This is just a small love story. Or if it is couple of girls having fun at her expense, it’s only a mild teasing. The thing is, I do want her to know romance and to be open to its magic. I also hope she’ll learn to be discriminating and solid on her own two feet.

Short-pants came back into the kitchen. “What does swoon mean?”

“Look it up,” I said. This one, she can figure out on her own.


Mar 29 2010

End Pieces

Just as quickly as Buddy-roo’s black-eye ballooned into a swollen mess, it began to heal. For a few days, she looked like she’d rather fight than switch, but now there is only a faint bluish-yellow bruise that is about to vanish. Kids heal fast. At first she didn’t like all the fuss, but it soon became a badge of honor. She strutted around the school courtyard, and nobody messed with her.

De-facto pointed out a small discrepancy in my account of the accident: I wrote that buddy-roo “grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion.” This implies that the ground was stationary. He reminds me that the floor of the moving walkway is always moving in sync with the railing. So my reasoning (she stopped and the railing didn’t) can’t be the why she fell.

Listen, I’m a writer not an engineer. I saw her go down and it wasn’t pretty.

Short-pants and I passed that fateful ramp this afternoon when we made our way to the Conservatory. Long before we got to the ramp, she announced, “Mama, when we get to that dangerous part on the walkway, you shouldn’t run down it. I’ve decided from now on, we should always walk on it.”

Speaking of good decisions, you can imagine I was dying to hear what happened when Short-pants declined the invitation to join the Group.

“Well, I was nice about it,” she said. “I told them no, thank you.”

Apparently her answer was met with some resistance, but they were unable to persuade her to change her mind. I probed for more information, hoping to get a little more detail about who were these friends and what was their collective purpose. “It’s called the G-group,” she said, “for girls only. And anyway, I don’t want to be part of a group that doesn’t have boys in it. It’s not interesting enough.”

One of my good gal-friends, a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and award winning truffle-maker to boot), stopped by the apartment last week to say hello and was shocked to see the laundry rack in our living room, laden with clothes hung out to air dry.

She admitted that when she read about our broken dryer and how we weren’t going to replace it for environmental reasons, she thought, “we’ll see how long that lasts.” I’m happy to report, in case there are any other doubting readers out there, that yes, we continue to dry most of our clothes on the drying rack.

It should be noted, however, that just a month after the dryer broke, our washing machine died as well. (Oddly, we’ve had to replace every single major electrical appliance in our home in the last year.) We opted to purchase combo washer-dryer; that is to say it’s one machine in which you can wash the clothes, and then you change the dial and it dries them. So we do have a dryer now. Though use of this drying function has been designated for towels and jeans, only. Everything else goes on the rack. We’re trying, at least a little, to change our carbon footprint.

The weeks seems fuller than ever before. The constant motion of getting everybody everywhere with everything they need, while juggling a self-regenerating to do list leaves no time to rest, little time to grieve, just barely enough time to notice that spring has arrived here in Paris.

But it has, and that’s worth an Alleluia.


Mar 26 2010

The Group

On the way home from school, Short-pants told me about the group.

“I need to wear grown-up clothes tomorrow,” she announced, “because I’ve been asked to join a group.” Her enthusiasm was fierce; she was proud to have been invited. I asked her to tell me about the group. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just know who’s in it, and we’re supposed to wear grown-up clothes.”

After a moment of reflection, I decided to offer, carefully, an unsolicited opinion. I told her how I belong to a few different groups: teams I work with, professional associations, friends from school, from college, from Paris. I told her how groups are good for sharing common interests and getting support and having fun, as long as membership in them doesn’t require being rude to others to or excluding people in an unfair or mean-spirited way. Then I asked her, “Do you think this group is like that?”

“No Mama.”

“Well good, then,” I said. We started brainstorming what kind of grown-up outfit we might put together for her to wear that next day.

I guess this is the age when social groups become more clearly delineated. Instead of being part of a mass identity of the children, small clusters of like-minded, like-interested, informal clubs begin to form, not always with the best intention. I remember when I was a little bit older than Short-pants, a group of tough girls used to select a classmate at random, the tauntee-du-jour, and for any kind of reason they could invent, pick on her and lobby the other students to ignore her, or worse, to mock and ridicule her along with them. I lived in fear that I would become their target. I remember once they taunted a homely girl who was a Jehovah’s Witness, circling and kicking dirt at her in the playground. I didn’t participate, but I stood by and watched them jeer at her without saying a word or stepping in. Later that night, I felt like I should tell my mother about it, but I didn’t. I was too ashamed.

I still regret that.

In high school, I ran with a pretty congenial group. We might have been a clique, but I don’t believe we were intentionally cruel to anyone. (I say that, but my memory may be selective.) One of my friend’s parents owned a motel, and on graduation weekend they let the senior class take it over for a huge party. We barbecued, drank beer (the drinking age was 18 back then) and did our own fatiguing version of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, singing into beer bottles as if they were microphones. When someone suggested a midnight swim, I went to get my bathing suit and it was nowhere to be found. Someone loaned me another, but the next day I found mine crammed into the toilet of one of the furthest motel rooms. The perpetrator, we believed, was a girl from another group, a group made up of some of those same taunting girls from earlier in my childhood.

It hurt. It wasn’t the first time I was picked on or teased, but there was something violent – or violating – about it. I suppose it says something that I remember it now, decades later.

Maybe I should tell that story to Short-pants.

I’m stunned at the vitriol between groups – political groups – in the United States right now. I imagine this was the tenor of things during the civil rights movement, but I was shielded from that by my parents, good old-fashioned Rockefeller Republicans, a breed that seems to be an endangered species these days. By the time I came of political age, things were tamer. The Democrats and Republicans disagreed, but the reaching across the aisle that Obama aspires to was not so extraordinary, a little quid-pro-quo-cross-parties was the natural order of being effective in Washington. I think it was like that. Wasn’t it?

Most of my friends supported the passage of the health care reform bill. I also know people who opposed it. But I cannot imagine any of them – on either side of the debate – lashing out at the other side with such venom and physical violence. Threatening the safety of the representatives who supported the bill? Vandalizing their homes and offices? Harassing their families? Bullying everyday citizens simply because they support Obama or the health care reform? I realize that my view of America is shaped by idealistic text-books from the 1970s, but this is not how I understood our democracy to operate. Was I fooled by those cheezy film-strips (beep) or has the typical American’s respect for the rule of law changed so dramatically in the nearly twenty years I’ve lived abroad? Since when is freedom of speech interpreted as the right to be downright rude, to insult, slander and cause physical damage to people in the other group, the ones who think differently. How can it be okay to hate and hurt like this? Not only can groups be mean. They can be dangerous.

The next morning, Short-pants crawled in beside me for her morning cuddle. We started to talk about her wardrobe and what she should select to wear to look grown-up. She wasn’t very responsive to my questions.

“There’s another thing,” she told me, “they said if I want to be in the group, I have to change my hair.” This would mean removing the broccoli-like ponytail she’s taken to wearing, the one that sticks straight up, just over her forehead.

“How to you feel about that?” I asked.

“Well, I like my hair this way.”

We went over her choices, listing the different ways she could respond: Change her hair and join, keep her hair and not join, keep her hair but ask if she could still join. Were there other choices? Maybe, she thought. She wanted some time to think about it.

Later, at breakfast, with a mouthful of pancakes, she told me her decision.
“I think I’m going to tell them thanks but I don’t want to be in the group after all.” She tugged on her vertical ponytail.

My daughter, it seems, has the makings of an Independent.