At the start of this school year, my third-grader AJ was invited to be part of Battle of the Books — a book club that meets before school hours every other week. Battlers read a total of 10 books, a blend of fiction and nonfiction, award-winners and obscure finds. The program culminates in a final contest against other elementary schools that have read the same books. Armed with custom T-shirts for the occasion, the team is excused from school for the final battle, which takes place at the prestigious Skidmore College. After the battle, a local restaurant is donating a celebratory lunch for all participants. Only 5 of the 12 students can go to this final battle, so a test was given to see who made the cut.
AJ came home last Tuesday, his backpack overflowing with all ten books from which to study for the test.
Let me tell you about my son AJ’s brain. He taught himself to use a computer and navigate the Internet before he could talk. He learned how to play chess — and play well! — at the age of 4. He has a scary memory. He can explain the difference between endangered and extinct, giving numerous examples of exotic animals for each category. This morning he recalled something his grandpa told him months ago: 70% of the universe is dark matter which pulls the universe apart, and 25% of the universe is dark energy which pushes the universe back together…Dark matter is winning. He knows the only way to cut a circle in 3 equal parts is to make a ‘peace sign.’ I’m not bragging here, but what this kid remembers blows me away…and sure keeps me on my toes.
So I didn’t do the flash card thing. I didn’t insist he reread all ten books. I didn’t make him redo his summaries. My husband and I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on him. We enjoyed our weekend. We saw Wild Kratts Live at Proctors, we went skiing at West Mountain. AJ played the Wii with his brothers and chess with his dad. We had fun.
As soon as AJ came off the bus yesterday, tears brimming over his enviously long eyelashes, I knew he didn’t make the team.
As parents, we’re not supposed to solve for everything in our child’s life. We are there to lend advice and provide boundaries, but also support, love, and encourage. But we’re not supposed to keep them in a bubble, protect them from heartbreak, shield them from bullies on the school bus, or lie about the existence of holiday personas for the sake of their happiness. Right?
“That’s okay. Hey, it’s okay. Mom and dad are so proud of you. You did your best. It’s okay. Hey, it’s okay.”
I sounded like a broken record. So I stopped. Put my arm around his puffy coat, pulled him into a side hug as we walked up our driveway. “I know you’re disappointed. I would be disappointed too.”
And then his tears really started. Not just tears. Sobbing. Loud, vocalized agony that surely indicated to neighbors he had broken his femur…or stepped on a bed of rusty nails. (Maybe I should have stuck with the “It’s okay” mantra?)
He got inside, stripped off the day’s baggage, and fell onto the couch. There was so much I wanted to say.
“How about a hug?”
My nine-year-old curled up to me like a sleepy toddler and let it all out. When the tears stopped, we stayed there snuggling on the couch. Me holding my firstborn, my son, my one and only AJ.
I gently cracked the silence by sharing a story I hadn’t thought about for years.
When I was a little girl, I was up for a part in play called Pippi Longstocking. Not just any part. Pippi. It was between me and another girl, but I wasn’t worried. Theater was my “thing” and this other girl was younger and less experienced and had never really been in shows before. This wasn’t just a show, it was a traveling troupe. The small cast would perform all over the Northeast for months to come, creating priceless memories and experiences at every step. Not only that, but my brother Jimmy was a shoe-in for a show-stopping supporting role. It was supposed to be a family affair. Sibling bonding. Just think of the headlines…
The director called the house and although I had answered the phone, she asked to speak to Jimmy. He got the part — the fun supporting role where his comedic genius would shine. And that was all the news she had for our family. She was sorry, but I did not get the part of Pippi. I was devastated. Absolutely crushed. And what made it sting even more? I had to watch my brother have the time of his young life traveling and performing with this small group of actors who became his fast friends.
“What part did you end up getting?” AJ asked me.
“I didn’t get a part. I wasn’t in the show at all.” I said, and then the strangest thing happened. I broke into tears…while I was holding my nine-year-old who just had his first big disappointment in life. AJ was quiet while I tried unsuccessfully to hide my emotions.
Later, my husband called while I was making dinner and AJ told him the news. “I was really sad after school, but I’m okay now…Mom told me about a part she didn’t get when she was a little girl. She was really sad then too. It’s okay to be sad.”
There I was at the stove getting choked up all over again. Will he ever truly know how proud I am of him? Will he ever realize how much I learn from him? There is no bubble. There will be heartbreak. Life is prickly and unfair, yet wondrous and thrilling. AJ will feel every bit of it, because that’s who he is. And I wouldn’t change a thing about him. Not one thing.
Yes, it’s okay. It’s okay to be sad.