The van door slid open and Ethan paused before stepping into the vehicle. “Today I learned I’m not popular,” he announced, and then chucked his backpack past his younger brother’s feet and onto the floor with a thump.
I was a few minutes late picking him up from Japanese school. Not enough to really even be considered late, but enough to make me feel guilty and stressed tenfold when I spotted him in the distance, sitting alone on a bench. He had his bright yellow Pikachu backpack strapped onto his back and his shoulders were rounded in defeat.
When he approached our van I noticed the furrowed brows and the disappointment pooling inside of his wet eyes.
I held my breath, expecting a bad behavior report. He was probably talking in class again. He was always talking.
He shut the door and squeezed into the last row of the van. As he buckled his seat belt, I heard him mumble something that sounded like, “I’m not passing to the next grade.”
My heart raced. WHAT? He received a good report card a month ago. He had great attendance. Yeah, he could probably study more. But…but…but…not pass? That’s it. I’m failing as a parent. I suck at this job. I’m terrible. Terrible. I’m the worst mother in the world for not helping my kid pass Japanese class. I am raising out-of-control children. I am failing as a mother.
“No,” he snapped. “I found out today that I’m NOT POPULAR.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Oh thank goodness. He’s not popular! He’s still passing Japanese class…phew! I felt the tension in my body immediately melt away. I wasn’t such a terrible mother after all. He wasn’t a terrible student. Crisis averted.
“It’s serious,” Ethan said. “They all voted and I didn’t get chosen.”
Wait, what were we talking about? I asked him to go back to the beginning of the story. Voted for what? Who? Why?
Apparently his teacher had the class vote to determine who the three best behaved students were, and he said he never got chosen. No votes. Not a single one.
“Who cares if they don’t think you’re the best behaved,” I said. Maybe not the best thing for a teacher to say, you know, down-playing the benefits of behaving in class. But really, who cares?
“I never get picked,” he bemoaned. “They never vote for me. I’m NOT popular.”
“Why do you go to Japanese school? Why do you spend your Saturdays there?”
“To learn Japanese.”
“Because I’m going to be a robot scientist and do business in Tokyo.”
“Right. And someday you won’t even think about these kids who voted on useless titles like ‘best behaved.’ I don’t hang out with anyone from elementary school. Not a single person.” I glanced in the rear-view mirror to see if my impassioned speech was sticking, but he looked unconvinced.
Maybe I was being too blase about this social predicament of his. Certainly I remembered what it felt like to be unpopular. Heck, I still had moments in my adult life when I was reminded of the social pecking order. I definitely remembered what it was like as a kid to feel self-conscious about everything, and how difficult it was to coexist with peers in the fishbowl of school. At 36-years-old I have just barely gotten over the self-conscious paranoia.
It actually wasn’t until I woke up one morning to a dead husband when I realized none of the things I worried about mattered in the grand scheme of life. Everything had been in my head.
Now I wished that I could transfer this realization to my children without them having to waste painful years of their own lives trying to reach the same conclusion the hard way. I want to hand them a road map to the spring of confidence that exists within them so they can access it before the weight of the world crushes their self-esteem. I want them to always feel like they are enough. I want my children to feel empowered to make their own decisions with confidence, and for them to understand that nobody has the right to tell them who they should or shouldn’t be.
Unfortunately, these are lessons and realizations that usually come with experience. You have to grow into these truths through trial and error. You have to get your feelings hurt. Cry. Feel rejected. I can tell the kids not to touch the hot pan, but for most people, they have to touch it for themselves and feel the burn before learning not to do it again. For some people, they might need to get burned several times before they figure it out.
I wasn’t convincing Ethan with my pep talk. At least not in that moment.
I had been noticing signs of my first born’s increasing awareness about social situations. He began to measure the success of a day by his peer interactions. Who he hung out with. What was said. Where so-and-so sat. How the class stared at him when the teacher called out his name. So much of his mood had become intertwined with these encounters.
I remembered those days. I hated them. As a mother, I want my children to understand that those days don’t define us. Those people and those feelings are distorted images inside of our heads, kind of like looking into those fun house mirrors at a carnival and seeing twisted versions of yourself. Not real.
I don’t know what I was more concerned about–the fact that my son had a terrible day, or the fact that I’ve somehow become one of those old adults who espouse useless pearls of wisdom that do not apply in young social circles.
I’ve turned into my dad.
Oh my goodness. That’s it. I’m done. I’m one of “those” adults. I’ve become a obsolete voice box.
I could hear my dad’s infamous lines in my head, the ones me and my siblings would make fun of whenever he said them.
“You have the rest of your life to get there.”
“You never know the burden other people carry.”
“We’re the family that doesn’t waste anything.”
Shudder. The loathed old person telling the young what to do.
Unwilling to give up on my mission to help Ethan realize the mirage in his head for what it was, I brought up the subject the next day when I was jogging. I pushed the double stroller with two kids inside, and Ethan rode his bike next to me.
“Ethan,” I said, in between breaths. “Remember when we worked the bake sale at the Hanamatsuri festival?”
“Remember when I got super excited about seeing that girl from high school?”
I was selling brownies and cookies with Ethan under the shade of an E-Z Up when I spotted her in the distance pushing a stroller. I did a double-take, hardly believing my eyes that somebody from my childhood would be at my temple as an adult. Sure enough, it was her. I elbowed Ethan and pointed her out, completely forgetting about my brownie-buying-customers for a few seconds. I literally stared in disbelief that the time had finally come.
One of the most popular girls from high school. I remembered how she had a Barbie doll body. Or did she?
“Our eyes and brains trick us when we’re younger,” I said.
He waited for clarification.
“I thought there was no way I could compete with her.” My former classmate had bleached blonde hair, popular boyfriends and her own phone line. She was a cheerleader. I was a nerd.
I had to explain the phone line significance. You know, back in the old days we didn’t have cell phones, so having your own phone line in your bedroom was a big deal.
“When I saw her at the festival, I didn’t feel so beneath her anymore. She’s not cooler than I am. Life leveled the playing field.” It felt therapeutic just to hear myself say those words out loud.
In short: the nerds catch up. They always do. And we all experience our own share of personal shit. None of us will escape it. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.
Life leveled the playing field.
My big revelation out of all of this. I know experiencing the loss of my husband helped expedite this level of self-consciousness.
Carlos Castaneda said that “a warrior must focus his attention on the link between himself and his death…he must let each of his acts be his last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will his acts have their rightful power.”
As we age, we get closer to our own death. We experience the death of our loved ones. We begin to understand mortality in a way that escapes the young.
Except Ethan has a dead father. Having a dead father can be an emotional ball and chain, or it can be the motivation and the impetus to do great things.
All of the stupid noise in between our birth and death must get filtered out.
That is the greatest challenge: deciphering what is just noise, and what we should actually listen to.
I don’t spend a lot of time begrudging others for not having a dead husband like me. I didn’t even feel jealous when I saw my former Barbie classmate with her husband and young family strolling around the same festival I would have been at with my husband if he had been alive. I wasn’t jealous because I know all too well that life will level the playing field. We all have our highs and lows. We all start at different places, with different privilege and different experiences.
But the end is the same for all of us.
We are all going to die.
And because of this, I have to live in a way that makes the best out of what I have, and I have to worry about creating my personal niche in the peaks and valleys that I dwell in–a niche that will be uniquely my own. No apologies. This is the only thing that matters.
We are all running out of time.