I love seeing the colorful chalkboards filled up with favorite foods, future careers, and teacher names flood my news feed at the beginning of the school year. I especially love when little ones proclaim that they want to be dinosaurs or ninjas when they grow up, and we indulge their dreams by writing it down. Who is going to tell them they can’t be what they want to be?
My oldest is still too clumsy and distracted to hold his own letter board for his transition to the new preschool classroom. But as he creeps away from his monogrammed t-shirt to a neatly pressed uniform, I can’t help but feel a very striking anxiety fill my body.
I remember the mint colored tile walls and the saloon-style bathroom doors that didn’t come close to touching. I was a sixth grader taking a reprieve from our hot Louisiana recess in the girls’ bathroom. The tile felt good against my back as I waited my turn. On the other side of the wall was a trough of sinks and one long mirror.
The first thing I heard was the clamor of laughing from my classmates. The second thing I heard was my name. I immediately stiffened as if the blood in my body had frozen.
“Angelle over Claire.” I heard one voice echoing through the room.
“No way. Angelle is definitely the ugliest girl in our grade,” another replied.
“Yes, definitely,” replied a third.
“Yeah she looks like she’s always dirty.” By now I had lost count.
“That’s why no one wants to be her friend.”
I heard a shuffling of feet from the other side of the room and it brought me back to life. I leapt into a vacant stall and closed the door with my feet. The laughter continued. I heard my name again and again. My hair, my eyebrows, my nose, my interests, the way that I talked in class – it whirled around me like turbine. The mint tile betrayed me by pummeling the words back on me in case I didn’t hear them the first time.
It’s no great revelation that kids can be cruel, and the lows of one particularly bad day will be easily forgotten. But cruelty precisely timed is the slowest type of poison. That day, many things changed for me. I stopped brushing my hair, I stopped talking in class, I didn’t put any effort into my classes, and I gave in to some serious feelings of self-loathing. Whatever mean, untruthful things that were said about me behind that wall became actualized in the way I treated myself. Still today when I see pictures of my peers gathering without me or receive an invitation addressed to my husband but not me, I become that sixth grade girl cowering over a toilet seat and gently crying.
I’m more scared of “big kid school” than my big kid. Like with any parent, there’s no road map through the valley of landmines that is early adolescence. We cut grapes, put rubber bumpers on the fireplace, and instill a sense of stranger danger until we’re blue in the face. But we as parents will never be able to walk in our children’s shoes and give them an encouraging squeeze in the face of a hapless bully.
I have no words of advice or pithy anecdotes when I write this. I do know that others will read my story and see themselves in some capacity – even the girls who laughed at me beyond the wall who are all now mothers of beautiful children of their own. Adolescence may be cruel, but it is also egalitarian. What would a world be like for our children if we all always remembered our own struggles and actively worked to teach them to lead with kindness? What if our brightly colored chalkboard signs read promises to be kind to classmates instead of future careers or favorite subjects? What if we measured the mark of a successful year not by how many trophies or team pictures are on the shelf but by how many new friends were made?