My daughter’s school is adjacent to a park. Often, to avoid the school drop-off traffic and to get a few extra, quiet moments with her on the way to school (not to mention getting a few extra steps for my Fitbit), I’ll drive to the park instead, and we’ll walk through it to get to school. It’s only about a 7 or 8 minute walk, but it’s through a quiet, grassy area where birds sing and roly-poly bugs cross our path. Dogs on leashes sniff our feet and, if we’ve left home early enough, my daughter gets a few minutes to slide or swing before we proceed to school.
This walk is the best part of my day, every day, and it’s not because we avoid traffic—which we do—or because it’s a pretty walk—which it is. It’s because in this short window of time, my daughter, unprovoked, reveals things about herself and her school day. It’s the opposite of when I pick her up from school, and she’s tired and hungry and even a bit cranky, and I ask her what she did and how school was and she says, “I don’t know. I don’t remember. The usual stuff, I guess.” I’m always hoping she’ll open up and actually explain the mystery of what happens when the bell rings, the school doors close, and she disappears inside to do…god knows what. I have no idea. And the more I ask, the more she clams up.
But on these quiet morning walks through the park, the day lies before us, full of promise, and she feels no pressure to reveal anything, and her little mind is churning with the possibilities of the day ahead. This, instead, is where she’s bursting to tell me things, and I remain quiet and just listen to the gems that come out of her mouth.
On such a walk while she was still in kindergarten, she confessed that a girl in her class had been bullying her, stealing her crayons and hiding them, calling her a baby, threatening to get her in trouble with the teacher, and, what she felt was the lowest of the low, making fun of us, her parents. As we walked, she cried to me that she wished she never had to go back, begged me for a break from school for a little while because she never knew what to expect when she sat down in her classroom. And then she and I practiced some things she could do to get this girl to buzz off.
“Next time she teases you,” I told her, “just act like you didn’t hear her. Just wave your hand around and say, ‘Do you hear that fly buzzing around? SHOO fly!’” I explained that bullies need attention, and the less attention she paid, the more the bully would feel like moving on to someone else. I reminded her that summer break was around the corner and then she’d be free, she only had to hang on a few more days. I assured her that she was ALLOWED to tell the teacher if someone was bullying her, that’s that tattling. And that YES, this was bullying. And I promised I’d talk to the teacher and we’d get this straightened out. And I sent her off to school feeling okay again…at least I hope.
On one cloudy, cold day in the park, she told me, apropos of nothing, “I believe in fairies, Mommy. Do you think there are fairies here right now? I wish I could see fairies.” And then she informed me that her pal at school didn’t believe in Santa, but she was convinced her pal was dead wrong.
One day while she was in first grade, the sheriff’s inmate work crew, in their black-and-white striped uniforms, were hard at work pulling weeds and picking up trash. Because their truck was blocking the sidewalk, and because they were surrounded by uniformed deputies, she was obviously curious about what was happening. “Are those bad guys?” she asked me.
“Well, they’re inmates from the jail, honey. Sometimes, when people commit crimes, they have to give back to society by doing community service. So they do jobs like this, beautifying the park or picking up trash along the streets, stuff like that.”
“So they’re bad guys, then?” she insisted.
“Well, but they’re not a danger to us honey. They made some bad choices, but no one would let them outside in a park to work if they were a danger to people. They’re just giving back to the community, paying a price for their bad choices.”
She thought about this for a moment and said, “Do they do assemblies in jail, where they tell the criminals not to do mean things and they have to say sorry?”
“Is that what they do at your school? Assemblies?”
“I think that’s a great idea,” I said.
On one spring day, close to the end of her first grade year, she was telling me she hoped one certain friend would be coming to school, because she couldn’t wait for them to play at recess. “I hope we play Bad Breath versus Healthy Choices again.”
After I burst out laughing, I exclaimed, “What??!!” That’s a GAME? Bad Breath versus Healthy Choices? What’s that?”
She smiled shyly and explained, “It’s like where a cookie and an apple fight it out.”
Our current school year began two weeks ago, and my mornings lately have been filled with talk of lovebugs—something I didn’t realize was an actual bug but apparently is—and how they live in the dirt at the base of the trees outside her classroom. She’s been desperate every morning to get there and show me how she can hold one. She and her friends like to gather there at recess and pick them up. “They’re always mating, though! They stick their butts together!” she giggles, covering her mouth.
Sometimes she shares revelatory things with me on our walks, but most of the time they’re little tidbits, insights into her thoughts and feelings, fears and hopes, that otherwise she might never say and I would never think to ask about. For just 7 or 8 minutes, I force myself to shut up and just listen, and I marvel at this little person. I hear about potential themes for birthday parties, outfits she wants, how things we see remind her of stories she’s read in class. We rehearse difficult conversations so she’s confident when she has to eventually have them. And, for now, anyway, she will still hold my hand through the park.
On the last day of her first grade year, when I picked her up from school and celebratory cheers rang out from kids all around her, she had plastered a big, awkward smile on her face. She loves school, and had been desperately sad about the year ending and saying goodbye to her teacher and friends.
“I thought we could walk through the park on the way home today. Do you want to play for a little while?” I asked her. “We have the whole afternoon, we can have some fun!”
She nodded quietly, but when we got away from the hubbub of the front doors, she said, “Mama, when we get to the park, I want to sit down and cry, okay?”
“Okay, baby, that’s fine,” I said.
And when we got to the park, she carefully selected a quiet, shady bench and said, “Right here, this is good.” So we sat. She crawled into my lap and sobbed for about 20 minutes, hugging me and saying how sad she was that it was over. I rubbed her back. And then we got up and walked through the park toward home.