I knew she’d ask me “that question” sooner or later. I’d prepared for the moment, but when it happened, I stumbled. I stuttered. I stammered. I’d practiced my response for months; rehearsed it in my journal. I wrote down all the clichés that would make understanding appropriate for her age level. I read multiple articles about this topic, and I bought a few books to help me understand how times have changed.
My 10-year-old daughter is going off to middle school next year. I’ve been told that I must address these delicate issues before she sets foot in this new place. But, I waited until she asked the question that I’ve been dreading.
“Mom, what if I don’t fit in?”
Gotcha! You thought it was the big birds-n-bees talk, didn’t you? But this conversation is equally burdensome for a parent. What if your child doesn’t fit in? Did you?
I didn’t at first. Seventh grade was an awkward time (that phrase is spot on) in which I wore a denim jacket with every outfit. I grew out of Palmetto jeans (not Guess) every other month, and my hair was as shocking as the gap between my front teeth. A bad perm was tinted a terrible shade of orange thanks to a bottle of Sun-In highlight spray, and it wasn’t complemented by bronzing makeup that stopped sharply at the jawline. I looked weird. I was weird. I carried my mother’s old Aigner purse, for heaven’s sake. Think I’m over it?
My daughter popped the question on my bed one night, when she should’ve been fast asleep. She lingered a little longer that evening, bouncing a foot like she was kicking an invisible soccer ball. “What is it?” I asked, closing my book.
She crossed her legs into some type of yoga pose. This was going to take awhile.
“What if I don’t fit in next year?”
Mike walked downstairs to check the door locks for the third time.
“What makes you think you won’t?” I countered.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I had a bad dream a few nights ago that I was walking down the hallway, and I didn’t know where I was going. A group of girls started laughing at me, and then one chased me through all these classrooms.”
I shuddered. Dear God, that would scare anyone.
“And I couldn’t get away from her.”
My overly-analytical parenting style forced me into thinking that she was dreaming these horrible things to try to deal with deeply-rooted worries. It was her mind’s way of bringing a problem to the surface (I guess). This also explains why she’s been in my bed for the last few mornings, watching the alarm clock.
“Are you treated that way now?” I asked.
She shook her head no. I then asked how much TV she’d been watching, or if her books were too old for her. She shook her head no again. “I’m reading about Jackie Kennedy,” she said. Well that Ethel could be a real bully, I joked. She didn’t laugh.
“You’ll fit in because you and 50 other kids from your school are headed in the same direction,” I began. “They’re not breaking off from the mix just yet. But most of them are involved in something — dance, soccer, softball, gymnastics — which will make the first days of school a little easier,” I admitted.
Choosing to be uninvolved has ramifications. Inaction has consequences, too. “These kids have been going to practices for years,” I warned her. “So it’s a little late to start something truly competitive,” I said.
After reassuring her that she would have the best years of her life because of a friendly personality, a kind heart and a generous spirit, I shared my worries with a friend as soon as she got out of bed the next morning.
“She is an introvert,” I told her. “She holds back, and we might’ve encouraged it to keep her safe.”
“Then you know what, Katy?” my friend began, in a slightly edgy tone (which scared me). “That’s when she picks up an instrument and she joins the band.”
I sat there for a moment. I was in the band. I played the flute (because my cousin did), and then I switched to the saxophone (because my friend did), and then I tried out for the majorette corps (because my cousin and friend did).
“Since kids aren’t introduced to marching band until sixth grade, it doesn’t matter that she’s never had a lesson.”
I perked up. THE BAND!
Why didn’t this occur to us? She’s already a student of the Magnet School of Music at West Side Elementary. Why wouldn’t she continue this interest? THE BAND!
That night (on my bed), I asked our girl what she thought about learning to play an instrument. Flute? Clarinet? Sax?
She curled her lip.
“Well, you have to do something,” I snapped. ”That’s my new rule. I don’t care if you run cross country or join the debate team, but if you’re worried about fitting in, then you need to find a group that will be a positive influence.”
“Oh no, it’s not that,” she exclaimed, fanning her arms in my face. “I think I know what I want to do.”
I waited. She smiled. Then she laughed. She tipped over on the bed and giggled some more.
“I want to play the drums.”
After a match of “No, you don’t” and “Yes, I do”, I withdrew from competition. “You’re serious?” I asked.
“Yes. I want to play the drums and then the xylophone.”
“We’ll support you, but you’ll stick with it,” I replied, shocked that a book about Jackie Kennedy would be replaced by a biography of Ringo Starr. A similar worry set in. Classmate reaction could go either way. Kids are so critical, especially of those who do something unusual. Fitting in and blending in aren’t exactly the same types of acceptance.
“I’m pretty sure that a tall girl with long, blonde hair and blue eyes pounding on a snare drum will most definitely stand out,” I said.
She never lost her smile. “And you and Dad can sit in the stands and watch!”
With bells on.