Yesterday, I went to talk to my son’s class about living in Germany. Liam’s social studies teacher asked any class parents who had lived in other countries to come talk about their experiences to the class.
I had such fun talking with the third graders about my six years out of the country. (My dad was stationed there for most of the 1980s, when I was in middle and high school.)
The kids were actually completely captivated, which may have been aided by the fact that I knew the crowd I was playing to. I talked a little bit of Cold War geopolitics at the beginning to explain why we were there, but mostly we talked about things like how much less sweet German desserts are; how when you order fish at restaurants, they bring it head-and-all; and how a bomb blew up outside our apartment building once (not everyone wanted American soldiers in their country, go figure). And they collapsed into peals of giggles when I read the words on my bus pass to them.
My son was clearly delighted that his mom was such a hit. So imagine his dismay when later that day, the class sociopath decided to ask Liam if he was going to have a baby brother or sister soon.
Let me make this quite clear: the kid who said this is as total and complete a creep as I have ever seen in this age group. I do not use the word sociopath lightly. He genuinely gives me the heebie-jeebies. So when he sneered to Liam, “Hey, is your mom having a baby or something?” — it was not in that innocent way that some kids have of stepping head-long into an unmeant insult. No, he was clearly trying to be nasty. He saw Liam — and everyone else, for that matter — enjoying a nice moment and decided to defecate on it.
My son was in tears for much of the afternoon. A few of his friends asked what was wrong, and he told them. And pretty soon the whole after-care program knew. And then an interesting thing happened. Every kid — and particularly the girls — ganged up on Sociopath, Jr. They chased him. They excluded him from their reindeer games. They shut him out.
Liam was anxious about talking to me about it last night. He was worried that my feelings would be hurt.
“Look, honey,” I said. “I am overweight…”
“No, you’re NOT!”
“… Well, yes, I am. But what I was going to say was, it’s OK. I take good care of myself, and I’m happy with who I am. And I’m not going to let what some little mean twit says about me ruin that happiness.”
“OK. I guess younger women worry about this stuff more than women your age do.”
Fair point. And one of the delights of being over 40.
I felt like this was one of those really significant moments in my son’s — and those kids’ — social development. According to my son, no one thought what Sociopath Jr. said was funny. They all shunned his behavior without mercy. And I got a chance to make clear to my son that self image is just that: self image. We can be strong enough to hold it sharp and clear in our minds, and not let the puny little creeps of the world nip it to death.
From Thursday through Monday, I got to take what has long been a dream trip: I went to the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Festival, popularly known as Rhinebeck. (For the uninitiated, this is basically a state fair, but focused on fiber animals like sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas. There’s also an enormous fiber market scattered across the barns, which makes it a mecca for knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, and the like. I was there selling knitting books with the publisher that I work for, Cooperative Press.)
When my son was younger, I used to crave these longer work trips; I used to crave the chance to not have parenting on my mind every waking minute (not to mention some of the sleeping ones). This time was different. While it would have been completely inappropriate to bring my son to the fair (I was working / he has school / he would have been bored a lot of the time), I found myself wishing a lot during the trip that I could have brought him. I missed him, and I wanted him to see the cool things I was getting to see — like the border collie vs. children relay races and the llama leaping contest. And the fall leaves on the rolling hills of New York. (Pictured above is the house where I stayed with seven friends. The photo doesn’t begin to capture how intensely orange those trees were in the fading afternoon light.)
Quite a few kids tagged along with parents who came as customers to Rhinebeck, and I found myself gravitating to those kids — and particularly to the little boys who were about my son’s age. While their parents were looking at our books, I would chat these little guys up about what were the hot Halloween costumes this year, how fast we could run, how super-strong our respective upper arm muscles were, what Lego sets were best, and what it takes to dispatch a zombie.
It reminded me all over again just how much I adore boys at this age. When I was eight myself, I suddenly found that most of my friends were boys instead of girls. I just liked what most boys were doing then, and liked less what most girls were doing at that age. Let me be very clear here: I know all boys aren’t alike, and neither are all girls — I was Exhibit A for that, after all — and I know that these behaviors are learned. All of that conceded, I found that with many girls there were now secrets and intrigue and all kinds of intricate social dynamics that personally I found both baffling and boring. With most boys, the play could be complex, but the rules tended to be stated outright. The play also sometimes got too rough for my tastes, but for me it was a small price to pay for forthrightness.
As an adult, I have found both women and men who appreciate this kind of straight-up interaction. But somehow eight-year-old boys seem to have that filter-free personality in its purest form. They can be rude and artless, but when I remember that this is all borne of naive honesty, I find it utterly charming.
As one eight-year-old boy at Rhinebeck this weekend mimed for me how to cut down a zombie with a battle ax (I played the role of Zombie), his mother apologized, rolling her eyes. “Sorry,” she says, “he just doesn’t know when to stop sometimes.”
“Oh, it’s quite all right,” I said. “It’s some of the most fun I’ve had all weekend.”