Sam has always run deeper than most humans. He sees the world in a unique way, and while many think he's not paying attention, he is typically observing something with such depth he can't focus on what we may want him to see. Finding his place, his community, the spot on the map where he belongs and his heart can stop yearning to fit in, has been a struggle for him. He floats through our world in a genuinely unbothered way. He doesn't spend his time thinking about what others think of him, but he is profoundly disturbed when they spend their time telling him he doesn't belong. That has happened from time to time. He has been bullied in the past, but these days his struggles are more the typical 11 year old kid stuff-- you know, “you suck” or “you're a loser”. I imagine this is typical pre-teen boy talk, but my kid actually listens to words-- I think we all do, he just lets them sink in in a way which others may not, or just don't admit they do.
In tears that night, he told me he got pushed down and called trash during football. The fall hurt him so hard physically that he cried. Right in front of all of the other boys. He cried. His world came crashing down. These are the boys that he yearns to be a part of, the ones he looks up to, despite my fervent prayer that he would find other role models. These are the models he chooses. He doesn't just put them up on pedestals either, he builds the staircase and helps them up. And then they call him trash.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think they actually think any less of Sam than they do any other kid-- but while Sam loves to tell people how much he loves them and cuddle up in a snuggly hug, our boys are taught that they need to be American men. You know, the strong ones who don't need other people. I don't actually know any American men who believe that they don't need anyone, it's just that our society seems to want them that way. Then there is the pressure to conform to that-- to appear to fit in. Sam wants to fit in with these guys, and none of them really know that that's where they are headed-- to a place where they are men trained to numb out their feelings and their need to belong.
Sam's inner compass turns to connection, and it's so profound that he does things like cry on the playground when he gets pushed down. But he knows enough about this world of who he is supposed to be to then feel completely mortified when the tears come.
It's not ok to cry. Those messages start early.
I had worked late that evening. My partner had been there for the kids when they got home. He said Sam had been irritable since he walked in the door, picking fights with his sister for no apparent reason. Sam met me at the door when I came in with a big hug and immediately began crying; radically atypical behavior for him. He rarely gets upset, and when he does crying is the last response to his frustration. He cried, and I held him. I listened, and he asked if we could go talk. I had just come in the door, and three other children were asking for my attention. I told Sam I'd talk to him in a bit. I didn't think much of it.
I missed a moment when it truly mattered. A momentary distraction ended up with a disaster. The story of the school playground came out after I quipped that he needed to be patient in seeking time to talk. Then it came tumbling out. A horrible day at school. He couldn't believe he had cried. He was mortified. Right in front of the cool kids. They all saw him, they all knew that he was weeping. He turned his head and covered his eyes with those arms meant more for embracing people than for tackling them. And still, they saw him.
One boy had gotten mad because Sam intercepted a catch meant for him, he'd pushed Sam down hard and called him trash. It's not clear which one of those single incidents prompted the tears, maybe both. But these tears were mine-- I caused these. He'd come home and made an excuse for why he was so mad-- blamed it on his sister. He'd asked for what he'd needed-- some of my time alone. I'd delayed what he'd been waiting for: his safe haven after a rotten day, and it all came crashing down.
There are so many moments we miss as mothers. I missed the mark on this one for sure. Sam brought me back to it though. It all came pouring out-- in words from deep within his soul of what he hoped he could have been, and in the tears flowing from his eyes. He brought me back to what really mattered: being truly present in the moment with the child. One child. In the middle of the chaos and love of four. Being steady enough to shut out the noise and not just listen, but truly hear what he had to say.
We can miss these moments for a spell, but they are rarely gone forever. He'd gotten my attention then, and we talked. It was awful, he said. Unbearable.
“You don't just cry when you're a boy, mom. And they saw me cry!”
“What happened next Sam? You were crying and everyone was looking at you? Did anyone say anything at all?”
“Yeah, mom. That kid that bullied me a few years ago told Tim that wasn't cool-- that he'd really hurt me, and then he helped me up.”
“You had an ally in those cool kids, eh? Seems like he didn't care as much that you were crying as he did about the fact you were hurt.”
“Yeah, that's true. He really stuck up for me. Those kids usually don't stick up for me. It made me feel like less of a loser.”
“Did Tim ever apologize?”
A warm smile came to Sam's face as he told me that Tim came to him later that day and said “Hey man, I'm really sorry I didn't mean to push you that hard.”
“That's ok, Sam replied, it hurt, but mostly I was embarrassed that I cried.”
“Yeah Sam, last week I got tackled so hard at football practice that I cried in front of the WHOLE team. Man, that totally sucked. I'm not gonna live that one down.”
Suddenly, Sam was seeing the events in a new way. He was less victim and more facilitator of some deeper work on the playground. Some sharing, in a completely 11-year old boy way, that enlightened others that crying is part of life, that forgiveness comes easily when we are connected and honest.
I missed Sam's first request for my attention, but his fragile state wouldn't let me miss the moment. Sam needed to process his hurt before he could see the rest of this story-- the real story-- the one where he was the hero, crying on the playground, letting others see his vulnerability as well as their power to help or to hurt. In the retelling, Sam has found his power, and at his core I think he knows he is helping lead the way to a new kind of modern man. I certainly hope he is.