A big part of my job is to inspire young minds to think and innovate and write and create. It’s great. I love that part of my job. The other, bigger part of my job is the part where I have to set all my agendas aside and just listen. One of those times was today:
“It’s cold today,” she said.
“It is. Really cold.” I muttered, peering over my computer screen at her round, worried face. “You ok?”
“No. Yes. Kind of I guess. I don’t know. No.” she replied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, although I already knew. She’d been asked out by the most popular boy in the 7th grade and some of the other girls were jealous and dealing with their envy in ways only 13 year old girls can.
“So, you know that like Sam asked me out and like we did. I mean, people my age don’t go on dates right? So it wasn’t a date, it was just going to McDonald’s and whatever, but Jenny was there too and like she always talks because she’s like that and it was weird and I didn’t talk much to Sam because Jenny was dominating the conversation and she’s like my best friend and so it’s ok I guess. Or not. I don’t know.”
“Ok. So, you are upset that Jenny hi-jacked the conversation?”
“No! I mean, maybe a little, but that’s not what’s wrong.”
“Ok.” I gently replied. “What’s really wrong?”
“So, like, we all went out and then a few days later I learned that Heather asked Julie and Sam to dinner and they all went and I wasn’t invited and like Heather and Julie were whispering about it the next day in writing class and I didn’t know why they had invited Sam out to dinner. I mean I know that Heather and Sam are like good friends, so I don’t think they did it to hurt my feelings, but I kind of think that Heather likes Sam and so, ya.”
“Ok. So you are upset that Heather and Julie asked Sam to dinner after he had gone on a date with you. Is that right?”
“So, are you upset with Sam, or with Heather and Julie? Or both?”
“I guess Heather and Julie, but I don’t know why. I mean I shouldn’t be bothered that they asked Sam to dinner, they are friends. But it does bother me and hurts my feelings. Why do I care? Why did they do that? Why does this hurt my feelings? Should I worry?”
She looked at me with green eyes as big as saucers, and even though I am not a mother, I felt like one at that moment. All I wanted to do was sweep her into a hug and shelter her from the mean girls. But I didn’t. She didn’t need protection, she needed tools. Tools on how to manage hurt and betrayal and love and friends because she will be combating those demons her whole life. She needed to know that it’s ok to feel hurt and confused because being thirteen is all about being hurt and confused. She needed to know that she was feeling these things because her finely tuned emotional intuition was identifying something fishy. And when they identify something fishy it usually means something isn’t right.
“Well, that depends on what you want to worry about. Think about how you want to spend your energy. Do you want to devote energy to your relationship with Sam or spend time figuring out the motivations of jealous friends?”
“Obviously I want a good relationship with Sam. But I want the other girls to like me too. I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s tricky. Wanting people to like you is something everyone wants, but there comes a point at which you have to choose. Whose approval do you seek most and is that person worthy of your time and energy?”
She gazed at me again. This time her big eyes were full of determination.
“Sam. He’s worth it.”
“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind then.”
“Ya. For now.”
She paused before leaving the room, “Ms. Johnston?”
“Do you think my story of 13 will be as interesting as yours was?” she asked, with the honesty that only comes with youth.
“Honey,” I smiled, “your story of 13 is unfolding in the most astounding of ways. It will be, without a doubt, one of the most interesting stories of your life.”
“Ya, I guess. Thanks Ms. Johnston.”
After she left, I couldn’t help but think of my own story of 13. The twists, the turns, the awkward touches and glances. The weird teeth and hair. That annoying numbing feeling that comes with the ever shifting rift between wanting to stay little and wanting to be grown up. When I think about it, about my story of 13, I can’t help but be thankful for all the teachers who helped me through my awkwardness. Without them, I would not be the teacher I am today.