My real concern began the fall of my son’s first grade year. Packed tight in the multipurpose room of his elementary school for the annual Thanksgiving holiday program, my son’s classroom mom approached me. “Hello,” she kindly said introducing herself. “I know we only just met, but I thought you should know that your son has been sitting on his classroom line at recess ever since school started.”
What? Why? He hadn’t said anything to me.
“I just thought you might want to know.”
She was right, I would want to know. But as panic set in, part of me wondered otherwise.
I’d always known that friendships didn’t come easy for my son. He liked people well enough, but seemed to prefer the company of himself best of all. I attributed his solidarity to independence, his homebody nature to personality. Having been a daycare regular from the very beginning, he perfected his first steps in the company of peers and learned to share everything from toys to germs with his toddler companions. But even then, as I anxiously shifted in my folding chair, I remembered his preschool teachers commenting on his proclivity for independent play.
In that stuffy, crowded multipurpose room my son stood on stage in the first row, arms locked with classmates singing songs of friendship and gratitude of the first Thanksgiving. Did he ever play with these kids? Did they like him? Did he like them?
In typical mom fashion, I spent his entire performance blaming myself. He’d been an only child for five years…that was my fault. Then again, I’d been an only child my whole life and thrived on the company of others…no matter, still my fault. I didn’t socialize him well enough. Not enough play dates. Not enough encouragement. Not enough forced interaction? Possibly. Probably. My fault. My fault. MY FAULT.
When the final bows were taken and the kids were escorted outside to meet up with parents, my son approached me with a giant smile. “Did you see me, Mom? I knew all the words!” We hugged. I took his photo. And as I watched parents take pictures of their silly kids with their silly best friends, my son stood by my side. Alone. Content. Happy, even.
That night at dinner, I casually mentioned how recess was my favorite “subject” at school. My son was quick to remind me that recess was not, in fact, a subject at all. I recalled the fun I used to have swinging from the monkey bars, playing tag, and playing handball. He listened and shrugged his shoulders, “I’m bored at recess. There’s nothing to do.”
Knowing there was everything to do, I reached out to his teacher. She assured me that she sees “this kind of thing every year” and offered to “match-up” my son with a “similar student.”
In time, a single superficial friendship led my boy from the classroom line to the handball court. And in the years that followed his casual friendships multiplied. There were a few birthday party invitations and even a few sleepovers, but given the choice, my son would trade the social scene for solitary, every time.
Throughout junior high, my son could be found up in his room drawing, reading, or playing video games. After years of preaching the importance of friendships, begging him to make plans with friends, and arranging clunky hangouts at our house, I found myself at a loss.
“What he needs is a sport,” my husband insisted, “To be part of a team!” I didn’t have the energy to remind him we’d tried dodgeball (his choice) and a sampling of mixed martial arts over the years. I didn’t have the heart to admit that he’d just recently fallen on a reluctant hike and proclaimed to heaven’s farthest reach, “I HATE THE OUTDOORS!”
Together, my husband and I talked long and hard with our 8th grade son about the valuable experiences that make high school worthwhile. We asked him to give a sport – any sport – a try for at least one semester. Tired of fighting and resigned to his annoying athletic destiny, he groaned. “I guess I’ll just do running…because I have to.”
Yes! OK! Running, as in cross country. Alright, maybe that’s perfect! Cross country is a solitary-ish team sport. That’s good. And he wouldn’t have to try out for cross country. That’s even better! And he already knows how to run, I mean, not for sport, but he could learn that, right?
He would have to. In fact, the experience would educate all of us. Cross country involved six-grueling weeks of 5:30am runs – up to six miles a day, six days a week during his summer vacation. Cross country involved excruciating core workouts, crippling sore muscles, and for him, at least one impressive injury.
For an entire season, he and his team, perspired, cried, complained, carb-loaded, raced, and hard-won their greatest personal victories – together. And for the first time in his life, my son was part of something bigger than himself. Something strong and fast. Hungry and fierce. Bonded and brave.
I always knew my son belonged somewhere, I guess he just needed to run away to find it.