Earlier this week, Smoke reported to me that a girl in his class keeps on hugging him. Every time he sat down on the carpet for circle time she embraced him and wouldn’t let him go until the class had settled. Not only that, but this girl was chasing him on the playground at recess, and grabbing his shirt when she caught him so that he couldn’t get away. He held the edge of his own shirt to demonstrate, and pulled on it to reveal his lean, pale belly, his inability to move without stretching his shirt further and revealing more of his body. The more he talked about it, the more distressed he sounded.
“Did you tell her to stop?” I asked.
“She laughs at me when I tell her!” Smoke said. His voice broke around the edges.
I pulled a piece of paper off the kitchen table. It was a handout that Mrs. N had sent home about Kelso’s choices. It looked like this.
“Have you tried any of these choices?” I asked him, aware that I was an outsider to this new social landscape. I offered the page tentatively.
“Saying stop is one of the choices,” he explained, not even looking at the list. “Also I tried ignoring, and joining a new game, but she just follows me everywhere.”
“Do you want me to tell Mrs. N?” I asked him.
He thought about it for a moment, and decided he did.
Several years ago, I heard a public school teacher comment on how much time she spent in recent years simply answering emails from parents—parents who wanted to know why their kid got a 92 rather than a 98 on a spelling test, or parents demanding a rationale for the novel they were reading in Language Arts. I told myself I wouldn’t add to the burden; I wouldn’t be a parent emailer.
But then, in our orientation meeting with Mrs. N, she reassured us: “Please don’t ever hesitate to email me. Even if it seems like a little problem.”
I wasn’t sure what kind of problem this was. Certainly it seemed like the sort of thing kids typically did to each other, the sort of thing that thirty years ago kids would have worked out on their own. I remember epic boy vs. girl battles that happened at the very edge of the recess field, which was also the bottom of a hill, far away from any grown-up gaze. I remember a kid named Billy Duffy whose face was always stained with meat sauce, who had earned a reputation for kissing girls against their will. Playground problems weren’t teacher problems, and unless you were bleeding, the recess aides didn’t want to hear about it.
But it’s 2014, and as much as I worry about overprotecting my kids, I feel grateful that the system seems to care a little more. (Okay, a lot more.) Also, these days I read a lot about consent, and I brood over how to teach my sons to honor bodies and boundaries. So when a problem like this emerges, even if it’s a little one, I feel that there’s a lot at stake.
I mean, Smoke’s discomfort at having his shirt pulled or being hugged goes beyond annoyance. I could tell by his distress that he felt trapped. I also sensed that he, like me, wasn’t sure how much attention his situation warranted.
That night, awake in bed, I entertained the following thoughts.
- I felt some alignment with the girl who so badly wanted Smoke’s attention. I know how it feels to want a friend so badly. And I understood why she had chosen Smoke, who is quiet and kind and funny.
- I considered what it feels like to be physically trapped, and what a common feeling that was in childhood. Well-meaning grown-ups pinch your cheeks and kiss you with their bad breath. Bossy friends convince you to let them roll you up in blankets.
- I imagined Smoke, some years from now, chasing girls around the playground and lifting their skirts. Maybe some would see this as a little problem, but to me it would be a Big Problem.
I emailed Mrs. N before school the following morning. As we arrived two hours later, she approached us and squatted so she could talk to Smoke at his level. “I told [redacted] that she needs to leave you alone and save all of her hugs for her family at home.” Smoke’s eyes widened. “Will you please tell me if that didn’t solve the problem?” He nodded.
Every moment of Mrs. N’s time is precious. The line of kids was already moving toward the classroom, and she was already moving with them, but as she got farther and farther away she thanked me for letting her know, and then gave me the thumbs-up sign as she disappeared through the door.
I’m glad that it’s 2014. I’m glad that my son’s teacher cares about what happens on the playground.