Maria has success in so many things. She enjoys reading, and will pick out books about Thomas Edison or a time in history alongside novels because they are , “So interesting!”
“Yes.” I respond.
She can read for hours, and plays the piano for leisure. She finds teacher books to create art lessons for her siblings, she can play tennis, create art and garden with ease.
But one area that has always been difficult is making friends. She has had one or two here and there, usually a very talkitive and friendly girl, Maria does well with those where she can smile and nod. When I have mentioned this to friends, they can’t believe me. With adults and young children, the kind of people we see the most, she is flawless, sweet, kind, talkative and cheery. But not her peers, it’s another thing.
But she had never seemed too bugged about it. “Maybe she’s just an introvert and doesn’t want close friendships,” I shrugged to Andrew, trying to understand from the perspective of an extreme extrovert.
“No, everyone needs friends,” he’d say.
But recently, she has mentioned it, felt sad about the lack. “You have to be talkative, to make a friend, be friendly to people, show interest, know their names.” We practice and dialogue. That’s how she finds her success with anything here, we help her practice, but it’s hard to practice without real friends.
Then last week as I was picking her up from school, I saw her standing behind all the kids, arms crossed, worried face, alone and secluded. I saw a kind teacher try to introduce her to a girl, I felt thankful and hopeful as my car waited in pick up line, but Maria said hi and quickly looked away, looking almost sad or grumpy, although I knew it was fear. When she saw me she perked up and waved, so excited and came over, her usual self.
I talked to her later about it. “You need to talk to people, smile, be yourself, everyone loves you, you have to give them a chance to know you.”
“I can’t–it’s so awkward.”
“Well of course it’s awkward. But only the first couple times, then it gets easy. Maria, you need to pick your awkward, talking to someone and having it be awkward the first couple times, until it’s not awkward and you are all friends, or feel awkward everyday by yourself. It’s one short awkward or the other.”
She agreed but was remained cloaked in fear, worry on her face.
She came home and worked on the ant farm we found at the thrift store, drew up plans for her butterfly garden, making a list of the kinds of plants she would need, having the boys crowd around her ooo-ing and aaah-ing at all the butterfly varieties.
This morning on the way to school, I was resolved, it was time, and said, “Are you ready to make a friend today?”
“I can’t,” she said.
It brought me back to when she was first home. She believed she couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t an excuse, but a pitiful cry of fear, “I can’t” learn, read, talk, be loved. I can’t, because I am not worthy….. “I can’t” and us as new parents saw terror in her eyes created by a life of neglect.
“You can.” I tell her. I was resolved, unsmiling, “You will.”
She looked down.
I started to worry, I don’t want to be a tiger parent, but I guess I also do. I’ve spent a long time thinking this would resolve, I didn’t want to push something that very well could come about naturally. But I also know she doesn’t inherently know her ability, we’ve had to spell it out for her, time and time again to where she knows she is filled with worth and ability running through her blood. A labor, an honor, but work, work that we get the opportunity to experience and see each day that she loves learning, loves life, relishes every small detail of her life. Splashes joy on all those around her as she learned to live life. Well, until it came to friends.
“Maria, listen. It is much better to fail, I mean talk to someone and just totally mess up, then to talk to no one. You just have to try, and see. It’s ok to mess up because trying is all that matters.”
“Ok….” she said quietly out the window.
“Do you want me to come check on you at lunch?” I wasn’t sure if what I was posing was an assurance or a threat, but I wanted her to know.
“I don’t know…”
We drop her off and she hurries to science class.
When she comes home, I greet her, waiting to ask.
The ants had come in the mail. Apparently regular ants won’t do, they have to be the large ones so they can’t walk out the cracks. They stick themselves to the sliver of shiny orange she is adding as she explains to Finley that they communicate through their antennae.
“Wow!” he said, mesmerized by the tiny creatures, starving from their postal journey.
“So….did you talk to anyone?”
She tries to cover her teeth, but her smile is too big, she looks down, “Yeah, I did.”
I feel a little shocked. We had arrived at school for lunch, with a cake pop for her to check on her, but lunch had been over, “I’ll eat it?” Elijah kindly offered.
“To who?!” trying to keep my chill.
“Morgan, Addy and Teresa,” she was proud, she was a subdued giddy.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY!?”
“I just said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to play?'”
“They said, ‘Yeah,'” she smiled simply, as if it were just another day, not the one lone puzzle piece to a life filled with all she needs. “So,” she continued, “We played jump rope, and ate lunch together, it was fun.”
No big deal…..just kidding HUGE. But I tried to act nonchalant, “That’s cool, wow, I am so proud of you, were you scared?”
“Yeah, I was really scared, but I did it anyways.”
“True courage,” I nodded.
“Are you going to eat lunch with them Thursday too?”
“Yes,” she was smiling again as she placed more ants into the farm.
Then she got ready for tennis, and I wondered why I waited so long to push her into the truest reality of who she is. When you come from nothing, we have learned it’s hard for kids to have the emotional stamina to move past it without much help. I mean, it’s the same with little kids, as they cling to their mothers, needing the extra touch and comfort as they learn to navigate the world around them, the people, choices and friendships. She doesn’t have the luxury while at school, so it took extra courage, and here she did, and she did it so well.
“How do you feel, Maria?”
“Happy,” she smiled
“Then me, too.”
Because if she knows the person we truly know her to be, she can and will do anything as she makes the world a brighter place.