The other end

September 07,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

While the carpool line at T.'s new school often makes me want to pull my hair out, I actually enjoy waiting in the line at L.'s new middle school. Most days I can get there early enough to get a good spot, and I can settle in and read a little, or catch up on grading, or just sit and think--a rare practice these days. My favorite time is when school is dismissed and the kids--with that coltish, all-arms-and-legs look tweens have about them--emerge from the glass doors at the front of the school building. The upperclassmen are involved in afterschool programs and activities, so I suspect most of the kids out in the first rush are sixth graders. Some of the kids are small, like L., others seem so tall, others seem older beyond their years, other younger. There is one boy I see every afternoon, and he always seems so lost and shy, his arms crossed defensively in front of his chest, his shoulders bowed over tiredly from the weight of his backpack. L. keeps asking me to point him out, but I never manage to time it right.This kid looks like good friend material for L., I'll often think. I sit and watch the kids each afternoon, and pick out potential friends for L., sizing them up and wondering how I can engineer some type of introduction.

Or not, I'll remind myself, over and over again.

I try and exercise some self-control. I try not to ask L. too often about who he might have spoken with at school, or if, maybe, he had a conversation at lunch. He'll mention so-and-so, who made a comment to him.

"Oh?" I'll ask, casually. "Is he a new friend?"

"Oh no," L. will reply, just as casually. "But he's not an enemy." For, alas, this is how L. sees the social world, thanks to his elementary school years: those who are enemies, and those who are not.

A part of me thinks, doesn't he need friends? Isn't he unhappy without them? I project my own need for social interaction--my own need for the friendships in my life--onto him. But L. is very content these days. His levels of school-related stress are nothing compared to what they have been these past few years. I think about why, and there are many factors but one main one, I have come to realize, is that he is able to keep to himself in middle school. His interactions with peers have been minimal. He doesn't talk to anyone at lunch, and he happily moves from class to class every forty-five minutes in his own space, without pressure from his peers. In the classroom students sit and get started on work in a quiet atmosphere--such a contrast from the last few years at his elementary school where chaos reigned and noise levels were often out of control, and the teachers seemed at a loss how to control the kids.

He's almost like someone who, having lived with constant jabbing pain for years, is now free of it. I'm not sure how long this will last--maybe not for long, maybe for the rest of his middle school years. Still, I am wrestling with this friends thing. A small part me needs the reassurance that he is content in his own space. At carpool I see him seated, cross-legged on the sidewalk, throngs of kids parting around him. The label loner pops into my head from time to time, and I banish it. Then I see that other boy, the one with his arms crossed protectively against his chest. My heart goes out to him, the boy who is so miserable in his loneliness. I think about two boys at such opposite ends: one content to savor his solititude, and the other longing to let it go.