How Going Back To Middle School Helped Me Grow Up

You walk into a lunchroom all by yourself. The tables are mostly filled with people who have already found friends, talking and laughing in the comfort that comes with having found their place. You see an empty seat at the very front of the room, right where you’ll have to walk past everyone else to get there. You squeeze between tables, hoping you don’t trip and dump your tray on someone’s head. The successful journey gives you confidence and you ask your potential tablemates if the seat is open. They nod and smile politely, then turn back to each other, and that’s how quickly you become insignificant. The spotlight you felt while you made the journey turns off, and suddenly, you’d like for it to come back so you’ll be noticed. You want very badly to be part of the group.

Did your stomach clench and your heart race? Mine did two days ago when this happened to me! I’m almost 40 years old, and I’m starting to think that we never entirely escape middle school. But let me tell you what happened next. I was at a writing conference. Writers can either be the most generous and welcoming people, or the most grandiose and boorish, and you often can’t predict which by looking at them. My tablemates were magnificent. There was a young girl, about 20, and her mom. It’s easy to assume that a 20 year old hasn’t experienced enough life to write about it, but this young lady has encountered tragedy that most people never will in their lifetime. More stunning, though, is her courage and conviction that she can use her pain to educate and support others. Her mom is equally remarkable in supporting her daughter without fighting the battle for her, and in letting her daughter speak for herself. Now, I understand why I need to say no to my toddlers. Why I do them a disservice if I protect them from disappointment. Three small children all clamoring with their wants can be overwhelming and it’s tempting to give in when I know I shouldn’t. But Life will not be so lenient and may deal them a crushing blow someday when I’m not there to protect them. How much better prepared will they be if they’re already acquainted with disappointment, fear, failure, and loss? I hope my kids will grow up to be as courageous as that young lady, as able to confront their anger and pain, and as able to use the pain to become stronger than their loss.

Another tablemate was an older lady, an angel on earth, who helped save a woman destined for deportation to the Congo, where she had been tortured and was certainly facing death if she returned. This dear lady’s book (“Rescuing Regina: The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death” by Josephe Marie Flynn SSND: about the event was just published last year, and while I knew her story, this was my first chance to talk to her. She’s a quiet, gentle person, not someone who seeks conflict, yet she revealed her iron strength when someone needed to be defended. Although the beginning of that lunch felt like middle school, that beginning became completely insignificant in light of The Stories at the table. And maybe that’s what maturity is all about: We learn that there are so many more things in the world bigger than us, yet just one person can be big enough to make those things change for good.

Everyone has A Story to tell.  Some write it; some use other artistic forms, like music or painting; some are genealogists; some might use quilting to join several stories into one. Find your Story and your way of telling it, and then tell it to your children. Don’t be afraid to include the pain and fear, because those make us human, and often joy and strength can’t be fully understood without them. If your kid rolls his eyes every day when you ask, “How was school?” try this instead. Ask, “What kinds of stories happened today?” Everyone loves a story, and your child just might like to tell one too!