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I teach on Monday nights, and so get home
just after the girls are in bed. Both of them try to wait up for
me, and making the rounds is now part of my home-from-teaching
ritual. Cora’s usually zonked out, but Maddie’s often
still awake and wanting to chat. I expect it now, and somewhat look
forward to our intimate conversations.

Last night was one such night, and Maddie plunged into what was on
her heart with absolutely no preamble.

“Mommy, I just think that school is too hard for me. I
don’t know that I’m going to make it.”

Take a breath. We can have this conversation again.

“What about it is too hard for you,


Ok. This is new. Do not panic, and do not let visions of your
child, friendless and unloved, sitting all by herself on the
playground, run through your head.

“What exactly is too hard for you?”

“Well, sometimes I have fun at recess, but sometimes I
don’t do as great a job as I should and I worry about that. I
know I’m not always doing the right thing but I can’t
always figure it out.”

With lots of snuggles and back rubbing, I finally coaxed the story
out of Maddie. It turns out that at Monday’s recess she was
playing “Girls’ Club” with several of her
friends. All girls. She saw a boy she didn’t know sitting by
himself, wanting to play, clearly wanting to join in with them. She
walked over to him and asked if he wanted to play with them. He
said yes, Maddie brought him to the group, and several girls said,
“He can’t play with us! He’s not allowed!”

At this point Maddie said, “I just really wanted to cry, but
I didn’t – I try not to cry at school because it would
be embarrassing.”

I asked Maddie, “Did you want to cry because you were
embarrassed in front of your friends?”

“No,” she said, “I wanted to cry because I felt
bad for him and I didn’t know how to make the girls let him
play if he wanted to.”

We talked some more, and figured out that the girls didn’t
have anything against him in particular – he was simply a
boy, which was against the rules of the game. So leaving him out
wasn’t cruel by intention, and thus wasn’t a bullying
act in the strictest sense.

“You have to understand,” I said to Maddie, “that
you can’t control other people’s actions – only
your own. So you had two choices there – you could choose to
stay with your friends and play with them, or you could choose to
play with the boy you didn’t know. He may have said
‘no’ – he may not have wanted to play with just
you. But you could have asked him. Do you think that would have
made your heart feel better?”

“Well, I would have been sad to stop playing with my friends,
but I would have been glad to make him feel like someone wanted to
include him.” And then she continued, “earlier at
recess I saw a girl I didn’t know sitting criss-cross
applesauce on the grass all by herself, not talking to anyone. And
I went and invited her to join us and she did and she was really
happy and that made my heart feel good.”

Maddie went on to tell me that she worked hard on the playground to
do what we’d discussed at the beginning of the year –
to include everyone, be kind to the lonely kids, and treat them the
way she wants to be treated. One day she knocked down a girl on
accident and as the teacher rushed over Maddie helped the girl up,
dusting her off and apologizing. “Madeleine, you are a great
example for our school!” the teacher beamed at Maddie and
– you guessed it – her heart felt good. These are the
sorts of moments – worry about being the face of Christ to
fellow students – that make Maddie feel like crying,

These teaching moments come up with regularity between Maddie and
me, but I know they’ll be less and less frequent as she moves
out of my sphere of influence, so I treasure every one of them,
even as I’m praying ceaselessly for the right words with
which to guide her. Here’s what I came up with.

“Do you know how snakes grow several skins over their
lifetimes?” Maddie nodded. “It’s because their
bodies get bigger, and the skin gets too tight for their new body,
right?” She nodded again. “The snake sheds his skin,
and it hurts to get it off, but it hurts even more to leave it on
because it’s too tight – it’s squeezing him too
hard. And while it’s hard to wriggle out of it, there’s
also a moment after the old skin is gone when his new skin is wet,
and vulnerable, and tender, until it toughens up and protects him

I continued on.

“You, my friend, are growing a bigger heart. And that
skin’s coming off, and it’s going to hurt a bit, and
not feel great. And you’re going to be left feeling
vulnerable and raw sometimes as that heart grows bigger. But that
heart’s learning new things every day, and once you learn
something you can’t pretend you don’t know it any more.
And once you know how a boy feels to be left out it’s hard to
pretend you don’t. So that heart’s going to ache
sometimes because you, my love, are going to grow a gigantic heart.
Your name means Tower of Light, and you draw people to you, and the
more you practice using that heart the better you’ll get at
it. I’m so proud of you right now, and how hard you’re
trying. Recess will get better with practice, though you’ll
still have to make hard choices sometimes. But you are making so
many kids feel good, and that ripples out even further than you
will ever see.”

Maddie was silent.

“So my heart’s just shedding right now?” she
finally said.

“Yep, it just got too big for that old skin. And that big new
heart’s even better than the old small one.”

“It’s not always easy having a big heart,” she
said resignedly.

I melted even more. “I know, love, I know. But you’ve
got so many wonderful gifts, and with those gifts comes the
responsibility to use them wisely. You’re doing a great job,
and you’re going to be just fine at recess. I’m so
proud of you, my baby.”

Content, Maddie subsided and went to sleep.

My baby’s shedding, and I can do nothing but watch helplessly
and try to protect that rawness until she hardens a bit.

But who will protect mine while I watch her?


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