Why I’ll Never Squash Her Spirit

When I was in grade school, I was in the gifted student program.  While it may sound impressive, it was really just one day a week at another school where we would work on word problems, art projects, and other brain games.

It was tough getting adjusted at first. Not only was the building new to me but so were most of the kids. Travelling from many different elementary schools to the central location on Daniel Street, the children of the “Orion” program took some time to get used to one another.

By the time I was around ten, I had become pretty comfortable with the people around me. I no longer sat quietly and faded into the classroom wallpaper. Instead, I was ready to be myself and share my personality with the other kids  Everything was going great until one day at recess.

Due to the weather, it was an indoor day after lunch. Instead of playing kickball, the Orion kids were all sitting around various tables in the classroom while Miss S., a rather grumpy teacher’s aid, sat at the big desk looking busy.  The volume in the room was what you would expect from fifth graders during free time.  My voice, like many others, contributed to the collective din that filled the room.

While I can’t remember the subject we were discussing, I do remember there was an instance where I had to imitate a plane. There’s no context to connect it, but you probably can picture a ten year old holding a ruler in the air while making fighter jet noises.  That ten year old was me. We were all laughing and I felt like I was on top of the world until…

About twenty feet away at her desk, Miss S. slammed her hand onto the table and, with her face bright red, screamed.

JAMES! Enough with the sound effects!

A hush fell over the room and I stood there frozen, like a jackass holding a ruler over my head. I went from the top of the world to a burning pile of wreckage in six words as Miss S., who had hypocritically just screamed way louder than I ever had in that room, went back to her Redbook or whatever my ruler-plane was distracting her from.

I’m sure if you go back and ask any of the people who were in the class that day, they wouldn’t remember that. I bet even Miss S., wherever she may be, wouldn’t remember it. But I did. I remember because it changed who I was in that class. It was business as usual for the other kids after that outburst. I, however, spent the rest of the day in humiliated silence.

Maybe Miss S. and some of the other short-fused adults I encountered through the years didn’t know the gravity of their words or just didn’t care. It could have been a bit of both. While I’ve grown to have a thick skin in my recent years, many early stories definitely etched away at my confidence for a long while.

olivia witchDon’t get me wrong. I was totally annoying. I know that. My humor as a kid was hit and miss. For every precocious Arnold Drummond-esque gem that tumbled from my mouth, there were mountains of insane stupidity. I am, by no means claiming that I should have been allowed to steamroll over people with my manic ten year old comedy routine. I’m just saying there were other ways to go about telling me.

My daughter, at nine, echoes who I was back then. I see so many things in her personality that I remember in my own. Her humor, exhausting at times, is one of them.

When Olivia discovers a concept that she finds funny, she latches on to it tightly. Laughing uncontrollably, she will repeat it in your face until you’re ready to snap. Case in point – last week.

Ralphie Joe!  Ha ha! Daddy!  Daddy!  Ralphie Joe! Ah! Ha ha ha!

What?

Ralphie Joe! HA!

I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Hi. I’m Ralphie Joe! Ha ha! My name is Ralphie Joe.

She was laughing so hard that she could barely breathe. Rather than slam my hand against the wall like the second coming of Miss S., I offered my classic way of dealing with her high intensity humor.

OK, Ralphie Joe. How about we dial it back a bit? You’re going to pass out.

She walked off, chuckling to herself.  My kid had found something she thought was funny, held on to it, and couldn’t let it go.  The comedy concept was still in the early stages, but her desire to find a role for Ralphie Joe was not extinguished.

Yesterday, she unveiled her newest doodle character – Fat Cheeks Tim. Basically, Tim is a little man with a face full of cotton candy. Olivia is preparing herself to draw out his zany adventures. By his side is his faithful dog – trumpet sounds –  Ralphie Joe.

Sure, it’s not comedic gold, but it’s a start. It’s her start. Had I ranted and raved about how “annoying” her repetition was the week earlier, she might have abandoned the idea forever. I don’t just mean the idea of using the name “Ralphie Joe”, but the idea of trying to share her humor with others.

As adults, we’re used to our words being forgotten almost immediately. You could call your friend a moron or snap at the cable operator and, chances are, they will dismiss it right away. Do the same to your kid and they’ll be bringing it up at Thanksgiving when you’re 60.

The bottom line is that our children are going to navigate the world and experiment with their personalities until they settle on who they truly are. It’s our job to foster that. If that’s too much, the least we can do is have the patience not squash it.

Like it or not, your voice will be one of their inner voices for the rest of their lives. Choose your words wisely. What we say now will be what they hear forever.

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