The kids are typical elementary-school boys. They tend to hang in a pack — bouncing basketballs, riding bikes, shooting Nerf guns across the lawns of our gated community. I’ve had my eye on them for awhile, to be honest. Not because they’re bad news, but because they could have a significant influence on my son’s childhood. They’re the “big kids” in the neighborhood — just old enough to ride a school bus with him. Just old enough for my son to notice them as peers.
And he certainly noticed them that day, as he rode past on a snazzy set of training wheels.
To me, they’re a bunch of non-threatening little kids. A startling example of what my son will (way too) soon become. But to him, they’re the coolest.
I saw the longing in his eyes. The admiration. I want to be like the cool kids.
And, quite frankly, a wave of anxiety pulled me under.
That stage of wanting to “fit in” and be accepted at school is RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. I suddenly see everything my son is about to experience — the social anxieties and cliques of friends and possibilities of bullying — and it hurts to breathe. My son happens to be a very personable and funny kid that his preschool buddies like very much, but what happens when he becomes the small fish in a big pond? A perfectly lovely and charming fish, for sure, but also one who likes to watch My Little Ponies along with Power Rangers? A fierce individual who isn’t concerned about what colors he should like, or what “type” of toy he should play with, or whether or not he can want a Queen Elsa crown-and-gloves set. Will he abandon himself in order to “fit in” with a group of boys? Is my baby about to change, for good?
(I’m having a hard time with this transition to Kindergarten, if you can’t tell.)
So anyway, one day this group of boys shows up in front of our house, while Noah is playing outside, and he just lights up with excitement. He awkwardly follows them around, watching from a distance. (And from the bushes.)
I cringed a little, seeing how painfully invisible my son was to them. I watched them snicker at the pipsqueak doing ninja moves in their periphery. I watched them glance in his direction and decide to move on, to continue running and laughing and ignoring.
This watching and longing went on for a couple of weeks, until my brave little 5-year-old walked over to two of those boys and said, “Can I join you?”
I held my breath.
The older one (11 years old) said, “Sure,” and he carefully and gently tossed him a ball. My son then turned to the second boy (6 years old) and tossed the ball. That game turned into another, which turned into another, until another boy (7 years old) joined with his Little League uniform still on. The 7-year-old tousled my son’s hair, saying he was “so cute.” They included him and protected him and generally surprised me. Pretty soon more kids joined in. Pretty soon he was more than the invisible ninja.
He was one of them.
He was radiating happiness.
He was running with the big kids.
Now when they see Noah pass by, they throw their hands in the air and yell, “Hi, Noah! Hiiiii!” A smile spreads across his face as his own little hand shoots up, waving.
Friendship. Acceptance. A dream come true, for my little boy.
I’ll admit, I still have a hard time watching it all unfold. Watching him run full-speed, legs-flailing, into the school-aged era of childhood — open and vulnerable to the bigger kids. I’m still clinging to any remnant of “baby” left in his lanky body. I’m still scared for the new set of challenges and experiences as I witness the evolution of his childhood.
We’ve arrived at the next phase.
All I can do is take a deep breath and watch my beating heart run across the grass, away from me, as he throws his head back and laughs with the cool kids.
All I can do is watch him grow up before my very eyes.