Thing 3 who’s all of 8 just came back from tennis lessons. He’s been taking them weekly since January and he’s doing well. He’s increased his contact with the ball and his stroke has a beautiful follow through.
He’s on a “troop” with seven or eight other kids, mostly boys like he is: all elbows, skinny legs, striped t-shirts and hair longer than their mothers would like.
Overall, he’s got a sweet disposition, but he can dish out the snark out too. His apple didn’t land far from my tree.
He was the last one out of the lesson. He likes to stick around and collect balls in the cage and talk to the pros. He likes kids OK, but prefers adults, he always has. Immediately upon exiting the courts, he told me, “I showed coach the kid who’s been mean to me and who’s gotten his friends to be mean to me too. He said he’ll talk to him next time and make a speech to all of us about being tennis pros not tennis foes. He said he’ll talk to all of us.”
“Good for you,” I told him, sighing that life is the way it is, that people pick on other people and that the saddest of all people who pick on people are those who enlist others on their hate parades. I could feel my own sadness well up and my heart beat a little surer because of my instinctive love for my children. He’s been dealing with this twerp for three months at least. The twerp is new and T3 has been in lessons for longer, so I guess he’s being a twerp because he feels like an outsider.
After I held the door open for T3, we continued walking to the war wagon (as my dad calls it) in the parking lot and he pointed out a kid, “See that kid in the green shirt? He calls me ‘annoying orange,'” he said.
I growl-spoke as I pursed my lips and felt my brow furrow, “He’s annoying green. He’s just repeating what he hears people say to him at home. He can’t help it. He’s like a parrot.”
T3 laughed a little at my annoying green comment. I opened his car door and he jumped in. I felt a twinge at the irony of my saying ‘annoying green’ and corrected myself, “He’s not annoying green, bud. He’s just a little boy like you.”
We got in, buckled up and I started the engine, looking over my shoulders in the tiny parking lot.
“Why do people do that, mom?” he asked from his car seat immediately behind my driver’s seat, “Why do people be mean to other people? And why do they want other people to be mean to other people with them?”
I shifted into drive and was silent. Biting my lower lip, checking for other cars after a hidden stop sign, I squinted and looked into the rearview mirror at him, picking at his racquet’s grip. He’s so small, all of 48″ and 45lbs. His beautiful face mostly a freckled map of Ireland. I wanted to say something snarky, like “Misery loves company, hon, and some people just can’t help themselves…” but I didn’t.
“Mom?” he prompted me.
“Yeah bud?” I said.
“Why? Why do they do that?” he asked again. I wasn’t going to be able to navigate our way home without chatting with him about this.
“People do this honey because they’re small inside. They are afraid of you or something you represent. They are afraid that the people they want to not like you will like you and not them, so they tell them things to get them to not like you. They are sad inside. You are a threat, so they do what I call taking the ‘low road’: they gather their small-minded friends and do what they can to hurt you because they’re afraid you’ll be better than they are, which to me you already are because they let their fear lead them instead of their hearts. They have no guts, no character; they only get higher by putting others down,” I noticed my voice was getting elevated and forceful.
“Sooo, because they have no guts, they’re aliens and I should stay away from them because aliens have no stomachs. Are you mad at me mom?” he asked.
“At you? Me, mad? No. I’m mad at the people who act like that. And no, they’re not aliens. They’re frightened humans of all sizes. Look, this stuff happens all the time all over the world, no matter how old you are. There will always be someone who’s afraid of someone else. Just being mature and not liking another person for one reason or another isn’t enough. They have to get other people to do it with them,” I said. But I added, “There are also people who do the right thing without taking sides: they just do their own thing and not really care about what the mean people say or the person who’s being picked on do. They’re smart.”
“I don’t like some people,” he said. “But I don’t ask my friends not to like them, that would be pathetic [yes, he knows that word, remember he has a writer for a mother and a 14-y.o. for a brother]. I don’t like them because they’re mean. Or because they put ketchup on their oranges and that’s disgusting. Is that smart? What’s the low road? Where does it go?”
I wanted to say, “Hell. It goes straight to hell and damnation,” but I didn’t because that’s the road that’s paved with good intentions. Plus, he’s only eight.
“The low road goes to where it’s not so sunny; there are lots of trees and it’s hard to get around through the low road because of all the shadows. The high road, the one that you take when you do your best to be honest and just be you and be good takes you to where it’s sunny and clear. Sometimes it’s hard to take the high road, y’know: to be good. And it’s easier to be bad and take the low road. And it’s only smart if you don’t tell your friends to not like the someone who puts ketchup on his oranges because you think it’s disgusting, by the way. Let them be themselves, let them make up their own minds.”
“Oh, so the people who just be themselves, they take the high road. If it’s hard to take the high road, then it must not be crowded,” he said.
I thought about my own experiences of traversing both roads. I remembered my times when I was younger and experienced moments when I took both roads and the sick feelings in my own gut I would have when I would gang up on someone or when I was ganged up on. It’s never easy. And what blows my mind is that even in adulthood, this happens all the time. Even as married grown-ups, the cliques, the petty jealousies, the projected self-loathing. . . it happens all the time. It’s so easy to be bad. It’s hard to be good; being good requires we think about others first.
I sighed again, knowing I hadn’t answered him.
“Yeah. It can be lonely sometimes on the high road. But it’s worth it,” I said.