After lights out, after asking for a second hug and kiss goodnight, Le Petit had something to tell me.
"En fait, maman, M doesn't want to be my friend anymore."
M was Le Petit's first close friend this year, and before when he'd talk about the games they'd invent together at recess, a true, broad smile would break across his face. He's not the kind of kid who expresses his emotions readily, so this made an impression on me. But M is also a girl, and M's friends tease them for playing together. "Les amoureux!" they taunt, and they won't leave them be. In the ruthless world of the primary school playground, there are certain rules not to be broken.
Le Petit is in CP, the equivalent of first grade, and since we moved to a new town over the summer, he is the odd man out in a class of kids who all went to nursery school together and he is having a hard time making friends. It doesn't help that he prefers geography and history to Star Wars and Spiderman, and won't play cops and robbers because he considers it "too violent." I have a hard time picturing exactly what happens at recess, and I can't always follow the ins and outs of who plays what and where with whom and when from the recaps we get at home. But what I know for sure is that what Le Petit recounts in brief confidences before going to sleep drags me back thirty years to a playground in Olympia, Washington.
As much as love and friendship are universal, certain strains of human stupidity are as well.
I changed schools between kindergarten and first grade, and I still remember the first awkward day when I walked into the first grade classroom and realized that everything and everyone was Different. My first close friend that year -- the first friend who understood me, truly -- was N. He was a boy. It took a month or so for the other kids to catch on that this was somehow not okay, letting a boy and a girl be friends with each other. But catch on they did. I can still hear the chanting, the sing-song "N loves E, E loves N!" that chased us around the playground, and our vehement refusals that felt like betrayals.
I told Le Petit this, after trying my best to give him space to tell his own story. I think it makes him feel a bit better to know that he isn't alone. At the same time, my story isn't a particularly optimistic one, because just like M with Le Petit, I was not brave enough to continue being N's friend in the face of constant teasing.
"But you're still friends with him, right, Mom?" Le Petit asked hopefully. And I remembered that while we were bound by a certain outcast smart kid solidarity through fifth grade, after which my family moved and I once again changed schools, I was never N's friend again. I've wondered about him over the years, and since Olympia is a small enough town, I've managed to learn that he's moved and has a successful career as a professor somewhere in the Midwest. I'm curious, and truly happy for him in a way I'm not for almost any of the others characters in the elementary school chapter of my life. But none of that changes that I was a genuine wimp at the time.
I was less blunt when I answered Le Petit (I hope). "This happens in life, it hurts bad, it isn't fair, you have no control over the choices or stupidity of others," I then said, more or less, and with a hug I tried to wordlessly assure him that life goes on. 30 years on and counting.
"The problem is, I often find myself playing all by myself at recess."
Those words felt like a kick in the stomach, and I started thinking about my productive, busy days at the office and how at the very same time my little baby is out there on the playground all alone... but I did my best to hide it.
"And what do you do when you're playing by yourself?"
"It depends... sometimes I play hopscotch!"
Le Petit jumped out of bed and gave me a demonstration, hopping on one foot across his bedroom rug.
"And... sometimes I play silly airplane! That's a game I invented with M... you run around with your arms like this," he showed me, "...and then you run into something and you crash!"
Spinning around his room with his arms stretched out, even though it was dark and I couldn't see, I was almost certain he had that same broad smile. Everyone survives grade school, I tell myself; that's universal too.