Not because the class is riveting (girlfriend, please!). In truth, it’s not even my daughter Neve – in her purple gymnastics suit with silver stars, and her brown, curly hair swept up in a side ponytail – that I’m focused on. It’s another girl in her class, a bigger one who’s wearing a pink dance leotard with a sheer skirt.
Why? Because Pinky’s the one who got so impatient with Neve last week during class that she, by all reports, decked her.
The story goes like this: as Neve’s classmates individually made their way around a circuit of various kinds of equipment, Neve stopped to ask the teacher a question about how she was supposed to do something; she must have had trouble getting the teacher’s attention, because Pinky, who was behind Neve in line, got frustrated, hit/pushed Neve pretty hard from behind, and called her “stupid.”
Now, in fairness, Neve responded by calling Pinky “stupid” right back, which is less than ideal; but Neve was also upset enough by what happened that she came out to find me in the waiting area.
Unfortunately, I was utterly lost in the world of my laptop just then, sitting in the way-way-back row of chairs, scrambling to finish up an assignment for work. (It was an obituary for a longtime “Jazz Revisited” radio host, Ann Arbor-ite, and all-around-mensch Hazen Schumacher, so even though I hadn’t known of his work previously, I was studying up like crazy in order to try and do his life/career justice.) Being a 4 year old, Neve often leaves class for a bathroom run, and sometimes – well, sometimes she just leaves because she’s 4 and gets distracted easily. But this time, my bouncy little sprite wore a dark, cloud-like expression.
“A girl in my class hit me,” she said. “And she called me stupid.”
Oh. Didn’t see that coming. Ah, let’s see. Improvise, Mommy, improvise…
“Well, first of all, you know you’re not stupid, right?”
Neve nodded, which bought me a few more seconds.
“But really, no matter what, no one should ever say that to you, and you should never say it to anyone, either,” I said. Pause. “Who hit you?”
“A girl in my class.” Neve waved me toward the gym’s entryway, urging me to come with her, and it struck me then that, oh, yeah, going in and talking with the instructor is probably the right thing to do in this instance. (Frankly, I’m not so good in a crisis, so any tips I can pick up from others, even a 4 year old, are always helpful.)
On the way, an older woman in the waiting area reached out and said, “She’s telling you the truth. We saw it. That other little girl hit her pretty hard. The woman sitting behind me saw it, too, and she gasped, it was so bad.”
I thanked the woman for telling me, grateful for a reliable eyewitness account, since a 4 year old’s reportial skills are shaky at best. (And hats off to this woman for her complete lack of judgment about me not seeing what happened – though I was starting to make myself feel guilty about that anyway, of course.) I told Neve’s teacher all that I knew, and the instructor took Neve and Pinky aside for a talking to.
Back in the waiting area a few minutes later, I suddenly felt a tap on the shoulder, and turned around to find Pinky staring me down. “Your daughter has not been good to me,” she said.
I handle confrontation, even with kids, about as well as I do a crisis. So the girl, whose father was mumbling apologies to me and trying to pull Pinky away, merely got, by way of a response, me muttering to her father, “They’re having an argument between them of some kind, I guess. I didn’t see what happened.” (What is wrong with me? For those of you “Dirty Dancing” fans out there, this is one of many “I carried a watermelon” moments that I experience in my day-to-day life.)
And off Pinky and her father went. After some vehement protests, the girl went back to class, and shortly before leaving the gymnastics center for the night, she was howling, presumably because of some disciplinary action handed down by her father. We, meanwhile – Joe had arrived shortly before my Pinky showdown and had no clue what it was about – got the story from the instructor about what led to the altercation.
“And she said she wasn’t my friend,” Neve added.
“Good,” I said. “I don’t want you to be friends with someone who hurts you. Someone who really cares about you will never, ever hit you.”
Particularly because I’m raising girls, I pounce on EVERY opportunity to make this point.
“I’m sorry I didn’t see what happened tonight,” I told Neve. “But next week, I will be watching. I promise you that. I will make sure that never happens again. And sweetie, you did the right thing, coming to get me and get help.”
I said this despite the fact that Joe often wants to tell our daughters to hit back. The compromise we’ve reached is this: I tell the girls that when they’re defending themselves, and they can’t quickly or easily get help, yes, hit back. Hit back for all you’re worth. (Fortunately, such a situation has never occurred yet.)
Ever since the night of the Pinky showdown, I’ve been beating myself up about a good deal of this whole sequence of events. One, I didn’t even see what happened, so buried was I in work. Two, when this girl confronted me, I didn’t really meet her gaze and stand up for Neve. Three, my incomprehensible mumblings to the girl’s father – while admittedly similar to his apologetic mumblings – make me wince in retrospect.
But having the distance of a week now, I don’t think any of my behavior was that egregious. This was an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, and as long as the problem was addressed, I guess how you get there doesn’t matter all that much.
When we arrived at the gymnastics center tonight, I didn’t see Pinky in the waiting area, making me think that maybe we’d just dodge that bullet altogether. But no, just after Neve led the line of her classmates into the gym for her class – and I’d assured her yet again I’d be in the front row tonight, watching – Pinky appeared. Awesome.
The girl went into the gym and made a beeline right to Neve.
Oh, no, I thought, feeling my stomach curdle.
But then Pinky wrapped her arms around Neve and – wait for it – hugged her.
Though I sometimes profess to be dead inside, the moment made me instantly teary with joy and relief.
Had Pinky been coerced at home to offer this peace offering? Perhaps. But shouldn’t I want her to be getting that kind of instruction from her parents? Isn’t that how kids learn to be good people? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
Plus, what made the moment all the better was that Lily’s group, in a line, happened to be passing by Neve’s class, and Lily cautiously watched the whole Neve/Pinky exchange like a little hawk, craning her neck to keep watch, just in case things went south. Before coming to gymnastics that night, I’d asked Lily to keep an eye on Neve, too, whenever she could take a quick glance over, and she was doing as I’d asked, looking to protect her little sister, and step in or say something if she saw anything fishy.
One subtle “oh, no” moment came later, when Neve came out and told me that Pinky had pulled out one of Neve’s hairclips, and she wanted me to put it back in – and shortly thereafter, Pinky came out and loudly told her father she wanted to find “that girl’s mother.”
Pinky made several passes around the waiting room, passing right in front of me, but I let on not at all that I was the mom she was looking for. (I am truly gutless – but I also felt like, “I can’t even.”)
Even so, Pinky hugged Neve a couple more times before the class ended, and afterward, the teacher explained that Pinky had wanted to do something with Neve’s hair, and that that’s why she took out the hairclip – and because she didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about that, she’d looked for me to explain the situation.
Oh. Well, good then.
So ends this tale of parental discomfort, awkwardness, it-takes-a-village collaboration (thanks, watchful grandma in the waiting area), and anxiety. Neve was (understandably) still a bit wary of Pinky, but willing to accept her apology; and Pinky had clearly gotten some feedback about her behavior at home and was brave enough to face it head-on when the next class rolled around.
I’m not sure why this came as such a surprise to me – most parents strive to teach their kids to treat others well – but for some reason, it was.
And it’s really important to have your faith restored now and then.