Oh, the drama of third grade. Who knew?
Last week, my 8-year-old asked me to eat lunch with him. That request usually comes not because he’s dying to spend time with his mom, but because he wants the chance to have a conversation with his buddy Alex during lunch.
At his elementary, talking is verboten! And if the lunchroom crone spies with her beady eyes any unsuspecting student actually conversing with another, be they kindergarteners or fifth graders, she screeches that they need to eat ON THE CHAIRS! That would be some cold metal folding chairs lined up near the stage in the cafetorium.
Yes, it’s quite Draconian and Dickensian and just plain awful. I mean, if you get your jollies bullying little kids, you’ve got a screw loose somewhere.
So anyway, I don’t mind having lunch with Tom and his pal every so often. I got there Wednesday about the time they were coming in from recess. Tom gave me a fist bump as he walked by, all confidence and third-grade swagger.
A few paces behind scurried A. (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will be shortly revealed.) She’s a cute little thing with long blonde hair and thick glasses that hide pretty blue eyes. She loves Tom. L-O-V-E-S him. She told me so last year. She walked up to me this day, as she does many others, and gave me a hug.
Then she looked plaintively into my eyes and said, “Would you please make Tom ask me to eat with you? I’ve been asking him since last year, and he always says ‘next time.’ “
She batted her eyelashes.
“Oh, gee, A.,” I said. “The thing with 8-year-old boys is that they like girls as friends, but they’re afraid people will think they LIKE them if they ask them to eat lunch with them. We’ll work something out another time, OK?”
She smiled and walked on to the lunch line.
About five minutes later, out walked Alex carrying a tray of food, followed by Tom carrying a tray of food, followed by A. carrying a tray of food.
“I don’t care if she eats with us,” Alex said, pulling out a chair at the table in the hallway.
But Tom clearly did care. “Mom, make her go back to the cafeteria!” he said. I know A. heard him because she was right behind him. But she just put her tray on the table and sat down.
I told Tom it was OK, that we could all eat together. But he persisted. “She’s so annoying,” he whined.
I looked at A. to see if the barb stung, but she looked for all the world like a little girl who was getting what she wanted.
“Listen, honey,” I said to A. “I’m not sure we can have two friends eat with us in the hallway. The principal doesn’t like that.”
“Oh, no, it’s OK once you’re in the third grade,” she said, taking a dainty bite out of her breaded chicken patty.
That’s not true. But I didn’t want to send A. back into the gulag for many reasons. The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher would surely banish her to the chairs, for one. But also, it would have been mean. What was the harm in sharing lunch? I would never in a million years want a kid to cry over this.
However, my own started crying. He was looking panicked, and big tears welled in his eyes and spilled over onto his ketchup-stained cheeks.
“Mom!” he said. “Please! I can’t stand it!”
“You two talk amongst yourselves,” I said to A. and Alex. “You, mister, better come with me.”
I pulled Tom around the corner for a little come-to-Jesus meeting.
“Listen, buddy,” I said, “you need to pull it together. It’s just lunch.”
“Mom,” he said, looking up at me pleadingly, tears streaming down his face, “she’s SO annoying! I can’t stand it!”
I can’t help it. I wanted to laugh. He was so sincere. But I kept a straight face.
“You sound like a mean boy,” I said.
He nodded defiantly. “I WANT to be mean!” he said.
But I told him that he’s not a mean boy. He’s a nice boy, and he didn’t really want to hurt A.’s feelings. And telling her to go back to the cafeteria would definitely do that.
“And you know,” I said, “you might be annoying to some people. And I wouldn’t want anyone to be mean to you.”
He just shook his head.
“OK,” I said. “I guess I’ll just go home, and all three of you guys can go back to the cafeteria.”
He sniffed, wiped his eyes and nose with his shirt, and said, “Never mind.”
We went back to the table, where A. commenced making the best lunchtime conversation. She talked about what she’d done the last weekend, how she likes to spy on her teen-age brother, what she wants to be when she grows up.
Alex joined in, and Tom grudgingly said a few things.
Then A. got up to go get a napkin, and Tom pounced.
“She’s so annoying, Mom,” he said.
“Stop it,” I said. “She’s not annoying.”
He looked panicky again. “I cannot be seen with a girl!” he finally said.
Finally. We get some truth.
After eliciting promises from Alex that he would tell everyone A. was NOT Tom’s girlfriend, Tom relaxed. A. returned, and lunch calmed down. Pretty soon, it was time to dump their trays and join the other third graders.
As I walked back home, I remembered part of the problem. A. has loved Tom since kindergarten, when she was Mama Bear to his Papa Bear in the kindergarten music program (until Tom bailed at the last minute because he had stage fright.) But they haven’t had the same classroom teacher since kindergarten. And A. has all this bottled up unrequited love just bursting inside her.
Plus last summer, Tom and I were at Dollar General, and he was ding-donging me to get him a playground ball. I was tired and hot and trying to get home to fix dinner, so I acquiesced. We were on the way to the car when we ran into A. and her mom.
I started talking to A.’s mom about her son, who’s my older son’s age. And A. started talking to Tom, who mostly grunted in return.
Then I heard A. say, “Why does your ball say ‘Girls Rule?’ “
Tom looked at the black-and-white ball, and sure enough, in hot pink letters, it screamed “GIRLS RULE!”
“Aw, geez,” he said at the time, and A. just smiled.
I think she’s pretty quick on her feet, that one.