Cecelia sat at the bottom of the slide at first recess, lower lip protruding, arms folded, and all nine of her years resting upon her like wet crepe. When I called out good morning, she pulled her arms tighter and did not answer. What gives, I wondered?
I scanned the immediate vicinity to source out the back story. Besides my girl on the slide and a few crows along west fence, I also saw three additional children: a lanky boy, Jason, his big-boned friend, Luis, and a smooth-talking fifth grader, Jessica Nunez. They giggled, and ignored Cecelia all together. I approached the three gigglers with a couple questions:
“Jason, Any idea what might be happening with your friend over there?”
“Man, she just sits there all the time, feeling sorry for herself. She’s so rude.”
Jason’s words slipped through the gap between his front teeth. He looked at his two friends, and told me that she had shown up to school giving other kids the silent treatment. No one knew why she had such an attitude. Jessica added a bit more:
“She always makes up these stories about how no one likes her! Whatever!”
Clear enough. So, I crossed over to the slide. Cecelia turned away and let her long black hair fall forward. I could hear sniffles and could see the tip of her nose. I decided to cut through her barricade with a bit of prodding and fact checking.
“Your friends tell me that you came to school unhappy today. True?”
Sniffles ceased. A response gathered with an inhale. She then let it out – she tried to be nice, no one wanted to be her friend and nothing would ever change. She flipped her hair back behind her ears, and allowed me to see her face.
“I don’t like this school. No one wants to talk to me. I’m never going to have any friends.”
Her long lashes fluttered, she fidgeted, and she crafted this big and lonely drama, believing every word of it. I asked how she knew she was right. She shrugged, so I pressed a bit more: “Where do all those unhappy thoughts come from?”
She remained still, sniffling. “Those three kids over there said they want to talk to you. But what do they get? A back turned and arms folded. Do you hear me, honey?” Silence. “Cecelia, they think you’re being rude.” Still, no response.
“Let’s walk.” I said. She paused, but took my hand. We headed toward the trio who had watched us all the while. I had the words “fresh start” on my mind. In a few minutes, I managed to engineer a “fix” so that all four, not just the three, were interacting. Meanwhile, I was struck with the way words can rob us, just as others fill us up. Happy, sad, included, or rejected. These are choices, not facts. How much time had this girl lost on her tale of woe?
And, I flashed on all the stories I that passed through me this morning. Quite a few!
The power to tell a good tale is a gift. Opening up to the kind of story that liberates takes practice. What I carry forward, what I let drop, and how I manage the space between – these choices color existence itself. Today, another insight into self-determination, offered up by a nine year-old girl who may not remember this moment ever occurred.