Maybe in a Parallel Universe, kids are graded on their questions, not their answers. Part I

“I am very concerned about your son’s academics”.

My 6-year-old’s teacher fiddled with her collar as she said it.  I sat perched on the miniature wooden chair, in front of the miniature wooden table, my knees practically scrunched up to my neck, and surveyed the busy and colorful classroom.  Cut-out leaves made of construction paper ran the length of the room on a string, the names of each student written in barely legible writing; the alphabet with, associated pictures, lined the chalkboard; A Chore Chart hung nearby:  Line Leader.  Door Holder.  Snack Helper.  My eyes landed on a stray book, “Red Lace, Yellow Lace”, a book about learning to tie shoes.

The word “academics” sounded conspicuously out-of-place.

My son goes to a wonderful school.  I have enjoyed all of his teachers, have great relationships with anyone who has been involved in his learning, praise the administration for working so hard to right by my son, and have no doubt in my mind that everyone was always wanting to do what they thought best for him.  It just gets tricky when what people think is best, differs radically.

Over the course of the next two school years, after that initial Parent-Teacher Conference, I would be bombarded with anxiety from people, urges for testing, meetings.  I would find myself sitting at long conference tables while people shuffled around of papers baring words like “Quantitative Concepts”, “Passage Comprehension” and “Reliability”.  There was such pressure and insistence and anxiety in “Doing Something” about my son’s “lag” in learning.  At times, when I asked that nothing be done, but for us to wait and be patient and see how the year turns out, I was often met with startled, confused and befuddled looks.  I might have even been deemed a Bad Mother to some.  To most, it seemed clear that he had a learning disability, but to me, I saw a young boy who simply needed a bit more time.  It felt like the boxes in which our children were to fit were getting smaller and smaller by the year, and I couldn’t think of a more promising deterrent from learning, than anxiety and pressure and force.  Everything I felt was driving this ship.

My son fell into that age-bracket where we could have easily waited another full year before starting school.  His birthday falls on the second week of August, which meant that upon starting Kindergarten he had been 5 a mere three weeks.  I remember putting him on the bus for the first time with this nagging feeling that I should have kept him back just one more year, but everyone said he would be okay.  I didn’t want to seem over-protective.  I didn’t want to underestimate him.  So, I ignored the nagging feeling.

As the years went on, in addition to the fact that boys tend to mature a bit later than girls, I was certain that this “lag”  that everyone was so worried about had more to do with him being young for his class and needing more time to grow.  Needing more patience from the adults around him.  Needing to learn at his own pace.  I remember the wonderful words of his Kindergarten teacher:  He is exactly where he needs to be.  I’ve held on to those words all of these years and reminded myself of that very thought when I felt myself waning.

I met with teachers, brought home supplies, put together small Learning Lessons at home, bought a dry erase board for the kitchen and did my best to help him try to learn the things with which he was struggling.  I remember there being such worry that he couldn’t count to 100 by 2’s.  He’d make it to 16 or so, but that’s it.  I remember trying to make a game out of learning how to count by 2’s.  I tried to show him the pattern to see if he could understand.  Counting in the car and making songs out of it.

I remember him getting frustrated, feeling like he had failed, losing interest and just looking out the window after a while.

One evening, while he was at our kitchen counter trying to do his math homework, and as I was drying and putting away dishes from the dishwasher, Silas lowered his head down, dropped his pencil and said, “I’m so dumb”.  I put down my dishcloth and went over to him, wrapped my arms around his sunken shoulders and tried to convince him that he was anything but dumb, but that everyone learned at a different pace.  Of course, it didn’t matter what I said.  He wasn’t understanding things that his classmates were, and that’s all he noticed.  I would hear him say this periodically throughout the year and each and every time I heard it, I became more convinced that he needed more time.

The school year was coming to an end in just a few short months, and my husband and I needed to come to a final decision about what to do:  Keep pushing him forward toward a future of endless testing and flashcards and meetings and urgency and anxiety and hearing “I’m so dumb”, or hold him back one more year and give him the extra time to grow and learn at his own pace while all of his classmates moved on.

One morning, at about 6:00, I was sitting in the living room couch reading and sipping my coffee before the mayhem of Getting Ready For School began.  Silas came tip-toeing down the stairs, sleep still evident in his blue eyes.  He crawled onto the couch next to me and laid his head on my lap.  As I brushed away his hair slowly and asked him how he slept, he responded with, “Mom…..are there others of us, but in the future?  Like, are there others of you and me, but we’re living in the future?”.  I remember pausing, trying to reconcile that my 7-year-old son, who had just woken up, was asking me about the possibility of other planes of existence. How exactly does a 7-year-old even have such a thought?

No wonder he wasn’t able to count to 100 by 2’s.  He was too busy wondering about Parallel Universes–the first of a many other impossible questions he would ask me during our alone time.

I love the way my son’s mind works.  I could honestly care less if he is “reading at grade level” or able to count by 2’s at the exact age he is expected to.  I don’t care if it takes him a while longer to string a series of letters together to form words than it does others.  I guess I always knew that he would get there someday, it would just be at his own pace and not anyone else’s.  So I didn’t worry, until others told me I should be.

What I do care about is the wonderful curiosity that drives him.  At home, when he’s shown a keen interest in the sinking of the Titanic, or Bigfoot, I sit down and Google things with him and we watch videos on YouTube and we buy books and DVD’s and we watch Harry and The Henderson’s.  I even sit through Finding Bigfoot with him, which is pure torture.

I appreciate the fact that his empathy is sometimes too much for him to bear, which may indirectly be my doing.  That watching a poor elephant get his foot stuck in a pail on a cartoon might bring him to tears.  That when a child in his classroom loses control emotionally, it almost traumatizes him and he sometimes tries to befriend them.

I cherish the fact that sometimes his thoughts and his questions are so profound, he doesn’t even know how to ask them, and I barely know how to answer them.

But alas, the way out world works, our children are ranked on regurgitation.  Like cows lazily chewing their cud.  And unfortunately, much of our children’s’ Self-Esteem hinges on doing “good” in school alongside their peers.  I also know for a fact, that many of my son’s teachers cringe at this very concept themselves, but are forced into following protocol, much like the pupils they guide.  Luckily, my son has had some amazing teachers who Get It and I also cherish and appreciate them.

By the end of the 2nd grade, I was left with two options:  Keep pushing him forward down the crowded hallways of students toward things he wasn’t ready for, or hold him back and allow him the extra time he needed, as he watched the others move up.  Would he really be a child “Left Behind”, or would he be Exactly Where He Needs To Be?

 

 

New Kids On The Block

There are certain rites of passage that all junior high girls must pass through, and pass through together: smoking your first Newport cigarette that you stole from your friend’s parent’s coat pocket; stumbling upon their porn stash and being forever traumatized by a nude Tom Selleck and his obscene mustache; figuring out how to French kiss using their pillow; and developing an obsession, bordering on delusion, with any member of the boy-band currently at the top of the charts, which in 1990, was New Kids On The Block.

At the innocent and wide-eyed age of 13, I was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would marry the youngest member of NKOTB, Joey McIntyre, in just a few short years. I knew it would happen. I had no doubt in my mind that one day I would be Mrs. Michelle McIntyre.  The alliteration itself was serendipitous.  Devouring my subscription to Teen Magazine every time it arrived in the mail, provided me with everything I needed to know about my future husband: his favorite color (blue) and his favorite first date (dinner and a long walk on the beach). I knew he grew up in Boston, I knew he had blue eyes, I knew he had numerous sisters and I knew what he looked for in a girl (“cool, chill, fun to be around”). I could only hope that he would find my budding neurosis and love of making lists “fun to be around”.

The only thing standing in my way was the small task of getting him to realize that I existed. Luckily, Tami was also planning her nuptials to Jordan Knight. “Tami Knight” didn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as “Mrs. Michelle McIntyre” did, but I didn’t want to bust her bubble that because of that, things might not happen for her, so I kept quiet. What could we do? How could we make ourselves known to the loves of our lives? As we sat beside my new dual CD player/ FM radio, listening to John Gerabedian’s “Open House Party,” one Saturday night it came to us:

Make Joey and Jordan a dance video and mail it to them.

We wanted to be smart about this, however. Sending a VHS tape could be construed as a little weird– a little desperate.  So, sitting in my bedroom surrounded by no less than 86 different posters of Joey, and the entire band as a whole, we decided that we didn’t want to come off as too over-the-top-obsessed because that would be creepy. We didn’t want to scare them off. We didn’t want them to think we were some crazed hill-billies living in Podunk, Vermont, but more mature, cultured girls with a variation of tastes in music and experiences. With that in mind, we wanted to choose a song to dance to that was not theirs. We wanted to show them there were other songs besides “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.” So, after much deliberation sitting on my floor, making our lists and charts and throwing out songs back and forth, we mutually and excitedly settled on a song that we felt was catchy, but not an obvious choice:
Milli Vanilli’s chart-topping #1 hit, “Girl You Know It’s True.”

 

“Yes!” I hissed at Tami, who always had better ideas than I did. “Perfect!” This was going to be a slam dunk. Filming needed to start immediately. Our hopes and dreams were being realized with each passing hour. We were going to showcase our many talents to Joey and Jordan, and could picture them watching the tape on their tour bus, in between shows, being blown away by two girls in Swanton, Vermont, and feeling the need to get in touch with us right away.  I’d decided that I would carry a bouquet of Lilies down the aisle.

We chose my backyard as our setting. It was spacious and somewhat scenic with our big spruce tree towering over the house, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else anyway. We got ourselves ready in my full-length mirror teasing, blow-drying and spraying our hair, carefully picking out our clothes, and chirping away about all of the possibilities that were about to open up for us. I had to make sure to put on some concealer as I had begun getting pimples left and right. Tami’s skin was flawless. Always. Not only was she petite with dark brown hair and sparkly, dark brown eyes, but she had the most porcelain skin to boot. I always had zits, which merely served to compliment my braces and permed brown hair.

We decided to use my parents’ boom box to play the Milli Vanilli song during filming. We weren’t quite technologically adept enough to figure out how to dub the song over our video afterward, and I had a sinking suspicion that my parents were not going to help us figure that one out. My dad was walking around the house in an angry stupor not talking to anyone, and when I asked my mom if I could have Tami over earlier that morning, she half-heartedly responded with “I don’t care”—although it felt like maybe she might have been talking about something else. There were more “I don’t cares” and long silences as of late, which was both annoying and beneficial. Annoying because you walked around on your tiptoes, yet beneficial because when you wanted to use the VHS recorder to make a home video to send to New Kids On The Block, no one cared.

The VHS recorder weighed as much as a small child. I had to hoist it up onto my shoulder, squint my left eye and look through the lens with my right eye, and make sure to hold it steady so it didn’t shake. Having taken one of the thousands of VHS tapes from my father’s collection, we schlepped the thing around out back looking for the perfect spot. There was the back of my garage, the spruce tree, the back fence, my parents’ garden that was clearly neglected, and our picnic table.

Choosing to do our opening scenes against the spruce tree, we began filming, introducing ourselves first before getting to our many talents. I let Tami go first, probably because I was being bossy, wanting to run the camera and tell her what to do. I liked directing people. She stood against the backdrop of the tree, poised and smiling while I positioned myself and the camera. My thumb on the record button and my left eye squinting, I said, “Ok. Go.”

“Hi! I’m Tami. I’m 13 years old and live in Swanton, Vermont.” She seemed nervous, so I made her do it again explaining to her that we didn’t want them to think we were trying too hard.  Didn’t want them to see we were nervous.   We did another take, and after reviewing her introduction and being satisfied, it was my turn. I took her place in front of the towering Spruce and tried my hardest to come off as “chill, cool, and fun to be around.”

“Hey! I’m Michelle. I’m 13 and live in Swanton, Vermont.” I didn’t smile too widely, and may have even slouched a little to give off the effect that making this video was really not that big of a deal to me—I could be doing other things.

After reviewing them again and being satisfied with our introductions, we milled around my backyard lugging the 45-pound VHS recorder along. What to do next? We could do some acrobatics over by the fence to the music, or simply record ourselves walking around lip-syncing like in the music video? We had spent the better part of the evening memorizing the lyrics to “Girl, You Know It’s True.” There were two members of Milli Vanilli and so we each took a part and divided up the song like that. Going over my lines in our heads, we spotted the picnic table. Perfect! We would combine the lip-syncing and the dancing and use the picnic table as a kind of prop.

I let Tami go first again. We used one of my father’s 455-foot extension cords that was plugged into an outlet in our garage and plugged it into the boom box that we positioned near the picnic table, but concealed and out of sight in an attempt to make this as professional as possible. We had agreed that we would start off-camera, but then jump in front of the camera right when the song started. With Tami standing on her mark, poised to jump in front of the camera at just the right time, I quickly ran over to the boom box and hit Play, ran back to my mark, hoisted the cumbersome VHS camera on to my shoulder, squinted my left eye, yelled “Ready,” and hit Record.

We spent an entire afternoon running back and forth from the boom box, back to our marks, hitting record, hitting pause, reviewing our work, dancing, lip-syncing, re-winding, changing the dance moves, redoing our hair and occasionally yelling at my little sister to “Get out of the way!”, lest she completely ruin our plans. What a turn off it might be to see my immature little sister making faces at the camera while wearing my old dance recital skirt as a wig.
I can’t remember if we ever sent off our video. It may be sitting in my father’s collection somewhere, or maybe he found it and didn’t know what it was and taped episodes of The Rifleman over it. Or, maybe we did send it off, and Joey and Jordan just never got a chance to see it. That would probably explain things. It may have been a blessing in disguise, seeing as how only a few short months later it would be found out that Milli Vanilli was all a hoax. One of the biggest scandals to have rocked the music world.  And to think that we used their song in an attempt to impress NKOTB?  I could only hope they didn’t actually watch it.

We were not deterred however. For NKOTB’s “Summer of Magic” tour was kicking off, and Tami and I had tickets to see them!!! It would be a summer of magic for sure. If our home video hadn’t made it to them, then we would just have to make it to them ourselves. Lucky for us, Lake Placid was not so far from where we lived, only a few short hours. My mother (bless her heart) and Tami’s mother (bless her heart) agreed to take Tami, my little sister (seriously?), and me to see them.  In person.

It was happening. It was really happening. We were going to be in the exact same arena as Joey and Jordan. We were basically going to be in the same room as them! Again, we spent an obscene amount of hours choosing our outfits, fixing our hair and going over what we would say or do if and when we met them. No, not if. When.

Having grown up in Swanton, Vermont (population 3,000) and not having really gone anywhere else except Malone, NY, made arriving in Lake Placid feel like being in a completely different country. The people, the traffic, the buildings, all the flags. There were so many flags near the arena, which was massive. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that me and the NKOTB were in the same city together. They were seeing the same flags I was seeing and experiencing the same things I was. I could barely contain myself. With explicit instructions from both my mom and Tami’s mom to stick together and meet us back out at the van when it was over, the three of us scrambled out of the car and walked toward the towering Olympic Arena.

Swarms of girls our age, covered in NKOTB attire were pouring through the doors.  Thousands of love-sick girls wearing t-shirts, sunglasses, purses. Some of them were carrying posters, and all of them were giddy. The closer we got to the doors, the more quickly we became swallowed up in the masses. Some man looked at our tickets, pointed to a set of stairs and doors we were to go through, and we were on our way.

I had never been in a place with so many people before. I was from Swanton. The biggest gathering I had ever experienced was our school assemblies in the gymnasium. I felt so small and the arena only made me feel smaller.   The countless nights I had spent daydreaming about my fantastical love for Joey and our inevitable relationship suddenly seemed comical and pathetic when I was forced with the realization that the thousands upon thousands of other girls in the arena had all been doing the same exact thing.

Somehow, we found our seats in the dark, which were not ideal: it was the nose bleed section. Behind the stage. Behind it. Was I even going to see him?

Drunk with delusional love, the music began, the screams of everyone else’s delusional love became deafening and all of my concerns were swept away as the concert started.  The lights all around me dimmed and the stage lit up.  Well, the front of the stage lit up.  I could see the dancing silhouettes of NKOTB and the familiar music I had only ever heard on my dual CD player/FM radio.   I was exhilarated. I was smiling. I was laughing. I was dancing.  I was giddy.
I was bawling my eyes out.

I had never cried so hard in my life for absolutely no reason. It was all just too much. Seeing the love of my life from a half-mile away (I’m pretty sure it was him), was just too much for my hysterical heart to handle. I sobbed. And so did Tami. We were akin to the Beatles’ fans I had seen on TV in black and white: teenage girls shaking their heads in hysteria and grabbing at their hair in ecstasy. Well, we weren’t quite that bad, but bad enough. My poor little sister, smooshed between two sobbing 13-year-olds, looked first up at me, then up at Tami, completely befuddled over our tears. Being the impressionable little sister that she was, she eventually started bawling herself, because apparently, that is just what you do at a New Kids On The Block concert when you’re 13 and it’s the biggest thing you’ve ever been to in your life thus far.

On the ride home, coming down from my high, I won’t try to deny that I was a bit disappointed I didn’t actually get to meet Joey, or that our seats were literally behind the stage, and that I only got to glimpse him when their dance routine caused them to move from one far end of the stage to the other. And even then, I had to try and figure out which one he actually was. I couldn’t deny that all of my big plans were not falling into place. It is a hard pill to swallow to learn that the fantasies in which I had been indulging in order to escape my mundane life were only ever going to be that. Fantasy.

Later, when the excitement had worn off, and reality had settled back into our days, Tami and I were lying in my bed, begrudgingly coming to the realization that Joey and Jordan were most likely never going to have the chance to meet us. So, we commenced taking down the86 posters I had splayed all over my bedroom walls. It took a good half hour to take them down. I folded over the edges of tape and put them in a neat pile in the bottom of my drawer. We went downstairs, grabbed a big bag of Cheetos and some soda, went back up and sprawled out on my bed. We put on Air Supply and wallowed in our misery together. With our feet perched against the slanted ceilings in my room, and the sounds of us reaching into the bag for another handful of Cheetos and loudly chewing them, we emotionally ate our pain away to the crooning words, “I’m All Out Of Love/I’m So Lost Without You.”

I couldn’t figure out which was worse: falling on your bike in front of the love of your life, or being faced with the fact that you’ve spent an inordinate amount of energy banking on an impossible and ridiculous fantasy coming true. Why did so many girls my age go so crazy for boys who were totally unattainable? Maybe for me it was because I didn’t dare fall for anyone real just yet. As I stared at my feet pressed against my floral wallpaper and licked my orange fingers, I reasoned that it seemed a whole heck of a lot safer than the real deal. Real-life love was filled with silent treatments and the slamming of cupboards. It entailed arguments over one person not helping out around the house enough and people leaving each other in some form or another. It had nothing to do with walks on the beach or being cool, chill, and fun to be around. It seemed to entail anything but that, and so I didn’t think I really wanted any part of it. Maybe I preferred to have loved from afar because at least you could always tell yourself that the reason it didn’t work out was because you never even got to meet—not that you did, and you just weren’t good enough.

 

Mary

Right at the center of our little village, Swanton, VT, in between Flat Iron Park and the Episcopal Church, there lived a mysterious woman named Mary. Mary lived in a once-majestic house, squeezed in between two other more modest-sized houses at the other end of Grand Avenue. It took me ten minutes on foot to reach her house from mine.

Whether walking to the middle school, or walking to Tiffany’s house or walking with friends somewhere else, you had to walk by Mary’s house to get into the middle of town. Passing along all of the houses on each side, you witnessed neat, tiny lawns, trimmed edges, wreaths hanging on front doors, and potted plants hanging along porches, overflowing with hot pink azaleas. Everyone’s house looked the same as everyone else’s house.  That is, until you got to Mary’s house.

Her house was the size of a small mansion, at least for Swanton, VT.  It might have even been one of the original houses to be built in Swanton, although I couldn’t say for sure. It was easily one of the biggest houses along our main route, and a bit out of place. It had no distinct color, as the paint had faded and chipped away so badly over the years. It was grey and crumbling, betraying the fact that absolutely no one had tended to its outsides in decades.

Mary’s front lawn, instead of being mowed and weed-wacked along its edges like its neighbors, was instead occupied by three or four border patrol cars that never, ever budged. It was almost as if one day, there was some kind of raid at her house, a handful of border patrol agents haphazardly parked on her front lawn, and then just never left.  Their faded mint green coloring and old rims conveyed that this apparent raid had taken place many, many years ago.

Beyond the border patrol cars sprawled a huge front porch, but instead of hanging begonias, or wreaths made by twigs from Flowers By Debbie, or a welcome mat, her porch was lined from one end to the other, from top to bottom, with bulging, black garbage bags. They seemed to take up every inch of the porch, covered the windows and threatened to spill over at any moment. It was certainly a sight to behold when you came upon her house. It was fascinating, and a bit disturbing, at the same time.

Garbage bags and Border Patrol cruisers couldn’t have screamed “Keep Out” any clearer.

Mary herself did not look disturbing whatsoever though. On the rare occasion that I actually laid eyes on her, she looked like any other old lady walking her dog. Sometimes, she seemed a bit overdressed for August, what with her multiple sweaters and hat and scarves, but there was nothing else at all out of place about her, other than her house, really.

My own sightings of Mary were few and far between, but each and every time I walked or drove into the village with my parents, I searched for her.  Occasionally I would see her walking past St. Marie’s store, her dog on its leash, her head down.  I would press my face up against the window and crane my neck as we drove past, enthralled with this mysterious woman who marched to the beat of her own drum.  Really, that was what seemed to draw me to her:  She was not like many of the other people who lived in Swanton and it was a bit refreshing and I’d wished I could know her better.

One day, as I was making my up Grand Avenue somewhere, (I don’t recall where), I noticed that she was headed toward me on the same side of the street. She had her dog with her and her head down as she always did.  Minding her own business.  It was such a rare moment that I actually saw Mary, and I was so intrigued by her house, and why someone would want so many garbage bags and border patrol cars on her front lawn, that it was even more exciting to me to see her in person than when the Swanton Festival arrived each summer in our little park.

I wanted to say hello to her. To show her that I was not afraid of her and that I was friendly. For some reason, it was important to me that she know that.  I think I wanted to be her friend.

As I cautiously continued on down the sidewalk, I watched as we slowly grew closer to each other: her, hobbling along with her sweet, calm dog on its leash, and me, my heart beating out of my chest, and unable to take my eyes off of her. Her dog did not pull on the leash, or yank it to go smell a spot of grass; it walked at exactly the pace Mary walked, and seemed completely content and happy to be with her. By now, we were only a few feet away from each other with the distance getting smaller and smaller. I could make out her canvas shoes: blue with white shoelaces and white soles.  They looked worn, but comfortable.  They reminded me of my grandmother’s shoes.   Her pants were blue as well, and she wore a heavy flannel shirt, which covered other shirts underneath. She wore a scarf around her neck and a babushka that tied underneath her chin. I could hear her shoes scraping the sidewalk, but only in-between the loud pulsing happening in my ears.

This was my moment.  This was my chance to say hello to her and make myself known.  Who knows, maybe one day I would walk to her very house and bring her some cookies.  Maybe one day I would sit in her mysterious house and she would tell me stories about her life and I would learn from her wise words.  As the two of us grew closer, my adrenaline grew stronger.

Just as she and I were about to pass each other, I smiled and raised my hand, only just a bit, in a friendly wave, and said, “Hello” pausing my step just slightly.

It was as if I wasn’t even there. As though I were completely invisible. She didn’t even look up. She didn’t even miss a step. Had she not heard me? How could she not have seen me? I wanted her to know I was friendly and nice. It was so important to me that she know that!

As she and her dog passed me, completely unfazed and seemingly unaware of my presence whatsoever, I felt so stupid. I had built myself up so much, had almost had a heart attack envisioning a momentous moment where I possibly make friends with the mysterious and infamous Mary of our little town, and she hadn’t even known I was there.  Or worse yet, didn’t care.

I continued on my walk, glancing over my shoulder after a while and noticed that Mary looked exactly the same as she had her entire walk down Grand Avenue. My heart began to slow and my embarrassment began to wane as I tried to figure out what just happened.

Maybe it was me who needed to feel accepted and approved of, and not the other way around.

Troy and Rachel: My teachers, my guides.

*  Troy and Rachel are fictional characters in order to protect the identities of anyone I’ve worked with…although I’m sure we can all see parts of ourselves in their eyes at one point or another.

Troy and Rachel

He walks into my office, arms folded and head down, and sinks into my couch.  No hello, no how are you.  I quietly shut the door and slowly ease myself into my rocking chair, my eyes on the young man in front of me who is desperately trying to fold into himself in the corner.

His name is Troy.  On a good day, he toys with the idea of someday calling himself Amber, but today is not a good day.  Today, is a very bad day.  One of the many very bad days we’ve spent together in my office.  They come and go like many good days and bad days do for the rest of us, but with Troy, the bad days feel more like torture.

Troy is 16.  He is short, with dirty-blonde hair, a small bunch of freckles scattered across his nose and green eyes.  Beautiful green eyes that shine like emeralds on good days, when we talk about the latest Colbert Report episode, and eyes that look almost lifeless on days such as this.  We sit in silence for a little while.  A familiar silence that isn’t  awkward or uncomfortable.  We’ve been working together for over a year now and he has taught me a great deal.

I’ve learned that he feels like he has the wrong body.  He actually hates his body.  Sometimes, he cuts himself at night, alone in the bathroom, when he wants to crawl out of his own skin.   I’ve learned that on very bad days, he often comes in with long-sleeved shirts.   I’ve learned that he’s thought about killing himself more often than he has not.

Despite being born male, he feels more female inside.  He has no idea why he feels this way, or when it really started to take root.  He didn’t even know what he was feeling until the last few years, and until recently, had no idea who to talk to.  On these very bad days, Troy’s self-loathing and self-hatred is so apparent and so intense, that he can barely stand to be in the room with me.  He avoids my eyes and his hunched shoulders and averted gaze seem to beg, “don’t look at me, I’m horrible”.   We sit alone in my office, him staring off into space, and me, holding myself back from going over and wrapping my arms around him.

On days like this, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what “issue” the person across from me is struggling with.  I’ve learned that when any human being despises themselves to the extent that Troy does, that simply staying with them in the room and being with them is all I can do–if they’ll let me.

After 10 minutes of silence, I casually say to him, “Justin Timberlake’s new album just dropped this week”.   Earlier in our relationship, we talked about obscure Indie rock bands that we liked, educating each other about our “high taste” in music, until he courageously admitted he really liked J.T.

“Me too!” I concurred, and we made a pact to never breathe a word of it to anyone else.

At my comment, Troy gives a half smirk and fleetingly glances at me, as a courtesy, “yeah, I know I bought it off iTunes”.  He doesn’t move, but I’ve brought him out of wherever he was into the room with me.

“I’m kind of disappointed in it, to be honest” I lament, “except for “Suit and Tie”.  That’s a decent track.”.

Troy ever so subtly shifts on my couch.  “Yeah, I’ve listened to it a few times now.  Some of his other songs are starting to grow on me.  Just give it a few tries”.

I argue a little with him, “I don’t know.  “Mirrors”makes me want to gag.  It’s just so corny”.  He smirks again.

And then I know what will stir him up, and despite the almost sacrilege of it, I say it anyway.  “Well, I’d rather listen to him than The Damn Beatles” I say.

“Are you kidding me?” He blasts, his green eyes a little more alive than when he first walked in.  “How can you say that?  That’s got to be a sin or something!”.

“I know, I know” I smile.  ” You’re right.  I feel like I should go to confession or something, but I cannot tell a lie and I really have never understood the whole Beatle thing”.  We both sit up a little bit higher in our chairs as he stares at me in almost-disgust, which is wonderful.  At least he’s feeling something other than what he was.

We move from The Beatles to horror movies and talk about things that scare us to the core, which oddly somehow brings us to a conversation about Stand Up Comedy.  We find ourselves laughing about a Robin Williams routine he did about the origins of golf.  Troy can do a perfect Scottish accent.

Then, there is Rachel.  Rachel is a 15-year-old High School student whose anxiety feels insurmountable to her.  She is newer to me, but I have a growing affinity for her.  I have watched her sit on my couch on the verge of telling me, “I’m gay” a few times now.  Her eyes well up with tears, she visibly starts to shake, and her lips quiver almost imperceptibly.  She half-opens her mouth, but then quickly looks away from me and says, “I forgot what I was going to say”.

“It’s ok” I tell her, “It’ll come back to you at some point”.

These are the private sides of our LGBT youth that most people don’t see.  Most people see Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of a magazine and pass judgement around like one would pass a bowl of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.  Most people see two men, or two women, walking hand-in-hand or showing each other affection, and comment that there is no need to flaunt it.  Most people here about the Supreme Court decision and are offended that these people should have the same right to marriage.

For me, and many other psychologists, this is the side of our LGBT youth that we see on a weekly basis.  Self-loathing teenagers with fresh cuts on their arms.  Young girls with so much fear about uttering their own truth that they can’t even bring themselves to say it aloud.

On very bad days that all of these young kids have, they have taught me that my job isn’t about diagnoses, or techniques, or textbook approaches, or new medications, or trying to convince them of this or that, or labels or categories.  They have taught me that it’s not about if they are a boy dressed as a girl, or a girl dressed as a boy, or gay or bisexual.  They have taught me that my one and only job is to sit with them and be with them and make sure they understand that they are worth knowing, whoever they may be.

As Rachel packs her book bag to leave, and grabs her skateboard, she awkwardly mumbles something about “maybe I’ll remember next week” as I hold the door open for her and tell her, “Well, either way, I will be here waiting for you to arrive”, hoping that somehow, she understands what I mean when I say it.

By the end of my session with Troy, he is slightly less hunched over than before and has his hands in his pockets.  As we both move to go, I sit on the edge of my rocking chair, my hands on me knees, and I look him in the eyes until he meets my gaze and tell him, “I’m really enjoyed your company today”.

He gives me a half-smirk, moves toward the door and says, “I’ll see you next week”.

I find others’ judgments about the gay and lesbian community almost comical.  Almost.  It’s just so typical.  And I am grateful I don’t share in their sentiments.  I consider myself lucky to know these young kids.  I am lucky that they have taught me how to look at them as a human being who wants to be accepted as they are, like anyone else.  I’m lucky and honored that they have trusted me enough to allow me to join them on their paths.  I’m lucky that I get to spend my days with them.

They have been my greatest teachers and thank goodness I have been paying attention.