My twin girls just finished 4th grade. Here they are back in late August 2011 on the first day of school, ready and excited to get started.
In many ways it was a great year. I loved their teachers, they learned a ton, grew in leaps and bounds, were much more independent in getting their homework done and developed confidence in themselves. But in many ways, I couldn’t wait for 4th grade to be over. There were days I had to literally wipe the tears away as I dropped them off at school and watched them walk onto the playground. I felt like I was throwing them to the wolves.
Let me back up a bit… while my girls are twins and definitely have similar traits, they are not identical. They are very different in many ways and experience school in very different ways. Since kindergarten we’ve had them in separate classes and this has worked very well for our family.
Third grade was a rough year for Macy. There was a new girl in class and a girl Macy considered her BFF was suddenly much more interested in playing with the new girl. They made up a secret handshake and wouldn’t teach it to Macy. It was clear things had changed and she was experiencing something like a break-up with her friend. This is all very normal, I know this. But those tears were so painful for me to wipe away. I felt like I was experiencing the whole thing with her. I encouraged her to write a note to her friend and tell her how she felt. The note she got back (which I still have) was signed by three different girls and said, “we like you, but we are not going to teach you our handshake. It’s OURS, so stop talking about it.” Ouch.
It was hard, so hard, to watch Macy go through this. But Macy is a talker. She has no problem talking to me about what is going on at school. She would come home, sit with me on the couch and we would cry together. She would listen to my advice and was willing to talk to her teacher and the school counselor. She didn’t wish ill will on these girls, she wanted to be included with them, and she still does. I’ll spare you all the details, but it got more complicated and then better and then more complicated again. Many tears were shed, and many lessons were learned by both of us. She came out of third grade with just a little bit more maturity. She definitely learned that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
During this whole time, I never once worried about Avery. She was the kid who had zero interest in girl drama. Where Macy’s playdates were spent in her bedroom flipping through American Girl magazines and making up dances to Selena Gomez songs, Avery’s were spent in the backyard kicking a soccer ball, climbing trees or feeding carrots to the bunny. All she wanted to do at recess was find a kickball or four square game. Her friends were whoever was playing freeze tag that day. Her classroom didn’t seem to have the same relational aggression going on. At least not that I could see. She supported her sister and even called a couple of these girls out once for making her sister cry on the playground. Other than that, Avery didn’t really get involved.
Then 4th grade started.
Macy seemed to be having a much better year. She still had the same little group of friends, but she made some new ones too. She knew there would be drama, but she also knew that she could deal with it and it was normal. It was Avery who seemed to be having a hard time. The transformation was slow and subtle. I would wait for them on the playground after school and Avery would come out by herself, shoulders slumped and head down. I could tell by the look on her face it had been a bad day. She would lean her whole body in to mine as if she wanted to disappear into me, or shift the weight of whatever pain she was carrying onto my shoulders. She would start to tell me about something that happened and I would brush her off and tell her we would talk about it later. There was always another parent I needed to talk to, or we were late for softball, lacrosse, chorus, soccer, art class or whatever. Big mistake on my part.
Avery is not a talker. She never wanted to talk about it later. I had no idea how bad things were getting for her. You see, Avery is fiercely competitive. This is a trait that serves her well on the soccer field and sometimes even in the classroom. She wants to be the fastest, the smartest, the first one finished. This is not a trait that serves her well on the 4th grade playground. Like any relationship, friendship is give and take and learning acquiese sometimes. I knew in my gut, this was a lesson that would be hard for Avery to learn. Both of my girls have watched other girls in their class form these tight, one-on-one friendships that sometimes last for a couple of years, sometimes maybe only one school year, and sometimes only for a few weeks or months. I’ve never encouraged this with any of my kids. But that doesn’t mean that my kids didn’t watch these BFF friendships with envy. Avery wanted to be someones number one BFF and she made some mistakes along the way.
Early on in the year, Macy was invited to a friend’s house to spend the night so I had Avery invite a classmate to spend the night here. That Friday at pick up, I could tell that it had not been a good day for Avery. The whole way home from school she could not stop talking about how Cathy (not her real name), the girl coming to spend the night that very night, had got three prizes from the drawbox and Avery had not got any. There had been other signs that Avery was jealous of Cathy for many other reasons too, but this prize thing seemed to really get under her skin. We talked about it and I thought she seemed OK before Cathy arrived at our house. Later, as the girls were going to bed, I stood just outside the door and listened to their conversation. Avery kept saying how lucky she was to have gotten three prizes that day. Cathy kept insisting that she really only got two, and yes, she felt lucky. It was getting tense and Avery would not let it go and Cathy was getting visibly uncomfortable. I finally walked in and told Avery she had to drop it, it’s not her fault that her name got pulled twice. Let it go. Things didn’t really improve. My daughter spent the rest of sleepover with a chip on her shoulder and in a very sullen mood. It was hard to watch.
Shortly after this, Avery’s teacher called me in to talk. I had a pit in my stomach since I knew things with Avery were just not right. My happy, sporty daughter was morphing into a withdrawn, unhappy girl. Her teacher showed me some notes that she had found and I was floored. They were notes written by my daughter and they were not nice. I didn’t recognize the girl who wrote those notes and yet, I did recognize her. I didn’t eat or sleep for days. I wanted desperately to help her, to tell her that this is not how you make friends, by hurting those that hurt you. I have to say here that her teacher was so great about the whole situation, she clearly wanted to help Avery and help me understand what was going on. She told her teacher that she sometimes can’t help herself when she acts “mean” to other kids.
I carved out some time to spend alone with Avery and confronted her about the notes and everything else that was going on at school. She was embarrassed that I had seen them, and had zero interest in talking to me about it. She just kept saying, “I know I’m a mean person.” Let me just say, that is so very hard to hear your nine year old daughter say. It was even harder for me to accept that she didn’t want to hear my advice. It was not like with Macy, where she wanted nothing more than to talk to me about things and get my advice.
Just like everything with pre-teen age girls, it’s all much more complicated than I can write about here. It was clear that Avery was getting a reputation as a “mean girl.” Once she had that label, it’s been a struggle to over come it… a struggle for both of us. It’s fractured my friendships with some of the other mom’s in 4th grade and left me desperate to get in to Avery’s head and help her turn things around, while still maintaining her trust and letting her be who she is. In my head, I know that the most powerful thing I can do is show her by example how to be a good friend and let her learn the hard lessons on her own. I was also the kid that didn’t want to talk to my mom about anything school or friend related. I am much more comfortable typing out my feelings from behind my computer screen than actually saying the words out loud. For Avery, she communicates with notes. Notes that I find under her pillows and hidden in the pockets of her backpack.
So what have I learned from all this? I’ve learned that 4th grade is hard. I’ve learned that none of these girls are “mean” and none of them deserve that label. Even the girls who made up a secret handshake and wouldn’t teach it to Macy are not “mean girls.” They are simply nine and ten year olds trying to find their way, making mistakes and growing up. Avery and Macy will continue to make mistakes and I will too. I’ve learned little ways to let Avery know that I love her no matter what. I’ve learned that occasionally, she is in the mood to talk and I need to stop and listen even if that means we will be late to soccer practice or skip it all together. I’ve learned that you really have no control over the essence of who your children are and how they relate to the world, but it’s your responsibility to guide them and let them know that you will always be there to pick up the pieces when they feel broken.
Even if she rolls her eyes, I will continue to leave notes with song lyrics in Avery’s lunch box and under her pillow. I want this girl back.
We will soldier on together, because I have a feeling this is just the very beginning of this roller coaster. Please send wine.