Big came home from school a few weeks ago completely mute. She refused to speak from the moment I picked her up and for the better part of the next hour. I arrived, ready to greet the kids in their usual state- tired, hungry, emotional, end of the week, always on the verge of a freak out. Usually there is a tiff in the car because they both immediately start talking about their respective days at the same time and invariably one will try and take the floor via pinching, hitting, yelling or through my personal favorite a clenched jaw. It always ends badly, usually with me yelling or pulling over or taking away something of enough importance that they will both shut the hell up until we get home to food, separate rooms and sanity.
However, with one mute kid, none of the above occurred. Little and I played a twenty questions style game to try and figure out what was wrong with Big, and through our deductive reasoning and questioning we figured out that something "mildly embarrassing" had happened to Big that would "possibly make me mad". Naturally, I went to the worst place possible and after forty five minutes of asking, cajoling, demanding and flat our insisting that she spill- she wouldn't. After writing "I don't want to talk about it" on a kleenex and putting up her DIY "keep out" door hanger favor from the last birthday party she attended, after desperately crawling into my lap and not letting me leave, I was convinced that I should call the police.
And then she spilled:
A boy in her class had hurt her on the playground, "possibly by accident", but he had hit her on the mouth, hard. She said she felt like she couldn't open it to talk and had spent the rest of the day after lunch speaking out of the side of her mouth, like W.C Fields. I asked if the teachers noticed. Perplexingly, they had not, but maybe she regularly did impressions of dead comedians all the time so it seemed normal to them?
Then came the real issue: her class is learning about Ruby Bridges, the African American girl who had kick started the move to end school segregation in the South by going to a predominantly white school. Ruby had all sorts of terrible things done and said to her in the process. Big began to describe the movie they watched in class- the black babydoll in the coffin that was put outside the school, Ruby's fear of being poisoned by anything other than prepackaged or home cooked food, the white adults yelling at her, the white teachers refusing to teach her (except one that was specially brought in). Big was so enthralled by what she had seen that she wept in between descriptions of various scenes, clutching at my sweater to wipe her tears, and murmured that she, too, felt like Ruby Bridges....
wait, WHAT DID SHE JUST SAY?
We backed up a little and I asked her to explain herself- fearing momentarily that I had a full blown narcissist on my hands. As she spoke, it hit me-she is just like I was- really, REALLY sensitive. I had LOTS of those experiences in school, where I let my emotions get the better of me, usually resulting in me crying in front of everyone. I really could have used a tube of Sensodyne Full Body Paste right around age eight.
I told her my most memorable story about reading aloud in third grade from "Bob, Son of Battle", a nineteenth century English tale about two rival sheep herders and their dogs Bob and Red Wull. I was asked to read the part where Red Wull dies after being ambushed by a gang of rival sheep dogs:
"Down at the bottom lay that which once had been Adam M Adam's Red Wull. At the sight, the little man neither raved nor swore, it was past that for him. He sat down, heedless of the soaking ground, and took the mangled head in his lap very tenderly ."They 've done ye at last, Wullie! they've done ye at last", he said quietly, unalterably convinced that the attack had been organized while he was detained in the tap room. On hearing the loved little voice, the dog gave one weary wag of his stump tail. And with that, the Tailless Tyke, Adam M'Adam's Red Wull, the Black Killer,went to his long home."
It goes on to describe, in painstaking and merciless detail, Adam M'adam singing mournfully to the dead dog's carcass, even rising up and calling out to him:
"Come to me, Wullie!", he implored very pitifully," 'Tis the first time iver I kent ye' not come and me whistlin'. What ails ye lad?".
After which he picks up the body and slings it over his shoulder:
"Limp and hideous, the carcass hung the down little man's shoulders. The huge head, with grim wide eyes and lolling tongue, jolted and swagged with the motion, seemed to grin a ghastly defiance at the world it had left".
The townsfolk find them in a dead embrace on a hillside when the sun comes up.
A lovely, uplifting tale for eight year olds, right?
So, right around "took the mangled head", my voice began to quaver and by "the dog gave one weary wag of his stump tail" I was unintelligible with tears and heaving sobs. My teacher, Mr. Willoughby, had someone else take over, but not before saying: "You don't have to get so upset. It's just a book".
I actually got choked up just retelling the story to Big because it was profound moment in my life. Big watched me intently and also got choked up as I told the story, weeping into my shoulder and asking me to explain in great detail how the dog dies several times before I steered us back to her distress.
I explained that some people are affected by things differently than others. It's called sensitivity,which can sometimes also be empathy, and while it is nothing to be freaked out by, it might make you cry in public more than you might like. It also might make you hate people that make awful jokes about things that you might feel are off limits. Later it will all be hilarious, but it's very important not to feel ashamed of it now. It means you are a present, feeling person. Embrace your emotional freakishness, kid, because as time goes on it dissipates as we learn to handle it. Marriage, children and life have pretty much squeezed the overly empathetic/sensitive person right out of me, but it was nice to walk for a few minutes in her tear-stained, confused, well meaning little shoes.