Yesterday, my boys both had awards ceremonies at their school. My middle son’s was first. He beamed with pride as his principal called him on stage to get his Library Award (proud writer-mom moment). Then, a few minutes later, he received an award for all A’s and B’s. I was proud of him, no doubt, but as I watched and listened something terrible became evident to me.
All the kids were sitting on the floor in the cafeteria, watching as classmate after classmate got called to stage to accept their award. Those award-receivers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to wait for the grand finale when someone would capture their smiling faces forever in pixelated form. And, in the end, only a handful would be left sitting. The ones who didn’t make it. The ones that weren’t good enough. The ones who weren’t worthy of honor.
And my heart sunk because I realized my oldest son was probably going to be one of them.
When afternoon came around, it was time for the bigger kids to have their awards ceremony. My oldest son entered the room. He was chatting and laughing with his friends, carefree and happy.
I kept my fingers crossed as the principal read off the awards. Maybe the librarian, or PE coach, or computer lab facilitator, or music director, or art teacher would pick him.
After those awards were handed out, I knew my son had no chance because the only remaining awards were for zero absences (not how we roll around here), excellent behavior (his police-officer-escorted exit earlier in the semester was sure to rule that one out) and all A’s and B’s (his low IQ doesn’t help him make the cut there, either).
I couldn’t see his face during the rest of the ceremony, but I met up with him afterwards. His smile was gone. He was struggling just to keep it together and, honestly, I’m proud of him for how well he handled it. As a survivor of multiple early childhood traumas, controlling his emotions is extremely difficult for him. (Someone give the kid an award for doing that after watching all his classmates walk to the stage while cameras flashed like paparazzi!)
*ok, I’m calm again*
Later, when the bus dropped my kids off, my middle kid ran all the way up the drive, burst in the front door, and ran straight to me.
“Look at my awards!”
“You got two- that’s great!”
“No, I got four. Look! My teacher gave me two more awards when I got back to class!”
I’m proud of my middle kid. He’s had some serious struggles of his own- but he is an overcomer. Speech-wise, he’s accomplished in six years what normally takes kids nine. And he reads faster than I’ll ever be able to. He’s super smart and likable and he gives the fullest-bodied hugs I’ve ever received.
I hugged him. High-fived. Fist-bumped. Praised. All the things to show him how proud I am of him.
And, behind him, silently, stood his big brother. Downcast. Sad, but holding it in. Eventually, he disappeared and, next time I saw him, he was sitting on the couch reading a book.
Y’all, he doesn’t like to read. Everyday when they get home from school, I make them read 20 minutes. My middle kid (the library award winner) is on it like chocolate syrup on ice cream. My oldest? Not so much. He literally does everything he can to get out of it.
“Mom, I’ll vacuum for you. Mom, I’ll take out the trash. Mom, how was your day? Mom, can I draw a picture for dad? Mom, can I Facetime Mimi?”
Getting his full 20 minutes of reading in is always a challenge and, half the time when he does sit down to read, he’s reading books that are mostly filled with pictures.
But, yesterday, he sat quietly on the couch and read for a full 20 minutes without making an objection.
As soon as his timer went off, he was at my side. His expression hadn’t changed from earlier. He was still sad. Feeling worthless. Less than. Like a loser.
“Mom, I did my reading. Can I have screen-time?”
It became clear to me then why he’d ran off to do his reading. He was hoping it would distract him from his pain. And, when it failed, he sought after a new distraction- screen-time.
But I know firsthand that stories and screen-time don’t make the pain go away. They may numb it for a while, but it’ll come back full-roar, making it even more unbearable the second (third, fourth, fifth…) time around.
So, instead of agreeing to his request, I offered, “You can have screen-time after you cuddle with me for 20 minutes.”
Y’all, I had no idea how this was going to go. It honestly could’ve blown up in my face. My oldest son is not a touchy feely kinda guy. For example, a week or two ago, I tried negotiating with him- he could have more dessert if he’d simply hug me first.
Didn’t work. He full-on flipped out. Like broke down ugly crying in the middle of the kitchen floor. Hugging me to earn candy was an insurmountable obstacle. I would’ve been hurt if I hadn’t been so astonished by his reaction. But this is what I’m dealing with. The boy doesn’t gravitate towards the cuddles. I take them when I can get them.
So, yesterday when I made this cuddle-time/screen-time offer, I had no clue how he’d take it. My chances of it causing a meltdown were as good as puncturing my foot on a Lego while walking barefoot in the dark through his bedroom.
But, y’all, I’ve never seen him kick his shoes off and fall into my lap as fast as he did yesterday. Three seconds after I’d made the offer, he was laying all over me, his long legs dangling out of the chair nearly to the floor, his head resting on my shoulder, his arms wrapped around me. My big ten-almost-eleven-year-old was hurting and he’d try anything at this point to make it go away.
“Baby, how was your day?”
“I didn’t get an award.”
My heart was crushed- but I knew his heartache was so much worse.
“I know. But you’re my favorite fourth grader. If they lined all the fourth graders in the whole world up and told me to pick any one of them I wanted, I’d run right to you and pick you up and run off as fast as I could from those crazy people because I don’t want any other fourth grader but you.”
He was quiet for a moment. Then, he said, “I got to make a vex bot today.”
And, just like that, his smile was back, and my happy fourth grader returned to himself. He cuddled a full 20 minutes, talked my ear off about vex bots. No complaints. No meltdowns.
A distraction wouldn’t have delivered the healing he needed. He was hurting and he needed to feel loved. Valued. Worth something.
I didn’t give him anything but a lap and 20 minutes. And it healed because it said to him, “You are worth my time. You are worth my noticing. You are worth my attention.”
And, who knows? Maybe the feelings of worthlessness will creep back into him today while he’s at school. Maybe they’ll return next week- or next year on awards ceremony day.
But I have hopes that he’ll remember what helped him feel better. It wasn’t a distraction. It wasn’t a screen or even a page to stare at. It was a human connection, an interaction with someone who put their things aside and noticed him.
And we all need that, am I right? Sure, grown-ups are tough and we’ve learned coping mechanisms to cushion the blows life tosses at us. But, deep down, we are as vulnerable as my fourth grader.
Healing comes from connecting with others. It comes by expressing our pain (as my son so bravely did) and allowing another person to remind us of our worth.
But even people can fail us sometimes. I’m sure we’ve all entrusted our deepest feelings of failure to someone we thought we could trust only to have our feelings belittled, trampled on, crushed.
But there’s good news. When you run to Jesus, He reminds you how much He values you. (Hint: He values you so much that He died to save you).
Jesus says, “I see you. I notice you. I remember you. I love you. You are not alone because I’m always with you. You are not too much trouble for me. I’ll never abandon you. You’re as smart as I wanted you to be, and I like you that way.”
Hey, you. You have worth. You have value. The King says so, even if no one else does.
When you’re hurting, please don’t run to a screen (or even a book, which is seriously not something a writer should say if they want to keep making money, but it’s the truth). Jesus loves you and He can’t wait for you to crawl into His lap and tell Him how you’re feeling. And then He’d tell you He’d pick you every time.
And, even if it sounds fourth grade, He’d call out your name from that mic and smile as you walked towards Him onstage.
(Go ahead. I know you want to envision it.)
Now, stand there proudly and let Him take your picture.
You know. He’s gonna brag about that award you earned for years to come because He’s a good dad like that. And He’s gonna watch you grow and smile because He’s pretty obsessed with you (in all the good ways like a mom- who’s totally not weird- who bribes her kids to hug her). Yeah, He’s obsessed about you like that.