Honey, I’m proud of you. Do you know that? Do you really know that? Because I am so very proud of you and it’s important to me that you know that.
I’m proud of you for the obvious things, of course, like how you’re learning to read and how you really care about other people. I’m proud of all the wonderful things your teachers tell me about you (though none of it really surprises me). I’m proud of how smart you are and of how much fun you are to be around. What I’m most proud of today, though, is – strangely – the thing I probably have the least to do with.
I am proud – buttons bursting open, heart swelling with adoring pride – of your spirit. I’m proud of your independent, free-spirited, “do your own thing” spirit.
The other day was “Crazy May Day” at school. Per the teachers’ instructions, you dressed in the craziest conglomeration of clothes and accessories you could come up with. A neon tie-dyed T-shirt from our favorite beach getaway. Your pink striped Minnie Mouse skirt that your aunt made for you. Two different socks – each multicolored. Your raggedy tennis shoes, dingy and sandy and torn from many days on your school playground. And – as the spectacular finishing touch – six festive ponytails, hanging in all directions on all sides of your head.
You were so proud of yourself. You were so excited to show your friends your outfit, and as we drove to school you were all smiles. I could see the anticipation on your face. I was excited for you, because I could tell it was fun for you.
And then we got to school. As we sat in our normal spot at the top of the parking lot to pray, I noticed one or two of your friends against the playground fence. They were dressed conspicuously….normal. The only odd things about their outfits were, perhaps, that they matched. (You are in preschool, after all, and perfectly coordinated outfits are not a requirement of your school dress code.)
As I looked at them ahead of us and looked at you in the back seat, my heart began to pound, honey. I was so nervous for you. I could see – even from that faraway vantage point – that you were going to stand out. You – in your flamboyant ensemble – were going to be flagrantly different from everyone else, even though the directions had explicitly said to dress that way. You – my sweet little girl – were going to be obviously different in flashy, undeniable ways – and honestly, I wanted to turn around and take you away from there. I wanted to take you all the way home or – at the very least – over to Target to get you something different to wear. I wanted to protect you from what I was certain would come.
But you noticed that they were not dressed “all crazy,” as you put it, and that didn’t bother you. Still in your seat and peering around the front passenger seat, you put your hands on your hips and held your head up high.
“I guess I’ll just show them how it’s done, Mommy. Yep. That’s what I’ll do.”
And we prayed and I drove around to the car line, praying and swallowing hard to make the lump in my throat go away. It seemed no one else had even done anything to acknowledge this day set aside for craziness. As your teacher got you out of the car, she commented on your outrageous outfit, and the other teachers gave you a big thumbs-up as you ran onto the playground. And you did run. You bounded over to your friends, your six ponytails bouncing as you ran, eager to show your friends what “Crazy May Day” was all about.
But honey, I wanted to get you out of there. I wanted to run and hide you and protect you from all the demons of my own past – those demons that say it is bad to be different and it is undesirable to be yourself. I wanted to make sure that no one had reason to point at you or laugh at you or say anything to hurt your feelings. More than anything, I wanted to make sure that nothing could be done to deflate your beautiful spirit.
I didn’t witness anyone being needlessly cruel, but as I drove away I burst into tears. You see, sweetheart, had that been me, I would have begged to stay home. I would have begged to be anywhere but there. I would have pleaded and cried and asked with all sincerity that I not be required to go to school dressed like that. Being the only one dressed that way would, for me, be enough to bring on panic and anxiety and fear. I was scared for you. I was terrified that someone would say something – do something – to make you self-conscious. I was terrified that that would be the day that changed how you saw yourself.
My tears as I pulled away from your school had nothing to do with the reality of that moment. As I said, I didn’t see anything to make me think bad things would happen. They were very real tears, though, as very real memories from my past were awakened. Sweetie, I think in this way you’re a lot stronger than I am. I’m a conformist, and I like to blend in as much as possible. I don’t want people to look at me. I don’t want to be noticed. I don’t want to be different. Even as a little kid I was that way.
But you, sweetheart, don’t mind all of that. You’re only four, but you really seem to know who you are. You really seem to know what you like and what you want to be like, and it doesn’t seem like anything can change your mind from that. I admire that so much, honey. I pray – oh, how I pray – that nothing and no one can ever do anything to squelch that beautiful spirit.
Daddy and I tell you all the time how special you are. I hope you really know that. What I really want, though, is for you not to think you’re special on your own, but to know that you are special because of Who made you and Who has already given you His stamp of approval. You see, honey, if you grow up believing that your identity and your special-ness are because of you, then you’ll take any sign of rejection as an assault on you personally. If you believe, though, that you are who you are because you were divinely created, you will never let anyone’s opinions – any child’s cruel words – any stranger’s insensitive staring – any grownup’s misunderstanding – faze you. You will not be swayed by the changing tides of public opinion, but will stand firmly on the unwavering affections of your God.
So that’s what I want for you, honey, and I pray that God will show me how to instill that in you. I want you to have a healthy self-esteem, yes, but what I really want is for you to have a healthy view of who you are in light of who God is. Right now, you seem to get it. You are comfortable being Jennifer – crazy-dressing, silly, free-thinking Jennifer. I know how the world can be, though, and I will pray tonight and every night that God will draw you closer into His heart…closer into His affections…so that nothing and no one can ever hurt you in that way.
Yes, I am so proud of you, Jennifer. You make me proud in a million ways every day, and I am so, so thankful that I get to be your mama. I am learning so much from you; God is using you to teach me things I should have learned a long time ago. I am grateful for that, and I am grateful that the same compassionate God who has walked this road with me will be with you all the way on your journey.
I love you, sweetheart. Always.
(Note: Those of you who know my family may be confused by my reference to Jennifer. As my girl gets a little older, I’m giving her a pseudonym anytime I reference her in my online space. When I asked her what name she would want if she could have any name in the world, she said Jennifer. So Jennifer she shall be! Here, anyway….)