The other day I had a terrific lesson in letting go. My middle schooler has given me permission to share this story, so here goes…
A couple of days ago, I was helping Leah get dressed for ballet class. I noticed the time was 3:45 and Thomas was not yet home from school. He usually walks in the door around 3:30 so I assumed he was down the street talking to a friend. By 3:50, it was time to head out for Leah’s 4:00 class and still no Thomas. My mom radar buzzed lightly in my head but I reasoned that the school bus was probably running late. After loading Leah into the car, I drove slowly toward the bus stop hoping to catch a glimpse of the bus but, no such luck.
A few minutes later, Leah was at dance class and I decided to walk next door to Food Lion to grab a couple of groceries. I dialed our land line (yes we still have one because Thomas does not have a cell phone and often uses the land line to call us when he is home alone). No answer. My mom radar buzzed again, this time a little bit louder. I continued to walk the aisles of Food Lion, trying to distract myself with the endless choices of cereals. I called our land line a second time. No answer. At this point, it was about 4:20 and he was 50 minutes late. I willed myself to take a deep breath but the butterflies in my stomach would not allow my diaphragm to fully inflate and my anxiety began to rise.
I paid for my groceries and placed them in the car. Pacing the sidewalk outside of Leah’s dance studio, I pondered my choices. Call the school to see if the bus is running late. Call my neighbor and ask her to walk over to the house. Drive home to check on him myself. As I contemplated my choices, my cell phone rang and I could see it was our land line. Letting out a quick sigh of relief I answered.
“Hey Buddy.” I tried to sound nonchalant, there had to be a reasonable explanation.
“Mom” he managed to squeak, his voice quivering, alerting me to the fact that he was on the verge of tears. My heart skipped a beat.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, trying desperately to suppress the panic.
“I missed the bus.” he hiccuped in that way kids do when they are trying to catch their breath after they have been crying.
“What do you mean you missed the bus?” I asked puzzled how he could have made it home. A thousand scenarios clouded my mind. Did another parent give him a ride home? Is this person someone I know? Did he hitchhike? Oh dear God, tell me he didn’t get a ride home from a perfect stranger.”
He choked out another small cry and said, “I had to walk home, Mom.”
I paused briefly to consider my response. Don’t yell at him. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t nag. Shut up and listen.
“Buddy, what happened?” I asked and then I decided to shut up and listen.
He proceeded to tell me that at the end of the school day, he looked at the clock on the wall, because he forgot to wear his watch. He realized that he had just a couple of minutes before dismissal. He really had to use the bathroom BAD and knew that he couldn’t wait until he got home so he asked the teacher if he could be excused. He packed up his flute, lunch box, three ring binder, math notebook and laptop (that is one heavy back pack) and headed to the boy’s bathroom.
Let me preface by saying that being the mother of a boy and married to a man, I know that using the restroom, for the male gender, can be somewhat of an…..event. In our house, it is not unusual for the men to wander into the bathroom with a book , cell phone or laptop and remain in said bathroom for up to 20+ minutes. Any woman with a man in her life (son, brother, husband etc.) reading this blog will likely roll her eyes acknowledging her own personal experience with this type of male behavior. I find this behavior to be rather infuriating especially when I am running behind schedule and have to wait for the event to be over. Any man reading this blog will likely either grunt or nod his head in agreement because some things just cannot be rushed. With that being said, you can imagine how long Thomas was likely in the bathroom before he was finished.
My boy went on to explain that he lost track of time and when he walked out of the bathroom into the hall, he realized he was all alone. The halls were completely void of students, everyone was gone. He suddenly remembered that you cannot hear the announcements in the bathroom so he was not alerted when it was time for dismissal. He quickly made his way to the side exit, where the buses are loaded at the end of the day. He swung the door open hoping to see his bus waiting for him but, it was already gone. In fact, all of the buses were gone. He tried to get back into the school and realized that the side door had already closed, locking him outside of the school. I was struck by the irony of my son’s predicament. Our schools have a policy to keep outside doors locked at all times. This is a wonderful safety policy that keeps students on the INISDE safe and ensures bad people stay OUTSIDE. On this particular day, this same school policy, designed to keep children safe, put my son into a potentially dangerous situation. I took another deep breath and reminded myself to shut up and let him finish.
Thomas explained that once he realized he could not get back into the school, he began to panic, rightly so. He was locked out of the building with no cell phone and no ride home.
“So you just walked home?” I asked trying desperately to not sound too judgey. Nothing shuts down a tween faster than a judgmental adult.
He confirmed and proceeded to explain how he made the two mile journey from his middle school to our home. He knew that he needed to stick to Three Chopt Road in order to reach the corner of our neighborhood. Although a straight shot, in the process he had to cross three very busy four lane roads, John Rolfe Parkway, Pump Road and Lauderdale Road. If you are familiar with the Short Pump area, these three roads are all about a block south of West Broad street, one of the most congested areas of Richmond on any given weekday afternoon. I swallowed hard thinking about what could have happened. He promised me that he pushed the button at each crosswalk and waited for the pedestrian walking symbol to flash. He looked both ways before crossing, even when the pedestrian symbol was flashing, he proclaimed. I was suddenly relieved and a little bit proud of myself for being such a militant parent when it comes to crossing streets. Since my kids could stand on their own two feet, I have spent endless hours walking, biking and riding scooters to the park, to their schools, to the swimming pool and to the grocery stores teaching them along the way about how to safely cross a street. I make them take turns pushing the crosswalk buttons and I always make them stop and look both ways, even when the pedestrian light is flashing. When we get to intersections, I stop and wait for them to tell me which direction I have to turn to get home. Thank God Thomas gets his sense of direction from me, just saying.
He continued to explain that while he was making his way home, he started to feel hungry and was very thirsty (it was sunny and about 85 degrees that particular afternoon) and his back pack was very heavy. As he approached the shopping center, about a half a mile from our house, he decided to go into the Kroger grocery store. He reasoned that because I frequently shop there during the weekday, he thought he might get lucky and find me wandering the aisles. He made his way into the store stopping at the water fountain and drinking until he was no longer thirsty. He searched several aisles, before coming to the conclusion that it made more sense to just head home. As he exited through the produce section he noticed they were handing out free samples of watermelon so he decided to take a couple, okay he took more than a couple, more like 6 or 7 but, he “was hungry” he declared.
Heading the last half a mile home, he assured me that he took the longer route, along the sidewalk instead of the short cut through the woods because he knew that would be safer. I felt horrible that he was all alone in the house after such a harrowing ordeal. I could only imagine the stress that he was feeling. He finished his story and I paused momentarily. I opened my mouth and said the one thing that I knew would help ease his anxiety.
“Excellent problem solving, Thomas. I am super proud of you.” I said with genuine admiration for his quick rational thinking, despite his circumstances.
“Wait, you’re not mad?” he said, his voice changing. I could imagine how his skinny shoulders dropped away from his ears, when the tension was released.
“No I’m not mad, Buddy. When I was 11 years old, I would have never been able to do something like that.” I validated the safe decisions he made. I complimented his problem solving when he realized that his body needed water and food. And then I took a couple of minutes to talk about how we can handle a situation like that in the future. We discussed that one day, when he is older, he might feel ready to walk home independently. When that day comes, we will talk about it and plan ahead but for now, he will continue to ride the bus every day. I could feel his tension melt away and my heart rate returned to a more reasonable beat.
I would like to think that Thomas had guardian angels along the way. I imagined a mom driving a minivan filled with children, waiting to make a left turn at the intersection. Perhaps she noticed the 11 year old boy loaded down with a heavy back pack, and perhaps she watched him, perplexed, her own mom radar buzzing as she wondered why this boy might be crossing a busy road in Short Pump, all by himself. Maybe she took the time to check all of her rear view mirrors, watching for that one driver who might be texting and not notice that the light is red, ready to take action to protect this boy.
Perhaps the produce manager at Kroger saw my son take more than his share of free samples and smiled thinking of his own tween who eats him out of house and home.
I realize how lucky we were this time. I know that there will be future decisions, some of which might be very bad decisions and that is okay because he is learning how to be accountable and how to take care of himself. I still am in awe that this man-child of mine managed to independently resolve a potentially serious problem but he still cannot, for the life of him, hang up his wet towel after he takes a shower, for Pete’s sake!
In retrospect, I learned three critical lessons from this incident. Number one, the most important thing you can do as a parent is encourage good problem solving skills. This world we live in can be overwhelming and confusing and the more practice they receive, the better our kids will be in the long run. Number two, parents need to remember to shut up and listen. Give your child the opportunity to explain themselves. Listening with an open mind will encourage ongoing communication in the future. Number three, I think it’s time for Thomas to get a cell phone.