This story is shared with Lainey’s permission, with a little time and space between when it happened and when it was written to preserve what’s special and to protect what’s tender.
“Fifth grade is when it starts,” everyone told me, with eye rolls and heavy sighs. “The Drama. The Mean Girls. Those girls, man.”
So, I braced myself for what Lainey would face. Fifth grade was my last year of public school before my mom pulled us out to home school, so I don’t have very many memories of drama and girl fights, unless you count that girl in my church home school group who raised her hand all “Pick Me! Pick Me!” to read the Crucifixion story aloud for Easter service when she knew I wanted to read it. (#churchkidprobs) But that’s as good as it gets.
I know my girl is confident and cool, and I trust she has all the tools to deal with relationship issues with girls if they arise, but also: Circle of Trust eyes to all children in my path as I walk her to class in the morning.
What I’ve discovered this year though, is that the exact kind of girls I want my kids to be friends with–the kind ones, the strong ones, the kids who lift up rather than tear down–they’re out there. And this year, it was fifth grade girls who reminded me one of the most important lessons that sums up what a good friend should be.
To begin, let me explain a little something about our family: We’re not that sporty. We’re artists and writers and music lovers. Give us a creative writing essay, a visual aid for a science project, a costume assignment for a social studies character, and we will take it home. But sports? We’re only in it for the cool tennis shoes and the cute jerseys. As my dad recalls from his junior high basketball memories, “I just hoped the coach wouldn’t put me in. When he did, I prayed no one would pass the ball to me.” (See also, his cross country recollection: “I threw up a lot and crossed the finish line when they were folding up tables and track mates were already on the bus.”)
Not that we don’t hold out hope. When Dash was born, I remember my dad cradling him in the hospital room and saying, “I can already hear the announcer…’And Dash Hampton makes the winning touchdown!’ It’s a strong name for a football player…”
(three second pause before he continues)
“But just so you know, I can also hear, ‘And the first runner-up for the flower arranging contest goes to...Dashel Hampton!’” We all laughed.
“Either way, we love him and root for him, Dad. He’s going to do awesome things.”
All this to say, much like me, Lainey’s idea of hell is Field Day, the one day a year when the school dedicates an entire day to sports and competition, and students rotate through various sporting events representing their class as a team.
While some kids see this day as “FUN! FUN! FUN!”, my kid views it as “DEAR GOD, NO, THE PRESSURE.” Which, if you’ve ever been a fifth grader running the last leg of the relay race with twenty classmates watching and screaming “GO! GO! YOU’RE BEHIND! WE’RE GOING TO LOSE! RUN FASTER!,” you get it. It happened to me back in the day, and I wanted to throw the damn baton in their faces and scream, “It’s a fifth grade relay race, assholes, not the Super Bowl.” And then there was Brian Mueller who dramatically kicked the cone when I lost and huffed, “Because of YOU.” So, I totally get it, Lainey.
This awareness of sports not being “her thing” along with the pressure of performing and the fear of losing or falling or not being fast enough has made Field Day one of the most dreaded days of the year. So that morning in our house for the past several years has been spent encouraging “We can do hard things” and reminding her that it’s more about having fun and showing up for her team and not at all about winning or being fast. And as I push her out the door, I hope the kids in her class will do the same.
I knew it wouldn’t be an easy day for her, but I quickly forgot about Field Day after I dropped Lainey off this year until later in the afternoon when I got a text from one of her teachers.
“You would be teary-eyed if you saw what just happened on the field.” A picture came through of Lainey–all smiles–with a huge huddle of fifth-grade girls around her.
“She didn’t want to do the potato sack race,” the text continued, “She was afraid she would fall, but the girls got around her and started pumping her up. They were chanting–”
(and here’s where I lost it)
“If you fall, we fall, we all fall together.”
My girl who was so stressed about being the team mate who might disappoint, the one to hold back her friends from winning, was surrounded by girls who were telling her they didn’t care about winning as much as they cared about her.
That’s it, right there–the nugget of truth that will make girl relationships as beautiful as they can be, the guide to good friendships, the key to building and keeping a tight-knit community: When you rise, we rise. When you fall, we all fall.
They assured her that if she fell, she wouldn’t fall alone. They wouldn’t run off without her or make her feel bad for falling…they’d fall with her. This is what girls want, and the desire only gets stronger as we get older–to feel freedom to reveal our weaknesses and have them embraced and strengthened rather than judged, and to succeed from hard work and using our talents and be able to share our celebration with friends because our win is a win for all.
This year, I have been continually impressed by the beauty, love and support of fifth grade girls and the way they celebrate each other when one succeeds and help each other when one needs support. And I’m so proud to be able to use our own friends as examples as I teach my girls about strong women and the power we have to build community.
The afternoon I picked up Lainey from Field Day, I could not stop smiling as I texted her teacher: “You’re never going to believe what Lainey just told me…on Field Day:
‘Today was the best day ever, Mom.'”
P.S. And guess who just decided she loves tennis? Her Hampton genes are pulling through.