The call came moments after we had tucked the kids into bed on a busy school night last spring. It was Max's kindergarten teacher and she was calling to let us know of an "incident" that had occurred in the moments before school began that morning.
The kindergartners who had been dropped off at the car drop-off loop were lined up against the cafeteria wall, as they were every morning at that time. As usual, the little ones talked and giggled together as more friends joined the line, their busy little bodies kept in check by the watchful eyes of a few Assistant Teachers who monitored the growing crowd. The children only stood here for a few minutes each day, filling the gap of time between being let out of their cars and into their classrooms. But a few minutes each day, for several days in a row, can be all it takes for a child to break.
On this morning last spring, Max finally broke.
The Assistant Teacher's attention was brought to the situation by Max's loud, angry voice saying to the little boy beside him, "I'm DONE! I'm not TALKING about this anymore."
Max is often loud. He sings loudly, he enters a room full of company loudly proclaiming, "Hey, people! Get a load of MEEEEE!" He bangles his bracelets together loudly when we're trying to watch a movie. He laughs loudly, too, often falling to the floor in overly-dramatic hysterics.
But he is rarely angry.
As the Assistant Teacher approached the boys to find out what was going on, Max turned away from her, hiding his face as he blinked back the tears. "I don't want to talk about it," he told her. "It's fine."
But she knew it wasn't fine and wasn't going to let it go until she had gotten to the bottom of what had happened. It took time for the story to unfold. Max talked to his teacher about it, but didn't start opening up to me about the specifics of what was said to him until weeks later.
What had happened had actually been happening repeatedly over the past few days. This little boy, new to the school and in a different classroom than Max, just could not wrap his brain around the fact that Max is a boy. I get it. Max is probably the first skirt-wearing boy he has encountered in his five-and-a-half short years on this planet. But apparently, Max had spent the past few mornings repeating his stock responses trying to convince the boy of this truth:
"I'm a boy who likes to wear skirts."
"Clothes are for anyone."
"I'm a boy who likes girl things."
To which, he was repeatedly questioned:
"Are you telling me the truth?"
"Are you sure you're really a boy?"
"How can you be a boy if you're wearing a skirt?"
And ultimately, the final straw:
"I don't believe you. I think you're lying."
Harsh words from a five-year old to a kid with a moral compass as strong as Max's.
The Assistant Teacher, Max's teacher, and the other boy's teacher handled the situation in exactly the right manner, in my opinion. They were careful to protect Max's feelings and right to self-expression, while at the same time using this as a Teachable Moment for the other little boy.
But I couldn't help but cry a little as I heard the story relayed to me over the phone.
I didn't cry just because of what Max had been through. He might encounter more kids (and grown-ups) like that throughout his life and I feel like we've helped prepare him for those encounters both in helping him to form his stock answers and by being a constant source of safety and acceptance for him. No matter how dark the world is, our home will be light.
I cried because, just 30 minutes before the phone call, I had been helping Max pick out his clothes for school the following day. He selected a tee shirt and a pair of leggings but, when I held up a choice of two coordinating skirts, he chose neither. "No skirt tomorrow?" I had asked him.
"No," he replied nonchalantly. "Not tomorrow. I think I'll save my skirts for weekends, now."
I hadn't questioned it at the time, but after hearing what had been going on in the kindergarten line, it sure seemed like some jerky kid had influenced Max's opinion of what was Acceptable To Wear. So I cried.
I cried because I felt like some of the innocence had been lost.
In the months since this happened, Max has worn a skirt two, or maybe three times. All but one of those times has been on a day when we didn't leave the house. We don't talk about it much. The skirts are still in his closet and he has complete freedom to choose his outfit each day.
At Target this morning, we browsed the new Cat & Jack kids' clothing line. He picked out a couple of tees and a few pairs of leggings for his "back-to-school clothes." As we passed the rack of skirts, I stopped. "How about any of these?"
"No. I'm kinda off skirts these days."
"Why is that, babe?"
"I don't know," he said, flipping his hair, cocking his hip, and holding up a pair of sparkly leggings "These are just so much more ME. Ya know?"
He tossed the leggings into the cart and went over to check out the accessories.
He's still got it.
I'm learning that Max's self-discovery is going to be a journey for me, too. I'm going to have to be flexible and adapt to the changes that will inevitably come as he decides how he wants to present himself. It might not always be the same presentation of self from one situation to another...and not all changes will be negative ones. Max may have adopted this new no-skirts policy regardless of the kid in the kindergarten line. Who knows?
Just like we all had our "going out" clothes in college that we wouldn't have worn to class, Max's wardrobe will reflect who he feels comfortable being in that particular time and place. Bracelets up his arm and a beaded head band at home, black capris and a pink tee at school. It's all about comfort. And it's all okay.