I have big, broad shoulders. Manly shoulders. Shoulders that don’t easily fit into women’s blouses. I’ve always wished for petite shoulders, the dainty shoulders of a real lady. I recognize that they would look ridiculous on my six foot frame. I get it, I do, but my whole life I’ve pined for smaller shoulders.
It started with a thank you note, a simple card I’d scrawled to say thanks for a mug of trial sized bath goodies. I was woefully late in writing the note, as almost a full month had passed since Christmas. I penned the name of my student on the envelope and added on “and family”. I didn’t give it another thought until I passed the card to my student.
“Mrs. McCauley, I can’t read this.” he said, handing the card back to me.
“Of course you can. You’re a great reader.” I cocked my head to the side, puzzled by this freckle faced kid who devours library books.
“No, I can’t read it because it’s says ‘and family’. My mom and dad separated and I don’t have a family anymore.”
My heart lurched. I felt my whole body sink under the weight of his statement.
“Honey, just because your mom and dad don’t live in the same house, doesn’t mean they’re not part of your family. You still have a family. Your mom and your dad both love you very much.”
“But who do I open the card with? I’m going to my dad’s today.” he asked, still holding the card out to me.
“You can open it with your dad and show it to your mom when you go to your other house if you like.” I took the card and tucked it into his homework folder, sorry that I’d confronted him with such a jagged decision.
“So I can still open the card?” He leaned into me, a boy hug, all body and no arms.
“Yes, you can still open the card.” I tucked him into me, hugging him too long until he started to squirm.
The next day, one of my little girls sat at her desk writing in her notebook. She wrote about her mommy and pushed back thick ropes of hair to reveal tears welling in her brown eyes. She’d never cried in class before.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I said, rubbing circles on her back like my mom used to do when she tucked me in bed.
“My mommy doesn’t like to play with me anymore.” The tears were streaming now, rivers down her cocoa cheeks. The boy sitting next to her pulled some tissue from a box, handing them to her in a wad.
“Oh, honey, is it because she has to spend her time taking care of the baby?”
“I don’t know. She just doesn’t like to play with me anymore.” She hiccupped and gulped for air at the same time.
“Have you tried telling her how you feel? Your mommy would want to know if she’s hurt your feelings.”
“She doesn’t have time to listen to me.” I wanted so desperately to make this all better. To make her better.
“I know she’s busy with the baby, but I think it’s important you talk to your mom about this. She doesn’t want to make you sad.”
“But I am sad.”
I’m convinced a more true statement has never been said. Her eyes harbored no anger. Just hurt, so much hurt for a six-year-old.
“I know, and it’s okay to be sad, but you should talk to your mommy about this.”
“Okay, Mrs. McCauley. But what if she still doesn’t want to play with me?” I hugged her tight, her tears wetting the shoulder of my shirt.
“She will, honey, she will.”
“How do you know?” She looked at me with hope.
“Because your mommy loves you very much.” We hugged until she picked up her pencil again.
A handful of days later, one of my more rambunctious boys stayed a few minutes after class. He fills my days with a constant stream of chatter as he voices every thought and fidgets every second of the day. I was sitting on the carpet and he squatted down next to me, his brow furrowed. I took a deep breath, hoping to breathe in a little more patience for him.
“Mrs. McCauley, can you help me solve a problem?”
“What’s the problem?” I readied myself to answer a question about double-digit addition or the Power Rangers book he’d been writing.
“My mom has a boyfriend and my dad has a girlfriend and I can’t figure out how to get them back together so I can have a family again. Can you help me?” He waited in earnest for my solution.
“Oh, honey, that’s not a problem you and I can solve. Mommy and Daddy have to solve or not solve that one.”
“But what if they don’t?” He moved closer until his lunchtime milk mustache was mere inches from my face.
“Your mommy and daddy still love you, even if they aren’t together. You still have a family, even if they live in two houses.” He hugged my neck.
For the first time this year, he was still, his dirty playground hands on my collar and my arm around his waist. A minute or two later he wiggled free and packed up his things, pushing a container of markers into his backpack so he could finish illustrating his Power Rangers book at home.
It’s no wonder that this group of kids started the year stabbing, kicking, punching and biting each other. This year is harder than any of my previous years of teaching. Strike that, it’s harder than all of them combined.
Divorce, new babies, unemployment, dying family members. So many problems on such small shoulders.
At night when the hum of the fridge is the only sound in the house, I lie awake thinking of my students. I roll my shoulders in circles, trying to ease the ache in my muscles, to release the burdens of the day.
In the sheath of night I whisper prayers for the freckle faced boy and the girl with cocoa cheeks and for the boy who drives me crazy with his constant chatter. I whisper a prayer for past students who were little more than shadows in their own homes.
And then I say prayer of thanks. I thank God for my big, broad shoulders.