This is one of the hardest posts I have ever typed.
If you have ever sat alone at the school lunch table, or your kiddo has been there, you know that my heart is in my throat and my gut is twisted in about fifteen or so knots.
This is a topic that was heart wrenching to go through and even moreso to revisit. But if you have a kiddo that is going through this, please keep reading. If you are a teacher, please keep reading. If you have anything to do with the emotional well being of a teenager, please keep reading.
Last year my middle child, Mitchell, was a sophomore in high school. He had gone through a rather traumatic series of events with someone close to him that is still too upsetting to write about, so I’ll just say that his confidence and self-worth and feeling of security had been stripped from him in early summer leading up to sophomore year. However, by the start of school in September, he was beginning the slow journey to bouncing back as he was in a safe and secure daily routine.
In August, a few weeks before school started, the class schedules came out for Mitch and his sister, Karissa (middle school). Karissa looked at her phone 24/7 for days as she and a zillion other kids exchanged info as to who was in what class together. Instagram lit up with Karissa and company posting their schedules and then creating their lists of who they had classes together with. Excitement overload as thumbs were flying, typing non stop. But not Mitchell. He wasn’t interested in interrupting his summer by talking about anything that had to do with school until he was forced to go there day one.
The first day of school chaos and excitement arrived and when the day ended, Mitchell nervously, sadly announced,
“I sat alone at lunch today.”
That sentence is so horrific to a teenager that my daughter, like me, froze in the kitchen.
Some background: My son Mitchell is blind. So is his older brother, Michael. I spent thousands of hours in their elementary and middle school years teaching them social skills. I narrated nonverbal cues: “People are staring at you because you are doing a weird thing with your hands that sighted people don’t do.” I eliminated awkward moments: “Put your hand out first to shake a person’s hand when you meet them.” They were on local sports teams (as talented contributors), they were voted to student council, and they ran community fundraisers for our nonprofit.
Michael sailed through the social scene of high school with only a few hiccups (turns out no matter how much good you do, there are jerk kids and adults in every journey.) And my Mitchell, well he’s the guy that is hilarious fun and smart as can be – a guy kids love to be around.
The previous year the boys were in the high school together and aside from a ton of gray hair over Mitch’s theory that homework is BS (insert my angry eye roll) everyone enjoyed the year. Yet, on the first day of sophomore year, he sat alone at lunch.
“Ok, not the end of the world,” I said, smiling through the tears I was so grateful he couldn’t see. “The first day is so chaotic and I warned you that sophomores are a little weird and a bit self-centered still. I’m sure tomorrow your friends will find you. But listen, as you go through your day, ask your friends what lunch they are in. Let the ones know that are in your lunch to look for you.”
The next day: “I sat alone at lunch again.”
Then, a long and painful conversation back and forth between me and Mitch. I asked if he inquired with his friends what lunch they are in. “None of them are in my lunch.” I asked if he really did ask or if he was just assuming (Mitch tends to assume pretty much everything) Nope. He asked and no one was in that lunch. Unbeknownst to Mitch, I took to my Mom network and started texting everyone I knew that was remotely connected to sophomores at our school to see who the heck had sixth lunch. No one. Not a soul.
And then Mitch said this: “Mom, get the school to change my lunch period.”
A simple sentence. A simple, easy answer to the heart wrenching dilemma. So you know what I did for my son that was suffering? I told him “No.”
I told him he had to figure it out.
I told him he had to come up with possible solutions and I would help him, but the solution was not to change the lunch.
He was furious.
My daughter cried.
I confidently stood by my decision, walked up to my bedroom, closed my door, and sobbed.
I could have changed that lunch period. I could have done what so many of us Moms do: make the journey easier for our kiddos. And I wanted to. My God I so wanted to. But what I had learned up to that point is that if you keep eliminating hardship and obstacles from you child’s path, hurdles that are not dangerous, just painful or inconvenient, you deprive them of the opportunity to work through it. To build muscle. To practice resilience.
Don’t get me wrong, it sucks. Like, suuuuuuucks to watch them go through something like sitting alone at lunch, or getting cut from a team, or having friends turn their backs on them. But oh my…. When they work through it, with you by their side instead of in their way, the confidence that shines from them on the other side of that is so worth the struggle to get there!
So how did it end up? Well, it was one of the worst weeks of my life. Mitch campaigned relentlessly to have his lunch period changed. Karissa campaigned harder. But when Mitch finally realized that was not an option, he listened to my list of suggestions to figure it out. “Do your homework while you eat. Go to the library during lunch. Talk to the guidance counselor to see if you actually do know someone in that lunch.”
Bingo! That was the magic bullet! Mitch went into school and had the guidance counselor read off a list of all the kids in that lunch. Turns out he knew a few! Next step was for him to text them and let them know he wanted to connect at lunch. It worked like a charm and Mitchell was happy as can be.
However, once Mitch was settled into week two of sophomore year I addressed the bigger issue with him: he wasn’t social enough. In freshman year he wasn’t interested in joining any of the zillions of clubs or sports that are offered. He participated in a few things here and there with great success, but he didn’t stick with much of them and therefore, in a school of thousands of kids, he did not have a big enough social network to make things like lunchtime enjoyable for him.
I am happy to report that Mitch did decide to join a few clubs Sophomore year and had a great year. But the best part of it all was that when Junior year rolled around, he started texting friends as soon as schedules came out in August to see who had what classes with him… and who had the same lunch as him. He made a plan BEFORE school started to meet up with his buddies at lunch on the first day of school, and he has been a happy social butterfly ever since.
NOTE: I realize not everyone has a happy ending to the “alone at lunch” chapter of their journey. There are some journeys that have a multitude of issues out of the child’s control. I shared this story because the elements surrounding my son’s saga were things he could control and manage. I hope it helps many Moms build the muscles they need to let their children figure things out and manage their own lives.
Kristin Smedley is a 2019 Champion of Hope Award winner. She is an author, non profit leader and TEDx speaker. She originally planned to be a third grade teacher… and then two of her three children were diagnosed as blind. Kristin now shares her journey of raising her kids to not just survive challenges, but to thrive! She speaks around the globe regarding blindness and resilience, and she just launched her new series teaching people to SEE Differently. Watch her TEDx talk here and order her new book here. If you are interested to have Kristin speak at your upcoming event, school, or business meeting, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact her here!