Apparently for lunch you are assigned tables. Only one boy, Jayden, has peanut allergies and so is assigned to the peanut allergy table, aka PAT. Once assigned to an allergy table, your place is set for the year. Your friends are separated from you. Unless, after that, you get invited by the peanut allergy child to sit at his table. (Memories of reading Moloka’i flash through my mind). My son Danny has no peanut allergies.
When I found out Danny had been invited by Jayden to sit at the peanut-free table I told him that the Pad Thai he wanted to take for lunch had peanuts in it.
He said, “Oh, I can’t take that because then I can’t sit with Jayden. Can I buy lunch instead?” So I let him. This was pretty much in keeping with the way Danny operates. He’s a young kid with an old soul. He doesn’t seem to have the need to follow the crowd, in fact, he’s always been his own person, if only a little person. His dad and I are proud. We know there will be challenges by his peers, adults, and even his own conflicting needs as he grows up. We both had our own obstacles in our teens and young adulthood. But, hey, we did okay and we know he will too.
He went on to tell me, “Jayden had no one else to sit with this whole month. He asked people, but they said no. He begged them to stay, but they walked away. Then he got upset and started yelling at them. Mom, he called one boy a stinky face pigeon and son of a …” Danny stopped himself in time.
Now this Jayden is only eight, new to the school this year, and just a boy who has gotten his feelings hurt.
Waiting to pick up the kids in the afternoon, I heard some parents talking about “That boy.” I could feel my blood pressure rise. They think it’s weird that Jayden gets upset when someone won’t sit with him. Haven’t they ever been excluded from a group?
A beautifully coiffed and jewelry-laden mom, who had just complained about having to come pick up her child because the au pair had to take her child to the clinic, waved her newly dried lacquered nails. “Well, he obviously has issues.”
“You know,” I said, “I’ve met the kid and my two children have gone over to play with him. He’s been perfectly fine even when Danny’s younger sister was tagging along.”
“Well, he’s from New York City so you know… “ another mother started, then realized her upcoming gaffe.
“Don’t go there,” my good friend Cece said in a low voice. We are also from the city. Perhaps we are more vocal and not as blandly accepting of certain rules and rejection like they seem to be in my adopted suburban New Jersey town. Giving the cluster of moms the benefit of the cultural doubt, I can see how telling it like it is may be shocking to them. It seems that if a child becomes vocal or questions the rules, copious notes are taken and the kid is on the road to being classified.
But these are kids who are just exiting the Why? Why? Why? stage of development and need help expressing their emotions because, well… they’re young.
I have had several heated conversations with one mother who verbally slaps the label of sociopath on every kid who bothers her kids, and went quite over the top when she targeted the best player on the soccer team as a rapist. He’s nine. Danny doesn’t seem to have problems with these “troubled” kids.
The other day one of the “troubled” kids, Gabe, finally did join Danny and Jayden at the PAT table. “Gabe is short for Gabriel, like the angel,” Danny informed me in his daily what happened in school today report. The amateur psychologist mom has labeled Gabe, whose name belies his already defensive exterior, a sociopath.
As Danny was eating his after school pb and j snack, he asked me, “What’s a victim?” He heard rumors about avoiding Gabe or you would become his victim.
I asked Danny, “Have you ever seen Gabe do anything wrong?”
“So if this kid wants to be your friend, then use your own judgment and don’t always listen to rumors.”
Gabe has become friends with Danny, has never been mean, and even gave him one of his old soccer balls to keep. Yes, I made sure it was his and not stolen. Some New York City habits die hard.
Danny wiped the remnants of peanut butter off his fingers onto his shirt before he delicately lifted a Reese’s Pieces cup for his snack finale. “Gabe said Becca was disgusting and then he got in trouble when her mother complained to the teacher.”
“Why is she disgusting?”
“Because she licks her skin.”
I fought back a gag reflex, but knowing kids do have unusual quirks, “Yes, that’s not nice to say. Do you think she’s disgusting?”
Think about it. To a child just learning the social norms, that truthfully might be seen as disgusting. When Danny was in kindergarten he went through a period of time exploring various noises he could make with his voice and other bodily functions. He also was very sensitive to noises he heard, alternating between being extremely startled to imitating them non-stop. I spent an inordinate amount of money getting him desensitized to noise so that when he was older he would not freak out from noises in front of other children. It may have been cute when he was in kindergarten, but I knew that wouldn’t last once he got older. Then he might be a target for kids to make fun of.
I get upset hearing labels being slapped on kids from other parents and seeing how that influences their children to be friends with that child … or not. I’m not sure how or if I need to fight this other than teaching my children not to pass judgment quickly and to give everyone a chance.
Apparently the other school kids have not been so understanding or nice to this Jayden, or Becca for that matter, but Danny makes an effort to eat with Jayden every day so he is not alone. Sometimes he more than just “gets” it.
I asked Danny, “How does Jayden react to you sitting with him?”
“He’s happy. We talk about Legos a lot.”
So now Danny either takes a peanut-free lunch or orders from the cafeteria. He will only take one type of granola bar to school because all the other ones have nuts in them. He’s become a purist. One time he took a nut bar by accident and threw it out. I tried to tell him he could’ve just bought it back home since it was still wrapped.
Yesterday, I am happy to report, two other non-peanut allergy kids did join the PAT table. It may have something to do with the Legos Star Wars Millennium Falcon they’re building, but hey, you have to start somewhere.
Another benefit, Danny’s reading has improved greatly. He has taken to reading all the food ingredient disclosures on food packages AND at McDonald’s and other fast food places. He’s pleased with McDonald’s.
The seed of this story was planted when a younger friend expressed her frustration about adults’ reactions to children who are different, and her pride about her son’s reaction to exclusion. Taking literary license to exaggerate some features of adult behavior, and to leave the innocence of the children intact, I built a composite main character and cast of little children and their perspectives on life. Writing from a first person POV, “the peanut episode” emerged.
When I heard what Danny did, I was struck once again, by the compassionate nature of children. I’ve called them “Compassion Ambassadors,” having experienced their compassion directly in their simple advice to me about death. Danny’s compassion came in the form of everyday actions simply to insure his friend would not be eating alone. Bravo, Danny!
Ethel’s always on the lookout for new seeds for stories. Read about the “Compassion Ambassadors” in her book, Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. Send your ideas.