A word, Young Lady
Before Ric immerged from his room to be besieged by the entire family again, he called Julia in for her private chat. It sounded ominous. Julia was only slightly less nervous than Paetrick had been in the same spot a few hours prior. Julia had the luxury of a clearer conscience, of course, but still, when Ric invited her to take a seat, which suggested that this was slated to be a rather long conversation, she did not have a good feeling at all. As such, it rather subverted her conversational expectations when Ric said he needed her help, to say the least.
“I know this sweet, little girl,” he told her. “You would love her: she is full of spunk, loves animals, gives the boys hell, and is very smart and kind. But, she is also very sad.”
Julia could not suppress an empathetic whimper, because, honestly, is there anything more heartbreaking? Usually, Ric did not bring stories home from work, and Julia was grateful for it. She felt sympathy so intensely, she was often quite paralyzed by it. At this very moment, she was still working on blotting out a Facebook post some well-meaning fool had posted months ago. She had scrolled past as quickly as she could, but the horror was already burnt into her retinas and edged into her soul. No surprise her heart went out to Ric’s little girl long before she knew any of the details. Before the most horrifying scenarios could present themselves about what might have happened to her, it was a lot safer just to ask.
“You know most of the kids I work with have had it pretty rough.” Ric explained, “This little girl has lost all her self-esteem. She doesn’t even know how special she is.”
“With you around, I am sure, she will soon feel better.”
Ric smiled appreciatively, but said: “I was hoping you could have a chat with her. I think you can help – a lot.”
“I wish.” Julia sighed. “I don’t even know how to undepress myself. You and Nicky are amazing at that, I suck. Besides, I am about to leave the country.”
“You are a very analytical person; this is essentially an analytical problem. Let’s just think about it and analyze how we can solve this little girl’s self-esteem problem.”
‘And, after that, should we solve the Middle-East conflicts, or maybe save those for over breakfast,’ Julia thought. Yet, when someone gives you a compliment, especially someone of Ric’s caliber, you want to encourage that behavior rather than contradict him. Thus, Julia harked intently as Ric continued to explain.
“You are a lot closer to her in age and know a lot better what she is going through. Us old farts, when we give advice, it’s usually worthless. No matter how many adults tell her she is smart and lovable, she does not believe it. We tell her it’s normal for kids to experiment with being cruel, that we all go through phases when we are super sensitive, but that we outgrow those things just like we outgrow pimples, puppy love, and the belief that our parents are superheroes who can do no wrong. She does not feel any better for it, at least not for very long.”
“That’s probably because her peers tell her the opposite in so many ways, all the time,” Julia said, putting on a detached face so as not to show just how much she empathized. “It’s hard to believe that you are likable when everybody around you feels called upon to point out how weird and detestable you are. It’s also hard to believe bad times will pass when they just keep on coming.”
“Exactly my point. What we say does not seem to be helping. That’s why I want you to talk to her.”
“How am I supposed to know what to say? I’d just try to repeat the same stuff you just said.”
“That’s where your brains come in, my dear. I know you’ve been talking to Annie-Mae and Nicky a lot about times when they were down in the dumps. They got over it – what made the difference?”
Julia threw her hand up in the air at the naiveté of the question. “Getting a divorce, moving to another country – not exactly very useful advice for a little girl.”
“I don’t get it,” Ric played coy. “How do those things fix everything?”
“Not fix everything. But, getting away from those who put you down all the time makes a big difference: like Annie-Mae getting away from that husband who used to tell her she was worthless and ugly, or Nicky moving away from the people who looked at her like she was a freak.”
Something Julia said must have sent Ric’s wheels spinning. Julia had to contend with a pregnant silence that made her curious – and impatient – as he pondered.
“I suppose you are right,” he finally said, “much harder for a kid to get away from those who torment her.”
“No kididing! We are stuck having to meet the same assholes every day in school and living with whatever jerks our parents chose to drag home. Nobody gives a crap how that affects us.”
Anger grew hot in Julia’s chest; she had to take a deep breath and let it go. Powerlessness is among the most infuriating things, and Julia felt so sorry for the helpless, little girls who had so many more years of it to look forward to. “It does get better with time,” Julia said to comfort herself as much as anything else. “Kids don’t seem nearly as cruel now as they used to when I was younger. There are a few real assholes, but it gets easier to avoid them. Most kids in my class are much too hung up on themselves to go out of their way to mess with you. As long as you stay out of their way, you are fine. Lonely, maybe, but at least not bullied. You can even find adults, and maybe a few other kids who don’t fit in so well either, to hang out with.”
As she thought through what she was saying, Julia was lost in painful memories for a moment. So much heartache to think back on. Middle school years presented a particularly rich well of shame – one it was easy to get trapped in. When it got too painful, she grabbed onto the grapple-hook of the work at hand. Problem solving was a lot safer than feeling.
“Maybe tell her to be careful to avoid the mean kids, Ric,” she said. “I used to try so hard to fit in – it’s not worth it. They just enjoy picking on somebody. Best to stay clear and not give them the satisfaction. If they go after her anyway, tell her to be sure to stick near adults or older kids as much as she can – at least have them nearby and in earshot whenever possible. Bullies don’t like to be overheard in their cruelty.”
Some case histories presented themselves; Julia had to rifle through them to make sure she was telling the truth and not just spouting something she had seen on TV or read online. Her own memories backed her up, though the process of reliving the encounters was grueling – if revealing. She detected another important pattern to share.
“Oh, and very important, tell her not to let them see her bothered. When she thinks people are talking about her, or coming over to mess with her, tell her to square her shoulder, keep her head up, and say ‘hello’, or ‘cute shirt’, or some such thing, then walk past them and fake confidence – ‘fake it, till you make it’ is important. If you can’t make them like you, intimidate them.”
Julia smiled involuntarily: she was good at intimidation and faking fearless. She was even good at making herself feared, when need be. She wished she could stick around and show the little girl how that was done.
“Tell her that kids are much less likely to pick on you if you don’t let them see you hurt and don’t give them the opportunity to really get started. It takes the fun out of it,” she instructed Ric, as a substitute for the hands-on training she might have liked to provide.
The reader may, at this point, detect subtle parallels to wisdom dispensed a few hours earlier by Julia’s baby brother. The connection was lost on Julia, at the moment. In any event, she was not likely to tell a sad, little girl to return her game console to the store, because she had let somebody see her cry.
Ric, for his part, drew a parallel to something entirely different that neither Paetrick nor Julia would ever have thought of. Scratching his, by then, freshly shaven chin, he mused: “Like the first rule of karate.”
As a result of an eloquent “Huh?!” Julia had offered in response, she was immediately quizzed on her Wadu Riu lessons: “Now, young lady, surely you have not already forgotten Master Osaka’s teachings. Do remind me, what is the first rule of martial arts?”
Julia had to think for a moment. Oddly enough, her dojo belt-test information was not stored with hard life-lessons from her tween years in her brain, so her answer sounded more like a question than a statement. “The first rule is to avoid having to fight in the first place.”
“Aaaand, how do we do that.”
“By being aware of our surroundings, keeping our eyes open, and avoiding dangerous situations and places,” Julia regurgitated, making sure to put a good dash of annoyed exasperation into her voice to stress that she was not much in the mood for a memorization quiz. Meanwhile, the connection dawned on her as she said the words out. The first rule is to not make yourself an easy target; that could apply to verbal confrontation as well as physical ones.
She smiled at her deduction, but cautioned Ric not to convey the advice to the little girl phrased as Mater Osaka’s teachings on karate. “I doubt she’ll get it,” Julia added.
“I am not going to talk to her at all. You will – remember?”
Julia pouted for a moment. She did not like talking to strangers. She also did not like pretending to be an expert on something when that was furthest from the truth. Most of all, Julia could not remember having agreed to being the messenger.
“So, what else are you going to tell her, besides avoiding negative people and situations and sticking close to positive ones?” Ric goaded.
Julia made a face and snorted softly to show defiance. Nevertheless, she thought hard. After all, she did want to help the little girl, even if she did not want to be the one delivering the assistance in person. Julia certainly wished there had been a Ric who cared enough about her to go out and collect advice when she had been little. Although, telling the little girl to stick close to Ric all her life did not sound like particularly useful insight either. Julia would have to come up with something better than that.
“I don’t know,” she conceded after some time, “Maybe find something she really likes to do,” was the best she could come up with. Saying it out loud made it sound so trite, Julia knew she had to fill that directive out with a little more detail. “I mean, I know I feel a lot less depressed when I am puttering around in my garden or riding Snowflake. Now don’t exactly tell her that, specifically; she probably doesn’t have a garden of her own, or a horse. I sure didn’t, before Nicky showed up. Nobody cared enough to find out what I might like to do. I was just the weirdo hanging out at the stables watching everybody else.”
Julia could almost taste the hurt in her mouth as she said those things; all the while she knew that she was getting off topic and down a very unflattering, self-pitting road. “Anyway,” she interrupted herself, “maybe she can find some things she really enjoys that she can do. School sucks in terms of selection; everything is sports, music, drama, or clubs. Not everybody likes team crap. It’s important she finds her own thing. I used to try whatever my best friend liked. I did ballet and tried to learn the clarinet – I don’t even like either of those things. I certainly wasn’t any good at them. I sucked so bad, I sure as hell didn’t make any friends either; nobody likes the screw-up embarrassing them at performances.”
Just thinking back made Julia want to hide with shame at how stupid and foolish she was. “Tell the little girl, not to simply copy others,” she re-railed her train of thought. “When I was younger, I think what I enjoyed most was being around adults: chatting, going shopping, watching my dad’s girlfriend cook. It may not be cool, but it is better than doing stuff you don’t like just ‘cause others do. Also, adults tend to be far more tolerant of strange kids who aren’t like everybody else – except family. Mine never tired of brushing me down and criticizing whatever I did or said, just to make sure I never forgot what a disappointment and burden I was. I hope she doesn’t have a family like that who swoop in and crush her feelings as soon as she dares to have a little fun and get a little carried away.”
Ric was noncommittal on that point. Not only did he not respond verbally, Julia was unable to read anything from his facial expression.
“Anyway,” she pressed on, “I don’t know, I guess the important thing to tell her is to find something she really has fun doing, regardless of what everybody else thinks. If she really enjoys something, there is a good chance that she will be good at it. Not sucking is very important, though everybody acts like it shouldn’t be. Total B.S. – it is a lot easier to feel good about yourself when you are kicking ass than when you fail at everything you try.”
Julia looked at Ric as if challenging him to disagree; he did not.
“You know,” something suddenly occurred to her, “what is cool about Panda is that you don’t need anybody to drive you to get to any place. She could even come all the way out here to the stables. You said she loves animals, right? Oh, I bet you she’d love the stables.” This was a brilliant idea if she did think so herself. “Wow! And if you talked to Haywood, he might even let her ride one of the ponies, if she helps out cleaning the stables and feeding the horses.” Finally, Julia had hit on something practical, specific, and huge – all the things well-meaning advice usually lacked. “Could you ask him for her? Please?” She begged Ric, “I bet you, he’d do it. Haywood is a super nice guy. I know that if you talk to him, he’ll work something out. And if the little girl spends her time at the stables, mostly around adults, she’ll also be out of the way of bullies and bad situations at home. It’s a win – win. Guess what, she’d even follow your regiment for happiness.”
“Oh? And what is that?” Ric wanted to know, indulging her with a quizzical grin.
“You know, your whole fresh air, sunshine, and exercise mantra.”
“Fighting biochemistry with biochemistry is important,” Ric sermonized, his pointer finger in the air. “The human body needs exercise and vitamin D for many, many things – emotional equilibrium is certainly one of them.”
“Yea, yea, yea. You might be just a teensy, little bit right about that. I do get depressed more often when I am just sitting inside the house with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Maybe, just maybe, sunshine and moving around do help a little. In any event, don’t tell her that, though. No little girl wants to hear that the solution to her emotional problems is to run a couple of miles outside in the heat each morning before breakfast.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Ric consoled Julia on that worry. “BE-Cause, I am not the one who’ll be talking to her.”
Julia crossed her arms in her best stern schoolmarm way; she didn’t have time for silly arguments right now. She was on to something.
“Maybe I’ll text Haywood about it before I leave,” she considered out loud, “I am sure he’ll be ok with the idea. Besides, I guess I really should have thought about thanking him for all the riding lessons before I left.”
Julia felt just a little like a rude flake when it occurred to her that she had completely forgotten to say goodbye to a bunch of people who probably deserved a more consideration. Luckily, she had caught it in time. She was also prepared to give herself a break, considering that she was busy working out a very wonderful thing for a little girl. Julia was ultimately delivered from any further self-chastisements on the subject when Ric responded to the scratch at the door while summarizing what she had said so far: “So your advice is to: avoid negative people, stick around positive people, and get a hobby – preferably outdoors.”
Julia rolled her eyes.
“If you are going to say it like that, it will never do any good.”
“Am not going to say it at all, you will.”
Julia huffed and turned her back on him, as did the cat who had just entered the room. Lionheart was here to verify that Ric had indeed returned – his olfactory prowess was not all the reliable anymore – and to let him know that he was by no means forgiven for having left in the first place. Following said protocol, he ignored Ric and walked over to shower Julia with effusive affection. Spurred on by his furry, wet-nosed benevolence, Julia thought harder on how to provide encouragement to the little girl.
Now that she had gotten started, she thought that she maybe had some useful help to offer after all. The stable-thing was a true stroke of genius. So, what else was really important? Julia put herself in the little girl’s shoes, as she scratched behind Lionheart’s ears. Would what she have come up with so far actually fix the problem? No. It would help. But, it would not take away the worst bully of all – the one between the little girl’s ears. Julia knew better than most that once self-esteem was gone, that vile heckler was the one who most relentlessly told you that everything you do is worthless and that nobody will ever like you, no matter what.
The regiment of avoiding hurt and lethargy that Julia had come up with so far might take the little girl from where Julia had been a few months ago to where she was now – hardly the pinnacle of success. If that little girl was anything like Julia, the only way to help her was to make her like herself.
‘Like yourself, bah humbug. Why not write the great Pandanian novel and start your career as a supermodel, while you were at it?’ Julia had never quite figured out how to do that. How could she like herself when even her own family could not love her? When every friend she made eventually got tired of her and embarrassed by her? When everybody thought she was weird and untrustworthy? When she was always the first accused as soon as anything went wrong or missing? When she was always the butt of everybody’s jokes, and nobody bothered not to laugh? How could she like herself when something was clearly so very wrong with her, and everybody knew it; just she herself was too stupid to figure it out.
Both Ric and Lionheart must have noticed a change in her demeanor, because the cat nuzzled her hand and increased the volume of his purr to levels befitting an antique cappuccino maker. Ric went from looking rather satisfied with her – and probably also himself – to looking concerned.
“What’s the problem, kid?”
Their combined efforts did the trick: a purr is always comforting, and Julia liked it when Ric called her ‘kid’. She also liked the look of concern in his eyes. Feeling safe, in a judgment-free zone, she told him her conjectures on self-love, leaving out the most embarrassing, pathetic bits, of course.
Ric listened patiently and pondered for a moment. “You are absolutely right, girl,” he concluded. “Therein lies the crux. The whole point is to help her reestablish her self-esteem. That means liking herself. I think your advice so far, giving her the power to take control of her own fate and refusing to allow others the opportunity victimize her, is huge. It will give her pride and empower her like nothing I could have thought to say. If she spends time around positive people and focuses on using her natural talents to build skills, and spends time outdoors, she will hopefully be far too busy having fun to be depressed and doubt herself – at least some of the time. That cannot but have a positive impact. You are also right that eventually, she will have reason to be rightfully proud of her achievements, which will go towards shoring up her self-esteem. In the interim, though; she will need some trick up her sleeves to shut up the self-doubt and to deal with the inevitable set-backs.”
Julia nodded glumly; though, Ric was not quite done yet. “You have been sheer gold so far, can you think of anything that will make her feel good enough about herself to be able to stand up to bullying, form within and without, for at least a little while?”
“I wish I did, believe me,” Julia snorted sadly. “Usually, when I start feeling really bad about myself, I come downstairs and turn the TV on some documentary – anything that distracts me and lulls me to sleep. I don’t think that is really helpful.”
“Hmmm,” Ric muttered, “In a way, it may be.”
Julia looked rather dubious; how could turning on NOVA or the History Channel help a little girl? Doubtful, that she would be allowed to watch TV in the middle of the night, and doubtful that she’d make good choices regarding what to watch, if she were. More to the point, drowning out the inner bully does not fix anything; it just puts a temporary muffle on her.
Julia’s look of incredulity induced Ric to further elucidations on his thinking: “Everybody has those nights when the brain just does not want to shut off and churns over stressful thoughts and problems at the very time when we are least able to do anything about them.”
Julia still waited for Ric’s point. She had noticed herself, that she usually felt worst about herself around bed time. More than once, she had felt mortified by something she had said or done as she lay in bed at night, but quite fine with it in the light of the day, the next morning. Maybe Ric could tell her the causation for this correlation between nighttime and night terror?
Whether he could or not, Julia would not find out at this juncture. He was more concerned with treatment than with diagnosis. “I thought your first advice was very insightful – remove negative inputs, don’t allow them to do their damage. The same may be useful for the negative voice within. If we dwell on something, the brain keeps returning to that same place, strengthening synaptic connections, and making new ones between it and current events. This assures that we end up at the same place, regardless of what memories we try to retrieve – because we liked it there so much the last time – or rather because we thought it was so important we would not let up chewing on it. It is far better to set the brain off learning new things, teaching it not to bother us with stuff at unproductive times when we can do nothing about it.”
Julia smiled feebly. Ric’s brain chemistry lecture had not yet hit on a real solution to the problem in her eyes. If only somebody could tell Julia how to actually rebuild broken self-esteem – really fix it so you didn’t have to trick your brain by distracting it, or by pretending. Ric, renowned mind reader that he was, seemed to catch her drift.
“Now, let’s see if we can’t help the kid a little more deeply than all that,” he said. “You’ve been where she has been, right? I’ve seen you deeply hurt when Al criticized you for something or other – I forget what.”
Julia had not forgotten. A mere second’s worth of recollection hurt like hell. She could have provided Ric with an inclusive list.
“Another time,” Ric continued not waiting to be furnished with examples, “I remember him running off at the mouth about you picking up trash along the beach and carrying it with you until you found a trash can. You gave that boy such an earful about trash washed out to sea and the effect it has on wildlife and the environment, everybody ended up collecting trash along the way – INCLUDING Mr. Alverall, if memory serves.”
Julia grinned. That was indeed a pleasant memory. Julia had almost forgotten about the incident.
Ric had more examples to recount: “I also remember you feeling uncomfortable when you thought you were under-dressed for this place or another. We practically had to drag you in some places, and you spent the whole time there feeling self-conscious and miserable.”
Ric was right about that, and Julia was not particularly proud of the way she had spoiled everybody’s fun, being so caught up on what others were thinking. Of course, Ric was not finished with his point yet.
“Another time,” he said, “I remember when you joined Harry and me looking for injured animals in the nature preserve. You were fearless catching that poor opossum and digging out that trapped baby skunk. You were even less concerned than Harry or I with having to crawl down in the muck, getting bled and peed on – let alone scratched, bitten, and sprayed. All you cared about was doing what it took to safe those terrified creatures. You were brave, self-less – and you were a real sight afterwards. I remember the looks we got from the tour group as we dropped the animals off at the wildlife rehab center. All three of us looked and smelled as though we had just crawled out of a sewer pipe. You couldn’t have cared less.”
Julia had to chuckle thinking back on how the tourists had stared at them when they had walked in covered in dirt, and smelling of scared skunk. It had taken some time to get that smell off them and even longer to get it out of Ric’s jeep, too. But, both the babies made it. The possum had already been released back into the wild; the skunk’s hind leg was too badly injured, so he now enjoyed his status as spokes-skunk in residence at the rehab center.
Julia noticed Ric matching the broad smile that had crept over her own face with his own. He looked pleased with her – not just about helping he animals; that had been quite some time ago. Ric looked freshly proud as though he expected her to have come up with an amazing breakthrough.
When somebody considers you a genius, one hates to disappoint; so Julia wracked her brain, trying to come up with the bit of brilliance Ric clearly assumed she had already derived.
Initially, it was not at all clear to her what Ric was driving at with the examples he had chosen. The overall theme, she surmised, was that circumstance mattered as to how she felt about criticism – of course it did. Where was the genius in that? What kind of advice was that to give a little girl, ‘only put yourself in circumstances where it does not matter to you what others think?’ Rubbish!
Wait a minute. Julia always cared what others thought. That was the problem. If only she could be like Paetrick – or Ric- and not give a damn. Now that she thought about it, it amazed her that there had been moments where she truly had not cared one bit. Maybe the important insight Ric assumed she had come to lay in what had made the difference and to harness that. She looked at Lionheart to see if he had any suggestions, but he luxuriated in her lab with his eyes closed – not available for consultation.
After massaging his tummy for a few moments, not thinking about anything but how supremely comfortable and happy he looked, curled around her arm, savoring his love, Julia forced herself to concentrate. The common theme to Ric’s examples was that Julia had been right in each instance. That is why she had not cared about the opinions of others, who had been wrong. So, all she had to do was tell the little girl to always be right. Obviously, that would totally be helpful.
Julia felt she was getting closer, but still circling the wagons. She needed more examples to see the common thread. Thinking about picking up trash and saving injured wildlife, Julia also remembered how proud she was of going the extra mile to make sure everybody in the mansion recycled and composted, no matter how much she got on people’s nerves.
Suddenly, there it was, the insight that had eluded her. It came to her when she remembered one occasion, when the nasty voice inside her head had started up again and she had actually stood up for herself. She distinctly remembered thinking that she could not be completely worthless because she loved and helped animals, going so far as to no longer eating any. She could not be worthless because, without her, the cutest little skunk and opossum would have died slow, agonizing deaths. The world would not be better off without her, because of all the trash she prevented from washing into rivers and oceans where it might strangle or suffocate wildlife. She had even parried her heckling inner voice’s accusation that she was rude and inconsiderate and that Paetrick, Nicky, and Ric would soon grow tiered of her like everybody else, by reminding herself that she was making strides in being a better person: she no longer allowed herself to be cruel to Werner, no matter how much he seemed to be asking for it; she made Annie-Mae and Nicky laugh whenever they were having a bad day; she no longer treated the staff as though they did not exist; she helped Paetrick get away from the house by tagging along, despite her own misgivings; she cleaned up after Lionheart so the staff would not consider him a burden. In short, she forgave herself whatever insult she imagined she had caused at that moment and reassured herself that others would to, in appreciation for all the things she did for them the rest of the time.
In summation, the booster-shot for self-esteem is pride. Good pride. Being proud of something – not just being proud. If the most potent toxin was shame, as everybody claimed, pride could be the antidote. Shame was hard to diagnose because it often presented as something else, so the antidote would have to be taken prophylactically. What you needed was a well-stashed apothecary of deeds you were proud of – truly, honestly, from the depths of your soul – PROUD.
Testing this hypothesis, Julia remembered how good she felt every time she followed Nicky’s example to smile at strangers who looked like they needed a kind gesture and to compliment others on something nice to make their day. Julia loved making people smile; it often teared her up, even. Somewhat selfishly, she found it particularly rewarding when she managed to compliment somebody on something she might naturally envy – like a particularly good hair day or a very pretty outfit. It was not lost on her, that besides making the other person’s day, she was also contributing to her own growth. Be that as it may, the insight that dawned on Julia was that it was easier not to beat yourself up over your own shortcomings when you spent your day going out of your way to be kind to others. If people don’t like a kind person who cared about animals, the planet, and making others happy – then why the hell not? What was wrong with them? Yea, you heard her right, you disgusting, vile, evil naysayer inside Julia’s head, ‘with them’, not with her.
Julia’s smile grew ever bigger. She was also petting Lionheart rather more enthusiastically now than he felt comfortable. Julia could not help her exuberance; she was so used to self-loathing, she had not even recognized that she had started to take charge of her own attitudes and had begun to be proud of her own character independent of how other people felt about her.
Maybe she had not caught on earlier because she had been waiting for a sudden and dramatic change: angelic voices from the Heavens, a rising movie score, and some external miracle that suddenly fixed everything in one fell swoop. Perhaps she had expected a prince charming to prance through her door and sweep her off to happily ever after, or a fairy godmother to flick her wand. Failing that, there was always Hagrid on his flying motorcycle, a bite from a genetically engineered arachnid, or a sudden illness that made everybody come to realize how much they loved and appreciated her as they gathered around her hospital bed. TV had prepared her for all those scenarios. Strangely enough, none of them had ever happened to her. Instead, she had apparently been working on fixing her own problems as best she could – slowly and tediously, without exactly realizing what she was doing. Or, that it was working. Granted, she had a long ways to go still, but just noticing that she was making progress, that there was hope – that was huge. Cue the soaring movie score: the princess rescues herself!
On that emotionally high, admittedly disproportionate to the baby steps of progress Julia had made to date, she felt as though she had just made a Nobel Prize worthy discovery. She absolutely had to share it. But, she had to explain it to Ric properly, so he could explain it to the little girl. Who knew how much pain she might be able to spare her? The trouble was finding the right words. Something cheesy like “forget Prince Charming, rescue yourself” was not going to cut it. Julia would have to come up with far more instructive specifics – something the little girl could do, like homework, a little bit every day but for something far more important than grades.
Julia was too excited to sit still. Not caring how Lionheart might object or what Ric might think about her madly darting about, she deposited the cat on the ground, jumped up, and both literally and figuratively walked things out. For a while, she even forgot Ric was there.
The concept was easy enough: if you wanted to learn to like yourself, you needed to do things you were truly proud of. Julia also surmised that the more she had to overcome her own negative natural tendencies (like laziness, jealousy, conceit), the greater the impact.
The trick was to boil it down to something practical a little kid could do on a regular basis without daunting and overwhelming her and making her give up on the idea before she even gave it a try. Too bad Julia could not be around to guide her through it and praise her every time she finished an ‘assignment’. Ric would hopefully jump in; maybe he could get other adults involved, too: Nicky, Haywood, teachers.
As Julia paced, she composed a list of examples of small things a child can do habitually like: giving up her seat in the metro, opening doors for other people, helping somebody carry a heavy load, giving compliments. Julia also came up with some bigger things to sprinkle in. Big things carry a lot of weight. They set the tone. Julia, for example, was extremely proud of not cheating on her vegetarian diet – ever, despite all the years she had claimed that, despite her love for animals, she would never be able to stop eating meat. It was that change from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I will’ that she liked the most about herself at the moment. Given that the little girl loved animals, too; Julia thought about advising her to try something like volunteering at the animal shelter to feed the cats and dogs, change litter boxes, and take the dogs for walks.”
Lionheart deserves some of the credit because, sticking to his resolution to punish Ric by ignoring him, he kept brushing against her legs. She had to pay attention to him or fall. The idea of volunteer work at an animal shelters was, therefore, not a particularly impressive reach.
In terms of intermediate assignments, Julia remembered that, to a kid, one of the biggest sacrifices is as simple as doing a chore without being asked. Julia herself had tried to be much better about not leaving housework for one of the staff to do and helping to make the staff’s life easier, especially when nobody was looking.
Similarly, Julia could list options to let other kids, especially smaller ones, have an extra turn on the playground and standing up for them if they were being bullied or if somebody talked trash about them behind their backs. In short, Julia had no problem coming up with a longer and longer list of little tasks of kindness and heroism a young girl could perform to help herself and others recognize how lovable she was.
Julia still beamed as she tried to sort through her thoughts and deliver them to Ric in some sort of cohesive fashion. She failed miserably at the cohesive part. She was so excited about her ideas, and they felt so important to her, she was afraid she had in no way done them justice. She awaited his response on pins and needles, desperately hoping that the genius of it all was not only in her head.
All indication was, however, that Ric ‘got it’. As he looked appropriately impressed and persuaded, Julia really got going and talked to him about various ideas she had for nearly twenty minutes. When she finally ran out, she was physically exhausted, but very happy. So happy in fact, she had to pick Lionheart up and rain a shower of kisses on his head and nose.
“You think you got all that,” she asked Ric a little sheepishly, poking fun at her own effusiveness, as Lionheart struggled free and exited the room with demonstrative indignation.
“I am not the one who has to remember it all,” was all Ric had to say on the subject.
Ric did have a small point; it really might make more sense if Julia delivered these ideas to the little girl herself. The problem was that whenever she tried to envision the conversation, she could not imagine it working out. Julia just didn’t have the touch Ric, Nicky, or Paetrick had. For her to establish a rapport with the girl and gain her trust to the point where she would listen to her, would take far longer than the roughly 20 hours Julia had left on Panda. With an animal, it would be another story, but for humans you needed charm, self-confidence, people skills. ‘You need Paetrick!’ it suddenly dawned on Julia. He fit the criterium of not being an adult; he was also unimposing when he wanted to be – and he was cute. Paetrick would have that kid wrapped around his little finger so fast her head would spin. If he told her to jump, she’d be moving about like Tigger on his pogo tail from that point on. Julia had absolutely no doubt that Paetrick would have no trouble getting the child to come up with a list of little things to do each day – because it was important that the kid picked what she wanted to do herself, and also chose if and when to execute her choices. Orders encourages cheating, not pride. All she, Paetrick, and Ric could do was provide enough examples to rev up her imagination, then let her pick her own niche. Paetrick was just the boy to get her started.
To Julia’s disappointment, Ric showed absolutely no enthusiasm for her brilliant idea to use Paetrick as the kid-whisperer. His reluctance deflated her a little bit, but she was not about to give up on sheer genius. “Oh come on, you know she is going to just love him the second she lays eyes on him, and Paetrick will be great at talking to her. He’s got the patience of a saint with kids, too. I’ve seen him talk to Wolfi sometimes in a way I never could.”
Julia pleaded with big eyes until Ric gave in. “Ok, fine,” he capitulated, lumbering to his feet to pull the phone from his hip and call Paetrick. Cell phones made a whole lot more sense in this giant house than trying to holler for somebody through the corridors or waiting for a member of the staff to go fetch him.
While they waited for Paetrick, Julia tried to sort her thoughts some more so they would not sound too stupid and cheesy when she conveyed them. After all, they had already established that Paetrick knew nothing about self-doubt, or what it felt like to be that little girl. To be convincing, he needed to buy fully into what he was supposed to say, and how important it was. Although Mr. Popular pretended to relate, Paetrick was just like any spoiled, loved kid who believed bullying was just something a bunch of oversensitive babies complained about. If it was not physical abuse (which, by the way, could always be corrected by fighting back with fists), normal people did not – or would not – acknowledge that there was any problem at all. ‘Just ignore it’ – what kind of advice is that? Not something anybody who had lived through it would ever say. In short, Paetrick would have to be retained – and fast. Julia really had her work cut out, but hoped that, with Ric in her corner, she stood a decent chance. It also helped that, unlike most spoiled brats, Paetrick had a soft spot for troubled kids. He would at least try to understand and that already helped a lot.
When Paetrick walked into the room, looking somewhat apprehensive about being called to Ric’s room for the second time in a day, Ric did just as Julia had hoped and took the lead filling Paetrick in on the situation.“So, Julia here insisted that you are the man for the job,” Ric commenced “Although, I believe she’s the only one who can do it.”
Julia nodded firmly, indicating she was still convinced.
Unsurprisingly, Paetrick looked a little confused, but appeared game to find out whatever was afoot.
“Alright then, since Julia insists,” Ric sighed, “Here it goes: before she leaves here tomorrow, would you please tell her to take good care of herself by: one, staying away from negative people and situations; two, sticking close to positive people. Three, to keep her head high, shoulders square, and her eyes open for bad situations so as to avoid them. Four, to keep doing things she enjoys, even if that means going out of her way, because she is worth the effort. Five, to be proud of her kindness and thoughtfulness and not to give a damn about some fool or other who tries to put her down. Finally, to take at least as good care of herself as she would any friend – or a sad, little girl she has never even met.”
Paetrick raised his arms in defeat, as Julia’s eyes flooded with tears. “I’ve been telling her that,” Paetrick said, “She don’t listen.”
“Let me just add: appreciate whom you’ve got. Don’t discriminate against friends just because they don’t fit the standard model. You alluded to this yourself when you mentioned adults. I just want to reiterate that friends don’t have to conform to the standard Hollywood model – which is really more a sidekick, usually, if you ask me. You are not a standard teenager, so your friends likely won’t be sitting around your bedroom, reading girly magazines, talking about boys – though with Nicky and Annie Mae, you never know. Point is, not being conventional does not make those who care about you less your friends. If someone spends time with you, be it in person, over the phone, or online, assume they do because they like you. Basta. The end. We will talk more about this during our weekly phone calls where I will be grilling you on your progress with your “homework”, as you termed it, make no mistake.”
“Homework?! Oh boy. What did I get myself into?” Julia quipped to avoid getting emotional again.
“I believe it is called a family,” Ric replied deadpan. “Again, not the standard model, but it is what it is. Bottom line, we don’t stop being your family just because you move a few time zones away.”
With that pronouncement, Ric walked over to Julia, kissed her on the top of her head and whispered in her ear: “You are loved, little girl. We think you are awesome just the way you are, and we’d be much obliged if you kept working, a little each day, on joining us in that realization.”
After a second kiss to the forehead, Ric left the room.
Paetrick looked a little puzzled. “You wanna explain to me what just happened?” He looked almost comically perplexed.
Julia was in no state for long explanations, of course. “Ric was just being Ric,” she just barely managed to get out without breaking into a sobbing wail.
That explanation didn’t help Paetrick much, but given that Julia was clearly in no state to say much more, he shrugged and came up with his own summation: “Ric talked to you. Now you are crying. Yea, that sounds about right.”
Julia tried to smile while she cried – it must have resulted in a horrible grimace.
“You need a hug?” her semi-stepbrother wanted to know, which completely did her in, whatever last bit of composure Julia had left was out the window. As her brother put his arms around her, the sad, little girl dissolved into a sobbing mess. To her utter surprise, instead of pulling back repulsed, her brother gave her a little squeeze and held her until she could smile at him through her tears.
“Careful now,” he said, “Ric’s a wily bugger. This is how he gets you. He reels you in by making you feel loved; then he makes your life a ruddy hell by having you live up to his expectations.”
After Julia had managed a small laugh, she told Paetrick she would catch up with him later at dinner. A little later, she walked back to her room to finish packing and dwell on her father’s awesome pedagogic genius to get her out of this place and ship her off to regulation relatives who had neither space nor use for her, just as Wirth family tradition dictated. In short, it was time to trade in her freakishly supportive modern family for good old-fashioned, dysfunctional blood ties.
The chapter you’ve just read is part of the first book, The Winds of Change, in the novel series Panda.
If you have your own experiences with bullying, not fitting in, and/or rebuilding self-esteem that you could share, please leave a comment. Comments do not show up immediately. To avoid spam, comments have to be approved first. Comments are reviewed regularly and as expediently as possible.
If you would like to see more of this book, chapters 1 through 10 are posted on this blog here: http://www.sandracstenson.com/category/from-panda/
If you would like to read the entire book, it is slated to be self-published this year.