There is a little girl in the twins’ preschool class who takes my breath away with her familiarity. A solemn eyed four year old who simultaneously charms me and breaks my heart. Because she reminds me so much of myself.
Amy is very quiet. And when I’m working there, manning a craft table, it seems there are never enough friendly questions to elicit more than five words in response from her. I know this because I’ve tried.
I always try. And how can I not? When I can look into her brown eyes, I see the world in there. She takes everything in through those eyes, and I would love to hear exactly what she thinks about all of it.
Amy is an observer.
When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time watching. This may be why I have such clear memories of what everything looked like in my childhood. Some involve layered impressions of how I felt and what I thought…even how things sounded and felt. But the most reliable memories – the ones I know to be true and accurate – are dominated by images.
As a fellow observer of the world, I know that Amy feels far more connected to the whirl of life around her than she may appear. She isn’t just sitting by herself, lost in her own thoughts. She’s listening and experiencing. She’s seeing. All of it.
I didn’t know this about myself at the time - that I looked as if I was trying to be separate. I wasn’t old enough to have mastered the art of seeing myself through the eyes of others. As far as I knew, there was only one reality – one truth. And it was the one that I saw.
The view from my solitary perch wasn’t necessarily lonely. But it was cautious. I would eventually engage. I just needed time. And as I watch Amy watch the other kids play, I wonder how much time she needs.
For me, it varied. Whenever I started something new, it took me some time to warm up to the people around me – to participate.
New settings didn’t always require that much interaction. A gathering of grownups at the dinner table had no complaint with a little girl sitting quietly in their midst. But it was different with other children. They want more from you. If you take too long to join in, they leave you behind. And while the plasticity of their social dynamics will allow for latecomers, it’s hard for a cautious child to make that effort.
I can close my eyes and remember arriving at a new after-school babysitter’s house. I see the late afternoon sun that filtered through the trees as I sat quietly on a rock, watching the other children play. I sat and watched. For two days.
For two whole days, I watched them play tag and any number of other chase-related games. I also politely declined all of their invitations to join them. I wasn’t ready.
But on the third day, I left my rock. I walked into the middle of the crowd and was absorbed without question. Maybe it was because I would be there every day for what at the time seemed like forever, but there was an understanding that I would be one of them as soon as I was ready.
This wasn’t always the case.
And when I watch Amy, I see that it’s not quite that simple for her at school right now. She could just walk in and claim her right to be included…but it would require a forceful entry. And that’s not really her style.
To be fair, this isn’t the fault of the other children. A precedent was set early in the year when Amy wasn’t just “Amy.” She was “Amy and Audrey.”
Amy used to have a best friend.
The first few months of school, Amy and Audrey were inseparable. They made all of their craft table visits together. They sat side by side during story time. When hands needed to be held on walks to the playground, they stood apart from the frantic pairing off of the others. They were already holding hands.
This made me smile. I was rarely without a best friend when I was growing up. Maybe I wasn’t quite as exclusive about it, but I always had that one person who was “mine.” I understand the comfort of having a best friend. It makes the world seem safer - friendlier. People are more accepting of pairs.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have friends. But I had the most fun with my best friend. That someone who would giggle with me at things that no one else seemed to understand. That one other person who liked me best too. Who shared all of the deep dark secrets that I can’t even remember anymore.
Moves to other cities and schools were hard for me. I didn’t like the transitions. Some adventurous spirits are excited by the possibility of a new start, but I never cared for the uncertain future. I needed a best friend’s hand to hold.
And now, Amy doesn’t have a best friend’s hand to hold. Because several months ago, Audrey’s family moved overseas.
It always gives me a little pang to see the one where there should be two.
Of course Amy could find another best friend - and she eventually will. But for now, she she’s not interested in merging with the chaotic puppy pile of her other classmates.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this tiny tragedy. The other moms will smile-frown at the sweet sadness – perhaps remembering a time when they were missing a lost best friend. And we all try to help the quiet little girl feel included. We encourage her to participate in snack table conversation and suggest that she join playground games.
We also do that silly thing that parents always do…we say things to her to make excuses for her painful shyness. And that’s really what it comes down to – Amy isn’t just disinterested in finding new friends right now – she’s also very shy.
So we say, “not really in the mood right now?” or “feeling a little tired?” As if this will help her save face – a very grownup concern that’s hardly on the list of preschool priorities. And she humors us. Or just hopes that a small nod or glance of acknowledgement will make us leave her alone.
A while ago, a friend told me a story about this. One day on the short walk to the playground, Amy refused to hold hands with any of the other kids. No one made a big deal out of it, because all of them do this at some point. But just like the rest of us, my friend felt the need to validate this behavior as being perfectly normal. And she did that thing – asking with sincere sympathy “a little shy today?“ But instead of the usual nod, Amy tilted up her small, serious face to respond, “I’m shy every day.”
This story just kills me. Partly because it’s really cute…but more so because ME TOO! EVERY DAY. Every goddamn day.
I’m shy EVERY day.
And I always have been.
This is why I like having a best friend. The intimacy is so comforting in the teeming rush of the big bad world. Because it’s overwhelming. No matter how beautiful life can be, it’s also terrible and menacing. It welcomes you in and throws you to the wolves all at once.
It’s a bit much for the gentle souled. It’s not easy to be shy.
And every time I look at that little girl, I want to tell her, “honey – it will be okay. You will find another best friend. There will be another hand to hold when things get scary – probably several. But sweetie, you should really reach out for that now, because it just gets harder. You’ll see. As you get older, it will never again be this easy to claim what you want – to walk into a group and grab someone’s hand.”
I want warn her that this shyness will sometimes make her feel like an outsider. That it will peak when she’s a teenager and it seems like everyone around her moves effortlessly through new social situations, while she needs time to catch up. Most of the boys won’t appreciate her thoughtful observations - her lack of talent for small talk (which ironically, she will most likely have mastered by the time they claim to not care for it).
But I also want to tell her that she will probably benefit from this under-valued tendency to be reserved when she is in high school. She will be less likely to throw herself into unsafe situations. Her version of the invincible teenager will be more careful and pragmatic. She will hang back where others race into danger.
I want to tell her everything. Because now, I know.
I know how much she will hate her insecurity and need to be cautious when she’s younger. How she will wish that she could be like the other girls with their perceived bold confidence. And when she’s older and adept at successful cocktail party navigation, she’ll look back and see how she could have done everything differently.
Then years after that, she’ll appreciate all of the unique weirdness that made her unlike any other girl her age. She will recognize the value in in this and be grateful for the experiences that made her exactly who she became. She will have few regrets. Because if things had happened differently, then she might not have everything she holds dear.
And at some point, the observer in her - the shy girl who watched and considered so much throughout her life – may even be able to acknowledge that it’s much the same for everyone else. That no matter how shy people may be – every day – some days - or even just ONE day…we all lead uncertain lives, full of risk and insecurity.
And even when we feel the absence of a best friend’s hand to hold, we’re never really alone. In fact, we are always in good company.