The most valuable lesson my mom taught me

Author’s note: while this story is one of my favorites about my mom, the writing and point of view are entirely mine as I remember being in fourth grade. My relatively recent discovery of profanity has merely allowed me to express feelings I have had since I was ten. This is not my mom’s fault—she really did raise me better. I just came out like this. Sorry, mom. I love you.

Also, Brian, if you’re out there: no hard feelings.

***

I got my most valuable lesson from my mom when I was in fourth grade. It was my first run-in with heartbreak, and she was the one to help. Not by taking my hand and assuring me my heart would heal. Rather, when I was the one thrust into doing some heartbreaking, it was mom who assured me that not only is heartbreak not fatal, but it’s not my job to clean up messes other people insist on spilling everywhere.

It started when my friend Sierra asked if I liked Brian after school. Liked liked Brian. Our class had collectively discovered what crushes were and were infatuated with getting our hands on one—either first-hand or vicariously through classmates.

My interest fell distinctly into the latter camp. Crushing was a fantastic spectator sport—which is exactly why I was determined to remain a spectator.

So when Sierra asked me if I like liked Brian I…panicked a bit. While I had no problem being the center of attention, I also preferred knowing I had an audience. But if she was asking me this, who else was asking? Who was already talking? How many romantic rumors did I need to preempt?

I laid out a fervent and thorough denial of all romantic inclinations anyone might suspect me having towards Brian and/or anyone else in our class. Brian and I were very close friends, only friends, and friendship is very important, more important than romance even, not that there is any romance, because there is zero. And I’m not really ready for a relationship right now, and even if I was, Brian was not my type. Not that I have a type. But even if I had a type, he’s not it. And if you could please tell anyone saying otherwise that’d be great.

Then I stopped. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh,” said Sierra. “Brian asked me to. Because he likes you.”

Oh.

Shit.

I did as much backpedaling as I could, but it wouldn’t be long before my all-too-clear feelings made their way back to the boy who’d just asked my best friend to ask me if I liked him. Laying bare heart and soul, fourth-grade style.

Sure enough, the next morning Brian moped theatrically past me into class, making mournful eye contact as he slumped into his desk.

I tried to smile and be friendly, because we were friends, God please tell me we were still friends, but he was having none of it. He’d put his heart on the table and I’d, apparently, crushed it.

I quickly decided the best course of action was Giving Brian Space. Everything I’d said was in an attempt to make drama Go Away; maybe acting it like it had would actually work. Plus I didn’t really feel like rehashing the devastating things I’d said, and suspected Brian felt the same way.

Brian…had other plans.

Every time he passed my desk it was with an anguished sigh. Every time we broke for lunch or recess he’d mope on his own, away from the rest of our fourth-grade conglomerate. I had Broken His Heart, and he was making that Very Clear.

And it was working. I was wracked with guilt. I had the power to destroy and I’d inadvertently used it. I was a harpy and didn’t even know it.

The straw that broke my harpy back was the song Brian started singing after school. I found him camped out, suicidally, directly under the basketball net, near the storage shed I was raiding to get a dodgeball. I got close, trying to smile as non-harpily as I could.

Before I could say anything, Brian started singing: “I’m feeling depressed / I’m feeling depressed / Annica doesn’t like me / And I’m feeling depressed.”

It would be another year (via a conversation with a very caring and very honest P.E. teacher) before our class learned what clinical depression was, but I inferred two things about Brian’s sudden-onset depression: (1) it wasn’t good and (2) it was my fault.

And so I started thinking. Not necessarily dating (whatever “dating” even meant in fourth grade), but something. Something to ease this heartbreak I’d unwittingly wrought.

My mom would know what to do. Mom, who’d been my unfailing coach and mentor in being caring. Who’d taught me how to share. Who knew how to strike the delicate balance between being honest and kind. Who’d succeeded and demonstrating and teaching the most valuable skill a fourth-grader could wield: Being Nice. Mom could fix this. Mom would know what to do.

She picked me up an hour or so after Brian went home. She asked me how school had gone. I started telling her about Brian’s broken heart and how it was my fault and that I was trying to figure out a way to make things right.

I hadn’t even gotten to the singing bit when she cut me off.

“Brian will live. You shouldn’t be doing anything for Brian.”

I sat there, stunned, trying to wrap my head around my second shift in reality I’d encountered in that day: not only was I a fourth-grade harpy, but my wonderful, caring, well-spoken, kind-hearted mom…didn’t want me to do anything. Didn’t tell me to be nice.

In horror and indignation, I reiterated that Brian’s heart was broken, that he was singing a song about it, that he was alone under the basketball net waiting for death to take him via an athletic middle schooler.

And she laughed. She laughed and sighed and then said, as if I were the one with an incomplete, childlike grasp on the situation:

“Well I’m very sorry. He’ll be fine.”

My wonderful, caring, well-spoken, kind-hearted mom might actually be a stone-cold bitch.

I spent the evening ruminating on my mom’s dismissal. She talked like I’d done nothing wrong. Like there was no actual problem here. Like this was a playground game. Was she right?

If she was wrong, then I had the power to hurt or heal some very real wounds.

But if she was right, I was off the hook from actually having to do anything.

I decided to give her the benefit of a doubt.

I stuck to my cool-calm-collected space-giving strategy the next day. Brian stuck to his slumps and sighs. I did my best to tell myself: Brian will live. You don’t need to do anything. Brian will live. Brian will be fine.

He was still living awfully unhappily by the end of the day, so I pressed the matter with mom again.

The same laugh-sigh, the same amusement and annoyance and dismissal of my (his?) problem. Then she laid her cards on the table.

“Listen,” she said, “I talked to Brian’s mom. He’s fine, I promise you. He’s just doing it for the attention.”

Two moms! Two moms with two collaborative stories that confirmed this was Not A Big Deal.

I was equal parts relieved and indignant. All that guilt had, indeed, been for naught. I didn’t cause this. “This” wasn’t even a real thing. It was a performance. It was a ruse. I wasn’t just off the hook, I had no stake in this claim to begin with.

I was not a harpy. I was not responsible. I was in charge of my reaction, and that was all the care I was required to provide.

And Brian’s heartbreak did, indeed, fade with some calculated-but-not-too­-calculated coolness and avoidance. We were back to being (just) friends by the next week. Heartbreak, as it turns out, isn’t fatal. It’s not even chronic.

It wasn’t until I was an adult looking back that I realized the amount of trouble my mom’s advice saved me. Turns out manipulative theatrics is hardly limited to fourth grade boys. I would go on to watch boys in high school, college, do the same song and dance. To ask girls why they attended dances with them if they weren’t interested in something else. To guilt trip their exes into a second chance—they didn’t mean to do those things, say those things, they were just so impassioned they couldn’t think straight.

I was lucky. I sidestepped toxic relationships because I could still hear my mom’s words. They will live. You don’t have to do anything. They will live. They will be fine.

Not every girl learns that from her mom. Not every girl walks away from their mopey suitor. Some go their whole lives convinced all love, lust, heartbreak directed at them is their cause, and therefore their fault. That they need to clean up the mess they caused. That they’re the harpies.

My mom imparted more wisdom than she realized navigating me through that first bout of unrequited affection. Fixing Everything and Being Nice are two different projects. And you don’t have to fix everything to be nice. You do not have to respond to guilt trips. You can—you should—walk away from manipulation. You have your own problems to solve.

You will live. You will be fine.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thanks for assuring me I’m not a harpy.

***

EDIT: I told my mom I was writing this and got her side of the story: as she remembers it, the reason she went to Brian’s mom wasn’t that Brian or even myself was in any great distress. It was because the rest of our class was talking about his theatrics and my staggering non-responsiveness.

Which means, in her telling of the story, I was the stone-cold bitch.

I’m…I’m a little proud.

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