A few days ago, I loaded into a gondola on a spontaneous one-day ski trip with my 13-year-old son. In order to ride up the mountain forward facing, I sat next to the small boy who had boarded ahead of us, rather than next to my own son.
Now that I am back in the city, returning to regular life, I keep asking myself, how long can a gondola ride last? According to the ski resort’s website, just under 10 minutes, which was long enough for me to see the pain on his face and hear it in his voice.
“Are you guys just getting started?” he asked us casual and friendly. Louis and I giggled and quickly recounted pieces of our morning of misadventure. Among other delays, Louis lost one glove somewhere between the car and our first gondola ride. After a thorough retracing of steps we gave up and bought a new pair. As we were about to board our first chair lift, a man behind us called out “Hey, you dropped these,” and handed us Louis’s goggles. I said, “After many delays, we are finally going skiing, yes.”
I think Louis and I were projecting a pretty heavy, mother-son-on-an-adventure vibe without realizing it. It seemed to strike a cord with this boy and he leaned into the warmth and charm of it. He shared that he was in high school (this was surprising because my 13-year-old was physically much bigger), that he attended an East Coast boarding school, was on a three week school vacation, had been skiing in Tahoe for 10 days and that this was his final day. He was climbing the mountain to meet a boy he’d made friends with earlier in the week.
He was sharp and quick-witted. By asking only a few questions he deduced that we were from, (his words) “San Fran,” and that my son attended an all boy’s middle school.
He bristled at the description, all boys. “I am in a co-ed boarding school now and it’s so much better. When it’s time for you to find a high school, go co-ed for sure.”
I asked if he started high school first at a single sex school and he told me no, he had attended a Jr. Boarding school that was only for boys and it had been a terrible experience. Without shyness or fear of vulnerability he shared some of his experiences and explained the difference between bullying (picking on people for no reason) and hazing (a brotherhood of love continuing abusive traditions that had been done to them.)
I was stunned into silence while he shared stories of being the “little kid” on the hockey team and some of the nightmares he’d endured.
I mentioned that I had looked at various middle schools that might be a good fit for Louis and had come across the idea of boarding school for sixth graders. “It’s more common on the east coast, I understand,” I concluded, and he concurred. I asked why he’d gone to a Jr. boarding school in the first place. He turned to Louis and said, “You are so lucky she didn’t send you away.” My parents just…” He made a repeated motion with his hand as if brushing dirt off his ski pants. “I guess my Dad works all the time and my Mom, well, I think she wanted freedom to travel.” Brushing hand motion again.
“Have you shared with your parents some of the experiences you had?” I asked. “Yes, and they feel terrible, but it still caused some real attachment issues for me.” Clearly this kid had been to therapy, but he had not finished processing his pain.
We sat in silence for a few minutes and then I quietly said, “Middle school can be a really difficult time in a boy’s life.” We looked at each other, goggles to goggles for a long moment and then he said, “Yes, and it’s a time a boy really needs a Mom.”
We sat in silence some more until my son quietly said, “What’s your name?” His name was Patrick and he is now a sophomore in a different, more gentle sounding boarding school. He and his parents continue to work on their relationship. “My parents love me, don’t get me wrong, but they just…” and he did that motion with his hand again.
For the whole ride, his knees were almost touching Louis’s knees, and I know his words were imprinting themselves on Louis’s soul.
He didn’t know that Louis was a kid who has had a rough time in middle school as well. I am not sure how Louis would describe his own experience: bullying, excluding, ostracizing…. He chose not to open up on that gondola ride. Whatever happened to Louis in the past, we lived through it together. I have suffered inside for not being able to rescue him from it and no efforts on my part seemed to stop the behavior of other kids. While listening to Patrick speak, something clicked into place in my heart. All Patrick regretted was that his Mom hadn’t been there for him. He didn’t seem to have any anger or resentment for those boys (he was quick to defend the hazing rituals he had endured) he just wanted his mom to be a part of his life. Patrick wanted a mom who could pick him up each afternoon and absorb all the details. Remind him that his identity was not placed in what the boys said or did. Name the treatment as wrong and unfair. Spend time with him on a Friday night instead of going out. Support his interests and love him just as he was, skinny and short.
Understanding my role as a parent of a teen can be challenging. He is pulling away from me emotionally, and I am resisting the urge to helicopter parent, (s)mother and over-manage. But Patrick-of-the-Gondola reminded me of a powerful, under-valued and still-necessary ingredient of parenting: Just freakin’ show up. Sometimes there isn’t anything specific to do and holding still and being nearby is the hardest thing of all. I need to honor this kid I’ve been blessed to have, step up to the role I asked for, and simply be present. The rest, well, it somehow-someway takes care of itself.
- Louis loves his school and chose to stay there from Kindergarten til 8th grade (next year). I am sure he made the right choice and I am happy I listened to him.
- There are loads of happy kids at boarding schools whose parents “show up” in the right ways in their lives. I know this is true, but Patrick is not one of them.
- I will be praying for Patrick and his broken heart for years to come. I hope he knows or learns how valued and loved he is by God.