Amanda's rockin' nephew, Nicholas, prepares to bomb her with a water balloon. Photo by Amandablu
By Amanda Gillooly
Drawn to the 75-percent off rack at a local department store, I flitted through the various boys clothing and didn’t see much that called out to me. Then I saw it: A small red T-shirt with an awesome, not-too-menacing image of a dragon breathing fire.
It was my nephew’s size, and it was definitely his style. And the price of $2.98 sealed the deal.
Nicholas, who will start kindergarten this fall at Wilson Elementary School in the West Allegheny School District, was enamored with it immediately. While his beaming smile and sunshiny aura made me feel like a cloudless day, his vocal response first struck me funny, then tragic.
“Hey, Bub, do you like this?” I asked him, making him turn his back to me so I could eyeball the shirt to make sure it would fit him.
“Oh, yeah, Aunt Mandy. That dragon is cool. And it might help me be popular,” he responded
There, in the middle of the store, I imagined somewhere a turntable was screeching to a dead silence. Crickets stopped crooning in grasses across the Commonwealth.
“That dragon is cool,” I expected him to say. He’s 5 years old. I didn’t know he even knew what “popular” meant.
And it made me sad.
Nicholas is a free sprit, a free thinker who asks questions like a seasoned reporter with the type of insight you might expect from the book “Tuesday’s with Maury.”
On a drive home he once shared with me: “Aunt Mandy, I don’t know why people like to be grumpy. I like to laugh. Laughing is fun.”
It ain’t Socrates, but I like his style.
OK. I know. Everyone thinks their son/daughter/niece/nephew/granddaughter/grandson is totally uber awesome. But while others in my family recognize Nicholas for his model behavior or verbal skills, I like to focus on the stuff you can't teach -- the most important of which is his ability to see humor even in the most dry situations.
Nicholas is a silly boy. He is the first to joke or tease. He understands sight gags and simple irony. And I guess when he mentioned the P word I thought of my own primary and middle-school experiences, which were punctuated with self-doubt and a longing to emulate the “popular” kids in school.
I never understood how one became “popular.” Some of the popular kids were kind to everyone. Some were jerks. But there was no common denominator. While we all deny it, I think there is a little piece of all of our hearts that wanted, at least for a few fleeting moments, to know what it was like to simply be awed and revered for no other reason than your having had the cool clothes and sat at The Popular Table.
I thought about No Child Left Behind and the emphasis it places on math and reading skills and not necessarily on character or the arts or social sciences. I thought about how it must be even more difficult for a free spirit to retain his splendor in a society that has always unconsciously judged them on his looks, wealth or family reputation. Now the public education system, thanks to that federally unfunded-mandate, further restricts the worth of a student.
Now it depends largely on how well he can retain information and then regergitate it on a standardized test.
While I wish I could say I got over the idea of cliques and discovered the concept of an “over soul” that connects us all with the human experience of high school, I would be lying.
It was actually in college, when I became friends with myriad characters -- grungy, preppy, nerdy, gay, rich or poor. None of that really mattered. The saddest part is that we would often say to each other, laughing: "You know, I don't think we would have been friends in high school."
When you get to know a Candy or an Ean or a Louis Philbert -- when you grow to love anyone (or anything, really), it doesn't occur to you what particular adjective group-think would attach to it.
Popularity, or at least the importance of it, is at last as fleeting as high school itself.
At the end of this brief reflection, I laughed at my nephew and told him simply:
“Nicholas, you don’t need a T-shirt to make you popular. Just be yourself - you are naturally awesome.”
He didn’t look at me when he spoke next. His eyes were transfixed on the dragon’s scales and breath of bright orange fire.
I know,” he said with a little audible sigh -- the kind that clearly meant “Duh!”
Then it was time to laugh at myself. I had no reason to worry about him after all.