Walking Away from an Event

“Mom, I don’t want to do this.” Patch said the words into my shoulder. We were sitting on the floor in the school hallway side by side, his head snuggled up to my shoulder. The snuggling took some creative hunching on his part since he’s taller than me these days. I looked down at his combed hair, his white shirt, and cool bow tie. (Bow ties are cool.) He was dressed to take part in his 6th grade graduation ceremony and that was exactly what he didn’t want to do.

I thought about Kiki and Link sitting in the audience, waiting to see their brother’s ceremony. I thought about Patch’s teacher who has loved him through his recent difficulties with anxiety and panic attacks. She certainly hoped that he would at least be able to walk with his classmates. I thought of the reasons that humans arrange for ceremonies, their emotional purposes. Then I kissed the top of my boy’s head and thought about how much of his anxiety stems from the fact that he’s an instinctive people pleaser. He never wants to disappoint anyone. Ever. And if he thinks he has, his stress levels rise tremendously. My boy knew that deciding not to walk could make other people sad, yet he found the courage to say “I don’t want to do this.” It is huge progress for him to be able to be aware that his desires conflict with what is expected, to be able to speak those desires in a calm way instead of being caught between what he wants and what he feels he ought to do until he curls into a panicked ball.

While I was thinking these thoughts, I heard the principal begin to welcome everyone to the ceremony. I had a choice. I could probably coax my son into a partial participation. I could try to help him match what was expected by the structure of the event. Or I could listen to him and back him up in his desire to opt out. Ideally we would have made this choice in time to have explanatory conversations with school staff. It was too late for that. Patch’s teacher was on the stage in front of everyone. No way to consult her. I pictured them calling his name on the list and being confused when he was not in his place in line. I’ll never know how they handled that moment.

“Of course we can go.” I said. Then I waded past the crowds of other parents and grandparents. I gestured to Kiki and Link to gather their things and mine. I saw the confusion in their faces, but they came. And once in the hallway with Patch, they completely and happily accepted his decision. Maybe Patch’s teacher saw us leave. I left a note on her desk to explain. I checked Patch out through the office, so that school personnel would know where he had gone and with whom. Then the four of us went out for lunch. Patch lost the hunched-shoulder sad-faced look he’d been carrying. Instead he laughed with siblings and ate chocolate cake. In the end he will be more glad of that lunch than with sitting through speeches and walking in a line to shake hands.

Patch has growing and healing to do in the next months. He’ll be better able to do that if his family listens to him when he says what he feels. Even if doing so creates awkwardness for us.