DEAR TAYLOR: YOU ARE AWKWARD, SHY, AND TOTALLY PERFECT
Dear sweet, sweet Taylor*,
How are you? Has life improved since second grade? Do you still wear bright pink cowgirl boots and love to tease your brother? I’m sure you’re better at spelling tests now. It’s been a few years since I mentored you at the local charter school, and only now do I realize how lucky I am to have spent so much time with you.
School wasn’t easy for you. From reading and math to general coordination in P.E., nothing seemed to come naturally to you. When I first met you in September of 2013, you didn’t have a single friend at school. Every once in a while you’d chase other kids around at recess, but as far as I knew, they never spoke to you. I became one of your best friends; a stable buddy you knew would come every Wednesday and Friday after lunch.
I can still remember your eighth birthday party at the water park. I was the only person there outside of your family. I had never met either of your parents and the water park was in an unfamiliar part of town. I was a bit nervous at first; here I was, some random junior in high school who spent a few hours a week with you, introducing myself to a dozen of your family members who knew you better than anyone. And there you were, beaming up at me and jumping around when I pulled out your birthday present, wrapped in the pinkest of princess gift-wrap I could find. The cake was phenomenal.
I wanted nothing but to see you succeed, which is why I felt beyond terrible the day I ruined your life.
As I’ve mentioned, you didn’t have many friends at school (which is absurd since the boy next to you had tons of friends and he was always shoving glue up his nose). On this particular Wednesday, your class decided to have a talent show. The coolest girls shrieked out a vague rendition of Let It Go and you were becoming more and more hesitant to show the world your many talents.
I sat on the gym floor next to you and tried to encourage you to perform. You told me you didn’t know what to do, and so I suggested you tell a knock-knock joke. I had a good one in stock for you to use, a joke that had been a huge hit with my younger cousins earlier that month. Even better, the joke was about Frozen, and that movie was the biggest thing that had happened to the second grade since Ramona Quimby and Susan called off their rivalry.
You walk up in front of your class and freeze. You can’t even reach the microphone. Eventually you manage to grab it, but you stare at me, petrified. So I walk over to you and whisper the joke one more time. You manage to squeak out the first line of the joke and the room goes silent, listening.
“Yoo-hoo, big summer blowout!”
At first I thought no one heard the punch line. The entire gym was still. Not even the teacher laughed. After a few seconds a little boy goes, “That was it?” You were horrified and wouldn’t look me in the eye as you sat back down and watched the rest of the performances.
As if you didn’t have enough trouble making friends in your class. You’d probably never tell a joke again. Knock-knock jokes would make you uncomfortable for the rest of your life. Shame followed me all the way out of your classroom and through the following four years of my life.
Making a fool of myself in front of strangers has been a staple of my childhood. Somewhere in my life I was taught it was good to make others laugh, while you had been taught to stay silent. You were silly and loud at your birthday party, so why didn’t your personality transfer over to the playground?
I haven’t seen you since I left for college. Now I babysit for kids who live in big houses in El Segundo or Marina del Rey, and I find myself thinking back to the days of 100˚ birthday parties at the water park. I hope that if I were to see you today, you’d remember me (but not the knock-knock joke disaster). I hope that you’d understand why I wanted you to tell that joke, why I wanted so much for you, and most of all, I hope you’d realize how much people value every word you say. No matter how out of place you feel, I’m always rooting for you.
Update: Since writing this letter, Maddy reached out to Taylor's mom. Turns out, Taylor is a pretty awesome 5th grader. She loves to sing and make art. She is learning to play the violin and wants to learn more instruments. Most importantly, Taylor is both kind and funny. Maddy and Taylor are reconnecting over text.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.