When you spend your days with small children, you’re almost always looking for a reason to leave the house. To keep the peace, we go for a walk most afternoons when the weather is nice. Or, more accurately, I walk, while my two-year-old, Ellie, rides in her stroller and my five-year-old, Nathan, rides his scooter.
We don’t go far; just a mile or so down our road, around the track of the elementary school across the street, and back. That’s about all we can manage before Ellie is chafing at being restrained and Nathan is complaining about being hot and tired. Or cold and thirsty. There’s a lot of complaining, really, but somehow it’s made more endurable by the fresh air and inability to watch a clock refuse to progress forward toward 5:30 p.m.
On the corner of our street sits a house with two little girls. They are almost always outside playing at the same time we’re walking. At first, we’d just smile-and-wave as we walked past, but that quickly progressed to short conversations. They are always excited to share what they’re up to—searching for snails, digging for worms.
This particular afternoon was an especially nice one. It had been rainy and cool for the better part of the week, but that day it was sunny with just a hint of a breeze. As we rolled past the house on the corner, the younger of the two girls was crouched low in the grass, picking handfuls of white clover. By now I had learned that despite being younger, she was the duo’s leader—bolder and more vocal than her sister. She saw us approaching and waved her arm in greeting.
“I’m pickin’ flowers!” she called. “We’re gonna sell ’em.”
I hid my smile as I glanced down the street at yard after yard littered with the weeds she was so carefully picking. I knew our neighbors would likely pay good money to be rid of the lawn pests, but I didn’t tell her that. I simply nodded.
“It’s a beautiful day for selling flowers,” I said as we started across the street.
“Hey, wait!” she yelled to Nathan. She ran across the yard, one particularly large “flower” clinched in her fist. “I’ll give ya this one for free,” she said, thrusting it into his hand.
I watched as Nathan studied the gift. He thanked her and held it carefully as he pushed his scooter back across the street. It balanced gently between his thumb and forefinger as he gripped the handlebars.
“I gotta be careful, Mom,” he told me. “I don’t want to crush this beautiful flower. Especially when she gave it to me for free. Can you believe that?! Free!”
I didn’t point out that the entire route we would walk that day was littered with white clovers identical to the one he was clutching like a prized possession. Instead, I smiled once more and found myself longing for the days of childhood, where everything has value and nothing is worthless.
A few weeks later, we were walking again. It was a hotter day—more summer than spring—and so we were later than usual. We had waited until after dinner, which meant as we rounded the school’s playground it was unused by the after-care program. Instead, a small group of teenagers had taken up residence on the benches. The girls were lying in the last rays of sunlight, their long blonde hair nearly reaching the ground. A couple of boys played a languid game of basketball, casting glances toward those benches every so often to see if they had an audience.
As we ambled past, another boy rounded the corner of the school to retrieve his bike. I watched him walk swiftly, head down, as if trying not attract too much attention. I wondered why for a moment, when suddenly one of the lounging girls sat up straight, her hair whipping around her shoulder. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I heard her tone and the laughter that followed her words. I watched as the boy tucked his chin lower, rolled his shoulders forward protectively and hurried faster. Another derisive comment and another fit of laughter hit his back as he pushed off on his bike. When our paths crossed, our eyes met briefly. I saw a resigned sort of pain there. He was used to this.
My heart lurched for him. I wanted to launch into the “it gets better” speech that grownups love to lob at teenagers. I wanted to tell him that what that girl said didn’t matter; that 10 years from now he’d probably be wildly successful, while she’d be the girl who peaked in high school.
But then I remembered that it did. In that moment, to that boy, it mattered a great deal. I wanted to tell him her words were worthless, but I could see what they were costing him. I winced with the fleeting memory of the insults hurled at me, by a boy with the exact same laugh as that girl, in a different setting in a different millennia. Yes, I knew well the price he was paying—the cost of not fitting in.
So instead, I said nothing. I nodded to him with a look of solidarity in my eyes, then turned my attention to the children as we headed down the steep hill of the school’s drive. As we turned to follow the sidewalk home, I saw the patchwork of white clover that stretched across the field, and my heart ached with the memory of adolescence, when all the wrong things are valued and the most important are held worthless.