My husband and I did something last weekend that we almost never do. We went out to dinner and a movie. The movie was called “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and it wasn't very much like I expected. The trailers had all made it out to be a typical high school coming of age story and I thought seeing it would be good research for my book, but it was a lot darker and the stakes were higher than I anticipated. It made me worry about my sons growing up and everything that might happen to them when I'm not around. I'm stuck between two paralyzing fears; that my children will leave my home and be damaged, or that they will be damaged by never leaving home.
The movie also drove home to me that the name Charlie is cursed. Seriously. Can you think of a fictional Charlie who had a good life? Charlie Brown, the blockhead. I always wanted to be his mother because the thing he needed most was affirmation, and I have an unusual talent for that. Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon. He was given a fleeting brilliance and then had it all taken away. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ends well, thank goodness, after that poor boy had over a decade of extreme poverty. I've decided that Charlie needs to be a girl's name now because it needs a reinvention. I'm never watching a show with a main character named Charlie again.
We begin the movie with many references to Charlie having a mental breakdown and spending months in the psych ward of a hospital. No one says why, just infers that it happened. He's starting high school now and the only friend he makes on his first day is his English teacher Mr. Anderson, which Charlie himself says is pretty depressing. Charlie is smart and loves to read. He wants to be a writer. I'm really invested in the character at this point and he makes his first two friends. Both seniors, and step-siblings. Just when I'm thinking “Yay, friends!” the first big plot reveal about Charlie's breakdown. And it's awful. Without being specific, his pretty new senior friend finds out that Charlie doesn't have any friends at school and why, and they welcome him into their group.
Already this is playing on many of my mommy fears. What if my son makes friends and loses them? What if he doesn't have any close friends? I had a very lonely childhood and I made my first real friend my freshman year in college. Sadly, that isn't a hyperbole. It wasn't all awful and I have several good memories of being a kid, but the thing I remember most is being alone. I read a lot. I loved reading, and I'm sure no small part of my lack of friends was part of an unbroken cycle. I didn't have any friends to hang out with, so I read books. I was always reading books, so I didn't ever make friends.
But I don't want my sons to be like that. I want them to be happy and well adjusted and brilliant and popular but also humble and kind and coordinated and just everything. Every time one of my children is hurt I hurt with them, even though I know if I make a big deal out of it they will make a much bigger deal, and so I pretend it's fine until we both believe it. Sometimes I think parents need to step back and let other adults handle tough situations with their kids because parents have too much skin in the game. It matters too much to us so we can't be objective. Then they can't be objective. Then we end up screaming at each other about the stupidest small things because we both care so freaking much.
My kids aren't perfect. As with their talents and personalities, they each have their own unique challenges and flaws. But I cannot allow myself to get into the mind frame of trying to “fix” them. They aren't broken. I was listening to the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (which I've been wanting to do for years and now I'm doing it, but only in small chunks because the narrator is really dull). The author was talking about raising a younger son who was socially awkward and physically uncoordinated. To try and help they enrolled him in baseball and practiced with him. They'd get after the other kids for teasing him. They would try and encourage him and praise every little sign of improvement. But the son was getting more frustrated and pulling away from them.
What Mr. Covey realized was that he and his wife were coming at their son from the perspective of fixing him, which to that boy implied his parents believed he was broken. Who wouldn't pull away from that message? So the Coveys worked hard not only to accept their son as he was but to actively be proud of him. Not push him to the way they wanted him to be, but to love him as he was. The son was understandably hesitant to accept this new love, but eventually he blossomed and became confident and socially savvy. They gave him the chance to grow up his way, at his own pace, in his own time.
Reading that felt more like a relief than an admonition. My boys are not perfect and they lack some skills, but they are my boys and I get to love them. Yay! So even though I'll worry about them being lonely or not making friends, at least I am relieved of the burden of trying to fix them. I give them opportunities and nurture their interests and support them in their choices.
So Charlie gets friends, a whole group of seniors. Since Charlie is a freshman this presents a new level of difficulties. The seniors party and do things that are inappropriate, like alcohol and drug use and Charlie gets dragged along with them. Another mommy fear. What if my son has friends who are a bad influence on him? What do I do then? It's been a while since I was in high school and even then I went to high school in a small town with a very conservative population. Raising my kids in a large metropolitan area with a variety of cultures is awesome. And terrifying. They will be exposed to so many more things than I was. Yes, I do know that my oldest is currently eight and I'm worrying about what high school is going to be like for him already. Motherhood is love and fear, fear and love, remember?
I try not to pester the young women I work with about what high school is like for them. My curiosity burns bright, though. I want to know if any of them have ever been offered drugs, personally know any pregnant teenage girls, or been to a party where alcohol was served. Is high school here like it is on TV?
Teaching my sons correct principles and then allowing them to govern themselves is the right thing to do, but it's so hard! I want to protect them all their lives from every ache and bad choice. But that's the wrong plan. No baby learns to walk when they are carried everywhere. I want my children to grow up and be strong, confident people who will be an influence of good in this world. But why does that mean I have to let them go to high school?
Charlie falls in love with his pretty senior best friend Sam, played well by Emma Watson. I didn't think of Hermione once. The American accent helped with that, I'm sure. Her character is drawn to bad boys who treat her poorly, and the question that is asked twice in the movie, “Why do [we] constantly choose people who are bad for us?” is answered with “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
I loved that line both times. It is both poignant and tragic while managing to ring true and resonates with so many of us who have struggled with self-esteem. But the second time that line was spoken was just before the climax of the movie, the final twist where we discover the worst and most horrible secret of Charlie's past.
It's jarring and horrible and my heart ached and I felt sick. While the flashbacks aren't graphic (thankfully) the implication is clear. This poor Charlie was the most cursed of all. And it makes my chest hurt to think that we live in a world where these things happen. This is the worst part. The things I can't protect my children from that terrify me, because I can't be with them all the time. Kidnappers and car accidents and pedophiles and gangs and all the darkest parts of society that hide in shadows because they cannot abide the light. My preschool students believe that I would eat a lion before I'd let them be hurt, and they're not wrong. But it isn't the lions I'm afraid of, it's the jackals.
So I have to have faith. Faith that when I drop my sons off at school they will be there when I come to pick them up. Faith that there are more good people in the world than bad ones, and that my husband and I aren't standing alone against a legion of evil. Faith that my sons trust me and will tell me when they're in danger. Faith that the lessons we teach them are sinking in. Faith that just like when they were tiny and learning to walk, they'll get back up every time they fall down and try again.
Faith and my medication. Not sleeping can really make you crazy.