Sweet Caroline burst into the house, crying as she ran over to me. Not a good sign, especially after just coming home from school.
Kneeling down, I gave a comforting hug and asked our sweet redhead what happened. My heart saddened as she wiped her tears, brushed her long hair away from her face and cried through her reply, “Papa, he said I can’t wear them. They’re boy shoes and I’m a girl.”
And so, it begins. Peer pressure and acceptance. The road to normal can be a long one and has only just begun for our little first grader. But for some, like Yours Truly, it has been a never-ending journey … that is until now.
I took the first steps of my journey down the road trying to be normal in third grade. And it was because of none other than Bradley McAllister, a.k.a. Down the Street Bully Brad. Walking into Old Mrs. Crabtree’s class for the first time, I paused at the front looking for the perfect seat: not on the front row, nor the back, but right in the middle of the room.
That’s when I heard Bully Brad laughing, “Look at the new kid with the funny haircut.” As muffled laughter from the other kids rippled through the room, Mrs. Crabtree called for quiet and scolded Bully Brad, but the damage had already been done. That night I pleaded with Mom to take me to a “real” barber and never let Dad cut my hair again.
In fifth grade, the popular pants were embroidered blue jeans, and of course, my brothers and me didn’t have any. Dad said they were a waste of money. Still, by saving my lunch money for a month, I was able to pay a girl in our class to embroider a pair with butterflies and flowers. Kids made fun of them, and me, the first and only day I wore them. For years they hung in my closet as a colorful reminder of how hard it was for me to fit in.
High school came and so did the worst case of acne anyone had ever seen on a kid. For years, Bully Brad made fun of my face, spewing insults when we passed in the hallways. With each comment, any sense of normalcy for me seemed to move further and further away from my grasp.
Trying to be normal continued with which major to choose in college, what profession to apply for, the type of car to drive and where to live. My travels down the road of trying to be normal, trying to fit in, seemed as if they would never end — until a comment from our little redhead last week.
As she struggled to understand why that boy thought she couldn’t wear her T-Rex dinosaur shoes with the menacing red eyes on the sides, I hugged her and explained. “Sweet Caroline, everybody is different. If we were all the same, it would make for one boring world. I’ll lay out three kinds of shoes in the morning — you can wear anything you want.”
The next morning when we arrived at her school, she immediately jumped out of the car. I watched and smiled as a pair of T-Rex dinosaur shoes with a red-headed girl attached skipped through the door and down the hallway.
Each morning we lay out three kinds of shoes, and each day Sweet Caroline chooses which to wear. It’s been a couple of days since the T-Rex’s have ventured out of the house, so I asked her why and then smiled at her reply. “We had PE on Monday, and I outran everyone. I’m letting them rest.”
That’s when I told her the story above and, when finished, she gave me the biggest hug ever. “Papa, I love your face.”
At that moment I realized I didn’t have to change a thing about me to be “normal” because, I have always been. Thanks, Sweet Caroline. And I hope you always remember, you don’t have to try to be “normal,” you’re already extraordinary.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]