The most interesting thing about today happened when I was sitting in my car waiting for Jack's preschool to get out. Molly and Emma and I had spent the whole morning running around town - delivering food to a new mom, mailing packages, trolling the mall for junk jewelry (priorities!) - and we were a bit early for preschool pick up, but not early enough to go home. So I parked, took Emma out of the car seat to feed her, gave Molly my phone and prepared to just sit for 15 or 20 minutes.
I'd noticed there were extra traffic cones set up in the parking lot (the morning drop off logistics are sort of nightmarish), but I easily maneuvered around them and I'd parked in an unusual spot for me - right in the middle of everything. So when a class of sixth or seventh graders started spilling out of one of the portables I had an excellent view.
They were accompanied by a dude I instantly recognized as the PE teacher, on account of him being the only Dude Teacher in the school. He's youngish, maybe my age, and on this cold misty day he was dressed like a True Seattleite, by which I mean he looked like a walking REI ad. He's also kind of cute and I imagine the middle school girls don't particularly mind going to PE.
Anyway, they all gathered in a spot directly in front of my car (but not so close that they noticed me) and I saw that the teacher had a stop watch. And yes, minutes later, half the group lined up on one of the painted parking lot lines. I heard the teacher say something about "seven times" and "let's DO this thing!" and then he exaggeratedly pressed the stop watch button.
And WHOOSH! Those kids took off like someone was running after them with a bat. A short skinny boy easily bust out of the pack and was practically done with the first lap by the time I realized they were running the mile. Maybe for that Presidential Fitness Test thing - do they still have that? He was bright red after the first lap, but didn't slow down. He slapped hands with most of the boys standing around in the second group and kept going.
There were a handful of boys and a few girls in a clump behind him. Then came the stragglers, the boys and girls who looked as though they might rather die, or at least be doing homework. At the very end of the pack was a Big Girl. You know the type. Heavier, taller than everyone else, but this girl was running. Like, actually running. Not shuffling along like some of the slackers in front of her, no, she was moving and huffing and trying. Really trying.
Pretty soon the short skinny boy lapped her and my heart started to ache. I kept an eye on her, craning my neck around the parking lot to see if she stopped. She didn't - at least not for the first two laps. She was incredibly slow, but she was working. I started to feel oddly proud of her, especially when I noticed the teacher slapping hands with the faster boys and shouting encouragement at them, but always in conversation with one of the kids on the sidelines when a slower kid passed through.
There was a girl with a clipboard watching the big girl, hollering at her. In a good way- the big girl had at least one cheerleader. The short skinny boy lapped her twice three times. He always held his fingers out when he crossed the starting line so I knew what lap he was on. The big girl was still dead last, but still powering through.
Every time she got close to the kids on the sidelines she started running full speed. I wanted to pull her over and be all, "HEY. Here are the things I've learned about running. Number One: PACE YOURSELF.
The short skinny boy finished his seven laps and threw himself dramatically against the side of the portable, sliding down against it and resting his head on his knees. A few other kids finished and my heart ached even more. I wasn't ever the biggest or most awkward girl in my grade, but I remember being the slowest - or at least feeling that way. The humiliations never end in middle school. IT GETS BETTER, 32-year-old me wanted to shout, the force of true empathy jolting me from my car and into the parking lot.
"Who's that old lady," the kids would ask themselves. "And why is she yelling at us?"
I was tensing up for big girl, prepared to think good thoughts for her position as the last one running in. I was so impressed with her, because she still tried to run where it seemed like a handful of kids had just given up and were strolling around the parking lot track talking to each other. Go big girl, go! I thought to myself...
...when she passed through the starting line and stopped, apparently finished. And I would bet barrels of money and my brand new couch that she wasn't.
I watched her for a little bit, walking it off, her hands on her hips. I watched the other kids shuffle across the line. I watched the teacher gather them all up, then send the second batch of kids to the line and press the stop watch button again. I passed in between as I went to fetch Jack from his classroom, not one of them paying the least bit of attention to the grown up with the little girl and the little baby and the worried frown.