Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Redheads Unite!

Was it a redheaded crush by a cougar?

That was my first thought when my carrot-topped older son got out of the community center's outdoor pool way too early and started hanging around me. "What are you doing here?" I asked him. "We just got here."

Christopher answered that a girl was following him. "Don't tell Charlie [because his younger brother would tease him], but it's creepy," he said. Say WHAT? A girl following him? That hadn't happened since preschool -- actually, two preschools ago when we lived in another town, the town where this pool is located, as a matter of fact. A crush? Did a girl at this pool have a crush on my incoming third-grader? OMG. Was it starting already?

I asked Chris which girl was following him. He pointed to a girl standing on the deck near the deep end in a pink and white bikini. She had long, thick, curly red hair and looked like . . . a TEENAGER! She was with a couple of other girls doing age-appropriate things like falling into the deep end backwards and flipping their hair upside down then right side up.

The situation seemed strange, but I needed Chris to go back in the water because I had work to do on my iPad. I had driven thirty-seven minutes one way to get here. I wasn't about to let whatever this was ruin our visit. So I told Chris I would sit right next to the shallow end and watch.

The Jaws advertising slogan: "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water" ran through my head, and promptly I dismissed it.

"Go ahead, Christopher. It will be fine," I said, sending him toward the pool.

Sure enough, within a few minutes the girls spotted him across the pool and swam mostly underwater to him. This time the other, also bikini-clad, tallest girl took the lead. Chris noticed, I could tell watching from a distance, and tried to get away. As he swam toward the pool ladder, the second girl trailed behind by only a couple of feet. She even reached out her hand to TOUCH him as he ascended the ladder!

It WAS creepy.

What was going on? Was this some kind of dare? My son is big for his age. He could pass for eleven. However, these girls were surely in middle school -- around thirteen or fourteen was my guess. Chris hastily walked toward me then stepped behind a concrete post. I whipped my head around toward the pool in time to catch the girls pointing at the post and laughing! They'd seen him try to hide.

I needed to put an end to this. So I approached the girls in the pool and told them to please leave my son alone. Calling them on their behavior, I said they followed him across the pool, and when he got out they pointed at him, laughing. "He's just a young boy," I said, a tinge of anger in my voice, "much younger than you." They looked up at me sheepishly and said they were sorry.

I walked back to a picnic table under the large pavilion and sat down on the bench. Christopher, I noticed, had moved to a new hiding place behind a tree on the sloping lawn. I went over to him and told him he could go back into the water because I'd spoken to the girls. He said okay but didn't budge. I returned to my seat. Next I knew a woman relaxing in a lawn chair close to the tree started talking to my son. From my vantage point roughly twenty-five yards away, it looked like Christopher was tearfully telling her the story of the girls bothering him. So I walked back up the sloping lawn and, to my amazement, discovered that this woman was none other than the mother of the two redheads and responsible that day for the third girl, a friend, as well! What were the chances of that in a busy outdoor pool area?!

I was further surprised to have a very good conversation with this woman. The girls were just goofing around, she explained. I countered with the fact that my son is very sensitive and felt they were being mean to him. She rejected the notion that the "good girls" had engaged in any intentionally hurtful behavior. They were mindful of bullying as it was discussed often at school, she added. My son didn't know they were kidding around, I stated. How could he know? He is only eight and a half. She suggested that Christopher meet the girls. He was reluctant, but after a moment's hesitation I persuaded him to go with us. The woman called to the girls in the water, and we did introductions. She explained that Christopher didn't understand they were joking around. As I watched them, I could tell they seemed to get it that it was not okay for three older, larger girls to target one younger, smaller boy whom they had never met. While swimming behind Christopher, I learned, they had put their hands up behind their backs to mimic shark fins. I guess they wanted to try to scare him a little. In any event, they apologized a second time.

I thought it was over . . . happily resolved, which was shocking to me because the last two times I have had to deal with a mother in regard to her child's behavior the conversation has not gone well at all, and that is just about the Understatement of the Year! Mothers are fiercely protective of their children, so when they sense anyone questioning Junior or Susie they can lash out -- justifiably or not. Hence, I almost couldn't believe that this mother was actually RECEPTIVE to my take on the issue. We both agreed there had been a power imbalance that made the pool play unequal. It needed to stop, and Christopher needed to be reassured that the girls meant no ill will toward him.

But then something even more wonderful happened. The woman's oldest daughter, the one my son first pointed out to me, asked Christopher if he would like to play volleyball with them. Still feeling a bit hurt (and perhaps shy, too), he declined. So I encouraged him until he came around. Even without a net, he had a great time batting around a bright yellow volleyball with the girls. I watched him laughing and smiling from the pool deck.

I was so happy.

Next I noticed that a boy had joined them. I couldn't see his face from where I was standing, but immediately I thought of Joshua, Christopher's best friend from preschool five years ago when we lived in this town. His family belongs to this community center, and his mother even works on its staff. Christopher and Joshua were polar opposites: my son, all sensitive and cerebral, versus Joshua, tough and physical -- a lot like Charlie, come to think of it. One of my last memories before we moved to our present town was of Joshua standing on a table at Panera Bread. During the same meal, he stuck a toy school bus in Christopher's eye. The boys were three years old then.

Joshua was at the pool this day. I saw him walk in with his mother and sister. As he still lives in this town, he has other friends now, of course. He has seen Christopher a few times since we started going to this pool recently. The boys say hello, and they even played ping pong once. But they are by no means hanging out together. So my guess that the boy playing pool volleyball was Joshua was as much wishful thinking as anything else because I would like Christopher to reconnect with his former best friend. Despite the distance, I anticipate spending a fair amount of time at this community center. I enjoy swimming laps in the outdoor pool. I can get work done on my iPad while sitting inside the pavilion. And post-Labor Day, I will move my activities indoors to the center's other impressive pool and athletic facilities.

When it was time to leave that afternoon, I checked in with Christopher. "How did the volleyball with the girls go?"

"Good," he responded in typical, unemotional eight-year-old-male fashion.

"Who was that boy playing with you?" I asked.

"It was Joshua."

Just as it should be.

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