“There isn’t an adult who hasn’t experienced heartbreak.” I was talking with one of my young students as he sat in my office, eyes red-rimmed, mashing Cleo to his chest like a talisman against further pain. She was being uncharacteristically calm about his too-tight grip. She lay supine, cradled in his arms, her back legs extended, toes pointing to the window, her neck craning, chin hooked over his upper arm, ears dangling. From time to time, she bounced up and down as the boy tried to wipe his eyes or nose on his unoccupied shoulder without letting go of the (miraculously) sleeping dog.
“Thanks,” he replied glumly, more as an acknowledgement of my attempt to be kind than with any sense of belief in what I’d said. Who can tell a fourteen-year-old boy experiencing his first break-up that his exquisite heartache is anything but unique, the worst of all time, one for the ages? After all, she was the one. He had planned to travel the world with her, living a blissful existence in her presence every minute of every day. Now, all he wanted to do was find a way to get her back. If only he could find the right words, make the right gesture, she would see that they were meant for each other.
And all I wanted to do was find the balm to heal this tender heart, knowing full well that this would be a betrayal of everything I believe about working with adolescents. Not only can we not take away the pain, it’s disrespectful even to try.
When I was much younger, going through my divorce, my oldest sister confessed to me that she was pretty sure my marriage wouldn’t last.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” I wailed across the phone lines.
“Because that was something you had to find out for yourself,” she replied. “All I could do was be there to help you pick up the pieces.” And she was. Had she tried to stop me from marrying my first husband, a perfectly nice man who was entirely unsuited to my temperament, I would have felt angry and resentful, then gone ahead and done exactly what I wanted. Later, when divorce became inevitable, I doubt I would have been able to lean on her as I did.
Every heart break, every wrong choice, every right choice that ends badly, teaches us so much about love. If I hadn’t pursued that dark-eyed and mysterious (read cold and distant) actor in college, would I appreciate the active communication John and I have every day? If that boy in seventh grade hadn’t rolled his eyes when I confessed to liking him, would I care as much about people’s feelings now? Okay, probably; he was just a jerk. Cute, but a jerk. Then again, he’s probably learned a thing or two in the ensuing forty plus years, too.
Some of the hardest conversations I have are the ones when I try to encourage parents to let their children deal with an upheaval on their own. Stand in support, yes. Advise, absolutely. But don’t try to fix it. When you let your child work through the challenge, you’re teaching resilience. Problem solving. Tenacity. Self-determination. And you’re showing that you trust your child to find a way through.
I was reminded of a student the other day. This guy was one of the nicest kids in the world, hugely popular with his classmates, a bit of a class clown, but not a mean bone in his body. A sharply honed academic he was not. He fought for his Cs and occasional C-minuses. The faculty knew this fellow was going to be one of those people who would never set the world on fire intellectually, but who would be immensely successful because he had so much social intelligence. He would be the guy who raised millions for the nonprofit he worked for because he could convey his belief in the organization with such charm and conviction that folks would rush to open their checkbooks. Or he would be the connector who introduced two people who subsequently changed the world with their partnership. Unfortunately, this student’s father was not as convinced of his son’s potential as we were. Dad had been number one in his class at an Ivy League school, and that was the only definition of success that he understood. If his son earned a C on a test, Dad was in the Head’s office, complaining that the teacher obviously didn’t like him. If the boy’s low grades kept him out of the play, Dad met with the director—oh, the rule was fine for other students, just not for his son.
Towards the end of his freshman year, I heard that the student was about to complete his Eagle Scout project. “Wow!” I exclaimed to the teacher who was telling me about it. “He’s only a freshman and he’s already becoming an Eagle Scout? That’s really impressive!”
“Not really,” said the teacher, shrugging. “His dad did it all for him.”
As much as I wanted, and still want, to take away my heartbroken student’s pain, to tell him that his dream girl will see the light and take him back, I know she won’t. He may always love her, but more likely, he’ll always remember the things about her that made him feel good, and when he meets someone who lightens his heart in the same way, he’ll treasure her.
In the meantime, the best thing he can do is to hang onto a sleeping puppy and let her soft grey fur soak up some tears.
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