God is with us! Fear not!
Today was the opening day for Vacation Bible School here in our parish. It’s been seven years since I helped in VBS, my last time being the second and last year our son Nate participated. Emily, our daughter, has not experienced this whole VBS venture and has looked forward to the week since the first announcement from the pulpit.
Fear Not! I am not afraid of the experience like I had the first year Nate attended. That year, I was checking in on the snack program, making sure that Nate had alternatives; educating the kitchen staff about the barley malt in Kellogg’s rice crispies; checking that no wheat flour play dough was in his craft area; and then sticking close by, as he was still having bladder control issues about 20 minutes after eating and usually needed to visit the restroom frequently for the next hour. (Later we learned that it was corn intolerance that created the frequency of bathroom trips.)
Still, I wanted Nate to experience VBS as I had loved it 20 years earlier; a fun summer week of songs, puppet shows, bible stories, and popsicle stick crafts. For Nate, he loved the whole week. He met a friend that has become best buddies for nine years. He still points out his VBS teacher at church. And he remembers getting to eat gummy worms instead of gold fish after a bible story; everyone else ate the fish caught by the disciple fishermen, and Nate ate the worms used to catch the fish. (Didn’t they use a net? Never mind, Nate believed it, and felt part of the whole experience.)
Our second year, I was a veteran VBS mom. Nate no longer had bladder control issues. Nate’s best friend’s mother was a snack mom and made sure to create identical snack plates out of gluten free items. Little did I realize as I crewed my own team of VBS children, that Nate’s team held a verbal bully of unknown restraints. This boy, J.R., was a tyrant at the parochial school and arrived in the latest baggy shorts, oversized VBS t-shirt, and Converse skater shoes. J.R. would have been an increased terror if his body was as big as his ego, but as it was, he was the smallest in his class, and probably the brunt of much pestering through the year.
J.R. found Nate’s weak point, Nate’s concern that his food was similar to everyone else’s. I may have created this sensitivity in Nate. I had read all the books on special diets, learned all the tricks to make sure that food was not an issue, and had created an oversensitivity to differences. Then again, according to all of the resources, whether it is allergies, diabetes, or celiac, kids know when they are different and its not by their choice.
On the first day, J.R. pointed out that Nate’s cookies were not the same chocolate chip cookies. They were the same size. The same number. Store bought. But, being Pamela’s Chocolate Chunk, the chips were square not round. J.R. announced to everyone that they must taste gross to have square chips. Nate’s friends could care less, cookies taste good no matter what. At home, we talked over ways to redirect the friendship, and headed back for a second day with high hopes it would all blow over.
Day two, everywhere Nate traveled with his group, the insecure J.R. made sure to whisper or proclaim to the group, that Nate’s pretzels for snack were weird, only weird kids would eat weird food. I can only wonder and empathize with J.R.’s mother, over the cruel things that must be presented to J.R., so much anger and revenge stored up and blasting out of this young child.
Day three. Nate did not even make it to snack. I was called from music to meet him on the playground. Coming out of the school, I could hear the taunting voice of J.R. chanting something about “Weird kids, eat weird food.” Nate wanted to just go home. He was tired of the whole ordeal.
My options, switching Nate to another group, which would reinforce the bully. Secondly, spending some time providing an educational opportunity for the whole group. Third, gaining support from the VBS leadership committee for redirecting the situation. Looking at Nate, he was emotionally tired. His crew leaders said he had stood up and used good verbal comments to make friends or try to share why his food was different, but during this third morning, he had pulled in and was beginning to withdraw from all of the activities.
“What do you want Nate?”
“Can I just walk home?”
“Can I go to Auntie’s house?”
Thank goodness for cellphones. I whipped mine out, called my sister-in-law, and she willingly offered to meet us outside of the church. Auntie lived six houses from the church, and before she could leave her front porch, Nate had run to the corner and then looking both ways before stepping into the street, he waved to me, and skipped off to the safety of Auntie’s house.
Nate’s VBS experience did not need to be torturous. At the same time, I decided that some redirection, a little education, and some care needed to be spent with J.R. Here was a child that was screaming for some attention and found his means of venting by picking on what he perceived as a weaker link.
Without much commotion, the director made a team leader switch, and I became the leader of J.R.’s team. Without Nate present, J.R. quickly began sizing up who would be the next weak link and started pecking to find the soft vulnerable spots in his team. Over the next two days, J.R. and I spent many conversations, redirection moments, and lots of talking about “How’s school?”. J.R. has many food issues related to dairy and eggs, and has lived through his own torture of weird food, weird kid chants for his first two years of school.
I wish I could say that our two days changed J.R.’s self image or that he returned to school stronger and kinder. For Nate, his VBS experience was plenty for several years and he desired to avoid activities that crossed paths with this child.
As adults it seems like there are plenty of opportunities to pray for those enemies far away. As children, it’s the classmate or local neighborhood bullies, and they seem as big as giants; these are the ones that we parents need to model praying for. It’s a hard lesson. It’s the first moment of experiencing “walking in the shadow of darkness.” It’s really scary, but it is in this moment that we can teach what it means that we are not alone, for “thy rod and they staff they comfort me.”
So, entering VBS seven years later, I have a whole new attitude, and Nate, now having experienced many different “valleys of darkness” now has the skills (and the thicker skin) to deal with explaining about his “weird food.” Actually, he is quite proud of his special food, it often opens doors for him that provide larger portions or special treats from the snack moms.