Monday, September 26, 2011

Multiple Choice

Although many things have changed since I was in grade school, some things stand the test of time. One such phenomenon is the Scholastic Book order. (In fact, Scholastic has been around for about 90 years!) Even though the venerable educational publisher has expanded its offerings to include a variety of video games, electronics and accessories, it's nice to see the colorful Scholastic newsprint catalog still promotes good old-fashioned books. And it's equally nice that my son, Jack, is as excited as I was to bring home the latest flyer.
  Just as I did at his age, Jack pours over the catalog, circling the items on his wish list. Scholastic does offer quite a few items that—in my opinion—stretch the boundaries of the definition of "educational." (I mean, what exactly does the Hello Kitty Fall Fun Pack teach children?)So although I love being able to let Jack order a book—one, and one only—from the catalog, I draw the line at shelling out dough for anything that's clearly just a toy.
   On Thursday night, we sat down to look at the catalog together. Jack narrowed his selection to about a dozen books—and one cute puppy poster. When I quizzed my dog-averse son about his desire to purchase a puppy poster, he shrugged.
   "I want to order that for a, uh, my friend," Jack said, trying to sound nonchalant.
   "That's nice," I said.
   Jack often wants to buy video games and such for his buddy Colton, usually because he wants to play with them himself, but I thought it odd that he'd want to give an image of three little white puppies in a basket to his Medal of Honor playin' buddy. And then it hit me. He said the word friend with the same lilting inflection I use when I'm describing a guy who I hope might become more than a plutonic pal.
   The concept of having a girlfriend is not new to Jack. In first grade he took up with a darling girl, Meg*. For years they'd been playground compadres and quite loyal to each other. In fourth grade, a lot of kids were pairing up in an innocent way—at least I hope it's all innocent.
   "So, who's the poster for?" I asked, trying not to sound like a nosy Mom.
   "A girl in my classroom," replied Jack with a quiet grin.
    "Cool," I said. Meg wasn't in his classroom this year. "But what about Meg? Isn't she your "friend" anymore?"
    "No," Jack said, without a hint of sadness. "This is for Caroline*!"
     "So Caroline's your new girlfriend?"
    "Well, I'm going to give her a note to ask her if she likes me," said Jack. "I hope she checks "Yes."
    Jack took out some paper and a pink marker and proceeded to scrawl the note that would determine the nature of his friendship with Caroline. "Do you like me? Yes or No? Please circle one and return."
   Forty years ago, I sent and received notes at school just like this one. For all our technology and innovation, the handwritten note of affirmation still remains the gold standard for blossoming friendship and romance. I also recalled the feeling of disappointment when a note such as this one was returned with a negative response. How would Jack react if his request was denied?
   "Jack, what does it mean to like someone?"I asked.
   "It means that you're special friends."
   "And how is a special friend different than your other friends?"
   "It means you like each other and want to help each other, and you play together."
   "I think that's a great definition," I said. "What if Caroline says she doesn't like you, will you still be her friend and give her the poster?"
   "Yes," he said confidently.
   "You know you should never give someone a gift if you expect something—even a thank you—in return," I said. "You should only give for the pure joy of giving. Does that make sense?"
   "Sure," said Jack. "I know Caroline will like that poster. I want her to have it."
    We talked for a while about the nature of giving unconditionally and how it's important not to have expectations of others. Jack seemed to understand. At the end of our discussion, he filled in the Scholastic book order and gave me a dollar for Caroline's poster.
  The following day, Jack bounded into my apartment, grabbed his DSi and a juice pouch and settled in to conquer Pokemon Heart Gold Level 102. I had been thinking about his note to Caroline all day. Had she answered affirmative? Or kicked him to the curb? He seemed happy, but I didn't want to make too big of a deal about it, so I waited until after dinner to ask him the outcome. Jack was sprawled on the bed, contentedly pitting Pikachu against a Slyduck in battle. I brought a basket of warm, clean clothes into the bedroom and began to fold towels.
   "So, did you give Caroline your note?" I asked, trying to sound like I wasn't that interested.
    "Yep," said Jack without looking up from his game.
    "Did she say yes?"
    "She said she wanted to think about it for two weeks," Jack replied. His tone was very matter-of-fact, without a hint of disappointment or resentment.
   "Oh, that's cool," I said.
   "Yeah, she said she just wanted to think it over," Jack said.
   I thought about how I should respond. Perhaps this girl didn't want to be Jack's special friend, and this was a way to let him down easy. Or maybe she just wanted to think about her answer before making a commitment. Either way, she had given my son a mindful response.
   "Well, I think that's very smart to take her time to answer," I said. "I mean, a lot of girls might just jump right in and say yes, but she wants to get to know you. Sounds like she's being very mature."
   "I think she got held back a grade," Jack replied. "So she's older."
   "Caroline sounds like very nice girl," I said, smiling. "Two weeks isn't that long to wait for a nice girl."
   "Yeah, she is nice," Jack said. "And I don't mind waiting. I'd wait five years for her if that's what it took!"
    I shook my head, and began to sort the socks. Maybe these kids were onto something. If someone is worth a puppy poster, she's certainly worthy of a delayed response.

* Not her real name

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