Earlier this afternoon around 3:30pm as all of our daily classes were letting out and teachers and students were heading home, our 12-year-old daughter Gleny approached me with a rather solemn countenance and responded to my hug with sagging shoulders: “Mom, can I talk to you in private about something that happened today?”
I breathed deeply, as I was sure whatever news she was going to share with me wasn’t positive. A key that my husband and I are learning as we share our lives alongside of very broken and hurting people is how to actively and sacrificially love them without getting ‘infected’ by their sin, pessimism, complaints, etc. Centering myself before God’s presence, asking for His unfailing peace and joy even in the midst of whatever she was about to share, I answered cheerfully, “Sure. Just let me go grab my things.”
I headed to our dining room to grab my keys and teaching supplies, as I had just finished leading a dynamic homeschool-style support class for a group of 12 of our students who come from more marginalized backgrounds whom I meet with every Tuesday afternoon. We had read together several chapters of the book of John; we had done several silly, team-building activities out on the lawn; I had shared a snack and story-time with them; we finished with an open-ended art project using oil pastels. It had been a blessed time as both I and my students weekly look forward to our time together, and I immediately rejected the thought that Gleny’s Debby-downer attitude would put a damper on all the positive work that God had done that day.
As Gleny and I passed into the bedroom my husband and I share, I breathed deeply again, and internally braced myself for anything. In these Mom-can-I-talk-with-you-in-private chats that we’ve had on numerous occasions with all of our kids, the spectrum of topics that they approach us about ranges from entirely innocent to utterly tragic. Just the night prior we had had several of these types of conversations back-to-back with our teen girls as a couple startling situations were brought into the light and carefully dealt with.
I sat on the floor, waiting for her to join me. From her dull countenance came the words: “Can I close the door?”
“Of course.” Okay. I breathed even deeper. Whatever she was about to share was gonna be really private.
She stood several feet from me, refusing to sit down. She began defensively: “Something happened that I really didn’t like.”
Of course. I nodded and allowed her to continue. “Today in agriculture class Brayan was bothering me, saying that I like this certain boy.”
I thanked God in my heart that this was the ‘big deal.’ This sort of ‘bad day’ we can deal with without much sweat; it is much more taxing when our kids come to us to share inside knowledge of a robbery, group lie or scandal, etc, that other siblings have participated in.
Brayan, our 15-year-old son who is a bit immature for his age, had pushed Gleny’s buttons. That I could deal with easy enough. Thank you, God.
She continued, very upset and close to tears. “I mean, several of my classmates bother me about this, saying that I like this boy. And I don’t! I just…I just wanted to grab a rock and throw it at him, but I decided not to…”
I spoke up for the first time, wanting to show her that I was with and for her: “I’m so glad you didn’t. That’s great self-control, sweetheart.”
She nearly cut me off as she apparently had not finished her statement, “…because I didn’t want the rock to hit the teacher.”
I bit my lip and tried not to laugh, “Oh.”
That led to a nearly hour-long conversation between my Wild Gleny and me as I gave her my honest perspective: I could and would talk with Brayan about not teasing her, but even so that would not guarantee that he (and not to mention all the other students who don’t live in our household) would entirely leave her alone forever. The task at hand was that of learning how to deal with jokes, teasing and bullying in a God-honoring, healthy way. After all, I reminded Gleny of something that she already knew: we cannot control others; we can only control ourselves. That is the power that God has given us and that we will ultimately have to give an account for.
Several minutes into our conversation she warmed up a bit and came and sat down on the tile floor next to me as I put my arm around her.
Gleny came to us as a scared, aggressive 9-year-old in a very tiny, malnourished body. Her previously toothy, wide-gapped smile has since grown into a beautiful, brilliant smile that can light up a whole room. She was the first of our kids to start calling me ‘Mom,’ and she accepted Jesus early on in her time in our household and was baptized publicly last year. God’s work in her life is clearly evident as her extreme outbursts and fits of rage used to occur several times daily, and God has since been softening her heart and teaching her how to love and respond peacefully. Even so, she still struggles mightily with jealously, with being one of the younger siblings, and with a general emotional immaturity that frequently leads her to react with tears or harsh words when she feels she’s in a tough situation.
And so I began giving her some great ideas. “Gleny, when Brayan – or whoever else – comes at you, taunting and embarrassing you by saying that you like a certain boy, the first thing you need to do is control your face.” I showed her a very happy, eyebrows-high face. She immediately covered her face and giggled. I looked ridiculous.
“If people tease you and your face immediately turns into the one that you were showing me when we first came in this room to talk, everyone will know that they can push your buttons. It’s too easy. People who are out to tease are looking for a reaction; they want to make you mad or sad. So don’t let them. You know that God desires us to be joyful and at peace all the time, so the task at hand is to not allow others to rob the joy that Christ gives you. Just because someone teases or pokes fun at you doesn’t mean that you have to fall into a well of sadness or suddenly get angry and start throwing rocks. God desires for your joy to be permanent, for the peace He gives us to be unwavering despite what other people may do or say.”
“So first, your face.” I again flashed an extremely happy, silly face at her, and we both laughed.
“Mom! Stop it! When you look like that it makes me laugh!”
“That’s the point. If you can show this face – “ and I did the really happy face again “ – to those who are trying to push your buttons, by the end of it both you and them are gonna be laughing. But if you show the sad or mad face, they’ll keep going because they’ll know they’ve got you. You’ve lost your peace and joy.”
I kept going. “And that’s like a shield that God gives you – the shield of faith, to protect the joy and peace that He’s put in us. Don’t let people come and take it away from you.”
“Then, with the face, you say something really upbeat like ‘God bless you!’ or ‘Hey, I sure do like you, bro!’ or ‘You’re too funny!’ and then you leave. If the person follows you to try to push your buttons again, you just give another big, happy face and another loving, neutral comment and you walk away again. If you’re still really upset on the inside, then you pray and ask God to protect and restore His peace in your heart.”
I leaned even closer and arched my eyebrows in a juicy secret-telling kind of way. “You wanna know what, Gleny?”
She smiled big, eyes trained on mine, ready for whatever I was about to say.
“I know this works because I do it all the time with you kids.”
She perked up and gasped slightly. “That’s right! You do it a lot with Gaby!”
I nodded and added, “I sure do. And with you. You remember yesterday when you got really mad at me when I asked you to wash your blanket, and I showed you my happy face, gave you a loving comment and left the scene until you calmed down and were ready to talk peacefully?”
The light of understanding dawned across her face. Man, this stuff really does work! This must be Mom’s secret ingredient to not losing her mind in the midst of the daily battlefield.
Minutes later she and I were off hand-in-hand to the kitchen to eat some dinner. We both entered the dining room laughing amongst ourselves as I continued to encourage her to ‘practice the face’ and to have her peaceful, loving one-liners ready for the next time someone insults her. Three of our other daughters – who were busy preparing a cake to take to one of their classes the next day – stared at us oddly, as it was clear to everyone that Gleny and I had some great new inside joke.
A couple minutes passed when Gleny casually mentioned to no one in particular that she was going to begin taking one of the vitamins on our shelf to help with a small eye irritation she was experiencing. This was not a big piece of news to any of us, as we’ve all taken that vitamin from time to time for different minor health issues, so no one said anything. Gleny grabbed the little plastic bottle and turned her back to everyone as she bent over to put it in the fridge.
Standing a few feet away from Gleny, our backs toward one another and several of our other teen girls present, I said very nonchalantly, with only a slight tinge of naughty attitude, “Only fools take that vitamin.”
Suddenly several pairs of eyes were drilling me in shock, and more than one mouth was left dangling wide open. No one could understand why such a negative, critical comment would have come out of my mouth, as Darwin and I are very intentional about the way we speak to one another in our household.
Gleny did a 180 from where she stood bent-over near the fridge, her face displaying utter confusion, convinced she must have heard me wrong: “Wha–?!”
I winked at her and smiled, whispering, “The face. Give me a good face.”
After a couple more moments’ pause, she suddenly burst out in laughter, finally understanding what I was doing: I was training her in the safety of our own relationship how to react to insults with love and grace. I was waiting for her to give me a big, loving face and a positive comment. This training was proving harder for her than she had thought.
Moments later, as Gleny was serving her dinner, she grabbed a can of tuna from our pantry and began pouring a little bit on top of her rice and beans.
I glanced over at her and said with disgust, “Only crazy people eat tuna.”
She snapped her head up at me, eyes wide, and blurted immediately in her own defense, “…No!”
Her eyes searched mine, again not understanding why I had so openly sought to offend her, until she quickly realized that I had just done it again. She threw her head back and laughed out loud and she stomped her feet with glee. We were both rolling with laughter. I flashed her a delightful, slightly crazy face.
Our 13-year-old daughter Jackeline, who is very expressive and hysterical with her general expressions, furrowed her brow in an extreme way, glancing between Gleny and me, and said, “This strange mother-daughter interaction is really creeping me out.”
Our other girls just stared at me, not sure if they were allowed to laugh with us – what would they even be laughing at, anyway? – or if they should feel offended on behalf of Gleny. Afterall, everyone in our family knows not to go around bothering Gleny, because she’s really explosive and gets her feelings hurt really easily. Bad Mom!
Less than a minute later, as the other girls finished pouring the cake batter into the pan, someone mentioned that Jackeline had accidentally left the oven door open, and the cat had jumped in (the oven was not yet turned on). I glanced over and commented, “Oh, I bet it was Gleny who opened the oven. It was her fault.”
Gleny shot a surprised look over at me, her jaw dangling down around her ankles again, and gasped, “Why?!”
This time it only took her a split second to realize what I had done as she and I both burst out into laughter. She was not passing the tests I was sending her! She had yet to give me a happy face and a loving comment!
Jackeline stared at us strangely as she asked, “What on earth is going on between you two?”
Gleny and I just kept laughing hysterically and sending each other really big, happy faces from across the kitchen.
A couple minutes later 16-year-old Dayana, Gleny’s biological sister, began chit-chatting to me about something silly from one of her classes that day, and I gave her a warm hug and mentioned with a slightly negative tone, “Of course you would think that because you’re that weird girl’s older sister.”
Gleny’s eyes shot up to meet mine as she flashed me a huge – brilliant! – sincerely happy face and stuck out an enthusiastic finger: “That’s right!”
She was ready for it this time! She got it! She really got it!
She extended her hand to meet mine in a triumphant high-five as her joy jumped off her and onto everyone in the room, although only she and I knew what was really going on. I had insulted her – called her weird! – and she responded lovingly!
Things calmed down for a few minutes as everyone began eating their dinner until Jackeline came over and mixed the very little English she knows (as in, like one or two words) into an all-Spanish sentence to ask me a question about how long to bake the cake. (In our household we communicate with one another almost exclusively in Spanish although some of our older kids are in beginners-level English classes). Gleny approached me, impressed that Jackeline had tried to put into practice a little bit of English, and said, “Mom! Did you hear what Jackeline said?! She said the first word in English and the rest in Spanish!” I had not even noticed, but Gleny found it very funny.
I saw this as another open door, so I said, “At least she speaks better English than you do.”
Gleny gave me a beautiful, glowing face and smiled big, affirming: “That’s …okay!…that she speaks better English than I do!” Again she gave me a big high-five and an enthusiastic pat on the back. Good girl!
Jackeline just stared at us for a few moments and then rolled her eyes, not quite sure whether to believe the whole love-your-enemies and love-those-who-persecute-you drama that was being played out so vividly around her.
Several times throughout dinner I reached across the table and pulled a small strand of Gleny’s hair and poked annoyingly at her ribs. Each time she responded with a lovely, sincere face, a friendly pat on the shoulder and “Many blessings to you!”
About an hour or so later, the endorphins having died down after our riotous training session, Gleny approached me with a rather dull countenance. Oh, no. “Mom, I don’t want to be in violin anymore.”
I gave her a beautiful, loving, happy face and answered neutrally, “You are my favorite violinist, sweetheart.”
That was not the answer she was looking for. She became visibly agitated and entered into that blessed whine: “Mo-om! Please? Can I drop out of violin?”
Feeling her negativity being rather aggressively thrust onto me, I answered with a smile: “I love you, Gleny. You need to persevere with the violin; your dad and I have already talked with you about this. I’m gonna go take a shower now. Catcha later.”
As I began walking to our bathroom, distancing myself as much as possible from her bad attitude, I heard my name being hurled at my back: “Mo-om!”
At our family’s Sabbath Hour – all of our kids on the cusp of entering their rooms for the night – Gleny dramatically threw herself on me one more time, batting her eyes like an innocent little dove: “Mom! The violin! Please!”
I embraced her closely – fitting her perfectly under my armpit – as I gave her several little kisses on the forehead and affirmed, “You are absolutely the most precious violin player I’ve ever met. Good night.”
I began walking away as she threw herself at me, grabbing my arm in desperation. (I felt as though she would soon be grabbing my ankles as I dragged her across the floor towards my bedroom, but the situation thankfully did not come to that.) In need of loosening her from me, I said with a big, happy face, “Okay…your bedtime will be earlier tomorrow…”
And her eyes grew wide; she released me immediately and disappeared behind the curtain as she entered her bedroom on schedule.
And, about 10 minutes later, the miracle happened. As I sat peacefully at my laptop computer, curled up in a little nook in our bedroom as several candles let off a soft glow and pleasing scent, the fan producing a refreshing breeze as our entire home entered into its nightly rest, I heard a beautiful noise coming from the other end of our cinderblock home. It was a violin. Gleny was practicing.
Amen! Glory to God!