When I stopped by my daughters’ school to drop off birthday cupcakes (for J’s class) and doughnuts (for M’s), the principal spotted me and asked me into her office. She must have seen the look on my face–or perhaps she’s merely accustomed to people’s reactions to being called into the principal’s office–and set me at ease, saying, “I need to brag on M.”
“Did M tell you what happened last week?” she asked after we were seated.
“I don’t think so.” M told me a whole bunch of things that happened last week, but none of her stories featured anything principal-worthy.
The principal told me that one of her 4th graders, normally a sweet boy, has been acting up recently. In one incident, he sat next to M at lunch and asked her what happened to her face. M began to cry.
At this point in listening to the story, I began to cry too, which made the principal join in. It was a major tearfest.
Let me give you a little background.
These are my daughters. I don’t think it’s merely maternal pride that makes me think they’re both awfully pretty.
They are identical twins, but by developmental happenstance, M was born with a facial cleft (think cleft palate, but higher in her face and not affecting her palate), while J was not. M has been seeing a craniofacial specialist since birth. The appointments were every 3 months at first, then slowed to being yearly, and are now every two years. She hasn’t needed surgery, and there’s nothing wrong with the function of her nose. It just doesn’t have a defined tip. The cleft also causes her eyes to be wide set and has given her a widow’s peak hairline. All of it combines, in my mind, to give her an adorable anime/china doll look.
M’s doctor warned us that, even if there was no functional issue with her nose, kids get mean about appearance around age 7, and we could always opt to consider surgery if it was needed for M to have a healthy self-image. Honestly, I haven’t given surgery much thought. M is a well-adjusted kid. It’s not like M’s unusual look has never come up before. When kids have asked why she has a “funny nose,” I’ve responded by saying it’s so that we could tell her apart from her sister. When I overheard a little girl telling M that her nose was “too small,” I responded by focusing on its purpose. “Does it breathe?” Yes. “Does it smell?” Yes. “So is it too small to do its job?” No.
I’ve told M that she has the world’s most kissable nose, and she permits me 5 kisses exactly at bedtime on her “kissy nose.” A while ago, J told someone that a good way to tell her and M apart was her pointy nose, in contrast to M’s flat one. I considered freaking out and then realized that she wasn’t attaching a value judgment to one look over the other. Part of me worried, though, that having an identical twin will eventually add insult to injury. There will always be J there to show M what she would have looked like without the cleft. It’s never come up, though. I hope it never does. It helps that, while my girls value the twin relationship, they also relish being individuals and having some differences from one another.
Let’s return to the principal’s office, shall we? As you may recall, there was crying.
The 4th grader had been mean, and M had cried. It took a while for him to admit that he’d acted wrongly and with intent to hurt, so by the time he was ready to deliver a real apology, M was back in her 2nd grade class. She was called out into the hallway, and he apologized.
“It’s okay,” she told him. “You already said sorry, and I forgave you. People say that stuff to me all the time. It’s fine.”
Just to keep the tearfest going, the little boy began to cry. He was ashamed.
“It’s not fine,” the principal told her. “You’re a beautiful girl, and it’s not okay that people say mean things.”
“But I forgive them,” said my amazing, extraordinary child. “I love this school!” And she skipped back to class.
Tonight, at dinner, J was distracted by her dessert, so I took the opportunity to talk to M about this whole thing. “I heard you were extremely forgiving at school. [Your principal] was pretty proud of you.”
“Wanna tell me about it?”
She told me essentially the same story I’d heard in the office. I reiterated what the principal had said, that she didn’t need to just accept people’s cruel words.
“But Mommy, it’s okay. They can say what they want. It’s my job to forgive. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why they would want to be mean about what makes me special. My kissy nose makes me special. What’s wrong about that? I don’t know why it’s like this, but it makes me special.”
There was nothing wrong with that, I told her, and by a major act of self control, kept the tears in this time. Would she like to know why her nose was special? She did want to know, so I explained in very simple, objective terms the nature of her cleft. I also pointed out that it was responsible for her widow’s peak, which she calls her “heart hair,” since it helps give her a heart-shaped face.
“I love my heart hair!” she said. “That is part of what makes me special too.”
She went on to tell me that her teacher had told her about being teased as a child for not speaking good English. Her sister’s teacher told her about being teased for having a big nose. I added my own story. I told her my tale of being teased for my eczema. I told her that I’d never realized I was pretty until I was 18.
She gasped. “But Mommy, you’re beautiful.”
“So are you, baby girl. I’m so glad you already know it.”
“Me too. I’ve known ever since Nicole told me I was beautiful when I was very small. That’s why she’s such a good friend,” she said.
There was nothing more to say.