A Resilient Character Teaches Her Author how to Bounce Back
I didn’t catch on—not at first. Not even after most of the girls had run off the field, smiles wreathing their faces. I waited patiently in the parking lot for my daughter, Lulu. It was Monday, the first day of her ninth grade year, and the third, and final day of field hockey tryouts.
I blithely chatted with my dear friend Sally as we waited for our daughters to come sprinting up to us and wrap us in sweaty hugs, as they had done in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. One after the other, Lulu’s friends and acquaintances came off the field, got a hug, and climbed into cars. Not Lulu. Not Laura.
I still didn’t get it.
Finally, Hannah, a senior girl on the team, came up the embankment.
“Lu needs you,” she said.
Then, I knew.
I ran down the embankment and saw Lu holding onto the metal fence, her back to me. Her best friend Laura’s arms were wrapped around her waist. When I finally reached Lu, she turned, her face wet with tears.
“I didn’t make the team, Mom,” she said, her voice cracking. I held her in my arms while she cried, and then we trudged back up the hill. Laura had made the team; her tears were a pal’s empathy.
Here’s the part that’s hard to admit: the very next day Lu had bounced back, but I was barely holding it together. She had a plan in place: She was going to try out for the cross-country team with her friend Maddie. As soon as she walked out the door with a jaunty backward wave, the tears I’d kept close to my chest like a bad poker hand spilled out. I cried so hard, my eyes swelled up. It wasn’t pretty crying. It wasn’t delicate. I was howling! Who had tried out? Sally and me? Or Lulu and Laura?
Three weeks later, I think back to my emotional collapse. My tears seem like hypocrisy in action. After all, wasn’t I the same person who had hugged my daughter and told her it would be okay, that she would get through this disappointment? Wasn’t I the very same person who had gone through countless rejections myself?
And…was I not the writer who had just created a character, Lola Zuckerman, a second-grade girl who has to learn to make the best of going last? When all her ideas are taken by the time her teacher gets to her, does Lola lie down on the guest bed and bawl her eyes out? (No, she does not).
Does she wonder if she’s a good person when her best friend Amanda Anderson chooses another playmate on the playground? (Nope!)
Does she think about all the things she could have done, the advice she could have doled out, the field hockey lessons she might have signed up for? (No way!)
Second-grade readers would not put up with a character like that, I’m guessing. They wouldn’t want to read about a kid who felt so sorry for herself. They’d scorn a kid who pouted when things didn’t work out. They sure as heck wouldn’t want to read about the girl’s mom, wailing hysterically at her daughter being cut from a team.
Who do kids want to read about? Here, I’m guessing again, but hoping I’m right: they want to see someone like themselves. Even if their name doesn’t begin with “Z,” chances are at least once in their lives they have felt “last.”
They have been in her shoes: a kid who has to come up with a new idea when all the other ideas are taken. A kid who doesn’t always get what she wants.
In my story, Lola wins her going green contest. But she discovers that her idea isn’t the only good one. Maybe somebody else-even her former BFF Amanda Anderson—has an equally good idea, too. In second grade, it’s possible to share the big prize.
In ninth grade field hockey, not so much.
It leads me to think: my character has something to teach me. Something about resilience and good humor in the face of adversity. Generosity of spirit towards others—even the ones who are stronger, faster, greener.
When I first wrote my Lola story, my own daughter was in second grade. I witnessed first hand a girl who could spring from setbacks like a slinky dink.
With the book on the shelf, and my daughter running past the field hockey team, I remember. Rejoice! Revive.
Resilience. We don’t teach them it. They teach us.