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Dana Talusani Headshot

The Trouble with Ivan

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LITTLE BOY AND GIRL
Jessica Peterson via Getty Images

My younger daughter has a best friend at school.

This is nothing short of a miracle.

You see, little Miss M. has never had a best friend. She's spent eight long years waiting for one, hoping to find that one person she clicks with, but it's never happened for her. It's been breaking my heart for God knows how long.

Her older sister has friends galore and has always had a BFF, if not five, but not Miss M. In fact, last year, her grandmother asked her who her best friend at school was, and Miss M. said matter-of-factly, "I don't have best friends."

But at long last, she has one.

His name is Ivan.*

Yeah, her BFF is a boy. I didn't see that one coming, but heck, I'm all for it. Girls tend to be nastier companions anyways, all ruffles and fangs, so a boy BFF is jack-dandy by me. And this boy happens to think all things Pokemon are awesome, so he's a great fit for Miss M. in that respect. Those two little dorklets can talk Pokemon all day.

I am so thrilled for my daughter.

Except for one little problem.

Okay, I lied. It's kind of a big problem.

Thing is, nobody else in Miss M.'s class likes Ivan.

Seriously.

I volunteer in the classroom; I know this. I've spied with my little eyes.

And I'm ashamed to admit it, but deep down, this bothers me.

Let me tell you about the first time I met Ivan.

When I volunteer, I usually get spelling tutorial duty. I sit at a table outside the classroom and the kids come out, one-by-one, to work on the spelling words they're struggling with. I quiz them, and if they get a word wrong, I gently correct them or nudge them in the right direction. It's strictly just practice, not a test.

The first time Ivan came to my table, he plopped himself in the seat across from me and then refused eye contact.

"Hey, Ivan," I said brightly. "I'm Miss M.'s mommy. It's nice to meet you."

A grunt.

"Sooo... are you ready to work on some spelling? We're doing words that start with the letter "r" this week, right?"

"No."

"No? We're not doing "r" words? Huh. I thought we were."

"I mean, NO, I'm not doing spelling."

I looked at him, startled. He scowled, arms crossed in front of his chest. It was only then he looked me directly in the eye, and I got it. Gauntlet thrown.

"Ivan, it's not a test," I cajoled. "It's just practice. I promise that nothing bad happens if you miss a word on the list. Honest."

"I'm not doing it."

"Well... gosh, Ivan, I sure wish you would," I said, smiling so hard it hurt. "It's only for a few minutes?" Extortion via 8-year-old. "It would really help me out if you would," I said. "Because that's my job today. Spelling. And what will Mrs. ______ think if I don't do my job?"

He shrugged in a manner that clearly said, "Not my problem, lady."

I looked down at the volunteer roster, and sure enough, there were several notations by Ivan's name by other volunteers. "Refused to participate." "Would not work on words today." "Got kind of combative."

It's my first day volunteering and I'm in a battle of wills with a second grader.

"Listen. Ivan." I leaned over the table, talking sotto voce, hoping to disarm him. "How about we just do a few of the words? Not all of them. Just a couple."

Scowl.

"Three? How about three? Whadda ya say, Ivan-my-man? Three?"

Ivan let out an exaggerated sigh and rolled his eyes, obviously tired of this dialogue. "Three."

So we did three, and he wasn't happy about it, but he did it and I felt somewhat triumphant because I got the stubborn pain-in-the-butt kid to cooperate.

I was able to write in the volunteer log: Refused at first, but agreed to work on "rough," "route" and "ready."

Tough cookie, that Ivan.

Ivan doesn't much care about pleasing adults. He doesn't much care for school. He isn't big on following the rules. He is often sullen or irritable when interacting with others. He doesn't respect personal space and he's easily frustrated and when he's frustrated, Ivan acts out and throws things.

Ivan is on a special behavior plan at school.

So imagine what went through my head in December, when Miss M. began telling me that she was spending recess playing with Ivan. That Ivan was really smart about Pokemon and wanted to come over for a playdate sometime. That she sat with Ivan at lunch, just the two of them.

Let's just say that I was... happy... with some powerful reservations.

I spoke with M.'s teacher about it at conferences.

"She really has a special relationship with Ivan," Mrs. ___ said.

"I know," I said. "I mean, I'm glad M. has a friend at school, but.. .it's kind of an... unlikely pairing, don't you think?"

"It is," Mrs. ___ said. "When you think of M., who is a stickler for following the rules and is enthusiastic about learning and just sweet as can be..." she laughed.

I didn't laugh. "Maybe because they share interests?" I ventured. "They both like Pokemon and Adventure Time and drawing and Minecraft..."

We just looked at each other and shook our heads. It's a mystery.

"You know," Mrs. ___ said, leaning in closely, "I think M. just somehow knew that Ivan needed some help."

I hear that and crack open in all directions.

Great. My kid's a budding Mother Teresa, intent on saving the lost and the weak and the wounded.

That's not what I want her to look for in a friend. Not at all.

But here's the thing that I need to remember.

Even if the other kids don't like Ivan, my daughter does. I've been watching when I volunteer, and she's good for him. He seems calmer, more agreeable, less volatile. He's been showing improvement with his behavior plan. He is still one odd bird, let me tell you, but he's finding his way.

Little Miss M. has a best friend.

And when I'm honest about it, it wasn't just Ivan who needed some help. My daughter did, too.

As I write this, we are expecting Ivan over for their first weekend playdate.

Miss M. has been buzzing with excitement all morning, planning things for them to play together. As the time of his arrival draws near, she begins pacing the hallways.

"Hey mom," she says. "Can I tell you something?"

"Sure, baby," I say, cutting carrots into thin sticks.

"I'm excited but I'm kind of nervous inside."

You and me both, baby. You and me both.

*names have been changed