“I HAVE to love you, but I don’t HAVE to like you.”

I teach little people every day. Seven and eight year olds, to be precise. This year, I have one friend who can be particularly challenging. He is a boy on the spectrum, not in control of his emotions and easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli and frustrations.

He feels best right next to me. Getting one on one attention. Holding my hand. Hugging me. Being up in my bubble. Each day, I do these things for him because he is also a child of poverty and neglect and it is my job to love and take care of him while I have him.

The other day, we were walking together. He had been having a rough day, and his signal is yelling, “I hate (whatever is bothering him).” Often, it is me, or a friend, or school, or his mother. My response is typical–“I’m so sorry you are feeling that way right now.”

After having numerous breakdowns that day, he held my hand and calmed down as I led him on a walk. He squeezed my hand hard and asked me, “Do you like me or do you hate me?”

I looked this sweet boy in the eyes. He held my gaze for a second, and looked elsewhere, uncomfortable with direct eye contact, as I said to him, “I don’t hate you at all. I love you.” He took a deep breath and relaxed, ready to go back into the classroom.

For some reason, this question, asked so innocently, stirred some very strong emotions inside me.

Growing up, my mom was famous for yelling, “I HAVE to love you but I DON’T have to LIKE you.”

Can you imagine how very confusing a statement like this must be for a little person? It wasn’t until this moment that I think I really realized the full weight of such a statement.

I held a vulnerable, hurting little person by the hand. The power of my response swelled in my heart and poured into my soul.

With one sentence, I was able to calm a child. To make him feel loved. Worthy.

It is simultaneously easy to look at that hurting, vulnerable child and break him or her even further. It is so easy to sow a seed of doubt into the heart and soul of a young person.

As a young child, I did not believe that I was worthy of love. I believed that I simply HAD to be loved because that was what I was told. Like it was some kind of law that had to be followed, but not one that was necessarily followed out of an unconditional willingness.

And feeling likable?

I still struggle with this.

I have said, many times, that I feel inherently unlikable. I am awkward and truly believe that people do not WANT to be my friend. That they just have to put up with me. Sometimes, I believe that I have somehow gotten lucky and tricked the real friends I do have into liking me but that they only like me because they don’t know the real me.

Which is bullshit, thankfully.

I have three really great friends, and a handful of good ones. Those three though? They know it all. And they still like me.

I don’t understand it. But, I am starting to accept it.

Yet, the other day, as I looked this sweet boy in the eye, that sad, hurting little girl inside of ME cried out: “Do you like me or do you hate me?”

How different would I have been if I could have heard–“I love you!!” 

Just that. Simply that.

No conditions or strings. No one pointing out all of my imperfections or making me feel inferior?

Can you imagine?

Part of me simply cannot.

But the teacher in me can. And the teacher in me will make damn sure that I will tell each and every student who crosses the threshold of my classroom that they are strong, powerful, worthy and LOVED.

It might be the only place they ever hear it.


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