The One Thing We All Want to Know

I recently attended an informational meeting for fifth grade parents at the middle school my daughter will be attending this fall. After swallowing the lump in my throat caused by the undeniable reality of why I was sitting there, I settled in to absorb everything the staff had to offer about parenting a middle schooler. But within the first five minutes of the presentation, I got stuck. It was something the assistant principal said.

“You might think opening their locker or having seven teachers is the greatest worry for sixth graders on that first day of school—but it’s not. In general, their biggest source of angst is knowing how they’re getting home.”

The administrator proceeded to explain where bus routes could be accessed during the summer months, but I was only half listening. All I could think about was this:

They just want to know how they’re getting home.

My mind returned to one particularly trying day in my own middle school career. I’d forgone the city bus and made a long walk home, crying all the way. I’d gotten my first C, and I was devastated. When I got to the door, my grandma opened it. I’d forgotten she was spending the week with us. I quickly wiped my snotty face and forced a smile, but Grandma couldn’t be fooled.

“Rachel, what’s wrong?” she exclaimed. Despite the prominent wrinkles on my grandma’s heart-shaped face, I saw worry lines appear between her eyes.

“I got a C on my math test, Grandma,” I confessed between sobs.

Grandma immediately pulled me to her chest. Her shaky hands smoothed my hair lovingly. And then she said the words I needed to hear. “Rachel, no one is going to be mad at you. Your mama and daddy love you, no matter what.” And then she looked directly into my red, puffy face and said, “I love you.”

They just want to know how they’re getting home, the school administrator had said.

And I would add:

They just want to know there will be a welcoming smile and two open arms waiting for them, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what kind of day they’ve had.

After the parent meeting I picked up my almost middle schooler from swim team practice. She energetically jumped in the car and greeted me with a cheerful “hey Mom!”

It appeared that her earlier grouchiness had washed away with flip turns and dolphin kicks. And that is how it was lately. One minute she was impatient, exasperated, touchy, and annoyed. The next minute she was silly, tender, kind, and delightful. While on a recent family bike ride, she lowered her face while we waited on the traffic light to change. She didn’t have to say it, but I knew she was hoping no one from school would see her. At her age, I too was easily embarrassed, especially when it came to my family.

Yes, there was no denying that my child’s bright smile seemed to appear less frequently these days. She had new worries, new challenges, and new emotions accompanying her eleventh year growth. And this period of uncertainty reflected in her fluctuating smile.

“How was swim team, hon?” I asked. My daughter told me about a competition they had and something funny the coach said. In the rearview mirror I could see her looking pensively out the window, the ends of her wet hair starting to curl. Her beautiful face looked so fresh and hopeful. Suddenly she didn’t look so mature or so moody. Perhaps the words of the assistant principal had softened my heart. This child was a human being going through a period of change and uncertainty. She just wanted to know she was accepted and loved. I decided I could be a little more understanding … a little more assuring … a little more forgiving like my grandmother, even when (and especially when) my child’s smile was absent.

And then something unexpected happened. My mom called and I immediately noticed she sounded different. Something was wrong. “I’ve been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy,” Mom blurted out. She explained that the left side of her face had no feeling. Although it had only been an hour since she got home from the emergency room, Mom quickly realized the challenges she’d be facing until the paralysis subsided. She could not blink her left eye, and speaking and eating would be difficult. But my mother’s voice did not crack until she talked about stopping to get medication at the drug store. “I didn’t realize how often I smile at people until I couldn’t. I couldn’t smile when people smiled at me.” Of all the losses she suddenly faced, the loss of her smile was the one that made her cry.

Later that night I realized how my mother’s situation related to the assistant principal’s words and my own experience with my grandmother.

We just want to know how we’re getting home.

We just want to know there will be a welcoming smile and open arms waiting, no matter what we’ve done … no matter what kind of day we’ve had … and no matter how we look.

Since my mom lives 500 miles away, my daughters and I got right to work on a care package to lift her spirits. Inside a card I wrote some of the same words her mother told me the day I walked home worried about how I would be received:

I love you no matter what.
You are strong.
You will get through this.
I will support you and pray for you.
Your positivity comes from inside. Nothing can change that.

My daughter made soap using shea butter and coffee beans (her Grandma’s favorite) and wrote a card that said:

“However you may look or feel, know that you’re always beautiful and loved!”

As I handed the care package to the postal worker it was all I could do not get on that delivery truck so I could open my arms to my mom and let her know my love was unconditional, my embrace a safe haven.

That night I was feeling sad and worried. I offered to get my family ice cream sundaes knowing I could use a little time in the car with my music and my thoughts. I ended up crying the whole way, missing the support of my friends in my old city, missing my parents, and wishing I could be there to help them. I pulled up to the drive-thru window makeup-less and cheerless. But you wouldn’t have known it by the way the man with blue-rimmed glasses and rosy cheeks greeted me. I actually looked away in embarrassment. I looked so awful. I felt so empty. But he just kept beaming at me. He handed me my change, and also some hope. I came home and wrote the following passage—words inspired by three special people: a restaurant worker whose smile had healing powers, a fifth grader whose smile is erratic, and a 74 year old woman whose smile is gone for awhile.

Step Stool Smile

I reached for my icy treats and the cashier looked right at me and smiled warmly
Like sunshine warmly
Like Grandma’s arms warmly
Like soothing lullaby warmly
I looked away.
I didn’t want to be seen. I felt ugly. Unkempt. A mess of sorts.
But there he was, smiling at me. Looking right at me like I wasn’t ugly. Like I wasn’t a mess.

And for one brief moment I realized the ugliness I felt inside might not be apparent on the outside.
And for one brief moment I realized maybe I was being too hard on myself (again).
And for one brief moment I realized I didn’t have to hide.
I took that stranger’s smile so freely given to me and I used it as a step stool
To reach my own grace, my own courage, my own hope
That felt so far away.

Now here I am.
Some days, I am the smiler.
Some days, I am the one who wants to look away.

When I am the smiler, I smile warmly. Because the warm smile has the power to go down deep and shoo away the painful thoughts that make a good person want to hide.

And when I am the one who wants to look away, I don’t.
I take that warmth so freely given to me and I hold it to my face like sunshine,
Like my grandma’s arms,
Like a soothing lullaby
Bringing love to the hurting places in my soul I cannot reach today.

My mom has temporarily lost her smile due to a health condition. My daughter’s smile comes and goes due to adolescence. Mine is a little shaky these days—maybe yours is too. But all hope is not lost, my friends. In fact, there is great hope in these circumstances, and it is this:

Whether we wear a smile or not,
Whether we have our ducks in a row or they are running loose,
Whether we know what the future holds or have no clue,
Whether we are standing on solid ground or sinking sand,
We all share one commonality:
We just want to know how we’re getting home.

And we can get there, my friends. We can get there.
By loving each other with acceptance, grace, and unconditional love,
We can bring each other home.

[Ed Note: Rachel is a certified special education teacher and New York Times bestselling author of Hands Free Mama. Through truthful storytelling and simple strategies, Rachel helps people overcome distraction and perfection to live better and love more. Rachel’s second book, Hands Free Life, is currently available for pre-order and releases early this fall. Join her on her Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters at If you liked today’s essay you can read more of Rachel’s essays on her blog.]