Emmanuelle, my eldest child, walked into her nursery classroom and paused for a moment before removing her heavy coat and putting away her tote bag in a designated cubby. She stood and surveyed the room, her delicate arms wrapped tightly around a small doll that she had surreptitiously sneaked out the door while leaving home that morning.

“Do you want me to stay for a while to play?” I asked, knowing that the teachers invited parents at all times to engage in school activities with the children. I lingered by the entryway.

Emmanuelle was drawn to the boisterous laughter“No, Mama, you can go home now,” she said, and turned to watch an outgoing group of children playing at a rock-filled table. The kids were shoveling, raking and digging, and rocks were spilling out of the shallow-walled table onto the floor. I had wanted to stay, to learn about what activities interested my daughter and who her friends were, but Emmanuelle was drawn to the boisterous laughter that resonated from the corner of the room. I turned and left, standing just outside the doorway in hopes of observing her activities from a quiet distance.

“Would you like to go play at the rock table?” Esti, one of the teachers, asked Emmanuelle, bending over to speak at her level. She shook her head aggressively. “Would you like to sit at the table with Zack and Ella, and look at our pumpkin plant?” she suggested. Again, she was refused by the petite three-year-old. Emmanuelle shuffled closer to the rock table, hugging her doll tightly to her chest, her hair amiss, as she had messily styled it herself that morning. My heart swelled. I empathized with her awkwardness, her inability to casually approach the group and join the activity—having existed as an outsider myself on many an occasion. Maybe she was even debating an opening line, weighing the merits of Hey guys, make room for me! vs. Is this shovel taken? Each wave of laughter that emanated from the group at the table made my daughter appear even more fragmented, and I couldn’t bear to feel her loneliness when I already had my own. I motioned for Esti to join me where I stood in the hallway.

“You know, yesterday Emmanuelle mentioned to me that sometimes Zoe takes away her toys when she’s playing with something. She might want to play at the rock table, but feels intimidated because Zoe is there.”

“Could be. Zoe is rather dominating. I’ll keep an eye on them,” the teacher offered, and went back inside to once again see if Emmanuelle wanted to join the others at play. “Oh boy, I see we are making a mess of rocks here,” Sari, another teacher, gently reprimanded the children, and silently placed brooms and dustpans near the table so that the kids would be able to clean up after themselves.

This was her reconciliationI perused other nursery classrooms before heading back to Emmanuelle’s class one more time. The corner of the room that housed the rock table was now quiet: no heads happily bobbing around it, no animated voices shouting or laughing, and the floor was speckled with the tiny pebbles. I scanned the class in search of my daughter, but didn’t see the familiar stringy brown hair with a bow awkwardly perched at its peak. And then, I saw it.

Two pink-sneakered feet poked out from underneath the table. I took a few more steps into the room, craning my neck to see beyond my field of vision. There she was, my daughter, the one who claimed she did not want to play at the rock table, sprawled on her belly beneath it, a small broom and dustpan in hand. She lay atop the rocks, sweeping and cleaning up what was obviously not her mess. She wanted to be a part of the group activity, but didn’t know how, and this was her reconciliation, her entry point, after they’d all left. She was lying on the floor. Sweeping. Their maid. They would step on her.

Esti started smiling and saying something to me about how Emmanuelle is now happily playing, evidenced by her obvious satisfaction in the cleaning task. But I couldn’t hear what she was saying; didn’t want an explanation for what was probably normal childhood behavior and social interaction. I felt a tear starting to squeeze its way out of my eye (a nerd!), a rivulet down my cheek (a loner!), and tried to forge an enormous smile (a misfit!), one that would cause the skin around my eyes to crinkle and perhaps hide that glistening streak (friendless!). “Well, I better get going,” I breathed. I turned and ran down the hall and through another before arriving at the bathroom, where I promptly stood in front of the sink and cried freely, recalling too easily my own elementary school days laden with difficult social interactions. I had hoped she wouldn’t inherit those.

I didn’t want her to feel left out as I had I think we all just wish that our kids won’t have to suffer the hardships we endured, and I didn’t want her to feel left out as I sometimes had in school, drawn to the laughter, occasionally turning to stare, inventing details to weave into the stories I would create in my head, filling in the gaps to that which I missed. Like me, she is a watcher, an observer, a learner by association. She will spend many recesses at the edge of the playground, not quite in it—and maybe this is okay because it will be her choice, what she chooses to do, what makes her happy.

Later that evening, as I recounted the details of the event to my mother, she used her fifty-plus years of worldliness to empathize with my emotional morning, but also to say that our life experiences cause us to view situations with certain feelings, and it is unfair to impose our own negativities, especially in comparison to what a three-year-old might understand.

And maybe that was Esti’s message to me. Maybe she sensed my discomfort, witnessed my breakdown, and tried to relay that children do not perceive social stigmas as we adults so often do. The pressing issues in their lives include who goes first and who goes second. Who is sitting on the pink chair, and who got the green one. Who is the favorite Disney princess, Belle or Cinderella. In nursery, there is no cool or popular. There is no nerd or misfit. There is not even smart or stupid. Each child exists on the same plane of equality. It is only the adults who instill these labels, who categorize and classify, and stress over normalcy. The kids can exist obliviously, until we enter and take it all away. And I am sorry for unknowingly doing that.