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The Girl in the Booth

I saw my reflection, through the windows and through a little girl.

She was just another kid, really. Another eight-year-old that amounted to excess baggage being carted around by a parent. A dead weight, a liability, something not to be fussed over, but to be looked after to prevent further inconvenient consequences.

I probably pass a hundred kids just like her every week, but her expression was what yanked my attention to her as I walked by. Boredom, hurt, survival, and resignation, all rolled up together and conveyed in the way she hung her head, the way she gazed out the window. I knew that expression well; not because I see it a lot, but because I know how it feels to wear it. I used to wear it all the time.

I stopped in quickly, armed with a coupon, and was on my way out the door with my large mocha and breakfast biscuit. She was sitting in the booth with a half-eaten kid’s-portion breakfast plate in front of her. She drank absently from her milk carton with one hand, and clutched her little pink backpack, her companion sitting snug to her side in the seat, with the other. Her father was on his way out the door, taking an urgent phone call, making arrangements, making plans.

I had someplace to be. Not only that, but I had two places to be after that place. I sat down in the empty booth instead. In this fast food restaurant, in the warmth of industrial heating, protected by the crisp spring morning by foggy glass walls, the little girl had her breakfast as slowly as possible. For as long as her dad did his scheming, made phone calls, knowing his kid was under the supervision of her own fast food plate, she could shroud herself in her little coccoon.

In this place, the destination promised by Saturday morning cartoon commercials, she could have what was predictable and safe: bright lights, clean tables, welcoming colors, warm food, and no burden of cooking it or cleaning it up. In a matter of minutes, she would be rushed to zip up her stained parka and whisked away by her harried parent. She was a number in a public school, a behavior and attendance card at her after-school daycare, and when her dad would come to get her again, she was back to being the baggage. She was loved and cared for the only way he knew how to. She would learn real love some other way, with any justice in the world. She would learn a lot, but a lot of it, hopefully and please God, would be what not to do.

Her dad was wrapping up his call outside, showing the tell-tale concluding head-nods as he turned back toward the door. The girl unzipped her Dora the Explorer backpack to re-insert a bunny that had been hidden between her and the glass windows.

I wanted to clutch the girl on each shoulder and tell her how to deal. I wanted to tell her to never accept what she had as her ultimate fate. I needed to tell her that there is no normal that she need worry about falling outside of. She would go from girl to woman soon, and I wanted to tell her about the moments that would happen to her then. I wanted to tell her not to use sex as a weapon, but I also knew it was an easy way for a girl to make sense of her world. She wouldn't know the consequences, but I could warn her.

I wanted to tell her to never bully, to not be violent or make a habit of wishing ill on others. If she did, she would be fighting like hell to undo that pattern as an adult- and that was a best-case scenario. I needed to tell her to believe anyone who ever told her she was smart enough, and to know that anyone who called her stupid was surely that himself.

I did none of those things. Her father returned and rushed her out the door. He reminded her of chores left undone and demanded to know when she would find time to complete them. He told her she was late for school, as if that was her fault. I had to trust that her life would make her strong, and fought the sadness that came with not being confident of that prospect.

On that morning, I didn't see a little girl, I saw myself. Eight years old and the weight of her world in the backpack she carried. I can only hope that as she grows into a woman, she finds things in that backpack to take pride in. I hope she's not eighteen before she sees through the games and the cynicism, and believes in her own potential. But if she finds it by then, I'll be relieved to know it. I hope she believes in that future enough to find it.

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