But this post is "all about Matthew" as some quietly extraordinary growth has been occurring right before our eyes this past couple of weeks which even his brothers have wanted to recognize and celebrate.
It began last week when Matthew got in the car after school and said he had something bothering him that he wanted to talk about. Right now they are working on teams in class building bridges. It is a cool project where they form building "companies" and have to buy "lumber" (toothpicks) and "welding material" (glue), etc. It is also bringing out the best and the worst in their groups as they struggle to learn teamwork and cooperation. There are many levels of learning in this project, and it is something they will take a lot away from. Well, it seems that one of their teammates was absent, and he was a "builder" (You can only do your assigned role...Matthew was the architect and drew up the plans but can't actually build it). The person missing is someone who struggles a bit in many areas of his life, but is a good kid. While he was absent, it seems the other kids on the team starting verbally ripping him apart, talking about what they thought was his "shoddy work", being a bit cruel about what he had done.
Now, you have to know Matthew and his own gifts...which are definitely in the areas of design and building...this project will no doubt be the highlight of his 4th grade year as it is right up his alley and the excitement he exuded when he first came home and shared what they were going to do was totally over-the-top. I would have expected Matt to be extremely concerned about how this bridge turned out, that he would want it to be perfect simply because this is an area in which he excels and has great passion. So I was interested to hear what was next, preparing myself to have an in depth conversation and make it a learning experience for him about patience with others, about all of us having different talents and gifts, about things not having to be perfect.
Instead, it was I who was taught something.
As he was explaining what had happened, Matthew went on to say how upset he was that the team was being so unkind about the other boy's work, that even though he too wanted the project to turn out really good, he got angry because he knew this child had done his very best work and although the others wanted to tear it apart both verbally and literally and start over, Matthew said that the bridge needed to stay the way it was, that their teammate had worked hard on it and learned a lot. Matthew stood up to a group of kids with very strong personalities...most of them far stronger than his...and held his ground. He told me he knew how terribly hurt this boy would be if they had torn it down, and he told me "Mommy, I was really mad at how mean they were being. He can't help it if this was the best he could do and it wasn't perfect. He is always having a hard time in a lot of ways and I didn't want them to make him feel even worse.". In the end, Matthew won the debate and the bridge remained intact...and perhaps the other team members learned a little about compassion. This little boy's father is battling a life threatening condition which has worsened considerably this year. What he needs is support and encouragement, and I was so very happy to hear Matthew offered just that, and in circumstances when it would have been easier to agree with the group or talk badly about him behind his back so that Matt could fit in the remaining group more easily. He took a stand, and from the tone of his voice as he relayed what had happened I could tell that for him, it was one of those moments when you take another step towards deciding what kind of person you really want to be.
Kenny was listening from the back seat as Matthew was talking and when he was done, he had a grin from ear to ear and said "Matthew, I am proud of you for being such a good friend! Mommy, can Matthew use the special plate tonight? I think he deserves it!". And with tears in my eyes, I wholeheartedly agreed. I also had another reason to give thanks, that I have sons who create a culture of support within our family which encourages and praises good character rather than only accomplishments.
Matthew has really embraced the whole concept of "pay it forward" although for some reason we have yet to see the movie and must remedy that soon. It is something that is concrete and makes a lot of sense to him, and it comes up often in conversation as we make plans to try and help someone or do something with a sense of thankfulness for all we have. It came up today in conversation again on the way to school (why is it that some of the BEST conversations occur in my minivan?? Glad I put almost 40,000 miles a year on it...we have plenty of time to HAVE those conversations!!! Hahahaha!). I am not sure how the subject got brought up, but we were discussing a mentor of his, the son of our friends who moved to Chicago who is going into his Senior year in high school next year and who showed an inordinate amount of gentleness and inclusiveness with Matthew beginning when he himself was only 12 years old. We talked about how Matthew's life was effected forever by his friend's involvement, how he had set a wonderful example of being kind to younger children, of being willing to work with them and never make fun of them. I told Matthew that it was now his turn, that not only his younger brothers but other children around him both in Scouts, in school and at church were beginning to look up to him as a leader...even if they are older than he is. I asked him if he had noticed that yet, that his fairness and kindness were appreciated by others and that he had a big responsibility as such to be a positive role model in the ways he could be. He told me that he knew it was time to "pay it forward" even though he felt young, but that he could see how his attitude towards others was copied sometimes, that as he got older at church he could see how Josh and his best buddy would learn from him and Kenny, and that they in turn would teach the two littlest who are still infants. He told me that unlike some older kids sometimes do, he didn't ever want to leave the younger ones out. He said "Just like "F" did with me, it is my job now and I can see how big a difference it makes. If I act disrespectful, the other kids will think it is OK then ALL of them will eventually be mean...but one person can make a difference mom, I saw it. "F" made a difference for me. It is an important job, because just like "pay it forward" you can decide to pay forward good stuff or bad stuff. I want to pay forward good stuff."
How lucky Dominick and I are to have such an insightful, caring and intelligent oldest child. How blessed we are that despite Kenny's actual older age, he graciously never tried to assert himself into that role and has accepted Matthew as his older brother in every other way. That too should be recognized as a hard thing to do.
Another mentor of all of our boys is a 15 year old young man who volunteers his time at TaeKwonDo and helps the instructor. This young man is exceptional in so many ways, he just earned his 2nd degree black belt and as a family we were privileged to be able to go and watch his testing. We don't know him personally very well, but he provides the boys with yet another wonderful example of a combination of masculine strength and gentleness with children which is marvelous for them to witness. He is extremely respectful and his time spent with the class and with our sons is a gift. Matthew and Josh took their rank test yesterday afternoon which was an important day for them. In another example of male mentoring our friend "Mr. Steve" came to watch them which meant a lot to the boys. Joshie is doing so well for being the youngest in his rank. He is already a yellow belt with a green stripe which is what he earned yesterday and although he looks a bit awkward out there at moments and lacks a little confidence, he is not far from really coming into his own and growing into that physical maturity which will help him gain that confidence.
Matthew is a green belt and earned his blue stripe yesterday. The best part of the whole class was watching him go two on one...he as the one and the 15 year old black belt as one of the 2. Matthew has only taken TaeKwonDo for a year and a half, and in that time his skills have grown by leaps and bounds as his body caught up with itself and became more coordinated. What fun it was to watch him attack with courage and confidence, to wonder where he might end up in 3 or 4 years of additional training.
Their TaeKwonDo instructor is a strict disciplinarian who injects humor into the class but demands respect and order. I think it totally throws him for a loop when our three boys run up and give him hugs after class :-) That's the LaJoy Boys, born killers they are not! Hahaha!
Kenny and Matthew also had a unique opportunity this weekend to see the "Moving Wall" which is a half scale version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It came to town last week, and once again "Mr. Steve" stepped in and asked if he could take them. A retired military man himself we thought it utterly appropriate that he be the one to take them to see it, to have the chance to share that with them. I had a long talk with the boys before hand about what the Wall represents, about how to handle themselves when visiting it, about the sacrifice of so many thousands of men for our country. Matthew is a huge history buff and knew all about Vietnam and the Wall in DC, so this visit made it all come to life for him. Kenny had all kinds of questions about the various wars we have been in...asked about if M*A*S*H on TV was in Vietnam, where we are fighting now and why, why we were fighting in Vietnam which was difficult to explain with his level of comprehension at the moment. I suggested the boys wear their Scout uniforms for the visit to the Wall which they thought was a great idea.
As I viewed photos of their visit afterwards, I couldn't help but say a little prayer that someday I wouldn't find myself left with nothing more of my sons than memories and a name on a wall. Reflecting on this past couple of weeks and Matthew's experiences, it is becoming easier and easier to imagine him as a young man who would put honor and duty before personal gain.