He was waiting where he always waited, beneath the shifting shade of oak trees, spread thin upon the warm grass in a superhero t-shirt damp with the sweat of spring and backpack. The brim of his hat lay low across his face as if the only thing he expected was an afternoon nap. I pulled to the curb and my son rose to meet me.
A dark cloud followed him. We put it in the backseat.
“The kids at lunch think I’m weird,” he said in way of a greeting. “They think it is weird for me to be a vegetarian.”
“What kids?” I asked.
“My friends,” he said, and then he named them all. “They told me that it is weird not to eat meat and that they don’t want to talk to me if I am a vegetarian.”
“That seems rather harsh. Either they don’t mean it or they weren’t very good friends to begin with.”
“I don’t think they meant it. They talked to me again after that.”
“Well, there you go,” I said, obviously solving everything as I am prone to do. I eyed the cloud in the rearview mirror. It didn’t seem that much smaller.
My son sat there quietly, his gaze searching someplace bright and sunny far beyond the window.
“You don’t have to be a vegetarian,” I told him.
“Yes I do,” he said. “I like being a vegetarian. I like being healthy, and I like protecting the environment. I don’t want to eat animals.
“I just don’t understand why they think it’s weird.”
We have been vegetarians for three years, and everyone in the family has had a choice. They still do. It has been a pretty easy one.
However, it isn’t always easy for everyone else. It took several meals with our extended family before they were able to comprehend that a meatless diet did not, in fact, include meat.
“What about chicken?” they asked. “Or fish?”
“The kids need protein,” they added.
True. We all need protein, but there is more than enough protein in a plant-based diet. The kids get what they need and then some. Being healthy is pretty simple if you put a little work into it.
In fact, the hard part isn’t avoiding meat, but rather avoiding other food items that you would never suspect of containing animal products. It’s amazing how many things have gelatin, lard, or other unspecified animal by-products in them, and frankly, it often seems unnecessary.
Still, we understand that being a vegetarian is a personal choice and that it isn’t for everyone. Some people don’t eat sugar or gluten, and we don’t eat animals. In that we are separated from the herd.
“You are doing something different from most of the other kids,” I said. “And you are in middle school.”
“So, middle school is when a lot of kids are afraid to be different—they only want to fit in. They find comfort in the common ground.”
“Having things in common is fun, but I like being different.”
“Good. I like it, too, but it isn’t always easy. Think about all of the books you have read and the movies you have seen, the main characters are often teased or bullied because they do their own thing, but eventually others will get it. They might call you weird now, but someday they will find their own thing and own their own different. You can’t let others define you by their fear or lack of understanding, no matter what path you take.”
“So I’m the hero of this story?”
“You’re the hero of your story.”
“Well, I am one of the weirdest kids in my grade.”
“Who told you that?”
“Me,” he said. “It’s fun to be weird.”
Then he looked out the window again, through his reflection twinkled and knowing, with the dark cloud lost and left to shadows.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“Everything,” he answered. He lifted his hat high above his brow taking the sweat that lingered with it. “And I’ll still be weird tomorrow.”
We rode the rest of the way home in lazy silence with nothing but promise in the air between us, and the slow hum of the engine turning.