My daughter got five wrong on a Math test. Five!

I could tell the moment she appeared in the doorway of the school at the end of the day that something had gone wrong.

Everyday, my seven year old daughter steps into the doorway, scans the crowd excitedly, spots me in the parking lot, smiles, grabs her sisters, and they all come running out together, a blur of plaid, curls, and smiles.

But on Thursday she saw me and she looked me in the eyes and she seemed…scared? And the girls all came walking out together. Funereally.

My mind raced through the possibilities. A fight at school? Disrespecting a teacher? Mind you, none of my children have ever gotten into any trouble at school but when your little girl avoids your eyes after school your mind jumps to conclusions. At least mine does.

I took their hands silently. They threw their bags onto the passenger seat and filed into the van. After she buckled herself into the backseat I saw her eyes search mine out in the rear view mirror. And when I looked at her she looked away.

“What’s wrong, doll?”

She looked at me for a moment and her wide blue eyes filled with tears and she couldn’t even speak for a moment. She stared up at the ceiling of the van and squeaked, “I got five wrong.”

She had a Math test which we’d studied for. Now, I wanted to say, “It’s OK.” But that’s not what I said. I asked, “Out of how many?”

“20,” she said, still finding it difficult to talk.

“Oh my. What happened?” I said. “We studied. You knew it all so well.”

She continued telling me as I drove home. You see, she added instead of subtracted on a few of the problems. She forgot to do one and one she just got another one wrong. And then I know I should have said, “Don’t worry doll. We’ll do better next time.” But what I said was, “Pass it up. Let me see it.”

And there I was. Driving and examining this Math test for my second grader. I could see her staring at me. Waiting for me to say something. And what did I do? I lectured all my children how we all have to pay attention to everything we’re doing. I talked about details. And then I spitballed a system that maybe she could circle subtraction signs and put squares around addition signs just so we’d be forced to pay attention to the signs.

And when we got home the day simply went on. We sat down to do our homework. I checked it all. I made dinner. We cleaned it up. The children played until it was time for bed. We went upstairs, said our prayers, and they all climbed into bed. I came downstairs and got on the computer.

At some point, the computer froze and I had to shut it down and then it hit me. I realized what a jerk I was. Well, that’s not true. I know what a jerk I am. But I realized what a jerk I was today. My seven year old wasn’t upset because she got five wrong. She was scared of telling me she got five wrong. I hadn’t even taken the time to notice that my seven year old had been circling me the entire afternoon and early evening. Looking to me…for something. And then quickly looking away. Even while cleaning the dishes I noticed her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I noticed it but I didn’t see it, if you know what I mean. She’d been waiting for me to say what I should’ve said the moment she walked out of school. That no matter what happened I love her. That no matter what happened I’m proud of her. And no matter what happened I think she’s the most special seven year old in the world.

This little girl. My little girl. She was waiting for her dopey father to tell her he loved her all day and that it was just a math test. Instead he told her to circle subtraction signs.

I had to face it. I did a lot worse on my test than she did on hers. Sometimes you just think that children know how much we love them. But the harsh words we say I think somehow stick with them longer than many of our kindnesses. Our little cruelties are like splinters. They go in easily, cause pain, and they’re very difficult to get out.

If children could know how much their parents loved them, I believe it would make them feel so much safer than they probably do. But maybe that’s our main job as parents. We need to let them know they’re loved. Tell them how special they are. Because we are their introduction to God. Can you believe it? I know. But we are.

As much as we see the workings of God in our tiny immortal children, they look for God in us. I am sometimes amazed at the responsibility that’s fallen into my lap. These precious gifts who feel, who love, who can be hurt, who sympathize, who close their eyes when their favorite part of their song comes on, who help each other climb trees, who run to tell Dad when one of them is hurt. These precious gifts look to us to find God.

And when my seven year old was crying in the backseat, afraid that she’d disappointed me I told her to focus on details. I got up from my computer and walked quickly up the stairs. I peeked into the room with the four girls in it. By the glow of the night light I could see that my seven year old was asleep. I thought about waking her up but that would’ve just been more selfishness on my part. I sat there on the stairs for a few minutes watching her sleep through the crack in the door. And I did all I could think to do at that moment. I said a prayer that I would do better tomorrow, be better tomorrow.

In the morning I went up the stairs and sang to everyone to wake up with a silly song that my father used to sing to me and my brothers as children. The seven year old didn’t move. She never does. The other two got up and the two year old was doing calisthenics in the crib. I called the seven year old in my sing song way and I saw her smile a little. I grabbed her feet and slowly pulled her off the bottom bunk. I had her down on the floor and she was still pretending to sleep but smiling so I jumped on her and started tickling her. She screamed with laughter. The other girls, seeing this, piled on and began tickling me. The boy heard us from across the hall and came tearing in and jumped on the pile like he was going for a loose ball. Hold on, I said. I need someone on my side. My seven year old said she would be on my side. And the tickle war began. Now it turned out a few moments later that she was a spy for the other side and she attacked me from behind. But I was never so glad to be attacked.

We were a little late to school Friday morning. We all went in and I had to sign them in. But I did my job a lot better than I did it the day before. I told them all that I loved them as I sent them down the hall. Those are the details I need to focus on. As they walked into their classrooms I glanced around just in time to see the two year old running into the Principal’s office.