I used to think I was open-minded. Then I had teenagers. And they were… let’s just say their tastes veered into the eccentric. My kids, my first two, simply would not play by the rules. And by rules I meant wearing dresses and liking it, using utensils at formal dinners, begging to sing in the church choir or at least running the soundboard…
I believed with all my heart I was completely nonjudgmental. Book covers meant nothing. It was the inside that counted. I was so avant-garde and educated and free thinking–
Enter my daughter’s boyfriend, Paul.
Paul was a walking Picasso painting: you weren’t exactly sure how to take him. The first time I met him was homeschool theater class. Paul was ten years old and a holy terror with a ton of talent– that’s what I remember.
In his teens Paul dressed in loosely fitting black clothing that hung off him like his many silver chains. He was funny, flamboyant, sassy, rebellious, creepy… That’s him in the middle.
… and he came to church at 7AM on Sundays to make enough coffee to fill the Boston Harbor. (That’s what it took to slake the thirst of Grace Churchgoers every Sunday.) So here’s the grim reaper barista and he’s in love with my firstborn daughter. Turns out I wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.
One day I was trundling around my homeschool book sale, chatting with moms and feeling all righteous and Rocky Balboa about my calling to educate my children… like I had holy dust scattered in my hair, so homschool-proud. I was talking to an ultra-conservative friend whose tastes (I thought) ran Amish, when who should sally up to us? Jack Sparrow/my son-in-law.
Love those moments when a freight train full of my own self-righteousness runs me down. Jack’s scream there, that’s how I felt upon seeing Paul, dressed for Halloween in June, at my homeschool book sale. My “Amish” friend thought Paul’s theatrics fun and creative and, hadn’t I better loosen up?
Those who know me, know I have.
Katae and Paul live in a lovely house they make lovelier by the day. Paul’s a visionary and super-handy, and Katae has an artful sense of style. They’re living happy-ever-after with their five cats, two dogs, one lovebird, and lots of love.
This goes out to Justin Smith, by request. “P” is not for PERFECTIOSIS. P is for Paul.
Imagine this. My six-year-old wearing his fuzzy pj’s makes this imperious proclamation: “I wish I could be public schooled so I wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the kitchen to get my rods.”
Those rods, to which he referred, were little color-coded blocks that enabled him to learn his fractions and multiplication tables like a boss. Just, they were manipulatives. Manipulatives must be manipulated. One must touch them. One must get them out and place them on the coffee table next to the couch before one sits down to do his math. Else, one must expect to get back up.
A truer grass-is-greener thought was never uttered than when my son, who had zero-minus-infinity idea of what public school entailed– wished for it anyway because it was the antithesis of his present, horrible circumstances. That of having to walk the twenty steps from our cosy spot on the couch to the kitchen drawer, where his math rods were stored.
Nevermind we live barely less than two miles from the elementary school where code dictates he’d be walking to and fro every day, unless his mum rescued him with a car ride. Nevermind traipsing through the halls to get to classes, lunch, the bathroom. Each and every time, far more than the twenty steps to the kitchen to get his rods. And the pj’s: out of the question. Public schoolers have to wear clothes.
We all do it though, don’t we? Decide the grass is simply not green enough. Sometimes when life gives me a backhand I look longingly at the freeway and think how nice it would be to get in the car and just… go. Anywhere. King David had no freeway, but he and I comiserate: Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. (Psalm 55:6) He was a king and wanted to be a dove. My son was homeschooled and wanted to be public schooled. I am a homeschool mom and wanted to be a gypsy.
Better yet, I wish I could be a superhero, then this thing called adulting wouldn’t be so dang hard…
Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, is really an allegory. It’s the parenting memoir she couldn’t write. Parents of pubescents… follow me.
Victor builds what he hopes will be a beautiful, incredible masterpiece. He works tirelessly on his legacy. So intent on accomplishing his ends, Frankenstein doesn’t ask, “Should I?”
Sounds like many parents I know who should’ve stuck with cats. But really, is anybody ready?
Said creation doesn’t turn out the way Victor imagined. In fact, when his creation hits puberty and lumbers around to the sounds of creepy Psycho chords, Victor realizes to his horror: I meant it to be beautiful, but I made… a monster. Too late. What’s done is done. All he can do is damage control. And the monster– it might want love and affection, but it’s hard to say for sure, so irrational and unaware it is. But it wants a girlfriend, of that, it’s certain.
So Victor, for the whole rest of the story is basically wrecked over this creature for which he’d had such high hopes. All he can do is follow it around trying to make sure it doesn’t hurt people. He fails. Parents do. But we keep going to the ends of the earth, like Victor Frankenstein. His monster runs away– of course it does, thinking the grass is greener somewhere else, everywhere else in fact. People get hurt. Ugly words are exchanged. The monster roams and the maker frets.
Frankenstein ends in death. Victor, his wife, his creation. All perish. As for the memoir: the reality of adolescence is that a death occurs there too. Adolescence itself dies and out of the seed springs something entirely new– a rational and beautiful adult. And the grey-souled parents, dead but only half-dead like a bony tree, breathe a sigh of relief.
Tory was an easy baby, the easiest child, the hardest teenager. I think each phase caused the next. You see, Tory was so breathtakingly sweet that losing her to the atmosphere was that much more bitter. By atmosphere, I mean adolescence. When a rocket re-enters earth, there is a gap in communication while it makes its way through the atmosphere. So you have this fun-loving little person, you have the atmosphere, and on the other side you have a reasonable, able-bodied young adult. I didn’t come up with this; I wish I had.*
Tory made it through the atmosphere. We all did. I remember the moment she turned in her flight suit. She smiled her dazzling and beautiful smile and said sweetly, “Mom, I just realized: I don’t hate you anymore.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” I answered.
Even when Tory was in the atmosphere she did great things. In high school speech and debate, one of my favorite Tory-moments occurred. It was her second year debating and she came up with a unique (and I thought– unbeatable) case. First, backtrack. There is an unspoken hierarchy in speech and debate. It’s not just a seniority gig. It’s also about dynasty. There are those families, you know, speech and debate royalty, who churn out generation after generation of final round winners. Then there are the plebianic masses who do their best to not wet themselves when they face a dynasty debater.
Some dynasty debaters didn’t think Tory’s case was worth a hill of beans, and they convinced her partner to scrap it. Tory, being shy and sweet and dynasty-less, was heart-broken. After all the work she put into it, they were going to scrap it because some Dons** didn’t like it?
Absolutely not, I told her. I got on the phone with the head of the program and outlined Tory’s case structure. “Is there anything wrong with this case?” I asked. She concurred that it was an ingenious case, that it would probably catch everyone off guard, and they should run it. They did run it, and they won with it over and over again.
This, from a 14-year-old who absolutely hated debate.
Then there’s her heart. At twenty, Tory’s not above playing basketball with Gabe or taking him to the movies. She gives me honest but gentle fashion advice and tells me the hard things not many people will. If I ask her, she’ll even read my fiction writing!
At both Wagner’s and Gymboree Tory was promoted into management. Now Tory works at Aeropostale, a company that perfectly suits her. She handles her college load and a growing financial responsibility–her first car! She and Bob spent many quality hours together car hunting, taking five duds to various mechanics and having them rejected. Finally, a winner!
When I think of Tory I think of her at her high school graduation party or at her 16th birthday luau. It’s a My Fair Lady image I have of Tory: grace and peace while she mingles with the people who have come out to love her and celebrate her.
Today it’s my delight to celebrate her in my own way. 🙂
*The atmosphere. That little gem is from Dr. James Dobson, whose parenting books traditionally make me cry. Good tears, the kind that come when you realize you’re not an alien parenting– badly– from Mars, but that everyone struggles. Many of them are still on our shelves, including, The Strong-Willed Child, Bringing up Boys, Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, and Night Light.
Like, even if you’re beautiful and cerulean-flashy and you have wings, your end will come. Beauty won’t stave the grim reaper, much as we’d like to believe. Still, I always thought a pair of wings would be super. That way, when life got dicey, I could just fly away. Hawks especially have always enchanted me, partly because they fly hundreds of feet above where stress lives and partly because they swoop down in an instant and kill unsuspecting prey before climbing back to their heavenly abode where nothing, nothing touches them. (unfortunately pet stores don’t stock hawks) What does my favorite animal choice reveal about my nature? Thank goodness I’m not applying to colleges.
Life can come to an abrupt and unexpected end and– unless you flap your wings around and screech about it– not all that many people will notice. For 10+ years that bird tweeted sweetly in her cage, bringing song and life to our kitchen and simultaneously acting as our carbon monoxide detector.
Her name was Sunflower. We got her for Luke when he was eight or so and in that I-want-every-pet-imaginable phase. That’s how we got all our pets, as each one of our children got to be about eight, we had to find something new. We began with hamsters, moved on to a cat, thousands of lice (they came with the cat), a dog, goldfish, real fish (the kind with a tank that actually requires work), and then finally on to birds. First, parakeets, then lovebirds. Whoever named them lovebirds should have named them Loudbirds. They scream their expensive, colorful beaks off, especially when they hear my voice. No, I don’t just think I’m special. My friend’s lovebirds also begin screaming whenever I talk. Birds either love or hate the timbre of my voice.
So the loudbirds got evicted, but Sunflower was polite. She was part of the family. And then she died. Poof. It was a Friday night, and Gabe had a swim meet the next morning; Luke was at soccer practice, and I didn’t feel like doing death right then. Am I the only mother/wife who doesn’t want to be the messenger? Honey, the washer’s broken. The fridge is leaking. X crashed the car again. We’re volunteering for XYZ. The bird died. So I chose not to be the messenger that night, and Bob agreed. He’d gone into work at 4am, and death-right-now wasn’t sounding good to him, either.
A cleaned chocolate tin with some paper towels served as her casket, and I interred her on a shelf in the garage. Don’t say I don’t respect the dead. Total dignity, that chocolate tin. Total class.
I had in mind to do an experiment and see how long it would take the kids to notice that the cage was empty. Except my real motivation was that I still didn’t want to be the messenger. It was easier just to keep the empty cage in its spot. As you were… carry on.
Luke’s girlfriend noticed the empty cage.
“What happened to the bird?” asks Luke, after the emptiness is pointed out to him. I glide into the kitchen and don the solemn look I see in funeral homes.
“It’s dead,” I tell him.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks.
“I just did.”
This is my parenting style. Why bring death and sadness into the equation when I can wait and let it come to me? I did tell him. Just not at the moment it happened.
“What?! When?” Now the curiosity, the how-could-I-have-missed-this?
“Three days ago.”
And I’ll bet my feathers that, had Luke’s girlfriend not noticed the empty cage, it would still be in my kitchen and no one would be the wiser. We could have gotten several more months out of that pet, post-mortem.
All that to say what the Bible has been saying for thousands of years. Man is like a mere breath; his days are like a passing shadow. …that no one much notices unless you flap about and use your bullhorn. If you’re quietly desperate, only the quiet will be noted.
No one noticed Sunflower’s passing because she was so polite about it. All our other pets had the poor taste to die drawn-out, dramatic deaths full of sound and fury and urine and feathers and poo. Like Sunflower’s partner, who bleated for several days before becoming eternally mute. Why did we not take her to the bird doctor, you ask. Please don’t ask that. People eat birds. People don’t hit the brakes for birds. We fed her, watered her, cleaned her cage. But I was not about to incur a vet bill over a bird, screaming or no.
And, in my defense, I thought the screaming would stop, not in death. I just figured birds do that sometimes. He was molting. I heard molting was stressful. I scream sometimes when I’m stressed.
A parent makes many mistakes. Death makes me think this, too. Some deaths have to be full-on in your face. No retreating into the stress-free treetops until you feel like dealing with death. But Sunflower, beautiful little thing, offered a reprieve by dying ever so quietly, and I took it.
Death makes me think things. But it doesn’t always make me do things.
Gabe. 10 years old. He’s amazing. That’s how the pain and hardship begin, when someone besides mom utters the seemingly innocuous words: You’re amazing. My amazing boy practices swimming with kids a minimum of three years his senior. When he was with kids his age, swimming practice started at 10AM. But his amazing asserted itself, and he was asked to move to the 9AM slot. Then, more amazing, the 8AM slot. Now I shake him awake at 7:15 every weekday of his summer.
On the way to swimming Gabe said, “I’m tired. I hope we don’t swim for distance today. I hope we do the short work.”
As I turned to leave, I heard the coach say, “Ok, we’re going to warm up with a thousand SKIPS… two hundred of this, two hundred of that, two hundred blah blah…” I don’t understand the intricate details of swimming yet because we’re new to it.
Just one year ago I bribed Gabe with an ice cream cone to jump in without holding his nose. Gabe was amazing last year too, when in his first-ever swimming class, they moved him up three levels in two days and recommended we search out a more serious swimming venue. His coach mentioned the Olympics, and Gabe’s eyes glazed over. Anyway, I think he’s swimming distance today. There’s not much rest when you’re amazing.
That got me thinking about being “amazing.”
For starters, there’s no time to worship the trophy case.
It looks like Gabe, shoving down a piece of broccoli at 7:25 AM, so that he listened to Coach’s directive to “eat before swimming.” It looks like the polar plunge for Gabe and the few blue-lipped crazies who show up to swim when it’s freezing cold outside. It looks like pushing harder than he wanted because the hulking guy behind him keeps hitting his feet. It looks like tomorrow he’s going to be afraid to come, he’s going to get a bellyache and want to stay home, but mom’s going to drag his mewling self there either way, so might as well suck in his teary snot and just get it over with. Again. Day in and day out is what amazing looks like. Mom promises it will get easier. Mom is often a liar. When one is amazing, it is not a result or a trophy or a tag, but a string of choices that becomes a groove we fall into automatically, a philosophy we embrace with white knuckles, panting.
This is what we give up in order to get “amazing.”
Give #1. Big frog. IF there is a choice, we always chose to be the small frog in the big pond, rather than vice versa. In this decision we often give up the friends, comfort, and accolades. We put ourselves in the company of people who push us, hard. It usually hurts for a while. Or forever.
Give #2. Sleep. One can’t sleep and be amazing at the same time. Like one can’t be wet and dry at the same time. This is hardest for me. I love sleep. Amazing kids have moms with puffy eyes, who find things to do in the car because going home isn’t worth it.
Give #3. Comfort. See the second Give. But besides the discomfort of exhaustion, we must put ourselves in environments no one else dares to go. Again, friends, normalcy, watching the grass grow… all gone.
Give #4. The Gold. Never spend time standing in front of your trophy case. It’s the fastest way to slip out of God’s blessing and into arrogance or pride. Whatever amazing one was born with, is from God. Whatever toil you’ve thrown at your natural-born-amazing is from God as well. I believe that’s why Paul tells us to “forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead.”
Give #5. The broad road and the friends who travel it. Get comfortable being weird or misunderstood.
So we give, we sacrifice if we want to be amazing. And, like anything coveted, amazing grows wings and flies to higher and higher nests, requiring ever more effort to reach it. What was amazing last week is the status quo today. My job as mom is to counteract that dynamic and be amazed, always.
All week Gabe has been looking forward to today, Fun Friday at swimming. As I write this (in my car) Gabe is playing water polo with kids twice his size and weight. It looks like a scene from JAWS.
That he can hang with kids that big and not shrink or complain or cling to the side of the pool in wide-eyed paralysis of terror– amazing. Today, anyway.
Did you know I’m a principal? It’s true, according to the Ohio Department of Education. By way of explanation, there are two ways to legally home educate in Ohio. One of them is to become your own school, so to speak. We mavericks are called 08 schools: non-chartered, non-tax supported schools, which are granted autonomy for truly-held religious beliefs. Before home education became a right in and of itself, 08 schools were the only way to legally home educate in Ohio. Now there are other options, but I still prefer to be an 08 school. The letter to the right is a mass-mailing to all private schools, and the greeting was made to suit the majority– which reminds me of another initiative that aims to pull into the galaxial fold of public education, the myriads of divergent learners in the spectrum: The Common Core.
The Common Core… the Miley Cyrus of the education scene. “What’s so bad about the common core?” my son asked one day when it sallied into his awareness through a facebook post. Why on earth would the well-intentioned efforts of the educational establishment garner such a cold– nay, shall I say, violent– reception? Thankfully, my local district mailed out a newsletter to clear things up.
The first claim the newsletter makes is this: [By way of definition,] the Common Core State Standards set clear, consistent goals that build upon each other at each grade level… [and] provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn… Note the wordsclearandconsistent. With those, I have no argument. I’m sure they’ll be clear and consistent… and less academically rigorous than what we now have in place, which is less academically rigorous than what we had in place previous to those… previous to those… etc.
The newsletter claims Standards do not equal curriculum or lesson plans! so emphatically as to use an exclamation mark to convey strong emotions about these standards. Red flag. Actually, that statement is absolutely, completely, emphatically, exclamation-marks-all-around false. Standards directly affect a student’s education at the atomic level. Make no mistake about it, these new, higher (snort) standards for education will make their way into your living room. And why does that even matter? Why does my local district feel the need to spend precious dollars on propaganda to stroke me and croon there…. there... over the Common Core? Red flag number two.
The example given is Algebra I. The standard is an expectation that students will know and be able to apply the concepts in Algebra I to real life situations. The curriculum used to teach Algebra I are up to the teacher– lesson plans and curriculum are not set by the standards.Really?Lesson plans and curriculum are not set by the standards? The truth is, national standards like the Common Core spawn scads of new curriculum. They have to. To say that curriculum is not set by the standards is to say, Hey, we’ve thought up these new goals, but no worries. We won’t be teaching them. They won’t affect things. As you were…
What does Algebra I encompass, as far as math skills go? That’s a variable, if you’ll forgive the pun. What constitutes Algebra I (in practice as opposed to theory) is ultimately decided by the standards because the measurement of whether or not we’ve hit the mark set by the standards is the assessment. Simply, the creators of the assessment tests have the power to decide what will be taught in the classroom. Even I, small-time 08 principal that I am, will feel the effects of the Common Core, as the private curricula does homage to the new standards (it always does, eventually).
What happens when new standards are rolled out is that new tests must be developed to determine who attains these standards. As the results of standardized tests carry more and more weight in defining student, teacher, and school district adequacy, more focus must be on the limited content of these ever-narrowing, one-size-fits-all tests. The stakes are high.
All together, class: NEW STANDARDS = NEW ASSESSMENTS TESTS = NEW CURRICULUM.
American students are already the most tested students on earth.  If testing were the answer, we’d be churning out the brightest and best minds the globe over. Clearly, Captain Obviously, it’s not. So what to do? Our only recourse (until Common Core is common trash) is to teach more than what’s common, to go beyond the core. Smoke the standards… go above and beyond… apply diligence… demand excellence. Rocky Balboa-academic-rigor is the core… of a consummate education.
Parents, whether you homeschool or help with homework, you are the trump card in your child’s education. No test, no bill, no local mandate or school board can take the place of a committed, on-fire-for-education parent who is willing to smoke the core. Initiatives like the Common Core come and go. (Go, please go. The sooner, the better.) Until then, parents can take this simple action to ensure an uncommon education for everyone: Read. Together. Every day. Check out this reading list. Read the source documents on history, i.e., don’t limit your study to a biography on Lewis & Clark; read the journals they kept as they slogged across our country. That’s where you’ll get the whole truth and the bonus of some juicy details left out by conservative texts. Read. Everything. You. Can.
Parents, if you make their high bar your footstool, you can’t go wrong.