Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Expectations of a senior

Previously published on www.grownandflown.com

Last week, on a daily basis, my seniors counted down the days and minutes until the end of the semester.  Daily they reminded me that school would cease to matter in 5, no 4, no 3 days and 100 minutes.  Daily I reminded them that I begged to differ.  But I and they knew the truth.  Second semester of senior year is something to be cherished.  It is something to be glorified.  They have worked and studied and waited, and now, today they will be rewarded.  Well, yes and no.  I will still hand them an article to read and annotate.  I will still expect them to think and discuss and write and, yes, work.  But the pressure is off.  I await their smiles as they float, weightless, into my room, and we will start the class by breathing into this next phase of life.  Because, in reality, for the last year and a half, many of them have been holding their breath.  I have watched as they filled out applications, took test after test, bubbling in the bubbles, checking and rechecking answers that grow more confusing the more they reread them, feeling their future weighing heavily on their shoulders, more heavy for the expectations of parents and teachers and administrators riding along.  But today, the boys will stretch out their long legs beneath desks that can barely contain them.  They will lean back into their seats.  The girls will smile and laugh just a bit more freely (always more contained than the boys who can not help but put it all out there, laughter too loud, but impossibly infectious), eyes glittering with the future in their view. 
I always avoided teaching seniors because of this time of year.  How would I keep them interested?  How would I keep them engaged?  As teachers, we crave the carrot on the end of the stick, but what is the carrot for the second semester senior?  It is freedom.  It is the world of adulthood.  These are things I can not give them, and only seem to be making more elusive as I force them to sit in my classroom, and somehow be present for 48 minutes, when they could be sleeping.  But what I have realized in the last two years of witnessing "senioritis" is that my expectations, as they usually are, were misguided.  Yes, they are excited, and impatient, and ready, so ready for the next phase of their lives to begin.  But many are also terrified, and nervous beyond any explanation, and ridden with anxieties as they gaze into the unknown.  Because until now, they have known what every minute of every day would hold.  We have fed to them the routines that shape them.  Each day follows a pattern much the same as the day before down to the minute.  They respond to bells and alarms and ref’s whistles and alerts on their phones.  They are trained to live in this world of understood patterns.
But next year is a world where alarms will ring only if set by them.  Routines will change and parents may not be there to remind them of their obligations to classes and sports and clubs.  They will oversleep and forget and miss due dates and have to address professors and deans themselves.  And they are terrified of who they are being somehow not enough to live this un-tethered life.  Because no matter how much confidence we have instilled in them, there is a tiny part in their brains, that says they are somehow not ready, woefully unprepared. 
So, in my class, we will talk about expectations.  We will read about authentic experiences, and what it means to truly be in the moment.  We will write about their prepackaged expectations of college life, and we will talk about the possible pitfalls of those expectations.  Because life is about what we think will happen paving the way for what will really happen.  I will listen closely to them so that I can find the words behind the words revealing their anxieties, and I will speak to those with confidence and laughter, and I will let them know that they are prepared. They are enough.  And if for some reason, they are not, there are protections in place, and homes and arms ready to offer them what they lack. 

When it comes down to it, it is all about our expectations after all.  If our expectations are realistic, then our reality will not surprise us with its sharp edges when we fall.  


It is amazing the amnesia (mom-nesia?) that hits at the end of most days. Consider this: We are on a family vacation with my parents. On Monday, my husband and father went to play golf.  My mother and I stayed with my two kids, who are 5 1/2 and 3 years old.  The day was pure insanity from the get go. There was screaming and toys were broken.  There were tantrums and tears and punches and bites.  Some from the kids, others not so much.  We did not make it to the beach until 11, though preparations started much earlier.  My mother adores my children, always and forever, until she has had enough and reserves the right to close her eyes, sigh, and leave them to me.  She's earned the privilege of ignoring them at their worst, and then some.  But I digress; by noon, I felt I had lived through three days at the very least, and there was so much time before the monsters went to bed...My 3 year old's horrible behavior continued unabated and when I finally cracked, it was the sand throwing that did it.  Though that was the least of the problem behaviors of the day. I picked him up, put him in the wagon and dragged him back to the house (by the handle of the wagon, not by his sandy locks, though I was tempted), where he refused to nap for 45 minutes. When we woke up from our much needed nap...something had happened.  The air had shifted.  My chest felt suspiciously lighter, like it wasn't holding back the screams of generations of mothers.  I could breathe, and looking over at my son, I noticed that he too felt it.  He was giggling and suddenly I was laughing and there was a ball and toys and playing and merriment and when my husband got home and offered to watch the kids while my mom and I went out to dinner, I actually found myself protesting!
I mention all of this, because, as every mother knows, it is not an anomaly.  Every mother suffers from (sometimes debilitating) mom-nesia.  It gets in the way of our drop offs, and time outs.  It gets in the way of dinner reservations and drinks with friends.  It is a problem.
There are points during many of my days, when all I want is space to breathe.  All I want is time away from my attention needing, constantly fighting, mommy calling, children.  But by the end of a nap, or a glass of wine or a hug-cuddle-tickle session, mom-nesia kicks in again, and all seems right with my crazy little world.  It is not news that we forget the pain and horrors of childbirth, but no one told me about the day to day forgetfulness that allows me to continue this job.  Oh yes, there are moments...moments when I want to get in my car and drive.  When I want to scream and curse and shake and growl.  When I want to just give up.  But then we are on a beach and they are running after each other and laughing. They are lying in the wet sand, letting the waves crash over them, and they are pure unadulterated joy and I can not imagine any other life.  There are moments when we are in our house amidst a chaos of toys and they are moving chairs and stuffies and blankets and jumping and spinning and creating rules that make no sense to my adult ears, and I am entranced on the stairs, for once not waiting for the next shedding of tears, or the next scream, because I am seeing their hearts and loving their noise and I am thankful, so thankful for the now.  And the screaming of five minutes ago, which was so intense and angry is just...gone.  But the most amazing element of this psychosis (if it's not listed in the DSM, it should be!) is that when I do get away, when I take my husband up on the chance for a drink or a day off or moment alone, when the babysitter has been hired, or playdate arranged, mom-nesia really kicks in.  The scene may be blissful; I am on a terrace, high above the sea, glass of white grenache in my hands, crab dip at my fingertips, and a confidant across the table.  But I am thinking of their smiles, and that freckle above her right eyebrow.  I am wondering if they are engaged or zoning out.  Are they missing me or playing at a high pitch, mommy far from their minds?  And when given the option for more time away, or time to go back, the psychosis answers for me.
Take me home.

This New Year's Eve

Previously published on www.yellowbrick.me

This New Year's Eve, you are six and your brother is 3 1/2.  Your mom is 39 and your dad is 47.  We will all be here together tonight , but unlike last year and the year before, we've decided to celebrate this one without any hoopla.  This year will be just us.  Our family, in our house.  I may do some clean up of toys and perhaps even some vacuuming, but there will not be the chaotic straightening up that comes when people are coming over.  I have done the dishes, so that we can begin defiling them again when your father gets home from work.  I have warmed the extra room, so that we can all be together on the same floor as your dad and I cook, and that is probably all I will do right now.  I have thought about putting up decorations, and perhaps we will do that in a bit, but right now, I am enjoying the quiet.  The end of this year deserves quiet.
It has been a tumultuous year in some ways, and yet, looking back, I cannot put my finger on any one thing that happened.  We were in many ways, just us, a family, firmly ensconced in the middle class of a wealthy state in a relatively well off nation.  We hit some financial bumps, where we questioned the way we were choosing to live, and while your dad and I got a bit snarky with one and other, we did not let it rock us.  I have faith that your father will keep my accounts balanced in all ways figuratively and literally, and I reminded him of that when he needed it.  I have faith in him.  I have faith in us.  There were days when I worried about you as you passed milestone after milestone.  But, while relishing in each new success, your first soccer trophy, your first lost tooth, chapter books begun, and math equations finished, you didn't let a single disappointment mar your day.  You have found your stride, and I am in awe of your pace as you wind your way through this life.  I could spend time worrying about your brother's smash 'em bash 'em lifestyle, but I have chosen to seek comfort in his morning and evening snuggles, and his silliness.  He is quick like his big sister, learning his ABC song, and recognizing more numbers and letters every day.  He is very much three years old with his temper and his attempts to control the world around him aggressively, but he is also filled top to bottom with love for his family, and hugs and kisses, and quick "I love you" check ins, when he can't find one of us.  As they were and are for you, his transgressions are easy to forgive.  He would follow you anywhere, and you must remember this as you and he will be each other's touchstones throughout your lives.  You will always be his first idol.  Be careful with him.  He is more fragile than he appears.  We all are.
Outside of our family, things were more driven by confusion and chaos.  This is one of the reasons I am happy to put up our family shield, enclose us in our bubble and ignore the rest.  There has been unrest everywhere I looked this year, and while I can't and won't shield you from it, we have kept it from you for now.  Friends have gotten sick, and gotten better.  Families have dissolved, and ties have weakened.  My understanding of our small and larger world seems to grown foggier.  There is so little clarity in the violence of our cities and suburbs.  I pose question after question, and find no answers. But if there is any lesson I can take away from this year, is that it all comes down to where you choose to lay your faith.  It seems to me the safest place to put it, is in the people you hold close, but never all in one person's hands.  Because some will misuse it.  Some will get greedy with it, assuming it can not be destroyed.  But faith is tenuous at best.  It must be cradled, and often rocked.  It must be soothed when need be.  It must be reminded that the one who holds it is deserving.  It is a precious gift.
So my beautiful daughter, this New Year's Eve, place your faith in me, and your father, but not only in us.  Give some to the magic of your world.  I am jealous of your forceful belief in the tooth fairy and Santa, but I am also jealous of your passionate faith in the adults of your world.  You have given your teachers, and your parents and your grandparents the gift of being superheroes in your life.  So, here's to your faith in all those around you.  May we all regain a bit of it just by being near you this year, and may we all remain deserving of it always.

Have I destroyed parenting for my younger friends?

Previously published on www.yellowbrick.me

Don't get me wrong.  I don't believe that I am so important in the lives of my millennial friends that I am the deciding factor in whether or not they have kids.  But I have been watching them, and I am wondering.
My generation, those of us born in the '70s, seem to have the loosest lips when it comes to parenting. Some time in the last decade, people started telling the truth.  We started talking about the sleeplessness, the frustrations and the reality that sometimes, even though, we love our children (and we do...we really really do), we don't like them at every moment of every day.  Because frankly, they can drive us to the brink of insanity, and pull us back a moment later.
But I worry.  Because at work, my younger friends see my exhaustion.  When they ask me about it, I tell them that Josh threw tantrums for an hour before bed, again...that Abby is 6 going on 14 and fights me with every ounce of her being, about nothing and everything.  That every morning, just getting them dressed and out the door is a feat of extraordinary heroism.  That Josh clings to me, as his nose runs, and he coughs his craggy cough, and I just want two minutes of me time to do a push up (just one) or read a sentence from my book or stare blankly at the television screen, but if I do leave him alone, even with his sister, within minutes (sometimes seconds) there will be screaming and the sound of something (someone?) falling. And most of the time I just want to scream. I tell them these things, and maybe I shouldn't.
But it's not just me.  I don't believe that I am that powerful.  But there are blogs, and essays ad infinitum from moms and dads, preaching to the world about just how hard this job is...and strangely enough, these young 30 year-olds smile at my tired eyes, give me a hug, and put off having babies for another year, maybe two.
Would I have done it, had I known?  Would I have read all of these blogs, and still had my two monsters?  I think I would have.  But then, I even refused to read What to Expect When You're Expecting, because it was too honest for me.  I didn't want to know what could happen.  I figured I'd learn about it when it did happen.  Now, the truth is so much harder to avoid.  As a mom, I love that the truth is out there.  I love that I can read about others going through what I am, and feel less isolated.  I love that I can speak to my mom friends and hear about the horrors of their mornings, and somehow feel like I can make it through the day now, too.  I especially love that when I did a search on the internet about why my three year old was refusing to swallow his food, leaving it clumped and chewed in his cheek for later investigation, I found story after story from parents experiencing the same thing.  No one had an answer, but I no longer felt like my child was a complete freak.  It was a phase, and he would get over it (which, thank goodness, he has).
But are we giving these millennials too much information, or is it just enough for Darwin to do his thing?  Maybe we need a bit more survival of the fittest when it comes to parenting?  I don't know, but for now, I like that we're all talking.

Perfection VS Goodness

Previously published on www.yellowbrick.me

I was thinking today about stress and anxiety and our never ending search for perfection from ourselves and those around us and came across this quote by John Steinbeck: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good” (East of Eden). Steinbeck’s words stopped me in my tracks, as they usually do.  But I am an English teacher and a writer and I am often left speechless by the language of the greats.  What if we taught our kids not to be perfect, but to be good?  What if we could somehow got away from the competition, from the endless hunt for excellence, and could teach them that being good was more important than being better?  How might that look?  I think the world would look as it does through the eyes of a first grader.  I think it would be beautiful. 
I was watching television with my daughter the other night and she asked why one of the characters was having nightmares about school.  I said that she was worried about not doing well on a test.  Abby looked at me as though I was crazy.  “But she can just do better the next time.  The teacher will give her lots of chances.  They always do.  They want her to do better.”  I hugged her tightly and said that she was right, of course she was right.  Every day is a new chance to do better. 
Abby has not realized, yet, that she is already being set against her classmates in competition.  Her teacher sends home a weekly math sheet filled with addition practice and asks parents to time their kids and mark down how many they did in 5 minutes.  Abby has not thought to check herself against her classmates, to see if she got as far as, or farther than her friends.  It would never cross her mind.  But soon enough it will.  Soon enough a friend will ask to see her work.  They will start comparing, and Abby will want to be better, or will get frustrated that her friend completed more than three rows or five rows or however many rows.  Soon enough, doing the work for the sake of understanding will no longer be acceptable.  She will begin to seek perfection. 
And really, I am torn.  I want her to be her best.  I want her to strive for better from herself always, because that will be her true education.  But I don’t want her to lose the joy of learning to the competition, because it is the rare soul who has both.  Once in a while I meet a student who still just loves to learn.  I have one in mind now.  I taught him for two years and always felt that he was not entirely of our world.  He finds joy in everything, and the more he knows, the more his curiosity grows.  He is so very present in all aspects of his life, and I am utterly in awe of this young man.  But I think he has managed this love of life and learning in spite of, not because of school.  He spent many of his school years in another country, and came here for high school only.  Maybe this is why he does not have that edge, that sharpness, that ache to be better than the rest.  Maybe this is why he is able to always float above the fray.  He has not been taught to compete with anyone but himself.  At his very center is tranquility.  And most of us, who can not claim this same serenity, are drawn to the few who can.  It is so foreign, so mysterious.

Because at my center is a nervous ball of energy.  It radiates chaos that I must control and keep in check, but it also gives me strength to keep moving, keep striving, keep working, keep competing.  I can sense that Abby’s center is my own, that she will have to search for peace to balance out her chaos. As long as she knows she only has to best herself, that perfection ends the journey, and goodness is the goal, then I will feel as though I too have done my best for her.