Thursday, December 20, 2012

Herd Bound

I apologize that the following post is a bit long and wandering. I have had a hard time corralling my thoughts this past week. But I’ve grown weary of thinking about this, so I share my untidied thoughts: 

I was reading details of last Friday’s nightmare and one fact struck me. When asked about the shooter, a former administrator who had known him in high school said, “Did you find a best friend? Did you find any friend? You won’t. He didn’t have any.” The young man had no friends. Not one. Now, I am in no conceivable way excusing his actions, nor even trying to explain them. I’m just noting this fact. 

Every time I open Facebook, another beautiful face appears. These are the faces of the children who were killed at their Elementary School where they should have been safe from a maniac with a gun. Seeing their perfect, precious faces brings fresh tears to my eyes again and again. I can’t fathom their parent’s pain. All weekend long, the world felt out of sorts for me.  

And now today, alone in my house, I feel even more out of sorts. As a mom, you know all too well the worry that goes with parenting. But there are times when the worry you feel for your children is cranked up, and other times the worry recedes, like background music. Normally, by 9am on a school day, I can relax. If any of the school buses carrying my children were to have crashed, I would have heard about it by now. My children are safe at school. There is a break in the worry until 2:45 when they board a bus again. I am out of sorts because I can’t stop thinking about the path a crazed gunman might take in my own children’s school buildings. I wonder whether the fire doors could be automatically closed off to protect them. I consider that the Middle School seems safest because the classrooms are so far from the entrance. These are not thoughts that usually torment me on the average week day. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sibling Truce At Last

Kids fight. I know this first-hand. I remember some particularly spectacular disputes with my little brother that ended in violence – me with a pencil point in my hand, him flung against the kitchen wall so hard he was knocked unconscious (or faked it really well) causing me to hide in the bath tub from my mother. I remember when “I’m rubber and you’re glue, everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you” seemed like a powerful protection, forcing me to resort to saying nice things.  

My own kids fought just as fiercely. There have been days when I have screamed in frustration when every other word uttered by my cherubs to each other was antagonizing or insulting. I continuously underestimated the topics and situations over which my children could fight with each other. I was horrified by the vehemence with which they spoke to each other. I lamented that they would never be friends. I implored them to remember that they were related and needed to back each other up, and when that didn’t work I reminded them that they were stuck with each other forever! 

This past weekend we headed out to choose a Christmas tree. It is not difficult for me to pull up recent memories of tears and insults passed back and forth in our quest for the perfect tree. The threats given in hushed voices with knowing looks did not quell their battles. Their insults and complaints echoed across the valley of trees causing childless young couples to shudder and me to cringe with embarrassment. As I recall there were always pleasant families, happily choosing and cutting their trees just one aisle over, while we sent someone back to wait in the car if they couldn’t be nice. More than once, my husband asked me, “Why is it we do this again?” 

If this is your family too, then it is with great joy that I offer this glimmer of hope. We chose our tree peacefully this year. As we wandered the rows of trees, the kids joked and gave silly names to potential trees. Then after posing for pictures with the chosen tree, they happily carried the tree up the hill to pay for it. My husband smiled and said, “Do you remember when…” and we laughed.  

I’m not sure when the moment happened that our children ceased their fighting and put down their guns. But sometime over the past year, they’ve discovered that they actually like each other. Sure, there is a nasty word on occasion, but for the most part the teasing is good natured and funny. Instead of hearing shrieks of indignity from the kitchen in the mornings as they get ready for school, I hear laughter. I watch them walk down the drive to the bus stop, chattering about music, computer games, comedians.  

They are developing their own collection of inside jokes. Some I am allowed in on and some they keep to themselves. They call each other by nick names and send each other funny messages on Facebook. They enjoy each other. 

A rare peaceful moment a few years ago.
As I said, I’m not sure what changed. At some point they crossed over an invisible divide. Maybe it’s that the youngest is old enough to keep up with their verbal banter. Or maybe the middle one has mellowed. Or perhaps it’s that the oldest finds them both a good audience. No matter. I’m not asking questions. I’m just grateful that the war seems to have finally ended.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Spelling Bees and Life

Is there a more awkward, obvious way to torture children than a Spelling Bee? This morning I witnessed my own child’s Bee. To be fair, she was not up to her normal revel-in-the-spotlight self. She wasn’t feeling well, woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and was rushed out the door to run for the bus. And spelling isn’t necessarily her thing. It’s her brother’s thing. Which he reminded her of before the qualifying test. “They didn’t have the Bee when I was in Middle School, so you’re my only chance.” (None of us pointed out that there is another child in the house. That one’s still warming to the idea of spelling words correctly.) 

After she qualified for the school Bee, her older brother decided he could “train” her. He asked her to spell nonsense words he made up in an attempt to teach her patterns. It made a pretty hilarious comedy routine for the rest of us, but sadly, his efforts were a little too late (first practice was the night before the Bee). She was undone in the third round of the Spelling Bee by the word ‘receptacle’. Tricky word. I had to type it slowly. 

The thing about Spelling Bees is that the words are chosen at random. You might get ‘dog’ or you might get ‘reluctant’ or you might get ‘contemporaneous’. It’s very much a game of luck. And good memory. And the ability to keep track of where you are in the word as you spell it out loud. Some kids had pens with them and wrote the word out on their hand and then simply read it in to the microphone. Seems like cheating to me. I was surprised my daughter didn’t employ this method since she is constantly scrawling the lyrics of her favorite songs on her arms. 

At any rate, as I watched my beautiful, smart child on stage nervously trying to recall “receptacle” my heart hurt. She is so very bright, but at that moment she felt much less than bright. In fact, when I met her on the way out, she said, “I’m so stupid.” Wrong. I told her this and pointed out that she was one of only 28 students out of the entire school who had qualified to be on that stage. Still, she walked out of there feeling less smart.  

I’m sure the Bee affects different kids differently and deep down she is proud of the fact that she qualified for the Bee. Her brother certainly is. I heard him bragging to another high school student that his little sister had qualified for the Spelling Bee. He then went on to explain his inventive training program. 

A long time ago when my oldest child was lamenting that he wasn’t a superstar soccer player, his father reassured him that he was a superstar in other areas. He told him, “If there was a travel team for reading, you’d be on it.” So I guess the Spelling Bee is basically the travel team for English. It’s something to be proud of and an experience that will most likely seem better in retrospect.  

I hope the memory will be one of pride and not failure. Our kids are constantly putting themselves out there – testing their academic prowess or their athletic ability. Measuring themselves against their peers. The test of character is not which round they make it through in the Bee or how many goals they scored in the big game, it’s what they do with the assessment of their abilities. Are they proud of their efforts? Will it inspire them to work harder or will it cause them to pack up and go home?
We are constantly judging ourselves. I’m not sure if it is good or bad, but I know that it is a constant. Very few people, if any, refrain from comparisons. Spelling Bees are brutally embarrassing ways to rank abilities.  

When my daughter comes home this afternoon, I will tell her again how well she did. I will watch her face to see if the Bee has inspired her or defeated her. This was a big, public assessment, but every day in smaller ways our kids are working out their spot in line. They wrestle with the demons that doubt them. They are sorting out their abilities, their preferences, trying on possibilities. Society tells them that they must be the best. Just getting on the stage is not enough. 

Most likely she will have already left the Bee at school. “Spelling,” she’ll tell me, “is stupid.” As long as she doesn’t tell me she is stupid. Then she’ll sit down at her piano or pick up her guitar and make music. It is her medicine for everything that ails her. 

My youngest, non-spelling child is anxiously awaiting the results of the preliminary screening for the Geography Bee. He hopes to make it again this year. At ten, he is confident about the world and his place in it. The teen years will change all that.