Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Short Story: The McJudgerson I Have Been

A Short Story: The McJudgerson I Have Been

It was tiring.  A day and then some.  Jake was in the stroller and let me tell you something about my baby.  He used to lick things.  Public surfaces, random objects, rarely his food.  Yes, I am disgusted just writing about it.  But I came in for shorts, and now I was holding bright yellow plastic like flats with a bow because, well, Jake licked them.  Right off the sale display table, right in front of 3 sales people having a powwow on how fabulous they all look.  They were not so absorbed, however, to avoid Jake and his tongue caressing the rubbery shoe like it was a brand new lollipop.  Hot dog.  New shoes.  Not.  There’s not a moment I wear those ridiculous things that are impossible to garden in, even if I liked dirt, or walk in the rain, because, let’s face it; they really don’t keep my feet dry, no sir, there’s not a moment I wear them without thanking God for the extraordinary constitution of my boy that he is not in the hospital with an unknown foreign parasite.  (Those were a lot of surfaces under the age of 3.) 

But I persevered you see, because I needed shorts.  While the collective number of days in New England on which one could wear them were not vast in number, it still got mighty hot.  I could not hide in jeans forever—although I really wanted to try, I needed new shorts.  And I had figured out the perfect length of 5 inches, which creeped enough over my backside and inched downward until a decent amount of post-baby leg was swathed comfortably in khaki. 

In the present day, I have a nice array to choose from.  The 7, 5 or 4-inch inseam is largely dependent on the state my thighs are in that particular morning.  No pressure warrants a 4, increased a 5 and well, you can imagine the state of the 7.  Which brings me right back to J.Crew where I was trying to get some shorts, with coverage.  This seemed to be an oxymoron. 

“Why!” I seethed and muttered in frustration, “do you carry these in the store for $45 with a 3 inch inseam?!”  And right behind me, probably monitoring Jake’s rogue tongue, was the perkiest, teeniest, sales associate ever.  And she had lovely teeth.  I don’t know why I remember that. 

J Crew Lady: “Well, they’re very popular.”
Me (thinking): with what kind of alien stick figure, and who would they be popular with?  The thighs that can enter these shorts without any kind of circulatory threat, are usually young and they cannot AFFORD them.
JCL: “Would you like to try them on?”
Me: “No.”
JCL: “No?”
Me:  “No, but I thank you, because until today, this very second, I had no idea that I resembled a thirteen year old girl.”

Withhold your criticism!  I had had no coffee and just purchased weird shoes.  And anyway, she just smiled at me, puzzled, and floated away.  On $118 dollar heels.  Wearing the very shorts I was twisting in my claw like hands. 

Which sets the stage nicely for this story because I bought some new shorts this past weekend.  I now live in Florida, and it’s part of the uniform.  Or I can melt.  Or just mildew.  In any case, moist is an adjective that is best for cakes.  I’ve been working out to keep my middling swell at bay and it’s a job and a half because I just cannot do what I need to do or know I need to do to really detox and jump start the metabolism cracking.  So I had to buy some shorts, and you know this is a trial. 

Everywhere you go you see women in varying degrees of warm weather clothing, even if it isn’t shorts weather where you are, you have been, I’m willing to bet, at some point, in a place where you were surrounded by a veritable cornucopia of summer styles that would make any fashion editor’s head spin.  You’ve sat with your family, eating ice cream and allowed your eyes to wander to the rest of the crowd, and you see it.  Women wearing too short or too scarce of something that allows the eye to see things that perhaps should be best saved for indoors.  I’ve done it.  I’ve judged it.  And every time I do it, whisper mutter to myself about the woman in question, I feel completely justified…or am I?  Because here I am talking about self-worth and self-acceptance and self whatever, and I’m being a McJudgerson all by myself. 

I was trying to figure this out, why I care enough to comment on a fellow traveler.  So I am confessing to you that I am unloading the snark because I am jealous.  I know it seems small and silly but that's where I've located it.  I am jealous that this woman can wear these things and not care about what anyone thinks and I am struggling with inseam length.  I am vexed that a lady feels so comfortable to wear a bikini (hot pink at that) when I have not done so in ALL MY YEARS ON THIS EARTH (even where nothing on me rubbed together) and allow everything to fall where it needs to.  I am envious that this woman feels so secure that she can allow everyone to see the sleeve of permanent ink on her arm as she feeds her toddler the gruel that is the same no matter what socio-economic rung you hang from.  I am irritated that this woman does not feel the need to dress in slimming black but is wearing white and could not care less what day it is even if it isn’t Memorial and that it basically is drawing my eye straight to her and seeing that she is completely content. 

Why.  Why.  Why.  Am I doing this?  How many conversations have we had amongst our girlfriends that go something like this:

Me: “You look great!”  (Honest but I am also being nice because I’m fishing for an equal and resolute compliment myself.)

You: “No I don’t!  I’m soooo fat!”

Me: “Oh, please, no you don’t!  You look awesome.”  (Because I earnestly feel she does and I am comparing myself and she looks better than I do.  And has great nails.)

You: “Well, thank you, but I do need to do something.”

And we go on to something else all the while I am glad that the status remains that way because then I can feel comfortable being uncomfortable and not the best I can be.  It stinks.

I have read recently that certain designers are resizing their brands to make their customer base feel better.  For example, a former size 10 will now be an 8, it’s still a 10 but for many a day, you can look at that label and convince yourself the donut did not matter in the least.  Maybe it’s worth something, I don’t know.  What I do know, is that until we stop with the pressure to be and sit right with what we are right now, it’ll never be a good thing.  Snark overload.  McJudgersons everywhere.  We are fighting each other and nobody wins.

  • Your arms may continue waving long after you’ve said farewell, but remember who you held in those arms just a moment ago and how much that little said he felt always safer there? 

  • Your stomach may carry all the crowded lines and scars of a war, but consider the spoil of the battle—isn’t she worth it?

  • Your legs may not be where you need them; the thighs may spread past the point of comfort in company, but look at where they’ve led you?

It’s true, right?  You know it is.  Don’t believe me, just ask anyone who knows you.  Ask them what they think.  And here’s the hard part.  BELIEVE them.

Just the other day, I was out with my family, and I saw this woman, she was wearing those short jean shorts and what appeared to be an orange bikini top under a tight tank top.  She was bending over to fix her small son’s shorts.  And I overheard them, women like me snarking it up.  “How could she wear that?”  “My eyes hurt.”  “Some people should learn how to dress.”  I understood them, because I was one of them. 

They were mine just as I was theirs…but I was hers too.  I believe that this woman, the judged upon, has probably heard all of it before.  In fact, I’ll betcha that she’s heard it almost all of her life.  At some point, I reckon, she just stopped listening so she could get out of her door and LIVE.  

Because she’s finally figured out what we are all just too busy being  jealous/vexed/envious/irritated to accept, that the worries and the wherefores and the whys stop you from going, living, being and doing the one last strange trip we’ve got.  Life.

So again, here we go.  Wearing our size out and allowing the judgments to stand. 

Will you do something with me? 

Instead of the internal evilogue that goes through your mind when you see the woman that you think isn’t “quite right,” can you think instead: what can I do to be as brave as she is today? Because in locating the brave in her, invigorates the brave in you, a chain reaction of the good that eliminates the snark and will bring comfort, security and contentedness no matter what you decide to wear.  Tim Gunn, notwithstanding, do this, and you'll make it work--whatever that "it" is.
For me, being brave today is wearing the t-shirt that my mind is telling me may be a little too snug.  And the knowledge that whatever shorts I grab will be for myself, because I know what makes me me and time is too brief not to be brave.  So, tell me--tell me about your brave below in the comments.  And please, don’t go anywhere.  I’m due for a new swimsuit, and if there is anything that takes a fizz out of a pop faster, it’s the lighting in those rooms.  I need you sister, egads.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Thoughts on Hunger and the Passion

Thoughts on Hunger and the Passion

This has been a harder winter season than most for my friends home and up North.  The beauty of a wiped clean world, with the quiet of snow gave way to a tremendous ache for newly shorn days of budding and growing things.  Of waking up after a long dormancy.  There has been such a hunger for Spring.  Growing up, Spring always meant the bloom
Tidal Basin Cherry Trees
of the Tidal Basin cherry trees, and the hope we'd get to see them before a typical shower would blow them all away.  My father was so fond of them, he finally planted one in our front yard, where its gentle fragility reminded all of us how fleeting the newness of things can become.  

It is in this cycle of dormancy, renewal, celebration and quiet that we begin again, the season of Easter.  This past Palm Sunday, we participated in the story of the Crucifixion, to hear the judgment and sanction of Jesus.  "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?"


When Christ utters these words on Calvary, it is a
moment of tremendous pain that is born of mighty belief.  For his thirty years, he never wavered from the path set for him.  He always knew his fate.  This is what we are told from scripture.  The bound together gospels that were chosen long before we appeared, exist collected as a record of faith, this is the story I know.  Yet, it is difficult to reconcile that for me.  To live as man, yet to be divine.  To live as one among many, to see anguish, desire, hunger, avarice, joy, need and yet to want none.  To be tempted by none.  To rise above it.  I am told he is human, battling what we battle, come to earth to experience all that it is to be human, to love and be loved with all the wealth of that experience…but to do so with a terrifying end.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This question draws me closer to the Christ that I was meant to know.  Even with all of his prescient knowledge, still there is a moment of despair.  Of extraordinary sorrow.  Of fear.  It is in this moment, before Christ pronounces his work finished, that he joins those who he has died to serve.  Here he is unalteringly, unswervingly and steadfastly human.   "Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?"  How many times have I felt the same?  Lost, abandoned, in misery and with no hope.  Locked in a terror so cold and dark that I could not feel or find my way out.  I asked for help and saw nothing.  The darkness of depression came on for me after years of living on the fringe of self-management.  Coping mechanisms that no longer worked.  Fears of failure that chased me through door after door, year after year.  The list of struggles is not even as long as those I am privileged to call friend, but they are there—the attention I sought by lying my way into sympathies, the criticism I received from a father who was angry and addicted, the resentment I felt from a mother who did not step in to the wake of abuse that followed, the continual dissolution I endured from a relationship where I was told, repeatedly, why I was not good enough, the disbelief when a God who was present would not save my sick parent, the unfamiliar disappointment of a husband whose dreams were destroyed, the subliminal edge of razor sharp grief of a child lost,  these and more are the shadows where I chose to walk, turning my back on hope and saying that it was not meant for me. 

And yet.  The pull and the call back to the comfort that God provided for me was not something I could ignore.  First it was my mother’s faith, that she followed willingly into a death that would forever separate us here, and I can still see her, the last moments of her life pleading in Malayalam, “I cannot take it.  Why?  I cannot…” her head as shiny as a new sun, covered in sweat, looking up unseeing at God, pleading for release, not understanding her pain. My anger at the loss of blessing response was immutable and resolute.  It smoldered, quietly and steadily for a calendar year only to be resolved at the insistent acknowledgement of my son when he came into the world.  He battle cried me back to life and to joy and to faith.  His call was sent straight from God willing me back to something greater than I thought I could bear, something I thought I did not have the courage to act upon—my own life.   Because he felt it too.  He felt the despair and the brokenness and he felt alone and betrayed and sad and hollow.  He endured, he did what he was told to do.  He was  spent in suffering.  He walked that path before us.  He suffered for us.  Each step was his agony.  

Passion, Christ’s passion is taken from the Greek word paschein, which means, “to suffer.”  It is counter-intuitive to our earthly vibration to the word, which connotes something consuming, fiery and sensual.  And this, I think is where we meet our faith head on.  In between the heat of our desire and the suffering of the eternal.  The crux of the meeting of our belief is this: the passion we have for the lives we live and the love we have for the God we serve. 

The doubts are many, we only have to open any paper on any day and see the stories that test our understanding of why we must endure and keep moving towards eternity.   Even now, this moment, with forgiveness on my heart, I feel unsteady, like I am not so certain that the broken can be shared. Every flaw in the design of my life, the cracks I can see where hope seeps through, I begin again to find myself in the quicksand of uncertainty.  It was on such a day, a normal day of hard, that in tearful prayer of worry where I asked why had I not been heard?  Had I not been faithful?  Was I not saying, "yes?"  There it was as plain as cotton, unbleached and unmoving: "My life is God's prayer." (Psalm 42:8 MSG).  Five life changing, shattering words.

Prayer is an act of communion with God.  And communion means community.  A chance to talk freely over my life and worries, hopes and fears. When I pray, I do it with thanksgiving and for protection against all manner of illness and sorrow, for the alleviation of burdens, for the healing of anger.   And I expect that my God does the same for me, and for you, his beloved.

Your life is God’s prayer.  And as sure as I am writing this, I know that the prayer being said is not one of pain wished, addiction continued, or abuse heaped, it is of healing given, freedom offered, and love abounding.  This passion, ours and God’s, it is met and bound in the intangible act of faith.  This is what is asked of us, to bear witness again to unspeakable torture and to not be unmoved but to act with resilience and great courage to love.  The God I know does not wish anything less.  The passion you enact is steadily bringing you into closer resolve with a great peace.  

I do not want you broken.  I do not want you hurt.  I want you whole and joyful, I want you to know that you are loved and held up.  I want you to be the miracle you were meant to be.  Let me lift you this Easter season.  Let us celebrate the fact that despite the broken, we are loved and wanted just as we are.  Let the prayer for our lives ring throughout the year, forgiveness at our back,  and the promise of renewal and reconciliation within our collected grasp.  

We are given the opportunity to begin again, to experience the sacrifice, the ferocity of love, the passion of God to bind our wounds and allow us to do the greatest work, of loving and seeing and knowing one another.  Of carrying each other through life with grace and thanksgiving.  Of allowing the time to forgive the unsteadiness of decisions past and present.  You who are struggling and burdened with the seismic shifts of your own landscape.  Give me your hand, let me help you climb to higher ground.   We are God's prayer, and with it we are in communion with him and with one another.  A community of hope.   To you who are so holy and wholly loved, Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Boarding the Mothership--My Messy Beautiful

Boarding the Mothership—My Messy Beautiful

I see you. 
ship kite

In the parking lot.  And you are telling your 3 year old that she cannot run, while you balance the baby out of the car and into the cart.  I see you wipe your hair that has escaped the holder out of your eyes as you drag the diaper bag off of the ground.  Your body is still swollen and you feel it, like a deflated balloon that has little air left, like the shadows of too long days that remain under each eye.

I see you. 

As you sigh and stifle a scream of frustration that the same child you’ve nurtured alone for years has sent a rocket missile of juice straight at your car window, where it has exploded, red and orange mist coloring everything on the fibered back seat that you didn’t want but could barely afford.  It’s open call warfare, and you don’t know where the battlefield is but run it every day. 

I see you. 

Searching for better days and wondering where they can be found between the few dollars left in your checking account and the gallon of milk sitting in the check out line.  At the doctor again and trying to be heard above the jargonfray that you know sick when you see it and can’t they just for once believe you?  And the cushion for the couch has been turned too many times and the group is coming tonight and you’re hoping a bright pillow and low lighting will negate the spillage of sauce and milk and diapers.

I see you. 

When you are rocking your son to sleep in a closet of dark and can just make out the chipped toenails from the treat you gave yourself many, many months ago.  Missing the counter when you are placing a glass of water on it because you could not see exactly where the edge was and feeling that the accompanying shock and smash spoke something in your soul that was yearning to break free. 

I see you.

Tormented by the out-of-control anger spewing from the child you thought you knew as soon as you stepped foot in the coolness of the grocery, a writhing display of rage that you wish by sugar will go away but is refused as are you when you catch the eye of cooking demonstration lady who curls her upper lip in disgust and you glance down and close your eyes against the silent accusation that you are not good at this.  Cleaning and cleaning and cleaning rooms, processing dank for fresh, spinning from garden to skillet, wiping, sweating wondering at excess and brokenness and none of it ever, ever caught up. 

I see you.  I know you.  You are not alone in this
 We’re all on the same ship. 

You answer the questions of the universe.  You bandage all the wounds of every soul.  You contain the fears of the entire world beneath a lined brow.  You stack magazines in hopes that one day they’ll be read and silently weep when you read the thermometer telling you another child has to be home from school all day when you thought you might be free of immediate care and worry of another.  You step on the scale of discouragement and renew it afresh.  You balance the books of need against those of want and always leave the store feeling shortchanged.

You know where motherhood is?  At the corner of movement and mercy.  With side roads of funny and deep sorrow, and back roads of judgment and memory.  There are no shortcuts.  There are only long trips.  All of us are on that strange ride, and where we’re going is not so simple.  We’re swimming for grace.  And you know who the combatants often are?  Our own kin.  Our own people.  Let me tell you a story. 

If I close my eyes, I can see myself, the scuffed and worn new balance slip-ons that were dirty and old, loose threads everywhere.  Old sugoi running pants that I wore even though my running would only be from a “life or death” type of situation, or a “child being pinned underneath something trauma,” not by choice.  They worked.  They were black and could give me the allusion of being fit.  A favorite sweatshirt, maroon.   All-in-all, I thought, a passable uniform of feigned athleticism that I could get away with.  Even here.  Even at the fancy library in West Hartford.  I was so out of my element.  But the problem was, I wouldn’t have known what the element was to begin with anyway.  So I sit uneasily on the padded primary color bench and watch as Sam bangs a baby doll’s head against the toy refrigerator.  Clearly, he has such caring instincts; I feel satisfied that he’s vaguely entertained, and the baby is sleeping.  The era of smartphones hasn’t arrived for me, and, anyway, if I took my eyes off of him, Sam probably would have taken another child’s doll and bashed their itty-bitty heads together.  What I’m saying is I had to watch, sister.  There was no way out of it.  And I was solo.  Then. 

“Hi,” I smile widely at her,” pushing my bangs and knocking my glasses off kilter, “I remember your son’s name.  We’re in music class together.”  The last few words are slower and softer because I can see in her eyes once surprised are now steeling themselves and there is no recognition there.  There is no give, there is no inside familiarity.  “Yes.” She says slowly, “I know you.”  Then Jodi gets up and walks away, but not before she looks me over pointedly and it is one of those high school moments of team picking panic where everyone else’s eyes are on you too and the comparisons are being made:  My slip-ons/ her boots, my pants/her trim, skinny jeans that seem store new, my sweatshirt/her cashmere, my bunched up hair and her artfully pinned brown waves.  A smile curls around her mouth and it isn’t one of welcome or sisterhood, it’s of mean mommy gatekeeper and I knew without a single word that I hadn’t made the cut. 

I feel myself burning in shame.  No one else says a thing.  They talk to their own children, the nannies gossip near the windows.  I pick up my no-name diaper bag and try to find Sam near the Lego table.  Another mother grimaces as she hands me a sippy cup, I look at her Petunia Picklebottomed self and sigh.  I should’ve stayed home.  The world is not welcoming here.  But as I call his name in panic and worry, and you know the tone I’m talking about, the one that you hear as clear as a high pitched alarm of one mother saying her child’s name and worried that he will most likely come to immanent harm, I cannot find him.  The new mother’s yell that is secondary only to her baby’s.  “Sam!”  “Sam, please come back!”  I couldn’t leave.  The stroller and the baby encased in it. I don’t know anyone here; the children’s floor is too big, the rows of books too vast and the librarians just not as friendly as my own in my own small town 20 minutes east of this shiny place.  “Sam!” I bellow to the disapproval of so many female eyes, both librarian and motherly alike.  And then I see her again, in the distance, Sam running toward her, Jodi.  “Sam, please stop!”  Jodi can see me.  I know she can, she can hear me and even though I don’t pass, and even if she doesn’t like me, she will stop him won’t she?  She’ll help me.  But as I say his name again, close to tears this time because I am tired and the baby has started to cry and the simple trip to the fancy library has turned to be a nightmare, she holds my gaze…and steps aside. 

I’ve never forgotten the lost emptiness of that moment.  Of being at one end of a wide white corridor of doom with the cool at one end and me at the other.  

But I had something else on my side, something she didn’t, and if the hallway tipped to scale I would have been weighted down with it—grace. 

Grace is where you are. 

That’s not just what I believe.  It’s what I know.  Because not so long after I had dusted myself off, got a shower and was able to regulate my breathing apart from my baby’s, I began to find those who saw me.  And it was on a day when my feet were firmly planted in friendship that I saw Jodi again.  This time I had my ally, this time I was with my friend Caryn.    I’ve no poker face, everything shows up, so Caryn asked me what was wrong.  I told her the story, as hurriedly as I could, and Caryn, holding her youngest child looked as bewildered as any saying, “But why would she do that Sara?  We’re all on the mothership, just drowning together.”  Yes. YES.  Drowning maybe.  But together indeed.  Because the end doesn’t come, grace comes instead. You are living it, you are breathing it, you are moving through it and toward it and in it. 

Grace is where you are
It is where you stand, port out, starboard home.  
It is where you stand with your people.  

I can speak with some ease now from those days of haltering fear. My fellow passengers are an embarrassment of riches in number.  They are the ones who don’t remember the last time they drank a beverage while it was still hot.  The ones who used a couple of newborn diapers in a pinch because the next size up was forgotten from the last huge blowout from a toddler who thought that toilets were for playing in not sitting on.  They were the ones who heated up macaroni and cheese for the third time that week because the mere thought of pulling together something with vegetables made them wince. They were the ones who understood when you looked at them blankly on the playground and mumbled, “caillou.”  My people.  When you become a mother, and it doesn’t matter how, you enter into a community of women previously closed to you.  I have no idea how it has become this way in our society right now, but motherhood is a very, very lonely proposition.  And it didn’t used to be.  It was never meant to be.  I’m sure everyone has heard the Nigerian phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.”  It doesn’t.  It really doesn’t.  It takes a village to make a mother.  And that village became my ship, and their number created buoyancy, and their spirits lifted my own. 

For them it doesn’t matter how I look or walk, the snazziness of my stroller or my child’s hand-me-down sweater, when I look up and feel unsteady, they hand me a cup of coffee while wiping up my child’s nose and grant me their sea legs until I can balance again.  Because we’re all on the mothership, setting sail for grace.  The directional map is the acknowledgement of hope.  Offer that next mom you see with the anxious eyes and eager heart your hands to cling to.  Pull her to the safety of your shore.  The life you preserve will surely be your own. 

Grace and peace be with you, my gentle,  messy, beautiful fellow warrior mother.  Welcome aboard.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Help Me Help You Help Him": The Conferences Aren't the Point...

“Help Me Help You Help Him”: The Conferences Aren’t the Point…

…communication is.  And it is exhausting.  I have three boys.  All the teachers require conferences,
and to be honest, I’ve requested them too,
sometimes in the “off season.”  Because I kind of feel that way when I gear up for these meetings, like I’m ready to be on offense (and defense) when the need arises.  You are your child’s best advocate.  You know him better than anyone.  You spend the most time with him than anyone, including, in my case, my spouse.  You know what he’s capable of and what he is struggling with.  You see the tears, and cajole, plead, LOUDLY ask, then finally wearily demand.  My kids’ collective attention span, I often think, are that of a gnat. 

Then the anxiety starts.  My eldest wants straight As.  He is constantly distracted and unwaveringly anxious.  If he brings home less than an A, he cries, he questions his intelligence.  This last one, I admit, brings me to my knees in frustration.  He is 8.  Eight.  If I can’t get him to get ahead of his anxiety now, what happens later?  I know all about this kind of performance anxiety.  But not through this. 

There was a level of expectation, a kind of miasma of horrible blue steel cold in my house.  The stage was set for constant fear of bringing home less than an A.  A father who demanded perfection, a child whose abilities lay outside the realm of math and music.  Tears were not allowed.  Crying just forbidden.  I had to present my case calmly or face the consequences.  Tiredness was not an excuse.  I once held a compass and traced circles for hours.
  When checked, none were perfect.  My hand, not steady enough.  I was 10.  Now in the difficulty of dementia, my father cannot explain why he made me go through that.  Why he didn’t give me leave to just be.  That compass--it represented mathematical certainty, a complete precise whole.  Round and full.  Placed inside its bubble, I was never, ever going to grow.  How different it would have been, if he had given me an alternate compass instead.  How much more profound if it had been his hand that held it sure to show that there was not going to be any kind of path on which I would be lost.  A way in which to go journeying to learn and yet know true north, know the road home.  Because in the end, isn't that what it all is?  This learning we do?  To find roads and to double back to share what we know?  

I can only assume that the cost of my inability gave further light into his own.  That my lack was a reflection of his own failure.  That his heated, misshapen sadness, bespoke his own insecurity.  It’s the legacy that I need to live down.

But try as I might.  It creeps in, this clutch pit fear and quake.  This edgeofbrainmessy questioning of the “what ifs?”  What if he doesn’t get this now and he’s tested and labeled as not good enough.  

Because if there is something school does well it is putting you in a box, and despite the reforms and unforms, the boxes have shifted, but they still hold and retain their shape.  

I want more for them.  I think their teachers do too.  I think boxes are convenient and kids are extravagant.  I think teachers get that.  I think bureaucracy does not.  But what if, what if whatever box they are put in on that sunswept day labels them in a way that they can’t move forward despite my telling them otherwise?  So I quake.  And my head feels bobbly unsure on my achy neck, and on many days on the knife-edge of compassion and irritation is where you’ll find me.

So I’ve lost it and done my father’s memory proud on occasion.  Lately, I’ve given the boys permission to put me in a time out if they see me spiraling downward.  A death spiral of educational fear.  “Mommy,” Sam will say bravely, clutching his number 2 ticonderoga, “you’re losing it.”  So I throw up my hands and march to the garage where I sigh and breathe and think of the damage I’ve done on unformed hands.  I come back contrite and meek and we start again.  I’ve told them why I get all wackadoodle.  I’ve told them that I am someone who is afraid.  And I’ve told them I just want them to be happy.  Whatever else.  I tell myself this as I collect
papers, and workbooks and tap out graphite shavings into the waste bin.  “Just be happy,” I think, as the smell of pencils hits me fresh and my own worry overtakes again because smellmemory is poignant and seductive, “please.”

I think that happens for all of us.  Whatever our story—a teacher who didn’t believe in you, so you stopped trying.  A free-spirited mother who decided whatever you decided to do was fine, so you find yourself years later with a degree and no where to execute it.  A parent who gave your brother a dollar for a good grade when you just couldn’t do it no matter how you tried, so you decided to keep doing something you excelled at, even if its name was trouble.  

If we have children, and with our educational baggage laid out before us, we sail the sea of scholastic uncertainty with buzzing in our ears of our friends’ children’s successes—one of the worst kind of bullying indeed occurs on the sidelines of the playground.  Shoulder pads and a full-face mask would be exceptionally welcome with some of the conversations I’ve encountered.  It is great to rejoice in your children’s successes.  But maybe we’re emphasizing the wrong kind.  You wouldn’t believe the number of likes and comments I got when my eldest got on Honor Roll for straight As, his first time doing so.  My aunt congratulated…me.  It felt amazingly yellow—I was thrilled for myself.  Then I stepped on the scale of accountability and knew it wasn’t mine to accept.  It was his.  And this was stupid.  It goes on though.  Because somehow, the acceptance of your child into that kind of group gives you a right to show yourself as “accomplished.”  Maybe this is what my Dad wanted, I don’t know. 

So here we go.  Conference time.  And I want to understand, that’s all.  I want them to understand the hurt I’m feeling when my child comes to me in tears that he doesn’t feel he can ever do it in the right way.  And that he keeps just missing the brass ring of approval.  I can see their confusion as to why I’m here.  “He’s doing so well,” they say, “he doesn’t display any of this in school.”  Oh, I want them to know--he's always teetering in the Bs, and he works so hard.  This is his first year with letter (and number) grades--points taken off for a missed word here and fraction of a point taken for a partial answer there--I don't remember seeing such numbers until I was in high school.  I’m wearing uncomfortable shoes, the ones that rub my obnoxiously long second toe.  I dressed nicely.  My glasses are clean.  I have my papers in order, I’m trying to see if they can just see me.  Help Me.  Help Me Help You Help Joe.  Because he’s so wonderful (“we agree”) and so kind (“yes, indeed”) but he’s frustrated and sad.  “I’m worried, I say, tightly calm, “about his ability to handle this.”   Because it doesn't seem quite right that the rubrics are so exacting, that between the adults at home we cannot understand the parameters enough to explain them, and there will come a time in his life when an A is not the measure, and a knockdown comes in the form of something the least imagined and not book found or learned.  He will need more than the affirmation of a green letter and corresponding number to navigate his place in this world.  Help Me. 

In the end, maybe we all understood each other a little better--the effort to be known was hopefully received with the right spirit, and I received strategies that I can try with my wondrous boy.  The same one that when I was asked on paper to introduce him to his teachers at the school orientation night, I wrote, “Joe is the most empathetic and compassionate person I know.  He feels others’ hurts as his own.  I wish I was more like him.”  When another parent read over my hand at my words, his eyebrows raised into his perfect hair and he stage whispered to his wife, “Wow—there are some oddballs here.”  Indeed. 

I can only imagine that this, this dance that we do every year is more measured and worrisome, laden and burdened for my fierce friend whose son has a processing disorder.  He sees the world differently.  She is all but worn out trying to get everyone else to see that too.  It doesn’t matter what shoes she wears or how clean the glasses.  Trying to advocate is tough even with the kindest of audiences.  And, she has told me, often, they are not kind.  Often, it is a soul sucking climb without the least bit of oxygen or water.  But she does it.  Because she cannot do it alone.  As much as she is trying to do everything she can.  He needs them and this world.  And they will need him too, ready or not.

I admire greatly what these teachers, who are grossly underpaid, do day in and day out.  They aren’t just telling them facts, they’re teaching these children, our children, how to live.  How to learn, how to play fair, how to respond calmly, how to behave in company that may be indifferent to you.  They do all of this, all day, every day, and go home to emails, lesson plans, dinner, homework for their own children and get up early to do it all again.  Sometimes a few get it wrong and we see the damage it wreaks, but most do it right and again and again until the rightness fits whatever child they see.  The board on which they move keeps changing, and the rules right along with it.  It is difficult weather to navigate.  But they do it, as one teacher said, “for the children.  We’re here for them.”  I don’t believe they want the boxes either but there is no unchecked option.  So I am here.  I want to know.  Yes, grades matter.  There should be a losing team and a winning team.  And life isn’t fair.  But in all of this, all of it, what have we emphasized I wonder?  If so much is made of the As, then what about the Bs?  And if the Bs are second place, what does that make the Cs?  And does character really count at all?  I can’t tell you how many times I interviewed for positions where teaching was said to count most but publications mattered more.  We need better citizens but the test scores are mentioned.  Well-rounded students are welcome but those that have perfect college boards are placed higher on the list. 

Maybe, we can add in some points for citizenship, engagement, and volunteering.  Maybe those categories need to show up on the report card separate and equally necessary.  How many children would work harder in those areas if they were as important?  How much more humane would the learning curve be?  As I type this and wonder at it all, I think about the stain that disappointment left on my future, something I couldn’t erase and still lingers in the fading light of years; I want to be the salve that stops the spots from forming on the brows of my boys.  The one thing I know for sure?  It’s not too late of anything.  Every day is a new day to make it heard.  Help Me. Help Us. Help Them.