Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tales of a Fourth Grade Something

The school year is coming to a close, and where we live it feels like Spring was skipped altogether as the temperatures race higher and higher and higher still.  So summer has been on the minds and feet and and blissfully idle hands of most of the little folk around here for some time.

The amazing Judy Blume's
introduction to "Superfudge" and his
ever suffering older brother.  We all 
need to read this one this summer.
  And here's my take on kids and reading.
Every year I try to make time to think back on what the children have achieved, what has resonated most with them.  We discuss it usually, and they’ve become much more specific with what has impressed them now.  But just lately, when I look over the advice I’ve given, I wonder at how much of it I’ve actually applied to my own grown-up life and been shocked and not a little chagrined at my own growth over the school year.

No, it’s true.  You never do stop learning. 

My eldest son has had a difficult year; the most difficult of his very young life.  He was bullied and from that two weeks came ripples that challenged and changed the very air he drew for the remaining months at school.  He was often preoccupied and his grades, for the first time, struggled.  He said he felt pressure.  He rarely laughed.  It seemed as though friends tumbled out and away from him, and he was left, at the base of a very large, high hill.  Rather than having run up it as he would’ve done just months prior, he considered, evaluated, saw gradations and fault lines that he was convinced wouldn’t carry his weight.  He would remain, it seemed, staring up at it all the while life was going on in a swirl of color and might right out of his frame.

It was numbing and I became afraid for him.  What would this anxiety do to someone so unformed?  And, far more frankly, how can a heart that has been broken by the first glimpse of unkind be mended again?  He told me, this first child, the breaker of assumption, the one for whom I’d hoped I’d find answers for in weighty tomes prior to his birth and collected and scoured anxiously in small hours where anguish and lack of sleep made me paranoid that I knew less than nothing.  

But between us both, you know, I really did not know anything.  

Every day with Joe proves that I am empty of knowledge and he adds to this roomy absence in my education with each and every new discovery and sorrow.  He told me that his old friend had joined the Bully in playing kickball and his fists curled as he said it.  He fought tears.  Which brings me to the first thing fourth grade taught us this year:

1.If you love it, set it free.

The injustice of it to him was startling:  “If you join the side of wrong,” he reasoned, “then you cannot be with me.  And if you choose the side of wrong, is it because there is something wrong with me?  Why can’t you see that going to play that game will make you no better than him?  Why can’t you see that this will only make him stronger?”  

I could see that conflict in the eyes that still mesmerize me.  I sighed.  And shook my head.  And sighed some more.  “Joe,” I said, “you have to let your friends be friends with other people and try new games for themselves.  You don’t have to be with them, but you do have to let them try.  Everyone is allowed every chance in the world to make their own choices.  It doesn’t make this boy any less your friend—unless he says he’s not.

He nodded.  I don’t think he believed me fully, but wouldn’t you know a month or so later, his friend was back to playing with Joe on more than one occasion finding the fit of the kickball field an uneasy one after all.  The lesson for me?  I have to let go too.

I have watched myself go through this same feeling of injustice—seeing a friend wanting to go and play elsewhere.  Not liking it.  But feeling powerless and rejected because of it.  I felt unhappy and confused.  I tried various methods of courtship to counter the distance but nothing was satisfactory.  Ultimately, someone who wants to spend time with you, and put the effort into whatever your friendship requires, will do so.  Don’t wait up with the light on.  Either it will happen or it won’t.  Eat some ice cream, wallow in self-pity for a few nights.  Watch some fantastic
©Paramount 1986 Pretty in Pink

John Hughes films. 
©Paramount 1986 Ferris Bueller
And then, allow your life to tuck you back in.  Say good-bye to that chapter and don’t allow its pages to consume you again.  You have many many many more books you have to read.

©Paramount 1984 Sixteen Candles

2. “Screw your courage to the sticking place!”

Joe didn’t want to let that friend go, remember?  And it doesn’t seem fair to have invested time and love and attention and care to someone and then say good-bye to him or her.  If it were easy, a whole industry of break-up blues would have nowhere to be.  

I think though, among the ashes of old loves, the
crumbling of friendships has the most stinging of embers.  I’ve alluded to a friendship gone wrong before, and that incident, so awful in my mind and heart to someone I had cared for and demonstrated that care to, and who is still around me to this day, someone with whom I have mutual friends in common, well, this is tough.  

I’d made up my mind though, that I would not be treated in that manner and once made, that decision to honor myself enough to say “no” to someone whose interests did not truly include my good, had to remain steadfast.  In Abraham Verghese’s novel, Cutting for Stone, his amiable and loving Ghosh tells his adopted sons to “screw [their] courage to the sticking place” and to not back away from it.  We now say that here.  

And so when I felt doubtful, when I felt that the maddening crowd of mutual friends were drifting toward her rather than seeing me standing there, in courage, alone, I felt I should reconsider my stance.  “Come on Mommy—screw your courage to the sticking place!”  In the end, the decisions that are healthiest for us require constant reminders so that you do not fall like a discarded note among so many other resolutions.  Keep your resolve. 

3.What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Then I found him again preoccupied; his two friends, his only ones (or so he believed), were in conflict and Joe was scared to take what he perceived were “sides”—does he go to one soccer team or the other?  No one wanted him to play anyway.  No one thought he was any good.  They stuck him as goalie because of it.  He wasn’t good at anything after all.  No, no no.  It would be better to stay away altogether and not insult either friend.  It was better, in his own lonely and bereaved soul to sit quietly and “review his day.”  

At this my motherly patience was bone-dry.  “Review your day?!” I said in a slow loud growl, “that.is.crazy.Joe!”  After I marched into the garage and stubbed my toe kicking the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe that is too small for any of these gangly limbed boys now, I came back in slightly calmer and crouched uncomfortably to him, leaning in and
saying, “Joe, you have to stop this.  You have to.  None of this is real, this worry you have in your head.  Your fear of your future is robbing you of it.  You need to ask your friends for help on the soccer field, ask for them to pass you the ball.  If you like them, and trust them, they will do this for you.  They will help you.  A friend loves at all times.” 

Don't let your fear of your future rob you of it.  My perception has needed to shift more than once.  Nowhere is this more clear than with my own perception of my appearance and performance. 

 The writing I didn’t do was making me agitated and irritable, and that failure—that tiny perception that I was already not doing, started a domino feeling of failing just about everything:  Why not eat that—I’ll never get the weight off anyway.  Why not just sit and brood, nothing will change after all.  What good is prayer—when has God heard me?  I don’t think any of us, if honest, haven’t felt some or all of the same.  Sometimes simultaneously.  The thing is, a head shaking, toe stubbing, growl session is required.  Usually with a friend who will hold a mirror of honesty to you and tell you that yes, indeed it is ALL in your head.  That you can do it.  That you are doing it.  And that you will continue to be amazing at it. 

4.“Please,” “thank you” and a heartfelt “I’m sorry” can change the world.

My husband and children went to see my in-laws for a weekend away, and they came home with their pockets full of all sorts of crazy Nanny filled tokens—as well as one for me.  A note that told me that I should be so proud of them, that “please and thank you were the order of the day” that my mother-in-law had “never seen such polite and likable” children.  

I’m fortunate that I get that from more than a doting relative though.  And it makes me realize again, how “please” and “thank you” and especially, a heart felt “I’m sorry” can really and truly change the world.  As for the first two magic phrases—it makes your day brighter and more optimistic when people are polite and kind.  It matters.  And we can be better by speaking the small words of request and gratitude when called for, even in the face of those who may not deserve it. And the last well, when I saw the kids fighting, I instituted a new “hug-it-out” policy. 

The tender shot that I thought was
giggles--nope, that was pain both
the giving and the receiving.  Oy.

I thought it was working quite well until the baby shook his head like new wiper blades saying he was NOT going to hug-it-out EVER.  “Why ever not?” I asked.  “It hurts,” was the simple reply.  And this wasn’t a metaphorical, coming to grips with the emotional damage caused kind of pain—he meant actual physical pain.  They weren’t hugging it out—they were crushing each other with their little stick arms. 

After I understood that bruising was the end goal of my little idea, rather than understanding, I changed tactics.  You needed to say “I’m sorry” for sure, but you needed to tell the brother in question why you were sorry.  And if you got it wrong, offended brother got to tell you, “You hurt me when you ______.”  And offending brother needed to say, “I’m sorry I hurt you when I ____________….”  It sounds pedantic doesn’t it?  But the truth is, so much of our pain comes from not being heard adequately.  And that those hurts are then not addressed responsibly.  It reminds me very much of
See Dr. Pausch's "Last Lecture"
what Randy Pausch said regarding an apology, “A good apology has three parts. (a) I am sorry, (b) it was my fault, (c) how do I make it right. Most people neglect the third part and fail to demonstrate sincerity.”

When you’re wrong you need to say that you are sorry, even if you had only a small part in that hurt.  Your goal cannot be to highlight your own pain in it.  If you value the person you have hurt, your sole purpose has to make her world right again.  

Sometimes that means swallowing crow whole and making yourself accountable for it, especially if you don’t like it, because that is what grown-ups do.  

Say you are sorry.  Really sorry.  Mean it.  

Find out what you can do to make it better if you want that person in your life, if you don’t, then don’t do the latter.  But saying you are sorry to see someone else hurting should not be difficult.  Especially if you have caused that pain, the difficulty is looking at yourself in the mirror and considering why you did it in the first place. 

Your whole world is filled with people.  Every day, all the time.  For Joe those people are small and yet so incredibly, impossibly big.  Their thoughts and actions influence his.  The school is a magnet for
messages and ideas about others, and those travel.  Concrete blocks of school walls do nothing to stop reputations from singing and being singed.  

It is that fast.  Joe’s always been the first one to say, “I’m sorry.”  And it doesn’t even matter if he did nothing to that stranger classmate who has been hurt—it matters that the child’s hurt was acknowledged by somebody.  

And they’ll remember Joe.  And they will do the same.  Because just like gossip and pressure to be “cool” runs like water through our schools, so can the good in the same bodies and minds that occupy them.  All it takes is a first, awkward, hopeful step—and tremendous courage.

I do not like to see anyone hurt.  So there have been times I have done the apology in absentia.  I’ve apologized for the hurt that caused my friend’s voice to go small.  I’ve said “I’m so sorry” to the store clerk who I see was yelled at by the lady in line ahead of me.  It isn’t hard, and that’s all we need to be whole and heard.  To be able to say at the end of the day that we were seen.  Sometimes apologies can do this.  And it’s worth it to try.

5. We can and will be kind, especially when we don’t feel like it.

Joe had enough of trying some days.  Those usually characterized a staring out into space, or a nail biting time trying to figure out if his one friend would, in fact come over to play soccer in the backyard.  He was curt and cutting to his younger brothers.  Their willingness to carry his sorrow and their conviction that he was the greatest, did nothing for him.  

He was unkind.  And cruel and sometimes a combination of both.  That would not do.  At all.  In my telling Joe that we needed so much to be kind first at home, to our people, our family who will be there when all else falls away, it made me pause to consider why kindness is so lacking now.  

It is so much more difficult, it seems, to take the blink of time to be kind.  In Donna Tartt’s sublime, The Goldfinch, she writes of her protagonist, Theo that “It didn't occur to me then, though it certainly does now, that it was years since I'd roused myself from my stupor of misery and self absorption; between anomie and trance, inertia and parentheses and gnawing my own heart out, there were a lot of small, easy, everyday kindnesses I'd missed out on...”(470; my emphasis).  And then in another, quite different book, Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black about just the same, she writes, “The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I shall assume
you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me
as good belongs to you."--From Walt Whitman's

"Song of Myself" in Leaves of Grass (1855)
that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others” (242; my emphasis).  Both quotations point to similar ideas—the privileging of self over all else in a world where the celebration of self has become very different since Walt Whitman’s Song.  It is no longer affirming; it is obsessive.  

We have become seduced into believing that the Individual matters much much more than anyone else. 

So we cannot reach for kindness to others, because self-obsession has cured our care into something far more sinister, a lack of observance to the need of others.  It does not take much to be kind.  

And I am sure that we can reach for it, exercise the intuitive muscles required to acknowledge the grace in someone new.  The reward is so profoundly and unadulteratedly—collectively—beautiful.  Happier people.  Happier world. 
I addressed this absence of
kindness on social media
Here is my post as it appeared
a few weeks ago on

FB after a particularly taxing morning.

6. You need to search for—and find—new words for new experiences.

“Well, you know, it’s kind of like when the guy went there and then like he just got in a huge argument with like another kid.”  

In another commensurate galaxy, I taught collegiate English literature.  I was very happy to get to talk books with students as my career.  During some of those classes, I had to assign presentations.  That is when I came to absolutely cringe at the word, “like.”  Now I have children who explain themselves and their reading and their very lives in similar terms.  To be very specific: ick.


Words staff at Jamie Oliver's restaurants
have to use when describing the food, among the favs?
"splash, slamming, radical, wicked, legendary,
proper rustic, magic and dollop."

A few years ago in a Bible study, I remember answering a woman who asked why I used a particular translation, and I answered that it was still colloquial in its language and that I found it reassuring.  “That’s a 5 cent word,” I was told loudly by the woman sitting next to me who had already told me I was intimidating due to my degree and that she thought my husband and I must sit around every night discussing the shows on PBS.

I got embarrassed for a moment—and heard the opening chords for Masterpiece Theater in the back of my mind.  A hard pause.  Was I being “too fancy” or worse was I trying to shore up intellectual points at someone else’s expense?  Then I just got plain old irritated.  I wasn’t.  

The truth is I have been exposed to amazing writing.  

I have read and absorbed so much beautiful literature that my mind began acquiring some of these words and filing them away for future and common use.  Much like the china kept safely in a cabinet instead of being enjoyed daily or the legendary Stradivarius that I once read would “rot” unless played, words cannot be collected and locked away.  They should be understood, the definition of them made sense of so that a sentence can sing, and once you’ve collected that word, you need to use it in order to make it a part of your vernacular.  So this year we’ve all been trying on new words at my house.  And it’s not a bad/amateurish/inferior/inadequate/unacceptable/shoddy/faulty idea to try.  Expanding your vocabulary enriches lived experience, because you’ve never known the many words to describe something as beautiful, until you’ve attempted it.

7. Sometimes you need to pencil in “be happy” on your list.

Joe forgets things.  All sorts of things.  He is as disorganized as any 9 year old I suspect, but it became alarming.  He forgot extra credit he’d done that wouldn’t be accepted.  He forgot to bring books home for tests he needed to study for.  He kept forgetting.  So we tried notes, and elastic bands and all sorts of things.  Finally, I put a hot pink note on his agenda with what he needed to do that day.  Hot pink because he hates that color and could throw it away only when each thing was done.  It worked fine for a day or two.  Then Joe ignored the note.  So I upped the ante.  He had a pen to cross out each item.  And if the note came back without those items being crossed out, he owed me a quarter. 

I didn’t want anxiety to be the order in which he functioned though, or have horrifying flashbacks and post trauma from the color later, so I began to add something else at the end, “be happy.”  And sure enough, Joe would cross that out too.  Happily, I think.

On our to-do lists we have so much.  Games, practices, appointments, dinner ingredients, birthday parties, the list goes on.  But how many of us actually put a “be happy” on any list?  

I know I haven’t.  And if I saw it, I would have to actively think about what would make me happy and act on it.  And that might be skimming through a magazine at the Target rather than buying the bagels and Windex right away.  Or it might be forgoing the phone call in order to sit with that friend for an hour to catch up over coffee.  Or it might be just sitting period and listening to something beautiful or for me reading something that stirs me to write and gives me images that I cannot wait to transcribe.

You deserve to put some happy on the list.  Do that.

So there you have it.  Some of the most important things I’ve learned this year in the fourth grade.  It’s been a lot tougher this go round than I originally thought:  Be kind, learn and use new words, say I’m sorry and please and thank you and watch how it changes the world, to stop allowing my worry rob me of my future joy, to let the friend go, to welcome the new one in, to not be afraid, to have resolve, and to always, always put some happy on the to-do list. 

As the days grow hotter and longer and the nights are rich with buzzing and swatting and all kinds of mischief, I have no doubt there will be days my brain will be too tired to turn any of this over in my head, but that’s the great/remarkable/intoxicating thing about learning, you need not stop, you’ll learn despite yourself, that’s how it works. 

Wishing you the best.summer.ever.  Peace.

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