Starting Over (Second Grade Edition)

What’s a kid to do when her parents move her from one neighborhood to another–which means starting a new school?!? Watch as our intrepid second grade hero navigates these treacherous waters.

In mid-September, we moved from one neighborhood in Atlanta to another. The move has proven to be the right decision a million times over. We already have friends and a connection to this community that we revel in. It feels amazing, truly, to not only live in a city we love but to have found a neighborhood that we belong in.

The only obstacle to this move–and it was a big one–was that Jane would have to change schools.

Shit.

We put it off for a semester. I wooed her by explaining that, if she started school in January, everyone would want to be her friend. New kids are still cool in the second grade.

But, truth be told, I was sweating this transition. She loved every minute she was at her old school. She makes friends easily. And she loves people deeply. So much so that, at the end of long school breaks, she’d often be moody and/or teary simply because she missed her friends and couldn’t wait to be with them again.

That thought hung over me for the whole Christmas break. She was ready to go back to school. But it wouldn’t be the same. Her friends wouldn’t be there. And it was all my fault. (Yeah, yeah. I know it wasn’t really. And I know it was the right choice. But STILL. All my fault)

But she was excited. She told me over and over again that she couldn’t wait to start her new school. She mentioned her new teacher’s name no less than a hundred TRILLION times during the semester break, even though she’d never even met her.

So, things were looking up.

And then, four days before the start of this semester, Jane admitted that she wasn’t just excited–she was nervous. Oh, shit.

I know being nervous is normal. I also know it’s a great opportunity to introduce her to coping skills (something I had to sit through years of AA meetings to obtain). But, the God’s honest truth is that I’ve never wanted to fix something for my child more than I wanted to fix this. My drive to make it all better was so strong my heart actually ached. Cue more “It’s all my fault” melodrama. All in my head, of course. Okay… and a little of it spilled out to Simon–he’s a good and compassionate listener. But mostly I kept it under wraps because a) there was no way to fix it, and b) I pride myself on teaching Jane to deal with hard things, not run from them.

So, yeah, I managed to pull my shit together enough give her a pep talk about making it through hard things (like a first day at school, a big test, something scary) by remembering that it’s only going to last for a finite period of time. And soon, it’ll be over and will be part of the past. I told her that in two weeks, she’d look back and laugh and say, “Remember when I was SO nervous to start my new school.”

She thought for a minute. “Yeah,” she said, nodding, “it is only 24 hours after all.”

Really, she has a better understanding of life at 7 than I did at 27.

Today, her very first day at her new school, she woke up at 5:45 a.m. She picked out some leggings she loves, chose her sparkliest shoes, and stuck a crazy-ass green bow in her hair. And she was ready to go. No tears. She chattered all the way to school. But she did hold my hand.

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Simon and I walked her to her new classroom. Her teacher came in, introduced herself to Jane, and then gave Jane a hug. I felt tears spring to my eyes (I cry over every damn thing lately, I swear), because I knew right then that she’d be fine.

When we picked her up today, she declared it an AWESOME first day. And she proudly announced that EVERYONE wanted to sit next to her. Oh, and her teacher said some lovely things about her that made me tear up again.

So yeah, we’re all going to be okay. I just be over here dabbing my eyes, if you need me.

3 Ways Adults Ruin Everything

Being a kid is INTENSE. As adults, we have this bizarre tendency to reminisce over the simplicity of childhood. After two days of full immersion in elementary school culture (and three more days to go), I remember now–being a kid is hard as hell. And adults don’t always make it easier. 

Being a kid is INTENSE. As adults, we have this bizarre tendency to reminisce over the simplicity of childhood. After two days of full immersion in elementary school culture (and three more days to go), I remember now–being a kid is hard as hell. And adults don’t always make it easier.

3 Ways Adults Ruin Everything

Adults act like things are common sense–when they don’t make sense at all. This week is the  Scholastic Buy One, Get One Free Book Fair. It’s AMAZING. Kids can spend $5 and leave with two spellbinding stories. Books on dragons? Got ’em. Books featuring ass-kicking princesses? Got ’em. Graphic novels, historical fiction, picture books, bestsellers… the book fair can magically coax excitement into even the most reluctant reader.

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But buy one, get one free? Yeah, kids don’t get it. Invariably, every hour or so, a kid wants to argue with me about why they should be able to buy a book that costs $2.50 and get the $25 Chrystal Making Kit free. Why would they want to pay for the more expensive one?  It’s buy ONE, get ONE free… no one ever said which one they had to buy (even though we did. Over & over, we painstakingly explained that the more expensive book is the one they’ll have to buy. But capitalism is NOT common sense, it seems. Maybe we should call it “Buy the most expensive book, get another maybe-kinda-interesting-but-not-exactly-your-dream-book free.” But that doesn’t have a very good ring to it, I suppose).

And while they’re dealing with the frustration of not getting what they want, adults continue to walk around smugly like this all makes good sense. Like just because they explained it, it is fair. Kid verdict: UNFAIR.

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Adults act like it’s no big deal when kids get their feelings hurt. I try to teach Jane how to shake things off, how to bounce back from hurt feelings and squabbles with her friends. But just watching the ebb and flow of kid relationships over the course of a day is exhausting–and these aren’t even my relationships. Now wonder Jane comes home completely worn out after school.

Today, I wandered out on the playground and bumped into a friend of Jane’s. He was sweaty from running around–and he looked completely dejected. I knelt down, eye-to-eye with him, to figure out what was up. Jane, it seems, had kissed someone else. Then she told him they couldn’t have a playdate anymore. Man.

I totally shelved the mommy reaction to “Jane was kissing someone else” and asked if he & Jane had an argument. (He hung his head & and shook it almost imperceptibly) I assured him that he & Jane would work things out (I was right. He was the last kid Jane hugged before she left for the day). But, whoa, Jane’s kissing treachery tore this little guy up. The idea of losing that playdate with Jane devastated him.

So much hangs on one word, one interaction.

While all this was going on, one of Jane’s friends approached me, close to tears, because her Principal’s Award medal had fallen apart, and she’d lost the medal. I felt the little twinge in my stomach I used to get when I was a kid and something was very, very wrong. I helped her and Jane look for it. Then I promptly marched my full-grown self to  the powers that be to inquire about a replacement. There’s a time and a place for lessons to be learned. But nobody is trying to learn lessons on the last week of school–over a medal they worked for all year. Nobody that I know, at least.

Adults act like they know everything. Adults, we’re busy people. We try to connect with kids over things that are important to us, not to them. We talk over them. We can be really shitty listeners. Sometimes, I’m guilty of this, too. But at the book fair, my whole job is to help kids find books that they will love. My secret goal is to make enthusiastic readers out of all of them. Every one. So, I listen a lot. I ask questions, about their hobbies, their families, their interests. Then I get to work bringing them books. I’m always looking for that magic spark, that book that makes them light up. It doesn’t happen every time. But the times it does… whoa. Amazing.

But no matter if I find them the perfect book or not, they remember me. At school, I’m either The Book Fair Lady or Jane’s mom. Kids run up to me and tell me exciting things happening to them (and sometimes sad things, too). They give me hugs. One girl who I’d seen in book fair but don’t really know came skidding across the linoleum floor to show my the two books she’d finally chosen at book fair (both Diary of a Wimpy Kid). She was beaming. And looking for me to share her joy. I love that connection.

Kids know a lot more than we give them credit for. They know how to connect without overthinking it. Kids may be snarky, silly, germy, chatty, snotty, and squirmy–but they crave connection & love. And they return love so much more freely than adults. It’s humbling (and maybe a little life-giving) to be in the presence of that kind of love.

I admire the professionals who work day in and day out with kids–loving them, teaching them, guiding them. That dedication and commitment kind of takes a special type of person. (That’s TOTALLY not me) But I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to exist in the kids’ world for a bit, to alter my perspective, and to remember the truths I’ve forgotten about childhood.

I’m a much better adult when I remember what it’s like to be a kid.

 

Photo Cred: Lufti Gaos, Kiana Bosman, Wang Xi, and Patricia Prudent on Unsplash

Notes from Field Day

When I was a kid, Field Day was my day of triumph. I got to shock people every year with the fact that I could RUN. I was fast. I guess I didn’t look particularly athletic. And, to be honest, my parents didn’t really push sports. And coming home dirty from school was frowned upon. So, yeah, rough & tumble wasn’t really my game. Which made it even more fun to kick ass every year in the field day race.

Yesterday was Field Day at Jane’s elementary School. Obviously, I found this wildly exciting:

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But come on… FIELD DAY! What could possibly be more fun?!?

When I was a kid, Field Day was my day of triumph. I got to shock people every year with the fact that I could RUN. I was fast. I guess I didn’t look particularly athletic. And, to be honest, my parents didn’t really push sports. And coming home dirty from school was frowned upon. So, yeah, rough & tumble wasn’t really my game. Which made it even more fun to kick ass every year in the field day race. (To be fair, I usually wasn’t first. I typically placed a solid second–which was just ass-kickey enough to suit my taste.)

Imagine my complete confusion yesterday when some kids didn’t want to participate in Field Day. WHAT?

Look, I know all kids are different. I know that some kids really don’t dig outdoor stuff. And there were definitely those kids. But I got the nagging feeling that, for some of the kids, something else was at play.

It didn’t come together for me until last night, when I attended a Social Emotional Learning training at Jane’s school. We were discussing the roll of community meetings in SEL–that’s when the kids get together each morning to greet each other and sometimes to share a bit about what’s going on in their worlds. Greeting each other by name is important, the instructor noted, because some children rarely hear their names associated with something positive.

Ooof.

Even a kid like Jane hears things all the time like “JANE! Pick up your clothes off the floor.” “JANE! Did you take the dog out?!” “JANE! We HAVE TO GO. Hurry UP.” And Jane comes from a non-financially-stressed, co-parenting household with one parent who doesn’t work full-time (and another who does). So, basically, on paper Jane’s got a good thing going over here and often her name is used to fuss/redirect/scold. What’s it like for other kids?

Flash back to field day: Jane’s teacher is hugging a little girl who doesn’t want to participate, while giving race instructions to the other kids. Once she finishes with the instructions and general corralling of children (which is like herding cats), she refocuses all of her attention on the crying kid. She uses the little girl’s name repeatedly, telling her how much fun she’ll have, how everyone will cheer her on, how she’ll be so proud of herself when she’s finished. Jane’s teacher can do this because she’s spent ALL YEAR building a relationship with her students, reinforcing a safe-space atmosphere where the kids encourage & cheer for each other. The teacher was being totally straight-up when she told the little girl that her classmates would cheer for her. That’s what they do for each other. That’s what she’s taught them, coached them, encouraged them to do.

The little girl ran the race. And she came back beaming. And sure enough, the kids cheered her on, yelling her name the whole time.

I don’t know the little girl’s story. Maybe she was just having an off day. Maybe she isn’t encouraged a lot to try new things. Maybe she was just afraid of failing (aren’t we all?). But I do know that having an adult who really SAW her helped her take a leap and do something she was unsure of. And she was GREAT the rest of the day.

Being around Jane’s school a lot has changed me in many ways. I’ve definitely pushed myself to be more empathetic, to connect with kids, and to always go with kind first. Every kid has a different story. If I’m patient and caring enough, they just might trust me with that story one day. And, to me, there’s no greater honor than a kid telling me what’s on their heart.

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Me & Jane at Field Day (Photo Credit: @jonsiemel on Instagram)

Oh, and it turns out that Jane might enjoy racing at Field Day just as much as I did when I was a kid:

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I’ll count that as a win.

Raising a Kid Who Sees (and Celebrates) Color

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in gender, acceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different. 

 

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in genderacceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different.

Teaching Jane about diversity hasn’t been without challenges. Take, for instance, the day we were walking through our neighborhood, admiring the pride flags fluttering in the breeze. “Do we know anyone that’s gay?” she asked earnestly. Um…

So, we started back at square one about what being gay means, what being trans means, and what it means to identify as queer. Just a typical, everyday conversation with the 7 year old. As laborious as it can be to explain concepts like gender and sexual orientation to a very curious and analytical kid, I’m grateful that she asks questions (and asks, and asks, and asks…) until I offer up a nugget of truth that resonates with her. I want to help her understand and connect with the world whenever I can. Even if that means I’m stuck in a never-ending round of 21 Questions.

Moving into a Broader World-View

The open, frank way that we dealt with her Bobby’s transition has bled into the way our family discusses almost everything. No question is off limits. Which is good, because our move from suburban Tampa, Florida, to intown Atlanta during Jane’s fifth year of life led to A LOT of questions.

Moving from the suburbs to a markedly more urban area looks and feels different. We no longer have to take the car everywhere. Transit is an option. So is walking (which I do a lot more of than Jane would prefer). We can see the Atlanta skyline from our neighborhood. And, perhaps most notably, we left an almost entirely white suburb and moved to Atlanta, which has a rich Civil Rights history and a vibrant black population.

We live in Southeast Atlanta; it’s not uncommon for us to walk into a restaurant and be one of only a handful of white people. This is different—for us and for her. And we never hesitated to say so.

We also identified that feeling of “differentness” as something black people experience more often, as they navigate predominantly white spaces that insist on assimilation. I mean, that was the idea, but the actual wording was more like: “How would you feel if people looked at you funny because you looked different than they do?”

Her empathy radar went off. “Bad,” she said, looking puzzled and a bit put out.

“And what if they felt that way just because you had brown skin?”

Now she was mad: “That’s stupid,” she sputtered.

I saved the lecture about calling things stupid for another day. Because racism is stupid. Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it.

Living Life in Vivid Colorand Picking Your Battles

My generation often likes to claim “colorblindness.” But studies show that kids notice racial differences early on. They also quickly identify things we refuse to talk about or name as “bad.” When we wanted to avoid negative, shameful feelings around her Bobby’s transition, we gave Jane the language to discuss it. When we enrolled Jane in our local public school, which is both racially and economically diverse, we took a similar approach. We wanted her to celebrate the diversity of her school, not ignore it. So we never shied away from her copious observations about, well, everything.

For example, Jane’s always been quick to notice and admire different hairstyles, especially if they include braids, bright hair bows or beads that clickity-clack. She noticed and started talking about other kids’ hair long before she seemed to notice their skin color. In Kindergarten, she asked me to buy hair ties to go in the top and bottom of her two braids, like her black friends. While we picked out new hair ties with brightly colored, interlocking balls, she chattered on about who has super-cool braids and pretty beads.

Next came the most obvious request ever: she wanted braids like her friends at school. I felt panicked for a minute—because cultural appropriation. But I circumvented that whole conversation by reminding her that she becomes a teary mess in the time it takes me to pull her hair back into ONE ponytail. Which, incidentally, takes no longer than 120 seconds. Cool braids take intense fortitude and patience, I informed her. One day, she and I will talk about cultural appropriation and the problem with being white and “borrowing” bits of black culture while systemic racism and white supremacy run rampant. But, right now, she’s 7. Cultural appropriation is a bit nuanced. Instead, we celebrate the joyous noise hair beads make when they clickity-clack together—and how amazingly cool it is to enjoy that at school every day.

Confronting Racism Wherever It Crops Up

Raising a kid to think critically sometimes means even the easy things aren’t so easy anymore. Take, for example, reading Little House on the Prairie. I figured Jane and I would read the books together, then watch the television show –a nostalgic passing on of tradition between mother and daughter.

But these things so rarely go as planned.

Seems I’d forgotten a little bit of the story. Like when Laura and her family move to “Indian country.” When I ran across the reference to Indian country, I stopped, reminded Jane that while people used to refer to Native Americans as Indians, we know better and do better now. Because Jane’s a curious kid, I anticipated she’d have more questions.

She did not disappoint: “Why did they go into the country if it was Indian Country?”

Ah, yes. The perfect late afternoon conversation: manifest destiny. But, because we’d already talked about judging people on the color of their skin—and about some white people thinking they are better simply because they are white—it was relatively easy to explain that, white people thought they deserved the land the Indians were on.

“But why?”

I won’t lie—I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easier to dismiss the book as racist and move on. But if I did that, wouldn’t that be teaching her to just ignore racism instead of confronting it?

I kept reading Jane Little House on the Prairie because I don’t want her to think that when she encounters ideas that run counter to her own, she should dismiss them without critical thought. Turns out, scholars support the need for critical inquiry (even in kids’ lit): “…racism exists in the world. Children are going to encounter it, and a safer way to learn how to encounter it is via fiction. If you’re reading a racist children’s book with a child, you can help them read it critically, you can help them learn that it’s okay to be angry at a book.”

Topics like white supremacy and manifest destiny are big topics. But the principles that underlie them are accessible to kids. They see injustice unfold around them. But they often don’t have the words to give voice to what they see. Talking about racism and injustice is hard work. But it’s work worth doing.

 

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

We Do Not Have to Live Like This

I haven’t talked to Jane about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. How do you tell a 7 year old, who loves school above all else, that 17 people went in to school one morning and never came back out? How will she ever feel safe again, once she knows the truth? I don’t feel safe. I am terrified. I feel a physical pang when I drop her off at school in the morning. I stop the ‘what ifs’ in my head, because who can live like that?

But none of us should be living like this.

I’m not one to shy away from discussing difficult topics with Jane. Racism? We talk about it. She’s appalled by it. White supremacy? She knows what it is & thinks it’s gross. Homophobia? Yeah, she thinks that’s just dumb. But gun violence? I guess that’s where our privilege really shows… we haven’t talked about it because it could directly effect her. America’s love of guns could cost my child her life. I don’t know how to broach that. Yet people of color talk to their children often & from a young age about America’s racism that could one day end their lives for no reason at all. So, yes, white privilege is wrapped up in all this, too. But really, isn’t it always.

I don’t believe we have to quietly accept racism. And I don’t believe we have to accept the status quo on guns. When I found out that Atlanta Public Schools will do active shooter drills, I immediately felt relief. Knowing how to respond could increase Jane’s chances of survival. Then that sunk in: I am concerned about increasing my child’s chances of survival AT SCHOOL. Shit. Then the second wave of realization hit: Jane will learn that if she isn’t in her classroom, she must hide. On her own. The doors will be locked. She can’t get back in. She just has to do her best to stay alive.

SHE IS SEVEN.

We have created a war zone. Here. In America. We are our own enemy. On any given day, our children might die at their own school. And we refuse to stop it. We just try to navigate around it. That is some bullshit right there.

When I posted on Facebook that, during active shooter protocol, classroom doors are locked an aren’t to be reopened until the all clear is given, I got a lot of pushback. Not from gun activists. From teachers. They said they would never leave a child out to die on their own. They would let them in.

I don’t doubt that, at all. Teachers have sacrificed their lives to save their students. But teachers aren’t soldiers. They shouldn’t have to EVER make the decision to open that door or not. The orders are given for a reason. Opening the door might save the one student, or it might end the lives of 20 others. Teachers are not combat trained, for God’s sake. How could they ever make that call effectively? Better yet, WHY SHOULD THEY HAVE TO?

We do not have to live like this.

And, to be clear, homeschooling isn’t the answer to the threat of being gunned down in school. America’s love affair with guns cannot cost us our public education system. We cannot abandon our children’s futures to the NRA. We did not allow 9/11 to stop us from traveling, living, and rebuilding. We didn’t all move to rural America in response to terrorism in one of America’s greatest cities. Make no mistake: the NRA is a terrorist organization. Abandoning public education means the terrorists win. That wasn’t an option after 9/11. It isn’t an option now.

Tonight, I will talk to Jane about the Parkland shooting. I’ll read articles about talking to kids about gun violence. I’ll pray about it. Then I’ll start the conversation. But I’ll be damned if I will resign myself to this being her normal. I will fight back with every breath I have. And, if I know my kid at all, she’ll insist on being right by my side.

Speak up. Stand up. Fight back.

We do not have to live like this.

 

 

Photo credit: Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Reawakening

Emma Gonzalez is a warrior. Just days after witnessing the slaughter of her classmates, Gonzalez delivered a powerful, gut-punch speech that spoke truth to power. She spoke through tears. She yelled to be heard. And then she practically took over the entire internet, with repost after repost of her speech on traditional media, Facebook & Twitter. I’ve watched the video of her speech over and over again. And I wonder, where did the Emma Gonzalez in me go?

The fierceness that radiates from Gonzalez…it looks and feels familiar. Just seeing her take the podium snapped me back to my college activism days. I felt radical then—exposed to the women’s and LGBT movements and empowered by the notion that I could change the world. I spoke without fear then. I challenged my traditional upbringing. I fought against a culture that would rather I have stayed in the closet. I called b.s.—albeit on a much smaller scale.

But Gonzalez isn’t “finding herself” on a college campus somewhere. She discovered her voice as an 18 year old, high school senior. Most seniors get to focus on attending prom, organizing senior skip day, and planning for college. Gonzalez, on the other hand, is addressing a nation, via repost after repost, about the horrors of gun violence. She’s already faced the hard truth that the gun lobby owns many of our congressional leaders. And that isn’t about to stop her. She understands that politicians care more about being re-elected than passing reasonable gun control necessary to save children’s lives. That isn’t going to stop her, either. She calls b.s. on it all and pushes forward to do the real, necessary work of stopping the murder of kids at their own schools.

We, the adults in America, have failed. We bought the lie that we are powerless to change American policy and American culture. We have given up.

What happened to the Emma Gonzalez in me? I listened to the adults. I took to heart their assertion that I’d never get anywhere by being too “angry,” too “militant.” I let them silence me by believing my passion would alienate people. I learned to worship the false god of compromise above all else. I took in their mediocrity and made it my own.

Yes, I burned with anger and sorrow after the Sandy Hook shooting. I marched and organized with Moms Demand Action. And then, when nothing happened—when we proved ourselves incapable of passing meaningful gun regulations after first-graders were massacred in their classrooms—I quietly, unwittingly surrendered to the belief that change was impossible. I gave up.

But Emma Gonzalez reminded me that I used to be better. That I once existed free from the fear of disapproval. That I know how to speak truth to power. She reminded me that a fierce warrior lives inside of me, too. I’ve said on social media that Emma Gonzalez is my hero. That is my truth. She brought me back to my highest self—the one that will not ever stand by again to witness the death of our children because our nation has been bought by the NRA.

 

 

The Sins That Change Us

I remember her name was Chrystal*. I can remember the honey color of her hair. But I can’t recall her face at all.

Sometimes our minds take mercy on us, even when we are least deserving.

I hated myself in middle school. A boy in my sixth grade science class told me I was ugly. I believed him. A girl at the sixth grade dance told me I looked stupid dancing. I believed her. Ugly, stupid, unpopular… I accepted whatever label my peers offered me**. I never challenged them. By eleven, I believed I was worthless.

I wasn’t bullied. I had a good home life. But I still felt alone. Weird. No, not just weird… I actually believed that if anyone knew me, they would find me disgusting. Gross.

Pain and powerlessness. Self-loathing. And Chrystal.

This turned out to be a toxic mix.

I think I picked her because she seemed weaker than me, somehow. I don’t remember if we bullied Chrystal the one time or if it was ongoing. But there’s one memory that is so clear to me:

Some other girls and I were in a storage closet with Chrystal. I think we’d been sent to gather props for drama. Regardless, we got what we wanted because we had Chrystal alone. No adults anywhere to be found.

We said awful things to her. I’m sure they were awful not because I remember the exact words, but because I get a very particular feeling in the pit of my stomach when I remember it. My words were designed for maximum impact–to make her feel as insignificant and unworthy as I did. She was trapped in this closet with us, and we rained verbal abuse down on her relentlessly. I may not remember the words I said, but I do remember the thrill of power. I usually felt invisible. But right then, I felt what I was sure the popular girls felt all the time: I felt superior. Untouchable.

One of the girls in our band of bullies moved closer to Chrystal; a metal pole–like the ones used to hold up velvet theater ropes–fell on her knee. It was her tears that snapped me back into myself. Her jagged gasps for breath between sobs broke through my rage. Her tears made me human again.

Immediately, I remorse kicked in. I was sorry, but I didn’t want to admit the full extent of my transgressions. I pretended she was crying because her knee hurt. I begged for forgiveness for that hurt knee. She kept sobbing. And in between those sobs, she asked over and over again why we were so mean to her.

I didn’t have the answer then. I don’t have a good answer now. But God, do I wish I could do that 15 minutes of my life over again.

The first time I told Jane this story, she was in PreK. I re-tell it every so often. Why? Because words can hurt more than fists. Because even when we believe ourselves to be “good” we can be capable of evils–great and small.

I tell the story as a kind of penance. And as a reminder that our sins change us–and only we get to decide how. I tell Jane the story in the hopes that, if she’s ever in a similar situation, she will choose kindness instead.

*Chrystal is a fictional name. The story is real.

**I had plenty of peers who said kind things to me. But I did not, could not, hear them over my own self-loathing.

Photo Credit: Instagram-@gbarkz

 

Seven Years Ago: The Two Things I Promised My Girl

My sweet baby Jane came into the world 7 years (and 4 days) ago. I had some pretty naive ideas about motherhood then. I thought she’d never wear pink. (By day 4 she had on her first pink outfit. She hasn’t turned back since.) I strongly opposed princesses and damsels-being-rescued in any format. (Jane’s 4th birthday party was a princess party.) And I swore she’d eschew gender roles entirely. (She threw me a bone on this one: she has a doll named Simon, who is a boy, that proudly wore dresses for many years, although now he’s much more gender-traditional in his choice of doll clothes.) It was laughable how little I knew about the hair-raising, hilarious task that is raising a child.

Jane made her way into the world via C-section. She stuck her little fist out first, proclaiming her grand entrance. She surprised the doctor, who thought her perhaps a bit bossy as he folded her arm back in to allow her to make a safer, if less dramatic, entrance into the delivery room. When she and I finally got a minute alone, after all the family had come and gone, after her Bobby had drifted off to sleep and was snoring (sort of) quietly in the corner, I looked at her and I knew 2 things: 1) I loved her wholly and deeply, and that 2) I would never try to protect her from the beauty and the tragedy that is life.

All my life, my parents have tried to shield me from hurt and disappointment. They did this because they loved me, as much as I love Jane. Of that I am sure. But I never learned to handle my own sadness and pain. Before I got sober, I was not resilient in any way. (Hence the having to get sober…) So, it was very important to me that I love Jane through her pain, when she ultimately faced it. I learned this from a very good therapist who also informed me that Jane was not mine; she was simply on lend to me. It was my job, from the moment she was born, to begin the long, slow process of letting her go, so she could become the person she was meant to be. (And, really, who am I to hold Jane back?)

I lived this philosophy out in small ways. When she was 6 weeks old, I left her in the church nursery for the first time. It was excruciating. I ached for her. But I did it again the next week. Because I knew that it was right. I lived it out in bigger ways. When she encountered her first frenemy in preschool, I did not intervene–even though I watched this heart-breaking friend triangle play out again and again. I let the teachers manage it. I did not rescue her. (Remember, I don’t believe in damsels-being-rescued) And she came out of the whole situation just fine (just like the teachers promised she would). And then there was the really big year–the one where her Bobby transitioned and we moved from Florida to Atlanta. Yeah, that one was a doozy. But we did those things because they were what her Bobby and I needed to be whole, happy, healthy people. So, we trusted she’d not only be fine but that she’d thrive. And so she has.

This week, some turmoil unfolded in Jane’s school community. It looked like rezoning may be imminent. At first, I said nothing to her. But I know Jane. And she doesn’t like to be surprised by things. I also know that part of my job is to teach her that she can do hard things. So, I told her that not all of the kids at her school may be able to stay there. I explained what I believe to be truth: our school is too crowded, two other schools not full enough. So some kids may need to go those other schools, to make things more fair. When she heard the news, she cried. She is seven after all. Her entire class cried earlier in the year when some of their classmates were moved into a new class. A new class right down the hall. Change is hard. She asked me if she’d need to change schools. I told her I didn’t know. But that no one was going anywhere right now.

She took this in, dried her eyes and said, “Okay.” I promised her I’d go look at the other school, just to check it out.

I found this other school to be pretty amazing and came home and told her so. I told her that it has two floors (she’s OBSESSED with stairs, so a two-story school is mind-blowing in her world). I described the nifty classrooms and the bright colored squares on the linoleum floors in the hallways. I told her the school felt both happy and calm. She took all this in and asked a few questions. Then she bounced out of the room to play with her dolls. As you do, if you’re seven.

The next day, as she was making her lunch before school. Suddenly she stopped spreading the mayonnaise and turned to face me.  “Mommy,” she said, “if I need to change schools, I want to go to that school you told me about. That sounds like a really, really nice school.”

And, just like that, it was done for her. She’s happy at her school now. She’ll be happy at this other school, if that’s where she needs to go. She can do hard things. Because she is resilient. And because she is Jane.

I love her so, and I could not be more proud.

Reading Wonder

I’ve long been a fan of Mondays. New beginnings and all. But THIS Monday felt extra-special shiny and new because I got to read this morning. With kids. And we read a super-funny book to boot.

Let me back up a bit:

I recently volunteered to read with two sixth grade students at our neighborhood middle school. I meet them on Monday mornings. They are, in fact, my first appointment of the day. Together, the 3 of us are reading Wonder. And it is hysterical.

I don’t know how this book escaped my attention, given my love for & devotion to middle grades novels. (Well, I kinda know… it seemed like everyone was reading it… so then I wasn’t sure I wanted to… you know how the tired trope goes…womp.womp.) Anyway, the young kings & I made it through the first few chapters today. At one point, during my turn to read, I was laughing so hard that I had to take a minute to collect myself. Which made king #1 crack up. king #2 smiled (which, trust me, was a VERY big win). But, seriously: Mr. Tushman?!? Miss Butt!?! That kind of stuff can get actual laughter out of sixth grade boys. Witnessed it myself today. Surely did.

I know I get all book nerd about reading. But reading changes LIVES. And, when you’re a middle school kid who doesn’t really know where you fit (and, let’s face it–no middle school kid really knows where they fit, regardless of their bravado), books mean that you never have to be alone. You can be in some far flung corner of the world, instead of waiting out the bell in seventh period. Or, even if you don’t have any actual friends at school,  you can find a friend in a character that feels the same way you do–even if your life experiences aren’t even remotely the same.

I’m so enthused about books that I can’t even pretend to hide my book nerdiness, not even for a minute. As soon as king #1 volunteered that he hated Language Arts because his teacher made him write so much he thought his hand was gonna fall off, I immediately sympathized. Because, yeah, my hand totally fell off in sixth grade from the very same affliction. And I told him so.

“You know what I do now?” I asked him.

“No. What?” he replied. He actually looked a tiny bit interested.

“I write. Know why?”

He grinned. I think he knew where this was going. “Why?”

“Because of that Language Arts teacher who put goofy questions up on the board every day and made me write in my journal ’til my hand fell off.”

Look, if you’re going to hang out every week with two young kings, you might as well be up front about who you are. That’s what I think, at least. And I am a wildly unapologetic book nerd. And I think Wonder may be just the book to make them book nerds, too. (Okay. Okay. That may be a reach. But I bet it’ll make them not hate reading anymore. Which is alright by me.)

I Love You More Than Littlest Pet Shop

Jane is an easy child to parent.

There. I said it.

By nature, she is kind, warm, independent, curious, and fun. We exchange I love yous like trading cards—each one more fantastic than the last.

“I love you more than peanut butter.”

“Well, I love you more than my new Shopkins backpack.” (that is SO MUCH LOVE right there, y’all).

Sure, we have our tussles (like when she asks me what something is, I tell her, and she says, “No, it’s not.” WTF, kid?? Then why did you ASK me???) And she constantly brings down a torrent of parental wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the chaos that is her bedroom floor. But she’s an easy kid, and I know it.

Here’s what I also know: being a mother is the toughest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. Because you’ve gotta bring your whole self to this mothering gig. Your BEST self. And that’s tough.

She sees me. Really sees me, in a way that almost no one else does. Sometimes I swear she can read my mind. Which means, there is no hiding my reactions from her. So I damn well better be on my mental A-game all the time.

For me, that translates into: no negative self-talk, offering apologies when I’m wrong, radical acceptance of my body, prizing strength (of body & spirit) over beauty, laughing at myself, and being honest about what I know and what I don’t.

I suck at all these things.

BUT… I am approximately one TRILLION times better at them than I was 6 and a half years ago.

I’ve considered all the things I want her to be when she grows up… then I’ve tried to become all those things myself. Because, let’s be honest, I have no control over what she will choose as an adult. All I can control is my influence on her now—how she sees me live my life.

So, I am passionate about social justice. I look for the best in people. I ask questions about the whys of people’s behaviors, instead of just making assumptions. I see great beauty and pain in the world—and try not to shy away from either. I dance for no apparent reason. I sing loudly in church—even though I’m confident that Jesus is the only one who appreciates my singing. And I pursue my passion—even when I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. to write—because I want her to one day feel fully justified in pursuing hers.

Jane makes me a better person. Every day.

On the morning of her first day of First Grade, I sighed as I redid her braids three different times. She stood there in her brand new navy uniform dress (the one with the ruffle on the front & the bow in the back) and complained of boredom. I rolled my eyes because the braids wouldn’t stay in right. But we both stuck with it—because Jane has tremendously well-honed sense of self. The braids were an important part of her first day outfit, the way she wanted to present herself in this new chapter of her life. And I want her to live into her vision for herself. I wish I’d known who I was at six years old.

She went to school brimming with excitement, self-confidence, and hope. She will rock First Grade. I’ll cheer her on—through both the super-amazing stuff and the not-so-easy stuff. And I’ll hold on to the hope that, one day, she’ll look up to me as much as I look up to her.

 

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Practically Perfect in Every Way (photo credit: RM Lathan)