Childhood

There Goes Summer

 

A summer tragedy

 
Now that our sons are older and more independent, one of my true summer joys is a day lounging at our favorite local pool, the small one with the reclining loungers, the water slide, and the vigilant lifeguards who shout “no running” at my kids so I don’t have to. Last week, the gods bestowed upon us an arguably perfect pool day. No menacing thunderheads hovered in the sky, the temperature was a pleasant and steady 83 degrees, and there was the lightest perceptible breeze, the kind that gently reminds you that sometimes all is right in your world. When mornings like that arrive, my day is set. Errands, appointments, laundry, and responsibility be damned. We’re pool bound. There is no other choice. Our fate is sealed. 

After wolfing down the sub sandwiches we picked up from Jimmy John’s on the way over, we began our idyllic summer sabbatical. My goal: complete summer surrender. From under my mirrored sunglasses, I lazily watched our sons take ridiculous leaps (meant to be impressive but in the end only exhibiting typical teenage goofiness) off the diving board while the playlist of LCD Soundsystem in my earbuds kept my feet moving just enough to burn a few calories while I let the sun work its magic. Nothing could be better, I mused to myself, swept away in the glee of a few hours’ worth of unadulterated leisure in the middle of the work week.

That was when he stepped in front of me and everything changed. He must have been about seven, maybe eight, with sandy blonde hair. He stood out because, unlike the other children who had arrived in the same daycare group, he was alone in wearing street clothes and Crocs in place of brightly colored swim trunks and bare feet. A bold orange cast with blue tape, a nod to the Denver Broncos, held his broken arm firmly in place while he stood on the side of the pool watching other kids take acrobatic turns off the diving board. As I looked at him with a mother’s eyes, I found myself wishing there were casts that mended broken hearts as well as broken arms. 

We are less than two weeks away from the start of the 2015-2016 school year here in Denver. All over the city parents are snapping up school supplies while siblings wage frustrated battles with each other in the waning days of summer break. My favorite season is slipping away, and each day closer to school is a heartless reminder of life out of the pool lounger and in the carpool lane. Today, though, I am thinking of that darling little boy with a cast who is probably looking forward to school this year for the first time ever, thinking about friends and structure and the chance to feel again like he belongs.

Our singular experiences comprise our personal tale, but in the end it’s our shared struggles that make our stories worth recounting.

Check This Box

Cutest note ever

Spring is in the air. The songbirds have returned to my bird-feeder welfare state. Tulips are in blooming underneath our spring snow. The flowering trees have kicked my allergies into overdrive. We’re solidly entrenched in the season of new beginnings and hope, which is why I was not at all surprised when the other day my youngest climbed into my car after school smiling quite sheepishly, holding in his hand a folded paper note with a smiley face painted on the outside.

He was whispering rather excitedly to his brother and his brother, in turn, was whispering back. Their hushed conversation was both animated and intense. I had a good idea what was going on based on conversations we’d been having for weeks, but I waited to be included. Finally, Joe’s excitement spilled over.

“Luke got a note from Maddy,” he gushed. Then he added, “It’s depressing.”

“How is it depressing exactly?”

“It just highlights my many failed attempts with girls,” Joe said.

“How many attempts?” I asked. This was all news to me.

“Eight,” he replied instantly with complete assurity.

“Okay. Can we talk about that in a minute? This isn’t about you. It’s about Luke. Let him tell his own story,” I chided. “What’s going on, Luke?”

“Well, after school I found this note in my locker,” he replied, handing me the piece of paper.

It was your garden variety, grade-school note. With carefully chosen words, the author was attempting to ascertain Luke’s level of interest in her. The innocence of the note made me smile. Any note with a “check this box” format wins my heart every time, and this note had two different questions with corresponding boxes. Add to it the charming spelling irregularities of dyslexia and you’ve got about the sweetest correspondence ever. I handed it back to Luke.

“So, how are you going to respond?” I asked

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“I thought you like Maddy,” I replied.

“I do. I’m just nervous. What if I tell her I like her and she doesn’t like me?”

“She wouldn’t have bothered to write the note if she didn’t like you,” I told him. “Girls generally don’t bother with guys they don’t like. We try to avoid them. Trust me.”

“Well, then, I think I will answer yes to the liking her question. But I don’t know what to say about the question of if I have a girlfriend,” he said.

Do you have a girlfriend?” I inquired knowing full well the answer.

“No, but…,” he paused.

“You are afraid to put yourself out there?” I asked.

“Kind of,” he said.

“I can tell you this. If you like her, you shouldn’t play games. Be honest.”

“Okay. I will tell her I don’t have a girlfriend then.”

“Or…or you could make a third box to check that says Not Yet. That would let her know you’re hoping she will be your girlfriend,” I suggested, digging way back into my memories of flirting protocol. “That puts the ball back in her court,” I said, “but still keeps you safe because it’s not a definitive answer.”

“Yes. I like that,” he replied with clear relief that there was a way to respond that didn’t leave him completely vulnerable.

He folded up the note, put it away, and Joe used the opportunity to begin his lamentation about his 12-year-old brother’s third success in dating while he still only had one success, way back in kindergarten, and he’s almost fourteen. It’s hard to be Joe.

I’m grateful that my sons are willing to talk to me about girls, at least thus far. The world of interpersonal relationships is a minefield. I hope to keep the lines of communication open with them as they negotiate their way through it. They know I am an old lady, but they also know I dated plenty before I married their dad. I have shared some of my stories of heartbreak, embarrassment, rejection, and shame so they know I have been there and can commiserate. It will be difficult to stand by during the tragedy of their first broken heart but, for now, I’m enjoying the check-this-box phase of newly sprung love or, in this case, like.

Getting Schooled

All geared up for adventure

All geared up for adventure

Our son, Joe, has been counting down the days to his first-ever Outdoor Lab excursion with school. Outdoor Lab is sleep-away science camp for middle schoolers. Students head to the mountains for some outdoor education that involves daytime field work in science-related topics followed by nights spent sleeping in cabins with teachers and classmates. Joe class would be studying “snow science.” For most kids in our county, Outdoor Lab occurs in 6th grade. Joe’s private school sends kids to Keystone Science School during 7th and 8th grades. Joe has had to wait this extra year to attend. He’s heard his friends talk about it since last year and he was dying for his chance to go.

Weeks ago, he started telling me that he was afraid he would get sick and not be able to make the trip. He worked in extra hand washings every day. As his teachers prepared the class for what to expect, what to pack, and what would be expected of them, Joe would come home filled with details and brimming with expectation. Yesterday afternoon he and I pulled out the packing list, found an appropriate duffel bag and backpack, and located a mummy sleeping bag. Then we set about picking out the right clothing and gathering up gear. 1 pair long underwear. 1 pair ski goggles. 1 pair sunglasses. Sunscreen not less than 35 SPF. Lip balm not less than 15 SPF. 2 water bottles. 1 flashlight. 2-3 pairs synthetic or wool…not cotton..socks. Systematically, we crossed each item off the list as we placed it into the duffel bag he would have to carry from the bus drop off point to the cabin. He was adamant that it all must fit into one bag and that it would have to be easy for him to carry. At the end of the night, we had a medium-sized duffel jam packed with every item on the school’s list, a backpack loaded with sun gear appropriate for hiking at 10,000 feet, and a child who was complaining that time was moving too slowly.

I tucked him and his brother in for the night and fell exhausted into my bed. Of course, Joe woke me up three times between midnight and 4 a.m. and only on the third wake up call admitted to being the tiniest bit nervous about sleeping away from home without his family. We chatted a bit about how everything would be fine, about how being nervous was normal the first time away from home, and about how amazing it would be. I told him I would miss him but he’d be home with us soon. He fell back asleep quickly after we spoke. I stayed awake for another hour and a half thinking about him. My little family of four is my entire world. I was struggling as I tried envisioning us as a trio and not a quartet.

When Joe woke me up at 6:35 (ten minutes before my alarm clock would have summoned me and less than an hour after I’d finally fallen back to sleep), he had already showered and dressed and had played on his iPad for an hour. He spent the morning rushing around, talking excitedly, ready to get out the door. I dragged my feet a bit as it sunk in that he was actually leaving. I packed his lunch slowly, drawing out our last bit of time together for three days. I gave him some cashews to try in his lunch. He chewed one, swallowed it, and then began panicking, imagining that he was going to have an allergic reaction to it and not be able to go. I reassured him that if he had a reaction to the nuts (which he wouldn’t because he’s not allergic to tree nuts or anything else for that matter), the teachers would give him a Benadryl and he’d live another day. I started to wonder if his ingenious plan was to drive me insane so I would not miss him.

When we got to school, we saw many of his classmates had already checked in. The drop-off space was filled with all manner of packed items. There were rolling suitcases, sleeping bags packed in square, plastic, comforter bags, and large, garden-sized trash bags filled with supplies. I started to wonder if I was the only one who had obsessed to ensure my son had all the requested gear neatly packed exactly as specified. The principal came over and told me that Joe won the award for Best Packed Bags. I guess that means I am still a prize-winning rule follower.

I gave him a big hug and snapped a quick photo of him weighed down by his perfect bag. He looked so grown up just then, standing there squinting in the morning sun on the east side of the school. I watched him as he walked toward the stairs for class, quietly sending him all the positivity and love in my heart. I held it together as I had promised him and didn’t even tear up until I was exiting the school parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief when the school messaged that the group had arrived safely at Keystone.

I’ve been wrong thinking of this as Joe’s adventure. It’s my adventure too. After thirteen years, Joe is off learning how to be Joe without my help. And I’m here learning that he’s not mine. There’s genius in this Outdoor Lab concept. The kids aren’t the only ones getting an education and important life experience. Looks like Joe and I are both getting schooled this week.

The Tell-Tale Cry of Nothing

Little monsters

Little monsters

I was standing in our sons’ bedroom tonight as they were settling in for the night and I was struck with a memory from our recent past. When they were younger, on occasion I would hear a bang, crash, thump, or some other oddly loud sound coming from where they were. Before I could even inquire about the noise, one would holler to me at the top of his lungs to stop the impending investigation.

“NOTHING.”

That was it. No explanation. No apology. Sometimes it was repeated rapidly several times in the same way to reinforce the complete and utter nothingness of the nothing. It still makes me laugh to think about it. I always figured that if no one was crying and the house wasn’t suddenly filled with smoke and the ceiling hadn’t caved in and there was no water cascading in a flash flood down the stairs, all was well. Or at least well enough. I’d find out soon enough what mischief they’d been up to.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t supposed to have secrets. I kept a journal, and I knew it was read despite my best efforts to hide it. I would set it a certain way before I left and sometimes when I returned I could tell it had been moved. I guess I don’t blame my mom for snooping. Parents have to look out for their kids. I suppose my journal was as close as she was going to get to finding out what was going on in my head. Still, my lack of privacy growing up deeply influenced how much respect I have for my sons’ right to keep some things to themselves. Not everything, but some things.

So far, I’ve been lucky. Most of the time, they do admit when things go awry. They fess up when they mess up. Maybe not without prompting, but they don’t persist in a lie for no reason. I learned a lesson from my youth. The more my parents pried, the more I clammed up. In response, with my own children I’ve decided not to sweat the little things because I want them to trust me when the big things pop up. And I know they will.

I don’t often hear the tell-tale cry of NOTHING these days. Perhaps it’s because they’re older and spend more time playing on electronics than wrestling. Perhaps it’s because they’re better at covering things up. Or perhaps it’s because they’ve accepted that I know they’re good kids and there’s nothing they could do that would make me love them less.

Nothing.

 

Pigs in Pink Aprons

Little pig indeed

Little pig indeed

I had all kinds of really good intentions today to get a lot done and not rush my way through a blog at the end of the day like I usually do. That was my grand plan. But then something unfortunate occurred. My nearly teenage son reminded me this morning that he needs another costume item for his school play. And he needs it by tomorrow. You see, Joe is a pig in a fractured fairy tale, performance next week. Last Wednesday when we were both suffering from colds and should have been home in bed resting, we went on a grand excursion to the costume store thirty minutes away to spend $15 on a pink snout, ears, and a curly piggy tail for his costume. (We did not, however, make it make it to the market, have roast beef, or cry wee-wee-wee all the way home, in case you were wondering.) These items were such a hit with his drama teacher that she decided to reward me for my fine work by adding another costume item to really bring the cuteness home. A pink apron. Was she kidding me? This is not exactly an item a mother of two boys would have in a drawer or closet. Pink is verboten in this house, you know. Sometimes I think teachers just do shit like this to test me.

Despite my relative annoyance, I asked around. I could not locate a pink apron that would fit Joe. So today after getting in my workout (3860 stairs at Red Rocks), I began the grand search for a pink apron. My only stipulation was that it had to be under $10. I was not spending real money on a pink apron that I would never wear. Truth is that I already have a good apron that has been my tried-and-true buddy for 15 years, and I am faithful. I started out by going to a couple of discount stores. I got a little distracted in Gordman’s for about an hour (didn’t find an apron but I did find a 24-ounce sippy cup to hold my wine incognito at the pool this summer). Then I moved onto Ross. There I found a full pink apron covered in cupcakes but I thought Joe might balk at the frilly ruffles so I left it. From there I headed to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but all their aprons were over $20 and I would have had to dye a white one pink. No thank you very much. I hit Party City. I was beginning to get a bit desperate. I found a full paper apron that was only $3.50 but it was white, which meant my son and I would have to spend our evening coloring it with pink markers. And, let’s face it. Joe would color for five minutes and then use the excuse he always uses when he’s trying to get out of something (“I have to poop”…you want to mess with that if you’re wrong about his faking it?) and I’d be coloring that dang thing alone. Nope. Not gonna do it. I finally gave up and ran to Target. While they didn’t have an apron, necessity became the mother of invention and I found a pink hand towel and pink, fabric ribbon totaling $8 and decided I would make my own pink apron because why not? Isn’t that what moms are for?

I had planned to sew the ribbon on but realized that the bands on the corner of the towel were capable of breaking multiple needles. (I realized this after I’d broken multiple needles.) I resorted to my glue gun. My glue gun and I worked magic again, and in short order we had a makeshift apron for my little pig. I made him try it on to verify its efficacy. It was perfectly functional. He seemed satisfied with my handiwork and, well, he should be because I’m a talented genius who can pull pink aprons out of thin air. I ironed it, put it in a gallon-size Ziploc to protect it from boy hands before the dress rehearsal, and handed it to him. That was when he told me he doesn’t actually need it until Friday because that’s when the dress rehearsal is. I would have choked him if I hadn’t been so tired from the stairs and the shopping. He’s a lucky boy.

Some days being a mom is a whole lot of pointless work. You finish the laundry, and someone drops a sock into an empty hamper. You clean the kitchen and before you put the rag down someone has crumbs on the counter. You go to five stores to find a pink apron, end up making one, and realize that it’s an exercise in insanity because it’s only going to matter on a subconscious level for less than two minutes of your life and no one else will even notice it for that long. On days like these, I try to remind myself that this is how I earn my keep. I am the behind the scenes miracle worker. What I do is invisible. If I didn’t do it, though, someone would notice.

A Mile In Their Bunny Feet

This is what it's like to struggle with number formation. Go ahead and tell me I need to come in over recess.

This is what it’s like to struggle with number formation at 46. Go ahead and tell me I need to come in over recess. I may cry.

Today my husband and I received a priceless gift. We were able to experience to some degree what having dyslexia is like for our sons. The Rocky Mountain Branch of the International Dyslexia Association staged a learning seminar for parents and educators, and for an hour we were put in situations designed to recreate the frustrations dyslexics experience in the classroom. One of the greatest difficulties in parenting a child with learning disabilities when you do not have them yourself is the inability to understand exactly where they’re coming from. This disconnect has caused innumerable negative interactions with our sons over the years. When you have a bright, articulate child who shows great understanding about the world and can recite for you entire passages from a variety of Star Wars films but who can’t write a simple, grammatically correct sentence at age 11 or who can read the word phenomenal but consistently confuses the words that and what at age 10, it makes you want to tear your hair out. Things that are for you quite simple seem an insurmountable challenge to them. You just don’t get it.

Today’s event provided six opportunities to experience how difficult those simple tasks are when you have dyslexia. There were two stations for writing, two for reading and comprehension, and two for listening skills. The stations were all led by an instructor who served as our classroom teacher. She facilitated the activity, providing constant feedback (mostly in the form of well-meaning, but potentially disheartening, critiques) as we did our work. In our first station, we were given a timed test. We were only allowed to write with the hand we don’t normally use. None of us could complete the tasks in the allotted time, and our handwriting was abysmal. At the next station we wore headphones and listened to a dictated spelling test. The list was read at an average speed, but the volume was varied and the amount of background noise on the recording and in the room in general made it virtually impossible to understand the words. The “teacher” made us correct each others’ papers. For the eight of us in the group, all but one of us missed every single word out of the first six. At that point the teacher told us that we had all failed and would need to do extra work during recess. The next activity was a learn-to-read activity where the words appeared in symbolic code. We were each asked to read aloud words that had no direct correlation to anything we understood. While we struggled, the teacher constantly reminded us that our reading needed to be fluid, embarrassing us with her guidance. Next was another listening activity where we heard four teachers speaking at one time, as if we were on a field trip. We had to correctly copy down what our specific teacher was telling us, filtering out the speech of the others. Most of us missed entire sections on the worksheet. In the fifth activity, we were allowed to use our dominant hand to write but we could not look directly at our paper. Instead, we used a mirror as a guide to write words and trace lines on our paper. I could not get my hand to form the letters and numbers. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I could not make it work. I giggled uncomfortably to myself as I worked and ended with a page was full of scribbles despite my best efforts to be successful. The final activity was another read-aloud session. The text was in an unusual font and far too light, the words were written backwards, and we were asked to read from right to left. After correctly naming our alphabet prior to reading the text (the only success many of us had all hour), we all screwed up our letters while reading, reversing b and d and p and q. Afterward, we were asked to answer comprehension questions. How on earth are you supposed to answer questions about content when you spent 10-15 seconds simply trying to decode one word?

When we’d rotated through all the stations, I began taking notes on the experience. Quite a few times during the discussion after each activity, participants would tear up while explaining how frustrating it had been. We found ourselves behaving much like our children. We checked out and gave up when it got overwhelming, refusing to complete activities. Our stress took over and we became emotional, either making jokes to deflect our frustration or berating ourselves for not being better at the activity. Our hands became tired and our penmanship got worse, and we were annoyed when our teachers told us our work was sloppy and we’d have to do it again. We used strategies to compensate for our difficulties, including looking at other students’ papers to try to figure out what number we were on or what we were supposed to be doing. The entire hour was a continuous light bulb moment. I thought about my boys and some of the destructive arguments we’ve had over homework (one just this last week with Joe over paragraph writing, as a matter of fact), and my heart sank as I understood how much my words and attitude have contributed to their struggles. I felt like crap.

When we got home, we talked with our boys about our experience. We told them that we finally at least partially understood how hard things have been and continue to be for them. We told them what we had done at the seminar and how dang hard it was for us. Joe, especially, seemed thrilled to feel some true understanding from us. I know hindsight is 20/20, and you can’t go back and undo the past, but I wish I would have had this experience about five years ago. It would have saved me and my sons from some insane tantrums (mostly mine) and tears (mostly theirs).

Tonight, seeking some solace from self-loathing regarding how long I’ve been adding to my boys’ frustration about school, I found this quote in my Bunny Buddhism book:

When a bunny finds light, it does not matter how long he has been in the darkness.

I can’t go back and undo the unwitting damage caused by my naive assumptions and over reactions, but I can go forward with a more compassionate heart for both myself and my boys. Beating myself up over things I did not understand will help no one. I will never look at their issues the same way again. I’ve walked a mile in their large, fluffy bunny feet and, in doing so, I’ve stepped out of the darkness. We’re making progress, my boys and I. I’m excited that going forward we’ll be hopping along together in much better light.

Our Perpetual Lady of Slow Learners

Lovely couple of kids

Lovely couple of kids

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my journey as a parent, it’s that expectations can be your undoing. In terms of expectations, mothers are doomed from the start. From the day we pee on a stick and see pink lines, we are an expectant mother. Our pregnancy bible is entitled What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and we devour the information between its covers because pregnancy is so new and different and impending parenthood is equal parts exhilaration and terror. We want to be prepared…as much as anyone can be prepared for the arrival of something so much a part of oneself and yet totally unlike anything anywhere else. While our children begin their lives unencumbered by the existence of expectations, we embark on our parental career ready to measure them against the rubric of the typical. And that’s the point when we make our first big mistake.

I knew fairly early on that our sons were not typical. They did not follow growth and development charts. They were on their own schedules. Things their peers were readily learning, our sons could not. They skipped letters in the alphabet  and struggled to write their own names. They were uncoordinated with sports and were unable catch a ball or skip or follow rhythm. Physicians noted their shortfalls while reassuring us that they were fine. In school, they displayed obvious intellect while retelling stories or playing creatively, but rote memorization of math facts escaped them. They began to get poor marks on tests science and social studies tests despite knowing the answers when asked orally. We were frustrated. We knew they were intelligent, but their grades didn’t reflect it. Teachers told me they weren’t trying, but I knew how hard they worked. I could see their constant struggle to keep up and fit in with expectations they now innately understood by watching their classmates and receiving their report cards. When we finally realized that they had learning disabilities, the damage had been done. Our sons no longer believed they could be successful. Expectations were crushing them.

This year we pulled them out of traditional school and did what we swore we would not. We put them into a special school, a school for children who think differently, a school for the atypical. We’d been hesitant to take this route, fearful of pointing out to them and to others that they weren’t measuring up in regular schools. But the time for denial being a river in Egypt was over. They needed help…no matter what that help looked like. Their new school was a big adjustment for me. You see, there are no grades there. None. Kids aren’t in 4th grade and they don’t earn letter grades. They’re not evaluated that way, and teachers and students don’t discuss grades. They discuss progress. They discuss solutions to struggles. While the kids are evaluated regularly, they are assessed solely on improvement. If they’re improving, they’re on the right track. If they’re not improving, it’s time to re-evaluate how they might learn better and pursue a different route. It’s so simple it’s scary.

And, honestly, this new system of analysis did scare me. I was so tied to our traditional conventions that the variation seemed dubious. As a culture, we subsist on numbers and quantitative results. Our conversations with other parents about our children often revolve around concrete standards. Bobby came in First at State. Jimmy has a 4.0. Sue got a 1300 on her SATs. Hey. I get it. It’s an accomplishment and a feather in our caps when our child is successful in a way that we can readily point out. I know from personal experience, though, the other side of that equation. When our sons were earning C and D grades, I perpetually feared having someone ask me about their report cards. I knew that based on their grades our boys would be marked as sub par by others, and that was frightening. And now when they’re getting no grades, well that’s even scarier. When you tell someone your son is “around the 4th grade level and is a consistently improving student,” they look at you as if you’re sporting three heads. No one is up for flexible standards of personal success although that is the only type of personal success there is…the personal kind.

If we’re going to live by expectations (which we seem bound by human nature to do), perhaps we could be a bit more flexible with our assessment of others? We could accept steady improvement as our rubric. We could value overall forward progress over typical milestones because the truth is that not everyone is typical in every way. Our sons are slow learners because their brains process information differently than the majority. So what? It’s taken me almost 46 years to believe that a piece of paper doesn’t prove wisdom and all the outward success in the world doesn’t make you a better person than the next guy, and that makes me a pretty slow learner too. I’m learning to let go of expectations and becoming more patient with myself and with others. It might be two steps forward and one step back, but I’m making progress just like my sons. By the end of my life, I like to think I will have evolved not just to standards but beyond them in ways that are immeasurable.

I threw away the books that told me how my children should be. I now appreciate them for how they are.