Wednesday, July 4, 2018

America is a promise

I don't think I've ever thought more about what America means and what it means to be American than I have this Fourth of July. This week, after I read this Washington Post article about an ICE raid in Ohio that left children virtually abandoned, I had the dismal thought that celebrating July 4 seemed almost obscene.

Then Eli and I read this library book:
Synopsis: White boy and his nuclear family go to their small-town park for a pet parade, popcorn and pizza at the Pee Wee Football booth, raffle tickets for the American Legion, antique cars, a bandstand, Kiwanis, firemen showing off water battles, the Knights of Columbus, a BBQ, a concert under the stars, Yankee Doodle, Stars and Stripes Forever, the Cub Scouts, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, the Star-Spangled Banner and fireworks.

Which is all fine, I guess, but it isn't like any Fourth of July I've ever had, and no one even says anything about freedom or democracy or independence or even the Coney Island hot dog eating contest, which let's face it is as American as it gets.

If Eli cared to listen, here's what I'd want him to know about America this Fourth of July:

America is an experiment.
242 years ago, democracy hadn't been tried before. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote, "No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth." Especially now, it can seem like the American experiment is failing. But...

America is a contradiction.
We inadvertently left NY1 on during a report about a woman from Ecuador who was reunited with the child who was taken away from her at the border and then had to explain the Trump administration's border policy to Eli, who confidently declared, "If George Washington was still president he'd let the families stay together"...except, I gently reminded him, we've been to Washington's house and seen his slave quarters. Washington, who once wrote, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition of slavery," owned more than 200 slaves. America is the sanctity of life for fetuses and thousands of gun deaths a year. America is liberal snowflakes and conservatives who think union dues violate their free speech. America is opportunity for all and unaffordable health insurance.

But most of all, America is a promise.
America is a "skinny kid with a funny name" who grew up to be president. America is a dog who saved its owner from a rattlesnake. America is black and Latino kids in Queens learning to swim and then becoming lifeguards. America is an 18-year-old kid going to college even as his undocumented father is deported. America is Pee Wee football and the Knights of Columbus but also cricket in Flushing Meadows Park and the Guardian Angels. America can do better and must do better. America is a promise that it's up to us to keep.

Monday, May 28, 2018

No small hand will go unheld

In the morning I walk Eli to school. When we get within sight of the front door, as is his custom, Eli bursts into a sprint as if I've pushed his 'on' button. "Love you!" he calls over his shoulder without looking back, and then he is gone.

On the subway I pull my purple headphones over my ears and turn on The Daily, a New York Times podcast. The episode is about families of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School who are suing Alex Jones for perpetuating and profiting off the lie that they are actors, that their children's murder was a hoax. The host interviews a reporter who interviewed the father of a 6-year-old boy named Jesse Lewis.

"He remembers that day in such excruciating detail," she says: breakfast, a conversation about gingerbread houses, the moment when his son said "Love you" and darted around a corner for the last time.

That night after Eli is asleep I slip into his room. It's a stuffy, humid evening, maybe the first hot night of the season, and Eli's blanket is tangled into bunches on top of his face; all four of his limbs are tossed carelessly out to its sides, like he's an overripe fruit that's burst open in the heat.

He takes up so much space in the world that it's impossible to think of him not being in it any longer. Sometimes — here is a ghoulish confession — I try to imagine it in a clinical way, probing the void the way a tongue pokes at a rotting tooth. But it's like they say: There's literally no word in our language for a parent who has lost a child.

On his next birthday, I think, Eli will be the same age as Jesse and as Charlotte, Olivia, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Ana, James, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin and Allison. And then, in the next year, one by one, he will almost certainly outlive them.

Almost — that caveat upon which the world hangs. I used to tiptoe into Eli's room at night just to watch his chest rise and fall, just to assure myself I'd see him in the morning. Now I stand outside the gate at school and follow him with my eyes as he scrambles inside. Please come back to me, I think, and then he is gone.
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.
There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.
There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.
Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.
Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.
No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.
No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.
—Dick Allen, "Solace," Newtown, CT, December 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Try everything

At night Eli’s bed is a cocoon. Clad only in underwear, no matter what the season, he burrows himself deep inside a web of blankets, balancing emoji pillows and Super Mario Bros. stuffed figures precariously on top.

“Listen,” I say seriously, snuggling in beside him, “the Tooth Fairy is going to come tonight, but after this I’ve decided you’re not allowed to lose any more teeth.”

He giggles, his tongue poking through the new hole in his lower gums. This time he lost the tooth in school and managed to save it, and I couldn’t believe how small it looked inside the Ziploc baggie, how it curved at one end like a question mark where it had once been secured inside his gums.

“You’re not allowed to grow any more either,” I continue. “You’re just going to stay 5.”

He giggles again. “I am going to get older,” he says, almost patiently; Mama, we’ve been through this. “I’m going to turn 6 and then 7 and then 9 and then when I’m 10 I’m going to get a phone and then I’ll go to college and get a job and be 30 and 40 and 50 and 60” — in one breath, in typical Eli fashion, he’s aged himself past me.

It’s the day of his kindergarten “moving up” ceremony (although this particular moving up is a metaphor, as the last day of school is still more than a month away), and I’m in a reflective mood. The kindergarten teachers who wrote the show took all my usual wild unsentimentality about school functions — I hate the pageantry, the pressure to get a good seat and a good photograph, the parent paparazzi — and tossed it right into my face. The script featured lines about how our babies are going to grow up and go to college. Eli and his friends confidently stepped up to the microphone and told the whole audience about the “roller coaster of kindergarten.” And then, after a nearly 6-year track record of dry eyes at kid ceremonies, my resolve crumpled when the stage full of kindergarteners in matching emoji shirts belted out that Shakira song from “Zootopia”:

I won't give up, no I won't give in 
Till I reach the end 
And then I'll start again 
No I won't leave 
I wanna try everything 
I wanna try even though I could fail 
Try everything!
Try everything!

Can you spot Eli? You can't. Because I couldn't see him from my seat. #momfail
(Trivia: Eli is the one who told me the song is from “Zootopia.” Eli also told me that instead of singing “Fight Song” they were originally supposed to sing “7 Years” and I’m pretty glad they didn’t because I think I really would have lost it weeping.)

Look how far you've come, you filled your heart with love (goddammit Shakira)

There was just something so wonderful about watching them all march down the aisles of the auditorium in their “Many Faces of Kindergarten” shirts, waving their arms in the air. They looked so pleased with themselves, like they had been keeping this secret they were finally ready to show off: We had wanted them to become big kids, had hoped and prayed for them to grow older, and now they had done it. Well done, kindergarten class of 2018.

I truly love this shirt. 
There's that expression, Time is a thief, but I disagree: Time is a gift. Five years ago this June I brought a bewildered Eli to Pickwick School with a bag full of baby bottles and a pacifier clipped on to him, and just yesterday he ran offstage in the auditorium, kissed me gently on the cheek and then skipped off, waving and calling gaily, "Thank you! Bye!" That kiss was time's gift to me, I think; time's way of telling me that the moments I ache to slow down are the moments where it's sweetest to keep moving forward.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Timing is everything

In parenting, as in comedy, timing is everything. When you have a brand-new, breathtakingly mysterious infant, it’s all about the moment-to-moment increments — generally, some variation on the question of What will keep this creature quiet and peaceful for the next minute? Parenting advice columns try to teach you how to stretch out the time between his feedings or how to prolong her nap.

Gradually, you start measuring time in weeks and months — when I signed my name on emails to my “June through December 2012 Forest Hills parents” Google group, I’d type “Rachel (Eli, 18 weeks).” Every month on the 16th, when I look at my Timehop app, it’s filled with pictures of baby Eli wearing his special onesie that proclaimed how many months old he was.

You’ve all seen similar pictures in your own Facebook feed, and some of them are invariably accompanied by shameful confessions about how they are “a few dates/weeks/months late, oops!” Because in parenting, as in comedy, it’s hard to get the timing right: You’re always either too early or too late.

Before I was a parent, I prided myself on my unfailing punctuality. As a parent, I’m either punctual alongside a whiny 5-year-old who’s irritated that he didn’t get a chance to gather as many Skylanders as he liked before I hustled him out the door and who’s growing increasingly antsty that the event isn’t starting on time, or I’m late.

Because I have a pathological fear of being late, I make sure to build in oceans of extra time when I’m going somewhere with Eli. The problem is that Eli thinks all that extra time is for negotiating about whether he can bring toys to school and for pretending he doesn’t know how to put his own socks and shoes on and desperately requires assistance. So I always feel like I’m rushing him out the door, even though we are on time, which is actually early.

“Are we late?” he’ll ask, bewildered by my frenzied exhortations to move faster as he saunters casually to the elevator.

“No! Are we ever late?!” I will retort, even the mention of the word “late” striking terror into my prompt heart.

In our apartment, beginning at 6 a.m., Eli is a tornado of activity, streaking through the living room in only his underwear and speeding from room to room. But once outside, he becomes slothlike, with nearby distractions slowing him to a crawl and a seeming inability to walk and talk at the same time. He frequently halts to gesticulate while expounding on an important point of clarification, and he also likes to take what he calls “shortcuts,” i.e., unnecessary diversions through ramps and staircases outside other buildings on the way to school.

When the weather is nice, I’m game for a good stroll on the way to school. But now that it’s cold, I frequently find myself several paces ahead of him, glancing back, because I’ve learned that if I pause to wait up for him, he’ll slow to a halt too.

But after we cross the last street, somewhere between a full block and half a block before the school building, he’ll suddenly yell, “Love you! Bye!” and take off like he’s been jet-propelled. I watch the flaps of his hat blowing in the breeze as he shrugs his backpack in closer to his body to make himself more aerodynamic, tucking his head low like he’s a football player weaving in and out of other pedestrians. If I’m lucky, he pauses just before the school gate to send me air kisses and “air hugs,” and I shout, “Be kind! Learn stuff! Have fun!”

And then he’s gone. He’s started the walk as the turtle and ended as the hare. Then suddenly all the time I’ve saved up getting us to school early is more time for me to miss him, the way I do when he finally falls asleep after popping out of his room six times, or when I find myself in the presence of other children who are cute and all, but not Eli.

Somehow, even after all the sturm und drang of the morning — the requests for additional breakfast foods, the board games he sets up for the two of us to play, the seven times I ask him to get dressed before he does it, the standoff when he tries to sneak a toy into his backpack and I catch him, the groaning over which jacket I hand him to wear and how heavy his backpack is — it’s always that last part that sticks with me as I walk alone to the subway: the way he looks when he’s no longer with me, the way he holds his body apart and his eyes are somewhere else, his own country.

I think that’s how timing so often goes in parenting: interminably, and then suddenly; slowly, and then all at once. You want them to go away so you can miss them, and then they do and then you do. Timing is everything.

Friday, February 2, 2018

An extroverted thinking child and an introverted feeling mama walk into a room

Last week, I set out to understand my son.

We had had a rough Friday evening. You know those cliches about “slippery slopes” and how “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile”? Those cliches were constructed for Eli. Eli was born on a slippery slope.

All too frequently, Eli approaches me with a tentative, hopeful expression and launches one of these self-contradictory conversation starters before proceeding to ask for something to which he knows I’m going to object:

“I know you’re not going to like this, but…”
“I know you’re not going to let me, but…”
“I know you’re going to be mad, but…”

 Sometimes I think, Ah, young hope springs eternal. But sometimes I think he does it just so he can give himself cover for the tantrum he’s itching to throw.

Anyway, on this particular Friday — after a day at school, after Lego and Wii games after school, after stuffing his face with Shabbat challah and butter and washing it down with grape juice — Phil let Eli stay up late to play with his Skylanders on the Wii.

(An aside: Skylanders are Eli’s newest obsession. They are some kind of action figures that interact with the Wii game system through means of a “portal,” i.e. a glowing plastic orb that I keep tripping over in my living room, and because they were introduced in 2011 they have apparently become obsolete, which allowed Phil to purchase an obscene number of them on eBay for $40, so basically keep in mind that anytime you see me these days I have recently stepped on a Skylander, accidentally kicked a Skylander across the room or have been instructed to battle with a Skylander by detaching half its body and magnetically attaching it to another half Skylander.)

Skylanders in their natural habitat: on a magnatile "chess board" on our living room floor.
So Phil told Eli there were three more minutes of Skylanders until it was time to brush his teeth. And then three minutes went by. This presented a problem for Eli because he insisted that it had not been three minutes, it had been much less than three minutes, possibly even less than seconds, and it wasn’t fair and he didn’t get enough time to play and and we were mean parents and we didn’t even care about him (because when parents really want to stick it to you, they buy you 80 Skylanders and let you stay up late to play with them after cramming you with more challah and butter than is probably appropriate).

The tantrum that followed was pretty epic and culminated in me dumping all the Skylanders into a plastic bin and hauling them out of Eli’s room while he wailed (I almost said “inconsolably” in an attempt to be fancy and then realized that no one was trying to console him).

Eventually he went to sleep and I did what I always do when I’m confronted with a problem: I turned to research. I dug out my copy of Kids, Parents and Power Struggles (purchased at a yard sale for 50 cents) and read it aloud to Phil in an increasingly hysterical tone:

“How persistent is your child?
  • Finds it difficult to let go of an activity that he has chosen 
  • Refuses to accept no for an answer 
  • Wakes up with plans of his own 
  • Asks the same question over and over if he doesn’t like your answer” 
I took all the quizzes classifying Eli’s temperament. My studies revealed that Eli is a “thinker” and I am a “feeler,” and Eli is extroverted and I am introverted, and we are basically doomed to be at odds for the rest of our natural lives.

But...I already knew that. Because isn’t that at least a small percentage of what it means to be somebody’s mother? I was classically well-behaved and academically inclined as a child, and my mother and I still managed to have screaming fights over the unkept state of my room because it was basically the other thing we had at our disposal to argue about. (And also she didn’t approve of my watching The X-Files so much.)

On the one hand, I learned tips that will help me be proactive in preventing future meltdowns and teaching Eli some coping mechanisms. (I am supposed to teach him to say, "I have strong opinions!") But on the other hand, I realized that I can’t treat motherhood like a college course that I can ace if I highlight enough passages.

Will this be on the midterm?
I think that no matter what kind of parent you are and what kind of kid you have, your child will always find a way to surprise you. This week I had dinner with a friend who told me that her 3-year-old daughter is such a rule-follower in preschool that her teacher is constantly saying to other kids, “Why can’t you behave more like Franny?” As parents, they think she needs to be more rebellious.

I just gaped at her and thought about how the last contact I had with my child’s teacher was her email informing me that Eli had mischievously crawled between bathroom stalls and consequently someone had peed on his arm. (“He thoroughly washed his lower arm,” the email assured me while I giggled.)

I've written before about how I used to feel this kind of existential dismay when I'd realize how different Eli is from me or from the kind of child I expected to have. But I am slowly learning to see it as a point of pride, a tiny surprise I get to unwrap every day. For every battle we have because I think he's too headstrong or too combative, there's the time he tried to teach all the kids in the Hall of Science crooked house exhibit to play chess by yelling, "GUYS GUYS GUYS! THE PISHOP MOVES DIAGONALLY!" (He says "pishop" instead of "bishop." It's adorable.)

He is zesty and spunky and sometimes a little bit prickly in ways that get my hackles up probably more than anyone else because...I'm his mother. So on Friday night, when I set out to understand him — all his hopes, dreams, fears and what motivates him at times to act like an absolute asshole — I didn't get very far, but I got a little bit closer. And on Saturday morning, when he slipped quietly into the bedroom and snuggled up to me under the covers, I know you, I thought sleepily. I would know you anywhere. 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

—Kahlil Gibran, "On Children"

Friday, November 17, 2017

One-quarter of the way through kindergarten

When I was a teacher, parent-teacher conference day was one of the most grueling nights of the year. At first, I did all my preparation in anticipation of talking to parents about how their kids are doing academically: Are they meeting benchmark standards? Do they understand the curriculum they’re being taught?

But really parent-teacher conferences are about so much more than that. They're a narrow window into the 6-hour 20-minute black hole that is the school day, a parent's hopes and dreams and fears for their children crammed into a rapid-fire 10-minute meeting. I was a teacher before I had my own child, and I didn’t anticipate how often these conferences would turn into mini therapy sessions for parents: He gets so frustrated. I don’t know what to do with her at home.

I broadcast a lot of academic terminology to parents over the years — reading levels, math assessments, sight words, rubrics, portfolios — but the best compliment I ever received as a teacher was from a parent who told me, with tears in her eyes, “I feel like you’re describing my son exactly the way I see him.”

 Last night, as I somewhat apprehensively headed to Eli’s first kindergarten parent-teacher conference, I realized that’s what I wanted most from his teacher: for her to see him the way I see him, my rowdy, tempestuous, unconstrained child.

The day before, I'd gotten Eli's first-ever report card, and as a former teacher it was pretty easy to read between the lines of his teacher's hopeful euphemisms:
He'd been graded proficient on all his academic standards, but he'd gotten a 2 ("below standard") on "respecting school rules and working well in the school community." I know I've spent the past five years growing used to the idea that my child is a child who might not be the most perfect example of rule-following (unlike, ahem, one of his close relatives you might know), but the fact that my child could be factually "below standard" in something like respect and harmony really hit me hard. (Can we not call this "approaching standard" or "minimally proficient" or even "needs improvement"? I feel like it would make a psychological difference.)

When I was in elementary school, I turned my homework into a one-girl role-playing game every afternoon because I enjoyed doing it so much. I privately jockeyed to be known as the best reader in the class (I have a vivid memory of doing round-robin reading out loud in 1st grade and secretly rejoicing when the girl I considered to be my closest competition mispronounced the word "caterpillar." I know. I'm totally gross). And when my parents went to parent-teacher conferences, they came home glowing.

Eli is...not so much that kid. I mean, don't get me wrong, the brains are definitely there (she says modestly), but the work ethic and slavish dedication to societal norms are certainly not, yet. As part of a column I just wrote for work on rethinking gifted education I read about the distinction educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli makes between "academic" giftedness and "creative-productive" giftedness, and it makes sense to me. I'm smart at studying books. Eli is smart at putting a 90-piece Lego set together and then deconstructing it piece by piece over the next several days as he uses each brick in an elaborate role-playing fantasy.

And I worried about how he'd adjust to kindergarten, with its homework and its curricular expectations and its menacing furniture (I say this last part because the nurse has called me at least three times this school year to say that Eli's somehow managed to poke his eye with a chair. In addition to the other two times she's called to say he's bumped heads with someone else).

So when I got to Eli's classroom, what I really wanted was my own mini therapy session. And as it turns out, his teacher was wonderful. She told me that Eli is sometimes antsy and inquisitive and "a little in your face," but, she said, "it comes from a good place." She told me that "he'll always have sass," but that they "understand each other." And she told me that my child is awesome. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to hear that.

When I got home, there were lots of things I wanted to unpack for Eli about our conversation and about school: how his teacher said his frustration with writing is holding him back a little, how he needs to try looking across whole words instead of only at the first letter — but then I remembered how my parents always reported back from parent-teacher conferences, and when Eli asked what his teacher said about him, I told him, "She said that you're awesome."

His face broke into a proud smile. "I am awesome!" he exclaimed.

That's the thing about Eli: He knew he was awesome all along. And I'm so grateful he has a teacher who agrees with him.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

To my son's teacher on the night before kindergarten

To my son’s teacher on the night before his first day of kindergarten: 

He’s not ready.

I know this because he told me himself last night: “I’m not ready for kindergarten! I can’t even read!”

“Sweetheart,” I said, trying not to laugh, “that’s what you’re going there to learn how to do. And reading is going to be so great!”

“What if they ask me to read?” he said, his eyes welling up with tears. “What if I make a mistake? What if I get in trouble?”

I told him I doubted you would ask him to read — not on the first day. And I told him that he probably would make a mistake, but that didn’t mean he was going to get in trouble, because you would be there to help him figure out the right thing to do.

“Didn’t you like pre-K?” I asked. He said, “Yeah, but that’s because the teachers in pre-K were nice.”

And I have no doubt that you’ll be nice, too.

In another life, I was a teacher. And I vividly remember those nights before the first day of school, when you wonder what your class will be like and how the year will go.

I know you’re just as nervous as the kids. I know how hard you’ve worked to get your classroom ready for them, how painstakingly you’ve arranged those little cut-outs with their names on the door, how carefully you’ve smoothed all that backing paper on all those bulletin boards. I know you have a vision for how the first day of school will go.

Now that I’m on the other side of this first day of school thing, I also know that my kid has the potential to torpedo your vision in seconds flat.

He’s loud. He doesn’t always raise his hand. If you put him in a quiet spot on the carpet, I can’t promise you with 100% certainty that he’ll stay there.

He’s a lot like other 5-year-old kids you’ve had in your class, in short: noisy, impulsive and strong-willed.

He has the potential to be great — a natural leader and an eager contributor of his knowledge and ideas.

But I’m not going to sugercoat this for you: He also has the potential to be “that kid” in your class.

You know. That Kid. That kid you call home about on your prep. That kid you have to make a sticker chart for. That Kid.

Know this: I am on your side. No one wants my kid to succeed in school more than I do (and only partially because I was a dream student myself and it both fascinates and horrifies me to see my own son head down a different path). You should feel free to call, email, text or ClassDojo me anytime. (Eli was, discouragingly, pretty concerned when I told him I’d be in fairly regular contact with his teacher.)

But in return, I ask you: Please be gentle with him. Please judge him by his sweetest moments and not his worst ones. Harness his curiosity and his boisterousness and his sense of humor. Give him a job to do and a hand to hold. Please make him feel respected and valued and important.

Because you have the power to do that — the power that only a kindergarten teacher has.

I’ve jokingly told Eli that I will love him no matter what: “I have to love you; I’m your mommy!”

You, on the other hand, don’t have to love him...but I hope you will anyway. I hope you love the funny faces he makes to make the other kids laugh (even when he’s probably not supposed to). I hope you love his excitement about science. I hope you even love his bossiness and his penchant for correcting every teeny mistake you might dare to make.

That famous quotation by Maya Angelou — “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel” — never rings truer than in kindergarten. Years from now, Eli will probably have only hazy memories of the time he spent in your class. But he’ll always remember how his kindergarten teacher made him feel about school — and about himself.

I know that’s a lot of pressure, but you wouldn’t have become a kindergarten teacher in the first place if you didn’t believe it too. I’ve done my part to hype up kindergarten and how awesome it will be. Now, it’s up to you. Please help him understand that school is something he should love, not fear. Please help him feel encouraged and not ashamed. If you can fit any reading and writing and math in there after all that emotional intelligence, that'd be great too. I promise to repay you with my eternal gratitude (and maybe a nice big bottle of gin at Christmas).

He’s not ready. But then, they never are. So I can’t thank you enough for everything you’re going to do for him this year. It’s going to be a great adventure for all three of us, so let’s get to it.

With thanks,
Eli’s Mom