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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Are these sneakers for girls only? An investigation

Dear Skechers,

Today I took my 5-year-old son shopping for new sneakers for kindergarten. Against a wall of monochromatic and frankly drab options, these captivated him right away.
They're rainbow and sparkly and pretty fantastic. Heck, I'd wear them in my size. I admired his taste. As he was busily shoving the too-large display sneaker on his foot, I approached the sales guy to request his size.

"I'm actually not sure what size he is," I said.

The guy did a double take. "He?"

"Yeah, he's over there," I said, motioning to my son.

The sales guy lowered his voice, adopting the tone of a doctor delivering fatal news to a patient. "Uh, you know these are girl shoes, right?"

I fixed him with my most withering glare and said, "Uh, it doesn't actually matter."

So he obligingly brought us the box.
Well played, Skechers! In case there was any doubt about for which sex your awesome rainbow sparkly sneakers are intended, you've cleared up the confusion right there on the box!

My son tried on the sneakers and instantly approved them. And then, in a momentary flash of doubt, I asked him what he would say to anyone who said to him, "Hey, why are you wearing pink sneakers?"

"Because they're cool," called the sales guy from over by the register, recovering with aplomb from his earlier discomfort. My son's eyes brightened.

"Because they're cool," he repeated firmly.

So we bought the rainbow sparkly sneakers. Along with a plainer blue pair. A few hours later, I asked him which pair of his new sneakers he wanted to wear to the ice cream shop.

"The sparkly ones," he said.

He chose cotton candy ice cream — which happened to match his sneakers. As he ate, I caught him admiring the way they glinted in the sunlight.

"Sparkle power!" he said.

There are, in any given day, at least a dozen mistakes I make as a parent and a dozen decisions I regret. But when my son chose rainbow sparkly sneakers and I didn't blink before hitting the register — that's a moment I'm proud of.

But Skechers, it shouldn't take an act of parental courage for a boy to get his hands on the rainbow sparkly sneakers his heart desires. After all, rainbows and sparkles are for everyone. And parenting is hard enough without sneaker companies dictating to me which of their sneakers my child should or should not wear because he has a penis and not a vagina.

I propose that instead of Skechers Girl, you call these sneakers Skechers Cool. Because they really are. And so is my kid.
Signed,
This cool kid's mom

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Parenting into the unknown

When Eli's first birthday was approaching, I remember distinctly feeling as though I'd reached the end of something. It had been a grueling marathon of a year, and I was approaching the finish line. My baby was no longer a baby. The scary part was over.

What I didn't realize then, of course, is that the scariest part of parenting is that the scary part is never over. Just last week after Eli had already gone to bed I read that Ari Schultz, a 5-year-old heart transplant patient whom I've followed for years on Facebook, had died. I stumbled into Eli's room, sobbing, just to watch his chest rise and fall, taking back every uncharitable thought I'd ever had about him.

Now, as Eli approaches his fifth birthday, what still surprises me is how every day he feels more and more like a person, more fully realized and fully formed, as if he's been blurred around the edges all this time and every day comes a little bit more into focus. A few weeks ago, for instance, I decided to try Mad Libs Junior with him and he laughed uproariously at the final product. It felt thrilling, like I had unlocked a whole new level of childhood: a kid who gets Mad Libs! This past weekend, I went for a run on the beach and when I got back, Eli asked, "Mama, how was your run?"It felt like such a tiny, precious moment of humanity to have my child show a passing interest in something that's important to me.

It's possible that I'm just a person who's better suited to parenting a 5-year-old than I was a baby or a toddler. I loved Eli's baby rolls and squishy, kissable cheeks (they're still kissable. I check every day), but I rarely feel that pang of "Stop growing so fast!" that everyone around me seems to feel. I love reading the Magic Tree House books with him at bedtime instead of "Trains Go." I love watching his confidence grow as he strides into the ocean and demands, "Don't hold onto me! I can tread water!" I love that I can sign him up for two different mini-camps after regular camp has ended without having to worry about how he'll adjust to all the transitions, because I know he'll be just fine.

(I do not love listening to the song "Rolex" for the millionth time, which he learned on the camp bus and now asks Alexa to play for us a dozen times a day.)

A few weeks ago, we were at the beach with friends when Eli noticed a little girl nearby wearing a puddle jumper. When she took it off he marched himself over to her family and asked, "Can I try it?" The next thing I knew, we were in the ocean. And not for the first time, I looked at him and thought, Who are you?! I never would have asked a strange family for their daughter's puddle jumper; I would have been too shy. And I never would have made a beeline for the deep ocean waves; I would have been too scared.

But that's my Eli: bolder and more daring than I ever was, equally loudmouthed but probably with more sass and charm. When his camp counselors talk about him, they say that he has a "big personality" (but I mean, so does Donald Trump, right?) and that he basically questions every decision they make (I feel you, camp counselors). A few weeks into camp, I got a message from a counselor asking me to speak to Eli at home about "making safer choices." In the 15 or so years that I attended school, this is not the kind of phone call my parents ever received about me.

Next month Eli will start kindergarten, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about how he'll fare. It seems to come with so many rules and expectations, which I'm sure Eli will do his best to test and bend and challenge. When I was in elementary school, I worshipped my teachers unquestioningly and thoroughly enjoyed doing my homework. It's hard for me to imagine this will be the case for Eli.

And that's been and continues to be one of the most challenging, complicated, intricate things about parenting for me: learning to be the parent of the kind of kid I have instead of the kind of kid I was or the kind of kid I expected to have.

This morning, the camp bus was late and Eli, who does not like waiting, was having a bit of a meltdown on the sidewalk behind our building. He chastised me for my own irritation while he spun in circles around me and stepped on my feet. "Help me!" he demanded angrily. I said, "Eli, I don't know what you want me to do."

"Just do something!" he yelled. So I bent down and scooped him up (thank you weightlifting). He relaxed instantly, his head cradled against my shoulder, and then he started kissing me on the cheek. It was sort of a perfect encapsulation of who Eli is: demanding and uncompromising, impatient and assertive, self-aware and all in service of wanting to receive love and attention and loyalty and give it fiercely in return.

I just finished binge-watching all five seasons of Friday Night Lights, and the rallying cry of the Dillon Panthers — "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" — feels especially apt. I see my son clearly, and my heart is certainly full. Happy birthday, my bold and brilliant boy. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What we talk about when we talk about God

“God is just a story.”

The first time my 4-year-old says these words, I feel a stab of panic, as if we might be struck down at any minute for blasphemy.

My next instinct is to protest. I’d like to believe in God, I tell him. I like the idea of a God who loves us, who can protect us and keep us safe.

“But no one knows for real,” he says, and I tell him this is true. Both of us know that God doesn’t always protect us, that we’re not always safe in this world.

The truth is, we don’t often talk about God in our house, and that’s because I don’t really know how. When we do, it’s mostly in Hebrew. Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheniu melech ha’olam. Blessed are You, God, ruler of the universe.

These are sacred words, and saying them feels holy. But until now, we’ve never talked about whether someone is really listening.

Eli thinks he knows how to find out. “Watch this,” he says. “God!” he calls expectantly. “Tell us a story!”

Then he spreads his arms wide into a ‘well, what can you do?’ gesture. “See?” he says to me, half-pityingly. “He doesn’t answer.”

I’m reminded of a wisecrack Fox Mulder once made on The X-Files: “They say when you talk to God it’s prayer, but when God talks to you, it’s schizophrenia.”

These days, Eli is brimming with questions about the larger mysteries of the universe: Who invented milk? Well, then who invented cows? What was the earth like before there were any people? Was God alive before the dinosaurs? If God is the inventor of everything, who invented God?

I try to explain — haltingly, fumblingly — that some people think you can see God in every awe-inspiring sight in nature. Eager to please, Eli lights upon the first object he sees and croons, “I see God!”

Back to square one.

When I was an adolescent, I went through a crisis of faith. Or, depending on how you look at it, a crisis of mandated attendance at Hebrew school. I was a fraud, I told my parents, a sham. I went to class every week, but I didn’t feel a spiritual connection with God. So therefore I shouldn’t have to go to Hebrew school anymore.

As an adult, I was able to say those words that every Jewish parent longs to hear: You were right. Eli goes to Hebrew school every week now at the same temple I grew up attending, and he loves it. When we go to Shabbat services and he sits transfixed by the children’s choir, mimicking their hand motions, my eyes fill with nachas and tears.

But that comes from a place of tradition, of community, of family. We’re all there to talk to God, I suppose, but it’s the blessings we give to one another that resonate most with me.

Whenever I find myself flummoxed by childhood curiosity, I do what my father the librarian taught me to do: I turn to books. Amazon.com’s “customers who bought this item also bought” feature leads me from one suggestion to another, and I scour the customer reviews for clues about whether the “right” answer will be revealed.

“It offers everything a child first needs to know about God: who he is, where he is, how do we find him, how much he loves us, why is there evil in the world and how do we pray,” says one review of a book called Where Does God Live? 

“Fine if you’re looking for heresy,” scoffs another.

(Come for the deep existential questions about the role of God and spirituality in your young child's life. Stay for the hersey!) 

I settle on the 4.5-star-rated What Is God? Eli pipes in excitedly when he hears mention of Moses and the Torah and synagogue. I cringe when I get to a new-agey paragraph about how if God is in everything then “all of us are God!”

I get on board with the paragraph that says

When we pray to God, 
We are praying for that feeling of love 
To come to us and to everybody we know, 
Maybe even to all those people we don’t know, 
So that we can all be happy together, or apart. 

Eli is nonchalant as I finish reading. I’m relieved we haven’t been struck down for blasphemy, but sort of disappointed there haven’t been any major revelations either.

“You know, in a way you’re right that God is just a story,” I tell him, “because there are so many different stories that people tell themselves and each other about God. But that feeling that you feel when you talk to God? That’s real. And when I talk to God, I say thank you for making me your mommy.”

I sit back, triumphant. I’ve done it, I think. I’ve Hallmark-carded my way through this crucial developmental discussion.

Eli looks at me. ‘Duh, Mama’ says the expression on his face.

“Can we read another book now?” he says.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Regrets, I've had a few

This morning Eli and I were snuggling on the couch and looking at the Timehop app on my phone, which shows all the photos and videos and status updates I've done on the same day in previous years. Last year on this day was the first time Eli ever drew a "representational figure" (a stick figure with legs coming out of its head and "angry tears" on its face). From four years ago there's an incredibly sweet video of Phil stuffing Eli's fat flailing limbs into his swaddle and putting him into his swing with a Fisher-Price glowworm on top of him — obviously I was trying to capture the sturm und drang of naptime in infancy.

Eli was fixated on a video from three years ago: taking a bath at 18 months old. Sandra Boynton's Barnyard Bath! floats in front of him. "Where's your washcloth?" I'm asking him. He grabs it with a goofy grin on his face. "Wash the duckies!" I chirp. He obliges cheerfully. "Wash the cow!" I say. He looks up at me quizzically. "Bus? Bus?" he inquires apropos of nothing, and the video ends.

Present-day Eli wanted to know if we still had Barnyard Bath!, because suddenly Barnyard Bath! was the thing he desired most in the world. "But can we look at a map of where we bought it and can we buy it again? I really want that book," he said.

These days in the bath Eli is usually crashing his Transformers or submerging his Hot Wheels; I haven't encouraged him to wash the duckies in years. "Why do you want it?" I asked. He arranged his face into a crestfallen pout. 

"I didn't get to wash the cow," he said despondently. "I really want to wash the cow."

Which strikes me in its own capricious way as a perfect metaphor for regret of any kind. I didn't get to study abroad in college, I didn't land that job at Sesame Street I always dreamed of, I never broke 4:30 in the marathon. I didn't get to wash the cow.

Parenting in some ways is like a crash course in regret. If I could go back to the beginning, I'd breastfeed longer, worry less, encourage a greater variety of vegetable-eating...

In a lot of ways, childhood is a crash course in regret too. Every parent knows what it feels like when your kid melts down at the end of a day that's been a orgy of excess in the fun department: We recently went to a birthday party where Eli boogied down during a dance party, rubbed elbows with a life-sized Minion, ate pizza and cake, drank several juice boxes, ran through a funhouse maze with his friends, played a host of arcade games and traded in tickets for prizes — but of course at the end of it all he was fixated on the prizes he didn't get, the tickets he didn't earn, the game he didn't get to play for the dozenth time. Woe! Oh, how his life might have been changed by that teeny slinky!

Doesn't he know there are starving children who would feel thankful to drink even one of those high-fructose juice boxes? Doesn't he understand how lucky he is?

Well, no, he doesn't. And I guess in some ways that's a blessing, that right now his biggest regret is not washing the cow, as opposed to the ones that keep me up at night: I wish I'd called my nana more, not fallen out of touch with those friends, campaigned harder for Hillary Clinton. After all, if YOLO behavior is supposed to prevent looking back in regret, there's no better embodiment than a child who's living his best life as 100% id.

Three years ago Eli was a chubby toddler in a tub who couldn't distinguish between a cow and a bus, and now he's a kid with enough self-awareness to actually feel mournful about that fleeting experience — isn't the human consciousness amazing? He's grown into this saucy, funny, earnest little person. And — I'm tempting fate here, but — when you have a baby everyone warns you about the terrible 2s and then about how 3 is worse than 2 and 4 is worse than 3, and these days we are in kind of a groovy place where I can't wait to see what he comes up with next and where his mind and heart will go.

And from this point forward, I'm going to think about regret the way Eli did this morning. There are some cows I didn't get to wash too, Eli. I really want to wash those cows.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

History has its eyes on you

I told my child that Donald Trump was a bully. I told my child that Donald Trump was a bigot. I told my child that Donald Trump was the wrong choice.

This morning I had to tell my child that Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

He burst into tears. "But I wanted Hillary Clinton to be the president," he sobbed. "She was going to be the first woman president and now she never will!"

I was, frankly, unprepared for the depth of his emotion. I wondered if I had done the wrong thing by being such an unabashed cheerleader for Clinton, so partisan in my distaste for Trump. Like many of us, I had treated it kind of like a game: Ha ha, can you believe this crazy buffoon thinks he's going to be president? Good thing us reasonable people will see right through his rhetoric!

Van Jones on CNN said it for me: “It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us. You tell your kids don’t be a bully. You tell your kids don’t be a bigot. You tell your kids do your homework and be prepared. Then you have this outcome. How do I explain this to my children?”

Being a parent is hard, and not always for the reasons I expected. I expected the sleep deprivation and the impatience and the casual disregard with which I would come to interact with certain bodily fluids. I did not anticipate how hard it would be to instill those prized values in my child that we all strive for: decency, kindness and respect. I used to think those values were innate; you were either born with certain moral standards or you were not. But since Eli was born it's become clear to me that those values can be taught; must be taught. He needs to see me going out of my way to help others. He needs to hear me explain what it means to be impoverished, to be marginalized, to be powerless. It can't be as simple as "Our side is right and the other is wrong."

Because how did we get here? Something ugly has been festering in America that maybe I as an educated northeastern liberal have failed to acknowledge. My America is supposed to look like "This Land is Your Land," like the cast of "Hamilton," like "If I Had a Hammer." This is not my America.

But the problem is, this is my America now. This country where Trump supporters kick the wheelchair of a disabled kid at a rally, where dissenting Jews are taunted with photoshopped images of their biracial children in ovens, where presidential candidates say maybe it would be a good thing if their opponents were assassinated. This is our America too. I have to come to grips with that.

But I don't have to make peace with it. Because I bear some of the responsibility. I can't say that I did everything I could to make sure Clinton got elected. Because I honestly didn't think this could happen. Even though history tells us that the "it can't happen here" mentality is our enemy, I thought it couldn't happen here.

When I woke up this morning, I had that Harry Potter line running through my head: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face a choice between what is right and what is easy."

So I'm strapping myself in. I'm getting organized about my charitable giving. I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Every time I read something online that enrages me, instead of drowning myself in a cesspool of online vitriol, I will make a donation to a cause I care about. I encourage you to join me. (So we can all go broke by 2020 together.)

Early in the evening, before we could bring ourselves to turn on the news, we watched Sunday's episode of The Walking Dead. There's a character named Negan who's truly a bad hombre, and his army of followers has been trained to embody his philosophy so wholeheartedly that if you ask them, "Who are you?" they will answer "Negan." At the episode's climax, after spending an hour trying to break the spirit of a long-beloved character named Daryl, Negan gets in his face brandishing a baseball bat covered in barbed wire.

"Who are you?" he asks. There's a long pause.

"Daryl," says Daryl.

Who are we, America? We are not Trump. We are not xenophobes, misogynists, racists. We are not Trump. We are better than this. We have to be.