0

Teach Your Children Well

Imagine

“Nick, did you finish writing your spelling words?”

I knew the answer before I even asked. Studying was his least favorite activity, but our deal had been that he would knock his words out before he played with his friends, which is why we were parked across this street from one of his favorite afterschool hangouts – the neighborhood park.

After an exasperated sigh and much bumping and shuffling in the backseat – followed, of course, by more loud sighing – he wrote the 20 words on a sheet of paper, saying each letter as he wrote.

“Measurement. M-E-A-S…”

Across the street I spotted his buddy, Mason, running after an older boy on a bike. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from Mason’s facial contortions and the other boy’s frequent looks over his shoulder, the conversation was not going well.

“Hey, Nick, are you almost finished?“

Before the end of the block, Mason grabbed the handlebar, wrenching the bike away and the boys fell into a tangle of gawky arms and limbs as they scrabbled to stand up again. Unbeknownst to me, Nick had also been watching the melee and had flung the door open, dashing across the street before I could even finish saying, “look both ways!”

Nick wedged himself between the boys, shielding Mason’s splayed body as he looked up at the other, the boy’s arm raised in a mighty fist. Instinctively, he covered his face with his forearms – no doubt remembering my edict – always protect your teeth and glasses – his body braced for inevitable impact.

I sprang from the car, calculating the fist’s trajectory. My first thought – I’m not going to get there fast enough – followed quickly by my second – Don’t turn the other cheek! Defend yourself. Ugh! Why did we send you to Catholic school?!?!

In the time it took me to yell, ‘STOP” and sprint across the street, I was stunned to see the steady stream of train commuters part around the overturned bike, then reconverge just past the Nick and Mason. They were an agile lot – some high stepping it to avoid poo patties on the parkway, others doing parkour variations to balance themselves between the sidewalk and the wrought iron fence at its edge.

Not one stopped to intervene.
Not one.

“Stop.” I said again when I finally reached them, my tone soft, but still firm as I placed one hand lightly on the older boy’s shoulder, the other cupping his fist. I saw the struggle in the boy’s face – how satisfying would it be to land this punch on Nick…or maybe redirect towards me. So long teeth and glasses!

“Let’s take a deep breath together – you and me. OK?”

“One…”

No eye contact, but the tension slowly melted from his body.

“Two…”

Eyes cast down, he dropped one hand to his side.

“Three…”

He stepped back, dropping both hands and finally looked at me.

“There we go. Thank you. OK, so do you want to tell me what happened?”

Mason grabbed his bike from the ground, spitting his words. “Yeah! I’ll tell you. He wouldn’t get off the bike when I told him to!”

“But his brother said I would ride the bike to the corner!”

“But it’s MY BIKE!!!!”

“Mason, I understand that you feel angry and – “ Mason stormed off on his bike, letting out a string of expletives that I’m sure would earn his mouth a good soap scrubbing if his parents had been present.

“Mason, wait!” Nick trailed after him.

“It’s not fair! His brother said I could ride it! Man, this just sucks!”

The two of us were still parting the Red Sea of Commuters, some of whom glanced up from their phones, most of whom walked past with nary a look.

“I understand that this is a little confusing, but it’s not his brother’s bike. It’s his bike. And I know you heard him telling you to get off.” He broke eye contact, shrugging as he idly kicked dirt onto the sidewalk. I debated with myself – do I give him a crash course in first-year property law? Nah…this isn’t that type of teaching moment.

Instead, I looked up into his eyes – because yes, this boy had at least an inch on me – what are they feeding kids these days?!   “I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Nadine.” I stretched my hand out.

“Taylor,” he supplied, shaking my hand.

“Is Mason one of your buddies at the park? Do you guys play together?”

“Yeah, I guess. Sometimes,” he said grudgingly.

“So, since you’re buds, you’re gonna have disagreements but then get along again, right?”

“I dunno,” he mumbled, looking over his shoulder at a group of tween girls down the block.

“Do you want to come back to the park?”

He looked over his shoulder again. One of the girls waved. “Nah, I’m gonna hang with them for a little.”

Twenty minutes later, the three boys were together again at the park playing touch football. Mason was high-fiving Taylor. Nick was yelling “good catch” across the field.

Apparently all was right in Testosteronia.

Boys will be boys. I get that. Maybe if I hadn’t intervened, they would have worked it out themselves.

Or not.

But as an adult, I cannot stand idly by and watch two kids pummel each other. I cannot let that be my message to them.

It’s OK to solve conflict with more conflict.
It’s OK to stand by as it escalates.

We are the village.
We are its teachers.
Every child is our child.
And they are counting on us.

How can we let them down?

2

It’s a Bling Spring Thing

Gabe's Personal Motto

“It’s so hot!”

My 5-year-old, Gabe flopped into the back row of our minivan, arms splayed dramatically across his car seat.

“Whew! I need to cool down!!” He stripped off his dark blue DINOSAURS RULE t-shirt to reveal the fuchsia t-shirt he had chosen that morning. His deliberations had almost cost us an on-time arrival to school, since he’d had tangerine, lime, and sky blue to choose from as well.

After stretching every inch of his lanky torso, he smiled gloriously until he caught a look of himself in the reviewer mirror. In an instant, he collapsed, shrinking into himself.

“Oh…”

“Gabe, what’s wrong, buddy?” I was accustomed to the whiplash mood changes that characterized the preschool set, but this was out of character…even for him.

“Jasmine said I looked weird because I had pink on.”

“Well you tell that little b-“

Wait! Was I really about to say that to a 5 year old…about another 5 year old? Nana Bear needs to chill out. Just take a deep breath and be the equanimous parent – not the Equalizer.

“How did that make you feel?”

“Sad,” he sniffed. “It hurt my feelings.”

“Well, Gabe,” Nick shrugged with the all-knowing, world-weariness that characterized the 3rd grade set, “maybe you shouldn’t wear pink to school.”

Parenting fail #574. Who was this kid? Hadn’t we instilled in him unwavering acceptance of anyone who fell a little outside the norm since this was the place he regularly lived?! Had he not worn all manner of clothing on out-of-uniform days with nary a concern for what others thought of him?

There was the 1st grade dashiki shirt and matching pants courtesy his globetrotting aunt, the 2nd grade Hello Kitty shirt he’d worn until its $5 Target stitching fell apart after daily washings, and – his most recent obsession – the bright yellow rainboots that he wore…with shorts.

What happened to the independent thinker who was simultaneously inspiring and impossible? Ignoring Nick’s detour into conformity, I zeroed in on Gabe.

“What did Miss Yeltzer say?”

“Um, she asked Jasmine how she would feel if someone told her she looked weird.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said it would make her sad. And maybe mad after that. Really mad.”

Yes, that described Jasmine perfectly. If there was going to be a future leader of the Queen Bee Society, this kid was it.

Fortunately, Gabe found the Spider Man stickers plastered on the window remarkably fascinating, which gave me a moment to collect my thought.

Do I advocate being:

Revengeful – where he tells Jasmine to find a brush before she comes to school and actually use it?

Resourceful – where he explains that “pink” isn’t really a color, since it doesn’t appear on the electromagnetic spectrum so perhaps she is hallucinating?

Resolute – where he simply states that she’s entitled to her opinion and it isn’t his job to change it?

Or do I just play Free to Be You and Me and call it a day?

I opted for Reflective.

“How does wearing the shirt make you feel?”

“I like it.”

“I like it too!” Oh! Hello, Olivia. You’re in the car as well, aren’t you? I knew that…really, I did.

“Thank you, Olivia. Why do you like it, Gabe?”

“Because it’s bright and it make me feel happy.”

Olivia, our budding chanteuse, took this as her cue to launch into the pitch-talk, up-to-11, 3-year-old version of “Happy.”

Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a tooth
Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like happiness is a fruit.
Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy (repeat and don’t fade…ever.)

“So Gabe,” I shouted over Olivia’s record-skip singing, “that’s all that matters. Do you think you look good?”

“I think I look FABULOUS!”

I see we’re back to arms-flung-over-the-head voguing. It’s good to have you back, Gabe. We air high-fived, Nick gave a restrained thumbs-up, and Olivia – finally – took a break from her Pharrell homage to agree.

“Hey!” Her eyes got that Norma-Desmond-ready-for-my-closeup look that defined her AHA moments. “WE BOTH LIKE PINK!”

Why are my children so dramatic?

“And that is perfectly OK,” I underscored. “Some people are going to make fun of you for how you look, maybe even who you are.” I flashed back to my own grade school experiences – the dark face in a sea of white, the daily teasing, the constant trips made by parents made to the principal’s office, the weekly lectures from teachers about tolerance, inclusion and Jesus’ teachings…this was Catholic school after all. But that was my baggage to carry, not theirs. They’d be footloose and fancy free for as long as I could protect them.

“You are special. You are strong and no one is ever going to take that away from you.”

OK…skating a little to close to Stuart Smalley and The Help, but it’s the best I’ve got.

“Can I get an Amen!?”

A whoop of Amen’s filled the car, and I patted myself on the back for another self-esteem crisis averted.

“Tomorrow I’m going to wear my sparkle blue headband and sparkle blue nail polish!”

“And you’re gonna look great, sweetie.” I met his smile in the mirror, both of us grinning like fools. “Right, Nick,” I prodded.

He shook his head, laughing to himself before reaching back to grab Gabe’s foot affectionately. “Yeah, that’ll look awesome, buddy.”

“And I’m going to wear my headband, too!” Cue Sunset Boulevard flared nostrils in 3…2…1-

“WE’RE GONNA TO BE TWINS!”

No, Olivia. Not actually twins. That was a concept we’d have to work on. But what she did know – what they all did – was that we stood up for each other.

And no one – and nothing – was ever going to change that.

10

Big Yellow Taxi – for One

Yellow-Cab-a21219505

The school science fair – two hours of bacteria gone bad, baking soda gone berserk and rocket ships gone rogue. As this was our first time at the rodeo, we chose the experiment-in-a-box approach courtesy Amazon Prime. With a few clicks and the cost of 3 Starbucks Ventis, we had a surefire, turn-key solution. 5 swabs, 10 petri dishes and 48 hours later, we confirmed that yes, our dog does have the dirtiest mouth in the family, which should be no surprise because he is the only member who regularly licks his butt.

Strolling through the aisles of 36×24 Avery boards, I was struck by how creative kids could be with a little latitude and a lot of parental support.

How long does it take for a mouse to master a maze?
Check out aisle 2.
Which singer is more conducive to weight loss – Taylor Swift or Tim McGraw?
Find the answer in aisle 4.

Samantha, a 5th grader, stood at the end of aisle 6. At 5’2 she already towered over some of her classmates. And with her untamed frizzy hair and oversized glasses she looked every bit the part of the mad scientist.

“Do you know if you see what’s really there – or here?” She motioned to her display. “I’ve always wondered if what I think in my head is identical to what I see. Don’t you?”

I shook my head. My thoughts were more along the lines of Did I turn the stove off? I wore a bra today, right?

“This is quite a setup you have here, Samantha.” Her display was impressive – a slick tri-fold with an iPad mounted on the center panel.

“Indeed it is.”

Samantha was one of those kids that everyone seemed to know…sort of. They knew who she was, but not really what she was about. She spoke like she swallowed a BBC program guide, even though she was from the north side of Chicago. And she pushed the boundaries of the school’s uniform on a daily basis. Today she sported flashing globe earrings and a matching – and flashing – headband – “For Earth Day,” she supplied when I had commented on them.

She cleared her throat three times before launching into her presentation. “I find great satisfaction in building things. So I had to determine the best way to display the information such that people could absorb it. I’m exploring a relatively abstract concept – “ She paused, then laughed. “Abstract! At a science fair. How droll. I’ll have to relay that to my mom. But I digress.  The question I sought to answer is: how do we witness what we see? ‘Tis a conundrum to say the least.”

She tapped the iPad.

“So tell me, what do you see?”

“People in a circle playing basketball.”

“Spot on.” She reached across and hit the pause button. “OK, I’m going replay it from the beginning and you can tell me how many passes you see. Not too much of a challenge, I hope?”

I nodded, then squinted slightly – the low cafeteria light not doing any wonders for my post-40 vision.

“27,” I announced proudly at the end of 30 seconds.

“And what of the gorilla?”

I cocked my head. “Wait, what gorilla?”

“The primate that walked past the group. Observe.” She scrolled back to the 15-second mark, then paused, making sure that I registered it before resuming. There was the gorilla. It had actually stopped, waved, then done a little dance before continuing across the screen.

“Fascinating, right?”

As she explained inattentional blindness – the failure to see what is in plain sight – my smile slowly faded to a regret-tinged sigh.

This kid was clever.
This kid was creative.
And…this kid was leaving.

I had learned of her transfer the week prior, during morning drop-off in a drive-by conversation. His mother and I had parked next to each other, twin minivans rolling up just as the tardy bell had rung. After we’d hustled our respective kids into the building, I shook my head and laughed. “I swear, next year we are going to be on time for a change!”

“I know what you mean,” Margot replied. “We’re going to have an even longer commute next year.”

“Oh! Are you guys moving?”

“No…” She dropped her voice, drawing closer as we walked to our cars. “No, we’re transferring at the end of the year.”

“Wow. Wait – all of you?” She had 4 kids in the school, ranging from preschool through 5th grade. To say she was busy was an understatement.

“Yeah.” She took her sunglasses off and I saw the start of tears she struggled to hold back. “We had a family meeting about it. The kids were great – all of them. It’s been a really rough year for Samantha. We don’t want to go, but we can’t keep her here. But the logistics of two schools – it’s just too much.”

I nodded sympathetically. “Is it something specific?”

“Samantha gets teased every day. Well, teased or ignored depending…I mean, I get it – she’s a little different. OK, she’s a lot different. She loves her teachers, but I have to drag her to school every day. That’s why we’re always so late.”

(We, on the other hand, did not have an excuse for being late, other than, well, CPT which we were really trying to work on this year.)

“Did you mention anything to the teachers…maybe the administration?”

“I did. They were great. I mean, they listened, and agreed to do some interventions, keep an eye out on the playground…but…you know how it goes. If you don’t fit in, don’t find your ‘tribe’, it can be really hard.”

I looked around the parking lot as I struggled for a response. There were the usual clusters of post-drop-off parents – the spiky-hair hipsters joking about the latest Game of Thrones episode, the North Face SAHMs coordinating the next toddler playdate, the yoga moms, the suit-and-tie dads…so many islands and nary a bridge between them.

A diverse community
Isolated by sameness

I looked back at Margot, my eyes filling to match hers. “I’m sorry.” I said, then squeezed her arm. “I wish…“

What?

I wish I knew the names of her 4 kids – apart from their shared last name.
I wish I had some idea of how she spent her free time – what little there was of it.
I wish I knew If our paths would cross again – though it was highly unlikely.

“I wish things were different,” I said, knowing how inadequate my words were.

She patted my hand.

“Me too.”

****
At church this past Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Good Shepherd, the One who tends the flock, but will leave to find us should we stray.  When the priest asked, “who among us is the Good Shepherd,” I hesitated for a moment, half-raising my hand, not wanting to be “wrong”.

“All of us,” he said. “All of us are called.”

For the rest of mass, his words echoed in my head.

We’re not called to be perfect, only to be present – to take the time to acknowledge that yes, we are in this space together.

No matter who we are
No matter where we find ourselves
We are all wandering in this wilderness
Called to lead each other home.

0

What’s the good word?

"Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards." – attrib. St. Francis Xavier

“Give me the child until he is seven, and anyone may have them afterwards.” – attrib. St. Francis Xavier

“Crossword.”

“C-R-O-S-S-“ Nick’s voice falters as he tries to remember the next…word.

“Nick, hon, just sound it out.” We’re driving to school, running through our morning routine of reviewing the week’s spelling words.  Beside him, Gabe plays the TeachMe Preschool app that features a teaching mouse and lots of sticker rewards, while Olivia is happily reading her Elmo TouchAndLearn book, complete with song snippets.

The car is…loud.

I lift my eyes from the homework packet to catch his in the rearview mirror.  This is our 3rd time spelling this word in as many minutes, and for the life of me I cannot understand why 4 simple letters won’t sink into his wonderfully absorbent brain.

“Crossword, C-R-O-S-S-W-O-R-D, Crossword.” I say impatiently. “Just do it like that. Say the word first so you remember.  That’s how spelling bee kids learn their words.”

He matches my impatience with a healthy dose of his own. “Ug-GUH!” is his new favorite expression. “I know my words!”

“Well, clearly you don’t” – then I get that warning look from Lori who is navigating early-fall construction traffic to get us to school on time.

“Let me reframe my position, Nicholas.” Lori rolls her eyes at the formality. But really, I can’t let him think he’s gained any territory in this early-morning skirmish.  “This is one of the more efficient ways for you to get 100% on your spelling test on Friday.”

He sulks in silence, muttering the letters under his breath so I can’t hear him.

“If I don’t know what you’re saying, I won’t know if you’re right. So we’ll just have to keep doing this until you get it.”

“Find the…OVAL.”

The electronic voice – chirpier that Siri, but nevertheless insistent – chimes from Gabe’s iPad.  He is still trying to pick the oval, having already clicked on the octagon and trapezoid.  “Gabe, hon,” I try to keep exasperation from creeping into my voice. ”it’s an egg – look for something that looks like an egg.”

“An egg can look like a circle when Mommy poaches them,” Nick suggests, and I can’t tell if he’s really being helpful or just disruptive.

Gabe presses the screen.

That is the…CIRCLE.  Where is the…OVAL?”

By process of elimination, there’s only 1 option left, which he chooses.

Good job,” the mouse chirps.  “You found the…OVAL.”

“Crossword, Nick.” I raise my voice above the din.

“C-R-O-S-S….um….”

There has got to be a better way.

****

In yoga class, I purposely place my mat slightly askew from the straight grooves of the hardwood floor. As a recovering perfectionist, I have chosen to be “off center” so I can meditate on “imperfection”, even though I know it will drive me batty as I move from downward dog to plank, then cobra.

My yoga instructor breezes in, takes a quick survey of the room, then walks directly to me.

“Up,” she commands, then realigns my mat. “You have to start in alignment.” I sulk as I get back on.

“Namaste,” she greets the class.

I mutter in response.

“Namaste my a- ”

***

“Ask me if you have any questions, Nick, ok?”

Nick has spread his homework out on the coffee table, in clear defiance of our usual routine.  He’s hasn’t taken his backpack down to the distraction-free homework nook that we created for the kids, complete wall decorations chosen for their subliminal messages –

  • A Bucky Fuller Projection map (The world is not as we see it.)
  • A Spider Man poster (With great power comes great responsibility.)
  • An Iron Man poster (Make cool s&^% and save the world.)
  • The previous week’s school work (We know you can do it because you’ve done it before).

Nope.

Instead he’s in our front parlor looking through the picture window as he chews on the pencil’s eraser. I watch surreptitiously as he reads thru the spelling test words, then copies each one on the spelling test page.  It’s not the way we usually do it, where he has 5 minutes to look at the words before I give him a closed-book test. Any word he gets wrong he must write 3 times, saying the letters as he goes.

He presents his self-administered “test” to me a few minutes later. And I can clearly see where he has erased his errors.

“I got them all right,”

“Well, technically – “

A loud throat-clearing from the kitchen forces me reconsider my approach.  Why is Lori always one mouth-noise away from letting me make my VERY IMPORTANT POINT?!  “I see that you have written all of your words.” I choose to make an observation, rather than pass judgment. “How do you feel about your test tomorrow?”

“Great!  Can I go play outside now?”

I want to test him, to make sure those tricky words like kitchen and since are firmly in place, but instead I nod. The proof will come when he brings the test home, when he sees that my way is clearly the best –

****

“BEST TEST EVER!”

Nick waves the 13/10 test happily, gold start glinting in the sunlight.  Not only had he correctly spelled this week’s words, but he gotten the bonus words right too.

“That’s great, sweetie!”

“Ask me a word!  I know all of them!” And without waiting for my prompt, he runs through them.

Nick has his own way of learning, a style that works for him. No longer a malleable mass of random ideas and feelings – though, I doubt any of our kids are truly that – my son is a reflective, insightful, complex, sometimes exasperating, human being. I do my best to guide him, but have to remember that this is his journey to take.

I’m just along for the ride.

“I am so proud of you, kiddo. Do you know why?”

“Because I got them all right?”

“There’s that,” I concede. Then I pull him close, because I really want him to get this.  “You really know yourself. And I love who you are.”

We fist bump, miming an explosion in the air.

“I love you too, Nana.”

Word.

8

I Have A Need For Speed

I can't control how others see me. I just have a need for speed...

Yikes! Is this really how others see me?!

I’m not a procrastinator per se.

I’m more of a procramminator – I don’t leave things to the last minute; I just jam everything into the last minute.

This is why I found myself riding another car’s tail at 2:53pm on the way to a 3pm pickup. I do appreciate the rules of the road, like coming to a full stop at a 4-way intersection. But then, I also believe in momentum, you know, like starting the car up again by pushing the accelerator.

It’s not hard.
Really.

I do it frequently.
And – dare I say – enthusiastically.

Six blocks from the school, I’d had enough of the pokey pole position Prius. So I tapped the horn. Several times. In response, she took a break from her cellphone conversation to give me the finger before taking her sweet time to ease forward. If there hadn’t been another car approaching, I would have jerked my car around her and given her my DefCon 1 glare as I passed. Instead, I continued kissing her bumper as we both headed north.

While I strive for zen in many things, driving is not one of my more enlightened activities.

The first prickles of discomfort started about three blocks away from the school. Could we be going to the same place? Nah…what are the odds? Besides, she doesn’t even have a school bumper sticker. By the second block, I started to sweat, and eased off a bit. At the last block, I let out a string of curse words that were decidedly inappropriate for the Catholic school parking lot we were both turning into.

I chose the far corner of the lot, planning to camouflage my vehicle amongst the 5,000 other minivans also there for pickup. She opted for the center aisle – and stepped out of the car.

You have got to be effin’ kidding me.

Stephanie Miller, room parent extraordinaire and a near-permanent fixture at the school. Since when did she drive a hybrid?! She had greeted us on our 1st day at the school with donuts and a smile. And she had emailed pictures of Nick’s school mass reading last year which I had missed because of a client meeting.

We weren’t close friends by any means, but we pitched in for each other when needed – like the time she had sent me a frantic text asking if I could pick her daughter up from aftercare because she was stuck in traffic and wouldn’t make it by the 6:30pm cutoff.

I obliged, of course, because we were part of the same community – same neighborhood, shared school. But I couldn’t tell you her husband’s name. I had no idea what her “day job” was. And we would never be a part of each other’s inner circle.

But we would be there for one another.

That’s the funny thing about community, the thing that keeps it intact.

Presence.

We were present in one another’s life, sharing the same universe. At the grocery store, at the beach, even on the street, our orbits ran parallel, overlapped and sometimes, even collided.

“Hey Steph,” I called. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, the usual. Some bee-yatch was practically in my trunk on the way here.”
“No kidding,” I commiserated. “I had a Sunday driver in front of me.”
“People,” she laughed.
“Yup. People,” I echoed.

The bell rang, and our kids came running out.

“Big plans this weekend,” she asked.
“The usual. You?”
“Same.”

We smiled awkwardly at one another, each ignoring the growing silence that distinguishes friends from acquaintances.

“Well, have a good weekend.” She led her daughter to their car.
“Thanks. You too.” I waved, then took Nick’s hand. “C’mon, kiddo. We gotta jet.”

I don’t want to be stuck behind her on the way home.

3

What Did You Learn In School Today…

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Lori and I ad such great plans for Nick’s 1st day of 2nd grade.  She would make the breakfast of champions – waffles, poached eggs, and spam with almond butter and flax smoothies.  We would pump the kids up with Schoolhouse Rock “knowledge is power” music. And we would be in the car by 7:30 so we had enough time for the entire family to see Nick off before we dropped our younger ones off at daycare.

HA!

At 7:45, we were in 2 different cars – Lori had Gabe and Olivia – at least one of them was screaming; the other was whimpering. And I had Nick. After quick “I love you’s” we headed our separate ways.

What happened?

Hadn’t we pre-packed the car the night before, set the breakfast table and placed backpacks and shoes by the door?

Well, Olivia fell into the wire fence that protects our garden when she tried to grab a few tomatoes before school. Gabe suddenly realized that he did not have a haircut like his brother, and needed one this instant. And Nick, upon seeing an ant carrying a Cheerio, made us stop our frantic “We gotta go, people!” chant to move said ant off the parking pad lest we inadvertently step on it.

This was not what I had envisioned.

We had spent the summer prepping Nick for this day – cramming word problems, double-digit addition, and basic multiplication into our afternoons. And of course, we had worked on paying attention and listening the first time because these were skills that kept you out of the principal’s office, a place we knew a little too well.

“OK, Nick. This year is gonna to be awesome!  But we need to stay focused, OK?  We’re going to listen with our whole body. That means no interrupting and no talking about beluga whales just because that’s what you want to talk about.  OK, kiddo?”

Nick stared out the window.

“Hey, Nick,” I said a little more insistently.  “Did you hear what I said?”
“What, Nana?”
“Can you tell me what I just said to you?”
“Uh…”

Yeah, this was going to be great.  Sigh.

The school parking lot was a mess of school supply boxes, anxious parents and nervous kids. As I parked the car, I felt the first prick of tears, but willed myself not to cry.  After all, this was old hat – this drop off that at first was a long goodbye, but by June would be a cursory “see ya” as he raced to his buddies, not once looking back at the car.

I almost made it through the next 15 minutes with nary a tear.
Almost.

It wasn’t the sight of my firstborn looking so grownup in his pressed khaki shorts, crisp white shirt and smart navy vest that made the tears fall. It seemed like just yesterday he was bounding off to preschool in his fire truck shirt and misshapen green crocs…

It wasn’t the fidgety excitement of the kindergartners, nor the feigned indifference of the 8th-graders that nearly set me off.  No matter the age, they all greeted their teachers with shy smiles and heartfelt hugs…

And it wasn’t the fellow parents who busied themselves with imagined stray hairs from back-to-school haircuts. They wiped sleep from the eyes of their children as they held back tears in their own…

No, it was none of these things.

It was watching Nick peel off from his left-foot-right-foot-single-line class march to the front door to check on Oliver, a 3rd grader, who clung desperately to his mother. Two figures paralyzed as the sea of students parted around them, nevertheless flowing past them.

“Oliver,” Nick called, as he pushed his way through the crowd.

“Nick, come back!”

If he heard me, he gave no indication. He was polite, but insistent, making his way toward a child I didn’t even know.

“IdontwanttogoIdontwanttogoPleasedontmakemego.” The child’s chant rose above the din. His mother rubbed his back, and I saw the first stirrings of doubt in her watery eyes.  Perhaps they could try again tomorrow…when there is less commotion…but it’s the first day of school…

 “Oliver?” Nick craned his neck to meet the boy’s downcast eyes. “It’ll be OK. It’s just like last year, but now you get to learn more.” It’s funny to hear your own words echoed in your child’s mouth.

“I-I-I-I’m scared,” Oliver whispered.

Nick drew a little closer. “I’m a little nervous too. But then Mommy and Nana reminded me about my friends, and my new desk and – “ He whipped out the highlight of out last-minute Target run – “A new water bottle!”

That’s when I lost it, seeing Nick comfort his friend, despite all of the excitement around him.

“Nick, sweetie,” I prodded gently, dabbing at my eyes.  “The 1st bell is about to ring.”

Nick touched Oliver’s hand. “I’ll see you at lunch, OK?”

“OK,” Oliver replied, still clinging, still unsure.

I don’t know how Oliver did on his first day of school.  I do know that he made it from the parking lot to the hallway, his mom on one side, the principal on the other, both promising that the next 7 hours would be just fine.

As for Nick?  Well, I think he did fine, though getting a 7-year-old to share anything past a single word is almost impossible.

I don’t know what he’ll learn this year, and I don’t know how much our prep over the summer will help him.  But I do know that he teaches me something every day – about being compassionate, and present and infinitely patient when he sees somebody in need.

Nicholas – victory of the people

Always seeing.
Always listening.
Always remembering the things we forget are important.

My dear, sweet boy.
You got me, kid.
I’m listening.

0

A Penny For Your Thoughts

See a penny, pick it up...

See a penny, pick it up…

A lost penny.
Such a small thing.

Set loose from a backpack flung over the shoulder at dismissal, it hit the asphalt, miraculously avoiding the stampede of children eager to exit seven hours of Catholic education.

And amidst this procession, three boys scrambled to retrieve the coin – each with his own motive.

The first, knowing that he had heard something, scanned the ground for said something before landing on a rock which he put in his pocket.

The second snatched the penny and held it triumphantly above his head yelling, “MY LUCKY DAY!!! MY LUCKY PENNY!!!”

The third dropped his backpack and lunged at the second boy, trying, despite his 2-in disadvantage, to grab the penny. “IT’S NOT YOURS,” Nick yelled with righteous indignation.

“I found it on the ground,” Kevin retorted, effortlessly holding Nick at arm’s length.

“But it came from Billy’s backpack! I saw it fall. You can’t just keep it!”

Meanwhile, Billy watched with some confusion. This was a near-permanent state.

“GIVE IT BACK!!!” Nick was jumping trying to get the penny, to no avail.

A small circle had now formed around the boys. We were mere seconds from someone yelling “fightfightfightfight”…and another trip to the principal’s office.

Kevin shrugged Nick’s ineffectual hand from his shoulder. “Jeez! It’s just a penny. What’s the big deal?” He then tossed the coin to Nick, who examined it before handing it over to Billy.

Never one to miss a teaching moment, it was at this point that I intervened. “The ‘big deal’,” I began, pinning him with my mom stare, “is that it’s not yours.”

“Whatever,” he mumbled under his breath as he shuffled away.

I could have called him back for his insolence and demanded an apology, but there was boy-becoming-a-young-man by my side who deserved a big high five…and a little lesson in moderation.

“I’m really proud of you for giving the penny back to Billy.”

He seemed perplexed by the praise. “I couldn’t keep it. I saw it drop from the bag.”

“True,” I agreed. “But not everyone would give it back. You stand up for what’s right. That’s a really important thing to do…also, next time you don’t have to yell quite so loud.”

He sighed, then, never one to hold a grudge, waved to his classmates. “Bye Kevin! Bye Billy!”

Such a small thing.
A penny.

Yet these “small things” build character.  They are the choices that define who we are now and who we will become. As I fret over the missed P’s and dropped Q’s that I fear indicate an absent moral compass, I too often miss the bigger picture, the one that shows me that these kids are quite alright.

At least, I hope they are.