I walk the line

There is a fine line to parenting. As the one who gave birth, it’s very easy for me to be protective of my children. I want to pick them up when they fall and kiss them when they cry.

As I write this, I’m sitting at the rec department watching my five year old cry after getting knocked down in his football practice. My instinct is to run out there and make sure he’s ok, but I know he needs to learn to work through this. He needs to learn to get back up and get out there again.

I had to learn that I won’t always be there to pick them up and there are things in this world that they need to experience and learn from.

I have this cat, you see, and before we had kids, we realized that she wasn’t the most kid friendly animal. She scratched children of friends a couple of times and we eventually learned to warn the kids before this happened. So we knew that there was a good chance that she might not get along well with our kids when they came along.

When Jay got old enough to be curious, I watched and waited. I knew that one day he would try to pet the cat. The day came and Jay approached the cat. He reached out and I watched. The cat scratched his hand and he screamed. He was hurt and I checked his hand for the faintest of scratches on his hand. It would take a couple more interactions before the lesson really sunk in, but it did sink in, for both of them. He eventually learned not to pet the cat and she learned how to swat at him without using her claws.
There’s a learning curve that we as parents have to figure out on our own. How much do we prepare our kids for and protect them from, and how much do we let them learn on their own? I have seen over and over again that my kids seem to learn faster when they’re allowed to make their own mistakes. They are trying to figure out their world and it is my job to observe and be there to pick them up when they need it.

Looking back now I can see how school prepared me for life, but I’ve learned more and grown more in the past eighteen years. Life experiences make us who we are. It’s easy to look back and wish things had been different or wish that we had made different choices, but we are the choices we made. We can’t change the past and it’s who makes us who we are. We learn from every decision we make. Each one forms the people we are today. I can spend my days regretting past decisions or wishing that I could change things that happened in the past, or I can embrace the person who was influenced and changed by those decisions.

Pampered!

Last year, on my brother’s birthday, I ordered a box of disposable diapers to be delivered to his house once a month from Amazon.

This was an accident. Somehow I had selected his address as my shipping default for one-click shopping. It was a horrifying mistake on my part, and I had to call up my sister-in-law to explain why she was about to receive a box of 152 size 3s, just in time for my brother’s special day.

I owe a lot to my brother. I don’t think I ever realized how much until I had kids of my own.

My brother was 12 years-old when I was born, and my earliest memories of him are tinged with a touch of terror. He used to try out his new wrestling moves on me on the stairs, until I learned to lie still and play dead. Often he would dive to the bottom of our lake when I was swimming, and then grab my foot and pull me under, or dump a greenish mound of pond slime on my head. Worst of all, when I was six or seven, he would try to teach me math concepts he was learning in college. Playing dead wouldn’t help me here, so I learned to nod intelligently while singing the theme to “Green Acres” in my head. This has proven to be a valuable life skill.

But aside from those moments of terror, I have happy memories of him teaching me to whistle (another valuable life skill!). He taught himself to play the banjo and harmonica when he was ten, and I loved to follow him out on the back porch after dinner and watch him play (and yes, make a pest out of myself by putting my fingers over the strings).

My brother skipped his junior and senior years of high school.  He took a job far away in St. Louis immediately after graduating from college at age twenty.  My older sister had left home for college by then too, so for many years I enjoyed being an only child. Ah, but I had it even better than that. I was an only child with youngest child benefits.

I’ve only recently begun to realize how hard it must have been for my brother. Because now I have an eldest child of my own.

Even before he was born, I worried constantly about my son: I don’t have morning sickness.  What does it mean?! I’m not having contractions. What does it mean?! And then of course, once he was born, it got even worse: He isn’t rolling over yet. What does it mean?! He doesn’t sleep through the night. What does it mean?!

Being a youngest child myself, with little exposure to babies, I had absolutely no frame of reference for what was normal. I wish I could say that things have gotten better as my son has gotten older, that I’ve learned to relax and just be happy to watch him grow and develop into his own unique person, but no. Every new age and phase brings a new cause for panic: He threw sand at somebody. What does it mean?! He likes to play alone at recess. What does it mean?!

But my daughter…with my daughter everything is so much easier. When she was a baby, I was never worried about how fast she was progressing. It’s really crazy how kids all learn to roll over, and crawl, and walk and talk. It seems impossible, but I had seen it happen before, so I knew she would get there. Also, my life had gotten so much busier that, instead of waiting anxiously for each milestone, I was often caught off guard: Hey, look! She’s rolling over! And instead of “What does it mean?!” it’s “Oh, she’s just being two.” Even when she was 16 months-old and throwing herself on the floor of the airplane we were waiting to unboard, and scooting backwards under the seats while screaming her head off, she was “just being two.”

It’s so unfair. I know it is. But my daughter is slowly teaching me to be a better parent to my son, just as he taught me to be a better one to her. And just as my big brother, (and my big sister too), taught my parents to relax and let me grow at my own pace, without worrying too much about my difficult phases.

This year, for my brother’s birthday, I told him thank you. (Also that he was getting old, but mostly thank you). And if he ever does need those disposable diapers, I’ve got him covered. It is the least I can do.

All we are saying…..

When I was in high school, aside from being a social outcast and an “artsy fartsy” type in a school that celebrated athelticism, I wanted to be a hippie. I mean I really, really wanted to be a hippie. I was in the ecology club and I loved anything tie-dyed. The problem was, we had no cause to protest! Well, there was the whole save the earth thing going on, but it wasn’t to the scale that it is now. No one really knew what living green meant, much less us! We thought that if we recycled a little and planted some flowers on the nature trail we could be really groovy, man. Yesterday I had the pleasure of eating lunch with a coworker who really was a hippie, As in the Haight-Ashbury type! I could sit and listen to her stories all day since mine mostly included singing Beatles’ tunes with my friends during our morning break and cleaning up trash around the school.

The problem, as I see it, was that we are generally well-educated, priviliged young people. We all came from stable homes, we had our own cars and nice clothes to wear. We lived in nice neighborhoods (except Ash, she lived in the boonies). We went to school in this bubble of a private school where we were sheltered from most social unjustices. The most discrimination we saw was based on where you bought your clothes. Of course, being that the school was relatively homogeneous, we didn’t have the opportunity to discriminate against anyone! Last weekend was the anniversary of 9/11 and I saw so many Facebook friends who recounted being in high school or college classes when they heard the news. I, of course, was way out of school when it happened, but I do remember another announcement that was made during my high school career. That was the elder George Bush announcing that we would be going to war in Iraq…the first time. I remember being in a restaurant with my mom and not really understanding what was going on, but I knew that I had a cause! Embarassing as it is, I will admit that I was a little let down when the whole war took place somewhere else and that we were generally unaffected by the whole thing. I was envisioning protests and sit-ins and burning our bras and such. It just didn’t happen. I actually found somewhere in a magazine that you could order a bracelet with an actual soldier’s name engraved on it! I thought here was my chance to do something!

Like many of those hippies in the 60s, I did find that as I aged, I lost a lot of those ideals I had when I was younger. I’ve become, dare I say it, much more conservative. I’ve even voted republican! There are times that I look back and kind of wish that young girl with the “Question Authority” bumper sticker on her car was still here, rather than the mom with my “My Kid is an Honor Student” sticker (which I don’t actually have, but will one day). I just wish that I had the kind of passion I did back then. I see people going to marches and rallies for marriage equality and I’m a little jealous that I’m at home making peanut butter sandwiches and driving carpool. I still long for social change, but I’ve decided that I line up more closely to conservative thinkers in many other ways.

Today I was faced with a situation in my job where I have the choice to do like many others and look the other way and I’ve found that passion. I know that the situation is messed up and I feel very strongly that a wrong was done. It’s just trying to find a balance these days. It’s a lot harder to imagine questioning authority when there’s a boss and coworkers who you really don’t want to alienate. Those choices were much simpler when mom and dad were footing the bill! I know the best decision isn’t ever the easiest, but I think it’s time to find my inner hippie and let her out!

SCHOOLED! Or How My Mother Saved Me From Prison

There was a time in college when I wanted to be a teacher. I called up my mom, who had taught almost every conceivable grade and subject, in public schools and private. I thought she would be pleased. Instead she said, “Don’t do it, Ashley! It’s like being in jail. You can’t even go to the bathroom!”

My mom was a wonderful teacher. All my life, people have stopped me to ask how she is and tell me that she was their favorite teacher. Her assignments were always unusual and interesting: rather than writing a book report in eighth grade English, she had us act out a scene from the book. In seventh grade Social Studies, she had us create a board game to teach people about our assigned country. Even I enjoyed her classes, even though she would occasionally share embarrassing stories about me with my classmates.

Even more importantly, my mom took an interest in each of her students, even when other teachers had given up on them. It depressed her when she learned that some of her colleagues were counting the days until certain students turned 16 and dropped out of school. When she ran into a frustratingly unmotivated student in her Gifted program one year, she noticed he had an interest in computers, and invited a computer programmer to come and meet with the class over lunch. Suddenly he was interested and engaged.

My mom has always been my hero. So it was a bit shocking to me to hear her describe teaching as a prison sentence. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Any day of the year I could ask her, “How many days is it until summer vacation?” and she could tell me the answer without hesitation.

After she discouraged me from going into teaching, I thought about all of the reasons why teaching (especially K-12) is such an incredibly difficult job. Aside from not being able to go to the bathroom, you have to be “on” for six or more hours a day. What other job is like that?

I think most people’s jobs are a mix of “on” and maybe “idle.” In my own job, I’m in the public eye a lot of the time: answering reference questions, finding and recommending books, helping people with computers or demonstrating databases, and performing storytimes. But there are definitely moments when I get to slouch a bit in my ergonomic chair and take a mental vacation to Fiji.

Plus my interactions with people at work are usually pretty friendly and even fun. I am not trapped in a room with 20-35 young people who would really rather be at home playing Angry Birds, and who would love nothing more than to see me screw up, if only for a laugh.

On top of watching the little dears, and ensuring they don’t start a riot or burn the school down, teachers are also supposed to actually TEACH them, and make sure they do assignments ALL DAY LONG. (I have a hard enough time making sure my seven year-old gets his two or three pages of homework done a night).

And after a whole day of constant vigilance and instruction, often followed by faculty meetings or parent conferences, teachers have to go home and grade papers and write inspiring lesson plans for the next day. No wonder my mom was counting the days until summer.

But it’s worth it right? Because like CEOs, who sit in private comfortable offices all day, often with their own bathrooms, teachers make HUGE salaries. Oh, wait! I just read in an article that 62% of U.S. teachers have to work a second job outside of the classroom to make ends meet. Hmmmm…

Why do they do it? Why did my Mom do it year after year? She must have thought it was pretty important. All I know is that I’m grateful for all of the teachers I had, and all the ones my kids will have. Especially the ones who somehow manage, in spite of the impossible demands and miniscule material rewards of the job, to inspire and motivate their students.

As for me, I’m grateful to my Mom. She dedicated her life to teaching, but kept me out of jail.

************************************************************************

ADDENDUM:  I was of course being provocative when I said my mom kept me out of jail by dissuading me from teaching.  But on a much more serious note, teachers literally do keep their students out of jail, and make the world safer for all of us.  According to data compiled by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of state prison inmates in 2003 did not have a high school diploma.  And according to a 2005 study, increasing high school graduation rates by 10% would reduce murder and assault rates by about 20%, motor vehicle theft by about 13%, and arson by 8%.  So when people cut funding for education, they are essentially voting for higher crime and more prisons.  Imagine if we could turn those priorities around, while also giving teachers the support and respect they deserve.