The Inferno

Life in our household has been full of stress and strife lately. I’ve been having terrifying nightmares, which continue to haunt me in my waking hours. Migraines keep grabbing me in a vise-like headlock. The pain, always concentrated in one throbbing eyeball, makes me clench my teeth as I wait out the four hours until I can pop three more Advil. To tell you the truth, lately there have been moments when I have wallowed in self-pity and dark despair. I’ve asked myself, “My God! What have I done to deserve this?

Here’s the thing. I have a beautiful child, who is intelligent, creative, talented, funny, sensitive, generous, and kind. He has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and I admire and respect him for it. To be honest though, I have to admit that I’ve also regularly engaged in epic battles with him because of this. We all have to function and live in a world of rules and deadlines and norms, I reason to myself. And so I try to coax and cram and bash my square peg son into the round hole over and over again. I do this out of love and concern for his future happiness, but all the good intentions in the world can’t transform it into a pleasant experience, or even a reasonable endeavor.

In school, children are assessed in ways that may make sense for most, but not for those who do their homework, and then routinely forget to turn it in or lose it between home and school. They don’t work for kids who can’t remember to bring home their textbook to study for the quiz they have to take the next day. The standard assessments simply can’t capture the abilities and gifts of children, whose minds crackle with intelligence, but shut off when confronted with boring, routine tasks. It can be exhilarating to parent such a child, but truth be told: at times it can also be thoroughly exhausting and demoralizing.

A couple nights ago, my son managed to finish his homework, take his shower, and practice his piano pieces at a godly hour. At the beginning of the school year we had optimistically stated that his bed time would be 9:30. Lately, bed time has been whenever we tell him he simply can’t work any longer on whatever paper, project, problem set, lab, or translation is due the next day, because it’s already 10:30, 11, or past midnight. On that blessed night, all of these tasks were done and there was a still a little time to spare before bedtime. It was a miracle.

My son and I looked at each other awkardly, uncertainly, not quite knowing how to handle this unexpected turn of events. This usually would be about the time when I would trot out a fist shaking “You can do it! Shake it out!” lecture à la Bela Karolyi, or a “Pull it together and FOCUS, kid!” lecture or the: “My head is going to explode if we keep having this same argument” lecture or the “Just crank it out, please, I’m begging you for the love of all things holy: just. crank. it. out” lecture, or the “Think, really think if there’s anything else you’ve forgotten that you need to be working on right now” lecture. You get the picture. That night, there was no need for any of those lectures.

“Well…are you heading to bed then?” I finally asked.

“I think I’ll stay down here and just talk with you a little, if that’s ok with you” he replied as he settled himself on the couch at my side. He hastened to add, “NOT about school or homework or anything like that. Let’s just chat.”

We did just that. When he finally did head to bed, I heard him say as he rounded the corner, “Oh, I forgot something.”

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! My heart sank and I tensed up as I waited to hear him tell me what important assignment he had forgotten he had to do. And then he came back into the family room where I was sitting, because what he had forgotten was to give me a goodnight hug.

As I hugged this extraordinary child, I thought to myself, “My God! What have I done to deserve this?” These moments of grace remind me why I would walk through fire for this boy. We’ll walk through this Inferno together and there will be love and light at the other end. Amen.

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I’m the Worst. Mother. Ever.

I cringed all day whenever I recalled the lecture I gave to my daughter as I dropped her off (late) to school this morning.

Worst Mother Ever:  (in an accusatory voice) What were you doing upstairs when I was calling and calling you to come down?

—Guilty silence—

W.M.E.: What were you doing? You were reading weren’t you?

My daughter: (mumbled, barely audible, sheepish response) Yes.

W.M.E.: You’re not allowed to read in the morning anymore! Got it? NO READING ALLOWED! Now you’re going to be late for school, because you were…READING!”

Poor, poor kid…and it’s only the fifth day of school.

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The First Day of School

The First Day of School

My mother is tired of this world
She is silent and impatient
With the inexorable gravity
That encumbers each step and
Forces surrender to the waiting bed

I’m a middle-aged woman now
Struggling to look jaunty as I run
So as not to shame my children
Riding past me on the school bus

Just a moment ago at the bus stop
My son crouched to whisper
In his sister’s ear, “In Kindergarten
You have to pay attention to your teacher
And listen to every word she says.”

These words are weightless and indissoluble –
As indelibly engraved upon his heart as on mine
These are my mother’s words, flitting now
Like butterflies on the school bus
Lumbering up the hill.

8/25/2010

When I was a child, every morning before I left for school my mother would say, “Pay attention to your teacher. Listen to every word she says.” On my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, as we were waiting for the bus to come, I was shocked to hear the very same words of advice coming out of her older brother’s mouth. I hadn’t even realized that I’d been echoing my mother’s words to my own children. After seeing all three of my children onto the school bus for the very first time, I started off for a run. I ruminated about the passage of time and the way in which words can be both weighty and weightless. They never age, and they can outlast us all.

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My Brother is Special

In which it is revealed how truly smart my brother Teddy is…

If you happened to read my “Golden” posts a couple weeks ago, you’ll know that my mother thinks of my brother Teddy as “the smart one” of her four children. It’s important to note that in Korea intelligence is measured on an entirely different scale. We’re not talking remedial summer school, or even second-choice college material. We’re talking “not widely understood to be in line for the next round of MacArthur grants.” The collective Darwinian term my father favors for these unfortunate people is “Stragglers and Weaklings.”

When we were little, we didn’t have any toys. Consequently, I played with sticks and mud. My brother, on the other hand, was far more resourceful. He would fashion elaborate launching devices and real working mechanical vehicles with soup ladles, pots and pans, and rubber bands. Glimmers of his future brilliance were already emerging, but then he’d do something that would make my mom worry that she’d been too old when she had him, or that she had drunk too much Mountain Dew while he was in utero…

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Teddy's 1st BirthdayMy brother graduated from one of this nation’s finest universities with highest honors after four straight years on the dean’s list. He went on to law school where he became the editor of the law review. After passing the bar and going on tour with his band, he became a highly successful software engineer. Now he’s the owner of two businesses. But he didn’t always show such promise, and there were many times throughout his childhood when my parents must have broken out into cold sweats when they contemplated his future.

Teddy was three when we moved to a tiny little town in the deepest, darkest heart of Pennsylvania. My parents desperately needed to find some kind of childcare so my mother could go to work. This was back in the days before preschools were as plentiful as mushrooms after the rain. The only option in our little town was a preschool for kids with learning delays and disabilities.

Certainly any suggestion that their cherished and long-awaited son might actually meet the criteria for such a school would have been unwelcome to my parents to say the very least. This was how we knew my mother was desperate when she took Teddy, (short for Theodore, which means Gift from God, by the way) to the preschool to be interviewed.

The preschool director liked to put her young prospects at ease by warming them up with a few confidence-building, throw-away questions. She threw my brother the softest ball in her arsenal, “So Teddy,” she asked, “What color is the sky?”

Suddenly, the light was extinguished from his eyes, and a dull expression fell over his face like a mask. He gazed around the room disinterestedly, revealing what my sister likes to refer to as his “necklace of dirt balls.” “I don’t know,” he answered.

“What color is the grass?” the director gently probed.

“I don’t know.”

There was no need to continue. “You can start on Monday,” the director said brightly, ruffling Teddy’s hair.

Mother and son walked home in silence. Deeply troubled, my mother looked sidelong at her beloved boy and finally asked, “Teddy, what color is the sky?”

“Blue,” he answered promptly.

“What color is the grass?”

“Green,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.

“Why didn’t you say that to the lady?”

And suddenly the dull mask: “I don’t know.”

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Teddy was so smart, he figured out how to game preschool admission at the tender age of 3!

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