Whenever possible and especially when the occasion is a truly special one like it was today, I will not hesitate to embarrass our children.
I believe it keeps them humble, builds their character and is a great source of amusement for my husband and I.
It’s nothing major, mind you. This morning, all it really consisted of was marching our 13-year-old daughter Amanda out in front of the house and making her pose for pictures. When you’re 13, it doesn’t take much.
My intention was to duplicate the photo we took of her and her father on the first day of kindergarten, today, on her last day of eighth grade.
I remember that day in the fall of 2000 very well, especially the part where I chased the bus down the street weeping. No doubt the bus driver remembers it also.
Three years later, when it was time for our son Alec to begin school, I was considerably better. I had no fears of putting my baby on a strange bus with a strange man behind the wheel to be whisked away to a strange school, because I had Amanda.
“Watch your little brother,” I instructed. “Take care of your little brother.”
I only said it about 20, 25 times. And imagine my surprise when the school nurse called about 15 minutes later to inform me that Amanda was in her office with a stomach-ache.
“You made me so nervous,” my eight-year-old lectured me when she got home that day and for years afterward.
Such is the burden on the first child, the guinea kid in the parental laboratory. We swaddle a little too tightly, nap a little too strictly, don’t let them eat dropped food and by the time they’re about 10, they start giving us that look that tells us they know we’re amateurs.
But we plow along, taking our pictures and trying to act like we’re in charge.
So when did it happen? Was it sixth grade or seventh or just this past year when I looked at my little girl and a teenager looked back? When it became clear that the foundation had been set and that it’s now largely up to her what kind of person she chooses to become?
Tonight, as they came marching in to the first strains of Pomp and Circumstance, I watched as they walked by and I saw them as pre-schoolers – Adam with his vivid imagination and Jason with his mischievous grin, Alec’s seriousness and Samantha’s innocence.
I listened as the school superintendent told them they were not just our future but our very hope for that future, that in the coming years they would be learning technology as yet unknown, to perform jobs not yet invented, in order to solve problems of which we were not yet aware.
It is what kids all over the country are being told this week but these were our kids. Our babies. And there they were, the junior high graduating Class of 2009, walking back past us with all of the confidence and conviction of burgeoning adults.
We caught up with Amanda in the cafeteria afterward and lined her up for picture after picture. She was, of course, somewhat mortified by her parents as was every other graduate in the room. But then that’s our job.
And I knew the cool was a façade. I knew that even in the midst of the can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-junior-high fever that had overtaken her and many of her classmates these last few weeks and months, there was something they could not deny.
It hit Amanda and her friend Jamie as they walked home today on their last day of eighth grade near tears before turning around and giving the school crossing guard a hug goodbye.
They know what we know.
That there’s no going back.
You have to love children.
That’s what my mother-in-law, who spent her entire career as a teacher and school administrator, tells me about the profession.
I love children. Or my own, at least. But I question whether I have the aptitude to teach — and by aptitude, I mean the self-control necessary not to be mean to other people’s kids.
As another academic year comes to a close, it is once again time for me to marvel at the extraordinary people teachers are.
The good news is my mother-in-law also tells me that more and more in recent years, teachers’ salaries and benefits are catching up with the rest of the working world. Throw in the lavender bath salts, ugly coffee mugs and little plaques with funny sayings and they’re practically rich.
Consider every kid who has ever thrown up in their classrooms and we’re back to break-even.
To be a teacher is to know, more intimately than any parent wants to begin to imagine, what is going on in your house on any given day.
To be a teacher is to go through that first year on the job when every kid sent to school sick passes their ungodly germs onto them. “No immunity yet,” my mother-in-law sniffs.
To be a teacher in today’s world is to know which kid has peanut allergies and how to work the EpiPen.
And to be a teacher is to know how it feels to be told by the parents of the most obnoxious kid in your class just how special their little darling is, and how inadequate you are in not appreciating it.
In a teacher’s favor, kids are usually a little better behaved in school than they are, say, at your house for a birthday party. They seem to just know, from the first day of kindergarten, that throwing themselves on the floor until they turn blue will not have a positive result.
At school, kids believe all that stuff about their permanent records.
But not always.
Sometimes, teachers get kids who can’t concentrate in class because their parents are doing drugs at home. And sometimes, teachers get kids whose parents appear fine but who they suspect are the source of the strange bruises they see.
Years ago, my mother-in-law taught at a school where they had to herd the children away from the windows when the gunfire from nearby rooftops broke out.
She bought school supplies and lunches and extra clothes in case of accidents. She worked to get the really gifted kids scholarships to lab schools.
But ask what she remembers most and it was the kid who innocently played with the one little toe that stuck out of her sandal during circle time.
And being called “Mommy” by too many blushing children to count.
It was recognizing that funny gagging sound just before running for the sawdust.
You have to love children.
I wrote a letter today.
Actually put pen to stationery, addressed the envelope, stuck a stamp on it and mailed it. And I was struck by the fact that I could not remember the last time I had done such a thing.
Oh sure, I send out birthday and sympathy cards, thank-you notes. But this was a real letter to a friend, and I did it because strangely, it didn’t seem right to e-mail, not personal enough.
It made me think about some of the letters I have sent and been sent in my life. It made me go hunting for my daughter Amanda’s letters from her first and only attempt at overnight camp.
She was 10 years old and it was only a two-week stay. I say “only” because where I live, kids are shipped out for eight-week tours of duty at the age of seven and don’t blink – neither the kids nor the parents.
My kids, however, come from indoor, stay-at-home stock. My family used to love to tell about the time my father had to drive downtown to go pick me up from the apartment of my aunt – whom I loved – because I couldn’t grasp the concept that the overnight visit meant I would be spending the night.
When Amanda decided to try overnight camp the first time, we did not know whether to laugh or cry over her letters home.
The first one, which was delivered a mere two days after her arrival in Lake Delton, Wis., began:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I am suffering emotionally and physically.
A week later, she detailed her distress further by informing us that she had not yet eaten, writing:
My stomach is as fragile as a potato chip.
The thing is, you’d have to see her shaky little handwriting on her cheery rainbow stationery to fully appreciate both the heartbreak and hilarity of what we were reading.
I watch now as both of my children compose almost all of their letters and school essays on the computer, and I actually miss their handwriting.
And then, as much as I’d rather not, I am drawn to the wooden box where I keep the letters from my mother that I found when we packed up my parents’ house for the last time.
I had saved all the letters I had received in college and brought them home, where my mom, who threw out everything including anything resembling a leftover and my favorite jeans, had saved them. I guess she understood how important they were to me, even more than my jeans.
I just couldn’t throw them out – not the long ones from friends telling me about their new classes and their old boyfriends, and not the short ones from my very funny mother.
My freshman year, she barely missed a day, sending most on the same stationery but cleverly switching up the name on the return address so as not to embarrass me. Surely, my roommates would laugh if they saw endless correspondence from my mother to her homesick daughter. But they would definitely be impressed and maybe even jealous when they saw the ones on the same pink stationery from Tom Selleck and Robert Redford.
I look at the envelopes now and the sight of her familiar handwriting washes over me with a feeling of warmth and sadness that is beyond my power to describe. I open one up randomly, and I see:
My Dear Love,
And I can barely stand it.
Then I read her words and immediately I am hysterical. Laughing. I have been away at college for barely a month, my first extended stay away from home, and she is clearly trying to keep my mind away from this horrible place they have sent me to.
She is sorry, she writes, but she is thinking of cutting back to a letter every other day. “I can’t possibly be funny every day,” she explains.
I put it back in the box because I know if I start reading them, I will not stop. And then I go back up to my laptop where I try to pump humor and warmth onto a computer screen.
And I’m sorry, but it’s just not the same.
Once, when I was covering the Chicago Bulls, Scottie Pippen decided to boycott the media.
It took several weeks for anybody to notice.
It wasn’t that Scottie didn’t speak to us before that. He did. But we recognized those who were especially quotable and those, like Scottie, who were somewhat deficient.
I bring this up because much has been made by what two NBA players have not said over the last few days.
LeBron James has drawn much criticism after he walked off the court without congratulating his opponents following his Cleveland team’s loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night. He was taken to task further for not speaking to reporters after the game.
Also over the last few days, Bulls’ guard and the league’s Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose decided to “No comment” allegations that his high school transcript was falsified and that his SAT test was fraudulent as well.
In both cases, the media wanted something. Now that I’m a member of the general public, I can say with some confidence that I didn’t need anything
In James’ case, he came back the next day and, rather than apologizing as some athletes might have done and certainly many would have advised him to do in the interest of p.r., he tried to explain himself.
“It’s hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them,” James said. “I’m a winner. It’s not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you’re not going to congratulate them. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m a competitor.”
It’s funny that in this day and age, so much was made of so little. While I am certainly a proponent of good sportsmanship and walking off the court without a simply congratulations for his opponents was both childish and churlish, I doubt very much that Orlando’s players cared at all, so why should we?
If boxers can pummel each other and then hug at the end of a fight; if tennis players can battle for five sets and hug at the net; if hockey players can knock each other’s teeth out and line up to shake hands after a brutal playoff series; then James should certainly be able to shake a hand or two after the game.
But clearly, though James is considered a good NBA citizen by that midget-sized measuring stick, it is not in his makeup to pretend he is a gracious loser when he admittedly is not.
As for not speaking to the media, I admit that would have undoubtedly ticked me off had I been covering the series. And I’d be particularly annoyed if I was a Cavaliers’ beat reporter who was counting on some comments from the star of the team who might very well have played his last game for the franchise with free agency looming.
But sometimes as a reporter, you have to ask yourself just what it is you’re counting on. I remember early in my career, I once wondered aloud how it would be to cover a sporting event as if it was a play or a rock concert and simply write a review. You wouldn’t need to know what the actors or the musicians thought of their performances and frankly, it would not matter in how you reviewed them.
But soon I retreated into my job as quote collector, and more often than not over the years, I relied much too heavily on what athletes said, especially when they said things like, “We’ll put this behind us,” and “It’s not about me, it’s about the team.”
I pretty much had an unspoken agreement with other sportswriter friends that if any of us were ever caught quoting someone saying, “We’ll take it one game at a time,” we were to be forever ostracized, so some of us do have our standards.
But there “we” were again after the Rose allegations, when I heard people in the media demanding that he say something, anything – a denial, an apology for poor judgment, a b.s. non-denial denial like, “I’d like to answer the allegations but I’ve been advised not to say anything.”
The sad fact is, we’re conditioned not to believe what most public figures say. Both James and Rose had nothing to say and so they said nothing. But how dare they not spout trite nonsense for our amusement and to fill our stories?
Apparently, it’s not what they say anymore, but rather how they don’t say it.
By Sunday, they sit in weary clumps, their well-worn bag chairs lined up alongside still another battlefield as they exchange tales of their latest mission — of surviving the elements, of travelling great distances, of late-night sessions with the washing machine.
Five games in one day, seven in two, they tell you, and you suspect some embellishment taking place. But you’ve been around this particular block far too long not to know it’s mostly true. For us, mere amateurs with just one child athlete in the family, there were just three games in 20 hours – one soccer game sandwiched by two baseball.
Some sniff at you as if you’ve taken the weekend off, setting their Starbucks in their respective cup holders without taking their eyes off the field.
Little Johnny is at bat.
And this is serious business.
You try to remember when this all started. Well before your own marriage but after your childhood. My husband tells of throwing his baseball glove over the high-rise handlebars of his red Schwinn Stingray and pedaling off to his Little League games alone or with a pal.
During the week, the dads would straggle in straight from work, still wearing their suits, in the late innings. This, of course, except for the one dad lucky enough to have an understanding boss or his own business and thus, could don his sweatshirt and whistle and be there by 4:30.
Moms were scarce during the weekdays, usually home with the other kids or making dinner or coming home from their own jobs. And no one thought this strange.
Spectators sat in the bleachers on their respective sides or — so as not to get their suits all dusty — stood behind the backstop telling their kids to keep their eye on the ball, even as they were taking their minds off it.
They yelled at coaches and umpires and kids back then, too. Got dirty looks also, but kids weren’t seeking therapy as a result. That came later.
There were no trainers, no fall ball, no travel teams. Kids showed up for the first day of practice having not played all year. They came without individual bat bags and batting gloves and personalized helmets.
They played their season at the same neighborhood park and then retreated into the freedom of summer vacation, where games spontaneously popped up and teams formed with the happy disorganization of youth, the very exercise preparing them for the day when those skills might actually be useful.
If you were picked last, it stunk. But no one ran home to tell their mothers, and if they did, retribution was swift. You played because it was fun and not because your parents were sure a scholarship was in your future. And when you reached first on a weak grounder and error, you did not have grandparents, uncles, cousins and assorted neighbors there to applaud you and tell you how very special you were.
Girls were left out of the equation altogether until about 1974, post-Title IX. And that stunk, too. We were left to press our noses up against the chain-link fences, knowing we had better arms than the boy playing third base but that no one would ever know.
But our brothers knew. And the neighbor boys, who occasionally let us in on their sandlot games at the risk of their pride and reputations. We waited and for some of us, it was worth the wait. We soon learned what was so special about team play, about uniting and sacrificing for a common cause, all the clichés and important lessons with which boys were raised.
We absorbed it all and we grew up and had children of our own. And, because progress does not always allow for common sense to intercede, we threw ourselves into our children’s lives, into their childhoods and their own private little classrooms.
We love them so much and are so proud of their accomplishments and we tell them often. We support them and their pursuits and want them to have every opportunity to succeed, even when they would just as soon move onto the next new adventure or do nothing at all.
When we came home from school complaining about a bad grade or a mean teacher, our parents would stand up for the teacher. But we run to school to stick up for our kids. We talk to their coaches, too, ask them why our children are not playing more and what we can do to improve their performance.
We are wiser because each generation always is.
But sometimes, we really don’t get it.