pinned to the spokes

tricycle.  “You can let go now,” she said.  She was right; she had already learned to balance, and I was holding on too long.  I gave the bicycle’s seat a final shove and watched her take off up the street, the road’s slight incline lifting her toward the sunsetting sky.

The day she learned to really do it by herself, my husband and I high-fived so hard our palms stung pink.  And I knew what was different about this milestone; we had finally taught her something we could see. There was her concentrated gaze.  There were her forward-facing knees and feet.  There was her death-grip on the outside edge of the handlebars.

There she was.  On two wheels.  And she hadn’t done it by herself.

It had taken entirely too long, of course; she was just a week away from turning nine years old.  Even I, a late-to-the-party bike rider, managed to ride my second-hand hot pink Huffy down the smallest hill on Chestnut Street by the end of second grade.  But that’s the way things are with her.  She’s cautious about these rites of passage. She’s cautious about coming of age.riding.

That’s not to say she’s not mature. She is.  In fact, most might even call her precocious. But something inside her little body wants it to stay that way forever.  She wants to resist growing up.

About a month ago, I had a stressful week and to quiet my mind before helping the girls with their homework, I put on The Weepies‘ Hideaway album.  As soon as the first notes of “Can’t Go Back Now” began, she spun her head around to find me.  “Oh!” she said.  “This reminds me of Jane when she was little.”  And her whole face filled itself up with sadness. Not a crying kind of sadness, exactly.  But a kind of sadness that made her wince. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “Jane will never be little again, and I miss that Jane.”

The next week, as we were walking out of daycare with her younger brother, I commented on his height, and how he was suddenly so much more little boy than baby.  She looked down at the pavement and did that wince again.  “But I like that he’s little,” she said.

littleAnd I realized that what she was feeling was similar to the sensation I have whenever I find a baby bib or blanket that has hidden itself among the doll clothes or a rubber-tipped spoon stuffed behind the silverware. There’s a momentary pull in the center of my heart. And it’s not because of what’s gone, but because of what will never be again.

It’s not that she’s especially upset about her siblings losing their littleness.  It’s that she knows that as they keep growing, so will she.

Of course, the evidence isn’t always as tender or poignant as her reaching out to touch the top her brother’s buzzed head (without him fighting back).  Recently, on the ride home from a Saturday morning filled with soccer, the word “puberty” somehow graced us with its presence.

“What’s puberty?”  she said.

“That’s when girls get boobs,” I said. (Cut me some slack.  I was put on the spot and something more profound just didn’t spring to mind.)

“Ew.”  She rolled her eyes away from me and back toward the window.

On Thursday night, she sat beside me on the couch, her knees hugged to her chest. “It’s my last day of being eight,” she sighed.  I knew she was concerned, contemplating what kinds of things might come with nine.

You can let go now, I almost said to her.  But I couldn’t yet bring myself to do it.

there she is.

the moment, you own it, you better never let it go.

spiderman.

At a music festival we stumbled upon last spring, my son, disguised as Spiderman, ran through a tent-topped shop and proceeded to put his fingers on every piece of delicate jewelry or sculpted ceramic he could reach. Before I could untangle a silver necklace from his tight little fist, he had snatched the feathers of a giant dreamcatcher with his open hand, and the wrangling began again. Leaving my two daughters with the face-painter, I chased him out of the tent and stopped to catch my breath as he shot passers-by with invisible webs from his wrists. Next-door, an older couple was making kettle corn.  The woman vigorously stirred the sticky contents of her cauldron and called to me, “Enjoy every moment . . .”

I’m going to stop the story here to interject.  If there is something that I would never say to a mother of young children, it’s those three words.  If I’m tempted, at all, to toss around platitudes, it would be something more like, “This too shall pass,” or “Expect the worst and hope for the best.”  No mother enjoys every moment, because some moments involve poop or puke or tears or spanking or screaming.

Or incessant, invisible (but certainly not inaudible) spiderwebs.

handsEach time I hear the phrase, I imagine all of us mothers marching through town, with Joker-smiles carved into our countenances.  We’re dripping with small children, dragging our toddlers by the arms down sidewalks, through grocery stores, in and out of carseats.  They’re kicking and red-faced, and we are late for work or the doctor appointment or the playdate.  Our recitation is our rhythm: “We’re enjoying every moment.  We’re enjoying every moment.”  And we’re as in-step as a clone army.

Am I supposed to enjoy the moment I find my mammoth todder in his closed-door bedroom, two fists full of scruff, doing bicep curls with the cat? (Surely I’ve mentioned this cat before.  He’s arthritic and nineteen years old.)  Or the moment of the unexpected backflip off the couch and onto the hardwood floor?

georgiaAm I supposed to enjoy the back-talking attitude of a precocious eight-year-old? She has perfected the art of sarcasm.  Already.

Am I supposed to enjoy the shrieks and screams that carry us out of restaurants?  The terrifying fevers and full-family stomach viruses?

Today, I made myself feel better by pretending I was Miss Hannigan as I screamed into my kitchen, “Kill!  KILL!” It’s probably a good thing that the kids watched the movie just last night.

When my eyes began their rolling, the kettle-corn-woman added, “even the hard ones,” and I paused.  I turned to look back at her, putting together exactly what I wanted to say.  But she had stopped her stirring, and was smiling at my tiny Spiderman.  I read something of loss in her face.

Yes, she acknowledged that there are hard ones.  And she knew something I didn’t, something I couldn’t have known.  Yet.  I can’t say that I enjoy the hard moments; I’d be lying if I did.  Parenthood is about much more than enjoyment (despite what our Facebook pictures might suggest).  It’s much more about struggle and tears, fatigue, and quite a bit of refereeing.  But maybe there’s something about the hard moments that makes the good ones better.

teddy1Like the day he takes the nap he’s been fighting against these past six (twelve?) months.  Or the day his sister finally stops her sleepwalking.  Or the day the middle one offers up her month-old Halloween candy without being asked.  I guess I don’t know, yet, but I think that, probably, those are the things I will remember.

And, years from now, those are the things I will probably see when I encounter a mother of three young children. Even if I want her to enjoy it, I won’t tell her so.  I’d much rather she figure it out on her own.

that’s what you taught me

thank you, meg.I never meant to be a teacher.

Fifteen years ago, I sat in an interview with the head of the English Department of a large public high school in an elite suburban district south of Boston for a job I knew I wouldn’t secure.  At the end of our meeting, she said that she felt I was a “natural teacher,” but that she couldn’t hire me because I hadn’t had any formal training.  She was right.  I had worked as a Starbucks barista.  My undergraduate degree was in Creative Writing.  What did I know about teaching?

It’s been more than thirteen years since someone hired me to stand in front of a classroom of students and act like a teacher. I’m still learning.

In August, I started over.  After seven years at the same school, I left, only to become “the new teacher” again. I gave up the comfort and stability of teaching the third and fourth sibling in a single family, or sometimes even the same students three years in a row. My campus of 200 became one of 2,000.  I’m no longer in Room 24, I’m in room 0-9-1-0-something.  And, unless it’s to the cafeteria, the media center, or the office, I rarely have any idea where I’m going.

But something recognizable arrived with the students.

oh, connor.

After the first day, their faces were familiar.  I felt like I knew them, but didn’t know why. I watched as they interacted with each other and with me and suddenly I understood:  they were showing me tiny parts and pieces of the past.

Jared’s voice reminds me of Chandler.  Alex is so similar to my other Alex (but not quite as tall). Riley’s running makes me miss Emily. I almost call Amanda “Grace” almost every day. When Nevada reads Horatio’s lines in his not-exactly-Scottish accent, I remember Adam battling Myra at the end of Macbeth.  (It was an epic cardboard-sword duel that started inside the classroom, then went outside, then came back in.)

That’s not to say that my students are not individuals, or that I see them as the same.  That’s not it at all.  But it is to say that many of my new students connect me, through some barely noticeable and unintentional attribute, to former ones from two or ten or thirteen years ago. There’s a kind of comfort that I find in that, and I’m grateful for it.

Dr. James Comer said it, and every teacher has heard it (most likely in one of those new-teacher trainings like the one I attended this summer): “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship based on mutual respect.”  I scribbled some version of it down in the margin on one of the pages of my how-to-be-a-good-teacher manual.  But what I’ve learned so far is that it’s absolutely true.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the “good teacher” thing down.  And I don’t know what a “natural teacher” is.  But I know where I fall short and I know where I suffice.  And sometimes, I’m surprised by the things they learn, the things I didn’t know that I was teaching. This past week, a former student of mine, who was in the midst of a devastating tragedy, found a way and a reason to tell me what I taught her.

I haven’t yet found the student who reminds me of her, but I’ll keep looking.

Because what she taught me, what I learned from her, is that maybe, after thirteen years, I’m starting to understand what it takes to make a significant relationship — something that’s bigger than formal training, and can’t be measured in numbers or percentages.  And yet, it’s the most significant part.