Tsunami 18, Dear Firecracker

18

Big week for you, kiddo. A week that has so far left you crying in the driveway, overwhelmed by its massiveness. Eighteen is rolling in as a tsunami: scholarship ceremony, new kickboxing addiction, admission to the University of Michigan, and a musical theater showcase that you were born to sing. I am happy to ride that wave with you, but the bittersweet thing about eighteen is that I can only watch from the beach.

Sometimes the hardest part about parenting is having to stand witness to your kid’s life. The hurts, which have certainly blindsided you this past year, the highs, of which there have been many… none of it is my own journey and yet it feels like somehow it must be. Learning, for me, to let go, to trust that you will leap into your divine adult self with perfect grace has been such an emotional lesson. I am proud of you. So proud. I am madly in love with you. I cannot imagine what it will feel like to drop you off in Michigan and walk away alone, except to say that I am never alone when it comes to you. You are always there, the current of my own heart.

Happy eighteenth birthday, darling, magical girl. I don’t have many words of advice. Vote, I guess. Seriously. Vote. Continue to stand up for yourself, to participate in discussions even when everyone else in the room doesn’t care to. Create, always. I have plastered the art room with the words, “Confidence is a choice.” I hope that mantra shows up again and again for you as you head into college. Be brave, baby girl. Leap.

I am so excited to watch you sing this Friday. I know you are scared to death. I know that the lyrics will make me cry. She Used to be Mine is a relatively heart wrenching song to sing solo in the spotlight right before your mom has to officially cut the cord. “Growing stronger each day ’til it finally reminds her to fight just a little, to bring back the fire in her eyes that’s been gone, but used to be mine.” Are you trying to kill me? Sigh. I hope you do kill me (metaphorically). I hope you find that deep, honest space that resides somewhere in your belly and that you choose confidence. Sing the fuck out of that song, Lizzie. The girl who used to be yours deserves it. She is waiting.

You keep asking me why I am not crying all the time like I did when Luke was graduating. I get teary a bit now and then. I get sad when I know you won’t be around much longer to snuggle on the couch with me, drink wine, and watch stupid movies like Bad Moms Christmas. I know that I will feel your absence. Those feelings are being overshadowed by how excited I am for you. You are the kind of person that was born to have a big life. All fire. When you were little and playing volleyball I would sit on the bleachers and shout, “Be the spark, Lizzie.” You are indeed the spark. I am so looking forward to the fireworks display that the rest of your life holds.

I guess I do have more advice for your adult self. Never forget your worth. Don’t give into victim mentality. Be compassionate. Learn the difference early on between empathy and compassion early on. Have both, but know the difference. Don’t let empathy crush you. Never sacrifice your own vision for someone else. Be your own best friend. Trust your gut. Don’t leave a party alone. Look out for your girlfriends. Cover your drink with your hand and never take your eyes off of it. Drink water. Don’t leave your room so messy that you get bugs. I have so much advice I could fill a seven book series. I am trying to separate my advice from my fear. Most of those life lessons you will figure out all on your own, sometimes after making some really shitty decisions. Perfect. All of that is okay. If nothing else this year taught you to get back up again after getting all the wind knocked out of you.

Get up again, Lizzie. Again and again. Work with loving joy as you manifest a destiny that is your divine right. I am gonna miss you … your messes, your laugh, your firecracker self. When you miss me back, sink into your heart. I am there.

Cheers to the next four years, but mostly to the year ahead. May adulthood be kind.

xoxo  MOM

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22 Symmetry

Happy 22, Luke. Sometimes when I type your name I still hear the Montessori basketball parents shouting LUUUUUUKE each time scored. Your name is one I cheer often. Gosh I miss you. I am really excited that you are moving to LA this summer and curious to see what adventures that holds for you and your uncle Christopher. So many of your mannerisms remind me of his. I hope it feels like two peas in a pod. I hope it feels generous and warm and inviting and exciting. I hope it feels like your life is launching in the most delicious and delicate of ways.

My dad was twenty-two when I was born. Imagine that. I lived in New York at twenty-two. I had a cat named Ponch, named after Poncho Barnes when I thought the cat was a girl. I hate cats, but I loved that one. He kissed my eyelids when I slept. I remember twenty-two feeling kind of free. It has been exciting to see your newest paintings and to hear about the progression of your career as an actor. I sense you are irritated by my many questions, as if they are too prying, but really I just am trying to get a sense of your day … of your friends and teachers … trying, I  suppose, to get a pulse of your life. Your absence here … it’s just… hmm.. It’s like when you go to school everyday with your best friend and then one day they are sick and therefore absent and the whole day just ends up feeling a little off. So forgive my many questions, my stupid questions, the tone of my questions … I am just trying to find my way in the evolution of my role as mom. It’s harder to navigate than you might imagine.

I have a solo show coming up in November. My proposal for the show was all about the idea of identity as an artist and mother and how to cope with letting go. Lizzie keeps asking me why I am not crying all the time like I did your senior year. I cannot be certain of why. I am either in denial or I just have learned that all those tears didn’t stop the inevitability of life changing. I am reminded of Kathy’s Song by Simon and Garfunkel: “And as I watch the drops of rain weave their weary paths and die I know that I am like the rain. There but for the grace of you go I.”

The grace of you. “The free and unmerited favor of God.” I like that number. 22. The symmetry, harmonious balance, perfect proportions. I hope the year ahead holds that for you. I hope you feel loved. I hope you feel at home. I hope you feel that dreams are real and that imagination is a powerful creator. I hope you feel enough weathered .. toughened up just enough so that the unexpected doesn’t extinguish your desire to create.

Quinn thinks it is crazy and strange that you won’t be home on your birthday. He thinks we should pick you up. I wish we could do that too. I wish we could share a drink and blow out pie candles. I will imagine you instead, on stage, performing in Much Ado About Nothing, your lucky grandparents in the audience, and in my imagination, I will find the symmetry that ties you to me and along that fine line, I will find gratitude for all that we are.

I miss you. I love you. More and more. Happy Seattle Birthday. xo Mom

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For My Mom, Forty Years

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This week we are celebrating my mom’s 40th year teaching at Pius XI High School. Forty. My earliest memories of my mom include her as teacher, long before she officially started her work at Pius. When we lived in Springfield, Missouri, she had a ceramic “studio” in our garage. My mom didn’t call herself a teacher yet, but she was teaching me anyway … always creating (macrame wall hangings from found objects, thrown coffee cups, dandelion wine with accompanying hand thrown goblets, homemade cinnamon rolls, molasses cookies). We didn’t have a TV. She was always making. She was twenty-three. I was her sidekick. Maybe a silent sidekick. I sewed on my pink sewing machine, painted my first stretched canvas, finger painted next to the kick wheel. She even allowed me, after relentless begging and against all of her own beliefs, to go to a Baptist Sunday school once with the neighbor girl where I got to make noodle art about Jesus on burlap. When another girl down the street sprayed my long hair with an entire gallon of Aqua Net and then cut inches of it off with a plastic left handed scissors, my mom washed it all out, over the sink, and taught me how to not let others take advantage of me and also that no one should use hairspray shortly before they attend a bonfire.

She started at Pius when my younger brother was old enough to attend a Montessori pre-school (where the teacher at the time told my mom, “He is a nice boy, but he will bite sometimes,” about which my mom fretted about when really she should have just replied, “He is a Virgo, you will get used to it”). She taught art in a single room on the third floor next to her colleague, Keith Beutin. I used to wait in the large supply room before it was time for me to catch the bus to my elementary school. I learned a lot about high school in that room. Once my mom’s TAC (homeroom) student came in dressed as a giant Reindeer (spirit week) and she was a girl who wanted to fit in, but just didn’t and she was the only one in costume. My mom was trying to reason with her and care for her, but the six foot tall Rudolph girl grabbed my mom by the collar, lifted her up off the ground and held her fist inches away from her face, ready to punch her. She didn’t go through with it and I like to credit that to the fact that I was in the room. This whole memory makes me giggle.

There were other things I remember from that room. Mostly that there was this Greek athletic senior there that smelled of cologne and spent the morning chasing his girlfriend around the tables. I loved him (insert mom eye roll). My mom began to have her first successes in that room. She started to connect with her students and I remember a few short years into her tenure that we took a road trip to Sun Valley, Idaho to visit her first art school kid. To know that trip was almost four decades ago is to really understand the lyric that “life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans.”

Both my brother and I, my cousins, along with my best friend to this day, all took art classes with my mom when we got to high school. By that time her little third floor art room had expanded to take up the entire sixth floor of the building. I watched my mom fight the fights that need to happen to instill change and foster vision. I saw her bruised and broken hearted more than once, more than a dozen times, as others struggled to understand that vision. I watched, in my mom’s growth, her battle a lot of that, but at the heart of it was her commitment to students, to the arts, and to herself.

In celebrating those forty years, I find myself reflecting on her simpatic journey of artist, mother, teacher. They are so closely intertwined. She went from that clay studio in the garage to one in our basement on 49th and Concordia in Milwaukee (pretty sure that basement wasn’t suited for a kiln and it’s amazing we didn’t blow up) to her abandonment of clay altogether. She started sewing into rag paper on our dining room table, using film remover to make transfers from magazines, colored pencils to make patterns. All of those baby steps leading her to the artist and painter she is now. She simultaneously played the role of mom, something she has always naturally, effortlessly been good at. She set her artist self up on a high shelf as she cared for our hearts and those of her students. As a teacher myself, I will tell you that she would not be the painter she is today if it weren’t for those relationships. Those who can, teach, and that she has done. Brilliantly.

When I was a senior in high school, I was in a class of about ten art portfolio students (a number that has since more than quadrupled). As part of the college application process, I had to take a timed home test (something art colleges don’t do anymore). My mom ran this test for myself and others after school. I was so anxious and upset with my results that I walked out of the “exam,” and threw my drawings in the garbage. My mom took them out of the trash and mailed them into schools anyway. A few months later she picked me up from the darkroom, where I was developing film. There was an unopened letter from School of the Visual Arts on the front passenger seat of the car. She didn’t peek. We opened the news of my full presidential scholarship together. I met my husband at that college. If my mom hadn’t picked those drawings out of the trash, my whole life would be different.

I am not the only life that Pat Frederick has had a hand in orchestrating. Hundreds, if not thousands of students, including my own children, have found their little artist selves because they have been lucky enough to be the recipient of my mom’s belief, confidence, and drive. Last weekend she showed me her latest painting and I said, “Oh, a wolf.” She said she didn’t paint a wolf, but she misunderstood me. She painted wolf energy, which according to various sources means, “Strength. Endurance. Giving Away Energy. Connecting With All to Connect to a Few. Solitude and Socialising. Teacher. Shepherd.” My brother commented that he saw a giant fox face in the painting. Fox. Foxes … small with a large presence.

I look forward to celebrating with many of you this weekend and grateful to those of you who are planning an event to honor a woman who has been my best friend and mentor since before time. I know she doesn’t see a wolf or a fox. My mom’s muse is the rabbit. Rabbits guide us to move through fear by trusting our instincts. In myths, the rabbit is seen as guides between heaven and earth. For me that is exactly right. I met my mom there, somewhere between heaven and earth on the wing of a prayer.

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Chain of Love, the 7th Link

“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy” -Simon and Garfunkel

It is the eve of your seventh birthday, the seventh anniversary of one of my darkest nights. Earlier today I recalled overhearing the doctors and the anesthesiologist arguing about the epidural. The doctors were demanding it and the anesthesiologist was afraid that my platelets were too low to do so. The doctors won and I don’t think I will ever forget Dad and I signing the papers giving consent to save my legs instead of you, in case the needle should slip and somehow paralyze me. After your dad signed, he was told he had to wait in the hallway. One day he will tell you that wait was the longest of his life. By the time he came back, the needle was in, but I started to bleed out and was rushed to an emergency c-section. The doctors were right. If they hadn’t insisted, you would not be here.

Somewhere in that flurry of activity, your dad named you. He must have been keeping the name Quinn in his back pocket those first twenty-five weeks. He pulled it out when the only thing I cared about was not dying. It suits you, though, my mighty Quinn. Sometimes your dad is pretty smart. This week you two went to camp Minikani for your first grade overnight field trip. You came home exhausted, smelling like musky cabins and mud.

I cannot believe that you will be seven in the morning. You are at an age yet where most of life is pretty chill. You spent your summer drawing in your studio (the living room) in your underpants. Your Instagram gallery was born. You went to swimming lessons every day (never made it past level 1, but you had a ball). You are young enough that no one  has really hurt your heart yet.

The vulnerability of age 7 is fleeting. The change from year to year is so subtle and then, before you know it, you will start to feel the world in a way that gets further and further away from groovy. So, dearest boy, I hope you spend all of seven playing. Play and draw and cut up all that Amazon.com cardboard and turn it into TV’s and goggles and open concept birdhouses. Play out loud and alone, singing to each of your stuffed animals, animating the voices to your cars, cutting away at your sculptures with your extra sharp left handed scissors. If you can refrain from drawing characters on the remaining fleece sweatshirts in your drawers though, that would be fantastic, but even that, kid … if it brings you joy, go for it.

Play and imagine and anticipate the tooth fairy and Santa and the idea of a future new puppy (I know, I know, we promised that as soon as Will graduates, she is yours). We will spend seven snuggling in your bed, reading stories, building lego kits. Soak it all in so you know who you are at heart. I love seven. Too young for anyone to insult you on social media, offer you vodka, break your heart, insult you… ah, can you tell you are growing up with teenaged siblings?

It’s more than that, though. Today you told me that you had a bad dream. You dreamt that you and I were living in a lonely, empty house with one tree in the yard. There were ten kids outside and you were the eleventh kid. A raccoon walked into the house and you told it that you didn’t like him and he needed to go away. All the other kids liked him so you weren’t able to play with them until you made up with the raccoon. I guess that dream made me realize that you are starting to worry in a new way. There must be a sliver of yourself that feels like an outsider sometimes. On the other hand, you told me that you want a laser pointer and a remote control helicopter for your birthday, so it’s a relief to know that 98% of you is all kid.

I love you, Q. You always say, “I love you more,” and then I say, “not possible.” May your seventh year be wide open to possibility and joy. Happy birthday to my dreamer, my peacemaker, my lover of all things stuffed.  -Mom

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From week 1 to year 7 (and all of your first days of school so far)

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Happy Sixteen, 3 Down

It’s your birthday eve. It’s storming out. It is supposed to storm through the night and all day tomorrow, so it must be your birthday. Never fails, the Gods throw you a party every year. At least you know that even though you have mono at the moment, the Gods didn’t forget to party it up. That probably doesn’t make up for the fact that you are missing a swim party right now. Sorry, guy.

Sometimes the number of a birthday is shocking. You, sixteen? My baby? The caboose (still my caboose, even though Quinn is here because that is a whole new train). Girls tell you that you look older … like the 22 year olds at Summerfest who you “made the mistake of telling” your real age or the young ER nurse who flirted with you yesterday by tilting her head and saying, “You look older than fifteen, but you know, in a good way.” When she left the room, I rolled my eyes and you started to laugh.

I always find myself scrolling through old photos on your birthdays. You look just so sweet and so beautiful that it’s almost hard to believe that you were such a handful.Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 7.04.23 PMYou were a tough little kid for me to navigate. I wish more than anything that I knew then what I know now about being a mom and that I had just not worried so much or tried to get to you be a certain way. I wish I had more empathy and compassion and patience. I wish that every single time you would lash out at me that I would have just held you and listened. I wish I would have stayed calm. I think you were just trying to tell us all something and didn’t know how.  I used to sneak into your bedroom and watch you sleep. You always fell asleep with a little plastic baggie of toys gripped in your hands. I would slowly take your socks off and pick all the crust off of your face and I would just sigh at how absolutely beautiful you were when you were sleeping.

Here is the thing about being a young mom, though. I put a lot of weight on what I was supposed to be doing. I put a lot of weight on what other people thought. I tied my own experience in too closely with yours. I spent so much time apologizing for your behavior (I mean, you know, you were only four when you sucked the lemonade straight out of the thermos at some little girl’s lemonade stand and when I pulled you away, you screamed, “I HATE YOU. FUCK YOU, YOU ASSHOLE”, so I suppose my frustration wasn’t totally unwarranted). I don’t know Will, I am just wasn’t really cut out to have three little kids and work full time.

That said, I really do love having teenagers. We made it to the good part! You are endearing and funny, sharp, insightful, and independent … so independent that sometimes I forget that you really do need me sometimes. For all the time I spent worrying about you when you were four, I rarely worry now. You’ve got this. Just make sure to occasionally let your walls down. Make a mistake or two. It will be okay.  Know how proud I am to be your mom. I am in awe of your self discipline, your intrinsic motivation (pretty sure you have gone to the gym more times this summer than I have in my entire life). I love, LOVE watching you play volleyball. I don’t even mind teaching you to drive because your impressions of your drivers ed teacher keep me in stitches. I love that you and Lizzie are such good friends (guess all those years of having to share a room paid off). I love everything about you, kiddo. Even though you requested an Oreo ice cream cake for tomorrow (gross), I still love you.

You were twelve the first time I wrote your birthday on this blog. I wish that I had been smart enough to keep copies of the years prior to that because I just looked back at your letter from four years ago and the picture of you brought tears to my eyes. How, how is is possible that in four years you have grown so much? When I began the  search for photos, the first to pop up was the one of you and Lolo. I am going to see that as an angel hello.

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Ah, and you are with a sugar cookie. She must certainly be wishing you a sweet sixteen, sweet William. I am too, dearest boy. You are at the very pit of my heart, right where love is born.

Will, summer 2017.

 

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Why Kids Don’t Like My Class

July means that every once in awhile I get moment of teacher panic attack. It’s not like August or a Sunday night school year panic, just a subtle, “the clock is ticking,” moment, a nudge in the direction of panic. It usually happens when I stumble across something on Pinterest like, “How to pack a perfect, healthy lunch for your first grader,” that sends me down the rabbit hole.

Sometimes, it’s Twitter. I mean, I love me some Twitter, but sometimes the trending tweets on education just make want me to get in the ring.  Typically, I just roll my eyes and move on. I am floored, constantly, by the fingers that point to what teachers are doing wrong. It’s never the intent. It is always veiled as a way to make education better, but it’s kind of like your mom telling you that your new dress is cute, but “not very flattering”, and you just KNOW what that means.

Professional advice in 140 characters or less…wow, all of my work problems are solved! I know it is perhaps just food for thought or something that someone found especially interesting and they are just sharing it, but I think I might need to limit my Twitter use to following The Bachelorette hashtag.

First, though, allow me to step in the ring. Today I read a tweet about reasons students might not like class. These were listed by @fastcranny and they are excellent reasons why kids might not like my class. “One, the content isn’t relevant enough, two the work isn’t challenging enough, or three, you aren’t nice enough.” I believe all of those things to be true reasons, and even though nice may not seem relevant, nice is EVERYTHING. Do you want to go to a mean ob-gyn? No, of course not. Mean mechanic? No. So, yes, nice is part of the job. Might those three observations be open to debate and reflection? Sure. Might they make some teachers feel defensive? I suppose so. My issue is not with the tweet. My defensive side came out with @iPadAgTeacher’s reply, “I believe you nailed it! Unfortunately, many teachers do not want to reflect on this one as it hits too close to home.” 

At the heart of this response is one of the main reasons I believe teachers feel defensive about their role in education. A teacher’s lack of willingness is not to blame here. Disengaged students are not solely the teachers fault. First of all, if the “content isn’t relevant,” or if the work isn’t “challenging enough,” there is not a lone teacher responsible for this. Rigorous, relevant, engaging curriculum, is created by teams of teachers, overseen by administrators, approved by curriculum committees, who are overseen by directors, yada, yada, yada. Are some teachers better at delivering it? You bet. Some teachers suck, no doubt. Some mechanics suck. I just cannot think of another profession in which we single handedly blame everyone in it for a complex and systemic problem.

The hot new topic in education is “engagement.” Nothing wrong with engagement. I want my kids to feel engaged. Teachers should “reflect” on this “too close to home” topic and all will be fixed. Insert eye-roll.  Yes, teachers can learn to become better, more engaging teachers. I am a better teacher now than I was twenty years ago. I hope to get better next year. My assumption is that the majority of my peers feel similarly about their own growth as educators. So I am willing to reflect on areas of improvement when it comes to engagement, but for arguments sake, let’s assume that my course content is relevant and challenging and that for the most part, I am very nice. Engagement, solved? Not so fast. Are 100% of my students engaged, even after I spend sleepless nights worrying about how to catch them all? No. They aren’t. Sometimes “relevant” is relevant to a whole bunch of other stuff.

Reasons My High School Students May Not Like My Class: 

  1. They are hungry. Really hungry.
  2. They are tired.
  3. They are pre-occupied with something else that they really love (I mean, my content is cool, but they love riding horses, playing volleyball, performing in the play, leading the chess club to victory MORE, and to be honest with you, that is just human).
  4. They are in trouble.
  5. They are battling addiction.
  6. They are battling an autoimmune disease.
  7. They are being abused or abandoned or bullied
  8. They were recently raped.
  9. They are paralyzed with social anxiety.
  10. They are over or under medicated.
  11. Our traditional seven period day is outdated.
  12. We have too few guidance counsellors for too many students.
  13. We have little training or understanding about mental health and anxiety disorders to adequately address student need.
  14. There are too many students crammed into the room and they are too shy to approach me and I am too overwhelmed to notice.
  15. The extreme temperature changes from classroom to classroom is making them crabby.
  16. They are tired of sitting still (ever sit in a 7 hour long meeting with only 20 minutes for lunch? Yeah? How’d that go?)
  17. We simply aren’t a personality match. I know my own kid had a great teacher once, but he didn’t like her because she was “too happy.”
  18. They are high as a kite.
  19. Someone they love is dying.
  20. They feel lonely.
  21. They are dealing with sexuality or gender related issues.
  22. They have an eating disorder.
  23. They are battling 12 of the above.
  24. They have been labeled as learning disabled or gifted and then forgotten about.
  25. We have made their school day 12x more annoying than it need be because we have a dress code that frets about hats and shoulders and by the time I get them sixth hour, they have been in battle mode with three or more teachers who have made comments about their physical appearance and it has not gone unnoticed that the pretty, popular athletic girl has not been picked on once, even though she is in clear violation of the sexist and outdated policy.
  26. We have banned cell phone use, even at lunch, even though I don’t know a single adult who goes 8 hours without checking their text messages.
  27. There are kids in the class that he or she cannot stand and even though I am a super nice teacher with amazing lessons, all this kid can focus on his how four years ago that kid disinvited them to a birthday party and now all they want to do is find a way to escape my class.
  28. They haven’t taken the prerequisite course and it was waived without my consent and I didn’t find out until it was too late to drop the course.
  29. They are living out of their car.
  30. Their parent kicked them out.
  31. They work full time.
  32. They are responsible for raising their younger siblings.
  33. Their parent is an addict and is never home and the student is so worried about anyone finding out that they spend their entire class time inventing a good cover.
  34. Their parents are in the middle of a horrific custody battle.
  35. Their great parents are getting divorced.
  36. Their sibling is critically ill.
  37. Their grandparent died.
  38. Their parent just lost their job.
  39. Their parent committed suicide.
  40. They don’t have heat or electricity at home.
  41. Teacher lacks passion for subject
  42. Teacher is too hung up on rewards and punishments
  43. Teacher only allows students to have three passes a semester.
  44. Student is struggling with the transition from a small private school to a large public high school.
  45. Student has been asked to do yet another Google Slideshow (“power pointless,” says my kick ass colleague.”)
  46. The boy they like is talking to someone else now.
  47. They tripped in front of their whole gym class three months ago and to this day, it’s all they can think about
  48. Snap chat drama
  49. Prom dress never arrived.
  50. Parent enables, demeans, helicopters, embarrasses them (if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother, right?)

I could go on here. I could go on for a long time. If anyone has any ideas on how to make my challenging content more relevant to each item above for thirty kids a class, six periods a day, I am all ears. Here is the thing about teaching: It all hits too close to home.

Maria Montessori said that, “the greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, ‘the children are now working as if I did not exist.'”  She also said that, “of all things, love is the most potent.” So yes, provide a killer curriculum, keep it relevant, and be nice, but above all remember all that young, vulnerable minds balance, and translate that to love. Then remember that you love it all so much that you need to put on armor, shield yourself, cover your buttons, because much of the world agrees that you aren’t willing to reflect or engage or grow.

Nailed it.

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Fred

My dad said that when he ran track that everyone called him Freddie. I don’t know when it happened, but I am pretty sure it was sometime around 2007, when students started calling me Fred. I don’t really like it, I would prefer Kelly, but I have come to accept it. The inevitable Fred. Parents whom I have not yet met are always surprised at conferences to discover that I am not a man. Perk.

We just wrapped our annual art show and I am exhausted. Not just exhausted, but tired. TIRED. Sean keeps saying, “What’s up with you?” I am TIRED. Super, super fucking tired. He says, “What happens to the girl I met?” and I just stare blankly with tears in my eyes, trying to communicate the full level of exhaustion that comes with teaching and I just cannot seem to adequately express it.

Dear graduating AP Art Studio students of 2017, I love you so much, but I am so tired. I think, sometimes, that I just cannot do this anymore. The energy expended, the commitment that comes with 100% of me going into you … it’s just …. it’s like giving birth 1000x times over and then by time 999, the push comes with the sigh of, “I just cannot.”

But then … at the show I watch all these red dots go up on the work. You sold your work! Complete strangers walked in, connected with something you created with your hands and your heart, validated your experience with praise or money or both and in an instant I know that future you will surround yourself with the dreamers and the empaths. I know that future you values the arts, values the arts in education, values voice, and most of all values your own self. None of that makes me feel less tired, but it does make me know that if my job on this planet was to be the stone that caused the ripple, then I have done my job. There is something satisfying in that, something delicate and complete.

Yet at the center of it, I wanted there to be more. I wanted it to be me. I wanted the studio and the studio dog and the light in the window and my words in magazines and so I wonder if in all that giving if Fred is all that I am.

That thought is so overwhelming and comes with so many questions that start with the word “how,” that I stop asking and resign myself to eating ice-cream sandwiches in my underpants, perfectly content to watch the Kardashians, fully aware that horrible crimes against humanity are happening all over the world and that my hunger to be called something other than Mom or Fred are trivial wants in comparison to most humans.

No one calls my dad Freddie anymore. Recently, someone finally broke his college hurdling record at St. Norbert college, knocking him down a peg, but not erasing him from the college’s hall of fame. I think I was about eleven years old when my mom said, “Your dad has one prayer and it goes, “help me be a better father, a better teacher, a better husband, and a better friend.” That is a pretty good prayer, I think, but I think the part that is missing, the part that we all miss, is asking, “help me be me.”

This year I started building a religious shrine next to my bed. I ordered pictures of Jesus and Mary from an Orthodox church in Greece. I ordered a Buddha from Singapore and, three times now, I have made time to study with a shaman. I know this is ironic seeing I started my last post with a quote that started with the line, “I don’t believe in God.” What I am looking for, I suppose, is to trust the god within. Buddha, Jesus, the Shaman, the angels, and me.

I rocked Quinn and we read his book and I noted, silently, that he has just gotten to be a bit too big to be comfortably rocked. For heavens sake, his hands are almost as big as mine are. My own body is looking more and more like fifty and not in a, “Wow,  Jennifer Aniston is almost fifty,” kind of way, but more in an Aunt Bea/Andy Griffith sort of way. The physical is changing. No more babies, the middles are almost out of the house, Luke is supposedly a man… and here I am, still “just teaching.”

By September that resignation will turn from “just teaching,” to “TEACHING,” but for now, I just need that nine week hiatus to find my own core again, to close my eyes and let go of all of the voices calling my name, and instead, own my own name. It doesn’t start with F.

 

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Stay Gold, as Close to Heaven as I’ll Ever Get

“I don’t believe in God. I think Jesus was just a man, but with you in my life I feel part of some heavenly plan.You’ve shown me that there is faith without fear or regret. You are a love as close to heaven as I’ll get.” 

Seventeen on the seventeenth. Every year, I wish you had been born on your due date, June 3rd, when the end of the semester was over and not right in the middle of trying to hang our annual art show. Now that I know you so well, I am convinced that you did it on purpose, so that your golden birthday would fall at the height of your high school years and during prom week. A week full of flutter and activity and attention galore. Art show included. Look at me, notice me … the mantra of the middle child.

Happy birthday, golden girl. Last night we went to watch the theater benefit at school and Simon sang The Seraph, which moved me to tears. Actually, I was already in tears because Hazel sang Rainbow Connection, and that just gets me every damn time. I held your hand the whole show and was feeling really tired and also really grateful that we don’t have one of those mother daughter relationships where there is constant bickering (even though there was that one time this week where I insisted you wear a bra). You let me hold you hand. You always say, “I like your hands, Mom. They tell stories.”

Your school year hasn’t been the one you hoped for or planned on. In January you started to sleep. Sleep and sleep and sleep, so I thought maybe you had mono. Then you started acting kind of funny, foggy, forgetful. Your hands swelled and turned blue, your legs went numb. ER visits and blood draws, tilt tests, sweat tests, and many missed days of school resulted in a diagnoses of Dysautonomia, but not yet fully blown POTS. That story is longer and more complex than can be summed up in a paragraph, and now I watch you take six different medications each morning and I wonder if you should be or if maybe doctors are still wrong. I wonder if dysautonomia stands for “we don’t fucking know.” Meds or no meds, the heat at school has been giving you horrible migraines, so last night at 2AM, you crawled in with me and we debated ER or no ER and dad covered you with ice and I rubbed your head until my alarm rang at six.

So I didn’t really want to make birthday pies. I haven’t slept. School has been super hard, super “May,” but the thing about being at school is that I listen to the stories other kids tell and I realize how many shitty mothers there are and I don’t want to be shitty. I want real banana cream pies with my great grandma Connell’s homemade custard recipe. I want to set the table and breathe you in and … stay golden. That is ideal, but in real life, I dropped the pie on the floor. Then I went to peel the bananas for pie #2 and someone had basically sat on them and they were flat and black. Both Dad and Luke offered to run to the store to buy more bananas while the third crust baked, but I basically told them to suck it. When I arrived at the store myself, there were piles upon piles of the greenest, hardest bananas you have ever seen:

I texted a picture of them to Dad, along with the word, “Seriously.” I am pretty sure that was an angel joke because on my way out, there were three lonely ripe bananas in a basket by the register, exactly the number I needed. They were right next to golden birthday candles, so apparently there is an angel that thinks I have a soul to keep.

So sixteen ended up being sicks-teen and we have both been feeling heavy and driven and overwhelmed, but then last week, I heard you singing. You haven’t sang for real in so long, that hearing your slow, deliberate words, just filled me with such relief … like you are still in there somewhere. https://www.instagram.com/p/BT7vZQmDaSn/?taken-by=lizmizzz You sound unsure yet, like you are just starting to emerge again, but there, right there before the word “sin,” I can hear you in there… it is golden.

We will ring in seventeen in a dirty, crowded, hot house, but there will be pie. There will be love. All of your brothers will be there, surrounded by laundry piles and unopened mail. We will laugh and drink beer and eat Korean beef tacos. There won’t be the puppy you asked for, nor the red corvette, but I will be there (and I ordered your Stan Smith’s in navy).  You will have this birthday letter and I hope it is enough. I see you… scrambling to keep up with your vision of you, driven to meet that desire, and in that I recognize myself. “And when you lay your hallowed head warm against my chest, my divine, highest angel, mine… Somehow, I’ll be blessed.”

I love you, Lizzie, more and more. Stay gold.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 9.33.52 PMElizabeth, on the edge of 17. 

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Cheers, Baby

Eek. 21. I am momma to a full blown adult. I feel like I should call in sick or something.

Happy, happy birthday first born beautiful boy of mine. I am so excited that you and I head to NYC next month. Last week you tagged me in a post about a restaurant that sells margaritas there for $100 a piece and you commented, “We are going.”

Man, it’s been such a long way from this snapshot of us on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, both of us so new to our relationship. You can tell you are the first born because you are wearing matching socks! As far away as you roam from that little self of yours that slept so soundly in my arms, that space is still where I feel you.

I know you are kind of dreading coming home for the summer. Our house is tiny and hot and you have outgrown it and you are anxious for your own life to take over full time. You texted me that you would rather work on a fishing boat in the middle of Alaska than come home for that long. Three things flashed through my mind when you said that: Seattle is closer to Alaska than to Milwaukee so wow you really do live far away. Wait, that isn’t fair because I want to go to Alaska. Oh my God you will get seasick and drown, please don’t go. Mom thoughts are like that … a lot of them pile on at once and they are usually a mixture or curiosity, envy, and fear, so I get how the idea of moving back in with those thoughts is a little daunting.

I do miss you, but am equally excited for your shiny, brand new, adult life to take hold. I am eager to see what this next decade brings you. I am incredibly proud of the person you have become, and somehow when I think twenty-one, I have an image of catch and release fishing … the gift of your childhood so beautiful and fleeting, caught in the slippery grasp of my hands for just a single powerful moment before you are released back into an unknown world. It’s funny. Quinn is still at an age where he tells me he wants to live with me forever. I eat that up because, well, you know, fishing boats and all. Still, watching you live such a brave, vulnerable life is so fantastic and rewarding. Court side seats from here on out, kid. No place I’d rather be.

Kate went to visit you and when she came back she said, “I forgot that boy is just all heart. He is a heart walking around on legs.” I love that you think with your heart. What a wonderful way to enter your twenties. So cheers, baby. May twenty-one feel like the turning point it was designed to be. Take stock. Look at the road that lead you to this point. Now is the time to decide which road to travel. I don’t care if it’s the one less traveled. I care that it’s one that brings you great joy.

See you in two weeks. I will make pie.


Luke, 2017. Light of the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blowing in the Wind

“How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man”

Last night I had to work at parent teacher conferences. I spoke with so many moms who have sons graduating this spring. One mom said, “I just catch myself knowing that he is in the house, just in his room, we haven’t even talked, but he is there, you know? He is there,” and then she teared up imagining him off in his new dorm room, his new life, one cut free of her, but also launched by her. It just made my heart hurt and made me aware of how in this vast world of insane headlines, wars, politics, Academy award blunders, that somewhere in a little kitchen in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin,a mom is sitting alone at a kitchen table listening to her first born shuffle around in his room, imagining what the sound of silence will actually feel like.

 I haven’t talked to Luke in weeks, but he called tonight, distraught after a tough midterm and a tough professor, with a decision to change his major, with anticipation of his upcoming exam for an anatomy class in which he wondered how the hell he is supposed to remember detailed lessons from September, and irritated at his peers who opted for the easier science class. From two thousand miles away, phone on speaker on my lap, as I drove on the windy overpass to pick up William from practice, I tried to offer comfort and validation.

I hung up wishing that I had told him some funny stories about Will that would have perhaps offered comic relief, like how the lady at the grocery offered him a sample of a meatless meatball and Will replied, “that is just a ball then,” or how he is in my design class right now and when I gave him a typography assignment that asked him to design a fact or quote he asked me if he could write a fact about chlamydia and draw a picture of roast beef.

I have watched Luke fight battles since the day he was born, first to just survive nine weeks in an incubator, then again at five when he started to realize his kindergarten peers were catching on when he wasn’t, again and again throughout grade school, through love and heartbreak, through grief and panic. He has always come through it a little bit beat up, but also a little bit stronger, a little bit shinier, and each time, his heart grows.

It seems to me that becoming a man requires journey, requires battle, requires one to learn to cover that soft heart up with a big wool blanket. It seems bravery is a necessity. Even now, I want (I won’t) to call up all of Luke’s teachers and try to explain to them his history. My wanting to do that idiotic thing makes me realize that there are a lot more roads for my son to travel before I can call him a man. Maybe I never will be able to do that.

I texted him the Lori McKenna song, (“So I wonder, what do they know/Maybe the problem is me not letting go/Of a little boy who’s smarter than me/Who can’t sit still and sees things differently”). I stopped myself from texting, “fuck music theory anyway.” I stopped texting completely  because all of  my 42 character rants of advice were really just my way of saying, “NOBODY HURT MY KID,” even though my kid is twenty and with each road traveled another step closer to man.

I keep thinking about those few moms last night who felt the weight of anticipated loss and change. I am wishing them a beautiful life and as their young sons venture off to become men, I wish that the answers that are blowing in the wind nestle into place, and that an empty nest never truly feels empty, but feels accomplished instead.

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