A version of this piece was published in Brain Child last year. Ten To Twenty Parenting has republished it on their blog. Some things change over time…my feelings towards this summer assignment has not.
When I was little I had many, many great teachers (and a few not so great ones). My first grade teacher, Mrs. Caruso was one of the greats. This woman was loving, caring and generous. I could hardly wait to go to school and sit at my desk, pencil in hand, heart pounding, wondering what new thing she would teach us, what new contest she would invent. The reading contest is still one of my favorite memories. For every book we read our parents would fill out a flower petal to add to our paper flower at school. Soon a colorful, construction paper flower garden was springing up all around the classroom. At the end of the year Mrs. Caruso laid out a table full of treasures (little did I know that the treats was actually toys she had purchased with her own money at various garage sales). The person with the most flower petals got to go up to the table and choose their toy first, followed by the second, the third etc. What a great day that was!
Mrs. Caruso would also occasionally call me up to her desk, quietly winking and slipping me a note. Inside the note it would say, “Tell your mom I am going to buy you hot lunch tomorrow.” Now maybe to you this is not a big deal but to me, the fifth child in a family of twelve children, (well at that time there may have been only eight or nine of us) hot lunch was for rich kids. Oh, to be able to buy chicken and French fries, and sit at the hot lunch table! (Yes, back then there was the cold lunch table and the hot lunch table. Classism at its best!) Mrs. Caruso would also occasionally ask me to stay after school, and then give me a ride home, bags of toys and clothes stuffed in the back seat for us. She would invite my family, all of us, over to her house in the summer, where we would drink lemonade, stare at her white sofa and wonder at her koi fish in the back yard. Mrs. Caruso clearly knew that my family was struggling, that there were a lot of kids and maybe not always enough money for the extras that everyone else around us seemed to have. She went out of her way to make me feel special and smart, praising me, telling me what a great reader I was, how creative my stories were. I didn’t always feel smart, certainly not in third grade and not through all of junior high, but in first grade, I was smart, and loved. I loved her.
Years later my mother told me that Mrs. Caruso started off every parent teacher conference with lots of sweetness, something like, “I love so and so. She is a wonderful child! So smart, so clever. She really gives everything her all…etc.” Then after filling you up with honey, she would slip in one or two things your child could work on, “…however her desk is very untidy. She seems a little disorganized. Math is difficult for her.”
Now a parent myself I realize how effective this technique is. I have recently had my own parent-teacher conferences and when the teacher starts off with. “ He is so funny, happy, eager, etc.” I am so much more willing and able to hear the “but” that comes next. Fill me up. Let me know that you like my child, that you appreciate them, then slip in your “however…” We all worry, we all know our children struggle with something, but we all want them to be loved, appreciated, and cared for.
Here is a little piece I wrote the other day as I watched my four-year dance, sing and play. This is her last year before kindergarten…before it all starts. When I was deciding whether to send her onto school this year or not, (she is a late August baby, which would make her a full year younger than many of her classmates) her preschool teacher wisely said, “Why rush? Why not give her another year of childhood?”
I thought, she’s right. Wouldn’t we all love another year of childhood? How great it would be to be four again and not worry about playground politics or math tests. How great to be able to read a book you want to read when you want to read it. To draw a picture and hang it up, proud of your work, not worrying that an art teacher is going to critique it or assign a grade to your masterpiece. To play baseball in the backyard for fun, not worrying about strikes or homeruns. How awesome to not be judged, because the real judging will come soon enough.
Why I wish I could be four again…
You can wear a two-piece on the beach and not worry about your tummy sticking out because the more it sticks out the cuter it is.
You can tell someone you love them, whenever you feel like it.
You can hug anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
You can take long, warm bubble baths on a nightly basis.
You can fill your bed with stuffed animals.
You can laugh, skip and sing all the way down the street and no one thinks you are crazy.
You fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up….
When you fall, someone hugs you and wipes away your tears.
You can wear blue polka pants, a rainbow striped, sparkly shirt and purple cowboy boots and still look cute.
You can look at yourself in the mirror and loudly announce, “I am beautiful.”
You can order a hamburger, french fries and wash it all down wash it down with a coke without worrying about the calories.
You can spend hours playing with your best friend, your shadow.
You can wear a ballet tutu to Target in the middle of a snowstorm.
You can ask a million questions like, “Where does the sun go at night?” “Why do fireflies light up?” “How far is it to China?” and no one will think you are stupid for asking.
You don’t need three cups of coffee or a double latté to wake up in the morning.
You can tell come right out and tell someone, “You are mean. You hurt my feelings.”
Everyone smiles at you.
You can proudly say, “Look what I did!” and no one thinks you are bragging, they just clap.
A chocolate chip cookie fixes everything.
You can fall asleep anywhere and someone will pick you up and carry you to bed.
I started up my tennis lessons again last week. I never even held a tennis racket in my hands until two years ago when a couple of friends asked me if I wanted to join them for a “Tennis for Dummies” class (that is not really what the sports club called it, I just thought the title seemed appropriate).
I had recently left my job and had some free time so I thought, Why not? If Serena Williams can do it, how hard can it be? Right?
(Have you seen that girl’s muscles? I am still waiting to get arms like that.)
So I joined and let me tell you, I stunk! Terrible! But it was fun and pretty much we all stunk together, so it was okay. Fast-forward to now, I am probably just a hair above stinking, so my teacher told me to try the next level up class (I think she is like Mrs. Puff on SpongeBob and I am the sponge/student she is trying to get rid of).
That is where I was last week. I felt unsure of myself, really wanted to skip the whole thing, pretend I was ill or had something glamorous like tennis elbow, but I forced myself to go and during the warm up… it became pretty obvious who the Uber players were and who the not-so Uber players were going to be. Guess where I fell…
After the warm up, the instructors told us to pair up a with a partner to begin the real playing, and then it happened …
A flashback to those gym classes of so long ago…
Picking teams, picking partners, the shifting of feet, sideways glances, praying you aren’t picked last, or hoping you aren’t paired with so and so…UGH!!
Suffice it to say, I made it through. I was sweating like a pig, and couldn’t move my arms the next day (Come on Serena arms!) but it was fun, and sorry Uber players, like Arnold and Charlie Sheen, I will be back.
That recent experience really made me think, and was a good reminder for me as a parent, as to what it is like to be put in a situation where you don’t feel ready or comfortable. How it feels not to know other people in the group. To have to try and prove yourself even if you know you aren’t as good as the others. How it feels not to be picked first. Or maybe even at all….it pretty much sucks.
My oldest son George is a natural athlete. I am not trying to brag, I am just stating a strength of his. Since he was in the womb he has been athletic. I remember him kicking and shooting hoops in- utero and I was like, “What the hell is going on in there!” My stomach constantly looked like some weird scene from Alien, and I swear I saw a Nike sign tattooed across my stretched skin. He walked at nine months, and ran at nine months, one day. I wanted to get a helmet for his head because was so small with his big baby head careening into everything.
Finally he was old enough for organized sports, and had a place to put all that energy. Thank God! And he loves it. Sports is his niche. Maybe not everyones niche, but definitely his.
He does well, he tries hard, he dedicates himself, but there are times like anyone when he fails…and he gets down on himself.
I wrote the story below, The Baseball Game, after I heard him say how much he stunk at something when he didn’t make a team he was vying for. After I wrote it, I read it to my youngest son, Teddy.
He said, “I like it, and I get it. Georgie is George and Andy is me, isn’t he mom?”
No pulling the wool over that kid’s eyes.
I wrote this story for my oldest son, and for the kids that love sports. Those that put their heart and soul into each game. Those that cheer when they win and cry when they lose. I also wrote it for those kids who don’t always do well in sports, or who really just don’t have an interest in them. I know those kids too. I get it. And it hurts when you are picked last or not at all.
The Baseball Game
George was the biggest kid in fifth grade at Highland Elementary, and the fastest and the strongest, and the coolest.
And no one thought he was cooler more than Andy.
Andy was the smallest, the slowest, the weakest and definitely not the coolest kid in fifth grade at Highland Elementary.
Everything George did was cool.
He never cried, never. Not even when he stapled his hand in art class. He just waved his hand in the air with the big staple sticking out and everyone cheered, except Mrs. Pritchard who looked like she was going to faint.
Andy poked himself in the eye with his pencil by mistake once. He cried and Mrs. Pritchard fainted.
George landed a triple flip off the high bars at recess and everyone cheered, except for Mrs. Pritchard who turned really pale and had to go sit in the shade with an ice pack on her head.
Andy tried to hang upside down on the low bar for ten seconds, but he fell off after eight seconds, busted his nose, chipped a tooth and scraped his knee. Mrs. Pritchard fainted.
George always wore his baseball hat backwards and his pants real low, just like the teenagers at the high school. Andy tried to wear his pants low once but they just slipped off in the middle of gym class and everyone laughed at his Captain Fantastic underwear.
And George always hit home runs in baseball. Always.
At the end of the school year it was a tradition for the Highland Fifth Graders to play the Harris School Fifth graders. The winning school got bragging rights for a whole year. Harris School had won five years in a row. That was a lot of bragging to listen too.
But, this year everyone just knew Highland was going to win, after all they had George.
Game day came. Highland School filled the bleachers to the right, Harris School filled the bleachers to the left.
“Batter up!” Yelled Mrs. Pritchard, the umpire.
The game began. It was hot. It was sticky. It was awesome. Strikes, home runs, kids sliding in, kids getting out.
Finally it was the bottom of the ninth inning. Two outs, bases loaded, Highland was down by one.
George walked to the plate.
“Georgie, Georgie!” The whole school cheered.
This was it! They were sure to win now! The crowd roared with excitement.
George readied his bat, and tilted his head. The pitcher wound up, and…
“Strike one!” Called Mrs. Pritchard.
“Ball!” Called Mrs. Pritchard.
“STIR-IKE!” Yelled the umpire, adjusting her face cage.
George shook his head, gripped the bat tighter, glared at the pitcher, and took a deep breath.
The pitcher wound up again and,
George swung! He swung hard! He swung fast!
Straight to centerfield! That ball was going, going….
The center fielder from Harris School began to run. He ran! He ran fast, his glove stretching out, out, reaching, reaching and… PLOP!
The ball landed right in his glove.
“You’re out!” Mrs. Pritchard managed to yell, right before she fainted from surprise.
A loud cheer rose from the left side of the field. Harris School had won… again!
The Highland fifth graders all sat in silence.
Was it possible? Did it really happen? They had lost? George was out?
George sat with his head in hands as all the students silently filed past. Everyone left. Everyone that is, except for Andy.
Andy scooted down from the stands and sat quietly next to George.
“I stink,” muttered George, shaking his head.
Andy scooted closer and sniffed, “No you don’t,” he said.
“No, I mean I stink. I stink in baseball! I stink! I stink at everything!” said George, a tear slipping down his cheek.
“Wow, that sure is a lot to stink at,” said Andy.
He thought for a moment.
“You don’t stink at everything.”
“You’re really good at stapling your body parts.”
“You’re really good at scaring Mrs. Pritchard.”
“And you’re really good at chewing with your mouth open.”
“I do that?” asked George.
“Sure, everyday at lunch,” said Andy.
“Is it gross?” asked George.
“Yeah, sort of, but in a really fascinating, disgusting, cool sort of way,” said Andy.
They sat together for a while.
“Want me to teach you how to play baseball?” said George.
“No thanks, I already asked that kid from the other team to teach me tomorrow,” said Andy. “But you could help me launch my sonic rocket to the moon.”
“Sure, why not,” He said.
He reached over and turned Andy’s hat around backwards. “Know what, you’re pretty cool.”
“And you know what,” said Andy, turning his hat back around and wrinkling his nose. “You do stink a little.”