What does it mean to be strong?

I wanted to write a “happy” post today because I’m not as disgusted with life as some of my earlier posts might lead one to believe. Yes, I get disgusted with bad behavior, with incomprehensible bureaucratic nonsense, and even (or especially) with the inertia of life. Those things are annoying, at best. But there are also delightful parts of life. Like happy, laughing children who are proud to tell me of their accomplishments in swimming lessons and soccer games, in school and at church. Here’s one that makes me positively swoon with thankfulness – my anger-prone kid decided not to have  a melt-down even though he was upset. It may seem small, but we’ve been praying for and working on that very thing for years. And he’s getting there. He will never be cool-headed. I’m not either – much as some may wish I could be. But both of us need to develop the habit of self-control. And he is. By the grace of God, so am I. Swoon. Here’s another one, it’s a baby step, but a step: it is delightful to see my youngest working hard and wanting to do well at school. Right now, I’m less concerned with her grades than with her desire to learn. Grades will matter more later – though still not as much as learning will – but for now, I’m delighted that she wants to step into the arena. That’s a new thing too. It means she’s asking for people to help her, not to do things for her. It means I have more work to do to find resources to help where she can’t help herself. And that’s a great thing.

 

So, I have to be strong, and I’ve always thought of myself as a strong-willed person – a loud one at that. My husband has been accused of not being up to my weight, so to speak. He is. He’s just quieter and more private about it. Of course, he’s only actually quiet and private compared to me, so guess what that means about our sweet little children? They are willful, smart, loud, passionate, funny, verbal, competitive, loving, silly, and did I mention loud and willful? Blank slates? Never. They had big personalities from birth. I kinda like that. I like it about myself, for all it has caused a lot of heartache over the years. “Strong” is sometimes about not being breakable. It’s about not giving in. It’s about not submitting. It makes childhood hard. Childhood is a time in life when you are expected to do what you are told. When your opinions are not often sought and are less often respected. And there’s a reason for that: children lack sufficient wisdom and experience which is needed in making good decisions. And lots of children don’t have all that many opinions. They are self-focused because their frame of reference is small. But we have kids who had to be convinced that, though they have opinions and want to make decisions, it’s simply not their turn in life to do so. They’ll get a turn, never fear, but now they need to learn by obeying , not by choosing. This has been a huge battle. And as parents, we have been far from perfectly consistent in our execution. But we win because we must; because loving our kids well means tempering the strength they have so that they may use it well in the future. Without breaking them. I asked my mom when she broke my will. She looked at me like I was speaking French…I often do, but I wasn’t then. “We never broke your will. You obeyed. But I’m not sure I could have removed your will even if I’d wanted to.” It has been pointed out to me that my willfulness, and that of my children, is not universally well-liked. My tendency is to apologize for that, because I want to be loved just like everyone else does. But. This is who God made us. I don’t think that means we are never to grow and change, or that we are not to submit to authority or control our emotions. It just means that the redeemed version of our personalities, to say nothing of the sinful versions we’re stuck with for now, will always include a metaphorical show of force. I hate that some people don’t like us because of it, but I will not apologize for something that is not an evil I have done to you. Never fear, there are still plenty of things I will still have to confess and apologize about.

 

And part of what makes us strong? The family and friends who encourage us when we are weak. Those who remind us that we are loved and forgiven, not only by a holy God, but by our loved ones as well. And our ability to forgive also reminds us that we have a strength outside ourselves. My internal competitive, human strength tells me to strike back when I am hurt. I could do that. I’m pretty good at winning verbal battles. But those are empty victories and fruitless showings of might because relationships are forever harmed. Sometimes real courage comes in deciding to forgive when forgiveness has not been sought. Sometimes, it comes in seeking to ease pain, instead of returning it measure for measure. So. I’m praying for those who hate me. Or even just don’t like something about me. They may never like me any better, but I can hope that they find peace. Because I have, and it never came from people, anyway. “Now may the Lord of Peace Himself grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!” 2 Thessalonians 3:16

Failure and Loss: Being Left Behind in the Public School System

Did you know that a student can only ever repeat a grade one time? Did you know that children cannot be tested for learning disabilities until they have failing grades already? Did you know those failing grades only matter to the poor child who gets them (and their parents and teachers), because we can only hold them back one time anyway? This is what we call not leaving children behind? Forcing them to sacrifice all self-confidence about schooling before we are willing to help them? Forcing teachers to stop intervening for a time so that a committee of other teachers can assign interventions when the child’s grades get low enough – often the same interventions the teacher was using in the first place? We wonder why people don’t want to be teachers? No money for salaries or copy paper, no respect from the government who tells them what to do with students who no politician has ever laid eyes on, paperwork from here to eternity, and the kids are STILL left behind. Or promoted to the next grade regardless of their readiness for it. Not the ones who do well in school anyway, of course, just the ones who need help! But don’t think I’m blaming the school or the teachers. Their hands are tied. We are trying to circumvent the system with our daughter who is still struggling with reading and test-taking after repeating first grade. She finally feels good about herself and school and now I have to let her fail in order to get her tested. Hell no. Sorry. I’ll pay for testing elsewhere; I’ll forgo my own plans so I’m free to help her; I’ll do what needs to be done. She does need to read well, but she doesn’t need an F on a report card before I’ll pay attention. And shame on the system for telling anyone that failure is required before help can even be sought. I am glad for all of you who have no idea what I’m talking about because your kids have no problems at school. I have one of those kids too. It’s nice. But there are a lot of those other kids (and parents) out there too. The public school system is a labyrinth of rules and regulations that attempt to force every child to fit a certain profile and excel in exactly the same way. So we don’t fall behind other countries. Meanwhile, kids still care more about grades than the actual learning process, and we continue to lament the falling standards, re-centered test averages, competitive disadvantages, and general “dumbing down” of America. Doctors generally prefer not to try to resuscitate the dead – they would rather treat people in the early stages of illness. Why are educational problems so different?

I know who I am, but what do I want to do?

My kids are both in school and I sit at home a lot. I also sit in the car a lot, but I keep thinking that I could do something even more productive with the hours between 8 am and 2 pm Monday through Friday. So I start thinking, what did I want to be when I grew up back before that growing up thing actually happened? Well, that seems like a dumb question because who I am has never really been in question. I am a loud, bossy, occasionally whiny, know-it-all daughter / older sister / wife / mother. I kinda like me, even though I know I’m a bit much for some people to take. (Don’t tell me if you’re one of those; it hurts my feelings to hear it and I probably already know anyway.) I also know what I like to do: read, write, talk, eat, cook, and show off. Yeah, I know about that too. The really difficult thing is that no one will pay me to do any of those things in the venue where I currently practice them. And I like the convenience of my current venue. It’s right here…where all my responsibilities are. I like that I don’t have to rearrange a work schedule when the kids get sick and that I can run errands at my leisure while they’re at school. I don’t, however, like feeling underutilized and lazy. ‘Cause I am…probably both of those. Homeschooling wasn’t the answer for me – last year was a good one in many ways, but it confirmed that I am almost as naturally suited to be an elementary school teacher as I am to be an NBA basketball player. (I’m 5’2″, female, and don’t much like to sweat – you do the math.) Reading is a lot of fun, but as my preferred reading material can best be described as escapist, it is not conducive to motivation – at least in anything practical. Cooking is only fun if there is an appreciative audience, and my family very rarely fills that role. I fill that role nicely since eating is also a hobby, but I really don’t want to grow out and the growing up ended long ago. And showing off? Well, I probably still do that…. So writing. That’s what I’m doing now. So far, it has served to keep me occupied, to stretch my brain and to spur me on to other fruitful pursuits – even if those pursuits mostly involve laundry, dishes, and replacing carpet with laminate in the bedrooms of our house. I’m still not being paid and I still don’t have a cool career-y job title to brag about at cocktail parties, PTA meetings or soccer games. But that’s okay. I go to very few cocktail parties, and everyone at the PTA meetings and on the soccer team knows me already anyway. And I don’t really like most cocktails anyway. Some wine might be nice, though….

Belatedly Giving Credit

The subtitle of the blog, “Sometimes life is a grim and thankless job” is borrowed from yet another of my favorite books. This one, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, has been a friend for at least 20 years. The direct quote (with enough context to almost make sense) is “I was stubborn, and no, frankly, I was not one of Goriolo’s most brilliant and promising pupils. But I survived on that stubbornness and stayed with my master long enough to learn more than most of the ones who had greater gifts to begin with and then went off and got themselves killed or became sheep farmers because the life of a mage is such a grim and thankless one.” (Italics mine, of course.) It’s about staying the course and trusting a calling. It is also, as the Beetles once sang, about “words that go together well.” Thanks Luthe. (The mage in question. Did I mention that I like fantasies?)

Hobbies

Hobbies are important. At least, that is my excuse when I hole up somewhere in the house with a book and tell everyone to leave me alone for an hour or four. One of the worst things about being worried is that I cannot get into the world of the book I’m trying to read when my mind is so occupied by my life. The opposite is also true – when I am in “book world,” pesky little things like making dinner, folding laundry and dealing with my children are real impositions! But I digress…we were talking about hobbies. I have three main ones: reading, eating, and talking. I need to re-develop an active hobby or I will be required to take up the dreaded one: shopping for larger sizes.

 

Today, however, reading is on the forefront because I am finally getting to read the latest installment in one of my favorite series: Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King. It is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche and I adore it. The main character is Mary Russell and she is wonderful: brilliant, sarcastic, capable, and nerdy. My favorite. You should check it out – the first book in the series is The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Let me first assure all the purists that I love Sherlock in his original, late-Victorian, Conan-Doyle-ian iteration. His intellect and interpersonal skills are equally chilling and Watson is a wonderful foil. But let’s be honest, those stories are about his brilliance and his cases – not about a person. Tiny glimpses of personal details float enticingly through the canon, but the reader is left to piece them together independently. I think that is precisely why so many modern writers, movie-makers, actors, and tv executives are willing and eager to try their hands at interpreting his character. There is so much “scope for the imagination” (thank you LM Montgomery and Anne Shirley) in Holmes. King’s Holmes (and Russell, because I can’t really separate the two in my mind) very well may be my overall favorite version. I also love her Watson, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson. In truth, they aren’t really separated from the originals by anything but time. King’s books are set in the early part of the 20th century, so everyone is older, wiser and some are a bit more mellow. And most importantly for me – a self-proclaimed, unrepentant people-person – the books are about the people. There are wonderful characters throughout the series, with the most wonderful of all being Holmes and Russell. I mean, a late-middle-aged beekeeping retired private inquiry agent who hates mysticism in all forms and disdains all but a few women meets a teen-aged know-it-all female half-American Jewish religious scholar who gives him back his disdain with interest when he mistakes her for a boy. (I know, no commas. I didn’t like the way they looked. Sue me.) And that’s the beginning of the first book. It gets better. Lots better.  Read it. Read them all!

 

As I look over the characteristics that I enjoy in the main character (because I do edit, just not always well), I am aware that they fit many of my favorite people in literature. Brilliance, capability, humor – they are alluring traits. Don’t we all wish we could find a job or a calling to which we are ideally suited and then have the resources to follow that calling to wherever it may lead us? Okay, maybe that’s just me. It’s a latent superhero fantasy, I guess. That is probably why the Urban Fantasy genre has really appealed to me. Talk about a snarky, nerdy, brilliant, uber-capable bunch of characters! For books full of shapeshifters, mythological creatures, monsters and magic users who are wielding their powers in modern or even post-apocalyptic landscapes my favorites are Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Rob Thurman and Kevin Hearne. Though I am always looking for new favorites to add to the bunch. I mean, what’s not to like about werewolves, coyotes, lions, boudas, the Fae and the Sidhe, wizards who could populate a Dashiell Hammett book, ninjas, aufe and druids? This is not Middle Earth, people, though I love that too…. Seriously though, I think the fantasy part is fun, and I love learning more about the world’s various mythologies through these books, but that’s not why the grab me and don’t let go. The thing I really identify with is what I mentioned before – most of these books are about characters who are outcasts finding a place where they fit. It’s about using the skills that make them freaks and finding out that they’re actually heroes. It is the ultimate coming of age; finding out what they want to be when they grow up. Finding out that, like it or not, they are grown up, that life is full of hard choices and that we can only do what we can do. “Just once I want it to be easy and neat. But no, there’s never a good decision. I pick what I can live with.” (Magic Burns, Ilona Andrews). The thing that makes it fiction, though? It all works out in the end. I love that. I can identify with the tough choices and with the frustration of deciding between the lesser of “no, not that.” But in book world, I get a happy ending. I’m glad life’s not over…but it does preclude “happily ever after.”

The hardest job I’ve ever barely done

If you look on my facebook page, you will not see any pictures of my kids’ first days of school or of all the neat-o outings we’ve taken, or really very many pictures at all. You’ll see a few snarky comments I’ve made, and you won’t even see most of those because I write them on a private little Word document called “Discursus.” So many things I want to write are inappropriate for facebook for one reason or another…. I’m not the parent who brags on her kids when they do well because I’m too busy being the parent who is overwhelmed by the fear that they aren’t doing well and that it’s my fault. The reality is that I have a really smart, high-achieving kid with a temper problem and a really sweet, social kid with a reading problem. They are less than a year and a half apart in age and neither look nor act as if they are related to each other at all. They are now two years apart in school, which I hope will help the younger one in that she won’t suffer so in academic comparison to her brother. Who may or may not have any friends in his class. But he has all A’s. Whoopee.

 

But the real problem is that I can’t stop worrying about them. I don’t seem to be able to fix their problems for them – a ridiculous notion that I would have scoffed at when I was the kid and not the parent in the equation. But I also can’t ignore them. I’m their Mom. And let’s be honest. I cannot ignore things like physical reactions to frustration or the inability or unwillingness to read. These are not things kids can just handle on their own. When I’m really feeling sorry for myself, you know – like now, I wish for easier problems. I’m not so far gone as to wish for no problems. I just want less serious ones.

 

Eek. Niggling thought. I know people with cancer. Tempers and reading issues in 2nd graders, even 2nd graders who are old enough to be 3rd graders, are nothing compared to some other problems – problems I don’t have.

 

So, yeah, it’s true. Other people do have much bigger problems than I have. That doesn’t actually change anything either. See…I’d rather read a book myself than help my daughter. And I’d rather play mindless games on facebook than talk my son off whatever ledge he’s climbed up to today. So I have a hard job – parenting – and I don’t really want to do it a lot of the time. I want them to be okay on their own. Which, by the way, is in opposition to the very definition of childhood. And GI Joe lied. Knowing is nowhere near half the battle. Or if it is, half a battle is still a crushing defeat.

 

Are my kids okay? Yes, by the grace of God. Do I get up and parent them? Yes, by the grace of God. Are they perfect, or am I? When on earth did I start believing we could be? But I love them and again, by the Grace of God, I am doing what I can to perform this impossible job with at least a hint of credibility. And they are still, even at their comparatively young ages, responsible for themselves too. I cannot make them into anything. That is not part of this job. I just have to trust that the same God who hasn’t let me ruin them won’t let them ruin themselves, AND that He has a plan for who they’ll be. And I’ll like those people very much. I just pray they’ll like me too.