Clean up in Aisle 18

The past few weeks I have been steeling myself up for the college drop-off.   I’ve used every yoga exercise, physical and mental to remind myself that all of us have prepared for this moment.  I noticed some nervousness with Aaron a few days before we left so I had him lie down on the couch and put his head in my lap.  To my surprise, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t have to make eye contact with me (I did a lot of successful mini-van parenting from the driver’s seat)  and I talked him through accepting that all of life is about change.  I stroked his head like a four year old, and reminded him that he has dealt with change exceptionally well in his life, moving to a new state as a sixth grader, going through the illness and death of his father, and adjusting to taking on bigger roles in the house, and that only one thing remans the same and will never change:  our love.  No matter where my next home is, he will always have a place with me.  This did help ease things a bit for him for a couple of days.  

However, saying goodbye to Delilah, our beloved bulldog, brought on some tears.  I fought them, but he didn’t.  Delilah came into our lives around Easter of 2011.  I decided that we needed some joy in the house after Tony was placed under hospice care.  He didn’t fight me on it, and the four of us rode out to a little farm in Columbia, TN where a herd of bulldogs came thundering out of an old trailer.Tony picked out Delilah, the cutest and calmest of the puppies.  Delilah played a very important role in keeping laughter and light in this house.  I understood his sadness and playfully joked that I could use a three month vacation from the dog myself.  

Move-in day came.   Lauren organized his closet and drawers, and we helped him get his books from the bookstore.  We didn’t linger because we had a wedding to get to and needed to leave.  Aaron insisted on walking us to the van and his eyes were filled with tears and in his typical style, he tried desperately to blink them away.   I told him that we weren’t going to belabor and dramatize the moment  because this was exactly what was supposed to happen. I kissed him, hugged him and told him that I loved him.   Lauren and I both talked on the drive about what a strange, unique feeling this was, and neither of us had experienced anything like it before.  

I told my sisters and Mom at the wedding that I was fine.  Aaron was fine.  Lauren was fine.  We were all fine.  And then I drove 8 hours back to Tennessee to a house that was exactly the same but not quite the same.  It had an entirely different feel to it.  I told myself again that it was fine.  Change is inevitable.  I went through all the BS that I had been spilling out to Aaron.   Let if go, I told myself.  

I went to the grocery store because a busy week lay ahead of me.  I got to aisle 18 and there it was:  IBC root beer on sale.  Aaron loves IBC root beer.  He often would ask me to get some and I would reply, “only if it’s on sale.” I fell apart.  I put on my sunglasses, threw my head over the shopping cart and had a good cry in aisle 18.    I shed tears of self-pity that I was forced to experience this without Tony.   I shed tears of disappointment because I probably hadn’t enjoyed every moment of the past 18 years and often wished school years would pass quickly.   I shed tears of frustration that I lived in a different time zone from Charlottesville and couldn’t get there for parent’s weekend or to take him out to lunch every now and then.   But primarily,  I shed tears because I am going to miss Aaron being around.  I’ll miss seeing him in the chair with his feet up, working feverishly on homework, watching endless episodes of Family Guy or some other inappropriate tv show on Comedy Central.  I will miss how he checks the doors in the house each night, taking on this role for his Dad.  I will miss his calm presence when drama creeps into the family.  I will miss our lengthy discussions about religion, relationships and politics.  I let myself cry for just  a moment lest  I upset the kind employees at Publix.  Then I took my sunglasses off and moved to the dairy aisle,  renewed, refreshed and baptized in my own tears. 

It has only been a week since the drop-off. but an unanticipated change in our relationship has already presented itself. He texts me to ask my opinion on classes, extracurriculars and relationships.  He calls me and when he does, he ends it with “love you, Mom.”  Oh thank you Aaron, I want to say.  Thank you for helping me adjust to the newness of not having you around.   I know that once he feels secure in his new environment, that the texts and phone calls will die down. I hope it does,  because for years, I have given my students’ parents advice on helping kids make decisions on their own.  I am careful to say to him, ‘What do you think and want?’, not giving my opinion but helping him weigh the options, and empowering him to decide for himself.   He is fine, and today, I am fine, too.

For Parents and Teachers…

Summer vacation is over for students and teachers  in Middle Tennessee.   I am beginning my 25th year of teaching, and although I truly tire of riding the wave of the current trends in public education, one thing never gets old: new kids every year!  I love kids, especially the “unloveable,” surly adolescents.  I love that I get to be a part of their lives in their transformative, difficult years.  I love how excited they get when I teach them something new or inspire an idea.  In recent years, I sometimes find my eyes welling up with tears during the mandatory moment of silence when I realize just how important my role is in their lives.  I often  ignore the BS of state testing data,  but I really take my job as their teacher very, very  seriously.   My mind wandered a bit  today during a faculty inservice, and I thought about what we teachers would say to parents if we were allowed to express exactly what we think.  Teachers, you are also going to get some advice because I’m also a parent. 

To parents: 

1.  We were not called to this vocation because we make a lot of money.  We became teachers because we answered the call.   Seriously, I am at the “top” of the pay scale, and Aaron will likely make more than me when he graduates in four years.   My bonus last year came in the form of two students who  would say,  “Thank you,  Mrs. L (you know who you are, GBH and EI!)”  before they left the room each day.   I also got mugs, chocolates,  gift cards, smiles and heart-warming notes.  With that in mind, it’s worth it to note here that  we don’t get an extended summer vacation. Although, for me, one perk of this job is that I do get many extended breaks with my children.  Our contract is over a certain number of days, but  many of us choose to get our paychecks spread out over the summer.  Don’t throw up the “you get summers off” comment because many of us work other jobs, do professional development, and work toward advanced degrees over the nine weeks of summer.  

2.  When your child has a hiccup in the road (behavioral or academic in nature), most teachers understand it is a learning process and don’t hold it against them.   Teachers who take the “whole child” approach to education, understand that kids screw up.  Heck, we screw up even as adults.  Grace is  abundant, and I clean your child’s slate on a continual basis. 

3.  Allow us to help you raise your child.  I tell parents this at open house night,  and I mean it.    Your child is more than likely going to have bumps in the road, but when parents and teachers work together holding the metaphorical safety net, kids learn from their mistakes.  It’s not a reflection on you as a parent if your child isn’t a straight “A” student or even if he or she gets caught cheating on a test.  
Work as a team, let go of your ego, and allow your child to suffer natural consequences to grow into a responsible adult.  

3.  Kids often tell you exactly what you want to hear.  My own two have been burned by this.  I’ll hear, “I got a low grade on that project because she doesn’t like me.”  Nothing upsets a parent more than when someone doesn’t “like” their child.  Does your child ever tell you that he or she cleaned their room and really didn’t?  Uh-hum.  I thought so.   They tell us what we want to hear.  

4.  Teach your child that he or she can learn from the “bad” teachers as well as the “good”  teachers.   I know there are more engaging teachers than others, and some are down-right boring, but our kids are going to have some of their worst teachers (as I did) in college and then who is going to bail them out?  I tell my kids all the time: “You learn to appreciate the excellent teachers more when you have a mediocre teacher.  Tell your good teachers how much you enjoy their class, but always be respectful toward the others. Your boss may be boring and mediocre, too.”   

5.  Take our advice the same way you would take advice from your doctor when he or she tells you that cutting down on salt may lower your high blood pressure.   We are trained professionals.  I have literally taught thousands of adolescents over the past twenty-four years.  I know this age, and I understand them really well; however, you know your child best, but be honest with yourselves on what is working and what is not working.  It’s one thing to tell adults  that they need to stop eating fast food to lower blood pressure, but suggest less video game time for their kids and more time devoted to studying and oh my, it can become touchy to say the least.  

To be fair, I am a devoted parent and wish I could tell teachers a few things about our kids.  

1.  We want you to like our kids because we really love our kids.  When they were first placed in our arms, we felt like we were the first parents on Earth.  I remember Tony telling my Mom that he had just become a father to  Aaron,  but he would gladly throw himself in front of a train for this cone-headed two day old boy.  

2.  When you have to tell us something negative about our kids, sandwich it between  two positives, because again, did we mention that  we really love our kids?  I am empowered to make a change as a parent if I know that there are more positives than negatives. 

3.  Stop giving our kids busy, mindless work.   It’s ridiculous, and it stresses out the entire house when your kid is doing homework six hours a night.  Try doing the work yourselves, time yourselves and see if it’s manageable. There were times when Aaron would get an essay (which I would have been given a week to write  in college) with a  due date of the next day.  Are you really checking these, teachers?  

4. Forget Obama’s “Race to the Top” or Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and get back to the crux of why you became a teacher:  to make a difference.  I have yet to see a politician who knows what to do with education in our country.  Our country is vast and diverse, and there’s no easy answer. As parents we want politicians and school systems to know that our kids are more than test scores.   I could care less if my child measures up academically to a Chinese child. Chinese children go to school nine hours a day, six days a week, eleven months a year.   They have joyless childhoods and work like robots until they die.   Most American parents want their children to be well-rounded, creative thinkers and are content that their kids can’t pick out Uzbekistan on a map…who gives a rip?  

5.  Be patient with us and don’t judge us.  We are making this parenting thing up as we go along and are learning too.  Try your best not to be condescending in your tone and reassure us that we are doing a good job as parents.  We care what you think about us as much as our kids care what you think of them. You have a lot more power than you realize, teachers.  

I remember when I was a young teacher without kids of my own.  I used to come home and tell Tony stories so that we wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of some of my parents.  But it all changed when I became a parent. My experience as a teacher has made me a better parent, but my experience as a parent has made me into the teacher that I have become for almost a quarter of a century!