Life’s Greatest Lesson

My mom always said life’s greatest lesson was one so many people didn’t get. It was this, “If you didn’t like it when you were a kid, don’t do it to your kids.” That simple. We had some back and forth about whether or not I had learned the lesson. There was no doubt that she tried to live by it.

She asked me at one point if I was remembering the lesson. My take on it was as follows, and it made her cry when I told her. You know, life can be so quietly disappointing.
I have thought about life’s greatest lesson. Im not too sure this will be a clear idea, but I’ll try. The problem with that lesson is that even if you try to learn it and work it into your life, you can only do so much. You were trying to make sure we didn’t have the nightmares you had as a child. And I think you did a damn fine job of that. But while you were fucusing on that, other troubles snuck in the back door. We can’t anticipate what is going to be horrible for our children, I think partially because it’s just so hard to be a little person.

Little people think we have it all under control. They think we know what we’re doing. They don’t know yet that we;re just bigger people guessing about bigger things. I ‘m big enough to know you did your best with your situation. You tried really hard and we still got hurt. Not only that, but your were trying to live your life.

I don’t think you were too selfish. I think you were trying to protect us with the tools you had. Just like I’m trying to do for my boys. I hope they have as many warm, happy memories of childhood as I do. And I hope they have fewer bitter and sad ones. I assume you hoped the same for us. I assume also that you suceeded. I hope I succeed with my boys.

At that rate in a few generations we’ll have perfect little childhoods. But not everybody learns the lesson, or learns it right. I t hink that adds depth to our family and our lives. Me, I could stand a little less depth. Shallow is underrated. Not everybody thinks as much as you and I. And even for all our thoughtfulness, we still hose things up.”

My mom said she couldn’t respond because she was too sad. It’s true. We work so hard. And then we die. And in between we don’t giggle nearly enough or experience the pitch-near-madness excitement we think it’s all about. What can you do?

Current Dilemma

This is a little exercise I am doing in seeing the other side of a story. And forgive me if it seems political. Two things about that. First, it’s personal, not political. Second, politics is really about people. Real people, real money, real struggles.

You run a school. A public charter school. You’ve got high standards and you deliver great results. Your hallways are happy, but controlled. The children on your buses are well behaved and courteous. They wear uniforms to school; staff has a dress code as well. Families are expected to sign a covenant that they will volunteer at least 50 hours per school year.

New children to the school often go through a tough period of adjustment while they get used to the stricter behavior guidelines and the heavy workload. They settle in and most of them rise to the challenge and become better students and better people. Mind you, some of them don’t. They can’t handle the expectations and you ask the families to think hard about if this is the right school for their child. It isn’t for every family. But it’s worth the work for those who stay.

On the state Basic Standards Test, your school blows the other district schools out of the water. Blows the district average and the state average out of the water. Your scores look like the wealthy suburban schools’ scores. You’ve got quantifiable results to show for all that sweat. 97 percent of your kids are reading at grade level and 89 percent are on track in math. All this, in an inner-city, public school.

Your statistics belie some of the reason.

District You
Free and reduced lunch 69 % 17%
Special Ed. 17 % 6 %
Black or African American kids 29 % 11 %
Latino 12% 6%
Boys 51.5% 46%

So you’re doing everything all the diehards say you should do. Hours of homework, dress and behavior codes. Parental involvement, young, enthusiastic staff. What is it that’s working for you? All that work? Or good demographics? And why aren’t you getting the Special Ed kids and the Black kids? Or do you get them and they can’t hack it so they leave? And whose fault is that?

Oh, you’ve heard it all before. But what you’re doing works. You walk through the halls and you can feel the difference here. Kids are respectful to each other, not just to the staff. They’re working hard, but it’s good for them and they know it. They’re proud. You get parents from time to time complaining about kids having too much homework, needing time for this or that extra-curricular activity. Needing time to just be kids. If they can’t commit to the school, no hard feelings. There are other schools out there, happy to take those kids.

Some of them come in with Special Education contracts (IEPs) that get them classroom and homework accommodations. Whatever accommodations they came in with, you like to start fresh. Those were the special exceptions they needed at other schools. Schools where there the support was lacking and the standards were low. Many of those special ed kids really rise to the challenge in your environment. Some don’t. And although your staff has a motto, “no child who works in this class will fail”, some of those Special ed kids are either unable or unwilling to stay and work it out.

If you had a nickel for every time you had an IEP conference with a family who was pushing for special treatment for their kids… You point out to them that what they’re asking you to do is have a different standard for one child than for the rest of the kids. How fair is that? What about all the kids here who are busting their butts, turning homework in on time, doing the full written work, taking their own notes? What are you supposed to tell them?

Look, it might look like what you’re doing is driving out the kids and families who are underprivileged. But your doors are open. Families come and go as they please. How can people say with a straight face that you should make the environment more open to families and kids who aren’t willing to work?

And OK, let’s say that you admit that you really aren’t the best place for kids who can’t pull their own weight, that you even encourage them to consider other options. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t there be places in the public school system where families and kids who are serious about school can go to be challenged and supported? Without being dragged down by students who are intellectually, academically or behaviorally troubled? Well?

Just Because It’s True…

 

I keep trying to explain to my kids that just because something is true, doesn’t mean you have to say it. Not only do you not have to say it, sometimes you absolutely should NOT say it. I understand the urge to purge. I have a major problem disconnecting my thoughts, however fleeting or stupid, from my speech. Sometimes I figure people will forget the stupid things I say, but I know better.

 

There’s a family in my neighborhood who has a small child, a girl. She looks uncannily like Gary Busey. Go look up Gary Busey right now, and see if you think it was a mistake of me to tell the mother her daughter looks like this guy(I’ll wait). In my defense, come and look at their Christmas card (photo of the kids) and see if it isn’t the truth. Also, I really didn’t think of what I was saying, ie, “Wow, she looks just like Gary Busey!” as being an insult. That was a mistake on my part, I think.

 

I was at book club a while ago and I had another slip-up. Thank god I’m a woman, or I think by now I’d be seriously a pariah in the neighborhood. One of the women at book club was newly pregnant. At a book club meeting, she had a lovely red, low-cut shirt. She had the kind of breasts that can only be gotten from pregnancy, plastic surgery or comic-book superheroines. She is a lovely woman, very pretty, but she was obviously walking the line between , “Check out my awesome new boobs!” and “Is this shirt too revealing?” She wore the shirt (and we’re all so glad she did). I stopped her on my way out and told her, “Your cleavage is fabulous.” It was true.

 

I don’t know if I regret it, but I didn’t need to say it.

My sister’s daughter looked very much like Rick Moranis at a certain age. It’s passing, but maybe I never should have pointed it out. It’s an issue.

 

The thing is, you can’t un-say things. And if you’re me, the things that flit through your mind are not always fit for public consumption. Even if they’re true. Sometimes the truth changes, but what you said doesn’t go away. The way you say it would probably have been better if you had written it, put it away and looked at it again the next day. Because for some things, the more true it is, the worse it is to have someone speak it out loud.

 

I Love Anyway

Maybe you already know this. And maybe you can’t know it because it’s only true for me.

The things that I hated about my mom are the worst things about her sickness and death. The ways she wasn’t done getting to be perfect, or even happy. The things that oppressed me in her life are even sadder now that she’s gone.   I don’t miss her faults, but I think about them as much as I think about missing her.

That’s something I wasn’t prepared for. There’s no “If only she were here to give me the silent treatment one more time, I’d appreciate it more…” Not like that at all. Those irritating, dysfunctional things? I’m relieved I don’t have to deal with them again. I just wish we hadn’t wasted our time, I guess. Wish we’d laughed more.

So don’t think you’ll miss your mom hollering at you, “Jimmeeeee!” at 5am. You won’t. You won’t miss her forgetting your birthday every year, won’t miss her inappropriate humor, or her giggling with your sister and excluding you, or giving you the silent treatment, or throwing food, or feigning illness, or ignoring your spouse… those things don’t get sweet after someone dies, as far as I can tell. They just make you sadder.
I wonder if it’s particularly sad in my case, or her case, or whomever’s case we’re talking about. I wonder if she was really as dysfunctional as I felt she was. Or is every body dysfunctional and you just don’t know most people all that well. What do you think?

But let me tell you some things about my mom. You can’t love her as much as I did without knowing these things. Because (and this is theme in my life that gets me in trouble) somehow they made me love her more. Hope for her more, defend her more, take care of her more. I knew her, warts and all. And I loved her anyway. And writing it down isn’t worth a damn unless I can get that across.

If I can’t make someone who didn’t know her, read about her, pull for her, get frustrated with her, fight with her, puzzle over her, cry with her, talk about her, thank her, marvel at her, laugh at her, laugh with her, fear her and love her anyway; if I can’t do that, what’s the point?

So if you knew her, let me know if I’m being too hard on my mom. That’s my stupid tendency, to be too hard on the people I love the most. Just so the world knows I ‘m not blinded by love. In my family, if we’re not mean to you, we’ve either given up on you or we’re worried about your mental health. In those cases we’ll be mean to you when you walk out of the room.

Which , let me tell you, can contribute to troubles in the mental health area. I’m not saying the whole arrangement was or is healthy. But it is what it is.

But back to my mom. I think my dad said it best when he said, “With your mom, the thing is, you’d wonder which Susie would be waiting for you when you came home.” Oh so true. To say she had mood swings is to be gentle and generous. I think of them, and you know what? I think, “But I loved her so much”. How dumb. Anyway, he had it right.

Really I think she went through periods where she was insane. Does everyone do that? I’m still trying to figure that out. I can’t decide which would be worse: Having her be just about as crazy as the average Joe, or having her be deeply troubled.

She could carry a grudge like few women I’ve known. Go for months living in the same house with someone, but not talking to them unless she had to. I think my senior year she had been in a silent phase with my step-dad for about 9 months. It got so stressful I went to stay with my dad for a while so I could study. Unless you’ve lived with people who are fighting (if that’s the word for it), you can’t imagine how icky it is.

I found out later, if she had to walk by him, she’d whisper, “I hate you.” under her breath. He slept in a chair in the TV room. For months.

In the middle of a normal conversation, her voice could shift, turn icy, and you knew you were in deep shit. The only way out was to admit you had been either thoughtless, careless, mean or stupid. If you wanted true and lasting forgiveness, the only way out was to confess to being depressed, crabby, jealous or secretly angry. The surest way out was to confess that you were being mean because you were jealous. You were jealous because you were unhappy in your relationship with your husband, kid… someone else. And if you told her enough details about this other troubled relationship, she might chastise you for your mean stupidity, but she wouldn’t stay mad.

We learned early on that “sorry isn’t enough.” But “I did it on purpose because I’m jealous that she’s prettier than me, and she always will be and I wanted to hurt her” was good enough.

And she drank. As a child, I can’t remember her drinking to excess. But adults aren’t people to kids. They’re landmarks. I don’t think I would have known if it was a problem. But once I got to be an adult, and she started to fall down the stairs, and hide liquor around the house… I noticed. She stopped inviting us kids to events with her family, we decided finally, it was because she didn’t feel comfortable drinking around us.

Trouble with the drink runs in her (my) family. But it didn’t kill her, like I thought it might.  When she lied to the doctor about whether she had ever been a heavy drinker, I had this terrible dilemma.  Do I pull the doctor aside and say, “She’s lying to you.  Does it matter?” or do I let her drive her own life?  I decided it probably didn’t matter.  It probably didn’t. But I feel bad for her shame.  She knew I noticed the lie.  I didn’t correct her, didn’t call her on it.
And she lied. Oh my god, my mom lied a lot. Lied about big things, lied about little things. Lied about whether there were onions in dinner (there always were). Lied about drinking, lied about smoking (I still don’t know how much), lied about sex,  about money.

she was deeply troubled, she was also deeply gifted. It was worth the trouble.