Letting Go Is Easier When Reflecting on Own Childhood

Summer camp. One week. Off on an adventure alone. No friends. My son was ready. The question, Was I ready? I never went to a true summer camp. Besides an emotional college good-bye, my first real adventure came when I was 21. And I don’t think my mom was ready either.

Three weeks in Europe. A friend and I were leaving after college graduation to tour major European cities. My parents and I waited at the Norfolk, Virginia, airport for my friend and her parents to arrive. She was late—really late. I called her house from a pay phone. They should be at the airport, her sister said. I quietly waited, thinking. When my plane started boarding, I stood up and told my parents good-bye.

“What? You’re going?” my mom said. I sure as hell was. I didn’t work as a cashier for five months selling cigarettes to an old man with pink fingernails and a dress for nothing. I didn’t max out my credit card and beg and borrow the rest of the money for my trip for nothing. I was going to Europe!

We hadn’t talked about or looked into another flight. Now there was no time. I was there. I was getting on that plane. I said I’d call when I arrived. I didn’t have time to think about what I’d do once I landed. I had only ever flown once before. I felt nauseous and tried desperately to sleep folded over onto the lap tray. When we landed in London, I had no idea where to go. Signs everywhere warned not to pick up unattended bags. What? Why? A crowd of people held signs with names on them. One of them was my driver. I made it to the hotel exhausted but couldn’t check into the room for two hours. I called home and I learned my friend got stuck in traffic and had caught the next flight. Relief.

We spent the next three weeks navigating centuries-old castles, picturesque gardens, bizarre hotel showers, and each other’s moods. Thankfully, she still talks to me. We found our way into an Austrian pharmacy to replenish my motion sickness medicine, using only my idiotic gesturing and Southern English to communicate. We ordered from menus with decent success, though for the life of me I could not remember to request still water and always ended up with fizz.

Though I yearned for home-cooked food and sheets not made from terry cloth, I was having the time of my life. My mom called one of the hotels looking for me, worried. On my end, there wasn’t time for phone calls.

I think as mothers, we dissect our kids’ situations. There is no big picture but little pieces. We find comfort in odd details to help us cope with those parts that really bother us. I knew my son going to camp would be hard, but he’s been away before. Baby steps. My mom found comfort in the fact that I would be with a friend, that she knew where she could reach me. I put a kink in part of that.

I filled out loads of paperwork for my son. He’ll have fun, I thought. I’ll worry. But at the end of the forms and phone numbers and descriptions of my son’s personality, a reminder: no phone calls. Panic. What if he needs me? More likely, what if I need him?

Like my mom then (and sometimes now), I just wanted to be able to hear it, one sentence even: “I’m OK.” But I take comfort in the fact that his camp is less than an hour away. In our same town. And he’ll probably have fun, even if I won’t sleep for a week.

As a mom, my experiences with struggle and independence and finding my own way are what get me through letting my kids go—even if it’s just to the other side of town.

summer camp

Ready for a week of fun…I hope!

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Elementary School: Six Years of Growth

My son finishes elementary school this week. Six years ago, I cried as I sent him through those doors and down the hall into a classroom with a wonderful woman who took him under her wing and taught him everything he needed to know about getting along in the world.

Back then, he was waist high and when he smiled, his cheeks were still round with baby fat. His chubby hands grasped a pencil the right way to practice letters and write sentences about field trips, his hermit crab, and how much he loved his family. I used to smile at his primitive spelling and stick-figure crayon drawings, filing every writing away to brighten up a later day.

He told me stories of the pill bugs that escaped the classrooms and were found all over the school. Or the boy who put his foot in the toilet in the bathroom.

He moved on down the hall. He made new friends. He struggled. He discovered the joy of a really good book. He learned that he loved math and science and that all someone had to do was talk about it and he absorbed it like a sponge. He learned that sometimes he had to work hard at something and it wasn’t always easy. And even if he threw his pencil across the room and broke it, even if he said a cuss word in the process, his mother loved him anyway.

He learned that sometimes his mother said a cuss word in the process too. Damn homework.homework mominthemuddle.com

He told me stories about the kid who hid under his desk every day and the teacher who chased them on the playground at recess as they laughed and screamed.

As he moved on down the big kid hall, he learned that sometimes kids are mean. He learned that he didn’t want to be the bad guy, but he didn’t want rocks thrown at him either. He can’t always be a pleaser. Sometimes friends aren’t good at their job. Sometimes he found they could make him feel bad about himself, like when he got new glasses. Sometimes friends challenged him though. If they read a book, he wanted to read it too. He discovered a love for J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl.

He told me stories about the boys’ bathroom and the boy who licked the urinal. He told me all about the first overnight field trip he went on—he had the time of his life while I stayed home unable to breathe.

Now in fifth grade, he jokes with his teachers. He doesn’t need to be coddled. He does his homework in his room and I see it only when he needs help or when it is returned home graded. His writings are about fighters and his friends, no longer sappy and sweet. He takes pleasure in trying to teach me new math lessons he has learned, thinking he’ll stump me. And he has.

He tells me stories about kickball and monkey ball and the things I would not believe the boys do at lunch. He tells me about the science experiments with tea bags and the mock stock exchange they’re doing in math that he loves.

Now in the last week of his elementary school career, he walks down the hall confident, smiling, knowing many friends. He stands at my shoulders, lean and broad, baby fat long gone.

Six years ago when he entered that school, he was a quiet, funny, scared kid. When he walks out those doors for the last time, I’ll still recognize that little boy somewhere inside. But I couldn’t be more proud of the countless ways he’s grown.

mominthemuddle.com note

A note my son gave me in first grade.

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A Tribute to My Favorite Teacher: The One Who Opened the Door

I had one teacher who I was pretty sure hated me for breathing. I wasn’t one of her pets, one of those good students who got physics the minute the words rolled off her tongue. If you weren’t one of the great students in her class, forget it. Never mind that you made As or Bs most everywhere else. I looked at my final exam, rolled my eyes, scrawled some numbers on it, and walked out. It was my last “screw you” to her. I had already been accepted to college, and I wouldn’t be getting any science degree. She taught me that not every teacher’s agenda includes every student.

Of course, I’m ashamed to say there were teachers on the receiving end of my own crooked attitude. Some I made fun of within earshot. How could my chemistry teacher not see she was the spitting image of Peter Pan in that outfit? It absolutely demanded a high-pitched chorus of “You Can Fly” every time she stood before the room in those tan pants and that green collared shirt. Had I been braver, maybe I would have cut a felt hat for her and left it on her desk. Rude as I was, I had my limits. The truth was, science didn’t fascinate me. Neither did her lectures.

Looking back, I’ve felt some teachers did a disservice to me by not pushing me, by letting me slide by on what I knew I could get by with. They didn’t challenge me. They gave me the A. They never encouraged me to read really great books. They never got to know me. They never asked to see something I wrote or gave me pointers. Some teachers were there to go through the motions and collect their paychecks. And I was there to turn in half-assed work and collect my As and Bs. I always did OK and I was always lost in a crowd of really great kids and troublemakers. If you asked any of my teachers now, I bet they wouldn’t even know me.

But one teacher gave me the push I needed. One teacher told me I was good at something. She was hard and strict and she gave me—a quiet, mousy girl when it came down to it—a chance. She taught journalism and AP English. She helped me get out there and get stories, actually talk to people—upperclassmen and adults. She helped me get in front of a camera for our student news show when I wanted to crawl under a table and hide. She talked about the world outside of our high school and introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe. She gave me a camera and made me get out in the community and see it from behind the lens. I never felt like her pet. But she let me know that I had a little bit of talent and that I would have to believe in myself. And it was all that I needed.

When I graduated, I was so moved by the two years I’d had in her classes that I wrote her a letter. It took all the courage I had to give it to her in person. I’m sure it was cheesy and dramatic, covered in the emotion of leaving home and starting anew. But I do remember that I told her she was the best teacher I had ever had. Without a doubt she was.

She was the teacher who ignited my curiosity and unveiled a layer of confidence I never knew I had. And though that kind of learning will never be complete, she is the one who opened the door.

Here’s to Ms. Purdy, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week.

calculator

We all know I hated math too.

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Guest Post: Little League Sports as a Dad and Coach

Larry Bernstein is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. His hobbies include writing, reading, and sports. He and his family live in North Jersey. He blogs at memyselfandkids.com.

Yesterday Larry ran my post on his blog. It was about my experiences sitting in the stands watching my kids play sports through the years. You can visit his site to read that post, I Can’t Handle the Little League Sidelines. Larry is having a different experience this season. Read on.

This past weekend was the big game. It was opening day of my 10-year-old’s first season of Little League Baseball. And it was opening day for me as a coach.

Yup, just another day on the calendar. Nope!

—–

My son, BR, came to enjoy baseball later than many kids. His occupational therapy issues leave him less coordinated than some others. His tolerance for not being good at something is not high.

In the middle of the 2012 season, he began showing interest in baseball. By last year, he was a certified fanatic. His interest, however, centered on statistics and highlights rather than playing.

When it came time for Little League sign-ups a couple months back, he decided he wanted to play. I was happy for his interest.  The league he was joining was perfect for a child just getting into baseball. It’s softball, coaches pitch, everyone bats, and excessive competition is de-emphasized.

Since deciding he wanted to join the league, BR has been asking to play baseball all the time.

He and I have worked on fielding. And I have fed BR instructions: step into the throw, stay down on the ball, get your body in front of the ball, use your glove, etc. Side note: The strings on my baseball glove, which I have had since I was about 12, have come apart.

He and I have worked on hitting. And I have fed BR instructions: eyes up, stride forward, bat off your shoulder, swing hard, etc.

This excessive practice time has led to some arguments between us. There have been some tears and periodic yelling. However, for the most part BR and I have been on the same page. Both of us have the same goal: Help BR become a better and more confident player.

And we have had success. BR has taken the instructions and done his best to implement the changes. His improvement is clear to anyone who has been paying attention.

More importantly the extra time together has helped us to bond.

That’s one victory before the season even started.

When a friend of mine asked me to coach with him, I was reluctant. Yes, I know the game. Yes, I like teaching. However, I wanted to focus on BR. My wife brought up my competitiveness. “Are you sure you can be calm?”

Sports bring out competitiveness in me like nothing else does. As the 4th son in a sports crazed family, I liked to blame the nurturing process.

Anyway, along with BR’s performance, I now had something else to worry about as opening day approached.

—–

Well, we are now post opening day.  And the results are in.

BR batted 7th and went 3 for 4. He hit the ball well each time. He knocked in some runs and scored a couple of runs as well.

In the field, BR played pitcher’s helper. He was involved in a number of plays in the field. He stopped most of the balls hit at him and threw some runners out at first.

Another victory.

I cheered for our team, offered encouragement, gave instruction as needed, and pitched well. Okay, I was a little loud once – but nothing too crazy. I enjoyed the coaching role.

Another victory.

Lastly, a team victory. Our team, the Valley Brook Veterinary Tigers, won 15-7. Every player on the team had at least one hit.

We at Me, Myself, and Kids are liking Little League.

Larry Bernstein

Larry and BR, courtesy of Larry Bernstein

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Guest Posting Today: Come Visit!

I’m over at Larry Bernstein’s blog, Me, Myself, and Kids, today talking about the sidelines. I’ve been through many seasons of watching my kids play baseball, soccer, and basketball, and I’ve decided I really don’t like the other parents.

As a kid, I’m pretty sure it was one of the reasons I stopped playing. I knew it even then. In fourth grade, I played softball and I wasn’t very good. When the ball was hit to my patch of centerfield grass, I ran for it and threw it in. I threw it to whoever looked most eager to get it in her glove. Only my aim sucked. My eyes looked at her outstretched hand, but the ball went six feet to the left.

I used to sit in the dugout and pray my turn wouldn’t come up. Standing at the plate, I could hear the parents in the stands. Maybe they meant for me to. “Come on, hit the ball!” They weren’t using encouraging tones. They weren’t being helpful.

As a parent, I’ve sat on the sidelines through enough games and enough sports to know that I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. Even now as an adult, I hate hearing the other parents.

Visit Me, Myself, and Kids to read more and see what else I’ve encountered. Tomorrow, come back here and read about Larry’s experience with Little League, not only as a parent, but also as a coach.

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Book Review: The Rooms Are Filled

Ever since I found out in October that Jessica Null Vealitzek, author of the blog True Stories, would be releasing a book this April, I couldn’t wait to read it. If the writing on her blog is that good, what could she do with a book? When I got the chance to get an advance reading copy of her novel, The Rooms Are Filled, I jumped at it—and book reviews are not my specialty. Her blog has always inspired me, made me stop and think, and even caused me to grab the tissues, which to me is a sure sign of good writing. I hoped her book would do the same.

It didn’t disappoint.

The Rooms Are Filled begins in Minnesota at the scene of nine-year-old Michael’s suddenly shattered life. As his father lies dying on the ground, Michael thinks the paramedics aren’t careful enough. And he doesn’t want those strangers around his father. And from there, I didn’t want Michael to come to any harm or pain again.vealitzek

When he and his mother, Anne, move to Illinois to make ends meet, Michael struggles to fit in with classmates. There his only friends are Tina, who lives across the street and comes with her own set of problems, and his teacher, Julia Parnell, new to town and trying to fit in by not standing out.

When introduced to Julia for the first time, I immediately fell in love with her too. And how could I not? She drives into the story “gripping the steering wheel as though it kept her from falling out of the car and rolling down the highway.” Struggling with her sexual identity and running away from her past, Julia encounters her own set of bullies.

Vealitzek wrote these characters with such care, you’d swear they were people she knew all her life. I rooted for them and hoped others didn’t get their way. You have to see for yourself whether everything is tied up nicely in the end.

As with all good books I’ve read, I wanted to know the inspiration behind this story. This time I could ask.

Vealitzek said the book is loosely based on a childhood experience of her father, who moved from a Minnesota farm to working-class Franklin Park, Illinois, in the early 1950s. Neighborhood kids and classmates teased him for his slight lisp and said he sounded like a “hick.” His teacher was a rumored lesbian and the kids made fun of her too. She helped Vealitzek’s father build confidence by encouraging him to read aloud. It worked.

I love it when a good story and good writing come together. The two don’t always come hand in hand, but Vealitzek weaves a heartfelt story with imagery and characters that stayed with me long after I read the last page.

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It Took 40 Years To Be This Person

One recent Sunday morning I set my juice on the table next to a piece of rolled up paper tied with ribbon. “Is this for me?” My family took me by complete surprise. In 40 days I would be 40. They planned to celebrate me in some way every one of those days.

When you’re a kid, every birthday is special, filled with anticipation. Adults mostly try to push them back like the sand that keeps sliding and filling a carefully dug hole.

Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about turning 40. Not worry, not dread. Reflection. I’m more excited about this birthday than I’ve been since I turned 21.

To me, 40 is not old. I’m lucky enough to have a father who never looked at age as something to dread. “I’m just glad I made it this long,” he says every year. I feel like this is my chance to take everything I’ve learned and go forth.

But 40 does feel like a crossroads. This big year of tumbling into a new decade. Do I keep trudging through my days the same way as always? Do I shake things up a bit? When is the right time to get out there and do the things I’ve always wanted to do? If ever there was a time to try something, this is it. Though I feel like I finally have wisdom backing me, I no longer have the luxury of an expanse of time.

I’m what you call a late bloomer. It took me a long time to come out of my shell. I remember a time, decades ago, when boys wore their best flannel shirts and stone-washed jeans to the high school dance. I gathered all the courage I had and blew it on walking in the door, forget dancing. I watched as everyone else without a date gathered in groups and bobbed together like boats on the horizon. Their bodies pulsed to the beat, they laughed, they goofed off. It didn’t matter what I faked. Smile or laugh or whatever, the only thing hearing me was the wall and deep down, I fought the tapping in my toes and the bouncing in my knees. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have as good a time as the kids on the dance floor.

In time, I learned. I learned not to care what I looked like. I learned that confidence and beauty really can go hand-in-hand with making a fool of yourself. People see your smile, hear your laughter. They move and smile and laugh with you. No one is moved to hold the wall up with you all night.

And I want to be an example. I don’t want my kids to be that person. I don’t want them to sit on the sidelines and watch. I want them to participate in life and jump in and not be afraid. I don’t want them to hold their happiness in.

When my kids are mortified to see me dance, when they hear me scream on a ride, when they see my step falter on a high climb, when they hear me speak up, when they see me try something new, I want my kids to know that it has taken me nearly 40 years to be this person. That you don’t ever have to stop growing. Every year I learn something new because I learned to let go of the part of me that was holding me back.

This was tough but quick. Almost at the end!

Something new and terrifying.

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