Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Stepping into Someone Else’s Shoes

“You matter,” I told her across the table. She locked eyes with me. Like she always had. You see, I met her in kindergarten. She grabbed my hand, her eyes searching for mine. Once she caught my gaze, I was bewitched. “I’m Ashley,” she had said to me way back then. And I loved her. Right then and there.

I have watched her grow over the last seven years from a tiny little girl to a beautiful pre-teen. Getting a view of the world through the life of a low income Latina. As my daughter Olivia started to advance in accelerated classes in third grade, Ashley, smart as a whip, was placed behind. The disadvantage of an ESL kid clearly at play. Yet, every week she navigated the bus system with her mom and brother to the Kumon center. Quietly protesting. Working.

“You are going to go to that middle school and many of the white kids are in the advanced classes and most of the Latino kids are not,” I told her. “And you know what you are going to do?”

“What?” she asked, eyes bulging.

“You are going to say, ‘Screw You.’ You are going to succeed in spite of it all,” I told her, “because you can.”

“This is so helpful Mara,” she said taking a bite of her chocolate tart. Her eyes sparkling as bright as those days in kindergarten. And there we sat, in our bubble of connection, hope.

I can’t say I would have even been aware of Ashley and what it takes to advance out of poverty if it wasn’t for my mom. For the last 25 years Linda Mornell has placed low-income high school kids all over the country in summer programs. Interrupting negative patterns, instilling confidence, and ultimately teaching them to reach their potential.

Her new book about her experience with adolescents and building Summer Search, Forever Changed, is full of stories of kids like Ashley. Each one, prevailing in their own way, pulling themselves out of the deep hole that they were born into with the help of mentorship, serious introspection and a lot of character altering life experiences.

Changing their course ultimately changed my mom’s as well.  And mine to a much smaller degree. I saw Ashley. That is the bonus. Of looking outside your own world and seeing anothers. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

With confidence, I explained to Ashley, the circumstances would flip if she can manage to stay above water. Ignore the forces against her, work hard and embrace the possibility. All those coveting spots in college will be looking for her, not Olivia. Finally, a first generation Latina whose mom cleans houses and whose dad works in landscaping has the advantage.

And over dessert we plotted. In six more years her time will come.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I Swear We Are Normal

“So there he was dropping the F bomb at a party,” my friend was telling me, over a cup of coffee, about her son, my sons best friend. “We gave him a choice:  Tabasco or soap. He chose Tabasco.”

I looked at her and nodded in approval. I was the supportive parent/friend as she was putting it out there. Clearly she had reached her limit, and it was time to lay down the law. Music to my ears, of course. Im all for extreme punishment. Alpha and I are old school: we spank our kids when the circumstances warrant it.  It's always a challenge matching the punishment to the crime and I'm certain the kids would argue we've erred on the side of being too severe.

But there is a particular rub with the whole swearing thing. “I thought it was something you would do,” she smiled at me, “You inspire me Mara, really.”

That is when my eyes started to shift. It was hard to look  her in the eyes. I took a gulp of my coffee hoping that the conversation would change. Because the swearing in my house has hit all-time highs. And whats even worse? Its with my full support; in fact, I'm the ring leader.

It all started in Schatzle class. We had killed ourselves, burned our buns, sprinted around the block, done an insane number of sit-ups and lunged until there was no way to lunge another lunge. Beet red in the face and tired as hell Jenny put that microphone on and started to lecture us about positivity.

Wake up in the morning, she advised us, jump out of bed and start your day right. So as we closed class we did a few inhales and exhales and I thought we were bringing it into prayer position for a Namaste when she shouted out, “FUCK IT ALL, I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY.

That night, over dinner, it came up. Schatzle, positivity and well, FUCK IT ALL I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY.  The kids jaws dropped to the floor as they listened to the story. Laughter ensued and all of us jumped from the table a little lighter.

“Guys, I have an idea…”I started in at clean up. “Why dont we try that every morning and see if it works?”

“You mean using that word?” my kindergartener asked me. “The one that we are not supposed to use?”

“Yes, the F word. Use it every morning when you jump out of bed and tell me if it makes you feel better,” I said, throwing all caution to the wind.

The next morning, Alpha and I were fast asleep when we heard the rallying cry ring across the house. “FUCK IT ALL I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!” Alpha, who had missed the dinner session sat bolt upright in bed. “Did you hear that?” he asked me.

I started to giggle as we heard it repeated from each child. And then the laughter. That was last week. Now it has become the new morning ritual at the Peters house.

Over pancakes just this morning, a tired Olivia walked into the kitchen and quietly sat down at the table. “fuckitallIamgoingtohaveagreatday,” she mumbled in an unenergetic whisper.

“Where is the Tabasco sauce?” I asked Alpha. “Someone just used the F word in this house.” She quickly snapped her head up from her plate, shocked. She looked at my insistent face, and it registered quickly. Shouting at the top of her lungs, “FUCKITALLIAMGOINGTOHAVEAGREATDAY!” she burst into a huge smile.

“Thats better Liv,” I told her. “Dont get me wrong here, you are lucky and privileged to be able to use the F word every morning. Treat it with respect.”

I couldnt help but catch Alphas eye. The eyebrows were raised. Indeed, we are in unchartered waters. But one thing I know for sure. If we are going to do something, we do it well.

“We have to set some standards in the house,” I simply stated, flipping the pancakes.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Setting the Table

If you are a helicopter parent, you already know this. Statistics prove that sitting down and eating with your kids at dinner ensures they will be successful and smart people. Hands down. They learn manners, the ability to speak and communicate and it fosters a strong relationship with parents.

I cant tell you how many New Years have come and gone with my annual resolution to have family dinners, EVERY night, home made, nutritious and peaceful. But it wouldnt take long before I would flame out (my record is around a week). Charlie's early years were the worst.  He would huck food from the high chair and the other three  would rapidly lose interest  after two bites at which point theyd start doing laps around the table. Alpha and I would sit in front of our food shouting to each other about our day trying to hear above the din.

It was torture, far more effective than anything the CIA comes up with. I willingly went against the stats, fed them early and put them to bed many times before Alpha even got home. (7pm was really my limit.) And although I felt a tinge of guilt when my husband and I sat down for a civilized meal that we werent producing the communicative, successful kids I should, I got over it pretty quickly.

Like most things in parenting, it's a slow evolution that you dont notice until you hit a serious milestone step that grabs your attention. It was New Year's Eve, around 7pm. Teddy had taken pride in setting the table. Liv had poured the drinks and we were eating Alpha's specially made chicken fajitas. Talking about our New Year's Resolutions.

Liv kicked it off with something thoughtful. I want to get 1% better at water polo every time I practice, she said. Alpha and I caught each others eyes, both surprised. That would be one of our resolutions. Olivia went on to tell us about an inspirational woman who spoke to her 6th grade class. She opted to play mens baseball and had to push herself to get 1% better each time she played so she could successfully compete with the boys. Olivia, always offering gems to the family, set a remarkable tone for the table.

Charlie, the food hucker, went next. I want to get better at skiing, he offered up. Now Charlie had just torn up the slopes at Mammoth Mountain. Leaving his two older siblings in the dust. How about bike riding? I challenged him. That could use some work. (Three days prior, our fourth child (age five) had dragged his bike out of the shed, pumped the tires and nagged Alpha to no end to teach him to ride it without training wheels. When he couldnt get his Dads attention, Jackson took him out and taught him the basic concept.) Oh yes! I will be an amazing bike rider this year! he smiled at us.

Jackson announced he wanted to lose weight which made the whole table crack up. I laughed the hardest because this kid has really arrived to the adult world. The fact that he even knows most people resolve to go to the gym more on New Year's is a wild thing for me to comprehend. Once he had everyones attention, he raised his skinny arms and said something about lacrosse (its always lacrosse) and his training. But I couldnt help staring at my oldest, at the other end of the table, growing up.

Teddy was last. No matter how much we told him we wanted something serious, he laughed and giggled and couldnt figure out one thing to talk about. We spoon fed him answers about his writing, math even the piano. Ultimately, because he couldnt take the exercise seriously he was assigned KP duty and required to clear the table and wash all the dishes.

And it was there, on the coach, that I realized how amazing 2014 really was. The dinner ritual of setting the table, having a conversation and cleaning up after was not such a lost cause in the Peters house any more. The New Year's conversation was a long one -- we even had lingered well after the food was cold. There were no laps around the table. It was all so good.

A few minutes later, Teddy, poking his head from the galley, asked me, Mom, you didnt give us your resolution. What is yours?

Teddy, dont you know? I dont do resolutions because you never keep them! I told him. He looked at me in surprise, burst out laughing and went back to washing dishes.

Sometimes you just have to resolve to let things happen on their own time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I Refuse to Get Scrooged

“I am not sure why you choose to go down that path every time. You knew this was all coming,” my best friend was telling me. “Just get a cake at the bakery and call it a day.”

I was frantically mixing the flour with the eggs at the time. You see, I was in the midst of a moment. Jackson was turning 13 tomorrow and I needed to finish his birthday cake; Alphas mom had just landed from Savannah to see Olivia and Teddy in tonights variety show; I had scheduled a visit to the dentist a year ago and today, of all days, was the day all four had to get their teeth cleaned. (God forbid you cancel, no appointment is available until mid-July.)  To add to the day's planned chaos, there was the unplanned.  Teddy woke up complaining about itchy head. Leaving no room for any variables (we had four notices from school, lice was going around), I promptly shaved his head with the buzzer before 8am.

The signs were all there.  It must be December.  I can only function in check lists. Christmas card. Check. Teachers' gifts. Check. Birthday. Check. Trip to the Post Office. Check. Christmas Tree. Check. Variety Show. Check. Christmas Sing. Check. Another trip to Post Office. Check. Office Party. Check. Lice. Crap. Check. Happy F---ing Holidays. Check.

“You bring this all on yourself,” that friend was telling me. “I really question why you arent looking to make things easier. Stop making the cake from scratch, believe me, no one notices, least of all the kids.”

I am not Scrooge. I want the holidays to mean something. When my kids race to see what kind of cake I have made for them for their birthday before they reach for presents, I know I've done something right, something that leaves them with a memory the gifts won't. If I am going to make the effort and send a card out to our closest friends around the world, I want it to be reflective of our year not just a regurgitation of Facebook posts. If school is going to have a talent show, the kids need to rehearse, practice and work hard to get it right.

I know my view  doesnt solve for the overwhelming and frenetic days of the holiday season. That, in truth, it does make things more complicated.  I always have the best intentions to simplify -- not get trapped in the stress of it. To resist making my life a check list. Every year I have lofty ambitions until I get into the thick of it and go wilding.

“I am making this cake, because I have always made a cake,” I told my friend. “My kid is becoming a teenager. By making this cake from scratch, I can process what that means and reflect on how I got here.”

“Right. Before or after you carpet bomb Teddys head with lice shampoo?” she asked sarcastically.


I could cut corners. I could not do half the things I set  out to do. But then the holidays wouldnt feel like the holidays. In short, maybe my reality is December is one giant marathon  and I just need to go into it knowing the only objective is to survive.  It's true just finishing is a win.

Soon enough, I will kick back on the sofa with my eggnog, chomping on the sugar cookies I had made with the kids for Santa and realize that we have made it through another amazing year. My oldest is on his way to adulthood as my youngest looks for Santas footprints in the soot of the fireplace. The carrots will be out, the presents will arrive under the tree and all will be right with my world.