Maybe in a parallel universe, kids are graded on their questions, not their answers. Part 2.

Eleanor

 

“Mrs. Spaulding,  when you decided to marry Bert, were you 100% sure”?

“Course Not!!” she replied without pause, and shook her head.  “Course Not Michelle, you can’t ever be 100% sure about something like that”.  It was probably 1998.  We were sitting on the couch in the tiny Family Room, an opened book face-down on her lap, her arms folded across her chest as she lay reclined in the seat.  Entertainment Tonight was on the t.v.   That’s one of the things I remember most about my husband’s mother: the way she would say “course not!”, with no “of” before it, like the urgency to dismiss something was so great, she had no time to start it with “Of”, and how adamant and sure she was when she said it.

With only a month and a half left of the school year, I was feeling the increasing pressure to make the right decision for Silas and found myself wishing for her unflappable conviction once again.  She had been through this.  Twice.  Out of her three sons, she held back two in elementary school and everything turned out completely fine.  I sometimes pictured myself sitting with her at her kitchen table at night, the overhead lamp casting a soothing light over our heads, telling her about Silas and asking her if I should keep pushing him forward, to which I always envisioned her replying, “Course Not!  He needs more time Michelle”.  I felt so sure that is what she would tell me and I would have that conversation with her, in my mind, often.

Despite having an inner knowing that we should hold him back, I was getting so many other, contradicting opinions and suggestions from others that I felt like I was playing a game of ping-pong, Forrest Gump style.  I would switch weekly in my mind:  Nope, we’re going to hold him back.  Oh, no I guess so and so feels we should push him forward.  Nope, holding him back, end of decision!  Oh wait, but all of his friends will move up, maybe we should keep him going.  At times, I felt like I was losing my mind with worry, and even lost many nights’ sleep as I lie awake in my darkened bedroom feeling as though his entire future hinged on this decision.

Easter rolled around and as the holiday drew near, I began to think more and more about Eleanor.

She died of a brain aneurysm 11 years prior.  I missed her and always thought of her at every Spaulding holiday gathering, as did everyone else.  Being a very religious woman, her absence was even more poignant during Easter.  This year, Jon’s older brother was hosting Easter at his house and everyone was able to make it, which meant no less than 20 or so people, half of them, my boys’ cousins whom they adored.  Spaulding family gatherings meant my boys would be enthralled with their older siblings the entire time and I could have wonderful, uninterrupted conversations about them.

We arrived at Jon’s brother’s house and I soon realized I had absolutely no cell service.  I’d been seeing a teenager who was having a particularly rough time and told her to let me know if she needed some extra support.  After walking around the house, holding my phone high up in the air to no avail.   “No Service” was all it said.  So, I put my phone away in my purse.

I absolutely love hanging out with Jon’s family.  There are just so many of them and they are all so fun.  But even this Easter, I had the nagging anxiety in the back of my head about Silas.   I found myself approaching a few family members about our struggle, to which everyone agreed that giving him an extra year was a good idea.  And while I appreciated and concurred with everyone’s thoughts, I still felt such a strong wish to have Eleanor there to say the same thing.  I spotted Silas sitting quietly in the corner of the living room petting one of the dogs.  He had the same dirty-blonde-colored hair as Eleanor had.

At the end of the day, as we said our good-byes, and once back in the car for the trek home, I told Jon all about the advice I received and how everyone was echoing my sentiments.

“Ya know, I know that everyone here is saying the same thing, and I’m so, so glad, but I just wish……I just wish your mom was here.  I know she would agree with me and I know she’d be adamant that we hold him back.  I just wish she was here so I could hear her say it out loud”.

Immediately after I uttered those words, we must have finally entered cell service because my phone lit up.  I grabbed it from the dashboard, opened it up and saw that I had a work e-mail from a potential new client.  It read:

Dear Michelle,

I am looking for a therapist in your area.  I had a traumatic brain injury a few years back and am looking

for someone to help me work through some of the effects from it.  I can be reached at XXX-XXXX.

Thank you,

Eleanor G.

Anyone who knows me at all, will believe  me when I say that I basically started to lose my s*it in the passenger seat of my Jeep.  Jon, trying to drive through the early May mud and slush and see what I was spazzing about began asking “what?”  what!?”.  When I read him what it said, even my skeptical husband didn’t know what to say.  He didn’t quite believe me and made me show him the e-mail.

That e-mail was all I needed to solidify my decision about Silas.  I am certain Eleanor had been aware the whole time of our struggle, and my strong wish for her to be there to help us.  This was her son’s son after all, and as any mother knows, nothing can stop us from getting to our babies and taking care of them when they need us.

When I responded to the e-mail the next morning that I did have openings, the person replied that she had already found someone else, but thank you.  So, somehow, between Easter Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, she had made an appointment with someone else.  And when I called the phone number provided, (just out of curiosity), all I got was a generic automated male voice-recording that said, “Hello.  No one is available.  Please leave a message”.

I will never, ever forget that moment for the rest of my life and I held onto that moment as Jon and I walked into what would be our last school meeting regarding “what to do about Silas”.  We stood our ground and made the final decision to hold him back in the 2nd grade.  Despite not everyone at the meeting agreeing with our decision, we were listened to and respected and given the final word.

Now it was telling Silas about our decision and how he would feel about it.  We prepared ourselves to hold tight to our convictions and know that this was what was best for him, no matter how he might respond……

 

 

 

Maybe in a Parallel Universe, kids are graded on their questions, not their answers. Part I

“I am very concerned about your son’s academics”.

My 6-year-old’s teacher fiddled with her collar as she said it.  I sat perched on the miniature wooden chair, in front of the miniature wooden table, my knees practically scrunched up to my neck, and surveyed the busy and colorful classroom.  Cut-out leaves made of construction paper ran the length of the room on a string, the names of each student written in barely legible writing; the alphabet with, associated pictures, lined the chalkboard; A Chore Chart hung nearby:  Line Leader.  Door Holder.  Snack Helper.  My eyes landed on a stray book, “Red Lace, Yellow Lace”, a book about learning to tie shoes.

The word “academics” sounded conspicuously out-of-place.

My son goes to a wonderful school.  I have enjoyed all of his teachers, have great relationships with anyone who has been involved in his learning, praise the administration for working so hard to right by my son, and have no doubt in my mind that everyone was always wanting to do what they thought best for him.  It just gets tricky when what people think is best, differs radically.

Over the course of the next two school years, after that initial Parent-Teacher Conference, I would be bombarded with anxiety from people, urges for testing, meetings.  I would find myself sitting at long conference tables while people shuffled around of papers baring words like “Quantitative Concepts”, “Passage Comprehension” and “Reliability”.  There was such pressure and insistence and anxiety in “Doing Something” about my son’s “lag” in learning.  At times, when I asked that nothing be done, but for us to wait and be patient and see how the year turns out, I was often met with startled, confused and befuddled looks.  I might have even been deemed a Bad Mother to some.  To most, it seemed clear that he had a learning disability, but to me, I saw a young boy who simply needed a bit more time.  It felt like the boxes in which our children were to fit were getting smaller and smaller by the year, and I couldn’t think of a more promising deterrent from learning, than anxiety and pressure and force.  Everything I felt was driving this ship.

My son fell into that age-bracket where we could have easily waited another full year before starting school.  His birthday falls on the second week of August, which meant that upon starting Kindergarten he had been 5 a mere three weeks.  I remember putting him on the bus for the first time with this nagging feeling that I should have kept him back just one more year, but everyone said he would be okay.  I didn’t want to seem over-protective.  I didn’t want to underestimate him.  So, I ignored the nagging feeling.

As the years went on, in addition to the fact that boys tend to mature a bit later than girls, I was certain that this “lag”  that everyone was so worried about had more to do with him being young for his class and needing more time to grow.  Needing more patience from the adults around him.  Needing to learn at his own pace.  I remember the wonderful words of his Kindergarten teacher:  He is exactly where he needs to be.  I’ve held on to those words all of these years and reminded myself of that very thought when I felt myself waning.

I met with teachers, brought home supplies, put together small Learning Lessons at home, bought a dry erase board for the kitchen and did my best to help him try to learn the things with which he was struggling.  I remember there being such worry that he couldn’t count to 100 by 2’s.  He’d make it to 16 or so, but that’s it.  I remember trying to make a game out of learning how to count by 2’s.  I tried to show him the pattern to see if he could understand.  Counting in the car and making songs out of it.

I remember him getting frustrated, feeling like he had failed, losing interest and just looking out the window after a while.

One evening, while he was at our kitchen counter trying to do his math homework, and as I was drying and putting away dishes from the dishwasher, Silas lowered his head down, dropped his pencil and said, “I’m so dumb”.  I put down my dishcloth and went over to him, wrapped my arms around his sunken shoulders and tried to convince him that he was anything but dumb, but that everyone learned at a different pace.  Of course, it didn’t matter what I said.  He wasn’t understanding things that his classmates were, and that’s all he noticed.  I would hear him say this periodically throughout the year and each and every time I heard it, I became more convinced that he needed more time.

The school year was coming to an end in just a few short months, and my husband and I needed to come to a final decision about what to do:  Keep pushing him forward toward a future of endless testing and flashcards and meetings and urgency and anxiety and hearing “I’m so dumb”, or hold him back one more year and give him the extra time to grow and learn at his own pace while all of his classmates moved on.

One morning, at about 6:00, I was sitting in the living room couch reading and sipping my coffee before the mayhem of Getting Ready For School began.  Silas came tip-toeing down the stairs, sleep still evident in his blue eyes.  He crawled onto the couch next to me and laid his head on my lap.  As I brushed away his hair slowly and asked him how he slept, he responded with, “Mom…..are there others of us, but in the future?  Like, are there others of you and me, but we’re living in the future?”.  I remember pausing, trying to reconcile that my 7-year-old son, who had just woken up, was asking me about the possibility of other planes of existence. How exactly does a 7-year-old even have such a thought?

No wonder he wasn’t able to count to 100 by 2’s.  He was too busy wondering about Parallel Universes–the first of a many other impossible questions he would ask me during our alone time.

I love the way my son’s mind works.  I could honestly care less if he is “reading at grade level” or able to count by 2’s at the exact age he is expected to.  I don’t care if it takes him a while longer to string a series of letters together to form words than it does others.  I guess I always knew that he would get there someday, it would just be at his own pace and not anyone else’s.  So I didn’t worry, until others told me I should be.

What I do care about is the wonderful curiosity that drives him.  At home, when he’s shown a keen interest in the sinking of the Titanic, or Bigfoot, I sit down and Google things with him and we watch videos on YouTube and we buy books and DVD’s and we watch Harry and The Henderson’s.  I even sit through Finding Bigfoot with him, which is pure torture.

I appreciate the fact that his empathy is sometimes too much for him to bear, which may indirectly be my doing.  That watching a poor elephant get his foot stuck in a pail on a cartoon might bring him to tears.  That when a child in his classroom loses control emotionally, it almost traumatizes him and he sometimes tries to befriend them.

I cherish the fact that sometimes his thoughts and his questions are so profound, he doesn’t even know how to ask them, and I barely know how to answer them.

But alas, the way out world works, our children are ranked on regurgitation.  Like cows lazily chewing their cud.  And unfortunately, much of our children’s’ Self-Esteem hinges on doing “good” in school alongside their peers.  I also know for a fact, that many of my son’s teachers cringe at this very concept themselves, but are forced into following protocol, much like the pupils they guide.  Luckily, my son has had some amazing teachers who Get It and I also cherish and appreciate them.

By the end of the 2nd grade, I was left with two options:  Keep pushing him forward down the crowded hallways of students toward things he wasn’t ready for, or hold him back and allow him the extra time he needed, as he watched the others move up.  Would he really be a child “Left Behind”, or would he be Exactly Where He Needs To Be?

 

 

New Kids On The Block

There are certain rites of passage that all junior high girls must pass through, and pass through together: smoking your first Newport cigarette that you stole from your friend’s parent’s coat pocket; stumbling upon their porn stash and being forever traumatized by a nude Tom Selleck and his obscene mustache; figuring out how to French kiss using their pillow; and developing an obsession, bordering on delusion, with any member of the boy-band currently at the top of the charts, which in 1990, was New Kids On The Block.

At the innocent and wide-eyed age of 13, I was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would marry the youngest member of NKOTB, Joey McIntyre, in just a few short years. I knew it would happen. I had no doubt in my mind that one day I would be Mrs. Michelle McIntyre.  The alliteration itself was serendipitous.  Devouring my subscription to Teen Magazine every time it arrived in the mail, provided me with everything I needed to know about my future husband: his favorite color (blue) and his favorite first date (dinner and a long walk on the beach). I knew he grew up in Boston, I knew he had blue eyes, I knew he had numerous sisters and I knew what he looked for in a girl (“cool, chill, fun to be around”). I could only hope that he would find my budding neurosis and love of making lists “fun to be around”.

The only thing standing in my way was the small task of getting him to realize that I existed. Luckily, Tami was also planning her nuptials to Jordan Knight. “Tami Knight” didn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as “Mrs. Michelle McIntyre” did, but I didn’t want to bust her bubble that because of that, things might not happen for her, so I kept quiet. What could we do? How could we make ourselves known to the loves of our lives? As we sat beside my new dual CD player/ FM radio, listening to John Gerabedian’s “Open House Party,” one Saturday night it came to us:

Make Joey and Jordan a dance video and mail it to them.

We wanted to be smart about this, however. Sending a VHS tape could be construed as a little weird– a little desperate.  So, sitting in my bedroom surrounded by no less than 86 different posters of Joey, and the entire band as a whole, we decided that we didn’t want to come off as too over-the-top-obsessed because that would be creepy. We didn’t want to scare them off. We didn’t want them to think we were some crazed hill-billies living in Podunk, Vermont, but more mature, cultured girls with a variation of tastes in music and experiences. With that in mind, we wanted to choose a song to dance to that was not theirs. We wanted to show them there were other songs besides “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.” So, after much deliberation sitting on my floor, making our lists and charts and throwing out songs back and forth, we mutually and excitedly settled on a song that we felt was catchy, but not an obvious choice:
Milli Vanilli’s chart-topping #1 hit, “Girl You Know It’s True.”

 

“Yes!” I hissed at Tami, who always had better ideas than I did. “Perfect!” This was going to be a slam dunk. Filming needed to start immediately. Our hopes and dreams were being realized with each passing hour. We were going to showcase our many talents to Joey and Jordan, and could picture them watching the tape on their tour bus, in between shows, being blown away by two girls in Swanton, Vermont, and feeling the need to get in touch with us right away.  I’d decided that I would carry a bouquet of Lilies down the aisle.

We chose my backyard as our setting. It was spacious and somewhat scenic with our big spruce tree towering over the house, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else anyway. We got ourselves ready in my full-length mirror teasing, blow-drying and spraying our hair, carefully picking out our clothes, and chirping away about all of the possibilities that were about to open up for us. I had to make sure to put on some concealer as I had begun getting pimples left and right. Tami’s skin was flawless. Always. Not only was she petite with dark brown hair and sparkly, dark brown eyes, but she had the most porcelain skin to boot. I always had zits, which merely served to compliment my braces and permed brown hair.

We decided to use my parents’ boom box to play the Milli Vanilli song during filming. We weren’t quite technologically adept enough to figure out how to dub the song over our video afterward, and I had a sinking suspicion that my parents were not going to help us figure that one out. My dad was walking around the house in an angry stupor not talking to anyone, and when I asked my mom if I could have Tami over earlier that morning, she half-heartedly responded with “I don’t care”—although it felt like maybe she might have been talking about something else. There were more “I don’t cares” and long silences as of late, which was both annoying and beneficial. Annoying because you walked around on your tiptoes, yet beneficial because when you wanted to use the VHS recorder to make a home video to send to New Kids On The Block, no one cared.

The VHS recorder weighed as much as a small child. I had to hoist it up onto my shoulder, squint my left eye and look through the lens with my right eye, and make sure to hold it steady so it didn’t shake. Having taken one of the thousands of VHS tapes from my father’s collection, we schlepped the thing around out back looking for the perfect spot. There was the back of my garage, the spruce tree, the back fence, my parents’ garden that was clearly neglected, and our picnic table.

Choosing to do our opening scenes against the spruce tree, we began filming, introducing ourselves first before getting to our many talents. I let Tami go first, probably because I was being bossy, wanting to run the camera and tell her what to do. I liked directing people. She stood against the backdrop of the tree, poised and smiling while I positioned myself and the camera. My thumb on the record button and my left eye squinting, I said, “Ok. Go.”

“Hi! I’m Tami. I’m 13 years old and live in Swanton, Vermont.” She seemed nervous, so I made her do it again explaining to her that we didn’t want them to think we were trying too hard.  Didn’t want them to see we were nervous.   We did another take, and after reviewing her introduction and being satisfied, it was my turn. I took her place in front of the towering Spruce and tried my hardest to come off as “chill, cool, and fun to be around.”

“Hey! I’m Michelle. I’m 13 and live in Swanton, Vermont.” I didn’t smile too widely, and may have even slouched a little to give off the effect that making this video was really not that big of a deal to me—I could be doing other things.

After reviewing them again and being satisfied with our introductions, we milled around my backyard lugging the 45-pound VHS recorder along. What to do next? We could do some acrobatics over by the fence to the music, or simply record ourselves walking around lip-syncing like in the music video? We had spent the better part of the evening memorizing the lyrics to “Girl, You Know It’s True.” There were two members of Milli Vanilli and so we each took a part and divided up the song like that. Going over my lines in our heads, we spotted the picnic table. Perfect! We would combine the lip-syncing and the dancing and use the picnic table as a kind of prop.

I let Tami go first again. We used one of my father’s 455-foot extension cords that was plugged into an outlet in our garage and plugged it into the boom box that we positioned near the picnic table, but concealed and out of sight in an attempt to make this as professional as possible. We had agreed that we would start off-camera, but then jump in front of the camera right when the song started. With Tami standing on her mark, poised to jump in front of the camera at just the right time, I quickly ran over to the boom box and hit Play, ran back to my mark, hoisted the cumbersome VHS camera on to my shoulder, squinted my left eye, yelled “Ready,” and hit Record.

We spent an entire afternoon running back and forth from the boom box, back to our marks, hitting record, hitting pause, reviewing our work, dancing, lip-syncing, re-winding, changing the dance moves, redoing our hair and occasionally yelling at my little sister to “Get out of the way!”, lest she completely ruin our plans. What a turn off it might be to see my immature little sister making faces at the camera while wearing my old dance recital skirt as a wig.
I can’t remember if we ever sent off our video. It may be sitting in my father’s collection somewhere, or maybe he found it and didn’t know what it was and taped episodes of The Rifleman over it. Or, maybe we did send it off, and Joey and Jordan just never got a chance to see it. That would probably explain things. It may have been a blessing in disguise, seeing as how only a few short months later it would be found out that Milli Vanilli was all a hoax. One of the biggest scandals to have rocked the music world.  And to think that we used their song in an attempt to impress NKOTB?  I could only hope they didn’t actually watch it.

We were not deterred however. For NKOTB’s “Summer of Magic” tour was kicking off, and Tami and I had tickets to see them!!! It would be a summer of magic for sure. If our home video hadn’t made it to them, then we would just have to make it to them ourselves. Lucky for us, Lake Placid was not so far from where we lived, only a few short hours. My mother (bless her heart) and Tami’s mother (bless her heart) agreed to take Tami, my little sister (seriously?), and me to see them.  In person.

It was happening. It was really happening. We were going to be in the exact same arena as Joey and Jordan. We were basically going to be in the same room as them! Again, we spent an obscene amount of hours choosing our outfits, fixing our hair and going over what we would say or do if and when we met them. No, not if. When.

Having grown up in Swanton, Vermont (population 3,000) and not having really gone anywhere else except Malone, NY, made arriving in Lake Placid feel like being in a completely different country. The people, the traffic, the buildings, all the flags. There were so many flags near the arena, which was massive. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that me and the NKOTB were in the same city together. They were seeing the same flags I was seeing and experiencing the same things I was. I could barely contain myself. With explicit instructions from both my mom and Tami’s mom to stick together and meet us back out at the van when it was over, the three of us scrambled out of the car and walked toward the towering Olympic Arena.

Swarms of girls our age, covered in NKOTB attire were pouring through the doors.  Thousands of love-sick girls wearing t-shirts, sunglasses, purses. Some of them were carrying posters, and all of them were giddy. The closer we got to the doors, the more quickly we became swallowed up in the masses. Some man looked at our tickets, pointed to a set of stairs and doors we were to go through, and we were on our way.

I had never been in a place with so many people before. I was from Swanton. The biggest gathering I had ever experienced was our school assemblies in the gymnasium. I felt so small and the arena only made me feel smaller.   The countless nights I had spent daydreaming about my fantastical love for Joey and our inevitable relationship suddenly seemed comical and pathetic when I was forced with the realization that the thousands upon thousands of other girls in the arena had all been doing the same exact thing.

Somehow, we found our seats in the dark, which were not ideal: it was the nose bleed section. Behind the stage. Behind it. Was I even going to see him?

Drunk with delusional love, the music began, the screams of everyone else’s delusional love became deafening and all of my concerns were swept away as the concert started.  The lights all around me dimmed and the stage lit up.  Well, the front of the stage lit up.  I could see the dancing silhouettes of NKOTB and the familiar music I had only ever heard on my dual CD player/FM radio.   I was exhilarated. I was smiling. I was laughing. I was dancing.  I was giddy.
I was bawling my eyes out.

I had never cried so hard in my life for absolutely no reason. It was all just too much. Seeing the love of my life from a half-mile away (I’m pretty sure it was him), was just too much for my hysterical heart to handle. I sobbed. And so did Tami. We were akin to the Beatles’ fans I had seen on TV in black and white: teenage girls shaking their heads in hysteria and grabbing at their hair in ecstasy. Well, we weren’t quite that bad, but bad enough. My poor little sister, smooshed between two sobbing 13-year-olds, looked first up at me, then up at Tami, completely befuddled over our tears. Being the impressionable little sister that she was, she eventually started bawling herself, because apparently, that is just what you do at a New Kids On The Block concert when you’re 13 and it’s the biggest thing you’ve ever been to in your life thus far.

On the ride home, coming down from my high, I won’t try to deny that I was a bit disappointed I didn’t actually get to meet Joey, or that our seats were literally behind the stage, and that I only got to glimpse him when their dance routine caused them to move from one far end of the stage to the other. And even then, I had to try and figure out which one he actually was. I couldn’t deny that all of my big plans were not falling into place. It is a hard pill to swallow to learn that the fantasies in which I had been indulging in order to escape my mundane life were only ever going to be that. Fantasy.

Later, when the excitement had worn off, and reality had settled back into our days, Tami and I were lying in my bed, begrudgingly coming to the realization that Joey and Jordan were most likely never going to have the chance to meet us. So, we commenced taking down the86 posters I had splayed all over my bedroom walls. It took a good half hour to take them down. I folded over the edges of tape and put them in a neat pile in the bottom of my drawer. We went downstairs, grabbed a big bag of Cheetos and some soda, went back up and sprawled out on my bed. We put on Air Supply and wallowed in our misery together. With our feet perched against the slanted ceilings in my room, and the sounds of us reaching into the bag for another handful of Cheetos and loudly chewing them, we emotionally ate our pain away to the crooning words, “I’m All Out Of Love/I’m So Lost Without You.”

I couldn’t figure out which was worse: falling on your bike in front of the love of your life, or being faced with the fact that you’ve spent an inordinate amount of energy banking on an impossible and ridiculous fantasy coming true. Why did so many girls my age go so crazy for boys who were totally unattainable? Maybe for me it was because I didn’t dare fall for anyone real just yet. As I stared at my feet pressed against my floral wallpaper and licked my orange fingers, I reasoned that it seemed a whole heck of a lot safer than the real deal. Real-life love was filled with silent treatments and the slamming of cupboards. It entailed arguments over one person not helping out around the house enough and people leaving each other in some form or another. It had nothing to do with walks on the beach or being cool, chill, and fun to be around. It seemed to entail anything but that, and so I didn’t think I really wanted any part of it. Maybe I preferred to have loved from afar because at least you could always tell yourself that the reason it didn’t work out was because you never even got to meet—not that you did, and you just weren’t good enough.