The New Question We’re Asking Our Teachers

My husband and I are moving our six-year-old twin daughters across the country.  We’re leaving northeast Pennsylvania for the Seattle area.  As such, we’ve been doing a lot of research on our new town.  First, I researched the work outlook: good.  I researched the state government: two female democratic senators.  I researched the climate: not so great, but livable.  I researched the public transportation: great. I researched the school districts: some of the best in the country.  I called the schools, asked a variety of questions:

What is your curriculum like?

Do your students wear uniforms?

What are your after school programs like?

Are your art and music programs well-funded?

As my cell phone heated up against my cheek, the questions grew more and more vague.  The silences grew longer.  There was still one more question lurking in my throat, in my chest, lying against my broken heart: Would you take a bullet for my daughter?  

Lauren Rousseau's Parents
Lauren Rousseau’s Parents

This is the new rhetoric surrounding neighborhood schools.  This is the new fear that turns parents in their beds at night.  Will my child’s teacher be the next Lauren Rousseau, the Newtown, Connecticut, teacher who selflessly died trying to save her students? Will s/he be willing to stand up to the new face of terror in our schools?  And the even bigger question looming over all of us as parents is: do we even have the right to ask such a sacrifice?

My daughters now attend a small elementary school in Pennsylvania.  Their teacher, a wonderful and thoughtful educator, has a little boy all her own.  is it fair to hope that she would leave him motherless in an attempt to save me from an imaginable grief?  I don’t know if I, in good conscience, could ever ask that of another parent.

For weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, I, like millions of parents across the country, couldn’t sleep.  I relived the story in my head a thousand times.  I imagined the fear in the children’s hearts in the two to three seconds it took them to realize what was happening.  I lived in that moment.  I lived in that classroom.  I lived in that grief for weeks and weeks.  I considered therapy.  I even considered religion.  Eventually, I began to move forward, slowly.  But in Newtown, there are families who never will.  I believe there is a community that will never get past this.  It’s too big,  it’s too horrible, it just doesn’t fit into any of the compartments inside of them.

The world became a different place on December 14th, 2012.   For me personally, it was the end of my love affair with politics and news.  I was an avid “newsie” for most of my adult life, but as time went on and my television was filled with men and women refusing to stand up to the gun lobby to ensure those children didn’t die in vain, I had to turn it off.  I had to bury my anger, bury my head, bury my pain in the arms of my daughters.  I’ve always been a staunch Democrat, battling fiercely for what I believed were democratic ideals.  Now, I’m just tired and I’m always sad.

I’m sad that my government has let me down.  I’m sad that this pain and fear inside those of us with small children is like a hot stove we are tied to, yet for most on Capitol Hill, it seems that heat has started to cool.  I’m sad that I have to look at my child’s teacher and wonder if s/he would protect them.  I’m sad that I even have to ask such a thing of another parent.  I’m sad for the parents in Newtown, who cannot fathom that gun control is even up for debate.  I’m sad that they don’t have the arms of their children for refuge from this cruel world.

sandy-hook-memorialThe Sandy Hook shooting and the political fallout are a language I will never understand.  I will never be able to comprehend what happened that day, how it happened, why it happened, and what to do with the fact that it did.   The massacre has changed the way I think, the way I feel, and the way I dream.  Now,  in my dreams, teachers are not asked to take a bullet, the children of Sandy Hook are alive and tucked into their beds at night, and teachers teach, and bad guys don’t have guns.  That is my dream, and the dream of so many parents.  The American Dream of yesterday is gone.  The new American Dream is a school from which our children return home at the end of the day, whole, fulfilled, happy, and…alive.

Tales of a Capsizing Mommy

I finished my book just in time to miss the best years of my twin daughter’s lives.  My MFA, two chapbooks of poetry, and an unsold memoir had consumed me for the better part of five years.  I guess I half-expected that they would wait for me, that the milestones: the walking, the rolling over, the talking, the first night sleeping all the way through, would be there for me on the other side, ready to repeat themselves and allow me to linger and actually pay attention this time.

Instead, when I finally lifted my head through the skin of the water, I found a pair of little girls, almost six, ready to cross that invisible threshold into “not a baby anymore” land.  Suddenly there were too-tight shoes, missing training wheels, a pint-sized boyfriend, and sight words that rolled off their pink shiny tongues like water rolling downhill.

Don’t get me wrong, I did what I could.  I kept copious notes in a black journal with embossed flowers on the cover.  Triumphs and achievements stretched out across each page like webs catching every date and every age.  But I had never really slowed down to experience them, to inhale their importance, and when I pulled that journal out weeks ago, after the dust had settled and my writing was dormant, it was as if I was a stranger glancing through a history book full of events I had never witnessed.

So, when Penelope, the baby (by one whole minute), came to me three months ago with a pain in her tooth and it was discovered that said tooth was loose, I reveled in the emotion of the moment.

tooth“Your tooth is loose!  Your tooth is loose!”  I cried as if she had just informed me of a full scholarship to Harvard Law School.  The afternoon sun lit up the kitchen and I danced her around the bare floor draped in the warm rays.  I called all of her grandparents, and acted as if this loose tooth would be it: the one event, the one benchmark of her childhood  I would remember forever.   I imagined she would call me up twenty-seven years from now and I would relive the loose tooth with as much vigor and detail as I had remembered her birth.  Still, just in case, later that night through weary eyes, I pulled out the journal and wrote: Loose tooth, October, 2012.

Now, three months have passed and already that moment is gone from my mind.  I remember the date, obviously, but I can’t remember the sequence, the order in which anything happened.  Did she wake up with the tooth pain?  Had she pointed it out earlier and I blew it off?  Did I know to look for the wiggle of the tooth or did she mention it first?

This is what has happened to my brain since I decided to live the writing life.  I used to remember moments effortlessly.  In my early twenties, I could have told you every single detail of every relationship I’d ever had:  How the leather back seat felt under my bare skin the first time I went parking with a boy, the smell of Jeff’s cologne, and how my stomach flipped every time I heard Mike’s voice.    I was able to recite the phone numbers of my very first girl friends, my employee badge number from SEARS, the first nine numbers of Pi.  Now, I cannot recall the simple historic moments of my own children’s lives.  The events most mothers have living on the tips of their tongues.

Sinking-shipIt’s easy to make excuses.  I’m teaching six classes this semester, that’s 120 students give or take.  That’s a lot of papers, a lot of deadlines, and a lot of emails to answer.  I’m also involved with a few literary magazines, host of a reading series, and mentor to some budding writers.  I’m overwhelmed, clearly, but that’s not all. What’s taking up so much precious real estate in my mind is my next book, play, poem, short story, essay, and haiku.  On any given day, there is a whole host of images and characters just floating around my head, taking up space.  I do everything I can to hold onto the important things, to tether Penelope’s loose tooth to something that will help me remember.  Penelope’s first tooth wiggled one week before Halloween.  I was teaching Creative Nonfiction, it was right after I finished the book.  I secure the rope tightly, but deep down I know it’s in vain.  A little loose tooth is no match for the high tide of unwritten stories.  The memory of my daughter and me in the kitchen, spinning on the balls of my feet while she laughs and beams with big-girl pride will be lost someday soon, the magic of the moment relegated to four words in a handwritten journal.   This is the life of mother, a writer, a captain of uncharted waters just trying to stay afloat.

Get the X Out of Here

stick-figure-kids-hiAbout a month ago, my husband yelled at our six-year-old daughter, Penelope, for something silly.  She wrote in permanent marker on her sister’s magic erase board (these are the exciting things your life will be filled with should you decide to procreate…)  Anyway, he was mad that Penelope acted this way seemingly out of spite and so, he scolded her.  Nothing over the top, just a yell.

A few moments later, her sister, Samantha, came out of the playroom and told me that I better get in there to see what Penelope was doing.   A few weeks earlier, Penelope had  drawn a wonderful stick-figure drawing of us holding hands and she taped it to her playroom wall. And now as I stared at it, I saw a huge black X drawn over P’s little stick body.  I was stunned.  She is six.  Could the bile of self-loathing already be present in her little belly?  Have I passed on some defective gene that will damn her to a life of never feeling good enough?

“What did you do?” I asked her, almost in a panic.  She said nothing.  She just dropped to the floor and sobbed.  Her black hair flowing bouncing up and down with each heave of her chest.  I scooped her up and held her tight against me.  If I could, I would have shaken every bit of this poison from her.

A few weeks later, I was teaching at a local university and noticed a student of mine was visibly upset.  Her eyes were rimmed red and her cheeks were brushed with tears.  This was unusual for her, she was always chipper and ready with an answer when no one else was.  After class, when I asked her what was wrong, she released the flood gates.  She had been in a fight with her boyfriend.  She was angry with him over what I agreed was a justifiable offense, yet, the boyfriend ended up convincing her that she had done something wrong and he ended up dumping her.

“Do you think you had a right to be mad?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she replied.

“So why aren’t you?” I responded.

“I…I don’t know,” she stumbled.  “He said I shouldn’t be.”

I wanted to tell her that she should never let anyone invalidate her feelings.  Who was this shmuck  to say what she should be feeling?  She should stand firmly behind what she feels and never back away from herself.   I wanted to spare her the sixteen years it took me to learn those things.  (She is nineteen and I am thirty-five).  But how could I?  I had people in my life who said those very things to me at her age, and I didn’t listen.  Maybe these are things you have to go through in order to get to the other side of adolescence in one piece.  In the end, I told her to have confidence that it will work out if it was meant to be.  Then, I threw up in my mouth a little at the cliche I had become.

There you had it.  Penelope was yelled at and her immediate response was to take herself out of the family, to internalize her pain and frustration.  My student voiced her anger over something she felt was an injustice against her, and the minute her feelings were met with any resistance, she immediately questioned herself and backed down.

How long does it take and how much pain do women have to go through before we start allowing ourselves to stay in the picture?  Are we predisposed to X’ing ourselves right out of the equation?

Dear America, Please Don’t Kill My Kids

Dear America,

We’ve been here before.  As a young newlywed, I watched as terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center and killed an unspeakable amount of innocent people.  Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, over 3000 of them gone, in one day.  I cried for days.  We all did.  Flags dipped low under the smoky sky, and the plume of Manhattan seemed to cover us all in ash.  As a young college student, I watched a television set on Penn State’s main campus as two students shot and killed their classmates at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.  It was an unspeakable horror.  I dreamed about that day for weeks afterward.  I struggled to hold onto my belief that people are good and that America is safe.  I was in high school when Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, I saw the images of the children being carried lifeless out of the burning rubble.

Despite the horrible nature of these crimes, and the crimes that have come later, we, as a nation, have moved forward.  We’ve put one foot in front of the other and went on with our lives.  But this, this latest event, this is different.  There is something worse about a room full of Kindergarten students being gunned down.  There is something worse about this.  Something darker, something blacker. And I can’t get over it.  Maybe it’s because I have kids now.  I have six-year-old twin daughters who are exactly the age of the children who were killed.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and falling out of love with the country I was always so proud of.  Maybe it’s all of the above.

The truth is, I am a ghost of the person I was on Thursday.  On Thursday, I was aggravated that my six-year-old daughters didn’t get dressed fast enough and that we are always running late for school.  On Thursday, I was annoyed by the guy holding up traffic while dropping his kid off at school because he had to give three hugs instead of two.  On Thursday, the world around me was recognizable and despite pockets of dark, there was still light.  Now, all of that has changed.

I thought about dismantling the gun advocacy argument piece by piece and responding to it, but I just can’t do it anymore.  I want, instead, to tell you about my twins, Penelope and Samantha.

026Penelope is a nervous child.  She likes things a certain way and when something is out of place she  can’t seem to  “let it go.”  She loves Barbies and the color pink.  Although, until she was four, her favorite color was blue, and last year it was yellow, now we are on pink.  Penelope has a freckle right on the tip of her nose and her lungs fill with air and she gives me this deep-belly laugh when I try to steal her freckle, which I do often.  She is obsessed with gymnastics and I find her standing on her head all over the house.  When we makes wishes, no matter where we are, she wishes that her family will be healthy and happy.

Penelope is sensitive.  If she seems me crying, she rubs my back.  She’s protective of her twin, her “sissy,” and tells me right away of someone is bothering her.  She loves to sing, even though it’s off-key like her mother, and I’ve sat through about five “concerts” just in the past month alone.  She is polite and sweet, and the weight of this world sits heavy on her shoulders.

Samantha is the complete opposite.  She is a rough and wild child.  She runs around barefoot in the spring and summer and doesn’t bat an eye when she leaves muddy footprints all over the hardwood floors.  She loves to crack jokes and laughs harder than any kid I know.  She loves her sister, and in the morning, I often find them wrapped in an embrace as the sun lights up their shared bedroom.  Samantha is scared of movies.  I took her to see Brave and it freaked her out so much that she now refuses to go to the movies with me.  I tried to calm her fear, but in the end, she will not budge.

But Samantha is strong when I need her to be.  When she’s sick or when her sister is having a meltdown because a button fell off her coat, Samantha is steadfast.  She is made of iron.  I can count on her to keep it together, to wear the button-less coat to school so her sister will calm down.  At night, Samantha hugs me tighter than anyone, burying her little noise into the curve of my neck.

These are my babies.  The ones I waited my whole life for.  These are my Kindergartners.  Please don’t let somebody kill them.  I would die without them.

Is your right to own a semi-automatic weapon more precious then Samantha and Penelope?  If you let them, I assure you, they will grow up to do great things.  They will be productive members of society.  They will save people and invent things.  Or they will work at the mall and just tip better at restaurants than most people.  Either way I will love them and they will love you, America.  If you just let them grow up.

Love,

Mom.

Breaking the Chains

tinkerbell-birthday-cake

So each year around this time my twin girls have a birthday.  This year they are turning six.  Six.  I can hardly believe it.  And each year I write some overly mushy blog post about how much I’ve learned about my girls, how much they’ve grown, and how amazed I am by their beauty.  But this year is different.  I haven’t just learned about them, I’ve learned about me.  I’ve redefined my role as a mother in a way I never have before.  And I owe it all to my no-scale diet.

You may recall that back in September I smashed my scale to bits and decided to free myself from its grip.  It’s been three months now and I have never felt better.   Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mind-blowing euphoria on a daily basis, I don’t wake up feeling like the sun has risen solely for me, rather its an ease with which I haven’t lived life in a long, long time.  Remember the days when you used to exercise because it was fun?  Or you ate an apple a day because it was healthy?  I’m at that point.

I’m more tuned in to my kids, I’m more present.  I’m enjoying them on a whole new level because I’m enjoying everything on a whole new level.  I’m leading by example and it feels great.  And I’m not the only one.  Women everywhere are starting to break the chains that bind them.  Read this post on Jezebel if you have any doubt that women are starting to get the message.

So this year, as my girls cross the threshold from Toddler into “little girl-dom” I can honestly say this has been our best year yet.

By the way, I will not disappoint…  The mushy post will be coming.  Stay tuned.