Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Letter

            An envelope came home in Pip’s backpack this week. It was an envelope we’d had our eyes out for since the school year began. Inside it was a letter informing us that Pip had passed the penultimate checkpoint in the process of getting a placement in the county school system’s accelerated program and that the final determinations would be made using a cognitive abilities test that would be administered in the coming weeks. We signed the necessary permission forms for him to take the test and sent it back.
The accelerated program has been on our radar since Pip first entered kindergarten in part because Pip and Polly’s school is one of three sites in the county that host accelerated program students in grades 3-5. This coincidence has made the program particularly interesting for me because it would allow Pip (and later perhaps Polly) to participate in a more challenging academic environment while still remaining part of our neighborhood school. This seemed like a best-of-both-worlds situation for us, and I imagined from time to time how nice it would be. Now, we have to deal with the uncertainty of whether that vision can actually come to pass.
            Pip is a thoughtful, wonderfully curious, and engaging kid. He reads extremely well and likes to do math. He knows how to be serious and articulate with adults and patient with other kids. However, he is not what I would consider to be a preternaturally ‘gifted’ individual. He doesn’t work things through obsessively. He doesn’t have an immediate and uncanny feel for numbers. His ‘gifts’ are mostly a matter of growing up in an environment where learning is valued and his willingness to ask questions about complicated subjects.
This combination has largely kept him working at the front edge of the subject matter in his class, but it has always felt sort of precarious, like we’re gaming the system a bit. He reads because we taught him to read. He does math well because we do some extra math in the summer. With this cognitive abilities test though, it feels like the game might be up. We don’t know exactly what’s on it. There’s no way to really prepare for it. It’s a big black tunnel which Pip has to walk through and we have no idea what the test will say about him when he comes out on the other side. Maybe he scores high enough to garner one of the 25 odd spots at his school. Maybe he doesn’t. I have no way to even guess where he stands.
This black box experience is not novel, of course. It is part of any endeavor where there are many people vying for a limited number of spots - college applications, job interviews, astronaut training programs, etc. But as we’ve never had to chase after a spot in a daycare or preschool, this is our first time going through this particular wringer, and it’s unnerving. When we first talked about what the letter contained, Pip got teary-eyed. He saw in the test a judging voice that might proclaim him unworthy and said aloud that while he knew he should and would take it, he didn’t really want to. As the bearer of the letter, I felt kind of sinister sitting beside him.
Fortunately, he’s already had an experience with being intimidated by something and going for it anyway. Back in November, he’d wanted to try out for a solo in the school’s winter show then got cold feet as the day to actually try out approached. At the time I pushed him to do it, reasoning that the more things you try for, the more opportunities come your way. I didn’t have any real evidence for this but I pushed anyway. Now I feel vindicated. As Pip talked more about his feelings with respect to the test, he specifically compared them to how he felt before trying out for the solo and how that hadn’t been so bad.
The other psychological challenge for Pip to overcome is the feeling that this test marks a culling point, a moment wherein he either gets to keep being one of the ‘smart kids’ or has to find a new identity altogether. The reality that things are much grayer than that doesn’t register in his emotional knowledge. It feels like an all or nothing proposition to him and the best I can do is to tell him to keep his head focused on his long-term goal – he wants to be an engineer doing space-oriented work – and know that there are many routes to achieving it. This test does not determine his future. It only marks another gate in the wide-array of possible trails he can follow. He seems to believe me, for now.
            In fact, Ava is somewhat dubious as to the actual long-term value of putting kids into an accelerated program anyway. She sees it as potentially isolating kids from the range of interests and personalities they will eventually have to negotiate in the world at large and leaving them ill-prepared to deal with people who do not treat them as special. In her position as a professor at a regional university she has seen a number of students in the university’s honors program complain about having to do the same kind of work as everyone else. They have been told they are special for so long that they have trouble taking instruction from others or doing the kind of menial grunt work necessary to overcome real world challenges.
            I tend to have a softer view. This is perhaps because I had the opportunity to participate in an accelerated math and science program during my final two years of high school and it made a significant impact on what I was able to learn during that time. This is mostly for two reasons. First, the students were all operating at a high level of knowledge and motivation. They generally wanted to learn. They were willing to do the homework and engage in class activities. They weren’t angels, and they didn’t follow all the rules but they were all there to do something and were generally excited to take advantage of the extra opportunities the program provided.
            And second, the teachers were much better. For example, the chemistry class at my regular high school was taught by a Vietnam vet whose main objective was to get everyone their C so they could graduate. The main thing I learned from him is that you can actually light the gas coming out of the Bunsen burner supply line and not blow the whole school sky high. To this day, I have a miserable understanding of how the chemical world works. The following year I took physics in the accelerated program from a teacher who was able to model vector forces on a computer, have us do motion experiments with sophisticated tracking sensors, and build a hologram to demonstrate the wave and particle properties of light. I can still see the world as it looked through these experiences.

            It is for these reasons that I’ve been thinking about Pip’s test frequently since the letter arrived. He has an opportunity to get in to an accelerated program early in his school career and have access to an educational track that can focus on doing more than meeting mediocre standards. If he gets in, it will require more intense and exacting work from him, but I think the payoff of that is an educational experience that offers chances to learn to see the world in fundamentally different ways. That is something I want for him, and I hope that it isn’t some one-off test that gets in his way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seeing a museum through the eyes of a child

            If I were to ever write a book on parenting, one of the recurring themes would be the importance of seeing the world through your children’s eyes. As an adult our role in interacting with children is usually the opposite. We need them to know when and how to eat. We need them to understand when they should talk and when they have to be quiet. We need them to comprehend that some spaces are made for play and others just can’t handle a game of tag. We need them to see the world through our eyes.
            But there are lots of times when a shift in our own perspective can bring unexpected benefits. I encountered one of these over New Years.

****

            My mother-in-law lives in a large city with a nice collection of places to visit and things to see. For the past couple of years we’ve spent the mornings during our visits with her either picking around the various space, health, and physics-oriented exhibits at the science center or checking in with the monkeys, wolves, and elephants at the zoo. We’ve had fun at both but are now reaching the point where its time to try something new. So this New Years I suggested we try out the art museum.
            As a kid I didn’t have an art museum near where I lived and I don’t think I’d have had much interest in one if we had. But during a college semester spent traveling in Europe, I discovered that a really good art museum can be an incredibly interesting place to spend some time. Granted, it helps when you’re looking at Picasso’s Guernica or Michelangelo’s David, but once I was done with those I found the lesser known stuff to be intriguing as well. It was interesting to be able to see the changing styles, the intellectual trends, the up-close textures of different pieces and to fathom the amount of work and effort required to bring them into being.
            Of course, none of those things holds much currency with our children but, as we’d read a couple of books set in and around art museums, they were curious enough to see a real one that they agreed to go along.
All the same, I was somewhat nervous as to how enjoyable it would really be for them. Prestigious art museums like one in my mother-in-law’s city are generally not the most kid-friendly places. You can’t touch anything. You are expected to be reverently quiet. You can’t run down the halls. Docents and museum personnel glide quietly about the gallery rooms, looking warily at those who might violate these prohibitions. It can be an intimidating and frustrating environment for kids as well as the adults who bring them.
{As an aside, the museum where my mother-in-law lives has tried to bridge some of these challenges by creating a gallery near the entrance where kids can create mobiles, construct felt collages, and interact with different pieces of art in the collection through touch-screen computer terminals. From what I saw, this space was being well used by mothers with young children. It also appeared that the museum’s strategy to keep those kids and families interested as they grow leans heavily on an app that enables the creation of personalized tours. It would be interesting to track how effective that strategy is. I could see it going either way.}
As a way of giving Pip and Polly some direction to start with, Ava and I picked out a couple of rooms – the Egyptian gallery and the armory – about which we knew the kids had some outside knowledge to draw upon. This worked pretty well. In the Egyptian gallery, both of them were fascinated by a papyrus scroll that was unrolled in a glass case. They’d seen a documentary talking about scrolls a couple of weeks before and found it exciting to be able to examine one up close. In the armory, they liked checking out a broad sword that I told them reminded me of Excalibur.
But it wasn’t until we turned them loose that things really got interesting. Children as a general rule have a heat-seeking aesthetic. They know intuitively what appeals to them and have no qualms about immediately dispensing with stuff that doesn’t. Their judgments are untempered by any concern for historical significance, prestigious names, or opinions beyond those of their immediate companions. They also are unconcerned with anyone else’s collective order or genre. They are liable to walk into a room and pick out something they find interesting, spend two minutes looking it over, then moving on to see what the next room holds. It turns out this can be a very compelling way to experience a museum.
Following Polly and Pip around that morning was a great reminder that at its stripped down essence an art museum is basically a house of entertainment. Its thrills are perhaps more subtle than a movie theater or amusement park, but at heart the goal of a visit is pretty much the same – you want to see something cool, to find some joy, to experience a visceral sensation you don’t usually get to have in the everyday world. And, while there are all kinds of interesting patterns and histories at work in the pieces around you, you don’t actually have to know any of that for it to be enjoyable. Pip’s favorite piece was a wacky bookcase set up at the far end of a long hallway. It looked like something he could make out of LEGOs. Polly’s favorite was a portrait of a girl about her age. As she stood in front of it, I wondered if she wasn’t imagining herself within that picture. Without knowing any of the intellectual currents or conceptual challenges at work in the art they were seeing, the kids made real connections with those pieces, connections that came from deep within themselves.

            And that’s a particularly exciting reminder of what a good piece of art should actually be – something visceral and expressive, something that resonates with some aspect of your soul, something that draws out feelings and thoughts and memories, something that helps you learn more about who you are. I think the kids got a brief whiff of that over New Years. I can’t wait to take them back and do it all again.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Reflections on Christmas



            Christmas is a time of traditions. There are decorated trees in house windows, rooftops with lights, shopping malls decked up with elves and fake snow. For Christians, both devout and seasonal, there are living Nativities, productions of the Hallelujah chorus, and the various services celebrating the birth of Jesus. Across all the commercial spaces we travel through, a compendium of accepted songs rings out, repeated again and again in various voices and rhythms. Whether you want anything to do with Christmas or not, when December comes around you can’t avoid being sucked in to this one massive shared experience.
            For obvious reasons, I loved Christmas as kid. The excitement and anticipation of gifts appearing under the tree tinged every day with fine bits of electricity. Then as the magic of Santa Claus dwindled into a cloying game and the gifts started becoming either practical – a sweater! – or absurd – talking reindeer action figures! – other things came to the foreground to keep that electricity alive. All that Christmas music, for one thing, took on a whole new importance. Years before I was born my parents had compiled a collection of Christmas music on a big reel to reel tape machine. Scratchy versions of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Barbara Streisand singing ‘Ava Maria’ filled the house throughout my first Christmas seasons and once I was old enough to recognize those songs, they were all I wanted to hear. We eventually transferred them over to cassette tapes and ran those tapes every year until I left home.
Our tree decorating tradition became sentimentally importance as well. Usually one Saturday afternoon in early December, Dad would bring the box with the artificial tree up to the living room, where my sister and I would help him sort out the pieces, assemble the tree, and string it with lights. Then after dinner, with darkness filling the windowpanes and the living room warmed by lamplight, all four of us would come together to do the ornaments. Dad’s role in this was to hang out in his recliner and survey the tree as it was transformed from artificial conifer to crazy Christmas jambalaya. Mom usually sat on the floor, picking through the box of ornaments and deciding which ones should go up next. My sister and I would take turns hanging whatever Mom handed us. We had a lot of ornaments. There were colored balls and candycanes made up like reindeer and wooden angels with my sister’s name on them and painted sleds and old crumbling snowmen my mom had made from clay during my first Christmas. By the time we were done hanging things the tree would be so loaded down that it was difficult to find a place for the final few. Then Dad would take the angel – a sedate, cross-stitched puppet Mom had made when my sister was a baby – and slide it on to the top. In our teenage years, my sister and I took over this role. She would climb on my back and place the angel on top of the tree then I would spin her around in silly circles.
I always liked this evening because for two hours it felt like we were channeling the spirit of what Christmas is supposed to be. The television was off. There was music playing in the background. Everyone was relaxed and happy. Even in the years when the evening didn’t start out that way, the rhythm of hanging ornaments and the comfort of familiar roles eventually created a bubble of joyful calm around us. It always to me felt like we were building a moment that would melt Scrooge’s heart.

****

            Now that I have a family of my own and no longer live within close proximity to my parents, Christmas is different. We travel more. We go to Christmas parties less. Old traditions have gone by the wayside and new ones have begun to emerge. One of my favorite new traditions that have come into being is a twist on the old, tree-decorating one. For the last three years, we’ve visited my parents on the weekend before Christmas, spending a couple of days with them before heading back to our own home for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the like. The first year we did this my mother had the house decorated to the hilt with wreaths and multiple trees and Dickensian ribbons everywhere, but left a smaller tree undecorated until we arrived. That first night of our visit we all went down to where the tree was in the basement and while I played Christmas songs on the piano, Pip, Polly, Ava, my parents, and my sister, all worked to wrap the tree in lights and cover it in ornaments. It was a slow process that sometimes diverted into art projects – the kids decided to make a few ornaments – or other activities but I like it immensely because it accomplished the same thing as our old, tree-decorating ritual – everyone was in one place doing something fun together.
For the past two years we’ve wound up doing the same thing again, even down to the little details. My mother once again tried to sing along with my piano playing eventually making me screw something up. Ava hung out on the couch and kept the kids from getting too worked up as they worked. My dad mixed drinks and laughed with my sister (and now her boyfriend, too). It’s become a bustling and happy two hours that feels to me like one the best things we do each year. I would drive the seven hours to my parents’ house just to do that one thing.

****

            The power these acts of tradition have to create bonds within our family together feels especially strong when reflected against moments where such acts are absent. The afternoons of Christmas Eve and the afternoon of Christmas Day are both something of a black hole in our holidays. On Christmas Eve when all the preparations are done and most of the people we know are out of town, we’re all kind of just waiting for the day to be over. We tried making cookies for Santa this year, but it was a hit or miss affair. Maybe we’ll have more luck next year. On Christmas Day, once the presents are open, no one quite knows what to do with themselves. The kids play with toys for a while but by late afternoon that play takes on a scattered and harried quality. The need in that moment for something to focus our collective attentions is high but that thing we need still eludes us.
            But we’re still new at this. Pip is almost eight. Polly is approaching six. We’ve been in four different houses during their lifetimes and have had four different sets of neighbors. The friends we’ve met to this point have their own sets of traditions and practices and travels and we haven't yet found a couple that overlap with us. But, we’ll try some more things next year and see what happens, because ultimately traditions are like nicknames. You don’t really get to choose them. They emerge from the things you do. So we’ll keep trying things and doing things and eventually one day those afternoons on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will have their traditions, too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Fading of Santa Claus

            At the dinner table last Thursday night, Ava was looking for a fun topic to finish off our meal.
            “What do you think Santa is doing right now?”
            Both kids smiled. Then Pip launched into an extended soliloquy describing the complex logistics work that Santa and his elves might possibly be undertaking at that very moment, including the movement of present stockpiles into strategic locations around the world via secret submarines and blimps disguised as clouds. All of these ideas came from a fun Christmas book I gave Ava several years ago called How Santa Really Works, and Pip cycled through them with a bit of tongue tucked into his cheek.
            Polly’s eyes were glowing with excitement at her own ideas, and as Pip wound down she inserted something about getting the reindeer ready, a reference to a Christmas book she enjoys, Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer. As Ava and I turned toward her to see what else she might want to add to this, Pip threw out curveball.
            “Or,” he said lightly, “he may be doing nothing since Santa’s just parents staying up late.”
            Ava and I both froze for a split second - our eyes flashed at each other - then kept going toward Polly pretending that we hadn’t heard what Pip had said. Polly continued to talk about what the reindeer were up to and soon we were clearing the dishes off the dinner table.

****

Pip tested the parents-as-Santa hypothesis twice during Christmas last year, mentioning quietly to Ava and I how it might be possible that she and I stayed up and brought out the presents after he and Polly went to bed. Each time he did this, we just shrugged and mumbled something about Santa being a mysterious person whose methods were not clear to us, and he seemed willing enough to leave it at that.
But this year he’s gotten more aggressive. Twice now he’s attempted to ambush us in front of Polly the way he did on Thursday night, throwing something out to see how Ava and I will react. While both times he’s used the late-add-on-to-another-line-of-thought technique that gives both him and us room to squirm away without giving a definitive answer, it’s pretty clear that he’s decided Santa’s not real. As such, he’s no longer interested in confirming that answer. The ambushes are more to see what gymnastics we’ll do in order to avoid admitting it.
This would be fine – I’m happy to play a game of wink-wink, nudge-nudge with him - except that Polly is still fully ensconced in the enchanted ignorance of childhood. Recently we went to the Home Depot for a kid’s clinic and the folks there had a couple of girls dressed up as Ana and Elsa from the movie Frozen. Polly was thrilled and had a great time taking pictures with them and giving them hugs. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that she even paused to consider whether they were real or not. The characters were there in person, and there was no reason to think too much more about it.
She is currently in the same place with Santa. While Pip is talking about logistics, Polly wants to hear all about Rudolph and to make sure we leave cookies for him. She is reveling in the wonder of Santa’s magic and the spectacular possibilities that fill the world. I don’t want Pip to ruin that for her.

****

            We started doing the Santa Claus game when Pip was almost three years old. It was a conscious decision made because both Ava and I enjoyed having Santa as part of Christmas during our childhood. Santa added a touch of magic and excitement to the season that made the air crackle with life. He wasn’t the omniscient judge of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ (He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, gonna find out whose naughty and nice). He was more the kindly grandparent who brings a couple of new toys with him whenever he visits
As adults, playing the Santa game gives us an avenue by which to be silly and playful with the kids. It is a prod for their imaginations and a topic to talk about at dinner. In worlds that are increasingly separated from each other – the kids now have their lives at school that we only glimpse from time to time – it’s nice to have a common mystery to wonder over.
What I find interesting now is that Ava and I spent as much time talking about whether or not to do Santa at all because it turns out that Santa’s existence as a real being has a very short shelf life. Santa didn’t really come alive in Pip’s imagination until his fourth Christmas. And now, four years later, he’s done; and probably has been so for a year. That’s a three to four year lifespan for the Santa that Ava and I discussed so seriously several years ago. It’s a pittance. It’s nothing. We got all lathered up over something that was done in the blink of an eye. This realization doesn’t make me upset. It’s just shocking how quickly it came and went.
There is a touch of sadness in this shock as well and not just for the loss of the niceties I mentioned above. The eminent passing of Santa as a real being means that as a family we’ve moved past the sweet spot on this version of Christmas. We’ll transition into other versions with their own sweet spots – the freedom from school version, the hanging out with high school friends version, the home from college version, the Ava and I go to the beach version, etc – but this one will no longer return.

I guess I wasn’t prepared for that to happen so quickly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music..."

            Several years ago, probably before Pip, and certainly before Polly, was born, the public elementary school they now attend rebranded itself around an arts heavy curriculum. The concept behind this restructuring was that every child would get at least one hour every day in an arts-oriented class and every Friday students would have opportunities to do more intensive work in an area of interest. In practice this is less dramatic than it sounds – physical education, library, and computer each get their own days along with art, music, and dance/drama – but the guiding principle is appealing and as the kids get older the intensive work times do seem to be giving them real exposure to both the creative and disciplinary effort involved in producing artistic works.
            For parents, the most visible demonstration of this educational program at work is the two large musical productions put on each year, one before the winter holiday and the other before summer vacation. These productions include every child in the school and contain a mix of drama, dance routines, and full-scale musical numbers. They are a lot of fun to watch. The kids sing loud. They dance with surprising sophistication. They show great composure performing before an auditorium overflowing with family and friends
            Two weeks ago, Pip came walking down the steps from his bedroom and announced that he was interested in competing for one of the solo parts in the show. As he’d never mentioned any such wish before, I imagine this impulse was driven in part by a desire to claim some of the attention Polly had gained after she was selected for one of the dance roles. What other motivations he might have remained unspoken.
That day he started trying out his voice in a concerted way and really working to put notes and words together. He’d always enjoyed singing the songs for the shows, but now he started paying attention to how his notes actually sounded. This effort coincided with the appearance of the Frozen soundtrack in our lives and soon he was belting out ‘Let It Go’ like a fourteen year old getting over her first breakup. In the process he learned to support his sound by using his stomach muscles and experimented with adding some vibrato to longer notes.  
            Then while walking home the rain last Friday, Pip peeks out from under his umbrella and says,
            “Daddy, I’m not going to try out for a solo.”
            “Why not?” I asked, surprised by this unexpected turn. Just the day before he had made a big deal about asking the teachers when the auditions were going to be held.
            “Um,” he said uncertainly, “I don’t like the songs.”
            Now Pip has been known to sing just about anything, so something about this answer didn’t feel right. I said as much to him.
            His reply was to ask that we not talk about it anymore.
            Obviously something had changed. I don’t know if he just got nervous thinking about what it meant to sing in front of other people or if some of his peers had trashed the idea or if some other thing had occurred that I couldn’t imagine, but he was not going to tell me.
            I wasn’t sure how to handle this. While I wanted to respect his choices, I also wanted him to try out, not because I thought he would necessarily get the part or that he was destined to succeed but because you don’t get anywhere without trying things. A solo part in the show was something he had expressed interested in and worked towards. He should follow through on that interest if for no other reason than to see if it really is what he thought it would be.
In addition, these kind of opportunities – the opportunity to sing, act, play music, play sports in a organized way before a real audience - get fewer and fewer as one becomes older. Kids begin to specialize in this, that, or the other thing and there is less room to give something a whirl. As an adult these kind of experiences have to be balanced against the demands of work and family, making them always something of a guilty pleasure. This wasn’t necessarily the last chance Pip would have to try out something like this, but every year further on it definitely gets more and more competitive.
Lastly, I have found that the willingness to try things or not is often a matter of habit and I want both Pip and Polly to be more the former than the latter. Polly has had good success on this front. Pip’s willingness to put himself out there has varied. As such, this sudden backing away from something he’d been so interested in the day before felt like something to be pushed back against.
            So, I did. I told him I thought he should reconsider his decision, that he should think some more about why he suddenly didn’t want to try out. I wanted to keep pushing further, to give him some examples of times when I wished I’d gone ahead and tried out for something but didn’t. I even began to concoct a story of a time I didn’t go out for a part in the school play and later watched from the audience wondering the entire time whether I could have made it.
            Fortunately, better sense prevailed. Polly interjected with a story about what she did at recess that day, and I put my fake stories away for another time. Despite my impulse to badger away at him until he gave in, I was able to keep my trap shut and let my first statement be enough. Through the entire weekend I only came back to the topic one more time and then only to tell him that I wanted him to make a decision before he went to school on Tuesday, the day of the audition. He agreed.

****

            Yesterday, Pip came out from school happy and bouncing as usual. He’d been sick over the weekend and had stayed home from school on Monday so I was pleased to see him feeling good. The first thing he said to me was,
            “Daddy, I did it. I tried out.”
            “You did? Wonderful,” I said. “How did it go?”
            “I don’t know if I’ll get the part but I’m proud that I tried.”

            I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Checkers

            On cold, rainy evenings after dinner is done, Pip likes to play checkers. His interest in checkers began a couple of years ago as a way to commandeer the focused attention of a parent, but now he’s grown to enjoy the game itself. He likes the idea of planning out a strategy and trying to make it work. He likes having control over the outcome, unlike Bingo or Go Fish which are largely games of chance. And, of course, he likes to win.
            Pip’s desire to win is not obnoxious. He doesn’t talk smack beforehand or try to change the rules during the game to create advantages for himself. However, whenever his strategy goes awry or an unfavorable twist happens, he does get unglued. His face tightens up. His mouth puckers. His blue marble eyes get watery. His nose starts to run. He doesn’t quit or walk away, but he starts slumping and huffing and acting kind of miserable.
It used to be that he’d get this way whenever one of his checkers got jumped. He’d struggle really hard to keep from losing any checkers that once a jump inevitably happened, he would just fall apart. After several episodes like this we had to stop playing because neither of us was having fun.
            For a while after that he played games against the computer at school and got more accustomed to the ebb and flow of the game. I don’t know exactly how those went – whether he got as frustrated with the computer or was able to see it as a different kind of opponent than his parents – but in the course of those games he gained some peace with the idea that you will lose most of your checkers even when you win. Since then he’s been able to get much farther into a game before getting anxious about things falling apart.
            It would be easy to look at Pip’s behavior when things go wrong and toss it off as the act of a crybaby, something he does strategically to change the circumstances. But, I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. For one thing, his reaction is absolutely biological. It is a physical manifestation of the frustration he is feeling inside. It comes rolling out before he even realizes what’s happening. And, secondly, when it does come out, he fights it. He doesn’t give in to the tears or let out a full scale wail. He doesn’t throw a fit. He tries to keep it together, to keep his face from puckering, to keep the tears held in. This fight often just makes him more frustrated because he lost it in the first place. It’s difficult to watch because he’s trying so hard to do the right thing – both on the checkerboard and with his body – and he can’t quite get there. It’s still just beyond his reach.
            But he keeps coming back and trying again. And, he’s getting better. On the board, he’s seeing my mistakes and capitalizing on them. He is looking several moves ahead and plotting how best to proceed. He doesn’t have a strategy for winning yet – he’s still not quite ready to sacrifice enough checkers for that – but he’s gotten agile enough to winnow down the board. He’s also handling the disappointments better. After an unexpected jump, he looks away from the board for a moment now. He shakes his head quietly. He’s working on figuring out how to smile through gritted teeth.
            I’ve gotten better at managing this, too. I’ve learned how to give some on the game, to make some obvious mistakes to keep him invested, to back off when things start to fall apart, to give him a chance to redo something before the game gets too far gone. However, I still have to guess a lot about how much he can stand. Sometimes I go too easy, and he overconfidently sweeps the board. Sometimes I get in too far and have to scramble to keep him going through the end of the game. It can make for quite a dance.

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            Of course, this delicate balancing act between helping Pip along and throwing challenges in his way extends way beyond the checkerboard. It is one of those many negotiations that parents must constantly make, one of those needles we must constantly thread. In some ways I am asking for him to do two incongruous things. I want him to learn how to fight tenaciously to achieve something, to learn that coming back to it over and over is the only way to get better at it. At the same time I want him to learn how to suffer setbacks gracefully. I want him to display a level of self-possession that enables others to enjoy being with him even when things are not going his way. Those two ideas are at odds with each other in as much as tenacity requires a hardheadedness that is the opposite of grace. And to lose gracefully requires a kind of abandonment of care that is the opposite of tenacity.
Yet, people need both traits to be successful in the world. It is one of the many paradoxes of being human. Without tenacity the world will push you to the side. Without grace, you are unable to enlist the kind of help from others that is vital to actually doing anything.

And so, I will continue to play the game within the game, whether its checkers or math or soccer or dance. There’s always another layer to consider when you’re working with a child.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Disney Re-encountered


            About two years ago, we instituted regular movie nights in our household. Ava and I decided that every two weeks or so we’d select a movie that the entire family could enjoy and spend an evening watching it. This was a big deal for both the kids and us. While we do have a television, we keep it closed up in a cabinet while the kids are awake. Until we started movie nights, we had never sat and watched a television show with Polly and Pip, much less a full-length movie.
            Our decision to break the seal on the television was driven by two major factors. First, Pip was getting exposed to learning through audio-visual presentations at school, and we wanted an opportunity to shape how he and Polly managed this. There’s often so much going on in a television clip that it can be difficult to quickly process all that stimuli if you haven’t learned how. Second, we thought it would be nice to have a break every once in a while where we didn’t have to figure out what we were all going to do together on a dull winter evening.
            We dipped our toes in carefully, starting with Mary Poppins and leaning heavily on the Pixar staples ever since – Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, the Cars and Toy Story franchises. This has largely kept us happy. The stories are imaginative and well-conceived. The violence is pretty tame. What few romantic moments they have are subtle and handled with discretion. Pixar movies create worlds that work for us.
            Two weekends ago, however, we strayed from this a touch. A couple of weeks back, some of Ava’s students brought up the Disney film Frozen during a class discussion and insisted that she had to see it. Ava has a soft spot for Disney. She grew up surrounded by Tigger, Pooh, Mickey, and others. Her family also spent over a decade making twice annual trips to Walt Disney World in Florida. To have her college students excited about a Disney film – particularly after the company’s miserable productions of the late 1990s and beyond - piqued her curiosity. So, we checked out a copy of Frozen from the library and put it on the schedule for movie night.

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In many respects the film is a classic Disney production. It’s got princesses, castles, magic, romantic entanglements, and big musical numbers. It feels like an amalgam of the classic princess films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella overlaid with the musical sensibilities of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Lion King. The kids liked it for all the reasons kids like animated films – the characters bounce quickly from place to place, they sing and dance in fun ways, they make strange faces and funny sounds. Even in the scariest scene - when a big snow monster rises from the drifts to chase the heroes - there is an element of slapstick involved that makes the whole thing feel silly and relatively safe.
And they liked the songs.
So, a couple days after watching the movie, Ava brought home a copy of the soundtrack from the library. Polly and Pip have been playing it ever since. They have sat together with the liner notes and learned all the lyrics. They have squabbled over which song to play next. They have developed their own set of shorthand codes around the track numbers.
I remember my sister doing a similar thing with the Little Mermaid. For what seemed like two years, whenever she had the opportunity to watch something on TV, she would pop in that movie. She must have watched it fifty or sixty times, learning all the dialogue and the songs in the process. I never really understood why she was obsessed with this movie, and this lack of understanding made me wary of the whole thing. It seemed crazy to be that enthralled with a cartoon.
Of course, this kind of obsessive attachment to a film or its characters is Disney’s bread and butter. Once people make that connection, they will buy just about anything Disney can put the characters on. They could put have put the Little Mermaid on toilet paper and my sister would have been thrilled to wipe herself with it.
The power of all this had made me incredibly cautious about exposing my children to the Disney machine, and as the Frozen soundtrack spun its way through its twentieth iteration over the weekend, I cursed my slippage. Disney had gotten in under my shields, and now my children were singing the songs and talking about the characters and re-enacting this scene or the other. I felt like I’d failed a fundamental test.
But then, once I settled down and watched Pip and Polly work, I began to see something else. Their minds were working. First they got familiar with the rhythms and how the music flowed. Then they started learning the lyrics in earnest, slowly building an understanding of not only what the words were but what they were trying to say. Later, Pip started trying to identify different instruments and categorize the kinds of sounds they make. They were undertaking a deep archaeology of the songs.
This archaeology has taken them far beyond just liking the music or the characters. They know the music now and with that knowledge they are able to ask interesting questions about how it works and what it is trying to do. They talk about the emotional intent of different passages and how the music communicates ideas that can’t be put into words. They are thinking about how the music works in the film itself, how it augments the scenes and supports the emotional foundation of the visual story.
All this analysis hasn’t come systematically. It has emerged through constant repetition and the very human impulse to keep digging at something until its well of interest has been exhausted. The result of this is that Polly and Pip are not droning out in some drug-like daze as the songs circle over and over around them. They have been undertaking a project of deep listening that I would never have appreciated had I not lived through the constant cycling of the last few days.
So, obsessing over a Disney film is not the end of the world. With time and a little direction, it can even be something that helps kids come to understand some parts of the many ways the world is put together. The kids are even getting a copy of the movie for Christmas. I look forward to seeing how they break that down as it becomes part of our regular movie night rotation.