Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Deserved First

It’s six o’clock on Sunday morning. Everything is very dark, and we are all still tucked in our beds.
A few seconds of silence follow, then,
Polly’s whisper is more insistent this time. Ava rolls over beside me and softly groans. Pip gives no evident reply.
This time Polly tries a little louder, making it clear that she will not be ignored. Groggy but curious, I decide not to intervene.
It takes three more tries before finally Pip concedes.
“What?” he whispers back with palpable irritation.
“Today’s my big day.”
“I’m going over to Skye’s house this afternoon to play.”


Polly and Skye (not her real name) are in the same kindergarten class. It took a couple of months for them to work their way towards each other – they were seated at different tables when the year began and thus started out moving in different circles - but now that they’ve come together, little can tear them apart. They eat lunch together. They play on the playground together. They danced together in the school’s winter show. They sit beside each other whenever they can. Polly looks forward to going to school everyday in part because while she’s there she gets to pal around with Skye.
            Skye is the latest and most sustained of what Ava calls Polly’s ‘crushes’ and the first with whom we’ve done playdates. A lot gets made in the literary world of the special relationships that girls develop with each other (Anne of Green Gables and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants come immediately to mind) and that sense seems to carry over into the real world as well. These relationships are held up as being especially close, filled with secret languages and shared dreams, as well as being a fortress against the slings and arrows of marauding boys, ill-intentioned girls, and various serious adult-types with all their material demands. They are seen to possess their own special magic that’s not so different from true love.
This kind of view, I think, speaks more to a cultural caricature of ‘men’ and ‘women’ than the reality of what plays out between kids. In this caricature, women are emotional and demonstrative. Men are aloof. Women are collaborative. Men are competitive. Women feel. Men think. Even as we’ve become more sensitive to such binaries in recent decades, these tropes still permeate so many of the established narratives we use to understand the ways kids organize themselves that we start anticipating them and subsequently writing them on to things that seem to fit those expectations. I did it at the beginning of this section. The idea of Polly and Skye finding each other as if they were puzzle pieces brought together from opposite sides of the table fits this description perfectly.
But, in watching their relationship develop through what Polly shares with us, I don’t think what’s happening with her is in any way substantively different than some of Pip’s experiences with new friends at the same age. Reciprocated interest leads to intense curiosity about how another person thinks and acts and lives. It looks like infatuation up close but back away and it looks more like another limb in the educational tree of a young child, a learning about a life that is not your own, an expansion of your understanding about the world. Polly and Skye are comparing themselves and coming to a clearer understanding of who they are. They try out each others’ phrases and songs. They explore their different imaginative worlds. Pip did this as much as Polly has and in as many emotionally varied ways. I don’t know that there is anything especially gendered about it except for how and where we tend to focus our attention. Pip was just as excited to go play with his new friends as Polly has been with Skye.

What has been different for Polly is that she is coming into this friendship with Skye after having watched Pip with his friends. She knows things about friends, or has a set of expectations, that Pip never did. For three to four years, Polly was the third wheel, the one brought along while Pip played or the one left to hang out with me while Pip ran with older kids on the playground. Pip was good at including her in the ins and outs of their games, but he doesn’t realize how often she still wound up watching from the sidelines. With Skye, Polly is getting her turn. This is why she wanted to wake Pip up at 6 AM to tell him that she was going to Skye’s to play (And, this is why I let her get away with it). She has waited a long time to be able to do things with her own friend and not just be Pip’s third wheel. Sunday really was a big day for her. Pip, much to his initial dismay, was staying home with me, and she was getting her chance to be in the foreground. It was an experience that she deserved to have. 

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.