Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Midweek Exercise: Childhood

"There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in."
Graham Greene

This makes me think of one of my favorite short stories, John Updike's "A & P."

Today, try depicting this moment for any character you're working on in real-time, scene, or in reflection, an adult character looking back.

Or, write about the time this moment happened in your own life.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why I Homeschool...and Why I Almost Refused To

(Before we get started, I must warn you: this is a God story. Not a particularly rosy or sentimental one—I hope to avoid sentimentality, that is--but still, a God story.

But then, I am myself a God story...)

So far, we have a mother (me) crying her heart out for her four-year-old la-la land daughter (I say with great affection) who has just suffered sand and mulch in her pants at the hands of two blond-haired, beautiful pre-school monsters.

Enter the child’s father, my wonderful and almost sweetly obtuse husband, who adores his children, adores his wife. Who would do anything for us. Who wants only the best for us.

Who, unfortunately, has really bad timing.

Really, really bad timing.

We talked about homeschooling before we had children, but it had always been in a far-off kind of way. A dare we? kind of way. It had been nebulous and sort of sepia-tinted and very, very good. A sunshine-and-squeaky-clean-house kind of good. A kind of good that you can only talk about in the future tense. The kind of good all of us are full of when we’re newly married and not yet pregnant.

Can you see the two of us? Fixing up an old house, him a traveling ultrasound tech, me a middle school teacher. The two of us, painting walls and dreaming. Sowing new grass seed over our enormous, muddy side yard and sighing, wistfully, over things to come.

Fast forward two years. See the yard now, weedy (again), but with the grass we planted. We’ve finished the attic bedrooms, laid new linoleum in the kitchen. There is a lavender room with a crib and a changing table—my most recent painting project.

I am lying in bed, exhausted. It’s the beginning of August and hot. Midday sunshine throbs through three big, dusty windows. Abby was born a few days earlier, and we’ve only been home from the hospital since yesterday. The baby is healthy; my milk’s just come in. Physically, I’m recovering, and yet, I am in a very bad state.

Hormonal. Fat. Unshowered.

Weepy. Ugly. Spent. Utterly post-partum. Horrifically so. Almost suicidally so.

Despite everything, despite the lavender walls and the dressers full of baby shower gifts and hand-me-downs, despite the brand-new diaper genie and the basket brimming with freshly folded burping rags. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I just want it all to go away. I am lying in bed, praying, “Oh, God, please, please, please undo this.”

I admit it: that is me in that bed, eyes closed, trying to pray my baby away.

I want Him to rewind time. To undo everything we’ve been praying for.

I can’t stop thinking, eighteen years. I have to be this person’s mother for eighteen years.

My depressed, frightened little heart does not, in this moment, understand that this creature won’t always be a helpless, whimpering newborn. That my breasts, though forever changed, will not always be filled with concrete. That they—these new, foreign, kind of terrifying boobs—will not be leaky and painfully huge for the rest of my life.

That eighteen years does not begin to cover the span of my life I will give—will, very soon delight to give—to my tiny baby girl.

My husband Danny has the opposite reaction. Abby’s arrival has exhilarated him. He’s brimming with bright, fatherly wishes for her. He, too, is sweaty and sleep-deprived and dirty, but in a carefree, throwing-off-all-the-constraints-of-real-life kind of way. He, filled with ambition and hope and manliness, has been attempting to fix the ice-maker on our ancient refrigerator.

Remember, I have just given birth. The house is a disaster. We have approximately zero groceries. And he is trying to fix the ice-maker.

Which has been broken, by the way, ever since we moved in.

And then, finally giving up on the stupid ice-maker--but not cleaning up any of the various ice-maker parts--he bounds into the bedroom, sees that I’m awake, and without preamble, speaks of homeschooling.

My baby is three days old. I weigh a thousand pounds. I own a single non-maternity outfit I can fit into. My heart is weary; I am unbearably sad.

We will homeschool, he says. This, of course, is untrue. If we homeschool, there will be very little we in the equation.

This is not because he wouldn’t do it, but because he makes too much money, and me, a struggling writer with a degree in middle grades education, too little.

We both know the truth: it will be me to commit myself to the inside of this house with this needy, fragile, crying creature. I will never work—in the grownup-put-some-makeup-and-a-nice-dress-on way--again. Or leave the house at all, it seems, unfettered and free.  

Danny is so excited. I am sure a part of him sees that I am in no shape to discuss any of this, and part of his euphoria is, no doubt, fueled by adrenaline and giddy-exhaustion. It’s sweet, too. It really is, how excited he is, contemplating the future laid out before us, our new little family--brimming with so many possibilities.

I finally really fall apart, sobbing jaggedly, wildly, and Danny, sobering, takes charge. He calls the doctor, hands me the phone, and I have to explain to an old man I’ve never met—my own doctor is not available—how awful I feel. Lexapro is prescribed. I take a bath. Drink a glass of wine, per my older sister’s instructions.

After the wine and the bath, Abby and I begin the excruciating process of learning to do the most natural thing in the world: how to breastfeed. Over the next couple of weeks, my breasts shrink a little—praise God—though I will continue to be uncomfortable and unable to sleep on my stomach the entire time I breastfed. (As a side-note, dear big-busted friends: I don’t know how you live like this.)

Abby grows, turns scrumptious and smiley and brilliant. She blinks about, in that relentless and bold baby way, taking in the world. She learns how to smile, laugh, play. She begins recognizing me, reaching for me. By the time she is six months old, I lie in bed at night, tired in a good way, happily anticipating waking up to another day at home with my gooshy-delicious, fat-cheeked baby.

I lose all my pregnancy weight. I can wear my old clothes.

And yet. And yet. Years later, when my sweet little girl has such a hard time in preschool, when she so clearly, in my eyes and in my heart, needs my protection, I dig my heels in once more. I do not want to homeschool.

I had Abby in the middle of working on my master's degree. By the time she was two months old, we had become so proficient at nursing that I could simply prop her up on a boppy and set my laptop on a TV tray above her head. She ate, I typed. And, on the night of her third birthday party, I received my first short story acceptance. The day I came home from the hospital after having my second baby, a boy, when Abby was almost four years old, I had an email waiting for me: a small press wanted to publish my first novel. 

What a very large part of me wants to do is send both of my children to school—away, away from my house for several hours a day—as soon as possible. Aiden is almost one year old by now, and I'm looking into five-day-a-week morning toddler schools. Still considering kindergarten for Abby. I just want to—finally—write.

But even as I am telling Danny, God, my parents, and everyone I know that I simply cannot do this homeschooling thing, I know. I know.

Have you ever known you were supposed to do something? I mean, against all reason? Against what you really want to do?

The best stories, I'm convinced, are the Noah stories. The build-it-and-they-will-come stories. The faith stories.

These stories are, I believe, fun to write about. Fun to watch Kevin Costner act out.

Hard to live, though. Impossible, it feels like.

 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

I say, I’m not equipped. I’m not ready. I’ve done enough already. I’m tired.

Then, I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?

And I—hesitant, heart-sick, tired, uncertain, disorganized, selfish, scared—said, Here I am. Send me.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why I Homeschool: Against Proselytizing


Let me say it again: I am not trying to convert you. You will not find me on any street corner, passing out homeschooling tracts. If you come to my house, you can drink the Kool-Aid, or more likely, the cafĂ© latte, without worry. I am not going to drug you. We can talk, be friends, and I won’t launch any campaigns. I won’t send you any Charlotte Mason or classical education pamphlets.

Or, worse: I won’t try to make you feel guilty.

(Oh, because I see it in every face, every single time someone—another mom—finds out I homeschool. Oh, they say. They are afraid, angry, disgusted, baffled and ashamed all at once. They look back at me, processing this new thing they’ve learned about me, and they think: Oh, you’re one of those. Oh, you think you’re so freakin’ good, don’t you?

Believe me, no. No. I am not thinking this. Instead, I’m worried that you’re going to remind me to make sure my kids are properly socialized.

Or, that you’re going to look at me and immediately discern all my weaknesses as a homeschooling mom. You’re going to think: Is she smart enough? Organized enough? Patient enough? Is she, well—enough, period?

And more: Is she stupid or just completely deluded, that she thinks she can do this?

We mothers—all of us—suffer enough guilt. I refuse to pitch a single stone into the mommy wars. I refuse.)

Simply, this—I am a writer. This is how I encounter the world. This is how I encounter myself. I have to write about it. And, in writing about it, in sharing my experiences, what I’m trying to do is tease the threads of my life open. I want to fray the ends, look at them. And—this is a writer’s greatest ambition, her fiercest secret wish—I hope that my frayed ends have something to say to you. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mid-Week Exercise: Inspired by "Sonny's Blues"

This week's writing exercise is inspired by James Baldwin's story, "Sonny's Blues."

Write a scene where a character encounters news that is so surprising and potentially life-changing that the character struggles to accept it. Allow this struggle to take place both in the character's mind and in the character's physical world: inside his/her body and surroundings.

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn't believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.

It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn't doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.

When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he'd had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. he had been picked up, the evening before in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.

I couldn't believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn't find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn't wanted to know. I had had suspicions, but I didn't name them, I kept putting them away. I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn't crazy. And he'd always been a good boy, he hadn't ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn't want to believe that I'd ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out, in the condition I'd already seen so many others. Yet it had happened and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Why I Homeschool: Is Homeschooling a Crutch?


A reader asks: Does homeschooling create a crutch for the weaknesses that our children possess? And: Isn’t this part of learning: how to adapt to non-ideal situations?

Great question.

Here’s my first answer: yes. Yes, homeschooling can create a crutch for the weaknesses our children possess. And, again, yes: part of educating a child includes teaching them to adapt to non-ideal situations.

Actually, this whole question, about protecting our children and how protecting them might make their weaknesses all the weaker, is the reason I was at first opposed to homeschooling.

Yet, ironically, it was the same reason—protecting my child and giving her a “crutch”--that finally tipped the scales, for me, in favor of homeschooling.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there lived a sweet little girl who, sadly, did not have any friends. Or, at least no friends her own age.

The little girl had, as a baby and a toddler, played near children in playgroups and during Mothers’ Morning Out, but not with them. Now that the little girl was coming so close to school age, the mother freaked out. The girl’s father was making lots of noise about homeschooling, but the mother shushed him. How would the child learn to make friends if they kept her at home? Wouldn’t the child’s friendlessness just become more and more of a problem?

So, off to preschool the little girl went. Her mother watched anxiously to see what would happen.

The girl came home chatting happily about two little girls named Laney and Briar. Laney and Briar were bffs, and they both had blonde hair. They both brought giraffes for “G” day. There were other little girls, one named Carley who was very sweet to Abby, and one named Charlotte who liked to play with her. But nobody compared to Laney and Briar, who, even the mother could tell, didn’t like the little girl.

“I like to follow them,” the girl told her mother. Once, dropping the little girl off in the morning, her mother heard another child ask her which center she wanted to play in. And the little girl said, “I will go wherever you want me to go.”

But, this was a learning experience, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t the little girl, who had been around children her age since she was six months old, who was not delayed in any observable way—except with social skills—who was charming and very sweet and completely comfortable playing pretend with grownups and her older brother, who was certainly capable of interacting—wasn’t she?? Wouldn’t the little girl learn?

Her mother tried to tell her: You should play with Carley. Or Charlotte. You should find something you all three want to play together. Or, you should take turns. First, play your thing, second play her thing. Okay? Do you understand?

But, no, the little girl wanted to play with Briar and Laney.

The mother fretted. She wondered then and now: what is it that is so infuriatingly attractive about a person who shuns you?

Briar and Laney began piling playground mulch on the top of the little girl’s head, as punishment for following them around. Next, there were bits of mulch in the waistband of the little girl’s sunshine-yellow capris. Finally, the little girl came home with sand in her underwear.

The little girl’s mother coaxed the story out of her: Laney and Briar had trapped the little girl in the plastic play house on the playground and put sand and mulch down her pants.

The little girl’s mother went to the preschool the next day and fed Briar and Laney to a jagged-toothed, foul-smelling dragon.

Ahem.

What I really did was go to the director’s office, where they brought in a social worker who told me I should put Abby in “transitional” kindergarten.

It was very near the end of the year, so I let her finish—with strict instructions to stay away from Briar and Laney. And then, I did look into transitional kindergartens. I considered another year at a different preschool. I could just keep her home a year.

One thing was clear to me: though Abby seemed ready enough for academic pursuits, I could not send her anyplace where there might lurk even one Laney or Briar. I simply could not do it. Maybe you think I’m weak for thinking this way. Maybe you think I’m not doing Abby any favors by protecting her. She has to face the so-called “real world” sometime, doesn’t she?

But, beyond those horrid little blonde-haired monsters, Abby’s handing off her power to the other kids so willingly scared me. Charlotte hadn’t even asked her for this power, and she gave it to her: I will go, she said, wherever you want me to go.

I was upset and completely motivated by fear, but I now think keeping Abby home—protecting her—was the right instinct.

Does homeschooling create a crutch for our children?

We use this analogy in a derogatory way; we use it to mean a devise to make the weak weaker. But, if you think about what a crutch is supposed to do—aid mobility temporarily while the weak get stronger—that is exactly what I’m trying to do as a homeschooling mom. I want my daughter to lean on me until she has gained the confidence and skills she needs to navigate the world without me.

And, at the same time, I do think that this—coddling our children, not forcing them into situations where they have to gain these life-skills—can be a major downfall of homeschooling. We have to nudge them, but we also have to know when to keep them close, when to build them up and when to snatch that crutch away. Make them stand by themselves, if only for a moment.

This is no easy task. Math and reading, these are easy. Self-confidence and determination, humility and self-possession...these are much, much harder.

I love this reader's question. I couldn't print all of it, but in the reader's letter, she explains her situation, her very personal concerns about her own six-year-old son. I don't know this reader in real-life, but I feel like I do: our concerns are the same. How do I help my child navigate these impossible situations? How much me--how much mothering and what kind of mothering--does my child need?

We worry about our choices. We have to ask: am I really helping my child or am I simply assuaging my own mama fears?

One thing the Laney-Briar fiasco and similar trials have taught me is that it's not my job as mom to iron out what I see as my children's weaknesses. I have to prepare them for their future lives, sure, and teach them the basics--self-discipline, self-confidence, kindness and fortitude--but I also need to celebrate who they are, so-called “weaknesses” and all. Abby is shy. She is ten years old now and she still prefers the company of adults to the company of children her own age. She doesn’t follow kids around any more. She plays with them—preferring organized games to free-for-alls—or she hangs back, goes solitary. She’s the girl by the tree, talking to herself. Doing exactly what she wants to do. And I couldn’t be prouder.

I just read Emily Rapp’s memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, which is about her experiences parenting a terminally ill child. In an interview on the Today show, she told parents, “Your child is not a project.” I think about that. It’s like Rapp has summarized, just like that, what I’ve been struggling for ten years to learn. What I believe God has been trying to teach me. What both my children, in their different ways, have been trying to demonstrate.

They come into the world this way, don’t they? Wanting to show us who they really are?

Your child is not a project. What a challenge, what a relief. What a thing to tattoo to the inside of my wrist so I am constantly reminded.

Like Recalling a Childhood Memory

New review of Goliath at one of my favorite magazines.

Thank you, Ruminate.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mid-Week Exercise

Sometimes, the best way to show a character's vulnerabilities and/or desires is to put him/her in a place where she/he must hide both.

Write a scene where your character lies. The lie must be spontaneous--maybe she/he surprises even her/ himself?--and a little odd and it must reveal that there is something she/he isn't telling us (even if that something isn't completely spelled out)...maybe even something she/he isn't telling him/herself...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why I Homeschool: Part I


Why I Homeschool, Part I

I am asked all the time: Why do you homeschool? Often, the asker is intrigued. Or horrified. Or baffled. Or curious. Or offended. Or—most often—all of the above.

I put my four-year-old daughter Abby in preschool the first year of her little brother’s life because I wanted time for writing. My in-laws, God bless them, agreed to keep the baby those three mornings a week, and I was a Starbucks writer from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Also, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with her. My husband and I had always been intrigued by the idea of homeschooling, but we weren’t convinced. I believed she needed some experience in a real-life classroom environment as a sort of insurance—that way, she would be prepared for either option.

My belief that she needed some “real-life” classroom experience, I see now, was at least partly rooted in my squeamishness of not conforming to tradition. Oh, there are lots of reasons for sending a maybe-future-homeschool-kid to preschool or kindergarten. Such programs do teach children quite a bit about life, and a number of truly necessary “social skills:” waiting for one’s turn, not stealing someone else’s snack or toy, relating to grown-ups outside the child’s family, among so many others. And it is true that exposing children to preschool does help them cope with the structure and expectations of future school life.

Plus, kids like preschool. It’s fun, and, well, educational.

However, the truth was, I saw kindergarten coming at us and was terrified. Most of us parent, to some extent, the way we were parented—or, as a reaction to the way we were parented—and most of us send our kids to school because it’s simply what you do. We nod and agree about how children need to be with other children their own ages to be properly “socialized.” We remind each other that they need structure and progressive educational opportunities (a la John Dewey).

We worry that selecting any other path will limit or even damage our child.

It’s the default mode. Yellow buses. Field trips. Lunch boxes. Report Cards. Recess. This is how it’s always been.

(Which is, of course, false. This is the way it’s been done for the past hundred and fifty years or so; before then, homeschooling, in different forms, was the norm for centuries upon centuries.)

Before I go on, I want to say that I do understand that most families, due to financial constraints and other practicalities, simply cannot afford to “choose” homeschooling. I know that. I also know that homeschooling isn’t for everyone. And, I do appreciate what schools do for our young people and especially, what teachers do. (I am a former public school teacher myself.) I know that I have been hugely blessed by a number of talented and dedicated teachers from my own growing up.

And, I recognize that there are limitations to homeschooling. There are homeschooling situations that do more harm than good to everyone involved. There are situations where homeschooling families cling awkwardly and shortsightedly to the belief that homeschooling is the only way.

Sometimes, I do have doubts about the path we’ve chosen.

But. What I want to do here is tell my family’s story. And, more personally, I want to discuss as honestly as I can how I’ve wrestled with this and what I’ve learned. I’m not interested in proselytizing. Nor do I want to sentimentalize any of this. We’re talking about educating our children, which we can all agree is one of life’s most important decisions.

I also believe that there’s a larger story here: how we find our lives, and what we do to help our children find theirs. This issue is fraught with emotion, longing, and regret. We want to give our children everything, don’t we? And yet, our own stories—our own ambitions and dreams and fears—don’t (and shouldn’t!) end the minute we have children.

I hope you’ll stay tuned. I also hope that you’ll email me questions and comments of your own you’d like me to respond to here. (I won’t print your name, unless you want me to.)

susanwoodring (at) gmail.com