Sports, Space, Racecars, and Excavators

Dear Cade,

Daddy and I both for different reasons hoped that our first child would be a boy.  I’d always dreamed of an older brother, so I thought it would be ideal for my oldest to be male, but for your sports loving Daddy he dreamed of shooting hoops and playing catch with his son in a way that he never got to do with his own father.

Of course, once our first child was born a baby girl, we decided that we’d like another girl so the two of them could grow up sharing secrets and clothes.  How thankful we are that we don’t always get what we want!

Well son, we set out to prepare for your arrival by creating the perfect sports themed nursery covered in soccer balls, baseball bats, and football goals.  There was a coordinated quilt, floor rug, crib bumper, lamp shade, and these ball shaped pillows that we were convinced would be your favorite toys!    

When you were born, we dressed you in Astros and Texan’s jerseys, and as soon as you were old enough, we signed you up for little league.  After the first game Daddy offered to be extra hands on the field so he could stand nearby and whisper play by play instructions to you.  Left to your own devices, you were lost with your head in the clouds completely unaware that you were part of a team fiercely competing for a win. Big sister Kori has always enjoyed being a part of anything that includes friends, snacks, and competition so she was eager to join whatever sport was in season. You never really seemed eager about much outside your own mind, but we signed you up for soccer anyway. We’d had a deal with Kori that for every time she scored a goal, she would get a scoop of ice cream!  After you blankly wandered around the field your first game, we changed the rules for you so that every time your foot touched the soccer ball you would get your scoop.  While I think you might have had two scoops the entire season, at least it kept you running back and forth with the other players giving the appearance that you were playing the same game as everyone else.  

Basketball was the next and last organized sport you ever played, and that is when we decided to give Cub Scouts a try.  Your Daddy found himself in the first Boy Scout uniform of his life leading your little Troop in flag ceremonies and earning badges.  I remember him coming home after a large area wide Boy Scout event and sharing his curious observations. For starters you did not interact with any of your peers the entire night. Despite your aloof wandering during the Pack Leader’s lesson, it turns out that you had been listening because when dismissed for free time, you headed straight to the only station that piqued your interest. You sat alone the rest of the evening immersing yourself in a new world of pawns, rooks, and queens while everyone else spent their time floating between archery, football, and the various other stations. Your favorite Boy Scout event was the visit to Brazos Bend State Park where your troop stayed late into the night to stargaze from the enormous observatory.  You amazed everyone there including the presenters with your questions and in-depth knowledge of all things space. You shared rather obscure details about each of the planets as well as a convincing and articulate argument explaining why Pluto should still be considered a planet.  You were 6 at the time.

If it ever bothered your Father that you were not into sports or stood out from your peers, I could never tell. While often confused by your curious interests and behaviors, he remains eager to connect and engage with you, and he has always been proud to be your dad. He however never managed to bring himself to wear that Boy Scout uniform with pride, and thankfully for him, scouts was no more your thing than sports.

Your sporty bedroom lasted only a few years, and at your request was replaced by a ceiling covered in glow in the dark star stickers, and bedding and posters covered in spaceships and planetary bodies.

It was not just your lack of athletic ability, and your love of chess and outer space that set you apart from your peers at a young age.  You started reading at 3, learning the periodic table at 5, solving rubix cubes at 8, doing algebra at 10, and auditing a class in Chemistry at Rice University at 12. By 14 (a freshman in high school) you had taken all the most advanced math, science, and computer science courses your high school offered, and had perfect scores on not only your math SATs, but on AP and SAT subject tests as well. This current school year, at the age of 15, you were invited by the Department Chair of Chemistry at Rice University to help do some research for the Center of Theoretical and Biological Physics. When the two computer programming languages that you had previously mastered proved too slow to run the molecule simulations you had built, you learned a third programming language and rebuilt the simulation in a matter of days.  And next month, at the age of 16, you will graduate from high school.

I realize how impressive that all sounds, but what few realize is that for every one of the incredible gifts you have been given, you have also been given some weaknesses.  This year has been especially difficult as the only high school classes you’ve had left to finish are in subject areas in which you do not tend to excel.  PE for one! And then a bunch of humanities courses that have demanded you to engage in tasks that you find tedious and dull.  When you are interested in something, there is no limit to what you will discover, learn, and remember, or how long you will be engrossed in the learning.  You seem however to lack any ability to focus or work hard for any amount of time if you are not interested in something, or if a task is in any way repetitive.  Unfortunately, you consider things like eating, chores, selfcare, homework, and organization as some of the most uninteresting, tedious and repetitive tasks demanded of you.  And things like social skills and practical tasks are just about as unintuitive to you as computer languages, advanced mathematics, and theoretical physics are to the rest of us.  

School was not created with a kid like you in mind, and it makes perfect sense that you almost failed first grade math, struggled to find a school where you fit, and you remain even now on a non-traditional path.  Traditional or not, the path you have been on has not been easy and this year has proven particularly difficult for us both, and for our relationship! While you carry the burden of an insatiably curious mind that takes you places you never intend to go, I carry the burden of trying to get you where you are actually supposed to be.

When you were younger you never much minded my incessant reminders and questions, as long as you were allowed ample time to wander around the yard deep in contemplation and ample paper to write down your mathematical theories in the form of charts, graphs, and equations.  You have always been happy, affectionate, and kind even when my reminders and questions bordered on nagging or yelling. You were content to be carted around to your siblings extra curriculars-usually the ball fields or the theatre- as long as you were permitted to wander off alone to wherever your curiosity and creativity took you. I assume you enjoyed your weekly 45-minute piano lessons since you never complained about going, and I know you enjoyed your occasional chess and pokemon tournaments. But by far your favorite past times have always been freedom to wander around thinking deeply and solving complicated puzzles and problems of all sorts. 

Being your mom has always brought me tremendous joy but also tremendous frustrations. I wonder how someone with such a powerful mind can struggle with such basic tasks.  I sometimes wonder if you will ever live independently, and then in the same minute I wonder if you might one day make a major discovery that changes the whole world. I wonder why you have been given such unbelievable gifts only to be matched by your unbelievable struggles. But I also rejoice in the beauty and complexity of your heart, mind, and soul knowing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that your Creator has a plan and a purpose for your life- a plan and purpose that likely looks nothing like my wonderings might imagine.

I do know that part of His purpose and plan for my life is for me to be your mom. I also believe that He has been preparing me for that unique responsibility and privilege my whole life. For one, he gave me just a pinch of a couple of your strengths and a couple pinches of some of your weaknesses.  I had (and have) this tendency to obsess over problems or puzzles that need solved, and while I never seemed to be able to focus on the right thing in a classroom, I have this strange ability to focus on certain things with such intensity that the rest of reality fades away.  I know this drives you kids crazy when I am lost in my writing, problem solving (not math of course), or a good book, and I do not even hear you screaming my name or notice your hand tapping my shoulder.  I can be impulsive and even absentminded, and practical skills are less intuitive to me than the creative, conceptual, and abstract.  While there is much that I don’t understand about your mind, I believe I understand you more than most. When I am tempted to feel like a parenting failure, I remember the many differently abled children I’ve worked with who have grown up misunderstood or blamed (even in their own homes) for things that they have no control over. Even in my most frustrated moments, I do know that your struggles are not your fault.

Another way the Lord has prepared me to be your mom is to provide me with a 15-year career in Special Education and Consulting, where I have had the privilege of advocating for differently abled children and consulting with families hoping to help their struggling children find a place to belong and succeed. This year in moments of desperation, I have had to remind myself of the very same words I have spoken to other parents over the years in their moments of desperation. I’d ask if perhaps what needed to change was not their child’s behavior or performance, but rather their own expectations of their child’s behavior and performance. Or maybe what needed changed was their child’s environment, or their teacher, or the tools being used. I’ve encouraged parents to not measure a child’s success or worth by grades, test scores, a single teacher’s opinion, or even a single hard year.  I’ve told parents to look for growth and not perfection, and I’ve warned parents not to set a bar so high that they don’t accidentally join the rest of the world in setting their child up to fail.  

Even though I believe all of that to my core, I know I make many of the same parenting mistakes I’ve coached other parents through, and to say we have struggled lately is an understatement at best.  You struggling under the burden of bars set too high in some ways and too low in others, low grades that do not reflect your intellect or define your worth, and endless lists of dull and tedious tasks for you to complete all in the name of getting into a good college. And me, I have struggled under the burden of setting you up to succeed and reach your full potential in a world and education system that seems hell bent on setting you up to fail. 

While I know that college is not for everyone, I can’t help but ask myself where other than a university would your uniquely gifted mind be appreciated or enabled to soar? And with colleges now requiring a well-rounded resume, and hyper focusing on class rank and grades for their admissions decisions, what choice do we have than to play the college admissions game. I know the game is killing you, but there is just so much at stake- what choice is there but for us to squash all your curiosity, creativity and happiness, and lay it all down at the alter of education and college admissions.   

At some point this year you missed another important e-mail from a teacher, and forgot about yet another due date just after I had spent one more of my afternoons advocating for you behind the scenes. My frustration poured forth in a tidal wave of exceedingly harsh words spoken at exceedingly loud volumes.  As always you were as disappointed with yourself as I was with you, but I know it has been my disappointment and harsh words that have hurt you the most lately.  

I knew we needed a new plan and new tools, maybe even a whole new set of expectations.  But more than all that, I needed my happy son back.  That is when I reached out to a trusted counselor who could see things from the outside and asked for some help.  

This is the same counselor who had helped me following Hurricane Harvey devastating our home. Even after everything lost had been put back together or replaced, I continued to struggle to find normal. I struggled to reengage with friends even though I had always thrived by being around people, and I struggled to reengage in daily rhythms and routines which had previously brought me such joy- I’d all but stopped reading, writing, and even making family dinners during that long dark season. Somedays I really struggled just to get out of bed, and I longed for the me that found joy in a full schedule and a full house.

I will never forget the day that counselor encouraged me to consider the racecar.  After describing in some detail, the unique design of cars specially created to travel around asphalt tracks at extreme speeds, it did not take me long to realize he was describing me.  He told me that cars that are designed to go fast are not designed to carry heavy loads. In fact, heavy loads prevent racecars from preforming at full capacity or with any precision or control. They struggle to stop in the pits to rest or refuel, and they swerve and skid getting back to the track until they reach their optimal speed. The faster they drive the more in control they are.

I got it. I was struggling to feel any sense of control because Hurricane Harvey had forced me into the pits. I was scared to get back on the track and start driving again because I felt so out of control. I suddenly understood that until I started driving (and driving at the optimal speed) I was going to continue to feel out of control. Once I gave myself permission to put my foot on the gas, the heavy loads left behind by the trauma and losses of the previous years started to fall off. I certainly still need to rest and refuel and occasionally there will be heavy loads needing carried, but it is helpful to think about and own the unique ways I was created. I was created to go fast, and it turns out that it is true that the faster I go the more in control I seem to be.

So what did my counselor have to offer me after I shared the joys and frustrations of raising a absentminded mathematical whiz?  Well, he started by asking me questions. In response to my fourth proclamation that there is so much at stake, he says, “I keep hearing you talk about all that is at stake, what exactly is at stake?” I tried to explain that you can learn more in one day than the rest of us will learn in our lifetimes, and how there certainly must be some moral obligation tied to that. Even as I stumbled over my words, I realized that the only eternal thing at stake is your soul and the souls of those God means to bless with your gifts. All your gifts- your powerful mind yes, but also your kindness, faith, humor, creativity, integrity, and compassion.  Then when I described our daily run-ins with boxes left unchecked and zeros in the gradebook, he asked me where exactly it was safe for you to fall apart. He helped me see that if I was the one who was setting the standard for your success, then you would have nowhere safe to go when you failed to meet unreasonable standards.  And since life tends to be full of seasons of failure, he encouraged me to let the world set the standards for success and let home be a safe place for you to learn, grow, fail, and succeed.  Then when I told him that I am looking forward to a day when I can just be your mom again, he asked me what exactly it might look like for me to just be your mom in this season. I thought back to the hours we used to spend playing nerdy board games, discussing your latest theories or computer programs, snuggling up to a good movie or book, or laughing at some silly meme or video. I thought back to the hours you used to spend just being quiet, unable to share your theories with me or even write them down because there were not yet words or equations to express them adequately. I’d beg you to give me just a glimpse of your thoughts, but until they were more fully realized I’d have to just let you be.   There has simply been no time to learn, create, or to just be while getting through school.

Then it hit me- you are no racecar, Cade.  You are not even a streetcar!  I think son that you might be an excavator.  Of course, I only know what an excavator is because (when you went through your transportation obsession as a toddler) you corrected me once as I pointed to one and exclaimed “look- tractor”.  You are one slow moving, deep digging, powerful machine- created not to travel large distances at high speeds, but rather created to settle into one place and dig around a while.  No wonder we both have felt so out of control this year.  Here I am trying to reach my optimal speed while dragging this big heavy excavator around my racetrack. We are both exhausted and dizzy from doing things that we were not designed to do.

I am eager for you to walk across that stage next month and receive that piece of paper that declares you finished with high school. Not because it will say anything about your value as a person, but because it will mean that you can stop checking boxes and get back to thinking, puzzling, learning, and creating. You can get back to what you were created to do- digging! We have all agreed that there is no hurry and for now college can wait. Or maybe God’s plan for you does not include college at all. You have been offered a paid position as a researcher at Rice University starting this summer, and maybe you will have time for a class or two in subjects you enjoy. My only concrete plan this next year is to be your mom- to talk, learn, read, play, and laugh together, and to watch with pride as you wonder and wander, grow and create, fail and succeed in the safety of our home.

Over a decade ago your Daddy easily let go of his hopes of playing sports with his son once he realized that you were not created for that, and he began instead to engage, encourage, and even celebrate your love of outer space and all things math and science. Today I am letting go of my hopes of you being a speedy racecar like me, and embracing instead the fearful and wonderful design of my deep digging excavator.

Thank you for being so full of grace for your momma as she too is still learning, growing, failing, and succeeding.

Much love,

Mom

A Word about 8th Grade Graduation

Dear Cade,

This week you graduated from 8th grade. It was an emotional week for me, but not for the reasons others might expect.   

I remember being emotional when your older sister walked across the 8th grade stage to receive her “most likely to be a best-selling author who inspires the world with her words” and “student of the year” awards just two years ago.  I remember holding back tears when she told me to stop taking pictures before sending her off to the 8th grade dance.  Not only did she feel too old to have me hanging so close, but she looked much too old for my liking in her fancy dress and heels.  I was having to accept that she was much more her own person than she was my little girl any more. I remember being sad that her little group of friends, who seemed to her to be the most important people in the world, were all going to different high schools the following year. And the mom friends I had made through her middle school friendships would likely never be the same either. I soaked in every minute of that week- the medals and certificates, the final middle school beach trip, the many parent planned end of year gatherings- I soaked them in and I posted all about them on social media so everyone I knew (and even those “friends” I don’t really know) could share in the joy of my amazing daughter’s 8th grade graduation.    

But Son, this week was emotional for me not because it is hard to watch you move on from 8th grade, but because it was far too easy. It’s not that you chose to skip out on the 8th Grade Dance or the final Beach Day that made this week hard- that’s not really your thing and I have no interest in making you fit a mold that you were never meant to fit.    It’s not that there were no invites to end of year gatherings- I’d have been the first parent to host one if I thought that kind of thing was important to you. 

I did not cry because of the multiple hours you spent creatively planning and then solving your 6×6 rubik’s cube- making it spell 8GD in an attempt to get that girl to accompany you to the 8GD (8th grade dance).  The skill, thoughtfulness, and creativity it took for you to pull off such a feat makes my brain smoke and my heart soar. But her less than gracious response and the rejection you felt when the taunting on social media followed are likely what started my emotions on a downward spiral.

Then came the big 8th grade graduation and awards ceremony. You are not one to set a trend like KJ, lead the way like Hallie or steal the stage like little Lacey. In fact, unlike your three sisters you have little desire or need to be noticed or recognized- and while doing the right thing is supremely important to you, you are not especially interested in impressing or pleasing anyone else. But even though I knew that kids like you do not get straight a’s, perfect attendance, or Principal’s Awards, I still held out hope that your accomplishments this year would not go unnoticed. I know you are also not the most athletic, you probably will never star in the school play, nor would your quirky absent minded ways lend themselves to you being named “student of the year” or “most popular” -but I still hoped.  I knew that you had not really connected with any of your peers, but still I hoped that someone would have seen the beautiful mind and kind heart hidden behind your quirky behaviors and unique interests.

But, alas, the only time your name was called was when it was your turn to walk across that stage to receive the same certificate as everyone else- acknowledging your completion of 8th grade.  On that certificate was the obligatory statement that you were “most likely to be a famous mathematician.”  While that sentiment was a fair assessment in my mind, I had to work even harder to hold back my tears when the first thing you did after the ceremony was share your disappointment with the idea of being thought of as a “famous mathematician.”  You took note that all the other student’s obligatory “most likelys” seemed to you to be so much funnier, more personal, and more thoughtful than your own.  After all, not only do you have zero interest in being famous, you also eloquently pointed out that there is no such thing as a “famous” mathematician- except of course among other mathematicians.  You kinda knew that you were the odd kid who likes math, but now you were walking away from middle school with a certificate to prove it.   And while I adore that odd kid who likes math, I too wanted your peers (and their parents), who never quite understood you, to know that there is so much more to you than that.

Certainly someone in those three years took note of the immense integrity or wisdom that you possess.  Someone surely noticed the depth of your faith, the depth of your mind, or the depth of your kindness and empathy.   

As often happens to me when my emotions take over- my mind started to spin.  Laying in bed that night I couldn’t help but think about the hundreds of other kids who were also forgotten that evening. Every May, all over the country, parents and kids dress up and gather together to celebrate the achievements of a small number of exceptional peers.   After fifteen years of working to advocate for kids who struggle in school, I was well aware that the low achieving kids did not get awards. And I was average enough in my time to know that the average kids don’t either. But I hoped that your perfect score on a PSAT at 13 or the fact that you completed two years of high school during your 8th grade year might just be exceptional enough to be “end-of year award ceremony” worthy. But turns out that what gets celebrated is not being exceptional. What gets celebrated is fitting perfectly in the school mold.

That night I thought of all the other moms who sat hopeful that someone noticed something “recognition worthy” in their kid, only to hear the same five or so names called to the stage over and over.  Despite the fact that these same kids already received their due praise all school year long, simply for showing up to school each day and being who they were created to be.   The rest of us are convinced we need to keep trying harder to be like those kids- you know the ones who are born good at school.  Somehow someone convinced us that the kids who get the medals and the trophies are more valuable than the rest.  I remember being the kid at the awards ceremony desperately longing to hear my own name called out, and I can attest to the fact that not being the trophy winner had no long term bearing on my success or happiness.  I am certain that the same will be true for you and so many of your struggling, average and exceptional peers who also went home without an award. But it’s harder to remember that these days, because there was one huge difference when I was a kid-  once Mom and I went home, we were free from the onslaught of visions of other children smiling with their awards, or their dates to 8gd or other end of school year celebrations.

Your last day of middle school was Friday.  I’d watched all week as picture after picture had been posted on social media- pictures much like the ones I’d posted of your sister a couple years ago.  Pretty girls in dresses and handsome boys in suits.  Trophies and medals held out for all to see, and large groups of friends sharing in each other’s joys and accomplishments.  Once the last day of school pool party pictures started to show up in my news feed, I felt another flash of sadness realizing that while your sisters were off celebrating the end of their school years with friends, at any moment you would be walking in the door with only your mom to greet you.  So I did the only thing I could think to cheer myself up- I began to frantically look through my phone for any photos that I could post that would assure others that we were celebrating your graduation from 8th grade and proclaim to them all just how proud I am of you.  But nothing I could find would ever come close to capturing how proud I am of you, and nothing could show the world how grateful I am to God for fearfully and wonderfully creating you exactly as He meant you to be.

And then you walked in- BEAMING!  You greeted me with one of your full on hugs, excited to celebrate the end of 8th grade with me!  We talked and laughed, played some video games and ate some junk food.  You helped me once again to think about what is real, what is meaningful and what is eternal.

 Why should I be sad that the world is missing out on knowing you?  Should I not rather be grateful that I am one of the lucky few who gets to know you- that I am the lucky one who gets to be called your mom!  Why should I be upset that it is impossible to capture your gifts or your value in a ceremony or social media post?  Should I not rather delight in the immense depth of your brilliant mind and your kind heart.  Why should I be downhearted that you have not found a place to belong among your peers?  Should I not rather rejoice that you belong to God and that you belong in our family.  Should I not be filled with thanksgiving for the way that you help to make our home a place where anyone can belong.

It’s about time for me to stop trying to tell the world how proud I am, and just tell you instead.

And while I am at it, I better make sure your sisters know how proud I am of them.  I have a feeling I have been a little too busy editing pictures to make them look extraordinary, instead of celebrating who they have been created to be and teaching them to be content in the ordinary.

Congratulations on finishing 8th grade this year, Cade! Congratulations for being so far outside the box that there is no award or trophy that could ever adequately capture your giftedness or value.  Congratulations on being the most humble, kind and intelligent kid I know.  You will never know how much I love you, how much joy you bring me, or how much I learn from you.  I am truly grateful that I get to be your mom.

Love,

Mom