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

Sycamore Trees

Dear Hallie,

I feel sorry for everyone who has never discovered the intense magic and utter delight of a soak in a hot bath. There is nothing for me this side of heaven that quite compares to the sensation that spreads as I sink down and let the water engulf me.  And then even after the initial sensation subsides, I feel refreshed as my adrenaline levels are reset and the surface worries of the day are washed away.  My mind begins to process all the burdens, conflicts, happinesses, and joys that have been keeping me rushing around. It is also a chance to focus on all the things in life that really matter…that is until one of the things in life that really matters come crashing into my bathroom with a new crisis that needs solved, a new creation that must be shared, plans that need approved, or just to ask me if I know where they might have left their shoes.  The same conversations will often follow.

“Mom, how many baths are you going to take today? Are you almost done?”

“5 more minutes, and I’ll be out.”

“Please hurry, this is important.”

And depending on how many baths I have already had that day or how many thoughts and worries need processed and washed away, I might respond with a bellowing declaration that “THIS IS IMPORTANT TOO” or I might grab a towel and tell you I am on my way even as you continue to knock.

Just yesterday you found me lost in my haven, and after I asked you to leave me alone, you once again reminded me that “baths are disgusting.” 

Oh Hallie, you of all my children could benefit from finding a haven of your own.  I say this because you of all my children are the most like your mother.  It is perhaps one of the reasons that we have such a deep understanding of one another, while at the same time such little patience for one another.

I admit that I am often harder on you than I am on your siblings. I do see so much of myself in you, for better and for worse.  Many of your personality traits, your gifts, and your passions I am beyond proud to claim as being passed down from my side of the family tree, but many of your struggles and weaknesses were no doubt also from my genetic line. There is something insufferable about seeing your own weaknesses and quirks reflected back to you in the form of one of your children, and there is something deep in me that longs for you not to struggle in all the same ways I continue to struggle even to this day. 

Yesterday when you interrupted my bath, I was in the depths of self-reflection.  And when you urgently demanded my attention only to once again ask a question that you had previously asked (hoping that this time you would get a different answer), I was moved to realize that I too was once again asking God questions that He has already answered for me.  We really are cut from the same cloth my child.

Of all the things that I should like to keep you from struggling with, I should like to keep you from struggling to believe that what God says about you is true. I want you to have a deep abiding knowledge that you are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, meant to be a gift to other people, and meant to reflect the glory of your Maker. I long for you to fully embrace your uniqueness from the tips of your toes to the tops of your nose.

If you ever do decide to try a bath, I don’t mind sharing the tub in my bathroom that Daddy had built just for me, as long as you clean it when you are done! As you lay there be sure to look out that small window that was perfectly placed to provide total privacy while also giving me a peek into our back yard. In that tiny frame is a world of treetops that I have come to know intimately.

Right there in the front is the Sycamore tree that your Daddy and I planted not long after we moved in. We were told by many that we would regret ever planting it as it is generally regarded by most as too large and too messy. In fact, the reason that we chose the tree is because of its extremely fast growth, promising that we would be able to enjoy its shade while our family was still young. And my how we have enjoyed the shade and the beauty of our Sycamore Tree over the last decade.

Those treetops I’ve explored during my baths have taught me many things, but most importantly I’ve learned that people are a lot like trees. I am still learning to accept and love my kind of tree, our kind of tree perhaps. 

I believe we are the Sycamore trees Hallie. For starters we are big (in personality and passion) and, we make a lot of mess (both literally and figuratively). Known to be one of the most identifiable and distinguishable trees means of course that we do not get lost in a forest, but rather tend to stand out in the crowd even at times when we desperately desire to fit in. And no doubt, middle school (that insufferable season you find your self in at the moment) is a place where there is no space allowed for those of us who do not fit in.

Sycamores are an unusual and quirky species. They change with the seasons and they change quickly. I think that’s what some would regard as unpredictable and impulsive, but I’d rather like to think of it as spontaneous and creative. Sycamores produce huge, beautiful, and interesting leaves and unusual pendulous fruit that hangs on barren branches through the winter waiting to drop in the spring. Once the leaves have all fallen to the ground, Sycamores may look dead for much of the rest of the year, especially due to the fact that they also shed layers of bark as they grow, magnifying their unique unkempt appearance much of the year. And to be certain, Sycamores are the only trees that shed. The flakes of brown, grey, and green bark fall off revealing what lays beneath the scaly peeling surface, which is a tender, smooth layer, white like ivory. Sycamores are actually known as The Ghost Tree because of the appearance of death in the winter against the backdrop of the rest of the forest.

But just as suddenly as our leaves and bark fall off, we will once again burst forth in rapid growth showing outward evidence of the life that has always been inside. We briefly produce inconspicuous flowers in the Spring, but no one remembers those in comparison to the unusual quality of our massive leaves, crooked branches, peeling bark, and hanging fruit. I do sometimes wish people would notice the flowers hidden beneath the mess, but I’ve learned to be content knowing that the Creator sees them; that He glories in them but no more than He glories in my leaves, branches, bark, and fruit.

There are not many climates that the Sycamore can thrive in or even survive in, and we deeply feel the impact of the wind and the rain in ways that other trees do not. We are soft on the inside becoming more and more hollow with age. We allow birds, bats, insects, owls, and even bears to burrow into our hearts and find shelter within.  Our sap can be a source of clean water for the passerby that needs refreshed, and many find nourishment in our leaves and fruit. The impact we have in the lives of others is significant, but as we give much of ourselves away, it can often leave us looking bedraggled by the end of the season (or even by the end of each day). But we are a resilient tree, often growing back after being cut or damaged, and surviving circumstances and situations that would kill others. Then we just go on creating magnificent leaves and fruit, shedding our rough edges and providing food and shelter to refresh and sustain others that God sends our way. 

You won’t likely find any fine furniture or wooden masterpieces created using Sycamore wood, but our wood has been used to make many useful things- a bucket, a cutting board, or even a canoe.  We are simply too busy tending to the needs of others or flitting between the next idea or passion to bother with the fancy things of life. I’d love to be able to wear mascara without it smudging or white pants without getting them stained.  I’d love to make it a whole day without throwing my hair into a messy bun, to have shoes that aren’t scuffed, painted fingernails without chips, or lunch without spills.  While Sycamore trees are both soft and strong, their most beautiful qualities lie far within their hollow trucks.    

If you look to the left of the barren Sycamore in my bathtub window you will see branches of the mighty Oak tree.  While its growth is certain, it looks much the same as it did the day we moved in- steady, stable, and faithful. I believe that your father is the mighty Oak. His foliage is much less messy than our own albeit much less interesting as well. His changes with the seasons are more subtle and he almost always shows signs of life.  He grows more slowly, but his roots are deep and his shade is refreshing both in and out of season. He is strong and the storms he endures seem to barely bend his branches if at all. It’s the best kind of tree to climb, and the tree in our yard where we have chosen to hang our backyard swing. While his leaves are smaller and more uniform than ours, they are predictable yet beautiful.  All year long the faithful Oak tree provides acorns for the squirrels, invites the children to play among the branches, and offers his shade to both friends and strangers alike.

Still further out the window towering over both the Sycamore and the Oak, you will see the Pine Tree from the neighbor’s yard looking down in wonder at the trees below. She looks mostly the same in every season and even as her needles fall new ones are taking their place. She thrives in much colder climates where the Sycamore trees cannot grow, but she survives in any climate because she is strong and determined. The Pine is also faithful, dependable, and mighty but in much a different way than the old Oak. She wonders at the shorter trees below- especially the Sycamore who is so easily tossed about by the wind and the rain, and who seems to look dead much of the year. She wonders why we don’t stay green in every season, and why we leave such messes in our wake. You won’t often find a tree swing or a fort in a Pine because they are so tall, and their leaves (usually called needles) might poke you if you get too close. 

I’ve managed to get close to a few Pine trees in my time, and for the most part it is worth getting poked to be close enough to smell their sweet refreshing aromas, touch their sticky sap, and marvel at their unusual cone shaped fruit.  I’ve also known some Maples, Weeping Willows, Elms, Birches, Pecans and Apple Trees in my time.  Each one beautiful in its own way producing a unique fruit in season, but each one also perplexed by my peeling bark ever revealing a bit too much below the surface for anyone’s comfort. Perplexed by my asymmetrical gigantic leaves leaving messes in my wake, and my dark winters followed by sudden changes with each passing season, strong wind, or torrential rain.

I admit that I too am sometimes perplexed by my too muchness and too messiness. I understand how the other trees might mistake my crooked branches and hollow trunk for flaws, as I have struggled at times to see the beauty in their purposeful design.  Like you, my teachers were always especially confused by the inconsistencies in my behavior and performance, and particularly annoyed by the distractions that I seemed to accidentally create. Daily I’d spill a drink, loose a pencil, or trip over my own foot.  Sometimes I’d get lost in an idea and completely miss the entire lesson, and even more often I would drag a classmate into my idea and again be scolded for talking too much.  While I knew in my heart how badly I longed to make my teachers happy and fit in with my peers, I was never able to quite figure out how to make my leaves smaller, my branches straighter, my bark tougher or my trunk more solid. I spent much of the first few decades of my life trying to be a little more like the Oak or the Maple.  I even consulted with some friendly Pines who’ve encouraged me to stand straight and tall, fight against the wind, and not be so easily moved. I’ve tried and tried to be a different kind of tree, believing the lie that my kind of tree was wrong.  But I finally learned that being someone else’s kind of tree is not only a miserable business, but it is also a fruitless one.  I was created to be too much and too messy for some people’s liking.  God meant to make my trunk hollow and my branches crooked, and every time I am tempted to ask Him to help me be more like the Oak, He reminds me once again that I have been fearfully and wonderfully made by Him just as He meant me to be. Sure He wants me to be the best Sycamore Tree I can possibly be, but He has no interest in me trying to become a Pine Tree or even a faithful old Oak.

Sometimes I am hard on you Hallie, because I forget that Sycamores are beautiful, but sometimes it is because I don’t want you to still be learning to love yourself when you get to be my age.  I want you to see the purpose and beauty in God’s design for you now, and I want you to be the best darn Sycamore around.

My bathtub American Sycamore tree is not technically a Sycamore tree at all, it is technically a plane tree. To be precise it is a Platanus Occidentalis, also known as the American Plane, the Western Plane or the Occidental Plane. Here is what God says about His purpose for all the trees- even the plane.

“I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the dessert the cypress, the plane, and the pine together, that they may see and know, that they may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.” Isiah 41:19-20

When you interrupted my bath yesterday, I had just noticed the very first bud open on my bathtub Sycamore- the first tangible evidence of Spring. The first sign of life that this tree has shown in months.   It gave me hope that this long middle school winter that you have been stuck in, a winter full of isolation, fear, a pandemic, political unrest, injustices, racial tensions, conspiracies, divisions, and rejections- that this long winter has not killed you.  Perhaps us Sycamores really do feel the burden of the storm more heavily than most.  Perhaps this winter has seemed especially dark, cold, and long, but my child, you are not dead.  Indeed, you are very much alive evidenced by the fact that even is distress and trial you continue to refresh others with your flow of clean water.  In and out of season you give shelter and nourishment to anyone in need, and more often than not you notice someone else’s needs long before they ever need ask for help.

Perhaps you will one day find that you are not too old or too cool for soaking in a bath of your own, but if not I hope that you will find some means of processing and washing away each days thoughts and worries.  After all us Sycamores feel many things deeply even as we willingly carry the burdens of others.  No matter how long, dark, and cold this winter might feel, you are not dead, you are loved, and you are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Go stand tall right next to the Pine, considering and understanding together that the hand of the Lord has created you just exactly as He meant you to be.

Love,

Mom

Covid-19 Home School

Dear Lacey,

Every August for the last 12 years in anticipation of a new school year, the same conversations fill our home, the same shopping trips are taken, and the same prayers are prayed.   Conversations that beg the questions- what if there are no friends in our classes, who will we sit with at lunch, or what if the teachers don’t like me?  Shopping trips for the latest trend in lunch boxes, school supplies and backpacks, and of course that perfect first day of school outfit.  An outfit that neither draws too much attention nor allows anyone not to notice you.  The one that suggests to the world “my children wake up like this every day” despite the hours of planning and preparation that goes into that obligatory first day of school picture for Facebook! 

And the prayers- “Lord please let Hallie find her people and let them be good people.  Let Cade’s teachers notice and understand him despite the dozens of other students in his classes that also need to be noticed and understood.  Protect Kori Jane from all the confusing and conflicting voices that she will hear again this year telling her what to love, value, and build her life upon.  And Lord, please protect little Lacey from the voices in her own head that tell her that she is not good enough.”   Lacey- I pray at the start of each year that all my children would grow stronger, shine brighter, think deeper, create more beauty, and love more fully no matter what that new school year may bring. 

With much anticipation, each August we attend Meet the Teacher, Back to School Nights and High School Orientations just before the new school year begins.   This is followed of course by the comparing of class lists and schedules with all the friends. 

This August your three siblings began seventh, ninth and eleventh grade in the usual fashion while you started your third-grade year at home with me as your teacher.  The years of struggling to fit you in the public-school box while you battled debilitating anxiety and relentless tummy troubles ended right about a year ago (halfway through your second-grade year) when we found ourselves on an unexpected home-school journey.   We made the choice to pull you from school and create an environment at home where you could learn and grow despite your struggles.  I realize now just how fortunate we were to be able to make that choice.  Fortunate that we could financially afford for me to not work in order to stay home with you, and that up until then my entire professional career had been working to help children with learning differences and disabilities and their families find success.        Unlike many families in similar situations we had both the knowledge and the resources to make a sudden change when a change needed to be made.

I am also realizing that the whole country is suddenly being thrust into homeschooling tomorrow without being given any choice.   We have suddenly all been faced with the challenge of figuring out how to create an environment at home where all of our children can learn and grow without regard to the availability of financial resources, our social circumstances or the knowledge and education we may or may not have.

So ready or not Lacey, our little Home-school of one has tripled enrollment and we are adding a middle schooler and two high schoolers to the mix beginning tomorrow!  

So while it is not August, we are none the less embarking on the first day at a new school- The COVID-19 Spaulding Home School.   I admit that I am a little worried as I keep thinking about the steep learning curve you and I endured those first few weeks and months as I tried to be the perfect home educator for you.  And a full year later, I am still learning to have grace on myself when most home school days look nothing like I had ever imagined or hoped.  Below you will find a list of ten things that I wish I knew the first time I found myself unexpectedly homeschooling you.  And now as I find myself unexpectedly homeschooling all four of my wonderful children beginning tomorrow, I give you full permission to remind me of these points in hopes that I do not have to make all of the same mistakes this time around.  May these ten realities help to manage all of our expectations, answer as many first day of school questions as possible, and remind us of all the things that matter most.

  1. You’ve already met your teacher. No need to ask if she will like you- she knows all about you and already loves you like only a mother can! Don’t bother comparing schedules or class lists with your friends; your teacher and your classmates are the same people you have already spent the last nine days in quarantine with.
  2. New Subjects to begin immediately. Any school happening at my home includes the long-lost subject of Home Economics including exploring the arts of mopping, cleaning out the refrigerator, laundry, lawn and garden care, and food preparation. There will also be a hands-on class called Communication and Conflict Resolution complete with practical tips for empathy building, non-verbal communication skills and how to assume the best of other people. Other subjects will be added as needed!
  3. No custodian or lunch lady on duty. You will eat lunch with the same people you’ve eaten dinner with most every night of your life. However, unlike dinner there is also the option for you to eat by yourself. Free breakfast and lunch are available daily however there is no printed menu- only a full refrigerator and pantry for you to explore your options. Your grade in Home Economics will in part be based on your ability to navigate mealtime on your own including clean-up.
  4. No dress codes. There is no need for first day outfits as everyone at The Covid-19 Home School already knows what you really wake up looking like. Pajamas are totally fine however you are required to continue showering even if you have nowhere to go. We will add a Self-Care class if necessary.
  5. No tardies to be given. 8:00 AM does not seem to be the hour of the day that our family is at our best, so official school days will not start until everyone’s coffee, medicine, brain waves, etc. have kicked in. This is not going to be the same for each of you as Hallie is often the first one awake, and she tends to accomplish more in the first hour of her day than she will with all the rest of the day’s hours combined. And then Kori Jane and Cade (as you know) tend to be obnoxious zombies for at least their first waking hour, and will therefore be required to spend that first hour alone. Given that the four of you are not only different ages and grades with varying strengths and weaknesses, but that you are also motivated and interested by completely different things, I am assuming that you will each benefit from different start times, schedules, amounts of social interaction, technological interface, and teacher support. We will figure it out as we go!
  6. Sick days are inevitable. For me that is- your teacher will need a sick day occasionally. She will also need a mental health day every so often. Unfortunately there are no substitutes lined up for any of that. It is also safe to assume that you and your siblings will need your fair share of mental health days as we are all processing what it means that there is a worldwide pandemic sweeping through. This means that you will likely be having even more virtual field-trips coming up to places like Arendelle or Camp Kaikawaka than we did last month. And that’s ok!
  7. Hours of operation vary. A typical homeschool day is not 7 hours long followed by several more hours of homework! In fact, all the work we do is technically homework. I have already mentioned that we will not be starting at 8:00 AM every day, but that does not mean that we will finish school any later than usual. In fact, it is likely we will have many more early dismissals than extended days as long as everyone gets their required district/school assigned work completed. I remember when we first started to home-school last year, and I tried to wake you at the same time every day. Then we’d sit down to do back to back lessons from 8:00-3:00. We were both losing our minds, and the tension between us was spiraling. I finally did some basic math to add up all the transition times, busy work, bathroom breaks and special assemblies in a typical school day. That’s when I decided that sitting with you one-on-one for an hour or two doing actual lessons and schoolwork was more than you were likely getting any given day in a typical public-school classroom. I’ve learned that there is simply no set amount of time that learning takes. Sometimes I take two weeks to cover a concept I thought would take a day, and sometimes we spend a whole day getting lost in learning about a period in History that I thought would take us a whole semester to explore. When I finally quit caring more about checking boxes than I cared about watching you grow, and started caring more about following your curiosities than following a schedule- that’s when your anxiety finally started to relent and your mind and imagination were finally unlocked.
  8. Learn to recognize the Fire Drill Alarm and follow procedures. The first time my volume begins to change you might want to look at my facial expression and body language to determine if it is just a warning or an actual fire-drill is in order. In case of a drill quickly and quietly go outside or retreat to your separate bedrooms. I will lock all doors and reopen them once my heartrate, breathing, volume, and mind return to normal.
  9. Peer tutoring is encouraged! If you need help with anything (including staying sane), please feel free to ask a sibling or even face-time a friend just as readily as you seek out help from me. In fact- maybe start with a sibling or friend as a way to help me stay sane! While the rules about no screens in bedrooms and screens turned in at night still apply, I am no longer limiting screen time as long as responsibilities are getting done. And while we are on the subject, no one is allowed to ask me about my own screen time.
  10. Pop Quizzes come in all forms. In a classroom full of students there is really only one way to show you are learning or what you already know, and that is by putting something on paper. At home there are a million ways to show what you are learning or what you already know- debates around the dinner table, conversations after readalouds, writing a song or short-story to share, playing an instrument or preforming a play you’ve created. Drawing a picture or retelling a good book. Going on a nature walk and identifying the flower or the bird you noticed. Helping cook dinner, mow the yard, or fix the car. Flying a kite, doing a puzzle, playing a board game, helping a sibling, playing pretend, or doing a craft. After-all when all is said and done the goal of education really should not be to get a good grade or raise your test scores, but rather to be able to think, to solve problems and to create. And all that with the ultimate goal of knowing our Creator and His creation more fully, while seeing ourselves and our unique purposes on this earth more clearly.
  11. Grace is the key! I know I said only ten things, but we are going to have to be flexible with each other. We are going to have to have grace- lots and lots and lots of grace. Everything keeps changing on a dime and the only thing in the world that is certain today is uncertainty. We all have more questions than answers and we all have no idea what to expect in the days, weeks or even months to come. While in isolation together for this undetermined amount of time, I’m sure there will be days when dad will be irritable, I will lose my temper, Kori will make us all feel stupid with her dirty looks, and Cade will talk too much about something that we don’t understand. Hallie will say things she does not mean and then pretend she never said them, and Lacey your anxiety will get the best of you. We must have grace on ourselves, our neighbors and friends, and especially on each other- even as we have received grace from our Creator.

And Lacey when all else fails, let us remind one another once again that I may now be your teacher for this season, but I am your mother first and forever. 

In anticipation of tomorrow, my prayers are slightly different than previous first day of school prayers- “Lord, thank you that we get to be Hallie’s people and that I get to be her teacher for this season.  Thank you that she has a teacher that loves her more than she could ever know.   I pray that she feels like her home and her family are right where she belongs even as she navigates the internal and external muddy middle school waters.     Lord, thank you that Cade can’t fall through the cracks in this home school- Let him know that he is noticed, understood, and loved, and that he has been fearfully and wonderfully created with a purpose.  Thank you that Kori Jane has a break from the onslaught of all the confusing and conflicting voices telling her what to love, value, and build her life upon.  Thank you for the gift of time you have given me to pour into her even as she is almost grown and ready to fly.   And Lord, take away Lacey’s anxiety, and use this crisis and the extended time we have together as a family to quiet the voices in her head that tell her that she is not good enough.  Let Your voice be louder, clearer, and sweeter than all the other voices around her. 

Thank you Lord for not only the privilege to pray for my children, but that for this season I can watch from up close as they grow stronger, shine brighter, think deeper, create beauty, and love more fully despite all the uncertainty and change that this year has already brought.

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