#IWishMyTeacherKnew: Teen Edition

If you’re one of the sage people who avoids Twitter, you may not have seen these striking statements by one 3rd grade class in Colorado. So let me tell you: a teacher, wanting to understand her students’ lives better, assigned them this sentence to complete. “I wish my teacher knew…”

Holy heartbreak, the responses that came back. She, and a gazillion websites, have been sharing them on Twitter. Take these two:

WishMyTeacherKnewdeported

 

WishMyTeacherKnew

When I taught kindergarten in Watts, months after the ’92 riots, I didn’t have to assign that sentence to understand the world my kids lived in. They offered up their innocence on the altar of the classroom carpet, sitting crisscross applesauce, hands raised obediently: “They shoot a lot at night here.”

I can’t help but imagine what a high school teacher would learn if they assigned this sentence, “I wish my teacher knew….” Even in our gleaming public high school, kids face all kinds of stresses: poverty, abuse, brokenness. Perhaps: “I wish my teacher knew I have nightmares every night,” or “I wish my teacher knew I woke up at 4 a.m. to ride the public bus to get here,” or “I wish my teacher knew I haven’t seen my parents in over a year.”

But what difference would it make for teachers to know this? Their job is just to teach, right?

Half-right. As educator/humanitarian/visionary Chaim Peri writes in his book The Village Way, contrary to conventional wisdom, adolescence can be a time of great healing. And kids without loving adults at home need to look elsewhere for their mentors: to teachers.

Peri, founder of Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, works with traumatized teens — orphans, immigrants, exiles, and survivors of war in their home countries. They succeed like crazy, becoming productive adults, by re-creating the sense of “village” that Hillary Rodham Clinton brought into the American lexicon a few years back.

“We need to offer [teens] an aura of togetherness,” says Peri in his book, “a sense of inner coherence and emotional solidarity that defies the swirling chaos around us. We must recreate, intentionally, through the messages that we constantly broadcast to our children, the sense of belonging and togetherness that once defined human existence.”

“If I could tell every educator just one thing, it would be that each hour of the teenage years is precious, each experience as potent in its capability to heal or to wound as countless hours of childhood experiences.”

His call to action: each of us has it within ourselves to become a mentor and heal a child.

My husband and I heard Chaim Peri speak when we were in the midst of deciding whether to become stand-in mom and dad to an 18-year-old unaccompanied minor from Guatemala. His talk sealed the deal.

Between stepping up and her move-in date we were scared as hell, worried that we were going to ruin our family’s happy life. We have never more wrong.

I’m not saying you have to welcome a stranger into your home to do a world of good. You can go to 826LA. Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. It takes a village, and we are the village.

What other groups do you know that offer the chance to mentor? Share in your comments.

 

 

Lost in Translation

birthday cake

It was the vehemence of the assault that surprised me. The attacker: my son. His weapon: my birthday cake. My birthday was last week. With Maria in our family now, I knew this year would be different than the usual … Continue reading

Introducing Spring, and Maria

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The bees are having an orgy with our bottle brush tree. It’s blooming like mad. Needle thin magenta red flowers are exploding all over the place. They land in my hair as I trim its branches to unblock the backyard gate – … Continue reading

Embarrass Your Kids Now, They’ll Thank You Later

My kids keep telling me to stop embarrassing them.

There are three general categories of embarrassing incidents about which they complain:

1) Being friendly and talking to “everyone” (e.g. “anyone” in public who is not in our immediate family);

2) Singing loudly in public places, like the local Rec Center parking lot, for no apparent reason;

3) Shouting “I LOVE YOU, HONEY” when I drop them off at school.

Okay, the last one I have to own. That is embarrassing. And it may have been on purpose to embarrass them. Embarrassing one’s children is not only a family rite of passage, it is an important life lesson: I learned at a young age not to let other people’s choices embarrass me. I am responsible only for my own.

As my father’s daughter, I learned this as a matter of survival. My father, an anti-smoking zealot since the 1950’s (e.g. before it was cool), would bring a squirt gun or handheld fan with him to public places — movie theater, sports venue, restaurant, party. Recall, if you can, the typical smoker’s posture: wrist tilted back, cancer-stick burning between second and third fingers, smoke spiraling away from their own face. A flick of the fan’s button blew secondhand smoke back into the offending smoker’s face. That seemed fair.

The squirt gun, however, was a different level of combat. Its purpose was to extinguish a burning cigarette from a distance. Squirt guns having notoriously unreliable aim, my father’s life was in more immediate danger from the smoker than from the smoke.

I recall the defining moment in my adolescence when I had an epiphany about not being embarrassed by my parents. At my 8th grade graduation, as I lined up with one hundred fourteen-year-olds to enter the auditorium, my father approached me and said in his loudest voice for all to hear, “LAURA, DON’T WORRY. I WON’T EMBARRASS YOU. I PROMISE, NO MATTER WHAT, LAURA DIAMOND, EMBARRASSING YOU WOULD BE THE LAST THING I WOULD DO.” He grinned his I-crack-myself-up grin, I shook my head and smiled, and I realized in that moment that he could not embarrass me. He was him. I was me. (It couldn’t have hurt that he was, and is, a wonderful father.)

Still, I have promised my kids that I would stop the intentional embarrassments — the “I love you’s” in front of school are now always private, quiet affairs.

But there will remain embarrassments, the ones that are expressions of who I am — the spontaneous singing, the talking to strangers. When my kids ask me to stop these, I now borrow a response I heard my friend tell his child: “I will always be who I am, and I am not going to change that.”

I gotta be me. And I hope they learn the freedom to be who they are.

I think it’s working. My younger son offered this a few days ago: “I think it’s better to be unique than to be like everyone else.”

Full heart balloons of YES! floated through my body, out my ears, through the open windows and high above the house, popping in the spring sky, raining down a resounding prayer of “please always feel this way.”

I’m not saying this is an easy attitude to achieve or maintain, as it runs contrary to the adolescent condition. But for better or worse, my kids will get plenty of practice not taking personally my embarrassing ways. I feel a song coming on…

Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes.

Spinning

It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

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Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

Dear Mr. Cardenas,

This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.

You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.

A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.

You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.

(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).

But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:

1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.

2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.

4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.

5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.

6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.

I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.

You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.

After McFarland, U.S.A. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Apres enjoying the glamorous, one-of-a-kind El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, California.

P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.

All together now: Ommmm and “Just Win, Baby”

Over the weekend I participated in a women’s retreat. It was filled with meditation, learning, spirituality, Torah study, “Council,” painting, writing, imbibing good food and wine, dancing my booty off to 70’s music, and one single ride on a water slide followed by a soak in the hot tub. Life was grand.

And…I also faced a Monday deadline for an Opposition to a Motion for Summary Judgment. Donning my lawyer-hat, I convened with my laptop during the breaks. Because life isn’t always a party. As Rabbi Amy says, the crappy stuff is connected to the glorious stuff. (Sh’ma, it’s all one, yadda yadda). Much as I wish I could edit out the unpleasantness and leave only sunshine, life is contrasts.

Happily, my law colleague is a friend (he hasn’t changed much since we were ten) who has an easy smile and a healthy perspective on life and work. He is first and foremost a father. What does this mean for our lawyering? We work hard, care deeply, do our best, keep learning, and don’t freak out. As long as our children are healthy and happy, we can handle whatever else comes.

Working on disability discrimination cases, though, we are often reminded that for many parents the kids are not alright. They struggle with the most basic things. They suffer exclusion and isolation. On their behalf, I get impatient with our legal processes: motions, oppositions, objections – such wastes of time when there are problems to be solved! I imagine a weekend retreat with all the parties listening to each other, a City “council” instead of counsel, all of us in yoga pants sitting in a circle with a talking stick instead of a court reporter.

I know, l ruined it with the yoga pants image.

What I’m saying is this: wouldn’t it be cool to bring that centeredness, that authenticity, and genuine listening, into the regular world, work and family and relationships? I know I won’t change the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The systems are set. Just let me dream a bit about a world that infuses those values into the process…

And then back to work. Because lala-gooey-hoohoo vibes aside, I’m competitive as hell and I like to win. Ommmmmmmm.

 

 

On Quitting, Committing, and Letting Go

Commitment. Responsibility. Perseverance. Quitting.

These are the words released from my pre-dawn dream into my first waking thoughts.

They are the words in the air this week, in the texts I’m receiving and sending other moms, in the hurried how-are-you’s in front of the Y before a half-baked workout.

Why are these words plaguing my subconscious? There are times when your child doesn’t want to keep doing what they’ve done. A team, a class, an instrument. And their simple plea to stop triggers a parental-tizzy in me because I don’t know what value to impart: Be tough and follow through, or be free and follow your desire. The older my children get, the more sand that fills the bottom of our 18-year timepiece, the more significance these value-laden moments carry.

We are in one of those times with our eldest. So I do what I always do: I scroll through my life to see if I can find a lesson somewhere, some way to connect to what he is feeling. I find one: my first week in college, a class I had registered for when I was still in high school, before I knew that no one in their right mind attends a seminar with 8 students (nowhere to hide) from 3 to 6pm on a Friday. I attended the first class thinking mostly of how much I didn’t want to be there, but telling myself that I was stuck with it because I wasn’t a quitter. Quitting was weak. Quitting was shameful. My heart sank further as the professor explained there would be 200 pages of reading each week. I wanted out so badly, but it didn’t fit my perception of who I wanted to be. And then, the miracle happened: he asked if anyone minded if he smoked during class. THIS was a reason I could justify! I walked out of class, not because I couldn’t work hard, I told myself, but because I refused to breathe second-hand smoke for three hours every week. Thank goodness, or I would have been miserable, missing a lot of what freshman year was about – the lead-in to the weekend (actually, that started Thursday). Was it the right decision? Who knows? It was a decision, and I don’t think it ruined me.

Sometimes there are good reasons for quitting. A bad relationship. An abusive boss. A profession that doesn’t fill your soul. I want my kids to be able to shift course if the signs point to better paths, to follow their gut.

And yet, I want them to stick with things when they get hard. I want them to honor commitments they make to themselves and other people, and to know how to buckle down. Life will get hard and they need to cultivate those inner resources to get to the other side.

What to do?

I ride my bike down to the bluffs, where I spent many teenage afternoons trying to make sense of things. I pass a young dad with long hair, walking with his 18-month-old daughter in his arms, the profound wordless companionship of a full-grown soul in a barely-grown body. They stop at a swing that someone hung from a giant eucalyptus. I used to be the one pushing my baby in that very swing.

It’s tempting to say that things were simpler back then. But that time is when my worrying-tendencies burst alive. When decisions about myself – take or drop the class—became decisions about my children. When every question – co-sleep or no, pacifier or no, pre-school or no—became a test of what kind of parent I was and what kind of human I would raise.

I turn my head from the father and daughter and look out toward the ocean. I gasp. It’s enormous. Even bigger today than yesterday, I swear it. And — hallelujah! — the power that transformed my teenage mountain-sized problems into grains of sand works again. It doesn’t give me the answer – commitment versus knowing when to say “I’m done” — but it does give me a transitory peace of knowing that everything will be fine, that what I decide won’t determine if my children become life-long quitters or masters of tenacity.

I decide that I will tell my budding adolescent all that I was thinking about, the yin and yang of yes or no, stay or go. I will give him my best advice, and I will trust him to figure it out.

There it is.

A quick scroll through my life-reel finds this legacy all over the place, the confidence born from being trusted to know the right path for me. I give thanks for that legacy to pass down, and for the familiar shiver of ocean-gazing-plus-writing-leads-to-an-answer alchemy that has sustained me since I was his age.

The petty economies and small repairs…

“Yes, I am like you. I worry about the same things as you – the everyday, the trivial, the petty economies, and small repairs. And I, like you, know that these mundane events somehow mean more than the large sweeping things, the corporation mergers, invasions, depressions, and decisions of the President’s Cabinet. Not that the things I am concerned with are important. Heavens, no, they’re just little things, but they matter, you know, they matter most to a life. To my life, my children’s life, even my husband’s life, although he’d never admit it. My husband threw a tantrum because there was no coffee in the house one morning! Would you believe it? A grown man. Yes, these things matter very much to them. And my own life – well, my life is bounded by small things. When Johnny has had a good day at Little League; when the sun pours through the kitchen window in a certain way on a fall morning; when I am able to transform cheap meat into a delicious stew, or my shoddy room into something almost – but not quite – beautiful; those are the times I am happy. When I feel useful, when there is harmony in the world.”

From The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French

Afterlife, Ashes…and a Kickline for Al Diamond

Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.

If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.

Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?

But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.

In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.

And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.

Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”

Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”

“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.

“Al Diamond.”

“This one’s for Al,” she said.

The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.

I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.