Friday, July 12, 2013

second time readings

Mommy,  are you crying?
Yup.  A little bit.  But it's happy crying.

The kids giggled in the back seat.  But I also think they were a bit worried.  Maybe they were worried because I had been lost for the better part of an hour, somewhere out in farm country in Rhode Island.  Driving for a bit in one direction, then pulling into a parking lot, checking my google map, then pulling out and driving in the other direction and taking a turn.  Then stopping again.  Reorienting.

Completely lost.  Trying to find the strawberry farm we had seen on our way to drop off Jonathan, or at the very least, our way back to a main road.  We were in Rhode Island to visit Jonathan who was taking a course there.  We had dropped him at the University and were off to great adventures...if only I could stop circling further and further inland.  I had been trying to just go with it.  To not panic about my disorientation.  To see this as an adventure.  To know that, worst case scenario, I would hit the Pacific Ocean and know then, at least, that I wanted to head back in the other direction.

Luckily, we had been listening to an audiobook, and the kids had only processed some of my geographical circling.

But maybe they were worried because I was crying.  Sniffling, swatting at my eyes, and smiling at them reassuringly in the rear view mirror all at once.  I was crying because we had just finished our audio book.  And I was moved.  Really very much in love the the characters of the book that had just left us.  We were sitting in the parking lot of the strawberry field, finally found despite its impressive location-changing abilities much like the island in Lost.  We were about to get out of the car and pick berries.

I pulled myself together and we headed out into the field, the kids seeming a bit bleary.  Being in a different state than we were yesterday.  The heat.  A bit of sleep deprivation due to a late night drive the night before.  Drifting through the morning with me lost on a back road in Rhode Island.  All these things were probably making them a bit...disoriented.

And also?   We had just finished an amazing book.  Wonder, by R.J. Palacio.  Truly.  Amazing.  A lot that has been said about this book by people far more eloquent than I.  And to be honest?  I am not very good at the summing up.

What I really want to talk about when I read a good book is what we all, my family, experienced when we listened to it.  Things the kids said, asked about, or misunderstood.  Things the book made me think about and remember about my own childhood.  And then later, ways in which we all refer back to the book or ways in which I can pull the book's message in when we are puzzling our way through some childhood struggle.

Wonder is one of those books.  When I chose Wonder as our first all family read this summer, I did not know that the book was about a child entering middle school, as Nicholas is about to do in the fall.

I also do not know if it was a coincidence, or rather a conversation brought on by our listening to this story, that Nicholas began to share his experiences, his struggles and questions about friendship and kindness within these relationships.

Clearly he is on a precipice.  A moment of change within his friendships as he and his peers begin to notice more, react more, and flex their relationship muscles more than they have until now.  And there is so much going on around them, their activities, their school work, their play, their interests that the environment in which they move is so very influential on how they deal with their social and internal struggles.

How these growing children are treated, modeled for, and respectfully guided seems just as important now -- maybe more important -- as were the choices we made years ago about what kind of educational environment we wanted them to have when they entered preschool.  Back then we were choosing preschools based upon what we hoped for for our children, who we hoped for them to become.  Now?  They are doing the becoming.  This is the business of creating new people, new people that I hope can focus on kindness above anything else.

It is strange.  I really don't think all of it has been intentional.  But I have been giving Nicholas a full diet of middle school drama of late.  We rented and watched the movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid the other night.  As with Wonder, I did not know that the story centered around the testing of a relationship between two boys as they entered middle school.  There is a good deal of bullying and stereotypical middle school behavior including exclusion, teasing, and kids being plain old mean.  The message of the movie is definitely one of a good friendship being tested but ultimately enduring this negative environment.

But the assumption of middle school being represented as a lunchroom of social horror is woven right in.  This assumption of this period of childhood.  That it is a time of meanness.  Competition between friends.  Bullying.  It is self-perpetuating, I fear.  And rather one-sided and oversimplified.

As a bit of a joke to myself and to Nicholas, I took the book, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Middle School, out of the library when I spied it propped up next to the librarian in the check out line.  Nicholas has a love of the Worst Case Scenario series.  Because, especially when he was younger, he was kind of a worst case scenario kid.  You know the ones.  The ones that imagine all the terrible things that might possibly happen to them.  The children, I think, that have extremely active imaginations and not necessarily the coping skills to keep up with their minds.  And they basically just totally terrify themselves a lot of the time.

One day in preschool, Nicholas was studying sharks in his emergent curriculum classroom and heard some kids talking about sharks' carnivorous ways.  Visibly terrified, Nicholas began asking all sorts of questions.  He was beginning to assess just how dangerous this new bit of information was for him.  His teacher, genius that she is, was quick thinking and stopped the wave of panic, allowing us to continue to swim in the oceans.  By telling him that sharks usually stayed in warmer waters.

How far south asked Nicholas?

Florida, she said.  Quickly and firmly.  No exceptions.

She clued me in at pickup that day to their conversation.  And told me that we might have troubles should we be planning a trip south any time soon.

So, last week, when I got home from the library, I handed the Worst Case Scenario to him and smiled.  He laughed and I said I thought it looked pretty funny.  He and I are moving toward middle school as best we can.   He is excited.  And nervous.  And me?  I am lost on a road without a map.  Knowing he is ready.  Just trying to find my way as best I can, and trying to avoid finding myself at the Pacific Ocean needing to turn around.  And watching for marauding sharks.  We have an understanding, he and I.  We both have no idea what we are doing, he in the growing up thing, and me in the parenting thing.  And we are trying to find humor in this.

The next morning he said to me...You know.  It has some funny parts.  But it is also kind of helpful about some things.

I then leafed through it more carefully.  I actually kind of love the introduction.  It puts into words some perspective on all this middle school drama that he keeps getting images of and references to.
Middle school is one of those times in life when a whole lotta change happens in a pretty short time.  In those middle years, people get taller, they get new interests, their social lives change, and their minds start thinking in more and more sophisticated ways.
It is a very basic explanation, but put positively, of what the major developmental pushes are of this time.  Without the bullies are gonna push you into your locker and pull your pants down during gym class kind of fear tactics that others seem to be taking.

And given Nicholas' response to the book, he is clearly looking for some of the simple information and strategies that the book offers, though I myself may be rolling my eyes at the how to dance explanations or how to stop a rumor advice.  Because once it moves into strategies for these middle school worst case scenarios, we are back to the middle school is a place of horror message again.

* * *

After picking four quarts of strawberries in record time, we paid and returned to the car.  Air conditioner on, allowing us to pull our flaring moods back together, I suggested we begin a new audiobook that I had for them.  Nicholas stopped me from popping the first CD in and asked if instead we could listen to Wonder again.  I questioned this for a bit.  I was really excited to read the next book, The One and Only Ivan.  I thought I was ready to move on.  But the kids were not.  They were not able to let August go just yet.  They needed to stay with him and his story just a bit longer.

And so, because it is summer, and because we were likely to get lost again in the next five minutes, we were able to listen to Wonder again.  We had no place to be, no schedule, no required reading list.

So we listened, riding all over the back roads of Rhode Island and then all the way home to Maine the next day.  We all sat through that second reading, listening just as closely as we did the first time.  But, in fact, I think we were able to listen more carefully this time.  I am not exactly sure why.  I have mentioned how I spent a good deal of time at the beginning of the book focused on August and his physical appearance and feeling a bit troubled by my own curiosity about what he looked like.  And being worried that the story was too intense for my sensitive-souled readers.

And Nicholas spent much of his first reading wondering what he would do if he had been in that situation, and worrying that he might have made a decision that he was not proud of.  That he might not have chosen kindness above everything else.

Elliott spent hours trying to draw the characters, his pictures of August making me feel both uncomfortable and understanding of this boy who thinks visually, who understands so many things in this exceedingly verbal household by putting them into pictures.

Julia listened quietly and completely transfixed, letting the story wash over her.  Loving the narrative style, the different characters that tell their own parts of the story, their own perspective, in each section.  All the while wide-eyed in alarm at some of the social aggression and cruelty.

The first reading of Wonder for us seemed to be one of total personalization.  Each of us was so pulled in by this story that we could not distance ourselves.  Could not just let the story itself be our focus.  That first time, each of us needed to put ourselves into the story.  And I think, given its message, this is the strength of the book.  You can find yourself, your best qualities and your very worst qualities, somewhere in this book.

But what I would realize now is the value of the second reading.  This time we were still weepy and warmed by the end of the book, having just finished it.  We were still thinking about each of the characters and their individual end of year precepts, or rules to live by.

In the novel, each child had one listed in an appendix at the conclusion of the story and we learned a bit about how the narrators and other characters made meaning of their year and their own choices.  We were still feeling a bit of compassion for Julian, the story's villain, compassion that surprised even me...its roots tucked in the end of the book.  His precept was sometimes it's good to start over.  Yes, even he needed that, compassion.

This time we knew that August was going to be ok.  That, in the end, he was the force of change in each person that he encountered and that encountered him.  For the better.  And that he had grown and changed over the year as well.

So in the second reading, with this knowledge, without the gut wrenching worry that I had the first time through, we noticed more.  We all noticed that it says that August's mother was a children's book illustrator.  How did we not remember that?! asked Julia given how much we all love picture books.

So horrified and troubled by the story of August's birth and his medical issues and what it had brought up for me about what had been my own worries, about whether my children would be healthy and well at birth, I had not remembered the humor of the farting nurse.

There were so many instances of what we had not heard or remembered the first time through because we were so busy personalizing.

What I settled into focusing on in the second reading was the people.  Their human-ness.  That all along the way, the author had placed the right person in the story at the right time.  The farting nurse?  The kindest and most compassionate person in the hospital. She told off the fainting doctor and was with August's mother when she finally got to see him.  She gave August's mother strength when she needed it.  And championed compassion.

And what a gift it was that August was born to his specific parents, who seemed to use humor, love, and honesty to guide August through his childhood.  Or that Mr. Tushman was Mr. Tushman, name and all.  A reading intellectual, who had humor, kindness, strength, and a love for children and all their flaws and gifts.

Each person, even the ones who make very bad choices, are laid out before you, a buffet of characters, of people, going through growth and change.  This story of seeming worst case scenarios turns out to offer moments of greatness in everyone.  But each on their own individual growth charts.

And so I cried during Mr. Tushman's graduation speech, his rewarding August for bravery and for pushing everyone to be their best selves, by being his best self.  I thank Wonder for giving us this message.  That these years can be a time in which they can make intentional choices.  To choose compassion and empathy.  To try to step outside of themselves and see the perspectives of those around them.  Because when you do, you can have compassion for even the worst of people.  And then they can see that things can be different, and that people can do better.

This book gives children of this age an antidote of sorts, a window into what they can hope and strive for.  And once all the concern and worry and wondering is behind them, they can really listen, watch it unfold, and enjoy the story and notice all the goodness.  Instead of assumptions of adversity and negativity that must be overcome, it offers a goal to try to achieve.

The book gives them the best case scenario to aspire to, rather than working from the mindset of avoiding the worst case scenario.

Because this is what I hope for Nicholas and for Julia and Elliott in the not so distant future.  That they enter this period in their lives on their own paths, within their own personhood and using their own growth charts.  And that, amidst the explosions in behavior and disruptions of hormones and growth spurts and fashion and athletics and friendships, they can step back and notice the good around them.  Get out of their own blur, and look around.  And see the people around them.

I know that the problem is exactly that.  That given their gangly bodies and volatile moods and big thoughts within the limitations of a middle school mind, this is exactly what they struggle with.  That they cannot, or at least do not, step outside that and look around, at the effect they are having on those around them.  Nor do they just look around and see that everyone else is struggling a bit, too.  And that there are some wonderful and caring adults around them trying to help guide them safely through.


In my second reading of my own childhood, I wish I had been able to step outside of the swirl of emotion and growing and reacting to know that it was the moments during which I acted, for better or for worse, that were making me who I was.  And who I am now.  That there was goodness around me, and that I had choices as to how I moved about the world.

So maybe having had such an evocative first reading of what this time in their lives can be, maybe they can approach this period in their own lives a bit more like a second reading.  Perhaps they will treat some of those choice points with the knowledge that they are defining who they are.  And will have compassion for others and for themselves when they stumble.

And that they choose kindness, in whatever ways they can.  And they see kindness in those around them, despite the noise.

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