Thursday, January 31, 2008

Teenager on Board

My nest is now three-quarters empty.

Last weekend we drove our daughter, my third child Janet, up to a boarding school in Massachusetts to begin the second semester of her freshman year in high school. A new chapter begins for both her and the rest of the family, at least the three of us left at home: me, her dad and younger brother Jack.

My husband attended boarding school during his high school years, but I was a public high school kid. Where Janet was concerned, we had batted the idea of a boarding school back and forth over the past year, with Jon being more pro and me more-or-less on the fence. I knew it would probably be best for her academically. But I kind of enjoyed the public high school social experience and for better or worse also liked having her around. I also found pleasure in seeing her buddies both here at our house as well as in the halls of New Canaan High and on Elm Street. I miss them already.

The decision to withdraw her from the high school and enroll in boarding school happened quickly. She asked if she could go, our batting around ceased, and the search for the right school increased. And within two weeks it was done. Boom! Instant teen on board.

It’s a big decision this one of sending your child off to a private, residential secondary school. All sorts of factors – financial, academic, emotional, and social – must be considered. Often the decision isn’t so monumental. Many families come from a long line of boarding school graduates, from great grandparents down to the current generation, so the conclusion of where to spend the high school years is foregone. Jon’s family has that kind of history. Mine is mixed – mom attended Miss McGhee’s in New Orleans and my dad graduated from Mendota (Illinois) High; my brother had a boarding education as a middle-schooler. And as I said, I am a happy grad of Weston High.

Often a student needs a smaller, more concentrated classroom environment in order to succeed and private or residential schools can accomplish this more readily than a public school. A stricter dress code and/or discipline expectations may also be easier to enforce in a private school setting than at home or in the local middle or high school. Oftentimes boarding school traditions are embraced by the parent who has been down that road and they would like those customs visited on their children.

We have friends in town – in fact the mom is a former classmate of Jon’s from The Kent School – who have sent both of their children to their mother’s alma mater. Although they miss the kids, the concept of them going away to school was hardly foreign. Dad got teary initially, but I think now he’s adjusted. I may need some advice from him on how to do just that.

Our second oldest son also went away during his junior year, only to return to and graduate from New Canaan High, so this is not my maiden voyage with the whole kid-away-at-boarding-school. But it feels different. And raw.

While there are certain things I will not miss - among them being the arguments over computer curfew time, or appropriate school attire, and being tense every morning wondering whether or not she would make the school bus (If she missed it – which she was wont to do at least twice a week – I would be deprived of some extra sleep and wound up driving bleary eyed to school bed-headed and be-jammied. Won’t miss that. Not for a nano-second) - I will miss her, the Janet-ness of her on a daily basis. The unexpected hugs and giggles for me only; the sharing of friend “drama;” the scoop on the Jonas Brothers; the hormones that coincide with my own; the fact that my eye-liner or favorite pair of Uggs or body scrub will not be disappearing.

As we said goodbye to her last Sunday in front of her dorm, I was paradoxically both of full heart and heart-broken. I hugged her maybe a second longer than I think she was comfortable with and as I pulled away tears immediately filled my eyes. Janet winced.

“It’s okay, mom,” she said, turning a little pink nonetheless. I thought of the lyrics to a Billy Ray Cyrus/Miley Cyrus song (“Ready, Set, Don’t Go”) she enjoys:

(MILEY:) Lemme go now. (BILLY RAY:) Don’t go! (MILEY:) I’ll be alright, I’ll be ok. Know that I’ll be thinkin’ of you each and every day. (BILLY RAY:) She’s gotta do what she’s gotta do… (MILEY:) This is where you don't say what you want so bad to say (BILLY RAY:) This is where I want to but I won’t get in the way. Of her and her dream. And spreadin’ her wings…

(MILEY:) I'm ready to fly!

I will learn to get more on board with the child away at school. Change is good. And if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Does it get any Easier?!

I don’t think it matters whether you have one child or a dozen, at some point – or at many points – you are going to wonder aloud, “How old does the kid have to be before raising them gets any easier?”

I don’t have an answer and I have four of the suckers, ages 11 to 24. So one would think I might have some sage advice. And yet I don’t. Certain ages seem easier to negotiate than others, but crucial mitigating factors sneak in there, and one mother’s easy is another mother’s walking, talking nightmare. Not comforting, I know.

I was recently moaning over the telephone to my sister-in-law out in Wyoming about some teenage trial or other. She said to me, “Well, Julie, it’s not your first time at the rodeo.” One doesn’t have to be from a western mountain state to fully appreciate that statement. And it’s a pretty great one, isn’t it? “Not your first time at the rodeo” is now taped to my computer. Perhaps it will become a new mantra. And when I say it I picture myself as either the rodeo clown – dodging and weaving and being laughed at – or as one of those fairly confident looking, really cool, fringy and fuzzy chaps- wearing cowboys sitting high and solid aboard a bucking bronc. I’m twirling my hat around my head, yee-hawing, just before I am catapulted off and up and head-first into manure.

I would have to say that the teen years are the hardest, the most challenging, but that statement seems a no-brainer. With hormones and identity-searching raging, being a teenager and RAISING a teenager is fraught with conflict and confusion. Yet as stated earlier, mitigating factors can make the teen years either a piece of cake or a piece of scat. It’s in the “lap of the gods,” as my late, great mom used to say.

Blake wasn’t an altogether awful teenager. He was and is a man of few words, friends, wants and needs. Any “age-appropriate” faux paus’ were few and far between. His younger by two years brother, Kenny however, was the opposite – more words, more social commitments and needs and wants that seemed bottomless. Where Blake erred on the side of caution, Kenny decided early into his teens that “caution” was a concept for and of which he would not have any part. My teen daughter, Janet, is not unlike her brother Kenny – right down to the same birth date – yet the factor that makes her experiences different is that she is female. That’s something we have not experienced in terms of the teenaged years, so things are at times really foreign. Are girls easier than boys, or the other way around? If I comment on the truth here either Janet or Kenny will likely poison my morning Diet Coke, so perhaps I’ll go with “it’s a toss up.”

The middle school years aren’t a walk in the park either, and my fourth and final child is right smack in the, well, middle of them. Even though it’s a been-there-done-that thing I can nonetheless occasionally be discovered curled up in the fetal position wailing, “Does it get any easier?” By now one would think I’d know the answer. I do, I do know the answer, and it is “Not yet.” Although, to be fair, Jack is hands-down the easiest child I have had to raise, but at only 11, there’s still plenty of time to terrorize. I need to be cautious not to become too complacent… he can execute a sneak attack at any moment.

“I couldn’t hit a wall with a six gun, but I can twirl one. It looks good.” ~ John Wayne

While raising children doesn’t truly get any easier, I can at least try and look as if I’m doing it in a fairly effortless manner. You know, “act as if…” Act as if I know exactly what to do when a tantrum presents itself, or a kid forgets to phone on mother’s day, or a son doesn’t feel like working full-time, a daughter doesn’t realize the meaning or purpose of a clothes hanger, or a sixth grader insists that his bedtime can be just as late as a ninth grader’s. Act as if I don’t long to escape to my own private island, sans everybody and anything but some sunscreen.

I suppose easy isn’t interesting. Which makes my life quite the rodeo indeed.

The Passion of the Child

Hell hath no fury like a child scorned.

It is Major League Baseball playoff time, a time of great joy and/or sorrow, peppered with shouts of obscenities or triumph, at least in our house. Both my husband and son, Jack, are rabid Yankee fans, although I question Jack’s loyalty when the Yanks are behind; he becomes something altogether different than an adoring admirer when the chips are seemingly down for the Bronx Bombers.

When he was younger, the screams and cries – although explosive in nature – were more along the lines of: “Stupid Yankees! What the heck?!” And, now, the 11-year-old younger brother of two older male siblings with questionable vocabularies, substitutes the words “stupid” and “heck” with more colorful terms. This only results in more exasperation when he is properly parentally scolded, while I silently curse both the Yankees and my son for losing control of the game.

Jack’s buddy, Drew, is a Red Sox enthusiast, and his mom Robin reports that their house is just as tense during games. Once this past summer, Jack went over to Drew’s to watch a Yankees-Red Sox game, and Robin and I both braced for a young boy massacre of epic proportions. It never materialized.

When a person, especially a person on the left side of puberty, has a passion for some person, place or thing, it can be fabulously fierce.

Last week in Food Emporium I witnessed the meltdown of a tiny, blonde female toddler when she was not allowed to have a Scooby-Doo Pez dispenser, which hung directly at her eye level at the check-out counter. She was fondling it with longing as she simultaneously tugged on her daddy’s shorts.

“Pez, pweeze! Pez pweeze!” she implored, saucer eyes gazing pleadingly upward.

“No, honey. Not today,” answered her father, prying the Pez from her now vise-like grasp.

The accompanying scream was startling and anguished. As her red-faced dad pulled her away by the waist, her small arms outstretched achingly in Pez Scooby’s direction, as she cried “Nooooooooooo!,” sounding like a lover wailing at her paramour’s departure for war.

I recall the histrionics of my high school girlfriends and me when boyfriend disintegration would occur, as of course teenage relationships are wont to do. The physical and psychological pain seems unbearable and near-animalisitc sounding sobbing feels like the only solution to rid the body of the toxins of rejection. As heartbreaking as it is for a 14-year-old girl, it feels nearly as powerful for the powerless mother; the passion of the parent to protect is instinctive.

Often the attempt to protect a child from disappointment is futile. Losing and disenchantment and frustration are simply part and parcel of life. Without those three, joy would not seem as precious, success not nearly as sweet.

Those pithy clich├ęs – “soldier on,” “this too shall pass,” “it could be worse,” “maybe next time” - and my husband’s favorite – “I want gets nothing,”do little to rectify a passion purged at first blush. Yet I think the child will retain these time-worn and time-honored “slogans” each time they feel thwarted in the future. I want to believe that in their heart-of-hearts that know that they will live to see another day, that the odds of a team winning again will come to fruitition that a Pez Scooby-Doo will some day make it onto the check-put conveyer belt.

The Yanks have made it to and won the World Series 20-something times before and the whole deal is a dream to be dreamed every year. I need to convince Jack to put a little more faith in the pinstriped boys of October.

Either that or move out until the playoffs are over. The latter sounds preferable.