Sunday, December 16, 2012

Critical Mass

So much for feeling better.

A friend from childhood posted this resource from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), on dealing with national tragedies.

I had to take a break from the computer for about a day. I haven't watched any of the video coverage, and I probably won't. Just seeing pictures of the young victims is about all I can handle. So much for staying calm.

I mentioned the effect of music on stress in my last post. That's how I get through the seemingly endless chauffeuring I do as a homeschooling mother. We jam out in the car! I listen to current popular music -- well, alternative. My daughter and I like to talk about our favorite artists and songs. She really likes Owl City, so I try to keep an eye out for new songs for her.

Anyway, yesterday involved driving to the next town for a haircut* with my son, and my favorite radio station, which came on the airwaves when I was in high school, doesn't usually talk news, so I turned on the radio. "A gunman killed 26..." CLICK!

I haven't spoken about this with my kids yet. They are pretty well-connected with other kids, so they're bound to find out pretty soon. I will need to discuss it with them tomorrow.

Today we attended a VEX Robotics tournament at a middle school in a town south of us. My son is on a small experimental community team, which meets twice a week, about 22 minutes away. Their robot had a catastrophic failure today, and they're not sure how to go about fixing it. They have a few weeks before the next event in January.

It was weird being in a school. As these tragedies have happened, I have often been thankful that we are rarely gathered in spaces with large numbers of people due to our homeschooling. It seems like putting all our societal eggs in one basket, to me. I totally get that because of the way communities are laid out that one room schoolhouses or neighborhood schools are thoroughly inequitable. But on the other hand, I see that sending kids across town to school with hundreds of other children serves to impair the building of a supportive bond within a community. Not to mention the promotion of ageism from a very young age, and dissolution of family spirit through the segregation of siblings.

My own mother worked from the time I was 10 years old until a few years ago in the school system as an attendance clerk. Yeah**, my mom was that lady with whom you would be in trouble if you were late or absent. So, I was that kid who was never absent. Things were a little weird when my son was a toddler. We would go visit grandma at work, and all the other office ladies would ogle him. My eighth grade English teacher, the one who assigned us Moby Dick and The Count of Monte Cristo, who really liked me, even though I didn't even *try* to read those books... she was the Vice-Principal at my mom's school. It is a middle school, one that some of my friends attended.

When the topic has come up, I think I have run across one person in my whole life who liked middle school. Or junior high. Or whatever it was when you were that age.

You know, that age when suddenly most of the things you're thinking about seem like things you shouldn't share with your parents. Yeah, that age.

Early on in my homeschooling journey, my homeschooling support group book club decided to read the book Hold On To Your Kids by Drs. Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate. I still haven't read the second half of the book, about adolescence, because, ohmygod, when I had a toddler, I did not want to even think about said toddler becoming an adolescent. But, uh, something happened, and now I have an adolescent. So, that book changed me forever, and here's why.

I've mentioned here before that I struggled with depression, and sometimes I have wondered why I didn't "top myself" (a British saying I learned today from a friend) when I thought about it. The book answered that question. I had a large support network of other adults besides my parents who made no bones about the fact they really liked me and cared about me when I was a child and teen. I would never be able to list them all -- that's how fortunate I was -- but I can give a few examples.

First, there was my art and piano teacher, who I met when I was five, and who continued to be an influence in my life until I was 14, and I decided I hated formal piano and art lessons. Through her, my mother and I were in a group called "The Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society" (we even had t-shirts) where we did handwork like sewing, crocheting, knitting and embroidery. Some of those ladies, I considered my friends. One of them even paid me for a piece of my artwork, which I now own again.

Then, in maybe the fifth or sixth grade, I joined the quilting group at my church. We made many quilts for auction, which sometimes sold for as much as $1000. We met in a few of the members' houses, and at the church. I learned enough about quilting from these ladies that I went on to make several quilts of my own when I went to graduate school, and as a new mother. One of the organizers was a friend's mother; she passed away this year from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, and I still get a little catch in my throat whenever I think about it, looking around my home, thinking about all the ways she personally influenced my life.

I served on the Library Committee at my church as a young child, helping catalog the books, typing up the cards for the card catalog. I counted the elderly women on the Library Committee as my friends.

Anyway, I know that I was never particularly sure how my peers would have responded had I done something terrible to myself. For all I knew, life would continue on for them, playing their soccer, kissing their boyfriends, and I would just be a distant memory. But having made good connections with these adults, creating things together, without any appraisal from them, I knew that if I left this Earth, that a piece of them would die, too. And I couldn't disappoint them like that.

So, I did what any book-loving (as long as I got to choose them) 16-going-on-40-year-old would have done. I bought myself a book of meditations, which I still find useful.

It's unfair to assess my friends like that. They would have been irreparably damaged if I had chosen self-harm. But I can say, having experienced something awful my sophomore year of high school, that teenagers are not ready to help each other when things get serious. At least they weren't in the 1990's. Maybe now that they lose so many peers to suicide, it's old hat.

And this, Dr. Neufeld explains, is how we manufacture adolescence. By making kids rely on other kids for emotional support, they fail to make mature decisions, or deal with tragedy in healthy ways.

So, when we would visit my mother at work, it was difficult. I liked the ladies there, but the institution itself reminded me of the loneliness of peer-dependence and adult-enforced compulsion. And I was the "A" student. I felt like I needed to leave to be able to breathe again.

My mother confided in me that she was embarrassed to tell her coworkers that I had chosen not to put my children in school. But as my children grew older, it turned out, most of her coworkers totally understood why a mother would choose to homeschool if she were able.

So, this is precisely why, when I hear that community members are not allowed to help in schools, and that after-school programs aren't happening because the school district, for some reason, can't afford to pay janitorial staff, it affects me physically. I feel like I want to vomit.

I am certain that people choose to become teachers because they want to make a difference in the life of a child. They wish to be that person students can trust, that person who cares unconditionally. But then, they are faced with the ugly reality that their job is to evaluate each and every one of these children -- to require them to read things which may make them never want to open a book ever again., a part of the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), has facilitated a new school model at the elementary level which allows teachers to spend the first two hours of each day getting to know each student. The students get to pursue interests in those first two hours in an unstructured manner. The teachers report that the students have become more independent, and attendance rates have gone up (without my mom barking at them!***).

So, this is why, when I'm driving my son and his friend to their robotics club twice a week, I try to chat with them about what matters to them. We talk about Minecraft, and we talk about the music on the radio. Earlier this week, the Imagine Dragons song 'Radioactive' was playing. When our friend got in the car, he said, "Cool. Imagine Dragons! Have you heard their song 'It's Time?'"

And I said, "Yeah! I have it on my phone. Do you want to play it? Hey, I heard on the radio the other day that 'Radioactive' is about reinventing ourselves. I think that's cool. I think we can reinvent ourselves at any time."

So, he took my phone and queued up "It's Time," and when it got to the part that said, "Now, don't you understand that I'm never changing who I am?" I giggled.

"What?" he said.

"Well, this song is about not changing." I mused.

I think we decided that if one wants to change, or doesn't, it should be up to that person.

And I think each child should have an adult in his life who will support him, whether he wants to change, or not.

Making this tragic event about anything else is simply a distraction, keeping us from turning this ship around.


* I got bangs.

** I realized this week that I say "Yeah" a lot. After the BIF8 Conference, and specifically the talk given by Tom Yorton of the Second City Players about using "Yes, and..." I have been trying to consciously use that approach. But now I see, I was doing it already. My version just uses the more informal "Yeah, and..."

*** Sorry, Mom.


  1. Nice post! Thanks for sharing! I have seen the importance of adult relationships in my kids' lives and in my own. These relationships are like invisible threads holding my children up especially during times of loneliness and doubt. I am especially grateful for librarians and neighbors.

  2. Amy, would you mind if I shared this via FB?

  3. Sure, team smith. If it helps even one child, it's worth sharing!