Last week we received a call asking us to donate some books and small items for a special cause. So I looked through a dwindling collection of books. It's impossible to see the titles without flipping through the pages, like going through a photo album, remembering what was going on back when each came into our home.
One year, I gave my son a book by Dr. Phil's son, Jay McGraw, "Life Strategies for Teenagers". It was written about life as a teenager, and, weeks later, I asked him what he thought of it. He said that it was as if the author read his mind. A kid would learn all kinds of stuff in school, he said, but not how to respond to a parent when he was being yelled at. This touched me deeply, because he cared more than I'd realized. "Whenever you didn't respond," I said, "I thought you were blowing us off." That's how silence can come across, like indifference, even defiance.
I always thought it was a problem exclusive to our large family that there were imbalances of power in our communal playpen. The common complaint was of not being heard. The next was being misunderstood. So I thought that smaller families functioned better, had healthier communication.
Years later, when the curtain of childish presumption was peeled away, I saw the lives of my friends were just as complicated, maybe more. Purposeful, meaningful dialogue was exclusive to no household.
I was about ten years old when an impractical shift in my thinking occurred. Maybe I'd watched one too many Brady Bunch episodes where everybody had boundaries and problems were sewn up in thirty minutes.
My quest for family harmony was only less realistic than Dad's wish for life to be smooth as glass. Still, it became my measuring stick for happiness, the guiding light. If it was dimmed or extinguished, I did not sleep. I mean that literally. I did not rest until peace was restored. Of course, I didn't sleep too well, but the stress of it all reached a hellacious crescendo when I was eleven.
I was in full image confusion mode. I wanted to look just like Mom, so I wore knee-length dresses to school, while cleverly making sure they had a Shirley Temple love-magnet flare. Apparently they did. Well, maybe not the love magnet part, just the magnet.
On the first day of school the home room teacher, who also taught social studies, recognized my last name. He knew my parents. I calculated that to be a disadvantage, and I was more right than I imagined. Familiarity became his excuse to pretend it was okay to summon me to his desk in front of the class a few times per week. He then patted his leg and asked me to sit on his lap so he could "tell me something."
I said, "Nope. I can hear you from here." And we repeated that same dialogue. I stood there praying for the bell to ring until my head was ready to explode. Then it rang. Susan and I met outside, and walked to the avenue to buy the elixir, the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes: Hostess Twinkies, chocolate pudding pie, Funny Bones, a Swiss Roll, the Yodel. That was how it went.
So while I injected the cake into my system, I told Susan how much I hated school. As though she didn't hear me say that the day before. As though she wouldn't hear me say that the next day.
Even now I don't know why I didn't run home and tell my parents. I cried whenever his name was said in the house. I just never told them why I cried. It felt like I was on mute, and so it lingered on.
I dressed more and more like a boy (hoping to shift his gaze towards the girls in class who actually had boobs and wore funky go-go boot socks inside their shoes. But it continued, so I cut home room a few times, and I continued complaining to Susan, and, of course, inhaled cake. The harmony thing wasn't going well.
Me (left); little sis, Catherine (right)
One morning, I lay in bed and refused to go to school. I just couldn't get up my get up and go, but I must have suspected something wasn't right with Mom, because she gave up too fast and went to lay down. So I felt guilty and trapped. The best I could do was tell her the truth, why I couldn't do it anymore. And that was the end of that class. I was switched into Susan's class that day, a dream come true.
Many years after the conversation about the book with my son, I connected that we had something in common. The need to learn how to dialogue. By all indicators, my sons have learned to articulate well.
It might have taken the maturity of several decades, a few roller coaster ride experiences, therapy and slogans and insights from a twelve-step program for a harmony addict like me to embrace a simple truth. I am one of the human race. A child of God. One of his kids. Imperfect. Loveable, and made in his image (in Converse sneakers or no.)
My hope for every kid going back to school this year is that there will be a parent, grandparent, somebody n the wings (with or without Drakes or Hostess) to spend a little time with them, play a board game, find the space they need to share whatever is on his or her mind.
on 2013-09-07 09:49 by By Margaret Garone
Just a little note about our after-school sugar fix. We couldn't afford to eat the whole lineup of goodies I listed. We chose one of the above. (No pride about it. We might have had more if we had more money.)