Today is M’s last day of Kindergarten, and a half day at that. The school year has been in wind down mode since about two weeks ago, what with a class walk to the ice cream shop and lots of outdoor time to pass the days and all. You can sense the anticipation of summer break among the children, their teachers, and the parents. We are more than ready.
I could talk about the things she learned in the classroom this year, like how to read or add and subtract numbers. I could talk about the physical changes that she underwent over the past 9+ months, like losing eight teeth in the span of five weeks (oh my, that was rough!) or growing almost three inches and one shoe size. I still can’t believe I have a child that weighs 50 pounds. I could talk about the new territory of budding (and flailing) friendships or socializing with many more kinds of kids than she’s ever had to prior to Kindergarten.
Yes, Kindergarten and being six years old offers much time for exposure, experience, and excitement. But those are actually not the important takeaways, at least for me, from this year of Kindergarten life.
No, the most important, impressive thing I’ve seen took place on the monkey bars.
I’ve watched this little girl go from barely being confident enough to leave my side to stride over to the monkey bars—where there is a lot of movement and noise generated by dozens of children every morning, some of them much bigger and older than her—to now being able to swing along the entire length of bars.
She first started out trying on the younger children’s playground at school.
But soon scrapped that plan to aim for the bigger set on the other playground.
These aren’t your stationary monkey bars, mind you. The bars swing from chains, giving them an added dimension of complexity. Once in a great while the older, taller children like to push them so that they swing while a (usually) younger child is approaching. For someone who does not like crowds, noise, or high action surroundings, this was certainly not her ideal set up. But, for some reason, she wanted to give them a go.
It took her many, many months to work her way from only just reaching out to grab the first, elusive bar to feeling confident enough to let go and reach for the second. She worked on it every morning, save for the days of inclement weather when the children were inside before school. She only had about ten to fifteen minutes to practice until the whistle rang, but that’s what she chose to do. She wasn’t interested in playing chase or talking with her friends. She wanted to master this feat.
There were a lot of falls to the ground. There was a sea of children, the same age/grade as her, who could do the entire length (and back!) without any effort it seemed. She was the only one who could do just two bars. One, two, drop. One, two, drop. Weeks and weeks of only that. Sure, many other children probably cannot do any of the bars, but they simply weren’t over there trying, and so it looked like she was the lone child who couldn’t master this childhood rite of passage. I am envious of her inborn set of blinders.
It didn’t matter to her. She didn’t give up.
She was determined and focused in a way that, quite frankly, took me aback. At least considering the anxious, tentative child that she was (and still sometimes is) in the years before this one. She learned how to tell the older children blocking the bars with their game of tag to move out of her way. She found her voice to tell the bigger children that it is not OK to cut the line. She learned how to fall, and pick herself back up, with grace and resolve.
And then, one day late this spring, after a weekend trip down to the schoolyard to show her how to get the body momentum needed to reach the third, she did it. She wasn’t just reaching, grabbing, and then dropping. She was actually climbing. Then more success followed during school day mornings and lunchtime recess. She reached the fourth. Then the fifth and sixth.
And, finally, the elusive last bar. Number seven. She did it. Just days before the final week of school, but she did it, and was already turning herself around to start working on her return trip.
While we were camping over Father’s Day weekend, she showed me her hands. They have callouses forming on them now. They are the physical manifestation of confidence, determination, strength, and perseverance. They are badges of courage for putting herself out there, not knowing if she will really ever achieve her goals or if someone might laugh when she falls. They are little pads of protection for the future challenges that lie ahead.
These, to me, are the most important things for her to learn right now, and I’m so glad she did.
I have learned a similar lesson myself this year, at least when it comes to my endeavors of writing, which are still very nascent. I’ve had to learn how to tune out the noise around me of those who seemingly have more success than I do. I’ve had to pick myself up after many, many rejections and falls. I’ve had to keep at it and persevere with a determination that, thankfully, seems to be unassailable when it comes to this drive to write. I’ve had to learn how to do this in the face of others not understanding or caring much about this path I’ve started down.
I’ve had to wait for callouses to form on my own hands, so to speak.
It’s starting to pay off, all this effort. I was proud to have a piece published on the NYT Motherlode earlier this month. And today, you’ll find me with another piece on Literary Mama, writing about some of what my life as a secular/atheist parent has been like so far.
Maybe these kinds of writing accomplishments will be short-lived. Maybe it is all pure dumb luck. Maybe it’s my fifteen minutes of fame and nothing more. Whatever it is, I’ll take it as it comes.
But, just like my daughter, I’m going to keep reaching for that last bar until I get there.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Yesterday, we met with a local Corgi breeder to get the process underway to adopt a puppy, sometime within the next 8-12 months. And as much as I’d like to gush about that for a moment, instead I want to give a very large thank you to the tween girls out there that, I’m finding, are my daughter’s biggest idols right now.
You see, yesterday, when we were at the breeder’s house, two twelve year old girls came during our time there. Fresh faced, with beautiful braids and braces, cheeks pink from the slightly cool air blowing in off the bay, they were arriving for their after school job of feeding, walking and (for the younger pups) training the dogs. When they walked in I could see the girl crush my daughter instantly had for these two young women. Both girls were utterly kind and took the time to engage with M. Later, before bedtime, she even commented about how brave they were to work with all those dogs (I saw with my own eyes that 12+ dogs to care for is no small feat, so I understand her awe!) and how lucky they were to be around all that cuteness.
I saw the same kind of idolization when M saw that it is the fifth graders at her school who lead the lines of Kindergarteners and first graders into the building each morning. It seems that the bulk of the fifth graders who do this are girls. One day on the walk home, very early on in the school year, M said, “I hope that I get to be a line leader some day!” She’s made similar remarks about the fourth and fifth graders who come down to her classroom occasionally as guest readers. She was smitten with her fifth grade “buddy”—a girl— that she worked with on some nature walk in the fall. She proclaims that someday she might want to be a swim instructor much like the young women she sees at the Y each week.
When I see these girls, I catch a glimpse of M in the future. It makes my heart swell that there is a way in this noisy and tempting world we now live in that innocence, bravery, responsibility and fulfillment can still prevail in the tricky tween years.
I think that we often forget that some of the best role models for the very young in our society are those young people that are just five or six years older. Especially at M’s age, where she is gaining an understanding of the passage of time and what constitutes a year, the steps that it will take to get to that age of having a small after school job or helping out at the Y must seem so much more tangible—and the girls in those roles now, much more relatable. The young women visible within M’s sphere of daily life offer so much more than what is presented in the media. I think these tweens soften the expectation and pressure of what is often asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” that so many adults often ask young children to ponder. They give young children a chance to think about their own futures with a series of baby steps rather than the adult leaps and bounds that are increasingly expected.
While I certainly hope that as M grows older and eventually gets to high school, she will shape her longer term plans for her life, right now, I love that her biggest goal is what she might be able to accomplish at just eleven or twelve. I think that says something about M, but also about these young women she looks up to. I sense her own aspirations are developing because of girls like these. For that, I’m thankful.
Quick housekeeping note: You may notice that I now have an “Email Subscription” field, both waaaaay down on the bottom of my main page, and on the side bar of individual blog posts if you click through to a particular post. It’s still in beta mode and this post will be the first test run. So, if you sign up to receive my blog posts via email (which I hope you do!), please be patient while I work out any kinks or formatting issues that may arise over the next few posts. Even though I’ve been blogging for four years come this June, I still take baby steps when it comes to the technology side. Thanks for understanding!
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
It’s so interesting how far the pendulum swings sometimes, isn’t it? In less than ten hours I’ve gone from being amped up about seeing some photographs of strong women leaders that I admire, to hearing, with much disappointment, on the playground this morning just how far some people have to go when it comes to how we view and talk about girls and women.
Last night, 10PM, on the couch
While reading the April 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, I was struck by how inspired I felt after seeing the seventeen women noted in the photographic piece, “Lean In, Lead On.” Some of my favorite women were there, including Elizabeth Warren and Jane Goodall. I was happy to see the wide spectrum of ages, much less the diversity, both in race and professional background, of these women. I especially loved how they asked us to “bend the knee to the quiet bravura of Jane Goodall and Alice Waters, who have been leading by example for decades . . . .” I liked that particular description because it not only shows that there is something to be said for measured stamina in this kind of leadership, but that it does not have to be bold and loud to be effective. In fact, I think this might be my new favorite phrase. As an introvert myself, and as the mother of a young girl who also seems to veer more toward introversion, and is sensitive in ways that are seemingly profound, these kind of women make tremendous role models.
This morning, 7:50AM, on the playground
M was off on the monkey bars, completely by herself, but a huge smile on her face. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that she can only go from the starting point to the first rung—this is the essence of why I love her so much. She doesn’t get discouraged that almost everyone else who comes along to take a shot at the monkey bars can now go all the way across. M can still only do one. But it doesn’t get her down. It’s not a competition for her. At the sweet age of 6.5, this is how I want it to be. As I was standing there watching her from afar, I saw her take a tumble when she jumped down from the first rung. Sometimes, if she gets hurt or falls like that, it is an instant trigger for tears. I think mainly because I’m still on the periphery with the other parents; I don’t think she’s like that when I’m not around, but it’s hard to say. Where some kids might just pick themselves up and get back on, she can still give a good wail if she bangs a leg or jams a finger on the way down. But today, no tears. She laughed off the temporary bang-up and got back on.
As I was standing there watching her, this conversation then ensued with the mother of a boy in M’s class:
Parent: Wow! She’s always all smiles!
Me: Yes, usually. It’s great! But sometimes, like just now when she falls off, she might start crying. So I was just watching her to see whether that was going to happen since it can make or break a drop-off in the mornings, ha-ha!
Parent: Yeah, well that’s because she’s a girl.
Me: Well, I don’t know about that. I think it’s because she’s a sensitive soul and has been like that for a while. It’s so nice to see the sun, no?
I stood there trying to take in what she just said to me, waiting for the school bell to ring. I was astonished that this mother, obviously a female, would make such a stereotypical declaration (to another woman) about a girl. I was sad that she has a son who might be growing up in an environment where sensitivity—or, let’s be real, tears—is only expected from girls, as a rule. I was flabbergasted that assigning traits and characteristics by mere gender is still a thing that some parents of this millennium continue to do, much less openly so. I was trying to reconcile how we can have a list like the one in Vanity Fair and then pigeonhole girls on the playground simply because of their XX chromosomes.
Knowing that there are often reported differences between boys and girls doesn’t help either. That’s the problem with the studies: they forget the outliers and, in my opinion, end up perpetuating unhelpful or unnecessary stereotypes. They also don’t take into consideration the cultural reinforcement of stereotypes rather than the truly innate differences. It all makes me want to re-read Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
The gender assumptions and prejudices just don’t sit well with me anymore because now there is someone more at stake than just myself. Yet, at the end of the day, I am completely uncertain about how to handle them when confronted in the parking lot or during schoolyard chit chat with people I hardly know. Ignoring these statements doesn’t seem right, at least not if I want to see some forward progress. But confronting someone or getting on a soapbox in these venues doesn’t seem quite right either. So what’s the solution? I’m not sure yet. My only hope is that through even small push backs like mine this morning, it will help others at least take a pause before declaring someone’s child is (or is not) a certain way simply because he is a boy or she is a girl. Maybe that will be my quiet bravura.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Tuesday was Kindergarten registration day in our school district. When the school was looking for parents of current Kindergarteners to volunteer a few hours to meet and greet the incoming parents, I jumped at the occasion. It’s not the kind of thing that I normally like to do and I totally did not have the time, mind you, with two pressing writing deadlines staring me down this week, among other things. But I wanted to help because I immediately recalled my emotions on the day I went to register M last March. Not surprisingly, I was a weepy mess when I left the registration room, and a parent volunteer was kind enough to not think I was crazy.
As I saw on Tuesday, crying at registration, it turns out, is not standard practice.
Looking back, I think I can explain those tears better now. When I was filling out those forms, M was going through some pretty tough stuff that was making school and separation unbearable for her every single day, but especially the three days she went to preschool. How would she handle five days of this? I wondered. She was, and largely still is, not someone who can cope easily with major changes in routine. Naturally, I was anxious about how it would go in Kindergarten when the time came.
And wouldn’t you know, when Kindergarten started in September, she was fine. Something happened in the span of the six months between registration and orientation. The issues she was dealing with in the six months before were distant memories as a result of some hard work we did as a family to help her. The transition was virtually seamless and there were no tears (from her at least).
When she was six months old, it was time for me to go back to work. I thought about how at one point, in those early weeks of nonstop nursing, I thought I couldn’t wait to get back to work just so I could have some time alone . . . and then when that day came, I was so completely torn about going back to work. My mind had had 180 days to parse out the meaning of this tender life now firmly centered on the map of my world. My mind and the direction I wanted to go, ultimately, had changed.
It got me to thinking about all the times when she’s had a major burst of milestones, or taken several steps backward. We’ve noticed that when those episodes occur, she’s either about to have a birthday or she’s just reached the half-birthday mark. It’s practically predictable.
Six month cycles, it seems, are how we measure time around here. Yes, there are the minutes that feel like decades, and the years that pass with the warp speed of the second hand, but true growth, hers and mine, seems to come in 180 day intervals. In that span of time, she and I both stretch to figure out who we are together, and how to be increasingly independent and apart. Our high and low tides take six months to fully ebb and flow. Sometimes I feel the sand washing away beneath my feet, inducing a vertigo like no other as my toes try desperately to hang on to as many grains of sand as they can. Other times the salty water crashes into my goosebumped shins, reminding me that there’s only going to be a few months in which to enjoy a swim. I’m content with that kind of cycle.
And wouldn’t you know, she turns six and a half today. I know that some folks celebrate half birthdays. We’ve never done that before, but this year we will. Her sixth birthday, which always falls around Labor Day (when very few people are around), was lost in the shadows of both starting Kindergarten and losing her first two teeth (very emotionally) within 24 hours of her birthday. It was an overwhelming time for all of us. She’d left her preschool friends behind with no way to contact them, and didn’t yet know anyone in her Kindergarten class, so her birthday party did not have very many friends that were truly of her own making.
But I do declare, March is a perfect time to celebrate six and half. It’s still cold, quiet, and grey around here. With the tulips still hibernating underneath the frozen ground and first strawberries still three months away, we desperately need some sweetness and color. So, I’m thinking a half cake and some balloons in pink, purple and light blue (her favorites), just for the three of us. Yes, this will do just fine. I’m not sure if we will mark the occasion in years ahead, but for some reason it feels right to do it now.
Happy 6½ Birthday, M. Watching you grow has helped me grow too. xoxo, Mama
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
* I just want to quickly add that yesterday I received the Spring 2014 magazine from the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and noticed an intriguing (and timely) exhibit that I will likely visit: William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time (runs through May 4, 2014).
You forget, really, once your child starts attending school or being dropped off at friends’ houses that they spend so much more time independently of you. You forget that they are increasingly traversing the uncertain and sometimes rocky terrain of friendships and, unfortunately, the more treacherous areas where the poison berries grow too. You forget that once you let go of that pink mittened hand in the morning, and kiss that sweet nose that peeks out just above her scarf, that for the next six hours or so she will go it alone. You forget that there are going to be times when it seems like she can’t find the trail markers, but she really doesn’t need the map just yet. Her internal compass gives her a good sense of direction. She won’t let herself wander too far. She knows when to ask for help.
Or at least I forgot. Though I was reminded earlier this week.
At my daughter’s school, the children play outside before the bell rings, so long as it’s above 20 degrees. Many of us parents hang around during that time too, to catch up and just enjoy those final morning moments watching our young children play with their friends. I am one of those parents who stays.
For the first few months of school, M had a trusted friend that she met up with every morning before school started. They conquered the monkey bars together. Sometimes they just stared at each other with silly smiles. Peas in a pod, those two. Sadly, that friend moved away around Christmas time. Then winter break happened, and lots of cold weather after the break forced the children inside the gym before classes started. Parents aren’t allowed to hang out when the children are inside because it is too crowded. So, it’s been a while since I’ve seen how M now handles her mornings without her friend there.
On Monday, it was warm enough for the children to play outside in the morning. I kissed her and off she went to find a friend to hang out with. She still struggles with the initiation part of this kind of thing. But she found a friend that she really likes and they were talking, in that awkward but tender way that six year old girls do. Then another classmate came along. I thought I was imagining it at first, but after seeing it unfold repeatedly for more than a few minutes, I knew it was happening. This other classmate (who is significantly taller than M) was physically moving in a way to block M from talking with the friend she had found. It wasn’t even subtle. And M just kept shifting around to try and stay in the mini-circle among their three bodies. I could tell that M wasn’t really aware of what that classmate was trying to do. Then the bell rang and they lined up.
It took all of my willpower to not walk over to that classmate and tell her to stop doing that to my child. She wasn’t in any physical danger, so I just stayed on the sidelines, watching my daughter essentially be forced out of something unwillingly. It is so hard to see that happen in front of you. But, I told myself, she has handled many other mornings in the gym without me (and, insofar as I know, without incident; thankfully M is usually one to tell me when someone is not being kind), so don’t interfere right now. I told myself that I don’t want to undermine her ability to work these things out for herself, or take away any confidence or assertiveness she may be developing at her own pace.
I’ll be honest: I fumed inside for the greater part of that morning after I left the school yard.
When I picked her up later that day, I casually mentioned what I had observed. She replied that the classmate was trying to tell a secret to her friend and told M she couldn’t listen. (The classmate wanted to know if the other girl wanted to talk about boys, no less…already? In Kindergarten? I’m so not prepared for this.) I asked her how she felt about that. She replied that it didn’t bother her. I could sense that she really didn’t think it was a big deal (she said she had no interest in talking about boys anyway), so I largely let it go, but reminded her that she doesn’t have to put up with the bad behavior of others like that. I told her that she is absolutely allowed to tell someone to stop crowding her out or trying to tell secrets in front of her, and should if she wants to. She assured me that she would. She told me not to worry about it.
And so, for now, I won’t. Though I am sensing that M is not likely in the more extroverted, crowd-loving, assertive camp of children, I’m taking a breath and letting her decide when she needs some more advice or assistance from me. I remind myself that good mama bears must let their cubs take chances and be exposed to risks and dangerous situations if they ever want to see them thrive on their own. Mama bears make sure their cubs know the way back to the den, but they also let them wander. They show them how to find the fruit that is sweet and stay away from the berries that might hurt them. At some point, however, the cubs need to test these things on their own. It is the only way that they learn. Indeed, it is essential for their survival when they are eventually fully out of our view.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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