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The_Schuyler_Sisters

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman,
 dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean
 by providence
Impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

This is the first stanza of the first song in the musical Hamilton, which, if you haven’t heard of it or heard the music yet, is fantastically brilliant. No, I haven’t seen it. I’m not rich or that lucky. But I have listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count.

As have my children. We’re liberal around here with the music. Our kids know Mozart and they know Madonna, and everything in between. And Zoe has memorized all 20,520 words  in Hamilton. She’s well-read and has a sizable vocabulary, but as you might expect, she was not familiar with all these words. One day she came into the room where I was working and said, “What’s a bastard?” and I explained that it was a derogatory term for someone whose parents were not married when he was born. She knew orphan already from a million fairy tales and Disney movies. Next was whore. This was a little trickier, since–as far as we know–her understanding of sex is that it’s what two people who love each other and want to have a baby do together. (I’ve long been troubled by the significant gap between this definition that we teach kids when they’re first learning about sexuality and the reality of everything that sex can mean in our society, which most kids just hear or see or prematurely experience without any parental guidance whatsoever. That’s a discussion for another day.) So I explained whore, or prostitute, or sex worker if you really want to get it right. Whew. 

Then she asked, “What’s a Scotsman?” And I laughed. “That’s easy, I said. A person from Scotland, a country next to England and Ireland and Wales. It’s not a bad word.”

Of course along with the adult words, there are plenty of adult themes in Hamilton, including adultery. Some of these things Zoe has asked about and some she hasn’t. Some explanations we’ve discussed in-depth and some she has absorbed silently. I know she’ll feel comfortable asking more when she needs to do more. I have told her many times that I always want her to be able to ask me anything at any time and I hope she takes me up on that.

This summer she outgrew her booster seat in the car, got her ears pierced, and requested a certain feminine undergarment, which she wears every day. She brushes her hair before she leaves the house. She swims like a fish, she learned to ride a bike, and she earned her red solid belt in martial arts–the last belt before becoming a black belt. Watching her take the test to earn her red solid I was awed by the confidence and power she has developed since she began learning martial arts four years ago. It is increasingly apparent what she is capable of accomplishing.

She spent two weeks at sleep-away camp–of which she apparently was homesick for one, but she still threw herself into archery, fishing, and wilderness skills and had a great time. She wrote us a letter every day. At camp she swam in the lake daily. She jumped off the high dive and swung into the lake on the rope swing, neither of which she did last year and both of which she swore she wasn’t ready for the day we dropped her off at camp. She remains terrified of thunderstorms and she sleeps with seven stuffed animals every night. She becomes impossibly sad or angry or frustrated without warning. She glares. She cries. So do I, right?

These days she is demographically classified as a tween, which seems particularly accurate right now. Even at nine, she seems poised to become a teenager while still clinging to the vestiges of kid-dom that she loves. She wants to play with her little brother’s toys and read picture books and watch cartoons, but also be independent and grown-up and fierce and beautiful. She wants to snuggle and she wants to be in charge. I guess that could describe a lot of people I know, of many ages.

She wants to be Eliza Hamilton (the one on the left in the picture above) for Halloween. I have no idea where we will get an Eliza dress. If you have an idea, please let me know. I will pay you if you want to sew one for her. Much as I love the American Girls for the same reason, I love that Zoe has learned so much about American history and the founding fathers and mothers even as it’s all tied up in romance and violence and politics and intrigue. Hamilton is as good an introduction to the complexities of real life as any. She knows when Hamilton was shot by Burr and where the Revolutionary War ended. Today at lunch we were making a list of mommy-daughter activities to do over the coming year, and she was excited at the prospect of visiting the National Archives when I told her that the documents that Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and their compatriots wrote are displayed there.

We’re also going to check out a roller derby bout, hike the Billy Goat Trail, bake for our neighbors, and volunteer at the food bank. When we decided she would not continue with Girl Scouts I committed to special monthly mommy-Zoe activities. I imagine these outings will provide more opportunities for these conversations. And for me to learn to give her space when she needs it.

For her imminent eighth birthday, Zoe has asked for sparring gear (so she can participate in the sparring class at Evolve All, where she takes marPrincess Leia legotial arts), a Jedi robe (in part so she can be Luke Skywalker for Halloween, after having been Princess Leia this past Halloween), action figures from Big Hero 6; and Legos. Oh, and to get her nails done with me.

I don’t know what exactly this means, but she is a far cry from the fairy princess she used to  pretend to be. Her favorite books right now are a series about clans of cats that fight each other to establish dominance. When she asked her grandfather to guess what she planned to be for Halloween this year and he said Princess Leia, I reminded him that she had already been Princess Leia, but that he was close. I meant close as in someone else from Star Wars, but he thought I meant another princess, so he said, “someone from Frozen?” Zoe scoffed. She does like Frozen, and we watched it again just last week, but not as much as she loves Star Wars, and she said, “I would never be a princess from Frozen.”

Certainly Zoe still loves her American Girl dolls, and has taught her brother how to properly brush their hair, because he wants to get in on the grooming action. He loves to take care of her babies (and the baby–Sam–that he received for Christmas this past year) and is often stuffing pretend food into their mouths. But Zoe also has her American Girl dolls teach her baby dolls how to do tae kwan do. I think her dad is relieved that the days are over when Zoe wants to play mommy-having-a-baby or be a princess with Randy acting as prince.

She also loves to play board games and word games and sometimes she beats us at Othello and Trivial Pursuit. She loves to draw and she has created a cartoon superhero named Pet Girl, who takes care of lots of animals. She still draws lots of rainbows that say “I love you Mommy.”

She is stubborn and argumentative and has already mastered the teenage glare although she’s still five years away from adolescence. She loses things and doesn’t pay attention and asks over and over for things she know she can’t do or have. But she is also the sweetest big sister who deeply adores her little brother, even though she does get annoyed when he gets into her stuff, which happens all the time. She is thoughtful and compassionate and curious. I love the person she is and the way she is learning to see the world and her place in it. I love that she would rather look in the boys section at Old Navy for Star Wars or soccer t-shirts instead of the girls’ section for Hello Kitty. Although she did wear a sequined panda shirt today that she recently picked out. I love that she wants to wear matching clothes with her brother and take baths with him. And she wants to be elegant and beautiful and go to royal balls and tea parties and try on makeup. I don’t love the makeup. But I get it.

Part of me cringes at the thought of her sparring, and I wouldn’t let her do it if it weren’t part of the instruction at the martial arts school we love so sparring glovesmuch where they teach you that the black belt attitude is about caring, responsibility, respect, determination, and patience. It’s not about fighting. I imagine the sparring will help build her strength and confidence, which is a good thing for any kid. And you won’t be able to see her manicure underneath the sparring gloves, but her nails will definitely be lovely.

10172795_10152701602524045_1070376792_nToday at her 7th birthday party Zoe was asked to break four boards. Usually at the martial arts studio where she attends classes three days a week, you have the opportunity to break a board on your birthday. The instructors at her party asked if she wanted to break four. No pressure or anything. All her friends got up and broke boards, some on the first try but most after some extra coaching. And then it was Zoe’s turn. She had requested that I hold one of the boards, so I was on the mat, on one knee, holding the board and bracing for her punch.

Turns out she was pretty nervous. Lots of friends and family members were there to celebrate her. All eyes were on her. The punches and kicks that she does routinely and knows well were suddenly harder to execute. During every practice session she practically knocked the target out of the instructor’s hand, but when it was time to break the board, she would punch to it, not through it. In the end, it took many tries for her to break all four boards. But she did not give up, she did not get upset, she did not stop trying for even a second. She even smiled through most of it, when she wasn’t looking intensely focused. Where she gets this amazing determination, I do not know. But the girl has heart.

Her birthday present from her grandparents was, at her request, a wheelchair for her American girl doll, along with a medical kit, complete with leg cast and arm brace, for the doll. Zoe loves tending to her dolls and making them well. Who knows if she will actually fulfill her aspiration to become an obstetrician, but if she does, she will have an outstanding beside manner.

One of the tasks required for her to achieve the next belt level in martial arts (the big move from red stripe belt to yellow solid belt, which signifies the transition from intermediate to advanced skill) is to come up with a virtue you think is important and which you aspire to embody, and describe it for the instructors and your classmates. Zoe’s choice is respect. We have talked about respect many times recently at the dining room table. Today she asked, “Am I respectful?” I answered, “usually.” She seemed disappointed. I said, “nobody’s perfect, but you are generally respectful.” She said, “but I never hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose and I’m never mean.” And we agreed that was true and that’s part of being respectful. Randy pointed out that it’s also a part of respect to listen to your parents and not argue when they ask you to do something or stop doing something. But, I told Zoe, it is true that you are always kind. If I have tried to instill anything in her, it is to be kind. She was listening.

On our outing to the library last weekend, Zoe selected several chapter books and then we perused the nonfiction shelves while she looked for anything of interest. She picked out a book “Autism and Me: Sibling Stories.” I asked her why she chose it and if she knew what autism was. She said it looked interesting and no, she had no idea what autism was. So we went home and read it together. As it happens, this is a great book. It includes 14 first-person accounts by kids of what it’s like to live with their autistic siblings, for better or for worse. Zoe was fascinated. We had a good discussion about learning differences and challenges that some kids have and how everyone can be good at some things even if they have a hard time with others. This is a hard thing to remember, especially when we are always hearing this message that we should be the best at everything. Which is impossible. Last weekend after her winter swim clinic, Zoe was a little down. She reported that after every lap, she was the last one to finish and felt like everyone was staring at her. I said they probably weren’t staring so much as watching her finish, waiting to start their next lap. But I got the idea. Zoe is a strong swimmer and has improved her strokes vastly in the past year or so. But she’s not the fastest. But who cares? She can swim and not sink, and she knows how to do two actual swimming strokes and can cross the pool repeatedly doing those strokes. That’s enough for me. Actually that’s more than I could do in the pool myself. Hopefully it will be enough for her too. There are many things at which she excels, so it’s good to have some things you’re just fine at, but not the best, and remember that they’re fun anyway.

Such as martial arts. Zoe’s fierce determination has enabled her to advance over the past two years. Certainly there are other kids who are stronger and technically better at martial arts. But Zoe has heart, and she has fun. And she is equally at ease becoming a magical fairy or caring for her dolls. Not to mention caring for her actual baby brother, whom she adores. I can’t wait until he starts learning martial arts from her. He already enjoys playing with her dolls, although he mostly tends to slobber on their heads or poke their eyes. In a brilliant marriage of her interests, I managed to find a martial arts uniform for Zoe’s American girl doll. And in an uncharacteristic moment of craftiness, I managed to put the logo of Zoe’s martial arts studio on the back of the doll’s jacket, to match the new uniform we gave Zoe for her birthday. 1011106_10152701603484045_910405362_nI am not a crafty person, but I wanted to do something extra special for Zoe, because she’s an extra special kid.

Happy birthday, Zoe. I love you and admire you so much. Love, Mommy

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