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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.

imagesAs we prepared to bury three goldfish in the backyard this afternoon, I thought about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I read in 11th grade and remember only bits and pieces of, but enough to picture a homemade coffin and grotesque family dynamics related to the family matriarch. By contrast, I dug a shallow grave in the mulch and dirt under the pathetic frozen hydrangea bush. I laid to rest Dumbledore (the fish, not the wizard), who had been stored in a small cardboard box within a ziplock bag since his untimely death on January 4, just 11 days after he and his fish friends Mad-Eye Moody and Tonks were given to Zoe for Christmas by Aunt Susannah and Uncle Aaron. The fish and their home were her favorite Christmas present. She had asked for fish for Christmas but revealed to me after the fact that she did not actually expect to receive any.

We thought Dumbledore died from too much poop in the fish tank, so we thoroughly cleaned the tank after he died. We journeyed to PetSmart to find a successor but instead bought new rocks and plastic plants for the tank. The fish woman at the pet store said goldfish are not really meant to be pets. They’re meant to feed larger fish or swim in ponds, she suggested. Perhaps that’s why they cost 15 cents each, or something like that. We learned that all the other fish available at PetSmart are not compatible with goldfish because goldfish can live in cold water, and the other fish need heat. So Zoe and I decided that we would continue to care for Tonks and Mad-Eye until they outgrew their tank or died.

We did not expect that death would come so soon, just two weeks later. Because of what happened to Dumbledore we were proactive in cleaning the tank on Monday night, before it was noticeably poop-ridden. Speaking of poop, Zoe had observed that each fish in turn was constipated. I had not known this was a problem that beset goldfish but it is. Zoe brought home a book from the school library about goldfish care that instructed us to feed the fish tiny bits of lettuce or oats if they were constipated. Randy and I each chopped up some lettuce and Zoe conscientiously fed it to the fish as needed until their GI tracts were clear.

So when we cleaned the tank, we did all the same stuff as before, except for whatever we did differently, because in the morning Tonks and Mad-Eye were floating awkwardly instead of swimming jauntily as they had been for the past two weeks.

Zoe was distraught. The night Dumbledore died she sat in my lap and cried for a while (probably also because she and Randy had just returned from an exciting adventure in Florida with her paternal grandparents and she was coming down from that). She apologized the next morning for crying and I told her she was entitled to cry and there was no reason to apologize.

So this morning she was even more distraught, and cried in my arms again for a while. I called school and told them she would be late. All she was missing was PE. I emailed her teacher to alert her to Zoe’s disposition. After school today, in the bitter wind and 25 degree temperatures, we held the fish funeral. I said thank you to the fish for being Zoe’s first pets, and for contributing to the soil so flowers could grow, and said that I hoped they were swimming happily in fish heaven. I held Zoe’s hand. She cried. She said goodbye. Later, inside, she told me there was more she wanted to say but she couldn’t because she was crying, so she said it in her head. I told her she could still say it, to me, or she could write it down, or she could just keep it in her heart.

Now the tank is empty. The light is off. The filter is quiet. It’s too cold to buy new fish right now and we’re expecting a massive snowstorm this weekend. I told Zoe this would be a good opportunity to research some heartier aquarium fish and–more importantly–how to take care of them. The fish were possibly a starter pet as we considered small mammals for the future–perhaps a pair of guinea pigs? But we’ve got to improve our fish skills before bringing anyone furry into the house.

When I was a kid I had a series of goldfish. I don’t even remember how many. One of them–who I know was named Patrick–jumped out of the bowl and I found him lying on the carpet of my bedroom when I got home from school. I couldn’t understand what had prompted him to try to escape. I buried them all in matchboxes in the backyard. I don’t remember my parents helping, but maybe they did. I don’t remember crying, but probably I did.

Today I could tell that Zoe’s heart was breaking, even though they were only fish, and even though she had known them for less than a month. They were her first pets. They were wholly hers. And she loved them.

Sometimes I wish Zoe would magically behave like some mythical girl I imagine from the 50s–perhaps like how I imagine my mom and her siblings were taught to behave by my Nana and Papa. I don’t know how they actually behaved, but I imagine a lot of “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” and looking adults in the eye and shaking their hands politely when the adults said “you look so nice!” or “you’re getting so tall!” I somehow imagine they never had to be told (again and again) to sit up, or to stop scowling, or to stop kicking the back of someone else’s seat.

But that’s probably not true. That’s what kids do, right?

And in general I’m thrilled we don’t live in the 50s.

I often think about how vastly different the culture was and my grandparents’ circumstances were from my own parents, and–somewhat less dramatically–how the expectations for parents and children are for my generation. Paradoxically I wish for the simplicity, respect, and determination to appreciate what you have and not waste so much of everything that I feel was characteristic of my grandparents’ parenting and my parents’ upbringing. But I realize that times were different and some of that leanness was born of necessity. They had less so they had no choice. We have more so we can afford to make poor decisions more often. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t know how to stop it though.

I read somewhere that moms today spend way more hours actually engaged in activities with their children than moms 50 years ago, despite the fact that more moms today have part-time or full-time jobs outside the home than did previously. Because that’s what’s expected of us. We have playgroups, we take our babies to music classes and sign language classes and playdates. My own mom, who was a stay-at-home mom at least until my sister and I were in school all day, doesn’t recall scheduling playdates with us and our friends. Friends would come over to play or we would be dropped off somewhere else. But that didn’t really happen until elementary school. We went to preschool. But we didn’t take weekend classes at the rec center when we were three. I’m making no judgment here whatsoever. I’ve signed Zoe up for and schlepped her to plenty of classes, some of which I thought she would love, and some of which I felt like I was supposed to bring her to. And certainly when your kid crosses the threshold where you don’t have to participate in the class, and you can sit on the sidelines and watch, what a relief to have a break! In recent years Zoe has said, “I wish you were one of the counselors at camp so you could stay there all day with me.” Um, don’t you get it? If I was going to be with you all day, I wouldn’t send you to camp. We would just stay home. I have to work. That’s why you go to camp. But I don’t say that.

Which brings us, naturally, to martial arts. A couple years ago Zoe attended a tae kwon do birthday party. She was a little scared and a little intrigued. Chalk it up to a new experience. The following year, she attended the party of the same girl (now a black belt) at the same tae kwon do studio. She loved it. She wasn’t scared. She was fearless. She said, “I want to take tae kwon do!”

I file that away and then notice months later there is a new martial arts studio in our neighborhood. We sign up for a two-week trial. It’s not easy, but it’s fun and interesting and Zoe’s on board. Of course the timing on my part was foolish. When we did the trial we were in the midst of a rec center gymnastics session and a preschool soccer clinic. And we were looking forward to a summer at the pool and more swimming lessons. Tae kwon do seemed like too much to add, so we didn’t.

Then, after a summer of successful swimming (which it turns out that Zoe’s much better at than soccer or gymnastics), the pool closed and our thoughts returned to tae kwon do. The people running this studio are smart. The minimum commitment is six months. You can also opt for 12 or 18 months worth of classes when you sign up. You can go once, twice, or three times a week. It turns out that it actually takes a while (or at least it has for Zoe) to get the hang of martial arts.

I was thrilled that Zoe showed interest in this. It’s so important for kids–and I think girls in particular–to have the strength and confidence instilled by martial arts. Zoe is active and athletic but also very girly and princessy. Her parents are conflict-averse. I emphasize compassion and kindness and politeness. Assertiveness has never been my strong suit. So I didn’t make her sign up, and it wasn’t even my idea. But I’m the one who’s made the commitment.

Martial arts is hard. The master who teaches her class is excellent, and a stickler for perfection. He does not reward kids who don’t get it right. And why should he? If you’re going to learn it, of course you should get it right. But did I mention it’s hard? It requires different skills than reading or writing or painting or making up shows or any of the many, many things that Zoe does well at and enjoys. It requires patience, diligence, a lot of repetition. Martial arts requires strength, agility, and amazing motor skills and coordination. For a five-year-old, these skills are still developing, sometimes slowly. So Zoe complains. When it’s time to go to class, she often doesn’t want to. She’s tired. But when she gets to class she usually perks up and has a great time. I often struggle with what to say or do to get her excited about going. She doesn’t understand or care about the money I’m spending on the classes or the commitment we’ve made and I’m sure not going to get into how I want her to be able to fend off attackers when she’s older if she’s ever in a dangerous situation. It’s hard to come up with a reason you should do something that you don’t feel like doing that’s not necessarily mandatory, like school or eating or bathing.

Recently she went to a day of camp at the martial arts studio on a day when school was closed. When I arrived in the afternoon, it was time for her regular class. She’d already been there for seven hours, some of which she’d been practicing moves and some of which she’d been playing and watching a movie. Apparently she was completely spent. And apparently I was totally unable to comprehend that, and deeply frustrated that she was refusing to participate in the class and just glaring at me. I had brought her the day before to a 50-minute private lesson there because she had said she felt like she was behind and didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing, after missing a couple weeks of class because of her surgery. During the private lesson she improved dramatically just over the course of 50 minutes. She was focused, determined, and awesome. When she wouldn’t go to class the next day and she gave up the opportunity to demonstrate what she’d learned and test for a stripe on her belt, I was so angry. So we went home and I fumed and she sobbed and I did not have my best ever parenting day.

She went back to class the next regularly scheduled day and was happy enough to go. I thought she did great and the master asked her to try to test for her next stripe, and while I thought she nailed it, apparently she didn’t quite, because he didn’t give it to her. I was disappointed, but she came off the mat smiling and I congratulated her for working hard. I asked if she wanted to go to class Saturday (which we don’t usually go to, but could since we missed several classes and should really make them up) so she could have another shot, and she said no. I asked her again later and she still said no. But she’s been practicing her form all weekend and her punches and kicks, so clearly she wants to get back on the mat and try again.

Part of the reason I so want Zoe to stick with this is that it’s difficult and it doesn’t come easy for her. I wish I had had the opportunity to do something like that when I was a kid. The most comparable thing for me was math, but I never got better and there was no joy there for sure. I never played on a team or competed in anything except intellectual pursuits. That’s a whole different post, but the point is I know this could be so good for her. But I don’t want to push her so much that we both dissolve into tears and fury. But I don’t want to let her give up just because she doesn’t feel like working at it one day. But maybe when you’re five your parents should cut you some slack? Or maybe that’s when you need to start learning to be strong?

Randy says when she does get her next stripe, it will mean that much more because she’s had to try for it again and again. That’s probably true. Until then I probably just need to take more deep breaths and not say anything. I should try not to push or pull. But it’s so hard.

I was always afraid some big kid would pick me up and throw me into the water. I wore glasses and I couldn’t have them in the pool so I could never see much of what was going on. I was never very comfortable in the water. It took me several summers of lessons until probably the humiliation of being 3 or 4 or 5 years older than other kids in the class convinced me to learn to swim. My husband didn’t learn until I knew him.

Parents always want their kids to succeed where they have failed before. And you want to spare your kid whatever horribleness you might have experienced as a child, as much as it’s possible–and it isn’t always possible.

That is the context for our extraordinary pride at Zoe’s aquatic achievement this summer. As Dana Vollmer and Elizabeth Beisel (and of course Michael Phelps) slice through the water in the background, we have spent a heady few weeks watching Zoe GET IT. She kind of learned to swim last summer, with the help of some lovely young lifeguards at Woodley Pool, who succeeded when past efforts to get Zoe comfortable in the water had failed. A previous swim class she took yielded only “able to get in and out of the pool using the ladder” on the report card they issued at the end. And then last winter we joined the YMCA just so she could swim because she was so excited about it. But she hated the pool at the YMCA and the instructors were terrible. If anything, she regressed. And even the first day of summer this year she was clinging to us, refusing to let go of us or the wall.

And yet, she persevered. We rejoined Woodley Pool, which she loves, and she relaxed. We resumed lessons with the teenage lifeguards. We went to the pool several times a week so she could play and practice. And she really, truly got it. When we were on vacation in Lewes, Delaware, she swam in the Delaware Bay. When we returned from vacation she took the swim test at Woodley: tread water for 60 seconds and swim the 25-meter length of the pool without stopping. She passed with no trouble, granting her the privilege of swimming by herself in the pool, going in the deep end, and jumping off the diving board. She immediately wanted to try the diving board, and she tried and tried and tried until she made herself do it.

At the theatre camp she’s currently attending, they take the kids to a nearby pool three days per week. Today Zoe took the initiative of asking the lifeguard at that pool–who she didn’t know at all–if she could take the swim test to swim in the deep end there. He gave her the test–which was easier than Woodley’s, she said–and she passed and was the only kid able to venture into the deep end, which she did with confidence.

Next year we are definitely signing up for swim team. I was never on any sort of athletic team until I was an adult. I am so proud of her that she has these skills and this drive that I never possessed, and that she can enjoy herself and be safe in the water.

The other night when she passed and was in the midst of making herself jump into the deep end and attempting the boards, Randy and I were overjoyed. At one point Randy said “I think we should get her a treat. Should we go out for ice cream later?” I said, “she can have anything she wants! She can have a puppy!”

So we ended up at Baskin-Robbins, not at the animal shelter, but we are still very excited. Here’s some footage of her big night.

I gather that most preschoolers don’t care too much about whether they know their teacher’s name, or the name of a new buddy at the playground, or anyone else. I know when I co-op at Zoe’s school most of the kids call me “Zoe’s mom” and that’s sufficient.

For Zoe, she feels a great sense of comfort and connection knowing someone’s name. If she makes a friend at the playground she will ask his or her name first thing, and usually ask it again when she leaves because she forgot it while they were playing. Then she can say “goodbye Jasmine!” as we’re heading out, and talk for the rest of the day about her new friend Jasmine.

So today, for the second time this week, there was a substitute teacher at swim class. Tuesday’s substitute was friendly enough and I asked her name and told Zoe what it was. I was surprised as I watched from the observation deck that she had a completely different style of teaching from the regular instructor, and at first I wondered whether they would actually learn anything, but then I saw that the kids were all practicing various skills on their own while the teacher worked with each kid individually. I could see they were having a lot of fun not sitting on the wall as usual. I was actually hoping that teacher would be there again today. Instead it was a different substitute, and it was just all wrong.

I made the mistake of not asking her name at the beginning. I guess I just forgot. There were only three kids (instead of usually six or seven) so I thought it might be good for Zoe to get some extra individual attention. But it wasn’t.

As you may have read in my previous post, Zoe has loved her swimming lessons and been very brave. I’m not sure how much she’s actually learned about swimming, but she’s gotten way more comfortable playing and using the various floatation devices and toys they provide. Today she was terrified. The teacher either didn’t understand that this was a class for beginners or didn’t care, and she pushed them to do more on their own than they’d ever done. Instead of working with each kid individually, she would hand them the floating barbells or strap them into the floating belts, and expect them to motor down the length of the pool themselves. She had them working most of the time in depths Zoe couldn’t stand up in. Zoe had no idea what to do. I watched from above with growing unease. I saw the two other kids (one of whom is six years old) doing what he was supposed to do with ease. The other little girl flailed a little more but still went for it. Zoe was panicking. The instructor would try to give her a little push and she would grab onto the instructor with a look of desperation. I knew what was happening but I didn’t know how to stop it.

About two-thirds of the way into the lesson, the lifeguard turned and looked up at me and pantomimed that Zoe was crying, so I went downstairs. The instructor told me Zoe was panicking, as if the instructor had never dealt with a scared child before. I talked to Zoe for a minute and calmed her down and convinced her to get back into the pool for the last five minutes of class, to practice blowing bubbles. Then the instructor asked the kids to go under. The other two did it and Zoe wouldn’t. She has allowed the other instructors to help her go under every class. But by this time she was totally shaken up. Finally, thankfully, it was over.

On the way home Zoe mentioned at least a dozen times that she couldn’t stop thinking about how scared she was in the pool, and how she was afraid the instructor was going to let her sink. I can totally understand how she didn’t feel like she could trust the instructor who she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t know, and who was asking her to do things in a way she’d never done them before. I would have been scared too. I asked her why she was so upset. She said she was afraid the teacher was going to let her sink.

I told her that no instructor would ever let her sink, and no grown-up who’s taking care of her would make her do something dangerous. I told her the floaties hold you up, even if your face gets a little wet. I told her that Randy or I would take her to the pool soon to practice some of what she was doing in class. Nothing she hadn’t heard before, but clearly she wanted a reminder. She said she didn’t want to go back. I asked the front desk person if her regular instructor would be back next week and he said yes. So we’ll go back next week. Hopefully the memory of today’s class will fade. But I still remember being in a pool when I was probably close to her age, and being sure I was drowning because I was under water for more than a couple seconds after losing track of the wall or my floatie or whatever it was that I had been holding onto. This is why I want her to learn to swim sooner rather than later. But she has to be able to trust her teachers to relax. I am often torn between the urge to advocate for my kid and give her the chance to advocate for herself. But in a pool when you’re terrified is not a time when you can easily speak up about what you need. Next time I’ll be sure to make a formal introduction.

I was wandering the campus of the University of California Irvine, home of the Anteaters, which say “Zot!” I was looking for a sign directing me back to the arena where commencement was taking place. I had followed the siren call of the campus bookstore after my brother-in-law’s walking tour of the lush and inviting grounds. I promised my sister I could find my way back.

I saw a man in academic robes feeding a parking meter and asked if he could point me in the direction of commencement. He offered to walk me there, which had been my hope. His robe was embroidered with dozens of colorful sea creatures. I cleverly deduced that he was a marine biologist. He said his mother had embroidered “every critter I’ve ever studied” and continues to add more periodically. He’s a professor at UC Irvine and his research specialty is sharks.

As we walked to the arena (a good 10-minute walk during which I was really glad he was escorting me) I discovered that he travels 60,000 miles a year to remote locations to hang out with sharks and other creatures. Usually his wife and 2 1/2 year old daughter come along. He said that his daughter had just learned to swim and that her first solo swimming encounter was in open water off a boat in Belize on a recent trip. She had been feeding anchovies to sharks off the boat and wanted to get in to wash off the anchovies. She asked her dad if the sharks would bite her. He assured her that they would only lick her. Wearing her life jacket, she jumped in and swam with the sharks. I guess he knew what he was doing.

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