Thursday, May 30, 2013

Youth of the Year

Me with the "Brittany Girl"  
When I stopped working last year, I made it a goal to work with teenage writers at our local Boys and Girls Club.  I contacted them to offer help and was set up to interview with the director of the teen center, Sonia Wilks.

A few times in my life, just before walking into a new situation I've been struck by a fleeting sense that something important, which I didn't ask for, but which I need,  is going to happen. 

I walked into Boys and Girls with this feeling. 

Sonia met with me in her basement office where, through a picture window she could view members as they arrived and got settled.  They filed in fresh from the school day, some quiet, some energetic, some reticent. Without much prompting, they fell in with the daily structure: a meeting to gather and go over club events, a homework and recreational period, crafts, projects, play, games, snacks and juice. I was impressed with Sonia's ability to know, with one look, who'd had a bad day.

Three of the members had been nominated for the local Youth of the Year award, said Sonia. My task would be to help each of them develop their "story" to present before a panel in January who would select the winner. That winner would go on to compete regionally, and hopefully, nationally. 

I am the mother of one teenager and three former teenagers and still, I found this daunting. Many Boys and Girls Club members consider the club their family, some their rescue. Might the story of life before the club be a hard one to tell? What would I ask? Why would they share? I was nervous. And, if these girls were like many self absorbed teenagers I've met, how would they support, and not undermine each other in order to compete?  I prepared my questions and a week later, I met Caitlin, Sammy and Brittany.

With one question, "So. How do each of you feel about telling your story?" the conversation took off. There was no detail they weren't willing to explore to give their story the right authenticity, there was no reluctance to disclose, and if one did pause, another helped her collect her thoughts. If one became teary, the others stopped to group-hug her. Far from an awkward exchange, two hours later, we were still talking.

And I kind of fell in love.

We met weekly to prepare for the final stages of the competition - the essay they would have to write, the speech they would give. At times I met individually with them to talk through a difficult detail. As the awards event drew near, they were an audience for each other, listening, offering useful (if sometimes blunt) critique. A week before the ceremony, they were as close as, well, sisters. When Brittany won the title, Caitlin and Sammy smiled, applauded and whispered to me, "Good. She really deserved it." I realized, she'd won for the three of them. 

Brittany and I continued our work together to prepare for the regional competition, reading and editing essays, conducting Q and A sessions. In these, I asked the toughest questions I could craft ("Describe how you benefited from a mistake.") One day, she was preoccupied and irritated, answering quickly, and incompletely.

I put down the questions.  "How was school today?" I asked. It was this conversation that we had first, after that.

We put Brittany's story together in thirds: Before the club, when she was picked on each day at school for everything from her weight to the way she asked questions in class, then went home to babysit a young sister and run a household while her mother worked double overtime shifts to support them. At the club, where she found the help she needed to navigate through the rough days and was shown the behaviors that were getting in her way. Finally, what she has become with the daily support of her club "family"; a community force, a leader of peers, a now serious student with college plans, and in her own family, a mentor for her young sister.

In the days before the regional event, Brittany honed her speech, presenting before the Executive Director,  then before a small group of members, then the entire membership, and finally before potential donors in the community. Once or twice before the regional event she ran through the speech with just me. Sitting. Standing. Pacing. More Q and A, more critique: "Slow down. If you stumble, smile. Better eye contact. Easy on the woe."

The day before the event, we were given the format for the day's activities: Introduction to the governor, photos with the senators, lunch at the host Club in Manchester and the all-important-deal-breaker interview before a panel of judges. Dinner would follow a three-hour period of free time, speeches would be made, the winner would be announced.

Three hours?

This is a lot of time to fill if you've already eaten lunch and are dressed up and don't want to shop or have a mani/pedi/massage or go to a museum and Brittany wanted to do none of these things.

She wanted to take us to meet her father Stephen, and have a tour of his state-of-the-art
workplace.  At 6'5" Stephen is a big guy who speaks and moves gently. Brittany introduced him and we began the tour, Brittany all lit up with look-at-my-dad pride and look-at-me confidence.

Later he joined us for dinner. She presented a flawless speech. Not a phone checker in the crowd. She had us all.

She lost.

I didn't want to see her face when the winner was announced but I looked at her right after. She was applauding and smiling, nodding as if she approved of the choice, handling the certain disappointment with class and grace. I'd expected to see more sadness just as I'd expected to see more apprehension before the interview and speech. And then I understood.

After soldiering through a process that would have been arduous for an adult, I could see that her biggest thrill was not in how she came across to the judges, or even the thought of winning, but in how she showed the people she loves and trusts the most - her family - what she is made of.

Mission accomplished.

It's been two weeks since I watched her walk away from the event with her big dad. She has already written: "I'm fine, how are you? Do you think we can get together soon and catch up?" When I opened her email (subject: "Hey!")I was struck with the pang of suddenly missing someone very much.  Plans are in the making for a coffee date. 

I won't forget her. In seeking a way to relate to Brittany who would tell me her life story (over and over again) I couldn't help but contrast our backgrounds and marvel at her resilience. I was never without someone to ask me how my day was as a teenager but struggled to find that "voice within." Brittany, who lacked support for many years, found that voice early. It kept her company, and brought her far.

The tagline for the Boys and Girls Clubs is: "Great Futures Start Here." I was part of this one and the only word for how I feel about that is honored.

I know you're reading this Brittany, and I have three things to say:

Look people in the eye and mean what you say.
Easy on the woe, you're more impressive because of it.
For an experience I didn't ask for, but somehow needed,  thank you.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's Just Right Now

Foreword:  In a situation that many graduates face today, our son left  college with a  job that
would end in three months with no other prospects in sight. We asked him to come home, drop his bags, and save some money  while he made a plan. It was not what we expected, it was not what he wanted. But I knew it would not be forever. Two years later, he found the job he'd been searching for: a byline as a sportswriter for a large newspaper.

The post that follows is the one I wrote right after he came home, when I knew in the blink of an eye I'd be looking back on this period, and missing it. It is for homecoming graduates and parents alike: this time is just right now.  Appreciate it.

It's just right now.

Among the things I say to our children when they are in the middle of a wonderful experience, or trudging through a bad one is: It’s just right now. Up or down, good or bad, it’s just right now. Five or six years ago, among the things I said to our children when I should have shut up instead was this:  I’m sending you all to bartending school before you graduate college. That way, if you don’t find your dream job right away, you’ll always have a way to pay the rent because after four years, you won’t want to come back home to live.

But that was five or six years ago “before the economy…” blah blah blah.

I was wrong on two fronts. That bartending school is any guarantee of a job behind an actual bar. And, that the “idea” of coming back home between graduating and career-ing was anything we had to discourage. No college graduate wants to do that.

Now that it’s become a reality these five or six years later, I hear my own voice and it is telling me: It’s just right now. In that spirit I have not only created space for Drew and insisted he drop his bags and be here while he’s gathering steam for the next “chapter,” I have had some of the best weeks of my recent life having him here, right now. It’s not just because Drew’s company is wonderful and uplifting, it’s because I’m getting a rare opportunity to know him anew as an adult. One who, these five or six years later, empties the dishwasher and picks up milk on the way home from work and does his own laundry. We talk and laugh like we always did. He works a night shift at the paper and I wake at 4:30 so we often communicate via wipeboard: Me: What’s your schedule next week? Drew: TBD. Sam, sixteen, draws football players next to our notes.

More than once, Drew has mentioned the “search” he’s putting together – search for the first big job with benefits, search for the apartment and roommate he will need to afford it, search for permanence. He tells me about “leads.” What I say is, “Take your time. Stay as long as you need to.” What I mean is, “Stay as long as you can.” Because, Everything, is just right now.

These five or six years later, I know the circumstances will change overnight and he’ll be gone, and on his own again. We’ll look back on it, this gift of being together again and it will seem all too short a time. 

I will miss him when he leaves. A lot. His “space” will remain uncluttered, and I won’t be planning tacos for dinner. I’ll leave notes for Sam on the wipeboard, and he will respond not with “let you know,” or “TBD,” but by drawing characters from Southpark wherever there is space. It will all be like it was, but it won’t be like it is right now.

It would be good to know in advance the words we don’t have to bother saying. But life gives us plenty of opportunities to shut up and be grateful for being wrong. And I am grateful for this time in life that none of us saw coming, but were lucky enough to have just the same. Right now.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fly around the neighborhood

My fret buster 
I fret and I'm pretty sure I was born fretting. 

I manage it, and I'm happy because when I don't fret at all, I'm more than happy, I'm joyous. 

During the school year, when I was ten or eleven,  I'd lie in bed upon waking and scan my inventory of worries; potential potholes in the road of the day ahead - unfinished homework, gym, a spat with a friend over the phone the night before - anything with which I might have to deal.  Especially gym.

Those mornings vanished in May when I woke to  mid-spring dawns - green, yellow and white - and felt like life was actually taller, bigger, wider. I went go to school knowing that, potholes or not, my stingray would be waiting for me in the driveway when I got home and I would fly around the neighborhood, looking at things I usually missed, feeling wind on my face, in motion, free.

Some things haven't and won't change and this is one of them:  summer is coming and children everywhere are counting down each hour in each of these last days of the school year like ye children of olde. Around here, you see little ones so energized by pretty mornings - the trailer for summer - they nearly skip down the sidewalks There are fewer jackets,  more bare legs and shorts, more sandals.  High school kids who have been wearing shorts and t-shirts since the beginning of March have finally stopped freezing.  In only a few weeks, many will be more worried about the forecast than anything else. 

I hope.

Children today lead busier lives, as our own children did. They're booked into summer programs and camps, their lives are organized, their days are rarely unplanned. We arrange for them to stay active and productive with daily structure that extends into the summer. 

To be sure, for many children, it is more than important, it's training. Like good manners and respect for others,  they'll need the concept of time management to be successful later.

And, to be sure, summer notwithstanding, many children deal with burdens  that they shouldn't have to and didn't ask for - poverty, absent or awful parents, household responsibility that is bigger than they are. (Note to fretful people: here is where you can make yourself more useful and less annoying to others).

Despite their daily realities and wildly varied lives, however,  some things haven't and won't change and one, in my experience as both a child and parent is this: children live their biggest, tallest, widest lives in the moments that they are allowed to imagine and anticipate - to fly around the neighborhood - as much as those for which they must show up.

My wish for children,  is that their daily realities and expectations don't rob them of the most heavenly thing that should come with childhood:  the joy of anticipating the unknown, on a beautiful morning when the day is new, when nothing good or bad has happened yet, when anything is possible, and:

The stingray waits in the driveway. 

To fly around the neighborhood.