Monday, December 28, 2009

Future Shock

"When I grow up, I'm going to be just like my Dad," Bub told me yesterday. "Except ... I'm going to cook a lot quicker. That way I don't have to wait for my food."

Bub has been thinking a lot about the future lately. He's worried that when he's a grown-up he'll have to eat grown-up food instead of his current diet of breakfast cereal, baloney sandwiches, peach yogourt, and peas. Totally uncomforted by my assurance that food tastes different when you grow up, he finally relaxed when I pointed out that grown-ups don't have anybody to make them eat stuff they don't want to. (This, I find, is one of the major perks.) He plans to name his first son Ben, though he had to alter his ideas somewhat when we informed him that the baby wouldn't be coming out of his tummy.

Pie, too, has become increasingly aware of the decades stretching out ahead of her. We watched Up yesterday and after witnessing the montage of Carl and Ellie's marriage she looked at my tear-streaked face and said quietly, "They were doing so well! And then ... they weren't."

For her, the long years ahead are doubly poignant because she will have to live them without the help of her dearly departed soothers. On Christmas Day, we packed them all up into a Ziploc bag and handed them off to her newborn cousin. We've been talking about this day for months and though she seemed ready, I wasn't. Pie is four and a half. She is approximately twice as old as most children the day their parents decide they're old enough to give up their pacifier habit. But Pie's addiction has been kept in check: she uses them only in her bed - so, at night or during the day when she is troubled enough to curl up with her dolls and comfort herself with a few drags on her soother. She has an overbite and a lisp - both slight, but evident - which may or may not have been caused by her extended oral fixation, but in the end I've been reluctant to require her to give up something which creates so much comfort and so little harm. What is there in my life that offers the same kind of payoff with so few calories?

Christmas Day, Pie stoically handed over her bag of soothers with little sign of distress - until bedtime. Then the tears came. Not a tantrum, no anger or sulkiness - just deep, heart-wrenching sobs. She has made it through the night without a soother before, on occasions where we've forgotten to pack them, but this night was different - this time, it was forever.

I wonder how many of our griefs are like that, the payback for our knowledge of time. If we lived in three dimensions we would still suffer from momentary pains and discomforts, but how much true suffering is contingent on our awareness of the future? As I sobbed my way through Up yesterday I reflected that the melancholy in that film is attached almost entirely to the passage of time. Time is simultaneously the most mundane and the most startling aspect of life. C.S. Lewis argued that the jolt we feel at the passage of time suggests that we were created for some other condition. None of us have ever known a static existence. Mutability is the most omnipresent, unavoidable aspect of our lives and yet we never quite get over the shock of it.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


I found her huddled in the corner of her bedroom, looking sad.

"I don't want to be a grown-up!" she wailed.

I don't know what brought this on, what tipped her off to the perils of adulthood, but a bit of probing revealed a pressing concern: "When I'm a grown-up, I won't be able to play with Mary anymore." Mary is her best friend, a bit of an on-again off-again playmate whom Pie was apparently imagining in an eternal kindergarten, playing with other kids while Pie was forced inexorably to grow up.

"You know," I told her, "when you're a grown-up, Mary will be grown up too."

Pie's face lit up, her arms raised in a V for victory, but then suddenly her face fell. "But then you'll be the grandma. And I don't want that!"

I pulled her onto my lap and tried out various comforting strategies. You don't have to move out until you want to. You won't be a grown-up for a long, long time. Finally I found something that worked. "When you're a grown-up," I promised, "I will call you on the phone every single day."

Comforted, Pie snuggled into bed and when I came in to wake her up the following morning the first rapturous words out of her mouth were, "I love that you're going to call me every day when I'm a grown-up."


When I'm teaching Peter Pan I always call J.M. Barrie out for his nostalgia for lost childhood. This, I explain to my students, is not how children feel about adulthood. Children want to grow up. They look at garbage collectors and gas station attendants and assume they do those jobs for fun. To a child, adult life represents freedom and power. No child ever greets a birthday with a groan of dismay. Growing up is a child's Holy Grail.

So I've had to eat my words since that conversation with Pie - and deal with some flack from hubby, who thinks it's a bit rash to promise the children that they never have to leave home. In hubby's family, independence is the highest value. My in-laws are gems precisely because they place such a priority on the ideal of non-interference. But Pie is her father's daughter, as well as mine, so the other day she returned to our earlier conversation.

"What did you say you were going to do again, when I'm a grown-up?" she asked.

I smiled lovingly. "Call you every day!"

"That's right," Pie confirmed with a nod. But then she frowned. "Well," she added in an exasperated tone, "not every day!"

Friday, December 04, 2009

Report Cards

I am inundated right now with angry emails from students who are convinced that their essays have been badly misgraded by their T.A.s and that I should upgrade them to a minimum of 70%. Somewhat more polite - and yet simmering with unexpressed rage - are the emails from students with marks like 78% or 83%, who want to know exactly how they lost those marks and how they can improve. So there is a certain amount of poetic justice in the dismay I felt when I opened Bub's first report card this week and saw a mixture of B's (in math, science, and social studies) and C's (in visual arts, writing, and oral communication), along with one A- (in reading). I scanned the marks and morphed instantaneously into a caricature of my least likeable students. Why is he getting C's in written and oral communication when he has a diagnosed communication disorder? What exactly has he failed to grasp in math and science? Most importantly of all, what is that MINUS all about in reading???

I've become a little complacent about Bub lately. The aspect of his academic performance I'm most familiar with is his reading ability, and there he seems almost preternaturally strong. This time last year he couldn't recognize all the letters of the alphabet and now he reads fluently, expressively, and with evident enjoyment. He may get a bit daunted with chapter books, but he can work his way through any picture book with ease.

The minus, it turns out, has to do with his ability to make inferences and personal connections. He grasps the content of the books he reads, but when it comes to puzzling out characters' motivations, or the likely outcome of events, he struggles.

So last night when I was reading to him and Pie I decided to throw in a few questions. We were reading about a mouse getting ready to go outside in the snow. The mouse put on his long johns, and then his parka. He put on a toque, and a scarf, and five pairs of socks. In each subsequent illustration he got rounder and puffier until finally he donned a ski mask and prepared to head outside.

"Do you think he's feeling warm right now, or cold?" I asked.

For once Bub was the first to answer, and as he was opening his mouth to speak I suddenly knew what he would say. "I think cold," he answered.

"No," Pie interrupted, sure of her ground. "He's warm!"

Indeed, the very next sentence dwelt on how very uncomfortably warm the mouse was, all flushed and sweaty under his comically excessive piles of clothing. Pie got the answer right, and she did so because she approached the question using her capacity for empathy: she imagined what it would be like to wear all those layers of fleece and wool and knew she would be warm. Bub, on the other hand, went by a sense of association: hats and mittens are cold-weather clothes, and when we have them on we're often still cold, despite the protection they provide. His answer wasn't the one I was looking for - it wasn't the one that accurately predicted the next sentence of the story - but it did make a certain kind of sense.

It was easier to target Bub's language deficits when he was missing whole parts of speech from his vocabulary. Now, what we're working on is that lapse of time between question and answer, that moment when his brain darts around in the dark, looking to unearth the words that can bring his thoughts into the light.