of Soeren and Silas and seasonal singing (aka, Jesus wept)

child singing

Tis the season, friends. By which I mean the season for singing . . . about chestnuts and sugar plums and the wonders of His love. And as someone who mostly doesn’t sing, at least when I have a choice, I have had wonders all my own this season. About, for example, whether singing can ruin children’s lives.

This fall, Silas and Soeren sang with the Capo and Cadenza divisions of the Lawrence Children’s Choir. It all ended in a darkened theater, on a big stage, in full view of the ticketholding public. And friends, it was painful.

Leading up to the concert, we have some inkling that the performance might not go well. Choir practice for the semester gets off to a dreadful start, and though Silas warms up to it after a few weeks, he’s not one for novelty. It takes him weeks to stop actively physically resisting the move from the orchestra classroom to the choir classroom to practice on the risers. What, then, of the much-less-practiced transition from one high school to another, and from classroom to actual stage and live audience?

And Silas is not my only concern. Both of my children march to their own beat much of the time—this is part, in fact, of why I wanted them to have a structured experience in a group of other children. But there’s a limit to what an hour a week can achieve. In fact, there are limits to what can be achieved, period. Soeren spent three years of his life in highly structured Montessori environments. I’m sure he benefited in some direct ways, but love of order and tendency to follow directions are not among them. The long view is that I have been trying to instill these particular values for many years. The deeper truth is that Soeren has been himself, and resistant to being molded, since before that.

Which brings us back to the final rehearsal. Of seventeen (17!!!) numbers, the youngest children are slated to perform in six of them. My sons’ favorite of these, “Turn the World Around,” captures their hearts, but the instructions for performing it have not captured their attention. At least, not in a way that is helpful for choral performance. The entire song is repetitions of three harmonies, one of which predictably includes the line “turn the world around.” The children have been instructed to, upon singing this line, turn slowly and carefully around, exactly one time. All 46 children. 44 of whom appear to follow directions.

Soeren, who is 7 and a dreamer, who loves music and performing in the Nutcracker, but who also lives nearly entirely in his head, is so transported by the experience of the singing that surrounds him that he stands, staring straight ahead, while around him the entire group pirouttes in place. Soeren’s face is transfixed, eyes gazing into middle distance; his body, meanwhile, is frozen. The outside appearance is that a chorus of children are blithely singing and dancing as one child, trapped in the middle, speechlessly beholds an approaching catastrophe that he is powerless to prevent.

The music director says Soeren’s name twice, snaps her fingers, waves an arm in a theatrical gesture. My older son doesn’t so much as glance in her direction. The director shakes her head sharply and abandons the effort as in front of her, the choir continues to sing.

It’s my business, Soeren explains later. I suggest that from where I’m sitting, at least, following directions is everyone’s business, but Soeren states, calmly: our teacher says it’s ultimately my business whether I decide to turn or not. Ultimately means in the end. I ultimately decided not to.

In the same rehearsal, meanwhile, Silas is positioned amid 8 other tiny children on another section of risers. And Silas does turn. He turns, as instructed, on “turn the world around.” He also turns on “we come from the fire” and additionally, for the entirety of the later “Do you know who I am” section. In fact, Silas continues to turn for the rest of the song, and then for the following three numbers, songs that have nothing whatsoever to do with turning.

The music director, perhaps knowing when to cut her losses, barely glances in Silas’s direction, but Si’s own teacher, a woman whose gentleness and humor have only slightly frazzled in the company of my younger son, reaches out to remind him to stop. Silas proves as resolute as his brother, however, and continues his slow, continuous turns until eventually he falls off the riser and disappears from view. He takes another child, a little girl with neatly parted hair and a ruffled pink skirt, down with him. She is fine. Silas is fine. Silas begins to spin, again.

Miss Sara assumes a position right next to my still-revolving child. She shakes her head. I put my own in my hands. Across the room, two of my mama friends laugh silently. One pantomimes with her hands, mouths “Can I help?,” and I shrug, palms up.

The teachers seem mostly unperturbed, the entire choir is singing, and in that moment, what can you do? In the immediate and unforgiving space between the theory and practice of parenting, what can any of us do?

Eventually, mercifully, it ends.  We survive, the three of us, and the bystanders do, too.

We get dinner. I take some of my trademark deep breaths, the ones I began practicing while pregnant, never anticipating that I was preparing not for childbirth, but for the entirety of the rest of my life.

And much later, after bedtime, I retell this story. And then I casually mention to my husband that I’m not sure the concert—the public one, on taller risers—is a great idea. And I remind him, much more emphatically, that I work on Sundays. In a neighboring state. And that it might turn out that I cannot be there to watch this event. That he might be on his own . . as I have been for choir practice all semester. (I actually don’t say that last part out loud.)

And yet, on concert day, I am unwilling to stay away. I tell myself that it’s because it’s one of those moments that you’re always glad you went to. Because I’ll regret it if I don’t. Because what kind of a mother would miss this, though in truth I don’t set much store by What Kind of A Mother. I’m not that kind, whatever that might be.

In actuality, I probably leave church early and drive an hour in pouring, icy rain because I have earned this. We deserve each other, this concert and I, after the hours I’ve spent—hours in which I contemplated the meaning of parental sacrifice more acutely than ever before—singing, out loud, in front of other people, in order to convince my four year old to do the same.

And so, I find Craig, who has dropped the boys off in the specified location, and we take our seats. And we watch.

The audition-only tour choir performs beautifully, notes hanging briefly in the air and then melting away. And then our own children appear.

Si and Soeren take to the stage twice, for three songs each time. For this performance, the older choirs—choristers and above—wear special show-choir outfits. Our children, meanwhile, are in corduroys and sweaters.  Or rather, they were.  In front of 800 people, among small children attired in their Sunday best, Soeren and Silas make their choral debut in Skydive Colorado t-shirts.

Craig goes off to fix this at intermission, and we watch with satisfaction as the children troop back onto the stage, ours, this time, matching the others.

Or not.

No one is watching Soeren, who is entirely obscured by the “grandma choir” which has joined the children for the finale. Whether he turns or not is indeed his own business, as predicted.  Even in front of 800 people.

Silas, on the other hand, is visible.  Or rather, parts of him are. There are nearly 150 people on stage, all singing, and there are instruments and motions and a riot of color. But two of us only have eyes for the tiny blond child at the foot of the risers. Who is swept on stage with the others, and who, in the middle of the crowd, and in the middle of the song, is standing and singing, with his eyes shut and both arms wrapped entirely around his head.

To cover his ears, he tells us later. It is so very loud.

He looks pained up there, and we are pained, too. We should not, after all, have done this to him. To either of them. To ourselves. Choir, with its lessons and its joys, it is not for everyone. It is not for my children. And now we know.

Except that Soeren is ecstatic, proud to have been onstage and to have sung with the big kids and even because I behaved myself. Silas, meanwhile, has fallen asleep, but later, after the post-concert crush and the cold rain and the rather shell-shocked dinner, I take yet another deep breath. I ask, as casually as I can muster:

So . . . how was the concert, Silas?

And Si looks up at me, smiles proudly and says,

It was awesome.

Really!?, I ask, unable to keep the incredulity from my voice.

Really, says Silas.

I SANG.

And so he did.

singing kids [Converted] copy

homeschooling for happiness (wherein our family tries again)


Fifteen months ago, I told you that I planned to stop homeschooling my older son after a rough first year.

That decision was a great relief, an end to months of internal wrestling and ceaseless dialogue. I wanted, finally, to fall on one side of the fence; I hoped to escape, with a word—No!—the battles and the stress and the painful uncertainty of no-right-answer. My choice was months in the making, but the related blog post came quickly, inspired by those beautiful words shared by Rachel Macy Stafford, I Love to Watch You Play.

Thus, it might be unexpected that this morning I took both boys with me to drop my younger son off at preschool. That we then walked, my older son and I, to a coffee shop. That they know us by order—one hot chocolate, not-too-hot, extra whipped cream; one latte—and that we know them, too. That we come armed with handwriting work, and math, and we revel in the almost-autumn, the luxury of familiarity and togetherness and in time enough for a conversation about infinities (plural) amid an assessment of where we stand at the start of this school year.

It might astonish you to hear that this is the beginning of not just a second, but a third year of homseschooling.

It might be surprising to learn that the first year, we began with a kicking and screaming power struggle, and the second with both curiosity and resignation . . . and this year, this morning, with joy. Mine, irrepressible, the smile that comes unbidden even as I shake my head at the silliness around me. (In our house, silliness doesn’t just reign. It cavorts.) Soeren’s, on the other hand, is bubbly, contagious, and delightfully unexpected—I get to do school again? Finally! This—it’s just like last year! And I missed it!

 

My people, I am not only homeschooling, I am glowing, overflowing with joy at the small moments and small miracles. It has been a long process toward this place; these days, I’m walking alongside, journeying with, encouraging, witnessing. Not so much leading. Not so much setting the pace. So no, I don’t know where we’re going, except in the broad strokes of my hopes—but I can tell you that once I got out of the way, it’s been, three bears style, just right for our family.

This story, its hardships and triumphs, and above all its details, they are personal. And fraught—this is very much alive for us, my family and me. Reality is an adjustment. All of which has made me a bit hesitant to share. And also, there’s the fact that I’m probably not quite like you. I’m a licensed teacher. My focus is special ed. I’ve taught third graders and fourth graders and infants and toddlers and kindergartners. I’ve worked in a “great” school district and a “struggling” school district, and in two private schools.

But the thing is, I don’t have to be like you. This is a story about people who are not quite like other people, and what we might do to celebrate and teach and learn from them. You might have one of those people at home yourself. And some days, you might want to tear your hair out. Some days, you might envision lying down on the floor and yelling . . . except that your child is there already. I do not have a solution for you, but I offer this story—this set of truths and lived experiences—as you try to figure out what yours is. And also, a hug. Because, mama: it is hard.

My son Soeren is twice-exceptional; that’s an educational label for children with both giftedness and one or more disabilities. Soeren has motor dysgraphia. When he does formally start school, he may also be diagnosed with dyslexia and sensory processing disorder.* (It is, to my parental and professional eye, highly likely that he fits both of these categories; whether he is actually labeled as either will depend on how he is performing at that point.) He also scores literally off the charts in measures of vocabulary and comprehension, has been speaking in adult-like sentences since before age two, and has a grasp of mathematical concepts that eclipses my own understanding (and has for awhile, which isn’t saying much, but still).

So that’s, on the face of things, what we’re dealing with right now. And there are some things I have learned about this path. Let’s call them homeschooling Tips from the Trenches:

 

You are gonna need mentors and cheerleaders.

There will be days when you wonder if you’ve lost your everloving mind. There will be other days when you won’t wonder, because you will know very definitely that you have. This path is one of connection, love, and abundant joy. It is an invitation to live in the beauty of this moment. But the truth, my people, is that there are moments that none of us really want to live in. And so, for the stubborns or the boredom or the my-God-how-does-anyone-get-anything-done, it helps to know who you can call.

To do this, work your networks. Ask around. The quirk factor in homeschooling can be high; as in anything child-related, not all HS families are going to be a match for yours. If you can find families, though, whom you like and admire, and with whom you can keep in touch, you will be so grateful to yourself. And to them. If you’re a mama, you may especially want to seek out other mothers who do work or keep a schedule like yours, because some days it will be hard to remember that that’s even possible.  If you’re a dad, I’m told you may find it helpful to seek out other HS dads to swap war stories and simply to know that you’re not alone.   For me, seeing that Audette and Mandie and Beth make this life work helps me keep my chips together on the bad days. And their advice and suggestions help to make most of our days good ones.

 

People who don’t know you, your child, or your family situation will feel completely free to prescribe, proscribe, engage, criticize, exalt or condemn your family’s educational decisions.

Some of them will say unbelievably stupid things. This may be infuriating.

People who do know you, your child, and your family situation, including many of those you love, will also feel free to prescribe, proscribe, engage, criticize, exalt or condemn your family’s educational decisions.

Some of them will also say unbelievably stupid things. This may be hurtful.**

 

You will need decent childcare at least some of the time if you as an adult person are going to do anything else. And coordinating that during “school hours” is a particular challenge.

The task is Not My Favorite Thing—there are weeks when I am certain I spend more time coordinating care of the children than providing care to the children. My best advice is cultivate relationships with your nearby mama friends, swap and swap alike, use your church connections, if you have them, and when you find a great sitter, to keep that person close. People who are excellent with your kids will enhance life for your entire family, and did I mention your mental health? Because I should. Your. Mental. Health.

 

You chose this in part for the flexibility to do what works for your child and for your family—so empower yourself to do that.

K-12*** and other similar privately funded, for-profit companies are spending a ton of money to convince you, often via your local school district, that learning at home needs to be highly regimented. Also, that it takes the same amount of time and should involve the same kinds of tasks as learning at school. That’s a lie, y’all. There are many, many ways to structure effective learning, to measure outcomes, and to plan your days and weeks. Experiment a bit. It’s ok to try things on until you figure out what feels right for you. And (whispers) . . . expect that to take you about a year.

 

You will wonder, parenting a special-needs child outside of the formal school system, if you’re doing the right thing.

Yep. You will. And I don’t have an answer for you. But I know that perspective is key. When, for example, you’re hearing, again, a concern about social skills, about appropriate behavior, about task orientation. And most especially when those concerns echo your own—which are not so much about homeschooling, but about whether things are ok with your child, and whether they ever will be, and whether someone, somewhere, might have a magic solution that you’re overlooking. Here, then, is where I tell you a story, of where my heart breaks. And of what helps.

It helps me to remember that Soeren has been one with the floor multiple times a day for most of his life. That finally, last year—he’s seven now–he threw himself to the ground much less frequently. That now, for the first time ever, I find I cannot remember when the last time that happened was.

It helps me also when I recall that this is a child who watches everything in his world, and who also lives there. In his world. And always has. Who, at 15 months, would initiate a counting game with caregivers, joyfully alternating numbers in the twenties . . . and who, for more than a year after that, “played” only by lining things up. Shoes. Soap. Cars. Who pulled himself to standing at five months, walked at 10 months . . . and repetitively banged his head for entertainment. Who has been fascinated by the concept of infinity since age three, and who could not draw a circle until four and a half.

It helps me to remember that while Soeren can make you laugh with his razor-sharp wit, he has always had a hard time holding another’s gaze—and that now, finally, he has sufficient emotional resources to pair with the intellectual ones to make eye contact an intentional practice. Soeren can tell you about the scope and scale of the grains of sand on the beach, and later you will understand that scale in the depths of your soul as he refuses to walk upright again until every last one of those grains has been removed from the bottoms of his feet. Remembering those moments helps me to have compassion for myself and for him and for the challenge of this path—and to deeply appreciate that we are not sitting there still. That even sand does eventually come off.

children's feet in the sand

Thus, if Soeren looks you in the eye, shows you dimples when you pay him a compliment, or scans your face with a hesitant willingness to try to see what you’re feeling, know that this is what growth looks like. If he takes a breath when you invite him to, opens his palms when he wants desperately to clench them, accepts a cuddle when he’s feeling anxious, I invite you to see that for what it is: progress.

And in this story, if it looks like we’re missing the mark of normal, well . . . you’re right. But what you have been spared, in the lack of daily living with us, is the knowledge that we’ve been missing that mark from the beginning. Not on the school days. Not in the years that we learn at home. We are missing it every day, and have been. If anything, we’re getting closer to that vague watermark of ordinary—we might, someday, learn to pass. In the meantime, we are all learning together, while offering a gentle oasis to a beautiful soul.

I do realize that this hard to accept. So very hard. My mama heart has taken quite a walk to reach this place. Babies come shrouded in mystery, and between that and the beauty that blinds and the strengths that draw our gaze away from the weaknesses and the love that’s so big it’s unspeakable and the fear—O, God, the fear—it is hard. It is a difficulty both daily and eternal to see in our child’s face not our dreams but their reality.

But here is truth, and I dare to speak it, not in resignation but in acceptance—an acceptance of what is that kindles a realistic hope for what may come. I speak, I believe, in the truest love I know: Soeren is not a normal kid. Our baby is not what we expected.

And we love him and we are grateful for the gift of him and we are deeply excited at the learning that he is doing.

I don’t know, truly, if there is a right decision. But my gut says that this isn’t a wrong one.

 

And finally, know that homeschooling now doesn’t necessarily mean homeschooling forever.

We are taking it year by year. If we need to, we’ll adjust semester by semester. Your child’s education is not, first or foremost, a political issue; needs may vary across time and even across a single family (I don’t know if we’ll homeschool Silas at all. He’s a very different kid.) If you can give yourself permission to adapt and experiment, you may find that it means less pressure for everyone. In our family, less pressure equals more joy. Yay.

____

And so, back to this morning. We finished handwriting, reading, math. We talked about infinities and I pretended to know something. And then Soeren quietly thanked the barista, reported to me, “I received a compliment on my behavior,” and skipped past me out the door, notebook in hand.

This isn’t what I thought it would look like, this day.

This child.

This life.

I am learning to be a minister now . . . but still, I teach.

I teach my son.

And he teaches me right back.

 

Blessings on your journey.

j

*Yes, in case you’re wondering, the baffling constellation of autism-related developmental delays often referred to as The Spectrum is something we’ve considered, discussed, screened for.  It’s a tough call in Soeren’s case, and more to the point, it hasn’t been a label that’s had a lot of meaning for us.  High-functioning asperger’s is the best match we’ve found–and it is not a great match.  Soeren is verbally gifted and uses those gifts to connect.  More to the point, he’s wired to connect, and always has been–it’s simply that everything going on around him sometimes overwhelms that ability.  Maybe someday, we’ll discover that there’s a word for all of this.  In the meantime, what we mostly have is a phrase: take it as it comes.  I’m happy to talk with you about this if you’re struggling or questioning or in a similar boat.  From a diagnostic point of view, however, if you don’t personally happen to be a developmental ped, you’re probably not telling us anything we haven’t already heard.  

**These tendencies are perhaps indicative of shared beliefs around public education and social contract, and in a way that actually makes me feel hopeful. We do indeed feel responsible for one another and for the system itself, and we collectively appear to believe that education matters for our future. That said, the people in either category above usually wouldn’t dream of publicly leveling the same criticism, much less in the same tone, toward those close to them who have pulled their children (and their tax dollars) out of the public schools to spend thousands on a private-school education. I believe that, inherent in this discrepancy in attitudes, we may have solution and problem wrapped into one tension-filled package. Communal obligations, individual choices, special needs amid a system based on conforming inputs and outputs, and big, big money. We should talk about this. And I feel confident that we can find a more intellectually honest and emotionally mature way to do it than by scapegoating homeschooling families.

***It might interest you to know more about those companies, the actual outcomes of their products, and the amount of money your local school district is paying them in hopes of attracting per-student dollars via “virtual school” programs. You could, you know, Google it sometime. Homeschool research project. Best paired with a tea and a discussion on the how and why of public policy.

I love to watch you play: (or, why I will not be homeschooling my 6 year old)

I love to watch you play.

This post explains that these six words might change my life.  A friend shared it on facebook this afternoon, and I almost didn’t click.  I have things to do—that’s, uh, why I’m on the internet . . . (?) —and anyway, how often does Facebook sharing make the “life-changing” claim?  So, friend, you’ll need to specify: are we talking about the kind of life change that occurs when you realize that a coworker eats bacon with his chocolate?  Or is it the kind that means you can Lose Stubborn Belly Fat in 10 Days?

Fortunately, Audra posted just enough to let me know that this really might be relevant to my life.  And, because I like her and trust her judgment, and also because I love a good excuse not to exercise, I clicked.

And now I can tell you that the answer is: this is the kind of change that might make life easier inside my head and inside my house.  And friends, I’m all for easier.  I am a grade-a perfectionist, worrier, and control-freakista, and I can tell you that there is nothing inherently better, or bettering, about “hard”—not when it comes to domestic life.  There’s just the harder and the easier.  The undone, saved for the ideal time, and the done imperfectly.  The days when I wait for the moment of calm and peace, or the feeling that I have things under control (it’s a good thing I don’t actually hold my breath during these waits), and the days when I take it as it comes and dive right into the bedlam.

One of our church teens, and occasional babysitters, remarked the other day, “I am amazed that you and Craig are such calm people when you live with the children that you have.”  I wasn’t sure, initially, whether I felt offended or affirmed.  After a bit of consideration, though, I decided we need to take the truth where we find it—and this observation is Gospel.  In short, my people, my family is not making this look easy.  And that is fine.  Because it is not.

One thorny, knotty, rich-with-possibility-and-frustration, fraught-with-crisis-and-opportunity piece of this: homeschooling and my older son.  I am a licensed teacher.  My field is special education.  Early childhood special education, to be specific.  My son was five when we officially embarked on this experiment, and is what’s known in the business as 2E (that’s twice exceptional, meaning that he demonstrates both giftedness and one or more disabilities).  This arrangement—unfettered exploration, ample time to work on needed skills, project-style delving into passions—might have been perfect.

And yet it has not been, not for Soeren and me.  We have generally had a good relationship, but this change in the structure of our days, and my suddenly very direct responsibility for his learning, has put us on a collision course with one another.  Result: anxiety (both of us), frustration (both of us), yelling (both of us), tears (both of us, but not together).

Let me be very clear: I think homeschooling is a needed option in an increasingly widgetized, unrealistic, Matthew 25:29-inspired system of public schooling.  I particularly believe this for those children who really do march to their own beats.  You know if you have one.  (You know if you don’t have one because you may wonder what’s wrong with those other parents and/or their children.  My own personal journey with the children I have, whom I struggle daily to meet and walk with and honor as they are and as they may become, has persuaded me that “I know better” or “I could do better” is a function of the failure to truly apprehend that “there but for the grace of God.”)  I think that comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate school reform is needed, and I expect to continue to be a voice—probably an ever-stronger voice—for those changes.

In the present moment, though . . . there’s me.  There’s Ren.  There’s our dining table, and a reading book, and enough anxiety and stress between the two of us to power large-scale weather disturbances.

There is so much I want to teach him.  There are so many things I’d like to share.  And maybe someday, I will be able to.  Here at this table.  Formally.  In the meantime, however, I’ve discovered that it feels safe to learn from me only incidentally.

While disappointing and not at all what I expected, homeschooling hasn’t been a disaster.  Following Ren’s cues, and trusting his drive to learn and my own gut, we moved to an unschooling model and have witnessed excitement, growth, and stability in the day to day.  The kids are all right.  And, though visions of academic glory still make my pulse race a bit—in fact, because this is true—I am learning to accept that all right is excellent.  For me, that is.  All right is exactly what I need to learn.

It may not be what Ren needs to learn, though.  And in that case, it is only my pride and my fear standing between him and a different set of experiences.  It is my insistence on being the teacher, the judge, the enforcer, the critic, the cheerleader, and the support person that is making it, at this particular time with this particular child, impossible to fully be any of those.  And it is making learning more scary and stressful—for both of us—than it needs to be.  I choose to believe that something more wonderful than this is possible.

The public school system is an odd place to look for it, but I’m choosing, for this next year, to put my stock in faith and trust and pixie dust—the kind that the right teacher, like Tinkerbell, knows how to manufacture.

And so, I’m going to hand over the reins for a year.  I’m going to stand back.  I’m going to trust our team of professionals.  And I’m going to say, I love to watch you learn.

I give this gift to my child.  I give it to myself.  Ultimately, I give it to our relationship.

And as I commit to do this scary, beautiful, risky thing, I wonder where else this lesson might be useful.  Because it’s not only true for parents, or for credentialed educators, but for we who are invested in helping those around us grow:

Sometimes we have the responsibility to teach.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn.

And sometimes we are simply called to witness the miracle of the moment.  We are there to watch it happen, there to honor the journey, there to say the words: I love to watch you play.

What a sacred calling.