Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY SEVEN
On the seventh day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: seven(teen) birdies a-falling
If I were a more protective mother, I might consider having tracking devices implanted in my children. Nothing ostentatious–just a tasteful computer chip inserted into the scalp behind the ear, a quick out-patient procedure with a “good job not screaming or fainting when the nurse used that long needle to numb your skull” celebratory stop at Dairy Queen on the way home.
Nothing says I Didn’t Faint like a cookie dough Blizzard.
However, since I can hardly be bothered to keep track of myself, and I am so far from controlling that it takes the light from Controlling (moving at 299,792,458 meters/second) twenty-two years to reach me, I haven’t bothered with the chip implantation.
Thus, wherever the kids are, that’s where they are, and eventually I’ll find them, or they’ll find me AND WHAT A HAPPY REUNION IT IS WHEN THAT HAPPENS, WITH HUGS AND JIGS AND TEARS AND STORIES EXCHANGED EVEN IF THEY WERE JUST IN THE BASEMENT LOOKING FOR CLEAN PAJAMAS IN THE DRYER! It also helps that their natural tendency is to stay close, shoulder-to-shoulder with me. Until this minute, I always felt like this was a posture of intimacy, but suddenly I’m thinking it’s because they want to be near in case my car swings through the Dairy Queen drive-thru. Hmmmm. I’m going to have to sit with this for awhile.
In the case of Allegra, even if she were a far-ranging kid, we wouldn’t need an implanted chip in order to track her. Instead, all we’d have to do is listen.
The Wild Allegra is not hard to track. The Wild Allegra is not exactly in control of her body at all times. The Wild Allegra crashes through the canopy, bashes through the jungle, mows down the forest, thunks her way across the savanna. The Wild Allegra cannot stand up from a table without dropping her fork with a loud clatter onto the floor.
She is not, to phrase it precisely, coordinated. She is her father’s daughter. She is her brother’s sister. In short, we have a long-standing agreement in our family that if one of us is ever pulled out of the crowd, up onto the stage, while Bruce Springsteen is singing “Dancing in the Dark,” and there’s a music video being shot, Bruce would do well to select me (Good luck hoisting me up to the stage, Bruce). But once I’m up there, I be rocking. Like, in actual time with your beats, My Dear The Boss. If you’re lucky, I might pull out some finger guns, and if I do, DUCK, for I shall shoot invisible bullets at your beefy pecs!
It would not be so with the others in my group. Cher Monsieur Springsteen, if you make the mistake of grabbing Byron or Allegra or Paco’s hand and pulling one of them to the stage, you will have to trash all your video footage and try again the next night, when you’re playing in Kansas City.
It won’t be pretty. If you stick with the Minnesota footage, your video will tank on MTV, and I think we know how all the kids today turn to MTV to meet their music-watching needs. One poor “crowd work” decision, Brucie, and your career could screech to a standstill. If that happens, how will you keep Patty in denim and conditioner, The Boss? HOW?
Indeed, my people are lucky they have other gifts in life–skills like organization, logistics planning, being on time, making food, keeping us alive on the island in case of airplane crash and stranding–for moving their bodies in purposeful ways is not in their wiring.
In Paco’s defense, I do think he might have bodily rhythm inside his softie bones, but he is doggedly uninterested in demonstrating it by dancing around the living room with me whenever The Pixies’ “Debaser” comes on the radio.
He definitely confounds the thinking that says playing video games improves hand-eye coordination, though. Despite myriad hours spent in front of the screen, chasing, shooting, whacking, and clicking, the kid can hardly catch a ball when it’s thrown at him. He is not alone in this. If you toss a ball Allegra’s direction, she’ll end up with dented glasses frames. Truly, it’s a sorry state of affairs if I’m the family’s H-O-R-S-E champion whenever we go out and huck the orange ball towards the net thingie.
We’ve tried to work on this business–the part of life where you see something and then make your hands move so that you connect with that thing. At the very least, I’d like to equip my kids with the ability to block a flying plate, should they ever marry a fiery Greek. To wit: we started summer vacation by stringing a volleyball net across the side yard. Then, liberally applying my patented “lying charm,” I told Paco it would be fun and convinced him to step to the net and face me with a racket in his hands. He also held a birdie.
We were to engage in a sporting game of badminton.
Initially, he deflected his nerves with chatter. “I’m not really very good at this. When we do this in gym class, I don’t get how to serve. I might not be very good at this. This is harder than it looks, so this might not be something I’m very good at.”
Kiddo. Honey. Mommy doesn’t care. Take your time.
Tossing the birdie into the air, he swung his racket. And missed the birdie by a foot.
Self-conscious–because what if the neighbors had seen that?–he picked up the birdie from the grass, noting, “See, I told you I’m not very good at this.”
“Bubs, this ain’t no thing,” I assured him. “You’re only ever going to get better at things if you do them, a lot, over and over again. You haven’t done this much, so you need to work up to it.”
With helpful parental restraint, I did not point out that a couple of his pals could’ve whacked that birdie blindfolded, two hours after they’d been delivered, remnant vernix still coating their armpits.
Paco tossed the birdie again. This time it fell to the ground before he raised his racket.
Again, he picked it up, tossed it into the air, and as it fell, it was followed by the whiff of a racket slicing through the air.
Relaxed, happy to have a still minute in my day, I encouraged him: “You’re getting closer each time, buddy. It’s hard to know you’re improving when you’re in the midst of something, but from over here, I can see it: your racket is getting closer every time.”
As the intricate process of reality clashing with self-esteem played out on the other side of the net, I absently wondered how hard it would be to start an online dating business for the athletic equipment of uncoordinated people: “Badminton racket desperately seeks connection…”
Exasperated with himself, Paco tossed the birdie up again. Missed it.
Half stressed, half full of humor, he crowed, “UGGGGGGHHHH. I’m never going to be able to serve this thing. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter a bit to me. I’m serious. Would you like a few tips, maybe?”
“Naw. I know what to do. I just can’t do it.” With that, he tossed the birdie one more time. We watched it hit the ground.
Torn between wanting to make suggestions and wanting to stay the hell out of it, I ventured, “You know, you could just hold your racket horizontally, place the birdie on it, and then sort of swoop the birdie up and over the net that way.”
“I don’t want to do that. I know how I’m supposed to do it. They taught us in gym class. I’m just terrible at it,” he panted as he bent down, grabbed the birdie, threw it up into the air, and watched his racket follow it–six inches to the left–to the ground.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that you’re an excellent reader, my friend. Also, when you make fried eggs, they are absolutely the best.”
As he squatted down again, retrieving the fallen birdie, Paco grinned. “I see what you’re doing, Mom. You don’t need to. It’s okay.” He tossed the birdie into the air. Waved his racket towards it. Watched it hit the grass.
Swatting a mosquito with perfect aim, I continued, “Let’s not forget that you’re a very kind friend. Plus, when I want to buy you new stuff, you’re really good at saying, ‘Mom, I don’t need anything. I have enough shorts. I have enough shirts. I have enough stuff. We don’t need to spend any money.'”
The twelve-year-old squinted at me through the net, letting my words float by him like a rogue badminton birdie. He tossed. He missed. He retrieved.
Five more times he attempted a serve. I attempted silence.
After the sixth miss, I couldn’t help myself: “And when my back is sore from grading papers, you give me the most delicious massages. Remember, too, how good you’re getting at whipstitching the appliqued eyes for the plushies you’re sewing?”
“I can’t hit a birdie.”
I may not need to implant tracking chips in my kids, but I most certainly cannot stop myself from bolstering their spirits. “Well, in this minute, you aren’t hitting the birdie. That’s true.” I watched as the birdie smacked into the grass at his feet. “This is the first time we’ve had the net up, though, in a few years. So you haven’t been getting any practice at this, outside of a few days at school. Seriously, if you keep working at this, you will get better. You’re being really diligent right now about trying and then trying again. More important than hitting the birdie is this: you’re working at it. So just keep at it. For everything in life, that’s the big thing: even if it’s hard, keep at it.”
Bending at the waist and grabbing the birdie from the ground, he lobbed a look through the net that said, “You are teetering on the edge of Blowhard, Mother of Mine.”
Acknowledging his point, I said, “Yea, I know: ‘Hesh up, Mom.’ Okay, I’ll stop. Just know that I think you’re kicking badminton butt over there.”
He rolled his eyes, flung the birdie into the air, swung the racket forcefully, and looked at the birdie on the ground.
Part of me wished I’d brought a nail file out with me. Part of me would have killed for an iced coffee. But the biggest part of me–everything not fingernails or stomach, which is a non insubstantial mass of head, torso, and legs–was realizing that the sweaty, uncoordinated kid across from me was having a breakthrough. These four minutes of failure were huge.
A profoundly sensitive kid, a gifted kid, an easily discomfited kid, a boy who flushes bright red if he is packing his backpack for school and, looking in his binder, realizes he forgot to finish his Spanish homework and only has five minutes before the bus comes,
Paco does not enjoy a challenge. Throughout his life, if something is difficult, he not only gives up–he often refuses to try at all. As a rule, if he isn’t going to be good at something, he will not engage. For us, his parents, this has been crazy making, as we attempt to negotiate the fine line between “C’mon, just give it a try” and “That’s fine. It’s your choice.” In most cases, I try to be empathetic; I try to remember how shy and self-conscious I felt when I was young; I try to remember that “grit” can develop over a lifetime; I try to remember that my parents served me best when they were my allies and trusted me to trust my instincts. An oppositional, “you must do this” authoritarian attitude has never moved my needle.
Thus, by and large, we’ve let our boy figure himself out–even though that has sometimes meant I’m screaming into a folded dish towel in the kitchen.
There was no dish towel needed that day in the yard, though. Seventeen times, the kid tried to hit the birdie. Seventeen times, he failed. Seventeen times, he felt like an idiot. Seventeen times, he kept at it.
The eighteenth time, he pitched the birdie up and, whether through repetitive practice or trusting his instincts, the racket connected. The wooden edge of the racket cuffed the birdie, and it sailed–in slow motion!–into the air, coasting towards me. Readying my racket for the return, as any person with even a smidgen of hand-eye coordination would, I bent my knees slightly and clapped my eyes on the target.
It arced. It cut through the thick air. Gracefully, propelled by Paco, the birdie took flight.
It hit the net and hung there.
We stood for a beat, staring at the white plastic snagged in the netting. Paco whispered, “Are you kidding?” Slowly, we pulled our eyes from the dangling birdie, looked at each other through an open square, and shared a chortle. Then, with a shrug, my boy took a big step back, squared his shoulders, lifted his racket, and said,