Thursday, March 10, 2005

The girl and the golden apple

So begins another day . . . . .

Wife and Son have already left for school. Daughter and I are eating breakfast and reading the paper. I check the weather.

“It’s going to be snowing today, and in the low 30s. Please make sure you have your gloves with you.”
“I don’t like wearing gloves.”
“I know. I just want you to have them with you in your backpack.”

This is my version of compromise. I have no interest in battling with her over clothing. It’s a battle that upsets us both, and nobody wins. Even if I prevail and make her wear something, reliable sources indicate that once she’s out of sight, she sheds the offending item and chalks one up for her side anyway. On cold days I know she isn’t going to get frostbite walking a block to the bus stop, so I feel that as long as she has the gloves with her, we can both be happy. She’s not wearing gloves she doesn’t want to wear, but she has options. If she gets cold, putting the gloves on is her choice, not my decree.

But she has become a virtuoso of passive resistance, so the following conversation ensues not 10 minutes later, as she is heading for the door. It may be fresh to you, but to me it is depressingly, exhaustingly familiar.

“Do you have your gloves?”
“Why not?”
“I don’t like to wear gloves.”
“I know, I just want to make sure you have them with you.”
“Never mind why, I just want you to have them. Where are they?”
“In my backpack.”

Please imagine the sounds in my head right then. One of them is a loud, agonized scream with a slightly syncopated oscillation because I am mentally hopping up and down in frustration. Another is a confused babble made up of several shrill versions of my voice saying things like “OhmyGOD why didn’t you just say that to begin with!!!” and “That’s what I was ASKING!!!!” and “Why does it have to be like this?! It didn’t USED to be like this!!!” and the old standby “What have you done with that beautiful sweet child who was my DAUGHTER??!!”

I’m a pro, though. I’ve been doing this for years, so none of that stuff escapes from inside my head. My face assumes a Buddha-like serenity as I say:

“OK, that’s all I was asking. Have a good day at school.”

I doubt you guessed that Daughter is in sixth grade, but it would have helped if you did because that fact constitutes the segue into today’s next subject, to wit:

My next-door neighbor, who teaches sixth grade science, won a Golden Apple award yesterday. This award is a Very Big Deal in our part of the country. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Golden Apple is a general excellence award given to 10 teachers each year in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Recipients get a paid fall sabbatical at Northwestern University, $2500, and a new Apple computer, along with all the local publicity and ancillary accolades they can handle.

I love this award. I think it’s great for the teacher who gets it, great for the school in which he or she teaches, and great for the profession as a whole. It creates news stories in which kids and adults reflect on how they have been inspired by their best teachers, and what a powerful relationship it was. It also gives the lie to the lovely folks who always have a snide comment handy about those whiny teachers with their limited hours, summers off, and excessive pay.

When I see my neighbor go off to school, I think of spending seven periods every day facing 25 kids who have learned how to create conversations like the one I had with my daughter. Nice kids, kids he has a good relationship with, but who have all become miniature preadolescent jailhouse lawyers. It can happen at any age, but I think it peaks in the sixth and seventh grades. At that age, they’re still closely engaged with their parents and teachers, still focused on what we say and do, but they are savvy and skeptical enough to want to question it, dispute it, or subvert it. Not all the time—it only seems that way. Later, as they get into eighth and ninth grades, they’re already starting to look past us for the first indistinct glimpses of their independent futures. Their attitude toward our once-Olympian pronouncements tends to become more like “yeah, OK . . . whatever.”

For now, we’ve got sixth grade going on, and it’s rough on parents and teachers alike. At least we parents get to stick with our kids as they grow up, and if we’re at all lucky, see what kind of people they become. My next-door neighbor, though, doesn’t get to complete the circle. His students spend nine months with him while he does what he can, then they’re off living the next year of their lives somewhere else, and then the year after that, and he just has to guess what becomes of them.

But not always. Sometimes they come back, and my neighbor has just experienced a stunning example of what that can be like: it was one of his former students, a kid he taught 11 years ago who is now a teacher herself, who nominated him for the award and got the snowball rolling.

After learning he was a finalist a few weeks ago, my neighbor tried to forget about the whole thing so it wouldn’t drive him crazy waiting for the winners to be named. The Golden Apple folks originally told him that it would all happen the first week of March. As the week drew to a close, he began adjusting to the certainty that he was an also-ran. We spoke with him Saturday night around 10:00 (when, for the benefit of the teacher-doubters out there, he was grading papers. Grading papers! On Saturday night!), and he told us that his 4-year-old daughter had comforted him by saying “Maybe they got the day wrong.”

Here’s how completely he had convinced himself that he had lost the award: yesterday morning, as his principal, some Golden Apple people, several newspaper reporters, two newspaper photographers, his wife, and his two daughters filed unexpectedly into his classroom, he said to himself: “I guess this is how they soften the blow when they tell you you didn’t make it.” Even as the person was HANDING HIM THE ACTUAL AWARD, he still thought some kind of consolation event was under way. This is a humble man having a moment he’ll never forget. I love that so much, and couldn’t possibly be happier for this friend and neighbor getting the kind of validation that so few people in any field ever get. (If you want to see part of the moment, there's a photo of him and his family in his classroom on the front page of the Metro section of today’s Chicago Tribune. The picture isn’t online, though.)

I briefly thought of getting him some champagne, came to my senses, remembered one of our shared pleasures, and bought him a 12-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. We gave it to him with a big white ribbon on it to help him toast this sweet, sweet moment.

So today’s post is dedicated to the sixth graders, both students and teachers. To you, Daughter, I say, You just keep doing what you’re doing. It can be trying, no doubt, but I can deal with it if you can, and we’ll come out the other side eventually, and together. And to you, neighbor, I say, Congratulations on a richly deserved reward. As the British used to say, I wish you joy of it!


Blogger Moreena said...

So those verbal torment skills just keep improving with age, huh? Right now my 4-year-old just enjoys claiming (loudly and with much strenuous emphasis) that she doesn't want to do what I know she really does want to do (like go to the park), and then collapse in tears when I agree that she doesn't have to do it.

Good to read about the teaching award. My husband and I often compare life here with life in Germany (he's German), and one glaring difference is the immense respect afforded German teachers (and a correspondingly high salary). Competition for slots in the teacher education program in the universities is tough, and attracts the best students. I remember reading an article somewhere proposing a solution that had to do with simply raising the teachers' salaries by a huge factor immediately, but also making it much easier for them to be fired. There were gaping holes in the proposal, but it does make you wonder what we have to do to accord teaching the respect it deserves (and make sure that the teachers we hire really are deserving of that respect, as I think most are).

3/12/2005 8:37 AM  
Blogger Charlie said...

I love this blog, and I hope you don't stop writing it. It gives me a glimpse of my future when my 3 1/2 year old son and 2 year old daughter get older, and it both scares and comforts me.

3/12/2005 9:25 AM  
Blogger tqwhite said...

They hit the age when their brains are fully functional but they haven't learned that intelligence is a weapon, nor have they developed a conscience. It's terrifying.

I remember the first time my daughter won an argument. I was standing in my kitchen, can't remember the topic but it was discipinary in nature, and suddenly I realized, she had actually backed me into a rhetorical corner. She had actually won.

Fortunately, I'm man enough to take my lumps, understand that I've lost, and still say, "Well, be that as it may, it comes down to, 'I said so.'"

But it was a fine day.

3/15/2005 10:31 AM  
Blogger mrs.holmes said...

You make having children not the most scary thing I've ever considered. Thanks.

3/15/2005 11:56 AM  

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