Earlier this evening, my son called me up from boarding school, asking for help with an essay for his sophomore English class. He had read the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and his teacher had approved his basic question about how three of the characters were developed and how they fit with common stereotypes. While we were speaking, I did a Google search and found an online version of the story, which I first read in 8th grade and had last seen about 10-15 years ago. In the story, 300 inhabitants of a village gather for an annual ritual. At first, there seems to be a festive atmosphere, but barely perceptible hints at foreshadowing suggest everything may not be as it appears. As an 8th grader, I experienced the ending as utterly shocking and horrific, barely managing not to throw up. The story stuck with me for years as an example of how people can be unthinkingly and brutally cruel to each other; even tonight, tears sprang to my eyes as I reread the final two paragraphs, though admittedly residual sadness, anger and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach from reading aloud from the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird earlier today had left me in a somewhat delicate emotional state.

My son was wondering how to turn his question about characters and stereotypes into a simple thesis statement. Over three calls totalling nearly an hour, we discussed the characters and the stereotypes they fit, the plot and possible themes of the story, what they had discussed in class and what he thought himself. At the end, he was no closer to starting the essay than when he first called; I, however, had a pretty solid outline worked out in my mind. One of the common sayings running through several of the online groups I turn to for professional development is, “Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.” I had, I realized, been doing too much of the talking and thus too much of the learning. I proposed that we hang up and he try to write the three body paragraphs – he had the characterizations well defined and matched with specific stereotypes, and he had quotes to prove his ideas. Then, he could call me back and we could discuss whether he still felt he needed help with the introduction and conclusion. Presumably, as I finish up this paragraph, he is still working.

In his autobiography To Race the Wind, Harold Krents describes his mother helping him with his Latin homework:

Everybody has his or her hangups; perfection was Mother’s. Omnis Gallia in partes tres divisa est, probably the simplest sentence in all Latin literature. “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” What could be more uncomplicated? A simple, direct statement of fact, but with Mother, it became a challenge. For Mom, it wasn’t enough to know that Gaul was divided into three parts; she had to know how and why. For my part, I was perfectly willing simply to take Caesar’s word for it. Thanks to my mother, it took me longer to translate The Gallic War than it took Caesar to fight it. (p.151)

“Oh no,” I thought to myself as I stared at the now dark screen on my phone, “have I turned into Irma Kopp Krents, so in love with learning and caring so much about my child that I inadvertently turned a simple task into something gargantuan?” Such was definitely not my intention; in fact, I knew it was going to be a late night for both of us, and I had no desire whatsoever to cut even more deeply into our sleep for the night. Really, all I wanted was for my son to feel confident about what he was going to write and get off on the right foot.

When he was a toddler, it seemed so much easier in many ways. Helping him develop his independence was a matter of quite literally helping him get off on the right foot. I spent hours every day for several months bent over with my hands slipped under his armpits, helping him balance as he happily walked and walked and walked and walked. There were people I met at a family reunion that summer who commented years later when I next saw them that, while they remembered the top of my head clearly, they had no real sense of what I actually looked like! Now that my son is a teenager, however, it just doesn’t seem that easy. How much support is enough, too much, not enough? How do I help him develop his own voice, his sense of himself as a unique person in the world? How do I make sure he knows he is loved through all the inevitable ups and downs of adolescence, the prickly “keep away” moments as well as when the feeling “I need you now!” takes over?

My little cat Moki has crawled into my lap. Perched on her haunches, she has one paw on my right shoulder and the other against my chest; her head is nestled under my chin and she is purring deeply. For her, there’s nothing all that complicated about love.

When my son was born, I felt a new sense of urgency infusing my teaching as I realized first-hand how deeply and completely each one of the children in my classroom were themselves loved. Piling kids into a school vehicle to drive them to an activity or to community service became an act of courage as I realized the extent of the responsibility I was taking on. Now that my son is away at boarding school, I feel an even deeper sense of urgency. I’ve talked to middle school parents struggling with many of the same questions I have, and my ability to empathize gives us a common bond. It’s one thing to know intellectually that, if you had a strong relationship with your pre-teen, you need not worry because she will come back to you one day, and to share that comforting knowledge with an upset mom wondering what happened to the little girl who used to be inseparable from her. It is quite another thing to navigate my own child’s growing up.

And now my son has just emailed me the penultimate draft of his paper which I read through, quickly firing back comments for his consideration. He fields these suggestions well, admitting he anticipated some, agreeing to others, and graciously but firmly sticking with his first instinct in still other instances. At the end of the conversation, I tell him, “Good night. Sleep well.” He responds, “I love you. Good night.” and I reiterate softly, “I love you. Night.” Moki has curled up in my lap and gone to sleep. Indeed, all my students and perhaps even all their own parents have gone to sleep. All is well with the world. Tomorrow, we all resume our journey, a little older and a little wiser, a little more certain that together, if we have faith in our children, faith in ourselves to do right by them and faith that they know we are doing our best, it will all work out. Moki was right all along.

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