Saturday, December 10, 2011

Special (Babble)

(Mona on the school playground, Oct 30, 2006)

One of the most difficult days I experienced during my husband’s first deployment was on November 1, 2006.  I remember the date because the weather had been fairly pleasant and warm right up through Halloween, but the next morning the temperature dropped dramatically and it was officially cold out.  The reason this was a problem is that Mona, at the time still two years old, would not wear shoes or a coat, and I was only a couple of weeks from giving birth to Quinn.  If I wrestled shoes onto Mona she just kicked them off.  I could not get her into a coat.  I was too pregnant, too exhausted, too stressed, and in too much pain to physically do what needed to be done with Mona to keep her in shoes and a coat.  I was stuck.  I carried her shoes and coat everywhere in the hopes she would come to her senses and ask for them when she got cold, but that never happened.

Every morning when I would take Aden to half-day kindergarten at the public Montessori school I would be caught between a rock and a hard place, because Aden would not walk herself into the building and down to her classroom, which meant Mona had to get out of the car, too.  If I only had to walk Aden across the playground to the building I could have lived with leaving Mona buckled in her car seat, but not if I was going inside the building.  I pleaded with Aden to go alone and she would not.  I pleaded with Mona to at least put on her shoes and she would not.  So I would walk with Mona and Aden into the building and try to figure out what I was supposed to do when it got really cold.  On November 1st when it reached that point, I decided to go to the office after delivering Aden to her classroom to find out if anyone could help me out for just two more weeks until Ian came home for the birth of the baby.

But on my way into the building a woman (I’m assuming a parent otherwise why would she be on the playground?) chastised me for putting Mona in danger by not having her in a coat.  The meanness of her tone startled me and I held out Mona’s coat and said, “Fine, you do it!”  She snapped back that no, I was the parent and I was being irresponsible exposing my child to the cold which was tantamount to abuse and she should report me to Child Protective Services.  By the time I got into the building I was crying uncontrollably.  I didn’t want to be crying but I was so upset and embarrassed and frustrated and at my limit with everything that it was too much.  I cried on and off the entire day.

Now, the upside to that particular story is I met some wonderful people who came to my rescue (including my friend Carol who volunteered to pick Aden up at my house every morning and let her walk into the school with her own daughter, thus solving my dilemma for the rest of the school year), and I learned a valuable lesson about not judging other parents but trying to help when possible.  That woman could have offered to get Mona into the coat and shoes, or at least carried her into the building for me which I couldn’t do while nine months pregnant.  Calling me a bad parent was not helpful to anyone, and to essentially kick a pregnant woman (whose husband was in a war zone) while she’s down was just cruel, no matter how justified she felt.

But that’s not actually what I want to focus on with this post.  I’ve got a whole other piece in the works about judgment and parenting that I will finish tinkering with someday and will put up, but in the meantime I’ve got something else rattling around my brain with a lot of odd tangents to it.  Indulge me while I try to sort some of those thoughts out here.
While I was inside the building that day, trying to pull myself together, I had a talk with an important figure at the school about what solutions there might be to my problem.  I was trying to arrange to have someone meet me at my car in the mornings to help walk Aden to class, or something along those lines.  But this person I was talking to was fixated on the problem of Mona and her shoes.   I got nothing but suggestions for getting Mona into shoes.

Mona is not like anyone I’ve ever known.  At age two she was very much in her own little world.  She didn’t talk much, nothing we said to her seemed to register, she did not exhibit empathy yet, and she was not interested in objects or physical things.  Her favorite toy was her shadow.  She was adorable and brilliant but unpredictable and difficult to manipulate.

The school official didn’t want to hear any of that.  I had to listen to a lecture about sticker charts.  The solution to all my problems with Mona apparently lay in the proper use of sticker charts.  Now, I may not have been able to control my youngest daughter as well as I would have liked, but I still knew her better than anyone else could.  And Mona wouldn’t have noticed a sticker chart if I taped it to her face.  She also would have paid no attention to attempts at reverse psychology or anything resembling logic.  Mona just didn’t want to wear shoes.  I knew the only way to make her do it was to be consistent and force them back on her over and over and over until she realized I was not going to back down on the issue, and I was too pregnant to do that right then.

When I protested and said that the techniques being suggested would not work on Mona, the person got exasperated, eventually saying, “Every parent thinks their child is special.  I’ve seen this work on a thousand children.”  I was not in any emotional state to argue at that point, but I remember thinking very clearly at the time, “Well, every child IS special, and meet child number one-thousand-and-ONE, because you are wrong.”

That line about everyone thinking his or her child is special has stayed with me.  I think about it often.  Every parent should think his or her child is special.  Because every child is special.  And this is an issue I’ve struggled with a little bit, especially when talking with certain people who have differing views from my own.

There is a line in the movie The Incredibles that is central to the point of the film about how “If everyone is special, then nobody is.”  I agree that there needs to be room for people to be extraordinary.  We are not all equal in our abilities or talents or willingness to work.

But I believe that the extraordinary among us with the right encouragement and resources will rise to the top.  I don’t think that just because some people have a specific genius for art or music, etc., the rest of us aren’t worthy to have a go at those things and we benefit from that experience in different ways.  I know artists and musicians who are weary of seeing bad art and hearing inadequate music and wish sometimes others without innate talent would just stop.  I don’t see the mediocre as a threat to the brilliant so it doesn’t bother me particularly, and I accept that the audience for the truly great is sometimes small.  But just because I will never be singer in any official sense does not mean I should never sing.

When I started team teaching violin lessons for clients in music therapy I had to rethink the whole point of playing music.  Normally when I teach the goal is to improve performance on the violin.  I have materials and techniques I use to get students from point A to point B to point C, with the purpose of working toward more complicated music and wider opportunities.  Among the side effects of that kind of training are greater confidence, developing self-discipline, relaxation, and interacting with new people.  In music therapy this is kind of flipped on its head.  The goal is the side effects, and learning to play violin specifically is the vehicle.  So if I happen to have a student who never improves on a technical level because of some obstacle or another, it doesn’t matter.  I see the benefits of playing violin, I just have to think about my part in the equation in a new way.

I have never had a single music therapy student who I did not think benefited from playing violin.  Will any of them go on to great professional careers in music?  Unlikely.  But the same is true of my regular students.  I talk to adults who come in my store all the time who wished they could play violin and somehow think it’s too late to start.  I tell them it’s too late to be a child prodigy, but there is no ‘too late’ for music.  What difference does it make if someone else started younger?  Starting younger did not mean that person went on to do it forever or even be very good.  All that matters is that it brings you joy.  Everyone should be allowed that.  The people who want to put in the exhaustive work of going pro will do so.  They will be exceptional and rightly admired for it.  That doesn’t mean average players have to forgo the fun of making their own music.  So I don’t believe giving everyone a chance to be included somehow negates the exceptional.  It just opens up the possibility for everyone to make it their own.

So is every child special?  I think yes.  Because I don’t mean it in a dopey silly way that suggests we bow down to children or not expect them to behave, I mean that every person–particularly at the beginning of life when they are still learning to make responsible choices–deserves respect and care.  Every child should have a fair chance to be the unique individual he or she is supposed to be.  Every child should be entitled to decent medical care, good nutrition, education, exposure to the arts, a safe environment, and love.  It’s heartbreaking to me that this isn’t the case for even most of the children in this world.  How different things would be if all children were raised as if we are glad they are here.  I don’t understand people or policies that write children born into bad circumstances off as if they don’t deserve better.

I most often hear people griping about the ‘Everyone is special’ problem when it comes to competition or ceremony.  There are people who whine if kindergarteners get a little graduation, or if everyone receives a ribbon or trophy.  Many people want there to be a winner and a loser I suppose.  I think that’s too narrow.  For one kid maybe being the best at something was easy.  For another, maybe grappling with a learning disability made the same journey much harder.  Who really deserves the praise?  The person who worked or the one who didn’t have to?  I never practiced viola in high school.  I didn’t need to.  The music we performed had to be accessible to strong and weak players alike so it was easy for me, and praise for my part in it didn’t mean much.  However, the classical guitar solo I put together to perform onstage with the orchestra my senior year–THAT was work.  Terrifying, nail-biting, worry-up-to-the-last-minute-will-she-get-through-it-without-falling-apart work.  The praise I got for that was earned and I knew the difference.

The truth is, life is hard for everyone at some point.  There are enough real lessons in success and failure to go around without inventing more.  Why not change the rules to Candy Land so everyone wins?  So what?  I don’t think important character building lessons about being a good sport happen at age three for most people.  No one likes losing, but little kids can’t grasp the big picture in order to take losing well.  So why bother?  My kids hate losing at Chutes and Ladders so we don’t play it.  I remember hating when I lost at Chutes and Ladders as a kid.  It didn’t make me a better person to suffer through that.  Eventually you put things in perspective and now I don’t care if I win at it or not, and my kids will get there too.  The point of playing games together is to have fun.  If finding ways to play together without someone losing makes it more fun, great.

The point of little ceremonies and all those little trophies is to acknowledge everyone on whatever terms are meaningful to them.  There is no way to know whom that will touch.  There are too many kids among us who do not feel special at home.  That ribbon one person sees as a worthless gesture may mean the difference for someone else between feeling school is a good place to be or not.  Between feeling special or not.  Between feeling like they are worth anything or not.

So, back to Mona and her shoes.  When her dad came home on leave from Iraq he simply told her to wear them.  She knew it was pointless to fight him on the concept, so she did it.  No sticker charts.  Just because you have techniques that seem to work universally, you have to leave room for the possibility of the new.  The times I’ve failed my own violin students were all cases where I neglected to take the individual into account and tried to force them into a mold that worked for others.  Seeing what is special in everyone takes imagination.  It can be hard.  But when we don’t make that effort, that’s when life becomes cheap.  When we don’t see everyone as special we write others off too easily, and that’s a mistake.

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”  —Albert Einstein

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