"I don't like my new school anymore," my eldest son said Monday morning, his brow and chin pressing toward each other.
I was surprised. A good student, and a natural extrovert, he has been enthusiastic all along about the switch to our new neighborhood school.
"What's happened that you don't like?" I asked him.
"Nothing. I just don't like it anymore." The caravan of kids he walks with was coming up the road, but he was crying. I sent his younger brother on his way, and sat down with my firstborn to try and find out what was going on. I got nowhere. Neither did his dad, who drove him to school.
At lunch time, he brightened to see me sit down at his table. His day was going okay. By the time I picked him up at the end of the day to walk him home, he was ready to tell me.
"I don't want to be sent out for ETC."
I can't remember what it stands for, but ETC is the new acronym for what used to be called GT the gifted and talented program in our public school district. His teacher had told me she would likely refer my son to it at the conclusion of the first nine weeks. He keeps telling me that the math they are studying is all stuff he learned last year in private school.
Between you and me, I think he's been enjoying the coast. I don't blame him. The non-academic lessons of adopting a new school culture are challenging enough. Grade four math is probably the most familiar and easy thing in his day, and now he's worried about being pushed even further out of his comfort zone.
My son has a lot of ego invested in being smart. Within a few months of starting kindergarten, his classmates were already identifying him as the brainy one, and he soaked it up like a sponge. This has cast me in the role of Mother Gump.
"Smart is good," I tell him, over and over. "Kind is better."
Smart is as smart does, Forrest.
I value intelligence, but I don't really believe you get points just for having it. It's an attribute like good looks, health or wealth: it comes easy to some and hard to others. It's what you do with it that counts. And if it happens to come easy to you, I think you are called to do more with it.
I am soft on my children in a whole lot of areas. But not this one. I am raising three white, American men. As a woman who grew up outside this country, watching the impact of white, male American privilege around the globe, you better believe I take the job very seriously. I am glad they are intelligent. But I want them to grow wise.
I gave it to my son straight.
"Look," I said, using my Kyran-not-Mom voice. "You have a good brain. It doesn't make you better than anybody else, but it's a gift, and it comes with a responsibility. It's like a muscle. You have to keep exercising it, and when the exercises get too easy, you have to find new ways to challenge it."
"I think you can do the ETC. If it's truly too hard, you won't have to stay in it, and I'll still love you just as much anyway. But you can't let fear stop you from trying."
It's a speech I know well, because I have to give a variation of it to myself every day lately. Sometimes in the middle of the night.
I'm working on the first few chapters of a book, and it's really pushing me outside my
comfort zone. Just when I've begun to feel in command of this instrument, I have to learn a new one, writing much longer personal narrative offline. It's unfamiliar and hard. It takes me in directions I wasn't expecting. In places, I feel utterly lost, and then I stumble through the weeds and realize that the story knows where it's going even when I don't.
There's a part of me that would like to just stay with what I know. I've got to remind that part everyday that I have an opportunity that others dream of, that I spent a long time dreaming of myself, and that I've got to go for it, even if it doesn't work out.
I promised myself I'd finish Chapter One on Tuesday. Tuesday night, after the kids were finally in bed, I wanted nothing more than to turn on the television and drift off. "I don't like writing a book anymore," I thought.Too bad. Get up. Make coffee. This is your moment. Show up for it.
I finished the chapter a little past midnight. I feel pretty good about it. I wish I could stay there.
When I finally got to bed, I dreamed about a giant snake that I was afraid might be poisonous (in addition to being 50 feet long), that turned into a girl who became my friend. I'll take that as a green light from the unconscious.
My son also had a scary dream that night. He said a goblin reached out and grabbed him by the ankle and then turned into a basket of toys that was spilling over the floor. "The goblin was little, but it shocked me," he said.
"Do you think it was trying to hurt you?" I asked.
He thought for a minute. "No."
"Sometimes a dream is your brain's way of working on a problem while you're sleeping," I told him. "It's like a game of charades, using pictures of things to show you something about the situation."
I asked him what the toys were. He said, "Paintbrushes, and baseballs, and things from hobbies. Things I've used before."
We rumbled around some ideas, and then I offered up the obvious.
"So, do you think the dream is saying anything about ETC?"
He jolted slightly with the kinetic surge my dreamwork training has taught me to notice the body's "a-aha."
"It's like it's shocking at first," he said, snatching the air with his hand.
I don't share my son's kind of smart. I'm no good at math. Like Sam Cooke sang, I don't know much about history, geography, or trigonometry. (Actually, I know nothing at all about trigonometry. I had to look up how to spell it.) My intelligence is all tied up in symbol and intuition. I am good at diving into the unseen, tying it on to something concrete and hoisting it up. This is pretty much useless for anything practical in life. It sometimes makes me good at writing. It occasionally gives me insight into dreams.
"So maybe the thing you're scared of turns out to be stuff you've used before," I said. "Stuff that's fun and creative and familiar."
"Yeah," he said, smiling. His mind was as happy chewing on this thought as a puppy with a new squeaky toy. I could see him nuzzling the idea, running down the corridors of his mind with another way of thinking to add to his basket.
I hope he will always be adding to it, that it will always be spilling over with ideas, talents and interests, and that he won't let feargoblin- or anaconda-sized keep him from going to it. That he and his generation of American menall colors will have keen minds, deep souls, courageous spirits and big hearts.
What a wonderful world that will be.
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