There was a stretch of time during my classroom teaching years when I was running on a track parallel to my daughters’ school lives. There’s a three-grade difference between them so, for example, when Adina was in the fourth grade, Elana was in first grade. Because of my own changes of schools and teaching assignments, I wound up teaching children in grades that matched the grade that one of them was in at the time.
This was a godsend because I was never too far from the source of current music preferences, games, toys, book series or tv shows that were trending in that age group. For a teacher whose work was premised on building relationships with kids, having these touch points was almost like getting the answers to the professor’s toughest quiz ahead of time.
Fortunately, these parallel runs did not come at the expense of actually having either daughter in my class because we weren’t in the same school. I had seen the ill effects of those unfortunate couplings – teachers who had to beat up on their own children to prove they weren’t giving them preferential treatment and kids who got bullied because they were alleged to be getting preferential treatment from their teaching parent.
This pattern continued all the way through college when my daughters finally completed their educations, and I completed my own teaching journey from kindergarten to graduate school. Over those years the gift my daughters gave me of insight into their various stages of development has continued to serve me well, and I find myself making a second trip around the bases watching my granddaughter as she moves into her tween years and beyond.
Picture this scene. Rosellen and I are visiting Dalia and her parents in Columbia, Maryland. Our plane has arrived far enough ahead of the end of the school day to allow us to reenact the ritual of being present to greet her when her school bus arrives at its assigned stop. Until now she has raced off the bus to jump into our arms, excited to begin our weekend together. This time the first hug goes to her dog who has accompanied us to the bus stop, then a cursory hug as she exchanges some parting words with the other kids who have come off the bus and begins the walk home a few paces ahead of us.
I get it. We have entered a new stage, one I’ve seen played out countless times in my middle school classrooms. She’s learning to be cool, which means less demonstrative, and is sensitive to how her actions will be perceived by her bus mates. Later in the weekend when we travel to a fair at the school where her father is teaching, she asks to bring a friend along and the two of them become a single autonomous unit for the remainder of the day. It’s in all the textbooks, this shift toward a primary focus on peers, and away from parents and adults.
If I hadn’t logged many years of experience watching my own children and students move through this stage, I might feel hurt and rejected by this latest pattern. Instead, I’m amused, even a bit comforted by its familiarity. Things are unfolding as they should; anything different would be worrisome. There are things I miss about the earlier stages she has stepped away from, like an insect or a snake that has molted and shed the old casing of her previous body. She no longer awakens us at 6 or 6:30 to play with her and to listen to her excited rambles about the previous day or the day ahead. She no longer invites us to bathe her while we engage in spinning out elaborate scenarios of attending a French cooking school which she acts out using a variety of kitchen implements that fill the bathtub. Her body is changing, and she recognizes that discretion is called for, although I noticed after she had left her bath that the same kitchenware was still on display in the now empty tub. We’re in a time of transition.
There are still loving moments and times of deep engagement with us. She still allows us to participate in the ritual of singing to her as she approaches sleep, as we and her parents have done every night of her life since the day of her birth in the hospital, though now the time of reading aloud to her that always preceded the singing has been replaced by her own reading time. We’re so thankful that she is excited about being granted that independent reading time, though I hope there’s still an opening to also read aloud to her. I learned that my high school students were never too old to be read to and I always made time for that in my classroom.
Yesterday, we shared the elevator in our apartment building with L. who had arrived a moment before from school. She and her family had recently returned from a sabbatical year away. When they left, she was in the late stages of the period Dalia has just entered. Now she is a young woman, comfortable in conversing with us about her time away and wishing us a good day as she exits to her apartment a few floors below ours. Watching her reminds me that these stages fly by and are gone with only a slight trace of what came before. Blink and you’ll miss it. It’s true that any crisis or disruption can resurface the earlier stage like those photos that we see more and more frequently of landscapes that have been hidden by waters that have covered them for centuries, only to reappear in a drought.
Despite the regressions, unless something is terribly amiss, kids keep moving forward in ways that can, in turn, inspire, bewilder and sadden. I hope we can be around for many more turns of the screw in Dalia’s ever-changing life. It’s one of life’s best spectator sports.