Tuesday, June 3, 2008

“Second Time Around”

by Bruce Tyson

I am fifty–five years old and the father of a newborn. My other child, Juliana, graduated college last week.

Juliana is happy, funny, accomplished in her fields of study, and well–liked by her peers. In a word, she is flourishing.

What does that mean for Isabella, Juliana's baby sister? On the eve of Father's Day, I ponder the second time around.

The main thing is that I will worry less. Particularly about the path to college. That point was driven home when, after much hard work getting into her first-choice college in New England, Juliana chose to return to California to start her sophomore year. While I questioned the move at the time, I now see that she knew what she was doing, and she absolutely made the right decision.

So I will trust more, too – trust more readily my child's instincts. When we applied to middle schools, Juliana was accepted by two of her top three choices. At the third – the one she really wanted to attend – she got waitlisted. When I asked her, “Do you want me to call the school and try shaking the tree a bit?” No, she told me. If they couldn't see her qualities, she didn't want to go there. Big Mistake, I thought to myself. Instead, she stayed on at her parochial elementary school which continued through 8th Grade. By staying the extra two years, she became one of the “big kids” and developed her leadership skills there.

Early on, Juliana had a sense of identity – something more complete than (I'm sorry) the tired phrase “self-esteem.” As a family, I think we were successful in giving her that identity by showing a kind of tangible family history. By that, I mean history brought forward through family holidays, rituals, recipes, and healthy dialogues at the dinner table. One ritual that resonates is the Five-Mile Walk. Juliana's, and now Isabella's, grandfather Herbert grew up in the 'old country'. According to Grandfather, he walked five miles to school each day, through the snow, barefoot, and uphill in both directions. As we grow older, we know this cannot be completely true: we all know the old country is strung together by kilometers – it doesn't even have miles. But for an eight–year–old child, there is some grace in following in her grandfather's footsteps and making that five–mile walk to school. At least once. Particularly if hot chocolate and scones can be had at the 3–mile mark. And every so often, over the next 15 years and more, my child might look back at the photo album, remembering the adventure and getting a fix on Grandpa Herbert.

I can see clearly, in retrospect, that it is the home life, in tandem with the school life, that forms the child. We help the child with the homework (and, yes, practically do the science fair project for her – don’t get me started on the giant eyeball and the stinking pot of gelatin cooking on the stove). And, at the proverbial dinner table, we also talk about social parts of school – how the child interacts with teachers and other students. We talk about which battles to fight, when to stand up, and when to take one for the team.

If my first go–round will serve as my guide, I will be focused much more on the home life than the craziness of school applications and which is the “best” school. And if and when Isabella's middle school workload makes her crazy from time–to–time, we might just skip a day of school in favor of the movie theater, followed by a stop for hot chocolate and scones.
© 2008