As a child, I loved the mystery of a gift.
Sometimes, opening the gift was a disappointment; not because the gift was unsatisfying, but because the mystery had ended. At Christmas time, the mystery was magnified by the number of packages and the length of time they laid beneath the tree, glowing in the shimmer of twinkling lights. I can remember sitting with my pile of gifts, picking them up one by one, imagining what was inside. I was never a peeker. That would ruin the joy that came with slowly opening the package when the long awaited moment arrived to reveal the truth beneath the wrapping.
I have come to realize that this process defines parenting.
Receiving the gift of a child all bundled and wrapped in sweet, soft clothing is a mystery that is revealed slowly over a long time. We pick them up and hold them, imagining what they will be, but it is time that reveals the truth of who and what is beneath. As parents, we see every little miracle and clues from the start that shows each child’s brilliance. We learn over time that the mystery we thought we figured out early on continues to have surprise twists and the unwrapping is endless.
My first born was an early-at-everything baby; walked early, talked early and excelled in all physical endeavors. I knew right away that he had the ability to be a mover and a shaker and a profound athlete. He had a vocabulary that was astounding and insight and perception beyond his years.
I am still unwrapping this one.
Over the years, difficulty with attention and anxiety moved him out of the middle and closer to the edge. Athletically capable, he lost confidence and eventually withdrew from sports. He struggled with attention and impulsivity and the scorn from teachers who assume all behavior is willful, eventually losing faith in himself. As the academic challenges grew, he tried less and less, resisted me more and more. He retreated into his music and his art. I ebbed and flowed as a parent between the shores of over involvement to the deep waters of tough love. He continued to make wrong choices and did not heed my advice. As his senior year inched along, I was uncertain that he would fulfill his graduation requirements. He had an abundance of credits, but needed one particular credit in order to graduate.
Our country’s story has only recently become interesting to me. I hated history as a teenager. I learned what I had to in order to get by and then left the learning behind on the high school floor; discarded and unwanted.
Communication with his teacher reveals that he will need to achieve an A the final exam to pull through a passing grade.
Ace the final in a class that he had invested nothing.
“You can do this.” I tell him. He looks at me with a ‘you’re out of your mind’ look and then down at the floor. His ship Is sinking and I begIn to tread water, hoping to shore up the battered vessel and plug up the holes of tough love.
“I will help you,” I tell him “IF you do exactly what I say. Bring home the study guide and we will make a plan." He sends me a text message from school after receiving the study guide. This is impossible.
“Nothing is impossible if you are willing to work hard,” I tell him “and even the impossible is worth trying for.”
He agrees to try and with him as a willing participant, I am hopeful.
With ten days to go, I designate the dining room table as study central and inform the family that all hands are on deck with the daily responsibilities. I cram all of my work into the early part of the day or late into the evening in order to clear the hours needed to tutor him. My background is in teaching and I know how he learns. I am tutoring a subject in which I know next to nothing and praying for a miracle.
We pour through the text book, beginning pre World War One and discuss and converse and take notes.
“What was the event that triggered WWI?” I ask.
“The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand.” He answers.
“Right, but remember, that is just the spark that ignites the war…there are four sticks of dynamite in Europe making ready for the explosion…what are they?”
Confidence fills his eyes “Militarism, Imperialism, Nationalism and Alliances.” He answers and goes on to explain each. I begin to believe my own words that anything is possible.
We take breaks hourly to let the new information settle and clear the path for more learning. “Can you believe the Germans sent a secret note to Mexico asking them to declare war on us to keep us distracted? And promised to give them some of our land in return?” I ask him, outraged at the news.
“What was that letter called, the “The Zimmerman Note?” he asks, checking his knowledge? Relief settles in my stomach. He is getting it.
Bleary eyed, we work our way through Hoover and the Great Depression. We wade through agencies, acts and programs with FDR’s New Deal. We watch as WWII wages in Europe and Dictators ruin the lives of their country’s people…Mussolini and Stalin and Hitler; the Great Famine and the Holocaust. The week is coming to an end and we are just reaching Pearl Harbor; days to go and we have much to learn before the studying can even begin. I begin to doubt my overzealous belief that he can learn a year’s worth of information in a week’s time.
On the last day, he tackles the two possible essay questions that will count for 45 of the 150 points on the test; a five paragraph essay with a thesis statement and all supporting facts to back it. He goes back to the drawing board many times until it meets my approval and then studies and re-writes from his head.
He takes his notes and new found knowledge Sunday evening to study with a friend. They pour over the study guide and he finds himself the teacher instead of the student, a process that I know will bring it all home.
We pull up in front of the school on Monday morning. Graduation is set for Wednesday. Everything rides on the outcome of this exam.
“Trust yourself.” I tell him “You know this stuff.”
He comes home feeling good about the test, but the waiting that day is endless. I prepare a speech in my head for either outcome, knowing that the more difficult one will be convincing him that the impossible is still worth fighting for, even if you don’t reach your goal.
I stand in the doorway to the family room where he is lost in playing the guitar. He sees me and freezes in mid rift.
“You know that you learned a year’s worth of information in one week and that it would have been easier if you had done the right thing all year.” I say, preparing him for the news.
He appears to not even be breathing and he is motionless. “I got an email from your teacher with your grade.” I tell him quietly. He swallows and says nothing.
“You got a 91. You are graduating. You did it!” I tell him.
His head falls back in silence, deep slow breath falls from his chest and his eyes close. All of the lessons that I have struggled to teach him about hard work and effort have finally made their way home in the very final hour.
As we sit watching the Graduates’ parade onto the green, the drizzle becomes light rain. I listen to speeches and see proud parents glow at the mention of their children’s achievements of honors and academic excellence.
Ours is a story different than most.
It is a story of struggle and despair.
It is the story of a near miss and an impossible challenge.
It is a story of hard lessons and obstacles.
It is a story of never giving up, reaching higher and harder and believing in oneself.
There is not a prouder parent in the audience.