Monday, July 28, 2014

Times can be tough, but gratitude moves us forward

From Saturday's Briefing:

It’s been kind of a crummy week around here. The kind that tempts you to wallow in woe.
Schedules didn’t align exactly as I’d hoped, so my children have been gone for 13 of the past 14 days.
In the middle of that, the air conditioner stopped working — not during the blessed dip in temperatures but just after, when real summer returned.
A dear friend is in the middle of a crisis, one without an easy answer.
Grump, grump, grump.
After a middling amount of complaining, there’s not much to do but move on and seek a grateful attitude.
Last week, Cooper and Katie flew by themselves to Washington, D.C., to visit their uncle so that I could attend an education conference in San Antonio.
I’m thankful that they felt comfortable flying without an adult. That their uncle joyfully takes a week of vacation to care for them. That they were able to ride roller coasters at Hersheypark, explore Gettysburg and visit multiple museums in our nation’s capital.
We all arrived back in Frisco in time to spend a day together, and then they were off again, this time to a weeklong sleepaway camp in East Texas.
I check the camp website daily for photo updates, and from what I can spy, Cooper and Katie show no signs of homesickness. They appear independent and engaged. That’s the whole goal of parenting, right? To help grow little people into secure big people who can handle daily life on their own?
I’m thankful that they have found a camp that they enjoy and want to return to every summer. I’m thankful that they are gaining new skills and meeting new people, without the aid of a single electronic device.
My big plans for this week centered on massive, long-overdue house projects. My closet is a disaster. The playroom needs organizing. I’m behind on filing. The garage needs some serious pruning.
I woke Monday ready to attack. The house had other plans.
The thermostat at 7 a.m. showed 79 degrees. Upon further investigation, I discovered the giant air-conditioning unit behind the house wasn’t running.
The trouble — the expensive trouble — was diagnosed late Monday. The inside temperature was 85 and rising.
No amount of determination will help overcome sweltering inside conditions. My big decluttering plans were begrudgingly put on hold.
It takes some work to find gratitude when you’re hot, facing a giant bill and letting go of goals.
And yet, I’m thankful for my savings account, which allowed me to pay cash for the repair. I’m thankful that I have plenty of friends who offered cooler shelter. I’m thankful that while I was escaping my house I was able to watch two movies in a blissfully air-conditioned theater, renew my driver’s license and finally deliver the minivan to the dealership for a safety recall.
I didn’t meet my original goals, but time wasn’t wasted.
I spent some of that time on the phone with a long-distance friend who’s facing the biggest struggle of her life. I’ve listened as she debriefs, formulates steps for moving forward and somehow finds humor in despair.
I’m devastated for her. But I’m thankful that even with distance we can connect. That she’s found the strength to wake up each day. That we could talk about the value of a human: You aren’t defined by your spouse or your children or your job. Your value is independent of all others, rooted in your faith and in your character.
I needed that discussion as a gentle reminder that character includes how you react to disappointment and to plans that change. That character includes expressing gratitude all the time — especially when instinct pushes toward discontent.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, July 14, 2014

Imperfect youth is a useful experience

From Saturday's Briefing:

I spent a great deal of my childhood imagining an ideal childhood.

My parents would still be married. We would still live in our North Dallas ranch-style home. Mom would stay home, with lots of time for cooking, baking, cleaning and volunteering at school. Summer would include sleep-away camp for me and fun road trips for the whole family.

My vision was influenced by sitcoms, by the novels I devoured, by disappointment in reality, by my suspicion that every other family around was more normal.

I didn’t often consider that my dream world probably didn’t exist anywhere. And I sure didn’t spend any time imagining how my actual circumstances were preparing me for adulthood and eventual parenthood.

I find myself thankful all the time for some of those nontraditional experiences. My mom, despite her personal struggles, offered valuable lessons about acceptance and creativity, friendship and responsibility.

I know that it’s OK — preferable even — to be countercultural. I don’t consult popular opinion for decisions on video games, social media, music and movies.

I try to support my children if they choose a path outside the norm. This time last year, Katie started considering a vegetarian diet. She eventually settled on pesce- tarianism — vegetar- ianism with seafood — and has been loyal to her decision since. I know that my mom would have embraced a similar choice from her own children.

My mom also taught me the value of a messy space, someplace in the house where it’s acceptable to doodle, cut, paste, paint, sculpt. It’s the reason our kitchen table is rarely clear, why there are constant projects in process around here, why I’m forever buying spools of ribbon. The mess can irritate me when I’m seeking clutter-free peace. That’s why we keep the family room as tidy as possible, as often as possible — I can escape there and avoid eye contact with glitter glue.

My mom is why I root for the underdog and why my children embrace them, too. She was often underestimated, and she reached out to folks in need, even when she didn’t have much to give. She didn’t gather friends because they were popular. She built relationships because it was the right thing to do.

This week our little family has been talking about Central American children who are risking their lives to travel to the United States. About five minutes into our conversation, Katie asked if she could make stuff to sell to raise money for those children — a legacy from my mom, no doubt.

My chaotic childhood taught me the value of responsibility — often because it wasn’t modeled or because it was forced on me and my sister. We took charge of many meals and loads of laundry because someone had to. I learned early on that no one was going to double-check my homework or keep track of when projects were due. That was my job.

My own children are learning responsibility differently, portioned out because they need to learn, not for survival. I constantly remind myself to not shield them from work but to teach them how to work — and then to let go gracefully. I’ve got a whole lot of letting go still to accomplish.

It’s tempting now to shelter my children from disappointments, to maneuver around situations, to hide the fact that folks make bad decisions or use hurtful words. I’m forever cautious about what they see, hear and experience. I want to protect them as long as possible.

And yet I want them to learn to cope with disappointments, to feel the weight of an unavoidable situation and know that they can endure and emerge stronger.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, June 30, 2014

Practice may not make perfect ...

From Saturday's Briefing:

Mistakes are necessary.
When we are rational, we know this. When we are reflecting on a journey, we can clearly identify the errors that became teachable moments, that propelled us a little farther.
In the moment, though, we’re less likely to embrace the imperfections.
After Katie’s first-ever gymnastics lesson, many years ago, she sobbed, distraught over her inability to perform a cartwheel.
That’s when I realized that I hadn’t prepared my tiny daughter for growth.
She didn’t yet understand that some tasks, indeed most tasks, require instruction followed by practice. Over and over. And even then, perfection may be elusive.
She did not want to practice with the hope of eventually becoming good at cartwheels. She wanted to be excellent at cartwheels right now.
She’s getting better. Not at cartwheels — she stopped practicing that particular skill long ago. But she’s getting better at maintaining control and moving forward when expectations aren’t met immediately.
For her birthday last week, she received Spirograph, the plastic gears drawing set. (It’s remarkably similar to my 1970s version, except putty replaced the thumbtacks, and felt-tip markers replaced the ballpoint pens.)
Katie expected to bust open the box and begin creating perfect spirals in multiple colors, just as advertised.
But as any Spirograph veteran will tell you, those spirals don’t come easy.
After you ensure that the outer gear is stationary, you have to figure out how to move the inner gear with precision at the exact right speed.
Katie experimented Saturday afternoon, changing speed, adjusting hand positions, altering pen pressure, changing pens. She’d get close to a perfect spiral on paper, then her clenched hand would slip. Then she would start over.
Sheets of paper were flying. She exhausted the entire supply in the box.
She was frustrated, yes, but there were no tears — only determination to get it right.
Finally, she presented me a colorful circular badge. The ideal Spirograph spiral, representing dozens of less-than-perfect incarnations.
And then she tried the football-shaped gear. The whole process began again.
A similar scene unfolds daily in our house, during the 20 minutes Katie practices violin.
She’s played for a year and a half, and it’s remarkable how much she’s improved since those super squeaky days, days when I was certain she’d chosen the wrong instrument. Yet we are far, far away from musical transcendence.
At her lesson this week, Katie played a piece that she thought she’d memorized.
Indeed, she had memorized the notes. But the rhythm was off — especially obvious when accompanied on piano.
I sat two rooms away, reading a little and listening a little as Katie’s instructor would stop, point out the timing error and ask Katie to try again. And again. So many times.
Neither Katie nor Tammy was willing to give up. Despite clear directions from Tammy, despite genuine grit from Katie, despite a deep well of patience from both sides, Katie never quite combined the accurate notes with the accurate rhythm.
Not yet.
Neither teacher nor student will be satisfied until the piece has been conquered. And when that mountain has been scaled, there will be an even taller, rockier climb next, an ascension littered with missteps — some of them squeaky — that eventually lead to the top.
No one is born a fully developed athlete or engineer or musician. Indeed, we’re all practicing at whatever matters to us — parenting or marriage, tennis or cycling, cooking or painting.
When we revel in the mess and celebrate what we’ve learned, we’re bound to enjoy the journey — and we’re more likely to complete it.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How should we make the most of summer?

From Saturday's Briefing:

We’re celebrating summer at the Damm house in a big way. Staying up late, sleeping in. Movies and swimming. The library and the park. Spontaneous night with ABBA. All in the first week.
Part of me thinks, “We really need to slow down. I’m a mom, not a full-time entertainer. Every day doesn’t have to be magical.”
And then another part chimes in, “This is what summer’s all about.”
Ah, summer. The season of conflict. Do we keep kids scheduled, entertained and challenged nonstop? Or do we let them roam wild, with the freedom to watch, eat and play whatever they want?
I’m aiming for a happy medium — as much as my planning gene will allow. And I’m thankful to have the option.
For the first time in many years, I’m mostly untethered this summer. I do have some professional development classes and on-campus meetings before school begins again in August, but the majority of my days are free from work, which affords me time with my children — children who, by the way, absolutely refuse to defy the aging process and are therefore making me at once wistful and slightly anxious.
I have five precious summers left with Cooper. Nine with Katie. There are moments when I sort of panic, when I wonder if I’ve been wasting time all these years and if we’ve created enough good memories.
And then I realize they’ve never once seen an episode of Leave It to Beaver, which seems all sorts of wrong, so I set the DVR to record a show a day and figure we’ll fit it in betweenBewitched and Gilligan’s Island — two other shows I think all children should watch.
Too much TV is all sorts of wrong, too, so we head to the library to balance out our media diet. While there, the kids realize they’ve seen every Muppet movie except The Muppet Movie circa 1979, so we check that out along with a pile of books.
After spending hours at the neighborhood pool, we pile on the sofa and watch Kermit leave his swamp for Hollywood and pick up familiar characters along the way, all while being chased by a frog-leg tyrant. The three of us sing along with “The Rainbow Connection” and laugh at ridiculous puns.
So much sitting, though, makes me wonder if we’re being wasteful again. Let’s walk the dog! Play at the park!
At last, there’s a lazy afternoon and evening on the horizon. Maybe we’ll mosey to the pool. Maybe I’ll fix dinner — or maybe we’ll all forage for snacks.
And then I get a phone call about unused tickets for Mamma Mia! at Music Hall at Fair Park. Would we like to go? As in, right now?
Do I want to change from my comfy clothes into theater clothes and fight rush-hour traffic to get from Frisco to Fair Park in time? Do I want to wake from the haze of summer and cram another event into the day, despite my misgivings about overscheduling my family?
Well, of course I do. It’s ABBA music, and what can be happier than 1970s pop?
We change, drive to pick up tickets, drive to pick up Grandma and arrive at the theater just in time.
It’s only when the house lights dim and the music begins that I recall that the subject matter that ties all those ABBA songs together is rather mature. So I spend much of the musical glancing sideways at 8-year-old Katie, checking to see how many, if any, double-entendres she catches. (None, as far as I could tell, though she did raise her eyebrows at some of the dance moves.)
She’s probably since forgotten any naughty dialogue in favor of the fabulous encore, during which the cast dons flashy duds to sing and dance three numbers.
Katie leapt from her chair and showed off some serious moves. Cooper was, as usual, slightly more reserved but boogied nonetheless. We all sang and clapped and moved our hips and waved our arms with wild abandon.
Summer is yet young. We’ve got some lazy days ahead. But gracious, I’m thankful we’re cramming in some celebrations, too.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Teaching can be a two-way street

From Saturday's Briefing:

I’m lousy at goodbyes, and yet I’m preparing for 47 of them, all at once.
We’ve got a week of school left, which means I’ve got a week left with 47 fifth-graders on the brink of their grand middle-school adventures.
This teaching life is a two-way street — volumes of material I’ve presented this year and, good gracious, an equal amount of material they’ve offered me.
My lessons this year, my first as a classroom teacher, have covered the American Revolution all the way through major events of the 21st century. I’ve demonstrated how to document your thinking while you’re reading. I’ve modeled persuasive writing and free-verse poetry. I’ve offered tips for remembering states and capitals (such as Augusta is the capital of Maine, no doubt because it would be pleasant to spend the entire month of August in Maine).
A small glimpse of what I’ve learned, or at least been reminded of, by my 47 young teachers:
1. Fifth-graders still love story time. They love to gather on the floor and listen to rich literature with unexpected plot twists.
2. Children are natural helpers. They want to contribute to their classroom, school and community. They blossom when given responsibilities.
3. Everyone excels at something. Some people just need help discovering what that something is.
4. When given the option to spend indoor recess playing on a device or playing a board game, at least half of the kids choose a board game. Connect Four is particularly popular.
5. No matter your age, it’s difficult to leave your worries at home. If it was a rough morning at home, it’s likely to be a rough morning at school.
6. Today’s children eat an awful lot of sugary snacks.
7. Students seem to remember history lessons better when allowed to stand on chairs and dramatically read famous quotes from the textbook.
8. Children crave permission to take risks and to make mistakes without fear.
9. If you’re upset, it’s best to take a deep breath and count to 10 before reacting.
10. Singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” becomes more meaningful after you’ve studied its War of 1812 origins.
11. Fifth-grade girls notice everything — whether it’s a new haircut, new earrings, new shoes, new water bottle — and they’re effusive with praise.
12. If folks are grumpy or sleepy, break out into song. Any Frozen tune will do.
13. If Frozen songs grow stale, you can always rely on the canon from The Sound of Music.
14. Writing is more fun with dry-erase markers and a white board.
15. It’s difficult to answer the “why” questions related to slavery and the Holocaust, but it’s essential that we never quit asking.
16. Analyzing poetry is complicated work.
17. If snow is falling in Texas, don’t resist it. Go outside and play. Throw some snowballs. Create snow angels. Try to catch flakes on your tongue.
18. Not every child is gifted at playing the recorder.
19. No single standardized test can accurately account for years of education, parental involvement, student effort and emotional conditions on testing day. But when a child does well, it’s still worth celebrating.
20. No job I’ve ever had is as exhausting, as all-consuming. No job has ever been as rewarding.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at