Sunday, August 30, 2015

Before church this morning

Monday, August 24, 2015

My promises to you before high school

From Saturday's Briefing:

Dear child starting high school on Monday,
Though I don’t know how it’s possible, as I still remember exactly what you were wearing the day you started kindergarten, I have a few promises to make.
I will not to compare you to others.
You’re entering a world in which your value seems determined by measurement against peers.
Your class rank will be calculated twice a year until you graduate. The number is significant to universities. It may affect some scholarship applications. But your number, whatever it may be, doesn’t define you.
You will compete for a ranked chair in band. Your chair may dictate which part you play and where you physically sit, but that number, whatever it may be, doesn’t define you. Your value is exponentially greater than can be calculated by your grades or your ability to play clarinet or how fast you run. Institutions and strangers may base their opinion of you on numbers and rank, but my love for you will never rise or fall based on points.
I expect you to do your best.
You are your greatest competitor. I won’t compare you to your peers, but I do expect you to work hard, to be kind, to push yourself. I expect you to steadily improve and to seek innovation.
Compete with yourself, dear child. Check your work. Don’t skimp when studying for an exam. Try to write every essay a little better than the last.
I will help you less often than I think you need and more often than you think you need.
I’ve spent the past 14 years helping you become independent. You are capable of preparing meals, cleaning the kitchen and transforming dirty laundry into clean, dry, folded clothes. You can change light bulbs, repair small electronics and follow written instructions for any number of systems. The more often you practice those skills at home, the more confidently you’ll handle real-life duties in college and beyond.
Yet, despite your good intentions, and in light of occasionally misplaced bravado, you still need my help. We still have four years before you leave, and I’ll keep teaching and supervising and gradually releasing until then.
I will ask questions.
Who are you texting? Who are you meeting? Who are you eating lunch with? Where are you going? When will you be home? How did you make this decision? Have you finished your homework? Did you review your notes? Are you prepared for tomorrow?
How are you feeling? How can I help?
The questions won’t stop, and I look forward to your answers.
I will give you space.
I don’t want to smother or hover. You need space to plan, to make decisions, to deliver on promises — and then celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes.
You need to advocate for yourself. You need to solve problems by yourself.
You need to know that I believe in you and that you are capable. Healthy space gives you room to stretch and grow.
I will maintain boundaries and enforce consequences.
You’re on the road to adulthood, but you’re not there yet. I’m your mom first and your friend second.
When you break a rule, you’ll experience the natural consequences plus whatever additional discipline I decide is appropriate. I promise to be fair and consistent.
I will forgive. You are 14. You are human. You are going to make mistakes.
I will forgive lapses in judgment and rough manners. I will forgive broken curfews and messy rooms. I will forgive forgotten chores and unwarranted sulking.
I am 43. I am human. I am going to make mistakes.
I hope you’ll forgive mine, as well.
Love, Momma
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email

Monday, August 10, 2015

Not too eager for summer's end

From Saturday's Briefing:

No matter how you feel about summer break, no doubt you’re aware that its days are numbered.
These waning days are at the top of the conversation- starter list, closely followed by shared disgust with oppressive, three-digit heat. No matter where you are — be it Target, Kroger, a public library or front sidewalk — someone’s got an opinion.
The receptionist at the pediatric dentist asked me this week, “Are you ready for school to start?” The telltale weary look in her eye and the tone in her voice indicated that she, no doubt, had been ready for the break to end in July.
The young people at my house seem ready, too.
Actually, Cooper sort of feels like school has already started. It’s the summer before his freshman year, and, like generations of band members preceding him, he’s learning songs and drills just in time for football season. On top of that, he’s waking early every morning to run in advance of cross-country season.
That means that Katie and I are often home alone, which means Katie either talks to me nonstop — she’s never had trouble expressing herself — or she invents her own projects. (Sometimes she manages to do both at the same time.)
This week, for example, she placed on the sofa a giant stuffed animal, fastened a pillowcase around its neck, stuck a cardboard crown on its head, gave it a handmade scepter and named it “Sir Cluck.”
Sir Cluck’s reign was short-lived yet memorable, which is how I feel about summer — a little too brief and packed with moments we won’t forget.
This summer we drank from a waterfall on the side of the road near British Columbia. The water tasted liked snow.
We cruised through Glacier Bay National Park and witnessed a piece of ice crash into the ocean.
We sang and danced at Vacation Bible School.
We nurtured basil in a giant planter and snipped leaves for pastas and salads.
We watched Back to the Future and The Truman Show.
We devoured a generous number of snow cones and popsicles.
Crammed in the middle of all those memories are the everyday moments we’re likely to (or would like to) forget — squabbles over whose turn it is to fold towels or utterances of “I’m bored” or reruns of Jesse. So many reruns of Jesse.
Those are the kind of moments that tend to push mommas over the edge, that make us count down to the first day of school and its accompanying return to routine and reasonable bedtimes.
I’m not counting down yet, though. I know that these leisurely seasons won’t last forever.
One day we won’t know all the latest VBS songs by heart. We’ll have difficulty finding one week that we can all go out of town together. There won’t be piles of stuffed animals all over the house. Sir Cluck’s legacy will have faded.
By the first day of school, I’ll be ready for the first day of school. Until then, I’m not wishing away these remaining moments.
The neighborhood pool beckons. Some snow cones are calling our names. A movie or two begs to be watched.
These days are numbered. I want to make them count.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Last Thursday, leaving the mall, after a movie, snacks and being silly

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Homework binder covers

I'm trying a new homework documentation system this school year (via Jack of All Trades).

If a student hasn't completed homework, he or she will sign an individual sheet in the documentation binder. The goal is to help the student be more accountable and to help me track patterns -- so the student, parents and I can work toward solutions.

I've created some binder covers for me and my team to use. Click here to access the PDFs -- feel free to download and print for your own use!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Time toddles forward

From Saturday's Briefing:

Parenthood creates a conflicting mix of wishing everything would stay exactly the same way it is right now and wishing everything would completely evolve into something else.

You adore the way a child says “gla-gasses” and “pa-sketti” (in lieu of “glasses” and “spaghetti”), and you refuse to correct her, holding on to the youthful charm it represents.

Then one day, you can’t even pinpoint when, the correct pronunciation is adopted. Months go by, then you hear a toddler mispronounce a word, and your heart reaches back for your own toddler, long since moved on.

Another child may have been infamous for the meltdowns that occurred at the end of every visit to the neighborhood pool. No matter how many gentle countdowns provided, the young person, upon learning that it was indeed time to leave, would collapse as if the summer heat had instantaneously liquefied his bones.

On the drive home, between deep cleansing breaths, you would discuss the connection between behavior and consequences while silently wondering how many more pool visits you could tolerate.

Then one visit, without fanfare, the same child willingly towels off, slides back into sandals and flip-flops to the parking lot — no tears, no threats, no deep breaths required. Your heart soars, ignoring for a moment yet another sign that childhood refuses to stand still.

There’s nothing more perplexing and gratifying, frustrating and soothing, as raising these sweet souls, these children I’ve been entrusted to shepherd to adulthood.

For years Katie has struggled with medical appointments. At her first ophthalmology appointment, three people were enlisted to administer eye drops. She’s required sedation to have a cavity filled.

After suffering allergies for years, she visited a specialist for skin testing. The ensuing tears and squalls forced us to quit halfway through. There’s a whole list of potential allergens that she might react to, but for now, they remain a mystery.

So, this summer when I learned she would need to visit an orthopedist to investigate recently developed scoliosis, I readied for the worst. I explained everything that I expected would happen at the visit. I asked a couple of friends to join me in praying for a smooth exam. I took a few deep cleansing breaths as we waited in the lobby.

The entire appointment was easy, calm, totally free of drama.

Have we turned a corner? Has Katie, at the age of 10, matured enough to make all future medical appointments tolerable — even, perhaps, enjoyable? Maybe, but there’s no point in hoping for time to freeze. Time never stops — and besides, what might we miss if we don’t accept that the people around us are growing?

Cooper hasn’t been home much this summer. He spent a week in Florida, serving churches and missions. He spent a week in a Louisiana swamp, kayaking and fishing. He spent a week in East Texas, swimming and biking and being a 14-year-old boy.

While in Florida, he and his youth group tidied up a church building. He cleaned out gutters, weeded flowerbeds and spread mulch. He even scraped from the attic floor the remains of an unidentified, decayed animal.

I’ve taught Cooper a long list of household skills, but I’ve never modeled for him gutter-cleaning or mulch-spreading or carcass-scraping. He learned all that with on-the-job training, away from home. (I quickly enlisted him to apply the mulch skills at home upon his return. Our flowerbeds look much snappier now.)

No matter how often we wish a child would stay exactly this way right now — or how often we close our eyes and mutter or pray for changes right away — time takes over. A child who cheerfully helps with yard work today may grumble about it next week. A child who braves the doctor’s office tomorrow may cower in fear next month.

Regardless of how much time passes, of how quickly children change — with or without fanfare — there’s one guarantee: Your parent heart will lurch and ache, soar and sing — sometimes all at once.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper and Katie, July 2005

Cooper and Katie, July 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Grand inheritance: unconditional love

From Saturday's Briefing:

My grandparents created riches for me.

They fostered a love for words, a strong work ethic, a dose of whimsy and an appreciation for beauty.

They created for me a sense of home.

Gramma and Grandpa have been gone for more than a decade now, and their house is at last for sale. In a few weeks, the tangible place that they called home during retirement will belong to another family.

It’s a modest house on a treed lot in a sleepy cul-de-sac. One story. One-car garage.

That home was my comfort zone. It provided welcome shelter during some of my toughest years. It contains memories of card games and brisket suppers, of Wheel of Fortune and Hill Street Blues, of bird feeders and bocce ball.

I didn’t always make the best choices there. One long summer afternoon, when Gramma was napping (after The Young & the Restless and Days of Our Lives), my sister and I had exhausted our usual we-don’t-want-to-nap activities. It was too hot to venture into the Central Texas sun. So we investigated the refrigerator.

In the cold cuts drawer was the most inviting, strictly forbidden snack. An entire package of Lit’l Smokies sausages.

We knew that we should resist because, one, the vacuum-sealed plastic wrap was intact and it would be obvious we’d snagged a couple; two, Gramma probably had purchased them for a specific recipe (likely pigs in a blanket); and, three, to replace the package would necessitate a trip into town, and it was inadvisable to manufacture a reason to drive into town.

Yet nothing would stand between us and those tiny treats. We gobbled them all up, straight from the fridge.

Gramma, upon waking from her nap, was not pleased with our piggish behavior, but she recovered quickly. (Quicker than our upset stomachs. I strongly advise against devouring half a package of cold, processed meat.)

When she wasn’t napping, Gramma was creating meals, poems and 78-point words on the Scrabble board. Among her most prized creations were Batista, Antonio and Barty — life-sized dolls sculpted with wire, stuffing and nylon and dressed in adult clothing. They often posed on the living room sofa.
Gramma, never one to conform to the crowd, didn’t like her standard rectangular back patio, so she hired a contractor to pour a larger, curvy one. The contractor didn’t understand her vision, so she unhooked the garden hose and snaked it around the backyard, showing him the boundaries she expected.

Her eccentricity was balanced by Grandpa’s steadfastness.

Grandpa was the son of working-class English immigrants who settled in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was a World War II veteran and hero who dodged all my questions about the war. He managed the auto parts warehouse at a GMC dealership.

When he wasn’t working, he was likely feeding birds and deer in the backyard (and shooing squirrels), or perhaps reading and jotting notes. He spent hours outside, soaking up sun, making up for those early years on frigid Lake Superior.

My sister and I would climb into his truck for nightly trips to the community pool and Saturday morning drives to the mall in town, where he’d treat us to an early lunch at Whataburger, followed by a spin through the bookstore.

Grandpa died three years before Gramma. After her memorial service, the family gathered at their home. We stood on that custom-designed patio and read her poetry.

Then we took turns scattering their ashes. Under the trees they loved. Outside Grandpa’s window. Around the rock where he would place cracked corn for deer.

Their physical bodies, reduced to ash, returned home.

I won’t be returning to the house before it sells, but I don’t need to. I carry with me the most valuable inheritance of all — their unconditional love.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Grandpa and me, 1974ish

Batista (wearing a flesh-colored swimsuit), Antonio, Gramma and Barty