Monday, August 22, 2016

Lessons for the middle school mom

From Saturday's Briefing:

My baby begins middle school in two days, and so far I haven’t cried once. Not at the pep rally. Not at schedule pick-up and orientation. Not during the hour she practiced opening her locker and walking from room to room.
This is growth worth celebrating, people.
We’ve got Katie’s big brother to thank for my calm demeanor. He trained me to be a middle-school mom. What did he teach me? Oh, the list is long and includes:
Patience: Sixth grade often means a new musical instrument. A new musical instrument often means your home will be filled with out-of-tune, squeaky notes that don’t yet resemble a single song you’ve ever hummed. If the noise is just too irritating, try taking a walk or vacuuming on the other side of the house.
Above all else, be patient. You’ll eventually attend the winter concert, perched on the edge of your seat, scanning the crowd of musicians for your hard-working child. Your composure will be rewarded with a song or two that actually sound familiar, and you’ll marvel at the talents of middle school music directors, who wield superhuman powers of patience.
Grace: When Cooper started sixth grade, I thought a successful transition to middle school would take about six weeks. The first grading period came and went, and we were still in transition mode, with trials related to how to remember to bring home the correct materials each day, how to remember when assignments are due, how to meet so many teachers’ varying expectations. 
That’s when I adjusted my expectations and defined all of sixth grade as his transition time. That one shift in thinking reminded me of the importance of grace.
Value of making mistakes: Cooper left his clarinet at home one morning. After he’d walked off the bus and into school, he realized his mistake. I received his text as I was parking at my office, about 10 miles from campus. 
I left the minivan running and considered driving home to pick up the instrument and deliver it to school. I reasoned that my boss would understand, and I wanted to help my son avoid disappointment. 
It was a short-lived thought. I know better than to rescue unless necessary. I know better than to try to shield a child from disappointment. I know it’s my job to help that child cope with disappointment. 
So I turned off the ignition and texted him a quick reply, something like, “So sorry you forgot!” 
He was embarrassed during class. He received a 70 for a participation grade that day. He has never once forgotten his instrument since.
Power of taking risks: Middle school offers opportunities to try out new interests — maybe robotics or tennis or graphic design. There’s less pressure on students to excel at everything, with an emphasis instead on learning new skills.
Cooper showed up for cross country practice one day, kept coming back and improved a little each meet. He competed in the science fair one year and Future City the next. The stakes were low, but the rewards — working with a team, practicing the scientific method — were high. He starts his sophomore year in high school Monday, a member of the marching band and cross country team and a second-year engineering student.
I don’t know what kinds of mistakes Katie will make or what kinds of risks she’ll take. I don’t know how often I’ll need to rely on patience and grace. That element of the unknown is what makes the whole adventure slightly terrifying but mostly exciting. 
The new school year is worth celebrating. And if you see me crying Monday morning, I expect they’ll be tears of joy for my baby, the girl whose hand I love to hold and whose hand I know I must gradually let go. 
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

From Katie's 2nd-grade journal (rediscovered today)


Translated: I had a problem about my Dad. He had a tumor. When he went to the hospital, the doctors tried to take it out. They could not. So he got special care. One day my cousins and my aunt were at my house and my Dad died. 

***
Though the topic is tragic, I am so thankful for this record of what Katie remembers about Steve, three years after his death. Her abbreviated version reveals what mattered most to her at he time: her dad, the people who cared for him and the love that surrounded him and all of us when he died. 

This is always a rough season for me. August 2009 was when Steve felt the very worst. He was in pain, he had lost all mobility, his independence was gone.

But he was loved beyond measure. And he was approaching peace about his waning days. 

The rest of Katie's second-grade journal offers joyful memories -- parasailing in Florida, seeing The Lion King on Broadway, riding a train on the Sharkarosa field trip, reading at the library. Steve didn't get to experience these moments with his KT, but it's the life he wanted for her and for Coop and for me. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Real-world family bonding, thanks to Pokemon Go

From Saturday's Briefing:

We’re running out of summertime.
It happens every year, of course, but it’s jarring just the same. As soon as you get in the groove of swimming pool visits and late-night popsicles, it’s time to buy 24 pre-sharpened pencils and wide-rule, loose-leaf notebook paper.
In between school supply missions and doctor’s visits, the kids and I are enjoying last-minute morsels of freedom.
For me, that means some guilty pleasure binge- watching, a couple more novels (historical fiction has been my go-to genre this season), dinners with friends and a little bit of quiet time, away from everything, including my people.
That hasn’t been difficult to arrange, because my people are currently a little obsessed with catching those Pokemon critters with their smartphones. (The idea of an augmented reality app on a tiny handheld computer/ phone device seems totally normal now, but I can’t help but pause in awe and a tiny bit of bewilderment of the world we live in.)
Some are a little more engrossed in Pokemon Go than others. Cooper is a Level 17 (though possibly higher by publication time), and Katie is halfway through Level 10. I sit unabashedly at a pathetic Level 3, as I would rather spend my free time with the activities mentioned above.
Brother and sister are four years apart, but age doesn’t matter in Pokemon. They talk at length about hatching eggs and evolving Eevees, about their highest combat power Pokemon and which gyms to attack.
When Katie catches a flying creature (they can be difficult), Cooper compliments her. He also offers brotherly advice, which I partly understand, such as:
“I don’t know why you waste all of your star dust on a Raticate when you could be saving it for a better Pokemon later on.”
They even choose to be on the same team: Mystic, more commonly known as the blue team. 
I’m enjoying the sibling harmony, so much so that sometimes I’ll even change my route to accommodate the young hunters. The long way home from church offers more Pokestops (the places you can get Pokeballs, which allow you to capture the animated guys) and more options for catching. 
Cooper is willing — eager, even — to run errands with me, because you never know what’s out there. And while he’s in the front seat next to me, we have bonus conversations. 
We’ve gone on extra walks around the neighborhood. We’ve discovered new neighborhoods. We’ve discussed density patterns and how they affect the availability of Pokemon to catch.
Even with my fondness for the month-old game, I have my limits. When we were on vacation last week, I placed some Pokemon moratoriums, delivered in my best mom voice:
“It’s not every day we drive along the Pacific Coast, so put your phone away.” 
“We don’t have trees this tall anywhere in Texas. Look out the window instead of at your phone.”
“How many more Pokeballs do you actually need?” 
As summer fades, I expect Pokemon will, too, at least at our house. We’re about to be engulfed in homework and band practice. Mornings will be rushed. School nights will be too hectic for games of any kind.
In no time, real reality will push augmented reality aside. Gone, too, will be afternoons at the pool and Gilmore Girls marathons and chocolate- dipped soft-serve cones because it’s a Tuesday. 
We’re holding on as long as we can. 
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

No pity necessary for my mom role at water park

From today's Briefing:

I’ve become the kind of mom I used to pity.
Back in the mid-1980s, my best friend’s mom would drive us to the water park in the height of summer. We’d kick off our sandals, toss aside our towels and run to the nearest set of concrete stairs.
We never worried about our stuff because Mrs. Tarun was there, in the shade, keeping guard.
I remember that I thanked her for taking us out, and I remember silently wondering why she wasn’t irritated about sitting down while we were off sliding and splashing.
I felt sorry for her — though clearly not sorry enough to offer to sit in her place.
The appeal of the giant water slide has since dissipated. I’ve been a mom longer than I was a teenager. And now I understand Mrs. Tarun and all of the stalwart moms like her.
I love being the mom in charge of the gear.
I like lounging on a comfy chair, reading a novel, guarding snacks, prescription glasses, water bottles, towels and sunscreen. I enjoy being the checkpoint, watching for my children and their friends to stop by, listening to their adventures, offering apple slices and Oreos, reminding them to reapply sunscreen, sending them out again.
Once a summer, we brave our nearby water park. We arrive early to find a spot in the shade. I listen to big plans, remind everyone to follow the rules and be kind, and then read and rest while the young people rush toward slides and wave pools and lazy rivers.
It’s one of the only days all year in which I laze, guilt-free, for hours at a time.
I also catch glimpses of other families and watch children have fun in spite of the all the rules we place on them.
The lifeguard at the wave pool whistles about once every 90 seconds, followed by a stern “Walk!” What he really means, of course, is “Don’t run,” but we’ve all been trained to redirect in the positive. Kids understand the scolding nonetheless.
Parents all around me ignore those redirection directions and simply holler, “Stop!”
Children roll their eyes as moms and dads offer advice.
“Mom, I’m listening,” says one exasperated preteen as he tries to walk away from the shaded sidelines and into the wave pool fray.
“You say that,” mom replies, “but then you don’t!”
I watch a soaking wet child return to his family’s home base. He has good intentions of reapplying sunscreen, and there’s not even an adult nearby to direct him — or to remind him that his skin should be dry first.
He sprays on half a canister.
He looks down at his legs, now streaked with white sunscreen that drips toward his ankles.
He pauses. He picks up a nearby towel and rubs it off. All of it, water and sunscreen. Then he bounces back toward the water, not a drop of sunscreen remaining.
A nearby mom admonishes her enthusiastic child: “Don’t get too tired out there! You have soccer tonight.”
Two boys — brothers, maybe, or best friends — share a tube of powdered, colored sugar. One holds the 3-foot plastic tube above his mouth and drinks in the sandy sugar. He passes the tube to his buddy, who follows suit. Then they’re off to conquer a slide.
My own children return, dripping wet, with tales from three laps on the lazy river. They’re hungry and thirsty. Their freckled pink noses signal the need for more sunblock. They tell me how much fun they’re having, then they’re off again, leaving me for my own kind of fun.
For real. No pity required.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Parents owe it to children to tell the truth about Dallas shooting

From today's Briefing:


How do we tell children about tragedy? We tell the truth.
How much truth do we tell? That's the more important question, and the answer varies for every family.
I'm selective in discussing current events in this house. My daughter worries more than most. She considers the whole world her neighborhood. She tears up at vague descriptions of violence. She prays every single time she hears emergency sirens.
I can't shelter her from Dallas.
She knows some of the truth. That people gathered downtown to protest brutality across the nation, that they were peaceful, that they seek justice. She knows that police officers surrounded the protest, that they were offering protection, that they were serving the city and its people -- all the people.
She knows that someone purposefully shot at those officers and that some of them are injured and that some of them have died.
She instinctively knows that families have been irreparably damaged because five of those officers won't ever again go home, won't ever again hug their babies or their mommas.
She knows some of the truth, but she doesn't understand.
I don't either.
I don't understand the anger that pushes one soul to injure or kill another.
I don't understand violence as a means to express frustration.
I don't understand the vitriolic discord that separates neighbors and fractures relationships and pits us against one another.
I was born in Dallas 44 years ago. I grew up wondering how my city could be the same place in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I couldn't reconcile the sense of security I felt with the chaos and despair that I imagined reigning in 1963.
I grew up to realize that one event doesn't define a place -- unless you let it. One violent act doesn't erase countless, everyday acts of kindness. I learned that the hatred that boils up in humans is never, ever greater than the love that runs between us.
Sometimes, though, we let cowardly acts of evil cloud our judgment. We forget that love conquers hate and light always, always dispels darkness.
We can't ignore what we don't understand.
We can't live foolishly, believing that we are always safe in the streets of Dallas. Or in the stands at the Ballpark or in line at Six Flags. We're not 100 percent safe in our suburban shopping malls or in chapels, temples and mosques, or in libraries and classrooms. We are at the mercy of other humans.
Yet we can't live in fear. We can't sequester ourselves or live in self-erected bubbles. We can't let hateful actions divide us more. Our hope lies in our ability to unite despite differences, to uncover joy in all circumstances, to reject violence and embrace peace.
My family will continue to meander the galleries of the Dallas Museum of Art. We will lie on the soft, green grass at the Nasher, soaking in the sun and admiring the genius of Richard Serra and Alexander Calder.
We will wander through Klyde Warren Park, stop to play a game of Connect Four, buy a popsicle or Korean taco.
One day, though probably not too soon because I don't know how our hearts will bear it, we'll walk the same sidewalks that fallen officers walked in their final moments.
We owe our children the truth. It's up to each parent to decide how much and when.
We owe one another -- no matter the age -- gentle kindness and hands to hold. We get to decide that love will prevail, that our reactions will blanket Dallas and its people and our families, all of our families in compassionate comfort.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Kindness is free -- don't be afraid to share it

From today's Briefing:

The young man behind the front desk grimaces as we approach.

“Good morning,” my traveling companion initiates, despite all signs that this hotel employee currently harbors little hospitality. “Rough day already?”

He imperceptibly nods.

Julie smiles with sympathy and cautiously presses on, questioning some charges on the room bill. He mumbles an apology, calculates the correct total and hands over a new copy — all without making eye contact.

“Thank you,” she says, not a hint of irony or insincerity in her voice.

We walk away and whisper hopes that this fellow turns his attitude around before the onslaught of guests checking out. We fear that his bad day is about to get much worse.

Though I wasn’t surprised that my friend of 14 years was courteous when others might be haughty, I was touched by her gentle handling in the face of faulty customer service.

Kindness is free, like all the virtues, yet sometimes we hoard it as if we fear we’ll run out. Of course, kindness, like all the virtues multiples when lavished freely.

We witness it all the time. A teenager holds the door open for a line of people, and they nod, smile, say thank you, continuing the day with appreciation for good manners. A child at the park falls down, and three moms rush to the scene to comfort and help.

A madman murders 49 innocent people, and thousands of people line up for hours to donate blood to help the victims still alive. People serve food and water to responders and members of the media. Generous folks from around the country and world donate millions of dollars to support victims and their families. We embrace our children and whisper in their ears, “I love you. I’m glad you are safe. Be kind to others.”

In the face of adversity, it’s unadulterated kindness that soothes the soul.

Yet there are moments when we forget to be kind. We are irritated by perceived slights. We interpret benign comments with malicious intent. We insist that our opinion is the only right way, that our need to be heard trumps everyone else’s need to be understood or even loved.

It’s the end of our girlfriends’ getaway to Santa Fe. The four of us moms, exhausted in a good way from hiking and window-shopping and eating, are on a plane headed to Dallas.

One of the flight attendants begins the usual spiel about exit rows and tray tables, electronic devices and oxygen masks. What’s unusual is her halting, nervous speech. At times she stops altogether, and we can barely hear another attendant prompting with the correct words.

She finishes the script with a tinge of relief in her voice. There’s a pause. Then another voice fills the cabin, informing us that on this flight is a training attendant, who is learning procedures, including how to deliver the pre-flight announcement. We just heard her first attempt.

The entire cabins breaks out into applause, affirming the trainee’s efforts. She walks down the aisle waving and bowing, her nervousness dissipating with every step.

A whole plane full of weary travelers lavished kindness on a stranger. It cost us nothing. And maybe she banked some of those accolades in her heart, to cash in on a future rough day.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Celebrate more than just straight A's

From today's Briefing:


The morning of Katie’s fifth-grade celebration, she stood on stage beneath a congratulations banner, threw her arms in the air and beamed.
Hours later, as I studied a photo of my exuberant 10-year-old, I realized that she had reached a goal that’s gone unspoken but should have been a top priority.
She finished the year — all of elementary school, actually — with a cheerful spirit, strong self-confidence and emotional stability. What more could I ask for?
This is the time of year when families celebrate perfect attendance and straight A’s, the Dean’s List and outstanding (fill in the blank) student. Those are all worth celebration, for sure, but there’s no certificate (nor does there need to be) for what really counts: peace with yourself for who you are and what you stand for.
It’s taken me years to fully understand.
When Cooper started the third grade, his daddy was very ill and under care of hospice. I met with his teacher to talk about our expectations for the school year. I didn’t care about his grades, I told her. For this year, the goal was for Cooper to finish with strong emotional health. Academics were secondary.
Steve died two weeks after the school year began. Cooper missed one day of school before returning to class. Over the next nine months, he visited with the school counselor regularly and received grief therapy from our hospice agency.
The year was tough, no doubt. There were many angst-ridden days and tearful nights. But he ended third grade as a well-adjusted, mostly joyful 8-year-old.
After we endured that first grief-heavy year, my school-year goals returned to normal. Try your best. Work hard. Learn every day, and show what you’ve learned as completely as you can.
I didn’t exactly define success as hitting the All-A Honor Roll every grading period, but I encouraged my children to work toward an A average in every class.
My school-related questions have mostly been academic all these years: Have you studied enough? How was the test? What grades did you get back today?
I regret that I haven’t asked as often: Are you enjoying this class? What are your goals? How are you defining success?
I also regret that I haven’t started every school year with the same goal, with or without crisis: to finish with strong emotional health.
The good news is they’ve managed.
Cooper is not at the top of his class, though he works harder than any child I know. He takes challenging courses for the content (not the extra GPA points) and revels in learning. He’s not defeated by a few B averages. He enjoys school, extracurricular activities and his peers.
Katie constantly volunteers to help others. She embraces new experiences and welcomes newcomers to her routines. She pays little attention to what’s popular and instead holds fast to her beliefs and values.
Will they fulfill their potential? Where will they go to college? What kind of careers will they pursue?
Those questions are secondary to the biggest questions: Will they seek joy in all circumstances? Will they stand firm in their beliefs? Will they finish each journey with raised arms and radiant smiles?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Soak more than just life's good moments

From yesterday's Briefing:

School days are numbered. Our count is down to four.

Cooper, who is finishing his first year of high school, has been announcing the daily number for a couple of weeks.

I had been listening and nodding most mornings, until finally I could stay silent no more.

“Cooper, I might sound like an old person giving advice that isn’t relevant, but I’m going to say it anyway.

“I know you’re ready for the school year to end, but try to soak it up. When you’re focused on how many days you have left, you’re less likely to enjoy the actual day you’ve got.”

He arched his brows and smirked slightly.

“It’s true. Soak it up.”

Then I hugged him, grabbed my lunch off the counter and rushed out the door.

I’ve lived by the mantra “soak it up” for years, but it’s usually for the really good stuff.

Like when Katie was a baby and I ignored housework during her naptimes, opting instead to snuggle my second-born child (based on first-born experience, reminding me how quickly babies grow). I would lie on my back, Katie draped across my torso, close my eyes and listen to my daughter’s breathing.

Soak it up, I told myself. This won’t last forever.

It’s the same when I’m at the beach, any beach. I lie on a towel, squish my toes in the sand, close my eyes and listen to the relentless waves and squawking birds. I fill up my spirit with as much beachy goodness as possible, hoping to store enough memories to tide me over until my next visit. (I’m way overdue.)

Soak it up, I tell myself. You don’t know when you’ll be back.

Lately, though, I’ve been reminding myself to absorb all the moments — not just the obvious ones.

Like crisscrossing Frisco more than once in afternoon traffic to get Cooper to and from a band competition and then to and from an engineering presentation. Soak it up.

Or staying up late to keep him company while he studies for a comprehensive humanities exam over the Renaissance. Soak it up.

Because, much like those blissful baby days, these days won’t last forever, either. We may want to rush through the tough stuff, but when our goal is simply to survive the rough days, we’re missing the gems hidden all over the place.

All those trips in the minivan with Cooper give us extra time to visit about school, friendships and pop culture references I don’t yet understand.

Late-night study sessions allow me to brush up on Romeo and Juliet and debate whether or not the Shakespearean play is a tragedy. (We don’t agree, though I suspect Cooper is more informed than me.) For that matter, we debate the mere existence of Shakespeare altogether.

Parenting a teenager isn’t breezy. There are moments when I ache to hold tiny, sarcasm-free babies again. When I would much rather be on the beach. Any beach.

Yet being parent to a teen isn’t a lifetime commitment. There’s a built-in expiration date, and, based on past experience, one day I’ll probably be nostalgic for the teen years.

Yes, we have four days of school left. Yes, we’re all looking forward to summer break. But I’m not wishing away a single day. I’m soaking up the early mornings, the late nights and all the minutes in between, allowing them to flood my soul with the everyday moments that make up a full life.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The journey is different than expected, but I'm thankful

From Saturday's Briefing:

I am mom to two children, but I claim an additional 146. Those extra represent three years’ worth of teaching, which isn’t exactly the same as parenting but includes similar guiding and worrying, nurturing and redirecting.
I can’t imagine my life without those 146 and the families, stories, challenges and success stories they represent.
It’s the same with a group of volunteers I’ve become attached to over the years. They coordinate the North Texas Head for the Cure 5K, an annual event that raises money for brain cancer research.
I teach because I am passionate about literacy and quality education, because my heart swells every time I read a story aloud or conference with a young writer. I also teach because I need a job that affords a schedule that allows me to care for my own two children as a single mom.
I participate in Head for the Cure because I look forward to a day when a brain cancer diagnosis doesn’t include the words “inoperable” or “incurable.” It’s too late to save my Steve — and a whole host of angels, like Melinda and Maureen and Madison. But there’s a whole army of folks out there — my volunteer-turned-friends included — who haven’t given up hope for future patients and their families.
Early in the grieving process for Steve, while he was still alive and undergoing brutal treatment, I learned to let go of “what if” scenarios, the fantasy world in which cancer hadn’t invaded our lives. No amount of hoping, crying or pleading would change his diagnosis.
Instead, he and I learned to celebrate silver linings. We would have traded almost anything to get rid of that tumor, but that wasn’t an option. So we relished easier- than-expected appointments. We embraced new relationships. We marveled at help received from friends and strangers.
All that was good training for life without a husband and dad at home — a life I never wanted but happened anyway. I’m constantly reminded that our reactions and attitudes define us more than our circumstances.
Last weekend, more than 2,000 people gathered at a park in Plano to walk or run for Head for the Cure. My family has participated the past six years, and it’s a privilege to stand beside volunteers like Shari and Leslie and Gerryl. They are women who make my life richer by modeling selflessness and purpose, and our paths may have not crossed without a shared, albeit tragic, connection.
I prefer to focus on the blessings of our friendships.
It’s the same with those 146 children.
The path that led me to the classroom was bumpy. It’s not the route I asked for or would wish on anyone else, but I’m thankful for the destination.
I have stories about each of those 146 — sometimes dozens of stories about just one child. I’ve listened to tales from the football field and volleyball court. I’ve entertained memories from the Galapagos, from Hawaii, from multiple Disney getaways.
I’ve watched some children endure separation or divorce and others welcome new siblings or kittens.
These children have taught me how to be more patient, how to listen better, how to pay closer attention to details. They have gathered on the carpet to listen to some of my favorite stories, and together we have discovered new favorites.
The past three years have been layered with hugs and high-fives, tearful confessions and jubilant celebrations. I never expected to be here, to be counting 146 kids and looking forward to a few dozen more come August.
This isn’t exactly the journey I anticipated, but I am thankful for every gift — and every single relationship — along the way.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com