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

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