I took Autumn, my 19-month old daughter, to Target for the first time the other day. Walking up and down the toy aisles was a trip down memory lane. They still sell Pound Puppies and the Easy Bake Oven, two favorites from my own childhood. But the toy section isn’t the only place that makes me reminisce. As an elementary school teacher, I’m nostalgic daily.
Memories come flooding back watching my students play Red Light Green Light and getting excited over stickers. There are immortal phrases like, “No tagbacks” and then there’s Show & Tell – a chance to be in the spotlight for a few brief moments to share whatever you want. Some kids bring collections while others showcase talents. Recently, several students wanted to play piano so I reserved the music room.
The day she was going to perform, Kara showed up in a fancy dress. I smiled at her sweet innocence.
“My mom told me I should wear it,” she had said.
I often forget that things that seem trivial as an adult – I’m ‘performing’ in front of an audience daily – are monumental to 9-year olds. To me, it was a half-hour chunk of the daily schedule I didn’t have to think much about, but to her it was an opportunity to shine.
Kara flawlessly tinkered out tunes you’d find at the end of a beginners music book. Her mother would have been proud. And then it was Claire’s turn. If Kara was flawless for a 4th grader, Claire was impeccable for a member of the Philharmonic. I worried what my other students were thinking, and more importantly, what they would say. I had spoken to them about being polite audience members, but I had failed to mention avoiding comparison. I imagined I was in a movie where the external world was calm and peaceful, but the character’s mind raced, loud and chaotic.
Which child will be the one to crush Kara? To point out that she was second best?
I thought about how someday, Autumn will be the one in the spotlight. I’ll help her practice her speech or run lines for a play. I’ll support her in whatever way she needs. We’ll plan her wardrobe, perhaps even buy something new. And if it’s happening in school, I’ll wait anxiously to hear how it went. She’s only one year old, but the thought of it is already stressful. It’d be so much easier if life could be like the movie “Big” where we trade places for the day. She could stay home, curled under a magic blanket that shielded out anxiety and fear while I’d be on the stage or in the field, forgetting the line or striking out.
And then I stop myself from thinking this way because it’s ridiculous to think we could avoid our children going through hardship. That’s not the way life works. In the book The Giver – or maybe it was Brave New World? – the higher-ups made sure people only felt good and happy. But it didn’t make them more fulfilled. Ironically, everyone was robotic and stale, missing out on the whole range of living – the rainbow waves of joy, dark clouds of grief, and everything in between.
But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to watch your baby suffer.
I care about my students, but I care more about what will happen if – or when? – my baby becomes Kara, the one who tries so hard, only to be outdone.
That day, what I had been dreading happened. A student spoke up after the performances.
“She was so much better,” I heard. I turned around.
It was Kara.
I was relieved it wasn’t a student from the audience – and heartbroken it was her – all at once. There was nothing I could say. She was right. And sometimes, the truth hurts, but we have to learn to accept it, and help our kids accept it, too.
Back in the classroom, Kara shared a few trophies from ice skating and seemed genuinely happy discussing toe picks and jumps. In the meantime, I continued to dwell on the incident in the music room. It occurred to me then that perhaps it had been harder for me to watch the scenario than it was for her to live it. And maybe that’s something else I’ll need to accept. That sometimes I’ll have to catch myself projecting my feelings onto Autumn, and that other times, we’ll be exactly in tune.