A Beginning and an End

Hill Country Hill Tribers will end after Artreach this week. Our group began in the fall of 2007 when Caren George and I ran into a group of Burmese refugees at a fall festival. Seven years later, Hill Tribers has taught dozens of basic ESL classes, worked with more than thirty women, generated over $130,000, and sold hundreds of handmade products. Our children who used to toddle around together in English classes are now long-legged elementary and middle school kids. We’ve hugged and cried as our friends have moved away. We’ve celebrated with friends who have gotten good jobs in town.

At Artreach, our two lead artisan designers, Haung Nan and Nang Maji, will launch their own businesses. They have been sewing and tatting for months to prepare for this show. They bring gorgeous artistry and hard-earned business savvy to this new endeavor. They are so ready to launch their own lines.

We will sell the last of the Hill Tribers inventory at Artreach this week; everything will be at least 50% off. The artisans were paid last year for their products, so the profit generated from this year’s sales will be used as a start-up fund to allow Haung Nan and Nang Maji to buy supplies. We always hoped to end this way, with artisans who no longer need help because their English is good and their jobs are steady and their lives are deeply rooted. We started off thinking we might help some women who needed us, but we ended up just making lifelong friends with the most resilient people we know.

Last week we organized the last of the Hill Tribers products with some of our friends. We helped Haung Nan and Nang Maji tag and sort their items. We laughed at old jokes till we cried. We listened to stories of new jobs that ensure everyone in one family finally has health insurance.

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Opening the bins of bags and scarves, holding up each ornament, each necklace, each hand-tatted bracelet, we became a bit emotional. There are so many memories and so much hope woven into this fabric. We remembered the woman who always wove hot pink thread into each design, the quiet weavers whose artistic diamonds no one else could replicate, the weaver who was like a grandmother to our children and who left before we could say a proper good-bye. Their names and faces are so familiar, so dear to us. We grieve the passing of this season even as we are grateful that it’s here because it means that all of our friends are doing well. Join us this year in celebrating the end of Hill Tribers and the beginning of two beautifully crafted businesses by Haung Nan and Nang Maji.

Surgery, Post-Docs and Summer, Oh My

So much has happened since my last post. I always intend to blog, but this last year life has had other plans. Our daughter had her cleft palate repair in May.

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This is my pretty baby all ready for surgery. She was so sweet all day. It went wonderfully well, but she could only have smoothies for two weeks and eggs that were tipped into her mouth with the edge of a spoon.

Have you ever met a child who tips food into their mouth with a spoon?

Yeah. So the last few weeks have been fairly dramatic not because of recovery but because this little one LOVES TO EAT and that eating wasn’t happening in the way she liked and it was hard for everyone. Now that she’s on a soft food diet, we are all much happier. Four more weeks till she can eat chips and cereal, but at least rice and beans and chicken and eggs and oatmeal and fruit are all back on the list.

The day after she got home from the hospital, I interviewed for a postdoc for a year at a nearby liberal arts school. I love this school–it’s a rigorous academic environment on a gorgeous gem of a campus not too far from my house. So to be able to work there for a year and help them develop writing in the disciplines? Yes, please. It’s kind of my dream job, at least for now.

Mostly it gives me the chance to go back to work more than I have been but at an easier pace. Everyone will be in school in the fall, including the little one who will be in a special needs preschool where they’ll work on speech therapy and her developmental delays. So I find myself being much more of a free agent than I expected to be.

And it’s summer, with its weird blend of work then pool dates then work then park then work then splash pad then work then outdoor concert. I work and manage the most amazing summers ever for my kids–by the end of the day, I drop exhausted into bed.

But I love it. This year seems especially sweet. Everyone is home, (relatively) well adjusted, done with surgeries and the worst of the attachment grief. My big girls are an absolute joy most days and the little one is showing us more and more of her funny little self. It’s not perfect, but especially knowing that soon we’ll all be away from each other for good chunks of the day, we’re soaking up all the fun we can–playing with cousins and friends and catching fireflies in our back yard when we can.

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To My Daughter’s Birth Mother on Mother’s Day

Dear co-mother of our sweet little girl,

I realize in some ways this exercise is silly–you speak Chinese or a Chinese dialect. Someday I might meet you but the chances of us sharing a conversation in the same language seem very small. We’re looking for you–we’ll start the search soon–but there’s a very good chance the only thing we’ll know about you is the daughter that we share.

In some ways, you and I are running an odd kind of baton race. You brought this bundle of energy and joy and exuberant determination into this world. You were there when she took her first breaths. You made the hardest choice of your life, I would assume–to give her life and then leave her–when you’d only known her for weeks. I have no way of knowing exactly why you made the decision you did, but I can make some educated guesses. There are a lot of strikes against raising a baby with a cleft palate in China–financial, emotional, cultural, spiritual. Maybe someone told you she was cursed. Maybe someone convinced you that you wouldn’t be able to afford her care. Maybe the first weeks of nursing were so hard you couldn’t bear to watch her starve. Maybe the idea of having your only chance at a baby be a child with a cleft palate was more than you could handle. Maybe you and your husband made this choice together. Maybe you were alone and she was a tiny, fiercely loved secret. Maybe all of my romantic ideas are false–whatever the truth is, for whatever reason, you passed the baton when she was a few weeks old and you might never see the rest of this race.

The orphanage who took her in for almost three years did their level best, they did. Those women loved our daughter up one side and down the other. They thought she was precious. They laughed at her. They kissed her belly and her cheeks and taught her how to cuddle. They were good to her. I know it was hard, but you must have wondered what happened–it was not ideal, not one of our homes, but it was a good landing place for those years.

In some ways, I picked up the baton that magic day when I first saw her bright smile over the side of her crib in an email attachment. That crib was her safe place–when we went back to visit the orphanage, she ran as fast as her fat toddler legs could carry her straight back to her bed. She knew who she was in that small sleeping space. So it makes sense to me that her smile was happiest in her crib. I melted when I got that email–this darling little girl with the fat cheeks was immediately ours.

In other ways, the real part of running the race came when we brought her home from China, grief-stricken, Giardia-stricken, rage-filled. It was good, all of it, to get those feelings out, so see how loved she had been, to see how hard it was for her to be here. An easy transition would have meant she might not ever love us–the harder in the short term, the deeper in the long term, I think. I hope, at least.

But oh, you’d be proud of this little bug. The way she is learning and growing and changing. Faster than any kid I’ve ever seen, with a will to live and thrive that she’s used over and over again. She is driven and smart and funny and full of an innate joy that has to be hereditary. I wonder which parts of you I see in her–if the way she crinkles her nose comes from you, if she inherited that quirky little dolphin laugh, if she has your eyes or cheeks. Even if you and I were to meet and become friends, I might not ever see the private things about you that I’ve learned from parenting your daughter. There are secret smiles a mother or father sees that no one else ever understands and because I love those things about her, I love those things about you.

I’ve been surprised by my feelings toward you. I had a lot of book knowledge about adoption and birth mothers before I brought our sweet peanut home. I knew it was important to speak well of birth mothers and to stay connected to them if at all possible. I believe in the importance of open adoption. In fact, the top item on the “Cons” list for adopting from China is the difficulty of open adoption. Though we’re going to try to find you, we know that there are difficulties for you legally and emotionally in having abandoned your daughter and we want to tread lightly. The most important quality we’re looking for in a finding service in China is discretion. We’re going to do our best. But I know I might not ever actually meet you face to face. That makes me horribly sad. I thought there might be some secret relief, some sense of a crisis averted, but I find now that I’m getting to know our daughter better, that all I can feel towards you is grief and a deep desire for you to know how much your daughter is loved.

I love this little girl within an inch of her life. I grieve the three years that passed without me there to make her eggs right or to feed her yogurt until it (literally) comes out her nose (we’re co-mothers, we can make cleft palate jokes, right?). But as every day passes and she settles here more, I find myself settling into another kind of grief. This one will never go away.

I grieve that you won’t know her. I grieve that if you someday meet her, you will have some painful things to work through in order to have any sort of relationship. I grieve that I get to see the secret mother things you might never know. I grieve the ease of the relationship you could have had.

Your life would be completely foreign to me, in Shanghai in a high rise or in a rural setting in China. You and I would never have crossed paths. Maybe we would have bumped into each other on the subway and I would have winked at your fat baby in a snow suit that looked just like her dimple-cheeked mother and we would have moved on with our lives, strangers in an alternate universe. Extraordinary circumstances, life-altering tragedies and irrevocable decisions have brought us into this race together.

I find I don’t resent you being here at all. In fact, I’ve already brought you into our family. You and the father of this daughter we share are as much a part of us as you can be with the little information we have about you. We don’t know your name, we don’t know the details of your lives, but in a deeply intimate way we know the best parts of you. What you did was courageous and hard and irreversible and for the rest of my life I will grieve for you on Mother’s Day. While I get to celebrate with the handmade cards, I will think of you and wish there were a way to share these tiny life moments with you. But whether we meet or whether you’re alive or whether you’ve moved to some place beyond my ability to discover you, I want you to know that you are never, ever forgotten. You are central to us. You are here in the heart of my relationship with my girl. I invite you in, not as a competitor or as a replacement or as an idealized fictional hero but as a co-mother with all your faults and quirks and beauty.

This daughter we share is extraordinary. I love what I see of you in her.

Thank you.

Jess and Etta

 

 

Relentless

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted about our adoption. The five-month mark of meeting our daughter in China is just around the corner and I can honestly say, it feels more like five years than five months. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine a time before Fei lived with us (remember I’m ridiculously obsessive about my kids’ online, so my girls go by their middle names).

I look for Fei in pictures from when my older daughters were younger. I mentally calculate the parts of her life we were missing–this time last year, we were just a few weeks away from being matched with her. She was two, her paperwork was being processed. Two years ago, as we head to the same preschool program where she’ll be performing with the baby class, she had just turned one in the orphanage. I feel jealous of every milestone, every first step, every daily meal, every routine we’ll never know. So much of what we do know about her life is calculated guesswork–what she liked, how she felt, what happened. When the doors were closed and the cameras off, there are few things we can say with certainty about the orphanage where she spent the first almost three years of her life.

One of the things I can say, with all my heart, is that she was deeply loved. She knows what love means. She knows how to give it. She knows that she is precious–some part of her is wary, but she has none of the signs of attachment disorder, a rare gift for an institutionalized child.

But she is anxiously attached, especially to me, and that, to be honest, is terribly tiring.

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In attachment theory, anxious attachment is one step away from secure attachment, which is the goal for any child: to feel secure in their preciousness and confident that they are loved. Right now, if Fei could put it into words, the running track in her mind would be something like this: “You love me, right? You love me. You LOVE ME! You love me? Are you sure? Yes, you love me.” Over and over again, a thousand times before breakfast, we connect and reconnect and reconnect.

But all I actually here is “MA! MA! MA!” There is no off button on this child’s brain, no way to lower the volume of her mania for saying my name over and over again. When I sleep, I hear that same repeated sound with her nasal Chinese intonation that is sometimes whining and sometimes weeping and sometimes rejoicing–MA! MA! MA!

I love it. I love her. I wake up some days with a toe-curling delicious feeling that finally she’s home.

I would be super-human, however, if I were not completely exhausted. In the first few weeks, we cocooned. She had giardia and scabies and never, ever slept.

Our family was in triage.

Now we have moved into the ICU and things are better, but it will be awhile before we’re back. If you have not adopted a toddler or an older child, you might think this is unnecessarily complain-y. If you have, you’re just nodding along.

Bringing a child raised in an institution into our home is not unlike bringing an ewok to live with us. She sometimes understands consequences (if you touch this hot thing, it will burn you) and sometimes she just plays with the gas on the stove because she can and the room is so full of carbon monoxide by the time I realize what she’s been doing that I’m high by the time I can cross the room to turn it off.

Bless the darling people that keep telling me she’s like a newborn–if I hear “sleep when the baby sleeps!” one more time, I’m going to punch the wall. When baby doesn’t sleep and baby is actually three and she looks like a tiny pixie but she’s built like a little pistol, sleeping is just one more chance for her to be unmonitored for five minutes and dump the legos and break the dishwasher and pull the books off the shelves before she’s climbed the bench to stand on her tiptoes trying to pull down the lamp. Where I found her the other day after five minutes in the other room and ran, all patience gone, screaming that is enough is enough.

My friend Christiana came over not long ago and spent the afternoon with us. We did snacks and Spanish homework and played outside–just the usual fare. When the big kids were gone, she said, “I see what you mean. She’s cute, but she’s relentless.”

That’s the word for our lives right now. I want to be honest because it helps me to know we’re not alone when I see other adoptive moms blog about how hard things are. And I think it especially helps keep adoption from being idealized.

“Save the orphan” and “James 1:27″ and “147 million minus 1″ don’t mean much at 3 am when all you want is two hours of uninterrupted sleep, dear sweet Jesus. Or, after she’s sleeping well through the night (truly an answer to very real prayers), when you’d like five quiet minutes or an hour-long nap or just a chance to pee alone. Running errands to Target now feels like a trip to the day spa.

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And yet. Always the yet. Watching my big girls make room for their sister. Watching this fierce little spirited sprite learn and learn and learn. 80+ words in English in less than five months. 2 inches. 4 pounds. More eggs and bowls of oatmeal and servings of rice and dumplings than I can count. Running across the room now when weeks ago she could barely toddle.

The sheer miracle of loving a child I’ve known for less than a year with every fiber of my being.

The outrageous desire to do better by her tomorrow, to have more compassion, to see her for what she is, to hear her whines and shrieks and grunts as deep cries for love.

The unimaginable joy in seeing her in our family pictures, of feeling a sense of completion I’ve never experienced.

The highs and lows so impossible to explain.

Adoption has transformed us. It’s not always perfect and precious. She’s not a puppy, she’s a person. This is messy and exhausting and gritty and heartbreakingly beautiful. There are flashes of love so pure and clear that I’m closer to understanding the kingdom of God kneeling down on a dirty kitchen floor to wipe her grubby cheeks than I have ever been in my life.

Five months in, adoption is exhausted endurance riddled with raw delight.

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The Beginning of the End (Sort Of)

It’s spring and the refugees are moving. (I always think of one of the lovely poetic phrases of the Bible: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…”) In the spring, at the time when the refugees move, everything shifts again. The Mehs, who were living down south, now live up north. Several of the families have already left for Dallas or Minneapolis or Kansas. I said good-bye to many of them, but not all. I’ve learned to hold our friendships loosely over the years.

There is one apartment complex where my refugee friends  have lived since 2009. We have had birthday parties in the parking lots, barbecues around the swimming pool. My girls have grown up playing tag with the children at least every few weeks. Last month we had dinner with some friends and watched the kids screaming with glee and bickering like old friends long after the sun set.

Man, these kids are goofballs.

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This is the complex where I fought battles with the slumlords and then the slumlords who came after them and the slumlords who came after them. There have been a string of malicious or incompetent managers and owners and we’ve been begging our friends to get out for years. But still, it’s the end of an era.

Every family that I know is leaving that complex. One family moves on Thursday. Another family leaves a week after that and the rest will be gone by June. They want to buy houses, but it’s expensive and hard, so they’re following the trajectory of cheap rent–further up and further out, away from the center of the city.

We used to rent an apartment in this complex as community outreach; we called it the VIllage Center. Now we’re using our friends’ place as home base. But when they leave, they don’t know if they’re going to live near all of their friends and we’re realizing we’re in a new stage again. It’s amazing we were able to last five years in this one apartment complex with the transient lives of most refugees.

But the biggest ending for HIll Tribers isn’t the fact that everyone is moving, it’s the fact that all of the artisans want a better job. It’s a good thing, to be honest–this has been our goal from the beginning. The time of triage is over. The crisis has passed. The women can speak English with us on the phone; sometimes I tear up just at the joy of having an easy conversation with Haung or Heh Ler or Nang. We laugh together over things we used to just gesture about. Their kids are older, in pre-K or Kindergarten, and they have more time on their hands. The refrigerator is usually full; they know how to call medicare or the dentist. The bureaucracy, though not easy, is at least familiar. They haven’t floundered in years.

We always intended Hill Tribers as a band-aid solution. We never thought these women would be weaving or tatting for their lives. We wish they could–their artistry should not be lost–but it is not really feasible. No women who could make a decent salary will be content with a small one. So we’re not surprised that the time has come when almost all of the artisans have moved on. We still have a few left–we’re with them to the end–but they’re getting jobs or moving away at a rapid rate.

We count it a huge success. We landed this little ship well. We ended up where we want to be. We’re sad but joyful all at once. We don’t know what this means in practical terms–we still have a lot of decisions to make about the future. But we’re celebrating that this community has landed on their feet. Believe me, it was touch and go for awhile.

It’s not the end, though, not really. We have long friendships and deep roots in this community. And the people that have stayed will probably keep on in Austin. In one of my favorite moves, several members of the community have been coming to our white suburban church for years now. They were Christians before–they’ve taught us more than we have learned–but they came because one of the leaders found a job at our building and he’s brought all of his friends. So now we’re talking about how to gather more often, in a weekly small group or once a month–they get together in class on Sundays and see each other on Fridays, but there’s a lot of hang-out time in each other’s apartments. If they’re moving, if the center is shifting, we’ll need to figure out what the next stage will look like.

So though Hill Tribers is winding down and the era of the apartment complex is ending, we’re also just at another change in our long-term friendship. We’ll weather this transition well; we’ve seen worse storms. We’ve been friends for the better part of a decade and we’re not going anywhere.

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Joy Is a Wiggly White Goat

When I met Hela, she was heavily pregnant with her third child. She had no idea how she could help her husband support their family; she barely spoke English. We went to visit her in the hospital a few weeks later when her red-faced baby boy was just a few hours old. The doctor had taped a brown paper towel above the bed. Scribbled in blue pen was the word “Skoo,” which she told me was Karen for “push.” I can only imagine the stress she endured–no insurance, no language, no midwife, no family. Just her and a very young husband, bewildered and alone, pushing a new baby into this upside down new life.

Hela started working at my daughters’ preschool a few years ago. It’s the kind of job we want–decent pay, good hours, kind people. She’s home in time for her kids to get back from school, but she gets to be in a place where she’s valued and loved.

This past week they had a Western Day at the preschool and the babies dressed up in their cowboy/cowgirl finest. (Is this just a Texas thing?) Watching our new little one see baby bunnies for the first time in her life was sheer joy.

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It was delicious watching her delight that the bunnies were just right there. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

But then I caught this shot of Hela and it almost brought me to tears.

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Watching her holding a goat, a toddler’s pink cowgirl hat stuck jauntily on her head, all dimples and laughter, I realized how far we have come together. Not that everything in her life is perfect or that they’ve finally stopped being stressed, but the fact that this strong, confident, hilarious women is able to work and have fun and be herself is a huge, huge accomplishment.

It’s an arrival and a completion, a new chapter beginning and an acknowledgment of how far we’ve come.

Series Debut: Parenting & Privilege

Starting next week, I’ll be launching a new series on parenting that I’m very excited about. This will not be a series in which I tell you all the things we’re doing right; instead, I’m going to share some of our very real struggles with parenting our children in a way that pushes past our own privilege. I’ll define terms, get into the nitty-gritty, and yes, probably do a few top ten lists. If you’re interested in a guest post, tweet me or send me a direct message on Twitter. Looking forward to it!

HCHT tea party, CD version

*Photo by my enormously talented friend Constance Dykhuizen.

Harder in Practice than in Theory

We’re at the three month mark of meeting Fei; in many ways, it feels like yesterday but it also feels like time has slowed down. We are deep in kairos time right now–I barely watch the clock or know what day it is. Every day is slow, intentional, deliberate. It’s toddler time but in a whole different way than we’ve ever experienced it.

I was texting with a friend from our agency who just brought home her daughter from Shanghai. She wrote that adoption is harder in practice than in theory. That sums it up perfectly.

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Fei is sleeping through the night. That fact alone changes almost everything. It is much easier to have compassion on a raging, grieving toddler when I’ve had more than three hours of sleep. Looking back on those first few sleepless weeks, we were brain-addled and beat up.

Her first surgery was last week–tubes in her ears–and she handled it like a champ. Perhaps more importantly, she showed the real mettle of our intense attachment work: a woman whose son was having surgery reached down to pick her up (who does that???) and she struggled to get away from this stranger and back to me. I was thrilled that the little girl who would walk up to anyone knew that I was her mom.

We’ve been working hard on this.

At the same time, there are still so many ways in which she shows how difficult it is to transition from an orphanage to a home. We call her micu, which is Portuguese for those tiny monkeys (the bad guys on Rio) who are famous for grabbing shiny things before you even know they’re there. We’ve found Fei’s stashes under Jonathan’s sink, in my unused purses, behind the couch. We spend hours looking for hair stuff or remotes. She’s wily, our little Chinese chimpanzee.

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Two things that we are working on overcoming: Fei’s hyper vigilance and anxious attachment. The hyper vigilance is the cause of the many, many midnight wake-ups. Until I saw her body relax in our home over the last few weeks, I didn’t realize how tense and keyed up she had been. I’m not sure what changed, but she turned a small corner eight weeks after we met her. The difference was subtle but sure–she trusts us more. Not completely, but enough to allow herself to relax with us and sleep through the night.

I’m not sure I can express how grateful we are for that one change.

She is currently in the stage of anxious attachment; adoption experts talk about attachment in ways that are different from the granola movement of attaching to your babies. There is a specific spectrum that children who are from hard places follow (google Karyn Purvis at TCU or The Connected Child–her work is all that has sustained us so far). Anxious attachment is close to secure attachment, what my bio girls have where they’re confident they are trusted and loved.

But close isn’t there yet.

For Fei, anxious attachment means a constant testing of our love and commitment. It means calling out to me hundreds of times a day: “Ma! Ma! Ma!” Said with Chinese inflection and a lot of worry, it’s cute at 8 in the morning but by 8 at night, I’m done. It’s a constant noise in my day. Add to that a whiny dog and two other small children who are not afraid to let their needs be known and you get a small picture of my day. Then add the fact that we’ve had 500 snow days (with no actual snow) this winter and you can see why I sometimes feel totally done.

It’s an intense life we’re leading right now.

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There’s no way to fully express the distress, the emotions, the joys and the griefs of these first few weeks. I know because I’ve read everything there is to read on the subject and I still feel woefully unprepared. I feel so sorry for people who stumble into older child adoption for whatever reason; we’ve been preparing for this season for years and years and still it has toppled us like a ton of bricks.

Though it’s getting better slowly, most days I have very few resources left. Everything I have is poured into the love-starved heart of this little girl who needs to know we’re here–RIGHT HERE ALWAYS–and her two sisters who need to know they’re still important to us. Routines take on a weight they never have before. My tone has to be even. I strive every moment to be both kind and firm. My eyes have to convey love when I discipline even when I’m exhausted beyond measure. To do this while still working or cleaning the house or writing thank you notes is more than I can accomplish most days.

It’s a big deal that I get everyone fed, dressed, and out the door on any given morning. And  believe me, I totally celebrate if everyone has on socks that match.

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To be completely honest, I’ve heard from so many people that it’s like adding a newborn to our home (it’s not–it’s like adding an adopted toddler to our home) or that I just need to let the house go (which means I’d break my feet on all the thousands of small plastic things) or that I just need to embrace this season (I am, but it’s hard and sad too) to the point where I’m pretty done with extra advice. I knew all the answers before we started down this path. Nothing has changed. I know what I need to do.

I’m an expert on the theory behind this sort of intentional parenting.

To do it is something  different.

I see it in the tired eyes of fellow adoptive moms sometimes, the whispered comments that you haven’t ruined your family and that life will begin again–that’s the relief and the hope I need right now. I’ll say it up one side and down the other–adoption is not for the faint of heart.

It’s so, so worth it. It really is. When I come out of the room and Fei dances a little jig with excitement that I’m still here, my heart skips a beat out of love for her fat little face.

Or when my girls hug each other casually, like sisters do, while singing along to Frozen covers from youtube, I ache with the realization that we really are making progress.

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It’s worth it.

But it is much harder in practice than in theory.

In Praise of Earnest Nerdiness

Our oldest daughter Noelle (remember, I don’t use their real names on my blog) might be the most earnest girl that ever lived. Whatever she does, she does passionately, all in. It’s precious (and sometimes exhausting) to live with this spirited girl. In the midst of this hard season adjusting to having a new little person in our home, Noelle and her school gave us the sweetest day on Saturday.

I’ve written before about my daughter’s school. She got into the dual-language program at a brand new elementary school just weeks before starting kindergarten last year. We had no idea what to expect; no seasoned parents could tell us what it was going to be like. The first few days were chaotic–the school was under construction up till the very last second, teachers had only a few days in their classroom, parents didn’t know the routine. Within about five days, however, we started to see signs of an amazing efficiency emerging as the principal and teachers worked overtime to get themselves together. And it has been that way–seamless, energetic, rigorous–ever since. Some of the classes are designated dual language, some are English and some are bilingual (targeted only to Spanish-speaking kids rather than a mix), but the entire school operates with both languages all the time. Announcements are alwasy translated; kids are told to slow down in both languages. The teachers and students move fluidly between both.

Noelle thinks this is completely normal.

These are teachers that believe firmly in what they’re doing. They’re bringing a top-notch education to a neighborhood that has traditionally been overlooked. Noelle is one of four caucasian kids in her classroom; she’s definitely in the minority in her grade.

I’ll be honest, it’s exactly what we were looking for in a school.

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When we first found out Noelle got in the dual-language program, meaning all of her kids would have this chance, we were ecstatic. But as soon as we started to share this information, we had the oddest conversations. They were well-intentioned, I’m sure, but the undercurrent was the same–you have to watch what you’re getting into. 

Someone actually said to me at a baby shower days before school started that I’d really have to supplement her education because “you never know with those people.” I pushed back hard–what people? What did she mean? No, I’m sorry, I don’t know? People who speak two languages, like my husband when he was growing up? I’m sorry, can you say that again?

I left the awkwardness there because frankly, I was offended. To have children who understand that people from all walks of life are equal human beings seems like my highest goal as a mother.

Let me tell you the kind of education we (bilingual, multicultural, mixed-economic, collaborative, outside-of-our-tiny-box) people are working on at my daughter’s amazing school.

***

This Saturday, Noelle and 25 of her classmates in the gifted and talented program participated in Destination Imagination. I’d never heard of it before, but let me tell you, it’s where baby theater and speech and band and choir and AP English nerds are starting off these days. Oh my word, the cuteness of little bespectacled babies with costumes and capes. I could die of my love of the earnest nerdiness.

Right in the middle of the group was Noelle, dressed like a reporter. She was on one of three teams from her school. Each team was mixed age, race and gender, as well as mixed language. Of course. That’s how we roll at Barron.

Noelle was the only girl; there were three “big” boys (3rd and 4th grade) and three first graders, Noelle and her two buddies. They identified a problem at their school and then worked hard to fix it–they decided that their brand new school needed a school newspaper.

So they wrote one. They researched and analyzed and pecked out articles over weeks on their computer. They wrote a jokes section. Noelle wrote about China. They interviewed the tallest coach in school. Some things were in Spanish, some in English, and it was all so earnestly executed.

They presented their newspaper and, after a few mediocre run-throughs, knocked it out of the ball park when it came time for the actual presentation. When they came out, the principal, gifted teacher and team coach were all teary. Even Jonathan was a bit choked up.

Noelle stood up, confident as could be, and said, “I’m a little girl. My name is Noelle Goudeau.” And then read her much-practiced story what was the same and what was different in China, where she got a new little sister.

I die of the cuteness.

***

If it had ended there, it would have been sweet enough. But in the last round of the day, they had their second event–an impromptu challenge they’ve been sworn to secrecy not to share. The team coach worked to get the instructions read to the mixed-language team in both Spanish and English; the first languages of one of the first graders is Spanish and two of the first graders is English. We were all afraid that if it were in one language or another, that they wouldn’t be able to understand the more academic terms.

But it wasn’t allowed–the rules had been changed last year. Someone felt it gave the bilingual kids an unfair advantage (!!!) to hear the rules twice. Heaven forbid they should have more time.

So instead, the teacher reading the rules said them slowly.

The “big boys” translated.

In their suits and ties, these children of working-class parents demonstrated their poise and compassion as they translated WHILE THE MAN WAS TALKING for their littlest team members.

The coach said by the end, even the judges were beaming–this is what intercultural collaboration looks like, with children who think that translating is normal, that working with other people of different ages is worthwhile, that being stand-up boys at an early age is something to be prized.

We were in tears by the time the coach finished telling the story. And you guys…they nailed it. They aced their impromptu challenge–in two different languages. Because that is how Barron rolls. And Noelle came out bouncing-off-the-walls excited and proud.

***

Noelle came home last year and told me, dripping with her earnestness, “Mom, my teacher told me we were working hard at making our elementary school the best school in the world. I think we’re almost there. We’re really close.”

We couldn’t agree more. This school, these children and teachers, are a gift. My girls will always know that people who look different or speak differently are still the same inside. Those are lessons that can never be taken away from them.

And, by the way, their little team of overachieving underdogs won third place out of the whole region. Noelle wore this medal all day at school. This crazy toothless grin says it all.

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¡Qué orgullo! 

Le Mot Juste for 2014

Gustave Flaubert famously spent most of his life searching for what he termed “le mot juste”–the perfect word. He is the quirky king of meticulous writers, often spending days on one handwritten page while his peers pumped out novel after novel. But if you’ve ever read a good translation of Madame Bovary you know his obsessive focus led to tense, tight prose.

In a wordy world, it’s hard to remember when we didn’t just bleed words onto the page, wildly available to hundreds or thousands just by clicking “publish.”

I find myself still trying to put my thoughts about adoption and dissertation and the gale-force winds that all but tore us apart last year. I’d like a word for how I feel about writing or about work and what I’m focusing on in 2014, but I’m struggling to pare it down to one.

Here are three.

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Depleted.

I poured words into my dissertation, into blog posts, into paperwork, into conversations, until there are so few left they rattle around in my mind like pennies in an almost empty piggy bank. Some words are sown like seeds and they lead to more words, more action, more life. These words took something essential from me and I still can’t define it to myself, much less anyone else.

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Fallow.

I need to leave words unsown. I need space to breathe and think. I need words that have no purpose, no drive behind them, no killer point or stellar argument. I need to play and rest and tinker. I need to let go and renew.

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Roots.

What Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “dearest freshness deep down things” is still there, I can feel it. But I keep echoing in my head what he said in my favorite of his poems: “Mine, O Thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.” I want to find freshness again. I’ve seen damage done so significantly to people, such deep burnout after a terrible season, that everything is gone, roots and all. I don’t want that to be true for me. I want to write again for the joy, not the ambition, of it.

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I have so many projects I’m working on, but I’m going to try to let them come slowly. It’s hard to turn down the drive after so many years of working toward a goal. But that’s what blogging has been for me and I’m going to come back into this space more just to share some thoughts. After the burnout of 2013, I’m hoping to relax and experiment and breathe a bit in 2014. I’m going to be working on things totally outside of my field or my expertise.

And I’m going to spend a lot of time playing toddler games again. Bring on the whimsy, 2014.