Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Touching Story

Part and parcel of the summer schedule at the J's is RJ2's month-long+ tenure in Extended School Year, or ESY. One of the things we discovered early on in her school career is that she needs to keep school in her blood so she doesn't forget what it's like to be at school. Generally successful. This year, challenging. Mondays--especially challenging.

Yesterday was no exception, as RJ2 struggled to accomplish her work. The weekly Monday reports from the teacher were not encouraging and difficult to hear time and time again upon dismissal time in the school's front lobby. "We'll try again tomorrow," is what RJ2 often says on days when she knows she hasn't been at her best. Her aide sighs a smile, as do I.

[It was all I could do not to lose it laughing in the hallway a week or so ago when RJ2 flew into her classroom announcing in her biggest voice, "I'M STILL HERE!" Oh, what her teacher and aide were thinking....]

Today, RJ2 started with a great morning at home. "I feel happy!" she said. She dialogued about everything she saw on the way to her room. Everything suggested today would not be Monday.

At the end of the class time, I met RJ2 at the front lobby, as usual. The teacher was speaking with the mom of another student. I waited my turn for the update. The front door opened, and another mom came in with her preschool-aged son, who was to begin his ESY morning.

He looked unsettled and became increasingly agitated, starting to cry. His mother suggested going back outside, perhaps to calm down. I understood this picture all too well. Something would have to change soon or this child was going to have a lobby meltdown. He rejected his mom's thought to go out, pacing the floor with his little steps.

"Are you looking for Ms. R.?" she said to him.

Ms. R. is one of the ESY preschool aides, who just happened to be a helper in RJ2's preschool classroom back in the day, and still makes an appearance every now and again at our school. I knew she was in the building, but she hadn't made it up to the lobby yet. Then, it happened.

A little hand, much like this one, squirmed its way into mine. Soon following was a sweet face looking up at me.

Uh, oh!

Honestly, it was the cutest thing ever! Brought back a flood of memories of tiny fingers coming out of a chubby, warm grip. But, reality snapped shut the flashbacks, and I thought, "Now, what do I do?" He had no plans to let go.

I'm still not sure if he thought I was Ms. R., but he seemed to think I could help--which, actually, I could.

"I'm not Ms. R. Ms. R's class must not be done yet. Do you want to go find her?"

He pulled a little harder on my hand and we started walking down the hallway. I didn't think until later that I hadn't eyed his mom to check for her OK. She didn't say anything, but followed right behind us with his backpack. And that 'us' grew to be four.

"Can I hold your hand?" piped up RJ2, grabbing what was left of his open left hand, as he was already holding a box full of multi-colored pencil-top erasers.

We walked three abreast down the hallway--with mom behind us--toward the classrooms. Immediately upon leaving the lobby, I saw Ms. R. at the other end of the hall, bringing up students who had finished their ESY day. Ms. R. stopped and stooped to check out our new friend's little face, which then looked up at me a little confused. "Here's Ms. R!" I affirmed. He collected his backpack from mom and looked ready to get on with his morning, relieved.

"[RJ2] had a great day today," said RJ2's teacher, who ended up being the fifth member of the hallway entourage, passing us by, but giving me the good news.

"[RJ2] has been a great help," said the little boy's mom.

We left the school lobby and headed out to the crosswalk. "The boy was a little bit nervous, so I held his hand," said RJ2. I told her that she did a really good thing. "He was a little bit nervous, so, he needs to use his words. Or, he needs to hold a hand, right, Mom?"

This is one of those stories I won't mind her remembering and repeating, and recreating....

Photo: cheeseandtoast.com

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Call to Retreat

Remembering the Magic

We packed bags of dreams, junk food, and clothes, 
and set out for Pennsylvania.

They called it a "retreat,"
but four consonants, three vowels
can't capture six days
of truly living.

We bled Mountain Dew and grass stains,
lived for running and jumping,
and being whole. Being young.

We found shortcuts through the woods
and ran through with bobbing glow sticks
under a full moon.

We covered ourselves in war paint--
mud and shaving cream

And we would always sing songs of praise,
sometimes hand-in-hand amongst
the burning spotlights of the stage,
but mostly through shouts and laughs
of jubilation.

They asked us to challenge our thoughts,
to believe in the unbelievable.
We congregated on stone steps one night
to put faith in the unseen.

The last night brought tears as
we exchanged handshakes and
parting words.

And under another brilliant moon,
I filled a glass jar with fireflies in my head.
Memories, glowing brightly.

They still burn.

--CJ, August 2012

*     *     *

CJ wrote this poem as an entry for the PTA Reflections competition last fall. It did quite well, reaching the Richmond district finals. But, so much more than that, this piece captured the place her heart was in upon her return from The Great Escape--a week-long Christian retreat.

For as many road trips as we had taken as a family, this was the first trip in which she would be away from us for a week. Could not imagine a more fun atmosphere into which to venture nor more wonderful people with whom to send her. Still, the worries about the little things: Would she find something to eat? Would she keep track of her stuff (as past history shows this is an unmastered area)? Would she get to know people more? How would this impact her spiritually?

Reading the draft of the poem left me nodding. I didn't want to give too much feedback; this was being written for a competition, and parental input is forbidden. But, I told her how much I really liked it and reminded her to fill out the accompanying paperwork for the awards application. Honestly, I couldn't wait to share the piece, because it had touched me so much. CJ did have a faith revelation during the retreat, and she returned to us a changed person (even if she still didn't put her clothes away all the time).

But, as happens in a journey of faith, challenges emerged. Distractions. Nuisances. Stumbling blocks. Disappointments. Pressures. The hard wall of life. Something happened--a lot of things happened--and it was as if the retreat had never happened. What she had found in her heart to be true was confronted at every turn by something or someone to make her doubt, which led to a lot of questioning, argumentation and rebellion. In middle school lies the initial years of "Who am I?" We were an audience treated to a season of discovery. (Ouch! Feel the sarcasm....)

Church-related things fell into the mix, as CJ struggled to find her place. I feared she was another piece of evidence in the growing number of analyses suggesting youth-based spiritual retreats were more "polish and glow" than "worship and go [make disciples, etc.]." She would claim on more than one occasion that this kind of retreat brought her closer to God than anything else she had experienced. The "mountaintop" experience is hard to top (pun intended, I guess), though much of daily life is spent on the hillside if not, sometimes, in the valley. Yet the more I tried to explain, the more she had reason to find fault with my years of life experience, been-there-done-that reasoning.

I had actually said that she wouldn't be able to go on this retreat again if she wasn't making an effort to try and take a new look at spiritual things. I wasn't trying to throw religion down her throat, but I'm sure this all would have made more sense if she had heard what I was saying through someone else at a retreat. In the end, I was the one who retreated from her statement, opening my mind to the realization that this girl doesn't take the straight path to anywhere. Several friends and mentors deliberately or coincidentally shared their own faith experiences and the challenges of seeing their kids on their paths. My own faith experience isn't exactly a straight shot of belief. I got the message.

I have taken a lot of deep breaths in this season--some more helpful than others. I booked CJ for the second retreat, leaving certain expectations and hopes behind. (I'm still hopeful she doesn't forget anything.) I might hope that she returns to those stone steps tonight and reflects back to last summer. But I know better than that. She can go back, but she is not the same. And she won't be the same, if God knows what's good for her, which I believe He does.

[Deep breath....]