A Tiger’s Pursuit: Mastery

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except – the first time Andrew plows right through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless bandaids would’ve been cinematic cliché if he were Korean. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.

Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the 1 mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the 1 error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.

I could see he’d felt the pressure. From me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom (from New York, double jeopardy). She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came and I was my Old Self again, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, the one who was now oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, that we had such tall demands to aspire to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.

So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.

I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof where he could’ve lost it all – fingers uncrossed. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to extend into his outer world of possibility and turn it into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.

Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.

Math: Counting by 12s

Science
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods

What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds

Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition

First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural

English Grammar
A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without

History
Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.

Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.

Science
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate

What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct

What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle

Day of Magic

Voices in my house can be loud lately. Or hushed. Both scare me. I like a happy medium.

When my sister sits in the bathtub in the dark, she tells me she is reading. I am small, not stupid. No reading happens in the dark. And I sense pain coming off of her. At age six, I can smell pain like a bloodhound.

But today is one of those enchanted days. Magic will happen. We are not in the house with loud and hushed voices today. Instead, my parents and I go exploring.

The car smells of Amish country. Cherry pie and coffee. Cows. Cider, apples and cheese.

My parents sing in the front seat. I am still young enough not to cringe, to sing along to “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”

My father drives over the hills, past the horses and buggies, so my stomach will drop and I will giggle on each descent. My mother plays the alphabet game with me. My name is Mary. I’m from Missouri and I went to the store to buy muffins.

When we finally arrive at the festival, my friend and I eat cotton candy and roll down the grassy hill. We listen to the music and brave the Tilt-a-Whirl. My world, at home, feels like a Tilt-a-Whirl. I don’t know why all the big people in my house seem to be spinning, hurly-burly. I don’t like it. But today, the Tilt-a-Whirl brings me a gift. I laugh instead of scream. It’s the same feeling but I know now it’s all how I let it in. My six-year-old self is learning, if only by gut instinct.

Tired from sunshine, running, eating, chasing horses, I fall sound asleep. I do not hear my friend leave the car for her front door.

I wake, softly and lightly, from the most delicious sleep. It is dark and the strongest arms I know lift me in the gentlest way possible. As I start to protest, my father whispers, “I’ve got you, Peanut. It’s ok.” That is all I need to know.

I smell no pain today. And I know neither voices nor Tilt-a-Whirls can hurt me—not now.

I wish the moment would last forever, as he lays me gently on my pillow and sleep comes again.

Kristine at candidkay.com

My First Time

Pinch me. Go on. Pinch me. You are so kidding me. The house is still but for the clicking of the keyboard. The men are on their first father-and-son overnighter in the mountains.

I am home alone tonight.

do-not-disturbIn case you don’t quite see it: over three years as a human milk bottle, I’ve also served up 11,984 meals for the Little Person. Eight years of service and I’ve earned 24 hours of heartbreakingly gratifying, suspiciously sweet time to myself. I think I’ll cry. Make that 16 hours, as I need my sleep. (Dang it. I will cry.) My men have freed me up in the past but this will be the first time T’s bed will be empty. Even as I sign my declaration of independence, relishing in my SELFHOOD, my WOMANHOOD, my WRITERHOOD…I miss my boy. No matter how deep in the mountains he goes or how long he stays away, I am a mother. His mother, the one he’ll come home to as long as she’s breathing. I blink back tears.

So. In the meantime, what shall I do with myself??

– Hit the salon & spa. (Nah. I’ll tense on the table over how long it’s keeping me from the blog.)

– Do the dishes. (LAUGH. Laaauuggh.)

– Clean and mop. (And watch Dirt Vader come undo it tomorrow.)

– Organize all these papers. (Tempting.)

– Write my next post.

I can’t type fast enough. (Don’t bother commenting. Let me write.)

Words Between Mom and Boy, Part 3

ChurchMay

Seven-and-a-half ~

Yes, we all have our job. Yours is to study, mine is to cook and teach you, Daddy’s is to make money.
Huh. I have the hardest job of all.

—————

Umma, what is the bottom number? The lowest number….the floor?
*Smile* It’ll be a negative number, right? Way below zero. Only God can reach it because He is infinite.
When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask Him to show me how He stretches from the lowest to the highest number.

—————–

*Watching him eat, in amazement*
Where does it all go? It’s a three-mile tunnel in there.
I’m mileless.

—————–

Mom, what is M x X?

—————–

Mom, you know what the bottommost lowest number is?
What?
Negative infinity.

—————-

His prayer in Sunday School
Lord, give us joy as we fall at your feet.
*Stunned*

t_portrait02

Long Live Latin

colosseum

At seven-and-a-half, Tennyson memorized
the first seven verses of John 1 in Latin and
English in the homeschooling with
Classical Conversations, a global home
education program based on the ancient
Classical model of learning. I set each text
to song and he downed them like dessert. T
adored the Latin and the third day or so said,
“I heard it last night [in bed]. It was beautiful
in my head and I loved it. It’s one of the most
beautiful songs ever, Mom.” The words in-
grained nice and deep; they’ve become a part
of him.

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat
apud Deum,
et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc
erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per
ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est
nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat,
et vita
erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris
lucet, et
tenebrae eam non
comprehenderunt. Fuit homo
missus a
Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. Hic venit in
testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de
lumine,
ut omnes crederent per illum.

In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was
God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has
been made. In him was life, and that life
was the light of all mankind. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it. There was a man
sent from God whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify concerning
that light, so that through him all might
believe.

You Didn’t Know I Kissed You Tonight

Night has pressed her hand to your eyes. Deep in stories written by moonlight, you
fly dragons over magic rivers and lead clone armies through the red dust of Mars.

I follow your brows, lashes, these long limbs – the lines of your biography.
Hands that build Lego tales and castles, draw warbirds, roll out sixteenth triplets;
these hands feel older now. Who will they lead? Who will they hold? I’m watching you
outgrow this bed but you refuse to outgrow the smell of your mother’s skin. You bury
your face in my shirt and come up sated, remembering the milk and my heartbeat.

You are my heart.

There’s so much you want to know and I don’t have the answers, things for astronomers
and professors to tell. And you didn’t know I kissed you tonight and a thousand times
past and will kiss you all my tomorrows. But when I’m outnumbered by time,
you will always have this sky, a hospitable spread of stars that are yours for the asking –
even when you wake.

stars-in-the-night-sky

Finale: Why We Love

bouquetWhy do we marry? I mean, why do we want to? I think eyeing that green, green grass of marital bliss, as singles we think more of the physical and emotional intimacy and the charming notion of making house. Those who live by convictions of faith or tradition that prescribe sex only within marriage may in particular feel this way, but people the world over copulate outside marriage. So it’s a broader question I’m asking. We are in love with the idea of being in love and want to sustain that feeling. We give ourselves away on this point: we root for the lovers on screen and in those pages as they push against every obstacle set before them – culture, race, class, war – and strain to touch fingertips. Elizabeth Gilbert says: It’s all about a desire to feel chosen. [My friend] went on to write that while the concept of building a life together with another adult was appealing, what really pulled at her heart was the desire for a wedding, a public event ‘that will unequivocally prove to everyone, especially to myself, that I am precious enough to have been selected by somebody forever.’ Although still retroactively tired from the rigors of my own lovely wedding and wishing I could’ve traded that satin shoe for an elopement, I think this woman gets close. We want to be marked.

CLAIM
Wanting to get married looks different for men and women. Though I won’t name the bloggers who’ve disagreed with me (aren’t you glad, Curt, Brad?), I think men are wired to pursue, their pleasure to be found in moving toward the woman. And women want to feel desired. In wanting to find someone to settle down with, men don’t think, “Oh, I want to be wooed.” I’ve said in the past that our very biology suggests this dynamic at play. And yes, I’m on shifty ground because in this feminist day many women in fact do the chasing. But descriptive behavior is not what I have in mind. I have yet to see a successful, lasting nuptial where the woman had insisted herself on the man and overpowered him (or manipulated him into it). Whether or not you agree, you see the majority of us wants to lay claim to someone and be claimed. Not be out here floating, forever available.

Love limits, almost by definition. Love narrows. The great expansion we feel in our hearts when we fall in love is matched only by the great restrictions that will necessarily follow. F and I have one of the most easygoing relationships you could possibly imagine, but please do not be fooled: I have utterly claimed this man as my own, and I have therefore fenced him off from the rest of the herd. His energies (sexual, emotional, creative) belong in large part to me, not to anybody else – not even entirely to himself anymore. He owes me things like information, explanations, fidelity, constancy, and details about the most mundane little aspects of his life. It’s not like I keep the man in a radio collar, but make no mistake about it – he belongs to me now. And I belong to him, in exactly the same measure. Gilbert in Committed.

BELONGING
Single people can stake out a community, especially in this age of options with meetups and interest groups of every hue in the rainbow. But this doesn’t quite mute the loneliness for most. It is an exclusive belonging we seek, one that is both horizontal in the emotional connection as well as vertical in the building of a home, the roots we want to lay. Even animals mark their place in the world. Communal affinities don’t require the private intimacy that Gilbert reminds us comes in a committed relationship. We want to desire and be desired, and in the heady throes of romance declare and hear the longing. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. CS Lewis (who else?)

KNOWING
In The Signature of All Things by Gilbert, scientist Alma Whitaker had been quietly following the work of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace into her waning years. The men had no idea who she was or that she too had actually come up with the theory of evolution that had propelled them to fame. Darwin never publicly spoke an ill word about Wallace, nor Wallace about Darwin, but Alma always wondered what the two men – so brilliant, and yet so opposite in disposition and style – truly thought of each other. Her question was answered…when Charles Darwin died and Alfred Wallace, per Darwin’s written instructions, served as a pallbearer at the great man’s funeral. They loved each other, she realized. They loved each other, because they knew each other. With that thought, Alma felt deeply lonely, for the first time in dozens of years.

Described to be unattractive, Alma had been hungry for the love of a man all her long life. Like her, we want to be known and cherished through our utmost faults, and be shown our own possibility of beauty. We discover the fuller breadth of this gift when we step over the threshold of matrimony. Marriage is one place this marvel of being known and (still) loved unfolds as you bump against each other’s offenses and annoyances and realize it’s forgive or bust. This knowing goes beyond the acceptance in the schoolyard, the affirmation that we’re all right and likeable. It goes even beyond the assurance from parents that our loveability is in sure standing. Which is why when we feel our spouse doesn’t really see us it cuts deeply. And so love is hard. It not only demands expression and attention but exacts its greatest testimony, sacrifice.

SACRIFICE
Even as a girl, my wanting to get married someday was bound up in my yearning to be a mother. In truth, what I wanted more than anything was to hold my baby to my heart someday. (Sorry, honey. I got the trash tonight.) Taking care of my latchkey cousins on my visits, I also wished I could raise them myself – literally, as a teenager at the time. If I were assured in my single days the recognition of Gilbert as a writer and her place on the TED stage for a trade-in on my hopes of marriage and motherhood, I would have chosen this life unblinkingly. (Okay, so I lingered on that stage a few minutes.) Remember, this from a woman for whom every minute writing is a drop of rain on a parched tongue. No, I didn’t see boyfriends only or primarily as potential fathers and I made sure to enjoy the romance with my husband. Well aware that nothing this side of heaven could ever fully satisfy, that I would always want more, I would still have felt palpably, if not achingly, incomplete without a child of my own. I would’ve felt so even before having completely fallen in love with the baby I called Tennyson, before I went on to follow the miracle of his growing.

TPotSo why would I surrender the chance at unimpeded devotion to my art and intoxicating acclaim (presuming I had Gilbert’s talent in that alternate universe) for the daily sacrifice of my body, time, and energy in the obscurity of motherhood? Turn my back on the opportunity to be known by millions around the world, in order to wash cloth diapers by hand and pour over a stove? The question is its own answer. A friend I grew up with realized when she had her first child, that her mother had always been looking at her. It is the sacrifice that is our delight, the unique experience of giving wholeheartedly and relentlessly to a life that delights as much in the taking. Babies and young children have nothing to give back, at least intentionally. They don’t see you because they can’t the way you do them. It’s not their job. The art of parenthood is the art of knowing. The more keen your observations, the better you decode the cries, the shyness, the explosion of energy, the ways they cope with fear. This correlation holds with friends and spouses also but at least in adult relationships we can expect some return of pleasure and appreciation on the investment of our emotional resources. Parenthood is such a one-way street, especially in the early years.

The sweetness of a man’s attention is the reason it might not have drawn me as compellingly as motherhood. (Masochist, remember?) Because where sacrifice is the measure of love, you don’t get more pain out of the business of forging a family than you do in childbirth. It’s not that one must give birth to experience love in its fullness. Love is too rich, has too many dimensions. I personally know fathers who are the better parent and there is enough room in the world for foster parents and caregivers which many, many step up to fill. There are women who can’t or don’t want children who give in many other ways out of a profound ability to love. This simply happens to be my narrative. I would make a better birth mother than an adoptive one. And there is something organic and visceral – downright bloody – about birthing that it discloses its own mystery on love. The pain is so mind-blowing it is a foretaste of death. You will permit me to speak because I felt every bit of it when I brought my boy into this world unanesthetized. And I’m not putting a higher premium on parenthood over the privilege of being a spouse, either. In fact, I don’t believe we should. All I am saying is we want to love so much to the point of giving up something, to the point of hurting, and women happen to find this generous opportunity in the physical and emotional capacity of the womb that is part of our design. Ironically, the high calling of sacrifice is the very reason so many marriages fail. Negotiating the give and take day in, day out, into decades can get tiresome in the least under the rule of human nature that is selfishness.

So whether we become a parent or remain single, we want to mark not only our place in this world but upon other lives. Where we inscribe our sacrifice at great cost, we know we have really loved.