Posted by Justin Minkel on Wednesday, 07/01/2015
When I was a little girl, my family spent the summer in the pool with short breaks in the Atlantic Ocean. I feel free in the water, weightless, strong, and fluid. I feel awake there. Every cell is paying attention.
As great as I feel there myself, as a parent, the dangers of water scream at me. There are the smaller dangers: what if they snort water up their noses and the afternoon dissolves in tears and they don’t want to go the pool anymore and we have to spend the whole summer sweaty and arguing? There are the middle-of-the-night-Internet-dangers: have you read about dry drowning? And then there is the big, obvious danger. It would take only a moment. My boys, two and four, don’t know yet how water works. Anything could happen.
As a teenager, I worked as a lifeguard. I watched a lot of parents try to mitigate these dangers with flotation devices. They would thread the toddler’s legs through the holes in the center of an inner tube and the child would bob around the edge of the baby pool, supported. She would grow curious and brave and bounce out to the center, where the water was deeper, maybe too deep for her toes to touch. And sometimes she would flip over. And instead of keeping her head up, the inner tube held it down. She could not right herself. Over and over through those summers, I fished out the upended children. Nothing tragic happened. But I promised myself when I had children, I would skip the floaties.
I have skipped them, but I think a lot about them a lot at the pool now. There have been some major upgrades in the quality and design of flotation devices. Most of them seem fairly safe. The kids wearing them often seem successful in the water—paddling free of their parents, free of the wall, going farther that first day in the pool than my kids who have only their own, ordinary bodies. My boys are tentative those first days in June. They stay close.
When they are close, I remember the summer closeness of my own parents’ bodies—water beading on the freckles of their shoulders, the warm solidity of their backs as I clung to them, my legs floating free.
I hold my boys—sometimes still, with their faces buried in my neck, sometimes wriggling, slithering, kicking away—and feel the best of my family, the joyful bits, the competence, pass through me into the future.
As we move into July, though, the boys have started to let go and swim deep. Paddle, the four year old, rolls like an otter beneath the surface. He launches himself through the air, down the slide, off the wall like a torpedo. My little one, Gus, grins sharklike under water—eyes wide. Sometimes they lie still in the water or get scared and shriek for me. Sometimes I feel other parents’ judgment, as we all do: why is that woman leaving her babies alone in the water? Sometimes, in that weird, vague air of competition, I doubt myself. But I have no doubt that my children are learning how the water works, how their bodies work inside it. They have no illusions, no false confidence. They know what they can’t do yet, and they know that every skill they’ve built is real and theirs.
And what all this has to do with you, with teaching, is this: as a mother, I need your help.
I have spent enough time with teenagers to know that my own water wings moments are coming for me. There will come a time when I want so much for my boys to be safe and to feel successful that I will keep them from the raw experience they need to grow. You are going to help me raise my babies to become men. Please help me to calm down and trust you, trust my kids, trust the process, and keep the end in mind.
Remind me that the real end isn’t a specific grade. It isn’t a trophy, or the right college acceptance letter.
The end I want the most for my kids is an authentic, whole-hearted adult life. The world of adult self-help belabors the questions of balance, passion, confidence, and authenticity because they’re hard ones. Watching kids grow, though, it’s clear that these questions, while hard, aren’t new. They are with us almost from the start—certainly from our first moments in school. We have always wondered, “How does the world work? How can I be myself here? How can I feel whole and interested?” As adults, it often seems that the best answers to these questions arise when we unlearn the conclusions we drew in childhood: that our real answers are peculiar, our authentic efforts inferior, and that taking risks is irresponsible and dangerous. We can do better for our children.
Parents need partners, expert partners, to shepherd our children into meaningful insights about identity and decision-making, balance and passion. As teachers, you see hundreds of children the same age. You are an expert in second grade or seventh grade or eleventh grade. As parents, most of us see two and a half children that age. We need your help.
If you teach elementary school, help us to let our children’s work be their own weird creation. Have a plan in your classroom and in your school to keep us from micromanaging projects at home. Make that plan preventative. Talk to us early and often about how to ask our kids questions that will help them learn, and how and why to resist doing the work for them. Remind all of us that our kids’ work is an experience, not a competition. If you see us waver, if you get a project that has more of our ideas or effort in it than our child’s, talk with us. It doesn’t have to be a confrontation about credit and points—just give us some coaching. Ask us how things went at home: when our family worked on the project, how we came up with ideas, how we executed them. Show us how to intervene a little less next time.
If you teach middle school or junior high, talk with us about the ballooning demands on our children’s time. You know better than I that extra-curricular competition starts to heat up at this age. Your students travel for sports, go from school to music lessons, juggle responsibilities at home and emotionally demanding friendships. Remind us that our children are embarking not just on a journey to excellence in soccer, but also on the lifelong balancing act between work and home, passion and balance. Start to talk with us about how to help our kids notice and pursue the subjects—academic and extracurricular—that interest them. Remind us that when people say yes to one pursuit, we say no to another, and that choosing these yeses and nos is a skill our children must learn. Reassure us that it is still our job to require sleep.
If you teach high school, please help children to discover real interests. Encourage them to hold tight to anything that makes them feel like an otter in water. Offer your students opportunities to share the passions they discover with us; offer us chances to listen. College counselors are good now at talking about match—kids going not necessarily to the school US News and World Reports thinks is best, but rather to the school that will be best for the student’s interests, preferences, and needs. Broaden this conversation. Yours are the last years that children, that people, have compulsory guidance. Work with us to make that guidance deep. A short conversation or two each year can make all the difference to our courage.
Whatever grade you teach, the world wants so much from you. Here is what I want: please be yourself, and please hold my hand. You stand in front of my children as an example of adulthood. You know how hard adulthood is. Remember that my kids will be just like you one day, trying to stay afloat in the grown-up world. Despite my fears, I want my children to know how that world works. Share the paths you have found to joy, to skill, and to confidence, and help me to do the same. When they are alone and flip over, I want them to know how to right themselves.
Megan Hurley taught 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and AP Literature at NYC's High School for Environmental Studies. She taught composition and essay writing courses at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for three years before moving to Helena, Arkansas, where she taught 11th and 12th grade English and AP Literature and Language at KIPP Delta Collegiate High School for two years. She is now the owner of Fayetteville's barre3 studio and the mother of one pre-schooler and one rising Kindergartner.