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Water Wings (Guest blog by Megan Hurley)

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. 

7 Comments

Carla Mize commented on July 1, 2015 at 8:51pm:

Water Wings

Your children are going to be such good people.  I learn from you often. Nothing but love here. 

Carol Pandza commented on July 6, 2015 at 7:50pm:

Insights

This is an amazingly insightful piece, Megan.  There are lessons within it for all parents, whether their children are two or twenty/two, and plenty of insights for teachers, trainers, and people managers as well.  We all learn by doing, by being tested, through developmental heat.  We forget that sometimes.  Kudos on a great piece.  Keep writing!  

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on July 14, 2015 at 3:19pm:

Roots, Wings, and Fear

Megan,

This piece is really beautiful, and it resonates. My mom always talked about raising us to have "roots and wings," and it does seem to me that the children who experience unconditional love and a sense of true home are also those who wander the world most widely with open hearts.

I just returned from the most amazing conference I have ever experienced, NNSTOY (National Network of State Teachers of the Year) 2015 in Salt Lake City, and again and again I heard a common theme: We must teach children as whole human beings. Whenever we can, we must be kind, patient, and generous of spirit.

It sounds self-evident, but in this time when we consider children as test scores first, human beings second, it bears the emphasis. The presenter who taught me most said a line that I keep pondering: "It became scarier to follow the rules than to break them."

There all kinds of ways in which teachers are being trained to forget what you so eloquently reminded us. The gap between teachers and parents keeps shrinking for me, the longer I teach and the longer I'm a parent. We want the same things for these children, when we're our best selves.

Thanks for this lovely piece of writing, sharing, and reflection. A Creative Writing teacher I had at the U of A during my last year of high school said, "You can only get at the universal through the particular." You did that in this piece. I'll always think of swimming, teaching, and parenting a little differently because of it.

Hadassah Aber commented on July 14, 2015 at 5:02pm:

Kudo's!

What a beautiful piece of writing as well as a heartfelt plea for teachers to be the best they can be and inspire their students likewise.

Tricia Ebner commented on July 18, 2015 at 9:46am:

So true . . .

What a wonderful, beautiful piece. It resonates so well with me. Yeah, I know middle school best, which is why my primary grades child has sometimes baffled me these past few years. I never realized how much "helicopter mom" I had in me until he faced some pretty daunting challenges in these early years. All of us as parents and teachers need to keep our primary focus on the whole child, despite all the pressures of performance. You're right: grades, colleges, all of that isn't the most important. Our ultimate goal for these children is so much bigger than that. 

And definitely keep on writing! 

Susan Graham commented on July 20, 2015 at 2:03pm:

Potentially Dangerous?

 This reminds me so much of a lesson I finally had to learn about potential. Potential, when we speak of it in terms of humans, is what might be possible. When we look at a child, especially our own child, we see a world of unlimited possibilities. We dream big for our children. 

But dreams and realities are not the same thing, because reaching potential means pushing to the edge of what is possible. And that means narrowing focus and investing pretty much everything toward acheiving that pontential. The reality of life is that we might be able to have it all; but that it is unrealistic to think we can have all of all of it. With the best of intentions, we delay our children's encounter with hard choices and necessary losses. And I think, as a result, there is a sense of failure when life requires they choose to be "less than all they can be" in every aspect of life.

Does anyone else remember playing Careers? You went around the board collecting a Wealth, Fame, and Love points.  You needed thirty points win, but you had to decide how you wanted to distribute those 30 points before the game began and you made your choices based  on what you said you valued. Maybe we need to play more games where there is more than one way to win and the players get to define how they will win. 

Thanks for this great invitation to think.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on July 20, 2015 at 3:13pm:

"His dreams have lost some grandeur coming true." -Joni Mitchell

Love this reflection, Susan. I remember reaching a point relatively late in my life (my 2nd year of teaching) when it hit me that suddenly I was OK with the paths not taken. I was OK with committing to one profession for the rest of my life, and to being with one person romantically for the rest of my life, too.

I love the bittersweet sentiment captured by Joni Mitchell's line in Circle Game, "...though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true," because it conveys both a diminishment of scope but also the transformation of dreams into something real.

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