Some of you know that my kid had an entry in a big state competition this past weekend. He worked really, really hard on his project. For months he researched, recorded, interpreted and arranged information. He gained skills in research. He gained knowledge in the subject he was researching. He gained the ability to organize and communicate that knowledge. He gained confidence in his ability to learn and to teach. As a result of his research for this project, he can explain the theory of relativity and the chain reaction of split atomic particles. I thought he was a sure thing. I really did. I didn’t tell myself that he would win, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought it.
I tried to prepare him for the possibility that he wouldn’t advance to the National Competition. I told him that it was plenty amazing that he’d taken this sort of thing on outside of his everyday studies. This is college level research. He’s eleven. His shit was tight, too. But I knew that there was a very slim chance of him advancing. There are a lot of entries, all by smart, dedicated kids like him. Many of the entrants come from magnet and private schools. It seems that those kids have liaisons who are familiar with the regulations and who know how to help them create a winning entry. All my kid has is his dorky mom hollering “don’t use references from Wikipedia! Anyone could have written that crap!” I’m just going to go ahead and say it right here, right now: public education at the elementary and junior high school levels is fine for what it is, but if what you’re looking for is preparation for life, it requires a great deal of supplementation at home. There are no standardized tests in life. There is only the practical application of knowledge. No one has ever tipped me on my ability to recite steps of service. Dig?
So I knew going into this thing that I was flying blind when I was coaching him (I never even had a copy of the rules of the contest), and that if all that came from it was this awesome project that he could be really proud of, that would be good enough. He gained a lot from the process. Then I could just pat his little head and take him out for dinner and say “Dude, you are amazing! We’ll get ‘em next year.” Oh man, my ability to snow myself is astounding. Astounding. As the contest drew near, I felt the tightness of anticipation in my stomach. What is that? Why the butterflies, mama? Ohhh, I see. You think that this could be a turning point in his confidence, because if he wins, it will mean that he gets some affirmation from someone other than you, and that might tint the lens he sees the world through, because the world has not always been kind to this kid. Is that it? Yeah. That’s it. Please, oh please, oh pleaseohpleaseohpleeeease, let him win...
Of course I hid this all from him, at least I’m pretty sure I did. But secretly, I wished and hoped and meditated on the image of his shoulders squaring off in victory. There is no feeling greater than seeing a kid experience success. As parents, we’re treated to it often when they’re tiny. They master about a skill a day from birth to five. Every day there is a moment of sheer gratification on their face: HAHA! Now, tricycle, you are my bitch! Then they spend about fifteen minutes riding it in a circle with this enormous grin before they move on to the pogo stick. As they get older, though, these moments become less frequent. They are harder to come by, but the vapor trail is brighter and longer.
I didn’t realize how worked up I was over this contest until a couple of hours before the awards ceremony, when my stomach began to churn. He’d already had his interview in his cute little button down and clip-on tie. The rest of the day was relaxing enough. Then suddenly my stomach was in knots. I sat, clammy with cold sweats, next to him in the big room while the winners were announced by a corny local news anchor and then had their picture taken with a convincing-looking Abe Lincoln. When his category came up, I felt his whole body tense up next to me. His hands were clenched in his lap. His name was not called.
His hands unclenched, and began to clap for the winners, but I could feel the mass of his disappointment affecting the gravity around us. Damn it. He did not ask to leave, as we’d seen other families do when their category was up. We sat through the rest of the ceremony. We applauded the other winners, and tried not to grimace too obviously at the cheesy jokes from the emcee.
I consoled him in the parking lot. Well, as much as an 11 year old kid will allow himself to be consoled by his dorky mom. There is nothing that he could have done differently that would make me any more proud of him than I am. He worked so hard. I told him when he grows up, he should not be a small town news anchor, because they must have to go to special school to learn how to bomb jokes in public auditoriums. He smiled. A little. By the time we were halfway home, my husband had him cracking up by singing along with My Humps. Kids are so resilient. And husbands are so funny. I, on the other hand, had to make him pull over on the highway so I could throw up. No special dinner tonight, kiddo. Raincheck? He accepted, knowing that dinner with me might prove more embarrassing than usual if I was throwing up the whole time.
The next day I worked. It was hard to smile. Really hard. I didn’t know exactly why. Then a half hour before closing, I dropped a pint of iced tea, and completely lost it. The conversation in my head went something like: “Can’t you even carry a glass of tea? No wonder you couldn’t help your kid win a history contest. You have two jobs: raise kids and carry iced tea to people, and you’re fucking lousy at both...” I went out in the alley to cry while my amazing friends sloshed through tea and finished my tables. It was a short-lived breakdown, but an important one to have. I had to purge the guilt. I am a firm believer in slash-and-burn agriculture of the soul. Have you ever seen how quickly new growth starts on the prairie after a burn? For you non-Kansans, pretty much as soon as the smoke clears, there are fresh, new, bright green sprouts coming up through the charred earth.
Before the tea was even dry on the floor, before the tears were dry on my face, I was starting to regenerate my moxie. My sister, who is the most dedicated, loving and energetic mom ever, once told me that she thought this urge to take inventory of one’s self is what makes a good parent great. A few deep breaths, and I was ready to turn the corner and lunge, confidently, back into my stride. Sometimes the difference between failure and success is just a few heaving sobs in an alley behind work. You walk out a loser, cry it out, and walk back in a winner to finish mopping up the tea you spilled.
As for Billy and his confidence? This morning on the way to school, two days after the disappointment of a loss, he excitedly told me the theme for next year’s contest: Turning Points in History. Yeah, we got this.