parenting teenagers

The Liberating Failure of Learning Something New

I got this hair-brained idea last summer that I wanted to learn a language. It all started when I went to Paris with my daughter, who happily chattered her way through Paris cafes and department stores, through the Uzes market negotiating for AOC goat cheese and brightly colored napkins, ordering the bits of duck we cooked on a grill at our table outdoors in the plaza in front of our glorious, sun-drenched apartment. There she was, petite and lanky and gorgeous, perfectly dressed and coiffed in that casual but perfect teenage way she has, ordering le chocolat chaud and canard-being told everywhere what a great accent she had-while I couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was.

 

One day in Paris, queued up to commune with the vast collection of human bones in the Catacombs, I was desperate for a bathroom, so I left Lizzy to hold our place in line while I tried to find one. I couldn’t ask anyone, so I spent five desperate minutes trying to figure out how to open the door to a shuttered transit information shed, before I finally realized it wasn’t a public toilet.

 

I was completely dependent on Lizzy, who, at 14, translated when it was something she wanted to do, and if she didn’t-well…I hated that. Hated how vulnerable and isolated it made me feel. I hated that I had forgotten my dismal grasp of 7th grade French. All I remembered was bonjour and au revoir and Ou est la biblioteque? The only new phrase I mastered during our vacation in France was, “L’addition, si’l vous plais”-the check please.

 

“I should learn a language,” I decided. I want to travel more as I move in to this next phase of my life. I know I used to suck at languages and I probably suck more now, what with chemo brain and all, but why not try it? It will at least exercise my atrophied brain. What have I got to lose? Besides my pride, my dignity, my self-esteem, and my former image of myself as a “smart cookie”-not much.

 

So when I got back to Santa Cruz, I actually did something about it. I contacted the language school downtown: Aux Trois Pommes. I think that means the three apples-and I signed up for a class. The first thing I had to do was decide between Spanish and French. At first, I thought I should study French since Lizzy speaks fluently. My reasoning went like this: “Well, we could talk French together over dinner. In the car on the way home from school. On walks to the beach.” Not. Whatever was I thinking? She’s a sophomore in high school and the last thing she wants to do is talk French with her pathetically incompetent mother, who can’t remember anything and just doesn’t have a clue.

Sending a Son to College Feels Like This

I was sixteen when I turned down a full scholarship to Wellesley College. I don’t remember what that scholarship was worth in 1972 dollars, but I’d have to say, from my perspective now, that it would have been priceless. Wellesley offered me an open door into science and philosophy and language and strong women and self-esteem and intellectual passion that could have opened the world to me. They offered me Aristotle and Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Collette, Emily Dickinson and Michelangelo. They offered me classical sculpture, medieval history and macroeconomics, the riches of the Renaissance, fluency in a language, travel abroad, and in 1972, the rare opportunity to live at the beating heart of the emerging wave of feminism.

 

For years, whenever the subject came up, I joked with my mother, “If I’d gone to Wellesley, Mom, I just would have come out sooner.” That cavalier dismissal was my way of taunting my mother-but perhaps I was also deflecting the lost opportunity I must have sensed even then. When you turn your back on all of Western civilization and thumb your nose at a world-class education, when you say you want nothing to do with a network of some of the brightest and most talented women in the world, you are burning one serious bridge behind you. I would not get another shot at that kind of education. I’m sure some other high school senior was glad to have it; my refusal to accept the scholarship made some other parent’s day. But at the time, I was gleeful in my disdain for Wellesley, absolute in my dismissal of all it stood for. I slammed that door behind me and said, “No, I do not want your money. I do not want your school. I do not want your traditions and your hallowed halls. I do not want to be a Wellesley girl.” The day I turned that scholarship down I broke my mother’s heart, broke it in a way that I can only now, four decades later, understand.

 

“What’s the big deal?” I told her, as only an arrogant teenager can do. “It’s my life.”

 

The Waterfall

I remember wondering why the hell I had agreed to do this. But I knew why. Because Lizzy wanted to. Because I work hard to please my children. We were on a mother-daughter bonding trip to Costa Rica and riding horses to a wild mountain waterfall was one of the few things Lizzy had asked to do. She’d been totally disappointed when she found out she wasn’t old enough to ride ATVs in the jungle. So how could I say no to riding to a hidden waterfall in the rain forest?

There are times when my ability to forget unpleasant experiences is an asset; other times it is a real drag. This time, when I said, “Sure we can go,” I was forgetting the other time I had gone horseback riding in Central America.

Twenty years ago, Karyn and I were on a vacation in Belize, and since Karyn grew up riding horses, we signed up for a trail ride. On the way back from our equestrian adventure, my horse decided he needed to get back to the barn and eat hay—NOW! He took off galloping and I flew off, smashing onto the hard ground. I didn’t break anything, but was in pain for weeks. Once you’ve been thrown like that, if you’re not a horseback rider to begin with, it’s hard to ever feel safe on the back of a horse again.

But my chemofied brain had forgotten all about that accident until I swung awkwardly onto the back of my Costa Rican horse—and then my body suddenly remembered for me. Panic and dread shot up through my belly into my newly tightening throat. Shit! I remembered saying twenty years earlier, “I will never ride horseback again.” But there I was, on top of a horse. Being a good sport, and not really having any other options, my next thought was, “I guess I’ll just make the best of this—for my daughter.” I’m willing to do just about anything for my kids.

Anticipating the Empty Nest

 Eli is away at a three-week program sponsored by Stanford University for high school students interested in math and science. He’s taking an intensive class in topology, something esoteric and mathy that has to do with studying the surface of knots. I have no idea whatsoever what they’re studying. Or why. But Eli chose it and it’s clear he’s having fun. He sounds confident and full of himself.

I miss him terribly.

Lately, I’ve been walking around looking at mothers and fathers with their toddlers and infants, mothers with children in playgrounds, and I realize how very long it’s been since I was a hands-on mother in that 24/7 kind of way.

Eli has been away for two weeks so far. In all that time, it has never once occurred to him to phone home. He has only texted back to me only because I couldn’t stand it and texted him, breaking one of the cardinal rules of letting go your children. Let them go. Fat chance.

I know it is inevitable and appropriate that your children leave you. I know it is a sign of good parenting for your child to lose interest in you, utterly, for a good number of years, and certainly 17 is in that span of years. Still, it stung that it never once occurred to him to want to talk to us. To me.

Re-entry

Today I got up, wide awake at five and spent the next hours catching up on mail, class registrations, sorting through all the literature we brought home from colleges and buying a big expanding folder to keep it in. I went to the grocery store (always my way to land) and made dinner. Eli has spent the day with Ashley and they been happily ensconced doing a little of this and a little of that all day. They’re watching a movie now and I’m waiting for it to be over to give her a ride to our designated meeting point with her parents–the barn at UCSC. These two live very far apart and neither one of them got their driver’s licenses when they could. Apparently, they’re not unusual. It’s a demographic trend–kids putting off getting their driver’s licenses. I can’t imagine it. I practically slept in the doorway of Motor Vehicle when I turned 17 in New Jersey.

Chapter Eighteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

 I set the alarm for 5:30 this morning. Went to bed after midnight. We were careful to quietly organize our things and bring our giant suitcases downstairs. But then I realized I didn’t have the car keys. I took everything out of my purse twice. Then a third time. I looked in the car. I went upstairs and searched the room–even though I really hadn’t unpacked anything. I tore up the bed. I searched the bathroom. Charlotte woke up and she started searching. She woke up her brother and he checked his pockets. Charlotte searched her purse.

Then Eli reached in his pocket and announced, "I have the keys!’ He’s unloaded the trunk of the car and never given them back to me.

On the way to the airport I started humming. This isn’t unusual. It’s a trait passed down from my father to me to Eli and Lizzy–randomly humming or even breaking into song without realizing it consciously. The odd thing is I was humming God Bless America. Before I knew it, I was juggling the organic date scone I bought at Whole Foods and belting out, "God Bless America, Land That I Love…." Pretty soon, Eli was humming it, too.

Chapter Seventeen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

It’s the last night of our trip. We went out for a great Tibetan meal in Marblehead and ate yak dumplings.

It took us three hours to make it to Marblehead. We alternated between NPR and right wing radio on 90 heading east. My dad introduced me to right wing radio when we went on car trips, and now I’m passing the tradition on to Eli. "You’ve got to know what the other side is thinking," I told him.

We arrived in Marblehead around six. Charlotte and Alan live in a large wooden house built by a ship captain; the whole house feels and looks like the inside of the ship. Charlotte’s brother, Charles, a painter, is here on a visit from Florence, Italy where he runs a painting school. He’s lived abroad for more than 30 years.

Alan was our cook, and a marvelous one at that–a delightful fish chowder, spectacular salad, great bread with olive oil and hot peppers, and a luscious fruit salad. Eli entertained us through dinner. At least he entertained me. There’s nothing like a fresh, shiny, young brain, the innocence and vitality of youth, especially when compared to older more used up models–the rest of us at the table.

Chapter Sixteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

Last night, Robin cooked some incredible curried chicken on the grill. She made a tandoori marinade made with a recipe from her deceased husband. The three of us sat outside at a little round table and ate sweet, spicy barbequed chicken, salad and roasted naan. Robin started regaling Eli with stories about when we met and how we met at conference and did workshops on sexual abuse and trauma together, back in the years when The Courage to Heal was in its heyday. She started telling him stories about how famous I was 20 years ago and what an incredible impact The Courage to Heal had in starting a whole social change movement. “Did you know your mom started a whole social and political movement?” “

 “No,” he replied.

“Do you know the impact her work has had all over the world?”

“No.”

“Did you know that your mom used to travel around and that she had groupies who just wanted to touch her and be around her?”

“No.”

“Do you know that she had to register in hotels under assumed names so no one would know she was there?”

“No!”

She was funny and dramatic and Eli’s jaw dropped in amazement. He kept laughing and repeated over and over, “You had groupies?” And that just egged Robin on to tell another story. She told stories about things I’d either forgotten about completely or hadn’t thought about in twenty years.

Chapter Fifteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

I’m starting this post from the waiting room at the Admissions Office of Amherst College. Eli is sitting across the room, writing an english essay. He sat in on an advanced chemistry class while I visited the financial aid office (Amherst is the only school we visited that offered a meeting at financial aid–and I can see why–they have a generous, transparent financial aid program–what you see is what you get. It was a very educational meeting, to learn how financial aid works and to see how all the factors fit together.) Eli came in from his class. "How was it?" I asked.

"I didn’t understand a word of it."

"Do you want to sit in on something else this afternoon?"

"No, I’m done sitting in on classes." He opened his laptop and started on his homework.

"Do you want some lunch?"

"No, I’m okay." He put his head back down, uncommunicatively. But he is communicating. I can hear him. He’s done. He wants to go home. 

Chapter Fourteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

Today, we went to two schools that are very different than the ones we’ve seen so far. Northeastern is located right in Boston. It’s a huge school that focuses on learning by doing. Classroom time is balanced by work in the real world.

After saying good-bye and bidding a fond thank you to Mindy and Andy, Eli and I made our way through thick Boston traffic to Northeastern, where we had definitive proof that GPS systems can fail. Gladys (that’s what we call her) guided us to the Northeastern admissions office by instructing us to turn on to one tiny alleyway after another, until I unwittingly found myself on a sidewalk parked in front of the admissions office with stanchions in from of me, students walking all around the car, pointing and gesturing at us, a clear indication that we were in the wrong place. I dropped Eli off and patiently waited until it was safe to turn around without killing anyone. I retraced my steps, driving slowly on the sidewalk until I got back to the alley, and then the street, drove up one more block and then found the real, rather than the virtual parking garage.

This little incident was not the worst or most embarrassing driving faux pas I’ve ever committed. There was another time, thirty years ago, when I drove down a flight of steps at UCSC while attending “Women’s Voices,” an annual writing conference there. I was 23 years old and so smitten with one of my fellow writers, Aurora Levins Morales, who was riding shotgun, that I drove my car down a flight of steps on campus. Today’s incident paled in comparison to that one.

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