Friday, August 26, 2011

Little by Little

Yesterday, we attended a three hour French class at Language Stars, making up for the one we missed last week while on vacation. The girls were excited to see Clémentine , not just to demonstrate how much of their vocabulary they remembered, but they genuinely adore her. She came up in conversation all week as they anticipated the upcoming class: "I can't wait to tell Clémentine that I know how to say 'hedgehog' in French" or "I'm going to ask Clémentine how to say 'tornado.'"

I love that when any of the girls say "Clémentine," it is "CLAY-mon-teen," beautifully pronounced with perfect little French accents.

On the drive to the school, they ran through their colors and prepositions, practiced their greetings and repeatedly introduced themselves to each other with confidence.  When we arrived in class, the girls were a little bashful, whispering answers they had given boldly in the car (and chickening out altogether regarding "hedgehog" and "tornado"), but eventually they warmed up. Their hesitation was due in part, I'm sure, to being with children they hadn't met before. In the first 90 minutes, the two other children in the class were younger than mine, but had been in the program longer, or so it seemed. They were quick to respond and always remembered to say "s'il tu plait."

The second 90 minutes, the younger students left and three girls about Bronte's and Chloe's ages joined us. Their vocabulary was further along than ours for sure, but it was interesting to watch how my girls were challenged and motivated by the difference in skill level. They were excited to play "Body Part Bingo" and learn the words for facial features, arms, hands, fingers, legs and feet. They made plans to make their own version of the game over the weekend.

Little by little, their vocabulary is growing and they look for opportunities to use their new words during the day, whether by reciting them all at once or plugging them into sentences ad hoc: "Chloe, go put your trash dans la poubelle."

I will admit that three hours proved too much for poor Carys, who only just turned five. Two hours into things, she trudged from the table to the carpet area for the next activity. By now, it was 4pm and I could see she was fading fast. She looked over to me and, not wanting to hurt her beloved Clémentine's feelings, mouthed desperately, "I'M. OVER. IT." I slipped her a few Milk Duds to perk her up. As tired as she was, she also didn't want to be left out, so she battled her fatigue to make it through the rest of the class. She fell asleep at 6:00 while we were driving home.

When she woke up at 7:30 this morning, she came into the kitchen and found me sitting at the table.

"Bonjour," I said to her, wondering if she was still "over it."

"Bonjour, Mommy."

"Comment ça va?" I asked, handing her a doughnut.

"Ça va bien!" she answered, then gave me sugar-sticky kiss before skipping off to find her sisters.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

That Was Fast

We returned from our yearly trip to the Outer Banks late Saturday night. Before Anthony had  vacuumed the sand out of the Swagger Wagon, I was in my office trying to move my life from the paper calendar a realtor mailed me in January into Google Calendar. I considered this migration out of the Stone Age for several intelligent, organizationally sound reasons, but the tipping point in my decision-making process was a friend's Facebook post about the color coding. Surely, this is the answer to all my organizational woes!

And if not, looks pretty.

In a matter of minutes, the pristine, white squares transform into the brilliant, multicolored patchwork of a thoroughly scrambled Rubik's Cube. As I plug in our weekly fall commitments--11 dance classes, 2 piano lessons, 1 French class, 2 youth group meetings, 1 Classical Conversations session, and library day--I am more excited than overwhelmed (for now). I add in the "grading" days for my TA job, deadlines for TV reviews, and the "crop" days for my new scrapbooking gig. Then a few extra activities for August and September: The once-a-year dinner date with my girlfriends, a writing workshop with Bronte and Chloe, a youth conference with my husband.

I glance over at my camera, perched expectantly on the corner of my desk, waiting for me to unburden it of its hundreds of beach pictures. The trip is fast becoming a distant memory. I need to get to those pictures, pick a few out to throw up on Facebook, pick a bunch out to put into our non-virtual family album. But, before I can get to that, I need to schedule the girls' fall portraits.

The phone rings. It's my mother.  I answer as I plug in a doctor's appointment and refesh the now kaleidoscopic calendar, just the tiniest smidgen worried I might have overdone things, but not quite willing to see the brightly colored bars and squares as warning signs.

Is it just me, or do the tiny colored squares spell out "TILT?"

"What are you doing?" Mom asks.

I stare at the calendar and answer with a sigh:  "I'm writing summer's obituary."

It's true we have a few days left to enjoy the pool, but I'm not sure we will.  Already the girls have started asking if they can start their schoolwork next week instead of Labor Day week (wait, what?) and if their cousins are coming up from Atlanta for Thanksgiving. I swear I even  saw a few yellow leaves swirl past the bay window of my office this morning.

Farewell, summer. We hardly knew ye.

Oh, sacrament of summer days,
Oh, last communion in the haze,
Permit a child to join,

Thy sacred emblems to partake,
Thy consecrated bread to break,
Taste thine immortal wine! 

--From Emily Dickinson's "Indian Summer" 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Love, Limits, and the Swirly Vortex of Terror

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him!
Dory: That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

--Finding Nemo

This week, we are enjoying our yearly trip to the Outer Banks with our extended family. There are 17 of us in all: seven Scolaros, three spouses, and seven children. This is a trip I have taken every summer of my life. Before I married my husband in 2001, I made sure he understood that he was expected to make this annual pilgrimage, not merely without complaint, but with an unbridled enthusiasm to match my own. All other Scolaro family events might be negotiable (emphasis on might), but the beach trip is not.

I have so long associated this place with peaceful retreat, that when I cross the Wright Memorial Bridge, there is no need to remind myself to shift into vacation mode.  Muscle memory kicks in: My body relaxes and tension wicks away from it. My mind stops its frenetic ticking off of mental checklists, task lists, and guilt lists. The less stress I feel, the funnier my husband's jokes are, so that by the time we've reached milepost 4, he has reclaimed his status as the funniest person I know. Though I worried about it for weeks leading up to this trip, I suddenly couldn't care less how I look in my bathing suit, or if my kids eat Pixie Sticks and waffles for dinner and stay up watching movies till 10 for the next week (though the edict to read every day remains in effect, another non-negotiable).

There are few things as quieting to my heart as watching my children play on the beach, each distinct, complex little personality thrown into high relief by these beautiful, but elemental surroundings. Carys endlessly skips and twirls in ankle deep surf, singing to herself or shrieking with excitement and running away if the water rises to her calves. Chloe is also mostly content to enjoy the beach by herself. She is still happy to play in the sand and will wade slightly further into the water than her little sister, though she is even more cautious: She approaches the ocean with a mixture of longing and wariness. 

Bronte, however, is not satisfied with playing on the beach. She is the sociable and fearless one. She begs her dad, cousins, or aunts and uncles to come in the water with her and like them, she rushes in headlong, endlessly diving under wave after wave, only emerging when my wave from the shore motions her to come out and rest.

My own relationship with the ocean is complicated. On the beach is fine. In the water is not. I am like Chloe or, more accurately, she is like me: I want to love the ocean, to love being in it, to splash around and swim like Bronte, to feel as free and unencumbered near it as Carys. But, I just can't.

When I consider the beauty and the danger of the ocean, danger always wins the day. When I was a kid, I was scared of the hugeness of it. The power of the waves. I wasn't the greatest swimmer and never really felt confident that, if push came to shove, I was strong enough to save my own life. Eventually, I was less worried about drowning and more worried about what lurked beneath the green-gray churning water.  For years, I have stood at the water's edge, watching my fearless family, wanting to join them, but unable to make my legs carry me out to them. I would blame all this on Shark Week, but I've been terrified far longer than the Discovery Channel has existed.

For the most part, I have tried not to pass my fear on to my girls. I haven't directly said "Don't go in there! Something will eat you!" When they were younger and used to ask why I wouldn't get in, I would tell them I just didn't want to or that I had to stay and take care of their baby sister, who was too small to go past the sea foam. When I no longer had that excuse, I told them plainly: I'm afraid to. That's not deliberately transmitting fear, right? That's just being honest! I admit, I do let them watch Shark Week, but in my defense, they suggest it first. I merely consent. And when I see that Chloe is worried about going in the water, I know it's not a fear of sharks that holds her back, but the memory of an unfortunate boogie board mishap in 2009:

Rather than take advantage of Chloe's hesitance to go back in the water, I encourage her to let Daddy take her back in. It has to be Daddy, though. When they started to go into the water with my brother-in-law and nieces the other day, my conversation with Anthony went something like this:

Me: You have to go in with them.
Anthony:  Why?
Me: So you can punch a shark in the nose if it tries to get one of the girls! Did you learn nothing from Shark Week?! 
Anthony: Well, Kenny's going to be out there.
Me: So what! He's going to save his own kids first!

Off came the flip flops, the sunglasses, the baseball cap, and the shirt, and away went Anthony, knowing that unless he complied with my neurotic demands, the girls would be the ones who lost out, forced to sit on the sand and watch their cousins have all the fun.

When my girls are out past the breakers, I sit in my chair and watch. And I don't mean that I casually take in the scene with pleasure, as I do when they are playing in the surf. I don't take advantage of the quiet and read my book, glancing up from time to time to see them doing handstands in the ocean while Anthony keeps an eye out for oncoming waves.

I mean my eyes are fixed. Trained. I watch the glassy curl of each wave, half-convinced I am going to see something terrible in it. I try to estimate the distance between Anthony and each of the girls, willing him to pull them closer to him. I watch each of them disappear under a swell and do a quick headcount as they bob, two, three...

Yesterday was spent in just this way. I did, for once, let Bronte go in the water with my sisters and Kenny, while Anthony sat under the umbrella with me. I forced down the anxiety that kept trying to rise up in my chest. I fought back the urge to wave her in on the pretense that she looked tired. I saw several dolphins swimming around a couple hundred yards beyond where my family was playing, remembered something about them being "the angels of the sea," and began to relax my white-knuckled grip on the arms of my beach chair. I even tried, for about 30 seconds, to read my book.

At that moment, Kenny started waving his arms and yelling from the water, pointing to something behind us. Anthony and I stood up, and started walking towards them, confused. We couldn't make out what he was shouting--it sounded like "sister"--but as he kept emphatically pointing southwest, I turned around towards Pamlico Sound.

Kenny wasn't yelling "sister."  He was yelling "twister."

There, beyond the houses on the Sound side, was a heavy, dark sky and two funnel clouds stretching down from it like gray, bony fingers swirling a drink. 

This will ruin a day at the beach!

My legs went cold and wobbly and I stood, transfixed, for a few seconds, watching the fingers grope for the ground.  Behind me, Bronte came running up from the water sobbing. Chloe and Carys started crying, wide-eyed with horror, quietly pleading, "Mommy. Mommy. Mommy."  I looked at the twisters. Our beach house stood between us and them. If they were moving towards us, could I outrun them with the girls and make it to our house in time? I was going to try. I couldn't have my children trapped and exposed on the beach if the storm was heading our way.

Other people on the beach had spotted the storm and other mothers were screaming for their families to get out of the water. I threw our beach bag over my shoulder, set Carys on my hip, grabbed Chloe's hand and told her to hold Bronte's. I turned back around to Anthony who was still watching the sky and said, "Let's go. I'm going. Now." I turned and took off with the girls.

I tried to come off as reasonably calm as I hurried the girls across the hot sand and didn't realize we had forgotten our shoes until we reached the even hotter pavement. I had Bronte and Chloe walk in the drainage ditch that ran alongside the road and had a few inches of water in it so their feet wouldn't burn. "It's okay, girls. Let's just get to the house. I'm sure they are moving away from us." They cried and scurried and cried some more until, finally, we were all safely inside.

They were moving away from us. And they weren't tornadoes, they were water spouts. From the safety of the house, they seemed much farther away, smaller, and decidedly less threatening than they had from the beach. They stayed on the sound and caused no damage. The girls calmed down after thirty minutes. I stopped shaking after ninety. By dinnertime, the jokes had started, mostly centered on the fact that no one actually saw the girls and me leave. They just saw the four abandoned pairs of flip flops left in the sand and a rolling cloud of sand we kicked up in our wake.

I was happy to laugh off what was now revealed to be a total over-reaction. But my mind also kept returning to that moment where, for the first time since I became a mother, I sensed danger, real danger as far as I knew at the time, and the instinct to protect my children took over until my brain was only capable of processing this one thought: Move your girls to safety. Something warm kindled in my chest, like I had passed a test I didn't know I was taking.

Anthony, who hadn't rushed off the beach, but came back 15 minutes later weighed down with all the gear I had left in my dust, brushed off my apologies for being silly and defended me against the teasing. While I was relieved that I had not been too frozen with fear to act, at the same time I was struck by my inadequacies. I had been so focused on what I thought the risks were to my girls that day, so sure that I could keep them safe if I kept a close enough eye on them. And yet, while I stared down the long tunnel of a lifetime of fears that includes much more than sharks, I was totally unaware of what was coming up behind us.

As I sat down to write this I thought of Finding Nemo, one of our family's favorite movies.  Oh, how I can relate to Nemo's ever-worrying father, Marlin!  Marlin's problem, like mine, is a lot bigger than a fear of the ocean. He's afraid of anything happening to his son and foolishly thinks he can protect him from every danger. 

I reviewed Finding Nemo for in 2003. Bronte was a year old and I was pregnant with Chloe.  I re-read the article this morning. As I got to the part comparing the parenting styles of Marlin and the 150 year old sea-turtle, Crush, it was as if I had been writing a letter to myself, eight years in the future:

The moment marks the difference between seeing the world, regardless of its condition, as a necessary and useful arena for experience and growth, and seeing it the way Marlin sees the current, as a “swirly vortex of terror.” It may be just that, but it’s where we live and we have to teach our kids how to negotiate those dangers without filling them with fear. 

We are headed back down to the beach this morning, our last day of vacation.  I can't promise I will get in the water. But, I will encourage the girls to, especially Chloe. 

I may even read a whole chapter of my book.

My girls and their cousins, at the water's edge.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How Soon Is Now?

Last fall, my sister took off for Barcelona and spent a couple of months earning her TEFL certification. When she returned home, she was full of wonderful stories about her teaching experiences, life in Barcelona, her travels in Spain and weekend jaunts to Rome. When I was sufficiently dewy-eyed and full of vicariously-earned sighs, she started in on me.

"You need to start teaching the girls a foreign language. Now."

"The girls" are Bronte, Chloe, and Carys, ages 9, 7 and 5 respectively, and I homeschool them. The idea of adding foreign language studies to our lives sounded exciting. 

"I'll do it!" I cried, immediately envisioning our own European adventures in a not-so-distant future.

But our school year had already started, our routine already established. Fall gave way to the holidays and then I figured, what's the point of starting something new in January? Still, I worried that a crucial window of opportunity was closing, especially for Bronte. 

As soon as our summer break began, I started planning for the upcoming school year and this time I was determined to finally start a language program. I asked other homeschool mothers, tore apart the local used book store, and poked around online where I found an advertisement for Language Stars. New centers had opened in Reston and Ashburn, fairly near us, and they were offering a free trial session.  Why not? If nothing else, it was something fun we could do to fill up at least one of the long, unstructured days of summer break.

I asked the girls which language they would like to learn--French, Spanish, or Mandarin?  I posed the same question on Facebook, curious what direction my friends thought we should take.

I did not ask my husband.

I did not ask him because I knew he would vote for Spanish. Anthony is fluent in Spanish. He is a first-generation American, his mother from El Salvador and his father from Costa Rica. My children should speak Spanish, but they don't. And that is mostly my fault. I should have had Anthony and his parents only speak to the girls in Spanish, but I didn't. I am not really sure why we neglected to take this approach, but it probably had something to do with the fact that I didn't want to feel left out. 

And so, here we are, a mother and her three daughters who, despite being surrounded by native Spanish speakers, have only a Dora the Explorer proficiency in Spanish.

You will probably have guessed by now that I signed the girls up for Spanish classes at Language Stars. But you will have guessed wrong.

We signed up for French.

I will answer the "why French?" question in my next post.  So far, we have had three classes with Clémentine  and we are in love! The total immersion approach was daunting...for about five minutes.  And then the girls jumped in headlong. Clementine's blend of sing-song, repetition, facial expressions, hand-gestures, and hands-on interaction with various toys and objects draws the girls in in a way that is both fun and familiar to them, as we use similar methods in our day to day schoolwork. As I scribble away in my notebook, jotting down phrases to reinforce at home, worrying about what verb tense I'm using or whether to use the masculine or feminine article, my girls are merely enthralled with the experience, enjoying their time with Clementine, and barely aware that this is, technically, school.


As I watched them in their first class, I was reminded of a conversation I overheard between Bronte and Chloe two summers ago. Anthony's father was visiting from Central America along with his wife, Olga, whose English is as limited as my Spanish.  At the time, Bronte was 7 and Chloe was 5 and they were upstairs with Olga, Bronte trying to ask her if she could sew a missing button on to a shirt. I don't remember exactly how Olga responded, but it was not an answer that fit with the question asked. It was in that moment, after years of summer visits, that Bronte realized for the first time it seemed, that she and Olga did not speak the same language. 

"You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?" Bronte stated, more than asked.

I froze, caught between marveling at this moment of recognition and horrified that my child sounded so rude.

Before I could say anything, Chloe jumped in, affronted.

"Well! She understands me! We talk all the time and she understands everything I'm saying!"

It was true. In her five year old way, uninhibited and full of expression, Chloe had whole conversations with Olga and understood her in return. She was unaware of a "language barrier" and therefore was not hindered by it.

Thinking back on this moment and observing the girls with Clementine, I understand why my sister had insisted I introduce the girls to a foreign language "now." Yes, biologically, now is the perfect time, while the language centers in their brains are thriving. 

But, it's more than that. 

Now, they are thrilled with difference, not alienated by it. Now, they are excited by challenges, not intimidated by them. Now, they are eager and open and enthusiastic. These are the things I want for them, not just for language studies, but for all learning; not just now, while they are children, but for life.