Drawing Lines in the Sand

walkthewalk

“Call me Ted.”

When my husband was 13 years old, the police installed metal detectors in his local public high school. As a result, his parents insisted he take the entrance exam for a private all boys’ school an hour from their row home. He scored high on the test and was accepted. Instead of walking, clad in parachute pants, through a metal detector into school a few miles from his home, he rode two buses and a jitney to school every morning. He wore dress pants, a collared shirt, and a tie. He traded classrooms overcrowded with teenagers for small class sizes. He was as mischievous as he was bright, so the individual attention from his teachers proved invaluable. My husband thrived in his new school environment. He tells me to this day that his parents’ decision to make him take that entrance exam changed his life for the better.

When our young sons ask their Dad what his favorite part of school was, his answer is always the same. “Hands down, the field trips.”

My husband’s sophomore year, a priest joined the staff. That priest quickly earned the reputation of the cool teacher. My husband recalls his having an open door office policy, encouraging the students to spend time in his office, “hanging out”. My husband remembers a handful of his classmates calling the priest by his first name, Ted, at the teacher’s insistence.

This priest organized field trips for the students…both during the school year and over the summer months. Awesome field trips. As a high school junior, my husband joined his classmates white water rafting down the New River in West Virginia. The distance they traveled from school coupled with the thrill of the rapids make that particular trip a standout for him. 25 years later, he eagerly awaits the day our kids will be strong enough to navigate the New River with him.

My husband’s senior year, the same priest organized a trip to the Virgin Islands. There was a community service component to the weeklong trip. The high school kids also enjoyed some downtime snorkeling. My husband’s fondest memory of the Virgin Islands was sleeping outside in a hammock under the stars every night. It was a long way from home for that 17 year old kid from Collingdale, PA. And he loved every minute of it. He credits Ted, a mentor to my husband and his classmates, for organizing and executing the trips that made his high school experience so rich in team building experience.

Earlier this month, my husband sat at our family’s computer to open a link to an article a buddy of his had sent him with the message, “Yo, bro, this priest is in trouble.” According to the article, Ted is an alleged sex offender.

****

“Call me Bob.”

My older brother attended a private all boys’ school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was at that high school that he was introduced to the sport that would define him. It was there that my brother became a rower. During my brother’s junior year, a young man joined the coaching staff as an assistant coach. The recent graduate of Temple University brought a new level of energy to the already competitive program. A rower himself, he’d been in the boat that had won its 4th consecutive Dad Vail Championship, and he had the personalized license plate to prove it. My brother and his high school teammates held their young coach in high regard. He bridged a gap for them…his title was coach, but his proximity to theirs in age lent itself to a kinship they didn’t share with their other coaches. He asked the boys to call him by his first name, Bob.

Bob was accepted into the school community immediately. He was an outgoing, charming young man with an easy smile. I remember because he sat across from me at our dinner table on many occasions.  He always removed his hat before sitting down for a meal. My Dad appreciated this show of respect. He complimented my Mom’s cooking. He engaged easily in discussion with my parents. He included my brother in the conversation. He made an effort with my younger sister and me, interrupting the discussion of crew to ask us about our school years. He pretended not to notice when our cheeks burned pink from his attention. My family loved Bob. My older brother, who graduated that private boys’ high school to attend Temple University on full rowing scholarship and went on to win 4 Dad Vail championships…just like his mentor before him….my older brother worshipped Bob.

Last year, my brother sat down at his computer to learn that his high school mentor, the young man whose encouragement, support, and validation had helped shape his rowing career, had been sentenced to 9 ½ years in prison for child molestation.

****

“My name is Sr. Maureen Christi. And you may call me Sr. Maureen Christi.”

She was my high school Honors English teacher. And she scared the shit out of me. She walked with purpose from her classroom to the faculty room.  She didn’t bother to acknowledge students in the hallway. She didn’t give out A’s frequently. You had to earn them in her class. But when she closed the classroom door to signal the start of class, she transformed. She covered the aisles between desks in quick strides. She gesticulated animatedly. She laughed! Sr. Maureen Christi actually laughed. She clapped her hands in delight as she quoted Henry David Thoreau. I learned to think critically in her classroom because she demanded it. Her opinion meant more to me than any of the teachers I’d had before or would ever have after her.

The first semester of my senior year in high school, I nervously approached her desk after class. It was my second consecutive year in her classroom, but I wasn’t any less intimidated. She sat in her chair, perusing papers. She glanced up at me, then quickly turned her gaze back down to her papers.

“Yes?”

“Sr. Christi, I wanted to ask you a question.”

“Why am I still waiting for you to ask the question? Out with it!”

“Sr. Christi, I need two letters of recommendation for my college applications. I was hoping…if it’s not too much to ask…I was hoping that you would write one of them for me. Please.”

Eyes still on her papers, she nodded once, “Give me a stamped envelope and a copy of your application.”

“Thank you, Sr. Christi.”

“Why are you still here? You’re dismissed.”

Two weeks later, the teacher I respected above any other stopped me in the hallway. She called me by name, which surprised me because I didn’t realize she’d known my name. She handed me an envelope.

“I don’t normally do this. But I’m giving you a copy of the letter of recommendation I wrote for you. I want you to read it. I want you to have it. I want your parents to read it.” She frowned, turned on her heel and walked away. She never spoke to me outside the classroom again.

I read her letter that night. It turns out Sr. Maureen Christi had always known who I was. Even before I’d entered her classroom as a junior. In her letter, she’d captured my very essence. Words of praise for my character from my mentor changed my life. Validation from this one teacher instilled confidence in me…as a writer, a student, and a young woman. I still keep her letter. I haven’t read it in years. But it occupies a sacred place alongside old macaroni necklaces constructed with love and a lack of dexterity by my sons. The knowledge it exists even now gives me faith in myself.

****

My husband trusted his teacher. My brother trusted his coach. Neither of them suffered under the hands of their mentors…my husband’s teacher an alleged sex offender, and my brother’s coach a convicted sex offender. Both of them have positive memories of the men they respected. The night stars twinkle just as brightly from that hammock in my husband’s mind’s eye. The discipline he learned under a coach he revered was woven into the fabric of his character…and remains a vital piece of the man my brother is today. But a shadow now exists where before there was none. The brevity of these accusations demands they examine their time with Ted and Bob through a new lens…the lens of suspicion. Those field trips so far from home…were they really designed to be team building experiences for high school boys? Those weekend trips to compete in regattas where the boys felt honored that Bob hung out with them…was there an ulterior motive to his fraternizing with the boys after the races? Suddenly these fond memories hint at a different meaning. They shift to resemble the work of a predator fostering an environment ripe with opportunity to take advantage of potential victims.

By design, overnight field trips require that a teacher spend a considerable amount of time with students. Weekend races require that a coach spend ample time with athletes. My husband and brother certainly spent much more time with their teacher and coach than the 50 minutes a day I spent in Sr. Christi’s classroom. But, Sr. Christi took her role as an adult in the presence of teenagers seriously. She didn’t confuse it with the role of friend. Our roles were clearly defined as teacher and student. The lines were impassable.

A significant part of a parent’s job is to protect our children. It’s also a facet of the teacher’s and the coach’s role. Ideally, we parents should work in collaboration with our children’s teachers and coaches to reinforce what our children are learning both in and out of the classroom.

Wouldn’t it be comforting if our children came to us, their parents, with their problems? But that doesn’t always happen. Not all kids are lucky enough to have understanding, involved parents. Some kids have the love and support of their parents, yet still feel more comfortable discussing their life’s challenges with a guidance counselor, a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a friend’s parent.

I hope my kids know they can come to me and my husband with anything and everything. If they choose not to, if our boys make themselves vulnerable to someone other than the two of us, my hope is this…

My hope is that my children choose mentors who set boundaries.

Newsflash, parents, we are no longer cool. Teachers, it’s rarely a good idea to kick back with students. Coaches, there’s no need to be a friend to players. Our days of being cool are over. Let’s embrace it…or at least accept it. The weight of our responsibility to our kids, our players, our students has to eclipse the need to be cool in their eyes. We’re the adults, let’s act the part.

Our job, our responsibility, what we agree to upon accepting these positions is to teach them. Our job is to recognize when they are ready to stand on their own and encourage them to do so. Our job is to push them, knowing sometimes they’ll fall, and opt NOT to pick them up…so that they eventually acquire the strength and confidence to pick themselves up. Our job is to set goals for them, sometimes goals they think are unrealistic, and watch their newly found self confidence inflate their young chests with pride when they do, in fact, achieve that seemingly unattainable goal. As role models…and we are role models…we need to recognize when to play an active role. And, as difficult as it is, we also need to recognize when our job calls for a supporting role.

Sr. Maureen Christi set boundaries, and my memories of her role in my young life hold even more weight as I look back on them now as an adult.

Let’s understand our kids’ inherent need for boundaries. Let’s set the boundaries. Let’s enforce the boundaries. When we have the common sense and the courage to draw those lines, it gives us pause when another adult enters our child’s life and neglects to do so. Let’s do the job we signed up for, and in the process, make our kids less accessible to the potential predatory behavior of adults who threaten to take advantage of their trust and, in doing so, destroy the very innocence we strive desperately to protect.

Please, parents, teachers, coaches…let’s do the work to keep our children safe.

This is Why I Run

whyirun

Cancer is a mean son of a bitch. It came for my Dad 8 years ago. While he endured treatment, I looked at my young sons, still in diapers, and I tried to imagine their lives without him. I needed to hurt so I didn’t have to imagine that world for my kids. So I ran. I ran because I hated running almost as much as I hated cancer.

I ran every day.

I hate cancer. I hate running. I hate cancer. I hate running.

I hate cancer. I hate running. I hate cancer.

I hate cancer. I hate running.

I hate cancer.

Dad dodged cancer’s lethal bullet.

And I became a runner.

***

My husband and I have four sons. Raising them is the most important thing I’ll ever do. But I am still Bethany. Beneath the title of “Mom” and all that fits under its oversized umbrella, Bethany is still in there. The girl who loved bike rides in the woods behind our first house. The girl who was a tomboy and loved hitting line drives. The girl who loved doing cartwheels on the beach. The girl who loved spelling bees and Honors English class. The girl who loved telling a story funny enough to bend her friends in half with laughter. I run to connect with her. I run so I remember she still exists.

I run because I’m still faster than my first son….though not for long. I run because I can still run farther than my second son…but he’s quickly closing that gap. I run because my third son wants me to run after him, embrace him, and shower him with the kisses and tickles that only a Mom can give. I run because if my fourth son isn’t strapped into a stroller, he knows only one speed…fast…and it falls on my shoulders to chase him.

I run because I’m still out to impress that boy I fell in love with almost 20 years ago. The one I married who’s given me four babies. I run because he encourages me to run. I run because he runs, and I love sharing it with him. I run because he loves the way my butt looks in my jeans.

I run because I gained so much weight with my pregnancies that I couldn’t run. It wasn’t the kicking of my unborn sons or my need to pee that woke me during the night. It was my desire to shed the imprisonment of the human incubator I had become to run again.

I run because I like to race. I like the training. I like the race day butterflies. I like to PR. I like the post-race exhaustion. I savor the post-race beer with dinner.

I run because I make kick ass brownies from scratch, and I like to eat them.

I run because, if I hear one more, “Ew, I don’t want this dinner,” I will curl up in a corner and cry.

I run because my second son runs cross country. And I get to train alongside the little boy whose imagination knows no boundaries. And, when I’m running with him, I can take off my Mom hat and splash through the trail puddles with him. Then I can put that hat back on and feel my eyes fill at the sight of this boy I grew from scratch growing up and away from me…the way nature intended but my heart doesn’t yet know how to accept.

I run because being an adult is hard. And being a runner makes it less hard.

Running brings me clarity. Balance. An outlet. Trusted confidants. A feeling of power. A sense of achievement. Strong legs. Toned arms. A healthy heart. More freckles. Smaller boobs.

I run because a little piece of me would die if I didn’t…and it’s the piece of me I like the most.

Cancer remains a mean son of a bitch. But running….running has become a friend for life.

****

This post originally appeared on Jennifer Luitwieler’s website on May 1, 2012. Thanks to Jennifer for allowing me to pause from the noise of my life to reflect upon what began as my coping mechanism…and transformed into my lifeline.  Many happy miles, Jennifer…

This piece also ran in the Huffington Post on September 20, 2012 in the Healthy Living Section.  

Short Story Long

Me: “To be or not to be. That is the question.”

B&B: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Me, shaking my head: “That’s wrong.”

B&B: “What?!”

Me: “It’s wrong. It’s grammatically incorrect. Therefore, it’s wrong.”

B&B: “Jean-Luc Picard would not have gotten it wrong.”

Me: “Well, he did. Your boy got it wrong.”

B&B: “How is it wrong?”

The Verb peeks around the counter at the two of us sitting at the dining room table.  “Can I have a yogurt?”

B&B: “Yes.”

Me, simultaneously: “No.”

B&B: “Did he have any yogurt this morning?”

Me: “Yes, he had 2 yogurts. He ate one of them behind the couch and left the trash there.”

B&B: “No, you may not have a yogurt.”

Me: “And stop hanging upside down from the counter. You’re going to fall on your head. Today is not a good day to go to the hospital.”

The Verb dismounts and heads downstairs to the family room.

B&B: “He’s not going to fall. That boy has skills. Look out, world, the Verb is comin’.”

Me: “What was I saying?”

B&B: “To be or not to be.”

Me: “Right. OK, to boldly go where no man has gone. It’s wrong.”

B&B: “Yes, but why?”

Me: “OK…what’s it called when you have the preposition “to” followed by a verb? A dangling participle? I forget. And don’t say gerund. It’s not a gerund.”

B&B: “How did you know I was going to say gerund?”

Me: “You always say gerund. Any obscure grammar question that arises, your answer is always “gerund”. It’s like when we play Jeopardy. Anytime the category contains the word “international”, your guess is Pakistan. And you pronounce it Pock-uh-ston.”

B&B: “I pronounce it correctly.”

Me: “Whatever. It’s not important. Just like the answer is almost never Pakistan, the answer to this grammar question is not gerund.”

“STOP IT!” The Kenyan’s voice cuts through our Sunday morning discussion.

Me: “Jesus Christ.”

B&B: “Let them figure it out.”

Me: “If we let them figure it out, the Verb will bitch slap the Interrogator repeatedly until we walk down there to separate them.”

Sigh.

“I SSSAAAIIIIDDD STOP IT!”

B&B: “What the fuck is with these kids? Can we not have a simple fucking conversation without interruption?” Raising his voice,  “Kenyan, come up here please!”

As he crosses the threshold into the kitchen, the Kenyan is not crying. By the time he covers the 5 steps through the kitchen into the dining room, he’s at full tilt. Sobbing hysterically. With a wild look in his eyes. This child, like B&B, has two gears. He starts in park and hits 60 in 2 seconds flat.

Kenyan: “He KICKED me! In the EAR! And I didn’t do ANYTHING! I NEVER do ANYTHING, but someone is ALWAYS kicking me or hitting me, and IT’S NOT FAIR! And he KICKED me!”

We look at him. We say nothing.

Kenyan: “He DID!”

B&B: “Kenyan, we’re not calling your bluff. We’re waiting for you to calm down so that we can make sure you’re OK. And then we can get to the bottom of this.”

Kenyan: “I already TOLD you! He KICKED me! And I didn’t do ANYTHING!”

Waldorf walks into the kitchen. 10AM. Right on cue.

Me, smiling: “Good morning, honey.”

Waldorf: “Hello. Why’s he crying?”

Kenyan, to Waldorf: “DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

Waldorf: “Um, I didn’t look at you, I just asked why you’re crying.”

Kenyan: “I’m crying because EVERYONE is ALWAYS doing things to ME! Like YOU and like the VERB!”

Waldorf: “Don’t blame me. I just woke up. I didn’t do anything.”

Kenyan: “But you ALWAYS do SOMETHING! And it’s NOT FAIR!”

B&B: “OK, Kenyan, I know you’re upset, and you have every right to be. I would be too if someone kicked me in the ear.”

Waldorf: “Let me guess…the Verb kicked him in the ear?”

Kenyan: “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS! WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS GETTING INVOLVED IN MY BUSINESS?!”

Me: “Enough, Kenyan. Waldorf, can I make you some breakfast?”

Waldorf: “I’ll have a yogurt please.”

Me: “The Verb ate the last yogurt.”

Waldorf: “Um. OK, a bagel please.”

Me, wrinkling my nose: “Daddy just ate the last bagel, buddy, sorry.”

Waldorf: “Are you going to go to the Acme today? We’re out of everything I like.”

B&B: “Can we just address this Kenyan situation please. Waldorf, we’ll figure out your breakfast in a minute. We want to get this issue resolved first. Now, Kenyan, are you ok?”

Kenyan: “NO.”

Me: “Come here, sweetheart.”

I give him a big hug, scratch his back, and feel him immediately relax.

B&B: “Kenyan, what happened? The entire story please. From start to finish. And please tell us the truth, because we’ll eventually hear it anyway. It’s best if it comes from you.”

Kenyan, tensing again: “I was sitting on the ottoman, and I put my head on the leather chair, and the Verb KICKED me!”

Me: “OK, you’re saying he kicked you unprovoked?”

Kenyan: “YES!”

B&B: “Are you sure nothing happened that led up to his kicking you? Were you laying your head on his legs?”

Kenyan: “NO!”

B&B, raises his voice: “Verb! Please come up here!”

The Interrogator walks into the room. He edges the Kenyan out of the way. And sets up camp on my lap. He’s a mass of knobby knees and bony elbows, growing taller and thinner by the hour.

Me: “Hi, buddy.”

Interrogator: “Hi, Mom. Mom, when you die and turn into a skeleton, will you be chained to a wall?”

Me: “Um, I doubt it, honey.”

Interrogator, worried: “Are you sure?”

Me: “I can’t be certain because I’ll be dead then, so I won’t know what’s happening. But I’d say I’m almost positive that someone won’t chain my dead skeleton to a wall.”

Interrogator, relieved: “Good.”

Alrighty then.

B&B: “Verb, did you kick the Kenyan in the head?”

The Verb wears a guilty expression: “Mm hmm.”

B&B: “Why?”

Verb: “Because he did this to me…” He grabs his own nipple. And pinches.

I gasp. “KENYAN! You gave him a purple nurple?!”

B&B: “Settle down, Mommy.”

Kenyan: “I did NOT!”

Verb: “He did. He pinched me.”

Kenyan: “I pinched his leg! Not his nipple!”

Verb: “He pinched me.”

Kenyan: “I pinched you AFTER you KICKED me! FOR NO REASON!”

Verb, screaming, “DON’T SCREAM AT ME!”

Kenyan, matching his brother’s panic level: “DON’T SCREAM AT ME!

Verb: “DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

Kenyan: “DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

B&B looks at me. “You realize these even numbered children are just like you? They never back down.”

Waldorf walks into the room again. “Where is the cat?”

Me: “We let him outside.”

Waldorf: “I thought we weren’t letting him outside anymore.”

Me: “We weren’t. We aren’t. He just ran out there when I opened the door.  He’ll be back.”

B&B: “Can we please address this situation, Bethany?”

Me: “Yes.”

I direct my attention to my 9 year old. “Kenyan, I told you yesterday that pinching is unacceptable. You are 9 years old. He is 4. He looks to you as an example of how to behave. When he sees you pinch, he thinks it’s OK for him to pinch. I understand your frustration at being kicked. But, please think before you retaliate. Get us involved. That’s why we’re here. Do. Not. Pinch. Your. Brother. Or anyone. Is that clear?”

I turn to my 4 year old. “Verb, your legs are for walking, running, and kicking soccer balls. They are not for kicking your brothers. Or anyone. Do. Not. Kick. Your. Brother. Or anyone. Is that clear? Now…”

Shortstorylong

B&B: “Hold on, Mommy, I’d like to say something…Kenyan, this pinching has been going on all summer. That’s ¼ of a year. And I don’t like it. The Verb has been around 4 years. So that’s a large percentage of his life that you’ve been pinching him.”

Me: “Yes, it’s 25%!”

They all look at me.

Waldorf is still in the kitchen, “Um, no it’s not.”

Kenyan: “It’s totally not.”

B&B, frowning: “It’s not 25%, Bethany. It’s 1/16th.”

*Now is the ideal time to mention that B&B scored 800 (out of 800) on the math section of his SAT’s.

Me: “Oh, right. One summer is ¼ of a year. And he’s been around 4 years. 1/16th. Right.”

Waldorf: “We got our math skills from Dad, right?”

Wiseass.

B&B, nodding: “As I was saying, it’s a large percentage of his life that you’ve been showing him a bad choice. Now, do you think maybe there’s a chance he won’t realize it’s a bad choice? Maybe he’ll think that, because you do it, it’s an OK choice?”

The Kenyan slowly turns away in an effort to hide is face.

Continuing: “Kenyan, turn around and look at me. Kenyan, it’s disrespectful to me when you turn your back on me.”

While the Kenyan’s back is turned, I lean over and whisper, “No, he won’t look you in the face. When he feels guilty or embarrassed or ashamed, he won’t make eye contact. You have to be side-by- side with him. Otherwise, he shuts down.”

B&B, in a loud whisper: “WHAT?!”

Me, eyes wide, hands gesturing: “Side by side! Like on the sofa.”

B&B, frowning: “I’m not on the sofa. I’m at the fucking table. And he is standing there, turning his back on me, disrespecting me!”

Me, whispering: “He’s not going to look at you. He’s here. He’s listening, but don’t make him look at you.”

B&B, still whispering: “Oh, he’s going to look at me.”

B&B: “Kenyan, Kenyan! Turn around and look at me in 3…2…..thank you.”

He launches into a story about the knights of the round table and how they faced one another out of respect. So the ultimate form of disrespect is turning one’s back on someone.

I stopped listening 5 minutes ago.

B&B: “You and the Verb will both sit in time out. Verb for kicking. And Kenyan for pinching. And please, Kenyan, do not disrespect me by turning away from me when I’m talking to you.”

Our even numbered boys swallow their punishments as they exit the room.

Me, quietly: “Can I say something? And please don’t go ballistic?”

B&B: “Yes.”

Me: “The knights of the round table? Unnecessary.”

B&B: “Unnecessary?”

Me: “Unnecessary. I think it’s piling on.”

B&B: “Piling on? Your math is TERRIBLE!”

Me, laughing, “Awful. I know. It’s embarrassing.”

B&B: “25%?! What the hell was that?!”

Me, laughing harder: “Please. I’m ashamed. I like grammar. Math’s not my thing.”

B&B: “Obviously. Jesus Christ, what were we saying?”

Me: “To be or not to be…”

B&B: “To boldly go where no one has gone…”

Some day, B&B and I will sit at our dining room table on a Sunday morning. Uninterrupted. No one will need a hug. No one will climb onto my lap. No one will ask me to make his breakfast. No one will need a lesson in good choices vs. bad choices. Sometimes I look forward to that day. But not today. Today I feel lucky for the abundance of noise in my house. I feel lucky for the children responsible for making all of that noise. I feel lucky for the love I feel…so fierce it’s almost tangible…for these boys and their Dad. I feel lucky for the possibilities and opportunities that await them…every one of them…as they grow up and away from us and into their own men. Today…eleven years to the day that the Twin Towers fell, and so many innocent lives were lost…today, I feel lucky.

But, damn, it’d be nice to finish a conversation in under an hour every once in a while…

P.S. It’s not a gerund. It’s a split infinitive.

Sorry, Captain Picard.