For years I have spoken at conferences, mainly telling stories of what I did, or learned, while teaching my own sons in our home. After every talk I braced for the onslaught of parents wanting to know how what I just said would work in their situation. Most parents know only one way to raise their children academically: the way they were raised. The Public School way.
I saw her coming toward me with head up and nostrils flared. She had a look of determination on her face that said, “I’m going to talk to you and nobody had better get in my way!” I couldn’t tell if she was angry or just determined.
Behind her followed a girl about twelve or thirteen years old. The girl’s expression was the antithesis of the woman’s: head lowered, eyes looking at the ground, shoulders bent forward. The girl looked as if her self-esteem had tanked a long time ago.
The woman began almost before I could acknowledge her presence.
“I can’t get my daughter to do anything,” she said with obvious disgust. I looked over the woman’s shoulder and immediately understood from the girl’s pained expression that it was the girl this woman was so disgusted with.
The woman continued, “I can’t get her to do her schoolwork: her math, her science, her history…”
Again I glanced over the mother’s shoulder to see a slight shudder as the girl listened to her mother explain to a perfect stranger how frustrating her daughter was.
I tried to picture what the woman was saying. “What do you mean she won’t do anything? Does she just stay in bed all day?” I wasn’t trying to be cute, I just wanted to be able to picture what a girl does when she isn’t doing anything.
The mother looked at me as if suddenly I was the problem.
“No! Don’t you understand? She won’t do any of her schoolwork, like her math or her science or her…”
“OK,” I said, “I think I get what she won’t do. But are you saying that she just sits on the edge of her bed and swings her legs all day?” A cloud came over the mother’s face and her eyebrows furrowed. I wasn’t anywhere near on the mother’s wavelength. It was partly because I was watching the little girl’s face over Mom’s shoulder.
Finally I said, “So she won’t do her math and science and history. But, when you say ‘She won’t do anything’, do you mean she has no interests at all?”
The mother gave a deep sigh. “Well, she’ll write,” she admitted flatly.
“Write?” I said with way too much enthusiasm. My curiosity was piqued but I needed to remain as serious as I could. “You mean like ‘write her boyfriend’s name’?”
“Noooo,” she responded. “Like stories. She writes stories.” Mom was resigned to doing this conversation my way and she didn’t like it.
“Well, from the way you said that, it sounds to me like you wouldn’t want anybody to read the things she writes. They must be bad,” I said matter-of-factly.
By now, mother’s frustration had definitely transferred from daughter to me. She blurted out, “All right. My daughter’s a good writer!” The words stuck in her throat. She dropped her head as if I had just gotten her to admit that her daughter was a drug addict.
My attention was immediately drawn to daughter who had jerked up her head, her eyes were wide with anger and disbelief. Her thoughts weren’t difficult to discern. “You knew this! You believed I was a good writer and you never said anything? All these years you were forcing me to do things I didn’t care anything about but you never told me I was good at the one thing I loved more than anything?”
Involuntarily my eyes filled with tears. I am a wuss when it comes to emotional pain. I hurt for both of them. The mother was afraid she was raising a defiant child who would grow up uneducated. The girl had never been allowed to express the one thing that could have opened doors to all the other academic disciplines her mother considered so important.
I didn’t know how to help them. All I could do was mumble, “I’ve met thousands of parents who would kill to have a daughter who loved to write and was good at it.”
“Really?” said the mother. “Really?” she echoed herself, not knowing what to do with this piece of information that had just come from a place outside her personal worldview.
“Really,” I said softly.
One of the things I find myself telling parents over and over is that, when children are given the opportunity to thrive in the areas for which they have a natural-born talent (translate: love), they also draw to themselves the other disciplines they need to thrive in life. It’s a principle adults find hard to believe.
My oldest son had created a computer program when he was fourteen. It became very popular in the early days of the Internet. One day he received an email from the Sheriff of Nottingham. Believe it or not, there really is a Sheriff of Nottingham. It is a ceremonial post for tourism purposes. However, during this time, the Sheriff had something to do with a group who was responsible for emergency issues throughout Great Britain. He was asking my son for permission to use Seth’s program for free since they were a non-profit organization.
“I don’t want to answer this man’s email,” Seth said.
“Oh, and why is that?” I asked.
“Because he will know I’m just a kid.”
“Why will he know that?”
“Because I can’t spell,” said Seth honestly.
It’s true that we hadn’t pushed spelling. We had taught Seth to read before we learned how kids came to the reading process and the difficulty of teaching him reading caused us to back off other Language Arts issues. Spelling was sort of hanging around in the shadows until we could figure out how it was going to happen.
“What do you think should be done about the fact that you can’t spell?” I asked Seth.
“I know,” he said with a very heavy sigh of resignation. “I guess I need to learn to spell.”
As I recall, Dad helped Seth spell his response to the Sheriff and Seth, now knowing it was important to know how to spell, learned that task willingly.
As I write this, I am reminded that his younger brother decided it was time to read when I stopped being willing to read the ever more complicated directions to the legos he was always building. He was ten years old when reading became important to him.
A Montana youngster had a passion for writing. At the age of fifteen his parents agreed to let him spend the next year writing and illustrating a book about a mythical land and a boy who found an unusual egg. Another year rewriting and editing. However, no company would publish his work so his parents created their own company and published it for him. The young author’s parents spent another year taking their son to visit 135 schools and libraries dressed in the garb of his mythical realm. Eventually the son of an author of children’s books read and loved the book and the father brought it to his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. The fanciful story of a dragon and her boy, brought Christopher Paolini to the attention of the world when his book, Eragon, rose to become one of New York Times’ bestsellers in 2002. Eventually, a movie followed and then The Inheritance Series and a young man who loved to write quickly became wealthy and famous.
What if Christopher’s parents had been disgusted with their son’s passion for writing? Not only would the world have missed the joy of reading about a beloved dragon named Saphira and her boy, Eragon, but the Paolini family would have missed a massive financial windfall.
How many parents have said to me, “All my daughter wants to do is practice the piano.”
Part of me wants to be sarcastic and say, “Doesn’t that tell you something about your daughter and what she should be doing right now?” But I am not sarcastic because I know they don’t understand the gift both she, and they, have been given.
Instead, I explain for the umpteenth time what it means for someone to want to practice the piano for hours.
Or write stories.
Or, learn every computer program in existence, like Seth did.
Or, become a great dancer, like James did.
That morning, the woman whose daughter loved to write never understood what I was trying to say. It was my fault. That day I just wasn’t communicating very well. The mom and daughter walked away from me and I wondered if the girl ever wrote the poetry or the story or whatever else was locked inside her heart.
When will you write your story? I am just now writing mine and I’m in my late sixties.
When will you learn the piano, or become that gourmet cook, or…