My practice child will graduate from high school tomorrow.
Yes, my practice child. Isn’t that what our first one is? They don’t come into our lives with instruction manuals. We have to figure it out on our own. Most of the time, we’re faking it. We keep trudging on, hiding our insecurities with smiles of confidence. We have to appear to know what we’re doing because we are mom and mom is expected to have it all together all the time.
But we don’t. Inside we worry about our inadequacy and wonder how in the crap we thought we could do this. We try, we pretend, and we’re exhausted. This thing is hard work. We make mistakes, but we continue to practice because we’ve been entrusted with these little people and quitting is not option.
We learn about parenting largely by trial and error. That first time around, there were plenty of errors for me. I didn’t think Phillip could roll off the bed as an infant, but in the half a second it took to turn my back, he hit the floor. When he was toddler, I didn’t think about the cat litter until he stuffed a crunchy turd in his mouth. When he was four, I didn’t think to explain that How to Eat Fried Worms was a fun novel, not a cookbook, and as I happened to glance out the upstairs bedroom window, he gobbled up an unsuspecting nightcrawler. I ran down the stairs, justifiably freaked out…and grossed out. I lectured while brushing his teeth, and he nonchalantly told me the worm tasted like cherries. Yuck!
Thanks to the harsh and often disgusting lessons he and I learned together, there were plenty of things I didn’t think to do with Phillip that I did with my other children. There were also things I did do that I didn’t with the next sibling. With Phillip, I followed the pediatrician’s recommendations exactly. Sippy cups, baby food, potty training –all introduced at the precise age deemed appropriate by the specialists. With my daughter eight years later, I was significantly more relaxed, more confident in her signals and my instincts. I eventually stopped continuously sterilizing the pacifiers. I confess there were times, after a two-second drop to a relatively clean floor, I wiped “bob” on my shirt and plopped it back in her mouth. By the fourth child, I might have once or twice snagged it from the floor, stuck in my own mouth, and then returned it to hers. Maybe.
My practice child had to endure my stumbling through conversations about awkward topics that became more comfortable and fluid with the next child. I certainly was not prepared when an almost three year old Phillip, smelling of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, looked up at me from the bathtub and asked “Mom, what are these two round things?” It took me a minute to register what his dimpled hands were cupping, and before I could determine if I should use the technical or slang term, he answered his own question.
“Are they my extra brains?”
And there you have it. Proof that men are born believing they should think with that part of their body.
Life was never dull with Phillip, and his curiosity created many educational opportunities for both us. We learned from each other. Practice doesn’t make perfect in parenting, but I acquired a few tricks along the way. I worked at this whole complicated parenting thing, and in the meantime, he grew up.
The last few years have been pretty easy as far as raising a teenager goes. He’s the kid who generally just does what he’s suppose to do. I rarely see him study or do homework, yet he earns nearly all A’s and will be graduating with honors. These grades, combined with his ACT scores, have netted him multiple scholarships and nearly a full ride to college. During his high school career, he never served a detention, had a fender-bender (yet), or came home with alcohol on his breath.
I’m not naive. I did teach high school students for 15 years, so I’m aware that odds are he dabbled and just didn’t get caught. But I’m thankful that as far as practice kids go, he seems to have turned out pretty good.
It hasn’t always been that way.
The kid’s first week of kindergarten I wasn’t so sure. In fact, I was scared to death.
The second day of school, I received a call from the principal. Phillip had gotten into a fight with a classmate on the playground. What?? My peaceful, nerdy little boy? I couldn’t even process it. I remember asking the principal if he had the name right; Phillip and Riley looked so alike at that age, people often got the blonde bowl-cut Gunter boys confused. I would’ve expected this from his ornery little brother, but Phillip??
There was no question though. The culprit was Phillip. Later I asked him to explain what could possibly cause him to be so aggressive. Apparently, he and his buddy were pretending to be Power Rangers. The “big kids” yelled “Fight! Fight!” So they did.
That was only the beginning of his unforgettable kindergarten week. The next evening, he rested on the top bunk of his bed with the directive to “think about what he’d done on the playground.” From downstairs, I heard Riley yell, tattling on his brother. I couldn’t understand his words, only that Phillip was in Big Trouble. I came around the corner and immediately noticed a gaping hole in their bedroom ceiling. Dry wall blanketed Phillip, his bed, and the floor. Again I couldn’t process what I was seeing, but thanks to a little brother overjoyed to tell the story, I quickly gathered that Phillip had put his feet against the sloped ceiling near one end of his bunk bed and pushed ….hard.
I’d like to say this was the end of our most challenging week, but it was only Wednesday. On Thursday, Phillip would throw a “mud clot,” which was actually a mud and dirt covered rock, at Riley in response to his brother’s initial attack. Phillip’s aim wasn’t as dead on as Riley’s though, and instead of wounding his brother, the rock would land six feet to the right, shattering the back glass of a friend’s brand spanking new SUV.
At that point, I was ready to start checking out military schools.
But there was more.
The next day, when I picked Phillip up from school, I timidly asked his teacher how his day was. She started with “Well….” and a sigh. Never, ever good. This is the teacher equivalent to “we need to talk.”
The rest of the conversation went like this.
“Phillip said (her voice becomes a whisper) the f-word today. During center time, one of his classmates, Whitney, came to me and said that Phillip had said ‘the f-word.’ I called Phillip up to my desk and he admitted to it.”
I didn’t hear anything past the initial use of the phrase “f-word.” She had to repeat her story.
How could this be my child?? My sweet little boy who considered stupid a bad word had used the f-word? I absolutely could not comprehend this. He must be one of those kids who behaves completely different at school than he does at home. He’d been in school a total of five days, and he’d knocked a friend’s head off the asphalt, demolished his bedroom ceiling, damaged a new car, and now was cussing like a sailor. Dear Lord, I was going to have to quit my job and homeschool the little demon.
I took his hand and we walked to our vehicle. My brain was in overdrive trying to understand, to determine how to proceed in light of the revelation that my son was probably on a one way trip to delinquency. Maybe it wasn’t coincidental that Phillip’s favorite color was orange.
On our drive home, I waited for Phillip to tell me about being in trouble at school, but he avoided it. He talked about how bored he was, what he’d eaten for lunch, who he’d played with at recess. Finally, I couldn’t contain my frustration any longer. I asked him what he’d done at school to get into trouble. Big, big trouble.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I know I should’ve said toot, but I said fart. I’m sorry….”
My thought process went something like this.
What?? The f-word was fart? Oh, praise God, he said fart! He’s not a demon after all. I don’t have to start visiting military schools. He’s going to be okay.
And that was the end of week one. Thankfully, it was the worst week of Phillip’s entire academic career, but it was enough. We both learned a lot. He learned what not to do. Don’t fight. Don’t put your feet through ceilings. Don’t throw rocks. And don’t say the f-word.
I learned what to do. Do ask questions. Do breathe before raising your voice. Do let your child explain. Do hug him anyway. Do define the f-word before having heart palpitations.
Practice. We’ve been at it for almost eighteen years. He and I together, trying to figure this thing out.
He’s practicing how to be a grown up, a good one with a kind heart and good intentions.
I’m practicing how to be a mom, a good one with a kind heart and good intentions. I get three more tries to get this parenting thing down pat. I like to think I get a little better with each lesson. It’s why the rules for Gracie are different than they were for Phillip. A set bedtime, no electronics in her bedroom, no cell phone or social networking for many years, more water and no soda. By the time our four-year-old graduates, that kid should be perfect.
But with all the years I have ahead of me to practice parenting, my first born son only gets one shot at becoming a grown up. This is it. This is adulthood. He has arrived and his practice is over. Tomorrow he will walk across that stage and shake the hand of the man handing him a diploma. He will sing his alma mater, toss his cap into the air, and march out a high school graduate. On Monday, we will celebrate with a poolside cookout, just a small intimidate gathering with his family, marveling at his achievements, his height, his grown-up-ness. The following week, Phillip will turn eighteen on the beach while at senior week with the friends he’s had since elementary school.
I am so thankful that I am here to cheer him on, that he has made it here in one piece, that he isn’t required to wear orange. I know this is the point of parenting, to raise a little human being into a productive citizen who no longer needs his mom to function.
But, dang, it hurts.