What’s Our Excuse?

I am late to the Maria Kang debate.  I guess I could say my excuse is I’ve had pneumonia; but, more accurately, it’s taken some time for this all to sink in and for me to get my bearings and cultivate what I want to say.

Maria KangIf you don’t know what it is (or was) all about, the accompanying photo here says most of what you need to know.  Former beauty contestant now-business owner and fitness aficionado Maria Kang created quite a hubbub when she posted this photo of herself with her three young children.  Criticism has run the gamut, of course:  the way she’s dressed, the question she poses, the feelings she has incited in viewers.

Her picture doesn’t provoke me nor does it inspire me.  Instead it strikes me as yet another example of an individual shedding clothing, coupling their bare skin with a provocative statement, and waiting for his/her resulting five minutes of fame amidst the cacophony that is the internet.   Nothing new to report.

What does give me pause is her question, What’s your excuse? which, since she posed it, I imagine I should answer:  I wasn’t aware I needed one.

If you peruse Ms. Kang’s website, you will read details of loss in her young life that led her to dedicate herself to health and fitness.  Like many of us, she was inspired by her early experiences and is trying to make the world a better place and save others the pain and suffering she knows all too well.  It is a commendable if not familiar path.

She chose her line of work just as I’ve chosen mine and you’ve chosen yours.  I became a teacher because it was my education that lifted me from my own tumultuous and unhealthy childhood.  I write because I see human beings’ ability to communicate and be understood as our greatest gift.  She is proud of her work as I am of mine.

The issue then becomes Ms. Kang’s question: What’s your excuse?  I will stop short of analyzing the tone because, as we all know, as much as we aim to be clear in our communication, misunderstandings are rampant.  It would be wrong for me to assume what she was thinking or intending when she wrote it.

What I will say is this:  It is pretty easy to see, despite her or her supporters’ protestations, why people might view her query in a condescending or menacing way when it is coupled with that particular image.   By putting the two side by side, she is saying, “What is your excuse for not looking like me?”

The blogosphere has been generous in responding to this iteration of her question.  For me, it’s pretty straightforward: Ms. Kang’s life’s work is physical fitness.  She spends hours helping others, I am sure, but also hours on herself.  If I had to guess, she probably spends roughly the same number of hours helping others as I do with my students and as many hours on her own personal workout as I do slogging at the keyboard to improve my craft.  She has her priorities, and I have mine—but priorities we both have.

What separates us is the fact that she put her accomplishment out there and asked the world why they haven’t accomplished the same.   I have resisted the urge.  Putting an image up of an “A” on a grammar test or a recently published article and asking the world why they aren’t doing the same makes zero sense—not to mention it wouldn’t get a whole lot of hits compared to a scantily clad young woman.

To expect the world to reach the same heights we reach in our particular fields sounds noble, but it’s not.  It’s boasting–saying that what we do is superior to the work of others, telling people to stop doing the work of their hearts and minds and do what is important to us.  Here reside elements of selfishness, misguidedness, and, ultimately, insecurity.

A well-known Spanish proverb says, “Tell me what you brag about, and I’ll tell you what you lack.”  I’ll let the author of the proverb tell Ms. Kang –or the rest of us, for that matter—what we lack.  I’m not qualified.

But maybe there’s a better idea.  Perhaps we should all stop telling—or showing–each other what we lack.  Maybe if instead of challenging one another to be like us, to do as we do, we look at and appreciate each other’s differences and celebrate one another’s accomplishments.  Maybe then people’s insecurities and their resulting and often unfortunate choices would not take center stage.

We need this shift now more than ever.

What’s our excuse?


The Secret Life of Brothers

It was one of those afternoons.

It shouldn’t have been—not with the promise of an after-school trip through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-up window looming—but it was.

Edgar’s first transgression in the car happened within moments and led to a consequence.  The consequence led to a reaction.  The reaction led to another consequence.  And so it went.

When it was time for our trip to Dunkin Donuts, the wheels had come off the proverbial bus and Edgar, even if the request for his order had been proffered, wouldn’t have heard it so loud were his protestations.  As we drove to the window and picked up two treats instead of three, he was completely beside himself.

IMG_3187We drove.  Edgar’s tears flowed audibly as his brothers silently munched.   I could sense they were uncomfortable.  Sad even.  At every red light I kept a vigil through my rearview mirror, watching their collective body language and trying to read between their lines.

Edgar’s heaves subsided to gentle tears.  The car became quiet.  And then I saw Oscar in my rearview mirror surreptitiously and wordlessly hand his brother half of his prized pumpkin muffin.

Edgar eagerly gobbled it up and mouthed the words, “Thank you, Oscar” to his brother.

August, from the third row, tapped Edgar on the shoulder and handed over at least two bites’ worth of his donut.  Edgar turned around and whispered, “Thank you, August.”

I asked Oscar about this tonight.  I explained to him that part of Edgar’s consequence was losing a special treat and that his giving part of his muffin to his brother, while generous, could be construed as undermining my efforts.  Of course, I knew this was far from Oscar’s intention having witnessed the scene, though through a mirror and in reverse, firsthand, but I wanted to hear his thoughts.

He said, “Mom, this is just what we do.  You know, when one of us gets in trouble, we help each other.  It’s nothing against you or your consequence.  It’s just being brothers.  I wanted to help my brother.” Then, on cue, “Am I in trouble?”

I couldn’t answer him.  Instead, I thought of these three boys whom destiny selected to be brothers—three boys who, if not for the magic of adoption, would not have even known one another, here today, fully bonded and looking out for each other in ways that leave me speechless, in ways that bring me enormous comfort.

I turned to Oscar and said, “No, you’re not in trouble.  What you are is a good brother. You’re all good brothers.”

Oscar smiled, and I basked in this world they’ve created for each other, this fraternal support system the details of which I knew nothing about until tonight.  I’ve always known they are ours and we are theirs.  And now I know each of my sons belongs to the other, is ready to extend comfort—whether in the form of a muffin or a hand or an ear—when the world deals them an unpleasant hand.

If there is anything more than this, I surely don’t know what it is.

Take My Heart Under Those Wings

Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” –Zelda Fitzgerald

My formal workday at school ends at 1:55 PM.

And since last September I have left at 1:55 PM on the dot to pick up my youngest son whose day at preschool ends at 2:15 PM.  His school is roughly 16 minutes from where I work; so, as long as there is no traffic I can generally make it with four minutes to spare.

IMG_3206And while I relish those 16 minutes of quiet, of time to myself, I am always eager—very eager—to see my son.  My baby.  A four-year-old boy with a smile that lights up a room, with a laugh that comes from the inner recesses of his soul.

Forty-five minutes later we pick up his brothers; so, really, it is the only time for just him and me.  We share Tic-Tacs, chat about school, listen to music, dance in our seats.

I love this time—especially since I’ve known for some time it’s coming all-too-fast to a screeching halt.

I just didn’t think it would be today.

Today—not unlike any other day—I was getting the car ready for our after-school adventure—mints in the cup holder, Tom Petty (his new favorite) cued in the CD player.  I even had a few leftover candy corn from a weekend birthday party at the ready, an extra surprise.

I parked my car, walked up the path, and saw my son surrounded by his friends.  He has made great friends in preschool and talks about them endlessly.  These relationships are important to him; and I remain grateful that these connections are being nurtured and encouraged throughout his school day.

There was no reason for me to believe today would be any different.  Typically he sees me coming, lights up in such a way that would feed any parent’s soul, then impishly scampers off.  He might hide, play a trick or two, or balk about having to leave; but leave he always does, extricating from his friends and ready for our reunion at the end of a long day.

Today, though he was jumping up and down at my arrival, it was due less to his being happy to see me and more because he was brimming, breathlessly eager to ask me a question:  “Mom, can I stay a little while longer at school?  We’re cooking today!”

My son’s preschool offers an after-school program.  Each day is dedicated to a different theme, and the fact that this option is available should we need it is a comfort.  But so far we haven’t needed it.  I get out of work early enough that after-school care is generally not required.  Many of his friends stay, and today is the day he decided he wanted to stay with them.

That he would prefer to be with them.

It would be easy, I think, to become wistful tonight, to sigh and think it’s just too soon, to be sad that today he chose time with his friends over time with his mother.

But that wouldn’t be fair—to him or to me.  Because what his decision speaks to is just how secure he is, how loved he knows he is—that he can ask, that I can say yes, and that he knows I will be back—him, no worse for the wear; me, still just as crazy about him as I ever was.

It’s the source of a parent’s pride.  Indeed it’s parenting’s noblest, most selfless goal: a child’s independence.

But it comes at a cost—fair, to be sure, but by no means small.

Our hearts.  Just our hearts.

Fazed by the Next Phase

We have made a lot of trips to the pharmacy.

Epilepsy will do that.

IMG_3344But today was a trip unlike any other.

Today was the day we picked up what we hope is our son’s last prescription.

The last one.

As in seizure-free and soon-to-be medication-free.

As in exhilarating and terrifying.

With every pill, we inch closer to the day–the day when science tells us he is eligible to be free.

But also the day when our hearts will beat with worry that he will once again be vulnerable.

A time to exhale and a time to hold our breath.

A rite of passage, a celebration for our son.

But something quite different for us.

These pills have been our normal.

They have been what stopped the seizures, what saved him.

And while we wish he never had need for them in the first place, we can’t imagine what life would have been like if not for them.

Saying goodbye to them should be so easy.

But it’s not.

Nothing about this has been easy.

But in a few months’ time, as this bottle empties, our son will begin this next phase.

And we will be by his side–as we have for every step–needing him to guide us now more than ever.

Steering His Course in Health

2013-10-18Give a man health and a course to steer, and he’ll never stop to trouble about whether he’s happy or not.”  –George Bernard Shaw

I wish last fall when the school picture on the left came home and I looked deep into my son’s tired eyes, at his strained smile, I could have had a vision of the picture on the right.

I wish I could have known that just one year later his exhausted but still beautiful face would be transformed–that his eyes would brighten, his smile turn genuine.

I wish I could have known for certain that everything we were doing to ensure his health, his happiness, was right–that no matter the challenges, he was going to emerge on the other side of it all stronger.

But I didn’t have that vision.  I didn’t know.

I only believed.

What an Open Mind and a Year Will Do

A year ago at this time I wasn’t aware October was ADHD Awareness Month.

A year ago at this time I didn’t know of the existence of ADDitude and the boundless resources available there.

A year ago at this time if you had told me my son had ADHD—and there were many who did—I would have told you that any label that aims to define—or worse, limit—my child is not for me—or, more poignantly, him.

My experience with ADHD was severely limited—relegated to that of an observer.  As a high school teacher, most of my students who have had ADHD have been contending with it for a decade or more; and by the time I meet them as 15- to 18-year-olds, they have either grown out of the often accompanying hyperactivity or have such great experience managing it that their symptoms are barely discernible in the classroom.

When I go back over the snapshots of my life, there are images of a few children that emerge whose ADHD medication was either too little, too much, or for some other reason that will forever elude me as a non-medical professional simply not right.  These children for decades colored if not defined my understanding of stimulant medication.

It took a very wise and forward-thinking neurologist to take me from where I was to where I needed to be for my son.  She explained the science behind stimulants—how they work and why they work—and coupled my education with an out should that be necessary.  And right there in her office I felt my mind open—creating the space necessary for new information, information that would save my son.

In the last year education has replaced the short-sighted judgments I had maintained for decades about ADHD.  Today I write for ADDitude, have my own blog there, and have recently been fortunate enough to interview two experts in the field.  TODAY Show regular and education expert Michele Borba, Ed.D., and parent coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus answered several questions that, even a year later, have lingered.  They also talk about their new online resource, Making Moments, which features practical tips and strategies for parents of children with ADHD.

Elaine Taylor-Klaus

Elaine Taylor-Klaus

Michele Borba

Dr. Michele Borba


Below is an excerpt of a note I received this week from Edgar’s teacher:

Edgar is making great progress in all areas.  He did all but one problem on our first math benchmark with 100% accuracy independently  . . . He is quite adept at using the Smartboard with the same efficiency as his peers and is having fun socializing with his classmates.  He is a fun friend to play with!  IMG_3002We often work with a variety of partners, and he does a great job with whomever he is partnered.  We also have had a final assessment in social studies on landmarks, and he met the benchmark on this as well.  [He is also making] good progress in reading.  [All his teachers] are . . . pleased at his retention of new reading concepts introduced and taught . . . Thank you for all your hard work at home; it really shows in the happy, friendly face of Edgar each and every day.

A year of letting go of assumptions, opening myself up to new ways of thinking, and availing myself of the significant resources available . . . and this is where we are today.

What Matters

You learn a thing or two about yourself when you have a blood infection and pneumonia, when your life has no choice but to come to a screeching halt, when you have to let go and then some and allow others to do for you.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the how and the why.  Suffice it to say two weeks ago today I dropped onto the oversized chair in our dining room and didn’t move much for the week-and-a-half that followed.  If you’ve had pneumonia, you know.  If you haven’t, you can probably imagine.  Many times since becoming a parent I have somewhat sardonically wished for a whole day just to sleep.  Well, I got my wish—times seven.   All I can say is be careful what you wish for . . .

From that moment on the chair, when it was clear something was wrong, the enormous support system I am so fortunate to have surround me went to work: The jobs that are customarily mine in the house and outside the house were parceled out to others; colleagues at work stepped in and took care of my students.  I remain grateful—so grateful that words actually fail me—but their extreme competence reinforced something beyond just how lucky I am.

I have never harbored notions that I am the center of the universe.  In fact, this week when one of my sons was acting as though he believed he might be, I told him the world did not spin around him.  His response to me was, complete with a premature teenage roll of the eye, “Mom, you always say that.”

And indeed I probably do—mostly because I wholeheartedly believe it.  I am no more—and no less—important than anyone else.  Further, I have never thought for an instant I was indispensable.

When you’re sick, bedridden specifically, if you are awake and somewhat aware, you have a unique seat, a view of what life would look like—and how it would go on—without you.  As I shivered under the covers, coughing, awake, I could hear a version of the soundtrack of my life downstairs—dinner being prepared; children laughing, squabbling, playing; the hum of the washing machine, the clink of the stainless steel lunchbox containers coming out of the dishwasher and being packed for the next day.

IMG_2817Life happened.  And it was fine.

And though I think if you had ever asked me, “Samantha, do you think life would be able to go on without you?” I would have had sense enough to answer “of course,”  this is actually a strange body of knowledge to now have, to know definitively, because it is truly equal parts comforting and unsettling—comforting knowing  I haven’t inserted myself into this world to such an extent that it would cease to exist in my absence,  unsettling perhaps for the very same reason.

But as I sat upstairs muddling all this I realized something else.  Though I am not the center of the universe, though I am far from indispensable, this life is different because I’m in it.  Life could and would go on in my absence, but it wouldn’t be the same.

It sounds so obvious—that our lives make a difference.  But amidst the day-to-day goings-on, the cacophony that swirls around us,  it is sometimes easy to forget the impact we have, that even our smallest gestures and deeds have enormous power, that though we are not the center of the universe we just might be that important in someone else’s; though none of us is indispensable, we all matter.

It took the stillness brought on by illness to get here, playing, however briefly, the role of disengaged spectator to reveal this fact.  And while I’ll stop short of saying I’m grateful for the pneumonia, I will be forever indebted for the space it created for the cementing of one of life’s most important lessons.