Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Trials and Tribulations

"Mommmm?" My heart stopped briefly when I answered a call from Geoff's phone late Sunday morning. It was Paige, and she was crying. 

I was in Anchorage in the middle of a trial, working fourteen hour days with three other lawyers. I'd spent the past week eating three meals a day at my desk, living out of a suitcase, and pretending the world had stopped turning around me, which of course it hadn't. 

"What's wrong, honey?" I asked, slightly panicked. My first thought was maybe there was some sort of emergency with Geoff, and she had his phone and didn't know who to call. 

"I didn't get into EL," she sobbed. I was relieved no one was dead or in the emergency room, a little bit surprised, and--at first--disappointed by this news.

EL is the "Extended Learning" program in Paige's elementary school. As we talked through the first official rejection of her life, I realized three things: (1) I hadn't bothered to learn anything about what this program really was or what was required to "get into" it; (2) I had an inflated view of Paige's scholastic abilities and had blithely assumed she would never face an academic disappointment; and (3) I was glad about the first two things, because they presented me with a good opportunity for self-reflection.

As we spoke, I learned this was a third through fifth grade program that was hard for a third grader to test into. I also learned I had made zero effort to find out what any of it was about. I like to think I'm not one of those parents who simply assumes her kid is a genius. But I'm now forced to admit that I'd just figured Paige would coast right into this thing. Ultimately I was glad it didn't work out that way, and I was noting some interesting parallels to what I was experiencing at that very moment in my own life. 

Disappointment, rejection, self-doubt, and a healthy slice of humble pie is good for kids (and adults) in my view. Too much of these things is no good, of course, but the right amount sends the necessary message that you have to work hard to achieve hard things. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and, if we're lucky, many opportunities in life to hone the former and work to overcome the latter. 

Paige could re-test for the program in May, she told me, news confirmed by paperwork the school sent home. I told her I didn't care if she got into EL or not, and realized with a dawning sense of relief that it was true. I told her that if she wants to be in extended learning, she will have to do extended work. Like the extra math problems and other stuff her teachers send home without complaining and fighting about it. She said she would. We'll see. 

I just read a study that says nagging your daughters is good for them, so I plan to stay on top of her about this to some degree (at least until the next study comes out saying nagging is bad). But I'm not doing it for her. I'll "set her up for success," as they say, by giving her the time and space she needs to do the work and reminding her to do it, with the expectation that she will. But I'm not going to helicopter over her and pressure her into achieving something she doesn't care enough about to work for herself. I think they call that "natural consequences," or in layman's terms, learning how to get your shit together?

Anyway, all of this prompted me to reflect on my own academic disappointments and professional challenges up to and including the very day of Paige's phone call.

I grew up thinking that scholastic and athletic achievement was the be-all and end-all of life, although of course I now know it's not. I didn't get into the law school I wanted to go to, and I'm not proud to admit it still bothers me fifteen years later. I went to a "worse" one. One far less prestigious than the schools the lawyers I was working with attended. I was feeling my own self esteem wobble precariously in the midst of trying to do good work and simultaneously prove to everyone around me that I was up to the task and could run with the big dogs. In many ways, it was exhausting and demoralizing. 

Does any of it really matter, though? No. Of course it doesn't. It doesn't matter that a roll of blue exhibit stickers is missing from my briefcase any more than it matters that Paige failed to score in the 99th percentile on the Wegman-Durham-Jensen scale for standardized geometric comprehension or whatever the fuck it's called.

That was my takeaway from these twin blows to my self-esteem and that of my daughter. Is she a good person? Is she good to the people around her? Am I? 

The answer to each of those questions is yes. And in the end, that's all that matters.


  1. Caught this on Facebook last week, from Shai Held:

    "As Rosh HaShanah approaches, I'd like to share a simple thought:
    After years (decades, really) of studying and teaching Torah; after years (decades, really) of studying and teaching philosophy and theology; after years (decades, really) of being privileged to have students share their questions and their struggles with me; after years living a life filled with both horrific suffering and immense blessing, I have come to the conclusion that the most important question you can ask yourself while doing teshuvah is this: Am I kind? Am I committed to growing kinder?
    If you are blessed with children, do they know, truly and unambiguously, that whether or not they are kind is what matters most to you? That you value kindness more than success; that you value it more than brilliance; that you value it more than Shabbat, Kashrut, or Taharat HaMishpachah?
    May we see a day when Jewish communities are known across the board as bastions of kindness, and when Jewish children know in their minds and their hearts that kindness comes before, and is more important than, anything else."

  2. I went to college with shai held! Thanks for sharing his lovely words to complement Libby's. Libby - I know what you mean. In some ways I fear cockiness more than failure in my son.

  3. "Does any of it really matter, though? No. Of course it doesn't!"

    Pardon me for exchanging the period for the exclamation.

    When my kids were in school they had this thing called 'Quest' for the so-called gifted students. One of them didn't make the cut and the other did. I called it 'Rest' because it seemed to me that it was mostly a happy-horseshit period of, well, happy horseshit. The one that didn't make the cut is a civil P.E. and heads an office for one of the larger engineering firms in AK. The other is still trying to figure out who in the fuck she is and, is still gifted. By no means am I superimposing one over the other love or worth wise. Both of them talk about what they learned from horseback riding, the adult friends while they were young and where they were raised as kids, Halibut Cove; a camp without counselors. Broken bones, fights and lots of biome but not a single fear of human abuse. They are yet to young to fully grasp the grandeur of their good fortune, but I do.


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