"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, June 11, 2007

Mother Daughter

Walt and I go to our local Starbucks nearly every Friday morning before work. We started these dates as a way to set aside a chunk of time to talk and reconnect during a particularly busy time several years ago. Our Starbucks is small and has always seemed sort of seedy, even when it was new. The service is maddeningly inconsistent as are the lattes we order every week. It is, however, the only comfortable coffee place open at 6:00 AM in our small town. Because of that it offers the comfort of familiarity and the small town family feel of the regulars and neighbors we greet as punctuation to our conversations.

I'm not exactly sure when this particular little girl came into focus for me. Looking back, it seems as though she and her mother have always been a part of our Friday morning ritual. She was a tiny thing, staying close to her mom like a new colt exploring the world for the first time. She had the long thin legs and spirit of a colt as well.

Two things drew my eyes back to her again and again.

The first was the clear fact that this child was allowed to dress herself. Every Friday she would appear like a tropical bird - bright colors that declared confidence and courage. The colors did not necessarily agree with one another, but this little girl wore them with such flair, it didn't matter. Her tights were often Pippi Longstocking stripes. She would wear pink cowboy boots and lacy dresses and a green rabbit fur jacket.

Her hair was as creatively done as her clothes, but done neatly enough her mom had to have put it into the styles that this child asked for. Multiple ponytails with a confused rainbow of scrunchies or ties. Parts in unusual places with the resulting curtain pulled back by funky barrettes. Occasionally loose and wild, suggesting a getting-ready that didn't go smoothly.

The second thing about this child and her mother that tugged at me was their relationship. They were always in deep conversation with each other. They would sit together with what appeared to be regular orders, continuing their companionable talk while they ate. The mom spoke directly to her daughter and the daughter spoke just as directly back. They would laugh easily together. While there didn't seem to be a lot of physical contact, the connection between this mother and daughter was palpable. It made me want to weep for my own inner girls who would never know that maternal love.

At some point I started to look forward to their appearance as part of our Friday morning date. Wondering what the girl would wear this week. Wanting to be in the presence of that connection. Wishing she would look at me and smile. Even though they were regulars, neither mother nor daughter ever made eye contact with me. The energy of my gaze, as intense as it was, could not break through the bubble of their relationship.

Our coffee dates went on hiatus for the summers, following the rhythm of a teacher's life. When we resumed our routine in the fall, mother and daughter were there as though no time had passed. The girl grew noticeably taller from September to September, but little else changed. I continued my quiet inner love affair with the power emanating from this pair.

Last September everything changed.

As I was settling into my new school this fall, teachers would stop by and ask to see my class list. We are always curious to know about our former students and what their fate will be for the next year. There are certain students who stand out in a school for one reason or another, and whose placement is always of particular interest. Without exception, I heard about one special girl from every person who looked at my list. She is a pistol. Very creative. Very artistic. A performer. You'll need to win her over or your year will be a tough one. You'll need to win her mom over or your life in this district will be miserable. Mom is a teacher at the middle school and a force to be reckoned with.

I'm sitting with my new colleagues at cafeteria tables in the high school for the annual back to school breakfast. This is a first for me - to be eating breakfast with every employee of the district in one room. The air is filled with the buzz of people greeting each other after the summer, sharing vacation stories and getting filled in on the surprise staff changes that happen every year. Someone says there's K and her mom, referring to the infamous pistol who is about to become one of my students. My eyes search the area that has been pointed out to me. They stop at a familiar face: the mom from Starbucks. For a moment I'm excited at her familiarity in this room of strangers, then my eyes continue scanning for K and her mom. There is only one girl in the vicinity who could be the notorious K. She's walking toward her mom. My eyes follow her path to the Starbucks mom and the realization stuns me.

This child that I've been admiring from afar for so many years is about to become my student. I get to experience first-hand the energy and love of this mother/daughter partnership. Any lingering doubt about whether I made the right move or not evaporates completely in that moment of recognition.


In five days, K will no longer be my student. I love the reality of her even more than I loved the idea of her. I didn't actually win her until January. She was polite and went along, but she already had one strong woman in her life. She didn't need me. She was not an easy student. The work of school interfered with her social life and she barely tolerated the inconvenience. Her desk was a disaster area, full of the sticky notes she spent all of her time folding, writing on, decorating with. She blatantly passed notes while I was teaching. She would come in from recess filthy, leaving clots of mud across my carpet in her wake. She usually stopped just short of behavior that would require an e-mail to her teacher mom. If I did need to call in reinforcements, K went back to her polite going-along demeanor without rancor.

I've watched her all year in a state of awe. Her unwavering confidence, unfettered spirit, unshakable certainty in her rightness take my breath away. Nothing I said or did, positive or not, had any impact on her sense of herself. In a lifetime of searching for role models, I'm amazed to find such a powerful one in the being of an eight-year-old child. She is enough and more.

I don't know what shifted, but one day after the Winter Break during morning check-in she made a joke about my appearance. I laughed and joked back. She told me I was weird. I said thank you. And just like that I was in. She didn't become an easier student. Her behavior didn't change at all in that regard. What changed was the air between us, and that truly changed everything.

She invited me to her birthday party last weekend. It was a tea party at Myrtle's, the local teashop, complete with finger sandwiches, fine china, and pots of interesting teas. I wore my best hat, a bright pink velvet affair with netting in the front. K wore a lighter pink brimmed hat that matched the cake they had made for her. The adults present seemed surprised that a teacher would take time out of a Saturday to go to a birthday party. K accepted my presence as her due - she expected nothing less.

So a relationship which began in a coffee shop reaches its conclusion in a tea shop. A lovely bit of synchronicity.

Regardless of what might be next for K, her mom, and I, a part of us will always be set in the amber of this third grade year. It's a jewel that will warm and brighten my heart forever, and that helps me to bear the ache of ending that fills my days right now.

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