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My Daughter, My Teacher

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Janell Burley Hoffman
Janell Burley Hoffman

I call over the stairs for the third time this morning, "Wake up! Get up! Let's Move!" Even with ten hours of sleep my third grade girl is sluggish and weary. I climb the stairs and pull myself up over her top bunk. I bring myself close to her warm body, rub her back, whisper. She lifts her head slightly, peeks at the clock, and gives me a gentle nod. She gets it. She understands the drill. We do this dance every morning. And even though she knows that the warm breakfast, the school bus, the outside world will not wait for her, she still looks at me all disappointed in my high, up and at 'em energy. She reads my, I've already had a workout, a shower, a coffee, packed lunches and returned emails enthusiasm with disgust. She knows no one, not even her motivated mama, likes to be forced out from their covers.

I fly around the house, turning over piles of laundry to find matching socks or an unwrinkled shirt. I find that lost library book or missing cleat buried in the mudroom. I'm barking orders, hustling the morning along. And in the chaos of a large family, with neighborhood kids piled in from the freezing bus stop, I find her talking to herself in the mirror, staring at some birds out the window, doodling on last night's homework. And it's maddening! I herd her, out into the world each morning, as the door gives a knowing; "just made it" slam behind us. She is lovely, endearing really, but I have to look hard to see myself in her.

I push my way through life with brute force. My feet hit the ground each morning before the sun with sheer will. I am an extrovert. I'm bossy. I love a challenge, hard work, and I usually fill my days until I drop. When I was young my father told me there are two choices, lead or follow. The latter was never a viable option. If something is easy, I must not be doing it right, because everything should require blood and sweat. No tears. Some of this is DNA, some of this is learned. Either way, everything I feel is intense -- love, anger, beauty, sadness. I impose high standards for myself. And quite often, because it's all I know, I force these standards on my children.

But my daughter requires me to see life in a new way. She is particular with her food, her style, her friends, when she sweats. She hums and sings to herself. She's quiet, calm, and sometimes shy. When I coach her in youth sports, she wears a skirt and does cartwheels in the corner when I'm not looking. She loves puppies and horses and cries a heartbreaking cry when homework gets too hard or her siblings gang up on her. She is beautiful, with deep blue eyes and long, thick brown hair and I could watch her on the backyard swings for hours. She is mostly easy-going, but her defiance is sometimes shocking. I feel powerless to her tactics, she is casual and unaffected when disciplined. Most days she looks at me blankly as if I haven't got a clue. I am a tornado of energy, and all she's wondering is why my socks don't properly match my earrings.

And sometimes, when I list our differences, it is often in jest. As if I've got it right and she's got the work to do. I want her eager, confident, unafraid, outgoing, a math whiz, an all-star, charming, genuine, social, polite, outstanding. Then one day, as I privately compile this list, the awareness bites me. I am ashamed of my expectations. I know better. Yes, I am determined to raise a confident girl. In fact, I have dedicated a fair portion of my life's work to helping others do just that. But, in raising a child to be true and real, I cannot ask for the impossible. And then I see it. In my preference to have her encompass every ounce of life with fearless ease, when I urge her to be all things, I am saying please, my daughter, do not expose my weaknesses, my fears. Don't just face the world with courage, act like nothing scares you. I will not. See, I have walked that road. Where every day is an attempt to polish perfection, shined with dazzling accolades and ambitions. When it feels like there is just one worthy road to honor, and walking it should look easy. I can't help but think, there's something about this girl. This child is here to teach me.

One day, I skip out of work, secure extra childcare and join her class as a chaperone on a field trip. I am excited to observe, to watch her interact with teachers and peers in her everyday environment. But for most of the day, she stays close to me, almost on top of me -- on the bus, at lunch, through the exhibits. I settle in to this. She doesn't want to show or prove anything. She doesn't want me to buddy up to her teachers and laugh with her classmates. She just wants me. As the adventure closes, we pile into a seat on the bus, our hands and ears chilly from being in the crisp fall air all day. She slides over close; we giggle about the wild boys around us. I feel deeply connected to her. She looks into my eyes and for a moment, I feel what it is like to be 8 again. A sudden and sharp emotion rises up. I want to be her friend. I want to be a child with her. She is so full of life and kindness and truth. I sit in it, this swirling feeling as if I am time traveling. It is brief, but I stay still to observe all that is naturally perfect and genuine about girlhood. And I see how I have abandoned that purity, for myself, and sometimes for my daughter.

Of course my daughter can feel proud and strong and able without conquering math facts at lightning speed or trying out for elite soccer teams or being in high demand on the social circuit before she's 10. It's like she has the key to this secret world, where everyone is frantic and she is delighted to exist. And though the concept of slowing down and acceptance are so uncomfortable to me I can hardly write the words, I must learn from her grace. She is simply comfortable with her strengths and satisfied with her shortcomings. She tries new things, she says "no" as she pleases, and is content to participate in life without dominating it.

I sit in a meeting with her teacher. It matters to me that her voice is heard, that she works hard, that her reading level is high. And then her teacher pauses, looks at me and says "Oh, her heart. She just has the most gentle, beautiful spirit." And I am mush. Yes! Yes, this is what I am doing. I am growing and guiding a person to feel at home as she is, not in the world's reflection. It is more of a lesson for me than for her. She is my vulnerability, walking outside my body, all tender and true. And the more I am in tune with her; the more encouraged I am to be my whole self.

Lately, I have felt a great strength between us. The world will hold standards for her. But she does not need that from me. She needs a place to have the freedom to be herself without condition or expectation. I vow to be that place for her. She needs me flawed and fabulous, broken and brave, gentle with myself and others. And I suppose the truest difference between us, isn't in our personalities, our passions or interests. It's that everything I'm fighting desperately to learn and teach, this girl -- a child, my child -- already seems to know.

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