What They Ought To Be

November 13, 2011

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

— Goethe





I struggle a lot as a parent.  These most complicated relationships don’t come easily to me — the ones unfolding here in my house.  I admit my difficulties with this all the time, looking for reassurance that the difficulty is a part of getting it right.  I have a hard time knowing when to be stern, and when to bend.  I have a hard time knowing when to push, and when to hold.  When to ask more, and when to keep my damn mouth shut.  I am Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, endlessly wondering, “What’s the secret?”

As my girls turn into teenagers, this question takes on greater urgency.  I no longer have the illusion of their childhood as an eternity, and the consequences feel big when I make my mistakes.  How did we get here?  I wonder.  And how do I get them where they are going next?  They are growing before my eyes — both girls pouring on the inches so quickly that they are nearing my height.

Parenting has always been challenging for me (fie on you if it’s easy for you:  you should probably go read some other blog.)  Parenting a seventh grader taps back into that terror we felt with two-year-olds, as they are once again changing much too fast.

I see the terror in the parents of my students, suddenly faced with too-rapid and awfully awkward change in the children they have loved so long and so well.  I see it in myself, in my reactions to pierced ears.  The middle school dance.  Too much purple lipstick. Hurt feelings. Worrisome patterns. Tears over the topic sentence of a paragraph. Lost friends.  Lost cellphones.  Lost tempers.

And then, five minutes later, my own little personal disaster area is perfectly rational, and enormously funny.  Hugging me through one of my (many) bad moments. Writing a short story.  Running her heart out at a soccer game.  She borrows my shoes with two inches in the heel, and suddenly looks me straight in the eye.

Becoming all she is capable of being.

Goethe’s quotation inspires me as a parent and as a teacher.  I don’t need to be reminded to expect a lot of my children; that comes all too easily.  Instead, I need to be reminded that I don’t help my kids grow by simply pointing out their deficits all the time. I am constitutionally prone to notice everything that’s wrong with the world, and dream about how things might be improved. But I am finding that things go a lot better when I can see past the immediate argument, the immediate impossibility of some ridiculous seventh grade parent-child conflict, and treat my daughter as though she is who she ought to be.  This balance behind this high wire act is called wisdom, and it’s hard-won, when I achieve it at all.

When I am forgetting the bigger picture in the face of this moment in time, Goethe’s caution helps.  (Despite his irksome name.  Gert-uh.  What an awful, pretentious thing to have to pronounce.)

But the other thing that helps me, aside from remembering to adequately respect my children’s potential, is remembering just how recently they were tiny.  My own childhood feels fresh and recent, the memories alive in who I am today — and dang, I am old.  For my girls, childhood was literally yesterday, and their unfolding is still so rapidly underway.  They are babies in big bodies, at least half the time.

I still wake Grace up each day for school.  That awful alarm goes off in my bedroom, and the first thing I do is trudge upstairs to wake her.  I know just how long it takes for her to get to the shower, to the breakfast table, and out the door with that enormous pack full of notebooks.  There is not a moment to waste.

Still, waking her takes awhile, so deeply does she sleep. In sleep her face is that of a much younger child.  None of the preteen attitude she tries on sometimes like a new, unflattering hat.  Her expression is soft and untroubled.  Fully peaceful.  If I didn’t know that the bus was inevitably on its way, I could stare at that baby in her face forever.

I shake her shoulder, call her name. Eventually she opens her eyes, and actually smiles in my direction.  And then she screws up her eyes, stretches her arms over her head, and bends herself to the side in a sleepy, full-body stretchy arc.  She has been doing exactly this same stretch every time she wakes up, for all the years I have known her.  So for me she is, just for that minute, six months old again. It hits me in the gut, the way her baby self stretches that twelve-year old body, nearly as big as my own.

In that seventh grade face, the one that challenges me and pushes my buttons so assiduously, there is a six month old baby, round-faced and serene.  There is a six year old girl, with the sun shining behind the blonde of her hair.  There is that teenager and that woman she is so rapidly becoming — that self that she ought to be, and someday will.

I struggle with this.  (There, I said it again.)  I struggle to be the mother they need me to be, and to be the sort of teacher who asks enough, and gives enough, so that the protean people around me can both be who they are now and become who they will become.  It’s up to me to find a way to help them.  They depend on us adults to get things right.

Someday, I will learn how to honor the child inside and the adult on the horizon, but value most of all the person right in front of me.  To borrow a phrase from Ira Glass’s brilliant This American Life piece on middle school, it is the middle school years “when your brain turns you into you.”  As parents, we can’t just mourn what they were, or look ahead to what they will be.  To get through these years with the relationship intact, we have to steadily love who they are, now.

Someday, maybe someday, I tell myself, I will be the teacher I am capable of being, the mother I ought (already) to be.  But I’ve got to stop putting this off into the future; we are so clearly already in the part that matters the most.  As the wise middle school principal in Glass’s piece put it, “As the adult in the situation, you must find a way to help them develop.   They won’t have to suffer if we do things right — or they won’t have to suffer as much.”  Middle school pain is real and we can no more wish it away than we can teach babies to walk before they are ready, or get their first teeth to come in sooner than they will.  The awkward pain of these years is inevitable, but as that principal says, “the way we react to it will make such a difference in their lives.”

I am so in awe of my daughter’s face.  Before she wakes.  At age six.  At twelve, changing faster than I can keep up. I love watching it change, even as I look deeply into it for what has never wavered.  I look at the photos I found for today’s blog; think of the past and think of now.  And then, I think that six years from now, that face I love more than the world itself will be eighteen.  Those eyes of hers will open in a dorm room somewhere else, not just one floor upstairs.  She will stretch and curl to the side, and I won’t be there anymore to watch her melty baby face shape itself into the woman she has become.


(note:  this post has been fully vetted and embraced by its subject.  She notes that she particularly enjoyed the line, “They are babies in big bodies,” and the description of herself as one who”pushes my buttons so assiduously.”)


Pamela November 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm

We are applying to a fabulous and highly selective all girls middle school for our oldest daughter. The application asks both parents to reflect upon their middle school experience in 600 characters or less. Here’s mine (only 591 characters):

Three memories stand out: 1) seeing student election signs for Dance Council proclaiming the urgency of “Banning Disco from the West” and not knowing what disco was or why it needed to be banned; 2) riding the public bus to school and feeling afraid of the 8th grade skate punk boys in the back; and 3) missing a week of 6th grade, during which my class covered fractions. I didn’t get the chance to catch up and never again had confidence in my math skills, formerly one of my strongest subjects. In sum: confusion, anxiety and insecurity punctuated by doomed attempts to “feather” my hair.

Launa November 14, 2011 at 7:33 am

How did feathering feel so ubiquitous if none of us achieved it?

Good luck with older daughter… I wish her as smooth a sail as possible, hopefully with understanding and experienced teachers.

Pamela November 17, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Farrah. Always Farrah.

I achieved a hideous sausage-like roll. Two, actually— one down each side of my face, temple to just below the ear. After that, le déluge.

Jess November 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

You are asking the wrong person if you are looking for wisdom. My almost thirteen-year-old son is this complex, unfolding, challenging, wonderful creation. I don’t know how to love him and stay out of his hair enough to do him justice.

And then there’s my totally different, completely challenging and magical younger son. It is as if they are different species, sometimes.

My hair never feathered, despite my best attempts, so at least we have a history of failing, and so it’s all improvement from there. Besides, we teach middle school, so if we mess (are we allowed to swear at your house?) up our own kids, at least we have a shot with the hundreds of others who pass through our classroom.

Beautiful post.

Launa November 14, 2011 at 7:35 am

Jess, you seem plenty wise to me, and the way you speak about your children and students is the best sign.

Grace told me that this post “explained a lot of things” to her. So perhaps writing is one way that we can reach each other.

Wendy Kaplan Miller December 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Wow, this was amazing. You captured so much, in such beautiful prose. The idea that “Those eyes of hers will open in a dorm room somewhere else, not just one floor upstairs.” slayed me. Thanks so much for putting this into words and posting.

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