I was there, laboring, sweating, dreaming, building, helping birth this little school. I was on the board that hired a little speck of an Irish lady from the south side of Chicago to become our first principal.
Mary Liddy had been a principal for many years in Chicago, where Catholic schools are as plentiful as good Brat sandwiches. She knew a few things.
She took me on, telling me she was going to make me work and work hard to build this school.
A team of parents helped her create a school we could all be proud of. She vowed it would be a school, unlike Catholic schools of the past where nuns ruled with rulers as their weapon of choice and fear and intimidation were the sole motivators to do well. Mary vowed it would be a place full of joy and fun, where children felt free to express and think and learn.
I was so enthralled by her approach. You see, I was a product of the old Catholic school and I had lived through my own days of intimidation and fear.
There are no good memories from those days.
My 6th grade teacher was a nun, a nun so large she had to turn sideways to fit through the door. I wish I was kidding. Along with her weight, she had some major, major issues, the biggest one—anger, that she must have thought would all be solved by entering the convent.
Unfortunately, they weren't.
She had dental surgery one time. We came into our classroom that day met by this message, scrawled in gigantic cursive across the chalkboard, "I CANNOT SPEAK THIS MORNING, BUT I CAN STILL HIT YOU."
True Story, sadly.
I was never the brightest bulb on the block when it came to Math. I ruled English and Spelling and Reading, but Math . . . no. Our middle school Math teacher, also a nun, felt the best way to teach math skills was to assign children a math problem which they had to solve on the chalkboard in front of the entire class. With no instruction, you were given your problem. If you didn't have an utter clue on how to solve it, (as I raise my hand shamefully at this moment), you were belittled, screamed at and mainly made to feel like the biggest moron of all times before you were allowed to sit down, trembling— any confidence you had, shattered as you tried to hold in your tears while still not having any idea how to find the reciprocal of a decimal mixed number.
I don't even think I bothered to tell my parents about it. Those were different days when parents didn't think to question teachers, doctors or anyone of authority.
Me, I'm all about challenging the authority.
I am a mother bear when it comes to my kids and if anyone ever treated my children like that, I would have marched up to school and torn them apart limb by limb with my words.
I demand respect and accountability but in return I give back the same. I gave our little school the greatest portion of my years with them and I gave them three well behaved girls who always did their best, because they knew their mother would tolerate nothing less.
That school has been one of the most pivotal things of our life. The folks of that little school became our second family. My children made life-long friends there. When my father died, the entire school wrapped their arms around me and didn't let go. Some of our best friends came from that school.
When the school was finally built, Mary called me and said, "Come on up. I want to give you a tour of your new school."
Mary walked us through the school, proudly showing off the lockers and the sparkling new desks, the pre-school, the science lab, the art studio, and all the rest.
When we got to the pre-school rooms, Mary said with an Irish glint in her eye, "Here's one of my favorite things."
She turned to my baby, my 3-year old girl, ready to start school for the first time in her little life and said, "Julia, come here I want to show you something very special in your classroom." She opened the door to the tiniest toilet I have ever seen.
I never thought I'd say a toilet was cute, but this darn thing was so unbelievably cute.
Julia turned to Mary and said without missing a beat, "Can I use it?"
Mary couldn't have been more delighted. There was many a time she reminded Julia that she was the first student to use the potty at our brand new school. I couldn't wait to embarrass Julia at her 8th grade graduation with the potty story.
Over the years, things went just as planned. Our school was a place of joy and fun and learning, filled to the brim with excellent teachers hand-picked by Mary. And that Mary, how I was her biggest fan.
To give you a little insight into this great lady, I'll tell you a story:
As backwards as the Catholic Church can be sometimes, they are on top of their game when it comes to sex education. Sex education begins with fundamentals at an early stage. By the sixth grade, they learn the full blown plan involving birds and bees and boys and girls.
So much better than our generation.
My entire sex education revolved around a frank conversation I had in the 3rd grade with a very sophisticated, in-the-know 5th-grader. My cosmopolitan friend took me aside and told me a woman gets pregnant when a man pees on her . . . ANNNND, she informed me in her worldly fashion, the woman likes it.
I tried to prep myself for years for the whole pee thing. I tried to convince myself that when that gross day came, I too, would find an unfathomable way to like it. Man, was I ever relieved when I found out the truth! I never could get into the golden showers no matter how hard I tried.
I was in the room when the 6th grade girls got the big talk. They'd hired someone from the county, some expert in the area of grossing kids out by talking to them about sex.
She was awful. Dry and boring, stating the facts. She looked embarrassed, cringing as names of body parts came out of her mouth. Ironic, I thought as I sat there— an embarrassed sex instructor.
After her excruciating talk, the girls were ready to flee the room, but then Mary stood up and announced she had a few things to add.
Mary gave them the most empowering 5 minutes some of those girls might ever know. She spoke of respect. She spoke of respecting their bodies and respecting the glorious individuality each of them hold, curvy girls and toothpicks, alike. She spoke of demanding respect from boys. She spoke explicitly of what boys wanted from girls. And it's true. No matter how politically correct you want to be, boys are boys. They are hormonally driven to TRY AND GET SEX BY WHATEVER MEANS POSSIBLE. They can't help it and they never change, no matter the age.
She spoke specifically of what to say to a boy when pressured, how to say it, when to say it. She spoke of honoring themselves and insisting on honor from the world around them.
Today's world prepares children with information and available birth control and facts. Virtue and Respect are topics sadly ignored in the education of sexuality. But, Mary knew exactly what girls need to hear.
Mary retired a few years back and a new principal took charge.
For me, the joy deflated.
I will not speak for anyone else and I will not bash our little school that I still am so proud of.
My two big girls graduated from that little school. Thanks to the hands and hearts of that school, they were ready to soar into the world and soar they did.
My little Julia was the last girl standing.
I won't say much. What I will say is somewhere along the way, some of that old-school sensibility entered the halls of that little school. And the entire atmosphere gradually changed, like a hot-air balloon with a slow leak.
I did my best. I lowered my head and tried to be patient with rigid mandates and policies that didn't make much sense. I tried to stay positive as the climate turned into a tight-fisted, controlling place.
I tried to pretend that it was still working for us. It was easier for me to do, since I had focused my life in another direction. I had steered my world away from the school and into my writing. My children were getting older. They needed me less and less. But, more importantly, I had discovered the part of me that I had left behind, far too long ago. I had opened my writer's notebook, again. And even with that, even though I had given of myself year after year after year to that school, there were still certain folks who chose to say unfair things to me about my choice to spend less time at school when I would show up for volunteer work.
We still hung in there. It was our school and the teachers there were points of lights guiding our way, keeping my girls actively and eagerly involved in the process of learning.
I won't go into any more detail. It would do no good. It would only harm and I want to do this for the better.
I will just say there has been a small voice in my head whispering questions now for some time. But, this was the only school Julia has ever known. She was soon to be the first graduating class that went all the way to the end. The full cycle of our lives there completed. Our little, safe world. The first girl to use the potty in the history of the school. Those are all big deals.
The breaking point came the day Julia returned from Christmas break. Our Florida weather has been freezing. Julia's school uniform gives her a choice of a skirt, shorts, or a skort. Perfect Florida attire. Pants are offered, too, but my girls were never interested in pleated uniform pants that had not a bit of cuteness to them, not to mention they were pretty pricey for a few days of wear out of the school year.
That first day back the temperature was in the 20's and I instructed Julia to wear a pair of thick woolen, blue tights with her skirt. As we pulled up to the car line, we saw the principal standing there in what I thought was a welcoming back gesture.
Julia saw it otherwise.
She began to panic, like nothing I've ever seen, breathlessly saying, "Mom, I'm not sure if I can wear tights to school. I'm not sure. I THINK I'M GOING TO BE IN TROUBLE! PLEASE, PLEASE TAKE ME HOME!"
I was astonished as I tried to calm her. It was cold outside. She needed to keep her legs warm. End of story.
She didn't want to open the door, she was so frozen in fear. I finally convinced her I would let no one give her grief over her tights.
And I will say, nothing was said. Her tights were an acceptable form of dress code.
But, as I pulled away, I had a flashback of my old-school years and the total panic I would have when my church beanie was missing. Girls who forgot their beanies on Mass day were forced to wear a humiliating paper hat that looked suspiciously like a dunce cap.
She had that same sense of panic . . . over tights. What was I doing to my girl?
I picked up my phone and made a phone call. And in that moment, Julia's world changed forever.
My friend Debbieis a big gun in the public school system. She gets things done. She is a hard-working volunteer who has served her children's schools well and because of that, she is highly respected. I poured my heart out to her and it was as if she'd been waiting for me all along. She made phone calls. She made things happen.
The destiny of my children's young lives rests in the palm of my hands. That, at times, has twisted my heart in two and given me some of the most agonizing moments of my life. This was no exception.
I want to do good by them. No— I want to do extraordinary by them.
I don't know if I've made the right decision. But, this week, Julia begins again at a new school.
She will be with Debbie's daughter, Haley: A girl who is more sister than friend; A girl she has known since birth; A girl who has been her constant companion, day in and day out on happy days and days of little-girl squabbling; A girl who I'm counting on to help my sweet Julia navigate this big world.
I know it's not going to be easy. I know that middle school is a tough place, sometimes. Hormone surges tend to cause kids to be little assholes in the middle school years. And my Julia is as gentle and sweet as a baby deer.
But, she is also strong and smart. And on the tour of her new, very impressive school, we learned that children are allowed to talk and laugh and chatter at lunch, instead of being required to eat in silence. We learned they have an Ag program with roosters and chickens and a greenhouse and a cow. Julia's favorite things—plants and animals. We learned that even though the place is a billion times bigger than the little school that has been her life, there will be smiling faces and helping hands ready to help her find her way. We learned that on cold days, you don't have to panic because you want to keep your legs warm and you don't have to worry about detention if your ankle socks aren't the required standard inches above your ankle. In fact, if you don't feel like wearing socks, you don't have to. The school chooses to focus on more important things than the length of your anklet.
Today, I sorted through my infinite piles of unmatched socks. When I was through with my task, I called Julia into the room. I held out to her a big pile of socks, all uniform regulation, all a certain length, all standard white. I smiled as I said to her, "What do you say we toss these in the trash."
Her face lit up sunshiny and full of real joy. Oh, how I love joy on a child's face.
We purged our life of those socks. Next on the list, shopping for some new clothes for this new life of ours.
She and I, we can't wait for it to begin.
Today's Magnificent Download: Arcade Fire's, "Wake Up." This is one of my most favorite songs of the last year, an absolutely glorious, glorious song. It was used in the trailer for "Where The Wild Things Are." And it fit perfectly.
"Somethin filled up my heart with Nothin. Someone told me not to cry....Children wake up, hold your mistake up before they turn the summer into dust...With my lightnin'-bolts a-glowin', I can see where I am goin' to be....With my lightnin'-bolts a glowin', I can see where I am goin'. You'd better look out below!"
Shine on, my beautiful girl. I have a good feeling the days to come will be your best ones yet. And remember, you can go potty anywhere. A toilet's just a toilet. That's all I'm sayin'.