Before my children were of school age, I began to discuss with neighbors and friends what the options were and what would be best for my kids.
How was the public school around the corner, I asked all and sundry?
“Well,” said one woman, a psychotherapist. “It’s just fine, which is fine for my daughter because she’s just average. Now, if your child is special, in either direction…”
I was shocked. How, on earth, was she so blasé about her daughter being “just average”? And how, exactly, had she come to this determination? Wasn’t everyone special in his or her own way? Didn’t everyone deserve the attention that might bring out his or her very “special” qualities?
Years later, my children attend that very public school. Their grades and assessments show they are in some cases average, some cases above, sometimes they might even dip below. In my heart of hearts, though, regardless of what their report cards or test scores might say, I know they’re special. I also know now what I didn’t know then, which is that it is not going to be the school’s job to figure out how, exactly, they are special. It is up to them, with, maybe, a little help from their parents.
At Oscar’s eighth birthday recently, the kids were given T-shirts and fabric pens with which to decorate them before we set out on a rainy-day adventure in the park.
Immediately, Oscar voiced what he wanted to write: “I’m Awesome.” His enthusiasm was quickly matched by his friend, who grabbed a pen and scrawled immediately on a tank top, “I Rock!”
I thought to offer up, then, a lesson in humility, but I thought better of it. That’s why I love being around kids. They are awesome, they do rock, and they’re not afraid to feel it, to acknowledge it and embrace it. They hadn’t said they were better than anyone else, just that they had their own greatness. Isn’t that what special is?
When the school year begins anew and with it all the activities that you cross your fingers your children will enjoy or even excel at, “special” can feel like a moniker reserved only for an elite few.
Years ago, wandering through Central Park on a crowded weekend day, Eli, then all of 4, looked around with his big brown eyes, taking in the throngs, then clutched my hand and stared right at me: “Mommy,” he said, straight to the point, ”are we special?”
Wow. I cursed New York City in that moment and my naïve, Arizona-bred idea that The Big Apple was a great location to raise children. He was too young to figure that he was just one of millions, one of so many eager to make his mark.
I stammered out something, offered up that everyone feels special to their own selves, of course. But Eli seemed dissatisfied, like he was looking for something else, something more definitive to assure him that he wasn’t just a speck of dust, something to assuage the existential angst that city kids feel from a fairly young age when doing urban math: the numbers would suggest not everyone could be a standout.
I am one of those pathetic people who hates “winners” and “losers,” much as I understand it is a natural phenomenon, survival of the fittest and all that. I always wish that everyone could just enjoy playing the game and call it a day. But, then, I see the beaming faces of my kids when they’ve played hard and won and I remember: to feel special, you actually have to find something where your skills and interests dovetail and you do something that might make even hardened New Yorkers stand up and take notice.
We hope for signs along the way of how we might be special — but, regardless of them, we are in fact uniquely important in our own world, something kids so refreshingly remember.
“You know,” Oscar pointed out the other day, “life sometimes feels like a movie, where I am the star…”
Yes, I thought, he’s right. We are all of us stars in the movies of our own making, which are, arguably, the only movies that matter. We just have to help our kids figure what they want to be doing in that movie, how they might figure the role that makes them feel “special” to themselves.
J.K. Rowling was definitely on to something: Everyone, everywhere wants to feel like a wizard. And our little school on the corner isn’t the only Hogwarts in my kids’ lives.