How is it that two children, raised by the same parents, in the same house, can be so different?
My boys are completely unique except maybe for their great sense of humor, from early onset “Simpsons” exposure and their dad’s constant stream of silly jokes: “Have you heard about the corduroy pillows? They’re making head-lines!”
Otherwise, resemblance is limited. One shares absolutely everything, every detail, every thought, every new hair. The other, well, as his father says, “he barely tells us what he had for lunch.”
I often think that birth order is the culprit, that how I treated them as a result of one being my first, and one being my second, greatly influenced. But then I also remember how different my pregnancies were, how even in utero they were unique.
I guess I have no idea why my children are who they are. I can take credit for their successes and blame for their failures, or abdicate any responsibility for either. I can say it is because they’re New Yorkers that they are who they are. I can say it’s because they’ve grown up with privilege. I can say it’s because I am who I am and their father is who he is. I can say lots of things.
It’s funny how people don’t change. My mom recently took out a box filled with photos and letters and report cards from our childhood. My sisters and I spent the morning going through them, laughing as we read things aloud that we had written or others had written about us. In those writings were the seeds of what we are today.
In the area of Personal and Social Growth, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kissell, wrote: “Stephanie talks too much in class, comments and asks questions without thinking things through.” Her favorable comments above that speak to my courteousness and cooperation and positive attitude toward school, self, and others, but it’s the negative comments that stick.
Ugh. I always talk too much, always have. And I try to think things through before I speak, but it never works. I always blurt out what I’m thinking when I’m thinking it, to wit this column. How can I know what I think before I say it? And if I were to “think it through,” what would be different? Would I censor my thoughts so as to sanitize them for others? Is that the goal? Is that what other “normal” kids do?
I got mad when I read that comment, first at myself for being such a loudmouth blurter, and then, after more consideration, at the teacher. I see what happens to kids in school, where they are taught not to express themselves unless those thoughts are squarely to the liking of the teacher. And then we wonder why we have a society that is struggling to communicate honestly.
No offense to Mrs. Kissell. I feel for her for having to put up with my every thought. My family — then and now — suffers mightily, as do many people in cafes, in bars, on the subway, and in Ubers where I comment and question with abandon. I’m not defending who I am or how I do things, I’m just saying it is who I am, and how I do things, and no amount of criticism really changes that.
Mrs. Kissell tried to shut me down. She tried to tell my parents to shut me down. Good luck, Mrs. Kissell. Most teachers tried, until I got to one — to Mr. Kreamer. He was a writer, and he believed in the power of expression. Thank God for Mr. Kreamer. He let me express myself in newspaper form, first in his G.A.T.E. classes in middle school, then as the newspaper advisor at my high school, where he moved along with me (Thank god.) He never shut me down. Not even the time when I was editor of Cat Tracks my senior year, and I wrote a scathing piece about the administration. He asked me very pointedly whether I wanted to go ahead and print that story, and I said I did. It needed to be said. That issue came back from the printer, and sat in our newsroom in stacks for months. It was never disseminated. The administration didn’t allow it, as he knew they wouldn’t.
I called him after I got my first job in New York, from a pay phone on 57th Street. He, of everyone, had believed in me and the power of my big mouth and my not-thinking-things-through-before-I-said-them ways.
I pray for my kids to have the kind of teacher who sees exactly who they are and doesn’t try to change them, who offers them the tools of expression they need to make the most of themselves. I pray every day that I can be the kind of parent who tries to do that, — who sees them in all their glory — for better or worse — and loves who that is.