Last weekend, my Facebook status read:
I've turned teenagers loose in my garage with spray paint and x-acto knives. #helicopterparentfail
This wasn’t an exaggeration. Oh, and I also gave them a couple of saws and free range in my cluttered garage. What could go wrong? As it turns out – nothing. No one stabbed themselves or anyone else. No one mistook a thumb for a tree branch when sawing. No one decided to explore the neighborhood art or chemical enhancement properties of spray paint. They took the tools and the responsibility, threw in some creativity, and met and exceeded my expectations. Of course, the threat that any amputated digits would not be packed in ice and rushed to the ER but rather placed in formalin jars and used in the class Halloween display might have added an extra layer of caution…
My oldest is in 8th grade. This is a year of last times and of letting go. One of the unique side-effects of a small, K-8 private school is the evolution of a class as a living entity. These kids aren’t shuffled from year to year between several classes and schools. Yes, some students transfer out of the school and some transfer in, but over the years, the class develops its own personality and energy. Kids, parents, and teachers learn each others’ strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. As parents, we go from being asked to help in the classroom as they learn to read, cook, or knit to being asked to step back and let them develop their own projects and to let them travel for a week without us.
At our school, the magnificent (not an exaggeration; if you were dropped into the middle of it from the outside world, you would think you’d entered some utopian fantasy of a childhood Halloween) Halloween Festival divides the dramatic action into two parts. Children in the lower grades are shepherded, with their parents, by “Angel guides” from room to room along a jack-o-lantern –lit “Protected Path.” In each room, they watch a scene or vignette from a gentle story. The rooms are decorated in gauze, twinkle lights, with soft, glowing colors and magical props. Monsters and evil spirits do not enter this All Hallows Eve.
In the upper grades, Halloween takes on a different character. Beginning in 5th grade, students may pass – alone – through the “Perilous Path.” Think of this as a combination haunted house and Disney ride. There is a theme or a storyline, but the path is meant to be physically and mentally challenging. This is a test of bravery and independence. And here, the monsters, ghouls, and demons are the most frightening of creatures – adolescent humans.
The 8th grade class puts on the Perilous Path, and this act is, in itself, a rite of passage. Coming early in the school year, this is each class’s first real opportunity to make its mark upon the school as the top grade. Of course, this isn’t accomplished without some heavy lifting (figurative and literal) on the part of the teacher and parents. But, this is where the letting go, the sense of reeling out a line and letting the students run comes in.
Hi. My name is Christy and I am a control freak.
I generally don’t volunteer for projects that require input from other people. Once I’m given a general concept – a theme or design – I like to do things my way. And I typically only ask for help from people that I know will do those things my way. Allowing the vision in my head to bend, to take on the ideas and flavors of other people, is not a natural condition. Yet, once I stuck my hand in the air at the first parent meeting of the year for the new 8th grade and volunteered to coordinate the Perilous Path, I realized that this was exactly what I was going to have to do.
Essays about the lessons of parenting are a dime-a-dozen. And like most clichés, they are absolutely true. In my 20s, I didn’t want kids. I thought that becoming a parent would cause me to lose myself, that my world would become narrow. I never guessed that having children would force me to become myself – to grow beyond the boundaries of my anxieties, to push me past my comfort zone daily, not just with my children but with other people. And, it would teach me to let go.
I’m not good at letting go. Of control, of people, of anything. See previous posts. But, this weekend reminded me once again, that the best things happen when I back off and let others do what they need to do in order to fulfill their visions.
I watched in stunned and mildly stressed amazement as Friday and Saturday, other parents worked tirelessly to trouble-shoot, construct, and create. They found ways to make my ideas work when I had no clue myself how to implement some of these things. They took on various areas of the path and made them their own.
But the kids floored and humbled me. I had written a rough “script,” that was based around plot elements or roles that they had brain-stormed. Three boys want to “be seizuring?” Okay, obviously a mass poisoning has taken place in that room. Someone wants to be a zombie? Great. Zombies require no explanation. They had a script, but I told them that as long as they stayed somewhat within the plot line (and appropriate) they could improvise. And, improvise they did.
As we were in the countdown to set up, I was informed that a former corpse was no longer dead, the wounded man was now the zombie, and that the ex-zombie would now be dressed in military uniform and manning the check-in table. I could sense other parents twitching a bit – “Are they going to know what they’re doing?”
For two hours, the 8th grade kept up a frenetic level of dramatic energy, shifting and improvising throughout the night in response to the age and level of fear or disdain of the “mark” and in response to their own levels of boredom. The boy who was supposed to fall dramatically across a doorway shifted to leaping out in a darkened corridor and at one point joined the “madman” on one part of the deck – the two kept up a demented and horrifying comedic descent into insanity. Several of the poisoned victims got bored with seizuring quietly and either fell to the curse of madness or opted to leap from behind shelves and doors.
And, do you know what? It worked. This fluid, at times chaotic, approach to the plan produced a far better outcome than the tightest controls I could have enacted.
The “Serenity Prayer” is never a bad thing when one is facing peril. Whether the challenge is organizing an event, coping with relationships, or parenting, its lessons apply:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
That is my mantra for this year of last-times and letting go – “The wisdom to know the difference.”