Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jourdan and the Penguin Necklace

The Project

This is the moment Jourdan stole my heart.

It was the first time I had volunteered in my daughters’ fifth grade class. We had just arrived in Las Vegas about six weeks before. I wasn’t working. And I wanted to make sure the Dixelaney had a smooth transition.

The teacher, who liked to have parents there to help, but didn’t always have stuff for them to do, asked me to help this boy put together his research project on world explorers. I was a little perplexed at first. This project had been due two weeks prior, just before Thanksgiving.

It was kind of a complicated affair, with lots of moving pieces. There was the essay on the chosen explorer, a piece of creative writing, the obligatory map showing the explorer’s routes, a coat of arms, a timeline and various games and puzzles designed, I suppose, to entrench the unit’s terms in the kids’ brains. This was all to be put into a 3-pin folder, in a certain order, with a homemade paper globe hanging from the folder’s edge.

Jourdan was very serious, and very flustered. All of the parts of the rubric were finished, they just needed to be put in the folder. But this was not something he could easily do. It was all so cumbersome to him, and he seemed embarrassed that it didn’t come easier. I thought his earnestness was adorable, and that feeling is what helped me refrain when I saw him pick up a second batch of papers and punch them without lining them up with the first batch. This is something only an editor turned parent can understand. You tell yourself to breathe. It is not the end of the world that the holes won’t line up and the papers will stick out the sides and the top and bottom. Kids have to make their own mistakes.

I checked off the table of contents, chatting amiably with him about his explorer, and whether he liked the project. His little fingers fumbled each paper through the folder’s pins, then added another. When he was done... we realized he had not included the page I was holding, the page that needed to be first. All the papers had to come out and be repinned with fingers that were not used to working on such fine skills.

But this is the glory of mistakes: they give you room to be human with each other. Since I was clearly culpable, Jourdan relaxed a bit, and seemed to let go of his self-consciousness. Our conversation turned to the silly mistakes we make, and how stupid we feel when we do them. Then he started asking me questions about the Dixelaney, and how and why we had moved here. I answered them straight-forwardly, feeling an odd ease, because at that point I hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that I had uprooted my children from the only home they had ever known and taken them back to the city I swore I had left forever. We were making chitchat, and my conversation partner was an earnest 10-year-old boy.

I’m not sure what led to his revelation, but we were talking about the girls and suddenly he said, “I like Dixon.” At first, I thought this was a comment on Delaney, as in “I like Dixon, but not Delaney.” I nodded and said Dixon was pretty cool. No, he said, suddenly becoming discomfited again, “I like like Dixon.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s sweet.”

“Do you think she likes me?”

My daughters tell me everything, and I had never heard of this kid before. I was certain from our interaction that this is not someone Dixon would like like. But I kinda wished he was, because at that moment I thought he was the sweetest boy in the world.

“I don’t know. You should ask her.”

“Don’t tell her I said anything,” he said, now overcome by embarrassment.

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”


The Necklace

“Mom, you won’t believe what happened.”

I had met the girls, as usual after school, at the short wall overlooking the playground. It was a Friday, a beautiful Vegas day in January, with a piercing sun hanging low in the sky, and temperatures that felt like spring in Chicago. The kids around us were in a jubilant mood. Delaney was silent, and sad. Dixon was in a huff, full of excitement and chagrin. She was, as their other mother often says, scandalized.

“We were in class practicing for our 5th grade flash mob, and everybody was up jumping around and Delaney had to take off her penguin necklace because it was hitting her in the face, and when we were done the necklace was missing. Everybody started looking for it. Mrs. Lively said that whoever took it better confess, because she knew who it was and he would be in big trouble if he walked out of the room. Nobody said anything. Then the bell rang and we walked out of the room and Mrs. Lively called Jourdan back in. She was really mad. They had a long talk afterward.”

Delaney’s necklace was a crystal penguin, with a wire wrapped around it, hanging from a black, cloth chain. We had purchased it at an art fair in Flossmoor. It was a big deal. I was in between one job that had paid me a whopping $30,000 a year, and was the definition of a hostile work environment, and about to move into another job that was going to pay me a big ole $32,000, and that I hoped would foster a more respectful, artistic atmosphere. (On that, I was completely wrong, but that’s another story.) I was feeling optimistic. These weren’t the most expensive necklaces, but they were something – when we were dealing with a whole lot of nothing. Delaney got a penguin. Dixon got a bear.

But in class that day Jourdan had, apparently, taken the wire off of Delaney’s penguin and stuffed it in his pocket.

My heart sank.

The next day, after much flurry from the 5th grade teachers and the vice-principal, Jourdan gave the pieces of the necklace – broken wire, penguin, cloth chain – back to Delaney. He also included a piece of crystal of his own. To make amends. To give up something he loved.

Delaney could barely look at any of it. It made her sick. Even after the vice-principal took the necklace back and Jourdan’s parents got it fixed, Delaney didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s meaning had changed. She hasn’t worn it since.


The Field Trip

We were going to see Nancy Drew at the high school down the street from my parent’s house, where we were living. I got on the bus and sat with Dixon. At some point, I noticed Jourdan, sitting alone, forlorn, stealing furtive glances at other kids who were talking and laughing.

It reminded me of a time on the bus when I was in 4th grade. Vegas was less built up then, and many of our stops were in front of houses standing alone in the desert. One morning, leaning against the window in my seat, I saw Jason standing there alone. His long face (John Kerry has always reminded me of him) seemed sad and angry. No, not angry. More like resigned. Perhaps somewhere in between. It occurred to me at that moment that Jason didn’t have the easy life that I had. I didn’t know much about him, or his parents, but the picture of him slumping at the bus stop, eyes inverted into something I couldn’t fully see, has never left me.

One day, I was home from college and the TV news was on. They reported that two people driving recklessly on a motorcycle were killed. When they said Jason’s full name, I looked up. “Didn’t you know someone in school by that name?” my mom asked. I nodded, feeling at that moment, the cool of the glass on my forehead as the bus pulled up to Jason’s house some 10 years before.

And now I was looking at the same face in this kid who liked liked one of my daughters and stole the necklace of the other, and who desperately wanted someone to talk to him.

Outside the school, as we were waiting to get in, he tried engaging in conversations. Kids literally turned their backs on him.

My heart was breaking.

The show was good, the kids were excited, and I brought up the rear to make sure no one was left behind. The first empty seat I saw on the crowded bus was next to Jourdan. I took it. He took one look at me and turned toward the window.

“I’m gonna make you talk to me,” I said.

He looked up at me. I smiled.

“You seem pretty unhappy.”

He shrugged.

“No one seems to want to talk to you.”

“They’re all mad at me.”

“What for.”

Those black eyes looked up at me with surprise and hurt, as if he sensed I was trying to trick him.

“Ah, yes, the necklace.”

There was silence.

“I don’t know what made you take the necklace. But we all realized when you gave it back, and gave Delaney your crystal, that you really felt bad about taking it. Dixon gave you your crystal back, right?”

He nodded.

“You know, people make mistakes, Jourdan. And then they get forgiveness.”

This wasn’t actually the truth. Dixon had forgiven him because I had asked her to. Delaney couldn’t. But Jourdan didn’t need to know that.

With those words, the torrent came.

“I don’t know what made me take it. I really wish I hadn’t. I feel horrible. I think Delaney’s a great girl. I would never do anything to hurt her. And now nobody will talk to me. It’s like I’m invisible. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. But nobody knows me. Nobody knows the real me. If they saw me boxing, they’d like me, ‘cause I’m good at boxing. I’m good at a lot of things. I’m a nice kid. But they don’t know that because nobody ever talks to me. Except Dixon.”

That’s why he liked liked her. She was nice to him. Dixon is nice.

He went on for a long time. And I talked to him for a long time about how he was in a tough place, and that maybe being open about it and saying, “Hey, I screwed up, I’m sorry, please forgive me,” might get him somewhere. At the very least, I said, he should apologize to Delaney.

He talked a bit about his mom, whom he said thought everything was OK and didn’t listen to him when he told her how horrible things were at school. We talked about fitting in. I didn’t confess that I never fit in when I was his age. This wasn’t about me. Or if it was, he didn’t need to know that.

We talked the entire way back to school. And as we pulled into the parking lot, he looked up and thanked me for listening to him. I told him I enjoyed it, then I hightailed it over to Delaney and told her if Jourdan apologizes, be gracious. She snarled at me, but I knew the message got through.

A couple of days later, I made the girls a deal. They could quit a program I had forced them to do, but that didn’t turn out they way we had thought. In exchange, they had to be nice to Jourdan. There was uproar, from both of them.

“This is where you get to learn the art of forgiveness. If you lead the way, people will follow and they’ll be nice to him, too. Just try.”

I think Dixon tried more than Delaney. And I got reports that Jourdan was a bit more accepted. But Dixon told me that her being nice to him just made him like her more, and that kind of creeped her out, so while she was still going to be nice, she wasn’t going to be his friend. I told her fair enough.

I worry for this boy. Is he one of the people who is going to get so angry, he’s going to surpass using his fists and bring a gun to school? Or is he just going to be self-destructive, speeding at 110 miles an hour on a motorcycle on a winding road? Or – the possibility does tantalize – will he figure it out, know that he has a place in this world, and that he can leave his adolescence behind?

The next few years are going to be tough for him, as he heads into jr. high school. And I’m not sure I like the idea of Dixon being part of his fantasies. I want to help this kid, but I’m not sure there’s anything more I can do. But maybe his bus memory will be better than my bus memory. Maybe he’ll remember someone reaching out to him when he was sad and angry, rather than just looking at him, feeling unable to act.

And maybe he will see the glory of his mistake. Perhaps taking the necklace might be the start of a long, deep lesson that will help him to grow into a better man.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Full House and the Discovery of Gay TV

My kids have discovered 1990s TV. Their summer of 2014 can easily be described as the summer of “Friends” and the summer of “Full House.” I’ve been watching them watching these sitcoms with some interest and trepidation. Because, after all, these shows are 15-26 years old, and the basic assumptions about the world were quite different even that short time ago.

I’ve been preparing myself for conversations with my kids about the portrayal of gender roles and sexism. And homophobic jokes. My daughters, though, have learned in their 11 ½ years that their mom can ruin anything they’re watching by pointing out the underlying assumptions. Now, they barely let me in the room when these shows are on – especially “Friends.”

My guess on the latter is that they don’t quite understand everything that’s going on. I just walked by during the scene in which Ross discovers his red sweater – the MacGuffin that reveals him to be the father of Rachel’s baby. I asked the girls what the sweater meant, and why Monica, Phoebe and Joey reacted as they did. The girls looked at each other, and then at me, and said, “We honestly don’t know.” They missed the MacGuffin. They know how babies are born, but missed the subtle line that someone had stayed overnight about a month before and had left the sweater. I was relieved at this. But a bit disappointed that they had missed such an obvious piece of symbolism. I mean, aren’t they supposed to be studying this in Common Core?

“Full House” tonight was another story. Bob Saget’s character, Danny, had been dating... I don’t know who, because I confess I had never watched the show when it was originally on, and had no interest in going back and watching the episode again. But it was late in the series, sometime in ’94 or ’95, and Danny, the father of the girls in the show, who had rarely dated anybody the first few seasons, finally got a love interest. In this episode, he discovered that his girlfriend was seven months older than him. This bothered him.

In the scene I caught, set in the kitchen, Danny was struggling, in his nice guy way, with his feelings of emasculation at dating an older woman. He said he had grown up with the idea that men were supposed to be older and taller and stronger than women. The joke in the scene was that he was absent-mindedly trying to open a jar of spaghetti sauce as he said his lines, then slammed the jar on the table to emphasize his impotence. And, of course, his girlfriend, soothed him verbally while absent-mindedly picking up the jar and twisting it open. Then she had to put the jar down, and go to him, pleadingly, assuring him that nothing was different, that she’s always been seven months older than him and nothing had changed between them.

At that moment I spoke, which was probably not the smartest thing in the world, as my daughters then became aware of my presence, and intuited the dangerous didactic situation they had just found themselves in. Shit. We’ve been ambushed. Mom’s going to talk to us about the “serious stuff” in this scene. And we were innocently sitting here!

“Mom! Don’t say anything.”

I walked away.

When they were younger, what I talked about mostly was how badly the shows they watched were written. But it was mostly Disney. Kind of easy pickings. I also have pointed out shows and movies I thought were written well. “Wizards of Waverly Place” was kind of a stupid show, but the writers ended up doing a good job of adhering to the given circumstances of the world in which they created. Creating a world, and then breaking your own rules – not on purpose – is a huge writing pet peeve of mine. I told that to my children. Perhaps before they knew what the word “peeve” meant. But I knew they’d understand.

I also am a big fan of the movie “Lemonade Mouth.” It is – as I tell the Dixelaney every time we watch it – the first kids’ movie in which the girls don’t compromise themselves to please the boys. There’s actually a line in which one of the main characters, having learned something already on the journey the story has taken her on, says to her ex-boyfriend that she’ll consider being friends if he respects her and her music, if he puts her first. He’s desperate, and promises her that he’s learned his lesson. This is not used to set up a joke, or an evil plot twist. The girls in this movie are strong and smart and talented. They drive the plot. This pleases me so much, I’m more than willing to overlook the fact that they can just pick up instruments and knock out a well-rehearsed piece when they had never even met each other before that scene. Implausibility is another thing that drives me crazy in writing. But hell, we watched “Glee.”

Here’s the thing about what my kids are watching now: they’re actually good shows. I had known this about “Friends,” which I had watched a bit in the ‘90s. It’s very well-written, and the ensemble acting is pretty wonderful. (Did you know that before the second season, the entire cast negotiated with the network together, and David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston actually took a pay cut so all six of them could make the same salary?) The thing I worry about with “Friends,” are all the sexual innuendos. But as long as someone isn’t kissing, my girls seem to be OK with it right now.

“Full House” – now that’s the surprise. It is beloved among people who were young from 1988 to 1995 – a favorite memory of childhood. I’d never been fully aware of the show until this summer. It truly only entered my consciousness around 2009, when my kids started watching the Olsen twin movies. Thank god for IMDB.

But as I surreptitiously watch it standing behind my children, I have come to realize that this show did a great deal to move along the idea of gender equality, and to set us up for the explosion of gay characters to come in the mid-late ’90s.

“Full House” is a show about three men raising kids. Two of the men are brothers-in-law – sharing the memory of a dead sister and wife. The third is the widower’s best friend.

What I find fascinating about this is that only the brother-in-law (John Stamos’ character) spends any time dating women. In most of the series he has a steady girlfriend. The other two rarely date. According to the series rundown on IMDB, Danny only starts dating seriously in season five. Stamos’ character is the wild card, the crazy uncle who usually does the wrong thing, while Danny and Joey are the steady parental figures, worried about cleaning and cooking and teaching the kids good lessons. Yes, Joey’s kind of a dope – the “dumb blond” character. And yes, there are a lot of opportunities for cheap laughs as one of them comes out of the kitchen wearing an apron, or doing some sort of chore normally ascribed to the wife. But, seeing this late 20th century show through the lens of the early 21st century, I find a portrayal of the normality of a family of men raising children. “Full House” was the 1990s answer to the 1980s sitcom, “Kate and Allie.” Networks could show same sex couples raising kids, as long as they didn’t acknowledge that they were same sex couples raising kids. And a whole generation of people grew up not quite realizing what they were seeing.

I don’t know how much the Dixelaney consciously understand what they’re seeing. At this point, though, I’m very much aware that they don’t want me to interpret. Perhaps it’s time to step back and shut up. They’re smart. And they’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas in their 11½  years that will need time to gel. So far, neither of them have given the slightest indication that they are putting themselves away in order to fit in and be liked. So far, all of their friends have been pretty strong. The next few years are going to be treacherous, but our storyline dictates that it’s time to start letting them learn more without me. These are the given circumstances of our world. I do take solace, though, in the fact that every time they turn on one of their favorite shows, they hear the words, “I’ll be there for you.”