Friday, January 28, 2011

Twenty five years and a few more reflections later

One of my core parenting philosophies was first formed 25 years ago today, when I watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode on the tv screen in my fourth grade classroom. Of course, I didn't realize that at the time. What I did realize is that I need to build my dreams on the best of what I have, not the best of what others see me as having. I didn't want to listen to the cheerleading voices that looked through me, noticing only a smart, quiet girl and yelling, "go get 'em!" I wanted to find the voices that would see me for exactly who I was, and listen to them. Even later, of course, I would realize that the strongest of those voices was my own, but that's a lot to ask of a just-turned-nine-year-old.

The story I'm reprinting for you below was about E. Today's update would tell you that she wants to be a world traveler and an orphanage teacher. L would chime in that she wants to be a firefighter, and G would tell you (I think) that he aspires to win those "who ate the most food in 15 minutes" contests. And I could get laser-correction surgery for my vision. But I think I'm still too short.

But even moreso than usual, here I am starting at the end instead of the beginning. In somber memory of the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, I'm reposting for you a story I first told you on October 27, 2009, which is my memory of that event.

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I’m going to be everything, Mama! she says to me often. I’m going to be a teacher and a firefighter and a police officer and a bus driver and a construction worker and a librarian and a ballet dancer and a princess and the President and a mommy. I’m going to be everything!

And, of course, we don’t tell her she can’t. “Go be everything you want to be, love.” Pursue. Chase. Climb. Risk. Plan. Dream. Try.

Of course, she can’t be everything. I tell her to “go, be!” But carefully I never tell her “you can be anything you want to be.” I hated to be patted verbally on the head with that empty promise because there was an age long before the adults stopped saying it when I already knew it wasn’t true.

When I was in 4th grade our class had a special morning planned. The principal was going to wheel a television set into our classroom and several other classes were going to join us and we were going to watch the space shuttle lift off into the sky. A teacher pulled me away from my spot on the floor where we were all sitting, waiting, excited. She asked me to go talk to my friend, Mira, who had just returned to school from an appointment and was upset. She was wearing her glasses for the first time and didn’t like them. Since I wore glasses, could I go comfort her?

I didn’t really know what to say to Mira. I didn’t love my own glasses. We sat quietly in the back of the classroom, on the floor behind most of our friends. A bunch of the other kids were boasting loudly about how they were planning to be astronauts when they grew up. These certainly weren’t words of comfort, but in that moment I felt angry: “Mira. We can’t be astronauts. We don’t have perfect vision.”

You can’t be anything you want when you grow up. Even little girls know that pilots and astronauts need perfect vision.

And then the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before our eyes. Some dreams crash and burn. Some dreams never lift off.

My brilliant daughter, the ambitious girl before me: how many years before she figures that out? For how many more years can she believe she can be everything? I never say to her: “you can be anything you want to be.” I don’t ever want her to remember in resentment any words I’ve placed, possibly carelessly, before her.

I cannot promise that dreams will come true. But I can promise I’ll always support the challenges she undertakes.

So I dare her. I always say: “Go. Be everything you want to be.”

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