Happy Leap Day!

For most of us, today probably feels like an ordinary Monday. I’m doing my normal Monday routine – working from home, an extra load of laundry spinning as I type. But this Monday is a once-every-four-years event and for some reason this year I feel a particular urge to celebrate.

Probably because Leap Day only arrives every four years, it doesn’t have as many time-honored traditions, no special foods or colors or parties. At one time, culture encouraged women to turn the tables on gender roles and propose to their man on Leap Day, but times have changed and now women can take the relational lead any day of the year. As the New York Times declared on February 28, 1976, “In these liberated times, every day is Leap Day.”

When Teen was in kindergarten, he asked for Froggy Cupcakes to share with his class for his December birthday. If I still had littles, I might feel motivated to make dessert. Maybe we’d even play Leap Frog. But as I have adolescents, probably not on both counts.frog cupcakes

Instead, we’re trying something else. Like New Year’s but better, Leap Day give us an opportunity to consider: Who am I becoming? Who do I want to be in four years? More than What do I want to be doing?, be(coming) is the operative verb. Tonight after dinner I’ll pass out blank cards and envelopes and each of us will write a letter to our 2020 self.

Yes, this trick has been done so many times before. But in less than four years, Teen will be in college and Tween in high school. As a family we are in a highly transitional lifestage and it seems timely to think about who we want to be and how best to achieve those goals. Not this or that college, or straight A’s, or even Man of the Match, although some of that will surely happen along the way. Instead, thinking ahead to what we will be doing in four years, who do I want to be as I engage in those activities? Kind, brave, creative, thoughtful, a good friend… And what can I do to become those attributes, starting now?

The real trick for this disorganized mama will be: where will I put the letters so I can easily find them again in four years? Hmm…maybe one of my becoming goals should have to do with organization?

How about you? How will you celebrate the gift of an extra 24 hours, and more importantly, how will that contribute to who you are becoming?

Be a Good Sport

I stopped playing Monopoly in college.

Guy and I and another couple spent a weekend together at his parents’ home in Santa Cruz. Late Saturday afternoon I witnessed a game of Monopoly transform my kind and generous friends into greedy Wall Street sharks.

And that was it. I quit playing mid-game and tried to disguise my disgust as they each played hard to amass wealth while bankrupting each other. I tell you this not because I’m anti-capitalism (I’m not), but to demonstrate that competition doesn’t motivate me like it does others.

ballWinning is the goal of game playing. Of course. But I support my kids playing sports for reasons more important than winning:

1. Exercise.
2. Learn to play a game.
3. Be a good teammate.
4. Practice a good attitude.

Winning is a bonus, but those four goals are essential.

About a year ago Teen played a rugby match against a team notorious for their unsportsmanlike conduct. A year prior the club had been fined when it came out that adults paid players per injury inflicted (concussions, particularly) on their opponents. The coaching staff was competitive to a fault and fostered bad attitudes in the club.

Those bad attitudes manned the field and the sidelines. Players and parents alike shouted at their opponents (Teen’s team), at the coaches and the ref. They played angrily and hurled invective as viciously as they stomped the pitch. When I commented to a friend, “It’s just a game!” one of their players standing nearby vomited curse words all over me.

The ref finally called the game when the other team’s parents stormed the field in protest over a call. For the rest of the day I felt dirty. There’s no excuse for that kind of bad behavior over a game played by teenagers. Fortunately, the league agreed and disbanded the team altogether.

Tween plays on a basketball team. Only in his second season, he’s not the team’s strongest player but he enjoys it and has definitely shown improvement. The team, however, is remarkable. They look like misfits but have won all but one game which they lost by one penalty shot. Watching this team learn to work together and play hard – and then win week after week – has been a highlight of my Saturdays this winter.

A dad of one of the kids on Tween’s team keeps up a steady commentary of mostly negative remarks throughout each game. It’s bugged me all season, especially when I see his kid, a pretty good player, glance to him for approval and look away again, crestfallen.

Today I snapped. Seated one bleacher behind me and slightly to my left, with no one between us, he shouted: “Oh No! DON’T give the ball to Tween!”

I surprised myself when I spun towards him and said, “Can you please stop?”

He looked as if I’d slapped him. “What?” he asked.

“That’s my kid. You don’t have to say unkind things.”

And get this response, people: “I just want to win the game.”

Did he really tell me that if my kids’ hands touch the ball the team will lose? Yes, that’s exactly what he meant. And let’s be clear, AS IF your snarky remarks in the bleachers are going to have any effect whatsoever on the court. How rude!

I responded more politely than I felt: “So do I. So does he! But your unkind words don’t do anyone any good.”

He didn’t shut up completely, but he sure didn’t mention Tween again. And we won the game, a hard-fought 28-24.

Children’s sports should be a safe place to learn, to experiment, to exercise, and to grow as positive human beings. And children, like the rest of us, need encouragement. Truth be told, I cheered today for the great baskets shot by the opposing team as well as our own. When a kid makes a great shot, it’s a great shot worthy of praise.

Winning isn’t everything, attitude is. On the field and in the stands, win or lose, I pray my kids will always exhibit grace and kindness.

Spelling Bee

Tween participated in the school-wide spelling bee. Placing in the top two in his classroom bee, he joined seventeen other 3rd through 5th graders. All winners before they hit the stage, Tween made it to 4th place.

Miraculous, as years ago experts predicted that given his particular set of learning (dis)abilities, his spelling level wouldn’t exceed third grade.

Watch this kid surpass his doctors’ expectations – woo hoo!

Similar to the well-known stages of grief, Tween passed through several Stages of Anticipation:

At first, he was over-the-moon excited. Giddy, jumping around, couldn’t stop talking.

Next came anxiety with a dash of denial. Let’s not talk about it unless we’re so anxious we have to talk about it.

Then, annoyance: “Mom, I Do Not want to practice spelling!”

Followed by acceptance, “Mom, can we practice spelling?” (Snuggles).

I came up with an unorthodox strategy: I checked out a DVD of Akeelah and the Bee from our fantastic local library. We watched it over two nights after homework and dinner, me pausing the show periodically to quiz Tween on a word (Guy declared it the worst movie-watching experience ever; I argued that we were studying!).

We talked about anxiety and desire, gumption, determination, and overcoming expectations. Tween’s parents watched the power of storytelling wash over him as he joined Akeelah on her journey from inner-city closeted smart kid to National Spelling Bee champion.

From no-dream to pipe-dream to day-dream to reality, Tween caught the spirit.

Finally motivated, he let me quiz him as I inwardly marveled at his ability to spell words I couldn’t imagine he’d seen before and outwardly praised him like crazy for his hard work.

The night before the bee he crawled into bed and buried himself in covers. Overwhelmed, he began to criticize everything about himself – body and brain. You know those moments, when nerves take over and you just can’t see how anything you are or do could possibly be good enough?

I made him look me in the eyes. Firmly, I said, “You do your best and let God do the rest” (thanks, Mom, for that little pearl of wisdom!). “And I will be proud of you No Matter What.”

Morning of, he turned ornery when I suggested he Dress for Success: “Did you read that in one of your magazines?” (Ugh, Adolescent Sassy-Butt, I only requested that he put on a polo-style shirt with his jeans. “But Mom, NO ONE else will wear anything special, you just watch.” Bummer, he was mostly right). After he left for school, I insisted that Guy and I also Dress for Success to honor his efforts.

As Guy and I entered the auditorium to join other parents seated on benches lining the back wall, the school principal called us over. “I have to ask,” he began, “but do you live in a zoo?”

The bee participants had filled out questionnaires about themselves and one of the questions asked about family pets. “I was just wondering how many of these animals Tween listed might actually still be living with you?”

We glanced over his shoulder at Tween’s paper and laughed. He had listed all of our 3 cats, 3 leopard geckos, 2 dogs, 2 snakes, 1 tortoise, and 1 betta fish by name and species. All except for the newest snake which he listed as “ball python (I forgot its name).”

Um, yes, we live in a zoo of sorts. We’re a little nuts.

National Spelling Bee rules at play, kids could only ask two questions about their word. They could ask for a definition, to hear it repeated or in a sentence, word origin (nobody asks that at this level), but only two questions.

I held my breath each time Tween stood up. He spelled words we had studied and words we hadn’t studied. He spoke straight into the microphone, loud and clear, no mumbling. An astonished parent turned to us: “He’s so confident!”

He made it through six rounds. Down to four spellers, Tween’s word elicited hushed gasps from nearby parents:

“Please spell jocularity.”

Parents whispered, “What did he say? What does that mean?”

According to Merriam-Webster: “Given to jesting, jolly.” Actually a pretty good descriptor for Tween.

It hadn’t been on the provided spelling lists. I looked it up in the children’s dictionary he and every other 2nd grader in town received from the local Kiwanis club and, guess what? It’s not in there.

This is not a kid-friendly spelling word, folks.

He hadn’t asked a single question so far, but this time he asked for a definition and a sentence, and then he asked to hear it repeated; he asked three questions, so the principal would not repeat the word.

“Jocularity. Hmm, J-O-C-um…hmm…K…?-U-L-A-R-I-T-Y. Jocularity.”

“Thank you for participating.” Applause.

He walked across the gym and took a seat on the floor with his classmates, high-fiving along the way. He smiled. Clearly disappointed, he put up a good face.

Of course he added a K. Wouldn’t you? Or maybe you wouldn’t, but you might have in 5th grade. Jocularity sounds an awful lot like jock.

The next word: havoc
And: thyme
And I no longer remember the winning word, but it wasn’t nearly so hard as jocularity.

When a winner had been declared, parents stuck around for hugs and pictures and congratulations. The principal personally congratulated Tween, commending him for doing so well and encouraging him that a “ck” made perfect sense, even if it was incorrect.

Bee participants

Bee participants

Rightfully proud of himself – the kid mouthed the correct spelling to every single word in the bee from his place in the back row – and kicking himself at the same time, Tween glowed. But when we picked him up after school three hours later, he glowered. The luck of the draw had not been on his side, and he was angry at Misfortune.

So we made a big deal to celebrate the miracle: we gave him the choice between Slurpees or ice cream (Slurpees won). We spelled jocularity back and forth to one another for the rest of the day; no one in this household will ever stumble over an added K again. We met friends at the park and they expressed admiration for his serious spelling skills. We thanked God for the gift of a spelling adventure. For fun in the process. For a new appreciation of the power of studying well. And for the experience as a whole.

You might even say we acted a wee bit jocular in our miraculous spelling celebration!