Monthly Archives: December 2012

Frankly, Virginia, It’s Complicated

*Warning: This post discusses the existence of Santa Claus.

I hate the idea of Santa Claus. No really. Despite all the Christmas crap I have—candy cane mugs, snowmen candy dishes, Christmas tree dining set for sixteen, bath towels, door mats, nutcracker butter knives, Santas that sing, Santas that laugh, penguins that ring bells, and garland that sparkles in every single room—I hate it.

Before I had kids I always thought that I wouldn’t perpetuate such a myth. Likewise, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were out. I decided my kids would be somewhat alone among their peers but would be better for it. They wouldn’t run around believing that a kindly old guy breaks into our house once a year and sneaks around so quietly that neither dogs nor mom would hear it. As an added bonus, they wouldn’t fall prey to believing that this same old guy is “watching” them at all times—which as an adult is, honestly, creepy. We could also steer away from sitting on mall Santas’ laps and writing letters that I “mail” (which I don’t) and hide in my underwear drawer where I can pull it out and refer to the list. No, my kids were going to be so above all that.

And then I had kids and it was hard to ignore the enormity of this myth. He was everywhere. On Coke bottles and M&M bags, in TV commercials selling cars and toys and even in our home: soap dishes, music boxes, cookie cutters. Not only that, but wherever my kids went between November and December 26th, people would engage my children in Santa-driven conversation: So, what are you going to ask Santa for this year? Did you get what you asked for? I tried not to roll my eyes.

Early on in our kids’ lives, my husband and I were up late one Christmas Eve wrapping presents when I labeled one, To: Bella From: Santa. My husband was upset. “Why should Santa get all the credit for these presents? I want to give her the one she really wants. Santa can give her the clothes.” I hesitated; he had a point. Why did we work so hard saving up, sneaking around shopping, and hiding boxes in trash bags in our garage only to fork over the good deed to an old man who seemed to have a secret relationship with our kids? Not cool.

And yet, each year, as Halloween rolls around, and the Christmas tinsel starts lining the aisles of Target, my kids start to glow with the buzz of Christmas. They sing holiday carols in the car at full volume. They start drafting their letters to Santa: one edit, two edits, Mom, can you proofread this for me before I send it off? I want to be sure it’s right. They love to make holiday cards and turn on all the music boxes and snow globes at once. They love making peanut blossom cookies and rum balls, sugar cookies with way, way too much frosting and globs of dark green sprinkles. They drink lots of eggnog and enjoy way too many Christmas-centered movies where everything always ends up with the kid getting what they desperately wanted, divorced parents suddenly reuniting, and kids being privy to something that adults can’t seem to understand.

Just recently my nine-year-old asked me if it seemed odd that the Tooth Fairy was real but that monsters were not. I was thankful my back was to her. How was I to respond? Hadn’t I been preparing her to question everything in her life? Never talk to strangers. Don’t trust anyone but your family. Never ever sit on a man’s lap in the food court of the mall even if he’s wearing a suit. Adults aren’t always right.

I know, right, was all I could come up with.

This might be her last year—maybe two if we’re lucky. Her brother is two years younger, and I imagine that if she doesn’t tell him once she finds out, then she will sit arms crossed by the Christmas tree tired and scornful—angry that her brother woke her up at six in the morning for not-magic.

Like many parents last week I hugged my kids until they squirmed from my arms. I tried not to let them see me cry every time I thought of the families of the victims of Newtown, Connecticut. I obsessively worried about my kids at school; I took them late one day this week because I couldn’t bear to let them go. At some point I had to tell them what had happened. My daughter was saddened by this, but my son simply replied that it was sad but couldn’t Santa bring them back to life. He would ask Santa. After all, he’s magic, Mom.

And this is where I have to ask myself if I did the right thing. Was it a good thing that I allowed them to believe in magic? In the kindness of a goodly old man? In non-unionized elves and flying reindeer? Things that will seem all too silly when they know. And the answer I come up with again and again is yes. Yes, Virginia it is okay to believe in something that isn’t real.

I am glad that my son believes those kids in Newtown can run back into the arms of their mommies and daddies. That, in his mind, they will get up while it is still dark and shake their parents awake. Look, Mom. Santa came! That those families will sit around their trees, happy and complete, ripping open gifts, shrieking and crying, kissing and hugging as though there would never be a day more joyous. I am thankful that this is what he believes. Believing in it makes it real, and isn’t that what childhood is about?

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towards understanding

I listen to the radio in the car on the way to work, and there are tears streaming down my face. I call my husband and he is also crying. I see my kids and I hug them until they ask me to stop. I lie in bed and I close my eyes and I try not to think of what it must have been like in one of those classrooms. My imagination keeps wandering there and I can’t sleep. I want to climb into my children’s beds and curl my body around them.

I do not know the answer to any of this, obviously, and anyone who says they do is lying. It is a complex problem, and the answer is therefore complex. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it and stumble towards some kind of understanding.

Yes, I happen to think part of the solution might be to more strictly regulate guns. But as a person who has taught hundreds of adults from all sorts of backgrounds for the past seven years, I can tell you this. There are a lot of people in this world who are on the verge, who are traumatized and battered and, yes, sometimes mentally ill, who do not have access to the resources they need. I know, because many of them are my students.

Three years ago, a student I was mentoring through a college program sent me a video of a realistic animation of David decapitating Goliath. He told me that he was David, that I was Goliath. He taped a broken heart to my office door. He sent me long, complicated rants about how I didn’t give him enough attention, about how he knows my mother loved me, about my children, about my husband. He was eventually removed from the campus, but what, really, is stopping him from returning? Nothing.

This student was clearly mentally ill. He shook when he talked to me. He couldn’t make eye contact. He had tried to get help, but his parents were not supportive, and he was constantly put on waiting lists, told to come back later, given phone numbers, referred and referred and referred away.

At the college where my husband teaches, a student made a threat and, fortunately, they arrested him at his home with a bag full of guns before he could act on it. Every semester, I have a student who I could see snapping. How many other instructors or health care professionals or other people who work closely with a variety of people can say the same? I’ll bet nearly all of them. Sometimes, they come to me and ask me for help, and I do the only thing I know to do: refer them to a place that I know doesn’t have enough resources. I look over my shoulder when I walk to my car.

Even in the most ideal situation, you can’t force a person to get help. And no matter how much we regulate guns, a really intent person can likely get his or her hands on one. There’s a percentage of this we can’t, no matter what, control. But given that we are the industrialized nation with the highest rate of gun violence (coupled with the highest rate of mental health problems), given the fact that we have a disturbing history of mass shootings, I think we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves.

Bringing God into classrooms isn’t going to actually help or stop anyone who is on the verge, Mike Huckabee, though it does allow you to conveniently avoid actually addressing the problem in any effective way. Condemning the man as an Autistic Loner and deeming him “other” isn’t going to stop this, either.

The odds that this would happen in our community are still extraordinarily low, but, if we are honest, we will admit that the problem is all around us, that it is complex, that we need to search for understanding, and, yes, address it. Or we can just, you know, keep watching Honey Boo Boo just as soon as regularly scheduled programming resumes.

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the boy i hit

His name is Tiernan. He has strawberry blonde hair with one of those scarf hats shaped like an animal of some sort–a bear? a raccoon? I cursed someone who took cuts in front of me at the four-way stop. I looked to my right. Nothing. I looked to my left. Nothing. I stepped on the gas. Suddenly, the boy was right in front of me, on a pine green bicycle. The car thumped into him and I saw a flash of his hair and he was down. I threw the cup of tea in my hand onto the passenger seat. I put the car in what I thought was Park but was in fact Neutral, and jumped out. The boy was already standing up, seemingly unfazed. “I’m okay,” he said. I was trembling. “Are you sure?” “Yeah,” he said, and began walking his bike across the street. The car began rolling backward, nearly hitting the pick-up behind me, so I jumped inside. I could feel the eyes from all of the other cars bearing down on me, waiting to see what I would do. I felt the weight of their judgment, their impatience, their concern for the boy. I somehow managed to get the car pulled out of the way. The boy was already a block away. I ran after him. Another woman who had witnessed the accident was already speaking with him. She eyed me suspiciously and got back into her truck and watched me talk to the boy. I asked him if he was okay at least 10 more times. I guessed that he was about 12 or 13, and he seemed as uninterested in speaking with me about this as he might be about speaking with any woman in her 30s about anything. A white wire from his iPod trailed up his arm and into his right ear. Still shaking, I gave him my name and my phone number and asked him his for his parents’ number. I am sorry. I am so sorry, I told him. Please call me if you need to go to the doctor later. Please let me fix your bike if it is broken. There wasn’t a scratch, either on the boy or his bike, but I just kept thinking of that Raymond Carver story “A Small Good Thing.” I kept thinking of my boys. This boy could be bleeding or worse. I didn’t see him. How did I not see him? I returned to my car and slumped down into the puddle of tea and broke into tears. I called his mother when I got home and I left her a message. This happened about an hour ago. I am still shaking. I hope the boy is okay. It’s so easy for everything to change very quickly, and I’m just grateful it wasn’t worse.

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