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My husband and I were up late last night discussing Beverly Cleary’s well-known children’s book character Ramona Quimby and her family. I should clarify and say that we were up late last night discussing our family budget and, found ourselves instead dissecting the Quimby’s household budget. We periodically have these late-night discussions; not the optimal time for discussing family finances, but it’s the only time we can have a conversation that’s not interrupted every five seconds by one or both of the kids.

I grew up reading about Ramona’s escapades as a four-year old, then as an awkward and outspoken kindergartener, then as an impatient and misunderstood second-grader. When I grew older and out of Ramona and the Quimby’s and into the likes of Judy Blume, and C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander, I promptly forgot about Cleary and her books until a few months ago when we checked out some books on CD for the kids to listen to. In the latest installment, Ramona and Her Father, the Quimby household does some collective belt-tightening when downsizing costs Mr. Quimby his job and they are forced to make ends meet on Mrs. Quimby’s salary alone and, well, times get tough for them, in honest and bittersweet ways.

As it turned out, my husband and I had both spent a huge chunk of this week listening to Ramona at different times in the car (my husband has the morning “shift” with T. while I teach my classes; then we switch off–at the parking lot where he teaches–and I take the afternoon with the kids) and finding ourselves drawn into the trials and tribulations of what it meant for a family in the 1970s to abruptly find themselves dealing with unemployment, and a tighter-than-usual budget. I remember identifying with Ramona when I was 7 or 8–she was, after all, my contemporary–and feeling at the time like Ramona and I had so much in common we were practically soulmates. Ramona was often misunderstood and had trouble with spelling and I was often misunderstood and had trouble with spelling; Ramona shared a room with her sister and I shared a room with my sister; her parents had one car, and my parents did too! Ramona had straight brown hair and envied the girls in her class with springy curls and I, too, had straight brown hair and I so very much coveted the bouncy blonde curls of Denise, the most popular girl in my second-grade class. I loved Ramona—she spoke to me, and it was so gratifying to discover that there was obviously one adult out there—Beverly Cleary—who truly understood the 7-year old angst I had to deal with on a daily basis.

It was odd and a tad sobering this week to find myself, some thirty years later, listening to Ramona and her Father on CD and identifying instead with Mr. and Mrs. Quimby and not with Ramona, or even her big sister Beezus.  I understood belt-tightening back when I was a child as an irritating inconvenience foisted upon us kids by our parents, who surely were being a little melodramatic at times about the amount of money they had in the bank.  But as a child I didn’t feel the stress and anxiety of keeping a tight family budget in the ways which I’m sure weighed on my parents, just as the family finances weigh on us as we try and juggle the growing demands and needs of our kids.

Somewhere along the way I guess I really did grow up and out of Ramona and, while I’m no Mrs. Quimby, I guess it turns out I have more in common with her now than I once thought I did.

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Dinner preparation is chaos, usually. Five p.m. is universally recognized by parents to be some type of witching hour, during which kids become possessed by some tiny but fierce inner demons (I imagine them looking like the Mucinex creature), and melt down, whine, cling to legs, and demand unreasonable things; pots boil over, the oven is always too hot, the dog barks at nothing and altogether too many tasks are being crammed into too short a period of time. This has improved somewhat since the kids have gotten older, and since my daughter has grown into liking some of the things my son likes. They don’t watch much television at all during the week, but at 5:00 pm Monday-Thursday they munch down apple slices on the couch in the family room and watch Maya & Miguel together, the inner demons temporarily quelled by the colorful characters on the screen, and the mechanical crunching of apples.

Music also has a calming effect in our house as well. If I am really quick, and dinner isn’t ready yet–which it so often isn’t–I can soften the transition from Maya & Miguel to complete, unleashed lunacy, by quickly turning on the radio to our local classical station, or by popping in a favorite CD. This works particularly well with my son, who I can safely say has loved music from the day he was born. Songs were the only way to get him to sleep for any length of time resembling a nap, and to keep him asleep. When he was a baby we had to set the boom box on “repeat” so the CD would play continuously, and I still remember lying exhausted and spread-eagled across our bed in our tiny apartment while Enya or John Lennon played in an endless loop. If the music stopped, L. would inevitably awaken and we’d hear Eh-eh-eh-eh? coming from the baby monitor and go in to find him awake and confused, his little baby head bobbing up and down in the crib.

Why did the song stop? He seemed to be asking us. What happened to the music?

Songs used to make him want to get up and dance, his whole body moving to the music, his arms stretching up as if he’s trying to grab the notes from the air and make them his own. When he was a toddler and I would catch him singing and dancing to something I would ask him, teasingly, Do you have a song in your heart? and he would answer, Yes, Mama! My heart has music! Now he no longer dances much to music, but it still has the power to calm and capture him. He might stop what he’s doing when a favorite song comes on, and remain entirely oblivious to the chaos I often struggle to block out. I can almost see the world spinning around him and he is at the center, his head bent so slightly towards the speakers, his eyes staring in concentration and his lips moving a little now and again to the words of the song.

T. has become the dancer now, twirling her hands in the air and kicking her feet up in a comical way she struts around the room in time to the music. People who visit us often comment that we have music on all the time at our house, sometimes different songs playing in different rooms. I can’t imagine it any other way; it’s a thread that pulls me back through time, back to T.’s infancy and long nights spent listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while rocking in the darkened living room, back to the small graduate-school days apartment we loved so much and to Enya and Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, back to that crib my husband so carefully put together, the crib where L. slept when he was so tiny still and music filled our apartment, working its way into his heart, where it still plays so beautifully for all of us.

Sunday morning I suddenly found myself with one of those rare peaceful moments that occur only when both kids are playing well together–that morning they were in T.’s room with her Dora the Explorer dollhouse (not the recalled one–I made absolutely sure our Dora is lead-free). I turned on the stereo in our bedroom, got out my Swiffer, rubber gloves, and assorted other cleaning accessories, and went to work on our room and the master bathroom.

Our NPR station plays beautiful music on Sunday mornings. L.’s favorite is the show “Sing for Joy.” Many Sundays, like this one, I will wake to find him by my bed.

Mama! It’s after 7:00 and Sing for Joy is on!

When I do get up, some minutes later, I might find him busy in his room reading Space Launch! some piece of heart-wrenchingly beautiful music rising up into his room from the old Sony CD player we gave him.

This past Sunday morning, while I cleaned, I listened to Mozart’s Requiem. This was my all-time most favorite piece of music to listen to when I was a teenager and felt dark and misunderstood. I’d shut myself into my room, put in the CD, and turn it way up. Then I’d sit in the my room and pour out my heart into my diary, things like:

Why doesn’t anyone EVER understand me? (And the word EVER of course would be heavily underlined in thick black marker)

or

I’ll never fall in love. NEVER! I hate my life!

(Ditto the word “Never”)

And my heart would expand and wrap itself around the stirring notes of Mozart’s music and it would swell and fill up my chest and threaten to burst. I’d pour out my sadness about being misunderstood, or not in love, or rage about existential angst about life and death and the meaninglessness of it all. It was cathartic, Mozart’s Requiem. When I did emerge from my room, some time later, I felt purged of it all; reconciled with how unfair the world could be.

I didn’t feel any of that old angst this past Sunday morning, though. The music helped me clean, and I felt the same old almost unbearable beauty of it grab hold of me. When the notes rose in crescendo I’d frantically push my Swiffer further under the bed and pull it out and rejoice in the number of dust bunnies clinging to the sides. I scrubbed the toilet and hummed, I sprayed bleach and thought about my 16-year old self, back in my old bedroom, my whole life before me.

Suddenly my reveries were broken by the sound of screaming, just at the heart-breaking Lacrimosasection of the piece. I rushed to T.s room, only to find the kids locked in battle over the placement of the table in Dora the Explorer’s kitchen.

It’s amazing how close that music brought me to my 16-year old self. There are times I feel so close to that girl, other times I feel the distance I’ve traveled, the layers that have been added to me in the process. I am 38, yet that 16-year old girl still hunkers inside of me. I catch sight of her from time to time, hunched over a desk, scribbling her path through the world; her heart stretching and stretching, practicing for these days, when it contains more than she could ever have imagined.

Seven years and some months ago I was sitting on a love seat in our apartment in upstate New York, jiggling L. on my knees.  The sun was shining through the window, bathing us in feeble light, and it was a cold day outside–late November and winter already.  As I jiggled L. up and down and talked and sang to him he answered with wide, gummy grins, wet around the corners, eyes shining up at me.  It was during one of those wide smiles that I saw something was different.  There, on his lower gum, was a white spot!  I peered closer and prodded at it with my pinkie. It was hard and a little sharp.  I felt the fluttering feeling inside my chest that I have come to associate with the overwhelming emotions of joy/pride/love that I get when my children pass a milestone, or accomplish something great, or are just simply doing their own thing; being themselves in their wonderful, individual ways. I felt tears in my eyes at the sight of that new tooth pushing through the gum; tears of joy and, immediately, I also felt sad at the passing of the pure gumminess of his smile.

When my son turned five and was poised to start kindergarten, I remember telling an acquaintance how mixed I felt about it–how the joy of the milestone was so tempered by sadness. Why are you sad?the person asked me, looking at me quizzically as if I had just uttered something completely baffling and possibly inappropriate. And I remember feeling ashamed at first that I was sad: was my sadness a manifestation of some unhealthy urge to keep him young and at home forever? Should I be embarrassed that I wasn’t more ready to pack him off to school?

I’ve been wrestling with the same mixture of emotions (some melancholy, many joyful) for a few days now, following my daughter’s fourth birthday. I’ve come to realize that milestones are more bittersweet when they are passed by your last child–your baby, the one who has made you cling to and savor and devour with your entire being each and every tiny stage of infancy and toddlerhood. I wrestle with this constantly; the back and forth, tug and pull of emotions–happiness shadowed by wistful melancholy, pride elbowed aside by nostalgia. Does this happen to all parents, I sometimes wonder, or am I just too sentimental, too emotional for this parenting stuff?

This weekend my parents were in town for a special visit to celebrate my father’s 71st birthday. It was the first time in years that I’ve been able to see my dad on his birthday–February is a tough month for travel–we’re still recovering from the expenses of Christmas, and drowning in beginning-of-the-semester work.  My brother and his wife came, as well, with their own two children.  My little niece will turn two this August, and my nephew five in June. At dinner Saturday L.’s fifth loose tooth popped out into his vegetable lo mein, my niece used a spoon for the first time, and my nephew folded his napkin onto his lap.

Look at me! I’m a gentleman! He proclaimed proudly, sitting up a little straighter.

After dinner I watched my parents with their four grandkids circling around them, busy, noisy little bodies, surprising us constantly with the things they say and do. My father looked at them, his eyes crinkling up in joy, but his face a little sad, too.

I wish they didn’t have to grow up so quickly, he said to me, his thirty-eight year old daughter.

And I saw through my father’s eyes what it must mean to watch your kids grow up, and your grandkids too–to celebrate the milestones once with your own children, twice with your first set of grandkids, and a third time again; the growing up part of life happening over and over again, a cycle so joyous and golden but, at the same time one that moves us apart, little by little, as time begins to separate us from the ones we love.

New parents always receive way more unsolicited sleep advice than they ever want or need, I think. For instance, when our son was only one-month old his pediatrician at the time gave us, two brand-new parents, the following advice (and there we were seated in front of her like naughty kids facing the school principal):

You can cuddle him and hold him and spoil him now, but once he turns about three months old you need to teach him some independence—particularly with his sleep habits.

I remember we felt so affronted and aghast at the time.  Independence?  Three months? How could she speak of independence in a three-month old child?  Why would a pediatrician even dole out parenting advice?  Needless to say, we soon switched doctors and the new one, an older white-haired man who liked to read Russian novelists and who we remember as the best pediatrician we ever had (alas we had to leave him behind when we moved from New York) crinkled up his eyes in a smile when we told him (sheepishly) that L. slept with us and would not sleep on his own.

Well, why WOULD he really? Dr. S. responded logically, and that was the end of that. Of course his answer could have been taken two ways–why would a five-month old want/need to sleep by himself when he could have the warmth and comfort of his parents’ bed? Or, conversely, why would he even try to sleep on his own when he so readily got his way? But either way, there was no judgment in Dr. S.’s response.  He was not interested in giving us parenting advice, only in caring for our son’s health and physical well-being.

****************

I have the sweetest memories of my sleeping children; I hoard these greedily. It’s amazing to me how vividly I remember some of these moments, particularly given that I saw most of them through the fog of sleep deprivation.  For instance: when L. was only two weeks old I awoke to a terrible thunderstorm.  He was in bed with us, curled on his side with his face near the front of my nightshirt.  My arm hurt and I was uncomfortable lying as I was.  My body had quickly trained itself in sleep to consider his small body next to mine.  I rarely moved at all during the night in those days and would wake up with a stiff left arm and neck.  As I looked down on him that night, wondering if I could shift my arm somehow and still keep him safe and asleep, an especially loud peal of thunder sounded outside.  L., still asleep, jerked and startled with the noise, but ever so briefly; as if a spasm had moved across his body.  He turned his head closer to me, and then opened and closed his little starfish hands. I had done nothing in particular to protect him from the noise; he had intuitively felt my presence around him, enveloping him, giving him the reassurance he needed to stay asleep.

The other night our daughter woke at 11:00 from a bad dream.  She cried out in her sleep and half-woke.  I waited a few minutes for her to settle herself before heading upstairs to her bedroom to check on her.  When I did go up, I found her sitting noiselessly on the floor in our bedroom, a small, tousled-haired scrunched-up figure in her yellow flowered sleeper. She was half-asleep and bewildered.  I scooped her up and carried her into our bed and settled her into her spot on my pillow. Her hand reached around to hold and squeeze my neck, something she used to do when nursing at night. It’s been over two years since she was weaned, yet how remarkable to me that the old familiar gesture remains in her psyche–the need to reach out and touch familiar skin, to be lulled back into deep sleep again. When I leave the bed in the morning to shower, she often ends up near my husband–drawn like a magnet towards warmth and comfort.

Soon–I know, soon–we will work on helping her stay in her own bed all night.  Soon she will turn to her stuffed animals in the night, or burrow under her blankets for warmth. We’ll both miss her; our bodies will cover up the spot between us she once occupied.  I might dream about her small hand on my neck.

Even now at seven years of age, our son still pads through the dark into our room, wakened from a bad dream.  I might open my eyes briefly to see him standing there. Sometimes I see him as he was at two, a small figure in the dark, asking for comfort.  Long after he returns to his own room, to his own seven-year old sleep, in  my dreams I have scooped him up and settled him between us again.

It was one of those early mornings; you know, the kind of morning where everything just looks a flat shade of gray, instead of colored and dimensioned as it should be.  I woke up with a sore throat, the kids just couldn’t get moving, T. threw herself down on the hallway runner, stark-naked, and in full tantrum mode while I raced around trying to pack school lunches, find an outfit for her, find matching socks for myself. I forgot to kiss my husband goodbye and here it is, almost Valentine’s Day.

Traffic was heavy, the wind blowing cold and unrelenting as I tried to carry an armload of books, a heavy bag, an umbrella (rain promised for later), and some papers from the car to office without having to make two trips.  In my 8:00 am class the students were heavy-headed and tired, the skin on their faces drooping towards their desks, pulled down by the force of gravity and too little sleep over the weekend. As I stood there, in the front of the classroom, I imagined them melting, slowly, and imagined too that by the end of the 50 minutes the students would be gone, only  puddles on the desks, and I’d still be talking over their heads, droning on about something or other related to stuff you read and write about.

What did you think of the poem?  I asked them, early on in class, in still-hearty tones.

Did you READ the poem?

Did you OPEN the course packet?

They stared blankly at me, as if I were speaking in another language, or had asked them a series of outrageous and completely irrelevant questions.

Student M., who tried to take my class last semester and ended up suspended from school, slumped deeper into his chair at the sound of my voice. He is a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde person, this kid, which might be what got him into trouble.  Simmering underneath his too-cool exterior is another person, waiting to snap at you if you “cross” him one too many times.

I have no patience for him this morning-I had a run-in with him last week that has left me still-smoldering; I have no patience for his slumping shoulders and the person hiding inside of him.  I have no patience for the drooping faces of my students, or for the sound of my own voice, as I try hard to win their attention.

I trudge out of class, steeling myself for more of the same at 9:00 and maybe at 10:00, who knows.

The wind is still howling outside, and the strap on my bag slips open, spilling some still-to-be-graded quizzes; I can’t find my office keys.  I dribble some Trader Joe’s triple-shot espresso coffee on my pants; the elevator is broken.

Coming out of my last class I run into a student who calls out to me.  So mired in my own grouchiness I wince, wondering–a little resentfully, I’ll admit: who is she? What does she want from me? She turns out to be a student I taught my very first semester here, at this college, when L. was two and I was nervous and filled with self-doubt.  She’s in graduate school now, and working at a school for the blind and, when I hear this, I feel the storm cloud around me begin to lift, just a little.

She has a paper to turn in on Friday and needs a quick refresher on annotated bibliographies and APA format.

I take her down to my office and pull down a new style guide a rep has recently sent me.  It’s shiny and fat, and virtually untouched. We look up bibliographies and citations and she’s just so amazed by this style guide, and holds it uncertainly, as if it will fall apart in her hands.

You take it, I tell her impulsively, and a little off-handedly, because it’s such an easy thing for me to give away–it costs me nothing.  You’ve just GOT to have one of these if you’re in grad school now.  It’s my gift to you.

She stares at me and then, suddenly, her eyes fill with tears.

Now, it seems, on top of everything else, I’ve made a student cry!

What’s wrong?

No one’s ever given me a book before, she says.  EVER!

The wind still hasn’t stopped blowing, the rain still falls in persistent spurts, I still have that coffee stain on my pants, and the stack of quizzes to grade and a sore throat but, as that student left my office, clutching the book to her chest, I was left wondering what I’d been so grouchy about before anyway–when I’d been the one to suddenly get the best gift of all.

A friend asked me over the weekend how I manage to juggle everything I do and find time to write on a daily basis.  She was envious, she told me, of how I carved out blocks of time during the day to write.  But I set her straight right away by telling her that I don’t at all have the writing life she imagines: hours to myself holed away in some quiet room of my own (ha–wouldn’t that be a dream!). Instead, my thoughts and ideas percolate in my head for hours and days and weeks, even, like sentences scribbled on the backs of receipts and scrap paper until they suddenly come together in some semblance of order and thoughts meet time and I’m able to write.

Most of my ideas for blog posts come to me out of the dark–literally–as I lie in bed next to my winding-down kids. T. is easy: she rolls and chatters a little, likes her room to be dark and her blankets pulled up around her in a warm nest, just the way I like it myself. She is often asleep in a matter of minutes; so quickly that I can’t ever mark the exact moment she moves from being awake to being asleep.  Not all that long ago really, I used to be such an expert at determining the exact moment–down to the very second–she fell asleep.  When she nursed, her eyes would turn a little glassy and the lids would droop; the sucking would slow and stop and she’d be in a semi-sleeping state, mouth open a little, breathing heavy, before she’d sink deeper into sleep. Now it happens in the dark, in her private little world and I’m left to my thoughts, all the images and impressions and feelings fighting for some sort of order in my own unwinding mind.

When I lie next to my son things are different.  I leave him in his bed awake, but until then he moves a lot, flopping from side to side, kicking his sleeping bag and blankets away from his legs, then he’s back in the bag again, then out, and so on. Before I had children I never really imagined I would become such an integral part of their bedtime routines; that I’d come to know their sleeping, or almost-sleeping selves–so well. This weekend I found an old video clip on one of our CDs–we downloaded all our family pictures and videos a couple of months ago when the hard drive on our old PC crashed.  In it T. is about 8 or 9 months old, standing up in her crib, and she’s wearing her hey-diddle-diddle sleeper, the one she wore for a ridiculously long time because she just stubbornly refused to grow out of it. I would use that sleeper as a type of gauge to measure my parental angst and despair about why she was growing so slowly.

Look! I’d exclaim to Scott, pulling it out of the drawer when the weather warmed up a little–again. Look!  I bet she can STILL wear it!  And sure enough, she could wear it again and I’d sigh, buttoning up the sleeper around her little tummy, sad to see it again, those faded cows and moons back for another season.

In the video clip I came across this weekend T. is ready for bed. Her fluffy duck hair is slicked back from her bath and her room is dim–it’s dark outside.  We are off-camera, talking to her in those high-pitched silly voices parents adopt when they’re trying to get their small children to do something cute–something about to be recorded for posterity.

It’s time for night-night! We tell her, and she laughs back at us, a gummy smile with two small white teeth poking out of her lower gum. Time for night-night!

Anyone watching the clip would think that soon after the camera turned off so did her light, and they might imagine us tiptoeing out of her room and into the hallway, our night-nights fading behind us as we closed her bedroom door.  But I know what really happened that night.  Scott left to tend to L. and I scooped T. out of her crib, nestling her sweet warm body close to mine.  I sat in the glider with her, rocking her and smelling her damp head as she gurgled and pulled at my cheeks, winding down for sleep.  I sat in the dark with a thousand thoughts in my head elbowing each other for a chance to get out. I rocked and thought and dreamed a little, I’m sure, until sleep encircled T. like a blanket and my own mind awakened, releasing its words, ready to write.

I don’t get much one-on-one time with my son anymore, despite often superhuman efforts to make this happen. Before T. was born he was my buddy; I took him everywhere, even to classes with  me sometimes when he had a day off preschool, or wasn’t feeling well enough to go to school. He always sat quietly in the back of the class, drawing on paper, or listening to me even  while students snuck amused glances at him and tried hard to win his attention. The last really special walk we had together was the day I went into labor with T., who arrived ten days early. We went for a walk together that afternoon, his hand in mine, and we talked about what we saw that unusually mild day—a couple of snowdrops by the neighbor’s fence, a fallen penny by the grass, a stick shaped like the letter “L”. He skipped along beside me and I felt a sudden overwhelming rush of bittersweet sadness at the thought of how his world was about to change—in good ways and bad ways and that the moment that was this walk, his small hand tightening and slackening in mine as he skipped forwards and back again, could never repeat itself again.

I try and carve out as much one-on-one time with L. as I can, to look for interesting and different activities for the two of us to do together. So when a friend recently recommended taking him to a drum circle, I jumped at the chance to look into this. My friend’s friend takes her own son to a drum circle in New York city, where they live, and had rave reviews about how therapeutic a drum circle is proving for her son, who like L. enjoys music tremendously. A drum circle, for those wondering, is exactly what the name implies: an informal gathering of people of all ages, sitting in a circle, banging on conga and djembe drums and creating spontaneous rhythms. I researched drum circles a little bit and found that even this smallish city we live in has a thriving one that meets every third Monday of the month in the boathouse of a nearby park. On Monday L. had his bath early and then the two of us headed out into the evening to find this place.

It was one of those perfect nights weather-wise, unusually balmy and clear. The wind was blowing in colder air for later that night and the clouds were light purple wisps racing across an almost-full moon. L. was thrilled to be out at night and brought along his pocket telescope, so he could snag some good views of the moon. On the drive there we talked about astronomy and what we thought a drum circle would be like. After a few wrong turns I found the park and the boathouse, perched on a wide, long deck overlooking the lake. We were running late, so we saved moon-watching and star-gazing for afterwards, paid our $3 into a decorated coffee can by the door, grabbed a massive loaner drum, and joined the circle.

The drums were fun and I think thrilled L. to his core. Even the floor vibrated with the sound and there was something primeval and exhilarating about the steady rhythm and the pounding of hands and even feet. But even better than the drumming, and the excitement on L.’s face as he drummed for all he was worth, was that brief sliver of time–maybe an hour and a half in all–we had, L. and I, that night. We left the drum circle early (45 minutes was about all he could take and it was getting late) and walked out to the deck behind the boathouse. I stood there with my son watching the moon, and listening as he pointed out one thing after the other:

Look Mama! There’s the Sea of Tranquility! There’s Venus! 

until the wind blew the clouds in and they covered the moon again and the lake was a purple-black arc against the dark sky. On the way back to the car L. slipped his hand in mine, and we could hear the drumming from the boathouse fade into the distance, until it was just a part of the wind in the trees, and the cars from the approaching road.

On average, I have more men in my classes most semesters than I do women; many of the young men have beat the odds, some still won’t. They laugh, they joke; some work hard, some don’t.  Behind them the invisible women in their lives–their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, surface from time to time, voices over their shoulders telling them to push on, work hard, and keep their chins up. They are relentless in propelling their boys forward–ever forward–into opportunities they themselves didn’t–and couldn’t–have. Most of the men (boys?) in my class are first generation college students, negotiating the ins and outs of college life on their own, for they have no one back home to advise them, no one who’s been down this path and can tell them what to expect.  They are pioneers of sorts, and it can be a lonely business.

This semester, though, I have more women than men in one particular English class. Two are mothers, one of a four-month old boy, the other of a seven-year old boy. The third is pregnant with her first–a son–and due at the end of May.  She never goes anywhere without her bottle of water, is a very hard worker, proud of her pregnant belly, and careful to dress in very hip and stylish maternity clothes (I’ve always been in awe of pregnant women who can wear tight shirts over their swollen bellies and look chic).  In contrast, the mother of the small baby is very young herself and uncertain about which role to occupy in her own life. She frequently talks during class to the young man next to her, and seems to have trouble paying attention on a regular basis. She’s prone to spontaneous outbursts about things that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about. I often find myself irritated by her lack of attention.  Somedays she fiddles with her cell phone during class, other days she’s writing notes to the young man.  I feel for her, though; she is so obviously caught between roles.  She talks about her baby son as if he were a doll or plaything, yet she isn’t fully at ease in the college classroom either.  She seems to me to embody the term student-at-risk.

Stay in college! I want to say to her over and over again, until the words become her own mantra, not mine.

The mother of the older boy has had seven years to settle into her role.  She has come back to school again at a time when things are more manageable for her. Her son is in school now and old enough to appreciate her return to college, and what it might mean for the both of them.  College might become more than a second-chance for him, but instead be an attainable, welcomed and natural fact of life. The young woman expecting her first is enveloped in that clichéd glow of pregnancy. Other students give her too much space in the classroom.  She sits surrounded by an almost tangible aura of contentment and self-assurance. I imagine her son curled up inside of her, stretching his limbs, fluttering and kicking; waiting to be born, impatient to learn.

I hope that in a few years time I will see all three of these young women walk across the stage at graduation.  Their sons will be watching from the bleachers, perhaps in a great-grandmother’s lap, as their mothers’ names are called, and as these women step out into the light, visible in new ways now, wearing pride around their shoulders. More importantly, they will be able to pass on the greatest legacy of all to their sons: the ability to extend a helping hand to them and to one day say with pride, I have done that too; I have been to college, just like you. Look at me, look at all I’ve done.