by Sarah Kovatch
I volunteer in Angus’s second grade class every other week for an hour. I both love it and don’t love it. Sometimes the students are rude. Sometimes everyone is hyper. Sometimes I have to lead a number game with a 20-sided dice and I get total body math-sweats.
But what I cherish is being in Angus’s world.
I love observing his teacher—a huge-hearted man known for wearing tropical-print suits. I love overhearing what the kids are talking about. (It’s crushes, if you’re wondering.) I love learning cool tricks that magically silence a class. Mostly, I love being around Angus in this controlled setting for 1-hour.
It’s all I can do to not touch him—his sweet dry skinny arms. The back of his neck covered in blonde grown-out hairs. When I sit beside him at his desk I can feel the warmth from his body and drink in his family smell that I don’t have any awareness of when we are say, sitting next to each other at the dinner table.
So, there is all this love just pouring out of my heart, but there is also some significant anxiety.
Angus is often the kid who can’t understand the activity, who struggles through reading out loud, who mixes up numbers.
Last week, my task was to walk students through a spelling worksheet. All 25 kids finished quickly. Except Angus. He got the wrong answer over and over no matter how many times I explained it.
He just wasn’t quite there yet. He would need to be taught this concept a few more times. Maybe next week he’d get it.
But everyone else did today!
I felt a little bit of anger rising and immediately recognized it as ugly and shameful. Impatient, competitive, fearful. But there it was. Hello.
“Focus, Buddy,” I whispered to him as he stared into space.
Sometimes I call him “Buddy” in a gentle way, “Aw, Buddy, you fell, that must have hurt.” Sometimes it comes out when I’m stern, “Buddy, don’t climb the counter!”
Here I used his nickname as softly as possible but I know he sniffed exasperation.
He wrote the wrong answer again and erased too hard, ripping yet another hole in the worksheet.
He glanced at the girl beside him with her completed worksheet and said, “I’ll never finish this on time!” And he was correct.
I felt bad for him. And I tried to let my empathy cover my irritation like a cozy blanket. This is just where he is right now! I told myself, unconvinced, even though I majored in Human Development.
As though on trial I had an inner monologue about All I Do:
-I sit beside him after school as we struggle through every homework math problem together.
-I found a weekly reading tutor.
-We read before dinner and bedtime.
-I allow him to build sculptures out of trash, despite the giant mess, because it brings him joy.
-I am a good mother, goddammit.
My head was vibrating. What more can I do? And when would I do it between weekly allergy shots, baseball, cooking dinner, laundry and oh, mothering his little sister?
When my volunteer hour was up I couldn’t wait to leave. Goodbye Angus’s World! I needed relief. I couldn’t witness any more. What else will he not understand today? Everything? Possibly.
At home after school, my agitation lingered. I could tell he was agitated too.
“SNACK!” He yelled marching through the kitchen. He swung open the refrigerator like it was a saloon door and stood on the white base at the bottom. His entire body inside the fridge drives me insane.
“Buddy, get off the fridge!” My patience was dead on its face.
“HUNGRY.” He stated. He speaks declaratively a lot.
“We need to practice spelling more,” I said in an off-hand way, dumping some tortilla chips in a bowl. I knew it was one of the many worthless things I say as a mom to make me feel more in control of my unpredictable fears.
“UGGGGG,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I hate practicing.”
I kind of do too. And I almost said it out loud. If he needs to practice more, that means I need to organize it, guide him through it, and WORST OF ALL, keep his spirits up.
Keeping spirits up brings me to my knees with exhaustion. It drives me to my worst self when I am called to do it too much. Keeping spirits up is the first thing I give up on when the going gets rough. I realized just then, that’s what I dreaded the most.
Then, a horrible thought: But isn’t keeping kids’ spirits up my job? Is everybody but me cheerfully cheerleading their children? What the hell is my problem? Why don’t I LOVE as well as other mothers?
All of this agitation over school took me back in time. I was an ordinary student. Fine at the stuff I liked. Lazy at the stuff I didn’t like. Spacy. Confounded by numbers. Crap speller even now. What if he’ll turn out like me? A little lost in his late 30s?
The afternoon continued as usual. Did we do any extra practice? Nope. Overwhelmed, my agitation lost steam.
“…Go play with Legos,” I said reflexively. I stared into the fridge trying to solve an equation: 1 onion + 2 gross cartons of Greek yogurt equals… what for dinner?
The next day was a weekend. We were all up early preparing to drive to the airport for a family wedding.
Angus sat at the breakfast table alone insisting on finishing a math worksheet from his folder. I was madly grabbing clean PJs out of the dryer and shoving them into suitcases.
“Mama,” he still calls me mama when he’s in a buoyant mood. He pointed to his worksheet. “FINISHED!” Spirits high without an assist from mama.
“Awesome, Buddy!” I said, wanting to lift his spirits further, though he didn’t need me. It was just another worthless line of encouragement. He was satisfied with himself.
I glanced at the worksheet. There were mistakes but oh, well! Gotta love his work ethic.
He stomped upstairs to the bathroom—the child never simply walks—and stomped back down with a wet brush in his hand and his hair slicked all the way back. Well, well, a new style. I laughed so hard Anna asked me if I was crying. He looked one part quite handsome—a flash of how he might look at 20—and one part absurd. Like an 8-year old Elvis. I felt the tension over the last 24 hours melt away.
We hit the road for LAX and I peeked at him through the rear-view mirror—a porthole into their world. He was settled in his seat gazing out the mini-van window. He pointed at a construction site—something I rarely notice, even if it’s on our street. I note, keenly observant and curious on my mental list of his positive attributes.
I took a mental snapshot of Angus’s face at rest. That deeply furrowed brow—his dad’s expression, but also entirely his own. The slicked back hair was dry and stray strands were standing up on end. Even daydreaming he looks intense. One day he’ll harness all that power.
Anna seated beside him was the opposite. Already freeway-napping, her face was serene, soft. My heart always feels so full when we are all together on the road.
As I looked out at our May-gray city, my thoughts swirled about where to help, where to pull back. He’ll figure out what to do with his gifts, interests, challenges, desires. Just like me. Just like us all.
I so often want to right his path. It is my responsibility to help him learn good habits, to identify his gaps and help him get what he needs—whether it’s more practice, or more patience.
But I also have to wait, watch, and let it be. Let him develop. Let him grow. And keep my spirits up.