Kids Are Smarter Than You Think
It’s after dark as I rush up porch stairs to our Somerville apartment.
Anya, our sitter, left early today due to a migraine, leaving the kids with Mary, my visiting mother-in-law. Every few months, Mary travels from Florida to address a swelling need to connect with her grandchildren. When Mary gets the itch, she starts dropping hints as if they were sacks of potatoes. “That’s my granddaughter and my grandson up there, ya know. And I really have to see them! Ya know, if you want, I can come up and …” After a handful of such calls we book her flights.
Today, I wonder if the pounding inside Anya’s head was trigged by Mary’s sing-song of motherly advice and small talk. Mary lives alone in Florida. When visiting she likes to chat.
This morning, before I had left for work, Mary grabbed my wrist and shared a pearl of wisdom, “Cats are just like people, ya know? Michael Jackson has a cat.” Her words drift upon a slight Caribbean accent.
Stopping at the door, I responded with a smirk, “Mary, I’m afraid you’re a couple of beers short of a six pack.”
Mary patted my shoulder, “That’s OK, honey. I don’t like beer. Cat’s drink beer if it’s in a saucer, ya know?”
I’ll back up a bit. I love Mary. As I confessed during her last visit, “Mary, no matter what sort of crazy stuff swirls around in that Caribbean brain of yours it’s OK with me. I mean, my parents are gone, so you’re the closest thing I’ll ever have to a mom for the rest of my life! And, besides, you gave me Liz! So, I can’t help but love you! There; it’s settled. No matter what crazy stuff you say, I love you, Mary.”
In response, she threw her arms wide and pulled me into a hug.
Tonight, though, after rushing up the porch steps, I shove the door open, kick off shoes and drop my bag in the hallway. I hear the squeals of Gee and DJ as they play with one of the educational toys Liz and I have jammed into their childhoods.
Moving to the living room I wave, “Hi, Gee! Hi DJ!”
They turn beaming. “Daddy, look! The robots are fighting.”
“Awesome, kids. That’s awesome.”
Momentarily they stare. Then, seeing me turn attention to my Blackberry, they return to the robots.
‘I have work to do,’ I mumble to myself.
Tomorrow, I have to present during our monthly directors conference call with the division president. As the youngest and least experienced managing director in our group, I regularly take a beating on these calls.
Making my way through the apartment I find today’s mail stacked on the dining room table. I scan the pile, grabbing the flotsam and walking it into the kitchen for a toss in the recycle bin. Bills are placed in a draw for review later tonight.
Done with sorting the mail and recycling, I check messages on the answering machine. My boss often calls at home to share a preview of his conference call agenda. Topics range from detailed reviews of project gross margins to specific client risks to more general requests, the latter of which usually are accompanied by his editorial comments regarding my performance, “Jesus H. Christ, Morgan, what the heck are you thinking up there in Boston? I thought y’all were supposed to be smart. I’m growing concerned your incompetence may be a bad reflection on me. I’m in Wisconsin. I’ll be up ‘till 11 central. Call me, pronto.” Click.
As I make my way from the answering machine to my next chore, Mary shuffles after me.
Actually, Mary does not shuffle, she wobbles; but not because she’s overweight. In fact, she’s quite fit. Mary wobbles because she shattered her leg in a car crash before moving to Florida. Drifting over a yellow line, Mary struck a snowplow head-on. Firefighters worked for hours to cut her from the wreckage. And as snow accumulated over the mangled vehicle, first responders debated cutting off her foot. When the surgeon told her the next day she may never walk again, Mary declared, “I’ll get past this, ya know. I always do.”
And she did.
She was up and about in six months.
Mary has gotten ‘past this’ all her life. She lost both parents at a young age and with no parents, there was no place and no love for tiny Mary on her Caribbean home island. Thereafter, she was shuttled off to an aunt’s home on a neighboring island. Suffice it to say, life grew considerably more difficult on her new home island; much more difficult. At age 18, she fled her adopted island, fell in love, married, and became a mom. With three girls at her apron, she subsequently lost her husband to drink. A newly minted widow with no more than a few thousand dollars in her pocketbook, she left for America, three pre-teen girls in tow, in search of a better life for her children.
The point of this story, though, is not to document Mary’s many challenges. Mary’s story is a fascinating tale of personal triumph but it’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, Mary knows how to stand as tall as her 5’ frame will allow. She has accumulated the lessons of life and has earned the right to share them. She knows how to get past ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ is.
So, when Mary speaks, I listen.
This evening, as I exit the kitchen, Mary intercepts me, grabbing my hand. I’m a bit annoyed; I have work to do. As I turn towards my mother in law, she holds my gaze. In her slight accent, she shares a Caribbean pearl, this one not about cats. “Ya know, Glenn, people – especially kids – are smarter than you think. Ya know that right?”
I roll my eyes before responding, “Yea, sure, Mary, I know that. Kids are smart. Gee and DJ are smart as whips. I get it. Thanks.”
Mary pats my forearm, “No, silly, they’re smarter than that! Much smarter. They see things. They know things you don’t think they know.”
I give Mary my full attention, “Like what, Mary? What do they know?”
Inching closer, Mary wobbles back and forth. From my childhood I hear the sing-song of a black and white TV commercial, ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.’
Mary takes hold of my other hand and squeezes tight, “Well Glenn, if you enter a room and if you look at your little phone there, then go through the mail, then go to the recycle bin and then go to the answering machine and then you go to your children, then your children know they’re the fifth most important thing in the room. They know that, 'cause they see it. They feel it.”
She tilts her head, “Kids may not know the right words to use but they’re smart enough to know that in terms of importance, they’re right behind the phone, the mail, the recycle bin, and the answering machine.”
Mary stands on tip toes and sing-songs, “Now, what do ya think about that, Mister?”
I try to pull away, ashamed. Mary won’t let me go. My head hangs. Looking toward the floor, I notice Mary’s feet point in unnatural directions. No wonder she wobbles. Gently, I squeeze her fingers, “Thank you, Mary.”
She cups my cheek with a hand hardened by life’s lessons before pulling me into a hug.
Today, over 15 years later, I arrive home from work. Shaking off snow, I enter the house in a rush. Mary’s visiting for the week. Standing taller than her five feet, she smiles at me from the kitchen. 15 years later, she still wobbles, but she still won’t fall down. Mary nods toward the family room.
Making a beeline to the family room I find my teenage children.
“Wonderful Gee! How was school today? Was it good or was it great?”
Sitting at the computer Gee doles out a too-cool-for-school teenage shrug.
Bending low, I give her a dramatic hug, “I love you, Gee.”
My daughter hugs me back, “I know Dad, I know. I’m just kinda busy working on this history project.”
“Can I help? I mean, you know I love history!”
Gee smirks, “I’m all set, Dad. And, ah, DJ’s in the living room if you wanna go and interrupt someone else.”
“Oh, excuse me, Miss Gee!” I kiss the top of my daughter’s head. “You know I still love you, even when you go all homework brainiac on me. You know that right?”
My daughter rolls her eyes and mouths the word, ‘dork.’ She tries, but fails, to contain a smile.
Taking my queue, I turn in search of my son.
He’s sprawled across the floor, wrestling with Sawyer, the wonder dog.
“DJ! How was your day, buddy?”
My son launches into a monologue about how hard he’s worked to shovel snow off our little backyard ice hockey rink.
My eyebrows float upward, “So, … you’re telling me the rink is cleared and ready for a skate? Oh, wait, before you answer; how much homework do you have? A lot or a little?”
“Dad! I just explained how hard I worked shoveling the rink. Yes, the rink is cleared! I mean, it’s perfect. And, yea, I finished all my homework.”
I cross arms and cock my head, “All of it?”
DJ fills in the blanks, “I only had one chapter of reading and I did that at homework club. And I only had one worksheet for math, which was super easy; I banged it out as soon as I got home.”
I drop to the floor, joining my son. The dog protests the interruption.
“So, DJ, since you’re all done with your homework and the rink is ‘perfect’ do you wanna get out there and skate before dinner? I have some stuff to do but it can wait ‘till later; after I whoop your butt that is! Wanna? I’ll put on the skates if you promise not to shoot at my nuts again … I mean, if you can get the puck past my glove hand that is!”
DJ scrambles to his feet, “Oh, you’re on! And you’re a dead man! You’re nuts are dead!”
As DJ hunts for his jacket, I holler toward my daughter, “Gee, join us on the rink! Take a break and get outside to take some shots on me. I’m about to shut out your brother so I might as well shut out you too!”
Gee turns from the PC, “Ha! Give me a couple of minutes to print this. Then, you’re toast, Dad. Toast!”
While my children scramble, I turn to Mary. She’s beaming from the kitchen.
All around the house, things less important wait their turns.
The cell phone rests on the kitchen counter.
The mail sits unread on a shelf.
Recycle-worthy rubbish is scattered across the dining room table.
The answering machine blinks slowly.
I don’t have to say a thing.
They see it.
They feel it.
They know how important they are.
They’re first on the list.