One of the Delta experiences I shared with my sister this weekend was the ball game. My student Jack asked me every day for a week (literally) if I would come watch his game Friday at seven. By the end of the week, and countless requests for my attendance, our conversations were along the lines of: “Miss Laa–” “At seven, yep!”
We showed up in light rain, pausing at the bench crowded with my students (“Miss L, that your sister?”) then rushing to stand in the bleachers, avoiding the light rain and crossing our arms in the cold. Games are the times when the idea of being a parent feels the most real. Watching my kids perform in something independent from the work I do with them is exhilarating and terrifying, the pride and love I have for them stretches out across me and I bite my lip and clench my fists hoping they do well. It’s these games that make me feel I could never be a parent but never could not be a parent–
While there, Brax strolled up to the bench, clung to the chain link fence surrounding the other boys. Brax whose shoes must be at least five sizes too big, red polo almost to his knees. His arms traded between hanging off the wire and hiding, pulled into the polo as he tried to keep warm. “Brax!” I yelled to him and he looked. “How ya doin? Who you here with?” “No one.” “How’d you get here?” “Walked.” “Walked?!” I didn’t want to press, this being out of school hours, him being so close to his peers, but I had to call out: “Walked from how far? It take you a long time? In the rain?” He said he got there before the rain, that it wasn’t too far. I tired to remember that sixth grade is when I first was allowed out alone, first left at the mall to be picked up in two hours. That eleven or twelve is old enough to start fending for yourself. Part of me was stuck on him, though.
I proceeded to tell my sister the story of Brax. How paralyzed he gets with testing, how easily he gives up.
“Wow, I was just like him.”
“I used to freeze up on everything. People must have thought I was so lazy…”
My sister is a chemical engineer at a giant pharmaceutical company. She went to the best public university in Michigan and paid off her student loans in less than two years. She just took the MCAT, wants to go to med school, lives alone in a 14th floor apartment in the dead center of downtown Philly. She is the definition of success.
I know Brax is medicated, anti-depressants and ADD. My sister grew up with anxiety. In college she finally had accommodations for the first time, where she tested alone with double the time allotted to her peers. “It was worse,” she told me, “it only got better from practice, from taking so many tests.”
I don’t know why I never made the link myself, between Brax and other people I know with anxiety, other people who feel like failures and shut down, people I associate with the “normal” “real” world. People who grew out of it, solved it, even if it took years. I never, ever, would have drawn the connection between Brax and my own sister.
I don’t want to share my sister’s story without permission, but her challenges are something she lives with but I constantly overlook. Only in the past two years did I start to realize that her struggle with anxiety was likely a huge component to why I felt so alienated from her for so long. Her anxiety is something that took years to understand, manage, and feel in control of– she is a mature, accomplished adult who still questions her own choices and success daily.
I didn’t think of it then, but the strongest lesson I can take from that in regards to Brax (and plenty other students when I think about it), is that he is not just someone I can “fix”. (Embarrassingly obvious, right?) He’s not someone I can pick up and explain life to and expect to follow my well-intentioned advice. Brax has his own demons, his own timeline, and his own maturity. Even if he refused to finish his last essay… (He spoke so low I could hardly hear him: “It’s hard. I can’t think of what to write. It’s hard.” then turned in two awesome paragraphs that he completed while in the moment and two very poorly written paragraphs he completed during his “extension” time that he now gets with his 504. I pleaded with him to continue working on it, but to no avail.)
Even if he refused to finish it, I am not a failure. He is not a failure. Walking away from school, from Brax, I can’t blame myself or worry that things like this aren’t solved. We’re just still, perpetually, in the middle of trying to manage something that has no perfect answer.