Friday, 31 August 2012

Great expectations

Hello, parent of an outstanding 8th grader! 

You are receiving this email because we plan to give your son or daughter an award (sports, academic or character) at this year's Middle School Awards Ceremony, and we'd like you to be there to see it!  The ceremony is on Friday, May 25th at 2 PM.  We'll talk a little about why each award is given to that student, and we hope it will be encouraging to you and to your child.  Please come if at all possible! 

One other note: we like these to be a surprise for the students, so please don't mention it to your child beforehand. 

I was terribly excited to find the above email message from my son’s school principal some months ago.

OMG, he’s going to get an award in front of the whole school! I thought to myself. I gave myself several mental pats on the back. This was my reward for all the hours of yelling, scolding, threatening, taking away privileges, reiterating, and manipulating – all in a bid to get keep my son on track. My ‘Nigerian' mothering tactics had finally paid off! This was my reward for all the hours I would spend helping out with homework after ‘work-work,’ until my schedule simply no longer permitted it.

I wondered what the prize would be for. Not sports because, for the first time last semester, he decided not to play a sport. It had to be academics. It just had to be. It would probably be for Math. So the money I spent each month on a Math tutor was really worth it! Or maybe not … maybe it was for English. That was more likely. His English teacher has always emphasized how well he writes. On a recent essay of his, she wrote: ‘You are a good writer. Please pursue it and continue on this path. It is a pleasure to read your writing.’ I put it up on the fridge (along with tons of other stuff) and it’ll stay there until it disintegrates.

Wow – maybe my son would be a best-selling author some day! Or a scholar of some sort! I could barely contain my excitement.

What if the award were for character, though? Well … I suppose an award is an award, but I wasn’t paying all that money in school fees for character, necessarily (sounds absolutely horrible, I know!). I mean, I suppose character development is always a welcome benefit one would hope for from a good school, but I teach character at home. Why pay that much for character when you can teach it yourself and save the money for college instead?

On the big day, I found myself a seat at the back of the auditorium since I would have to slip out right afterwards and rush all the way back across town again for a conference call at the office. My son sat between his two best friends on the other side of the room, totally oblivious to my presence and to the fact that he was getting an award.

My heart pounded in anticipation as they called out one student after the other, one award after the other. I hadn’t expected this ceremony to take forever. I shifted impatiently in my seat as they called out all the sports awards and said a few words about each winner. Then came the academic awards. I watched and waited, holding my breath as they called out one student’s name after the other … for one subject after the other … and as they called out my son’s best friends one after the other … and as the academic awards session ended.

What a minute, I thought. That only leaves … character.

Okay, I suppose I can live with that, I thought, quickly swallowing my initial disappointment. They proceeded to call out one name after the other, along with one character trait after the other. What other character trait could there possibly be, I wondered.

As I waited impatiently to hear his name announced, I glanced over at my son’s side of the room. I knew his two tight friends somewhat (as much as teenagers will let you know). Good kids (like mine) who had had several sleepovers at my house, eating a large dinner together, playing X-Box games through the night, talking and laughing in the dark until the early hours of the morning, and then playing some more the next day (with their unbathed, teenage selves), until it was time to go home. They were all so alike, it was uncanny – they even talked the same. After they spent some time at our house, I stopped bugging my son about mumbling all the time instead of actually talking. (Apparently, they all mumble and mutter at this age instead of enunciating properly.) How come they were focused enough to win an academic prize and my son wasn’t? Well, when he got home, I would just have to point out to him that his best friends weren’t any better than him and that I’d better see him up on that stage for an academic award next semester … This ‘Nigerian mama’ train of thought was interrupted by the announcement of his name.

All I remember now is suddenly being filled to the brim with pride as my son walked confidently up to the stage, trying not to look fazed by what was to come (in eighth grade, you do have a reputation to protect, as he’s explained to me before). I was absolutely bursting. I clapped until my hands hurt and totally forgot my previous train of thought.  

The teachers decided to give my son an award for 'courage.'

As one of the teachers explained, he’s not afraid to express himself in class and through his school work – even if he does end up going slightly off on a tangent sometimes in a bid to be creative. A ripple of knowing laughter weaved through the teachers’ section of the room. I joined them, nodding knowingly, and clapping harder. Yep, that’s my son! ‘Get ready for this one,’ the teacher with the microphone said to a ninth grade teacher. ‘You’re really going to enjoy having him in class and enjoy reviewing the work he turns in. He’s going to give you the ride of your life.’

My son received his certificate and made his way back up to his seat. To his great surprise, there I was, standing right in his aisle, waiting for him. His eyes lit up in spite of himself. I gave him a big hug and he actually (shock!) hugged me back, ignoring the disapproving stares of his fellow students. I suppose he lost some ‘street cred’ that day, but he didn’t seem to mind this time – he was so shocked to see me that he forgot to be a 'cool' teenager for a moment. I totally forgot about the lecture I planned to give and decided to let my son just enjoy his moment in the spotlight. 

I’m so proud of you,’ I whispered to him. And I was.

I thought about all my son had been through over the years, and how he had somehow, by the grace of God, pulled through.  When his father started travelling, he was three. Back then, he would cry piteously into the phone, saying, ‘Come here, Daddy!’ Wondering why he could hear his Daddy but couldn’t see him. He cried less the next year, and even less the year after that. I noticed that he stopped crying completely when he was seven. How he has gone through life seeing his dad once a year or less, only God knows. How he has made sense of his current life, only God knew. His teachers were more discerning than they realized. This was one courageous child and, boy,  did he deserve that award! Naija pikin no dey carry last, a-beg.

On my way back to the office, I pondered over how love for a child is so unconditional. Yeah, we have expectations for our children, but we can live with it if they aren’t lived up to. There’s just no greater love, I think, between humans. Too bad the love for a spouse usually can’t compare. With people other than our children (including spouses), we usually tend to expect much more, and to hold on to those expectations. At least I do.

Someone once said that ‘expectation is the root of all heartache.’ But what’s the point of a relationship without expectations? Without them, from my perspective, all romantic relationships would be superficial and almost pointless. If I don’t expect anything from you, and you have no expectations to meet, and neither do I … then is that really a relationship?

Hmm … anyway. It’s Friday night and I’m too weary to theorize right now.

Just wanted to make the point that the love for a child is pure, pure love. There’s really nothing I can think of that’s quite like it.

Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

What’s in a name?

“Do you plan to go back to your maiden name?” someone asked, some time before my divorce was final.

I hesitated for a minute.

I hadn’t thought about my name, frankly.

When I was much younger, I remember thinking about just how difficult it would be for me to give up my maiden name. It sounded ‘just right’ along with my first name, I always thought. Why would I want to mess that up? Later on, in my twenties, the idea of changing my name seemed more exciting and like something to look forward to – a testament to my complete trust in this new person whom my life would forever revolve around.

When marriage time came around, I recall being pleased that my new name wasn’t so completely different from my maiden name. I quite liked the sound of it, actually.

Professionally, I have always used my married name, which means that this is the name that pretty much everyone in my world knows me by. Interestingly (although no one would ever know it), I never actually changed my maiden name officially. My full maiden name is still on every official document I own – from passports and bank accounts, to pay slips and driver’s licences.

One of my sisters always figured she would have a hyphenated name when she got married – and she did. Another sister took a day off from work to go around town and fill out all the necessary forms to ensure her maiden name was changed officially. I recall admiring her energy at the time.  

I’m searching myself as I type this to figure out if there was some subconscious reason why I didn’t change my name officially. I honestly don’t think so, though. At the time, I figured that since email communication was increasingly important (and really ‘defined’ you, in a sense), and I used my married name on all my email accounts, my name was ‘changed’ without all the stress of visiting numerous offices to formalize it. I only introduced myself by my married name, so no one ever called me anything else. If I didn’t tell you I hadn’t changed it, you would never know. My former spouse never raised it, either. Everyone called me by his name, and if getting some mail with my maiden name on it bothered him, he never mentioned it.

With the marriage over, I sometimes wish going back to my maiden name were an uncomplicated process. I know that a lot of divorced women stick with their married names in order not to have a different surname from their children. I appreciate this need to preserve order, but don’t personally think I’d feel terribly uncomfortable using a different surname from my children. For me, it’s more about avoiding professional confusion. It would be confusing (for others) at this stage to change my name professionally, and so the idea is not appealing at this time for that particular purpose.

For some other purposes, though, I find the idea of reverting back to my maiden name quite attractive. Maybe I should’ve hyphenated it to begin with, or used it as my middle name. That way, ‘shaking off’ my married name would’ve been much easier. I now marvel, in fact, that I was ready to give my maiden name up so quickly. There’s a lot about my maiden name to be proud of, and I now wonder that I didn’t hesitate even a teeny bit to have no one call me by it ever again.

Good thing that as long as we know who we are, we’re always what/who we are, regardless of what anyone else calls us.  

A dozen things I’m grateful for

Just off the top of my head, in no particular order:

  1. My two, beautiful, healthy, ‘normal’ children (who drive me crazy sometimes).
  2. My thirteen year old BMW (a ‘tokunbo’ buy that runs as smoothly as ever).
  3. The inordinate, overwhelming amount of support and non-judgment that I have always felt from my family, friends, and church.
  4. That I was a single parent long before I officially became a single parent (made my transition to divorce much ‘easier’ and less scary than it might have been).
  5. My health.
  6. Employment.
  7. This blog! (a much-needed outlet; a life-saver)
  8. My treadmill.
  9. A place to call home.
  10. (for women with BIG feet like me, who can’t find decent shoes anywhere).
  11. My close relationship with my sisters.
  12. My optimism (I really believe tomorrow will be even better than today).

Friday, 17 August 2012

Not the same category

Me and you no dey for de same-u category
Me and you no dey for de same-u category

Not de same category O …

--- Fela Anikulapo Kuti

My church is trying to re-vamp its Women’s Ministry. This particular department has been limping for some years now and my pastor’s wife was on a mission to find out why. A meeting was called for older women that served in certain key areas in the church. The purpose of the meeting was simple: to give us a chance to think about and respond to the question of why we thought the Women’s Ministry wasn’t thriving. There was a two minute-long, pregnant silence as we sat in a group, avoiding each other’s gazes.

I was puzzled by the silence. This was not a difficult question. This was no mystery. Did we honestly have no inkling of what part of the problem might be, no personal opinions about this, or were we all too shy (or just pretending to be)? Had we never thought about this issue privately before?

Two minutes were all I could bear, and so I asked myself why I, personally, rarely attended any women’s meetings or events. I looked around at each of the women at this meeting and decided that Ms. Big Mouth needed to speak up and ‘save the day.’

“Well, I just took a look around at the 8 women here and I noticed something. Let’s just go round the circle,” I said, pointing to each woman one after the other: “Married; not yet married [single parent]; married; widowed; not yet married [single parent];  no longer married [yours truly]; married” – and, lastly, there was someone in the ‘it’s complicated’ category, but I didn’t say so!

I pointed out that those of us present represented the [my] wider church. This is how diverse we were, if we really took the time to think about it. And so, if by “women’s” meetings, we really mean “marriage enrichment” meetings, then we need to be clear and upfront about this so that potential attendees are targeted properly, and so that those that aren't married understand from the outset that while they can certainly learn a lot from the meeting, the meeting was not necessarily planned with them in mind. 

There’s nothing wrong with marriage enrichment meetings. They are clearly important and sorely needed. But if we really want to reach more of the older women in the church – at least in my church – we have to pause and ask ourselves who these women are and what their needs might be. The needs of other women have to stop being an afterthought – a last minute, hasty add-on of a few words (or a last minute adjustment to the meeting title), to hopefully cater to their needs.

The problem with this approach is that it insults the intelligence of those that the hasty add-ons and throw-ins were meant to assuage. When your needs are an afterthought, you know it. It shows.

Who says we all have to be in the same meetings all the time just because we’re all women? That’s another part of the problem, I think. It’s okay to say that we’re different. Sometimes, a small meeting for older women who have never been married, for instance (as opposed to a youth meeting which older, unmarried women are expected to attend, be enthusiastic about, and perhaps even grateful for), is exactly what’s needed to do the trick. Sometimes, married women need their time together to hash out and pray about their own unique issues.

When ‘general’ women’s meetings are the goal, though, a thoughtful approach is needed to focus on (as one married woman – the only other one that spoke up– said during this fact-finding meeting) 'those things that bring us together.'

How refreshing, I thought.

The truth is: we’re not all in the same category. And that’s perfectly okay.