These small griefs
This week has been quite eventful for our household, including a guest in town, a move to different lodgings, and a flat tire. I’d been planning to publish my interview with the principal of TIDE Academy, a peripatetic educator who has taught in several very different systems, from England to Nicaragua. He’s a purposeful person with a defined philosophy on life and education, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know him.
With this hectic week, that article isn’t done yet—look out for it next week to learn about what the principal calls his “Middle Way” of teaching—and instead I’m going to share something different with you.
Beanie spent the 2020-21 school year at a forest school in Canada. We’d made the decision to move up at the last minute, after realizing our public school in California would probably be over Zoom for months to come. Forest schools, being entirely outdoors, were allowed to continue in person.
While up in Ontario, I wrote some reflections on wintering in the Great White North, and on parenthood. Here’s a piece I wrote in September 2020, as I was feeling especially nostalgic and sentimental:
Before we left California, we cleared out the garage to make space for my sister-in-law and brother-in-law to move their things in. They would be staying in our house while we were away.
So the weeks leading up to our departure saw me shedding things from Beanie’s littlehood. I have trouble letting go, but I’ve found it’s much harder the more time elapses. If I give something away soon after she stops using it, I won’t miss it again, but after a few years it’s too meaningful a reminder of a time that will never return, and I feel the need to cling to it.
Here is a little bee that she used between one and four years old. There are four shapes on the bee’s head that, when pressed, play songs about A-B-Cs, 1-2-3s, all that.
At first I didn’t want to give the little bee away. She pressed those shapes so much as a toddler, we heard those songs endlessly. She would press and dance, press and toddle, around the room.
Recently, when I went to change the batteries in the bee, I realized the shapes didn’t work anymore. No songs. Silent bee.
Fortunately, I’d recorded the songs onto my memo recorder a while ago. I played the songs for Beanie and she said she didn’t recognize them. It caused a little pang in me to know that the songs were gone, the toddler was gone, and there was no collective memory to look back on. She had moved forward, her synapses continuously forming at rapid-fire rate, purging old memories like yesterday’s newspaper. Those days of dancing with the bee, in a sense, do not even exist for her.
When I had my child, I felt informed about the nitty-gritty. Mothers of my generation are more willing to share about the difficulties of new motherhood: I knew about the possibility of postpartum depression and the struggles with tedium and frustration that come with taking care of a small child round-the-clock.
But I wasn’t prepared for the small griefs that come with watching her grow up. Of knowing that I will never be able to snuggle and hug that cuddly little girl at one, two, three years old anymore. I watch videos of her when she was that tiny, and I feel acutely that this is someone I will not see again. That person has disappeared.
Of course, the real her is still here and she is still changing, every day. She is in many ways the same person. But sometimes I ask her, “do you remember this?” and “do you remember that?” and she rarely remembers. We share an intertwined past but one of the threads is full of secret scrawls and messages and remember-remember-remembers, and the other thread is blank.
I think many parents must experience this; I know my own mother did. Now that I have a child of my own, I understand my mother’s wistfulness when she talked about me as a baby, after I was no longer a baby. Back then, videos weren’t an option (not in our family anyway) and film was expensive, so there are few photos and no videos of me as a child. That period must seem even more ephemeral to my mother than my daughter’s seems to me.
How strange that people through millenia have gone through this, and there is nothing novel about it at all, just another part of the human condition. Of course, these small griefs of watching your child grow up cannot compare, they are dwarfed completely, by the tragedy of not watching your child grow up. Merely a minuscule sliver of grief that comes part and parcel of being a parent.
And of course I know things are just things, and a toy bee is just a toy bee. Keeping a bee doesn’t mean you get to keep your child’s childhood. These things that feel so imbued with memories are not actually your memories. You get to keep your memories, even if you let the things go.
I know this—and yet—when I look at these items from her past, I think about the microscopic parts of her, those millions of skin cells still on the seat of her stroller, the spirit of her as she sat in that stroller and laughed and gnawed at her own foot, and looked out at the world and discovered it. Everything of her, there and not there.
In the end, I gave the not-singing-anymore bee away. I asked our gardener, who is having a baby soon, whether it would be useful for his family, and he said yes. It felt good to be passing this precious toy on to someone who would be able to use it. I can’t explain why that makes a difference to me, but it does.
Sometimes I see old baby gear sitting out on a sidewalk, with the sign “Free!” Some of it may be taken and used, but most, I’m guessing, is just thrown out with the trash. It’s a waste, and always makes me inexplicably sad.
Every baby item Beanie has used, I’ve sold or given to someone who wanted it and could use it. Even if I have to let it go, it gives me comfort that the rocker, or swing, or high chair, or stroller, is still out there in the world, and still has a happy baby sitting in it.
Reading my words from two years ago, I don’t completely identify with them anymore. I’m still (overly) sentimental about the past, but as Beanie gets older, I see her more and more as her own person, separate from the baby that she was. Today’s Beanie makes a lot of silly jokes and knows things even we don’t know. She has such her own personality, I don’t associate her with baby Beanie as much as before.
I do still miss that sweet little baby, but the small grief pangs are much smaller than the joy of making new memories with present-day Beanie. And one day, I know, I’ll look back on this Beanie and wish that she was still around too.
Pretty Good Things
Neuroscientist Erik Hoel has written a series of articles on “Why we stopped making Einsteins—explaining the decline of genius.” He postulates the answer lies in “aristocratic tutoring,” his term for the one-on-one teaching by an expert, through discussions, that was a common method of education for people of means in the past.
I haven’t fully digested all he’s presenting here, but it’s interesting to note there is growing educational movement today of homeschoolers, unschoolers, democratic schools and microschools—all possessing characteristics that overlap with elements of aristocratic tutoring.
Many have taken this null effect of schools to be a sign of genetic determinism, wherein some innate ability, like IQ, is all that matters, and education is, at best, just the delivery of a repository of facts.
I don’t think this is the case. For paradoxically there exists an agreed-upon and specific answer to the single best way to educate children, a way that has clear, obvious, and strong effects. The problem is that this answer is unacceptable. The superior method of education is deeply unfair and privileges those at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s an answer that was well-known historically, and is also observed by education researchers today: tutoring.
The things they carried
What if you had to leave your country suddenly and could bring little with you? These eight refugees share the special mementos they brought along to their new lands. As someone who (as you’ve seen above) keeps perhaps too many souvenirs from the past, the choices these people had to make are painful to read about. The photojournalist from Afghanistan burned her childhood photo album so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Taliban. She did bring a special dress though:
It's a dress that belongs to the Hazara people of Afghanistan, my parents' ethnic group. I stared at it for a few minutes and without thinking I put it in my backpack. With a lot of pressure and my husband's help, we closed the bag.
I understand today that I couldn't leave the dress and the memory of my mother. I didn't know if I would see her again. I couldn't leave this symbol of my ancestors that never lets me forget where I belong.