Saturday, January 22, 2011

If it takes a village...

After Hilary Rodham Clinton wrote It Takes a Village in the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to see a portion of that concept in action and to demonstrate to my children and extended family what it meant to me. And though I don't know if it made a difference in the life of a child - or her siblings - I'd do it again in a minute. 

The thrust of the It Takes a Village book was its implied sub-title raise a child.  The "village" consists of the people in the community - those who interact with a child, for good or for bad, and impact the child's life, choices and outcome.  Though I was never a big supporter of Rodham Clinton, the concept resonated with me.  Raise your child surrounded by role models and people who will support the child and both the child and the community benefit.  Raise your child with no support or only bad influences, and your child will feel the lack or embody the poor habits and lifestyle of those who are around your child. In the bigger sense, voters fund school bond levies - even if they don't have kids of their own of school age - for various reasons, one of which is the premise that an educated society benefits everyone.  Of course, if the whole village abdicated responsibility for others' children, the society would collapse, even if the government stepped in and acted like "big brother."

The year was 1999 and my daughter Susan was in third grade and my son Edward was in first grade.  My husband, Mac, had a day off and drove the kids to their elementary school about a mile away: After dropping them off, he was driving back to our house.  As he passed an apartment house, he noticed a little girl about seven years old, crying, at the school bus stop that normally had about 20 kids.  It was obvious that she was terribly upset and had missed the school bus. Mac stopped the car, and at the risk of being seen as a pedophile or kidnapper, took the little girl - Emily or as she was called, Emmie - to our elementary school.  On the drive, she said that her mother had left because she was late for work.  Mac brought her to the principal's office, where he was told by the staff that he "should have just left her there."

That evening at dinner, Mac told Susan and Edward about Emmie and they confirmed that she was in second grade and was in the classroom next to Edward's class.  I was intrigued enough to look up Emmie's name in the PTA directory and noted that her phone number was unlisted. 

A few days later, Mac was late driving the kids to school: But as he passed the same bus stop, you guessed it - a crying Emmie was there, alone having missed the bus again.  All three kids got a ride to school that day and became acquainted with each other.  It turns out that Emmie's mom Sarah was a substitute teacher at a private school nearby that our neighbor's kids attended.  The next day I called the private school and left a message for Emmie's mom.

She seemed puzzled when she called me back. I explained that my kids went to school with her daughter and that they had given her a ride to school when she missed the bus.  I don't know if she even knew that Emmie had missed the bus or gotten not just one but two rides with virtual strangers.  I said that usually my husband or I was home in the morning and one of us normally took our kids to school before work, so that if she needed to drop off Emmie with us some morning, we'd be happy to take her to school.  Still a bit detached, she took down my name, phone number and address and we said good-bye. 

The next morning after my husband had left for work, I was in my bathrobe with wet hair getting ready for work: Mac had a Tuesday-Saturday job and I went to work later when he worked, so I was able to take the kids to school.  Drying my hair, I heard the doorbell:  On the front porch was a blond curly-haired little girl who just had to be Emmie. And her mother, Sarah, with the same long blond curls.  Squelching my surprise, I introduced myself and the kids and said how happy we were to meet Emmie.   My kids were also surprised but they took it in stride and introduced Emmie to the cat and showed her their rooms. They played nicely until it was time to leave for school, loaded up their backpacks and then I suddenly had three kids to drop off at school. 

The most interesting thing to me was that I was a Type-A mother.  My kids were blessed to have a lot of very involved grandparents and family in the area and other than preschool had never had baby-sitters other than family. To have a virtual stranger take care of my child would have been unthinkable to me.  To leave a child at a bus stop was unimaginable: Sure, they could take the bus, but we’d be there when the bus driver dropped them off.  But I knew that I was lucky.  We'd had job loss, health scares and other stresses but we were able to provide our kids with what they needed on a daily basis.  We had family support.  We contributed time in their classrooms, volunteered as soccer coach and team manager and hosted sleepovers, play-dates and pizza parties.  Both my husband and I worked corporate jobs but he started work early and got off at 3 to get the kids after school and I was able to start later in the morning so that I could take them to school, making up the time in the afternoon.   Whether through choices, luck or happenstance we were able to parent the way we felt was best.   

Emmie became a fixture at our house.  Whenever her mom had a substitute teaching gig, Emmie appeared at our doorstep.  I never knew when she would appear until the doorbell rang.  She told us of her life with two younger brothers and her mom – a wild and crazy existence.  Emmie told us that her dad – her biological dad – was in prison.  In all the time that I knew her, I wasn’t able to figure out if that was an eight year old’s imagination or the truth.  Her two younger brothers – all age three and younger - had a different dad, who had shared half-time custody of them with her mother.  One brother had a heart defect – which left him vulnerable to death at any time.  Another brother had asthma and needed costly medical treatment.  Truth? Or fiction?

Another strange fact was that she didn’t live by the bus stop where we found her.  She didn’t even live in the boundaries of the neighborhood school.  She wasn’t eligible to ride the school bus that her mom put her on. 

On school picture day, Emmie’s mom forgot to fill out the photo form and send a check: She was heartbroken.  Consoling her on the floor, I told her that I would write a check for her photos. When she forgot her homework, I became the parent who went to the teacher to explain and ask for forbearance.  If she was hungry, she had breakfast with my kids. 

The most annoying thing about being working parents with elementary school aged children is the “in-service” days, where teachers work but there is no class, or just a half-day of class.  As a manager, I could take days off at will to cover these days or I could have the grandparents take care of the kids. Emmie’s mom didn’t have that luxury.  So Emmie would spend school holidays with us and instead of having two to feed lunch, I had three or even more if the kids had friends over.   Shopping at the grocery store, I would ask Emmie what she could eat, and at her insistence I made sure that she had kosher food.  Pizza was vegetarian with cheese and soup was chicken noodle instead of beef.  She would refuse Easter candy and didn’t recognize Halloween as a legitimate holiday –for her.  My kids had other Jewish friends, so this was not new but the up-close and personal exposure did have an impact on my kids.

Emmie went strawberry picking with us, and learned how to feed our horses and chickens with me in the morning before school.  She attended our birthday parties and my kids attended hers.   

Eventually, Emmie became so comfortable that she let down all her defenses and treated our house as she would her own.  This is when my kids started to complain: Why does Emmie have to be here all the time?  Now, my kids were pretty forgiving but they, too, dealt with working parents who weren’t always rested and refreshed.  Wanting your mom or your dad to yourself after a long day at school or on a holiday wasn’t too selfish, was it?  Other kids had their moms home all the time!  “Why do we have to share on the days that Emmie is with us?  We just want to hang out and relax with our mom and no Emmie.” 

Emmie’s mom was clearly stressed.  Time and money – the two demons of working moms. She did have some family support and her other kids’ dad provided some care and support for those kids.  We spent some time talking at parties or afternoons on the patio and I got to know some of her challenges.  The logistics of single-parenthood and a career as a substitute teacher at two or three different school systems was tough.  But she seemed to make choices that seemed odd to me.  One of the main things was her blasé attitude towards her daughter’s whereabouts.  I would always enquire about her plans for the coming year and asked if she had signed up for the elementary school’s before-school care.  Sarah said yes, that she was on the waiting list and Emmie should be able to get in the next year. 

At the end of the school year, I got a new job that required me to work longer hours with a longer commute.  My father-in-law was going to come over to our house at 6:30 in the mornings and take my kids to school at 8:45, while I was going to leave for work way before that - at 7:15.  My father-in-law had spent a bit of time with Emmie but wasn’t comfortable managing her along with my kids.  The time had come for Emmie to attend the school-based before-school program. In July at a party, I told Sarah about my new job and said that I was glad Emmie would be able to go to the before-school program, only to learn from Sarah that she was not on the waiting list and had hoped that we could take Emmie for another year.  Unfortunately, I had to be firm on my father-in-law’s behalf and said that Emmie was welcome to come visit on holidays when I was off work and we would love to see them often.  We never saw Emmie again.  Ever.  She was not at my kids’ school in the fall and they had moved out of their apartment.  Frankly, I don’t know where they went.      

What did I learn from this experience?  Perhaps the biggest conclusion is that I consciously made different parenting decisions than had others: I knew that on an abstract level but it was crystal clear that I couldn’t affect other parent’s decisions. Another was that I had a lot of love in my heart for other people’s kids: I remember as a teenager wishing that my parents could “adopt” my sister’s friend whose family was fractured and lacking. 

Emmie had a need and I wanted to fill it.  Was this a misguided attempt to solve the problems of others or the problems of society at large? Perhaps, but it also brought out the fact that I did feel the need to give back to society in ways that would enrich my soul. This experience helped to spur me into college-level teaching, long a dream of mine.   

And I’m conflicted about her mother’s role in the uncertainty that Emmie experienced.  I understand that she couldn’t afford before-school care but am uncomfortable that she didn’t even try to find someone to step in and do what we did.  More recently, I became fascinated by the movie The Blind Side and the efforts of the Tuohy family on behalf of Michael Oher. Michael’s birth mother also faced a myriad of challenges but in the end also was not able to fulfill her parental obligations.  Because of my own situational constraints – having to work for a living – I wasn’t able to make the kind of commitment to Emmie that the Tuohy family made to Michael, but their choice resonated with me.

I think Emmie did benefit from her year with us.  Perhaps nothing would have happened to her had she missed the bus again: We’ll never know if it would have been a kidnapper or pedophile or another good Samaritan who would find her, alone, at the bus stop.   Maybe she would have found another way to be safe before school.  But I was not willing to take that chance.   

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