May 23, 2011

Over Ripened

When I was growing up, we had a giant mango tree in our yard.  I'm talking huge.  It was one of the banes of my existence.  I didn't like mangos.  In fact, none of the kids liked them.  My dad liked them, but he couldn't touch them because he was allergic to the sap from the tree.  My mom liked them, but she couldn't eat them because they made her mouth hurt.  If my dad wanted to eat any mangoes, my mom had to cut them up for him - but she couldn't have them.  So, here was this huge stinking tree that would generate literally hundreds of mangoes every year - and our family could maybe eat five a year.

So, you may ask, why did I hate  the tree so much?  Well, first of all, the thing would bloom every year.  (It felt like some years it bloomed two or three times.)  These weren't pretty blooms like the lovely pink flowers that grace the Atlantic seaboard when cherry trees flower.  Mango blossoms are these big clumps of nodules that can best be described as Grape Nuts.  So, when these things fell - which they would do during every storm and wind - the yard would be covered like someone spilt a truckload of moist cereal on the ground.  Pretty, huh?  Second, if you did the math with the information provided above, our family used maybe five or ten of this avalanche of fruit.  So what happened to the rest?  Most of them fell.  They fell into the yard, onto the patio, into the hedge.  They impaled themselves on the fence and banged into the cars on the street.  And then they rotted.  I was in charge of picking up the doggie doo, which also meant I was supposed to pick up the fallen fruit.  (Oh yeah, in addition to mangoes, we had a grapefruit and tangerine tree - LOTS of fallen fruit.)  I hated picking up mangoes.  The only thing I hated worse than picking them up was stepping in a rotten one.

To avoid the problem of being buried with fallen fruit, we would trek out back with a big fruit picker and try to get the fruit off the trees.  (This also was to avoid people walking by and throwing rocks into the tree to get fruit.)  We didn't eat these things.  We would send them in to my dad's work.  We would set up a table on the sidewalk and sell them.  And we would give them away.  All those rock chuckers?  If they had just asked we would have given them a big bag.  Sometimes we would pick them when they were still green.  Some people ate them that way.  But most people would ask how to ripen those mangoes.  So we used to tell them, "Put them in a paper bag and close it up.  If you want it to go faster, put in an apple."  This is the same advice people give on how to make bananas ripen.  Apparently, the apple puts off some magic voodoo chemical that ripens fruit.  I don't know.

The reason all of this came to mind was that I was dealing with Josiah, our oldest, this weekend.  I know my kids are growing up. But there are those moments when you really understand just how much things have changed and can’t go back. I have a bad habit of getting my kids “stuck” in my head at a certain age. Even though I am conscious of the fact that they are almost 10, 7 ½, and almost 4, when I see them my brain is kind of stuck at 5, 4, and 2. Then I’ll hug Josiah and realize how beefy he is and it will surprise me. He is almost 10! He is starting to move into the shape of a tweener instead of a little boy - or a toddler. Natalie loves to cuddle and sit with us in the chair or on the couch. She barely fits in the chair with me. I used to carry Gabe so easily. Now, after holding him through two stores and the parking lot at the mall, I’m about ready to fall over.

The physical growth is not the most startling thing, though. It is a gradual process that is easy to miss. It wasn’t so long ago that Josiah was getting trouble in school for touching people’s hair - especially the girl with the really curly hair. He has turned into such a good kid now in school. He never gets in trouble. He and Natalie have gotten maybe five markouts combined in two years - and I think three of those were because I forgot to sign their planners. So it is easy to have the years pass and not realize that the stakes are getting higher until something jolts me out of that mindset. There have been a series of things happen with him and school this year that was beginning to distress me. He has been exposed to some bad behavior, bad language, and bad attitudes. And, unfortunately, he has not resisted these things as much as I wished he would have.

For much of this year, I have been worried about protecting Josiah.  He was getting bullied by this girl in his class.  And before you make any smart remarks about being bullied by a girl, you haven't seen this girl.  She scares me.  Anyway, I have been alerting the teacher about the situation and sitting by frustrated as she didn't act as quickly as I hoped.  I finally got the situation dealt with - months after it started.  Then the trouble became that I was worried Josiah wasn't getting challenged enough in school. He never has homework.  He seems to sit around a lot in class.  And after the FCAT was over, it really felt like everyone just checked out.  (Don't get me started on the FCAT... or merit based teacher pay... That's another angrier post.)

I was so worried about the bully and the teacher, that what I didn't really see coming was the friend.  Josiah has this friend.  The kid lives in our apartment complex - something I didn't realized until about halfway through the year.  I do my best to be careful about this friendship.  Josiah can't go over to his house - the parents smoke, which would wreck havoc with Josiah's asthma.  But I know they have different opinions about things than us.  And I don't want him being exposed to things that are going to hurt him.  So he can't go over there.  I have allowed this boy to come over to our place to play with Josiah.  But I have limited this interaction as well.  The boy isn't very nice to Natalie.  And I just don't like the boy's attitude.  Most of the time, I deny the request to play.  I have allowed phone calls, but I lurk to make sure nothing is going on.  And I limit the time.

The problem is that I can't control what happens at school.  This boy and Josiah are in class together, they go to advanced science together, and they eat together.  They like the same computer games.  They like drawing and comic book stuff.  But I know this kid is bad news.  Josiah is surlier when he is around him.  He uses phrases like "dude" more.  The breaking point, though, came like a storm that I couldn't have expected.  I always was worried about this kid, but I thought most of it was my being ultra-paranoid and protective.  Or it was preference, like I prefer not to be called "dude" by a nine year old.  But then Josiah came home and told me this kids had been suspended.  Whaaa?  He had stolen a teacher's iPhone.  I was shell shocked.  Stole a phone?!?

As the details came out, I began to realize just how bad of an influence this kid was.  He had taken the phone on Monday and had it at home for FOUR DAYS!  He had charged it at home and his parents didn't even say anything or know.  And, the worst part was, Josiah knew.  He had tried to talk the kid into returning the phone.  But he never told anyone because he didn't want his friend to get in trouble.  That closed the door on that friendship.  The kid can't come over any more.  They can talk on the phone, but I police the calls to the point where Josiah probably doesn't even enjoy them.

But we get back to the point from earlier - I can't control the school interactions.  This weekend I found out that Josiah has started cursing at school because this boy does.  At church, he joked about putting a gun to his parents' head to get an allowance.  He lollygags in the hall after his science class with this boy instead of going back to class right away.  I was crushed.  I thank God we are moving so that Josiah gets away from this kid.  But I know that there is another kid just like that waiting in Orlando.

I tried to talk to my son about all of this.  He has a tender heart and was very upset.  But I don't think I could adequately communicate all of the pain and hurt I was feeling.  I know what it is like to be a little boy, trying to fit in.  I remember picking up on curse words when I was in public school to fit in.  I have given in to peer pressure to torment other kids or to do stupid stuff.  If I told my kids all the dumb, naughty, obnoxious stuff I have done over the years, I wouldn't need to worry about other kids leading them into depravity.  I would do it retroactively.

I told him what it felt like to me.  It was like he was a mango or a banana - a beautiful piece of fruit.  No blemishes.  Just lovely.  And then he got put into a paper bag with an apple - a bad apple, in this case.  And slowly I notice spots of brown seeping in.  At first, it is stuff like him getting exposed to Star Wars before I was ready.  And they get larger and larger.  He checks out Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants - books I never would have permitted if I even had HEARD of them first.  Then he starts to mimic behaviors and attitudes and language.  The brown spots get bigger and bigger.

It is painful to be a parent.  We worry about our kids.  I know that I have always been afraid I would drop them or fall down the stairs with them.  I was afraid they would get sick with some horrible illness.  I have nightmares of bad things happening to them.  I worry they will never follow God.  But the growing up process seems to be the most painful.  As grown ups, we see the end results.  We know how small behaviors can turn into ugly addictions.  We see that a tiny mistake can have life wrecking consequences.  But to them, those things are not clear.  And when we try to explain, they just don't get it.  They can't wrap their mind around the scope we talk about.  Or they buy into the lie "it won't happen to me."

I know this is just the beginning, too.  They are steaming towards the teen years and I can't stop them.  Natalie is interested in Justin Bieber.  Gabe is moving out of preschool shows into Cars and Legos.  The problems are only getting bigger.  Their innocence is going to be lost and corrupted.  That is the way of life.  It just kills me to watch it.

In a lot of ways, it is like when you see the tornados destroy a town or a tsunami wipe out a community. The pain is enormous and we wonder what to do.  I just feel helpless.  When I woke up to hear about the latest city obliterated by a twister this morning, it was just like "Come ON!"  As a parent, it feels like that.  Storms are swirling around our kids.  They try to steal them and destroy them.  And there is only so much we can do as parents.  And we will go crazy trying to stop life from coming - just like you could drive yourself crazy trying to avoid every tornado, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, fire.

That is why I HAVE to trust God.  He loves my kids more than I do, as hard as that is to believe.  He is in control.  As much as I want what is best for them, He wants that even more.  And the thing is, He knows that sometimes what is best is NOT what I think.  It may not be what is easiest  - or the least painful.  Laura Story's amazing song Blessings talks about that.  Sometimes the pain of life is exactly what we need to make us into the people we need to be.  And the same is true of our children.  It is just a horrible feeling to stand by and watch that happen.  I'm not saying that we need to passively stand by and watch our kids get the snot kicked out of them.  But, at some point, we can't sit there and hold shields up around them forever.  At some point, there are no more homeschooling options or Christian schools to send them to or restrictions to establish.  They grow up and go to college and get a job.  And at some point they are not in our control any more.  The fact is, they never were.  No matter how much we want to protect them, we can't stop that tornado any more than we can stop the naughty kid at school from talking to them.  We can talk to them and love them and show them the right way.  We can pray for them and teach them and model the right behavior.  But at the very end of the day, we are at some point stuck hoping that they end up beautiful.

That is the part I can't stand.

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