On May 26th my son, Porter, was away, so I went to the school for the drive-through yearbook pickup, to make sure he’d have it when he returned that afternoon. It was nothing, one of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of little school errands I’ve run since I put my oldest child in preschool nearly two decades ago. In the high school parking lot I duly reached out my window to the corona-masked volunteers who handed me a graduation program and a yearbook, then I pulled away, stopping at the ordinary, crooked stop sign at the exit. That’s when it hit.
This was the last time.
I’m not sure how I’d missed it coming. Maybe it was the coronavirus upending everything so we didn’t go through the traditional ritual steps, or maybe I did know off in the corner of my brain, but my heart wasn’t ready to connect until just that moment as I sat at the stop sign, Porter’s final yearbook in the passenger seat, knowing that for the first time, there would be no more nitpicky errands, no more rushing in a forgotten project, no more reason to return, at least as the parent of a student.
It’s not that I have any great and sentimental attachment to that particular school, or even to graduation in general. My father was unable to attend my high school graduation because he was traveling for business, for which he apologized profusely. Honestly I couldn’t understand why he felt so badly about it. “I’d be hurt if you missed my college graduation,” I remember saying, “but this doesn’t really matter to me.” My father and I were close then, and we’re close now, so I’ve never expected my relationships with my own children to fade after high school. Graduation was always simply a planned step along the timeline, until it wasn’t.
Porter is my youngest, and it’s been eighteen years since I put my oldest, Abby, into Kiddie College Preschool. During preschool orientation I called her Dolly, as I often did. “Don’t call me Dolly, mom,” she said with clipped exasperation. Maybe it’s because I was pregnant with Porter at the time, but I nearly burst into tears. That was the beginning.
I was the oldest child in my family, and when my parents brought me home from the hospital as a newborn, my dad ran into their tiny little apartment and put “Pomp and Circumstance” on the record player. “Let’s git graduation on her mahnd,” he said in his heavy southern drawl. A few years later he was not only the first in his family to graduate from college, but a college professor himself. That’s a big swim from his parents who worked nights in the cotton mills in Pacolet, South Carolina. He married my mother who graduated in elementary education, and who very well may have had “Teacher” stamped on her birth certificate. Growing up in our house, no one ever overtly pushed education, it just sweated from the walls, permeating everything we did. With my kids, I took it a step further.
My poor daughter, Abby, was always my guinea pig, but by the time the boys came around a couple of years later I’d figured out how to have them reading at four. I wasn’t a homeschooler, but I was always a supplementer, instituting a family summer school program with Friday Field Day, and always on high alert for any museum or cultural event I could get us into from Utah to Shanghai. I still don’t know exactly what drove me, but I attacked my children’s education like a CEO shooting for a bonus. I agonized and prayed as I picked schools and teachers, volunteered in their classrooms, and learned how to address speech impediments, social stressors, and focus issues. That first day I took little Abby to preschool, I had no idea I was jumping on a souped-up hamster wheel that had me running so long and consistently that somehow I ceased to notice it, right up until May 26, 2020. A crooked stop sign, signaling that the wildest ride of my life had come to an abrupt and shuddering end.
I turned left out of the lot, and drove home, wrapped in a heavy cloak of loneliness and shock. Shouldn’t I have been thrilled? How many thousands of times had I wished for that golden moment when my fingers wouldn’t be ink stained and rough with patches of superglue from helping with dioramas, science fair experiments, and giant tryptic presentation boards. I remember standing in the craft store complaining, “I’ve already been through school, why do I have to do this again?” How did cardboard presentation boards manage to carve out an independent nation within my identity, without me even feeling it?
I’m standing at a door which has just been kicked ajar, but not wide enough to show me what’s on the other side. As that door slowly swings forward, I have a moment to think very hard about what I’ve been doing the last two decades. I focused on my kids, and I don’t ever regret that overriding choice, even though I’m paying the piper now. I had one shot at the moment when little Chase brought me his pants and his underwear. “Which comes foost, I ahways foget.” He’s now nineteen and a junior in computer science who will never offer me the same treasure again. I am not sorry, and yet as I look back at all the effort, and planning, and glued fingers, I wonder if there isn’t one last lesson I’ve neglected to teach my children.
I’m a planner. I hate chance and am generally skittish of surprises, which life has taught me are mostly scary. I try so hard to stretch my eyeballs around every corner, warding off danger by preparing for every contingency. It’s not horrible as examples go, preparedness isn’t really on par with taking your kids on a nice jewel heist. But the strange fact is that kids hear what we do far more loudly than anything we will ever say, even if we’re screaming . . . especially if we’re screaming. As I stand here before a door hiding infinite possibilities, sweet or terrifying, I wish I could go back just for a little while, and show my kids how to take a Leap of Faith.
I guess it’s hard to teach what I’m still learning myself. It’s not as though I’ve never Leaped before. I mean I wrote a book, co-founded a game company, and moved my family to China of all places. But, being me, I always had a backup plan, a super secret map with a nice little road clearly labeled “Get Out of Trouble.” At least I thought I did. Looking back at my life, I realize I was never really as prepared as I thought I was. I can see it now only because I’ve finally come to the place where I’ve used up all my ideas, and I’ve spent plenty of hours alone in my bedroom sobbing out of pure unadulterated fear and hopelessness. Do you know what God said to me when I dried my tears, I have always been with you. Take a Leap of Faith.
Well, that wasn’t the answer I wanted! In Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank Morgan has to go off into the wilderness on a quest to prove his knightliness, and thought he could be rather more brave if his lance had a basket of sandwiches hanging off the end. That’s me, I’m tired of growing into my armor, and really felt that after everything I’ve been through, I deserve a nice comfy basket of sandwiches so I wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore. It took me a bit, but I figured out that it doesn’t matter what I think I deserve. God blew straight through that crooked stop sign at the edge of the school parking lot, because he has not relinquished his role as Teacher.
I can’t speak from a prodigious, high plateau from which one can impart true wisdom to all those struggling down below. I’m actually calling out from the depths of a massive mud pit, dirty and bruised, with fingernails broken from trying to claw my way out. I’m in so deep that I don’t know if anyone can hear me, but if my children are listening, I want them to know I’ve decided to quit wishing for a basket of sandwiches to ease my life in the pit. I’ve chosen to focus on God’s instructions. Take a Leap of Faith.
Honestly, this is a bit problematic. Remember the part where I’ve used up all my ideas. It seems to me that the only Leap I have left is straight off a cliff! But then there is that other thing, I’ve always been with you. I have to really think about this one. My life has not been nearly as smooth as it looked from the outside. How many times did I escape danger by the skin of my teeth, financial disaster in China, a burning plane in Brazil, and a market in India with blood pooling in the streets. Was it my super secret map that saved me, or was God simply standing near, the truest backup plan, far more powerful than any little blueprint I could concoct in my head. For a multitude of reasons my life has changed so dramatically, that for the first time I don’t even have the comfort of my secret little map anymore. I’m only just beginning to learn that maybe that’s a good thing, because for the very first time, I have an unobstructed view of God’s finger as he gently reaches into my life to nudge me forward. Take a Leap of Faith.
It took some time and a great many tears, but I finally figured out that I do have one Leap left. I can give up my fear and trust him. It’s the last thing I have to offer.
It’s not an easy thing to do, to trust God. In a bizarre reversal, it’s natural for a child, but somehow becomes a highly advanced skill for an adult, who paradoxically gets both smarter and dumber as the years pass. As my own children go off into the world, I want to tell them there is great wisdom in planning and preparation, and yet, it is also true that no matter what they do or how hard they try, there will come moments when there is nothing left but a Leap of Faith. I can’t always be there, but I promise God will be close by. He has no stop sign.