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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Lessons in parenthood, from my kid
self portrait by @augustinartiste
The good news is: I’m a far better parent today than I once was. The bad news is: Every once and while I slip into old patterns and I am reminded by an exceptional young man, my 14 year old son, just how short I used to fall.
My son, A. (I’m using his first initial) had a high school interview last week, for an selective art program at a school he really wants to go to. He had a cover letter to write; I stayed out of it. We did a practice interview with a friend whose son applied last year; she gave him an idea of some of the questions they might ask and told him to bring his portfolio of drawings and photographs, which was nowhere in the official instructions. The friend who did the practice interview is a professional actress and theatre director. She was so formal, so in character – right from the handshake at the door – that I think she scared him a bit. French children are not as practiced as their American counterparts in the art of self-presentation.
I was more nervous than he was. School hasn’t always been an easy subject for us. A. is super smart, but also struggles with dyslexia and dysgraphia. In the States – always ahead on the vocab front – we call these kids 2e, twice exceptional. In France they call them handicapped. (To give you an idea – to use a computer in a French classroom you need the equivalent of an IEP.) We took him out of the famously rigid French public school system in 2nd grade, and he’s been thriving in an alternative school since. But now it’s time for high school, which means the narrowing of the funnel towards the baccalaureate exam, which means fitting, to a certain degree, back into the mold.
The morning of the interview he still needed to prepare his portfolio. He’d done a pre-selection, but not the final one. I hovered over his shoulder at his desk. “Definitely this one. Make sure you put the self-portrait on top.” I could see I was stressing him out, but I couldn’t stop, so sure my choices were the best. After all, I’m the trained art historian, I’m the critic.
“And what about the photos” I said, holding up a black and white portrait he took of his grandmother that I particularly like. “No.” he said. I tried to recruit my husband, in an attempt to outvote him. But my husband is smarter than that.
I was ready to burst. “Why can’t you JUST listen to me!” screamed my subtext. And his subtext screamed right back, “Because you’re not listening to ME!”
I retreated to the kitchen to regroup. “Ca va, maman. It’s ok, Mommy,” he said, on-edge, exasperated, and gave a me distant hug. It was a perfunctory act of reassurance, a stiff encirclement, like the robotic arms in a factory picking up a glass bottle of Coca-Cola.
“That wasn’t a real hug.” I said, shocked.
“It was a diplomatic hug.” he answered flatly.
“Those are the worst kind.” I replied, trying to laugh it off. But as he walked away, I felt the old tightness in my chest, sent backwards to a time when my relationship with my son wasn’t as strong as it is now.
It has taken me time to get the hang of motherhood. I’m an old soul, and the child-like wonder at the world that A. shares with his father is still a mystery to me. I am also an anxious person. A clinically anxious person. And I have often let my anxiety color interactions with my son, the way a red sock can ruin a white load of laundry. Everyone worries about their kids, but I’ve often let my fears and expectations work against the sensitive, fiercely independent child who was actually sitting in front of me, as if I could control my way to a solution.
Here's an example. When A. was about 6, I tried to teach him how to swim. In my opinion, the French start too late, and two weeks of summer camp in the States only got him to a wobbly doggie paddle. “Just give me five minutes.” I pleaded back at the local pool back in France. But he twisted like a slippery fish; no amount of coaxing or threatening could make my case.
“Fine!” I gave up, steam coming out of my ears. “Stay in the kiddie pool while I do my laps.” He sat on hot concrete while I swam back and forth, furious, muttering to myself all the way. When I got out, I was more than ready to put the outing to an end. “Look maman,” he said, “I was watching you.” Then he jumped into the water and produced a prefect breast stroke. I could have killed him.
My son has always done things in his own time, for his own reasons. He remains his own person in the face of others’ will and expectations. He really doesn’t care what other people think. Which is a wonderful quality if he can hang on to it.
Of course, the high school interview went great. He was a little nervous, but as soon as the interviewer opened his portfolio, they started talking shop, and he took it from there. Like the swimming, I was terrified he would drown, and he proved me wrong. Again.
Since that day at the pool, A. and I have a shorthand: When I’m trying to force him to do something my way instead of his, he makes a breast stroke motion through the air and we laugh about it. I’m still the art historian, the critic, the parent. But he’s the artist in his own life. And if I’m smart, I’ll never forget it.
self portrait by @augustinartiste