As one of the last humans on the planet without a smart device, I still have year-old text messages from daughter Kit on my phone. To save them and make room for new texts, I have to forward to my email one by one before deleting. It’s tedious, but her texts add up to a lot of communication that I don’t want to lose. We got one snail mail letter when she’d been away at college about a month. I don’t really expect to get another one until 2025 (if we’re lucky). So, I perform this task whenever I get around to it.
Today is a Wednesday. I’ve just forwarded several messages leading up to Wednesday April 25th, 2012. This was the day of Kit’s final project presentation, ending her first year in the Costuming for Stage and Screen program at Capilano University in Vancouver, BC. For a couple weeks she’d been feeding us regular status reports via text, kind of a play-by-play of her project, as she worked feverishly up to her deadline. To wit:
final sketches done. all painted save one. presentation book complete save notes. final build at 90%. verbal presentation outlined. all this with two days to go! also a bit ahead of most people.… bwahahah
Reading her texts rockets me back to another Wed, six years earlier, when I watched Kit board the middle school bus across the street from our house. After the bus took off, I called her eighth grade homeroom and English & Social Studies teacher and left this message:
Uh, Hi Ted. I just wanted you to know that Kit is not prepared to deliver her speech today. She worked herself into a real state last night… didn’t sleep at all as far as we could tell. I made her go today. I don’t expect you to bend your rules. I just thought you ought to know, uh, in case she doesn’t show up… or something.
It was one of those Life Lesson moments, which hurt the parent almost as much as the kid. If you answer to “Mom” or “Dad”, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was sending her to the guillotine. Would she really go to class, or hide out in the little patch of woods behind the classrooms all day with a good book?
I felt her pain but wanted to throttle her, too. She’d chosen her own speech, an ambitious bit of material for a non-thespian 13 yr-old. She’d had at least four weeks to prepare. We’d offered to help her rehearse more than once. She insisted she had it covered, and seemed affronted that we doubted her. A parental perception vs reality conundrum — i.e., if we don’t see the speech, hear the speech, or the slightest hint that the speech is being rehearsed elsewhere, does the speech actually exist?
So the minutes ticked by slowly, until the afternoon bus arrived. She waltzed in looking remarkably untouched by her ordeal.
“So, what happened,” I asked.
“I did it,” she said (nonchalant).
“Did what? Read it for the automatic C-?”
“Nope. Mr. Breece gave me a few minutes to look over my paper, then I just gave the speech.”
“Well, how’d it go?” (I tried to keep my incredulity in check, remembering the high anxiety and tears of the night before).
Her response went something like this: “OK, I guess… yay, it’s over… what’s to eat?”
Right, I thought. This is the last time I’m letting myself get sucked into the drama vortex. Next!
So, I was surprised to get a callback from Ted Breece that Friday. He hadn’t even picked up my message till after school on Wednesday. I apologized, somewhat embarrassed I’d even called him. But no, he was glad I did. He asked what Kit had told me about her presentation, and I replied truthfully, “Not much”.
Well, let me tell you, he said.
When he called on Kit, she said she wasn’t prepared. He told her she could either read her speech (as needed) for a “C-” grade, or stand down and take an “F”. The rules, as set forth when the assignment was given. Instead of selecting one of these options, she asked if she could have a few minutes outside to look over her speech. He granted her 15, which lapsed into 20. Given how nervous she looked, Ted half-expected to find she’d gone AWOL. But, when summoned she materialized and surprised him by handing him her hardcopy.
Then, she stood at the head of the class and delivered Chief Seattle’s oration.* Clearly terrified, her delivery was a bit rushed. But she got through a long speech with few mistakes. Even her mistakes made sense contextually! When it was clear she was finally done speaking, the class [having expected her to go down in flames] gave her a big round of applause.
Ted Breece is a good storyteller. I could tell he relished telling me his version. He concluded that Kit really was prepared, and just didn’t know it. I had to interject that I wasn’t so sure. At least once before I’d seen the flip side of her frequent lack of focus or discipline with schoolwork. I can only describe it as some kind of hyper-focus, interlaced with photographic memory—usually under duress.
When I shared the Ted call with Kit, she barely remembered the speaking or the applause, only the adrenaline release after getting through it in one piece. She confirmed, when Ted let her exit the classroom she did seriously consider making a run for it, not stopping till she got to the border.
At times like this, my kid not only makes me laugh, but I wonder where she gets her nerve. Certainly not from me. Showing up unprepared and winging it is the stuff of my bad dreams. I’d sooner have been struck by lightning on my way to school.
Some time later, I rescued Ted’s assessment comments from the recycle bin:
Kit, what a savage! You didn’t think you could do it… and you did it. Imagine what you could do if you believed in yourself.
In those words I recognized the signature of a great teacher who brought the yin to my kid’s yang. If it had been anyone else, I doubt Kit would have exerted herself to live up to whatever he saw in her. For this and much else, I’ll always be grateful for Ted Breece.
Postscript: there was more drama to come (school-related and otherwise) before Kit clocked out of her teens. I continued to get sucked in, when the line between “let her work this out” and “get involved now” became ever harder to distinguish. I’m sure Kit would say that I erred on the latter side far too often.
However. That just makes it all the more satisfying today, another Wednesday, to witness my near-adult daughter kicking-ass on her school deadlines, job, and other tricky life stuff. I mean, the evidence is accruing monthly that she’s doing quite well on her own, thank you very much.
I think my old job may have been outsourced. It feels good to just sit back, put my feet up, and bask.
* * *
* There are several versions of Chief Seattle’s speech, purportedly delivered in 1854, but not published in any form until 1887 from a supposed witness’s notes. Therefore, a bit of controversy regarding authenticity and interpretation. Still, it’s a beautiful text, which is likely an “evergreen” choice. Although I can’t lay my hands on her copy, I’m fairly certain K delivered 75-80% of the original 1887 version by Dr. Smith.