Losing Our Marbles.

In the young mind of a bright third-grader, nothing matches the pride of academic achievement quite like having one’s parents come into school to get a first-hand look inside their classroom.  Recently, my daughter had such an occasion.  It was a morning in which parents had a special chance to visit their child’s classroom, and my little eight-year old girl was bubbling with excitement to have the opportunity to show off her work. Her enthusiasm was so high that even a week beforehand she was oozing with details about the upcoming day, dropping hints about which assignments of hers I would find hanging proudly in the school hallway, and I could imagine her teachers taking special effort to charmingly tack them on the walls, marking each one with a special “superstar” sticker, and bordering them attractively in scalloped corrugated paper.  Every time she spoke of the upcoming day, she would share a little bit more about the planned rotating schedule that was set for the parents, and she was eagerly anticipating the last rotation of the day, which she claimed was going to be her favourite.  It was Science, a school subject that she knows is near and dear to my heart, and my daughter couldn’t wait to proudly show me her project.  It was a blueprint, a rough draft of plans for how to build a structure that would be stable enough to suspend and hold a cup of marbles, and it was our job on parent day, to build it together.

The highly anticipated day arrived, and I suppose it wouldn’t surprise you to know that my daughter carried a delightful, well-earned smile throughout each rotation period.  As the day neared its end, we found ourselves in the Science classroom, my ex-husband and I sitting on either side of our daughter, with our legs bent awkwardly askew as we attempted to squeeze our lower torsos into tiny plastic blue seats.  With my daughter’s ponytail joyfully bouncing in time with her uplifted mood, we listened to the teacher explain to the class that we had twenty minutes to build the suspending marble structure and bring our child’s paper blueprint to life.  The clock began its countdown, which was all I really needed to get my competitive impulses firing, and I saw the same light ignite in every parent’s eyes.  There on the smooth laminate table in front of us was our daughter’s rendering – a crude pencil drawing of her vision.  It called for a plethora of straws and clear tape fused together to create four legs and a connecting beam.  From that connecting beam would dangle some thin yarn tied treacherously to a Dixie cup, which, if we were lucky, would hold twenty glass marbles. I immediately saw its similarity to a playground swing set structure, and I knew it might be doable with the proper support.  But, the time!  Oh, the time!  And as parents and children frantically began working away at their own structures, I felt my chest pounding with anxiety in rhythm to the dwindling time.  

With as much patience as we could muster, my ex-husband and I watched our daughter attempt to build.  In unison, it seemed, we enthusiastically helped out when needed and offered her words of support and encouragement, echoing the thirty other parents in the room who were doing the same.  Yet, even with our very best cheerleading, we could see that the fine motor dexterity in her eight-year old hands could not keep up with the rapid mental commands of her eight-year old brain.  Her fingers fumbled with the stickiness of the clear tape, and she couldn’t quickly manipulate the straws or tie the string in the way that she wanted to.  As the tape managed to wrap itself around her two little fingers, and as the time ate away in the classroom, we visibly watched the excitement escape our little girl’s eyes, leaving room for much disappointment and frustration.  And so, in the blink of an eye, we, my ex-husband and I, did as any other set of parents would do at that moment – We took over!  Sandwiched between two sets of fast-moving, adult hands, my little girl faded into the background and sat idly by as her parents attempted to save the day by building her marble structure without her before the clock buzzer hit zero.

There is no happy ending to this story.  My ex-husband and I managed to create the most horribly crooked, precarious, and unstable marble holder that one could possibly imagine, so much so that each and every one of the twenty glass marbles proceeded to roll right out of the cup, loudly announcing our failure to a room full of parents and children as they noisily scattered and bounced across the entire classroom floor.  Not to mention, unlike all other parents and children who proudly departed the classroom with their intact marble structures, our daughter was too embarrassed to carry hers home as a keepsake, and tossed it quietly in the garbage the moment she exited the door.  

The far worse story was that she then started to cry uncontrollably.  As parents and children cleared the hallways, hugging their successful marble structures like trophied prizes, my daughter sat crumpled in a corner, attempting to hide her tear-soaked face in her hands.  Through her tears, and as I bent down beside her, she looked at me with contempt and explained to me that she was angry that the adults took over the construction, she was angry that she didn’t get a chance to do “anything”, and she was devastated that her favourite activity of the day turned out to be her worst.

What had happened to us in those time-crunching twenty minutes?  Had my ex-husband and I lost our marbles?!  We try to remind our kids that winning should not be everything, that having fun along the way is what matters, and that it should be the effort that truly counts.  Yet, here rests my daughter, devastated by defeat, externalizing it as blame on others (albeit some of it entirely valid),  while no doubt internalizing much blame on herself.  How does a parent help her navigate through these emotions in a world where we try to protect our children from the demoralizing feeling of failure?   Perhaps by now, if you’ve read enough of my writing, you’ll know me well enough to predict my parenting style –  I let her sit and stay in the emotion of it.  She was entirely entitled to feel it!  With the wave of sadness and anger rising and then passing, we sat.  I let her talk and cry about it, I apologized to her for taking over the activity, explained to her the Catch-22 I felt stuck in if I had not, and we both felt heard and validated. With love and support I waited for the shift, and this one was timed perfectly with two of her close friends, who sweetly approached to see if she is okay.  A warm hug between eight-year old girlfriends seemed to do the trick, as they swept her up, took her back into the classroom, and I stood there smiling, grateful to be present to watch that tiny triumph in my daughter’s young life: The rise after a defeat.   I have no doubt that these experiences will continue to teach my daughter skills to cope with the disappointments that she will come across in her lifetime.

At carpool pickup later that afternoon, my daughter hopped into the car with as much energy and enthusiasm as any other day.  Once she was in the backseat, she spotted a little present for her, a pink and fuzzy stuffed animal, seat-belted cutely into her booster seat.  I explained to her that I knew she had a challenging time in Science class that day, and that the surprise was there for her just in case she needed an extra smile. With wide eyes, she hugged that plush animal ever-so tightly, thanked me profusely, and I dare say, with much pride, lovingly named it “Marbles”.