T is for Tardy

by Kelly Salasin

This morning when my six-year old arrives late to school for the zillionth time this year, I consider paying off his pigtailed classmate who passes us in the hall, attendance slip in tow. “Oh, you’re here!” she sparkles, holding the fate of his permanent record like a flag in hand. “I’ll just erase ‘absent’ and give you a ‘T’.”
Another T, Damn it! I rant internally as I walk my son more swiftly toward his classroom.

“What does a ‘T’ mean?” he asks each morning as I rush him into the van and onto his booster seat, oblivious to the patterns of ice crystals he’s been trying to show me on the windows.
“It means ‘tardy’,” I say, knowing it’s going to take the entire drive to school to explain, and that he’ll ask the same question tomorrow.

The hard thing about all these ‘’T’s’ is that I was a teacher before I became a parent. In those days, being on time and coming to school- every day- was a given, an essential truth, a prerequisite to upstanding citizenship. I stressed punctuality and attendance with parents, and assessed them on their commitment to these principles. Part of me still agrees with it- theoretically- and that’s why I feel guilty. I really don’t want to be the kind of parent whose kid gets a lot of ‘T’s.
But I don’t want to get out of bed either, not when the baby has been up ALL night. And I certainly don’t have the energy or creativity to find new ways to keep my highly distractible six-year old focused on ‘getting ready’ for school when he just doesn’t ‘get it’.

“What’s the big deal about a ‘T’, anyway Mom?” he asks when I tell him there’s no time to read a story or play with his brother or listen to the birds. “Why do you want to yell about putting sneakers on ?”
Great! He’s a Zen master, and I’m the ignorant pupil. Now my failure comes at me from all sides. I’ve failed to support my son’s education properly, while simultaneously failing to honor his sense of time and play; and worst of all, I’ve failed my own sense of the kind of parent, and person, I want to be on both accounts.
I once heard a quote that I now know to be true: I was a much better parent before I had kids. (At least before they outnumbered me!)

What’s the answer, I ask myself? Home schooling? No, not for me. Not for my son either. Not now anyway. There’d still be places to get to, and there’d still be our differences in the understanding of what it means to ‘get ready to go’; the perennial parent-child struggle.
Occasionally we have a breakthrough. The other day when I was fretting over being late for swimming lessons (the instructor actually scolded me!), I shared my own childhood with my son; how when I was a kid, my family was always really late for things, and how there’d be lots of yelling and tension. He listened attentively from the back seat, and then like a light bulb had gone on, he said, “Oh, now I know why you get so stressed out about being late Mom. You gotta let go of that.”
The Zen Master again! And I thought he was going to ‘get’ the whole point of staying focused to get out the door on time. Instead, it’s I who promises to begin working on ‘letting go’.

The next school day, when I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast or showered and there were only 15 minutes left for take off, my son sweetly asked if I could read one of the many library books that had lain neglected on the coffee table for days. (I imagine other families always reading the books that come home from school.) I began to list all the reasons why I couldn’t, and then… I just sat down on the couch in my pajamas and began reading to my boys while the clock ticked away. It was a blissful family moment and with a breakfast-to-go, we made it to school, only five minutes late. Another ‘T’. Damn It!
But on this day, a miracle happened. No one had rung the school bell. When we arrived, the children were just leaving the playground to go in- 5 minutes late. No ‘T’! It was like the sun streaming through the clouds after a terrible storm.
For a moment, the dark shadow of the perenial, parental guilt reappeared: I felt a pang of deep sadness that I never got my son to school in time to play with the other children on the playground. It’s so easy to find failure as a parent if you’re looking for it. So much of parenting, like teaching, is a hands-on job. You can read lots of good stuff, form your opinions, your theories, make your plans, but you really have to step into it to know it and to know yourself.
I never thought I’d be the kind of parent I am some times, never imagined such uncouth, careless moments. But here I am, for better or worse, and some days I get it just right.

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