I was at rehearsal for recital-- Squish, Zoomboy and Chicken are all in combinations of dance and gymnastics, and if you've been here for a couple of years, you know that recital is a huge thing. For two weeks five of the six of us are completely consumed by dance, and this year is Chicken's senior recital, where she does a solo. Anyway, I was looking at the crowd of parents there, and I realized that one woman--in her twenties, but she looks older-- was someone I knew. In fact, she was someone who had graduated from the dance program maybe seven, eight years ago. Seven or eight years ago, she'd been lovely--her spine as straight as an arrow, her body solid, muscular and so damned graceful she made you cry.
She's on her second child now, and her first isn't a picnic. He makes Zoomboy look like a turtle on 'ludes he's so hyperactive, and all of the gymnastics teachers know to catch him when he starts to run. I don't know much about her husband--which doesn't mean much, since I only see her one, maybe two hours a week, and she's always busy.
But I saw her--I mean, really saw her and realized that this woman who slouched, and who looked thirty when she was in her mid twenties, had once made me cry with a stunning, impossible grace, when she was as old as Chicken is now.
And I had a sudden car wreck of other memories, one on top of another, starting with her, dancing fit to break your heart, and layering into...
Waitressing, over twenty years ago. They still allowed smoking in restaurants, and there was a couple in the smoking section, both of them smoking. He was in his fifties, and had only a few of his teeth. She had just turned twenty one, and had lost a few of hers. She was ordering a margarita-- was, in fact on her second--and was seven months pregnant.
The news that alcohol was bad for unborn children had really just gotten to be a big thing in the late eighties--it apparently hadn't hit wherever this pair of newlyweds had come from. I delivered the margarita (they weren't my table--someone else had asked me to take the drink for them) and the girl giggled. "Yeah, well, I know I'm not supposed to, but I'm twenty-one today. So it's my first drink." She winked. "My first legal drink." And then she took a hit of her cigarette and I walked back into the kitchen.
One of the other servers was back there, looking at the table in absolute horror. "How can you even serve them?" she asked, aghast.
I shrugged, thinking about the girl's giggle. "Well," I said thinking, "in the first place, I'm fooling myself if I think that's the only drink she's had or will ever had, pregnant or otherwise. In the second place," I looked at her again, dressed up in her best maternity shirt, her hair sprayed within an inch of its life, and sighed. "In the second place, look at her. This is it. She's twenty-one, and this, right here, in Fridays, is as good as her life is going to get."
They couldn't argue.
And then the third memory, one from my early days teaching at my old school. There was a really dedicated (if terrifyingly homophobic) percussion coach who had coached a group of kids that were normally absolute nightmares, and they got to perform in a rally.
They were wonderful. Amazing. Stupendous.
And then I got a look at the individual faces of the kids as they marched away and I had a horrible, horrible realization. This was it. These were the kids who thought graduating from high school was the be all and end all of their achievements. Their parents thought so too--they were willing to bully, lie, and enable their kids through every hoop thrown at them, and then blame the teachers when their kids didn't have the wherewithal for the next step. And here, this moment in their teens--this was the most beautiful, the most perfect thing they would ever do.
And that to me seemed awful.
Now don't get me wrong--I had some kick ass moments in high school. I was in a marching band that won awards and took entire competitions. I was in plays that went to competitions and put on performances and it was amazing. So was junior college. So was college.
But nowhere in all of that did I ever hit a moment and think, "It will never get better than this. I am as beautiful/brilliant/talented/happy as I will ever be." There was always something new to learn, something new to do, something new to plan. When I was getting married, and everyone was stressing about the ceremony, I was more worried about being married than the actual wedding. When I was pregnant, I learned the basics of labor and delivery, but that was never the scary part. Being home with the actual baby--now that was fucking terrifying. For me it was never about the golden, shining, perfect moment--it was always about the promise of joy and sorrow, fear and excitement, failure and accomplishment and learning that went on beyond that moment.
There is always something more to have, learn, or be.
So, all that considered, I have sort of let Chicken's graduation sneak up on me. I've known it's been coming, but I haven't (much like Big T's) gotten overwhelmed or (too) verklempt or all gushy and squeaky. I've been mostly full of wonder. "Oh yeah-- you get to do that. That's awesome!" Most of my fear has gone beyond the "big day" and has traveled into the big scary-- taking Chicken to school in San Diego and LEAVING MY BABY BEHIND.
But tonight, when I realized that the struggling, rapidly aging young mother I'd known was that same bright, shining girl I remembered, something else hit me.
I was excited about graduation--still am--and am worried about getting a card and about deciding (with her input) on the right graduation present, and making sure the relatives all get here and we get to the ceremony on time and she gets her dance recital board up and all of those important things. That's a big deal. It is. I won't lie.
But it's not the only deal.
After graduation, she's got her recital solo. After her recital solo we've got a quick trip to Portland. After that we've got ten days in Hawaii. After that she's starting summer school. After that she's moving to San Diego. After that she's... oh holy Christ. The sky is the limit. I've spent her entire middle school and high school career telling her that yeah, she should have fun in middle school and high school, but, to quote a popular catch phrase, "It gets better."
And it has gotten better. And it promises to get even better still.
And I've lived my life for her and her siblings trying to show them that. When I was going to school trying to get my master's degree, that was part of my motivation: learning didn't just stop. When I dropped out of the program I tried to make my message that my children were my priorities--and she seems to have picked up on that too. As I embarked on my writing career, one of the things I told her and her brother (and my students for that matter) was that being in your thirties or your forties, having your family, that didn't mean that your brain just froze. Your best years didn't end with high school or college or having a family--your best years were the years you made your best. You didn't stop learning, you didn't stop becoming, just because you reached a magic age or a place of complacency.
Chicken knows this. Thursday is going to be a big day-- that's no lie. She's got plans and plans and plans, and by the time we get her on Friday morning from her grad night activity, she's going to sleep for a week. But it's what's after Thursday that she's dreaming about, and I'm proud of that. Pomp and circumstance are great for a day--but they do not take place of the things you can do your whole life after to make living a joy.
I was not thinking about all the cuts to colleges, to women's health, to discrimination laws, to women's rights in general when I taught my daughter this--I was just thinking about the things I believed most about life, but now that she's about to enter the world as it is, I'm forced to wonder.
That one girl who was bright and shining, those girls in the drum core who had their moment in the sun, that poor woman who thought a margarita on her 21st birthday was living large-- what dreams did their mothers have for them? Did their mothers dream of them in college? Dream of them doing something poetic and lovely? Dream of them doing something amazing with their lives as they unfolded? Was becoming a mother and finding a good man the limit of their dreams? Did someone tell them they couldn't go to college because girls like them didn't go? Were they told they could go, but only until they married? Or maybe the low expectations were a little more vague than that. Maybe it was the sort of condescension I was familiar with: Yeah, we knew you were going but we didn't think you'd graduate! Maybe they were told the truth-- that even if they went to college it wasn't going to help them make any more money. Men got paid more anyway because they're the providers, and women are just there until they give birth so they don't really need any more money. (I honestly heard a congressman say this--it made me wonder how many parents tell their children that same thing.)
And there I was, watching children dancing, wondering when, as a country, we'd stopped dreaming beautiful dreams for our daughters. When did we start believing they had less of a right to things like equal wages and college education and reproductive freedom than their male counterparts. When did they start to believe, once again, that old lie that their best and most perfect function was as an oven, and that their voices didn't count when raised in defense of the daughters they'd birthed?
And for a moment I despaired.
And I watched them and cried.
Because that there is our answer. We teach our daughters to dream big by not killing our own dreams. We teach our daughter to dream big by teaching them that they are more important than vanity. We teach our daughters to dream big by showing them which dreams matter.
We teach our daughter to dream big by dreaming ourselves.
My daughter is graduating on Thursday. Oh Goddess, of all my prayers hear this one. May she never stop learning. May she find love and live through heartbreak. And may the dreams that make her happiest be the ones that come true.