We’re crossing F street and Phoenix asks me for the difference between empathy and sympathy. And this leads to a discussion on two tangential experiences: commiseration and understanding. Watching my children grasp new concepts so swiftly, it’s still breathtaking all these years in. I don’t know what brought these emotional-relations topics on but I can think of some salient, personal examples in our lives, and I share them with my oldest as I feel the steering wheel hot under my hand. I glance across the street at a carved wooden structure; the sun is hitting the swollen river and I’d planned to let my oldest drive us down to class today but we were feeling rushed. Phoenix has his new learner’s permit folded up in his wallet, which he’s learning to take everywhere with him.
Earlier in the day we’d sat together on rigid bleachers and watched Nels play in Homeschool Gym & Swim – first, basketball drills and then, lessons in the pool. Forward crawl, breast stroke, butterfly, backstroke, diving practice. The homeschool group is small and Nels is one of the oldest, and tallest, of the attendees. He’s right at the cusp of finding it an utterly valueless experience, but I’ve convinced him the exercise will do him good. He’s a cheerful sort and so he applies himself and his swim stroke especially has already improved. I’m sitting with my coffee and my other child at my elbow and I can feel myself slipping into an irrelevancy, but it’s week two or month eight and I’ve been stuck here a while.
The fall is suddenly upon us, and it is indescribably wonderful. I’ve felt this exact autumn in my bones most of my forty-one years and I could recognize it with only a handful of my senses. I remember the last ninety-plus degree day, just a short few weeks ago, and then suddenly the temperature dropped. It is still warm enough, with rich rains, sometimes violent ones. My husband kept watering our sparse tomato plants right up until last week, although I told him there was not enough summer warmth left to coax the green fruits into ripeness.
The weather may be dipping into fall but it’s still plenty warm out, the sun is still hot on my skin and the heat catches and holds in my pigtails as my sponsor and I step out of the grocery store – carrying small packets from the deli and in my case, a quaint salad roll of basil, avocado, and cucumber – and travel to her car. She’s a far-parker, like my late father. It feels delicious outside.
I have decided a huge amount of conventional wisdom about teenagers is utter bollocks, as they say. Teenagers are not ridiculous or less-than; they do not deserve our smart-aleck comments and eye rolls. They do not warrant our smug and authoritarian parenting. My teens are not rude, entitled, “crazy”, “hormonal”, non-sensical. They are not especially loud or dirty. They are exactly as I would have predicted from my incredibly extensive and intensive experience unschooling them through childhood: they are whip-smart, kind, funny, sensitive, and joyful. They are genuinely interested in other people, not just themselves. They are interested in the whole of life, not just work. They do not have the martyred energy, the passive aggressive forms of communication, the entitled and inflexible attitudes of adults. They respond to criticism or correction with open-mindedness and they change their behaviors if their behaviors are deemed problematic.
If the citizens of this country were anything like my teenagers, the world would be a much better place.
There is a perfectly lovely woman at a local shop who always greets me warmly, and makes genuine, caring conversation with my husband and I when she sees us. She is a homeschooler and so that, I feel, is why she reaches out to connect. But she is a very different type of homeschooler than we: she uses a strict curriculum (for her several children), and the family is an evangelical Christian. Today I got to have that conversation I’ve had so many times in the last few years:
Her: “‘Boys’? I thought you had a boy and a girl?”
Me, smiling: “We thought so too! But we were wrong.”
I wait a beat. It takes most people a second to process what I might be saying.