Monday, January 26, 2009

The very first thing that happened when I walked through the door tonight was that my six year old boy rocketed across the room, offering a library book.

"It's about Abe Lincoln.  He died.  He was shot.  By an actor."

I settled my groceries on the floor at my feet and when I knelt to take in this news, my eyes met the wide, blue eyes of my son.  

"It really happened." He said.

He was thrilled.  Thrilled.  More visibly thrilled by this book than by any number of "Star Wars" comics and the unending adventures of "Captain Underpants" combined.  Those were stories.  This was true.

"Read from here," he said and then he lowered his voice.  "It's about the killing part."  

I sat back on my heels and listened as Theo described the blood on Lincoln's head, the shape of the gun and Booth's jump to the stage below.  I don't like guns.  I don't like shooting.  When we read, I usually skip over the gruesome parts, cutting with agility around all kinds of bleak scenarios.  I thought that by trimming around violence, I could build for my children a more peaceful world.  Turns out I was wrong.  For Halloween, Theo did not want to be Luke Skywalker.  He wanted to be Darth Vadar.  My daughter invents stories of Evil Queens and Lost Orphans and Wicked Stepmothers.  It's the bad guys who get all the best lines; the bad guys who stick in the imagination and become the kind of titillating ghost stories that are too scary to continue, too delicious to end.  Violence is interesting.   When Theo finishes talking, I wait.  I'm wondering if John Wilkes Booth is going to find a place in Theo's imagination.  Is this drunk actor going to be more interesting than the man who freed the slaves?

"Mama," Theo said, "Read about Abe Lincoln.  He did so much."

We learned that Lincoln started his career at 28 and that he married Mary Todd.  When I try to skip over the fact that Lincoln lost two sons to illness, my own son catches me and makes me re-read the paragraph.  My voice cracks.  We read through the Civil war and I muscle through paragraphs about screaming men and drowned horses.  When I get to the Gettysburg Address, both of my children are still listening.  

"Should I read this?" I ask pointing to the big block of text on the page.  
"Read it, Mama," Sadie says.  She settles against me and her curls tickle my chin as I read Lincoln's dedication.  It is a beautiful speech to read aloud.  I am grateful to read it aloud to my children.  By the end, my eyes are wet and both of my kids are solemn.

"That is important," Theo says.  

I ask if he knows what it is about and he replies, "it's about being good to people."  

"It's good to be good," Sadie says.

The book ends with the shooting.  It's only one page and I read the whole thing.  

Theo can read.  He can read about the death of a son, the loss of a battle and the big, giant billboards for "My Bloody Valentine in 3D."  But he can also read the words, "with malice toward none; with charity for all..."  And I am here to help him understand. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Last week,  my daughter Sadie twirled around the kitchen floor while her brother Theo sang "We Shall Overcome" from his hiding place behind the laundry basket.  Along with a frayed purple princess dress, trailing tulle, she wore an expression that mingled complete seriousness, total concentration and supreme confidence.  The linoleum, lit by the the morning sun had become her stage and she belonged there.  Performing for an audience of one coffee swilling mama, Sadie was in her element, her hands traveling skyward like two graceful birds.  

Yesterday morning, our new president seemed to greet his audience of thousands with the same even certainty.  He seemed to be listening to his inner voice in the same way that Sadie, decked out in glittery wings and tiara is listening to hers.  

When I picked Theo up from school, the inauguration speech was being replayed on the radio.  
"It's Barack Obama!" Theo shouted.  "Roll down the windows!  Turn it up so everyone can hear."  I gave the volume knob a spin and felt the wind in my hair.  "This is history!" Theo shouted.  "This is history!"

Last year, when he was in kindergarten, Theo played "Man on the Bus" in a play commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.  In this play, Mr. King rode in the back of the bus with Rosa Parks and Ghandi and a group of pre-schoolers shouted "We Protest."  In the end, everyone was allowed to sit where they wanted and they all sang "We Shall Overcome."  Last year, Theo didn't really understand that King had been killed.  This year, he told me that someone threw a bomb in King's house and when that didn't work, they shot him.  Last year, he wasn't entirely clear why Rosa Parks wasn't given a seat on the bus, but this year, he understands.  

Theo is sometimes shy and sometimes exuberant.  His face is wide and his skin so pale as to be almost luminescent.  When he is nervous, he chews on the cuffs of his shirts, sometimes gnawing a hole through the fabric.  As he struggles to read, he chews a pencil.  His eyebrows come together and his jaw clenches with effort.  His body twitches, feet always shifting beneath the table, knees bouncing, fingers bending pages.  When, at last, his homework is finished, he springs out the door, ball and mitt in hand to throw and catch and throw and catch.  Looking up, squinting into the late afternoon sun, he is certain his ball will meet his glove and this certainty relaxes him.  

I'm not going to say that Obama should be honored for helping folks realize that anything is possible.  It's true, but I think if you stop to look, there are signs of that all around us at all times.  I will enjoy watching our President do the thing he seems most content to do.  He will make mistakes and bad decisions and some people will be angry and others will forgive, but at any time, it seems he will approach this job with certainty.  Just as Sadie's tiptoed feet follow each other across our linoleum, just as Theo's ball meets glove, Obama will move through the next four years in his element and that will be a pleasure to watch.