Tuesday, August 10, 2010

11 days to Bar Mitzvah: a world apart

As the wait time for your Bar Mitzvah closes in on single digits, your life begins to take on a quality most often found in the stellar phenomena known as a black hole. Once you pass that event horizon, you enter a great sucking maw from which there is no escape. Nothing, not even light, can get out.

Nearby stars are toast. The gas they create is drawn into the black hole, where it is superheated, kind of like how everything that takes place within our 1,079 square-foot slice of San Francisco from now until August 21 will operate at a heightened pitch, ten billion pounds of matter compressed to a single point. Margin for error is a luxury for others; not us.

Even the usually unflappable Sandra Bullock is beginning to show signs of wear, occasionally losing track of items she's spoken out loud versus only thought. As a result, guests sometimes move mysteriously from table to table, and woe to the husband poorly-equipped to anticipate such a move.

Each blown-off request to "go do your chanting" is a potential moment of life-changing embarrassment on the bimah. The two hours I just spent poring over iTunes, looking for songs to accompany the slide show tracking the development of the Jawa from birth to yesterday (no, seriously; the last image in the slide show is from yesterday) could make or break that very important segment of the party. You don't want people walking away in the middle of the show, their interest quashed by music too obscure or inappropriate to keep them on board.

As for the Jawa, he is finally beginning to feel the pressure, I think. Yesterday, while hurtling down 101 toward the promised land (you and I call it "Great America"), he sometimes looked up from his Droid and said, "Eleven days. Freaky."

"I remember when it was eleven days before my Bar Mitzvah," announced Josh K., expansively, from the back seat. "I already had my Torah portion memorized."

"Do you have yours memorized?" I asked the Jawa, breaking the unwritten rule that states adults sitting in the driver's seat must concentrate only on their assigned task -- driving -- and not make any potentially mortifying attempts to join the conversation.

It was difficult, because I've known Josh K. since he was five and have always had an easy rapport with him. Some things that don't crack up the Jawa crack up Josh K., which I've always appreciated. But this time, with two civilians -- Jonah and the bewitching Jenny -- in the car, every time I opened my mouth I risked ruining my child's social life.

The Jawa does not have his Torah portion memorized.

Interesting thing, riding in a car with three 13-year-old boys and a single 13-year-old girl, even one as clueless about her power over the boys as Jenny apparently is. "Jenny's just cool," the Jawa told me last week, when he screwed up his courage and called her, enduring parental inquisition on the other end before finally, nervously getting Jenny on the phone and asking her to go to Great America, then slamming down the phone afterward and announcing, "Now THAT is how it's done!"

As a completely unpretentious tomboy, clad in soccer shorts and tennis shoes and slightly taller than our Jawa but dwarfed by the towering Josh K., little Jenny had absolutely no clue that three boys were vying for her attention, each exaggerating certain elements of his personality in the hopes of winning her favor. It was bedlam in that car, let me tell you.

By the time we got to Great America, after 45 minutes of me not sharing with the car just how headache-inducing it is to drive while someone is playing youtube videos starring teenage boys yelling at us about how to become a ninja, I realized the folly of our boys’ efforts. The scales had been tilted all along. Jonah is a chick magnet.

We got out of the car to find that some ninth-grade girls -- former students at Brandeis Hillel Day School -- had parked next to us. Of our carload, they knew only Jonah, who absorbed their excited hugs and questions about his summer with effortless panache. My boys stayed behind and discussed certain roller coasters. Jenny milled about uncomfortably, not, I suppose, because she'd lost Jonah's favor but because she was honestly flummoxed by girls who'd wear impractical shoes and uncomfortable clothing to a theme park.

It's amazing what you can learn when you keep your mouth shut in a car full of 13 year-olds. The friendly science teacher, so polite and enthusiastic around parents, apparently transforms into Senator John Blutarski once we're out of earshot. And the Scottish P.E. teacher who earned my ire last year by repeatedly forcing the Jawa onto teams with his tormentor? The kids love him so much that they find his verbal abuse hilarious. It must be the accent.

It's easy to forget how much eighth grade is a world apart from the time kids spend at home, with us. We see them for a few minutes in the morning and then a few hours at night. When we talk about school, it's to monitor performance: are you keeping up your grades, are you behaving in class, are you learning things that you find interesting or will benefit you later in life? We totally overlook the fact that they, along with a bunch of adults we barely know, have constructed an entire universe within a bland institutional campus.

Which is our bad. We should know better. But we get caught up in the administrative tasks of running a life -- there's food to buy, laundry to fold, bills to pay, very short but dense dogs to feed and walk -- and so tend to only focus on the low-hanging fruit, the stuff they tell us we should pay attention to, lest our children end up poor citizens or unhappy adults.

Back when I was a schoolteacher, this stuff was foremost in my mind. I understood that for the two girls sitting next to each other and disrupting my English class, what they'd remember about that class wasn't Beowulf; it was that they'd sat next to each other. I was a chirping annoyance in the distance, a J. Crew-clad version of the teacher barking orders at Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty.

It's harder as a parent. Much harder. They should force us to take classes where we sit behind one-way glass and watch teenagers interact. Then we'd have some clue of what we should have remembered all along, before we ran headlong into mortgages and politics and forgot how long it took at 13 to get over some random sarcastic remark made by a hurried, overworked teacher or a completely out-of-patience parent staring at a mountain of unpaid bills and a child demanding an upgrade on his Wii.

I say this as my child sits in his room watching "Predator" on his computer, only a few hours removed from our latest dustup, in which he made it very obvious that my authority extended only to the keypad of his phone, lasting as long as it took to dial his mother and get her to overrule me. “You sound just like Dwight,” he spat at me, referring to the sadistic father in “This Boy’s Life,” assigned summer reading from Brandeis Hillel Day School.

And still, we plunge forward. Ten more days as a boy and then he's a man. One week later, he's back in school, trying to find his way, a Bar Mitzvah whose how-to-be-a-man guidebook is still several pages short, steered by parents hoping to remember that there are unquantifiable lessons that must be included along the path leading from childhood to the world.

1 comment:

The Hammer said...

Fascinating, on several levels.