By Elizabeth Stuelke
When we lived in Manhattan, we began contemplating education for the kids. This idea, at first seemed somewhat normal to me. We had a little girl, it was 2003, parents were, as I was finding out, very invested in these decisions, especially in New York.
But for myself, I had a rocky (at best) time in school and remember lots of painful memories. I’m sure the good ones are there as well, but I found the process of being educated very painful. Moving when I was beginning ninth grade (Morgan will now move at the beginning of eighth), did not help.
How do you go about making friends when you are new to a place? When you are awkwardly shy (at least in my case), easily led and misunderstood, and desperately need acceptance? There was a part of me, from as far back as I can remember, that reached out to find something to lean against, to feel myself against, to hear myself against, because somehow I was not able to touch, or feel, or hear on my own. I needed someone else to help me. I was not able to communicate that, so there I was: a little sponge in need of something to soak up. A yearning without the faintest idea of what I wanted. Eyes wide-open seeing everything and taking everything at first glance; questioning nothing. Gullible. Fill in the blanks, as you will.
Now, here I was with a daughter. A husband in medical school. A job in publishing. I had made some adjustments. I had made it through. But how? What was it that helped me find the place I was to inhabit? Was it the questioning alone, which seemed to be all I ever really did? Was the asking of questions enough to land you in a position that would afford you some answers? Was I just lucky?
My husband and I have discussed many times over the years this idea of luck. He allows that, yes, we are lucky, but that also we have worked for what we have and have made choices that allowed us to follow the paths we are now on.
But what choices were made before we started making our choices? What about the position we began in? The position we started in: the ideas we had from childhood, from our family, our parents, our surroundings, where and how we grew up? What part did any or all of those things have in where we ended up? And now, faced with making choices for another – a child who may or may not be affected for the rest of her life by our choices – how do we make choices for her?
As I found education for myself, I realized the difference it could make from simple internal conversations to those that span the centuries, continents, and countless other boundaries. Somehow it was not made clear or I was not yet listening, in my younger years, but later it started to make sense. I didn’t really know what questions to ask, when I was a kid. I had to find out what was possible, to even begin to form a real question.
This realization has led me to ask how I should frame these choices for my family. And it also makes me question what we really are able to choose about our life and how we live it.
My parents raised me and my siblings before the internet. They raised us in the country, once we moved away from the delinquent influences I was invariably drawn to. They raised us in the woods. They raised us alone. They did not have neighbors or family to help them. They did not realize the gulf that developed which I strove to fill with something, whether it was in books, the few I had, or people, the few who would associate with me. They didn’t know there was anything to do with us other than let us be.
Before “helicopter parenting,” as I’m sure people see in me, I’m sure the parents in larger, closer knit communities, did their own watching of the kids. The influences that are looking for kids in every generation are ones that can take them in many different directions. Some find worthwhile outlets for their rebellion, in music or the arts. Some found experimentation with science, nature, building, farming. Some never found ‘it’ at all, and that accounts for the people who will, no matter what the patterns or alternatives, find the destructive.
One way I try to hover over Morgan is to put in her way everything I can that will capture her attention and keep her from seeking that darker side, the one I fear she may have inherited from me. Is that even possible? My parents didn’t even seem to know there was a darker side. Did I get mine from them?
Morgan has attended the PAA Preschool, with it’s privately-hired science and preschool teachers; lessons at Asphalt Green, 74th Street Magic, 92nd Street Y, PS 183, the American Museum of Natural History Early Adventurers Program and so on and so on. Is it all too much?
At two, she said she wanted to be a “fish-doctor.” At four, it changed to maybe a doctor, maybe a biologist. Since the sixth grade it has been a definitive veterinarian, more specifically, a large animal vet. She has since participated in a veterinarian for the day experience, donated to the Friends’ school auction – I bid on it in advance of her pronouncement.
To make all these opportunities possible I volunteered, applied for need-based aid, begged for the opening of a spot in closed programs, put myself in touch with the program directors, made the programs myself, taught the programs, and vied at every turn for aging the programs up as Morgan got older. My interest in education is egalitarian, spurred by my own lackluster experience, and vital to who I am today.
I know I am not alone in vying for her enrichment. I know I am not alone in valuing these experiences. What I do not know is what they will prove one way or the other, in a positive or negative for her education, experience, or her relationship with me.
I also do not know where it will end, as we contemplate paying for her college (my husband, Satre, is adamant that we not see her strapped with debt like we are). Are we alone in this? I think not. Is this different from how my parents thought? Probably. Was their thinking less caring, less interested in my future? Maybe because it wasn’t in their realm of experience to have me go to college, to spend the money they did have on making sure I got ahead. And would it have made a difference? Would I have been worth the investment? I think the whole of my experience would need to have shifted. I do not fault them, but I realize I want to do it differently. I know me now, if I didn’t then, and I want to put so many things in Morgan’s way so she doesn’t trip over anything.
No one said it was going to be easy making these decisions for someone else, but we are making them, thinking about them, trying to do the best with what we have, finding what we don’t, and helping her become whoever it is she wants to be. That’s all I ever wanted for myself. I hope she appreciates it, but even if she doesn’t…I know she will.
I’m where I am because of where I’ve been. I know that. And I owe my parents a lot. I’m sure some of you have similar questions about kids and your decisions… don’t you?
Elizabeth Stuelke has been living with her artist-turned-physician husband, now in his last year of training in Radiology, for 15 years. She has been writing for longer than that. They have two children: a girl age 11 and a boy age 8. They live now in Baltimore and Central PA (respectively, Elizabeth in Lewisburg with the kids). Elizabeth began her career in the arts, has worked in the corporate world, views her kids and family as her creative work for the past 11 years, and now finds herself somewhere that feels like a beginning. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and check out her husband Satre’s most recent artwork at radiologyart.com.