Thursday, March 24, 2011

More Than a Shark Jump

I’ve been into Happy Days lately. Like, really into Happy Days, far beyond typical Comfort TV indulgences. I skip The Daily Show so I can catch bad Season 9 reruns on The Hub. I seek out those cringe-inducing musical numbers on YouTube. I pore over the episode guide on Wikipedia, trying to get the series narrative straight. Somehow it’s become hugely important to learn things like: How many episodes featured Suzi Quatro’s Leather Tuscadero, and was I in 3rd or 4th grade when they aired?

What can I say? I’m a midlife-crisis-bound Gen X girl, and Happy Days is my Rosebud.

There wasn’t a lot of TV in our house when I was a kid. Maybe my sisters and I watched the occasional Mary Tyler Moore or Rhoda with our mom. But that ABC Tuesday night line-up was all ours – our first childhood foray into prime time “appointment television.” And when The Fonz jumped that shark, we were on the edge of our freakin’ seats. Cynicism would come later.

We loved Fonzie’s folk heroism, the delightfully predictable jokes and catchphrases, the comic mayhem. We loved the 70’s girl power of Pinky and Leather (and occasionally Joanie and Marion). We loved that the show let us identify with teenagers – they’re like grown-ups, but they’re still kids! They went on dates. They had wacky adventures. They helped their local restaurant owners out of jams. It was everything a child might wish for her teenage future: adventure within the safe status quo, all under the guidance of a nurturing-yet-hilarious support system.

Ironic, then, that the real “shark jump” of the show (not The Fonz’s literal water-ski jump over the shark, but when the quality went downhill) coincided with the onset of my actual adolescence. Just as I was realizing that tweenhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Happy Days’ representation of teenhood started flat out sucking. Recycled plots, or downright improbable ones. Everything seemed a little less full; a little more contrived. And Joanie’s 1980’s good-girl perm looked as awkward on her as it did on me. So disappointing.

Maybe by age 10 or 11 I was simply becoming a more sophisticated viewer. But I think the show was taking a pretty serious nosedive by anyone’s standards. I mean, come on…Richie leaves and his cousin Roger moves in? But Lori Beth keeps hanging around, eventually marrying Richie in by proxy? And then Joanie leaves and her cousin moves in? Really?

It was like the loss of childhood innocence itself. The stuff we used to take at face value now seemed absurd and suspect. The circus, Disney movies, even our beloved Jersey Shore – nothing amazed and delighted quite like it used to. Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I remember having a distinct sense that my life would never be quite as simple and joyful as it was when I was a little girl. And so it was with Happy Days.

The one bright light in all of this, of course, was our generation’s Bella and Edward:

Now there’s an area where I was still willing to suspend disbelief! So much was wrong for me in 7th grade. But the notion of Joanie and Chachi, with those intoxicating gazes into each other’s eyes…somehow it just lifted me up.

It wasn’t about Scott Baio. Maybe I’m the only one, but I never had a crush on the guy. (And you know I’d tell you if I did!) No, I was just deeply intrigued that such captivation with another person was possible…that one could adore that much and simply be adored back. It was a glimpse of intense romantic love, wrapped in the safe context of a prime time parent-approved family sitcom.

And that’s all fine for a 12-year-old girl in the early 80’s. I just wonder why I’ve been so intent on reconnecting with these shows now? Why all the late-season Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi? Why the nostalgia for the unhappy chapters in my girlhood and the lame TV shows that got me through it?

Maybe that’s the answer right there. 41 is the new 12. Once again, I’m facing a transition of sorts. Not only are the carefree 20’s long gone, but so are the 30’s – my years of early marriage, early parenthood, and the novelty of “Hey, I’m mainstream now! But I’m still cool. Check me out, blaring my Sleater-Kinney on the way to the pediatrician’s office.”

Sure, there’s still plenty of joy to be had. But none of this will ever be new again. The challenges just keep on coming, and they’re only going to get bigger. In the midst of this tough year we’re having, it’s downright comforting to remember how similarly stark my tweenhood was…and how I managed to hold it together and find little joys and comforts throughout.

My sudden fascination with Happy Days is more than just pop culture geekery. It’s about reacquainting myself with my childhood innocence, and how I stayed strong through the loss of it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Smart for Smart's Sake

Didn’t we just do this two years ago? Another public school cafeteria, another stack of multi-colored handouts, another gathering of fresh-faced parents with carefully prepared questions for the principal and tour guides. But it’s a little different this time. Everyone kind of looks like they just won the lottery.

There’s a cluster of moms at the end of my table who all know each other, and they’re happily – almost giddily – comparing their children’s test scores. “But what was her combined score?” Et cetera.

There’s a dad whose daughter looks about The Boy’s age. “You’re the only kid here!” the dad tells her, brimming with joy and pride…and maybe just a hint of smugness.

“No I’m not,” she says shyly, glancing around the room at the unlucky babies and toddlers who’ve been dragged along for this.

“Yes, you are! You’re the only kid who came on the tour! Want to meet the principal?”

She doesn’t.

Although the principal seems like a nice enough guy. Young. Hip glasses. Way better dressed than your average Seattleite.

He asks how many parents are here for the highly gifted program. (They call it APP – Accelerated Progress Program.) Nearly all of us raise our hands.

He asks how many are here for the special education program or whose children are “twice exceptional.” I proudly raise my hand again. Highly gifted with a side order of Aspergers. That’s my boy.

My hand is the only one raised. The moms at the end of the table giggle at the term “twice exceptional.” I raise my hand a little higher.

It’s not easy, this business of having one foot in “special ed” and the other in “gifted.” Quite the roller coaster ride. One day, I’m talking to the school’s occupational therapist about The Boy’s labor intensive handwriting. The next, I’m getting a call from the school district’s Advanced Learning test provider to let me know The Boy’s made it to the next round.

“Yeah…about that. He’s going through a lot of evaluation this month to qualify for an IEP. Can we just opt out of this?”

It was like asking if we could opt out of our golden ticket to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. She was appalled. Why would anyone want to opt out? Ultimately, she persuaded me to keep him in so we could at least have his test scores on record with the district. Besides, The Boy actually likes those tests. “Logic puzzles,” he calls them.

Sure enough, in between an e-mail from a teacher about his latest meltdown and a round of phone tag to schedule his evaluation meeting, we got this in the mail:

The Advanced Learning Review Committee has determined that your child is eligible as a student who is academically highly gifted and qualified to enroll in the Accelerated Progress Program (APP).

I’m not going to lie…that was a pretty damn satisfying letter to get. Like, Jane Austen satisfying. The kid had four years of play-based preschool, never saw a flashcard in his life, raised the eyebrows of many a judgmental parent on many a playground – and he gets into the APP program simply by being his own wonderful self. Delicious.

We had no intention of actually enrolling him. That would mean uprooting him to a whole new school. But once we had that letter…well…we might as well take a little peek inside Wonka’s chocolate factory, right?

There’s a lot of material out there to suggest that highly capable kids do best in programs designed to meet their academic needs. We’re all familiar with that trope – the smart child who acts out simply because she’s bored. In fact, The Boy complains about being bored by his school work all the time. “He probably is bored,” observed Mr. Black, an erstwhile Little Man Tate himself. Fair enough.

The school’s handouts made a similar argument, with a persuasive emotional appeal:

These children need each other as much as they need the differentiated curriculum. They need to be surrounded by other children who pursue special, often idiosyncratic interest in depth, who read widely, who see multiple sides to an issue. Without a supportive peer group, our children can experience painful social isolation and learn at an early age to hide their gifts and abilities.

Gulp. I remember feeling like that as a child. Heck, I remember feeling like that as an adult. No parent wants that for their kid.

But as I followed our fashion-booted tour guides down the halls, it wasn’t clear to me how this school would be a haven from “painful social isolation.” The playground was just a playground. The gym was just a gym. The kids were just kids. And the classrooms looked a lot like the classrooms at our current elementary school. They even use the same district-mandated materials and lessons – although a teacher explained that they provide a unique approach and go into a lot more depth than in an ordinary classroom. And, of course, they’re working a grade level or two ahead.

I asked about other students with special needs in the APP program. What was their experience like? No one seemed to know. I was hoping that at least one person would know of a classmate or parent. I was hoping for a welcoming attitude or some version of reassurance. What I got was a bunch of blank faces. Ask the principal, they all said.

He was nice. And frank. He said we could meet and go over the IEP; talk about what they’d be able to replicate at this school. There are students with Aspergers in the APP program, and their success varies depending on the kid. Some thrive. Some struggle. Ultimately, he advised, we should send The Boy to the school where he’ll get the most support.

I’d made up my mind even before the Q&A was over. Time to click those ruby slippered heels and keep The Boy at his current elementary school. We’ve had our struggles there. But he’s also made some good friends and connected with some talented teachers who genuinely like him and want to do everything they can to help him succeed. He’s made so much progress since those rocky early weeks of first grade. Might as well stick around and build on that success.

But here’s why I’m no better than those smug prospective parents on the tour: I’m just slightly – ever so slightly – disappointed that APP isn’t going to work out. There’s a small, superficial part of me that felt vindicated by the designer label, if only to stick it to all the people who’ve ever made me doubt my boy or doubt my own parenting.

I know it’s wrong. Being able to say “My kid tested into the super-giftedy-gifted school, so suck it, yuppies!” is fun and all…but fleeting and mired in bad karma. It’s only the start of a rat race I could never hope to win, because nobody wins. And it takes the focus off of my actual kid and what’s actually best for him. I know that.

Still…the external validation was nice while it lasted. I’m totally saving that APP letter.
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