In a moment of brilliance, one of so many in retrospect, Cassandra suggested I go back to school. There was a 2-year Master’s in Education program at the University of Washington at Bothell, and I could continue to work full-time at the Bakery the first year of the program. I barely noticed the time pass.
“…until we understand that such suffering (the tension from dilemmas) is neither to be avoided nor merely to be survived, but must be actively embraced for the way it expands our own hearts.”
Palmer, P.J. (1998). “The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life”. San Francisco, CA: Jossey – Bass.
I am a high school biology teacher now, just a few years removed from the graduate program that would ultimately liberate me from the grocery industry. I came across the following quote and it occurred to me that this is not only an effective way to teach, but it also an effective way to raise children.
There is no need to protect children from every challenge. Rather, the point is to face the challenges head on. What began as a 5th grader reluctantly punching a bullying 7th grader became a Gentleman Warrior and what started as an exploited weakness by a goalkeeping coach (upper V’s) became a strength in character. The point is there is value in the struggle itself.
A deterministic evolution in the strength of character, feels in the moment like pointless suffering. But, when survived, the same moment becomes the motivation, the power, and the impetus to survive future struggles. The ability to overcome the dilemma, the struggle, may not have happened if it was the initial experience with adversity. Rather, there was a simple idea planted at a young age that grew to dominate their personality: I can do it, and I will do it; no matter how difficult.
There are no guarantees, but sometimes, every now and then, you get to look up from the grind, and the struggle is done.
May 26, 2014 Thoughts from Graduation
Alexes graduated from the Naval Academy three days ago, May 23, 2014. I witnessed Alexes do things that were a direct extension of subtle things that we worked to instill in the youngest version of her, manifestations of the Warrior Princess. For example, I watched her overcome the disappointment of not being selected to the USMC, as was our family tradition. I remember the conversation we had about the subject. Alexes was a week past the tears, the almost debilitating disappointment, past the initial inclinations to quit altogether. Her “10 minutes” were up; it was time to move forward.
But, she was not quite past the sense of let down, the breech in her belief that all things can be overcome with hard work, with sheer determination, with an uncompromising will to press on, despite the appearance of insurmountable obstacles. It was the Princess that contemplated letting go of that belief system. The Warrior would have none of it.
The conversation went something like this:
“Dad, I wasn’t selected for Marine Aviation. I worked so hard for the last 8 months. I didn’t even get Marine Ground (her 2nd choice).
“I’m so sorry, Babe.” I responded. “So sorry. What does this mean?”
“I’m not going to be a Marine.” I could sense the mounting storm of anger at my question. I replied: “What I mean is…what did you get?”
“Naval Flight Officer, essentially a co-pilot. I didn’t even get Navy Pilot (her 3rd choice).
I responded matter-of-factly, “Looks like you need to focus on being the best fucking Flight Officer in the Navy.
“Your right, Dad. I’ll catch up with you later. Love you.”
“Love you too, Babe. Be strong.”
I began the conversation with the Princess and ended it with the Warrior.
Alexes graduated from the US Naval Academy with a B.S. in Informational Technology and was simultaneously commissioned as an Ensign to become a Naval Flight Officer. The ceremony took place in the traditional location, Navy and Marine Corps Stadium, where graduates are seated on the field and families, extended families, and friends are spread out throughout the stadium. At the conclusion of the ceremony, we made arrangements for everyone to rendezvous with Alexes underneath the massive scoreboard.
I waited in the predetermined spot and caught sight of my son as he approached the area. He was on a mission. I watched him searching for his older sister, than, catch sight of Alexes from 25 yards away, adjust his course to cut directly across the grass, and almost “truck stick” myself and two other family members so as not to slow his approach. As he pushed passed me, I distinctly heard him muttering, under his breadth, only partially to himself, but to us all at the same time, “Outta my way! Where’s my sister?” The focus of his conviction, the power of their embrace, brought most of us to tears.
The entire Commissioning Week, as it is fondly known, was filled with unforgettable moments; watching our family’s see the Yard for the first time, the majesty of the graduation ceremony, the Blue Angel flyover, and the traditional hat toss. I, too, remember the moment Mike talks about, where Mikey nearly knocked over his grandmother to be the first to hug Alexes. The joy of watching my son so supremely proud of his big sister was incredible. But, for me, the most touching and meaningful moment was far less public.
In her youngster year, Alexes struggled and deliberated leaving the Academy because balancing soccer, academics, and military obligations was becoming an exercise in constant failure in her eyes. She no longer had an A grade point average, did not have a long string of shutouts and championships in soccer, and militarily, she was not around her company enough (due to other commitments) to earn the respect of her shipmates.
In the spring, I flew to Annapolis and as soon as I arrived on campus, I knew this was a new low for Alexes. It was obvious, she no longer believed in herself. I feared for her safety because she didn’t just look distraught, she seemed seriously depressed. I told her at the beginning of my weekend stay that if she wanted to quit, she would have to do it with me there so she had some support. She sheepishly told me she needed to think and said I could not ask her again until the end of the weekend.
Before my eyes she pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and spent her time mapping out a plan. She met with professors that very same weekend to find out what she needed to do to raise her grades. On Sunday morning she told me, “go home Mom. I’m not quitting. I’m just going to fight and do everything better.”
I agreed to go, but I came prepared with something to give her strength after I left. I gave Alexes her father’s wedding band on a gold chain and told her that ring had survived the Iraq war. Maybe it could also help her survive these tough times? She looked at the ring with amazement. Our family never really had much of value, but sentimentally, that ring was priceless.
Two plus years later, after her graduation we walked through Annapolis back to the house we rented for the week. As Alexes took off her perfect white officer’s uniform, she showed her dad and I what was underneath; Mike’s wedding band on the same gold chain. Alexes said simply, “today as I graduated, you two walked across the stage with me”. There was no match to the love with which she said those words, no measure to how deeply we felt how much we meant to her.
I watched my daughter graduate from the US Naval Academy and her proudest moment was changing the shoulder boards on Mikey, promoting him from Plebe to Youngster.
Cassandra and I converted Alexes’ Naval Academy graduation uniform to the uniform of her commission. We removed her shoulder boards and then unraveled the white tape on her sleeves to reveal the gold star and single gold stripe of an Ensign in the US Navy. Finally, Mikey presented her new officers’ cover (hat), crowned with the anodized shield commiserate with her rank. Mikey’s proudest moment was rendering Alexes her first salute.
Despite all that day was to Mikey, the end of his Plebe year, the addition of a stripe to his uniform; all it was to Alexes, graduation, the moment that meant the most to each individual was a moment spent showing pride and respect in the accomplishments of the other.
Alexes and Mikey were my heroes before they ever left high school. My heart swells with pride at the thought of knowing that their presence at the Naval Academy will also make them heroes in the eyes of the nation.
On our fireplace mantel there is a small urn made of clear, tinted glass. The glass is held closed by a cork placed firmly in the top. There is a handful of sand in the glass that Cassandra gave me as an anniversary present. The sand came from Santa Monica Pier #25, the place where I first whispered into her ear, I love you. The place where she, after some small argument that I didn’t know what love is, responded, I love you, too.
Our lives are marked by conscious decisions. We made a conscious decision to conceive Alexes, to marry without telling anyone, to move to Seattle without any money, to finish our educations, to stay together… We must have been completely insane to make some of those decisions, to take those risks. But, not one of those decisions was taken lightly. Every move we made, we discussed at length, and every decision we made was better than our perception of the alternative. When we chose to conceive Alexes, it was a decision to be together as a family, and every single decision thereafter was based on that single premise: stay together as a family.
It’s no surprise Mike and I argued about even how to start writing this book. Anybody who knows us, knows that we, each in our own way, are stubborn, opinionated, and passionate.
Even if a single soul never reads this book, we wanted to document how amazing our kids are and how they overcame our blunders and stupidity. To say they are both Midshipmen (or Graduates!) at the United States Naval Academy , knowing our past, is nothing short of a miracle. This book is our love letter to Alexes and Mikey, our Warrior Princess and our Gentleman Warrior.
This a love story about four people, not two.