Sunday, February 12, 2012

Learning From My Daughter's Presentation


And since yesterday I wrote of Evelyn, it seems only fair to have today be about my older daughter, Julia. She is ten years old and today gave a presentation at her Hebrew school about Sasha Cohen, the figure skater, as part of their study of Jewish people who have achieved fame. Julia dressed in tights and brought along a pair of skates. Her mother pinned her hair in a bun and Julia looked for all the world like a young figure skater. She was, as she so often is, statuesque. Tall, lean, poised, and oddly unflappable.

I say that last bit because Julia is usually somewhat shy. Friends say hello to her in passing and Julia rarely acknowledges beyond a look, a slight smile, a turning of her head. To which I invariably say, "Julia! Say something!" because I'm horrified that her friends will think she ignores them. You would think that I would have noticed by now, six years into school, that her friends continue to say hello to her, that they like her, and that no one other than me is concerned in any way with her silence, but I'm a slow learner. I've always thought of Julia as shy, but, on closer inspection, I can see that she is not at all.

Today, as the kids were getting ready to give their presentations, a friend who has her own child in the class asked if Julia was nervous. My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads. This sort of thing, we agreed, doesn't bother Julia in the least. She has had time to prepare, she knows the shape of the thing, and she looks at it as a simple task she is more than capable of. She has no nerves about it. In this way, she reminds us of me. Talking in front of people isn't a problem. Not in the least. Engaging with people one at a time is troubling on a different level and in much more mysterious ways.

Julia spoke to the gathered crowd without a second's pause. Her presentation was perfectly fine and she was well satisfied with it. Afterward, asked how she felt, she said, "I'm hungry."

There are a few things that come to mind from all of this.

One, I often mis-characterize who she is. I think of her in one way when in fact she steadfastly refuses to be one thing. She is a moving target, constantly becoming what she needs to be in the moment. Aren't we all? Isn't most of the problem that we are categorized as one thing and that we choose to categorize others as one thing? That person is a Republican, that one is funny; he's a dog-lover, she's a lesbian; and so on. Julia, each time I think I have her pegged, becomes something else. It is surprising to me every time because I've been taught that people are easily identified. That's so only if I'm willing to stop looking, listening, thinking, and feeling about them.

Two, things that seem difficult or frightening are often just the opposite. Public speaking is nothing really so long as we don't think of it too much before hand. Julia, I think, never gave a thought to having to stand before a crowd. It wasn't something to fear, it just was. I'm a man who has over thought nearly everything in his life. I say nearly everything because there were a good two dozen mistakes that could have used some forethought and a handful of times when I just let it be. Watching Julia I can see where she is both practically fearless and also struck dumb by the simple fright of someone saying hello or asking her a question. This is a spot where I think I can be of use to her as much as she has been my teacher.

Three, it is awfully nice to come away from a big event feeling hungry. In Julia's case the hunger is real. She is rail-thin, tall, and burns calories at an alarming rate. The hours she sleeps are as long as she can go without eating. Around the house, day to day, she is hopelessly hungry and badgers us with the question of what she should eat next. Feeling hungry is health itself and it says, in one way or another, what's next? Julia, having finished with the presentation, having sucked the marrow out of it, was simply ready for dessert or, better yet, the next meal. We should all go through the world in this way.

Having written one thing, our only thought should then be to write on.