I’m reading The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a book about N. Korea. Ella saw it today and asked me to tell her what North Korea is like – so I told her how it’s a communist country that was created by Russia after WW II, how Kim Jong-Il and his son, Kim Jong-Un imprison hundreds of thousands of citizens in forced labor camps, how most of the population is starving because of the famine and sanctions, how they have sporadic electricity (if any) and only one radio station that blares propaganda into people’s homes reminding them to work hard for the “Dear Leader” who is seen as a god, and if anyone disagrees they are imprisoned and punished severely because they are not allowed to think for themselves. She wanted to know what communism is so I told her about Marx, Stalin, Castro, and Cuba.
(All of this without having to look up a thing on Google, I might add (rare for me!). I’m impressed with my-mom self on this one, actually, but my grandfather was a political activist and politician who did his dissertation on communism, and many of my relatives were stuck in communist Lithuania, so this knowledge is in my blood – and hers too, apparently.)
She wanted to know if anything like what’s going on in North Korea could ever happen in the U.S. so I explained to her what a democracy is. She asked a very astute question, given the weightiness of the topic – she asked if any of the democratic political leaders lie. I said it’s a tricky one to answer, but yes, they probably do.
This profoundly deep political discussion with my precocious eight-year-old lasted almost 30 minutes. I walked away from it in a mild state of maternal shock – wondering how I had missed seeing her, how one minute ago she was in diapers watching Dora and now here she is grilling me about Stalin! I wondered about other 8-year-olds – are they interested in political topics like she is? Do they have conversations with their moms about Stalin and do their bedtime chats include comments like “I can’t sleep because I’m not sure what God looks like?” Do they say things like, “How about we check in with the people of Haiti?” when given a choice of what to watch on Netflix, when they could just as easily have watched Pound Puppies? Or is it something that is particular to Ella, or highly sensitive children that are like her? When I was a child I was interested in tree climbing, Elvis, and boogers. I was not interested in philosophical and political topics until I got to college. My older daughter wasn’t into these deep topics when she was 8, either, and to this day if I bring up politics, deep thoughts, or use the word “puberty” around her she will shoo me off and scold me to “keep it age-appropriate, Mom.” (-:
So I’m stunned by Ella’s level of interest and her ability to grasp concepts that are beyond her age, even though she reads at a slower pace than my older daughter did, and struggles with handwriting, which makes me unconsciously (and unfairly)”babify” her at times. I think she’s a lot more intelligent than I sometimes give her credit for (I do this because she’s 8! I mean, how can a child who is still learning to read participate in and be riveted by in-depth discussions about Stalin? I just can’t wrap my head around it).
So today she did something pretty gosh-dern amazing. It got my attention.
Illusion, n.: The term illusion refers to a specific form of sensory distortion or a misinterpretation of a true sensation.
She was home sick (day 5 now) and we’ve been doing some work on her science fair project. I had suggested she write a sentence or two per day in her notebook for her project, so when it was time to do some writing I sat down to dictate her first paragraph to her (wrong-wrong-wrong! Never do this at home with an independently-minded Montessori child! Major faux-pas!). Her report is about optical illusions, and I had this idea that she hadn’t really grasped the concept of illusions yet so I was going to “help” her by dictating the first sentence. And, maybe even the first paragraph.
Can you imagine if you’re a child with an intellect, who might struggle a little bit in the handwriting department but who has no problem mentally grasping big thoughts about God, philosophy, the big bang theory, chess, and oh – communism, how annoyed you might be if your mommy inserted herself into your science fair project and had the gaul to dictate your opening paragraph to you?
I’m not trying to make excuses for myself but I was starting to get panicked that she hadn’t done any writing yet, and it’s due next week and we have a busy week ahead so I wanted to speed things up. So without thinking I had brazenly assumed she “needed my help” in understanding and writing her report (she did not) and in making this inane assumption, essentially, I didn’t “get” her. At all. I didn’t see beyond the awkward handwriting, frankly. I was under an illusion – I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. She ended up becoming so annoyed with me (and grumbly because she’s sick) that she stomped off and went upstairs to her bedroom, in tears. She remained there for a long time, in protest, and wouldn’t let me in (something she’s never done before). After I realized my mistake, I slipped a note and some jelly beans under her door:
In response, she slipped a piece of binder paper that had a half a page of cursive handwriting on it under the door. The thing about Ella is – she really struggles with handwriting. It’s painstaking and takes her a long time, and she has never written on regular lined binder paper that I know of. I was shocked to see all that writing she’d done, all by herself.
At first I thought it was a note of complaint to me – but when I looked closer, I realized it was the whole first page of her report. Holy shit.
It explained everything – what an optical illusion is, the three different types of illusions, what an ignorant mom I was for not getting it (well, okay it didn’t say this really, but it’s the message I got from my own self after seeing how I underestimated her).
When she finally opened the door and let me in, her face wore the look of a weary, old soul. An old soul whose mother didn’t get her.
I said, “I’m sorry I tried to do it for you. I shouldn’t have, and I won’t make that mistake again.”
She finally smiled and said I could come in, but only if I wanted to play Sum Swamp. So that’s what we did.
As for our uber-deep discussion about Kim Jong-Un, here’s how it ended:
Me: “So do you understand all of this stuff about North Korea and Kim Jong-Un?”
Ella: “Yes. Kim Jong-Un is like the Burgermeister Meister-Burger. And meanies like the Burgermeister don’t get away with doing mean things for long.” (-:
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