I decided to go to a poetry reading a couple of weeks ago, to support a friend. It happened to also be an Open Mike that accepted prose, so I decided to read. Suddenly, I noticed that there was a theme for the writing - puppets. Puppets?! Now what ? I thought I was going to go read an already finished piece. Being a good raised Catholic girl, I sat down to write and managed to write to that theme. I finished it about an hour before I was to leave, feeling intense pressure - unnecessarily. I sometimes just get too caught up in rigid expectations, probably my own. Anyway, my piece was very well received, surprising and encouraging me. I've decided to post it here. Lately, everywhere I go there are themes popping out at me in little bits of overheard conversation or things friends randomly say that kick up a memory. I've been a writing demon and loving every minute of it.
As hard as my family tried, I would never agree to be a puppet. Don’t even try to pull my strings, you won’t find any. Nope, there are no strings attached here. I am not even that fond of puppet shows. Why would I ever agree to be tied up, tied down, and jerked around? I have certainly been around a lot of puppets, though, non-thinkers who depend on others to do for them, to think for them, to care for them. But is that really caring? I don’t think so. I've always loved Pinocchio, ♫ “I've got no strings so I have fun, I'm not tied to anyone. How I love my liberty, there are no strings on me!” ♫
Because I was never allowed to think for myself, not even to buy or choose what clothes to wear, to choose my own friends or the music I listened to, I insisted that my daughter become independent. I was a young mother, struggling to figure things out on my own and struggling to find my sense of self. I was determined that she would grow up to be a strong woman. And man, did she ever. I probably went a little overboard when, at age two, I insisted that she go by herself to ask for more ketchup for her fries at a fast food restaurant. I can still see that little toddler trying to peek over the counter and get someone’s attention. But I let her go, and she did it. As a child, I was never allowed to leave my parents’ sides, and I wasn't going to let that happen to her.
But free thinkers are usually a threat to puppets. My parents tried to beat it out of me with little success making me sneakier and more and more frightened. My teachers tried to teach it out of me with even less success, watching me fail year after year. My peers tried to bully it out of me causing me to stop eating and to hide out as much as possible. I wanted to be invisible. Did I want that for my daughter? No, I did not. But, did I want her to be a puppet? No, even less so. So, what to do now?
Her dad and I had hitchhiked our way across the country in 1975, landing in a hippie commune in the warehouse district of San Francisco. After she was born, we lived in a variety of places, in a park in Santa Cruz, CA, in a VW bus, in a tree house, in a trailer park, and way too many houses and apartments to name. Eventually, we made our way back across the country and landed in Albany. I had already been trying to navigate the various school systems across the country, to help her avoid “puppetdom”. I was saying things like, “No, you don’t have my permission to spank my child if she misbehaves in school.” “Wait, Good News Club is Christian education? Then why is it offered in public school?” and, “ No, she cannot sign away her soul to God at age 5.” So, we tried homeschooling.
That worked for a while, and then she needed more socialization, and I found alternative schools. They were a great fit for both of us. I was able to teach, and she was a great student, thriving in her new found educational freedom. But we soon found that even free thinkers expect a certain amount of conformity in a non-conformist setting. And now I was saying things like, “Why can’t she do worksheets, if she wants them.” “Please give the girl homework when she asks for it.” And, “You can’t make her go to the protest if she doesn’t believe in it.” But we both survived and she eventually moved back into public school.
In 9th grade, when her math teacher insisted on teaching each week’s lesson on Monday and burdening the students with nothing but worksheets the rest of the week, both in class and for homework, my daughter offered a compromise. “How about letting me take the test on Friday without doing all the worksheets and homework”, she said. “If I pass the test, I can do the same the next week.” That night, I got a call from the teacher asking my permission to let him teach her a lesson by agreeing to her plan and letting her fail. I chuckled to myself and told him to go right ahead. After a full school year of no homework or worksheets and getting an “A+” for her final grade, this same teacher called back to apologize and tell me that he was reevaluating his teaching style. After accepting his apology and hanging up, I did a victory dance. That man had cut some of his puppet strings. And now I go out into the world every day trying to help cut more strings wherever I can.
♫ “Hi-ho the me-ri-o, I'm as happy as can be. I want the world to know nothing ever worries me.” ♫ Thank-you, Pinocchio.