I had gotten a call from a parent who had run out of ideas and who felt like she was running out of time. We met in my class, and she described for me what the past year had been like with her daughter, Samantha (Sam). Now, I knew this parent and knew that she legitimately cared for and tried to guide her children wisely. But she felt something had gone wrong. Sam, a senior, was one of those kids who it seemed nothing could reach. All of the advice of educational psychology and parenting magazines didn’t seem to scratch the surface of what it would take to reach her. I knew better than to waste any more time giving Sam the you’ll-understand-someday lecture or the caring-adult-to-wayward-kid talk. She was bright and knew what you were going to say before you said it. That was the point; Sam already had weighed the consequences of her actions and accepted them. To Sam, nothing anyone could say would teach her anything she hadn’t already thought about. So, her mom talked some and cried some to me, and I listened.
Then came one of those rare moments of clarity. Without any sort of forethought or planning, something occurred to me about Sam, and most children in general. I let her mother finish what she was saying, and then I asked her if she had seen the movie “Apollo 13”. She replied, “yes”. Sometimes, I’m not quite sure where these metaphors are going, and by her expression, I could tell she wasn’t either.
“Do you remember the part of the movie when the capsule with the astronauts has to return to Earth?”
She nodded, “Mmmm Hmmm.”
“By now, the NASA engineers are afraid that the heat shields might not hold. If they don’t, the capsule will burn up and disintegrate. The astronauts are reentering Earth’s atmosphere; the temperature has turned the outside of the capsule red, and fire is streaming behind it. To make matters worse, there is a time during reentry during which those on the ground will not be able to communicate with the astronauts. The silence of that scene seemed unbearable. Everyone is still, quietly waiting for those first words, which will verify that their hard work and planning paid off and the shields held. Finally, after what seems a lifetime, the voice of one of the astronauts comes through. Everyone on the ground takes a deep breath and celebrates.”
She still looked at me, with that same puzzled look, waiting for me to make my point.
“Maybe this happens with our children. Like those scientists, we plan and work hard; we build those heat shields the best we know how, hoping they’ll protect them through the fires. But there comes a time when there’ll be no communication. And when that time comes, all we can do is pray that our hard work will pay off and that they’ll come through unharmed. It’s the time most parents fear the most, a time of complete helplessness. We fear for our children and want to control the situation. But the control is in the preparing for that time. I think you’ve built some pretty strong shields. I think she’s going to come back safe.”
I don’t know if that meeting had any long-term effects on her relationship with her daughter, but it did with me and my sons. I realized the lesson of Apollo 13: work hard in the beginning and build strong shields, knowing that a time is coming when my sons are going to need them. During that time, I’ll have to have faith in what I’ve tried to build and wait for them to come back to me.
Sometimes, those moments are as much, or more, for my sake. I do know that briefly, that day, she felt better and found some hope in letting go. So did I.