It’s no secret that I love Harry Potter. And if you know anything about me, this should come as no surprise. I'm a little nutty about it, obsessed even. I’ve read the entire series five times through, and each time, I get swept up in the magic of the story. The books continue to teach as much as they engage, even after all this time.
Harry Potter 101 for you non-fans: Hogwarts is a magical school that trains wizards. Students are sorted into one of four houses, each named for their founders and exemplifying traits that those founders valued in their students: Gryffindor took the brave and chivalrous, Ravenclaw took those who were intelligent and witty, Slytherin took those of cunning and ambition, and Hufflepuff valued patience, kindness, and hard work, but pretty much just took the leftovers.
If I’m entirely honest, I identify most with Slytherin house, with strong streaks of both Gryffindor and Ravenclaw. I’m cunning, I’m bold, and I’m pretty smart. But I have never, ever identified with Hufflepuff. Not even a little bit. My own sister has called me a “loveable asshole,” and my husband can attest to the nature of my (slightly improved, but still not great) patience.
But life keeps calling me to act in very Hufflepuff-like ways.
My first teaching job was at a school that welcomed those on the fringes, a school whose open enrollment was among the highest in the state. An impressive statistic, for sure, but this open enrollment came at a price: these kids were society’s “leftovers.” These were kids who had been expelled, who had flunked out of other schools, who posed some pretty significant behavior problems. Other area schools simply did not want them.
When I was in college, I envisioned myself teaching only AP Literature courses to only a handful of exceptional, chosen students. I saw myself giving lofty, pretentious lectures on the Victorian British poets while my students scribbled pages of notes they could use to regurgitate my own thoughts back to me in a perfect five-paragraph essay. (Seriously, I expected this to happen.) I wanted a room full of Ravenclaws and Slytherins—intelligence and ambition, fighting it out for the top marks.
What I got instead was a bunch of Hufflepuffs.
That is not to say that I didn’t have exceptional students, because I did. I encountered kids whose talent with words was equal to/greater than my own, whose IQ’s were in the 140’s, who went on to become doctors and lawyers and engineers.
But the gap between the high and the low was vast, and for every excellent student I had, I had two or three who couldn’t be bothered to finish the work I assigned, regardless of ability. (One boy—IQ 140—often took worksheets straight from my hands and threw them directly into the trash.)
So instead of intelligence, valor, and cunning, I began to value hard work, and this completely changed my focus as a teacher. I decided to reward effort over outcome, because intelligence without application is worthless, and being willing to try is the first step to greatness.
So I pivoted, and I made my classes easy. (Which went against every pretentious inclination I’d had at the beginning of my career.) I stopped giving homework altogether. I focused on practical skills and their application. I taught very basic things, and we did a lot of the work together as a class. We read the Victorian British poets, sure, but I focused the majority of my reading curriculum on basic comprehension—a life skill that literally everyone will use. In hindsight, I see the wisdom in this decision. (Show me one adult without an English degree or a literary fixation who analyzes Victorian British poetry in their free time…)
Instead of giving a single, coveted A to one outstanding student per semester as I’d initially planned, I found myself promising passing grades in exchange for simple, genuine effort, and I only ever failed kids who did not complete their work.
I gave so, so, so many D— ’s. (Not quite failing, but oh-so-close.)
But those guaranteed passing grades were getting kids to readdress their failure mindsets, and suddenly, they were more willing to try. I embraced the challenge they posed, embraced them, and I fell in love with the idea of finding ways to reach them where they were.
Society is so much better off when the kids who aren’t exceptional or gifted are given a chance to thrive, even if the victories seem insignificant. (And a worksheet with answers written on it is better than one thrown directly into the trash can, regardless of ability level.)
I don’t teach anymore, but I still work with kids. As a foster mom, I have had to become a champion for inclusivity. I work even more closely with children who have been rejected, who face unimaginable mental health challenges, who struggle with school and socialization, who require special services for success.
I embraced my leftover kids. I’ve given them a place to belong. I’ve called them mine, and I love them.
Just call me Mother Hufflepuff.
Christmas is a Trigger Word.
Christmas is a trigger word in our house.
As much as I want the word to conjure visions of sugar plums and feelings of goodwill toward men in my children, it doesn’t—not entirely.
I call them my children, but legally, they’re not. One is now, after years of fostering and a hard-won adoption. But the rest are not and probably never will be in the eyes of the law.
But Christmas--oof. Sometimes my kids almost flinch when they hear the word. It often triggers a cutting and bittersweet pain, a longing for a reality that will never come to pass, a second chance with a family that I’m not part of, a family that has abandoned or betrayed them. The only visions that dance in their heads are memories of a past I barely understand.
And if I’m honest, sometimes the word makes me flinch, too. It conjures visions of a reality I’ve longed for but will never be able to have, one that I watch play out around me over and over and over for friends and family and strangers in Target commercials alike: natural-born children with their mother’s eyes and father’s smile, all dressed in matching Christmas pajamas as they sit around the tree.
I bought my girls matching pajamas this year, but no uniform can bring that vision to life.
We have this in common: we are each other’s substitute.
This is hard, because I’ve always loved Christmas. I love everything about the season, even the snow (and I’m typing this in a Minnesota blizzard warning). I love to give and bake and eat and laugh and celebrate and share, and the only thing that makes any of those things worthwhile is doing them with the people I love most in the world. There was no shortage of love in the home I grew up in. I didn’t understand it at the time—I thought it was normal. I see now—now that we take in so many children with such tragic stories—that it wasn’t.
It was special.
I’m trying to create a substitute holiday that feels magical for the children in my care, trying to build traditions for me and for them, for the makeshift family we’ve created by embracing each other. But all the while, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
(How much of motherhood is just wondering if you’re doing the right thing?)
I’ve learned over the years that my brand of Christmas gluttony can give indigestion to kids who aren’t used to such rich fare. It’s not uncommon for the moments of joy I provide to be accompanied by tears of pain or fits of rage.
It’s so hard to strike a balance.
It’s so hard to live with someone who has experienced an entire universe without you, even when you cannot imagine your own small world without them in it.
An entire universe.
So I conjure the best Christmas I know how, leaving as much room as I can for that universe and the multitudes it contains. I try to remember that I am not their whole world, even if they are mine.
It’s hard to live this way, especially around the holidays, to hold that much space in a relationship. It’s hard to leave room for others, when I want to rush in and give them all they lack, but it’s a hole I cannot fill. I can patch it, maybe, but I will never fill it. I am not the shape of the hole, and I never will be.
We are substitutes, every one of us.
So we spend our Christmases with these children with this hard truth in the room, giving them space to cry when what we provide is too much or not enough.
I try to give love and support.
I try to give patience and grace.
I try to understand. I try to offer compassion.
I try, and it is all I can do.
It is, in the end, the only good and worthy gift I can give.
I’m staring 40 in the face. It’s only two days away, and it feels huge.
I don’t feel that old. In so many ways, I feel like I’m still waiting for my life to begin.
My 20’s were full of naïveté and ease. I thought was strong and competent, and I think I made a pretty good show of it. I spent a lot of my 20’s pretending. I longed to be somehow more and less than I was. I wanted to be both physically smaller and eminently bigger (read: attractive and important) because I bought into the lie that those were the most important determining factors of self-worth.
I spent my 20’s creating a version of myself that I thought was strong and competent. I took a teaching job at a school so small that I was a department unto myself, so I was in charge of a lot of people. Granted, they were all between the ages of 14-18, but I was still bossing people around for a living, and I was good at it. It wasn’t hard to feel important—big fish in a small pond and all.
I had my sights set on family, on 2.5 (well, I wanted 5) kids and a white picket fence. I had the husband, the job, the house. It felt like a video game level I had to complete. But then I turned 30, and that mask of competence and badassery was ripped away in a hurricane of infertility and epilepsy.
It felt like someone pulled the plug on the Nintendo when I was just about to rescue the princess.
My 30’s have been pockmarked by loss and disappointment. The doctors told us a biological family was not only unlikely, but physically impossible. They told me I had epilepsy, chronic migraine, and fibromyalgia, and they tried a zillion medications to quiet my overactive nerves and get the seizures and headaches under control. I surrendered my job, my consciousness, my driver’s license, and my dignity.
So much for feeling strong and competent.
My 20’s were about striving for an ideal, about striving for the “American dream.” It was a time ripe with possibility and confidence, and the self I’d crafted reflected both. But my 30’s have been about learning to live without that mask I’d made in my 20’s. Actually, they’ve been about exactly that—learning to be without—without a driver’s license, without a job, without biological children, even without makeup. I’ve even embraced my natural hair color—figured I should enjoy it before it turns gray.
My 30’s have been about radical acceptance of what is, about collecting the shattered pieces of my reality and trying to fashion them into something new and beautiful. But my 30’s have also been about grief, about the death of so many dreams.
I never did rescue that princess. When the Nintendo rebooted, that game no longer worked. I found myself playing a different game entirely.
So as I embark on my 40’s, I am facing a fresh start. A second (third? fourth?) chance. A new game.
Every decade of my life has been an act of creation. I want my 40’s to be marked by the daring humility of new beginnings.
I just earned my yellow belt in taekwondo. I realize this may not be much of an accomplishment—it’s one level up from white, which is the color all beginners wear. But that wasn’t the true accomplishment. The true accomplishment was setting down my own stubborn pride and allowing myself to be a beginner. It was opening myself to the possibility of failure. It was embracing the discomfort of inexperience and recognizing that failure is simply a risk one must take to truly live.
I spent my 20’s avoiding failure.
I spent my 30’s mired in failure.
I want to spend my 40’s boldly risking failure.
So, in that spirit, I’m going roller skating tonight, something I haven’t done in more than 25 years. I might fall. (I realize that I probably will—I scheduled a preemptive chiropractor appointment for Monday morning.) But I bought a hot pink romper, put my hair into a wild side ponytail, and slathered on the blue eyeshadow to commemorate the occasion.
My roller skates even have pink light-up wheels.
I have decided to spend this next decade doing some of the things I’ve never dared to do before:
Cheers to new beginnings and bold failures.
Here’s to a fresh start, a reboot, a bonus life, and a new princess to rescue, even if it takes a few tries.
It’s time to be 40. Might as well make the most of it!