Reflections on a child as she turns 21 Essay: A proud father looks back on one of life's enduring joys.

October 01, 1997|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SUN STAFF

Amanda turns 21 this week. But I can't say to her, "Now you are a woman," because she has been one for quite a while. Becoming a grown-up is a gradual process, one determined by actions and attitudes rather than an arbitrary number of ticks on a calendar. Some people never make it. But still, her 21st birthday is a special day.

She has given me joy, she has given me insight, she has given me memories. She makes me so proud and so sad, so confident and so worried, so pleased and so frustrated.

Born a month early (with two Lamaze classes yet to go) and after an extremely short labor, she has continued to be in a hurry ever since. She started teaching herself to read before she was 2. The first we knew of it was when she recognized the word "recognize" on a billboard.

In preschool she didn't do very well in scissors, but she persevered and eventually mastered the devious skill. She also didn't do well in math, and I realized that while we had discussed "the humanities," we never had gone into numbers. So we did math -- playing store or using playing cards or dice ("two and three is five," "four and six is 10," "one and one is snake eyes") -- and she soon excelled in that too. Years later, that would cause a problem.

The State of Maryland is interested in how many years of math its pupils take, not in the level they reach. Because of a comprehensive course in middle school, she was a year ahead of her class in high school and kept having to take ever more esoteric and, to her, worthless courses just so her transcript could show four years of actual classes. So in addition to learning math, she learned about bureaucracy and rigidity.

People kept telling her she should become an engineer. She grew to bristle at the idea, maybe a reaction to having to take the extra math courses. And though she was the only person I know who ever bested my father in an argument, she bristled equally at the suggestion that she become a lawyer.

Good teachers

She was lucky that she went to a good school system and had some very good teachers -- Ms. Goertler, Ms. Sammons, Mr. Siskind, Ms. Curtis, Senora Schneider, to name just a few.

She, and we, were also lucky by her choice of friends. They were as nice and multifaceted as she was. Kids today have a bad rap, but they are much more advanced and multi-dimensional than their predecessors.

Amanda had so many talents that she ended up with the same problems as a kid who had none -- not knowing what to pursue. She loved the cello and could play it well enough to make All-State Orchestra, even though she didn't practice nearly as much as she was supposed to.

But most of her interests grudgingly fell victim to the time squeeze that occurred when she discovered running.

She enjoyed sports for several reasons, one being that this countered her image as a brain. One of her happiest moments from elementary school was when the kids were choosing sides for a baseball game. Because she was small, and a girl, she was the last one picked. The next day, she was the first one.

Midway through high school she surprised us by announcing that she was going out for track. She started out as a sprinter, but the coaches at Oakland Mills worked her up to distance running. This for a kid who would argue for 10 minutes to avoid walking for five.

Through her, we were introduced to the fraternity of runners. One often reads bad things about how athletes and their parents act toward their counterparts from other schools. But this tension didn't exist in running. The kids competed hard, but they also became friends and helped, or consoled, one another.

Time together

All the while she was growing up, we never had nearly enough time together. I insisted she would not be driven to school, but she usually managed to find a way -- having to take her cello to practice or her school's ridiculously early starting time (she was arguing that this was contrary to kids' biological clocks long before some progressive school districts realized it).

I grumbled about having to drive her, but part of me was pleased. It was time together, though she rarely volunteered information about what was going on in her life, what was important to her. Except when we talked about running, her answer to questions was "Fine" or "Not now."

Our main time together was in the evenings. My shift at work meant that I didn't get home until at least 9 at night, when she was either in bed or on her way there. So we got into the habit of me reading her to sleep.

We spent some wonderful times together, reading some wonderful books, wearing out A.A. Milne's "When We Were Very Young" and going through "Alice in Wonderland," "Just So Stories" and the like.

We read what she was interested in, or what I happened to be reading at the time, or something I thought would be enjoyable or interesting. "Great Expectations," physicist Richard Feynman's reminiscences, "I Married Adventure" by Osa and Martin Johnson.

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