We had a kindergarten tradition at Flint River Academy. Every fall, Mrs. Nina Lemmon (yes, with two ems…and it’s a long i in her first name, not a short i) taught her students to tie their shoes.
She cut out dozens of little shoes from yellow construction paper. You end up with a lot of yellow construction paper when you are a school teacher named Mrs. Lemmon. She wove one white shoelace through each, and labelled them with the names of her new students. The shoes hung on the wall inside her kindergarten classroom with their laces loose and dangling.
Every few days, Mrs. Lemmon, who was an angel of patience, gave us a chance to practice tying our shoes. If you did it right, your shoe was moved out into the hallway under construction paper letters that shouted: “I CAN TIE MY SHOE!” If you couldn’t get it to work, your shoe stayed in the classroom and waited for you to solve the magic puzzle that brought the loose ends together into a neat bow.
I wasn’t the first to get my tied shoe moved out to the hallway. Or the second. Or third. Each day, as we walked in a rambling line to the lunchroom or the library, we passed the parade of neatly tied shoes outside Mrs. Lemmon’s classroom.
It had started to worry me–yes, my neurotic little five-year-old self was already worried about measuring up. What if mine was the last shoe added to the line? What if I never managed to make the rabbit go around the stump and into the hole?
No kid got out of Mrs. Nina Lemmon’s kindergarten class without learning how to tie her shoes. NOT A ONE. I should have known that she wouldn’t let me miss out on this important piece of knowledge, but I wanted to be done with the hard part of learning and on to the celebrating. I wanted my shoe in that hallway for everyone to see. So they would know that I was smart. That I was capable. That I was OK.
One crisp October morning before sunrise, I sat on the living room floor in our trailer and I worked on tying my shoes. It wasn’t happening. I remember my dad’s boots stopping near me (boots–that could be my Plan B if I never figured out the laces!). He squatted down and showed me again. Maybe it was the angle or maybe something clicked or maybe I was just ready, but IT WORKED. I tied one shoe and then I tied the other. I couldn’t wait for Mrs. Tigner to pull up in the driveway and honk the horn on her brown station wagon so that I could get to school and show Mrs. Lemmon that I knew how to tie my shoes!
A couple of weeks ago, G took the kids shoe shopping. Vivi came home with a powder blue pair of sneakers…with laces. Oh boy. That’s when it hit me. My kid is in third grade (gifted, no less!) and still doesn’t know how to tie her shoes. Thanks, Velcro. What would Mrs. Lemmon think?
Every morning, when I had to tie her shoes for her, I added “teach Vivi how to tie her shoes” to the running list of things in my head that I have to do or someone will find out that I’m an incompetent mother. It’s overwhelming, that feeling. That dark gray shadow in my mind that says, “What have you forgotten?”
We sat down last night after dinner with no distractions. I took one blue shoe and held it in my lap while Vivi sat across from me with the other.
“OK. Before we ever start, let me just tell you–you’re going to mess this up about 20 times before it makes sense…OK?”
She got it after seven.
After she tied the laces correctly a couple of times, she was ready to quit and go watch Pokemon on Netflix. When I insisted that she sit there on the rug and tie her shoes at least 20 times, she moaned and groaned.
“Hey, Viv. Watch this.” I closed my eyes tight and tied the shoe. She marveled. I took the shoe with loose laces, put it behind my back, then brought it back tied neatly.
“Whoa! You’re a magician!” she laughed and grabbed for the shoe to try it herself.
“No, it’s just that I’ve practiced this since I was in kindergarten. Once you’ve practiced it enough, you won’t even have to think about it. You won’t even be able to remember the time when you couldn’t tie your shoes.”
Ah. When I find myself at loose ends, I have to remember to keep on practicing. Even with mothering, or forgiving myself or breathing through the hard stuff. Eventually, it gets easier. Eventually, I won’t even remember that there was a time when I didn’t know how to do this.