Julia returned from sleep-away camp last August. We didn’t even wait 24 hours before having a serious discussion with her about the year ahead, ninth grade. My husband Rick and I had spent copious summer hours talking about what it would take to help Julia stop self-destructing.
Julia’s never been a self-motivated child, and yet conversely there are times when she shows the kind of determination that belongs to Olympians. Or to a child who began life as an orphan, as she did in Siberia, and who knows instinctively what it means to persevere.
Until and through seventh grade, Julia largely succeeded—certainly not through self-determination, but through a formulated pattern of strong-armed tactics to help her achieve despite herself. She was a reluctant, lazy student but with pushing and a willingness to be helped, she made the seventh grade honor roll. She’s always used food to soothe herself, but when she would reach a tipping point, she’d let me help her slim down with a sensible eating regimen. With violin practice, she’d need to be pushed, but at the end of each school year, she’d score a major coup with her NYSSMA scores.
Then she entered eighth grade and she broke free from the chains that bound her, but also protected her. She would not allow my husband and me to help her anymore with homework or studying. She piled on pounds at an alarming clip. She became secretive and difficult. The one shred of self-determination she maintained was her violin practice.
Through the course of the year, we stood by helplessly and watched her grades swirl into the toilet. No threat, no reward, no sincere conversation, no sarcasm moved her. She hooked up with a group of “alternative” kids exploring their sexuality and identity. Julia told us she was transgender—and that created a whole new level of complexity. We didn’t embrace the idea. We didn’t fight it. We were thinking this is eighth grade. She’s having a difficult time with body image and adolescence and hormones. What we understand—but which most people don’t—is that everything Julia experiences is done so through the lens of a child who, although adopted at eight months from a Russian orphanage—suffers from attachment issues. She is not comfortable with intimacy, and being 13 was the hardest challenge she’d yet to encounter. Whereas in the past we could smooth the bumpy road, now we stood by handcuffed. We were no longer a source of comfort. In fact, just the opposite. It seemed as though she was rejecting everything we stood for. She physically and psychologically became unrecognizable.
But the end of the school year rolled around, and once again we were in familiar territory. Julia was failing French. Her French teacher told her she’d pass the class if she passed the Regents. As always, her father and I swept in to throw her a life raft. I’d learned in a visit to her new high school guidance counselor that if Julia passed the Regent, she wouldn’t need to continue language studies. I also found out she’d have more room in ninth grade for music and art—her callings. So began another round of our reality-TV version of Survivor. With three weeks to go, our household became Le Francaise E’cole. We helped her conjugate verbs, learn vocabulary, and memorize rote sentences. The old familiar "Operation Save Julia’s Ass" worked. She passed the Regents. We had a group hug. And the idea that we could help our reluctant child at the final hour when the gun is pressed to her head was once again reinforced.
Here’s the thing: this is a dangerous formula. It sends the message that we will always be the net that catches her in free fall. It gives her a sense of security. It imbues us with a feeling of power.
So back to the pre-ninth grade talk. First, we stressed how important the school year ahead would be. Okay, you threw away eighth grade, we said. You get a pass, but ninth grade is for real if you want to go to college and pursue a music career. We also tried to set up a reward system for moving toward independence: a clean room, decent hygiene, and doing her laundry would equal screen and phone time. Finally, we offered a carrot. We’d known she wanted to get a very short haircut. With all the weight she’d put on, and with the total neglect of our appearance, we worried that a chopped up hair style would make her look freakish. Should it have been our decision to control this? To protect her? I don’t know. But we did, and we set up a challenge: Lose 12 pounds and you can have a short haircut.
A tortuous year went by, though not quite as hostile as eighth grade. Julia found a nicer set of friends. She’d also made a good friend, finally, at camp. But when it came to school work, she repeated the same bad habits. She wouldn’t turn in homework, wouldn’t seek help. And since her declining grades seemed to have no effect on her psyche or anxiety levels, we were at a loss to help her. Nothing helped—promised rewards, the threat of not being able to go to college, maybe not even graduating high school. At the same time, she showed no interest whatsoever in slimming down.
It’s tricky because she never seems unhappy or depressed—but we were.
Then, this season’s Survivor. We were rounding the final corner of the year and she was staring down finals and the prospect of failing math. Once again, with the pressure of the crunch, she allowed us back in, and over those last three weeks before her tests, my husband tried to teach her 10 months of algebra.
While all this was happening, the plot took another odd twist. One day in late May Julia, pining for that short haircut, came to me and asked, “How can I lose weight?” In one month, she’d dropped 12 pounds by cutting out all the crap, and by counting calories. We also focused on more biking and exercise. Before camp, she got a short, sassy haircut. With her slimmed down body and sculpted face, she looked good. She was very pleased with herself, except that the next day she got some bad news. She failed the math final by 2 points, and ninth grade algebra. She also failed the Science Regents.
In a short space of time, Julia learned two lessons. Actually one. She learned what it means to steer her destiny. We shall see what she makes of 10th grade.