Happy 21st Birthday, Pay It Forward, Son !

From the moment, I knew « it’s a boy, » he filled my life with joy and trepidation.  Ten days later, the  boy born on the go acquired his first passport. He made his first trans Atlantic trip as  a 1 month old. He climbed out of his crib as at 8 months, walked at 9, kicked a ball at 10. As a hyper active, never-nap toddler he banged off the walls of our tiny Parisian apartment.

smiling toddler

smiling toddler

Insisting on doing everything himself, calamity followed in his wake.  While trying to « help » me clean house, he broke the reclining chair, the remote control and the vacuum cleaner.  His Aunt Karen insisted, « Send Nic over  to help me tidy up.  We need a new vacuum too. »

One Christmas, overjoyed to see his Aunt Sue, he gave her a flying, head-butt hug and broke her nose !

As a five-year-old, his body was so strong, we called him Bam Bam, yet his heart was as tender as a poem. When we moved to Switzerland, he told us, « Les nuages font un calin a la montagne. »  (The clouds are hugging the mountains.) At age seven, perceptive, beyond his years, he lamented, « Mom, we’re growing up too fast.  In five more years, Nathalie won’t live here anymore. »

As a kamikaze kid, he slit open his palm at age two, split his head at four, shattered his right ankle at fifteen.  Each time the doctor stitched him up, I prayed, « Please keep my boy in one piece. »

always a high flyer !

always a high flyer !

The only time he sat still was when I read him storybooks. A friend once told me, « Nicolas is too cute for his britches. » He was.  He dumped cereal or yogurt on the floor, then insisted, « Me clean ! » and made a bigger mess. But I could never stay mad. When he looked up at me with a mischievous grin, his turquoise eyes twinkling, all I could do was sigh and love him a little more.

I taught him to speak English, to drive the baseline and to write essays; he taught me patience. In the push- pull, anguish-awe of parenthood, I wondered whether I was saying too much or too little.

From his first footsteps, to first jump shot, to first Swiss national championship, in my role as teacher, coach, mom, I applauded each milestone. Whether he was skiing down the slopes of the Swiss Alps, or wake-boarding the waters of Summit Lake, I admired his balance and agility.

jumping yougster

jumping youngster

With his strong sense of injustice, he intervened when children picked on smaller boys. He gave up open shots to pass off to teammates who never scored. He helped classmates write French essays and rework math problems.

Due to conflict with an uncomprehending teacher and unruly class, we took him out of French public school when he was four-years-old. Yet his love of learning remained intact. At university, he pursues a teaching degree following in the footsteps of his mom, aunts, grandparents and great grandparents. Though teaching these days is a tough sale due to educational cutbacks and job shortages, he signed on to help out underprivileged children in the St. Paul school district and understands the attention problems of our cyber generation kids.

He has been a dedicated teammate, loyal friend, fun loving cousin, adored little brother and cherished son, admired for his witty sense of humor and courage to stand up for his convictions.

In today’s society,  we honor boys for toughness, yet the world needs more tenderhearted men. Raising a son has been a wild ride, but I treasured every moment of the journey.

with sister and cousins

with sister and cousins

Though I will never again be on center stage of his life –  bandaging skinned knees, reading nursery rhymes, or chauffeuring to activities – I will beam from the shadows back stage, as I watch my son pay it forward as a young man.

 

Red Cloud’s School His Legacy to Future Lakota

At the Heritage Center Museum at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, stands a replica of a one-room schoolhouse where the White Man first indoctrinated Indians by civilizing them into the White Man’s Ways and disseminating from their own people. Young Indians were taken from families into boarding schools to be brainwashed. If a child spoke Lakota, his mouth was washed out with lye.  Lakota language, religion and customs were forbidden. White men annihilated an ancient culture that lived in harmony with the land, at peace with their souls, as one with the Great Spirit.

In 360 degree turn a bout, another kind of school now does all it can to preserve the Lakota culture.   Red Cloud School educates 600 students in primary, middle and high school, by trying to give Lakota children the skills to compete in society, while retaining traditional values and culture of Lakota heritage.   Along side basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic courses in ethics and religion, Lakota culture, religion and language are required.

Red Cloud indian school, South Dakota

Red Cloud indian school, South Dakota

Red Cloud, the Indian chief who led the most successful military campaign against the US by an indigenous group, saw that their way of life was ending.  For his people to prosper, they needed to learn to walk in the way of the White Man.  The school inspired by Red Cloud’s vision was started in by the Jesuits order in 1888.  One hundred percent of its 2010 graduates went on to college, yet it receives no national or state aid.   No longer a boarding school, some students ride an over an hour to get to and from school.

My brother-in-law’s Uncle, Mike Zimmerman, who entered the Jesuits, first worked in Argentina, before his transfer to the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota in the center of the Oglala nation.  He agreed to show us around the school.

I expected Brother Mike to be dressed in clerical black robe, but instead a tall, slender man in grease stained green work suit, thrust his large hand into ours.  His eyes were soft brown and kind.  I wondered who was this simple, soft-spoken, articulate man who had dedicated his life to serving the Lord.

Our greeting was awkward, for he rarely had visitors and here we were eight tourists from the Carlson-Zimmerman clan.  When his colleague introduced us to the Indians on campus, she said, “These are Brother Mike’s family, either related by blood or the heart.”

First, Brother Mike stopped in front of the school and told us about the fire that destroyed it in 1996.  He pointed to a display of flames devouring the wooden buildings, turning his head away.  “It still pains me to look at the photographs of that awful time.”

Mike led us into the new church that had been rebuilt after the fire. The wooden pews formed a semi circle in front of the alter which the Indians requested be built in circle representing their belief.  In a picture window, Jesus is surrounded by Asian, Eskimo, Indian and white children.

“Each window forming the circle around the worship area told a story, but in Lakota tradition all stories must be told orally,” Mike told us.  “They refused to write it down or tape record it, for they said that it is not their way.”

Mike invited us to lunch. In a small cafeteria, we filled paper plates with corn, beans, salad and hot dogs and fresh fruit from the self-service counter. We were urged to take seconds, but I felt guilty eating knowing that they subsisted on so little.  We offered to pay for our meals, only a mere two dollars a person, but Mike waved us away.

In the history classroom, where they learned world, national, state and Lakota history, the unabridged edition, phrases in Lakota, had been written on the blackboard. The school also had a new computer lab and the flat screens looked top of the line, but the desks were old, wooden relics from long ago.  The textbooks were worn and outdated.  Nevertheless Red Cloud School continues to draw interest in the wider community. For instance, Dr. Jane Goodall visited the school in several years ago to share her ideas.

As we left, I wondered what the Indians thought of us, this white-faced tribe invading their territory.  Only our 6’2 “ daughter drew a few glances from the short, stout brown-skinned workers.  With Brother Mike at our side, we were welcomed as special guests and I felt privileged for this peek into the life of the Lakota.

The school exemplifies Red Cloud’s dream for Lakota children to learn to walk equally in both worlds.   As I walked across the grounds by his grave, I felt honored to follow in his mighty steps on this hallowed land.

 

www.redcloudschool.org

American Indian Heritage Month – Lakota, A Lost Nation

Brown toasted hills with sparse vegetation looked like scenes out of a Western movie.  I could picture an Indian riding a painted pony over the rise in the Wild West of yesteryear.  Instead, today, rusted cars line the dusty alleyways where trailers and dilapidated clapboard houses replace the stallions and tipis of the past.

desolate Bad Lands

desolate Bad Lands

The land is golden, not from crops or minerals riches, but from sun baked grass.  In clusters resembling tribes of long ago, only the hardiest of trees survive in ravines along dried riverbeds that trickle occasionally with life sustaining water.

The Pine Ridge Reservation, Lakota grounds in South Dakota, is the poorest Indian Reservation in the U.S.  Ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty level on average annual incomes of less than $4000. The 36,000 Lakota left, survive on misery and memories of the Great People they once wear when they existed in harmony with a brutal land, before being driven off their land and away from their natural life.

The Lakota, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, once covered a territory that extended from the Big Horn Mountains in the west, to eastern Wisconsin.  In the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851, the Great Sioux Nation was reduced to the western half of South Dakota. Though it remains the second largest reservation in the U.S. it covers an area only about the size of Connecticut.

Once able to live off the land by hunting, the barren landscape offers little in the way of livelihood in today’s society.  Unemployment fluctuates between 85-90 %.  Jobs are scarce and poorly paid.

buffalo & cub

buffalo & cub

Few Indians can make it is as ranchers, so they work for other people on the land they once owned.  Thirty-nine percent of the population lives in homes without electricity and 60% of their houses are infested with black mold.

With limited job options in such a desolate area, destitution has become a way of life.  The Lakota lack financial stability to afford good nutrition and health care.  Infant mortality is three times the national average.   Life expectancy for male and females is twenty years less than the national average.   Half of the adult population suffers from diabetes.  Stripped of their pride and ability to provide for their families, it is no surprise that despair sets in.   The suicide rate among teenagers is 1.5 times higher than national average.

In the 1800’s, the White Man brought alcohol to Indians in exchange for beads and crops.  It was a poor trade for the Lakota.  Now alcoholism runs rampant.  In White Clay NE, population under 35 people just one mile from the dry Pine Ridge Reservation, four million cans of beer (10,958 beer cans a day) are sold annually.

Pine Ridge Lakota reservation

Pine Ridge Lakota reservation

I marveled at anyone’s ability to survive as we drove across the savage lands to visit the Red Cloud Indian School on the Lakota Reservation.  When I stepped outside the air-conditioned car, the wind slapped my face as if to jump-start my breathing, my lungs sucked dry by the heat.

In the Heritage Cultural Museum, filled with artifacts, paintings and beadwork of the Lakota, Red Cloud high school students recaptured the Wounded Knee Massacre in a moving display of black and white photographs. Beside each picture, the story was told in three different perspectives.  The white card represented the White Man’s viewpoint; red card, the Indians interpretation and the blue portrayed the students’ opinion. In what has become the symbol of a horrible genocide of their people and way of life, on December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry rounded up Lakota women and children like animals and gunned them down.

“It chills us to the bone,” one student researcher wrote,” to think we weren’t even considered human, as brothers, as sisters, as life.”

Outside the school, a gravel path lead to an Indian burial ground where the tomb of Red Cloud, (1822 –1910) lies.   Buried on a grassy knoll overlooking rolling, baked hills Lakota land the great Oglala chief’s spirit surveys what little remains of his nation, once the White Man arrived.  His soul does not rest in peace.

Illinois’ Sterling Girls Capture Little League World Champion Crown

Yoopie! Take me out to the ball game. I am going to jump on the bandwagon here and give a shout out to the folks back home in Sterling and their championship team. After all the gals of my generation helped build that wagon 40 years ago when Title IX passed into legislation, leveling the playing field by mandating equal opportunities (including sports) for girls in public education.

I applaud those pony-tailed girls with crooked grins on cusp of adolescence who whooped the world in a boys’ game. In my day, Little League was a private, male club that we never dreamed of one day entering.

Sterling vs Waco Texas

Sterling vs Waco Texas http://www.softballworldseries.com/

I admire the pictures of those cute girls in baseball jerseys and can’t help but notice that the names of the three father coaches, matched those of three players. The coach/athlete, dad/daughter duo was an anomaly back in the day when my dad first taught my sisters and me to field grounders. Now it is the norm. Without a second thought, today’s dads fight to make sure their girls’ get their names on front page.

I have been out of the country too long – I had no idea that a Girls’ Little League World Championship existed. Yet, these little ladies are strutting their stuff on a Field of Dreams. « Today Little League, in existence since first in 1947 (for boys), is the largest youth sport organization with more than 25,000 softball teams and 360,000 participants worldwide. The program includes divisions of play for girls ages 5 to 18, which culminates at four Softball World Series tournaments for international competition and friendship.” http://www.littleleague.org/learn/about/divisions/softball-girls.htm

Hats off to Sterling, the Central Regional Championship Team, for winning 19 straight games and  defeating Waco, Texas in the world series final in Portland Oregon. This year the event, established for girls in 1974, drew clubs from Puerto Rico, Philippines, Canada and Italy, as well as Texas, California, Oregon, New York and North Carolina.

I was surprised to find out that teams existed abroad, yet the European, Middle East and African regional champs were from Italy this year, from Poland last year, and from Germany, the year before that. The American game has gone international. Though at my  school in Switzerland, I still teach softball as a ‘foreign’ sport because cricket (for men only) is considered the premier bat and ball game.

So yessiree,  take me out to the ball park. Give me some peanuts and crackerjacks and I don’t care if I never get back for it’s one two three, hip hip hurray for the Sterling Girls Little League World Champions. Thanks for putting my hometown on the globe in a grand slam effort inspiring girls worldwide.

Hats off to Hannah And High School Graduates of 2011

I never graduated from high school.  Not officially.  Sure I got my diploma, but I  never tossed my cap to the wind. I was sick the day of graduation. Back then  it was simple.  We had one senior picture,  a ceremony on the field and a little cake and punch party with a few family and friends.

The class of ‘75 signed year books, promised to keep in touch and moved on. With the exception of a handful of close friends – living within a block – I lost touch with everyone  until 35 years later, when I reconnected with classmates via Facebook (which, incidentally, today’s youth complain the old people are ruining!)

happy Hannah graduates from high school

happy Hannah graduates from high school

In June 1975, to humor my parents, I donned the blue gown with the gold tassels and stood in the yard while my grandma snapped a half a dozen blurry photos from an Instamatic. And that was that. Then I headed back to the gym to shoot hoops.

Big difference from the grad walk of today. For my niece, Hannah, a senior at Armstrong High School, it was a whole new ball game.

In the fields behind the Minneapolis suburban school, graduates spilled over an emerald hilltop in a sea of red, while parents sat in soccer chairs capturing the event on camcorders. Then to keep the kids off the street, parents chaperoned students at an all night party filled with games, magic, music and movies.

Weeks later, Hannah hosted a grad party. She invited her rugby team, half the church, the entire neighborhood and all of the relatives from Chicago to Omaha and in-between. Hannah has lots of friends. From the time she was born, the ready-with-a-smile, happy-go-lucky, laid-back kid always drew a crowd.

These days, the grad party is a must. The invitation, which features the student in a favorite pose from the hundred-some senior pictures, is more elaborate than wedding cards were in my day. (Hannah’s sister, Marie, graduated three years ago, but her invitation remains  on my frig, too beautiful to throw away.)

The party can be extravagant, complete with bouncy castles and gourmet meals, but Hannah, settled on a simpler fare, featuring her favorites – croissant sandwiches and ice cream treats.

Food ordered, tents set up, card tables unfolded, coolers packed. And a room filled with of memorabilia of student life : a bulletin board of childhood photos, dance recital, play bills, band equipment, musical instruments, certificates, medals, trophies, team jerseys, diplomas, stuffed animals, postcards, bits and bobs of a child’s’ magic moments. « I thought shrines were at wakes,» I said to my sister.

« Just shows how long you’ve been out of the country, Sis. »

And forget gram’s fuzzy black and white photos. Nowadays the event will be commemorated on video and DVD. While in progress, graduates cover Facebook pages with hundreds of photos for the entire world to admire.

hats off

hats off

My only dream back in the seventies was to play ball; Hannah set a more noble goal. She is going to be a neonatal nurse; she has already cuddled premies as a volunteer at the local hospital. She started applying for scholarships her junior year. With her dad’s Nebraskan Big Red blood, Hannah knew (before anyone else)  that she was headed  to Creighton in Omaha, where the rest of the Carlson clan lives.

Yep, babysitter, soccer player, a State rugby champ, honor student, loyal sister, fun loving friend, kidding cousin, nifty niece, cherished granddaughter, a dream child and all around good kid. No matter what hat she wears, Hannah fits the bill.

Dads Play Big Role in Parenting

Back in the ‘60s when girls’ sport were taboo, my dad taught me how to throw a perfect spiral, pitch a baseball and shoot a basket.  Each time he tossed the ball to  my brother, he also threw once to me. He made sure to hit each of us an equal number of pop ups to field. He showed me how to hold a baseball glove, pump up a basketball and take a fish off the hook.

Papa Mac passes on tradition

Papa Mac passes on tradition

Like the Pied Piper, as soon as kids saw my dad arrive home from his teaching job, they lined up for a turn at bat. Soon he was pitching whiffle balls to the entire neighborhood. Instead of grass in our backyard, we had permanent dirt-patch bases, a diamond in the rough, the Field of Dreams for an entire generation.

Even though I never saw any other fathers in the yard shooting hoops with their daughters, I never thought it odd. Chasing grounders, running passing patterns and learning the baseline drive with my dad seemed as natural as  breathing. After all, he was a coach and I was an athlete. So what if it took the rest of the society a few decades to catch up.

Today with the acceptance of girls’ sports and working moms the norm, dads’ coaching daughters is no longer an anomaly. The Women’s Rights Movement also liberated men to assume a greater hands-on role in fatherhood.

Today’s dads are free to coach Little League AND girls’ soccer, to build camp fires, make tree forts, piece together Legos, to change diapers, give baths,  bandage cuts. They can also bake birthday cakes, read Good Night Moon, cook bœuf bourguignon and grill burgers.

French dad at 1st Final Four

French dad at 1st Final Four

Throughout our children’s youth, my husband worked the score table, drove the van for our daughter and son’s teams and prepared gourmet meals for all of us. Gérald never batted an eye about running a printing business during the day, and then wearing the apron at night.  Though it may have been a typical behavior for a Frenchman, he paid the bills, balanced the budget and brought home the bacon, proud to be a family man.

Just as I witnessed my dad in multiple roles – caring teacher, inspiring coach, loyal husband -my children saw their father as tough and tender, demanding and nuturing, competitive and compassionate.

Kids raised in families with ball-playing moms and story-reading dads make for a balanced, healthy, wholesome childhood.  Whether organizing car pools, building sand castles or playing catch,  adults investing time in youth yields the greatest dividends.  Worth all the gold in the world !