May 20, 2013

Of cheetah spots and heroes

My Baby J,
Yesterday evening, I can say without a doubt in my mind, was a life-changer for you. For as long as I can remember, you have wanted to meet Dr. Laurie Marker, and last night, you finally were able to do so. For years, we have been checking every issue of "Cheetah Strides" and the website hoping that Dr. Marker's travels would bring her close enough to where you could go see her--and finally...FINALLY...she landed right in Houston.

You looked so beautiful last night. You don't like to dress up; you're not a fancy kid. But last night, with your thick hair wrapped into a low, side-swept bun and organza flowers in your hair, you looked gorgeous. Your leopard-print feather earrings, and cheetah-spotted sandals were a nice touch. :)

On the way to the country club, you were finally spoke up and said, "I just don't know what to say to her, mommy."
"She's a normal person, Jen. Just talk to her like you would a normal person."
"But she's NOT a normal person!! She's DOCTOR LAURIE MARKER!!"
And our ride continued in silence.

When we pulled into the country club, you were visibly excited. We walked to the front, and were greeted by a cart-boy who asked, "Are you here for the VIP event?" I nodded yes, and he mentioned how cool it was and how he hoped to catch a glimpse of the cheetahs. Of course, Jen, you took that as your cue to begin talking about Dr. Marker, and how you couldn't wait to meet her! That young man so nice--he listened to you as you went on and on about saving cheetahs--with a smile on his face. You held my hand as we entered the clubhouse and I practically had to hold you down to the ground as we came upon the first welcome sign.

We walked into the reception area, and were greeted by a lovely young woman named Kaitlin. She was tall, blonde (had her hair in a ponytail), and was wearing a cheetah-print skirt. A REAL cheetah-print skirt--not a leopard-print skirt, as you pointed out. You immediately became charmed with her. Turns out that Kaitlin volunteered at the Cheetah Conservation Fund a few years ago, and is now a PhD student at Texas A&M studying cheetahs. Being kind, she began chatting with you, and then, upon realizing that you could hold your own, REALLY began talking to you. Jen, she was so very impressed with you. She gave you her business card and told you to email her whenever you wanted, and she would be happy to talk about cheetahs with you. Then, we met another young woman named Imogene. She is at West Texas A&M and is working on her PhD studying bobcats. She invited you to come up to Amarillo anytime, and she would take you in the field with her! Baby, these young woman were overly impressed with you and your knowledge about the conservation efforts for big cats. I actually just sat back and watched you. And honestly, I tried not to cry. And then...the big moment...

You were standing next to me, just beaming, and I said, "Jen...look who it is..." You turned, and saw the back of Dr. Marker as she was hugging someone. You grabbed my arm in a death grip, and started to cry. You led me out of that room so fast! We had to sit around the corner, as you whimpered, "Mommy, mommy, I can't do this!! I can't breathe, mommy! That's my hero!!" with tears running down your face. I had to sit there and fan your face with our copy of "Cheetah Strides," and just kept saying, "'s okay, it's okay...just breathe!!" After about 3 minutes, you finally regained composure and walked back around the corner. As you did, Dr. Marker saw you. A huge smile spread across her face, and she walked right up to you, and embraced you in a big bear hug. She looked at you and said, "Jenna, it is SO good to finally meet you!" Again, I tried not to cry. I apologized to Dr. Marker for your tears and told her, "She's so overwhelmed with finally getting to meet you! She's waited so long for this to happen!" And Dr. Marker said, "Oh, me, too!" and hugged you again. THEN, then...she introduced you to several of her friends as, "This is Jenna, my very special 'cheetah friend'!" and my God, I thought your face would explode. She wrapped her arm around you, and invited you, an 11-year old, into her conversations with the other adults at the reception. She spoke to you as if you were a working conservationist, and it was fabulous. As she flitted around and talked to other people, you were going right around speaking to other adults about cheetah conservation, and every time, they'd look at me with this look in their eyes, and i'd just smile and shrug my shoulders. I don't know how many times I heard, "She is amazing!" "What an awesome young lady!" and more times than I can count, "THAT is the future of cheetah conservation!" Again...I am SO PROUD, Jenna!
After everyone chatted for a while, we walked outside where the Houston Zoo had brought their two cheetahs. Unfortunately, due to the rules and regulations of the U.S., we could not touch them. You were okay with that, since you've actually touched cheetahs before. We sat in view of the cheetahs, and you listened intently as Dr. Marker began her speech. At one point, she was talking about the numbers of cheetahs left in this world, and how it's such hard work to save them, and educate people about the CCF's efforts. She said, "I am who the CCF is NOW...and this young lady [and she pointed to YOU] is the CCF's future. It's going to be children like this that educate the next generation--and it's going to be children like this that educate the world about cheetahs." Your smile lit up the evening sky. At another point, she was talking about volunteering at CCF, and she said, "All of the young students that we get at CCF become 'my kids'. Here's one of my kids right here [and she walked over to Kaitlyn] and here's another of my kids right here [and she pointed to you]." Again, more smiles. But the highlight of the speech was when Dr. Marker was discussing a future without cheetahs, and she specifically called you out and said, "Jenna, can you imagine a world without cheetahs? What would you do?" and you answered, "No, I can't imagine that! I would be so sad--cheetahs are my life, and i'm going to do everything I can to save them!" This time, a huge smile--from Dr. Marker.

By the end of this speech, many of the group were walking to the front to get pictures with the cheetahs. You asked if you could go talk to some of the people. Of course, I said, "Sure," and let you go. I sat in my chair with a glass of wine, and watched you carry on conversations with three of your new PhD-student friends. You guys literally sat there and talked about cheetahs for 15 solid minutes. 

We eventually moved inside to grab something to munch on, and after you fixed your plate, you asked, "May I go outside? I need to tell Dr. Marker something..." You walked through the doors, and I sat at the table--totally out of MY element, but watching you in yours. A few moments later, you walked back in, and struck up a conversation with a lion/tiger conservationist at our table. Whom promptly teared up and said, "I'm sorry I'm so emotional, but it is SO NICE to see a child so knowledgeable and with so much passion about this! It gives me hope for the future!" Agreed.

As the night began to wrap up, Dr. Marker came back inside and said, "Could I get one last picture with my dear friends?" a few people (those that have worked at the CCF, and two of her best friends walked up) and Dr. Marker looked around, and said, "Jenna! Get up here!" HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR LIFE.

Dr. Marker hugged you goodbye, gave me her business card, and told you that she was SO proud of you, and that the sooner you can get to Namibia, the better.

All the way home, from the moonlight shining through the sunroof, I was blessed with the biggest smile I have EVER seen on your face.

May 8, 2013

For my Munch...

You've had a tough, TOUGH week at gymnastics...and you've only been to 2 workouts this week. The issue is this: After being able to do a back walkover on high beam for 3 weeks, you all of the sudden decided that it's scary. In ONE day, you decided this. After last night's workout--where you had to go work out with a lower level--then stay for an hour afterwards to work on your back walkovers, you were completely crushed. Thanks for holding it in until we got into the car.

As I sat there and watched you on that beam, i know my face read frustration. I know YOU could see how upset i was with you. And you know what? I apologize. You are a tough cookie. You rarely, if ever, show frustration with yourself--and last night, i saw it in your eyes. I sat there, next to your coach, looking at you on the beam. We both have super-high expectations of you, and we both want you to succeed [probably I more than he--I, after all, I know your heart :).] I watched you try and fail at nearly 20 backwalkovers--your hands are steady, yet you land your hands and kick off to the side. I saw the hurt in your eyes. I know you hear your coaches telling you the corrections--I KNOW YOU HEAR THEM. But i also know that once you get ready to push back, fear takes over. And yes, I know that feeling is hard to break. I saw you do 5 beautifully landed walkovers on that high beam. I saw you tentatively move that block mat, and climb back on that beam--ready to do 4 without the mental safety that that block provides your brain.

Then I watched. I watched as you straightened up. I watched you pull in your belly, push your hips, and saw you silently mouth, "1-arms, 2-hips, 3-split, 4-land." And then I watched as you'd arch your back...and stop in mid arch. Too frightened to continue. I watched this over and over. I saw you become more and more deflated. We called it a night. Everyone was frustrated--me, your coaches, you... I should have been encouraging, but I wasn't. The coaches had a big discussion about moving you down a level. Because they said, "There are girls at this level that have better skills than're taking up space in Lvl 5 when other girls belong to be there..." You listened intently, you nodded your head. I almost cried, because I could hear your heart breaking. I know what you heard. You heard, "You're not good enough. You don't try hard enough. Everyone is better than you." And i know this, because this is what you cried about all the way home.

Now, I'm a total hard-ass mom. I don't think ANYONE has higher expectations for you than I. You're always asking me to judge your beam routine or floor routine because you KNOW i'll judge you the hardest. You get mad when i sit there and call out, " tenth, tenth, 2-tenths..." But you know that i'm super-picky with you. So, let me tell you what I see:

In the 4 weeks that you've been at your new gym, i have seen:
  • You work harder than I have EVER seen you work before.
  • That when your team is conditioning, you do not cheat. EVER (this makes me very proud).
  • That when you do a floor pass incorrectly, rather than just walk across and get back in line (or start from the middle of the floor), you go back and redo the entire pass--on your own accord, without your coach asking you.
  • You look intently at your coach when he's speaking to you on bars, and I see you get irritated when your hands do what they're in the habit of doing, instead of what he's telling you to make them do.
  • You learn how to do a backwalkover on the high beam. Something you have NEVER worked on before coming to this gym.
  • You try a flick by yourself.
  • Your floor tumbling improve. Again, you're relearning form--but I can see a difference! You are faster, stronger, and more beautiful.
But something else i've seen, just in the past two days, bothers me the most: I've seen your self-esteem crumble. I've seen you go from an attitide of 'i'm a great gymnast' to 'i'm not good enough.' I've seen you go from, 'my coaches are happy to have me on their team,' to 'I don't think they want me here.' And this, my girl, is where you need to fight.

The girls at this gym have had this kind of coaching for a long time. You're like the stepkid here--you know some of the rules, but this hasn't always been your house, so you're not sure of most of the rules. Guess what? THIS IS YOUR HOUSE NOW. But, as with any new place, it takes time to learn the rules. Your new coaches are your new gym parents. They have different rules than your last coach did--and their rules are a lot tougher. But you have to make a hardcore effort to LEARN these new rules. And I know you will. Like I said, you've only been in this new house for a month, and you've learned new-to-you skills and rules pretty darn quick.

So, what you NEED to know is:
  • You ARE a great gymnast. You are, you are, you are. Those bazillion medals on your wall prove it. Your heart proves it. Your work ethic proves it. Your attitude proves it.
  • Just because you cannot perfect a brand new skill in 4 weeks time does NOT mean you're a poor gymnast. You've had a total of about 16 max hours on beam since you've been at this gym. You've had 16 hours to get a back walkover on highbeam (and you're not working this skill the whole time). Most of these girls have been working on these for MUCH longer than you. You've had SIXTEEN HOURS, Munch. BE PROUD OF THIS. There are girls at that level that still can't do a backwalkover on low beam--but they're TRYING--and that's what's important. There are girls on your team that stand on that beam for 10 minutes before they attempt 1 backwalkover--then they miss their feet--that's the SAME THING you do!!
  • You are a fighter. You are not a baby. You are not weak. You haven't done anything wrong--you're just relearning how to do things right. DO need to believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it. You've done it before--so you can do it again.

I love you, i love you, i love you. I'm sorry i've been frustrated with you--i realize that you're giving so much right now. I know that you're frustrated with yourself, and what you need is support--not someone to make you think that you're not good enough. I'm sorry for that. You ARE good enough. You CAN do this. I KNOW you can do this. And i know you want this--I believe in you.