My First “All Nighter”

An annual tradition, the Mother’s Day post. 

When I was in the third or fourth grade, my mom signed me up for this after school space program. She was a single mom. This was in the days of the old gray Chevy Citation. Money was tight, and I think Mom did not want me to be alone by myself too much. I remember three things about this program. One, we watched a lot of videos that I later learned were voiced by Carl Sagan. Two, Carl Sagan’s voice makes it hard for me to stay awake. Three, we had a project due at the end — something to do with designing a space station. I forgot about it until the night before, and then I panicked.

Before going any further, I should say that I do not think I understood this was an extracurricular activity. It took place at a school, and so I thought it was for a grade. If my mom tried to explain that to me, I do not remember any of it. I was unable to keep it in perspective. I wanted to do well in school, and this was school.

Mind you, I did not do very well in school. I would not start being somewhat successful until my sophomore year of high school. Before then, I remember actively trying to pay attention, really wanting to, trying to focus, but I just could not do it. As I got older, I learned to compensate. I take medicine for it now, but in those days I was told I just needed to try harder.

Mom helped however she could. In fifth grade she had the idea for me to do math homework on graph paper so that I could keep all the columns of numbers lined up. My teacher loved the idea so much, she started doing it for other students like me, who had a hard time paying attention.

My third grade teacher, Ms. Caito, cared a lot about spelling. I came late to reading and spelling. (That is another story.) I was eager to prove to my parents, others, and myself that I was good at it. Every Thursday, Ms. Caito would have a class-wide spelling bee. And every Wednesday night, my mom would quiz me. Any word I got wrong, I would say to myself four times. She would mark the word and go back to it later. This was at my insistence, by the way. She was happy to oblige at first, but Ms. Caito’s bees were cumulative. So as the year progressed, my sessions with my mother got longer. By the end of the year, we were going over every single unit, sometimes for over an hour. There were many nights when my mom would be bone tired and try to get out of our personal spelling practice, but I would insist, and she would relent. I think I only lost one of Ms. Caito’s spelling bees.

On the night of space station project, I was in a complete panic. Mom and I went and bought construction paper and markers, and we set to work. All things considered, I remember a surprising amount about the project. We drew the design of the space station in one corner, diagramed some of its specifications. It was cube-shaped because we felt that this would allow it to absorb maximum solar energy on its interstellar travels (starlight from every direction). It was a multi-generational craft. I think it spun on its y-axis to create the effect of gravity. In the center were the gardens that provided oxygen. We decided the crew would have different colored uniforms like in Star Trek — blue for medical, yellow for engineering, etc. Children would grow up and fill the jobs for which they were best suited. It was a permanent space habitation.

To tell it now, it seems like a rather fun and creative bonding experience. But the truth is that every few minutes I would completely lose my mind and scream how it was impossible. There was too much to do. There was no way we could finish it all. My mom would calm me down, tell me we were going to be fine, just one bit at a time. Just do this part, then move to the next thing, and so on and so on. I say it was an “all nighter” because that is how it felt. I might have gone to be close to 11. I did not understand at the time that my mom was probably more tired than me. She never let it show.

Maybe it was the fatigue, but I do not remember much about my presentation on the space station itself. I remember my teacher asking me questions. I remember feeling like a lot of my classmates had designs that were “cuter” than mine, but less feasible. One kid brought in a potted plant, and I still have no idea what that was about. I think that was the point when I realized we were not being graded for this. Part of me was kicking myself for trying so hard on something that did not matter, but most of me was proud for having done it. That might also have been the first time I understood that the work done can be its own reward.

This memory came to mind last month, and I made a note to write about it today, because my middle child had his first meltdown moment. He came to me because a project he thought was due next week was actually due the next day. He got angry. He panicked. He said he could not do it. I tried to imitate my mother. “One step at a time. Just do one, and then the next one, and so on.” I do not think I was as successful. He got the project done at some point or another. It is hard to know for sure. I was actually impeccably honest as a youngster. My son is less so. So it is hard for me to know the truth of what he does and does not have to do. But hopefully it matters that I was there for him, and he will remember I was. We have different work ethics — he and I — and that is okay for now. (He does not have to like to work; he just has to do it, because I am his father and I damn well said so!)

Stephanie (my wife) says I can do anything. She says I amaze her. If I set my mind to something, I get it done. I think she gives me too much credit. There are plenty of things I cannot do and have learned not to attempt. (It is important to know one’s limitations.) But I do approach problems differently than her. A counselor we once saw said Stephanie is like a turtle, and I am more like one of those lizards with a frill around its neck. In the face of something big and overwhelming, she pulls back to seek safety and comfort. I inflate my neck and run at it with abandon. It is one of those ways we have a difficult time understanding each other. I think that approach came from my mom.

It is not that my mother or I are brave and confident. It is more like a kind of fatalism. Either take on the threat, or put on a good show trying. When Stephanie compliments me on this, I think she is complimenting the woman who made me like it. And when I try to talk my son through his all-nighters, I am trying to pass onto him the lesson my mother taught me: When you are facing something that seems impossible, then the only choice you have, is to do everything you can.

My mother had a hearing impairment at a young age, married the first boy who liked her, protected her children when he started beating her, divorced the bastard, put herself through school, and retired from a career of civilian military service. Along the way, she was an activist, an author, and a world-class saber fencer. In her retirement, she became a founding member of her county’s League of Women Voters.

In my case, it is too early to tell how effective her lesson will have been. But in her case, I think it worked.


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