Alpha and Beta brought home their progress reports. I take their grades seriously as a parent should. [My parents never really did with me and as a consequence in high school I did not meet my potential. I half-assed my way through and that was enough to get by.] There was a C on both reports. Something they both knew would result in a talk with me about it. They were prepared with excuses: other kids in their class got worse grades, the teacher didn’t explain things well, and they were confused on the last test that went into the grade and an assignment was missed and not turned in on time.
I started my reply litany: The other kids are not my responsibility—you are… if you don’t understand then ask for help so that you do understand (either the teacher or us, your parents)… there is no excuse for not turning in an assignment on time.
The discussion unfolded while making Tuna Melts for dinner. As I talked, I got them started with the opening of cans. Draining them; two tablespoons of mayo in a bowl and in go the two cans. Then a dash of salt and pepper. “Mix that up,” I told Beta. “Get ready to butter bread,” I directed Alpha, on my left, as I put the skillet on the stove and turned the heat on under it.
“A C means average…” Alpha claimed from over by the refrigerator as if everything was going to be okay once she’d clarified that for me.
We’d had the conversation before when a C popped up. “You can do better than that.” Hot enough now I plopped buttered bread, from Alpha, in the skillet. I put two tablespoons of tuna on it, smoothed flat and Beta, on my right, slapped a slice of cheese on. Alpha passed me the complementing buttered slice of bread, and I topped it.
Beta was sullen as she leaned against the counter by the sink. “You’re pressuring me… I don’t like it.”
As a whole, they both get good grades, and I’m not an asshole that rides them like a boot camp drill instructor. But I also know that acceptance of less than what you’re capable of is a slippery slope. I know where that can—usually does—lead.
“I’m not pushing you to do something you’re not capable of…” I used the spatula to peek; check the bottom slice… golden brown, darker round the crust. Flip that sucker and make the other side match. And repeat the process four times. Alpha started passing more buttered bread, and Beta was ready with the sliced cheese. “I know you can do better than a C.”
I also knew that if I turned asshole and came down on them relentlessly that may not yield the result I wanted. We had talked through the whole reward versus punishment back-and-forth rationale, and I hated to pull that out and use it. I flipped each finished Tuna Melt out of the frying pan and onto their respective plates. I nodded, and the girls picked them up and moved to sit at the kitchen table.
“Can we listen to some music?” Beta asked.
“No… we’re going to talk more about this. I want you to understand that most of the battle of improving something: a situation, grades…” Alpha now had that flat stare look on her face as I continued. “Anything… even a life. Starts with deciding you’ll no longer accept what’s happening. Because you’re better than that.”
Beta rolled her eyes and slumped in her chair. Her hair shrouded her face.
“Sit up and brush your hair back or you’ll drag it over your plate.” She sat straighter. “When you decide you can do better, and believe it deeply, then all the little things you need to do to avoid that outcome or to change what’s going on… will become part of who you are each day.”
We started eating, and I let things go in silence. They exchanged looks and then both settled on looking at me. I regarded them back—I can meet anyone’s look and not say a damn thing until I’m ready—it makes some people, especially Alpha and Beta, squirm. After another handful of minutes, I asked them, “If you could learn something that had the power to ensure you’d never get less than a B… would it interest you.
“What is it?” Beta asked. She had that smirk she got sometimes.
I didn’t answer. After a few minutes, I fed them an additional bit. “There’s magic in it.” I ate the last bite on my plate and drank some more tea. “The strength of it has helped humans for centuries… maybe thousands of years.”
“What is it?” Beta asked again.
“It’s not something that you shout from a mountain or sell to millions…” I shook my head and looked hard at her. “This is serious stuff.” I shook my head again. “The kind that only parents who deeply love their children will pass on to them.”
“What is it?” Alpha was involved now.
Beta opined, “I bet it’s hard to do.” She had her arms crossed. Her usual pose of disbelief and developing point of hardheadedness.
“Do you believe in magic… I mean words that have the command of magic in them?” I looked at Beta, who was going to be the tough nut to crack. “Not the kind of magic you read or see in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings… I’m talking real earth-bound, human-born, enchantment.” They both looked skeptical. “I’m serious girls… no bullshit… no story-telling about it. It’s for real.” I sat silent for a while, head canted down, as they finished their dinner. After a moment, once the sound of forks and plate-clinks had dwindled then stopped, I looked up. They were watching me expectantly.
“As I said… this phrase, these words… contain in them a universal truth that empowers the reader who speaks them aloud and does not doubt their truth.” I picked up my plate and motioned for them to take theirs to the sink, too. “The phrase structure is ancient and the manner of using it is what’s most important. Once you say it, once you truly believe the power of the words and phrase. It’s inseparable; it becomes part of you.” I walked over and poked Beta in the ribs. She twitched away and smiled. Alpha took a few steps, too. “Oh, no you don’t!” I let her go.
“Are you really interested to learn this?” They both nodded. “Don’t waste my time. I have to go into my research notes and write this out for you. Are you sure?”
“Yes,” both nodded.
“This is not something to take lightly… to say yes now and then don’t follow through. To read the words and not believe.” I locked eyes with Beta, held it for a beat, and then did the same with Alpha. “Shows you don’t care enough about yourself to reach for and expect something better, and that’s tragic.”
“Does it show you how to study better?” asked Alpha.
“No,” I said.
Beta said. “I bet it’s something complicated.”
“It’s not.” I left them in the kitchen and went to the table by my reading chair in the family room, raising my voice as I went. “It’s simple; just one sentence. It can be about any single thing you want to improve, but we’ll make it specific to what we’ve been talking about. But I have to prepare this, so it’s written correctly and with the right symbols… I’m not going to do this if you aren’t committed to treating it with respect. If you do this and then don’t follow through; if you don’t believe in its power then you’ve wasted my time, and you’ll have disrespected yourself.” I grabbed my journal, with its research notes and turned. They had followed me. “I’ll know, especially next school year, if you’ve done this but did not sincerely believe it was the key to all things and to ensure you never get a C grade or lower.” I hardened my stare into the Dad Look. “That happens and I’m going to be volcanically ticked off.”
“No, we want to do this.” Beta looked at Alpha who nodded in unison.
“Okay.” I sighed, feigning the weight of a heavy decision. “Don’t let me down.” I opened a page in the journal and read; ad-libbing:
“The scribes had reported on the children’s progress. It seems their Instruction of Wisdom was short of what it aspired to or perhaps it was the failing of the student to take their studies seriously. But a solution had been passed down over eons. [I stopped to explain to Alpha and Beta that meant a very long time.] Its simplicity made it seem unlikely, perhaps even scoffed at but it was pure and compelling. Through it all things would fall into place. What was meant; what was desired could be manifested by taking its message into your soul and making all decisions and actions based upon it.”
I looked up from the journal. “That’s from the original text; a scroll translation I found while researching a story.” I picked up the pad of paper on the table. “Go ahead and get the kitchen cleaned while I work on this… I have to focus to make sure I have it correct.”
They went into the kitchen and got to work. Soon they were done, and I was, too. “Who’s first?” Beta pointed at Alpha. “Okay. Take this.” I handed her the notepad page now inscribed with mystic symbols and a line of text across the middle. “Go to your room. Turn and hold it to face toward your mirror and you’ll be able to read the message.” Alpha looked at Beta, that twin cross-check thing they do, then back at me. “Read it aloud three times and then bring it back to me.” She began to turn and I cautioned her. “Don’t say anything when you come out—just give it back to me.”
A couple of minutes later she returned. With a thoughtful look on her face and a quick glance at Beta, she handed me the note. I handed it to Beta with the same instructions. She was soon back and gave me the note. I looked at them both and they grinned. I smiled back and could tell they were getting it; the message I wanted them to take away from our discussion, my talk and what they’d just done.
“There is such a thing as self-determination. There are things we can control about ourselves and our lives. Often the things we choose not to accept, not to allow in our lives, can shape and direct us more than the things we do accept. Sometimes we need to cut through the clutter and become very specific about what we need to not let happen. And with that, sometimes we must make changes that become a common trait we exhibit daily. We become our source of magic and power.” I put the note on my lap desk and turned back to them. “Now you have it, too… don’t let me down.”