Will you Save the Fish?
My kids and I have a magical morning commute. Sometimes we notice it; more often than not, we don’t. It somehow gets lost in the shuffle of half-zipped backpacks, unsigned permission slips, missing water bottles, and the background soundtrack to our lives playing on the radio. It’s always something by Lin Manuel Miranda, and most days, it’s We don’t Talk about Bruno. Often, we miss the sunlight glittering on the intracoastal as we cross the bridge from the mainland to the barrier island where their school sits nestled in an enclave of oaks and privilege.
During our ride, the kids chat about nothing and everything. Usually, my son airs his grievances about his fellow first-graders; Perfect Lulu and Tappy Annie are two classmates that particularly bug him. My daughter is either talking slime or complaining about the unfair distribution of safety patrol duties. We are lost in a haze of hurry and irritation despite the serene setting of oaks and water.
I share this to give you some insight into how we are most days. We are not often profound, deep, or particularly present.
Occasionally we slow down, notice the sun shining and chat about something other than Byron’s low tolerance for humanity.
On our drive a few weeks ago, one of the kids asked me about getting into trouble at school. Both kids began posing different scenarios to see if I would be upset with them if they landed in trouble or detention. Both of my kids are petrified of being in trouble at school; they could, however, care less if they are in trouble with me.
My daughter starts middle school this fall, so words like detention and demerits are now in our lexicon, and I figured all the detention talk was due to our recent middle school orientation evening.
We chattered about what could put you in detention and agreed that some of the rules seemed a little insane. Which led us to the concept of trouble and, in particular, “good trouble.”
Which then prompted me to tell them the fish story.
An avid pod-caster, I get all my info not from social media but my friends Brene, Oprah, Simon, Martha, Glennon, and Guy. During a recent session with Brene, I came across the fish story, which made me cringe and filled me with shame and awe.
A quick summation of the fish story is a high school teacher gives his class a class pet. The pet is a tropical fish. At first, the kids are ungrateful, thinking they don’t need a class pet, and this whole idea is dumb. Gradually as the year goes on, the class grows to love the fish. They feed the fish, look after the fish, and abide by the only rule that goes with the fish. The rule is: You must never touch the fish. If you touch the fish, you are suspended.
The year passes with them all loving this fish. Then, they come into class one day, and the teacher scoops the fish into a net and throws it on the floor. The class watches in horror as the fish flops and struggles. Initially, no one moves to touch the fish. After a few seconds, two girls rush over, grab the fish, and put it back into the water.
Their teacher immediately tells them to pack their belongings, grab their backpacks, and head to the office. They are suspended. They broke the rule.
They were outraged. The class was in disbelief.
The teacher was adamant.
The girls left angry.
Their teacher called after them as they walked down the hall, “You did the right thing. You saved the fish, but you broke the rule. Sometimes even doing the right thing still lands you in trouble.”
The rest of the class was ashamed. The class chose safety over suspension. They chose safe and wrong over right and unjust.
As I told my kids this story, they howled at the injustice. Byron, who is fish obsessed, we have five tanks at home, could not believe it. My kids screamed they would save the fish and that you have to save the fish. How could you not save the fish? What kind of monster would not save the fish!
Well, um, their mother…
At that moment, I had to tell my kids I’m not sure that I would have saved the fish in high school. In fact, I know I would not have saved the fish. I was so indoctrinated to be good that I would choose “good” over right. I would pick safe and wrong every time. I was so enamored with the appearance of good that I became a good liar. I so wanted to be considered good that I lost sight of what good actually was.
I learned early to tune out my inner voice of wisdom and follow the loud voice of conformity. I valued following societal norms over protecting another. I also felt it was not safe to be in trouble, even the right kind of trouble. So better be safe and appear good, then stick your neck out and do what is right.
The hardest part about being a parent is not the choices we obsess over. The decisions to breastfeed or formula feed, practice attachment parenting over non-attachment parenting, or allow screen time or no screen time are all fine and good, but these decisions don’t matter all that much. The hardest part of parenting is allowing your children to see your full humanity.
Parenting is about using your mistakes to teach your kids it’s okay to make their own mistakes. It’s about deconstructing your worldview so you can provide a bigger, wider lens for them.
I was afraid of making mistakes, so I hid them, and I suffered. Anytime we abandon our knowing or intuition, we suffer.
Suffering opened my worldview. It provided a broader lens to look through and see that good is not always right. It challenged my belief system and allowed me to see that the indoctrination of societal norms should be questioned. That we should be curious, that we should ask questions, that we should listen to our gut and have conviction.
Trouble is not always trouble. Sometimes trouble is shaking up the establishment. Trouble is following your convictions despite the costs.
As parents, we really have one job.
To raise kids that feel safe and secure enough to save the fish.
I’m hopeful I am raising kids who will save the fish.
Now we must ask ourselves, will you save the fish?