How To Raise a Multilingual Child: MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS

God is German.

At least that’s what I thought when I was four. By that age, I’d heard more prayers in my home in German than in English (prayers over the food, at bedtime), which was just part of my parents’ method of keeping their second language active and inspiring us kids to some day crack the Teutonic code. We all eventually did.

scienceillustrated.com

scienceillustrated.com

Then we moved to Austria the year I turned fourteen. I found myself plunking through Mozart piano duets and small talk in German with an instructor whose German (even my adolescent American ears knew this) had an accent. I just couldn’t pin it down. And I wasn’t nosey (or fluent) enough to get into an involved conversation about where she was from.

It was only decades later, after having mastered German better than Mozart, that I discovered this piano professor had been American (a transplant from Minnesota), and that my parents had conspired with her to make those hours at her Steinway not only about hammering out scales but also about nailing down German verb conjugations.

Mom and Dad knew intuitively what I’ve learned throughout over twenty years of raising four children in eight countries while learning five languages. To achieve close-to-native fluency, you must have three things:

3 MUSTS: Opportunity, Necessity and Community

“Opportunity” can be a foreign residency, as I was lucky to enjoy many times in my youth, and as my children have been given due to our globally nomadic lifestyle.

njfamily.com

njfamily.com

But not everyone has that kind of opportunity. Take heart! There are others: A parent might speak a foreign tongue. Or there are neighbors/relatives/friends who speak another language. There are immersion classes at school. There is someone somewhere in your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances, I promise this, who fluently speaks a language other than yours. “Opportunity” comes in all sorts of variations of contact with another language.

Still, none of these opportunities –  foreign residency included – can guarantee that you or your child will learn the language. Proof of that is seen in every immigrant community where the members stick in their native tongue cluster, never becoming functional in the language of their host country.  Have you witnessed this anywhere? Everywhere I have lived in the world there seems to have been an expatriate “ghetto,” where folks function (sometimes for years, even decades) without learning the language of the people surrounding them.  That’s what we call a lost opportunity.

So clearly opportunity alone won’t unlock the doors to speaking new a language. What else does one need?

Opportunity+Necessity

There must be opportunity + necessity, so that the brain kicks into gear and latches onto a language in earnest. We’re talking a modicum of desperation. Often, if we know there’s an escape from the difficulties and pain and humiliation of learning a new language, we’ll quickly swerve into that exit. We’ll revert to our mother tongue. We’ll wave off the pesky role-play, giggle, and speak English to the piano teacher.  Or we’ll simply go silent and retreat.  It takes the pressure of real need to heat up those brain cells and stoke our motivation to learn. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of language.  Including your or your child’s next foreign one. You’ll need to create a situation where your child has no choice but to speak. That is half your battle.

serabeena.com

serabeena.com

Necessity + Community

I recall smiling so broadly one day, I nearly strained a cheek muscle. We were less than a year into our new home in Norway when I happened around the corner near the play room and overheard a conversation between our five-year-old Parker and Maria, the friend he’d invited over that afternoon to play. I couldn’t tell who was Norwegian and who was not.  Parker had crossed over.  Maria, with her white curls and sparkly blue eyes had been a major language magnet for our boy. Yes, we lived in Norway.  (Opportunity). And luckily, our son desperately wanted friends. (Necessity). Just as fortunately, Maria – along with kindergarteners and teachers, and our church, soccer, skiing and neighborhood friends – wanted to be our on-site language technicians. (Community).  We all fell right into linguistic stride. Parker – and the rest of us at the time – learned to speak fluently, and we’ve worked at keeping that language alive ever since.

Beyond the ideal situation of enjoying a foreign residency as we did in Norway and other countries, what can one do to approximate opportunity, necessity and community?

multilingualkids.com

multilingualkids.com

3 Bests: Parents, Domains, Schools

Inna is Russian and Joseph is French. They live in Germany. Their work requires that they master English.  They are raising their two children quadrilingually, with each parent consistently speaking his or her mother tongue. German, the children learn in school. English, they learn at church.

1) Speak it! If a parent speaks a foreign language as a mother tongue, that must be his or her language with the child. That practice must be consistent and should begin at the child’s birth. Science has found that until the onset of puberty, children’s brains are able to absorb and order several foreign tongues at once. The earlier the start, the easier the acquisition, and the better the chances of learning with greater facility more languages later in life.

2)Earmark domains.  For Inna and Joseph’s children those domains are 1) home, 2) school and the community at large, and 3) church. Seek out or create domains – places (Spanish-speaking grandma’s on weekends, summer vacations to your Japanese family), activities (soccer in Portuguese, flute lessons in Polish), or relationships (the Italian uncle with whom you Skype, the Swedish cousin to whom you telephone, the Korean pen pal) that will be completely and consistently immersed in the target language.

3)Formal Instruction.  Even the very best course isn’t going to promise native fluency. But a great instructor can give your child an excellent departure point.  Insist that your foreign language teacher be a native speaker, and that he/she teaches the natural approach, which emphasizes in those earliest stages especially verbal interaction and listening comprehension over dissecting the mechanics of grammar. Classes should be taught in the target language, not in the student’s native tongue with mere interjections of the foreign language.  Ask about teaching methodology, favoring classrooms with creative and interactive musical, theatrical, tactile and kinesthetic programs.  The more play there is, especially for younger children, the more effective the language learning will be.

3 BOOSTS: Exposure, Media, Incentives

1) Foreign Exposure. Can’t go to a foreign country? Can’t send your teen on that summer immersion to Montreal? Can’t see sending your twelve-year-old to that week-long Spanish camp? Then bring foreign to you in the form of foreign exchange students. Or how about encouraging Skype exchanges with a Beijing student? Or find local cultural festivals where you can sniff out new friends and customs and simply hear the language floating around you.  Scour your local papers for events/connections in the target language.

2)Media. Listen to the target language in music, DVD series and in television programs (especially those with your native language in subtitles. This is a major key to how Scandinavians and the Dutch learn English so well and so early. Their imported television programs aren’t dubbed, but are subtitled in their native language. The French, in contrast, impose French dubbing.) For older children, there are multiple resources via the Internet where your child can actively converse with true native speakers.  I have purchased audio books and the corresponding hard copy, so that my reading children can listen and read along simultaneously.

3)Incentives.  Heidi, whose children have learned Norwegian, English and German, paid them for letters written to grandparents in all those languages.  Irina, who speaks five languages in her home, rewarded her boys for acing their French and English exams.  When our own children have done something as simple as ordering food at a restaurant in the target language, or something as substantial as giving a public address in that tongue, we’ve rewarded them well and openly.

**

Whatever your methods of encouraging multilingualism, be prepared for brain fatigue and resistance.  It is enormous mental work to assimilate the complex codes of a new tongue. When Randall and I were newlyweds, we instructed German both on the university level as well as at one of the world’s leading language immersion centers, the Training Center for prospective full-time volunteers for our church, known as the MTC (Missionary Training Center.)  The university setting was a typical academic one, three classes a week, so far from total immersion, although we taught our classes primarily in German.

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only spent a record 76 hours within the MTC walls. Period.  It got very quiet right about then.  And our students got headaches!  It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).

But what was astounding and gratifying was to experience moments of serendipity and excitement, when the student felt the shutters of her mind and her world being flung wide open.  When you offer this to your child, you will experience along with her the out-and-out thrill when she discovers not just a new language, but a new world and a new self it that world.

firenzemoms4moms

firenzemoms4moms

**

What have been your experiences with learning another language? What worked? What didn’t?

How have you offered opportunity+necessity+community to your family so that they have learned another tongue?

Can you share a story that illustrates the agony and the ecstasy of gaining fluency in a new language?

And really. . .Why bother with other languages, anyway?

Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Bit of the Backstory

Cover (3)

How does a book cover like this happen?

First, you live the story.  You move with your partner’s professional positions to several different countries, raising a family all along that bump-‘n’-swerve road, picking up languages and friends and a strange mashup of social codes on the fly, keeping a flimsy grip on your sanity some of the time, discovering depths of experience and breadth of  understanding most of the time, acquiring the kind of training that stretches and reshapes you and galvanizes your scraggly gaggle of a family, welding you to each other, to humanity, to this planet.

This life fits you. You fit it. So much so, you can’t imagine anything else, and you fling yourself again and again into the swirl, even forgetting to wash your hair the week of that sunny Sunday morning when your friend, Parson School of Design student Erin, calls up, singing, “The light’s good today, guys! Want to get some candid fam shots by Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on our way to church?”

You’re busy writing all these years, of course, because that is what you do. (Far more than you wash your hair, if you really have to know my grooming habits). You’re writing about this life and how it yanks and pumices and oils your soul.  And then you discern, as you approach a decade of this nomadic life, a distinct inner voice that says you need to get this written into a book.  So you begin capturing the first phase of your nomadic family spiel, the move from Broadway to Norway. “Now is the time to write this story,” the voice persists. “You won’t have another chance like this.  Capture your early family right now, in this unfiltered light.”

So you obey the nudge, and you sit and write that book.  On a big Norwegian table placed squat in the middle of your Paris apartment, you sit.  You write so much you feel frustrated because, zut!, Paris is out there! Why crouch with your back to it, writing? (Because doesn’t everyone in Paris do just this? Crouch somewhere writing while the tourists stride around town?)

A band of motley literati friends critiques your pages.  You change things, change them again, change again and again and realize your own written voice sometimes gets on your nerves. You need a major break from yourself. You need to pack that voice into industrial-sized envelopes and get it into someone else’s ears. You send these fat envelope babies to a bunch of fine publishers with offices in big American cities.  Seventeen of them.  Even before you lick the stamps, you’re feeling like a fool, not to mention a misfit in the face of those distant, hard-edged cities and their mysterious publishing fortresses.  They loom and intimidate, those fortresses, leaving you sleepless and self-flagellating, needing as treatment the equivalent of fity hour-long heated eucalyptus oil full body rubs of reassurance.

Not a one of the seventeen publishing fortresses opens their drawbridge.

All the rejection letters are variations on one polite theme: “We wish you only the very best in your future writing endeavors.”

Well, see? What did I tell everyone?  

So, you tuck that manuscript away, way in the bottom of one of the 400+ boxes you’ve packed to leave your several years in Paris for a new life chapter in Munich.

And the next week, three days into a vacation in the States, and one day after visiting your eldest at his first college dorm, you get a phone call.

That call sends your story – all stories  you’ve ever known or written or told – into a screeching spiral which in its blackwash vortex sucks the air out of the universe. Your story – the old one pinned on paper and crammed in the bottom of a cardboard box, or the new story that your body writes as it crawls through coldening tar – feels massively irrelevant.  There is no more story.  There are no more stories.  There is no use in telling. There is nothing. Everything you now know is unwritable. What remains?  All there is, is loss.

**

Four years later, you’re quietly aware that even though you now live in Singapore where the air is as humid as living in the drying cycle of your dishwasher, there is somehow air to breathe. The cosmos has stopped screeching, reeling and jerking, and in soundless streamlets it has begun to fill back up with meaning. Not the meaning it had before. But meaning far more dense, immutable, textured like a freight rope lassoed around the underside of reality.  Though at times inexplicable, there is a story happening, a weighty narrative materializing as if it were writing itself, drawing you onward.  You write it out, riding it out, the story, and as you do, you move with it.

Your husband, the one you feared at times wouldn’t survive the vortex or its ghostly post-ravage landscape, is regaining traction.  He can laugh and joke and walk upstairs without getting winded.  Then one day, from out of the blue, a noted scholar contacts him, asking him to be one of several subjects for her book on lives like yours; nomadic but anchored lives that circle and recircle the globe.

He agrees. He does the interview. The scholar publishes her book, Cultural Agility, and it quickly becomes a seminal work in the field.

Wise and brilliant friends are constantly encouraging you to keep going, keep writing your stuff, keep knocking on fortress doors. When one such friend suggests you might tap-tap on the door of a publishing house that is just that – a house or a cottage literally, and not a fortress – you end up sitting in the CEO’s kitchen. The man is accessible, responsive and committed to producing your work.  He doesn’t just want to publish it (although he’s eager to do that); he wants to discuss it.  He even wants (get this) to take part in editing it himself.  You Skype at all hours from your opposing sides of the planet, discussing both the literary endeavor as well as the business aspects of such a book project.

“You’ll need to do some things,” Mr. CEO publisher says in one of countless Skype sessions, “which might not be comfortable at first.  Like, you’ll need to begin a blog.

Panic sits on your shoulders like a silverback gorilla in full heat, and you say something to the effect of, “Other options, sir? Like, let’s see. . . swimming around the whole of Australia? Through shark infested waters? In a Lady Gaga suit make of raw sirloin?” You’ve fought long and hard to reenter the world. But enter the virtual world?  That kind of exposure? Can you do that and not disintegrate? You begin chanting an Homeric epic saga about all the reasons blogs (and perhaps publishing altogether) are not for you.

“Start a blog right now,” kindly CEO sir says. “No later than next week.  Right when you begin your move from Singapore. And,” he adds, “I’m sending a contract right now.  Get me your finished manuscript in six months.”

Soon you have all these blog-followers, and you are carefully thriving in that connectivity, and these follower-friends begin chiming in on the progress of the book. (They’re even bossy about designing the cover. They simply take over.)

The scholar who quoted your husband in her book? She’s now quoted on the cover of yours.  Her blurbs are enough to make you run for cover, (neither you nor your own children would ever call you a “role model for all parents”), but you’re hoping everyone will overlook the endorsements’ effusiveness and focus on that darling little ISBN tattoo.

And this time around your twelve-year-old takes your photo for the back cover. For which event, thank goodness, you decide to wash your hair.

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Global Mom: Madame, Vos Trésors!!

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Fête de la Musique”)

**

Dear Mom and Dad,

I write from a hotel where I’m staying as of today until Monday when I fly to Munich. Packed the house all week. Sent off Kristiina and her kids Thursday morning. Hard goodbye for me. R will flee with the kids to Zaki’s in Provence while I finish up all the messy boring moving details here. Cleaned and spackled today, walked around an echoing apartment and remembered 4 years ago arriving alone to an echoing apartment, the ordeal of getting our Norwegian table through the windows, the crazy and hilarious moving team, the growth in our family, the depths of my friendships here, and I realized all the things I have learned during these critical 4 years, the gifts of wisdom I hardly deserve. Before they left, R and the children and I knelt in the middle of our empty living room, so strange, to offer a prayer of thanks for the gift of that home, of the years we were blessed to spend there. All the miracles. You know some of them. I’m giving the main sermon in church tomorrow (on seeking for wisdom and not for riches), then will do the official apartment walk-through on Monday morning. I’ll ship Parker’s big African drum to you after that, please be watching for it; he’ll want it at university if he can play it and not get in trouble for the disturbance. That thing is loud! After that, I’m thinking I’ll probably walk the streets feeling wistful, so wistful I can hardly formulate words. Then I’ll fly to Munich late afternoon because goods arrive Tuesday morning and we unpack all week . . . and so forth and so forth until I fly to meet up with all of you and the kids in Utah on July 14th. Have been overwhelmed with work for so many weeks (months?) now, that I haven’t really allowed myself to feel very much about this departure. Now I’m so completely clotted with warm fluid feelings. I think my earlobes are waterlogged.

Love you both always and see you very soon!

 

Grandma visiting, Parker, Claire, the Sorenson children, Kristiina

Grandma visiting Parker, Claire, the Sorensons, including Kristiina

And so that late Parisian June evening of the Fête de la Musique, I had been standing with my family on a bridge. A day later, I found myself alone, standing at a crossroads. It was a literal crossroads, the moment I am describing now, since I was standing in front of our building, which stands at an intersection, and the extra-large moving truck with its forty- cubic-meter container was parked there, too. We were leaving an epoch, a densely blessed whirring Camelot of a time, we all knew it, and I was balancing all that emotion with the practical necessity of overseeing the countless details of clearing out our apartment and making sure every last gram of our material lives was packed into a box that would roll out the very next morning heading for Munich, Germany.

I’d sent Randall and the children off in the car to say neighborhood goodbyes and pick up baguettes still hot and crusty from Secco, our local boulangerie. They timed it so they would show up to see off our moving crew, a spicy mix from the banlieue of Paris, headed by a great, burly fellow whose charm and salt-and-pepper eyebrows were equally luxuriant.

As that leader clamped shut the massive lock on our container parked in teeny Rue du Colonel Combes, he raised his voice and arms in a dramatic flourish, smacked the hind end of the trailer, and pronounced to the skies, “Madame, vos trésors!!” Madame, your treasures. In that very same instant, Randall rounded the corner in the Renault, kids hanging out windows wielding baguettes, waving, whooping, “Bonjour, Maman!!” like a chorus of French school children.

“Non, Monsieur,” I responded, an eye on the family van, “Voici mes trésors.” No, sir. These are my treasures.

In that serendipitously choreographed moment, I truly felt what I was saying as it caught in my throat, and I thought I knew just how completely those gangling arms and hoarse voices were my true treasures. I knew that if my forty-cubic-foot, padlocked trunk of treasures drowned in the blue black of some ocean, I’d survive it well because I knew what was most precious. And what’s more, I had it. Precious and irreplaceable. My treasure. My treasured family. I had every last one of them.

 

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Global Mom: Homeland? Security?

The American cemetery of Normandy

The American cemetery of Normandy

From Global Mom: A Memoir:

By November, still keeping a low American profile, and still getting settled into this rented home in the village of Croissy-sur-Seine. . .

Croissy-sur-Seine

Croissy-sur-Seine

. . .Which meant still sorting through boxes to find Christmas decorations I’d barely restacked in a now-dry basement. . .

Still in boxes. . .

Still in boxes. . .

. . .Randall got a call. It was word that he had been selected for an advancement that would put him at corporation headquarters. In New Jersey.

In the U.S. of A.

Could he move immediately?

Let me pause. Let me allow that to sink in a spell.

Home for almost 10 months...

Home for almost 10 months

This scene is not all that atypical in expatriate life. You move to a place — to Moscow from Minneapolis or to Mumbai from Moscow, let’s say – and you just begin figuring things out when a call comes. The call might ask you to repack your boxes and head back to where you just came from, (to the home you just sold, to the school you just forfeited your children’s slots in. . .

Claire and friend. . .

Claire and friend

. . .To your spouses’ practice/studies/firm/office he or she just closed or sold off), or to repack your boxes to head to another place altogether, (where you must find a new home, school, a new life track for everyone), or to repack your boxes because the company is sorry, there is no job anywhere for you in the brand new corporate structure.

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Imagine the scenario where you have uprooted because you’ve accepted an assignment in Cairo or Stockholm or Bangalore where you in good faith are digging in your roots and drinking from a new soil. . . only to be Rubrik-cubed back or away or out of a job all together. Most of the time employees are given the option to keep their job, but sometimes that means the job is in one country and the family stays in another.

Our youngest two

Our youngest two

It is a less-known and less-appealing side of the international life. But given the backdrop of 9/11 and a subsequent military invasion in Iraq, such professional dramas are, we certainly must agree, mini-dramas, even picayune.

Still, they aren’t easy.

Last bike ride before Dad leaves France

Last Sunday bike ride before Dad leaves France for several months in the US

Besides, I was writing about Randall’s offer for a new job.

“No,” he said, “We can’t move right now. We’re just moving in right now. But,” he eyed me for the no-go grimace or the go-ahead nod from across our bedroom where he was receiving this phone call from headquarters. . .

Saying goodbye to Montmartre

Saying goodbye to Montmartre

. . . “But, ” he said, “I can move in the new quarter. I’ll move. Melissa and the kids will finish out the school here year and follow in the summer.”

We did this for many months, Randall in the U.S., the rest of us in France, which time it took for us to get our heads around the prospect of reentering The Homeland.

Montmartre, Place du Tertre

Montmartre, Place du Tertre

Praying Like a Good Sport

On a basketball court last week, I made some remarkable discoveries about the human spirit, or better, about humans and the Spirit.
Over one hundred high school basketball players from several international schools from across Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean had just watched the final basketball game of the ISST (International Schools Sports Tournament). It had been a day of fierce, rapid-fire competition ricocheting steadily from one hoop to the other. The Hague had just beaten Vienna. The Bonn, Germany gymnasium (where these finals were being held), was full of cheering and sweating, celebration music and congratulatory back-slapping and hand-shaking. I was playing photojournalist. I’d been doing the same that morning in the Cologne cathedral. If you read my last post, you know I’d been somewhat wrapped up in some thoughts about things spiritual, making my hours there maybe not outright holy, but touched lightly with reverence. Then I slung my camera bag over my shoulder, drove with my family the thirty minutes southwards to Bonn, where I hid myself in the stands overhead to take pictures of all the players. We’d not been told who it would be, but we knew that one player from among the hundred-plus, had been voted by the coaches and athletic directors to receive a special award in the name of a deceased player formerly from the tournament. It was this award that has brought our family to these finals for six years running, because it is the namesake of the award that brought us to any of these tournaments, when he’d played in these games himself. IMG_2096

The Parker Bradford ISST Sportsmanship award for basketball was established shortly after our son lost his life, and by the unanimous consent of the coaches in the ISST. All those coaches knew our son. He’d played two years on the American School of Paris varsity basketball team, and had been co-captain when that team had won the ISST championship.
While we sat in the upper deck watching the final game, Randall and I recalled the previous finals over the years and the other recipients of this award. In March 2008, our family was on hand in Frankfurt to present the first award to a player from the British School of the Netherlands. In 2009, we drove from Munich to The Hague, where a player from Brussels received the award. At that ceremony, the hosting coach spontaneously asked all the players to gather in a circle and put their arms around each other’s shoulders as he read a statement about Parker. In 2010, we drove to Zürich where a boy from that home team was selected for the distinction. Again, all the players stood in a linked circle.

In 2011, when the finals were held in Israel, (and we were living in Singapore), Randall, who was on business in Tel Aviv, arranged to attend the championships in Even Yehuda, a thirty-minute drive northward. Randall stood in the middle of the circle of young players as the statement was read. The recipient that year, a Brit named Logan McKee who was playing for Frankfurt, had noted in the statement about our family, that our daughter was attending Brigham Young University. This detail piqued his interest, and when he and Randall were standing for photos afterwards, Logan whispered to Randall, “Are you Mormon?” to which Randal, still smiling for the cameras, said, “Yes, I am. We are LDS.” “So am I,” said Logan, “And I’m leaving soon to serve a full-time mission.” (A few months later, we learned that Logan McKee had been assigned to serve in the very region where both Randall and I had been missionaries in our twenties, in Bavaria and in Austria. He is is completing his service there now).

20B4BF~1

In 2012, Randall and I made a 76-hour turnaround trip from Singapore, and pulled into Vienna just in time for the final ISST game. There, the players ringed around us again, their arms draped on one another’s shoulders, as Nicola Bordignon from Milan was announced as the recipient of the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award.

2012 ISST Div II Boys B-Ball Award Ceremony (Vienna, Austria - March 10, 2012) Nic Bordignon (2012 ISSTs - Vienna)

And now here we are. Nearly six years out. Already 2013. We are sitting in the stands again, eyeing the players, wondering who of all these kids might receive the award that bears the name of Parker Bradford. The Hague wins, the team huddles, and in the flurry, I take three or four shots for no particular reason of one player. I’ve learned over the years of doing this – of watching young men play this game my son lived for – I’ve learned that in order to make it through the moment without sinking into the quicksand of sadness, I need to quickly adjust my focus. I’ve learned to train my sights on the brilliance (and I can only call it that – brilliance) of others’ happiness. This kid, this #7, he seems to be a good model of that brilliance. So I shoot away.

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In the awards assembly that follows, all of the participating team members receive their medals. Team rankings. MVP. The all-tournament team. The Hague, who’s won the tournament, gets a wagonload of medals.Under all the cheering and applause, I watch closely: the testosertoney swaggers, the sagging sports shorts in blue, silver, red or gray nylon, the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the cloddy ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head bands, the shaggy hair, the shaved heads, the coolness of their brotherhood, the looseness of their pop humor. This self-evident, laid-back regard for life as theirs, the future as a given. High school boys high-fiving, bouncing on their tip-toes, heading with squared shoulders or the guttural whoop of triumph or an ironic grin into the Big Life awaiting them. The hosting coach steps to the mic to announce a closing award, “the most prestigious award”, he says, and asks all the players to pay close attention to the film that will be shown.

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I haven’t seen my son on the court for six years to this month. I haven’t even seen him in film on the court for nearly that long because I haven’t been able to stomach it. It’s one thing to see him in still shots: frozen, immobile, caught mid-three-pointer. Or trapped at age eleven, playing in the kitchen or at school with friends or on the beach with his younger siblings. Or framed at sixteen on Christmas morning, face exploding with joy while he helps his baby brother tear open the Buzz Lightyear box. I’ve learned to manage the frozen shots and even the warmth of his movement in other family DVD’s, which we now watch nearly every weekend, at Luc’s insistence. But to watch him running the court. I can’t move. I cradle my camera in my lap, knowing there’s nowhere to hide. No one should see these tears from where I am, seated in a dark corner, high school players to my right, my left, guys sniffling behind me, all of us gone silent as we stare from this darkened gymnasium at grainy images of some kid named Parker, playing ball. <a This is hard. This is beautiful. And this invites something that changes the air around me, around us. I can feel things changing, the dust particles settling and so many hearts slowing and limbs and hands growing motionless, eyes widening, a rustle going across the big room, it seems, in an inaudible “shhhhhhh.”

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After we watch the dead boy play – the boy with the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head band, the one who wore #8 when he played once on this very court in Bonn – after we watch him kiss that big championship trophy, we sit in the half-lit silence. “All players,” the coach says quietly, “will you please come up here and form a line? We want you to be together, and we parents and coaches want to look at all of you.” One long line of life in its splendid prime. Every last player has his head bowed. These kids – joking, raucous, gobbling burgers, guzzling sports drinks, limbs all akimbo just a minute earlier – are standing there is if awaiting their rites for the monastery. If you’d come in the gym right then, you’d think we were having a prayer. The sight has got me smiling behind my camera, and my eyes are watering with some kind of pained happiness. I’m struggling to see through my lens.

The Father, Randall, with the Brothers, Dalton and Luc at either side, have taken their place center court. My men will present the plaque. I will hide behind my camera, still smiling and teary, sad and giddy. A statement will be read aloud over the sound system by the coach:

Today the Boys Basketball ISST Division II is proud to present the sixth annual “Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award”. Parker Fairbourne Bradford attended the American School of Paris for 8 years. Shortly after his graduation in June 2007, he began his university studies in the United States. Late one afternoon in mid-July, while attending a swimming activity, he and several classmates were standing in a calm section of an irrigation canal, when a deadly but invisible undertow unexpectedly pulled Parker and a fellow student under water. Twice Parker freed himself from the powerful current, even pulling himself onto dry land, yet both times without hesitation he dove back in to try to save his trapped and drowning classmate. His effort was not in vain, as his friend was freed and with the help of another student survived, but it cost Parker his own life. He passed away on July 21, 2007. In memory of this remarkable young man, the ISST Athletic Directors unanimously agreed to establish a sportsmanship award in Parker’s name. Parker loved and enjoyed sports and music throughout his life. He was a gifted drummer and performed in several jazz bands. He was also a leading member of the American School of Paris’s 2006 ISST Division I championship basketball team and 2007 ISST Division I championship volleyball team. Yet as talented as he was as a player, Parker was an even greater sportsman and person. Following his untimely passing in July 2007, six memorial services were held in his honor (3 in the United States and 3 in Paris, France). A percussion scholarship was established in his name at the university he had begun attending; and two monuments were erected in his memory, one at the accident site in the United States, and the other in Norway, where he lived 5 years early in his life. He was and remains a powerful influence and role model for countless friends, teachers, coaches and relatives. Parker is represented here today by his father, Randall; his mother, Melissa; and his brothers, Dalton and Luc, all of whom currently reside in Geneva, Switzerland. Their daughter and Parker’s sister, Claire, is currently a full-time voluntary representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy. The Bradford Family has asked me to convey to all of you athletes, coaches and teachers their deep and abiding love for Parker and their solemn gratitude to see him both remembered and honored today in Bonn.

And now the recipient will be announced. But before he is, reader, I’m going to hold you captive for a few short paragraphs, if you’ll let me. May I ask you something? Would you consider carefully what I’m now going to tell you? Will you please sit long and silently on the significance of what I am going to write? Will you pass this knowledge on in your interactions with others? Will you even pass on this post, so that those already touched by loss and grief and everyone who eventually will be, will have this to reference?

-The nature of one’s living relationship with the one who has passed away influences the nature of one’s grief.

Our two youngest boys and our daughter adored their big brother. He was a loving, funny, attentive leader. To say he was a “model brother” might be taking it too far, but people told us (both before and after his death) that they saw Parker as just that. Imperfect in totality, as every one of us surely is, he was still sweet and caring and uncomplicated in his human relationships. Sibling rivalry? Bad memories? Fights to regret? Flicking away of the obnoxious younger kid? None of those describes Parker. He was a peacemaker and protectorate. In fact, all my sweet surviving children suffered the lost of the one they all called their favorite sibling. They suffer still.

-The nature of the death itself influences the nature of a survivor’s grief. Was it a sudden or protracted departure? Was it inexplicable and untimely, or a peaceful relief at the end of a long life well lived? Was it accidental? Violent? Self-inflicted? Did the survivors witness it? Did it implicate family members or a larger community? Was it fraught with legal complications? Are details of the death as yet unresolved? All of these factors and countless more color and intensify the grief experience.

Parker was in the full bloom of perfect health. Dalton had laughed with him and hugged him goodbye while standing in a sunny parking lot outside a college apartment on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday night, Parker lay in a deep coma. On Saturday morning, Dalton stood next to the gurney as we turned off life support. Dalton, then eleven-years-old, watched his big brother’s body heave its last breath. His death came from nowhere. There was no preparatory time, no chance to absorb on either a practical or a subconscious level what death would mean, what life would be like, what the earth would feel like, who we would all become without him. When the blow of death comes from nowhere, and when it involves intentional violence or when it is a self-inflicted death, the complications and contours of the grief are markedly different, and research notes that the grief experience is, (these are the experts’ words, not mine), “more intense.” My son’s death is of one sort, and it carries, if I dare say this, a certain bitter beauty of meaning. He sacrificed his life for another. But what about the man I met whose daughter choked to death at a family reunion barbeque? Or the other woman, whose daughter was stabbed to death by an intruder with an already-lengthy police record? Or what about all of my friends – too many of them – whose children have taken their own lives, and sometimes in a violent manner and in their parents’ homes? What about the parents of all the little children lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School? And the nameless and innumerable, lost to acts of genocide?

-The nature of the continuity offered by a community – its ability to mourn and comfort, to offer practical assistance, to listen with compassion and to continue to speak the name of the departed – greatly influences the nature of a survivor’s ability to absorb and transcend and even transform grief into a regenerating power.

What can also make the burden of grief heavier is what I’ve tried hard but fear I’ve failed at conveying in my writings to this point. There needs to be an engaged, open, co-mourning community, whose history involves the deceased and whose continuing narrative includes the deceased. None of my children had this. They walked, dizzy in pain, out of a funeral, onto an airplane, and into a world full of strangers whose dominant language they did not speak. Even if they had spoken the same language, no one knew our children’s tragic story. They had no context in which to understand our children’s behavior. Nearly always, when people did find out about Parker, they chose to remain silent about him. There could be no discussion for the children, no continuing narrative about what was raw and throbbing in their bodies every day; and even now, they remember their brother only privately. There is no everyday community that acknowledges that their big brother ever existed. As Dalton told me recently, “It’s like my brother hangs in a museum. And who my age goes to museums?” They’ve found few – a small handful of exceptional people over these nearly six years – who are able to do something as simple as speak their brother’s name.

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“The Parker Bradford Sportsmanship award,” says the coach into the microphone, while Dalton and Luc cast their tear-filled eyes up and down the line of players, “will go this year to #7, from The Hague.” And there it is: that name hanging in that familiar silence saturated in meaning. I’ve felt it all those times before. It’s not merely my perception, although I thought it was that at first. Maternal overlay. Parental preoccupation. But then so many others have commented to me about it afterwards. There is something happening when a court full of high school jocks goes silent, when they voluntarily bow their heads as if praying, a bit broken or lightly hurt, wiping their eyes over a boy they never knew, about a story that, except for basketball, bears little resemblance to their immediate lives.

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What is it? I want to ask you. What is it that is happening in this moment? While it has something to do with Parker, the moment is only partially about him. It’s about us, I think. It is about who we really are. Our human nature is innately spiritual, and the spiritual within us resonates in ways we can sometimes hardly account for. It swells and warms to things that are true, beautiful, eternal and enlivening. To great music, to fine art, to generosity, to forgiveness, to small acts of kindness, to the Spirit. Part of living well with great loss, I believe, requires a conscious surrender to this truth: that the spiritual continues beyond this material existence and can, in given moments, visit, bless and strengthen us.

I’d even say it can drop in on a basketball court. IMG_2128 With their heads bowed, what are these kids wondering? Some are maybe thinking, “When will this thing be over?” I’m a realist. I know teenagers. I know adults, too, and have seen how plenty of us are physically awkward in moments like these, moments with no distraction, moments of stark sincerity. But who can blame us? It’s a question of exposure, maybe, and our modern world gives us precious little exposure to sanctity, reverence, reflective silence, and the long-quiet-unfiltered stare into sweetness, simple goodness and The Way Things Are. If I could read their thought bubbles, though, what might I find? What does it mean to be part of a team? Why do I compete? What is the meaning of this game? What is winning? What is losing? What is my responsibility to my teammates? To my opponents? To people I’ve known for years? Known for a season? What’s my future? My character? What is my responsibility to my family? To strangers? To folks I’ve known, say, for a week? How much do I value the lives of others?

Do their lives matter?

Does my life matter?

Does life matter?

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The optimist in me likes to think that one of these questions or others like them went through the mind of one of those kids that Saturday. I have hope that for #7, a Dutch/American student heading off to Brown University in the U.S., he’ll have a full, rich life during which those questions might inform his decisions. And that once or twice, he might think about Parker, whose award he received. From a letter of thanks Randall wrote to the hosting coach:

It is a remarkable moment in that setting, after all the ruckus and cheering and yelling and shouting (all of which is appropriate), to witness how that gymnasium goes absolutely quiet, and the whole ceremony ends on this singular note of remembrance. Somehow I feel our Parker’s spirit both in the cheering and in the silence. Your decision to call forward this year each of the eight nominees was new, and I thought it was wonderful that each of those young men knew that their coaches had nominated them and that they were considered “sportsmen”. Since the award was inaugurated, I have been struck each year by the reaction of the recipient. It is difficult for me to put my finger on it—I can best describe it as something I see in the boys’ eyes—but it’s also something I can feel: their integrity, the sincerity with which they receive the award, and the humility with which they conduct themselves, much of which must also come from their upbringing. I saw that again when we later met privately with Winston Kortenhorst , #7, and his father, Jules. It was touching for me to hear Winston tell us that of the 3 awards he received that day—the championship trophy for his team, his selection to the all-tournament team, and the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award—the one that he was proudest of was Parker’s award. You and the other athletic directors have created a marvelous way of leaving these young men each year with a gift—the gift of knowing that as healthy and wonderful as competition is (our Parker was fiercely competitive, too), it is outweighed by their sportsmanship, reflected in the way they play the game and how they carry themselves.

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“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” One of Parker’s favorite quotes, from San Antonio Spurs basketball player, Tim Duncan.

Not Your Father’s Cologne

Image: wikicommons

Image: wikicommons

Like blades puncturing a gray tarp, the spires of the Cologne (Köln) cathedral (Dom) shoot with sanguine self-assertion into an upperworld, an otherworld. Audacious, virile, epic – the Kölner Dom’s pitch is stratospheric, almost enough to make you veer off the road as you swing into town at night, as we did last Friday.

“Whoah. Can you see that?” Twelve-year-old Luc, reading in the back seat, dropped his book and pressed his face against the window. “Whoah. Whoah-ho. Okay, that’s cool.”

The medieval architects of Europe sought to create an on-your-tippy-toes, to-the-very-finger-tips skyscraping of celestial proportions. Their aim? To scratch heaven’s underbelly with stone. Or better, to replicate heaven with it.

Today, this church is a spiny anomaly in a landscape of squatty or swirly modernity. But centuries ago when it was built, the Dom was seen as a meeting place of spheres. God descending to men. Men ascending to God. Heaven as down-to-earth and earth as up-to-heaven. People all over the then-known world made their pilgrimages just to arrive at its doors, touch its walls, fall on their knees, and crawl up to its altar.

And now we were cruising through Friday night rush hour traffic to get our peek.

“So, imagine this one, guys: in World War II, this whole town was completely flattened. Two-hundred-something air raids. About 1,500 tons of explosives, of which 1,000 of those were incendiary. Remember Dresden?”

“Of course. Yeah, we remember Dresden,” Dalton said quietly.

Image: wodumedia

Image: wodumedia

“By the end of the war. . .let’s see.. .yes, by the end of the war less than 5% of the inhabitants were still here. Many had been killed; most had been evacuated from the ruins. I also read that virtually all of Köln’s 11,000 Jews had been deported to concentration camps or murdered on the spot. All six synagogues had been destroyed. Only one has since been rebuilt.”

Silence.

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We were within a few streets from the cathedral. We had to hang our heads out our windows to try to see the whole structure, it was that tall. Built over the span of six-hundred years by the hands of mostly nameless artisans, and without as much as a forklift or a power saw, the cathedral dominated the whole night sky.

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“What else, Mel?” Randall was navigating the inner city’s labyrinth of one-ways. Our GPS spoke to us in German, like a Lufthansa flight attendant murmuring politely from our glove box.

“Well, the urban planner responsible for rebuilding the city after 1945 called Köln ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble.’ Except –” I opened my window to try to get a photo as we came around a corner, “except this cathedral.”

We parked, bumper to curbside, in front of a blackened Emerald City.

“Seriously?” Dalton asked, stepping out of the back and into light rain. We walked right to the front doors, my camera at the ready.

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door handles, main entrance

door handles, main entrance

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“Yeah, I’d say seriously. She was hit I don’t know how many times by allied bombs – seventy-something, I think – and she never collapsed, if you can believe it.”

I shielded my lens from the rain.

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“And that’s gotta be thanks to her flying buttresses, right?” Luc cracked a smile and lifted his brows to Dalton.

(I’ve decided twelve-year-old boys, like some twenty-year-old boys I taught in college, just can’t get enough of flying buttresses.)

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“Dude, check out the flying buttresses,” Luc elbowed his brother, snorting and giggling, pointing to the cathedral’s exterior stone arches that support the weight of so much wall with windows.

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Lovely sons, these, who can correctly identify parts of a building’s anatomy.

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The following morning, knowing I had only a few hours before we would leave town, I made my way back through her doors. By my third hour there, hundreds of other visitors had joined me.

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In the next two posts, I’d first like to share with you what I saw and thought as I looked not only at this magnificent tribute to faith, but also at all the people there with me, looking, too. The post is called, “Beseiging God.”

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Then, I’ll explain the reason for our family’s trip to Germany in a post entitled, “Praying Like a Good Sport.”

Hope you’ll be there.

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