Nicole Johnson shares a letter to her son on the occasion of his high-school graduation.
I’m not much for written directions. I’m more of a visual learner and do best with a hands-on approach rather than patiently thumbing my way through a user's manual or set of instructions. When someone tries to give me directions from point A to point B, my mind literally shuts down with the mention of turning north or south ('cuz seriously, how am I supposed to know which is which?) and don’t even try to tell me to turn 50 feet after the gas station because that literally means nothing to me (like 50 of my feet or my husband’s?). I can study the instructions for the setup of one of my daughter’s marble mazes forever, but none of it makes sense until I’m holding the pieces in my hand and can visualize how that marble will make its way from one tube to the next.
I often think I would be a better parent if each of my children came with their own set of instructions, yet I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to read them. I’m more of a “jump-in-and-hope-for-the-best” kinda gal. Perhaps a warning label would have been most effective in forcing me to take a pause; I do pay strict attention to those. Something along the lines of: "Warning: Type A parent will not work with child; must buy adapter set for child to function properly. Sold separately."
My middle guy came confidently into this world with zero reservations about making his needs known. He left my womb and breathed in the freedom of the outside world with a fierceness that left me both in awe and more than a little anxious. It was clear from the start that this little guy was vastly different from his older brother. While TJ would sleep snuggled in my arms for hours, Noah would snuggle for a bit and then make it known he was ready for some space and the independence of his crib (along with the comfort of his coveted blankie). Where TJ was a “pleaser” from the start and dutifully played within the boundaries of my rules and regulations, Noah brought an energy to the world that pushed against any and all defined limits.
The cuteness factor on the toddler version of this guy was over the top. He was a walking package of joy with a smile that was on display 99% of the day and bookended by the most perfectly soft and edible cheeks. He loved being a kid and played hard, taking little time for anything mundane like standing still or sitting quietly with a book. Much like his father, he never did, and still doesn’t, entirely see the need to grow up. I recently spent a ridiculous amount of money on the largest storage bin Lowe’s has to offer to house his entire collection of stuffed animals. While there is a certain stoic and reserved vibe on the outside, inside he is as soft as his cherished stuffed monkey. On the slim (yet highly probable) chance that stuffies do have real feelings, he’d never entertain the thought of giving them away.
In the beginning, I was threatened by his independence, opinions, and iron will. I now recognize it was an innocent misdiagnosis of his creative spirit. He had his own ideas and saw things differently. It took me a breath or two to find the beauty in it, but once I did, I never tired of watching him move from one artistic medium to the next. He insisted on picking out his own clothes well before his older brother ever cared what he was wearing, and every t-shirt had some sort of funny picture or message. From a young age, he didn’t see the purpose in wearing it if it didn’t say a little something about who he was. That is still the case and just one of the many things I love about him.
As he grew, he launched into the writing and illustration of comic books, created an entire manger scene out of rainbow loom elastics, garnered much attention through the online Scratch animation program, and became a self-taught sensation on Adobe products. He then fell in love with all things fashion and now dreams of using fabric and textiles to satiate his need to create.
On the other side of this journey, there are a few things I need to say.
To my middle guy,
On the cusp of your high-school graduation, I need you to know how proud I am of you. And there’s a part of me that wants to apologize for not buying that adapter set right away. Problem is, I didn’t see the warning label and fought for far too long to fit you into my model of mothering rather than adapt my mothering to your unique needs. Your fierce independence and staunch assertions that my way was not the only way has sent me into a panic more than once and I’m not good with the outside edges of my comfort zone. As you well know, I like to be tucked up snug right in the midst of all things comfy, organized, neat and tidy. You challenged me to move outside of what I knew and pulled me in directions I wouldn’t have chosen on my own.
In you, I see the brilliance of God’s design and love that He sent you to this big open world to make your mark on many a heart, including mine. You have made me a better person, and I thank you for all the ways you have stretched me to be who you need me to be.
“While I am not sure what he had been checking on with his phone during the test he should have been done had he just focused on the test.”
Remember this day, bud? You sent me a text from school explaining that I’d soon be hearing from your science teacher telling me she caught you looking at your phone while you were taking a test. She took it from you and scored you only on what you had finished, which left you with a rotten grade and an accusation of cheating. You explained in your text that you felt your phone vibrate and you checked to see if it was the notification you were anxiously awaiting that the latest article of clothing you had to have finally shipped.
When you got home, I unplugged the adapter set and let my fear take over. I was angry. Lack of focus on your schoolwork had been a problem for several years, and Dad and I were at a loss as to how to change that. None of our calm conversations worked. Not one of the consequences we tried to encourage focus seemed to make a difference.
It wasn’t that I thought you were cheating. It made perfect sense to me that your excitement over the shipping notification won out over the boring science test. I was frustrated that I couldn’t control the level of focus you dedicated to all those things you were not interested in, like science, math, reading. And my deepest fear was that this incredibly talented kid of mine was going to miss his chance to succeed in what he did love because we couldn’t get him to pay attention to all the necessary stuff.
But you did it, bud. You did it. In a few months, we will pack you up and bring you to Columbia School of Design in Chicago where you will study fashion and begin the chapter you have long been waiting for. You can finally focus your energy on what you love and pour your creativity into the world, showing us all exactly what you are made of. My adorable, boisterous, smiley, walk-the-line little guy has grown into a handsome, genuine, funny, all-around lovable young man, and the gift and honor of being with you on the journey is one I am forever grateful for.
Little did I know when becoming a mother how much growing I still needed to do. God has been so patient with me as I’ve stumbled my way along, always merciful when I messed up and never too busy when I searched for guidance and wisdom.
I did answer that science teacher and told her in no uncertain terms that we had no concerns you were cheating that day. You were just being you; your focus magnetically drawn to all that is creative, vibrant and full of possibility. I am overjoyed at the opportunity before you and overcome with the magnitude of the hole you will leave in this home and my mama’s heart during your time away.
Don’t ever forget who you are bud; you are my guy. If you can believe it, I love you even more than you love your Rick Owen shoes. And I’m so happy God gave you to me.
Copyright 2022 Nicole Johnson
Images: copyright 2022 Nicole Johnson, all rights reserved.
About the Author
Nicole and her husband have been blessed with three children. Nicole markets the mission of a non-profit that provides early therapies for children diagnosed with developmental delays. She and her husband serve on the board for the New England chapter of Bethany Christian Services, a national adoption agency. Nicole's family advocates for life, adoption, and embracing children with special needs. Visit her blog at Joy in the Journey.