April 21, 2008

Tongue-Rolling Your Way to Your Identity

After finding a storybook character who could roll her tongue, Jessica decided she needed this skill.

The list of tasks Jessica can do better than her big brother is short, and it was a long winter for her sibling rivalry. Nathaniel, former seven-year-old-who-can't-read-as-well-as-his-five-year-old-sister, leapfrogged from being a competent reader to an avid one. Lately he pretends to be still asleep in order to steal half an hour with The Secrets of Droon before breakfast.

In ski lessons Nathaniel promptly earned the nickname "Dash." If Jessica had earned a nickname, it would have been along the lines of "Snow Bottom" or "Tearful."

Nathaniel can't whistle, but neither can Jessica.

She's the natural musician, but it's hard to gloat as she's on piano and he's on violin.

Only in winking and finger-snapping is she truly dominant.

The promise of beating Nathaniel to tongue-rolling meant a lot to her. She began to practice without telling him.

For days she alternated between the mirror and her mother, sticking her narrow finger of a tongue out and asking, "Ith thith it? Amth I lollin' it?" Even navigating our icy road home from Girl Scouts, I heard a plaintive cry behind me and saw Jessica craning in her seatbelt to make eye contact in the mirror, pointing at her out-thrust tongue, and shrugging her shoulders inquisitively.

"I don't think you'll ever be able to do it," Camille warned her. "It's genetic. For you to roll your tongue, maybe your biological parents would need to roll their tongues." (We've since learned that the genetic aspect of tongue-rolling is still a hotly contested debate.)

Jessica's contorted face relaxed and became thoughtful. "So . . ." she said carefully, "there's a woman in Romania who has brown skin and can't roll her tongue."

"Ah, the puzzle pieces are filling in," I quipped.

I spoke lightly, but that's exactly what was happening. Both children are becoming curious about their roots.

Recently they sat captivated in front of an old audio tape of a two-year old Nathaniel. At the start of the tape, I was singing to him: "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins. After "Good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you," I had left the room. For the next twenty minutes Nathaniel repeated hundreds of times in a sing-song, "Good luck will rub oss!" among deliberate, guttural truck noises.

The children love this window into Nathaniel's toddler days. They sit rapt when Camille and I recall their strollers and one-sies. Jessica has become a regular reader of Camille's scrapbooks, poring over her own baby pictures.

Their earliest windows are the VHS tapes we received from the adoption agency when the children still lived in Romania. In the videos their foster parents coo over the infants while measuring their heights and head sizes.

On Jessica's tape, a family dog makes a cameo. Currently Nathaniel wants very much to have a dog, and Jessica knows it.

Sensing a new weapon, she began to fill unusually peaceful moments at dinner by intoning wistfully, "Oh, I wonder what my foster dog is doing now. He must be missing me. He loves me very much."

Then she would look pointedly at Nathaniel.

At first the speech upset him, but he found his comeback.

"That was seven years ago. . . . Dogs don't live very long." He looked pointedly back at her. "Your dog's probably dead."

Nathaniel's science curriculum has introduced genetics recently. That got both kids speculating about the traits they share with their biological parents. In third grade the details of heritability are still fuzzy, however, and the kids sometimes credit biology where they shouldn't.

Nathaniel and I were struggling to finish a wooden birdhouse in time for a fund-raising auction. I was starting the nails for him, and I bent one.

As I pulled it out, Nathaniel suggested that he could start his own nails.

"You might as well try," I said encouragingly. "You swing a hammer better than I do." He beamed.

I held a new brad. After hitting my thumb a couple of times, he drove it straight and true, finishing with the nail's head recessed just under the surface.

I was proud of him, and suddenly a little nostalgic for his discarded Fisher-Price hammer and workbench, and my thumb still smarted.

He looked up, and I was sure he was going to thank me.

"I guess my biological father was a better hammerer than you," he said.

The next day Camille sent Nathaniel to read his science lesson while she worked with Jessica. A short time later the door sprang open, and Nathaniel returned.

"Look what I can do." Effortlessly, he rolled his tongue. "I read about it in science."

Jessica's mouth opened, and she began to stammer and stamp her feet, but for once, her tongue failed her.

[This blog got a nice mention on Matt Langdon's The Hero Workshop a while back. Matt does a great job promoting heroism in everyday life. I'm grateful.]