Monday, October 29, 2012

A Really Great Day

Our parenting experience has been very different than many folks have had.  We have had different mountains to climb, we have different backgrounds to work with, different skill sets and disabilities to integrate, and different emotional make ups.  None of this is bad, it is just not the norm.  We have also made decisions in parenting style that go against the norm that we get questioned about, or looked at quizzically about.  I am sure that we are judged harshly by some because we refuse to be penned in by what "everyone else does", because we have kids who are not like everyone else's.   That too is not really bad, it just is what it is, and over the years we all have grown relatively immune most of the time to the stares of others.  Those who love our family offer us a safe place to be the very different family we are without judgment, and they understand the necessity of parenting our kids differently.

But every once in awhile, we get the normal experiences that everyone else has, and when we do, it is kind of nice to feel you "fit", even if just for a moment. This weekend was one of those.  It was the annual end of the season volleyball tournament, which turned into an unexpected 12 hour sporting endurance test! Haha!

Our homeschool group's volleyball program is nothing less than phenomenal.  The coaching is outstanding, the teams from junior varsity all the way up to varsity exhibit skill definitely not found anywhere in our local middle or high schools, as that has been mentioned to me often from parents of public and homeschooled kids alike.  Our teams most often end up in the finals of the tournaments they compete in, and have a reputation for excellence that was unknown to me prior to signing the kids up last year.  I have since learned why.

This year was just different in many ways.  It was great to have all four of the older kids playing, and such fun to watch them all as they grew in skill level from season beginning to end!  What was a bonus to me was that somehow, somewhere along the line, I became a little more accepted myself as a mom among a group of moms who have, in some cases, already been homeschooling for 10 years or more. Last year, I was definitely the odd man out and was seldom even spoken to at practices or games.  I have no idea what triggered the switch, because I didn't do anything different myself, but from the very first day I had moms chatting with me who hadn't said a word to me all season last year.  I hadn't realized it at the time, but I had really felt like a bit of an outcast for no discernible reason, and I just accepted it as part of our homeschooling journey.  However, I will say that this year was so much more pleasant, and it was nice to be at practice so long and have women to chat with, women who though they probably will not become close friends at least opened the circle and allowed me entrance.  It is amazing what intentional inclusiveness can do for one's spirit.  I was able to get into casual discussions about curriculum, high school planning, and homeschool lifestyle differences with parents who understand that sliver of my life.  One mom, in particular, who outwardly has absolutely nothing in common with my life, went out of her way to offer companionship, and I really, really appreciated it.

Aside from the excitement of the tournament, it was just one of the loveliest family affairs we have attended.  It was made even lovelier by our adopted family here coming to watch the kids, as Mr. Steve and Miss Jane managed to hang tough for several hours of playing and cheering for the kids. Having no extended family nearby, we are always so grateful for the many friends who have stepped into the role of encourager for the kids over and over again.  It means a lot.  There were many other things we enjoyed about the day, such as seeing our kids pair off with new friends to spend hours playing cards or just hanging out.  I am always moved by seeing older kids who are in their teens who do not have the usual disgusted attitude at being seen in public with their parents, and instead show no concern at all about hugging their mom or dad, sitting near them as they watch a game, have fun cheering together for their siblings, or play lovingly with younger siblings with no disdain.  One big difference in general that I have noticed with homeschoolers is that there is no age bias.  It is so common that it is almost expected that older teens will play with younger kids, pushing them on swings or playing tag or cards. Kids aren't left out because they are too young, or too small, and that is nice to witness.  It was also great to be among a group of people who don't think we are odd balls for homeschooling, and who also don't give it a single thought that we have five kids.  In fact, in that group, our family isn't large at all as there are several who have 8 or 10 kids!  We seem like the smaller side of "larger" families there.

Angela's team started the tournament with a loss first thing in the morning, and we figured our day would be short as Kenny, Matt, and Olesya's team had lost their first game the night before.  As the three played their second game and lost, we figured we were right on schedule to leave early in the afternoon, but boy were we wrong!  More on that in a moment, but first here are a couple of pics of the three kids.

Matt at the ready. He looks so big these days!

Kenny didn't get to play much during the tournament, but he did get to serve a couple of times.  He  had a lot more playing time this season, so that helped him keep his great attitude.  He is so supportive of his team!  With having two other siblings on the team who each played more than he did, Kenny showed his usual grace and had nothing to offer but compliments.  What a gift this young man's special heart is in our family.

Trying hard!  Gotta get it over the net!

Give Olesya another year of practice, and she just might be quite the player!  She never played before this year,just as Matthew hadn't, and she improved so much over the course of the season.  She did quite well this year, but it is easy to see that over time she has the chance to be very good. It will be such fun to see how much she changes next year, as she will be starting with more experience and confidence.

Matthew also had never played and he improved an awful lot as well.  His stiffer back kept him from digging the ball when it was down low, but he really has great ball control and his sense of strategy has him working hard to place the ball exactly where he wants it on the other side of the net.  He too will be interesting to watch with another year under his belt!

The biggest challenge for the kids was for Olesya and Matthew to actually call the ball instead of standing there looking at each other after it dropped between them!!  Haha!  Each would often play side by side (with 3 on the team, the whole front or back row was often LaJoy Row!) and let the ball drop smack dab between 'em,then they'd look at each other as if to say "Well why didn't YOU get it???"  Here though, Olesya is doing a good job of watching the ball and bumping it as Matt stands back to give her room to work.

As fun as it was to watch the three kids, I think all would agree that it was Angela's team who owned the day for exciting volleyball.  Oh my goodness, we haven't enjoyed something as much in years!  Those kids lost first thing in the morning, then kept everyone on the edge of their seats through four more matches, coming from behind over and over again, working their way through the Loser's bracket to make it all the way to the finals...which ended at 7:00 PM.  Talk about a looooong day, we were all wiped out when it was all over.

You know what though?  Wow, was it worth it.  We had the unique privilege of seeing one of our kids shine in a way that seldom ever happens.  Angela ROCKED it, getting better and better throughout the day until by the second to last match she was doing things that the entire crowd was surprised at.  Man, this kid is such a natural athlete, it isn't even funny.  She was at the net defending against spikes from boys who were well over 6 feet tall, she was digging the ball from the ground as she pitched herself the floor to get it then bouncing back up as quick as possible to get ready for the next ball, she was consistently slamming overhand serves, she was just amazing to watch.  She had a good season, but it was as if it all came together for her on the day of the tournament, and one of her coaches told me excitedly, "Today she is doing every single thing we have worked with her on all season.  We knew she could do it, but she just needed to see she could...and MAN is she doing it!"

What I loved most was seeing her repeatedly set her teammates up for shots throughout the day, and how she had no need at all to act like a show off.  She just played her game calmly, graciously and quite skillfully.  At the end of the tournament I thanked her coach who told me that Angela was a real joy to work with because she had such a great attitude, and had tremendous potential that she showed that night.  She made me promise that Angela would play next year, as if that was ever even in doubt.  Another longtime parent sought me out because she wanted to tell me "I have been here year after year, and I have never seen anyone play like your daughter did today.  If they gave out tournament MVP awards, she'd win hands down.  I watched her all evening and I didn't even have anyone on the team!"

I realized as I took at  look at the pictures after putting them on the camera that I got almost no decent ones of her because I wasn't allowed to use flash, and she was just moving all over the court!  Here are a few:

Regardless of Angela's excellent play, the greater success was reflected quietly in something no one else would ever be aware of, and it is more important to her ultimate success in life than her ability to bump a ball over a net.  Sitting there watching her excel, it was hard not to compare it to a frigid winter day 2 1/2 years ago when we stood on the sidelines of a basketball game in a run down gym in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan watching her play...and being totally, utterly, heartbreakingly ignored by her. It was after that game that we told our translator that this was simply not going to work, and as we stood there in the bitter cold hallway as the tears formed in my eyes, I just wished desperately that somehow I could break through her hardened heart, for I knew what she was giving up in her fear of the unknown.

Fast forward to another gym halfway around the world, one that was cozy and where she was surrounded by family and friends who deeply care about her, and this child who had so dismissed us, the one who was terror filled at even the thought of trusting that anyone would truly love her and could provide the safety she so desired...that same child looked up at me every single time I cheered for her and flashed me a bright smile. It didn't matter where I was, her eyes sought me out, and what passed between us was pure and complete trust, respect and great love.  This child, who for years and years went unnoticed and unloved, this child who had to work so hard at learning to trust another mom and dad had "arrived".  She is cherished, she is precious in the lives of her family, she has the certainty of their presence for the good times, and the bad times.

It was hard at moments not to burst with pride...and that pride had not a single thing to do with what was taking place on the court, but had everything to do with what had already taken place in her heart.  Truly, the effort that took was a hundred times harder than all the hours of volleyball training.  Angela may have helped her team win several matches yesterday, but her efforts as part of Team LaJoy have helped us all to be winners at something that is priceless.

The final point was scored, and the tournament ended with Angela's team losing in the final to the other higher level team from their homeschool group.  It was so sweet to see members of the other team encouraging those on Angela's team as they missed a ball, or made a mistake.  It was competitive, but in a supportive way, and something not often seen in youth sports today.  At the end of the game, the other team cheered our team, and told them how proud they were of their hard work during the tournament.

We had one final surprise left in the evening.  Angela received her medal for her team coming in second place for the tournament. Then came the All Conference awards for individual players.  Our entire family was so happy for Matthew when his name was called to receive an award for All Conference player.  The look on Matt's face was one of utter shock and shy delight as he went up to receive his award.

His coach spoke with us after the ceremony and explained that the award was given for outstanding play but that sportsmanship and teamwork was weighed more heavily in this league than in traditional leagues, as they care more about character and qualities that reflect God to the world than they do about actual ability.  She said that each game, coaches from the teams they play watch and nominate one player from the opposing team, and at the end of the season the coach goes over that list and then makes their selection.  A player has to have two or more opposing coaches vote for them, along with their own coach.  She impressed upon Matthew that this was a huge honor and only a few kids get it each year.  She then turned to me and explained that she wanted me to talk to Olesya as well, because it turns out Olesya and Matthew were tied for the award!  She said she agonized over the decision, because she said "All of your kids are such a blessing to be around, they are so encouraging to others and have such a wonderful attitude.  I just couldn't decide between Olesya and Matthew but I could only award one of them.  I finally had to call my husband who helped me talk it through to make a decision. It was like having to choose between my own kids, it was awful!"   She said her final deciding factor was that during the last couple of games Matthew had shown quite a bit of improvement and was really listening to her coaching.  She then told Matthew, "You tell Olesya that the award is part hers, too!"

The evening ended as we all walked out to our cars in the dark, laughing, talking about various plays, and sharing about how great the day had been.  We had a special surprise awaiting us on our front porch, cupcakes made by our Pastor for a bowling evening we ended up missing due to Angela's team's success.  It was greeted with delightful cries of "Oh we have something extra special to help us celebrate our day!"

And for just a little while, we were like everyone else.  It didn't matter that Joshie spent the entire day wearing big old ear protectors to block out the disturbing sounds in the gym, or that blankie is getting carried around everywhere. It didn't matter that Kenny's awkward gangliness and poor sense of timing makes it tough for him to compete in traditional sports. It didn't matter that we look like a foreign exchange group, or that we struggle with language or learning to read and write, it didn't matter that Olesya still has a hard time telling time on an analog clock, or that Matthew isn't ever going to be able to do running sports, or that Angela still has things to work out in her heart about her birth parents.  For just a little while, we sat around and ate delicious Halloween cupcakes made with great love and shared with us, as we relived the day that just ended.  We were like every other family whose kids had a super day, with some success and some defeat. We were "normal", or at least as normal as the LaJoy's will probably ever be.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations to all of you! What an awesome day!
Teresa F.

Anonymous said...

It was great to read of your fun day, of your famiy's successes and honors. I'm so glad you felt "included" more this year, too, Cindy. We are a family that loves sports, not only for the chance to compete and have possible successes, but for the life lessons they have taught our kids. We've experienced heartache, pride, a few state level successes, even DI women's basketball. But in the end, it's what our kids have learned about their own talents and limits, fairness, disappointment, discipline and strength, etc. I'm thrilled for your kids' successes.. Matthew and Oleysa's "shared award, Angela's tournament play and the blessing of bonding with her family, Kenny's heart to encourage and great attitude and effort, and Joshua's committment to and pride in his family, as he cheers them all on. And this doesn't even include the successes you and Dominick have experienced in parenting your bunch. It's all a journey. Thanks for sharing yours via your blog.
Nancy in the Midwest