Monday, November 17, 2003

The timelines of our lives

The other day, my daughter came home from middle school worried about her latest assignment: to draw a timeline of her life, from birth to present, complete with photographs and major milestones. What would she do about baby pictures, she wondered? She was adopted at age 4.5, and we've got plenty of pictures past that point, but nothing prior. Should she put her adoption on the timeline? Her coming to America from Russia? The details of how she slipped two years behind her age peers in school? There are some milestones that just don't look so great on posterboard.

And for a minute, I got angry. I'd just had a meeting with her teachers and told them she was adopted, giving them some information about her difficult early years precisely to avoid situations like this. Yet here we were, confronting with tears and consternation the fact that her timeline was liable to look very different from anyone else's.

But then, as happens so often with language impaired kiddos, she started to remember other things the teacher had said, in little blips and bloops that eventually painted a bigger picture. The teacher had specified that they could use any milestones, important ones or minor ones. If they didn't have photos from early childhood, they could use symbols. There should be something for each year, but it could be anything. And so, my daughter and I sat down and had a talk. Do you want to put your adoption milestones? I asked her. Or do you want us to find things that are just the same as everybody else? She opted for bland normalcy, and I was happy to oblige. We were lucky to have info on her first word and step from her orphanage paperwork. The birth of her brother was a milestone; no need to mention that they were both in Russia at the time, and didn't know each other or us. Our great adoption journey got boiled down to "First train ride," with a photo of a train cut from a catalog. We used school photos from age 5 on, so she could say that the reason there were no earlier photos is because her mom wouldn't let her cut them up. And a very nice timeline it was, indistinguishable from her peers except for the fact that it started two years earlier.

And I guess I could have made a fuss about that. If timelines are bad for adopted kids, they're doubly bad for adopted kids who aren't in the proper grade for their age. But in the end, I wasn't sorry she had to do it. It was interesting to her to think about how far she's come, to look back at her old pictures and see the yearly progress, to go through news stories and pick out things that happened during the years she's been alive. It was, in many ways, a good assignment -- and more unfair, possibly, to kids whose parents aren't available to help them with big complicated projects than to anyone else.

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