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"I'm guessing you don't believe in love at first sight?" the student asked.
Not much of a guess from where Kenzie James stood, which was at the front of the classroom. The room was filled to maximum capacity with students of both genders. They ranged in ages from barely-legal-to-drink to middle-aged. They represented demographics from the young woman with facial piercings who had asked the question to an army officer wearing a knife-creased uniform.
Kenzie's classrooms were always full—a bittersweet commentary on the state of marital affairs. As a rule she didn't share her opinions during divorcing parent classes, but occasionally a group would actually be interested in participating rather than simply marking time in the courtordered class.
Participators could motivate others, so Kenzie seized the teaching moment.
"No, I'm not a believer in love at first sight," she admitted. "In my opinion a love that will weather life's storms involves a lot of things—respect, caring, commitment, self-sacrifice to mention a few—none of which are spontaneous."
"Fair enough," the pierced young woman said genially. "What about lust at first sight?"
There was a titter of movement from the back of the classroom, where several obviously bored men showed life signs. An impatient woman wearing a business suit narrowed her gaze disapprovingly at the shocker question, or the appearance of the girl who'd asked. Maybe both.
The army officer's expression didn't flinch. Clearly the man was well trained in controlling his responses. Not a bad thing in Kenzie's opinion.
And questions meant to shock were all part of her job, so she leaned a hip against the table where her handouts were stacked and said, "Lust at first sight is another beast entirely. Chemistry is a natural, physical response. The only problem with lust is how often people confuse it with love. Because they both begin with the letter L, do you think?"
That got a laugh from around the room. Even the officer grinned. Not the impatient businesswoman.
But Kenzie had the class's attention. "Lust can certainly be a part of successful love, but the feelings are in no way interchangeable. Human emotion operates on impulse and instinct, at the maturity level of a seven-year-old. I call it the inner child. We all have one."
Stepping to the whiteboard, she grabbed a dryerase marker and drew circles. "Think about your children. Those of you who have teens will know what I'm talking about. Those of you with babies who haven't yet hit the toddler phase get ready."
She turned to the class. "Think about when your children want something. They want to watch TV now, not later. They want to go out and play now, not later. And what happens when you tell them no?"
A woman with a ponytail raised her hand. "My son is three. I can get anything from tears to a full-blown tantrum."
"My daughter is thirteen," the impatient businesswoman added. "I get a nasty look and an attitude."
"Exactly." Kenzie spread her hands in entreaty. "The responses vary with the age group, but basically all children want immediate gratification. When they're denied, they can respond with tears or tantrums or any emotion in between. As they get older and more socially aware, they can manipulate. It's common for children in divorce situations to play one parent against the other."
Kenzie used the marker to point at the largest circle on the board then wrote two words inside it. "Inner child. The feelings and reactions you see in your children never go away. All of our inner children want immediate gratification. They want to pitch a fit when they're told no. They're willing to move heaven and earth to get their way."
She pointed to the next smallest circle. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with our inner children. We should acknowledge how we feel and embrace our feelings. They're what make us human. But the difference between children and adults is that adults learn how to channel those feelings constructively."
Kenzie wrote adult in that circle. "Self-control is the key here. Adults learn to step back and make sense of a feeling before taking action."
A simple concept that managed to be so complicated.
Kenzie didn't share that opinion with the class, but after eight years as a divorce mediator with the state of North Carolina and now owner of her own agency, Positive Partings, she knew how underutilized emotional coping skills could be.
"Adults understand consequences. There are plenty of mornings I wake up and don't feel like coming to work," she said. "I make a choice. Do I want to risk losing my job so I can stay in bed, or not? Do I want to sacrifice my reliable reputation so I can roll over and go back to sleep, or not?"
Kenzie wrote the word parent in the smallest, farthest circle on the board. "Parents take their choices one step further. Not only must they think about the consequences to themselves, but they have to think about what's in the best interest of their children. That's why you're here tonight and why the court appoints these classes."
Setting down the marker, Kenzie faced the room. Every eye was on her now.
"Bottom line, people, you're divorcing your spouses, not your children. Just because you won't be married to your husband or wife anymore doesn't mean you'll stop parenting together. You're still a family. You'll always be a family. Life goes on. There'll be decisions to make about schooling and a thousand other things. There'll be birthdays and graduations and holidays and weddings and births and on and on as long as you live."
If people realized this fact from the start, they might see how much simpler life would be if they resolved problems together rather than divorcing and dragging the same problems into another relationship.
"The goal of these classes is learning to navigate divorce in a healthy way so you and your family don't suffer. That starts by understanding our inner children and assuming control in ways that help us to be productive adults and effective parents. Most kids don't want their parents to divorce. They're scared and don't know how to articulate their fears. They need the adults in their lives to act like responsible parents who will work together to reassure them they're loved, they're still part of a family and they're not responsible for the divorce.
"Adults who are effective parents learn to step back from divorce drama and manage whatever feelings they have for their former spouses in private. That's hard to do if you're hurt or angry or worried. But that's what you signed up for when you became parents."
There was a collective pause, the classroom so silent Ken-zie could have heard a pin drop. She smiled.
"And that's why I don't believe in love at first sight, to get back to the original question. Lust at first sight is the domain of our inner children, who want passion and excitement and immediate gratification. They want to feel good now. Love is the domain of adults who recognize those shiny new feelings will eventually fade. Life's going to have ups and downs and joys and sorrows.
"Successful love will require people to place the needs of their spouses and families ahead of their own desires, and unless a couple has healthy emotional coping skills, they'll likely have trouble succeeding at marriage."
Precisely why Kenzie's classes were always full.
Reaching for her handouts, she went down the center aisle setting small stacks on each table to be passed around.
"I want you to take a look at how quickly most of you will jump into your next marriage and the percentage of those marriages that will fail. I just updated with the latest statistics, so this information is current. The fact is when families become blended, there will be more complications, not fewer, so now's the time to get healthy coping skills in place."
Unless they wanted to spend another four hours sitting in this court-appointed class.
Love at first sight?
Not a good idea in Kenzie's book.
Will Russell braced himself for the meeting ahead while opening the front door of the unassuming two-story house. He barely noticed the plaque by the door anymore.
A Sanctuary for Families Facing Autism.
Tucked behind a church, this house had become another home to him and his son, Sam. In many ways Angel House was more of a home than even their own with just Will and Sam and an ex-wife who could only be a drop-by mom.
He and Sam certainly spent enough time here between classes and evaluations, Will's nighttime support groups and ongoing fund-raising meetings. The fund-raising was as important as everything else because without money, no work would get done, no kids or families helped to make sense of the unexpected and complicated journey that came with this disorder.
Will took another deep breath and plunked himself in a chair in the reception room. He'd arrived nearly fifteen minutes early. All afternoon he'd been in City Hall at a council meeting. Rather than tackling five o'clock traffic, he'd walked the six blocks. Hadn't taken long. He'd practically jogged here because he was still wound up from the meeting. Not because he was eager to hear news he expected to be all bad.
Leaning forward, Will steeled himself to deal with even more pressure. Was it even possible he could feel more? He suspected the answer would be an unfortunate yes. Angel House had reached the literal end of the line. Only a miracle could save them now, and miracles were damned slow in the making.
He'd been working on this particular miracle for two years already—a meticulous process that involved a lot of factors coming together in the right way at the right time. His luck had held, and now the end was finally in sight. He needed a little more time and didn't hold out much hope he'd get it. Time depended on money around here, and both were in short supply.
"You're here already," a harried voice said.
He glanced up as Deanne emerged through the open doorway.
"You should have rung the bell, Will. I wasn't busy." He doubted that. In their entire acquaintance, he'd never known her not to be busy. "Just got here. Barely sat down." She glanced at his suit. "Looks like you came from City Hall."
"I needed some exercise."
She smiled, and something about her smile seemed forced. Will knew right then the luck had run out. He knew it as surely as he'd come to know Deanne Sandler, the executive director of Angel House, a determined and accomplished woman with a cloud of dark hair that wisped around her face, lending to the rushed, highenergy impression of someone who never sat still. To Will's knowledge she didn't. At least not often.
"Come to my office." She led the way toward the back of the house on quick steps.
As a hardworking mom slash administrator slash advocate for needy kids and their families, she was dressed casually. Her neat khaki slacks and button shirt with rolled-up sleeves were the perfect uniform for carrying out the myriad functions that made up her days. Long hours spent in her office with faculty and therapists. Impromptu chases after kids who could bolt like sprinters. Presenting issues to various media sources and politicians. Reassuring stunned parents after a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Will knew firsthand how reassuring Deanne could be because she'd been a lifeline for him, a caring guide during the three years he and Sam had been affiliated with Angel House. She was a mentor who had become a much-valued friend.
At the moment, the classrooms were silent and empty in such a striking contrast to the normal daytime activity.
"Have a seat, Will," Deanne said as they entered her office.
There was no missing the cracked plaster molding that hinted at foundation instability or the discolored patches on the ceiling, water damage from roof leaks.
As a contractor, Will noticed it all.
Sinking into a chair, he loosened the tie that suddenly choked him. "You have the final numbers from the golf classic?"
Deanne clasped her hands on the desk, mouth pursed, gaze leveled, an expression Will had come to recognize as her we'll-forge-ahead-and-figure-out-how-to-make-it-happen look. "You want the good news or the bad news first?"
"Good news always." At least there actually was some.
"I have a lead on an agency that sounds as if it was custom made to fit the criteria for Family Foundations."
"Unexpected, but very good news."
She nodded. "And I got the numbers. Not so good."
"How long?" Not how much. The amount they raised only translated into how long they could remain operating.
"Enough to cover expenses until December."
"With or without the projection from the festival?"
"Damn." They faced each other without speaking because there was nothing to say. They'd hoped the revenue would cover operating expenses until at least next April, giving Will time to put the last pieces in place on their miracle. They could get one more school year out of this location.
No such luck. He hated how this always happened. Every quarter they projected costs for the upcoming quarter and decided whether or not they could keep the doors open. Then he got to go home to his son, knowing he had no way to provide everything Sam needed. Not without Angel House.
Living hand to mouth, his mother had always called it, and she would know since she'd reared three boys with no help from a deadbeat dad. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. That was another way to phrase what boiled down to plain not having enough money.
"Any possibility of squeezing another event into the calendar?" he asked. "Something big enough to tie us over until the McKay money gets here? That'll carry us through to the apple festival in September. Everything will be in place by then."
"I don't see what else our parents can do," she admitted.
"The schedule is crammed already, and you know how labor intensive the festival is. There aren't enough hours in the day. Not without sacrificing all our time at home with the kids, and they're the whole point of everything we're doing. I don't know how we accomplish what we do already. It's not as if we get nights and weekends off."
That much was true. Sam's learning wasn't confined to a classroom during a normal school day. He didn't get to come home, do homework then spend the rest of his night being a kid. No, the learning was an ongoing process that took up every waking second of every minute of every day, and Will was Sam's teacher when he wasn't in school.
Even the simplest things, such as getting Sam to brush his teeth, required an action plan and consistent reinforcement. It had taken months for him to brush after breakfast without a meltdown that made it impossible to get out the door. Now Sam brushed before bed, too. The ultimate goal was to brush after each meal. Then they could move on to learning the next skill.
Slow progress, perhaps, but progress nonetheless.