Monthly Archives: March 2010

In which Emily overuses tree metaphors

Every time he goes outside, Benjamin points out the grass as though that evidence of spring means it will never be cold out again.  He desperately wants winter to be over.  “I don’t like this weather,” he told me a month ago.  “I like warm and beaches.”  I couldn’t help him, so I just shoved his hands into mittens and sent him out to the schoolyard to play.

But, now, little flowers are poking up and the snow is melting and we have separated the liners from the shells on their coats.  There will surely be one more snowstorm – there always is – but we are in final negotiations with winter.

Unfortunately, we are not in final negotiations on the big yellow house.  There has been one holdup after another and sadly we have had to walk away.  Which leaves us back at square one.

Not exactly square one, since we know this is the town where we want to settle.  The schools are good.  The people are nice, especially the kids, who have been amazingly welcoming.  But, the town is tiny, and so the housing stock is limited.  We need to choose carefully, because this is where we will stay.

We hope.

For a long time.

I have lived widely.  I have moved and seen and done more times than I can even count anymore.  I have experienced a great deal and have grown from the cultural grazing in which I have indulged.  I have lived abroad.  I have lived on both coasts of the U.S.  I have met fascinating people and made wonderful friends.   I have lived widely.

I have never lived deeply.

We have not, as a family, lived deeply.

I think some people are raised with long, deep roots, and those people feel the need to spread themselves as they grow older.  Others are raised with wide, spreading branches, and they feel the need to burrow down as they grow older.  My husband and I have spent our adult lives spreading, but now we both know it is time to watch the seasons pass from the same vantage point year after year.

And, to be quite honest, we think a highly sensitive five-year-old who has been moved four times in his life deserves a chance to feel like he belongs somewhere.  Even rock-solid Benjamin needs that, although I think he’d prefer to be settling on a tropical island somewhere.

I welcome the chance to live deeply, to get to know myself and my family without running all the time.  But it scares the shit out of me.

What if I discover that I don’t like myself?

Ruler of all she can see

I’m in the kitchen, peeling carrots.  I hear familiar footsteps, and turn to see her, politely standing next to me.  She is holding a large piece of semi-sheer pink fabric, bought years ago from the fabric shop up the street from our house in London.  We had bought many such remnants – a pound apiece – for Zachary to use for dress-up, and they have gotten their use over the years, even as they have been slowly chipped away for art projects, Valentine’s decorations, and – most recently – wedding dresses for Lucy.

Lilah holds up the fabric to me, grunting at me and gesticulating towards her head.  “You want me to put it on your head?” I ask.  She smiles and laughs, so I give it a shot, draping the fabric over her.  She turns and walks away, fully shrouded from head to toe and trailing a two-foot pink train behind her.

Three minutes later she is back, holding the same pink cloth and holding it up to me.  It has fallen off, and she cannot get it back over her head.  I cover her once again, and she toddles away once more.  We repeat this four more times during the course of my dinner preparations.  I never do follow her to figure out what exactly she is doing, completely covered in pink fabric.

For the next several days, she will periodically show up next to me, holding that cloth, satisfied only when she is in the full burka.  Sometimes, a girl just wants to be fancy, I guess.

***

We are on the floor reading books.  It is bedtime, and there is one child on either side of me, plus a Benjamin in my lap.  Lilah gets up and walks to my other side, where her oldest brother is sitting.  Without so much as a sigh, Zachary gets up and moves to my other side, ceding his seat to her.

She displaces him twice more before her turn on my lap.  It happens again the next night, too.  “You don’t have to move for her, you know,” I tell Zach.

“I know,” he answers.  “But I just like to make her happy.”

***

On mild winter days, Lilah has been wearing an olive green hand-me-down coat from her brothers.  With spring peeking out the last couple of days, however, I pull out a yellow windbreaker someone else handed down.  Delighted, Lilah pats her chest, indicating that she wants to wear this bright and flashy item to take her brother to school.

Later in the day, as we prepare to go for a walk, I think perhaps she should wear something heavier, so I bring out the olive green jacket.  She screams at me, clearly feeling betrayed.  Baffled, I grab for the yellow windbreaker.

“Is this what you want?”  She smiles, laughs, and pats her chest.

I am not looking forward to this child’s teenaged years.

Boonies

One of the moms I met in Lilah’s swim class is a lesbian.  Whereas this fact would not have been particularly notable when we lived in Los Angeles or London or even Philly (maybe especially Philly), here in WhiteStraightChristianland, I was a bit startled to discover someone batting for that particular team.  We don’t get a lot of lesbians out here in Rockwelland.

I mentioned this strange hetero homogeneity to a woman with whom I have become friendly.  She herself had lived in cities most of her life until a year ago, when she moved out here.

“Well, you’re in the suburbs now,” she sighed.

People keep referring to this town as the suburbs, but it’s hard for me to really define the town that way.  Suburbs are less than an hour train ride into the city.  Suburbs don’t feature things like bears and mountain lions.  Suburbs are bristling with self-importance because they are Part of the Big City, only with bigger yards and two-car garages.

To me, we are way out in the boonies, far from the hustling crowds.  The biggest events here are the high school production of Guys and Dolls and the monthly pancake breakfasts at the Masonic Lodge.

And that’s what I like about it.

While the monochromatic population is bizarre, being this far from a city seems to level the population.  Folks are pretty down-to-earth.  Yeah, there are name brands and social jockeying, and really the North Face obsession is a little out of hand.  But, for the most part, people seem to be grounded.

People spend time with their kids.  Families are large and siblings play with one another.  People skate on the lake or hike or ski.   We’re just a little town out among a lot of other little towns, sandwiched between a bunch of highways because, after all, this is New Jersey.  We are far enough from the city that we all know we’re not hip or cutting edge or whatnot.

J and I have lived for so long in cities that consider themselves the center of the universe: London!  Los Angeles!  Washington!  Here, we know we’re not the center of anything, except a state highway and a couple of Interstates.  We’re just a town with some nice old houses, a few lakes, and some excellent hiking trails.  There are other equally inconsequential towns all around us.  Here, people seem just to live their lives, without the constant battle to declare themselves important.

I miss the diversity of the city.  I miss the convenience of the karate studio down the street.  But, I do not miss the noise, the congestion, or the pretension.

The teenagers across the street babysit for us.  The eldest is hearing from colleges, many in large cities.  She should go to a big city.  She should learn that there is a wide, wide world out there and many exciting things to be done in an urban center.  Someday, our kids should go to school in a big city and learn those same things.

We, on the other hand, already know that, and we are looking forward to the next pancake breakfast at the Masonic Lodge.

The boy in fourth period

My first year of teaching, he was enrolled in my freshman honors English class, fourth period.  He was enrolled, but by the middle of November, I was getting used to marking a little X in the box by his name.  He was enrolled, but he almost never attended school.

Dan had school phobia, they told us.  After winter break, we all met with his parents to discuss how to help him come back to school, now that he had missed so much.  He showed up in January, then disappeared again.

I recognized Dan when I saw him.  He was a walking target.  Anxious, nervous ticks, shoulders slumped.  Walking targets are the kids who care too much about fitting in but don’t quite know how to.  The ones who want to be normal even though that just isn’t the way they are wired.  I knew all about walking targets.

I had been one myself throughout my childhood.  For a long, long time, I assumed that I had social troubles was because I had been abused in my home until I was ten.  No one had taught me how to fit in.  No one had given me self-confidence and ease and all that good shit.  As I get older, however, I have come to realize that much of it may just have been the way I was born.

My son cares deeply about fitting in.  My son doesn’t know how to.  And he fights me hard when I try to help him.  Not that I really know how to help him.

My parents, I have come to suspect, were much the same way.  Not freaks, but just different enough to stand out.  That, paired with a dorky sort of charisma that draws attention to oneself?  Might as well tape that “Kick Me” sign to our backs before we even leave for school in the morning.

So, I recognized this kid the few times he came into my room.  I heard rumors that his school phobia came from being teased, and I sure believed that.  Dan disappeared again in January, but we were assured he would try to return in February.

Some say he shot himself that day just so he wouldn’t have to return to school.

There were far, far too many kids who died from my first year of teaching.  There was a tragic car accident and another suicide, not to mention some other deaths in the school system.  But, lately his death has haunted me the most, even though I knew him the least.

I turned mean girl once my senior year of high school.  I had finally accomplished some level of social acceptance, after years of social scrabbling to try to get out from the bottom of the heap.  When a sophomore friend of mine started in with an ex-boyfriend of mine, I turned quite a few of the senior girls against her.  “Leave her alone,” the ex-boyfriend told me.  “She can’t walk down the halls in school without people taunting her.”

That was all it took to bring me to my senses.  I had been in her shoes so many times, and the last thing I wanted to do was be that kind of an asshole.  I had behaved very, very badly.

She’s turned out OK and seems to have forgiven me, which gives me less absolution than you would think.  But, the incident stands out for me as a reminder that the tormenters are human and easily can be turned around, if only handled properly.

It’s that proper handling that’s so tricky to figure out.  Who needs to intervene?  How?  When?  When do we let the victim fight for his own self-respect and when do we step in?  What could have been done differently in eighth grade, sixth grade, kindergarten to have kept Dan from shooting himself on the roof of his house?

I ask you these questions, and so many more.  What should the parents do?  What helps a kid learn the trick for stopping the bullying?  I cannot tell you my story because we are in a small town, and details will not help my child.  Suffice it to say, nothing terrible has happened yet, but my kid is feeling the beginnings and he is trying hard to deal with it.

I cannot tell you the story, but you can tell me yours. What worked with your kids?  What worked with you?  Were you a bully, a bullied?  Both?  Were your kids?  Talk to me people.  Tell me what you know.

Because even now, thirteen years later, I still go to sleep some nights thinking about Dan.

Boom, boom, boom

I saw the sign as we scurried in the front door of the elementary school: “Tuesday March 2 Dress As Your Favorite Dr. Seuss Character.”  It was Tuesday, March 2.  Zachary was not dressed as his favorite Dr. Seuss character.  Or his second favorite Dr. Seuss character.  Or any Dr. Seuss character whatsoever.

The notice had gone home as an email through Virtual Backpack, but since no one had told us about Virtual Backpack when we moved here, I had no idea such a service existed.  The notice had been on the door Monday morning, but my husband had dropped Zach at school.  Perhaps J had been so focused on his upcoming business trip that he hadn’t noticed.  Perhaps someone had held the door for him.  I’ll never know.

All I know is that Zachary showed up without a costume.  And every other kid had one.

As I walked him into his room, I didn’t say anything, hoping he wouldn’t notice.  Which was moronic, because Zachary always notices.  He does not like being the odd man out, and when he is, we all know whose fault it is.  No matter that Daddy had missed the sign.  This was Mommy’s fault.

I peeked into the room and saw him, storm clouds over his face as he watched Things 1 and 2 comparing their costumes with a very cute Grinch.

Shit.

See, he’d made a Cat in the Hat headdress at the Y just the day before, but it was at home.  And he was at school. Without it.

“I’ll go home and get your hat,” I told him.  “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”  Much as I do not condone running home and getting the shit your kids forget to bring to school, this one was not his fault.

What I did not know and would not find out till that afternoon was that there is some subtle teasing going on.  It’s not bullying (yet), but these kids are just learning about jockeying for social position.  One of the kids who is emerging as an alpha turned to Zach and told him, “You’re dressed as Nothing.”

Hell, that would send a couple of rain clouds over my face, too.

Zachary is tiny, the youngest in the class, new to town, and hyper-aware of social groupings.  That could be a very, very ugly little recipe.  Thus far, he’s defending himself alright, and his response to the kid with the snide comment was to stick out his tongue.  Sounds like a proportionate response to me.  Nonetheless, he was awfully relieved to see me ten minutes later, hat in hand.

My son is a big fan of Fitting In.

He has started to make friends with some very nice children, and by the end of the morning, he was much happier.  He ran out of the school, face alight, and said, “Mommy, it’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday and we’re supposed to read twenty books and you can read them to us or we can read them ourselves and some kids are making posters for a contest with your favorite Dr. Seuss book and you have to write ‘Dr. Seuss’ on it.”  Who needs Virtual Backpack? I have Run-on Sentence Man.

Zachary likes academics.  He likes challenges.  The concrete nature of schoolwork takes his mind of the endlessly confusing labyrinth of social nuances that make no sense to the new kid in class.  He’s starting to read, learning to measure, and coming home with interesting factoids about various endangered animals.

So, when we got home, he wanted to get started reading Dr. Seuss right away.  Unfortunately, his mother had her priorities screwed up.  “Dude, I can’t read to you right now.  I have to give your sister and brother lunch.”  Mothers are always saying stupid things like that.

I went into the kitchen and started pulling out the fixings for peanut butter and jelly.  Lilah had her first peanut butter two weeks ago, and now she thinks I’m some sort of asshole for hiding the stuff for so long.  She wants it every single day.  I sliced bread, stirred peanut butter, spread jam, and five minutes later came out to the dining room holding a couple of sandwiches, much to the delight of the pair who were banging their fists on the table.

As I shoved the plates in front of my younger two, the racket died down, and I looked at Zachary.  And, I’ll be damned if the child hadn’t walked over to the shelf, gotten down The Cat in the Hat, and read the first twelve pages.

Since we’ve not read that book in quite a long time, I knew he hadn’t just memorized it, especially as he halted to figure out some words.  No, there was only one conclusion to draw: the child knows how to read, but he hadn’t seen fit to share that information with his parents.  The ability to read was apparently some sort of big fucking secret, and he had no intention of spilling the beans.  Until, of course, he had the proper motivation, in the form of a reading challenge.

In the last three days, I have read a total of twelve Dr. Seuss books, and Zachary has read a book each day.  To himself.  And, while it’s all well and good that he is developing cognitively, I must say there is a much, much larger benefit.  When Zach is reading, he does not fight with his brother.  For the length of the entire book.  In fact, Benjamin sits next to him, listening to the story, completely fascinated by this bizarre ability to decipher stories from those weird little markings on the page.

Plus – and this goes without saying – the greatest benefit is that now Zachary can be responsible for reading the damned signs on the schoolhouse doors.

School redux

So, um, I guess yesterday’s post hit a nerve…?

I want to reply to a few comments.  First, as I wrote yesterday, there are certain situations in which we feel we do need to pull our kids from school, even if they aren’t sick.  Thus far, unsafe driving conditions tops the list.  However, of course major religious holidays or giant family reunions would qualify.  Pulling our kid for Great-Grandma’s 97th birthday party is a far cry from booking a cruise during January because we could get cheaper rates.

And, of course, every family has to decide what constitutes a good reason for itself.

The most interesting comments to me, however, were those who said that they felt people had gotten more, not less, diligent about keeping kids in school.  Those who commented said that our generation was pulled for all sorts of halfassed reasons, while we as parents are now much less likely to pull our own kids.  What I find fascinating is that people assumed I was comparing now to one generation ago.

I was actually trying to say that our grandparents were much less likely to keep their kids home from school for flimsy excuses than we are.  I am betting mine sent their kids unless they were oozing green puss from their hair follicles.  All my grandparents were immigrants.  School was their kids’ ticket into mainstream America.  I suspect that they would have pulled their kids if they needed them to work and bring in an income, but they sure as hell weren’t keeping them home from third grade just for the hell of it.

That said, our district is scheduling early dismissals for the two makeup days during school break.  Given that we have half-day kindergarten, each day will consist of less than two hours of school.  Although I hate to send the message that school is unimportant, the district seems to be sending the message to us that it’s cool if we don’t send them those two days.

So, I’m not sure what we’ll do.  If we have another snow day and end up with three days of school that week, we’ll definitely stay here and send him.  If not, we’ll weigh the pros and cons.

But, I think our district really oughta think about building another couple of snow days into the calendar.  We live in NEW JERSEY, for heaven’s sake.

School

“It almost feels like spring today,” she commented as we stood next to our matching minivans outside the elementary school, waiting for our kindergarteners.

“Yeah, but it’s supposed to snow again on Thursday.”

“That’s what it looks like,” she sighed.

Lilah was laughing maniacally and twirling around, reveling in the 47 degree weather.  Benjamin, on the other hand, was glowering from his carseat, still wearing a heavy winter parka and mumbling that he wasn’t getting out of the car because it was too cold.  If that child had his druthers, he’d stay in the house till May.

“I guess we can kiss the rest of April break goodbye,” I said.

“They wouldn’t do that,” she replied.  “I don’t think they’d touch break.”

“They’ve already taken away two days,” I told her.  “I just checked this morning.  There’s school on that Thursday and Friday… No, Lilah.  Stay on the sidewalk.”  I turned back to the other mom.  “And we were supposed to go to DC. Lilah!  No road!”

“Just pull him out of school,” she replied.  “It’s just kindergarten.”

Now, I like this woman a lot, so I dropped the subject.  Because on this one, we were definitely not going to see eye to eye.

It’s just kindergarten, the conventional wisdom goes.  What’s the harm in missing a few days?  It’s just kindergarten.  Or first grade.  Or eighth grade.  Or sophomore year.

Whereas once upon a time no one would ever suggest pulling a kid out of school, nowadays our unwillingness to do so makes us suspect.  Clearly, if we weren’t so competitive or uptight, we’d realize that a few days of school just doesn’t matter.  Good parents want well-rounded children.  Crappy parents take themselves so seriously that they think second grade is more important than a trip to Hawaii.

I’m calling bullshit on this one.  School is the most important thing our kids do.  It is more important than football practice, skiing, or Disneyworld.  It is their job.  Nothing else takes priority, with the possible exception of visiting elderly relatives.

We do not pull our kids out of school.

We want our children to know we value education and are committed to their schooling.  We send that message by arriving on time, homework completed, after having eaten a good breakfast.  We do not remove the kids early unless there is a damned good reason.  As of yet, we’ve only twice had such a reason.  A month ago, when it was snowing hard and the school district did not call a late start, I brought Zach in once the snow let up a little and I felt safe to drive.  And, this week I picked up Benjamin from preschool ten minutes early so he could see his father before he left for an eight-day business trip.  Other than that, we don’t keep them home, bring them late, or take them early.

If that makes us old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, so be it.  If that makes us uptight, controlling assholes, count us in.  We do not pull our kids out of school.

Now I know there are plenty of people who homeschool, and more power to them.  Their job is even tougher than ours, because they have to show their commitment to education not just by getting the kids there, ready to learn, every day, but by then teaching them all fucking day long.  Hats off and more power to them, because if I did that I’d be poking myself in the eyeballs with knitting needles after twenty minutes.  Which, considering I’d have to drive at least five minutes to buy knitting needles first, really tells you something.

Those of us who take the easy route and ship our kids out for someone else to educate, however, owe it to the teachers to be behind them 100%.  Not 99%.  Not when we don’t have something else going on.  Not when the mood strikes us.  Not when Benjamin thinks it’s too cold to go out, which is whenever it’s below 50.  Every day, in every way, it is our job to support the teachers who are there, working their asses off to teach our children.

To some, it’s just kindergarten.  To me, it’s the best time to teach our kids that school comes first.  To the teachers, it’s what they do all day.  And I’ll be damned if I am going to denigrate that.