Hot cars and good Samaritans

My sister and I were finishing up a quick grocery run towards the end of this year’s week-long family gathering at a beach in South Carolina. As she grabbed a bag from the cart, she laughed and said, “Well, we haven’t been arrested yet, so the kids must be ok.”  I hefted the other bag and exchanged a rueful glance with a woman nearby – a mother, I assumed – who had smiled at the comment. “We left them reading in the car,” I explained. She chuckled and we walked into the thick, warm southern air.

Frankly, I thought the boys were crazy to stay in the minivan because South Carolina’s humidity can be oppressive, but we’d just been to the bookstore and all four of them had new books. They’d been reading since the minute their seatbelts were on, and they had zero interest in abandoning their stories to watch their moms get salad fixings and fish. My oldest has already had a babysitting job, and all four of them walk to and from school every day, so my sister and I had left the windows down, reminded them to be nice to each other, and told them we’d be back in ten.

We probably took closer to fifteen minutes (we ended up with chicken instead of fish, so there was a little negotiating), but we were still shocked to see all four of our boys out of the car and heading reluctantly towards the store accompanied by several adults just as we stepped into the parking lot. It turns out that two women had seen the boys reading in the car and decided they were in danger. One of the women was already on the phone with “someone” before either of them said anything to the boys. My oldest immediately asked if they were calling the police, and the other woman said no, but it’s hard to imagine what else was going on when the boys overheard “yes, four young boys in a car in the Publix parking lot.”

The way the boys tell the story, the women were annoying, overbearing, nosy, horrible people. But I’m not sure I trust the outraged tweens. Still, it’s clear that one of the women asked where they were from and freaked them out by answering her own question. (She read our license plate.) And they all agree that when the boys said they were fine because the windows were open, one of the women said, “Would you leave a million dollars sitting in your car? You all are more precious than that.” (At which point a real miracle occurred: my more outspoken child thought, “Well, actually it *is* pretty different because a million dollars can’t walk away if something happens, and my mom would definitely not leave the windows down if there was money in the car” but he kept his mouth shut.) And we know that the good Samaritans declined the boys’ repeated attempts to have them call us – “We know their cell phone numbers. They’re just in the store.” – in favour of having the boys to get out of the car and come with them to the store.

That’s when we came out, groceries in hand.

When they saw us coming, the two women skedaddled. My sister and I didn’t immediately know what was going on, so we weren’t quick enough to stop them or even to make eye contact. They were gone. The boys got back into the car, we sorted out the story, calmed them down, and headed off on one more errand. That time, I stayed in the car with them while they read. The temperature was identical. No one looked at us.

Days later, I keep running through the whole incident in my mind. I am not even remotely sorry about leaving the kids in the car. They are not babies or toddlers or even early elementary children. They know when they are hot, they know how to open a car door, and they know how to find us in a store that is mere yards away. I was actually pleased that they wanted to read, and I’ve done my research (because I care about things like this), so I also know that more children die or are injured in parking lots than in parked cars. No one would have glanced twice if I were in the car alone, reading; my children were also safe.

I’m not mad at the women for worrying, either. To be fair, I think they were wrong, but I’d much rather live in a world where communities of people look out for children than in one where children are neglected. They were worried and they acted on their worry. This is what I told our kids.

That said, I found the whole situation unsettling. In a society where parental actions are regularly judged and where mothers, in particular, must walk a terribly narrow path in order to meet other people’s expectations (here we had to choose between being overly protective and too blasé), concern for children’s well-being should spring from a sense of community and kindness rather than from a performative sense of what “should” be done.

In this case, I think what upsets me is that the women left without talking to us. Granted, they didn’t do what many people do: call 911 but do nothing about the children they have deemed to be at risk; there is a lot to suggest that they were genuinely concerned about the children. They did go too far, in my opinion, by asking the kids questions about where they were from (all four informed us indignantly that they won’t even tell people that online) and especially by getting the kids out of the car. I don’t want my children to ever follow a stranger out of a space I’ve determined is safe. I think I would feel better about the whole thing if they had spoken to us, the mothers, once they saw us. But as I judge the actions of these good Samaritans, I entrap them in the same snare I resent so strongly. Were they overprotective? Do I have any more right to say that than they do to suggest that I was negligent?

I want to believe that these women were actually watching out for my children not just performing goodness. I want to keep firm hold of my conviction that my own judgment was correct and that there was no need for their intervention. But I’m finding both of these beliefs to be slippery. One way or another, I keep repeating what we told the kids: “let’s be grateful there are people in the world who are looking out for children who might need help.” I have a feeling I’m going to have to say that a few more times before I’m done thinking about this.

 

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Overwhelm, sliced into snippets

Day 1 of a three-day Kittle & Gallagher workshop

  • I head to the workshop as excited as a child on her way to her first day of school. My mother-in-law has loaned me a backpack, and I love its compartments and the way it hangs from my shoulders. I follow the map, nervously checking that I don’t make any wrong turns. I even take my own picture. When I arrive, I look for my friends. We hug. I laugh and think that I really am like a schoolgirl. They have saved me a seat.

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    Look at that backpack!
  • I don’t know everyone at my table equally well. I am nervous. I talk too much. I wish I had talked less, but there it is. You can’t take the words back.
  • I love the information that Kittle and Gallagher share. I love their philosophy. These are my teaching heroes. I sit half-twisted towards them on my conference-room chair, and I hover between listening and writing. I want to drink it in and to remember everything.
  • 180 teacher participants open their notebooks and write. If you listen, you can hear the pens move against the paper. I love being in a room of writers. I love the first quickwrite topic, too. We write again. I’m not as good at this one. I start to feel doubtful. “This is how your students feel,” I tell myself sternly. Inside my head schoolgirl me retorts, “Well, I don’t like it.” We revise. We write again. Better. We revise again. I’ve got this.
  • When we share ideas at our table, I can hear myself sounding confident. “I’ve tried this,” I say. “This works,” I say. “Have you considered this,” I say. Then suddenly, I am not confident; I’m worried. I need to be more questioning. I need to talk more about my weaknesses. I am talking too much. I’m not listening enough. I should be more critical of my teaching practice. Except that I *am* critical of my teaching. Wait, I’m too critical. My head spins. Lunch is announced. I heave a sigh of relief. Food will help.
  • The workshop slides include lists. So many lists. So many things to question. So many things I need to do better. So many things to consider. I feel like I’m just keeping up when, suddenly, Penny is sharing books her students love. I read all the time. I read so so much. I have not read most of these books. How will I ever read them? I write down all the titles but a part of me begins to despair. I need to read these books. I need to do better at writer’s notebooks. I need to keep a beautiful words log. I need to write every day. I don’t know if I can do this.
  • The day is over. The seven of us from our school board stay around our table, talking about the things we’ve just learned. Our voices overlap with ideas and questions. We are full of self-doubt and a sense of wonder and hope. The colleague I know least well offers me a ride home. I accept gratefully. No exhausted walk home from the first day of school for this school child. I need all of my brain power to process the day.
  • My mother-in-law has dinner for me. Afterwards, we take her beautiful golden impulsive Standard Poodle for a walk along the waterfront. University students still crowd the beach. Small children dart away from their parents. Mothers push strollers while toddlers trail behind. A tandem bike startles us. A family cleans up the ends of a picnic. The temperature is perfect and the low evening sunlight promises a beautiful evening.

 

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I’ve got his back

To be honest, no one is exactly sure the last time he had a bath. We’re about to start renovations on our house, so we moved into an apartment on Tuesday (yes, during the last week of the school year). He has not bathed in our new tub, so it’s definitely been at least a week.

He used to shower on Sunday after swim team, but we gave up swim team a few weeks ago because life was too busy, so he didn’t shower on Sunday. I try to work backwards and realize that it is entirely possible that no soap has touched his body in two weeks… or more.

Still, he doesn’t stink and there’s no visible dirt, so that’s something. And tonight he slides happily into Grandma’s deep bathtub, filling it until the water covers his shoulders, glorying in the warmth cascading over his head. He rolls and twists, slippery and happy, creating his own watery universe, filling the bathroom with stories.

Eventually, he calls to me, “Mama! Can you soap my back? It’s so hard to reach!”

When I come into the bathroom, he is on his knees, a sliver of soap in his hand. His chest is white with lather. He is perfectly unselfconscious as he twists to deposit the soap in my hand. I feel his back under my fingers, the hard muscle that is beginning to displace the last layer of baby fat. Already he is taller and slimmer than he was just months ago. This will be one of the last times I get to wash him.

I linger over his tawny body for a minute, then I hand him back the soap. “Nearly done?” I ask.

He nods, slips back into the water and thrashes around like a fish to get clean. “Almost, Mama.”

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Enough

Today is the last day of classes. In 20 minutes the bell will ring, some wild song will play over the PA system, and students will flood the hallway. Right now I’m sitting in the Spec Ed room – nearly empty except for two students who are working right up to the end – and I’m feeling… conflicted.

I’m thinking about the weeks before I left for college – so long ago, now – when my mother and I fought and fought. In the middle of one particularly loud fight, she screamed, “There’s so much more I need to teach you!” and I screamed back, “You’ve had enough time! I’m ready to go already! I know enough!” With the truth suddenly naked in the middle of our argument, we stopped fighting and cried. We didn’t fight again before I left.

We were both right, of course: I had so much more to learn, and I was ready to go.

The end of the school year often feels like that to me. I want to hold on to my students; I have so much more to teach them. There’s more writing, more reading, more that they need. I’ve only just figured out how they fit together. I can imagine one more unit that they might love. And I worry, too: What if they’re not ready for their next teacher or for university? What if it’s not enough?

But it is enough. It has to be. They’re already ready to go. They know what they know and it’s time to move forward.

The bell rings, the music plays and out they stream into the hallway. A few pop into the room. One more hug. One more high five. One more head pokes through the doorway, “Goodbye, Miss! See you in September!”

Exams start tomorrow. Now it’s all on them. They are confident that they are ready for whatever comes their way.

I sit for a few heartbeats more – emptied out by another semester, reminding myself that this is enough.

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Kale and other conversations

If you’ve seen the movie Bull Durham, you probably remember the scene on the pitcher’s mound where catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes out to talk to pitcher Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) on the mound. Eventually most of the team is there and it turns out that there’s a lot going on… just not much about baseball. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Bull Durham, Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner, Robert Wuhl

On Friday, my little grade 10 English class felt a lot like that pitcher’s mound. As I walked in, one student came over and asked for a hug. (I know, I know… some of you will worry; but trust me on this one. This child needs hugs.) Their guardian’s partner had gone into the ICU for multiple organ failure. The student had independently made their way into school but was understandably anxious. They asked if I would make them a cup of tea, and I readily agreed.

While I was turning on the water, another student stepped out of the classroom. “Relationship problems,” whispered my peer tutor when I returned, “you know.” I don’t know, actually, because I wasn’t aware that this child was in a relationship, but I can imagine. She made her way back a few minutes later, eyes a little red.

I tried to start class, but a third student just couldn’t get her head off the table. She was so tired. “There’s a demon in my bedroom.” Say what? I started to chuckle, but she glared at me so hard that I choked it off. “For real,” she mumbled. “It’s been there for two days. I can’t sleep.” Culturally possible, I realized as she put her head back down. I decided not to push.

I tasked the peer tutor with tea-making, took a deep breath and started the class: vocabulary review – after all, exams start in three school days. When everyone is tense, I love using something concrete as a review; all too often my students throw in the towel as they approach an English exam. “You can’t study for English!” they moan. “You can,” I insist. As their nerves fray, there’s nothing like a good game with vocabulary to remind them that they do, in fact, know more than they think they do – and much more than they did when the semester began. Usually this perks everyone right up.

Yesterday, however, the vocabulary game swerved into a discussion of kale. These things happen. Most of my students have never tried kale, as it turns out. Or brussel sprouts.  Just last week our class had bagels a) because several of the newcomers thought that bagels were “just bread with a hole in it” and b) because we were celebrating Eid and four upcoming birthdays. Are kale and brussel sprouts cultural? They will probably be less of a hit, but I am seriously contemplating bringing tastes of both on Monday.

Somehow the kale conversation ended and suddenly one of the boys said, “Miss, I have some advice for you. Don’t ever check your kids’ browser history.” Hmmm. I told him that I probably would not follow his advice. “It will just make you unhappy,” he countered. Do tell. He did and suddenly we were talking about pornography.

At this point we were supposed to be starting our 20 minutes of reading, but there was the ICU and the relationship and the demon. And one student was just generally unhappy because of stress. And maybe because she forgot part of her dance piece during her performance yesterday? Unclear. And I’d already hugged someone and made tea and tried to describe kale. Somehow talking about pornography in English class three days before exams didn’t seem that odd. I gave them 5 minutes and told them *I* was in charge of the discussion. It was far tamer than you’re imagining. They are really good kids.

And then, the bell rang. Two of them took their tea with them, promising to return the mugs at lunch; the rest left them behind. I waited in our room for the moment of silence that comes once they are all gone and then let out the breath I’d been holding throughout the class. It wasn’t what I expected, this final Friday, but it was a gift. One of these students left the classroom in angry tears a few months ago. One was barely speaking to me at one point. Two of them, unbeknownst to me, had been harbouring a long-standing grudge against one another until last week. One was suspended for three days just two weeks ago. And yet on Friday, three days before the end, we were safe in our little room. Safe to talk about guardians and relationships and demons and kale and pornography. Safe to drink tea and study. Safe to tie vocabulary to personal stories. Safe to be who we are.

It took us all semester to get here and, oh boy, I’m going to miss this group.

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Lost and found

I saw it fall. It slipped out of my fingers and my eye caught a quick glint of silver as it arced away from my hand and down to the carpet. Then a nearly inaudible thump as it landed on the carpet and bounced. My eyes tried to follow its pathway; my ears strained for the next sound. Nothing. The earring was gone.

I got down on my hands and knees. Obviously it was right there. There’s maybe two feet of cream carpet – low pile – between the bed frame and the dresser. I had seen it bounce. It couldn’t be far.

My eyes scanned for a gleam of metal or a shot of green. Nothing. I moved a wayward child’s sock which had inexplicably taken up residence next to the bed frame. Not there. I ran my fingers along the bottom edge of the dresser, certain I would quickly encounter the small hard shape of the earring. Nope.

I sat back on my knees and took a deep breath. It had to be here. I had seen it fall. I adjusted the lights. Still no metallic shine from the floor. I changed position and again ran my fingers along the line where the dresser meets the floor. I found a dime but no earring.

Now I began to get desperate. I had seen it. I had heard it. I checked on my dresser. Yes, there sat its companion, waiting. One earring. The other, vanished. This simple fact upended my understanding of the physical universe.

I proceeded to check on top of the bed which is, what? Two feet high? Then I looked on top of my nightstand, at least two feet away from me and, again, about two feet high. Under my pillows? Over near my closet door? As if my earring had developed supernatural powers, I checked the most unlikely of places. No earring. It had completely vanished.

After one last desperate search right where I’d seen it fall, I gave up, defeated. Perhaps it went for a short visit with some of our mysteriously missing socks. Maybe it is waiting for the right moment to pop out and taunt a cat. Could be that it’s just out there in the universe, laughing at me for believing that all lost things can be found.

Afterword: Before I published this, I decided I simply had to go check for the earring one more time. I repeated essentially the same steps as last night, beginning with the sane, careful search then tipping dangerously towards that place where the laws of physics no longer apply. This time, in my final fit of pique, I opened the bottom dresser drawer and started to rifle through it in search of that dang earring. And wouldn’t you know it? There it was, under a shirt in the closed drawer. I am still shaking my head.

Fairies. I just know it.

 

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Hearing voices

Today, I asked my students “How do you identify yourself and why is that important to you?” and they said…

“When I was younger, there was a time when people thought I had no future. Now, one of the things I’m passionate about is how different people on the spectrum are. We are not all alike.”

“I like how our generation is different, how being LGBTQ is normal.”

“I hear what you’re saying.”

“If you’re in love with someone, you’re in love with someone.”

“I believe there is a God but not in any particular religion.”

“To be honest, I don’t really know.”

“When I meet someone, I’m not like, ‘I’m gay.’ I never really use the word lesbian to describe myself. There’s still a lot of time for me to figure things out. It’s complicated.”

“I have a friend whose mom remembers her past life, but I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“We need to let H talk.”

“I’m a straight Arab dude…It takes too much effort to hate.”

“There’s a million things better you can do than be racist or homophobic.”

“I’m sorry I interrupted you.”

“You don’t need to be a person of colour to do something about Black History Month.”

“The whole point of a racist slur – any slur – is to offend someone, so if you shake it off, you undo that.”

“We are all different no matter what label you use.”

It’s taken us all semester to get here. Discussion is hard. We’ve used sentence starters and done four corner activities. We’ve talked about social media and parents. We’ve analysed our discussions (not a favourite activity) and listed successes & areas for improvement. We’ve used pennies to limit our contributions (put in your two cents worth) and mapped our discussions with twine and tape. We’ve had guest speakers and informal debates. We’ve practiced.

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Discussion mapping: I’m the one with only one piece of tape – Hooray for learning how to bite my tongue!

The result? They can lift up their powerful voices and tell the world that they are ready to make some changes.

And tomorrow we’ll talk again.

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