Homework

My older son just finished a big school project. He had to research and write a biography of his hero – in French. For reasons beyond my comprehension, he chose George Washington Carver, someone he had never heard of before and whose accomplishments he can barely describe in English, much less French. “Crop rotation” anyone? He is also writing a Halloween story in English and reading a book for a Literature Circle. And he’s supposed to read in French for 30 minutes a day AND he has weekly French worksheets which he regularly does the night before they are due.

My younger child’s teacher photocopies sheets and puts them into a red duotang (one of those 3-pronged folders for all you Americans out there) then sends home things to be learned or reviewed every week. Also, he is supposed to read in French every night. And there are other kinds of homework: the other day, for example, the teacher asked the kids to bring in shoeboxes for a diorama. My child told me not to bother sending one in because “there are loads of kids who will bring more than one.” I was not allowed to explain his decision in a note to the teacher. The 8-year-old told me he would “take care of it.”

Now, I don’t know how other teachers fare with this stuff, but I am the WORST about my children’s homework. For the love of all that is holy, I read way too much about pedagogy to be anywhere nearby when the kids pull their assignments out of their backpack. Their teachers are lovely thoughtful people at various stages of their careers. Their expectations are not completely outlandish, and the workload really isn’t over the top. Well, the older one was a *little* overwhelmed this week, but I’ll admit that he rarely does a full half hour of reading in French and it’s not like he began his project early… and, there, I’ve already started.

I’m an American who speaks French for Heaven’s sake. Worse, I’m an American who is qualified to teach English and French in Canada – and my children are doing immersion French. Oh, and I’m a card-carrying member of the helicopter parenting generation – right down to my attempts not to be a helicopter parent. Homework gets complicated.

This year, we decided that it was time for the kids to make their own lunches and do their own homework. Lunches = no problem. Homework = well… the grade 3 teacher wants us to sign off on a chart that says that our son has done his work at least four nights a week. And I know that it’s good pedagogy to get parents involved in what’s going on in the classroom. And it’s not like my kids prattle on about school (I literally relied on the girls down the street to tell me everything until, tragically, this year they are not in my children’s classes), so homework can be a good window into the classroom. Right?

But then we lost the damn duotang. Actually, to be fair to me, I don’t think it’s in our house, so “we” didn’t lose anything. Sadly, the red duotang is also not in the classroom. Nor is the “personal dictionary” or some mysterious orange duotang, and I’m pretty sure those suckers never came home. I’ve read the teacher’s notes home and, sure, the message is in the subtext, but it’s clear that he thinks we lost these things. I don’t dare tell him that I’ve never seen the orange duotang, but I kind of want to send him a picture of our organized after-school system. Then again, maybe I don’t… I mean, I’m doing the best I can, but things around here can get a little hairy between 5 and 7:30. We’re, um, mostly organized. And I have torn the house apart; that red duotang is not here. I’ll tell you what: I know my third-grader, and I will not be at all surprised if these items reappear magically at the end of the school year. In the meantime, until his busy teacher gets around to replacing it, we have no sheet to sign. My child is delighted.

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And the fifth-grader, oh the poor child. It’s gotten to the point where he sometimes bursts into tears upon merely hearing the word “homework.” This would be distressing if he ever ever ever actually did any homework without significant “prompting”. And by “prompting” I mean “threats.” And, as I threaten him, I remember that this is the year he’s responsible for his own homework, so my brain starts up…

“Just let him not do it and see what happens,” hisses 1970s-Amanda-mom.

“What will his teacher think of you if he comes with yet another half-done, crumpled, food-stained worksheet?” fusses the 2010 version of me as a mother.

“Those worksheets are completely inappropriate and in no way promote learning anyway,” counters teacher-Amanda.

“Google translate is the devil,” sneaks in French-teacher Amanda. “Also, check that he didn’t forget any of the accents.”

“You were just like that, and you turned out fine,” the voice of my very own mother echoes in my head, thus confirming that things have really gotten out of control.

Meanwhile, my 10-year-old has snuck in another 20 minutes of screen time and calmed down enough to be able to summon up a fresh round of tears when I remind him that he really does have to do his homework.

So tonight, it was a real victory when he finished a project in French about a man he had never heard of three weeks ago who did something important that he can’t really understand but whom he claims, for the purposes of this project, is his hero. I tried to help him choose a hero (without commenting on how the project was presented), and I didn’t say anything negative as he hand wrote his first draft (because the teacher didn’t want them to type the first draft but required a typed final copy). I didn’t point out that there was no feedback on the draft. I will admit that I typed some of it from his rough draft because he’s 10 and watching him plink keys one finger at a time makes me crazy, but I didn’t make any corrections for him, and I only sort of helped with the French spell check. Also, I let him cry more than once. When he finished, I congratulated him on all the work he did and asked if he felt proud. He did.

I felt proud, too. Because I didn’t email the teacher one single time to tell her what I thought about the assignment. That’s got to count for something, right?

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Tick off

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When the phone rang I was in the middle of giving the “ten-minutes-till-bedtime” warning. But since it was her, I picked up. Because you can tell a real friend hello and goodbye in mere seconds if you need to. Because she doesn’t usually call at almost bedtime. Because I always like to hear what she has to say.

Well, I *usually* like to hear what she has to say. But maybe not when she says, “Hi, um, can you check your texts? I sent you some pictures.” Because, though none of my students appear to believe this, nothing good ever comes from an urgent request to look at pictures on your phone.

Sure enough, I checked my phone and yelped, “That’s a tick! Why are you sending me pictures of ticks?”

As it turns out, the tick had decided to take up residence near her daughter’s armpit.

“Um, that tick is already embedded,” I observed helpfully. Unsurprisingly, they knew that. They had actually called to see if I knew how to get it out. In theory, the answer was yes; in practice the answer was not yet

Since nobody wants to pull a tick out of their child on their own – at least not the first time – and since apparently not yet is better than not ever, they hopped in the car and headed over to my place. Meanwhile, I cleverly googled “how to remove a tick” (pro-tip: pretty much everything except “pull it out with tweezers” is an old wives’ tale) and then called my father.

Now, before you judge me for making an international phone call to a 73-year-old man to talk about a relatively common and seriously tiny creature, I should mention that my dad is an infectious disease doctor. Ok, and I should also mention that I was really just calling for moral support because he and my stepmother basically live in the woods, and I am decidedly a city girl. They have tick experience. Dad told me to pull the tick out with tweezers, but he added some extra things like “watch for fever for the next ten days” to make me feel like the call was worthwhile.

When my friend arrived, we left my boys downstairs, supposedly making their lunches but really listening carefully at the bottom of the stairs to hear if there was any screaming. My friend, her daughter and I headed up to the bathroom with the good lighting to look at the tick.

It was a tick, alright. It  was also very contentedly settled in under the 10-year-old’s arm. With more bravado than bravery, I held the tweezers, her mom held her hand, and I pulled the tick out. That was it.

This result seemed all-too-easy for such a dramatic situation, so we fretted for a while about whether or not we’d gotten the whole tick. Our concerns mostly led us to poke the poor child’s tick bite repeatedly with the (sanitized) tip of a safety pin. She was surprisingly patient with our ministrations, possibly because she was convinced that if we left any of the tick behind undefined but horrible things would happen, possibly because she guessed that her friends were downstairs listening for screams.

Finally, we declared her tick-free, swabbed just about everything we could reach with rubbing alcohol (because that’s what the website said to do), and headed back downstairs. The boys pretended that they had spent the whole time packing their lunches, the girl grabbed the dinner she had brought along (we had rudely interrupted with our concerns about her potentially imminent death-by-tick), and her mom put the bottle with the tiny tick corpse into her pocket – “just in case it has Lyme disease,” she said, though I’m not sure how having the tick body will help. We hugged, they left, and just like that the drama was over.

New definition of friendship: will remove a tick from your child’s body, during dinner and/or at bedtime.

We have a reader!

He’s reading! He’s really reading. Just look at this picture – reading at the breakfast table this morning, ignoring his pancake.

img_6443I actually had to tell him to put the book away. And I’ve had to add “make sure he’s turned the light out” to our bedtime routine. I can’t quite believe it.

Eric has dyslexia. We knew something was not quite right by the end of Grade 1, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. He was in the highest reading group in class, but he regularly “read” without looking at the pages. He learned many things quickly and easily, but he didn’t like school and he just couldn’t seem to get along with his teacher. This made no sense: she was experienced and beloved by many; he was funny and eager. They hit an impasse and, bless her, she just kept saying “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t right.” Finally, despite my misgivings about testing young children, we took Eric for an assessment. And it turned out he was reading at the 3rd percentile for his age. THE THIRD. He was fake reading all over the place.

We are incredibly lucky that we figured this out early. I learned about dyslexia and found a tutor who uses a researched method with proven outcomes (The Barton method – Orton Gillingham based). She’s amazing and Eric, the trooper, has rarely complained about two hours of tutoring a week. Still, frankly, the progress has been slow. I know that the tutoring is not simply supposed to teach him to read but rather to actually rewire his brain so that reading becomes easier, and I know that takes time, but knowing something and believing it are two different things. In grade 2, he read dutifully with me every evening but nothing else. This summer he basically avoided reading altogether. I was beginning to despair.

And then, three weeks ago, he picked up a book and read it. The whole thing. He stayed up until 10pm. I was on my way to bed when I noticed his light on – talk about a shock! He was three pages from the end and so excited when he finished that he couldn’t go to sleep. The next day he read the second book in the series.

Soon, confidence growing daily, he enlisted others. He read out loud on the couch to his brother. (Thomas was really encouraging: “Wow! That was a big word! Good job, Eric!”) He told a friend about his reading, and the friend showed up at our house with the rest 

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of the Dog Man series and a new series to start. Unbeknownst to me, Eric devised a reading plan. Dog Man => Bird and Squirrel => Bad Guys => something? => Wings of Fire. Wings of Fire is his ultimate reading goal. He watched his brother read it two years ago and, apparently, has been desperate to get to it *by himself*. He has every book in the series lined up on his bookshelf, ready to go. And until he gets there, he’s planning to read all the time. Which explains the reading at breakfast. And after school.

And here he is in the car in the driveway, reading in the backseat, refusing to get out.img_6445

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a reader! 

 

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Airing My Laundry

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photo credit: Capt. Christopher Love

Once the weather gets really nice – late spring around here, or even early summer if it’s a rainy year – I love hanging our laundry out to dry. We have two (TWO!) laundry lines off our back porch, and I find pleasure in the quiet rhythm of shaking open a wet item, reaching for the clothespins, pinning the clothing up, sending the line squeakily towards the yard, and beginning the cycle again. Hours later, as I take the laundry down, I revel in the slight stiffness of some of the dried clothes and the fresh almost non-smell as I fold them.

Laundry lines, which generations past saw as either a necessity or a drudgery, are a luxury for me. Hanging laundry means slowing time and honoring place. We live in a busy downtown where not everyone has a backyard, much less a porch or space and time for laundry. In fact, our house is bounded on one side by housing units, about 10 of which look into our backyard in some way, and on the other side by a larger house that has been divided into three apartments. Our back-door neighbors have a well-used laundry line, and next to them two other houses rise above our yards and look down into our little space. Basically, a lot of people can see our laundry dry.

This potential public combined with my children’s enthusiastic ability to grind dirt into pretty much any item of clothing they wear means that every time I hang the laundry, I end up thinking about the phrase “airing your dirty laundry.” I mean, our laundry is clean-ish, but it’s out there for everyone to see. My neighbors know what my underwear look like, just how big a hole has to be before I declare a shirt unwearable, and exactly how clean is acceptable for socks in our house (hint: not very). I’m not airing our dirty laundry, exactly, but I am surely sacrificing some of our privacy when I head out with a basket full of clothes to dry.

I keep thinking about this. Once upon a time, everyone had to hang their laundry dry. People hung clothes out tenement windows in New York, and Ma hung clothes on the Prairie with Laura and Mary and little Carrie. There was a time when it was scandalous to let your underclothes peek out, but everyone around you knew about your underclothes anyway. Privacy was different then, I imagine. Your neighbors saw your laundry and they knew your business. It must have been an oddly intimate sort of knowing in a time before the tell-all era we currently inhabit.

Today, bras show frankly under t-shirts, boxer shorts parade above saggy jeans, and panties flash below short shorts. Online, I am wildly public about some things, but oddly reticent about others. For example, I cannot for the life of me to bring myself to describe my underwear to you. I’ll hang them up for everyone in the neighborhood to look at, but no way will I write about them here, even though people who read this blog for sure know more about me than some of my neighbors.

Why my hesitation? There are companies on the internet that know more about me than any one person ever will. They know what I browse and where I pause and when I buy. They know all my numbers and statistics and Heaven only knows what else. Yet I curate my social media and consciously choose how to present myself to the world as if my life is private. It’s disconcerting. I don’t particularly like either side of this modern privacy – the curated face or the grasping attempt to monetize everything behind that face. It makes me uncomfortable, like looking at your neighbor in church and knowing that under the fancy Sunday dress are worn-out knickers.

I persist in hanging my laundry. And as I clip another dingy sock to the line, I recognize one more laundry-line luxury: no internet entity, human or otherwise, knows exactly how dirty those socks have to be before I throw them back in the washer for another round. If you want that kind of intimacy, you have to live next door.

 

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Lessons from the grilled cheese universe

The bread was burning. The smell was unmistakable, so I grabbed the turner and flipped the sandwich over to see if it was salvageable. It was not. Nor was its compatriot, blackening merrily next to it in the pan. I flipped them anyway and, as I ruefully considered whether I could scrape off enough burn to make them kid-edible, I burned the other side. Thoroughly.burned sandwich

Two grilled cheese sandwiches, straight into the compost.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes briefly, realized this is as close as I get to meditation most days, and started over. Butter the first slice of bread; slice the cheese; arrange the orange strips on the bread; place the second slice of bread on top; butter again; into the pan. Repeat.

These two didn’t burn.

How many hundreds of times have I made grilled cheese sandwiches? How many times have I made *these* grilled cheese sandwiches? Same bread, same cheese, same pan, same stove. How on earth did I manage to made such a mess of something so simple? I watched the second batch like a newly-minted chef. They did not burn. My house was brimming with 7- and 8-year-olds making the most of another glorious summer day, so I started another batch. Nothing burned.

As the boys charged in and scarfed down the sandwiches, I tried to get rid of the lingering acrid smell. I opened the door and turned on the range fan. Still the question remained, like an accusation, “How many times have I done this? How could I burn them?” And then, suddenly, I started to chuckle. Yup, how many times? How many hundreds of times have I made these? How many more will I make? Most will turn out, and some will undoubtedly burn.

Ah, but the universe communicates in funny ways, and here – thanks to some sandwiches – was my end-of-summer lesson. Sometimes, the sandwiches burn for no reason at all. Sometimes, I can do everything right and it still won’t work. Sometimes, I just need to throw it away and start over without judgment or blame or worry.

This is exactly what I needed to remember as I head into the new school year: Sometimes, the sandwiches burn; I can always make more.

 

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Listening for thunder

I’m sitting on the dock at the lake watching my children swim and listening for thunder in the clouds I can see rolling our direction. It’s surprisingly hard to tell the difference between the low rumble of distant thunder and the thud of the dog running across the dock, the grind and clang of metal ladder as it thumps against the wood while the kids clamber up, or even the occasional dive-muffled yell as they tumble back in. Listening requires attention, an immersion in the moment.

Evenings here, storms roll in from the northeast. We can see them coming from miles away and they don’t always reach us, so we linger in the lake for as long as possible. Sometimes a gray haze of rain connects the distant clouds to the green forest roof. Sometimes there’s thunder. Every now and then there’s lightning, which means everyone out of the lake, even if the storm is visibly far away. Tonight, we are hoping for no lightning, no thunder. We’re hoping to wallow in the warm water, play on the sandbar, maybe even get in one more boat ride.

Ah, the neighbor is out for her evening swim with her three dogs. She strokes out to the sandbar buoy and back. Her dogs swim over to play with the kids as my parents’ dog – not a water dog – whines, paces and barks from near my feet. In the near distance a speed boat slowly pulls a new wake-boarder who struggles for balance; the humid air carries the sound of their motor and music trails in their wake. Is that thunder? No, I don’t think so.

We leave here the day after tomorrow after nearly 6 weeks of vacation. I am ready to go home, but I’m not quite tired of this yet. My school year doesn’t start for another 3 1/2 weeks, but I feel as though summer is coming to an end. Online, I’m surrounded by talk of back to school – teachers are setting up classrooms, attending PD, planning lessons. Here in South Carolina, back to school sales abound.  I tell myself that I have plenty of time –  so much of summer remains! – and still, I feel the tug of September, I sense the ending.

The great blue heron flies by and this evening she does not stop to perch on the sandbar buoy; she skims the surface of the water on her way to wherever it is she rests. The boat passes again, no wakeboarder now, heading home. And…I think I hear thunder.

Early August brings a barely perceptible increase in pressure, an almost gentle sense of melancholy: I have things I want to do, things I wanted to get done. Time is running short, or at least shorter. September is there, looming. It’s like I’m sitting on the dock at the lake, watching my children swim and listening for thunder in the clouds I can see rolling my direction.

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Up again

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He’s up again. I tucked him in, sang him songs, kissed him. I hugged him one more time and promised to check on him later.

But here are the footsteps on the stairs, the pause in the next room, the little blond head peeking around the kitchen doorway. “Mama?”

Just one more kiss.
Just one more hug.
Just one more snuggle.

Up we go. I run through our relaxation routine. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in and make your body hard as ice. Breathe out and melt. Melt your toes, your feet. Your ankles, your calves. We move up his body, melting into the bed.

I melt, too. I move with him into a space of quiet. Our breathing is even. It’s time for sleep.

He’s down. And now I’m the one who has to get up again.