When friendship lasts

As we pulled into a parking spot, we saw a blond boy waiting on his porch, looking longingly up and down the street. For a fraction of a second, before he recognized us, I saw how tall he was and, maybe, how lonely. Then his eyes widened and a smile filled his face. While he was visibly excited, he descended the steps and came towards us slowly.

In the van, Eric said, “What’s he doing waiting on the porch?”
“I think he’s waiting for you,” I explained.
“Oh,” Eric was hesitant, “ok.”

He opened the van door and walked towards his old friend. Looking at the ground, their feet in constant motion, the boys exchanged diffident “hi”s. Then, without warning or explanation, they started talking and, just like that, resumed their friendship from three years ago when they were six. Hours later, after the park, the corner store, the house; after basketball and jungle gyms and ice cream; after talking and laughing and wrestling, they parted reluctantly, already asking when they could see each other again.

Oscar’s family just finished a three-year assignment overseas. Our boys were inseparable before they left, but they’ve only seen each other in person once since then, so they barely know each other now. After all, they’ve spent one-third of their lives on different continents. No matter, they seemed to say, friends are friends.

182309_10153144212400333_1857240488_n
Learning to bike together at age 3

I believe this. Every summer we travel to South Carolina to see family and one of our stops is at my friend Malia’s house. She and I become friends as new moms in Ottawa, long before her husband’s job landed her an hour and a half from my father’s house in SC. As much as I love seeing her, our children’s friendship is a real driver of our annual visits. You see, our oldest kids were constantly together for their first year and a half. Sometimes I think they got encoded in each other’s DNA. Despite being separated when they were 18 months old and not meeting again until they were, I think, eight, despite visits of only a few days once a year, the boys magnet together every summer and still count each other among their closest friends.

1936713_261603415332_4873452_n
Left out of their mother’s conversation – escape attempt in progress
IMG_9836
These days, their enthusiasm is overwhelming.

And really, I should understand. After all, my husband still spends at least one weekend a year with friends he’s known since daycare. As for me, last month my childhood best friend and I had a slumber party (ok, ok, a “visit” because we are adults now, but really, it was a sleepover) for two glorious days. We met at her parents’ house for dinner. They made salmon, grilled on the backyard barbecue, creamed corn leftover from a reception, and homemade broccoli salad. After dinner, her father made us peach ice cream by blending real peaches into vanilla ice cream. He added a dollop of whipped cream and we settled onto the new patio until the mosquitos chased us indoors. This dinner, served in a place I know so well by people I love so deeply, nearly overwhelmed me.

After almost 40 years of friendship, the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for at least two years didn’t change a thing. We started chattering the moment I walked in, talking as though we had just picked up the thread of the conversation we started sometime in 5th grade. Sometimes I think that, if you counted only the times when we were physically together, Jamie and I haven’t stopped talking since we were ten. Nevermind that we are now very different people who likely wouldn’t have much in common if we were to meet today. That’s not how friendship works.

67155062_2602703636441018_773560778656579584_o
The picture’s a little blurry, but we’re still laughing after all these years.

Even as I write, my toes are still painted from the pedicure we got the next morning. Just seeing them makes me smile. There’s something about these friendships, the unlikely pairings that last well beyond the convenience of time and place, something that nourishes us through their mysterious inexplicability.

Parker and Thomas have been talking online. Jamie and I just tag each other in social media posts. Oscar and Eric already have plans to play together again. It makes me grin. I’m glad they’re back from their posting – may the friendships continue.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

 

Driving Greens

For most of the past two days, I’ve been in a minivan with a tween and a “nearly nine” year old. We’ve been through 8 states, covered nearly 1,000 miles, stayed in one impressively crummy motel and listened to 1.5 books by Erin Hunter. The kids have been great, and Erin Hunter’s books are surprisingly good. It’s still a lot of miles for one mom to drive.

Thankfully, last week, Brian Rozinky over at Cast of Characters mentioned Rob Walker’s deceptively simple strategy to help us counteract some of technology’s pull: “Report 10 metaphor-free observations about the world this week.” (From The Art of Noticing)

I needed to do something to stay focused as I drove, so with the drama of animals on the African savannah swirling in my ears, and semi- regular commentary from the peanut gallery in the backseat, I decided to intentionally observe my surroundings. Once I got going on really observing, I found myself longing to take pictures. Of course a) I was driving and b) that kind of undoes Walker’s idea that we should “look closely without technology’s mediation.” So no pictures, just words.

There are a lot of trucks, and they are mostly white. Amazon trucks sporting their “Prime” logo were out in droves. We only passed one truck transporting horses. We all wondered how the horses felt about that.

Somewhere in Virginia there is a water tower that is painted like an apple basket, and near Lancaster, PA (I think) there was a factory with great big beautiful arched windows that gave onto the metal inner workings of the plant.

There are a lot of red and white barns in view of the highway. Grain silos are often white. I don’t know why barns are red, and I don’t know the names of lots of parts of farms once they have more than a house, a barn and a silo.

We passed by one lake that appeared to have worn down tree trunks poking up from the water near the banks. They flickered into my attention and then away. Moments later I wondered if these might be cypress knees. Then I realized I don’t know if cypress grow this far north.

Once I started this exercise in focusing, I found my lack of knowledge startling. For example, birds. Once, in five minutes, I saw four distinctly different types of birds. I have no idea what any of them were. (No robins or red-winged blackbirds, which comprise virtually all of my bird-identification skills.) One was a raptor of some sort; the others? No idea.

In South Carolina, my home state, I easily recognized the quick-growing kudzu that strangles the trees, but what was the vine further north? And what trees did the vines cover? I couldn’t even count of all the different species, much less name them. What amazing variety.

Observing was fun, but remembering was exhausting, and we were on the road for a long time. Eventually I just let the images wash over me. I looked and looked, wondering about the lives of the people in the houses we passed, noticing the billboards, taking in the skyscape. By the end of both days, one impression flooded my senses: green.

Green and green and green… pale white-green on the tips of the grasses at the side of the road; yellower green covering vast cornfields; bright greens and shade-darkened blue greens as the sun played through the leaves of trees on the side of the road; brown-greens of some grasses, gray-greens of others; greens so dark they were almost black; sudden, golden greens where sunlight hit a hillside covered in much deeper green; green fading to nearly blue in the hills further away; bluish-white green of a some of the fir trees; orange-tinted green in the tops of some of the trees; deep greens of still lakes; clear greens in a fast-moving river. All the greens of our world and no way for me to adequately describe them. So much beauty.

Not so much, mind you, that I wasn’t grateful to arrive at the grandparents’ place tonight. But enough that I don’t quite dread the final leg of our journey (7+ more hours on Thursday).

“Report 10 metaphor-free observations about the world this week.” I think I need to do this again.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

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.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

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.

    img_9280
    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.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

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.”

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

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.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

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.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm