I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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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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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.

Night light

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It’s bedtime, but he is just home from his friend’s house and full of energy. He’s not ready to stop bouncing. As I hurry him towards bed, he dances about. In the bathroom he hops on one foot and tosses a balled up sock towards the laundry basket. It misses. No matter. He switches feet and does it again. It misses again.

“You need to pick those up,” I scold.

He wiggles towards the corner to fetch the wayward sock balls, bumping things with his boogie-ing butt. One something falls, kerplop, into the toilet.

He stops.

“Uh-oh.”

An old night light. No longer necessary but it can’t stay there. He looks into the toilet to confirm what he already knows, then he looks at me. Quickly, he glances around the bathroom: he can take care of this himself. He grabs the toilet brush, gives it a disgusted look, and goes fishing in the toilet. Turns out a toilet brush doesn’t make a good fishing rod. The night light is wedged.

“Um, Mom?” His face has fallen. He is chagrined. But then, curiosity fires in him, “What are we going to do?”

My sleeve is already rolled up. Wordlessly, I plunge my hand into the toilet, fetch the offending night light, and deposit it in the trash. He sucks in his breath.

“Have you done that before?” He is impressed.

“Yes,” I say simply, as I soap my hands again and again.

“Thanks.”

Then, casually confident of his mother’s competence, he dances on out of the bathroom, pausing long enough to say, “Good thing I don’t need that night light anymore.”