Friday, February 29, 2008

Learning My Lesson

When I started out being a mom, I thought I'd teach my kids how to read by age 5. I mean, I know how to read. So how hard would it be?

Also, not to brag, but I was an early reader. My parents read me Dr. Seuss and voila, I knew how to read. But that's pretty common among writers. We peak at age 5.

During the year that all the kids were home, at ages 3, 5, and baby, I was going to prepare them for kindergarten in the busom of our home. They would go to school reading, shining examples of my motherly dream.

I even bought a book that was supposed to have your child reading within a year. Maybe I should have been skeptical when, in the introduction, it said something like, "No matter how ballistic your kid goes over having to work on this book, still make them do it. They'll get used to it."

Nobody in our house ever gets used to anything. Richie is five years old and I still have to remind him that his pajamas are in the top drawer, where they have been since his birth. Every night Johnny asks me, "What are we going to do tomorrow?" even though my answer is always the same: "We're going to eat breakfast, go to school, come home, watch T.V. or play on the computer, do homework, eat dinner, read a book and go to bed."

It's like they're waiting for the day I say, "You guys are going to clean some chimneys and then I'm going to sell you to the circus."

Sadly, they would probably like that plan. It would be something different!

Anyway, I worked on the reading book with Johnny for a while and finally gave up. I have enough mama drama without fits over reading time.

They sort of learned the alphabet--or at least one letter in it. For Johnny, it was J, Richie knows B, and J.J., E. If we had 23 more kids, they'd have it down pat.

So Johnny and Richie went to school, the victims of my horrible teaching skills. And that was when the miracle occured.

While Richie hasn't grasped the concept of criss-cross applesauce during circle time, his teacher said he scored very well on his kindergarten preparedness test.

"He did?" I asked, not hiding my shock very well.

It's not that I don't have faith in him. It's just that, knowing the environment he grew up in, I thought it would take him years to catch up.

Then Johnny came home from first grade and said, "I know how to read now," and he read Sam the Minuteman. Just like that. That book is practically a novel. I would use a bookmark if I read that book.

So--ehem--I guess I was a pretty good teacher after all.

Kidding! I think we all know who the heroes in this story are. School teachers.

Don't get me wrong. Some mothers do a wonderful job preparing their kids for school. Others mold their children into geniuses while homeschooling. But for moms like me, who consider getting through lunchtime to be a major success, teachers have our backs in a major way.

For this reason, I'm sending J.J. to school next year at age 3. It's simple division of labor. The teacher will teach him the ABCs and I'll stick to what I know how to do: writing.

My dad, who coached grade school football for many years, said he could never figure out how teachers maintained discipline without making kids take a lap. I grew up in a house that really respected teachers. I remember one time, I came home and said that my teacher was wrong about a spelling word on my test.

"I'm right. The teacher is wrong!" I told my dad.

I even looked it up in the dictionary and showed him that the spelling on my test was the same as Webster's spelling.

"See, I'm right," I said.

"No, the teacher's right," he said. "The dictionary's wrong."

Today, I think parents sometimes give teachers a hard time. But I'll always admire them. And I now realize that the most important thing I can teach my kids, when I send them off to school is: "Be good. And listen to your teacher."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Family, side by side

The boys' nana, aunt Erin and baby cousin Brendan came in town last weekend. We went to Kaleidoscope and Union Station. Ate barbeque. Hung out. Watched the weathermen have a cow over the inch of snow heading our way. You know, all the things we like to do in Kansas City.

We ate breakfast. Well, people do that everywhere. But did you know that biscuits and gravy are a regional food? My mother-in-law and sister-in-law ate them for the first time this visit. I almost cried for them. They'd been deprived for so long. Then I remembered that they could eat lobsters, steamers and fried clam bellies year round, so I dried my eyes.

J.J. and his cousin Brendan became best of friends. Here's how you know that boy toddlers are best friends. They yell really loud. Then they hug each other really tight. And then they fall down. This is the equivalent of girls giving each other friendship bracelets.

Brendan--who is one--also had a good influence on J.J. and our other children that don't know the alphabet. He could name every letter. Now J.J. is trying to do this. To him, every letter is E. When we read an alphabet book, he's like, "E. E again. E. E. This letter is E is well. E. E. E. E. E." But its a start.

But you know how it is with toddlers. Most the time they do their own thing, only side by side. They're like little office workers in imaginary cubicles.

Pretty soon, it was the last night of the trip.

We said prayers in the boys room. I prayed for safe travels for everybody.

Johnny said, "And I pray that their flight gets cancelled."

It was a possibility. The airport was shut down a few days earlier because of snow.

I explained to him that Nana and Erin and Brendan wanted to go home to see Papa and Uncle Jon.

He said, "Couldn't Papa and Uncle Jon just move here?"

He asked, "If school is cancelled, will their flight be cancelled?"

His best case scenario was school would call and say there was a snow day. Then the airport would call and say they were having a snow day, as well. Then the president would call and say that all Bostonians must move to Missouri by order of law.

Earlier in the trip, Johnny was getting nervous because time was ticking away.

He said, "I wish seconds were minutes."

"Why?" I asked.

"So that I could spend more time with Nana."

"Make sure you're spending time with her and not on the computer the whole time," I said.

Their Nana gave them Webkinz and Johnny and Richie were hooked.

These are stuffed animals that have their own online world. You play games to earn kinzcash. Then you use that to buy them food and things for the pet's room.

Richie bought his a bowling ball. Then he set his sights on a Frigidaire.

"I'm going to buy my Webkinz a refrigerator," he said.

"I'm going to fill my refrigerator with donuts."

"I'm going to sell my swimming pool and buy a refrigerator."

A new refrigerator was all he talked about. He sounded eerily like me.

He did buy a refrigerator and filled it with donuts. Then he bought miniature cowboy boots and a cowboy hat for his little frog Webkinz. Yeehaw!

Johnny, meanwhile, bought a sofa, glass top coffee table and clock for his Webkinz. It was like a My First Bachelor Pad furniture set.

One game you can play to earn money is Triple Strike Solitaire. This happens to be one of my top three favorite solitaire games.

Johnny wanted me to play this to earn him money. He bought a T.V. and had been watching a cooking show. Next he wanted to buy a stove to try the recipes.

Maybe I shouldn't do this for him. In the real world, when you need a new appliance, you--and only you--earn money by playing online solitaire for eight hours. I'm kidding. That's only if you have an office job. Otherwise, you put it on the credit card.

I just can't help myself. I can say no to black jack and slot machines. But if they had a solitaire table in Las Vegas, they would have to cut me off.

He bought the stove.

And he got his wish for a snow day. Only it happened two days late--on Thursday instead of Tuesday. The flight wasn't cancelled.

Johnny was left with the promise that as he got older, he could stay in Boston for a long time with his grandparents.

I kept thinking during their visit, if Johnny wants to spend time with his Nana, then why is he on the computer? But I think big kids are like toddlers when it comes to family. They don't care what everybody is doing, as long as they're doing it side by side.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day--His and Hers

If you were a little girl, your mom likely bought you a new outfit on Valentine's Day--either cute--a dog and cat pictured inside a heart--or fab--a tutu dress with leggings and shiny shoes. You passed out princess cards and cut out pink hearts to give to your mother.

On the other hand, if you were a little boy yesterday, you probably woke up wearing whatever red happened to be on your Chiefs sweatshirt--if any at all. You passed out Valentines that featured Transformers saying messages ranging from semi-threatening to whole-heartedly boastful:

"I have been looking for you, Valentine."


"I am the greatest Valentine in the universe."

At Richie's school, I am a room mother. Having three boys, I have become even dumber at Valentine's Day crafts than I already was. The other room mom showed me how to do the craft, but somehow I totally misunderstood and folded a bunch of paper that was supposed to be scalloped-edged hearts. The girls' table made do, gluing cute conversation hearts and cotton balls to the cards. The boys table, on the other hand, randomly cut their paper into small, crooked squares and ate the hearts.

Richie had already made Justin and I two heart-shaped Valentine at school. He colored them both as black as coal.

Johnny made me a card Tuesday night.

"What do you want it to say?" he asked.

"Say whatever is in your heart," I said.

"I can't think of anything," he said.

Then, he said, "Would it be nice to say, 'You are special to me'?"

"That would be very nice," I said.

It was touching, actually.

Then he made a card for Justin that said the exact same thing. And about 10 more cards that said it, too.

I guess it's his go-to message.

At school, the teachers have handing out Valentine cards down to a science. The kids sign their names but don't write their classmates names. In the "To:" section, they can write, "My friend" or leave it blank. The bags are lined up, and the kids drop their cards inside in an orderly fashion.

Johnny handed out 3D bug cards and Richie gave Spiderman cards.

Coming home from school, Richie handed me a small card with the Disney princesses--Belle, Cindarella and Ariel--on it. Inside, there were little pieces of candy.

"Here, mom," he said proudly. "I got you a present."

"I love it," I said.

He knew I would.

Whenever the boys see ads for Bratz dolls or My Pretty Pony, they say, "Mom, you would like that."

They probably think I'm deprived since I don't have a single doll.

Well, Richie saw his chance to rectify this situation.

I hugged him for being so thoughtful.

Then I turned over the card. It said, "To: My Friend. From: Zoe."

Some of the decorum might be lost on boys on Valentine's Day, but at least the sentiment isn't.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Stories by Richie...Starring the Mighty Beanbag

When you are five, you are suddenly stricken with the ability to tell stories. Unfortunately, you don't have a lot to tell. Half the time, you don't even know what's going on.

Say, it's 8:30 a.m. at school. You're sitting around in a circle talking about what day it is. To you, it's anybody's guess. Christmas? July? Women's History Month? Come to find out, it's Wednesday.

Your teacher tells you to "listen quietly."

What? How can that be? There are 15 kids in the room. It looks like a birthday party. Eureka!

"I know what day it is," you say, waving you're arm in the air. "Birthday."

But the teacher reminds you that somebody already answered Wednesday. Oh, that's right. Like the girl in Peter Pan.

Because all this would be hard to describe, and you really want to use your new ability, you come home and tell a whopper.

Here's a typical recap of the school day by our 5-year-old storyteller, Richie.

"There was a food fight today," he says. "But we didn't throw food. We threw bean bags."

For the next five minutes, he re-enacts the "food" fight. Those bean bags are like medicine balls! Everytime somebody gets hit with one, Richie falls off the couch...unconscious. Until he has to show what happens to the next guy.

The sound effects are pretty good: Psht. Bam. Ahhh. Now, it's your turn. Get him. Psht. Bam. Whoa.

Richie is not the hero in this battle. He gets knocked out early on. In fact, by the end, nobody is left standing. Who threw the last beanbag? Who cares?

Needing more people to get hit by freakishly heavy beanbags, Richie brings in a new cast of characters: the preschoolers. This action scene goes on indefinitely.

Finally, I ask, "Where were the teachers during all this?"

"Oh," he says. "They had the day off."

Other times, he puts them in the principal's office for carrying out shenanigans. Those teachers. Always causing trouble for the poor students.

I've got to hand it to him: making up an absurd plot twist for the sake of an even more absurd beanbag fight. That's got daytime drama written all over it.

And like a soap opera, these stories let you leave the room, throw in a load of laundry, put away the dishes, make dinner, come back, and pretty much be at the same place in the story.

It's a beanbag opera. Because trust me, in all Richie's stories, beanbags play the starring role. I don't know if he's ever even seen a beanbag. If he has, it certainly made an impression.

You know, I remember doing this same thing. Somebody took me to see the play Oliver! This was my favorite musical. When I got in trouble as a kid, I would sit on my windowsill and sing, "Whe-e-e-e-ere is love? Does it come from stars above? Is it underneath the willow tree that I've been dreaming of..."

Because, to me, getting sent to my room essentially made me as downtrodden as an impoverished orphan.

But I never was really clear on the plot. If they weren't singing, I wasn't listening. So I had a hard time summarizing it for my mom when I got home. Instead, I had Sykes doing ballet and Oliver throwing pies at the Artful Dodger, who dodged them--duh.

But here's the difference between left and right brained people.

When Johnny was five, he liked to make books with typing paper stapled together. Most of them involved facts about dinosaurs.

But one time he made up this elaborate story about children lost in the jungle with a mad scientist and mutant animals.

I was like, "Wow, that is really creative."

So I wrote it down and he drew pictures. He called it "Jungle Run." Under the title, he asked me to write, "Rated PG-13."

A couple weeks later, we were watching T.V. when one of the Spy Kids movies came on. As I watched it, I thought, "This is so familiar. Have I seen this before?"

Then it hit me: Jungle Run was a summary of Spy Kids.

So the difference is left brain people summarize what they see. Right brain people aren't watching. So they make stuff up.

Some people are both left and right brained, in which case you see the ballerina pirouette clockwise and counter-clockwise. Sorry, I'm thinking of an e-mail going around.

Anyway, hope that clears things up for you. Now: beanbag fight! Psht. Bam. Whack.