Thursday, August 28, 2008

First Week of School

This doesn't get any easier, does it?

I dropped J.J. at school on Monday. He was the only kid crying. In fact the only other person sobbing uncontrollably in the building--shoulders heaving and everything--was me.

"Is he the baby of the family?" One teacher asked.

"Is this his first time at school?" asked another.

"Did it go okay?" my friend asked in the parking lot.

Yes, yes and no.

On the way to work, they kept playing tearjerker songs like "Another One Bites the Dust." But I didn't change the station because, in solidarity with J.J., I was going to cry for a solid half hour.

I wish I could say that I got there in the afternoon and everything was okay.

Well, J.J. was okay, but his teacher told me--in front of a captive storytime audience--that she told J.J. she wasn't going to listen to him cry like that. Then she said that he'd probably cry every morning for the rest of the week.

You know how people say, "Tell me the truth and don't sugarcoat it?"

I'm the opposite. I'm like, "Rewind and this time, mince your words. More euphamisms, please. This isn't a spelling bee, so there's no need to spell it out. Trust me, I can read between the lines."

This is the midwest, we're supposed to be experts at this. So why was this teacher giving me a play by play? And why wasn't she going to listen to him cry? What was she going to do, run for the hills everytime a kid in the class gets a boo boo, either on their knee or in their heart?

In the hall, he stood with his backpack as big as he was.

"Did you have fun at school?" I asked.

"I had fun at school," he said, laughing.

Was he laughing because of the fun, or was he joking about having fun?

Day 2

When J.J. started crying, a little girl said, "Here he goes again."

In tears, I headed for the principal's office. I told her about how the teacher had tattled on J.J. in front of the whole class, and for what? Crying when his mom left him at school for the first time.

She said they were working with the teacher on understanding separation anxiety. I asked if J.J. could switch to the class where they already knew about separation anxiety. The one where I walk by and see ladies cradling crying children on rocking chairs. She said to give it a week.

Day 3

I read a book in the morning to J.J. and the little girl sitting across from him, who was probably four.

Afterwards, she asked me, "Do you go to work?"

"Yes," I said.

"Why do you cry when you go to work?"

Hmm, I guess my waterworks on Monday left quite an impression.

"Well, I like going to work," I said. "But I feel sad leaving my son because he's sad. If he cries today, will you help him? Like look at a book with him or something?"

She thought about that. "If I have time, I will," she said. "If I have time."

Jeez. What was on this little girl's agenda? A debriefing with the Tooth Fairy? A power lunch with her teddybears?

When I left, J.J. cried, but not as much, and the same went for me, too. But as I left, I thought about why it was so hard to leave my son, even knowing that I'd be back soon. He might have one teacher who doesn't understand separation anxiety (a concept my eight year old is familiar with), but his other teacher seems very nice, and I love the it's not really the school I'm worried about.

Well, part of it is that J.J. wasn't expecting to go to this school. He assumed he'd be attending preschool across the street from our house, which is a pretty reasonable assumption. It's just that it's too expensive there.

You know what it is? When you leave a child who's crying, it magnifies how long you'll be gone. You feel like you're parting for 1,000 years.

I've tried to think about people who have it worse. Like soldiers leaving their families not for hours, but for years. And the Chinese gymnasts, who were taken from their homes at age three simply because they showed promise on the pummel horse.

This strategy never works. Even knowing that other people have bigger problems than you, your's appear bigger because you're closer to them. It's a simple matter of perception.

Still Day 3

When I picked J.J. up at the end of the day, the little girl who was pressed for time was leading the class in the alphabet. J.J. was quietly smiling up at her, as if thinking, "She is putting on quite a show."

Well, I guess that little girl had things to do, after all.

When J.J. saw me through the window, he started laughing. So did the boy next to him, even though he didn't know what they were laughing about. I walked in and sat down behind J.J. He sat on my lap, and now the girl (and the teacher) were helping the class count to ten. J.J. was loving it.

Afterwards, I signed him out, and his teacher (the separation one) said, "You know, after you leave, he's happy. He does a good job. I know it's hard for him--and you. I went through the same thing with my kids when they went to daycare."

"Thank you," I said.

I guess she knew about separation anxiety after all, but had forgotten.

As J.J. left, the same girl who said, "Here we go again," waved to him, along with some other kids. "Bye, J.J.," they said.

He turned and waved to them, laughing, "Bye bye."

Maybe this does get a little easier.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pack Your Bags, August

August...why do we even have it anymore?

It used to be the month where kids got sick of summer and begrudgingly admitted that, yes, they were ready to go back to school. Now it has become long string of back-to-school nights, pre-school orientations and clothing sales.

School starts midmonth; the pool doesn't open until 4 p.m.; aloe is hidden behind weekly planners and protractors.

My kids have "star of the week" at school, where they bring in their favorite things, such as television. Well, summer used to be the star of the year. In June, families looked forward to vacation and kids didn't let a day go by without getting drenched at least by the backyard hose. July brought an easy rhythm of pool time and cook-outs. In August, even as people got sick of summer, they were forced to embrace it lazily because it was too damned hot to do anything else.

Now, with air-conditioning, we've pretty much shown August the door. "You have been replaced by September," we've said. "Here is a box for your hammock and sun tea what-not. Security will escort you out."

August is thinking, "September is such an upstart, with it's sharpened pencils and coordinated skirt and sweaters and box of 48 crayons. La dee fricken da. I hope your crayons break!"

That gives August an idea. It vows to melt the crayons the next time they're left in the car, but quickly decides it's too lazy to follow through. Instead, it naps in the sun and gets a huge sunburn.

This is also the month where moms are still dispensing drops for swimmers ear and slathering on sunscreen at the zoo--trying at the last minute to fit in all those 100 degree magic moments, while attending school committee meetings at night for things that aren't going to happen until next year. All while continuing to work.

Add to that potty training and constant denial that your youngest child is starting school (more on that next week), and voila you've got a little-known condition called seasonal retardation.

August is no time to write that novel you've always thought about, for instance. Or to take an I.Q. test. Or even to keep track of time.

The other day I looked at the calendar and it was August 6. The next time I checked, it was August 16. I lost 10 days. In the meantime, I had taken my to do list from the sixth and made an arrow to the next day. Over and over and over. Do you know what happens when I shirk my responsibilities for 10 days in a row? Apparently nothing.

But all that has to change. School beckons. It's good for me because now I can get some work done. But I feel a little nostalgia, as far as the kids go, for longer summers. They've been shortened for a reason; kids have to be smarter nowadays because the world is a lot more complicated, what with Tivo and Facebook and everything.

I do feel sorry for August, though, a month that I think has a beautiful name and important purpose, or at least used to.

Typically August went out with a bang. It didn't gradually morph into the next season, like November becomes winter and May becomes summer. It's like February. It's the end of the season and it's also the most dramatic weather of the season.

Hot to the last, it asks you, Do you really want summer to last forever? Begrudgingly, you say no.

Until now. This month we've had cooler weather. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. But as a writer, I see some symbolism here. August has been bought out by Fall and now has the temperatures to prove it. My kids don't want to go back to school. Even parents universally answer the how was your summer question with: "Busy. And too short."

So goodbye, August. You were a lazy month and not much good for anything. And for that reason, we will really miss you.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Amateur Hour at the Park

I'm not a perfect mother. I let my kids watch PG-13 movies. I yell. Other times, I let them be too wild. They've been known to cuss, too.

On occasion, I watch them walk past my door while I'm folding laundry. "Where's mom?" they ask, and I don't say anything. I assume that if they really wanted to know, they would turn their heads rather than just hoping to trip over me.

I door is wide open and we only have six rooms in our house, so it's not like I'm hiding in the west atrium or anything. Still, sometimes I feel like a slacker mom.

The good news is, when I start feeling down on myself, watching strangers interact with their children does just the trick.

The other day at the park, for instance, it was amateur hour.

A 12 or so year old boy told his mom, "Fine, if you won't let me do that, then I'll call you a lardbutt for the rest of the day."

Wow, I thought. It's all over for that kid. He should have started running before he said know, to get a head start.

But here's how his mom responded: "Well, how would you like it if I called you a lardbutt? It would probably hurt your feelings."

That was it. Then the kid laid down next to his mom and stared at the sky.

Next, a different mom came rollerblading over to a table, where her husband was napping and her children were sitting on the bench. "Who wants to walk next to me while I rollerblade around the park?" she asked.

Her two boys were like, "Um, no thank you."

"Fine!" she exploded. "Then just sit there and get fat!"

They looked at her politely, but blankly.

She stormed off, but then whirled around. "Is that what you want? To sit there and get fat?"

I'd be thinking, "Yeah, pretty much...considering the alternative."

Finally, one of them walked with her, probably because they seemed to be very nice boys. Their dad, by the way, never woke up through any of this.

Next thing I knew, a boy in a different family (not the lardbutt family,) yelled at his mom in a really mean voice, "Fine, then I'm leaving!"

That boy's tone of voice wouldn't exactly inspire an apology from me, but his mom said meekly, "I'm sorry."

For a minute I nice parents have mean kids and vice versa?

It can't be. I know lots of nice parents who have nice kids and surely there are plenty of mean parents who have mean kids.

I just don't understand how you could hear your son call you a lardbutt and not get mad. Or why you'd tell your kids they're going to get fat. As if they care.

If I told my kids, "Would you rather have a million pounds of candy and be so fat that you're asked to join the circus...or have no candy and be fit and healthy?" they would definitely choose the candy. No contest.

Speaking of my kids, you're probably wondering what they were doing through all this. I have no idea. I could see them (very clearly from up on my high horse.) J.J. struggled to climb up something. I thought about going over there, but eventually he figured it out on his own. I couldn't hear them. For all I know, they were calling each other lardbutts.

I guess it's easy to be a perfect mom when my kids are out of earshot. But, frankly I needed a break from them. Maybe these moms did, too. (Sleepyland Daddy sure did--and he took it.)

In truth, we all need our quiet time. We all get frustrated with our children. Sometimes we're too strict, other times too lenient. The important thing is to go to a park every once in a while and watch other families. Trust me, you'll immediately feel better about your own.

On the other hand, I know our family has served this exact purpose for other families at the park. I like to think of it as a self-righteousness co-op. So if you don't start feeling better about your family, rest assured that somebody else is feeling better at your expense. Hopefully, it will be your turn next week.

Friday, August 01, 2008

It Boggles the Mind

My son John, my husband Justin and I sat down for a friendly game of Boggle last night. If you haven't played this in a while, it's the one where you shake up the letters and make words with letters that are next to each other.

I must admit, I was overconfident going into the game. I'm a writer; my husband is more mathematically inclined and my eight year old just learned how to read, so yeah, I had it in the bag.

But my husband, whose number one goal in life is to beat me at every game on the planet, had a surprise strategy.

He plays the caveman version of Boggle. Arrange letters to make a sound, and declare it a word.

This actually works. Who knew that ooh and haha were endorsed by Webster himself?

Haha: n. A fence, wall, etc. set in a ditch around a garden or park so as not to hide the view from within.

Yes, come to think about it, we were just talking about that at our neighborhood book club.

Diane, I just love your new haha.

Well, we didn't want to mask the view from within the garden.

Of course not. The view is wunderbar. (Also in the dictionary as an alternative to wonderful.)

Thank you. We're having a wunderbar time now that we have our haha. More tea?

We play where if you challenge a word and it's in the dictionary, the challenger has to subtract a point. Still, there were times where I'd challenge every word starting with Noa (the abbreviation of Noah, according to Justin, which wouldn't work anyway because there are no proper nouns!!!!) and ending with nont. Which is "nont" a word.

Challenging ha ha and ooh cost me the game. Then I let Justin convince me that otir, though not an animal, is, in fact, a word. I later found out this was a bluff.

Johnny also was a surprisingly good player. He found beet. "You know," he said. "Like I beet you in basketball." And "Peat," which he said was short for Peter. (Do we need to review the definition of "proper noun"?)

Justin won the game. (Or can you also spell it wun? I don't know, why doesn't he write it on his Boggle sheet and find out?!)

I demanded a rematch.

In the second game, sadly for Justin, hoo and hals, which he defined as an abbreviation of halls (because who has time to write an extra L anymore?), were not in the dictionary, so I won.

By this time, Johnny had dropped out of the game, and was getting a kick out of watching us challenge words.

Afterwards, he said, "I never knew haha was a word." Summarizing the definition, he said, "Haha. It's what the farmer said when he saw a hole in his garden. Ha. Ha."

Well, I'm glad he learned something about our language.

I learned something, too. It's a big dictionary. As it turns out, you don't have to know what's in it, you just have to know how to win. My husband does a wunderbar job of finding a way to win any game.

Little does he know that I intend to read the entire dictionary before our tie breaker game number three. He'll never see it coming, not even if we build a haha in our garden.