Hop Year

Four years ago when June was in kindergarten and had just learned to read, I wrote a leap-year themed blog post about how kindergarten is a year of leaps and bounds. I was thinking about writing a similar post about Noah’s first year of high school, but the more I thought about it the less true it seemed. Sure, high school is different from middle school but not different like elementary school is different from preschool. It’s been more if a hop than a leap, really.

Partly this is because he’s been in magnet programs since fourth grade, so he’s used to academic rigor. If anything, the Communications Arts Program (CAP) at his high school is a little easier than the Humanities middle school magnet. In fact, when some of the CAP kids who came from regular middle schools complained about the workload at the beginning of the school year, Noah says the kids who had attended the Humanities magnet at his middle school all burst out laughing.

So he occasionally has a free evening and some weekends he’s not working all day every day. And that’s nice, but he’s still working more than we’d like. The difference seems more attributable to his program being a little easier and not the ADHD medication he’s been taking since November. Some days he works efficiently, but he’s always had those days. And he still has days when his gears run agonizingly slowly.

For example, two weekends ago, by Sunday morning he’d finished all his homework for the weekend except reading some excerpts from the Constitution and then writing a letter to the editor from the point of view of a WWII-era American citizen, arguing for or against Japanese internment camps, using a Constitutional argument. The letter was supposed to be less than a page long. He worked on it from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Most of that time was spent reading and re-reading the relevant sections of the Constitution and trying to decide what arguments to make. Once he’d done that, he wrote the letter pretty quickly.

We’ve been thinking maybe we need to find help from someone with specific expertise in slow processing because even though he has an ADHD diagnosis, his problems may stem more from his processing issues than the ADHD per se. Beth learned (after it had taken place) that the school district recently hosted a lecture about helping kids with slow processing, so she’s going to contact the speaker to see if he can point us in the right direction.

One way his slow processing manifests itself is that he’s a pretty slow reader…and he’s in a humanities-based program with a lot of reading. So I read to him. We read for pleasure at least once a week—we just started a dystopian trilogy called Chaos Walking on Friday afternoon and I often read the books he needs to read for school to him as well.

On Saturday morning we finished Unbroken, which the CAP 9th graders are reading as part of a unit on WWII. It’s interesting but grim if biography and popular history about Japanese prisoner of war camps sounds like your thing. (It also made me wonder if my recent fretting about violence in the media he consumes—I was particularly concerned about the true crime documentary Making a Murderer—is misplaced, just closing the barn door after the horse is long gone.)

There’s a lot about ninth grade that’s going well. He enjoys being part of the small community of CAP students within his vast high school and he knows a lot of them from the middle school Humanities program. He seems engaged in his work and less stressed out than he did in seventh and eighth grade. His teachers have had nice things to say about him when we’ve met. His drama teacher recently told us he is one of her funniest performers and that she enjoys his stage presence and dry wit.

His school operates on a block schedule, which means each class meets every other school day. This translates to longer class periods and fewer transitions, which is good for his learning style. And best of all, he can never get homework that’s due the next day, which makes it easier for him to plan ahead and manage his time.

He’s been making a lot of movies, which he enjoys, even though he can be self-critical of the results. This year so far he’s made several short movies, including a couple autobiographical ones. One was a collection of clips from movies he’s made for fun outside of school with narration about his hopes to work as a video editor some day. Another one was about band and drumming and the role music’s had in his life.

This comes under the heading of perqs for Beth and me, but because he’s often assigned to go to plays or watch movies, we often do this with him. I’ve been to three plays with him this year, most recently a pantomime production of As You Like It. And we’ve watched Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original 1956 version) together. I enjoyed them all but especially the last one, which was right up my alley. I have a soft spot for mid-twentieth century horror, whether campy or more serious.

But as I mentioned, none of this is that different than middle school, as Noah’s been on a humanities track since sixth grade, but it often feels different because he’s getting older and we know in a few short years he’ll be on his own. Twice in the same night Beth and I were thinking about this. Saturday he and I made a stir-fry together. Cooking with me is his usual Saturday night chore, but I always do the dishes afterward. As I was doing them I was thinking—he really needs to know how to do the dishes before he leaves home. I was doing my family’s dishes twice a week at his age. Later I went on to fold two loads of laundry and said something about how never-ending laundry is and Beth commented that Noah should probably learn to do his own laundry before he goes to college.

As a step toward independence, we’ve made him his own study area in the basement this year, at his request. He got an external monitor for Christmas and he hooks it up to the family laptop, which sits on a card table down there. The basement is unfinished and often chilly, so there’s a space heater down there, too. Because his drums are also there, and he not only works but also watches movies at the little card table, he’s in the basement a lot. The kids share a room, so it’s been a way for him to carve out a space in the house for himself, which at his age, he probably needs.

And as if to emphasize the fact that college is coming, he recently took the PSAT at school. He was initially disappointed in his score but he was thinking it was a percentage of right answers, which he translated into a letter grade in his head. His scores were fine. The math one, in fact, was higher than my math SAT score. And I certainly wasn’t taking physics in ninth grade, being more lopsided academically than he is.

So, there’s my year-to-date report for Noah. Four years from now, maybe I will have a more dramatic account of his next leap year. Or maybe by then he will be writing his own blog and he can tell you himself.

A Fine Thanksgiving

Wednesday

“Keep packing! And don’t take out your phone!” It wasn’t Beth or me urging Noah to stay on task. It was June. We’d been planning to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving that night but not before everyone was packed for our drive to Wheeling the next day. Everyone but Noah was packed.

“But I need to check the weather to pack,” he protested.

“Sure you do,” said June dismissively.

Despite her best efforts to crack the whip, by the time Noah was packed, it was her bedtime so we decided to download the movie to the laptop and take it with us.

Thanksgiving Day

We arrived in Wheeling a little past two, after an uneventful five-hour drive. The day was warm and clear, good driving weather, though Beth might have preferred some white and drifted snow. The closest we got was some big icicles in a road cut at one of the higher elevations.

We went straight to Beth’s mom’s house. Noah wanted to take video of himself walking up to her door and then text it to her and June just wanted to run up to the door in the more traditional way. We said he could do it, but just this once because it seemed like a cumbersome tradition to start.

Inside we socialized with YaYa and Ron. Beth and June gave her a basket they bought for her birthday and Noah gave her a DVD with the last two movies the kids made, including the one in which she played a ghost last summer in Rehoboth. Then Noah showed everyone a video clip of the student-anchored newscast at his school from the morning when they announced the winners of the school-wide Halloween costume contest. Kids submitted photos and they picked three winners—third prize was a witch, second was a pirate lass, and first prize was….a Fiji Water bottle.

“We both won a contest,” June said, in case anyone had forgotten her triumph. “I won the parade contest and Noah won his school contest.”

Next we checked into our hotel to change for dinner. The room had a nice view. You could see the church where Beth’s parents were married and the school she attended from fourth to sixth grade. It made me think how much more rooted a childhood Beth had, compared to mine. I’m honestly not even sure what state my parents were married in, and I went to four different elementary schools to Beth’s two.

June was eager to get into her Thanksgiving outfit, dress with a tight black sequined bodice and a full, gauzy red and black skirt, a white cardigan, white tights, and black shoes with a moderate heel. The rest of us weren’t so fancy, but we cleaned up okay. In the lobby on our way out, Beth had the idea to take some pictures in front of the Christmas tree for our Christmas card, as everyone was already dressed up.

There were sixteen people at Beth’s Aunt Sue’s house—all from Carole’s, Sue’s and YaYa’s branches of the family. (The fourth sister, Jenny, had Thanksgiving at home with her daughter, who’s due with her first child very soon.)

“I am the matriarch,” Carole, the eldest sister, announced. She’s about to become a great grandmother and is pleased as punch about it. Her daughter Meg and twenty-something grandson Kawika were also those who had travelled furthest, all the way from Ireland and Austin, TX, to be in Wheeling for Thanksgiving.

There were two other kids there—Sue’s granddaughters Lily (who’s June’s age) and Tessa, who at six was the youngest person present. The three girls picked up right where they left off when they last saw each other two years ago.

Sue put a lot of care into the cooking and decorations. She’d collected and preserved red maple and Japanese maple leaves in wet paper towels in her fridge to keep them fresh and arranged them on the tables. There were bowls of appetizers out and she had set up a cookie decorating station for the four kids, with sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies, and little pots of frosting, sprinkles, and M&Ms. She asked ahead of time to make sure Noah wasn’t too old for this activity. He most certainly was not, though he used a different technique than the girls, who carefully used the provided paintbrushes to apply a light glaze of frosting. He spackled his on with the spoon.

Though he decorated cookies with the kids, he ate at the adult table, or one of them—there were two. When everyone had their fill of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and two kinds of gravy (the mushroom gravy was our contribution), sweet potatoes, green beans with almonds, rice pilaf, succotash, nut patties, cucumber salad, cranberry sauce and rolls—out came the pies—pumpkin, apple, and pecan. I failed to take any of the advice I’ve been dishing out recently in ghostwritten blog posts about eating moderately at Thanksgiving. I had seconds on mashed potatoes. I sampled all three kinds of pies, and I don’t believe they were low-sugar versions. Everything was delicious.

After the adults had conversed and told stories and laughed a while and the three girls watched part of Swiss Family Robinson, Lily, who’s just started playing violin, gave a little concert in a side room. I knew she was going to play and intended to go watch, but I thought she was just warming up in there and would come out to the living room to play for a bigger audience, so I missed it. Then I heard June playing. I knew it was June because it was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which she goes around singing every day and has recently figured out how to play by ear. I got there just as she was finishing.

Soon after it was time to go back to the hotel room. It’s nice not having the youngest kid at a family gathering because it’s easier to leave when you can use someone else’s departure to segue into your own. And by the time Lily and Tessa’s family left, June was leaning against me and saying she wanted to go to bed.

In retrospect we should have recognized that as a sign of an incipient migraine and not lingered for another five minutes as we did. June was quiet on the ride back to the hotel but when Beth pulled up into the lot, she started crying and saying she had an upset stomach. She seemed in quite a bad way all of a sudden and I asked if she’d like to go straight to the restrooms off the lobby, but she wanted to go up to our fifth floor room. She almost made it, too, but she was sick in the hallway about halfway between the elevator and our door.

Then we were busy calling the front desk and washing her face and Beth’s jacket June had had draped around herself in the car and her sweater and tights and my shoes (her dress was miraculously spared), and changing her into pajamas and making up the foldout couch for her and looking for children’s painkiller, because the headache had come now. Once she was in bed, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept all night. I made sure the menagerie of stuffed animals she’d brought with her was at a slight distance from her, but it turned out to be an unnecessary precaution.

(Not So Black) Friday

She woke the next morning recovered, early (about 5:30), and hungry, as she effectively hadn’t eaten dinner. I heard her walking around the room, but she eventually went back to bed and stayed there until 6:20, at which point I gave her a Clementine and Beth offered to take her down to breakfast. Noah and I followed once he was dressed.

As the weekend was going to be something of a busman’s holiday for both Beth and Noah, the plan for the morning was for them to work in the room while I took June to the pool. Beth was still working on the project from the previous weekend. There had been some registration glitches on a rather large scale in a union election and she was directing efforts to sort it all out and make sure everyone who was eligible could vote. Noah was working on a paper and PowerPoint about El Greco.

I started off reading Daniel Deronda in a lounge chair by the pool and then swam sixty or sixty-five laps in the tiny pool. It was so small it was hard to keep track. I was mostly pushing off the side and turning around, but it felt good to be moving through the water. Afterward, I sat in the hot tub and went back to the chairs to read some more. YaYa came to watch June swim and the three of us were there for a good chunk of the morning, almost two and half hours.

We had lunch at Panera and then YaYa took the kids to see the Peanuts movie. Noah wanted to go but was undecided because he’d spent the morning researching El Greco, but he only had a half a slide to show for it. We convinced him to take a break and go.

Beth and I repaired to the hotel room. She had to work and I read some more Daniel Deronda and we shared some orange-cranberry dark chocolate I had been saving for after Thanksgiving. It was quite a pleasant day for an introvert the day after a big family gathering, plus I was starting to believe I’d actually finish Daniel Deronda by the last book club meeting on it the following Wednesday. (I did, too, with a day to spare.)

Dinner was pizza at YaYa’s. Afterward June played her entire repertoire of orchestra songs, which took about ten minutes. Then YaYa thought June might like to hear some David Garrett and June thought YaYa might like to see a video by her own favorite pop violinist Linsdey Stirling. I find this video somewhat less disturbing than I did the first time I saw it, now that I know how it ends. We left June at YaYa’s for a sleepover and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday

Saturday morning Beth and Noah continued to work while June and YaYa entertained each other at her house. They made bird’s nest cookies, then went over to Sue’s house where Lily and June played a duet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was duly videotaped and sent to us.

We met YaYa for lunch at a crepes place and visited the talking Christmas tree of Beth’s youth, though she wasn’t conversing with passersby until the first week of December. Still, Beth said, it “warmed [her] heart” to see her.

Beth and June went skating after lunch and then over to Carole’s while Noah and I stayed at the hotel. He’d switched to a Citizen Kane paper since it was due sooner. This was slow going, too, and he didn’t want any help, so I was starting to wish I’d gone to Carole’s as I was now feeling a little cooped up and ready to socialize, but I wanted to stay near Noah, just in case. I knew it was going to be challenging day for him as he had a lot of work and not much mental speed. He’s not on his new medication yet as we’re having some insurance trouble with it. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I hope so.

At breakfast I’d asked Beth for advice about how not to be dragged down by Noah’s situation myself and she suggested, “Pretend to be a different person.” Later she told me this was how she got through the last couple weeks at work, so I think it was sincere advice. That’s a hard thing to do, though and I had mixed success at best.

Just before five when Noah had finished the first section and it was a half page too long, he asked for suggestions for cuts and I gave some. Just around the time he finished editing that section, Beth and June came to pick us up and take us to drive through the light display at Oglebay Park. We do this every year, either during Thanksgiving weekend or around Christmas. The kids enjoy seeing their favorite displays and someone always points out the one that says “JOY” and says, “Look, it says ‘June’” because when she was two she thought every word that started with J was her name and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

We were playing Christmas music for the first time this season, and as I listened to all the songs about peace on earth, the kids were squabbling in the back seat, about various things, but mostly about the light tunnels. When Beth was a kid she and her brother used to try to hold their breath in tunnels and now the kids like to do it, too. But the first two tunnels are long and traffic was slow and I thought they’d pass out if they tried to hold their breath through them, so I advised against it. Noah tried anyway, without success, but June declined. A long argument about whether or not this constituted her “forfeiting” and him “winning” ensued and was repeated at the next tunnel. At this one, Noah tried again and June started breathing loudly to taunt him. I asked her why she was doing it and she said, “Because I like to.”

By the time we got to the third tunnel, the snowflake one, traffic was lighter and this is the shortest one, so they both tried, and succeeded in holding their breath the whole time. I was surprised they did not seem to be exhaling even after we were out of the tunnel. They were playing chicken, as it turns out. June breathed first, Noah was a little too exuberant in saying he won, and June, who was worn out, got teary, but she recovered as soon as she saw the Twelve Days of Christmas display. Or maybe it was Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football. She likes that one, too.

After the lights, we returned to YaYa’s house for a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers that had migrated over from Sue’s house. Then we watched another Peanuts Thanksgiving special—the one in which they are characters on the Mayflower. Have you ever seen it? It was made in the 80s, past my time, but it came bundled with the older one, so now we watch it, too. We left Noah at YaYa’s for his sleepover (which June noted with satisfaction would be shorter than hers) and went back to the hotel, where June crashed.

Sunday

The next morning, Beth worked some more, while I read a couple chapters of The Magician’s Nephew to June and then we went to collect Noah at YaYa’s house, say our goodbyes, and hit the road.

As we drove, fog wreathed around the bare branches of the trees and nestled in the clefts of the hills. At higher elevations we were driving right through it. Sometimes we could only see a car or two ahead of us and the headlights of the oncoming cars. But Beth steered us safely home.

“How was your weekend?” I asked Beth, early in drive.

“It was fine,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to work on this assignment.”

“I wish you and Noah were both more free,” I said. But it was a good visit nonetheless. We got to see family, swim, skate, and visit familiar holiday sights in the form of a tree with a human face and lights spelling “Joy.” It was a fine Thanksgiving.

Monday

And then on Monday afternoon, as I was settling into a seat at Starbucks with an eggnog latte and a Cranberry Bliss bar, my phone beeped and I saw the following message from Beth: “Contract passed, huge yes vote. My work was worth it. Very happy and very tired.”

And Now For Something Completely Different

“Why does it say we’re having ‘Chaos Unleashed on Earth’ for dinner on Wednesday?” June asked. She was looking at the whiteboard on the fridge where I write the week’s dinner menus. And it did say “W: Chaos Unleashed on Earth” right after “M: Squash + Kale on Bowties,” and “T: Baked Eggs on Potato Hash.”

I explained we had a lot going on that night. Beth, Noah, and I had an appointment with a doctor in Bethesda to discuss whether to try a new medication for his ADHD—we’re still looking for the right drug and/or dose. I didn’t think we would get back until six at the earliest and then June had basketball practice at seven and I had book club at seven-thirty. So instead of a home-cooked meal that night, we were all going to eat various frozen foods.

Both kids looked at me silently, but skeptically. I asked if they thought calling a doctor’s appointment, basketball practice, and book club on the same afternoon and evening “chaos unleashed on earth” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Two heads nodded.

The point is…I am a creature of habit. Small changes seem like something completely different to me. Sometimes deviations from routine can be fun, though. We’ve had a few unusual days recently, and they all had something to recommend them.

Week 1

Wednesday: Veteran’s Day

On Veteran’s Day, Beth had the day off, June had a half-day, and Noah had a full day of school. The reason for the discrepancy is that K-8 teachers have parent-teacher conferences those afternoons. I’ve been going to these so long I didn’t realize they don’t do them in high school until I asked Beth whether we’d be trying to see Noah’s teachers before our appointment with June’s math teacher and she told me we wouldn’t be seeing them at all, which made the day simpler, though I do miss having that opportunity to touch base with his teachers on a one-to-one basis.

The kids left for school and we were left to our own devices in the morning, so Beth and I went to Busboys and Poets for breakfast. We saw another lesbian couple we know (moms to two elementary school-aged kids) come in as we were leaving. I guess it’s the lesbian-moms-briefly-without-kids hot spot in Takoma. Anyway, it was pleasant to have a mocha and an avocado omelet and uninterrupted adult conversation for breakfast instead of cereal and the newspaper, as is my usual habit.

In the afternoon, we went to see June’s math teacher, who explained what they were studying and told us nice things about June and gave us her report card. June had said earlier that she finds it nerve-wracking when she knows we’re talking to her teachers, so she was happy to hear it went well—not that we were expecting anything else. She just gets a little high strung sometimes.

As far as June was concerned, the big excitement of the day was the first basketball practice of the season. The Pandas’ coach, Mike, had decided to start practice early this year, in November instead of December. The Pandas had a 0-8 season last year, and he must have thought it would be nice to win a game or two. Not that the losing streak affected the team’s enthusiasm. Those girls have heart. It’s the Panda way.

Not counting Mike and his daughter Maggie, we were the first ones there, but soon the gym was ringing with the sound of running feet and shouting voices. I always enjoy basketball practice, partly for the opportunity to socialize with other moms, but also just to watch the girls. They always seem to be having fun and this was no exception. 

Thursday: The Day after Veteran’s Day

June had another half-day because it takes two days for teachers to get through all the conferences. I had an appointment for a mammogram in the city that I knew would eat up a good bit of the day, mostly in transit, so I arranged for her to go home with a friend and stay the whole afternoon, so I could get in a couple hours of work before Noah got home at four.

If I have a late morning or early afternoon appointment in the city I nearly always get lunch out so I tried a new (to me) rice/noodle bowl place. It’s the kind where you get a card with checklist of ingredients and you pick a certain number from different categories and then you get in line and hand it to them and they make it in front of you. I got buckwheat noodles in miso broth, with a fried egg, tofu, peanuts, seaweed, and other vegetables. It was really good.

For most of the five hours I was out of the house, I was binge-listening to a new NPR psychology podcast, Hidden Brain, which I recommend if you’re in need of a new podcast in your life. Other than the actual mammogram, the whole day was another pleasant change of pace.

Week 2

Monday: Sick Day

Nevertheless, I was looking forward to a week of the both kids being in school for five full days. We were two weeks into the third quarter and we’d had exactly four of those this year. So of course June woke up on Monday saying she felt sick and wanted to stay home.

She had no verifiable symptoms and I wasn’t sure she was really sick, but I let her stay home because I never want to send her to school when she says she’s sick and then have the school nurse call me and say she’s thrown up or something. Beth had an idea that she might have been nervous about a missing homework paper. She’d left it at Zoë’s house on Thursday and had been fretting about it ever since, even though she’d called Zoë, who had promised to bring it to school. I’m not sure if that was the problem or not, but that afternoon we checked and found out Zoë came through, giving the paper to their English teacher.

Anyway, she stayed in bed until 12:30, weakly requesting some chamomile tea and toast around 10:30. She seems to have figured out exactly how long she needs to stay in bed before I think walking her to school and back just isn’t worth it, because at lunchtime she was recovered, wanting lunch and cutting out fabric for a dress she wanted to make for one of her dolls.

The fact that June lays low and stays out of my way when she’s home sick means it’s no longer a lost day of work for me. I wrote some web copy about selenium and zinc, exercised, and even read a chapter of Daniel Deronda, which I’d be discussing at book club in two days. I did spend much of the afternoon with her, though, and, as always when something had to give, it was housework. I gave up plans to vacuum and sort through the masses of paper that continually drift onto the dining room table.

What I did instead was read two chapters of The Horse and His Boy to her and quiz her on the multiplication tables and on U.S. geography, as the qualifying test for GeoBowl was Wednesday. Since she was no longer feeling sick, I also had her practice her violin, finish her Native American diorama, and take the laundry down off the line. I kept her busy until dinner time. In exchange for letting her stay home when she requests it, I try to make sure sick days aren’t too appealing.

Wednesday: Chaos Unleashed on Earth

So, I bet you’re wondering how did that busy Wednesday go? It was fine. We got back from the doctor’s appointment at 5:50 (with a new prescription), heated up frozen lasagna, empanadas, and enchiladas and ate more or less at the same time. Beth and June left for practice around 6:45. I stayed at home until 7:25, which was cutting it close, because Noah was working on a 300-word opinion piece about American imperialism and I wanted to be there if he ran into a snag. But he’d written his introductory paragraph with no help by the time I left and for him that’s lightening speed so I was happy as I rode the bus (which came on time) to book club. I was only five minutes late.

I usually manage to remove myself from whatever I’m currently fretting about at book club. I think that’s part of why I find it so restorative—that and because it engages a part of my mind that used to get a lot more exercise—but I did occasionally wonder how Noah’s essay was coming as we discussed the psychological, sociological, and narrative elements of Daniel Deronda.

By the time I got home, around 9:20, Noah was in the bathroom in his pajamas, flossing. The essay was not finished but he was up against the word limit already. I offered to take a look at it and suggest cuts and he seemed open to that plan. Writing to word limits is something I do a lot these days, but he doesn’t always want to avail himself of my expertise. He was probably happy not to be told he had to go to bed with the essay unfinished, as it was twenty minutes past his bedtime.

We moved to the study. I told him to put in his required quotes before we started looking for places to cut. He did that while I perused Facebook. When he had all his points included, the essay was 360 words and had no conclusion. I started highlighting places where he could word things more succinctly and pretty soon he got into the swing of it and was finding them himself. A lot of the changes were actually improvements, but there were a few things I was sorry to see go. His quotes were pretty truncated and would have been more effective if he could have included more of them, but he got it down to 300 words, including a brief concluding sentence.

I help Noah with his homework frequently, everything from quizzing him on Spanish vocabulary, to reading to him (I’d read the one of the two required sources for the essay to him the night before), to helping him outline ideas or edit, to just being in the same room to make sure he’s attending to his work. Some of it I do just to make his life more manageable, but because he’s in a humanities program, some of it is actually fun for me. Anything to do writing usually falls into that camp.

He was in bed, paper printed, by 10:10. Beth and I go to bed very early, around 9:30 or 9:45 most nights, so she was already asleep. But what with all the mental stimulation of the evening, I was wide awake, so I took a melatonin tablet and stayed up another twenty minutes or so, so I wouldn’t end up tossing and turning in bed. And the chaotic day was over.

Monday is Beth’s birthday, which ushers in the holiday season for us. In the coming weeks, there will be a good deal more joyful chaos in our lives. I think I’m up for it.

Out to School

Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You studyin’ hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone

School Days, by Chuck Berry

The kids are seven weeks into the school year and they’ve settled into the routines of fourth and ninth grade. We got their mid-quarter progress reports a couple weeks ago and they’re both doing well. We’re still trying to get some accommodations for Noah’s ADHD and processing issues, but so far all we’ve done is go to meetings. No decision has been made, but the school officials seem skeptical given his good grades. What we’re trying to get across is that getting those good grades comes at a steep price for him—that school is basically his whole life. Taking another tack, he has also recently started on some medication we’re hoping might help him get his school work done more quickly, but this week he’s on a half dose to acclimate and make sure he doesn’t suffer any side effects. He hasn’t had any, but we also haven’t seen any benefits at this low dose.

June’s very involved with extracurricular activities at school. In addition to orchestra and choir, she’s joined the student leadership club and the recycling crew. The only reason she’s not on the safety patrol (the kids who help out at crosswalks) is because she missed the deadline for turning in the form last year.

Beth’s on a mission to talk Noah into trying a club. It’s part of our greater Noah-Should-Do-Something-Besides-Schoolwork project. There’s an apps club that sounds like it would be right up his alley but when Beth texted him “Did you check out the clubs?” on the day the clubs all had tables at lunch, he texted back, “Couldn’t find the one where you get to stay home and not interact with people.” She hasn’t given up, but for now, he’s not doing anything outside his classwork. He is considering private drum lessons since he’s not in band this year. I’m hoping to get him into a session at the music school that starts in early November.

Meanwhile, Beth and I are involved with their schools, too. Beth has joined the PTSA board at the high school and is doing a lot of web site work for them. I volunteered to compile study packets for the GeoBowl at the elementary school and I will probably volunteer again to correct the packets or to grade the qualifying quizzes when the kids take them in November.

We spent a good bit of Columbus Day at the kids’ schools because they were having Open Houses. June’s school was open for parents for an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. We decided to attend the morning hour because Noah has all his CAP classes in the afternoon and those were the ones we wanted to see most. June has math in the morning and now that she’s in compacted math, she takes it in English, so Beth would be able to follow the lesson.

We walked to school with June, arriving around 8:55, and waited outside the school until parents were allowed to come in and start lining up to sign the visitors’ log. Then we headed out to the trailers. June had all her classes in the portable classrooms in third grade and she was hoping to be back in the main building this year, but she has all her morning classes—math, Spanish, and science—out there.

The lesson was on finding the perimeter and area of a rectangle. Ms. O coached them into figuring out the formula for area (they had done the one for perimeter the previous week). They watched a video about perimeter and area in the context of farmers’ fields and she gave them a word problem to solve in pairs. When they were done they discussed the different strategies they had used to answer the question, which boiled down to 108 divided by 12. Some kids did it by long division; some multiplied different numbers by 12 until they came up with 108. Some subtracted 12 from 108 over and over until they came up with zero and counted how many times they had subtracted, while others did the same with addition, starting at zero and working up to 108. One boy drew a grid and kept adding rows to it until he had 108 squares. Ms. O praised most of the strategies, though she noted the grid might not be the most time-efficient way to solve the problem.

While the kids were working, Ms. O took small groups of them aside to talk through more problems involving a hotel room and its crown molding (perimeter) and wall-to-wall carpeting (area). During a down moment, I went over to the science corner and looked at the snail and fish habitats they’ve made from soda bottles. June’s been begging to bring hers home at the end of the unit and I wanted to get a look at it.

The lesson seemed well thought out and at the students’ level (though the instructional quality of the video wasn’t great). But the whole time I was trying to put out of my mind the teaching I’d witnessed at the HGC, the spark and passion I just wasn’t seeing in June’s class. This was made more difficult by the fact that we saw the HGC bus pulling away from her school with the face of one of her friends in the window as we were arriving. But I don’t think June shares my sadness about this. She seems to have moved on and is getting the most out of what her school has to offer, which is a good thing.

Another thing Beth and I both noticed immediately about June’s classroom was that all of her friends in the class—and one girl with whom she’s clashed for years—were together at one group of desks and she was in another with another girl I didn’t recognize and four boys. We asked her after school if they chose their seats or if Ms. O assigned them. June said they chose on the first day of school and that she chose hers because it had the best view of the Promethean board (an interactive, computerized white board). Beth and I had other ideas about why she might not have wanted to sit at the all-girl table. We both thought it was probably a good decision. I asked June about the girl who sits next to her and she said she’s never had a class with her before but she’s nice. I was glad to hear that.

Beth and I had lunch at Lebanese Taverna, where we saw the parents of Noah’s best friend from preschool—his folks had just finished a visit to a middle school and the high school. Noah and Ethan are actually in the same algebra class now, but since they haven’t been in the same school since they were five and Noah’s not good at remembering people from his past, he has no memory of his old buddy, which I find a little sad.

Next we headed to Noah’s school. While they normally have half their classes each day on an alternating schedule, that day all classes met, so parents could see whichever ones they wanted. We attended four of his seven classes—Photography, American History, English, and Drama.

The photography class was a lecture on how to remove the background from a photo in Photoshop. It was much too basic for Noah, who’s finding a lot of the class too easy because he’s already had three years of Media classes and some kids are starting from scratch. As a result, he’s been informally tutoring other kids, which is nice and I’m not going to complain about an easy class, given the rest of his workload. The teacher then introduced the next assignment, which is to make a cover for a tabloid magazine. He showed them some covers from the Weekly World News. The parents and the kids laughed at different ones, I noticed. “Is Dick Cheney a Robot?” was popular with the middle-aged set. (Later Noah asked us, “Who’s Dick Cheney?”) The stories on the kids’ tabloids are supposed to be about teachers and students at their school, so he advised them to tone them down a little and specifically forbade them from using the term “love slave,” which isn’t an instruction you get very often from a high school teacher.

American History was a lesson on nineteenth-century immigration. In addition to the teacher’s lecture, they watched a clip from Fiddler on the Roof and the teacher read them part of a piece from Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section on the history of Italian-Americans’ assimilation process (it was a Columbus Day-themed piece). The kids seemed engaged and the teacher did, too.

In English, the teacher gave a Power Point presentation on some conventions of vampire literature because she wanted to make the point that in some ways, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, as a story of female victimization, follows them. As someone who used to teach a month-long unit on vampires in a college class on horror, and who is kind of fond of Maggie, I found that interesting. She made the fatal flaw of not having read Twilight, though, and some of the students let her know how current vampire lit is departing from the norms. This may have lessened her credibility. I’m not sure. I haven’t taught horror since 2005 and I haven’t read Twilight either.

Drama was the last class. The class started in a cozy, bookshelf-lined room with a little stage at the end. I knew they were going to practice scenes from A Glass Menagerie and All My Sons during that class so I thought they’d be on the small stage, but the teacher took them to the stage of the school auditorium, which you can access directly from their classroom, instead. There she had them do some exercises to focus on physicality-they were supposed to walk around stage the way their character would, gesture the way they would, etc. Finally they broke out into groups and started practicing their lines. Noah’s doing a scene from All My Sons with another boy but they were pretty far backstage so I couldn’t hear much of their practice. I could hear a couple groups doing Glass Menagerie scenes better. It looked like a fun class and a good way to end the day.

We drove Noah home and a couple hours later—all of us but Noah who stayed home to work—went to El Golfo, which was holding a fundraiser for June’s school. We saw Ms. G, June’s English/Social Studies teacher there, but we were there early so Beth could go to the high school for a PTSA board meeting and we didn’t see a lot of families we know. Nonetheless, it was a good time. I always enjoy eating spinach enchiladas and tres leches cake and doing a good deed at the same time.

Back at home, Noah read and outlined a section in his history book about immigration and June took a shower. Beth got home from her meeting shortly after June had gone to bed, so she poked her head into the bedroom to say goodnight after a long day of all of us being out to school.

September Fields

You better get up for your mama
You better grab the best of your life
I know you’re ready
To get older
Anyhow
Well all you have to do is wander
Over fields of dark time

Frazey Ford, “September Fields”

Before School: Thursday & Friday

The day after our return from Hershey Park, Noah had a half-day orientation at the high school to run through an abbreviated version of his schedule and meet his teachers. It was the only day that week I worked more than forty minutes. Instead of my original modest goal of ten hours a week for the last two weeks of break, I worked less than twelve hours total. Sara didn’t have much pressing work for me and with the kids home (not to mention our two-day road trip) I wasn’t that motivated to do more. I meant to get a play date for June Thursday but I never got around to it and she kept saying she was bored. I thought there was an upside to this, though. A little boredom right before school starts could be just the thing she needed to get her in the mood for a change. (So I didn’t get one Friday either.)

She was excited when the postcard with her teachers arrived. I asked her if she knew anything about the fourth grade teachers and if there was anyone she wanted to have or to avoid. She said no, she just wanted to know. I’d been hoping for Ms. G for English and social studies because Noah had her in second grade and she was good at keeping him challenged, which has been a concern of ours since we found out last spring that June would be staying at her current school. I didn’t think there was much chance of June getting Ms. G, though, because while the Spanish immersion program where she spends part of her day is small, the rest of the school is quite big, bursting at the seams with over nine hundred students. There are several non-immersion fourth-grade teachers. So I was surprised and very happy to find out she did get Ms. G in the afternoon.

Between having Ms. G and June being in compacted math (they cover the fourth grade curriculum and part of fifth), it was looking as if she might be more challenged than last year. This set my mind at ease somewhat, though I will admit I’m still sad about June not going to the Highly Gifted Center. On some level she is, too. Three of her closest friends are going and it’s never easy to be the one left behind. Shortly before school started she had a dream about touring Megan’s school because she was going to switch to it.

When Noah got home from orientation he said he thought he was in the wrong history class. It seemed to be a regular ninth-grade honors history class, not the CAP version. He’s supposed to take history, English, drama, and photography with his cohort of students in the Communications Arts Program this semester, along with Algebra II, Physics, and Spanish III with the regular school population. I had a sinking feeling when I heard this. I thought it might mean the school counselor who had re-arranged his schedule to fit in band had missed a required class. We were meeting with said counselor the very next day in order to talk about getting him a 504 plan so I told him we’d see about it then.

I read the last chapter and the epilogue of Triangle, the Fire That Changed America to him that afternoon. He’d finished his math packet and his English homework sometime in July but he still had a few chapters left in this book and some essay questions to answer. Over the course of the summer, I read both this book and Into Thin Air (about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster) to him so it would go faster. It’s the home version of a 504 plan. I recommend both books, by the way. They’re gripping if a bit grim to read back to back. But as a bonus, if you read them, you probably won’t have to answer any essay questions about them.

The next morning Beth, Noah, and I went to the high school to meet with his counselor. We explained the possible problem with his schedule and she said she’d look into it. We also went over some of the highlights of the psychologists’ report with her and she said she’d start the paperwork for a 504 application. We’ve been down this road before, so I know it will take a while and the results are not assured, but at least we’ve started.

Back home, I read to June and played a fractions game with her that was the last assignment in her math packet. After lunch we walked to her school for the Open House to meet her teachers. She has a lot of them for elementary school—four, not counting the specials teachers. She has a homeroom teacher, Señor F, whom she only sees from whenever she arrives until school officially starts at nine (twenty minutes tops), then she goes to math with Ms. O, then a Spanish and science class with Señora Y and in the afternoon she has Ms. G for language arts and social studies.

All the switching around in the morning is because of math tracking and because her homeroom is too big so some kids get skimmed off and go to a resource teacher who doesn’t have her own class for Spanish and science. Don’t worry if you didn’t quite follow that. It took me awhile. June was hoping not to have any classes in the trailers this year but she has math, Spanish, and science there.

June also wants to sign up for chorus, so that will mean eventually Wednesdays will be even more complicated. Possibly the craziest thing about her schedule is that she has lunch at 10:15. Yes, you read that right. School goes from 9:00 to 3:25 and she has lunch at 10:15. Because the school is so over-crowded lunch shifts run almost all day.

I spent the rest of the afternoon tying up loose ends of June’s fall extracurricular activities (setting up a time for her violin lessons, trying to find out what week Girl Scouts started) and coaching Noah through one of the essay questions on the Triangle fire when he got stuck.

Last Weekend

Saturday should have been a good day and in many ways it was. Beth and I went to a play, which we don’t do nearly enough. One of June’s long-time musical drama camp compatriots (and daughter of the camp director) had a role in One in the Chamber, which is about the long-term effects of gun violence on a family, years after they lose a son. If you’re local, you can still see it. The last show is tomorrow. Grace was great, as was the rest of the cast. I wasn’t sure the ending was really earned, but that was a script issue and not an acting issue and I won’t go into spoilers here. It was really nice to see a play and the theater is tiny so it’s quite an intimate experience.

While we were in the city, Noah took June to Megan’s house to attend an end-of-summer pool party/slumber party. Megan wanted to see some of her friends she won’t be seeing every day anymore since she’ll be at the HGC.

When we got home, Noah was working on his last Triangle essay (June had finished her reading log earlier in the day). I was glad they both finished their summer homework with a day to spare so there wouldn’t be any last-minute scramble with it on the last day of summer break. When Noah finished, we went for Italian at Vicino (http://vicinoitaliano.com), which is a favorite of Noah’s and then we tried the pastries at a new (to us) coffee shop in Silver Spring.

The only thing that went wrong that day was that Beth got an email from Noah’s counselor, confirming our suspicion that he was in the wrong history class and to get into the right history class, he’d have to drop band. I was sad and frustrated about this because he’d been so happy when he finally got into band the week before.

Sunday evening we took the kids out for ice cream, a night-before-school-starts tradition. But Noah developed a nervous stomachache while we were eating at the Noodles & Company we’d chosen for its proximity to Ben and Jerry’s and he didn’t get any ice cream. Then June ate only a few bites of hers before deciding she wasn’t hungry, so in the end it was really Beth and me who had back-to-school ice cream. We bought a pint to take home so Noah could have some later, though, and he actually felt better and ate some later that evening. June brought her small cup of vanilla ice cream home, too, and ate it over the course of several days, eating just a few bites at a time and putting it back in the freezer. I have never known anyone to make ice cream last like she does.

Back to School: Monday to Friday

The big day came. Noah went to high school. Beth took his traditional first day picture and I came out to the porch to join Beth as we, just a little wistfully, watched him walk to his new bus stop.

June’s picture was a bit harder to get. I’d had a dress in mind I wanted to suggest but she guessed it and pre-emptively said no. She countered with a t-shirt and bike shorts. I thought it looked like what she’s worn almost every day this summer and said she should pick something more special to mark the day. We ended up compromising on a t-shirt and denim skirt but this makes it seem like a much quicker discussion than it actually was. I kept asking myself why I wasn’t giving up, why I cared. Partly it was because Noah let me choose his first day outfits until he was in middle school at which point I said I thought he should probably start choosing himself. He probably would have let me keep right on picking. He really didn’t care one way or the other, but I had it fixed in my mind I’d have some input for the next couple years with June, though why I thought it would be the same with her I have no idea. I have, after all, met my daughter.

I went through with my day—a visit to Starbucks, which I didn’t frequent as much while the kids were home, a little reading, some exercise and housework, and writing an article for a supplement company newsletter. I checked Facebook frequently to see everyone’s first day of school pictures. I love those.

The kids got home around four. CAP kids stay after school for an extra period so he doesn’t get out of school until 3:20 and June’s walking home from school this year, so my workday has gotten a little longer. June’s been looking forward to being allowed to walk home alone for years. Alas, the first day got off to a rough start. The new principal stopped her when he saw her leave unsupervised, even though I’d signed the form allowing her to self-dismiss. She was only allowed to go when a counselor vouched that she was indeed in fourth grade. (This kind of thing is exactly why she hates being small for her age.) But other than that she said she had a good day.

Noah did, too. He’d had half his classes—they operate on a block schedule with each class meeting every other day. I am liking this so far because he can never get homework due the next day. On the first day he had homework assigned in just two classes and he’d done the Physics in study hall. This was gratifying because when he had to drop band we advocated for him not to replace it with another class and to have a study hall instead. He doesn’t need to take eight classes every semester to graduate, even though that’s how many students are routinely assigned.

He used the study hall well all week, doing all his Physics and Algebra homework at school. The history homework was reading and questions on Reconstruction. I was glad he had two nights to do it because it took him a while. He got more questions on the same reading on Wednesday (the next time he had history) that took him two more nights to complete. If the first week is any indication, history will be his most challenging class this year, as it was last year. But he finished his homework every night and went to bed more or less on time. Some nights he even had some free time.

June’s teachers didn’t give any homework the first week. At school she wrote a three-paragraph essay about her summer vacation in Spanish, which was encouraging to me. She really didn’t have to write much last year in any language. They are studying the civil rights movement in Ms. G’s class. June was shocked to hear that when swimming pools were desegregated some people filled them with concrete rather than let whites and blacks swim together. They also did a role-playing exercise in which the taller children were given more classroom rights than the shorter ones and then the shorter kids organized a protest at the teacher’s suggestion. This made a big impression on her, as you might imagine.

She had even more to report about recess than whatever was going on in the classroom. She and Evie and Zoë have formed a sap-collectors club. They scrape sap off the evergreen trees on the playground and they have plans to sell it. They also talk to their classmates about the virtues of sap. There’s going to be sap club party next week, I hear. She has smears of sap she can’t wash off her leg and she seems pretty happy about school.

After some hesitation, Noah decided to try out for Jazz Lab band (the less advanced of two jazz bands) next week. I’m proud of him for trying no matter how it turns out because he gets nervous when he has to audition and in fact he declined a chance to try out for Symphonic Band at the very end of last year when he first found out he couldn’t get into Concert Band (no audition required) this year because of the schedule conflict. He found out about Symphonic Band late and he would have only had two days to practice. This is a similar situation. The class is already in session, but his counselor asked the music director to let him audition anyway, which I appreciate. It would be nice for him to have a regular musical outlet.

Another first week is over. The kids get up for their mamas every morning. We hope they grab the best of their lives and we watch as they get older, every year, every month, every week.

Summer’s End

1. Before Hershey

It was a long summer break, eleven weeks instead of the normal ten; this was because Labor Day falls late this year and our schools always start a week before Labor Day. Despite this, about two weeks ago I told Beth I wasn’t as impatient for the beginning of the school year as I usually am by mid-August. She predicted being at home with both kids who had no camp for two weeks might take care of that.

The first Monday morning it looked as if it certainly would. The kids argued ceaselessly. Then I took June to go see Shaun the Sheep (Noah declined to come) after lunch and came home and made a cake and the separation, the outing, and the sugar seemed to cheer everyone. The cake was an un-birthday cake, because it wasn’t anyone’s birthday, or rather it was the exact midpoint between my and Beth’s birthdays, which is the longest stretch we have without one. The cake was chocolate chip, with chocolate frosting, and it was delicious. And I feel I should note that after that first wretched morning, the kids’ fighting died down to a bearable level. Some days they hardly fought at all.

The next day we met with an educational psychologist who had evaluated Noah earlier in the summer. We are trying to get a 504 plan for his ADHD. We tried four years ago and were denied, but it seemed like time to give it another go, as he’s starting high school this year. We’re also going to talk to a psychiatrist about what medications might be useful for him. The last two years have just been too much, for him and for the whole family, so we’re hoping to find a way he can be challenged but not overwhelmed by school. It will be a while before all the pieces are in place, but we’ve made a start and I feel good about that. His diagnosis has been bumped up from ADHD-NOS (basically ADHD-lite) to ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive, so that might help.

The kids hung out in the waiting room during most of the two-hour meeting (Noah was called in at the very end). We would have left June at home except Beth had taken the afternoon off so we could go see Inside Out after the meeting. The movie was fun and we went out for Burmese afterward.

In the interest of getting some work done, I scheduled overlapping play dates for June the next day, with one girl from 9:30 to 2:00 and with another from 1:00 to 5:00. During the morning, June and her friend were playing with dolls and blocks and singing some pop song I didn’t know. As I worked in the next room, it felt like I was listening to them snap back and forth between being little girls and tweens. They are right on the brink. When the second friend arrived, the all acted out scenes from Inside Out. June was delighted to finally have seen the big kid-movie of the summer and to be able to talk about it with her friends. We are sometimes a little slow to provide her with these experiences. (It came out months ago, I think.)

We continued to march forward with appointments for the kids. Thursday they went to the dentist and Friday to the pediatrician. The previous weekend they both got their hair cut. It was June’s second hair cut of the summer. She had eight inches taken off right before Girl Scout camp, just in time to be brushing it herself, but she decided she wanted it even shorter and to have about a quarter of it dyed blue, purple, and magenta. It’s her new look for starting fourth grade. She is well satisfied with it.

We were a long time at the pediatrician’s office and we were near Dupont Circle, where Beth and I lived from our mid-twenties to our mid-thirties, so we decided to have dinner at Pizza Paradiso, an old favorite of ours. A few things have changed in the interim. The restaurant moved a block down P St; I now need reading glasses to read the menu; and instead of a baby, Beth and I have a teenager who is five inches taller than me and daughter who is looking older with her multicolored hair. The Genovese (potato-pesto) pizza is just as delicious as it ever was, however.

My big accomplishment of the week, or so I thought at the time, was to get Noah’s schedule re-arranged so he could take band. I’d been communicating for weeks with the director of the music department, the CAP (Communications Arts Program) director, his counselor and an assistant principal, trying to find out where the conflict was in his schedule and if it could be changed. The kids were at the dentist with Beth when I found out so I called both Beth and Noah. When Noah got home, he gave me a big hug and said, “I’m in band!”

The weekend was uneventful. I indulged Noah by agreeing to make lemon bars with him and he indulged me by agreeing to listen to Willie Nelson while we did it.

The next Monday, I took the kids on a creek walk, which is something we do every summer. But because neither of them had asked all summer, I started to wonder if they’d outgrown this activity. I needn’t have worried. The kids splashed each other and we found a huge crawfish, deer prints in the mud, and many spider webs. We stood under our own street in the tunnel where the bridge goes over the creek and listened to the cars rumble above us and then we clambered out, with wet bathing suits and wet and sandy crocs to walk home.

2. Hershey: The Sweetest Place on Earth

Tuesday and Wednesday we took an impromptu get-away to Hershey Park. (I know they spell as one word, but I just can’t do it, so I won’t.) Beth had recently found out she had more vacation time than she thought and she needed to use it by year’s end or lose it, so off we went. We had just been to the county fair a week and a half earlier but summer would be over soon, so we seized the day.

The funny thing about this was that when I suggested to Noah he might want to go a little further in his summer homework than he’d planned the weekend before “in case something comes up” he looked at me and said, “Are we going to Hershey Park?” So much for being sneaky.

Noah had an orthodontist appointment in the morning, so we all went there first, and then we hit the road. We arrived at the park around lunchtime, had lunch and hit the rides.

Over the course of the two days we were there June was about as likely as Noah to want to go on rides that made everyone else say “No!” But the difference was when it was Noah, we’d say, “Go for it” but when it was June we’d look at each other and decide who was going, or make her skip it. So she never got to ride the biggest log flume and had to settle for a smaller one.

But she did get to ride the Laff Trakk, which is new this year. It’s an enclosed coaster in a big metal building. There are glow-in-the-dark decorations with a funhouse theme and black light. The cars spin around and go backward about half the time, which is why I wouldn’t ride it. I can’t even ride backward on the Metro. It wasn’t really Beth’s cup of tea either but since Noah wasn’t interested and Beth thought she could get through the ride without vomiting, she went with June. I told her later it was nice of her to go and she said, “Yes, it was,” especially considering there was a forty-five minute wait.

The Wild Mouse, pictured above, became a family favorite this year. It’s a little coaster with a lot of sharp turns but no big drops. We rode that one twice. Believe it or not I was making a worse face the first time.

In the late afternoon we hit the water park where June and did the Whirlwind, one of the bigger water slides. It dumps you into a big sideways funnel at the end and you go whirling all around the sides. (Thus the name.) It was fun but I wasn’t up to lugging a cumbersome double-seated tube up several flights of stairs to do it again so we stuck to smaller slides after that.

After the water park, we rode the Ferris wheel, went through the simulated chocolate factory tour at Chocolate World (both kids absolutely love this for some reason—I think it’s the singing cows), had a late dinner and went back to our hotel. As we were standing at the reception desk to check in, June whispered to me in a stricken voice, “Mommy, I forgot Muffin.” Muffin is June’s stuffed monkey and bosom buddy. He always comes with her when she sleeps away from home.

I pointed out it was lucky she had another monkey. June won Banana Monkey, as she named her, at a whack-a-snake game that very day. She’s no Muffin, but it turned out she was a decent pinch hitter. June had no trouble going to sleep.

In the morning we had some time before the park opened so we went to Hershey Gardens, a botanical garden near the park, which I highly recommend if you’re ever in Hershey and feeling over-stimulated. We enjoyed the rose gardens and the metal sculptures of insects and other animals. We probably spent the most time in the butterfly house and the children’s garden, where we found this cool musical space:

Back at the park, we went straight for the Great Bear, Noah’s favorite coaster because June had gotten to do her top choice ride the day before. The Great Bear is full of crazy twists and inversions. The cars start out hanging below the track but several times you are upside-down on top of the track. If you look up its description, you see a lot of words like “helix” and “corkscrew.” Needless to say, he rode that one alone, as the three of us stood on the ground below and tried to glimpse his green crocs flying through the air high above us. (I was the only one who saw them.) He says it’s so fast there’s no time to be scared but I will have to take his word for it because I am never trying it.

But the kids and I did the sooperdooperLooper and we all rode the Coal Cracker and the Trail Blazer—all of these are tamer rides, even if the sooperdooperLooper does go upside down once. Next I wanted to ride a wooden coaster, because I’ve always loved these best.

After some consideration, Noah and I chose the Comet. I almost gave up when I saw the line, but we decided to stay. Then as we were getting buckled in I almost wished we had given up because as I get older the fear to fun ratio of amusement park rides is definitely shifting and I was thinking, “I am too old for this!” It ended up being perfect, though, just scary enough. I probably would have gotten right back in line if it hadn’t been a half hour wait.

Before we left the park, June got a lock of her hair wrapped in multicolored threads to complete her back-to-school look. It cost her about a month’s allowance.

We stopped at Chocolate World to buy some treats to take home and then around four we started the drive home. The kids still had a few days of break left, but in some way it felt as if we left summer behind when we drove out of that parking lot.

Something to Celebrate

Sunday: Mother’s Day

On Sunday morning June told me, “The next two days are going to be all about you.” She was referring to the fact that my birthday fell the day after Mother’s Day this year. It wasn’t all about me of course. For one thing I was sharing the celebration on Sunday with Beth, but more than that I knew how I was likely to spend those days. It’s not that it can never be all about you when you’re a parent, but sometimes it can’t and this was one of those times.

June did her best to fete us, though. She made us breakfast in bed (waffles with apple slices and yogurt), delivered just after seven and about a half hour later the kids brought us presents—chocolate for Beth, a bouquet of folded cloth flowers June made at Girl Scouts and my very favorite tea (hazelnut) for me. June also made us a card, cut into the shape of a flower. And we stayed in bed reading the paper until almost nine, which was luxurious.

Beth spent the rest of Sunday morning grocery shopping and attending a street fair with June where they had their picture taken with mustaches, as one does. I spent it sitting next to the computer where Noah was working on the organizer for his overdue essay on the Indian Removal Act, reading first the Washington Post magazine and then Brain, Child and looking up every paragraph or so to say something like, “That looks good. Write another sentence.” His ability to attend to his schoolwork is at low ebb these days and it goes considerably faster if someone watches him do it. This has been consuming a lot of my time recently.

He actually finished the organizer, which he’s been working on since March. We were both really happy about that. It was so detailed I thought the essay would practically write itself, but unfortunately, there just wasn’t any more time to work on it that day. After he had lunch and practiced his orchestra bells, he spent the rest of the afternoon re-writing a scene from As You Like It into different poetic genres.

I thought we had received all our Mother’s Day presents but when Beth and June came home, they’d picked up a bouquet of purple flowers, a cookie that said “Mommy” in frosting and balloon in the shape of an inverted pyramid that said “Happy Mother’s Day.” June also thought they should buy popsicles “for Mother’s Day,” but Beth thought fudgsicles were a better idea since she actually likes those.

After I put away the groceries, I went swimming and to the library, then I came home and read a bit to June. We started new book called Witch Catcher, which is the sort of children’s book that begins with the protagonist moving into a spooky old house left to her family by an eccentric distant relative. I read a lot of those books as a kid and it’s a source of continuing disappointment that no eccentric distant relative has ever left me a spooky old house. (I’d prefer one on a cliff overlooking the sea. That’s the best kind.)

For dinner we had takeout Ethiopian, which Beth had picked up earlier in the day. June had the idea that the kids should re-heat it and dish it out themselves and then they would have made dinner for us in addition to breakfast.

Monday: Birthday, ENT Appointment, Band Festival

“Happy birthday,” June said, bearing a tray with a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice. It was my second breakfast in bed in a row. She’d broken the first glass and Beth was busy cleaning up the juice and the glass and warning people not to walk in the kitchen in bare feet. She was in rush to get Noah out the door and we weren’t doing presents until the evening so we barely spoke.

June was still coughing, and we had an appointment with an ENT in the afternoon, so I worked a little in the morning and then napped after lunch because June had been up late into the night before with a new symptom, tongue pain. (That one only lasted two days.) Around two June and I set out for the doctor’s office, where we were to meet Beth. We arrived in the city early enough to stop at Starbucks and I used the gift card my Mom had sent for by birthday to buy a S’mores frappuchino, which is about the most decadent thing they have on the menu these days, but it was my birthday. June got a more sensible orange-mango smoothie and popcorn.

I knew the doctor’s appointment was not going to give us the magic answer to June’s troubles as soon as the nurse starting asking us questions about her symptoms and looking surprised at every answer. Then the doctor came in and asked a lot of the same questions and she looked surprised, too. She examined June’s throat by putting a tiny camera on flexible tube up her nose. Based on the appearance of her vocal cords and the way they move when she coughed or tried to speak, she told us it’s not croup or laryngitis, which were her pediatrician’s diagnoses. Her throat is irritated (from the non-stop coughing) but not infected and her vocal cords are not inflamed. Also based on the fact that none of the home remedies or medicines she’s had have stopped the coughing, she told us there was “no organic cause.” She reworded this about a half dozen different ways, each time starting, “To be perfectly honest” in case we were having trouble believing her, I guess, but I wasn’t.

I thought back to June’s sprained wrist in first grade and her sprained knee in second grade (5/9/13 & 9/30/13) and how the pain she perceived took much longer to abate than any medical professional thought it should. It seemed it might be another case of miscommunication between her mind and body. And, of course, if there’s no physical cause, there’s no physical cure. So we left the office, all of us downcast and without a treatment plan.

But, it was still my birthday, so we went through with our plan to go out to dinner. Beth suggested we eat in the city but it was early (around five) and I was pretty full from the frappuchino, so we went back to Takoma so we could eat a little later. June had suggested we hang out in the city and do Mad Libs until we were hungry. I thought how that actually could be fun, sort of an adventure, but Noah was on a band field trip, because they had advanced to state-level festival this year, and we needed to be home to pick him up after dinner.

On the Metro I noticed people giving June alarmed looks, no doubt wondering why we had this violently coughing child on public transportation. I am getting used to this look. We ate at Busboys and Poets again. It’s my fourth time there in the past few weeks, but I haven’t exhausted the menu. I had vegan “crab” cakes with sautéed vegetables and iced green tea.

At dinner I futilely quizzed June about whether anything happened at the Girl Scout camping trip or school that was upsetting her, thinking there might be some emotional upset at the root of this. “Not really” she whispered cheerfully to every inquiry. Then I reminded Beth, “You didn’t say ‘Happy birthday’ to me except on Facebook.”

“I didn’t?” she said, remembering about the spilled orange juice and the broken glass and then she said, “Happy birthday.”

Then, thinking about Facebook, I mentioned some of the nice messages people had left me, my uncle reminiscing about the first time he met me and my friend Joyce who lives in Indiana saying how much she misses me.

“Unlike me, who just said, ‘Happy birthday,’” she said.

I smiled at her, “Well, those people didn’t make me a birthday cake with strawberries in the middle,” I said because she’d made this cake the day before. I’d asked her to make a Neapolitan cake—chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry in any combination. She went with vanilla cake with leftover strawberry frosting from Noah’s cake and fresh strawberries between the layers and chocolate frosting on the top and sides. And they weren’t just any strawberries but the first local strawberries of the season. So I wasn’t really mad at her. It was just that kind of day.

Once we got back home, Beth went to pick up Noah from his band festival dinner. We learned the band was ranked “Superior” and according to the judges was “one of the best” middle school bands in Maryland.

They’d had a celebratory dinner after festival and it turned out the plain pizza ran out before his turn in line and there was nothing left but pepperoni so he hadn’t eaten any. Just the week before he’d gotten food poisoning on a Spanish class field trip to a tapas restaurant (probably from accidentally eating something with meat) so we’re glad he didn’t try just picking off the pepperoni. But this meant he needed dinner. And we were already pressed for time if we wanted to eat cake and get June to bed. Then I remembered something else, “I have to open presents.” I immediately regretted the ungrateful way that sounded but as I said, it was just that kind of a day.

So I melted some cheddar cheese on tortilla chips and gave them to Noah with carrot sticks and chocolate milk. He ate while I opened my presents. Beth got me a frame with space for three pictures and one already inserted. It’s of the kids in the bathtub at the ages of one and a half and six and a half. We have very similar bathtub pictures of me with my sister, her with her brother, and our kids at approximately the same ages. I’d been meaning to display them together since we took the picture (we in fact took it to go with the others) but we had never gotten around to it. Noah’s gift was a pre-ordered copy of Finders Keepers, Stephen King’s new book, which will be out soon. He actually printed the cover design and made a dust jacket, which he put on another hardback book, so he’d have something to wrap. June got me some hot cocoa packets, a cloth shopping bag, a flowerpot, and some Sweet William seeds. She also made a card cut into the shape of a birthday hat.

Next, we had the cake. It was as good as it looked. As I put Noah to bed that night I told him I was proud of the band’s good showing. “I am, too,” he said, which for him is like bragging.

Tuesday to Friday: Back to School

Meanwhile, I’d decided it was time for June to go back to school, as she’d missed more than a week and we had no clear next step medically speaking. I’d been corresponding with the assistant principal for a few days and she was initially skeptical but I eventually convinced her, which required more assertiveness than comes naturally to me. I wanted to get administrative buy-in before I sent my constantly coughing child to school. I didn’t want it to end with her teachers sending her to the nurse and the nurse sending her home. June’s pediatrician had already told us she was not contagious but now the ENT has as well, and I had a note to that effect, so on Tuesday off to school she went.

I decided to ease her in with a half-day. Megan had brought some make-up work to the house that morning, so in the morning June did several math worksheets and then practiced her violin, and around eleven we walked to her school. As we got close she said she felt sick and I told her it was probably nerves and that she’d be okay.

We arrived about a half hour before the class change, so first we visited the main office and checked in there and then I took her to the nurse to explain the situation and I showed the nurse the notes from the ENT. Finally, I took June to her morning class, which was about to dismiss, so we could turn in her work and get that day’s homework. Neither of us was expecting the transaction to be anything but businesslike, but when we opened the door of the trailer, the room erupted in cheers. Kids were yelling, “June! June!” and her teacher came over to give her a hug. We had noticed previously that when she’s very emotional, the coughing slows and she was so overcome, she didn’t cough for almost a minute. I was silently watching the classroom clock.

That night she went to Girl Scouts and she went to school for a full day Wednesday, also complaining of a stomachache right before she got on the bus. I told her it would be like the day before and her nerves would settle and I guess they did because she went to school Thursday and Friday without complaint.

June’s coughing has slowed somewhat. Now it’s down to around two to three times a minute instead of six to twelve, but she’s been plateaued there for a few days and she still can’t speak above a whisper. Beth’s been consulting with June’s pediatrician on the phone and it’s possible we might send her to a voice therapist if her voice does not return, but that’s not a firm plan. I think we’re kind of hoping she’ll just wake up speaking one morning, as the doctors don’t really seem to know what to do. Between Noah’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and mine, we’ve had a lot of family celebrations recently but hearing my daughter speak for the first time in three weeks would really be something to celebrate.

Do Anything

Saturday afternoon Beth took June ice-skating at the outdoor rink in Silver Spring for the first time this season. This morning June was eager to do it again. She’d “do anything” if Beth would take her skating, she said. Would she crawl under the dining room table and pick up all the dropped food, Beth asked. Would she study her GeoBowl packet and pick up all the pieces of the Operation game that are scattered on the living room floor, I wanted to know. June considered. “I’d do one of those things,” she conceded. (In the end she picked up the food and the game pieces and Beth took her skating.)

It has gotten colder rather suddenly. Our huge and prolific cherry tomato plant died pretty much overnight when the nighttime temperature reached freezing Saturday night. This morning I collected four and a half cups of little green tomatoes, which I plan to use to make a batch of salsa verde later this week.

I had a couple weeks of finding the cold and the early dark that came with the return to Standard Time depressing, but today when I left the swimming pool around 4:20 p.m. and walked out into a cold drizzle, I felt the warmth of my hooded sweatshirt as much as the cold of the rain and I noticed how the reds and the oranges of the turning trees seemed to glow in the dim light of an overcast mid-November late afternoon.

With the chill in the air, Halloween over, and Beth’s birthday and Thanksgiving around the corner it seems we are in a different part of the year, one with a lot of potential new beginnings. This month we applied to the Highly Gifted Center, where Noah spent fourth and fifth grade, for June and she started gymnastics at a new gym, since none of us much liked the one where she took classes a couple years ago. The new program is at the University of Maryland and is reputed to give the kids more individual attention and mentoring. June’s been to two sessions so far and is very enthusiastic about it. She especially likes the bars. Of course, busy girl that she is June has other things on her plate. Along with all the third to fifth graders at her school, she will take the test to try out for the geography bowl next week, although she hasn’t been very diligent about studying—despite her initial enthusiasm about being in the competition. Unless she makes a big effort between now and Tuesday I’ll be a little surprised if she makes the team. Looking ahead a bit, basketball practice starts in early December and she has a violin recital in mid-December (assuming she passes her audition, which she probably will).

Meanwhile after a lot of thought about whether or not he wanted to continue on the magnet track, Noah applied to the Communications Arts Program and a math/science magnet for high school. I wonder sometimes—this weekend for instance, when Beth and June were skating and I was swimming and Noah was stuck home reading and annotating Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—why he is signing up for more schoolwork. Then I remembered that he didn’t even have all that much homework this weekend, it just took forever because he could not seem to attend to it. Eighth grade continues to be less work than seventh, though he’s busier now than he was at the beginning of the year. Last weekend while June was at a slumber party we did find time to take him out to dinner at Asian Bistro and to a Buster Keaton movie at the American Film Institute. He’s been interested in silent film since his media class studied it in sixth grade. And the fact that he has been taking media classes for three years and discovered a rather esoteric new interest like this through the magnet program is one of the reasons he wants to continue. It makes sense, even if I worry about the effects of working so hard so young.

Noah also auditioned for Honors band. It was his first audition ever because he was nominated for Honors Band in sixth grade and didn’t have to try out and last year he didn’t want to do it. He was nervous before the audition and he says it didn’t go well. Sometimes he’s hard on himself, but he did fail to read the instructions carefully enough to notice he needed to get timpani mallets from his band teacher ahead of time so he couldn’t even play one of the required pieces. That can’t help his chances. (He also had to wait an hour and half after being called into the audition room to play, which I’m sure was stressful and may have affected his performance.) Whether he gets in or not, I’m proud of him for trying because it wasn’t easy for him. June, who has more moxie and has auditioned for recitals twice and for roles at drama camp several times already, was not particularly sympathetic when I told her he was nervous. “Oh, I’ve done that,” she said breezily.

It made me realize that in the space of just one month the kids will have applied for three academic programs and tried out for three extracurricular groups or events between them. It seems unlikely they’ll have universal success in these endeavors. I started to write something about how I wouldn’t even want that, you learn as much from failure as from success but then I deleted it because who am I kidding? Of course I want them to be accepted at the magnet programs where they applied and for June to play at her music school’s next recital and for Noah to make Honors Band and June to make the GeoBowl team and if she qualifies for the GeoBowl, I will want her team to win. But I also know it’s okay if they don’t. I don’t think they can do anything; no-one can. But I am proud of them for trying, always, no matter what the outcome.