The Home Stretch, Part 2: Climbin’ up the Mountain, Children!

The Movie

Wednesday of last week Beth, North, and I engaged in some role reversal. A little background: Noah chose to make a movie for his CAP Diamond project, a culminating junior year assignment. It’s called Sharon and it’s about a fictional social media company called Quest that uses an artificial intelligence entity named Sharon to customize users’ newsfeeds, which leads to the splintering of news consumption and the proliferation of fake news, but also to increased profits for the company.

I tried to encourage Noah to employ our resident actor, but he wanted all adult or at least teenage actors because all the characters are adults. So he played the CEO, Beth played a company engineer, I played the profit-driven board member, and two of his classmates played a television reporter and a camerawoman—this part was filmed at his school’s television studio.

That’s how it came to pass that while Beth, Noah, and I were filming all the scenes that take place at corporate headquarters at Beth’s office late one afternoon, North was at home cooking dinner, which is normally my job. They made bucatini with a homemade cherry tomato sauce topped with veggie bacon crumbles from a recipe I gave them. It made me think I should have them cook more often. They’re perfectly capable of it. I don’t know if Beth and I should act more, but it was fun. I particularly enjoyed my line; “Mr. Parker, this isn’t The New York Times we’re running here.”

Noah worked on this movie pretty much non-stop for a week. It might have been better if he could have gotten an earlier start because none of the actors had a chance to memorize their lines, which he wrote the night before he filmed each scene—we were all reading them from laptops and other props. But it’s hard to see how he could have gotten much work done on the script before AP exams—he was taking four AP classes this year and then shortly after the exams were over he had to write a thirty-two bar composition for band, a task I think he would have really enjoyed if the assignment had been to write a shorter song. As it was, it took him most of Memorial Day weekend. Anyway, both the song and the movie are finished. He showed the film in class yesterday and while he wasn’t completely satisfied with it (he never is), his teacher loved it. Have a look: https://youtu.be/IetQAG2t3DM. (It’s about five minutes long.)

Noah was able to spend most of last weekend recording Sharon’s speech, adding stock footage, and editing the film because he only had a little bit of calculus and Spanish homework, which he finished Saturday morning. The house was unusually quiet all weekend because he was ensconced in his room working and Beth and North were on a church camping trip from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon.

Noah did take a few breaks, long enough to listen to me read a big chunk of Song of Susannah and to watch Get Out with me. Would you believe I made it more than a year without hearing any significant spoilers about this film and then just a couple months ago basically learned the whole plot? I don’t remember where. Anyway, fifteen months after the rest of you probably saw it, I finally saw this movie, and I enjoyed it very much, even with the spoilers. Noah liked it, too. It’s nice to have someone to watch horror movies with, as Beth is not a fan. He said one of his teachers almost showed it to them earlier this year, but ended up going with The Shawshank Redemption instead as fewer kids had seen it.

As the year comes to a close, a few of his teachers have been showing movies or turning their classes into study halls, especially in the AP classes, which have slowed their pace considerably since the exams are over. Calculus is the only AP class that’s still going full steam, though they read a book of short stories in English and took a test on three hundred vocabulary words after the exam and he’ll be making another movie on biodiversity for AP biology this weekend.

The Concert

Unless something comes up at the last minute, we’ve been to our last end-of-the-year events for North. We attended a church picnic on Memorial Day and the spring chorus concert was on Tuesday. Sadly, Noah couldn’t come because he was still editing the film. North was put out because it’s the second chorus concert he’s missed this year and he also missed The Canterbury Tales in April. I understand their disappointment and I wonder if they will hold it against him as long as my sister held the fact that I missed her performing the lead role in her sixth-grade production of Barnum against me, which is to say, to this day. It’s almost enough to make me wonder if I should require him to go to these things, but North has quite a lot of performances and Noah has quite a lot of homework. At least he saw the honors chorus performance and both School of Rock and Romeo and Julian this year, so he’s batting about .500 and I think he made it to the most important ones.

Beth had quite a long day the day of the chorus concert and Noah had an even longer one. The band was performing at Noah’s school’s graduation and he needed to be at school at 6:30, so Beth set her alarm in order to wake him up at 5:15. This is the second year he’s played at graduation, so I guess he’ll know exactly what to expect next year when he’s one of the ones in a cap and gown.

After an early dinner Beth, North, and I left Noah at work on his film and drove to his school, where the concert would be held. (North’s school has no auditorium so any event that’s too big to fit into the band room is held at Noah’s school.) North had to be there a half hour before the concert started so we parked and North went into the building while Beth and scooted over to the Starbucks that’s around the corner.

When we got back to the school, took our seats, and surveyed the program, I guessed the concert would last between two and two and a half hours, as there were a total of fourteen songs played by the orchestra, the a cappella club, and the combined sixth-grade and advanced chorus and Noah’s eighteen-song concert last month stretched to three hours. But after the orchestra and a cappella club had performed and it was time for intermission, the chorus teacher told us intermission would be short so the concert could resume by eight and finish by eight-thirty. Even though I was enjoying the music—it’s especially nice to hear a middle school orchestra when you’ve recently been attending elementary school orchestra concerts—this was welcome news. I like music, but I’m not a fan of late nights for me or the kids.

I thought the orchestra’s first song, “Tribal Dance” sounded familiar and later North told me they played it in orchestra either in fourth grade or maybe at orchestra camp. I often joke about how often young musicians have to play or sing the popular music of their parents’ youth so I was a little amused that the a cappella group sang “Stand By Me,” which would be more like the music of their grandparents’ youth. Still, they sounded good.

When the chorus took the stage, a teenage boy in the row in front of us said with mock indignance, “It’s 8:05!” but all the exits and entrances and moving about of chairs, music stands, and risers between groups had gone very efficiently so I wasn’t about to complain. North was pleased that the sixth-grade chorus was singing with the seventh and eighth graders at this concert, taking it as a sign they’d improved sufficiently over the course of the year to sing with the older kids. And North got some individual recognition on the program, too, with notations of their status as an Honors Chorus member and a member of Tri-M Music Honor Society, a group North will be President of next year.

North was wearing a rainbow-striped bowtie purchased especially for the concert but it kept coming undone and hanging vertically and they kept fiddling with it all through the chorus’s six songs. I hope this wasn’t too distracting for them. We’ll have to make sure it’s tied more securely at their next concert.

As always, there were songs in different languages-four in English, a pretty song in Latin called “Et in Terra Pax,” and a Nicaraguan folk song called “Todos Quieren La Banana,” during which North and a few other sixth graders played the conga drums. This was a fun bilingual song about how people of all nations love bananas. My favorite of the songs in English might have been the African-American spiritual “Climbin’ Up the Mountain, Children!” but maybe that was just because that’s how the end of the year feels sometimes, especially for my overworked eldest. North preferred “Can You Hear?” during which they played the drums again. The eighth-graders had a song to sing by themselves during which time the sixth and seventh graders held up their lit cell phones, like people used to do with lighters. The concert didn’t end by 8:30 but it was close, around 8:40 rather than the 9:00 or 9:30 I’d predicted.

When we got home Noah was still working and still wearing his band clothes from that morning and since both kids were dressed up at the same time, I thought we should get a picture. He was up until midnight working on the film. He’s still climbing up the mountain. In addition to the biodiversity movie, he also has to make a poster and write and memorize a presentation about Diego Rivera (in Spanish) and both assignments are due Monday and there’s a big calculus packet due Wednesday so it should be a busy weekend, but the summit is in sight, only a little over a week’s journey from here.

The Home Stretch, Part 1: The More Important Thing

The school year is winding down. The kids still have three weeks of school left, but North’s school’s end-of-year awards ceremony was on Wednesday, so we’ve entered the home stretch.

The way these events work is that if your child is being honored you get a letter in the mail, but you don’t find out what which award it is until you arrive.  At Noah’s middle school you didn’t find out until they called your name and you came to the stage. At North’s middle school the names—nine pages of them—are printed in the program. Having experienced both, I can say there are advantages to each system.

The element of surprise keeps it interesting, but it can be stressful, too.  A little background– in seventh grade Noah got an award for perfect attendance, which would have been nice except he didn’t have perfect attendance that year. It was a letdown, as he didn’t get any other awards. At the eighth grade ceremony, I was nervous the whole time, and relieved when he got the award for maintaining a 3.5 or higher GPA for every semester of middle school because that is a bona fide achievement.

So we were able to scan the program when we arrived at the high school cafeteria where the ceremony was being held. We’d guessed the honor would either be North’s honorable mention on the National Spanish Exam, or being nominated for the Tri-M Music honor society, or perhaps both. It was the former, which was near the end of the long program, so we settled in to watch kids file up onto the stage and to clap for them.

I said later if I’d designed the program I’d have called the first section “Do-Gooders” and the second section “Smarty Pants” because it started off with community and school service awards, awards for character traits, club awards, etc. and then moved on to academic awards.

The first awards presented were for the eighth graders’ community projects. It was interesting to hear what kind of projects kids do for this graduation requirement—one kid instituted a composting system in the cafeteria, a group collected feminine hygiene products and bras for women in homeless shelters, etc.  Then we found out which of the sixth and seventh graders were “Balanced,” “Caring,” “Knowledgeable,” and so on, who’d been active in various clubs (including Rainbow Alliance, which caused North to clap enthusiastically), and which middle schoolers had already completed their 75 hours of community service required for high school graduation. Three of them were sixth-graders, which meant they’d done it in just a year.

Then it was time for awards for Music, English, Math, and Science. It was nice to see North’s friend Edwin win the sixth-grade Science Scholar award and a girl who used to be in Scouts with North win an award for both Math and English. Finally, we got to World Languages. Kids in the French immersion program who’d scored a platinum, gold, silver, bronze or honorable mention on a national French test were first on the program, but to our surprise, they weren’t called to the stage by name, just asked to stand in their seats en masse. And it was the same with the Spanish immersion students.

This was a disappointment for North and for us. I’d been looking forward to seeing not just North but their friends Norma and Claire go up to the stage and get their Spanish exam awards, as I’ve known them since the kids were all in elementary school together. And it would have been nice to see North’s new friend Xavier collect his bronze award for the French exam, too. To make matters worse, kids in non-immersion language classes were called to the stage for awards such as most improved. We weren’t alone in being surprised and dismayed. I’m not on the school listserv, but Beth told me the next day there were a lot of irate immersion parents complaining there. I understand that it’s a very long program and they wanted to save time, but this seemed a clumsy way to do it. It might have been better to leave the French and Spanish exam awards off the program all together rather than to treat one group of kids differently than all the rest.

Beth had asked me earlier if we could cut out after North got their award and go for frozen yogurt. I’d been mulling it over, thinking it might be rude to leave in the middle, but I wasn’t in the mood to see any more kids walk up on stage, so we did leave. North took the time to find their friend Giulia, who’d won a gold award on the Spanish exam, to give her a congratulatory hug.

Shortly after we got to Sweet Frog, a boy we know (seventh-grade Spanish immersion Outstanding Linguist) and his mom and older brother arrived and we had a nice talk with them. I used to see his mom or dad every day at the bus stop when our kids (first the older pair, then the younger ones) were in elementary school, but we rarely see each other now, so I was glad about that. 

When they came by our table, Sam’s mom Barb said to North, “What did you get?”

“Cotton candy,” North said, probably figuring she couldn’t see the frozen yogurt under the copious neon-colored gummy products they had piled on it.

Barb explained she meant what award, while acknowledging the frozen yogurt might be “the more important thing.”

And North, who had been indignant a little while earlier, didn’t seem too upset anymore, so maybe it was.

Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too

Thursday: Pre-birthday

“I’ve never been to any part of this hospital other than the emergency room and neurology,” North noted on Thursday morning as we were walking through the corridors of Children’s National Hospital. It was true, we were in a different part of the hospital than the one where we go for the specialist we see about North’s migraines. We had an intake appointment with a doctor, a social worker, and some other staff members in the Gender Development Program. We were there all morning, filling out forms and talking to people. We’re getting into their system now in case we ever need their services. We also signed up to get on the email list for two support groups we may attend, one for trans and non-binary kids and one for their parents. We have a follow-up appointment scheduled for July.

After the appointment was over we dropped North off at school and Beth and I went out for a pre-birthday lunch at Arepas Pues in Silver Spring. It was very good. Beth says she is going to be craving the cilantro sauce that came with the tequeños (fried cheese sticks) because cilantro has that effect on her. Arepas Pues is next to Smoothie King and I remembered I had a frequent buyer card in my wallet I hadn’t used in years because I am not actually a frequent buyer at Smoothie King. But the card was full because I used to be a frequent buyer, back when both kids used to go to drama camp in Silver Spring every spring break and summer and we’d often go get smoothies after camp.

Well, when I tried to redeem the card for a free smoothie, the cashier looked at it like she’d never seen such a thing, then called another employee over, then talked to someone on the phone and the upshot was there was no free smoothie for me. I was mildly annoyed because even though they clearly don’t use these stamp cards any more (they have an app now) the card had no expiration date. It would have been pretty easy to give me a smoothie, but I didn’t make a fuss because I’ve been a young person working retail and I didn’t want to be that customer.

Friday: 51/3 = 17

The next day was my birthday. Fifty-one is kind of an anti-climactic birthday, but it’s pleasing to me that now that Noah is seventeen and I’m fifty-one I’ve been a parent exactly one-third of my life. The day was pretty ordinary, at least until the evening. I sat on the porch and read a short story from this collection as well as the first few pages of Romeo and Juliet because I want to brush up on the play before I see it next weekend (North has a small part as a servant in the Capulet house). Then I finished ghost-writing a blog post on GMOs, exercised, and cleaned the kitchen. I had nice talks with both my sister and my mom on the phone.

When North got home from school I reminded them Beth was going to pick them up in a half hour for an appointment to get their braces off (the first phase is finished now and they have two years’ reprieve before the second phase) and then I left to go to Starbucks to redeem my birthday reward. Here I had better luck and successfully obtained a free iced strawberry-green tea and a couple cake pops.

When I got home North was gone but Noah was home, so we read Wolves of the Calla for almost an hour. We’ve been reading this book since January and we are tantalizingly close to the end, but I knew he’d be studying for AP exams all weekend and it was unlikely we’ll get to it again until next weekend. Then he practiced his bells and drums and Beth and North got back from the orthodontist with no braces and a new retainer and we all piled in the car to go to Highwood Theater.

It was Fine Arts Night, which is part preview for the two shows they have in production (Romeo and Julian and West Side Story) and part open mike night for the kids acting in these or previous Highwood shows. We had to drop North off for rehearsal at 6:30 but the event didn’t start until 8:00, so North while ate at home (a small pizza Beth picked up for them on the way home from the orthodontist), the rest of us had my birthday dinner of wood-fire oven baked pizza with eggplant and mushrooms and Greek salad on the patio of Pacci’s on a near perfect spring evening. We skipped dessert because we were going to have a red velvet-strawberry ice cream cake after the show.

The scenes from Romeo and Julian were the play prologue, the fight scene, and the balcony scene. The play was cast gender-blind and will be performed in modern clothes. Both leads are played by trans boys. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing on Friday. The kids in West Side Story did the scene in which Tony is convinced to come to the dance and the scene in which Maria sings, “I Feel Pretty.” Chances are we’ll go to that show, too, although North’s not in it. We pretty much go to all Highwood shows now because North always has friends in them.

Because kids come back to act in this student-based theater season after season, they get to know each other and they’re bonded. During the open mike part of the show, every single kid got thunderous applause from the other kids and many of them were enveloped in huge group hugs after they sang.  That’s what happened to North after they sang their original song “Guess What?” Beth said later it made her happy that North has found their people. Here’s how the song starts:

Guest what?
I’m not like anybody else
And guess what?
Maybe sometimes I mess it up myself
But guess what?
Maybe someday I’m going to be
Something you could never even see

‘Cause it’s not in my light hair
Not in my blue eyes
Not in my fair skin
Not in my freckles
Not in my big feet
Or the way I hold my tongue
But in the way I sing
And have always sung
‘Cause music takes the bad parts out of everything
And somehow kind of picks and chooses for me
And I love it oh so much
When I need it, it’s my crutch
Music’s always there
For me.

The show was diverse with teens singing songs from musicals, an adorable boy of eight or nine singing “Movin’ Right Along,” from The Muppet Movie, a girl about the same age singing “Octopus’s Garden” and accompanying herself on the ukulele, and a band of high school students that focused on classic rock (Pink Floyd, Toto, and Talking Heads). The teenage girl who sang “Hold the Line,” really rocked it.

The show was a lot of fun, but it was also long, about two hours instead of the one hour we were expecting. I was thinking I might rather delay my cake and presents until the next day (as Noah had the week before) rather than rushing through them at the end of a long day. I still wanted to pick up the cake, though, because Cold Stone was right around the corner, and it seemed silly to go make Beth go back to Silver Spring the next day.

Well, Cold Stone is open after ten on a Friday night, but thinking back to my own days as a Baskin Robbins employee one summer in college, I might have realized this isn’t the best time to pick up a cake. The staff was busy and unprepared for what I assumed would be a simple transaction. (I was in the store alone while Beth and the kids waited in the car.) I thought just giving them Beth’s last name would be enough but apparently there were a lot of cakes in the back and they didn’t have names on them. And because I hadn’t ordered the cake I didn’t know what size it was or if she’d ordered lettering. I said it might say, “Happy Birthday, Steph,” thinking that might narrow things down, but there was no such cake. (I later learned it just said “Happy Birthday.”) Employees kept coming to talk to me and wandering off and then new ones would come. Eventually Beth texted me the receipt and I thought that would help but it didn’t. Finally, they just took a cake from the display freezer and wrote “Happy B-day, Steph” on it right there and then and I was free to leave. It was ten-thirty by the time we got home and everyone went to bed, with no cake.

Saturday: Birthday, Belated

We had the cake after lunch the next day, after I organized a campaign to get everyone to finish their lunches by 12:15 (because North had to leave for rehearsal at 12:45). I opened my presents—an umbrella, headphones, a promise to get my Birkenstocks resoled and to buy Stephen King’s new book The Outsider when it comes out later this month. Earlier I’d received a Starbucks card from my mom and a card telling me Beth’s mom had a tree planted in my name in a national forest. I was very happy with the gifts. Beth’s card said “Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too,” which I thought was funny given the trouble we’d had with the cake.

Sunday: Mother’s Day

The next day was Mother’s Day so there were more gifts. Beth got a pink carnation at the supermarket, where they were giving them away to moms. The kids got Beth some treats—a dark chocolate bar and a bag of chocolate wafer cookies. I got another Starbucks card from Noah and a little herb garden in a pot from North. It has oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and nasturtiums. It was a thoughtful gift, as I’d been saying I thought I’d focus the garden on herbs and flowers this year because I’m tired of squirrels, rabbits, and deer eating our vegetables and melons. I already had basil, chives, cilantro, and parsley in various stages, so this makes a nice assortment. (And because I can’t stop myself sometimes, I do have some lettuce plants in the ground already and cucumber seeds planted in starter pots. And when North brought kale seeds home from church on Mother’s Day, I planted some of those, too, though I’m saving most of them for a fall crop.)

Monday to Thursday

We’re near the end of a busy week for both kids. Noah took four AP exams—in Biology, Calculus BC, English Language and Composition, and World History. He just took the last one this morning. It’s tech week for Romeo and Julian, which means North has had rehearsal until ten o’clock on Monday, Wednesday, and tonight and then the show runs from Friday to Sunday, three evening shows and two matinees.

North also got to go to a ceremony at school honoring kids who were on the honor roll and/or got straight As third quarter. It was their first time getting straight As so that was exciting. And then they were nominated by their chorus teacher to join the Tri-M Music Honor Society and that was even more exciting. Finally, after an article in the school magazine in which North was interviewed about why separating boys and girls in gym class was problematic for non-binary kids, their gym teacher started having them do their pacer tests all together. North is proud to have made a difference. And we’re proud, too.

Life seems full these days, in a good way. I’m appreciating this more keenly because early spring—from early March to mid-April or so—was a hard, out-of-sorts time for me. Now it’s better. It’s like I have my cake and I’m eating it, too.

We Are Headed South: College Tours, Installment #2

Saturday morning I was out of bed by 6:45, which is earlier than I usually am on a week day. The reason was that Beth, Noah, and I were going to an Open House at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which, despite the name, is not a Catholic school. It’s Maryland’s public honors college, located in St. Mary’s city in Southern Maryland. After visiting two professionally-oriented schools over spring break, we thought a liberal arts college would be a good next step. That it’s close, affordable, and rigorous all make it an appealing school to have in the mix.

It takes about two hours to drive to St. Mary’s, a little less on a Saturday morning if you leave the D.C. suburbs just after 7:30, a little more if you are driving back on a Saturday afternoon and hit a little traffic re-entering said metro area. We got to the campus at 9:30 on the dot, parked, registered, picked up a free t-shirt for Noah, sampled the pastry buffet, and found seats on the bleachers in a gym. The floor space was taken up with tables where more teens and parents sat. Noah commented that each presentation crowd gets bigger and he was a little scared of what it would be like at the next college. (At Champlain an administrator made his pitch to just us and one other family; at Emerson there were maybe fifty people. Here there were probably a few hundred.) I started to explain how this was a special event, not just a tour you can sign up for any day and Beth stopped me because he knew that already—he’d just been joking.

We listened to presentations from administrators and a panel of current students. It was a little more detailed than the presentations at other schools and I liked getting the students’ perspective. From there we went to an information fair where the academic departments had booths under a big tent. It was crazy crowded in the tent, so we just picked up some brochures, one for Theater, Film, and Media Studies and one for the music department. I pointed out it would be easier for him to take music classes here, as neither Emerson nor Champlain has a music department, (though Emerson has an arrangement that allows students to take classes at Berklee College of Music).

We strolled about campus a bit before lunch, taking in the scenery, watching students fencing on a quad, and visiting the book store. I was charmed that it had a selection of musical instruments for sale (guitars, ukuleles, and bongo drums) and a whole aisle of art supplies and that there were a lot of books outside the assigned books section. The campus is quite pretty—red brick buildings, a fair amount of green space, woods, and ponds. It’s right on St. Mary’s river. There’s a boat house with boats you can take out on the water and it’s only about a ten-minute drive from the Chesapeake Bay.

We had tickets to eat lunch in the dining hall so we did. Noah wasn’t pleased that there was no pasta on offer at that particular meal and he didn’t care much for the pizza he got. I didn’t try the pizza but what I got seemed decent for cafeteria food. The dining area is an airy space with a soaring wooden ceiling and a lot of light.

We had a campus tour next. Our attention was attracted to the guide by the person in the Sea Hawk costume dancing around near her. (They are serious about the mascot at this school. At Champlain the guide pointed to a beaver weathervane and told us the beaver was the mascot and at Emerson we never even learned if they have one, but those sea hawks are everywhere.) The guide took us to the boat house, a dorm room, and a lecture hall. The rooms can’t compete with the Victorian mansions at Champlain, but the room we saw had a view of a pond and the lecture hall was fairly small (it only seats about sixty), which I think was the point—even your big intro classes won’t be that big here. The campus is so lovely I kind of wish I’d taken some pictures, particularly down by the boat house, but I didn’t want to be the embarrassing mom, so I didn’t.

The whole visit, as we walked around, I was thinking of one of my best friends, Joyce, who went to college at St. Mary’s. It was strange to think we were walking down paths she’d probably walked countless times as a young woman, long before we met as a graduate student (her) and an adjunct (me) sharing a tiny office with five other grad students and adjuncts at George Washington University. Joyce and I both had babies several years after that. Her daughter Gwen is a year younger than Noah. And now they’re in high school, Noah soon to be in college. It hardly seems real sometimes that we could all be so much older, except when it seems very real indeed.

We were back on the road by 1:40, heading back to weekend homework and chores. It was hard to get Noah to say much about what he thought of the school, but that’s par for the course. He rarely makes snap judgments, he needs time to ponder things. When I pressed him at dinner that night, he said he thought Champlain was still his favorite, though everything’s preliminary at this point.

We’re probably done looking at schools until summer, when we’ll visit Oberlin and maybe some other schools in that area. Oberlin is my alma mater and Beth’s; many of you already know we named Noah for the dorm where we met. If I felt pleasantly sentimental yesterday for Joyce as she was a decade before we even met, just imagine that trip.

We Are Headed North: College Tours, Installment #1

Load the car and write the note
Grab your bag and grab your coat
Tell the ones that need to know
We are headed north

From “I and Love and You” by the Avett Brothers

Monday: Takoma Park, MD to Lake George, NY

“I don’t know why they call it a resort,” North said as we drove into Lake George after a long day of driving. “It makes it sound like staying there is your last resort.”

Staying in the picturesque little town on a mountain lake in upstate New York was hardly our last resort. Beth chose it because it was most of the way to Burlington, Vermont, where we’d be touring Champlain College the next day and because of the mountains, although the hokey, brightly colored statuary (Santa Claus, Paul Bunyan, etc.) you often see in family-oriented summer resorts was a bonus.

We had a late dinner at a Chinese/Japanese restaurant and then it was time for showers for two of us, a bath for one of us, and for bed for everyone. North was disappointed it was too late for a swim in the hotel pool, especially since for them hotel pools were one of the selling points of the first portion of the trip, which would be focused squarely on their college-bound brother.

Tuesday: Lake George, NY to Burlington, VT

Beth and North managed to squeeze in a swim the next morning between breakfast in the hotel restaurant and a brief walk to the mostly frozen Lake George, where the kids stood on a dock and threw rocks at the thin edges of the ice. When they ran out of rocks, Noah ran back to shore for more. It reminded me so strongly of how much both kids loved to throw rocks at ice when they were little (and Noah’s complicated scoring system for this activity) that I couldn’t help but smile at Beth. It was like getting a fleeting glimpse of our little boy before we spent two days imagining our young man.

We got coffee and tea from the hotel coffee bar and hit the road at 9:30. We took the scenic route around Lake George but it was hard to tell when it ended because the whole drive to Burlington was scenic, full of tall evergreen trees rising from the snowy woods and mountains ringing lakes.

We got to Burlington in time for a very tasty lunch at a ramen place and then reported to Champlain College for a presentation by an admissions office administrator and a tour of campus by current students. We opted to take the shuttle down to a lakeside part of the campus where the Emergent Media Center is located because Noah is interested in both the film and computer science programs.

Champlain is a small college in a stunningly beautiful location, in the mountains very near Lake Champlain. The larger University of Vermont is in the same town so Burlington has a nice, funky college town feel. The campus is lovely, too. First-year students live in nineteen Victorian mansions. The rooms are all different shapes and a far cry from your standard cinder block-walled dorm room.

We knew Champlain had a pre-professional focus but I don’t think any of realized how pre-professional it was until we heard the presentation. That could be a plus or a minus (or both) but it’s definitely something to think about.

We were done by three-thirty, so we headed back to the hotel room and North, who had sat patiently through a boring (to them) presentation and walked around campus a bit hobbled from a twisted ankle got to swim for the second time that day. Beth and I partook of the pool as well—I swam laps for almost an hour in the tiny pool—and we all used the hot tub.

We had dinner at a fabulous vegetarian restaurant. Everything was good but the highlight was probably one of the two entrees Beth and I ordered to share—seitan with garlic mashed potatoes and spinach, though the sweet potato-mushroom soft tacos were very good, too, as was the guacamole in wonton wrappers. We all got different flavors of cake for dessert and shared bites with everyone else. Mine was maple because we were in Vermont and it seemed the thing to do. (We also got a tin of maple syrup at the college bookstore.)

Wednesday: Burlington, VT to North Truro, MA, via Boston MA

We hit the road shortly before nine and drove to Boston where Beth navigated heavy traffic amid confusing directions from Siri. We arrived in time for a quick lunch at a taqueria around the corner from Emerson College. Then we did the admissions presentation/tour thing again.

Being in downtown Boston, Emerson has a very different, more bustling feeling than Champlain, so that made for a nice contrast. The buildings that house the classrooms, labs, offices, and dorm rooms are all high rise buildings interspersed with non-college buildings along one city block. There’s no real campus, but it is right on Boston Common, so there’s nearby green space. Like Champlain, Emerson also has a pre-professional focus, but in addition to the communications, media, and film classes that attracted Noah there’s a robust performing arts program that piqued North’s interest. They’d been prepared to be bored again but by the end of the tour, which was conducted by two very animated performing arts majors, they were saying they would like to go to Emerson.

Noah was more reserved. It takes him a while to form opinions but he seems mildly positive about both schools, not sure if he’ll apply or not, but considering it. Of the two, he had a slight preference for Champlain. He thought it had a broader curriculum outside the majors. (I had the opposite impression, which just goes to show you how different people walk away from these presentations with different impressions.)

All week I’d been seeing Facebook posts from people I know with high school juniors who were doing exactly what we were doing, which made it feel like a communal experience. (Going into Emerson we also ran into a boy who’s been in all three magnets Noah’s attended, ever since fourth grade. I guess it’s not too surprising, as the last two magnets have been communications-focused.)  Some families had more ambitious itineraries than we did—we know one family that did seven schools in five days, but two felt like enough for now. Our next school will probably be St. Mary’s (Maryland’s public honors college) later this month, so Noah can see a more traditional liberal arts school, but for this trip we were done touring schools. It was hard for Noah to get started choosing schools and I was just glad he’d begun the process. Now we could relax a little with the R&R portion of our trip.

We left Boston immediately after the tour because we were heading for Cape Cod, where we’d spend the next three nights and two days. On the way to the Cape, we stopped to see Plymouth Rock and to eat dinner at Friendly’s. We were staying in North Truro, which is close to Provincetown.

Provincetown is a special place for Beth and me. We road tripped out there the spring break of my junior and her senior year of college, exactly thirty years ago, and then in the nineties and in 2000, we spent several Memorial Day weekends there because Beth was working for HRC and their retail store used to open for the season that weekend. Beth would help set up the computers in the store while I wandered the town and the beach. Often we stayed in houses with friends of hers from HRC. It was always a fun time. The last time we were in Provincetown, Beth wasn’t working at HRC anymore, but we came up again for Memorial Day weekend in 2004 when Noah was three, to hang out with HRC folks during their off hours and to play with Noah on the beach.

Thursday and Friday: North Truro, MA and Provincetown, MA

The first night we were in our beach house the thermostat went haywire and sent temperatures in the house soaring to ninety degrees. We had to open the windows in the middle of the night (it was in the thirties outside) to try to get the house down to a reasonable temperature until Beth could apply herself to the problem the next morning. She did fix it and the house, a charming, low-ceilinged, nineteenth-century home, was comfortable the rest of our stay. That morning while we were waiting for the house to cool down, the kids and I enjoyed the somewhat cooler enclosed porch.

Sadly, Noah didn’t get to relax as much as the rest of us. While we were on the road, he hadn’t done any schoolwork and he had a lot, so most of the time we were on the Cape, he was working. Beth and I went for a walk along a pond and down to the nearby bay beach about a mile from the house while he worked on an overdue AP biology chapter. North stayed at the house, too, wanting to rest their ankle. (North did get Noah to try out the backyard hammock.)

It was a sunny day in the forties, but it felt warmer. There was mist over the water that made it hard to see where the land on either side of the water ended and also where horizon was. We walked along the sand a bit and then got supplies for a picnic at a little corner grocery near the house. All four of us got in the car and drove to the Truro Lighthouse, where we ate bread, cheese, pickles, olives, chips, macaroni salad, one orange shared between us, and chocolate-covered cashews, all spread out on a bench on an observation platform at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Next we drove to Head of the Meadows beach where we rambled on the beach, finding pretty rocks until Noah asked to go back to the house and Beth drove him there, then swung back to get me so Beth, North, and I could wander through Provincetown, window-shopping in the mostly closed stores. We did find an open bakery (not the Portuguese bakery we used to frequent—it was opening for the season in two days) but somewhere we could get hot drinks and baked goods. And then we found a candy store where we needed to buy chocolate rocks, and molasses taffy, and lemon and maple fudge and I don’t know what else. As we were sitting outside the store, a passerby informed us Spiritus (our favorite pizza place in P-town) was having its annual free slice day. We were too full to have a slice each, but we walked over there and got one to split between the three of us. We also visited the long causeway of boulders that goes to the beach. I used to love this walk (which takes about forty-five minutes each way) but North wasn’t up to it, so we walked far out enough to inspect a recent shipwreck and turned back.

We went back to the house and I tackled the laundry we’d accumulated thus far on the trip and then we all went out to dinner at a nice restaurant where we got vegetable alfredo, mushroom ravioli and curried tofu with apple chutney.

The next morning I was out of bed early, by 6:35, because rain was predicted to start as early as ten and possibly last all day and I wanted to go for a walk on the beach. Well, it never did rain, other than a few sprinkles, so I got in three walks. The first two were at the bay beach. It was called Cold Storage beach. I’m not sure why. I wondered if people dug root cellars into the sandy cliffs back in the day.

It was a cloudy, windy day even though it didn’t rain, and it felt colder than the day before. I had to keep moving so as not to get chilled. In between the two walks I went back to the house to warm up and fold laundry. When I returned, the tide had come in considerably and there wasn’t much room to walk between the water and the base of the cliffs. I found a platform in front of one of the boarded up shacks (storage units? changing rooms? showers?) on the beach. It was satisfying to be standing there as the biggest waves went right under the boards where I stood, as close as I could get to being in the water this time of year.

On the way back to the house, I stopped by the little grocery store and got a baguette and some maple-smoked cheddar cheese that had tempted me the day before. With these additions, we had a smorgasbord lunch of picnic and restaurant leftovers.

After lunch, for my third beach jaunt of the day, Beth drove me to Race Point and dropped me off so she and North could go browse the shops in Provincetown again. I spent over two hours walking and sitting. It’s a broad beach on the ocean side with a lighthouse and big dunes. After I’d walked a bit, I found a cleft in them and I thought it might be sheltered from the wind in there and a good place to sit if you could still see the ocean, but it turned out to be windier than the beach. I was intrigued by the shapes the wind had sculpted into the sand there and I considered exploring, but sand was blowing in my face, so I left.

When Beth and North picked me up North showed me a button they’d bought that had a unicorn and the word Queer on it. They’d seen a t-shirt in the window of the HRC store they liked, but the store wasn’t open for the season yet, so Beth ordered it for them online. Beth was disappointed, too, because she wanted to see if anyone she knew would be working there. We swung by a coffee/ice cream shop where I got a latte to help warm myself up and Beth, who hadn’t been walking on a windy beach got ice cream. (North got a bagel.)

Back at the house, I folded more laundry, and then Beth and I went back to Provincetown to pick up pizza from Spiritus to eat at home in front of the television because it was the day the second season of Series of Unfortunate Events was released. We’ve been waiting for this for over a year, so we settled in with our pizza and Easter-themed cupcakes (they had Cadbury mini eggs in the frosting and a whole Cadbury egg baked inside each one) to watch the first two episodes, which correspond to the novel The Austere Academy. It was highly satisfactory. The actress playing Carmelita is spot on. One addition I particularly liked was that the mascot of the Prufrock Prep is a dead horse and at pep rallies, the students chant: “What can’t be beat? A dead horse!”

Once North was in bed, Noah and I read a little bit of Wolves of the Calla. We’d been so busy we hadn’t read much (only once in the hotel in Lake George) so that was nice.

Saturday: North Truro, MA to Takoma Park, MD

In the morning we packed and left. There was a chalkboard in the kitchen where I’d written “SDL was here,” with a peace sign underneath shortly after we arrived. I added “Now she’s not,” with a frowning face underneath. Shortly before we left I regarded the stones I’d collected on the beach,  a couple that were translucent white and peach when wet but didn’t look as impressive dry and a few speckled ones. I decided to leave them at the house.

We went into town and picked up pastries at the Portuguese bakery, which had just opened that morning. I knew I used to have a regular order there but it’s been nearly fourteen years so I wasn’t sure what it was. I remembered it was one with a Portuguese name, so I chose two, a tiny tart filled with ground almonds and a sweet potato-filled pastry. We drove out to the causeway to eat. Once I bit into the sweet potato pastry I knew I’d picked the right one. We lingered a bit, walking out on the rocks, inspecting the shipwreck up close again and admiring the water and the dunes. No one was in a hurry to get on the road, but a little before ten we did and after a seven-state, thirteen-hour, too-many-podcasts-to-count drive, we were home.

You Never Know

Tuesday and Wednesday: Walkouts

“There was a lot of drama at school today,” North said as soon as they were through the door on Tuesday afternoon.

“What kind of drama?” I asked.

“A fistfight and a walkout,” they answered.

Apparently a seventh grader pushed North and a friend of theirs out of the way as they walked to the locker room after gym class and it ended up getting physical between North’s friend and the girl who started it. North’s friend got a lunch detention and the other girl got three. North was named as a witness on an official form.

The other, more schoolwide drama was that there was an attempted walkout to protest gun violence. At first North said kids left campus and went to downtown Silver Spring, although they later amended their story to say they weren’t sure where they went, or if they even managed to leave the building. There were two kids who left North’s Spanish class, on the pretense of going to the bathroom and never returned, but neither of the escapees has a class with North later in the day so it wasn’t clear if those kids came back for their other classes.

There was a robocall from the school that night explaining that some students had been planning to walk out and outlining some alternative forums the school had provided and would provide the next day during lunch and after school for students to air their views. The call went on to report that students at several local high schools were planning to walk out the following day to attend a rally on Capitol Hill and urged parents to tell their middle school students not to join that walkout. The odd thing about the call was that it never clarified the very thing North didn’t know—whether any kids successfully left the building. I say this is odd because in the past whenever there’s been a call about an incident at school it’s always been clear what happened.

I had foreseen the possibility of a walkout at Noah’s school in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and I’d already told him if there was one and if he took part he wouldn’t get in trouble at home. I hadn’t even thought to tell North the same thing (or something different). I guess I just didn’t expect it of middle schoolers.

“You beat us!” Noah exclaimed at dinner when North was telling us about it. He was planning to  participate in the walkout the following day and North wanted to as well. Beth and I considered it, because we want to encourage the kids to speak their minds and be politically active, and I think we might have said yes if North knew a big group of kids who were going and would promise to stick together, but they were unable to confirm that any of their friends were going and from their middle school to Capitol Hill is a longer trip on public transportation than they’ve ever made solo before. More important, there was the sometimes chaotic environment of a protest to consider. A month shy of twelve didn’t seem old enough to navigate it alone and I didn’t think they could necessarily find their brother in the crowd.

We told them there will be other opportunities to protest. There’s going to be 17-minute walkout in mid-March, one minute for each student killed—and I hope their school will accommodate it, as it’s a much more modest action. There will also be a march in D.C. on the first day of spring break we’re all planning to attend together. North seemed to accept our decision. And as it turned out all the students at North’s school who attempted to leave on Wednesday were stopped by security so all our deliberation was moot. (A seventh-grade boy from North’s bus stop found himself in the same position as North so he made a sign for his tenth-grade brother to take to the protest.)

As for Noah’s school, there was no warning call to parents and when the principal spoke about the walkout on the P.A. the day before it happened, she noted the school did not officially sanction it and then helpfully provided the time and destination of the protest. “She all but encouraged us to go,” Noah said. After the fact the school was retweeting a member of the County council praising Blair students for exercising their First Amendment rights. One of Noah’s teachers said anyone who didn’t go would have an alternate assignment, basically making going to the rally the default position.

So Noah left for school Wednesday morning without even taking his binder, attended his AP biology class, and then between that class and the next one, walked out with hundreds of his classmates. Here’s a picture of them from an MSN tweet. Noah’s in the green t-shirt. They walked to the Metro and rode into the city, where they rallied in front of the Capitol, listened to our Congressional representative Jamie Raskin and several students from different high schools speak.

Back at home, I was watching coverage of it on Representative Raskin’s Facebook page on and off for hours. There were thirteen hundred students from several Montgomery County high schools there, according to the school district. The students carried signs that said, “Is Our School Next?” and “My Life > Your Guns,” and they chanted, “Enough is enough,” “Our blood, your hands,” “Hey, hey, NRA. You can’t beat the PTA,” and “Hey, hey, NRA. How many kids did you kill today?” They were full of anger and hope and beauty and promise. It was all I could do not to cry, I was so proud of all of them.

From the capitol, the students marched to the White House and around 1:30 or so, the rally broke up. Noah got himself some pizza and then dropped by Beth’s office, where he spent the rest of the afternoon, attending the retirement party of one of Beth’s colleagues and enduring hugs and exclamations about how big he’d gotten from people who hadn’t seen him since he was a little boy and liked to go to Beth’s office on snow days and school holidays.

He came home a little sunburned on his nose and neck (it was a sunny day of record-breaking heat—82 degrees at National Airport) and saying he wanted to find Representative Raskin’s speech online, because he hadn’t been able to hear any of it. That’s so often true at protests. I didn’t hear a word of any of the speeches at the Women’s March last year.

Back at school the next day he said his teachers were congratulating the kids and there was only one assignment Noah missed and would not be allowed to make up (in band), so the walkout was close to consequence-free for him. “The resisting authority part of it didn’t really work,” he joked.

Even if it isn’t exactly braving fire hoses and police batons and dogs as children and adolescents did fifty-five years ago in Birmingham, young people all over the country are answering the call of their grieving and angry peers in Florida and because of their leadership just a week a half after the shootings some modest action on gun control seems at least possible. Republicans are talking about banning bump stocks, expanding background checks, and raising the minimum age for gun purchases. Companies are severing ties with the NRA left and right. It remains to be seen if any legislative change will actually happen, but even to be hearing these proposals taken seriously seems like a big deal.

Saturday: Working People’s Day of Action Rally

Three days after the student walkouts, on a damp, foggy morning, Beth and I took the Metro into the city and joined members of her and many other unions at a rally in Freedom Plaza in anticipation of arguments in the Janus vs. AFSCME case at the Supreme Court on Monday.

When we arrived someone was onstage singing “We Will Resist” to the tune of “I Will Survive.” There were speeches by union members and union leaders—including a rather fiery one by the President of CWA—and elected officials (Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia). Taking note of what’s on everyone’s mind these days, at least two people speaking in support of public sector unions noted that the teachers who were killed defending students at Parkland and Sandy Hook were union members.

I can’t say I felt as much hope that something might change soon at this rally—in fact, a few of the speakers seemed to acknowledge that the case is likely to be decided the wrong way, largely because of Neil Gorsuch’s ill-gotten seat on the Supreme Court. But you never know what might happen. Supreme Court decisions do sometimes surprise and a couple weeks ago I would have said the gun control debate was settled when twenty first-graders and six brave teachers and school staff died at Sandy Hook and even that couldn’t move the needle. But even though I felt that way I kept writing checks for gun control and for much the same reason, I go to rallies for things that seem as if they might be lost causes… because you just never know.

Things Happen

Let’s make a list of all the things the world has put you through
Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to
I don’t know what else you wanted me to say to you
Things happen, that’s all they ever do

From “Things Happen,” by Dawes

California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day

From “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter’s night with you

From “Song for a Winter’s Night” by Gordon Lightfoot 

Such a Winter’s Day: Wednesday

“Snow day!” The kids were hugging each other and dancing around while I grimly unloaded the dishwasher a little after seven on Wednesday morning.

“It’s not a snow day,” I said. “It’s a wet sidewalk day.”

That’s really all it was. There wasn’t even any ice. At least on Monday when we’d had a two-hour delay there was a little ice here and there on the sidewalk. I was a good sport about that delay. I was in a good mood because I’d managed to get North registered for the musical drama camp at the recreation center. It’s gotten very popular in recent years and it can sell out almost instantly. I was online one minute after registration started and in the twelve minutes it took me to register for Into the Woods, Peter Pan sold out. North had hoped to do both, but I felt lucky enough getting them into their first choice because camp registration in our area is nearly as crazy-making as the snow day determination process. We took advantage of the delay to walk to Starbucks on the not-so-treacherous sidewalks and got some celebratory tea, getting home just in time for North to board their bus at nine-forty.

On Wednesday, if I were a more selfless person, I could have been happy about the day off because Noah certainly needed it. Second semester was only a week and a half old but it had been a brutal week and a half. He’d just been constantly slammed with work, even more than usual. He had a thousand-word essay about social media due Wednesday he couldn’t even start until nine Tuesday night because of other assignments. Even though he stayed up late, a two-hour delay probably wouldn’t have allowed him to finish. He asked me if that made me feel differently about the prospect of a snow day and I was honest with him, saying it didn’t. If you’ve been reading here a while or if we’re friends of Facebook, you know I am not completely rational on the subject of snow days, especially when we’ve gone over the limit, which we now have.

I’ve also noticed that Facebook discussions of snow days among Montgomery County parents have a depressing similarity. 1) Someone (sometimes me) complains. 2) Friends chime in in agreement about the absurdity of cancelling school for some wet cement or a dusting of snow or whatever it is. 3) Eventually someone says something about conditions upcounty, which as my friend Megan once noted, must be a land of frozen tundra inhabited mostly by reindeer. 4) Then someone (sometimes me) wonders why we can’t divide the district into different zones so we don’t have to cancel every time there’s a snowflake upcounty. If it’s me, I note this is how my school district did it when I was a kid. 5) Then someone says something about magnet programs bussing kids from one part of the county to another and I start feeling hopeless about people’s inability to agree on practical solutions for not just this but any kind of problem in any context and then I fantasize about unfollowing people who annoy me and usually don’t.

I watched all this unfold exactly as it always does on Monday when a friend of mine who complains much less than I do about school cancellations finally lost it. She’s got a preschooler and those two-hour delays we have almost every week mean morning preschool is cancelled. After reading that conversation and considering how it doesn’t actually make me feel any better, I decided I’d just go silent on Wednesday if there was a snow day. But I didn’t quite manage it because I’d posted the night before about the suspense of waiting and when and out-of-town friend said she hoped the weather wasn’t too bad, I answered that it was just rain and the conversation went from steps 1 to 3. With some effort, I refrained from saying anything about 4, which stopped us from getting to 5, so I guess that’s progress.

So…back to Wednesday morning. I’d heard the song “Things Happen” a few days earlier and it got me thinking about how my martyred feelings about snow days are all out of proportion, and possibly annoying to those around me, so I tried to imagine the frustrated speaker of the song quoted above telling me, “things happen” to see if that could help me snap out of it. It didn’t really, but it did help me think about whether there was anything within my power that could make the day better.

I decided to get out of the house so I could have at least a little of the solitude I’m used to having every weekday. I thought this would make it less likely I’d snap at the kids, who’d done nothing to deserve it. We needed milk anyway, so at 7:25, a time at which I’m often still in bed, I was dressed and standing at the bus stop. I got to the co-op before it opened and I settled myself at a table at the bakery across the street with a cup of Earl Gray tea, a cherry turnover, and the front section of the Post. When I’d finished it I went to the co-op, got the milk and some apples and tangerines because we were running low on fruit and I’m often ghost writing blog posts about how fruit and vegetables will improve your mood and who knows, it might be true. As extra insurance, I got some dark chocolate, too.

Soon after I got home and started working, North told me they were going to bake something and I could choose what it would be “so you’ll feel better.” I suggested oatmeal cookies.  North’s concern for me didn’t extend far enough to include raisins or walnuts in half the cookies as I requested but they were very good nonetheless.

So I worked and Noah worked and a friend of North’s came over in the late morning and stayed most of the day. The two of them walked up to the 7-11 in the rain and came back with coke and Cheetos and fruit cocktail and then made quesadillas. Olivia said it was “a feast.” Then they disappeared into North’s room for hours and watched television. It was something with a laugh track I could hear from my desk in the corner of the living room. I had nothing to say about the nutritional value of the lunch or the intellectual quality of the entertainment. As Noah noted earlier in the day, “Steph has given up.”

I hadn’t completely, though. I was hoping the day off might mean Noah could practice his bells or we could read Wolves of the Calla and that would put in a little fun in the day for both of us, but his homework swelled to take up all the available time, as so often happens. When he finished his paper, he started on the calculus homework due the next day and it took him until bedtime. When I went to bed that night I was just relieved the day was over and I fell asleep almost at once, which rarely happens.

Songs for Two Winter’s Nights: Friday and Saturday

But the next day Noah had only one short assignment for Spanish, so he did play his bells and on Friday we read Wolves of the Calla for almost an hour. It was a good chapter, too, the one in which Mia is introduced. At ten of six, he and I left for the winter coffeehouse at North’s middle school because North was going to perform a song with Zoë. They’d chosen to sing Frère Jacques in a round in French, English, and Spanish, the three official languages of their school (which houses both a Spanish and French immersion program).

The coffeehouse was held in the band room, which has amphitheater seating. There were chairs on all the levels.  In front of the chairs, there were little tables with glasses filled with beads for decoration and to make it look a bit like a café—there was also a painting of an outdoor café hanging from the whiteboard at the front of the room. This was kind of funny given that no food or drink was allowed in the room, but there were free refreshments, including actual coffee, on offer in the hallway during intermission.

For a couple hours kids played classical and folk tunes on the violin and sang songs by Adele, Christina Aguilera, and Cyndi Lauper as well as one from The Greatest Showman. There was a beginners’ rock band and an accomplished jazz combo. A seventh-grader I’ve known since he and North were toddlers waiting with their parents at their older brothers’ elementary school bus stop did a fantastic job playing a song called “Riley’s Rhapsody” on the keyboard. Nearly every kid who performed was very talented. It was a nice evening. Zoë left with us and we went out for pizza at Pete’s in Silver Spring, then home, where everyone got to bed at least an hour after his, her, or their bedtime.

The next night we were out even later, attending Sankofa, a celebration of Black History Month at Noah’s school. The framing device was a tour group going through the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Actors dressed as statues of people featured in the museum would be wheeled out on platforms and then they’d step off the platform and speak. As the visitors moved through the museum, there were music, dance, and poetry performances. There were hundreds of kids in the cast and the display of talent  and the thought and creativity that went into the script was just astounding.

As enjoyable as these performances were, I can’t say I was completely relaxed about two consecutive late nights because other than snow days, bedtime is one of my biggest hang ups. I’m getting better about it, though, as evidenced by the fact that I agreed to these plans.

And as you know, things happen. That’s all they ever do.

A Strange Halloween

Before Halloween

As I mentioned earlier, North went on the MCPS sixth-grade outdoor education field trip this week. They left on Monday morning and returned Wednesday afternoon. In some ways, this trip seemed less momentous than when Noah went on it because when he went it was the first time he’d been away from home and not in the care of relatives. I didn’t blog about it because he told us almost nothing about whatever happened on that trip. Really, it was something like, “we saw a snake and a turtle.” But I do remember missing him sharply, even though he was away less than three days. North on the other hand has been to sleepaway camp the past three summers, so I was used to the separation and didn’t faze me. But in other ways it was more complicated than Noah’s Outdoor Ed experience because the kids’ sleeping quarters were segregated by gender and this was distressing to North.

I should say here that the school has been pretty accommodating of North’s new gender identity. They are permitted to use the unisex restroom in the nurse’s office and the counsellor has briefed all their teachers on their preferred name and pronouns. Most of the teachers (with one exception) are on board and most of the kids who know have taken it in stride (again with one exception). But it took a while to figure out how we’d handle the housing problem.

North didn’t want to sleep in the girls’ area and they didn’t want to be all alone in a separate room and those were the choices on offer, either that or come home both nights. Coming home wasn’t an ideal solution because Outdoor Ed is supposed to be a team-building exercise for the class and breaking it up into three pieces would compromise that. Plus, Beth would have to drive forty-five minutes to Rockville to fetch them Monday night and then forty-five minutes back home and then do it all over Tuesday morning, Tuesday evening, and Wednesday morning. But if North chose the separate room, Beth would have to miss work, so she could act as a chaperone because they weren’t allowed to be alone overnight. This wasn’t ideal either, but that’s what North chose. I have to admit I asked if they could consider sleeping in the girls’ area just to simplify things. After all, only a few months ago they were quite happily attending Girl Scout sleep-away camp. They were not open to the idea, to say the least.

Beth drove North to school Monday morning. In the rush, they forgot the bag lunch they were supposed to bring so Beth gave them the apple slices and crackers from her lunch—North didn’t want the garlic cheese curds. When I found the forgotten lunch on the couch, it made me a little sad to see the plain brown bag.  I decorated every elementary school field trip lunch bag, covering them with stickers, and even though I didn’t think I’d keep doing it in middle school (for one thing North’s making their own lunch now). I hadn’t even thought about how I wasn’t doing it until that moment. Always with the growing up…

Anyway, I learned from Beth that when they arrived at school kids were piling their luggage up into two piles—boys’ and girls’. So rather than just dropping North off as planned, Beth parked the car and found the sixth-grade team leader to find out where North should leave their luggage. He said in either pile was fine—North was on both lists. But this is the whole point for North. They don’t want to choose, so Mr. O took their luggage with him.

Beth went from the middle school to work, came home, raved over the dinner of butternut squash fritters, apple slices, and vegetarian sausage I’d made (maybe because all she had for lunch was cheese curds and she was very hungry), and then she drove out to the environmental education facility, where she’d stay until Wednesday morning. (The kids would be there until Wednesday afternoon.)

Monday evening I kept thinking of how my time alone with Noah could be fun—we could read Stephen King, watch scary movies, put the finishing touches on the Halloween decorations—if only he didn’t have so much homework. Instead, on Monday he did a calculus packet, finished a biology lab report, and read and answered questions on a chapter of his biology textbook. I told him he should go trick-or-treating Tuesday no matter what his homework load, and he agreed.

Halloween

But he didn’t get a lot of homework on Tuesday and when he got home from school on Halloween, he got the electric things and the fog machine working, then read an essay about the role of joy in various ancient religious traditions for his World History class. Because he finished shortly before dinner time, we even snuck in a little Wizard and Glass. It was only fifteen minutes, but I’d hoped to read with him while Beth and North were out of town, so it made me happy.

Meanwhile, I got occasional updates from Beth—they were learning about watersheds and had done a Predator/Prey simulation. North was a carnivore and Beth was a habitat-destroying developer. “Not cast to type,” was her comment. Later she said they were going to see a presentation by someone called Reptile Man, who I assumed was a man who spoke about and displayed reptiles and not a half-reptile, half-man mutant. But you never know, it was Halloween. (Later there was photographic evidence of Reptile Man’s giant albino python.) The kids also watched a little of Ghosthunters on Icy Trails, but they didn’t have time to finish it. (This was one of my pet peeves at a kid. I hated it when we’d see just part of a movie in school.)

Noah set out to trick or treat around seven, and I listened to my new Halloween playlist almost twice through, read Austerlitz, looked at Facebook photos of all your kids in their adorable or gruesome Halloween costumes, and occasionally gave out candy, from the time the first trick or treater, a teenage boy in some sort of mod get up, arrived at 6:40 during “Werewolves of London” until the last two, a chef and a detective, arrived at 8:30 during the second playing of “Vampire Girl.” We didn’t get too many kids, probably less than a dozen. I kept thinking I heard people on the porch but usually it was just the fog machine switching itself on and off.

Noah came home and reported that among the people who gave him candy were a former employee of Equifax and someone who works for the federal government and is investigating Equifax. They both appreciated his costume. Noah and I blew out the candles and unplugged all the electronic things around 9:10, but I left the porch light on another fifteen minutes or so, just in case someone else came. It was a strange Halloween, without Beth and North, and I didn’t feel quite finished.

Day of the Dead

Beth dropped by the house the next morning, after Noah had left for school. She said everyone did a lot of walking outside and the kids made masks and the teachers were in costume. The theme was fantasy football so they were dressed partly in football jerseys but with wardrobe elements fantasy characters would wear. It was a nod to Halloween, I guess.

That afternoon I went to North’s school to pick them up. We went to the nurse’s office to get the vitamins and Lactaid they’d taken to Outdoor Ed and while we were there we had to iron out a detail about permission for North to use the nurse’s bathroom. We handled the vitamin pickup first and during this discussion the nurses kept referring to North as “he,” even though the name we’d written on the bottle was “June,” as we still use that name for official business. This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone take North for a boy since they got their hair cut short and started wearing more boyish clothes, but it still startles me. I let it go until we got the vitamins back, then I explained the situation with North’s gender identity and the bathroom to both nurses. They seemed open to the idea and then seemed to recall they’d heard something about a kid needing to use the nurse’s restroom, but they hadn’t been introduced to North. It’s a big school and sometimes communication isn’t seamless.

As we approached the bus stop, we saw a 12 pulling away. I knew it would be twenty minutes before the next one, but I didn’t really mind. I knew I was more likely to hear details about Outdoor Ed while we were in transit than once we got home, and I did. North cut their arm falling in the creek while taking water samples, they enjoyed the confidence exercise (a sort of obstacle course), there was a campfire. The predator/prey exercise was fun. They saw many snakes, not just the python. The food was okay, but not great. The vegetarians had cheese dippers, which they describe as an inferior sort of mozzarella stick with the tomato sauce on the inside, way too many times. All in all, they seemed happy with the experience and eager to get home and see how much candy I’d saved for them. I asked if they’d like to light the jack-o-lanterns one last time that evening, since it was still Day of the Dead, and they said yes.

I made a pumpkin-apple cake with a cinnamon-pecan glaze to celebrate everyone being home together and Noah wanted to know if we could have cake every time we were all at dinner together. North made dessert, too, little sugar skulls molded of a powdered sugar-and-water paste, and with that little gesture, our strange Halloween was over.

Secondary

Almost a week ago, on Columbus Day, we visited the kids’ schools to observe their classes. This was our first parent visitation day with both kids in secondary school. It’s a little more complicated than when at least one of them was in elementary school because there are more classes you can potentially visit, and no set time you’re supposed to come. If you have only one kid and you want to, you can follow him, her, or them around from class to class all day long. But we have two kids. Beth was in favor of spending most or all our time at the middle school because A) It’s a new school to us whereas Noah’s in his third year of high school; B) North had a bit of a bumpy start to middle school, though things are improving; and C) North was more interested in having us observe their classes than Noah was. As in they would have been perfectly happy for us to tail them all day and he wouldn’t have minded if we’d skipped the event entirely.

I wasn’t ready to skip the high school, though. At Back to School Night at the middle school in September, Beth and I needed to split up because there was a meeting for 11th and 12th grade CAP parents the same night. We started Back to School night together but Beth only got to hear the gym and chorus teachers’ presentations before she had to leave so she hadn’t met most of North’s teachers and I had. And because I hadn’t been to the CAP meeting, I felt less familiar with Noah’s teachers and the eleventh-grade CAP curriculum, so I wanted to see at least one of his classes. The two I most wanted to see weren’t contiguous, so we decided to attend North’s Spanish and pre-algebra classes, plus part of World Studies before we cut out for lunch and then over to the high school to see Noah’s research methods class.

North was in a partial Spanish immersion program in elementary school and that continues into middle school (the school also houses a partial French immersion program). They have an hour and a half Spanish class that meets daily and they also have World Studies taught in Spanish, which is a change from elementary school when they had math and science in Spanish. All in all, it comes to about a third of the week in Spanish.

Spanish class was also the first class we saw on visitation day. The students began with a warm up in which they had to sort the words in a sentence into the different parts of speech. Then there was a lesson on adjectives. In North’s elementary school immersion program there was almost no grammar instruction, which I think makes sense for the early grades, but with both kids I noticed their Spanish grow by leaps and bounds in kindergarten, slow in first and second grade and then stall out in third grade. I think introducing grammar earlier would have helped, but I’m glad they are getting that now. I’ve heard from parents of older kids in the immersion program that their Spanish really improves in sixth grade.

The kids watched some videos in Spanish and spent some time working on the third drafts of the letters they are writing to their future (eighth-grade) selves. I couldn’t quite catch if they will actually be given the letters back when they are in eighth grade, but it would be cool if that was the case. Señor L seems warm and friendly and his room is decorated with prints of art by Latin American artists (I recognized some Diego Rivera), sombreros, flags from Spanish-speaking countries and pennants from all the houses of Hogwarts. That’s because he’s a big Harry Potter fan, and is reading the first Harry Potter book to them, in ten to fifteen minute increments every day. At first, I thought it would be more educational to read something written in Spanish, rather than a book translated from English, but then I realized it’s easier to follow along when you already know the story, as most of them do.

Señor L has also promised the class a pizza party once they’ve gone a certain number of days without him hearing anyone speak English all class. The chart they use to track their progress, is of course, a pie chart, or rather a pizza chart, with the number of slices growing. He showed it to them near the end of class.

There was a between periods session of PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports), in which the kids in North’s homeroom had to brainstorm about respectful behavior in various locations in the school. It was well-intentioned, but I’m not sure a kid inclined to start a food fight in the cafeteria or stand up on the bus would be deterred by remembering in PBIS they talked about how that was not respectful behavior.

North’s pre-algebra class was working on using equations to solve problems about ratios (fractions and percentages), using something called the butterfly method. They worked in small groups and then presented their work to the class. The problems had to do with figuring out what percentage of her great-grandmother’s age a girl was, what was ratio of different species to each other in a pet store, or how to calculate a restaurant bill (with tax and tip) and then figure out how to choose a dessert to add to the order without going over budget. The kids seemed engaged but they got a bit rowdy at times.

The last class we visited was World Studies. I wanted Beth to see Señora P’s room, which I’d seen at Back to School Night, because it’s gorgeous, with almost all the walls covered in colorful murals, but class was being held in the media center (and mostly in English) because they were hearing a presentation by a librarian about how to take notes in preparation for a research project on ancient Egypt. The tables were all labelled with professions (artisan, embalmer, farmer, pharaoh, scribe, etc.) and heaped with books about ancient Egypt because later they were going to divide into groups and practice taking notes from the books on their chosen profession. We didn’t see that, though, because we left about twenty minutes into class to grab lunch at Lincoln’s BBQ before heading to the high school. (Verdict: vegetarian options there are okay but not great, though I did enjoy the banana pudding.)

We arrived right before eighth period started and reported to Noah’s research methods class. I wanted to see this one because it wasn’t really clear to me what they are doing in this class. It used to build up to a research paper but the teacher found the grading arduous so now it’s (probably) just going to be a series of smaller research projects. I have mixed feelings about this. Noah hasn’t written a long research paper since seventh grade and it seems he shouldn’t go through four years of a rigorous, communications-focused high school program without writing one, but then again, he’s so chronically overworked, it’s hard to get too upset about it. Plus, to be honest, the teacher seems pretty loosey goosey and I might rather Noah’s college freshman composition instructor handle this task.

What the class is doing right now is a unit on race. Mr. S led the class in a spirited discussion of the opportunity gap and how wealth inequality perpetuates itself. He had some provocative statistics to get them started. The kids were smart and idealistic and everything you’d want in a group of sixteen and seventeen year olds, though I noticed Mr. S wasn’t doing as much as he could to bring the quieter kids into the discussion. Every now and then he’d talk a bit about how the statistics were calculated (what counts as wealth for instance and how the numbers change when you add durable goods in, or exclude them). Afterward Beth said she thought he could have done more with that, especially to show them how different think tanks with different political orientations might calculate something like wealth to bolster their own arguments. If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need to understand how arguments are constructed.

We could have stayed for another period, but Noah had Spanish next and Beth had already sat through a class in a language she doesn’t understand too well, so we headed for the grocery store and home, where we met North who had just arrived home.

Beth was worn out by her day in middle and high school, so she took a nap while the kids got started on their homework. When North finished theirs, they set to work making ice cream. While we value education, that doesn’t mean fun is always secondary.

A Room of One’s Own

The week before school started, June went to the middle school three times—on Monday morning to help teachers set up their classrooms and earn student service learning hours, on Thursday morning for a half-day sixth grade orientation, and late Thursday afternoon for the sixth-grade picnic. I was grateful for these activities both to keep June occupied and to make the school a more familiar place. Aside from our visit to Hershey Park, June had been kind of bored the last few weeks of break, at least until three friends came over in four days at the very end.

And as of the beginning of Labor Day weekend, we’d done none of the three water-related activities I’d told June we would do in the last three weeks before school started. We’d been thwarted trying to go to the nearest outdoor pool because of its limited schedule and my inability to remember it’s closed on Fridays. Three Fridays in a row I thought, “We should go to Long Branch Pool today.” Fortunately, the last two times I remembered why we couldn’t just a moment later and didn’t raise anyone’s hopes by mentioning it. Eventually I gave up on going, though it made me a little sad never to have gone to an outdoor pool this summer. (To clarify, June’s been many times—at camp, with YaYa in West Virginia, and with friends, but I never did.)

I set the Friday before Labor Day aside for a creek walk, an end-of-summer tradition the kids and I have. It consists of taking a walk down the middle of Long Branch (or sometimes Sligo) Creek. But Friday it was freakishly cold for the first day of September, in the sixties and overcast. Noah and I outvoted June and decided to put it off for later in the weekend when it would be warmer.

Back in early August I took June to see Kubo and the Two Strings at the one-dollar second run movies, but a sprained ankle prevented the usual post-summer movie trip to the Silver Spring fountain so I said we’d have a do-over movie-and-fountain date later in the summer. We invited a friend to see Leap on Saturday, with a visit to the fountain afterward. And it was just as cold that day and raining to boot. I would have let the kids go in the fountain if they wanted to, but Norma thought it was too chilly. June would have gone in, but it was fenced off as it often is on rainy days. So that activity was out, too.

Saturday night June was complaining of a sore throat and running a fever. On Sunday morning, there was no improvement it was off to urgent care so they could rule out strep throat. We normally wouldn’t go so soon but we didn’t want anything to scotch the first day of middle school on Tuesday. The rapid strep test came back negative, but June was lethargic and we decided to wait another day on the creek walk.

On Monday, Beth made pancakes for breakfast, as she often does on holiday weekends. June felt better, so shortly after breakfast, the kids and I headed for the creek, where we waded for over an hour and saw many little fish, three crawfish, and great quantity of spider webs. It’s been unseasonably cool for the past couple weeks and the water was surprisingly cold when we first stepped in and Noah was grumbling about it, but soon he was cheerfully throwing rocks and splashing June. When I said something about “if we do this next year” he insisted we have to do it, so I guess he had a good time after all. And I fulfilled one promise.

We always go out for ice cream the last night of the kids’ summer break and this year was no exception. (Well, Noah might say it was because June, being the one to start a new school, chose the venue and we got frozen yogurt, which he pointed out, is not ice cream.) It occurred to me if we went somewhere in downtown Silver Spring we could make one last-ditch attempt at playing in the fountain, but when I said it could only be for fifteen minutes or so, June didn’t think it was worth giving up the privilege of choosing where we got our frozen treats.

While all this was going on, Beth had been toiling during her evenings and weekends moving June out of the kids’ shared room into my office, which I’m sacrificing so the kids can each have some space of their own. This has been huge project, involving a lot of moving things around and assembling new furniture. Noah helped Beth put the new Ikea loft bed together and he showed some aptitude for it. (He has the right temperament—patient and calm.) Beth’s goal was to get June sleeping in the new room by Labor Day weekend and not only is the bed finished but a lot of clothes and belongings are in there, too. But I’ll hold off on pictures until the room is finished and decorated.

It was really June who wanted and advocated for the room switch. When we decided to do it, we offered Noah the office but he said he preferred to stay put, so June also scored the bigger room. My desk is in the living room now, which isn’t ideal, but in theory, when Noah goes to college I’ll get my space back. I think I want it for the same reason June does. It makes a difference to have a room of one’s own. But right now, at eleven, June needs it more than I do. And Beth did everything she could to make it easier for me, including buying me a new desk with drawer space. (My old desk was more like a small table.)

It’s a time of a lot of changes, beyond June starting middle school and getting a new room and new short haircut. Their decision a couple weeks ago to go by gender-neutral pronouns was surprising, and it’s been hard to remember to use them, though I’m trying. They also have a new name, North, which Beth is using sometimes, but so far, I can’t bring myself to say it, though I did write it on a school form in the preferred name space. Names are important to me, almost a hobby. I read and comment on a baby-naming blog even though I haven’t had a baby to name in quite some time. In fact, the only thing I regret about not having more kids is that we only got to name two people. The names we did choose are full of family history. For a while June was considering using their middle name (and I suggested their initials—J.D.—but I don’t think that was ever under serious consideration). I think it would be easier for me if the new name was somehow connected to the name we gave them. But maybe that’s the point, the difference.

Both kids went back to school on Tuesday, a week later than usual because the governor changed the Maryland school calendar to promote late season business in Ocean City. Now we have only two snow days built in even though the old number—four—was frequently inadequate, which is the main reason I opposed this move. It’s becoming rare to have an actual 180-day school year and this will make it harder.

But maybe you wanted to hear about the kids’ first day and not about my beef with the governor? I’d tell you, but neither of the kids told me much. I spied on June’s bus stop from the porch (the stop is right in front of our house), noting that about half the kids there are seventh or eighth graders who used to wait at June’s elementary school bus stop. I saw June talking to a seventh-grader, who used to walk to school with June when the two of them were in fourth and fifth grade, and another girl I don’t know. June wore sneakers for gym, intending to leave them in their gym locker and change into crocs for the rest of the day, but they lost the crocs somehow. Noah didn’t get into band yet again, because of schedule conflicts, but he’ll be in the intermediate band second semester, so that’s something. June had almost no homework; Noah had homework in three subjects. He’s working for the school television channel this year and the first broadcast is Monday. I think this will be fun for him.

I worked only fifteen minutes Tuesday because I had an orthopedic appointment for the knee I injured last summer, then I stayed in the city for a pro-DACA rally. It was bigger than the one I attended last month, and angrier, because it was held the day the President announced the program was being rescinded. I was moved almost to tears by the speakers, who were young, brave, hopeful, and fired up. They are just the kind of people we need in this country right now and I hope their organizing is successful. If you’d like to help, Beth’s running a fundraiser for CASA on her Facebook page.

I got home around 2:40, hot and exhausted, because the day was warm and a little muggy and June had insomnia the night before, which meant Beth, June, and I were all up until almost midnight and then Beth’s alarm went off at 5:40.

I had forty minutes before June’s bus was due. I could have exercised or cleaned or worked, but instead I put a glass of ice water on my bedside table, turned the ceiling fan onto its highest setting, fell into bed, and slept briefly. There’s a whole year ahead of us and I think I’m going to need to be rested for it.