We Are Headed North

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.

Culminations

School’s out, or it will be in a couple hours. When the kids get home from school, Beth’s driving them to Wheeling where Noah will spend a week with Beth’s mom and Beth and June will visit for a day before returning home.

In the last few weeks of school June attended the safety patrol picnic and the fifth-grade picnic. The first one was the bigger deal as it took place at the Montgomery County fairgrounds, which they had to themselves that day. They ate their lunch in the empty livestock barns and they got to ride carnival rides and there were free popsicles. The fifth-grade picnic was in a playground near school, and they had pizza, and chips, and candy and an ice cream truck dispensing free treats. June got a lime popsicle there. Come to think of it, there were popsicles at the instrumental music party the week after their concert, too (though June missed that, being home sick that day). Popsicles are clearly the common denominator for spring celebrations at her school.

Even with all these festivities, it didn’t feel quite as busy as the end of the school year often is, maybe because there was no art show or field day at June’s school this year, the carnival was held on a date we couldn’t attend, her Girl Scout troop’s annual potluck was cancelled at the last minute and without explanation—not a big surprise as the troop is organizationally challenged—and June had to drop out of her music school recital. Her hand and arm injuries this spring prevented her from learning the song she’d hoped to play on the guitar. This was a disappointment for all of us.

CAP Hollywood

As for Noah, his big end-of-school event was CAP Hollywood, a showing of fifteen short student-made films with an accompanying award ceremony, which was held the second to last week of school. Noah was nominated for Best Editing and his group’s film was up for several more awards—Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Score, and Best Picture. It seemed like a good bet they’d win something.

We all got dressed up and had an early dinner at Noodles and Company before the show. I’m pretty sure that’s where Hollywood stars dine before the Oscars, right? There was a Hollywood sign made of light bulbs and a red (construction paper) carpet for photos in the lobby, but Noah declined to have his taken.

Before the tenth-grade films started, they announced the winners of a twelfth-grade competition and showed their entry, a one-minute ad for Black CAP, a student-run advocacy organization that recruits and mentors African-American middle school students who are interested in applying to the Communications Arts Program. (The CAP student body is only 7.5 percent African-American, while Noah’s school is 27 percent African-American, so there’s clearly a disparity there.)

Then the main event began. The films were the culmination of a months-long project for CAP sophomores. First students had to come up with ideas for a short story in their English class and a feature story in their journalism class. After completing the first few steps of each project, they were assigned to complete either the fictional story or the journalistic one. Noah wrote a science fiction story that was an homage to Ray Bradbury’s “The Earthmen” (from The Martian Chronicles). After all the stories were written, fifteen were chosen to be filmed by groups of five students each. Noah’s story wasn’t chosen. Maybe that was just as well as it took place in a rocket and on the surface of Mars and would have been hard to film.

Noah’s group made a film called “The Pool Hall.” It was about a college student who has a recurring dream in which he returns to a pool hall in different decades, always meeting the same young woman. They filmed it at the local VFW hall, among other locations. There were thirteen other fictional films and just one documentary on the program. Common themes across the fictional films were murder and the discovery of long-lost siblings. They were all well done and it was an entertaining night.

“The Pool Hall” won for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score. Noah didn’t win the editing award, but you know what they say: It’s an honor to be nominated. June was surprised and possibly a little disgruntled when a CAP student’s younger brother who’d acted in one of the films won Best Supporting Actor. She didn’t think you could win if you weren’t in CAP and it’s possible she was wondering why she had not been tapped to act in Noah’s film. (Because there were no preteen roles would be the short answer.) Best Picture went to the only documentary, which was about an artist who paints portraits of people with scars to tell their stories of trauma and healing.

It was already twenty minutes past June’s bedtime when we left, but a celebration seemed in order so we went out for frozen yogurt.

Equality March for Pride and Unity

In between CAP Hollywood and fifth-grade promotion, on Sunday morning, Beth, June, and I marched in the Equality March for Pride and Unity. We weren’t sure what to expect because although we’d heard last winter that there was going to be an LGBTQ march in June, we hadn’t heard much about it since then. Publicity was almost non-existent and it didn’t seem to have as clear an agenda as other historical gay marches, or other big marches of the Trump presidency. I even suggested at one point that we skip it and go to the Pride parade instead. That was held the day before, on Saturday, a day which wasn’t predicted to be as oppressively hot. But Beth said, “No, we should do the political thing” and I agreed.

We gathered in front of the AFL-CIO building because we were marching with a labor contingent. When it was time to start moving, we lined up on I street and then there was a long wait in the hot sun to get going. But once we did there were a lot of signs to read and people in costume to watch.

“I know it’s not polite to stare, but a lot of people here are dressed interesting,” June observed. It was true. There was a man in a light blue Care Bear costume, who was earnestly telling a reporter from BuzzFeed, “People keep telling me I must be dying [in the heat], but I am living. Fully living.” There was a woman dressed up as the zebra from Fruit Stripe gum (for the rainbow stripes I’m guessing). The sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there, too, as you’d expect.

Many signs commemorated the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting last year. There were also some classics (“If God hates gays, why are we so cute?”) and new ones:

Cuz
Only
Very
Fragile
Egoes
Fear
Equality

Beth’s favorite sign was of a fish-shaped group of rainbow-colored fish about to swallow an orange fish with Trump hair.

The message on June’s sign: “I have girl crushes and boy crushes. So what?” was prettily adorned with rainbow stripes, and it was news to us. Like her “Another Girl Scout Against Trump” sign at the women’s march, it caused a lot of people to ask if they could take her picture.

It was a bigger crowd than we expected; a story in the Post said it was over 200,000, but that seems high to me. In any case, it was nothing like the big marches of 1987, 1993, and 2000. It felt more like a Pride parade, without the floats, and without spectators on the sidelines. We all had fun. I always forget how much I like being in a big crowd of gay people until I am. I think the last time was when we went to Pride with the kids ten years ago and I had the exact same thought then.

Toward the end of the march, Beth spotted three friends from the years she worked at HRC in the 1990s and early 2000s and there were hugs all around. Back in the day, we were good friends with Don, Stephen, and Patrick. (Don and Stephen, who’ve been together thirty-six years, may be the only gay couple among our friends who’ve been together longer than we have.) Sadly, we’ve drifted apart over the years, but it was a real treat to see them. They admired my old-school t-shirt from the ’93 March. In a Facebook discussion after the march with the designer of the shirt, another old friend of Beth’s, I said, “I wanted a shirt that said, ‘I’ve been marching since before you whippersnappers were born.’ Because I have.”

I can’t say this march was the culmination of any specific political achievement, nor does it seem like we’re on the verge of one right now, but you never know. We talked as we marched and afterward about how if you had told me in 1993 we’d be marching again in 2017, married and (theoretically) able to serve openly in the military, but without the basic protections from employment discrimination we were marching for twenty-four years ago—the goal we thought was the low-hanging fruit at the time—I’d have thought you were crazy. History takes unexpected turns sometimes. I probably would not have been surprised that it would take this long for trans issues to come to the forefront of the movement. We and our kids live in interesting times, in good and bad ways, but progress for LGBT folks, however incomplete, is one of the good things.

Fifth-Grade Promotion

June came home on Wednesday with a card from her morning teacher, Mr. S, who had written a note for each kid in his class. It ended, “Your ability to capture an idea and express your thoughts are way beyond your years. I believe your insights will help make you a great actor and interpreter of songs. As they say—Break a leg (oh, you already did).”

Promotion was that evening and Noah had no homework (Monday being the last night of the school year he was up late doing any and Tuesday’s pre-calculus worksheet being the last assignment of all), so we had a relatively relaxed afternoon before it was time to make our way to California Tortilla for an early dinner and then go back to the high school auditorium to watch the fifth grade be promoted.

The auditorium was decorated with blue and white balloons and a painted sign on the podium that said “2017.” At each fifth grader’s seat was a creature made of blue and white yarn with googly eyes and a mortar board, a souvenir from the PTA. We sat near the families of two of June’s best friends (Zoë and Evie) and her new friend Edwin.

The program started with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish and with “words of encouragement” from the principal of the middle school most of June’s class will attend, and “words of wisdom” from current middle school students. Because June’s school is majority Latino and because of the Spanish immersion program, school events are always bilingual, usually with the aid of translators. The middle school students self-translated, however, giving their speeches first in English and then in Spanish and they sounded equally at home in both languages, which impressed me.

Even though June’s going to the middle school this principal and students represented, I felt it wasn’t quite right to tell the students that instead of tigers, they were now jaguars, because some of them will be eagles (at the humanities magnet) or devils (at the math and science magnet) and it seemed to me those kids’ achievements should be recognized, too.

After all the speeches, we were forty-five minutes into the program, which was supposed to last an hour, but none of us really believed that anyway, so we weren’t surprised or antsy. Six classes worth of kids walked across the stage next, to collect their promotion certificates, and shake the teachers’ hands or hug them. At least one kid in each class had a bouquet for the classroom teachers.

What most struck me watching the fifth-graders walk by was what a great variety of sizes eleven and almost eleven year olds come in. Also, most of them were very dressed up and snazzy-looking. June had on a short black dress. When she brought it home from the thrift store, I was surprised because I was expecting something spring-like, either in white or a pastel color. When I said, “It’s black,” June replied, “It’s not just black, Mommy, it has rhinestones and fake fur.” And it did. As she crossed the stage, she was limping a little because the multicolor flats she got to go with it gave her blisters.

The final part of the program was a video slide show divided into three sections: Past, Present, and Future. The past was photographs from kindergarten to fourth grade, including one of June playing Mozart in the wax museum last spring. The present was the kids holding white boards that answered various questions such as what was your best moment of elementary school, what will you miss, etc. June’s class had to answer the question “What’s the best thing?” about their school. Her answer was the book fair. Friends, teachers, field trips, and recess were popular responses.

For the future, they’d all had their pictures taken dressed as what they wanted to be when they grew up. June had gone to school that day dressed in skinny jeans, a rhinestone-studded t-shirt and carrying her (old, broken) guitar and a microphone. They were photographed in small groups, often though not always, with people who gave the same answer. Beth observed that if they all realize their career goals, there will be no shortage of doctors, veterinarians, and athletes in the future. Software designers and chefs were also well represented.

The last part of the video was the six fifth-grade teachers performing a song that was half rap and half to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” The chorus went, “It’s time for middle school/You better follow the golden rule/Be sure that you never act the fool/Because it’s time for middle school.” June said it was embarrassing, but the teachers seemed to be having a good time and embarrassing preteens is one of the duties of the adults in their lives.

After promotion, we met up with Zoë and Evie’s families for ice cream at Cold Stone in Silver Spring. The line was long and slow and it was very late but I tried to relax and enjoy the moment as a part of these girls’ pasts slipped away and they moved toward their futures.

You Lose Some

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, from “One Art”

Over the course of twenty-four hours, June’s team finished near the bottom of the GeoBowl competition, her basketball team lost a game, and she was waitlisted at her top choice of middle schools. But she wasn’t at all discouraged by the first two and only a little by the last. I’m not either. Here’s why.

GeoBowl

Beth and I both quit work early on Friday afternoon to attend the GeoBowl, the annual geography contest at June’s school. June didn’t make her class’s team last year, so it was the first time I’d been to one in a couple years. Beth swung by the house on her way from work to pick me up and drive to June’s school.

The way the GeoBowl works is all the third to fifth graders in the school get a packet of geography facts about that year’s region(s) to study in September and then there’s a team from each English/social studies class, consisting of the six kids who did best on a quiz given in November. (I volunteered to help grade these.) Teams are announced in December and then they study and compete at the GeoBowl in February. This year the theme was the Americas and Africa.

We arrived early so we helped set up folding chairs at the back of the multi-purpose room, where the floor was freshly mopped and slippery after the last lunch shift of the day. They were a judge short so Beth volunteered, even though usually parents don’t judge their own kid’s grade. Soon the fifth grade came filing in. Six teams went up to the stage and their classmates sat on the floor in front of the stage to watch.

Two of the teams wore team shirts. Da Beasts were in red t-shirts, as were the Pirates of the Caribbean, who also wore red bandanas on their heads. June’s team, the Golden Globes, had made a last-minute attempt to get everyone to wear blue or purple (not, puzzlingly, gold), but most of them forgot.

The GeoBowl is often extremely competitive. When Noah was in third grade, his team finished last, only three points behind the winning team. When June was in third grade, it went into three tie-breaker rounds and in the end, they had to declare a tie so the next grade could take the stage.

This one started with a question for every team about capitals of countries. Each team got their question correct. June was her team’s spokesperson in the oral rounds so she came to the microphone to give the capital of Madagascar (Antananarivo).

Soon after, the scores began to diverge. For most of the contest, Da Beasts and the Pirates of the Caribbean were neck and neck, with the Smarties close behind. When there was a round of questions about bodies of water and June’s team was asked what’s the deepest lake in Canada, I knew they’d get it right because June was her team’s designated Canada expert and I’d been quizzing her so I knew she knew the answer. (It’s the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.)

They missed a question about the location of the Galapagos Islands, guessing it was off the coast of Mexico and after that they missed some more—they could only name four or five of the seven capitals of Central American countries—and then they were out of contention because top three teams were getting everything right or close to it.

The high point-value questions are saved for the whiteboard round in which all the teams answer the same questions and hold up whiteboard with the answer. The very last one– worth seven of the total twenty-five points for the whole GeoBowl—was “What seven Canadian provinces border the United States?” June’s face lit up. She knew that one! Her team provided the correct answer. The M.C. drew out the suspense by having the top-scoring teams give their answers last and pointing out, after Da Beasts had submitted their correct answer, that if the Pirates of the Caribbean got all seven right they would win the GeoBowl and if they got six right it would go to a tie-breaker. They knew the answer and won, with Da Beasts just one point behind, and the Smarties two points behind them. June’s team tied for fourth place.

As always, it was fun to watch. I love it when there’s a team (or more than one team) that gets every question right. It’s inspiring to see kids who’ve studied hard and know their stuff, even if it’s not your kid’s team. And because the Golden Globes got all their questions pertaining to Canada correct, June was stoked when it was over and quite gracious about congratulating her friends on the winning team.

This is what Beth had to say on Facebook: “Love the GeoBowl. Our country is strengthened by our public schools and the terrific teachers, staff, parents and students who invest their time each day building our future.” I think that about sums it up.

Panda Game

On Saturday afternoon, June played two quarters in her basketball game, up from one quarter in the last one. She was a little reluctant—not having played much this season seems to have made her unusually skittish about getting in the game—so I was glad she did it.

It was quite a game, too. The teams seemed evenly matched for most of the first quarter and then the orange team (I never caught their name) hit their stride and scored two baskets in the last forty seconds, bringing the score to 8-4. And almost as soon as the second quarter started they scored again. I think they were ahead for the rest of the game after that, but the Pandas didn’t give up and they didn’t lose heart. They played hard, scored a few more times, and in the end lost 16-11. This wasn’t one of those times when the shots just kept bouncing off the rim and it just seemed like bad luck that they lost. The other team was highly skilled. They were fast and several of their players were excellent shots. Considering how good the other team was, the final score was quite respectable.

It was also nice that the coach’s daughter scored two of the Pandas’ five baskets because she’d had a hard morning, finding out she’d been rejected at one middle school magnet and waitlisted at another while her older brother got into a high school magnet. No other Pandas had received their letters, so a ripple of anxiety went through the bleachers as parents realized their kids’ letters might be at home in the mailbox right then. We discussed it quietly, while watching the game and writing our postcards to elected officials. This seems to be a Panda parent tradition now. At Beth’s suggestion, a few of us wrote to both our senators urging them to vote against Andy Puzder for Secretary of Labor.

Waitlisted

So, we got home and the letter from the humanities magnet was there, in a thin envelope. June asked if she could take it to her room and open it. She was in there so long Beth and I were sure it was a rejection and that she didn’t want to tell us. But it seems she was just studying the letter, because eventually she came out and told us she was waitlisted. She had memorized all the statistics in it—how many kids are on the waitlist, how many are accepted in the average year, etc. She seemed upbeat about it. “At least I still have a chance,” she said.

And at thirty-three to fifty percent it’s a considerably better chance than she had of getting in outright, as the acceptance rate at the humanities magnet is less than twenty percent. I started messaging and emailing the parents of friends of hers who had applied to the same magnet. Four were rejected, two more—including her BFF Megan—were waitlisted, and one was admitted. I think June’s both glad to have a chance of going to the same middle school as her best friend after two years of separation while Megan’s been at the Highly Gifted Center and proud of the achievement of even being still under consideration at a competitive program, but also realistic about her chances.

Meanwhile, June’s second-best friend is going to our home middle school where June will go if she doesn’t get into the magnet. If she goes there she’ll stay in Spanish immersion, which is a good thing, and you can take guitar there as an elective which interests her because she’s about to start guitar lessons. So, I’m confident she’ll land on her feet at either school and I think she is, too. She says if she doesn’t get into the humanities magnet she will be only “moderately disappointed.”

Sanctuary Meeting

Shortly after we got home, Beth left to go to a teach-in about Takoma Park’s status as a sanctuary city. I stayed home to make some lunch for Noah so he’d eat something (he didn’t seem willing to tear himself away from his homework) and then I followed her. While I was waiting for the bus, she texted me that it was standing room only in the community center auditorium and they were sending people to overflow rooms. I arrived about twenty minutes into the meeting and slipped in the back. They were still letting people in, but it was packed. There were people sitting in the aisles and standing behind the seats.

When I got there Maryland Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez was speaking. (I’d missed the poem by Takoma Park’s poet laureate. What? Your small town doesn’t have a poet laureate?) The speeches were interspersed with musicians. Basically, the meeting, which lasted over two hours, covered the history of Takoma Park’s status as a sanctuary city (one of the first) and then elected officials, community activists, and the police chief took questions about what to expect in terms of federal funding cuts, now that sanctuary cities are under attack. It seems to me the answer is no one really knows.

Being there, though, and hearing people speak about the stakes for undocumented immigrants in our community made the question of what middle school my relatively privileged fifth grader will attend seem a smaller concern than it had earlier in the day. I know for instance that she’ll be going to one and won’t be deported. A couple days later I donated to CASA de Maryland, because they do a lot of good organizing that’s needed more than ever now.

DeVos and Sessions Nominations

Beth was planning to go to the DeVos nomination protest after work on Monday, but she had to come home and pick up our Girl Scout cookie order. A lot of people we knew were there, though, and a couple of them were close enough to Elizabeth Warren to get pictures. (That’s a celebrity citing in our neck of the woods.) A sixth-grade girl we know was there with her mother, holding signs that said, “There Are No Grizzly Bears in My School” and “DeVos Gets an F.”

Nonetheless, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education on Tuesday and unlike all the little personal setbacks that didn’t rattle me this week, I took this politcal loss hard. I knew her confirmation was the most likely outcome, but she was so unqualified and so corrupt and it was so close, a fifty-fifty vote with the Vice President breaking the tie. It was just heart-breaking and it plunged me into despair because she seemed like the only nomination we really had a chance to defeat. Sure enough, Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General on Wednesday and Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services today. I hadn’t been holding out any hope there, but it didn’t cheer me up any.

I asked Beth at dinner on Wednesday if she thought the left has had any real practical victories in the past few weeks, not just morale-boosters like half a million people marching. Getting the travel ban stayed, she said without hesitation. But that’s not settled, I said. It will be going back and forth in court for a while until it gets to the Supreme Court and who knows what will happen then. Yes, but it got people who were detained in airports out and gave others time to complete planned travel to the U.S., she said. That is something, I agreed. We have to appreciate the victories, even if the defeats outnumber them. At least in the short run, they undoubtedly will. But just yesterday, the stay was upheld, which was very good news indeed.

I know it’s a marathon and not a sprint, so when I get tired and discouraged, as I inevitably will, I’ll pick myself up again. What other choice do we have? Like Elizabeth Warren, we will persist.

Of Pumpkins and Presidents

We live pretty near the Maryland/Virginia border but we don’t go to Virginia often. We’re more often in the District, where Beth works and where our doctors and dentists are. However, in the past week, we’ve visited our sister state twice, or at least June and I have.

1. Pumpkins

Late last Saturday afternoon we drove forty-five minutes to Potomac Vegetable Farm, our traditional source for jack-o-lantern pumpkins. There are certainly closer places we could get pumpkins or pumpkin farms with more bells and whistles in terms of activities, festivals, etc. But we started going to Potomac Vegetable Farm before the kids were born because the family of a friend of ours from college ran it, and now it’s a sacred tradition. We’ve only missed one year when we all had a stomach bug.

On the way there I noticed Northern Virginia is Clinton/Kaine country, if yard signs are any indication. And that’s good, because unlike reliably blue Maryland, Virginia is a swing state, or it often is, in a normal year. (It went for Obama twice, but Bush twice before that.) It’s looking pretty safe for Clinton at the moment.

Noah was working on the script and storyboard of his dystopian trailer before we left and it was hard to pull him away from it, but I’m glad he agreed to come because it turned into a pretty fun family outing. We picked out some decorative gourds and our jack-o-lanterns—I opted to go with a white pumpkin this year—took the traditional pumpkin farm photo of the kids, and stocked up on cider and fall produce. I got beets, squash, a sweet potato, and some late cherry tomatoes to cook with and Beth got a couple green tomatoes, which would supplement our garden tomatoes when she made her signature fried green tomatoes for dinner on Sunday.

From the farm, we headed to Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we’ve never tried before and which we all enjoyed. If you go, I recommend the fake shrimp. I also appreciated the owners’ commitment to sunflowers in the décor. There were real sunflowers growing outside the restaurant (dead now of course, but I’m sure it was pretty when they were in bloom) and sunflowers decorations everywhere you look inside.

As we finished our meal, we discussed dessert options. June’s been wanting to try bubble tea for a while now and Beth looked on her phone and found a (mostly) Asian dessert place nearby that carried it. June got mango and I got coconut and Beth and Noah went for chocolate cake and raspberry cheesecake respectively. As we drove home, sipping our sweet drinks and listening to Halloween music and catching glimpses of the enormous full moon that kept popping in and out of view, I felt deeply content. Over the next week, whenever I glimpsed the little pumpkin and yellow and green gourd on my desk, it kept reminding me of that pleasant day.

2. Presidents

Almost a week later, on Friday, I chaperoned a fifth grade field trip to Mount Vernon. I signed up because the last field trip I went on to Saint Mary’s City last spring was fun. But as happened last time, I didn’t really expect to be chosen because there are often more parents who want to chaperone trips than there are slots. But when June came home the next day with a form about a new online training about child abuse and neglect all school volunteers have to complete and I asked if I could wait to see if I was chosen before I did it, she said, “Oh, you’re in.”

So I did the training, and it was kind of annoying, because near the end I lost all my progress due to a computer glitch and then I had to start over. But I persevered and Friday morning found me at June’s school.

We almost didn’t go on the trip because on Wednesday at recess June twisted her ankle and on Thursday morning she still couldn’t put any weight on it, but she really wanted to go so we decided to give it a try.

We got a ride to school with Megan’s mom, who was dropping off her younger daughter. The buses left the school at 9:40 and crossed the Maryland/Virginia border about twenty minutes later. It was a pretty drive. The leaves are just starting to change and we passed the Washington Monument, National Airport, and drove through charming Old Town Alexandria with all its colonial architecture. I noticed some water birds in the Potomac. And then about 10:35 we arrived at Mount Vernon. As we disembarked from the bus, Zoë noticed the Clinton button on my backpack and said, “I like your button.”

Chaperones were allowed to wander with their groups until our tour of the mansion at 11:30. I was sharing a group of eight girls with the father of one of June’s friends, but it soon became clear June couldn’t keep up on her crutches, so I told him I was going to peel off with her so we could go at her pace. We made our way slowly toward the mansion, stopping to rest on benches and to read short bits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows while her classmates went to explore the farm and gardens.

June was a trooper with the crutches, but she was getting tired and red-faced, so when we got to the mansion, I left her with her math teacher—I couldn’t find my co-chaperone or her social studies teacher—to go see if I could get a loaner wheelchair. In retrospect, I should have done this at the entrance, where they have more wheelchairs, but we were still trying to keep up with the group then and there was no time to stop and ask. They only had an adult size wheelchair at the mansion. The wheels were too far apart for June to comfortably maneuver it by herself but all we needed was some respite from walking for her and I could push her.

She rode in the wheelchair through the line to get into the mansion and then we stowed it outside because she wanted to go up to the second floor. During their reading about George Washington and his family she got especially interested in his step-granddaughter Nelly and she wanted to see her room, so she hopped up the stairs while I held the crutches.

There were a lot of school groups visiting that day (or maybe every day) and so they really hustle you through the house, but you can explore the out buildings at your leisure. We peeked into the smokehouse, the stables and carriage house, the storehouse, the clerk’s office, and the paint storage cellar. They used a lot of paint at Mount Vernon because even though the mansion looks like it’s made of stone, it’s really made of wood carved to look like masonry and painted with paint mixed with fine sand, to give it the glitter of mica in stone. Anyway, it needed frequent repainting. We got shooed away from the ice house because we’d gotten too close to a private tour group, so we never saw inside it.

Reading the signs, I noticed they almost never used the word “slave.” Instead it would say “enslaved gardeners,” “enslaved cooks,” “the enslaved population,” etc. It made me reflect on how this shifts the concept from slavery as a state which is continually forced on a person rather than a slave being something he or she inherently is.

I asked June what else she wanted to see and she said the Washingtons’ tomb so I pushed the wheelchair carefully down a pebbly hill to see George and Martha’s white marble sarcophaguses housed a big brick tomb that also houses the remains of other relatives as well. I would have liked to go see the slave memorial and the wharf but I was afraid of going even further downhill with the wheelchair. I learned later from the Mount Vernon website we were only fifty yards from the slave memorial at the time, but I didn’t know that, just what direction the signs said to go. It was hard pushing the chair back up the hill so when a passerby asked if he could help I accepted his offer. Thanks, stranger!

We peeked into a vegetable garden and an orchard on our way back to the museum but we didn’t go into them, as there were stairs. At the museum we toured exhibits about Washington’s childhood, the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. It was nice to have a flat surface for the wheelchair. We didn’t have time to see the 4-D movie we later heard June’s classmates extol, but maybe we’ll go back some day.

We returned the wheelchair and re-joined June’s classmates for a late picnic lunch on the lawn near the driveway. As we ate the sky clouded over, the temperature dropped dramatically, a terrific wind kicked up, blowing leaves everywhere, and it started to sprinkle rain. By the time we were gathered to wait for the buses, it was raining in earnest. I helped June into her raincoat and urged her to go slowly on the wet pavement. (She’d fallen twice on wet restroom floors in the museum.)

We ran into traffic on the way home and there was a lot of water on the road the bus pushed up in sheets and the drive that took less than an hour getting there two hours and fifteen minutes getting back. We were an hour and twenty minutes late returning to school and the whole fifth grade missed their school buses. (Something similar happened on the way home from St. Mary’s last spring so I wasn’t surprised.) I’d been hoping to put June on her school bus and walk home by myself, but we got a ride with another chaperone. Thanks, Mindy!

During the bus ride, I asked June if she was glad she went and she said, “Yes. Are you?” I said I was glad to have gone and also to have been there to help her get around. “I wouldn’t have gone without you,” she said, leaning against me and resting her head on my shoulder. She was so tuckered out she actually fell asleep for fifteen minutes or so.

I have a piece of paper on which I jotted down these words, a quote from Washington, which were painted on the wall in the museum: “That the Government, though not absolutely perfect, is one of the best in the world, I have little doubt.”

Our democracy was far from perfect then, as I’m sure the enslaved population and many of the women would have attested, and it’s still far from perfect, but it’s gradually getting closer to fulfilling its promise and I think it’s quite a lot better than near-apocalyptic vision of one of the Presidential candidates. It was moving to visit the home of our first President near the end of the second term of our first African-American President and on the eve, I hope, of the first term of our first female President. It makes me wonder what other almost unimaginable changes will take place in my children’s lifetimes.

Visitation Day

Monday

Monday was Columbus Day and that means we spent the day at the kids’ schools. The schools all have open houses that day because many parents have the day off work, plus by that point the kids have been back to school for six weeks, more than half of a marking period, so everyone is or less back in the swing of the routine. We choose to visit Noah’s school in the morning, because that’s when he has his CAP classes and June’s in the afternoon because that’s when she has her only accelerated class (Math 5/6).

At we got out of the car in the high school parking lot, Noah said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Yes, we did. I’ve always found these visits instructive, ever since the kids were in kindergarten. There’s no substitute for seeing your kids’ classes in action.

Normally Noah has most of his classes every other day, but so parents can see any class there are shortened versions of all nine periods on visitation day. (Doesn’t that make it sound as if the kids are in juvy? Or maybe expecting the Virgin Mary?).

We stayed for four periods—Journalism, Media Production, English, and AP Government. The lesson in Journalism was a discussion about interviewing sources—basically dos and don’ts and the reasons behind them. In Media Production, they were working on their biggest project for the fall—producing trailers for imaginary dystopian films. The teacher talked about the assignment for a while and then they broke into their groups to work on their proposals for the assignment. I occasionally approached his group, and hung around, trying to get close enough to hear but staying far away enough so he didn’t die of mortification. When I wandered away, I admired the posters from last year’s dystopian trailers on the wall.

In both of the next two periods there was a chance we’d see him present something, a speech and a skit, but we didn’t know if his turn would come while we were there, so there was a bit of suspense. The speeches in English were part of their unit on 1984. They had to write a short persuasive speech using ethos, pathos, logos, and at least three propaganda techniques. They’d drawn their topics from two piles of index cards, one of possible audiences and one of proposed actions. This resulted in some amusing combinations. Noah’s favorite was “Convince the RNC to buy tutus.” (Beth said she thought if someone told the RNC Donald Trump would disappear if they’d wear tutus, they’d all be sporting them.)

Noah’s assignment was to convince soccer moms in his school’s PTSA to join his high school’s (imaginary) painting club. We didn’t get to see him give it at school, though we’d both heard it at home—I thought he made especially good use of the slippery slope, by arguing that if moms didn’t spend quality time with their kids this way, the kids would do poorly in school and end up homeless. We did get to hear kids try to convince Santa’s elves to buy English textbooks, nudists to purchase juice with probiotics, single women to adopt cats, and business executives to shave their head to benefit children’s cancers. The kids were smart and funny—they knew how to keep it fun without losing sight of the assignment’s objectives.

In AP Government, the kids were presenting their mock campaign ads. Again, they’d been randomly assigned their candidates and ad formats. Noah’s group was doing what used to be called a “man on the street” ad for Clinton, though Noah said they call it “real people” now. This time we did get to see his group go. I thought Noah had the best line: “I pay my taxes. Hillary Clinton pays her taxes. I mean, that’s something we have in common.” His delivery and timing were just right. Most of the kids chose a skit format, as they hadn’t had much time to prepare their ads, but one group did a video for Johnson, with a student pretending to a little kid talking to his (real) father about the election.

We left Noah’s school around eleven and went to the Sears repair center to drop off our malfunctioning microwave, then out to lunch, and then home for just long enough to do the breakfast dishes and start some laundry and then to June’s school to see her math lesson.

June’s class has been working on multiplying and dividing fractions. The teacher went over a few problems on the Promethean board, covering both the mechanics of different ways to do the problems and also engaging the kids in discussion about why these methods work. Then the students broke into groups to rotate through activities.

June started on a laptop, doing an online review unit on multiplying three-digit numbers by two-digit numbers. Next she played a game with a boy, that involved drawing flat sticks with fraction multiplication problems written on them from a cylinder. They’d take turns solving the problems while other student checked their answers from an answer key. Each time a student correctly solved a problem, he or she would keep it and whoever had more sticks at the end won. The twist was some of the sticks said, “Zap” on them and if you drew that one, you lost all your accumulated sticks. Next June and six other students met with the teacher for small group instruction. The only activity she didn’t get to do was watching videos about multiplying and dividing fractions. The class seemed thoughtfully taught and the kids were engaged.

This was my last Columbus Day observing an elementary school class. Middle school is on the horizon. October is the month fifth graders have to decide if they are applying to any magnets and if so which ones. If June had her way she’d be applying to the performing arts magnet but it’s far away and there’s no bus provided, so we’ve regretfully ruled it out, as we did for Noah.

Of the schools she can apply to, June was adamant for a long time that she only wanted to apply to the humanities magnet Noah attended and not to the math and science one and we’d agreed that was fine. However, when her fourth grade PARCC scores came home last week and her math scores were higher than her reading and writing scores, I said, half-jokingly, “Are you sure you don’t want to apply?”

She surprised me by saying, “I don’t know. Maybe I will.” And later that day, she said she’d decided she would apply to both. I’m glad she’s keeping her options open. If she doesn’t get into either or chooses not to attend one, she’ll go to our home middle school, where she could continue in Spanish immersion. It’s only a quarter of the school day—two periods in Spanish and six in English– but that’s about how her school day breaks down now and it’s another good option to have. I think she could do well at any of those three schools.

Wednesday and Thursday

The kids had Wednesday off school for Yom Kippur and June started working on the application essay for the humanities magnet. As she did so, she spoke somewhat glumly of the odds of getting in (they expect 650 applications for the 100 spots available).  “Have some confidence,” Noah said. It was an odd, and touching, moment of role reversal for them.

We’ll be visiting all three middle schools this month, and going to current elementary school to hear a panel of alumni reporting back on each of the schools. The first information session was Thursday evening at the Humanities magnet. They divided the kids and parents up for separate presentations so I’m not sure what she heard, but it must have been very convincing, because when we were re-united she said, “I really want to go here.” We saw a lot of people we knew—I think there were at least five kids from her preschool class alone—not to mention kids she knows from elementary school and extracurricular activities.

It made the idea of June and her peers actually in middle school somewhat less theoretical and abstract. And if we needed any reminder we’re about to leave elementary school behind for good and have two kids in secondary school, this month will be a loud and clear one.