Merely Players

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts

As You Like It

I wanted to write about the fun end-of-year assignments Noah’s had recently—playing John Calvin at the Medieval Mixer and Sir Toby in a scene from Twelfth Nightand how his homework load has lightened to the extent he actually spent a good bit of Memorial Day weekend doing things other than schoolwork.  But then he came home Tuesday having remembered he’s supposed to have been keeping a journal on the Shakespeare unit since early April. He’d only written one entry and it was due soon, maybe Friday, he wasn’t sure. So maybe it would have been a good idea for him to have worked a little more during the long weekend after all…

Act I: John Calvin (Medieval Mixer)

Nevertheless… it is true he has had some fun assignments recently.  For the mixer each student was assigned a historical figure from the Medieval or Renaissance periods.  They had to write a two-page paper about their figures and give a speech from that person’s perspective.  Then they had to dress as their characters and mingle with each other, speaking as these people would if they had ever met.  Noah said his plan for the ad-lib part of the mixer was to tell everyone he encountered that they were predestined to go to hell, and I thought it was an excellent idea, but for some reason he didn’t do it.

Nonetheless, he did enjoy the exercise and he cut quite a figure as the Protestant reformer. Beth made his hat and sewed the furry collar onto his robe.  I went beard shopping at a theater supply store but they only had the kind you attach with spirit glue and we thought this would be too time consuming to apply and remove so Beth ordered him a beard online. (I found it somewhat ironic it was a gray beard because at the theater supply store the clerk asked Noah’s hair color and I said it was similar to mine, and he said, rather unnecessarily, “But without the gray?”)

Intermission: Long Weekend

The mixer was the Friday before the long weekend.  Beth took that day off and drove to Wheeling where she spent a few days visiting her brother. While she was gone I was very busy with gardening and housecleaning and grocery shopping and I needed to work a little, ghost-writing a blog post on carrots and cauliflower.  But the kids and I had fun, too.

Friday afternoon we hosed all the dust and pollen off the front porch, which is their favorite chore and one we only do once a year because it’s kind of a production getting all the porch furniture onto the lawn and then back onto the porch. That night I let them eat dinner (frozen pizza) in front of the television, which is another rare treat. We binged on PBS cartoons, watching Martha Speaks, Word Girl, and Curious George, or June and I did. Noah came into the living room to eat and he did watch Word Girl but after that he was in the room but doing something on his phone.

Saturday night June had a sleepover with Megan. I’d asked Megan’s mom if I could send June to play at their house so I could get some work done and she saw my play date and raised me a sleepover. I did some work while June was gone, but on finding myself alone with Noah, it seemed a better idea to take him out to dinner at Roscoe’s, have gelato at Dolci Gelato, walk all the way home and read a couple chapters of The Hunger Games.  We read at least ten chapters over the course of the weekend and came close to finishing it.

Monday afternoon I took the kids to the pool and then came home and made strawberry shortcakes with the perfectly ripe strawberries I’d bought at the farmers’ market on Sunday.  Beth came home as I was making them and we had a picnic of hot dogs, baked beans, devilled eggs, corn on the cob, watermelon, and of course, the shortcakes.  It was good to have her back home.

Act II: Sir Toby (Shakespeare Scenes)

Tuesday everyone was back to school and work. Noah wrote part of another Shakespeare journal entry that night but he seemed stuck, so I sent him to bed, forty-five minutes after his bedtime, with the entry unfinished.  Wednesday he had better luck.  After working on algebra and studying for a Spanish test, he tackled the journal entries again and this time he finished all but the last one. I stayed in the room with him as he wrote, reading him the questions he needed to answer. He would answer verbally and then I’d say, “Write that down.”  This often helps get him unstuck when he has writer’s block. He was pleased to have made so much progress on what had seemed like a daunting assignment but he did note it would have been a better idea to have written them as he went along, as he was supposed to have done. Lesson learned, perhaps?

Thursday afternoon Berth and went to Noah’s school to see the Shakespeare performance and right before it started I was talking to his teacher and found out exactly when the journal was due, as Noah was still unsure. The answer was all the entries except the last one—coincidentally the ones he’d written mostly in one night just the night before—were due the next day but the last one—which he hadn’t started—wasn’t due for a week. It was quite the stroke of luck.

The performance was of selected scenes from four different plays—MacBeth, Othello, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Noah was in the Twelfth Night group. Over the course of six weeks the whole class read A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream together and then the kids were split into groups read overviews of the other plays, selected a scene or two, set it in a new time and place, designed a set, assembled costumes, and rehearsed.

There was a MacBeth scene in which Banquo’s ghost made an appearance in a 1950s diner, another in which the witches make their predictions in a Saudi Arabian desert, etc.  I was not always able to tell what the new setting was supposed to add to the scene, but I thought the steampunk version of Othello might have been trying to take advantage of anachronism to stress the universality of jealousy, ambition, and violence.  I knew Noah’s group chose to set their scene in West Berlin of the 1980s because there are references earlier in the play to divisions in society, which they wanted to stress. With some guidance from us, Noah decided to wear a white t-shirt and khakis because the outfit was classic enough to work in pretty much any Western setting from the 1950s to the present and then he borrowed Beth’s demin jacket from college, an authentic 1980s relic, though not German.

Overall, the scenes were entertaining. All the kids seemed to know their lines and there was some good acting and it looked like everyone was having a good time.  Later Noah said he and other kids in his group had stumbled over some of their lines, but I honestly didn’t notice. I told him I thought because he knew the scene so well he could hear the mistakes they made that the audience and the members of other groups would miss.

Act III: Honoree (Middle School Awards Ceremony)

That very same night there was an awards ceremony for Noah’s middle school held at a nearby high school. We knew he was getting an award but not why.  Last year all the members of the band got awards because of their high-scoring performances at competitions over the spring. I thought it could be that again, though the band, under the less experienced leadership of a new director did not do quite as well as last year—still well, but not as well. So there was a pleasant amount of curiosity and anticipation about what the award might be going into it. In the car on the way there Beth speculated that all the seventh-grade Humanities magnet students would get an award for surviving the IDRP (interdisciplinary research paper) they wrote last fall. I thought it could be GPA-related because he had nearly all As last quarter.

We split up because honorees were sitting in one section of the auditorium and guests in another. There was a musical interlude by the orchestra and choir and then the ceremony started. The first two sets of students honored were for straight As and perfect attendance. I knew Noah wouldn’t be in either of those groups because he’s never had straight As and he missed at least one day this year… but in the middle of perfect attendance they called his name. Was it a mistake? Did they not count absences on Easter Monday because it was originally supposed to be part of spring break? He had dentist and orthodontist appointments that day so we didn’t send him to school.

Beth took out her phone and brought up his attendance record on the school’s record-keeping site and he was not marked absent the day he’d missed.  So it was a mistake. My heart sank a little, knowing that after receiving an invitation, he would be disappointed if he didn’t get an award he’d actually earned. We watched him come up on stage, take the award and shake a line of teachers’ hands. He had no other choice, but I wondered if he felt as if he was playing yet another part, after a week of acting.

I scanned the list of awards on the program, wondering if he might win another, because you can win more than one. I’d actually noticed a lot of overlap between straight As and perfect attendance, perhaps not surprisingly.  I thought his best chances were a content area award for either media or music, which are his two passions.  There were fewer kids receiving these awards and they were announcing names alphabetically by first name.  During the media awards they went straight from a Nila to a Sierra, so no dice there. No music award either.  I looked at the program again, with less hope. He’s done well in science and Spanish, but I didn’t think he’d really “demonstrated a desire to extend [his] knowledge beyond the curriculum, and served as a model to [his] peers.”  The only real possibility left was geography bee, and only if there were awards for the winner from each world studies class in the school because he did win the geography bee in his period, though he was eliminated at the school-wide level.  But only the school winner was honored and that was it.

When we reunited with Noah, he said it had been disappointing but he didn’t seem too down about it. He and I talked about it this afternoon and agreed it might be a funny story some day, though right now it’s more annoying than humorous, especially since he stayed up late last night expanding his Shakespeare journal entries and it would have been nice to have more time for homework earlier in the evening.

End-of-the-year events are not over, of course. Next week Noah has a short band concert during the Arts Alive event at his school and June’s afternoon class will have their third and final publishing party.  I am looking forward to seeing them play the parts of musician and writer, as those are among their favorite roles.

A Teenager in the House

On my thirteenth birthday, I woke at my father’s house, hearing my stepmother exclaim to him, “Steve, there’s a teenager in the house!” She meant me, of course, but I was only half awake and easily confused and I thought someone had broken into the house. It seems like so many stark transitions happen in the space of just a year or two to kids that age: preteen to teen, middle school student to high school student, not to mention puberty. It can be hard to take in sometimes.

And so it was that Wednesday evening, three days before Noah turned thirteen, Beth and I attended an informational meeting about high school choice for parents of seventh-graders. The assignment process begins in the fall of eighth grade, so apparently it’s time to start thinking about this.

The meeting occurred on a day of torrential rain and a couple major roads were closed because of flooding. Our basement was also flooded and Metro was single tracking so Beth’s commute home took longer than she expected and I was downstairs bailing water when the babysitter arrived.  The drive was another a challenge. We had to change routes several times because traffic was backed up due to the road closures and even though Sligo Creek Parkway was open, the creek had overflowed its banks and there was standing water close enough to the road to give Beth pause about continuing that way.

Despite all these setbacks, we were only ten minutes late. I learned a few things at the meeting. The first is that there are even more specialized programs in our area high schools than I realized (they number in the dozens) and that the process for getting into them (a mix of lottery and application programs) is even more complicated than I realized, even though I was expecting a lot of programs and complication. Also, I knew this already, but you have to choose an academy within a high school. It’s a like a major. No one just goes to his or her default school. You have to choose, both the school and the academy within it.

We need to do more research and we are scheduling a meeting with his school counselor to discuss his options, but we know we are probably not interested in pursuing either the accelerated humanities or math and science magnets at our home high school. Noah’s been in academic magnets since fourth grade and up to this year it’s been a good experience for him, but this year had just proved too much. He is quickly burning out and we need to get him off the fast track so he has a reasonable chance at maintaining his love of learning and maybe even having enough free time to enjoy his teen years. Given his mix of giftedness and slow processing, the trick will be keeping him challenged without overwhelming him. Too easy work is as deadly for his motivation as too much work. I’d like to learn more about the performing arts magnet because more drumming and less homework sounds like a healthy change to me.

Noah’s birthday was low-key.  He didn’t want a party, didn’t even want to invite a friend or two to come to dinner with us as he did last year, despite my perhaps too frequent encouragement to do so. I got him a card that said, “Let us celebrate your existence with cake, and possibly ice cream,” and we did that. Beth made him a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting at his request and there was ice cream, too.

And there were presents, of course. He opened them in order of size, so the first box contained a lightning cable.  We are always searching for cords to recharge various devices and Beth has been saying Noah should have his own dedicated cable so he stops swiping hers, so now he has one.

There were several books, including one by the author of the Fablehaven series, which he enjoyed reading last summer and fall. (This was June’s present to him.)  He also got The Hunger Games trilogy because he and his classmates have been collaboratively writing a massive piece of online fan fiction based on the novels, with themselves as characters.  He’s been participating even though he has not read the novels so I thought he might get more out of the experience if he read the books. My mother was surprised I’d get him such violent books, as I have always been strict about media exposure. June’s only recently been allowed to watch most PG movies and I still say no to some of them.  But I reminded Mom that when I was Noah’s age I was reading Dracula and The Shining. I’m not suggesting we go on a slasher film binge together, but I think he’s old enough for any of the young adult dystopian fiction his peers are all reading.

The rest of his presents consisted of film equipment.  From us and from Beth’s mom, he got a new tripod, a lighting kit, a green screen and a frame and clamps to hold it. Noah has always enjoyed making movies. He takes a media class every year as part of the Humanities program. It’s his favorite class and he’s made a number of short films for school and for fun.  He’s working on a documentary about food processing right now (for school). The big project in eighth grade is a biographical documentary.  This involves a five-day field trip to New York and the resulting films are screened at The American Film Institute for family and friends. It’s the defining experience of the eighth grade year and we hope he enjoys it more than his ten-page research paper on product liability law that was his biggest seventh-grade project.

In Noah’s birthday card, I wrote the url for the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association blog, because I’d submitted an excerpt of my blog post about our trip to the beach last month, edited to focus on him and it had been accepted. You can read it here if you like (http://eswa-blog.blogspot.com). It’s the kind of present not every teenager would appreciate, but he seem pleased when he read it. I’d also emailed him a link to Dar Williams’ song “Teenagers Kick Our Butts,” after he went to bed the night before.  It’s worth a listen if you’re not familiar with it: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/Teenagers+Kick+Our+Butts/2J28Vl?src=5 Then, to emphasize the point, I sent a separate message titled “the important part” with these lines:

Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow

I didn’t send this to him, but my other favorite line from the song is in the chorus, “Tell us what the future will bring.”  That’s the question always on your mind if you have kids, or teach kids, or love someone else’s kids.  Sometimes you get glimpses. For instance, at a local third to fifth grade elementary school (not one either of my kids have attended but within walking distance of our house), there’s a club called the Young Activist Club.  They have been trying to convince the schools to stop using Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria since Noah was in kindergarten. One of the founding members was the older sister of one of his nursery school classmates, a girl who is now in high school.  Because I knew some of the kids in the club and I sympathized with their cause, over the years I followed them on Facebook and cheered when I saw them at Fourth of July parades carrying trays with environmental messages written on them in marker. To a casual observer, though, it never looked like their campaign was getting any traction. Then I recently heard the whole school system is changing over to compostable trays, staring next year. The last publicity photo I saw was of a girl speaking on stage. She also went to my kids’ preschool, and is only a year older than June.  (She was the one playing guitar at June’s music school recital.) It took eight years, almost three cycles of students through that three-grade school, and it’s still not clear the compostable trays will actually be composted, but I know those kids will keep organizing if they aren’t, and that makes me feel hopeful about what my kids and all their peers can accomplish.

Noah asked if he could have a day without homework for his birthday and I really wanted to say yes, but when Beth and I looked at his assignments for the weekend, it just didn’t seem possible. He did do less than he would usually do on a Saturday. He did some algebra in the morning and then we took a break while Beth and June were at kung fu to finish And Then There Were None. When the murderer was revealed Noah said, “I thought it was him and then I didn’t,” which is usually how it goes when you read a mystery.

When Beth and June returned, we left for lunch because Noah had also asked if he could have lunch and dinner out and this time we said yes. We went to Noodles & Company, a favorite of Noah’s. I got Pad Thai because that’s what I had for dinner the night before I went into labor with him and for a long time we had a tradition of going out for Thai the day before his birthday, though we don’t do it any more.  In search of dessert afterward, we spotted a crepe cart at the Fenton Street market, and we got Noah a banana-pecan crepe, because after noodles, crepes are one of his favorite foods. (He’s all about the carbs.)

We ran into traffic on the way home because Commencement had just ended at the college around the corner from our house.  Watching the young people walking down the sidewalks in their caps and gowns I was thinking about middle school graduation a year from now, high school in five years, and college perhaps, in nine (unless he takes a gap year or graduates on the five-year plan). Either way, it suddenly seemed nearer than it had the day before.

Back home, Noah went back to factoring quadratic equations, with some help from Beth, who was in between the steps of making his cake. He and I took another study break to read the first two chapters of The Hunger Games on the porch because he asked if we could, and how could I say no on his birthday?

Later that afternoon Noah read Act II, scene I from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream while I had coffee with a friend from college and his partner, who were visiting from out of town.  When I came back, we left for dinner at Vicino’s, an Italian restaurant in Silver Spring. The food was good but I’d forgotten how slow the service is there, so when we got home we had cake and ice cream and put June straight to bed, a half hour late and without her bath. Noah had to practice on his practice pad instead of his real drums, so she could sleep. He was up past his bedtime, too, finishing his percussion practice. So he and Beth and I all went to bed at the same time, ten, on the first night we had a teenager in the house.

An Out of This World Birthday

I. Star of the Week: Friday

“Have a good time, star of the week,” I called out to June as she and Beth headed out the door at 8:15. Beth was taking her to school because she was chaperoning the second-grade field trip to Air and Space. It was the first event in an almost unbearably exciting three days: first the museum trip, which corresponded with June’s birthday party theme—outer space—followed by a school fundraiser at Chuck E. Cheese that evening and then June’s birthday party, which would start late Saturday afternoon and last until Sunday morning, on June’s actual birthday.

“You were star of the week?” Beth inquired.  Star of the week is a rotating position in June’s afternoon class.  Mainly it consists of being responsible for classroom chores, but Ms. K has done a good job selling it.  Beth wanted to know if it was a coincidence that it was the week before her birthday.  It was, June said.

While they were gone I read a few chapters of a P.D. James mystery, cleaned the kitchen, exercised, worked on the outline for a brochure, and gathered June’s early birthday gifts.  I’d bought her a sweater and a skirt with starts on them to wear at her party, and a pair of pajama bottoms with glow-in-the-dark stars, also for the party.  June has two pairs of much loved and now ragged glow-in-the-dark space pajamas (hand-me-downs from Noah) which would have been perfect for the party if not for the fact that one pair no longer glows and the other has a huge whole in the crotch I’ve mended multiple times and which is now beyond fixing. So clearly, new pajamas were needed. It turns out glow-in-the-dark space pajamas are harder to find than you’d think. I spent several evenings looking online and finally found a pair (bottoms only) in her size on eBay.  I put everything in a dark blue gift bag, which I decorated with outer space-themed stickers. These were for a build-your-own solar system craft for the party but we had more than we needed.  In fact, June and I had spent much of the previous afternoon sticking identical stickers back to back, punching holes in them and suspending them from the ceiling with fishing line for party decorations. June also drew Saturn (sans ring) with marker and glitter glue and then made rings for the Pin-the-Ring-on-Saturn game.

Beth got home from the field trip a little after two, reported it had been a success, especially the IMAX 3-D movie about the Hubble space telescope and then she started baking the cake. June decided she wanted a three-tier cake with sky blue frosting and roses on it before she settled on her party theme and she could not be swayed to a more space-themed cake, even after I found out through a photo posted on Facebook that one of my local friends owns a star-shaped cake pan that would have been perfect. June did agree to some star-shaped candles and picked out black plates, cups, and napkins with gold stars on them.

Once both kids were home from school and June had showed me her rainbow-striped coloring page of the space shuttle, she opened her early presents, which also included some fabric and sewing patterns from YaYa, a clue that June was getting the sewing machine she asked for from us. Then Beth and June set out on their second trip to Party City in less than a week, this time to get the star and moon-shaped balloons we’d already bought filled with helium and to procure additional balloons, including a huge one that says, “another year of fabulous!”

When they returned, it was off to Chuck E. Cheese.  We ate pizza and June ran around with friends and played games and had several pictures taken of herself, with and without a statue of the mouse.  Beth, Noah, and I played a lot of skee ball and I shot hoops, too. The tickets we earned playing games with twenty dollars worth of tokens netted June a bookmark, a container of purple play dough, a glow-in-the-dark plastic snake, a box of Nerds and a roll of sweet tarts. No one ever said the prizes are a good deal, but we had fun and we also raised $9 for June’s school between the tokens and our meal and Noah didn’t complain too much about being forced to set foot in Chuck E. Cheese, the very concept of which seems to offend his preteen sensibilities. There’s a Fro-Zen-Yo next door so we had dessert there (except for June who opted for an ice cream sandwich plucked from a machine by a robot arm at Chuck E. Cheese).

After June was in bed I wanted to make sure Noah and I had some one-on-one time during a busy, June-focused weekend, so we started reading The Martian Chronicles, a book I used to teach. He liked the part where the astronauts from the second expedition end up in a Martian insane asylum.

II. Out of This World: Saturday

Saturday was a whirl of party-related chores.  We cleaned and reorganized the living room so that there was enough floor space for five sleeping bags and cleared everything on the porch to one side to make room for the piñata and the Pin-the-Ring-on-Saturn game. June and I cleaned the kids’ room, filled the goody bags, and worked on the party timetable. Beth and Noah hung a paper curtain in the living room and practiced projecting a movie onto it, and Beth and June frosted the cake. In the excitement we forgot that June had a make-up violin lesson, but her teacher dropped by with a small gift for her (polka-dotted rosin).

All day June was singing “Let it Go,” because we were going to show Frozen at the party.  June had not seen the movie because with rare exceptions she was not allowed to watch PG-rated movies until she turned eight and Frozen has been the hottest movie for kids June’s age for months.  She’s watched the video of the most famous song many, many times and has it down pat.  She was also wearing a small tiara like Elsa’s from the time she got dressed that morning.

The party started at five, but June had asked if Megan could come an hour early, ostensibly to help with last-minute preparations. I remember my sister and I doing this when we were kids; the real reason is to affirm best-friend status, and as Megan is without question June’s best friend, I said yes.

Once the rest of the guests began arriving, June directed them to page through a book about the moon she’d set out on the living room rug along with one of Beth’s old astronomy textbooks from college.  Noah started a playlist of songs about the moon for atmosphere. Then we directed them to the table I’d covered with newspaper and set out clear plastic sun-catchers in the shapes of the moon and stars, along with paint, brushes, and cups of water.  This proved a popular activity and the girls painted a few each before Beth and Noah returned with pizza and we had to clear off the table to eat.

After pizza, the beautiful blue tiered cake, and ice cream, June opened her presents. Marisa got her a book about space.  There were several presents of fabric and a sewing kit and Lego and Lite-Brix kits. Maggie made a nice card with chalk drawings of outer space on black construction paper.

The piñata was the last order of business before the big event—getting into pajamas and watching the movie.  This year’s model was star-shaped and covered in shiny gold foil. It was actually quite pretty. Last year was the first year one of June’s guests broke the piñata without maternal or fraternal assistance and it was after everyone had a had a few turns so I was unprepared when Megan, only the third girl in line, broke it.  In retrospect, I should have only let each girl hit it once during a turn so more girls had a chance. Live and learn.

I was a little worried before the party started that in an effort to fill sixteen hours, we’d actually planned too many activities.  Beth looked over the schedule right before the party started and said it was “ambitious,” but I ended up glad for the full schedule because the party, surprisingly loud considering the small number of guests, always got louder and more chaotic whenever there was a down moment. And as it turned out, we had all the girls in pajamas and sleeping bags, supplied with popcorn and ring pops and ready to watch the movie at 6:55, five minutes ahead of schedule. I noted this with some satisfaction and Murphy’s Law immediately took effect. The movie wouldn’t start. It wasn’t compatible with one of the devices we were using to project it. Beth and Noah tried several fixes and finally Beth had to purchase a new copy online, which at fifteen dollars was totally worth it.  The film began at 7:03.  Luckily, speedy tech support is Beth’s specialty.

There was some chatter during the movie and many admonishments not to give anything away because June had not seen it already (it’s possible all the guests had).  They certainly knew the songs and there was some singing along.  When “Let it Go,” was about to start they all sat up in their sleeping bags.  I told Beth it’s like the anthem of their generation, and she predicted they will all be belting it out when they’re thirty and going through bad breakups.

Marisa was not spending the night so her mom came to pick her up when the movie was over and everyone else brushed their teeth and got back into their sleeping bags. I explained the rules, everyone was to stay put unless they needed to use the bathroom but they could converse until ten.  It was around nine-fifteen, an hour and half past June’s bedtime and she said she was tired and just wanted to go to sleep and not talk at all. Her friends all wanted to stay up and June was starting to look upset. Someone suggested reading and she went and got an armful of books for her friends.  I supplied flashlights to those guests who had not brought their own (a surprising number of them had) and soon everyone but June was reading quietly and she was snuggled down with her eyes closed.

I was surprised by this turn of events and wondered if getting them quiet for the night might be as simple as that but by nine-thirty I was hearing voices, including June’s, now sounding cheerful. Shortly before ten I came to remind them it was time to sleep.  I returned with a similar message shortly thereafter and then Beth went in at 10:15, got water for everyone who was thirsty, and spoke somewhat sternly about the need to stop talking and by 10:30 they were all asleep or doing a reasonable imitation of asleep.

III. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars: Sunday

I fully expected them to all be up at the crack of dawn, but they surprised me by sleeping until almost seven and they were sluggish and disinclined to get up even then.  The girl who’d kept the rest up after they wanted to go to sleep was complaining that she wanted to go back to sleep, but everyone was talking. I put in a Magic School Bus DVD about the solar system and they watched it, still lying on the floor, while Beth made pancakes and I sliced bananas and set the table. June wanted a candle in her pancake because it was her real birthday so I put one in and they all sang “Happy Birthday” to her in English and Spanish.

Breakfast perked the girls up and they got dressed and went outside with their moon observation journals (the fact that they are studying the moon at school might have inspired June’s party theme). Although it was supposed to be out at that time, it was too cloudy to verify and they all dutifully noted that in Spanish in their journals.  Next they played Pin-the-Ring on Saturn on the porch. June had the first turn and went several feet wide of the mark, taping her ring to the front door, making everyone including her laugh.  Zoë went second and almost walked off the porch steps before I grabbed her jacket, so from then on after blindfolding and spinning each girl I took her by the shoulders and gently pointed her in the right direction and then they got more accurate.  We had an extra ring so I let June have another turn and she got hers onto the paper with the rest of them.

The last two scheduled activities were making a solar system map with stickers and playing a game Megan had invented especially for the party called Catch-the-Star. It involves chasing a beam of light from a flashlight around the living room. I didn’t quite understand the rules, but the girls all did, and that’s what mattered.

We ran out of activities just ten minutes before the end of the party so we sent them outside to chase one of the balloons. One guest’s mother thought the party ended at ten instead of nine, and she had to come all the way from Rockville so she was just setting out when I called at nine-thirty to inquire if she was on her way.  The girl and June worked on building the car from the kit she’d gotten for her.

Once the party was finally over, June opened her presents from immediate and extended family: the sewing machine and a case to carry it, a kids’ guide to herbs, a shawl she’d admired, a saddle for her American Girl doll’s horse, two Edgar and Ellen books, and a lot of clothes. I went overboard with clothes this year because June’s new favorite colors, light blues and greens are easier to find than orange, her old favorite, and blue and green are also my favorites.

Becky, June’s preschool music teacher and the mother of her favorite babysitter, came by in the afternoon with more presents, a historical book about women’s basketball, and certificates for activities with Becky and Eleanor—a manicure, gelato, a tea party, and a game of Horse.

June spent the day quietly playing with her new building kits, reading Harry Potter, which I wouldn’t let her read until she turned eight, watching Frozen again and singing “Let it Go,” under her breath. After dinner we ate leftover birthday cake and June wanted us to put candles on it and sing to her again, so we did.

Happy birthday, dear June. As your card said, I wish you the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Another Writer in the Family

When I was looking for positive things about February in my last post, I forgot an obvious one.  A week ago, June’s afternoon class had a publishing party, to showcase the kids’ second quarter writing. I’d been to the first quarter one in November, so I knew what to expect. Each child has a collection of writing on his or her desk and kids and parents travel through the classroom, read the papers, leave compliments on a sheet provided for this purpose, and then everyone eats. At the last party, being a former writing teacher, I took my responsibility seriously and tried to leave substantive comments on each child’s work. Being a well-trained middle-class mom, I also brought juice boxes.

This time June wanted us to up our game a little, so we brought grocery store cupcakes.  And Beth was able to take off work early, so we were both there, although I arrived ten minutes late and Beth got there about hallway through the festivities. I got right to work circulating around the room and reading. There were factual essays about snow and re-imagined or original fairy tales on display. Because I was late and there was less time for reading and commenting than at the last publishing party, I probably only read work from half the students in the class of sixteen, but I got a good sense of what they’d been working on last quarter.

The reason we were on a tighter schedule was that there was a new activity. The kids had illustrated their stories using a computer animation program and these were projected onto a screen while recordings of the kids reading their work played. Or that was the idea anyway. In practice the recordings were so soft as to be completely inaudible, except for the occasional word or two that could be heard, in isolation and sometimes rather loudly. (And whenever that happened the kids would laugh in surprise so it was hard to catch even that word or two.) I couldn’t even follow the stories I’d just read. I think if I’d been the teacher I would have ditched this plan and had the kids read their papers aloud, but we sat politely and clapped at the end of each story as if we’d heard it. June’s was last, and miraculously the audio worked fine. We could hear the whole story.  The class laughed again at this turn of the events, but Ms. K shushed them and we listened.

Most of June’s classmates had opted for the alter-a-fairy-tale approach, so there was the story of the three little sharks (who tell the wolf they won’t let him in, not by the hair of their finny, fin fins) and the Gingerbread Fish, who swims away from an ever-growing mob of pursuing sea creatures. June went the original story route, however. I wish I had a copy of the story so I could tell it in more detail, but it’s still at school. Here’s the gist:

A boy discovers the condiments in his refrigerator are alive and move around at night. He writes a story about it for school but the teacher throws it in the recycling bin because it was supposed to be a non-fiction piece and she doesn’t believe that it actually happened. Then, seized with doubt, she breaks into his house at night, and observes the phenomenon herself, fainting in surprise when she sees it. Back at school she plucks the story from the recycling and displays it on the wall. And then somehow the teacher ends up dying of injuries sustained during her fall when she fainted. The story ends, “And they all lived happily ever after, except Ms. K.”  Yes, she did use her teacher’s real name in this story. Now the class was laughing all over again and repeating June’s final line to each other.

I told Ms. K she’d been a good sport about being killed off in June’s story, but she didn’t seem to mind.  “June’s writing is amazing,” she told me.

In the car on the way home June said she didn’t like it when people were laughing at the beginning of the story but I said I didn’t think they were laughing at her, that they were just surprised that the sound was working.  She didn’t say she minded people laughing at the end. I think she recognized that as admiration for the funny ending.

June brought home a lot of language arts homework this week, some of it routine like alphabetization practice and a worksheet on contractions. But what caught our attention was a series of sentences using her spelling words, which she opted to string into a story, and a rather dramatic one at that. There’s an excerpt in the photo. Our run-away favorite line is, “But if you weighed my sorrow it would be 1,009 pounds.” (The point of the spelling lesson was ie/ei words, if you couldn’t guess.)

But her dramatic streak is not limited to her school writing. On Monday she made arrangements on the bus to shoot hoops with a fourth grader who lives down the block. It would have been quite the social coup, but the girl never came.  June waited for her on the porch for a long time. It wasn’t until the next day that I found the notes she made while waiting. “Strange sounds, windy, no sign of A., getting dark early.” All it was missing was howling wolves getting nearer and nearer…

When I quoted this on Facebook, one of my friends commented that we had “another writer in the family.”  She comes by it honestly. We are a family of writers. Beth’s the online communications director of her union. My father was a newspaper, magazine, and eventually web site editor; my sister and I work together as copywriters; I was once an English professor, and from the time I was a kid into my early twenties, I used to write fiction.  I have recently been thinking of giving it another try. There’s a contest run by Browse-About Books in Rehoboth I want to enter.  The stories have to take place on the Rehoboth boardwalk. So far, though, I don’t have any good ideas, so we’ll see. Meanwhile, Noah and his classmates are amusing themselves by writing a collaborative story online. It’s a version of The Hunger Games, but with themselves as characters. He’s participating even though he hasn’t read the books yet.

Of course, Noah has been writing for school, too. He had a two-page paper about Mauritania due on Thursday for an ongoing unit on Africa. They had a celebration called Africa Fest that day with food and music. For Africa Fest, he had to make a trifold poster with two other students, make a model of a Mauritanian artifact (he chose a stringed instrument called an ardin) and write the paper (a demographic and historical overview of the country).

It was a straightforward assignment, with a series of factual questions to research and answer.  It wouldn’t have been too stressful except he’d neglected to work much on it, focused as he was on his product liability documentary, and even though he is a good writer, any kind of writing is slow for him. He didn’t get to the paper the weekend before it was due, because of other assignments and then on Tuesday night he didn’t feel well and couldn’t work productively, so Wednesday afternoon found him with the research done, but only three sentences written.

This seemed like a completely impossible situation, because the artifact wasn’t made yet either. I advised him to skip algebra homework as well as practicing his drums and to focus only on Africa Fest assignments. He decided to start with the instrument, which took until after dinner to construct, but came out pretty well. It’s the kind of thing he does well. He wasn’t completely satisfied with it, though. He thought it would be better if it actually played music.

It was seven by the time he started on the paper.  Beth and I had consulted in private about whether there was any chance he could produce a passing paper in the time he had and if maybe he should just take the failing grade and do his math instead, but he wanted to try. It did seem a shame to let all the research go to waste.

He ended up staying up until almost midnight and working on it some more in the morning but he did finish. Beth and I normally go to bed around 9:30 since the alarm goes off at 5:45, but I stayed up with him until 10:45, sitting with him in the study, mostly reading a magazine, feeding him the next question he needed to answer whenever he finished one, and making sure he didn’t get sidetracked or spend too much time on any given question. Once the paper was written and it was just the Works Cited left, I went to bed, leaving him at the computer. I think I see a lot of all-nighters in his future as a college student.

But the good news is now that IDRP and National History Day and Africa Fest, all of which kind of ran into each other, are over (well, almost over—he still has to finish reading Things Fall Apart, write a speech about Mauritania, and write a comparison paragraph about colonialism in Mauritania and Angola this weekend) but once they are all over, there might be a bit of a lull before the next big thing, which is a Shakespeare unit.  He’s not sure when that starts but he doesn’t have any assignments for it yet. I worry about the time it will take him to read the plays, but I also think it could be a lot of fun.  Chances are I will read along with him, for what family of writers could resist that?

Midway Through Middle School

The kids have just finished a five-day weekend, or five and a quarter if you count the delayed opening today. They had Monday off for MLK Day and Tuesday was the teacher grading and planning day they have at the end of every quarter and Wednesday was a snow day. Third quarter (finally!) starts today and this means Noah is midway through middle school. Last week was exam week. I actually like midterms because the teachers assign a lot less homework, so even though he has to study, his load is lighter than usual. Nonetheless, he’s had a lot going on. There was a band concert last Thursday, he’s been swamped with homework ever since exams ended, and he got braces Tuesday.

Before the Long Weekend: Wednesday and Thursday

Thursday was a really nice day for me, if busy, which I appreciated because Wednesday was not.  It was the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, so I was little down all day, and I had a computer problem that stopped me from working on a day when I was already behind, and the fire alarm kept beeping because it needed new batteries and I couldn’t figure out how to get the old ones out of the darn thing, and then I got a mild scare when Noah was a half hour late because he missed the Metro bus after band practice and he didn’t call to tell me or answer my call because his phone was dead.  It was that kind of day.

Thursday on the other hand was reasonably productive on the work front, and once the kids got home they were full of appealing requests.  June wanted to go down the block and play Horse at our neighbor’s basketball hoop and then she actually asked to hear a chapter of The Secret Garden.  We have been limping our way through this book, which I loved a child but she’s lukewarm about at best, for over a year. It was the second day in a row we’d read from it, but we haven’t since then.

Because of his band concert that evening, Noah didn’t have much time for homework, so he asked me if I could read Things Fall Apart to him because it’s generally faster for me to read to him than for him to read to himself.  I am never one to turn down a request to read a classic, so we read chapters two to four (and I went back later and read the first chapter on my own).

Noah also had a couple pleasant revelations.  “I accidentally won the geography bee,” he told me when I asked how school was.  He had not realized there was a geography bee and had not studied for it, but he won nevertheless, which is just classic Noah. He’s a little disgruntled about having to advance to the next level (competing against the winners of other social studies classes at his school) because he thinks she should study this time, but I pointed out that not studying seemed to work out pretty well last time.

The big news, though, he kept to himself.  At dinner Beth asked if he’d gotten his IDRP back and he said, yes, and then casually, “I got an A on it.”  Because he got a C on the rough draft, we were not expecting this. I’d already told him that I didn’t care what grade he got on the final paper because he’d worked hard and I was proud of that regardless of the grade. I meant it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to hear he’d done that well. It’s good to have your work recognized.

So we were feeling celebratory as we headed off to the winter concert. We took June for the first time since she was in preschool.  Because she napped back then, she actually had a later bedtime than she does now. Last year the winter concert was pretty short, though, and we thought we’d try bringing her to this one.  We may not be doing it again any time soon because they have a new band teacher now and he does a lot of things differently, and one of them is that the winter concert is approximately twice as long. June was leaning against me for much of the concert and she did not get to bed until and hour and a half past her bedtime. I think she enjoyed it, though, especially when the orchestra was on stage and she could imagine when she will be old enough to play violin in a concert.  She’s particularly interested in the concept of being first violin, a distinction not available to percussionists.

Speaking of the percussionist, we could sometimes see him, more often his hair than his hands or sticks, but he says he played snare drum, triangle, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals and tambourine and I believe him. Their last number was “Bolero,” which is always fun to hear.  Because the percussionists don’t take their instruments home they are supposed to return them to the music room but the other three musicians abandoned the job to Noah so Beth and I helped him in the interest of getting home.  I had a lot of reasons to be proud of him that day, but the fact that he would never, ever think to leave the instruments on stage and assume someone else would take them where they belong was one of them.

Long Weekend: Original Four-Day Version

Friday Noah got to relax because Fridays are a no-homework zone, no matter how much homework he has, and he did have a lot. I read to him before leaving for June’s basketball practice and then again after she was in bed. We finished the last book in the Fablehaven series, Keys to the Demon Prison. We’d been reading these books since around Labor Day, so that was satisfying. When we came home from basketball, he was practicing his drums, without my having reminded him, which was also satisfying.

Saturday morning Noah and I picked up another series we’re also reading, The Norumbega Quartet, where we’d left off, with book #4, The Chamber in the Sky, and then he did algebra and media homework.  I wanted him to get all his non-social studies homework out of the way because he had to write rough drafts of the annotated bibliography and a process paper for his National History project.  They have to turn their IDRP into a new format, so he’s making a documentary about product liability law, or he would be making it if he didn’t have so many preparatory assignments getting in the way.  By Sunday afternoon he was ready to start on the annotated bibliography and he worked on it until Monday afternoon.

A great many parents told me it would be better after IDRP and I’m not really in a position to judge yet, as it was five weeks ago that they turned it in and they were on winter break for almost two weeks of that time, and then they barely went to school this week…but National History Day is a pretty big project, too. I hope once Noah gets to actually making the film, he will enjoy it more, but right now while he’s fleshing out his research, it’s kind of a slog.

Beth and I both have a very strong desire for Noah to have more free time than he does right now, so we’ve been considering his options for high school and thinking more and more seriously of encouraging him not to apply to any of the academic magnets, although a performing arts magnet is a possibility.  He’s been in magnets since fourth grade and in general the rigorous curriculum has been good for him, much better than when he was in third grade, bored, unchallenged, and unhappy. But his ADHD and slow processing make the work harder for him than for many of his peers, and I think this year he may have hit the point where just working harder than everyone else is becoming a less viable strategy. Also, once he’s in high school it will be easier to piece together a schedule with enough AP classes for him to be challenged but not so many that he’s doing homework all the time. That’s what we hope anyway.

Monday morning Beth took Noah to the orthodontist to get spacers in preparation for the braces, and then she took him back as soon as they got home because one of them had popped out of his mouth. He’d been complaining that one felt wrong all along and I guess he was right. Beth gave him some painkiller before the procedure and he didn’t seem to be in much pain. In fact, he got himself a bowl of tortilla chips in the afternoon, which helped me decide not to bother pureeing the cauliflower soup for him at dinner.

On the way to the second trip to the orthodontist, Beth dropped June and I off at Value Village so we could brave the 50% off MLK Day sale. Value Village is a huge thrift store, think big box size, not particularly well organized, and crazy busy on a sale day, but it’s also very cheap and June’s outgrown a lot of clothes recently.  We went in with a list of thing we hoped to find: basically leggings and long-sleeved tops, including turtlenecks and sweaters. I told her we were there for practical school clothes that fit now, nothing out of season and not anything to grow into because her style changes. Given that as we walked in the door, she was saying, “How about a party dress?” I think I was lucky we walked out with two pairs of fleece pants (there were no leggings, at least none I could find), three tops, and a white knit poncho. The poncho was not on the original list, but I decided it could serve the same function as a cardigan, so I relented. She loves it so much that when we went to Starbucks immediately afterward and wanted a hot chocolate and I said she could have one but she’d have to take off the poncho to drink it, she opted for water.  All these purchases, plus a pair of snow pants for Noah, cost less than seventeen dollars.

At home, I ran a load of laundry, the third one of the day, this one consisting of other people’s size 6 and 14 clothes that are now my kids’, mixed in with a bunch of baby clothes they once wore, which I’m giving to a pregnant friend. I am so sentimental about the kids’ baby clothes that I still have a lot of them, though fewer all the time, because I give some away every time someone I know has a baby. Before I put them down the laundry chute, I looked at them all, and marveled that my quickly growing man-child, who’s taller than me and who has a deepening voice, and has sprouted hair on his legs and a strange shadow on his upper lip, ever wore those tiny onesies and sleepers and footed leggings, but he did.

Tuesday morning Beth took Noah to the orthodontist again for the actual braces while June and I made banana bread and muffins, and watched the snow come down outside. Noah came home with braces.  They caught me off guard every time he smiled, and he did smile, which I don’t think I did the day I got braces.  He didn’t seem to be in any pain, ate raw carrots at lunch and didn’t take any painkiller. This is very different from how I remember this experience. I’m not sure if there have been advances in orthodontia since the early 80s or if he was having a mercifully tactile under-sensitive day.

Noah worked on his process paper most of the rest of the day. June and I delivered the banana bread, along with the baby clothes to Wakako. She lives just far enough from a bus stop that it felt like an adventurous trek in the snowstorm but not so far that it was arduous.  June looked sleepy on the bus home, but she stayed in the yard sledding and making snow angels when we got home.  Shortly before we left, June noticed that all the radiators were cold. Beth called for a boiler repairperson and fortunately it was an easy fix, because it was supposed to be frigid the next day, with highs only in the low twenties.

Beth took June for a walk in the woods by the creek later in the afternoon and while they were gone I buckled down to work, which I had been doing only sporadically for the past couple days.  I had deadlines and the threat of a school closure the next day had put the fear of God in me. When Beth and June got home, Beth had a conference call and June took it upon herself to shovel a good bit of our long walk. She did a great job, but it was still snowing, so it got covered again soon and then Beth did the whole walk and then it got covered yet again.  Shortly after dinner, Beth got the notice that school was closed the following day.

Weekend Coda: Snow Day

When we woke up, the house was freezing. The radiators were cold again so the morning was a rush of calling the heating oil company (Beth once, me twice) to get a service call, going to the hardware store and buying some space heaters (Beth), and trying to shovel the icy walk and then giving up (me). Then Beth drove June over to Megan’s house and left for work, and Noah and I holed up in the study to work. He had a series of essay questions to answer about his film topic. When we turned on the new heater, it registered the temperature in the room as 43 degrees, but over the course of several hours it got up to 69 degrees.  Not bad, considering that outside it had been in the single digits overnight and didn’t get past 15 during the day.

The repairperson came around noon and by one, he was finished and the radiators felt faintly warm. I fetched Megan and June and brought them back to our house where they continued their seven-hour play date. When we came home, I found Noah asleep in his computer chair. He woke when I came into the room and said he had a headache and stomachache, so I put him to bed.

I salted the walk, ate a late lunch of grilled cheese and black bean soup, and then went in to check on him. I asked if he wanted me to read to him, and he did, so I read for an hour and twenty minutes.  Then he was feeling better and he went back to work while I took a long-handled ice scraper to the ice on the sidewalk and chipped away most of it. By the time I came in, tired, cold, and sore, and discovered the lentils I’d left simmering on the stove had burned, I was feeling as if the day, or maybe the whole endless weekend, had really been too much.  And I learned from my friends on Facebook, that there was a two-hour delay the next day.

But the next morning the kids went to school, Noah frustrated he had never completed his essay questions. I tried hacking at some of the more stubborn icy spots on the sidewalk, cleared the toys off the living room floor, read just a tiny bit of a new novel (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam) and sat down to tackle my own backlog of work in a quiet house. It’s a new semester and time to make a fresh start.

O, Christmas Tree

We are spending Christmas at home this year for the first time ever. For the kids’ whole lives we’ve alternated Christmases at my mother’s house and Beth’s mother’s house.  Even before Noah was born we usually spent Christmas with one family or the other, though the alternation was less strict back then. But last January my mother and stepfather moved to Oregon, and it’s not as easy to travel to see them now so we decided to stay home.

Of course I am sad about not seeing my family on Christmas, but there are upsides: no packing, no travel, a more relaxed winter break, and the biggie in June’s eyes—we got a Christmas tree. Because we were always away on Christmas day and our parents had their own trees it never seemed worth getting one before.

On a Friday evening not quite two weeks before Christmas, we all piled in the car after a diner of frozen pizza and drove to the lot of volunteer fire department to buy a tree. Except when we got there the lot was dark and unstaffed and there were only a couple of trees lying on their sides on the asphalt.  It looked as if they’d sold out.

We reconsidered our options. Ace Hardware had trees in their Garden Center behind the store.  And there was a temporary lot in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.  We decided if we couldn’t support the fire department we’d support a local brick-and-mortar business. Ace it was.  The trees were mostly bundled up and it was hard for me to tell one from another or to guess what they might look like with their branches down but Beth and the kids settled easily on one in the seven to eight feet area and we bought it. When the store employee lifted it to make a fresh cut on the bottom and trim the lower branches, Noah whispered to me, “Tree hugger,” which made me laugh.

The next day Beth set to work cleaning out the clutter of toys in the living room to make room for the tree. Some she moved temporarily down to the basement and some she put aside to give away. Then she set the tree up in its stand.  Sunday she strung lights on it—the lights a thoughtful early Christmas present from my sister who picked lights similar to those we had growing up. However, we didn’t put the ornaments on it because we wanted to wait until after Noah’s paper was turned in and he could participate.

June was delighted with the tree, even only partially decorated, and with the tall candles we put in the fireplace (the chimney doesn’t draw well so we never build fires) and she spent a lot of time reading in front of it, or listening to me read to her.

All weekend and through the week that followed the tree kept taking me by surprise, the unexpected smell of fresh pine in the house, the warm feeling I got from seeing its colored lights shining the dimness of the living room. We thought the cats, or at least Mathew, who’s the more easily spooked of the two, would show some surprise and perhaps even dismay at having a tree in the house, but they had no reaction whatsoever. Apparently we’ve done stranger things than bring a live tree into the house. It is a very odd tradition when you think about it, but it’s also a wonderful one.

The lights proved a bit fickle, as Christmas lights will, and one day a section was blinking on and off, even though they are not blinking lights.  I noticed the neighbors’ tree was doing the exact same thing, about a quarter of their tree was blinking, when it had not been previously, so maybe something about the electric current was odd that day. Or maybe the trees were communicating with each other in Morse code. If so, they said what they needed to say and then stopped.

A week after we bought the tree, we decorated it. Noah had turned in his research paper the day before and was in high spirits.  We’d let him pull the middle school version of an all-nighter on Wednesday night—he was up several hours past his bedtime that night and was still tinkering with it on Thursday morning before he left for school but he got it done. I was super proud of him for completing such a big project and also super relieved.  It felt as if a weight had been lifted from all of us and now we could celebrate.

Friday evening, we got take-out pizza and let Noah choose the restaurant. I thought it would be a quick job to decorate the tree because we didn’t have that many ornaments, just the ones we’ve accumulated over the years as presents from people who didn’t know we didn’t have a tree, a few we’d bought this year, and some spare ones YaYa gave the kids over Thanksgiving.  But I hadn’t actually gone upstairs with Beth, YaYa and the kids when they were selecting ornaments or looked in the box afterward and I didn’t realize it wasn’t a few ornaments she gave us, it was several dozen.

I’d imagined the end result would be a sparsely decorated starter tree, but by the time we’d finished the tree was loaded.  It holds several cherished ornaments from Beth’s childhood, many of which I recognize from Christmases we spent at her family’s house. We also have a newly purchased tree topper, a rusted metal angel holding a star (because we couldn’t settle on whether to get an angel or a star) and our new ornaments everyone had a hand in choosing. June got an angel playing the violin. I meant to buy an ocean-themed one in Rehoboth but I forgot and settled on a Starbucks cup instead.  Beth and Noah picked ornaments with characters from classic Christmas specials.  Beth got the Grinch in a wreath and Noah got a set of four characters from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Once the tree was decorated, and after June was in bed, Noah sprawled on the floor next to it staring at the candles in the fireplace and playing with the melted wax, and just being still for a long time. I thought this inactivity might be just what he needed after working so hard for so long, but eventually he and Beth got the idea to set up the train and they threw themselves into this task with great enthusiasm.

Last summer Beth’s aunt, who had been storing it, gave Beth the train set, circa 1979, which used to wend its way around the Christmas trees of Beth’s youth. It took some trouble shooting to get it going but once they did, Beth and Noah spent a lot of time happily watching it go around the tree. It was like having Noah’s six-year-old self back for a visit, and I for one was happy to see him so carefree.

Every Christmas I have spent with my mother, from childhood to adulthood, she has declared, with utter sincerity, that this year’s tree is “the best tree we’ve ever had.” It’s become something of a family joke. My sister posted a picture of her own tree on Facebook this year, saying it was the “best xmas tree ever!” Since we’ve only had one tree, I suppose this one is by definition the best one we’ve ever had, but considering the happiness it’s brought all of us, I think it could be the most memorable one we’ll ever have.

Beachmas

Every year we go to the beach for a weekend in early to mid-December, to Christmas shop and for me to get an off-season beach fix. When I wrote my speech about our family traditions for our wedding last January, this one was prominently mentioned. It’s right up there with going a little crazy with Halloween decorations and always going to see the cherry blossoms even if they bloom at an inconvenient time.  It’s part of our family culture, so much so that both of my children have believed (and one still may) that the Santa in the little house on the boardwalk is the real Santa and any others they might see in the weeks leading up to Christmas are fakes.

So a week ago, on Thursday morning I was in the kitchen with June singing a Christmas song—I don’t remember which one—except I kept substituting “Beachmas” for “Christmas.” This was because we were leaving for the beach the next day. I’d been cheerful all week contemplating this trip, but I also had some trepidation.

Last year we considered not going on this trip, to save money, but in the end we went because I couldn’t bear the idea of not going.  This year I was more worried about time, Noah’s time that is. It was the second to last weekend before IDRP is due and I didn’t know if going away was a good idea.  But I knew if we cancelled a long-standing tradition on account of his workload we’d all be sad, including, maybe especially him—Noah thrives on tradition—so I didn’t even tell Beth I wasn’t sure if we should go, and we went.

Friday

We got a late start Friday afternoon, largely because Noah had not had time to pack beforehand and it was past four-thirty before he was ready to go. We ended up in rush hour traffic on a rainy afternoon, and our progress was excruciatingly slow.  I told Beth I wasn’t going to worry about getting the kids to bed on time, and she said that was good, because there was no chance of it.

We had an audiobook (one of the ones we couldn’t listen to over Thanksgiving because there’s a CD stuck in the drive) downloaded onto a device, but we decided rather than listen to it we’d all be quiet so Noah could read and take notes on the Holocaust memoir he had to re-read because he (along with half the class) failed the test on it. This was less fun than listening to a book together or singing along with Christmas music would have been, especially for June who can’t read in the car without getting sick and was bored and restless.  We decided it was best for Noah, though, and because of his workload and his learning challenges (his ADHD-NOS and his slow processing speed being most relevant here) often what’s best for Noah determines what we all do.

We arrived at the hotel around 9:15, June having slept around a half hour in the car. After we unpacked and June was tucked into bed, I slipped out for a walk on the beach. It was misting and 43 degrees according to the big thermometer on Rehoboth Avenue, with a fierce wind blowing.  I wore my raincoat, rather than the warmer fleece jacket I’d brought, largely to keep myself from yielding to the temptation to stay on the beach too long.  When I came back to the room fifteen minutes later my boots were sandy, my cheeks were tingling with the cold and I felt lighter, more alive, the way I always do after my first trip to the beach in any given visit. Noah still wasn’t in bed and June was awake, too.  It was probably ten-thirty before we all fell asleep.

Sunday

We didn’t sleep well. The room was over-heated and Beth and I both woke several times during the night and then the kids were up and whispering to each other by five-thirty. I stayed in bed until seven, hoping for more sleep, but I didn’t get any.

The kids and I got dressed and went down to play on the beach while we waited for Galleria Espresso, our favorite breakfast spot, to open at eight.  It was colder than the night before, 38 degrees, but it felt a little warmer because it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t as windy.  June dug in the sand a bit and the kids made a perfunctory sand castle—June filled the bucket with sand and Noah turned it over carefully and then immediately stomped on it because that’s what he does with all his sand castles.

We met Beth at the restaurant and were met with the unwelcome sight of it dark and bare inside.  There was a sign saying it was re-locating to Route 1, which meant it would no longer be accessible by foot, and we’d be unlikely to go there much anymore.  We were all disappointed (no pumpkin crepes for breakfast!) and with the nearby Café-A-Go-Go closed for the season, it was unclear where we should eat. We are creatures of habit, all of us (except maybe June).  As it was we were already staying it a different hotel than we usually do because our preferred hotel was partially under renovation and full of runners for a marathon being held that day. We were quite discombobulated. Beth had the idea to eat in the restaurant of the fanciest hotel on the boardwalk, The Boardwalk Plaza, and knowing it has an ocean view, I readily assented.

After breakfast I was ready to get started on my Christmas shopping mission with June while Noah stayed in the room working on homework.  But June wanted to swim in the hotel pool. She was actually the only one of us happy to be in a new hotel, because of the pool, so I said okay.  We had it to ourselves, possibly because it was raining in there. No, really. They seemed to be having a problem with condensation all over the hotel.  There was water pooling on the windowsill of our room and water dripped from the glass ceiling of the pool area.  I covered our clothes with our jackets so they wouldn’t get too wet while we swam.

By the time June and I had finished and had showers it was almost time for lunch, but we made a quick stop at the tea and spice shop.  June was a shopping dynamo, focused and decisive as she picked gifts for immediate and extended family.  We had lunch at a boardwalk restaurant, which I chose again mainly for the view because we’ve had bad service and mediocre food there in the past. I knew Beth and Noah were unlikely to set foot in there again so it seemed like my best chance to eat a salad and sweet potato fries while I watched the gray waves crash against the shore. June ordered fried pickles for an appetizer, and they were about what you’d expect fried pickles to be like. As we were leaving I thought I’d lost my phone and they were really nice about pulling the booth apart into its component parts to look for it and then I discovered it was in my shirt pocket all along.

Our next stop was going to be the bookstore, but we needed to go back to the hotel first because I had a gift certificate I’d forgotten to bring with me. I came into the room and greeted Beth and Noah cheerfully, but it was soon apparent something was wrong.  Noah had started his homework with Spanish and algebra because those are two of his easier classes and he wanted to get them out of the way, but he got unexpectedly snagged on both assignments.  He was frustrated and tearful and he didn’t want to stop working and go out for lunch because he just wanted to break through the impasse.

I was pretty sure his difficulties stemmed in part from the fact that he hadn’t slept well and it was two o’clock and he hadn’t had lunch.  I felt a stab of guilt for coming to Rehoboth at all, when he might have been able to work better at home.  Meanwhile June said she was going to pretend Noah was laughing and not crying because she didn’t like to hear him cry.

In the end Beth coaxed him to the cheesemonger’s for a lunch of fancy cheese and crackers, while June and I continued our shopping until it was time to see Santa. Noah has not believed in Santa since he was six, but up until this year he has gone for June’s sake (and for many years when she was too shy to speak to Santa he conveyed her wishes for her).  This year, though, he declined.  We didn’t push it. He’s twelve and that is a bit old for sitting on Santa’s lap.

The three of us watched as June went into the little house and whispered to Santa and just so all her bases were covered, she left a note in his mailbox. She’d composed and sealed the note several days earlier.  Uncharacteristically, Beth decided to pry open the envelope and read it, largely because being Santa, she wanted to know what June was expecting of Santa. The note was cryptic saying June knew Santa already knew what she wanted but even if he didn’t provide it she would still believe in him.

After Santa we switched kids and Beth and June went shopping while I stayed in the room with Noah. I thought maybe if I read the Holocaust memoir to him it would go more quickly but he was stopping me so often and taking such detailed notes I soon realized the notes were what was making the reading take so long and I wasn’t helping much.  This was frustrating because I had proposed this as a way he could finish something and feel better about the day and we ended up giving up on it and on working any more that day.

We had dinner at Grotto Pizza, his favorite, and as always Beth gave the kids money to donate to whatever charity they thought had the best Christmas tree in the restaurant. Noah seemed in better spirits.  Earlier in the day Beth had seen a sign outside a locked public restroom that said, “Restroom closed. Use Rehoboth Ave,” and we were all joking when I needed to go use the restroom that as the restaurant was on Rehoboth Avenue, perhaps I should just go outside and pee on the street. We’d been making this joke all day in various forms, but it had not gotten old. That’s how it is with family sometimes.

We went back to the hotel room and watched Frosty the Snowman, which we’d brought with us, and after June was in bed, Noah drummed quietly on the side of our bed with his drumsticks for an hour or so until it was time for him to go to bed.  This helps him decompress sometimes and I thought it was just what he needed.

Meanwhile, I went to the beach again. It was clearer, a beautiful night, and I could see Orion and the Big Dipper. But it was still cold and I didn’t stay long.

Sunday

The next day an ice storm was due to arrive so we left in the late morning, rather than after lunch as we usually would. I took June to the beach while Noah worked a bit.  We found a post in the sand someone had decorated, wrapping it with red tinsel and affixing tiny ornaments and a big bow to it. I was quite taken with it, a little bit of Christmas there on the beach.

Eventually June got too cold to stay on the beach. I can’t complain about her hardiness because although I’d packed snow pants and boots, I’d forgotten to bring any of her winter jackets and she wore a windbreaker all weekend, sometimes over a sweater, sometimes not. We went to the lobby of a nearby hotel as ours didn’t have one and we read until Beth called and said Noah was ready to eat. We had a nice breakfast at Green Man, and Beth and Noah did some shopping while I took June back to the room and packed to go.

The kids and I went down to the beach for one last time before we left, to say goodbye to the ocean. There was a lot of foam on the sand, as there often is when it’s windy, and the kids had fun stomping on it.  Then we let the waves run over our feet, thirteen times Noah decided, because it was 2013 but actually waiting for 2,013 waves would take too long. June and I were wearing rain boots and our feet stayed dry, but we discovered Noah’s snow boots were not as waterproof. Also, he tripped over his own feet and fell into a retreating wave and got his pants all wet and sandy.  But he was laughing, which was good to hear. Like June, I’d rather hear him laugh than cry.

The ice storm came, as predicted, and it was a tricky drive home for Beth. Noah started editing his paper that evening, having not worked on it all weekend.

Monday and Tuesday

In an extraordinary stroke of luck for Noah the next two days were snow days. He did go out and enjoy the snow, but he spent most of those two days at the computer re-writing his IDRP.  He still has a lot of work to do on it this weekend, but by next Thursday it will be done, for better or for worse.

I’m glad we went to the beach, despite the cold and all the time Noah had to spend working.  He go to go to Grotto’s and shop a little and play on the beach twice so it wasn’t a total loss for him. It wasn’t my ideal Beachmas, but we were all there together, doing what we always do as a family. That’s what holds us together and helps us laugh in the bad times and makes the good times even better.

Tuesday Afternoon is Never-Ending

Monday was Veteran’s Day, which in our area means a lot parents have the day off and kids have a half-day. Our school district takes advantage of parents’ availability by scheduling parent-teacher conferences on that day (and the following day, which is also a half-day for the kids). We scheduled a meeting with June’s morning teacher in the early afternoon, soon after school let out, deciding a meeting with the afternoon teacher was unnecessary as I’d been in her classroom to observe during the Columbus Day Open House, and just the week before to attend the second-grade publishing party.

Our meeting with Señora J was pleasant and uneventful.  June’s doing fine in her class and her grades are very good. The only thing Señora J had to suggest was that she check her work more carefully and speak up in class more.

In middle school you don’t make appointments, you just show up and stand in the lines that snake from the tables where the teachers sit in the gym and the cafeteria. So that’s what we did. We hit the gym first and eyed the huge lines for Noah’s English and World Studies teachers. For a five-minute chat with each of them, we’d be in that windowless room two hours—I got out of line briefly to talk to Noah’s Spanish teacher, who had almost no line, before re-joining Beth in the English teacher’s line. His algebra teacher wasn’t too swamped either so after we talked to the World Studies and English teachers, we saw her too.

It was no surprise the seventh-grade magnet English and World Studies teachers had mammoth lines.  It’s IDRP season—that stands for Interdisciplinary Research Paper. It’s due in a month and if the attendees of parent-teacher conferences are any gauge, the parents are nearly as stressed about it as the kids.

We told most of Noah’s teachers about his slow processing.  (See “His Different Mind” 7/20/11.) And we explained how it might affect 1) his class participation—it’s sometimes hard for him to formulate his thoughts quickly enough to participate in lively discussions—and 2) homework completion—sometimes it’s just impossible for him to finish.  We understand his grades will reflect what he produces and don’t expect anything else, but we wanted the teachers to know he’s not blowing things off; he’s doing his best. Noah’s first quarter grades were actually quite good, almost all As, but I think it’s helpful for his teachers to know a bit about his learning style. For some of the teachers, it seemed to be just the piece of the puzzle they need for Noah to make sense.  Right before I explained why Noah sometimes doesn’t talk in class, the Spanish teacher said he often appears to be daydreaming, but “he knows everything,” sounding a little baffled as he said it.

By the time we’d finished in the gym, it was time for the teachers’ break and we still had three teachers to go. We had to kill forty-five minutes so we took June, who’d been patiently (and then not so patiently) reading and drawing for two hours, to Starbucks for a treat before we headed back and saw Noah’s science, media, and band teachers in a little over a half hour. The media teacher said Noah is a good independent learner and “isn’t afraid of technology.”  When Beth asked about the procedure for trying out for honors band the band teacher explained the application was due a month ago (at which point the kids got their audition music) and auditions were the very next day, so he couldn’t audition.

Beth and I were both disappointed, because Honors Band was such a great experience for Noah last winter. When we asked him about it, he dug around in his band folder and found the band teacher’s invitation to apply, the form, and the music he had not practiced. He said he’d just assumed he wouldn’t have time to play in two bands. This seemed especially sad because recently when Beth asked him what his ideal class schedule would be he said all media and band.

Over the course of the afternoon spent standing in line we chatted with other parents, and in two cases mothers mentioned in a casual sort of way that school (academics, not social aspect) frequently make their children cry. One said she would count the evening as a win if her daughter didn’t cry hysterically while working on her IDRP outline and wasn’t up until one a.m.  Here I considered the fact that while Noah’s often up past his 8:45 bedtime on school nights, we never let him stay up half the night, no matter what he’s done or hasn’t done. Sometimes Beth will drive him to school in the morning so he can carve out a little work time before school and sometimes he just doesn’t finish his work, although he usually does.  I can’t imagine letting him stay up until one a.m. He’s only twelve, and growing like, well, like a twelve-year-old boy. He needs his sleep more than he needs a perfect grade on the IDRP.

So, what is this IDRP? It’s the biggest project in seventh grade and from what I’ve heard from parents whose kids have finished the Humanities program at Noah’s middle school the most difficult project during the whole three years. Parent after parent has told me, “It will be better after IDRP,” and I believe it (partly because of all the parents who told me, correctly, that fifth grade is easier than fourth at the Highly Gifted Center). Sixth grade was intense, but usually manageable and often fun, especially their GreekFest projects (See “All the World’s A Stage” 5/7/13). And in eighth grade, the payoff year, they take a five-day trip to New York City and make a documentary film, which I’m confident Noah will enjoy.

Meanwhile, we have IDRP, the middle child of the Humanities program, an eight to ten-page research paper, researched partly at a university library. The kids took a two-day field trip to the University of Maryland last month (and then Beth took Noah back so he could have more time with his sources). Noah’s topic is product liability law. He took an interest when we visited Cedar Point last summer and he and Beth had a discussion about amusement parks’ liability when something goes tragically wrong on a ride. The two of them have talked a lot about his paper and she says he’s very engaged and knowledgeable about the topic when you talk to him about it.  He’s just not so keen on communicating his knowledge in written form.

It’s been a big week for IDRP.  Noah had to turn in his second set of thirty-five note cards on Monday, and then an outline with an introductory and a concluding paragraph the very next day. Knowing how close these assignments were spaced, we’d hoped for him to finish the note cards a week ahead of time so he could have the whole weekend to work on the outline, but it didn’t happen.  In fact, he didn’t finish the note cards until the very end of the weekend before they were due.

I kept thinking he was almost done, when he’d reveal another requirement of the assignment he had not mentioned previously. So, when he was almost finished with the thirty-five cards (five to go), he reported that the cards needed to cover ten sources and he’d only done five.  And when he’d almost finished covering ten sources, we learned he was supposed to have five primary sources and he only had two. The finish line kept retreating further away the closer he seemed to get to it.

So, the note cards were completed and turned in on Monday (minus one primary source), but even a whole afternoon and evening courtesy of the half-day was not enough time to write the outline and the two paragraphs. (Go ahead and guess when we found out it wasn’t just an outline due Tuesday? Did you guess Monday? You’re right!)  We let him stay up past ten and he turned in a solid introductory paragraph and an outline but no conclusion.

All this time Noah had, understandably, been letting some of his other work slide. He didn’t do his math on Monday and there was a big World Studies reading with questions due on Wednesday.  Yes, Wednesday, right after grueling back-to-back assignments for this very class on each of the two days previous. (I joked while standing in line for the World Studies teacher that we should open with, “Why are you tormenting my child?).

Anyway, Tuesday was another half-day so I thought he could get it done. He got home around one and buckled down to work.  About an hour and half, he told me he’d just realized he’d been reading the wrong chapter.  He didn’t seem that upset, but I had that familiar feeling of progress dissipating, like a mirage retreating back to the horizon.  And this was when the line from “Lady Madonna,”—“Tuesday afternoon is never-ending” flitted through my mind and I posted it on Facebook.

“Noah, I’m so sorry,” I said. And then I advised him to save his answers in case they had to read that chapter later.  Oh, they did, he said. That one was due on Friday.  Okay, an assignment for Friday was half done. I felt a little better. Noah got to work on the right chapter and worked on it until five-thirty, shortly after June and I got back from her violin lesson. Then it was time for the rest of his homework.

Through the rest of the week, I kept hoping Noah would be able to write the overdue conclusion, but he didn’t. He doesn’t get home until four-thirty most afternoons because he has band practice and of course he had homework in other subjects. He wrote it this weekend, though, because the rough draft of the paper is due the week after next and he wants to take the conclusion to his conference with his English teacher this week.

This weekend we excused him from vacuuming and cooking dinner so he could work. As of last night, he’d done a math packet, practiced drums, and written two pages of rough draft, including the introductory and concluding paragraphs. I thought I saw light at the end of the tunnel, but then he spent four hours on Sunday, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., writing a thirty-second speech for media and he still had more media assignments to do before he could even go back to IDRP. It will all get done somehow, and my worrying about it doesn’t help, but I think it’s going to be a long month.

Quite an Experience

I. Thursday and Friday

Thursday June came off the school bus sobbing.  She’d twisted her knee the weekend before when she wiped out on her bike going down a hill too fast.  We’d been icing it regularly and keeping it wrapped in an Ace bandage and it seemed to be gradually getting better.  But while she was waiting in the bus line at school two squabbling girls crashed into her and knocked her down, re-injuring the knee.  She cried for over an hour after she got home. I cancelled her violin lesson and was seriously considering getting her on a bus and taking her to the emergency room of the hospital two blocks from our house when she finally stopped.

By the next morning she still couldn’t walk very well (she was hopping everywhere) so we decided to take her to the health center attached to her school for a preliminary medical opinion to help us decide what to do next.  We had a feeling staying at school wasn’t in the cards. In some ways the timing was lucky (and in other ways unlucky) because Beth and I were both already planning to take the day off.  The kids had a half-day and Beth and Noah were leaving in the afternoon for their annual early fall camping trip (“Notes on Camp” 9/30/07).  Beth was planning to pack in the morning, but I was hoping there’d be time for a mini-date–coffee or a Netflix movie or maybe both.

At school I delivered a form and check for an after-school cooking class June wants to take. (It’s full, but I got her on the waiting list.) Then we delivered a bag of the kids’ old t-shirts and sweatpants to the health center.  They requested them for kids who get sick at school and need a change of clothes. Then the nurse had a look at June’s leg, asked us some questions, and recommended we have a doctor examine her today.

She offered June a ride to the school doors in a wheelchair, which June accepted with half-suppressed pleasure. Over the course of our errands, the assistant principal, the principal, and two mothers of June’s friends inquired about what had happened to her. June, who does enjoy this kind of attention, later commented, “That was quite an experience.”

At home, Beth set to work making a lot of phone calls, communicating with June’s pediatrician and trying to get an appointment at an urgent care.  The funny thing was we already had a pediatrician appointment that day (for the kids’ overdue annual exams), but it wasn’t until mid-afternoon and if we waited until the pediatrician appointment for a referral to somewhere with an orthopedic specialist, it could have delayed Beth and Noah’s camping trip.  At the second urgent care Beth tried, they told her they didn’t take appointments but the wait was only about a half hour, so we headed over there.

During the intake questions, we were asked if June drinks or smokes.  Apparently they have to ask everyone, but one does wonder if they could make an exception for the under-eight set.

The doctor–who later inspired Beth to remark “They let awfully young people be doctors these days”–felt June’s leg all over and said there were no broken bones or torn ligaments and it was just a deep bruise that should feel better in a couple days, a week at most. Basically, her advice was to keep doing what we’d been doing—painkiller, ice, and compression.

We came home for lunch and to wait for Noah to get home so we could leave for the kids’ pediatrician visits. The nurse practitioner there looked at June’s leg again, and went over the headache journal I’ve been keeping to track June’s debilitating headaches. When I said the most obvious pattern was that they almost always occur in the late afternoon, she said it could be dehydration, but when I mentioned they seem more common right after the temperature drops, that she feels the pain only in the front of her head, and they make her vomit, she said migraines without aura were more likely.  So we got a referral to a neurologist.  Meanwhile, she gave us a handout about migraine triggers and alcohol was one. We pointed out for the second time that day that our second grader is not a lush.

June’s been having these headaches since she was four, at first just a few a year but now about once a month, and I’d been dreading the day someone told us they were migraines, but I found once I’d heard it, it was actually a relief. It means we can get some advice about treatment and coping strategies. There’s a next step.  Finally, we got a cream for her persistent chin rash, and then it was Noah’s turn. His exam was uneventful. Both kids got flu shots and we were out of the office in less than an hour.

June was walking a little better by this point, well enough to stop at Starbucks for refreshments before driving home, where Beth and Noah finished packing and Noah practiced his drums.  On their way out of town, Beth dropped June and I off at Chuck E. Cheese’s, so we could attend a fundraiser for her school.  Earlier in the day I thought attending this event was out of the question as June could barely stand, but now she was a lot better.  Except for the relatively brief time we were eating, she was on her feet for the hour and fifteen minutes were there.

Here I must concede that the whole experience of attending a school fundraiser at Chuck E. Cheese’s was considerably less horrific than I thought it would be. Yes, it was loud, and there were a lot of kids there, including several from June’s class, but the space is big enough that it didn’t feel claustrophobically crowded. Most of the arcade games were available when June wanted to play them either right away or after a short wait.  The system was pretty easy to understand. You buy game tokens with your meal, use the tokens to play games, tickets spit out of the games after you finish, and then you redeem them for prizes.

With the twenty-five tokens I bought her, June netted forty-seven tickets. That plus the fifteen bonus tickets we got for attending the fundraiser translated into a set of glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth, a top, and two rolls of sweet tarts.  June was well satisfied with her prizes. I bought her a bag of blue cotton candy for the road, and we headed out into the night. I’d been planning on catching a bus home, but she’d been fine standing for a pretty long time, so I thought the fifteen minutes it would take us to walk home should be manageable. It seemed like a better idea than waiting a half hour for a bus.

June was elated and chatty on the walk home.  “It was an exciting day,” she said, “but this was the best part.”  She said it was “creepy” walking home in the dark, but creepy in good way. She said she loved the sound of the crickets and “the sweet heart of the night.”  She’d given me a handful of her cotton candy and as it melted in my mouth, I had that walking home from the carnival feeling I associate with the boardwalk, and I had to agree.

II. Saturday

You might think it would be hard to top a day in which you got to ride in a wheelchair through the halls of your school and go to Chuck E. Cheese’s for the first time, but Saturday gave Friday a run for its money. A friend of Beth’s at the National Education Association had asked her if June would like to be filmed for a commercial. They were looking for kids in grades one to four. June definitely wanted to but I wanted to play it by ear because I’d have to take her into the city on public transportation and there would be several blocks of walking. She seemed to be on the mend, however, so on Friday, we confirmed we’d be there.

Before June got hurt, I’d been planning a full weekend for her. She likes to keep busy and even more so when Beth and Noah are out of town and she’s feeling a bit left out of the festivities. There was a creek clean-up Saturday morning and she wanted to participate in it, much to my surprise because when I took both kids last spring she’d been whiny and difficult about it. Over the past couple weeks she kept seeing the signs and saying she wanted to do it and I’d been non-committal.  But I didn’t want her clambering around on the rocks of the creek in her current condition, so no creek clean-up this fall.

There was also Takoma Play Day, an event Beth has taken her to in the past. I’ve never gone so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I know June spent all her time at the last one playing tennis and Beth says the focus is on active play, so I decided to skip that, too.

Megan called on Friday evening, inviting June over for a Saturday morning play date so that took care a few hours.  When I picked June up, she was complaining of a slight headache so I said she could rest at home but she wanted to go the playground, so I took her, but we only ended up staying five or ten minutes because I wanted to be careful of her leg and didn’t want her to play on the creek boulders or climb up the outside of the tunnel slide and where’s the fun in that?

When we got home, we iced her leg and I read to her from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Next, she watched some television.  (She seemed not to notice the irony that we’d just finished the Mike Teavee episode one bit.) When I came into the living room at 2:35, five minutes after her show ended I found the television turned off and June asleep on the couch.

This was a problem because I wanted to leave for the commercial shoot in twenty minutes, but Beth and I have learned that it’s not a good idea to wake June when she falls asleep in the afternoon. It’s often how her body responds to an incipient headache and if that’s the case, the longer she sleeps the less pain and vomiting she has to endure.  However, she’d also had an exciting couple days and she could just be exhausted. I called Beth to confer and she advised I let her sleep.  So I did, even though I knew if June missed the filming and she hadn’t even have a headache, she’d be hopping mad.

Around 3:40, June stirred on the couch and sat up a little. “Did I fall asleep?” she asked. I said yes and asked if she’d had a headache when she went to sleep.  Just “a teeny one,” she said. How did she feel now, I enquired. Fine.

I’d hoped to be on the 2:55 bus and the next one wasn’t until 3:55 but if we had dinner in the city after the shoot instead of before (my original plan) and if we had good luck with the bus and train, I thought we might make it on time.  And we did. We arrived at the studio at 4:53, seven minutes before our appointment.

The first thing the wardrobe person wanted was to see June’s extra clothes. There were very specific instructions about what to wear and what not to wear and you needed to bring multiple outfits. Solid colors with no logos and no black, white, or red, no skirts and no shorts was the gist of it.  It turns out June doesn’t have a lot of clothes in solid colors and I wasn’t sure if they just meant no stripes, plaid, etc or no graphics at all. She also thought a dress would be okay because it didn’t say no dresses, though I was doubtful.

Anyway, June was wearing a pink dress with a fish on it and solid teal leggings. The wardrobe person asked for the extra clothes and selected orange leggings and an orange Henley with pink ribbon trim. June changed and I filled out a consent form while the hair and make-up person took out her pigtails, combed her hair, sprayed it with hairspray (June later complained it smelled funny) and powdered her face.

We waited in the green room a while, watching cartoons and eating fruit salad and tortilla chips. When they called June, we went to the studio and watched the girl before her. This scene was of a mother in a rocking chair, reading to a child in her lap.  The photographer rode a little cart that went back and forth on an arc of track. The image of the mother and child was on computer screens all over that people were watching.

When they were finished, it was June’s turn. Her scene was different. She was sitting and reading a book by herself.  The director told her to turn the pages, look interested, and look up every now and then, as if imagining to herself something about what she was reading.

Well, three years of summer drama camp or June’s naturally dramatic personality paid off here.  At first I thought she was over-doing it, but people kept saying “Good job!” and “Nice head tilt!” and things like that. Given that they filmed kids for ten hours for what I imagine will be a thirty-second or one minute commercial, it’s unlikely any of June’s footage will make the final cut, but still it was a very satisfactory experience for her.

We had dinner at the Shake Shack afterward—Portobello burgers and fries for both of us, a peanut butter shake for me, and coffee frozen custard for her.  Walking through the bustling neighborhood of Dupont Circle toward the Metro, and admiring the big puffy, salmon-colored clouds in the sky as the sun went down, June sighed and said, “I love cities.”

“Do you think you’ll live in one when you grow up?” I asked.

“I’m planning to move to China,” she informed me.

Who knows? Maybe she will. Sunday she spent a quiet day at home resting her leg and reading, but she wants to go far, that’s for sure, and a little thing like a sprained knee is not about to stop her.

Back to School

This is the first school year in a long time that neither kid is starting a new school.  A year ago Noah started middle school, two years ago June was starting kindergarten, and three years ago Noah was switching from his home elementary school to a magnet gifted program. So starting second and seventh grade is almost anti-climactic, but in a good way, a settling-back-into-familiar-routines kind of way.

We got the postcard with June’s classroom assignments on the Wednesday before school started.  She has Señora J in the morning and Ms. K in the afternoon.  Señora J has the reputation for being a little stern, but fair and challenging. I think she and June will get along fine. I’d never heard of Ms. K. and I wasn’t sure if she was new or not. It’s a big school outside the school-within-a-school of the Spanish immersion program and I haven’t heard of all the teachers.  As it turns out, she is new. This made me just slightly nervous because the year Noah had two new teachers (third grade) was his most academically unsatisfying year.  And I don’t think June was sufficiently challenged last year, especially by her English teacher, though June was quite fond of her.

As for Noah, seventh grade is reported to be the most rigorous year in the Humanities magnet.  They write a ten-page research paper, researched in part at a university library. It will be taxing at times, no doubt, but I’ve also heard it’s the year they really learn how to write and that kids who come out of the magnet program find themselves better prepared for advanced classes in high school than their peers.  So I think it will be worth it.

All summer I had a printout of my summer work schedule taped to the wall of the study.  It had the dates for each of the ten weeks of the kids’ summer break and how many hours I committed to work during each of them.  I checked the weeks off one by one as they passed.  For most of the summer I did this with a sense of satisfaction, as I looked forward to getting back to a more predictable routine and a quieter house.  But after we returned from our West Virginia/Ohio trip and there were only two weeks left on the makeshift calendar, I started to think, “Only two more weeks?” and I resolved to do more fun things with the kids before summer break was gone.

Summer Break, Week 9

The second to last week of summer break both kids were home.  They had to do summer homework (and they both all but finished it) and practice their instruments, and Noah mowed the backyard, but we also went wading in the creek, went to see a documentary about cheetahs and lions, went out to lunch and out for ice cream and frozen yogurt.  I took June to a drop-in music class and to the library for Spanish circle time.  June had a friend over and they organized a picnic and a tea party and played dress up while I worked.

On Friday we were planning a trip to the pool but then I found out the pool I had in mind, the only outdoor public pool in walking distance of our house, is closed on Fridays, so June and I went to the playground and she waded in the creek again and then we went to the 7-11 to get milk and we ended up with snacks as well.  As I watched her ride her bike home one-handed while eating Cheetos out a bag in the basket I came to the conclusion that it really is time to take off her training wheels.  When we got home, Noah had finished all the items on his to-do list so I made some iced tea and we played one board game of each kid’s choice. June chose Operation; Noah chose Quirkle. It was nice to have the time to play a long game all the way to the end and not feel rushed.

Over the weekend, I made a peach-blackberry cobbler, we went thrift store shopping for school clothes and Noah and June organized an art show. (The art was all June’s but Noah made the poster for it.) It was originally conceived as a money-making venture, but we told June she couldn’t charge money for admission or artwork. We also limited the guests to kids who live on our block, a group consisting of two families with three kids each. One family was out of town, but the other came, as did a retired colleague of Beth’s who saw the poster Beth put on Facebook.  June proclaimed the show a success before it even happened, because we bought her a summery party dress for it, even though we went into the store saying words like “practical” and “school clothes.” (Things like this have a way of happening around June.)  Anyway, June got to walk people through the artwork twice, get complimented on it, serve lemonade and cookies, and wear a new dress. She was satisfied, even without profits.

Summer Break, Week 10

The next week Noah had drama camp. I was glad because it forced him to complete his summer homework the week before and just have a nice relaxing final week of summer. June and I were left to our own devices. So I arranged for a couple play dates (including a double play date that started with me taking June and Megan to Spanish circle time, having a picnic lunch with them and then dropping them at Megan’s house for several hours).

After an animated discussion about the existence of fairies during her other play date–consensus: they are real–June told me last year there was a kid on the school bus who said the Tooth Fairy is just your parents.  And then she looked me right in the eye and said, “Is it you?”  So I had to tell her. (Actually, I made Beth do it.) It was not the answer she was expecting, and I was sorry about it because she’s only lost two teeth.  But for us, when it gets to the point of direct questions, it starts to feel less like pretending and more like lying, so it was time. There were no follow up questions about Santa and the Easter Bunny. If she doesn’t ask, we won’t tell.  She may be starting a new school year, but I’d like to let her enjoy as much magic and innocence as she wants for now.

That week June and I also made chocolate-covered frozen bananas and “back to school” cupcakes, with the initials of the kids’ schools on them, went to Co-op story time, which we hadn’t done all summer, and finally made it to the pool.

On the way home from the pool I walked along the creek and June walked in it (because it would be a waste of being in her bathing suit if she didn’t, she explained).  Usually we could see each other, but sometimes the undergrowth was so thick we couldn’t.  Then I could hear June splashing along beside me, singing an impromptu song about walking in the creek and muttering to herself, “Mommy knows where you are.” It was just the right amount of adventure.

On Thursday, Beth and I sat in on Noah’s drum lesson. It was the last one—he only takes private lessons in the summer—and he’d asked if we wanted to watch.  He’d been working on learning the drum part for “Route 66” for a couple weeks and he practiced it several times during the lesson, with the teacher offering occasional feedback, and then recording him.  Usually I only hear Noah play in band concerts or practicing at home, and then I only hear his part of the music (he’s sometimes listening to the rest on headphones).  So it was novel and fun to hear him playing along with a rock song, and doing quite a spirited solo at the end.  The teacher said he was “hanging with it” and had “chops.”

Friday June went to work with Beth in the morning and then they both came home mid-day for the Open House at June’s school and Noah’s drama camp performance. June was so excited to meet her teachers and see her friends at the Open House she kept bouncing up and down on her toes.  To our surprise, we discovered we know Ms. K, she’s the mother of one of Noah’s old classmates (and by a strange coincidence, so is Señora J, but we knew that already).  Ms. K has three kids who’ve attended June’s school (one’s in high school now, one’s in Noah’s grade and the youngest is in June’s grade). This eased my mind because it meant while new to the school as a teacher, she was not really new and knowing something about the school’s culture will probably help her land on her feet.

Between the Open House and Noah’s performance we ran some errands. We dropped off Beth’s Birkenstocks and mine to be re-soled and re-corked, and went to a bookstore to buy the fall book for my book club. We’re reading Remembrance of Things Past, or the first couple volumes of it. I decided to start reading it on the first day of school. It seems like a good day to start a serious book.

At Noah’s performance, he was in two improv sketches, one in which he was called on to be the “world’s worst cobbler” and the “world’s worst doctor” (I called out “cobbler” when the audience was asked to name a profession, probably because we’d just taken our shoes for repair) and another one called “Poison Arm Samurai” in which thirty ten-to-thirteen-year-old-kids stumbled around the stage in zombie-like slow motion slaying each other by brushing their arms up against each other. It was like a very strange dance.

After the performance we let June play in the fountain, but she didn’t stay long as it was cool and drizzling. “The summer is really winding down,” Beth commented as we watched her run and splash.

What really made it feel that way for me, though, was some time the next day when I sat down at the computer to check my email and noticed the calendar on the wall.  I grabbed a pencil and checked off the line that said, “August 19-23: 7.5 hours.” Then realizing there was no reason to keep it, I made a move to pull it off the wall and found myself reluctant to do so.

Then we were down to the last weekend. On Saturday, Noah went over to David’s house, and June went to Talia’s birthday pool party. Both kids got haircuts on Sunday.  It was the most hair June’s ever had cut off at once, probably three or four inches. She wanted it shorter for second grade, and even though I’ve always like her hair long, I said yes, because she’s seven and I need to let her make more of her own decisions. I actually expected her to come home with shorter hair than she did. It’s a couple inches past her shoulders still.

We were planning to go out for ice cream Sunday night–it’s a last-night-of-summer-break family tradition–but June put herself to bed at five with a headache, and Noah was scrambling to print and assemble all his summer homework assignments until seven-thirty or so, so there was no leisurely family outing.  But Beth and Noah did make a Baskin-Robbins run and the three of us ate it around the dining room table.  (They brought home enough so June could have some later.)

This next morning Beth and Noah were out the door by 6:40 and June was ready to go by 7:35, a good forty-five minutes before she needed to. At the bus stop we greeted families we haven’t seen in a while and met the one-month old brother of a third-grader I’ve known since he and June were toddlers waiting at their older brothers’ bus stops. Last year’s fifth-graders were gone and everyone is a year older. Funny how that happens.

The kids came home with no homework in June’s case and minimal homework in Noah’s case.  They shared their news at dinner.  There was a glitch in Noah’s schedule and he wasn’t signed up for band. (This was resolved on the second day of school.) There are new restrictions on when middle schoolers can visit their lockers (hardly ever) and new rules about where the kids at June’s school can play during recess, and breakfast is now served in the classroom instead of in the cafeteria at her school. Otherwise, not much is different.

We ate the leftover ice cream and the kids went to bed, another school year underway.