Noah stepped off the bus this afternoon and with a big smile, but no comment, handed me his third consecutive all-smiley-faces weekly behavior report from Señorita M’s class. I noticed a sticker on his shirt that depicted a bespectacled worm. “What’s that?” I asked him, although I had a pretty good guess.
“It means I could go to the party,” he said.
“Oh right, the summer homework party was today,” I said, pretending to have forgotten. “How was it?”
“Good,” he said, and described the sundae he’d created: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream with butterscotch sauce. We sat down on the porch and he showed me his party booty: a certificate of achievement, a bookmark and a pencil that says, “Books are Magic.” I asked how many kids from his class attended and he said only two or three, which surprised me. Many of the kids of the kids in the Spanish immersion program remind me of Noah—whip smart, slightly nerdy, with academically inclined parents. I wondered if he just wasn’t paying attention to who was there. He can be oblivious to things like that.
We didn’t linger on the porch because his new favorite television show is on at 3:30, only ten minutes after the bus arrives. It’s called Super Why (http://pbskids.org/superwhy/index.html) and Beth, who has only watched one episode on the computer, declared it “the most tedious show ever.” I’ve watched several episodes, and while slightly more tolerant, I have to admit it is a bit slow. It’s about a quartet of superheroes, the Super Readers, who solve everyday problems using “Alphabet Power,” “Word Power,” “Spelling Power,” and “The Power to Read.” Because the characters are all operating at different levels of literacy, I imagine it was designed to be viewed by children of different ages, say preschoolers to kids in the early elementary grades. Most of it is well below Noah’s level, but for reasons we do not fully understand, it has captured his imagination.
While Noah was watching television, I put June down for a later than usual afternoon nap. She’s been resisting one or both naps most days now for a few weeks and I am coming to the reluctant recognition that I need to eliminate her morning nap because when she does take it, her afternoon nap starts so late that she has trouble getting to sleep at night. (One night she lay in her bed chanting “No way! No way! No way!”as I tried to get her to sleep.) It’s not a convenient time for this transition. I have been working about five hours a week since mid-August, doing some research for my sister, Sara, otherwise known as Word Girl (www.wordgirl.biz/), a freelance writer specializing in nutrition and natural foods. My involvement with her current project is set to end at the end of the month, after which I will begin a few weeks of scoring the essay portion of the SAT. So naps are precious now. But June didn’t get that memo and we will be trying napless mornings starting Monday. Today, though, I had to let her take that second nap because she’d been up since ten and I just didn’t see her making it until bedtime without melting down.
June fell asleep just as Noah’s show was ending. He asked if he could play a computer game, then have me read to him when he finished. I agreed, and settled onto the couch with a big pile of printouts about the detoxification powers of various foods to read and highlight. I was just getting to the one on Asian green leaf vegetables when he came in with a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We read several chapters, ending with the one in which Mike Teavee gets shrunk by the television rays and the Oompa Loompas sing this song about television:
…IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK—HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right,’ you’ll cry, ‘All right,’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY..USED…TO,,,READ! They’d READ and READ
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their life was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read…
Well, I thought to myself, this sounds like a pretty good description of our house, even if Noah does watch an hour of PBS most days, plus the occasional dvd. It doesn’t have to be either/or, though if it did, we’d be setting TV set out on the curb without a second thought. [Aside: There’s an interesting pro/con set of essays about television and children in the current issue of Brain Child, my very favorite parenting magazine (www.brainchildmag.com/). Sadly, the article itself is not available on their site, but it’s worth a look anyway if you’re interested in other essays on parenting.]
I flipped through the remaining pages of the book and glanced at the clock. “Well, we only have two chapters left, but I think we need to stop so I can make dinn—“
Noah’s wails cut me off. “WE READ TOO MUCH!” he cried. He was so upset he needed to express it physically, so he started to jump up and down on the bed (where we’d relocated when June woke up from her nap) yelling “WE READ TOO MUCH!” over and over and sobbing. June regarded him with mild curiosity.
I had no idea why he was upset and it took a while to get it out of him, but it turned out to have to do with his reading log. He’s supposed to read or be read to at least fifteen minutes a day, Mondays through Thursdays, as part of his Language Arts homework and we have to keep a record of what he reads. I didn’t think this would pose much of a problem, since we read much more than that, albeit more irregularly (an hour or more one day, ten minutes the next) and we’d kept a similar log for his summer reading homework. If anything, I thought the discipline of daily reading might be good for Noah. It has caused him a lot of anxiety, however. At first, after a class discussion about how they should not read the same books over and over all year, he thought he couldn’t read chapter books because they take more than a day to finish and he would need to enter the same book more than once. At our meeting with Ms. C last week, she assured us this was not the case, and Noah should feel free to use chapter books and enter them in the log as long as it took to finish them. Later Noah worried that he wasn’t supposed to read more than fifteen minutes each day, but I convinced him it was fifteen minutes or more, and more was fine. His current meltdown was a combination of both worries. A year seems like such an interminable stretch of time to a six year old that he was afraid he would run out of books he likes before the year was out so he’d meant to make Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (“a book I like so much”) last longer. And here it was, less than a week after we’d started it and it was almost over. He’d gotten carried away in the pleasure of the text and forgotten to hoard it. And to make matters worse, we’d done it on a Friday, which doesn’t even count for the reading log! He was inconsolable. I tried to wrap my mind around this problem, considering the irony that Noah’s reading homework was discouraging him from reading.
I jumped in with a long list of books he’s already read and likes that we could re-read for the log, as well as books he’s never read that I’ve been meaning to share with him. I assured him he could live a long, long life and never read all the good books in the world. I offered myself up as an example, a forty-year-old ex-academic with a PhD in literature and a long mental to-read list. Gradually, he began to calm down and went to play on the computer.
I made salads and popped a frozen pizza in the oven. Beth came home earlier than expected, and shortly after I heard the door open, I heard Noah sobbing again in the study. I came in and sat on the floor. “WE READ TOO MUCH,” he cried to Beth. We went through the same conversation we’d just had, with some variations. Beth’s contribution was to offer to write Ms. C an email, asking if we could have some flexibility with the log, writing down reading we actually did on the weekend on Monday for instance. We worked out a plan of the next few books we’d read, and we promised not to read any more of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory until Monday.
As Beth and I did the dinner dishes, she noted we hadn’t seen June in a while. “She’s in the living room,” I said. I’d seen her go in there and I could hear papers rustling. I figured she was turning the pages of a book. I knew I should check and see if it was a library book or one of Noah’s favorites since she’s not really supposed to handle paper-paged books unsupervised, but she was quiet and Beth and I were having an actual conversation, so I decided to let her be. When Beth started Noah’s bath, I went in to check on her and found the pile of hundreds of pages of printouts of articles on detoxification I’d left on the end table scattered all over the couch and the living room floor. June had a pencil in one hand and was happily scribbling on one of the pages.
I carried a loudly protesting June to the bathroom and shut her in there with Beth and Noah while I picked up the papers and tried to get them back in order, but I quickly gave up on it and dumped the pile on top of my dresser. Beth suggested that I take the advice I frequently give to Noah and not leave things I don’t want June getting into where she can reach them. She took a bit too much pleasure in this suggestion, if you ask me.
After Noah’s bath, we watched an episode of Fraggle Rock, (http://www.fragglerocker.com/info/info.asp) a 1980s Jim Henson cable show we’d ordered from Netflix about some subterranean muppet-like creatures who live in another world, connected to ours by a hole in the baseboard of an old man’s house. As soon as June saw we were going to turn on the TV, she grabbed the old remote control with the batteries removed that we’ve designated as hers, and she hopped up onto the couch. Noah joined her, holding the actual working remote.
I watched them, both entranced as the theme song played:
Dance your cares away,
Worry’s for another day.
Let the music play,
Down at Fraggle Rock.
I don’t think it will turn their brains to cheese. I hope not. I know they, especially Noah, use TV like grownups do, to relax and escape, and even to explore those fantasies and fairylands Roald Dahl extols. When the show was over, Noah asked plaintively, “Why did we read too much?” but he was calm, his lament just a faint echo of his earlier ones.
Sure enough, I paid for June’s late afternoon nap with a wakeful baby at bedtime. Cramped and stiff, I lay with her in the toddler bed, setting her back down every time she popped up, stroking her hair and back, singing her favorite bedtime songs:
Juney, Juney, give me your answer true,
I’m half crazy all for the love of you.
After we’d both tired of singing, we listened to one of her musical crib toys and watched the revolving images of birds and bugs it projected on the ceiling of the dimly lit room. When it finished, she sat up for the umpteenth time and suggested an alternative activity. “Book?” she said hopefully.