About Steph

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We Are Headed South: College Tours, Installment #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Headed North: College Tours, Installment #1

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

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

Monday: Takoma Park, MD to Lake George, NY

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

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

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

Tuesday: Lake George, NY to Burlington, VT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: North Truro, MA to Takoma Park, MD

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

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

Ease on Down the Road

North’s birthday was a week-long affair this year. In lieu of a party, they asked for tickets to see The Wiz at Ford’s Theater with Zoë and to have dinner before the show and a sleepover afterwards. They also had birthday get-togethers with Xavier and Megan the weekends before and after their birthday. And then we went to a somewhat larger gathering, with 800,000 people to protest gun violence.

Pre-Birthday Celebrations: Sunday to Thursday

Xavier and his one of his moms and his grandmother took North out to the lunch buffet at a vegetarian Indian restaurant the Sunday before their birthday. He gave them a rainbow-striped scarf, which might have been a reference to the fact that they both belong to their schools Rainbow Alliance (the gay-straight union). Then they went swimming at the community pool where I do my Sunday afternoon laps. This was a spontaneous development, so I was surprised to see them come in the door to the pool deck while I was doing the kickboard part of my routine.

The weather and the school district gave North an early birthday present of a day off on Wednesday and a two-hour delay on Thursday because we got four and a half inches of the white stuff. North went over to Zoë’s house and they spent Wednesday hand coloring invitations for Zoë’s birthday party, walking to the bakery to get treats, and sledding. North was the only one of us who had any fun that day, as Beth, Noah, and I were holed up in the house working.

Thursday, the day before North’s birthday, I made tacos for dinner, because they love tacos and I don’t make them much anymore because I made them on Election night 2016 and now tacos just make me sad. North thinks this is a ridiculous reaction and maybe it is, but it’s my reaction.

After dinner, Beth and North went to the party store to get the balloons they’d bought earlier inflated with helium. I thought it was kind of funny that despite the fact that North wasn’t having a party, we still ended up with balloons and a piñata. For reason I can’t quite articulate, this reminded me of the year they turned five and asked for a surprise party and then tried to plan exactly what was going to happen at the surprise party.

The Birthday: Friday

On Friday morning I got up earlier than usual and made my newly minted twelve year old a birthday breakfast of cheese grits and an egg. (They usually make their own breakfast so that was part of the treat. Also, they are quite fond of cheese grits.)  They went off to school and came home with Zoë, who admired the balloons, and helped them smash the piñata and dye the frosting for the baked but not yet frosted birthday cake a pretty teal color.

Just before five, I herded Noah, North, and Zoë to the bus stop so we could meet Beth for pizza at Roscoe’s, where North opened cards and presents. Zoë gave them a card she’d circulated around school and gotten a bunch of friends to sign. North was delighted and read the messages—many of which were mysterious in-jokes—aloud.

Zoë’s folks were dropping off her presents for North later, so the gifts were just from us and the grandmothers. North received some money, an Amazon gift card, three novels (A Wish After MidnightEvery Day, and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda), a mug that says, “Warning: I may spontaneously break out in show tunes,” a t-shirt that says “I’m not yelling, I’m projecting” and permission (and funds) to dye all their hair purple. Up to now, they’ve always had to keep at least half of their hair its natural color. This has been my rule since they first started dyeing their hair the summer before fourth grade.  I like their natural golden blonde color and I didn’t like the idea of their whole head being white blond when the purple dye fades. But this is something they’ve wanted a long time and it’s not my hair, so I finally relented.

We took a train into the city, had some pre-show lemonade, café au lait, and pastries. Then we hurried to Ford’s Theater and found our seats. The Wiz was fun (and a sentimental favorite if you happened to be a kid in the late 1970s). Of course a show like this is mostly about the song and dance numbers and these were just what you’d want. I’ve actually been singing “Ease on Down the Road,” to my kids on school mornings when they need a little push to get out the door since they were little. I’m not sure they believed it was a real song other people knew until we saw the show. Anyway, the actress playing Dorothy was full of earnest emotion and a powerful singer, but Zoë and North liked the scarecrow best for his physical humor and comic line delivery. The costumes were sumptuous and the set effectively used projections as well as physical pieces. There were some updates, such as references to Black Panther and the guard at the Emerald City using Siri to open the city gates but overall, it was pretty faithful to the original show.

We got home very late. Metro was single-tracking on the Red Line and while we were waiting at Metro Center  it was announced that the train was coming on the opposite side of the track from where it actually arrived so there was a stampede across the bridge that goes over the tracks. We made it onto the train, which was good because it would have been a twenty-minute wait for the next one. At home, North opened Zoë’s presents—a 3D puzzle, a stress ball, a fidget cube and a big Tootsie Roll—and we all went to bed.

After the Birthday: Saturday and Sunday

Zoë slept over at our house and the next morning different people ate fruit salad, leftover pizza, vegetarian sausage, and birthday cake for breakfast. (Everyone had cake.) Beth and I made signs for the March for Our Lives. Beth mixed up some orange paint and painted “#Enough. End gun violence” on hers. I went with a similar sentiment: “Enough is Enough” on one side and “¡Basta ya!” on the other because I am fired up enough to say it in two languages. Noah affixed a sticker that says “2019” to his shirt. The date represents the year he can vote in state and federal elections. He got it at school and a lot of teens at the march were wearing similar ones.

Dropping Zoë back at her house, we were headed back into the city to attend the March. The name was something of a misnomer because it wasn’t a march so much as a rally; once we found a place to stand we didn’t ease on down Pennsylvania Avenue as much as stand there for several hours, along with masses of other people. The stage was in front of the Capitol and screens were set up along the road at intervals. We were in front of the Archives building, several blocks away, but we were close to a screen and Beth, Noah, and I could see and hear well. North, being shorter than most of the people around us, could only hear.

We were there an hour before the speeches started so we had plenty of time to people watch and read signs. There were many variations on the idea that there should be a background check before you could buy a Republican senator and quite a few said, “The NRA is a terrorist organization.” A girl in front of us had one that said, “Please DO NOT arm my gym teacher.” Kids held signs that said, “Am I next?” and “I am not a target.”

I have to say it was pretty well organized as these things go. Even though it was a huge event, there were enough porta potties and even after it was over, they still had toilet paper. It was also possibly the most moving political rally I have ever attended. I think that’s because all the speakers were young people—kids, teens, and one or two twenty-somethings (including the brother of a teacher killed at Sandy Hook). There was not a politician in the bunch. Several of the Parkland students spoke and their eloquent speeches were interspersed with other heartfelt speeches by young people from all around the country who had lost siblings or other family members to gun violence. There also musical acts. Andra Day opened the program, and Common, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and others all sang.

Even if you weren’t there, you’ve probably seen a lot of the speeches online already, so I won’t try to summarize them all. The eleven year old girl from Alexandria was a big crowd hit, as was Martin Luther King’s nine-year-old granddaughter. They saved Emma González for last. If you haven’t seen her speech, which begins passionately, and ends with a long silence that stands for the six minutes and twenty seconds it took the Parkland shooter to kill his victims, you should. You can see all those speeches here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43531391.

North, who’d been up more than two hours past their bedtime the night before and who was using a cane because of a twisted ankle and who couldn’t see the screen, tired of the speeches before the rest of us did, so Beth took them home for a nap. Noah and I stayed until the end.

We lingered in the city for a while the crowds slowly dispersed. Noah wanted pizza and I tried to convince him we should just eat the snacks in my bag but having established a post-protest pizza tradition this year, he was adamant and he stood in line that snaked out the door of a pizza place while I sat wearily on the sidewalk and looked at my friends’ pictures of the march on my phone. While I was waiting for him I saw a big group of kids from Newtown High School go by in matching t-shirts and considered how some of them were young enough to have been fourth and fifth graders at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago.

Noah came back with the pizza and we ate it, still sitting on the sidewalk. Then since we’d already ruined our dinner it seemed like a good idea to get milkshakes from an ice cream truck. It ended up being a good plan because the Metro wasn’t crammed by the time we got there and we got seats on the train.

We got home around the time Megan was arriving for the second of North’s back-to-back sleepovers. North opened her gift—a Broadway-themed board game—and after an hour or so we went out to dinner. Noah was full from his mid-afternoon lunch and stayed home. I went along but didn’t eat much. At home, we all ate more birthday cake and everyone was in bed by ten o’ clock.

The following morning, I went to church with Beth and North. The religious education leader had put out a call the night before for kids to speak at the service about gun violence. Never one to shy away from a microphone, North jotted down some notes in the time between when Megan left and when we left for church. Here’s the speech. It’s about the experience of sheltering place because of a (false) rumor about a kid with a gun at their school and about the walkout they organized during a field trip. It’s a little over three minutes long.

When the service was over we went to the coffee social afterward and listened to people congratulate North on their speech.

Back at home, we settled in for a day of work, homework, housecleaning, and packing because tomorrow we are easing on down the road again—on a spring break college visit road trip to Burlington, Vermont and Boston to see Champlain College and Emerson College, with a side trip to Cape Cod so North and I can get a beach fix. After all the celebrating, protesting, and traveling, we will all be ready for some R&R.

Kids

Kids!
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids!
But they still just do what they want to do!

From “Kids” by Lee Adams (Bye, Bye Birdie)

In the space of ten days, the kids have: seen three plays, played and sang in music festivals (both with a solo), walked out of school to protest gun violence, gone on two field trips, participated in a day of service, sung karaoke and performed in an acting class showcase. On hearing about just one of these days, Beth’s mom said, “North’s a busy bee.” Here’s how it all went down:

Saturday: Bye, Bye Birdie

The theater where North did School of Rock last fall had two shows running on consecutive weekends this month, Bye, Bye Birdie and Sweet Charity. North wanted to go because they had friends in each show so we did. We saw Bye, Bye Birdie first. It was a fun show and nice to see so many kids from School of Rock perform again. I got a root beer float from the concession stand during intermission because it seemed appropriate for the time period. And speaking of the time period, when the show was over I had to explain to North what it meant to get pinned. They looked at me skeptically and said, “People don’t do that anymore, do they?” As we left the theater and walked down the staircase toward a corridor lined with actors waiting to greet the audience, several kids yelled North’s name. They all seemed happy to see each other.

Monday: Band Festival

Noah played in a band festival and just as at North’s chorus concert earlier this month, there was an issue with his band clothes. The problem was he forgot to wear them and he arrived at school in street clothes. Beth saved his bacon by running the band clothes to school for him. He forgot to ask for a belt so she didn’t take one and his concert pants wouldn’t stay up, so he wore the fleece pants he’d worn to school, which luckily, were black. Because of a percussionist shortage, Noah played not only with his own band but his school’s two other bands. He had to learn a timpani part with one day’s notice for one of them. (Having no timpani at home, he practiced it on his bells.) The ensemble (his regular band) got straight superiors and will advance to the state festival, which is always gratifying for him. I’m proud of his flexibility and hard work.

Tuesday: Walkout and Field Trip

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the seventeen-minute walkouts all across the country last Tuesday to commemorate the one month anniversary of the Parkland shootings. The kids at Noah’s school decided to have theirs in front of the White House (and then the Capitol) so he was out of school nearly the whole day, rather than just seventeen minutes. Nancy Pelosi, John Lewis, Bernie Sanders, and our senator (Chris Van Hollen) and representative (Jamie Raskin) and the representative from Parkland, Florida and another one from the Sandy Hook area spoke to the assembled kids. Noah said the sound system was better than at the last walkout and he could hear the speeches. A kid we know who’s a senior at Noah’s school got to shake John Lewis’s hand.

Most of Noah’s teachers let their classes know there wouldn’t be anything happening that day, just in case they should happen to find themselves elsewhere, say, in front of the White House. I know it was not as easy for students in less accommodating schools and in more conservative parts of the country. But in schools in big cities and small towns all over the country, they did it anyway. Beth, who has a more politically diverse group of Facebook friends than I do, said she was surprised how much support these student protests are getting from all quarters. She says it’s like the NRA is the Wizard of Oz and the kids have pulled away the curtain. I hope so.

I like Randy Rainbow’s take on the protests as well. The song, perfectly enough, is a parody of “Kids” from Bye, Bye Birdie. I couldn’t place it at first, but finally I realized why it sounded familiar.

Meanwhile, at North’s school there was a walkout to the athletic field, but the whole sixth grade was on a previously scheduled field trip to see Hidden Figures at AFI. About ten of them, including North, walked out of the movie for seventeen minutes.

Thursday: Day of Service

On Thursday, there was a Day of Service for the kids in the Communications Arts Program at Noah’s school. He volunteered at Community Forklift, a group that collects and redistributes tools and architectural salvage to provide the community with affordable home improvement supplies and reduce construction waste. He says he carried a lot of doors around the warehouse.

Friday: Chorus Festival

Friday was North’s turn for festival. After many years of hearing about Noah going, they were very excited. And after all the trouble we’d had with concert clothes, they had their clothes out two days in advance. So you won’t be surprised to hear when they put on their pants the morning of the festival, they discovered the snap was broken. We looked all over for safety pins but could only find some small ones that weren’t strong enough for the stretchy material of the pants. I texted the chorus teacher who said it was okay to wear their shirt untucked and as the pants were staying up without the snap, they went with that look. The only other option was black capris leggings and it would have been hard to tuck a shirt into those, too.

I’d volunteered to chaperone the trip, so I showed up at the chorus room at eight a.m. while North was checking in with their first period teacher. As the kids started showing up, the room began to buzz with young people in high spirits. Then some of the kids noticed the flurries outside and this nearly caused them to lose their minds. The chorus teacher had to shout to make his directions heard. He sent me outside to see if the buses had arrived while the seventh and eighth grade chorus practiced a song. The buses had arrived and soon we were boarding them. There was only one other chaperone and she and the teacher rode with the seventh and eighth graders so I was the only adult other than the bus driver on the sixth-grade bus. Let’s just say they weren’t saving their voices for the competition.

Once we were at the high school where the festival took place, we sat in the audience and watched choruses from other middle schools perform. Each chorus sang three songs and then one of the four judges would come on stage and critique the performance and ask them to sing certain lines again. Then the chorus would exit the stage, go to another room and do a sight reading test for a fifth judge.

We saw a lot of schools and I’m not a musician so it would be hard for me to say that one school was better than another. They all sounded pretty good to me. I was interested in the way different schools organized their choruses. Some schools sang all together, others were divided by grade (this is how North’s school does it), others into a boys’ chorus and a girls’ chorus, at least one had an advanced subgroup sing after the main group. The dress codes were different, too. Black and white was the most common color scheme, but there was a red and black school, a blue and black one and a burgundy and black one. Some co-ed choruses had different dress codes for boys and girls. I thought about what a headache that would be for North and other non-binary kids and I was glad in their chorus all genders sing together and everyone wears white tops and black bottoms.

The sixth-grade chorus went relatively early in the proceedings, but after we’d had a chance to see a few others schools go. None of those schools had a soloist so I was wondering if the onstage judge would give North individualized feedback in front of a whole auditorium of people and if that would be nerve-wracking for them. Anyway, their solo went well, by which I mean they sounded good and their pants didn’t fall down during it. They were singing in Hebrew and later I asked if they knew what the words meant and they said, “No idea.” When the judge came onstage he asked for an extra round of applause for the soloist, but all the critique was for the chorus as a whole, which I think was just about the best outcome for them, public recognition without public criticism.

We watched some more schools and after we’d been there a few hours, a kid from another chorus fainted onstage, falling straight onto his face. It was during the critique portion of the proceedings and once he’d come to and had some water and was able to stand, his whole chorus exited without finishing.

Shortly afterward the seventh and eighth grade chorus from North’s school performed. And then one of their singers got woozy and had to leave the stage but he didn’t actually lose consciousness so the show went on. (North later speculated it was because the stage lights were so hot.) Because the other chaperone went to sit with the sick boy and the chorus teacher went to the seventh and eighth grade sight reading, I was left in charge of the twenty-some sixth-graders, who were supposed to leave the auditorium and wait in the lobby near the doors so once the seventh and eighth-graders came out, we could all board the buses.

It was a long wait—at least fifteen minutes—and the kids were very wound up. I decided early on the most control I would try exert was to keep kids from exiting the building and to break up roughhousing (both of which I needed to do multiple times). When they started to rock a vending machine because a treat had gotten stuck, I just let them, though I didn’t feel good about it.

Finally the teacher and the other chorus came out and we got back on the buses for a ride that was even louder than the ride to the festival and included a few kids loudly singing music with rather alarming lyrics. I was glad North had asked to borrow my earbuds and was listening to something else. Before we left, the teacher came on the bus to tell them their scores—straight excellent ratings for their performance and a superior for the sight reading. You need straight superiors to advance to the state festival so that’s it for chorus field trips until the Music in the Parks festival in the late spring when they’ll go to Hershey Park.

Saturday: Little Mermaid, Sweet Charity, and Karaoke

A friend of North’s who goes to a different school invited them to see a production of The Little Mermaid at her school. North knew three of the actors, from school and drama camp, including the one playing Ariel, so that was nice. We were going to see Sweet Charity later that same day and we had an extra ticket because Noah was swamped with work so we picked North and Leila up after the first play and took both kids out to lunch and then to the second play. I’d been iffy about seeing Sweet Charity because the subject matter is somewhat adult and it ended up being even more risqué than I’d imagined a middle and high school production would be so I was a bit nervous the whole time I was watching it, wondering what was going to happen next. It wasn’t a disaster, but I did feel the need to apologize to Leila’s mom afterward, even though Leila liked it and did not appear to be traumatized. I do have a reputation as the strict mom to uphold. 

We dropped Leila off but then while I was messaging her mom about the play, she asked if North would like to go do karaoke with Leila and her dad at a local church, so I hurriedly fed North and Beth drove them over to the church. There was a big crowd apparently, and North never got a chance to sing, but they enjoyed watching. Leila’s mom said “Roar,” was performed five times.

Monday: Acting Class Showcase

North’s been taking an acting class at the rec center this winter. The last meeting was Monday and there was a showcase for friends and family. I showed up fifteen minutes before the audience was supposed to arrive to deliver North’s costume—a pair of pajamas—and ducked back out to wait for the audience to be admitted. While I was rummaging through their pajama drawer I realized the green and gray striped ones were in Slytherin colors, which was perfect because North was playing Scorpius from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

They started with some acting warm-up games and then the scenes began. It was an eclectic mix: The Parent Trap, The Dead Poets’ Society, City of Ember, Anne of Green Gables, The Gilmore Girls, and Waiting for Godot. North’s scene from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was the one in which Scorpius is convincing Albus to destroy the time turner. North was very expressive and did a good job inhabiting the role. There was a lot of good acting on display. Other than North’s scene, I think I liked the one from The Gilmore Girls the best, even though I never watched that show. The actors were fantastic and the emotional stakes were clearly established.

After each scene the teacher, Gretchen, had the actors repeat some part of the scene with the lights up brighter so parents could take pictures. Then when all the scenes were over, the kids discussed some of the acting techniques they’d learned in the class and how they applied them. They finished up with an improv game in which the players have to repurpose a prop. Members of the audience were invited to join. I didn’t, but Zoë, who’d come to see North perform, did. She’ll be in the school play with North next month and I think she might be interested in taking this class some time.

If she does and North’s in it again, I will be happy to be in the audience. I love watching my kids and other people’s kids do just what they want to do, on stage, in front of the White House and wherever else they happen to be. If there’s a bright spot in these troubled times, they are it.

Why We Sing

“Where’s my dress shirt?” North was yelling from their room, fifteen minutes before we needed to leave for the Honors Chorus concert. I yelled back that it was hanging up in their closet, on the far right side. No, it wasn’t, they insisted. I went in to check. No white shirt.

The dress code requirements had been lengthy and quite specific, so the idea of North not having a white shirt—the most basic concert requirement—was alarming. The shirt in question was an old band shirt of Noah’s, but I knew we’d given away all his white band shirts in bigger sizes to family we know with a younger musician back when North was wearing more feminine white blouses or sweaters to concerts and I didn’t think they’d ever wear those shirts. (Ironically, around the time I gave up on the idea of a potential tomboy phase making Noah’s hand-me-downs useful and started giving his clothes away he was wearing the very size North mostly wears now. I’ve often wished for those clothes back.) I told North to search the cluttered closet floor with the flashlight on their cell phone while I went to fetch my own white button-down, in a women’s plus size that would surely come to North’s knees, for them to try.

But before I returned with it, North found the shirt, in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the closet. It was wrinkled, but that wouldn’t show from a distance. That it was a white button-down shirt or blouse would and that was the important thing. North gathered up their music and the dinner of finger foods (apple and cucumber slices, carrot sticks, and slices of American cheese and vegetarian turkey) I’d made so they could eat in the car. After we dropped them off at an upcounty high school for the dress rehearsal, we switched the music in the car from shuffling songs from The Greatest Showman (North’s current musical obsession) to songs from Hamilton and drove to the hot pot restaurant where Beth, Noah, and I were going to have dinner.

Have you ever been to restaurant like this? There are burners set into the tables and they bring you your choice of broth to set on it. Then you order raw ingredients to cook in your broth. You can also pluck plates of noodles, vegetables, tofu, seafood, etc. from a conveyor belt that runs between the tables. It was fun but surprisingly pricy, especially for vegetarians because it’s price fixe and we weren’t eating any of the ingredients that usually cost the most. Also, we didn’t see the condiment table until we left and on seeing it Beth was thinking her soup would have been better with garlic. Beth is a big fan of garlic.

We drove back to the high school and found seats in the auditorium. Soon one hundred and twenty singers from forty different middle schools were filing onto the risers (look to the far left for North– for once they’re not the one on crutches) and various teachers and administrators were talking about the Honors Chorus and the program. It was mentioned several times by various speakers that the kids only got to have six of the eight scheduled rehearsals because of weather-related cancellations (one was the “wet pavement day” I wrote about two posts ago).

The chorus sang seven songs, all about joy or peace. I’m wondering if the chorus director has been feeling a little depressed and needed some uplifting. The first three songs were in foreign languages—Xhosa, Latin, and Hebrew. The Xhosa song, “Kwangena Thina Bo,” was described in the program as a celebratory folk song from South Africa. A translation was provided: “When we sing, people rejoice, dance and ululate, because of our music.” The kids stepped down off the risers and did a stamping dance while they sang. (It was the first of several times they all moved into different positions—a process that went very smoothly considering they only learned the changes at the dress rehearsal that very night). The Latin song was “Deo Dicamus Gratias.” As you can guess from the name if you know Latin or a Romance language, it was a song of thanks to God. The Hebrew song, “Ma Navu” was translated thusly: “How beautiful are upon the mountains/The feet of the messenger of good tidings/of salvation and peace.”

For the next two songs, the chorus was split up into tenors, basses and baritones, who sang “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” and then sopranos and altos, who sang a medley of two camp meeting songs, “Rise, Oh Fathers” and “No Time.” North said in the car on the way home that they thought soprano/alto harmonies are usually more interesting than harmonies in the lower registers. (It’s one of the reasons they like being a soprano, I think.) I don’t know enough about choral music to say if that observation is true in general, but it was true of these two songs. Or maybe I was biased because my kid was singing in the soprano/alto group, but I thought the kids sounded great on that one.

The whole chorus reunited to sing a very pretty African-American spiritual “Oh! What a Beautiful City,” and “Why We Sing.” During this last number, all the chorus teachers from the students’ home schools who were present in the audience were invited up on the stage to sing with the chorus.  The lyrics were printed in the program.

Here’s how the song ends:

Music builds a bridge, it can tear down a wall.
Music is a language that can speak to one and all.

This is why we sing, why we lift our voice,
Why we stand as one in harmony.
This is why we sing, why we lift our voice,
Take my hand and sing with me.

And then, in less than an hour, the concert was over. It’s standard at this point for the chorus director or an administrator to make a plea for arts funding in the schools and that’s what happened, but I thought this time the pitch was particularly passionate and focused on giving all students in the county equal access. It made me think about how they didn’t have a chorus or hold auditions for the county’s elementary honors chorus at North’s overcrowded, cash-strapped school last year so North didn’t get to try out or participate. (There was also a paragraph in the program about overemphasis on standardized tests squeezing out arts education, so clearly the director is serious about these issues.)

We left the auditorium had to wait a puzzlingly long time in the hallway for the kids to emerge. It turned out they were having a brief backstage after-concert party with a karaoke machine.

On the way home, North, who’d been quiet on the drive to the concert, was chatty. They told us about a PowerPoint presentation they and two other students from Rainbow Alliance (their school’s Gay-Straight Union) are going to make at a teachers’ meeting explaining how students are sometimes divided by gender in class, most often but not only in gym class and how this creates problems for non-binary students. Then once we were almost home, North mentioned how they’d managed to solve a problem they’d been having with an in-class group science project, making a diorama of the habitat of the black-footed ferret. The others kids weren’t pulling their weight and North was worried they wouldn’t finish on time if the other kids didn’t pitch in, so they organized the whole group and assigned everyone tasks. They said it mostly worked.

One thing we can always count on is this child lifting their voice, whether to build a bridge or tear down a wall, on stage, at school, or anywhere else.

You Never Know

Tuesday and Wednesday: Walkouts

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

“What kind of drama?” I asked.

“A fistfight and a walkout,” they answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Working People’s Day of Action Rally

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

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

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

Things Happen

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

From “Things Happen,” by Dawes

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

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

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

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

Such a Winter’s Day: Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songs for Two Winter’s Nights: Friday and Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joys and Sorrows

The new year got off to a bit of a rocky start. In the first two weeks after winter break, the kids had a snow day, two two-hour delays, and an early dismissal—all for three-quarters of an inch of snow, one unusually cold morning, and a little (I swear not much at all) ice on the sidewalks. It was disheartening, especially because it was a busy couple of weeks for work. I can and did work with the kids home– they’re old enough not to bother me too much when I’m working—but I just can’t concentrate as well when I’m not alone in the house, so each new cancellation or delay was frustrating. It’s possible I’ve been ruined for working in an office, after almost six and a half years of working at home.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad two weeks, though. North attended the first rehearsal for both the school play and Honors chorus. I didn’t have much post-holiday letdown and whenever I was tempted to wish we could just fast-forward through the next two months, have done with winter, and let spring come, I remembered two things. First is that Beth loves winter. Second is that Noah will leave for college in less than two years, so I really shouldn’t be wishing away any time. He’s been working on his senior year course schedule, which is why this is front of mind. I just can’t believe he’s picking courses for his last year in high school, as if that were truly happening any time soon. (Yes, I know, it is.)

Anniversary

Beth and I had an anniversary on Thursday. It was the twenty-sixth anniversary of our commitment ceremony and the fifth anniversary of our legal wedding. Beth’s mom posted this photo, taken in our apartment in D.C, of us opening wedding presents on Facebook. Look at us! We were practically babies. Well, twenty-four and twenty-five. I was a mere eight years older than Noah is now. Now I am trying to imagine myself at his wedding eight years hence and wondering where the baby who lived the first year of his life in that apartment with the salmon-colored wall went.

As of Tuesday, I didn’t have a gift for Beth. I’d decided to get her some gift certificates from AFI too late to order them through the mail, so I got on a bus to Silver Spring that morning and picked them up from the theater. While I was in downtown Silver Spring, I also got a mocha, lunch at BurgerFi, and spent a long time browsing for some small gifts at Whole Foods so I’d have something to wrap. I settled on treats one might eat at the movies (dark chocolate-covered almonds and milk chocolate-covered pretzels) to keep the gift thematically consistent, and got a card with a heart on the front and I was done.

Except when I got home, I opened the card and discovered it was a Valentine’s Day card. Why are these on sale already? Who buys valentines a month in advance? Clearly not me. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about another card I’d seen there, which was obviously superior. So, the next day, instead of being practical and going somewhere in Takoma for a new card, I went back to Silver Spring and got the card I wanted. It has different colored buttons all over it in the shape of a heart and it is blank inside.

Thursday I made our anniversary cake, the one we had at our commitment ceremony and at our legal wedding. It’s a spice cake, with a lemon glaze. I covered it in red and blue colored sugar. Because I didn’t leave myself quite enough time to bake a cake for forty-five minutes and scalloped potatoes for an hour at different temperatures, dinner was a little late, so Beth and I exchanged gifts before dinner rather than after. She got me Reckless Daughter, the Joni Mitchell biography that came out last fall and which I thought someone might get me for Christmas. That’s one of the advantages of a mid-January anniversary—it’s a chance to get (or give) what you didn’t get (or give) at Christmas.  North had dinner at Xavier’s, but when they got home, we all ate the cake we always eat together in mid-January and our anniversary was over.

MLK Weekend

Saturday I worked a little and Beth took North and Xavier ice skating and out to dinner, bringing back take-out for Noah and me. Yesterday, Beth, North and I went to church. We’ve never been church-goers, but recently North has become curious about church and asked recently if we could try out a Unitarian Universalist congregation. (We’ve been to UU services a few times when visiting Beth’s mom.) It was the third time Beth and North have gone to this church and the first time I went with them. There’s a part of the service called the Communion of Joys and Sorrows in which people tell the congregation about a joy or sorrow in their lives and light a candle for it. I recall Beth’s mom’s church does this, too, but with stones dropped in a bowl of water, if I’m remembering correctly.

Two of the people who shared we knew slightly. One of my colleagues from my teaching days shared that her son had won an award at college. And there was a lesbian couple who shared that one of their mothers had suffered a fall and broken an ankle and that a nephew was newly married. Beth thought one of them was a gym teacher from Noah’s middle school. Overall, there were more sorrows than joys. I asked Beth if that was always the case and she said so far yes, speculating that maybe people need more support for their sorrows or don’t want to seem to be bragging about their joys. If I’d had to share something I probably would have gone with a sorrow, too, because it was one day before the eighth anniversary of my father’s death.

I knew the day was coming and I wasn’t feeling very emotional about it. Some years I feel it keenly and some years I don’t. However, when I woke this morning, it hit me hard. I lay in bed thinking about Dad and about the fact that there’s snow coming tomorrow and Wednesday and if we get off with just an early dismissal and a two-hour delay on the affected days, we’ll be lucky. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t particularly want to get up and I didn’t particularly want to spend two hours picking up trash around Long Branch creek, even though that’s our traditional MLK Day of Service activity. We’ve been doing it since the kids were small.

But Beth made homemade waffles, which made getting up a little more attractive and all of us except North, who was feeling under the weather, went to the woods near the creek and picked up trash and recycling, mostly beer cans and bottles. It was cold but we were moving around so it wasn’t too bad. I even got warm enough to unbutton my coat and take off my gloves, which I shouldn’t have done because I got cuts on my hands from the thorn bushes and they ended up smelling like stale beer. I also kept getting stickers in my hair, which I should have worn in a ponytail. Even with all the thorns, it was good to be focused on poking around in the brush, looking for the next can. It kept my mind off other things.

After a quick lunch at home, Beth and I went to AFI to redeem one of the gift certificates I got her for our anniversary. We saw The Post. Have you seen it yet? If not, you should as soon as you possibly can. It made me feel hopeful about journalism and democracy, and that’s no small feat these days. Now, as the fifty-year-old daughter of a journalist I must admit movies that take place largely in 1970s newsrooms are right in my nostalgic sweet spot, so you can take my recommendation with that in mind. From the movie, we went to Eggspectation for coffee and cake. I got a piece of chocolate-peanut butter Smith Island cake.

The best thing about the whole day was how it was a mostly unintentional tribute to Dad. He might not have taken part in an organized creek clean-up, not being much of a do-gooder, but he was in the habit of picking up all the trash on his block.  (I, too, often come home from walks with a tote bag full of recyclables.) He was a newspaper editor in the 1970s (and beyond) with a passion for investigative journalism and politics. He loved coffee and most desserts, but especially chocolate.

But we always do the creek clean-up on MLK day, The Post was opening this weekend and I’d just gotten Beth movie ticket certificates so it was natural we’d go see it. All the plans were made before I even thought about what day it would be. The only detail I added with him in mind was going out for cake.

My father wasn’t an easy man to get along with and we didn’t always get along, especially when I was in my late teens. But there’s no doubt that I am his daughter in many deep and lasting ways. And that’s more of a joy than a sorrow.

Note: The last photo is of a little altar my sister made for Dad today.

White Christmas

Solstice

Thursday after school North went to AFI with their new friend Xavier and one of his moms to see A Muppet Christmas Carol and Noah came home still wearing a party hat from a party in his calculus class and no homework due the next day. He was quite chipper—drumming and reading Wizard and Glass ensued. Beth got home late—she was out getting a Christmas tree—but we had enough time to open presents from my mom and sister and eat gingerbread cookies. We were opening some of our presents early so we wouldn’t have to pack them all and I’d made gingerbread dough so we could take it with us to bake at Blackwater Falls State Park, where we were spending Christmas again. When I’d finished the dough, I baked about a dozen cookies for our Solstice celebration—a mix of snowmen, stars, and Christmas trees. After we’d opened the books, essential oils, a narwhal puppet, a cookbook, and spices and other goodies from my mom’s recent trip to Asia, North went to bed. When, later that evening, I found Noah up past his bedtime and told him to go to bed, he seemed genuinely surprised. He felt so unencumbered he’d forgotten it was a school night. (He’d been drumming on things other than his drums all afternoon and evening, which is often how I know he’s happy.)

Rain to Snow

After everyone had finished another day of work and school and errands and packing, we left Saturday morning a little after ten-thirty and drove to Blackwater. It was raining on and off the whole way and the temperature dropped from the high fifties to the high forties. (I know this because we have a new—to us—car we bought just last week and it has a screen on the dashboard that tells you things like that. It also tells you the name and artist of songs when you play music, which is educational for people like me with poor recognition of currently popular artists.)

About twenty minutes into the drive I told Beth it was good it was raining because it would make her happy when it changed to snow. Although the week overall was very cold, it didn’t get cold enough for snow during the drive, though we did see ice in the road cuts and patches of old snow here and there at the higher elevations.

On the way, we sang along with Christmas music and the kids had a spirited discussion about mistletoe and consent. Noah finds the whole concept of mistletoe problematic while North thinks it’s not that hard to ask before you kiss someone and he should just lighten up. Another topic of conversation: are all songs that portray Santa in a sexual or romantic light—e.g. “Santa Baby,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus”—automatically creepy? North is a definite yes on this one.

We got to the cabin just before three, where we found YaYa and a pot of delicious homemade vegetable soup, which we enjoyed between putting up and decorating the tree and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as a light snow fell.

Christmas Eve

We woke to a pretty dusting of snow on the ground and all over the tree branches outside the window and spent a cozy and relaxing day. North and I made hash browns to eat with breakfast. Then the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough and decorated them with colored sugar and dried cranberries. In the afternoon YaYa took North to the pool up at the lodge—they stayed for hours—while Beth and I took a walk down some muddy trails to the partially frozen pond and on from there to the edge of the gorge where we admired the deep slopes of snow-frosted evergreens and the Elakala waterfall on the far side.

When we got back Beth and Noah watched Rogue One while I read. I was trying to finish a book I got last Christmas in time to start a new stack. (I didn’t quite manage it by Christmas but I did finish it while we were there.) I recommend it if a true crime-based, Appalachian Gothic novel that inspired a classic noir film sounds like your thing.

I made kale and potato soup for dinner with North’s help, while singing Christmas music together. I thought we harmonized particularly well on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” After dinner, we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns and just before North went to bed, Noah gave a very dramatic (and slightly menacing) reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for some reason in an English accent.

Christmas Day

Santa’s first gift to Beth was seven inches of fluffy white snow that fell overnight. I’d given North instructions not to get out of bed until six at which point they could look in their stocking, and to be very quiet, as the fireplace was right outside the adults’ rooms. However, it was Noah who was up first, at 6:30, and he decided to wait for North to wake before they opened their stockings together at 7:10. Beth and I were up soon after that, and then YaYa soon after us. 

Everyone gathered around the tree with chocolate and clementines from our stockings to eat while we opened presents. (Did you know they call clementines “Christmas oranges” in Canada? I just found this out this year and now I want to call them that, except I’d feel like a poseur, since I’m not Canadian.) There was a great quantity of books, socks, soap, jam, tea, mugs, pajamas and clothes exchanged in all directions.  Noah’s big present was a new video camera and he also got three bags of pasta, while North got new headphones, an essential oil dispenser, and the promise of a hair dye job. Noah helped set up the oil dispenser and soon North’s room smelled pleasantly of peppermint.

Beth and North made a cranberry cake for breakfast and we ate it spread with lemon curd, along with eggs and veggie bacon. While we were looking out at the snow, I made an idle comment that someone should decorate the tiny evergreen tree in front of our cluster of cabins. Well, North was right on that, choosing several ornaments from our tree and adorning the little one.

While everyone else read, YaYa helped North run through their lines for the school play. It’s not Romeo and Juliet after all, but The Canterbury Tales. North is playing the Pardoner, which seems like a pretty good part, even though they were hoping for the Wife of Bath.

Noah worked on a puzzle of famous book covers he and YaYa had started earlier and everyone else went for a walk. We went back to the gorge overlook, but this time we took a more direct route, walking along the park road instead of the trails, because of the trails were covered with snow and it was quite cold. It was twelve degrees, three with the wind chill, which is about how cold it was most of our stay. Even so, it was good to be outside and moving in the fresh air and peaceful scenery. (Somewhat less peaceful while we were singing “Frosty the Snowman” and North was trying to make snowballs out of the powdery snow and throwing them at trees.) As we did many times during the trip, we saw deer with big fluffy white tails bounding across the road and into the woods.

When we got back to the cabin, Beth and North stayed outside to dig out the cars (Beth) and make a snow angel and a snowman (North). YaYa and I went inside and I made grilled cheese sandwiches and heated up soup for everyone’s lunch.

That evening we watched The Polar Express and most of us watched a Dr. Who Christmas special, which centered around the WWI Christmas truce. I knew that story but I wasn’t sure if it was real, apocryphal, or from a work of fiction. But then my friend Regina posted this on Facebook so now I know. I haven’t watched Dr. Who since the eighties, so I didn’t have the whole backstory, but I could follow well enough. The kids are both fans, especially Noah.

Post-Christmas

We spent three more days at Blackwater. Sadly, after taking the first three days of break off homework, Noah had to start working the day after Christmas—he had considerable homework, some of it due during break. There was a paper revision to submit online the day after Christmas and a history quiz (on two chapters of new reading) to take on New Year’s Eve. And that was just a small part of it. Homework over break is nothing new, but homework due during break is. I blame Governor Hogan, for compressing the school year and making us start a week late, even though the dates of the AP tests didn’t change.

Part of what Noah had to do was read in a four hundred-page book about how high-achieving high school students are overworked. I am finding this bitterly ironic, even though the book’s interesting. (I’m reading it, too.) He was working the rest of the time we were at Blackwater, though he took occasional breaks to work on the puzzle or read with me or go on outings. (Once we were home he worked straight through the last three days.)

The rest of us spent a lot of time reading our new books and we went to the pool two more times. I swam about sixty laps in the tiny pool each time, spending almost as much time turning around as swimming, but it was still good to be in the water and moving. North and I had it to ourselves the first time I was there and most of the second time. The pool was in a very pleasant room with a lot of natural light and windows looking out on snow-covered trees. And there was a hot tub, which Beth, North, and I all enjoyed the last time we were there.

We got three more inches of snow a couple days after Christmas and the kids tried out the park’s sled run. There’s a track that conveys your sled—with you on it—up the hill and then you sled down. They did three rides each, two together and one separately, after much negotiation about that ratio. The adults stood by the bonfire at the bottom of the hill or watched from inside the snack bar, which had a nice view of the hill.

Our last full day we all went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Davis, the nearest town. Afterwards Beth and I left everyone at the cabin and ventured slowly and carefully down a series of snow-covered wooden staircases that lead to Blackwater Falls. We’d all seen them the day before from an overview on the other side of the gorge, but they are lovely and close to Beth’s heart, so she wanted to see them up close, even in nine-degree weather. It didn’t feel quite that cold because it was a sunny day and we were exercising, climbing up and down all those stairs. (I did feel my nose hairs freeze, though.)

The falls were half-frozen, with water stained gold from the tannin in the hemlock and spruce trees tumbling over the bulging layers of ice. There were impressive icicles as well, of varying colors, from white to gold to brown, hanging from the rocks near the falls.

Later that day we watched as four well-fed looking deer pawed at the snow in front of the cabin, uncovering grass to eat. Earlier in the week I’d spent a long, fascinating time watching a woodpecker hollowing out a hole in the dead tree branch from the comfort of the cabin’s couch. I couldn’t tell it had just found a particularly tasty cache of bugs of it was making a shelter, but it kept climbing most of the way into the hole it was making, with just its tail sticking out and then getting back outside to make it bigger.

On Thursday, our last day at Blackwater, Beth and YaYa took the ornaments off the tree and dragged it out behind the cabin. North also removed the ornaments from the outside tree and then we all started to pack. As we sat around the table eating YaYa’s homemade cheesecake that night, Beth said, “I don’t want to go home.” I knew how she felt. It’s how I often feel when we leave the beach. But it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next year. On Friday morning as we were checking out, YaYa made reservations for another cabin, for Christmas 2018.

Year’s End

We’ve had a few days at home before work and school resume tomorrow. I’ve been extraordinarily social. On Saturday morning, I had coffee with a close friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce now lives in Indiana but was in Maryland visiting family. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was nice to catch up with each other. That afternoon we drove out to Northern Virginia to visit a high school friend of Beth’s who was having a small get-together with us, her son, nephew, and a co-worker. Heather put out quite a spread, including a homemade apple tart and a cheese pie made with puff pastry. We contributed pizzelles Beth and North made. (Later I made buckeyes and we continued taking sweets to everyone who invited us anywhere.)

On Sunday evening, we went to a New Year’s Eve party at our neighbors’ house, where Beth learned to play a card game called Hand and Foot. I don’t pick up games easily so I watched. I still have no idea how this game works, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Meanwhile North and the other kids jumped on the backyard trampoline in the dark. The kids had glow sticks so it was very pretty to watch from inside, but apparently, it was less harmonious out there because they all came inside with different versions of an argument the adults seemed uninterested in getting to the bottom of.

Back at home, we set the kids up with two bottles of sparkling cider and a wide array of salty snacks so they could welcome in the new year without us, as we preferred to go to bed. It was a big deal for North who had never stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve before. It’s possible Noah never has either but he was unimpressed with the television coverage of Times Square. “So we’re going to watch this for two hours?” he said after a few minutes and then it seemed like he might bail and North was upset because they didn’t want to be all alone at midnight, but a compromise was reached and he stayed in the living room along with some electronics to entertain himself. The kids were very quiet and we actually got to sleep before eleven and everyone got the New Year’s Eve they wanted.

On New Year’s Day, North and I met up at the U.S. Botanic Garden with one of my oldest friends, Brian, and his wife Jann who were in town for a wedding.  (I met Brian when I was twelve and he was twenty-four and renting the apartment on the third floor of our house and he used to babysit my sister and me if my mom was out at night or out of town overnight). The gardens are all inside a big greenhouse. We wandered from room to room admiring desert, tropical, Mediterranean, and medicinal plants and then we climbed up on the catwalk to see the plants in the atrium from a higher perspective. There are models of iconic D.C. buildings (the Capitol, Supreme Court, various monuments, etc.) all made of natural materials in the lobby and Brian really got a kick out of these. Finally, we toured the model train display. The tracks go through elaborate landscapes that change from year to year. This year the theme was Roadside Attractions, so there were models of Mount Rushmore and other less well known sights such as the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the world’s largest statue of a pistachio, etc. It was a nice place to stroll and talk for an hour and a half on a bitterly cold day.

Beth picked us up at the Metro and we dropped North off at Xavier’s. His moms invited us to come in and socialize later when we picked them up. They were having another lesbian couple with kids over for dinner. It so happens we know this couple. Their kids went to the same preschool as ours, though in different years. So, we ended our holiday with a brief, impromptu three lesbian couple get-together over tea and cranberry cake.

2017 was not an easy year by any stretch of the imagination and I doubt 2018 will be either, but I hope the combination of nature, family, and friends we enjoyed over the past ten days will help give us the strength to face whatever’s coming our way in the months ahead.

They’re in the Band (and the Chorus)

Overture

North’s play, School of Rock, is in the middle of its run right now and the past couple weeks have been intense. We’ve all been at the theater a lot, though no one more than North, of course. There were some pre-show events earlier this month—a combination talent show/preview of scenes from the show and a cocktail hour for parents of the actors which also featured a preview of more of the songs.

As opening night approached, rehearsals got closer together and ran longer.  During tech week, or the week before the show opened, there were three school-night rehearsals that ran until ten p.m. For context, North’s regular school night bedtime is eight-thirty. (We are an early-to-bed and early-to-rise family. Even Beth and I are generally abed by ten at the latest.) But we did know what we were getting into when we signed North up for the play, so we can’t complain too much. Okay, we can and have, but I won’t right now.

As a result of this unusual schedule, we learned North can sleep until eight a.m., which I don’t think has ever happened in their whole life, but it did a few times after these late nights (though not consistently). We let them sleep as late as they could and they went to school about an hour late two days during Tech Week. They also missed the whole day Monday for reasons completely unrelated to the play.  They got a very big, deep splinter in their foot Sunday night, which Beth couldn’t completely remove, and they couldn’t walk on it.

North didn’t sleep well that night and didn’t want to do anything but rest Monday morning, so they slept on and off all morning and I worked and after lunch I took them to urgent care, where a doctor removed the splinter with a scalpel after numbing their foot. Then I took them to Starbucks nearby where they had a restorative cup of mint tea and we made a pit stop at home so they could grab something to eat, pack their theater bag, and head to rehearsal. We were on six buses that day over the course of five and a half hours.

Act I: Chorus Concert

Tuesday there was no rehearsal but there was an orchestra and chorus concert. Beth’s mom and her aunt Carole came from Wheeling for a four-day visit to see the concert and the opening night of the play on Friday. Unfortunately, Noah was swamped with homework that night (he had a history test the next day and he hadn’t finished reading the chapter) so he couldn’t go to the concert. We were all disappointed about that.

The concert was at the high school because North’s school has no auditorium. Noah’s middle school didn’t either but they had their concerts in the cafeteria or gym and everyone sat on folding chairs. This new arrangement was much more comfortable and the acoustics were better, too.

The orchestra was on first. They started with the “William Tell Overture” and played several songs, ending with an arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” One of the nice things about having musical kids and attending a lot of concerts is that the musicians get better as they get older and the difference between this orchestra and North’s elementary school orchestra was pronounced.

The a capella club sang a few numbers next, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” I guess the idea was to appeal to both parents and kids. They also did “Só Danço Samba,” which was fun to hear, although it bothered me that there was instrumental accompaniment in this song. Singing without instruments is what a cappella means, after all. (Beth thinks I am being pedantic here.) All three singing groups had at least one song in another language. It was all very international, which makes sense since the word “International” is part of the name of the school.

After intermission, the sixth-grade chorus came on. North was using a cane to walk (after having been on crutches at school—due to their troubles last year we have a wide variety of orthopedic devices at the ready) so the chorus director had them sit in a chair in front of the risers. Beth was worried it would hurt their projection, but they projected just fine. I swear I could pick their voice out not only when they sang with the smaller sixth-grade group, but also when sixth-grade and advanced choruses (about eighty kids total) sang together.

The sixth-graders started with “Sing a Jubilant Song” and they did sound jubilant. Next was “De Colores,” which having had two kids in an elementary school Spanish immersion program is very familiar to us, in a nice, nostalgic way. “Dansi Na Kuimba” (“Dance and Sing” in Swahili) was next and they ended with “Peaceful Silent Night.” This song is “Silent Night” with some additional lyrics woven into it.

The advanced chorus sang a few songs next and then the two choruses sang together along with a several fifth-graders from the elementary school that shares a building with North’s middle school. (The new chorus teacher is cultivating ties with this conveniently located feeder school.) My favorite of the joint songs was “Carol of the Bells.” It was very complicated and intricate and they sounded great. They ended with “America the Beautiful.”

Intermission

Wednesday North went to school on time, still using the cane, because their foot was still sore. Beth and I both worried it wouldn’t be better by Friday night when they had to stand (and jump) onstage, but there was nothing to do about it. North had another rehearsal that night, I went to book club (where we discussed Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre) while YaYa, Carole, Beth, and Noah went out for Lebanese. After the history test, Noah had surprisingly little homework the rest of the week and was able to socialize with his grandmother and great aunt. Ironically, North saw very little of them because they were in school or rehearsal pretty much all the time they weren’t performing. This caused a little jealousy, even though (or perhaps because) North was the principal reason for the visit.

Thursday North was walking unassisted. Beth took the day off work and went with her mom and Carole into the city where they went to see an exhibit about Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Gallery and took in the Christmas decorations at Union Station. That evening all the adults and Noah went out for tapas and then to see Lady Bird (which you should see if you haven’t yet). Seeing a movie on a weeknight is highly unusual for us but Beth had to be up late to get North from rehearsal anyway so we made a night of it.

Friday I took the day off, too, and joined Beth, YaYa and Carole on a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opened over a year ago but we hadn’t been yet—we were hoping eventually the crowds would diminish, but it’s still a pretty hot ticket. It’s free, but you need to get timed tickets either months ahead of time or very early on the morning of the day you want to go. Beth secured these by getting online at 6:30 a.m.

We had eleven a.m. tickets and needed to get back by mid-afternoon, so we didn’t have time to take in the whole museum. It’s divided into a history section and a culture section. I was the slowest in our party, only making it to 1968 in the history section before we needed to meet up for a late lunch in the café, and even so, I missed some parts of that (such as the whole room with Emmett Till’s coffin).

I was prepared for the child-sized shackles, or as prepared as you can be. What really did me in was a white cotton sack a woman had given her nine-year-old daughter when the child was sold away from her. At the time, it contained pecans and a lock of the mother’s hair. The bag was handed down through the generations and in the early twentieth century one of the child’s descendants embroidered the story on the bag. On the wall, all around the bag’s glass case were many published descriptions of people to be sold at auction—name, age, special skills and any physical defects, which really drove in the point that the nine-year-old girl sold away from her mother was one of countless others torn from their families. I think it might have been heartening to visit the culture section, after all that, but even the music I could hear drifting from other rooms—Billie Holiday, Sweet Honey in the Rock—lifted the spirit.

Act II: School of Rock

North’s call time was 5 p.m., which left the rest of us with three hours to kill before the show. We had leisurely dinner at Pacci’s, which is just around the corner from the theater. Standing in line, I saw parents with bouquets and remembered much to my chagrin that last summer when North was the beast in Beauty and the Beast at drama camp, I’d resolved to get them flowers at their next performance. Oh well.

Entering the little black box theater, we were alarmed to see a sign that said the running time of the show was two hours, forty-five minutes. This was going to be an even later night than we’d realized. We got settled into seats in the last and highest row, which offered a good view. The beginning of the show establishes the main character Dewey’s tribulations, both musical (he’s been thrown out of his band) and personal (he owes his roommates for the rent and is in danger of being thrown out of his apartment) so the early scenes are all between the adult characters, who are played by seventh to twelfth graders. Patty, one of Dewey’s roommates and his best friend’s girlfriend, is played by North’s friend Anna from drama camp. (Anna played Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast last summer for those of you who watched the video.) When she came onstage in a power suit Beth exclaimed, “Anna looks like a grownup!” And she did, even though she’s only fifteen months older than North.

The fifth-grade students at the swanky private school where Dewey ends up working as a substitute teacher are played by second to sixth graders. North is playing Billy, an effeminate boy who hides his copies of Vogue behind a Sports Illustrated while at home with his football-loving father. When Dewey organizes the class into a band, Billy is their costume designer.

The first song the kids sing is their school’s alma mater, and as at the chorus concert I could pick out North’s voice. One thing they have learned from seven years of musical drama camp is how to project. Some of their other numbers were “You’re in the Band,” in which Billy is assigned to design costumes and gives a little leap of joy and “If Only You Would Listen” in which four students, including Billy, are shown with parents who misunderstand them and they all sing about it. North had a solo in this song and was very plaintive.

The whole cast was great and we all enjoyed the show. Beth (who did theater tech in high school) was impressed with improvements in lighting technology since her day. Andrea loved the red sparkly cap Billy wore in the final scene and at breakfast the next morning she pressed North to explain what the phrase “stick it to the man” meant to them.

After the show the actors stood near the doors in costume to greet the exiting audience. After that, the concessions booth was still selling treats and North wanted ice cream but like all the other parents I heard, I pointed out it was quite late—something like 11:15—and we needed to get home and go to bed. (North wishes it to be known that some parents did let their kids eat ice cream at that late hour.)

The next morning, we all slept in (for us anyway—we were all up between 7:45 and 8:30) and then we met YaYa and Carole at the restaurant of the hotel where they were staying in Silver Spring and ate a hearty breakfast as the first snow of the year fell outside. Shortly after, YaYa and Carole hit the road.

North performed again on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. She had friends in the audience of both those shows. We’re in a three-day no-rehearsal, no-show lull right now. There will be a brush-up rehearsal Thursday night and then four more shows from Friday to Sunday. Beth and I will be attending the closing night performance, maybe with flowers if I get my act together.

You may not be surprised to learn there are more performances in our near future. North will be singing in the Montgomery County Honors chorus this winter. They were the only sixth grader from their school selected to participate. (It took a lot of self-restraint not to brag about that on Facebook but I am slipping it in here.) That concert is in early March. North is also going to try out for the spring play, Romeo and Juliet, at their school. If they get a part, it will be their first experience with Shakespeare, but possibly not their last because for North, all the world’s a stage.

Update, 12/13: Read a review of the show here: http://www.theatrebloom.com/2017/12/school-rock-students-theatre-highwood-theatre/