What Teachers Teach, Measured or Not

Sonny and Ace’s school is wrapping up the latest round of standardized testing for this academic year. Sonny and Ace aren’t old enough yet to worry about the process or their results. Sonny rather enjoyed the testing, in fact—or rather, he enjoyed his class’s pre-testing “brain breakfasts” to fuel minds (and tummies) for clear thinking. He also looked forward to the occasional appearance on the screen of the wagging cartoon dog that said, “Good job!” Ace didn’t mind the tests, either, once assured that testing time would not conflict with gym class. He mainly looked forward to wearing the big headphones.

These tests measured their mastery of math and reading, both obviously crucial to educational success. They are assumed to reflect a teacher’s effectiveness. But while they may reveal some truth about a teacher’s influence, they do not tell the whole truth.

_ _ _

I stared at the lopsided circle of blue crayon around the whale picture on the worksheet. The class had been instructed to circle the things that started with K. Oops. I made my way to new kindergarten teacher, wondering how she would respond to someone who failed to follow directions. “I made a mistake,” I confessed, pointing out the whale. She waved away my concern. “That’s okay!” she said, smiling.

My kindergarten teacher taught me that it’s okay to make mistakes.

A classmate held up his hands, which were smudged with brilliant, deep blues and pinks and greens. “This chalk is messy! It’s even on my shirt!” He looked expectantly at our neat, orderly teacher, obviously hoping to be liberated from the art project. Our neat, orderly teacher cast him a sympathetic smile. “Doing art is messy sometimes,” she explained. “We just enjoy it and clean up afterward.”

My first-grade teacher taught me that the lack of neatness and order in creative endeavors is not a shortcoming.

“She is very strict,” an older girl warned me toward the end of the summer. I envisioned a year in a classroom run by a drill sergeant. Fantastic.

A few weeks later, I slumped down at my desk, having sneezed and coughed my way through the day, hating the story about locomotives that we were reading aloud. When the story (finally!) ended, the teacher approached my desk and knelt beside me. I looked at her warily, certain that I was about to be told to sit up straight or throw away my pile of used Kleenex. “You don’t feel good today, do you?” she asked. “How about I ask your grandma [the school secretary] to drive you home so you won’t have to ride the bus?” And she did.

My second-grade teacher taught me that people often transcend their reputations.

“Here we come!” “Where from?” “New Orleans!” “What’s your trade?” “Lemonade . . .”

When it was her turn for recess duty, kids from every grade flocked to her to play “New Orleans” and other games from her endless supply. We loved her turns for recess duty, when nobody felt unwelcome on the playground. We loved being in her classroom. She was gentle, creative, fair, and relentlessly patient. She was fun. She never rushed. Did she ever raise her voice or even convey irritation, even to repeat offenders? I don’t think so.

My third-grade teacher taught me that kindness and patience effect genuine respect in a way that harshness never can.

Every Friday morning my fourth-grade classroom rocked with the singing of old songs, enthusiastic piano accompaniment courtesy of the teacher. This same teacher often entertained us with stories about his childhood on a farm with his many siblings; he didn’t have to spell out how much he cherished it these memories—his face told us that. At a time when end-of-the-year class picnics were being replaced with skating parties, he invited our class to ride bikes from school to his house in the country, where we enjoyed an old-fashioned picnic, complete with sack races and swimming in the creek. On that afternoon we were as carefree as any kid from a previous generation would have been.

My fourth-grade teacher taught me the power of well-placed nostalgia.

It happens every autumn the morning after the first hard freeze: I step outside and am visited by poetry: “When the frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock . . .” Poppies incite a similar phenomenon—“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow . . .”—as does any mention of Abraham Lincoln’s death: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done . . .” In fifth-grade we memorized this poetry, despite memorization’s falling out of fashion in educational circles.

My fifth-grade teacher taught me the beauty and inspiration of poetry and its power to make connections. He taught me to ignore the claim that memorization is a meaningless parlor trick devoid of real value.

My sixth-grade teacher was a man of high academic standards and stern repute. He marched us through a long list of Newbery books—the more serious ones, such as Adam of the Road and The Trumpeter of Krakow—and tested us after each one. If the B was too creatively formed on the word abjurer, he would mark the correctly-spelled word wrong on the spelling test, claiming that letter wasn’t a real B. (Ask me how I know this.) He liberally doled out “lines” to wayward students, and don’t think that such students would be lucky enough to escape with, for example, writing “I will not be disrespectful” 50 times. Instead he would write on the board for the guilty party to copy—and the rest of us to gawk at—a “line” along the lines of “I will cease and desist my display of abominable attitude post haste and endeavor to maintain impeccable behavior forthwith as becoming my position as a student who is striving to mature and to increase in decorum.” The culprit would turn pale, the rest of us would vow never to risk being assigned such an atrocity, and we’d all learn new vocabulary. Win, win, win! (For him.)

But after lunch he would read aloud the more hilarious Newberys such as Porko Van Popbutton and other purely entertaining books, such as those featuring Soup and Rob. When we’d howl over Soup’s joke about peeing, he’d laugh along with us.

My sixth-grade teacher taught me that even those with serious academic standards need not eschew lighthearted fare.

 – – –

Whether standardized tests are an accurate measure of educational quality, whether they are fair across socio-economic lines, and whether they reflect the effectiveness of teachers—who knows. What I do know is this: even the best tests, standardized or otherwise, do not fully measure a teacher’s worth.

They do not measure how Sonny’s teacher, Mrs. K., is detail-oriented and highly organized while remaining calm and flexible. They do not measure the personalized notes she regularly writes to students praising their accomplishments and efforts—notes that at least one of her students saves in his desk drawer at home. They do not measure how she captures students’ attention by singing instructions to them, her unruffled classroom management, or the affection with which she greets students each morning and bids them farewell in the afternoon, often praising them for a specific job well done that day. They do not measure her thoughtfulness and foresight in arranging for brain breakfasts before standardized testing.

They do not measure how on the first day of school when Ace panicked at my leaving him, Mrs. C. distracted him with a conversation about frogs, recalling from his getting-to-know-me letter that he loves frogs. They do not measure how she allowed him call me from the classroom when he lost his first tooth. They do not measure her high expectations for behavior or the students’ rising to those expectations. They do not measure the bird calls she has taught students to identify. They do not measure how she launches each morning with a positive spin by inviting students to share their latest good news. They do not measure her tricks for helping young children learn to pronounce TH properly instead of as an F sound, nor do they measure a five-year-old student’s elation over wearing her insect-vision goggles during the Insect unit so that he could better pretend to be a bumblebee.

The tests  measure math and reading, unarguably important, but they do not measure everything. No test can accurately measure the scope of a teacher’s effectiveness. And that’s okay, as long as nobody pretends that it can.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  — Albert Einstein

Teachers, math and reading count. But so do these other things—immensely. They matter, and they last. For all you teach, thank you.

Overlooking Alligators: On Keeping Your Kidness

“Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!”

“The Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Last year I chaperoned Sonny’s field trip to a wild animal safari park. We had lunch near the alligator pond, which of course was more attractive than lunch. Young would-be picnickers kept abandoning their lunches to take another quick peek. At one point audible excitement rose up from the pond’s bridge. “Look! Look!” Sonny and a few of his friends were leaning over the bridge rail, gesturing wildly. I joined them, wondering what the alligators were up to.

“Look! Minnows!”

Minnows? Minnows?

Leave it to kids. Overlooking alligators, beguiled by minnows.

I reported back to my fellow chaperones, who, after they stopped laughing and shaking their heads, began batting around similar stories.

Of the child at the zoo who wanted only to feed the ducks in the pond near the parking lot.

Of the child at the world-renowned botanical gardens who declared the dandelions her favorite flower of the whole day.

Of the child who dined with extended family at an upscale restaurant and rejected its gourmet offerings to ask for toast and celery.

They’ll sort things out eventually, we agreed. Meanwhile: unsophisticated kids, indifferent to life’s finer things, oblivious to natural hierarchy inherent in food and other entertainments. Little philistines.

Or are they?

– – –

Last week Ace asked a burning question: “What age do you become a grown-up?”

Age 18, officially, I told him. But it’s not as simple as that, of course. We discussed that people become grown-ups gradually. When you begin watching out for younger kids, when you help others, when you take responsibility, when you do things for yourself when you can—then you are slowly becoming a grown-up, even if you are still quite young.

Ace understood. “I’m working on becoming a grown-up by learning to drive already. I can’t steer yet, but I’m learning traffic rules so when I learn to steer, I’ll know what to do.”

Works for me.

Sonny had a question: “If you become a grown-up a little at a time, do you lose your kidness a little at a time, too?”

Yes. You can lose your kidness. You do this when you accept the arbitrariness of Butter Poached Lobster with Lemon Risotto being inherently superior to toast and celery. You discount the fact that the yellow of dandelions is just as brilliant as that of orchids. You take off your superhero cape before exiting the car instead of wearing it into the store. (Sniff!) You neglect to draw or paint, even though you’ve always loved drawing and painting, and you no longer lie on your back to watch clouds because you are too sophisticated for that, and besides, the neighbors might see you. When you invite people to your home, you worry about agenda and perfection of food and décor instead of enjoying one another’s company.

Maybe marveling at minnows in the alligator pond isn’t so ridiculous after all. Maybe it’s simply a show of childhood joy, and I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of that back.

I asked Sonny and Ace what they thought that people need to do to keep their kidness. Ideas flowed:

  1. Watch Wild Kratts.
  2. Build a snowman.
  3. Dig in the dirt.
  4. Go outside and run.
  5. Collect a pile of stuff and build something with it.
  6. Make a nest of blankets and pillows and read in it.
  7. Laugh at funny things.
  8. Make friends with bugs.
  9. Practice ninja moves.

Maybe digging in the dirt and befriending beetles isn’t at all your idea of any kind of joy, the childhood variety or otherwise. But what gave you joy as a child? Those things would probably give you joy now. Go and do them.

How have you kept your kidness?

Beware Daylight Saving Time Monday

According to a 2014 study, heart attacks increase on the first Monday of Daylight Saving Time. Specifically, they increase 24 percent compared with the daily average for the surrounding weeks.

Anything else that contributed to a 24-percent increase in heart attacks would be banned. Wouldn’t it? At the very least, this warrants a warning label.

And, while we’re slapping labels on Daylight Saving Time Monday, here are a few more that apply.

Warning: Drowsiness will almost certainly occur throughout the day, as may random tetchiness.

Warning: Complaints that it is not yet time to get up will be greater both in number and in volume than on other days.

Warning: Enticing children from their beds will demand extra effort. Bribery may alleviate this challenge.

Warning: Attempts of breakfast will prove fruitless, because who is hungry when, according to one’s body, it is not yet 6:00 in the morning? Nobody. Bribery will not alleviate this challenge.

Warning: You will abandon any ideals of your children consuming even a few bites of the most important meal of the day.

Warning: Unbreakfasted children will likely experience sudden-onset hunger on the way to school.

Warning: The light that you enjoyed last week on your morning commute will be no more, and you will drive once again in darkness. Resentment will ensue.

Warning: You may experience cynicism over the misnomer that is Daylight Saving Time. You may dedicate time to privately and more accurately renaming the phenomenon: “Daylight Reshuffling Time.” “Sleep Thief.” “Let’s-Change-Our-Clocks-to-Give-Ourselves-the-Illusion-of-Control-Over-the-Sun-and-Over-Time Day.”

Warning: Bedtime will involve a mutinous onslaught of protests regarding retiring for the night before it is yet dark.

Warning: Nobody with whom you converse about the subject will be able to explain the rationale behind Daylight Saving Time to your satisfaction. Suspicion will rest heavily upon you.

May tomorrow be less tetchy than today. Sleep well–even if it is not yet dark.

Roots and Wings and Things

A few weeks ago our dinner conversation involved different stages of life—being born, starting school, being allowed to live on one’s own, and so on. Sonny and Ace seem to have glommed on to the same part of the discussion and perhaps even had a follow-up chat in their bunk beds later, because they both brought it up shortly afterward.

The next day Sonny plopped down on the couch next to me. In somewhat worried tones he got straight to his point: “Mom, is it true that when kids turn 18 they have to move out of their mom and dad’s house?”

“No,” I said. “They can, but they don’t have to. You won’t have to do that, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

He cheered visibly. “Good. That would be only 11 more years. I will probably live somewhere else when I go to college, but I will come back and visit on Sundays and Thursdays.”

I encouraged this, hoping to seal his promise of regular parental contact. “You’ll always be welcome in this house,” I told him. “Even after you move out.”

“And you’ll always be welcome in my house, too, when I get one,” he said. “You can come every Monday. Mondays will be ‘Chips and Dr Pepper Night.’”

Sounded good to me. “I’ll bring the Dr Pepper, and you can provide the chips,” I suggested.

He agreed, smiling because he won’t have to move out of this house in 11 years and because he can always return for a visit. Or maybe because he was blissfully anticipating a time when chips and Dr Pepper would be a regular part of his diet. But I choose to believe the former.

Roots: He’s growing them.

This child—the one who once was loath to let me out of his sight—is the same child who sprints ahead of me at church on Sunday mornings lest anyone think I’m walking him to Sunday school. And the same child who, when dropped off at Mimi and Papa’s house for a sleepover, allows only about five minutes before politely asking why I haven’t left yet—evidently my presence interferes with the occasion. And the same child who is counting the days until overnight summer camp, which he has been pining to attend since he was four years old.

Wings: He’s growing them, too.

The next day, Ace spoke up from the back seat on the way home from school: “Mom, I have to ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“Do you have to move out of your mom and dad’s house when you turn 18?”

I warmed up for another tender conversation similar to the previous day’s.

“No,” I began. “You’ll always be welcome in our house.”

He paused. His brow furrowed in the rear-view mirror. “But if you want to move out when you’re 18, can you?”

Oh.

Wings: Evidently he is growing some.

This is the same child who often, halfway through disembarking in the school drop-off line, often climbs back into the vehicle to give me a hug and say “I love you.” (Sorry for the hold-up, people behind us in the drop-off line.) And the same child who cannot be away for more than a day—even with J, Sonny, and me, and even when he is enjoying himself—without asking to return home. And the same child who loves old, and not yet old, family stories.

Roots: He has some already.

Sonny and Ace do almost everything differently, so it is no surprise that their roots and wings are taking different forms also. I’m just glad they are developing both, and I hope they never lose them.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.” — “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran

Anatomy of a Snow Day

It’s cold—6 degrees F, not counting the wind chill. Snow is churning. The winds are howling. Highways are closed due to low visibility and slick roads.

At supper tonight, Ace begrudged this waste of a storm, coming as it did on a Saturday. “On a regular day, this would have been a snow day.”

Sonny agreed. “I could use a day off from school.”

(No, today did not count as a day off from school. I know because I asked.)

I understand the appeal of snow days, but my kids are not deprived, having enjoyed one only last week. A good, typical snow day, it progressed like this:

The day before:

4:20 p.m.: A storm is brewing. The weather forecast suggests that it will not subside until 6:00 tomorrow morning. Will tomorrow be a snow day? Maybe it will.

8:13: Ponder whether to pack lunches. They might not be needed. But packing them unnecessarily beats throwing them together in a rush tomorrow morning if school is not canceled. Besides, Sonny and Ace can eat them at home. I assemble sandwiches and peel carrots.

9:07: The school Facebook parent page begins to light up with speculation on the possibility of a snow day.

10:46: Go to bed.

The day itself:

5:20: Wake up. Strain my ears to listen for snow. How silly. Forgive me, but it’s early.

5:30: The school-closing e-mail arrives. I turn off the alarm.

5:31: Numerous parents visit the school Facebook parent page, noting that school is closed.

5:38: I congratulate myself on having laid in a melty bead craft for such a day as this. Oh, and also for having lunch ready.

5:42: I can’t fall back to sleep. Oh well. I console myself with how nice it will be not having to drag groggy, protesting Sonny and Ace out of bed at 6:30 today. They can sleep in! How grateful they will be.

6:07: Ace gets up.

6:11: Sonny gets up.

6:12: I wallow in the uncanniness of it all. How do they do this? Every time, they do this.

7:00: J goes outside to snow blow the driveway. Sonny and Ace follow him with shovels.

7:46: J decides to brave the roads rather than work at home. He suspects it will be quieter at the office. Chances are he is right.

9:07: Sonny and Ace eat breakfast.

9:16: I head upstairs for a shower.

10:00: Sonny and Ace negotiate which game to play. Connect Four.

10:06: Unabashed ovations from the winner of Connect Four.

10:07: Dark accusations of cheating and other treachery from the loser of Connect Four.

10:29: Sonny and Ace decide to talk like Yoda for the rest of the day.

10:31: Sonny asks Ace if playing outside he would like. Ace replies that sledding fun to him sounds.

10:36: Sonny and Ace head out the door, bearing much resemblance to Ralphie of The Christmas Story.

10:49: The kids come back inside, announcing that cold they are, and inquiring whether hot chocolate may they have.

10:50: I assent and go to prepare hot chocolate. Alas, though: we seem to be out of cocoa. Oops. I surreptitiously scrape elderly chocolate fondue from a container in the fridge and plop some into each mug, stirring vigorously, hoping it will dissolve. It does, kind of. Well, sort of. I conceal the still-pale milk with marshmallows.

10:58: Both kids notice a chocolately lump on the bottom of their mugs and wonder what it is. I cast it as a surprise treat. Yum! They eat it with spoons.

12:00: Ace announces that hungry he is. Lunchtime! Lunch is already made; how convenient. I open the lunch boxes. Empty. It seems that Sonny and Ace ate their contents for a second breakfast while I was in the shower. I make more lunch.

12:12: Sonny and Ace ask if screen time they may have. I remind them to clean their room and practice their instruments first.

12:13: Sonny practices his guitar. (“There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o . . .”)

12:28: Ace practices his violin. (“Lightly row, lightly row, O’er the glassy waves we go . . .”)

12:43: Sonny and Ace clean their room, deliberating over each toy, book, and clothing item. Who is picking up more? Who is not doing his share? Who picked up whose sock—a stinky sock, no less? I eavesdrop and note that either by forgetfulness or design, my kids have ceased to talk like Yoda. Bless.

12:59: Sonny and Ace run to the basement, eager for an hour of Netflix.

1:59: Laughter and the sounds of air hockey float up the stairs.

2:48: I find Ace in the kitchen, inhaling pepper, hoping to sneeze out his loose tooth.

3:14: Sonny and Ace liberally dip into the cologne set that Ace bought J for Christmas from the school Holiday Shop.

3:16: Sonny and Ace ask to read together. We settle on the couch.

3:16: Wow. That cologne is strong. Cough-inducing strong. I have flashbacks to the high school bus.

3:17: Ace takes a bath in the elephant bathroom.

3:17: Sonny takes a shower in the master bathroom.

3:28: We settle back on the couch, breathing fresh air, and read a couple chapters of Journey from Peppermint Street.

4:12: Sonny and Ace declare boredom.

4:15: I start making supper while Sonny and Ace plan for the snow day that they are sure will come tomorrow. They fervently hope so, anyway, their boredom notwithstanding.

5:35 Sonny and Ace dance wildly in the hall to the strains of ABBA. They invite me to join them. Sure, why not? Only one of the three of us is a good dancer, but who cares?

5:36: J comes home and notes that he’s never before seen anyone do-si-do to ABBA.

5:45: We turn off ABBA and sit down for supper.

5:47: J asks what we did on our show day. Sonny says we didn’t do anything. Ace reports that we watched Netflix all day.

8:00: Sonny and Ace go to bed. In his prayer, Sonny gives thanks for the snow day.

8:03: Ace proposes that tomorrow, on their snow day, they talk like Yoda all day. Sonny agrees.

8:22: Sonny and Ace are asleep.

8:23: I remember the melty bead craft.

8:56: I pack lunches, quite sure that they will be needed tomorrow. I am both glad and regretful for this.

10:48: I go to bed and set the alarm, quite sure that it will be needed tomorrow. Still glad and still regretful.

10:49: In my prayer, I give thanks for the snow day.

10:59: With ABBA in my head, I wait to fall asleep.

Stay warm. May your snow days be good ones.

Roll Down Like Waters

Last January Sonny burst through the door after a day of kindergarten and cornered me in the hall. “Did you know,” he asked. “Did you know that there used to be laws that said kids with black skin could not go to school with kids with white skin?” He rattled off the names of several classmates. “They wouldn’t have been able to go to our school! And their school wouldn’t even have been very good!”

Sonny was agitated. He stared me down, wide-eyed and waiting. Waiting for disbelief, for shock, for indignation that matched his own.

I hope he always becomes incensed upon reports of injustice. I hope that he always expects the same reaction of others.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” – Benjamin Franklin

Last month Sonny, Ace, and I were reading a story about Jackie Robinson and the abuse he endured upon joining major league baseball as the first African American to play Major League baseball: taunts, hate mail, racial slurs, physical attacks, threats to his life. Midway through the story I heard low growls beside me: Ace, who was flopping around on the couch, plainly uncomfortable.

“Don’t you want to hear the story?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But this story hurts my feelings.”

I hope that stories of injustice always hurt his feelings.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Wiesel

Sonny and Ace belong to a demographic that doesn’t experience racism. We in this demographic can too easily be oblivious to racism—the subtle kind and even the not-so-subtle variety. We can secretly, or unsecretly, believe that the Civil Rights Movement mostly eradicated racism and that any “vestiges” of it might best be quietly endured because, really, haven’t we come a long way? We in this demographic can easily be tempted to cherry-pick examples of stories that suggest claims of racism are fabricated or exaggerated.

I don’t want Sonny and Ace to ease into these traps, to remain sheltered from the reality of injustices, to become impatient or bored at the mere topic of racism. Not when this kind of thing is still going on. I want them to be outraged despite being unaffected. What can I do to help ensure this? Any ideas?

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos 5:24

Death of a Goldfish

Sunday afternoon I wandered down to the basement to feign some interest in the football game that the rest of my family was watching. On the way back upstairs, I passed the fish bowl and did a double take: Did we now have half as many goldfish as we’d had only hours before? Yes, it seemed that we did, if we define “goldfish” specifically as live goldfish.

Fireman Fish had shuffled off this mortal coil and was doing the back float.

Fireman Fish and his bowlmate had joined our household in the fall of 2011, compliments of the fish pond (okay, plastic wading pool) at the harvest festival on the library lawn. The enthusiastic fish-pond director cheered and coached Sonny and Ace on to victory: “Keep trying! Here, go for that slow one. I’ll block him for you,” said she, obviously determined not to be saddled with leftovers. Upon their success she presented them each with an occupied plastic bag. “Enjoy!” she said. And they did.

Sonny named his goldfish Fireman Fish after his heroes. Ace named his goldfish Otto after the fish in A Fish Out of Water.

(Confession: The deceased may not actually be Fireman Fish. It may be Otto. Because Otto was originally brown, I could once easily distinguish between him and his companion, but then he inconveniently and inexplicably turned orange, confusing me henceforth.)

Would Sonny and Ace be upset? I didn’t know, and I wondered how to break the news to them. But they fortuitously paved the way with a discussion about pets. Maybe they could get one, they thought. A hamster, perhaps, or an emu. Maybe a proboscis monkey, or cats like Aunt Sara’s. Then it occurred to them:

“But we have pets! We have fish!”

“But you can’t pet fish. Petting would hurt them because it would rub their scales off.”

“Maybe when they die we could pet them.”

I know a cue when I hear one.

“Um, guys? I have some bad news. Fireman Fish died.”

They looked stricken.

Ace: “Can we still keep him for a decoration?”

Sonny: “Do we have a waterproof marker?”

Me, envisioning my organized seven-year-old attempting to write directly on the carcass to label it for posterity: “Why?”

Sonny: “So we can write ‘Here lies Fireman Fish’ on a little stone when we bury him. And it’s not fair, because now I don’t have a fish and Ace still does.”

Ace nodded sympathetically. After a brief conference they decided to share the survivor. He would need a new name, though, to reflect the new ownership arrangement. They settled on Lloyd as a good new name for Otto.

Sonny remembered how excited he had been to finally scoop a fish out of the little pool. Ace remembered the little TV he had made from aluminum foil and sunk into the bowl for Fireman Fish and Otto to watch a few months ago. They agreed that they would miss Fireman Fish but were glad that they still had Otto . . . er, Lloyd.

I probably won’t miss Fireman Fish himself, but I’m surprised to be feeling a little wistful. Maybe because his name was a vestige of Sonny’s devotion to firefighters, before his interest in lesser superheroes such as Batman set in. Maybe because my erstwhile preschooler and toddler displayed a level of excitement over the acquisition of Fireman Fish and Otto that they will probably never again exhibit over pets as mundane as goldfish. Maybe because Fireman Fish’s survivor looks a little lonely now.

I’m glad we still have Otto . . . er, Lloyd . . . too. Maybe we’ll read A Fish Out of Water tomorrow night, just because.

R.I.P., Fireman Fish (or Otto, maybe). Thanks for being our pet.

Should Auld Reflections Be Forgot?

I’m a wee bit addicted to the online Scrabble-type games Wordscraper and Words with Friends. The other day I arranged the letters of bursae, hit “Play,” and was awarded with 33 points, which initially seemed respectable. But then! A new feature called Hindsight popped up unsolicited to unhelpfully point out that I had missed the opportunity to play a more lucrative word—bruxes—for 65 points. Given that the my B and E were occupied in bursae and therefore no longer available to participate in bruxes on my next turn, I wondered why Hindsight felt the need to speak up.

Hindsight continues to haunt my games. Jades was worth 34 points, but jambes would have scored 48. Eve earned me 7 points, but guess what? Ajee would have brought 13. Wanly was worth 40 points, but knawel? Fifty-nine. (What’s a knawel?)

Sometimes hindsight can be a bit of a know-it-all. A useless know-it-all.

Of course, Words with Friends aside, hindsight and I are old acquaintances. It drops in regularly to explain what might have been handled differently.  For example, recently I made the two-ingredient pancakes that are lauded on Pinterest. In hindsight, I should have foreseen obvious: that egg and banana “pancakes” would bear no resemblance to pancakes at all but might more accurately be considered banana omelets. Disgusting banana omelets, because is there any other kind?

In hindsight, I should have known not to answer the question “Mom, what’s under there?” with “Under where?” And I don’t do that anymore unless I want to send Sonny and Ace into homonym-induced hilarity that will render them unable to stand.

Hindsight offers up the perfect combination of words after the opportunity to utter them has passed. O hindsight’s wisdom, where wert though as I stood there stammering?

Hindsight has pointed out that not every unreasonable demand needs to be met with resistance—sometimes it’s harmless to concede. And because hindsight is a mysterious animal, it has also pointed out that speaking up is sometimes preferable to being still. (If foresight could show up more regularly to help me discriminate between the two situations before I react, that would be great, because I too often confuse them.)

Hindsight whispers that some moments were more important than they seemed at the time and ought to have been treated accordingly.

So hindsight’s lessons are useful, and I hope to lure them with me into next year. No banana omelets at my house in 2015, and by extrapolation, no black-bean sugar-free cookies. (Avoided that one in time. Whew.)  In general, I hope to give foresight a chance to speak more often so that hindsight won’t need to hover around sighing and shaking its head at me.

Other times, though, hindsight is as useless as the belated revelation that knawel would have been the optimal word to play. It drums up regrets after one has done one’s best; and perhaps the choice that was made wasn’t the worst choice at all. Maybe not as good as knawel, but still good enough.

So don’t let any worthless regrets crash your New Year’s Eve party. Tomorrow is a new year.

Enjoy it.

Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

Last month I happened upon an article with the approximate title of “Twenty Parenting Hacks That Will Make Your Life Simpler.” Ever seeking a simpler life, I plunged in.

Hack #1: “Wash Legos in a laundry bag in the washing machine.” (Because evidently Legos should be washed once a week. Who gets to decide these things?) My admiration for whomever had come up with this ingenious (although undoubtedly noisy) method to purify Legos was overshadowed by a burning question: How is washing Legos in a laundry bag simpler than not washing Legos, which is what I do now?

I did not finish the article.

December brought an onslaught of other not-simple ideas masquerading as simple. “Thirty Hassle-Free Elf on the Shelf Ideas! Each simple idea takes less than five minutes to set up.” Wouldn’t leaving the Elf on the Shelf on the shelf, per his moniker, be even more hassle-free—if one doesn’t bar him from one’s home entirely, which, let’s face it, is the most hassle-free approach of all? Many families enjoy Elf on the Shelf, but let’s not pretend that having to pose that creature every evening lends simplicity to one’s season.

Nor does twisting napkins into Christmas tree shapes, suggested as a “simple” way to set one’s table. Festive? Yes. Simpler than a folding a napkin into a rectangle? No. Same goes for the six “simple” ways to decorate one’s car for Christmas. Really? Decorate my car? Hanging ornaments from the rear-view mirror is not complicated, but whoever decided that cars should be decorated was not thinking simply.

Still, I have found a few ways to keep the Christmas season a little simpler. Here are a few of my attempts.

(Note: It may seem that one or two of these endeavors are driven more by laziness or incompetence than by a noble quest for simplicity. Let’s just blur those lines, shall we? Potato, potahto . . .)

  • Believed that Sonny was already booked on the morning of the Christmas recital and therefore did not sign him up to participate. Was wrong about him being booked, a discovery that came too late for the sign-up deadline. Not preparing for a recital during an already busy season: simpler than preparing for a recital.
  • Tried a new recipe wherein “Batter may be soft” was a shameless understatement. Poured the batter into a 9×13 pan and offered it to the oven. Renovating would-be cookies into (mediocre) bars: simpler than making a new batch of cookies.
  • Resisted the fleeting urge to rearrange the ornaments after the tree decorating session. Yes, five of the six striped glass bulbs are clumped up together, nearly touching each other, instead of spaced evenly around the branches. Yes, the Nutcracker and the straw angel are both facing the tree trunk. But so what? The kids who decorated this tree are convinced it is “the best tree EVER, and perfect.” Besides, in a few years Sonny and Ace will decorate the tree more conventionally, or they won’t want to help decorate it at all, and I will feel nostalgic. Letting the decorators’ style remain: simpler than trying to refine the tree.
  • Accepted Ace’s offer to wrap presents. The result, many meters of tape later, is a pile of gifts that look like a five-year-old wrapped them. Martha Stewart would recoil and avert her eyes, but the recipients won’t mind. And the five-year-old is proud of having helped. Allowing a volunteer to wrap the presents: easier than doing it oneself (assuming an ample supply of tape).
  • Avoid irritating “Christmas” songs. Yes, music is a matter of taste, so I won’t specify any titles, but some of these songs are plain creepy (cough“BabyIt’sColdOutside”cough). At least one is a carol of self pity that has nothing to do with the Christmas season itself (“Last Christmas,” I’m looking at you.) And have you ever suffered through an hours-long earworm of “Wonderful Christmastime,” a song that is annoying even on its first pass through your head? So if you encounter a woman with her hands over her ears humming loudly to drown out the loudspeaker’s rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that woman might be me. Listening to meaningful music or just enjoying the silence: simpler (among other things) than suffering through “Santa Baby” and its ilk.
  • Trying to remember that Christmas will preval despite missed recitals, imperfect food, ideal plans (as defined by me) going awry, and too-high expectations of myself and others. It will triumph despite unmet goals and hangry kids . . . and cranky grownups. It will go on despite commercialism. These things are not what Christmas is all about. And I’m so glad.

There’s No “If” in Thanksgiving

A couple years ago at bedtime I asked Sonny and Ace our customary question: “What would you like to tell God you’re thankful for tonight?” Ace, then three years old, spoke up promptly: “Well. If you would buy me skates, I could tell God I’m thankful for those.”

Later, I laughed with J as we shook our heads. Such naïve bluntness! All those toys, and he wanted more! He was only one pair of skates away from happiness. Leave it to a three-year-old, right?

Or not. Despite my laughter I recognized that Ace’s “hint” reflected my own habits: of sidestepping thanks in deference to longing for something else. Of believing that one elusive missing piece would seal my contentment. Of allowing my desire for just one more thing to loom larger than the recognition of what I already have.

I would be thankful if I could avoid interruptions.

I would be thankful if my kids made a habit of behaving in ways that made me look like a competent mother. Oh, and if they would stop arguing. And stop bellowing.

I would be thankful if everyone followed my plans. They’re such sensible plans, after all!

I would be thankful if my kids didn’t have sore throats.

I would be thankful if I were not perpetually behind on the laundry.

I would be thankful if everyone around me could just relax. Then I could relax, too. (Everyone else needs to go first, though.)

I would be thankful if I heard more positive statements than negative ones. Then I could be more positive, too. (Everyone else needs to go first, though.)

And so on.

Sometimes these ifs come to fruition, and sometimes I am fleetingly thankful, but more often I quickly accept these gifts as my due. It’s easy to acclimate to what one has, after all. Also, as Sonny gently explained recently (in a context that I no longer recall), “Mom. You know, you do forget things.”

Bless his forthright little heart. He’s right. I forget things, not the least of which is to be thankful.

I forget that those close calls could easily have gone other ways—tragic, unthinkable ways.

And that most of the time, the people who interrupt me are the ones whom I love the most and that any time with them is worthwhile.

And that having too much laundry means that we have more clothes than we need.

And that most of my problems are also of the first-world variety.

And that my fighting, bellowing kids are also funny, loving, loyal, helpful, good-hearted kids.

And that many parents long to exchange their kids’ diagnoses for one as mundane as a sore throat.

And that it shouldn’t take someone else’s tragedy to stun me into gratitude for what I have.

I forget that there’s no “if” in thanksgiving.

O Lord, that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness.”-  William Shakespeare, Henry VI

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!