Hand Sanitizer and Other Imperfect Tricks

The well pump had failed in the middle of the afternoon. Hours later we still hadn’t made it to the store to buy water, so take-out seemed like a sensible dinner plan. We stopped at the lone restaurant between guitar lessons and our house and placed an order.

The restaurant was not a fast-food restaurant, in name or in fact, so we lingered long in the not-spacious waiting area. As we waited, Sonny and Ace ran their hands over every possible surface:  the candy machine, the counter, the door, the menu rack. The walls. The floor. They stopped when I asked them, but then, bored, would find something else to touch.

Everything seems grimier when you know you can’t turn on the water and scrub something, or someone, down. I quickly became squicked out.

To distract myself, I thought about the local schools that had already canceled the next day’s classes due to illness: strep and gastrointestinal wretchedness, mainly. I thought about the strep and gastrointestinal-wretchedness germs hunkering on the candy machine, the counter, the door, the menu rack. The walls. The floor. The obvious solution—packing Sonny and Ace off into the restroom to wash their hands—was not a viable one, as apparently restrooms aren’t a guaranteed amenity in restaurants whose services are limited to carry-out and delivery.

The other obvious solution—stopping to buy water on the way home instead of waiting until later in the evening—would have worked had I  been willing for the food to get cold and were we not all in the process of rapidly evolving from hungry to hangry. Besides, I had a plan.

When we got home, I stood between my sons and their supper and brandished the hand sanitizer.

“You need to use this before you touch your food,” I said.

They were hungry enough that you’d think they wouldn’t have objected. You’d be wrong.

“Hand sanitizer doesn’t work so well, Mom,” Sonny said. “It doesn’t get dirt off, and it doesn’t even kill all viruses.”

“And? AND! It kills the good germs along with the bad,” Ace said, tucking his hands behind his back for safekeeping.

They spoke the truth. I knew they spoke the truth. (But where did they learn these things? Not from me.) But I was still squicked out, and they were hungry, and I was in charge of the food, and we hadn’t yet gone out to buy water, and hand sanitizer was all we had. So they used the hand sanitizer. Sorry, good germs.

The next morning neither child wanted to get up. When they got up, they did not want to move along as befits a school day. They laughed and consulted and sat on the vent to read, but they did ready themselves for school. After asking nicely once or twice—okay, probably just once—I dipped into my bag of tricks and pulled out Nagging and The Raising of the Voice. Go get your socks, why is your lunchbox still in the van, why are you playing in there when you should be eating in here, why haven’t you brushed your teeth? And through the nagging and raised voice nagged another voice, in my head:

“Nagging and raising your voice don’t work so well. They don’t inspire anyone to do better. And? They backfire, both short-term and long-term, and they are antithetical to what should be modeled to kids. AND? They suppress good moods and exacerbate already-bad ones.”

That voice whispered the truth. I knew it whispered the truth. But time was marching on, and the kids weren’t, and I was crabby about various things, such as the defunct well, so I nagged and raised my voice. Sorry, good moods.

Two days after the hand sanitizer, Ace woke up hacking and feverish. Did he get sick from a candy-machine germ or from a kid at school? I don’t know. Would soap and water have killed off that germ better than the hand sanitizer had? I don’t know. Did the hand sanitizer keep Sonny from getting sick? I don’t know.

About 20 minutes after the nagging commenced, we were on the road to school. Would my kids move more promptly in the future after this morning of nagging? I don’t know. Would we have been more punctual had I shown more patience instead of nagging? I don’t know. Would gentleness instead of The Raising of the Voice have effected more cheerfulness on the way to school and throughout the day? I don’t know.

A lot of things have drawbacks. Hand sanitizer. Nagging. Life in general.

But sometimes we just do our best and try again next time.

You too?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s No Crying in Screen Time

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
― William Shakespeare, King Henry VI

Life dishes out plenty of grief, even (perhaps especially) to kids. Loss, fear, injury, insults, heartbreak, disappointment, sickness, rejection, worry—what child has not been dealt these and has wept accordingly? Any impatience adults have with such weeping reflects our own shortcoming, not the child’s.

Even so, weeping—and its cousins, whining and grumbling and bellowing of indignation—is sometimes indulged in a little too liberally. Some laments seem more akin to complaints than to expressions of actual grief.

For example, whining to express that one’s brother is not doing his share of the chores or, conversely, that the brother is helping to pick up the sticks in the yard when one wanted to do this job by himself.

Or perhaps one’s brother refuses to smell one’s “good-smelling breath,” post teeth-brushing.

One’s food is detestable.

A boot is missing, only to be found in a place where the owner did not put it, and how did it get there: How?

Someone is scraping cardboard against a table in a way that he knows his brother finds annoying, and that’s why he’s doing it, too!

Lights-out came too soon, as will morning, as it turns out, 10 hours hence.

Someone quit the Monopoly game prematurely.

Impending haircuts will itch.

Shoveling snow makes them cold.

(Let’s pause to admit that the airing of such grievances is are not limited to children. Adults do this, too, in our own, more sophisticated—we think—way.)

But still, this is life, isn’t it? Whining and all?

Fortunately, there is an asylum from such absurdities, a rest for parental ears. It’s offered by screen time.

Screen time can be complex. For example, Sonny and Ace enjoy many educational games, and while we appreciate the educational value thereof, educational value is not why they play the games. School has educational value, as do books and the great outdoors, so they can get that in those places. And while I do not object to their playing games or watching videos purely for entertainment, they can easily find recreation elsewhere, if they have to, which they often do.

The chief reason they have screen time is so I can have peace and quiet. Ugly, maybe, but true. Screens are mesmerizing, after all, and we might as well channel that to some purpose. While they are being mesmerized, my brain is regrouping. It works.

But hark. What’s this I hear? Weeping’s cousins?

Netflix froze­­­­.

Someone’s brother is not letting him watch him play Minecraft, even though he let him watch when he played.

The tablet is out of power. Someone didn’t charge it! Who did not plug it in?

One’s allotted screen time is up long before one is finished playing the game, and that’s not fair!

Why are they complaining? Why aren’t they mesmerized? Where’s my peace and quiet? Don’t they know that’s what screen time is for?

And suddenly I am channeling Tom Hanks: “Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There’s no crying! THERE’S NO CRYING IN SCREEN TIME!”

Because if there’s crying in screen time, opportunities for screen time—yes, even the educational apps—will go away. Ugly but true. The kids can go outside and shovel more snow instead.

Thank you, Shakespeare, for reminding us that weeping has its place.

And thank you, Tom Hanks, for articulating that weeping can be misplaced.

And may we all learn the difference.

Have You Been Half Asleep, and Have You Heard Voices?

Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name.“The Rainbow Connection”

Why yes, Kermit. I have. (Or, if not half asleep, then fully asleep.) To wit:

“Mom! Mom! I think I’m going to throw up!” (And it was so.)

“Mom! I heard a noise that sounded like a villain. It sounded like ‘Mwa ha hahahaha!’ Can you check the closet?”

“Mom. Mom? Did they really catch all those guys who bombed Paris?”

“Mom! It’ snowing! Look out the window! Is that enough for a snow day?”

“Mom, have you seen my library book? Tomorrow is library day.”

“Mom? This little piece of skin feels loose. It didn’t feel loose before.”

But usually the voice calling my name at all hours of the night is my own.

“Laura. You could read one more chapter of that book, and then you would fall asleep.” (Delusion lives on.)

“Know what, Laura? They may have caught the guys who bombed Paris, but what about the next such guys?”

“Are we becoming one of those over-scheduled families that I vowed we’d never become?”

“Why did you Google that symptom? Why why whywhywhy?”

“Would Sonny and Ace tell J and me if someone were hurting them?”

“I should have done that differently.”

“Your list of resolutions for 2016 is stagnating. Get a move on.”

“Eep. The Tooth Fairy. She’s supposed to come tonight. Please let there be a dollar up here somewhere so I don’t have to go downstairs. Is that a dollar on my dresser? No, that’s a receipt. Sigh.”

“Know what? You aren’t very patient.”

“Know what? You need to be more organized.”

“Know what? Now that there are only seven more minutes until the alarm goes off, you’ll probably finally fall asleep.” (And it was so.)

What voices keep you up at night?

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord,
At the end of the day. – “Lord of All Hopefulness”

 

Shelving the Elf

“I know what I really want for Christmas.
I want my childhood back.” –Robert Fulghum

. . . . .

“Mom,” Sonny asked the other day, for the third year running. “Why don’t we have an Elf on the Shelf?”

“Oh, we just don’t,” I answered. I’m not opposed to Elf on the Shelf; in fact, it looks like a fun tradition. Whether or not it would serve its purpose as being a Santa spy, we’d all enjoy its creative poses. But the truth is that I don’t need one more thing to remember each evening, especially in December. The Elf would probably forget to relocate and would languish for days in one place and J and I would have to make excuses for his slothfulness. Who needs that? We already have to do that for the Tooth Fairy.

Part of me worries that the want of Elf on the Shelf will develop one of those small, secret resentments that kids harbor into adulthood—the kind that convince them that their childhood was incomplete. But the other part of me seeks comfort in the fact that those of us who grew up before Elf on the Shelf was a Thing turned out just fine (or, if we didn’t, it wasn’t because we didn’t have Elf on the Shelf). I wonder how Elf on the Shelf would have even ranked among my general memories of childhood Christmastimes.

The kitchen smelling of tangerines and wood smoke and cinnamon and butter cookies.

Church Christmas programs: Snaking our way up the narrow, chilly stairwells and into the sanctuary that smelled like old wood and furniture polish, the wave of relief after I’d recited my “line” and now it was Jodi’s or Amy’s turn or Michelle’s turn, the individual boxes of Bridge Mix distributed afterward.

Dividing said Bridge Mix into equal piles, one pile for each day until Christmas, and then eventually breaking down and pilfering the larger pieces (those with caramel and fruit and malted milk filling) from the piles so that by Christmas Eve there remained only one scanty collection of wrinkled little chocolates harboring raisins or peanuts.

Going to my grandparents’ house during our no-TV years to watch Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman.

Collaborating with my sisters to make Christmas presents for each other.

Visits from my long-distance grandparents. Grandma brought everyone their own Cool-Whip container full of homemade caramel corn. She and Grandpa would sit quietly, watching the action and smiling at all their offspring.

Singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” complete with motions (don’t ask), at my uncle and aunt’s house on Christmas Eve. Then singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” with my uncle holding out the phone receiver so my grandparents, if they weren’t visiting that year, could hear us three states away.

My mom waking us up on Christmas morning by playing “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the piano, and my dad singing along.

Walnut Whirl coffee cake for Christmas breakfast. That stuff is good.

Spending Christmas Day at my local grandparents’ house, the kids’ table rocking with laughter and mashed potatoes and Jello and turkey, and afterward the whole clan packed into what was, now that I think about it, a not very large living room for the afternoon.

The aroma of blue spruce and candles.

My grandparents’ tree adorned with a combination of big old-fashioned Christmas lights (the kind that burned you if you touched them), newer small ones (safe to touch), and a variety of ornaments of all ages—including an elf fashioned from a roll of Life-Savers that was eventually chewed open by an enterprising grandchild. Once, while decorating, my grandma asked my grandpa to put the angel on top of the tree. “Oh Marian,” he said. “I can’t lift you up that high.”

(Okay. Like Robert Fulghum, I kind of want my childhood back now.)

If Elf on the Shelf—or cookie-making, or carol singing, or tree decorating, or visiting Santa—is fun, why not do it, and enjoy? If not, don’t. Or if you forget or don’t have time, no worries. There will be something else—probably something you are not even orchestrating—that you will find yourself enjoying instead. There will be other things that your children will think on fondly someday when they want their childhood back at Christmas.

As Sonny was drawing the picture for this blog post, he suggested again that we get Elf on the Shelf. “We should get one. Why don’t we have one?”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t think we really need one right now. We can have Christmas without it.”

And we watched this together, because that’s what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas, all!

 

What Surprises Them?

This past summer I was swimming with Sonny, Ace, and my niece and nephews at my sister’s neighborhood pool. After about an hour, Sonny issued a challenge: that I jump off the diving board, an idea well received by his cohorts. I had not jumped off a diving board in years (okay, decades) but why not?

Overestimating my level of trepidation, the five of them chanted “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in unison and shouted other encouragements as I approached the diving board. After walking the plank and stepping off, I surfaced to many congratulations.

“Good job, Aunt Laura!”

“Yay, Mom!”

“Wow!”

Huh. They seemed impressed. And astonished.

So against my better judgment, I asked the obvious: “Did you think I would be too scared to do that?”

Smiles and sidelong glances.

“Did you? You can tell me.”

“Well,” one of the kids said gently. “It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

I was much amused by their assumption. And touched by their encouragement and support when they thought I was trying something new and scary. Oh, and mildly chagrined that I’d evidently been presenting myself as wholly unadventurous.

Since then, Sonny and Ace have been surprised over many things I’ve done. Among them:

  • Singing along to “Take a Chance on Me,” a song they didn’t know.
  • Fixing the toilet.
  • Reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • Answering “Buenos tardes, Mom!” with “And good afternoon to you!”
  • Successfully and without hesitation operating a VCR (a.k.a. “old fashioned DVD player”). Bonus points for knowing at a glance that the tape had to be rewound. (And yes, I had to explain what “rewind” meant.)
  • Hitting a baseball.
  • Firing up a gas grill.
  • Identifying Bugs Meany as the antagonist in the Encyclopedia Brown.

And so on. Each time I was somewhat surprised at their surprise, although how could they know that any of these were in my wheelhouse if I’d never shown them?

Recently, after I was short-tempered all day for reasons that were not good enough, Sonny asked me for a small kindness. When I complied, surprise flashed briefly in his eyes. Given the day we’d had, his surprise was justified, but still . . . realizing that your kid is surprised by your kindness feels much worse than knowing he is surprised that you were not too chicken to jump off a diving board. Kindness, willingness to give a little time or to listen, patience—these should not be dumped in the vicinity of Abba lyrics, Encyclopedia Brown characters, toilet repair, and diving board mettle to be trotted out seldom enough to surprise others. Even on a bad day.

Know what’s disconcerting? To ask yourself whether your kids (or others) would be more surprised if you showed kindness or harshness, kindness or impatience, kindness or sarcasm, kindness or selfishness. Even on a bad day.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” – Mother Teresa

My Circus. My Monkeys.

“Another rule for when we get a pet monkey is that if it’s ever sitting on the ceiling fan, we shouldn’t turn on the fan.”

Sonny added this rule to the list that he and Ace, ever the optimists, were evidently formulating, while I tried to even fathom such an idea. Pet monkey? What? No! No pet monkey, ever!

At the same time, I wasn’t sure that the acquisition of a pet monkey would alter our household as much as one might expect. This is probably not a good thing to admit, but it’s true. Just to check, I asked Sonny and Ace how they thought a life might be different if we acquired a monkey.

“A monkey would mess up the bathroom!”

Have they seen our bathroom lately? (I will spare you the details. You’re welcome.) Just last week I told J that cleaning the bathroom was the exemplification of futility.
“We would have to buy a lot of bananas.”

The large bunch of bananas I purchased five days ago lasted less than three days. Except, of course, the one with the squished top, and with our luck any monkey we adopted wouldn’t deign to eat it, either.

“It would play tricks on us.”

Yesterday Sonny called me over to (ostensibly) check out one of the perennials he was watering, and when I approached he gleefully sprayed me with the hose. The day before, Ace crouched in quiet wait behind the couch until I settled in with my book, at which time he leaped up and yelled “Boo!” Whenever we are waiting for a visitor, repairperson, or package delivery, one of the boys sneaks outside to ring the doorbell to prematurely lure me to the door.

“A monkey would make weird noises.”

This from the kid who talks like Minion for hours on end? His definition of “weird noises” must be much narrower than mine.

“A monkey would get dirty. All the time, it would be dirty.”

This summer’s go-to pastime is digging in the barren patch between the driveway and the flower bed. Sonny and Ace have carved out a large river system, complete with an island (with its own lake), and fill it with water almost daily. Don’t think for a second that my kids try to sidestep the resulting mud.

“We could teach it to do chores. But . . . maybe it wouldn’t want to do them, always.”

Ahem.

“We’d have lots of fun this summer if we had a monkey.”

Swimming lessons, days with cousins, VBS, camping, biking with friends to the park, visiting grandparents, the ice cream parlor, the library, Little League. Legos, Nerf guns, Elephant and Piggie, helpless laughter. Roasting marshmallows. Scooters, bikes. The beach, the splash pad, duct tape. Tickling contests. Digging in the dirt, spraying Mom with the hose.

My circus. My monkeys.

And they don’t even sit on the ceiling fan.

I’ll keep them.

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.