Best-Laid Plans for This School Year: Only Slightly Awry (So Far)

One day early last spring I waited for Sonny to jump out of my vehicle in the drop-off line. He hesitated. “Mom,” he said. “Are you sure that today is Pajama Day?”

“Yes!” I said, feigning certainty, because suddenly I was not sure—not at all sure—that that day was Pajama Day; why hadn’t I written it down? Was I sealing my place in the Annals of Incompetent Parenting by sending my kid to school in printed fleece and bright waffle weave on Not Pajama Day? As I watched him trot into school clutching his stuffed animal and pillow (recommended accessories for Pajama Day), I prayed that I would not very soon receive a phone call from an irate first grader requesting street clothes.

I lucked out. No phone call. It was, in fact, Pajama Day.

Thankful to have dodged a bullet, I vowed to be more organized. Maybe I’d start keeping one of those acclaimed master calendars.

A few weeks later my cell phone went missing. I’d had it earlier in the morning and hadn’t gone anywhere where I could have lost it. I called it a few times from the land line, hoping to track it by its ring, but no luck. Eventually a Facebook message arrived from someone at school. “Your phone is in Ace’s lunchbox.”

Well, that wasn’t embarrassing in the least. (PSA: When you are hastily packing your kids’ lunches, do not pick up your phone—or anything else of importance, presumably—while doing so, lest you drop your phone into the lunchbox along with the apple that you are holding in the same hand. In my defense, it was 6:30ish o’clock and two kids were holding separate conversations with me at the same time.)

And I vowed again to be more organized.

These were not necessarily isolated incidents. But the 2015-2016 school year would go more smoothly—I was sure of that.

Fast-forward to July, Sonny’s and Ace’s school supply lists, which had arrived in the mail a month earlier, were waiting for attention on my desk. Recalling my earnest vows, I decided to shop early this year. Why wait until two days before school started? Why risk having to (again) make an eleventh-hour stop at an office supply store to hunt down that one elusive supply that Target didn’t have on hand? I stuffed them in my purse, and we headed to WalMart, feeling much affinity with those people who finish their Christmas shopping before Halloween.

Crayons: Check!

Twelve pencils (sharpened): Check!

Dry-erase markers (at least three): Check!

Water bottle (leak-proof): Check!

Pencil box: Check!

And so on. Until . . .

Yellow plastic two-pocket folder: WalMart didn’t have those. Red, green, or blue plastic folders—yes. Yellow paper folders—yes. But not yellow plastic. Oh well. We had plenty of time to avoid a last-minute stop at the store on the way to school.

At home I went to sort the supplies into separate bags for Sonny and Ace. Evidently the school supply lists had been left at the store, however. Which kid’s list included Kleenex? Which included fat markers? Child-sized scissors (labeled with initials)? Finally I consulted a friend, who directed me to the supply lists buried deeply on the school’s web site.

I sorted the supplies accordingly, well before the deadline, just like Organized People would. And couple weeks later, when we found ourselves in the vicinity of Staples, we ran popped in and purchased a yellow plastic two-pocket folder. School shopping: Complete, weeks ahead of time!

Since we will be unable to attend the school open house this year, we arranged to drop off the supplies last week. When it was time to leave I quickly checked the supply bags against the lists one more time. Everything was accounted for, except the yellow plastic folder.

“Sonny? Where is that yellow folder for school?”

He had no idea.

I had no idea.

We headed out with our incomplete stockpile and stopped at two stores before finding a yellow plastic two-pocket folder.

School starts the day after Labor Day. Despite my vows, this year will probably go much like other years—which means we will make it through despite inevitable kerfluffles. But I’m writing down Pajama Day this year, just in case, and keeping my phone away from lunch-packing. And next time I see yellow plastic two-pocket folders in a store, I’m stocking up. They can be hard to come by.

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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?

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

Snow Days

It’s winter. It’s cold. The snowfalls are tying records set in 1936. What has this meant? Snow days. Lots of them.

Early-morning announcements thereof arrive almost simultaneously via text message, robocall, e-mail, school Facebook page, news station Web page, and, if anyone cares to take the time to watch, TV. Such was the case again a few days ago as another snow day dawned—the seventh this winter, if anyone’s counting (which, judging by Facebook comments, many people are).

The previous week was a two-day school week. On Wednesday, the third consecutive snow day, the wind chill was (still) -20° F so it was (still) too cold to play outside. Sonny and Ace had abandoned their massive blanket fort in the living room. They had painted all the pictures they cared to paint. They had practically worn out their Legos. We had already completed the Facebook-recommended snow-day activities of making snow ice cream and tossing boiling water into the frigid air to form an instant cloud.

They just wanted to go somewhere.

In a last-ditch attempt to resist the siren song of Netflix for a few more hours, I filled a large plastic bin with snow and dragged it into the basement. Look, boys! You can drive your little cars in it, you can use your little bulldozers to make snow piles, you can craft tiny snowmen! All in the house! Thank you, Pinterest! I crept upstairs in search of solitude. When I checked a few minutes later, Sonny and Ace were having a snowball fight. In the house. Why had I not seen that coming?

(On went Netflix.)

Back in ye olde days, before text messages or WiFi (or Netflix), we learned of snow days the old-fashioned way: by peering at the list of school closings inching across the bottom of our 13-inch TV. Often we’d have one eye on the TV and one eye out the window to make sure the bus wasn’t coming. Alas, sometimes the bus was in fact coming, but sometimes the TV gave up the goods, ushering in a day of freedom.

My mom would make play dough in three colors, one for each of us. My sisters and I played Monopoly—one game lasted at least three days—and assembled jigsaw puzzles. We sewed muumuus for our Barbie dolls. (What? They’re easy to sew.) We shoveled snow and made snowmen families with my dad, who would pelt snow balls at us as soon as our backs were turned.

We poured maple syrup over snow to make candy à la Mary and Laura Ingalls’ Christmas preparations. (It totally did not work.)

We cross-country skied to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Sometimes they’d join us to ski in the woods. Or play Boggle with us. Or consume tea and cookies.

When I was in second grade my older sister and I were snowed in at our aunt and uncle’s house. We spent the next day or two roller-skating with our cousins in the basement with our new Christmas metal clamp-on skates, visiting the sickly newborn calf that my uncle had bedded down in a corner for warmth and to keep a closer eye on. We were sad when it died during the night.

Did my parents get fed up when we had an overabundance of snow days? Probably. Do I remember them grumbling? No way. Maybe they were remembering their own snow days.

My dad’s family fortuitously shared a party line with one of his schoolteachers, who lived on a nearby farm.  When the teacher’s  distinctive ring rang on snowy mornings Dad always just knew it was the principal calling her to declare a snow day. One way to find out for sure, of course: listen in. Once in his excitement he neglected to hang up before cheering. (My grandma was mortified, as listening in on a party line was to be done very discreetly.)

My mom, unblessed by any teachers who shared the party line, relied on the radio for snow-day news.  The announcer would plod through the school names, taking too-frequent breaks for commercials. This took forever, but when she heard her school’s name she could never quite believe it and stood there for another round just to make sure. Then: snow-day fun. She would sled near the barn with the neighbor kids and ice skate on old, borrowed skates. She’d play Monopoly and cards with her siblings. She and my grandma would comb through Better Homes and Gardens and McCall’s for cookie recipes and craft ideas.

Did my grandparents get fed up when their kids had too many snow days? Maybe. Did they say so? I am sure they did not.

My grandma recently told of the winter of  ’36, that winter whose records are now being tied, when she was turning 11. The snowbanks reached the telephone wires. Her family was snowbound for 30 days. “Snowbound” meant “not able to get the car to town.” No grocery store runs for them, but that was okay, because they had shelves full of canned meat and vegetables, cows full of milk, and chickens full of chicken and eggs.

So how did she spend her snow days? She didn’t have them. She and her sisters walked—well, waded—across to their country school, as did the other students and the teacher. She didn’t mind. Ever the extrovert, she was glad to go to school. “We wouldn’t have gotten out otherwise,” she said. “Except that one Sunday when my dad hitched up the sleigh and horses and we went to visit our grandparents. They lived about five miles away.” Her voice brightened at the memory. “It was so good to get out and go somewhere!”

And now it’s 78 years later. Wading across the fields and hitching up sleighs seems so quaint. As do party lines and McCall’s magazine. As do clamp-on skates.  I wonder what will seem quaint about the snow days of 2014 a generation or two from now. Netflix, maybe? Facebook announcements? Will there even be snow days, or will we have found a way to overcome them?

Enjoy this memorable winter—snow days and all.

Do I Hear School Bells?

It’s 8:30 in the morning.

Sonny is grumbly because his brother keeps calling him Howard, because I haven’t let him watch TV in about seventeen years, and because his hawk paper airplane has a bent nose.

Ace is grumbly because I keep forgetting to address him as Diego, because I hung up the phone before he had a chance to talk to my parents (despite declining the opportunity before I hung up), and because he has to do everything around here.

The toxic combination of boredom and back-to-school jitters is compelling Sonny and Ace to trot out torments that only siblings can deliver well: copying each other (“He’s copying me, Mom!” “He’s coppppying me, Mommm!”), pretending to drink from the other’s cup,  and . . . wait for it . . . pointing at each other.  Darkly threatening to send each other to jail, to JAIL! Feigning ignorance (and innocence) over the whereabouts of his brother’s lost toy.

Constantly.

School starts on Tuesday, and that’s none too soon. We are sipping at the dregs of summer vacation, and these people need somewhere to go.

Sonny will be starting kindergarten. Over the last few weeks he’s dwelt on various concerns: the possibility of bullies, not knowing everyone in his class, wishing he didn’t have to be away from home all day. But yesterday he told a cashier that his new teacher smiles all the time, and he ended last night’s bedtime prayer with “and thank you that school starts soon.” Ahhh, he’s ready. Good.

Ace will be starting preschool. He is concerned because he likes alone time, which is scarce at preschool. He is nervous because he doesn’t know many of the other kids. But he also remembers being sad when he was two years old and went along to drop Sonny off at preschool. He’d wanted to stay, too. “When is it going to be my turn, Mommy?” he’d ask. And now, finally, it is his turn. Today he donned his new monkey backpack and marched proudly around the house. “Let’s pretend that I’m in preschool, Mommy,” he said. “Because . . . I AM in preschool!”  Ahhh, he’s ready. Good.

Am I ready? Ready for some solitude? Who, me? Sometimes the idea of completing a task, or a thought, without interruption has me almost salivating. Nobody lamenting that he accidentally bit his own hand while eating cheese, nobody knocking frantically on the bathroom door to report a cricket floating in the goldfish bowl, nobody arguing over whether to dig to China or build a fort, nobody boycotting the only pair of socks left in his drawer.

The other day Sonny and Ace spent a few hours at the neighbors’ house, and I amazed myself with how much I could accomplish when left to my own devices. I even seamlessly completed a phone conversation. The silence was golden.

Until it wasn’t. It became almost creepy. True, nobody was fighting. But also true: nobody was summoning me to the window to watch a deer or turkey. Nobody was calling me “Mommy-Tommy.” Nobody was painting pictures of volcanoes to hang on the fridge. Nobody was making his brother laugh helplessly, and nobody was playing pet store together. Nobody was issuing tickets for walking on the wrong side of the stairs.

Then Sonny and Ace returned home. They had enjoyed their time with the neighbors, and they were content . . . for about a minute, until one of them started pointing at the other. “He’s pointing at me, Mom!” (“He’s pooointing at me, Mom!”)

And so it went.

Am I ready for my kids to start school? Oh yes.

Will I miss them while they’re gone?

Absolutely.

Enjoy the school year, everyone.