School Violence Led Us To Homeschooling

bullying leads to homeschooling, school violence, guns in school,

(Image: distorted-colours.deviantart.com)

We became homeschoolers suddenly. One morning my oldest son, a freshman in an award-winning suburban high school, called home right before the first class of the day. The teen who’d been harassing him had just showed him a gun, saying it would be his last day to live.

“Get out now,” I said. “Run home.”

I phoned the principal to tell him about the gun. I insisted that he not call the teen to the office on the intercom but remove him directly from his classroom. “Please,” I begged. “I’m worried about every other child still in the building.”

Throughout the school year my son told us what he heard about this youth and a few other kids. They’d sexually assaulted a girl in the school bathroom, broken the arm of a student’s father when he tried to reason with them, fought a gang-style skirmish near the football field with the assistance of older relatives. When I asked school officials about these allegations they scoffed. I assumed they were baseless.

My son’s situation was pretty standard. Honors student versus tough kid. My son used sarcasm as his defensive weapon. A few days earlier he’d retorted back to the taunting with, “Bad mood? Drug dealer not giving you credit?”

That morning the principal seemed only mildly perturbed by my frantic call. I insisted my son told me these kids stashed weapons in their cars. He seemed more interested in containing what he called a “rumor.” When the principal didn’t get back to me, my husband and I called the police. Detectives sat at our table and confirmed every story. The girl assaulted, the father’s arm broken, the gang fight. In fact area businesses had been warned to notify police immediately if groups of teens assembled, in case another gang fight was brewing. Parents were not informed.

I’d assumed that police had been called to the school after my report of a student with a gun. They weren’t. Instead, the student in question was summoned to the office on the intercom. Other students said he went outside to the trunk of his car before heading to the office.

I met with the superintendent the next day. In my work life I taught non-violence to community groups, including school systems. I told him I’d teach this program free of charge to staff and students in our district. The superintendent turned me down, admitting that it might be safer if we homeschooled. My son never returned to school.

I’d always been committed to the idea of public schools. I believed it was not only right but necessary to work within systems to improve them. Plus, I had plenty of misconceptions about homeschooling. Yet I realized that school had never really “worked” for my kids. Our four-year-old already knew how to read but had to practice sight words in pre-school anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade level curriculum along with the rest of her class. And our freshman detested the rote tasks that filled his days and the hours of homework each night.

Overnight, I faced homeschooling kids who were eager to learn on their own terms. I learned right along with them. I learned how profoundly they are motivated by their own interests, and how those interests translate into advanced comprehension across a range of subjects. I learned how they sought out challenges and insisted on meaningful involvement. I saw what they gained from daily activities at home and how easily they could learn directly from people of all ages right in our community.

The ADD symptoms my third child exhibited at school were no longer present once we began homeschooling. The hurry-up days that roped my kids in from morning bus to evening homework were gratefully left behind. Instead we read books for hours, indulged in long-term science projects, went on adventures with friends, found role models in all sorts of fields, and let real learning unfold. The crisis that hurled my children out of school created a way of being far richer life than any of us could have imagined.

suddenly homeschooling, school versus homeschool, school violence,

(Image: artamusica.deviantart.com)

This piece originally appeared on Wired.

For A Fresher & Juicier Experience, Mix It Up!

This doesn’t bode well. I’ve been talked into a day-long workshop and I don’t know where to go.

There are two large conference rooms at the Cleveland Marriott. Their doors open across the hall from each other. There are also two different groups convening today, but someone has neglected to post signs at either one.

Now, to figure out which group is mine.

On one side waiters roll in carts of muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee. A tray of bright red strawberries passes tantalizingly close to me. I long to taste just one from the tray, but show uncharacteristic restraint due to the press of people entering that conference. Through those doors walk people who are impeccably dressed. Not only suits on the men but shined shoes, not only dresses on the women but elaborate hats. The attendees are all African-American.  I spy a few Bibles.  Seems to be an evangelical gathering of some sort.

On the other side there’s a lone table with water pitchers and glasses.  Folks are moseying in slowly. Their clothing is more diverse than their skin tone.  I spot Indonesian, African, and Japanese prints.  In front of me a man with long gray hair in a pony tail is saying something to a companion about “passing through a portal of enhanced energy.” I assume he is making an ironic comment about walking through such a blandly generic doorway, but he goes on to remark that this was the name of a workshop he’d attended in Phoenix recently.  Yup, this is my side of the hallway.

I find the friends who invited me and silently promise myself to sit still. (I’m not much for staying put.) Music starts, we sing, and I’m ready to have my consciousness raised.

I’ll give her this, the speaker is interesting.  She sets off my “Oh sheesh” meter a few times thanks to her quasi-scientific quantum physics references, but I already agree with what she’s saying. Each of us can be light workers who spread hope, and ultimately greater peace, through our daily words and actions.  We participate in group meditations, activating ourselves to take on greater responsibilities for uplifting others.  While not new, her message is certainly valuable.

But all that time we’re stuck in a meeting room. I don’t know how anyone can sit that long. I tend to wiggle and my mind wanders when my body is uncomfortable. I wonder how our brethren across the way are faring. When the fidgets get the best of me I excuse myself for a hallway ramble. I notice through open doors on the other side of the hall that those participants are also chair-bound, staring straight ahead with the glazed look that comes from hours of immobility.  Likely we are gathered in both conferences for similar purposes—-to enliven our spiritual lives and bring greater harmony to our bit of the planet.  And surely the experience is enriching.  But both meetings could be so much more if only we weren’t locked into a school-like format.

We humans learn as we make discoveries and face challenges. We learn by translating our experiences into story, song, art, into something created.  We learn through the wisdom of our bodies. We don’t learn as fully when passively sitting still and shutting up for long periods of time indoors. Opening conferences (and any educational venture) to more direct involvement lets the lessons sink in deeper, making whatever we’ve learned more easily applied in our real lives.

I’ve worked for years teaching non-violence techniques to teachers and community groups (and I hope making the workshop experience a lively one).  A key ingredient is finding common ground with those you perceive as dissimilar to yourself.  Connecting with others leads to rich possibilities.  The new combinations can be awesome.

Returning to my chair I can’t help but remember an old 80’s advertisement for candy.  Chocolate and peanut butter collide and find that together they are more delicious, creating a whole new confection that the world loves.

I imagine the doors to both conference rooms bursting wide open and the participants merging. Meditations combining with prayers.  Affirmations mixing with hymns. Our mutual dislike of sitting too long in these chairs turning into a joyous celebration that dances beyond the doors.  How much we all have to share with each other.

And yes, maybe I do imagine tasting those strawberries at last.

child

International Hosting: How Strangers Become Family

Children of Chernobyl, host a child,

Tanya’s portrait.

“It’s a decision of the heart.”

Director Patty Knable sat at our kitchen table interviewing my family as potential hosts for the Children of Chernobyl Project.  It had taken almost two years to get the Ohio branch of this non-profit to consider us (based in Youngstown, they preferred families nearby). I hoped we passed muster.

The Children of Chernobyl Project brought kids each year from contaminated areas in Belarus to stay for the summer with host families. Vast amounts of radiation were released in the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Radionuclides spread from the Ukraine across Europe, leaving 23 percent of the territory in Belarus highly contaminated. Food, water, even the dust exposed people to radiation. (It will continue to do so for countless generations.) The result? Much higher risks of cancers, genetic mutations, and other health problems. Getting kids out of that area for a few months each year to live with host families helped to boost their immune systems. We were told it had to do with eating uncontaminated food and getting medical care. Patty said extra happiness helped too.

I asked how she matched a child with a host family. She said it was hard to explain. She looked at the names of the children on her list, thought about the families who had applied, and let something past intuition guide her. “It’s amazing how it works out,” she said. “It’s a decision of the heart.”

A few weeks later we were told the little girl who would stay with us that summer was Tatiana, seven years old. We learned very little about her in advance other than she was an only child.

I knew she had to be a very brave little girl to travel thousands of miles away from home to stay with strangers, people who didn’t even speak her language. I knew her parents must be even braver. I wondered if I’d be able to muster the courage to send my children away if I were in the same situation. (Our home is closer to two nuclear power plants, along the shores of Lake Erie, than Tatiana’s family was to the ruined Chernobyl plant, so the consideration is important.) I’d long been driven to act in opposition to the splitting of the atom, but preparing to host this little girl felt entirely different than petitions and rallies and lobbying. It felt like simply extending a hand of friendship from our family to hers.

Finally the day arrived. We’d set up a bedroom for her with art supplies and puzzles, some new clothes, and simple wrapped gifts.  I’d ordered all sorts of Russian language kid’s books and audiotapes from the library. We’d hung a banner over the front porch with WELCOME in Cyrillic letters as well as English. And we’d prepared by learning Russian words and phrases. I even taped cheat sheets in the inside of cupboard doors so I could ask her questions like what she wanted for breakfast.

It was a long drive to the Youngstown airport, although nothing like the trip this little girl had been enduring. She’d been traveling with a group of other children and volunteers. The last leg of their trip would be in small aircraft flown by volunteer pilots. The tiny airport was aswirl with families welcoming kids returning for repeat visits. As each plane landed we stood at high fences watching their young passengers disembark. When seasoned host families,  carrying balloons and gifts, spotted a returning child they waved and screamed their names. Many planes landed before I saw a little girl with a honey-colored ponytail and a red baseball cap get off the plane. My heart leaped. I’d never seen a picture of her but I was sure this was our child.

When our names were finally called to the room where the children were waiting we were introduced to a different girl. Okay, I thought, my intuition was wrong. I knelt down to say privet to her. Just then she was pulled back by the volunteers, who apologized for the mix-up. Another girl was brought forward. The girl with the honey-colored hair and the red cap. Yes, my heart said, yes.

From the very first day this darling little girl’s personality shone brightly. She made it clear she preferred to be called “Tanya.” She told us, almost entirely through gestures, about her first plane ride by showing us that her seatmate Yulia cried for her Mama, that Yulia retched, that the stewardessa droned on in “angleesh.”

We thought we’d learned enough Russian to speak to her. We were wrong. But our pronunciation gave her something to laugh about, which helped. We spent a lot of time flipping through our illustrated Russian/English dictionary pointing and giggling at each other’s languages. My kids adored the Russian words she taught us (the belly button is called “poop”) and the Russian drinking songs she sang for us. That first night, thanks to library materials, we danced to the Hokey Pokey in Russian.

Tanya was horrified by my vegetarian meals, refused to participate in the activities my outdoor-loving children preferred, and let us know that she hadn’t traveled so far to live like a peasant. She wanted to be entertained!

Children of Chernobyl.

Amusing my new daughter from Belarus.

My scruples fell by the wayside. Like anthropologists to our own culture we explored shopping malls and tourist sites, went to amusement parks rather than wilderness areas, even bought some fast food meals. Tanya picked up English quickly. She displayed her brilliance in many other ways too, typically beating any of us at board games we’d played for years and she’d just learned.

She made friends in the neighborhood and particularly adored spending time with my daughter, her American sister. Her time here changed all of us, especially my four kids. She became a member of our family, a family that now joyfully extends to Belarus.

host a child, international hosting, homestay programs,

She stayed with us every summer until she turned thirteen.

That last summer she’d been hosted as many times as the program could allow. We did our best to stay in touch by sending letters as well as holiday and birthday gifts. We got a few letters back from her, each one ending with how much she loved and missed us and hoped we remembered her. Then those letters didn’t come any more. Finally she got computer access and got in touch. We learned she’d received none of our gifts the last few years and thought we’d forgotten her.

This year we managed to help her get a travel visa, not easy in a country like hers, and flew her here to stay with us. She’s a new university graduate now, a gracious and lovely young woman. She just left to return home few days ago. We can’t wait to visit her some day, to meet her parents and immerse ourselves in her culture. She’s a forever member of our family, a daughter of our hearts.

Children of Chernobyl, become a host, international hosting opportunities,

Our beloved Tanya, all grown up, enjoying one of our favorite restaurants.

Become a Host! 

I think we all need to love specific individuals in different places in the world instead of staying on our own little street corners. One way to do this is by hosting people in your home. You can do this informally, inviting far-off online friends or people you’ve met through other long-distance connections to stay if they come your way. There are also plenty of programs that bring people to your door, people who may very well become family to you in a short time. Here are a few ways.

Host a child:

There are many organizations with the name Children of Chernobyl operating in the UK, Canada, and the US, most with similar guidelines for hosting families.

Urban kids in the US are matched up with families living outside the city, where the kids stay for a week or two, via the Fresh Air Fund. This link is for the NYC program, but you may find one in your area. We hosted an engaging little boy through a similar Cleveland program, called Friendly Town, which no longer seems to be in operation. He came one summer, then a few weekends, but moved out of state before we could host him the next summer.

Exchange students are a lively way to connect. Some programs are short stay, others are a full school year. Check out well-established programs with support personnel in your area like American Field ServiceYouth for UnderstandingRotary Youth Exchange, or World Exchange. Friends of ours have hosted a high school student every year for the last 11 years. They stay in touch with these young people and their families, and have visited nearly every student in his or her home country.

Host an adult:

Check out groups you are affiliated with such as religious institution, charity, or club. Oftentimes these groups will need short term lodging for a speaker or visitor.

Welcome a visiting professional through the Fulbright Scholar Program. We know a retired couple who have opened their home for years to educators and researchers from dozens of countries around the world through this program.

Register with the AFS Intercultural Program to host young people performing community service or teachers doing foreign exchange service at a nearby school.

Sign up with the National Council for International Visitors. This organization connects visiting leaders from other countries to people in the community. You might welcome them for a meal, show them the highlights in your area, or host them for a few days.

Join Servas, the oldest of international exchange programs. You can serve as a day host or offer a homestay.

Growing Up Sarcastic & Self-Sufficient On The Farm

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Isabelle the cow. (Image: Claire Weldon)

“Come here Slug Weasel,” my daughter commands. Obediently her youngest brother does as she bids, helping her carry 50 pound bags of chicken feed to the barn on our little farm. They chat pleasantly on the way.

By pleasantly I mean he doesn’t just point out that her flip-flop clad feet are dirty. He says that they are festering toxic bacteria unknown to science and should be classified as biological weapons.

She doesn’t just notice he’s squinting, she pretends to worry about his sudden exposure to sunlight and insists that swiveling in a computer chair probably doesn’t afford him the musculature to carry more than the weight of his own hair. They laugh and talk all the way to the barn.  I smile in adoration.

I was raised to be quiet and deferential to others. (Fist-shake at outdated values.) Perhaps as a direct result, I wanted to insure that my own children felt free to be themselves. Homeschooling has given us that freedom. Natural learning and all sorts of friends serves as an antidote to cultural factors relentlessly trying to pressure young people into sameness.

There’s not much sameness going on here. My four offspring can fix old tractors, diagnose a chicken in respiratory distress, compose a bagpipe tune, design custom air cooling systems for computers, discuss the chytrid fungus currently decimating amphibian populations, randomly quote from old Futurama episodes, weld sculptures, and roast fantastically spicy potatoes. They get science on everything. They don’t, however, pay attention to fashion trends or celebrity gossip.

We’re all still in headlong pursuit of our interests. But now that everyone is older I’m left with wonderful memories of early learning, the kind that shifted easily between relaxation and adventure. We read for hours together sprawled on couches, managing to get out of pajamas and into clothes before lunch if we had places to go. My kids launched into ambitious projects, from building a trebuchet that propelled pumpkins across the pond to entering a national science contest that landed them prizes including a visit with an astronaut. Other equally ambitious ideas, like making a hovercraft, were more notable for their humorous failures. We gave homemade gifts that stemmed from woodworking, sewing and soldering projects. Other gifts, like a handmade theremin, were not as well received. We called exploding experiments “science,” invited everyone we knew for large-scale projects, threw strangely amusing parties, jaunted all over for concerts and plays, maxed out our library cards each week, hosted an international guest for six summers, and whenever possible learned directly from people who thrived on work they loved.

It’s not all in the realm of memory. My grown and nearly grown kids seek each other out for hours long discussions as well as weeks long backpacking trips. Conversation around the dinner table is a gallery of fervent opinions, esoteric interests, and very dry wit. I’m still smiling in adoration. Well, I’m also smiling because someone else carries all that chicken feed.

farm homeschooling, teen homeschooling,

Fowl demonstrating free ranging. (Image: Claire Weldon)

This post originally appeared on Radio Free School

Getting Science On Everything

raising scientists, toddler science, teen science, unschooling science, supporting kids' curiosity, science at home, science happens naturally,

crystals of vitamin B6 ( CC by 3.0 Josef Reischig)

 We spread thick layers of science on everything at our house. Yes, occasionally it smells.

Sometimes our science-y obsessions are entirely nonsense, such as a typical dinner table conversation about how many citrus batteries it might take to start a car. Ideas were proposed for this never-to-occur project, including the use of lemon juice instead of whole fruit.

Sometimes that science is pseudo-educational, such as the time we swabbed between our toes and let the bacteria grow in petri dishes. The “winner’s” dish had such virulent growth that she felt sure it deserved to live. She gave it a name and tried feeding it extra glucose and agar. It quite effectively kept her siblings out of her room. I insisted she throw it away when it began creeping past the lid. I am still blamed for the demise of this biological fright.

encouraging young scientists, love of science starts early,

Sometimes it goes on and on. My offspring seem driven to find out. They can’t spot a spider without observing it, wanting to identify it, and then going on about the hydraulic features that are basic arachnid operating equipment. Then there was a certain months-long project that involved observing and sketching the decomposition of a muskrat. They have to discuss all possible angles of a problem, often in such depth that my far more superficial mind drifts off. They tend to walk into a room announcing odd factoids which invariably leads to strange conversations about recently de-classified Russian research, turbo charged engines, or riparian ecology. Or all three. They insist I look at video clips that go on much longer than my attention span. Woe to me if I question a postulate put forth by one of my kids. They will entertain my doubts playfully, as a cat toys with a mouse, then bombard me with facts proving their points. Lots of facts. I’ve tried to uphold my side in science disputes but it’s like using a spork to battle a light saber.

making math relevant, raising young scientists,

Other family homes probably have video game controllers. Our house has stacks of books and periodicals (who took the neutrino issue of New Scientist, someone yells); tubs overflowing with one son’s beakers, tubing, and flasks; culturing products in the kitchen (like the jar with a note that says “Leave me alone, I am becoming sauerkraut”); and random sounds of saws, welders, and air compressors as something entirely uncommon is being constructed or deconstructed. I know other families have nice normal pictures on their refrigerators. Ours tends to post odd information. The longest-running fridge feature here is a card listing the head circumference of every person in the family. By the time the youngest was 11, my head was the smallest.

And then there’s the front yard. By the garage door a headstone leans. It has nothing to do with Halloween. Our youngest is teaching himself stone carving using hand tools. This stemmed from his interest in ancient Norse language and myth and lifestyles. That led to a study of runes, leading to old runic carvings, well, you get the idea. He’s already carved runes in a few stones. So of course his brother got him a headstone as a birthday gift. Entirely natural. Also in the yard, a giant sculpture another son welded out of scrap metal. He’s never taken a welding course, or an art course for that matter. No problem. He measured his own limbs to translate into the correct human form. He thought it was funny to make it a two-fisted drinker. I’m plotting to put a trumpet in one of the metal man’s hands so it looks like a rowdy jazz player. And recently my daughter spent the afternoon in front of the house cleaning an entire deer skeleton she found in our woods. She was entirely happy identifying bones, scrubbing, and assembling it into the likeness of a very hungry  deer. Maybe our front yard is why our mail carrier seems a little wary.

raising scientists, natural curiosity makes scientists,

Science shouldn’t be confined to a formal study. My husband and I have never worked in science fields. But we’ve found that keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of “yes.” Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever widening curiosity. In our family this process of discovery-to-mastery started early.

When my oldest was just a baby he was horrified by vacuums. Even the sight of one made him scream with This Will Kill Me volume. So we let him learn he could control the “off” and “on” switch. His horror turned to fascination, leading him toward ever greater curiosity, heading in all sorts of directions.

When my daughter was barely able to walk, around 11 months old, she was fascinated by the stones at the end of our driveway. Day after day she wanted to toddle close to the street just to pick up those stones. It occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to satisfy her curiosity than to keep saying no and turning her back toward the house. So she and I went there together and sat in those stones. She was enthralled. I marveled at all the different ways she chose to experience them. Holding, dropping, picking up one at a time then picking up handfuls, handing them to me and taking them back, rubbing the smooth ones and, once I showed her, holding them up to the light. Sometimes she’d raise a stone to her mouth, then shake her head, reminding herself that stones weren’t for eating. Once or twice a stone did touch her lips. The result? I told her we were all done, picked her up, and went back to the safety of the lawn near the house. She remembered. I let her investigate stones day after day until she was done, her desire to know satisfied.

When one of my boys was three he was entranced by the lighters and matches his grandmother used to light her cigarettes. Since she lived with us and on occasion unintentionally left those fire generating devices out, his intense curiosity concerned me. He knew that children shouldn’t touch anything that makes fire, but he was so intensely curious and active (I’ve already described his chimpanzee-like abilities as a toddler) that I knew it was a matter of time before her forgetfulness might collide with his need for some hands-on experience. So, explaining this was only okay to do with an adult, I stood him on a stool at a sink full of water, letting him light match after match to drop in the water. He was a little afraid. His fingers were almost singed a few times. He also conquered the fascination with flame that compelled him to disobey. He asked a few times over a period of months to do this again. Then he was done. Warming about danger doesn’t have the same effect as a child getting close enough to know that matches do burn but can be conquered in the presence of a parent.

Some experiments shouldn’t have happened.  One of my little boys quietly carved a small hole in the drywall of his closet, then attempted to spackle it with the unlikely combination of toothpaste covered by an ostrich feather he’d saved from a field trip. We didn’t discover it until we were emptying that closet as he packed for college. We still laugh about that one.

My kids are much more science-savvy than I’ll ever be, but more importantly, they’re capable of discovering anything they want to know.

When Toys Attack

toys hate us, scared by toys, playthings attack,

Be afraid, be very afraid. (Image: puuikibeach’s photostream)

Not long ago, I wrote about a child who is growing up without any purchased toys. His childhood is remarkably rich. I’ve never been all that high-minded myself. The sheer volume of Lego bricks contained in my home is proof. I also take a childlike delight in ridiculous toys. In fact, I still glow with pride at finding a bagpipe figure to give my bagpipe-playing son. It’s decked out with authentic looking kilt, sporran, and pipes but the real thrill is the button that makes it emit a better-than-whoopie-cushion sounding fart.

But when I look at it from a toy’s point of view, being a plaything probably isn’t all fun and games. First the strain of adoration in the form of grabby little hands and screams of “mine” followed, inevitably, by weeks or months of inattention. Not every toy ends up as The Velveteen Rabbit. No wonder toys have a tendency to get back at us.

You’ve experienced this. A Barbie turns up on the passenger seat in an awkward naked pose just when you offer to give your boss a ride. Lego bricks are suddenly underfoot when you have bare feet. The stuffed animal with Velcro paws that no longer hold what they’re supposed to somehow snags your one good silk shirt. Who among us hasn’t been a victim of toy retaliation?

Here are a few of my Revenge of the Toy tales and where they attacked.

Garage

I’m easily startled. That’s an understatement. I’ve been known to push a cart at the market, lost in my own reverie, only to leap up gasping in alarm when I’m surprised in the aisle by nothing more than another shopper passing by. (My reaction is pretty alarming to the other person too.) So it’s probably natural that I do everything I can to keep myself from being startled.

Anyway, one evening not long after we’d moved to our rural home, there was an extended clattering in our attached garage. It sounded distinctly like a team of burglars, maybe kidnappers, heading toward our interior door. The door with no lock on it. My sleeping husband wasn’t concerned. “Go see what made the noise if you’re worried,” he said in response to being shaken awake. A man who gets up to defend his wife against intruders is one of the basic bargains of marriage, I thought bitterly as I crept through the house, turning on lights as I always do to keep myself from being startled.

Then I stood by the garage door listening, wondering if bad guys were on the other side, also listening. No sound. It took me a few moments to work up the courage to open the door and survey the garage, phone ready to dial 911 in hand. Over the sound of my pounding heart I could see what had happened. The giant rack with hooks we’d put up to hang outdoor toys was halfway off the wall and toys had dropped onto the floor. Seconds after I opened the door, the rest of the rack gave way. The sound of plummeting toys was nothing compared to my startled shriek. I slammed the door and made my way back through the house, zigzagging to turn off lights. I tripped on a cluster of plastic dinosaurs as I passed the kitchen and suddenly our cat leaped full-bodied onto the screen with a yowl. I shrieked again. Last light finally off, I made it back to bed realizing no one had investigated my cries of alarm.

We never hung the rack back up. I was pretty sure the toys considered it a method of torture.

Airport

We had a toy called The Insultinator which, as you might imagine, spewed mild insults such as, “You’re a gross slimy weasel” at the press of a button. Yes, I bought it. I’m so easily amused that I bought another and gave it to friends as a perfectly relevant wedding anniversary gift. Their son discovered it a few years later and couldn’t be parted with it, which explains why it was in his carry-on as the family went through airport security.

When he put the bag on the conveyor, the thing went off. Suddenly the guards could hear someone saying, “You’re a giant ugly obnoxious jerk.” With stern faces they pulled the bag off the conveyor. That joggled the toy again, and it said, “You’re the ultimate big sloppy loser.” It took several explanations just to get permission to take The Insultinator out of the bag. The whole line behind them backed up as various security officials kept pushing the buttons to make each other laugh.

Sadly, this toy went out of production some time in the 90’s.

Bedroom.

My husband and I were lying in bed one night after I’d just nursed our baby to sleep. We heard a faint and intermittent scratching sound on, or was it in, the wall under our window. Because the baby was sleeping in a bassinette right next to our bed we kept asking, “Did you hear that?” in the quietest whispers we could manage. After we confirmed that we weren’t imagining it, we couldn’t sleep. As you know, once you attune to an annoyance it becomes vastly more annoying. We eliminated possible causes like tree branches (weren’t any) and heating system (wasn’t on). My husband and I both slipped out of bed in the dark room, crawling along the floor with our ears to the wall. Whenever we did, there was no sound. Once back in bed it started up again. We decided it had to be a mouse or squirrel trapped in the wall. That made it worse.

I couldn’t help but imagine those desperate scrabbling little paws, the frantic black beads of the small creature’s eyes. “Back up,” I said to it with my sleep-addled mind, as if I could send it thought-messages. “Breathe out to make yourself small.”

The man I loved next to me clearly wasn’t on the same page. “It’s trapped,” he whispered. “It’s going to die in the wall and stink up the place. I should kill it now.” He discussed various methods of death and extraction while I, in a heightened emotional state of postpartum exhaustion, decided I’d married the wrong man. It was suddenly obvious I’d vowed to spend my life with some kind of monster. Using poor judgment, I shared that thought with him. Then we lay awake, me weeping with sorrow in the quietest way possible and he fuming.

In the morning we discovered the real source of the sound. Our son’s remote control car was under a rocking chair in our room, right next to the window. Intermittently it picked up enough random radio signal to scoot back and forth slightly, scraping the antennae against the wooden chair seat. The creature that threatened our marriage didn’t exist.

Yeah, we felt silly.

You know I want to hear your stories.

Politeness Recovery In Progress

 

politeness recovery, good girl syndrome, kind versus nice,

deskridge.deviantart.com

Politeness is the dodo bird of our times. No one is quite sure what killed off civility but it’s obvious that two-year-olds aren’t growing out of tantrums or a sense of entitlement. Instead they just get bigger, becoming toddler adults. They drive like idiots, foster workplace stress, simultaneously overindulge and ignore their own kids, feed on the negative energy of angry pundits, and blame everyone else for their own problems. They need to learn a little empathy, or at least the rudiments of feigned empathy we call politeness.

But some of us are way on the other side of the spectrum. We’re so empathetic that we tremble with concern for the feelings of other people. And animals. And plants. (I even tremble with empathy for spiders.) It wouldn’t occur to us to put ourselves first or to act rudely (although my good intentions may come across as annoying, just ask my family).

Some may have been hardwired this way from birth. The rest of us were trained to be too polite for our own good. Right around the time we started crawling we were taught to be respectful and considerate at all times. No exceptions. If asked how we are, we learned the answer should always be affirmative followed by a kindly inquiry about the other person. Never mention any peril you may be in, the object is to focus on others. This means if you’re bleeding, you deny there’s any real problem (oh it’s nothing), don’t bleed conspicuously, and God forbid, don’t complain about whatever caused you to bleed. If you are offered a favor, graciously decline. Even if it’s chocolate. If someone is actively causing you difficulty, either put up with it without complaint or extricate yourself in a way that doesn’t embarrass the other person.

Maintaining this level of politeness rarely leads to an authentically lived life. It’s more like an affliction. We do our best to avoid winning games, getting the best grades, pushing ahead at work, sticking up for ourselves, saying what we mean unless it’s “nice.”  Being too polite actually put me in dangerous situations more than once. Nice at all costs has got to go. Kind, yes. Honest, yes. Nice, not always.

Politeness recovery is a slow process and often difficult. It’s complicated because I’m naturally opinionated, sardonic, and forthright. And sometimes silly. Suppressing that side of myself has never been easy. But I’m not giving up my polite side by any means. Politeness is essential if we’re to live together in any kind of harmony. I’ve found genuine politeness has a surprising way of bringing out the best in other people. It presumes they are basically good (a core principle of non-violence) and many times, that’s all that required. (Now, if only that principle were applied on talk radio and in snarky web threads.)

More importantly, I want to be authentic. Treating people with respect and understanding simply feels right. It comes from true compassion, far richer than any thin soup of poor self-worth. The generosity and love of kindness stimulates more of the same.

I aim to give up only the parts of my Good Girl upbringing that hold me back from my eventual goal of becoming a rowdy old lady. My politeness recovery is still ongoing but my friends are amazing role models. They’re well ahead, evolving before my eyes. Some days I’m swimming in the muck, other days I join them on land. I’m often awkward, occasionally splattering mud as I go, but I’m a creature in progress trying to be polite as well as real, empathetic as well as centered, serious but silly too. Like a dodo bird who hasn’t given up on her wings.

 

Pride Goes Before Tiny Bite Marks

prideful parents, mom's downfall, don't take credit for your kids, my child bites,

I don’t take credit for my children’s many accomplishments. They are their own remarkable people.

As a new mother I didn’t have this quite figured out. Yes, I knew that babies arrive on this planet with all sorts of traits wired in. I knew it’s up to us to gently nurture them, shelter them from harm (including the damage cynicism can do), allow them to take on challenges, help them learn to trust themselves, and let learning unfold in delight.

But I had a few early years when I thought, probably with obnoxious smugness, that my wonderful parenting had something to do with how well my kids were turning out. They were very young and so was I.

My oldest, a boy, was thoughtful and clever. He liked to take my face between his little hands and call me every superlative he could think of like“dear, sweet, wonderful Mama. (Isn’t this positively swoonable?) He rescued insects from the sidewalk, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he picked up from one of his favorite picture books. When his father and I tried to talk over our little one’s head about issues we thought he shouldn’t hear, we used Shakespearean language to obscure our meaning. We had to stop, because our toddler began regularly using words like “doth” and “whence.”  What made things work fascinated this little boy, from the bones in our bodies to the engine in our cars, and he insisted on learning about them.

My next child, a daughter, was assertive and talented. She drew, danced, and sang made-up songs of such pure wonder that, I kid you not, birds clustered in trees near her. The force of personality in that tiny girl led us all to laugh at her improbable jokes and enter into her complicated realms of make-believe. Born into a home without pets, her drive to be close to animals was so intense that she kept trying to make worms her friends. Entirely due to her persistence we ended up with several pets by the time she was three.

Although our beautiful little children had medical problems, we had money problems, and other crises kept popping up I felt as if I lived in paradise each day. There’s something remarkable about seeing the world anew through the eyes of the planet’s most recent inhabitants. It’s like using an awe-shaped lens.

But I still had a lot to learn about parenting.

I recall being quietly horrified at a Le Leche League meeting when one toddler bit another. I thought about it for days, wondering what parenting might create such an impulsive child. All the parenting books I read, all the non-violence courses I taught, assured me there was a right way. Of course my comeuppance would arrive.

My third child was born soon after. This endearing, curious, and constantly cheerful little boy possessed relentless energy. Evidence? I’ve got evidence.

  • By the time he was 14 months old we had to twine rope around all the chairs, lashing them to the table between meals, otherwise this diapered chap would drag a chair across the room to climb on top of furniture in the few seconds it took me to fill a teakettle.
  • Before he could say more than a few words he’d learned to slide open our windows, unclip the safety latches on the screens, and toss the screens to the ground. 
  • He liked to grab the hand vacuum for experiments on his sister’s hair, houseplants, and other normally non-suckable items.
  • He watched with fascination as drips from his sippy cup fell into heat vents, the hamster cage, the pile of laundry I was folding.
  • He liked to take off all his clothes and climb on the windowsill facing the street, hooting like a giddy chimpanzee as he danced in naked glee.
  • We had no idea he could climb out of his crib till the evening he opened all the wrapped Christmas presents I had hidden in my room (keeping them safe from him) while we thought he was in bed. The look of complete joy on his face nearly made up for the hours of work it took me to rewrap.

I found myself making up new rules I never thought I’d utter, like:

“I know throwing is faster but we carry things down the stairs.”

We never run with straws up our noses.”

“Don’t poop in Daddy’s hat!”

He became a little more civilized by the time he was three, but not, as you might imagine, before he bit a few children.

Utterly besotted by the bright-eyed charm and endless curiosity of this dear little boy, I never suspected the labels doctors and schools so easily affix on non-conformist kids might be slapped on my child.  I never realized how much he would teach me about what real motivation and learning look like. And I never imagined how much he’d show me about what it means to pursue success on one’s own terms.

Today he is one accomplished young man, in part because he continues to see the world through an awe-shaped lens. And I am still learning from the four remarkable people who came to this world as my children.

Talking During Recess

childhood lies, teacher punishment, child's honestly, truth and lies in childhood, second grade punishment,

collage by L.G. Weldon

“That’s not true,” the girl behind me said in a singsong voice. “You’re lying.”

I turned around and shook my head, hoping she wouldn’t attract the teacher’s attention. Judy’s hair was unkempt and dirty. Maybe her mother didn’t love her enough to take good care of her. I knew I should feel sorry for her, but Judy was as nasty as she smelled.

Rain rolled down the windows during indoor recess. Our second grade classroom was a neat rectangle except for the jutting wall where the door fit in. I preferred symmetry. At seven years of age, my mother’s mindset formed neat geometric spaces in my head. I adhered to her categories: clean and dirty, right and wrong, bad people and good people, truth and lies. Well, I had some trouble with the truth.

My mother often said that she loved us more than any words could say. She told us no one tried harder to have children than she did. Then she would tell us how many babies she had lost in order to have us.

Lost. The word resounded throughout my body.

When I was very small I worried that I too would be lost, as I often was in the grocery store. When I understood that her babies had died before they were born it didn’t help. My mother talked about the lost babies to express her love for us. She went through eleven pregnancies to have a family with three living children. I did the math. My brother, sister and I were conceived because those babies died. I tried talking to my sister about it once but she didn’t understand.

“They weren’t even people yet,” she told me. “They were probably smaller than a minnow. Don’t get all weird about it.”

But they were people to my mother. And to me.

Sitting at our desks during indoor recess, vying for attention, I casually mentioned to my friends, Jennifer and Stephanie and Julie, that I would have had a big family but lots of the babies died. I knew this wasn’t really true. My parents planned to have three kids, they just wouldn’t have had me. I also knew it was wrong to make family grief into a public tale even if it gave me momentary thrill of popularity.

“Oh, the poor babies,” Jennifer said.

“How many babies?” Stephanie wanted to know.

“Lots,” I said. “Eight babies.” I knew I’d gone too far.

Judy overheard, and she piped up, “I’m telling Mrs. Lauver.”

I felt my fate as tightly sealed as the braids my mother lovingly bound in colors to match my dress. I was in trouble.

After the tattletale got to her, Mrs. Lauver called me up to her desk. My knees trembled when she paid attention to me. I was a good student, but sometimes my teacher called me names and then pointed out that I was blushing. We had moved the year before and rules from my last school, such as rising when called upon, had been hard for me to break for the first week. Mrs. Lauver called me a “jumping jack” and punished me when I didn’t stop standing up right away. That started it. It seemed she was always after me.

But this time I’d brought it on myself.

Everyone watched as I walked up to the front of the room. No one got called up to the teacher’s desk during indoor recess. The teacher normally had that time off, sitting with her friends in the smoke-filled lounge, so she tended to ignore us and read a thick paperback at her desk, her chair turned slightly away from the class as if we weren’t her responsibility. We honored that inattention by keeping the hubbub down. After recess she would read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to us.  She always threatened that if we got too loud she might deny us that privilege and go right to social studies.

I went up to Mrs. Lauver’s desk as slowly as possible. Anxiety made my senses acute. I could smell the awful geraniums she kept on the windowsill, their brown sickly leaves rotting away. I could feel my classmates’ eager curiosity—-cartoon watchers waiting for the silly wabbit to be shot. As I got closer I could see where the teacher’s too tight sleeveless dress cut into her flesh, the frighteningly hard texture of her hair and the orange-hued makeup on her face. I wanted my mother badly. Her dresses were loose, her hair soft, her face never anything like my teacher’s.

I should have been planning what to say, but a liar sticks to the story, sometimes makes it worse. I made it worse. I stood at the desk, unsure of what to do with my hands that twisted the ends of my braids. I insisted that our family did have lots of children once but they died.

“Oh, and how did that happen?” She had a tight smile on her face.

I thought about it.

I saw them inside my head, my unknown brothers and sisters. They would have been older than me. If they had lived, I would not have been born. To me, their deaths felt like a gift and a burden. Standing there at Mrs. Lauver’s desk I saw their lives pass without breath in the darkness of water, waves breaking over their heads in the distance. I could almost see their faces. So I said simply, “They drowned.”

Despite further questions I couldn’t get another word out.

“I’m calling your mother,” the teacher said. “We’ll see what she has to say .”

That awful outcast’s land. Wanting one’s mama, but being in trouble. Now how could I rush home to a welcoming hug when I would encounter anger? My stomach folded up and I had to remember what my face was supposed to look like the rest of the afternoon.

After school there was a scene. My mother said that only bad people were liars. Liars grow up to commit crimes and go to jail. Over and over she asked, “Just tell me, why would you make up such an awful story?

All I could answer was, “I don’t know.”

I didn’t. What I said about the lost babies couldn’t be explained. I took my spanking and went to my room. My parents had a conversation later and came up with a punishment—write an apology to my teacher for lying. My notebook paper was filled with carefully printed words, but they were just shapes. I didn’t feel anything I’d written.

When I stood there in front of Mrs. Lauver that afternoon I was being honest. I told her what I saw. A child may not have words for what she knows even on the day she begins to understand that there are no neat categories for truth and lies.

I haven’t forgotten those lost babies. I hope I live as a testament to the joys they never knew, like telling stories true as our shared DNA.

Googling Gooey Butter

online interfering with off-line, memories without internet,

Does the net affect our memories? Yes, but maybe not the way we think it does.

My sister and I were talking on the phone about one of the family trips we took as children. Our schoolteacher father and our stay-at-home mother hitched a tiny travel trailer up to the car to take their children to as many educational sites as possible each summer. That they managed months-long trips with two often squabbly girls and our toddler brother was remarkable. That they kept to a necessarily minuscule budget, even more so. They did this by never once buying prepared food of any kind. Every day at lunchtime we ate sandwiches on store brand white bread washed down with not-too-cold fruit drink, then got back in the car to keep driving. My mother cobbled together every evening meal using two aluminum pans, washing those pans and our plastic plates in a shoebox-sized sink. To me, an ungrateful and hermit-y little girl prone to motion sickness, these trips were a sort of educational hell.

Thankfully, one of our stops was in St. Louis to visit with my father’s only brother and his family. After weeks in a cramped trailer and even more cramped car, it was wonderful to spend the night sleeping in a roomy basement with cousins we hadn’t seen in years. We were even allowed to babysit ourselves while our parents went out to a restaurant. The adults brought us a rare treat, McDonalds, and we stayed up late talking and laughing. We showed our cousins how to draw grids on notebook paper to play Battleship. They showed us new card games. The next morning our aunt purchased some kind of St. Louis specialty for breakfast. Growing up in a household where doughnuts and store-bought cakes never crossed the threshold, this was unimaginable luxury. My sister and I remembered the sweet sticky coffee cake but not its unusual name.

After I got off the phone with her I got online to look it up. I got waylaid by flood warnings for St. Louis, so I checked maps to see if the water was rising by my uncle’s house. Then I was distracted by an article about pharmaceutical residue found in waterways. And of course I got sidelined by emails with editing questions, new article deadlines, some G chats that pleasantly used up too much time. Totally forgot my initial quest.

The next morning I saw the note I’d scribbled while talking to my sister. This time I vowed to focus for the few seconds necessary to Google it. I found the name of the confection almost immediately. It’s called Gooey Butter. I fussed around reading about how the cake is based on a baker’s mistake made back in the 1930’s and how customers swear allegiance to specific variations sold by different stores in St. Louis. I even looked at a few images, although none of them looked nearly as enticing as the cake I remember. Then I scrolled over to recipes. I was disappointed to note that nearly every one started with a yellow cake mix. I closed those screens sadly. I meant to email my sister the name of the cake but I’m pretty sure I instantly got caught up in the time flush that happens online. Probably never got around to it.

I realize with uncomfortable clarity that slurping up information online does little to deepen our experiences.  It would have been better to leave the cake unnamed in our memories, held on unfamiliar plates as we clustered around a vinyl tablecloth listening to our aunt say, “You’ve never had anything like it” while we tried the first sweet bite.

I succeeded in finding links to scratch recipes. Here’s the cream cheese version and the non-cream cheese version. I made the cream cheese version for my family, marginally healthier with organic ingredients. And if you ask someone who hails from St. Louis, be careful to avoid expressing your Gooey Butter preferences. Chances are, theirs are much more fervent. 

Good Butter, home version.