Sunday, September 30, 2012

Electric battles

The lights went out.


They came back on.


Then out they went again.


For a while the dance studio flickered between light and dark in rapid fire, followed closely by jeers or cheers, until eventually the darkness won the electric battle.

But this was no disco. It was the wind and rain duking it out over encroaching fall. The class continued in the dusky light, without music, until even the dancers' shadows disappeared into the darkness.

“I'm sorry, girls. I'll have to cancel class,” says the teacher. “But don't worry … we'll make it up over vacation,” she soothes.

Such is the excitement of a new school year: Dance class and gymnastics, soccer and 4-H, parties and play dates. Not to mention, headaches.

“Homework comes first,” I scold, angry at myself for agreeing to this crazy schedule I slated.

“I will not hound you,” I hound her. “If you don't finish your homework there will be no dance class. There will be no gymnastics. There will be no soccer.”

She stares at me with the glare-y eyeball. But says nothing.

She finishes her homework and hands it over, disappearing into the mess she calls her room.

“I can't find my ballet shoes,” she hollers.

“I know where your dance shoes are but you need to redo questions 3, 7 and 12.”

“What's wrong with them?”

“You tell me,” I tap my finger on the offending worksheet.

She “harrumphs” and bonelessly collapses into the chair.

She's mad at me. She doesn't like to be wrong. She likes being called into question even less. I can understand, but her reaction irritates me all the same.

“I don't want to be the heavy, but you know homework comes first … and I'm not going to harangue you …

She scribbles over the answers and draws lines indicating where she should have placed the numbers.

“Not. Good. Enough. It's too confusing. Do it right.”

She hates me right now – I don't really blame her, I hate myself right now, too – but she erases the marks with a furiousness that threatens to tear the paper and starts again.

“There. It's fixed.”

Haranguing continues.

“... Just check your work.”

It's always about who gets the last, exasperated word.

She shrugs her shoulders.

“It's in the car. … your dance stuff is in the car, you didn't bring it in from last week. Let's go.”

“This is our future,” I think to myself as she quietly puts on her seatbelt and waits for me to turn on the radio. Right now she wants to hear “her songs,” but soon it will be the wall of noise between us so we can just hear ourselves think.

Once we arrive at the dance studio, she flits in as light as air. I lumber in behind her, still weighed down by the guilt of frustration and anger and knowing that I will stew in those juices for the next hour.

Until the lights went out.

And came back on.

And went out again.

And then she was standing before me, with her dance bag slung over her shoulder. Smiling.

“Aren't you glad I did my homework already?”

“More than you can imagine.”

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Putting away childish things

Sadly, trips to the toy store with Ittybit rarely end in purchases these days. There's no begging, no bartering, no badgering for inventory. Playthings have become passe.

Barbies are bundled (all of them naked with horror-show hair) under her bed. Littlest Pet Shops are neatly crated in her closet, categorized by creature. Calico Critters have been left to forage for themselves in the old abandoned doll house.

Over the summer (and practically overnight) Ittybit has moved from the dark ages of intrinsically childish things into the mezmerizing bluish-white light of their technological replacement. 

Yes, yes. She wants an iPad.

And she's discovered (through the experience of a more tech-savvy friend) a way to get one: If she earns the money for half of the cost, her parents will most likely see the vast benefits of paying for the other half.

She gets her iPad and we get a kid who takes initiative and follows through.

Not a bad deal, right?

Certainly not considering Ittybit already has $160 in savings from birthday presents, Tooth Fairy visits and two summers' worth of lemonade stand sales. 

Of course her next birthday is still months away, and with precious few wiggly teeth left, she sees the conundrum: What's a girl of eight to do to earn money?

"Laundry," I suggested.

Her eyes lit up.

"Really? For money?"

"Sure, if you do our laundry, too."

"How much will you pay me?"

"Twenty-five cents to wash and dry and fifty cents to fold and put away each load."

"That's seventy-five cents a load."

It seemed the perfect amount: large enough to attract her as an employee; small enough to keep the actual iPad purchase from happening before Christmas; and odd enough that she will have to brush up on her math skills keeping track.  ... Which will be my bonus as I entrust the delicates and shrinkables to the novice, who will, no doubt, need hours of in-house training services to ensure our whites aren't tinted with pink and our floors aren't flooded with soap suds.

Surprisingly, the experiment has gone well.

Not only has she proven a competent and enthusiastic laundress, but she's also been quite meticulous in her accounting.

"I did three loads of laundry ... That's $2.25 ... plus another $.50 for the laundry YOU left in the dryer that I folded and put away ... so that's $2.75."

Perhaps a little too meticulous.

"Two-dollars and seventy-five cents ...hmmm ... at this rate it will take me 20 weeks to earn enough money for the iPad."

I see her mind churning.

"I can clean my room. ...

"I can clean YOUR room ...

"I can do dishes ...

"I will clean all the bathrooms ...

I have a better idea. ... "Just clean YOUR room and put all the toys you no longer play with in a box for the town-wide yard sale. The money you make selling things you don't want can pay for things you do want."

The look on her face told me her entrepreneurial skills may not be quite up to that task just yet. But of course, what she says shows her entrepreneurial skills have already surpassed mine:

"I have a better idea. You sell your old stuff and I'll sell lemonade. The profit margin is better."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Teacher envy

I can just imagine the conversations that have taken place over dinner tables across the country last week as members of the Chicago Teachers' Union dropped their class planners to walk the picket lines.

Teachers -- who have been tearing at their hair trying to juggle more of everything: More students, more test requirements, more political assaults against their entire profession – are probably watching with great lumps in their throats, hoping beyond hope that what this union has to teach will not be wasted on the electorate.

They can not be the scapegoats of a system gone awry.

It's quite an obstacle to overcome. Those who feel, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel evidently does, that the strike is the result of union-bloated educators choosing to extend their beach time by flexing their collective muscles and kicking sand in the faces of innocent children and beleaguered parents, are a vocal bunch who tend to weigh consequences with a thumb on the scale.

Take for instance Dr. Stephen Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a Connecticut specialty school within the Hartford Public Schools system, whose complaint on Twitter Monday was repeated more than 1,000 times in 24 hours:

The Average Chicago teacher makes over $70,000 for a 5.5 hour workday, 183 year, 20 paid days off, 14 wks vacation @ they're striking? Wow.”

On the surface, and coming from a principal of a seemingly successful magnet school, the criticism seems appropriate. Take away the master's degrees and PhDs and for sure $70K sounds like a lot. Especially when, for so many people in this country, wages have been stagnant, jobs have been scarce, security is precarious and fewer and fewer people enjoy the protections of a union.

Who wouldn't be envious?

But I don't necessarily find it hard to argue with Dr. Perry's logic: For instance, I don't know any full-time teacher who puts in only a 5.5-hour workday. Instead I know teachers who prepare classrooms and lesson plans and enrichment as well as correct homework well after the bell has released their students. I know teachers who have purchased school supplies for those who had none and gone out of their way to figure out solutions to other problems as well. For sure I've known bad teachers, too. But more so I've known teachers with increasing class sizes, decreasing numbers of classroom aides and an ever widening chasm of aptitudes.

And now they're being judged on an arbitrary number – Student test scores.

Perry's own credentials seemingly boast the primrose path of achieving excellence simply by expecting excellence.

His school's website touts an impressive 100-percent graduation rate, including a 100-percent four-year-college acceptance rate. Some may say that's easy to do when your graduating class is only a tiny fraction of the district as a whole.

And in Chicago, the third largest school district in the country, class sizes can get pretty big – take a kindergarten class with a student/teacher ratio of 43 to 1. (New York Times).

I actually stopped breathing for a second when I read that figure.

Capital Prep's class ratios are considerably smaller. More like 18 to 1 from what I could figure.

In fact, I can't imagine more than 40 primary school students in one classroom with one teacher. I've tried. It ends in chaos.

I think about my son's kindergarten class and double it. I try to calculate all the problems you'd expect to find with new learners: There are four-year-olds as well as young five-year-olds; there are those who've never been to preschool and those who can't focus let alone follow directions. Those who don't speak the language are also counted. I move on to all the things I don't want to calculate: Kids whose families might be food insecure or homeless; or who are dealing with custody orders, orders of protection, alcoholism, drug addiction or abuse … not to mention all the surprises the teacher might learn as the year progresses.

In our case, things like refusing to walk on the ground when it rains … lest their shoes become squeaky.

In Chicago teachers deal with all these and worse. Murdered students.

Honestly, I don't envy teachers.

Perhaps policymakers shouldn't either.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Tick-tock, watch the clock

The yellow bus pulled away from the curb after swallowing up my children.

I checked the time, my eyes stinging but dry. It was 8:35 a.m.

The Champ had climbed up and disappeared, followed by his sister, who took a moment or four to catch up with her beloved bus driver.

Neither looked back.

It had felt like forever and an instant until the bus closed its doors.

I had an undeniable urge to run to the house, gather all the kindergarten preparatory books in our collection – you know the ones that remind newly minted students to remember mom might be sad they are going off and leaving her – douse them in kerosene and light a match.

They never looked back.

I shook the notion out of my head and tried to refocus my eyes on the bus as it rumbled forward.

Their dad was waving, first at the place upfront where we assumed The Champ would be seated and then at the very last window, where, through the tinted glass, we could see Ittybit all smiles and self possession. She was finally the Big Kid at the Back of the Bus.

“Are you OK,” he asked me.

“Oh, shush,” I said waving away his offered embrace. “Do you want me to cry?”

Only the dog, straining against her leash, was outwardly bereft.

Where are my people going? Why didn't we go, too? Are they coming back?”

Sure. It sounded more like: “Wrrrooown. Broughhhhh, arrrrrrrrrooooooooo.” But I knew what she meant. I had known this day was coming and yet I hadn't filled my schedule with anything beside waiting for the bus to return.

My husband went back to work. The dog and I went back to the house. And waited.

In silence. Eerie, echoing silence.

9 a.m.

This probably wasn't the wisest thing to do,” I told the dog as I put the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher and scanned the room for more things that needed doing. She just glared at me.

Even she knows there's always something that needs doing.

You know ...” she sniffed. “If you hadn't gotten those dog-proof toilet paper dispensers I would have made us a party complete with confetti.”

She's really not much help.

I collected trash, laundry and dishes abandoned throughout the house. The things I started got finished. The things I straightened stayed in place.

The dog just watched me, head low. Moaning now and again at my apparent lack of concern for her children. “I don't even feel like shredding any of their toys,” she wailed in despair.

She slunk off to the window where she could see the bus stop while I swept the mountain of multi-colored papers off the dinning room table into the recycling bin. I wasn't entirely sure I'd read all of the important ones, but I was confident their school would send more.

Eventually the message would get through.

10 a.m.

The dryer alarm sounded.

Laundry, folded. Bathrooms, cleaned. Bedrooms, straightened (OK not really … I closed the bedroom doors, which lends the same effect).

It was only noon. 12:10, 12:15, 12:16 ...

Errands will take our mind off it.

I grabbed the leash. “We're going for a walk.”

The dog looked at me, skeptically.

What if they come back … and we're not here … ARE. YOU. OUT. OF. YOUR. MIND, HUMAN!!!”

Leftover bacon,” I sang as I held up a baggie I'd stashed in my pocket.

Did you say bacon? O.K. Let's go.”

Post office. Library. Farm market.

A doll catalog. An overdue picture book. Highfalutin bakery treats.

I tether to dog and meander inside.

Where are the kids today,” ask the clerks behind each of the counters.

First day of school,” I smile to three separate faces.

Ah … so sad and wonderful at the same time. … It goes so fast,” came their choruses of camaraderie.

Except for today. Today is just crawling by.”

Home. 3 p.m. Not long now.

The dog starts to pace. I pace with her until the phone rings.

This is your school district calling,” said the automated voice at the other end of the line. “Buses will be delayed today by at least one-half hour.”

Arrrrrrrrrooooooooo,” says the dog plaintively.

I couldn't agree more.”

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Tooth and nail

Dentists never made me nervous until I had children.

And not even then. It took three years – the time most physicians were recommending children have their first dental checkup – to learn what I should have been worried about all along.

“Wait. What?

“Seven cavities?”

“Maybe eight. We won't know until we get in there.”

I was stunned.

My preschool child had a mouthful of cavities and would need to be sedated in order to treat them, a trend the Center for Disease Control had noticed was on the rise for the first time in four decades.

In one single office visit I had become a shameful statistic.

According to the New York Times in an article published last spring, the reasons for this rise (despite the rate of decay and tooth loss in adults and teens decreasing consistently during the same timeframe) isn't new but a growing problem, which involves constant snacking, more sugar in foods, extended bottle or breast feeding (especially at night), lack of fluoride in water and a lack of awareness of when children should be examined by a dentist.

Oh sure …

Our dentist was compassionate. She tried to soothe my guilty mind, telling me this wasn't my fault, but I knew if a reporter had called her for a quote that day, my face would appear in her mind as she was describing all the anonymous mothers who showed up in her office with a child suffering from a preventable condition.

In my own mind, I was just another mother who didn't pick the right battle. Who didn't even know there was a war raging right under her child's nose.

After all, my mother never seemed to worry about my teeth. I brushed. Visited the dentist twice a year. Thought about flossing more than I actually flossed, but my dental health was mostly uneventful.

She always spoke about the one cavity I had during my preschool years as if it were the key to some dental health mystery that to this day has remained unsolved. With a hint of theatrical flair she'd tell the story of the strange hole that had appeared on an incisor in a location the dentist thought should have virtually cleaned itself.

It was such a marvel the doctor insisted, and my mother agreed, that a photo of my grimacing, over-stretched mouth should be sent to a national dental journal for consideration.

My first published work might have been an enamel blemish no one could explain.

But it ended there. There was no scientific interest, and no more cavities appeared for another two decades, when, during my college days, I began imbibing calorie-free seltzer waters. Two pin-prick sized holes in a left molar was the result, according to my dentist, who suggested I switch back to tap water.

It did the trick.

Look ma: no more cavities.

Perhaps it was this miracle of fortune. My strangely stain resistant teeth -- despite the sugar, tobacco and coffee consumption in my youthful ignorance – that made me think my children would similarly luck out.

If only they had.

They just inherited me … a person who took their pearly whites for granted.

If only I could turn back time.

Instead, I spend the night before each twice-annual visit tossing and turning and punching pillows. Frazzled and baggy-eyed, I usually sit in the examination room visibly uncomfortable. I cross and uncross my legs. I set my hands as claws and dig my nails into my knees as the doctor leans over my daughter's overstretched mouth, dictating for the permanent record a string of terms I can barely understand:

She pairs words like occlusion, cross bite, erupted and blocked out with a number or letter as she examines each tooth carefully. I wait on the edge of my chair for words that sound like they require immediate intervention and wheelbarrows full of cash.

She smiles.

“Look, ma: No cavities.”

I release the grip on my knees and exhale.

“See you again in six months.”

I'll be holding my breath.