Sunday, April 26, 2015

Apple, meet tree

It's 2:30 in the afternoon. I hear downshifting and the protest of brakes. I imagine a big yellow bus, lights flashing and stopping traffic, is spitting out my firstborn.

I don't rush to the window. I just wait. And listen.

Any second now. ...

The door opens. And closes. A heavy bag drops onto the floor with a thud. For a moment, there is silence.

I hear a cheerful, “Hi, mom” from the kitchen; a rummaging through the refrigerator; bouncing steps to the door; and a quick “I'm goin' outside!” before it opens again, and she's gone. The sound of a basketball slapping against the driveway and hitting the backboard ricochets through the living room. And with a random cadence, there is calm.

I take a new, deep breath, realizing I had been holding on to that last one for a while.

We always hope that girl gets off the bus. She is happy. She does her homework, feeds the cat, makes lists of all the things she's going to do before summer. She starts checking them off one by one, singing as she goes. She plays with her brother, she lends him books and doesn't even mind when he tries to annoy her. She might even tell us about what happened in school, skipping through to the good parts.

She makes it easy to feel like a successful parent.

As if we had anything to do with it. We recognize this girl since the day she was born, trying so hard to stand on her own. She was always THAT kid.

Another girl arrives home in her place more often these days. A sullen twin, who rarely smiles. She brushes her hair over her eye, and hangs her head at an uncomfortable angle. She doesn't want to talk about her day.

This girl complains that she has nothing to wear; we have nothing to eat; and that someone hid her basketball. She stomps upstairs and slams her door. She wants to be left alone in her hurricane of a room. She doesn't want to be reminded to do her homework or feed the cat or brush her teeth. She doesn't want to be questioned about anything.

She is painting adolescence on her face and trying on its clothes, becoming delighted with the fit and expressing it in a new language of disdain. “You couldn't possibly understand how it feels to be me.”

We have become uncomfortable furniture.

But this girl is familiar, too. My husband may not recognize her right away, but my parents might. This girl lived in their house during the late 80s, had raccoon eyes and listened to Pink Floyd albums in the darkness of her room. This girl worried them, too.

Apple, meet tree.

We love this girl, too, even though we feel better when she's not around.

“Well, you might like her but I don't,” says her brother. “She never lets me do anything anymore. … and she's made the basketball hoop too high.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Inside the bubble

I am a monster.

Or I'm a sheep ... which, I guess, could be a monster if it was all matted and rabid and charging at you in a wooly frenzy.

I am also firmly on the wrong side of history.

I'm not exactly sure if I can be all three. But that's how I feel – like I've hit the bad-parent trifecta -- each time I scroll through Facebook and see all the posts exclaiming the virtues bestowed upon those refusing the state's standardized testing.

The slogans are brief but powerful: “Strong parents.” “Strong kids.” “Refuse the test.”

Yet, while the history pioneers' kids are sitting around reading leisurely for the three hours my kid is using to color in bubbles with a Number 2 pencil, I'll be shrugging my shoulders and lamenting my position in the flock.

It's not that I don't care. Or that I think everything's fine. I know there are problems.

It's not that I think standardized tests are an important part of the evaluation process. I do not.

It's not that I don't value teachers or care about their plight. I do.

It's not that I think everyone should be learning at the same pace or the same level, or be carbon copies of each other. That's the plot of a novel, not real life.

Maybe it's that I just find it hard to believe that it matters all that much in the final outcome.

You know, in a "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it," kind of way.

I remember the first time I sat down at a desk to fill in all those bubble circles. I'm not sure how old I was … they called it the Iowa Tests back then … but I remember it felt exciting to be doing something so totally different.

“These won't count for your grades,” said the teacher as she handed out papers and sharpened pencils. “But you must take them seriously.”

She made it plain as day that we weren't to be making pictures of dogs with droopy tongues or play tick-tac-toe with our answers no matter how we were tempted.

And how were we tempted.

I'm not sure what happened with the scores some computer must have spit back. My mother probably crumpled up the results and threw them away. Or perhaps she packed them in some box that is mouldering in the cellar. All I know is she never told me about such measures of intellect.

“You're not as smart as you think you are,” was all she'd ever say. “Remember that.”

Honestly … I don't know what happened to most of the information that came home in our backpacks, never mind what was supposed to be etched in my brain. It can't have gone missing.

But it was there. It just needed a little cosmic recycling and a few hand-outs brought home by the kids. Soon the bits and pieces loosened up and started to move around in my mind. All of it becoming more limber.

I sand off more of the rust with each passing page. How long has it been since I've diagrammed a sentence? Did I ever really understand the difference between commutative and associative properties?

Happily, I doodle alongside of her. Feeling accomplished as I ACE all of her fifth-grade problems.

... Or not, as the expression on my kid's face makes apparent when I finally look up.

“That's NOT how you do it,” says my daughter. “It's like this ...”

She snatches my pencil. Erases my existence on the scratch sheet. Starts again.


And I do see.

I see that my kid understands.

I see that when she doesn't understand, she seeks help from someone who knows how to explain it differently.

I see she can prove me wrong.

And I see that there's a whole lot of things I can't fix. … Things I maybe shouldn't try to fix.

That win or lose, good teacher or bad, developmentally ready or not …

Here she comes.

I know my kid has got this, I don't care what the test says.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The windup

This year is going to be different; I told myself this as I sat in the bustling cafeteria, sipping hot coffee and watching my son schlep a bag of gear bigger than himself toward the gymnasium.

For the first time, I am glad I am not allowed to watch.

He wasn't crying. He wasn't sporting the start of a shiner from when his father -- feeling guilty for going a whole year without throwing a ball around with his son – pitched him a fastball in the minutes prior to the big evaluation that the poor boy caught with his face.

That was last year.

This year IS going to be different.

This year, as in past years, my son has all the enthusiasm of a team full of kids.

He even has everything he needs unlike previous years. All the tools of the trade are now at his disposal: a mitt, a bat, a pair of batting gloves, a few baseballs and a helmet. Of course, this collection was the product of two years of birthday presents from people who understand the game as well as the fact that this kid's parents are clueless.

… Which would have been evident to anyone who noticed the bag he was dragging into the gym: a homemade duffel made out of striped sun-colored canvas.

It looked like he was going to the beach.

I shook my head. Who am I trying to kid? This year won't be so different. It's not as if any of us have changed.

My husband still loves soccer.

My son still says he loves the sport, but his attention is constantly being syphoned away by any number of distractions from passing butterflies to the epic battle (complete with sound effects) between the superheroes and the regular heroes that is always playing out in his mind.

And it's not as if I'd rather have a root canal than sit through another baseball game, but I still feel the same uneasy anticipation that I have always felt whenever my little player takes the field.

The big difference now seems to be the other players.

There are fewer of them like my son.

Increasingly, they are starting to focus on the ball. They connect with it on more and more occasions. And when they do, it doesn't just hit the ground and bounce harmlessly toward the pitching coach. It sails into the air on a direct path to the fence … where my son is usually playing air guitar.

Now, I don't care if the kid ever becomes a modern Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays but I'd like for him to live to see the third grade.

Getting beaned in the head by a ball he wasn't watching doesn't seem to be a likely way to meet that goal.

So we had THAT chat … the one where I try and talk him out of loving baseball. The one where I try to show him the player I see by straightening out the fun house mirror he's been gazing into. The one where I try to tell him, ever-so-lovingly, that I don't think baseball's his game.

Of course, I just wind up stepping all over his feelings and tripping over mine.

“No, no, no … that's not what I meant,” I plead when his eyes well up with tears. “I didn't mean any of that to say you are bad at baseball. All I meant was that you don't give it the same attention you pay to other things … like video games and imaginary creatures.”

It occurs to me that right this very second the only thing I can do is drink my lukewarm coffee and hope this is the year baseball will finally leave an impression.

And that the impression it leaves won't require a trip to the emergency room.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Unfriends forever

What am I seeing?

I blinked, rubbed my eyes and looked again.

The picture on my Instagram feed was blurry and awash in digital filters, but it made my nose twitch and my heart race.

Yup. That's a rabbit, alright. A cute little Lionhead bunny that looked exactly like unconditional love and overused steel wool. It's adorableness only magnified as it snuggled in underneath my daughter's chin during an afternoon play date two towns and several wifi networks away.

I knew I should never have helped start a 4-H group and this was proof. We hadn't even had our first official meeting yet and already The Other Leader's kids were posting pictures of their new menagerie member online.

That that wasn't all ...

And we also got six chicks!” they gushed.

If I had pulled out a selfie stick, taken a picture and uploaded it to my Instagram account at that very moment, you would have seen a color-drained woman pulling out her hair in disbelief and rethinking all of her life choices.

You know … as if a picture without a sharpie-written protest sign taking up half the frame could have conveyed all of that.

My mind started roiling. I feared I might hyperventilate.

All of a sudden it seemed obvious what had happened: war has been declared on my sanity.

I quickly text my friend and 4-H co-leader. “What is this, an April Fool's joke?”

Nope,” came the return text. “We stopped at Tractor Supply today. Kids are going to enter him in the fair.”

Of course, now my kids will want a cute and fuzzy bunny to show at the fair. And if such a thing should comes to pass, we might as well make way for chicks, pigs, pigmy goats and a pony. Zoning be damned.

I had to fortify.

I searched the interwebs for ammunition and came up empty. Oh sure, public service ad after public service ad warned of the harm that would befall the peeping chicks and cuddly bunnies when Easter was over, but they still showed the most adorable, heart-squeezing pictures.

Must. Stay. Strong.
Note to self: Shoot a public service ad that opens with a baby cooing at an adorable ball of fluff in a pottery-barn-style living room and morphs into an ugly, one-eyed rooster chasing a toddler around a yard littered with rusted out old cars and mountains of trash. Then make it go viral for next Easter.

“This isn't an IMPULSE,” argues my daughter. “We checked off 'rabbits' in the areas of interest section when we submitted our registration forms,” she adds, throwing me a sugary grin and sideways head tilt, which wouldn't fool anyone except the people with whom she shares DNA.

“And you did say once that we could maybe get a rabbit to raise for 4-H,” she reiterates with confidence since she knows picking a battle that uses the opponent's ammunition gives her a devastating advantage.

But two can play at that game.

“I know I said we might be able to get a rabbit, but that was before we adopted a second cat, who, as you know, will be lobbying for the acquisition of a bunny on your behalf for her own not-so-altruistic purposes, such as late-night snacking.”

She's unconvinced: “The cats and dog all get along, and they are supposed to be mortal enemies.”

I try humor: “Hey! Why don't we just rename the new cat Bunny and call her a short-eared, long-legged Lionhead?”

She didn't even dignify my suggestion with a response.

“Here let me give you the name of the breeder,” says Misery, the person who heads the 4-H group from which I now want to secede, and who has probably nicknamed me “Company.”

“If I could unfriend you I would.”