Teacher Professor

December 31, 2010

New Year’s Resolution

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 1:21 pm

I have only one resolution this year…. Get more sleep.

It may sound like an odd resolution- I haven’t seen it up there with “lose weight… spend more time with family.. save more money” that have made mine- and many other’s- lists in years past.

I would like to plan to lose weight, organize my closet, finish that book, write that grant, be more patient, cook healthier meals, but the reality is that I can do all of that- if I get more sleep.

When I get enough sleep, I am a better mother.  A better wife.  A healthier, happier me.  More productive at work.  Overall, life is just better when I sleep.

So, why? you might ask… why don’t you get enough sleep?

Because… because the list of things to get done never ends.  Because I work all day long and then come home all evening where I make dinner, deal with homework, deal with various hysteria of the day, deal with laundry, deal with after-school sports, deal with finishing a project from work that has to be finished and deal with the pets.  This doesn’t include I deal with autism and attention deficit and Tourette’s and anxiety and depression- not all of these located exclusively within the children.

And I do have help with all of these- my husband does a fair amount of all of this.  If not for him, the house would never be vacuumed and our laundry would never be done- and let’s not talk about the trash.  He certainly works as well.

But it is an inescapable fact that while he is a foot solider in the daily battles of our life, I am the general.  I keep track of what gets done when and when we need to buy more cheese and when to replenish the children’s lunch money.  We have  a calendar on our refrigerator that I maintain.  I have the schedules of the four of us, the college, the school system, the needs of the pets, and who goes where when all in my head.

Add to this rather typical busy life a husband who is leading the college through accreditation and various reports that are due- and a book draft of mine due at the end of January and a research project underway- and well, we’re busy.  Our life is an amalgam of disability and giftedness.  We have pediatric neurologist appointments (end of January) scheduled right after a weekend of Georgia Tech’s science camp that overlaps with a chess tournament.

It’s not terrible.  It’s pretty ordinary- with a twist or two.  But it would be helped if I could get more sleep.

Because you see, after I tuck them into bed- a 45-minute and 37-step process for Ray- and clean up after dinner and throw a load of laundry in and finish grading, I am so frazzled and drained that I stay up.

It’s quiet in our house from 10:00 on.  The children are asleep.  My husband is asleep.  Heck, even my dog is asleep.  And that silence is nurturing, healing.  I don’t appreciate silence in the morning as much- the silence at 5:00am (not that I’ve seen it much, but once in a while, I blunder into it) is filled with potential- with the pressure of what has to get done that day.  It’s filled with energy and lists.  5:00am silence is ready for action.

10:00pm quiet is relaxing.  It’s curl-yourself-up-in-the-couch-with-a-good-book kind of silence.  It’s cozy and it’s healing.  It’s my time- my time to unwind, to reconnect the dots of my fragmented personality.  It’s the time of appreciation and still.

But 10:00pm quiet leads into 11:00pm silence, which is a blink away from midnight stillness.  By midnight, I’m falling asleep over the book and I drift, connected-ME again- off to sleep.  Only to wake groggy at 6:00am, with that list pressing down on me, that energy of things I gotta get done.

And that tiredness dogs me all day long.  It distracts me at work; it makes me cranky.  It makes me less able to deal with the tantrums, the drama, the trying-to-figure-out-what-she’s-trying-to-say.  It means that I stare at that blank computer screen that is supposed to turn into Chapter 4.  It means that we have macaroni and cheese, once again- for dinner because I forgot to buy whatever-it-was we needed for something else.

So after a long, fractured day, I relish that 10:00pm quiet.  I feel my scattered attention and anxiety drain away in the quiet.  I feel back to me again in the quiet.

But I gotta go to bed before midnight.  I gotta find a way to find quiet before 10:00pm.

And so- my New Year’s resolution is to get more sleep.  Because if I get more sleep, all of the rest of can happen too.

December 22, 2010

Adding a Tradition

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 7:48 am

We’ve added another tradition to our Christmas this year.  It’s part of our recipe for the holidays.

Start with two children with anxiety issues- autism, Tourette’s, giftedness.  Add in some parents with anxiety issues of their own.  Blend together moving lots of times and lots of houses- 8 houses in 10 years.  Sift with some old family items and all together you get a regulated set of traditions that help establish “THIS is how we celebrate the holiday”.  And we love them- we all love them.

We start the season on December 1st with the Advent Box- a box that marks down the 25 days until Christmas.  Every day, they get a little something- a candy, bubbles, a little game- all around $1, except for a mug or glass I give them every year.  They race home from school and burst through the doors with eager anticipation to check the Advent Box.

Next, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the 6th, because he is my son’s patron saint when he was baptized.  Ray gets taken out of school for lunch that day as “religious observance”.  That’s followed up by St. Anne’s Day on the 9th, my daughter’s patron saint.  Lunch again.  He asks for McDonalds- a rare treat around here, while she classes it up with Chik-Fil-A.

On the 12th is our anniversary- which we try to spend out- away from the hubbub and the constant demands and the… all of it.  Some years we manage it.  Some years we can’t find a babysitter we trust enough to spend the night, a child is sick, or a child- normally Ray- is just too unsettled.  This year, we have Vicki and we spent it out.  A moment of peace during a hectic month.

Then, after the anniversary, we get the tree.  We do live trees around here, so I’m always nervous of it drying out too fast.  Decorating is an on-going process that gets started at the beginning of the month, but it culminates with the getting of the tree.  Every ornament is a story- a “remember when”.  We get ornaments on our travels and events, so this year, we hung the tiny St. Louis Arch and the tiny tea cup from Boston next to the gold place ornaments from Charleston, Williamsburg, the Edison House, the seal from Pier 49, the cranberry basket from Plymouth, the tiny Seattle Space Needle.  Add to that the school-made ornaments that always include a picture of a child- 2 for each year.  And occupying a place of honor is the silver Sheriff’s star that my dad used to wear and place on my childhood tree.  Our family history can be told in ornaments.  And Ray sets the angel on top- the angel that James and I bought from Walgreens our first Christmas together.

Attendance at our Christmas can also be told by the stockings.  We order individual stockings from Lillian Vernon and in addition to the four of us, one year, we have Dampa, another year we have Vicki.  We have a pile of “those who can’t be with us this year” stockings that stay in the Christmas boxes- waiting for them to return.  My mom’s says “Gran” which was the name she was “supposed” to be called, but Elizabeth, figuring out family relationships with a limited vocabulary, named her “Mamamum” (Mama’s mama). when she was two. Ever year, when we bring out the misnamed stocking, that story gets retold.

Around the end of school, we hold our annual Train Decorating party.  It started out as a cookie-decorating party when Elizabeth was six months old and my friend/doula Michelle and I got our babies together for some Mommy time too, and we decorated cookies.  It evolved when I got a cake tin that made train cars from Williams Sonoma- that could be decorated.  Every year, literally since they were born, the children invite 1-2 friends over and have an orgy of frosting, candies and marshmallows.  They start with a singular vision that invariably ends with a masterpiece pile of sugary stuff.  Each child then takes his or her own creation home.  I’m not sure what the parents feel about it- but it’s one of the ways we create activities that don’t require a great deal of social interaction but are highly sought over by other children.  The friends may shift every year, but the Train Party is a constant.

A few days before Christmas, my mom flies in from Santa Fe.  One year,when we were in Fort Myers, we rented a convertible to pick her up.  One year, when we were in Rhode Island, we inched along on icy roads.  But no matter where we are, her presence kicks the holiday up a notch to the culmination. She is the final piece to our family’s Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, we eat beans and Mexican cornbread and open presents from the family.  It’s another orgy of wrapping paper, boxes and me trying to corral things with ongoing trash bags.  Elizabeth and Ray are “Santa” and have been since she was 2 and could recognize the first letter of her name.  We taught her “M” for Mama and “D” for Daddy that year.  We can trace their reading abilities by how well they are able to distribute the gifts.

Then, there’s the humor running throughout the whole gift-giving thing- we give hints of what’s wrapped inside by the names on the packages.  “To: Travel Buddy 1, From: Travel Buddy 2” one year graced a framed map.  We break up parts and wrap them separately- a pajama top here and a pajama bottom there.  My dad used to wrap in comic paper and top with “bows” of household items (one year, there was a screwdriver on top of my present), but we have tended to stick to regular wrapping in my own family because Ray doesn’t get that humor and was very angry one year when he couldn’t keep the potholder on top of his gift.

On Christmas Morning, Santa comes- and Santa doesn’t wrap.  The children are then required to come and wake us up first- and no earlier than 6:00- so that we can document their faces when Santa brings their heart’s desire. One year, it was a tricycle; one year it was a Baby Alive; last year, Ray got a drum set.  Some years are leaner than other years for regular gifts- but Santa almost always delivers the one thing they’ve been wanting.  Ray tends to get overwhelmed and will grunt and cry.  He holds it together all during this string of traditions- but Santa’s coming is typically the final straw for him.  Hey, not all traditions are planned or wanted.  I try not to let it ruin the moment for me- but it’s always hard when we’ve had such perfect run up to the holiday itself.

After the inevitable tantrum, I make an extravagant breakfast- apple pancakes, lemon something or other… If we’re close to a Greek Orthodox church, we will go to service that morning. We come home in our dress up clothes and then organize the baking of the Christmas dinner.  We use the china from my grandmother that has survived every move, and the sterling silverware if we can find it.  It was “in a box” for about three moves.  But this year, we have found it, and so this year, we have the sterling.  We gather around our table, we light the candles, we take a deep breath, we say a prayer of gratitude and we eat.  Some years, it’s awful; some years it’s good.  But it’s a production, whatever it is.  And it’s almost always late, despite our best intentions.

By the time we clean up, we’re all tired.  The children are tired, overwhelmed and getting them to bed is not normally a problem.  Then, because we’re all tired of the overwhelming sweetness, the grownups watch some atrociously foul grownup movie.  One year it was “Die Hard”; one year it was “Bad Santa”, and this year, it will be “Get Him to the Greek”.  Nothing like lots of cursing to clear away the sweetness that has become cloying by this time.

And this year, we’ve added another bead to our necklace of traditions.  Yesterday was the last day of school.  Elizabeth and Ray, knowing that I’m a sucker for a tradition, asked to sleep under the Christmas tree last night.  “We can make it a tradition for our last day of school!”  As I watched their faces with the lights twinkling last night, I valued the moment.  I relished that they are 8 and 9 years old and that they still believe in Santa.  I loved the hubbub that Christmas is with children.  I know that this time is fleeting.  I don’t look forward to Christmas when the children are grown and there are no small children to squeal over Santa.  These are the Christmases we will forever remember as “Christmas”.

We don’t do much for New Year’s.  Thanksgiving is ok.  The other holidays- we do stuff.  But Christmas… Christmas is the time of joyous excess, of connecting us with tradition with family.  Christmas is… joy.   And so, yes, we have a new tradition.

December 20, 2010

Losing Adam

Filed under: College information,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 9:58 am

Not only the worst of my sins, but the best of my duties speak me a child of Adam” – William Beveridge

This is the season of hecticness- of too much to do, and Christmas and the end of the semester and a New Year and… and… and…life- lived at a fast pace.

And I just found out that my friend, Adam got taken off of life support by his beloved wife.

I call Adam my friend, but really, we weren’t “friends”.  We didn’t exchange confidences; we didn’t talk about the latest things in our lives- heck we rarely even directly talked.  But we were two similarly-aged professors in the same department, and I understood where he was coming from.  We shared friends in common.  I got his humor.  But we weren’t peers.

For Adam, was, ultimately, my teacher.  Adam was a person with a vision.  He was an education revolutionary- who wanted to use education as a means of bringing about social justice.  A man whose hero, among others, was Paolo Friere– whose philosophy of “Liberation through Education” – that people who are poor and powerless can achieve the means to change the system through literacy.

Adam taught me that education is a tool- a tool for change, a tool for people bettering their lives, not by copying the lives of others, but by gaining their own power.  One can only redefine a system if one understands it.

What I most admired about Adam is that he lived, he truly lived his ideals.  His was no “airy-fairy, feel-good” philosophy.  Adam organized a bunch of students to live in a homeless “tent city” on the college campus for a week so that they might truly begin to understand the emotional and physical impacts of being homeless and powerless.  Adam led groups of students and faculty to Jamaica for three weeks to work in the schools and hospitals there- not to “do good”, but to empower the people there to do good for themselves through education.  Adam got our family involved in the “Santa Project” in which students and faculty brought food and presents to a homeless shelter in Louisville- where my children for the first time saw desperation close up and realized that these were not bad people- these were people who had made bad choices or had bad things happen to them- or who had been failed by a bad system- and that education was the way that they could find power for themselves.  Adam was a missionary- not for religion, but for individual strength and systemic change.  For the power of education.

Adam’s laugh would echo through the hallways of the college.  He sang and played guitar in a band, and I would feel a teeny crush on him as we watched him sing about injustice and lonliness and irony.  He was sarcastic and impatient at times-especially during faculty meetings- and while his ideas were bigger than a college could absorb at times, his vision and laugh endeared him- even to administrators and Foundation board members of a small Catholic college in the Midwest.  He once said that he was there because he needed to make a difference where he was a lone voice, not in a place where he was but one of many voices.  Adam… Adam was a changer.

And Adam changed me.  Even though we were not “friends”, even though I hovered around the periphery of his activities, he made me think.  He made me reconsider what I did for children with exceptionalities, why I was in education.  He made me see systemic injustice whereas before I had seen only individual struggle.  I read Merton; I read Friere; I read Adam.  He was a revolutionary.  And to my own students, I now can show a world where they can make a difference; where by educating others, they are the only hope of making a difference.  I admired him; I cared for him and I grieve that a good man of vision and love is gone.

He was in his late 30’s, early 40’s.  He played tennis, ran regularly, and drank occasionally.  He watched what he ate, and was almost gaunt at times with the power of his convictions.  If I had ever, in a morbid moment, imagined his death, it would have been an assassination, or being shot in a Freedom March, or being killed as he traversed the ghettos of Oakland or Louisville or Jamaica or some other home of desperation.  It would not have been as a heart attack, a week before Christmas.

His wife- whom he always introduced as his “partner”- who brought out a glow in his eyes like no one else- sent out an email yesterday that ended with one of his favorite quotes.

Nasa Proverb (Colombia)

The word without
action is empty,
action without the
word is blind,
and action and the word
outside the spirit of the community
is death.

Adam, indeed, formed a community- and one that spread far beyond his immediate touch.  One of our students wrote on his Facebook page: You really helped me to grow in my view of the world, and how it could be with my help.

The power of education, indeed.  Amongst these days of light, is grief.

Taken by Sonya Burton

December 13, 2010

Dozens and Dozens

Filed under: Autism,Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 12:33 am

12 years- that’s how long my husband and I have been married.  On 12/12, we celebrated 12 years of marriage.  An even dozen. 

And like eggs, we got to look back and think about how each year had cracked.  The first couple of years were fabulous- moving, dreaming, settling in.  But around year 3 came children- and autism, and Tourette’s and sleeplessness and a true sense of family and a true sense of connectedness far beyond just two adults hanging out together. 

We talked late last night about how those middle years- those middle years- those were tough years.  Those were the years that we put our heads down and plodded on.  How we kept talking, talking, talking, but the joy of planning and dreaming was replaced by the necessity of reacting, responding and realigning.  How Fate, who had been so kind to bring us together, seemed intent on putting up obstacles in our path.  How one dream job after another fell apart.  How the constant drumbeat of worry wears away even the most optimistic of spirits. How anxieties and health issues become reflected in our middle-aged bodies.

We talked about how around Year 9 it hit a low point- a point of decision-making, a point at which you decide to hang in there, or you decide to end it.  We talked about how autism and Tourette’s and anxiety splintered us and yet glued us.  How continual challenges and continual stress can reshape how you see yourself and how you react to things.   And yet, how neither one of us could fathom leaving the other one alone to deal with it all- how we knew that our children’s strength could only come from parents who could share the stress between us.  How we forgave and learned and went to counseling- and how like steel, became stronger for the heat of the endurance.  As a friend of mine put it, “It may have been your children’s issues that drove you apart, but it was those same issues that that kept you together.”

We talked about how we’ve been recovering since that year, that low year. How Years 10 and 11 were rebuilding years, renewal years.  And how at the end of Year 12, we’re a family, together, friends and lovers.  We can laugh again.  Different than we were before, different than we were in the beginning, but still laughing. 

While there is no good research data, word-of-mouth seems to indicate that the divorce rate of families with autism hovers around 80%.  While I don’t think that it’s the autism itself, autism provides a serious continual stressor in any marriage- just as poverty and loss and illness can play on other marriages.  Such stresses force you to reconsider who you are, what you need- truly need, not just want- in a mate.  It’s hard to have dreams together when your plans are crumbling around you. 

I am ridiculously fortunate.  I have a husband who accepts, who learns, who has the strength inside of himself to look at things and try to change them.  I have a husband who also believes that commitment is for the good times and the bad- the passionate and the hum-ho.   I have a husband who knows that he may fall off the path he has aimed for, and dust himself off, talk to me and get back on a different route.  I have a husband who knows that I can fall off my path, dust myself off, talk to him and get back on a different route. I have a husband who talks- and listens.  And he has a wife who talks- and listens.  And we each have someone who can make the other one laugh in the midst of it all. 

Research has that found that couples who were on the edge of divorce but decided to “stick it out” were just as happy as any other couple after five years.  I can’t say that it’s always true, since I knew several couples who “stuck it out” and are still miserable, but I know that our dozen years have provided us with a few great years, quite a number of awful years, one terrible year, and several good years. 

It’s made for an omelette of a life together.  And last night, when we got to spend the night away (thank you, Vicki!)- away from the dog whining, the children’s whining and our own whining- we remembered our way.  I am blessed to have found my soul mate, my best friend- my husband.

Looking forward to the next dozen and the next dozen after that…

December 6, 2010

Failing a Second Chance

Filed under: Autism,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 10:03 am

The County of St. Lucie in Florida, is $350,000 poorer because of one terrible teaching moment.  In 2008, Wendy Portillo, a kindergarten teacher, was annoyed at Alex Barton.  He had been uncooperative, lying on the floor, chewing up his crayons, and eating his boogers0 for months.  He did not talk nicely to other children, but yelled at them.  I do not know, but I believe that she was frustrated.  She was not receiving help, because he had no prior label.  The children were frustrated, and she did not feel that she was getting through to Alex when she kept trying to enforce consequences.  He did not seem to care about the consequences that she could give him.  Spanking was prohibited or ineffective as well, and so Ms. Portillo felt that she was out of options.  And so, she set out to teach him a lesson- a lesson in which he might learn that actions have consequences, and that what he did was not acceptable.  It was a lesson that most teachers repeat and repeat to their students.  It is a lesson that is particularly important in kindergarten where children are beginning to learn social norms, to learn how to cooperate together, how to learn together.  A child who does not learn such rules has to be taught what the “real world” demands.  It is equally frustrating to work with other children who are demanding that the adult “do something”- when a child cries that another child hurt him, hurt his feelings, and the grownups do nothing.  Everyone was tired of asking for help and getting none.  The feeling of powerlessness that comes about from not being able to stop a child’s behaviors, and not being able to protect the others can lead to incredible frustration and anger. 

And so, Ms. Wendy Portillo, in a teaching moment that is now a shining example of what NOT TO DO, chose to play a “Survivor-style” game in which the children voted someone from the class “off the island”, or in other words, out of her classroom.  And so, Alex Barton was sent to the principal’s office as a last-ditch means of teaching him to take control of his actions.

Of course, we all know that what she did was completely unacceptable.  We know that teaching 5-year olds that they can gang up on someone and exclude them is one of the worst possible lessons that one can teach.  We now know that Alex Barton had Asperger’s Syndrome and that he had no choice in this, either. 

But I also know that I have seen many, many teachers reach this point of “There’s nothing more I can do.”.  That teachers who are frustrated, and angry and do not have enough support get tired of asking for help that does not come.  That teachers who are doing the very best they know how to do don’t have enough training, experience or understanding to handle children with diverse needs.  Let us not forget that Alex had not yet been identified, and so Ms. Portillo did not have the support of a trained special education teacher.  She did not have the excuse of a label.  And so, she tried a teaching game- one in which Alex was supposed to learn that actions have consequences.  She didn’t know what else to do. 

And so, Ms. Portillo was suspended for a year.  Alex’s parents got a $350,000 settlement last week.  And Ms. Portillo did not lose her job.

There have been many, many, many people who called for her firing.  Who demanded to know “What kind of teacher would do that?”  Who were horrified that she would be allowed to continue to teach after teaching such a lesson.

But it in the very nature of education to turn a mistake into a learning moment.  Wendy Portillo was allowed to keep her job for two reasons:

  1. She had been a good teacher before- Over 13 fellow teachers and former students at a school board meeting attested to her caring, her teaching, and what they learned with her.  They painted a picture of a strong teacher who was fed up, frustrated, and at the end of her rope without resources.  She, of all people, could learn from this experience and learn how to never let it happen again.  She would be able to be more understanding, more sympathetic. 
  2. If Wendy Portillo were fired, there was no way of ensuring that the teacher hired to take her place would do any better.  If Wendy Portillo, an experienced teacher, had made such a terrible teaching choice, how much more damage could a rookie teacher make? 

Firing was not seen as the solution- rehabilitation and training were.  In other words, she should have the opportunity to make a mistake.  It’s the only way to learn.  And so, Ms. Portillo was hired as a sixth grade science teacher.  I can’t help but believe that the transition from teaching kindergarten to teaching sixth grade was at the same time very different and very similar. 

Clearly, there are problems in St. Lucie County.  Clearly, there is not enough training for teachers, not enough support for teachers with children with special needs.  And clearly, there has not been enough sensitization of general education teachers to the challenges that children with disabilities face.  Normally, I have tremendous respect for teachers- and defend them because so much of the poor education that children face in schools is a result of lack of teacher training, lack of time, lack of resources, and lack of support.

However, Ms. Portillo didn’t fully learn the lessons of how one works with children with special needs.  She got in trouble again this past fall when she asked if she could opt out of wearing a microphone system for a child with hearing problems, and asked the child if she could just speak louder.  She also wore her microphone incorrectly, where it was ineffective for the student.  In other words, she was asking the child if she could “opt out” of the requirements established by the IEP team- as if the requirements were arbitrarily determined.  There are very few sixth graders who have the conviction to deny a teacher’s request, and to own up to a problem- and so the student said “ok”.  Once again, Ms. Portillo was letting her own challenges dictate how she interacted with children with disabilities, rather than trying to understand, to learn, to change. 

I have to wonder.  If someone like Wendy Portillo- who has received a second chance, who has received additional training- hasn’t learn that children with special needs are children first and that they can’t describe, can’t understand and can’t advocate for themselves yet, then she should not be a teacher. And yet… she is still teaching.

Once is a mistake.  Twice is a trend… The first time, shame on St. Lucie and their lack of training and support.  The second time?  Shame on St. Lucie and their lack of backbone.

December 3, 2010

Tuwoo Luvvvv

Filed under: Autism,Home Things,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 11:35 am

I’m trying to join the “Blog Hop”, devoted to children with special needs and new and exciting developments. But it’s apparently beyond my technological abilities to add the html coding in right <a href=””>here… sigh.  So, here’s a link to Elvis Sightings, who got it right…

Elizabeth has her first sweetheart.  Well, perhaps not her very first… but her first sweetheart in fourth grade.

Her very first sweetheart was in preschool- at age 3 to be precise.  His name was Tyler and he was a “younger man” whose birthday was 4 months after hers.  We all remember Tyler for two things- his 4th birthday party that was Star Wars-themed- since my children had never heard of it and were boggled at the stuff- and for being responsible for Elizabeth discovering kissing.  She liked kissing Tyler and he liked kissing her.  A lot.  They got in trouble for kissing during almost every classroom party.  They were separated most of them, but over the course of that year, they kissed at every major holiday.  We all laughed and were glad that they enjoyed each other- because they really did.  Tyler was Elizabeth’s first friend- they played cars together, they ran around together and they gravitated towards each other on the playground.  Theirs was a relationship of few words.  Elizabeth was still struggling to learn to talk and tended to run when she was bored.  Tyler ran after her, which distracted her and provided a game.  The teacher, who was also Tyler’s mother,soon realized that this type of play allowed both of them a partner, distracted them both from negative emotions, and worked with them on appropriate boundaries.  And separated them at holiday parties.

Elizabeth and Tyler were best friends/sweethearts for an entire year- which at that point, was 1/4 of their lives!  When we were leaving at the end of the school year, Elizabeth cried, and Tyler (ok, Tyler’s mom) made her a card and gave her a necklace.  We moved- and Elizabeth continued to cry.  She cried for six months- and I have very distinct memories of holding my 4 1/2 year child in our rocking chair as she cried over a boy.

Until she met Theo.  She and Theo did group work together, ran around with each other, and played house together at her new preschool.  The day they played husband and wife, and yes… kissed, the teacher had to discuss boundaries with them.  Elizabeth was all ready to settle down with Theo after six months of togetherness, but we moved… again.

In Louisville, Elizabeth cried over Theo, but not as much, because she immediately met George in kindergarten.  What she had learned from her previous encounters was that teachers will stop you if you kiss, so you can kiss as long as you’re not caught.  However, the day that she and George kissed behind the school during recess, the other children were so agog with interest that the teachers immediately found out- and it was dealt with quietly.  Not a huge fuss- but a clear message of “Not appropriate”.    Elizabeth soon found out that her friends would rat her out, because George liked kissing her and they kissed a couple more times, when it was brought to my attention by the teachers.  She also decided that she didn’t really like George as much as she had thought- he wanted to play football and not just run.  He wanted to talk to his friends more than he wanted to talk to her- and so she stopped hanging out with George and found new friends- girls this time, and none of whom she kissed.

Until Jack.  Jack is Ray’s best friend- whom we love and whose family we’re very close to.  That Jack.  Elizabeth has always hung around the periphery of Ray and Jack’s friendship, playing their games as well and sharing in their conversations.  She started collecting Pokemon cards with them, and built Legos with them.  For Ray’s 6th birthday, Ray, Elizabeth and Jack and I went to the Newport Aquarium, and stayed late.  I was driving the three of them home- about an hour-long drive- and Ray started getting very… Ray.  Grumpy, tired, outbursts, etc.  Jack, who has learned how to handle Ray, simply turned his attention to Elizabeth and they started talking quietly and laughing together.  About halfway through the drive, Ray fell asleep.  All was quiet in the back seat, until I heard a little giggle from Elizabeth.  That kind of giggle.  I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Jack leaning in and Elizabeth leaning flirtaciously back.  Clearly, there had been kissing going on.  “Excuse me,” I interrupted.  “We don’t need to be kissing.  That is not appropriate.”  And I drove the rest of the way home inwardly gawking that I just busted my 7-year old daughter making out in the back seat.

Evidently, Jack’s parents spoke to him, or Elizabeth decided that Jack was better as a pseudo-brother than a sweetheart, because there has been no repeat of the kissing.  And there hasn’t been any sweetheart or male play partner since then.  Elizabeth has since learned that in 2nd and 3rd grades, the boys don’t really want to be friends with a- ewww! girl! and her play partners have been limited to girls.

And then 4th grade hit- and Emily.  Emily is much, much more mature than Elizabeth.  Emily, who has started the “So-and-so likes so-and-so” whisper campaigns.  Whose first comment after seeing the recent Harry Potter movie was “Did you see them KISSING?”, completely ignoring the scary plot line.  Emily is clearly ahead of my daughter.

I hope she’s ahead of my daughter.

Because last night, as I was tucking Elizabeth into bed last night, she shared that she “likes Jason”.  Jason who sits next to her.  Jason who helps her with her science.  Jason, whom Emily does not like because he blurts out the answers and talks too much.  Jason who is smart and funny and cute and likes her too- she thinks.  She’s planning on asking Molly to ask if he likes her too.

I watched my daughter with stars in her eyes describe a boy that she liked and my heart turned over.

Turned over because I remember 4th grade love- Ronny Jackson.  I remember not having the nerve to actually talk to him, but becoming a “couple” through the intricacies of 4th grade relationship-building that is done through proxy, where my friends talked to him about me, and his friends talked to me about him.  How we were a “couple” until Tammy Sanchez- my “best friend”- who had been the go-between, decided that she liked him and informed him and me and the rest of the 4th grade that he was now her boyfriend.  4th grade is brutal.

As I listened to Elizabeth get starry-eyed last night, I worried about heartbreak.  If she could cry over Tyler for six months, what will she do over Jason?  Her little heart is very, very passionate and when she gets attached, she gets attached.  She doesn’t really understand the relationship games of 4th grade- the whimsical, gossipy, girl garbage that happens.  The stuff that hurts.

And I worry about the kissing.  I brought it up, since she has a history- and suggested that she might want to wait- that she wasn’t old enough to be kissing him.  With the logic of an experienced woman, she argued, “But Mommy- I’ve already kissed Tyler and Theo and George and Jack.  I liked them and I kissed them.  Why can’t I kiss Jason?”  And I was stuck in the quandary… How to describe the concept to my 9 year-old daughter who is very logical and very literal that kisses change as you get older?  That even though you like someone, you need to use discretion?  That there are words for girls who kiss too many boys?  That kisses should be withheld for the “right” boy?  That she’s too young?

It doesn’t help that James and I are quite affectionate with each other.  No Public Displays of Affection- nothing inappropriate at all.  But we kiss- a lot.  We laugh with each other and we snuggle with each other.  We touch each other.  We have tried to create a warm, loving environment in our house.  And Elizabeth has interpreted that, with perfect logic, as “When you like someone, you kiss them.”  And seeing the stars in her eyes last night, it is clear that I can’t tell her that this is not her last love- that she will love others- more, deeper- that love keeps getting better and better as you get older.  For her, right now, Jason is IT.

And so, I fell back on that old, useless, Mother-ese, of “Just trust me.  You’re not old enough.” And yes, I worry about middle school and hormones.  And yes, I worry about high school.  I worry about when kisses turn into… more than kisses.  I worry about Elizabeth’s complete and whole-hearted love.  I worry about heartbreak, and I worry about her reputation. But admist that worry, I watch the glow on my girl’s face, and I smile.

‘Cuz right now, she’s in love.

I do expect a phone call any day from the school, though… sigh.

December 1, 2010

Reading My Children

Filed under: ADHD,Autism,Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 2:17 pm

Books fall open, / you fall in, /delighted where, /you’ve never been.
Hear voices /not once heard before, /Reach world through world, /through door on door.
Find unexpected /keys to things, /locked up beyond /imaginings….
True books will venture, /Dare you out, /Whisper secrets, /Maybe shout,
across the gloom, /to you in need /Who hanker for /a book to read.”
David McCord

We’re reading “A Wrinkle in Time” these days.  Or at least, I’m reading it aloud and the children are listening.  Throughout their lives, I have tried to pick books that are just above their reading levels, or books that they just wouldn’t encounter often.  I try to read chapter books that are “hard” for them.

It saddens my heart that my children do not love to read books the way that I do.  Elizabeth will read short fiction books about silly girl issues to get the Accelerated Reader points at school, and Ray will read non-fiction books about WWII and science out of interest in the subject matter, but they are not inclined to head for the long chapter books for escape.   But then, they are having very different childhoods than I did.  I grew up an only child with no access to television, and living far away from other children.  Books became my solace, my companions, my escape.  Even as a grown up, I will read during times of stress, times of boredom and times of renewal.  My mother and I used to have reading time together, where she would read her book on her bed, and I would stretch out beside her and read my book.  We would breathe in rhythm and share in the experience- blinking at each other when one of us would move.

I read to my students when I was the classroom.  Everyday after lunch, I would read for 10 minutes and then they would read silently for 10 minutes.  It was unstructured, and lovely and far too short.  And so I try to read to my children. I vary my voice for each character- adding accents, intonations and feeling- and I add sound effects.  I do not stop and ask comprehension questions (but I answer them); I do not explain hard words (But I provide synonyms if I’m asked); I do not stop the flow of the story.  I want us to be in that place the author writes about- not in an academic exercise.

I have started and stopped so many books- good books- that for some reason, didn’t resonate with them.  Or they had a hard time following.  Or the ADHD kicked in.  Or we were packing/unpacking and the thread of the story was lost.  Or Elizabeth was in a place where she couldn’t process auditory information.  Or Ray was too bouncy/oppositional to listen.  Or either of them couldn’t handle my voice changing characters and reacted to my changed accents with extreme irritation.  It is a challenge to figure out when to keep going, when to stop, and when to change books.   Reading aloud with my children is an act of navigation.

We have started and stopped:

  • Little Women
  • Jack and Jill
  • Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Treasure Island
  • Harry Potter  (The first one- we have started it at least 15 times, but something always interrupts it…sigh)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Lightening Thief (too scary about 3/4 of the way through)
  • Gulliver’s Travels- Bored me, too

But our list of successes is pretty wonderful.  I have read aloud, and they have been passionately involved in, the stories of:

  • Winnie the Pooh
  • Little House in the Big Woods
  • Five Little Peppers and How They Grew
  • Black Beauty
  • Harriet the Spy
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • and now… A Wrinkle in Time

Each book takes about a month and half to read- which is a long time to maintain a story line- a long time to maintain a schedule- a long time to maintain attention.  We generally don’t pick up another book for a while once we finish one.  But the good books- they just make schedules, attention, and plot lines so easy.  Last night, when Meg Murray says “Oh MOTHER!” in response to her mother saying that she still plays with dolls in front of Calvin, Elizabeth laughed so hard she cried.  Ray was asking questions about what it means to be different and smart.  They acted out the scene where Mrs. Whatsit fell over backwards after pulling off her boot.  They’re hooked.  And while they may not understand the allegorical aspects of the story, they get the power of the literature.

So many books- so few years.  I see the children growing up and I know that the days of my reading to them are numbered.  I look at my bookshelves of books that I have kept since I was a little girl- kept because I loved them and I wanted my children to love them.  And I hope that we will get a chance to read:

  • Anne of Green Gables
  • The Chronicles of Narnia- all of them!
  • Harry Potter- all of them, too (although that probably won’t happen..)
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins…

I hope we get to them all… and I hope that we continue to have nights like we did last night, where in the soft yellow light of the living room light, the children sat on the couch with me and hung onto my every word- laughing at the clever writing, smiling at the human moments, and looking concerned about the impending climax.

A perfect performance, a perfect audience, a perfect moment.

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