Thursday, May 21, 2015

This Is What They Don't Tell You.

They don't tell you, when they tell you to pursue your dreams, that your students will look up at you like puppy dogs and ask, "Why are you leaving?" And you say that you are tired, and those stories you tell about your children staying awake too late and getting up too early and sometimes waking up in the middle of the night are all true stories. And they say, "But you're my favorite teacher!"

And you will feel sad and wish you hadn't decided to follow your bliss.


And then you will go pick up the kids, and one will fall down while he's running on the meadow, and his favorite shirt and favorite skirt will get all muddy, and you'll scoop him up (all 40 pounds) and say, "I know. It's not fun falling down."

Before the fall, you will ignore the 5-year-old girl who asks your son, every time he wears a skirt, why he is wearing a skirt. You will resist the urge to ask girls you don't know why they're wearing pants. No matter how cool you think it is that your boy loves skirts, you will feel violently, painfully protective of him, even though it doesn't seem to bother him that other kids ask him why he's wearing skirts and dresses.


After the tears stop, you'll go to your kids' favorite museum, because they've been wanting to go for two days, even though the thing they really want to climb on there will be wet and slippery and not at all fun. So you'll go back inside and do the same favorite things you've done all winter.

On the way there, you'll pull over in the same place you pull over every single Thursday, to let one child pee along the side of the road. Even though you know it will happen every single Thursday, you will find it frustrating and annoying beyond belief. Even if he's just four years old and more interested in playing and running and holding his baby doll than thinking about his bodily functions, the same functions which have consumed astonishing amounts of your energy, focus, and time since the moment of his birth. You might swear, quietly, under your breath.

Nobody tells you that parenting is a constant renegotiation and reconsideration of codes and rules that you'd never known existed. You'll sometimes tune out the children's conversation while you're driving to ponder why the dress code requires 3 and 4 and 5-year-old kids to wear shorts under their skirts, especially when shorts and a skirt and underpants are really just too many layers in the summertime.


You're going to feel like you won the lottery when the kid who never wants to pee anywhere but home agrees to go to the bathroom because he so obviously can't hold it anymore.

When the pee doesn't make a sound, it's because it is slowly soaking your kid's underpants. And the shorts under his skirt. But not the skirt. Thank god. Not the skirt. Nobody warns you that letting your kid go commando in a skirt at a children's museum produces an astonishing amount of anxiety—what rules are you breaking; who will ask you why your boy doesn't have any underpants on; and always the need to justify your choices to everyone else.


And when you finally get home, to the sanctum where anything goes, and you notice a tick on a scrotum (thank goodness we are not so strict about pants in our house), and you have to listen to an hour-long tantrum over the two-second extraction, nobody has warned you about how intense it is, to know that you have to do this unpleasant thing that every time feels like a violation of the secret covenant between you and your child: I will not hurt you. Because he doesn't understand right now that getting that tick out *is* not hurting him. That the fretting and worrying and watching for fever and rashes that starts every time we find another tick has good reason.

When the kids are finally in bed after fifty rounds of back-rubbing and leaking water cups and cries of "mommy, mommmmmmy!" you will lie in the dark with them and soak in the sound of their breathing, the touch of their toes under your body, their warm hands wrapped around your arm. You will lie there in the dark with tears streaming down your face. You will cry silently, feeling conflicted about crying over what wasn't really such a bad day, considering all the things that are awful in the world. And then you might, possibly, go write a blog post about it. In case someone else was wondering: how was your day? Consider yourselves warned.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Setting a New Course





Sometimes, the universe is sending you a message and you refuse to hear it. Sometimes, you hear it and ignore it for a while, until the din is too loud, the message unavoidable. And even then, doubt makes you hesitate, even though every sign points to yes.

A couple of weeks ago, I told my colleagues that I wanted to let go of the unpaid work I was doing at the lovely school where I teach—I'm just over half-time and had taken on much of the extracurricular work of a full-time teacher, including establishing a new diversity program. Then we went on our trip. I thought some more. I feel proud of a lot of the work I am doing. I know I'm a good teacher, and I love working with adolescents, who are so eager to discuss everything. I hope the school is a better place for my having been there. And I know that my kids are better off for having been there. I'm a better parent, in some ways.



Having four-year-olds is easier than having toddlers, mostly: they can be remarkably independent and creative. Sometimes I get a break—they go into their room, into the brother zone, and play beautifully. And at the same time, they're equally, if not more, exhausting. That two-hour nap in the middle of the day, during which I would daydream, write, get some work done, and drink tea? It's long gone, replaced by wrestling with two energetic chatterboxes who can't sleep at night if they take a nap. "Quiet time" consists of my scuttling from room to room while they try to play on top of my head. Yet this age is so short. In a couple of years, they'll be in first grade, learning to read and write, finding deep interests.


Last Friday, I drove to school feeling certain. I taught my classes, sat down to talk with the high school coordinator about a diversity issue, then closed with, "Well, I guess now is the time when I say I'm not coming back next year." The clarity and lightness I felt stayed there until I told my kids' teacher. I have loved all the teachers my boys have had at this school, and nothing has made this decision harder than having to say goodbye to them. It is perhaps fitting that I'm coming around to this decision while I'm in the middle of teaching The Odyssey for the fifth or sixth time. That text never gets old, with its questions of what it means to be a good human being, and its pursuit of the peace of home in a world full of monsters and disasters.

My Facebook feed is full of everybody's real-life disasters and joys. If disaster visits me, shouldn't I have spent some time stretching away from the easy comfort zone of the familiar into new territories? I'm not sure that I'm quitting teaching—in fact, I'm considering shifting my teaching to a slightly different age group. I'll still be doing some work with teens, this time as a college application essay tutor. So let us say for now that I'm quitting this particular combination of joys and costs.



I don't know what I'll be doing this time next year. I don't know what the kids will be doing.

But I know a few things:

I am choosing rest.

I am choosing to connect regularly, not just on Facebook, with my friends.

I will be writing more, more often.

I will walk more every day, alone, and with four-year-olds to guide me.

I will spend 10 minutes sitting in my backyard every day watching the plants grow, and listening to the boys play.

I will make a Southern-style Wish Tree—call it a Wish in A Bottle Tree.

I will learn new things and find new ways to teach people.

I was on my way home from watching some of my students present their 8th grade projects a week ago, the evening after I'd declared my intention not to return to EWS next fall. As I drove down the winding, dark road from Chapel Hill to Durham, I found an old mix CD, cryptically labeled "Hip Hop," and put it on. A few tracks in, Aesop Rock's "No Regrets" played, with its propulsive refrain:
You can dream a little dream
Or you can live a little dream
I'd rather live it
'cause dreamers always chase
But never get it
It's time to live the dream, not just dream it. Here we go: more smiles, adventures, and joys unknown.





Friday, April 17, 2015

Riding in the Car with My Boys

When you decide to drive 765 miles away from home with two four-year-olds, you take it pretty seriously. We made serious preparations. At the end of the first day of driving, I thought: Hey! This was so easy that I ought to blog about it! And at the end of the return trip, I thought: Hey! This was so hilariously difficult that I ought to blog about it!

Here's what we did: We drove from Durham, NC to Jackson, MS. Here's what we didn't do, not once in the four days total we spent on the road: use a screen to entertain our kids. This wasn't a deliberate choice: We had a backup plan with plenty of videos loaded onto our computers. Our boys love watching videos of garbage trucks and trains. On the other hand, our children also turn into drooling zombies when they tune in to screens, so we thought we'd see whether things ever got so bad that we'd bust out our laptops. We were close. But never really thought of going there. Perhaps we should have.

That first day, we felt like champs. We'd purchased several new items, mostly variations on toys/activities they already had. This had worked for us when we flew cross-country with 2-year-olds. What could possibly go wrong?

Some of the best stuff we tried:

Mess-free drawing pads

Tubes that stretch, compress, and hook together. The BEST toys we bought.

Lift-the-flap books with few words for us to read, so they could "read" them themselves.
We doled out our prizes out slowly over the first day. The children played merrily as we zipped down the road. We felt smug. Some things didn't work, but the boys were happy to play with what they had. This was great! Traveling with kids is so easy!

And this leads me to Tip #1: Never assume that works one day will work the next day. Do buy a few new things. Don't buy too many.

We arrived at our first day's goal, the ACTUAL General at The Southern Museum, with almost an hour to run around inside, take selfies with the train, and enjoy some of the fine playthings there. Our boys LOVE Buster Keaton's film "The General," and we'd carefully planning our trip so that we could go see the real thing. They were delighted. Tip #2: Plan for a destination midway through the drive that will get you all moving/out of the car for at least an hour. Our stop at the General was necessarily at the end of the day, but the kids were so excited to see it that the anticipation carried us through. For subsequent days, having a longer break mid-day would have helped more than having a final destination.



Tip #3: Don't eat dinner at the hotel. There is a well-rated burger joint next door to the museum in Kennesaw. We didn't eat there. We regretted this decision for the rest of the evening as we waited ages for mediocre burgers, wilted salad, and lousy fries.

Tip #4: Book a hotel with a pool. There are people who will drive 12 hours in one day. We are not those people. We like to sleep all night. It takes longer, and costs more, but is so worth it. The pool was extra-pleasant: We got up in the morning and swam before we hit the road. After a day spent cooped up in the car, spending a while moving before we got cooped up again was great. Day Two started off great.

Then came the turn: about an hour into the drive, D asked, "what else did you bring for us?" We managed to put him off for a while. But eventually we went through our whole stash in a couple of hours. We tried audiobooks. Those produced screaming. With another two hours left before we got to Jackson, things were getting serious. We took a break.



The break shifted the air a little bit. We said things like, "Well, you can have the toys you have, or we can just put them all away." It wasn't pretty. Music helped, for a while.  But we arrived in Mississippi with about an hour of whining total over two days. We felt even more smug.

We had a great trip—got to go on walks together every night, spent lots of quality time with the family. The kids slept great, unlike the last time we traveled.

For the return trip, we aimed at Chattanooga and its many wonders (trains, aquarium, Lookout Mountain) as the endpoint of day one. Day one found the children totally onto our strategy: imagine colossal amounts of fussing and whining and frustration with every new variation on drawing/coloring/cheap stuff to play with. At one point we were walking around in the rain trying to calm down screaming children. That novelty addiction is serious stuff. We survived, thanks to an emergency, yet extremely frustrating, toy purchase (not pictured because it was so annoying. Instead, please look at this cute picture of the boys with those spinning sparking things. These were a brief, glorious hit.)



Tip #5: Always double-check that your "halfway point" is really halfway, possibly a little more than halfway. Also, please refer back to Tip #4: we took a swim as soon as we'd parked our car. It totally changed how we all felt about each other. Very little about driving in cars with small children over long distances is fun: they don't want to play I Spy, they can't read, and even the truck-obsessed become jaded about all the tractor-trailers. The boys didn't take a nap until 3:30pm, which led to a cranky wake-up and a late bedtime. But swimming with small children is a delightful opportunity to connect—no requests for food; no help with LEGO; no sibling fights. We didn't know, during that swim, just how unevenly we'd divided our days of driving.

As a side note, I would absolutely drive through Chattanooga again—the scenery was fantastic and there were plenty of fun things to do, had we chosen to do them. Chattanooga to Durham is just under 7 hours on Google Maps, but I can promise you it is a much longer drive than that at 451 miles: the scenery is amazing, but there are windy roads, tons of trucks, and a lot of stops to make. The kids continued to play with their frustrating toy, with varying levels of success. We were all wiped out from going to bed too late. We did mention to them that we would not be giving them new things every five minutes; perhaps I will look back on this trip fondly as the time they learned to deal with delayed gratification. Perhaps I will look back on it as the trip that made me give away all the toys.

The best rest stop I've ever been to we discovered just over the North Carolina border. This stop saved our sanity. I wish we'd had a picnic lunch to eat; we could have spent an hour playing here. Instead, we were looking for somewhere to stop for lunch. Tip #6: Pack lunches, or plan ahead for a stop you can tolerate. Don't hope to stumble upon a great place at the next exit. It doesn't exist.

Fresh air and room to run. 
We climbed trees.

All of us climbed trees.

Peace and bliss were achieved when the kids finally took a nap at 3:30 and slept until we were only an hour from Durham.

Tip #7: Keep your sense of humor and drink plenty of coffee. Happy travels!