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The Sanka Connection.

Just so you know, this story is not about coffee. It’s about the random human connections that brighten our days and keep us going.

Sanka

The backstory: I took Michael to see a doctor a few weeks ago; we finished up around lunchtime, and he asked if I could take him to a local diner. We ordered an egg salad platter to share (one scoop each of egg salad, potato salad and coleslaw – Michael’s idea, not mine). I commented to several people later in the day that I thought it was funny that my 5th grade son orders like a 60-year-old woman, and that all he needed to go with it was a black coffee.

That afternoon, Michael had an appointment for physical therapy. He and I were chatting about our lunch with one of the employees and the woman she was working on at the next table from where Michael was. We started talking about his 60-year-old taste in diner food, and the patient suggested that Sanka might be a better beverage choice. This evolved into a discussion about Sanka (which, if you don’t know, is a brand of instant decaf coffee, and in the dark ages of the late 1900s, was the only decaf available. It was also a favorite of the 60 and up set). We wondered if it was still around.

So yesterday, we returned to physical therapy for another appointment. And we found out that yes, Sanka is still being made. Because the patient we had been chatting with found an individual packet somewhere, brought it to physical therapy to give to someone to pass it along to Michael and me (which was really confusing to the person who hadn’t been privy to our original conversation and had no idea why a patient was giving a packet of decaf coffee to pass along to another patient — a 10-year-old boy).

At any rate, I had a good laugh with the employee who had been there when we’d been talking about it. And I was astounded that this other patient had remembered our conversation, and thought to bring this little packet with her to her next physical therapy appointment.

These are the random connections with people that make me smile – the Sanka Connections. We can choose to exist in the little bubbles of our own lives, or we can choose to cultivate the experiences that we have with the many people around us, however frivolous they may seem at the time. It’s usually worth it.

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To the people taking care of my kid.

I’ve written about our experiences with the amazing people who took care of Michael last year during his lengthy recovery from knee surgery.

Now, it seems, there’s a new chapter to this story. A few weeks ago, Michael hurt his “good” knee. It was a bone contusion – a painful, but relatively minor injury. Given his history, we did have to take him for an MRI (his 4th in the last year and a half!), and several weeks later, he’s still on crutches. This latest injury also bought him a visit to a geneticist, who diagnosed him with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. We do have to take him for a cardiac screening to rule out complications, but thankfully, it looks like a fairly benign type of the syndrome, which causes loose joints and allows him to do weird circus-like tricks with his limbs, which seem to simultaneously amaze and nauseate people. Unfortunately, it also makes him more prone to injury, which is tough for an active kid who loves sports.

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Yesterday, I said a silent prayer of thanks to Michael’s physical therapist. Michael is 10 years old. He had been going to PT twice a week for 16 months. He was released from PT for just a few weeks before he had to head back again for this latest injury. And because of his diagnosis, it’s likely he’ll be there for a while, to continue to strengthen his muscles and hopefully avoid further injury.

While Michael was in the gym warming up on the bike, his physical therapist sat down with me to talk about his diagnosis, stopped thoughtfully, and said he would try and figure out ways to make this journey easier for Michael. A few minutes later, Michael returned, and LJ had given him a ball, with instructions to dribble while he stood on one foot, then the other. Knowing that Michael loves basketball, he’d found a way to make my kid smile while he was getting back to bearing full weight on both legs.

A small gesture? Perhaps. But not to Michael. And definitely not to me.

Regardless of their medical status, athletic ability, academic gifts, social stature, or the rest of the factors that make our kids who they are, we all have challenges to get through with our kids. This is ours with Michael.

Is it easy? Definitely not. Could I bemoan the fact that I have his orthopedist’s cell phone number, and that I’ve called it more than once? That he sat on the bench for all of last basketball season, played two games this season, only to be benched again with another injury? Sure.

But I’m choosing not to. Instead, we do our best to use these situations as lessons for all of us. I’ve learned that it’s hard for me to take him to his basketball games to watch him sit on the bench. But I’ve also learned that being a part of a team is so important to him, and that Michael is happier sitting on the bench, cheering his team on, than he would be at home. So we take him to the games.

I’ve learned that Michael is entitled to bad days. And so am I. But there’s little point in having too many bad days, so we choose to find ways to turn a bad day around, especially by being thankful for the many people who are in this with us.

Thank you.

 

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Our diner adventures.

I’ve written about my diner adventures before; I’ve lived in New Jersey for most of my life, and diners are everywhere. Some are better than others, and about two years ago, Matthew (then 12) and I decided to take advantage of our solo Sunday mornings, when Michael is in Hebrew school and Dave is playing basketball. We agreed to have breakfast together every free Sunday morning, and we’d try a new diner each time. The criteria? It had to be within about a 15-minute drive, and either be recommended by a friend or have at least 3 1/2 stars on Yelp.

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We haven’t gone every week, but we’ve tried a lot of new places (and sometimes traveled a little further than our original 15-minute limit). I think because we have narrow criteria, we haven’t been to a lot of terrible places. And we haven’t had any terrible times; it’s been nice to share some time alone and talk about whatever has been going on.

This past summer, Matthew and I were lucky enough to be invited to join the Star-Ledger Munchmobile for a not-so-coincidental trip around New Jersey to eat pancakes and waffles for a day. It was a cool, strange and slightly nauseating experience. I’m so glad we shared that day, along with the rest of our weekly diner adventures.

At the request of a friend, following is a list of diners we’ve visited, separated into three categories – “worth a trip,” “pretty good,” and “wouldn’t bother,” along with our reasons why (although after a couple of years, while I remember whether or not we enjoyed our meal, I definitely can’t remember what we ate in some of the places). I’m certainly no food critic, and I know that our taste isn’t the same as everyone’s, but I hope you enjoy reading about where we’ve been!

Worth a trip

Tops Diner, East Newark. This place often wins “best diner in New Jersey” honors, so despite the slightly longer drive, we definitely wanted to check it out. It’s a big place with ample parking, but be prepared for a wait for a table. It’s more upscale-looking on the inside than I was expecting, the food was good, and service was quick an no-nonsense.

Rise & Shine, Fanwood. We’d driven by this place so many times without realizing that it was even a diner. It’s a nearby favorite now, and we’ve been there a few times. The coffee is good, food is consistently tasty (I always order French Toast), we’ve never had to wait for a table, and the service is pleasant.

Urban Griddle, Elizabeth. This is a funky restaurant on the side of a busy part of Rt. 1&9, and it looks like it doesn’t quite belong there. But it’s upscale and cozy, and the food is delicious, plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Matthew ate cake batter pancakes (perfectly flavored, and not as sweet as they could have been), and I had French Toast and some really good coffee. It’s worth a drive.

Lenora’s Cafe, Keyport. This was a midday stop on our Munchmobile tour. Matthew and I both loved it, and because we were traveling with a larger group, we were able to taste more from the menu. We tried a few different specialty waffles, pancakes and omelets. My favorite was the Crunchy Waffle, with granola and dulce de leche.

Toast, Montclair. Also a Munchmobile stop. Matthew and I loved something called the “Shamewich” – basically a Taylor Ham, egg and cheese sandwich, using pancakes instead of a roll, and served with syrup. It was delicious. We also loved the Red Velvet pancakes, and it was nice to sit outside on a quiet Montclair morning.

Park Wood Diner, Maplewood. This was one of our first stops on our original “diner tour” a few years ago. It’s crowded and you may have to wait for a seat at the closely-positioned tables. But the food is really good for standard diner fare, and the staff was just really nice.

White Diamond, Clark. Okay, so this isn’t the type of place I’d normally give lots of praise to. But it’s Matthew’s favorite. A definite hole-in-the-wall with a counter and a handful of booths. We’ve been a few times, and the staff is always really pleasant, the food is super cheap and the classic Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese on a roll (the only thing I’ve ever ordered there) is consistently good. It’s cash only, and some of the food is served on paper plates, but for the price, it can’t be beat.

Pretty good

Kenilworth Diner, Kenilworth. This was a pretty typical New Jersey diner. The food was good (I had a yummy Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese); the service had a smidge of attitude. The weird part about this place was that it felt like we were crashing a party; it was full of regulars, even on a Sunday morning.

Vicki’s Diner, Westfield. Yes, you’ll probably have to wait for a table, crowded in the front of the restaurant with other people and their impatient kids. And once you’re seated, you’ll probably be cramped in the small booths (if you can, grab a seat at the counter, where service is quick). The food here is consistently good, and while some of the wait staff have a bit of New Jersey attitude, Vicki’s is a good diner standby.

Manny’s, Clark. Our first visit here was disappointing. I ordered blintzes, which didn’t taste quite like I was expecting them to (and they were served oddly on a plate full of shredded lettuce). But after a friend raved about Manny’s, we tried it again. They were crowded but not full on a Sunday morning, and pancakes and coffee were much better. I’d definitely go again, but not for the blintzes.

Skylark Diner, Edison. Personally, I think this place is overpriced and a little overrated. It’s diner food made a little more upscale (and more expensive). The Belgian Waffle here was good, and so was the spinach and cheese omelet. Some people love it here, and there are nice touches (the table is given a baguette to share, and toast is served with strawberry cream cheese and orange marmalade), but personally, I don’t think it’s worth what you’ll pay.

Wouldn’t bother

Park Avenue Diner, South Plainfield. This was one we went out of our way for, based on good Yelp reviews (I think that since we went, the rating has gone down). It was full of old-school tacky, mirrored diner décor, and pretty empty on a Sunday morning. Matthew ordered peanut butter pancakes, which were served with a clump of half-melted peanut butter chips that didn’t taste much like peanut butter. When I asked the waitress about it, she seemed kind of confused. Overall, just not great.

Plum on Park, Montclair. This place looked upscale on our Munchmobile tour, but we thought the food was just okay. Fresh-squeezed juice was a nice touch, but there was definitely a celery flavor in Matthew’s orange juice. The Belgian waffle was tasty, but we didn’t love much else. It was quiet on a Saturday morning. I really wanted to like it, but just didn’t.

Goodman’s, Berkeley Heights. This place was nearly empty on a Sunday morning. With a name like Goodman’s, I was expecting more of an old-fashioned Jewish deli. It wasn’t. And a red flag here: when I ordered blintzes, the waitress asked me what exactly they were. Really??!  And I’m pretty sure they were the same frozen ones I can buy at the supermarket.

Rustic Mill Diner, Cranford. I found a small spill of dishwashing liquid on the plate of food that was served to me. While I respect cleanliness, this was too much for me. Eeew.

Summit Diner, Summit. We didn’t get it. This beloved diner gets high ratings on websites. We waited a few minutes to get squished in at the counter, and while the food was okay, neither of us thought that it was enough to overcome the uncomfortable surroundings. Yes, the old train car looks cool from the outside, but we found it hot and crowded inside.

We still have a number of places that we want to try – Manny’s Diner in Montclair, the Brownstone Diner in Jersey City, and more. And as Matthew is growing up, I realize that we don’t have an endless supply of diner Sunday mornings, so I’m going to savor our time together.

 

 

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A loss.

I had a sad parenting first last week. My 14-year-old son learned of the death of an important teacher in his life. He’d only known she was ill for several weeks before she passed away.

I wanted to talk to Matthew about her — about all that he’d learned from her, the fun he’d had with her, and the impact that she had on his life. The only problem with my plan was that Mickey was Matthew’s teacher, not mine. And though I’d spoken with her a few times and corresponded with her via e-mail, Matthew was the one who had been with her every week for four years, for drama classes and rehearsals for an outreach theater program. This was his loss, not mine.

And yet, I felt it profoundly. I’m still trying to figure out why.

When Matthew was 10, he decided to take part in a musical at day camp. He’d never expressed interest in theater before that, but he had fun. When we were looking for a new activity in 5th grade, he asked about acting classes. I did a quick online search and signed him up for a drama class at Papermill Playhouse, a nearby regional theater with an education program. That’s where he met Mickey. He spent two years in her weekly “Creative Drama” classes, then auditioned for and was accepted into the school’s All-Star touring company. He took part in two years of productions directed by Mickey, and performed these shows at schools for kids with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities.

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When Matthew first started these tours, he was hesitant about going into the audience after the shows for a “meet and greet” with the other kids who performed. I noticed that he’d sort of tag along with one of the program veterans – usually a girl – who seemed more comfortable with the kids who were different than those Matthew had always been around.

By the second year, Matthew was hugging the kids in the audience, taking pictures with them, and genuinely thought that meeting them was even better than performing. This, I know, is because of Mickey.

Matthew is still participating in this program; they’re rehearsing now for a tour of Into The Woods in February. As his mom, I’m proud that he’s now also volunteering for a soccer program for special needs kids in our town, and he loves it. I think Mickey would be proud of that too.

So I guess my sadness over Mickey’s death is understanding how fortunate we are to have people in our children’s lives who can impact them in such a positive way, sometimes without our knowledge until after the fact. Matthew went into a classroom with Mickey when he was 10 years old, to learn about acting. He did learn about acting, but has come away a better person because of everything else she taught him. And how many of us can say that about a teacher — and someone we hardly knew?

Thanks for everything Mickey. Rest in peace.

 

 

 

 

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Mixing it up.

I did one of those things yesterday that on the surface seems fairly meaningless, but made me take pause and think.

I mixed together some crayons.

Now, my kids are 14 and 10, and while we still have crayons in the house, they’re rarely used. Michael needed to color in some maps for a school assignment over the weekend, and when I was putting them away, I wondered why we had one small container of crayons, as well as a larger bin that wasn’t full. So I poured the crayons from the small container into the larger one. And then I stopped.

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You see, that smaller container held more than just a few crayons; it held memories.

When Matthew was four, his preschool teachers did a unit on the states. Something about it captivated him, and he wanted more. We read books (Scrambled States of America became a fast favorite), did puzzles and played with state flashcards. In the midst of this, we took a day trip to the Crayola Factory, and discovered that a few years before, Crayola had made a collection of state crayons (imagine – Cornhusker Yellow, Aloha Aquamarine, and Tennesienna!). Though they had been discontinued, we easily found a box on Ebay as a gift for Matthew. He spent hours with map coloring pages and his state crayons. He sorted them. He laid them out on the floor.

He used them for a while, then forgot about them, and they’d come out now and then when someone needed crayons for homework and didn’t want to pull out the bigger bin.

Fast forward to yesterday. I only paused briefly before dumping the state crayons into the container where they’d mingle with the rest of the regular Crayolas that had been collected from the big box of 64 crayons and leftovers from school pencil cases and the end of each year.

I was immediately hit with a pang of regret. Those crayons were more than just something my kids used to color. They were special. They were a part of who Matthew was at the time, and who he continues to become.

But I realized that just like the crayons, these experiences mix together to create who we are and what we love. Keeping them separate wouldn’t bring back that sweet time, or strengthen the memories. So I decided to let them go.

Sometimes, I find that it’s difficult to know what to hang onto, and what to let go. But yesterday, I think I learned that letting something go doesn’t mean that I’ve diminished its importance. I’m just going to take the memories and the crayons, put them all together, and move along with these wonderful people my children continue to become.

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End of an era.

My next-door neighbor just dismantled the trampoline they’ve had in their family’s backyard for nearly a decade. One daughter is in college, and the other will graduate from high school in the spring, so it’s not surprising. And yet, looking into their yard this afternoon, there is something missing from the landscape of our neighborhood, both literally and figuratively.

Our neighbors bought the trampoline for their younger daughter, who at the time loved gymnastics. My kids were still pretty young then, so the appeal of jumping on a brand-new, springy trampoline was strong. Our neighbors gave us permission to use the trampoline whenever we liked — a decision which I think they may have soon regretted, as I think my boys were probably on it more than their own kids.

Michael was a late walker, but loved to sit on the trampoline and bounce around while his brother jumped on it. And Matthew did his first solo back handspring there. They ran around and jumped, even when the black trampoline was fiery hot from the sun, and when the weather was icy and frigid.

But it was so much more than that.

Our youngest neighbor is nearly four years older than Matthew, but when they were younger, they bonded over gymnastics  tricks on the trampoline. As they got older, I’d peek outside and see the two of them sitting on the trampoline with an iPod, talking and bonding over their mutual love of music.

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When we had our annual block party, an adult would usually keep an eye on the kids who went into the back to play on the trampoline. It was never really necessary, because this is where the kids all learned the neighborhood tradition: the big kids take care of the little kids. The biggest kids would always make sure that the littlest kids weren’t getting bounced around more than they wanted to. Kids would help each other on and off the trampoline, and tie their shoes for them when they located them in the big pile and put them back on.

And that rule the kids learned from each other on the trampoline — it extended beyond just the neighborhood kids. I still smile when I think of the time I saw Michael, in first grade, squatting down to tie the shoes of a classmate who came over the play, got off the trampoline, but hadn’t learned to tie his shoes yet.

If a neighborhood kid was walking or riding by on his bike, the bike would often be left on our neighbor’s driveway, and the kid would join whoever was already on the trampoline. Many of the kids in the neighborhood could probably still tell you where I keep the cups in my house that they’d drink water from when they got thirsty. Some kids, including mine, ruined countless pairs of socks trudging through muddy grass after a football that they were playing with on the trampoline, or just because they were too lazy to put their shoes right back on.

RIP, trampoline. Thanks for the bounces, the lessons you taught the kids, and helping to make our neighborhood the great place it is.

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Everyone’s Got Something.

I was recently chatting with a friend about how tough it can be as a parent to watch our kids go through the same struggles we did at their age. To my surprise, though, I’m more patient with my kids than I’ve ever been with myself. Now that I have one teenager and one “tween” (okay, I know that’s really a term for marketing people who are trying to sell stuff to 10-year-olds, but you get what I mean), I do my best to explain, as I say in my personally coined phrase, “everyone’s got something.” (Yup, you can use that!).

I remember being about 15 years old, and going to bed what I always assumed was way earlier than any other human my age. Anyone who has known me for more than a few days knows that it’s still the case. It’s a rare night that I’m up later than about 10:00. I know I don’t function well without enough sleep, and I’m okay with that.

But at 15, I know it was something that made me feel different and weird. Thinking that everyone else was staying up later, and I was some freak who required a full eight hours of sleep. Fast-forward just a few years when I was in college. I still needed a good night’s sleep. And while I wasn’t quite ready to embrace it, I could speak up about it. I could go next door in my dorm and ask the girls to turn down their music. I could go home after an afternoon and evening of bar-hopping, while friends would stay out for another bar and hours longer. Shortly after I joined a sorority, we went on a weekend trip to another campus. Most of the girls wanted to stay out late. I was thankful to find two like-minded people who wanted to head back and get some sleep; they ended up being some of my closest friends during my college years.

I tell my kids these stories, with the hopes that they’ll understand that the things that make them feel different, alone and weird now are the very things that I someday hope they can learn to love about themselves because these are the things that make them who they are. And that everyone, no matter how self-assured and cool they seem to be, has something they also feel different and weird about.

Some kids, like me, need a lot of sleep. Some kids are anxious or depressed. Some kids have physical limitations. Some kids are adopted, have two moms, or are coming to realize that they’re gay. Some kids struggle in school. Some struggle to make friends.

The point is that everyone’s got something. Nobody is perfect, in the sense that none of us are without something that makes us feel different or alone. But on the flip side, we are all perfect, because these are things that make us unique and who we are. Let’s help our kids understand that, and to embrace their differences and the differences of others.

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To my child’s doctor.

Dear doctor who put my son’s knee back together:

We will always be grateful for your knowledge and surgical skills, and for fixing our son’s torn ACL. We understand that there are few cases like his, because not too many 9-year-olds are unfortunate enough to tear their ACL. We understand that you see a lot of patients for a lot of different things. In fact, we understand a lot more than you think we do.

And after a frustrating and upsetting visit to your office today, we think there are a few things that YOU should understand.

Our son is not just another case for you to add to your study. He is a kid who has now spent about 10 percent of his life dealing with a knee injury that’s usually reserved for professional athletes and grownups.

If you’re going to change your tune and tell us 10 months after a surgery you’ve been telling us all along would take a 9-12 month recovery (and now it might be as long as 18 months), you ought to have some reasons for that. Obviously, we want to keep our kid from re-injuring himself, but it’s our job as parents to manage his expectations. And it’s tough to do that when the expectations change and we’re not notified.

And while I get that you’re really busy, it would make things a lot less frustrating for everyone if all the people who were involved in our son’s rehabilitation were on the same page. When someone tells us today that our son shouldn’t be jumping, when the physical therapist (who, by the way, we switched to at your urging) told him months ago that jumping would be safe, I think you might understand why we’d get annoyed.

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When you asked our son if he was listening to you today, I assure you that he was, but he was looking away so you wouldn’t see that he was trying not to cry. And I can also assure you that he’s listening to you all the other times you speak, even when you’re talking to us and assume he doesn’t understand you. He’s a kid, but he’s still in the room, he can hear you, and he knows what you’re saying.

And by the way, when you come into the exam room and ask him the same question every time (“What’s your favorite subject in school?”), you’re not really getting to know him. It’s still Writing, like it’s been every time you’ve asked. Maybe you should make a note of it, and get to know him some other way. Because you don’t really know him at all.

You don’t know that he was given an award for his positive attitude from the gym teacher last year, even though he wasn’t able to participate in gym for most of the school year.

You don’t know that he was given another award at camp this summer, for being one of two kids out of hundreds who were acknowledged for embodying the positive spirit and attitude the camp encourages kids to have. And he won this award while spending the entire summer in a knee brace, not being able to participate in the sports he loves.

You don’t know that he loves basketball, because you continue to assume that he only plays baseball, because that’s how he tore his ACL. He loves basketball so much that he went to as many practices and games for his team last year as he could, even though he was on crutches and couldn’t play. You don’t know that he’s been working for the last 10 months to get strong enough to play basketball this winter.

You don’t know that he has more than one person in his life who has nicknamed him “Smiley,” because he smiles most of the time. Even during this past year.

You don’t know that my son is one tough kid. The day after his ACL surgery, when it hurt too much just to move, he’d ask us to put the theme from “Rocky” on, and that would be enough to motivate him to do the bending exercises you told him he’d need to do to get stronger. You don’t know that sometimes he cries because frankly, this is just all too much for a 10-year old.

You don’t know that he left your office today upset, but with more determination than ever to keep working hard.

My son is more than his knee. I hope you’ll try to remember that.

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14 Years Later.

When my kids were younger, I remember asking someone how I would ever talk to them about 9/11. We live in a New Jersey town where lots of people commute to Manhattan; our community lost more than a dozen that day, and we were close enough to see the smoke that rose above Ground Zero. It was a terrifying, world-changing day. I couldn’t imagine telling my kids about this horrible day without frightening them.

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Here we are, 14 years later. Matthew, who was a newborn on that day in 2001, is now a high school freshman, and Michael is in 5th grade. They both know about 9/11. They’ve learned about it in school, and we’ve talked about it at home. I’ve realized as they’ve grown that because they didn’t share the collective fear that encompassed us on that day, they would never feel the same as those of us who lived through it. I’m grateful for that.

Even though we were fortunate to have not lost people close to us on 9/11, we have friends with stories of their journeys out of lower Manhattan that day. I was on maternity leave from my job, and watched the events unfold on NBC. I recall yelling upstairs to Dave that “some idiot just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.” But when the second plane hit, we all knew it was something more than that. Our sense of security would never be the same.

As the years have passed and the memories aren’t as fresh, my thoughts of the day are less frightening. But each year, I can still recall the crystal clear, blue September sky that morning. The reporters on TV, who were at an absolute loss for words as to how to explain what was going on. The air that day, which shifted from a crisp early autumn breeze, to a smell that I still can’t describe and have never smelled again, but that I’m sure was from all that was going on just 20 miles away. The sinking feeling in my stomach when I watched the first tower fall live on TV. The relief at realizing that all the people we knew could have been affected were safely away from danger.

I also recall the first anniversary of 9/11, listening to the reading of the names of those who died that day, and crying, as I do each year. I’m still not sure why. And teaching my second semester of a college public speaking course on that first anniversary, suspending my lecture for the day and offering students the opportunity to come to the front of the class and talk about their own experiences of that day a year earlier. Some couldn’t do it. Others did and broke into tears.

I realize now that on some level, 9/11 has become a bond that those of us who lived through it will always share. It seems that many people want to talk about how they experienced the day. I’m no different. I’d think that we’d want to forget the chaos and tragedy that was going on, but it seems that there’s some comfort in talking about what we were doing at each moment.

I’m glad that talking about 9/11 with my kids hasn’t enveloped them with fear, as I thought it might. When Matthew was about 9 or 10, he asked me some questions about 9/11, and we talked about it. He looked at me thoughtfully, and just said, “Wow, sounds like a scary day.”

It was.

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What I Learned In Elementary School

As the school year is drawing to an end for my kids, I’ve realized that next year will be my last as an elementary school parent. My older son is entering high school in the fall, and my younger son will be in 5th grade.

I will have spent 10 years as the parent of an elementary school-aged child. That’s a fairly significant amount of time, and I’ve learned a fairly significant number of things. So, I thought I’d pass along my pieces of advice to those of you entering or in the midst of this stage in your parenting:

1. You’ll get used to the smell. I remember the first time I walked into my son’s school. I was overwhelmed by, of all things, the smell. Not a bad smell — just that school smell.

2. Ask your child questions. And by questions, I don’t mean, “How was your day?” or “What did you do in school today?,” which isn’t going to get you much information. Ask them questions that will give your child the chance to talk. I have one “talker,” which means I find out a lot of what’s going on inside and outside the classroom. The other kid — not so much. But what I discovered is that if I asked him easy questions like, “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” or “What book did your teacher read to you today?,” it would give me more information, and I could offer follow-up questions.

3. Trust the school. I’m not saying that they don’t make mistakes, because of course, we all do. But I think if you go into your child’s school experience with the attitude that nobody else can take care of your child, you’re destined to fail. Let’s face it — teachers don’t make a ton of money; anyone who chooses this career does it because they love children. They want what’s best for your child, just like you.

4. Let your child fail sometimes. A few years ago, I was working at home, and found that Matthew had left his completed homework on the kitchen table. Since I was home, I could have brought it in, but I didn’t, even though I knew he might be upset when he realized he didn’t have it. Instead, I e-mailed the teacher and let her know that he’d done it, but forgotten it, and that I didn’t plan to bring it in for him. There are lots of things your child can learn if you don’t rescue them every time — for Matthew, it was that the earth wouldn’t fly off its axis if he made a mistake. Other children might need to learn how to be more responsible or organized. Either way, if you bail them out every time, they’ll learn that they don’t have to be independent.

5. But, remember that they’re still kids. And sometimes, it’s okay to bring a forgotten lunch or musical instrument to school.

6. It’s their homework. Not yours. I remember Matthew working on a book report project in 4th grade. He had to create a cereal box that represented the character and the book. It was a cool assignment, but watching him do it nearly put me over the edge. I REALLY wanted to get my scrapbook paper and some stencils and make the whole thing look way prettier than a 9-year-old could. But I kept telling myself that it looked completely 4th grade appropriate, and as long as he could handle the project himself, I needed to back off. Same goes for nightly homework. Help your child if they ask for it, but not if they don’t.

7. Homework shouldn’t make them cry. I can’t remember which of my child’s teachers told the parents this at back-to-school night, but it’s a rule we’ve always followed. If homework is so frustrating that your kiddo is crying, first take a break and try to come back to it. If they still can’t handle it, stop, put a note to the teacher on the homework and let her know that your child didn’t understand something. Obviously, if this happens every night, there’s something else going on, but on occasion, there’s going to be a lesson that gets by your kid.

8. Let teachers know when they’re doing something right. Unfortunately, parents are quick to complain when something goes wrong, but don’t let the school know when things are going well. It doesn’t take much time to send a teacher a quick e-mail to let him know that your child is excited about a particular lesson, that they’re proud of mastering a new skill, or that they’ve said something particularly nice about a teacher. While you’re at it, let the principal know too. He’s probably fielding more calls from parents with a complaint, so he’d probably like to hear something nice too.

9. Stand up for your kid if you need to. When Matthew was in kindergarten, it took a little bit of work to get him speech therapy services that he needed for a lisp he no longer has (thanks to two years of speech in school!). One year, one of my children had a teacher he thought didn’t like him. I told him that couldn’t possibly be the case, but after I heard it from him a few more times, I asked for a meeting with the teacher, brought my son along, and told her that he thought she didn’t like him. She denied it, of course, and I’ll never know if she just didn’t like him (let’s face it — we all love our kids, but we sometimes meet people in this world who we just don’t care for). But once we addressed it, she was much nicer to him.

10. Enjoy the ride. There’s something very sweet about watching our kids grow from tiny kids who are the same size as their backpacks to “big kids” who are ready to brave middle school. Hang up their artwork. Put their spelling tests on the fridge. Celebrate report cards with their favorite dinner. And hold their hand while they’ll still let you.

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