parenting, Uncategorized

Dear Elementary School.

I know we’ve been together for 10 years, but as our youngest child is finishing up 5th grade, it’s time for us to break up.

It’s a bittersweet ending to what I can truly say has been a pretty amazing relationship. On one hand, it’s time. Our 5th grader is ready to move on to middle school. As parents, we’re beginning to feel a little out of place among the parents herding younger siblings on the playground and pushing them around in strollers.

On the other hand, even though we know it’s time, it’s still so hard to leave.

When we first walked through the door, you were a little intimidating, despite the small stature of the people inside. We were about to trust you to take care of and educate our kids, who frankly we’d only known for a handful of years. We hadn’t yet figured out how to get them to eat anything but plain pasta, so we were wondering how in the world you’d get them to actually learn anything.

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I think of how much we didn’t know when we came into this relationship, and how much we’ve all learned in 10 years.

You taught our kids how to write in cursive. How to check out a library book. What to do if you think you’re going to throw up someplace that’s not home (Answer: try not to do it on the floor. But when you’re still this little, it’ll all be okay if you do). How to write a book report, do long division and play games on those little scooters in gym. How to make conversation during lunch, and how to play nicely at recess (and what happens when you don’t).

You taught our kids that getting a bad grade isn’t the end of the world. That if you fall off the monkey bars, dust yourself off and try it again. That kindness matters.

You worked with us to give our kids the confidence to participate in nerve-wracking spelling bees, to learn how to play an instrument, to give a presentation in front of the class, to ask for help when they needed it. You helped them set goals like making our town’s all-city music ensembles or district art show; you celebrated with them when they achieved these goals, and helped them know it was okay when they didn’t.

We learned lessons too. That sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your kid is just not going to eat that lunch you packed for him (Bonus lesson: he won’t starve to death). We learned that every kid picks up different skills – social and academic – at different times, and comparing your kid to another one is probably not going to make anyone happy.

Together,  we learned that sometimes people are going to disappoint us. And that others are going to be there for us in ways that we couldn’t even anticipate.

Thank you, elementary school. You’re a very special place. I know you’re going to make some other family very happy.

 

 

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Appreciating the Teachers.

I read on Facebook this morning that today is Teacher Appreciation Day. So it must be true.

My mother is a retired teacher, and I think because I was raised by a teacher, I was taught to appreciate teachers. (Insert shout out here to my mother – my first teacher – who taught me some of the more important things in life – how to fold a fitted sheet and make a bed with hospital corners, how to know when it’s time to flip a pancake, and how to shave my legs).

When I think back to my own childhood, there were so many teachers who impacted me, and helped shape me into the person I am today. My 5th grade teacher Mrs. Drake, who introduced our class to French because it was something she wanted to share. I ended up choosing French as the language I took in middle school, continued through high school, and minored in French in college. And my high school French teacher, Mrs. Larsen, took us to French restaurants in Manhattan, showed us French movies, and shared important French literature and more important French swear words. I remember my first trip to Paris, thinking of Mrs. Larsen as I walked around Montmartre, a place we had talked about in high school.

Mr. Gill, the band director in my elementary school, who nurtured my interest in music. I took piano lessons at home, but Mr. Gill was the one who taught me how to play several instruments, and allowed me to experience the joy of playing in band.

There were teachers who taught me things that were less academic, but equally important. Mrs. Pezak, a high school literature teacher, who taught me the importance of humor and warmth in connecting with people. Dr. Butt (a great college professor with a less than great name), who taught me that working with topics that engage you are going to bring out the best in you. Dr. Goodman, the director of my graduate program, who taught me how to transition from being a student to a professional adult.

Teaching isn’t the best paying profession, and aside from getting summers “off” (when many teachers take on summer jobs), there aren’t a lot of perks. But as a teacher myself, I know that a student letting me know that something they learned from me came up at their internship, or something we talked about was helpful in a job interview — this is what makes it all worth it.

 

 

 

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parenting

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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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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I’m too old for this.

So, we’re almost two weeks into the new school year. My kids seem settled into their new routines in 4th grade and 8th grade.  Me? Not so much.

Now that my younger son is in 4th grade and I have just two years left as an elementary school parent, I realize that not only are my kids getting older, but I am too.  This was especially apparent to me on the first day of school, when I stood outside the school door, waiting for my 4th grader to bound out and announce to me that he was “starving” – our charming daily after-school routine. I glanced over to the door where the tiny first-graders came out, and saw the parents at their first school pickup, pushing a stroller with a younger sibling, or chasing a toddler around the playground.

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That was me – seven years ago, picking up a first-grader while simultaneously figuring out how to get through a second round of the Terrible Twos.  I got involved in the school, met other moms, and made friends. By the time both kids overlapped in the school, every face there was a familiar one.

Seven years is a pretty long time, if you’re going to the same place twice a day, every day, from September until June. And in seven years, a lot can change.  My 8th grader is still more or less that same sweet kid he was in first grade.  Unless we’re together in public where he might be seen by another 8th grader. Then he might pretend that he doesn’t know me. My 4th grader is still adorable and energetic.

And me?  By the time my family “graduates” from elementary school, I will have spent nearly a decade getting to know teachers and parents, watching my kids learn and grow.  In “my” elementary school years, I will have gotten through most of my 40s – arguably the happiest years of my life so far. But it feels strange. I had kids on the older side, and as I’m a little closer to 50 than I am to 40, many of the new parents are in their 30s. They are just beginning this journey, while I’m figuring out how to parent with an arthritic knee, graying hair and a husband with an AARP membership (and no, he’s not generations ahead of me; they send you the paperwork at 50, and if your hankering for discounts outweighs your vanity about your age, it’s a nice thing to have. But I digress).

In another two years, when I have one child in high school and one in middle school, I suspect I will look back on the nine years spent as an elementary school parent as a sweet time in my life. I still enjoy shopping for school supplies and making Halloween costumes; I don’t mind helping with homework and packing lunches.  Now I just need my reading glasses to do it all.

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Hello, I’m your child’s teacher!

It’s that time of year again.  There’s a chill in the air, the sun is setting earlier, I’m sneezing from who-knows-what flying around, and we’ve spent two late evenings this week in overheated classrooms with a bunch of other parents who don’t even seem to be trying to resist the urge to distract themselves on their phones while their kids’ teachers are telling them what to expect from the next 10 months.

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It seems a little more straightforward in elementary school.  The teacher (who, by the way, probably hates back-to-school night because odd as it might seem to you, she is a whole lot happier trying to corral a bunch of runny-nosed 7-year-olds into their seats than she is talking to adults whose suit-covered behinds don’t even FIT into those seats), has enough time to show you adorable drawings on the walls, and give you a little show-and-tell about this year’s confusing spelling program, and some sort of diorama your kid will be crying about in a few short months.

You’ll sign up for an individual conference next month, where you can find out if your child is as weird in school as they are at home.

Now, back-to-school night in middle school seems to be an entirely different story.  Given that middle schoolers are a somewhat mysterious brood, prone to periods of silence, followed by periods of intense information-sharing and questioning, it’s possible you know a lot about your middle schooler’s teachers.  Or nothing.

You can expect to be squeezed through crowded hallways of confused, lost parents, looking for the Language Arts room.  The confusion is frequently interrupted by, “Lisa! Over here!!  Oh, my God! I haven’t seen you in so long! How was the beach?”  Followed by, “Excuse me, sorry! Excuse me,” while Lisa prances across the hallway to kiss her friend and they both pull out their phones to see when they can get together for coffee.

This is all happening in the approximately 37 seconds the parents have to get from one class to the next, because if parents were actually given an appropriate amount of time to get around the building, we’d be there until midnight.

You can likely expect to be greeted at the door by a foreign language teacher.  In a foreign language.  This makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.  Our son takes Spanish, and it’s not like I don’t understand when Senora Whats-Her-Nombre shakes my hand and says “hola.” But I’m never sure how to respond.  I’m pretty sure she speaks English, so I could say “Hi,” but given that she’s started the conversation in Spanish, I feel sort of obligated to go along with her and pretend that I’m bilingual.  But I’m afraid that if I say “hola” in return, she’s going to ask me a question or say something I don’t understand in Spanish.  So I just sort of look at her, quickly break eye contact and go sit down.

You can expect that, unless you are an engineer or accountant, your child’s math teacher is going to use a term like “absolute value” or a word like “quadratic” that is going to make you feel afraid enough that you may ask the teacher now if she can tutor YOU, because if your child asks you ANY question about math this year, he is going to find for sure that you’re really not as smart as you like to pretend you are.

When the Phys. Ed. teachers announce that every 7th grader is required to have deodorant in their gym locker, you’re going to think a lot of things.  Like, is there any parent who has never gotten a whiff of their own 7th grader and not figured that out on their own?  Or, please let it not be my kid who needs to be spoken to because he has forgotten to use the deodorant I know he brought in the first week of school.  Or, how is it possible for a teacher to tolerate being in a room full of sweaty 7th graders?

When back-to-school night eventually ends, you hope the sun hasn’t started coming back up again.  Because you still have to get home, get any straggling kids to bed, and start worrying about a math midterm.

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Just putting it out there….

I was pretty pleased last night when I saw my 12-year-old son Matthew’s Instagram post.  Not because it was a great-looking selfie.  It wasn’t.  And not because he’d said anything particularly brilliant or funny.

He posted a photo of himself, hand on his chin, looking pretty bored on the night before the first day of 7th grade.  It was how he captioned the photo that made me realize that at 12, he’s light years ahead of where I was at that age.  He wrote, ironically:  #ughschool, #thinkimreadybutidontknowifiam, #imtiredandineedsleep.

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And here’s why I loved it.  He wasn’t pretending to be, literally, too cool for school.  Matthew was born one of those kids who can be who he really is, and say what’s actually on his mind.  It took me until my 30s to understand that the way we truly connect with other people is to say what we’re really feeling.  Somehow at 12, he finds it okay to tell people what he’s thinking – “I’m really not sure if I’m ready for another year of this.”  At that age, I was probably crying behind closed doors at home, and pretending to the world that it was all good, even if it wasn’t.

It’s much less stressful, I realize as an adult, not to pretend to be something I’m not.  When I tell friends that yes, I have nights where I crawl into bed, pretty disgusted with myself about how I’ve parented my children that day, they often respond with a wide-eyed “Me too!”  But it’s also a chance for us to remind ourselves that the next day, we crawl out of bed, apologize to our kids, and try our hardest to be a better version of what we were the day before.

None of us are on this journey alone.  We have chances every day to grab hands with the person next to us, and take them along for the ride.

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