Why Dummies Make Good Teachers.

I’ve always been quick to point out when there’s something I don’t “do”. Something that isn’t “me”.

I’m relatively multi-faceted in the right-brain areas of life and I think that’s what makes it easy for me to be that way. I’ve been told I’m pretty good a decent number of things. So when someone throws a fluke compliment my way for anything that doesn’t fall within my established area of talent, I tend to step down fast. I assure them quick as a bunny that no, no, it was luck if anything – cooking/sewing/whatever is really one of those things I just don’t have an aptitude for and definitively never will. That person over there? That’s their thing. Have you tasted/seen what they can do? It’s amazing!

Math is one of those things. Like most people, it isn’t that I’m terrible at it – it’s that it intimidates me like no other subject. So much that if someone were to blurt out at me: QUICK! Give me the answer to the easiest math equation in the universe! I’d break into a sweat before I heard a single digit out of their mouth. It would just be my immediate, gut response to hearing the word “quick” + numbers in the same sentence, and the only reason I’m not embarrassed to admit it is because I’m not alone. This is ridiculously common.

Studies are now suggesting that it might be because of parents passing an expected anxiety onto their children, which self-fulfills down the road. Math is just an intimidating subject, according to this normalized way of thinking, and unless you’re born with an aptitude for it, you should just expect a struggle. Not to suggest that a person can’t work their way up to a certain confidence level, but to be able to do so would probably make you the exception.

All of that ^ up there? That’s crap. But because generations of children have inherited this idea from parents who repeatedly told them, “Oh, math has never been my subject, honey. How ’bout we do spelling homework until dad gets home to help with algebra”, it’s more or less become everybody’s standard. We convey to our kids, without actually saying it, that most people get by just fine on a moderate understanding of it, which is to say that we probably aren’t setting our expectations for how well they might do, very high.

Most people can work through a math problem well enough, but few I’ve ever seen can do it without second-guessing every other step and being sure to check the answer over before offering it up to someone else as fact.

If I had one thing to do over in my school years it would have been to pay closer attention in all of my math classes. I feel like adults who are quick with numbers have such an edge of even people like me who are good at everything else. <– That was a joke, trust me. Yes, I have tasted my pasta fragioli, why?

So, the thing with being a homeschooling mom of 7th grade is that you have to be able to do seventh grade math at, you know, at least a 7th grade level. So far, I’ve been absolutely kind of (and not at all a weird amount of) shocked at how much fun I think this stuff is. But also, at how I can actually do it without wanting to shoot myself in the brains. Problem is, Mary still does want to shoot herself in the brains – usually before the first mention of a number is even made. Clearly, it’s the intimidation bug at work. And my job, as teacher, is to squash it.

Okay, how?

The very first thing I had to do before I could teach effectively is to forget the idea that I am not a teacher.

That was hard for me because I have a number of friends and relatives who actually are professional teachers and paid good money for a college education that gave them the right to call themselves that. Here is where I struggle not to get into all the statistics that say homeschooled students taught by mothers without degrees generally speaking do significantly better than public schooled students with very talented teachers, because it’s misleading. I don’t think it’s because those degrees aren’t necessary — I think that if a talented teacher were to homeschool his/her own offspring, they’d probably perform miracles and that if a stay at home mom without a degree tried to teach a classroom full of kid she didn’t know, there would be catastrophe. I just think that the benefits of homeschooling are powerful, and that as long as the parent who’ll be teaching takes the task as seriously as someone who would consider homeschooling likely does, that it isn’t necessary here.

It isn’t about selling yourself short or giving yourself more or less credit than you deserve. It’s about the only one who stands to get sold short at all: the student. As long as he or she thinks that they don’t have a “real” teacher, they won’t have one. You Will Not Be One To Them, and that’s imperative.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from homeschooling, it’s that knowing and understanding the information you’ll be teaching isn’t the half of it. Most of the responsibility you have lies in helping the student to understand and appreciate the material, which is not the same animal. You’d think that the more solid your own understanding of a subject is, the easier it is to teach but I don’t think that’s always the case for two reasons.

1.) The Dummy Factor. I had a science teacher in middle school who said that he would always be a better teacher than the woman down the hall who taught the same subject because he was much dumber. And he was. Probably half of what I remember from school, I learned in his class. His theory was that when you understand something too well, it can be hard to remember why learning it might suck. Whereas, a fellow dummy can relate.

This always reminded me of that Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, you don’t know it well enough.” I always tell Mary when we’re recording our findings from a science experiment that by the same token, you can know everything there is to know about something, but it does nobody any good if you can’t effectively pass that knowledge onto anyone else. Conveying what you know and why it matters is what counts.

2.) Butterflies. I’ve known what it’s felt like to be intimidated by math as an adult and it’s embarrassing even when you know that (statistically or even physically within a room) you’re in good company. So being refreshed on it and realizing I actually can be pretty quick is super (a totally regular amount of) exciting. Like butterflies! Which makes teaching it more fun, which makes learning it more… well, possible. It’s like the butterflies you get when you first fall in love. I love my husband more today than I did when we first met – but the first time he ever gave me butterflies, I Would.Not.Shut.Up about him. Teaching stuff I’ve always known about grammar is still enjoyable, but getting to teach things about grammar that have stumped me for a long time gets me so giddy about passing it onto Mary that I’m like, “Dude! You will use this! This is so cool to know! Show it off to everybody!”

Mary’s at a point in the year now where the fact that she knows more than her friends about subjects they’re learning about at the same time back in her old public school is showing. There have been at least five times she’s mentioned it to me. She’s actually said that it’s difficult sometimes not to brag about it. (Now, obviously, I don’t want to foster competition between she and her friends — but it’s infinitely awesome to hear your kid feel proud of how successfully they’re doing in school.)

That isn’t to say that she doesn’t still try to tell me once in a while (usually after I’ve pissed her off or have had to ride her pretty hard about giving more effort) that homeschooling sucks. But she doesn’t say that I’m not a real teacher. The proof is in the pudding. She takes me more seriously. I take me more seriously. And more learning happens because of it.

So I’m curious… (and this question is open to anybody at all: homeschoolers, professional teachers, parents):

What techniques or theories have helped you teach most successfully? What important lessons did you pick up about teaching in your first few years?  

A Season Passing.

The K is upside down, but all I see is that he spelled the word “thanks” on his own. Every letter couldn’t fit on one line, but he was the one to do all of the peeling and sticking; the one to troubleshoot when space ran out. The circle has corners that circles, as a pretty fundamental rule, are not supposed to have.

But sitting down with him to cut and paste and ignore messes that would be swept up after Thanksgiving crafts this year, I was by his side to see changes that were brand new to him this fall. I was the first to notice how much better he could steer the little, blue-handled scissors he learned to cut with two simultaneously short and very long autumns ago, and that he could spell words on his own that last Thanksgiving over turkey and Native American crafts, he couldn’t.

Little handprint turkeys and pilgrim hats of newspaper and thread are some of the most tangible measures of his growth I’ll ever get. The end products are like photographs anyone would love to keep around, but actually making these things with him are what stir it all to life for me. I know that looking back at his artwork someday will remind me of more than just an age or a roundabout time. It’ll bring back a day, dotted with specifics; glue smeared and fading into the front of a Thomas the Tank Engine shirt, an “uh-oh” we said together after a canister of glitter burst with a hiss onto the floor, a funny thing he said while we were cleaning up.

It’s wholly and entirely selfish of me to worry about – he’ll get so much from school next year that I can’t give to him at home – but I wonder if it’ll be the same when next year, he hands me a macaroni necklace that I wasn’t there to watch him make. I wonder if I’ll feel like I’m missing out on too much, or if being at the receiving end of a surprise he pulls proudly out of his backpack will be even cooler.

The part of me that makes things with him now because it offers any kind of cognitive or motor skill edge is very small. The part of me that crafts with him because it’s easy-going fun all the time and never ends in a mess that hardly seems worth the benefit is even smaller.

I do it because he is growing (like they always have to go and do) so much faster than I can keep up with. And when we craft – when I listen to the way small scissors bite decisively into paper that doesn’t bend anymore when he’s trying to keep it crisp – I get to see all of that growing in action. There isn’t always a lot to see, it isn’t always significant, but it slows the high speed down a little. It helps me to feel like I’m really experiencing this age as much as I possibly can before it turns into something new so fast I hardly notice it has.

Sometimes the growing is elusive – as easy to miss as letting him concentrate for longer bridges of time. Sometimes the growing is a payoff I’ve put in a long, hard wait to see: he’s rambunctious, but this time without knocking anything over or forgetting to use manners in all of the dither. Sometimes, when the only thing driving him to finish at all is irked determination, I hear him seethe a strong word and keep going, instead of stomp off when the scissors slip for the hundredth! time. And I know in that moment that just now, I’ve watched him do a little bit of growing up.

Today, when Scarlett got into our new package of foam letters and ripped a few of them apart, he got up with a short huff. “Scarlett, no, no, baby.” He pulled the pieces of torn foam out of her hand, quick to replace it with a crayon so as not to make her cry. “There you go, sweetheart. It’s okay,” he soothed. “We can keep these parts for scrap.” He didn’t let it enrage him like it would have done six months ago. He didn’t whine for me to take care of it, or jump at the chance to play pre-school dictator. He handled himself like a big brother, and then returned to his seat at the table without having to climb the way he used to – the way his sister does now. He remembered what we were talking about easier than he would have just a month ago, and he went on… talking, pasting in excessive amounts, and positioning little shapes on what would eventually be a small, perishable turkey we probably won’t even keep.

I didn’t say anything to him about how proud I was. He was already pretty passionately into a ten minute story about something that took ten seconds to transpire. But I was. Instead, I took that small, intangible piece of his budding maturity, admired it wordlessly for a minute and I tucked it tightly away.

It’s not a big, screaming deal. But this time with him is something I’ll always cherish that I got to spend on him when he was small. It’s a season of parenthood I can let pass, if maybe with a little bit of a broken heart, knowing that at least it was really fun while it lasted. We had some pretty good times. And we’ll have others.

Ready, Aim, Disaster. Good Work, Team.

Two courses in our curriculum fall short of super impressing me. One of them is physics.

It’s not awful, just lighter than I expected. If we don’t add any of our own ideas, she’d only have to take it once a week to complete it months before the last day of school. Mary does take a pretty intensive mechanics course which adds up to a healthy dose of science throughout the week. And this course does leave room for creative freedom, which is nice.  There are innumerable ways for us to bulk up the lessons using our own videos, trips and experiments. And we’ve appreciated that about it. (Read: I have, anyway.)

But you have to do that, which makes this one more course she can’t just do independently.

It means that while Scarlett is ker-plunking into running bathtub water with her clothes on and Matthew is synchronously begging with his whole body to be taken outside with a friend who just knocked on the door (yes, while naked – in the bathtub), I can’t just let Mary to do science on her own. At the risk of sounding incompetent, it would just be so fantastic if once in a while she could read through part of a chapter on her own and then maybe complete an assignment, while I freed myself from the constant worry my kids will find a way to dismember themselves while I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

I mean, it’s not the worst thing in the world. It means that I’m a more present teacher and that her education has more dimension to it than it otherwise would. Sure, teaching with a toddler on hip makes it all a little less predictable. But it also means that we do more as a unit, and it’s helped us to all becomes a lot closer. It’s helped me to grow those really attractive eyes in the back of my head that vet moms envy new ones for not having yet because they come with an ever-present sense of lurking danger that DOES.NOT.SHUT.OFF. Those things that are to blame for moms of multiple children being unable to watch sexy horror movies with their husbands anymore because all they think the whole time is “OH MY GOD, THAT’S SOMEBODY’S CHILD!” All told, it’s probably better with this “mom-intensive” kind of a curriculum for ev-e-ry subject… It’s just work. It’s a lot of work.

Yesterday I resolved to suck it up already and just do this thing to the best of my ability; to make it work for us instead of against us and to enjoy it. “Be present,” that’s my mantra. So I planned out this whole activity, which would go down at Scarlett’s nap time and involve Matthew as much as his sister. We wouldn’t have to leave the yard and it would cater to their respective grade levels. After we watched a collection of videos on physics that were a smash hit (even Scarlett rolled with laughter at a few different parts; spoiler: it involved dropping cats in slow motion), we went outside, and everything proceeded to go terribly awry.

The plan was that we’d test the effects of giving our slingshot band a few seconds to cool down before launching our object, after we’ve pulled it back. That, versus shooting immediately. It was going to be a real Myth-Busters style get-up. The timing was perfect because Matthew had just learned about the story of David and Goliath and as part of that project, he and Mary cooperated to build a homemade slingshot together. Now in physics, we’re learning about force and gravity. Finding this video pointed out to me what a perfect opportunity this could be for Mary to get more practice communicating the results of her experiments through notebooking, which has been a big focus for us this month.

Some of our best educational experiences this year have been so much less planned out and organized than this. There’s a name for this kind of lesson plan: Guaranteed Success.

But the-e-en: *inhale vociferously here*

Matthew didn’t want to use the only branch perfect for our slingshot. He wanted to hike into the woods outside our neighborhood to find a better one, but the baby was sleeping so we couldn’t. He vowed not to participate and cried and called us names when we didn’t mind as much as he wanted us to. Mary lost all interest in the time it took to correct him. Mary was cold and Matthew wouldn’t share the “work” gloves pop-pop gave him that are 10 years away from fitting him anyway, even though he was already wearing gloves that did. The only gloves I had were black suede that got ruined when I touched the chalk. It took about twenty minutes for us to find a rubber band/object combination that actually fired any direction but backward. Every two seconds Mary called out “BO-RING”, just to be obnoxious. Once in a while she’d pick on Matthew, calling him ugly or stupid or annoyingly in the way. I scraped the SHIT out of my ankle on a loose brick at the corner of the patio. The tape measurer wouldn’t reach far enough for us to measure our distances. The object kept getting lost in all of the leaves. Once our experiment did finally get under way, Mary randomly went inside to start putting on make-up without so much as asking if that wouldn’t be ridiculous. Matthew threw an enormous fit which made him lose his turn to shoot altogether – which didn’t even seem to matter since Mary was MIA to record the distances anyway. On his way into the house for a time-out, Matthew looked over his shoulder snarly and shouted, “NERD!” throwing a pointed finger at me so hard it threw him off balance. When I ignored it because he was already on his way to time-out and only looking for attention, he said it again and again, louder and louder. The baby woke up crying.

Some people think that kids are hard-wired to push boundaries until someone gives them a good enough reason to stop. Others think that kids don’t have it in them yet to be that pointedly ill-intentioned. I’ve bounced so many times between the two that anything I say here will probably color me a hypocrite.

But that’s kind of my point.

When we have a bad day, I analyze the crap out of it, trying to figure out what went wrong where so that next time I’ll avoid whatever thoughtless mistake got us into this day of disaster. But what I’ve learned most from doing this is that there aren’t right moves and wrong moves that make our days go one way over another. It’s a craps chute. If I do the exact same things I did on Tuesday that I figure awarded us with such a great day on Monday, Murphy’s law dictates that it’ll wind up nothing like the one that came before it. Everything will go wrong, almost as if only to prove that it can. Kids are not a code to be cracked.

I’ve read a lot of books and I’ve learned a lot of things about kids and once in a while I’ll come across something – an idea, a perspective – that makes a difference. But most of these books on how to raise kids right (especially the “in two weeks or less!” variety) start to remind you of big pharmaceutical companies after you read enough of them. Maybe they have the cure, maybe they don’t. Either way, creating customers is probably more important to them than sharing whatever secret ingredient keeps us looking to them for hope.

Hard days with small children are not a disease to be conquered. They’re part of the deal. That doesn’t mean you stop trying to teach them how to cooperate; it means that days spent accomplishing little more than beating them over their brick wall heads with that lesson (theoretically, of course) are not days you have been defeated. They are ones that will matter more than any other hard cover one you had yesterday with a flashy title and big, elusive promises.

In record time, our day was back on track. The kids offered up apologies before I so much as thought to ask for one from them and they actually enjoyed the rest of our time with physics. Once he got the hang of it, after an impressive display of patience and perseverance, Matthew relished every minute of each shot like a puppy through a puddle. Mary recorded and labeled everything so well is was almost as if nothing had gone wrong at all. “The only difference between science and messing around is writing it down,” I told her. (Thank you, Mythbusters meme.)  “And a good scientist always titles her experiments!” she replied dutifully over her notes.

When I sat down to write about our slingshot experience — I didn’t even know if it would be about how well it went or what a flaming disaster it was. Sometimes I think the two go hand-in-hand. Like peanut butter and jelly. Or being a decent mom with respectable priorities, and actually looking like it.

Making Up Rules.

Homeschooling an upper grade comes with a lot of pressure. It’s a continuous effort to provide the right dose of challenge without bogging my daughter down with more than she can comfortably shoulder — and frankly, I don’t have a teaching degree. So even when I’m doing well and she’s thriving and things are at their very best, I question every aspect of everything. If the work is easy and fun, I spend hours the next day researching common core standards and other curriculum to reassure myself that she’s exactly where she ought to be for this time of year in 7th grade. If the work is too challenging, I stress out to the max trying any way I can to make the lessons more engaging or less stressful.

Teaching Mary is probably more rewarding, but I’m definitely more comfortable in my role as Matthew’s teacher.

I feel like I can let my hair down, which is nice since this is the last year that I have with him before *swallows emotion* he leaves me for full-day, out-of-home kindergarten five days a week. He’s solidly into late kindergarten material on his shakiest subjects and reading on a second grade level when he isn’t afraid to show it. He’s also learning a lot about history and physics just by proxy of homeschooling next to a 7th grade sister. The boy may not know a touchdown from a pogo-stick, but he can give you a play-by-play of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and you know what? I like that.

Instead of pushing him to learn more and more and more, my focus with him is on exercises in creativity or showing respect; ones that just reinforce traditional preschool lessons he’s already got down, instead of delving into them deeper. From what I’ve read and in my own experience caring for children, boredom breeds bad behavior in kids his age who are a little ahead, and Matthew isn’t exactly renowned as it is for his excellent behavior. So when we pull out a crossword activity to work on during school, I’m usually much less concerned about how many words he can spell correctly as I am how respectfully he shares the markers with his sister or if he can work quietly next to Mary without screaming that he wants to CUT OFF HER HEAD AND STAB HER IN THE FREAKIN’ EYE — which is a direct quote from the other day.

Yeah. Here’s hoping for a kindergarten teacher next year who’s reeeeeeeeeeally good at her job.

On a more positive note:

Matthew loves to make up his own games for school, and I like that he does because it’s really a great exercise in logic. Logic is one of those awesome skills that’s beneficial across the board. It transcends subject or age or ability or level of crazy hostility.

When he was younger, Matthew delighted in playing games I came up with to teach him about phonics or number recognition. As he got older, making up games of his own interested him more. Kids love making up their own games — especially ones that have no kind of consistency or fairness to them whatsoever. Rules change on the fly, depending dubiously on how close the inventor is to winning. Matthew’s games were no different.

I tried to insist compassionately that if we were going to play his games instead of the ones I had planned though, that they would have to make sense. Usually, we worked together to organize the games he came up with so that they were playable, and a great deal of learning took place. Other times he stomped off, insulted, vowing never to play another game with me ever, as long as he lived or remembered.

Like most parenting strategies, I didn’t know if this was genius or cruel and detrimental – in fact, I still don’t. But I can say that as a result, he’s at least pretty good at making up games now. And for a kid who threatens sometimes to decapitate people who weigh on his nerves, he’s actually very good about congratulating his opponents on a game well-played after they’ve positively crushed him at one of his own design. I’ll take that.

It’s nice because it helps him to exercise components of self-control that he’ll need to master if he’s ever going to succeed in kindergarten without first getting thrown out. Things like compassion, patience and sportsmanship. He knows that if there’s an element of math or science or sight word practice in a game he makes up, it’ll count toward “school time” so there almost always is. And because he’s the one who invents these games, I don’t have to exhaust myself convincing him just to participate. It’s a win/win.

The other day he came up with this one when he decided that practicing subtraction on a number line was (quote:) for lame-o’s:

“Instead of playing this game, mommy, how about I have a better idea!” he says, erasing the number line I have set up for us on the dry erase board. “You’ll like this game ’cause it has numbers in it and it isn’t boring and lame like your game is. Go get me dice. I mean please. Please get me dice. This is gonna be great!”

It actually was pretty fun. You roll the die and then use cars to draw the number. For extra points, you can use two die and make a car-number out of the sum. But to get the extra points, you also have to use every one of the cars from a pile of a predetermined size, which makes it way harder.

He is an ornery one, this little buddy of mine… But I am going to miss the living crazy out of him when he’s gone.

Pee On The Carpet. Girlhood, Ahoy!

I’ve finally managed to wrangle Matthew sort-of into my lap on the sofa. It’s nearly impossible for him to sit still, but he likes reading enough to try, so he’s basically in fifteen places and 32 positions at one time. He’s plunked into the cushion next to me, constantly jabbing me with elbows and heads and knees, but also reading. Scarlett meanders over to our legs, finger in nose.

“Drssssssssssssssssssst.”

A golden stream of gleaming urine, making a rounded trajectory from between her fat legs onto the rug at our feet. Ending in a sloppy noise.

“Whoa! Potty! Potty!” I say, realizing I probably shouldn’t overreact a second after I’ve flipped Matthew off of me, thrown our book into the wall behind us, and am pounding down the hall in giant, leaping steps, holding her away from my body, squarely under the pits so her arms stick out to the side. I soften it up by elevating my voice to impossible heights, “Alri-ight!” as we round into the bathroom. “Yayy! Let’s go on the potty!”

It works. She’s thrilled! “Da-poddy!” she parrots, cheering. Though it’s barely audible over the rabid scavenging I’m doing, ass up, under the sink. There! The little cushy-seat-thing! She sits and nothing proceeds to happen. Nothing at all.

Scarlett is not potty trained. She actually doesn’t usually mind sitting on the toilet though. I consider that progress. Some kids hate the toilet altogether; at least she sits on it for long periods of time. I’ve never potty-trained a girl, and I wonder if that’s why this experience is so much different. Matthew didn’t like doing it but he learned fast. This is taking a long time so far with no real evidence of leaping forward soon, but it’s kind of fun. We read books and sing songs and she drives little toy pick-ups over the crinkles on my nose to pass the time.. we laugh, A LOT over positively nothing. Today she is unusually hyper-happy though. Every laugh comes from her gut, rumbles through her body, makes her pretty little head fall to the side in exhausted joy, boiling over like a pot left to bubble longer than it should. She breathes in dramatically, trying to regain herself and gives into laughing some more, sputtering this time but even deeper, letting her forehead fall onto mine.

I am into it so deep with this kid. How did she ever not exist?

That sonogram from so long ago, so this is what it meant. This is what it is to have a daughter.

Plenty of times in my life have been more exciting than this, more moving than this, more fun. I’m on my knees in front of a toilet, for crying out loud. There is still urine to scrub out of the rug a few rooms away. But very few have been so stingingly, absurdly happy. This is having a daughter.

She is not even my favorite child. I am not even her favorite parent. I feel like I love her more than any parent has ever loved a child, but I know it isn’t true. It feels that way to all of us because it’s supposed to. The love between a parent and child transcends favorites or labels or reasons. It just is, as much as it can be. And then a little bit more. And then even more than that.

Having a daughter is no better than having a son. Having a biological daughter is not in even the smallest way better than having one by any other means. But she is something unmistakably remarkable. Perfectly right. There is also nothing better than her. Nothing. Nothing.

A blue train with a tiny painted face is in her hand now. It’s small enough to fit in her grip, and she’s steering it from her bare legs to my arm, around the bend of my shoulder. “Brrrr…” she plays, suppressing a laugh that could be much louder if she wanted it to, behind cheeks that hide her eyes. She drives it over my head, laughing almost hysterically all of sudden, trying hard to maintain it’s path over my hair, which makes a cluster of dark strands web themselves over my face. She stops what she’s doing to fix it with the other hand, shifting her weight. She puts the train down on the edge of the tub real quick, and blows my face — the thing I do to keep little, growing bangs from falling over her eyes when she plays. It doesn’t work. My hair is too heavy, her breath is too small.

Her laughter is thin now, but it’s still there, lingering like bubbles that are late to burst. Earnestly, she works to set it all straight for me. She tries to tuck it behind my ear but it’s hard for her to reach. I sit, leaning into her, as still as I can, letting her take care of me, watching her learn how to do it. Finally, my hair is somewhere off to the side, not where it was before, collected in a strange and silly place at the top of my head. “Thank you, love.” I say.

“Welcome, mommy.”

A hand is on my face, a very small collection of fingers kissing my cheek.

“Ewe so booa-ful, mommy.”

It’s practically a whisper, the way serious messages sometimes are. It sits there hanging in the space between us, because I just want to admire it for a minute. I want her to see the way kind words spoken for the very first time make a person ignite with happiness. I want her to feel me smile. I’m sure she does. Her little eyes, syrupy sweet like big dollops of something very high in sugar, never move away from my face in all that time. Her hand still sits on my cheek.

“And you are so wonderful, baby.”

She did not pee. Well, not on anything but the carpet. All the same, important things are happening. My baby is becoming a girl.

Learning Is What Happens While You’re Busy Making Lesson Plans.

 

 

Don’t worry. It’s just that I’m a wimp. I was back to normal in under an hour. But for a solid fifteen minutes I was pretty sure that life was leaving my body. It was the end of a two month hiatus from running (which I just can’t bring myself to do in the cold… or before like 2:00 in the afternoon when it decides to get absurdly dark out now. Fact: I hate winter – even the season leading up to it.). Apparently, an end that was too abrupt. After a workout my body was evidently not ready to take on yet, it sought revenge by plundering my insides until my face was pinned to a pillow, trying to hold down water.

The good news is that homeschooling has finally become a normal-enough part of our life now that when I’m missing for fifteen minutes (because I’m either dead or dying or sneaking Halloween candy in a closet somewhere), the kids actually try to find me – you know, instead of sit around thinking OH GOOD, I guess that means we randomly don’t have school today!

Coincidentally almost everything on our schedule for yesterday was a subject I wanted Mary and I to do together. So when she sat down on the bed with me and said I looked pale I couldn’t even give her an assignment to work on while I fought the room to stop spinning. It wasn’t so bad. We hunkered down under the sheets together, I with books and she with papers in lap, and we had our grammar lesson there. Abstract vs. concrete adjectives; recognizing determiners; labeling parts of speech. We blew through four worksheets without a hiccup. I even graded them right there. It was actually kind of nice.

I absolutely did not have the energy or muscle capacity for teaching Matthew, though, who likes to answer questions balancing yoga positions upside down on swivel chairs even at his calmest. So I let him off the hook to build me a tower of Legos in another room. Ten minutes later he comes back into my bedroom, tongue to lip, trying hard not to drop something that looks remarkably (to me at least, but let’s be honest: I’m his mom) like the Eiffel Tower. I’m pretty sure he’s never seen the Eiffel Tower before but I’m still impressed. Actually, so is he. So much so that while my insides settle, we probably look at forty different pictures of the real thing from every angle physically manageable with a lense, from Google on my phone. We read about it for ten minutes.

He asks how tall it is. Almost a thousand feet. 

Is it the tallest building in the WHOOOOOLE world? Not anymore, but it was at the time it was built. 

Who built it? Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Lots of things are named after the people who either helped to discover or build them. 

Does it have a flag at the top? (He likes to put a plastic flag piece at the top of the towers he builds.) Actually, yes! *high five* 

Has a plane ever crashed into it? Nope. Still standing. 

How come terrorists didn’t crash IT down – just our buildings? (I start to answer but he gets bored and interrupts to ask something else.) 

Can you go IN it? Yes, there’s even a restaurant inside! It’s just very expensive. 

How many steps are inside? 1,710. You can also take an elevator that I believe curves on it’s way up and down. There are 9 of them. 

We also learned that it can sway in high winds and grow in high heat; that it has to be repainted every 7 years and how much paint it takes to do that compared to the two cans we use for almost every project we take on inside the house. We learned that a lot of people thought it was ugly when it was first built, and how to pronounce it in French. “La Tour Eiffel.” When he learned that it took 18,000 metal parts to build, we came up with the idea to count how many blocks he used to build his own tower in comparison. Then we tried to imagine just how many parts 18,000 actually is. He grabbed a ruler off of a hook in the schoolroom and, managing somehow not to knock it down, he discovered that his tower was much smaller than the real one, being only seven and a half inches tall. A minute later he came back out of the schoolroom, carrying a globe this time so hulking and bulbous he had to arch his back at a weird angle to walk, and we pointed to exactly where it stands in France when he carefully dropped it sideways on the bed. I kissed him, realizing suddenly that I felt much better. That I’d actually forgotten entirely about feeling ill at all.

Mary meandered into the room with us, playing with a little make-up while she listened in, and asked a few questions of her own, also complimenting his design when she noticed it.

“Wasn’t it a gift from America, or something like that?” she asked. No, I said. “You’re thinking of the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift to us from them. The Eiffel Tower was sort of built in celebration of the French Revolution which was celebrating it’s 100th anniversary at the time. Actually, it was part of an exhibit and originally planned to be taken down afterward. I guess it grew on them though because they decided to let it stay.”

“Was a plane gonna crash into it!?” Matthew asked, more entertained than concerned.

“No, buddy.”

“What about the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia?” said Mary, lining her eyes at a tilted angle so she couldn’t look at us. “Was that a gift? Or, like, didn’t they have to hide it or something? … Something about it having to go back and forth to England…” I actually wasn’t sure about the exact history of it, but because we’ve been doing a lot of side-stuff on the Revolutionary War just for fun, I told her I’d look it up to be sure and we’d learn all about it in the morning. She doesn’t care anymore and we branch off into a silly conversation about how her first date should be to the Eiffel Tower – that any silly boy who tries to tell her he can’t afford it obviously is not ready to date Mary-freaking-Stucky.

These small, impromptu side-lessons have become a regular part of our weeks. They’re always totally out of the blue, and some of the most fun that we have. They terrified me at first. Mary couldn’t wait to trip me up. In fact she took great pleasure in purposely asking only questions that were as far off topic as she could imagine, barely allowing me to finish an answer before yelping, “See! How am I supposed to learn anything when you can’t even tell me the name of Bin Laden’s second-cousin’s sister-in-law’s first pet?”

I started filing any question she had away to research that night so that the next morning, first thing, we could have a major lesson on it. I’d give her so much information, I vowed, that she’d have to beg me to stop. Only, she didn’t beg me to stop. She actually usually enjoyed those lessons more than anything else that day. I enjoyed them too.

I’m relatively sharp I think. But I’m no ken Jennings. I know a LOT of stuff about the laws of physics and big days in history and grammar (just because those things happen to be really interesting to me), but I still, after 20-some years of it actually affecting me, could not tell you what day the clocks go back or forth for daylight savings or how the fuck to actually follow some maps, and I am solidly mediocre at most math.

I’m a lot like the average homeschool mom though. If you’re trying to fish out information I don’t know off the top of my head, you’ll probably be able to do it without breaking much of a sweat. The difference is that I genuinely, genuinely like to learn. I think passing that onto my kids is the best service I could ever provide their education.

Time Well Wasted.

Mary’s reading to herself around the corner, a careless gesture spanning the length of our old, second-hand sofa. It’s the kind of display that makes me want to draw again; one wrist behind her unbrushed hair, ankles crossed in mismatched socks over the opposite armrest, her brows pursed in adorable unmeant concentration. There are some things a Nikon just can’t capture like a pencil on thick relief paper. I must have done something right this morning because Matthew and Scarlett are with her, out of my way, and aren’t fighting over the six open books between them. They look busy, mirroring their sister’s unbending focus, even though one of them can only sometimes count to three.

The pages gossip between themselves every few minutes. A page turns in pretty repetition, like the very slow, predictable drip of ice melting outside of a window on a warm enough afternoon. Broken only by the crackling interjection of old library book jackets in the grip of small interested fingers, the house is warped in a comfortable emptiness of sound we aren’t blessed with anymore but in small intervals on very lucky days.

This is one of them.

I’m at the doorway of the kitchen watching the three of them read together quietly while my mind wanders in and out of unimportant things, cashing in on the silence like a kid who just found five bucks on the ground and can’t wait to blow it on a handful of candy bars. There are always better things I could be doing with my time than standing around watching them – but it will always be my favorite, even though Mary’s at an age where it makes her feel needlessly self conscious. For that reason only, I pull my hair back. Instead of eating breakfast in peace or reaching for the strap of my Nikon, I turn to the dishes. If I don’t do them now, they’ll eat away at anything else I try to start.

I think about grabbing my phone “just” to check the time but I don’t. I’m always thinking about doing it and then stopping myself.

It reminds me of an article I read months ago about time fogs – the reason I stop myself from keeping the internet too close when I’m at home with the kids. It’s this believable phenomena that tricks society into believing we’re busier than we actually are. The article said that our minds stretch and bend our perception of time depending on the value of how it’s spent, which makes sense. Having no time to spare makes us feel valued and significant, while idling away on the internet every time you sit down to pee doesn’t.

This study, logging even the most mundane, insignificant activities into a journal, carried out by subjects who considered themselves to be busier than most, concluded that people with a perfectly decent understanding of basic math worked as many as ten to even twenty hours less than they always thought they had, but slept and snacked and read the backs of shampoo bottles significantly longer. We really are not half as consumed with life or bogged down by responsibility as we like to think we are. Not surprisingly, checking out in front of our devices for six to ten minutes every time we pull up a chair, or sit down to eat or wait for something else to finish happening (ever), accounts for vastly more time than we’re likely to give it credit for when we’re lamenting about our schedules over dinner with our spouses. Not because we think we have anything to hide, but because our minds literally shrink it next to other, more grueling parts of the day.

The first time I tried to log my day as the article suggests, I did what I always do and I forgot. I started logging the stuff I did that morning and when I blinked my eyes and the sky was purple, I tried to retrace my steps. I’d only just recently gotten internet on my phone and subscribed to Pinterest; obviously I’d spent at least a few times, leaning against the kitchen counter, ankles crossed, scrolling websites with my thumb. But, even though I had images in my head of everything I’d seen and clicked on and read within those pockets of time on the internet, I couldn’t trace them back to an actual time in space that day. It was like those sci-fi movies where experiences are downloaded onto your brain and instantaneously, you know things that you never experienced being taught. I didn’t see it as a investment of time, even though (without being on for more than a minute or two a pop) I suspected it was probably to blame for my day slipping past me like someone in a rush trying not to be noticed.

Basically, it freaked me the fuck out a little. And that was good because I stopped pulling my phone out so much. But then, that was before facebook – which has taken all the renewed will I perfectly expected it to when I signed up for the damn thing a good four years after everyone else. Fucking facebook is all anyone talks about anymore, and I’ve avoided it precisely because I didn’t want to turn into that.

That article changed me because by paying closer attention, I also realized I looked back on my days and saw wayyy more time standing in line at the bank with a crying toddler for eighteen minutes than the thirty-four I got to idle around the garden section of Home Depot when they were perfectly under control. Our “me” time is fleeting, but it’s more repetitious than we credit it with coming around. There are just too many things nowadays that impede us from taking full notice. From experiencing the gift of a great moment to it’s maximum capacity.

I like the internet, but I think as an introverted artistic-type, I tend to notice moments when I’m unplugged, and experience them deeper. Like, way more than I even need to. I just always have. I’m the type to trip over my own shoelaces because I’m busy inside my head trying to understand the way that a shadow bends around the surface of a tree the way it’s doing in front of me… so that the next time I try to draw it, I can get it right. The next time I take a picture of it, I’ll know how to capture the light from a new angle. The next time I write about it in the scrapbooks I keep for each of the kids, my words’ll do it some kind of justice.

Even so, we all know how easy it is to slip into the habit of “just checking reeee-al quick” more often than would be necessary for a doctor to peek in on a dying patient. So I put a conscious effort into staying unplugged any time the kids are awake. I write and paint and upload pictures and do all of those things that kind of center my weird-ass, artsy-fartsy spirit while the kids are asleep early in the morning after Spencer leaves for work at 4:00 a.m. I’m proud of that, too.

In less time than it takes to wash three mugs, it’s gone. The elusive quiet of a lucky weekday morning. A barrage of screeches, peels and unnatural grunts drill into my wandering thoughts and I have no choice but to stop the hot, hissing water, and to go run interference. Keeping peace between them is not a crippling labor, but an effort that certainly feels like it won’t let up all day. Funny how not putting phone to face like an asthma inhaler at every break in the day actually helps you to see that it will.

Before I know it, it’s the end of an easy school day and Scarlett’s waking up from her second nap. Her head is still warm and heavy with the thick weight of sleep that hasn’t completely worn off. She’s a dream in my arms. But if I put her down now for even the best of reasons, she’ll stab into the air with a scream that’ll rock the fucking house to it’s concrete foundation. As such, it’s our routine at this time of day – no matter how many more pressing things there are to attend to – to meet on the couch in a huddle while Matthew finishes reading; her head turned to see the pages but not plucked from my chest. She’ll pretend to join in as the drowsiness wears away, and almost as if set to some kind of internal clock, Mary’ll gravitate to our side from somewhere else in the house.

“Pig-gie is saa-ad.” Scarlett will say, pointing to the illustration with wide, gorgeous eyes. “Pig-gie is cry-ing,” this time mimicking her brother’s more boistrous level of literary skill rather than her big sister’s quiet concentration from before. They are the wrong words, but she’s scanning them convincingly with her index finger (nails painted for the very first time ever) and she’s mirroring the rhythm that we make when we’re doing a story justice with verbal inflection and pretended suspense. We read a story next that’s in the form of a poem because that’s what Mary’s studying this unit in writing. It’s also about the holocaust, which is still searing in my brain like a pulse of unfinished business from letting her read the last chapter of “Number the Stars” without me just two weeks prior. As I read — Scarlett trying her hardest to drink in every illustration before I turn the page; Matthew asking a million thoughtful, ill-timed questions; and Mary uh-huh-ing when I break to point out examples of repetition or how a thought is broken down to it’s barest essentials — I know that this is a moment worth sinking into completely… the kind that won’t notify you of it’s existence, the kind you’ll miss out on if you aren’t paying close enough attention.

There is nothing pressingly significant about having this experience with them. Nothing that would press me to put the phone down if I had it in my hand instead of a book, or Scarlett’s bare foot, or Matthew’s knee. But somehow, nothing under the stars is worth missing even a beat of them having me all to themselves. This is when they come alive. This is when our family does it’s growing.

It’s that little, almost invisible moment she looks up at me and says, “Look, Mommy. Piggie is sad.” That little moment that tells me she knows that I care enough to pay very close attention.

History, 2012.

I’ve been taking more time to write lately – only to fall just short enough on time that I almost never get to post. As an unfortunate consequence, most of my facebook statuses have sort of O.D’d on zeal. But really, hand an open platform to an introvert, and can you expect any less? Blogging in some dusty corner of the internet that not many people know exist is supposed to help me unload all of that irritating thinking I do that I generally credit myself for understanding not EVERYONE cares to hear.

In fact, whenever people who do read my blog are like, “why don’t you advertise it on facebook; you’re on the damn thing enough..” it all comes down to that. I write in here because I like the process of saying my piece. I don’t get the same joy out of burdening other people with it. Frankly I don’t care what a lot of other people have to say – although on the other hand I adore hearing what some people do – and since I don’t know where I’d fall within that crowd, I’m happier not to shove myself down everyone’s throat. And if on some bored, rainy day a reader happens to stumble into here and make the choice to get cozy, then I can feel good knowing I’ve earned my keep without graveling for it.

So it’s kind of uncomfortable for me when I snap out of a pre-coffee stupor early in the morning and realize I’ve spilled my guts to the world again on facebook. Do you see now, why I didn’t want to get one in the first place, people-who-talked-me-into-getting-one-in-the-first-place,-you-hypocritical-fucking-nags, I mean, friends. :-)

Exhibit A: Morning after an election day so full that despite myself, I fell asleep to a heaping load of red states at 9:00 p.m.

My facebook status:

First, a picture of Scarlett, because Duh!, she’s amazing. Shoving her down your throat is like shoving cupcakes down your throat. The only reason anyone would ever mind is because the sweetness might just be too much for your heart to endure. But we’re Americans, it wouldn’t be a celebration without a little overindulgence.

– accompanying a cute story about how all the kids helped me vote, I accidentally turned them into liberal bullies, then taught them a powerful message about everyone having a right to make choices based on their own personal values, and my mom eventually telling them that I was right, “everyone has a right to be wrong!” Even the summary was embarrassing in length.

Exhibit B:

A couple of shared images, two thirds political. Just the sort of thing everyone’s looking forward to the day after a totally ruthless campaign finally comes to an end. Sorry and you’re welcome. In my defense, one of those images is my devastatingly beautiful niece, Taylor Nicole – who I believe it’s worth mentioning is, in all her toothless glory, my middle namesake. You’re right, that’s TOTALLY a big deal.

And finally

Exhibit C: Brack Obama’s history-making final campaign speech in Iowa. Take him or leave him, yesterday was a great thing to be a part of. I am accordingly overzealous.

I’ve never liked politics before and I don’t now – but I am in awe of our president. I stand behind everything he and his wife have done to embody our nation’s collective voice. I’m blessed to have money in my pocket and a healthful beat in my heart, but I am not particularly strong or loud or brave. Our president reminds us that we don’t have to be those things to make a difference, and I’m proud to pass such imperative proof of that message onto my kids. 

I stand behind the message that we are brothers and sisters who rise and fall together; that regardless of who you are, so long as you are willing to work hard and have conviction (not just one or the other), you deserve to succeed. That fear and uncertainty do not define us, and that our decisions reflect not just our priorities but our principles – especially when those decisions involve standing up for someone else when you could exercise the right not to instead. If you bet on our impatience, if you rely on our indifference, if you’re hoping to ride in on our selfish nature, we will prove you wrong. 

Watch this speech. I dare you not to be moved. Here’s to being a part of great, American history yesterday!

Our Socially Irresponsible Halloween.

“That one.” he pointed.

The most cliched get-up they had to offer. Red synthetic fiber over cottony puffs fashioned to look like a T.V. samurai’s chiseled physique. I’m not good at it, but I try to be one of those moms that doesn’t let their kid get suckered into idolizing all the same marketing ploys as everyone else, like characters on T.V. that aren’t at least educational. Cartoon Network is the enemy. It’s the equivalent for moms of boys to Disney princesses for ones who have daughters, which is ironic in a sad sort of way for me considering I was an animation major in art school. I don’t make the rules though, and everyone knows that’s just how it is. Parents who let their children watch t.v. now are what will cripple our society down the road, which kind of makes me glad that I got pregnant ducked out of a career in animation when I did.

I love that he likes lesser known gems like Dino Dan or even Umi-Zoomi (“Nick Jr. – It’s like preschool on T.V.!”). That way, when I have reason enough to flip it on as a last resort, I don’t feel so much like I’m letting him eat candy for breakfast. (Which I’m not afraid to admit that I do the morning after Halloween and Easter simply because, frankly, I have a soul.)

Some phases are inevitable, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I don’t care about this. It’d be neat if he wasn’t one of a dozen and a half trick-or-treaters all wearing the exact same get-up. (It’d be even cooler if he didn’t mind me dressing him up like funny people he doesn’t know like Dwight from The Office or Nepoleon Dynomite’s Kip, holding the Lafawna sign). But this holiday’s about the kids and I feel strongly that it should be. Little boys will always wish they had samurai muscles and the ability to wield weaponry without accidentally dismembering themselves. For one night, they get to live it out. They get to be the hero people depend on for safety and security – kind of like the president, or, you know, Rick from The Walking Dead. So on Halloween, he was the red power ranger. Not even a classic superhero, like Batman or Donatello. He was one of a million kids around the country who chose to be the 3rd or 4th replacement spin-off of a show that sucked even it’s hay-day.

For a few minutes, helping fumble him into the right leg hole in a cramped, pitch dark dressing room with no mirror, I thought about what people would think of me because of this costume. That I had a lack of creativity? That I don’t even try teaching him to avoid gender stereotypes? That he wakes up everyday to an hour and a half of violent television? A whisper of doubt leaked into the room. I wondered if I should have tried harder to talk him into something else. I mean I know that I want him to choose for himself and be proud of the choices he’s capable of making on his own, but come on.. half this store is some variation of red Power Ranger. Evil Red Power Ranger. Sexy Red Power Ranger. Red Power Ranger costume for your dog. Sexy Red Power Ranger costume for your dog.

Then, he stepped out. I saw him.

And damn it all to hell, if he wasn’t cuter than a basket of puppies on Christmas. And happier, too. Suddenly there wasn’t, not even the dustiest corner of my soul, a shit that I could give about what his costume displayed about my parenting.

In the last episode of The Office, I chortled a little laugh into my drink when Pam dressed up as “Doctor” Cinderella for her daughter; a commentary on how little girls this generation don’t get to just like princesses anymore. There’s a stigma there, like little boys wishing they had big muscles, that disapoint a parent who’s worked so tirelessly to teach that they don’t have to reach for a stereotypical preference over any other. We go to such lengths teaching these kids that they’re free to choose only to visibly deflate when they don’t choose something gender opposite/neutral. Because… ehh, there’s just something about shaming your daughter for wanting to be a princess that seems more conscionable than shaming your son for wanting to be one.

Like anyone, some of my proudest moments are when my child shows a little stark individualism. But it strikes me that no matter how many thousands of parents avoid the Magic Kingdom on Blue-Ray like an outbreak of Pertussis or ban foam weaponry in a house of boys only to find that boys will still reach for the stick in a yard full of toys and girls will still twirl in an over-sized t-shirt, pretending it’s a gown – they won’t be convinced it has anything to do with a natural preference.

Not to say that’s a huge problem. I think even if maybe we do put a little too much weight into how imperative it is sometimes, exposing children to new experiences is not a bad thing. But I don’t think it hurts to be reminded (usually by our own children) that equality doesn’t just mean not shaming boys for wanting to play house, it also means not shaming girls for it either. If I wouldn’t want my son being a pirate because the costume at Kmart comes with a sword, then I shouldn’t jump on buying it for my daughter just because it’s the first costume she reached for all afternoon that didn’t have a trace of purple on it.

Especially if we stay focused on what started this movement in the first place, which was to avoid brainwashing them into believing they had to take on certain gender roles in the first place. I think like so many other things that a few of us have let this fight deviate from it’s original intent and become instead about a specific number of wins. We worry about Toys “R” Us categorizing their website into “girl” sections and “boy” sections (a website, by the way, children are unlikely ever to see in the first place, to be so destructively swayed), but we whine and sulk over their actual preferences time and time again – often, to their faces – if they aren’t radically different from everyone else’s.

This year, Scarlett was an elephant. My oldest daughter, who has successfully outgrown her year and a half long “I’ll throw up on you if I even smell pink” phase emotionally and socially unscathed, opted out of a red Ninja Turtle costume at the last minute and went for a giant pack of SweetTarts instead. We finished off the look with a pair of matching hot pink leg warmers and a bow that had a little bit of tulle for her hair.

All of the kids had an incredible night, falling asleep much too late on a school night to sugar-buzzed dreams while dad and I made off with a few Milky Ways in the dark. Maybe it isn’t popular opinion, but I tend to think that as long as a mom ends Halloween night with caramel in her teeth and pictures this shamelessly beautiful on her SD card, she has every right in the world to deem it a glowing parental success, and no one should stop her. I mean Halloween should not be about wearing our kids around like a fashion statement about our parenting. It should be about teaching them that strangers offer all the best candy, most super-fun things really do happen outside after dark, and Mom calls dibs on Milky Ways. End of story.