The Great Milestone that is Back To School Time

Laurel's first day of school was on Wednesday and I did not take a picture. This was partly because I got a bonk on the head a couple of weeks ago and have lingering concussion symptoms, so just getting her to the school building itself on time was feeling like a pretty epic accomplishment. Even with the concussion, I did remember to pull out my phone as we approached the building but Laurel gave me a firm no. I think she was nervous.

School went fine and by Friday she happily posed for a "first day" picture. School is a funny thing. As a person with teaching experience, I ought to have a fairly good idea of what happens there, but so much of it is a mystery. Side conversations with her peers that happen out of the earshot of adults. Her perception of a disciplinary choice of her gym teacher. Why she's there in the first place. So much of the whole experience has nothing to do with the curriculum. At our parent conference last week, the teacher asked me what my goals were for Laurel for this year and I didn't really know how to answer the question. I mean, it's preK. I hope that she emerges from the year relatively unharmed and has a good time playing with a lot of kids on the playground. Read her some cool stories. Teach her to count.

On the first day, she came home delighted to be back in school. I got to make orange juice, she said, and then I got to drink it!

That seems like a pretty good thing to be doing in preK, I think.

It will be two more years before Marko is old enough for this school, but he is firmly out of "baby" territory and exerting his will as an active toddler. He mimics everything that Laurel does, so getting him to act properly is very much about getting her to do it. He can say a few words: dog, duck, Lah-lu (Laurel), and apple. He still uses the sign for more. I'm learning a little bit about using Montessori with him and he loves to help around the house. Although he doesn't talk too much, he can definitely follow 1 and 2 step directions.

Last night, I was doing the dishes and realized it was pitch dark and only 8:30. That's the other part of Back to School. It marks the coming of the autumnal equinox. Our garden phlox has just about given up blooming. The dill went to seed. Our sunflowers, which we planted very late, are now towering over the rest of the garden, with thick stalks and umbrella-like leaves. When walking home from the playground yesterday, we found a few red leaves on the ground. We've now lived in this house for nearly six years and - the longest I've spent anywhere since my childhood home, and it's interesting to note what I have grown to notice and expect from my surroundings. The sunrise drifts from one end of the dining room window to the other and back again. The gingko trees across the street will not be the first to turn, but will be the most brilliant. The grass in our front yard will slowly turn to yellow as the winter deepens. The house itself will shift, tightening up as the moisture from the air disappears when the boiler turns on. The doors may shut properly in their frames again. We will change our habits, sleeping more and earlier.

As for me, I'm taking it easy. A few weeks ago I hit my head while I was cleaning the house. It really hurt, but I put some ice on it and didn't think too much about it. Next day, I still had a headache and a few other troublesome symptoms, and was instructed to rest from pretty much everything....no computer, tv, driving, exercise. This week, I'm trying to ease back in so I can return to work.


Summer Here

Summer has been pretty great. Lots of time on the porch and swimming pools. Marko is very much on his way to Two, with daily assertions of his displeasure at the rules I impose (no, you cannot cut your cheese stick with a butcher knife), but also lots of hugs and snuggles. He finally likes to read (whew) and brings me his favorite books, then turns around and plops himself into my lap.

Laurel says at least 50 amazing things a day and I keep thinking I need to catalog them or video tape her or something. We had this conversation about hang gliding and parachuting the other day that was just not what I was expecting to talk about with my four year old. She still loves reading about animals and science. Today I had a meeting with a biologist and we talked about using microscopes and magnifying glasses with some of the kiddos I work with, and I kept thinking that Laurel would really love every single one of those lessons - looking at insect legs and your fingerprint and the stomata of leaves.

The two of them together are a tornado of destruction, though. Tumbling over each other, wrestling like puppies. Taking out every single puzzle or toy or book. Food dropped all over the place, even though we are really trying to enforce eating at the table. They yell at each other and laugh really loudly and share everything. Lollipops and books and germs. They are not afraid of new people. Marko just learned to shake hands from the Councilman Burgess, who stopped by our ice cream social. Laurel will tell you everything five minutes after you meet. At the swimming pool, she bobs and gossips with a group of moms hanging out in the far opposite corner of the kiddie pool. In the grocery store, she tells the clerk what we are having for dinner, where we went this morning and whatever embarrassing piece of information I really wish she hadn't overheard.

She says "Jeeee-sus" when she is awed or irritated. (Wonder where she got that from?)

Marko says "taco" and "backpack" and shakes his head no.

I wish we had a hundred more years of summer, but I'll be glad when fall gets here and we can tuck ourselves under covers and watch the leaves blow into our yard.


Come Read With Us

Sometimes when I have a side conversation with Amy (my collaborator on the Reading Warriors project) before training starts, where we decide how much time to dedicate to processing the murder that occurred on the playground last night, and we decide 15 minutes is good and to let the teens moderate it, and it turns out 15 minutes is a good amount of time, and then they go on to do utterly amazing planning work with more dedication and thoughtfulness than I've seen from most classroom teachers in the last ten years....well....I am simultaneously grinning from ear to ear with satisfaction and pride over this program we have built together and utterly sick with the scope of poverty, violence and hopelessness that a quarter of this city's children are growing up in.

Sorry for the run-on. And dropping that bit about the murder in there. But that's kind of what the inside of my head feels like when I'm at work. So. Many. Problems.

No choice except to deal and move on. Even when the problems are serious.

Because we've got a solution.

At the core, it is simple. Reading Warriors focus their efforts on shrinking the word gap. How do we do that? By reading and having rich conversations with kids. Teens really can do this! It starts with a book and ends with crafting a patchwork quilt out of construction paper or making smoothies or finding 6 different kinds of a maple leaves in the blocks around our program sites. They come up with amazing ideas when I can restrain myself and stop meddling in their lesson planning.

During the next couple of weeks, you can support our work and it's easy.

On Wednesday July 23 or Thursday July 31 you can join us. If you are local, come to the events in the Hill or East Liberty. Bring a book, or use one of ours and just sit and read for a minute. You can bring a kid or an office-mate. Bring your mom. Bring your dog. Bring your goldfish. You'll probably hear some P-O-W-E-R, or see some of their trademarked "animation reading" (seriously, they made it up) and it's just really fun. If you can't join us in person, read wherever you are, take a selfie and post it on FB or Instagram with #ReadingWarriors. Buy a book for a kid you know or send a donation to your local library. If you see a Reading Warrior out and about, ask them about their work. Make sure the kids you know read 100 books this summer (it's only 2-3 a day). Or you can do a hundred chapters, if they are a bit older.


Summer on the Porch

My neighbor Marlene joins us for
lemonade and story time.
We live on a super busy corner, and therefore do not experience the oasis of peace and quiet that I formerly associated with porch swings and pitchers of lemonade. No matter, the porch is a great place to gather a few neighbors, drink lemonade, read, paint, splash in the kiddy pool, and tend our little garden. The kids help with weeding and watering. M recently started a new job and my job is super busy in the summer, so we don't really have any big vacation plans. We take the kids to the city pool, M plays in a softball league once a week, and we've been on a couple of short camping trips in the Laurel Highlands.

When we started writing this blog, M and I didn't even really have a home. We were staying with relatives in between various road trips and backpacking adventures. I was thinking about how much online connectivity we have these days, compared to 2006. Back then we really had to hunt for a public library to send email or  upload photos! We didn't even carry a cell phone with us on the AT...just used pay phones. I don't even know if you can rely on that anymore as an option. You never knew where we would pop up next because a few days or a week would go by in between phone calls or blog posts. Thus the name of the blog. It felt exciting and free to spend a lot of days out of reach from everyone I knew.

Now you pretty much know where to find us. Happy hour after work is on the porch. Less beer, more iced rooibos tea. We carefully watch our phlox as they come into bloom and try to keep the lemon balm from taking over the entire yard. Laurel is a creative artist, always doing something new with the way she applies and layers paint. Marko just likes to dump things into and out of buckets....whether it's dirt or water or a collection of small toys. He's very busy and serious about it. He makes it look like work, but work he enjoys.

In a couple of weeks, we're going to crack open a few cartons of ice cream and make sundaes for anyone who walks by, for National Night Out. I'll drag every chair I own out to the little patch of grass in my front yard, and hopefully we'll meet some new neighbors. It's Laurel's favorite event of the entire year, and she's been inviting everyone she runs into.


Find Your Place and Watch It Grow

Sometimes Marko pulls out our laminated map of the United States where it sits, rolled up, tucked in between the refrigerator and the wall. We unroll it on the living room floor and he walks back and forth over it. Laurel traces the lines with her finger, finding "Big Texas" and Chicago and Key West. M and I took our first big road trip when we were in in college, a month long loop following Route 66 for part of the way. We carried little glass vials with us and filled them with sand and water along the way. They sit in our attic, packed away, their labels have been rubbed off so they are vaguely mysterious, although you cannot mistake the silty Mississippi River water for the red dust of Kansas. As a family, we daydream often about our next road trip.

But there are plenty of adventures to be had close to home. When Laurel was Marko's age, we walked her to and from daycare and thus had built-in outdoor exploration time every day. The same 3/4 mile long journey, watching the trees and flowers move through seasonal cycles. Watching the shadows inch their way further and further across the park and then retreating again as winter approaches. 

Marko spends way more time in the car, way more time on my back or on M's shoulders. We don't make time for 2 hours of walking a toddler to and from daycare every day. If you ask Laurel what she wants to do, she will say watch tv. But once you get her outside, she's very comfortable, curious and observant. I want to be able to give Marko the same gift of time. No lesson plans or nature hike. Just traveling from place to place on foot, at one's own comfortable pace.


And then we got a hamster....

We got a hamster. His name is Jojo and he came from our babysitter, Jessie, who also provided a complete and luxurious hamster habitat and a starter supply of bedding and food. Marko calls him "Ball" and is not allowed to touch him. Laurel is supposed to be in charge of taking care of him, but let's be real....I'm the one who is going to be dumping soiled wood shavings. She did a good job of changing the water today, though. Jojo got off to sort of a rough start when he bit Laurel last night. To be fair, she did put her finger directly between his sharp rodent teeth. There was blood, and tears. But the transgression was forgotten the next morning when the kids woke up; the first thing they wanted to do was check on Jojo. They desperately wanted to feed him again but it wasn't time. They were disappointed that he was sleeping and Laurel cried when I said that he was nocturnal. The thing I love most is seeing them next to each other, peering into the cage.

Happy Siblings Day, to my dear siblings. Pete and Danna, I can only hope that my kids have as much fun together as we did growing up. Love you both so much.


Game Changers

Today while I was at work I had a conversation with a second grade child about honey. She had an old faded copy of a Winnie the Pooh book. She actually looked pretty engrossed in it when I walked by; she was definitely reading the words. I asked her if she liked Winnie the Pooh. "He's kind of a dope," I said, "Always getting stuck in those honey pots." She smiled and then said, "What's honey?"

Later, M and I lay in bed with Laurel, paging through her First Human Body Encyclopedia and looking for the pages on blood. When we got to the part about where blood cells are produced - in the bone marrow - she told us about tasmanian devils and how they eat marrow. When we looked at the magnified photo of the white blood cell, she said, "Reeve has lots of those because he is sick right now."

I'm the sort of girl who wears an "I love books" t-shirt to work, so yes, my kids read a lot. But it's not just about the reading. Bring a wide variety of reading materials and have rich discussions to build comprehension and vocabulary, that's what I tell my Reading Warriors. Also known as "Read stuff your kids are interested in and talk about it." Laurel learned the thing about the tasmanian devils from Wild Kratts, so sometimes "reading" is replaced by "watch a video." Whatever, it's the interaction that matters.

Do you know how hard it is to describe honey to a child who eats all of her meals in the school cafeteria and has never seen a bee hive?

So much word gap, so little time. One of the reasons I am so devoted to teaching teens about reading has nothing to do with the elementary kids they are tutoring now. I want them to understand the extent and complexity of the word gap and make sure they have babies that know what white blood cells are when they are four.


I keep trying to post here but then....

....these two little munchkins suggest we stop by the playground or go out to eat at D's or there's just really crazy free form art being created in our dining room by Laurel. Last night M prepared a cartoonishly large pot of milk to make skyr and we got the kids bathed and ready for bed in record time, but the weekend wasn't ready to be done with us. First Marko popped back up, then Laurel, then they were both up and we gave up on putting them back in bed. Everyone ate more food and read more stories and snuggled more. I tried not to look at the clock, or think about our alarms going off in the dark in the morning. We were all pleasant with each other, Laurel helping M out and Marko peering curiously into the giant pot. I gave up on waiting until the kids were in bed and just poured myself a glass of wine. I avoided wishing that all days were like weekends and dreading Monday and instead just enjoyed the moment for what it was. Sunday. Bluegrass on the radio. Cozy in our house, together. But still, this morning I was back to resenting that moment for being so fleeting, until my friend posted something about writing a "Get To Do" list instead of a "to do" list, and it was exactly what I needed to hear to just celebrate the fact that I "get to do payroll" this week (actually, it's super nice to have funding to compensate my wonderful teen employees), and "get to suspend some of those teens for ditching training" (because really, it's a privilege to be able to have a calm and respectful conversation with a teen about consequence and balancing our time and bus schedules, and watch them grow into their responsibilities).

Soon, it will be evening and my Get To Do's will be giving more baths and more stories and more snuggles and the rhythm continues. Mostly there's really ordinary things going on here, but it makes me think of what poet William Martin wrote:

Make the Ordinary Come Alive Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.


Is my kid racist? And other pressing parenting questions that were not in the books.

It's Black History Month, and Laurel came home with a coloring book page of Jackie Robinson. We asked her why he was important, but really all she seemed to get was that he was a good baseball player. Marko also participated by coloring his own picture of Jackie Robinson. He used an orange crayon. He doesn't really know what baseball is, so I can't begin to imagine what he thought of that activity. And maybe that's the point. Maybe infants and preschoolers are just supposed to become familiar with famous Black people and not dive into the whole whys and hows of it. (Note, the daycare director and much of the staff is Black.) And not that this makes my kids racist, by any means, but it still got me thinking about whether or not I'm doing all I should be.

Did I miss the chapter on "Keep Your Kids From Turning into Racists" in the baby books? I suppose I had this loose expectation that if I raised my kids in an integrated neighborhood and we had friends from a variety of backgrounds then it would all take care of itself. (That was sort of dumb and white of me.) Little kids make a lot of broad and inaccurate assumptions as they are trying to figure out the world. Laurel, when she was about 2, seemed to think that the term "neighbor" meant someone with darker skin...I suppose because we often prompted her to wave to neighbors as they passed by our front porch.

The problem with trying to educate kids about the history of race relations is they just stare at you, incredulous at the absurdity of it all. When we recently talked about "black" or "white" with Laurel she gazed at her skin...trying to make it fit into her understanding of "white." When I asked her if she knew any Black people she named a selection of friends and family members, including my mother. (Why she thinks my mother is Black, I am not sure.) After she said that, I realized it's probably not that important for my daughter to classify people she knows by labels that they may or may not use themselves.

My kids have a lot of exposure to people who are not white. Not that I want them to be rude ever, but I especially don't want them to be rude to people of color. I'm not quite sure what level of white guilt spawns this desire, but it's there. I want to teach them ways to be respectful about labels and names and hair and culture, which roughly equates to just being a generally well-mannered human but seems to require some added clarification.

Part of me thinks I should talk with her a lot more, and part of me thinks we should just let it go for now and let her form her own ideas.

I work with a lot of people who are not white (or not all the way white like me? Am I all the way white?). I hesitate to even use a label because so many of the teens in my program balk at labels in general, or identify as multi-racial or Jamaican and are totally offended by the term "African-American" - but it's in my organization's mission statement and there's definitely some icky racist stuff going on in Pittsburgh that requires us to think something and say something about institutional racism.

This week, I've been carpooling with a young man who lives a few blocks away. Today, I almost asked him to meet me at the Walgreens. I say almost, because I realized at the last minute that a white lady pulling up to young black man in a parking lot known for drug trafficking might look rather suspicious. And we didn't really have time to get pulled over...we had an after-school program to run! Hahaha! Funny police stories. But seriously, this was a legitimate concern. And that's kind of indicative of the true state of racism in our country today.

So, happy black history month! Or African American History Month, if you prefer. Here's a few things I'm thinking about this month.


Sorry! So sorry!

Bad news when it's only Monday evening and you think, no, I just can't. Just no. No.

I'm obsessively checking the Weather Channel because there's supposed to be more snow or freezing rain tonight and the city ran out of salt and please, oh please, let there be a two hour delay tomorrow.

For reasons that would be very lengthy to explain, I ended up way on the other side of the city this afternoon. I crossed rivers, man. I did so with the condition that I would, under no circumstance, leave the site later than 5:00pm so that I may make it back to my 'hood before being charged a dollar a minute late fee at the daycare. I left at 5:18. It was really 5:23 by the time I pulled out of the school parking lot. Miraculously there was no traffic in any of the places I expected it to be and I got caught behind only one bus. I made it to the daycare with 2 minutes to spare, and my kids were not the last ones there. Whew.

By the time we got home though, everyone was crying (I want daddeeeee!!) and I had to carry 15 bags and a baby and a four year old into the house and we were all sliding on the ice in the driveway, and people were still calling me from work about things I really have no control over. There was no dinner and M was out at a meeting.

And I said I can't, but really that's not an option. Keep calm and carry on, and so we did. My friend texted me to say that she can take Laurel to gymnastics on Wednesday, and I whipped up some scrambled eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches and got everyone in and out of the bath in record time. Marko brought me Good Night Moon to read and Laurel read some of the pages and I felt very cozy sitting there with a lapful of children. Suddenly it all felt very manageable again.

I read that working moms say sorry a lot, so I've been trying not to do that. I didn't apologize at all today. I took a gym break midday and only put three things on my To Do list. Points off for eating lunch in my car, but at least it was food.