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The “O” Word

I had a birthday last month. As a 46-year-old, I am now squarely in middle age and am noticing all the same things the rest of my cohort are: a few more lines on the face, fading close vision, sleep issues, a couple of pounds around the mid-section that aren’t going anywhere without taking drastic measures, etc. All these things are minor, but they definitely add up to the feeling that youth is to be spoken of in the past tense.

However, there is a point at which my cohort and I are going to have to part ways, and that is their insistence on constantly discussing how old they are. Age comes up at school gatherings, soccer side-lines, on social media, and at parties. The soundtrack of my life sounds something like this:

“U2’s first big hit was over 30 years ago. Oh my God, I’m so old!”

“I used to run, but now I’m too old.”

“Do you remember using a typewriter? We’re so old!”

“I am not staying up until 2 a.m. I’m too old for that.”

And so it goes. Ad infinitum.

And here’s the thing: No, we are not young any more. We’ve been bona fide adults with all its attendant responsibilities and privileges for decades now. We have jobs (well, most of us). Most of us have houses to take care of. Many of us are knee-deep in child-rearing. We are coming up on our 8th presidential election. We are—or should be—mature.

But if we keep calling ourselves “old”—not every now and again, but constantly—what the heck are we going to call ourselves 30, 40, or 50 years hence? Is my generation seriously planning to complain about being old for half of their lives? For half a century? If so, I want out! Seriously. I can imagine nothing more tedious.

I have some pretty big thoughts about this, which I will distill into a few concise thoughts below:

1. Some of this is the product of a youth-obsessed culture. I’m not sure when it became so awful to be or be seen as something other than young, but it exacts a heavier toll than I realized at a ridiculously young age. Youth-centered beauty standards are harder on women than men, and this might be part of what I am responding to.

2. We do some of this damage to ourselves by stagnating. I read not too long ago that the average adult stops listening to new music around the age of 30. I anecdotally verified this when I created a birthday play-list last month (one song per year from 1970 to the present) and posted it to Facebook. Many of my friends commented that sometime around 1998-2000, they stopped recognizing the names of any of my chosen songs or artists. I assure you my taste is not that obscure. This would also explain all those greatest hits or oldies radio stations that play the same 50 songs in what feels like a continuous loop. We also stagnate in terms of our career, hobbies, fitness, and social habits. Not everyone can change all of these things, but none of us are stuck in all of them. Mix it up!

3. Related to the above, we have a choice. I know two people, one a friend and the other a relative, who will turn 80 this summer. Both exercise, read, work (part-time), and seek out new experiences. They are “old” chronologically (and neither goes to extreme measures to hide or deny his or her age), yet mange to be younger in attitude than many of my peers. They did not throw in the towel at 45 or 50, and I don’t plan to either. For that matter, my own mother still works, is open to new things, and mows her own lawn at age 76. She doesn’t complain about being old all the time, so why should I?

4. I have put together a prescription of sorts to help me avoid falling into the trap of self-induced stagnation. These are tips I have cobbled together from friends, coworkers, family,  things I’ve read, and things I’ve thought about on my runs. Here goes.

  • Each year, I make it a goal to make one new friend. This advice came from my old boss, Karen, and I didn’t realize how wise it was until recently.
  • What Karen did not suggest, but others have, is that we should try to have friends who are different ages and have different backgrounds than we do. That can be hard, but I think it’s crucial if you don’t want all your experiences to be narrow and all your thoughts to calcify. I don’t have a great “going out” circle of friends like I did in San Francisco, but I do have friends who are 30 years older than I am, friends who are 17 years younger than I am, friends who were born overseas, and friends whose socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic background varies from my own.
  • I am not writing off new music or new literary voices because of age—mine or the artist’s. Radiohead is great; I still love Radiohead; a lot of really good stuff has come out between their last great album, released 16 years ago, and the present.
  • While one of the pleasures of being middle-aged is knowing who I am, I plan to remember that character traits are constant while interests and knowledge are moving targets. This last one speaks to a teacher certification program I will be starting next week, about which I will write more later.
  • Finally, slightly counter-intuitively, I am not going to desperately cling to youth. I will color my hair (for now), stay fit, and use sunscreen. I will not spend thousands on skin-care, fillers, botox, liposuction, cool-sculpting, chemical peels, etc. in an attempt to deny my years. I’d rather spend that money on my house, my child, tickets to arts and sports activities, and travel. Nor will I attempt to pull off clothing designed for teenagers. Nothing is more aging than naked desperation.

Does this all sound like a mid-life crisis? It might well be! I maintain, however, that there is a big difference between “middle-aged” and “old”.

So I took a little/long break from here, owing to busy-ness and just plain not having much to say. Or at least, not much about Simon. But that’s changed, so here I am.

Where am I exactly? I’m 30 minutes from meeting Simon at the bus-stop (he now rides the bus home a few times a week, and my hips, budget, and mood are all improved as a result), and for the first time in all his years of schooling, I don’t think Simon is going to be happy to see me. No, scratch that, I’m sure of it. And that kind of breaks my heart, but there’s nothing I can do.

Fact is, my precious boy, the one his teachers universally adore, got caught lying about brushing his teeth for the second time this morning. The first time we busted him, we explained the importance of tooth-brushing and honesty. To drive home the point of the importance of good oral hygiene, I showed him a picture of Shane MacGowan. (If you are unfamiliar with Mr. MacGown, Google him. But not while eating.) “That ought to do it,” I said to myself, and the matter was closed.

Then this morning I asked Simon if he had brushed his teeth before he headed out the door. He told me yes, but I was suspicious because I didn’t recall hearing the water run. The dry tooth brush confirmed my suspicions, and thus Simon’s last interaction with me before heading off to school was my yelling at him for lying and telling him that his computer, on which he watches soccer videos, was going away for today and tomorrow.

He shook and cried from what I suspect is a combination of shame, fear, and anger. I’ve hardly ever had to yell at him before, and he’s certainly never had a privilege revoked. I’m pretty sure he didn’t realize that computer time was a privilege. As I watched him walk down our hill towards the bus stop, I was saddened by his downward gaze and shuffling, agonizingly slow, gait.

This was a miserable, anxious, and sad 9-year-old. And while one part of me, the responsible parent part of me, thinks, “Good, maybe he’ll remember how awful he feels the next time he’s tempted to lie,” the mom who’s had a ridiculously easy run of 9 years is sad that I’m no longer a source of exclusively good feelings.

I recognize that most of my cohort has had to drop the hammer well before now and that it was unrealistic to expect Simon to remain my perfectly obedient child forever. But it sure was fun! Much funner than this next stage promises to be.

In 20 minutes, I will meet a nervous and long-faced child at the bus-stop, at which point I will restate the importance of honestly and ask him whether, in the event that I go upstairs and sort through the bathroom trash, I will find a week’s worth of discarded flossers. (Spoiler alert: I won’t.) Regardless of how he answers me, he’s going back to the dentist ahead of schedule. But one answer will restore computer privileges tomorrow night, and the other will extend the ban through Sunday.

Wish us both luck.

[Note, this was originally written nearly a month ago, right before our site went down and as beginning-of-year distractions were piling up.]

Our lives are often sorted, measured, or arranged by age groups. Market researchers, educators, marathon organizers, and camps all create somewhat arbitrary age groups by which they order and divide people from one another.

I just changed groups myself: Were I to enter a race, I’d now be in the 45-49 category. In fact, now would be a great time to get back into longer distances, as I’d probably do OK in my age group. Last year, however, it would have been harder. Those 41-42-year-olds who are still running marathons are fierce, disciplined, and can beat the pants off of many. Whereas I might be able to outlast a few nearly 50-year-olds if I really put my mind to it.

Unfortunately, Simon is at a distinct disadvantage these days in the age divide. Most soccer camps and programs have a clean break at 10, with the 10-and-ups playing together in one group and the under-10s in another. As a boy of 8 years and 10 months, being with under 10s should be fine. And if the under 10s are girls, it IS fine. But with boys? Unless they are a pretty select group, it’s not fine. Which puts me in my least favorite position: that of the parent insisting that her special snowflake requires special treatment.

Last summer, Simon had only a so-so time at the hyped and expensive University of Louisville soccer camp. The reason for this was that he was with other 7-year-olds, only one of which was as good or better than he was and several of whom weren’t that serious and/or were discipline problems. I should have insisted they bump him up.

This year, at Shakespeare Camp (about which more later), Simon was in with 18 7-to-10-year-olds. He liked the girls just fine. He found 1 or 2 of the older boys to be tolerable. The rest he complained about and avoided like the plague.

And today, at a Louisville City F.C. weekend soccer clinic, we showed up and learned the kids would be divided along familiar lines: 6-9-year-olds on one field, 10 and up on the other. His school friend Jacob was with him; his soccer friend Aidan was in the 10 and up group. We hoped for the best, but the report when we picked him up was as follows:

“I didn’t really like this camp. None of the kids except Jacob are very good. And a lot of the boys were mean. I’d put a little shoulder into them, and they’d get mad at me and be really mean. Or I’d score, and they’d say I was cheating. But I wasn’t cheating!”

After he told me this, I went and found one of the coaches, Illija Ilic, a 22-year-old Serbian player on The Louisville City team. Did he see any of this? No, he didn’t, but he was sorry it happened and he missed it. I explained that I know Simon doesn’t play rough, but maybe some of the boys aren’t used to any contact at all? Maybe he could explain that a lean was OK?

“No, that’s not it. They’re probably just mad because Simon is by far the best player in this group. He’d probably do better over there [gestures to the 10-and-up field].”

“Great,” I said, “Then let’s put him there tomorrow. He’d be thrilled to be with his friend Aidan anyway. Here’s the thing about Simon: He played U-10 ball when he was still 7. He’d rather be the youngest, least experienced player with the older boys than be the best, most experienced player with kids mostly younger than him. He likes the big pond and doesn’t mind being a little fish in it.”

So tomorrow Simon will join kids at least one year older than him, and I can guarantee that he’ll have a better time sports-wise and socially. But for it to happen, I’m going to have to be THAT MOM again the morning, the one explaining that her special snowflake can’t possibly be lumped with his peers.

Then next week Simon will begin the annual challenge of finding one boy in his class to be friends with. He’s solid with the girls: he’ll be in with Brooklyn, Aerin, and Bella, who are three of his best friends from school. But of the 37 boys in his cohort, he’s only found seven that he really gets on well with, and one of them moved to Washington state a year ago and the other six are in different classes than he is. I only need one, and there are some new boys I am optimistic about, but I can’t shake the feeling that if Simon were going into 4th grade this might be easier for him.

It’s hard to be a serious, introverted, competitive almost 9-year-old, and I don’t see the situation improving any time soon.

I know I’ve blogged about the nightly Dolphie theatrics before. Or at least I’ve written about how Simon has been role-playing with Dolphie for some time. A little over a year ago, Dirty Dog and Dirty Dog’s twin were upstaged by a little rainbow stuffed dolphin who became Simon’s surrogate sibling.

Well let me tell you, if you thought Dolphie getting an IEP for speech therapy was nuts, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Because as it turns out, that was just the beginning of the madness. Over the course of the past six months or so, Dolphie has been joined by three siblings. They are: Sharkie, a stuffed (what else?) shark; Rae, a stuffed sting-ray Jim and Evie brought back from Florida; and Mandy, a stuffed manatee, also from Florida, ferried by Aunt Bobbie.

With this crew, Simon has managed to create an entire make-believe family, imagine what it must be like to have siblings, and take a stab at parenting a family of four. Each girl—and yes, they are all girls—has a distinctive personality by now. Rae, the oldest, is smart and fast, but she also sometimes stings people. You have to keep an eye on Sharkie for obvious reasons. Dolphie is the original sea sibling, the second-oldest, the ring-leader of the group, and is a good girl even if she’s slightly hyper at times. Mandy is the youngest of the group, and she struggles to keep up with her siblings because age and girth keep her from being able to do some of the same things they do.

How’s that for crazy?

What is perhaps less crazy is that all of this role-playing is providing a mirror into my own parenting and Simon’s instincts to nurture others. For example, Rae, like all the aquatic sisters, says “hee” a lot. Three nights ago I was informed of the following:

“Mama, Fairy Rays* only say ‘hee’ until they are 10. So I only have four short years left before Rae never ‘hees’ again!” [Insert sad, sighing sound here.]

Thus it would appear that Simon has learned to mourn the too-swift passage of time from me. I thought I was getting better about vocalizing my concern at how fast Simon is growing up, but this has certainly put me on notice. Then again, it’s nice to know that Simon is enjoying surrogate parenting.

On a more positive note, Simon is always, always asking me questions related to favoritism among the girls. As with all questions in this line, whether they are about the preschoolers I teach, family members, or his friends, I decline to answer the way he wants me to and refuse to rank people. Two nights ago, in response to something or other Simon said or did regarding Mandy, I turned the tables on him:

“Simon, is Mandy your favorite?”

“No, Mama, I don’t have favorites. Mandy just gets the most attention now because she’s a baby. Once she’s older, it won’t be like this.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Although, it would appear, Simon can make up lots of stuff about stuffed animals!

* Rae is a “Fairy Ray” for the same reason the other girls are also fairy version of their species; he had to come up with a reason for the girls to have fur and live on land, and making them fairies allowed him to dispense with normal laws of biology and physics.


The Thespian

To date, all of Simon’s summer camps from 2010 or so to the present have focused on things I knew he liked: nature, animals, tennis, soccer. This year also has a soccer and nature focus, with Simon going off to Jefferson Memorial Forest two weeks ago and spending two weeks hence in soccer clinics.

Then there’s Shakespeare Camp, which may sound like a needle scratch on the album of Simon’s life. And yet, I see signs that this camp, which covers acting, costuming, and stage-craft, could be great.* One sign is that while Simon cannot draw particularly well (he’s not progressed past primitive stick-figures), he does enjoy art when it’s presented to him in a non-threatening way. Painting abstract images with his friend Ruby years ago was always fun for him. And this year’s school art teacher found ways to get science-y kids to explore to their creative sides. (Thanks Ms. Martin!) Whether it was computer-generated art, pointillism, or paper mache insects, Simon was engaged in art in a way he usually isn’t.

Another sign is Simon’s interest in costuming. He was very engaged in his Hong Kong Phooey costume two years ago and Marvin the Martian this past year, and we’re already trying to figure out what might be fun for Halloween 2015. Plus, whenever he’s had reader theater at school—whether parents were invited to come watch or not—he has been eager to put together a costume. The kids likes to commit to his roles.

But the biggest sign to me that theater camp might be great is his willingness and ability to ham it up with me and Matt. And believe me, he’s figured out ways to enhance any given performance in service of manipulation. Just a few weeks ago he was fake upset about not getting to do something or other when I detected tears in the car. Even from the driver’s seat I could tell that the tears were real, yet manufactured if that makes sense. He wasn’t fake crying exactly, but his affect was slightly off from the real deal.

“Simon,” I asked. “Are you crying?”

“Yes,” he sniffled.

“Hm. I can tell, but it sounds a little off. I’m not totally convinced. Did you somehow make yourself cry?”

“Yeah, I figured out how to do it. I just give myself the forever thought**, and then I start crying.”

Yeah–that’s a kid who’s ready for drama camp I’d say.

I also think this camp could be good for Simon, who is a very well spoken introvert. He’s not shy, but crowds and new people can unnerve him. Despite this, I know he’s often the spokesperson for his grade-level on school tours. In other words, Simon doesn’t like making chit-chat with strangers, but he’s good when called upon to inform others.

I am not upset that Simon is an introvert, and I do not consider introversion to be a failing. Far from it, introverts can be great observers and listeners. But in an extroverted society like ours, being able to selectively socialize, speak in public, and generally project yourself when necessary, are valuable tools to have at your disposal. And since I think Simon is ready to start adding them, drama camp struck me as a great place to start.

*If you were wondering why I chose such an out-of-left field camp, it’s because I thought his best friend Caroline was going and I had a chance to snag it for 1/3 the list price at a school benefit auction. Turns out Caroline is at a different acting camp this summer, but we recruited a school friend Rayna to go. As long as he has a buddy, it should be OK. Plus, my niece Maddie will be there with the older kids and can send give him a passing high-five when needed.

** The “forever thought” is Simon’s own terminology for fretting about the permanence of death. Alongside the fact that the Earth will one day be consumed by the sun, it is Simon’s number one source of existential fear and dread. That he’s now harnessing this dread to wrangle Panera and ice cream out of me is simultaneously alarming and reassuring.

Upping the Ante

LSA Simon corner kick resizeAfter a busy spring of Community Relations Council activity, PTA events, legal maneuvering with my neighbor, a property value assessment appeal, and soccer, I am back behind the keyboard with time to think and write about things. Of the many possibilities, I think I’ll begin with soccer because it’s a big part of our life and it’s about to become even bigger. Or at least more expensive!

For the past three seasons, Simon has played with Louisville Soccer Alliance (LSA). They are a non-select club that offers a spot to all who make a commitment to play and practice. They respect that many children are multi-sport athletes who have to occasionally miss a game, and the cost—at $700 per year including a uniform and two tournaments—is the best bargain in soccer for those who want to play in the local competitive league. They are a family-friendly club that has been very good to us, but that we are nevertheless about to leave.

As of tomorrow, Simon will be joining the Kentucky Fire Juniors, a select team, and the culture we are a part of will dramatically change. He had to try out for this team, players are assigned to ranked teams according to their tryout performance, and I  have a mountain of paperwork to complete before Simon gets measured for his uniform tomorrow. Practices will be three times a week, there will be an expectation that practices and games are missed only rarely and under extraordinary circumstances, and the cost—at twice the LSA rate not including three separate uniforms—is sky high.

I am slightly concerned that Matt and I do not belong at this club and that we aren’t going to have much in common with the parents there. However, I am equally certain that this is where Simon belongs. He has had a foot on a ball for four years now and is an intense competitor who will thrive in a select team atmosphere. He’s also got some talent, being particularly good at reading the field, finding space, and making great passes. He’s only 8, but he’s a natural mid-fielder.

And did I mention that he loves it? I just sorted through his papers from this past year, and nearly every personal narrative concerned soccer at some level. He plays it whenever he can, and when he’s not playing it he’s writing about it, talking about it, watching it, and even dreaming about it.

Simon actually practiced with the Fire twice this winter after being scouted in a Fire-affiliated rec league. The practice was fast, intense, and included zero time for socializing. From a non-athlete’s perspective, it looked stressful. Simon, being an actual athlete, loved every minute of it, walked off the field drenched in sweat, and breathlessly declared “I’m totally coming here in the fall.”

His mind was made up: One last season with his friends, many of whom were older and would be in a different division next year. One last season with his head coach, who moved to St. Louis last Monday. And then he’d move on to greener, and winning-er, pastures. There was just the small matter of a tryout, which he aced, securing a spot on the U-10 team 2. (Simon is technically a U-9 for boys who are age 8 as of August 1, but since he’s been playing up for a year and a half now, he tried out for the team for boys who are 9 as of August 1.)

The Kentucky Fire Juniors coaching staff has been nothing but friendly and helpful to me and Matt. So why am I wary? I’ll tell you why: Because during tryouts, when the boys were out scrimmaging and doing cone drills in their numbered shirts, the Fire had a guest speaker address the parents. And what did he talk to us about? Travel and college scholarships. That’s right, while 9-year-olds were on the field being evaluated by coaches, a veteran Kentucky Fire Junior parent was telling us all about the college scouting process and how he has a Subaru with 280K miles on it from all the travel.

“Any questions?” he asked the mostly eager and attentive parents? “Yeah,” I thought to myself, “Who is your mechanic?” Because while I think it’s ridiculous to be discussing college scholarships with the parents of rising fourth-graders, I’m totally invested in finding a mechanic who can get me 180K additional miles on my ’97 Camry.

Ready, wary, skeptical, or not, I’ll still be at tomorrow’s Fire open house and uniform fitting. And I’ll be keeping my snarky opinions (mostly) to myself. Because while I might think that many of these parents are off their rockers, high level soccer is my son’s dream. Plus, all this talk of college has a definite upside for us, because most of the time Simon insists he’s skipping college to go straight to the pros. It might be crazy, but it’s less crazy than his own plan, so I’ll take it!


All signs point to Simon not being a little boy any more. I think he’s just a boy without qualification, and “young man” is within sights. How can I tell? Let me count the ways:

  1. He’s starting to make his own food.
  2. He’s showering with no assistance at all.
  3. He’s doing things like homework without being told.
  4. He’s sneaking candy and treats and is smart enough to hide the evidence.

Those are mostly small things that many children began doing years ago. Then there are the biggies:

  1. Two weeks ago Simon asked me if he could start walking to the bus stop and waiting for the bus alone. I should let him, but the fact that our street doesn’t have sidewalks makes me very nervous. I admire the desire, but he might have to wait a while longer.
  2. Last weekend, in a soccer tournament, Simon was in goal when a player on the opposing team slid into him. Simon ended up with that boy’s cleat firmly planted in his neck. It hurt, and he had to leave the field. I stayed on the parents’ sideline, convinced that if the coaches needed me, they’d wave me over. I was slightly afraid my presence might make him feel worse. Afterwards, when we discussed the incident, Simon had this to say: “I wanted to get back in the game so I could smash that kid in the face with the ball.” He meant it, too!
  3. After discussing the incident, I took a look at Simon’s neck looking for lingering redness or cleat marks. I didn’t see any, but Simon told me the area was still tender. So I kissed it. That puzzled Simon, and he told me as much. “Here’s a funny thing about parents that I’ve noticed. When their boy or girl hurts themselves, they always want to kiss the part that hurts. What good is that supposed to do?” Mother’s magic touch is gone, I tell you.
  4. While Simon is still super sensitive to loud noises, he doesn’t sit back and cry about them any more. Last week, when his class was being awful in the cafeteria, he stood up and tried to take control. He failed miserably, but I admire the effort and take it as one more sign of his growing maturity.

It’ll be interesting to see how fast this maturation project gains steam. Right now, we’re clearly revving up. And I have to say, I’m not experiencing any wistfulness about his growing independence. Instead—at this point anyway—I’m thrilled by the peak at the person he is becoming. It’s better than any movie trailer I could imagine!

The Half Birthday

Wow, long time no write! Not here anyway. Everything has either been much the same as ever or knee-deep in minor emergencies; hence either nothing to write about or no time to write about anything.

But here’s a little ditty to jump-start the habit again. Last week was Simon’s half birthday. This was a big deal for him. He reminded me about it several times and dropped more than a few hints that we should be doing something.

“Mama, did you forget something about today?”

“Mama, do you remember what today is?”

“Mama, did you know it’s my half-birthday?”

To which the answers were yes, yes now that you remind me, and yes again. But we’re still not going to do anything, and here’s why.

Once upon a time (this year), in a preschool far, far away (two miles from our house), there was a little child whose birthday it was. When this child came into my class, she was excited about her paper crown, her cupcakes, and her special day. And I wanted her to feel special, too! So I asked her how old she was now. And I asked her if she could tell me in Spanish. And we all counted together. And then we went to sing Happy Birthday in Spanish.

And everything would have been fabulous but for one problem: Another child in class was celebrating her half birthday on the same day. She was getting a special treat and/or mini party at home, and she was insistent that we also honor her special day, sing to her, and talk to her about special she was on this day.

Honestly, it was funny, sad, and obnoxious all at once. I couldn’t be angry with the half birthday child; she didn’t come up with all these ideas on her own. But the net effect was to put a damper on another child’s excitement, so I was annoyed.

I’m not sure where Simon suddenly got the idea that half birthdays were so important, but I am cautiously optimistic that my thoroughly unenthused monotone about the special day put a damper on any enthusiasm he might have. Permanently I hope. He’s my child and my special snowflake, but no snowflake needs to be made to feel quite THAT special.

Deception on His Mind

Naive though he still may be, Simon is learning the gentle art of white lies in the promotion and defense of self interest. Simon used to be so timid that he had a hard time standing up for himself, especially if the unwanted attention or action was physical. I used to worry that he would be taken advantage of horribly.

On and off the playing fields, brawn is not an option for Simon. What he’s learning is that he can use speed and agility to get his way in sports and quick-thinking elsewhere. I’m happy to see his skill set evolve, but have to admit I’m nervous about the fact that it can—and will—be used against me and Matt. It’s just a matter of when.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

Exhibit A: “The Dentist”

About two weeks ago, our favorite soccer team, Manchester City, played Barcelona in a European tournament game. Matt took the day off to watch it, and kick-off was in the early afternoon. Matt really wanted the entire family to go to a local pub and watch together, but the game started before school let out.

Simon heard this and had a solution: “Just tell school I have a dentist appointment and come get me early.” I am most disturbed here by the fact that his plan would have worked had I been willing.

Note to future self and employers: Be skeptical of any family commitment Simon gets out of because of a medical appointment.

Exhibit B: Size Matters

Last week, on the heels of a major snow storm and just after the completion of two large-ish school projects, Simon was assigned a book bag project. Students were to collect items that represented their favorite book, place them in a brown bag, and share with the class. We don’t have a lot of tchotchkes in the house, so I had no idea how most of Simon’s favorite books could be illustrated. Nor is he the kind of kid who could just draw the items.

It occurred to me that one book, The Borrowers, was perfect for the project as it told the story of tiny people who live in hidden places in human houses and survive by “borrowing” small items humans don’t miss. We could toss one thimble (cup), one spool of thread (table), one hat pin (climbing device), one postage stamp (art for the walls), and one chess piece (sculpture) in the bag, represent the story well, and be done with it. All that was required was to tell a tiny white lie about how much Simon liked the book, because in reality he loved the idea of the book but found its execution boring. As did I.

Perhaps this planted a seed. Because the day he gave his presentation, he had the following story to tell:

“Oh mama. I have to tell you something, but want it to be our secret. Today during our brown bag book projects, everyone else had their book in the bag, too. I thought maybe we were supposed to, but I didn’t. After a few people went, I thought ‘Oh no, Simon, you better think of something quick.’ So when they got to me, I told the little white lie that my book was a hard-back and too big to fit in the bag.”

Well done!?

Note to future Simon: You may want to investigate which high school and/or college excuses are over-used. Every printer can’t break down the night before a deadline.

Exhibit C: Social Anxiety

Last week we hit the ice cream shop after soccer practice. It was full of families, and one young boy wandered up to us to talk and show off his huge ice-cream cone. The boy stood a little too close, waited a little too long to speak, was a little too loud, and dropped off at odd junctures. We strongly suspect he was on the autistic spectrum, something Matt and I are better equipped to handle than Simon, especially if we don’t have time to prepare him beforehand.

The boy approached all three of us the first time, and Matt did most of the talking. The second time the boy approached Simon at the water fountain. We weren’t right beside him, and he looked confused and a little uncomfortable. I watched as he listened to the boy, made a comment about his ice cream cone, and then said, “I’m sorry, I have to go now” while making a beeline for us.” Honestly, I thought he handled it pretty well, and we had a nice chat in the car afterwards.

Not to future Simon: As an introvert, you will want to have a handful of “escape clauses” ready for every large social event. Before attending any graduation party, wedding, Bar Mitzvah, et al, think of a few and have them at the ready. Good luck!

Who’s the Boss?

She doesn’t know it yet, but my mother volunteered in Simon’s class yesterday. Or at least, a younger, shorter, darker version of her did. Those differences between the two of us aside, she surely would have recognized nearly every word that came out of my mouth.

And that would be because today, for the first time over an extended period of time, I HAD to sound like my mother in order to discipline a child. Simon is sufficiently compliant that I rarely if ever have to invoke what I think of as “the wrath of Rita” (hereafter WoR). To be fair, I didn’t get much of that myself growing up. But my brothers sure did, and I remember what it sounded like. Nor do my preschoolers get exposed to the WoR, as for the most part it would be developmentally inappropriate.

But with a group of misbehaving second-graders? Bring it! Wednesday I brought it to math circle, where I work with a group of above-grade-level kids to enrich the curriculum. The current unit is on geometry, and the kids are learning the very beginnings of fractions. When I last saw them two weeks ago, most were struggling to visualize fractions and therefore couldn’t manipulate them at all. I made some progress with them, but was excited to return with better visuals.

So this morning I dragged out Simon’s old Geomag toys, which I thought were perfect for the task at hand, and headed over to school. I expect kids to be chatty at 2:00 p.m, and I understand that super-bright kids who already understand things might be antsy. I was ready, willing, and able to deal with normal 7-and-8-year-old talkativeness and restlessness. What I was not ready for was straight-up rule defying and being ignored. And unfortunately, one child in particular refused to not talk out of turn, to not touch my supplies, to not make spitting noises, and to not roll around outside of circle.

Rita, however, was well prepared for the situation, so I channeled her. Here’s a sampling of what the worst offender heard:

“Really? I have three-year-olds who listen better than this. Are you a three-year-old?”

“What part of ‘don’t do that’ do you not understand?”

“I’ve just about had it with you.”

“Do you want to explain why your hands are in my bag without my permission? I didn’t think so.”

And on, and on, and on. With accompanying death stares and raised eyebrows.

After our session was over, I chatted with the teacher, whose look and expression conveyed a combination of “Oh honey, I deal with this every day” and “At least one person now understands my pain”. Then she let something interesting slip. This student has accumulated a huge number of tardies this year because his/her parents cannot get him/her (name and sex hidden to protect the guilty) to get dressed on time in the morning.

“What!?” I shrieked. “What do you mean they can’t get him/her to get dressed on time?”

“The parent tells me, ‘We can’t make him/her put his/her clothes on.'”

Gobsmacked, it was once again Rita who replied. “The hell they can’t! Who’s in charge in that house anyway?”

“I think we know who’s in charge. And I don’t understand it, because I wasn’t raised that way and I didn’t bring up my own children that way.”*

“If they can’t control him/her now, God help them when he’s/she’s a teenager. Idiots.” Rita continued: “It’s pretty simple. You say, ‘I’m going to count to 3, and if you aren’t putting your clothes on by the time I get to 3, I’m going to help you. And TRUST ME WHEN I TELL YOU that you will be much happier if you do it yourself. Do you understand me?”

The teacher was laughing at this point. Our backgrounds are completely different when it comes to race, religion, and geographic origin. She’s also 15 years my senior, whereas I’m a close demographic match to and neighbors of the parents of the misbehaving child. Which just goes to show you that superficial similarities are just that. The other moral of the day is that while many of us fear turning into our mothers, it can come in quite handy. I’ll be back in class next week, and I’ll be bringing the WoR with me just in case.

*Simon’s teacher is in her late 50s/early 60s, comes from a small town, and is African-American. I’m going to guess that her own upbringing and the way she disciplined her children can best be described as “old school”.





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