Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Picking Blackberries

Right around January 1 I thought I'd do a kind of "reflective, parental" activity and ask the kids as we sat around the dinner table if they could recall their absolute favorite day of the year we'd just lived.

Everyone sat for a moment and thought, including me. Vacations, family celebrations, holidays and long car rides came to mind. The kids began to chime in with things. Very quickly a theme became apparent.

"There was the time we took the ferry to Long Island and went to the beach...but Chloe threw that huge tantrum because she was so overtired."

"What about when we went to Busch Gardens? Except the weather ruined everything."

"Then the next day we went to Jamestown and visited those ships but it was so misty and clammy."

"I know, the Big E!" I brought up that one. "That was an awesome evening...warm; we went on rides; everyone ate yummy food."

"Yeah, but remember the way Ethan and I didn't really want to go at first and were stressing out about our homework?" Anna had to add.

Again and again it became obvious that no matter what happy memory we managed to come up with, there was something about the day that had gone wrong or had been less than perfect. There were traffic jams and tears and messes and lost tempers.

I couldn't believe my kids were going to dismiss everything because of that.

"Wait, guys!" I interrupted. "You have to stop. Just because something bad happened that day doesn't make the whole memory invalid. That's usually how life IS!"

Indeed, our days, even our vacation days and family gatherings, are rarely like Disney World. In that I mean the Disney that they try to craft for us. I once sat in a corporate gathering while the keynote speaker from Disney described in detail everything that is set in motion to make sure a guest's experience is as memorable and magical as possible...the cleanliness...the staff staying "on stage" or in character at all times...the people at computers  monitoring busyness in the park who just might send a parade to one area to spread out the crowds from another.

Life is rarely like that. Real life is rarely sanitized and usually messy. Does that make it any less beautiful or worthy of remembering fondly?

One of my favorite Pixar movies, Inside Out, explores the characters residing in a tween girl's mind. Each represents a different emotion (Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger) and they are always at odds with each other. Most of all, they seem to butt heads on making sure Joy stays in the driver's seat. Sadness is the black sheep. No one wants her in charge and no one wants her tainting memories. Only in time do they come to realize that Sadness (and to some extend Fear and Anger, and other emotions) have their place, too.

Life can still be beautiful without being completely happy.

I tried to convey this to my kids. I'm not sure how much sunk in. But I tried. I told them about one of my favorite moments of the year. It was in Maine, in August; probably the most cloudy, misty, dreary day I spent in Maine all summer. I hate weather like that.

The kids and I did a few errands and then I decided to take a back road to see where it went. Years and years before we had gotten water from a spring on that road but somehow over decades and decades we'd never driven all the way down to see where the road went.

After a while the pavement turned to dirt, then narrowed. Tall bushes grew up high along either side of the road. Anna and Ethan, both of whom normally aren't fans of aimless long drives, were curious. I rolled down the window and suddenly spotted them -- blackberries! Thousands upon thousands of blackberries. Most of the bushes along the roadside were berry bushes.

We halted the car and went digging for something, anything to put blackberries in. All of us (Chloe included!) love berry picking. Alas, we didn't have much, but managed to fashion a huge makeshift bowl out of some cardboard and paper. Anna and I hopped out and began picking furiously, sometimes stabbing our hands on prickers. There were so many we only chose the best of the best. After a few minutes we'd jump back in the car and keep driving...only there were always more bushes. The blackberries were endless; we were in blackberry paradise.

This went on for what had to be close to an hour. Chloe and Ethan's faces were stained purple from sampling juicy berries. Our hands were stained, too. All that time, not one car drove down that little dirt road that eventually led to a lake and other homes. It was as if we were in the world alone.

Then Anna realized the moisture from the berries was beginning to rip through our hastily constructed bowl. "Ahhh, my legs!" she started to shriek as they seeped into her lap. We realized we needed to get back to the cabin. "Don't move!" I urged her. "We have to save the berries!" We barreled down the road, laughing while Anna simultaneously kept wrinkling her nose, saying, "Eeeeww!" as only a tween can.

We got back, saving 90 percent of the blackberries. Anna honed her cooking skills and made us something between a blackberry pie and a blackberry tart. We did nothing the rest of the day besides look out at the misty lake, quiet from the usual boat traffic, and eat pie. It was so gloriously good, of course because we'd picked those berries ourselves.

It wasn't Disney. It wasn't blue skies and beaches. It wasn't extraordinary or perfect. It was just a simple, sweet little day. I hope those are the days my kids will choose to remember. Not always the huge Christmas gift or the grand surprise. These moments, warts and all, are precious ones.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

They Made an Apple Pie

The other night after dinner we were sitting in the playroom when Ethan announced, "Mamma, I want to make an apple pie!"

It was a Monday. In January (I'm trying to eat better!). I wasn't in the mood for pie. However, it's so rare for Ethan to initiate a completely new activity, I didn't want to pass up the chance.

After dinner we decided Anna would help him make the pie. This took an incredible amount of negotiating. First, Ethan wanted me to be there with him (I had to agree to "supervise" from the couch). Then he said Anna would be too bossy. Then he was tempted by the Wii game daddy was playing and almost threw in the towel.

But, lo and behold, by 7 p.m. all three of our kiddos were in the kitchen (somewhat peacefully) making an apple pie. Well, Chloe was stirring (and eating!) a bowlful of flour and water paste. But it made her feel important I think, and apparently tasted good ("Mmm-mmm!"), so she was happy.

Not a great picture, but there it is -- evidence!

Anna and Ethan rarely play together, for many reasons. She's a girl and he's a boy. They're 3 1/2 years apart. They have different interests. They're also both really stubborn. Neither wants to compromise when it comes to deciding on a game. In the past, they both enjoyed playing school (with Anna as teacher and Ethan as student, of course) but in recent years Ethan has gotten smart. He's tired of Anna bossing him around, and Anna's tired of the ways Ethan purposely tries to irritate her.

But thanks to a lot of episodes of Master Chef, and Anna's current culinary arts class at school, cooking has become common ground.

For 45 minutes they measured and cut and stirred. Then we realized it was getting too late and they were going to have to finish the next day. I took one look at a pile of cut apples and pointed out to Anna that they still had peels on them.

"They're easier to peel that way," she replied. Ummm...

The next afternoon, while he still wanted his screen time right after homework, Ethan announced that he and Anna HAD to finish that pie. So after dinner was Apple Pie Baking, take 2.

Once again, the kitchen was a disaster area. Once again, I looked at the apple slices covered with sugar and piled high in the pie pan and wanted to know why they still had peels on them.

"Ooops," was Anna's answer.

An hour later the pie was out of the oven. And while the peels were a little chewy, and the crust was a little stale (Anna hadn't properly covered it in the fridge overnight), all in all the pie tasted pretty darned good. Anna is developing quite a talent. I wasn't baking pies at age 11.

Ironically, Ethan's not a huge fan of pie. He didn't even finish his slice.

But he tried something new. And they did it together. Without fighting. I'd call that a win for sure.

Friday, January 15, 2016

To My Teachers: Now I Get It

Since starting at a huge public middle school this year Anna is always coming home and regaling me with stories about her sixth grade classes. More often than not, they involve descriptions of teachers who are exasperated, snippy, moody, corny, or even downright ogre-like...

...which is why it's really funny when we actually visit the school and I see or meet some of these teachers, I realize quite quickly that they are perfectly human and, even better, usually about my age.

The other evening we were over at Anna's school for the sixth grade "winter concert." For weeks all I'd heard was how the songs embarrassed her; she didn't want to do the hand motions; the kids weren't motivated to sing; her teacher was always frazzled and yelling at people.

That night the kids got up on the stage and sung their songs very sweetly (albeit quietly; no sixth grader believes in singing with gusto). I happened to have a question about where to sit beforehand and was directed to ask, wouldn't you know, the infamous choir director I'd heard only described through Anna's eyes.

I looked across from me and saw a woman about my age, who politely gave me a suggestion and then went back to wrangling a group of chatty adolescents...and had yet another one of those weird epiphanies in which I realized my generation was now the one being mocked as "out of touch," and that I no longer viewed school through the disgusted eyes of a young adult but through much more empathetic ones.

In short: I felt simultaneously awed by what teachers do day in and day out and very, very sorry for the way we all acted, back then.

As I listened to another choir teacher behind me, hissing at a group of younger kids, "Boys and girls! What is all of this talking? Why are you getting out of your seats?!" I sat and remembered this substitute teacher we'd had in high school: Miss Pauvre. She was about 80 years old and no more than 50 feet tall and 90 pounds. In Chemistry people kept giving her the wrong names while she took attendance until she was thoroughly confused. Later someone threw her bag lunch out the window.

I thought of the times I volunteered in the nursery at church. First, I tried the babies but grew bored because they couldn't talk to me. I switched to the preschoolers, which was a little better...except somehow 45 minutes with 10 three-years-olds felt like three years. How do people do this every day? I wondered. I wanted to gather every day care worker and preschool teacher into my arms and embrace them.

I thought of watching at Ethan's school each year as the teachers attempted to corral their classrooms of 20+ kids at the "holiday singalong" in the gym. Every child seemed to have ants in their pants. The teachers had to watch like hawks to be ready to intervene on anyone who might decide to poke or hit their neighbor, yell across the gym to a friend, get out of place, talk when the principal was talking, and so on. Again, I always wondered: how?? How do you do this and enjoy it? Only a certain, special type of person I think can.

And as I watched Anna and the other sixth graders that night, I could only look back to my own sixth grade year with a completely different set of emotions.

Is there anything more difficult than sixth grade? Really. I spent my sixth grade year at Springfield Christian School. It wasn't the type of experience most kids have. I mean, how many tweens do you know that are forced to write chapters of the Bible as punishment (or the Gettysburg Address, or the Declaration of Independence, both of which I had to copy five times on different occasions)? How many sixth graders are allowed to go "soul winning" in shady inner city neighborhoods on Friday afternoons? Nope, my experience wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but, Christian school or not, we were really like sixth graders anywhere:

I see now. My teacher may not have been perfect, but we were absolute brats.

Whereas for years and years I could only remember my mean teacher and his writing assignments, I now remember the way the class would wait for a time when he left the room to go completely wild. Boys chased each other, running across the tops of the desks. Kids hid all the chalk and erasers. Several plotted putting tacks on the teacher's chair. Someone inevitably would push their chair back until they fell; work on their supply of spitballs; grab someone else's homework.

My teacher spent a lot of time just trying to wrangle a group of 25 hormonal, prepubescent kids into focusing on something, anything of value.

My sixth grade teacher was most likely the same age I am now, when he came into the room that January afternoon, for once subdued, and told us the space shuttle Challenger had exploded.

He was, like Anna's teachers, not an ogre...just a regular human being trying to do an incredibly difficult job.

These days I feel as if it's my mission to thank Anna's teachers, thank any middle school teacher especially, as often as possible. How do they do it? I don't know. But I'm glad they keep trying.

I think of her art teacher, who Anna says gets completely exasperated, as Anna and one other boy are the only two who actually sit and listen in the classroom. Anna called her a werewolf one day because of her wildly varying moods. That's what will happen to you, when you teach middle school. It's not for the faint of heart.

So thank you to Mr. Gagne, Ms. Szwed, Miss Wallace, and all of the others Anna tells me about. Thanks for not giving up on these crazy kids.

And Mr. Cunha? My sixth grade teacher? Yes, I think I finally forgive you for cancelling our field trip to Washington, D.C. because of our bad behavior. I'm on the other side now. I get it.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

The other day Ethan came home from school and as usual tossed his backpack in the middle of the floor. I retrieved the crumpled papers. On this day there were a lot of them: assignments on telling time (which he's known how to do since kindergarten!), various school flyers. There was a large self-portrait he'd drawn in which he looked, as best as I can tell, like an obese Incredible Hulk. "Those are all of my muscles!" he explained.

Then there was a paper all about him. (Favorite food? Tacos and pizza. Favorite holiday? Christmas. And so on.) Then I saw a section on the bottom of the paper and I understood exactly what was going on.

We've had an on and off discussion all year with the person who runs Ethan's social skills group on how to approach the fact that Ethan WANTS to tell kids about his autism. The consensus we came to is that we would follow his lead, and that she would begin to work up to it being talked about in group by having the kids think about what makes them unique, their likes and dislikes, hobbies, and so on and then sharing that information with the other kids.

The section on the bottom read, and Ethan filled in:

My brain is Since I have atisum, I always focus on one thing, and I like to be quiet almost all the time.

Wow. Although I don't quite understand the liking being quiet. I think he means he doesn't want people bothering him when he's focusing on something.

I got a call that night from the social worker who runs the group, who helped fill in the blanks. Apparently Ethan had gotten a little nervous when it was his turn to share, but she had helped him. Each of the kids had shared something about themselves that they struggle with ("I have trouble focusing in class"..."It's hard for me to finish my work."). When Ethan made his big announcement, they had all kind of nodded and shrugged, listening but not thinking too much of the whole thing. Essentially, they acted the way you'd expect a group of second graders to act. They acted the way I'd hope they'd act -- like this was just a part of Ethan, but it didn't change anything, really.

I tried to get him to talk about the group around bedtime, but he wasn't in the mood. He wanted to chat about Wii games and about the level he'd reached in his new board game, Gravity Maze.

That was fine. He doesn't always need to be psychoanalyzed. This will come up again when the time is right.

I went to bed feeling very grateful. My son expressed a need and we figured out a way to make it happen. While the school hasn't always given Ethan exactly what he needs, as far as social skills training, they've often come very close. This was a very big win...and hopefully a positive memory Ethan will always have as he learns to navigate who is in in this world.

That paper that came home? I can't stop smiling about two other gems.

There was a line that read I'm special because and he filled in I have a lot of friends.

While I'm not entirely sure that's true, the social worker does says that he's genuinely liked. Oh, how I pray that continues when he treads those treacherous middle school waters.

And the other one?

The last line read When I grow up I want to be...

He wrote: A draw bridge operator. (If I get fired, I will be a video game tester).

Sounds like a very good plan to me.