Friday, February 26, 2010

First Year

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned the most difficult group of students I have ever faced in my career (albeit my truncated career....). I don't know if it was some kind of cruel joke on the part of the administration, or perhaps they truly believed I was up to the challenges the class presented. But either way, during the last period of the day, I was faced with 35 (!) surly, loud, back-talking, fairly unmotivated seventh graders. Many of the boys towered over me, and most of the girls skeptically sized up my fashion and hair styling choices. As the school year got underway, I ended most of my days in tears because of the challenges of this particular group. Mentored by an expert teacher next door and encouraged by friends, I kept plugging along, constantly reflecting on my lessons, my implementation, the results, the kids' behavior, and more. Two things were certain - Number one - I was determined. I would never allow anyone to say I couldn't handle these kids. Either I'd show those administrators that this was no joke, or I'd live up to their unrealistic expectations of the demands they placed on a first year teacher. And number two - I loved those kids. Despite all my tears and frustrations, despite how much they challenged me continuously, I loved them and admired them. They were complicated and intriguing and they were mine...

They walked a fine line, to be certain. I was smart enough to know that it was better to start off very strict and ease off later, so my classroom expectation was discipline and order. Yet perhaps because I also wanted to show these kids that I respected them and trusted them, I opened myself up to the kind of mischief they were able to conceal easily. I'll never forget marveling at how often the door handle of my classroom fell off in my hand during 7th period (I opened the door, a lot, to "excuse" students outside) and only after the fifth or sixth time, amidst the giggles eminating from the students, did I realize that they had cleverly figured out how to loosen the handle just enough for it to fall off in my hand.

I had a collaborating teacher who worked with me, and she and I were forever brainstorming new ideas and solutions to the behavior problems, apathetic attitudes, and struggling performance of this group. After days of trying to capture and hold their attention (to no avail), we decided to try something new and shocking and unexpected. Before the class arrived, we turned off the lights, lit a few candles, and waited for them to take their seats. Laughing and joking loudly, they tried to cajole us into telling us what we were doing, but neither of us said a word. Finally, finally, as they all quieted down, my co-teacher read Still I Rise by Maya Angelou as a means of introducing our poetry unit. (Side note - my class was predominately composed of black students; she, too, was black; the poem speaks to the determination of African Americans and their ability to succeed, despite the odds.) She read it loudly, boldly, theatrically. We had their attention. They listened, captivated and perhaps a little confused. But it worked, that day. We had them that day.....

I was struck by the realization recently that Aidan's first year of kindergarten is reminiscent of that first year of teaching for me, particularly that class. He has challenged me, over and over and over again, and I have responded with determination and love and yes, tears. I have made mistakes - lord have I made mistakes with him - and yet I refuse to give in, give up. I have spent hours thinking of strategies to use with him, coaching him on how to tell me about his day or how to handle a mean girl on the bus. I have shed so many tears trying to get him to understand how rude he can be to us when he gets home, and how we don't deserve it. I still have not figured out how to make our morning routine as smooth as I would like it to be, and so I continue to implement new tactics, revise them, and try again. Much like those 7th grade students, I feel as though I overcome one hurdle with him only to face another. And yet we march on, often side by side, and sometimes head on.

In the long run, I was richly rewarded for my efforts with those seventh period students. I hope they learned from me half of what they were able to teach me. Of course, the same is true for my Aidan. I have learned so much from him because he constantly challenges all of my parenting skills - yet there is one big difference. The reward of being his mother - in my finest moments of parenting, and in my failures, too - is already enough for me.

As I prepared to bid farewell to those seventh grade students in June, I asked each of them to complete a course evaluation of my class. The last question asked them to write one piece of advice for next year's students who would be in my class. Daniel, the culprit behind the loose door handle, wrote,
"Never Mess with Mrs. Carter."
...which I interpret to mean, "...because she'll never give up on you and she cares deeply for you and she'll do everything she can for you."

Aidan, I hope you are listening. Never mess with your mother. Because she loves you, fiercely and more than you can ever know, and she'll go to the ends of the earth for you. So there.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An Anything Can Happen Day!

Sunday morning was a typical Sunday at the Carter household: total chaos. It's the strange phenomenon known as "Getting Ready for Church," when all hell breaks loose, and I know we're not alone in the homes in which this plays out. On this particular day, we were extra weary from a certain night spent with a near-5 month old who thinks he's 5 days old and, as a result, wakes every two hours demanding food, attention, kisses, whatever. We were oddly free of firm commitments to the Sunday School and service hours, and perhaps because of this rare opportunity, Jeff and I reached the same conclusion simultaneously (over the loud screaming and gnashing of teeth - Aidan and Leo's, that is - ) - we'd skip church and spend the morning regrouping as a family.

It became an Anything Can Happen Day before we even knew it! Our first thought was to head to a local favorite trail for some trail walking. We figured that the warm temps of the past few days would make the trail clear of snow, and it was shaping up to be a gorgeous day with sunshine and a high in the 50's - a blessed change from all the snow! We packed our GORP, grabbed our camera, and were off...

The trail was impressively snow covered, still. Nevertheless, we walked around a bit, admiring the way the forest still looked in the snow, and marveling at all the damaged trees. Aidan and Leo chased each other in and out of the snow and mud, and in those first moments I knew we had made a good choice. Unaccustomed to the warmth of the sun after such long winter days, we reveled in the brightness and happiness of the day. I found a snake (albeit a dead snake) that was fascinating to the boys; Jeff and I felt that its discovery authenticated the "nature" aspect of our trail hike. Eventually, our boots could not keep us warm any longer, and we headed to our next adventure destination - C'ville Coffee, one of my favorite, yet infrequently-visited, coffee houses in Charlottesville.

The coffee house was warm and inviting; the barista delighted in watching our kids as they ordered their cocoa (Leo, vacilating between cocoa and coffee, finally chose the cocoa). We settled into a table in the "family" section of the coffeehouse. It was comfortably crowded yet fairly quiet - the perfect context for people-watching. Eventually, the lure of the kids' play area overshadowed the deliciousness of their hot chocolate, and Aidan and Leo headed over to play with the other kids. When Jeff joined them, to "supervise," I realized what a perfect place a coffee house is for us - my social butterfly husband is afforded the opportunity of socializing with all the other outgoing, extroverted parents while I am left to luxuriate in the quiet privacy of my mug of coffee and the morning paper. We spent over an hour there, and it nourished our hearts and souls.

Still, our day begged for one more adventure before returning home for a late lunch and a nap for Leo. I kept wracking my brain for a cheap yet exciting thrill that was fairly nearby - and then it struck me. The beach back at the lake! Jeff agreed it would be so fun to see what it was like now, knowing we'd be back in a mere 3 months or so, ready to swim and sunbathe. We didn't tell the kids where we were going, just that we had one last adventure. Leo promptly fell asleep and Aidan had his nose buried in his Leapster, so they were equally surprised when we arrived at our final destination. Leo opened his eyes and not two seconds later shouted "The Beach! I LOVE the beach!!!"

We traded snowballs for sandcastles and snow boots for shade umbrellas, and savored the chance to see the beach in such rare form, still covered with inches of snow. Regrouped and refreshed, our family returned home, happier and more connected than we could have hoped for that morning.

In our highly structured, highly routinized life as a family, our Anything Can Happen Day was an important reminder of how much fun it can be to let go of all routines, committments, and responsibilities, and simply be spontaneous. "Spontaneous" is one of the last adjectives one would ever use to describe me, and yet it felt so good to be a spontaneous person that day. In fact, it felt so good that I promptly came home and penned in on my to-do list, "Plan another day soon to be spontaneous."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Our Winter Stay-cation!

A month ago when we figured out that Jeff had a long stretch of days off at the beginning of February, we thought about going on a little road trip/vacation to D.C. to see friends, visit the sites, and just relax a bit. We changed our minds, though, deciding to wait until spring when the weather was nicer and we could enjoy any time we spent outside, rather than having to fight the winter elements. We thought it wouldn't feel as much like a vacation if the weather was cold and dreary.

Little did we know... the vacation would come to us! We're currently awaiting snowstorm #4 of the season, the third one in two weeks. Our Staycation began on Friday, and looks to last at least a few more days. As with any vacation, we've had some incredibly fun and unique experiences. Of course, we've had some not-so-fun times, too, which is not unlike vacations, either. Here, the highs and lows:

Fine dining! Our pantry was well-stocked, at least initially, and so we enjoyed a great feast on day 1 of our Staycation - bruchetta; eggplant parmesan; crusty warm bread; spinach salad with pears and sugared pecans on warm brie; Kahlua chocolate mousse for dessert, and of course, a nice bottle of wine. It felt decadent and was divine. Things were certainly lookin' good!....

...that is, until we lost power. At 10:00 the first night of Staycation, our power went out. (What kind of hotel was this? I wondered.) We found flashlights and candles, added blankets and layers to the kids, and settled in for a long night. It was quite reminiscent of camping; I was freezing cold when I got up to pee and constantly stumbling around in the dark. Aidan and Leo slept very well; Pax, not so much. But, I guess I can't really blame the power outage for that...

Coffee!! I never vacation now without knowing where my nearest morning mug of coffee is. I look up Dunkin Donuts on the Internet before we travel; I speak to our hosts about their coffee habits before we visit; I have even brought coffee with us while visiting non-coffee friends, because vacation or no, coffee is just that important. Day 2 of Staycation, as I lay on the couch shivering under a quilt while waiting for the fire to catch, I weighed our options. The roads were bad, clearly, and the snow was still falling - but how bad could they be in comparison to how badly I needed coffee??? More importantly, what would it take to coax Jeff into the task? We still had leftover coffee from the day before, so my mind was simultaneously calculating how I might warm up the leftovers in the fire, and would I mind how bad it would taste? I shuddered at the thought. As I lay there, miserably rehearsing how best I might phrase my request to Jeff, the lights miraculously, beautifully came on. Power was restored!! Quick as lightening, we got to making the coffee lest it go off again. We added Kahlua to our coffee to celebrate!

Family Time! The weather was quite frightful, so we stoked the fire continuously and hid out in the family room, playing Wii, watching movies, and reading books. Pax was absolutely delighted to sit by the fire in his bouncy seat and watch the action; when Jeff picked him up at one point, he started to fuss and cry until he was returned to his warm station in front of the flames. In the early afternoon, the power went out, again. We were more prepared for it this time, but also more concerned - the firewood supply was beginning to run low, and the night promised to be bitter cold. Honing our camping skills, we tented in the family room with heavy quilts to keep in as much warmth as possible, and began to strategize about dinner and sleeping accommodations. Our Staycation adopted a new dimension - survival. The kids, of course, were THRILLED, even after they figured out that we couldn't play Wii or watch movies anymore. They were so excited to sleep in the family room together. We shifted to board games and "mini hide-and seek," and of course, Jeff and I hated to see the beer get warm with the power outage, so we opened a few bottles.

Snowball fight! I started to go a little nutso at the prospect of being trapped (trapped? oops, I mean together) in one room, all night long, and so I went outside to watch the clouds and breathe the fresh air. As I was contemplating how long I could stay outside until my absence was truly missed, I heard Jeff shouting, "Annie! Annie!" Slightly alarmed, I rushed back to hear him telling me the power was back! With joy and relief, we had an impromptu snowball fight in the front yard, which I clearly won. Aidan and Leo thought that watching their parents throw snow at each other was positively hysterical, especially since one of my snowballs landed inside the house.

Staycationing with Friends! Vacationing with friends is always an adventure, so why not include that in our Staycation? On Sunday, after being without power for more than 24 hours, Clancy and her family came to our house to warm up, drink coffee, take showers, and simply escape the confines of their frigid house - and each other. Our kind and wonderful next door neighbor had brought us a huge batch of homemade chicken noodle soup, to which I added a spinach and brie salad as well as leftover mousse (from our Fine Dining on Day 1). Lunch was delicious! I think it did everyone a world of good to see each other, and to see new faces for a few hours. Ryan joked as they left, "You saved our marriage."

Although we had power, we lost phone service - land lines and cell phones, and of course, Internet as well. It was hard to pretend that it was anything but a huge inconvenience and a bit of a worry, too. On real vacations when you lose all forms of communication, it's usually by choice - you're in the depths of the ocean, or the height of a gorgeous mountain. This time, there was no choice involved, and no gorgeous setting, either. This was the point at which I was thinking it was time for our Staycation to end.

When that happens on Vacation, you either pack your bags and head home, or weather it out and are rewarded by a new and exciting adventure. I packed my bags but... Mother Nature had other ideas. So our Staycation continued. Jeff took Aidan and Leo to the golf course to sled on a huge hill they open up for that very reason. They came back exhausted and exhilarated by how much fun they had had! At one point, Jeff pushed the sled diagonally across the hill to avoid the jump in the middle, and the kids zoomed across and then came back, much like a bowling ball spins down the alley. A fellow sledder on the hill remarked how cool it was that Jeff had done that and he responded, "Well, I have been playing a lot of Wii bowling!"

On occasion, our vacations have included arts and crafts of some sort. Par for the course, Aidan, Leo, and I spent one afternoon crafting, and both the process and the products were wonderful! The original idea came from this Family Fun article, and I love the personal creativity that each boy brought to his own invention. They were so proud of their monsters, and I was thrilled to have an excuse to pull out my glue gun and put it to work.

Of course, one saving grace of this whole Staycation has been my ability to escape to the gym, in between the ice and snow - just like I escape to hotel gyms or neighborhood sidewalks for running. I'm not alone, either - the moms I've seen there are positively beaming through their workout.

All in all, our Staycation was... and continues to be... pretty terrific. At times, it tested our skills of survival, patience, humor, and calm, but I know that these long days we've spent together will stay deeply rooted in our shared family memory. While I am certainly looking forward to our structured days and returning to our normal routine, I am so glad that a part of me will miss these long hours we've logged together as a whole family, the respite we've been provided from our busy daily lives.

And now, oddly, I am off to tackle what I never dreamed would follow a staycation, but always concludes a vacation.... massive amounts of laundry! How is that even possible, I wonder?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

6 Word Memoir

I'm *sort of* having blogger's block. I have some drafts, some ideas of what I want to write, but I'm struggling to actualize them into final versions. In the meantime, while I polish those drafts, I was suddenly struck with inspiration for a quick post from this NPR link - a six word memoir.

Possibilities I have thus far:

Not old enough to write one. (Not wise enough to write one?)

This is not quite right, but it was the first thing I thought when NPR challenged me to think of my memoir. I can't deny that I actually am getting older, that I get carded now out of politeness rather than an actual assumption that I am under 21, that I have wrinkles at my eyes and a few gray hairs and, perhaps most telling of all, that the length of time it takes to recover from one too many drinks the night before far exceeds what a person a decade younger requires....

Happy girl surrounded by cute boys.

This is adequate, but only adequate. It lacks enough explanation. The quantity of boys, especially when they are all very loud and not listening to me, is not expressed in this memoir. I am definitely happy, but I am happy because of who the boys are - my sons, my husband. Not enough info. I like the girl-among-boys theme, though....

Family of Five: Outnumbered: Her Majesty!

But this implies a certain...princessyness that I'm not sure I like. And I hope my family does not think I am as witchy as queens are reputed to be. Still, it's in the running as a possibility.

Raising boys means razing misogynist views.

This is more angry than I really mean it to be.... but it can only be six words, so that precludes the less angry version: Fairly feminist mom is working really hard to deconstruct stereotypes and labels given to boys in an effort to raise caring, gentle, sensitive men like their father, yet struggles daily to combat the gun sounds and constant wrestling matches that take place in and around the play kitchen set, the dollhouse, and the cabbage patch kid.

If I did yoga a lot (which I don't do, ever --) mine could be

Bent out of shape - Lovin' it!

Or if I was a divorcee with no intentions of remarrying, or maybe just an ultra Feminist - (never will be either of these)

Woman: Woah, man! Don't need you!

Maybe I am simply

Just one mom wearing many hats.

Still lacks enough detail. I am wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend, chef, teacher, tutor, housekeeper, bill payer, laundry doer, grad student, gym goer, choir member, child chauffeur, party planner, picture taker, note writer, baby wearer, cat owner, reader, thinker, doer... the list goes on and on. Alas, I will keep my "thinking hat" on and continue to perfect my six word memoir. In the meantime - what is yours, dear reader?