Month: October 2014

Greeting my Son’s Alter-Ego


Ever since Smoke started kindergarten, I’ve had to face that he has a life apart from me, one that I know very little about. When Smoke was in preschool, I lingered during drop-offs and pick-ups. I chatted with his teachers; I watched him play with friends; I got all the necessary updates about what he ate and if he napped.

But now that Smoke’s in public school, he inhabits a larger world, and I have to rely on the little he tells me. I’ve learned about the girl that chases him, the boys who drool over his cookies at lunch, and the girls who have a No Boys Allowed club on the playground, and I’ve known about Jeremy (not his real name, of course), one of three classmates that Smoke invited to his birthday party several weeks ago.

Jeremy arrived with his grandmother and clung to her at first, but by the end of the party he was trailing Smoke. Jeremy has round brown eyes and a tiny, high voice, a voice that he used to ask Smoke, over and over, “Are you sure you have my present?” He was worried, I guess, that someone had stolen it, or that it had fallen beneath the table. He sounded perpetually on the verge of tears.

Late last week Smoke reported to me that he plays with Jeremy every day at recess, that in fact Jeremy is the only one he plays with. “He makes me promise in the morning,” Smoke reported.

Jeremy is a sweet boy, but I felt protective of Smoke. I didn’t want anyone squelching his social potential. And if I’m being honest with myself, I have a secret hope that Smoke will be more liked than I was in grade school. “You get to choose who you play with,” I told him. Smoke had no response to my unsolicited advice.

With so little to go on, I’ve had to live with the fact that in some respects Smoke is a stranger to me. Though I’ve heard bits and pieces of what happens on the playground, I’ve had no idea who he is in the classroom. Is he loud? Is he funny? Is he shy? Does he follow directions? Does he hold up the class when he’s slow? And so I’ve been looking forward to our first parent-teacher conference.

TreeOn Friday, at 2:30 pm, Smoke and I walked the three blocks to his school. As we waited our turn to meet with Mrs. N, Smoke showed me the tree he’d printed during Center Time, and boldly peered in the window. But the moment Mrs. N opened the door to let us in, Smoke held my hand delicately and led me to the conference table. We sat across from Mrs. N in the tiny chairs.

Mrs. N was systematic. She had lots of ground to cover in thirty minutes. She wanted Smoke to demonstrate his reading skills, and so she took out one of her packets and Smoke followed along with her finger, making a sound for each letter she pointed to, keeping with her time. He spoke with a voice I didn’t recognize, a voice that was soft and unsure, though he moved at a pace that was confident. This wasn’t the boy I know at home, the one who shouts in his brother’s ear, who runs laps around the house naked, who consistently ignores my instructions no matter how politely or how sternly I offer them. When he and Mrs. N had completed the page, he looked up and she offered a quick nod of approval. Then it was on to math.

I watched and waited patiently. I had expected it to go this way. I’d spend the first twenty-five minutes getting the particulars of Smoke’s learning. The overall assessment, the Who-Smoke-is-in-Kindergarten would happen at the very end.

I couldn’t quite look Mrs. N in the eye once she got to that part. She has this way of breaking character and getting misty-eyed when she talks about her students, and I knew that if I looked at her directly, I would melt into a puddle of goo. She observed that Smoke had “blossomed” over the past few weeks, that he had gone from acting shy to being comfortable. “He has a very gentle soul,” Mrs. N confided, and I tried to casually flick away a tear before it dribbled too far down my face. “He’s kind to all of his classmates, and he has such a good time with Jeremy—“ Mrs. N stopped herself and I looked up at her once more. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “But Jeremy’s moving to another town. I just learned that. Monday will be his last day. You might want to give Smoke a heads-up.”

“Oh well,” I said blithely, remembering what Smoke had said earlier in the week about his daily recess requests. “Smoke is a pretty go-with-the flow kind of guy.” I was assuming that Jeremy’s departure might open the door for Smoke to make several new friends.

As Smoke and I approached the first crosswalk on our way home, I asked if he had heard what Mrs. N had told me about Jeremy. He hadn’t. A feeling came over me then, and I suddenly understood that this might actually be a big deal.

We stopped walking and I crouched down to be as short as Smoke. “Jeremy’s moving.” Smoke’s face fell. “He won’t be in your class anymore.

His lip quivered. “But he’s my best friend.” His head sank and he cried.

I scooped him up and carried him home, his butt propped on my arm, all of his limbs dangling as he cried and drooled into my neck, and I sniffled along. We were a sobbing, dangling mess of sad walking home in the drizzle.


This says “Goodbye.”

Here is what I learned from this, Dear Reader: of the three of us who sat at the table—Mrs. N, Smoke, and myself—I was the least qualified to talk about Smoke’s social skills, to declare him laid-back, to decide how many or what kind of friends he needed. Smoke is the expert, Mrs. N is the observer, and I am the outsider.

For the rest of the afternoon, Smoke taught me about the kind of friend he is. We bought Jeremy a card and a small gift for their last day together on Monday, and Smoke painstakingly decorated the card with pictures and words.

And beginning on Tuesday, kindergarten will be a new place for him, the same place it was, but minus a best friend, a safety net. I hope that I will find a way to make space for the bigness of that, because the truth is there’s not much else I can do. Every morning, five days a week, he steps into a world that I have little influence over, a world that I will never fully know.


Smoke’s gift to Jeremy



Rainbows vs Ninjas

There’s pleasantly exhausted, and then there’s on-the-brink exhausted. Two nights ago,  I was the latter. As Smoke prepared for bedtime, I walked through our house and tried not to look too hard. Everywhere, there was a sight that raised my blood pressure. There’s a pile of laundry in the armchair that hasn’t disappeared for weeks. There are the shelves full of expired medications and near-empty bottles of supplements. There are about a dozen piles scattered throughout the house of paperwork that has no home. Some days it feels like I can’t reach for something I need without eight things I don’t need falling to the floor.

This is a problem, yes, but it’s not a new problem. It’s a problem I live with until I get so tired that I don’t think that I can live with it anymore. If I came to this point at 9 am on a Saturday morning, then perhaps I could put the feeling to use. But at 9 pm on a weeknight, it translates to nothing but desperation, and even though I feel far more cranky than sleepy, I try to tell myself, over and over, “Go to sleep as soon as you can.” I was afraid that if I didn’t I might fall apart–on myself or on someone else.

But it was my night to put Smoke to bed, and he never wants me to go to sleep as fast as I can. He wants books followed by meandering conversations, and he’s never sufficiently impressed when I report to him how late it is.

Every week Smoke comes home from kindergarten with some small book he’s made and memorized, and so I often have him read to me at bedtime as a warm-up. Smoke had come home with this rainbow book, and I had placed in on his bed earlier in the evening so that we would remember to read it. But when we got to bed, Smoke wanted to skip it. He only wanted to read about ninjas.


In spite of my mantra (Go to sleep as fast as you can!) I fought him. “Why won’t you read to me?” I asked while at the same time I wondered: why was I picking a fight?

“It’s too embarrassing.”

“What’s embarrassing about it?”

“I just don’t want to read it.”

“Well how does it go? Just tell me.”

Smoke rolled his eyes. “You say the colors of the rainbow twice, and then you say ‘Makes a rainbow ________.”

“Makes a rainbow what?”

“Makes a rainbow b_______.”

“Makes a rainbow bright?”

“Yeah. Bright.”

“Oh,” I said. The layer of sheer annoyance that had hardened around my heart had started to melt away. “I think I would probably cry if I heard you sing that.”

Of course Smoke started singing: Red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple, red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple—clap!—make a rainbow bright.

It was the clap that did me in. I was totally unprepared for the earnestness of that clap.

I’m quite certain that the earnestness of that song, its unapologetic sweetness, is exactly why Smoke had wanted to forgo it in favor of his ninja book. At six, he’s just aware enough to recognize innocence and be suspicious of it. But, when pressed, he reluctantly administered the medicine I needed. That was kind of him.

“Do you think I cried?” I asked. Smoke wasn’t sure, and so I pointed to the corner of my eye. We laughed at my one little tear, and then read about ninjas for much longer than I wanted to. And then we went to sleep.

Unwanted Hugs

Earlier this week, Smoke reported to me that a girl in his class keeps on hugging him. Every time he sat down on the carpet for circle time she embraced him and wouldn’t let him go until the class had settled. Not only that, but this girl was chasing him on the playground at recess, and grabbing his shirt when she caught him so that he couldn’t get away. He held the edge of his own shirt to demonstrate, and pulled on it to reveal his lean, pale belly, his inability to move without stretching his shirt further and revealing more of his body. The more he talked about it, the more distressed he sounded.

“Did you tell her to stop?” I asked.

“She laughs at me when I tell her!” Smoke said. His voice broke around the edges.

I pulled a piece of paper off the kitchen table. It was a handout that Mrs. N had sent home about Kelso’s choices. It looked like this.


“Have you tried any of these choices?” I asked him, aware that I was an outsider to this new social landscape. I offered the page tentatively.

“Saying stop is one of the choices,” he explained, not even looking at the list. “Also I tried ignoring, and joining a new game, but she just follows me everywhere.”

“Do you want me to tell Mrs. N?” I asked him.

He thought about it for a moment, and decided he did.

Several years ago, I heard a public school teacher comment on how much time she spent in recent years simply answering emails from parents—parents who wanted to know why their kid got a 92 rather than a 98 on a spelling test, or parents demanding a rationale for the novel they were reading in Language Arts. I told myself I wouldn’t add to the burden; I wouldn’t be a parent emailer.

But then, in our orientation meeting with Mrs. N, she reassured us: “Please don’t ever hesitate to email me. Even if it seems like a little problem.”

I wasn’t sure what kind of problem this was. Certainly it seemed like the sort of thing kids typically did to each other, the sort of thing that thirty years ago kids would have worked out on their own. I remember epic boy vs. girl battles that happened at the very edge of the recess field, which was also the bottom of a hill, far away from any grown-up gaze. I remember a kid named Billy Duffy whose face was always stained with meat sauce, who had earned a reputation for kissing girls against their will. Playground problems weren’t teacher problems, and unless you were bleeding, the recess aides didn’t want to hear about it.

But it’s 2014, and as much as I worry about overprotecting my kids, I feel grateful that the system seems to care a little more. (Okay, a lot more.) Also, these days I read a lot about consent, and I brood over how to teach my sons to honor bodies and boundaries. So when a problem like this emerges, even if it’s a little one, I feel that there’s a lot at stake.

I mean, Smoke’s discomfort at having his shirt pulled or being hugged goes beyond annoyance. I could tell by his distress that he felt trapped. I also sensed that he, like me, wasn’t sure how much attention his situation warranted.

That night, awake in bed, I entertained the following thoughts.

  • I felt some alignment with the girl who so badly wanted Smoke’s attention. I know how it feels to want a friend so badly. And I understood why she had chosen Smoke, who is quiet and kind and funny.
  • I considered what it feels like to be physically trapped, and what a common feeling that was in childhood. Well-meaning grown-ups pinch your cheeks and kiss you with their bad breath. Bossy friends convince you to let them roll you up in blankets.
  • I imagined Smoke, some years from now, chasing girls around the playground and lifting their skirts. Maybe some would see this as a little problem, but to me it would be a Big Problem.

I emailed Mrs. N before school the following morning. As we arrived two hours later, she approached us and squatted so she could talk to Smoke at his level. “I told [redacted] that she needs to leave you alone and save all of her hugs for her family at home.” Smoke’s eyes widened. “Will you please tell me if that didn’t solve the problem?” He nodded.

Every moment of Mrs. N’s time is precious. The line of kids was already moving toward the classroom, and she was already moving with them, but as she got farther and farther away she thanked me for letting her know, and then gave me the thumbs-up sign as she disappeared through the door.

I’m glad that it’s 2014. I’m glad that my son’s teacher cares about what happens on the playground.

The Missing Bear

My son’s kindergarten teacher bribes her students to behave for five days straight using only a small piece of paper as a reward. At the beginning of each week, she issues each child a small die-cut shape, and if they listen, cooperate, and follow the rules, they get to bring it home on Monday.

In Mrs. N’s weekly email to parents this morning, she announced that this week’s behavior incentive was a bear. If we don’t find an incentive in our children’s folder, she instructed parents on curriculum night, we might want to have a conversation about why that is.


That bear stayed in the back of my mind for hours. I didn’t think about it actively, but it stuck as a kind of visual marker for the end of the day. When I got home, I would remember to check Smoke’s folder and, assuming the bear was there, I’d make a point to share a moment of pride with him.

I was true to this intention, and I checked his folder moments after arriving home. I removed the papers from each pocket: there were instructions for photo day, a handout on conferences, a flyer for the harvest party. There was even a free magazine for parents. But there was no bear.

Last week, I had a moment of mild panic only to find that the bear was simply hiding in the flaps. Today I checked the flaps. No bear. My heart dropped. I mean, I could feel it dropping, then it raced. Blood ran into my cheeks. I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this bear.

“Did you get a bear in your folder?” I asked Smoke, hoping that maybe he’d already claimed it.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“Is there a reason you didn’t get one?” I reminded him that the bears were a reward for good behavior.

“I don’t think anyone got one,” he said. He didn’t seem to be hiding anything from me.

I took the dogs for a walk, and on that walk I was filled with dread. I kept asking myself: Is this really about the die-cut bear? Like maybe, are you upset about something else that you’re forgetting? But no, it was only the bear.

I wondered what my son had done. Clearly he hadn’t punched a child or tried to set the school on fire, or I would have heard from the principal or Mrs. N herself. But was he a disruptor? Did he poke other children during circle time? Did he chase someone around with a booger?

I wondered why it mattered. Some of it was sympathy. I started to imagine Smoke as the kind of kid who, week after week, comes home without a bear. The kind of kid who wants to do right, but gets labeled as trouble. Some of it was mystery. Smoke has been in kindergarten for a month now, and I have very little information about his performance. The truth is, as well as I know my son, I have no idea who he is in his classroom. The die-cuts every week have reassured me that all is well.

In my head I drafted an email. I would try to play it casual. Dear Mrs. N, it would read. Smoke did not have a bear in his folder today, but he wasn’t able to tell me anything about that. If he misbehaved last week, he is blissfully unaware. Is there anything I should know?

When I came home, I checked the pockets of the folder one last time, as if I might have somehow missed the bear. I hadn’t.

Though I kept telling myself it wasn’t urgent, I went to my laptop and opened my email account. There, at the top of my inbox was an email from Mrs. N.

The subject line read: Bears.

Dear Families,
The paper bear that was supposed to go home today to indicate your child
had a great week last week didn’t get into the folders today—sorry.
I will send the bears tomorrow.


Maybe I am not the only one who had feelings about the missing bears.

Looking for a Hole in the Space-Time Continuum

Summer has ended and already I’m tired.

Last night Stump woke up at 3 am and remained awake for two full hours, insisting Nurse? Nurse? Nurse? every moment I wasn’t nursing him. When I woke up at seven, he was still nursing, his hair all sweaty beneath my armpit. When I finally got up, Smoke decided to show his love for me by smacking me repeatedly on the butt while I packed his lunch. Meanwhile, Stump spent the next hour attempting to raid Smoke’s marker stash; he screamed in agony every time I forcibly removed a marker from his death grip. The moment before we left, I discovered red scribbles all over our white kitchen chairs. I have no idea how he managed this; he hadn’t left my sight for a moment.

One small thing that helped: on the way to work, as Stump was fussing the backseat, whining for another cookie and another cookie and another cookie (the daytime equivalent of Nurse, Nurse, Nurse) I drove by a man with a beard who was riding a motor scooter and wearing a long floral print dress that fluttered in the wind.

At this point, I’ve given up all hope of getting ahead, of managing the exploding messes in my house, of getting my teaching tasks preemptively in order for next week when the papers roll in. But I’d like to catch up on sleep, on reading and TV—these are small missions I began over the summer but haven’t completed. The other day I realized that all of this would be possible if only I could find a time warp somewhere. Ever since then I keep dreaming about it, as if it’s a distant but actual possibility like winning the lottery or landing a book deal.

A stellar-mass black hole in orbit with a companion star located about 6,000 light years from Earth.

Last week as Kellie watched the show Cosmos, I heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain that if you wandered into a black hole you would most likely die by spaghettification, your body stretching until it snapped. But if you were lucky and entered in just the right spot, in theory you might survive.

Would there be room for a bed in there? Could I bring a backpack with some toiletries,  some books and chocolate and beer?