Kindergarten Journal

How to Say the Thing You Can’t Say

“How was recess today?” I asked Smoke this week, and he immediately started to cry.

Weeks ago, Smoke had complained to me that a friend was bossing him around, demanding that he play with him at every recess, and then dictating the terms of that play. If Smoke put up a protest, if he wanted to play tag with other friends, or if he wanted to be Spider-Man instead of Batman, this friend—let’s call him Boss—would storm off in a huff and declare that their friendship was over.

From what I’ve written about Boss here, I’m afraid that you’re imagining him as a spoiled, insufferable child à la Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but this is not the case. Boss is small and goofy and full of smiles. Boss, I suspect, senses that that his spot in the first-grade pecking order is tenuous, and so he does everything in his power to ensure that he has a steady companion. Boss doesn’t want to face the recess yard alone, and I don’t blame him for that.

“You’re just going to have to let him be mad at you,” I told Smoke after his initial complaint. I went on to explain what I thought would happen if Smoke took action on his own behalf. Boss would be mad for a while but then he would cool down. After a few confrontations, Boss would learn to give Smoke more leeway.

And then, like any great parent, after delivering my lecture, I forgot about the problem. Smoke didn’t come home crying or complaining, nor did he resist school, and so the issue fell off my radar until I remembered to ask him about it at bedtime this week. This is when Smoke burst into tears. “All he ever wants to do now is push me on the spinners, and then I get sick.”

“Tell him you don’t want to do that,” I said.

“I tell him every time!” Smoke said. “But he won’t let me play something else!”

In that moment I realized what should have been clear to me earlier. It didn’t matter what advice I gave Smoke. It didn’t matter because I was telling him to do something he wasn’t ready to do. He had it in him to tell Boss that he didn’t want to spin. But he didn’t have it in him to hold his ground or walk away, to risk losing a friendship that was probably providing him too with an indispensable measure of security.

“What can I do to help you fix this?” I asked him. He continued to cry quietly and look down at the bedspread. “Do you want me to email your teacher?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

I’ve been thinking lately about being assertive and the ideals we set around saying hard truths. So often we hold off on saying what we need to say because we get so wrapped up in the delivery, we think we must be brave and say it face-to-face. Writing it down would be cowardly. Delivering the message through another source would be cowardly. We suffer for the sake of this principle.

Many years ago, I interviewed for a job and got a voice mail from the employer a week later. He left his number and asked me to call him after 10 pm, because that was when he’d be home. I got the message at 6 pm, and so I had four hours to wait before calling him. I knew that I hadn’t nailed the interview, and so I wasn’t especially hopeful, and yet it was hard to settle into my evening knowing I had this phone call to make. I made my dinner, I showered, and I waited until quarter after ten to call him. Our phone call lasted less than a minute—just long enough for us to trade pleasantries and for him to tell me that they had hired someone else.

I hung up annoyed. I felt certain that he had wanted to deliver hard news to me directly on some kind of principal. But there was nothing helpful to me about hearing the news from a live voice rather than a recorded one. I would have far preferred the voice mail rejection to the personal one. He hadn’t spared me anything, but had instead injected some dread into my evening.

I remember this incident often. I remember it every time I need to communicate something difficult and am tempted to lay it out in an email rather than deliver it live. I tell myself that it’s okay to write it instead of saying it, that it’s okay to need a little space and control. I tell myself that the person on the other end might actually appreciate that space as well.

I emailed Smoke’s teacher that morning, and as Smoke left for school, he was hopping up and down, giddy with relief. He would not have to spin until he was sick at recess.

But Smoke’s teacher didn’t see my message right away. At their first recess, Boss did spin Smoke. Once they had settled back in the classroom, Smoke, impatient for the relief he now felt he deserved, told his teacher by himself.

The teacher took Boss aside. All it took was a single sentence: “You need to let Smoke play with his other friends too.” She didn’t shame him or punish him, but he listened. Smoke hadn’t been able to muster the authority he needed, and so he simply borrowed hers. Not only did it work, it spared him the drama of an angry friend.

For the rest of the day, Smoke played with the friends he’d been pining for in the weeks I’d spent ignoring the problem. He came home happy. It had taken two grown-ups and one child to resolve one common childhood conflict. Three weeks ago, I thought I’d teach Smoke how to be direct and assertive, how to take charge of his own relationships. Instead he reminded me how complicated our problems are and how senseless it is to try and solve them on our own.

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Don’t Turn Around

For ages I’ve dreamed about these two things:

The day I could kiss my son goodnight, leave the room, and count on him to fall asleep without me.

The day my son could read fluently enough to entertain himself with a book.

Those days have arrived–they are the same day in fact–and I am surprised to discover that my feelings of pride and relief are coated in a sticky layer of grief.

It all began when Kellie and I decided it was time to move Stump, our two-year-old, out of our bedroom and into the lower bunk in Smoke’s room. This meant that Smoke would have to move to the top bunk. Such transitions in our house require incentives, and so I offered to buy Smoke a headlamp and any comic book he wanted. I pitched that he could read with the headlamp while Stump slept down below.

I thought it would be a hard sell. When Smoke was three he went through a phase of waking at 2 am and demanding a snack. It didn’t matter that I never once gave in. “We don’t eat in the middle of the night,” I told him every time. Still he’d wake up every night and ask over and over.

Bedtimes have gone about the same way. Before this week, on a good night, I might be wrapping up our bedtime reading at 8:40. “Just one more chapter?” he requests. By that time of night he is insistent, and I am so very tired. I always cave. And then he needs a cold drink of water, and then he needs to poop, and then he needs another drink of water, and then it’s 10:05 and I snap at him “Oh-my-god-go-to-sleep!” and then I say “Sorry, it’s just late and I’m really tired.”

But not anymore. On the first night he climbed into his top bunk with his headlamp and his How to Train Your Dragon comic book. He was silent. Ten minutes later, I poked my head in. “Are you able to read that?” I asked him. So far he had been reading books with a sentence on each page, and always out loud with Kellie or me on hand to coach. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m just reading the words I can read.”

“That’s called reading,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, I poked my head in again. “Is your light off?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he answered. He sounded apologetic, as if I might have wanted him to stay up all night. “I just got a little tired.”

I didn’t return until I had finished my own business and was ready to go to bed myself. I turned on the nightlight and stood on my tiptoes, but I could see nothing but the edges of his blanket. I knew for sure that he was sleeping only by the sounds of his breathing. I wondered if it was too late to reconsider. The sight of Smoke sleeping has been one of the deepest joys of my life.

Sleep3But of course, there’s no turning back. Isn’t that what Orpheus taught us when he looked behind him at his wife Eurydice and, in doing so, cast her out of the mortal realm forever? You must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.

Meanwhile, Stump has not taken to the lower bunk. He’s taken instead to waking in the middle of the night and screaming for twenty minutes at a time. He won’t let me console him. Smoke seems to sleep through it just fine, but I’ve moved Stump back into my own room.

Stump’s final two-year molars are coming in, and so I use the pain of teething to explain his midnight screaming, but of course I can’t be sure what’s causing his distress. I can only be sure that it’s a phase, and it will pass in one month or two, and when he’s finally truly sleeping through the night away from me I will feel strange, like the way I would feel if I lost an appendage not to frostbite or amputation, but if I simply misplaced it, if I left it in a drawer in some rarely-used room. I would wander around wondering Where did I put that? and Didn’t I need that for something? and I will wonder why it’s so hard to be needed, and why it’s so hard to not be needed.

The Most Excruciating Time of the Year

When it comes to Christmas, there are two kinds of people I’ve never really understood.

The Would-Be Elves: people who think it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The Sullen Humbugs: the people who constantly refer to the holidays as being “hard” or something to “get through.”

For most of my adult life, I would have categorized Christmas mostly along the lines of minor pain in the ass with a few bright spots. I like other people’s light displays, but I don’t feel like going to the trouble of putting up my own. I like giving gifts, but I never feel like I’ve given enough. I like sweets, but I’d prefer a nice batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to an endless array of shortbreads and fudges. Still, I can almost bring myself to understand that for the Would-Be Elves, a season of lights and crafting and gift-giving is just what they need to make it through the dark season.

elfspaghetti4

The Sullen Humbugs I had a harder time with. Sure, I’ve felt a fleeting sense of malaise on every Christmas morning I remember, a fear that nothing is as special as it’s supposed to be, but it struck me that the humbugs attributed more power to the holiday than it really had. What exactly was so “hard” about a month where people hung up lights and shopped a lot?

This year I’m starting to get it.

Smoke is six this year, which makes him Christmas’s target audience. He’s no longer afraid of Santa like he once was. (Several years ago, we had to leave Santa a note requesting that he not come in the house.) Smoke is old enough to understand that he’ll be getting presents, but he can’t quite measure time the way an older child can, which means that, I imagine, it feels to him like Christmas could arrive at any moment. It could be tomorrow, or it could be three months from now. And so, he’s living in a state of suspended anticipation. That’s intense.

To amp it up even further, he’s around twenty-five other kids all day who feel the same way and are feeding off of each other. I witnessed the pure synergy of this earlier this week when I dropped Smoke off in the kindergarten line and one of his classmates, a gentle boy who I’m fond of, was wearing a Santa cap. “Ho, ho, ho!” he said, and all the kindergarteners screamed in delight. “Ho, ho, ho!” he said again and again and again. This was a joke that would never grow old.

On Sunday Kellie bought a Christmas tree, but by the time she got it home it was dark and she was tired. The ornaments were still in boxes stored in the shed. When explained to Smoke that they wouldn’t be decorating the tree that night, he was genuinely dismayed. I had assumed it was pretty much impossible for a six-year-old to hold onto disappointment continuously for longer than an hour, but at bedtime he still looked glum; his lower lip had never returned to its usual spot.

The next morning, after eating an iced gingerbread cookie, he was the most distracted squirrely version of himself I’d seen in weeks and it took everything I had to get him ready for school and out the door. As I buckled him into his car seat, I hissed “We are NOT doing any more sugar in the mornings!” Smoke, barely registering my anger, replied, “I’m just so excited to decorate the tree tonight, I can’t think of anything else!” “Really?” I said, amazed that this tree could hold so much power for him.

Deer Show

Add to the chaos that Stump, who will be two next month, is fascinated with a) the concept of a tree indoors, b) lights, and c) shiny round balls (e.g. ornaments). In short, it’s as if Christmas trees were specifically designed as a decoy for him to systematically dismantle. So far he has pulled on the cords, leaned forward to suck on the lights, tried to hug the tree, pulled on branches, shaken branches, detached ornaments from their casing and hurled them at the floor.

To cope with all of the above, I’ve got a single strategy, a video that Kellie picked up at Costco for seventeen dollars, a purchase that I was initially critical of and which Stump now refers to as “Deer Show.” To distract Smoke from his perpetual anticipation, to keep Stump from tearing apart the Christmas tree, I am hosting daily screenings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So far the audience consists only of a towheaded baby in a diaper and a six-year-old in PJs hopping all over the couch, but if you ever find yourself needing a break from the holidays, feel free to drop in for the Deer Show. It will be playing and we’ll clear a spot for you.

Conversation of the Week: Remembering Jeremy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Smoke’s best friend in his kindergarten class moved away suddenly. The week after he left, I talked to Smoke about it indirectly, by asking him each evening who he played with at recess. He seemed to be coping by reconnecting with old friends, and making a few new ones, though none of his recess friends were in his classroom.

By the end of week two, I figured we were over the hump. I figured that, but I didn’t want to push too hard. And then Saturday evening, as Smoke was getting out of the bath and drying off, he was giggling over some remembered joke that Jeremy had made. Like most kindergarten jokes relayed secondhand, I couldn’t follow it.  Smoke seemed surprised by his own memory of Jeremy, and a pained look crossed his face.

“Every time I think of Jeremy I almost cry,” he told me. He was almost crying.

“I can see that,” I told him. I wanted to fix it. “Do you want me to see if I can find his phone number? Or would you rather I focus on making play dates with new friends?” I asked. Getting Jeremy’s phone number felt like a long shot. For all I know they’ve moved to Tennessee. Besides that, I had called Jeremy’s mom once before to invite him to Smoke’s birthday party. She wasn’t especially friendly, and just as we were hanging up I heard a male voice in the background shout “Who was that?”  I was hoping Smoke would opt for the latter.

“How about you focus on both?” Smoke asked. For a moment I thought he was brightening. I hung up his towel as he pulled on his skivvies. But as we walked towards his bedroom, the tears returned. “I feel like all that I have left of Jeremy is a memory.”

Seriously? I have no idea where he learned to talk like that. I scoured my brain trying to come up with Lifetime movies I might have inadvertently exposed him to.

That was last week, and every so often I think that I’ll try to get a hold of Jeremy’s parents.  But I’m pretty sure that I’m only avoiding what Smoke already knows is true.

Tall Smoke

 

Greeting my Son’s Alter-Ego

broselfie

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.

envelope

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.

punkin

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.

rainbow

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.

Kelso_clip_image002_0000

“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.

bear

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.

Oh.

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

My View from the Tiny Chair

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Last night, in between story time and sleep, which is when Smoke is at his chattiest, he said, “We should do something nice for Mrs. N______”.

Mrs. N is, of course, his kindergarten teacher.

“Like what?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, like, maybe…make cookies with frosting?”

Tonight was curriculum night at Smoke’s school, one of my many initiations into becoming a public school parent. I walked into Smoke’s classroom and sat with the other parents in the tiny chairs. Mrs. N stood in front of us, reading from a children’s book. Mrs. N’s age is hard to place. She’s clearly older than the parents, but she’s leggy and sports a blonde bob and black eyeliner. Tonight she had paired a black pencil skirt and pumps with the requisite school spirit t-shirt.

I looked around the room, trying to take in the cubbies and the calendars, searching for any sign of my Smoke. Already my eyes were welling up. Shit, I thought, what’s wrong with me? I’d had the thought that this was where Smoke was spending so much of his life all of a sudden, a place that was mostly unfamiliar to me.

Mrs. N put down the book and addressed us. “This is my thirty-fifth year teaching kindergarten,” she said. “And every year I worry: this is going to be the year that it just doesn’t work, the year the kids just don’t get it and no one will behave. But then I meet your kids…” Now Mrs. N herself was fighting tears. “Your kids are great. I’m so grateful that you entrust them to me.”

I can’t tell you how many parents were also crying, because I was too busy looking at the table, swallowing, trying not to pass the point of no return. If I had let go, I could have kept it up for the full forty-minute session. Instead, I tried to listen. Here are a few of the things I learned from Mrs. N.

  1. For many years she taught kindergarten the way most teachers do. She stood in front of the classroom and led them through a project from beginning to end. But children, and kindergarteners in particular, move at different paces and have different skill sets. This way of leading a class, normal though it was, left everyone frustrated.
  1. After years of doing it this way, Mrs. N changed systems. Now she sets up multiple stations with projects. Some projects are required, and some are optional, but kids get to move through them at their own pace. Sometimes kids want to do a particular project but that station is full, so they get to learn about disappointment. This is one of the best lessons they get to learn in her class.
  1. Mrs. N has an elaborate system to help each child track his or her project, but I could not begin to explain it to you. Apparently, though, the kindergarteners can keep track of these procedures.
  1. According to Mrs. N, “These kids pretty much know exactly what’s going on at any given moment. You’d be surprised.” I was surprised. I can barely get Smoke to put his shoes on in the morning, or answer when I ask eight times what he wants for breakfast, but apparently he’s capable of understanding a complex behavior incentive system, staying in line, waiting his turn etc. when Mrs. N is in charge.
  1. Mrs. N reports that when the kids are working on their various projects, the room gets loud, but it’s the sound of focused learning. “I don’t do crazy,” she says.
  1. Please do not come into her classroom, watch the kids at their stations, and comment, “Oh, cute! They’re playing!” They are not playing; they are working. Last year, when a new principal came on, Mrs. N insisted that he sit in and observe her kindergarteners at their stations, because she wanted him to understand exactly how it worked. From what I can tell so far, the principal is a kind enough man, but I enjoyed imagining him in one of the tiny chairs, being schooled by the kickass kindergarten teacher in her thirty-fourth year of teaching.
  1. Every time there’s a change in administration, Mrs. N braces herself. She is totally prepared to retire if a new principal ever insists she go back to the old way of doing things. “I’ve been there and I was nothing but frustrated,” she says. “And I know I frustrated more than a few kids too.”

Three weeks ago, if you had asked me to imagine an ideal kindergarten teacher, I think I would have pictured a plump and patient woman, someone with no discernible edges. But I love Mrs. N’s edges. In fact, I feel the need to point out that I’ve done absolutely nothing to land my son in what strikes me as an exceptionally awesome kindergarten class. I didn’t pull strings or write letters. I didn’t visit dozens of schools. We go to this school because it’s two blocks away, and Smoke found Mrs. N because he was assigned to her. Also, of course, I have the privilege of living in a small city with a functional and relatively well-funded school system.

Because I’ve done so little, I’m left wondering: How do I show my appreciation for someone who manages over twenty squirrely little bodies every day, who has taught for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, and who has somehow maintained enough passion for her work that she gets teary-eyed when talking about her students? How do you thank someone for offering so much of themselves to your child?

I guess cookies with frosting is a start.

Among Life’s Disappointments: The Two-Day Weekend

Weekend

Weekend

On Sunday I had to break the news to Smoke that Monday would be a school day. I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. So far, he hasn’t been forthcoming about his kindergarten experience. At the end of every day I’ve asked him “What was the best part of your day?” and every day he’s answered, “Recess.”

“You feel that way already?” Kellie asked him on day one. I guess we both hoped he’d say he loved learning songs in circle time, or mastering sight words during reading. But both of Smoke’s best friends go to his school, both have been assigned to different classrooms, and so recess is a twenty-minute parent-free play date. Of course that’s his favorite.

So, anyhow, I wasn’t sure if he’d be excited or disappointed to learn that Monday was imminent, and that Monday meant the beginning of the school week. We were lying sideways on the bed, and I gave it to him straight: “Tomorrow is a kindergarten day.”

“What?” he answered. His lower lip quivered. “But that’s not fair—I haven’t had enough home days!”

I understood where he was coming from. During the school year, I never feel like I’ve had enough home days. For the last two months, I’ve had the luxury of summer, where home days and work days blend together. I’ve taught one online class and paid for childcare here and there; most days I’ve graded papers through nap time or answered emails on the fly. I’ve been relieved from the Pressure To Perform during the workweek, followed by the Pressure to Do All the Shopping and Connect with All the People and Do All the Laundry and also RELAX and HAVE FUN on the weekend. Instead, I just worry about attending to one thing or another, keeping the kids happy enough, and hopefully enjoying some part of the day. I’m a little productive and a little bit restful, and the rest is just survival. That’s how it should be.

I think that’s also how it’s been for Smoke up until now. For the last several years, he’s gone to preschool two days a week, played at a friend’s house the other two, and had three days at home. So, kindergarten is actually his initiation into the American-Capitalist workweek.

And while before this week I’d been imagining that kindergarten is all fun and games, all circle time and finger painting, Smoke’s tears over home days have helped me to remember what school felt like for me as a child. School felt: Relentless. Every day I spent seven hours at the mercy of my teachers. We lined up outside the school and waited in the weather for first bell. We’d be shuffled then to homeroom, then to art or music, then to recess, then to reading groups. We moved always in single file, and every segment of the day was marked by the shrill sound of the school bell that rang through every classroom.

My teachers were kind. I admired them; I wanted to please them. But having so little agency exhausted me, and so I welcomed any break—holidays and sick days, weekends and vacations. I didn’t call them “home days,” as Smoke does, but that’s what I longed for. Days to sit in the square of sun that came through the window, days to keep my pajamas on till noon, days to meander on my bike, or play Barbies, or put my new reading skills to use. Days where home was at the center of my day, not just the place where it started and ended.

Monday came, as it always does, and Smoke woke up without my help. He dressed himself and packed his own lunch without complaining about the day ahead. But when we arrived at school it took minutes for him to settle into the kindergarten lineup, and once he had he stared off into space. He was slack jawed and just a little pale, his eyes unfocused. He looked unmistakably weary.

Weekday (one of Smoke's many selfies)

Weekday (one of Smoke’s many selfies)

Smoke is right. Two days just don’t yield enough time to recoup what the workweek has taken.