Back-to-school brings scissors, pencils, cliques, and other sharp things

It’s mid-August, finally, and many schools in our country are back in session. In my neck of the woods, however, we still have a month to go before that first bell. There are beaches to visit, day trips to take, ice cream to scoop, camp-outs to plan, and all kinds of lazy days spread before us like a month of red-checkered picnic blankets.

Still, it’s mid-August, and while that means the summer’s last hurrah for the next few weeks, for many parents, it also means thinking ahead to the upcoming school year. In my house, we have summer reading (and notes) to finish, as well as math homework (yes, you read that right, we have math worksheets). Amid all the catalogues and online ads and social media posts of faraway friends’ kids having first days of school — first weeks even — there has been this gnawing thought.

What will this year look like for my kids?

Honestly, I’m not concerned about academics. It’s not that my kids are so brilliant. It’s just that I can handle helping them with schoolwork. It’s neat. It’s predictable. Sure, it’s often a challenge at one time or another, but it’s manageable.

What I wonder is what the year will look like for them socially.

talking behind backUndoubtedly it’s my own baggage that makes me feel this way, year after year. I had some struggles in middle school, sixth and seventh grades in particular, when both years found me an outcast for some alleged insult to a friend. (Yes, both times a friend heard a rumor I’d said something that I didn’t say, and suddenly no one in the grade spoke to me for months.) I remember this keenly, and have always been on the lookout for my kids. Are they happy? Making friends? Being a good friend? Enjoying school? Enjoying after school?

It’s usually a case of “so far, so good.” I don’t care about popularity and I don’t care about numbers. I think it’s okay to not be friends with everybody, but I try to teach my kids to be kind to everyone, even if they don’t want to foster a friendship. What I do care about is that each of my children has one or two good connections, true connections, honest and mutual friendships, to count on.

This year, I’m not so sure what to expect. This year, I have my doubts, and also my fears, about what back-to-school will mean for one of my children in particular, because for the first time, in the last few months I have witnessed some genuine Mean Kid behavior. Straight out of a Disney Channel movie.

The first incident happened at the end of the school year. My kids and I were walking to a nearby soccer field for someone’s game. Our route took us through the neighborhood across the street, a neighborhood filled with families and kids, many of whom are friends on some level with my kids. We rounded a bend and I saw them, the three peers of my child, stopped a distance away, chatting. My nerves got edgy; these kids are only peers, not friends, though they friends were at one time. But not any more, as far as I could tell by the sudden lack of phone calls. The were No Longer Friends.

We walked on. The trio walked as well, but stopped every once in a while to chat, or look at a phone or a flower. They saw us; I saw them recognize us. Yet no one spoke, not them, not my kids. Finally we were near enough when I could use my Mom/Teacher voice to say, “Hey there, Name, Name and Name!”

No one answered. By now my blood was a little hot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined any of these kids (I know their PARENTS!) ignoring an adult. But ignore me they did. We closer still, until we were a few steps behind, and we all finally had to turn onto the single-file path through the woods, a cut-through to the fields. One of my kids was on a bike, and wobbled slowly just behind the ahead-walkers, and still no one spoke. As the path widened, my bike-rider shot past them, as did my kid, the peer and former friend of these three, and still not one spoke. Not to that child or the siblings, and not to me. And I thought, “What the what?” and “So it begins.” whisper1

Fast-forward a few weeks, to summer vacation, the local pool. Neighbors, friends, peers swimming, enjoying the hot July sun. They were there again, peers of my child, though not all three, but some, with another in the mix. At one point I gave the kids money to get some overpriced treats from the snack bar. Kids’ peers were perched at a picnic table, slurping on Italian ice. My kid walks past them. One says hi to my kid, brightly, friendly. My kids says hi back, equal in tone. Once she’d passed entirely, with back to them, that peer turns to the group, says something, they all laugh, harshly, glancing at my kid before laughing some more. Again, I was caught off-guard, again I was shocked, embarrassingly so, because one new group member, I’d thought, was my child’s friend. I wondered when that had changed. And how.

Fast-forward to today. Same pool. This was not witnessed first hand, but told to me by one of my other kids. Above scenario, almost to the detail, except one or two of the Other Kids had been replaced by one or two more. Same hello. Same whisper. Same laugh. (Apparently, my child who shared the story spoke up, called the Other Kids out, and basically got a “whatever.” Same child hugged his sibling, and said the Other Kids were a bunch of jerks. I had to kiss them both.)

My child shrugs off these incidents when they are mentioned. My child is kind and forgiving. My child calls them still calls the Other Kids friends. My child is an optimist, always able to see the good side of any situation, of most people.

And even as my child shrugs, I see the ghost of confusion in the corners of the eyes. Even as my child is too proud to acknowledge the insult, I see the flash of hurt, quickly replaced by a smile. Even as my child would never say something bad about a peer, I see the slash, ever so slight, in the layers of the skin.

We talk, and we don’t talk. I speak in circles, mining for the heart of the matter, edging closer. I have to be careful; the ground is very unstable. Too much, and it will all cave in, closed off forever. This is how we progress. Talking, listening, subject changing, whispers in the dark of things that are too raw to say in the light of day.

School starts in a month. These peers, and others, will be omnipresent; it is a small town.

I wonder what September will bring for this child. Re-connecting with true old friends? Finding new friends? Real Friends? I don’t know.

But I will bring all that I have, including the sized-for-the-soul Band-Aids that, for the first time, I fear my child will need.

band aid heart

 

 

 

 

Diabetes Jeopardy!

Sometimes I wonder if anyone in my house can remember a time when diabetes wasn’t always on our minds.

I can’t, not really.

It’s become part of our normal, the routine, something like washing your hands before you eat dinner or  the fact that there’s homework on school days. You don’t think too much about it — it’s just there. Most days, anyway.

Some days, it’s all we talk about or think about. Maybe because Mitzi’s very high or very low or is sick or has a lot of sports or she’s rebelling in her preteen way about all the stuff in her life and diabetes management is just another boundary to push.

Yesterday, we all had diabetes on the mind because of MCAS, the state-wide mandated standardized tests given twice a year. Mitzi had her first round yesterday, so, starting the night before, we prepared. Not for the academics, though — we prepared for the blood sugars.

MCAS is a unique annoyance for Mitzi (even more than it usually is for every other child or adult who has to suffer the ridiculous things). If her blood sugar is too high, she can’t start the test when the other kids do — and can’t even start until it’s normal. And if it doesn’t normalize in enough time that she can take the test on that particular day, she has to make it up, missing class. If it happens on test day number two — well, more makeups, more missed class. Avoiding that scenario was in all of our best interests.

Blood sugar was on my mind when I woke up. What would it be? How early should I wake her up to test and find out? A low-carb breakfast was on the menu (scrambled eggs, while the other kids got pancakes). Would it be okay?

Luckily, it was. Normal at breakfast, even lower throughout the day. We discussed it at dinner, praising Mitzi for managing herself so well all day, and slipped into a general discussion about diabetes. Mitzi tossed questions at her siblings: If I pass out, what do you do? (Call 911, tell them you’re diabetic! Cooper even chimed in, “Get that diabetic epi-pen thingie with the glucawhatever!”) Is 150 a good blood sugar? (Yes!)

Joanna knows her diabetes stuff!

Joanna knows her diabetes stuff!

This led to the idea of Diabetes Jeopardy! After we finished eating, the younger three headed for their showers and Mitzi grabbed a bunch of index cards. She made categories and questions and assigned monetary values. When everyone was ready, they played. I watched from the dining room, struggling with something on the computer I was doing for Ray.

It was adorable. And impressive. A $400 question: What do I need if my number is high? All the kids were quick, but Joanna’s “BUZZ!!!!” was the fastest. “MORE INSULIN!!!!!” she shouted, jumping up and down.

Three years ago it made me sad that my small children had to know all of this. That a three and four year old had to recognize their big sister’s physical symptoms of highs and lows and know how to tell Mommy and Daddy about it.

Now it just makes me proud.

Mitzi finds it terribly annoying, the way one of her siblings will ask her if she’s bolused for the apple she’s eating, or the way that they might find me to see if it’s okay that she’s having a snack. The way everyone at various times asks her where her kit is, if she tested yet, and what the number was. Mitzi is eleven, and everything about her parents and siblings is annoying. But especially when they butt into her diabetes business.

But last night. Ah, last night, it was okay, and for the first time ever, diabetes was kind of fun.

Spring cleaning and a March Madness update

Obviously, A Mom’s World has a new look. I do this from time to time and hope it’s not unnerving to my readers. But I haven’t yet wanted to take the plunge into paying for a designer or a premium theme here, so until I do, I keep switching the look, hoping to find one I love. An illustrator friend of mine has generously offered to design a banner for me, but as she’s swamped with her actual, you know, paying work, I don’t know when it will happen. I am more happy to wait, though — her talent is more than worth it!

Here’s the March Madness update — Joanna and I were all set to have our day out last Friday, but a surprise snowstorm caused school to be first delayed, then cancelled altogether. She insisted on taking Monday off instead, so we did. Unfortunately, as it turns out, a lot of stuff for kids is closed on Mondays! We had a great breakfast out, but couldn’t get a lane at the bowling alley (a seniors’ league had overtaken the whole place) and the arcade wasn’t open at all. Neither of those bits of information were on the websites, which we checked on Sunday night. There’s little to do at the YMCA midday — I mean, kids aren’t really expected, right? — so we putzed around with errands and lunch and games and a stop to the dollar store, where I bought her a bunch of plastic stuff she would’ve won at the arcade anyway. She seemed content, especially when I promised I’d take her to the arcade when no one was looking.

The local bowling alley

The local bowling alley

Ellie asked for her day to be Wednesday. We also started off with breakfast out, and were lucky to get an alley for bowling. I refused to take her to the arcade, knowing how hurt her sister would be. Wednesday was an unusually beautiful day — sunny, mid-50s — and we played outside quite a bit. She said it was the best day ever! Cooper and Mitzi are already planning their days.  Hopefully, dollar store purchases will not be on the agenda.

So far, the experiment seems to be successful. I still find it amazing and a little embarrassing that I have to go to such extremes to find alone time with my kids. But that’s the reality right now, and I guess embracing it is better than ignoring it. Right?

You only get so many chances to make a child feel special, and you just have to make each one count.

March Madness, family style

One night not too long ago, as I kissed her good night, Joanna whispered in my ear: “I really miss being in kindergarten because I used to get to spend so much time with you.”

My heart sort of broke a little.

It’s true that with our town’s half-day kindergarten program, we did spend a lot of time together last year. We didn’t do anything special — lunch, stories, a game, and an hour of quiet time (she watched TV and I sat on the couch next to her, listening to Caillou or Max and Ruby with my eyes closed). It wasn’t exciting, but it was just us two, alone. And in a house with six people, alone time is pretty rare.

I gave Joanna another kiss and promised that soon, soon, we’d find some time.

I’m still looking.

Lately I’ve been feeling that everything is moving too fast. The days are filled and busy and fun and go-go-go, and we try to have family time in the form of playing board games or watching movies, but I can’t help but somehow feel like my kids’ childhoods are just slipping through my fingers like sand.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t know them that well any more.

March MadnessSo I decided to put an end to it, starting this month. I’m calling it March Madness (well, of course), because my idea is really, truly mad.

This month, once a week, I’m keeping each of the kids home from school for the day, so I can spend that entire day just with that kid. I don’t know what we’ll do — get out into the world, go to the Y or to the park or the movies or out to lunch, to the craft store or the rec center or wherever that kid wants to go. I’ll take the day off from work and writing and Facebooking and Twittering, and even from the Blueboards, and start to get to know that kid all over again.

It’s sounds almost embarrassing to write it down, that I’d need to do this. But, I don’t know. Four kids, busy days, nonstop life. I find pockets here and there for each one (bed time, errand-running, any chance I get to make each of my children feel special and unique and well-loved and well-liked), but it doesn’t seem like enough, not right now. They’re not far from being teenagers, and then they’ll be even busier and more outwardly focused, and somehow it seems that if I don’t start now, later will be too late.

I plan to make March Madness a seasonal thing (October Mayhem? January Blizzard Buster?), so it’s not once a year that a child sees Mom for a day, alone, especially at this age when spending a day with Mom is actually a fun thing, not an annoyance. A day just for that child to stand out, be special, a day when a child can pretend he or she is the only kid on the planet, the most important kid in the universe.

I’m starting this week, and I’m starting with Joanna.

Let the madness begin!

Have you done anything like my March Madness with your family? How do you find “quality time” with your kids?

SEE YOU AT HARRY’S by Jo Knowles

At the beginning of the summer, I spied a copy of “See You at Harry’s” by Jo Knowles on the ‘new books’ shelf at our library. I snatched up immediately, having heard all the pre- and post-release buzz on the internet. When I tweeted that I had it in hand and was getting ready to dive in, a friend tweeted back: Keep a box of tissues nearby. (She also said how awesome it was, of course.)

My friend was not wrong. I read the book in one sitting, ignoring the impossibly beautiful summer day outside. I just could not put it down. The kids, perhaps sensing my intensity, had a rare afternoon of playing nicely with one another. By the end, I was wrung out. I needed space and time to process the world I’d just been living, the ways that the author had seamlessly created a story that felt so real it could have happened to a neighbor, a friend.

And I think this is one of the strengths of this novel — Knowles has created characters that have quirks and problems, and a family that is somewhat dysfunctional, but it’s all so normal, and in some ways, familiar.

Before I go on with my thoughts about this book, here is the jacket flap copy:

Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. Her dad is always busy planning how to increase traffic to the family business. Her mom is constantly going off to meditate. Her sister Sara, who’s taking a “gap year” after high school, is too busy finding ways not to work; and her brother Holden is too focused on his new “friend” to pay attention to her. And then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, and  the center of everyone’s world. 

If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s best and oldest friend, there would be nowhere to turn. Ran is always calm, always positive. His mantra “All will be well” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe.

But when their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down, Fern feels more alone than ever, and responsible for the event that wrenches the family apart. All will not be well. Or at least, all will never be the same.

Fern is a wonderful character, well-developed and authentic. Like many “number threes” in a four-child family, she is desperate for her mom’s attention — this is established in the first pages, as Fern remembers that the best day of her life was when she was sick with a stomach bug, and her mother spent the day alone with her, taking care of her. And, like a typical 12 year old, Fern also finds the rest of her family annoying and frustrating: Dad’s attention is on his latest scheme to improve the family’s struggling restaurant. Sara spends more time with a busboy than doing her job, and when she is around is a little too blunt in her comments and observations. There’s Holden, coming to terms with his sexuality and struggling to be open about it. Mom spends her time either seeking inner peace or doting on Charlie. Charlie, always sticky and demanding in the adorable way of most three year olds, is very attached to Fern, who is often the one left to watch over him, even when she’d rather be doing other things.

Knowles spends the first third of the book developing the family dynamics and Fern’s reaction to it all. The family reminds me of many other families in the world — two working parents who are often so focused on making ends meet their children are not a priority.  And that is, unfortunately, life for a lot of us. In the first third, there is some humor, especially with Charlie and Fern (for instance, Charlie is always holding his beloved Doll and shaking its naked plastic tush in Fern’s face).  And while Fern finds her siblings irritating, the mutual affection is obvious, especially the bond she shares with Holden. There might be bickering and annoyance, but in the end, there is love and support. As a side note, Holden’s issues — coming out and dealing with school bullies — are woven into the world of this book, rather than dominating it, which I find masterful. It also contributes to the reality here — it’s something that happens in a lot of families, but it is not always the only thing going on.

It is all so very real and familiar it makes what comes later that much more shattering.

So, without spoilers I can’t say much more about the story. But as Fern moves through the second half of the book, we struggle with her, and we thrash and we want to cry out. Her pain becomes ours — and if you are a parent reading, it becomes that, too. The end is not a neat wrap-up, a solid conclusion that life will be rosy from now on. But, true to the needs of the middle grade reader for whom this book is intended, there is moving on, the beginning of peace, and the hope that some day the world will be patched back together again — even if the end picture is not what you had before.

Mitzi read this after I’d finished and really liked it (I think she also read it in one sitting). It’s recommended for ages 10 and up; however, depending on how sensitive your reader is, 10 might be a little young for the intensity of the novel — just read first to check.

But read it, you should. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, which is really saying something. I thought about it for a long time after I read it initially. Then I had to read it again. A few weeks ago I took it out of the library for a third time, though this borrowing was for another reason: this is exactly the kind of book I’d like to write one day. A book that grabs the reader, makes them laugh, breaks their heart, then rebuilds it — in all the right ways, the ways that make it real and true.

As a writer, I want to study Knowles’ work as if it were a textbook. Parse it to find out how she built the world, how she carved the characters, how she did it all so precisely — and effortlessly (although I know this last is not true, that a book this well-written was certainly the result of a lot of hours, sweat, tears, and chocolate). There is a lot I can learn from this book, and I hope to — also, that with each book I write I get closer to the awesome that is “See You at Harry’s.”

Interpretive dance + the Beatles = peace

My kids love each other. I know they do. This doesn’t mean they always play nice, though — most of their hours together are peppered with bickering and conflict and disagreement, and just about every five minute someone comes to me in tears over the wrong that was perpetrated against them.

It’s very exhausting.

It’s also very normal, I think. (Or maybe I’m delusional and other people’s kids get along every minute of every day?) I do what I can to diffuse situations, solicit apologies, and help them get along, but it’s not always successful. Many days I’m at my wit’s end, and when I can’t stand it any longer I send everyone to their rooms.

But then there are times like last night. After dinner, they showered, one by one, coming downstairs shiny and clean and dressed in fuzzy pajamas. After I approved their hygiene, they drifted down to our cluttery unfinished basement, where, I was told, Mitzi has been running a Dance Academy. They are preparing for a big recital in May (I was informed) and they needed to practice. Within minutes, the familiar chords of various Beatles songs drifted to the kitchen, where I was doing the dishes.

And for minutes — many, many minutes — there was no fighting. There were encouraging words and applause (yes, I was eavesdropping) as the CD spun through “Let it Be” and “Hey, Jude.” Bedtime loomed, but I just couldn’t break up the party, especially when I peeked and saw Joanna’s interpretive dance to “Blackbird.”

Of course, shortly after that, someone tripped someone else and wailing and yelling ensued. Back to normal. Time for bed.

But, ah, those blissful moments of peace! As infrequent as they are, it gives me hope that someday my quartet will be in harmony, helped, in part, to that slightly more famous quartet, whose words and music have helped bring mine together.

The magic of the Beatles lives on.

Kids say the darndest things (when they think Mom’s not listening)

I was going through some old files the other day, and came across a scrap of paper on which I’d scribbled notes of things I heard the kids saying when they thought I wasn’t listening. I won’t tell you who said what, but have noted their ages. This was clearly during a time when everyone was discovering the amazing things their bodies could do.

 

  • “Can you show me how to make my bed? You do SUCH a better job than I could ever do.”  5 year old to sibling.
  • “Listen to this sound!” Child, buckled in booster seat, leans  left, lifts right knee, thigh, buttock, and noisily lets loose a cloud of gas. Child giggles hysterically at wonderful new trick. Age 2.
  • (5 year old to sibling) “Do you still pick your nose and eat the boogers?”
  • Sound from the next room: Crash!  Next sound, three-year-old’s voice, talking to sibling: “We better clean that up before Mom sees.”
  • “Hey!  Come back here and wipe your butt!”  6 year old to sibling.
  • After a noisy release of gas, child, from car seat:  “Wow that really smells!  Smell me everyone!  Smell my butt!”  Age 2.
  • “There are little trees in my nose that grow boogers.”  6 year old.