When first days and last days collide: back to school

Summer is over and no matter how hard I try to conjure up corn on the cob, swimming with my littles, picking berries, lazy post-dinner walks, or getting some sun, those last days are fading.

Every last bit of everything has become like a sacred ritual around my house. As summer wound down, we remarked on the last backyard dinner al fresco, the last trip to the park before school starts, the last swim at the pool. We’re making each little moment so precious that we’re almost unable to enjoy them for risk of spoiling their memory, so obsessed and consumed with the end of things and the start of things.

These last days beget first days. We have been counting down the days until the next big milestone: the start of preschool for the little sister, the first day of kindergarten for the big sister, the first day of classes for me, first first first. Cherishing our every move has become a full-time job around here.

We have lost sight of the in-between moments, though. And for me, I am stuck in-between because some of this year’s firsts might also be lasts, and it is too difficult to discern the starting and ending points. So I don’t.

My firsts and lasts are on a collision course headed for the start of classes at my institution. Most of my life has run on the academic calendar–I have been going “back to school” for all save two of my last thirty years as a student, graduate student, and now professor. I always liked school but fell further in love with school over a long stretch of time. Because I did well enough and stayed out of trouble in high school, I went to college and then graduate school, investing time first in myself and eventually in my ability to think and reason. In many ways, school has become both part of what I do and who I am.

And even with thirty odd first days of school and even though I have had plenty of time to think about going back to school this school year, as the day crept closer and closer, my mind could not reconcile the confusion I feel about this coming year. I remain in a professional holding pattern because my contract is winding down and I am planning for what I’ll do after this academic year. My first day of teaching might be my last day of teaching–for now anyway. I don’t mean in the sense that I won’t be a teacher anymore, but I won’t be a teacher like this.

Instead of a first day, or a last day, I am stuck in-between.

Though I would like to think that we would hold up the in-between moments, make them sacred, I am certain that I won’t. I keep asking myself, if I knew this day or this year was really the last teaching I’ll do for a while, would I change what I do or how I do it?

Teaching is what I do, and it is also part of who I am, but teaching isn’t the only thing I can or should do, either. But being in-between means facing the fact that I might be leaving academia, giving up this kind of teaching, and beginning to disentangle a professional and personal identity that have grown (more like fused) together. Tougher still is that disentangling them feels like surgery without anesthesia–it feels arresting and frustrating and a little painful when it should really feel uncomfortable.

Being in-between feels a little achy.

Leaving a job is difficult because transition is difficult. I am thankful that I have time to negotiate this next transition. Once you make a transition, theoretically life changes because for better or worse, you also change. Last days pass awkwardly into first days, and suddenly you’re in-between again.

But it’s okay because just when we thought summer had ended, a wave of humid heat swallowed our town up yesterday, reminding us of the steamy, messiness of in-between moments like these. On this second anniversary of Rogue Cheerios, I have to return to the advice I got before I started writing: I just don’t know what it’s going to be yet. So, I have no choice but to settle in. 

Posted in academia, blogging, everyday life, higher education, lessons learned, personal, schools, summer, teaching, what professors do, work, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What I want to tell my daughter on her first day of school

Baby-girl,

You have no idea what’s about to happen. Well, maybe you do. People have been grilling you about your level of enthusiasm over this transition for months, asking you at every opportunity, “Are you going to Kindergarten? Are you excited?” You have been patient with them, thankfully, but even you are starting to run out of patience. They don’t know what else to ask a five-year-old, babe, and though their questions have bored you, you have been polite.

PencilsThe big day is finally here. No more playdates and popsicle socials, orientations and one-hour visits. It’s the main event.

Tomorrow begins a new chapter of your life. I would be lying if I said that I was not a little sad about your starting school. At our orientation today, seeing you with your hair in pigtail braids, lined up with your backpack perched on your shoulders, I caught a lump in my throat. You look so big in this sea of big yet little kids. The moment feels surreal, like I’m looking at a group of some other kids that cannot possibly include you. And yet, there you are.

I’m not sad for the reasons that many other parents are sad, though. Though I’ve read many nostalgic accounts of other parents’ sadness about the start of kindergarten, I am trying not to be self-congratulatory. I am a little bit sad because I know what’s about to happen.

For the first five years of your life, the only real social institution you’ve been a part of is our family. Our family is a safe haven, and you are a lucky little girl. Our family is warm and loving, we live in a safe place and rest easily at night. Though you’ve been cared for a by a team of people that has included your dad, me, and some incredible teachers at two different daycare facilities, your world has been very insular.

MarkersWhen you walk through those school doors tomorrow on your own into your kindergarten classroom, we lose a little part of you. You become part of the school, another big social institution, and we lose a little control–not that I need to control your life. We just don’t have the same kind of say that we did when it was just us four, in our house, spelling words on the fridge after dinner. You become part of a class, you have new people (big and small) who will become part of our family, too. You will have new norms and rules to learn and follow. You will have a new adult in your life, your teacher, who we think we like already but who we hardly know.

Even though we’re losing a little part of you, we can’t wait to ride shotgun on your grown-up school kid adventure. You are already an amazing little person, ladybug. You are bright and curious. You are kind to your friends and your father, sister, and me. You wonder about things. You are eager to learn. And as you told me recently, you “love school.” I hope that kindergarten is the first of many years of exploration for you.

I’m a little sad, ladybug, because I know too much about school–not just from my own experiences but also from my work. All I do is think about schools and schooling. I teach about, study and write about education. I know about the hidden expectations you’ll face as a student (and as a girl) to be quiet, obedient, and even passive. I know (from experience) that other kids can be vicious in small and big ways. I know how social pressure can impact your self-esteem. I know easy it is to get lost in the mundane day-to-day, to get bored and to lose your intellectual curiosity.

But if I told you all of this, your hazel eyes would stare at me, confused and impatient. You would push past me through those doors, waving a quick “bye mom” over your shoulder, racing off to meet new friends, to color, to read, to be that vivacious little lady that I know is ready for this new school year.

I wish I could just freeze this moment. I want to hold this moment in my hands and squeeze it, cuddle it, keep it close.

But I can’t.

So all I can say is, be aggressively kind to yourself and your friends, be loud, be patient, be thoughtful, ask for help, and stay innocent for as long as you can.

I cannot wait to hear about this first day and every other big and small day, kiddo.

Love,

Mom

 

Posted in everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, parenthood, personal, schools, students | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 100th post: Getting some perspective

I finished a book this week–my third of the summer.

In June, I tore through Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks. In July, it was Heartburn by Nora Ephron (oddly recommended by Matt Dicks’s delightful wife, Elysha). And earlier this week The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I found each one easy to pick up and tough to put down. I loved getting lost in the reality of these characters any of whom could be people in my everyday life.

Many academics will tell you that they don’t read for pleasure, casually laughing over the last time they read a “book book” as opposed to a “work book.” When reading is part of your work, and when what you read is so laden with heavy jargon or depressing statistics, you find yourself conditioned to read speedily, frantically searching for the argument to critique. Reading for pleasure requires you to slow down, to appreciate the prose, to connect to a world or a character or an idea. Work reading, for me at least, is about consumption at a fast clip.

As a child, I was an avid reader and I longed to be a writer just like the authors I loved. I started to lose my love of reading, though, around middle school when English class layered on expectations of understanding theme and tone and metaphor. I felt pressured to discover something in the text that might not resonate for me, that might not even make sense to me. In high school, I slowly disconnected from reading for pleasure because reading was so entangled with others’ expectations or interpretations of text. As a college and graduate student, the sheer amount of reading expected of you is so daunting that it could dull your interest entirely. Only now as a recovering student have I edged slowly back to reading as an indulgent escape.

Reading reminded me how important perspective taking can be.

Perspective taking is something I do as a matter of course as a sociologist. All I do is see things from another perspective, turning social norms on their head or troubling assumptions we make about our social lives. Sometimes, I forget that perspective taking does not come as easily to other people, and simple, poetic stories are a powerful way to shake up how we think or even what we think.

Narratives help us understand a perspective that is different from our own. This is true of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, where many powerful narratives are emerging to help us understand frustration, fear, and desperation. None of these narratives are new, but they have a new platform and broader audience in social media. There is endless potential in using narrative as a tool for reaching students in my teaching, as a way to shed light on veiled experiences in social life: poverty or racism, mental illness, and violence. Though I have not lived these experiences, I can start to appreciate and learn through fictional and nonfictional accounts.

My reading this summer expanded my perspective on parenting. Two of the three books I read were written from the perspective of children: one an eight-year-old imaginary friend and the other a sixteen-year-old terminal cancer patient. Their stories reminded me that though parents try to take the perspective of their children, our adult view of the world is colored in a way we can’t quite discern. We try to see the world through their eyes but often can’t unhinge what we know or how we feel about people, places and things. Even if on some days, we get to see or experience the world as they do, we will never fully understand their confusion, their disillusionment, and their frustration over their place in the world.

None of these stories occupied a grand scene, rather these accounts captured relatively ordinary people facing the challenges of living everyday life. I got lost, though, in the arc of each story, the delicious snippets of text, the words they said, their thoughts and fears, and the final resolution of each tale. I felt inspired by and humbled by their stories.

My day job gets a bit myopic and sometimes, I forget that as a teacher and a writer, reading makes you better at both. I struggled with what to write in this 100th Rogue Cheerios post because I wanted it to be monumental and special and congratulatory. Instead, I am happy to remind myself and my readers that perspective is so often lost on those not paying attention. And as John Green writes in The Fault in Our Stars, “…the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention…”

And upon noticing a new angle on life, I hope you’ll help others see that perspective, too.

Posted in blogging, everyday life, personal, reading, teaching, thinking, writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

August slump

I know I am not the only person caught in a serious slump.

The summer is becoming a blurry afterthought as I cling desperately to every ray of sunshine, every ripe tomato, every minute of twilight in the driveway, watching the girls ride bikes or color with chalk.

This was the summer when our new house became our home. We have wrung lots Kids meet the beachof precious moments out of our days: picking berries, jumping full force into the pool, building castles at the beach, eating anything outside, and most recently streaking in the backyard (the kids–not me).

Now that it is finally August, things are starting to unravel at a fast clip. Overnight, temperatures in the northeast have dipped slightly and on my way to work this morning, I saw red leaves on the trees. Autumn is creeping in.

Though the summer has been full of some routine for my oldest, this week she asked if it was autumn yet. When we told her it was still summer, she was sure it was July. She is trapped in a time-space continuum that makes complete sense–no one has had circle time in weeks so why should she know that we’re inching closer to Labor Day?

There are less than fourteen days until school starts and everyone is ready for someone to give us some structure. We are getting tired of everything.

Tired of the never-ending cycle of laundry. Wet towels, soggy bathing suits, that favorite sundress–piling up day after day, spinning over and over again. Loads remain unfolded and I’m nearly certain some items don’t have any homes at all. The homeless towels take up residence in the pool bag or the kids’ backpacks, never quite finding their place anywhere.

Tired of the debris all over the house tracked by dirty feet that I’m scrubbing every night in the “foot bath” because we’re all too lazy to run a full tub. Blades of grass, bugs from outside, buttercups and dandelions picked hours ago, now wilted on the kitchen floor.

Tired of the interrupted work time. Having worked in sporadic but concentrated stretches all summer, it is no surprise that I am coming up short on my completed projects. And as we close in on the start of the semester, I want my courses to be prepped and settled but I can’t bring myself to put the finishing touches on my syllabi.

Tired of lacking motivation. I want to read the books stacked up on my nightstand–the ones for work and the ones for me, but I just can’t bring myself to read more than a page or two. I want to exercise outside but I can’t bring myself to wake up in the morning. I set my alarm every day for 6:30am in the hopes I’ll get up and do some writing or reading or exercising and nothing happens. I snooze twice and wake up to curly heads climbing into my bed.

Tired of the lovely burdens of summer. The constant shucking of corn on the cob, the carting of dinner plates out to the yard and into the house, shlepping to pick berries or checking on the garden in my neighbor’s yard, the constant fly infestation from doors left open too long, the search for sunscreen or hats or that missing flip flop kicked off carelessly on a tear into the house. Nothing feels orderly.

And tired of being tired. The late bedtimes, the tantrums pitched in exhausted desperation before passing out under covers (“but not sheets, Mommy”). The discovery and rediscovery of toys long forgotten after hours spent at camp and the wars waged over “who got it first”. The protestation over going to camp because “I just want to stay home” mingled with the exclamation that “I want to go DO SOMETHING because I’m bored” while spending a scant hour in the house.

We are standing on the precipice of new territory. Soon, my oldest will start kindergarten and my youngest will begin proper preschool. I will start my last year on my contract at my current institution. My husband’s company launches a redesigned version of their main product. It is a busy time for us.

In a few weeks, when twilight creeps in minutes and then hours earlier, and when our new routine has regimented our days, we will long for carefree, post-dinner walks, for the quick trip to the farm for ice cream after dinner, for our soggy bottoms at the pool, or our lazy mornings with nothing planned.

And that is when I’ll remind myself that this isn’t really a slump. It’s just life.

Posted in everyday life, family, gardening, kids, lessons learned, personal, summer, Uncategorized, vacation | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Vacation hangover (and Chatham redux)

This time last week, we were on vacation.

Lighthouse Beach

Sunrise at Lighthouse Beach, Chatham, MA

On Sunday, we returned from a trip to the beach, and it was mostly magical. We went to a favorite summer spot of my husband’s family in Cape Cod, where we had stayed once before. Our last trip (and my first time in Chatham) was a family affair when our oldest was 15 months old. From the beginning of that last trip, I was crabby because everyone in the group including my California-born sister-in-law and my four-year-old nephew had been to the Cape before, and all they could do was rehash memories of trips past. I felt like I was crashing someone else’s vacation, but it was mostly all in my head. The trip came a few years after my mother has died, and I was with my entire married family, feeling jealous at the assembly of people. I eventually relaxed, came to love their shared family memories, and carved a few of my own spaces in their beloved Cape village.

This time, the trip was on our own terms. When we were close to our departure, my husband said, “I’ve never been there without my parents so it’s really us navigating things.”

I was thrilled.

We are at our best when we’re in things together. I am notoriously terrible at trip planning because I find it difficult to understand the landscape of a place sight unseen. Having been to Chatham once before, I had a hazy memory of where things were and that meant I could focus on doing and going rather than being lost half the time. This was my kind of trip–not overscheduled or mapped out. Just us, the beach and loads of ice cream.

Our vacation was breathtaking at times. I wrote blog post after blog post in my head where I rarely store my words because like the sand on the shore, the tide took them away. I took almost 300 pictures of my kids and my husband (and even appeared in some myself). I took even more pictures in my mind: my little daughter riding on my husband’s shoulders in the middle of the ocean with the blue sky and clouds behind them. My girls coloring in their pajamas on the little coffee table in our very cozy (read tight) cottage for the week. The crumpled face of my three-year-old daughter when she spilled an entire ice cream cone in her shoe. The Cape Cod National Seashore at the end of a brief bike ride through the woods, listening to my little one squeal, “I love the downhills.” Their delight at the “mermaid store” on Chatham’s main drag full of girly treasures.

It was ice cream and sand sculptures, walks on the beach, bike rides and the Friday night band concert, hot dogs and Cape Cod baseball games, and it was really, really nice.

We discovered that upon our return, the kids have slept better in their own little beds than they did on vacation. On vacation, they were up at 6:45am ready to take on the day, unwilling to miss a minute of excitement. On vacation, they learned to entertain themselves together, a unexpected by-product that warmed our hearts. But back home, they’re sleeping in a little more and clinging a little more. My husband and I aren’t complaining about the extra sleep in the morning, but we can hardly bring ourselves to get out of bed, too. A few days back from a lovely week off and we’re all slogging through the days.

It was certainly not all sunshine and rainbows, either. There were some entirely real moments where I remember dragging my sandy, sweaty children screaming into an outdoor shower or dead lifting them off the ground mid-tantrum, but I can hardly blame them. A child on vacation is in real heaven: they were overexposed to the sun, up past their bedtime and pumped full of hot dogs, pasta, and ice cream.

I did discover a few new parenting practices that I want to remember:

  • No matter how much they protest, make sure you take your children to the restroom before you leave your house.
  • Picnic tables are not an appropriate seating option for a three-year-old. They need more supervision than you think.
  • You can triple up on the sunscreen lotion and still get a sunburn.
  • Your husband with minimal coaxing will grow a goatee….and it will be awesome!
  • Your husband will for once be right about storing the bread in the fridge to avoid soggy sandwiches on the beach–who knew beach air was so wet?
  • It is okay to disconnect, to not answer text messages and to get off of social media. You won’t miss it and you’ll feel like you really got away.
  • Make time for at least one thing for yourself–for me it was beach yoga.IMG_6244

And so I don’t forget our favorite Chatham spots, I’ve made a little map to remember them.

And now, back to reality….

Posted in everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, personal, summer, travel, vacation | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sometimes it takes a village, except when it shouldn’t

PlaygroundLast week a story surfaced about a woman in South Carolina, Debra Harrell, who was arrested because she made the conscious choice to let her 9-year-old daughter play in a public park while she went to work. I had already seen the story in my Facebook feed and followed updates posted by a complete stranger when a friend sent me a link to the story. [The same stranger is raising money to support the legal case that will inevitably unfold.]

I wrote a simple reply to my friend: Makes me so sad.

My friend asked for clarification, “Yes, but sad for who?” and in person, he repeated the question, clarifying further, “Don’t say you’re sad for everyone involved.”

“No,” I replied, “I feel so sad for this mother.”

By all accounts Debra Harrell was making the best of a difficult set of non-choices. In an economy where unemployment is rampant and where the unemployment rate for black women (over the age of 20) is double the unemployment rate for white women, here is a mother who was gainfully employed without childcare in the summer. Working at McDonald’s and getting by with a child is hard enough. In Aiken County, South Carolina where the story transpired, a food service worker earns on average about $8.50 per hour. This would be sufficient for one adult, but it is not a living wage for one adult AND one child.

Besides the harsh financial reality of family life, parents raising children face a daily gauntlet of decisions, and every one of these choices carries with it some risk. What should we feed our children, what should they wear, how should they spend their time, with whom should they spend their time, and most importantly, am I screwing this up? Many of these decisions are easy if you have money and a partner and extra time in your life. Without those things, the scope of your choices is limited. Often, you have no choices at all.

Ms. Harrell has had to grapple with some decisions that, so far as a parent, I have not encountered. I have a partner and we have a stable childcare arrangement. My children are also very young, and surveillance of little ones is more clear-cut than older children. Based on the way the story has been told in the media, I believe that she made the right choice for her family because she trusted her child.

Much of the court of public opinion is working through the rhetorical conversation about when children should be allowed to stay home alone, go out alone, or be in charge of themselves (here and here). Not every nine-year-old could handle being on their own for several hours a day, but according to countless retrospective accounts of “free-range” childhoods, many present-day adults roamed their neighborhoods without supervision as children, returned home when the street lights came on (or when their parents rang a cowbell), and lived to tell the tale. Many will counter this nostalgia, saying that we live in a different and possibly more dangerous age. More likely, twenty-first century parents are hyper-vigilant of their own children and the children in their village.

I have had my fair share of parenting fails—some public and some private. Most parents (especially mothers) proclaim their silliest or most embarrassing mistakes, crowning themselves “mother of the year” in jest. In my parenting village, there are probably some parents who find my choices radical and others who find them conservative. If a mom or dad friend casts aspersions on what I do with my children, I typically listen and move on, internalizing what might help and shedding what stings. The bystander in Ms. Harrell’s story seems to have skipped this step—the parent-to-parent moment. Instead, Ms. Harrell’s story opens a whole vortex of parenting worry I had never even considered—the meddling stranger.

Never have I witnessed or worried about another parent or child to the degree that I would have to bring in law enforcement. And even if I had, I would probably bring it to the other parent first before making a fateful call to local police. I’ve been in public parks where there were too many children to follow, where big kids were running around like maniacs, and when I may have wondered, where are the parents? But I never cornered those kids and asked them point-blank. It makes me wonder what am I doing that others might evaluate even in passing that might warrant that fateful call? Do I dare even share those details here for fear that someone would find our home address and follow up?

If we use this story as our barometer, we would have to inform on many other parents (both real and fictitious). Since summer has started, my children (ages 3 and 5) run in and out of our house to the back yard and the front yard and not always under our watchful eyes. Any neighbor could catch them riding their bikes or more likely arguing in the front driveway without my husband or me close at hand. As irrational as it might seem, I worry slightly about the call of some meddling stranger who disapproves of our choices. For all of the times when I wonder where is my village, now I am left wondering, should other folks stay out it?

Whether we agree that age nine is an appropriate time for children to be on their own, age nine is certainly more than old enough to remember everything that happens in your life. Nine is old enough to understand when your life is in the middle of serious upheaval, and it is old enough to feel scarred by a system meant to protect you. Maybe we should think about what we want for our own children and use this child’s pain as the barometer. I doubt we would wish estrangement and foster care on seemingly functional families.

I felt relieved when I learned this week that Ms. Harrell has been reunited with her daughter and has had support from countless strangers who saw the need to offer support without judgment. Being a good citizen of the village means knowing when to intervene, when to pass judgment from afar and when to simply look on from a distance.

Going forward, all I hope is that we find ways to make our villages better by trusting each other, looking out for our families and kids, and offering up a helping hand instead of the arm of the law.

Posted in community, everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, parenthood, personal, vacation, women, work, writing | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Where I write and what I think about it

I write….

…in blank documents that exist only on a computer screen.

…in slim, Moleskine notebooks full of creamy, unlined pages.

…in the Twitter composition window under the watchful eye of the character counter, ticking off every precious letter, space and ampersand.

…in the journal on my nightstand where I log my daily comings and goings.

…in my mind in fleeting moments of solitude as I wash dishes or take a shower or watch my daughters play.

…and in times of true desperation (as I write these words) on scraps of paper found deep in the recesses of my bag or in moments of even greater desperation on the backs of crumpled receipts for our dry cleaning or our groceries.

And I will never be sure which medium I prefer because none of them are truly permanent. Because data bytes are saved in the air and fire could consume paper. Scraps of brilliance are easily lost or trashed. And the brain is no place to save ideas.

And so I wonder what can be trusted. And then I wonder whether it is worth thinking thoughts or writing words in the first place.

And when the word purge is over, I click save, close the book, stuff the scraps, retire the pen and sigh deeply because what weighed heavily on my mind exists somewhere else now.

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