Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Breaking News, Via Text Message

Baroy: They just had to pick partners in golf. N grabbed a kid and told him they were partners.

Me: Get OUT of here!

Baroy: The kid's name is C.

Me: How old is he?

Baroy: About the same age. N just got 10 points, as did C, then walked over to C, slapped his hand and said, "Way to go, Dude!"

Me: That is not my son! Where did my son go?

Baroy: C and N just won the little contest. Coach is impressed by the way he hits out of the sand.

Me: Whoever this pod N is, make sure you bring him home, not the old one.

Baroy: He's also volunteering to do things.

Baroy again: I could probably leave and he wouldn't even notice.

You know, there's progress, and then there's not even fathomable behavior. Not running behind Baroy or the coach's legs when another child asked to team up with him would have been progress. Going up to one of the bigger kids, one of the 13 or 14 year old kids and asking to be their partner would have been big progress. But this? Taking the initative with a PEER? Seriously? I don't get it. Where does this stuff COME from? And how can I make sure it sticks around?

I always thought golf would be good for him, but I never thought it would do THIS. I am literally sitting here with tears in my eyes as each text message comes in.

That kid. That incredible kid. He really CAN do anything.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Yes. YES.

Had a quick check-in conference with N's teacher who--you have no reason to remember if you're not as obsessed with the education of my son as I am--was out from mid-September until mid-October. We looked at his reading and his writing and his math, and where he is in all of it, and she told us a little about the ways in which he is making sure his needs are met in the classroom. (SO glad to hear that he's a total pest at times...and I mean that sincerely. And no, those aren't the words she used. But they're the ones she meant.)

She also showed us some of his tests, and how he had TANKED on them, and then how she had taken him aside and had him retake them with her next to him, telling him what needed doing in each section, though requiring him to do the reading/answering on his own, and how he came pretty darned close to acing them at that point. Or at least the parts of them that she could get him to do before he shut down. (When he's done, he's DONE--that's something that anyone who has EVER worked with this child knows. He's nice about it; he's a cooperative kid. But when he's hit his stopping point, you just can't get anything else useful out of him.)

And then she made my year by leaning back in her chair and saying, "This is why I'm not at all concerned about whether he's learning the material, because I think it's obvious he is. My concerns are about how he is or isn't able to show us what he's learned."

Yes. Yesyesyes. Exactly. Yes. Not slow, just not always able to prove that in a quantifiable way.

Now if we could just figure out how we get him over that barrier...because it's not exactly a recipe for academic success.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Too Many Sons and Daughters

My volunteer work at our synagogue this year has shifted from my much-hated role as PTA president to a much-more-fitting role as editor of our monthly newsletter. I enjoy it, on the whole. I like being the one to gather up all the photos from our events; I like hearing about what's coming up next month. I like the lists of birthdays and anniversaries; I like compiling lists of people to thank for all the work they put into this potluck or that dinner dance. I especially like putting the (very) occasional bar or bat mitzvah on the cover. (As I've said, we're a VERY small congregation; the bar mitzvah I'll be attending in the morning is the last one we'll celebrate until May or June of 2010...and will kick off a relative flood of them, five in less than six months, which will include my own Em's special day.)

But each month, there's one part of the job that makes me pause and, usually, sigh: the list of yahrzeits for that month. The list I publish is just a series of names, each after a date on the Roman calendar. Because the yahrzeits themselves are calculated based on the date of death on a Jewish calendar, they change each year, and having a published list of when a specific yahrzeit falls is a huge help, a true mitzvah.

But when I get the list, it has more information than that. Mainly, it has a notation to let the user know who in our congregation "belongs to" the person to be remembered. And, again, because we're such a small congregation, nine times out of ten, I can picture the person who will be standing and reciting the Mourner's Kaddish that week. More often than not, I know them well enough to hug or kiss them when I see them--though, since I've only been at this synagogue for a little over three years, I rarely know the person who has passed. Still, it makes me more than a little melancholy to think, "Oh, A always has such a hard time when it's time for her husband's yahrzeit," or "I remember B talking about his father during Lunch and Learn one week; I wonder how long he's been gone?"

Worst, though, are months like this month, when in addition to the "aunt of"s and the "father of"s and the "grandmother of"s there are an ungodly [unfunny pun intended] number of "daughter of"s and "son of"s. Again, these are people I know well--but not well enough to know when they lost a child, or how it happened, or what sorts of holes it left. It makes me want to cry to think that, sometime in the middle of next month, Rachael and her husband are going to say kaddish for their son, that Trudy is going to say kaddish for a daughter I had no idea she had. I wonder if, for them, it helps or it hurts to have to observe this annual, ritual, mourning. And I try not to image what it would feel like if it were me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wine and Bylaws

Every couple of years, the PTA at the elementary school needs to update its bylaws. The process is positively byzantine, with regulations up the hoohah. Among the arbitrary requirements is that the updating be done by a committee of five...even though it's essentially a task for two people, three at most.

And so last night five of us board members gathered at the home of Em's kindy teacher--who's been on the PTA for more than a decade, even though her boys left the school a few years back--to slog through the changes and questions. Or, rather, three of us slogged through the changes and questions while the other two cut a couple of hundred ribbons for Red Ribbon Week.

I love meetings at KT's house--not just because it's close to mine, but because her husband is adorable and he always greets us with good wine poured into brandy snifters.

It took two snifters-full to get through the bylaws last night. Today, my head aches. But hey. Whatever gets you through the night, right?

Frankly, it wasn't that bad. By the end of the session, we'd mostly degenerated into gossiping and laughing. And laughing and gossiping. And did I mention the wine...and the fact that my friend M, our PTA president, was our designated driver? So there was laughing and gossiping and DRINKING...which then led to more laughing and gossiping.

At one point, M asked me how the job was going.

"I'll tell you guys what I tell everyone," I said. "I love the work; I hate working."

"I hear you," said M, who is a resource teacher at a different school from the one our kids attend.

"I just hate not being there after school," I went on. "I hate not being able to grab the teachers to ask them a quick question. I hate not being able to go into the classrooms and volunteer on a weekly basis. I hate not picking N up from speech so I can check on how he's doing. I hate not running into Mrs. Computer Lab Teacher to find out what's going on in her room." My voice was rising into a whine as I went on...and on. Finally, I said, without realizing what I was saying until it had been said, "I just hate...not being able to micromanage my children's lives!"

[I'd like to say that the laughter that followed was the biggest laugh of the night, but that would be lying. It was big, and it was long, and there was much wiping of tears from eyes, especially mine. But it wasn't the biggest laugh. What was the biggest laugh was when we had somehow wandered into talking about hand sanitizers and the hygiene hypothesis, and KT began talking about the kids in her kindy class this year.

"All I can tell you is that these kids will come up to me and say, 'Mrs. KT, will you hold my hand?' And I'm all 'No way! You spend half your time with that finger up your nose...and the other half with your hand down in your pants. Forget it!'"

Ah, snifters of wine. My truth serum of choice.]

Monday, October 20, 2008

Old Jewish Ladies

I spent the entire weekend celebrating Sukkot. Friday night we had a pizza party with a group of friends in our host's sukkah, and stayed out much too late, considering Em and Baroy had an early soccer game the next morning. Saturday night we were invited to have dinner with our synagogue's cantor and his wife in their sukkah. Again, we stayed out much too late, considering Em and N had religious school in the morning.

Sunday afternoon, after religious school, I went back to Cantor Bob's sukkah, where I had lunch along with the rest of the synagogue's book club, and discussed our latest read. From there, I went back to the synagogue to help set up for our big Sukkot dinner; Baroy and the kids joined me soon thereafter. Luckily, that dinner was over by 8, though I stayed to help clean up and didn't get home until 9:30.

If it's possible to overdose on Judaism, this weekend would have done it.

As I was setting out dishes of hummus and olives on the tables, Rachael grabbed me by the arm and essentially spun me around. It's sometimes hard to tell the ages of old Jewish ladies, I've found, either because their sheer indomitable will (and weekly visits to the beauty salon) keeps them looking the same year after year, or because, conversely, they are simply so old looking already, it's impossible to see any further aging. Rachael is very much in the former category, but I've got to figure she's closing in on 80, if she's not already there. So the force with which she grabbed me shocked me.

"You need to stop losing weight," she said, getting right in my face. "You need to EAT."

"Oh, trust me, Rachael," I laughed. "I eat."

"I don't like it," she muttered. "You're getting too thin. Promise me you'll EAT."

"I promise, I promise," I said, holding up my hands. (For the record, after losing close to 20 pounds over about a year's time--due entirely to having stopped taking psychiatric meds and due not at ALL to anything I've done about my diet--I haven't lost a pound in months. And, seriously? I'm not that thin. I'm not overweight any more, but I'm definitely not skinny. Still, you know how old Jewish ladies are. And if you don't...they're like Rachael. Almost every single one of them is like Rachael.)

"Good girl," she said, and reached up and pinched my cheek, then laid a kiss on it. "But I'll be watching you, just in case."

When N. returned from the desert table with cookies and a bunch of grapes, he stopped by our table.

"Mommy, who was that old lady who kissed me on the head?"

I laughed. "N, you're going to have to be more specific than that. You just described about half the people in this room."

"The lady. The one with red in her shirt." I was shaking my head. "She kissed me on the head and said I should give you one of my cookies. She said I should make sure you eat. You eat, don't you?"

"Rachael," I said, laughing. "That would have been Rachael."

As we were putting away the last of the salt shakers and bundling up the linen tablecloths for the laundry service to pick up, Sue grabbed me and pulled me into the kitchen, where she had a Vons bag tied up on the counter.

"This is for you. Leftovers," she said. "For all your help."

"Don't we want to give these to [name of homeless shelter we support]?"

"We have plenty of food boxed up for them," she said, waving me off. "I want you to have this. You need to eat."

I laughed. Hard. "Did Rachael put you up to this?" I asked.

Sue looked genuinely puzzled. "No. I just think you're looking too thin lately. Why would Rachael ask me to talk to you?"

"Never mind," I said, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek and taking my bag without further argument.

There is no escaping the old Jewish ladies. Not that I really want to.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Don't Know Why I Was Thinking About This

I'm not always the most practical, logical person. And so, when it comes to the sorts of things that most people are just sort of born knowing, I often need a little help...a guide to the mundane, if you will. In other words, I have this tendency to take practical advice--good, practical advice--and adopt it. And when I say adopt, I mean...

When I was maybe 14 or 15 years old my mother started allowing me to buy my own clothes. When I asked her for advice on what is considered a 'good price' on something, and she rattled off a list of prices, ending with, "and never pay more than $40 for a skirt."

About 15 years later, I was starting a new job, and I needed some professional-looking clothes. After a long day shopping, I came home utterly discouraged. Talking to my mother on the phone that night, I said, "I saw a lot of really nice stuff, but it was so expensive! Like there was this one blue skirt that would have been PERFECT, but it was almost $70!"

"So? That's not so bad for a skirt. Why didn't you buy it?" she asked.

I was stunned. "Because YOU told me never to pay more than $40 for a skirt!" I protested.

My mother sounded genuinely confused. "I did? When did I say that?"

Um. Um. "1979?" I replied.

Is it any wonder that the only place I feel comfortable shopping these days is Goodwill?

I have a similar story regarding gasoline. Because I didn't start driving until I was 29 years old (loooong story that can be shortened to this: I'm crazy! You knew that!), I had to ask for advice on a lot of stuff that teenagers normally absorb just from hanging out with their friends. For instance: Does it make a difference which brand of gasoline I use? Absolutely, said my friend Ro, to whom I went with all questions auto-related. Chevron is the best gasoline, bar none. OK, I said, and proceeded to fill my tank with Chevron...and only Chevron.

That was all well and good for that time, because I was living in an apartment with a Chevron station on the corner, and working in a building with a Chevron station less than two blocks away.

A couple of years ago, Ro--who, in the intervening years had moved back to New York--was out visiting. We were in my car, and I was low on gas. I had passed at least three gas stations when Ro finally asked, "Where are you going?"

"To the Chevron station," I said. "It's a few miles away, but there aren't any in my neighborhood."

She looked at me like...well, like I was as insane as I clearly was.

"Hold on!" I protested. "YOU are the one who told me that Chevron was the best gasoline!"

"That's true," she admitted. "But that was at least a decade ago! And you're ALLOWED to use other types of gasoline! Especially if you're on fumes and the nearest station is five miles away!"

I can? I can go to the Shell station down the block? It was an actual epiphany. I was 40 years old, and it had never even OCCURRED to me that it was OK to go against Ro's original edict.

Nowadays, I still hit the Chevron station when I'm nearby, but sometimes I use Shell, and sometimes I use Mobil, and sometimes--you might want to be sitting for this--I fill up on Arco. I KNOW. I am a gasoline REBEL.

Hey. At least I can laugh at myself, right? Someone has to.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And the Award for Best Actress...

N and I were watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit during our "date night" last night, while Baroy and Em went to see a play at our friends' theater. Jessica Rabbit sauntered out onto the stage in all her "I'm just drawn that way" glory. N's eyes grew wide. Stifling a laugh, I asked him, "Why do you think all the men are watching her like that?"

Not taking his eyes off the screen, he replied, "Because she's beautiful." Tiny pause. "And a good actress."

Yes, honey. I'm sure that's it. It's the acting.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Deep Thinkers

N turned to Baroy during N's golf lesson on Wednesday and suddenly asked, "Is God dead?"

Baroy, thrown, hesitated, then replied, "You know, N, that's a question that gets asked more often than you'd think on a golf course."

Em, who is 11, decided she wanted to try to fast on Yom Kippur this year; she isn't actually 'commanded' to fast until after her Bat Mitzvah (and wouldn't have been 'permitted' to fast until the age of 9), but I wasn't going to stand in her way. I set a few ground rules: She wouldn't start until morning (since her soccer practice Wednesday night meant eating dinner after the fast officially started), no pushing it if she felt sick (rather than just hungry), and no fasting from liquids (i.e., she was to take sips of water if and when she felt particularly thirsty).

After the family service ended at around noon, Baroy got ready to take N home for the afternoon; I like to stay for some of the other services, and I also find it much easier to fast (or, rather, not to cheat) if I'm around a bunch of other people who are doing the same. Since Em's friend Sass was sticking around as well (her mom--one of my good friends--feels the same way I do), Em decided she too would avoid the temptations of home and stay with me. She went with Sass to the park while I went to the Yizkor and Musaf services, then came back to find me and a tiny handful of people hanging out in the office and chatting. She joined us for a little bit, then went with me to the unique service our synagogue has before we do the Mincha service. (Just for the record, we do an alternate Torah reading from the one mentioned in that article.) They call it a "healing" service, but what it is is a guided meditation--led by J, one of our congregants--built around some Judaic concept. (This time it was the word neshamah, which can mean both 'soul' and 'breath.')

And so, Em not only did her first fast, but she did her first guided meditation...and she loved every minute of it, falling so under the spell of J's voice (not hard to do; he has the absolute perfect voice and delivery for that sort of thing) that she actually drifted off a few times.

After that, it was easy for her; she walked in and out of the sanctuary during Mincha, then joined me again when Baroy and Noah arrived for the final service, the Neilah service, at the conclusion of which our rabbi always does a really lovely blessing over all the congregation's children, who gather up on the bima and who then join in on the concluding blowing of the shofar. Always gives me chills.

And then it was time to break the fast with orange juice (when WILL I learn to just SIP the juice and not gulp it down, sending my body into near shock with the sudden onrush of sugar after 25 hours of nothingness?) and challah. Em drank a bit, ate a piece of challah, and then proceeded to brag to every adult she could buttonhole for thirty seconds about how she'd done her first fast. And they all ooohed and aaahed over her until you practically could have READ by her, she was glowing so brightly.

I stood by, watched, and smiled, so very proud of my girl. Every year, at the Kol Nidre service that sort of 'kicks off' Yom Kippur, our rabbi talks about how many Jews will wish each other an "easy" fast, but that what he wishes us all is a meaningful fast...because, otherwise, why do it at all? Em had a meaningful fast, something I never had--or, frankly, really attempted--until I was in my 40s.

Then we went home and stuffed ourselves with carry-out fried chicken and potato chips. After all, we'd earned it. Especially Em.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Paralyzed by Paradox

I want to do the right thing. I want to save the world, the environment, my children's health. But I just don't know how.

I start with such good intentions, and I charge head first into the fray. And then I just...stop. Paralyzed. By paradox.

Take sugar, for instance. No, really. Take it. Because dealing with The Sugar Issue is bugging the shit out of me.

[Of course, I'm full of it. Because if I could just eschew all sweeteners, period, I'd be in great shape. But I like sweet stuff. Not the way lots of other people do, but I like it. And my kids? Like many, they live for it. And thus, into the fray I go.]

So: Sugar is bad. Especially white sugar: it's highly processed, a gateway to diabetes, blahblahblah. But what about brown sugar? What about raw sugar? How do those compare?

High fructose corn syrup? I know it's awful, awful stuff. But in the exceptionally long hierarchy of awful, awful stuff, where does it fall? Above white sugar? Below? Above artificial sweeteners? Below?

And what about artificial sweeteners? Definitely way up there on the Awful Stuff Ladder. I think. Maybe. Definitely bad for me, since they make me crazy, so that's an easy call. But what about my kids? What, especially, about my kid who struggles with weight and may indeed be at higher risk for diabetes? What do I put on or in her food?

Honey? Where does it fall on the scale?

Agave nectar? I've started seeing bits and pieces that point out it's not as good for you as you might think.

What about stevia? What's the deal with stevia, anyway? Healthy? Not? Can I use it in anything other than coffee? And do I want to? Because...what is that godawful bitter taste it seems to add to everything I put it in?

And that's only the beginning. I tried finding links to all the stuff I was mentioning above, and in 90 percent of the cases, I couldn't find a single objective article to point to, to even begin to sort it out.

In the end, what this means is that it's impossible to take all my good intentions, walk into a supermarket and think, "This is what is good for us; this is what is good for the environment; this is what I will buy." And so, with every purchase comes the guilt, and with the guilt comes the desire to just throw your hands up in the air and say, "Screw it. If it's going to be this impossible--if there's no way to win--I might as well just give them what they want." (Which in N's case would be huge buckets full of white sugar...and a spoon.)

And don't even get me started on local versus organic, paper versus plastic, disposable plates filling the landfills versus using water and energy and detergents to wash dishes every night, whether mercury-based CFCs really ARE the best thing for our environment, which type of fish to buy and whether it should be wild or farm-raised...

I hate uncertainty. I hate this.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Remedial Brilliance

When I sent the kids' teachers notes telling them about the upcoming Jewish holidays and the days the kids would be missing class, Em's teacher replied immediately, telling me not to worry, that he'd get her caught up either before or after, and oh, by the way, could we maybe set up an appointment to talk about Em's math grade, and could we be sure to take a long look at the unit exam he was sending home that day, because he has a feeling she's not quite 'getting it.'

I rechecked the 'from' line, thinking maybe I'd inadvertently switched over to N's teacher's response. Because, you know, it doesn't take long to notice N's issues, and I could easily see his teacher wanting to nip a problem in the bud, after less than a month. But no. It was Em's teacher, all right. How...unprecedented.

Em went into this year hoping for this teacher, but she's become less and less enamored of him over this first month of school. Lately, she had taken to telling me, "Mr. M hates me," which is something she has never ever said about a teacher before. I know this man somewhat, and that just didn't feel right to me, but I was willing to reserve judgment; Em's pretty emotionally perceptive, and I didn't want to pooh-pooh her feelings without strong evidence to the contrary.

I have that now.

When the three of us* sat down last Thursday morning Mr. M put her first math unit test in front of us and said, "This is unacceptable." You could see Em's head start to droop. But then he basically laid it out for us like this: Em is too smart to be getting a 2** on a test. Period. She's really very smart, he said, over and over. Very verbal. Very mature. Well liked. Great to have in class. Participates actively and frequently. One of the best writers he has this year.

Then why is he doing this for one not-even-failing grade? He gave it to Em straight: He wants her in the top tracks in middle school, where she belongs. And to put her there, he needs to work with her to nip this in the bud. "You don't belong with the riffraff," he said. "If I have anything to say about it, you're not going to wind up there. You're just too bright."

In other words, all "your child is failing" conferences should sound like this one. In fact, when we left the classroom, sending N off to his section of the playground to meet up with the second graders, Em walked with us to the gate leading off campus. After I had kissed and hugged her, I took her shoulders and said, "So, it's official now. The next time I hear you talk about Mr. M hating you, I'm laughing in your face."

And she grinned, though reluctantly. "Yeah," she said. "I guess I have to agree with that one."

There are consequences, of course. He wants her in his 'remedial' math class, which meets for half an hour before school once a week. He made a point of telling her that she would be well above the rest of the kids in that class, and that he might even use her as a sort of peer tutor; he made a point of telling her that it was mostly so that he could provide her with just a smidge more math instruction, and especially one-on-one math instruction, which is hard to do when you're the teacher of a class of 37 students. Still, when I sent her off to this 'special class' last Friday, her body language screamed, "I don't want to do this. I can't believe I have to do this."

Oh, who am I trying to kid? She actually said that.

And I have to agree. This is a child who is not only exceptional in many ways, but knows she is. That's not egotism; it's truth. She doesn't trumpet it, she just internalizes it. It's not that she thinks she's smarter than other kids, because in general she's not; that's not where her gifts lie. Academically, she looks and sounds--and is--very much the typical bright-but-not-at-all-gifted kid. But the rest of her--the curiosity, the enthusiasm and, most of all the overall maturity level, her so-called EQ--are so far above the pale that it's among the gifted kids where she best fits in terms of her peer group.

But then there's this. This problem, this class. And this is telling her something very different. It's telling her that she belongs with the kids who struggle, the one who are not making the grade. It's telling her that there's something wrong with her that needs fixing. She's too smart not to notice such an apparent contradiction to what she's been told along along about her abilities. You can 'peer tutor' and 'my special assistant' her all you want, but she knows what this class is, and that's painful for her.

And, frankly, for me. It's taken me four days to write this post, because I can't quite find the right tone. It's a lot like how I felt after getting back N's IQ scores: I can see that there's an issue that needs dealing with, and at the same time I don't want anyone--especially Em--to think that I am buying that this issue is as bad as it's been presented to us. In other words, this remedial class? To me, it's the antibiotic she has to take to stop a minor infection from becoming a raging infection, and if I have to hold her down and pinch her nose to make her take her medicine, I'll do it. Because I do think that the extra instruction will be good for her, in the long term.

It had better be good for her. Because I also know that all Em sees right now is that I'm holding her down and forcing this down her throat. And that's going to take its toll, too.

*When I set up the appointment, the teacher asked us to be sure to bring Em along. He wanted her to be 'in' on the conversation, part of the solution, responsible for her own success, etc. He wanted her to know we weren't talking about her behind her back. "I keep telling them they're big kids now, about to go to middle school," he said to us during our meeting. "I keep telling them that, academically at least, their childhood is over." [I managed somehow not to scream, "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" when he said that. I think that was big of me.] I'm glad she was there, though; I don't think she would have fully believed me if I'd told her how much he thinks of her secondhand.

**She got a 74% on the test, which translates to a 2 in our school's grading system; 4 means exceeds grade level expectations, 3 means meets grade level expectations, 2 means approaching grade level expectations, 1 means not at grade level.