Back To School Blues

For 22 years—first as a student and later as a college instructor—the school year framed my days. Consequently, the first day of school still evokes strong feelings.

red-plaid-lunch-boxWhen I was younger, heading back to school touched off a prowling anxiety. Worries stalked me at odd moments—What if I can’t find my room? What if none of my friends are in my class? What if the teacher is picky and mean? Once classes were underway, anxiety gave way to feeling trapped. Oh God, I’m stuck in school for months on end. Lectures, homework, tests. Somewhere between Day 1 and Day 2, I accepted my fate and began to acknowledge bright spots—a teacher who liked to joke, Oreos in my plaid lunchbox, or a book I didn’t mind reading.

 

When I began teaching college English, I discovered teachers often dread the start of school, too. For me, it was a sinking feeling that began several weeks before school started. Oh, God, I need to make a syllabus, which means I have to decide exactly what I’m covering: choose readings, dream up in-class exercises, and plan the assignments. What if I get a handful of surly students? They could completely undermine the class dynamic for 10 weeks. tan-brief-bag

My anxiety culminated in a night-before-the-first-day-of-class nightmare. Every quarter, I dreamed a variation of this dream: I’m 20 minutes late to class. I’m walking down an endless corridor and can’t find the room I’m supposed to be in. I finally arrive only to realize that I’m in my pink chenille bathrobe and the students have given up on me. Some of them are already in the English department office complaining about me. My stomach would be roiling when I woke up. As I stuffed my leather briefbag with mimeographed syllabi, lecture notes, and my grade book, I laughed at how ludicrous the nightmare was.

 

This fall, on the first day of class, I was surprised to again feel a frisson of nerves. What if I got lost or showed up late? Just to be sure, I double checked the transit routes and downloaded a campus map. What if the professor thinks retirees are cranky know-it-alls? Do I really want to show up twice a week and sit through lectures?

Wait. Yeah, I do. Anxiety about the first day of school may be deep-seated, but it no longer makes sense. I’m only auditing a history class at the University of Minnesota. There’s no pressure to perform as a teacher or as a student. In the rush of those habitual feelings, I’d nearly forgotten that the beginning of school also sparks an invigorating sense of a fresh start.

backpackI loaded up my backpack with the three heavy textbooks—ooof—and set off.

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On Being President

Antonio di Grazia 5th Grade President!

Antonio di Grazia 5th Grade President!

The presidency started off like many presidencies. When Crystel announced that Antonio was running for 5th grade class president, he denied it, “She’s lying!”

“Oh my goodness,” I said. “Antonio, your sister was excited for you. She just thought that you threw your hat in the ring. That’s all.”

I didn’t tell him that I was excited, too.

Antonio just wasn’t ready to share it with the world. The next day he confirmed that he was running for President. Candidates are allowed to waffle.

5th grade Presidency leads to White House. First Dog.

5th grade Presidency leads to White House. First Dog.

I asked him if he wanted me to write a speech for him. He said, “No.”

I did it anyway. I knew that he would probably need a speech and why not have one ready? I could see it in my mind. He’d pull it out of his backpack, it would be typed, easy to ready. And, oh, so eloquent.

Have you ever felt different? I have too. Starting with this line was sure to grab everyone’s heart. And, how vulnerable for a fifth grade boy. I could see Antonio on stage, speaking clearer than he has ever spoke. (In reality, he absolutely hates being the center of attention. And has refused since preschool to be on a stage).

Carving of President di Grazia scheduled on Mount Rushmore.

Carving of President di Grazia scheduled on Mount Rushmore.

Then I went on to say how I like Pokémon and soccer. Thinking that would bring in the male vote.

I was really into this. I thought if he was willing to stick his neck out at least I should offer my assistance. I didn’t worry too much about his popularity. His grades looked like he had been campaigning all last quarter.

After I finished writing the speech, I put it in a plastic sheaf so it wouldn’t get crinkled, and I slipped it into his science notebook.

Coming home from running errands, I saw that the speech was gone and that he had gone back to bed.

Probably to look the speech over.

My New Home. In Retirement.

My New Home. In Retirement.

But another part of me knew better and I checked the garbage. And, there it was. My speech all torn up in itty bitty pieces with the plastic sheath on top.

He told me that the speech was suppose to be WHY you wanted to be President. “Can you just say, “Because it’s pretty cool, and I’d feel awesome?”

He didn’t want to draw any posters – it was too much work. Too, bad. If he had included Pokemon drawings on his campaign posters, they would have been rad.

I knew WE had an uphill battle for this presidency. Even his sister wasn’t going to vote for him.

Unpacking

Unpacking

The big snowstorm put off the vote for a week. After the vote (no Antonio didn’t win), we were sitting talking about this blog, he said with a grin, those people who put posters up have to take every piece of tape off the wall, even the sticky part.

And now that I’m sitting with THEE Crystel, she tells me that Antonio didn’t even vote for himself and he voted for the person who won.

Oh my goodness.

I’ve Never Had Something Not Burn

I’ve never had something not burn.

I was thinking of this when I was going through all these papers that we have collected throughout the school year that the kids have brought home from school. All year long they bring home math and spelling sheets, art drawings, more math and spelling. At the time you can’t throw anything away because it is a piece of art or they got 5 out 5 right or 8 out of 10 or maybe even 1 out of 10. Regardless, you have to keep the school papers because in the moment it is actual work to them and if you toss it in the trash you risk having your message be that their work isn’t important. Even if you place the papers carefully in the recycling bin, hiding them under the Sunday paper, you are still THROWING their hard work out.

The question is what do you keep?

I have no frame of reference. Our barn burnt down when I was in 3rd grade, our house burnt down when I was in 7th grade, and I burnt my back when I was in10th grade. You see what I mean when I say I’ve never not had something burn?

Jody has been the one that will pack decorations away after a holiday, storing them from year to year. To me, it is all temporary. It could go poof.

blog clothes 008But, I’ve gone along with Antonio and Crystel having memory boxes. We have stored away the infant clothes they were wearing when we first got them at seven and eight months old. Favorite baby clothes and shoes are also tucked away.

Sometimes it was the kids telling us that an item or piece of clothing should go in their memory box. For one, it was a way of knowing Mama Beth wouldn’t give it away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce, I made the mistake of giving the neighbor girl one of Crystel’s outfits that no longer fit her. According to Crystel it was her favorite though I couldn’t recall the last time I saw the dress on her. Seeing it on some other little girl must have jarred her memory. Much like if they would find their homework papers in the recycling bin.

Another time I stocked a classroom store with toys, pens, and other items from their playroom. During school, a classmate said to Crystel, “Isn’t that yours?” It was a group of small colored pens. Crystel hid them behind other toys so none of her classmates would see them. When I got home, she greeted me with, “Mom, how could you? How could you? I was saving those pens for college.” I had to call the teacher and ask for them back.

Sifting through their 4th grade school work, I wondered why I didn’t remember ever bringing home this much paper from school. Then I recall the trash barrel we had on the farm. When the wastebaskets needed emptying it all went in the barrel and you burned it. Poof. I grew up in a family of 12 children. Can you imagine the load of school papers that came home? The trash barrel was always lit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven though I didn’t grow up having a memory box, keepsakes, journals, etc…. I do see their value and each year I’ve journaled and kept mementos for the children. I’ve enjoyed it as much as them when we go back and look at how they have grown.

Recently, I read how a much asked for graduation present of high school and college graduates has been to receive a quilt made of t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other clothing worn by them throughout the years. I brought this idea up to Jody, Antonio, and Crystel during breakfast one morning. Looks like we already have a good start.

Looking at the blue bins, full of papers, it occurs to me that it is time to pass the baton and have them decide what is kept. I have set their bins aside for the first rainy day. I’ll stock up on glue, tape, scissors and two new notebooks.

The Importance of Friends

Oliver and Antonio

Oliver and Antonio

Before Antonio’s soccer game, I told him that we wouldn’t be able to stay after the game. He groaned. Two days ago we stayed late giving him a chance to play with his friends on the field. They took turns shooting the soccer ball into the net with one of them guarding. I enjoyed watching his fun and he relished playing with his two friends.Every parent wants their child to have friends and I was delighted watching Antonio with his.

Today, after Antonio’s soccer game his friend Oliver asked if Antonio could stay and play. “My parents will bring him home,” he said. Antonio’s eyes shone when I said, “Yes”, and he quickly became so immersed in his soccer playing that he couldn’t hear Jody saying goodbye to him.

Nattie, Crystel, Ally

Nattie, Crystel, Ally

Antonio is interested in soccer this year because that is what his friends are doing during recess at school. I was shocked when both he and Crystel said they wanted to join the spring recreational league. For years, they had shown no interest.

His coach this year, remembered Antonio when he was four years old playing soccer at YMCA.

I sighed.

“Antonio was more interested in sitting on your lap then playing soccer,” I said to the coach.

The next time he played soccer he was six years old and he would come off the field during a play and say, “Crissy you go in for me.”

Crystel and Gabby

Crystel and Gabby

“Antonio she not only isn’t on your team,” I said. “She’s not even signed up for soccer.” Still, no one seemed to care when she bounded on the field taking his place.Children’s friendships are important to parents. Once in a while a parent will comment that they hope their children keep the same group of friends throughout all of their school years. “It’s a great group of kids,” they will say.

Jacob and Antonio

Jacob and Antonio

I must confess that I wasn’t prepared for the mother who wondered if Antonio would date her daughter-espeically since her daughter and Antonio were only in preschool. I’m sure she meant it as a compliment, but I hadn’t taken that leap in my mind yet.

Now that the kids are ten years old, I allow myself to wonder about that occasionally.

I am interested to see who they gravitate to in their friendships and in their ‘special’ relationships. They were both born in Guatemala and are being raised by two white women in an English speaking household. Are they drawn towards Hispanics or whites in their friendships? Who will they choose for a partner?

Tinsae and Antonio

Tinsae and Antonio

Both Antonio and Crystel are attending a Spanish dual language school. This helped them be comfortable around Hispanics. I used to have to remind them that they were brown and Hispanic which is why they needed to learn Spanish.

This past winter when the cold seemed like it would never end and they were whiny, I asked them if they would like to move to a warmer climate. They both immediately said, “No.” Their friendships have become that deep.

I have been happy to observe that they have friends who are of mixed races, white, Hispanic, and African American. They are friends with children from divorced families, families with only one parent, and children from families who have two parents.

In other words, they are perfectly normal.

SSSHHHHHH SSSSSHHHH The Scale is in the Drawer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrystel came upstairs the other day and said she weighed 79 pounds. I didn’t pay any attention to this. We only have one scale in the house and that is in the basement bathroom. I just figured that she stepped on it after she was done showering.

She had never mentioned her weight before. She is ten-years-old and not overweight. But then she did it the next day and again the next.

I had it in my mind to inquire about her sudden interest in her weight, but then it slipped my mind. Neither Jody nor I ever talk about our bodies or other people’s bodies. We tell them … if you are hungry, eat; when you are full, stop eating. If you don’t like something, you don’t have to eat it. They have our permission to leave food on their plate.

We have intentionally not made food a focus in our house. Though, Jody and I, do have controls on the amount of soda the children drink by having cold water available in the refrigerator and as a general rule they don’t drink soda at home. We also don’t deny them candy, but they have to ask for it.

Our thought is … if candy isn’t taboo then there isn’t any reason for them to hoard or hide it. It is December 27 and they still have Halloween candy left.

Jody and I haven’t ever been concerned about Antonio and Crystel’s weight—in large part, because they regularly exercise at Tae Kwon Do.

One disagreement that Jody and I have had about the children eating cropped up when the kids were little. Antonio or Crystel said they were hungry, and Jody told them that they could wait until breakfast. I told her later, “You just need to know … if they ask me for something to eat, I don’t care what time it is, I am going to let them eat. I’m not ever going to send a kid to bed hungry.”  We head off any arguments by giving them a warning early enough in the evening … “If you want to eat, eat now.”

One day after school, when Crystel tells me, “I weigh 80 pounds,” I remember to ask her about it.

“Are the fourth graders talking about their weight at school?”

“No. Why?”

I tried again. “Are your classmates weighing themselves?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

Well, why the interest, I think to myself. I don’t want to make too big of deal about it, because then for sure it will become a big deal. That’s how it works with Crystel.

I tried one more time. “Do you tell classmates what your weight is? You know some classmates might be sensitive about their weight.”

“Who? Who is sensitive?”

December 27 - Two Dolphins pushing Crystel with their noses in Mexico.

December 27 – Two Dolphins pushing Crystel with their noses in Mexico.

Hmmm. She is just like her Mama Beth, answering a question with a question. I wasn’t getting anywhere fast.

“I don’t know,” I said. I needed to change the subject. I asked her the first thing that came to my mind, “Are you hungry?”

Jody and I don’t have glamour magazines lying around the house, and Crystel hasn’t started getting any teen magazines. So … maybe she is just curious about how she is changing from day to day.

Doesn’t matter. The scale is going in the drawer, in the cat room, by the litter box.