Saturday, May 30, 2009

A little story about Sue

Sometimes, in my day-to-day life, I feel pretty isolated from the rest of the world. I feel out of touch. I wonder what everyone else [who isn’t home with a 4-year-old] is doing. I think of how hard it would be to suddenly find myself in an office setting again, or back in classes pursuing some end, feeling so rusty and old-fashioned and—well, mentally mushy. If it happens, I’ll deal with it. But I’m certainly not seeking it out, any of it. I know well enough when I’m out of my league.

And then I think of Sue.

I was a young upstart of a girl yet, a junior in college but an absolute twit in pretty much every way. I thought I knew everything, and also thought I should let everyone know exactly what I knew. (However, as is common, I resented those same characteristics in anyone else.) I was a secondary ed major, and as such, I found myself in several classes with a woman named Sue; she was also majoring in education, specializing in science.

Sue was no young girl. She was a single mom of 3 young kids. She had very short, choppy, home-dyed blonde hair, thick glasses, she was slightly heavy-set, she was unfashionable, she talked too fast and too much… and she was a tutor in the on-campus office where I also worked. I saw her regularly at work. I met her kids more than once (she occasionally had to drag the slightly scruffy crew to the office with her), I heard her stories about her no-account ex-husband and how he’d abandoned them… Several times, I was subjected to various stories about how she’d tried to make ends meet when he left, no money for the gas bill, heating the house (and sometimes the family’s meals) with the kerosene heater that sat in the living room, scraping together some clothes for the children to wear to school, etc.

And in classes? Yep, I saw her there too. I couldn’t escape. She’d be up front, talking to the prof well after class start time, hogging his attention. Sometimes I could tell that even the professors were a tad weary of her and her boundless enthusiasm. Because she was enthusiastic. Many of the students she tutored began sessions with a doubtful look, and emerged after several meetings with thanks, praise, and better grades. She could hardly contain her excitement at the thought of teaching, let alone hanging out in a lab all day. She was on fire. She really, really wanted to work, to learn, to teach others, to support herself and her family—she wanted to taste the firm, sweet success she’d been flirting with since getting her life on track.

At the end of my time at that office, Sue was graduating; after two years of watching her work her a** off, I held a grudging admiration and mild fondness for her. She’d done quite well, had multiple job offers from out of state. She never looked back; she pondered which job to take (aloud, to anyone who’d listen), she took a couple of road trips with the kids to try out the possible new locations, and then she snapped up a teaching position in Virginia and was happily planning to take her beloved children and start anew come August. I’m sure she did just that, although I didn’t hear the details; we didn’t keep in touch.

What I failed to fully appreciate then was that Sue was a survivor—and a mom. Now, being a mom myself, I begin to grasp the depth of the struggle that she dealt with every day. I try to imagine how hard it must have been to be strong not just for herself but for those kids while she cooked canned food over a kerosene heater, to pull herself up out of that miserable hole, to get enrolled, to find childcare when needed, to deal with a sick son or daughter when she had classes, to make ends meet. I’m pretty sure she had help in grants or such; I also believe she was taking loans in order to finish the program. Yet, she was determined, and bright, and indefatigable. She was going to make it. She was going to get herself and her family out of there and into the sun.

I wonder where she is today. I hope she is still in the sun. The kids would be mostly grown by now, and hopefully following in their mom’s (not dad’s) footsteps. I hope that if I’m ever in her shoes, I’ll be as upstanding an example of how to handle challenges and go on with head held high. I hope I’m as strong a mom for my son. I hope that my worst offense is taking too much of the professor’s time. The poor woman! I understand better now; she was just seeking approval. Encouragement. She only wanted someone to listen, to hear her thoughts, to appreciate the incredible effort she was making. To be validated. To be vindicated. I feel unseen and unheard sometimes, but I suspect my boo-hoo invisibility couldn’t hold a candle to Sue’s in her darkest days.

Here’s to you, Sue. You’re an inspiration, even now, almost 20 years later.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reading, writing, and…retention

It’s the end of the school year, and even for preschoolers, that means special events, performances, and more parental involvement. Recently, I found myself at my son’s school, helping to prepare for a special reading-focused day of fun, games, and—of course—books. I was teamed with a few other moms who’d agreed to come in and help prepare for reading day. One other woman’s boy was almost the same age as Marcus, and we two found ourselves paired up, cutting hundreds of strips of crepe paper to the same length. (Doorway and window streamers, of course.)

There we labored over a stubby preschool-height table, trimming strip after strip after strip, and searching for something to chat about. We ended up talking about next year. Both our boys will return to this school for another year of preschool, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. And after that? This kind lady informed me that she and her husband had already pretty much decided that their child would go into a pre-kindergarten class instead of progressing to kindergarten.

Why? I asked. Well, she explained, they’d done that with their daughter, and she was in kindergarten now and was doing very well. People had thought they were crazy, the teachers had not recommended holding the girl back, she was well within the age limits required for kindergarten admission, they probably could have sent her, but kids learn so much so soon these days… They wanted their kids to have the advantage. “But it’s not for sports or anything like that!” she smiled. I commented that I would wait until Marcus was closer to the mark before we made that call, and internally, I was shaking my head vigorously and deciding without hesitation that we would not take such a step unless strongly encouraged to do so by my son’s teachers—and maybe not even then.

What are we doing to our kids? I think of children a century ago, how it wasn’t unusual for many kids to stop attending school after 8th grade if not sooner. I believe it was common for many of the boys to be immediately apprenticed with their future employer. Probably plenty of them were being “men” by fairly young ages. I’d venture to guess that more than a few were breadwinners, husbands, and fathers well before age 20, willingly and by choice. And the girls? I’d guess that their paths were similarly responsible if single—working in homes, businesses, schools, factories—and if married, they were likely rearing their own families.

Nowadays, we delay the maturation of our children, supposedly for their benefit. Retaining a child in school back may be a wise move for some parents, when most people who know the child agree that this is for the best. But what about holding a kid back just because he doesn’t like to sit still? What about holding him back to ensure he’s not the smallest or youngest kid in his class? And what of those parents who do hold back children for sport-competition reasons? We know they’re out there. The end result is a lot of older, bigger kids in schools, advancing ages in graduates (high school and college), and increasingly late starts in real life.

When is a kid no longer a kid? Several years of trade school, college, maybe grad school, travel and volunteer opportunities, etc. allow a kid to remain fundamentally a kid for far too many years. When the president (in name, at least) starts suggesting work opportunities for young adults—and I believe he labeled young adults as up to age 24—that makes me feel a bit edgy. 24 is a young adult? I thought young adults were pre-teens and young teenagers. That’s what the literary market calls them, and the movie industry…

I realize that people live longer now. I am fully aware that the job market is quite different from what it was in the industrial age. I know that some fields of study require many years of education. All of that is inarguable, and none of it is inherently bad. But. Does that mean we should choose to restrain our children so they are better fit to handle the coming responsibilities? It seems to me that our reduced expectations are being met—as they always are. Lower the bar and watch the standards fall. Raise the age of adulthood, and watch the kids cling to childhood. The fact that most middle- and upper-class children in America are getting everything they want, too soon and with very little effort, isn’t helping encourage adulthood, either.

So, that’s what I’ve been pondering since I talked to that other mom. I was the 3rd youngest kid in my class, as far as I know. Did that ruin my life? Cause me to fall behind? Make me feel inferior? No. I had a crappy year of kindergarten, and that was pretty much it. We all dealt with the challenges of each grade level, and for the most part we met them. As far as the kids who didn’t meet them, guess what: they likely wouldn’t have met them even if they’d been delayed for a year, or two for that matter. The problem wasn’t their ability, nor their maturity—it rarely is. And yes, I speak from experience: 6 years spent teaching helped clarify the real reasons that kids fail a grade.

Maybe I’m being unreasonable. Yet—since most teens spend half of their exhalant breath declaring how grown-up they are, and the vast majority of them engage in adult activities, perhaps we should stop encouraging them to remain children. And we can begin by allowing our little ones to move toward the coming educational challenges on schedule. Yes, there are exceptions; there have always been, and that is as it should be. But exceptions are called such because they are exceptions from the rule. Let’s keep it that way.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Weird, wild suburban visitor

It was late morning, and the boy and I were out front. I was pulling weeds (my least favorite yet most common outdoor activity), and the kiddo was drawing race tracks and driveways on the sidewalk with his chunky chalk. It was quiet, which is rather unusual since my son is a bit of a chatty guy, and we were both focused on our work in the chilly sunshine.

I saw something from the corner of my eye, and glanced up at Marcus—only to catch my breath. Directly behind my little boy, not more than four feet away, a behemoth wild tom turkey was strolling along. Marcus, who was completely oblivious, looked up and saw me staring with intent interest at him; before he could ask me why, I instructed him quietly, “Turn around and look behind you, slowly.” He did as he was told, without a word, and the giant bird was so close to him that a single step forward would have allowed him to reach out and touch its shimmery-dull brown feathers.

His head swiveled back around, still slowly (good listening!), and the expression on his sweet face was absolutely priceless. He didn’t burst into tears, or holler, or say a word, but his eyes were huge and I could tell he was pretty uncomfortable with the proximity of that ridiculous creature as it strutted past, waddle bobbing with each step. “It’s a wild turkey, honey—isn’t it big?” I said softly. He nodded, and turned to look at it once again.

The tom had continued on his way, and was stepping out onto the road to cross it. He never looked at us, never wavered from his path in any way, simply trod across the street and up into the neighbor’s back yard, out of sight. It was rather surreal. I thought about creeping over to the neighbor’s to try taking a photograph, but even if I were successful (highly unlikely, considering my history), it seemed anticlimactic somehow; I’d missed capturing the best picture of all, that being the enormous creature right behind—and standing nearly as tall as—my astonished son.

And just a few hours later that same day? Our first hummingbird of the year showed up at the feeder. I pointed him out to Marcus, and we watched the tiny miracle zipping away toward the tallest tree. I said to him, “Can you believe that little hummer and that huge turkey are both birds? How can that be?”

His answer was simple, yet profound in its honesty: “I do not know.”

Neither do I, my boy. Neither do I. But I do know that the more I see, the more certain I am that none of it is accidental. What an amazing Creator is obvious in everything around us.

Go out and be awed today. (You can be odd, too, if you’d like. I highly recommend both.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bird on a wiry branch

A long time ago (or so it seems), I began this painting. It was late winter, the trees were still bare and gray, and birds of all feathers were sitting in trees, huddled against the cold. Then, life happened: Todd got laid off, we tripped over each other while we searched for jobs from the same computer, spring came, Todd found another job, we began planning for and attending end-of-year activities at preschool and church. And all the while, this half-finished little lady mocked me from the easel in the bedroom. Fuzzy, incomplete, without a branch to stand on, she caught my eye while I made the bed, or gathered laundry, or tried to find an outfit that still fit without squeezing my middle...

And then, on Tuesday, I was blessed with an hour to myself, and daylight streaming in the windows—the very same diffused daylight in which I had begun painting all those weeks—nay, months—ago. I grabbed brushes and palette and scrambled to free the poor cardinal.

Here she is at last.

Yet now, she feels so out of season. I don't think I can bear to hang this one right now, not with green finally winning the tree color contest. The poor little gal looks so chilly, puffed up against a cold breeze; I can't imagine putting here anywhere near all my yellow flowers and fruits. I think she will take a back seat until autumn. Meantime, in the dog days of summer, I'll plan to get to that barn-in-a-snowfall painting I've been keeping on hold for years now. A snowy barn and a puffy cardinal, both splashed with red and sharing the same gray background, should make a lovely cold-weather pair.

'Til then, bring on the brights, the sunnies, the fiery colors of this happy season we're entering.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The bestial truth

I used to be an animal lover. I suppose I still am, to a degree. But that degree is shrinking.

I’ve already written about the cat here and here. You know he’s old, cantankerous, demanding, and high-maintenance. I’ve expressed my fears to many that instead of aging further, the cat appears to have reached a plateau of sorts and is now maintaining and/or perhaps even growing younger—thus ensuring his [annoying] presence with us for years to come.

Yeah, that sounds mean. But listen. He’s awful. Last night, I wasn’t feeling well and I went to bed at a reasonable time, falling into bed with relief, anticipating the hours of much-needed healing rest that awaited me. Do you know how many times that *!#? cat woke me? Three. That’s right, three. First because I heard the telltale double thumps, separated by a sliding sound. (Said combination of noises indicates that the horrid beast has attempted to jump on the dining room table, and careened off the edge.) And then, the second and third wakeful occasions? I woke with a start to the critch, crunch sound of the fool beast chomping on polyester sheer curtains. Two separate sets of ‘em. Isn’t that ridiculous? This is the same cat who chews on dryer sheets, then throws up. He likes to chew the ribbons on a pair of my shoes, too. It’s quite a trip, except it really peeves me beyond belief. At this point in our relationship, that pesky feline has used up all my tolerance to his idiosyncrasies (there’s a reason that word begins with the same letters as the word “idiot”).

I’m running out of patience, I’m telling you.

And the neighborhood dogs. I thought I loved dogs, I really did. I was wrong. I only love some dogs. There is a growing number of them that I abhor. The neighbor’s dog, for instance, who announces each street activity with sharp, throaty-then-shrill barks. It doesn’t matter what the activity, that stupid dog punctuates every single one of them with his repeated vocal disturbances. He can see us when we’re in our back yard, and guess what? We’re terribly exciting. Bark, bark. Bark. And he must come out pretty early each morning, like most dogs do, because that’s the sound that awakens us on many occasions.

His early-morning concerts encourage all the other neighborhood dogs to join the chorus: Oh, hey, Yippy’s over there barking! There must be something happening! What, a car drove by? Oh, by all means bark! Bark more! We’ve never seen a car go by! And now, someone else is coming out his door to get the paper? Bark, bark bark! This is unbelievable! Wake the village!!! It’s our duty!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In defense of dogs, I know they are only doing what dogs do. I realize that many dogs are sweet and lovable. I’m certain, too, even the dogs that torment me are sweet and lovable sometimes. I just don’t get to enjoy that part of them. I am only exposed to the canine discordance of suburbia. And it’s getting old.

I keep reminding myself of the dogs I’ve known and adored, of the cool dogs across the street from us who have very little to say and who look mildly perplexed when their counterparts lose control over and over again. And I’ve seen and read amazing stories of dogs that saved their owners, or other dogs, or performed incredible feats that made the people around them gasp. I’ve seen brave dogs that walk on only two back feet, or two feet on the same side. There are some really great dogs out there, dogs that help blind and handicapped people, that really care—dogs that are, in short, actually better at being human than some humans. That helps me get past the barking.

And why is my cat so obnoxious? Probably because he doesn’t get enough attention. Would he have so much ornery energy at 4am if I played with him daily? Unlikely. Has he brought me much joy in his [ridiculously long] life? Yes.

So where is this going? I guess I love the idea of pets. And I love some pets. I must love my own, since I haven’t left him anywhere yet. Still, when the cat goes where all cats go in the end, there’s gonna be a serious animal hiatus at this house. The chipmunks and the birds will have to fill the bill for a while.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chippy’s triumphant return

I was really starting to worry; on all those warm, luscious mornings this region enjoyed recently, the kid and I would feed the birds, pull some weeds, draw with chalk on the patio…and the entire time, I found myself scanning our “rock garden” (I use this term quite loosely) for the diminutive chipmunk that had charmed us almost daily last year.

I looked in vain; Chippy was nowhere. Birds came and went, all his fat dove friends perusing the dropped birdseed under the feeders, the sun shone brightly, the first butterflies of the season flapped about with abandon… but no Chippy. Where could he be? Had he found another yard in which to dwell? Had he become the unfortunate landing place for a car tire? Had a hungry hawk and his ravenous pals relished my sweet little striped-back critter? I couldn’t bear the thought.

I tried to put it out of my head. I gave up, at least on the surface. Chipmunks come and go. They have no loyalty. They’re wild, shy, covert. Of course our little guy had found a quieter place to forage. There we were, riding Big Wheels and talking loudly and moving things constantly and tramping through the rocks around the feeders. It was only natural that such a timid creature would come to his senses and begin a new season in a new locale. I tried to be content with a new finch, a great number of buds on the peonies, amazing growth from the clematis. I tried. But inside, I never stopped hungering for a glimpse of that little brown streak of fur.

And then, he was there. Yesterday morning, after a spring shower. Rummaging among the birds for dropped niger seed. He moved just as quickly as I remembered, stuffed his little chippy cheeks to near-bursting, sat as still as a stone with his mouth full when he detected my motion from the doorway. I called for my son, who hurried into the kitchen to see if I were teasing him. We watched with delight, then Marcus said, “Mommy, take his picture.” I snagged the camera from the dining room and we tiptoed at a crawl out the door and down the four steps—and Chippy saw us advancing and ran for his life.

But he stopped just inside the neighbor’s yard, allowed me to snap a photo, then scrambled out of sight. I saw him later that day, as well. He’ll be a regular again, if we’re lucky.

It made my day.