Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pumpkin Patch Strategies

How do you pick a pumpkin for Halloween when you live in the city? Sure there are plenty of them for sale—even across the street—but a pumpkin is not something you pick up along with milk and eggs at the grocery store. It's something you pick out, at the farm where it grew, in a painstaking way. It's an afternoon activity with the far off smell of burning wood and nearby smell of hot mulled cider. Each possible future Jack O' Lantern has its own personality and you need time to consider the merits and possible drawbacks. There is the misshapen one you muse over because it is endearing with its long skinny neck and flat sides. There's the giant one too big to pick up even and when you try to your dad shakes his head no from where he's perched leaning against a tractor covered in hay. There is the one that's just so little and sweet and calls out to you even though there won't be enough room to carve on it. And the one your mom holds up that's perfectly round and will make a great face. You spot a big bruise on the back but she says that won't matter, you won't see that part. Maybe. You'll remember where it is, but you're still looking. The sun is already slanted even though it's mid-afternoon and maybe a few minutes into the search you take a break for a cup of hot cider and ask for a cinnamon donut to go with it, but it's too close to dinner, you're told, cider is enough. 

The mums are all in full bloom, that deep maroon red, orange, yellow and it's a little chillier than you thought it would be but you can only tell this from how red everyone else's faces look because you yourself are warm enough in your sweatshirt, back to bobbing and weaving among the orange rows. When you find the perfect one you just know it in your gut, you don't go back to any of the maybe's, that's just it. Imperfections and all, bruises, flat back, missing stem, whatever. Later you will scoop out the insides and cook the seeds with lots of salt and direct your dad how to make the triangle eyes and giant front teeth. But for now you're happy just to carry the chosen pumpkin back to the car, ready to sit down, hands covered with dirt and the feeling almost like you yourself had been out in there in the fields with the actual farmers, working out there since dawn, digging, hauling, piling, plowing, bringing in the season's harvest, hoping for a few weeks at least before the first frost. The car is warm and you realize only then how cold you are. You shiver a little and smile to yourself in the backseat, holding onto your pumpkin, looking out the window, waiting to get home. 

Let kids be kids

A neighbor told me about this group Lace to the Top - parents uniting against high-stakes testing. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Check out this letter sent to Obama from children's book authors and illustrators (thanks d for the ref). Key passages:

"Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations. As Michael Morpurgo, author of the Tony Award Winner War Horse, put it, 'It's not about testing and reading schemes, but about loving stories and passing on that passion to our children.'
Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman who said, 'We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.' Students spend time on test practice instead of perusing books. Too many schools devote their library budgets to test-prep materials, depriving students of access to real literature. Without this access, children also lack exposure to our country’s rich cultural range."

Monday, October 21, 2013

"The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for"

I am in such a brand-new realm now in terms of my thinking about this blog and what I want to say on it. Up until this summer I feel like I had some measure of control over whether or not Wally had the kind of childhood I envisioned for him. True we live in Manhattan with all the noise and neighbors, the noisy, nosy neighbors and a million things we "should" be doing like seeing James Turrell at the Guggenheim or going to the Fall Festival in Madison Square park. The lack of a backyard, the gymnastics classes for newborns, the fact that people enroll their children in preschool before they are born. But, as I've detailed here before, there were so many ways that this felt like a small town. And I tried to keep the days simple. Wally did not seem stressed. We brought the compost to the greenmarket on Saturday, read poetry in the mornings outside, and he played outside with neighbor friends until dark. But now, he is in Kindergarten--Kindergarten!!-- and it's suddenly like Real Life with schedules and rushing around and giant backpacks (even though he doesn't get homework yet, unlike most Kindergarteners in the city) and racing through dinner to start with the bedtime routine and pure exhaustion on Wally's part! Our part, okay, but Wally, exhausted? And it's the sitting still all day that's tiring him out.

We are in a realm now where is so much that is just wrong. (Not horribly wrong, First-World Problems wrong.) The Common Core Standards, The High-Stakes testing, immensely stressed out teachers having to keep up with crazily intense and unnecessary written lesson plans and evaluations that take all the time away from actual teaching, dissolving science and social studies curricula (because they are not tested, teachers are not evaluated on them, principals are not fired and schools are not closed down based on failing scores in them). Wally goes to a fantastic small, progressive public school but they still have to deal with all this stuff and they can't just continue on like it's 1984 (the real 1984, not the Orwellian version) letting kids play house and finger paint and take a nap. 

This illustration below is from a vintage book on Kindergarten, but it looks very much like what Kindergarten was like for me. And now it's full day with all kinds of workshops and literacy and reading centers and this tiny, little, itty bitty choice time at the end of the day (when kids can pick something to play with, though I see hardly any toys in the classroom). It's like 30 minutes maybe, at most. And this choice time is the one that often gets cut into and squeezed by other stuff happening.  

This is at a school that (from what I can tell) doesn't necessarily even agree with all this, and tries its best with lots of art and music compared to other places, and like I said, no homework at least until First Grade. But what can they do? This is what we've all agreed to. I guess? Or ignored as it was happening because we didn't have kids. This is what public education has become. So part of me is resigned, grateful for the relatively low-pressure school where even now, the 5th graders there are touring middle schools for next year and the 4th graders are gearing up for the test that will determine their entire future. And 3rd graders are gearing up for the practice test for the real test that will determine their entire future. 

So what does a parent do? Write letters, join campaigns, talk to the school but basically go along with the other reasonable, well-meaning parents and accept an education system that is not developmentally appropriate, that doesn't give young children the time to learn through play (which is how they're meant to learn), that exhausts them, burns them out by the time they're 10, that no longer gives much attention to social studies or science, (let alone art, music and recess already cut from many schools to give more time to test prep), to a system that doesn't teach problem-solving, free-thinking or creativity because the teachers simply don't have time to let kids learn through discovery, through trial and error, don't have time to let kids internalize lessons, and because those qualities aren't tested, and the teachers are fired or not based on how well they "teach" the opposite - uniformity, conformity, rote memorization?

Or do you break away, like other reasonable, well-meaning parents have done. Let children explore. Dig in the dirt. Go on adventures. 

Can you believe this picture? It's from my friend in New Hampshire, known on this blog as Roo & Moo. She writes:  

knew taking the picture that it was an amazing moment captured.  The whole day was spectacular in that way.  We were supposed to meet our entire home school group for a hike, but they cancelled because the weather was not ideal in the morning.  My friend and I decided to meet up anyway and it turned into this gorgeous afternoon, and an epic outing.  The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for.  I wish you could have been there.  We actually went back the next day and hiked it with [my husband]. [My older son] kept exploring off trail and found his perfect "quiet place".  He then insisted we meditate.  

The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Trying to Begin

It's 6:30 in the evening and nearly dark. Petra's asleep. Wally's studying the 1 train route when it temporarily went out to New Lots Ave in Brooklyn. Did I know it used to go there? No I didn't. But I told you. Then I forgot. Dinner is ready and cooling off on the table. Alex is still in Brazil. I'm considering making a salad - I do have nice red leaf lettuce from the greenmarket - but I'm leaning against it. Too quiet here and nice, the glass of wine, the journal, the purple pen. Stealing this little minute to write. To think back on the day and feel it turn into night. Is Petra napping, meaning she'll be up late, way past Wally? Or does this count as going to bed? She's 5 months, at the age when it starts to be a question, something I should eventually sort out.

This is where I left off, two evenings ago. That's where I seem to get to, these days, with writing. Not even to the beginning, but only to the preamble. This is where I am. This is where I can begin. Even that feels like an accomplishment. The momentary pause. The twilight and the glass of wine.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In flight

It's funny what --looking back-- seems like a carefree time. I remember 2010 was that summer of sangria. It seemed I was always carrying around that pitcher, sloshing over the top full of cut up oranges and apples and, once I discovered real sangria has brandy rum vodka tequila, then lots of that, too. That was the summer I just began to make friends around this neighborhood but nothing really was fully in place it all still had the Freshman Fall feel to it and there was the unveiling one year late and peeling back the layers of my grandmother's life here in this apartment and I think a big difference then was I had more time to think. Or at least I devoted more time to it. More time for internal dialogue. I was running a bit, out by the river and in the gym. I had started this blog. Wally didn't understand much and hardly talked really. There was one woman I'd become friends with and we had our Prosecco mornings listening to maybe it was Van Morrison but that fall she moved and there was nothing fully established here no real rituals yet I don't know there was more empty space and a floating kind of uncertainty and things felt like they were in transition. I was still getting used to parenthood trying to get back in shape still wrestling with demons of not having published and not being able to ask for a glass of water and suddenly being very public about it all and appreciating Wally's World but finding it very hard, too, a wordless place of pure motion and the days of therapies and jello shots and at that time I'd only been laid off for a year so I was sort of caught up in scheduling things with people from my pre-kid world, still running to meet friends before they caught the 6:15 to Valley Stream. 

There was a chaos to the days but also a quietness. (Looking back at that post I linked to above from the fall of 2010 I saw this: People often ask me why I didn't put Wally in preschool at least a few afternoons a week. But I can't imagine taking any more time away from Wally's World than I already do. It's this little cocoon we have and it won't last long.  Contrast that with current Kindergarten situation as described below.) 

I had work then but not as much as I do now. I had various projects for various people but things weren't tied together. For many hours during the day I didn't really talk much so I wrote more. We sat on our back porch more. I noticed it the other day. The abandoned back porch and thought how back when Wally was little we used to enjoy it more and why don't we now but I think the reason is a good one, mostly, that we're so grounded in the neighborhood now and know so many people here that we're not inside much if there's any chance of being outside with everyone else. On those introvert/extrovert personality tests I'm always split right down the middle. I've never heard of anybody who wants to be alone so much and yet is always always seeking out some kind of connection with other people. Even when alone. Like now.

And now I'm thinking about a carefree time a year and a half ago when I wrote the chick lit novel with a neighbor mom friend. That was the winter and by that time things were well-established here. The summer before we'd gotten into this neighborhood routine of Thursdays in the park and Friday picnics by the river and just generally hanging out probably way too late and impromptu dinners at each others houses. During the fall and winter that followed I wasn't worried yet about Kindergarten applications (still a year off) and didn't have too much work and Alex was more established in his job. The other mom and I would walk home from school together with the boys and gossip and started to wonder what would happen if one of the neighborhood parents had an affair that started in the playroom. And then we just wrote it. I felt like I still had time to wait before thinking about whether I wanted to have another child, like the decision wasn't bearing down on me, and still had time if I wanted to write, and things were in a kind of rhythm. Just an easiness to the days. I remember when we finished the novel we were so hopeful, so ridiculously hopeful that it would get published for sure. We said goodbye to each other on the street corner in front of the Post Office on the day a big agent asked to see the manuscript (based on the query letter) and we felt a kind of crazy anticipation of the book getting published like our tiny little lives were about to burst wide open.

Our novel hasn't been picked up. No champagne book signings. No public recognition "That's them! They wrote A Playdate to Remember!" No buzzing about us around the neighborhood playgrounds. No speculation about who each character was based on or which parts are real. But what is real is both of our older children are in Kindergarten now. And Kindergarten feels so serious. Between Common Core standards and "college readiness" curriculum and talk about getting into the right Middle School and everyone rushing off to ballet karate gymnastics Japanese it and the Kindergarteners tweeting it feels like a new phase. 

And it's not just other people. It's my niece playing Katy Perry's "Roar" on her father's iphone. It's the other niece showing me hip hop moves. These kids are growing up. Which is what they're supposed to do. They've broken out of the cocoon. They're less a part of our little world, vast in its littleness, full of space, the Cathedral Space of Childhood, and more a part of the world of other people and the people they'll become. It's also me schlepping my 5-year-old (and baby, along for the ride) on the rush hour subway downtown, to go to a great school, one that seemed suited for him, that we "got into" last minute, only by chance. I'm one of those mothers now, mothers doing crazy things for their child's education. Sacrificing time and sanity and quiet mornings drinking tea and watering the plants and listening to the sound of Wally playing trains. For a mother against high-stakes testing, this feels like a bit of a test. I think of the Katy Perry song my niece was playing for me and the tiger moms I've made fun of on this blog and in the chick lit book and wonder, on that rush hour subway, who it is that I can hear roar. We're re-writing our book. After 40 rejections. "It's just hard," Wally says, one of the littlest guys on a schoolyard full of strangers, "to be new". It's a new phase now. Some things are by choice --  my choice to take Wally so far away for school, out of our community, the one that took so long (it felt at the time) to create. Getting up earlier. Rushing. Some things feel beyond my control. Hardly any water tables or finger paints or dress-up now for five-year-olds in Kindergarten. A new setting, for an American Childhood. And a new fight.