Monday, April 30, 2012

We Home Schooled . . . Part One

We home schooled. 
For ten total years times two children two years apart less five years spent in a failed public school experiment with a side order of kindergarten.
And if you think that was hard to follow, you should have seen me teach my kids algebra.  Scary.
I felt like the most unqualified home educator on the planet.  When I first heard about the radical idea of home schooling, I said in a panic, “I can’t do that!  I’m not trained.  The government has convinced me that they alone know what's best for my kids!”
Silly rabbit.  Tricks aren’t for kids.
So, filled with trepidation, I entered the home school arena with my eldest, the five-year-old.  Those poor firstborns—we’re always testing our ideas on them.  Let’s just say, it was a less than wonderful year.  I got the wrong curriculum for the right kid who had an atypical learning style and wasn’t ready to ‘crack the reading code’ even though he was the age the government says every kid should be when they learn to read and he hated paperwork even though the curriculum said if I gave him enough of it every day eventually I would win him over to the joys of sitting at a desk with a pencil and he’d forget about the great outdoors and how much fun it is to run and jump and climb.
That’s a run-on sentence and completely unacceptable unless you write a blog—in which case you get to make the rules.  This is my blog.  These are my rules.  I like run-on sentences when they make a point and here’s my point:  incessant paperwork isn’t for five-year-olds and reading on their own might not be either.

Yet.
So we ditched the home school foray, convinced that we were not among the amazing few who could successfully pull it off.  And . . . the grandparents rejoiced, breathing a sigh of relief that we had, at last, come to our senses before ruining their grandchildren.
We maintained our senses for the next five years, fully supporting public education in our local neighborhood, serving as classroom helpers, field trip supervisors, class party chairpersons, and even PTO president. We were so well known on the campus even the janitors thought we lived there.
Ironically, though we put our son into school in the first grade without a mastery of phonics, we still were the ones who taught him to read. After enrolling him, I breathed a sigh of relief that somebody else would take over his education. Boy, was I surprised when his reading assignments came home with him every night and we still had to sit next to him on the sofa and force him to see Jack run.  In retrospect, what was needed was for us to ‘let Lee run’.  I’m amazed to this day, twenty-five years later, that he turned out to be a lover of books and knowledge after a tumultuous ride on that reading railroad.
Let me be clear—our kids had some wonderful teachers in their public school years.  They also had a couple of bad ones.  And sometimes the bad ones make a bigger impact than the good ones.  That’s the risk.  And the heartbreak. In second grade, I confronted my son’s teacher about her terrifying fits of anger unleashed in class, thinking that was better than going over her head to the principal.  I should have just gone over her head.  The next year we pulled him out of a gifted program after only nine weeks due to similar issues. Third graders shouldn’t have stomach aches every day just because they answer roll call.
Our daughter started public school in kindergarten, untainted by the failures of a fledgling home school mother, the year after we enrolled our son.  Unlike her brother, she learned to write her full name in class. (I’d only taught our son to write his first name when he was her age—hey, I knew who he was.) She loved school.  She made friends, Christmas ornaments, and good grades.  For the first two years, school was too much fun to miss.  But the first day of second grade, she came home with a dour face and prophesied to her dad and me, “This isn’t going to be a fun year.”  She still has good intuition.  And she was right—it wasn’t fun that year.  (Reference the “bad teacher” comment above.) 
So for a full year we researched better ways to take back the responsibility for our kids’ education than the one we’d chosen the first time.  We picked what was left of the brains of parents still in the trenches, watched them in action, attended seminars and conventions, and prayed.  A lot.  Then we voted as a family, made a unanimous decision, and went all in, never looking back.
It took three years before we caught our stride, found our comfort zone, built some confidence and began to understand the good, the bad and the ugly of curriculum.  Three years before we found our way into already established home school co-ops with other families in our area.  Three years before we stopped thinking we were out of our minds.
But it only took one day for the collective blood pressure of our family to return to normal after five years in a system that lost track of the souls of our kids and sold them out to mass production. 
Which is not to say that we didn’t have blood pressure spikes in the home school environment.  I once heard a speaker, i.e. home educator encourager, tell me and a bunch of other novices that teaching your kids at home is a whole new kind of pressure which squeezes out character imperfections so they can be dealt with – and your kids won’t be perfect either. 
Writing on the wall, baby.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chickens Live Longer

We knew where they hung out.
Hidden by a low lying cloud of smoke, we couldn’t actually see them, but we knew they were there.  Right across from the high school, smoking together in the dirt every morning before school. Potheads, druggies, non-conformists. The few, the brave, the wrong.
They were the reason I learned to cross my legs in high school and skip potty breaks til I got home.  Everyone did.  To this day, I can detect the smell of pot from a hundred yards away, all because of the girls’ bathroom.  What amazed me was none of the adults ever did anything about it.  I guess they didn’t care as long as no one smoked grass in their restrooms.
Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not here to discuss the morality of marijuana.  In fact (and don’t suck in too much shocked air here), I have recently come to the conclusion that medical marijuana can be a good idea.  I know—let my red hair go curly, and the next thing you know, I’m ditching my conservative roots.  Not true.  I only ditched my gray roots. 
My dad was a narcotics parole officer in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the late 1960’s.  He witnessed the birth of the deadly drug culture. We didn’t get   G-rated bedtime stories when I was a kid—instead, we heard about the glamorous lives of twenty-something junkies who slept off their highs in roach infested flats. I knew what a dirty hypodermic needle looked like when I was ten.  My dad had a display board full of them, all confiscated from free spirited heroin addicts.
So, what does information like that do to a young, impressionable mind?  Well, let me just say I never even smoked a cigarette when I was growing up. I didn’t have my first adult drink until I was way into adulthood. In school I had the reputation of being a ‘goody two-shoes’. The girl who was ‘pure as the driven snow’.  And it’s lasted into my adult years.  I even had a boss who leaned over my desk one morning and said he’d like to get me drunk sometime to “find out what you’re really like.”  I told him that was an idea doomed to failure—not because I’m that good at keeping secrets, as he surmised, but because I’m that good at staying sober.  Then I found a new employer.
I’ve always had an overactive conscience, which is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble.  And it’s given me a guilt complex the size of Trump Tower.  My idea of non-conformity is telling the kid at the Burger King counter that I am serious when I say I don’t want pickles on my hamburger.
So, I’m a chicken.  I’m not clever enough to figure out creative ways to maintain a criminal lifestyle.  I got pulled over for speeding a few months ago, and when the cop came up to my window I was already in tears apologizing for taking up his valuable time with my stupidity. I confessed my transgression before he even had a chance to explain why he stopped me.  See what I mean?  I suck at crime.
Yep, I’m a free range chicken—living inside a fence that restricts my movements very little.  There’s an irony in that.  Usually we think fences are constrictive.  The truth is, they give us security, making the boundaries clear so we can enjoy the freedom we have inside.
Next month I’ll be twice the age of rock legends like Janis Joplin,  Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse, whose personal demons secured their membership in the infamous Twenty-Seven Club—a list of celebrities who never made it to their   twenty-eighth birthdays thanks to their risky, self-destructive lifestyles.  If any one of them had found the security they desperately longed for, they’d probably still be around to blow out candles on this year’s birthday cake, too.
There’s nothing wrong with being a chicken.  Chickens live longer.




(Photo courtesy of Le Petit Poulailler's photostream, Flickr.com)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

It's Gr-r-r-r-r-reat!!

It was the trip of a lifetime. 
We still talk about it and wish we could do it again.  What amazes us is we did this extravagant thing with  money squirreled away while we raised two teenagers on one income.  Wow.  We used to be good!
Eight thousand five hundred miles by car.  Actually, it was a brand new mini-van with two bench seats, one for each kid.  Awesome!  (Imagine sing-song voice here.)  With head jacks connected to the built-in sound system and rear air conditioning, even the kids thought our new Aerostar was cooler than a Hummer. 

We spent the month of October looking for a real autumn, and breaking in the van on a road trip from Arizona to New England and back.  When we got home, the van wasn’t new anymore.  We drove  through twenty-four states in four weeks, and even tip-toed across a little piece of Canada where we experienced Lay’s potato chips seasoned with sugar instead of salt.  If they’d put more ice in their soft drinks, I just might go back.
But the whole trip was nearly derailed our first week on the road.  After experiencing the beauty of Colorado, Wyoming’s obsessive antelope massacres, cheesy Wisconsin, South Dakota’s presidential profiles, and night terrors on the interstates of downtown Chicago, we thought we’d arrived, sort of.  Believing we were now seasoned road warriors with a few thousand adventurous miles under our steel belts, we decided to deviate from our AAA Triptik a little and avoid Detroit, Michigan.
Triptik knows best.  Make a note of that.
It seemed innocent enough. Even kind of cute.
“Hey, kids,” we said over our shoulders to the two hostages seated behind us, “let’s eat breakfast in Battle Creek and look for Tony The Tiger!  Whadya say?!!!”
They didn’t say anything.  Their headphones were conveniently plugged into the sound system. 
An hour later, filled up and plugged back in, we headed for Lansing, me in the Navigator seat and my hubbie in the Driver’s. And it’s here that I want to interject this thought:  Of the two people seated in the pilot/co-pilot positions, isn’t it logical that the one who most needs a good sense of direction is the Driver??  Oh, shut up.  What do you know?
I’m a good navigator, even without a survivable sense of true north.  I got us through Chicago at night, didn’t I??  All I have to do is keep turning the map the direction we’re going and I can get us anywhere.  So after forty-five minutes of driving east, when we began seeing signs for Battle Creek, Michigan—again­­—I came to the only possible conclusion:  Rob made a wrong turn.
Finally!  A mistake that wasn’t my fault!  Hubbie hadn’t asked me for directions since before we went to Battlecreek the first time, so clearly I was not to blame here.  Gleefully, I rubbed my hands together, thinking how fun it would be to tease Rob about his little faux pas and generously extend my empathetic understanding.
But, once again, I forgot who I was dealing with.  That cool-as-a-cucumber countenance he wears around every day is just a clever disguise for a calculating charlatan.  He calmly admitted making a mistake . . . when he let me be the navigator.  And the next thing you know, those turncoat children I gave birth to jumped ship and sold out to their dad’s side.  Wouldn’t you know they’d all turn out to be a bunch of McLeods, who like nothing better than harassing innocents like me.  I knew if word of this roundtrip-trip ever got out to the patriarch of the clan (who has always liked Rob best)—well, that unfortunate Strawberry Shortcake episode from years past would no longer bear any resemblance to humiliation.
Instantly I began to fast and pray.  To no avail.  I guess it was too soon after breakfast.
Let’s just say I no longer believe Tony The Tiger’s hometown is gr-r-r-r-r-reat! 
But I do know how Battle Creek got its name.  Next time, this navigator is taking us through Detroit.  They don’t have road rage there.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Always A Bridesmaid . . . Again

Second place is the first loser.  I saw that on a t-shirt once, and instantly disliked it.  Seems like a good reason to see a therapist, but a crummy way to sell clothes.  But after my fourth failure in two years to snag first place, I’m thinking of buying the shirt.
Maybe I set my hopes too high.  Everyone thinks they have a winning speech or they wouldn’t even attempt competition.  And one of those people is right.  But what about the rest of us?  The ‘also rans’?  The ‘close, but no cigars’?  Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, you know.  It’s hard to argue with that logic, especially when I feel like I got nailed in the head by a horseshoe again.
What is a judge looking for?  It’s so frustrating to try and then tweak and try some more in a speech contest, only to fall short again with no earthly idea why.  While the phenomenal organization I belong to is brilliant at providing evaluations for speakers in clubs—and even offering evaluation competitions—the place it matters most goes unaddressed.  No evaluations are ever given following a speech competition of any kind.  Participants are thanked for rounding out the gallery of players, but never told where they need to improve. The result is that we all go home second guessing ourselves.  “Maybe I didn’t move enough or speak loudly enough or have vocal variety or make eye contact.  Was my energy down? Did I run over time? Was the speech defective or just my delivery?  Maybe I should stick to Scrabble competitions.”
If we’re courageous, we’ll try again in six months or a year with a new battle plan and hope this one is a winner.
I know.  This sounds like sour grapes.  And I’m not even much of a wine drinker.  Second place or third place or making it through more than one contest are all honorable achievements.  I just don’t know how to do better when there’s no venue for constructive criticism.  I feel like we’re shooting in the dark—one of us will come closest to the bull’s-eye, but we’re never allowed to view our own target.
Yeah, today I feel like I may always be a bridesmaid, but someday I think my prince will come.  Maybe if I wear one of those t-shirts, he’ll recognize me.  It couldn’t hurt.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

That's Entertainment

I hate sad movies.  I don’t want to pay fourteen dollars for two tickets and sixteen bucks for snacks so that I can go home without the makeup I wore to the show.
I go to the movies to be entertained.  It’s not entertaining to watch me blubber and blow my nose.  Just ask my husband.
Why can’t we have a love story, or an espionage flick, or a dramedy that doesn’t require knocking off the main character at the end?  Don’t movie producers realize that’s a criminal offense? It’s not romantic to kill people!  Otherwise, every February fourteenth  we should commemorate foul play instead of foreplay.  Of course, there was that Valentine’s Day Massacre. . .
Something has gone terribly wrong. And I can’t even blame Hollywood.  Most of my friends think sad endings make a movie “good”.  I ask you, was it “good” when Forrest Gump’s Jenny bought the farm one short year after she married him?  Was it “good” when the Andrea Gail went down in “The Perfect Storm”, taking George Clooney with her?  How about Guido, who managed to keep his son hidden and happy despite being in a Nazi death camp, only to lose his life right before the Yanks arrived, leaving his young son fatherless?  That one was called “Life Is Beautiful”.  See?  That’s how they suck you in—give it a feel good title and pull the rug out from under you when your popcorn runs out.
They should set up counseling centers inside movie theaters free of charge.  They owe us that much. 
I blame all of this on the 1993 movie, “Summersby”.  Jodie Foster and Richard Gere fell in love  during the Civil War  and, when it was over, Richard died for a crime he didn’t commit while Jodie walked happily through the town remembering him fondly.  As the credits rolled, I turned to my husband in disbelief and said, “I just lost two hours of my life that I can never get back.”  That’s the last time I ever watched a love story without looking up the ending first.  Talk about a plot killer.
Of course, my extreme sensitivities have severely limited my theater options.  I’ve never seen “Splendor In The Grass” (but that’s because I have allergies).  I skipped “A Walk To Remember”  because remembering plot catastrophes makes me depressed.  I avoided “Nights in Rodanthe” when I heard the romantic ending included Richard Gere’s demise in a freak mudslide.  The guy just can’t seem to stay alive—so far, he’s two for two.  Finally, I steered clear of “Autumn in New York” because the music was sad and I knew that meant either Richard would succumb in the end, or Winona Ryder.  Or, perhaps, the audience—who wearied of Richard’s womanizing ways and wished the author had knocked him off instead Winona.
All of this might explain why last Friday afternoon found my husband and me sitting in a theater with twenty other fifty-somethings, laughing until our sides split while Moe, Larry and Curly poked each other in the eyes and slapped each other in the faces. 
Now that’s a good movie.  Where violence doesn’t kill and the only casualties are the spoiled egomaniacs from the Jersey Shore.
Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Carma"

I think it could have happened to anybody.  I never expected it to happen to me, but that just goes to show how limited my imagination can be.
I’m a pielady.  And by that I mean, I bake pies.  I enjoy eating them, too, but most of all I enjoy making them.  What I don’t enjoy is watching them fall upside down on the floor. 
The first time it happened, I didn’t actually see it.  I just . . . felt it.  And I learned my lesson.  I really did.  Never put a hot lemon meringue pie in the back of a station wagon and break speed limits while delivering it to a fire station.  When I lifted the tailgate, the inside of our car looked like a giant yellow Nike swoosh. It smelled better than tennis shoes, but the pie was just as inedible. 

I continued to break speed limits, but never with a hot pie in the car.  Until last month.  Procrastination might come into play here, but that’s a blog for another day.  Let’s just say I should have made that fresh blueberry pie the night before instead of parking my chassis on the sofa watching American Idol.  Hot fruit pies don’t slice well, and this one was going to be served in about an hour.  But I figured if I put it on the front seat of my new Tahoe (you’re wincing already, aren’t you?) and aimed all the air conditioner vents at it, it would cool off enough to serve up beautifully to the ‘ooh’s, and ‘aahh’s,  and “hey, everyone, this pie’s still warm!” of my admirers.  Carma was about to kick in.
Baking lesson number two:  never let a good pie go to your head.  As I daydreamed about the compliments, I failed to see the brakelights of the van in front of me.  The good news is I didn’t have to meet that driver by accident.  The bad news is—exactly what you thought was going to happen—a  blue Nike swoosh on the floorboard of my formerly new Tahoe.  And I was late for Toastmasters.
A couple of weeks later, my husband and I were in Florida visiting my sick father-in-law in the hospital.  Word to the wise: overworked nurses pay extra attention to sick patients whose family members bring them pizza and pies.  So on a warm tropical afternoon, I made two blueberry pies, one for the nursing staff and one for our fatigued family.
In retrospect, I should have paid attention to my instincts and baked apple pies instead.  The truth is, I was just being lazy.  See, apple pies are more labor intensive than blueberry. So I made two beautiful blueberry pies.  In cheap aluminum pie tins.  Slow down, I’m not stupid - just clumsy.  I put those gorgeous pastries on individual cookie sheets so I could carry them safely to and from the oven.  Sheesh.  You have no confidence in me, do you?
I put one of the pies in the oven.  But when I turned to grab the other one, I bumped the cookie sheet it was waiting on, and the whole thing did a reverse two-and-a-half pike and kissed the kitchen floor with flourish.  Tearfully, I scored it at 9.8 and would have given it a ten if it had landed right side up.
Now, at this point, I want to mention that I had a co-conspirator.  I’m not making excuses, I’m just saying that sometimes audacity requires a push.  My sister-in-law, who shall remain nameless but is the youngest of my husband’s siblings, was watching the culinary aerobics and quickly admonished me, “Don’t touch it!  We can save it!”  And, God forgive me, we scooped the fallen, but not broken, pastry up off of the recently cleaned floor (it was, it really was), scooped out the protected blue contents, made new crusts, and drove the resurrected dessert over to those deserving nurses in the hospital. I heard they really enjoyed it.  I’m so grateful we could save it.
Maybe that was the last straw.  In my defense, I did tell the truth to the family before I delivered that pastry, and they felt, too, how unfortunate it was that the gift pie hit the floor instead of the other one.  So, I don’t really think I should have been the only one held accountable by the “what goes around, comes around” law of life.
We flew home a few days after the last piece of blueberry pie was consumed by my brother-in-law.  It was an unusually empty flight which gave my husband the coveted aisle seat and placed me in my favorite spot next to the window.  Better yet, we  were able to set my computer bag with all of our electronics under the middle seat, giving both of us ample leg room.
Halfway through the flight, my panicked husband grabbed my arm and pulled my bag out from under the seat. I didn’t understand what was wrong until the woman in front of us freaked out--apologizing profusely--and a flight attendant handed us at least a hundred paper towels.  While walking up the aisle back to her seat, the plane lurched, the lady in seat 12C dropped her beverage upside down on seat 12D, and its entire contents funneled directly into my open bag.  My laptop, camera, and our phones were baptized with roughly eight ounces of tomato juice.
I still wonder if that woman worked in the nurses’ station on my father-in-law’s floor. I guess I’ll never know for sure. But she was wearing a Nike windbreaker. 
Carma.  It never gets mad—it just gets even.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fearless

I tried to prepare for an empty nest. 
But I was not prepared for questioning my parenting career, my mortality, or my significance. I was not prepared for memory fades, heart palpitations or emotional freefalls.  They say growing older isn’t for sissies.  But I am a sissy! A whiner. A weakling! Even worse, a wuss.
And the irony of the empty nest syndrome is that it was the filling of the nest that made my courage take flight in the first place.  Am I the only one who wearies of paradoxes?  (Or is it paradoses . . . . paradi? It can’t be paradise.)
I remember clearly the day my fearlessness ran for cover.  It was my tenth wedding anniversary, and I sat shivering in a tiny tent on the edge of a sloping mountain in a torrential rainstorm.  Any minute I expected my husband and I to be swept over the edge of the Mogollon Rim, along with our soggy shelter, to our certain deaths below.  Our young children would be left, alone, to be raised by people who were not us, wondering for the rest of their childhoods what happened to their parents, while our petrified bodies lay crumpled in the desolate wilderness, undiscovered until only our teeth were left as identification decades later. 
Of course, that didn’t really happen.  Instead, we got in our unreliable vehicle which wearied of my whining and actually started up when Rob turned the key.  Then we drove safely down that frozen mountain to a warm cabin with a fireplace. 
But that’s not the point.  The point is, I didn’t want our children to become orphans.  And I lost my sense of adventure. As a matter of fact, in my little world, “adventure” is now the “A” word.  Don’t even think of using it around me.  I’ll smack you.
Still, I wish I could become . . . courageous again.  After all, my kids are grown.  The risk of leaving them as orphans now is . . . zero.  But the risk of mortality is one hundred percent.  Nobody leaves this earth alive.  I remember the day I first understood that, too.  A cold hearted doctor unexpectedly told me that I had a dangerous cancer on my arm and, poof!  Suddenly I had an expiration date.
Surgery removed the threat, but not the fear.  Fear lasts longer, it turns out. 
So, where does Fearlessness go to hide?  And how do I get it to reappear?  Will a friendly, “ollie ollie oxen free!” do it?  Maybe it’s afraid I’ll confuse it with adventurous and it’ll wind up with a black eye.  Just goes to show you—an empty nest can be a perilous place, full of homeless hormones.
I don’t know what the answer is exactly.  But it does seem like somewhere between fear and fearlessness lies a happy medium where new experiences beckon and seasoned experience discerns.
It’s ironic that even after the baby birds are long gone, the nest remains—guess it was made of sturdy material.  Maybe I’m not done yet.  And perhaps significance is a medal born of courage and tenacity. After all, we did launch those young adults.  They never were abandoned.  Could a nest turn out to be a launching pad? A safe place from which to pursue a new life, for both young and old alike?  
Maybe if I keep turning my face into the wind and lifting my wings, I’ll fly far above the tiny voice of fear below and wonder why I ever let it ground me.
So long, wuss. Hello, wisdom.  It’s time to be who I really am. I was made to soar.