Friday, January 23, 2015

A Little Privacy, Please, But Only a Little

The second grader was scratching, scratching, scratching at his leg, so hard and long that he broke through skin and drew blood. Alarmed by the blood on his hand, he stood up, found a teacher, and asked for a band-aid.

I guided him over to the sink area and pulled the first-aid kit out of one of the cabinets. I grabbed a band-aid and was just starting to tear its wrapper when I noticed that the boy was pulling down his pants to grant me access to the cut.

"Let's not do that here," I murmured, before the rest of the class saw his underwear and teased him in the take-no-prisoners fashion pervasive among seven-year-olds.

I steered him to a supply area across the hall, where I applied the band-aid.

A staff member was already there searching for plastic cups. "A little privacy was warranted," I confided, and she nodded, understanding right away, as anyone who works with young children would.

Then she said, "It's good that I am here so I can serve as back-up if there were ever to be a problem." She looked at me meaningfully.

And I froze. Not because she spoke out of turn, but because she reminded me this is what we have come to. This is what the world looks like in 2015.

I patted the boy's shoulder. "Let's go back to the classroom. We're all done here."

"Thank you for helping me, Mrs. P.," he smiled.

Would you understand if I told you that for the rest of the day I wanted to cry?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Do You Know What Your Teen Is Tweeting? You Should.

When my children were in second grade, they learned about the United States through the lens of patriotism. They studied symbols of patriotism, like the Statue of Liberty and the Bald Eagle. At the end of the unit on patriotism, they performed in a play, which teachers dubbed a "patriotic performance." Red, white, and blue was everywhere. Some of the children wore Uncle Sam hats. They sang songs that included "America the Beautiful" and "You're a Grand Old Flag." One of the kids was dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

I cried. My husband did not.

On the way home from the play, my husband started mock-complaining that the history of the United States, troubled as it has been, was being whitewashed for these children. I retorted, "You have to build things up before you tear them down." I meant that. If someone is going to argue against a thing, I believe that he or she should first have learned all the arguments in favor of that thing. Otherwise the counterargument comes across as ill-informed and mean-spirited, not to mention empty.


This morning it was brutally cold here in our town. The temperature dipped to 4 degrees F, and the "real feel" temperature that takes into account wind chill was negative 17 degrees F. Our school district's policy is to close school (or delay school) when the real feel temperature reaches negative 20 degrees F or when the actual temperature is negative 5 degrees F.

It did not get quite that cold this morning, although it was mighty close.

At around 6:30am, the superintendent of our school district tweeted the following:

Operating on regular schedule today. Buses running on time. I wish it wasn't so cold too. #dresswarm

Snow days and two-hour delays are fun. Yes, even for teachers. It is the unexpected gift of free time that feels so wonderful. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I was wishing for the gift of an hour or two to sip my coffee and surf the internet. So the superintendent's tweet left me disappointed, though in a very small way. My children were similarly disappointed. One of them had done less homework last night than he should have because he was positive there would be a delay this morning that he could use to finish his work. Well, he got burned. That's a life lesson, I thought (but chose not to verbalize - it being in the 'best left unsaid' category).

After the superintendent tweeted what he did, replies started streaming in. These were replies from students. They were not anonymous tweets. I recognized some of the students' names; hey, this is a small town. I have an 8th grader and an 11th grader, and I also work at an elementary school. I know a lot of local kids.

Here are some of the responses the superintendent received (I have changed 'u' to 'you' and modified texting shortcuts to make them more readable, but otherwise these tweets are unchanged from the original.) The first is specifically in response to the superintendent's comment, "I wish it wasn't so cold too."

Well, easy to say for someone who doesn't have to wait for a bus in negative 14 degree weather.

You have put so many students in harm's way this week, all in the name of an early summer break. Why don't you just retire? [It snowed earlier in the week, and a two-hour delay was called instead of a closing.]

You are a 100% failure for making seven-year-old kids wait for their buses in 3 degree weather. I hope you're aware of that.

Why don't you wait for the buses too, then cross the street 5 times a day. [The high school is split between two buildings on either side of one street.]

Wish you didn't hate children so much.

Here's a sarcastic one: The weather is warming up as you can clearly see [photo of the current temperature, still bitterly low]. #youmustbeblind #letthekidssuffer

I would be warm if I was at home in my pajamas watching TV. #letthekidssuffer

It was so cold this morning I had to pick my dog up outside because his feet were too cold to walk. Tell me again why I'm here.

And finally:

With all due respect, what makes you think that you are so much wiser than all other districts who have already delayed?

[Note to student: Prefacing your opinion with the phrase 'with all due respect' is a dead giveaway that you are about to be disrespectful.]


Twitter, some believe, is a great equalizer. You can tweet a celebrity, a politician, or some other Very Important Person, and he or she might actually tweet back. If you care about that sort of thing.

Our superintendent values hearing from students, and so his twitter account is open, and he often responds to kids who tweet him. He seems to enjoy these interactions.

But he did not respond to any of the above tweets, and rightly so.

These kids were being inappropriately disrespectful and worse. They should be ashamed of themselves. I grew increasingly shocked as I read tweet after tweet, a few from kids I know and like.

If my own children had written such things, they would be in serious trouble. I am not sure what I'd dole out as punishment, but at the least I'd make them write letters of apology to the superintendent for such appalling rudeness.

The superintendent is tasked with making difficult decisions; weather-related decisions are doubtless among the most difficult of these. He (or she) is in something of a no-win situation, at least where weather is concerned. There will always be people who believe he should have closed or delayed school when he did not; and there will always be people who believe that he should not have closed or delayed school when he did. I would not want his job.

I am grateful that my own kids are not on Twitter. I wonder if the parents of some of these students know that they are not only on Twitter but tweeting nastiness in their own names.

Of course Twitter allows for ugliness. Social media in general allows for ugliness. And some (all?) teens haven't fully learned how to regulate their emotions. The "in the moment" aspect of Twitter is its virtue and its pitfall, and that has to be especially true for its younger users.

Parents, do the work of teaching your kids to build people (things, events) up before they tear people (things, events) down. Model empathy. Do not let them loose on social media. Supervise them. These kids will regret what they tweeted this morning, I guarantee it. But they may not know for months, or even years, why they should regret their words.

That is sad, and it counts, in today's lingo, as a spectacular fail - whether a parenting or cultural fail, I don't know. Nonetheless, a fail. #fail

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Just Another Year, If You Please

2015 is here. All new years are blank slates, which is what makes them so exciting for the young, and so terrifying for the old. Oh, God, what will happen?, trills the twenty-year-old, for whom nothing much has happened: all is potential, glorious potential, and thrilling for it. Oh, God, what will happen?, frets the fifty-year-old, who knows that for every unexpected joy there is unexpected heartache, and while on paper the two ought to balance out, they never really do.

My hopes are meekly uttered: "More of the same, please." I wish for ordinary days, ordinary nights. No telephone calls at three o'clock in the morning. It sounds sad, at least to the twenty-year-old, but in fact it is closer to sad's opposite.

You see, I've reached the age where how it is is how I want it to be. The actual is satisfying - if not fully so, then certainly close enough. The rhythm of my days matches the rhythm of my heart and equally the rhythm of those old strivings.

I don't need to wish for a life, because I have already made one, however imperfect it may be.

Contentment does not signify the death of hopes and dreams. It is instead a time when those hopes and dreams (realized and unrealized) have been folded into the person you've become and can't help but inform the ordinary days that you dare to covet, but only in a whisper and with the hard-won knowledge that this, too, or perhaps this especially, can be snatched away in one indifferent moment.

As Marianne Moore, in her poem What Are Years?, writes:

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

About Last Night

Blue and red lights made a painting of my windshield. The night was cold, clear, quiet. The car warm and lively. "Boys," I observed, "Police." They didn't hear me so I looked on alone. There was a police car in the right lane, and another car in front of it, but ahead of them both my headlights illuminated the face of a buck, looking alert but afraid. His legs crumpled beneath him, he was just sitting. Something wrong with a buck sitting. Something wrong with a buck sitting in the middle of a busy road. His head and chest were stretched tall and proud, but as clear as the night was the fact that he would never be standing up. I knew it. He did, too. We locked eyes for a moment, a moment containing infinite time and infinite wisdom. I was wrecked. Oblivious, my boys chattered on in the back seat.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


This is true: I never once saw my mother interact with a man who was not my father. And, because my parents were separated before I took my first wobbly step, what that came down to, practically, was that I never once saw my mother interact with any man. Now and then, my parents fought via telephone, but as all I could hear was my mother’s voice, her increasingly clipped tones, that, too, didn’t count for much. I know that when I was really young my mother dated, a little, but she never brought a man home to meet my brother and me. Later on, when I was old enough to retain consolidated memories, she stopped dating altogether. I think that by then her mental state was increasingly fragile, and it was all she could do to maintain her hold on sanity. More and more she looked inward, not out, and, likely terrified of what she found inside, mostly she slept and ate the days away.

Her sleepwear was as prim as an eighty-year-old’s when she was not quite half that age. She favored high-necked Victorian nightgowns, always cotton, always white. She was, to my child’s mind, an entirely asexual person. I didn’t even bother trying to come up with visuals to accompany the facts of my brother’s and my conceptions, so utterly removed from my experience of my mother would they have been. It was against this backdrop that a male stranger inserted himself into our lives, in the early part of my fourteenth year. Lacking any model of adult sexuality, I was, predictably, not yet interested in boys; that wouldn’t come until college, when I was out of my mother’s house. At fourteen I was a gymnast who practiced long hours, and my body was still small and girlish, no hint of woman yet.

One night that fall, the phone rang. My mother picked it up. She said nothing after “Hello” and yet hung on the phone for a minute, only to slam it down so violently that it fell off its cradle and clattered noisily onto the kitchen linoleum. “Who was that?,” I asked, curious, and eager to find a distraction from outlining my Social Studies chapter. “That,” she hissed, “was a sick man. A prank caller. Sarah, don’t pick up the phone tonight, in case he calls back.” “What do you mean?,” I pressed her. “What did he say?” “He BREATHED, that’s what he did,” she snapped, “and then he said some disgusting things.” She shook her head as if to dislodge the unbearableness of it, of him, and I understood that she was done talking.

I was not done — far from it. I was wildly intrigued, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to answer the phone, when my mother was sleeping (three-quarters of the time) or shopping (the fourth quarter). I, too, got to know the heavy breathing, and the lewd patter that preceded and followed it. I’d allow myself to listen for thirty seconds before hanging up. Meanwhile, my mother was repeatedly calling the phone company and the police requesting, then demanding, that this man’s calls be traced, that charges be brought, something, anything. But the caller wasn’t threatening (except insofar as he was threatening to an unstable woman’s sanity and to a fourteen-year-old girl’s nascent sexuality), so everyone official just shrugged, and advised, “Buy a whistle.” My mother did finally buy a whistle, and one night she blew it as hard as she could right into the phone’s receiver. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the sound she made was sufficient to rupture this man’s eardrum. Whatever the state of his ears, he never did call back.

And I remember feeling vaguely disappointed, because without this fellow and his perversions I was left with nothing at all, just my sad mother in her buttoned-up nightgowns, and my imagination, which contained one room with four white walls and nothing in it, not even a bed, and another room, dark and dank and filled up with lust, shame, and loneliness, but no room with two healthy people together, loving each other generously and well.

written in 2011

Monday, November 10, 2014

Wherein I Say No to NaBloPoMo

Here's what I believed: that being assigned a bit of writing every day would improve the quality of my writing and get me into a regular writing rhythm.

Here's what I learned: I don't want to write every day, and I don't need to write every day in order to sustain my writing mojo.

Now and then I have an urgent need to write something down. You might find me getting out of bed in the middle of the night in search of a scrap of paper and a pencil so I can write down the idea that randomly popped into my dreaming brain. You might also see me the following morning scratching my head as I struggle to decipher my 4am handwriting.

But more often than not I do not have anything to share, and I don't like feeling forced to come up with something that I would not otherwise think worthy of a post. It reminds me of the old saying about traveling across Europe just to check off various destinations: If it's Tuesday we're in Paris, if it's Wednesday we're in Rome... I personally cannot write because it happens to be Monday, November 10th. I respect those who can, but it's not for me.

The post I wrote just before this, about something that happened to me when I was fourteen years old, took time and some degree of psychological mastery over the negative emotions it called up in me. I don't feel like writing anything else until that memory and the writing of it settle a little.

Of course you can well argue that I've just written a post, and that's true, but today's post serves only to explain why my thirty-day experiment became a ten-day experiment.

To NaBloPoMo, I wave farewell and hereby recast you as NoMoNaBloPoMo.

Sorry for making a promise I could not keep. I hope those of you who still check in here will understand.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

1982: Life, Sex, and Death on East 69th Street

One night, late, my best friend and I, who'd been babysitting together in a city apartment, climbed up many flights of stairs to the roof of the family's high-rise. We grinned to find the door to the roof unlocked. Understand that we were good little girls. But opportunity begets daring. Twenty stories up makes for a fierce wind, and a bone-piercing chill. Still, the lights of the city seemed to welcome our ascent, and the remarkable beauty of the view from up high helped us ignore the cold. I remember it as January, but I cannot offer proof of the month. We were gymnasts on the same team, and so we twirled and pirouetted our way towards the edge of the roof, where a waist-high railing was the only obstacle between us and flying, between us and dying.

But then my friend was swinging on the railing, and I grew scared. "Stop!," I hissed. "You'll fall!"

She bent at the waist so that the top half of her body was dangling off the side of the building.

"Stop!," I cried, truly frightened now.

After too many seconds she moved away from the railing and shot me a cutting look. "You are no fun," she admonished.

"I know," I agreed, in a small voice.


I am certain, if not of the month, then at least of our ages: we were fourteen and fifteen years old. That night we went from babysitting to my friend's apartment building; we had planned a sleepover. The next morning we were awakened early by the ringing of the telephone.

After a few minutes my friend's mother opened the door to the room where we had been sleeping. "Girls," she said heavily, shaking her head as if to free it from an unpleasant image, "The Connors don't want you to babysit anymore."

Oh God, I thought, the roof.

But the truth was worse than the roof.

"After you put the baby to bed, did you... mess up the parents' bedding?," my friend's mom asked hesitantly.

My friend and I exchanged guilty looks. We'd been doing somersaults across the width of the double bed. We had attempted to straighten up the bedding when we were done with our tumbling, but obviously we hadn't done a very good job.

"We were doing gymnastics, Mommy," admitted my friend. Now it was her turn to speak in a voice quieted by shame.

"That's what I thought," sighed her mother. "Save the gymnastics for the gym, girls. The Connors thought that you were... that you were.. sleeping together in their bed."

"Sleeping together?," I echoed, puzzled.

"Sleeping together?," shouted my friend, who was always more sophisticated than I. "You mean they thought we were having SEX?"

My friend's mother nodded.

"EWW!," my friend shrieked. "That is disgusting!"

I started crying, my predictable reaction to nearly everything.

"Aww, honey," soothed my friend's mom, "The worst you did was to decide to practice front flips in the wrong place. If you ask me, the Connors have overreacted, and their overreaction says far more about them than it does about you. Forget it."

But my friend and I could not forget it, and not only did we never again babysit as a team, we were distant with each other for quite some time, as if what the baby's parents believed we had done had contaminated our relationship, the truth of the accusation somehow wholly irrelevant to its impact.