Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Uni-squirrel University

Violet’s been real sick the last few days – we didn’t get flu shots this year, and we’ve seemingly paid for it. It’s been a very flu-y season. With this bout, she falls asleep and wakes up in a nightmare again and again all night. She sometimes wakes up still in the dream, inconsolable, for several minutes. Something about a plane crash and her sister and we need to find the guard.
When I know hysterical crying could startle me awake at any second, I give up, throwing on Project Runway or Pawn Stars in the living room, Violet joining me after her next nightmare. By 4, I know we can probably sleep til 7, when it’s time for her older sister Daisy to get ready for school.

I’m sick too – not that it matters. When my children are in need, it’s like a reset button, wiping away the stupid stuff I was obsessing about yesterday. Selflessness soothes the soul.

But sleeplessness makes you really tired. After picking up Daisy yesterday, she told me she had joined a club – Uni-squirrel University of Santa Cruz (UUSC). She went on in some detail before I realized this was an unofficial club – founded by a fourth grade boy obsessed with a beast that many doubt even exists – the half unicorn, half squirrel.

My job involves planning activities for students – and I carry around a bit of guilt that I don’t have enough time to plan my own children’s activities to the extent that I would like. I know what we could be doing but I’m not sure how to make it work with a packed work schedule and a split custody arrangement.

Rest assured that someone at my kid’s school has taken things into his own capable, and perhaps crazy, hands. Daisy tells me the president of UUSC is passionate about the uni-squirrel cause and spends most of the meetings, which occur every day at lunch by a tree, lecturing the other kids about the history and behavior of uni-squirrels. Daisy says it’s actually more of a class than a club. There’s homework; UUSC members must learn three words in uni-squirrel language per day. Full membership in UUSC is earned by consistently doing the homework and granted in a ceremony where new members lay across the lawn, stomachs down, while the founder throws clumps of grass on their backs.

I have to say this Uni-squirrel University is well organized. And it also happens to be timely, as the uni-squirrels are expected to take over the world any day now.  Surely, those nonbelievers will regret not being able to communicate with our most important leaders after the uni-squirrel apocalypse.

I’m impressed by how imaginative kids seem to be today. In my elementary school days, extracurricular learning was something that might happen when you predicted the end of a compelling Fantasy Island episode or by pretending to be a banker by sitting in front of a chair, pushing Monopoly money through the slatted, wooden chairback.

As Daisy was sharing her newfound interest in uni-squirrels, Violet interrupted, “You should join the Chess Club. I joined it and it’s really fun. You go to the library at lunch and you can play chess or other board games with your friends . . .”

My fourth grader is learning a language known only to squirrel unicorns (or is it unicorn squirrels) and my first grader joined a chess club? Good thing I've been reminded that my most important role is being their mama, because I think they’re already smarter than me.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Running Errands with My Mom

This is so silly but my kids cannot get enough of this today.



Friday, February 15, 2013


Me: These long nights must be especially difficult for those two 

Mathilda: Really rough

Bro: I will have you know that every time the boy feeds I change his diaper, burp him, help position him on the breast and freshen Mathilda's water!

Me: I believe you, Bro. The classic sign of parental sleep deprivation is when you can't remember your kid's name. Imagine what it's like when there are two of the same gender.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Conclusion of Eminem and My Old Student T

This whole tangent about Eminem and my old student T is inspired partly by my 9-year-old, Daisy. She’s having a hard time – some of it is normal growing up stuff, but there are a couple things that worry me, the kind of worry that feels like weak knees.

There is social awkwardness, which I would assume is typical for 4th grade. However, she’s too easily defeated by the smart ass kids around her. We’re practicing her comebacks at home. She’s got to work on pushing back a little at a time instead of internalizing or taking it out on her sister and me.

Daisy is creative, and schoolwork hasn't been a cake walk for her so far. As her teacher pointed out, she’s unenthused by the standard assignments. She rushes through or spins out in frustration yet somehow she can spend hours on her own projects.

This is behavior I associate with some of my old students like T. It didn't matter what class it was, T would hear a word and get absorbed into it, sometimes asking someone to repeat the word for him and spell it. He’d ask someone to hand him a dictionary. As he flipped through pages, he might stop on several words that caught his eye, announcing a word here and there with a big grin on his face to neighboring students. T would have no idea what was going on in class by the time he shut his notebook filled with lyrics, phrases, and newly acquired words, but I believe in getting out of a kid’s way when s/he has a purpose. If it weren't for his own writing, T wouldn't have cared so much about words.

Which brings me back to. (The boxes of writing just kill me.)

Daisy came out of her bedroom when I was at her dad’s house recently, after she was supposed to be asleep, announcing before dissolving into tears, “I feel like my childhood’s passing me by, and I’m not happy about my . . . .”

I welcomed Daisy to being a human alive on the planet. She came over for me to hold her, and words leapt out of my mouth like fire. I've spent too many years feeling less-than to stand around passively watching my kids do the same. It’s such a waste of time. In a big voice, as her dad looked on with surprise, I told her there are plenty of people who will see your faults; we all have them. All of us.  So you have to learn to notice the good things about yourself because it’s silly not to. And be open to the people who don’t make you feel bad about yourself. Remember, when someone’s mean, it’s not about you – it’s really about them. And, being mean back doesn't help. You have to learn how to give it back just enough to show your boundary and before you get really angry and explode . . .”

Eventually, the stream of fire that came out of my mouth stopped. Phew. Daisy was smiling on her way back to bed.

Would art even exist without pain? I’m trying to help Daisy consciously use her creative outlets to avoid self destructive habits. Daisy told me the boys at school talk about Eminem. At this age, they’re not really allowed to listen to him, so his music is a secret passed around on the playground. I’m a believer in taking the exotic out of the forbidden in these situations, so I found a few Eminem songs she could listen to with me. We talked about the songs being exaggerated stories to be drama and also how he got really hurt by his daddy and mommy when he was a kid, which is why he felt so mad.

Daisy often dismisses my mama wisdom these days but this time I had her full attention. Her favorites are Not Afraid, which I just happen to turn down at the same spot every time Daisy hears it, and The Real Slim Shady. I explained the concept of an alter ego and her face lit up, “Yes! Mom, Eminem has an angry side of himself that makes him want to do bad things? I have that too!”

There may be parents who would be horrified to hear those words, but I know what separates healthy and unhealthy families is all in the communication.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Little More T

T  fought against me as his teacher and advisor early on in high school and even quit school for a while. His plan at the time was to go on a hip hop tour to NYC. He had been interning at a music studio and had hooked up with a group of older artists. T was respected by his peers at our small school, and we were all a little worried about him leaving school. However, you couldn’t budge T once he made up his mind. He was gone.

T came back eventually. I can’t remember if it was months or a year, but some time had passed, and I was never exactly sure what had happened. He went on tour and then . . . the kids who usually told me everything wouldn’t say what happened. When T came back to finish high school, he was different. He stopped arguing with me on most days, and he was willing to work.

At one point, T was placed in a job program in addition to the music studio. I was surprised to learn he was a home aide for a man in a wheelchair. T had to feed him, bathe him, and help him go to the bathroom. T had grown into a big strong man so I knew he had the physical strength to do it, but I was impressed by how mature he was about his responsibilities. The man would page T while he was in class to ask him about his med schedule or if he couldn't find something. I busted T for leaving class to use his phone, only to learn that he was helping his client. After verifying, we allowed him to use his cell during class time if his client needed him.

One day, T didn’t look so good when he came to school. He was really late, and I made a sarcastic comment before I caught the hurt look on his face. He told me that his client had died that morning in his care.  The more I learned, the more amazed I was that he had made it to school at all. Students and staff rallied to support him; the same kids who could be complete a-holes to each other had an instinctual understanding of when they needed to come together as a family.

I never saw T after graduation though I saw his friends and sister. I always asked about him, and I suspect they were keeping his whereabouts secret in case I was trying to bust him one final time. It had to do with how T left.

Students had to work so many hours for each credit at the high school, so a diploma could be earned in less than 4 years or it could take 5 years or more. I think T was 19 at his graduation. He was one of a few kids we had every year walking for the ceremony but having a small number of credits to finish over the summer.

The year of T’s graduation, the principal forgot to replace T’s real diploma in the holder with a piece of paper that said something like Just Inches Away. The principal realized her mistake after T had left. I knew T would not spend his summer earning his last few math credits when he had the diploma in his hands. Thinking about his exit always makes me smile. I wouldn’t have tried to take back his diploma even if I had found him.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

T's Story

There aren’t many students I’d write about, but I told this kid we were going to write his story some day, and he became part mine when he was a teenager. I’m going to call him T. I first met T when he was a kid. I was picking up his older sister to take her to the symphony. Our high school was founded by wealthy philanthropists. A, T’s sister, was a young teenaged mother in foster care. A always seemed to have a level head on her shoulders, as well as a team of angels on her side. Last I saw her, she was working in the healthcare industry. That night I took A to the symphony, she approached my car with a large, silent kid I had never seen before. A said, “This is my little brother, T. Can he come?”

I did a double take. T was big for a little brother. I said sure as my job was to get as many kids as possible to the symphony, with tickets donated by our founders, and A was my only taker. I didn’t blame the kids who didn't show; I didn’t want to go either. When we got to the symphony hall, one of the school founders spotted us and gestured for me to bring the kids over to him and his friends. He asked me where the rest of the kids were as we had been given a dozen tickets. I told him the other kids didn’t come; he turned to his symphony friends and joked about what losers and flakes my students were. In a new job, I stood frozen and blinking.

The kids and I found our way in and took our seats. I don’t think T said two words to me the entire night. His eyes were like a panicked deer’s in headlights. People stared at us – two black kids with a white woman in her 20s wearing tatty jeans and a t-shirt, surrounded mostly by older white people in sportcoats and cocktail dresses.

Years later, I didn’t recognize T at first as a new student to the high school. When I realized who he was, I reminded him of the symphony night. T clammed up when I mentioned it at the time, and for the first year or so, I knew nothing about his past. I did learn he had big gaps in his education after missing a couple years of elementary school.

T's mother had issues. T had stayed home with his mother to help with her business, watching hours of TV and learning to cook for himself. I was struck by both his innocence and wisdom as a young man. There were people who were scared when they first met T, which anyone could tell you was ridiculous after knowing him for 5 minutes.

T was sensi about fairness. During spring semester, the last class meetings of the week were reserved for Review Basketball in my classes. It was a game played in teams involving an indoor hoop. Over time, the kids and I had developed a system of rules for the game. One Friday, a few minutes before class dismissal, I made a call that violated one of our rules. T cussed before he walked out and stopped talking to me for days.

I had no idea what happened until I learned from other people that T was mad about the game. When we finally talked, he was still mad that I had been so wrong. I got in his face and quietly told him that some day, I hope he remembers how mad he was at me for being unfair . . . when you’re the adult, you have to make a lot of calls, and sometimes you mess up. I acknowledged where T was coming from and recommended that next time he had an issue, he approach me directly about it.

Shortly before T graduated, he turned in his life story as a class assignment. He didn’t put his name on it, and his writing was a little rough. I didn’t know who it belonged to for a while. When the connection was finally made, I was stunned. You know I had a series of questions, otherwise known as the cross examination of T. Here is how I’d tell the story, although I'm sure there are details to be confirmed or denied.

T's mother got in some kind of trouble, and T was left on his own and living on the streets in Georgia. A lady who owned a nearby business passed T panhandling on the street a few times before she stopped and talked to him one day to find out his story. She ended up taking him in before buying him a Greyhound ticket to California, where his older half sister was in foster care. The lady gave T cash for the trip and her phone number for him to confirm his safe arrival to his destination.

The lady had advised T to get off the streets as the police would pick him up and his fate would be foster care in Georgia, which, at the time, was known to be a deadend for throwaway children. Maybe T already knew this; regardless, the lady saved him.

T made it to California and found his sister. Eventually, he would have his own foster family. Unfortunately, he lost the generous lady’s phone number on the bus ride here, never speaking to her again. I think he also lost most of the money she gave him on the way. 

Years later, I learned that within days of his arrival to California, I took T and his sister to the symphony.

Actually, there are a couple more stories.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Writing Crush

I have a bad writing crush on Eminem. I know, what the? I didn't pay much attention to him back in the day. I knew he was a rapper from Detroit who hated women and gay people, but he loved his daughter so he didn't really hate women, and there was that one time he performed with Elton John so he didn't really hate gay people. 

It’s not like I didn't listen to Eminem because his lyrics were offensive; I listened to NWA as a teenager. Snoop went to my high school. (That one’s for Bionic Woman, who loves it when the white people she went to high school with namedrop Snoop . . . she ESPECIALLY loves it when I tell white people we never met that Snoopy was her elementary school boyfriend and called her on the day of our 20-year high school reunion. She claims black people we went to school with don’t need to talk about Snoop. Well, us white people do. We need to and we like to.)

When Eminem was first really big, I was listening to bluegrass, reggae, and anything jam band. Eminem’s music harshed my mellow. I was gradually introduced to Marshall Mathers by my students at the alternative high school, in the late 90s and early 00s. Those were prime years for adolescent Eminem love.

The newfound writing crush came out of nowhere 15ish years later, after MCA, my favorite Beastie Boy, died of cancer. Before my jamming bluegrass phase, I was a huge Beastie fan. Paul’s Boutique hit me hard, and I was obsessed with the instrumentals MCA contributed later. In sounds from way out is all I’m saying. When I heard the sad news that MCA had died, I made my tribute Beastie Pandora station, leading me to the realization that my Beastie Boy listening days are really over. Strangely, Eminem was sounding pretty good, and before I knew it, I was giving the thumbs up all over the place.

I’m startled by Eminem’s talent. He reminds me of one of my OG writing crushes: Robert Browning. I thought I had invented the idea of Eminem as a modern day Browning, until I googled it yesterday. Apparently, that idea was invented in 2001 by a British man named Giles Fodden.

Indeed (man clearing his throat sound),

. . . but just how good are Eminem's lyrics? Is all the fuss about him justified, or is it a case of hype over substance? In fact, a brief examination of Stan reveals it to have all the depth and texture of the greatest examples of English verse. To use the singer's own language, it's as "fat" as Robert Browning - and it is with the Victorian master of sly irony that Eminem's true "underground" work is done, just as much as with Scam and Ruckus, the bands noticed in the song.

Not that all the smart British people were on the same page . . .

I assume the Guardian will be advertising for a new deputy literary editor once the men in white coats have taken poor Giles Foden into secure accommodation. Comparing the ravings of Eminem with those of poets like Browning and Eliot is preposterous.

Still, who can argue with:

Giles Foden may be right or wrong on Eminem being a modern day Robert Browning. However I'll wager his lyrics will generate far more intelligent discussion over the coming years than those of the so-called Popstars who have plagued our television screens over the past weeks. 

I relate most to this assessment:

Eminem is, above all, a storyteller, says Marjorie Liu, 32, best-selling author of 15 paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels, as well as comic books.

"He is unflinching in the stories he tells and the dark places he goes," says Liu, a fan since 2002's Lose Yourself. "Not everyone has the courage to do that."

Liu often listens to Eminem when she writes, particularly if her characters are facing overwhelming odds. "His music instills a sense of stubbornness and determination."

She shrugs off the accusation that some of Eminem's lyrics are misogynistic. "Sometimes what people feel is ugly. ... Just because I don't want to hear the story he's telling, that doesn't make it any less interesting."

The boys who taught me about Marshall Mathers were gentle souls in hard exteriors. They were often in foster care, owning one good pair of sneakers and a few articles of clothing, most always ironed and spotless. Sagging pants. Oversized white t-shirt. Puffy jacket. 

I offered students credit for their own writing in reading/writing/speaking workshops. Every once in a while, I was handed a worn spiral-bound notebook containing pages and pages of lyrics, a communion of pain and art, by a kid who did almost no homework. Some of these kids were brave enough to perform their lyrics in front of the class.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite poet kids, who I knew for many years. That story next post.

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