Tag Archives: School

Only a Mother Could Love This

“Mom, you don’t even want to see what the boys do at my table at lunch. You would be so disgusted,” my son says with pride.

“Mmm. Enlighten me.”

My son often forgets that I was ever a child. I know with my maturity level and love of a good fart joke, that’s easy to forget. He bets I can’t guess what goes on in a group of fifth-grade boys at lunch, what they could possibly do to gross one another out, what they could talk about, what they could do to their food.

He describes a pack of bed-headed boys I know dropping the remains of their lunch onto a lunch tray. Some unwanted green beans, leftover taco meat, some applesauce for effect. The boys probably contribute whatever is in their crumb-coated hands at the time. They mix up the slimy school lunch potion, and if all were right with the world, a pop and poof!—at least one deserving kid would grow rabbit ears for teasing his sister or not changing his underwear.

I imagine the teachers stay far away from his table at lunch. I know the girls do. And I know it will get worse before it gets better.

I know because a million years ago when I was young, I sat at lunch with two boys who did the same things to their food. They took everyone’s extra plastic cups that the vegetables and sides were served in and stacked everything on a tray. When their tower was complete, they’d push from the top and watch overcooked pale cafeteria food ooze from every cup like a fountain. “DOOZIE!” they’d yell. It was disgusting. I’m not sure why I subjected myself to the horror every day. Alphabetically their names came right after mine, so I can only assume we had assigned seats.

My son tells me often lately that I could never guess what boys his age do or say. I laugh. I tremble. I remember. And I know what’s coming.

I hated boys his age when I was his age. They were gross. They picked on me. They made me feel bad. They messed up my hair. If I had a zit, they announced it to the class. If they sat behind me, they snapped my bra strap. They’d say, “Hey, let me tell you a secret,” and then burp in my ear. They’d burp on command. If I whispered to them, they’d fan the air like my breath stunk. They farted in class on the hard wooden seats and pointed at me. They stole my papers and held them up high in the air so I couldn’t reach them.

Oh, son, I can guess. My son gets himself worked up into a fit of giggles while telling us the gross things he and his friends do. We tell him a hundred times he’s crossed the line. Dinner isn’t the time or place, and honestly, no place with any adult is. But I see something now that I never saw a million years ago, that sparkle in the eyes. That sense of belonging to a pack. That brotherhood.

And I hate to admit it now, but all of that many years ago has helped me to embrace this.

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Raising Kids Who Are Pleasers

I want my kids to break rules. It sounds crazy, but my husband and I agree. We want our kids to not be so straight-laced and tightly wound that they crumple like a dry leaf when they get in trouble at school. That doesn’t happen often. My kids put so much pressure on themselves to do right. They put pressure on us to follow the rules. Drive five miles over the speed limit and my son will tell me I’m speeding. He’ll repeat it until I slow down, that quake in his voice lets me know he’s worried.

At some point, my kids need to learn that people mess up and it’s OK. They need to know that some rules aren’t hard and fast. They need to know that some rules are stupid.

My kids follow the rules because we taught them to. But I don’t want my kids to be so scared that if they break the rules, the world will end. We’ve created pleasers. My kids don’t want to let anyone down. They don’t want to tell anyone no, even a friend who wants to trade them for their favorite toy pony or bracelet. “Sure, you can have that one,” my daughter has said, only to cry about it later.

My son will let someone demonstrate a cool trick on his arm, giving him a burning mark in the process. Then he’ll let them repeat it. “Why didn’t you tell him to stop?” I ask, inspecting the redness. He liked it. I think he’s afraid that saying no will spoil the friendship.

He’ll give in to a friend who begs to eat his chips every day. But is that really just bullying at some point? Fifth-grade teachers are strict about bathroom time this year. One girl has already wet her pants. My son has already been denied several times. I gave him strict instruction to break the rules over peeing on himself. This is a stupid rule. “Don’t wet your pants,” I told him. “Get up and run to the bathroom.” No fifth grader will live that down. “But I’ll get a check,” he said, terrified of the thought of a tiny checkmark at the teacher’s desk proving he broke a rule.

I know where my kids get this from: the mom who can’t say no. I am easily talked into some PTA committee I should have walked away from or agreeing to a friend’s favor I didn’t want to do. But I figure I’m available or I’ll already be at the event, so why not help out?

Being a pleaser isn’t a good thing. I’ve never gained anything from it but headaches. I’ve rarely gotten the return favor that helps me out. I’m learning to say no more and not give reasons. “I can’t” must be enough.

I want my kids to be more assertive. My son can’t always be the nice guy. My kids don’t need to be perfect. I tell them that. “Get a checkmark,” I told my son. If a teacher wants to give him a checkmark for going to the bathroom, let her be the bad guy. I’ll deal with her.

Shouldn’t I be proud of good, nice kids? Sure. But I was a kid once. I see cause for concern. When my son is older, what would he say to a friend who asks him to hide a mysterious bag in his locker at school? What would my daughter say to someone who asks for the answers during a test? What would either say to someone who wants to vandalize school property? Those consequences are damaging.

The truth is, there will be times when I want my son to be a jerk. He can be cool for sticking up for his beliefs and still be kind to people. It takes guts to not follow the crowd. And girls need to know that a lot of women broke stupid rules and made history. Being a pleaser never got anyone anywhere. No is the most empowering word I can teach them.

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Science Fair Is No Picnic

I dread the beginning of school for many reasons. Homework and all of its pencil throwing and tears. A dozen checks to the school’s PTA. And of course, my babies are growing up.

But every September what I dread more than any of it is science fair.

My kids have barely made friends in their new classes when they bring home science fair planners. Due dates loom. Having my kids choose a project that makes sense is like trying to give a cat a bath. Every year my son wants to throw eggs at something and see if they’ll break. Since my kids attend a science and technology school, the standard moldy bread or using a lemon to charge a battery just doesn’t cut it. Smashing eggs is kind of on that list too. Students actually have to test a theory and prove or disprove it. They need controls and variables, reasons the results would turn out differently during each trial of the procedure. I can barely understand it all myself, much less explain it to my kids apparently.

Last year’s thirteen weeks of due dates, arguments, testing, and scrambling made me swear we would get ahead of the game this year. Yet here we are with only days left to decide the kids’ projects. Parents and children in this house can never agree on a project. From the start, the experience is doomed.

My stubborn son didn’t take our advice last year on one of the many projects we suggested, something easily tested, something that could be backed up with research. His only requirement for a project: smashing something. I somehow doubt that is how scientists go about proving the link between how flu germs spread and the way we cover our coughs. He chose to build a Lego car and see whether an egg is safer in the back or front seat. Then he thoroughly enjoyed smashing up eggs as he tested his hypothesis.

egg car

What an eggy mess.

His project simply didn’t work. And there was little research to be found.

Meanwhile, my daughter had her first project and tested the permanence of permanent markers on various surfaces. This project met our approval because it was easy to prove and test, though I didn’t realize how many loads of wash this project would require from me.

permanent marker project

Guess what? It stays on fabric, washes off plastic.

Honestly, I think the kids would benefit from a project that would reveal useful information. How much soap is necessary to remove the odor from feet that have never been properly washed? Or which hand-washing method is more effective: putting soap on your palm and blasting it away as soon as you turn the water on, or running your hands quickly through a drip of water with no soap? I think the kids may be surprised at those results.

And really, wouldn’t parents want to know if the tone of their voice has any effect on the results when asking their kids to do something? Or how much repetition is necessary before a child really gets it through his thick skull that you are not doing the science fair project for him?

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School Picture Day Captures the Awkwardness of Time

We, or I, picked out clothes last night. I sifted through stacks of T-shirts in my son’s dresser until I found something that didn’t have a picture of a Star Wars character on it. A Polo shirt would do nicely.

My daughter’s wardrobe proved easier: Dresses in many shades hung in a mad jumble in her closet. Brown with stripes would look good for fall.

School picture day is the one day a year I get to pick out clothes for my kids to wear. It’s an unwritten rule in this house. My day. So this morning my son put on his royal blue Diary of a Wimpy Kid T-shirt and threw on a white button-down over it. If he sits the right way, the words “Are You Ready to Rock?” show through his shirt, which will probably make him look washed out anyway. I didn’t feel like fighting it so early in the morning when everyone still had puffy eyes and bedhead. My daughter walked in wearing a charm necklace displaying giant baubles in a rainbow of colors and geometric shapes, sure to cast bright reflections in every direction. She adds her own touch to everything.

I will hate those pictures. I’ve just dished out $40 for pictures I will hate, at least for now. I buy school pictures every year and when they come home in my kids’ backpacks, I open them with fingers crossed, hoping this will be the year I love them. But no. My son’s hair has always been combed straight down over his forehead even though he wears it to the side. One year my daughter’s lips dried and curled up on her gums, disappeared entirely from the photo. My kids grimace, smirk, strain, or look like they can’t wait to get away from whomever stands on the other side of that camera. Just who do they send to take school pictures anyway?

It’s funny now to look back at the older pictures and say, “Oh yeah, that was the year you lost your front teeth,” or to my son, “That was the year you wanted long hair. Don’t try that again. It was a bush.” But 20 or 50 years from now, what will we think?

The thing is, when I look back at my own school pictures, they mark a passage of time, the same pose year after year. When you have them all together, nothing shows my transition from elementary school to middle school to high school better. Some pictures are cute, hideous, sad, but they are all me. They all mark my awkward progression through time. And as a mother, I really want that time line of my own kids for myself.

school pic

Muddled sixth-grade kid making her awkward way in 1986.

When the kids bring their school pictures home, I send them to family, put them in a scrapbook, and we wait. In ten years, those pictures with their tousled hair, missing teeth, giant baubles, and T-shirts will have documented more than I could have ever imagined. Maybe I’ll notice something I didn’t see before when I’m searching for something that I miss.

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My Back-to-School Struggles Aren’t What You Think

I have less than a week left of summer with my kids. For some parents, the school bell can’t ring fast enough. For others, creek days, learning to dive, and making papier-mâché crafts still wait to be crossed off summer’s to-do list.

In six days two kids in my house get dragged out of bed by their toes, driven six miles to school, and put into someone else’s hands. I’ll wait 180 days to have my turn with them again. Which parent am I? You do the math.

I’m guest posting today at Triad Moms on Main. Come read about my annual back-to-school struggle. Pretty please?

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A School Supply Rant

When I was a kid, one of the few things that took the sting out of going back to school every fall was getting to pick out new school supplies. Finally getting to use markers in fourth grade was the epitome of excitement until I found out they would only be used to diagram sentences.

And for my kids, this tradition of choosing a special notebook to scrawl their math work in is no different. So when we get the list of supplies, buy them, and fill and label a bag of supplies for each kid every August, I expect my kid to use what I bought.

school supplies

School supplies for my kids. Some were carefully chosen.

Every June I get a little miffed when my kids bring home what they’ve used all year and it wasn’t what I paid for. It wasn’t the special Tinkerbell notebook my daughter picked out. Some other kid got that. And look, that’s not the red folder I bought because scratched out in the tattered bottom corner is some kid’s name from the previous year.

Our school tries to encourage pooling supplies like crayons, glue, markers, and pencils. You buy it and bring it in and the teachers divvy it up for the kids. It’s a system that “works best.”

I can certainly understand that not every family can afford to buy school supplies. I’m OK with buying extras, contributing to a fund, anything. But if I splurge and spend a few extra dollars on a white three-ring binder that won’t fall apart the first month of school and Susie So-and-So gets hers from the dollar store, guess who ends up with the cheap binder and who gets my nicer one? If I put my kids’ supplies in a bag with their name on it, why don’t they end up with it? Do little elves decide who gets what? Do they run around the room and pick an item from Susie’s bag and put it on Johnny’s desk? Would Johnny like a Tinkerbell notebook? It’s like those Christmas swaps. You spend the $10 limit on a gift and end up with the gift someone grabbed from her yard sale bin, where it should have stayed.

As for the pooling, for half of kindergarten my son had only orange, brown, and gold crayons. I’m certain I bought him an entire box with a rainbow of colors. Why could he only draw muddy pictures? I volunteer in the classrooms. Pencils are never sharpened and are strewn across the floor. Glue sticks are always empty. The kids don’t care about those supplies because they aren’t theirs. But their scissors are labeled with their names, and I’ve seen kids panic when they misplace those for more than twenty seconds. So doesn’t keeping up with their own things make them take care of them better?

Kids can’t take ownership and responsibility if they aren’t required to keep up with their own things. When I was in school, we had our own bins filled with our own supplies. We had to keep things neat and in control. We learned organization. A pooling system doesn’t encourage that kind of responsibility. I’m sure it’s supposed to encourage sharing, but kids can share their own supplies. I’ve seen that in action.

Next week we take in our bags of brand-new supplies, ready for someone else’s child to get. I hope they like the notebooks my kids spent an hour picking out.

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The Writing’s on the Wall: My Kids May Never Learn Cursive

For most of third grade, my son begged me to teach him cursive writing. It’s no longer part of the state curriculum and I feel it’s a skill that shouldn’t be tossed aside just yet. Even with the advancement of technology, people should still be able to sign their names on documents, unique signatures that no one else in the world has. And cursive writing just looks so much better, so formal. It should never become a lost art that people have to ask their grandparents how to do.

I told my son I’d teach him the loops and curves of cursive this summer when we had time to sit down and practice and enjoy it.

It’s summer. My daughter, who will enter second grade in the fall, wanted to learn to write her name in cursive too. So we began our lesson the other day with much excitement. I have vivid memories of practicing letters daily in my third-grade class to precision. And because I’m a lefty, I had to turn my paper a different way from everyone else. Since I would be teaching, I could forgo the idiotic paper slant and concentrate on the basic script.

cursive writing, mominthemuddle.com

Let’s write H-E-A-D-A-C-H-E.

The kids watched as I formed a cursive a. Both formed theirs with ease. A few letters later I demonstrated how to join letters to form words. I glanced at my son’s paper, shocked to see that he had already moved on to write the rest of the alphabet without me, using our guide as a reference. Some of them weren’t right. I had lost control over one of my students and I’m not sure where I went wrong. I taught my daughter how to write her name. My son wrote his and I pointed out a few errors. Things were getting tense around the table and he tried again.

“Let me show you how to do an r,” I said. “And an n shouldn’t have a straight line.” I tried to demonstrate.

“I just want to learn to write my name!” he yelled as he tried and tried again, determined not to watch any of my examples.

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to show you. You asked me to teach you.”

He said he was right and then he cried because I wouldn’t help him. I was ambushed by homework flashbacks, a killer mood swing, and possible hormones. The lesson needed to end.

When he showed my husband his cursive writing later, my husband bluntly said, “Your n isn’t right. It shouldn’t have that line. It looks like an m.” My son suppressed a grin and tried not to look at me.

Validation. Sort of.

If for no other reason than the sanity of moms, this is why they should still teach cursive writing in school.

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I Volunteer

For the past four years, I have volunteered weekly in my kids’ classrooms. I usually only spend an hour or two there but I am exhausted when I leave. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a teacher.

This year seems to be my last year of weekly classroom help. Second-grade teachers don’t need parents like I need them. Next year I’ll have to find other classes to help in or other ways. I’ll miss the routine.

When helping in my daughter’s first-grade class this year, groups of kids rotated every fifteen minutes. I got four to six kids at a time. They rolled on a floor covered in chunks of dirt from their shoes. They fought over who was supposed to have what book. They wrestled, took off their shoes, talked, needed pencils sharpened, sucked up strings of snot that hung to their chins, told me they didn’t need a tissue, used pencils as Wolverine claws, sang, did a little work, went to the bathroom for fifteen minutes, ate boogers or scabs, tattled, and argued over how they would pair up to play a game.

I refereed, told the kids what books they were supposed to have, told them wrestling moves were not part of their assignment, pointed out the tissue box, sharpened pencils, told them to do work, helped them read words, told them to stop singing and talking, told them to get out from under my chair, told them that pencils are for writing, listened to stories about their cat, dog, or baby brother, and said “Good job.” Then the next group came and the cycle repeated.

Every class I’ve helped in has been different. Some groups have been more challenging than others, but I did it every year because I simply love it.

English: This is one of the kindergarten rooms...

I’ve enjoyed every minute in the classroom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started volunteering when my son was in kindergarten as a way to adjust to long days without him. My son rarely cracked a smile when he saw me, much less said hello. But I quickly loved helping the other kids read sight words, figure out an addition problem, or just giving them attention.

I worked with kids who had trouble learning their ABCs and sight words. The teacher had me quiz them on sight words. They’d squirm. They’d all but panic. I wasn’t allowed to help them. I knew they hated it. I hated it. But I’d say nice job or find a way to compliment them during class.

Those kids who had the hardest time hardly ever talked to me. I couldn’t blame them. At the end of the year, those were the kids who came up and squeezed me around my waist on my last day. No words. Just a surprise, quick hug. I left with a lump in my throat. I knew it was worth it.

In college, I volunteered in a pre-kindergarten classroom. The teacher told me that some of the kids didn’t get much attention at home. I could tell. They all wanted to show me everything they could do. They fought over who would hold my hand. I learned more in that classroom than I did in many of my college courses, and I’ve never forgotten those lessons.

I volunteer because I know what my kids get at home every day, but I don’t know what another kid’s home life is like. Even though I had loving parents as a kid, it was always nice when someone else took an interest in me. When someone other than your parent takes notice, you take notice in yourself. Sometimes all it takes is a positive comment. “You did a great job reading today.” “Wow, look at you reading those big words.” “I’m proud of you.”

You just never know. So you do it for all of them.

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My Second Chance at the First-Grade Play

My daughter had her first-grade play last night. After what felt like a disaster at my son’s first-grade play, I wanted to make sure this one went smoothly. I took what I learned from my son’s play to make sure my daughter’s was a success…for me.

As the parent of a second child, I sometimes feel mine gets gypped. When all of those first experiences happen with your first child, you run through every extreme of emotions in a way you never thought possible. That first child that you waited forever for? All eyes were on him. The first day of kindergarten? Two weeks worth of tears finally cleared up my battered heart.

When my second child was born, I was breathless. She was a beauty. But I couldn’t help but be concerned about how my son would react. Her first day of kindergarten? Not a tear. I knew what to expect and I held it together. I could be excited with her.

As a second child myself, I never really felt gypped. This gives me hope.

But there are some ways that being the second child is a good thing. Like when I screw up something with my son, I make sure I nail it for my daughter. It’s like having a second chance at my parenting shortcomings.

When my son had his first-grade play two years ago, his teacher instructed us to arrive at 6:30. We did. Everyone and their grandmother and aunt, uncle, and cousin already had a seat in the school’s tiny cafetorium. We had to sit in the very back. During my son’s first, and I’m quite certain last, square-dance performance, I couldn’t see a thing. I even stood up. My daughter kept repeating, “I can’t see.” I couldn’t either. I could only tell my son later what a great job he did, and I couldn’t even be sure.

It had been a miserable evening for me. A late arrival. I had busted the heel of both shoes the moment we arrived and left a trail of rubber crumbs everywhere I went. I feared the entire heel would fall off in one big chunk and walking took extreme caution. I couldn’t see my son in the performance he had talked about for weeks. I fought a huge lump in my throat.

My saving grace was that someone recorded the play and gave me a copy a few weeks later. I never told my son that was the first time I was seeing his performance.

When my daughter performed, I was not going to allow a repeat. We would arrive an hour early for seats up front if we had to. And we did. Third row. We made faces at our daughter. I recorded her speaking part between the heads of the people in front of me. I got to see her every move, every toothless grin.

Finally, I nailed it. And I even wore shoes that didn’t crumble.

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Not the Sound of Music

While I initially feared the sound of a dying cat clawing its way up a blackboard, I was relieved at the sound of a more tolerable low, moaning whistle. My son brought home a soprano recorder from school last week. He needs to learn songs as part of a music grade.

Knowing my son, he will diligently practice. Already I’ve heard the choppy notes of “Hot Cross Buns” early in the morning, after school, and before his bedtime stories, but I have to give my son credit for making the effort without any prompting from me.

My son playing a recorder

"Hot cross buns, hot cross buns. One a penny..."

I fear the reason is because anytime my kids get a whistle, kazoo, or flutophone, I firmly instruct them not to blow that thing in the house or anywhere within earshot of me. The sound pierces my ears, and it doesn’t take long for a headache to sink in when my kid’s musical attempt sounds like a torture device stuck on repeat. For years I have confiscated these things at any sign of abuse, meaning one shrill note too many, and stored them high atop our refrigerator with other illegal toys. Having a noisemaker with permission from school means my son can basically huff and puff on it whenever he pleases, all in the name of pass or fail. It’s like they’ve given him their blessing to taunt me.

Well thank you, school system. Thank you for bursts of unhinged melody, constant squeaks, and boring repetition. Two more years of this, I might add.

The bright side? It could have been drums.

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