Tag Archives: School

Elementary School: Six Years of Growth

My son finishes elementary school this week. Six years ago, I cried as I sent him through those doors and down the hall into a classroom with a wonderful woman who took him under her wing and taught him everything he needed to know about getting along in the world.

Back then, he was waist high and when he smiled, his cheeks were still round with baby fat. His chubby hands grasped a pencil the right way to practice letters and write sentences about field trips, his hermit crab, and how much he loved his family. I used to smile at his primitive spelling and stick-figure crayon drawings, filing every writing away to brighten up a later day.

He told me stories of the pill bugs that escaped the classrooms and were found all over the school. Or the boy who put his foot in the toilet in the bathroom.

He moved on down the hall. He made new friends. He struggled. He discovered the joy of a really good book. He learned that he loved math and science and that all someone had to do was talk about it and he absorbed it like a sponge. He learned that sometimes he had to work hard at something and it wasn’t always easy. And even if he threw his pencil across the room and broke it, even if he said a cuss word in the process, his mother loved him anyway.

He learned that sometimes his mother said a cuss word in the process too. Damn homework.homework mominthemuddle.com

He told me stories about the kid who hid under his desk every day and the teacher who chased them on the playground at recess as they laughed and screamed.

As he moved on down the big kid hall, he learned that sometimes kids are mean. He learned that he didn’t want to be the bad guy, but he didn’t want rocks thrown at him either. He can’t always be a pleaser. Sometimes friends aren’t good at their job. Sometimes he found they could make him feel bad about himself, like when he got new glasses. Sometimes friends challenged him though. If they read a book, he wanted to read it too. He discovered a love for J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl.

He told me stories about the boys’ bathroom and the boy who licked the urinal. He told me all about the first overnight field trip he went on—he had the time of his life while I stayed home unable to breathe.

Now in fifth grade, he jokes with his teachers. He doesn’t need to be coddled. He does his homework in his room and I see it only when he needs help or when it is returned home graded. His writings are about fighters and his friends, no longer sappy and sweet. He takes pleasure in trying to teach me new math lessons he has learned, thinking he’ll stump me. And he has.

He tells me stories about kickball and monkey ball and the things I would not believe the boys do at lunch. He tells me about the science experiments with tea bags and the mock stock exchange they’re doing in math that he loves.

Now in the last week of his elementary school career, he walks down the hall confident, smiling, knowing many friends. He stands at my shoulders, lean and broad, baby fat long gone.

Six years ago when he entered that school, he was a quiet, funny, scared kid. When he walks out those doors for the last time, I’ll still recognize that little boy somewhere inside. But I couldn’t be more proud of the countless ways he’s grown.

mominthemuddle.com note

A note my son gave me in first grade.

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A Tribute to My Favorite Teacher: The One Who Opened the Door

I had one teacher who I was pretty sure hated me for breathing. I wasn’t one of her pets, one of those good students who got physics the minute the words rolled off her tongue. If you weren’t one of the great students in her class, forget it. Never mind that you made As or Bs most everywhere else. I looked at my final exam, rolled my eyes, scrawled some numbers on it, and walked out. It was my last “screw you” to her. I had already been accepted to college, and I wouldn’t be getting any science degree. She taught me that not every teacher’s agenda includes every student.

Of course, I’m ashamed to say there were teachers on the receiving end of my own crooked attitude. Some I made fun of within earshot. How could my chemistry teacher not see she was the spitting image of Peter Pan in that outfit? It absolutely demanded a high-pitched chorus of “You Can Fly” every time she stood before the room in those tan pants and that green collared shirt. Had I been braver, maybe I would have cut a felt hat for her and left it on her desk. Rude as I was, I had my limits. The truth was, science didn’t fascinate me. Neither did her lectures.

Looking back, I’ve felt some teachers did a disservice to me by not pushing me, by letting me slide by on what I knew I could get by with. They didn’t challenge me. They gave me the A. They never encouraged me to read really great books. They never got to know me. They never asked to see something I wrote or gave me pointers. Some teachers were there to go through the motions and collect their paychecks. And I was there to turn in half-assed work and collect my As and Bs. I always did OK and I was always lost in a crowd of really great kids and troublemakers. If you asked any of my teachers now, I bet they wouldn’t even know me.

But one teacher gave me the push I needed. One teacher told me I was good at something. She was hard and strict and she gave me—a quiet, mousy girl when it came down to it—a chance. She taught journalism and AP English. She helped me get out there and get stories, actually talk to people—upperclassmen and adults. She helped me get in front of a camera for our student news show when I wanted to crawl under a table and hide. She talked about the world outside of our high school and introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe. She gave me a camera and made me get out in the community and see it from behind the lens. I never felt like her pet. But she let me know that I had a little bit of talent and that I would have to believe in myself. And it was all that I needed.

When I graduated, I was so moved by the two years I’d had in her classes that I wrote her a letter. It took all the courage I had to give it to her in person. I’m sure it was cheesy and dramatic, covered in the emotion of leaving home and starting anew. But I do remember that I told her she was the best teacher I had ever had. Without a doubt she was.

She was the teacher who ignited my curiosity and unveiled a layer of confidence I never knew I had. And though that kind of learning will never be complete, she is the one who opened the door.

Here’s to Ms. Purdy, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week.

calculator

We all know I hated math too.

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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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Filed under Can't Get a Break

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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