Children

VIRGINIA TO FLORIDA AND BACK

Nature Reserve Florida 2015

 

In what turned out to be a break between snow and ice storms in Northern Virginia, I visited my mother in Southern Florida. As a gesture to hope, I packed my sandals and capris—and I got to wear them the entire time! No Uggs that weekend.

 

We did the women-in-the-family trifecta: eating lots in and more out, light sightseeing, and intense clothing and shoe shopping. My mother started the tradition with me, and I proudly continue it with my daughters. Who am I to reject a tradition that involves pastrami, pad thai, bagels, the beach, and new sandals?

 

While there, essentially to check on my 81-year-old mother, she sent an email to older daughter with “Mom” in the subject line. Older daughter, as another tradition would have it, immediately worried that something had happened to me. But no, my mother was emailing her to say nice things about me. Her momentary anxiety, while not fun for her, made me feel appreciated. I know, I should feel that already, and I do, but sometimes tangibles make the intangible tangible. For my mother, (I hope) it was that visit; for me, it was older daughter’s concern and younger daughter’s texts as I journeyed back to the tundra-on-the-Potomac; for them, it should be the souvenir tee shirts that I purchased and planned to buy even before booking my flight.

 

A tangible that became even more tangible was how alone I am when I’m not reinforcing tradition at DSW. Having to roll my suitcase with me each time I went to the bathroom and as I walked up and down the concourse to exercise away my too early airport arrival, while other women simply nodded to their husbands and tapped their suitcase was, to my travel-tense mind, an indictment against me. The regrets from the dissolution of my marriage and the what-ifs that swirl around have a party whenever I’m at the airport; they overwhelm my otherwise sane acknowledgement that the past cannot be re-lived and to live with the result without a never-ending trial. There’s something about being confronted with couples and families going about their family business when I am traveling alone, even if it is to family, that slurs my convictions.

 

At this point, after years of mulling and rolling, I don’t know what I could have done differently; though the flipside of my could is his equally logical could, but going there is too painful, and full of real and imagined guilt.

 

My mother loves to psychoanalyze my ex, but I can’t. I think she does this to support me, but I have no need or desire to rehash his wrongs and find the source of his flaws. We did that for years when I would call her from my car seeking her solace and support, crying after he cursed me and insulted me to the girls once again. Maybe she misses when I needed her? But as much as a marriage and a divorce can transform from something living to something inanimate (a block in the shape of time and experience), this has reached that stage. I only wish him well. Besides, with distance I find it easier to find fault with myself, because isn’t it that fun, and I know that that’s a trap.

 

So the past can, in the same instant, be both the past and the present. What’s key is to keep it contained there, and not allow it to seep into the future, and that requires that I still the theorizing and the fault-finding. I was the me of then, and now I am a different me.

 

Sometimes you see yourself and you wonder how it is that you haven’t changed in all these years, and then at other times you wonder when you had that growth spurt.  

 


Daughters and a Single Mother’s Vulnerabilities

Elizabethan Garden April 2014

In the normal way of things (meaning if I were still married), my daughters wouldn’t know me nearly as well as they know me in my single state.

In a text exchange the other day with my younger daughter, I told her that I changed the notification sound for her texts to a bird chirping.

“You gotta know when I’m texting you so you can avoid it ASAP,” she texted.

To which I replied, jokingly, “You know me so well.”

“I like to think so,” she responded.

Her comment made me think about how much she and her sister do know me and how much that’s because I am a single mother, not because I am their mother/friend. If I had still been married to their father, he would have been my sounding board (of course, his inability to be my sounding board is one reason we’re no longer married), which would have enabled me to expose far fewer vulnerabilities. My daughters would not have seen me falter and then push against their father. If I had remained deflated by his controlling ways and words, they probably would have kept their distance from me because why should they seek support from someone who can’t stand up for herself?

They would not have seen me fall in and then out of love with another man. I would have remained an example of someone settled into the sway of long-married life. They would not have seen me wonder if my new relationship had veered into settling territory, or if it was loving but not in a way that was nurturing for me. I lost my ability to be an icon to look up to and, perhaps, emulate; instead, I have become an example (a warning?) of how love and the desire for it can play havoc with us at any age and stage.

Even the financial realities of being a teacher (purpose over paycheck) would have been shielded from them by the power of two salaries and a closed door for parents-only to deal with money matters. My determination to prevent their monetary ignorance, as I had been, might not have been there if I had been cushioned by their father’s, at one time, substantial salary. Then, again, I wouldn’t have had the same struggles, but at least they see what it means to make it on their own—in or out of a relationship. My older daughter is in a relationship with a financially secure man, but she understands the need to be independent even within dependence.

Surely the time that might have been spent propping up and soothing their father’s ego (or another man’s) went to them. And the time that might have been spent cuddling, goes to them. But it’s not only time that I gave and give to them, it’s about having been unable to hide the realities of my life and my personality from within the huddle of a relationship, and so I gave them bare me. It’s also about decisions and opinions that didn’t need to be tempered by being the fruit of consensus, so, again, they got bare me. Amid whatever anxieties I have about being alone night after night, it bolsters me knowing that in this scenario I have not remained hidden from them.

And they know that this is their mother. The good, the bad, the grumpy, and the devoted.

And I have secured an honesty from them that would not have been forthcoming in a world guided by “Don’t tell, Dad.”

Life, it seems, is a continual coming to terms with the past so that the present is a breathing space that remains unclogged by regrets and guilt and tears.

Their respecting me for who I am, who we each has become, is the gift that makes breathing easy. 


Helping My Daughter Enter Dateland

I entered Dateland without a talk. Not only did my mother not understand the unrestricted nature of the 70s, she barely understood dating in her own buttoned-up 50s. And my father, well, obviously fathers don’t do those girl talks; although, it seems to me that their insights into the minds of teen boys would probably be the most worthwhile thing to hear. So I was completely unprepared the first time a kiss became a grind and a contest of wills far more than a testament to romance.

 

“Mom! Guess what?” My daughter’s deep brown doe-shaped eyes and effervescent smile were, for a change, passionately-pleased to see me and so very close to my face that I breathed in her excitement and in a rush I breathed out my response.

“He asked you out.”

“To Homecoming.” Her scream came out as an overwhelmed whisper. Even though she had told me that she was no longer interested in this boy and there had been no talk about Homecoming, there could be nothing else that could have brought that degree of passion to my generally staid young lady, now a senior in high school.

I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited for her. Her first high school date. A date with a boy she has liked for more than a year, but both of them too shy, up to the low-key, “Want to go to Homecoming?” to do more than daydream. At first I channeled myself as her. What will she wear? Will he drive or will she? Will they go to dinner first? What will they talk about? Will they be too shy and sit in silence? But sometime in the night I awoke as a protective father, sweeping all thoughts of romance and first kisses, tongue or no tongue, aside. “No more than a peck good-night. Don’t rush anything. Don’t let him touch you—anywhere.” Was I having a father’s thoughts since her father isn’t around? Or did I realize that it is my responsibility to prepare her for dating as I had prepared her for playdates and kindergarten. 

 

How do you prepare your daughter for the thrill of love and lust and not burden her with your own insecurities? I want to protect my sixteen-year-old daughter from letting her insecurities wall her up into a cocoon of protectionism that would stifle her development as a loved and loving young woman.

My older daughter, now 21, was so distant in her teens with the pain and bitterness of our divorce that I was unable to do “the talk” with her, other than to repeatedly warn her never to let a man—anyone—talk to her the way her father talked to me. So when she called me, six months after moving to LA to attend college, that she was in San Francisco for a few days with her boyfriend, who I had never heard about, all I could say was, “I hope you’re using protection. You don’t want to get pregnant or STDs.” To which she responded, “I know, Mom,” as if we were continuing a conversation that we had been having since she reached puberty.

My own fear as a teen was that someone would discover what I perceived as my physical abnormalities and so I reverted into prudishness. And even when I rounded second base, and no words of shock or disgust were uttered for my innie nipples, I was still embarrassed for my overwhelming body faults. I certainly didn’t look like the women in the Playboy magazines my brother had shoved under his bed, as I assumed everyone looked.

A healthy sense of my physical sense could have prepared me for the overwhelmingly-physical nature of dating. My parents subscribed to the child-rearing philosophy of “praise spoils a child,” so you neither praise for internal qualities nor for external ones. In that scenario, the only way to create a healthy sense of self is through years of trial and error. At 51 I do believe that I am finally accepting of my thunder thighs and gently rolling tummy, and my now drooping breasts.

For years I have been telling my daughter how beautiful she is, because she is. I don’t want her self-esteem be tied to what a man says to her. No, I want her to value herself and build her own realistic self-assessment. Of course, this has been in concert with talking about her intelligence and her sweetness. It seems just as hazardous to ignore a child’s physicality as it is to over-emphasize it. This way of raising her seems to have worked. She will shyly smile, say “Thank you,” and then look down when given a compliment. She can wear yoga pants or sweatpants, a body-hugging dress or one of my worn-out size L sweatshirts and look equally herself. Comfy in her skin seems to have been accomplished. What else do I need to give to her so that she is prepared to hold onto herself and fall in love at the same time?

 

The night before the Homecoming date we had a five-minute mini-lecture in the kitchen. Surprisingly, she didn’t resent my speaking to her, and the kitchen turned out to be the perfect location since it wasn’t a solemn sit-down in the rarely-used living room, rather it was a casual chat in the one room where we meet most often.

I had hoped to mentally write and rehearse my speech on my way home from work, but no ideas or phrases came to mind. It was disappointing; I had thought a steady stream of ideas would come. But they didn’t. So I ended up doing what I generally do: wing it. And, I must admit, what came out of my mouth was far more insightful than anything that casually popped into my head since last week when I knew I would need to have this talk, and even since I had daughters who reached their teens and the inevitability of this talk, with someone, became apparent.

“I need to talk to you about dating.” She rolled her eyes and her eyebrows went up, but she didn’t resist; rather, she looked at me as an athlete looks to a coach. “As a general rule, and I’m not saying this against boys, it’s just the way it is, they will always want to do more than you will want and it’s up to you to push his hand away or say ‘No.’” That felt so true and so unknown before I said it that I surprised myself with my insight. 

“Mom,” was all she said because she was listening.

I continued, still not knowing what would come out until it did, but pleased with the accumulated wisdom of 39-years of boy-girl interactions. “It doesn’t matter if he pays for dinner or what he buys you, your body is your own and you decide what you want to do. No one deserves anything just because he paid for a meal. Your body is yours.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let anyone try to pressure you into doing something that you’re not comfortable with. Only do what you are comfortable doing. Move his hand,” and I moved my hand over the lower and then the upper girl parts, “and say, ‘No,’ otherwise he’ll continue.” She looked embarrassed. This might have been too much for a girl who hadn’t been confronted with a kiss yet, but if I couldn’t be blunt now, when would I be? “And if you’re ever in a situation where you’re uncomfortable, call me. Thank goodness for cellphones.” I wasn’t sure if I should go there, but I gave her a watered-down version of my scary date story. “One time I was in this guy’s apartment, somewhere in Buffalo, I wanted to leave but I didn’t know where I was and I was afraid. Afraid to leave and afraid to stay. I ended up staying. If I had a cellphone, I could have called a taxi to take me to the airport rather than wait until the morning for him to take me. It was scary. I don’t want you to be in that situation.”

Those doe eyes of hers were finally reflecting some compassion for me. “Okay.”

“I mean it. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.” Was there anything more to say?

We stayed in the kitchen for another couple of minutes talking about the logistics of the next night’s Homecoming and then she went into her room.

I followed her to say one last thing. On her bed was one of her best friends.

“Did you hear our conversation?” I was annoyed, not that she possibly heard what I said, but that our poignant mother-daughter moment hadn’t just been between the two of us.

She shook her head.

“So I had ‘the talk’ with her while you were here?”

“I wish my mom would talk to me,” was her response.

That made me feel less bad about having lost the absolute intimacy of the moment. In my mother-to-all / teacher voice, I reiterated, “Your body is your own, that’s the most important thing to know.” With that, I left them, hoping that my daughter would be my surrogate to her friend and add some more of my wisdom. I was particularly pleased with my realization that men will not stop unless you stop them.

I did what I could do; now it is up to her, and to the men in her life to respect her and her protective mechanisms, as every woman deserves to be respected and heeded.

 

I wonder what the boy’s father said to him. I hope that he told him to respect my daughter by not seeing her body as a baseball diamond, and that he told his son that the key to happiness with a woman, at 16 or 50, is not based on what you can get or how you’re feeling, but on how you make her feel.  


My Ex-Husband Is Homeless

“Don’t hit me! Don’t hit me!” my ex-husband yelled, his face red, veins popping from his neck, spittle sticking to his lips. He stood inches from me in the hallway outside the master suite—his room—with our two daughters down the hall in their rooms.

“I didn’t touch you!” I yelled, stepping back, opening my hands in front of me.

“Don’t touch me!” he shouted again, stepping closer.

For years I had feared that his words would morph into fists, but this accusation of violence scared me. I had done nothing. Was this a set-up so he could hit me in self-defense? “You’re crazy! What are you talking about?! GET AWAY FROM ME!” I cried, stepping back into my room, locking the door, turning up the radio so I couldn’t hear him screaming that he’d call the police. Was he preparing for some imaginary courtroom drama where our daughters could claim I hit their father?

This twisting of reality had become my reality in the four years that it took to get divorced and sell the family home. His mind could contort the turning up or down of a thermostat into an offense—as it could with the volume of a radio or even an open door. Now, he had created a threat so he could continue to embitter my life because I wouldn’t just walk out, abandoning our daughters, and leaving the house to him.

“Turn it down! I can’t read!” my older daughter yelled, banging on our shared wall. My daughter, who used to respect me but now despised me for my weaknesses. Her shriek coincided with my heartbreak—“Crazy woman!”

 

I couldn’t have predicted this 30 years ago when he sat next to me on a bus in Israel—happenstance generating the spark that would join a 21-year-old American tourist and a 19-year-old Israeli soldier. He wooed me in letters after I left Israel three days later, and when I moved from New York to Israel nine months after that. His intelligence, vitality, and infatuation with me made me bless that serendipitous moment.

For two years on Friday afternoons when he had Shabbat leave (he was an officer completing his service), we would go to the beach in Tel Aviv, rolling with the waves, embracing with our limbs and through our dreams, letting the hot sun and cool waters of the Mediterranean forge our relationship. Afterward, we would eat hamburgers in pitas with hummus and pickled baby eggplants—adding to the sense that life in this place and with this man would be an adventure. And it was.

Initially, he was my guide to all things cultural and bureaucratic as I learned to live in Israel. His push to incorporate me, his reserved girlfriend, into his thriving life of friends and interests, helped me find my place. The lure of opposites lasted twelve years: we married, he became a successful lawyer, I was a writer in the high-tech industry, and we had two daughters.

But the excitement of having a yin/yang partner who was competitive to my passivity and confident to my self-doubt turned on me when I grew into myself.

Initially, I thought his driving or walking past Do Not Enter signs showed his sense of curiosity and adventure—a bit of that wild side that I found so exciting. But years later, when we were entering an outdoor festival with our daughters and I was reaching for my wallet, he suggested we walk around the entrance where he spied an opening. I looked at him in disgust and walked up to the ticket table and bought four tickets.

When we bought our first car in Israel, he handled all the negotiations. I didn’t think that my Hebrew or my understanding of the way things worked were up to the task. Fifteen years later, when we moved to Virginia, I spoke up in the car salesman’s cubicle, only to have my husband tell me, in Hebrew, to shut up, that he would handle it, otherwise we wouldn’t get a good deal. Maybe it’s true, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten the faux leather seats and the sunroof, but what of the cost to my ego being put-down so publicly. The salesman didn’t need to understand Hebrew to know what was said. The same thing happened when we bought our house—he told me to be quiet or I would ruin the deal.

I started to view his confidence as arrogance after we moved to Northern Virginia in 2000 for my job relocation. Perhaps my confidence finally thrived—no longer held back by a language that was never my own and a sense that I would always feel like a visitor, even after 17 years in Israel.

He found a job in business development at a DC law firm. But our jobs didn’t survive the economic bust: I lost mine in less than a year, and he lost his two years later. Right before he lost his job, I told him that I wanted a divorce. He asked me to wait until he got a job. I agreed, but I had assumed he would move out or at least move into the basement, but he refused. As the abusive behavior intensified, I thought of moving out, but I was afraid I would lose my daughters. I couldn’t afford to live in their school district or near their friends and I feared that they would choose to stay with him, so I never asked. How could being away from him be good if it meant being away from them? So I stayed and endured for four years.

Becoming a financial consultant didn’t work out for him: he was laid off in 2008. Then, according to our daughters (because we had stopped talking since you can’t have a conversation if neither of you will listen to the other), he worked independently.

When we moved, our older daughter went to college out of state and our younger daughter did the custody dance, until she didn’t.

“Why are you here?” I asked one Friday when she was supposed to be with him. I had been looking forward to a quiet weekend without her nastiness. It seemed that she was doing with me what I had done with my mother. One day my mother commented that I was taking out my stresses on her because she would always be supportive.

“He can’t pick me up. He doesn’t have a car,” she replied, arms crossed.

“I can drive you.”

“No,” she said, staring at the carpet.  

“Why not?”  

“Don’t you understand? He has no money!” she yelled, running to her bedroom and slamming the door.

No, I didn’t understand.

That was in June 2011.

Later that day she told me that he was hoping the big deal he was working on would come through.

At the end of August the conversation continued in the car. The deal hadn’t worked out and she needed to go to his house for a few hours on Saturday (she had not been there the entire summer). “He’s being evicted on Monday. I need to,” she paused, looking out the window, “get some things.”

“Why not stay there for the weekend?” I thought she’d want to spend as much time as possible with him before he—. Evicted. It didn’t make sense.

“I don’t want to be there when,” she paused. More staring.

I was stunned, how could this have happened to the man I once idolized; who had been such a good provider? We continued home in silence, crying. I was not a mother able to console her child. It occurred to me that perhaps I was stronger, more resilient than he was and that he had needed more support than he ever let on or that I could give him.

My older daughter told me that her sister said he was going to California because, as he said, “It would be easier to be homeless in California.”

Days after getting her things, my younger daughter told me she felt guilty that she was not with him on a bench somewhere. “He’s my father, I should be with him.”

With that the pain of jealousy pushed out sympathy—it had come to pass—she picked him over me. Her compassion for her father was wonderful, but I felt betrayed. Now I had tears of self-pity. “Sweetie, you can’t feel bad that you’re not there. He’s got to take care of himself, and you—that wouldn’t be good for you.”

“I know.”

“If you ever want to talk about it--.” 

She looked at me, and then out the window. “I know,” she said quietly.

No one has heard from him since then.

I am not my ex-husband’s keeper, but I cannot help but feel guilty. After all, we moved from Israel because of my job. He had supported my writing and my creative projects: he helped look for publishers for my children’s books and outlets for the games and toys I developed. I initiated the divorce.

I used to think that there was a balance between us: I supported him when he went to law school and he supported us when I stayed home intermittently with the girls. I lived in his country and then he lived in mine. Now I realize that most of those decisions were mine. He was overbearing in our day-to-day lives, telling me what shoes to buy for the girls and myself, and where to go on vacation, but those things don’t outweigh having imposed such big changes on him.

His outward bearing of absolute autonomy never revealed doubts, and so I assumed he could handle the changes that came his way.

Thinking of him alone on a bench somewhere, while I have a good job and the respect of our daughters, makes me realize that perhaps I brought more pain to him than he brought to me. So as much as I hate him for how he abused me and for walking out on our daughters, more than anything, I feel sadness for what he has lost.

 


A Small Family

Both of my daughters are here, and later in the week my mother will come down from New York for a few days, which means that my whole family will be together. Four women, three generations: a family, not as much modern as realistic.

The men are missing. My father has passed away. My boyfriend is gone, somewhere. My ex-husband is gone, somewhere. My brother is where he always is, in his house that is 30 minutes from where we grew up, with his wife and two children; he seems incapable of expanding his active compassion to more people.

So it is the four of us.

My older daughter is visiting for a week; last month she graduated from an LA-area college with a BA in English and next month she is headed to Vienna to study German and possibly stay there permanently. She will be going with her boyfriend, who, since he is much older, I refer to as her man-friend. In August my younger daughter will be going to college, probably in Colorado. My mother is in the process of selling the apartment in New York where I grew up and moving year-round to Florida.

There will be a dispersal of us women, but not a disintegration. It saddens me that my family doesn’t fill my dining room table when we sit round it for a meal. It saddens me that I couldn’t give my daughters the boisterous family full of close cousins and aunts and uncles that I had dreamed of for myself, but didn’t get, and so had hoped to create for my children. It did not come to pass. It is we four.

A cousin of mine recently adopted a baby, but she never notified me. Another cousin did, which is good that at least one person has a sense of keeping a link alive, but that is all it is, a tenuous, very occasional email link.

The sister of the cousin who adopted the baby tried to friend me on Facebook about a year ago. Since I don’t use Facebook, I contacted her via email, hopeful about reconnecting a childhood friendship. It turned out that she just wanted me to be a Facebook friend/number and possible client of her artwork.

My ex-husband’s two sisters are not in touch with my daughters; it seems that they decided that since their brother is not around, they have no hold or responsibility toward his part of the family.

But while I might feel inadequate about this paucity, my younger daughter gave me her decidedly different perspective. She had gone to a friend’s grandparent’s house for Christmas dinner. Round the table were relatives who her friend only sees at the annual holiday meals, but they felt it incumbent upon themselves to tell her what to study in college, what college to go to, and what to do with her life. There was arguing and interference, and my daughter was appalled; “I’m glad we have a small family” was her reaction.

I looked at her, stunned, that she wouldn’t want something that I thought would be so integral to her desires and that she was endorsing her life—which is what I give to her. It’s hard sometimes—okay, always—to separate your desires and perception of their needs from your child’s, and it’s hard, too, to learn from your children. But that was a good lesson. The grass over here is the grass she knows, and that is comforting to a child. They want—at least at the fundamental level—what they have, because the unknown is frightening.

So the next time I have family-envy, I need to remember that the four of us sitting round the table means a bigger piece of pie and talking time for each of us. 


The Education Philosophy of 0=50

“What does doing 0 work but getting a grade of 50 teach a child?” No, this is not a rhetorical question, neither is it a hypothetical one. It is a question that teachers across the country seem to be dealing with (well, maybe not across the country, but at least in Virginia and Colorado).

“Why would a student get a 50% on an assignment that he did not do?” is a better question. Or perhaps: “Why would a teacher be told/directed to give a student a 50% on an assignment that was assigned but which the student did not do?” From what I understand there are two main rationales.

One: not to damage the ego of a child because, you know, getting 0% for the 0% effort he put into his schoolwork would cause his self-confidence to plummet. This is as opposed to doing 100% of the work, and working hard at it, and getting a grade that makes him proud of the work he did—or at least aware that effort is rewarded, and that you learn and improve the more work you do. That, apparently, isn’t such a sound idea these days. Perhaps it is too much of a retro idea and education theorists and philosophers are all about continually re-inventing the education wheel.

Two: too many Ds and Fs look bad for a teacher and, more importantly, a school. What would the pie charts and the bar graphs and statistics look like if a school has too many students at the bottom end of the grade alphabet? No, that’s not good because then schools would have to worry about being labeled low performing or not improving student performance enough, which is worse, apparently, than actually figuring out why a student is not doing his work and working with him—so grade inflation is the way to prevent that. (I love the word “performance,” which is as appropriate as “are you still working” when you are eating in a restaurant. Shouldn’t the word be knowledge or understanding, you know, something related to the learning process; and in relation to the restaurant, shouldn’t it be “eating,” as in are you still eating that apple pie?)

“No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” in their efforts to raise the educational level of all students, sure have resulted in some skewed practices. I understand and fully support believing in every single child in this country and giving him or her the best education possible, but encouraging kids to be lazy seems to be faulty—or lazy—logic to me.  

I have taught high school freshmen who are stunned when they receive 0s. Seriously, they are upset and confused that I don’t give them credit just because they’re such wonderful and cute kids. Someone please tell me what real-world lesson this emulates that wouldn’t result in someone going to jail—or having resulted in having some really great coupons?

Why should 14-year-olds first be learning that work=grade or that there are consequences for their actions/inactions? Wouldn’t it be better, for all of us now and into the future, if we taught kids that they are as accountable for their grades as we the educators and the parents and the administrators and society are? 

 


Respect: To Be Given and To Be Expected

The other day I got an email from a counselor at school saying that a student of mine thinks that I am not nice to him. She suggested that I rectify this situation by having a one-on-one conversation with him asap. My response was one of those quickly written emails that we often come to regret, but in this case I have no regret for the quick-write and quick-send. I told her that I did have a tough talk with him that morning because he was supposed to have stayed after school with me a few days earlier to make up some work he missed while on vacation. I had told him that I would stay and wait for him. Not only did he not come, but two days later he still didn’t find it in himself to explain or apologize—and I demanded that he apologize to me, in a rather strong tone and with a mini-lecture thrown in.

There is just no way that I will be reprimanded for not over-coddling a teen’s ego. Seriously, at what point does a child need to stop listening only to his inner whiner and start learning that there are rules of decency that he needs to adhere to?

Another student told his mother that I yell at him. Besides the obvious fact that these kids have no conception of what a real yell is, they seem to equate a tough and forceful tone that is ever so slightly above the normal teacher tone as a yell. But I was having none of it. I told the mother that, yes, I have directed tough words at her son because he seems to think that making accents of different ethnic groups (his own included) is funny and is entertainment for the other immature boys in the class, and because I have forced him to throw out his green gum with which he likes to make bubbles during class.

Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching this age group. A number of teachers and people in the general public have told me that they could never teach freshman, but I enjoy them—up to a point. (Let me state unequivocally that the girls are not only mature, but they are well aware of the immaturity of the boys in their midst, and they are delightful.) At that point (I mean the point at which they are disrespectful and oblivious to some basic societal norms), I become a teacher whose lesson cannot possibly be evaluated by a bubble chart—it’s when I demand that they learn how to act and behave properly. It’s when I forget to modulate my tone and say what I think as if this child were my own child.

At what point do children lose the license to excuse their own bad behavior? And why, honestly, did they ever get that license in the first place?

It could be that I’m tough, as people have said, but I don’t see how expecting children to behave with respect to their elders and each other is tough or beyond a basic norm? Honestly, I’m tired of feeling that I’m doing something wrong when all that I am doing is trying to educate the whole child. Do parents really want their children to keep getting passes for work they don’t do and behavior that is reproachable? Sure, I admit that you can live a successful life even if you don’t understand Shakespeare, but what can you do if you don’t know what the word “courtesy” means?

I fear that the focus on teaching to the test and evaluating teachers based to a great degree on their student’s work will give too much power to children and lessen an understanding that they are to respect their elders and those who are trying to help them. It might come as a surprise to some, but not every child wants or knows how to do well, and kids know how to get back at someone they think has slighted them. A friend of mine teaches at the graduate school level and she has to deal with student evaluations which often read like mini-vendettas because they don’t like the amount of reading she has assigned and because there might not have been a syncing of personalities, not to mention disgruntled students who didn’t get an A.

Backing down and letting their behavior slide is not an option. I’d rather move right along to my Plan B career choice of working with the geriatric crowd than bend the understanding of respect that I was taught by example as a child.

We seem to be looking to other cultures for guidance on how to raise our children. We’re looking to China with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, and France with Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman, and a mélange with How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (From Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between) by Mei-Ling Hopgood, but how about we stick to what we were taught as children—or at least unearth some of the key lessons from our overworked minds. It might have been a different time, and yes, it might not have been the best of times, but weren’t there some basic guidelines that were imparted on us and which we have, perhaps, slacked off on imparting to the next generation? Why do we excuse our children from the things that were absolute bottom lines for us? I didn’t even know that you could turn in homework late until I was in graduate school.  

Fellow teachers talk about students who send, via email, requests for them to write letters of recommendation for colleges that are due in a day, and then not even receiving thank you letters from those students when they delayed their weekend grading to write the letters. Expectations, surely, are warped.

An I-whatever has become de rigueur for this generation. How about requiring behavior that reflects an understanding that the world is not all about “I” before the next purchase?

 

Words from some very wise men: "Teach Your Children," by Crosby Stills Nash and Young.


Lessons of the Road

Since the summer I have been teaching my younger daughter to drive. She took her first baby-driver steps driving between rows of parking spots in a huge, empty lot. Then she drove around quiet residential neighborhoods until she could confidently turn on the turn signal and steer at the same time, and I wasn’t constantly slamming on my imaginary brakes. But when we went out into the streets of the real road world, I learned more about other people than I did about my daughter’s driving ability.

In the most public of places we act as if we are in the most private of places, revealing far too much of our personalities. We’re not just surreptitiously picking our noses in our cars—on the whole, we’re selfish and mean, with only the occasional glimmer of kindness.

At first, when the 35mph speed limit was beyond her capabilities, she was constantly honked at, tailgated, cut off, and given looks-to-kill. For goodness’ sake, the girl was trying to drive carefully and all she got for that was an endless line of virtual middle fingers. The worst offenders were, no surprise here—everyone. Who made us all the Grand Patrollers of the Road? Are we all emergency room doctors about to give birth?

But worse than arrogance and impatience is the fact that my daughter no longer thinks the people of the world are law-abiding citizens. How many people has she seen break the laws she studied so thoroughly to pass the “written” test. Folks, we’re going through red lights and stop lights as if they are road spam. We speed and cut each other off and race across double yellow lines because, well, because we want to. The impression that I conveyed to my daughter that the world was, on the whole, a fair and decent place has been trampled. She now doubts everything I ever taught her, except to definitely not pick her nose.

Last week, after she had been yielding for quite some time at a busy intersection to no avail, she asked me why people speed up when they see she is trying to get in? What does a mother say to that, except the absolute truth as I have come to see from the passenger seat: People are selfish, they just care about themselves and getting whatever advantage they can, however insignificant. I had thought that the driving lessons would focus on maintaining distance from the car in front of you, always checking your mirrors, and never glancing at the cellphone, but no, this was the reality that presented itself.

But the other day, thank goodness for that day, there was hope that the world I had explained to her might exist on some streets. She was in the middle lane, signaling to get into the right lane. Three cars sped up, because, well, they could, and passed her. And then, at the light, the woman in the car to our right asked if we want to turn into that lane and that it would be okay. I will add that she was a refined-looking, long-retired woman wearing beige suede gloves. Maybe the manners of days by gone aren’t all gone. And just perhaps, after my daughter has experienced what it’s like to be at the receiving end of both possibilities she will elect to drive and live with civility.

What do we get from our behavior? According to the US Census Bureau, in 2009 there were 10.8 million road accidents and 35,900 deaths. We lose property, we lose limbs, we lose livelihoods, we lose people, we lose a sense of community.

And what are we teaching our young? Sure, it’s a pain to wait at a light when no one’s coming. And it’s annoying that you need to drive at the speed limit when you’re such a good driver and you really really need to get where you’re going. Not to mention those tailgating speed demons who force you to move over, for what? Just so you can wait behind them at a light?

When does it stop? When do we decide that all of the rules apply to each of us, all of the time? It’s not just about breaking rules, it’s about breaking the threads that hold a society together—the threads that create a society.

Have we become islands in our little pods?


Thanksgiving 2011

It’s Thanksgiving, but we’re having pizza and beer for dinner. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving. Do I need to be surrounded by family to prove that I have what to be thankful for? And do I have to serve the requisite main course and sides and desserts (okay, the apple pie is ready for consumption tonight) and conversation-round-the-table about what we’re thankful for to make this a thankful day for me?

My boyfriend/partner is getting the pizzas. It will take him at least an hour at the frozen pizza section in the supermarket to pick out just the right pizzas. Luckily they close early today. On pizza and beer Fridays we always have two frozen pizzas: one veggie and one mucho cheese-o. But he will take his time thinking about which pizzas I would prefer tonight. The decision will be made by him making experienced-based assumptions about my taste buds today, not definites about himself.

It is the two of us, and Poops, everyone else is in absentia.

My older daughter is at college on the other coast. But the ticket cost is not the reason why she won’t be here. No, she’s there celebrating with her boyfriend and friends. And I am thankful and grateful that she has found a place where she is happy and people with whom she finds herself blossoming. I’ll never forget the mother stomach-lump that developed in an instant when her first grade teacher told me that she never smiles in class. And she has always been a solemn child. The curse of the bookworm, perhaps? Her happiness, from whatever distance, is to rejoice in.

And my younger daughter. Well, it’s her fault that we’re having Turkey Day tomorrow and not today. A friend invited her to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family. Maybe they feel sorry for her that we’re divorced and her father is not around and that it’s just Kenny and me here on this family celebration day, or maybe they are thankful that their daughter has such a wonderful friend. I decided that Thanksgiving should be more about her happiness and gratitude to two women and the homes they make and make her feel comfortable in rather than sticking to the calendar (besides, we don’t watch football and we don’t Black Friday shop), so she’s with her friend’s family today and us tomorrow.

And my mother down in retirementland is going to the movies and then for a non-turkey dinner with a couple that doesn’t make her feel like the lonely widow. The holidays really are the hardest for her; there doesn’t seem to be a before and after, just a before, with my father—and the way it should be, not this being alone business.

My brother. A bit of aggravation there just to make sure that the subterranean theme of how families can be dangerous to one’s health is maintained even if Thanksgiving is not; he did not invite us to his family’s Thanksgiving Day repast. Granted, they’re five hours away, but I used to do the drive, even when it took nine hours in only-stop traffic. That is until I decided one year that I’ll wait for my invitation rather than invite myself. So here I sit, at home and not in Thanksgiving Day traffic since the invite never came.

Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m thankful that the people in my life seem happy and well-adjusted and purposeful. And me, I’m happy that I’m not stressed about cooking, because what kind of pressure can I have doing it a day late?

And I’m also thankful that at 50 (or 49 twice in a row) I feel healthy, I feel wise, I feel pretty, and I feel.

Happiness and Thanks to You All!


Teens of Today

At the end of my posts I generally come up with a conclusion. It feels right to tie things up, even if it’s with a question. I never know what the conclusion will be when I start, but I know that it will be there. That, in fact, is one of the reasons why I write—so I can figure out what I’m thinking or to develop the threads of consciousness into a coherent thought. But today’s post is different. Today I won’t even try for that ‘aha.’ Today I just want to present a few students who I observed recently.

Ned. When I was walking around the school on my way back to my classroom, I saw a student I had four years ago, when he was a freshman. I asked him how he was doing. He shrugged. Then I asked if he was going to graduate. He said he wasn’t sure, that he hadn’t been to school for a long time. To say that he looked high is an understatement. Mind you I am not someone with well-developed high sensors, but there was no mistaking it with Ned. It was deflating.

When I had Ned in the ninth grade when he was a mini-punk, but there was a sharp satiric sense that I tried to develop—to show him that he was appreciated for his wit and intelligence.

I saw his current English teacher later; she said that he had been dropped from school because it has been so long since he had been to school.

Dave. Today a select group of students gave presentations about the service projects that they had done as part of their graduation requirement. Dave was late. No, Dave was not late. Dave, in a tee shirt and shorts, came late to say that he can’t present because he couldn’t transfer his presentation to a CD. And no, he didn’t have a flash drive. So a student who was selected to advance to this final round didn’t care enough to problem-solve a PowerPoint presentation from computer A to computer B.

William. This student, who wore a suit and who managed to get his presentation in a format that could be used, had a very bad stutter. But the show went on. He stood there in front of the judges and a small audience and gave his presentation. And it was tough to hear how hard it was for him to speak. But it was also a powerful testament to himself and those around him that he had the confidence in himself to be himself and was recognized for that.

Yvonne. When she came to class today, after her presentation, she told me how nervous she had been. I told her that I had not noticed that and if so, it was understandable. Not only did she need to overcome her shyness, but her presentation focuses on her illness. She laid herself out there—talking about her disease, how it had been treated and where, and then how, a few years later, she went back to the hospital where she had been treated to entertain other sick children to give back what she had gotten.

Eleanor. This student talked about her project, which was to train a young autistic man for the Special Olympics. Her admiration for him was evident in both her presentation and the video she showed. Watching those five minutes of her interacting with him and other young people in a gym made me proud just to be there listening to her. The capacity for some people to give so much of themselves is a humbling experience for those of us who seem to always remain in our self-contained bubble. 

Jessica. And there was Jessica who was so bubbly that her presentation was less guided by her note cards than it was a ride along her personality. The enthusiasm she had for teaching children and for her future were palpable. She didn’t even seem to be impressed by the work she had done; she was riding on the sheer pleasure she seemed to freely give. 

And when I came home, I was confronted by my very own teen. My younger daughter slammed and locked her door in my face. I really hope that her in-public persona has not been ravaged by her teen anti-mommy angst.

I don’t know what this generation will be called by those who are older and think they are so wise, wise enough to think that they can confine a non-existent group of people into some kind of box, boxed in by their own expectations or failures. All I can say (shoot, I’m summing up) is that I wish every child could reach his or her ladder and that the only way to go is up—up into fulfillment, and up into health, and up into joy given and received.  


Pillars, Crutches, and Other Manner of Support Systems

As I lay in bed the other night trying to fall asleep with used tissues littering the floor, it occurred to me that beyond the pain of my father’s death, his loss was not just the loss of a father who could be counted on to exhibit and act on his concern for me on a daily basis but it was the loss of any remnant of being the beloved daughter as she was cared for in childhood. Not childhood in a child’s sense, but in the sense that in some families a child knows that her problems can be shared with her parents throughout her life (shared as in expressed, which somehow shifts the burden).

Now, I share my mother’s problems. I am her ears and shoulders when she needs to have someone listen to what she did that day and how she is feeling or doing that day. It is not right, or I don’t feel that it is right, to seriously share with her my thoughts and concerns. It’s not that she doesn’t ask me how I am doing and wants to honestly hear, but for once I realize that she just doesn’t need my unburdening. No, I need to be her vessel. Maybe this is a step in the maturity of a child, a bit late, but such was the relationship that I had with my parents.

During most of my marriage and before the divorce, when things were getting bad but not bad enough yet to act on them, I held all counsel within. Then, when it reached the point that I would drive away, week after week, from the house in tears and fear for my life, I finally broke down and called my parents. They became my pillars. They gave me money to hire a divorce lawyer. They listened to me as stories tumbled out about their “son”-in-law’s fierce nastiness. To them I could unendingly vent as I couldn’t with friends. What friend could really listen to the unbroken story of a broken heart as she is trying to live through the dramas of her own life?

Was it selfish that I unburdened on my parents? I don’t know. I know that it was too hard to deal with the pain of my life on my own and they were there to levitate the pain as much as possible.

And now, now I need to be here to help shift the burden of my mother’s pain and emptiness, and fears.

For my daughters I need to remain chief booster and boaster. That is what they need and deserve. That is what I have been trained to be.

Perhaps the time has finally come for me stand firm. Maybe I don’t need anyone to hold my tissue box for me. At first I thought that I still needed to be propped up, but now I am starting to feel like one of those blocks that stays in place even when the blocks around it have been removed. I stay in place only because those blocks transferred their power and strength to me.


A Loss, The Loss

My mother is sitting on the couch opposite me sewing up my younger daughter’s jacket, which is actually her sister’s old jacket. My younger daughter is sleeping, even though it is past noon. My older daughter is back in LA visiting her boyfriend after spending a few days with us. It would be a lovely tableau, except it is a very incomplete picture. My father is not sitting on the other end of either couch reading the Sports section because he passed away on Monday morning.

When I bought our tickets to fly down to Florida last week he was still at home; by the time my younger daughter and I arrived on Friday, he was in ICU waiting to be brought to hospice later that evening.

On Sunday his rabbi told us what a wise rabbi had once told him: at a certain point, you no longer pray for healing but for a peaceful journey. It appears that that is what he had. A peaceful journey for a man who was peaceful his entire life.

Both of his parents had emigrated from Russia with their families when they were young. There is one story of hiding in the back of a hay wagon. Who knows? No one talked of those adventures much. The focus was more on raising their three children, who in turn raised their children, who are now raising their children.

The wavy shock of my father’s red hair had rusted over the years and some on top was lost to two sessions of chemo. But his carrot-top days were still evident in back. As was his sweet tooth. He had not been able to eat for a few weeks due to his esophagael cancer (it was detected in late October), but while we were there we were able to feed him some Key Lime pie, raspberry jello, vanilla ice cream, and he could feed himself some watermelon and cherry candies.

What a thing it is to see a father die. But we spent our last day with him, and his last full day, watching football in the afternoon. It is a thing, though, to know that one’s father was such a good person. Everyone who came to his funeral or came to sit shiva with my mother or who called spoke of a man who was always sweet and soft-spoken. The man who told my mother after a couple of weeks of dating that he wanted to be together “for life” did just that for almost 55 years.

And now my mother will have a different life. And we who loved him will have a different life. But his kindness and gentleness will always be a part of our lives.


Generation Some-Random-Letter

The other day I came to the very disheartening realization that the end of endless wars or the end of periodic wars does not seem to be in the future for this “great” nation. That is if I can take what I see of my students and use them as a tiny sample of this generation and extrapolate into a giant generalization. Two anecdotes are, to me, very telling.

In the school’s career center the other day, my ninth graders were asked if they know what they want to do or be. Only a handful raised their hands. Army. Air Force. Marines. Lawyer. Doctor. Army. Dentist. Pediatrician. Notwithstanding the fact that only one girl (pediatrician) raised her hand, I was horrified that so many of the boys see the military as a career. Granted, in this area in northern Virginia there are a lot of military bases and the Pentagon and enough Department of’s for just about every retired military person to get a chance to retire from another government job, and I grew up in New York City where only those kids who were heading down the wrong path went into the military, I was horrified. As I said to a friend later, “the military-industrial complex has won.” I’m not completely naïve, I lived in Israel for a long time, I recognize the need—unfortunately—for a strong military. But the military being a career choice just strikes me as sad for them and sad for us as a nation.

So many times you hear people say that someone was lost until s/he went into the military which straightened her/him out. Such a sorry sentence for our country, for ourselves. Shouldn’t there be another avenue for the kids who don’t have a direction and are seemingly lost by the need to decide at 18 what they want to do with their lives—both if that kid can afford college and not? Why don’t we have service to country that doesn’t involve learning how to shoot a rifle and “defend” our way of life in far-flung deserts and shores? I know there has been talk of a national service, but there isn’t one. Even in Israel, many of the kids who don’t want to go into the infantry can teach or do social work, or some other service to the society. Why are those who in another time would have just followed in the family business or livelihood not aware that there are other “safe” careers other than supporting the never-ending wars? What came first, the never-ending wars or the need to have a large military that must be kept busy?

And then there are two of my students, who are seniors, who just got engaged to each other. He will continue the family job of going into the military and she will continue the family job of supporting her man in the military. But their getting engaged at 18 is not what stands out so much to me, rather it is her engagement ring. She wears distinctive clothes and jewelry often adorned with skeletons and skulls as well as her ubiquitous spiky collar around her neck. He has counter-culture messages on his tee-shirts and sweatshirts. And her engagement ring. Well, it has tiny diamonds. Why can’t the rebels really keep it up? Why are they relenting, why are they abandoning the rebellion to go with the flow? Why have they succumbed so quickly? Is that it? Up to 18 to rebel, and then get in line: join the military, get married, be a continuer and not a questioner.

It made me sad seeing the 9th graders’ responses and the engagement ring on the same day. Maybe I should be happy that they know what they want instead of bemoaning their cattleness, but I am not. I want “question authority,” and I don’t want it to be just us midlife women chanting to ourselves about feminism and against war. Obviously, we have failed. We have our lovely choir, but where is the audience?

I wanted to yell out—THINK, think for yourselves! Yes, you’re confused and you don’t know what you are good at and you want someone else to decide everything for you because it’s so much easier than being confused, but TRY to THINK for YOURSELF—you can do it! Don’t think that might is right! Don’t you read the papers—don’t you know that we are belligerent? That a soldier is a warrior before he is a peacemaker! Believe in yourself. But I didn’t. I sat there thinking of the members of the military who have been injured or killed, or will be. And I thought about those who send them into battle, whether they dither over it or take longer to decide what kind of cigar to chomp on than when to send troops into battle.

I thought life was about valuing life—each other’s—and not just the life of the nation. But perhaps this is what we deserve, after all we live in a country where a company has personhood and is, apparently, more important than an individual’s life. 

But at least I know there is a choir out there. Those of us in the choir must continue to raise our voices, otherwise we will be shufflers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to bring my shoes in to get fixed, the heels are beginning to show slight signs of wear.


Random Thoughts on a Sunny Sunday

 • How is it that we are supposed to help a country, Iraq, if so many people there find that killing each other is better than learning to live with each other? Yes, it’s only a few who are terrorists. Yes, the terrorists might not even be from there. Yes, maybe the terrorists became terrorists after the US-invasion and occupation. But still, it’s hard to keep caring about people who keep blowing themselves up. Blowing each other up at weddings, while shopping, while looking for a job, while working, and worst of all, while mourning a loss at a funeral. Isn’t there a purpose to life other than another person’s death?

• Why do wealthy people register for gifts when they get married? Really? People need to buy gifts for Ivanka Trump and her new husband, who are both from real estate empire families. Can’t a person ever say enough? Why not a gift registry of organizations to donate to if they feel that they always deserve something? They should be ashamed of themselves.

• I wonder what happens in a teen’s mind that enables him to transition from writing essays that are merely lists in paragraph form to writing essays that analyze? Now I know why I’m happy to be teaching 12th graders and not just 9th graders: there are the occasional thoughts swirling around.

• Helicopter parents are not the only helicopters around, this morning I observed a helicopter wife. Really? He can’t put his own food into the microwave and spread the butter on his own bagel? He can hold the door for you but he can’t carry his cup of coffee? Are thoughts like these a reason why I am unattached?

• There is a man out there with whom I will find comfort, but I don’t know if we will find each other.

• Being a three-quarter empty-nester is better than being a complete empty-nester, but my, how I miss being on-duty all of the time. I’m pleased that both of my daughters are independent, and that I am independent of them, but it’s still hard to have a few dishes that reflects my eating and snacking habits.

• It’s beautiful outside. It’s time to put a bra on and go pick up my daughter from her weekend. She will probably say “okay” and turn away when I ask her how her weekend was. But we will be together on this beautifully sunny afternoon for at least a little while and I will be relieved from the pressure of thinking about myself and the world we live in. Enjoy the day.


Bomb Scare

The other day there was a bomb scare at my school. That means that the entire school body of about 2,200 13- to 18-year-olds and 300 staff members had to evacuate the building as soon as the rather overbearing voice of the principal came over the PA system at about ten in the morning. We were simply told to leave our rooms immediately—we were not told why (I, of course, thought that they were springing a new kind of a drill on us and left all of my things in the room and told the kids to leave their things on the desks—we were in the middle of going over a quiz)—there was no indication of a bomb scare on the PA announcement. The kids were told not to look at their cell phones. (Sounds dumb because it is a dumb thing to say.) In the announcement the teachers were told to read our emails in a tone that seemed to indicate we were amiss for not having read them already. This last comment bothered me, and I said outloud, “I couldn’t read the email because I was busy teaching.” When I checked, I didn’t see an email. It turned out later, in the rumor mill, that the email was being sent as we were leaving the building.

Rumor has it that the amount of time from when the bomb scare was made known until we were evacuated from the building was about twenty to twenty-five minutes, because the principal, who has a virtual presence most of the time, had to be located. Me, in my naïveté, noted (before I heard the rumor) that it was good that he was finally there when he was needed.

In a huddle around the principal about ten minutes after going onto the football field, we were told that there had been a bomb threat and not to tell the kids—only to tell them that the school was being checked and cleared. Okay, so a helicopter is flying over-head (I finally made the connection as to why I had been hearing a helicopter while I was still teaching and not that it was some kind of drill or Obama is in town), the school population is evacuated far from the building with everyone in one area (unlike in a normal fire drill when we are allowed to leave from various exits and could be much closer to the school), and we are not allowed to tell the kids the truth? And what about establishing trust with our students?

A student of mine, who had been in my classroom when we were evacuated, asked me if it was a bomb scare as he had heard. To a colleague’s dismay, I responded, “Well, that’s a good thing to hear.” I know, dumb thing to say, but I didn’t want to say, “No.” I wanted him to realize it was right without saying it. She repeated the party line about the building being checked and then we will be able to go back in. And then, another colleague read aloud from her iPhone the email announcement that had come from the county about a bomb scare—the email that was being sent to parents and anyone on the e-mailing list—while the student stood there. Why and how did they think it would be okay not to just tell the truth to these teens?

We spent an hour and a half in the football field (I got a nice tan—it was, gloriously, an amazingly warm fall day) when the announcement came that we will be able to start letting the students go home, and then we, the teachers, would be able to go home too.

Being the eternal optimist that I am, the truster in the powers that be, and not having a lesson to have learned from, I had left everything, except my student roster and emergency info packet, including the orange emergency teacher vest, in my classroom—which was now off-limits. I got a lift home, then found the spare key in the busy-body neighbor’s apartment. At around three another email announcement was sent that said that the school had been cleared and we could come and get our things. As luck would have it, my parents came in that day to visit, so they drove me back to school to get my pocketbook, cellphone, computer and car.

There was a lovely, relaxed atmosphere around the school. Perhaps it was relief. Perhaps it was the joy of getting most of the day off—for students and teachers. Perhaps it was seeing that nothing bad had happened. Perhaps, too, it was because the students had been so wonderful and calm, with no (observed) inappropriate behavior—we spied what we thought was a spitting contest and one very in love/lust couple who kept inching closer to each other. Besides that I saw a Frisbee game and a round of duck-duck-goose. What a great group of kids. There was no need to babysit them or stand guard over them.

I feel sorry for the obviously damaged person who sent the bomb scare, because his (her) life has irrevocably changed. Rumor also had it that the bomb scare was tied to a football game and an intense school rivalry. Sounds like some kind of patriotism gone bad.

In a totally unrelated event, the other day I found that an unknown student of mine—as in a student who sits in my classroom and who I spend my time trying to reach and teach—drew a large swastika and wrote the words "Heil Hitler" on the back of a handout that I gave out. I kept it for a day, thinking that I would try to discover who did it, but then I decided that I don’t want it or to have to think about and ripped it up and threw it out. I had confronted a few kids and they said that they didn’t do it, that they hadn’t even seen it.

You just wonder.

And then I think about the boy, Derrion Albert, who was beaten to death in Chicago less than two weeks ago. And you wonder how is it that so many kids seem to get the messages they are given about bullying and respecting each other, but there are still those who go as untouched by the onslaught of positive messages. Yes, maybe their home lives are not positive. Maybe they don’t feel that the messages touch them. Perhaps they never felt that anyone cares about them.

And a student was talked to by my co-teacher the other day because he thought that because he is a senior in high school he is allowed to be rude to his teacher—me.

And my daughter’s friend, who was nominated as a homecoming princess—as a joke, what of her? Her "crime" from what I can see is that she is chubby, or rather not skinny.

And you just keep wondering.

What of the children who hear the message, but get derailed by those who don’t?
I’m thinking that I will do a short lesson on hate and respect and self-respect. But will the kid who drew swastika hear me? And will the kid who is so full of disdain for me and “the system” hear me? I guess it doesn’t matter—because I will not let them defeat me—or let them think that they can defeat those of us who care about more than the negativity that swills through them.

Are we giving them mixed messages? When we deny them information, are we respecting? Are they, some of them at least, responding to the mixed messages they receive by responding to the negative messages?

Lots of wondering to do.


Waking from a Nap

On Friday afternoon I took my usual afternoon nap so that I could make it past eight o’clock still a member of the adult community. I napped on a couch in my lovely living room, facing the large sliding glass doors that are always open except when I go to sleep or when I’m not at home. When I woke the sky was in shades of gray; I tried not to think, but just to feel the coolness and the calm. When I finally got up I put on, for the first time in a few seasons, my light, at-home sweater that I bought years ago at a street market in Tel Aviv with a friend. The September chill felt more comforting than the heat of the summer. While I lay there my mind was focused on the now. It was a lovely interlude from the preoccupations of a wake and expressive self. It was a lovely interlude from the intensity of the first week of school and having to deal with exman and his stringent demand to adhere to the letter of the custody agreement that we drew up three years ago.

In a phone conversation later my mother told me that I shouldn’t think about how I had a lawyer who let me negotiate from a point a weakness and not a point of strength, but that was after we once more picked apart how utterly petty and evil my ex-husband is. It’s not that he really wants my younger daughter there, no. He even said to me in one of the fourteen calls that he made to me in the course of two hours the other night, and which he recorded, that he thinks I want her to stay with me more than is written in the agreement because I want to get more money from him. This is a man who has not paid a penny of child support since we moved out of the house in June. This is a man who ignored this wonderful girl for years while he tried to infiltrate the mind of my older daughter, until she went across the country to get away from him. This is a man who uses and manipulates.

The mantra that a friend told me I should recite to myself is “you’re out of there,” and that is good. I cannot tell you how at peace and happy I am in my apartment. And even the new school year and teaching a grade that I never taught before and needing to create all new lesson plans and teaching four different classes at religious school are all exciting and invigorating. So I know what feeling good is like. But the ache I have for my daughter is intense. As a glass half-full person I tell myself that at least I didn’t have to fulfill the custody agreement when the girls were younger, when it was both of them, that now, at least, his negativity and emotional cruelty towards me and the world will have less of an impact on my daughter, my sweet, sweet daughter who is no longer such an impressionable child.

But it’s so unbelievably hard having to deal with someone who is so very poisonous.

When I told him that I don’t want to have to talk to him, that I want to do these movement-of-daughter discussions via email and to please give me his email address he refused, because he doesn’t want to get emails from me. And when, after his recitation of his time calculations that will enable me to somewhat change the agreement for one week to confirm to my daughter’s request, I told him to just tell me when he would be over and if he was bringing Poops, his response to me was “don’t dictate to me.” My reasoned response was, “I’m hanging up.” And I did. Nor did I answer another one of his insane calls. I turned the sound off my cellphone so I wouldn't even have to be aware of them.

I know there are people who act as intermediaries between formerly-married couples so they don’t have to talk to each other. But I’m too tired of spending money on that man. I will try to deal with him on my own, and I will continue to strengthen myself by standing up to him—for me and my daughter-s. My mantra when dealing with him needs to be “He’s just a bully” because that’s all he is.

I can’t believe how endless this is.

In our conversation the other night my mother reminded me that he had told me that he will hound me until he can spit on my grave. He can’t do that. I am determined to compartmentalize my interactions with him, in fact, the writing of this post is the lighting of the fire and the extinguishing of it for this episode.

 

Today I wrote eight pages of my novel, which I can proudly say has reached 90 pages and which I am very pleased with. And I took Poops for two half-hour walks. And I created three handouts for my students (one each on apostrophes, commas and an in-class reading log). So I no longer let him impact me, much.

One day it will be four years from now and younger daughter will be off to college. And the burden of marrying wrong will have lifted even more from me—and them. But I will not wish those years to fly past; I want to enjoy my daughter as she grows into the woman she will become. And I want to enjoy listening to her sister blossom with each and every phone call. I will taste the sweetness and let the bitterness fall to the bottom of my cup, unstirred and undisturbed.


A New School Year

To all of us heading back to school, whether as teachers or students (and perhaps parents of students, parents of teachers, and even friends of teachers and students), let’s take a moment to pause and remember why we go to school. It might be something that we have to do. It’s a job for teachers and considered a job by many students. But beneath that reality (cynical or not), we still get to spend hours a day learning, instructing, discussing, reading, thinking, growing, developing—is there a better way to spend our time?

May this year be a joyous one filled with learning and sharing experiences.

May this year be one filled with the joy of epiphanies and conquests.

May this year fill your life with joy.


What I’m Reading

I’ve read many books this summer. As goes with my mind, the books are deeply entrenched in me when I read them and poof! gone the moment I finish them. They inform and inspire me as I read them and then I move on. The reading of them is another experience in my life. I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten and conversation I’ve had, so, too, with my reading material—it’s been absorbed into my system some stays, enriching the rest, and some goes. 

But right now I am in the midst of two books that point to the two ways my mind seems to be wandering of late. They are What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It by Trish Wood, and home safe by Elizabeth Berg.

One, as you can tell by the title, is a very tough-to-read book about what some soldiers have experienced in Iraq. The other is not; it is about a woman coming into herself after her husband dies. One I need to read because it is too horrible to think that “we” are fighting two wars, one since 2001 and the other since 2003, and yet my life is untouched and even my reading, except for some articles and the biographies that the Washington Post publishes when there have been enough deaths for a two-page spread.

I am determined to pass this reading onto my students. No, not just reading, I am determined to have them think outside of their boxes for a while. No, I am determined that they rise to their capability to think about the world they live in.

These wars have become the white noise behind the childhood of these kids (and our own “adult” lives); the seventeen-year olds I will be teaching would have been nine when the War in Afghanistan began and eleven when the Iraq War began. My assumption is that except for the kids who have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or the military (lots of military kids here, right down the road from the Pentagon and a number of bases) they are not very aware. Not only that, with all of the wars and sundry other things that the history teachers must cover in a year (my take on our history textbooks), they barely talk about Vietnam. So rather than read a novel that enables them to escape, which they surely know how to handle, I feel that we need to reach into the world we live in and consider it.

I’m not sure if I can blame them for their complacency when it’s us, the mature grown-ups, who have become complacent. Or have our experiences and observations made us not believe what Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

While there had been a time when I entertained visions of creating an NGO that changed people’s lives I have come to find that I am not so much of a doer. I feel bad about that, and no, no amount of wanting it is going to change my personality and I don’t care what all the self-help books say. But in my little classroom I am determined to do my part. It’s not possible that I have become an English teacher only to help kids master the comma and the thesis statement. There must always be a purpose behind a purpose. So, the woman with a master’s in conflict studies, is going to read and talk about war. And I’m excited about it.

Because the way to peace is to understand war.


The Symbolism of the Laundry

I just did a load of laundry. One bath towel. One blouse. Three tee shirts. One tee shirt-pajama top. Three pairs of undies. One bra. One pair of jeans. One cloth napkin. Two kitchen towels. A white wash is in the machine. I think there are four white shirts in that load.

The laundry is hanging to dry on a portable air dryer on the terrace.

Before May 16th, the last time I did a laundry for one, was in the apartment where I lived in Ramat Gan (a suburb-city outside of Tel Aviv) before I got married. Since then I have done thousands of loads for two, then for three, then for four.

Then for three, when I no longer did his laundry. He started doing his own laundry when I stopped folding his undies. The idea of touching them disgusted me and so I left them in a pile on the bed. I guess he got the message.

Then for two, when I no longer did younger daughter’s laundry. She took the modern version of home ec last year and once she had to do laundry as part of her class, she decided that she was going to keep doing it for herself. And she has stuck with that.

Then for one, when older daughter moved to California. She did her first load out there, all by herself. Apparently it’s not so hard and she has managed. Though I do think that younger daughter showed her how to do it before she left.

I’m glad I had all those endless piles of clothes to wash. I’m glad I got to care for loved ones in so basic a way. I loved folding clothes; such a simple way to nourish and nurture. And I loved doing the wash, such an obvious accomplishment. And now I’m glad that I only need to do my little loads that go into the small-capacity machine in this apartment.

It’s very insightful, doing just my own laundry. I see how much I bought things for them and not for myself. I see how my clothes are brighter than I thought they were. I see the continuity of life. Their lives. And mine.