sideways rabbit

Thursday, January 26, 2012

From Scarred Souls to Smartboards (Back When Grammar School Wasn't for Chickens)

Not that we're competitive or anything, but my husband and I love to play a macabre little game that could be titled: "Whose Backwoods Elementary School Inflicted the Greater Amount of Physical and Emotional Damage?" Both of us attended rural grammar schools in the mid-1970s, albeit in different sections of the country: me in the wintry farming valleys of extreme western New York State, he in a sparsely populated Piedmont county straddling both Carolinas.

I had a teacher who tied errant students to their seats with jump ropes and shut any saucy mouths with swaths of masking tape. Another smelled continually of cheap gin and once slurringly remarked about an art project of mine: "That looks like a pile of crap." (Her self-satisfied air suggested she'd let me down easy, choosing a relatively wholesome adjective when she might have used a word better suited to her earthy, explosive nature.) In fourth grade, a male teacher body-slammed me against the blackboard for allegedly laughing during the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a "gifted" class. Our enlightened leader was a disgruntled, 400-pound Vietnam vet struggling with some, ahem, massive personal issues.

Scott talks about his elementary-school principal who stalked the halls with a spanking paddle in hand. The giant wooden slab was pocked with large holes, which somehow, thanks to physics, made its eventual contact with its targets all the more painful. Field trips, no lie, were to the county jail. (At least in our school we were bused to the inner-city planetarium for fun.) Instead of educational, these excursions to prison were meant to be cautionary. Fly right, or get used to your final destination behind bars. The young students were invited to feast their eyes on the offerings inside the evidence lab. Scott clearly recalls a pickled finger floating accusingly inside a briny Mason jar, casualty of a domestic disturbance involving a sharp kitchen knife.

The well-documented Horrors of the Bus is where my husband stretches our little contest into the winner's circle, earning what they term in horse-racing a "photo finish." The most spectacular bus incident I remember is some enterprising hooligan lighting a marker on fire and rolling it under the seats. But Scott and his peers were treated to an extracurricular show of human sexuality. He says -- he swears on his copy of Church of the Subgenius -- that the busdriver, a high-school student, drove his young charges to their various destinations while being pleasured in a creative way by his amazingly fearless girlfriend. A blaring boombox set near the bus's vestibule thoughtfully masked the auditory portion of the proceedings.

Delicate readers, how things have changed. No longer are our children required to attend whatever unholy assemblage of cinderblock, pitiful funding and tenured nutcases happens to comprise their neighborhood public school.

Today, here and now in Asheville, N.C., lucky parents who live in the city proper get to choose from no less than eight public elementary schools, three charter schools and five "magnet" schools. Plenty of you already know the idea behind magnets -- schools with themes (science, arts, etc.) that are intended to attract parents who've decided (probably prematurely) that their child shines in one of these disciplines. Really, what's great about these schools is that the competitiveness for enrollment means they all boast similar progressive features and reasonably competent teachers. Each school has a computerized "Smart Board" (what, you thought they still used blackboards?), and each one tries to outdo the others in after-school programs and stimulating classroom environments. I saw free-range chickens and rabbits, obelisk-topped music rooms, pillow-strewn lofts for "quiet time," beautiful woodland trails. In our local-food-loving city, each magnet school features a much bragged-about garden in which students are required to sow, eat, and deeply appreciate their own vegetables.

In fact, I'm quite sure that a school without a garden will eventually be considered as abusive as a school with a paddle-wielding principal.

Recently, open houses for rising kindergarteners were conducted at all the city's magnet schools. I dutifully attended each one. Despite our herd mentality as Concerned Involved Parents, my fellow tour-mates and I diverged sharply in our points of interest. My issue is anti-bullying: who has the most intensive program in that area? Others wanted to know whether the national push to improve school-lunch offerings had yet to reach local cafeterias. What about drama programs, all but leveled by state budget cuts? How interactive was each school's principal?

I have my favorite school, with high hopes of getting in. But when I find myself getting too torqued up over the decision, I have to remember that whether or not my son gets to enter the Room Formerly Known as the Library (now "media centers" in all schools) once a week, twice a week, twice every other week, accompanied by a teacher picking out his books or left to his own selections, it will make a negligible impact on his overall scholastic career and emotional health. No crap. No gin. No pickled fingers. It's all (mostly) good.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Great (Aunt) Expectations

Sometimes I picture my only child like a round little river rock surrounded by ever-expanding ripples of soul-protection. The closest ripple is his immediate family -- myself, my husband, and my twin sister who's helped raise him. His four little cousins are another important ripple. If you have to be an only child, it is fabulously lucky to have four first cousins who just happen to be your exact same age. (More on this extraordinary coincidence in a future post.)

Next comes the grandparent ripple, a complicated one that also deserves its own post. And then, further out because of physical distance but towing an enormous pull in its wake, is my son's Great-Aunt Ripple. He has four of them, wonderful women all: my father's four sisters, ranging in age from early 50s to early 70s. They all live within a few miles of one another, but, alas, 1000 miles away from us. They have four distinct personalities, but all of them live to laugh, and love to bestow their various grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-nieces and great-nephews with handmade gifts so unique and well-done they put upstart crafters to shame.

These ladies were ETSY before ETSY was even an embryo. Since Beau was born, he has received no less than three quilts from them, one made out of John Deere-printed fabric with his name in foot-tall letters on the back; white fisherman sweaters and eggplant-shaped hats; and blankets and books galore, including, memorably, a custom-assembled hardcover book using personal photos and a story line his great-aunt wrote to his interests (i.e., trucks and tractors).

This fall, we went up north to visit, and there was a party to celebrate all the October birthdays in the family. Somehow, though, it was my own October baby who came away with the bounty. The take included a book about making homemade toy boats, complete with all the materials needed to make them; a triptik for the 12-hr. drive back comprised of a paper grab bag for every state we passed through (inside each bag was a puzzle or book, a snack and a toy); and a gingerbread house to make. While we were there, Beau was presented with the decorative embellishments for two homemade cakes -- two! One great-aunt managed to find candy Legos. Another great-aunt bought licorice "worms" and a load of other scary edibles to make a haunted cake. Putting these elaborate confections together was an artistic joy for Beau, jumpstarting a love of whipping up interesting messes in the kitchen.

Most recently, one of the great-aunts sent him a roll-out fabric "road" she'd made, printed with bulldozers and edged with a series of pockets to shelter matchbox cars. It gave me a shock of nostalgia, being reminiscent of something made for my sister and me, from the same source, almost 40 years ago: a felt wall hanging with pockets marked A-Z that held small felt toys for each letter.

The fabric road came with a comment: "I know he'll do something creative with this." It is precisely that sentiment that makes all their gifts so irreplaceable. Beau's too young yet to fully appreciate what these ladies do for him, but basking in thoughtfulness this authentic, and being expected to bring his own ideas to the proverbial table, can only be a good thing. Make that great.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Mitzu Species" and Other Thrills of the Hunt

Sometimes you just run out of ideas, and then genius forms of entertainment emerge in all their amorphous, low-test, cost-free glory.

It's been a snowless, dull sort of winter. We've hiked a little, we've played board games, we've read, we've had "playdates" (all fun, but I can't say this smarmy word aloud anymore, I just can't) and drop-offs, we've gone to the museum and the mini-golf place, we've gone to the Y, we've wallowed in blizzards of flour making cookies, biscuits, and salt-dough beads and boulders. And we've watched every "Scooby-Doo" ever made, retro and current. Shaggy's Casey-Kasem-voiced hysterics are stamped in my brain like some uncomfortably familiar second id. (I'm scared too, Shaggy. And I want a huge sandwich as well. I'm scared too. And I want a chocolate cream pie.)

Good Lord, it's not even February. The other day I picked Beau up from his preschool, which only lasts until 11:30 in the morning. It's more like pre-pre-school: anything that lets out while my coffee is still kicking in sort of doesn't count. (Not that I'm discounting the hard work of those teachers, bless their kind, no-nonsense, unbelievably organized hearts.) It was 28 degrees and sunny, with a 10 mph sharp north wind blowing. Driving back from Candler to Asheville, a single possibility emerged: a trip to the immense Skyland Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Mazda, Mitsubishi Dealership.

It was acres and acres of glitzy new vehicles, all bearing five-digit pricetags. Its sheer size was comforting, though, because only one salesman bore the cold to come out and ask if he could help us. I was all ready with a lie, something like, "yes, we're definitely looking to purchase a $30,000 giant pickup truck sometime in the new year; right now we're just deciding between the disco-green and Satan-black color." But the wind cut close and I only managed the truth: "Honestly, this is just for fun. I promise we won't touch anything."

Amazingly, he didn't seem to mind. He paused a second, his sales training caught in his throat like a midwinter phlegm event, and said: "Well, y'all let me know if you need me." After that we sailed. It was a memorable day for Beau...all those trucks, all those shiny new trucks, in one place. He can recognize any vehicle brand in manufacturing existence by the mere shape of the label, and was at first content just to skip between the rows, shouting out: "A Dodge Dakota. A Chevy. A Mitzu-species. Another Mitzu-species."

Pretty soon that wasn't enough, and he had to go in for some close contact. We kept our promise, sort of. We didn't touch anything...with our hands. But whenever he saw a "dualie" -- that's a big ol' truck with two pairs of conjoined-twin tires in the back -- he had to bend down and give the bumper a gentle kiss. All the dualies were likewise distinguished.

My phone struck noon, and we hadn't even seen the Jeeps or Mustangs. "Mom, this is going to be a good day all day long."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Kick Start: The Journey to Karate

Our household is about as disciplined as a bag of sugar spilled on a shag carpet. So I figured a little karate might benefit our only child, and I enrolled him in a beginning program last August. Admittedly, it is a loose, fun program, a class combined with gymnastics -- not one of those scary martial-arts schools that tend to thrive in blank cinderblock buildings, the barely accredited kind governed by clench-jawed INDIVIDUALS WITH ISSUES.

Really, that's not true at all. It had nothing to do with discipline. We ended up in karate because we couldn't do soccer. Beau is prone to leg injuries, and after a knee sprain this summer, his orthopedist directed us away from the inevitable youth starter sport: soccer, he said, was rife with potential disasters to legs.

I was secretly relieved. Although we'd certainly support Beau in whatever he chose to do, we don't follow team sports in our house, at all, which makes us a slightly grotesque curiosity in some corners. Because we're not exactly intellectuals, either, but somewhere in the middle. Neither Bergman nor the Broncos shall brighten the corner where WE are.

But I digress.

Karate. Unlike the three other athletic endeavors we've tried so far -- swimming lessons, basketball, and T-ball, with a respective success rating from disastrous to reasonably enjoyable -- the karate class did not require close involvement from parents. We watch through an observation window, but y'know, they're all dressed in white, it's hard to tell who's who, it lasts an hour, and it's all too easy to pick up a book, diddle on the phone, or start a gossip session with a fellow mom. In short, I really had no idea whatsoever what he was learning in there.

And he wouldn't tell me. Beau's like his dad: when he doesn't want to talk, which is a lot of the time, wild senseis couldn't drag words out of him. When I pick him up from his morning preschool class, for instance, our conversations tend to run something like this:

"Hey, Beau. What did you do today?"
"I dunno."
"But you were just there. Surely you remember something."
"Mmmm....I dunno."
"Did you have a good day?"
"Look at that flatbed in front of us, Mom. He's hauling 4,000 million boards. Or maybe just six."

But at least he was getting exercise in karate, and seemed in great spirits at the end of every class. Then I learned there was to be a "board breaking" ceremony to commemorate the jump from white to yellow belt. Really? Impossible. I pictured some kind of trick board, with a pocket of air in the middle, like one of those ersatz dictionaries with a secret cache for a whiskey flask. They were going to break real boards? How had that had a chance to happen? Pessimist that I am, I began to brood, again, that I'd chosen the wrong activity for my son's laidback personality. We practiced at home for the board-breaking, just a little, using a phonebook. But he went all noodly on me, distracted by a tow truck on the book's back cover.

The day came: today. Looking utterly bored before he was called -- or was it the proper meditative spirit? too soon to tell -- he executed a fierce sidekick and smashed his board apart, an exhilarating move that seemed to surprise him most of all. He stared. Everyone cheered. He closed his mouth. I gushed.

Later, at home, I suggested we put the broken board on the same shelf as his T-ball trophy. First things first, though. Two halves of a pine plank mean nothing if a fleet of matchbox cars has not parked on them.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Six Little Mittens and One Fat Migraine

It got cold this week. For about ten minutes. In fact, we experienced an incredible temperature variance of nearly 80 degrees, from a high of 67 degrees in the valley on Saturday to a night low of 10 below zero (in the higher elevations) in 24 hours. Once upon a time, I would have dwelt on the wicked vagaries of climate change: January in Asheville used to be reliably, consistently cold-ish, with snowflakes more or less around every day and the occasional blizzard blowing in to liven things up.

This time, I was too busy doing a scramble for Beau's mittens to worry about global doom. Since we don't use them regularly, it's guaranteed they'll be awol when needed. I dumped out his underwear-sock-mitten-random-lost-Lego drawer and came up with no less than six gloves/mittens. Notice I didn't say "pairs." All were singletons -- not a mate in sight.

There's so much that's wrong about this. I'm not sure how we even came to be in the possession of so many mittens when I can count on one glove-less hand the number of times they're necessary during an Asheville winter nowadays. More gravely, the dearth of even one matching pair points a finger -- or rather five fingers -- at my egregious lack of organization.

At such times my mind always darts to my mom friends who are wrangling big broods with better sense than I manage one. I have a dear local friend, R., with four sons, age 13 mos. to six years. Four boys! My sister-in-law, M., a gorgeous superstar of a grande dame who runs a horse farm and five-year-old triplets with equal aplomb, would never wantonly lose her kids' mittens in frostbite temperatures. This is a divine certainty. Finally, and inevitably, there's my friend of longest acquaintance (since third grade), who's got six kids. Math isn't my thing, but I think that if C. lost the number of mittens I have, it would equal about 36. Right? She'd be the first to admit it, though, loyal Viking that she is.

I can dress Beau in mismatched socks and it'd take him a week to realize it. But he'll notice right away if his hands are awry. The best I can do is choose the black glove and the black mitten, a variance undetectable from a few paces back. Up close, it looks sort of cute, like a hoof and a claw. God bless the animals. They never judge.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chop Shop

Beau was born with a full head of black hair, and it almost immediately fell out, as newborn hair often does. He was left with a brushy thatch on his back crown that, paired with his round cheeks, made him look amusingly like an infant Kim Jong Il. When it grew back, it was feathery, soft, dark chestnut, and voluminous. Here in Asheville, many little boys sport long hair. But the first time someone complimented me on my pretty little girl, when my son was about 10 months, he got his first haircut tout de suite. Turns out I was more traditional than I fancied myself to be.

I still have those first clippings. Since the inaugural chop, however, his hair's been cut so much I don't attach any sentiment to it. We zigzagged between salon and home haircuts, according to which mode I was in -- fond indulgence or determined frugality. Then my husband stepped in.

A haircut by Scott is a distinctive work of art. He's not trained, yet somehow the style looks remarkably the same every time. The first couple days, Beau's hair resembles a nest gathered in haste by a small, self-deprecating winter mammal. Soon enough it sprouts into a miniature sort of hipster cut: the Keith Richards shag with an elfin undertone.

There was a wiggly period that resulted in a haircut with big patches of exposed scalp. We thus entered the Years of Compromise, age 3-5, when I took Beau to one of those $10 chain places, emerging with a stare-proof -- if uninspired -- ’do. Today, though, spurred by cabin fever, Scott got out his shears. He draped Beau in a towel, salon-style, to promote big-boy behavior. It's possible a sugary bribe may have been involved.

"Now you can see his eyebrows," my husband said. Indeed.