Monday, August 15, 2016

When Work is Love

I am so lucky. Back in June, on the last day of school at the building where I work, we continued a lovely tradition of serenading the fifth graders as they exited the school as well as their elementary careers. Each year at this celebration I cry, with only a touch of embarrassment. Because, and this is why I am lucky, I grow to love each and every child who is in our classroom.

Impossible, you say? Every child? Oh, but you have to know that each child is so easy to love, and so worth loving. The returns on loving children are vast. Of course what there is to love about a child is unique to that child. It may be a wicked sense of humor, or an oversized heart, or a talent for writing, or a quirky way of seeing the world, or a sweet shyness. Anything, really. Knobby knees, large ears, a habit of sucking on a strand of hair when deep in thought.

Now that I have been doing this for six years, there are some hundred and fifty children (more if you count the ones who come in for math instruction, and I do - I have a good memory for people) about whom I care. My cat does something funny, and I think, "Oh, Paul would love this story." I go to a baseball game, and I make a mental note to tell Max about the lopsided score. I camp in the same park Maddy did a year ago, and wonder whether I will see a bear, as she did (and then wrote about in a wonderfully funny essay). I am so lucky.

I am so lucky, because the larger part of my job - the teaching is the smaller part, because young children are ready to learn and by and large do learn, with or without me - is to love these little people as if they were my own. And that is easy. Do parents understood how much we love their children? I'm not sure that I did, in the time and space when I was a parent but not yet working at a school.

No, I am not a teacher, and I do not decide what the curriculum should be (neither do teachers, sadly), or how the day should go. I am what is called a paraprofessional, an assistant to the teacher. "Only a para?" ask some of my friends and family. "But you were trained for so much more than that!"

If only I could help these well-meaning people understand that their question is wholly beside the point.

The way I see it is this: not having certain responsibilities (planning, grading, paperwork) allows me more time and energy to love the children. That's the way I like it. And if I have done my job by expressing the love I feel, that's the way the children like it, too.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Other Mile-High Club

In the window seat slouches a man with long blonde hair gone grey. He's pulled it into a ponytail. He has a weathered face, but look through the lines, and you'll find an aging California surfer, the Peter Pan on this flight. Because unbelievably, he packed his car keys in his checked luggage (dude, think), and one of the baggage handlers picked these keys up off the tarmac, where they had fallen out of his carelessly zipped bag, and brought them to the stewardess, who made an announcement that a set of keys had been found, described them, and then returned them to the really astoundingly hapless fellow in the window seat, who had at least had the wherewithal to press his call button at the mention of the keys. As I look on, the stewardess shoots him a half-withering, half-pitying look and begins to dress him down as if she were his mother, which she could easily be, I suppose. You must never check your keys. What a bad idea. A really bad idea! You are very lucky, sir, do you know that? He is mute, chastened by her ferocity. He knows that he has been foolish, and he doesn't understand that he might want to resent her tone. He's too affable for that. Wedged between him and me is a slight thirty-something with impossibly red hair, more hair than freckled face underneath. She does not like flying, and it shows. She tells me that she is a freelance court reporter, and while her mouth is shaping phrases like it's a way for me to make more money and the travel doesn't bother me, because I don't have children, her eyes are telling a far lonelier story. She's still attached to her parents, lives very near them, and she is protected by them in ways she may not understand for years. To wit: she places two calls, one before we leave the gate, the other after we land. Both are to her parents, who want to make sure that she's eaten dinner (she has) and that she doesn't need them to pick her up from the airport, because they will, they really will, she has only to say the word.


There's a cameraderie among airplane passengers that is unique, born of shared desire (we all just want to get wherever it is we're going) and intermingled fear (in one piece, thank you very much). Adults look fondly on children (unless they are under three), and because there is time to think more deeply than the frantic pace of daily living allows, they are wistful (the court reporter, who obviously wants children but feels herself to be impossibly far from a time when she might gaze with wonder and surprise at her own newborn), or knowing (the elderly woman in the row behind the boys; her looks says clearly to me, enjoy them, because before you know it, it will be too late, and you will be devastated by that discovery), or regretful (the college-aged boy with the set jaw and wary eyes, who, I think, would like nothing more than to be ten again, because somehow he overslept and missed the class on navigating the emotional complexities concomitant with young adulthood). Or they are simply amiable. The man in front of the boys banters with my five-year-old, who is all Spiderman, from his shoes to his shirt to his activity book. He keeps calling my son "Spidey," causing him to blush furiously and giggle. The forty-something man, he must have kids of his own, because his manner with Spidey is so easy and playful, and because he's enjoying flirting with a five-year-old so much. I think he must have daughters at home, only daughters.


As the plane lands, the openness and collegiality, moments ago as wide as the fabled Montana sky, of this cast of characters snaps shut like so many briefcases, purses, and cell phones. Faces are abruptly closed for business, and everyone's hurrying, if not with their feet (because the plane doors have not yet been opened), then with their eyes and their gestures. Now my boys are irritants, because their gangly and loose limbs, their naturally relaxed stances, are an affront to the forward progress of the same people who for a time saw themselves, or their children, in my children. It strikes me that pressed tight and close in an unforgiving and vaguely threatening metal tube, people might say and do anything. It's protected space, and it's sacrosanct. Affairs might be revealed to strangers who somehow don't feel strange at 37,000 feet, regrets articulated, secrets confessed, longings expressed, quirks admitted. Yet the instant the wheels of the plane awkwardly renew their contact with the ground, we all wordlessly agree that whatever might have gone on above those cottony clouds was a dream, merely that, like the plane's wings, which once earthbound make no sense at all. Out of flight they manage only to get in the way. 

written in 2007

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Eighteen Years in a Blink and an Essay

If I were tempted to offer parenting advice to those new to the endeavor, I'd immediately laugh at myself, because who am I? That's true, and also this: I feel as I send my firstborn off to college that I know less than I ever did about parenting. As the world becomes scarier and scarier (it doesn't really; that's just perception, but a healthy one, on the whole, because it spurs corrective action), it's trickier to figure out how to prepare one's offspring for it.

Except - and maybe this is what I have learned, after all, about parenting - you don't have to prepare your children. They end up preparing themselves quite handily for the world they will inherit.

I remember as a young parent fretting about so many tiny things. It is a luxury to fret about tiny things, all the while believing the tiny things to be large. Which teachers my sons would be assigned every school year serves as an example (one of many, many). When I was in school back in the Jurassic period, I had my share of fabulous teachers (thank you, Alice Gottlieb and Karl Kirchwey), and a few not-so-fabulous ones. As one does. I learned what I needed to in either case, and discovered inner resources I hadn't known I possessed when forced occasionally to steer the course of my own education. So that's how it goes. Every experience teaches something of value.

As a parent I have taught by example what not to do as often as I have taught what to do, and that should be expected. Who among us is a perfect model of what an adult (in the best sense of the word, as in a mature, enlightened person) should be?

So to the second piece of parenting wisdom I've accrued: do not be afraid to apologize to your children when (not if) you have been less adult than you intended to be. They appreciate an apology, and they never take advantage of one.

I wish I had sat down and played more with my kids. You don't get that time back, the time when they want to play on the floor. Grandchildren, just you wait!

One more bit of advice I promised I would not offer: do drive your kids hither and yon when they are teenagers. Because the best (most spontaneous, most genuine) conversations will take place in the car. Trust me on this. Why the car? I think because its occupants do not have to look at one another as they talk. Secrets are revealed, fears voiced, annoyances aired. Magic happens in the car.

So let's recap:

1. Don't sweat the small stuff, because children are sponges and absorb what they need from any experience, ideal or (more often) not.

2. Don't be above apologizing when you as parent are in the wrong.

3. Get on the floor -- not to scrub it. The scrubbing can wait. The time children spend building with Legos or dressing dolls or drawing is short, and precious for it.

4. Car time with teenagers is essential.

That wasn't too bad, was it?