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Posts tagged ‘Elementary school’

Black ice

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One year later, I am still grieving for Newtown.

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[Originally posted December 17, 2012]

The morning after last Friday, my five-year-old son, C, went over to his little play table, and told me not to look. But I watched his back as he sat quietly, even though he kept calling over his shoulder: “Don’t look at what I’m doing.” What else could I do, but look at him? Since he came home from kindergarten the day before all I could do was hold his face in my hands, rumple his baby-chick hair, listen to him earnestly tell me about another Friday at school. I hardly let him walk at all on Friday night, and Saturday morning; I practically carried him around the house with his head on my shoulder. So he knew something was up.

“OK, you can look now,” he called, and I hurried over to him. He made me a card. “C loves Mommeyy” it said.

I turned away from him, hid my tears. I rummaged in the drawer to find tape, take a breath, and stick the card up on a cabinet. I hugged him, again. “Don’t forget T,” he said, and I hugged the two-year-old too. Again. And that little glimpse of sadness is about as much of an inkling I want them to have that something horrible happened on Friday.

The internet is clogged with cliches this week, and here’s another: once you become a parent, you can never relax again. It’s a cliche because it’s true. And I can’t. A parent’s job is to anticipate peril, in any form, and shield a child from it as best we can, for as long as we can. But what about a peril, an evil, that’s so palpable, and hits us right where we send our children to be safe, and to thrive? We all know danger is always right around the corner, no matter what we do, but this is too stark and immediate a reminder to us all that everything must end.

I am sure I am not alone when I say it was difficult to send C to school today. Another embodiment of the fact that every goodbye releases him into the unknown. So we all put on boots and hats; instead of one or the other of us dropping C at school a few houses up the street, we all decided to go.

When we opened our front door, it looked like another raw, wet December day in New England. But on his first step out of the house, C slipped and fell. The wooden porch and steps were covered with a thin, invisible layer of black ice. The front walk looked merely wet but it was too, too slick; back in the house we went. We would go out the back door. But those steps were the same. We stumbled back into the house.

Finally, we made it out the third, and last door, through the murky basement. Cobwebs cover the stone foundation walls. C hoped that our noise would scare away the mice he thinks run rampant down there. “What’s that?!” A leaf scurried across our path as we opened the door.

Out on the sidewalk, C was still slipping on the invisible ice, and I walked tentatively, clutching a squirming T. I grabbed a bush to steady myself as I walked, and the leaves crackled. “I’d better take T back inside. Just hold on to C and go,” I said to their dad. There were more pressing dangers at hand; I couldn’t risk a fall to make a statement that would only soothe me, and not protect the boys.

Aside from police that are set to cruise by schools in town throughout the day, it will, I hope, be just another day. And though I will continue to grieve for Newtown, and pray that something good will come of this nightmare, I will say nothing of it all to C. He is five; he is too little to comprehend the evil that people are capable of in the world, evil that can end the lives of twenty beautiful children, and how close to it we all can find ourselves. Though on the other side of it, there is a lesson to be learned in the bravery that was shown by so many that day.

Little kids, judging from watching my own at play, see the world in black and white, like the pages of a comic book. Nearly every game C invents with his friends is about “good guys” and “bad guys.” It could be Spider-Man, or Batman, or themselves in superhero form. But in their make-believe world, the emphasis is not on the evil that these dreamed-up bad guys do. They are just bad; what they do is never specified. What’s important, in the game, is the imperative that the good guys (themselves included) have to vanquish evil and save the day.

“Are bad guys real?” C asked me a few days ago, before any of this happened. “They are,” I said. “Bad guys in comics aren’t real, but there are people in the world that aren’t nice, that do bad things. But there are good guys out there, to stop them.”

We can’t always, as we learned so painfully, stop them. And I can’t always carry my children around the house, or away from black ice, or shield them from terrible things. They will have to be able to stand on their own one day. But not today.

Now, all I can do is foster the good that lives in them, and remind them of the good in the world, the kindness, the bravery. In our town, and other New England towns like ours. And I will remind them with a smile, with warmth and reassurance, while all the while I wear a mantle of grief and fear, that I will hide behind me.

How Not to Talk With Children About the Newtown Shooting (from the Motherlode blog at The New York Times)

Missing teeth

A young boy after losing two baby teeth, exfol...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was seven years old when my mother lost her last baby teeth. She was 32. I remember sitting at our dining room table and my mother striding in from the kitchen, then stopping. She put her thumbs in her mouth, gingerly touching each incisor. “Uh-oh,” she said. “My teeth are loose.” She wiggled her baby fangs, smaller than the rest of her teeth.

My mother and I were losing teeth at the same time! We were going through a childhood rite of passage together. The only difference was that my falling teeth were followed by visits from the tooth fairy, and hers by trips to the dentist to get fakes to replace adult teeth that were never going to come in.

In time, the family condition caught up with me. I was 10 when those same baby teeth came loose in my own mouth, with no permanent teeth underneath. I had to get a false tooth attached to my braces. Then at 11 I had a little operation to pull the other incisor down into my mouth from way up in my gums, or my head, wherever it was, tucked up in my sinuses, or my brain. I’ve heard of tumors that can grow teeth and hair within their amorphous masses. Teeth are strange, lawless little things that can grow in all the wrong places.

Eventually, when my braces came off, I had a bridge put in like my mother’s. Little metal wings stick the fake tooth to the two real teeth on either side. I walk around in my adult life waiting for the glue to become unstuck.  Where will I be, I wonder, when the bridge inevitably falls out? A PTA meeting? Pulling out my own child’s teeth?

After college, I went to a dentist for a checkup near where I lived in Brooklyn. I knew someone who lived above his office; she called him the “rentist.”

“Wow,” the rentist said when he checked my bridge. Then he said that since I had fewer teeth than the vast majority of people it meant that I was “highly evolved.” Fancy that. (Actually, it’s a genetic condition called hypodontia.) People with fewer teeth and less hair, according to him, were the future of the human race. A sleeker, smoother, less ferocious version of our atavistic selves, who would run wild through primeval forests, on the hunt, shaggy hair flying, like gaping, growling vestigial tumors.

I thought of my mother, with an extra missing incisor and fine, thin, straight hair. So she is as powerful as she would have us believe.

Naturally, I expected that my sons, being one generation more evolved than me, would also have a long wait for the tooth fairy. Imagine my surprise when I got a text from their Dad a short while ago: “C has a loose tooth!”

I was shocked. First because I’m usually there for every little thing my five-year-old does, for good or ill, and now I miss a major milestone whilst sitting in an Indian restaurant with a friend. As I picked up a samosa I felt a little woozy. I had a visceral reaction to the idea of these strange bones wobbling around his head.

I made it home just as C was settling into his bed. He let me put my finger in his little mouth and feel the front bottom tooth wiggle. “The tooth fairy is going to come soon!” I told him, a maniacal smile on my face. “Who’s the tooth fairy?” he asked.

I stroked his head as C fell asleep, untroubled by the tooth and the threats of paranormal nighttime visitors. I touched his cheek. But he just got these teeth! I thought. And they’re going already?

I closed the door to his room and went back down the dark stairs into the lighted kitchen, guns blazing. “Tomorrow we have to pull that tooth. It’s ready to come out. I feel queasy just thinking about it,” I said to his dad.

“Why?” he said. “What’s the rush?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s the rush?’ We can’t just leave it hanging in there!”

“Why are you getting so excited about this? It will just fall out on its own, when its ready.”

Fall out when it’s ready? That’s not the way it was done in my family.  I knew my sisters would understand. I texted them about C’s tooth, and they both responded: “Don’t tell Crair.”

Our family is filled with stories of teeth that have been waylaid up in our heads or gone permanently missing. But when one of us gets a long-awaited loose tooth, it is removed post-haste. You’d think we’d want to enjoy it, let it hang out for a while. No. In our Italian family, our grandmother, whose teeth were most often found in a water-filled jar, or our aunt Crair (actually Elda Pia, which was Americanized to Claire, which became Crair in broken English) was summoned.

They were witch doctors for loose teeth. I still squirm when I think of myself at Crair’s house: steamy from bubbling pots on the stove, the telegiornale blaring, a thumb wrapped in a handkerchief bounding toward me. A sharp yank downwards. A dull, knee-weakening pain. The handkerchief shoved in to stop the blood.

I asked my husband, “This never happened to you?”

“No, that’s not how normal people do it. My parents never pulled out my teeth. I would just do it myself.  When it was really loose, I would just lift it out.” He moved his fingers like he was plucking a crocus. “Your family is weird.” Oh, really, you think my family is weird? I’ve never heard that before. ‘Mericani, I muttered. Just letting teeth flail about, instead of being proactive about it.

A few days passed, and the tooth was still dangling from C’s gums at all sorts of odd angles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took matters into my own hands. He was at the dining room table waiting for an afterschool snack.

“Sssooo…do you want an apple? ” I asked him. He would. Super! Such a simple snack. I grabbed one from the kitchen, ran it under the tap, and proffered it to him in an enticing Lightning McQueen napkin.

“Is it fresh from the farm?” he asked. Kids these days.

“Oh yes.” I nodded innocently. “Enjoy, son.”

I went about my business. Then I heard, “What’s this?” On the napkin was a tiny morsel of white, with a bright red tip. Was it a bit of apple?

I was delighted. I picked him up and carried him around, making a fuss. I took pictures of the tooth, and his new smile, and sent them around. I talked up the tooth fairy, big time. C himself was a bit confused. “That red on the tooth is from the apple, right?” Sure it is. And then he moved on, to cars, Legos, pestering his little brother, who had eaten the remainder of the apple, seeds and all, when I was carrying on about the tooth.

I remember thinking, when C was a newborn, that once he sat up, or rolled over, I would never see him the same way again. He would become a totally different person to me. And now, with this tooth, and another one that fell out the following day at a Chinese restaurant, mid-dumpling (we never found it: presumed swallowed), it was the same. He was shedding his skin, and becoming a new, older boy, right before my eyes. As I parent I would need to catch up, again, and quickly morph into the mother of a genuine schoolboy, not a toddler, not a preschooler anymore.

Peeking in his mouth, I see a new tooth has already erupted; the baby tooth had no choice but to flee. Through these long days that make up life with little children, when it takes what seems like days to put on shoes and get out the door, they evolve so quickly into big, independent people. It’s like watching a time-elapsed video of a flower blooming. I try to keep up, but I know that one day, like the dinosaurs, I’ll be left behind by the march of time.

Even so, I am anxious for change to happen. I think of all the times I would prop up the boys up to sit, or roll them over, or wiggle C’s loose teeth. Though I love the boys how they are now, I know it’s my end game to see them through.

My mother was there as C’s second tooth came out in the restaurant. She looked over at him a little wistfully. “I’m still waiting for the tooth fairy,” she said.

It’s the great Halloween anxiety, Charlie Brown

This is real-time anxiety happening here, as I write at the coffee shop while C is at kindergarten. This morning I sent him to his school Halloween celebration as half a vampire.

Weeks ago, C decided he wanted to be a vampire for Halloween. His Dad bought him some rubber teeth and face paint, so he’s set there. So what else does the costume entail? I struggled to think.

I’m not that creative when it comes to sewing or Halloween costumes. And I’ve never really enjoyed trick-or-treating that much. For me, as a nervous kid, it was just another avenue for rejection – who would invite you to their party? Would you have to go out alone? What if your costume wasn’t any good? So you see what my start-point for Halloween is.

The cape was crucial to C’s transformation to vampire. “I’m going to wear my superhero cape,” he declared. It’s royal blue with a big yellow thunderbolt on it.

“But a vampire wears a black cape,” I told him. No. He doesn’t want to wear a black cape. OK.

I looked online to see what a kids’ vampire costume looks like in the marketplace.

No. That’s ridiculous. I just can’t. And come on, I thought, trying to cajole the Halloween spirit out, I can make a costume myself! Isn’t that what Halloween is all about? That should win points. With whom, I should have asked.

I scoured the local craft shops (O look at me! Aren’t I great for avoiding the big-box stores!) for more vampire accoutrement. Since grown-up, sexy lady vampire was out of the question, I didn’t find much. Just an adult-sized wig that I thought I could trim and gel, but it just ended up looking like a shedding black cat. So I bought a white dress shirt, by “Joey Couture,” which felt like tissue paper. I added some navy sweatpants, for comfort. I found a medal he’d won as a party prize. With the teeth, the pallid face, black-rimmed eyes, and blood-red lips (I am confident in make-up, at least), C should be good to go.

Then the notice came home from school. No fake blood. No face paint. Nothing violent. The teeth would definitely be confiscated, ala A Christmas Story. Rats. Maybe I can turn him into a True Blood-style vampire, ala Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgaard). He’s already got the hair and the J.Crew sweaters. No cape and Dracula gear required…no, probably not.

This morning, C gamely put on his sweatpants, his shirt, his cape. “These are the most important parts of a vampire costume anyway,” he said.

We opened our front door and headed to school. Heading down the steps, I noticed someone stole our pumpkin. No jack-o-lantern tonight. Keep going. A group of C’s classmates was walking up the street. A witch, a tiger, a princess. “Are you a superhero?” the witch asked.

“I’m a vampire,” C said quietly.

“He’s a baby vampire,” I said, to the parents, I suppose. “His teeth haven’t come in yet.” I felt the need to make excuses, not for him, but for myself, as I started to get the feeling I let him down, with his dressy-yet ready for gym class-superhero get-up.

When we got to the playground, the place was swirling with store-bought costumes of every variety. More tigers. More princesses. Superheroes of every stripe. A ninja. And C, with his halo of blond hair, his blue eyes and long, drooping eyelashes, hardly looking like a creature of the night. “Are you Superman, C?” asked one of his friends, dressed as a superhero whose name I didn’t catch, resplendent with fake muscles.

“No!” T spoke up, marching up to this macho man, in his Snoopy Halloween t-shirt. “Vam-pah!”

The bell rang, and C got in line. He was quiet, but he always is when he heads into school. Yet my sinking feeling was growing. What if I’ve failed him? I worried. What if my poor attempt at making a genuine Halloween costume, with my lack of skills and vision, is going ruin his first schoolboy Halloween? What have I done? Good grief.

My face was a mask of cheer as I said goodbye. “You look so great!” The parade of costumes started moving. “Good-bye, Vampire!”

Even T was in on it. “Bye!” He jumped and waved. “Arrgghh!” He did his best scary monster sound.

We trudged home through the hurricane-tossed leaves. It’s my job, I thought, to fill C with confidence, so he’d be dashing around the schoolyard, cape flying. And just because I didn’t press click on a costume because I thought it was tacky, maybe he feels less-than. And the fears started gathering strength and speed as they swirled through my mind. What if he, because of this botched first attempt, never likes Halloween again? He was so excited about it this year. He drew a jack-o-lantern in the October 31 box on the kitchen calendar. He decorated our house with orange streamers and webs and fake spiders. He told everyone he was going to be a vampire. And now, as they are probably at this moment marching through the school hallways showing off their costumes, is he?

My mother made incredible Halloween costumes for me as a kid: a parrot with crepe-paper wings, the Statue of Liberty, with green face paint and a dyed sheet. I was Halley’s Comet the year it appeared, as a giant painted sandwich board affair. One year I was Where’s Waldo, that was pretty good. And, despite all my worry, when I think back, I did go to parties, and trick-or-treating; I roamed streets with silly string and shaving cream. I did have fun. So this anxiety comes from me, not my experiences – and it’s still in me. As I write, I am making a vow to not dump all that in C’s trick-or-treat bag, as it were.

Maybe Halloween is never going to be like it was in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I’m not going to be able to cut holes in a sheet, throw it over the boys, and send them out into the night, all innocence and sincerity. There are going to be store-bought costumes, and stickers instead of candy, and rules to follow to make Halloween palatable for the modern school day. But it will always be there, and C loves it. So it’s time for me to put aside my inner Charlie Brown, so that C doesn’t become the same: all good intentions sidelined by worry and fear. Better to be like Linus, willing to look a fool in a pumpkin patch, because, pure in spirit, he believes in the Great Pumpkin.

As as for T? I think he’s a Lucy-type, so we better all beware.

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