Sunday, December 7, 2014

Visions of Sugarplums, or Because Ballet

My earliest memories take place inside a dance studio; it is where I spent the majority of my childhood, it's where I learned the value of hard work, discipline, limits, and successes. So it was no surprise to anyone that the joy in my heart to find I was expecting a daughter was immediately paired with a vision of a little girl in a tutu. And, eighteen months after she was born, Emerson was in her first recital, and she's been dancing ever since.

My hope was that my daughter would love dance as I did, not only because it was something we could share, but because I knew the beauty and artistry of dance would affect her whole life, as it did mine. From dancing school recitals at the John Hancock Hall to national competitions, from dance companies to starting a dance program at Austin, I have loved it all. Here's a fact: I have been dancing or teaching dance for all but three of my 44 years, and I continue to love it in new ways each year.

But there is a fondness in my heart for the holiday season and the Nutcracker that is beyond description. As a child, I danced in the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker, and while my time there was equally exhilarating and exhausting, the memories are as familiar and comfortable as a broken-in pair of pointe shoes, and ones I am not likely to forget. All of it - the intricate maze of tunnels under the Wang Center stage itself (the Ballet now calls the Opera House their home), the giant costume closets, the enormous practice rooms for the principals and company members, the fleeting glances into the dressing rooms of the ballet royalty  -  was like stepping into a fantasy world. If I close my eyes, I can still remember the excitement of standing in the wings, trembling next to such legends as Elaine Bauer and Laura Young, who, in my twelve-year-old eyes, were like angels on earth. It was a precious, special time, and one I was looking forward to sharing with my own little dancer.

Since her earliest days, I'd taken her to Nutcracker productions, including the one I choreograph at Austin. I have photos of her as plump as a little jelly donut, sitting among rows of my ballerinas in their sparkly tutus. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose for Emerson to audition for a local production of The Nutcracker, my heart leapt. We chose the perfect leotard, I pinned her hair into twin buns, gave her a big kiss and sent my six-year-old on the first dance audition of her life. And she made it. She was selected for her dream role: a mouse.

Naturally, we were thrilled beyond belief. The rehearsal schedule fit perfectly into my own Nutcracker rehearsals, and Em skipped off to practice with a smile. And then came the updates:

"Mommy, we got our places today, I'm Mouse 5!...Did you know that we are very important because we fight the Nutcracker and almost win?...I get to drag off the Mouse that gets shot because I'm really strong...Did you know I get to stand near the Mouse King in the wings?...We have to be very quiet when we are backstage because we have to be professionals...Mommy, will you be in the audience for all my performances? Mommy, next year, can I do it again? I want to be a Cherub. And then a Party Girl. And then Clara."

And so it went. My little Mouse was amazing, and I watched every performance with tears in my eyes; not only for the gift I have been given in having a daughter, but in having one with whom I can share some of the things I love. I am not certain whether her love for dance will be as encompassing as mine; she will grow and change and develop her own directions (followed by her own little brother who wants to do everything she does - her own Fritz, if you will) and I will applaud everything she does, onstage or off. 

But for now, my little girl has visions of sugarplums dancing in her head, and my heart is filled with love and gratitude in a million different ways. 

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Way We Were

Teaching in a high school gives me a rare perspective of aging; I can see where I've been, when I am going, and often, I get a glimpse of what I must look like to my students. A few years ago, one of my female students rolled her eyes at me and said, "Ms. P, you have NO idea what it's like to be a kid." And while a piece of me secretly congratulated myself on appearing so together that this student thought I was a mature, well-adjusted adult (HA - she didn't see the package of Swedish Fish I was planning to eat for breakfast in my purse) another piece of me looked back at my high school days and the way things seemed back then, and the images we all project now.

I was lucky. For some, high school is a battlefield, one whose scars last longer than the battle itself. But I loved high school. I loved my friends, I loved being a cheerleader, I loved finding my way through those years with a combination of teenage trepidation and bravado. I loved taking my first steps into adulthood and falling flat on my face (literally and figuratively - I tripped down the stairs and fell on my chin in front of my football player crush. Well, one of them.) As an only child, I loved the closeness of our class, and the way my friends became family. I would like to think I was kind and fair most of the time, though I know I wasn't always, but whether running from the cops at Florence Park, swaying on the gym floor at one of the dances, cheering on the sidelines, or navigating our first heartbreaks and heals, we seemed to have fun all the time. 

Going to my reunion last night was as fun and exciting as high school was, and connecting (or re-connecting) felt easy and fun. The faces looked the same (although the nametags helped!), and warmth and hilarity was still underlying most of the conversations. As kids, 25 years ago, there was no way to tell that we would still be friends, or even want to, but as the night wore on, we broke off into groups, shared stories, reminisced, moved around and started all over again. There were tears of laughter, old jokes revisited, and photos taken again and again. Sure, parenthood and life in general had changed us, but not in the ways that mattered; we still have a lot to laugh about. And what stories we'll have to share with our kids - if they are lucky.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Being Saved

In a prior post, I had written about losing my students, and about the effect it has had on me as a teacher. Imagine a chance to get a piece of one of them back.

Let me start with an admission: I have hoarding tendencies. I am extremely sentimental, so the treasures my students give me for holidays, birthdays, or end-of-the-year gifts are extremely precious. Not only do they mark a sweet and specific time in their lives, but they also hallmark milestones in my early teaching career. When I was hoping beyond hope that I was reaching my students, it was wondrous  to receive a gift like the sweet shell my students painted on vacation to give to their "favorite teacher." Or the 7th grade baseball trophy with "Your (sp) the best teacher ever" taped over its base. These treasures are priceless in every way.

That being said, after a 20 year a career, I have been blessed with multitudes of cards, letters, books, and little treasures. I want to keep every one of them, and I have managed to do so fairly effectively.

I usually try to purge at the end of the year, while my students are industriously engaged in their exams, and I can sort through the materials I've collected, and no longer need. Last year I parted with volumes of potential textbooks that I received during my tenure as an Adjunct Professor at Bentley; yes, I had saved them merely because they were addressed to "Professor Pascucci" (and yes, purists, I realize I am not a true professor…yet).

But this year at Austin, there was a bit of an upheaval over the summer; the new construction and division of some of the classrooms resulted in a great deal of old things being removed from the building. Though I wasn't directly affected, my classroom got a new floor (and, thankfully, the rug that looked like the setting of multiple crime scenes was finally removed) and my enormous locked cabinet in my closet-free classroom was moved twice, and the contents threatened to explode into my new, pristine room.

So, during a particularly blue day, I decided to sort through some of the videotapes (!) that I had stored in there. And my breath caught.

For in a boyish, seventh-grade scrawl, I saw the name Steve Baxter. Steve was one of my bright, brilliant students with deep intelligence, dry humor and wit and sharp sarcasm. He loved words and writing; he was lyrical and natural and honest and artistic in everything he wrote. He was also gone from this life far too soon. And now I had a piece of him. And I had to share it with his family.

A quick scroll on Facebook yielded his mother's name, and a visit to the White Pages gave me her number. Terrified but determined, I placed the call, and when her machine picked up, I said something like this, which was what I left as her Facebook message: Hello, Mrs. Baxter,
I was Steven's English teacher at Austin Prep years ago; I still teach at Austin, and I found a video Steven and his friends made in grade 7. While the quality isn't super clear, Steven is behind the camera as well as in front of it, and I thought you would like to have it. Please contact me at your convenience at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.
Marla Pascucci-Byrne

Within an hour, she had called me, and was on her way to meet me at school. We embraced in the doorway and reminisced about her beautiful son. She gave me the advice to "enjoy my beautiful children" before she left to bring the video to Steve's father, as today was his father's birthday, and they planned to watch it together. 

In a confluence of chance and clutter, I had made someone's day better, and, at the risk of sounding trite (which wouldn't honor that bright, beautiful student of mine) maybe the things we save can save us.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The War of the Words

As a lover of words and language, I actually enjoy ferreting out the perfect and proper words for any situation. And though I have little in common with Jonas' mother from The Giver, I know I have said "Precision of language, please!" to my students many, many times. When my friends tell me I'm articulate and eloquent, I feel like it's the highest praise. But this is one of those times when words are escaping me, and the complexity of their usage is leaving me confused. 

What's the correct word for feeling both blessed and overwhelmed? For feeling happy and sad at the same time? For feeling blessed with not one, not two, but three jobs I love (motherhood, teaching, and teaching dance) and sometimes, they all drive me crazy? Some days, I feel like I can decompress - but what's the difference between decompression and depression?

There are a million blogs and articles that outline the roller coaster of motherhood: the incredible highs, the crushing lows, and all the minutiae in between. But what about the flashing speed with which things change? What is it called when your day swoops and whooshes, and sometimes crashes? Then there's a peaceful lull…until the next turn? You can practically hear the clattering of the car as it click-click-clicks up the incline.

At the risk of sounding overly metaphorical (who, me?) I will offer some real-life verbal snapshots that all happened in one day, and maybe you can make something out of them:
  • The window I thoughtfully left open for cool air turned my bedroom into a freezer.
  • The sweet son who breaks into a run to hug me when I come home became a needy koala  encircling my neck. He will not allow me to put him down, and literally curls up his feet and howls when I try to put him on any surface.
  • My darling daughter makes me a beautiful picture with markers. It's heartfelt and detailed and precious - and in Sharpie marker that has seeped through to the couch.
  • The skinny jeans I was so happy to fit into are now too big at the waist and are continually snaking down my hips. While this is a positive thing, it means I spend more time hitching up my jeans than a cowboy. I have not the time, money nor energy to purchase new ones at this point. Yee-haw. 
This isn't the first time that I have had a tough time finding a word to ; when I was pregnant with my son, my husband called to ask what he should pick up from the store. The exchange went like this:
          "So what do you need, Marls?"
          "Um, you know, the stuff? For the morning?"
          "No, can you be more specific?" 
          "You know, the stuff that you put on the thing…(gesturing pouring with one hand while holding the cell in the other)"
          "I honestly have no idea what you are talking about."
          "The STUFF, Pete! It's white? You put it on the cereal!"
          "Um, (chuckle) 'milk'?"
I have a degree in Linguistics, but trying to come up with the word "milk" was like trying to pick up an ancient, crumbling file from a dusty file cabinet. I'll blame baby-brain for that incident.

Fortunately, my word-blockage isn't contagious. In fact, while I seem to be at a loss for words (or at least the correct ones), John Sawyer's long-awaited "language explosion" is taking place; he is stringing words and ideas together faster than he ever has before, and they happen to be hilarious. The other day, after I had smooched on his rosy cheeks, I told him, "John John, you're delicious!"

          "No, YOU de-la-la, Mama!"
          "John John, YOU'RE de-li-cious!
          "Mama, YOU de-la-la!"
And on it went. Two days later, out of the blue, while driving in the car, I heard his little voice peep up.
          "Yes, buddy?"
        "YOU de-la-la!" followed by fits of baby laughter, which might be the sweetest sound in the world.

So maybe the answer is a word I haven't learned yet. Maybe it's not paradox, parallel, dichotomy or contradiction. Maybe it's not a word, it's a feeling - a wave that rolls out and back in with regularity.

Tonight, I will leave you with the truest words ever spoken by my daughter: "Mommy, I still love you, even when you're mean."

Sigh…and the wave rolls out.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

First Grade

We did so many things this summer: went on adventures near and far, saw many (but never enough) friends, and, most importantly, made memories and milestones. Em learned to swim underwater, John Sawyer learned to squeak, shriek and demand "Beppa Bee - snork" which is his way of asking to watch his Peppa Pig video. (The animated piglet enthusiastically announces 'I'm Peppa Pig' and then snorts the way we do when we've laughed too hard, and hearing John's version of this in his baby voice is hilarious. But I digress.)

Anyway, it was a summer of firsts in a lot of ways: the first time we went on a sailboat together, the first time we went peach picking with John, the first time we went on the Swan Boats together, the first summer with our new-to-us swingset and new pirate boat in the yard.  John Sawyer had his second birthday party, but it was his first party that he didn't share with his sister.

And mostly, I was first in command. Don't get me wrong, my husband is a present parent. But like most teacher-parents, we get used to our summer rhythm as the other parent trots off to work, and we become first in command. I am the one that plans the day, makes the meals, cleans the messes and kisses the boo-boos. I am the one who cuddles the Elmo doll, wraps American Girl in her blanket, and picks the snacks for the road. I am the one who packs the bags, brings the extra diapers, wipes and outfits, and remembers the chargers for the various electronic devices that give me a little peace in the car. I am the one who digs under the carseat for the source of the mysterious scent (once it was an apple slice, once a fried clam. Not kidding.) 

Toward the end of the summer, being first was getting taxing. Some days, my calls to my husband increased throughout the day with frequency and frantic undertones. Some days, I couldn't wait to pass the baton when he got home. On those hot summer nights, I would hop in the car, turn up the radio, drive to Target (aka Mom Mecca) and wander the aisles, blissfully alone. Strolling through the store, I could shed the heavy Mommyness of the day, and regain a little of myself. Some days it felt like the summer would never end. Some days, I missed the structure and routine of the fall, and I could feel my hands reaching forward to turn that calendar page.

But it wasn't just the routine of stay-at-home-motherhood that was wearing on me; it was the kids' burgeoning independence. Some days, the kids really pushed their limits. John Sawyer, in an attempt to recreate everything he sees his sister do, went down the slide for the first time, alone. The combination of his wet swimsuit and his chubby little bum made him zoom much faster than either of us anticipated, and he landed a foot from the base of the slide, shocked and crying, reaching his arms to me. Em, in an attempt at newfound confidence, decided to step further into the cold water at Hampton Beach despite my warnings, and a wave knocked her over. She was startled, but stubborn, and kept insisting, "I'm FINE, Mama," even though I could see she was scared. So many little firsts, as they test themselves, and me. 

But tonight...
Tonight, my first born and I are wearing matching pajamas with our names on them, right below a giant pink heart. Tonight, Em went to sleep a former kindergartener, and will wake up a first grader. My melancholy, emotional heart is so proud of the little girl she is: sweet, smart, beautiful, brave and curious. I hope her first day is exciting and fun, and that it goes by so fast.  So many of her firsts already have, and while I look forward to every one of them, and while I know I have to let my children grow up, I hope they will always reach back for me. And I promise I won't mind not being first.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Happy birthday, little one!

Dearest John Sawyer,

Two years ago yesterday, I couldn't wait to see you, and your extra day on the inside was both a blessing and a challenge, because I wanted to meet you so much! And then two years ago today, I got my wish, and I remember every detail about it. That day will be imprinted in my mind, if I am very lucky, until I am very, very old. In another letter, I have written you all the details of that day so you can read it with your loved ones. But if it's one thing you have taught me, little one, it's to live for today. And today...

Today, you wake up happy and sing your self to sleep.

Today, you come crashing at me around corners and smash yourself against for me for a powerful surprise hugs.

Today, you say, "I don'knooooow" and hold your little palms to the sky.

Today, you can say, I'm "two" but the "two" sounds more like the "tu" in "tutu" and you usually hold up a few fingers. Sometimes two of them, sometimes three of them.

Today, you proudly shout out the letters that you know when you see them. "H" is your favorite. We don't know why.

Today, you are crazy about apples, apple sauce, and especially apple juice! You ask for " Mama-appa -juzh-bu-Emma-cuh-peeezh?" every morning, which translates to, "Mama, apple juice in my blue Elmo cup, please?"

Today, you love Elmo so much that your entire birthday party is themed around him.

Today, you do a happy dance when you see cookies, leaping from one little foot to the other, and you say "Mmmmmmmmm!" when you get one. You love graham crackers and oreos.

Today, you 'dance" by throwing your elbows back and swinging them. You love dancing, probably because your sister does too.

Today, you love your sister so fiercely that you want to be just like her (again, an admirable choice) though you forget she is nearly six, and you, just two. For example, yesterday, we went for our first sail, and since Emerson took a dip (well, a half dip - the Maine waters were colder than Hampton, and that's saying a lot) you squealed until you dipped your little chubby feet off the side as well. You admire her, you follow her, and you though you both drive each other a little crazy, when I watch you together, my heart grows. I am so happy you have each other to share life with.

Little one, little son, I hope you always feel the love that surrounds you, today and always. You have made me so happy and I wish that same happiness to you every day, today and always. Thank you for being the sparkle in my eyes.

Happy, happy second birthday, my darling son!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Have You Heard?

First, let's start with the backstory: I have bionic hearing. I hear everything, all the time. I hear people whispering in line behind me, I hear all the squeaks and shrieks (thank you, John Sawyer) in my house in the middle of the night, I hear the incredibly subtle underlying soundtracks in movies (heartbeats, mellow rainfalls, and geographically accurate birdcalls) even. I hear my students whispering in the back row of my class and, unfortunately, the subjects they are whispering about, and though they test me at times, I always catch them. I hear it all. 

In one of the great ironies of my life, my husband is slightly hearing impaired, while I am particularly sensitive to noise. We like to joke that, when we are very old, my eyesight will be gone, he won't be able to hear anything and we'll toddle around together. He'll tell me I look beautiful even though I've applied lipstick to my eyebrows, and I'll completely misquote poetry to him and he'll smile in agreement. We like to think we'll balance each other out.

But sometimes my auditory gift is just too much - it can be distracting and annoying. At parties, I hear conversations happening simultaneously on both sides of the room. John's endless renditions of "Elmo's Song" are endearing, but become grating very quickly. And when Emerson plays video games on the iPad, it sounds like they're happening on my shoulder. 

Lately, however, Emerson, age 5, has been saying she "didn't hear me" say certain things. Yet I know her hearing is perfect. 

"I didn't hear you, Mommy!"
Mommy ain't buying it.

I know that 5 is a distractable age, but at the risk of sounding melodramatic, her words seem particularly manipulative as ours is a semi-hearing-impaired household, so my husband's actual inability to hear her sometimes does not equal Emerson's choice to deliberately ignore my words. 

Yes, I can understand how she "didn't hear me" when I was on the phone with my boss, when I surreptitiously asking her to stop leaping on a sheet of bubble wrap, gesturing silently and wildly for her to cut it out whilst the bubble wrap emitted pops that sounded like gunfire. 

And yes, perhaps she "didn't hear me" when I asked her to get a diaper for me as I chased her mid-potty-training brother, who was also in medias poop and left a package on my bathroom floor. And her bedroom floor. And his bedroom floor. 

Maybe she didn't hear me when I asked her to quit squirming in her chair at breakfast at the risk of  knocking over my life force Starbucks unsweetened green iced tea and John Sawyer's bowl of Cheerios and sliced peaches. Both were full and untouched. John Sawyer cried just a little more than I did.

But when I warned her about throwing a foam cube backwards over her head at the trampoline park, and she "didn't hear me" and gunned a stranger in the face with said cube, I had HAD IT. Immediately after the cube-in-face moment and subsequent apologies, I informed Em she was tv/iPad/iPod/computer free for the day. 

"Are you listening, Em? I told you not to throw that cube, and you heard me and did it anyway. Luckily that nice lady wasn't hurt, but you lost all of your privileges today. No devices."
"I heard you, Mommy."

I expected to hear grumbling all the way home. I expected to hear her cry at the injustice of being taken to task. Here is what I have heard instead; I have heard my daughter:
  • Singing dozens of songs on-key (which is a genetic mystery) while playing with her dolls 
  • Creating multiple drawings for all family members
  • Reading four books aloud
  • Building an elaborate railway system for her napping brother
  • Making a list of menu options for the upcoming week
  • Generating a Christmas wish list and belting out holiday songs with new words

Now that's what I like to hear. 

In addition to being a Gold Medalist in the Hearing Olympics, I also tend to be a perfectionist. I want things to be done completely, thoroughly, and hopefully, with a little bit (or a lot) of enthusiasm and style. I am  used to my students listening (or pretending to listen) when I teach. So maybe my expectations are a little high. Coupled with the onset of summer, and with it, my idyllic dreams of fun days with my kids, maybe my expectations skyrocket. Like most teachers, I want to pack each day with as much fun, laughter and excitement as possible, so I can reach back for these happy days when I'm up to my ears in college recommendations and work obligations, and take a sip from them like they're a nice, relaxing glass of wine. With that being said, I'm afraid I may turn into Chevy Chase in vacation when he informs his kids, that they're "On a quest...a quest for fun!" and well, here's the rest:

I want to give my kids happy experiences, for their own memories as well as my own. And like all quests, sometimes we get lost along the way, but we discover something else pretty cool. Sometimes things backfire - in a perfect way. Sometimes, you just have to listen.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Week in Review: Neat and Complete? Oh, but no.

As I get older, I am aware of my affection for things that are “neat and complete.” Like the perfect card that gets mailed on time, the playdate that goes by smoothly, and the laundry that is washed, folded and put away. These days, completion seems to bring me a satisfaction that has no parallel.

On Thursday, I had such a day – I completed the in-text vocabulary list of a 500+ page summer reading book that I’ve never taught before, ordered new textbooks and finished some administrative tasks connected to my new position, and, in an attempt to make my health and fitness a priority, saw my terrific nutritionist who is really helping me to turn my diet around. On my way home from my appointment with her, I stopped at a farm stand and, inspired, bought tons of fresh fruit and veggies that we all enjoyed that day.  We swam, had showers and a nice dinner, and went to bed happy and exhausted. 

Neat and Complete, right?  Evidently the duration is only about twelve hours. Because the last day and a half has been a mess.

Yesterday I was preparing for my parents’ 44th wedding anniversary, which is also my dad’s birthday. I planned to write something cute on one of the slates my husband keeps in the basement, pose the kids for a little photo on the porch swing (while strategically leaving out the windowsills that have been scraped down for our next home project – trim painting). On my quest for chalk, I headed to the garage and stepped on a silver of glass that lodged itself in the pad of my left foot and I almost went through the ceiling.

After trying to dislodge it myself with tweezers, a hot shower, and a lot of prayer, I called my dad to watch the kids while I headed to Winchester Hospital (where they’re masters of delicately removing things – they once extracted a fake Styrofoam sparkly berry from a shoplifted Christmas ornament Em stuck up her nose when she was three). ANYWAY, plucking out glass is a lot more intricate that it sounds; I had an x-ray, lots of paperwork, and a genius nurse named Allison who took it out in less than two minutes.  Thank God. But in the midst of all this, I forgot a hair appointment, missed a barre class, and managed to piss off both of my kids so they decided to fight with each other all day.

After the glass in foot disaster yesterday, I thought today would be simpler. It was not. Much like an unfinished play that constantly begs for revision, my life is messier by the minute. I will spare you all of the gory details, but here's a small plot outline. If I tell it in third person, it's easier to laugh about it:

Setting: LuluLemon dressing room
Cast: MARLA, filled with newfound confidence and excitement to buy workout clothes, her daughter EMERSON, her son JOHN, and his overflowing DIAPER
Plot summary: After trying on a few items, MARLA lifts JOHN out of his stroller to give him a snuggle and realize his entire stroller is full of poop, as the DIAPER has somehow disintegrated. 

JOHN giggles in response.
SALESGIRL (knock knock): Is everything okay in there, Maria?
MARLA: Um, it's MARLA, actually, and I think we have everything under control. Thank you.

There is absolutely no conceivable way that the recovered wood dressing room doors provide any protection against the stench emanating from the usually sweet JOHN. MARLA digs all the wipes out of the package in the back of the stroller, changes JOHN into an outfit she originally intended to return, and tried to recover some dignity on the way out the door while smuggling a plastic bag full of refuse, including the malfunctioning DIAPER under her arm.

...and scene.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

For Good

In a reflective moment of post-graduation melancholy, I have been listening to “For Good” from the Broadway musical “Wicked” in various forms. The original cast version (Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith) is incredible, and the crush I developed on Anna Kendrick after “Pitch Perfect” is only escalated her performance with Kristin Chenowith here 

It’s an ode to growing and outgrowing each other, and it’s perfect for us as teachers, who, if we are very lucky, are told that “we change lives.” But if we are very, very lucky, we are changed ourselves.

I've heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are lead to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them.
And we help them in return.
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you.
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime.
So, let me say before we part:
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you'll have rewritten mine
By being my friend.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you.
I have been changed for good.

It’s melodramatic to say that every student changes our lives, but they exist for me in groups. TrevorMaddieMaxAileen exist for me as one beautiful, intelligent, intertwined conglomerate. CeciliaAmyPaige were truly the beating heart of the dance program this year. I could go on and on, but I will keep it simple: I thank them for a terrific year, and I certainly have been changed by their energy, enthusiasm, and exuberance.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mother's Day Musical Musings: Where Am I?

I’m always amazed at the tactile and transformative power of a song to bring me back to a time in my memory. Maybe it’s universal, but when a certain song comes on the radio, I’m suddenly transported back in time. It’s practically palpable.
On Mother’s Day, I was at Saint Anselm College. Well, not really.
While my NH alma mater certainly holds a place in my heart for a million reasons, I was actually in Maine, Kennebunkport to be exact, eating a long-awaited lobster roll with my husband and my littles. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and we had a great time together. But Sunday’s siren song is always behind us, so while I could have stayed, shopped and snacked all day, we had to get home to the inevitable prep that late Sunday afternoons always demand.  A little grumpily, but with the martyrdom only moms can have, I got into the car to head home on the highway.
On the drive, the kids were happy, tired, and sticky (thank you Ben &Jerry’s “Two Free Scoops for Moms”) but they were beginning to get into that weird hyper phase that precedes a nap, exacerbated further by their carseat captivity. So Peter and I decided to pick out some calming tunes to soothe the backseat savages. Peter chose classic 70’s rock songs, as always. But my choices surprised me. I chose songs that took me right back to college, songs that anyone who graduated in the 90’s would find on their “Chillax Playlist.” But this time I chose them for different reasons.
When I was in college, my favorite song was “All I Want” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, a 1992 classic introduced to me by a dear friend. At the time, the cache of “I found the coolest alternative band” was as impressive as the song was, but again, the lyrics spilled over into my life. I loved it, and listening took me right back to sunny days on the Quad, watching people play Frisbee when I should have been at Humanities lecture.  The lyrics repeat “All I want is to feel this way/ To be this close, to feel the same” and it’s just how I felt at that moment: young, invincible, happy and free. After I graduated, “Stay/Wasting Time” by Dave Matthews Band became my anthem – a semi-sexy little ode to being in the moment, to love, and to chilling out and being young that captured my heart.
What I realized, though, was that the songs I was wistfully choosing about being young and being in the moment still had relevance right now. Yes, my “present” is very different than what it was when I first heard those songs. True, my “moment” isn’t spent lying carefree on the college lawn, knowing the people I loved most were right on campus with me. But I remember being in that moment too – feeling lucky that my family afforded me the chance to attend such a beautiful college, lucky that I felt loved and valued, lucky that I was studying something that spoke to me so clearly. I was also afraid of not finding the right job, worried what path my then-boyfriend and I would take, and overwhelmed by the thought of the future outside my safe college cocoon. Being in the moment wasn't about the perfection of the moment - it was about being there, and being aware of what I was thinking and feeling.
There have been so many moments since my college days. My outfits, my body, and my definition of “family,” have changed substantially (my erratic sleeping patterns, ironically, are identical) but that realization of where I was in space and time, was a special one. I was with the ones I loved. We had laughed together and played together. we had celebrated my birthday and Mother's Day, and we had more responsibilities to meet together. So yes, the time was passing, but it was passing together. And zipping down the highway being pensive was something that would happen again and again, with music playing in the background. Maybe I'll be driving Emerson to her first day of college, when she's nervous and excited. Maybe I'll be coming home from a hockey game with my son, when he's proud and beaming, or exhausted and disappointed. The moments of reminiscence will always come as we make more and more memories, but looking around is always better than looking back, and though my ears may request songs of the past, my eyes will be on the ones I love. 
So where am I? In the words of the Dave Matthews Band, "Where you are is where I belong/ I do know, where you go, is where I wanna be." So that's where I am: in the moment. Because it's the best place to be.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Untitled and Unfinished

When I told my father I wanted to become a teacher, he flinched. Not because of the traditional reasons, such as the limited financial possibilities, or the fear that my career might mirror his own short teaching career in the 60’s, where race riots and metal detectors were the norm at Medford High. No, he was nervous that I’d get hurt. At the time, I thought I might want to teach kids with special needs, and he (correctly) speculated that I would want to adopt them all and take them home, that I would want to hold them all, hug their hurts away, and potentially give too much of myself to them. But a few courses in, my lifelong love of literature and writing solidified my true calling as an English teacher, and I am sure my father was relieved. But I am also sure he didn’t expect the hurts to come in a completely unexpected and sad way, like when I lose a student. It has happened too often, and the list is too long.

Steven DeMarco. Allan MacLean. Jeff Flores. Jason Graham. Jimmy McGonagle. Steve Baxter. Ross Alameddine. Carolyn Smallcomb. Alyssa Nanopoulos. Patrick Barry.

Most of them were barely twenty, and though they are united in the fact that they all left us too soon, that they all attended Austin, and that they left holes in our hearts, they are as different as shells on a beach.

Losing them hurts in a way I never expected, and never completely goes away. As an English teacher, I feel sometimes connected to my students in a special way, as so much of what they learn and contribute in my class involves a give and take, or a revelation of personal history. They write about their feelings, their fears, their triumphs and reactions. They joke about their families and friends, they find themselves, their opinions, and pieces of their future selves in new and surprising ways on the page. They are often braver on paper than they are in speech, for the mere distancing of those words in writing from their physical selves means they can shape them, own them, and change them. In the fall, they are nervous and expectant; as the seasons change, so turns their dedication, and by spring, the warm weather awakens their silly side, and everything becomes relaxed and happy. By  the end of springtime, we know each other well, we have tested each other, we have become friendly. And when we all leave for summer vacation, we feel good. Happy to have known each other, and, in a positive way, to have outgrown each other. Spring and summer are usually wonderful. 

But when Ross Alameddine died in the spring of 2007, it wasn't just Austin's pain; it was the nations. In April of 2007, Ross was one of the victims in the Virginia Tech shooting. I had known and adored his older sister for her charismatic personality and adorable ability to make anyone smile. She was petite, lively, and hilarious, and though I had not actually taught her in class, she was one of my dancers, she had attended my alma mater, and she had even lived in the same dorm room on the first floor. Ross was one of my students; he had taken my Creative Writing class as a senior in the spring of 2005, and had impressed me in a totally different way; he was as articulate as he was intelligent, quirky and unique, wonderfully gifted and unabashed. I adored him in a completely different way, and though I hadn’t directly spoken to him after his Austin graduation, I still had his senior picture posted on my file cabinet. 

I was driving to my mom’s house when my cell rang.

“Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
“Did you see the news? There was a school shooting in Virginia. At Virginia Tech.”
“Oh, Christ. Was it bad?”
“Honey, I think one of the students – one was from Austin. I think - I think he was one of yours."

When I arrived at my mom’s house, the news was on, and seeing the same senior picture I had taped to my file cabinet broadcast across the news was gut-wrenching.

Our school was in shock. When I was asked by our Campus Minister to say a few words about Ross at the Memorial Mass to be held at our school, I was so honored and humbled to be the person who could give voice to the eloquent and exemplary young man who graced my classroom. But I couldn’t find the right words to capture him. I spoke about his intelligence and excellence as a writer. I spoke about the way he was so comfortable in his own skin; how he was a terrific dancer, how he fixed my computer weekly, how he sought out new and obscure bands. I spoke of the way he ducked his head and smiled to the side when he read his work aloud, how he adjusted his glasses and nodded a little like, "Yeah, that was pretty good," when it was excellent. I said I was sorry he was gone, that I knew he had so much more to share, and that the world he would have created and shaped would be different now. I said I was lucky to have known him, that we all were, and that I was proud to have shared laughter with him and applauded his successes. I said that his short life gave us a glimpse of what could be, and I was so grateful for it. I read some of his poetry and choked up halfway through it. 

His wonderful friends stood up and shared memories of him from his elementary school days all the way through his life. They were eloquent, honest, and real, just as he was. They wore their "Rosslets" - turquoise rubber bracelets with "Rossmo" stamped on them. And while I could never take any credit for the people they became that day, a piece of me is so happy to have known them, taught them, and been there for them when they were young, because I was able to see them when they were kids, and I have the privilege of watching them grow. 

How I wish they all had more time. 

Today I'll wear turquoise for him, and my classes will pray for him. Much like this post, things will feel unfinished and sad today. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Panic Rabbit

As Easter rapidly approaches, my thoughts turn to all things bunny-related (including Cadbury Mini-Eggs). Yet I am faced with yet another creature who keeps hopping into my path. I call him The Panic Rabbit. 

As a working mom, I have days when everything goes very smoothly and according to plan. As a teacher, I have the outline of my day as well as my students' goals and homework in my work planner. Finally, as a compulsive list-maker, I consult my personal journal/notebook several times a day for reminders. I cross things off, and it truly helps in the grand scheme of things. But things ain't always grand. Mornings, for example. This is when The Panic Rabbit arrives. 

Sometimes I wake up with him on my chest, and I barely have enough time to sprint to the shower, where I stand under the spray trying to remember if there's something I'm forgetting or missing. Other days, despite the fact that I lay out my daughter's clothes, lunch, backpack and jacket the night before, the time passes so quickly and I find myself tapping impatiently as I wait for her to finish her breakfast so that both of us can sprint to the car and speed to school. The recent detours en route to my job give me more anxiety than a mouse in a maze, and though I know there are world issues with far more gravity and consequences than my morning routine, the thumping of the Panic Rabbit's giant feet on my chest make me want to grab him by the ears and fling him over my shoulder.

Yesterday, he made a special appearance. I was getting ready for a full day of work, including an administrative observation (which is part of our job, and happens yearly, but is still nerve-wracking), as well as a few meetings. My son, who likes to be as close to me as possible after he wakes up, decided to exercise his new favorite word: duck. He followed me into the bathroom, placed his rubber duck on the edge of the tub, knocked it onto the floor saying "duck - quack quack!" and repeating his motions about a dozen times. The sound of his little voice was as adorable as his happy smile. I leaned into the mirror to finish putting in my contacts and giving myself a final once-over. My cowlick was tamed, my bangs were behaving, my makeup was on, my Spanx were spankin' and I felt pretty great in my Ralph Lauren dress. This is good, I thought. This is going to be a good day. I stepped back from the mirror.

And then I pinched his little finger under my high heel. Cue the Panic Rabbit.

I don't know what felt worse: his squashed digit or my guilt. He cried, of course, which prompted my own tears. Fortunately, he is a resilient little guy, and like the athlete I dream he'll become one day, he literally shook it off. During breakfast, he picked up his sliced strawberries with the same gusto (and dexterity, thank God) as always. But when I went to kiss him goodbye, he looked at me seriously, pushed me away, and said, "No, Mama," and the Rabbit came back.

It's not just the mornings; it's parenthood in general. Whether worrying if my daughter is doing okay as  one of the youngest members of her class or fretting about the health level of her classmates, I find myself in a cycle of worry and relief, questions, concern, and comfort, and the hopeful expectation that the next day will be a better day.

My father once gave me the wise advice that each person gets the same amount of hours in the day; it's what we choose to do with them that counts.  I am going to spend more time trying to quiet my Panic Rabbit. Like his furry counterparts who frolic in the roads, my Panic Rabbit can dart in from nowhere to give me a start. But he'd better keep his distance. I'm dangerous behind the wheel, especially when I'm late for work. Just sayin'.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Target Tunnel Vision

Can someone explain why I, as a rational and educated woman, absolutely lose my mind at Target? In the past, I have treated Target like an exclusive Parisian boutique to which I may never return, so I buy everything in sight. But it's my latest development that is giving me a headache. I think I have Target Tunnel Vision. It's not just that I think I need everything in the store; it's that I make separate trips to purchase them.

I understand that life with kids lobotomizes us at times. Even in pregnancy, I would have moments where I couldn't remember words, likening the process of retrieving them from my memory to opening an old, creaking file cabinet and rooting through its ancient, crumbling contents. Once Peter called from work to ask what he needed to pick up from the store; I stumbled, "You know, the stuff for the, um, you know breakfast thing? The cereal? You know, it's white?" Mystery word: MILK. And I have a degree in Linguistics.

But these days, my memory is fine. I aspire to be a very organized person at work and at home (though one is markedly more difficult) and I consult my hot pink SugarPaper Planner (purchased at Target last year) with regularity. I make lists, and check things off. But when I get in the store, my Tunnel Vision kicks in. I walk in thinking giftformolly giftformolly giftformolly and forget that I need cheese sticks, socks, and a new camera card. 

I try to figure out why this happens. I don't know if it's the distractions of finally being free alone that makes my head turn, or the fact that I walk right by all of these items I need, even though they are on a list that I ignore.Maybe I was distracted by the fact that I had forgotten my coupon for Boudreaux Butt Paste, or maybe I was annoyed that the dvd of The Great Gatsby had dropped to $10 when I  paid $13 last week. Maybe it was Chubby's gleeful chorus of "Mama! Mama Mama MAMA!" and the ensuing giggles that made my mind wander from the necessary tasks. But whatever the motivation, the result is the same. Thus, in the last week, I have been there nearly every day. 

Some might argue that I find myself there so frequently because it's a haven, a respite from the craziness of life where I can find relief and retail. Yes, it's convenient - it's just a few miles from my house, and carries nearly every item I need. It's open until 11:00 p.m. which is perfect for the-kids-are-asleep-now-i-can-eat-and-oh-wait-what's-left-in-the-fridge moments. My Target even has a Starbucks. The prime location and treats alone would inspire any working mom to attend services at the Church of Red Dot. But something else is going on that I can't figure out quite yet. If I ever make it over to the self-help book section, I'll let you know.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Motherhood, Messes, and Kidnapping the Babysitter

Motherhood, Messes, and Kidnapping the Babysitter

There’s a popular meme that says, “Good moms have messy houses and happy kids,” or something like that. I disagree.

In my college days, I was a bit more, well, relaxed. As those who knew me (and definitely those who lived with me) can attest, I loved clothes, I had a lot of them, and I usually left them hanging around the room. Laundry day proved a brief respite as they were swept into my white plastic basket and carted to the JOA basement (Saint Joan of Arc Hall, for those not in the know) for their bath, and then the cycle would repeat. I had piles of books, stacks of notebooks, and bulletin boards full of photos. Having lots of my things around me, in college, was a comfort.

And now? It’s stifling. My son’s toys have multiplied and left their bastard children everywhere (and I mean everywhere, including the hamper, the tub, and one of the cabinets). The ghostly form of my daughter’s gi leans in a corner, snidely observing from a distance. The clothes from yesterday’s ski trip are crawling across the floor in an attempt at freedom, and while my kids had a great day yesterday and I know we made a lot of memories they will have a fun time recalling, I just can’t think in this space.

It’s not just the physical messes. Sure, I am consciously deciding to gift my friends’ children with gift cards because the idea of giving a toy with multiple pieces that can be strewn about seems counterproductive to friendship. And yes, though I have girlfriends on both ends of the house spectrum (meaning homes half my size, or double my size), we all agree that there is never enough space for all that we accumulate.

But it’s the mental messes as well. I know I should put the Inner Perfect Mom who wants a glossy, crumb-free home out of my mind, and I should be fully present in the moments of play with my children. But instead, the multitasking mom in me sees this as a challenge. Thus, I try to make up new and creative games like “Bitty Baby Says: We Can Throw Out These Old Puzzles” or “Fashion Show for Donating Clothes.” It’s awful.  I want to spend time with my kids playing with a clear head and heart. But some days I can’t.

Life is messy now, and I know that I have to understand that. For example, John Sawyer, in an attempt at challenging his sister’s newfound athletic ability, is competing in the Active Toddler Olympics and has medaled in Disarming Baby Locks, Opening OXO Cookie Containers and Silently Devouring the Contents, and Throwing Things in the Trash. Chasing him is my cardio, and it’s exhausting.

And it continues to get messier. Last week I attended the wake of a dear friend’s father (a friend for whom I would - and did - literally give the clothes off my back ten years ago, and now, we blindly roam the rows at Target at 10 p.m.). So when I heard her father had passed, I wanted to make every effort to pay my respects. In this case, it meant picking up my babysitter, taking her for a ride with me and the kids so that I could attend the wake, and then driving her home on the way to meet my husband for dinner. A bit complex, but definitely doable.

Unless I drove to the wrong location of the funeral home chain. And then got stuck in traffic on the way there and back from the actual location. And then rescheduled the dinner reservations. And then got stuck in another monumental traffic jam. And then had to bring the poor babysitter with us to dinner. And then realized the set menu at the restaurant was less than appealing to most people, including said babysitter, whose intended two-hour stint turned into a four-hour one. And the beat goes on.

If it’s one thing I am learning about being a parent, it’s that the planned moments often implode, and the sublime ones appear without warning. As one who has always enjoyed a happy surprise, I look forward to the next one.  But I’m saving my extra cash for the babysitter who I paid double that night, and who, luckily, is still speaking to us.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Each time I hit the publish button, it is with a delicate balance of vulnerability and bravery." - Julia Hembree, Elated Exhaustion

So here it is. I stand before you with my blog, and I stand behind my words. 
I hope they bring you a smile. Thank you for reading!

Ninja Gift

On the eve of Valentine's Day, I am reminded of one of my favorite gift-giving activities of the Christmas season. Usually, I grapple with the question for the ages: do I spoil those around me with material gifts, or do I find a different way to express my love without consumerism overload?

The answer is simple: NINJA GIFT. Here's what I've done:

Every year at Christmas, I am gifted by friends, family, and my students with a multitude of wonderful things for myself and my family. Often the gifts are perfectly suited for us, or at least for re-gifting to someone close to us. But sometimes there is no place, no space, and no face fitting for these intentions, so I take them for a ride and leave them behind.

It started as an accident; an acquaintance gave me a bottle of anti-bacterial hand lotion in a scent called Hideous Overpowering Lily. Or something. I knew I couldn't exchange it, and I had no idea where it was purchased anyway. I had it in my purse when I went to my daughter's judo class, and since the decor in the restroom happened to match the label on the bottle, I considered it a sign: I Ninja Gifted it and went along my merry way. 

Another example: I have received the same toy for my children about three times. Though it's a popular Melissa and Doug toy that is found in roughly 50 local stores, I have no receipt and no way to exchange it. Rather than perpetuate this frustration by passing it along to a friend (who could ask me where I purchased it and my response would be "Ehhhhmmmm...") I took it to the pediatrician's waiting room and Ninja Gifted. You're welcome, drooling toddler!

Remember the scene in Dead Poets' Society when Ethan Hawke's character receives the same desk set from a family member every birthday? Substitute me for Ethan, leather gloves for the desk set, and Christmas for the birthday. Every. Single. Year. Needless to say, my family member also thinks I have huge paws. Whatever. Anyway, I left last year's pair in the Lord and Taylor dressing room. I like to think someone picked them up and clapped their large hands with glee felt like they hit the jackpot and waved at all their friends on the way out.

To me, Ninja Gifting is a way to rationalize (or least least unload) the many things that come into my house during the holidays, but also to give my five-year-old a healthy awareness of varying economic levels ("Not everyone has an American Girl Doll, babe. We can get your doll an outfit, but Sage's $250 hot air balloon is not happening. Ever.") and it's easier to show her in addition to telling her. So yes, it may seem odd, but both sides win. It's more calculated than a Goodwill drop off, because they're little surprises that hopefully give someone a smile. Also, it forces us to be creative about who might need something that we no longer do. Sometimes it's something as simple as leaving those diapers your baby is outgrowing in the "Family Area" of the public bathroom, knowing that someone breathed a huge sigh of relief because they forgot to pack diapers, their babe had a blowout, and you saved the day. Emerson gets a kick out of leaving "secret surprises for strangers" along the way, and with any luck, one karmic day, something may appear from a fellow ninja just when we need it.  

Wishing you all a Happy Valentine's Day - and the perfect gift, of course.

The Finish Lie

No, it's not a typo - it's my latest realized truth. There is no finish line. It's a FINISH LIE.

Life as a working mom lately has been a series of unfinished business: the load of laundry that sits for an extra long time in the washer before meeting the dryer, the projects that don't exactly get completed to the standards I want to hold, and not even being able to finish up in the bathroom. (I don't mean getting that extra luxurious hair-conditioning mask in the shower or that peaceful, steamy bath with classical music softly playing in the background. I mean: Monday I put eyeliner on one eye and proudly went to work.)

To be honest, the work-life balance is kicking my ass. And I'm not alone. In an informal Facebook poll of my friends, most of us are averaging three uninterrupted hours of sleep per night, and if we are lucky, we squeeze in another three after a feeding/burping/under-the-bed monster-check. Most of us go to bed around 11, wake up in the wee hours, and hopefully get another wave of sleep, though that second wave of sleep usually involves another small person in the bed. And most of the people that contributed to my poll work outside the home as well as being parents, so there's a lot of bleary-eyed people out there, which leads to even more craziness (Like when I catch myself halfway through my Emily Dickinson lecture to my seniors. Who are reading Hamlet).

I guess the moral of the story is the fact that our "finished" days are, well, finished. Gone are the days when a task meets its end with grace, when an afternoon goes according to plan. Now it's a handful of Cheerios in the car on the way to work and a quick spoonful of yogurt at my desk while plowing through correcting papers at lunch. The weekends which once stood as a beacon of possibility are now overflowing with church, kids' parties, the occasional family visit, and laundry/shopping/home improvement. Despite my love for making lists, my lists now sprout arms like a mythological creature, and sometimes it feels like they're after me.

But then, at the end of a long day, I look at my children when they're asleep, and not only thank God that they're finally asleep, but that they are mine. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

You Better Work

Typically speaking, work is not really "work." I've mentioned before how much I love my job, and how much fun I have being a teacher. As my mom says, "Some days you earn your check, some days you steal the money," and despite the common petite size of a teacher's paycheck, I frequently feel like I have "stolen" the money. It's a place I go to talk about the literature I love, to share ideas, and to give the gifts (I hope) I have to my students. I love it. My work day, like my desk, is divided neatly, and much of what I do in a day makes sense; there's a comfort to the familiarity of assigning papers and correcting them, working forward to a goal, and monitoring the progress along the way. This year is particularly technology heavy as we sign in our attendance each period, post our assignments every class, and post our grades a few times a week, so I have felt kind of tied to my iPad. But on the whole, teaching feels both exciting and natural for me. Things, usually, fall into place.

(Don't get me wrong; I have my days where my job feeling harder than slogging away in a coal mine: when kids grumble about the grades they earn, beg for extra credit when they haven't completed the actual work assigned to them, and their parents whine louder and more frequently than they do. Those days are rare, but they exist.)

So, on the whole, work isn't always really work. But home is a different story. Home is hard.

Why isn't there a bell that signals the time for my five-year-old to fall asleep? Why don't my children fall in line to the bedtime/bathtime routine? How come, despite my best efforts, the laundry doesn't sit obediently, but instead multiplies and scatters around the house when I'm at work? And why, physics friends, does my freshly folded laundry refuse to fit back into the drawers? 

Getting into hausfrau mode makes me crazy. I'm only a stay-at-home-mom for three months out of the year, and I have the blessing of a job that allows me to be a stay-at-home-mom while still getting paid. So there's that to look forward to. In only 134 days...