E and I were lying on the bed in the master bedroom, reading. He always gets a book from school for his daily reading log, and often the book is leveled just right for reading with a parent: a few words he knows, enough short words that he can sound out, and a few words that he needs a lot of help with. Always a refrain of sorts, something easily remembered that he can just repeat.
Today’s book: My Dad and I.
We made it through the book, which was about all the things the narrator’s dad teaches him to do and all the things he teaches his dad to do, and E began teaching me about his star behavior system in school. Of course I knew all about it: I just had a conference with his teacher a few weeks ago, and we get a daily report about how many stars he ended the day with. But of course I let him explain it.
“We start with three stars, and if we do something wrong, we lose a star.” He paused, then added, “I haven’t lost a star yet this year.”
What will he do when he loses a star?
Today, at E’s first soccer game of the season, a certain little boy managed to break from the pack of children that attempt to herd the ball in one direction or another, and he dribbled the ball down half the field and blasted a devastating shot at the opposing team’s unprepared goalie. A few moments late, in a move reminiscent of German’s complete destruction of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals,
broke away again and scored a second time in as many minutes. That little boy was a hero all around. That little boy was not the Boy. He spent most of his time lingering around at the edges of the hive of children always swirling around the ball, never charging in and begin aggressive as he does here. He almost shot a goal, but truth be told, it was because he just happened to be where a deflected ball just happened to land. Yet he was so very proud of that.
“I’m going to tell Mommy I almost got a goal,” he told me several times on the way home, as if to make sure I understood that he was going to tell her. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I’ve mentioned before that the Boy is not overly aggressive, and I even mentioned it in the context of soccer.
I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with him shooting an own-goal (as he did last year) or only barely missing a goal because an ironic combination of luck and misfortune. I don’t have a problem with him wandering around the edges of anything, looking in, unsure and unwilling to commit himself until he is. I don’t have a problem with him giving up on any and all sports.
That is what I learned about myself and my son today.
What I learned about my daughter will have to wait until I have to fix what I learned about myself at the same time.
Driving home from Mass today, the Boy and I somehow got into a discussion about infinity. I can’t remember how it came up or even who brought it up, but there we were, discussing one of the great paradoxes of life and math.
To try to explain it to him, I talked about numbers: “You can count on and on and on and on,” I said. But this didn’t seem to support what I said earlier, about infinity having no beginning or ending.
“But it does have a beginning,” he protested from the back. “When I count, I say, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5.’ You start at one.”
I tried dipping into the topic of negative numbers to show him that we really could start anywhere.
“Negative numbers? Like 5, 4, 3, 2, 1?”
A clothes drier is a standard item in the States. I don’t know anyone who, having a washing machine, doesn’t have a drier. That’s simple enough to understand: electricity and gas are both cheap in the States, and driers are almost always packaged with washers. In Poland, though, it’s a different story. In much of rural Poland, gas lines simple don’t exist: all gas products use propane tanks. And as far as electricity goes — forget it. It’s ridiculously expensive compared to what we pay in the States. Bottom line: Babcia doesn’t has a drier, and that means one thing — there’s a lot more ironing going on in Babcia’s house than in our house. Everything — jeans, tee-shirts, underwear (and I’m not joking here; some people do iron their underwear), bed clothes, everything — gets ironed.
With all the additional clothes, that would be a ridiculous amount if work, so we try to iron as much as we can. (I say “try” because Babcia is liable sometimes to pull everything off the lines and iron it all while we’re out hiking or some similar silliness.)
Today, E learned to iron. L insisted that she knew how to already, and when she began ironing her own clothes, it seemed that she did indeed know how to. The Boy, though, needed lots of instruction. They both need a lot of work with folding, though.
The outcome: after a few minutes, they were fussing and arguing over who got to iron.
I found it floating in a bucket out back that had a couple of inches of water from the last storm. It was still squirming, trying to escape, doomed to drown. I pulled it out and took it to the Boy to show him. He put on gloves and was eager to hold it.
Fear of such animals I supposed is learned, or more importantly taught. Tell a kid constantly that such creatures are out to get him, and he’ll likely believe it. Tell a girl that the only good snake is a dead snake, and she’s likely to hold that opinion for decades. But kids are naturally curious — it’s what gets the hurt. With the Boy and the Girl, we’ve tried to strike a happy medium: such insects might, like roaches, carry certain bacteria on their bodies that are not particularly helpful, but in and of themselves, they’re harmless. Certain snakes are deadly, so we should never approach a snake and try to make a plaything out of it, but an enormous black snake slithering through the grass (as happened here five years ago) does much more good than harm.
With people, there’s the whole additional possibility of deceptiveness. If only it were so simple with humans.
“Do you think I’ll catch a Clownfish?”
We were eating breakfast when this question came up. A typical Sunday morning: breakfast around half-past eight. The Girl off to choir practice at quarter past nine. The boys off to Mass about an hour later. That morning promised to be our normal, comfortable ritual. The afternoon, though, promised adventure.
“No, son. Clownfish live in the ocean. They’re salt water fish.”
“Plus,” added L, “they live in reefs.”
It only took him a few minutes to get the hang of it, and for a while, he was casting beside the Girl as she practiced with her new archery set.
A few bites later, he had another thought. “What if I catch a shark? I’ll have to be strong if I catch a shark.”
“I don’t think you’ll catch a shark.”
“Oh, right. It lives in the ocean.” He thought about things for a few more moments, then added, “All the fish I know are salt water fish.”
Planning for the afternoon fishing trip really began on Christmas Eve, when our children following Polish tradition were opening their presents. Our neighbor, who goes fishing often, had bought the Boy a beginner’s rod and reel set, complete with a small tackle box. He was thrilled, and he was even more excited when I found a casting weight in my old tackle box downstairs and explained that he’d be able to practice casting in the backyard.
A few days ago, when our neighbor was packing up his gear and hitching his boat to the truck for a morning fishing trip, the Boy informed K that his rod and reel were, in fact, for nothing. “They’re not for decoration,” he explained. And so she told me when I got back home that afternoon, “You must take him fishing this weekend.”
I haven’t been fishing in probably close to thirty years. I can’t remember ever going fishing with my father — not because I asked and he refused. Fishing was simply not something we did in my family. My mother’s brother was very much a fisherman, and during one visit, he gave me a handmade graphite rod with a very sturdy reel with a tackle box filled with every imaginable worm-like, grub-like, and fish-like lure one could imagine. I was twelve, I think. I probably used it no more than half a dozen times, if that many.
In thinking about taking my own son fishing, I had a whole list of concerns. Some were reasonable: what’s the best type of bait to use at this lake when fishing from the shore. Some weren’t: what if I can’t remember how to tie a hook? But with muscle memory, that latter worry disappeared. But the bait? When I saw the lake, I realized that it really didn’t matter: we weren’t going to go onto one of the fishing piers because the Boy, having no practice casting with an actual hook, might cause disaster. (In fact, he caught my shirt once, but fortunately only my shirt.) Since the lake was so shallow with a gentle slope out to the deeper water, I knew he’d never cast far enough from the short to catch anything, so we tried a number of lures.
He caught nothing but my shirt. But he begged to go back tomorrow after school.
There are two trees in the back corner of our lot that worry me. One worries me as a cause of a potential problem; the other is the potential problem. They’re both tulip poplars, with one having a diameter of at least five feet. The smaller of the two has succumbed to some kind of disease or infestation or both. It’s been dying for a couple of years. The bark has just about completely fallen off, and the base of it is beginning to rot. It will fall of its own accord within another year or so, but I’m worried that the enormous tulip poplar next to it — the biggest tree by far that we have in our hard — will develop the same problem. If the sick tree falls, it won’t be a big problem, especially now that the top third of it fell this week, leading to a change of Saturday plans and extensive use of the chain saw. Falling of its own accord is not always an option, though: the large tree if it were to fall, would cause some major damage. It might take out a power line that runs behind the house, and it’s tall enough that it could even damage a house behind us.
Besides the fact that I’m not really what the financial ramifications might be for a tree falling on someone else’s property (from my rough research, we might be held responsible if it was a question of negligence, which would be more of what we’re doing about it now: nothing), there’s the simple fact that I love that tree. It must be at least two hundred years old, possible older, and so it’s a history lesson right in our own backyard. It was around when Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. It was a large tree when Somme Offensive became the largest killing field in history to that point. In a country of new things, I value the old.
But falling down is a part of life.
As a Catholic, falling down has a spiritual, metaphysical sense to it: it requires a visit to the confessional. Like with the tree, there can be collateral damage when I fall down. A lie might tell someone could have far-reaching repercussions. The angry word spoken in spite might damage more than the moment. That’s what this Lenten season is all about — thinking about that collateral damage that accompanies sin no matter how we try to compartmentalize it. Our parish priest began a Lenten homily series on the nature of sin, and the communal nature of sin is a key Catholic teaching. We are responsible for our own actions, of course, but we always seem to rise and fall together.
As a parent, falling down is something my kids just have to do. They have to learn how to fall, how to absorb the impact without breaking bones or, later, hearts. More importantly, they have to learn how to get back up. That’s a lesson many of us never learn, I’m afraid. L has learned how to take a tumble and hop back up, or perhaps even laugh about it.
The Boy is slowly learning the same. Sometimes he’ll fall with a thump and hesitate for a moment before hopping up and proclaiming, “I’m okay!”
With L finishing up fourth grade, though, K and I have begun thinking about the simple fact that we’ll soon have to start thinking about considering middle school. (We’re masters of procrastinating at times.) That will begin a whole new cycle of learning: the broken heart. I don’t necessarily mean crushes that turn sour, though that too is in the back of the mind. I simply mean the cruelty with which teenagers can treat each other: the cutting comments, the fair-weather friends, the peer pressure, and all the sundry stresses of teen life.
But for now, sometimes it’s probably best not to fall down but just let yourself down, gently, and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those worries will wait. For a while.
The Boy was playing CandyLand with K, and after he’d won the first game, he was eager to play another.
“I’m going to win again!” he proclaimed, and for a moment, it looked as if he were going to do just that. He shot ahead with double color after double color. Then K drew the gum drop and zoomed ahead.
“Oh, I’ll never win!” he proclaimed, frustrated.
“Yes, but you might draw another candy piece and move ahead, or Mama might draw the candy cane when you’re way past it and have to go back many, many spaces,” I reasoned. But as I often remind The Girl, there’s no reasoning with a four-year-old. He continued playing a bit halfheartedly. He drew a candy piece eventually, but K had shot so far ahead by then that his chances of winning really and truly were gone.
And with that loss, his desire to play was gone as well.
I remembered the whole time they played the new buzzword in education: grit. It’s really nothing more than perseverance in the face of difficulty and setback, but educators and researchers in education like new jargon. (I suspect it’s mainly from the latter.) And so “grit” is thrown around in education blogs and educator gatherings quite often these days. It was rewarding to see The Boy showing some of this perseverance. It took a good bit of encouragement, but he finished the game, learned the lesson (?), and we had a nice close to the afternoon.
The next night, The Boy and I are working with Legos. I was building a jail for him, and he was building a mystery. Not having a plan, he found the process a little slow-going and frustrating.
“I just can’t get it,” he fussed as he couldn’t get two pieces joined. He threw them down, and for just a moment, I thought the chances of a relaxing evening of Lego-ing were gone. But just for a moment. Seeing everything as a teaching opportunity — or at least trying to — I showed him how to get the pieces together, then pulled them apart and had him try again.
“I got it!”
Two opportunities to teach that could have disappeared but didn’t. The trick for me, though, is to transfer that to my students. Everything can be a moment to teach, a learning opportunity, for the at-risk kids in my charge. They lack social skills, patience, anger management methods, volume control, grit (there it is again), a growth mindset (another edu-speak jargon term that’s hot now). Every teaching moment can’t bloom — I’d never get to the curriculum some days. The balance must be there, but there’s so much they need before they’re gone off to high school…
Inspired by the Daily Post’s prompt of the day: Gone.