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Friday, December 24, 2010

Yellow Bus

Anyone in elementary education knows what "children are not making good choices" means, but if you're not in elementary education, nor close to people undergoing or perpetrating it, let me be clear. "Not making good choices" means misbehaving. So naturally, when a letter containing this phrase in relation to riding the school bus came home, I perked up my ears. The letter came from no less a personage than the principal, who doesn't write memos often.

Last year, the district undertook a program, the Peaceable Bus program, which involved a couple of school-wide assemblies with the bus drivers and perhaps some community-building skills that involved children forming their bus groups and meeting with their individual drivers. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, since, well, since I have to rely on my 3rd grader (then 2nd grader) to provide them, and she was much more interested in how many times Zach chased her at recess than in the assembly.

The principal was sorry to state that the program was not producing the hoped-for results, and that some children were, you know, euphemism supplied. As a result, after the winter vacation children would be assigned seats on the bus for three months, after which the policy would be reviewed.

Curious, I asked my daughter what was happening on the bus. Just some screaming and yelling and jumping over the seats. Really? I said. Jumping over the seats? Well, not on my bus, the 3rd grader said. On her bus, the only thing besides the screaming and yelling was climbing under the seats.

I rode a yellow school bus for eight years, through 7th grade. One year, my nemesis, Catharina, developed a new idee fix for my humiliation. Unable to separate myself from her, I sat by her on the bus, day by day. Day by day she worked on me, goading me to scream at the top of my lungs. Go on, do it, she said, just do it. Just once, scream, really loud, just once, do it do it do it do it. Eventually, her persistence wore me down. One afternoon, just as Thomas the driver turned onto my street, I let out a blood-curdling scream that hurt my throat and surprised me. The bus lurched to a stop and my humiliation began the minute my volume muted. As I remember it, Thomas was prepared to yell himself, but when he saw that it was I who had done this, he relented. He told me I better never do that again or else he'd tell my parents. I wouldn't, I promised in a mumble, as I got off the bus.

As I write this, I am remembering that my 7th grader, who also rides the school bus, was once very late home and confessed to me that the reason they were late was that some of the people on the bus, herself included, were being loud and changing seats over and over again until the driver pulled over.

Now I have told my children to wear their seat belts on the bus. I even went so far as to read the District's rules regarding seat belts. They were a little lax, in my opinion, only suggesting that children wear them, not saying it's a law. My children were resistant to the idea, and I knew I was helpless to enforce it. According to them, no one else wears seat belts.  So I pulled out the fear-based motivator, and assured them that the single most important factor in preventing death and serious injury in an automobile accident has been proven to be the wearing of seat belts. I gave them my most evil eye and spoke in my most solemn tone, and hoped they carried.

Both children were home, at the kitchen counter, having snack, when I read this missive from the principal. So, are you still wearing your seat belts? I asked. Yes, said my 7th grader in a dull voice. People have stopped bothering me about it, she added. Good for you, I thought but did not say. She seems to have friends, many friends, despite her instinct for self-preservation.

What about you? I said to my 3rd grader. You're not climbing under the seats are you?

No! She said. I wear my seat belt.

Good, that's good, I said.

Just today, this boy asked my why I was wearing my seat belt, she continued.


So I told him I wear it because my mother told me to, she said. He said, Well, your mom isn't here...

So what did you say to that? I said.

I told him I wear it anyway, because I'm a good girl.

I am telling you this with only a small amount of pride, fully aware that the evil eye and the solemn tone probably won't hold out much longer under peer pressure. I am also marveling a bit at the extent of my power. And I am also a little sorry that what my 3rd grader said wasn't, Well, the reason I'm wearing my seat belt is that I value my life, or something equally pungent. She wants to be a good girl now, but I know that effort is doomed: eventually she will fall short of whatever standards she has applied to herself in her understanding of mine, and then, oh my God, and then. Then I'll be wishing she'd just given in and crawled under the seat herself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Mortal Enemies: The Jews, II

In this blog I thought I would tie up some loose threads by letting you know that I did get those pants cuffs redone by Mr. Delmar Tailor. It took another visit to the defensive tailor in which he insisted that he would never sew anything as badly as the hem on those pants, and several phone calls from him in which he repeated that he could find no receipt to prove my story, but he did finally offer to redo the pants for free. When I brought them in to him, he told me that although he hadn't found the receipt, that I had bothered to come back a second time had made him think maybe I was telling the truth. Good thing I'm an Aries and don't shy away from confrontation, huh?

The other loose thread was crazy Joe the anti-Semite in 3rd grade. So there was crazy Joe, and my 3rd grader, and me (see Wed., Oct. 27th post). After sleeping on it, I decided I ought to talk to their teacher about this incident. Not wanting to make a big deal out of it, I caught up with Mrs. M at dismissal and we sat down on a bench outside the school.  Without naming Joe, I described what my child had described to me, while my daughter squirmed in embarrassment.

Mrs.M was horrified, actual hand-over-mouth horrified, and apologized, which was interesting and unnecessary. She wanted to know how we wanted her to handle the situation and offered to speak to the boy. I told her not to single him out that way, but that since the whole school had been addressing the ever-popular topic of bullying, it might be an opportunity to discuss tolerance in other areas of life. If anything further happened, I said, we could consider direct action, but since I inferred that this child might not know the power of what he was saying, maybe he had learned a lesson just by saying it and getting the reaction that he did.

Then Mrs. M asked me who the child was. I was reluctant to say, but I did, and Mrs. M had a double-take reaction. Joe, she said, is from Yemen. "Ah," I said. "Yemen." Maybe the family is Muslim, I said. We nodded at one another on the bench.

This all happened early in the week before Halloween, and on the Friday, the papers were full of reports of packages containing explosive devices intercepted on several planes. Packages addressed, in some cases, to synagogues in Chicago. Planes flying out of Yemen.

Well, the mind does love a story, doesn't it? Suddenly Joe the Yemeni's family became the center of a terrorist cell, or if not the center, then a peripheral member of it; or if not peripheral member of it, then acquaintances of members or peripheral members of it. I live in a fairly conservative town. It's just the sort of suburban place, near a small airport, where terrorists might choose to lurk and form cellular structures.

I began to wonder if I should inform the principal, if not the superintendent -- or the governor. Visions of calling the police (not 911, have to call the non-emergency number) or Homeland Security, and the extravaganza of media attention and general goverment harrassment that would follow (I've seen a lot of movies) jostled for predominance in my imagination. Soon enough, I would become the subject of their inquiries, and my sordid past (I once watched two people shoot up heroin) would land me in jail. Alternatively, I could remain quiet, and suffer burning crosses on my lawn (perhaps that would get rid of the moss), and other subtler forms of harrassment, and eventually be arrested for NOT bringing to the attention of the authorities my suspicions about the family of this young boy in my daughter's class. A dilemma.

The husband was basically unmoved by the intrigue-terror-cell angle, so I made calls around to various family and friends. They were fairly split, but the friends who work in education felt pretty certain that the teacher would have already informed the principal. I let it rest, took the 3rd grader to the Halloween extravaganza at her school, and watched her play tag with a bunch of kids, one of them an exuberant gorilla. Joe.

Weeks went by. I heard from my 3rd grader that the guidance counselor had come in and talked about different religions, and that the teacher read them a story about how kind words fill your bucket and unkind words empty it, and that we should all try to fill each other's buckets. Finally, December conferences rolled around, and we went for ours.

After chatting and going over the report card, Mrs. M asked us if we remembered "our conversation on the bench" a couple of months ago. I said yes. Well, she said, Joe's mother had called her shortly after our talk, extremely upset. Joe had gone home the same day my daughter did, and told his mother what he had said to her. Mrs.Joe, horrified, had called up Mrs. M in a state, wanting to apologize to us and telling her that she had given Joe a big piece of her mind for what he had said, because they weren't like that. They do, however, have Arabic television on in their home, she said, so maybe he had gotten some ideas from it.

I'm not sure what Mrs. M told Mrs. Joe, but Mrs. M, my husband, and I discussed how we thought maybe Joe was just trying out a conversation topic. Mrs. M said that Joe is kind of shy, and also likes to be funny, so perhaps his offering about the Jews being his mortal enemies, was an unfortunate conversational gambit for a laugh from a girl he felt a little shy around and wanted to impress. Oops.

I left the conference one conspiracy short of righteous indignation, but glad that Joe knew he'd done something not right. I felt a bit better about my town, which had grown somewhat dark undertones in the last couple of months. I was able to congratulate myself for my (outer) restraint and posit that perhaps I had the start of a novel. When God snips a thread somewhere, sheheshe unravels a seam somewhere else? Something like that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Not actually my lawn
My front yard has been overtaken by moss. I ignored this encroachment all summer and fall, noting and immediately forgetting the husband's reluctance to mow, which seemed to be linked to an  uncharacteristic (for him) existential despair over the state of the lawn. It was a little easier to forget than it might have been, because our across-the-street neighbor Steve moved out in July.

Steve, you may recall, was a living reproach to me about proper home maintenance. Stay-at-home Steve was tireless, thoroughly capable, and extremely visible. The person who moved in, let's call him Anti-Steve because I haven't met him and have hardly seen him, doesn't mow, weed or rake, or touch up trim, or find any excuse at all to be outside most of the day in most any weather. Instead of a visible reproach to me, this new guy is reproachable himself. He moved in, plopped a yard sculpture of a monkish robed fellow, presumably St. Francis, in my line of sight, and disappeared. Little tree-weeds left to grow in Steve's shrub bed! Leaves thick across the lawn. House lights on day and night and day and night. No sign of life. Give me Steve and his family and his boundless energy for home repair any day! Anti-Steve's next door neighbor has even mowed the lawn and blown the leaves off Steve's old lawn.

The neglect across the way, as well as a peculiar, pale, light frosty hue of green in our yard caused me to actually look at our lawn again. An aquatic-looking spongiform moss had sprung up everywhere. The husband was right: there was practically nothing left to mow. The only unmossy places were the areas with dead crabgrass, and the area along the driveway that we did rip out and reseed in early October, which is looking good. So gratifying: sprinkle seeds in dirt, add water, things grow. We did that after my neighbor who shares the lawn on that side, pigeon-toed, retired Betty, mentioned in passing that she was despairing of the lawn service she'd hired, because crab grass was encroaching anyway. I thought that might be a gentle hint that we weren't poisoning our lawn sufficiently, and that it might be time for me to get off the fence about whether I'm okay with reverting to what nature intended, or if I want to try to keep some grass, if it only requires improving the soil. Along that side, it only required two miserable hours of boring weed-pulling followed by seed sprinkling and then regular watering. No poisons.

Buoyed by the success on the side of the driveway, and by the sight of Pigeon-toed Betty and Tom next door trundling little carts of something across their lawns periodically, I told myself this isn't brain science, I can figure it out. And since the husband actually is a brain doctor, I think we just might succeed.

I checked GardenWeb ( Mossy lawn could very likely be cured by adding lime. As I read this, I remembered that last June I had gone to the effort of having the soil analyzed by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and their recommendation had been to add lime. I immediately failed to follow up on that, to which I attribute the broken a.c. and the long miserable summer.

After a consultative phone conversation with Laura at the local garden center, I sent off the husband to purchase a lawn product. Said lawn product, while not exactly lime, is ten time more expensive than lime, and three times better, according to Laura. Tom next door, who by the way manages to keep an impeccable yard and work full time, lent us his spreader cart, and we got to work. Too soon to tell if it's working. What it has done is leave little white splotches that look like bird poop on the driveway and little white granules on the lawn. We'll see. Some of the moss is very pretty.