Mar 31 2014

Who’ll Get the Dog Up?

The mornings have never been easy. When she was a little toddler, Buddy-roo always woke up way too early, crawling into our bed at a pre-dawn hour and rather than dozing back to sleep in my arms, like her sister, she’d kick and fuss until we got up and put her in the saucer in front of Baby Einstein. (This explains her affection for anything with a screen.) It’d buy us 45 extra minute of sleep, not an insignificant number in those early parental days with two young toddlers.

Now it’s nearly impossible to rouse her out of bed. The morning must be choreographed with a series of steps: an early whispered call, with gentle back-rub, repeated in-person visits to get her to rise out from under her alarm_clockscozy comforter. I’ve tried a range of approaches from cooing gently in her ear, using her stuffed animals and puppets to nudge her awake. I try not to holler up at her from downstairs – this is a last resort because though it eventually moves her from bed to the breakfast table, the cranky comportment she brings with her is the wrong way for all of us to start our day. I even tried playing her favorite band One Direction at full volume, a gesture which at 7:30 in the evening brings her bounding into the living room to dance before dinner. Though it got her out of bed at 7:30 in the morning, it wasn’t her best mood ever.

And she’s only ten. Given that the sleeping habits of teenagers are even more problematic, I am looking forward to several more years of nagging in the morning. Though Short-pants, months way from being 13, is much more self-sufficient in the morning, setting her own alarm, pushing herself out of bed and dressing efficiently. I often stumble out of our bedroom, yawning and tying the belt of my robe, to find her all dressed, sitting in the living room chair reading or knitting. On the weekends, she brings us coffee in bed. But offering this up to Buddy-roo an example is futile, the comparison will only be a dis-encouragement (her term, not mine) and cause her to bury her head under the pillow for ten more minutes.

~ ~ ~

She wants a dog. She’s been asking for one for years. In Paris, we had good reason to change the subject on this conversation; our top-floor apartment wasn’t really suited for a dog – at least not the kind of canine I would allow in our home. Plus it felt like taking care of two young girls was enough. I didn’t want another creature to feed and bathe and take out for walks, too.

Still she begged. Last year we offered it as a reward for getting good grades, figuring that given her temperament it was unlikely she could earn the reward, but if indeed it motivated her to perform then she’d truly deserve it. It’s not that I don’t want a dog. When I was little we had a loyal woodchuck hound, he was the best. I’m very fond of dogs as long as they’re bigger than cats. But pets are a mess and work, and didn’t I just mention that for me mothering two young girls was enough of that?

When our Parisian neighbor Lucy acquired a Shih Tzu and offered Buddy-roo the responsibility of walking the dog after school, it took the pressure off of us. It also gave us a chance to see how long it would take Buddy-roo to get bored with the dog, as well as the job, which is useful information. It turns out she has a very special rapport with animals, and she and the dog Pierre became fast friends. There were a few afternoons where she needed to be reminded about her duties, but most of the time it was her pleasure to take care of him. Since we moved away she longs for him, anytime she sees a Shih Tzu in the street she calls out his name. She even remembered his birthday and called Lucy to leave a message for him.

In Barcelona our apartment is a bit more spacious and somehow more suited to owning a dog. We’re closer to nature, too, with a big park across the dog_mailstreet and a mountainside of terrain just a two-block walk up the hill from our door. There are plenty of places for a dog to do what a dog’s born to do: run and play. So De-facto and I are warming to the idea. A lot.

Except we’d already put the acquisition of a pet up as an incentive, and we’d realized, too late, it was probably counter productive. We try to praise the girls by complimenting the work they do to achieve their successes, not just the good outcome. The carrot-and-stick we’d offered Buddy-roo was based on being conscientious about her work, but it was also about getting a specific result. And even though she’d rallied and done the work, her grades didn’t cut it. We probably set the bar too high. Or else we’d achieved our inadvertent objective, which was to get out of getting her a dog.

But if we get one now, it’s like rewarding her even though she didn’t meet the goal. Is this a case of we made our bed, so now we lie in it? Do we have to stick to the original plan and keep pressing her to get better grades? Isn’t there some kind of work-around? The imperfections of our parenting are humbling.

Thus a new challenge has been issued: she has to continue to demonstrate her effort to be responsible for her own homework, not necessarily to place in the top of her class or ace her tests, but to be conscientious about her work between now and the end of the year, AND, she needs to show us that she can wake up consistently in the morning without our badgering her – because it will be her responsibility to walk the dog in the morning – then we could bring a dog into our family next year. Presented with this pathway to a pet, she began to dance around the room, as though a nearly dead hope had just been revived.

She asked me later, using her cute voice, “On a scale of 1 – 100, what are the chances that we will get a dog?”

I explained that if she kept up with her schoolwork – if there were no more oh-no-mama-there’s-this-thing-I-forgot-that’s-due-tomorrow panics, if she did her homework without making it a big mishigas and did her best to do well in school – and if she’d demonstrate that she could get out of bed in the morning without delay and drama, that chances were very good.

“How good?” she said.

“It’s all up to you,” I told her, “to make it a one-hundred percent.”

~ ~ ~empty_bed

The mornings are getting easier. You can tell she’s working hard to change her rising habits. This morning she had to get out of bed really early, in the dark, to get to school by 6:15 am to leave for a school trip. It helped that she’s excited about the trip, a weeklong adventure with her classmates that involves hiking and outdoor activities. It’s a French school tradition, the class verte, partly for the physical activities but also to help develop the children’s autonomy. It’s a week away from home without the parents to organize everything for them, kind of a primer for the independence they’ll be given next year in middle school. Buddy-roo bounced out of bed like a pro this morning, a sign that she can get up when she wants to. I think it’s a good chance there’s a dog in our future.


Feb 9 2014

When She Wants

I waited for her just inside the courtyard gate, watching the other kids find their parents or nannies, one by one. Buddy-roo walked out of the school dragging her feet, her heavy backpack a huge weight over her shoulders to blue_kidmatch her heavy heart. She’s a fine actress: not that she covers up her feelings but rather she can dramatize them to the fullest when it serves her purpose.

I offered an upbeat greeting, a big smile and how was your morning? in an attempt not to succumb to the gloom I knew she wanted me to see. As soon as we left the school courtyard and made it around the corner, she burst into tears.

“Today was the worstest day of my life!” She recounted, between sobs, how she’d been punished for something she didn’t know was wrong: playing games on the tablet in the media center (aka the library) when she was supposed to be using it to read a book. And that last week she had forgotten (neglected) to write down two important assignments in her agenda – two poems she had to memorize, one in French and one in Catalan – both she’d have to recite the next day. This is her biggest challenge at school, either she doesn’t pay attention when the assignments are given, or she doesn’t remember to write them down, or she doesn’t remember to do them. (Or all of the above.)

“I’ve really been trying hard to keep up with my homework but now I’ve ruined it all” she said, “and now I’m going to look stupid in front of everyone.”

She clamped her arms around me and buried her head in my coat.

“I didn’t want to move here,” she said, “Our life was just fine in Paris. The school there understood how I like to be taught. I never got yelled at. I’ve been yelled at four times already this year. And I never had so many things to memorize at once.”

“Sounds like you had a rough day,” I said, already dreading the afternoon. It was Wednesday, the day of the week she gets out of school early, so she had enough time to catch up on her homework, but I knew she’d want and need my help and I had other things I’d hoped to accomplish. Plus I’d purchased tickets for the two of us to attend the Custo show as part of Barcelona’s fashion week. She was thrilled when I surprised her with the tickets, it would be a mother-daughter outing and a special treat for her because she loves all things fashion. But if she didn’t finish the assignment, I couldn’t really justify the night out, on a school night no less. I had to be parental (I hate that).

Since Buddy-roo gets out of school just before lunch on Wednesdays, we’ve made it a ritual to stop at a favorite neighborhood cafè known for its frankfurters. This is also the moment each week that I allow her a Coca-cola. It’s always a prized moment for her: lunch alone with her mom, a hot-dog and a coke. I reminded her that this was ahead, on our way home, yellow_red_barstoolshoping it would buoy her spirits. It did help to abate her tears, and a slight spring returned to her step as we walked toward the café.

“You know,” I said, once she was halfway through her hot-dog, “you’ll need to memorize both those poems before we go to the fashion show tonight.” I braced myself for her push-back: the usual resistance accompanied by complaints about having homework and being hounded to do it.

“I know,” she said.

What? No barrage of excuses or reasons not to? Could it be that she’s starting to accept responsibility for her work? Is little Buddy-roo growing up?

Later at home I let her lollygag for fifteen minutes before pressing her to start. I know sometimes I need to fuss a bit before I plunge in to my work; a few minutes of clicking on Facebook links and reading favorite blogs stirs my brain until I am warmed up. I gave her the 5-minutes-til homework warning, anticipating again her resistance but instead she walked into my office carrying her backpack, setting it down without any exaggerated sighs or even a hint of whining and retrieved from it the books she needed. We made a list of what she had to complete by six o’clock, the time we needed to walk out the door to arrive at the event on time.

“I’m really looking forward to the fashion show tonight,” I told her, “so I hope you can finish everything so we can still go.” I saw this as a gentle threat and hoped it would make clear the ultimatum, using a more positive tactic to avoid negative finger pointing, but still drawing the line.

She did a few short written assignments first, easy tasks but this permitted her to check some things off the list quickly. She attacked her work with an unusual efficiency. I’ve seen her spend an hour on a grammar exercise with only five phrases to fix, but now she was humming right along. When she started in on her poetry, I stared at my own to-do list, wondering how I would concentrate on it with her sitting on the floor behind me, reading her lines out loud. But she was taking such initiative that I didn’t want to spoil her momentum. What I wanted to write could wait until tomorrow. Instead, I’d clean out some of the emails in my inbox, something that didn’t require full concentration. pink_elephant

If you’ve ever listened to a 10-year old memorize a poem, you know it’s a humbling moment for any of us with even the mildest aphasia. My steel-trap memory disintegrated during the production of my children’s placentas, and has never been fully recuperated. Hard facts I could once recall rapid-fire often sputter out or elude me all together. My reliance on Google search to look up things I already know is maddening. The other day I was telling De-facto about feminists I admired, and I could not for the life of me summon the name of the author of The Feminine Mystique. Only an iPhone search delivered Betty Friedan. Of course, I knew that. At a certain age, I suppose, there is a widening difference between knowing and remembering.

She started with the French poem, reading two lines out loud twice. Then she put the paper down and recited them. Two more lines, twice, and then the next. Within 20 minutes she could recite the whole poem by heart, without looking. The Catalan poem posed more of problem; she didn’t really understand what it meant, so she was mostly memorizing sounds. But her accent was impeccable, or it least it sounded sharp and confident to me. She learned the second poem almost as quickly. It wasn’t flawless, she had to peek once in a while, or ask for a one-word prompt to remember the line that followed. More important than reciting the poems perfectly – both were still a little bit bumpy – was the way she’d attacked them: vigorously and without getting distracted. It’s rare that she works so diligently. She must have really wanted to go to that fashion show.

We had quasi-VIP passes. We met my Spanish teacher – this excursion was part of a culture and language program – in front of the Mercat del Born, an old covered market that, during a renovation had revealed a tract of Roman ruins. Construction was halted and the the building was turned into an archeological museum and library. This was the location of Barcelona’s fashion week events, with a catwalk that wrapped around the dugout of ruins. We first went for some tapas at a nearby café, to go over some Spanish vocabulary pertaining to the world of la moda, fashion. When we returned, we were skirted to the front of the long line snaking outside the market, and ushered to our seats, a few rows back from the catwalk. Buddy-roo delighted at the flashing lights and the pulsing music, the models sashaying by, sporting next year’s collection. And Custo happens to be a catwalk_girlsfavorite brand of mine, even before I moved to Spain. There was a Custo store on our street in Paris; its merchandise fit well my bohemian chic taste in clothing and occupied a large part of my closet until that store closed a few years ago. Fashion savvy Buddy-roo assessed each model as she strutted by, rating each outfit by its originality and style, and of course, whether or not she’d wear it. At the end of the show, when all the models paraded by, followed by the designer himself, she turned to me with the look of supreme satisfaction.

After, the fashionista crowd gathered in a tent outside the venue. I wouldn’t have minded to stay and quench my thirst, but the next day was a school day so Buddy-roo and I made our way through the throngs of well dressed people out to the street to find our taxi home. We flagged one down and slid into its back seat together. Buddy-roo threw her arms around me and gave me a fierce hug.

“This was the bestest night of my life. I’ll never forget it!”

My father used to offer me a particular piece of unsolicited advice: how I should tone down the highs and bring up the lows, just to try to take life a bit more evenly. I never appreciated his suggestion. I liked the thrill of elation too much and was prepared to pay for it with the pendulum swing of emotions. Of course now I can understand his advice, guiding Buddy-roo through the worst day and the best night of her life, but I know better than to offer it to her.

“It was a great night, wasn’t it?” I said. “Thanks for learning your poems so we could go out.”

Right then and there, in the back of the taxi whizzing through the Barcelona streets, she recited both poems for me, flawlessly. She truly has a brilliant memory, when she wants.


Oct 20 2013

Real Life Tests

I wish I could say that Buddy-roo was getting better about doing her homework, now that she’s older and in the final year of primary school. It’s never been her thing, and the battles to get her to do it are as fierce as ever. It’s especially hard to wage a battle when you don’t believe fully in the cause. I’d argue that keeping work to school hours and giving kids free time to play after school is better for their brains. Unfortunately, due to our current choice of schools, homework seems to be a regular part of the plan.

I hate the no-longer-subtle and ever-present parenting pressure of our times: if you don’t help your kids perform well in school, even at a tender age, they won’t have the optimal educational and career opportunities later in their life. We don’t want to program them like machines, but if we don’t press them there’s the nagging worry that they be outliers, destined to bepencil_graffiti slackers the rest of their lives. My parents, in no uncertain terms, expected a certain academic performance from me and I understood that meeting their standards would take me to a brighter future with lots of choices. I’m not convinced this is the truth anymore, and even if it were, nothing I tell Buddy-roo would make her believe it.

Every day after school it’s the same grind: we look at the upcoming assignments in her agenda and she spends five minutes longing for her old school. Last year’s teacher handed out a sheet of paper with the assignments, a week at a time, and Buddy-roo and her classmates would glue (French school = paper + glue stick) this into their agendas. She could anticipate upcoming tests and get ahead on homework during the weekend so the weeknights weren’t crammed with work. It didn’t make her love the work she had to do at home, but it helped her to manage it. This year – new school and new teacher – assignments are handed out more randomly, sometimes in advance, sometimes for the next day. The teacher is probably preparing her for middle school, when work piles on from every teacher without regard for the other assignments from other teachers.

“It’s like real life,” I told her. “Things get thrown at you and you figure out how to do them.”

“I don’t like real life,” she said.

During an after school inquiry last week, Buddy-roo admitted that she had a test the following day but she couldn’t remember for which subject; she hadn’t written it down. We scanned her emploi de temps, and through the process of elimination determined it was for history. Of course she hadn’t brought the history book home with her. Last year, her teacher used to write on the board a list of books to take home each night, but, to Buddy-roo’s consternation, this year’s teacher expects the kids to check their agendas and sort it out themselves. Buddy-roo also couldn’t recall the topic they’d been most recently discussing, so I started prompting her with different milestones in European history. It didn’t take long to get to the French Revolution.

“That’s it!” She started jumping up and down.

A Google search yielded several history websites for kids, we settled on one and took turns reading the text out loud. This also reinforced a pet practice: I urge the girls to study in English to prepare for their French projects, and mariannein French for their English ones, forcing them to synthesize what they’ve learn and translate it. It is my hope this will help them avoid plagiarizing in the future. We’ll see.

Little by little, we made it through what I had to guess might be covered on the test: the three estates, the Estates-General, the tennis court oath, the storming of the Bastille. After each paragraph we’d stop to talk, and put the already plain language explanations into even more colloquial terms, or to give her context she could grasp.

“Oh, like in the movie Marie Antoinette?” she said, referring to one of her favorite DVDs. Buddy-roo’s favorite scene shows the queen selecting dozens of elegant shoes, having lavish dresses made and being fitted with an enormous and elaborate wig, all to the tune of 1980’s pop-band Bow Wow Wow hit, I want Candy. “She spent all the money on whatever she wanted, and that made the people mad.”

Later, at dinner, I pop-quizzed her and she got the dates and players mostly right. The next morning on our walk to school, I asked her to tell me everything she knew about the French Revolution and she spun the story more or less accurately.

I asked her why this revolution was so important. She might flunk the test if she doesn’t remember the dates and details, but if she can answer that question, at least she’ll have gleaned some context from the exercise. She stumbled through her answer, eventually spitting out something about overthrowing a monarchy and creating a modern form of government where the common man had rights, too. The victory of democracy over tyranny. Then I tossed out a bonus question: in what ways did the U.S. Revolution contribute to the French Revolution?

We’d talked about this the night before, too, and she’d seemed to get it: the irony of how the U.S. Revolution might have inspired the French people to revolt, and yet at the same time, France’s financial aide to the rebel colonies was a contributing factor to the debt that caused the king to want to tax his subjects even more, leading to a tipping point that set off the revolution.

“That’s not going to be on the test,” Buddy-roo said. “We didn’t talk about that in class.”
why_y
I tried to explain that school wasn’t just about learning enough to pass the test. Understanding the meaning of the French and U.S. Revolutions gives perspective to our day-to-day lives. We take for granted that we live in a democracy and can vote for things that shape our destiny. But it wasn’t always that way. Not that there isn’t a certain amount of tyranny in the U.S. democracy these days, given the recent shut-down charade, and not that governments are free from corruption.

Remember the Mahna Mahna skit from Sesame Street, where the really hip monster starts to scat and gets carried away and the back-up singers stop and stare at him like he’s lost it? Buddy-roo gave me that same kind of glare and I realized this was too much real-life talk for someone who purports not to like real life. I went back to quizzing her on the names and dates, and I threw in a few times-tables for good measure before we reached the school, where, after bending over for a good-bye kiss, I sent her into the courtyard, watching her disappear into the mob of noisy children, wishing I could go with her and take that test, too.


Sep 22 2012

The Devoir

I pressed my knees together and wedged them under the tiny desk, perfectly sized for a nine-year old but more than a tight squeeze for me. The other parents, their long legs jutting out into the aisle and chairs pushed back to accommodate adult-sized thighs and bottoms, looked just as uncomfortable. I suppose hosting the parent-teacher meeting in the children’s classroom gives us a sense of their day-to-day environment, but it does put parents at a disadvantage. Hunched over and stuffed into hobbit-sized furniture, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in school, cowering under the teacher’s strict supervision.

I remember in grade school, every year, on a night in early autumn, my parents would go to school after dinner for a meeting with my new teacher. During the day, we’d have been given a few minutes to arrange our books in our desks and we’d all work to tidy up the classroom. My father would always return from these meetings shaking his head with feigned disappointment. “Your desk was a terrible mess!” he’d say. The next day, I’d find my notebooks and papers turned sideways and mixed around, the handiwork of my father. Somehow I can’t picture his long legs bent under my primary school desk – I think it was more of a standing around, open-house kind of meeting – but I can picture the smile on his face while he was making mischief inside my desk to complete what was his very predictable annual prank.

These school meetings are important because you actually get to see and hear the teacher. French schools are very much drop-your-kids-at-the-door-and-stay-out-of-our-way. Last year, aside from the initial school meetings, Short-pants’ teacher never once spoke to me, and Buddy-roo’s rather humorless teacher and I had only a handful of exchanges, mostly about logistics. At these meetings you also get data that you might not otherwise pick-up, like how that sheet of paper that you thought was scrap and almost threw out is actually the assignment to research and prepare an oral presentation on Vikings, due next Monday. And with some assurance, you get to see that the other parents – even the fully French ones – are just as overwhelmed by it all as you are.

As the teacher described the work that would be required for each subject, I sank lower and lower in Buddy-roo’s already low-to-the-ground chair. The school meeting is like the door to summer slamming shut behind you. Gone are the blissful evenings of after-dinner walks for ice-cream and a family game of Mille Borne. Now our nights will be spent conjugating verbs, memorizing math tables and reading about Merovingians and Carolingians. The curious what-do-you-feel-like-doing-tonight? is replaced with the commanding fait tes devoirs. The word devoir means to have to, an auxiliary verb that means must or ought. When used as a noun, it can signify an obligation or a duty, or, as in this case, homework. Plenty of it, despite everyone’s complaints and the feeble call to ban it.

So far Buddy-roo’s devoir has been rather reasonable. But supervision is still required. Not so much on the three math problems due for tomorrow, but on the tricky “look-ahead” assignments: the test for next Wednesday which requires more than Tuesday night’s review, or the poetry every other week, which takes several evenings of practice to be able to recite by heart. It is still beyond the capacity of my 9-year-old to take responsibility for anticipating the due dates of these longer-terms assignments. As far as she’s concerned, next week is ages away.

Every evening, then, after a compact day of anticipating my own deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time, I find myself having to anticipate their deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time. I must survey Buddy-roo’s agenda and manage her homework, pressing her to start memorizing earlier rather than later, to cement her appreciation of Clovis and Pepin the Short and Charlemagne and to place them via historic timeline and accomplishment tonight, even though the test isn’t until next week.

Short-pants is more self-reliant, but she still needs nudging. Her speech on someone she admires wouldn’t have been completed in time had I not elbowed her, twice, to get started on the script. Her science report, identifying and describing the three types of tree leaves she was asked to collect, requires a decent amount of research and it was at my behest that she got started early. I get to be the raised eyebrow behind them both, with my new mantra, “I know it’s not due until next week, but you need to do a little every night…”

Some of the assignments seem, to me, beyond Buddy-roo’s capacity to be finished independently. Then it really starts to feel like homework for me. Maybe I should leave her alone, and let her sputter through and suffer the consequences of failing, but that’s not going to teach her how to do the assignment or help her learn the content. So I give in and help, always starting out as the facilitator, “Why don’t you read those paragraphs and then tell me how you’d summarize it in your own language?” Two hours later, I end up not-so-gently suggesting the answer so we can just get on with it and go to bed.

My greatest concern, beyond the burden this puts on me or De-facto, is the lack of time and freedom for them to imagine, invent and play. I remember coming home from school when I was in 4th grade and going for walks in the woods, playing with neighbors, making up stories and games, reading for pleasure. I rarely had homework at that age, unless it was a special report or project. My mother was happy to help because it happened once a month, not every night. My daughters, in contrast, sit at desks and work all day long, and then are compelled to use their evenings to do the same – and my evenings too.

I’m buoyed by the fact that Buddy-roo’s new teacher exudes warmth and compassion – a welcome change after the last year – and I think her classroom is going to be a much friendlier learning environment. But there are still a lot of musts that come along with the rules of a French classroom, so even though I considered re-arranging the books in Buddy-roo’s desk, just to mess the order up a bit and follow a family tradition, I decided, for her sake, I really musn’t.


Jan 30 2011

The Auto-dictée

She was in a puddle on the floor. “I’ll never learn this!” The text Buddy-roo was trying to memorize had been in her assignment agenda all week, but somehow we hadn’t gotten to it. Her homework was already heavier than usual, it was all we could do to get through the obvious assignments, let alone a special one. With her 7-year-old level of knowledge, maturity and motor skills, writing out sentences and circling the subject and conjugating the verb takes a lot longer than you’d think. Add some math problems and spelling to that, and the night is shot. It’s a bit easier than it used to be, but it’s still a grind. De-facto and I take turns being firm but friendly about getting homework done, one of us taking over when we notice the other’s voice taking on that getting-to-the-end-of-my-rope edge.

An incoming email message coincided with our parental angst. A thoughtful father made an informal survey of some of the parents, wondering, “Is it just us, or has there been an increase in homework?” Within hours, a flurry of responses. I’m usually annoyed by group email conversations using reply-all, but this was different. I opened each message eagerly. Another parent drowning in homework. Another classmate of Buddy-roo’s spending two plus hours a night to get it done, like her. Another mother wonders why, with all this work, there’s also an auto-dictée. Another father wishes the time spent with his children in the evening wasn’t always spent dogging them to finish their assignments. What a relief to discover we’re not the only ones plunged into shock from the amped-up after-school workload. A few of the more experienced parents tempered the complaints, commenting gently that this particular year is a tough one for French school kids and we just have to gut it out. But the main message in this email string was clear: most of us are exasperated.

We’re not a tightly-wound gang bent on steering our children toward the grands écoles. Most of us (I think) are just trying to help our kids keep up. Or more important: not to be stressed out. And the message string wasn’t only a rant. The discussion was a heartening reflection on the parents, ultimately morphing into a back-and-forth of constructive solutions and possible responses. Do we approach the teacher and complain? If so how to do it? Individually? Collectively? What are the consequences? How do we understand her challenges? Will it make any difference? Or do we just persevere and wait for the year to finish?

Then a message from a harried mother, apologizing for hijacking the conversation, but could someone scan and send her a copy of the auto-dictée because her son forgot to bring it home. That was when it dawned on me, the way something can come to you too late, even though it’s been right in front of your eyes like a series of neon billboards. Auto-dictée? It’d been mentioned several times in the back-and-forth of parent emails. What was this auto-dictée?

Minutes later a message from someone’s father who’d typed in the text. “I’m sending it to you from memory,” he wrote. There was a weary tone to his words. “After working on it for hours with my son, I’m afraid I know it by heart.”

I called the mother of one of Buddy-roo’s classmates. Even while I was dialing the phone, I had a bad feeling this had something to do with that folded piece of paper in the agenda we’d been ignoring. She confirmed this, and explained the task: Unlike the usual memorization assignments where you have to recite a poem by heart in front of the class (I find this charming), the auto-dictée means to write out the passage from memory, without being prompted or having it read out loud first, as in a standard dictation. This would be a challenging assignment for Buddy-roo if we had started preparing earlier in the week. To begin to memorize it so she could write it unaided, on the night before it was due, left us little hope for success.

Buddy-roo stomped and cried, insisted that we were wrong, that the teacher said she only had to learn the poem, she didn’t have to write it from memory. Rather than fight her, especially this late on a Thursday night, I said, “Okay, let’s just learn it by heart.” I started to work with her, line by line, but it’d been a long day. I was tired. I was angry. It wasn’t going well.

“Hey Buddy-roo,” said De-facto, “Why don’t you teach it to me?”

She handed him the paper. He read the passage a few times and handed it back. Then he started, “Alors, les source…” and he hesitated. She prompted him. Each time he missed a word, she corrected him. She transformed into the teacher, guiding him through the poem. And when he’d finished, he said to her, “Now see if you can do it better than I did.” And she did. It wasn’t perfect, but she had the basics. We had no idea if she could write it from memory, but it was ten o’clock and you know what? That was good enough.

I did write a note to her teacher in the cahier de correspondance, explaining that we had understood the instructions of the auto-dictée too late, wondering if in the future she might give us more specific guidance on new types of assignments so we could help Buddy-roo to be prepared. In the end I wished I hadn’t. The note she sent back to me wasn’t very empathetic. She started with how I had incorrectly referred to the text of the auto-dictée as a poem. Had it been a poem, she wrote, it would have been in the cahier de poesie. (It was downhill from there.)

But hey, Buddy-roo managed to eke out a minimum grade on her auto-dictée, and even got a few words of praise from the teacher, despite her lack of preparation. She also volunteered, in a sheepishly sweet way, that I’d been right about the assignment. (That’s a first!) As for De-facto, he has no recall of the text he’d learned. But at least now he knows it’s not a poem.


Dec 13 2010

An Energetic Action

The homework routine is much easier for Buddy-roo these days. The tears and drama have abated. It’s still hard to get her started, but the resistance to starting is diminished. The reward for completing homework is clearly established and we’re strict about it, so the anguish we experienced during those first weeks of school has vanished, more or less.

She’s still pokey. There are a dozen preparatory rituals that must be enacted, pencils and erasers laid out just so. When she finally begins, we must be vigilant against distractions, hard because Short-pants forgets and asks her sister a question, or starts talking to me about something that peaks Buddy-roo’s curiosity and then her concentration (if you can call it that) is broken. Or Buddy-roo looks over at the Christmas tree and must go over to move her favorite angel ornament two inches to the left. She returns to her work and writes one sentence. Up again to retrieve that angel to bring it back to the table where the homework is happening. “The angel wants to help me.” Right.

I sit beside her and use my calm but firm voice. (Any calmer she ignores me, any firmer she cries.) “Do you think you can finish a line without stopping? Let’s try it. Now.”

I flip through her agenda to review the rest of her assignments. Two vocabulary lists to review for an évaluation the next day, plus studying a science unit about vertebrates, also for a test. What? (Brass horns swell in dissonant chord.) This is a lot, for Buddy-roo, to do in one night. She has a particularly tough time with vocabulary. It’s always baffling to me because whenever we start to prepare for one of these quizzes, it’s as if she’s never encountered the words before. They must go over them in class, in the context of the story or subject they’re covering, right? But it’s like her brain has no glue for these words. She has no recall of their meaning. At all.

So we have to make it a game. While she takes fifteen minutes to copy four sentences for another assignment – with calisthenics in between every three words – I cut colored Post-it notes into slices and write the vocabulary words on one color and the definitions on another. (This isn’t hurting my vocabulary acquisition either.) In the past we’ve drawn pictures and matched them to the words. One weekend De-facto made a store with all the items on the vocab list (using reasonable representations found around our home) and bought or sold items from her until she knew them all by heart. If you make her read the words in a book and tell you what they mean, she goes blank. Lay them out like a match-up game and she dives in.

We played the game again and again, and again, matching definitions to words, words to definitions. Some of the words just wouldn’t stick; we made up silly ways to remember them. Robust is busty and strong, solid, like Mr. Incredible. The word lutter, (which I thought meant to fight, but it’s defined in her school book as an energetic action) kept stumping her until we decided the two Ts together standing tall looked like Short-pants and Buddy-roo marching energetically in a parade. We three marched around the kitchen island three times laughing and shouting out “lutter!”

This morning she remembered it. Because we made it fun.

It makes me think about the things I intend to do in the next year. Finish that manuscript. Realize a new project with my colleagues. Polish-up my Spanish. Pick up my viola and play it again. Keep strengthening my core with pilates. I want to keep the priority list short, so it doesn’t feel like it does for Buddy-roo when she has twenty vocab words to memorize and only two hours before bedtime. And I need to make it fun. If it feels like slog, I won’t want to do it.

I want to minimize the slog in my life. I realize you can’t eliminate all of it, there’s some administration that has to be managed. But whenever possible, taking action – especially on the ideas I’ve been dreaming of – ought to be fun. What’s the maximum pleasure I can extract from doing things, rather than just striving for their completion?

My next step? Make it happen, but make it fun. It doesn’t have to be a battle. Just an energetic action.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Scott Belsky: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?


Apr 10 2010

Spelling it Out

She has more than an hour of homework every night, in French and English. There is music theory to be memorized and viola to be practiced. She has an activity after school three days out of five. This leaves little time for Short-pants to simply be a child and inhabit her imagination unhindered. Then the extra projects: in the last few weeks she wrote a short story to submit to a competition for her English class and she’s had three meetings with a small group of her classmates to prepare an exposé on the topic of the Ancient Romans. Don’t even get me started on this – it was just as tedious as last year’s assignment (read about that here and here) and designed, it seems, to test the parents’ patience as much (if not more) than to measure the students aptitude preparing a report.

So when the note came from school about a citywide English spelling bee, my first instinct was I don’t think so. It’s too much, too tough on her. But of course, we didn’t want to make an assumption, so De-facto asked her if she’d like to participate. She was jumping-up-and-down thrilled about entering.

“Okay then,” I said, attaching the application form to the refrigerator with a magnet, “we’ll sign you up.” Why not fill it out then and there and send it in right away? Probably my own inertia; a spelling bee is more work for us, time going over the list of words with her, and schlepping her someplace on a Saturday. Maybe it wasn’t that she had so much enthusiasm, but that I had none. It’s tough being a mom and having to be cheerful about all matter of things you aren’t really deeply cheerful about.

We did sign her up, and just in time. In an exceptional flash of memory, anomalous to my usual state of maternal mindlessness – it came to me while I was out of town, in the middle of a job: we’ve got to get that application in before its due date! I emailed De-facto, who insisted that he was totally aware of the looming deadline. He left a photocopy of the completed application on the fridge as proof of compliance. Later, I reviewed it approvingly, until I noticed he’d misspelled the name of her school.

“So what?” he said, until it dawned on him, the irony of it.

Let’s hope she didn’t get her DNA for spelling from him. Nor from me, since I am a handicapped speller as a result of a scholastic experiment with the International Teaching Alphabet (ITA) when I was in the first grade. My first alphabet was phonetic, with funny connected lettering that made for interesting spellings (ergo the odd-looking title of the childhood book I authored, U.D.T. Rool Book). In second grade, I had to learn the regular English alphabet and unlearn all the phonetically-spelled words I’d been taught the year before. My spelling has never fully recovered. I managed, however, to persevere, competing aggressively in my 5th grade spelling bee. I was one of four students in the final round, and I was certain I would win. Rule #1 in spelling bees (and life): never get cocky. My first reaction to the word that eliminated me was “Oh, that’s easy.” Then I went on to misspell alcohol. Yes, it’s prophetic.

De-facto’s nemesis-word was crocodile. He made the same error that I did. mistaking the middle O for an A and eliminating himself from the final round of his spelling bee, too. Will Short-pants do what every generation is supposed to do and exceed our mediocre achievements? Or is she saddled with our sloppy and cocky spelling habits?

I wonder about the pressure that is hoisted on such a young creature to perform at such a young age. I’ve mentioned the hours of homework, which follow a grueling 8-hour day at school. Tests are frequent and often a surprise event. Students are graded out loud. Class ranking is public. Everywhere they go, life is rigorous for children in France. It feels like their childhoods are robbed from them. Or am I over-sensitive? Is this all just good preparation for the future, toughening them up for real life?

It makes me think of my Uncle Buddy, a man with a generous heart and a rigorous spirit but little tolerance or sympathy for kvetching. I can picture him now, cocking his head with a mocking frown, rolling his eyes. “That’s tough,” he’d say, “spelled T-O-O, B-A-D.”

This morning De-facto accompanied her to the first round of the spelling bee. She sat with 53 other students at her age level (there are 77 signed up, total) for the written competition. The top spellers from this round become finalists in the oral contest at the end of May.

Short-pants returned from the test, beaming. I asked her how it went.

“It was great!” she said, meaning it, “Except I got two words wrong: laundry and medley.” She and her papa had gone through the list on the way home, remarkably she could recall the words she’d had to spell.

“Medley is a tough one,” I told her, remembering my own bout with alcohol.

“It’s okay,” she said, “now I’ll know it for the next time.”

She’s tougher than I think, our little speller, isn’t she?

(The painting pictured above is by Blair Bradshaw.)