Touched by tragedy

For the past week, I’ve cried at the drop of a hat.

I was blaming it on hormones until I took a minute to analyze my triggers, and it was a no-brainer: the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

As the anniversary drew near last week, news shows focused more and more programming on the national tragedy and its aftermath. Newsweek and Time wrote retrospectives and found survivors to interview. Morning news programs tracked down the children of those killed and did “where-are-they-now” segments. I teared up constantly.

But on Friday, after watching yet another segment, I choked up as I began talking about that day a decade ago to my 8-year-old son as he ate his Raisin Bran. I told him how fearful I was, how alone I felt as his dad left town that day on a business trip, how I didn’t know whether to run to the school to pluck my kindergartener from class or leave him there.

And then my youngest asked me a probing, thoughtful question: “Why were you so scared that day, Mom?” Tom asked. “You weren’t in New York or Washington, D.C.”

He was right. I was in the heart of the Midwest, far from the blazing buildings and blinding smoke and sirens. I didn’t know one single person killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or the crash of the airliner over Pennsylvania.  Why was I scared that day? And why am I so emotional now?

I think I know. The world changed forever that day, and I knew as I watched the Today show and saw the second plane fly into the World Trade Center that life would never be the same. And it wasn’t just because the United States had lost its naiveté or whatever.

That beautiful September day marked the end of a rough six months of my life.

In March that year, I’d left my full-time job as an education reporter at The Kansas City Star to become a free-lance writer and stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t a move I’d been dying to make but one I felt forced into by an inflexible working environment. I left a job I loved, one I felt I was perfectly suited to, the kind of job I’d dreamed about when I was a kid. Just up and left it.

I knew in my heart I was doing the right thing, spending more time with my kids, but for six months I grieved my working life as I adjusted to extreme 24/7 parenting. (Not that working moms aren’t 24/7 parents – I always hated when people referred to themselves as “full-time” moms.  I’ve always been a full-time mom. But when I worked outside the home, I had hours during the day when my children were cared for by someone else and I was a person who did good work that was respected by the outside world.) A stay-at-home mom doesn’t get much positive feedback – the reward comes years later. And that takes a little adjusting to, I found.

So that day in September 2011, I’d just dropped off our oldest child at kindergarten. He was barely 5 and had been in school all of three weeks or so.

My daughter, who was 4, and I were getting ready to leave for the first Kindermusik class of the semester when my mom called to tell me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit, and like the rest of the world, Mom and I both knew it wasn’t an accident.

I bundled Maggie into the car and headed for Kindermusik, NPR blaring from the radio. I listened intently, a million story ideas flowing through my brain. I picked up my cell phone to call an editor at The Star when I realized no one there would have time to talk to me. I wasn’t a staff member anymore.

It was the first major news event of my working life that I wouldn’t be caught up in as a reporter, and the realization hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was out of the loop. Just a regular news consumer, hungry for information. And I felt lost, adrift.

A voice from the back seat brought me back to reality. “Mommy,” Maggie said, “please, can you turn off the radio? It’s scaring me.”

Oh, God. I’d completely forgotten I had a kid in the backseat, that I was a just a mom now, not a reporter. I told her I was sorry and turned on her Kindermusik CD.

After that, I suppose I dealt with the events of the day and those to come just as any other American did. I was cautious, I worried about flying again, I watched news reports and read articles in newspapers and magazines. I didn’t have any inside information, no access to the wire services, nothing.

In the past, when something big happened, I felt a part of things because invariably I localized stories, just like every other reporter. When the Columbine High School shooting occurred, I wrote stories about how local schools prepared for such an event, for example. And doing those stories, although fodder for massive bitching and griping, gave me a sense of contributing to a solution and probably helped me deal with whatever grief and despair I felt at such awfulness.

This time, though, there was nothing. And the void inside me grew and engulfed me as I grieved people I didn’t know and a world that was never coming back.

And then one day, I figured something out. My exit from journalism freed me, gave me the opportunity to help in ways I couldn’t as an unbiased reporter. Maybe I couldn’t reach the masses through the media anymore, but I could help in some way, somehow, in my corner of the world. I could try to change what I could where I could.

So as I embark on my second year of grad school in my quest to become a social worker, I can look back and trace the epiphany that brought me here to that glorious September morning 10 years ago, when I felt the world crumbling all around me.

It took me almost a decade to find my way, not unlike the survivors and children of those who didn’t make it. And life still won’t be the same. But I think I’m OK with that now.

Love (delayed) is a many splendored thing

Oh, the drama of third grade. Who knew?

Last week, my 8-year-old asked me to eat lunch with him. That request usually comes not because he’s dying to spend time with his mom, but because he wants the chance to have a conversation with his buddy Alex during lunch.

At his elementary, talking is verboten! And if the lunchroom crone spies with her beady eyes any unsuspecting student actually conversing with another, be they kindergarteners or fifth graders, she screeches that they need to eat ON THE CHAIRS! That would be some cold metal folding chairs lined up near the stage in the cafetorium.

Yes, it’s quite Draconian and Dickensian and just plain awful. I mean, if you get your jollies bullying little kids, you’ve got a screw loose somewhere.

So anyway, I don’t mind having lunch with Tom and his pal every so often. I got there Wednesday about the time they were coming in from recess. Tom gave me a fist bump as he walked by, all confidence and third-grade swagger.

A few paces behind scurried A. (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will be shortly revealed.) She’s a cute little thing with long blonde hair and thick glasses that hide pretty blue eyes. She loves Tom. L-O-V-E-S him. She told me so last year. She walked up to me this day, as she does many others, and gave me a hug.

Then she looked plaintively into my eyes and said, “Would you please make Tom ask me to eat with you? I’ve been asking him since last year, and he always says ‘next time.’ “

She batted her eyelashes.

“Oh, gee, A.,” I said. “The thing with 8-year-old boys is that they like girls as friends, but they’re afraid people will think they LIKE them if they ask them to eat lunch with them. We’ll work something out another time, OK?”

She smiled and walked on to the lunch line.

About five minutes later, out walked Alex carrying a tray of food, followed by Tom carrying a tray of food, followed by A. carrying a tray of food.

“I don’t care if she eats with us,” Alex said, pulling out a chair at the table in the hallway.

But Tom clearly did care. “Mom, make her go back to the cafeteria!” he said. I know A. heard him because she was right behind him. But she just put her tray on the table and sat down.

I told Tom it was OK, that we could all eat together. But he persisted. “She’s so annoying,” he whined.

I looked at A. to see if the barb stung, but she looked for all the world like a little girl who was getting what she wanted.

“Listen, honey,” I said to A. “I’m not sure we can have two friends eat with us in the hallway. The principal doesn’t like that.”

“Oh, no, it’s OK once you’re in the third grade,” she said, taking a dainty bite out of her breaded chicken patty.

That’s not true. But I didn’t want to send A. back into the gulag for many reasons. The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher would surely banish her to the chairs, for one. But also, it would have been mean. What was the harm in sharing lunch? I would never in a million years want a kid to cry over this.

However, my own started crying. He was looking panicked, and big tears welled in his eyes and spilled over onto his ketchup-stained cheeks.

“Mom!” he said. “Please! I can’t stand it!”


 Meanwhile, Alex just calmly ate his lunch.

“You two talk amongst yourselves,” I said to A. and Alex. “You, mister, better come with me.”

I pulled Tom around the corner for a little come-to-Jesus meeting.

“Listen, buddy,” I said, “you need to pull it together. It’s just lunch.”

“Mom,” he said, looking up at me pleadingly, tears streaming down his face, “she’s SO annoying! I can’t stand it!”

I can’t help it. I wanted to laugh. He was so sincere. But I kept a straight face.

“You sound like a mean boy,” I said.

He nodded defiantly. “I WANT to be mean!” he said.

But I told him that he’s not a mean boy. He’s a nice boy, and he didn’t really want to hurt A.’s feelings. And telling her to go back to the cafeteria would definitely do that.

“And you know,” I said, “you might be annoying to some people. And I wouldn’t want anyone to be mean to you.”

He just shook his head.

I sighed.

“OK,” I said. “I guess I’ll just go home, and all three of you guys can go back to the cafeteria.”

He sniffed, wiped his eyes and nose with his shirt, and said, “Never mind.”

We went back to the table, where A. commenced making the best lunchtime conversation. She talked about what she’d done the last weekend, how she likes to spy on her teen-age brother, what she wants to be when she grows up.

Alex joined in, and Tom grudgingly said a few things.

Then A. got up to go get a napkin, and Tom pounced.

“She’s so annoying, Mom,” he said.

“Stop it,” I said. “She’s not annoying.”

He looked panicky again. “I cannot be seen with a girl!” he finally said.

Finally. We get some truth.

After eliciting promises from Alex that he would tell everyone A. was NOT Tom’s girlfriend, Tom relaxed. A. returned, and lunch calmed down. Pretty soon, it was time to dump their trays and join the other third graders.

As I walked back home, I remembered part of the problem. A. has loved Tom since kindergarten, when she was Mama Bear to his Papa Bear in the kindergarten music program (until Tom bailed at the last minute because he had stage fright.) But they haven’t had the same classroom teacher since kindergarten. And A. has all this bottled up unrequited love just bursting inside her.

Plus last summer, Tom and I were at Dollar General, and he was ding-donging me to get him a playground ball. I was tired and hot and trying to get home to fix dinner, so I acquiesced. We were on the way to the car when we ran into A. and her mom.

I started talking to A.’s mom about her son, who’s my older son’s age. And A. started talking to Tom, who mostly grunted in return.

Then I heard A. say, “Why does your ball say ‘Girls Rule?’ “

Tom looked at the black-and-white ball, and sure enough, in hot pink letters, it screamed “GIRLS RULE!”

“Aw, geez,” he said at the time, and A. just smiled.

 I think she’s pretty quick on her feet, that one.

Why are all my PTA experiences the Harper Valley kind?

Today was Schedule-O-Rama in our household.

Three schools, three schedules. My legs are killing me.

And, as you know, you can’t pick up your schedule without passing the PTA table, where you get the whole parent-involvement spiel, yadda yadda yadda. So I’m now a member of three PTAs/PTSAs. Yippee.

I’m just not the joining type. I’m not the meeting type, the taking-notes type, the running-the-school-book fair type. Not to dis those who are. I think it’s great – for them. I just don’t like groups. I guess that’s why I’m a cat person.

So am I a hypocrite for joining the PTA/PTSA? Probably. I’m a big old hypocrite on lots of things. I’ll probably go to hell for it, too. But I think it’s my duty as a parent to join the PTA/PTSA as a visible cue to my kids that I’m all about their schooling. Not that they notice, but they might someday.

And frankly, when I die and someone’s writing my obit, I want them to be able to say I was a longtime PTA member. Because when you read that in someone’s obituary, don’t you just figure they’re Mom of the Year material?

OK, so before you start rolling your eyes and assuming I’m just sitting at home, watching reality TV and eating chocolates while my progeny are preparing to be the leaders of tomorrow, let me just say that I volunteer at school. I do all the crap jobs that no one else wants to do – reshelving library books, going to the food bank to pick up extras for our school program for needy kids, cutting apart laminated essays for the second-grade teacher. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the kind of thing I’d rather do than sit in a meeting and bitch about how last year’s PTA dropped the ball on the cookie-dough fundraiser.

However, I long ago gave up actually being involved in the running of any of these myriad PTAs I belong to. Like I said, groups and I don’t mix. I did, though, try my hand at this officer thing in the early days of my stay-at-home motherhood, with disastrous results.

Without going into much detail – I seriously can’t for legal reasons – I ended up in dog court, defending my pooches and my reputation against scurrilous allegations from none other than a fellow PTA member. The whole incident began in the PTA and spilled over into the neighborhood. And that’s all I can say about that in writing. If you want the whole story, you’ll have to buy me a beer.

Still, it’s been six years since that debacle, and those memories have softened somewhat around the edges. So last year, I eased back into a little PTA involvement, working at the fall book fair, doing whatever needed to be done that no one else wanted to do.

Then came spring and what should have been preparations for our school flower sale. It had been an annual event since 2004. It didn’t start as a PTA affair, but in the last few years the PTA had taken it over. But the spring wore on, and no information on the flower sale floated around.

So about two weeks before the date it should have happened – the Saturday before Mother’s Day – I ran into a former PTA officer at a hardware store. We both were buying annuals. I told her I was stocking up on flowers since it appeared our school wasn’t selling them this year. We agreed it was weird.

Then that night, I was at an end-of-the-year band concert when another friend told me she’d heard the flower sale was canceled because the PTA had never paid the grower for the flowers from the 2010 sale.

Whoa. How much money were we talking about? About $1,200. Not a ginormous amount, but seriously. They’d had the money. What did they do with it?

The word on the street was that the PTA tried and tried to reach the grower, but no one ever answered the phone. So they just kept all the money.

Geez. Every morning of the world, our school principal makes like a deejay on the morning announcements and implores students and staff to, “Do the Right Thing. Treat People Right.” Every. Single. Day.

I was livid. What did they do with the money? Supposedly, there wasn’t enough in the PTA coffers to send the school’s fourth graders to the state capital, but the PTA had apparently embezzled some money. Holy cow!

So I contacted the grower, who said he’d never received the money. I asked him to e-mail me an invoice.

Then I made an appointment with the principal and told him the whole thing, even the part about the PTA officers claiming that the principal had tried calling the grower but that his call had never been returned. Pure fiction, apparently.

The principal told me to get him the invoice and he’d personally drive it the 45 minutes to the country greenhouse. So I did. And he did. Somehow, the PTA coughed up the money.

And now, I’m a non-entity to the PTA again. By the end of May, the officers looked right through me. Stopped talking when I came anywhere near.

It kind of hurt. I mean, no one likes to be ostracized. But was I surprised? Not especially.

So, yeah. I’m a PTA member. Big whoop.

Things I’ve learned this summer

I’ve always thought I was pretty quick on the uptake, but I’m gradually realizing I am a slow learner.

That’s pretty much the gist of what I’ve gleaned from a year in graduate school, studying social work. I thought I was going through the motions of getting the degree that would help me land employment doing the things I was doing for free in a volunteer capacity.

But like a good scrubbing with Windex lets the light shine through a clean window, I appreciate now that I was barely seeing the trees, let alone the forest.

This summer I’m spending two afternoons a week at a non-profit family services center in the inner city. It’s a place I’ve visited often during my years as a court-appointed special advocate. The center has an awesome daycare and preschool that can serve 600 needy kids, with a waiting list at least as large.

I don’t know what I expected to learn at Operation Breakthrough; I just knew it was where the rubber meets the road, to be trite. I knew I needed some real-world experience after a year of grad school and before my first practicum. I don’t have an undergraduate degree in the social services. I barely have any relevant undergrad coursework: A rural sociology course on the Old Order Amish doesn’t translate too well to 31st and Troost Avenue in Kansas City.

So what have I learned that’s so earth-shattering? Lots. I’m pretty liberal, but I admit I have biases. Lord knows, I’ve had to examine them aplenty during my recent coursework. And one that I discovered is that I really did sort of pass judgment on folks who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Where does this come from? I don’t know. No deep-seated childhood fear or up-close-and-personal contact with someone like Max Cady from Cape Fear . My daddy wasn’t no jailhouse lawyer, my grandpa never spent time in the pokey.  I just had this bias.

Until this summer. This summer, I’ve been working with moms who need to find jobs. They all want to work. They need to work. Some are not on public assistance. Others are, but it’s a finite thing – it does eventually run out. Some have high school diplomas, some even have college degrees. Others dropped out and don’t even have GEDs. Some are all these things and have one other stigma – they’re convicted felons.

They’re the toughest. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a Harvard Ph.D. if you’re a convicted felon. You will be hard-pressed to find a job.

I can sincerely say I never truly understood this fact until this summer. I figured if you did your time, paid your debt to society, you got a do-over, except for voting.

Except that’s not the case. Politicians rant and rave about “welfare moms” and people taking advantage of the system, implying that people without jobs don’t want to work. And then they pass laws or allow companies to discriminate against people who’ve committed crimes.

Felons have a hard time even receiving public assistance – food vouchers, public housing, what have you.

This isn’t fair. How long does someone have to pay for a mistake?

And here’s something else I’ve changed my mind about: Many of these people that I work with have felonies related to drug charges. Where once I would have pursed my lips and passed judgment, now I see human beings who made bad choices and who are being punished with no end in sight.

Like yesterday. I spent several hours with a woman looking for work. She once directed a transitional housing program for drug offenders, until she made a mistake. Thirteen years ago she was convicted of marijuana possession. It was a Class C felony. She served her time.

Yet now, after losing her job in March, she can’t find work. Her voice broke as she talked about her felony. She’s embarrassed. Every time she applies for a job, it comes up. She has a great employment history and good references, but the background check trips her up every time.

Meanwhile, she’s unable to pay her bills. She got a speeding ticket, which made her appeal for clemency to the state get delayed by two years. She’s on the verge of bankruptcy. I could see the desperation in her eyes.

It’s no wonder that recidivism is a problem.

What kind of parent would I be if every time one of my children made a mistake, I held it against him or her for infinity? I believe in doling out consequences and moving on.

Social work is based on the belief that humans have the capacity to change, and that’s long been my mantra. People make mistakes, but people can change.  But they can’t as long as society holds them back, excludes them, treats them as untouchables.

I don’t know what to do about this, but something needs to change. With drug laws and “three-strikes-and-you’re-out,” the untouchables class will continue to grow.

Whoever invented the bathing suit is a misogynist

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a female over the age of 12 must be in want of a bathing suit that doesn’t make her look slutty.

Oh.My.Gosh. To say that I loathe shopping for swimwear is a gross understatement. That’s why I shop by mail order, ordering my swim minis from Lands’ End Overstocks and trying them on in the privacy of my closet.

But now I’m living the horror vicariously through my sweet 13-year-old daughter.

Maggie needed a swim suit for camp. Last year she made it through with a cute striped one-piece from the Target girls’ department, but no more. My baby hovers on the edge of puberty and all the joy it entails. She’s in-between – too big for girls’ suits but not quite ready for a juniors’ suit even, at least not some parts of her.

This is not a new yearly dreadfest – no, we first encountered it in 2009. Read about that here.

But it’s getting progressively worse, and frankly, it’ll never get better. Like the nice saleslady at Sears told her: “Honey, about the only thing worse than shopping for a bathing suit is shopping for a bra.”

Sing it, sister.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our first stop on the annual Trip of Shame was Target. Now, seriously, Target is my happy place. But not that night.

Maggie and I visited the juniors/women’s bathing suit department, and I was thrilled – thrilled, I tell you – to discover that Target now sells swimming suits made with Spanx, or at least a Spanx-like material.

I was giddy. “Maggie!” I hissed. “Come here! Look at this!”

I held up a black-and-white suit with a Spanx bottom and long fitted tunic top. My description doesn’t do it justice. It was really cute.

She eyed it critically. “These look like Mom underwear,” she said.

I ignored that. “You don’t understand what a miracle Spanx is,” I said. “When I was kid, there was no Spanx. We just had to suck in our guts and lie on our stomachs a lot. We’d tie beach towels around us if we had to go to the bathroom or the cabana for a drink. It was positively Stone Age. This,” I shook the black bottoms, “will keep you all in.”

She sighed. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll try it on. And this one, too.” She grabbed a polka dot tankini.

We headed for the dressing room. Like a dog in a fire hydrant store, I lost focus a few times on the way there. Target does that to me. That’s why I usually go in for one thing and end up with a new shower curtain, six tubes of toothpaste and some super cute shoes.

So I found some cute dresses on sale that I wanted Maggie to try, too. Because I really like disappointment, apparently. I know that the child only wears dresses under duress, but they were SO CUTE. And I knew she’d look awesome in them.

I made it to the dressing room just in time to hear the primal sound of a woman squeezing into a swimsuit. It’s a lot of grunting, exasperated sighs, light weeping, and then a few choice curse words. I knocked on her door and implored her to let me in.

She did. I slipped in.

She glared at me. “I hate this,” she said. “I hate everything about it. I hate my stomach and my thighs. I can’t wear anything.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

I tried to explain that no normal woman likes it. I mean, what is a swimming suit but basically underwear made out of Lycra and Spandex? Are we a society who likes walking around in our underwear? No, we are not, not really. Oh, sure. There’s always the exhibitionist who enjoys baring it all and usually has a YMCA membership, or the super-skinny skank with various Chinese-like tattoos on her nethers who looks good until her skin starts losing its elasticity.

But most of us would rather not walk around vast bodies of water with nothing but a thin layer of nylon keeping our saggy parts from breaking out.

“Here,” I said, handing her one of the dresses. “Try this on.”

“Mom,” she groaned, “no.”

“See,” I said, “in the old, old days, swimming suits looked like this dress. They covered everything from your neck to your knees.”

Suddenly, inspiration hit me. Next year, no camp that requires one-piece swimming suits for all female campers.

Next year, it’s Amish camp. I think that dress’ll work just fine for that one.

Where did this kid come from?

PowerSchool is such a double-edged sword.

You know PowerSchool – it’s the nifty electronic grade book that allows parents to know at every minute of the day how their kids are doing in school. It’s both a gift and a curse.

The gift comes because no longer are we surprised when the kids bring home their grades, good or bad. The curse is that every flipping day – if you’re neurotic like me and have the high school e-mail you daily updates of your kid’s grades – you’re faced with the reality that while your kid said he understood his biology assignment, more than likely he didn’t.

A couple days ago my oldest told me I’d ruined his day, and it wasn’t even 7 a.m. That’s because I checked my e-mail at 6:30 a.m. and saw the daily PowerSchool update. And lo and behold, his bio grade had fallen an entire letter since the previous day’s update.

I didn’t rant and rave and talk about wasted potential – not then. I didn’t want to ruin his day. I don’t live to ruin the days of my kiddos, but good luck convincing them of that.

But I asked him why he’d received a big fat zero on an assignment I was pretty sure I’d seen him working on. He didn’t know, he said. He’d turned it in.

“Did you really?” I asked, knowing even as the words left my lips that I was edging into the danger zone. But I couldn’t help myself.

“Mom!” he moaned. “Why don’t you trust me?”

Hmmm. I don’t know. Why don’t I trust him? Could it be because of his sometimes creative massaging of the truth?

Except that I was 99 percent sure he had done this assignment. So I told him he needed to ask his teacher about it. Maybe she’d made a mistake.

You’d have thought I told him he’d have to take it up with Dolores Umbridge. He looked stricken. Couldn’t I ask?

“Look,” I said, “it’ll be weird if I get involved. You don’t want people to think your mommy has to fix your problems, do you?”

Actually, that’s OK with him.

And that’s what I don’t get. Neither his dad nor I is a shrinking violet. We face our issues head-on. We don’t take getting stepped on lightly. We advocate for ourselves.

And we do it in front of our kids. I mean, we’re not going around raising hell all the time. But many’s the time my husband had argued with someone about an overcharge. The kids are always rolling their eyes behind his back.

Myself, I take the “good cop” approach until pushed to defend myself, which I’ve also done in front of the kids many times.

But our oldest – he sort of takes a Zen view of the world, at least this part of it. There must be some reason his grade fell a whole letter grade. Who is he to question fate? The grade is but one step on his path to enlightenment, blah blah blah.

Let him get slighted by the xBox while he’s playing FIFA soccer, though, and hoo boy. There’s hell to pay, xBox. And if his siblings short him a cupcake or donut or eat the last Little Debbie cake, watch out!

So I’m puzzled. Is this his way of rebelling against his dad and me, by becoming passive? I am a little worried.

Touché

It all started with that Rihanna song, the one about sadomasochism.

I might not be able to understand all the words, but I know what that song’s about because it’s right there in the title – S&M. Not much gets past this chick.

So the kids and I were driving from one practice to the next when the song came on. I had heard bits and pieces but never the whole song. Hmmm. Maybe that’s because the kids never let me. Because, hoo boy, that is one nasty song.

Once I figured out what Rihanna was saying, I switched over to Oldies 95 real fast.

“Oh.My.God,” I said. “That is terrible. Don’t ever listen to that crap again.”

Maggie rolled her eyes as only a 13-year-old girl can. “Mom, come on,” she said. “It’s just a song. It’s not like I pay attention to the words. I just like the music.”

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to listen to a song about…that…you know…subject. Anyway. So, no.”

Yay me! Mom of the Year.  A regular Tipper Gore!

Except yeah, I’m not, which my kids were so happy to point out a few days later.                                            

Once again, we were driving to some practice or lesson or what have you. And a song came on the radio.

Only this time, it was Aerosmith. Rock on! And it was Walk this Way. And I was totally jamming, trying to play air guitar and drive at the same time, cranking the volume.

“This is a ‘bad’ song,” Joe said, smirking.

“It is not,” I said. “It’s Walk this Way. It’s a classic. C’mon.”

Maggie joined in. “Mom, listen to the words,” she said. “Seriously.”

Um, OK. Here’s a sampling:

“You ain’t seen nothin’ till you’re down on a muffin, then you’re sure to be a-changin’ your ways.”

So I guess when I was younger I didn’t know the context behind that use of muffin.

Point taken.

And now I’m listening to all my old faves with the ear of a mom. Snake in the Grass? Terrible. Fat Bottom Girls? Suggestive, especially the part about the naughty nanny. Don’t even get me started on any Beastie Boys or Violent Femmes songs.

The whole incident reminded me of my seventh-grade year, when my favorite song was Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye. My younger sister and I recorded the song off an MTV video onto a cassette tape, and we played it day and night. My mom thought it was cool because she loved Marvin Gaye and was happy the guy had a new song – until one night when she actually listened to the words.

She was horrified. After that, we only listened to the song when she wasn’t around.

Which I’m pretty sure is what’s going down with that Rihanna song…

Sunday School: The longest hour of my week

In a joke of cosmic proportions, I’m a Sunday school teacher. It’s kind of like my stint as a Girl Scout leader a few years back – somebody somewhere is laughing.

Hey, I’m not being sacrilegious. I’m just saying, they were desperate for Sunday school teachers.

Actually, my intentions were pure. I’m all about being a good role model for my kids. I volunteer at school so they know that I think school is important. I exercise so they see that hitting middle age doesn’t mean you have to be sedentary. And I teach Sunday school so they know that I believe church is an important part of life.

There’s just the little matter of my profanity. Old habits die hard. I try really hard not to cuss in front of my kids, but I am a backslider. And I justify my effin’ lapses by pointing out that at least I’m not drinking bourbon out of my coffee cup. (For the record, I do not cuss in church. I do have standards, for Christ’s sake.)

Anywho, I started teaching Sunday school when our oldest was in kindergarten. He’s now a high school freshman. So do the math. With a hiatus here and there, I’ve been teaching Sunday school for a decade – sometimes with the hubs, sometimes with one of my sisters or my mom. Am I a good teacher? That’s debatable. But I’m a warm body.

I probably should have stayed with kindergarten, maybe first grade. The older the kids get, the lippier they get. And the older I get, the less sing-songy my teaching methods are. I can feel myself morphing into the shrewy Girl Scout leader who wanted to take the cookies and shove them somewhere unseemly by the time she bowed out ungracefully two years ago.

I’m thinking this might be my last teaching stint for a while.

Right now, the hubs and I are teaching our youngest child’s second- and third-grade Sunday school class. Our church has teachers commit to a 13-week stretch during the school year. Some years we’ve taught all three periods, but this year we’re just doing the third. Good thing. One Sunday, we had 15 kiddos, four of them girls. On Palm Sunday, we were at 13, with two girls. And some of the little boys should count for about three kids.

Every Sunday, I reconfirm my long-ago decision not to pursue a career in education.

Eight- and 9-year-old boys were not meant to sit quietly and talk about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, even if you throw in the part about Peter cutting off the guard’s ear with a sword. Especially if you throw in that part, because that means the newspaper palms you just spent 20 minutes making become de facto swords.

So, this Sunday – Easter Sunday – I’m figuring we’ll talk about what everyone got in their Easter baskets, with some digression when someone tries to explain that the only proper way to eat a chocolate bunny is to bite off the head. And then one of the little girls will feign horror, and then one of the boys will relate a tale about biting the heads off all his sister’s Peeps, and Matt and I will basically lose control before regaining it with the threat of no treats. Then we’ll talk about the empty tomb and Jesus walking to Emmaus and what have you.

Of course, we have to have treats. The previous teachers this year have set a standard. The first Sunday, one little sweetie told us that they always get snacks. That peeved me at first, but after two Sundays, I recognized bribery. And now I’m on board.

Problem is, they don’t like what I bring. Last Sunday, I made homemade brownies. I mean, I didn’t have a mix. I pulled out the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook and realized I had all the ingredients. And personally, I thought they tasted way better than something from a mix.

But one little boy took a bite Sunday, wrinkled his nose, and said, “What did you put in these, anyway?”

“Sugar, cocoa, butter, flour,” I said. “I’m not sure what you put in your brownies, but that’s pretty much all there is.”

“They taste funny,” he said, as he threw the brownie away.

Sigh.

We have a couple little stinkers in the class. They’re not malicious, just ornery, and they wear me out. Tom can tell. One Sunday, on the way to church, he asked if his dad and I had had other kids who were hard to work with when we were teaching Joe’s and Maggie’s classes.

I thought about it. And yes, I’d had kids who tried my patience before. One of the worst was my oldest kiddo.

He was a doozy, he and his friend. And now they’re pretty compliant teen-agers. Which tells me what I already know – these kiddos I’m teaching now will grow up and be OK.

And it’ll seem like only yesterday that they were driving me to consider taking tranquilizers before church.

The days are long, but the years are short.

Sigh.

The school bus: Not for the faint of heart

Momonthedge is swamped this week with a group project for a class in which she’s learned nothing except that she’s still got the ability to fake it when the teacher asks who read the material. So here’s something I wrote a couple years ago about the school bus.

Seems timely, considering that current story about the school bus driver going all Jersey Shore on the middle school kiddo…

I’ll be back with new meaningless drivel next week…

Happy Easter and/or Passover!

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We live just around the corner from our elementary school. But the middle school’s clear on the other side of town. So my kids don’t ride the bus until middle school.  

That school starts a good hour before the elementary, and it doesn’t make sense to my small-town-girl mindset to spend 30 minutes or so driving to and from the kids’ school when the bus stop is literally steps from our front door. And at best, that’s a 25 minute ride. What could go wrong, I figured. 

Once again, I figured wrong.  

Two years ago, when Joe was the first to take the bus to school, he and his naïve walker buddies became convinced the bus driver had it out for them.

He seemed like a nice guy to me. He explained how the process worked to my sister and me when he picked up the kids on the first day of school. This guy had a system. Eighth graders sat in the back, seventh graders in the middle, sixth graders in the front. He joked around with the kids but tried to run a tight ship. 

However, he was a little sarcastic. And his sarcasm didn’t go over well with the sixth graders, none of whom had ridden a bus before.

One day, a bunch of them mutinied, and the guy had to pull the bus over to regain control. Some kids were crawling under seats, and others were asserting their rights to be treated with respect by the driver. My sister saw all this on the school bus video a day or so later, when she investigated her own daughter’s involvement. 

Joe called me on a borrowed cell phone during this incident, and I could hear the pandemonium in the background. I’m sure it sounded just like the Bounty. 

I hung up with him, called my sister and asked her to drive toward the bus and then called the transportation department and told them the bus driver needed help. By the time my sister got the six blocks to the bus, it had started again. But my niece and three other kids were walking home. 

My son, however, got off at his regular stop. He would have walked, but he was bringing home his baritone and didn’t want to lug that monster six blocks.  

Later, when the dust cleared, I told Joe that he was going to have to ride the bus to school. For 30 minutes twice a day, I said, you can stick your iPod earbud in your ear, look straight ahead and grin and bear it. 

He did. We’ve had no problems since.  

But now, Maggie’s the newbie. She knew about what happened during Joe’s sixth-grade year. There’s a different driver now, a woman. Maggie likes her, calls her by name, knows some personal details. She doesn’t have any issues with her. 

No, her problems revolve around a boy a year older whom she’s known since she was in kindergarten. If what she tells me is right, this kid should be in the Navy. “Potty mouth” doesn’t even begin to describe what rolls off his tongue.  

I can’t even type here the things that he’s said, mostly about other kids. And Maggie (and Joe verifies this) says he sits at the front of the bus, not the back, where such obscenities were uttered in my day.  

When the boy started picking on Maggie’s friend, whose mother’s reputation was unjustly defiled by this foul-mouthed kid, that was the last straw for my little social-justice activist. She took up for her friend. And now, she’s the mean boy’s target. He’s called her some bad stuff.

Now, I know this kid’s mother. Part of me wants to talk to her about this. But in the past, she’s tended to think he’s been wronged, picked on, misunderstood. She generally believes what he says. I don’t know that speaking with her will do any good. And the kid might just focus even more on Maggie. 

So on Tuesday, after Maggie came home telling me the heinous word he called her, I called the transportation department. I told the discipline officer there my dilemma, and she said she’d review the bus videotapes and see if she could tell what was going on. 

I just hope to heaven that Maggie didn’t say something equally bad or worse back to the kid. That’ll be embarrassing. 

And where was Joe during all this maligning of his sister’s character? Sitting there with his iPod earbud in his ear. He claims obliviousness. 

Maggie and I were talking about it tonight, and I told her she needs to move away from the boy and to tell her friends to do the same. It’s only 30 minutes twice a day, I said. You guys don’t need to prove any points, you just need to make it home. 

And then I told her about my own horrific school bus.

It was the 1980s in a small town in southeast Missouri. My bus driver was about 105 and wore glasses as thick as Coke bottles. He was as sweet as he was blind and deaf. And his bus was a rolling hellhole. 

I went to Catholic school through the fifth grade, so sixth grade was my first year on the bus, too. But in those days in that town, all the routes were kindergarten through 12th grade. The big, bad nasty kids sat in the back of the bus. I tried never to go past the middle to find a seat. 

My older sister was supposed to ride with me, but she always managed to avoid it when her friend Victor, who drove a Chevelle convertible, pulled up to the bus stop and whisked her away from all that.  

In my memory, the back of the bus was a hazy, pot-smoke-filled place. There may have been kids having sex back there for all I know. A few rows in front of Gomorrah sat members of the Murray family, a particularly mean-spirited bunch who would spit in your face if you made eye contact. 

I cowered in fear at the front of the bus from the sixth grade until early high school, when our ancient bus driver retired, only to be replaced by a stone-faced mechanic who demanded silence on the bus so that he could hear the engine at all times. What a relief. 

That was almost 30 years ago, but apparently nothing much has changed on the bus. And you can see I’m no help to my children. At least Maggie has more guts than I ever did. 

Mom and son go to the birds

Sometimes, despite my best efforts, my immaturity rears its ugly head.

Like the other day, after my oldest son’s soccer game. His high school team formed an off-season team and is playing in a competitive league against, presumably, other high school off-season teams.

Now, generally, I’m the parent who’s pretty clueless as to the specifics of what’s happening on the field. I mean, sure. They make a goal, I can figure that one out. I’m not too sure about what constitutes “off-sides,” though. Basically, I just try to cheer positively, something along the lines of, “Way to be there!” and “Follow your shot!” and “Get it out of the middle!” You know, basic general stuff.

On Saturday, though, my son’s team played a team that was highly populated with European foreign exchange students. These dudes play some serious futbol. If you watched any of last summer’s World Cup games or ever catch any games on Fox Soccer Channel (which I watch every afternoon when my kids get home from school,) you get the picture.

Sneaky slide tackles. High kicks. Under-the-breath insults. And righteous indignation if the referees call any fouls that don’t go their way.

The game was a tough one, and my son’s team lost by three goals, to a team of guys wearing pink jerseys. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it just added insult to injury, ya know?

So he and his buddy packed up their gear, and we trudged to the parking lot. There was a long line of cars waiting to exit right on to the side street but no one turning into the parking lot. A bunch of cars that were turning left headed down the wrong side of the road, and we followed, since they were going our way.

Just then, a black Chevy Cavalier full of pink jerseys sped across some grass toward the road. I thought for sure they’d stop when they saw our station wagon barreling toward them, but the driver just grinned and turned on to the road right in front of us and cut in front of the car to our right to turn on to the road going west, the opposite of our direction. My hubs laid on the horn, and the jerkos in the Cavalier just laughed back at us.

That’s when my middle finger flew up alongside my head and slammed against my window, in full view of the carload of pink jerseys. Their eyes grew big and they looked like they wanted out of the car to come beat my a**. Except they didn’t want to lose their place in the line of cars going west.

The next thing I know, Matt is growling at the back seat. “Are you flipping them off?” he asked my son. “Stop it. Stop it right now!”

Geez. “I’m flipping them off, Matt,” I said. “They’re jerks.”

He ignored me and went on. “You do not flip them off, do you hear me?” he told our son. “It’s inappropriate.” He cast a scathing look my way. “I don’t care what your mother does.”

The other boy in the back seat – our son’s friend – was conspicuously silent. I looked back at the black Cavalier and jammed my finger back against the window where Matt couldn’t see it, smiling all the while.

And my inner 15-year-old considered flipping him off, too, but thought better of it.

Me and my middle-aged brain

I knew it was going to happen one day. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened long before now.

I hurried my kids out the door to a soccer game that wasn’t even scheduled.

Well, that’s not entirely true. That game, the one we showed up to, was scheduled, all right. But my kid wasn’t a part of the team warming up to play.

So confusing. I know. I’m living it. But let me explain…

I looked at my calendar last week and realized that Maggie had a soccer game at 10 a.m. Saturday, the same time Tom had a basketball game at a different venue. And Matt was out of commission, since he had a daylong board meeting. Grandparents were out of the question for various reasons, and I couldn’t be two places at once.

So we asked our friends who coach Tom’s basketball team if I could drop off Tom at 9 a.m. on the way to Maggie’s game. They said sure, and we were set.

On Saturday morning, everything went like clockwork. We dropped off Tom and headed to the soccer place with enough time to spare that I stopped for gas and a cup of coffee. I dropped Maggie off at the door and found a parking spot, then Joe and I went inside for the game.

Maggie was sitting on the bleachers, looking a little lost. I saw some girls from her team kicking a ball around, waiting for the current game to end, so I told her to go warm up. Joe and I sat there talking, but I could feel someone watching me. I looked over my shoulder and saw a parent wearing the same team T-shirt I was staring at me. I didn’t recognize him, but it’s not like I’m close with any of these soccer parents.

A little background: Maggie played on this team two years ago. It was her first girls-only team, and it wasn’t the greatest experience. She only played in fall and decided to go back to her co-ed rec team, which caused a mini-uproar on the team she left. Some parents told my husband and me that we were doing our FIFTH GRADER a disservice by not forcing her to play on this competitive team, to which we just smiled sweetly and secretly flipped them off in our minds.

So when the guy kept staring, I figured he knew all about that history and wondered why Maggie was back on the team. And for the record, she’s only playing on this team to get some touches on the ball before her school’s spring soccer season begins.

And this particular club has two teams with the same name playing in this league. They just split up their regular team for the 6v6 season. Maybe, I thought, Maggie’s team was playing the other team from her club.

Anywho, a few minutes later, Maggie came back. She looked confused.

“Mom,” she said, “none of these girls are on my team.”

I looked back at the gaggle of blonde, pony-tailed girls dribbling the ball. They all looked the same to me. Except there were perhaps too many blonds. Maggie’s team has a few brunettes.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Maybe your team is playing the other team from your club, you know? I’ll bet that’s it. Go ask the coach.”

So she did, and he came over, smiling kindly.

“Maggie’s got a game at 7 a.m. tomorrow,” he said. “But if she wants to play today, we can use her. We might have someone missing.”

I could feel my face turning red. I looked at Maggie, and she shook her head.

I thanked him and told him I must have read the schedule wrong. Then we walked the long walk in front of the bleachers toward the facility’s exit. I could feel all the parental eyes on me.

Right then I knew who would be bringing Maggie to her 7 a.m. game, and it sure has heck wasn’t going to be me. And I started casting about for a way, any way, that I could blame Matt for this. There had to be a way, but I couldn’t see a clear one.

So we piled into the Suburban and drove to Tom’s basketball game, which just had started. I laughed about the soccer screw-up with my friends there. One said I could still blame Matt because he should have corrected me when I insisted there was a soccer game on Saturday, but I thought that was stretching it a little.

Later that day, when Matt got home from his meeting, I told him all about it. He told me that if I had a Blackberry, I could put all the times and places I needed to be in my electronic calendar, and that would solve my problem. But I reminded him that I still would have had the wrong date and time in there, so what was the good of that?

I didn’t have it in my calendar,” he said smugly.

I stared at him. “Why didn’t you tell me, then?” I asked.

“Because I knew you’d get mad and tell me I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “So I didn’t think I should tell you.”

 So it was his fault. I knew it.