Six.

When I dropped The Who off at school and was telling the secretary (with The Who’s permission) about the tail end of this morning’s play date, she held up all the fingers on one hand and just one on the other and said, “They’re six.” And that’s the moment when I realized that perhaps I was expecting too much.

This play date started off easy breezy. One kid pulled out a game, the other busied himself with trucks, and The Who started building with MagnaTiles. After a few minutes, they all started playing together. I was actually a little self-congratulatory as I sat at the table, sorting the dried out markers from the good ones. This is the best play date they have had in a long time, I said to myself. They were negotiating things, making decisions together, and enjoying one another. And then — at some point, The Who said something in a tone of voice that I read as unkind. Maybe a little impatient. Maybe annoyed. It sounded, in fact, a lot like my own impatient, annoyed voice. I didn’t comment. I had made a decision during his last play date that I would try not to intervene as much as possible so that he could form his own relationships with his friends. If kids ended up not wanting to hang out with him because he was rude to them, then that was the natural consequence. Plus, most of his friends aren’t afraid to speak up on their own behalf.

A moment later, The Who said something unkind again — something very not becoming of a host. Again, I held my tongue. But, the third time, I overheard his friend say, “Well, the next time my mom asks me if I want to come here, I’m going to say no.”

The Who, I think starting to feel the burn of his poor choices, said, “Why won’t you come back? It won’t be fun for you if you don’t come back.”

They went back and forth a little, with the friend insisting that he’d rather go to his grandmother’s house than have to come here and be subjected to this play date tyranny and The Who insisting that it would be different the next time, so he might as well come here to play. This time, I decided to say something and I called The Who upstairs.

“You’re the host,” I reminded him in a quiet voice. “If one of your friends that you invited over is not having a good time, it’s your job to find out how you can help him have more fun.” The Who tried to defend himself by insisting that he couldn’t stop playing Legos to see what his friend would rather do. And then by trying to convince me that his friend was being rude by interrupting him. But, I had heard the exchange and it hadn’t gone down like that. I didn’t engage in his argument. “It’s your job as the host to stop what it is you are doing and kindly try to see what would make it more fun for your guest.” I insisted that he go do that and, to his credit, he did. The annoyance in his voice was ever-so-slight that probably only I heard it.

There were several minutes after that of parallel playing at the Lego table and then I started to count down to clean-up time. The Who jumped into bossy mode again, insisting that his friends clean up in a certain way and within a certain time frame. I warned him again about his tone, this time not so privately. In fact, not privately at all. “Speak. Kindly. To. Your. Friends,” I said. Full voice.

As the two friends continued clean-up and The Who ate his lunch, there were a few more snotty exchanges, after which I nearly completely lost my shit. Fortunately, I was able to stop myself before saying, “Stop acting like such a dick!” which is what actually came into my head. I was pissed. I was pissed that he was so clearly missing the message I thought I had been so clearly conveying all morning (and many times before this day; the Golden Rule is something we talk about often.) And I was pissed that I was somehow totally fucking up as a parent. How is it that this kid, who so obviously has the capacity to empathize and does so all the time, couldn’t stop himself from speaking so rudely and being so selfish? What was I doing wrong?

Then he started crying. “They got more play time than I did!” (It’s true. He had missed out on a few minutes earlier on because I had sent him to his bedroom after he hit his friend on the head with the waggly end of a long Hot Wheels track.  “It’s not fair,” he complained. “They got more play time!” I contradicted him. “It’s completely fair. You made a choice to behave in a way that ended in a time out and you lost that time. That’s what happens when you make those choices.” He kept crying. Meanwhile, it was past the time we should have left for school and although he was physically ready, he was in no way emotionally ready. I sat with him for a minute. Took a deep breath. Held him. Let him fall apart on my lap. Kissed his head and said, “You are a very kind boy. You make kind and sweet choices all the time. I hear you talk kindly all the time.” And I asked him what he was feeling that was making him speak the way he was speaking.

I don’t know how to better impress the importance of kindness onto him, except to be more kind myself. Model more patience and more empathy myself. (While I’m not perfect, I do think I do a pretty damn good job of this already.) And I’m torn between making him toe a hard line sometimes and really trying to pinpoint the feelings that are the catalysts for his behavior. I mean, just because you’re hurt or frustrated doesn’t mean you can just act like an asshole. This is Human Interaction 101, right?

But, as the school secretary reminded me, they’re six. He’s six. I probably can’t expect him to have mastered a life skill that some adults are still working on (his parents, to name two.) So, while he continues to work on kindness, I’ll continue to work on remembering that even though he reads like an 8-year-old, does math like a second-grader, and has a more vast vocabulary than some of my students, he is still only six. All the fingers on one hand and just one on the other.

 

Poems.

I’ve called myself the only English teacher who hates poetry (which isn’t actually true; I just don’t get it most of the time) so it’s ironic that one of my favorite books from childhood is a poetry book. (Is it ironic? I might also be the only English teacher who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the concept of irony.)

I had always thought that Charlotte’s Web was my favorite childhood book. I had read it many times, had seen the movie, and I even sang the bass part of the barbershop quartet arrangement of “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” in my college a capella group. I sure did (and still do) love that book. But it was not, as it turns out, my favorite. My favorite, I only recently remembered, is Poems to Read to the Very Young, an antiquated, oversized hardcover published in 1961 and now out of print.

I’ve thought about this book off and on over the years, remembering bits of poems from it, and had even done a cursory Google search for it once or twice, but it never showed up. Most of the time, it’s not on my radar. But then, last week, The Who had a “Poetry Cafe” at school, where he and his classmates (and the entire rest of the school at various times during the week) sat up on stools in the library and “slammed” a poem in front of invited parents. The audience even snapped instead of clapped. Chatting with the librarian afterwards, I recalled my own “poetry slam” experience as a kid, standing up at the local public library’s talent show, reciting from memory two poems from my slim, spring green, hardback poetry book.

Beatnik.

Beatnik.

“There was a little girl…” I started. “And she wore a little curl!” The Who’s school librarian chimed in. “Right in the middle of her forehead!” we sang in unison. And all of a sudden, more than anything, I wanted a copy of my beloved poetry book. Of course, by the time I got home, I got caught up in the swirl of daily life and forgot to set out looking for it again.

A few days later, a friend posted a photo on Facebook of her two kids pretending to be caged in under a couple of wire clothes hampers and I remembered — again — another poem from my book. I searched and searched for the poem online, remembering only that it was about a lion and a bear. You can imagine how fruitful that search was. I kept stringing words together in the search box, but kept coming up empty.

Until! Until finally, some magic combination of keywords led to me the illustrator’s name, which then led me to a picture of the cover of the book in a Google image search and then finally — I found a used copy on Amazon!

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I ordered it. It arrived today. It’s exactly as used as my own childhood copy was — softened, worn corners, pages that smell like 1978. Every poem is a memory. I have never spent a better 13 dollars and 98 cents.

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Hard.

Tonight, after a typically trying pre-shower routine, The Who said to me, while I rinsed his hair, “When I’m a daddy, I think I will know how to be gentle when I wash my kid’s hair because I will remember how it felt to be a kid getting his hair washed and how I always wanted it to be gentle.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” I told him.

“What do you mean?” he asked (as it is his habit to ask questions to which he knows the answer, only to have it validated.)

“It makes a lot of sense,” I told him, “that you would remember your own experience and recall it later in your life.”

“Yeah,” he said.

I kept rinsing, maybe a little gentler than I had been.

“Am I gentle enough with your hair?” I asked him, squinting against an answer I didn’t know if I wanted to hear.

“Yes,” he said. “You are.” And then he smiled against the warm water raining down over his long, wet hair.

A moment later, after the business of showering was done and he was in his bathrobe, wiping down  the glass shower doors, he said thoughtfully, “I’m going to marry a woman who wants to have children.”

“Because you want to be a daddy?” I asked. (Maybe I am in the habit of asking questions to which I know the answer, also.)

“Yeah,” he said. And then he stopped and looked up at me. “Is it hard to be parent?” he asked.

The answer that immediately came to mind was, “Are you fucking kidding me? It’s practically impossible.” I flashed back to just moments earlier when I had said, “you have until the count of three to stop whining or there will be no storytime,” (which, of course, had only made him whine more.) He had been standing on the lidded toilet, stark naked, crying about the possibility that the grocery store might not have the exact same frosted cupcake the next time we went in. Moments before that, he had thrown himself dramatically on his bed after having been asked to put the new tube of toothpaste anywhere else but on the floor in the middle of the hallway.

“Yes,” I said evenly. “It can be really hard.” He glanced up at me and I continued. “It can be really hard because, when you’re a parent, you need to sometimes not do the things you want to do because you have to make your kid your first priority.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like if you really want to go out to dinner, but your baby is sick, you have to stay home and take care of your baby and not go out to dinner. Or, if you really want to watch a movie, but your kid is hungry, you have to make dinner instead.”

The gravity of this conversation was striking. The inception of this line of questioning was when he felt the gentleness of my touch, washing his hair. He was asking about being parented and about parenting his own future children. Maybe he remembered the harsh words we had exchanged just moments before that and wondered how a parent could be angry and frustrated and then, almost at once, nurturing and careful.

“Did it ever get easier?” he asked. “Like, was there a time when it was harder and then I got bigger and it got easier?”

“It did,” I told him. “It did get easier. And it still does. And, even if it didn’t, I would still make the same choice to have you all over again. Like, if someone asked me if, now, knowing how hard it is to be a parent, would I still choose to have a kid, I would always say yes. Because it’s hard, but I can;t imagine not being your parent. You add so much joy to my life. And just because something’s really hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Don’t we always say that?”

“Yeah.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I know what you mean, Mama,” he said and then he climbed into his bed and slid under the covers for storytime.

Five.

Five things that aggravate me. In no particular order.

  • Blankets, etc. left on the floor.
    Every goddamn morning, The Who leaves the down throw in a heap on the floor between the couch and the ottoman. Sometimes, there are also pillows that he has carelessly let roll off and then doesn’t pick up. Tonight, after I allowed him to watch a movie with his dinner, he left a blanket, two pillows, and a cloth napkin. It makes me want to kill him.
  • Crappy weather on my birthday.
    I know that with an early April birthday, it’s a crap shoot. My mother reports that it snowed on the day I was born and so I’m never quite surprised when it turns out cold and wet. But it has been gorgeous and sunny on April 8th enough times to tease me and make me a believer. Tomorrow the forecast is 47°, windy, and rainy. F that.
  • “It’s not fair!”
    You know what, kid? Life’s not fair. Suck it the hell up. You’re 6. Turn off the TV. Put your dishes in the sink. Pick up your socks. No, we’re not walking to school today because we’re not going directly to school. No, you can’t have Tootsie Rolls for dinner. No, you don’t get any presents for Easter; you’re a Jew. Shit’s not fair, dude. Move on and quit whining.
  • All. The. Things.
    I happen to be married to someone who gets stressed out by clutter. And our house is small. And we have many things. I have neither the time nor the energy to tidy up every day and yet, there are always things to put away. Frankly, it all makes me feel crazy, too. I can’t stand the piles of things that accumulate over the course of the week on the edge of the dining room table and the collection of worn clothes (and who knows what else) on my bedroom floor gets on my own nerves, too. I want it all put away neatly, but I don’t want to be the one to do it.
  • Email.
    There’s too damn much of it. There’s enough coming from people I know and organizations I want to hear from that I don’t need to also sift through the enormous amount of crap that comes down the pike every day. Hundreds of emails a week are filtered out through my junk mail setting and still there are hundreds more sitting in my inbox. I need, perhaps, a better filing system — a place to put emails I don’t want to delete, but don’t need to be looking at. And then shit mysteriously disappears, too. Emails I know I wouldn’t move or delete suddenly no longer exist. There’s no good alternative; it’s a necessary evil. But still.

Junior. 

I do not have memories of playing Scrabble Jr. But I do remember my mother playing regular Scrabble with me. We played it a lot. So often that I can viscerally remember the feeling of balancing the box as I retrieved it from the top kitchen shelf where we stored it and the smell of the yellowed pages of our paperback Scrabe dictionary. 

She didn’t let me win. 

Well, I mean, I’m sure she made choices sometimes that weren’t in her own very best game-winning interests, but I recall many times flipping the board or dissolving into tears as I was overpowered time and again by her word-building prowess. 

But she did teach me. “See what I did there?” she’d say after laying down a crafty set of tiles. And then she explained her tactic. Sometimes I was more receptive than others. “Do you want to show me your letters?” she sometimes asked. And if I did, she would help me find a place for a word on my rack. 

She beat me most of the time. But not every single time. Because I know (and so did she) that if I never won, I’d stop trying. And I didn’t. We played well into my teens and still, though it’s exceedingly rare,  if we can find an hour or so, we’ll pull out the board. And sometimes I beat her. (But I don’t think she is letting me win anymore.)



This happened today. For the first time.



The Who kept score, adding both in his head and on his fingers. I didn’t play my very best game and I helped him find words a few times, but he did most of it on his own. I can tell I will be having to try my hardest sooner rather than later.



Mid-month. 

After a scant 6 hours of sleep, a hurried morning, an 8:30am parent-teacher conference, hours of grading, hours of child/baby entertaining, chauffeuring to piano lessons, picking up essentials at the grocery store, washing dishes, feeding the kid, and then slicing/breading/frying an eggplant, all I wanted was to sit and eat dinner. And then I realized that I had no sauce. So I left the eggplant parm assembly right in the middle, turned off the pasta water, and cried. I really did. 

But then I watched a clip of Kevin Spacey and Jimmy Fallon doing startlingly accurate impressions of celebrities and I got a sweet text from a friend and maybe — I mean, I don’t know — but maybe I can muster the energy to run *back* to the store for sauce. 

Or maybe I will order a pizza.