Observation.

When I was a new, young professor, I had this student who wore a shirt and tie to class every day. He carried a briefcase and wore Dwight Schrute glasses. When, as an icebreaker, I asked each student to tell me his or her major and favorite band, he answered that he didn’t have a favorite band, but that he had a favorite composer. Every other student in the class glanced sideways at each other, stifling laughter and, even I — the adult, the teacher — had to work to keep a straight face and resist the urge to join the compelling, almost intoxicating ruthless majority.

I had another student, several years later, who clearly had some social/emotional/learning disabilities. He had a letter of accommodation allowing him extra time on tests, permission to take notes on a laptop, etc. He was brilliant.  He knew everything I taught him within moments of my teaching it (and often before) and although his quizzes were sloppily handwritten and often the last to be turned in, they were always perfect. He asked multiple questions in every class in a voice that was loud and earnest and his questions often lacked subtlety and common sense. One in-class assignment asked students to write something that would ordinarily be inappropriate for the classroom and when I read it aloud, this student laughed heartily along with everyone else. Except, when it was over, he kept laughing. In fact, I heard him laughing about it down the hall after class had been dismissed. The other students glanced sideways at each other, stifling laughter, the way I now know students do when someone in their midst doesn’t meet their social expectations.

That time, I felt only warmth toward the student. And also a little protective. I was several years older and several years more confident in the classroom, but more than that — by that time, I was a mother. And all of a sudden, my students weren’t just random teenagers. Once I became a mother, my students became my child, 15 years later. And that changed everything.

I think that most parents, when they think of the people their kids will become, think of other adults that they know. Of themselves and their siblings and other older specimens of people. Most parents have memories and stories. They might have nieces or nephews, or some friends with college-aged kids that they can use as templates for their own future teenagers. But, in large part, the long-term effects of our current parenting choices are hypothetical. We encourage our preschoolers to play soccer because we loved soccer. Or because no one introduced us to sports and we feel like we suffered because of it. We force food choices on our kids because we want them to be healthy. Or, at least not fat. We teach them to brush their teeth so they won’t get cavities, but also so they won’t be the kid with bad breath. We hope that the choices we make will turn out a well-rounded, well-loved person in the end.

I had another student once who always smelled like soap and mint. He was so laid back and had a great sense of humor. He was an excellent writer, he played rugby, he had a great bromance with his roommate. No one ever had to stifle laughter because of something he said.

Working where I do is like being given a magic looking glass, through which I can see all the possible futures for my own son. He could turn out to be the kid who has only a favorite composer. He could turn out to be the kid who asks the loud earnest questions. Or he could turn out to be the kid who smells like soap and mint. Is there anything I can do to nudge him one way or the other? Should I have given him siblings so he will be more “normal?” Should I stop teaching him complex vocabulary so he doesn’t get laughed at when his diction is inappropriately awesome? Should I make him stop trying to force kids to play with him so he doesn’t become an outcast in retaliation? I see all the outcomes in my classroom and I can become obsessed with trying to create the perfect set of childhood circumstances to yield the most desirable result.

Maybe that kid who carries a briefcase to class was perfectly happy. Maybe he had a few great friends who really got him and the cruelty of the rest of the world around him didn’t even touch him. Maybe if his parents had tried to “make him more normal” he would have always felt wrong. Like a failure. Maybe his parents just stood by and supported him and gave him the strength to cope with whatever came his way.

But maybe he always wished he fit in better. Maybe he blamed his parents for not helping him. Maybe he wished they’d taken a more active role in guiding him down the middle of the road.

I’m worried about The Who. Worried about what kind of teenager and adult he will turn out to be. Worried about what I am supposed to do and not do in order to help him find his way in the world. Worried about knowing how much is my job and how much is his. I have found, over these past twelve years of observation, that there are no answers. That every kid and every family and every set of circumstances is unique. But that doesn’t stop the pain in my heart when I watch The Who get passed over or hurt because of something that maybe I could have helped him avoid.

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Sesame.

We took our first trip to Sesame Place (which The Who called “Elmo’s House”) when he was just nearly two. We took one of our best family photos just inside the gates and the larger-than-life characters wandering around the park were thrilling. For me, anyway. The Who was definitely excited to be there, but I don’t think he fully grasped just how excellent it was. I don’t remember from my own childhood, but I’m guessing that, like, just a random Tuesday seems excellent when you’re two.

From that trip, I recall three things:

  1. The carousel is super.
  2. Big Bird’s Nest was made for my kid.
  3. Naps ruin everything.

There was so much more we wanted to do when we were there and we had to miss a lot because our toddler Who just didn’t have the stamina. And this was in the autumn, during The Count’s Spooktacular, so a good part of the park wasn’t even open anyway. Still, more than enough to fill a kid’s day.

But now, with a nearly five-year-old, I knew this visit** was going to rule so much more. First of all, there’s no nap schedule to get in the way of our good time. Secondly, The Who is now a full-fledged fan of Sesame Street — familiar with all the characters and downright friendly with some of them. A couple of years ago, we got  a personalized Elmo CD, which we have practically worn a hole in. A lot of the songs from that CD were among those piped all over the park. (“Sarasponda” is our fave.)  Plus, this year, Halloween is the biggest deal it has ever been for The Who and he was psyched to wear his costume and trick-or-treat at Sesame Place! (Are you kidding me with that? So cool.) Plus, shows and rides and toys and parades!

Sesame Place, you guys. It’s not just for nearly two-year-olds.

You'd think there'd only be lines to trick-or-treat at a theme park, but you'd be wrong. Our neighborhood is such a trick-or-treating hotspot that, at a couple of houses last night, we waited even longer than this.

The “treats” at these stands were super: Cheese Curls, Fruit Strips, Fruit Snacks — things like that there. Big hit.

After our visit, I asked The Who what his favorite part was and he predictably said “trick-or-treating.” But then he added “Ernie’s Bed.” My favorite part was the part where I realized they served Starbucks inside the park. Thank you, Sesame Place. Thank you a lot.

The lines were long; I’m not going to lie. But The Who never complained about waiting, which just tells me that what came at the end was well worth it.

Lines. Some of the lines were deceptively long because they had two sides (under 36" and 36"+) and then they alternated letting kids into the activity, so you actually waited twice as long as you thought you would just by looking. At least in this ride, line-standers were entertained by watching the under 36"ers try to stay on their feet on Ernie's Bed.

Lines. Some of the lines were deceptively long because they had two sides (under 36″ and 36″+) and then they alternated letting kids into the activity, so you actually waited twice as long as you thought you would just by looking. At least in this line, standers were entertained by watching the under 36″ers try to stay on their feet on Ernie’s Bed.

The taller kids were decidedly better on their feet. But not all of 'em!

The taller kids were decidedly better on their feet. But not all of ’em!

Another favorite for The Who (and for me and for our buddies, who joined us on this adventure) was the show. There were multiple shows all day (made totally easy to time and locate with the free Sesame Place app I had downloaded in anticipation) but the one we saw was The Count’s Countdown to Halloween, which was every bit as professional and entertaining as the Sesame Street Live! show we saw in Boston a couple of years ago. The characters are spot-on (they must be pre-recorded, right?) and the action was close enough to be really exciting without being scary for the littlest kids.

The Who was delighted by all the characters dressed as skeletons.

The Who was delighted by all the characters dressed as skeletons.

Sesame Place is mostly a year-round gig and I know lots of people who go every summer. We’ve only gone in the fall, though, and I love it then. First of all, it’s not hot, which is really important to me. It was easy to walk around all day and be comfortable, not to mention that there were plenty of places to pop into to warm up (like the store, where The Who was able to procure the last of the “spinny light-up things” that he so desperately wanted.) Also, Starbucks. Remember the Starbucks coffee? I do. I remember it.

A bonus of going during October: this lovely scenery.

A bonus of going during October: this lovely scenery.

We’ll definitely go again next year, even though by then I’ll have a nearly six-year-old. But that’s the thing about Sesame Place. It really doesn’t  ever get old. There’s just as much to do that’s challenging and fun for big kids (Cookie Mountain was a total hit for us and if my Who was a ride-loving kid, the roller coasters would be awesome, too) as there is fun for little kids. I didn’t see The Who’s excitement wane at all and when we left, he did so under protest, even though the park was closing.

The Count’s Spooktacular is over now, but I hear there’s an awesome Christmas-themed thing during December. You should go. For real.

**The nice folks at Sesame Place comped us tickets to come and visit in exchange for this review. The views contained within are completely my own and not at all outside-influenced.