Never, Ever Hide in a Dryer: In Which Ella Tells the Story of the First Time She Babysat

I had a wonderful time babysitting last night, so I thought that I might tell a story from one of the first times I babysat when I was eleven.

Now, babysat might be an exaggeration of the word since the parents were just one house away, but I was still in charge of five kids all under the age of nine.

At the time, a number of the parents on our block were in a book club, and they would meet every month for lunch and a discussion. But instead of doing sandwich platters and lemonade and talking just for an hour, they would get really into it and serve full, gourmet meals in the theme of whatever they just read and talk for hours. All of the kids were banished from the house and put under the care of some older kid on the block. But by the time that I was eleven, it was decided that high schoolers were no longer necessary and that I and another boy my age could handle the responsibility ourselves.

In order to tell this story properly, I’m going to need to introduce you to the cast of characters.

First, you’ve got me. I was eleven, rather bossy and a bit too precocious. I was also over the moon about having the chance to be a “real-live babysitter,” which was a sure sign that everything was going to get out of hand. My boundless enthusiasm for something I know little about usually ends up turning into a disaster story. (Thursday’s post, The Time Ella Decided to Celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day and It Went Horribly, Horribly Wrong, is a great example.)

Then, there was Zach, a boy who lived down the street and one of my good friends. He was less enthusiastic about the idea and really just wanted to go back to his treehouse where we were in the process of smashing an old telephone to bits with hammers and taping the pieces to a tree with duct tape (This was one of our favorite things to do at that age, for some unexplainable reason.), but he was still game to help out.

Pippa, my sister, was nine, and both too old and self-sufficient to really warrant a babysitter.

Lee, Zach’s sister, was eight and did not fancy the idea of having anyone in charge of her. She could take care of herself, thank you very much, and did have any problems alerting anyone to this fact.

Grace was two and entirely too smart for her own—or for that matter, anyone else’s—good.

Jonah was five and perfectly willing to play with his trains in the corner and not bother anyone. He was also at that age where he completely idolized Zach and would try to copy his every move, much to Zach’s annoyance.

And finally, there was Tobias, Jonah’s brother, who was two and very easily influenced. He had also been fairly recently adopted from South Korea and was having some trouble understanding and speaking English.

We had been set up in the basement of Jonah and Toby’s house and instructed not to bother anyone unless there was a serious injury. And things were going generally well for the first fifteen minutes. Grace and Tobias built with blocks, Pippa and Lee argued over what movie to watch, Zach sat in the corner with a video game while Jonah hung over his shoulder to watch, and I marched around checking in with everyone every few seconds. I was not going to let anything go wrong.

Then, Grace started throwing blocks at Tobias, who started throwing them back. I was secretly thrilled. I get to solve a conflict now! Being a babysitter is awesome! I thought. But when I knelt down to try to gently tell them that throwing blocks was unacceptable and that they needed to apologize to each other, they began throwing the blocks at me and wouldn’t stop no matter how many times I asked them to.

I began to freak out as I held my arms in front of my face to block the flying wooden rectangles. Lee started yelling at them,and  I started yelling back at her to “just let me handle it, alright? I am the babysitter, not you!” until finally Zach stood up and suggested that we play hide-and-go-seek.

I had forgotten about the power of redirection in my attempts to stop the block flinging, and began to feel like a bit of a babysitting failure. I was supposed to be the best babysitter ever! I had read the American Girl Doll book on it and most of the parenting books my parents owned. (At the time, I slept in our finished attic, which was a huge, beautiful room that also held an incredibly large amount of books. Once I moved in there at the age of nine, I started reading books that were way beyond my comprehension or maturity level. I was particularly fond of the pregnancy, parenting, and environmentalism books, for some peculiar reason.) I was a babysitting theory expert! I should have been amazing at it in practice, too. But Grace and Tobias had stopped throwing the blocks, and I wasn’t going to be so prideful as to refuse Zach’s suggestion. Besides, hide-and-go-seek is awesome.

What I had forgotten was that when playing hide-and-go-seek everyone except the seeker has to hide, and hiding means that you don’t know where all the kids you’re supposed to be in charge of are or what they are doing. And that was going to be my downfall.

I agreed to be the seeker first and closed my eyes and slowly counted down from fifty. When I opened them again, I heard giggling from the bathroom where Grace was standing in the shower. I found her just as she was about to turn on the faucet and drench herself. Phew! Crisis averted. With Grace in tow, I proceeded to hunt around the basement. Pippa was in a closet with Tobias, Zach was underneath the laundry sink, and Lee was behind a door. All was well, and we were ready for round two.

This time, though, things got bad very, very quickly. Grace had army crawled underneath the sofa and gotten stuck, bursting into tears and getting her legs covered with rug burn as I dragged her out by her ankles. But darling Pippa was just behind the TV and reappeared as good-natured and calm as ever. Then, I heard yells from the furnace room.

Lee, in some sort of attempt to hide behind the furnace (which is a horrible idea to begin with), had somehow managed to snag her dress on a pipe, but instead of relaxing and working it free, she was trying to use panicked brute force to wrench it off. Frustrated and anxious, she kept snapping at me as I freed her and then stomped off. But none of us could find Tobias or Zach.

As it turns out, Tobias had managed to lock himself in the closet in his dad’s office. I was stuck trying to explain via yelling through two sets of doors how to unlock the closet door and let himself free. The minutes dragged on, and he began to cry. English sounds garbled when muffled by doors, and to a young child who doesn’t speak the language well, it must have been even worse. He was sobbing, and I was entirely freaked out. I was not going to be responsible for his permanent imprisonment, but there was no way for me to get into the room to fix it.

To top that fiasco off, we began to hear yells and odd banging from the laundry room. It sounded like someone had stuck a bunch of sneakers that had the ability to yell into the dryer. It was all very strange, and I started to fear that there was some sort of monster lurking in there, waiting to attack all of us. Maybe it had already eaten Zach. The yelling got louder and louder, until I bravely opened the door to the dryer and discovered that he had managed to lock himself in there as his hiding place and had then proceeded to become very scared that we had forgotten about him and were going to leave him in there forever.

Kids, get out your notebooks. Never, ever use a dryer or a washer as a hiding place. Those doors lock and will stay that way until someone lets you out. Also, you know how dryers have those pieces of plastic that divide up the metal drum to keep the clothes fluffy and wrinkle free as they dry? Well, they also hurt like heck when you’ve had them pressing into your sides for around fifteen minutes.

It took us quite a while to get Tobias out of the closet and almost as long to get him to calm down.

But here’s the thing that really gets me:

WE KEPT PLAYING THE GAME! 

I have no idea what was wrong with me to okay this, but we continued playing hide-and-go-seek for the next hour until the parents came to pick us up. And it wasn’t even like it was smooth sailing from then on out. People kept getting into these awful scrapes every single round. I got more and more anxious, and my voice got higher and higher, but it never occurred to me to stop the game and do something else.

All in all, it had not been a successful venture. I went home to go sulk in my room and finish a book on global warming, clutching my very hard earned six dollars (Ah, the days when my parents knew that I thought that two dollars an hour was a very generous offer. I also only got one dollar of allowance a week and viewed that as quite the bounty. Then, I discovered what minimum wage was, and things changed.) in my fist. In an hour or so the ice cream truck was going to come, and I needed a King Kone something bad.

Note: I have never since had a babysitting gig go so poorly. I mean, I’ve been thrown up on and have had kids refuse to go to bed, but nothing has ever compared to the stress and ridiculousness of that first time. In fact, I consider myself a good babysitter now. I love kids, and they seem to like me back. And while there is the occasional temper tantrum or out of control defiant rampage, all of those parenting books seem to have paid off, and I can get everything fixed up pretty quickly. I’ve even managed to get my most difficult sleeper’s bedtime dramatics down to about forty-five minutes as opposed to the two and a half hour ordeal we used to go through when first I started with her.

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Ella and the Goodbyes

Today, the last of my friends left for college.* It’s got me thinking about goodbyes and the last time I said goodbye to an era of my life.

When I moved from D.C. to where I live now, I was twelve, and I knew from the moment I carefully unpacked my entire china fairy collection** from the boxes in my room all by myself and cleaned up without anyone telling me to afterwards that things weren’t going to be the same anymore—I was no longer a child. I was suddenly part of that awkward in between stage where you aren’t quite a teenager, but you’re certainly too old to be a kid. And it felt like eating one of those sour candies I used to buy from the ice cream truck–the type that I once made Pippa eat so much of that her tongue got so red, swollen, and bumpy that my mom nearly called the doctor.***

At first, it was so sour that your eyes teared up and your tongue felt like screaming in shock and pain. Then, just like on a long run, you become impervious to it–it still hurts, but you can work through it in a dull, rhythmic manner. It’s as if the pain will never leave, but you can just keep feircely struggling through it with eyes narrowed and forced, even breathing. Finally, it tastes sweet, like a proper lemon drop or a strawberry sucking candy. But there are always those sour pockets still stuck in the sweet part that make you cry all over again, and it hurts as shockingly and sharply as it did in the beginning.

I liked the responsibility of this new in between age. I loved being known as “the smart, mature one,” but I missed building fairy houses every fall until my arms were caked with mud, and the flowers in the front yard were rather unevenly pruned of their blossoms.

This is an impressively poor angle of the houses, but you get the general idea.

I missed playing in our backyard, in the kids’ space under the addition, where we had the secret and illegal “flat feet club,” named not for the height of our arches, but for the ability to plant your entire foot, covered in wet mud, on the whitewashed ceiling while swinging at scarily high angles on the swings. It made terrific bangs if you were inside of the house listening and the footprints were very difficult to wash off with the jet of the hose alone.

I missed playing “Laura Ingalls Wilder” for hours on end in brightly printed calico dresses as we watered the “fields”–my mother’s herb and vegetable garden–or made corn cakes on the stove, dribbling batter all over the floor to Louie the Dog’s delight. I was Ma, the ringleader and boss of the game, Pippa was Mary, Joseph was Frederick, Laura’s brother who died, Lee was Laura, Beth was Carrie, and Beth’s and Lee’s two-year-old younger sisters both played Grace.

I missed playing baseball in the front yard for hours. Like most of our sports games, we didn’t play with regular rules. The bases were all about six feet apart and the pitcher, which was me about ninety percent of the time, played all the positions except catcher. All the other kids would line up behind home plate and choose between the thin yellow wiffle bat, the big, flat-sided plastic bat, or a kid’s metal bat that made a satisfying ping when it connected with the ball. It was impossible to strike out, and instead of umps, we duked it out by seeing who yell the loudest and most intimidatingly. There were no teams, and we’d go for hours.

It was almost as fun as the World Cup soccer games we’d play across the street under the oldest oak tree in D.C. When we weren’t arguing over who got to be Djibouti, Ghana, or France, we were all charging around the ball, elbows wildly swinging, trying to get a goal. Tripping was common, and we’d frequently end particularly vigorous games sporting purple bruises all over our shins. But the bruises were battle wounds, and we wore them proudly, pointing at them and explaining in excessive detail exactly how that one was gotten when we had made a particularly impressive play.

But here in this new place, I didn’t have any of those endless hours of outdoor playtime. People in this town mostly stay inside and go to scheduled activities, and so I did too. I learned that you could use the internet for more than just buying American Girl Doll clothes and checking your email. I switched from play dates to “hanging out” and “going over” to other people’s houses. I cried a lot, and it sucked. But I adjusted. I began to really like it. This new era became me and who I am, and not some uncomfortable place where I didn’t want to be. Sure, I miss being a kid a lot. I feel a weight and a slight tingling in my solar plexus every time I think of how much I miss it. Sometimes, I tear up. But being here became good and sweet just like the center of that candy.

I’m still solidly in the super sour candy phase right now. I cried this afternoon. And unlike when I was ten, I can’t force Pippa to deal with it for me. But if I did it once before with some amount of grace, I know I can do it again. There are exciting, new, and shiny things ahead, I just need to keep eating the candy long enough to get to the sugary part.

*Well, George is still here, but she’s leaving for Durham in the U.K. in a few weeks, and she’s busy working a lot of the time.

**Which, along with most of trinkets I was fond of during my childhood, now sits, carefully wrapped in tissue paper and placed in shoe boxes, underneath my bed.

***This incident along with the time I gave her chemical burns from spraying air freshener (I thought it was hairspray. I was five.) directly onto her scalp gets brought up anytime Pippa needs proof that I am a “mean person.” I never meant to cause her harm, I just didn’t have any idea what the consequences would be.

Random 3rd Grade Ramblings

So, this is Eleanor’s mother, who’s been pressed into service as Eleanor’s substitute Thurs.-night-March-31st blog writer while she’s flying the flag at Model UN.

I’m fresh off a day of student teaching my inclusive class of third graders, so I thought I’d throw some random third grade happenings out there — for lack of anything better to say.  (I woke up at 5:55 am this morning to rehearse for a formal lesson observation on measuring angles, so my brain isn’t up for anything more profound.)

  • After flag salute this morning, one of my teachers gently informed me that I was wearing my sweater inside out.  I guess that’s what comes of getting dressed in the dark.  I comforted myself that I was in good company, since Jason arrived at school last week with his jeans on backwards.  (If you’re wondering how he got them on in the first place, you’ve forgotten the magic of elasticized backs.)
  • Annemarie was having trouble locating the word “hopefully” in the dictionary — a difficulty I was able to set right once I discovered she was looking it up in the “w’s”.
  • I learned that Connor thinks Columbus sailed to Mexico on the Mayflower.  Other ship candidates included the Pinto and El Ninyo.
  • Ten minutes is a long time to squat in the dark in a closet with 22 kids for a lockdown drill when the boy across from you is claustrophobic.  At least I wasn’t sitting at the other end of the closet, where Garfield was keeping his friends entertained with a steady stream of farts.
  • This past week, I’ve been getting an intensive refresher course in knock-knock jokes and bus driver riddles, as well as the lowdown on the relative coolness of various Lego Skeleton and Ninja weaponry. Nunchucks are clearly superior to shurikens, swords, and giant golden dog bones.

That’s all from crazy third-grade land.  I’m off to bed.

My Mind is a French-Pop-Song-Singing Bullet Train

While I was sitting in French class, singing a horrible French pop song in preparation for our class’s  Foreign Language Night presentation, I started to think about other songs that I’ve had to sing in front of large groups of people. I did a lot of musical theatre when I was younger, so the list is quite long: Nathan Detroit in sixth grade, Ariel in fifth, Annie in fourth, etc. Being in shows made me feel happy and proud that I was able to really entertain people.

And the memory of that childish joy got me thinking about the last performance I was in. It was about a year ago, and the last time I sang in my church’s Treble Choir. I was Head Chorister, tasked with keeping the little kids on pitch and in line, and we sang “My Favorite Things” in our Spring Showcase. The little kids were adorable, and the rest of us were pretty good, too.

But because my brain moves so quickly that it’s like that infuriating car on the highway that’s going ninety miles and hour and dangerously cutting people off left and right, I immediately decided to make a list of my favorite things: I love the way that heels clack on hard surfaces, especially when you’re hurrying. The sharp noises make you seem important, business-like, and worthy of attention. I love the taste of toothpaste and the way that your teeth feel all smooth and shiny and the way that your tongue tingles once you finish rinsing. I love the smell of lemon and sandalwood perfume and how the scent is so clean and refreshing. I love the color of apricots and mangos and how that color makes me feel. And I love Pushkin’s soft, delicate, long, black fur.

As we went through the song for the fifth time, and I botched the same lyric that I’ve been messing up for weeks, I smiled. A huge, toothy, goofy smile. A smile that made me look like I thought that singing Mourir Demain was the pinnacle of awesome. I may hate the song and how pop-y and stupid the lyrics are, but man, did I love that train of thought. It was a reminder that my racing thoughts aren’t all bad. Sometimes, they lead me to really happy conclusions.

So if you happen to see someone walking around in high heels on a hard surface, wearing loads of perfume, dressed in orange, with a toothbrush hanging out of their mouth, and petting a cat named after a Russian poet, you’ll know it’s me.

Learning to Read

I must admit that I am a sucker for stories about how people learned to read and write. They’re always interesting, funny, and sweet. I have gone through Cecelia’s first grade journal around twice, because I’m so fascinated by her entries. They’re hilarious, and incredibly well done for a 6-year-old. And by incredibly well done, I really do mean incredibly well done. It’s absolutely impressive. She’s got complex sentences, interesting anecdotes, beginnings, middles, and ends, and neat handwriting.

My favorite is her entry about snowy days. After describing how she would play in the snow, she wrote, “I would like nothing more than to be raped in a blanket with my feet in warm water.” We didn’t stop laughing for at least two minutes, and I was reminded again how much I absolutely adore Cecelia and all of my friends.

So I have decided to have a go at relaying my own reading story.

My first memory of truly reading was from when I was three and still lived in the City. I was staring up at the awnings above the shops, and on a blue and yellow one, I was able to decipher the word “the”. However, by the time that I got to Kindergarden, I was a less than a stellar reader. Sure, I could decipher simple sentences, but anything more complex that required real thought was beyond my attention span. My mother would sit next to me with her old “Dick and Jane” Reader, and I would practice putting my feet behind my head or do backbends off the arms of the couch, narrowly missing the coffee and end tables.

Fortunately, by the time I was in first grade, I got my act somewhat together. By October I was in the top reading group. Prior to this switch, I had taken to “stealing” short chapter books from the school library, because the batty librarian wouldn’t let me check them out. I had thought that I was so slick when I hid them under my shirt. Thankfully, my teacher pretended not to notice, and let me read them. D.E.A.R (Drop Everything And Read or, as I liked to call it, Don’t Even Attempt Reading) became the only time where you could find me sitting somewhat still and not talking. I read as much Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl as I could get my hands on before discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Harry Potter books. My parents, who are huge readers (they didn’t buy a television until the 1988 Olympics, and we have at least fifteen large bookcases in our house), were absolutely ecstatic and kept encouraging me.

Throughout my childhood, reading truly was the only thing that I could remain focused on for an extended period of time. I read 100 books in the summer of 2001, and in Middle School I read the most books out of my “House” every year (134 in 2005-2006 and 112 in 2006-2007). In the winter, I’d huddle next to the radiator and sympathetically shiver as I read The Long Winter. In the summer, I’d lie in my neighbor’s tree house and read A View From Saturday for the millionth time. In school, I’d hide books like Fast Food Nation under my desk and surupticiously read. (My fifth grade teacher was very surprised when she caught me with that book during math class.)

But learning the act and developing a love for reading are only one half of the equation. You have only truly learned to read when you know how to read critically with an eye for metaphor and can analyze a text from the different literary schools of thought. For me, this began to happen when I was 13. I had a wonderful English teacher, and with her help and my mother’s, I began to understand that a book has more than just a plot and interesting characters.

And so it went. I improved every year and continued to gobble books. Nothing really changed until I saw this vlog post in September. Here it is:

At the time, I was simultaneously in the middle of a collection of Kafka’s works (for my AP English class) and Nine Short Stories by J.D. Salinger. Suddenly, everything clicked. If you watch the video, I’m sure you’ll know why. John Green (Read his books!) couldn’t have described the importance and act of critical reading better. I also resolved to read Ulysses, but after one short story from Dubliners, I realized that Joyce’s writing style is FREAKISHLY difficult to understand. So Joyce is currently sitting on a back burner, and probably will for quite a while.

I know that my learning-to-read journey hasn’t ended yet, and I hope that it never does. There’s so much left to discover and learn about reading critically, and there always will be. And I find that incredibly encouraging.

How did you learn to read?

My Mother and Waking Up When It’s Sunny Outside

I woke this morning at five a.m. because I had set my alarm clock. It’s an attempt to learn to wake up at an healthy hour, but I’m afraid that all I’m doing is training myself to sleep through the alarm. And, sleeping through alarms is already a problem and the exact reason why I have this alarm set for an ungodly article.

But I got back to sleep, and slept all the way until nine thirty when the sun glinting off of the snow was blinding me. Even the cats were squinting and blinking rapidly as they readjusted their bodies so that their faces pointed away from the windows. I lay there and drifted in and out of sleep–stuck in that sleep stage where you have crazy dreams about having lunch with Ian Hamilton and J.D. Salinger–until my mother burst into my room. She threw the New Yorker at me so that I could read the Steven Millhauser fiction piece, and she told me that she thought that I wrote like him. Then, I had to get out of bed, so I could do ridiculous victory leaps across my bedroom in my grandmother-like nightgown.

On another note, my mother is in school to become a elementary school teacher because that’s what all normal Midtown attorneys decide to do once they hit 46. It’s amusing to see how she transforms herself the moment she comes into contact with younger children. She suddenly starts smiling and squats down to their level as she reads them a story or ties their shoes. It’s a complete role reversal from how she acts with us older folks. She isn’t obsessive and argumentative with them. Perhaps that’s because the power struggles with eight-year-olds are much more mild than her battles with the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love my mother. It’s just that I’m a teenager and she’s my mother, so we’re pretty much obligated to have squabbles.

I was sitting in the Child Study Team office in school over a week ago and talking about her with my case manager (I swear that I’m no delinquent), and he couldn’t understand her decision, either. He, like me, thinks that she’s far too academic for the job. But as I realized when I was eating lunch today, anyone who can parent me certainly does love children and must have an honest-to-God talent for handling them, even if that ability seems unbelievable. After all, I did do things like try to eat newspaper in the middle of a panic attack (before I even knew what panic attacks were) when I was seven, and spend hours and hours doing homework because I was too busy doing back-bends off of the couch or picking up every single small object in the study.

I guess the woman isn’t so awful. I haven’t turned out half-bad, and she thinks that I can actually write well. Even though we might not always get along, I really do love her. And because of my lunch time thinking, I know that she’ll be a great teacher. I’ve prepped her for the worst.

And so ends my first blog post. A ramble-y endeavor that leaves much to be desired. However, for a first attempt, I’ll take it.