Teaching, Youth, Oxymorons, and Me

The sky was oddly bright today when it was time for the students to go home. Daylight Savings never fails to startle me–what a difference an hour brings.

I looked up from my desk which was littered with mostly graded tests and book reports, knickknacks confiscated from students’ desks, and a large bottle of mango lassi. If I were less exhausted, I would have crossed the room to open the blinds further and fully enjoy the late afternoon sun, but instead, I just looked out at the parking lot and pinched the bridge of my nose. 5:30 p.m. only half an hour to go before quitting time.

It’s odd to be the one at the big desk, the one sitting in the swivel chair of power, and it’s stranger still to actually be partially responsible for a classroom full of seven-year-olds. Less than a year ago, I still had my knees shoved under a student’s desk, fidgeting uncontrollably, and waving my hand in the air. My appearance hasn’t changed in the slightest, and I’m hardly any wiser, and yet the kids look at me as if I have all the answers. They don’t know that in many ways, I’m still as much a child as they are. I’m still wide-eyed, a little too naive, and the day when I think before I act is still a long time coming.

But I just smile and answer their questions. Yes, you’re supposed to underline the subject and circle the verb, and no, you’re not allowed to go to the bathroom in the middle of a lesson. I mess up, accidentally spell things in French instead of English when it’s late on a Friday and my brain is muddled beyond belief (5:30 wake ups are not my friend) or mess up the instructions for a grammar worksheet, and they forgive me instantly. We start over again until we all get it right.

They ask funny questions, “Are you married? Do you have children?” And all I can do is laugh and say “one day, but not now.” They don’t know that “one day” is farther away than they probably think. Give me half a decade, and then we’ll reassess. The rest of the staff can’t seem to guess my age. “Are you in high school yet, sweetheart? My daughter’s your age–she’s a sophomore right now. When did you graduate from college?” I just want to finish microwaving my soybeans and rice. I’m an oxymoron. A jumbo shrimp, if you will.

I’ve put my foot down as far as discipline goes–if you start skipping on the way to the bathroom, you will go back to the classroom door and repeat your journey until you can walk quickly and quietly, during silent reading, we are going to adhere to both words, and if you show anymore sass, you’re going to the principal’s office–but the fun remains. I tell stories at snack, sit with them at lunch, and let them dance to the Jackson Five for a few minutes in the afternoon. In a weird way, I feel like I’m babysitting, only instead of getting insomnia-ridden two-year-olds to bed, I’m just trying to get seven-year-olds to pay attention. Both tasks are not for the faint of heart or the impatient, but that moment when you sit back and take a big sigh of relief, knowing that you’ve just done something good and worthwhile, taken care of a child’s need, makes all of the frustration and exhaustion worth it.

We’ll make it work whether I’m fifty-eight or eighteen. I’ve got more papers to grade, more power-points to be created, and more lessons to be planned. Tomorrow will be here in a matter of minutes and unlike last year, falling asleep in the classroom would result in more than a trip to the nurse.

In Which Ella Buys Books for Christmas

Since Thanksgiving is officially over, I can finally justify getting started on my Christmas shopping. And let me tell you, I take my Christmas shopping very, very seriously. While I do enjoy receiving presents (particularly books, all relatives who have been asking me for a Christmas wishlist), giving gifts is a thousand times more fun and exciting.

Today, after dropping Pippa at the the train station, I took the subway downtown to my favorite independent bookstore, The Strand, and hung out in their children’s book section for over an hour selecting titles for my youngest cousins. Of course, I can’t tell you any of the names here, because those two wonderful scoundrels could potentially wind up on this blog, but trust me, the books are good.

It was interesting selecting them because I am neither a ten-year-old boy or a twelve-year-old girl, and I have never had restrictions on what I was allowed to read. If it was in the house or the librarian would let me check it out, I could read it.

I was the type of kid that knew my own limits and would ask my parents questions about everything, and it all worked out okay. I read Fast Food Nation when I was ten and began making self-righteous rants about nutrition and cruelty anytime we passed a fast-food restaurant and throughly enjoyed being taken to two-hour long speeches about a book on Myanmar when I was nine (During the question and answer session I got to ask the author why he chose to write the book and completely surprised the author and audience with the seriousness of the question and how sincerely and earnestly I asked it. I also tried to convince my dad to let me visit the country, but for obvious reasons I wasn’t allowed.).

So when I was collecting books that I thought might interest my cousins, it felt strange to have to ask myself about how appropriate the book would be for that age group. One day, I know that the twelve-year-old will love Shine by Lauren Myracle someday, but rape, drug abuse, and a hate crime don’t exactly add up to something the average parent wants their twelve year old daughter to be reading. The oral sex scene, cursing, and smoking also knocked Looking for Alaska by John Green out of the running, even though I had been exactly her age when I read it. And even Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan was probably too much, considering that the characters meet each other in a porn store (they’re both there by accident), and there is some underaged drinking.

The ten-year-old was a bit more difficult because while I have been a twelve-year-old girl at one point, I have never been male. And from what I’ve heard, boys don’t often enjoy the same books as girls. Something about the ridiculously sparkling vampires and drama-filled romances seem to put them off, and frankly I can’t say that I disagree with them in many cases. It takes the rare author to pull it off. (Stephanie Perkins, I’m looking at you.) So I approached this gift selection with a bit of help. An employee and I traipsed up and down the aisles searching for things he might like, a task made more difficult by the fact that his reading abilities far outstrip his maturity–not many ten-year-olds are happily reading The Lord of the Rings on their own.

But despite the limitations, I still have a whole bunch of excellent books to give to both of them, and I cannot wait to hear what they think of them. December 25th cannot come soon enough.

Next on the Christmas to-do list is taking care of the cards and finding the world’s most ridiculous pair of underwear to give to Pippa as a gag gift. Pippa, the strange tutu-thong get-up I saw in Victoria’s Secret a few months ago is no longer for sale, but just you wait, I’ll find something ten times worse. Watch me.

And with that, Maxwell and I bid you all a good night from our very cushy and warm pile of blankets and pillows.

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 a weird 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.

In Which Ella Surprisingly Ends Up Helping to Teach A Kindergarden Class

Note: I had planned for today’s post to be a continuation of the story I was telling yesterday from the time I went to the Maureen Johnson book launch, but then I realized that tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and it would be much better to have a pre-written post for then.

Also, I have fun news to share!

Today, instead of writing doggedly at home, taking breaks, of course, to slam my forehead repeatedly into the table and drink way too much orange juice, I went into my mom’s school to help out. Now, I had been planning to do this for some time now, but it had taken quite a while for the proposal to work its way through the administration. But it entirely was worth it–spending the day in an inner city school is both incredibly fun and exciting. (Or at least that’s the way it felt for me, an eighteen-year-old who has a great deal of energy and almost boundless enthusiasm when it comes to kids.)

I started out just observing my mom’s class, which she teaches with another lovely woman, but after lunch I got to help out with their social studies lesson. They were supposed to watch a video made by the organization that runs Plimouth (how they spell it, for some reason–I always thought it was with an y.), have a discussion, and fill out a outline of the facts they learned before they wrote a letter to a child who lived through the first year of settlement. (We used the real names of the Plimouth children for this activity. Believe it or not, some of the kids had names like “Wrestling,” “Helpless,” “Dust,” “Delivery,” and “Ashes.”)

However, in the way that most things tend to go when it comes to kids or lesson plans, it did not go exactly as planned. The computer malfunctioned, turning the video into a series of brightly flashing pixels and a disembodied voice that sounded half like Sarah Palin and half like a robot, sending the class into peals of giggles. But my mom picked things back up again by just explaining the gist of the movie and drawing pictures with the LCD projector (It’s crazy how much technology has changed in the past eleven years. All we ever had in second grade was an overhead projector and three, bright blue Macs.).

I also got to use the pointer tool to point out the countries in Europe, explain religious persecution, and debunk a few common Thanksgiving misconceptions. (My mother had told me the night before that I was under no circumstances to tell them that European settlers started genocides, destroyed entire cultures, and were generally brutal to the native peoples. I was to keep it at “unfairly killed and hurt” for the day.)

But then the acting principal knocked on the door, called me “sweetheart” in an incredibly saccharine way (something I had sincerely hoped would have ended since I’m now an adult), and asked me to go help out in the kindergarden classroom. More than a little shocked, I followed orders and walked into the kindergarden classroom where the kids were having their Thanksgiving Day party. I’ve recently been babysitting several kids who are in kindergarden, so I felt right at home. They’re still at that wonderful age where they are (mostly) angelic and will try desperately to do the right thing to get your attention and affirmation.

I mostly spent the duration of their party checking homework and pulling together worksheets, while watching the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special (which, by the way, is  somewhat racist, paints the Pilgrims as huge heros, and portrays all parties involved as complete caricatures of themselves–and people wonder why I’ve never liked Charlie Brown or Disney movies) out of the corner of my eye. But then, school technically ended and “homework club” began. I read them two stories and then spent the next two hours, either squatting on the floor or perched in a very low chair, helping the kids with their math.

I must admit that I loved it. The kids were so sweet and were all trying very, very hard. One girl was having a lot of trouble forming her numbers properly and was printing them upside down and/or backwards, and while it was challenging, I really enjoyed working with her to write them correctly. One of the little boys kindly brought her a chart showing the letters and the way to form them in big print, and she very slowly managed to get it. Of course, this is not to say that the problem is entirely fixed, because an issue like that takes a lot of practice to correct, but it was a lot of fun helping her work through her frustration and succeed, and I’m looking forward to continuing working with her on it in the future. I have every confidence that she’ll get over this mistake. Pippa, after all, used to write her name like it was a mirror image of itself (every letter was backwards and in reverse order), and she’s turned out just wonderfully.

Also, giving little kids high-fives and pound-it’s is a tremendous amount of fun, and I’m coming up with all sorts of new ways to say “good job,” so I don’t sound like a broken record each time they figure something out. My current favorite is “rock on!” which the kids seem to find particularly funny.

But perhaps the best part about working with those kids is that I feel like I get to fix the mistakes that I thought my elementary school teachers made with me. I really want to give kids tons of praise, convince them that it is good to make mistakes and take risks, and tell them that they are smart and capable at every turn. If I had been given more of that, those unhappy years could have been greatly improved.

By the end of the day, I could throughly understand why my mother comes home so exhausted each night. (There aren’t many jobs where you are at work from seven a.m. to six p.m.-ish and spending many hours doing massive amounts of work at home.) But for right now, I’m totally in love with the whole experience and rearing to go back.

Thankfully, I’m babysitting some of the world’s sweetest children on Sunday evening, and I get to see my young cousins tomorrow, so I won’t be totally without young children in my life for too long.

On another note, Cecelia came home today, and I got to spend several hours with her this evening. We ended up driving around, looking at the skyline, with all of the buildings lit up and the light pollution turning the sky over the city an odd shade of purple-red and the low-laying clouds, grey tinged with orange, watching Obama’s speech at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner (this was my eighth viewing), and a plethora of time-lapse videos. It was loads and loads of fun and exactly the sort of low-key activity I needed before being surrounded by massive amounts of family for close to 48 hours. Also, I have missed her terribly since I last saw her in October (check out In Which Ella Gets Caught in the Rain, Tells Stories from Middle School, and Visits Cecelia at Yale, if you’d like to hear about that adventure.).

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.

Back Flips Off of the Sofa, Daredevil Stunts, and Childhood Dance Shows: The Story of Ella, the Gang, and the Merits of Free-Range Parenting

Somewhere in my family’s deep video archive, there is quite a bit of video footage from the “dance shows” I used to direct as a young child. We staged around two or three a year, but I’m going to focus on what was probably our most ridiculous performance.

From left to right: Lee (age 6), Pippa (my sister, age 7), Zach (Lee’s brother, age 10), me (age 9), and Joseph (age 7)

(Don’t worry, Lee’s arm isn’t broken or deformed. She’s just double-jointed in her elbows and wrists.)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mary Queen of Scots’ Beheading, The Commodores’ “Brick House,” and Other Odd Things My Parents Exposed Me To, Pippa and I did not live in a house that celebrated pop music, specifically of the Disney Channel stars variety. So we made up for this deficit by listening to the Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations at Joseph’s house where his sister had them all.

Joseph’s sister was also a nationally ranked gymnast, and they had a huge playroom filled with balance beams, tumbling mats, exercise machines, and mini trampolines. We LOVED that room. Mostly, it was because it had two high-speed computers (well 2003 high-speed) that we could play on in one-hour long intervals and because we were allowed to roughhouse and climb on everything. (One of these days I’ll write about a game we called “Gladiators” and our very odd way of playing computer games that involved much more imagination and make-believe than actual gaming.)

When we first began working on our shows, they’d be performed in the living room while we hopped about in a very uncoordinated manner for close to an hour while all of the onlookers we had managed to coerce pretended to be impressed. But this time, this time, we had decided that our performance was going to be epic. We were going to pull out all of the stops, and it was going to require the playroom and its wealth of gymnastics equipment.

After much discussion and argument, many declarations of “I hate you, and I’m never going to talk to you in a million years,” and a very surprising amount of quitting only to return fifteen minutes and beg for reentry to the group, we chose four (I think) songs. I’ve put the links to their music videos below.

We clearly had “excellent” taste.

Then, the “choreography” began. And I’ve put choreography in quotes for a reason, because the extent of planning that went into the dance pretty much only extended to the opening and closing poses and first and last twenty seconds of the song. Also, we weren’t doing too much actual dancing. You see, we wanted the basement playroom and all of its gymnastics glory because we had recently discovered how to do flips and flying leaps from an eight-inch wide window ledge about two and half feet down from the ceiling onto the couch and from there onto the mats or one of the trampolines. For a while, the sit-up machine and the stationary bike were weirdly involved, but once we discovered that we could also pile up the cushions from all of the other furniture in the house and use it as an even cushier landing pit, we ditched them for even more daredevil stunts.

(I’m very proud and relieved to report that in all of our years of dangerous activities, the only bad injuries that were sustained were Lee’s broken collar bone when she stood too close to the swingset while we were swinging, cuts on Joseph’s leg when he kicked his foot through a glass door, Pippa’s badly cut eyebrow when I accidentally bucked her off of my back while we were playing “horsie,” and Beth’s sprained ankle when she got pushed down the stairs headfirst while completely trapped in a sleeping bag. Zach also badly broke his arm while riding on a defective scooter, but that doesn’t really count because he was wearing pads and the scooter broke, causing the fall.)

But because I had recently been Annie in my class’ abridged production of the musical, I had decided that we also needed to perform a song we were going to sing entirely by ourselves. I held a long audition process, only to cast myself as Annie. Pippa was Molly, Lee was Kate, and Joseph was Pepper, who I managed to convince him was a boy (Note: Joseph had seen the movie before, so this “convincing” must have either involved very carefully crafted persuasion, threats, or brain-washing. I suspect a mélange of the three.). While we did sing it a cappella and pretend to clean, and there was actually a set in stone series of moves we did, there were also a copious amount of flying leaps and flips from the ledge, trampoline, and sofa, which, you know, is totally in the spirit of a musical set in the Great Depression.

Additionally, we would frequently get into arguments in the middle of our routines when we would crash into each other or want to do moves that someone else didn’t like or want to do them at the same time. I’m pretty sure that the whole point of our “dancing” was to one up each other and get as close to breaking our necks as possible without becoming paraplegics or requiring trips to the hospital. Joseph was by far the biggest ham.

While we did know the lyrics and would sing along, the music would always end up being too loud and drowning us out. Besides, by the end of the song, we would be so out of breath that the actual singing would have been atrocious, anyway.

On the day of our performance, we created some “awesome” costumes. I wore—and I kid you not—teal and puce horizontal striped bellbottoms with flower appliqués and a matching teal and puce horizontal striped shirt with a purple bow at the neck. And—get this—I thought I looked incredibly “cool.” (Oh, Ella of yesteryear, how you’ve since changed.) Joseph’s sister also did our makeup, Joseph was included in this, amusingly, and we were plastered with sparkly powders. For the final touch, we also stuck smiley-face stickers on our ears and cheeks. There are pictures of this somewhere, but I suspect that Joseph’s parents have them back in D.C. Otherwise, I would have a full slideshow of the shots.

From the get-go, Zach had refused to have anything to do with our dancing and had instead been relegated to the roll of D.J. where he terrified many by testing how loud the speakers would go and got fired numerous times by us for not being able to play the right song. He was always hired back the next day with a, “you can’t do it again or it’s going to be for real this time, okay? And we won’t talk to you for two million years.”

On the night of the performance, we invited everyone in the neighborhood to come and then sold the contents of Joseph’s parent’s pantry at our “bake sale” at intermission. I believed we also signed autographs and charged admission.

The next day we spent at Lee’s house singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic while marching around the house with musical instruments and practiced our skating routine (also known as shoving all of the furniture to the edge of the room, rolling up the rug, and sliding around in leotards and tights or socks and shorts) to Paul Simon’s album, Graceland.

A few years later, when I was twelve, I began writing plays, using the songs from various musicals, for us to perform. Beth’s parents built a huge wooden stage/playhouse in their backyard, and we would perform them there. Unsurprisingly, the increased quality of our performances drew more audience members and the Southhampton Players (I gave us the name by pointing my finger at a map of England after having read a book about Shakespeare and The Globe Theatre. My understanding of how theatre companies were actually named was more than a little off the mark.) had a healthy two year long run.

The best part about all of these mostly goofy and bad productions of ours was that we were given free reign and a copious amount of encouragement to do them. If we wanted to make a backdrop, some adult would supply us with the paper and paint and let us cover the porch with newspaper while we painted. If we needed assistance assembling mats, someone would help us move them. And we were only rarely stopped from doing risky stunts. I can recall leaping off of the back deck onto the trampoline was vetoed, as it would have been a drop of about twenty feet, and playing with spears was also off limits, but that was almost the extent of our restrictions. As long as no one got hurt—emotionally or physically—and you were home for supper, you were in the all clear.

And I think that this is the way that childhood should be lived. You have so long to act in almost reckless abandon without societal conventions holding you back. Now, as much as I would sometimes like to, I can’t spend large portions of my time practicing my bannister sliding abilities (They are very superior, let me assure you.). I’m eighteen, an honest to goodness legal adult, who is expected to be calm and composed and not to wear crazy outfits and do flips off of ledges, sofas, and trampolines while listening to pop from the early 2000s.

There is also a great deal to be said about “free-range” parenting, which is what all the parents on our street practiced long before it became a thing. We kids had a lot of of confidence to do new things, solve our own problems, and to entertain ourselves without adult intervention, organized activities, or tvs or computers. In fact, I didn’t regularly use a computer until I was thirteen. But starting when Zach and I were eight, we were allowed to walk over a mile, across three busy avenues, to eat lunch and ice cream by ourselves, as long as we came back before dark and didn’t talk to strangers. We didn’t even have cell phones, and we lived in a city. We went for bike rides in Rock Creek Park and played in creeks and in huge piles of mulch, and no one batted an eye. We would even go grocery shopping for our mothers by dragging a red metal Radio Flyer Wagon along that one-mile route. And unless we were going some place in public or it was freezing, we could wear whatever we wanted (I once wore a very fancy velvet dress to a playdate, and another party dress when running around the block.) and didn’t even have to put on shoes (though as I later learned, just because you could leave the house without them, didn’t mean that you should, especially when going exploring in construction sites. But that’s another story for another day.).

We were allowed to be ourselves and didn’t have our parents’ anxieties projected on us, as they tried to mold us into what they viewed as the perfect child, the way so many kids are today. And you know what? The whole lot of us has turned out pretty well. Lee is in a private school and riding competitively, Joseph is very passionate about music, Pippa is at a prestigious prep school, Zach and Soccer Boy are off at excellent universities, and I’m doing an extraordinary amount of writing during my gap-year. We’re very well adjusted and (I’d like to think) interesting individuals.

If there’s anything that you should get out of this story, besides some entertainment (which I hope I’ve provided), it’s that you should let your kids have freedom and independence, and encourage all of their crazy ideas, as long as they are, of course, non-life threatening. Have a little faith. They’ll still live if you aren’t always within hearing or seeing distance. Falling down teaches you not to do what you just did or to do it more carefully. Kids have a surprising ability to work things out for themselves and invent their own, happy worlds. You just have to let them have the opportunity to do it.

I’d love to know if you are finding these story-telling post interesting, and if there is anything you’re interested in reading about.

Tomorrow, I plan on live blogging my day, because, guys, what could seriously be more fascinating than knowing what I’m doing every single second. I mean, you’ll finally get to know how much time I spend staring at the wall daydreaming when I’m supposed to be focussed on working. Also, I’ll have to be truly accountable for all of my actions, like I’m probably going to have to cut back on non-essential research. But don’t worry, it won’t read like a schedule, I’m going to offer you all sorts of stunning INSIGHT and tell ENGROSSING stories. It’ll be like me yammering away all day into your right ear. I’ll be that kid you had to sit next to in third grade who just wouldn’t shut up, only I’ll be a gazillion times better and more interesting.

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.