Dispatches from Graduation Day: Elementary School Edition

The youngest is graduating from elementary school today. “I can’t believe it’s over; I spent more than half my life there” he says. He recognizes this as a Big Moment. “It’s the first big school transition, Mom.”

“What about from pre-school to kindergarten?”

“I didn’t even know what was happening. I thought we moved.”

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2011 Kindergarten Graduate

It’s a big transition for me, too, even though almost nothing changes. Same work, same routines.

Still, our children’s transitions are our parenting milestones. They mark the passage of time, creeping closer to the day they grow up and out. I may be wrong, but my hunch is that my kids’ 0-18 years will be one of my life’s favorite phases.

I remember one early, major milestone: The Stroller Transition. From the first days of motherhood, this new accessory came with me everywhere. In the car trunk, on the sidewalk — the stroller was an extension of me. It carried my child, and I guided it. It connected us. And then, one day, my younger son stopped needing it.

One would think this would be liberating! No more schlepping equipment to and fro, up and down stairs! And in some ways it was liberating. But it also meant I would no longer catch my reflection in a store window, arms extended pushing my baby, but instead chasing to keep up with a growing child running ahead of me on his own. It took me longer than necessary to abandon the stroller, because it signaled that I was leaving part of my then-identity behind — Mom of Little Ones — even as it heralded the beginning of new, wonderful phases, being the mother to growing, curious, expressive kid/tween/teens.

So elementary school will be behind us by day’s end. Onward and upward. Middle and high school. College. Jobs (please God). And at each transition, each new milestone, I will remind myself to appreciate the unknown wonders that will come next, and allow myself a few tears for the parts of ourselves — both the parent and the child — left behind.

 

 

 

#IWishMyTeacherKnew: Teen Edition

If you’re one of the sage people who avoids Twitter, you may not have seen these striking statements by one 3rd grade class in Colorado. So let me tell you: a teacher, wanting to understand her students’ lives better, assigned them this sentence to complete. “I wish my teacher knew…”

Holy heartbreak, the responses that came back. She, and a gazillion websites, have been sharing them on Twitter. Take these two:

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When I taught kindergarten in Watts, months after the ’92 riots, I didn’t have to assign that sentence to understand the world my kids lived in. They offered up their innocence on the altar of the classroom carpet, sitting crisscross applesauce, hands raised obediently: “They shoot a lot at night here.”

I can’t help but imagine what a high school teacher would learn if they assigned this sentence, “I wish my teacher knew….” Even in our gleaming public high school, kids face all kinds of stresses: poverty, abuse, brokenness. Perhaps: “I wish my teacher knew I have nightmares every night,” or “I wish my teacher knew I woke up at 4 a.m. to ride the public bus to get here,” or “I wish my teacher knew I haven’t seen my parents in over a year.”

But what difference would it make for teachers to know this? Their job is just to teach, right?

Half-right. As educator/humanitarian/visionary Chaim Peri writes in his book The Village Way, contrary to conventional wisdom, adolescence can be a time of great healing. And kids without loving adults at home need to look elsewhere for their mentors: to teachers.

Peri, founder of Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, works with traumatized teens — orphans, immigrants, exiles, and survivors of war in their home countries. They succeed like crazy, becoming productive adults, by re-creating the sense of “village” that Hillary Rodham Clinton brought into the American lexicon a few years back.

“We need to offer [teens] an aura of togetherness,” says Peri in his book, “a sense of inner coherence and emotional solidarity that defies the swirling chaos around us. We must recreate, intentionally, through the messages that we constantly broadcast to our children, the sense of belonging and togetherness that once defined human existence.”

“If I could tell every educator just one thing, it would be that each hour of the teenage years is precious, each experience as potent in its capability to heal or to wound as countless hours of childhood experiences.”

His call to action: each of us has it within ourselves to become a mentor and heal a child.

My husband and I heard Chaim Peri speak when we were in the midst of deciding whether to become stand-in mom and dad to an 18-year-old unaccompanied minor from Guatemala. His talk sealed the deal.

Between stepping up and her move-in date we were scared as hell, worried that we were going to ruin our family’s happy life. We have never more wrong.

I’m not saying you have to welcome a stranger into your home to do a world of good. You can go to 826LA. Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. It takes a village, and we are the village.

What other groups do you know that offer the chance to mentor? Share in your comments.

 

 

Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

Dear Mr. Cardenas,

This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.

You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.

A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.

You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.

(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).

But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:

1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.

2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.

4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.

5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.

6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.

I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.

You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.

After McFarland, U.S.A. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Apres enjoying the glamorous, one-of-a-kind El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, California.

P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.

Thankful for: Kids Helping Other People’s Kids

A shout out for kids helping kids – good news in the midst of, you know, mostly blechy news.

Our public middle school’s Community Service Club is asking their fellow students to help Safe Place for Youth. (By the way, I am tooting the horn of other people’s kids. Mine are not in this club, though I must say they do community service. Sometimes under duress. But still.)

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Recall that all of SPY’s donated warm clothes and sleeping bags were destroyed in a fire.

Seeing these boxes bedecked with earnest handwritten pleas for donations was a welcome lift after the Parent Board meeting I had just left, which included the following snazzy agenda items:

  • Evacuation procedures in case of bomb threats!
  • Today’s “Shelter in Place Drill” (nee “Lockdown”) in case of active shooters!
  • Results from recent school fundraiser and pleas for several more fundraisers! (Because to be an excellent public school requires thousands of dollars more than they are allotted – for computers, science equipment, functioning sinks…you know, the “extras.”)
  • Gentle reminders about holiday gifts for teachers, because a little gift means a lot (see bullet point above re public school funding).

So the lovely part about this meeting was this news: Our heroic (yes, heroic; no snark or sarcasm should be read into this adjective) school administrators and counseling staff had identified two homeless families in our school. (That’s not the lovely part). The administrators had reached out to other school parents, and through the efforts, donations, and advocacy of many people, those families are now in temporary housing on their way to permanent housing, and have received donations of gift cards for supermarkets and restaurants so they can eat.

But wait, there’s more! Our counseling staff gives food gift cards to 25 additional families who, though housed, would go hungry without them. It’s especially crucial this week: with no school next week, those children miss their regular breakfast and lunch. (I’m cranky without breakfast for a day.)

Admittedly, with nearly 14,000 students in LAUSD homeless (no wonder LAUSD has its own Homeless Education program), helping two homeless families get housing is a drop in the bucket. But for those two families it is a waterfall of blessings. For the Community Service Club kids, whose collection boxes express their dream of a world that is kind, abundant, plentiful and whole, there’s no better lesson than this: changing the world one person, one coat, one meal, one family at a time is as good a way as any to change the world.

As overwhelmed as I can get by the enormity of need — to the point of doing nothing, because where to begin? — I appreciate the reminder, kids.

News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I’m thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.

Lucky!!

 

I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.

Laura

How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)

What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are still his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. Continue reading

It’s all Greek to me

No Torah Study for me today. After last week’s Jewish Journal article in which I gushed about Rabbi Bernstein’s Friday morning ancient-history-philosophy-religion-mythology-spirituality-and-parenting seminar, I felt sheepish to miss today. I had wanted to go, but at the last minute the second graders needed one more driver for their field trip. I hadn’t said yes the first time the call for drivers came out, because the idea of an 8-12 field trip seemed too much of a commitment. But I had a car, I could make the time, so I raised my hand and said I’d do it.

Thank goodness. I was headed to the Getty Villa with fifty second-graders. Talk about ancient-history-philosophy-religion-mythology-spirituality-and-parenting skills. Have you tried to corral rambunctious seven- and eight-year-old boys through a palace of priceless sculpture?

The morning was filled with many pleasures, however, not least of which was the drive. It was the first time I’d needed the third row of my Toyota RAV4. This is a big deal to me. I chose this car in anticipation of our move to Venice. Guessing that parents wouldn’t relish having to drive their kids from the old neighborhood to our new house, I bought a practical, 3rd row SUV so I could take everyone. This was instead getting a wildly impractical but super fun convertible, which would seat just us four! I repeat, I gave up a convertible in order to ferry many children. And this is the first time I have ferried. Bitter? Not at all.

Listening to the five boys in my car was another highlight. It wasn’t the topic (Lego Ninjago, which was pretty funny) as much as the passion they brought to it. And their jokes. And the screeching laughter. Their excitement was electric. All it took was being out of their normal, run-of-the-mill classroom environment, on an adventure. Leaving behind routine is implicitly awesome. That’s why I love travel.

Finally there was the Getty Villa itself. Our docent, Rick, carried a children’s book of Greek Mythology with him, which he read from to make the art come alive. He told them the story of Herakles slaying a lion, strangling it with his sheer strength, then brought them to the statue of Herakles holding a lion skin, a statue which inspired J. Paul Getty to build the whole museum.

Second graders reenact the lion slaying.

He sat the kids in front of an ancient stone mosaic floor with a Medusa in its center, and then he read the story of Perseus slaying Medusa. Now that stone mosaic meant something. The same with a sculpture of sirens. Yeah, these may have been cool to look at for a minute or two, what with their bird legs and feathers on the bottom, female bodies on top. But add to that the story of Orpheus sitting on a boat and playing his instrument (the original “guitar hero” in Rick’s words) in order to drown out the sound of their tempting, dangerous singing and thereby save the lives of the sailors, well, now the kids were hooked.

I loved hearing how much my son knew about the Greek myths. He raised his hand to answer all sorts of questions: “What power did Medusa have?” “What did a siren do?” “What is a sickle?” I give thanks to author Rick Riordan for writing the Percy Jackson books, and to whomever wrote and illustrated the Greek Mythology comic book Emmett has been reading in the school library. I give thanks for school libraries.

(This sounds like a good time to plug Proposition 30. And 38. Field trips. School libraries. Books in schools. Please vote for them. If you want to phone bank for them, call me up and we’ll go together.)

I give thanks for the opportunity to see him in his element, to get out of my own normal, Friday routine and experience some surprise, and to be reminded of the power of stories to capture imaginations. Which is, after all, what Torah is all about. Our stories — heros, villains, folly, morality. The human experience of the supernatural.

Okay, then. Chew on that. Class dismissed. Have a great weekend.