My Convertible Life

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Sport

For a woman who never played organized sports growing up – unless you count driveway kickball, which wasn’t really all that organized but was highly competitive – I’ve made a real commitment to team athletics for my kids. Like many suburban moms, I drive them to and from practices, bring snacks, cheer for everyone and spend large chunks of my life sitting on bleachers in conditions that are often too cold or too hot to be pleasant.

While it’s nice to imagine that they might turn out to be college-scholarship athletes, I’m not overly concerned that they excel at the sports they play. As hokey as it sounds, I really just want them to learn how to be a good teammate, engage in healthy exercise, develop a few leadership skills, and have a lot of fun.

It’s more important to me that they learn how to be good sports than to be good at sports.

In his most recent basketball season, Junius and his team had a perfect record – they managed to go eight straight games without winning a single one. Coming off an undefeated season with his hockey team, I worried that he might lose interest in basketball – or at least in his teammates – given their apparent lack of success.

During the final game last month, Junius scored a personal best 14 points. But the game highlight occurred when the ball wasn’t even in play.

As he followed his team back into the gym after halftime, Junius ran in front of his team’s bench, launched into a halfway decent cartwheel and burst out laughing as he bounced down next to the other boys.

When I asked him after the game why he did the cartwheel – an unusually showy move for him – he replied simply, “I wanted to rally my team, mom!”

That cartwheel rally didn’t affect the game’s outcome, but it made an otherwise losing season worth every butt-numbing minute in the stands.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

First Time

Last Wednesday, my husband and I picked up our kids from school at lunchtime and announced that we were taking them to Disney World for the first time. As in, right now, the car is packed, let’s go make dreams come true, we have three days to live the magic.

We expected their reaction would be something like this:

Children’s mouths drop, we beam at them lovingly. Their eyes light up as they shout, “SHUT THE FRONT DOOR! THAT’S INCREDIBLE! YOU ARE THE BEST PARENTS EVERRRRR!” And then we all melt into a group hug and sing Disney tunes for nine hours in the car.

Instead, it went more like this:

Children’s faces remain blank. They look skeptical and mutter, “I don’t believe you. Are you serious?” We show them the packed car and the magic bands and promise that we are telling the truth. They complain, “But it’s Wednesday. We don’t want to miss P.E.” And we suggest that perhaps three days in Disney is even better than P.E. And then they both say, “Can I play on the iPad in the car?” Twenty minutes down the road they start asking if we are in Florida yet. The only Disney songs we sing are from the Frozen soundtrack on continuous loop.

Hmph. I don’t know what Mr. P is doing in those phys ed classes, but it must be incredible.

The good news is that they got progressively more excited throughout the nine-or-so-hour drive and were totally wound up by the time we checked into our hotel at 10 p.m. Awesome.
Now that we’ve been back home for a few days, I’ve realized that taking your kids to Disney World for the first time is a lot like having your first newborn.

While you’re in the midst of it, you’re completely overwhelmed by the rapid swings between totally amazing and amazingly hard. But once it’s over, you forget all the crying and the exhaustion and that inexplicable sticky mess on your shirt. All you remember are the sweet, fun, photogenic moments and you decide you must do it again because you’ve learned so much from surviving the first one and you want to see if you can do an even better job the second time around.

At least the next time – if our bodies and our bank account can survive a next time – I’ll be expecting a different reaction when we give them the good news. Maybe it will go something like this:

Wow, Mom! That sounds even better than a whole day of P.E.!

Monday, February 10, 2014

To Teachers, With Love

The 11th grade students who were in my class during my first year as a high school English teacher are now in their mid-30s. Most of them I lost touch with after they graduated, but a handful kept up with me over the years or found me later on Facebook. A few were in college in the same program where I attended graduate school, passing me in the halls now and then. A couple are still on my Christmas card list.

Earlier this month, as I got in line to pay for my pre-snowstorm eggs and milk, I ran into one of those former students, now a mother of two and a teacher herself. We hugged each other and laughed about how we were both buying groceries in advance of the snow predictions.

“Have you met M before?” she asked, motioning to the man behind her.

“I don’t think I have,” I said, introducing myself to her husband and shaking his hand.

“No, this is S__,” she said to him, emphasizing the name they called me back in 11th grade.

His eyes brightened with recognition and he pulled me into a bear hug. He knew who I was – and in a good way. He knew my name, 18 years after she was in my class.

That afternoon, she posted a sweet note on Facebook about our chance meeting. When I went online to “like” her post, another former student – one that I hadn’t kept up with – had already left a comment: “Wow! She was a great teacher!”

I almost printed it out and framed it for my wall.

Today, North Carolina’s governor announced a 14 percent pay increase over the next two years for beginning teachers, bringing starting teacher salaries above those of neighboring states. The plan sounds like a good start, but doesn’t offer anything for mid-career and veteran teachers already in the classroom. That may help with recruitment, but it doesn’t do much to retain or respect teachers in the trenches -- teachers who haven't had a real raise in more than five years.

Most teachers will tell you they didn’t go into the profession for the paycheck – it’s not exactly news that teaching isn’t a lucrative career (click here for the 2013-14 salary schedule in NC). But it is a profession – one that requires a college degree, licensing exams and coursework for continued certification. And it’s a job path that ought to provide a living that doesn’t include qualifying for federal aid programs to feed your children.

So while we wait for our policy makers to find the will – and the funds – to pay teachers what they’re worth, we can all show a little love to the teachers who have made a difference. You may not have the chance to run into them at the grocery store or on Facebook, but you can still thank them for all that they do.

Over the past couple weeks, teachers (and those who love them) have turned to Twitter using #evaluatethat to share the many ways – big and small – that teachers make a difference in students’ lives. The hashtag takes a swipe at the notion that standardized tests and evaluation formulas can assess a teacher’s quality and effectiveness.

Take a moment to tweet your own #evaluatethat story, write a note to your child’s teacher, or track down that educator who made a difference for you. Feeling appreciated and valued won’t help teachers pay their bills, but it sure still feels good – even 18 years later.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Warm Heart

Parenthood is filled with lots of crappy moments.

Kids are whiny and messy and exhausting. There are snow days that you have to juggle with work that doesn’t close when school does. You make dinner every single night, half the time working like a short-order cook, and still they complain. They never clean their rooms without being asked – and still don’t do it when you do ask them. They pick and fight with each other. They are demanding.

But the beauty of parenthood is found in just as many tiny, lovely moments.

Even as they grow, they’ll still snuggle on the couch with me. They look like angels tucked into their beds, sleeping soundly as they snore. Sometimes they love my cooking, announcing loudly that no one makes better pancakes than mine. They give hugs and kisses freely. There are chances to be proud of them in public. Once in a while, they even ask me how my day went and actually listen to my response.

Yesterday – after the mess of putting on and taking off snow pants, snow boots, snow-covered gloves and hats, after lunch custom-made for each child because they couldn’t possibly eat the same thing, after the whining about what can we do and why can’t we watch another show – the kids and I headed back out into the cold to find some friends for sledding. As we started up the hill, each child dragging a sled, Pippi started complaining that her sled was too heavy.

“Hey, Mom,” says Junius, smiling. “I’ve got an idea. You pull my sled and I’ll pull Pippi in her sled!”

“Thank you, Junius!” Pippi replied, as he held the sled for her to climb into. Then they headed on up the hill together, with me just behind them.

My feet were cold, but my heart was melty.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

To Cancel School or Not to Cancel School...

In a big district like Wake County – with more than 153,000 students in 170 schools scattered across 857 square miles – there is probably only one job worse than being the person in charge of student assignment: 
Being the person in charge of cancelling school due to inclement weather.

Last night, as our local meteorologists sent everyone racing to the store for bread, milk, eggs and wine (the essentials, assuming you already have a stockpile of chocolate), the Wake County Public School System went ahead and canceled school for today. 

As of 4 p.m., when the school day would have been over across the entire county, we still hadn’t seen the first snowflake. We finally saw a few flurries just after 5:00.

For parents whose days were turned topsy-turvy (or worse) with kids at home, it was frustrating knowing we could have had a completely normal (albeit very cold) day. Instead, we have a snow make-up day for a day that didn’t include snow.

So here’s what makes that job – the one that has to make the call about if and when to cancel school – so terrible. If they hadn’t cancelled school and the snow started at noon (as was possible, according to the weather maps), parents would have been furious that kids were put on buses after the weather started to turn instead of before. You can’t win for losing.

As much as I wish we’d had school today so that I could have had a normal day at work, I don’t blame WCPSS at all for the decision they made. Here’s why:
  1. Wake County runs a multi-tier bus system – that means that one set of buses picks up a round of kids and takes them to school, then picks up another round of kids and takes them to school. Then they refuel and do the whole thing in reverse. On early release days, our school starts at 8:30 and gets out at 12:30 – I think that’s about as tight a turn-around as the buses can manage, meaning the last schools are released at 1:15. If the snow had started at noon as predicted, that would have been too late.
  2. I’m still scarred from January 2005 when a fraction of an inch of snow fell in the early afternoon, immediately turned to ice, and caused total gridlock across the county. My usual 15-minute drive home from work took three hours – and I had to walk the last few blocks, pregnant and frozen, because I couldn’t get my car up the icy hill around the corner from my house. As it turned out, three hours was a blessing – many people spent upwards of eight hours stuck in their cars while some children (and their teachers or administrators) spent the night at school when their parents weren’t able to get there to pick them up. Ask the people in Atlanta today if they know what I’m talking about. 

Now at 9 p.m., it’s still snowing – although it’s a wimpy sort of snow so far. With any luck, there will be enough to justify suiting up to go out and play tomorrow (obviously school is cancelled again) – but not so much to cause that poor person to have to cancel school again on Thursday.

PS: If you’re not following @wcpss on Twitter yet, you might be the only one. Go follow them now.
PSS: That's Junius earlier today (in the photo), wearing his snow pants over his pajama pants, coat at the ready. You know, just in case.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Choosing Kindergarten

When I was a senior in high school, I applied and was accepted to four universities. That was great – except that the only one I could afford to go to was my last choice.

Thankfully my last choice was still a very good option and it only took about two weeks on campus before I was completely on board. By the end of my freshman year, I couldn’t imagine ever going to the other three schools.

What I learned through that experience (among other things) is that college was ultimately what I made it. If I showed up ready, made an effort in my classes, talked with my professors, spent time making good friends and really invested in the school, then I was going to love it.

I feel the same way about my kids’ elementary school – and I want to say that to parents of rising kindergartners around the county as they fret over choosing the right school for their children. 

It’s time for families in Wake County to register for kindergarten, a milestone packed with emotion. And here, in addition to the angst over letting your little person spend the better part of five days a week with kids and adults you’ve never met, there’s the added stress of deciding on which school(s) to choose -- or wondering if you really even have a choice. We’re lucky here to have a lot of good options, but that creates its own challenges.

All over the district, parents are touring magnet schools, visiting their base school and weighing a host of other options both public and private -- although depending on where they live and what their circumstances are, some may have more real choices than others. A few years ago I was where they are now and I remember how worried I was about making just the right choice – a choice that was ultimately controlled by where the district had space for us.

Now that we’ve been in two different elementary schools over the past four years (through our choice, not a reassignment), I can see that we are fortunate to be in the same position I was as a high school senior. All of our options were good ones – some a better fit than others, but none of them bad. And ultimately what we – both the kids and our whole family – get out of the school is based on what we put into it.

Our children showed up prepared for school – a luxury that not every child starts with, I realize. My kids make an effort in their classes, learning to read and write, add and multiply, think and talk. They’ve made friends, in class and on the playground – and we’ve made parent friends, too, helping on field trips or waiting at school pick-up. As a family, we have invested in elementary school, not just through our donations to the PTA, but with our time and energy, through our communications with teachers, in our conversations at home with our kids.

So if you’re one of these parents in the midst of school decisions, here are a few thoughts:
  • It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. This is a big deal.
  • Kindergarten rocks. It’s absolutely incredible to watch those little people grow.
  • Go visit all the schools you’re interested in. There’s a lot you can learn from the way a school feels when you walk through it.
  • Talk with parents whose kids actually attend the school. Don’t put stock in hearsay and rumors. 
  • Know that every school will have teachers you love and others who aren’t as good a fit for your child. No school is perfect, not even Hogwarts.
  • Keep in mind that numbers – test scores, demographics and the rest – only tell part of the story. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Remember that your attitude toward the school sets the tone for your child. 
  • Trust that if you invest in your school, you’ll get a great return. 

Oh, and pack some tissues for yourself on the first day of school. It’s a doozy – but it’s worth it.

More thoughts on kindergarten and school choice:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Being in the Bee

Junius participated in his first schoolwide spelling bee tonight. He made it through the first round with confidence, then got nervous in the second round and spelled his word how it sounded instead of how it is spelled – “mortle” instead of “mortal.”  He was a good sport about it and stayed until the end to watch two older girls duke it out through more than a dozen final rounds before they finally got to the winner.

He looked really little up there. Only one other boy was his size, with a couple others who were close. When he went out in round two, I was a little sad – mostly because there were many other words in that round and the following round that I knew he could spell. But he was fine. And he was up there, trying and smiling, and that’s what counts.

The post below is something I wrote after the practice last week. I think it still says what matters.

* * *

Tonight Junius had a practice session for next week’s spelling bee. He was the first alternate for his class and the 2nd place finisher can't make it, so he got called up -- at his school, they let the first and second place spellers from each class participate in the school wide bee. 

I realize it was just a meeting -- a review of the rules and then a run-through using 1st grade words so that all the kids would understand the process and test out spelling into the microphone -- but I was so proud of him. As a young 3rd grader, he was one of only a few boys there and one of the smallest kids, but he marched right up to that microphone in his Panthers jersey, repeated the word, spelled it and said it one more time like he’s been in a spelling bee every day for a year. Whatever, Mom.

I’m used to seeing him be tough at hockey or basketball. He might not be the biggest or the fastest kid on the team (although sometimes he is), but he’s always in it to win it-- or at least to have a great time trying. I don’t often get to see him compete on his own in an academic setting. And when he’s not playing sports, he quickly turns shy in front of an audience. But not tonight.

Ironically, his practice word was “shy.”

I'm sure it makes me more than a little dorky, but the whole thing was awesome. Totally nerdtastic, and I would know.

When I was in 5th grade, I competed in my school’s spelling bee. It was a K-8 school, so I had to spell against older kids who didn’t expect me to do well. That only made it more satisfying when I won the whole thing. (I lost in a very early round at the next level, so my moment of glory was extremely short-lived.)

I don’t expect him to win the school spelling bee. But as a mama who makes her living using the right words and spelling them correctly, it warms my heart more than a little to see my sporty boy enjoying the spelling bee limelight.