Just Asking For It

Some accidents there are in life that a little folly is necessary to help us out of.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Random conversations over dinner…I don’t know if this anecdote counts as an accident, but it definitely has the signs that someone’s not home upstairs. The wife shares with me a Facebook comment from her News Feed about a woman leaving her 5-year-old asleep in the stroller at Disneyland on New Year’s Eve, while she went on a ride. Meanwhile, on my own Facebook News Feed, another friend is searching through her daughter’s stools for signs of a small Lego piece from the Olivia’s House Friend’s set that her girl swallowed yesterday.

It brought this to mind:

Given my inherent fear of living, I’m obviously trying to avoid any of the above circumstances warned about in the song. Still, it’s the stuff you can’t prepare for, that’s got me worried. With my Kate, there’s always new ways to consider.

Take tonight. The housekeeper is coming tomorrow, and we’re busily trying to clean up the house so that the house get cleaned up. (?) Meanwhile, I can hear Katelyn at work trying to undo in her room what we’re doing elsewhere. I then hear her announcing to the wife about the “new” toy chest she’s finally opened up and wants to use. The wife is placating her by feigning interest, while she, herself, is doing battle with random items we’ve managed to leave out in the kitchen.

In the meantime, my rounds finally put me back in Katelyn’s room, where I spy this, a Disney Princess Collapsible Storage Trunk:

608680474

It is opened up. Katelyn is stuffing all manner of her collection of animals from her bedroom set, and then she’s climbing in and climbing out. Then she’s zipping the item shut. Either way, it’s near her bed time, and we need to get stuff put away before she goes down for the evening. I ask her if I can put it away. She insists upon doing it herself, which last for only a few moments before she hands it to me when the wife comes into the child’s bedroom wondering what’s taking so long.

When I grab the trunk, along with its plastic case, it’s one of those spring-loaded contraptions, not unlike the sun shade I use for my SUV. I just have to figure out how to twist it just right to get it to close. I then spy this note on the trunk’s case’s cover:

WARNING

Ok. Let’s see what’s gone on here:

1. Child allowed to fold/unfold hamper? Check.

2. Used as a toy? Check.

3. Child playing inside hamper? Check.

4. Dragging hamper on the floor? Yup. Did that.

5. Kept away from a child? Um, that would be a “no”.

Maybe the biggest miracle of me being a father is not Katelyn herself, but having the privilege (and burden) of getting to worry about stuff like this…

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Into the Valley of Wal-Mart, Riding the Gift Horse

1206576751803092354elkbuntu_Blue_gift_with_golden_ribbon.svg.medWinter break has arrived, and with it, the incredible gratefulness that I feel that always accompanies any and all gifts from my students.  I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted presents at Christmas time.  After 16 years, this gesture still surprises me.  Nor am I the type to “brag” about what I get.  Sadly, I can recall a number of instances when teachers would get together, where the quality and the type of teacher gifts would get discussed and talked about, almost like you might hear from a discussion of last night’s football game on ESPN.

The point of this post is therefore not to brag, but rather to relate the misadventures that came along with one particular gift this year:  a Wal-Mart gift card.

Anybody who knows me personally, can vouch for my dislike of Wal-Mart.  This, for instance, encapsulates my feelings.  My old teaching partners at my old site used to love Wal-Mart, along with Chik-Fil-A, and even though a few had political leanings that mirrored my own, they couldn’t stay away from either place.  For my own part, I once actually won a Wal-Mart gift card to get supplies for my classroom at my old school site, and I politely turned it down citing to the principal the same sort of distaste and discomfort with their business model and practices I still feel.  Especially when you read stuff like this nugget from last week.

But all of that seemed to go out the window when, Christmas morning, I unwrapped the gift card that my student, A., had given me.

Dang it.  What did this mean?  Once before, I had gotten a gift card from Wal-Mart, but the wife and I wound up white elephanting the gift to someone who had no compunction about shopping there and who, at the time, eagerly accepted our largesse.  The wife heard my under-the-breath reaction and asked what was going on.  When I held it up, her “Ah” told me that she was on the same wavelength.

“That’s too big of an amount to give to her, or anyone else.”

“I know.”

“You should probably use it.”

“That means I have to go into the store!”

“See, if you can use it on-line…”

“Oh, yeah.”

It was brilliant.  I could be a hypocrite without even having to step into a store.

So, on Wednesday, as the wife found herself running work errands, and Kate buried herself in her room with her own new iPad Mini, I logged on to Walmart.com.

The website interface was as clunky and cluttered as the real-life Cerritos store had been the one time I had been in it, back in the early part of century.

Still, I knew what I wanted:  Dark Knight Rises DVD.  New Walter Mosley.  Maybe headphones for Kate’s new iPad.

2810-beAfter dragging Katelyn away from her iPad long enough to choose the bear headphones as shown on the right, I put in the payment information from the gift card.  I also noticed that shipping would be free if I chose what was called the “Site-to-Store” option.

I thought about it.  If I chose that option, I would be forcing myself to physically have to walk into a Wal-mart.  And not just once, 3 separate times.  Holding my distaste for what I was about to do at bay, I clicked to buy the items.  Later on that afternoon, the wife chided me for spending cash at Wal-mart, even though 95% of my purchase had been covered by the gift card:

“It wasn’t that much, though. Could have been worse…”

“It is worse.  It’s Wal-mart!” comes my reply.

On Thursday, I get the first text message.  Kate’s headphones are in.

“Wow, already?  Kate, your headphones showed up.”

“Yeah!  I want my bear headphones.”

We’d been driving her back from her hair appointment, and I see the message as we pull into our driveway.  Kate’s been complaining about wanting some food but that all vanishes when I tell her headphones are in.  She asks if we can go get them.

I agree.  I then begin to brief her.  I want this package pick-up to be as surgical an extraction as I can make it.  Get in.  Get out.

“Kate, hold my hand at that store.  Do not let go for ANY reason.  Ok?”

“I will, Daddy.  Is that store scary?”

“Oh shoot”, I think to myself.  I want to raise a Blue State child, but not at the cost of making her terrified.

I quickly reply to her, “No, just real interesting.”

We drive over. The parking lot looks somewhat empty.  It’s early on a Friday, and the Boxing Day crowds from Wednesday appear to have slowed a bit.  Still, I make myself aware of my surroundings, even though it’s the middle of the day, not Zero Dark Thirty.  For her part, Katelyn is perfectly behaved.  We walk through the parking lot and into the store.

Oh my.

It’s bright.  And I have no clue where to go.  The customer service department is to our immediate left.  But all I see are signs telling me that it’s for Returns.  Still, Kate tells me to get into that line.

“Daddy, it’s that one.”

“No, I don’t think so, Boots.  Let’s look.”

Except it’s hard to look. I am feeling conspicuous, but worse, I can’t see over the aisle shelves to read any signs to tell me where to go for Site-to-Store.  Following the arrows in any sort of organized pattern, I find myself all the way back where we started from.

“Daddy, are you sure that it’s not that line?  You should ask someone.”

She made sense, but she didn’t know that I was already planning on doing that, if only I could find an employee who looked like they weren’t busy with another customer, or didn’t look like they were in a bad mood.  I walk over to the checkout line, and find an employee not busy, but with an expression that looked like he was in a bad mood.  My thought: Michael Shannon

“Um, excuse me, I was trying to find the place to pick up “Site-to-Store” purchases?”

“Go on back to Jewelry.”

Huh?, I think to myself.

With Kate still in tow, we head back into the store.  The aisles appear even higher.  I remember and think back of how traumatic this might have been for the wife, when she had to go to a Dallas Wal-mart in the middle of the night a few years back, having missed a connecting flight on a trip, forcing her to spend the night without her luggage.  I dismiss such thoughts when I arrive at the jewelry counter.  Then I look around to see where they would put shipped items of various sizes in a counter area that wasn’t very big.  I walk over to a saleslady who is, mercifully, not with a customer.

“Excuse me, but an employee up front told me to come here to pick up a “Site-to-Store” order from the internet.”

She puzzles over this.  “No, not here.  You go back up front to Customer Service.”

“Oh,” I reply, “that’s what I thought.”  Then it slips out, “That guy might have been high or something.”  This gets a slight chuckle from the girl.  (Later on, Amber, hearing that, asks, “You didn’t say that, did you?”)

As we turn to head back up front for the 3rd time, this comes out from Kate:

“See Daddy, I told you.”

“You were right.”

Ok, the sign wasn't *this* small.  But it was close!

Ok, the sign wasn’t *this* small. But it was close!

We go back into the return line.  It’s longer than it had been when we walked into the store.  For a trip I had hoped would be quick, this visit was turning into a quagmire.  A manager-type is working the line, trying to get us to go to another register for returns, until she hears that I need the counter for “Site-to-Store”.  She tells me to go to the Photo counter, next to returns.  There I see the tiny sign for “Site-to-Store” pick-up.  And there is no line.  We walk up.  Our trip could have been over much sooner.  I have robbed Kate of precious minutes of her childhood wandering around a Wal-mart.

We at last get her headphones.  I get her back to the car (Everyone back to the choppers!), and we head home.

“So Daddy, you got me my headphones at Wal-mart.  You didn’t get my iPad there, too, did you?”  She asks that question with her unique sense of righteous indignation.

“No, of course not.  We got it from Santa’s special workshop in Cupertino, California.”

“No, Daddy, they make it at the North Pole.”

“Well, Katelyn, you see factually, Santa contracts out certain types of advanced technology…”

One trip down.  2 more to go.

Meanwhile, on Board the Kobayashi Maru

My efforts to win at the no-win scenario

“War is over, we don’t need your help.  America is making war on itself…” — Bono, during a U2 performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky“, Boston 2001

duckandcover

I am old enough to remember how “Duck-and-Cover” was supposed to protect my elementary school classmates and I from a Soviet nuclear attack.

Now my students are old enough to “Duck and Cover” to protect themselves from an American attacking their school…

From today’s New York Times Opinionator, Sara Mosle:

 …because every few months, my daughter’s school, like others across the country, conducts a “lockdown” drill to prepare for a school shooting. A coded message comes over the loudspeaker indicating that there’s an intruder, most likely armed and dangerous, in the building. My job as a teacher, now familiar to many Americans thanks to the procedures rehearsed and followed by the heroic educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is to rush the door, lock it, turn off the lights (to create the illusion of an empty classroom) and corral my students into a corner. There, out of sight, we practice huddling quietly as we would if an armed intruder were trying to shoot us through a doorway or window.

This past Wednesday, as it was apparently at other elementary schools in the local area, including my own daughter’s school, it was “Lockdown” day.

On Tuesday, my grade level team met for the first time since the Newtown shootings.  Lockdown procedures, rather than our IB curriculum, become the topic of concern.  As often happens with epic-level disasters or circumstances, they only become a topic of importance after they happen, rather than before.  As a new teacher at this school, I am admittedly unfamiliar with the procedures, and I need help in learning what’s appropriate at this school site.  At my old school, with its stand-alone classroom, my choices were self-explanatory with respect to a Lockdown.  (Of course, my final 2 years there were spent in a trailer that could have been at home after Hurricane Katrina.  Given its thin walls, and its isolated position on the outskirts of the campus, I could see little protection that it might have provided my students.)  But at my new school, with its remants of 1970s pod design, the classrooms open up to a central community area, and the school is split between the upper and primary grade areas, as well as a pod for the administration and the kindergarteners.  We are effectively cut off from each other in the event of some sort of emergency.

Says a colleague, K., who has the room next to mine, and whose classroom overlooks the parking lot and is the most exposed, “I think they were on acid when they designed the school.”

My reply, “Well, it was the ’70s.”

Still, she is worried about the ability to see into her classroom during a lockdown, even with the lights turned off.  At my team meeting the day before, I expressed the same worry, as my teammates and I discussed the timeline of the Newtown shootings, wondering if the various offices and storage rooms scattered along the periphery of the classroom pods were accessible to us with our keys, and therefore could be locked.  Reflecting up on how students, teachers, and staff, were able to find hiding places at Sandy Hook Elementary in such smaller rooms, we reach a grade level agreement to move our kids into the storage rooms and offices in the event of a lockdown.  I bring up the idea that we need to “buy” time in the event of such a situation, that the longer it would take for students to be “found”, the better chance local law enforcement would have to get to the school to intervene.

My colleagues’ keys work the doors to the storage room which sits between them.  Later on, I am reassured to find that my key will open the RSP room immediately next to my classroom.  Unfortunately, we are only 3 classrooms of 75 students, as well as ourselves, there is still a need to find such an evacuation spot for the SDC class, 2 4th grade classrooms, and 3 6th grades.  Given that this lockdown is meant to find out how we stand with respect to emergency procedures though, we set aside our initial concerns about trying to find places for everyone, until we know it works for our own classroom of kids.

So on Wednesday morning, before my students arrive, I spend a few moments with my 4th grade colleagues, who have the rooms closest to me, to find out what they’re planning on doing.  Both pretty much agree that there’s little they plan on doing beyond “ducking and covering”, because there’s not many places they can move towards.  I point out that with the lights out and quiet children, from the outside, the temporary wall between our classrooms does provide some cover when viewed from the outside.  K., who has that classroom closest to the school parking lot, and with 2 windows that can be used to enter the room, realizes there’s a corner where she can move her kids to hide them from anyone  looking in.  I suggest that later, after we’re done, we try to see if curtains are an option.  My 5th grade colleagues both have curtains on their room themselves, while I am using some posters.  Still, at this point, I move outside myself, switch off the classoom lights and try to see what it might look like from the outside looking in.  There are areas where children sit where enough ambient light, even on an overcast morning, allows someone to see in even with the lights out.  I make the decision to have that student move into the far corner during “duck and cover”.

Nevertheless, I ask myself if “Duck and Cover” would truly be that effective if a potential shooter choose to enter the school through my door or window.  Rather than immediately question that, I decide it best to follow directions during this drill, in order to question the choice later on, if necessary.  My aide comes in, at this point, and I brief him about the procedures we will follow.

When I go to pick up the students, as they try to settle in, I immediately cut off the usual insouciance, in order to explain the lockdown procedures the class will follow when it starts.  I move from the known to unknown.  Most of these kids have matriculated only through this elementary school, but it being the east side of my school district, rather than the west side, I wonder if these kids even know what a lockdown was.

“How many of you have been through a lockdown drill at this school?”

None raise their hands.  I find out later that lockdowns have been held in the past, but these kids apparently don’t remember it.

“How many even know what a lockdown is?”

My girl from Norwalk, a boy from Bell Gardens and another from Hawaiian Gardens, all raise their hand.  The other kids, local area lifers, are still silent.  I explain the lockdown and what it usually means.  Normally, in the area, it’s because the local sheriff deputies are out searching for a suspect in a local crime.  We can still function normally, more or less, in such a situation.  But today is more about the events in Connecticut.  While I have avoided getting specific about details about Sandy Hook, I do get specific now, not to scare the kids, per se, but to explain to them the “why” of what we will do.  I work very hard at trying to remain calm, and my usual casual humor is replaced by a more serious tone.  I want this to go well.   The principal then comes on over the intercom and reiterates a great deal of what I had already told the kids.  I am hoping that the kids will get the message to treat this with some measure of seriousness.

When the lockdown finally happens, I actually find my hands shaking as I deliver the instruction to get under the desks, and I head over and turn out the lights.  So far so good, but slowly, order starts to break down.  One kids bangs his head accidentally on one of the desk legs.  Others giggle, as they are wont to do during earthquake drills, without heeding my request for as much quiet as they can muster.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. — Blaise Pascal

I strive to do my best to not raise my voice as move to the next step, getting the kids into the RSP office.  I try to walk around the room in those areas where it is darkest, and I ask the kids to start to crawl, in the dark into the RSP room.  Still, several of my students are determined that they have to provide a vocal soundtrack to the drill.  My kids move quickly enough to crawl into the RSP office, and I make a mental note about a couple of my students who backed out into the area of the room still lit from outside light, to remind them to move forward under the desk to crawl rather than backwards.

But my aide is getting frustrated as he positions himself at the RSP office door to help guide the student inside.  Unlike myself, he is naturally softspoken, but I can see him getting frustrated by the increasing noise level coming out of the RSP office.  My goal was try to hide the kids in the office, but with their inability to pipe down, they’ve done nothing but make themselves even more conspicuous.  It is all I can do to not throw propriety to the wind and not yell at them to shut up.  At this point, the principal, moving through our building to check on statuses, comes by and quietly tries to hush the kids’ giggling and talking.  He leaves, my aide and I are dumbfounded when the talking and laughing continue, especially when I see one boy light up his watch because he has to see what the time was.

Mosle:

During these drills, my students are often visibly anxious because they’re afraid of guns and don’t and can’t know if the exercise is just a precaution. We behave as if the alarm were real because it could be real, and so we can become accustomed to remaining calm during a crisis. My students hug one another and exchange nervous glances as we crouch on the floor and I silently mouth words of comfort. Someone begins to whisper until another student hisses, “Shhhhhh,” so any gunman wouldn’t be able to hear us. Our principal goes around checking doors in the eerily quiet hallways to see if teachers have followed protocol, and when he jiggles our doorknob, several students start as if in a horror movie.

My students, for their part, are far from anxious, because there are enough who couldn’t process what “quietly” even means.

When the lockdown is over, the kids head back to their desks.  I should debrief, but at this point, I’m looking for seriously methaphorical blood.

I ask T. why he was looking at his watch.  He replies that he needed to know what time it was, clueless that he belongs to me until 2:15 pm anyway.

I ask D. why he thought the whole procedure was so funny.  All he can do is shrug his shoulders.

S. starts to complain that someone was touching his butt when he looked out the office window, even though there was no compelling reason to look out the window if the point was to hide.  My class cynic, G., sarcastically retorts that if S. doesn’t want his butt touched, he shouldn’t look out the office window.  (G.’s internalized the Cause-and-Effect lesson I taught earlier this year.)

I am frustrated.  My principal enters shortly afterwards and starts to ream the students out himself.  He is not happy.  I can see this stuff rolling downhill to me and I want to get out of the way, but can’t.  He makes it a point that not only could he hear my students from outside, he could tell where they were based on the amount of noise they were making.

“Perfect practice makes perfect execution”, he leaves them.

I ream them again, because they’ve gotten reamed by the principal.

Later, as we debrief the fiasco in the RSP office, my colleague rustles my jimmies by suggesting it was a classroom management issue.  I consider, for a moment, ritual suicide to save face.  I find my principal, who’s resumed his normal rounds, and apologize for my class’ behavior.  Inappropriate humor or not, I volunteer that my kids and I would be willing to distract a shooter in real life.  But still, with tensions being as it was, I don’t relish the idea that 1/3 of my students don’t fully comprehend the criticality of making themselves as inconspicuous as they possibly can, which includes putting a muzzle on their insatiable need to conduct a running commentary during a drill that’s meant to be done in near-total silence.

When the kids return from their enrichment classes, I try to tear a new one out of what’s left of them for having been called out by another teacher.  But I stop myself.  I point out the ultimate need for such an exercise.  The state has entrusted their safety to well-being to me, and my responsibility is to keep them in a safe setting to the fullest extent that I can.  And when they choose not to follow instructions, they put not just themselves at risk, but also their classmates, and the rest of the school.  I point out what I had shared with my grade level team the previous day, that the point of the drill was to see how long we could last in silent hiding. Sadly, that’s not what had gone down.

I then praise one of my boys, who is normally chatty, distracted, and moving constantly throughout the room, as probably the one kid who “got it”.  L. tells me that he treated the exercise like a game of “Soldier” (I call it “Army Guy”, but most boys seem to gravitate to it at some point in childhood), and that he wanted to be as quiet as he could, just as if he had been playing that game.

I remark that the kids might have done better during the drill had they decided to treat it as they might a game of hide-and-seek.  But then, I back off, and reassure them that I can better keep them safe if they understand that in any emergency situation, since as fifth graders, they should start to know better by now, to listen absolutely to my instructions.  They owe that to themselves, as well as their parents.  I tell them that they have to trust in me just like my daughter Kate has to trust in her kindergarten teacher, or the kids and parents in the classroom of V.’s mom (who teaches in Long Beach USD) have to trust in her.  Then, I move on to what was left of my instructional time, hoping that today’s morning lesson, while painful, would sink in.

Finally Mosle:

After the lockdown drills are over, I try to reassure my students that their classrooms are unlikely to be overtaken by armed attackers. I do a short lesson on probability and the very remote chance that any of them will ever be involved in such an incident.

That evening, I arrive on Kate’s campus to pick her up.  Unlike my school, which is surrounded by a chain link fence around all the buildings, her district’s schools are wide open around the classroom.  It is not unlike the way in which schools were in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up in that same area when I was in elementary school.   I wonder what could happen on such a campus.  As we walk out, I ask her about her day.  She volunteers that they had a lockdown drill at school.

Then, perfectly, Kates recites, in her remarkable ability to mimic what she hears, exactly what her lockdown instructions had been from her teacher.

Even my kindergartner had been better at a Lockdown drill than I had been.

 

*That* Conversation

US-CRIME-SCHOOL SHOOTING

And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry

U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

If the conversation was going to be had in a classroom across America this first morning back after last Friday, then this was my version of it.

These are savvy enough kids of mine that I was pretty sure that at least some of them had heard of the Newtown, CT shootings.  But what I wasn’t sure was how much they knew.  Or what I would say.  I am not the most subtle of speakers, to be honest, and my mouth has gotten me into my particular corner of hell more often than I want to remember.

Over the weekend, one of my friends from back east, who tangentially knows a friend who knows parents of some of the Sandy Hook victims, had asked me what, if anything, I would tell Kate.  In truth, I hadn’t said anything to Katelyn yet.  She was unaware of what had gone down in Connecticut, nor did it seem appropriate to bring the issue up if we didn’t need to do so.  Friday was the day she had gotten her first school award, and Mommy and Daddy were there to see her get it at her school.  We know now that there were parents of other primary graders converging on their own school 3000 miles away for entirely different, and ultimately, tragic reasons.

So my struggle for internal eloquence with how to deal with whatever question my 5th graders would have, was small potatoes.  I probably could get away with saying nothing about it, should I choose.  My daughter’s school district had put out reassurances from both the superintendent and the school principal that the issue would not be addressed.  I had been given no such directive in my own district.  I had leeway.  Why go there?  Because I couldn’t not.  If explaining the American Experiment to 10-year-olds was what motivated me to take up teaching, then explaining this incident certainly fell under that large umbrella.

Nevertheless, for one of the few times in my teaching career, I felt it necessary to preface the morning, with words that don’t come out of my mouth very often:

“I know I like to take a weird slant and attitude towards most things regarding life in general, or even our learning at times, but this isn’t one of those times.  It can’t be.  Does anyone have any questions or comments about what happened on Friday or what they heard from this past Friday or this weekend?”

There, I had stepped into it.  Had I been at my old school, I would have been truly concerned, since having a school leader given to openly over-moralizing everything, tends to color what you can and can’t say to your students.  But in this instance, even had I been back in my personal purgatory of a year ago, I would have done the same thing, I hope.  Just be honest…answer the questions, if there are any, as best as you can…

The questions come:  About the rifles, the pistols, the mother being a teacher (which I gently corrected).

We talk about Aspergers, and how this one incident is not about Aspergers, but other things.

We talk about the school safety plan.  Here I take pause to make sure I have all eyes and ears before proceeding.  I know my job is to reassure them, to make them understand that the random acts of violence that coalesced in a horrible morning 3 days earlier are as equally a random act, as a drive-by in South Central, or botched holdup in East Los Angeles.  Americans died, and a gun was involved.

One student brings up the Chinese knife attack, also from last Friday, sharing that his uncle said that “they had enough kids to lose a few out there, anyway…”  I point out that no one in that attack died.  I also find myself immediately adding that attacking someone with a knife is different than attacking with a gun.  Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything more, but several of the boys begin to ask about assault weapons and how they are different from handguns.

Fortunately, I had begun the school year describing each amendment of the Bill of Rights to my students.  When another student asks me about how hard it would be to get a weapon, I point out that both my aide and myself, should we want, could go out and buy a gun if we had the money to buy one.  I explain, in as unbiased a manner as I can, how there has been a gun control debate in the country for longer than these kids have been alive.  I finally, in a weak moment, admit that it is frustrating to me, personally, that it was harder for my wife and I to go through the legal magic show to adopt our daughter than it would be if I wanted to purchase a gun.

Again, though, the kids’ questions start to peter out after about half an hour.  I remind them again that my responsibility as their teacher puts me in the legal position to take their well-being into account.  That we have a safety plan that we’re supposed to follow, and we will follow it in order to keep them safe, be it an earthquake, a fire, or even something wholly out of the ordinary, as Friday’s sad events obviously turned out to be.

Then one final question, from G.:

“Wasn’t it a bad, bad weekend?”

“Yeah,” I reply.

But then I realize he’s talking about players on his fantasy football team.  “Beast mode” for G. means the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch.  Sandy Hook discussion over.

A few minutes later, the principal walks by our classroom.  Would he be addressing the kids in each class about last Friday?  No, he is the advance team, complete with walkie-talkie.

A PTA parent is dressed up as Santa Claus, visiting each classroom and handing out candy canes with his “elves”.  Sandy Hook has immediately moved into the background.  “Normal” had returned, such as it was.

Outside is America

mockingbird-by-kathryn-erskineAs much as I would like to avoid the Facebook postings today, the news about the Connecticut school shootings was unavoidable, as was the subsequent philosophical split between those who don’t want to “politicize” the tragedy and those who view events like today as a time in which we have no choice but to turn to politics.

Politics is, after all, by definition, the act in which we come to decisions as to how we want to govern our country.  When 26 die, including 20 children, certainly, the government failed in its overall intent to provide for the general welfare of those most in need of that provision.   At some point we need to have that discussion in our governmental and social processes.  Sadly though, we spend more time trying not to offend each other’s sensibilities in what must now, in my opinion, become an essential national conversation.  The can gets kicked down the road again.

But that’s not what’s got me on my soapbox.  Of bigger concern today was how I was supposed to have any sort of measured discussion and explain this to my students, 5th graders. I am growing weary, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Arizona, the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, followed by this week’s bookending by the Oregon shooter and today’s heartbreaking events in Connecticut.  I am growing weary because it’s getting difficult for me to be as unbiased about any explanation over either the subject of school shootings and/or the Second Amendment as my training tells me I have to be.

When I first encountered Kathryn Erskine‘s 2010 National Book Award Winner, Mockingbird, it was shortly after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011.  Teaching at my old school, we had been sharing out newspaper articles in the 6th grade language arts block.  When the shooting happened, the heartbreaking profile of young Christina Taylor Green in the New York Times captivated a number of my students, who took her story to heart.  I had already purchased Erskine’s book to use as a possible Read Aloud choice before this had happened, if only because of the Virginia Tech shootings which moved the author to write her book.  Given the manner in which my class responded to Green’s profile, I felt that Erskine’s book provided an ideal opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion of what the effect such a tragedy has on those who survive in a victim’s family.

In Mockingbird, young Caitlin is an 11-year-old with Asperger Syndrome.  She is forced to come to grips with the death of her beloved older brother after a shooting at a middle school.  She struggles with her condition, throughout the book, in order to provide not just closure for herself, but also for her father, as well as the young son of a teacher who was also killed along with her brother.

Last school year, after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, I found myself turning to that book again, in order to try to explain the aftermath of those events to my 6th graders.

This morning, the wife and I were part of a large gathering at Kate’s school.  Our personal handful of kindergartner was receiving an award for her ability to “think outside the box” in terms of her creativity.  Coincidentally, Kate’s school borders the community that was a scene of a mass shooting of its own late last year.  As the morning developed and Kate got her award, I then headed back to my own classroom to relieve my sub for the afternoon.  Hearing of the Connecticut shootings, I couldn’t help but do the cruel math as to what subtracting one of those classes of kindergartners from today’s event in such a brutal fashion might do the assembled parents and grandparents in the room.  The buzz of Kate’s accomplishment quickly wore off, as I realized I would have to be explaining yet another school shooting to a group of my students, just as I’ve been doing so often since I began my teaching career in 1997.

I didn’t say anything to my kids straight away though.  I powered through a Math lesson, got the class off to the lunch, and then I tried to update myself on the day’s events.  I shuffled through my collection of Read Aloud books I had planned for the immediate next few weeks.  I put Ralph Fletcher’s Fig Pudding, my traditional Read Aloud for this time of the year, back on the shelf.

When the kids came back in from lunch, I showed them Mockingbird, and began reading.

Better than Candy

It is Halloween night.  Katelyn hands me a bag of Skittles.

“Daddy, here, eat some…” is her command.

I comply.  Katelyn is enjoying passing out candy far more than getting it from door-to-door, and trying to eat a bag of Skittles AND pass out candy is multi-tasking that she’d rather not do.

I comment to the wife, who’s opening a new bag for Katelyn to pass out, about the Skittles:  “These will always be special, no?”

Skittles have a deeper meaning in our household, beyond their role as coveted booty in a 5-year-old’s treat bag after an hour of trick or treating.  It is a meaning given to it by a bailiff in a Monterrey Park courtroom–Edmund Edelman Children’s Court–a sheriff’s deputy sneaking a treat to a 1 1/2 year-old about to be adopted by a childless couple who had been her legal guardians since she was 3 days old.

Halloween is also Katelyn’s adoption day, the day the wife and I became her “official” parents.

Four years have since passed, yet I still chuckle thinking back to the bailiff’s choice of what to treat a toddler who was still making the transition to solid food, in particular a small round candy that still posed somewhat of a choking hazard for someone so young.  On the other hand, that small gesture, along with the large pink bunny that accompanied the Skittles was a priceless symbol of the end of the long journey to bring Katelyn officially into our home, especially after the emotional drama of the previous March.  It was then when we had to wait for the results of a court-ordered DNA test to determine that a young man who had come forward to claim parenthood of Katelyn, wasn’t, in fact, her biological dad.

Effectively, the courtroom proceedings that morning had none of the earlier drama.  The morning was mere formality, with official paperwork being approved and signed, smiling family members from both sides sitting in the gallery, Katelyn in her pretty white dress with big black bow, and, of course, the Fun Size package of Skittles.  Becoming a dad on Halloween morning that day though, was way better than any candy.

So, when Kate shoves the half-empty bag of Fun Size Skittles in my hand this evening, I do what she tells me.  I eat the rest.  It just seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.

The Last Lack of Standard

Um, yeah, inappropriate…

“I like to entertain. I was at my nephew’s birthday party; I dressed up like a clown. He said, ‘Uncle Emo, you’re a terrible clown. I wanna see a trick.’ You know…So I took his dog, and I twisted him into a balloon…You know…”

Emo Philips

In the summer that brought us the insouciant appropriateness of Seth McFarlane’s “Ted”, and this past week that saw the ending of “Toddler Fight Cub” back east, we have approach the idea of what’s inappropriate.

While Kate’s 5th birthday party was celebrated in a theater we had rented during Pixar’s “Brave” opening weekend, truthfully, we all filed into the theater with Kate making it known to everyone that she rather would have seen “Ted”…

Trust me, there are some lines that even I would not cross.  Nevertheless, it was hard, given the ubiquitousness of the billboard print ads, none of which looked like:

Rather this:

This sort of thing easily represents the sense of humor that Katelyn has.

Preparing for her birthday though, meant a number of trips to the local Party City.  While there, standing in line to pay for the balloon order, I discovered yet another line, that final line that finally showed me where my own boundaries lay.

To whit:

No kidding – Hellraiser costumes for Toddlers!

Some men are born inappropriate, some learn it, and other have inappropriate thrust upon them in line at the party supply store.  This costume is inappropriate.  Even I, who often finds the same things funny that my 5th and 6th grade boys find funny, found this inappropriate.

I have finally reached maturity at age 49.

It’s Been a Little While

They say it’s your birthday…

That girl, that girl she’s mine
Well I’ve know her since,
Since she was

A little girl with Spanish eyes
When I saw her first in a pram they pushed her by
Oh my, my how you’ve grown
Well it’s been, it’s been…a little while

U2, “In A Little While”

I will forever remember her concerned stare.

“Why is he taking a call”, S.M. had to be thinking, “when I am trying to concentrate on a math test?”

It had to be going through her mind.  Especially since I was growing increasingly animated and agitated at our social worker on the other end of the phone line.

This was the phone call that would eventually result in Katelyn coming home to us, but, of course, we didn’t know it at the time.  We only knew that we had her, and then lost her.  Naturally, I was beside myself.  He who hesitates is lost, and in this case, it was a child we would be losing.

What we didn’t know that across town, another couple was struggling with the same decision.  Another husband was getting the call.  Despite our supposed 15-20 minutes to make up our mind, our own personal delay had our social worker calling another couple.  Like me, the husband was getting the call.  Unlike me, he was saying “yes”.  I was caught up having to consult. It never occurred to the wife and I that we should have a pat answer in place.  But as in most placements through L.A. County, there were mitigating factors that weighed consideration, but did not lend themselves to immediate response.

Regardless, we had lost her.  Agony on the phone as I angrily called back the social worker.  With all shred of professionalism gone, my priorities, at that moment, was to try to, somehow, get back this child, lost to us because we couldn’t quite say “yes” immediately enough.

On her end, Amber, cognizant of my natural talent at alienating people, called our social worker to find out what all of this meant.

Just the day before, while attending the college graduation of the daughter of a close friend, we had gotten a similar call:  a 2-year-old being removed from the home because of a “failure” to thrive.  Our instincts had warned us off that child, but that same hesitancy had now betrayed our desire to immediately say “yes” in this case.  Once school had ended, and I had shuttled my students out of the door, the wife and I melted down in the respective emptiness of our work sites–my classroom, her office.  It was not subtle.

Meanwhile, that other husband who was quick enough to say “yes”, was having his own problems trying to reach his wife, who had had the misfortune of being on jury duty over in Santa Monica.  This child needed to be picked up almost immediately, before 5pm, and as it became late afternoon, he began to realize that there was no way they could make it happen in time.

Fate and circumstances meant that the happy ending would be ours.

Silently seething, another call on the phone, this time from Amber.  There was no discussion to be had, just a question to be answered:  whether we could or not–yes, we absolutely could–make it to Lynwood to pick up a little 3-day-old by 5pm.

Born on Monday, the birth mom had walked out on the baby by Tuesday.  Curiously, shadowy “relatives” had tried to take the child home Tuesday evening, only to be rebuffed by the hospital’s Maternity Ward.  Either way, today, Wednesday, the child was ready to go home.  Now that home was going to be ours.

Instant parenthood beckoned.  Even in saying “yes” in no way made us “ready”.  I picked up the phone and immediately called my colleague at home, wherein she generously volunteered a Boppy and a basinette.  Amber called her close friend, a mother of 3 herself, who immediately created a shopping list of necessary stuff we needed to buy.  Careening through the aisles of a nearby Target, we loaded up the car and raced over to the hospital.  It was approaching 5pm at this point.

But while we were on deadline, the maternity ward was apparently less bound.  We got directed there by the front desk, trying to juggle an ersatz diaper bag with a new outfit and a blanket, along with scrawled information we needed from the social worker.  Walking through the doors felt not unlike Luke Skywalker announcing his rescue to Princess Leia; neither the princess nor the duty nurse appeared to be all that impressed with us.

“Which child?” asked matter-of-factly.

Puzzled, the reply: “We get to choose?”. Apparently 5 kids were awaiting pick up on this night.

Finally, with all the bravado mustered by Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, I state:  “Well, give us the best one!”

The wife and I like to think that our “choice” that night really was the best one, even if Katelyn, if she could have realized how clueless her new parents happened to be when they had no clue how to properly buckle her into her car seat, might have her down doubts about us.

Fortunately, Katelyn made it to her new home safely that night.  And our little family’s journey of discovery continues.  Today is our little girl’s 5th birthday.

We had wanted to become parents in the worst way, and when the day came to make that wish come true, it seemed, in the instant we thought we had lost our chance to go meet our little one, that the worst had happened.  We would have liked to have had the 9-month prep time to get ready, even if we only had what amounted to 90 minutes.   But what we would have liked leading up to that moment we got the call, is nothing when compared with what we have loved and continue to love in our now newly minted 5-year-old.

Happy Birthday Mi’ja.

Choosing Poison with the Apple

Katelyn asks an expert if biting a poisoned apple was worth her reward afterwards. Disneyland’s recent price increases sure feel like a poisoned apple in that sense…

This year, daily passes for the Anaheim Disney parks — Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park — rose as of May 20 from $80 to $87. The biggest increase hit the estimated 300,000 park-goers…who buy premium annual passes that include parking. Those went from $499 to $649…”This is all about Cars Land,” said David Koenig, author of four books about Disney’s theme parks. “If it wasn’t for Cars Land, the increase would be $4 or $5. Park-goers will go to see Cars Land.” Koenig also noted that the big jump in annual pass fees may be intended as a cap on those visitors. Pass holders tend to be Southern California locals who don’t spend as much on food and souvenirs, and they can crowd out the big-spending out-of-towners, he said. “There is no room in the park and the parking lot for this many people to come back over and over and over,” he said.

While the initial mention of the Disneyland price hikes showed up in a small note in their Business pages, this morning’s L.A. Times shared out a much larger story about this fee increase’s impact.

With Katelyn’s 5th birthday coming this weekend, we’re taking advantage of our own annual passes and taking our little princess to Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel on Monday morning, followed by some pushing and shoving to get into the park itself to give her some theme park time as part of her birthday present.  Given that it’s Memorial Day, no doubt it will be busy, especially since the park didn’t blackout the day for Deluxe pass holders (as we had originally suspected they would).  The wife and I are Premium passholders, which gives us the run of the park, along with parking, and discounted pricing for many items and meals at the Disneyland’s stores and restaurants.  Kate, for her part, has the Deluxe pass, which limits her entry to certain days (most Saturdays and a chunk of Winter Break, for instance).  We made that decision based upon the price structure of the pass when we got it, as well as realizing that we wouldn’t be going to the park during the days that were blacked out as it was.  One of our friends, also a passholder likes to call that time “asscheek-to-asscheek”.

Fortunately for the wife and I, our annual pass renewal was due in March, so we re-upped for our third year.  Katelyn, for her part, has her pass up for renewal in July, and therein lies the big conundrum that this fee increase will mean for us.  The wife wants to upgrade her pass, while I’ve been content to allow the pass to remain at its current level.  We’d been paying monthly for the $379 Deluxe pass price, which will go up to $469 under the new price structure.  The wife’s thinking, prior to the pass price increase, was that the bump to $499 (last year’s price for the Premium pass) wasn’t that significant.  Unfortunately, with the price of the Premium pass now jumping to $649, we have to think hard about that, especially since our own passes will eventually come back up for renewal next year.  Sadly, it’s also got us rethinking ideas that possibly “gifting” some passes offered a good value for potential gifts.

While Disney is publicly stating that the prince increase is to provide “entertainment value”, I think a lot of us would feel better if they’d just admit that it might be all about building Cars Land over in Disney’s California Adventure.  Or not.  As a captive audience, Disneyphiles will continue to come irrespective of the pricing structure.  And if we, or others, didn’t buy or renew our annual passes, other park visitors will be getting off the parking trams each day to take our place.

As the article points out in its anecdotes, it’s not like we haven’t taken advantage of our passes.  We got our passes first, when Kate was still 3 and could get in free.  We’ve gone nearly 40 times in the 3 years we’ve had the pass.  We’ve even planned our own gifting for our little princess to coincide with merchandise purchases either in the park or at Downtown Disney’s World of Disney store, to take advantage of the 20% discount we get on things we buy there.  It represents a significant savings for us over buying similar items at the local Disney Store.  For instance, with her birthday on Monday, I headed down to Anaheim earlier this past week to buy Disney/Pixar “Brave” goodies for Katelyn to open on her birthday this Monday.  I saved over $30 on items we had planned on buying her anyway, which also would have included additional shipping and handling, had we gone through the Disney Store website.  Then, on Monday, when we go to Goofy’s Kitchen, we plan on using our pass yet again for the meal, in addition to getting our parking cost covered, since it comes automatically with the price of the Premium pass.

Do we take advantage of being passholders?  Absolutely, wherever and whenever we can.  From this morning’s story:

“If there is going to be resistance, it will be from locals,” said Gerner. After all, they’re more likely go multiple times in a year. To appease them, industry experts say theme park operators often unveil discount deals for area residents during lower attendance periods, particularly in the fall or winter months. But Disney fans such as Casado don’t want their visits to be limited to off-peak periods…Casado said she and her family try to visit one of the Anaheim parks once a month. “It hurts,” she said of the price hike, “because we count on that as our only entertainment.”

Making the decision to upgrade Kate’s pass and pay the $270 price increase will undoubtedly seem to constitute a similar commitment on our part.

Maybe that’s part of Disney’s plan all along.

“You know, for kids!”

This is not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

This is how fractured my thinking gets, and why I’ll likely burn in hell for far more than my agnostic leanings.  Kate is prepping for a performance of “It’s Cool in the Furnace” for the little guy’s choir at the church that Amber is taking her.  Each Sunday, Kate has supposed to have been practicing;  given the CD to help her when she’s not been with her choir mates, I’ve had an opportunity to learn these song lyrics even better than my daughter.  I’ve just returned from the dress rehearsal, and tomorrow night is her big performance

So as it went, one evening a while back, sitting with Katelyn as she settled down to sleep, the familiar strains of the musical’s closing number started playing on her CD player:

We bow down to God, He is the great king / We won’t bow down to another…

Hmmm.

When Kate had, at last, started snoozing away, I left the kid’s room and walked back to the front room and asked the wife if she realized that the songs the child was learning sounded like something out of a “Trent Reznor for Kids” album:

Bow down before the one you serve / You’re going to get what you deserve…

That’s me.  Head like a hole…