Won’t you be my neighbor?

I recently saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?about the life and work of television icon Fred Rogers. I had heard it was great and was warned to bring tissues. Both turned out to be true.

 

Like many of my generation, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I had a toy trolley that played “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” when you pushed it along the carpet. My sisters and I would talk like Henrietta Pussycat to each other: “Meow-meow, can I have some meow-meowKool-Aid, meow-meow?” And we would discuss the inherent creepiness of Lady Elaine. I still vividly remember watching the clip showing how crayons (or as Mister Rogers said in his Philly accent: cray-uns) are made.

 

As a child, I didn’t appreciate how Mister Rogers encouraged me to feel my feelings. And I wasn’t aware of what he did to fight for public television and change the way people understand children’s entertainment. I watched his show until I outgrew it. His final episode aired just before I had my daughters, so it wasn’t a part of their childhood as it was mine. After watching the documentary, I was a little sad that my kids were left out of knowing this gentle, intentional TV figure.

 

The documentary explained how very popular Fred Rogers was—people would line up for a chance to come to a live event—and I wondered if current kids would embrace his show in the same way. I wondered if kids are now too sophisticated to sit and watch a normal-looking guy tie his shoes and zip up his cardigan. Would it be too slow paced for kids who are so used to being constantly entertained?

 

Sitting in the dark movie theater watching the credits roll and thinking that this generation is too cool for Henrietta Pussycat, I felt inexplicably sad. I felt like something was missing from childhood—Wonder? Imagination? Stillness? Gentleness?

 

Then a series of pictures popped into my mind (like bubbles from the episode when Mister Rogers and friends make an opera called Windstorm in BubbleLand). I thought of kids at my youngest son’s cafeteria table smiling at me with orange peels covering their teeth. I thought of children shouting “Cannonball!” as they jumped and splashed into our swimming pool. I thought about the fact that there are still kids who catch lightning bugs and make mudpies and play with action figures.

 

I think if he were still with us, Fred Rogers would take great delight seeing kids be kids in 2018. He’s quoted as saying, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Even if they can’t watch his show in the way we did, they can still implement his philosophies of kindness, self-worth, and playtime.

Read aloud

I didn’t always love to read as I do now, but I have always loved to be read to. My mom was a natural read-aloud reader. She used inflection and changed her voice for different characters. When I was in elementary school, she read Anne of Green Gables to my sisters and me. I can remember lying under the Christmas tree in the living room, staring up through the lighted branches as she told us about redheaded Anne breaking her slate chalkboard over Gilbert’s head for calling her Carrots. When my mom came to the part where beloved Matthew is dying in Anne’s arms, we all cried silently so we could hear what sweet words Matthew might say to his adopted daughter before he was gone.

 

In school my teachers would often read a few pages from a book before dismissal or after lunch. Bridge to Terabithia or Tuck Everlasting or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Sometimes they would ask us to lay our heads on our desks while we listened. More times than I would like to admit, I’d lift my head at the end of her reading to find a drool puddle on my desk where I had become so fully engrossed in the book that I forgot to swallow.

 

Each time a new Harry Potter book was released, my husband would read it to me in the evenings as I crocheted or folded laundry. Besides the fact that I’m partial to his baritone, it was a great way to spend time together and a multi-tasking technique. It wasn’t until the movies came out that we realized he had been pronouncing many of the British names incorrectly.

 

When my daughters were 4-years old, I began working my way through the read-aloud chapter books I felt were essential to their education. We started with the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, then we moved on to The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Runaway Ralph. We read through all of the Little House on the Prairie series, deciding after we finished These Happy Golden Years that Laura’s husband Almanzo had figured out romance when he built her a perfect pantry with shelves designed for her ultimate comfort. I was able to relive my childhood while reading through these classics.

 

I still love to read to kids. I love to see their faces change when I turn a page to something surprising or silly. I love to hear them say, “Don’t stop! Keep reading!” when I finish a chapter or a page. When our youngest son came to us at age 5, he had never been read to. This, plus the fact that he didn’t know English, made me wonder if he’d share our love of books. We were happily surprised when, almost from his first day in our family, he indicated that he wanted to be read to. The simple picture books on the shelf in his room became some of his favorite things. When he didn’t understand the text, he could look at the pictures and decode the story. Often he would point to something on the page and say “What?” (one of his first English words). We would explain it in every way we could think of, even act it out, to let him know what was happening in the story.

 

Now that he is finishing up kindergarten and starting to read himself, the excitement for books in our house is like this recent stretch of beautiful spring weather. Him sounding out words as he reads the paper books his teacher sends home is like a gentle breeze floating through open windows. And the smile on his face when he’s finished one is pure sunshine.

 

For lists of the best read aloud books, check out the links below:

http://www.scholastic.com/100BestReadAloudBooks/

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/328.Best_Read_Aloud_Chapter_Books

Family Reading Night

At the end of February, I was given the opportunity to speak at a Family Reading Night at my son’s elementary school. I spoke for about 20 minutes about different types of book genres and my writing process. I showed the kids (and their parents) examples of the books I’ve written. The kids were great listeners and asked really smart questions at the end.

 

Before the second session started, I asked my son Ezra, who was born in Africa and added to our family almost 2 years ago, to pass out bookmarks I had brought for all of the kids in attendance. Three elementary-aged girls—two younger white girls and one older black girl—sitting at my feet, waiting for my talk to begin, noticed my black son calling a white woman “mom,” so they asked me about it.

 

“Is he your son?” asked the older girl, probably a 5th grader.

 

When you have an adopted child of a different race, this is a normal question and, in my experience, not usually meant unkindly, so I’ve found it’s best to just answer honestly and without a lot of details. You can always elaborate if they need more information.

 

“Yes,” I answered.

 

“He looks different than you, like you’re light and he’s dark,” one of the younger girls, a 1st grader, commented.

 

“He was born in a different country, but he’s in our family now.” I wondered if they would ask the uncomfortable question: what happened to his real mom? That’s the one that makes my chest tighten up and causes me to scan the room to see if Ezra heard the question, so I can read his face. As a rule, adopted parents prefer to be considered real (It’s not like I’m invisible or anything), but I have been around the block enough to know that vocabulary sometimes fails us, and what people say isn’t always what they mean. In other words, it’s not helpful to assume people are judging the whole adoption/race thing and get yourself all worked up.

 

But these girls didn’t ask the dreaded question, so I didn’t have to talk about the sad events in Ezra’s life with perfect strangers. Instead, these precious leaders of tomorrow had this discussion:

 

1st grade girl: Did you know that a long time ago dark-skinned people couldn’t go to school with light-skinned people? But Dr. King told them that was wrong.

 

5th grade girl: Yeah, Dr. King wasn’t president but he was still really important. He told us that we’re all the same.

 

1st grade girl: That’s why it doesn’t matter if your son looks different than you.

 

5th grade girl: You can love everybody.

 

The other girl who had been silently listening to this enlightened discussion finally spoke. She said, “I’m excited about your talk but I feel like I’ve already learned a lot from you guys.”

 

I jotted down the words they said before I left the school, because…come on. That’s amazing. When you start thinking we adults have really made a mess of everything, say a prayer of thanks for the kids at John Pittard Elementary School.

 

We can get along. We can talk it out. We can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. When kids are shown loving, mature examples of empathy and given a chance to spend time together in this kind of atmosphere, they will figure out how to make the world a better place.

Cabin Fever

I’m not going to be that mom who complains about having her kids home for snow days. I’m not going to mention how they start the day getting along and doing for each other and, by lunchtime, it’s like we’re in a psychological experiment to see how long it takes to break the human spirit. I half expect to stumble upon scientists in lab coats making notes on clipboards as they watch us through two-way mirrors.

 

It would do no good to describe the piles of wet, snow-crusted clothes and gloves and boots and scarves sitting in puddles all over the house from their 15-minute excursions outside. And I’m too big a person to dwell on the stacks of dirty dishes and glasses from them eating all day long. I mean, I want my babies to eat, preferably something with vitamins since we’re on the road to contracting rickets with all these consecutive days indoors without sunshine. These kids are just so precious, even if their baked-on oatmeal bowls and microwave popcorn bags are not.

 

I refuse to speak of how difficult it is to get anything done around here. Each time I sit down to work on the laptop or fold laundry (while watching TV alone), someone is in my room asking me to make a quesadilla or drive them to a snowy hill or asking me for the 100th time if I think school will be cancelled again tomorrow.

 

At some point of nearly every Facebook post about kids home for these snow days, you see something related to eating: hot cocoa or snow cream mostly. But my snow day snack of choice is less adorable. The idea of going back to the post-apocalyptic experience that is the grocery store is truly abhorrent to me. Instead, I head to the kitchen pantry and take out every chip or cracker bag with a handful of half-bites left at the bottom and eat them like a hungry squirrel storing away food for the rest of winter. I rifle through the Halloween candy and re-evaluate the rejects: Maybe I don’t hate Whoppers as much I remember? Would a chocolate Laffy Taffy really be that bad?

 

No. You won’t hear this mom complain about snow days because I am trying to see these days as opportunities. A chance to snuggle with my African-born son who needs extra hugs to warm up. A chance to observe my twin daughters watch TV and laugh instead of studying and running around to all their various high school activities. A chance to hang out with my nearly teenaged son as we cook together and play games.

 

I know I shouldn’t complain because what I’ve received this last week would be a gift to working parents who would love to spend time with their kids instead of skidding their way to work. So I’ll just say that I have (mostly) loved these snow days, but I’m truly grateful for sunshine.

Yeah. I’ve done a little modeling…

When Ezra, our African-born son, was struggling with his new language last year, we signed him up for speech lessons. At first it was difficult to determine if his issues were basic language acquisition (getting his words) or physically articulating them (saying his words) or both or something else entirely. We needed help!

 

His speech lessons were a worthwhile way to spend all those mornings last spring. Not only did he get hours of focused attention for his speech issues, but I also got a sounding board for many of my questions. For instance, I solicited their professional opinions as to how often I should correct Ezra’s verbal mistakes.

 

By the time we started the lessons Ezra had been in America for about a year, so it wasn’t that he was having a hard time speaking English. He was naturally replacing Lingala words (his native language) with English words. The last holdouts were words like lipa (bread), bongo (others), minga (thinking? We were never 100% sure about that one but he said it often).

 

His most consistent errors were things like leaving out words or ungrammatical subject/verb agreement or incorrectly using pronouns. In other words, he sounded like a caveman. So I asked the director of the speech clinic if I should correct him when he used “me” instead of “I” as the subject (Me sad. Me sleepy. Me lovee bacon.) because he did it constantly and I didn’t have the heart (or the stamina) to tell him he was wrong all day long. She said that I should model the appropriate pronoun and he would catch on eventually.

 

That day when we got home from speech, as if on cue, Ezra said, “Mom, me hungry.” Remembering what the director told me, I said, “Ezra, I am hungry.” He paused for half a second and said, “Well, eat something.”

 

Modeling the behavior we would like to see in our kids is often easier said than done. It takes consistency and thoughtful introspection and time. I feel confident that Ezra will eventually use the correct pronoun when he’s referring to himself, though it hasn’t happened yet.

 

But it isn’t just parents who are role models and it isn’t just kids who need them. Moms of Newborns need the advice of Empty Nesters. Pre-teens need Responsible High School Seniors to look up to. Newly Hired Employees need Seasoned Veterans to guide them through the first months of a new job.

 

To put it plainly, most everyone can be a role model to someone else. Look around and see if anyone is looking up to you. You might be surprised (or even a little scared) to know that others are watching and taking mental notes. Be the leader they deserve.

Volunteering at the Book Fair

Earlier this month, I volunteered at my son’s elementary school Book Fair. Since I haven’t worked retail in 20 years, this felt like I was playing store. But working the cash register (while narrating my every move: “press taxable sale, scan item, hit okay…”) wasn’t my only volunteer requirement.

 

When a class came in, we would help them fill out their wish lists. Some kids—namely kindergarteners and first graders—had a hard time differentiating between making a wish list and making a purchase. Sometimes they thought they should be able take the book home once I wrote it down for them even though there had been no cash transaction.

 

This was just one instance of a series I should call “Kids Don’t Understand Commerce.” For example, one boy brought three books to the cash register and handed me a $20 bill. I scanned his books and gave him his change: $1.64. He was thrilled that he received what looked like more than what he gave me—one piece of paper exchanged for a piece of paper and 7 coins. Before heading back to class, he looked behind me at a display of bookmarks and asked if he could get one of those, too. With tax, the bookmark was 55 cents. I scanned it and asked him to hand me two quarters and one dime. “Why?” he asked as he protectively clutched his handful of change. “Because you have to pay for the bookmark,” I answered. “But I won’t have as much money,” he protested. “That’s what paying for things is, buddy. Hey, I’ll give you a nickel back.” He reluctantly agreed and probably went on to sign up for a credit card with an astronomically high interest rate.

 

And don’t get me started on sales tax. It’s bad enough that the kids can barely find the tiny price of the books on the back corner, but when it comes to adding sales tax, they look at me like I’m a total scam artist. This was a normal scenario from Book Fair Week:

ME: Here’s the price…$4.99

KID: Good. I have $4.

ME: Well, $4.99 is really $5.

KID: So, I need another dollar?

ME: Actually you need like $1.50 more because of the tax.

KID: Tax?

ME: Yeah, it’s about a 10 cents for every dollar.

KID: Why?

ME: Tax is for…well, we use money collected from taxes for… (reaching in my pocket) here’s some money. Go get your book.

 

There were some money savvy kids coming through the Book Fair. A couple of sisters came in to shop together. Their mom sent $22, instructing them each to spend $10 with the rest to go for that crazy sales tax. The younger sister brought two books to the counter, totaling $9.98 (before tax) and the older sister brought one book which cost $9.99 (also before tax). Older Sister said, “Go put one of your books back. You can’t have two.” Younger Sister didn’t like that idea. I asked Older Sister what her plans were for the leftover money. “I want to get two books,” she whispered confidentially. Unbeknownst to her I am aware of the wily ways of an older sister, so I instructed Younger Sister to bring her two books to me. I checked her out and she went back to class (grinning triumphantly), leaving Older Sister with her $11 to spend. Older Sister learned not to mess with a Book Fair Volunteer. We don’t play.

 

I enjoy working at the Book Fair. It’s not because I get to play store and it’s definitely not because I get to do math in my head. I like it because it involves two of my favorite things—kids and books. I like seeing their excitement when they get to buy the book they picked out. I like hearing them tell me about their favorite characters and series and the kinds of books they like the best. Kids and books make for a pretty magical combination.

No Fair!

This morning my 6-year old Ezra woke up on the grumpy side of the bottom bunk. In his defense, it was a dark, rainy Monday, and none of us were really thrilled about the 6:30 am wake-up call. But as the morning progressed, there was a definite theme to his dialogue.

 

When I grabbed a pair of socks to give to his older brother Knox (Knox has a broken ankle, otherwise he’d be getting his own socks), Ezra said, “No fair! Knox has undies and socks in the same drawer! Why can’t my socks and undies be together?”

 

I mostly ignored this question due to its absurdity and hustled Ezra to the kitchen. I saw my husband eating what I assumed was a bowl of cereal, and I said, “I thought I used up all the milk last night,” and my husband answered, “This is yogurt.” Then Ezra said, “No fair! Me want milk!” To which I replied, “But you don’t like milk.” Ezra stomped back to his room in a huff.

 

After he eventually returned to the kitchen, Ezra overheard me talking to Knox (you know, the favorite child whose undies and socks get to hang out together in the same drawer) asking him if he wanted to bring leftovers in his lunch and warm them up in the cafeteria microwave. “No fair!” Ezra cried, “Why Knox get to use the microwave? Why me no have microwave at my school?!”

 

And so forth and so on went the morning.

 

It’s comical to think of his lamenting over such trivial stuff because he’s six and most likely forgot the whole exchange by the time he stepped into his classroom. I wish I could say that 6-year olds were the only ones who flew the “Unfair” banner so carelessly.

 

As adults, we may not whine over the same topics as children do, but the whining does happen. Claiming “No Fair” often occurs after we unnecessarily compare ourselves to others. “Why does she have that ___________ (insert house, car, weight, clothes, marriage, etc.) and I don’t?! It’s not fair!” Talk about feeling as gloomy as a rainy Monday morning–that line of questioning will ruin anyone’s day.

 

Other than the negativity these comparisons create, the other travesty is that there really is rampant unfairness in the world. And the people who cry “No Fair” aren’t usually the ones with the most valid reason to say it.

 

So instead of concentrating on the inconsequential issues that threaten to spoil what could turn out to be the most blessed day you’ll spend on this planet, take advice from the Book of Isaiah and look for ways to help those whose lives truly are unfair.

 

“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.” (NLT) Isaiah 1:17

FREE

This morning, as I was walking around the back of the house after watering my flowers, I spied a lonely Cozy Coupe sitting forlornly by our shed, covered in cobwebs with a puddle of rainwater in the seat. For those of you unfamiliar with the Cozy Coupe, it’s a plastic ride-on toy designed to look like a car. Our version is reddish-orange with a yellow top. The front wheels spin 360 degrees (in case your child needs to spin out in some gravel for a quick getaway). It has a steering wheel with a (once functional) horn and a pretend key in the ignition to get the fun started.

 

I originally bought two of these from a yard sale for my daughters who are nearly 15, so I have no idea how old these cars actually are. My two younger sons have also had their turns with these toys. Where my daughters used the cars to take baby dolls on trips stopping to refill their gas tanks along the way, my sons would sit in the cars at the top of our sloping driveway and ask for a push to go careening down the hill.

 

This morning, seeing the tiny, pitiful car, I fully realized that we are done with the Cozy Coupes. All four of them are too big for these toys. Their legs are too long to sit comfortably inside. The plastic wheels aren’t designed for their weight. It’s time to move on.

 

I asked my youngest son Ezra to help me roll these cars, along with an old tricycle, out of the shed and up to the house where we could hose them off and wipe them down. I explained that we would make three signs that said: “FREE” and we would tape them on the toys and put them by the road.

 

Ezra liked the idea (especially the water hose part) and he started singing a little song: “Gimme money! Oooo! Gimme money! People gimme money for the cars…”

 

“Ezra,” I said, “We’re giving these away for free. That means they won’t give us any money.”

 

“No money?” he asked. “Oh. It’s okay.”

 

We got the cars and bike ready and we pulled them down to the grassy strip next to the sidewalk in front of our house. After the toys were situated, Ezra said, “Me sit here when people get the cars. Then I say, ‘Good luck’ and then people leave. It’s okay? You want chair too?”

 

I took a deep breath. I didn’t really want to sit by the side of the road all morning. Be a fun mom, I told myself. You can unload the dishwasher later. “Okay,” I answered, as we walked back down the driveway to the garage to get a couple of chairs.

 

Before we had returned to the road, there was a pickup truck pulled up next to the toys and a sedan in the driveway. It literally took 5 minutes for people to notice the FREE stuff we were giving away.

 

It’s been said that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” I know that this is mostly meant as a warning. It’s advice not to be taken in by scams that are just too good to be true. But there is actually free stuff out there.

 

There’s grace and love and sunshine. There’s free smiles and there’s free hugs. It is possible to get things for free with no strings attached. And somedays, if you’re really lucky, there’s a FREE Cozy Coupe by the road and a little boy wishing you “Good Luck!”

*Disclaimer: Not actual picture of a Cozy Coupe.

Knowing your audience

I am privileged to spend five hours of most every Tuesday and Thursday with a group of 4- and 5-year olds. I teach preschool at our church and every day is different.

This is my favorite age of human beings. Most are young enough that they haven’t perfected the back talking (aka “Sass-Mouth”) but old enough to take care of bathroom stuff by themselves. It’s a time where anything seems possible for them. Their end of the year goals are things like learning the ABC’s (LMNOP or “ellen limo pea”?) and counting to 20 independently (13, 14, 15, 16 are the stumbling blocks that trip up many a preschooler) and tying their shoes…or at least getting them on the correct feet.

About 20 years ago, my first full-time teaching position was 4-year old kindergarten. I had no kids at home so those 15 students were my kids. There was Luke who tried to convince me that 4 ½ was older than 5 because it took longer to say. There was Seth who made it difficult to determine his dominant hand because he would write the first half of his name (S-E) with his left hand and then switch his pencil to write the second half (T-H) with his right. And I could never forget Hunter. He made up a song called “God Killed All the Dinosaurs” and sang it for the class, encouraging us to all jump in for the chorus.

I kept a Mason jar on my desk and I would add marbles to the jar when the class was especially well-behaved. A full jar bought them a popsicle party. After a drought of marble-adding I asked the class, “What kinds of things will get marbles for the jar?”

Hunter answered, “If we pick our nose but don’t eat the boogers?” I didn’t see that one coming.

Those students from my first class are grown now but my current class is still full of surprises, like yesterday when they pretended that the robot lacing cards were cell phones and they walked around our classroom looking for a place to charge them.

My job is still to figure out what in the world they’re talking about.

One day before Thanksgiving, when the weather was warm enough for outside recess, they ran out the door saying, “Let’s play T.J. Maxx!” How does one play a game inspired by a low-cost clothing and home goods retailer? Upon further inspection, I realized (okay…my kids told me) that there’s a TV show called P.J. Masks. Totally different.

In the first few weeks of school, I intervened in an argument about one student’s lunch item, a turkey roll-up sandwich. Here’s the dialogue:

Girl: “It’s not a ballerito!”

Boy: “I know. It’s a burrito.”

Girl: “It’s not a ballerito!!”

Boy: “I know! It’s a burrito!”

It escalated until I could get them understanding the other’s point of view. That’s when I had to say a few sentences I’ve never said before: “You are making her feel sad when you call her sandwich a burrito—which she pronounces ballerito. Please call her sandwich a turkey roll-up or don’t talk about her sandwich at all.” Phew. Everyone stand down. Crisis averted.

Trying to understand kids is often a lot more fun than trying to understand adults. Kids have agendas but they are normally: play more, nap less, eat candy. With adults, it’s usually more difficult to understand what pain or learned habits they’re accessing when they do something unexpected. Unfortunately, kids can also act and speak from a place of great pain but it seems different somehow.

My advice is to try what works for 4-year olds. Sit on the floor right next to them. Pull out a puzzle or read a book or have an imaginary tea party. Get eye-level and try to see things from their perspective, then things might clear up a bit.

Unless it’s Hunter. Then you’re on your own.