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I had the privilege of leading the service this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, in a fabulous collaboration with Ashley Greve and Bob Blinn. Our wonderful artist in residence Maya Rogers led the music.

You can watch the service here!

I included this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye as part of my prayer and meditation.

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

Here’s my reflection: The New Kid

The New Kid

Picture me, age 7, wearing a sunshine yellow Izod shirt and matching cotton shorts, missing a couple teeth, cruising down the sidewalk in blue and white roller skates. I would happily skate up people’s driveways to see who was available to play. Some days we watched monster movies with Geoff and David, some days we twirled batons with Amy and Karen, some days we played king of the hill on the pile of mulch in the Perrys’ driveway. It was all very suburban and lovely. Until…

After I finished second grade, our neighborhood elementary school closed and became a police station. The kids in our neighborhood were sent to two different schools, one of which included the gifted program that I had been assigned to. I was nervous about going to a new school, but then third grade started, and I found my people, and absolutely loved my new school. One of my best friends from third grade remains one of my best friends today.

Meanwhile, back in my neighborhood, something strange was happening. When the kids I used to play with in the cul-de-sac realized I wasn’t going to school with them anymore, they stopped playing with me. Or speaking to me. Somehow, they got this idea, whether it was from their parents or each other or who knows where, that I thought I was better than them. I didn’t. I wasn’t. Just because I was going to a different school with a different program did not mean I didn’t still want to ride bikes and play tag with them. I did. But I wasn’t allowed to anymore. They unceremoniously unwelcomed me from their midst. It was awkward and painful. They assumed something about me that wasn’t true—that I was suddenly arrogant, or a snob, even though I wasn’t behaving any differently than I had when we were hanging out in their basements. But that was that.

Fast forward a few years to ninth grade and another fork in the academic road. My friends from junior high were scattering to different high schools. My neighborhood school did not have a stellar reputation. I had heard rumors of chain-wielding gangs of immigrants roaming the hallways. Somehow, I bought into some bizarre stereotypes. I assumed the worst. So, I found a math class I could take at another, allegedly better, high school, and transferred. And I had the absolute worst year of my entire public education career. At this school, which was much richer and much whiter than my neighborhood school, people were mean to me. I was turned away from activities I wanted to do. Hardly anyone in my classes spoke to me. I was miserable. I made a handful of friends who sustained me that year, mostly people from the literary magazine who considered themselves willing outcasts of the school’s elitist culture. By the end of the year I was willing to face the prospect of roving gangs at my neighborhood school because I figured they couldn’t possibly be more unkind than the privileged white kids I’d been surrounded by all year.

First period in 10th grade I walked into Mr. Lunsford’s biology class at my neighborhood school and a whole bunch of people, most of whom I had never met, seemed surprisingly, genuinely happy to see me. As the days and weeks went on I was warmly greeted by familiar faces from elementary school and total strangers. I felt at home instantly. And guess what? No threatening thugs anywhere. Whatever I had assumed turned out not to be true. Surprise!

Recently I’ve been reading this book—Wonder by RJ Palacio—with my daughter at bedtime. I read it originally when it came out in 2012, and it’s one of my favorite books. Wonder is about a boy named August Pullman who is starting middle school and he’s nervous. Not just because he’s been homeschooled his whole life, or because it’s middle school, but also because he has a severe craniofacial anomaly. Genetics conspired to make Auggie’s face startlingly different from typical faces. By age 10 he has already undergone dozens of surgeries. When Auggie introduces himself at the beginning of the book, he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Our only insight into Auggie’s appearance comes from his description of people’s reactions to him. Stares, gasps, kids running away on the playground. At his new school, all but a couple kids give him a wide berth. They cover their mouths when they whisper about him, but he knows exactly what they’re saying. Many of them play a cruel game they call the Plague, where they try not to touch Auggie, even in passing, and if they do they have to immediately wash their hands to prevent catching what they somehow imagine is the disease that caused Auggie’s facial differences.

The few kids who actually get to know Auggie discover that he’s awesome. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s kind. He loves all things Star Wars, and playing video games, and when his dog Daisy licks his face. But because he looks so different, most kids, and many parents, don’t give him a chance. They make assumptions, such as that the school made an exception to admit a student with special needs who requires extra accommodations, none of which is true. One mom goes so far as to Photoshop Auggie’s face out of the class picture, saying he just doesn’t fit in.

Later in the book we do read a detailed description of Auggie’s looks from the point of view of his big sister, Olivia. She is realizing that there’s the Auggie she sees, of whom she has always been fiercely protective, and the Auggie that other people see. She is candid about the effects that having a little brother who looks so shockingly different has had on her life. She is loving, and patient, but also weary. And honest.

Olivia’s voice is one of several we hear in Wonder, in addition to August’s, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much. Mr. Tushman, the director of August’s school, says at one point, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story,” and RJ Palacio offers us windows into the many facets of this story. She wrote a companion book in 2014 called Auggie & Me, which tells the same story through the lens of three other characters, including Julian, who is Auggie’s greatest antagonist in Wonder. Just as so many kids make assumptions about Auggie based on his looks, the reader makes assumptions about Julian based on his behavior. Clearly, he’s just a jerk, right? But there are, as Mr. Tushman points out, almost always more than two sides to every story.

Our brains are hardwired to categorize for survival—is this creature friendly or likely to eat me? Is this food edible or poisonous? But what happens when that desire to classify everything you see gets out of control? I struggle with this constantly. Is that person thinner than me or fatter than me? Does that person have holes in her clothes because she can’t afford better clothes or because she’s trying to be fashionable? Why is it fashionable to have holes in your clothes? My brain goes into overdrive. So while I want to be welcoming, while I aspire to be friendly, while I deeply wish I were the person who goes over and sits down at the lunch table where the different looking new kid is sitting all alone on the first day of school, I don’t know if I really am. I am convinced that sometimes my assumptions—about someone else or myself—get in the way. What if that person who is crying just wants to be left alone? What if I am insensitive because of my white privilege? What if I ask an intrusive question because I am curious?

Sometimes this interrogation of myself keeps me from being welcoming, inclusive, or brave. Our theme here at UUCA for September is welcome. So today I’m making a commitment to be more welcoming, everywhere I go, whether I am greeting the new kid or I am the new kid. I’m making a commitment to not let those questions and assumptions ricocheting around my head get in the way of reaching out to someone. I’m making a commitment to remember that there are almost always more than two sides to every story, and to do what I can to listen to all the sides.

One of the great characters in Wonder is Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who teaches his students about precepts—words to live by—and encourages them to come up with their own. I’ll leave you with Mr. Browne’s precept for September, a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

May it be so. May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.36.00 PMMy daughter is finishing a book in bed, reading with her book light while her brother sleeps on the other side of the room. This fills me with such delight I do not care how late she stays up. It helps that today is the last day of school, and there is nowhere she needs to be in the morning. I have turned off my 6:30am weekday alarm until September. My husband pointed out this morning that I never get up at 6:30 anyway. But that’s when I am supposed to get up, and that’s when I need to begin the process of gradually waking up and hitting snooze until it is absolutely necessary to get out of bed and start the day.

I am thankful there will be no more late passes until the fall. When Zoe and I looked at her end-of-year report card today at lunch I noticed that her teacher, or the school, or some benevolent being, didn’t even count her tardies for the fourth quarter, which were numerous. Only some of them were her fault. A few were mine. Many were caused by her brother needing to poop at the precise moment we’re walking out the door. Now he can poop any time of the morning that he pleases, because who cares if you’re late to camp?

Speaking of pooping, we are done with diapers! This feels miraculous to me, a day I was never quite sure would arrive. I discovered with Zeke that having a kid potty train when he has a fully functioning bladder is not so bad. I have a greater appreciation for Zoe’s years of struggle with a recalcitrant bladder and immense gratitude that it went so smoothly for Zeke. Now all we have to do every morning is pick out which superhero underwear he wants to wear. Tonight we discussed whether Superman wears underwear with little pictures of Zeke on it. He said Superman’s underwear also has pictures of Zoe and me on it. I guess that makes sense, since some of Zeke’s underwear has Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. So when Amazon delivers underwear to Metropolis, perhaps it’s the Rosso Family variety pack.

After Zoe and I and a few hundred students and parents from her school watched all the teachers and staff do their song and dance numbers after dismissal, one of my favorite traditions at Zoe’s school, we went out to eat so I could have lunch and Zoe could have pie while we pored over the last day contents of her backpack, including several more items that her teacher gave away to the kids so she wouldn’t have to pack them up today because the school renovation starts Monday. Zoe already came home bearing a dictionary, an atlas, and several other books she was thrilled to have “won” in class. Her teacher is quite clever.

Then at Zoe’s suggestion we went to a paint-your-own-pottery studio and made mosaics, which we had never done there before. We had a lovely, meditative time together, which we always do when we make art. She also painted a bowl. They sent us home with grouting kits to use to finish the mosaics in 48 hours when the glue dries. I have never grouted before. Exciting!

Finally, I am thankful that the three of us enjoyed an unprecedentedly peaceful dinner tonight at Silver Diner, which I allowed Zoe to choose in celebration of the last day of school and her great report card. We went after her martial arts class, and after I let the kids run around the turf room at martial arts fighting with swords made of pool noodles, and after Zeke totally averted a tantrum on his own when Zoe handed him a plain noodle instead of one with Superman duct tape on it, and after we talked with Zoe’s instructor about what’s required of her to earn her red solid belt at the end of the summer, and after we got snow cones (blue raspberry, cherry, and grape for Zoe; pineapple and strawberry for Zeke and me to share) from the truck in the Evolve All parking lot because I had promised the kids last week we would get them tonight. So really you can see we went to dinner quite late and given all that I fully expected any or all of us to meltdown, but we didn’t! Everyone ate all of their food. Zoe discovered she liked asparagus after eating it accidentally thinking it was green beans. We even got milkshakes (yes, I was super indulgent today–whatever) and the waitress brought Zeke a sthamiltonbroadway10rawberry instead of a chocolate but he decided he liked it anyway–another chance for a tantrum that didn’t happen! We listened and sang along to Hamilton at top volume in the car on the way
home, showered, and no one argued about anything. Zeke asked me to sing “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Helpless” in the shower but I couldn’t remember all the words, even though we’ve listened to it a gazillion times.

Seriously, this is all true. I know it sounds extraordinary. I didn’t yell at anyone all day. The kids didn’t fight. It was awesome. Of course now Zoe comes in and says she feels ill, which is probably because I let her have so many treats today. So, perhaps my fault. But otherwise it was such a lovely, peaceful day. You really need one of those every now and then.

 

 

playgroundZoe has been complaining more and more about the paltry 20 minutes of recess she is granted at school every day. I suggested she write a letter to the superintendent and the school board and her principal expressing her concern about the lack of outdoor time and her desire for change. I shared with her some facts about how outdoor time benefits kids intellectually, emotionally, and of course physically, that I had learned in my own research for something I’m writing. I told her I would help with the mechanics of the letter but that the ideas and the words had to be hers.

We brainstormed tonight–I asked her questions about how she felt before, during, and after recess and she wrote notes. Then she dictated the letter to me. I looked up the addresses for her and she wrote them on the envelopes. She’s very excited to send her letters off tomorrow. At bedtime she whispered, “Do you think they’ll actually change the amount of recess we have?” I said I didn’t know, but you never know until you ask.

Here’s her letter:

Dear Dr. Murphy,

My name is Zoe Rosso and I’m a third grader at A******** Elementary. I really love my school. We have great teachers. I have tons of friends. My favorite subjects are math, reading, and science. I love almost everything about my school except that we only have 20 minutes of recess.

If I don’t run every day my legs start to feel weird like I have to move around. I need more than 20 minutes to get enough exercise. I love to climb and hang upside down. Climbing exercises my brain and muscles and improves my strength. There are very few things that you can do outside that you can do inside.

When I’m outside, I feel great. I feel like this because the outdoors never end. It’s just a big open space—a big field of fresh air and fun. Also before I go outside I can get bored, but when I come in after recess I am really into the subject. Being in fresh air helps me to focus in class. When I don’t go outside I start to get really tired of just sitting around. When you sit around it can make it much harder for you to think.

Being outside helps me to relax and stop worrying about things. Being outside also makes me feel good because I get to run around and play with my friends and it doesn’t really matter how loud or quiet I am. Many of my friends are in different classes than me so at recess I get to see and play with them. I am also not allowed to run in the hall, but outside there is no hall.

It would be wonderful if we could have more recess. Please consider increasing recess for elementary school students.

Sincerely,

Zoe Rosso

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 12.56.11 PMMy grades came yesterday. They were worse than I thought.

I am not in graduate school or even taking a class at a community center. This was my college transcript, from roughly two decades ago. In those 20 years I have built a successful career as a writer, editor, and communications consultant. I’ve worked as in-house communications officer for two organizations and launched my own business 10 years ago. People hire me because I am an excellent writer and editor and no one has ever asked about my grades from college.

Until now. I recently had this idea about becoming a substitute teacher at my daughter’s school. I asked Zoe’s teacher and our preschool director for letters of recommendation. I requested my transcript from William and Mary. And when I opened it up, I sighed. My grades were even worse than I remembered. I got a D- in a biology class my first semester. I remember going to talk to the professor after failing the first test, and his words of wisdom were, “you’re an English major, aren’t you?” as if my fate was sealed and I was wholly incapable of succeeding in his class. Things certainly improved from there, but there were many classes in which I earned grades that I did not feel reflected what I had learned. Granted, it’s a tough school, but I had plenty of friends who earned 4.0s or close to it. An illustration of their standards: when I studied abroad for a semester at Oxford University, there was extensive discussion back at William and Mary about whether to accept my transfer credit for a class in British literature. Because, you know, what if the Oxford don doesn’t know as much about British literature as the professors at William and Mary.Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 12.59.03 PM

Perhaps I sound bitter. I don’t mean to. I had a stellar college experience. I enjoyed my time at William and Mary immensely. I dedicated many hours to working on the school paper, which probably helped me in my current work as much or more than many of my classes. I volunteered at the campus child care center and the mental hospital off campus, both for my psychology classes, and helped a Japanese woman improve her English. I went on a work trip to do hurricane relief with my church group. I babysat for and developed strong relationships with families in the community. I made wonderful friends. I obsessively attended a cappella and improv theater performances. I took weight training as a freshman girl with my roommate and a bunch of football players. I rappelled down the back of the stadium in adventure games.

I do not regret not studying more. I enjoyed most of the classes I took. I learned a lot.

So why do I feel so disappointed in my grades? No one but me is judging me by my transcript.

I remember on one of my first days of college when our entire freshman class was gathered in William and Mary Hall. Some administrator welcomed us and talked about how collectively amazing we were. She named how many class presidents, newspaper editors, varsity athletes, valedictorians, etc etc were in our class. She held up one hand in the air, palm down, saying, “in high school, all of you were up here. You were the best of your class.” But any group has to have a spectrum, so now at William and Mary, some of us would be up there, and some of us would be down at the bottom, and some in between. I remember thinking, of course I would still be at the top. But I wasn’t. At least in terms of grades. Are the people who were at the top, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, any happier or more successful now? I know some of them, and I would venture to say no. Not that they’re unhappy, but they have varying amounts of job satisfaction. They have families and houses and good lives. There’s very little about my life I would change, and anything I would change is completely unrelated to my poor performance in biology.

Apparently I made the Dean’s List one semester. I totally did not remember that. But I don’t think that matters anymore, either, if it ever did. If you want to discuss the psychology of humor, or poetry, or women’s history, however I’m down with that. And I did end up acing my writing classes. And I am a writer, so there’s that.

It may seem unrelated, but I am also struggling with my disproportionate shame about the state of my house when service providers come to fix things. I’m pretty sure they don’t care if we are messy and it makes no different to them as long as they can do their job and get paid. I know this is all in my head, but I’m not sure how to get it out.

In 10 days I will have a birthday. The big milestone birthday for the decade was last year, so this year isn’t anything special, but I’m sure at 41 I should be mature enough not to care about these things. Something to work on for the next 10 days. Or weeks. Or months. Then next year, I’ll be 42 — the secret to life, the universe, and everything, so surely I’ll have figured it out by then.

il_340x270.546093839_oy2wLast week when I went to volunteer in Zoe’s classroom, her teacher was beginning a lesson about haiku. When I arrived, she said she had to leave the classroom in 10 minutes to help with a professional development activity and that she would be gone for about an hour. She said there was a sub coming in, but that I could go ahead and teach the lesson. She had given me no prior warning about this–it’s possible she didn’t know, since she is a seasoned teacher and reading specialist and she is frequently called upon to help other teachers with professional development. But surprisingly I wasn’t nervous. I expected to be nervous, but I was excited. She left, the sub arrived and introduced himself to me unintelligibly. And I read and discussed several haikus with the class and then worked with them to write their own.

This may not sound revolutionary to you. It was just an hour with second graders talking about poetry. But it felt kind of extraordinary to me. I have always loved teaching and coaching and tutoring one-on-one or in small groups. Back when I was Presbyterian I taught some adult Sunday school classes and a few years of Vacation Bible School to little kids. No big deal. But teaching a classroom full of students in school has always intimidated me. A good friend of mine who is a teacher used to try to convince me to teach but I told her I couldn’t handle the management part of it. I liked the idea of teaching and discussing and working with the kids, but was terrified of the idea of trying to make the kids behave.

But Zoe’s teacher is so stellar–and she would give credit to the students for being a great group of kids–that there was no discipline required. She has worked hard to foster a kind and compassionate community in her classroom. Certainly, the fact that I’ve come in to work with them every week for the past several months helps too. They know me and I know all their names and have a basic understanding of their abilities, at least in terms of reading and writing. A couple times when the noise level rose even just a little bit–they are encouraged to help each other with writing and using their iPads, and they were supposed to write their final haikus in a haiku app that they had just downloaded–I used the teacher’s “1-2-3 eyes on me” technique, and every kid responded “1-2 eyes on you” and snapped to attention. It was kind of magical.

Afterward I was just so thrilled. I had spent an hour teaching kids about poetry and it was so much fun. Why hadn’t I done this before? I wondered. Then I went straight to my shift at the book fair, where I enjoyed selling books to kids and parents and teachers and chatting with the librarian and talking about children’s books that I love. What else could I want in life, really? I have always loved school libraries, especially in elementary school. I still remember with great fondness my elementary school librarian Miss Dusza. She read many wonderful books to us, including John Bellairs’ The House with the Clock in Its Walls. I made posters for her that she hung up in the library. I don’t remember what the posters were of, but I was very proud of them.

Later I asked Zoe’s teacher whether the sub really needed to be there since I was teaching the lesson and she said it was a legal requirement. I thought, “Hey, I could be a sub!” And then I kicked myself for not thinking of this last fall. Zoe’s teacher has had to have many subs when she is called out to lead professional development and I could have been there teaching the class instead of someone they didn’t even know who wasn’t familiar with what they were working on. Then I looked up the substitute application and saw a transcript is required and felt old and irritated by my less than impressive grades from my first semester of college. And I thought it was probably too late in the year to even consider this whole thing.

Then that night someone who is helping Zoe learn to ride a bike mentioned to me that he was a substitute elementary school librarian that day. What? They have substitute librarians? How cool is that? I had no idea. He said all you have to do to be a librarian substitute is have a librarian show you how the library computer system works. I could do that!

Then yesterday I ran into Zoe’s school librarian at Zoe’s Kitchen and floated this idea by her and she was totally on board. She said she rarely takes days off because she doesn’t know anyone she can trust to sub for her.

Of course I already have my own business to run and plenty of life to keep me busy. But I am really excited about the prospect of possibly substituting for Zoe’s awesome teacher and getting to work with her class even once or twice before the end of the year. And getting to be the librarian for the day! Wow. I am paying my $7 for my imperfect college transcript and requesting letters of recommendation. I am not scared anymore.

emergency truck_IMG_0045Tonight we had to tell Zoe that a third grader at her school and her mom were killed in a house fire this morning. There were no smoke detectors at their house. The girl’s older sibling and dad are in the hospital.

We talked about how horrible it was and how we felt sad for her family and her friends and her classmates. We talked about why smoke detectors are important and what we would do if there were a fire in our house. We assured Zoe that we would run into her and her brother’s room and carry them out of the house.

We held Zoe and rubbed her back and I thought about the other heartbreaking tragedies that have happened to people we know that she doesn’t even know about. I’m not even sure what this means to her, but I know that she, like her parents, has a big heart and a lot of compassion, and the idea of a third grader whom she might have seen on the playground or in the cafeteria suddenly not existing anymore is probably overwhelming.

After a few minutes and a few tears and a few tissues, I asked if she had any other questions. At first she shook her head. Then she nodded, and said, “Can we not talk about this anymore right now?” A reasonable request. So we went downstairs and she got out her colored pencils and we all drew pictures. She drew a bear dressed as a robot for Halloween. It is good to be able to switch gears. I think that gets harder as you grow up.

After I tucked her into bed when I was walking down the hall she called me back into her room. “Will we have a fire drill tomorrow at school?” She asked. I told her I didn’t think so. I was picturing a lot of tearful students and teachers. A lot of questions. She was thinking about how to be safe. I will think a little harder than usual about how to keep my babies safe, as best I can.

When I arrived at school yesterday to pick Zoe up after her last day of kindergarten, I found her, fully clothed in her Abingdon t-shirt (“I want to wear it on the last day to show everyone how much I like Abingdon,” she said) and some shorts, sitting and splashing in a baby pool with several of her friends to cool off. She was soaked. And why not? What else is there to do after the last day of school? Apparently water games were part of the last day carnival that the extended day teachers creatively and generously put on for the kids but Zoe neglected to tell me about it the night before. Whatever. It’s the last day of school! Getting wet in your clothes makes it easier to not be too sad about the end of a fabulous year.

I saw Zoe’s wonderful teacher in the hallway as I was wheeling Zeke through the school to find Zoe, and thanked her again. Part of me wanted to hug her, but I knew if I did I would cry and I didn’t feel like she needed to deal with me crying. I did tell her, despite myself, that I found out I was pregnant with Zeke on the first day of school. So somehow the last day of school seemed like my little baby bubble was popping. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of help and support from family and friends over the past eight weeks to make life easier for me and to allow me to focus on Zeke. Randy has driven Zoe to school every day since Zeke was born, which has been huge. On Monday Zoe will start camp which, thankfully, begins an hour and a half later than school starts, so it will be once again up to me to take charge of things in the morning. I am confident I can handle this, but I’m a little sad for the end of my morning repose with Zeke.

But I digress. While Zoe finished splashing with her friends, I nursed Zeke in the hallway, briefly chatting with the strings teacher, greeting other teachers who walked by, and meeting the technology teacher when she came by to admire Zeke. I saw tonight that she had posted a video of the Big Wave, an Abingdon tradition where all the teachers and staff sing and dance and send off the kids on the last afternoon. I love this school. Throughout the year, and especially over the past few weeks when it would seem all learning had ceased, Zoe did so many fun and interesting things at school. Her teachers and the other kindergarten teachers found creative and enriching activities to keep them engaged. She learned about Betsy Ross, magnets, the different between needs and wants, and introductory economics using musical chairs. The extended day teachers brought in a DJ for a dance party and hosted a slumber party. Field day was apparently the most fun Zoe had ever had in her life. Last night we went through a variety of workbooks and projects that Zoe brought home. She read us her end of the year book. She thoughtfully completed the final few pages in the My Kindergarten Year book that we gave her at the beginning of the year. Tonight we took her out for dinner at the restaurant of her choice (Lost Dog) followed by dessert of her choice (Dairy Queen) to celebrate her accomplishments during kindergarten and today’s tae kwan do belt ceremony where she broke her board (on the second try!) and earned her green stripe belt. We made toasts to each other.

Afternoons managing two kids are challenging, and this year has not been without its tough spots, including Zoe’s surgery, a rough pregnancy, and the trying minutiae that gets magnified and seems to consume us sometimes. But it’s lovely to end the year on a good note. We have a delightful rising first-grader and a cute baby boy who now often greets us with smiles. So what if the air conditioner is broken. We are lucky people. Let’s go jump in the baby pool.

I am overthinking kindergarten. I know I am, but I can’t stop. Today I actually had this conversation with Zoe, apropos of her saying she wanted to buy lunch at school sometimes. I said, “when they post the lunch menu, we can look at it together and talk about which days you want to buy lunch and what healthy choices you could make.” Part of me thinks this is perfectly reasonable, and part of me thinks, CHILL OUT!

We have had so many conversations about kindergarten, some initiated by me, some by her. We have talked about teasing–which she is concerned about. We have talked about getting up early and getting there on time, which I know will be a challenge for our entire family. We have talked about pencils. We have talked about how long she will be allowed to check out books from the school library (1 week was my guess but I really don’t know). We’ve talked a lot simply about how many days until school starts.

I let Zoe stay home from camp today because she wasn’t feeling well yesterday. We went to the doctor yesterday afternoon because Zoe’s been complaining of stomach aches repeatedly in recent weeks, and she also had a rash and a sore throat yesterday morning. But of course by the time we got to the doctor her stomach and throat were fine. No sign of strep or any other infections. She has bug bites and sensitive skin. We’ve had some issues this summer with her saying she is sick and needs to come home and when she is fetched, at varying degrees of inconvenience, she is immediately well again. We’ve been trying to impart to her that malingering is unacceptable. And, for whatever reasons, we are still struggling with occasional accidents. And god knows I don’t want that to persist through kindergarten.

I just want her to be healthy. I want her to do well. I want her to be happy. I don’t want her to be teased.

And I realize I have precious little control over any of that. She’s become a big kid, at least compared to the preschoolers we see on every playground where she suddenly seems to have outgrown the equipment! Of course she’ll still be a little kid when she passes the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in the hall this fall. Hopefully none of them will knock her over. She’s her own girl. And it’s not like she’s been home with me all day since birth–far from it. But kindergarten is big and different and scary, at least for me. I hope it’s less so for her. I can’t wait for it to start so we can stop thinking about what it will be like and just live it. Ready or not, here we come.

When I was a kid myself, fortunate to have a mom who was able to stay home with us or work only when we were at school, I used to think these horrible, absurd thoughts like, “why do people have children if they’re going to send them to day care all the time?” Clearly I was insane and I don’t know what inspired such craziness. Some of my best friends had working parents and would spend afternoons with babysitters or in extended day. But somehow I guess you think your experience is the norm and everyone else’s is the aberration, until you know better. Or at least that’s what I thought.

Now, as a working mom who also attempts to be at home a lot of the time with my child, I realize how complicated it is. Now, few people I know have the income to enable one parent to stay home all the time. I always imagined I would be a stay-at-home mom until I was a grown-up with a job and a mortgage. I knew then it wouldn’t be possible to afford our life (which is by no means lavish) on my husband’s income, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to expect him to support our family by himself. I also knew that I didn’t want to have a regular office job when I was a mom. I once had a (childless) boss who supervised me (then childless) along with several other women who had children or grandchildren. When parenting emergencies arose, he seemed less than compassionate. I vowed that I would not work for him when I had a child, and preferably not work for anyone who might scowl or scold me when I arrived late to a staff meeting because my child had am unexpected doctor’s appointment.

I launched my own business seven years ago so I could continue writing and editing for nonprofits, which I love; earn a living, which is necessary; and enjoy the flexibility of being able to make my child my top priority without anyone getting pissed off at me. And it’s worked out pretty well. My business has thrived, I’ve spent many amusing (and plenty of annoying) hours with Zoe, and I’ve always been able to take her anywhere she needs to be without having to ask permission. I’ve also put in more late nights than I care to remember finishing work that I didn’t get done during the hours she was at preschool or at my parents’ house or, yes, at part-time day care.

Still, five years into being a working mom, the specter of guilt still hovers nearby. I am confident that I am doing everything I can to be a good mom while I’m working as hard as I can to run a great business. But when I registered Zoe for kindergarten in June, and the registrar asked if I would be enrolling her in extended day, I said, “oh I don’t think we’ll be needing that.” When I did the math, I figured the hours Zoe will be in school will be about the same as the hours I had cobbled together child care this past year. So I’d make the best of it.

But sometimes you need to meet with a client after 2:41pm, when school is dismissed. And wouldn’t it be nice to get my work done during the day instead of at night? But I felt guilty signing up for extended day. I have friends whose kids are in child care 40-50 hours per week. I don’t judge. Their kids are lovely. But somehow it seemed wrong for me to leave my own kid at school for an extra hour or two. At the same time, as I’ve raced to pick Zoe up at camp every day this summer at 3:30, and struggled to fit everything in around that schedule, I was beginning to panic about the fall.

Today was the deadline for enrolling in extended day, so between client meetings I scurried over to the extended day office to register and pay and get it done. I was encouraged by a discussion I’d initiated on Facebook, my favorite parent support group, in which several working mom friends who live all over the country said how much fun their kids have in extended day and how it’s an opportunity for them to play and socialize and it will make me not stress about getting to school by pickup time. The thought of getting to totally enjoy Zoe when I pick her up instead of figuring out how I’m going to finish my work, return phone calls, and check emails, is appealing. And I am tremendously thankful that this opportunity exists. Friends of ours just moved from a school district filled with working parents that doesn’t offer any before or aftercare. Then today I read a column in the Post about how the lack of quality, affordable child care is a critical issue in our country–ignored by political candidates–and that it keeps many parents out of the workforce altogether.

It turns out I’m a damn good mom, even though, or maybe because, I am a working mom. I am thankful that I’ve created an arrangement that works for our family. I’m lucky that it’s worked out. And I know Zoe will be fine staying at school for an extra hour or two. Guilt be gone.

We told Zoe she was getting an extra-long Christmas vacation because she’d been doing such a good job at school. What else are you supposed to say to your three-year-old when she’s been suspended from school for a month because of having too many potty accidents?

This explanation was my mom’s idea. She was thinking more clearly than I was during the panicky and maddening hours after I was called into the principal’s office and told my daughter “had had enough chances” to master her tiny bladder and that removing her from school for several weeks was the only solution.

This happened on a Monday morning after I had dropped Zoe off in her classroom. The previous Friday the principal had escorted us out of the building, while promising she would continue to work with us to help Zoe reduce accidents in the classroom. That week I had agreed (against my better judgment but hoping to placate the principal) to come into the classroom whenever Zoe had an accident. The principal said my doing that would demonstrate my and my husband’s commitment to working with the school on this issue. I complied with her request and of course Zoe was completely confused and the classroom totally disrupted both times when I arrived. Of course Zoe wanted to go home, so I took her home rather than cause a scene that would further interfere with her classmates’ activities and the teacher’s ability to teach. I worried that Zoe would think she was either being punished or rewarded because of the accidents.

Throughout this saga we’ve done our best to shield Zoe from the school system’s opinion that something is wrong with her because she has accidents. I’m sure she’s overheard me talking about it on occasion, but she seems to be ok. She’s perceptive, though, and knows there’s been anxiety around the subject. At a friend’s house over Christmas she had an accident. While we were in the bathroom afterward so she could change clothes, she said “You’re not mad at me, are you? You know I’m trying as hard as I can, right?” My heart was breaking. Of course I know she’s trying as hard as she can. Perhaps I didn’t at first, but now I do.

What’s ironic is that my husband and I were so determined to get her into one of our county’s popular public Montessori schools and we spent much of the spring and summer strategizing and worrying about whether or not she’d get in. While we loved the small cooperative preschool she attended before, we were looking for more consistency. At two she attended preschool two mornings per week, a home-based day care two days per week, and was with her grandparents or at home the rest of the time. We thought she could benefit from more stability and that she would thrive in the Montessori setting, which encourages independent thinking and responsibility. We knew it was hard to get a spot in one of these programs, especially since two-thirds of the slots are reserved for children from low-income families, which we are not. At the same time, we couldn’t afford a private Montessori program, which can easily run upward of $10,000 per year.

During the summer we heard that a spot had opened up at one of the schools, and we were thrilled. In August, in preparation for starting school and going on vacation, we took Zoe out of day care. We had started potty training her in June, later than we had originally planned because she had eyelid surgery just after her third birthday in April and we were advised to wait eight to 12 weeks before attempting potty training because the surgery was already stressful enough.

By July she was doing great, using the toilet independently and having infrequent accidents. Although we had heard that stress can cause regression in potty training, it’s hard to remember that something as seemingly simple as changing a child’s routine can cause stress. Taking her out of day care, going on vacation, and then a death in the family (accompanied by our attending the funeral and her staying with another family member) resulted in a lot of accidents. Then in September, she started school.

During the first week of school, which was 8:30am to 3pm in a classroom with three-, four-, and five-year-olds and no rest time, Zoe had a lot of accidents. It was a big change. Academically and socially she was having a blast, but her body had a hard time keeping up. Every day when I picked her up, the teacher announced, across the room in front of Zoe and everyone else, how many accidents Zoe had. She suggested that something was wrong and instructed us to take Zoe to the pediatrician immediately. We did.

The pediatrician said Zoe was normal. She said even after potty training, kids have accidents, especially in new and stressful situations. We talked about how increased patience and decreased anxiety on our part might help her relax and improve. I struggled to get my anxiety under control in the face of the teacher’s exclamations about Zoe’s accidents. I asked the teacher to please tell me something good or interesting Zoe had done that day when I first walked in instead of focusing exclusively on bladder control.

Two weeks into school, we got a call that a spot had opened up at another school. My husband and I struggled with the decision to cause yet more disruption and possibly more potty setbacks. But we went to visit the school to make an informed decision. The new school was beautiful, with a classroom twice the size and filled with light. The new teacher seemed very easygoing. The program was housed in a sought-after elementary school with a special focus that we would be guaranteed placement in if Zoe went to preschool there. We decided to make the switch. We told the teacher about the accidents and she assured us that she’d help Zoe and it would be fine.

Even with the switch, Zoe’s number of accidents dramatically decreased. Rather than daily, she didn’t make it to the potty on time one to three times per week. During this time we were still working diligently at home to encourage her to stay dry. We employed every possible reward system. We sang and read books in the bathroom. We read to Zoe many books about kids using the potty and watched many videos. We bought a watch that you program to alarm at various intervals to remind kids to go. Zoe could go five or six days at a time without an accident. We saw improvement and were proud.

Then, suddenly, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we got a letter from the principal saying that the school system’s policy stated that children who had more than three accidents in a week or one accident three weeks in a row were not potty trained and could be removed for a week or more until they were potty trained. What?

This was the first we’d heard of this policy, which we were later told was an “internal guideline,” but which was not available to the public or given to parents when children apply or enroll in the program. We scheduled a conference call with the principal and teacher to understand what was going on. The principal mentioned repeatedly during the conversation that she could remove Zoe from the program because of the number of accidents Zoe had had.

We talked to an assistant superintendent, who assured us that no one wanted to remove Zoe from school. We talked to someone in the early childhood office, which oversees the county’s preschool programs, who reiterated the policy the principal had outlined. We didn’t see how this was possible, but it was still happening to us.

In the meantime, we loved our daughter even more fiercely. She is a creative, charming, bright, and affectionate little girl. Just because her bladder control hasn’t yet been perfected does not mean that she deserved to be kicked out of a school where she was otherwise thriving, making great friends and learning a lot about herself and the world every day.

We took Zoe to the urology clinic at Children’s National Medical Center to ensure that there was no actual medical problem contributing to the accidents. The urologist said she is shocked by the number of parents who bring in their children every September for similar reasons. Their kids’ schools say they have to stop having accidents and, surprise, they can’t make their kids do it! The urologist said approximately 20% of five-year-olds have frequent accidents, years after they’ve been potty trained. The pediatrician and urologist agreed it was developmentally inappropriate to remove a child from school because of accidents.

We felt like the facts were on our side, but it didn’t matter.

Zoe stayed home for a month. We had a lovely time. We took trips, made cookies, spent a lot of time at the library, and played  with Zoe’s large collection of tiny people and food items. Thankfully my parents live nearby and are happy to spend time with Zoe because I had to meet some deadlines for my business, which effectively shut down for the month. I wondered what would have happened if one of the kids in Zoe’s class whose parents work low-wage jobs had been made to stay home. Would one of those parents have had to quit his or her job?

As Christmas vacation came to an end, we started to get nervous. What would happen when Zoe returned to school? We had received acknowledgements of our letter to the school system from the superintendent and school board, but no further action. My husband’s calls to the superintendent went unreturned.

In January Zoe went back to school. Days one and two were accident-free. Day three she had an accident at naptime, which is completely out of her control. I’m sure most of the kids in the class still wear pull-ups to bed. Day four she had four accidents. I have no idea why, except maybe the stress of worrying about having accidents. She hadn’t had four accidents in a day in months. I asked her whether the teacher had said anything to her and she said the teacher’s aide had dealt with her all day, and had gotten upset at her every time it happened. I’m sure the more she worried about it the more she wasn’t able to handle it. She was so worried I would get mad. I asked her if she wanted to stay home the next day and she was jubilant.

That night and the next day I worked feverishly to find preschools with mid-year openings. As it happened, the lovely co-op preschool where she used to go had a spot in the three-year-old class. We took it. We told Zoe we wanted to find a preschool where they didn’t get mad at her for having accidents because we knew she was doing the best she could. She accepted that. We visited the school so she could see her new classroom and meet the teacher (whose daughter was in her two-year-old class, so Zoe was already comfortable with her). She immediately started playing and said “I’m fine here, Mommy, you can go out now.”

Everyone at the co-op has been delighted to welcome us back. The community is supportive and nurturing and understanding of early childhood biological development. Every preschool director, teacher, and parent I’ve talked to about this has been shocked by what happened and how we were treated. So were we.

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