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Thing2

Commando Parenting

I always said if any kid of mine where is the teeniest bit artistically inclined, I would encourage the heck out of that inclination. Thing2 is, and I do, but I swear that if there is a God up there, he or she has finely honed sense of humor.

I was a slob as a kid. I collected everything and threw away almost nothing. I had drawings on little scraps of paper and stole my mom‘s scissors for drawings and creations. She never expressly said she hoped I’d have a kid just like me, but I think in the back of her mind she must’ve known that it be a pretty good revenge.

She’s getting it.

Thing2’s room has gone from being inspirational to hazmat training ground. His creativity has gone high-tech, so boxes of pencils, markers, and half-filled sketchbooks share space with a DIY Recording studio where he swears he’s going to make animated films to make George Lucas drool. It’s also filled with empty popcorn bags and scraps of paper and – you guessed it – Mom’s stolen scissors.

I have drawn several lines in the sand to get him to clean it. Carefully delineated boundaries worked beautifully with Thing1, but, despite his volcanic colon, he can be pretty obsessive about keeping his space organized. It took only one full-scale clean out of his room to help him make the jump from messy tween to fastidious young adult.

One thing I’m finding about artistically-inclined offspring, however, is that simply bulldozing the room doesn’t get the point across. It just creates more canvas. So I’m taking a new tactic today.

As I carried out a little clutter control this morning in the rest of the house, I noted that my creative kid had left “his” iPad and ten-year-old computer in the living room, presumably after shooting footage for a fan-fiction movie he’s been scripting. The iPad is old, but it still works so it wasn’t going into that sty of a room where we might invent the first human to iPad virus. I decided to hide it in ours until the room gets clean.

Hiding precious objects gets rooms superficially clean quickly, but today I mean business. I want it actually clean. On my next trip back to the living room, I picked up the laptop to find a hiding place for it. I had almost passed his room when I thought of the perfect place. I went into his room and moved some of the carnage away from the bunkbed. I put the laptop in the safe little nook behind the bunkbed and then put the carnage back.

I figure about 4PM, I’ll either be up for parent of the year or getting a visit from child protective services — right after he hears he can the laptop back when he can find it.

Widgets and Wonders

The senior class graduates Saturday. The fifth grade, the elementary school’s senior class, celebrated their ‘moving up’ to middle school a few days earlier. Thing2’s graduation to the next step of his education was a huge milestone for us. It’s the first time in twelve years that we won’t have a child in elementary school. But it’s not only our perspective that made the afternoon unique.

The Big Guy and I each went to schools with thousands of kids. Graduation at mine lasted almost two hours because we had to wait for hundreds of kids to accept their diplomas. I knew the principal’s name, but I doubt he knew mine before he read it on the slip attached to my diploma. We were widgets, school was a factory.

At Thing2’s ceremony, there were songs. The music teacher handed out awards to the kids who had done chorus and band. The teachers from each 13-kid section handed out academic awards, and then, at the fifteen-minute mark, it was time to hand out the ‘diplomas’.

The principal started with a gentle reminder of the rehearsal instructions the kids had received earlier, producing a chorus of giggles from the risers behind her. She started to read out a name and the first boy climbed down to accept his certificate, but then she stopped.

“Wait a minute Mr. Smith,” she said, holding up her hand and seeming to wipe a speck of dust from her eye. The grinning boy froze, watching her as she stopped to tell the parents a story about his first day at preschool. It took less than thirty seconds, and the entire diploma handoff took less than thirty minutes for all thirty kids, even though, for most of them, the principal paused to recount a special moment or running joke.

Even for a small state like Vermont, we know our school system is on the very small side. It’s small enough that, despite ranking second in the state, there’s been a push from above for improved efficiency and lower costs by consolidating with other districts. Our district has strenuously resisted that push, and much of the resistance has focused on the school’s academic achievements. The district has also conducted more than one study to justify its existence financially.

It was Thing2’s commencement that reminded me that, in education, value can’t be determined solely by efficiency, or even scores.

The principal and teacher to student ratio won’t be any different on Saturday when Thing1 is climbing the risers. The high school principal has taught each of the kids, has coached many of them in little league, has been a presence in most of their lives for the last thirteen years. The teachers have been coaches, are parents of their classmates.

The whole ceremony, if history is any judge, will take 30-45 minutes. In those 45 minutes, however, will be packed thirteen years of phone calls and parent-teacher conferences, of field-trips and spur-of-the-moment meetings to talk over a parent’s concern, of newsletters and community service days, of nurses calling to make sure everything’s still alright, of teachers saying ‘he can do better’ because they absolutely believe that their students can. Those 45 minutes will be the result of thirteen years of creating young adults invested in a community that they know has invested in them. They will be the results of a community saw something more important than widgets.

It saw the future.

How to Raise a Parent


Thing2 is sitting across the couch from me right now tapping on an old laptop my parents bequeathed him when they upgraded theirs. He’s working on a project, talking through the lines as he taps and proving I know nothing about parenting.

I’ve worked in some sort of IT for the better part of the last 25 years. I’m the last person to tell a kid they shouldn’t play on a computer, but Thing1 got sucked into Minecraft in middle school, torpedoing his grades for over a year. It’s safe to say, the Big Guy and I are wary of Thing2 acquiring a tech addition.

Thing2 missed a fair amount of school this winter due to severe pain from inflamed lymph nodes. The pain intensified with each bout of flu or strep he contracted in the petrie dish of elementary school, and we were worried he would fall behind.

Most sick days he rested on the couch with an iPad or Harry Potter book while I worked on support tickets. I’d check during the day to make sure his latest YouTube obsession was PG-11, but for most of the day I let him take responsibility for his own amusement. They weren’t my finest parenting hours.

Thing1 got into video games about the same time, solely on the strength of his test scores, that he also got into a middle school accelerated program. He’d coasted through elementary school math, aptitude compensating for apathy. Except for mathy-science stuff, he needed serious prodding to stay on track.

When he started the more challenging program, I asked the program head how I could help him stay more organized. Her answer surprised me.

“I don’t want you to help him. He’ll learn to rise to expectations.”

So we took the hands-off approach. Bad report cards led to loss of privileges, but when he failed, he failed. When he did well, the success was his. That experience guided him like a river winnows out earth and rock to find the best route. It’s helped him learn to stand on his own two feet and, even if he stumbles, to keep trying.

I know telling the world that I let my kid spend two months playing on the iPad is inviting slings and arrows from parenting experts. Left to his own devices, however, Thing2 scurries from couch to boy-cave, moving laundry hampers and draping sheets over his top bunk to create a movie set between naps. The iPad was soon burgeoning with special effects app and ‘screen tests’. By the time he got back to school full time, he had written a script for a Star Wars fan video, complete with a mental cast list consisting of his classmates.

It’s almost Thing2’s turn to apply to that program, and, watching him create and rise to his own expectations, I’m pretty sure we’ll use the same approach. We’ll call it good parenting even though he’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting.

Cold Turkey with a side of Fries

Tomorrow is Another Diet

Most of my diets start out with the best intentions. The night before the diet, I intend to eat the best foods — and by best foods, I mean best tasting, not necessarily best for you — as I think about the foods that will or won’t be on the menu next to the chart of exercises I swear I’ll start on the same day. They usually end about 12 hours later, right about the time I congratulate myself for not hitting the snooze button at 5AM.

Day one of my breakup with solid food was only slightly different. It was Memorial Day. The Big Guy was working, but I wasn’t. I stayed up till three in the morning the night before finishing a novel and managed to sleep in until 8AM when Thing2 — fully apprised of Mommy’s diet plan for the day — came in to see if, like many holiday mornings — I would be exposing them to a balanced American diner breakfast starring sugar, fat, and more sugar. And salt.

“Is this a test?” I asked as I sat up.

Thing2 looked confused for a second and then grinned. “Oh yeah. It’s a test.” Then he disappeared, skipping down the hall to see if he could rope Thing1 into helping me get this diet nonsense out of the way bright and early. He reappeared its the unsurprising news that Thing1, whose autoimmune disorder has redefined dietary discipline over the last year, was uninterested in indulging. He thought I should stick with my plan, Thing2 reported.

“Yeah,” we both said at once.

I ended up getting Thing2 a new box of cereal and mixing my first shake for breakfast. A second shake at noon before Thing1 and I headed to the Kmart closing sale and I was feeling more than a little cocky.

The day was still young.

Shopping trips are usually like a pillow smothering my discipline. Whether I’m manic or depressed, shopping is the rush. Food is the opiate. Even scoring a purely functional $3 swimsuit for Thing1, whetted the appetite for the nearby drive-thru.

But, determined not to disappoint Thing1 who is a model of nutritional maturity, I drove past it.

We got home and promptly retreated to the sectional to enjoy the rest of the day off.

Then I saw a notification on Facebook about a petition that needed signing before Tuesday. I knew grabbing the keys, heading out for a drive to blow off steam that hadn’t had a chance to build up on a day off, would break the straw that broke my diet wagon’s wheels.

I grabbed them anyway.

I was driving to sign the petition. Really. And then I passed by the petitioner’s house. And fifteen minutes later the car pulling into a fast-food parking lot.

I knew I was disappointing Thing1 and Thing2. I knew the Big Guy would forgive. I knew I was disappointing myself and starting the best intentions all over again, the best being there would be a clean slate in the morning.

And still I ordered and indulged.

As I drove home, I debated if I should write about it. Should I tell the truth like a recalcitrant child when I got home? On one hand, why not? It wasn’t as if this was the first time I washed out of a diet. It probably won’t be the last.

Usually, however, this stage of the diet happens in secret. I say nothing and then next day I’m off it. No one says anything or even looks at me disapprovingly. But I know Thing1 worries his mom won’t be around for his college graduation. He worries I won’t be able to hike with him on his eighteenth birthday. I know I have some early signs of pre-diabetes, and the only ‘cure’ is control.

So I decided to be honest. On my blog and when I got home.

“I had fast food,” I said as soon as I got in the door.

“That’s okay,” said the Big Guy.

“I’ll start again,” I said as Thing1 said, “You can just start again. It’s a day off.”

Tonight I’m going through the intentions. I’m back on the wagon before I go to bed, and, with any luck, I’ll stay on tomorrow.

It won’t be the first battle that wasn’t won with a single skirmish.

Come Together


We weren’t late, but we weren’t early enough to Thing2’s band concert to have a good seat selection. The elementary school band is small, and I was surprised by the crowd.

The concert program revealed that the middle and high school bands would also be performing. It’s a small school system, so I was still surprised by the increasingly packed house. We’ve been to a lot of recitals and school concerts over the years, so I thought I knew what to expect.

I knew nothing.

The high school band played first. The elementary and middle schools bands sat in the first row of seats waiting their turn. Mr. Neeson, the band instructor, introduced the piece, a march that the high schoolers will also be performing at the Memorial Day parade in five days. He then called for and got a B-flat from the band before them their cue.

The first notes marched perfectly in unison, echoing through the tiny auditorium and daring the audience not to clap. The band, culled from all grades of the high school, handled changes in rhythm and key, and the Big Guy and I had to remind ourselves that we were listening to kids who weren’t old enough to vote carry on a fairly complex musical conversation.

They segued to a jazzier number, a ‘jam’, we were told, that was composed for the concert. The Big Guy and I gave each other the super-impressed look. Our jaws dropped as the students got up from their places and switched instruments.

“I don’t make each kid solo for a performance.” Mr Neeson turned around to talk to the parents for a moment. “I do require they all know how to improvise, to listen to and play with each other.” Then the music started again.

There are fewer than 400 kids in our entire school system and, from the outside, it may seem fairly homogenous. The reality is that our school sees multi-generation Vermonters and transplanted flat-landers, Trump fans, Bernie-or-busters, and everyone in between. There are kids who get new iPhones every year and kids who may get their only meal of the day at school.

There was no way to tell if the pianist was a liberal or the drummer is a libertarian. The only thing the audience knew for certain was that these kids had learned how to change their perspectives, see new points of view and express their individuality, creating rich, beautiful music instead of just noise.

More than once during the concert, the Big Guy and I told each other that Thing2 needs to be in band again. Thing2’s creative spark burns hot enough that he may very well propel himself into a creative life when he’s grown up — with or without a school program. The performances, however, melded into a beautiful example of how arts in the schools are about so much more than vocation or even avocation. We knew Thing2 loved band practice, but it was only when we saw him and his friends working together to make something wonderful, that we realized the music program was teaching him as much about life as it is theory and even creativity.

The high school band finished, and Thing2’s band took the stage. Mr. Neeson turned to the parents again.

“So how many of you are Beatles fans?” he asked. Every hand in the audience went up. He asked if we knew the chorus to the first song on the album Abbey Road and then enlisted us as backup singers.

The band had no singer, but as the first drum roll completed, I saw a few parents mouthing, “Here come old flat-top”. My eyes were damp as the next two lines reverberated, and by the time the band was playing “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” every parent in the room was ready to sing out,

“Come together, Right NOW!” And really mean it.

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