Monday, March 31, 2008

The Gift That Keeps on Giving (and Giving...)

See the veritable jungle planted here in my morning room? Now, look closely... 
Do you see the blue pot up there on the kitchen table, the one with a lighter blue stripe toward the top edge? THAT is the spider plant from which all the others pictured here have sprung. (Yes, even the teensie-weensie one perched on the stool in the bottom left corner.) And, as you can see, the offspring are just as fertile as the original.  

I started thinking about these guys when I visited Michelle's My Semblance of Sanity blog the other day, and she mentioned in her post a plant she received as a gift - a sort of family heirloom type deal. The problem is, she just can't seem to keep it healthy, and was looking for advice for what to do with it.

Well, that original spider plant up there was a gift from my mother-in-law. I can't remember anymore if she was my actual mother-in-law at that point, or if she was still just "my boyfriend's mother." Either way, when she gave it to me, it wasn't doing too terribly well. It was a bit brown, and in need of a larger pot. I think I remember her saying something along the lines of, "Here. You like plants. Maybe you can do something with this." So, I took it home, gave it a new pot and new soil, watered it, and waited.

It turns out you don't have to do much to keep spider plants alive. Mine have lived through weeks of me forgetting to water them during the early months of new babies in the house. They have survived toddlers who grabbed handfuls of dirt from their pots, then gleefully threw the nice black dirt all over Mommy's nice white carpet. They have survived other toddlers who have skipped the digging part altogether, opting instead to simply pull the pots off their stands, and then play in the whole pile of dirt all at once. They have traveled with me through four interstate moves, squeezed in the back of moving trucks and SUV's and pick-up trucks.  

Despite all of that chaos, and probably lots more that I don't even know about, they are not only still alive, but thriving. Like I told a neighbor I passed some off to - err, I mean, gave some as a gift to - you can't kill these things, even if you wanted to.

Since I can't bear to just throw the spider plant babies out, and I can't keep them all, I end up rooting them in cups of water and trying to find homes for them. Sometimes, my entire kitchen table (and parts of the floor) are literally covered by plastic cups crammed with spider plant babies. I have kept a few, but I have given away maybe a hundred or more!

I gave some to my mom in a pot painted. I think I gave some to one of my grandmas a few years ago. I gave some to my mom's best friend for her morning room. I gave some to the very first movers we had. I gave some to the kids' teachers (at Christmas AND end-of-the-year) for the last two years running. I gave some to at least three sets of new neighbors as housewarming gifts. Last summer, I planted about twenty bundles of them in plastic cups and pushed them on my mom's family. Then, I took another 15 bundles or so and dropped them off on neighbor's porches before they got home from work - anonymously. I even sent my kids, spider plants in hand, to neighbors who are always home, hoping they wouldn't say no to their sweet little faces...

And now, as you can see in the picture up there, I am bombarded with babies again. So, who wants a nice spider plant? Or two? Or three? I have to warn you, though, even their babies have babies. Lots and lots and lots of babies...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Taking Credit

I'll wrap up my memorable elementary school teacher posts with this one. This teacher taught me quite a lot, but the most important lesson I learned from him had nothing to do with finding sums or knowing parts of speech. And that lesson has stuck with me ever since.

Mr. B– was my fifth grade teacher. He was one of those people who always had a smile lurking, just waiting to escape. He was of medium height (from my about-5-foot-tall perspective), and wore glasses. His short-ish brown hair had just enough curl to give it a flip at the ends, and it gave way to bare skin on top (but only a little bit).

Our class had just finished reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien, and Mr. B– gave us a writing assignment to follow up: write the sequel. I looked forward to this, as I enjoyed the book immensely, and worked hard to create an authentic story. After painstakingly hand-printing my good copy, and stapling it in between a custom-designed construction paper cover, I proudly handed it in, sure of getting a good grade. I wrote it for my eyes, Mr. B–'s, and my parents, but didn't think anyone else would see it, let alone hear it.

A day or so later, Mr. B– called us all to the part of the room where he did read-alouds. Usually I loved read-alouds, but this time was different.

"Today, instead of reading other people's books, I'm going to read your sequels," Mr. B– announced.

The blood drained from my face, and my stomach felt like hundreds of tiny butterflies were flitting around in there.

"Then," he went on, "I want you to guess who you think the author was."

Well, I thought, maybe this would be fun

The more sequels he read, the more my butterflies quieted.  We laughed and smiled and called out our guesses after each reading, and it was fun... until I saw my sequel resting in Mr. B–'s hands.

I sat as still as possible, listening, as Mr. B– released my words out into the air, where they floated freely into my classmates' ears. My thoughts. My words. I could feel my face getting warm, so I looked down the whole time he was reading.  

"So," Mr. B– said, "who wrote this one?"

The class broke into a flurry of guesses the same as before.  When one particular person's name (not mine) was unanimously called out as the writer, I looked up and chimed right in with that name, too.

Mr. B– looked at me curiously and let this go on for a short time, then held up his hand for quiet. He told everyone it was my work, and then he spoke directly to me. "Why would you do that?" he asked.  

I squirmed in the silence. He kept looking at me, and so did everyone else.  After what felt like 10 years, I looked down and mumbled, "I don't know."

"Kim," he said firmly, but not unkindly, "this is very good. You did this. It was your work."  

He paused for a moment, and when I looked up again, he said one last thing: "Why would you give credit for your own work to someone else?"

I didn't know what to say.  But from then on, I did know what to do.  Or rather, what not to do...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Lesson in Contradictions

In an open space school, it is expected that you keep your attention in your own classroom area, but sometimes it just isn't possible. However, as my son and I always read in the Captain Underpants books, "Before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this story:"

There were only two fourth grade teachers in my elementary school, and almost no one looked forward to being there. Mrs. Mu– and Mrs. P– were probably the sternest (and most feared) teachers in the school. The journey through fourth grade was an important rite of passage. If you could survive that, the rest of your educational life would be a snap.

I had Mrs. P– for math, and Mrs. Mu– for everything else.

Mrs. P– had short, sort of gray hair that probably spent each evening imprisoned in curlers. She was a formidable woman with a habit of calling all us girls "girlie." (I don't remember what she called the boys.) Poking kids in the chest during a reprimand was another of her habits. No one, and I mean no one, dared to even so much as sniffle out of turn in her room. Woe to those who got on Mrs. P–'s bad side. But, if you worked hard and did your best, she could be your fiercest supporter. Mind you, it wasn't a warm and fuzzy sort of support, but she did have your back.

Mrs. M– also had a reputation as a no-nonsence woman. She had dyed, dark brown hair that she piled up on her head in a sort of low-profile beehive. Every other day of the year, she was known to crack a joke or two, or even smile, but she was rather sparing with both.

However, Mrs. Mu– broke the mold each year on one day, and one day only: St. Patrick's Day, the day keeping your eyes in your own room became virtually impossible for everyone in the pod, except Mrs. Mu–'s students. Every March 17 (or as close as she could get, if it fell on a weekend), she made a grand entrance to her classroom dressed head-to-toe in a kelly green leprechaun suit! She played traditional Irish music as she danced Irish jigs. She spoke with an Irish accent, and smiled and laughed (laughed, I tell you!) as she cracked leprechaun jokes. She read aloud Irish stories, and was generally in a fantastic mood all day.

Once March 17th had passed, though, it was back to business as usual.

Fourth grade... it was something else...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Legend

Picture this: You're 8 years old. You walk into your third grade classroom for the first day of school. There sits your new teacher. You skirt a wide path around her, smile nervously on your way by, and hurriedly find your seat. Once there, you sit perfectly still, and wait. And try not to stare. And wonder. Is it true? Is she really?

I don't have to picture it.  I lived it.
My third grade teacher had a reputation that was passed on from the outgoing class to the incoming one each year. The old class delighted in the mild panic that rose to the face of each new third grader as he or she was told the whispered details about this teacher. And so, we new third graders came into our classroom on the first day of school with a healthy dose of trepidation, and an irresistible sense of curiosity.
Once we were all seated that morning, our teacher smiled and told us that her name was Mrs. M–. She had a lovely, genuine, but also mischievous smile. She was a petite, well-dressed woman with coal black hair and large-framed glasses. She sat perfectly straight in her chair, and when standing or walking, her shoulders were always back. This was not someone to be trifled with, especially knowing what we had been told.
She went on with the usual first day stuff - class rules, where the bathrooms were, keep your eyes in your own class. (Remember now, from yesterday's post, this was an open space school. There were no walls, or doors. The classroom spaces were delineated by strategically placed low bookshelves, carts, tables and chart holders. So that last one, keeping your attention with your own class, had high importance.)
We all listened dutifully.
Finally, she came to the crucial part of the morning. The part we had all been waiting for, and at the same time, the part we had all been dreading. Was it true? Was she really? And even more important: who was going to be the one to ask?
"So," she said, smiling, "what questions do you have for me?"
Silence. Our eyes swiveled in our sockets as we scanned the room for that one brave soul. Finally, someone (I don't remember who, but it wasn't me) was brave enough to raise their hand.
"Yes?" She was still smiling.
"Umm... well... I... I mean we... well, how old are you?"
You could have heard a pin drop. Not an easy feat in an open space school.
With a twinkle in her eye, Mrs. M– raised herself up to her full height and said, "I am one hundred and two years old."
Whispers and giggles broke out all over the room. It was true!
Then, she called out over the commotion, "And, I am a witch!"
There was a collective gasp.
"But, if you're a good kid, you don't have anything to worry about, do you?"  Then she laughed.
A few giggles broke out, then a few more, until finally the whole room rippled with laughter. All the tension flew out of us with each new cackle (no pun intended), and the rest of the day was just like any other first day of school.
I had the good fortune to have Mrs. M– twice. By the time I got to sixth grade, so had she! She was still "one hundred and two years old" and she was still a self-proclaimed witch. But, even though I'd had her before, and thought I'd seen it all from her, she was still throwing things at us that we didn't see coming. (Literally - if you were misbehaving, you could expect any number of missiles to fly from her hand and land with a crack on your table - chalk, erasers, pencils, whatever was handy. I should know - I was a talker, and a giggler, and was on the receiving end of those projectiles a number of times!)
And yet, Mrs. M– is on my shortlist of favorite teachers. She was fun, and she laughed like she meant it, and she kept us all in line, and we learned so much.
I'll never forget her.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Saving Face

My high school reunion is coming up, and that got me thinking about... elementary school. Yep. Elementary school. (How's that for a non-linear thought pattern??) Which got me to thinking about the teachers I had there. Several of them stood out in my mind, each for a different reason, and I'd like to tell you about them.  It would make too long of a post to cram them all into this one, so I'll highlight a different one each day.

My elementary school was in town. At that time, open space schools were all the rage, and that's what mine was. We had a fenced-in blacktop playground with no playground equipment - but we did have painted lines for hopscotch and things like that. Our building was several floors high, and it had this really cool open central stairwell that ran top to bottom, with lots of windows. Two of the floors held the main classroom spaces, and each floor was called a pod. When I first went there, the higher of the two pods was for grades K-3, and the next one down was for grades 4-6.

The earliest teacher I remember was from second grade. Her name was Mrs. A–.  She was so calm, cool, collected, and most of all, caring. I loved being in her class. As she passed out our last report cards for second grade, she told us not to come up to this pod next year, because third grade would be moving to the lower pod.
I didn't give school a shred of thought until three months later, when the bus dropped me off for the first day of third grade. Walking slowly through the school's entry doors, I thought back to what Mrs. A– had told us, but wasn't sure I trusted my memory. I started to climb up the stairs, until I got to the landing between floors. There I stood, rooted to the spot, my gaze switching between the familiar pod I'd always gone to, and the ominous Big Kids Pod. 

Finally, I went with what was comfortable, and continued up the stairs. Halfway there, I heard someone call my name. I looked up, and there stood Mrs. A– at the landing for the upper pod.

"Hi, Kim," she said brightly. "You must be coming up to check on your little brother, right?"

Crud, I am going to the wrong floor, I thought. I could feel my face heating up as I nodded feebly.

"You know, I just saw him, and he's in his new Kindergarten room - happy as a clam. Why don't you go on ahead to your pod, now." She gave me a very warm smile and a reassuring nod.

"OK.  Thanks," I said.  As I turned around and headed downstairs to my new pod, I saw a bunch of my classmates looking up at us.  They were all headed to the right pod.

Thank you, Mrs. A–. 

Thursday, March 13, 2008

If Only

Once upon a time, I was a teacher. My kids were inner city little guys, second graders, in a school with a population of mostly minority students.

In February of my second year there, I began a Black History Month celebration. As part of the unit, we researched famous African Americans, read about their accomplishments, discussed what we learned, then wrote up reports to display around the room and in the hallway.

One day, we had just finished reading about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the term "racism" was used in the book.  I decided to do an informal comprehension check.

"We read that Dr. King felt racism was wrong, and he worked hard to change how African Americans were being treated," I said. "So, what do you think racism is?"

I waited, watching their seven-year-old minds whirring. After a second or two, a few hands went up.

I scanned the room, then settled my gaze on Juan. He was practically bursting at the seams, waving his arm furiously and bouncing in his seat.

"Juan?  What is racism, do you think?"

He flashed a proud, dimpled grin, and said, "It's what drivers do!"

I'm not sure what I was expecting him to say, but that wasn't it. I pressed further.  He seemed so confident in his response. What was he thinking that I wasn't?

"Drivers?" I asked.

"You know," he said, gripping an imaginary steering wheel in front of him.  "A race driver, with the cars... he races 'em!" 

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sign of the Times

Kindergarteners are so fun to work with - they tell you exactly what's on their mind, and they don't muck up their answers with a lot of fluff. If you sit and listen to them long enough, you can learn a lot about puppies, baby sisters, dirt, bugs, scabs, and why they don't like Great Aunt Eunice ('cause she smells like carrot juice). You can also learn a lot about the English language.

Case in point: I volunteer at an elementary school, helping Kindergarteners do KidWriting - a program designed to strengthen both their reading and writing skills. (Yes, reading and writing. You would be amazed at what these little guys can churn out.  Seriously.) Anyway, I'm sitting in this tiny chair, with my knees crammed up to my ears, scooched up to an impossibly low table, listening to the chatter that always accompanies 5-year-olds wielding papers, pencils and crayons.

"Guess what I'm writing about," a sweet girl with long dark hair, no front teeth, and the cutest lisp, says to me.


"You have to guess."

"She's writing about her hamster," her tablemate informs me, never looking up as he carefully draws a stick coming down from a small circle. "That's what she always writes about."

"Well?" My inquisitor persists, gazing up at me.

"Hmmm." I tap my lip with my finger and squint thoughtfully at her. Never mind that I was sitting right here when The Informer spilled the beans. A question, once asked, demands an answer. I open my eyes wide.  "Is it... your hamster?"

"How did you know?" She shakes her head and smiles as she draws a kind of lumpy-looking brown ball. She adds four short lines underneath the ball, then puts a little pink scribble at one end. "That's her bow. She's a girl. Her name is Chloe."

"Ahh. Chloe is a lovely name. Are you ready to write about her, now?"

She nods, then stares up at the "Firecracker" chart to choose her sentence starter.

I turn to The Informer. "What's happening in your picture?"

"It's me and my dad playing football." He puffs out his chest.
"So, what do you want to write?"


"Great! So, start with we," I say, pointing to the first line on his paper.

The Informer's pencil hovers over the paper. He looks up at me. "How do you spell we?"

In KidWriting, we help the children stretch out the sounds, or send them to find the word if it's posted somewhere in the room. Just as I open my mouth to stretch out wwwwweeeeee, Hamster Girl beats me to it.

"That's easy," she says. She leans over and taps his paper three times as she spells it out: "w-i-i."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Wonder and Trust

I made my way clumsily through the familiar waiting room door - crying toddler daughter and very soggy blankie hanging over one shoulder, diaper bag and purse slung over the other.  I managed to get signed in without dropping the baby or the stuff, exchanged knowing looks with the receptionist, and caught a few sympathetic glances from the grandmotherly types waiting their turn to see the doctor. Choosing a corner chair as isolated as was possible in the closet-sized waiting room, I settled in and dug into the diaper bag for distractions.  

Books weren't working today.  Neither were keys, toys, juice, animal crackers, Cheerios, or even a self-conscious rendition of "I'd Like to Visit the Moon."  Sitting in one place was just not cutting it, so I had to resort to movement.  After several minutes of pacing back and forth in a three-foot-square space, patting my first born's back as she pulled at her ears and cried and wiped her nose on my shoulder, it was finally our turn.  Holding my daughter with one arm, I reached down with the other to gather our things, then hurried to follow the nurse.  That little bit of forward momentum brought a temporary reprieve in the shrieking as my red-faced sweetheart looked around in surprise to see where we were going.  The silence didn't last long.

The nurse led us to an even smaller examining room, where the crying began again in earnest - hers or mine, I can't exactly recall now...  The nurse shouted the usual questions, and I shouted back answers.  In between, I stood in place, doing the "Mommy sway" we all do to try to soothe the tears.  Somehow, the nurse managed to get my little girl's temperature.  Then she said something about "doctor" and "soon," smiled, and was gone.  Now I had a bit more room to pace and sway and bounce and sing, but it still wasn't working. 

Finally, in breezed Dr. W–, his face a picture of genuine concern as he had me sit in the chair and hold this poor little one in my lap so he could take a look.  She gazed into his blue eyes as he hunched down in front of her and talked and smiled and cooed, and gradually the cries stopped.  She stared at him, mouth open in a little "o," her mostly-brown eyes wide as golf balls.  She reached out to touch his white hair, then grabbed his offered hand.  He looked back at her, glancing up at me every so often, asking questions, all the while using that same sing-song voice that had her entranced.
Finally, he asked her, "Can I look in your ears?"
She shook her head.  "No, no, no!" 

"Oh," he said, "It won't hurt.  I just want to see if there are any bugs and bunnies in there."

She stopped mid-head-shake, then swiveled around to look at me, cupping her hands around her ears.  I smiled down at her and nodded.  She looked back at Dr. W–.

"Don't you want to know if there are any bugs and bunnies in there?" he asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

She slowly nodded and dropped her hands.
"Let's take a look," he said.  All the while, he kept up a running commentary about bugs and bunnies, and how they love to hide in little kids' ears.

My sweet girl's eyes were round with wonder, and she sat perfectly still, letting him check both ears.

He sat back and smiled at her.  "Nope, no bugs and bunnies in there," he said.  "But I'm going to give Mommy some medicine for you to make your ears feel all better.  Is that OK?"

She smiled then, a big, two-toothed grin, and hugged her little knees and fell back against my chest. 

Not a tear in sight.