The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Stop, Go November 17, 2013

At first her tone sounded potentially cheerful, ‘upbeat polite’, I suppose one might say. Having just had her son over for an afternoon playdate, I listened expectantly for a thank-you, an invitation for future such dates or some such gesture of routine civility. But within a micro second I heard the tone change, and after a slightly hesitant preamble, it came. The verbal cease and desist order. And then, abruptly, a hangup. Holy crap. I had not seen anything like this coming. My body flooded with a dull, sick feeling. And then, in another wave, came the cold shot of adrenaline. It reminded me of the way I’d felt in the wake of the flipper’s news that soon there’d be a house at the foot of our driveway. But worse. This was the mother of a child my son would likely spend the next eight years in a classroom with. And these kids really, really like each other. Oh no. A terrible, nauseous feeling began to grow in my stomach. It was nearing midnight when I heard the message. Sleeping pill or not, this would likely be a horrible night of sleep, and some unpleasant dreams were surely ahead.

In my past life as part of the public school community, my blog and its contents were never an issue. A casual mention of a classmate or pal perhaps accompanied by a pic wasn’t seen as something invasive or threatening; in fact, just about the opposite. It was a social thing, a bright and cheerful pause in one’s day, an online photo album for sharing. Granted, in the past year I’ve become aware how very different the feelings are in our insular community at Elihu’s new school, and I understand the stance on media in general, but I truly never worried – or even thought twice – about any controversy or disapproval over including my son’s classmates in brief mentions. Cameo roles and passing comments, smiling group shots or occasional close-ups of childhood moments hardly seemed threatening. But I do realize it’s a parent’s right to opt not to have their child’s image or information posted on an international bulletin board. Me, I’m fairly transparent, as readers will know. I kinda feel like you’re either pregnant or you’re not. Some information is already out there, irretrievably so, for the eons. You’ve already jumped in the pool, like it or not, so why not enjoy the water? But I suppose there’s the other side too – why give folks more information if there’s only a modest amount out there to begin with? Having one’s data on an insurance form (never mind the folks that list has been sold to) isn’t quite the same as the smiling countenance of one’s child shining as a beacon for all to see. (For a moment I consider the fear that indigenous people have about the camera stealing their souls. Could this be it? I laugh to myself.) I still don’t feel the threat personally, but I concede that I just might be missing something.

Anyway, I get it. And in an instant I was piloting my eight year old G4 thru all the fixes and retractions that I could find. At first I didn’t see much of anything – no name associated with his picture directly – and found his name mentioned only three times. But I changed the text right away. Deleted the pics too, although I did so with some sadness, as the joy just radiated off the screen. Really? I thought. I pondered at the threat these posed; was I putting the two of us in harm’s way on the blog? What wasn’t I getting here? I just couldn’t see it myself, but it didn’t matter. Keep going, get it all gone. I combed thru till I was satisfied he was gone, then emailed his mom an apology. She’s outwardly an affable person, but I don’t have an exceptional feeling of warmth or connection with her. I think I’ve tried, but granted, everyone’s busy, and most are trying to keep up some measure of professional demeanor on the outside. So I factor that in, and in retrospect I can’t say I’m entirely surprised at the situation. But I’m anxious about things now. Cuz this is our world, and we will live in it side-by-side with this family for a while yet. I just don’t want ill feelings in the air. I don’t need warm and cozy with everyone (although I’ll always try for it!), but I need a level playing field for sure.

Having a blog is a lot like hosting a radio program. You go on doing your thing in one small room, to nobody, for no apparent reason other than to hear your voice in the headphones, crisp and clear and perfectly equalized. It feels like it’s just you; there’s absolutely no evidence that it’s not. Then the phone rings. And once again, you’re almost dumbfounded that it’s not just you, alone there in the room playing music and recounting obscure anecdotes about the songs. You’ve got an audience! Of thousands! And one of em is calling to let you know how much they enjoy what you do! Really?? It’s still humbling and flattering, and of course, that one call (representative of the hundreds of others who aren’t so motivated – or geeky – as to actually call in) establishes for you that you are connected to your human family. You are. To your relief, you’re reminded that you’re not alone. And although it doesn’t happen often, something else also happens every now and again. That one other call. That one person against whom you’ve unwittingly caused offense, the person who for some reason has reacted to your broadcast in just the opposite way from the majority. And of course, since the perceived affront was the last thing on your mind or your agenda, you’re stopped in your tracks for a moment. But then you realize that this is a big planet, and it stands to reason that not everyone will feel the same way about things. So you shake it off. And then you get back to sitting alone at your desk, doing your thing – simply because you enjoy doing it – and hoping that somewhere out there just one other human being is smiling along with you.

Sometimes all you can do in the wake of a mistake or misjudgement is stop and apologize, make right your actions as best you can, and keep on going. And just when you think you know better, you’ll find you don’t. Funny how surprises can still be surprising, even when you know to expect them! I guess it’s all part of the adventure. You can plan all you like, but you can’t be prepared for everything. And life is certainly different in action than it is on paper.

As my son and I are often fond of saying, ‘you never know until you go’.

 

One Room September 12, 2013

My son is a very lucky boy in many ways, but perhaps in this moment of our lives, he is luckiest of all for having discovered the Waldorf School of Saratoga. I cannot imagine our lives without this school, this environment, this tiny universe of our own. I would even go so far as to say that most times it feels more like one very large family tending to the communal raising and teaching of our children than it really does a school. Every teacher knows the name of every last child there, and every child knows all of the others too – friendships exist across ages and grade levels without a second thought. And it’s something special to see the sorts of relationships that exist between children that have not only known each other for years, but who share a certain quality of trust among themselves. This school is a safe place for all; in my limited experience there I’ve never known bullying to exist. All I’ve ever seen were kids helping each other, playing with each other, singing, laughing and learning together. These children all support each other unquestionably. It wouldn’t really be a stretch to say that the place is beautiful in so many ways (not the least of which are the physical aesthetics of the school and its decor itself) that it almost seems too good to be true. It almost seems as if it were a school created by a team of writers somewhere in Hollywood, trying to conjure ‘the perfect’ storybook school.

We came in late to the game; Elihu joined the third grade just after Spring break. But by the end of the day it was more than clear that this was where he needed to be. Where he was supposed to be. And while it may seem a bold statement to some, I believe that he was meant to be here. I feel as if my husband’s leaving, our cross-country move, the divorce – all of it happened in order to support this incredibly important foundation of Elihu’s life. In short, it was all worth it.

The school is modest indeed by today’s standards. The building itself was a city school many years ago (our friend and matriarch, 87 year old Martha Carver taught there once upon a time) and these days its creaking staircases, high ceilings and dark wood interior are a quaint anachronism seen next to their modern, expansive and brightly-lit counterparts. Yes, the place is old fashioned. One staircase for the upward traffic, one for the down. One classroom for each grade. Same teacher for one class (the teacher travels along with that class from first grade all the way through eighth). No cafeteria. The school has but one common room, which is called “the Eurythmy room” – it’s used for movement, music, chorus, orchestra, plays, assemblies and more. The seating for this room can be found in three stacks of folding chairs on dollies which are wheeled in and out according to the next item on the agenda. There are virtually no closets, but the staff has made the most economic use of what is there, and it is nothing short of impressive. I marvel daily at the amount of industry that takes place in such limited space. Perhaps this helps to make it feel even homier. Things have their places, and if people are to live and work together successfully, things must be put away. And so they are. Everyone grabs a chair at the end of a function, folds it up and puts it away. Utensils, cups and plates, if left unattended in the tiny kitchen will be washed by the next person passing through who has a minute. Of course the goal is to clean up after oneself, but if it doesn’t happen, a courteous person will step up. I have never been part of a social group in which there were so many helpers and doers. And they’re always cheerful too. Crazy. !

Today I saw the room in which I work – the Eurythmy room, where I play the piano for the movement classes – go through such transformations that I can hardly believe it all took place in the same space. Seventh graders dancing, chorus sitting in rows and singing rounds, tables of pot luck dishes set up for the fifth grade parent’s night, and then when all was through and put away, a roomful of ten year old whirling dervishes dancing around and around as I played a bouncy, cartoony soundtrack. Did all of this happen in the same room? Just today? When I fully took in all that had occurred there in the space of one school day, it shocked me. Somehow, it had seemed to be a different place each time. This school was able to do more living in less space – and time – than any other school I’d ever known. Even after having been a part of it for over a year now, I was still learning how amazing a place this is.

I’ve made a promise to my son that he will be in this school through the twelfth grade. That nothing will prevent that from happening. If I have to sell our place. If I have to take a job that takes me away from him (can’t quite leave him on his own yet… but I know it’ll be here sooner than I think), no matter if I have to make major changes in my life. Whatever. I wish I could get his paternal grandparents on board to regularly share the burden of tuition, because the weight of it – even after generous assistance – falls to my mom. Since she stopped working a few months back it’s become a bit more of a challenge. But like I said, even if I have to sell my piano or my harpsichord, I’ll make it work. Some folks commute an hour each way. Some folks can only afford to have one child in at a time, and so alternate years with their kids in order that they get at least some of their education here. I feel very lucky to have only one child to support. Couldn’t have done it otherwise. Lucky we, lucky we.

It was almost impossible to get the kids to leave tonight. They were laughing and having so much fun with each other. And these are kids who will see each other again in just a few hours! Kids who spend their days together in this small space, kids who run together for two recesses a day (I know, right?), kids who learn to knit, sing harmony parts and whittle while also learning their fractions and rules of grammar. Kids who are learning so much. Kids who are loved.

So much light in just one room.

 

Free Friday September 22, 2012

Elihu has had bad asthma the past couple of weeks. That, plus the seasonal allergies – and last night a quick bout of 24 hour flu – have caused him to miss five out of his first twelve days at school. Might not seem like such a bad thing to those of us aren’t overly concerned about attendance (I myself remember once winning tickets to a Cubs game for having had perfect attendance at school one year), but Elihu has found himself now a bit more behind than he’d like in his schoolwork. Friday morning he awakes, still so very congested and weak from a night of heaving, so I take pity on him and let him rest. With one condition: that we do all of his schoolwork after breakfast. I have errands I must do later, but I assure him that I won’t do a one of them if he hasn’t finished his work. He agrees. So home he stays. One more day added to the list.

Elihu is more than a little concerned about how far behind he’s getting. I assure him that we just need to make a plan, a schedule, and stick to it. I tell him that I can only help him if he lets me. If he starts crying and complaining and stomps off – then there’s not a thing I can do to help. I need his cooperation. Is he with me? I’m committed to this – is he? I like to joke around a lot, but it is clear that I am not joking. He knows it, and he takes my hands, looks into my eyes and agrees to let me help and to cooperate. He’s concerned about his spelling assignment. Not that he can’t spell – quite the opposite – but it’s because he hates writing. The physical act of writing itself, as in pen to paper. He finds it tedious. I get it, I do. I reassure him that one day he’ll know the relief it is to type nearly as fast as he can think, but for now he must do it old-school. It helps when I remind him that hero John Audubon wrote all his notes – and manuscripts – by hand. “He didn’t have an old-fashioned typewriter?” he asks. I assure him that it was years and years before the thing was invented. I grab a Max quill from the kitchen window sill. “He did it all like this” I say, miming a quick dip into an ink well then scribbling on the table. Elihu’s eyes open with new interest. “If John did it, you can too” I smile, and thankfully, Elihu smiles back. We begin.

Elihu’s Waldorf class is studying Norse mythology as part of their daily main lesson, and we at home have been reading at bedtime from a book I was given when I was his age, “Great Swedish Fairy Tales”. A fantastic collection. He recognizes characters in our stories from his lessons at school. As his teacher has asked me to please find some more challenging spelling words for him, Elihu and I together pull out the book and begin to look… We agree on five, then he sits down at the kitchen table to write them out and use them in sentences. He strays after a few, I allow a small break, then he’s back to the task. In about forty minutes he’s done.

The greatest cause of his stress is his book report. Thing is, he and I read the book over a year ago. It’s old news. In fact, Elihu loved the book so well he re-read parts on his own throughout the year. This should be a friggin piece of cake. Yet he is as stuck as can be. I watch him, frustrated. I see him watching everyone else in the class pass him up. Even more behind than he was, he despairs of never being able to catch up, and stops altogether. The class is on chapter seven, and he’s still on one. ? He sobs to me his agony about never catching up. I promise him that he just needs to follow a plan. Ok? He sniffs and nods. We make up our minds to knock out the first two chapters, but then realize the silly book is at school. My heart sinks. We call the library. Their only copy is out. I ask for one to be couriered from another library. It’ll take a couple days. Well, I don’t feel great about it, but for now, this part of his homework is on hold. I agree that he’s done what he can, so after he does his morning nebulizer treatment, we can go on our errands.

As we wind down the lovely country road behind our house on our way to town, we see that the tiny railroad crossing lights are on – a very unusual sight. But we know that the tiny Delaware and Hudson line has been recently restored for a northerly tourist run (in fact a good friend is now conductor on that line) and so we do see a small train pass by every now and again. How lucky we are that one is coming now! We pull over and get out. There aren’t any warning bells and no train is yet audible, but Elihu freaks out anyway when I walk up to the tracks to investigate. “Please come back, Mommy!” he shouts. “I don’t want to lose my only Mommy!! Please come back!” So I do. We wait a minute more, and then we begin to hear a distant rumbling. I have an idea. I run to the car, find my purse and rummage around on the bottom. I find one single penny. Perfect. I run to the track as fast as I can, find a good spot, then lay the penny down. It’s all happening so fast – the sound of the approaching train, my running back and forth – that Elihu doesn’t say a thing, he just watches, his intrigue winning over his concern. I manage to run back to him just as the blue and yellow D & H engine comes around the bend. We wave to the engineer then to the few passengers in the dome car. It’s a small train, and it’s rumbling down the track in a cloud of diesel smoke within seconds. As it clatters away and the tiny crossing gates wobble up again, I run to the spot where I’d placed the penny. Nothing. If it hadn’t been for my experience in Dekalb, Illinois where dozens upon dozens of trains pass thru the tiny town daily, and all of the coins I’d practiced smashing there, I’d have been dismayed. But I wasn’t. Looking closer, I saw an imprint of a circle on the track, and a few inches away, an imprint of an oval. Elihu joins the hunt, and we widen our search. Finally, there it is. I coach Elihu to find it himself. He laughs when he first spots the oval sliver of copper in the gravel. We take it back to the imprint and lay it down; it matches the outline perfectly. Earlier that morning Elihu had been lamenting the fact that he remembered so very little of his younger years before we’d moved here, and that he felt he’d forgotten so many of the things he’d done. He was worried he had so few precise memories – his past all seemed to wash together. He wanted clear and distinct memories, specific stories to pass on to his own kids one day. This is the first time he can recall squashing a coin on railroad tracks. “Now, think you’ll remember this always?” I ask, hoping he’ll easily agree. He laughs. “And keep this coin. You can show this to your kids one day. Plus you can show them exactly where it happened. You’ll always have this memory. Always.” He is happy. He continues to marvel over the whisp of a penny as we get back into the car and head on our way.

Our day is lovely, the weather is sunny, mild and breezy, and walking hand-in-hand, we move through our day at a easy, gentle pace. Register my folk’s van at the DMV, find a ladybug (who may well be a male, Elihu reminds me), get a few groceries, pickup a gift card for a birthday party and get a new timer for the coop door. Our final stop is in the mall parking lot where we are going to feed the seagulls. This is always a nice little extra in a day. We pull into a far away corner of the mall parking lot and begin to throw tiny bits of bread outside the window of the car. We open the windows and turn the car off so it’s quiet. One flies overhead and then swoops down. Then another, and soon there are a half dozen seagulls swooping down just feet from Elihu’s window. He sees them close up, hovering, swooping, even snatching pieces in mid-air. (Sometimes we’ll put bread on our sunroof and watch them from below!) I miss Lake Michigan for many reasons, seagulls are one. I used to feed them on the beach where I lived, and have images in my memory of dozens hovering only feet above me, just hanging in the wind… It saddens me that people now think of them as pests. Hey, it saddens me that people think of pigeons as pests too. I like to think they are incredibly resourceful. Good for them to figure out how to make a living from our waste. (If it helps you to like pigeons better – just call em doves. Pigeons and doves are the same thing, it’s only context and culture that makes us think of them different creatures. If you aren’t convinced, just look it up for yourself.) The birds eat their fill, so we head out. The sun is now much lower in the sky, and we realize we’ve been out doing errands for almost five hours.

I’d thought the consensus was that we were both fairly pooped after our long day out, but as soon as we pull in the driveway – before the car has even come to a stop – Elihu is out and running after his beloved chickens. As I unload the car and begin to think about making dinner, Elihu is at the small pond searching for frogs. (His current goal is remove all the frogs from our tiny, plastic-lined pond and move them to the larger, mud-banked pond where they can properly hibernate for the winter.) In a while I have supper ready, and although it takes three rounds of bell ringing to get him in, he’s content to eat a cold supper. Once again his head is full of flying ideas – how wings work, how amazing they are to watch, how he wishes he could know what his birds are thinking… I am almost fed up with all the bird talk, but hey, I suppose I’m lucky to have a kid who’d rather spend his free time with an actual bird than an electronic game about birds – let alone angry ones. !

We’ll catch up on that book report – I promise us both. Granted, we hadn’t accomplished what we’d hoped for school-work wise, but it wasn’t a day wasted. Elihu may yet one day need to use spell check to make sure he’s spelled ‘exquisite’ correctly, but no doubt he’ll always remember the day we flattened a penny on the railroad tracks, and maybe that alone was worth taking a free day.