A School Bus “Education”

Remember that school field trip I recently said I would be attending as a chaperone? Here’s an adaptation of a post I made about it at neighborsgo.com, a community website/blogsite of the Dallas Morning News. But beware, ye who blush easily- this is the “uncensored” version.

Ah, nothing like being on a field trip to a museum with a bunch of giggling 4th graders, viewing a bunch of phallic art– and not just at the exhibit.  In fact, I’m not sure where I saw more– on the statues at the Dallas Museum of Art, or drawn all over the seats of the Dallas County school bus on which we rode. Yep, it was a veritable penis party– and notice I’m using the correct anatomical term, as opposed to the slang which had been scrawled on the seats next to the pictures.  In addition to the anatomical “art” and descriptions, there were a whole lot more expletives as well, written in bright (and no doubt permanent) marker. 

If only the rest of the adult chaperones had sat in the back with the kids.  I did, much to the chagrin of my 10-year-old.  But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made my discovery. “Mrs. Allbee, there are cuss words back here,” said one sweet-faced boy. “Yes, there are,” I said, sitting down next to him and grimacing as he pointed out each one.  “They should paint these over,” he said.  At first, I thought, why hasn’t that been done, it’s just one seat.  But then, as I looked around,  I noticed that it was on the backs of more seats, and then I noticed drawings and writings not only on the seat backs, but on the fronts and seat cushions of several more– the graffiti seemed to include more than half the seats on the bus.  If they were painted over with fabric paint, they’d probably just get marked up again.

I wondered what younger kids think when they ride this bus.  I can just hear those who are early readers.  “Teacher, what does F-U-C-K-I-N-G  D-I-C-K-S-U-C-K-E-R mean?” I couldn’t help but think of the impression these buses also make on children from other counties– if my memory is correct, other organizations may rent Dallas County school buses for a fee.  Gee, nothing says Welcome to Dallas better than cuss words and phallic drawings, don’t you think? Not only was the bus heavy with graffiti, but many seats looked like they had been ripped into with knifes– metal and stuffing were hanging out of large gaping holes in the torn, forest green vinyl. 

I think they ought to just cover the seats in cheap clear plastic coverings, like people used to put on their car’s seats in the 50’s and 60’s.  When I was a child, I remember my family’s black Chevy had plastic seat covers that were textured all over, sort of nubby. Fun for little hands to touch– but definitely not easy to write on with a marker!! Maybe that would prevent kids from writing on school bus seats, and if they did, the seat covers could easily be replaced.

In the meantime, for the next field trip, I hope they take the train.  Or maybe I’ll just volunteer to drive!



When TV Is Good for Families

My family will be going through withdrawal this week.  American Idol withdrawal, that is.  Now, before all you non-watchers start rolling your eyes, try to set aside any negative feelings you may have for the show (or for TV in general) and consider my statement in another way: my family will be missing time spent together this week. For just like people from the Greatest Generation reminisce about gathering with their family around the radio, I know that some day, my children will remember the fun we had gathering in front of the TV two nights each week, to watch regular people from all over America sing their hearts out.

For all the bad things about TV (and I am not averse to listing its negative qualities, as many of you know) this “togetherness” feature is one that parents should take advantage of with their families, whether it’s watching American Idol, or a game show like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, or some drama or comedy you deem appropriate– for my sister-in-law and her son, it’s been “The Office”. 

Unbeknownst to my family, I actually made the conscious decision three years ago that we would start following American Idol.  I had disliked what little of it I’d seen previously due to contestant judge Simon Cowell’s harsh criticisms, but then realized that contestants are “in” on the schtick and sign up fully knowing there is a good chance they will be on the receiving end of some of it.  The other judges usually balance his comments so well and give good, constructive suggestions that I decided to give it a green light.  Normally, we hardly ever watched prime time TV.  Too much stuff to do in the evenings, with homework, instrument practicing, chores, sports practices… and besides, I felt (and still feel) that a lot of primetime, network TV is too racy and/or too scary for children– even the ads make me wince. But one day, it struck me that with our family’s love of music and singing, American Idol would be a good fit, and that watching it might be a good family tradition to start.  And I was right. 

Boy, was I right! Ever since I announced, “We’re going to watch American Idol tonight,” we haven’t missed a season, and it has been, for lack of a better word, a blast for all of us. We debate the merits of each contestant, enter online contests to try to win tickets to the show, and have given new life to the term, “TV Dinner.”  We buy Dreyers’ American Idol ice cream flavors, download contestant performances from iTunes and carefully write down the voting phone numbers of our favorite contestants at the end of most shows, so we can call in our votes.  As the competition gets more heated up, there is an air of excitement on Tuesdays and Wednesdays around our house–  we all remark that “Idol’s on tonight!” and we can’t wait to watch it.  We Tivo it so that when schedules conflict, we can watch it together at a later time (and it’s interesting how adamant the kids are about watching it “together”, proof that the “togetherness” is more important than the show itself).  The first year we watched it, we were fortunate to be in Houston at the same time the Idols tour rolled through, so we bought tickets and had yet another great family time, my younger daughter cheering loudly while sporting a “Sanjaya, You Really Got Me” T-shirt we’d ordered online. 

And another interesting parent-child connection has happened as a result of being fans of the show: it’s introduced our kids to a lot of music from past eras– shockingly, they like some of it!  It’s definitely given new life to artists who today’s kids wouldn’t normally be downloading on their Ipods– Cindy Lauper, Johnny Cash, Tears for Fears, Smoky Robinson, Diana Ross… the list keeps growing.

What will we do on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings now that Idol is over for this year? Probably be a lot more productive.  Then again, maybe Mom will think of another tradition to fill its place.

Can I Go On Strike?

I’m not sure a tooth on a necklace (see previous post) is going to help me.  After spending all day yesterday, a beautiful sunny Sunday, doing things to help everyone else in the family (leaving only about 10-15 minutes to do anything I wanted to do for myself), I listened as my 10-year-old stood by my desk at 8:30 p.m., looking like a cartoon with steam coming out of her ears, and yelled at me,  “You never do anything for me!” because I had failed to go online that day and sign her up for summer Girl Scout camp (even though I’d worked on her summer schedule for hours on Saturday). When I became angry at her for saying that, she tried to backtrack and say, “Oh, what I meant to say was, “You never do anything with me!” and went on in even greater detail to rant about my lack of attention.  Huh? Like that’s supposed to make me feel better? I’d say that’s another arrow (or 2 , or 3) through my heart.  I had just stayed up until midnight the night before watching the movie Twilight with both girls (even though I definitely had other things to do) because they’d seen it and wanted me to see it as well.  Just the three of us (and the dog, and a bowl of popcorn), Mom finally having some fun with the girls.  While the teenager made it a point to tell me (more than once) she didn’t want me to sit too close to her, the 10-year-old was thrilled that I was there… I thought!

I guess I can’t do anything right!   

I wish there was a union for Moms so I could go on strike.  Wouldn’t that be interesting? With a union representative to negotiate better working conditions.  But no amount of negotiating or legislating can force true appreciation.  That would have to come from within my kids.  And right now I’m having a hard time seeing it, and “the little things” are not mattering very much!

I just put one foot in front of the other and move on.  On Tuesday, I am spending almost my entire day chaperoning my 10-year-old’s  4th grade class on a trip to an art museum, riding a school bus on a 40-mile round trip and eating my lunch out of a sack.  I signed up for it a long time ago…

Is Mother’s “Day” An Insult?

How was your Mother’s Day? Did you do something nice for your mom, another mom, or, if you’re a mom, did you receive something nice? Mine was fine– my husband cooked me dinner and my 10-year-old presented me with a card she’d made at school. They both picked out and purchased a nice gift for me, too.  (My teenager said nothing and did nothing, but truly, I wasn’t surprised, or hurt– if she had done anything nice for me, it would have seemed contrived and fake, considering that most of her words to me, for months, have been whiny, angry or disgusted.)  But I’ve been thinking about the holiday more, and I think I’m on the side of the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, who went to her grave penniless, having spent all her money trying to abolish the holiday she’d started.  Only I’d get rid of it for different reasons.

Anna was down on Mother’s Day because it had gotten too commercial, with all the candy and cards purchased.   “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” she wrote.  I agree, homemade sentiments are always the best, but sometimes it does take someone a long time to pick out a card in a store, trying to find “just the right card”, someone else’s words that most closely match their own… No, I’m not bothered by the commercialism, I’m down on Mother’s Day because I think it seems ridiculous to say, “Let’s take a day to honor good ‘ol Mom” when she really should be honored 365 days a year. 

I think there is a huge lack of appreciation for mothers in our culture. I hear about it and see it all the time…there’s the stuff in the news, the companies who won’t provide daycare benefits to female workers, the jobs lost if a woman mentions her kids during the interview or takes off work to care for a sick child… and there’s the stuff I hear from friends, who feel really beat down a lot of the time.  Last week, I talked to a friend, the mother of two and a full-time teacher, and asked what her family would be doing on Mother’s Day.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said.  “My husband and kids usually go out at the last minute to the grocery store and buy me a card and a flower, ” she said, sounding disappointed.  “And I usually plan ahead with the kids on something really nice for Father’s Day, we make a big deal out of it.  He just doesn’t get it.  I’d just like to feel appreciated once in awhile…”  

I’ll never forget a beautiful Mother’s Day essay I once read in a local publication, written by a divorced businessman who suddenly had to take custody of his four children (one a toddler), when his ex-wife died in a car accident.  He wrote about all he had to learn about raising children and all the “unnoticed” things he realized his ex-wife had done for the family, and that if he’d realized these things before and shown appreciation, their marriage might have lasted.   

Is there anything, short of death, that an under-appreciated mom can do to help make her husband and family realize just how much she’s needed, just how much they appreciate all she does? One mom told me, when her kids were little, that a weekend away on a “Mom’s Retreat” had helped.  Her husband had to be in charge for a couple days and was so glad to see her when she returned, he’d definitely realized a lot while she was gone.  That does work for some but not for others.  (For some moms, it’s such a disaster around the house when they return that they have double the work to do, and they find out things that have happened that put their child’s safety at risk.  In my case, my husband usually tries to prove hard that he’s up for the task, that taking care of kids is a challenge that he can tackle, maybe even do better, so if there are any “this was tougher than I thought, gee I’m glad you’re back now so I don’t have to do this” feelings, they’re not admitted to me! )

In the past, when I’ve felt underappreciated as a stay-at-home, work-at-home mom, I’ve often thought of keeping a time log, much like we used to have to do when I worked at an advertising agency.  Write down everything you do in a day, so if your husband makes any cracks about “staying home and eating bon bons”, you have that time log ready to shove in his face. But when I’d try to write down my time, I’d get too busy to keep an accurate list, and after a couple days, I’d stop keeping track.

One of the best things I found is something a friend emailed me:   Salary.com Inc., “a leading provider of on-demand compensation, payroll and talent management solutions”, composes an annual
Mom Salary Survey.  The recently released 2009 results determined that the time mothers spend performing the 10 most popular “mom job functions” (like Logistics Analyst, Cook, Housekeeper, and Van Driver) would equate to an annual cash compensation of $122,732 for a Stay-at-Home Mom and an additional $76,184 for a Working Mom, up 5% and 11%, respectively, from the 2008 calculations.  (You can even customize it to your own situation and zip code with their Mom Salary Wizard.  Mine came to $125,221 but I think they’re missing a few job descriptions–  I’d also add Pet Handler, Disciplinarian, Historian, Travel Agent, and Piano Teacher to my list, so my yearly salary value is probably higher!) I think those dollar figures might really cause some families, especially husbands, to sit up and take notice, especially in these down economic times.

But even with fancy salary charts, I have come to the realization that a mom cannot be formally appreciated properly, never thanked enough for all she does.  A mom just needs to resign herself to the fact that when you take on this job, you don’t get performance reviews or bonuses  or “leadership awards” like you might get when working for a company.  If you get a “thank you”, that’s fantastic.  But I think most of us have to look for the real appreciation in other ways, or forever feel sorry for ourselves.  My husband once, on the spur of the moment,  took off work early and drove to a warehouse far away to pick up a van load of Girl Scout cookies because he realized, after talking to me on the phone, that I was too busy that day to do it.  I never asked him to do it, he just volunteered.  I will never forget that, because it helped me out tremendously and showed that he was aware that the other things I had to do were just as important.  I remember my teenager, when she was 3, sitting on my lap, scared one day during a rainstorm, telling me how glad she was that I had decided to quit my job and stay home with her.  And two days ago, on Mother’s Day, my 10-year-old gave me a bloody, toothless grin and a big hug, thrilled that I had pulled out her loose tooth when no one else could. 

I may just make a necklace out of that little tooth…because it will help to remind me to be thankful for the little things, that moms are special and unique, and that I really am appreciated.

Slowing Down

Sometimes I love it when it storms.  Especially on Saturdays. Oh, I know that when that happens, there are crying brides all over the county who were counting on fairy-tale outdoor weddings, but consider an upside to Saturday rain– suddenly all the over-scheduled families have to slow down and shift gears, so to speak,  spend quality time at home.   Should we watch a movie? Play a game? Or (horrors) talk???  Because rainstorms mean youth soccer games are cancelled (or baseball, or any other outdoor youth sport).  For anyone that’s climbed aboard the youth sports train (at least in Texas), it normally dominates their weekend, and for a lot of families, picks up steam and gets faster and faster, until both Saturdays and Sundays are filled, and you’re playing on a “select” team and traveling to other states.  Church picnic? Can’t attend, we’ve got a soccer game.  Girl Scout troop heading to NASA? Can’t go, got a tournament.  Cousin getting married? Can’t be the flower girl, I’m the pitcher.  Many things that used to be a “normal” part of life get pushed aside.  A busy weekend becomes the norm, after having a busy week that involves practices for those teams, not to mention other activities like music lessons, karate, dance, …the list goes on and on.  And multiplies depending on the number of children you have.  Not to mention that school and homework are squeezed in there somewhere.  And not to mention rarely, if ever, getting to sit down at the table and eat dinner as a family– dinner is fast food in the car sandwiched between activities. 

So when rainstorms hit on a Saturday, it’s like God saying, “You’re not always in control, busy people…slow down, relax, and take a break for a change.”

I’d forgotten what weekends could be like until this past year, when our family cut back its schedule.  Though my 10-year-old had played soccer since she was 3 or 4, and my husband liked hanging with the soccer dads, I put my foot down.  She was getting into gymnastics whole-heartedly, increasing her classes to two nights a week for two hours each class, plus starting with a new piano teacher who I knew would be tougher, plus Girl Scouts on some Fridays and church choir on Sunday– soccer would mean practice during the week and a game every Saturday, with a game schedule that’s often not set until the last minute.  Since I would be the one driving her to soccer practice, I didn’t want to fit one more thing into my chauffeur schedule, let alone she needs breathing space as well.  In addition, my older daughter cut back her dance class schedule to make room for homework and new activities that came with being an 8th grader.  So at the beginning of this school year, suddenly we realized that we had something we hadn’t had in awhile– free Saturdays. Those family bike rides I mention in earlier posts could never have happened if we hadn’t cut back our schedule.  A trip to a bark park would have only been a line on a “To Do” list.  My husband and I get to attend Saturday morning exercise classes more often, and he definitely has had more time to work on the house and yard. 

I know that youth sports teach valuable lessons, but sometimes I wonder if the lessons are lost when those sports start to consume your life.  I know some third graders who’ve had games at 9 at night, on a school night.  How dare these coaches and organizations do that to families– but youth sports is a business, and the more teams they have and the more games they can schedule, the more money they make– and as in a lot of businesses, the ethics side takes a backseat.  So parents have the responsibility to put the brakes on things, and I know how hard it can be sometimes to resist your child’s wants.  My child badly wanted to play soccer this year (“all my friends are doing it!”), but kids will fill up their every waking minute with classes and activities if given free reign, and parents have to be the wise ones.  The uncool ones.  The ones who can look at the big picture (and the pocketbook) when their child can’t.  With so many activities to choose from, at some point in a kid’s development parents have to say, “In what do they have a natural talent? What should we be nurturing more?” rather than letting them do everything under the sun.  Or, if there’s no talents to focus in on yet, let them try different things– a couple at a time.  I once did a story on overscheduled kids for the Dallas Morning News, and remember in my research and interviews discovering parents whose mindset (and vision of  good parenting) was to have their kids involved in as many things as possible, “to keep them out of trouble”, as some said.  How helicopter and sick is that???  Like their kids can’t be creative enough to find safe fun on their own, to invent something, to write a story, to help around the house, to learn how to do laundry or cook.  Are parents so worried about the world’s vices that this is the only way to keep them safe? Yes, my teenager can often drive me crazy when she’s around the house and bored, but sometimes, as I always say, boredom can lead to creative things. Parents need to have the tools around the house to help make that happen, like art supplies or a kids’ cookbook, but those kinds of things cost a lot less than signing up for yet another activity.

All this is a long way of getting to a point I wanted to make– that kids staying home due to school closings from swine flu, and having all their extra-curricular activities cancelled, can be a positive thing– a lot like a Saturday rainstorm.  We’ve been out a total of 7 school days so far (we had yesterday and today added on). So far, in addition to stuff mentioned in an earlier post, Emmie and I have made an old-fashioned chocolate soda and pizza dough alphabet letters, both from scratch (which included a discussion of why soda fountains used to be at drugstores); she bought herself an acoustic guitar at Target with her own money and taught herself how to play a few songs; she worked on the Scout Weather Watch badge and I helped her learn to read a weather map and do some experiments, and we visited an old sheet music store so she could further teach herself guitar.  None of this is to brag, just to give parents ideas and encouragement.  I wish Emmie and I could do more– it’s rare having this kind of “down time”.  But gymnastics class is a “go” for this afternoon, and I just got an email from her teacher with homework attached, so it looks like our weekly routine may be getting “back to the old grindstone”.  Only in moderation, of course.