Monday, November 30, 2009


Lenny: You take money from guys, and you perform all these


You could be... hey! I'm talking to you.

- You could have a family.

Linda: - Let go of me.

Lenny: You could have a husband and a child....

Linda: Stop! Stop it now.

Now listen, I don't like possessive men.

- Partial transcript, film “Mighty Aphrodite” (Lenny played by Woody Allen and Linda played by Mira Sorvino)

“What is the difference between a housewife and a prostitute?” my Sociology professor asked my class, when I was around age nineteen or twenty. The females waved their hands agitatedly, and when called on, tried to articulate how the two “occupations” were different. After a few minutes, the professor dismissively said something like, “Of course they’re different. A prostitute takes money for sex. Being a housewife is based on love and partnership.” I don’t remember what else he said, but the whole discussion didn’t sit well with me. In a good marriage, sex is a mutual (and hopefully, frequent) perk of being in a relationship. But is it somehow implied that it’s a housewife’s responsibility to provide sex because she’s being financially compensated?

When I began this blog, and wanted to have four categories, I struggled to come up with an alternative to “Housewife”. Although a “Homemaker” makes a home, that wasn't how I wanted to define myself. I ended up with “Domestic", as in, matters pertaining to the home.

And when does a woman become a housewife? Is that the old-fashioned notion of a woman’s role immediately after marriage? My childhood friend’s mother used to say, “I’m not married to my house!” (She took Valium to cope).The definition for housewife on is: A woman who manages her own household as her main occupation. So, for the most part, a woman may be a housewife when she becomes a mother. Like me.

For those who seek it, motherhood is a gift. But historically, motherhood has also been a curse. Caring for children meant that women rarely were provided with education, or had a voice in the laws of government or rules of religion. The negative impact on too many women’s lives around the world has been the unfortunate consequence.

In my previous post “Roles”*, I discussed my uneasiness with the inequality of my financial contribution in comparison with my husband’s salary. If it was agreed that when I took over the majority of the household chores and responsibility for the children, does that make us equals? Even if my husband helps to run the household and care for the children, am I an equal partner in this partnership?

When I have heard people say that their husbands are “babysitting” I always correct them, “You’re husband is watching his children, just like you watch your children. You’re both parents – not hired babysitters.” I’ve certainly seen my share of mother hens, taking over every aspect of their child’s lives, leaving their seemingly incompetent husbands on the sidelines. My feeling is that if we’re going to make the men witness the horrors of childbirth, the least we can do is act like they’re also parents, rather than assistants. Although it would be nice to always get my own way, it would mean I’d get the entire burden too (Leading to resentment).

I learned a valuable lesson by exclusively nursing my daughter since I wasn’t working. I started off having her take both breast and bottle, like I did with my son. With him, it was essential since I’d be working and going to school. At some point, because I stopped using it, my daughter refused the bottle, and I was only able to leave without her for a couple of hours at a time during the day. Before the invention of the bottle (unless one could afford a wet nurse, whenever that horrid job was invented), women were stuck solely having to feed their infants. Other than the nursing fiasco, my husband and I have had pretty equal say in how to raise our children.

But raising children as a unit more than our parents or our grandparents still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. I recently tried to articulate my misgivings about my role as a wife and mother, and I’m sure this would be the same for stay-at-home fathers too (But maybe not). By becoming a mother, I’ve lost my independence until my youngest child leaves. No matter what, I'm the primary person responsible for our kids. If my husband has some vague idea of their schedules, it’s not the same as what I need to know and coordinate. It starts off by making sure they’re eating from all food groups for all three meals, and goes onto minor details like making sure they’re dressed for gym. Then I must keep track as to what they have after school, and get them there and back. I'll make sure they do their homework, music practice, reading, and bathing and bedtime. My husband may do a piece or take over for a day or two if I happen to travel, but it’s not the same. For me it’s just about all of it, virtually every day, for every year until the youngest is eighteen.

Before children, I could come and go as I pleased. Now I need to ask permission to meet up with a friend or go shopping on my own or go to a writer’s conference. My husband used to just tell me he was going out after work, but in our more recent history, he asks. But he doesn’t have to. If I just decided to walk out at night without a plan in place, I’d be a neglectful mother. The police could be called. It would be the equivalent of my husband walking out in the middle of the day at his job. But his work ends at some point during the day. The older my children get, the more leeway I have, but their hold on me is always present.

It may sound like I feel as if my children are a burden – I don’t. Having my children was a choice. After my life-changing first one, I even had a second. Part of the reason I became a teacher was in order to spend more time with the kids I planned to have. It’s just that for the past eleven years, my independence has been snatched, and while I don’t always notice the loss, sometimes it presses on my chest. Nor do I think my husband shirks his role as a father – far from it. I never have to stand in the cold and watch my daughter play soccer on Saturday morning, unless I want to (But when baseball was in the late afternoons, I did have to shiver in the stands for my son). I suspect that even if I worked more, and my husband helped more with household tasks, the majority of responsibility of the children would still fall on me. What if my husband was the kind of person who wouldn’t contribute? I would be left with no choice but to do it all. Since I’ve become a mother, I feel that dearth of power.

Why is it that, after all the progress women have made studies show that even if two parents work, the woman still does most of the work in the home?** I’m not minimizing the work men do outside the home nor the contributions that many do in the home. A few friends have recently have had children, and even if they plan to go back to work, they haven’t right away. Between nursing and staying home, the routine of the parental roles begins immediately. When I see a friend running the show, leaving her husband in her wake, as if it gives her power, I can never adequately explain to her the sacrifice she is making in the long-term.

I remember those early days after I had my son. It was probably my hormones, but I remember dissolving into tears a number of times because the responsibility for a tiny being became overwhelming. This baby’s wellbeing rested with me. There would be nothing to stop me from harming him (Not that I would). But the totality what that meant – I was in charge of this tiny one who couldn’t take care of himself. For hours on end, he was wholly dependent on me, and only me.

My children can do more for themselves, and I can even leave my son in charge for a couple of hours. It’s nice to have that breathing room. But when I advocated starting a family, I don’t think I really comprehend how much who I was and what I could do would shift. When I was pregnant, every parent I came across would say, “Your life is going to change forever.” I prepared myself for what I understood would change, but how much could I prepare for what I hadn’t experienced?

Though my children are everything to me, and I (usually, if they're behaving) love spending time with them, I only have so much control over their lives for such a short time. Each day they grow older, the less control I have. It’s the responsibility of the parents to remember who they were before they had kids, and to make sure they don’t lose themselves along the way – especially by making a laundry list of grievances against one another during these years. The best way to prevent that is to keep having the conversation.

“We know that birth takes a woman from one place in her life to another. The birth of a child certainly does change her viewpoint of herself and I believe her viewpoint of the world.”

- Sameerah Shareef


**A related article:

**Another related article:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Silence is Golden

“Words like violence

Break the silence

Come crashing in

Into my little world

Painful to me

Pierce right through me

Can’t you understand

Oh my little girl”

Gore, Martin, L. Song “Enjoy the Silence” Depeche Mode

There are rare instances of conversations at a Montessori School, which I thought I’d share from one of my recent sub days.

In the morning, as I surveyed the “work” around the room, a girl stopped me at one of the tables.

The girl pouted. “She called me a bad name,” she said, pointing to the accused.

I squatted down to her size. “What bad word did she say?”

“She called me a bad girl.”

Apparently five-year-olds don’t really know what bad words are. Instead of pointing that out, I asked, “Why did she call you a bad girl?”

No answer was given from the accuser, but the accused piped up, “She put pencils on my paper. Pencils go in the middle of the table.” Montessori. Kids. Follow. Rules.

I turned to the accuser, refraining from rolling my eyes. “Did you put pencils on her paper?” She nodded. “Why?”

“Because they were going on my paper,” she replied.

“Could you have put them in the middle of the table instead of on her paper?” I offered.

“Yes,” she acknowledged, head down in shame.

I turned to the accused. “Could you have asked her to keep the pencils off your paper, instead of calling her a bad girl?”

“Yes,” she admitted, averting my eyes.

They apologized to one another for their almost unforgivable transgressions, and I moved on.

Later, as I walked around the room, one three-year-old girl showed me her tracings of alphabet letters in a Montessori classroom. I complimented her “work”.

“Do you know all your letters?” The three-year-old wanted to know.

“Yes,” I replied, without adding with indignation, “How do you think I got to where I am today – a daily substitute?”

All the letters in the alphabet?” she demanded, furrowing her brow with suspicion.

“All the letters,” I confirmed, wondering what was with this girl.

“Then you should come to my house tomorrow after school. I colored a picture of all the letters that I can give you.”

“Hmmm. Thanks, but I think your teacher will be back tomorrow, so I won’t be here.”

Sweet offer from a child who just accused me of being illiterate.

Three times during the day, children rushed over to tattle on their classmates, “S/he isn’t supposed to be doing this work because s/he hasn’t had a lesson on it.” I should explain that even if the “lesson” is to show how to use a water dropper to transport blue water from one jar to another, if the students haven’t been taught then they aren’t allowed to do that “work”.

I’m then forced to ask the student, “Have you had a lesson on this work?”

How these children keep track of who has learned what, I don’t know, but the answer from the shamefaced student is always, “No.”

Then I must redirect them: “You need to find other work to do.”

What I really want to do is reprimand the snitch for forcing me to force the kid who was quietly working to stop quietly working.

Near the end of the day, a student asked me to read a picture book. I don’t remember the name of the book I read aloud or much of the content, but one page referred to a little sister. (In my defense, it's my second book in a row in which she keeps interjecting, it's the end of the day, and I'm burned out).

“I have a little sister,” the four-year-old piped up.

“That’s nice,” I murmured, planning to continue.

“Do you know her name?” she asked.

I wanted to say, “Yes, honey. I’ve been stalking you, so I know your name, address, all the members of your family, and your schedules,” but instead I replied, “No. What is it?”

She tells me, and so I began to read again.

“My little sister loves when I tickle her. It makes her laugh.” Then she mimicked baby laughter while she reenacted her tickle moves.

“That’s cute.” I forced a smile and began reading again.

“You know what else she likes?” the girl interrupted again.

At that moment, I saw the teacher looking at me, as I noted the time on the clock, and realized that school was supposed to end soon (Hooray!). Then I realized that the teacher didn’t want to interrupt me while I was giving a lesson. Is reading considered a lesson? Anyway, I told the interrupter, “We need to finish the book now. No more talking, please.”

The rest of the book was read without a hitch.

After recalling these brief conversations between the students and me, I’m noticing a pattern of hostility in my thoughts. Even though the conversations helped accelerate time, I wonder if I’m better off in a silent room. Or perhaps, in a room with high school students.

Friday, November 27, 2009


“Won’t you come see about me?

I’ll be alone, dancing you know it baby

Tell me your troubles and doubts

Giving me everything inside and out and”*

Today is the one-year anniversary of my twenty-year high school reunion. They always hold it on the Friday after Thanksgiving, in the hopes that former classmates will be in town during that weekend. My husband and I attended the same high school, although we traveled in different circles, and didn’t meet until two months before graduation. Since we were from the same school, it made sense for us to go because we (in theory) should know plenty of people. Otherwise, I assume it’s painful for the spouse to be dragged along to a banquet in a hotel room full of strangers.

My husband and I lived in the same town we grew up in at the time of our ten-year reunion, but we decided to skip it. I had just had a baby two months before, and hadn’t yet lost all of the pregnancy weight, so vanity drove me to eschew the party more than any other reason. At the time, I had just completed my Master’s degree in History, and was beginning to take my education credits, so I felt like I was working towards a goal. However, I recall my husband being less enthusiastic about his status, since he was still pursuing his Ph.D. I believe he imagined that a lot of former classmates would be established in their careers, while he was still a student. But the main reason we didn’t go was the price - $100 per person. For a family of three on my husband’s graduate stipend and my part-time job at an insurance company, it was a lot of money to spend. Besides, enough time hadn’t gone by to be that curious about what had happened to everyone.

In the months leading up to our twenty-year reunion, my husband became more enthusiastic about attending than me. It wasn’t just because he finally had a job he felt good about, but because when he was in junior high, he’d made a pact with a few friends that no matter where they were, and what they were doing, they’d all attend their twenty-year reunion (How did my husband keep that a secret from me for twenty years?). He hadn’t kept contact with any of them, but (luckily) the Internet made it easy to find everyone. After a few e-mails, everybody agreed to attend.

In retrospect, my status was better at the ten-year reunion than the twenty-year one. Ten years after graduation, I was progressing, but at some point in the proceeding decade, I stagnated. I student-taught at the twelve-year mark, but didn’t look for a job, since we would be moving, and I didn’t want to work full-time when my children were small. We moved at the thirteen-year mark, and I spent one semester as a teaching fellow at Harvard for a Civil War course. After my daughter was born, I took a year off, and then landed the part-time instructional-aide position, which I held for nearly six years. At the time of the twenty-year reunion, I was still an assistant, looking for a full-time job without success, and an unpublished children’s book writer. This was nothing to write home about.

It wasn’t just my work status that bothered me, since I’m proud of my two children, and if I had chosen to be a stay-at-home mom, I would’ve made peace with it (Though I’d be restless, as I think all stay-at-home mothers are). But I also hadn’t kept up with any friends from high school, and I didn’t have the impetus to find everyone beforehand. While my husband looked forward to going, I felt dread.

Walking in the room was just as daunting as I’d feared. I refused to wear my glasses (more vanity), normally worn for television and driving, so I had a hard time recognizing anyone. I certainly couldn’t read nametags unless a person was right in front of me (I know, sad). All of that hardly mattered since my friends were from several grades, so many wouldn’t even be at the reunion anyway. While my husband quickly located his group, I headed to the bar.

I spent much of the night astonished over how many men became unrecognizable in twenty-years. It seemed that many lost their hair, but gained a gut, and their faces became rounder. The women looked better, overall, but maybe keeping our hair and wearing makeup helped. I liked my dress because it made me look thinner, but the downside was that it also made my chest appear flatter. While I did recognize some people from various classes or because they were popular, we didn’t have enough in common to strike up a conversation.

There were highlights to the evening, when I finally found people I knew. I spoke with someone from an insurance company I’d worked at, who happened to marry someone from my high school. I reminisced and caught up with two good friends from junior high. Then I saw friend from choir, who had introduced me to my first boyfriend, whom I then dated for a year. This choir friend didn’t have anything good to report about my ex-boyfriend, which was depressing. Throughout the night, and during a party afterwards, I got to see people I hadn’t seen in two decades, and it was more fun than I’d expected. I realized that I wasn’t judging them, so it was only my insecurities that made me think they were judging me.

In retrospect, that reunion opened the door to joining facebook, and finding virtually all the people I cared about from my past. As a result, my circle of friends has expanded. It’s nice to see them when we visit, and get to know one another all over again. For each person, after my initial awkward explanation about what I have been doing, I’ve moved on.

“I won’t harm you or touch your defenses

Vanity and security

Don’t you forget about me.”*

- Schiff, Steve; Forsey, Keith, Song “(Don’t You) Forget About Me”, Simple Minds

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thankgiving Contest

"So in the spirit of gratitude and creating abundance, I’m calling on YOU ... to share what Thanksgiving means to you. The person who tugs at my heart strings the most will get a free essay writing class (Premium version) when the new session starts up on January 11."

- Amy Paturel*

I met the above challenge with my story below:

I never thought much about what Thanksgiving meant to me until recently, which should be a blasphemous confession coming from someone who has taught American History for years. I’ll eat our modern take on the original dishes eaten by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe to celebrate the bountiful harvest, but there aren’t presents, like on Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s getting colder rather than warmer, unlike on Easter and Passover. There are no fireworks, like on Independence Day. And I don’t get to dress up and eat massive amounts of candy, like on Halloween. So, Thanksgiving just wasn’t ranked high on my holiday favorites list. Worst of all - there’s always a dish of yams, which are vile, even if you dress them up with brown sugar and/or marshmallows. Besides, everything is decorated in oranges and browns, which are not flattering colors for my complexion.

Over the years, Thanksgiving has grown on me. Twenty years ago, I was a Catholic girl who began dating a Jewish boy from the same high school. While there were other issues with us being of two different faiths, choosing which side of the family to visit for the holidays was not one of them. All Christian holidays were celebrated with my side of the family. I’m sure those early years were overwhelming for my then boyfriend because, in comparison with his family, my family is huge. I had the pretty sedate Irish side of my father’s and the boisterous Italian side of my mother’s. If there were any conflicts about where to celebrate, it would be between my divorced parents’ separate family events. In those instances, we’d split our time between two houses, since virtually everyone lived within a forty-five minute drive from one another on Long Island. The Jewish holidays were reserved for my husband’s side, which were usually at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. Then came Thanksgiving.

Since my family seemed to have more of everything: people, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and so forth, Thanksgiving at my boyfriend’s parents’ home became a tradition. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but in the last fifteen years, several events occurred that made the location and the holiday take on a greater significance.

First, my father’s side of the family began dropping off like flies. His brother already lived in upstate NY, along with his estranged wife and three kids, so we rarely saw them. Then my paternal grandmother died three months before my wedding with the Jewish boyfriend. After that, my alcoholic aunt (my father’s younger sister) in Queens stopped making the effort to see us, except for two subsequent funerals before she eventually had her own. Several years later, my father’s older sister died, just two months before my sister’s wedding. As my father’s family demised, my mother-in-law began encouraging me to invite my father and sister for Thanksgiving.

Second, my mother’s side began to stop making the effort for all holidays, but Christmas. As a child, my parents, along with my mother’s siblings, took turns holding holidays. Over time, nearly all my aunts and uncles wound up divorcing, which caused a couple of remarriages, and a move. Several years later, there was a big family feud over where my maternal grandmother should live when she was declining, which strained family relations for years. One aunt and uncle couple, along with my cousin began taking turns hosting Christmas. But nobody bothered beyond immediate family for Easter anymore, and Thanksgiving became a dessert-only function for all but a handful of “insiders” at another Aunt and Uncle’s house in Bay Shore. I’ve never been one of the insiders. My Aunt’s reason for picking favorites was that her house was small. Then she moved, and even the Thanksgiving desserts were deserted. None of my cousins took the holiday reigns – besides me, no one else has yet had children and many (like us) have moved too far from Long Island to host. As a result, people do not hold extended family gatherings for anything but Christmas. Personally, Christmas was fun, but never had deep meaning for me, and once I converted to Judaism, I only celebrate at my Aunt and Uncle’s home in Port Washington.

My sister, who came with her husband for Thanksgiving every year anyway, eventually got divorced. She still comes, which is nice for my children and me. My father moved to Maine, but until he got a girlfriend a few years ago, he attended every year – even sleeping over. I don’t know if he’ll ever celebrate with us again now he’s pulled in his own direction, but he and his girlfriend have an open invitation from my mother-in-law.

The fact that Thanksgiving has become more important to me is a direct result of my mother-in-law. Most people I meet do not get along with their mother-in-laws, but that isn’t the case with me – she’s more like a mother. For twenty-years, she has extended an invitation to my mother, father, and sister, and other relatives and friends she thought might need a place to go. Just like her, her home is a warm and inviting place. Since I was nineteen, I’ve always felt welcome in her house, enhanced by the fact that my relatives were welcome as an extension of me. When my husband and I made the difficult decision to move all the way to Massachusetts eight years ago, she immediately got my husband and me a bed, bedding, and a bureau. She also bought beds for our children, along with a closet-full of toys, to make it feel like a second home. We’re always invited to visit as often as we want, and to stay as long we’d like.

It’s a drag to drive in for Thanksgiving. It seems that the rest of the Boston area leaves with us, so a normally four-and-a-half hour ride can run as long as seven hours, and the ride back, while not nearly as long, is not short enough. It’s a whirlwind three days of cooking, feasting, cleaning, and visiting relatives. But with all of the inconveniences, I look forward to it more with each year. When so much of life feels like chaos, the holiday feels like an anchor. The Thanksgiving tradition has become just that.

Our “traditional” Thanksgiving is atypical. First of all, there’s never a designated time to begin, so people show up when they feel like it. Sometimes this means that the turkey is done hours before dinner. Since I’m complimented for my soups, I usually cook one for a first course, which is also probably not normal. We’re the only family I know that does Thanksgiving dinner buffet style, with tables set up in the dining room, and people eating casually at chairs in the kitchen, on couches and on the floor at the coffee table in the living room. Because of the Jewish influence, there’s usually (at least) one dish per person, so leftovers are enough to feed many people for many days to follow. The atmosphere is light and festive, while we all weigh ourselves down with food. Everyone leaves satisfied.

When I look back twenty-years-ago, my family seemed so large, while my husband’s seemed too small. So much has changed in twenty-years. My husband’s hair is gray, I’m Jewish, we have an eleven-year-old boy, and a seven-year-old girl. We’ve moved six times in our fifteen-years of marriage. Our one constant is my in-laws’ home. While my extended families have weakened for a variety of reasons, my nuclear family has one place we can always stay. Each year for Thanksgiving, there’s a slightly different group of people at my in-law’s home, but the same core are always present: my mother and father-in-law, my sister-in-law, her husband, and two children, my husband, our two kids, and me. My mother always stops by for a while and my sister always spends the day. Everyone else is just gravy.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Positive Mental Attitude

“I’m a driver, I’m a winner; things are gonna change I can feel it.”

- Sampled from film “Kill the Moonlight”, Song, “Loser” Beck (I thought it was George H.W. Bush too, so now the song is ruined for me.)

The other morning, I was surprised to get a sub call since it was an early release day in the elementary schools. Report cards and progress reports were coming out, so time was set aside for parent-teacher conferences. I had my own parent-teacher conference scheduled that afternoon. When I was an extended term sub several years back, I had to schedule and be the teacher for the parent-teacher conferences. Because my children are good students and not behavior problems, it’s nice to be the parent. When you have to talk to parents about children who are not handing in homework, misbehaving, and/or failing, it’s not very pleasant to be the teacher. I guess that’s the upside of being a daily substitute.

The sub job was for Physical Education. I was pleased to be working at a school that had been calling me plenty of late. I was even more pleased to work with a former colleague from my previous job. He had a whistle, which was good because I couldn’t locate mine that morning. We taught three classes together, so it was nice an easy. The kids scooted on scooters, played hospital tag, and one group began team building for something called UMPA, but I don’t remember what it stands for (Not the Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Since I got there early, I checked out the gym. I was glad that this one had sunlight streaming through the windows. I don’t know how some teachers work in windowless rooms – I always end the day exhausted. There was a rock-climbing wall, ropes hanging from the ceiling, bleachers, basketball nets, a scoreboard, and a dividing wall, if needed. This gym wasn’t clutter with posters, but two inspirational papers were taped to the coach’s office window.

The first quote is below. I noted that Thomas Jefferson could’ve used an editor for this one, since he mixed his singular and plural nouns in the same sentence*. Still, the message is clear:

“Nothing can stop the person with the right mental attitude from achieving their goal. Nothing on earth can help the person with the wrong mental attitude.”

It reminded me of a friend who went to cheerleading camp, where they were encouraged to have a “PMA” – positive mental attitude.

The second was a faded photocopied list with a couple of typos, which I omitted, and no author was given:

The Winner is always part of the answer.

The Loser is always part of the problem.

The Winner always has a program.

The Loser always has an excuse.

The Winner says, “Let me do it for you.”

The Loser says, “That’s not my job.”

The Winner sees an answer for every problem.

The Loser sees a problem in every answer.

The Winner sees a green near every sand trap.

The Loser sees 2 or 3 sand traps near every green.

The Winner says, “It may be difficult, but it’s possible.”

The Loser says, “It may be possible, but it’s too difficult.”


This sheet reminded me a little of Goofus and Gallant from “Highlights” magazine. Just look at their names to figure out who was the good one and who was horrid. Even if you couldn’t read, you could tell Goofus was the bad seed because his face was pinched and his hair unkempt, while Gallant wore a serene expression and n’er had a hair out of place. Goofus was always selfish, while Gallant was selfless. In fact, Gallant may have been a little too nice. Goofus has three kidneys, but won't give up even one to save his ailing grandmother, while Gallant gives up both kidneys - one for his grandmother and the other, in case anyone needs it.

Just like when I taught in the Social Studies classroom at the high school, I wondered if any students ever bothered reading these papers (and if they detected the mistakes). Teachers work hard to reinforce lessons to elicit the best from a student, and to eradicate the worst. Students see quotes – handmade or from an education company, they sign contracts, they listen to teachers spew a litany of rules at the beginning of the year, and they are reproached when they fail to meet expectations. I’m sure many Loser teachers become discouraged and give up, but many Winner teachers become encouraged and keep trying. Perhaps the Loser instructor doesn’t pepper the room with inspiration, while the Winner instructor uses catchy phrases to inspire. Or not.

01/02/2010 - I just read in, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda, "Before the eighteenth century, writers and speakers typically referred to an indefinite subject... with a they, their, or them..." (Page 184). He predicts that this will once again become the norm by the middle of this century. Let's hope so, because him or her, she or he, s/he, or the standard (and sexist) him or he muddle sentences.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tactile Stimulation

"Starry, starry night.

Paint your palette blue and grey,

Look out on a summer's day,

With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.”

Don McLean, Song, “Starry, Starry Night”

The phone rang in another day to be spent at Montessori. Working with little kids a few days before Thanksgiving was a little unnerving, getting exposed to their dripping noses and phlegmy coughs. As it is, it’s nearly impossible for all four of us to trudge to New York this time of year without bringing some virus along. I knew I’d spend the day popping vitamin C. With each sneeze and cough, I planned to hold my breath. And with each zipped zipper, tied shoelace, and touched “work”, I’d wash my hands, even if the frequency caused my skin to crack.

I wound up repeating these phrases throughout the day:

“Please cough into your elbow or you’ll make other people sick.”

“Please take your finger out of your nose. Then go wash your hands.”

“Please go wipe your nose. Then go wash your hands.”

One of the first things I noticed in the classroom is that the pushpins were back from last spring. There are a couple of trays, each with a square of felt and a pushpin. The teachers’ job is to trace puzzle pieces of continents (for three-year-olds) and countries (for four and five-year-olds) on paper. Then the students use the pushpins around the outline, until the tracing can be popped out. Watching a bunch of them, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of pictures of immigrant children doing piecework in the lower east side during the late 1800s and early 1900s, like my grandmother used to do. It also made me recall the poor grandmothers being forced to sew in a nursing home sweatshop in the movie “Happy Gilmore”. One three-year-old said it was “hard” and made him “tired”.

A few times, I was convinced that time stood still when I’d glance at the clock, sure the minute hand hadn’t budged. As I made my way from table to table and mat to mat, making sure that all students were working, I began to believe that the morning would never end. To make the minutes less depressing, I kept stopping at a picture of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which may be my favorite painting in the world. I’ve always admired Van Gogh’s thick brushstrokes, which seem to be at their finest in that picture. The swirls of sky appear to be ocean waves, which combine the serenity of the ocean with the hush of the night sky, while the vibrant yellow moon and bursts of stars illuminate the scene.

I hate to admit this, but I touched the actual painting when I was a teenager, when visiting the MOMA (Modern Museum of Art) in New York City. I think I went with my father and sister, but I’m not sure. The only thing that stands out that day was Starry Night. The picture appeared three-dimensional with the thick gnarled paint. It was probably a rare moment when admirers didn’t surround the painting. I quickly glanced left and right, and then without much premeditation, briefly caressed it. It was amazing. But I felt guilty – if everyone did that, the picture would be destroyed.

I don’t know if it was because of people like me, or people worse than me who would try to harm the painting, but the last time I visited, the MOMA, the picture was behind glass. I was disappointed and relieved that painting was protected. Even though I was older (though perhaps not wiser), I don’t know if I could've resisted molesting the picture again. So I wanted to, but was glad that I couldn’t be tempted.

I am not usually an impulsive person. Rather, I feel like I’m constantly tempering other people’s impulsiveness. As a mother, I’m often placed in the thankless situation of having to discipline my children. As a teacher, I must encourage exemplary behavior from students, regardless of age. On a day spent with three to five-year-olds, more time is needed controlling impulsivity. But recalling that I had touched Starry Night, as I studied it in the bland Montessori classroom, made me once again feel for the little ones. Still, I had to nag:

“You need to find work to do.”

“Please get a mat for your work.”

“Please clean up your work.”

“Please don’t throw your food in the cafeteria.”

“You need to stay on your mat during naptime.”

“Why did you mix the red Play-Doh and yellow Play-Doh when they are

supposed to be kept separate?”

Who was I to judge them since I’d illegally manhandled an invaluable work of art? So, when four children took the separate containers of Play-Doh that were to be used to mold into the shape of a color-coordinated continent, but it had degenerated into pretending they were cooking, I pretended not to notice. Obviously, I appreciated the fun of tactile stimulation. And I’d rather pretend to be forming faux food than molding clay into the shape of a continent. Since the painting easel was off-limits because the students hadn’t had a “lesson” to introduce them on how to paint properly, this was as close as they would get to demonstrate some creativity.

What would Vincent Van Gogh have been like if he’d been a product of Montessori? Would he have been less crazy? Would he have been a great artist? On both counts, I doubt it.

To view my favorite painting: