safer and friendlier schools

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that my fan-fictional Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley, wants to go into the Ministry of Magic and work toward making school a safer and friendlier place for students. I didn’t get to clarify what I meant by “safer and friendlier,” so I want to take a moment to do that now. I fear that when some people read that phrase, their immediate reaction may be to grumble about how we make things so easy for kids these days and how we should be teaching them to grow up instead of coddling them. I’m glad these hypothetical curmudgeons brought this up because teaching kids to grow up and to thrive–i.e. teaching them resilience–is exactly what I’m concerned about too. ūüôā

Before we can even have a conversation about resilience, we first need to understand that it’s necessary and acknowledge that childhood is hard. I wrote a post about this last fall, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that childhood is hard for everyone–you’re figuring out who you are and who everybody else is and how the world works–but it’s especially difficult for children who experience major forms of trauma. I just watched an excellent webinar by Dr. Allison Jackson and sponsored by Emote, and I’ve been given permission to share it, which I’ll do as soon as the recording is available. It’s the first in a series on identifying and addressing trauma for educators and anyone who works with children; for me, it’s relevant to both my children’s literature teaching and my volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. Normally the word “webinar” doesn’t suggest engaging viewing, but I had tears in my eyes at one point during this one, and they weren’t tears of boredom.

When I talk about making schools safer and friendlier for kids, I’m not talking about making everything cheerful; I’m not talking about making everything easy–those things are impossible. I’m talking about letting kids know that they’re acceptable, even if they don’t have designer clothes and fancy lunches, even if they are a different size/shape/skin color from everyone else in the class. And then I’m talking about teaching them that they have the responsibility and the power to be kind to others. I will say more about this in future posts–or maybe Patrick will!

It’s tough to be a kid.

First, I’d like to apologize for not posting last week.¬† It’s a busy time of the year.¬† But I’m back!

Over the past week, a number of situations and stories have brought to my attention, with unusual force, the difficulties that face many children.¬† Some of these difficulties are brought about or compounded by social ills like poverty and abuse; others are just part of childhood.¬† Yet we adults tend to romanticize childhood retrospectively, talking about it as a carefree time when all we had to worry about was winning at baseball or video games.¬† Millennials talk about “adulting” as if life just recently became hard, forgetting or denying that being a kid can be just as tough.

That was all very abstract, so let me quickly run through the situations and stories that I mentioned.

  • I went to see¬†It, which shows children being empowered by genuine friendship¬†but also portrays harsh bullying and parental abuse that are just as frightening as the elemental force of evil that comes out of the sewer embodied as a creepy clown.
  • I am about to start training to become a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).¬† This means I’ll be assigned to observe and report on behalf of children involved in court cases due to their guardians’ abuse or neglect.¬† Just from filling out the paperwork and reading the manual, I know this work is going to break my heart sometimes.
  • But this is the example that stopped me in my tracks.¬† I recently reread Roald Dahl’s¬†Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preparation to discuss it with my children’s lit class.¬† Like all of Dahl’s novels, this one is zany, exuberant, and the utter opposite of realism—except for one passage in chapter 10, “The Family Begins to Starve.”¬† This bears quoting: “And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, [Charlie Bucket] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength.¬† In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.¬† He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow.¬† Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.”¬† Here, in the middle of this wacky, colorful story about Oompa-Loompas and marvelous candy, is a textbook description of a child who can barely function because of hunger.¬† I told my students, mostly future teachers, to pay attention—they might see a boy just like this in their classes one day.

And even for children who aren’t abused, bullied, or starving, everything feels more intense in childhood: fear, jealousy, shame.¬† The good feelings are more intense too, sure.¬† But be careful when you make rosy generalizations about childhood.¬† Don’t let yourself forget that it isn’t easy.

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest. ¬†Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win. ¬†This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not. ¬†It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student. ¬†It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me. ¬†I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me. ¬†I should have trained better. ¬†I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before. ¬†I should have started slower to preserve my stamina. ¬†I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.” ¬†Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions. ¬†But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be. ¬†Who contributed the most to this project? ¬†Who’s the busiest? ¬†Who has the most friends? ¬†When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion. ¬†Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students? ¬†But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events. ¬†There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting. ¬†It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live. ¬†When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom. ¬†Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition. ¬†Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach. ¬†A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me. ¬†And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough. ¬†True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing. ¬†They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood. ¬†Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.

Advent week 3: Christmas rituals

Last week, actual tears came to my eyes while I was writing my blog post, and I don’t feel like¬†going through that emotional wringer again (plus I can’t think of anything profound to say this week), so I’m going to write about something more fun. ¬†But first, I have to tell you about a book I checked out of my church library. ¬†It’s called¬†Simply SenseSational Christmas. ¬†The title, interestingly enough, isn’t the cheesiest thing about the book. ¬†Let’s just say that it savors strongly of the 1990s, when it was published. ¬†But although the hip DIY bloggers of 2016 might sneer at much of this book’s aesthetic, its central points are perhaps more relevant than ever: 1. Christmas is about the time when God was born in a stable, so stop stressing yourself out trying to have the perfect showplace home, and 2. Appealing to all five physical senses is possibly the best way to create a memorable, delightful, and even worshipful experience for yourself and your loved ones at Christmas. ¬†The book goes on to offer simple strategies like scattering a handful of cloves around candles so that they give off a spicy, festive scent when they get warm. ¬†This might not be life-changing stuff–then again, it might.

This book has got me thinking about some of the rituals, most if not all of them involving the physical senses, that I enjoy in my own home each Christmas. ¬†This is the second Christmas I’ve spent in my house. ¬†Before that, I was renting an apartment, and while I enjoyed some Christmas rituals there too, there’s something special about celebrating in one’s very own home. ¬†(I also enjoy a number of Christmas rituals in my parents’ house, where I always spend the actual day of Christmas and usually the week or so before and after it, but those aren’t the subject of this post.) ¬†Here are some of them.

  1. I have a number of Christmas albums in my iTunes library, including some that I’ve been listening to with my family since childhood (The New Young Messiah) and some that I’ve acquired in recent years (Christmas at the Renaissance Fair by Moat Jumper–exactly what it sounds like). ¬†I start listening to these while I’m decorating on December 1, and I usually get through the whole collection about three times during the Christmas season. ¬†I also have some individual Christmasy tracks from other albums that I include in the rotation, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” and John Williams’s “Christmas at Hogwarts” from the¬†Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack. ¬†I also like to listen to the¬†Nutcracker suite on record #12 of the¬†Festival of Light Classical Music record collection I bought at Goodwill last year for $2.50.
  2. I light candles like a pyromaniac all year, but at Christmas, it really gets out of hand.  I go through tealights like my family goes through toilet paper at a large gathering.  The last year I lived in the apartment, my neighbor made me a lovely set of candleholders created from upside-down stemware decorated to look like Santa Claus, a snowman, and other festive characters.  I also have a balsam-and-cedar scented large Yankee jar candle that almost compensates for the fact that my 1.5 trees (I have a big one in the living room and a little one in my home office) are artificial.  My Pier One Holiday Forest room spray, a gift from a friend last year, also helps.
  3. I love mail. ¬†I check my mailbox obsessively on Saturdays when I’m home to check it, and I actually have a real honest-to-goodness pen pal. ¬†So it’s no surprise that I enjoy sending Christmas cards. ¬†I love writing in them (even if it’s just a simple “Love, Tess”), sticking Christmas seals on the envelopes, and putting a big fat stack of them out in the mailbox. ¬†In turn, when I receive Christmas cards, I hang them with tiny clothespins on twine in the corner of my entryway. ¬†It’s an easy and beautiful decoration, especially when I get cards with gold on the front, which catch the light from my many candles and my tree lights.

I could go on–I haven’t said a word about food–but I think you get the idea. ¬†These rituals are so common as to sound almost banal, but they’re meaningful to me. ¬†I’m sure you have some that are meaningful to you. ¬†Feel free to share in the comments!

The child is father to the man

Well, so much for posting every week. My last few weeks have been busy, but I’m hoping to get back on a regular schedule. The purpose of today’s post is clear: I want to show you how darn cute I was as a child. Also, I want to point out how some of my interests were established at a very early age. Photo credits are shared by whichever parent took them ages ago and Sarah, who recently scanned them. P.S. If you know the origin of the quote in the title, and/or what it’s supposed to mean (without Googling it!), feel free to show off your knowledge in the comments.

I still enjoy . . .

1184884_10202220966431908_1525965432_n

being feted, especially when presents are involved.

1236203_10202220973152076_1071870549_n

wearing costumes.

1238848_10202220973952096_51811587_n

being in charge.

1235322_10202220974072099_2094589987_n

reading.

1235514_10202220974232103_1783739923_n

breakfast.