Posts tagged ‘adventure’

February 3, 2011

She was my ear, my eye, and my arm: a thank you to someone who helped me be a working mom

It was the first day of school.  My son was about five months old and enrolled in a daycare near the campus.  We hadn’t signed up for the really expensive back-up nanny service yet, because well, it was really expensive and we wanted to see how far we could get on our own sick days and helpful relatives (the answer: not far).  I was at the time both the principal of the Middle School and teaching one period a day of fifth grade science.  It was the first year my school had a fifth grade, so the job at least felt fairly high-stakes.  We wanted them to have a good year.

The school, Eastside Prep in Kirkland, WA, has traditionally always started the year with grade-level field trips and overnights, helping to bond the new classmates together and explore some of the real-world context of their curriculum to come.  The plan for that day was for myself and Daria, the fifth grade general ed teacher to take the kids downtown for their field trip.  (When I say “general ed”, I mean that she did all the English, History, and Math, plus the organizational stuff, the homework stuff, the computer stuff, and the what-am-I-doing-in-Middle-School stuff, which is my way of saying she did everything.)

So here I am, driving to school and dropping my son off at his daycare.  I pull into the parking lot and he promptly throws up all over me.  Daycares in general don’t like vomit, and they are pretty strict about not taking vomiting children.  So I put him back in the car and drove to school.  The next thing I know, I’m in the back of a public bus with 18 brand-new fifth graders.  It’s their first day in middle school, their first day at this new school, and for many of them, their first time going into the city on a bus.  Daria Brandt, their general ed teacher, was with me, as was my son, five months old and huddled to my chest in a Baby Bjorn.  I was still praying that the throwing up in the morning was just some spit up, or reflux, or anything.  So far, it was going well.  Hey–I could be a working mom with a baby, right?  It’s the modern age!  He was happy on the bus with the kids and they were happy to watch him.

That was until he threw up on two or three of the closest ones.

Now, these were some good kids, and most had a reasonable amount of respect for me as their teacher and principal, but even they had their limits.  Apparently, me bringing a baby that was throwing up on them had crossed some kind of line.  They weren’t all that pleased about it.

Well, Daria and I did our best to get the mess cleaned up and get the kids to the proper destination.  I still tried to stay on the field trip–I didn’t have a lot of other options, and couldn’t imagine leaving Daria alone.  A) You can’t send one teacher into the city with 18 kids.  B) Daria had just moved to the city and had no idea where we were or where we were going.  C) Well, there are a lot of reasons, and they should be obvious.

But as my son continued to vomit, it became apparent that I had to leave.  I can’t imagine what Daria was thinking at the time, but she never once seemed upset or looked at me askance, even as I was walking away, leaving her with the kids, the kids she had to walk back through an unfamiliar city to find an unfamiliar bus stop and get them all home.

That was the first time, but not the last time, Daria would bail me out that year.  To say that it was a hard, hard year is the understatement of the century.  Every working mom knows the trials, and I, at least, was not up for them at this point.  My husband worked as a surgery resident, a famously overworked field.  Throughout the months of October or April, not one week went by without one or more of the three of us being sick.  To this day, I don’t know how I got out of bed each morning (which, was no later than 4:00 for the whole year, because sleeping was never one of my son’s favorite things to do).  But I do know that I couldn’t have done it without the help of truly awesome people like my school’s new fifth grade teacher.  When I was late to class because of some administrative emergency, or just because between pumping and breastfeeding during breaks I hadn’t had time to eat lunch that day and was trying to scarf something down before class, she would help with the kids.  When we were supposed to co-teach units together and I didn’t have the time or energy to plan that much detail, she would talk about the integrated lessons within her own classroom.  Knowing that these kids were being taken care of by the best of the best made me thankful every day.

But do you know what?  I don’t think I ever said “thank you”.  I don’t think I ever bought the bottle of wine that I kept thinking she deserved…well, it was a lot of bottles by the time the year was done.

So when I saw this contest, and how it asked for a compliment, I knew exactly who I was going to write about, because even though I work at home now, I want every woman to have the chance at a career if they want it.  And we will only be able to do that if we help each other.  I hope that every mom returning to work has someone as helpful as Daria waiting to help them out.

And (segue here–this IS a book blog after all) she also introduced me to a GREAT new book.  She has her fifth graders read it (I told you they were in good hands–they read some great stuff with her), and I was excited to read it as well.

Title: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School, 9 – 14, and probably some older kids as well

Summary and Review:

I really enjoyed this book.  The straight-up plot is the story of three children of a wealthy and powerful General who live in a futuristic Zimbabwe.  Their house is a grand estate where they interact almost solely with robotics, including the robotic Doberman guard dog.  In an attempt to find adventure (and hopefully win a scout badge) they escape their house and venture through the country, dodging (and not dodging) danger at every step.  Their parents hire the unusual trio of private detectives Ear, Eye, and Arm, three men whose exposure to plutonium in the womb gave them unusual powers and weaknesses–one with superb eyesight, one with superb hearing, and one able to feel the mood and read the minds of the people around him.  The children stay a step ahead of the detectives as they fight their way through the city.

But while that in and of itself would be a great story, there’s much more.  The book, in my opinion, is really about the worlds through which the children travel.  They find themselves in a community hidden in a trash dump among people who live off the obsolete plastic they can sell from the “plastic mines”.  They find themselves in a world of yesteryear–an enclosed piece of land where no technology is allowed, and mention of the outside world is prohibited.  Here, the young graze cattle as in traditional Zimbabwe, and the elders still believe in witchcraft.  Later, they venture through a wealthy suburb and finally to the modern city, with its mile-high swaying hotel and gang-ridden violent subways.  Each foray shows what each society has to offer–and its disadvantages.

This book offers a unique glimpse of the evolution of human society and the choices we make with each technological and societal advance.

It’s also a commentary on the development of science from the technology of their holophones and robotic servants to the genetically engineered talking monkeys.

And if a great plot and great commentary weren’t enough, the characters are also great, and watching the children (and some of the adults) grow and change throughout the story makes it all the more enjoyable, relatable, and meaningful.

Nancy Farmer is a great author.  I highly recommend this quirky, intelligent adventurous read.

Follow-up with the kids:

Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about.  See above.  But if I add anything to this post, people are going to fall asleep.  1420 words so far–if I write that much on my book today, I’ll be that much closer to ending it!  But seriously, please always comment or email me for more activity and conversations suggestions–I love to think of those things!

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September 17, 2010

The impossibly international pickle of mystery, adventure, and zany fun

Have you seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”  If you have and didn’t like it, don’t worry, it has nothing to do with the book I want to talk about.  But if you haven’t, it’s a great movie and you definitely should.  But I digress.  I bring it up because even though I’m not male and my husband isn’t Greek, I think about it every time I think about our families.  I’m the one with a couple of cousins in Wisconsin (give or take).  He’s the one with 30 first cousins and hundreds of other people he calls cousins that, in my family’s definition, aren’t really even related.  I used to get in arguments with him when he would describe someone as a “cousin” who is really a 2nd cousin once removed, or even a great-aunt, my argument being that the word “cousin” has an actual meaning and doesn’t translate to “person somehow related to me”.  But I’ve since learned to love his family’s all-inclusiveness and the sense of belonging that really gives you.

But all this is by way of writing a disclaimer, saying that by my husband’s definition, I am related to the author of the following book.  I’m not completely sure how (it involves tracing up a couple of generations, and then paralleling over through some siblings and then back down, and maybe over again, or something like that).  But I am super proud to say that Eli Stutz is my “cousin” and he wrote a great middle grade book.  About which I will now write.

Title: Pickle Impossible
Author: Eli Stutz
: Fiction, Adventure
Age: Upper Elementary and Young Middle School, Ages 9 – 12

Summary and Review:

Pierre has twenty-four hours to take a prized jar of pickles to the international Picklelympics in Switzerland, where the financial prize is the only hope of saving his family’s farm.  On the way he meets (a euphemism for “is kidnapped by”) a young girl who later saves him and is coincidentally the narrator of the story.  Together, Pierre and Aurore fight evil bad guys, play pool, ride motorcycles, fly planes, and meet a woman who has refused to grow old.

The adventures are completely wacky, totally unbelievable, and wonderfully fun to read.  I picked up the book one night when my husband was out late and a few hours later found myself eagerly turning the final pages, having never left my seat in the meantime.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I like the character of Pierre–the perfectly average kid who realizes that he’s actually a perfectly balanced kid and that this comes in handy.  In a world in which we seem to expect our kids to be the best at everything they do, the moral of how great it is to just be in the middle is refreshing and honest.  Ask your kids what they are perfectly average at–and celebrate it!

Me, for example, I’m perfectly average at most sports–I always seemed to pick them up faster than other beginners, and then I never got much better than that.  I’m not someone who can’t throw or catch, but I’m not someone who ever was or ever will be a sports star.  And yet I love to play sports!  I remember days sitting on the sidelines at high school junior junior varsity soccer games wondering if I would ever play.  I wish at the time I had just known that it was okay to simple have fun playing the game (of course, you have to have a coach that lets you play first, but you get the idea).  I remember one horrifying game when a coach illegally substituted me (in the middle of play) for an older girl who wasn’t even on our team–or in our age group.  I felt like a cheater, a total loser, and definitely got the wrong message–that winning the game was much more important than letting some slow midfielder run up and down the grassy field on a nice day.

Too many kids today drop out of activities they aren’t good at, but they enjoy, because there is so much pressure for success everywhere.  Most of our kids aren’t going to be professional athletes.  And yet sometimes their middle and high school training looks like that’s what we want them to be.  I mean, someone has to come in last.

Or, in the case of Pierre, in the dead middle of the pack every single time.

September 8, 2010

Both Mr. Benedict and his Society are mysteriously and creatively wonderful

Title: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Author: Trenton Lee Stewart
: Fiction, Adventure
Age: Middle School, grades 5 – 9

Summary and Review: Any book can get me with good characters, and this one has that in abundance.  Good guys, bad guys, kids, adults–they are all wonderful, quirky, and believable.  The Mysterious Benedict Society consists of four main characters, all children who had passed a test for “gifted children looking for special opportunities.”  What is great about this book becomes immediately apparent in that they each pass the test in a different way–one by understanding its actual design as a puzzle to be solved, one by actually knowing the ridiculously obscure answers, one through sheer obstination, and one doesn’t pass.  But after the fact, she engineers a clever escape route for the test administrator who is being bombarded by angry parents of others who didn’t pass, and passes on account of her sharp MacGyver-like skills (and a bucket of tools she never leaves behind).  Once the children are through the written (and of course second, practical, portion of the exam), they meet the mysterious Mr. Benedict and the people who work for him.  They are given their special assignment: to infiltrate a secret school where kidnapped children are brainwashed to do the dirty work of a man who turns out to be the twin brother of Mr. B himself!

Communicating with their mentors via Morse Code, the four students learn the ways of their new school and eventually understand its sinister mission–brainwashing and controlling the public through hidden messages in television shows which he sends by having children–the students at his so-called school–recite into a machine called the “Whisperer”.  The students successfully complete their mission, with the help of some of their adult accomplices, although Mr. Curtain, the enemy, escapes…leaving room for a sequel which I am very excited to read!

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

One of the obvious commentaries in the book is the effect watching too much TV can have on you–of course, it might not actually brainwash you, but then again, there are those who would disagree.  I mean, watch a few commercials and then tell me what you think.  But honestly, that I believe would prove to be a frightfully unsuccessful conversation with a child, and I think the message already comes through loud and clear.  It might be prudent to mention, and at least get the kids thinking about the messages that media can send, hidden or otherwise.  Some students might have fun the next time they watch a TV show to dissect the commercials and find the hidden and not-so-hidden messages in the commercials.  Doing this as an activity rather than a conversation is likely to be more successful, and teaching media awareness is hugely important in today’s world.

However, despite my general feelings toward the television and my happiness that this book seems to agree with me, my favorite message in the book comes from the characters themselves.  Each kid is very different–Reynie is very smart, a thinker, and sees the world as a series of problems he can solve.  Sticky Washington has an unbelieveable memory and knows every fact about everything he’s every read or seen.  Kate the Great (as she would like to be called) is a James Bond/MacGyver type who likes to solve problems by jumping out of windows and scaling walls with the rope she always carries.  And Constance is just a contrarian.  Her best quality is her stubbornness, and the reason this is an important quality isn’t revealed until the end of the story, when a similarly surprising fact about the small member of the team is also revealed.  Talking to your child about how each of them is able to contribute their strengths to solve a mystery as a team could be a vital lesson, especially if your child is one of many who struggles with the hated “group project” in school.  Is your son a natural leader, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of skills in others?  Can talking about these characters help him realize that his classmates might also have talents that are different from his?  Or is your daughter too shy to participate, not knowing what she has to give?  Can realizing that everyone has different strengths help her to realize that she also has a talent to contribute?  Conversations like these can also help children understand kids in their class who are “different” than themselves, in whatever way they may be.

And if all those reasons aren’t enough to like a book, then I don’t know what is.