B average

This might be a story about mediocrity. Or maybe it’s about working hard to compensate for not being a genius. Then again, maybe it’s just about being middle-aged and feeling alienated by the expectations of a new world order.

This is just to say that I think a B is a good grade.

My 9th-grade English teacher was a short, plump woman with cropped black hair who wore orthopedic shoes. I couldn’t tell you how old she was because as far as I was concerned at the time, age became irrelevant after 30.

As soon as we met her, she told us we should consider dropping her class if we weren’t up for a challenge. There were easier English classes at the school, she said. My dark secret was that I wanted to be a writer, a real one, someday, so I told myself that I could handle anything an English class would throw my way.

Well, I did handle it, and I’m not too ashamed about the fact that I got Bs on some of those essays.

One time that teacher let us pick our seats based on our grades. The kids with the best grades got to choose first. I can’t remember if I had an A or B at the time, but I was the third person to choose a seat. The first was an uppity girl named Anne who I remember stated that she didn’t believe in grading on a curve.

“You should get the grade that you earn!” Anne told us.

I also got a B in my high school Creative Writing class.

On my report card, the teacher wrote: “Star, I would like to give you an A, but I don’t think I can. Good luck in journalism next year.”

I tried to figure out why that teacher wanted to give me an A, but could not. Maybe it was because I had carried on an on-again, off-again “relationship” (high schoolers love that word) with a boy in the class and we spent a fair amount of time tormenting each other in-person and through mutual friends. When we were “just friends,” I can recall him regaling us with stories of his sexual escapades with other girlfriends. On the days he was absent, his friends speculated that some of his stories were actually fictional.

Years after I graduated from high school, I was working at a local newspaper and the editors wanted us to write stories about people who had inspired us. One of the people I wrote about was that strict 9th-grade English teacher who had given me some Bs. I didn’t mention the Bs of course, because at the time, I thought Bs were normal and acceptable grades for all humans. This was before I became a teacher.

Not long after I wrote the story about being inspired by my former teacher, I did another story in which I referred to “gorilla warfare” – a mistake that slipped past my editors. Not knowing that the reporter who wrote it was a) one of his wife’s former students and b) one who had written a rather flattering article about her for the same paper, my former teacher’s husband called the newspaper’s editor and told him what a bunch of idiots we all were and that his wife would be appalled if she saw such a mistake in the newspaper. The editor didn’t know enough of the backstory to tell the guy that his wife had seen some of my mistakes before and it actually didn’t upset her too much.

What I know for sure is that you can be a person who sometimes earns Bs on writing assignments and still grow up to pay your bills by writing. I don’t recommend it, but it can be done. Also, you can be a person who earns Bs on writing assignments even if your teacher does not hate you. Even if you are one of her favorites and she is one of yours.

I know that much is true.

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Dramatic irony

Nothing makes you appreciate the hard work of professional actors and directors like getting through the drama unit in your high school English class, or running through a play written and performed by students, for that matter. All along, we thought those famous people got their roles mainly because they were good-looking and charismatic, not because they were particularly intelligent or hard-working. Then, somewhere around the time you finish Act III of Romeo & Juliet, after you’ve delegated and negotiated endlessly over roles and props, you’re looking at quiz scores and you realize what the drama unit does to people. It takes a toll on us all, and we’re not even putting on a real production.

You’ve heard of actors getting too caught up in their roles, to the point of losing it. You’ve heard of the curse of MacBeth, which is probably a related phenomenon. What’s amazing is how quickly this type of thing takes hold.

I have seen it both ways. I’ve had classes in which NO ONE wants to volunteer for a part in the play and just reading the lines out loud together is torture for everyone. “Can’t we just watch the movie?” they beg. But I have also had classes where there are five girls whose dream is to play Juliet. And don’t think for a second that it doesn’t matter who plays Romeo. It matters immensely.

So what do you do?

Switch roles every two acts, so everyone who wants a chance gets one.

Last week, right before we started reading Romeo & Juliet, I was standing in the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. drinking coffee with my husband. He has been a high school English teacher longer than me, so he’s been through R&J a few more times and has a lot of the lines memorized. Friar Laurence’s famous line, “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast” is posted in his classroom.

Thinking about what it takes to get through a drama unit, even when it isn’t Shakespeare, I said to my husband:

“I know what I have to do, but can I do it?”

That very quote “wisely, and slow” was on an open-book quiz I gave today. You would think open-book would make things easier, but it doesn’t necessarily. Students with high As in the class came to me and said breathlessly, “I’ve been through Acts II and III and can’t find these quotes anywhere.”

That quote is, in fact, in Act II, Scene III, but this is what I mean about the toll – the price of a drama unit, especially a Shakespearean tragedy. Less serious students would have considered these quotes and their value on the quiz fairly inconsequential.

What I’m saying is that there is a little too much drama that comes with the drama unit.

Maybe if my background were in theater instead of nonfiction writing I would find the plays less taxing. Another teacher who works with me is also a director at a local theater. She seems to keep a sense of humor about it all because, of course, they’re kids, and not professionals.

I know, but.

It’s the same in my creative writing class. Writing plays and acting them out seems infinitely more challenging than, say, poetry or, my favorite, literary nonfiction, because there are no rules in poetry and you can be so figurative that it really doesn’t even have to make total sense. With literary nonfiction, people write their memoirs. I love it if they share with the class, but they don’t have to, so the writing itself is the culminating activity. That’s swell for the introverts, and I get it.

Yesterday, we were acting out a play that a kid wrote which was set in a haunted insane asylum. The stand where I kept my bathroom passes got knocked over and broken. I said, “Guys, we are pretending to be in an insane asylum, but this can not become real,” and they knew exactly what I meant. It’s amazing how thin the line can be between losing yourself in a role and just losing yourself.

My 8-year-old daughter loves scary stories, except when she wakes up in the middle of the night after a bad dream. When she woke up at 3 a.m. this morning, I asked her what her bad dream was about. She said, “Sometimes after a bad dream, I just feel scared, but not scared of the thing in the dream.”

OK, well, I have had dreams where something that happened was terrifying, but if I tried to explain it to someone, they wouldn’t understand why. Still, when you’re reading creepy stories and acting them out, you are setting the mood of your mind, which maybe you can turn on and off like a switch, but maybe not.

That tenuous division between fantasy and reality is one that you have to push for creativity, but you can’t go too far or the next thing you know you’re swilling absinthe and talking to a bird.

At the end of Act III, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have the power to die.”

When you say those lines, either something happens or it doesn’t. You either feel it or you don’t.

And ultimately, you want to feel it, which is why it sucks the breath right out of you.

The weekend shift

Mothers love Mondays. While everyone else is walking around Monday morning bemoaning the start of another five-day workweek, I am usually thinking about how exhausting the weekend was and how it will be nice to have a break from scrubbing scum from the shower floor, doing laundry, paying bills, and grading papers while hosting a playdate.

Weekend mornings usually begin with me making a long list of things I have to do and my kids asking me questions like, “When are we going to Jaylin’s party?”

Oh crap, I think, I still need to buy a gift for Jaylin’s party.

So then I take my kids and we go to Target, where I watch other women struggle to purchase items such as coffee and birthday gifts while their kids ask for Pokemon cards, Hello Kitty nail polish, the latest overrated blockbuster movie, etc.

Occasionally, I see a man attempting this same struggle, but not very often.

On Saturday I read this article in Harper’s Bazaar by a woman who had asked her husband to hire a housecleaning service for Mother’s Day. To summarize: he didn’t do it.

Like me, my husband has a full-time job. Because it is fall and because he has an unnatural obsession with firewood, he spends a large amount of his weekend cutting wood, some of which he keeps for our family to burn this winter, and some of which he sells.

Let me just make it clear that before he heads out to the wood pile on a weeknight or  weekend, he will interact with our children, he will vacuum the rug, and he will even go to the grocery store if I ask him. So what I am about to tell you is not about him. It is about a small meltdown I had in Old Navy recently and how I hope you can prevent something similar from happening to you.

I was already tired when we walked into the store. My kids and I had already survived the trip to Target where we acquired the week’s groceries, as well as a gift to take to the birthday party, as well as many unnecessary and unwholesome items I agreed to purchase in order to make progress and eventually exit the store.

When we get home from a trip like that, I get the kids something to eat so that I can unload the groceries. Then I throw in another load of laundry and launch a session of bill paying and paper grading before we need to leave for our next adventure.

Here is what happened at Old Navy later that day: Within 15 minutes of shopping, I had gathered up an armload of clothing that included at least one item for each member of my family. It felt like a rather heavy burden as I stood under the fluorescent lights with pop music blaring in my ears, my kids taking turns smacking each other beside a rack of bubble gum and trinkets.

Can someone tell me why retailers insist on playing obnoxious music? Or why they sell bubble gum at Old Navy? Can someone tell me why that store decides to cancel your credit card if you don’t use it on a regular basis, requiring you to reapply for the card so you can save $60 on your purchase, when you are already late for your next appointment?

The young man who was working at the store couldn’t tell me.

He could tell me that he was “sorry, ma’am,” and that I needed to give the store my address, income, and all of my personal information AGAIN, if I wanted to save $60 and leave the store, with its bad lighting, blaring dance music, and shredded chewing gum packaged to appeal to fans of baseball or chewing tobacco or something.

As far as I know, I am not autistic, but I have these moments …

I did comply with the clerk’s suggestion to apply for a new credit card, but I rolled my eyes and spoke in a hostile tone. I told him I knew this was not his fault, but that his company’s policy was stupid.

He was sorry.

I was sorry, too, for being that woman. I think a few other customers watched our awkward transaction before another employee called them to a different register. I’m not sure whether these spectators felt sorrier for me or the Old Navy clerk. Probably the Old Navy clerk.

As we went to leave, the store’s alarm went off. The young man who rang me up had forgotten to remove one of the sensors containing ink that the store puts on clothing to keep customers from stealing it.

Maybe my story should end here, but remember, I said I would tell you how to keep from having your own embarrassing miniature breakdown under the fluorescent lights of some retail establishment.

I’m not prepared to do that yet.

When we got home, I put our new clothing away in the kids’ rooms while they turned on the TV. I transferred some laundry from the washer to the dryer. I put a frozen pizza in the oven and opened up a salad kit purchased at Target earlier in the day.

My husband arrived home from his wood cutting expedition and ate dinner with us, and then I settled down to grade a few more papers until bedtime. My daughter soon became bored and informed me that she would need to invite a friend over.

I graded, and I graded, and I graded. When it was time for my daughter’s friend to go home, my husband agreed to walk her back to her house across the street. They remained gone for what seemed like an excessive period of time. My son had started asking where they were when we heard the sound of a motor racing up the cul-de-sac in front of our house.

It turned out that my husband had decided to take a spin in our neighbor’s go-kart before bed, so the sound of the motor was created by my 42-year-old husband racing through the suburban night.

That was how his Saturday ended. Meanwhile, I could have graded more papers, but I was too tired. So I went to bed.

I used to be a journalist, but I never wrote for a publication with a circulation larger than about 20,000. I suppose I should feel comforted by the fact that a woman who writes for Harper’s Bazaar struggles in a somewhat similar way as I do. I thought everyone who wrote for Harper’s Bazaar already had a regular housekeeper.

On an unrelated note, all of my family members will be wearing shirts from Old Navy today, thanks to my cardholder’s discount.

Where the heart is

It’s a beautiful season to be born, and a beautiful time to die. The sun is strong and warm. Leaves are starting to turn and fall. Shadows are growing longer. Crickets chorus in the golden twilight and break the solitude of a lonely dawn.

My grandmother was born and died in September. Sometimes on her birthday, we take flowers or some other token to the cemetery. My grandmother was fond of white roses, white doves, and the color green.

I live in her house. It is my house now, but it will always be hers, too. The thick carpets and wallpaper are gone and now the hallways are lined with backpacks and book totes. Tables are covered in permission slips and order forms.

Growing up, this house, in the suburbs, was the constant in my life. The others were variables. There was the log cabin where I was born and lived until my family moved to the old farmhouse.

When my parents divorced, my father had an apartment at the back of an alley on a city street. We’d pack our bags to visit while listening to our parents debate over the phone whose “turn” it was that weekend. I decided then that when I grew up, I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase. I wanted a place where a thin layer of dust would collect on my little bottles of perfume as they caught the afternoon light. My grandmother’s house was that place.

I moved in with her when I was 18, leaving half my belongings here and taking the essentials with me to a dorm room an hour away. I’d return on breaks from school and Grandmom and me would be kindred insomniacs. We’d hold communion at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. She was partial to Otis Spunkmeyer muffins with milk and berries, but she said eggs were really the best food to cure insomnia.

My grandmother didn’t like alcohol. She told me that in her younger years, when she went to a cocktail party, she would ask for rum punch and hold the same drink all night. Once, when I was nursing a bad case of insomnia with a glass of red wine, she started in on me about temperance. Exasperated, I poured the remainder of the bottle down the sink and told her she ought to know I was too much of a control freak to become an alcoholic like the boy I was in love with at the time. She liked him because his family went to the same church as her, but I was lucky, because he didn’t love me back.

When you lose your grandmother, you essentially lose your fairy godmother. You lose the person who clipped all the stories you wrote for the newspaper and kept them in a scrapbook.

For 50 years, my family ran a nursing home that my grandmother owned. I grew up there, talking to the Alzheimer’s patients and working in the office on the weekends. I wasn’t always the best employee because I was a teenager whose family owned the place, but some of the old folks who lived there liked talking to me and appreciated when I made them coffee or lit their cigarettes. This was back when smoking was socially acceptable.

My family sold the nursing home after my grandmother died in 2005. By then, I was three months away from having my first child, working full-time, and tragically unprepared for the changes that were coming.

Profits from the sale left each of Grandmom’s descendants with a small nest egg, but the money went quickly for those in my family. We had grown accustomed to always having something to fall back on in the form of a job or a dividend and now we would have to make our own way in the unforgiving world where you really do have to know somebody. In fact, you have to know a lot of people, and you’d better hope you treated them at least as well as they treated you.

These days, I tell my 8-year-old she can’t take my grandmother’s green satin clutch purse outside to play. It’s one of a few handbags my grandmother left that I hold dear, but rarely use. I still have some of her china in the cabinets and most of her wooden dining room set. I’ve been meaning to have the chairs reupholstered for about a decade.

One of my students recently told me that he doesn’t want to get stuck in Winchester. It’s a tragedy, he said, when people get stuck here.

When my grandmother died, I was living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, about 45 minutes away from her house. I’d return to Winchester to visit friends or family with my colicky baby in tow. I brought the Dustbuster with me because the sound comforted him when he was hysterical, and sometimes he became hysterical in the back of my car by himself on the long ride.

When I came back to Winchester, we’d check in on her house, the one I live in now, which had a For Sale sign out front. I’d nurse the baby in an empty room that had been cleared of the carpet and wallpaper and most all of the furniture. It seemed to me that Winchester had changed so much in the few short years since we’d moved away, and I was homesick.

My family did receive an offer to buy the house, but the offer was low, and they declined. I ended up moving back to Winchester, to my grandmother’s house, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

Teenagers, especially those who have never had to pack a suitcase every other weekend, think it would be tragic to “get stuck” in their hometown. One thing I’ve learned from reading their essays is that many of them are very angry with their fathers. Some of their mothers have done their best to make up for the fact that their fathers were gone, but of those who are disappointed with their parents, many love their grandparents because their grandparents were there for them when no one else was.

Grandparents tend to behave better than parents. They don’t yell as much and they’re less likely to desert their families or use some addictive poison to cope with the drudgery of adulthood.

My own daughter holds her grandmother in the highest regard. Grandmothers are all adulation. Someday I want to be a good grandmother, someone who doesn’t whine about the laundry the way I do now. Someone who hardly thinks about laundry.

I am sure that there are places other than Winchester where September is lovely, even if there are no walnut trees dropping green fragrant ornaments into piles on the ground, and I admit that I have visited too few of these other places.

But I can go with my mother to visit my grandparents on their birthdays, or their death days. I can put white roses in a vase in my grandmother’s kitchen and light a candle and be grateful to remember. I’ve seen enough to know it’s better than the alternative.

Being a grownup at the blood lab

The bell rang and my classroom was empty. I picked up the phone to make the first call.

Me: (After pressing several buttons for the receptionist.) Could you tell me the date of the next PTO meeting or the name of a staff member I can email about it?

Receptionist: You could look on the calendar.

Me: (Searching the school website and not seeing a date for the PTO meeting at my son’s school.) Where would I find this calendar?

Receptionist: Could you hold, please?

(After I held.)

Receptionist: Hello, this is a school. How may I help you?

Me: We were just talking about the date for the next PTO meeting. Could you tell me the date, or tell me the name of a staff member who can?

Receptionist: Well …. I would have to ask … because they are just going to have to look at the calendar as well.

Me: You know, this is a really busy time of day. Maybe if I call back tomorrow, someone could ask for me.

Receptionist: Oh, yes, please call back tomorrow. And what is your name?

We exchanged names. I will call back.

You might be asking yourself why I would want to attend a PTO meeting, aside from the fact that I am a parent and a teacher. Do I not have enough to do? Well, it’s about fundraisers. Who loves fundraisers? This girl!

So on Sunday night, my son Oliver informed me that if he did not sell four items, including two magazine subscriptions, he would not get two small plastic chickens and he would not be allowed to attend a magic show. Last year, he said, he did not participate in the fundraiser, but this year he wanted to and he needed to turn in some money ASAP.

I went downstairs and tried to understand the forms, arguing with Oliver about how much we would need to spend in order to get plastic chickens that looked similar to Happy Meal toys and for him to attend this magic show. I looked at the $14 jars of spiced nuts, the $30 pumpkin cheesecake, the $10 earrings. I considered it all.

“Dan,” I called to my husband, who was in the other room watching television, “get in here and be tortured with me!”

I couldn’t even figure out who I needed to make the check out to because it said two different things on two different forms. I also noticed that it said on the forms, “Please do not sell door-to-door.” Probably good advice just in case anyone had any intention of doing that. I did not.

Dan threw down $15 in cash and asked for a subscription to “Field & Stream.”

“OK,” I said to Oliver, “what if I order a magazine subscription for you, me, Annabelle, and your dad? Will that be enough for the plastic chickens and magic show?”

He thought it would, so I wrote a check, and the next day, he was ecstatic when he showed me the chickens.

Also the next day, I spent the cash Dan gave me on a fundraiser at the school where I work. I am going to get a long-sleeved T-shirt, which is not as exciting as plastic chickens, but it is for a good cause.

That was the story behind the first phone call I made after work today. About the PTO meeting. About which I will call back tomorrow.

Then I called the blood lab. I needed a test, but I wanted to know how much it would cost. I needed a code. The person who answered the phone gave me another number to call. This person gave me the codes. Then she transferred me to the Billing Department.

This is the part where you have to stick with me, but of course I understand if you can’t.

So I went to the lab to have my blood drawn. I had my 8-year-old daughter with me and she wanted to know if she would get a lollipop.

“No,” I said, “because you’re not having your blood drawn.”

“And they probably won’t give you a lollipop because they don’t give grownups lollipops. But once I heard them offer someone a free blood test,” she said.

I can assure you that my tests will not be free. I know this because I called in advance to find out exactly how much they will cost because I have learned the hard way what happens if you don’t.

There was no one in the waiting room when we walked in at 4 p.m. I handed the phlebotomists the sheet my doctor had given me, which listed the tests she wanted them to do on my blood. Unfortunately, it did not list the codes for administering the tests, which apparently are different from the billing codes.

By the time one of the phlebotomists figured this out, the other had left the office. The former was now on hold with Corporate (or whoever) trying to get the code she needed to figure out which vial to put my blood in before she could draw it. When another customer walked in, this totally stressed her out. I don’t know what she said to the other customer, but the woman remarked to her friend as they took a seat that she “didn’t like this place” because the phlebotomists weren’t very nice.

Meanwhile, my 8-year-old sampled the water from the cooler and then flipped through a book in the waiting room about a boy’s first blood test. In this book, the boy gets both a dinosaur Band-aid AND a teddy bear.

“I get the teddy bear if they give you one,” Annabelle said. “I call it.”

The phlebotomist told me to go into the back room and have a seat in the green chair.

“Did you ever get the code?” I asked her when she joined me.

Not exactly, was her answer. And it wasn’t fair for them to leave her alone when she was new, she told me. I agreed.

“I think I would just take the blood and get the code later,” I offered.

She couldn’t do that, she said.

“I’m sorry about your wait, if that’s the problem,” she said.

“No, I mean, there wasn’t much of a wait. I was just … trying to be helpful. Hey, as long as you use a clean needle, I’m good. And it looks clean …”

The phlebotomist was in no mood for my humor.

“I can pull another one out in front of you if you want!” she said. I wasn’t sure at that point if she might burst into tears.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just, um, kidding.”

I did not get a dinosaur Band-aid.

“That was kind of awkward,” the 8-year-old remarked when we got into the car.

I thought about explaining to her how people get stressed out at 4 p.m. when they have two customers and they don’t know the codes and the codes are there so no one knows what the tests actually cost because it really depends on how much your insurance will pay, if you have insurance, and if you don’t, then you experience even longer waits for state-of-the-art health care, delivered by people who haven’t had a smoke break in way too long.

But I didn’t bother. Instead, I thought about writing a story for grownups about a blood test, not completely unlike the one for children that Annabelle read at the lab, but with a few more details.

When I go to the PTO meeting, I am going to offer some suggestions. I know that my suggestions are not always helpful and my jokes are not always funny, but I hope you have enjoyed this story even though the main character did not get a dinosaur Band-aid. And if you need some nuts, wrapping paper, chocolates, earrings, or a magazine subscription, I know where you can get some.

What people think about at 4 a.m.

I woke up at 4 a.m., which I wish I could say is unusual, but it’s not at all. Pretty much every other day I wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. You don’t have to tell me I should cut down on caffeine, drink tart cherry juice, exercise more, try journaling before bed, or take a sleeping pill. I have tried all those things and they do sometimes work to some extent.

My husband Dan said that if I’m going to get up in the middle of the night, I should try writing down my thoughts/to-do list.

This morning I was mostly preoccupied by thinking about what I am going to wear on Back-to-School night this week when a bunch of parents will be coming into my classroom wanting to know if I am a decent, hardworking person who intends to be nice to their children. Some of them would appreciate it if the children actually learned something in my class and most of them are hoping I am not the type to assign a crushing amount of homework. I know this because I am a parent and, as a parent, homework is hell. Mine, theirs, all of it. Because, you know, we need to eat dinner, take showers, clean the litter box, and change the sheets sometimes. Yes, it is true that my kids may be playing video games while I am doing these things myself and that is another part of parenting that stinks, but really, parents should not have to feed their kids a steady diet of vending machine crackers and fast food just so we can make time to slog through a few hours of homework with them every night.

And then there are the parents who think their kids need to be challenged and want them to do more homework.

But nobody is going to be able to focus on these details if all they can think about is the ugliness of my orthopedic shoes. If parents are anything like high school students, they care deeply about shoes, maybe more than they care about homework, although few would admit it.

I often read a blog for moms that is aimed at showing middle-aged women how we can wear trendy clothing without looking like idiots. In this blog, there are links to products from stores like Nordstrom because women my age are supposed to be able to afford things from Nordstrom. For example, one of the bloggers might take a photo of herself wearing a black, oversized sweatshirt with black leggings, black sneakers, and hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Her post will explain that this is her new favorite “edgy” look. The name of the brand of sneakers is highlighted so that you can click on it and it takes you to the store’s website, where you find out that these sneakers cost $298 even though they look almost exactly like the ones you just got on sale at the mall for $29.99.

So I read these stories periodically in effort to figure out how I can look more the way I am supposed to look instead of the way I do, which according to my husband and mother is “fine.” Isn’t it nice of my husband and my mom to say I look fine? Wouldn’t you find that comforting?

I also read blogs by other teachers about how they decorate their classrooms. The new thing is that everyone is turning their classroom into a cybercafe with couches and lamps and cool rugs and stuff. I am all down with this idea except for the small issue of space, funding, and possibly, learning actual things.

No, but I really might put a couch and some lamps in my classroom for the poetry readings if it weren’t such a long way for my one husband to lug it up two flights of stairs by himself. And he has enough to do. Presently, it is Sunday morning and he is at the school where he teaches making copies for his classes tomorrow. On Friday evening, we tried to take a nice relaxing walk through our neighborhood, but then some neighbors flagged him down and started talking about various repairs that he could make on their home at some point.

These are the things that cross my mind at 4 a.m.

I also read blogs by other teachers about what they do on Back-to-School night. In addition to wearing cool outfits and having classrooms that look like ads for Pier 1, they have slideshows that include an “About Me” slide.

What might I say on my “About Me” slide? That I am one of millions of English teachers who got her start writing bad poetry in her bedroom at age 12? I could mention that crickets and other insects have, on occasion, managed to cause major distractions in my classroom, but that because of my belief in karma, I sometimes prolong the situation by chasing the insect around until I catch it with my bare hands as the children shriek with excitement, shouting “Eew” and “How can you touch that?”

I could mention that I did, in fact, change my earrings four times before leaving the house and I could explain the process: I started with small hoops, which I thought might be too boring. Then, I tried some dangly moonstone earrings, but those were too much with the big tortoiseshell glasses I have to wear ever since the day I got the contact lens stuck in my eye. So then I tried the cupcake earrings, but wouldn’t those send the wrong message? I’m not actually all that playful, whimsical, or fun. Finally, I decided to put the small hoops back in even though they are boring. That is what I could tell people because there is a 90 percent chance that is what will happen.

I remember once hearing someone with a British accent say, “If people notice what you are wearing, then you are not well-dressed.”

There is a ring of certainty to anything spoken with a British accent.

Thank you for working through this with me. What I wear is not what matters most. It isn’t about me or my woman v. self conflict regarding cupcake earrings and orthopedic shoes. It is about growth. I am moving toward inner peace. As my favorite yoga teacher says, the divine light in me salutes the divine light in you. Namaste.

Do you think anyone will find that offensive?

A short summer with deserted castles

We were at Goodwill and my kids were supposed to be looking at clothes. Instead, Oliver insisted on getting two fish tanks because how can you pass up a $4.99 fish tank? I told him he should consider starting a blog called The Fish Hoarder, but he didn’t think that was a good idea. He said if he did that, the government might take his fish away, and then he’d be forced to join a militia.

If Oliver ever founded a country, commune, or homeowner’s association, its constitution would include the right to own many varieties of reptiles and aquatic animals. There would be no limitations on this freedom no matter how many people were eaten. Nothing I say to him about how you can take better care of your animals if you have fewer of them seems to faze him.

But this isn’t a story about too many animals, nor is it intended to make any kind of political statement about moderation.

I just want to tell you about some things that have happened to me since the beginning of the summer, which is almost over. Teachers in my school district go back later this week. Students come back next week.

Going back in early August seems strange to those of us who grew up starting school in September. When we were young, the symbols that represented this annual rite of passage were apples, wooden one-room schoolhouses, and pencils. The air was cool in the mornings. You could wear a pleated plaid skirt and tights to school, not because you went to a private school and you had to, but because you wanted to. Soon enough, the leaves would be changing color. Your cells were turning over and you were getting taller, stronger, wiser.

When I was looking for a teaching job, I always said I’d still want to be a teacher even if we went to year-round schooling, and I still feel that way.  So I’m not whining about too much work. That is not the point.

It’s like Jordan Baker said in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

There was just a certain feeling of anticipation and renewal when school started closer to fall. I used to think the new year should begin September 1 instead of January 1. It  isn’t the same when school starts in August, but then, I wonder if anyone experiences anticipation the same way at 39 that they did at 8 or 11, the ages of my children. I kind of doubt it.

I started the summer by taking a road trip with my mom, the first we’d ever done alone together in my adult life. Actually, it was probably the only trip Mom and I had taken with just the two of us since my sister was born when I was 18 months old.

We went to Swannanoa, an Italianate mansion on Afton Mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia, because I had a foggy memory of that place from early childhood. I remembered flashes of stone towers, stained glass, marble staircases, and flowering arbors. I remembered a time when my mother was looking for me and worried I was lost because I had gotten out of her sight at some enchanted place. When I described the memory, she said we’d been at Swannanoa.

So 37 years later, we went back to see it again.

My memory of Swannanoa was so hazy, maybe it was fitting that on the day we chose to visit, the fog was thick enough to obscure a view of anything more than 20 feet away. The moisture hung so heavy our clothing felt almost damp and our hair looked bad.

Built by a millionaire railroad tycoon in 1912, Swannanoa was home to a couple named Lao and Walter Russell when my mother took me there as a child. They founded the University of Science and Philosophy. I won’t attempt to explain that organization’s mission, but my mother said it was “new age before everyone knew what that meant.”

This once-opulent estate is now unoccupied and starting to decay. Its fountains are dry and the gardens are full of weeds. Very Miss Havisham.

It is, however, open for tours on certain weekends.

A Virginia Is For Lovers website listed a short summary of Swannanoa’s history with the hours it is open, ticket prices, and the fact that it is “LGBT friendly.” This struck me as a declaration similar to a label on a bottle of olive oil proclaiming the product to be “gluten free.” One would have assumed.

People who like Virginia history would probably find the trip to Swannanoa worthwhile, and so might photographers looking for a Gothic backdrop.

My mother, on the other hand, was not impressed by what the current owners had done with the place. In fact, we couldn’t even make it through a 20-minute guided tour. I was very worried that mom was going to launch a full-fledged, invective-laced tirade against the retired librarian who recounted the estate’s history to a roomful of people. (I think the woman was also related to the current owner, but I couldn’t stick around long enough to verify and was grateful I wasn’t writing a travel story.)

Mom and I broke away from the guided tour and went for a walk around the estate, finally coming to the stone tower I remembered from childhood. She said she had called it Rapunzel’s tower when I was little, which I must have loved. Looming in the fog, it looked nothing short of haunted.

swannanoa1

A stone observation tower at Swannanoa Palace in Afton, Virginia.

I wished my sister were there with us because she loves photographing abandoned buildings and ruins, but she had to work that weekend. As we started to leave, we passed a woman in a punk princess dress having her photograph taken. Mom stopped to tell her that Swannanoa used to be a very nice place, but it wasn’t anymore. It was just terrible what had happened there, Mom said. The woman and the photographer smiled and nodded politely.

I suppose that if you go frolicking at an abandoned castle in the blinding fog and the scariest thing you encounter is a 5-foot-4-inch woman with long gray hair who wants to share her opinions, you can count yourself lucky.

After we left, Mom and I ate dinner at an Asian restaurant and then checked into our motel, where I got to experience Staying In a Motel Room With Your 65-year-old Mother When You Are 39.

Me: Go ahead, Mom, have another cigarette. I’m fine.

Mom: How does this remote work? Where is CNN? Can you hear that television? I’ve got to turn this up. I can’t hear it.

When she couldn’t get any satisfaction from the news, Mom decided to watch “The Godfather.” I was about to fall asleep around 10 p.m. when she woke me up.

“You’ve got to watch this scene,” Mom said, rousing me. “It’s one of the most famous ones.”

So I watched the guy wake up to the severed horse’s head, thanked my mother for always showing me the most important things in life, and then I fell asleep. Until 1 a.m.

One thing Mom and I have in common is that we both suffer from frequent insomnia. Having read extensively about insomnia, I know that, when you cannot sleep, you are supposed to get up, go into another room, and read something boring.

I was sitting on the bathroom floor of our motel room reading Teaching Young Adult Literature Through Differentiated Instruction when Mom opened the door.

Mom: What are you doing?

Me: I can’t sleep. Did I wake you up?

Mom: You really are a terrible sleeper. Maybe you should have one of those sleep studies. Well, if you’re going to be awake, come out here and watch CNN with me.

She went back to the bed, turned on the TV, and lit a cigarette, but she was very disappointed when all she could find was Anthony Bourdain instead of some news anchor or panel of experts talking about the latest Trump tweet.

I can’t really understand why someone who is trying to get back to sleep would light a cigarette and turn on the news, but then, how many healthy people sit on bathroom floors in the middle of the night reading professional development manuals?

Mom handed me a Tylenol PM, which I took, and I went back to sleep, after convincing her to turn off the television.

Mom described our visit to Swannanoa as a trip down Memory Lane for her. On the way there, she saw how much Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she went to college, had changed in 40 years. On the scenic secondary road we took to come home, she recalled where she had turned to go to the house where she lived with her first husband. At least the road was still there.

So, while I would definitely recommend a midlife road trip with your mom, I would also recommend that whenever possible, you should get your own hotel room. Make that your gift to yourself. This advice applies to traveling with your husband, and/or children as well.

Now, regardless of what I’ll be telling high school students in a week or so about logical transitions in writing, I’ve got to fast forward two months to our last weekend of summer break, the day we got the fish tanks at Goodwill. I was in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, eating on a picnic blanket with my kids when Annabelle, 8, stood up and announced that she was going, “to wade at my own risk.”

She took the bucket and net she uses to catch minnows and headed toward the wading pools fed by natural springs in the town’s central park.

A large sign stated that children were to be supervised. No one was responsible for anything that went wrong there. No one was in charge. Everyone who waded did so at her own peril.

But it was the most beautiful day, the kind of day when it seems like nothing could go wrong. The weather was like … it was kind of … like it was on September 11.

I’m sorry. This is what happens when you are 39. Memory Lane isn’t all enchanted towers and flowering arbors.

But when she scampered off with her bucket and net I wasn’t actually thinking of September 11. I was thinking it was cute how she quoted the sign and I thought about posting something on Facebook. Because it’s the end of summer, all of my friends are posting “last splash” photos of themselves or their kids in bathing suits. I looked down at my phone for a minute and when I looked up, Annabelle was making small talk with a stout man a bit older than me – I’d say 50ish – who was wearing a bandanna. I watched him talk to her for a few minutes as other kids splashed around in the wading pools and tourists talked about which of the local cafes had decent food. Then the man in the bandanna walked away.

He was probably talking to her about her minnows. He probably has a daughter or niece or granddaughter her age.

My friends and I keep trying to figure out what exactly we’re supposed to say to our kids as they start puberty. We know we are supposed to have a talk with them, but we’re not sure what we should say during this talk because, actually, nothing our parents said to us worked.

“Some of the stuff I did when I was a teenager, I can’t even believe I survived,” my friend said the other day when we had this conversation.

“I know, right?” was my thoughtful response.

My husband Dan doesn’t remember his parents ever saying much of anything to him about sex or drugs other than, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Somehow, for him, this worked. He has always been pretty responsible, but knowing what I do about the world from both experience and the news, I would say he is more the exception than the norm.

Dan remembers his dad saying, “Regret the things you’ve done and not the things you haven’t done.”

This wasn’t meant to encourage illegal or particularly risky behavior. It was more of a mantra for life in general. And it is interesting advice. I wonder if he said the same thing to his daughter.

Somehow Annabelle knew there was a grand castle on the hill above the park in Berkeley Springs, built many moons ago by some wealthy nobleman. She wanted to climb the hill and see it, but when I called my husband to ask his advice, he said not to go onto the property because it probably wasn’t open to the public.

We climbed up the hill, but our view of the castle was obscured by the trees. Annabelle was disappointed. Meanwhile, Oliver was worried about us being hit by a car.

My internet research indicated the castle was built by a colonel who, at 46, fell in love with a 17-year-old.

The first time he made a pass, she turned him down, but five years later, he convinced her to marry him by promising to build her a castle. Ain’t love grand?

I asked a girl working inside the hotel at the park if the castle is ever open for tours now. She said it is not, currently, because the owner died and there’s been some family drama since then, or something like that.

I told Annabelle that maybe they’ll reopen it soon and we’ll be able to take a tour.

My summer started and ended with deserted castles, which are intriguing, but sad. Even the most solid of fortresses built by the richest of men can turn to ruin in less than a generation. I suppose it should make me feel better about my own dysfunctional family and all that we haven’t been able to preserve.

When she was going to sleep the other night, Annabelle said she was a little bummed about starting school because it will be a year before there’s another summer. But she mentioned that at least she did get some really awesome new notebooks.

So if you’re wondering what to buy a kid to ease the bittersweet and seemingly premature farewell to summer, a cool notebook, sturdy binder, and a few pens and pencils could go a long way. You can probably skip the fish tank, in your case.