#NaBloPoMo, Day 19: Questions excellentes

Today at school, we talked a little bit about Paris. I showed my Grade 4s and 5s that little boy and his dad – not just because the vocabulary (très, méchant, gentil, fleurs, maison, etc.) is right on point, but because when they see a child, they instinctively relate.

Two days a week, I have a group of only nine Grade 4s for the last period of the day. Often, it’s my favourite group. Grade 4s in Core French class are well-known to be the most excited about it (the novelty is alive), and although this group has a couple of very busy boys, they are also usually sweet and enthusiastic.

When I occasionally put aside the speaking of French in class, it’s usually in order to hear what they have to say about the social issue at hand; usually these moments arise from the French songs we listen to, but today it was the news. Frankly, I was very impressed by their questions and insights, and how most of them really listened and responded to each other. For a lot of it, I was simply listening.

Where did the terrorists come from? What made them so angry? If the parents teach their kids to be angry and to want to kill people, where did they get it? What is the violence for? Is it for fun? Or does someone make them do it?

We talked about racism and prejudices and wrongdoing on different sides, and the cyclical nature of violence. It may sound heavy for Grade 4, but they knew all the worst parts already, and obviously wanted to talk about it.

One of my favourite parts was one little guy, the most overt keener in the group, not quite nine years old yet, who is never afraid to call the other kids on it when they’re being immature. When a couple of kids began to get silly, he said to them, “You’re making a joke out of something that’s really serious. How would you like it if a terrorist came to your home and killed you? That’s what happens to people.” He is such a sharp little guy, with astonishing perspective on things. Makes me wish I could know and teach him when he’s seventeen or twenty-one and really taking on the world.



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Be The Calm

It was a busy summer.

Just so you know, that’s the usage of the word busy where it actually means overwhelming-and-sometimes-stressful-enough-to-make-me-think-I-might-lose-my-marbles. And that’s despite summer vacation, and my school being closed for renovations.

We bought a house in June, right before end-of-school craziness; we beautified and sold our house in July; we packed in August, and moved on the last Saturday of the month. It was hard to tell how much the kids felt the upheaval – they had plenty of emotional outbursts, but that’s nothing new.

In truth, it was a pretty nice low-pressure timeline – we even had five days of overlap with both houses, so that we could properly clean out the old house. I said goodbye to it by scrubbing out its fridge and vacuuming its bare carpets with a thoroughness it hasn’t seen since we became parents. (Interestingly, vacuuming an empty house is a good way to find all those above-mentioned marbles one has lost.)

Five days later, in our new house, I suddenly got weepy for no reason I could pinpoint… other than, I suppose, a whole summer of emotional and physical craziness.

Now we are settled in. Ish. That is to say, we have unpacked enough to function quite well, but there are lots of boxes still to unpack, and certain things we haven’t yet located. (Like E’s raincoat. Mom Fail.)

The kids like it at the new house, but E especially still likes to mention, in tragic tones, that he wishes we could go back and live at the old house.

E has started in Grade 1 at his new school, with a much smaller class than in JK or SK, and seems to have had good days (overall) every day… but he still doesn’t really want to go each morning. He still looks sadly at me each day before he goes into the school.

AB is going to same day care provider as always, and we are now within walking distance of her house! But since the summer, AB has decided she doesn’t like going there. This morning she was sobbing and holding my hand as hard as she could when I left.

In an alternate reality, today would have been Sebastian’s first full day of Junior Kindergarten. We got a notice last winter, on lavender paper, inviting all parents of “children born in 2011” to register their kids for kindergarten. Yep, we’re those parents… but not.

That was the first time I realized that starting kindergarten is the first concrete missed milestone for Sebastian, and for us as his parents. We know he would have gotten teeth and crawled and said words and walked and all sorts of cool things by now, but we have only a vague idea of when. The event of starting school has an exact date. I know many beautiful JK munchkins, Sebastian’s would-be peers, who have visited their classrooms and begun big-kid school over the past week. I’m excited and proud for them and their parents, and I’m sending them extra-special vibes as they settle into this new phase. With a little lump in my throat.

Before school started, I was feeling so-so about going back to work. My emotions were all over the map; the house wasn’t all ready; I didn’t feel organized; and I was still dealing with the bitter taste left after last year, when I contended with difficult behaviour from my students with a frequency that exhausted me. Last year, I was not happy with the level of patience I was able to muster, with either my students or my own children. I was not really proud of the job I did.

But, ready or not, a new house is a fresh start, and a new school year is a fresh start. And many things have happened this summer, both locally and globally, that give me perspective on the things I struggle with.

So, regardless of how many boxes remain to be unpacked, I am starting over. I have given myself a new mantra, in which I misquote Gandhi (but in a way I think he’d endorse):

Be the calm you wish to see in the world.

My life will be disorganized for a bit longer, but the calmer I can be, the sooner things will fall into place.

My children will certainly have emotional outbursts, but the more I can model calm, the more likely they are to absorb it.

Certain of my students will forget the expectations, say rude things, fall off their chairs, interrupt, be mean to their peers, and/or goof off when they should be working, but the more I remind myself to maintain calm, the easier it is to remember that it’s not personal – those kids are simply displaying their needs – and that my reaction, the part I control, sets the tone more than anything.

I aim to Be the Calm, and at the end of this school year, to be proud of myself for it. I can feel already that my classroom atmosphere has more humour in it, and less stress.

Today, one of my new Grade 4 students blurted, after five French classes with me, “You’re my favourite teacher!” I know it’s only week two, and opinions change mercurially, but that has to mean something, right?




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Preschooler No More

11:36 a.m.

Dear E,

Today is your first full day of kindergarten – JK. I am sitting here fervently wishing I were a fly on the wall of your classroom. Are you having fun? Are you nervous about anything? Did (do) you like your first recess? Are the other kids nice? Have you eaten any of your lunch? Are you remembering to ask for help when you need it? I know that by the time you get home, you will remember approximately three things – if that – and they probably won’t be the things I would ask you about.

I was so proud of how ready you were today.

You have gone from saying “I don’t want to go to school” earlier in the summer to “When do I get to go to school??” just recently. (I think the turning point was when we bought your backpack and lunch bag and indoor shoes.)

You have visited your classroom twice, and met your teachers. Your first time there, at the JK visit in August, you found your name tag, went right in and had only a moment or two of hesitation, holding my hand, before you began exploring the different (lovely!) activities on the tables… You had your friend C with you, a bit older and experienced with school, so I just sat aside and watched you and the other JKs discovering your classroom. I could perfectly imagine you as part of your big class, doin’ the kindergarten thing, just like the JKs I taught two years ago.

Then Friday was an hour-long visit – with no parents. You had been a bit worried about it; the night before you’d said to me, “What if I get lost?” We have talked a lot about school in recent weeks, so you wouldn’t stew with your worries – and so you’d have an idea of what to expect. Daddy says that he dropped you off with no fuss at all, and when he picked you up, you wanted to go to school the very next day (Saturday). You learned (and remembered!) the word bibilothèque. You told anyone who wanted to know, “I went to school! I had my first day, and next time I’m going to ride the bus!”

So, on this cool, sunny morning, Daddy and Auntie Em and Baby AB and I accompanied you to the bus stop. You had a few moments where you weren’t sure you wanted to take the bus after all, but when it arrived, Daddy helped you up (those ENORMOUS steps with your GIGANTIC-looking backpack) and you sat in the first seat. You didn’t cry. You waved to us calmly – we were smiling like mad so you wouldn’t forget how great it is to ride the bus – and then you were gone.


Your posse waded home through a wave of emotion and nostalgia. Daddy fretted about the things you might not be ready for, and whether you would be okay. Now that I’ve spent plenty of time in kindergarten classrooms, I could confidently tell him that you would be fine – you’d probably already had circle time, been to the bathroom with a group or a buddy, played at recess… but of course I was fretting inside too, because that’s part of what moms do.

Good thing I know some things about kindergarten teachers, especially 1) that they’ve pretty much seen everything, and 2) that they are amazing and full of love.

I remember witnessing, two years ago, the parents dropping their kids off for the first full day of JK. Some children were crying and clinging, and some marched right in, eager to get going. Then, once the kids were finally all inside, there were a lot of parents peering in the classroom windows, emotional themselves, trying to see their progeny in the new habitat, inadvertently causing some children to recommence dramatics.

At the time, I didn’t truly understand. Shouldn’t you be thrilled when your child embarks on a new phase, especially if s/he is excited to go to school? (And shouldn’t you hightail it out of there as soon as s/he has successfully made it into the classroom?)

Now I get it: it’s actually harder for parents than it is for kids. I know that yes, we ARE thrilled, and shattered too.

How amazing that you, an incredible creature we’ve so carefully grown and sculpted (or tried to), are now a semi-independent being. How painful that you are now going to go have a whole life apart from ours.

Especially now. When I went to kindergarten, I went for half-days. Even the kids I taught came every other day. You, like most kids in the province do by now, will be going all day, every day. That’s most of your waking time. And I’ve just spent the fourth year of your life on maternity leave, so I’m used to having lots of time with you and witnessing lots of E-awesomeness. (And some other stuff too.) It’s tough thinking about all the cool things you will do… that I will miss. But that’s how it’s supposed to be.


9:26 p.m.

The first big day is done… You did great! (And so did we, resisting the urge to get in the car and follow the bus.) Mr. A, our friend who now works at your school instead of mine, was kind enough to let me know that you’d had a good recess and send me a bit of footage of you with a big smile.

What a relief – and only partially surprising. You are so sensitive sometimes, so melodramatic… and then sometimes you are just strong and take everything in stride. You came home with your new communication bag, and your lunch part-eaten (I’ll bet you dawdled), and you were happy, and even kinda nonchalant about your day. (And I was right – there wasn’t much you felt like telling us. Why should you? You live in the moment – that’s what childhood is for.)

You were pretty worn out, though. Dinner was a series of medium-sized meltdowns – which we were expecting. Right now, you’re probably in the deepest sleep of your life thus far.

Sweetie boy, we are SO PROUD OF YOU. You’re a wonderful person.

Love forever.

baby E
Weren’t you JUST this a minute ago??
e and baby ab
Now you’re the SO big brother.



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How Far to Bend the Gender

As a girl born between two sisters, I was, in childhood, emphatically girly. I loved unicorns, ballet, pink things, dolls, My Little Ponies. The tendencies of our elder brother didn’t hold much sway with us back then – he was outnumbered – and he seemed happy enough to make his Lego projects and wooden models on his own. I know there was some overlapping of activities, but my strongest memories were dominated by our female sensibilities.

woodcraft mosquito model
I remember this one. Yikes.

I’ve learned a lot since having a son. I remember worrying, while pregnant, that I wouldn’t know how to relate to him… and then being glad to discover that when it’s your child, relating is not a problem. Love takes care of it. And fascination, too: everything that interested him automatically interested me, because I wanted to know him completely.

I had already talked to other parents who had discovered that, no matter how gender-neutral you try to make your parenting, most boys love VEHICLES. Diggers, dump trucks, racecars, school buses. We knew E liked cars even before he had any – just the pictures of vehicles in his books thrilled him.

Last year, teaching five different groups of kindergartners, I found that this trend held firm. Boys loved the cars, ramps, robots, dinosaurs, and Lego; girls loved the “babies”, dress-up clothes, dollhouses, beads, and pretend food. Give them things like geometrical shapes, and some boys would use them to role-play “good guys and bad guys”; girls would role-play “mommies and babies”. There was some crossover, and plenty of neutral territory in puzzles, blocks, books, painting, etc… but still. I was surprised at how pronounced these proclivities were, and couldn’t help wondering about the Nature/Nurture proportions in these kids’ preferences.

It’s amazing how early children learn about “boy” stuff and “girl” stuff. Whether it’s from parents, kids, or other role models, it makes me uncomfortable – because most children, being so spongy, assimilate these lessons deeply.

At this tender stage, I worry most about the boys. The first year I taught Grade 1, there was a wonderful little boy I wanted to take home with me. He was quiet, sweet, bright, smiling, artistic. At age 6, the trees he drew not only had leaves on them, but the leaves had veins. I remember that on Valentine’s Day, he wore a red shirt and pink pants. He was adorable.

By Grade 2, he had become vocal about his love of princesses. My heart broke one day as the class discussed a story we’d read, and he mentioned Cinderella… and already, I could see other boys in the class exchanging surreptitious smirks, mocking inside their heads: this boy wasn’t following his gender role. (He’s now in Grade 6, in another school. I hope he’s okay.)

My son, with all his love of cars and dinosaurs and Lego and crazy sound effects, has a princess side too.

His Auntie Beth recently gave him a set of lavender fairy wings. He loves them; he even went biking with them on once. They became part of his dragon costume for Halloween.

The first time E had his nails painted, it was at the small home daycare he attends (where peer pressure is low). The girls were doing theirs, and naturally he wanted his done too. Why not? What kid wouldn’t want awesome-coloured fingernails? But M warned me about it tentatively, before I noticed it, because she knows that some parents object to nail polish on a boy. HA. We all loved it, because he was so delighted. Now we do his nails on a fairly regular basis.

nail polish on a boy
Pretty colours.

He’s always been a little fashionista. Even before he turned two, he would notice my jewelry: “That’s a pretty necklace, Mummy.” He loves to wear his Mardi Gras beads and the hand-made necklace from his Family Camp friend. Once, he put them on and picked up a broom and said, “Mama, look. I’m a princess, sweeping.”

He also does this thing, if you can catch him in the right moment, called “princess dancing”: uplifted arms, swaying steps, poignant little head-tilts… and a childishly seraphic smile. Almost unbearably beautiful.

For now, these aspects of his personality commingle with his more “boyish” tendencies.

His favourite movies are Cars and TinkerBell.


Cars – the relatively wholesome first one.
TinkerBell – sent to us accidentally by the Disney Movie Club; surprisingly watchable.


He has two beloved re-usable bags: one picturing Lightning McQueen, and the other, Disney princesses.

He gets just as excited about butterfly tattoos as firetruck tattoos.

During kids’ gym time at our local YMCA/YWCA, I once saw two staff members lovingly ogling my kid as he rode a mini-Cat tractor with one hand, dragging a doll stroller with the other.

Sometimes he uses his cars to play family-type drama: “These two cars are getting married, and this big car is moving to a new house and the other cars are worried about him.”

I adore his openness, his natural expression of what he loves. I want him to be able to keep ALL of it.

I hurt to think of how soon these parts of his wonderful Self will be drummed out of him. He’s always liked pink, but recently says he doesn’t. He tells me, “Mama, your favourite colours are pink and purple,” because I’m a girl. (I prefer teal, I tell him.)

He’ll be going to JK next September. I don’t want to advise him to do things that will lead to ridicule… but I want him to feel welcome to embrace his whole self. I want him to be him.

I want him to be like my 12-year-old male student who was so confident, he was completely unabashed about being the only boy in his jazz dance class, and sometimes wore a furry pink bedjacket to school just for kicks. I want my son to have that powerful, joyful, unswerving sense of self – and to share it.

That’s what leads to acceptance. So that it’s okay for little boys to go to school with pretty fingernails.



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In the first week of school this year, I passed a kindergarten colleague in the hall with a student hanging off her arm. As we crossed paths, she said, “I’m too raw of a mommy for this job.”

I totally get it. Her being a “raw mommy” means that she exudes maternalism that the kids adore and glom onto… but it also means she’s spending her inner resources all day long, at a rate of about 5L/second.

I think this is a truth that applies to a lot of teachers – especially in elementary school. There are not many jobs with this level of psychological/spiritual output – each year, and even each day, has an emotional arc that requires pretty intense investment.

My personal catch-phrase about teaching is “The more you care about it, the harder it is,” and I think it’s particularly true for the smallest children. At the kindergarten age, it really feels like, as teachers, we’re helping to raise them.

But it’s very tricky, because whether we have our own children or not, the parental instincts we have cannot be allowed carry us. It is clear from the beginning: we DON’T get physically affectionate with kindergartners. With slightly older students, we might hold their hands and accept their hugs when they’re given, but that’s all – and it’s fine. They’re a pretty independent bunch by Grade 1.

With three- to five-year-olds, it’s a different story. They don’t just want to hug you occasionally or hold your hand. Lots of them want to lean their faces on your knee, stroke your clothes, and sit in your lap. And they have reasons for it. Often, just being physically at school is hard for them. Yesterday morning, I had two brave little girls, both four-year-olds, who got teary-eyed because they missed mom and dad (at 10 a.m.). They’re not habitual criers whatsoever, they were just having a one of those blue mornings. They were both trying really hard to be brave and concentrate on their activities… and it was a serious effort for me not to just scoop them up and hug them. I had to squelch my mom-self  and settle for a small pat on the back, a tentative little shoulder squeeze… and my very nicest words. Poor little sweeties.

And sometimes it’s not even about comforting them, it’s just because they’re so darn cute. Some of them are still only three – really tiny people. Some of them are barely past baby talk; some still have dimples in their hands; basically all of them have cheeks that need to be kissed. I never hold back with my son – if I want to kiss him all over, I go right ahead – so it’s an exercise in restraint not to squeeze these adorable people every day.

I know I’m not supposed to do those things; as a teacher, I would be wrong to touch these kids like their mom would. When I catch myself wishing I could, it’s a total internal conflict. This issue is treated in such a way that it would be easy to feel ashamed and indecent for wanting to cuddle your tiny students… but I remind myself that I’m not. I’m simply maternal… and human.

I do think back wistfully to my stint at Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica, at the end of teachers’ college. It’s a school that can afford to act like a family: small, private, community-oriented, loving. By the end of my first week there, kids would climb onto my lap and I could give them a snuggle, just as instinct would dictate.

At least here at my school, I have an alternative. Mr. A turned me on to the magical properties of puppets: small kids will watch a puppet even when they’re totally tired of watching the teacher. Hence, he lent me Max the Math Turtle. The kids LOVE him. Not only does he zap the kids’ attention like a magnet, he can also give hugs and kisses, secretly on my behalf. It helps.



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