Woke Up This Morning and….

Like the arrival of birds in Spring, I found signs of the arrival of an unknown number of twenty-somethings, my son and his friends, in the wee hours last night.

Running Roughshod across the days

It dawned on me the night before the Wednesday in question. It was not going to be possible to get my daughter to her violin lesson at 5:30 a half an hour away to the east if my son was driving the car to his singing lesson at 5:pm a half an hour south. After google mapping the distance between the two destinations, I went to bed dreaming up options like insisting that my older  son drive home from where he was staying with his girlfriend so we could borrow his car. Or as I relaxed and became more lucid, increasingly complex ideas occurred to me: All of us setting off together and then dropping my son off a little bit early for his lesson, then the 40 min over a different bridge than usual to drop my daughter off at her lesson and then I could drive back to pick up my son and my daughter would only have to wait an extra 40 min. I figured that the last plan only involved an extra hour and twenty minutes of driving between the two locations. 

The next morning, I explained the dilemma to my kids. Before I could explain the third option I had thought of which invovled my son having to wait longer at his singing lesson after it was over, he interrupted and suggested, “Why don’t we just see if we can move the singing lesson to the Sat time slot?” It took only about a minute for me to realize that he had made a very good suggestion. So I texted with the lesson coordinator and within 5 minutes it was arranged that he could switch lessons. Problem solved.

So, my daughter and I set out on the half hour journey across the Hudson and down the other side of the river. We arrived at the music studio to find the door open as usual. We took off our shoes and I settled into the comfy sofa with my book. My daughter began tuning her violin. The teacher did not appear. After about 10 minutes, I felt the dismay and fear spreading through my body. I pulled out my ipad and went back to the teacher’s last email. Oh dear. She had written that, in general, Wednesdays were great, but not this Wednesday. Thursday at 5:30 would be perfect. And I had read her message. But my lifelong habit of skimming the time and date details had once again put a spanner in the works. Oh dear oh dear. 

My daughter pointed out after I vented frustration with myself for 10 minutes solid, that the car trip had been really nice anyway. We had talked about the transitional period she finds herself in right now. I have every confidence that she will find her way out of this difficult patch. The question is whether I will continue to obfuscate my days. (I have assigned her all future communicaitons with her teacher about lesson times)

Inventing High School and Beyond

School was a monolithic fixture of my childhood. The smell of a school cafeteria, which usually pervades the entire school building, brings back visceral memories for me of being uncomfortable, unengaged, and unsure. The various bus rides were also memorable; it was at the busstop when I was 6 that I first got exposed to the idea that 69 meant something. I didn’t know what for many years.
The concept of school was demystified for me when I was 11, when my Dad started one with several other families. I remember the first day mostly because I had a terrifying asthma attack and couldn’t keep up with the large group of kids that were following my Dad around on a tour of the facilities. I found myself gasping for air and unable to yell, “Wait for me” as they all trooped off across another field on our return from some out buildings. I was frightened and upset. I had never had an asthma attack before and never suffered one again. Was it the stress of watching my Dad take on about 40 extra kids that day?
As my “homeschooled” 17 year old recently posted on facebook, the US government does not allow 18 year olds to vote, but it does encourage and assist them in diving $40,000 in debt to pay for a college education. His older brother went that route. He knew he wanted to be an animator, and his first idea was to find an internship opportuntiy. but it seemed that one had to be enrolled in an animation college in order to even be considered for an internship at an animation studio. So, he was persuaded that attending art school was a mandatory step towards his career goal. 6 years later, he is weighed down with the burden of his debt. He is so weighed down by it, that he pretty much thinks of nothing but the need to pay back the debt. Sometimes this worries me. He seems obsessed by the debt. Driven by it. His is an obsessive personality to begin with. He laments not being able to work on a large creative project that he feels speaks to this cultural moment….he worries that by the time he can bring the project to some level of fruition, it’s relevance will have passed. Keep in mind that animation is a painstaking process and he is building every piece of it himself, though working with another creative artist on the concept drawings.
Meanwhile, he is watching his younger brother take serious steps in an artistic direction. The older brother pontificates to any of us who will listen that he really does not think that his younger brother should spend money on Art school, or go into debt for an art education at an art school. He feels so strongly about this that he called up several weeks ago to essentially offer his younger brother an internship in Animation. While this may not be the younger brother’s ultimate orientation, the older brother had tapped into a seemingly endless vein of well paying freelance animation work. Not only could he not do all the work alone, but he realized that his younger brother could earn money, rather that spending it, while gaining an art education of sorts. So while there is a huge learning curve, where it could be months before the younger one can really be counted on to understand the animation program enough to be competent, he was able within a week of training with his brother to make toothbrush bristles that could be used in the brush. This whole plan consists of the older brother staying late at work with his younger brother at his side where banks of computer stations are available. While the older one works on his free lance jobs, the younger one can do tutorials and receive  help when needed. It is not a perfect plan. They each could really do with having new expensive laptops with the prohibitively expensive program loaded onto them. It would be good if the older brother didnt also get swamped with extra work from his day Animation job. It would be good if their working together didnt lead to staying up till 2:00 and 3:00 AM so that then neither one of them can get to work the next morning on time.
Cause that is the other thing. The younger brother has the opportunity to work for his Dad doing electrical work during the days in the city. And he is enrolled at the Art Students League in a. drawing class on Thursday afternoons. So his 11th grade looks a lot different than mine. I was in AP English which I loved. I helped edit the and layout the High School Literary magazine. But my art class was diabolical. The most modern artists we studied were the Impressionists. The art teacher was a “toll painter”. For the uninitiated, “toll painting” is the art of painting berries and flowers on metal objects like vintage milk jugs and mailboxes. We made “stuffed canvases” that we then painted. I guess we sewed them together. Mine was a cat. When I got to art school in New York City, the kids I met had been going to galleries to see conceptual and political art while they were in highschool. I caught up quickly, but I couldn’t help feeling a little incredulous at my own art education in high school. or lack of it.

R and S, Scourge of the Raspberries


Because the raspberry bushes that we planted when we first moved here did so well, we have “volunteers” every Spring. More volunteers than we know what to do with. At first I added to our long row of bushes so that we have about…70 feet of raspberry bushes. Then between taking two sons to high level soccer practice and games over 40 miles away, teaching several classes each Spring, and taking care of the large vegetable and flower gardens, the raspberry row fell into disrepair. 

I definately discovered one of the culprits two days ago while “weeding” with a shovel. I was digging out young trees, wild black cap runners, thorn bushes, and a monster weed that actually looked like a criminal. It had grown into huge clumps of tentacle like tubers that formed a hard mass in the ground. I believe that they produce some sort of daisy wildflower up above ground. These masses of tubers were strangling the straggling row of raspberries…. So out they all came. While I use every last ounce of strength and heavy iron hand tools to weed, I imagine other people kneeling politely next to their manicured plots…lifting weeds out with delicate little trowels. The up side to my laissez faire gardening is the “volunteering” of not only weeds, but wild edible plants such as onion and garlic and also cultivated plants like parsnips, kale, and cilantro that all appear each year now where I planted them previously.

I believe this is garlic growing wild from preovvious years of planting it here

The fine art of worrying

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My Dad taught me a lot of things, but one of the things that he said so often that it became a sort of mantra for me, is ” There is nothing to fear but fear itself”. Someone famous said this before him. (Roosevelt?) Now in middle age, I finally get it. You can worry all day long every day, but the thing that you worry about will not most likely be the thing that goes wrong!!!

Case in point:
Son no. 1 is on the phone for the last 24 hours working towards a very important deadline that involves using a program he doesn’t know to complete an” art test” for a job that he is very much in the running for and would like to get offered. Simultaneously, a second job that he also really wants and has practically nailed tells him at 1:00 that they want to do a Skype interview with him at 5:00. He has not had a haircut in 4 months, he has not slept in 24 hours, and he has no clean clothes. 800 miles away or so, there is not much I can do to help. I tell him not to worry about his pants as they won’t see them, to put product in his hair and comb it back, and I encourage him to keep eating to keep his energy up. So, I spend the next 24 hours sort of tuned in like a tuning fork….he calls elated this morning to report that even though he couldn’t think of many questions in the Skype interview, he thinks he is still a contender because they are asking for more info about his reel. He calls again several hours later to report that he just did another interview with a third company that went well. But he can’t talk for long, because the dreaded art test is due now in 8 hours.

At 5:00, I meet my daughter who gets dropped off with me at a gas station. As we pull out, she informs me that she got thrown off the pony today and her head still hurts. She explains matter of factly how she was checked for a concussion with help from google, and she is fine. She had a helmet on.

So once again, I was worrying about the wrong thing.

Organic School

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Teens working on Shakespeare scenes

I have stepped in to help….coordinate?……teach?…a weekly homeschool learning center sort of thing for teens. Near the end of it’s first year of operation, it has consistently attracted about 10 teens to each quarterly session. This is a pretty good number considering our relatively rural setting. The difficult moments of realizing that we are asking the teens to do things outside their comfort zone are balanced by the “Ah ha” moments when they do not want to break for lunch because we are still discussing ( arguing?) about something that came up in “class”. Now, we are abandoning the social studies premise for “class” in favor of sheer discussion. This should help set them up to work with a writer friend next Fall when she teaches them basic essay writing. After all, the real trick is to have ideas that one is compelled to convey. It is not so difficult to learn to convey them!

And just to be perfectly honest, at least 3 of the ten teens dropped out of the Shakespeare scenes class pictured above….again, outside of their comfort zone, especially the comfort zone of those with reading difficulties. Imagine trying to get through a Shakespeare couplet full of unusual words if vowel sounds are still a bit confusing.

Homeschooling on the ski slopes

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Sometimes I think of how easy it would be send my two teenagers off to school in the morning… I could have uninterrupted time to write cover letters for teaching jobs, work in my studio, revise my resume, see friends, take one friend up on a ski lesson offer, etc. Then I drive my daughter to her 10AM violin lesson where she plays Vivaldi under the tutelage of a gifted and passionate teacher. (Our school district has no strings program anyway) Next, I drop my daughter and her friend off with the friend’s mother to go to a group horse riding lesson where the two girls are going to work on jumping and then a free Latin class. (Our school district does not offer Latin) I go home, and realize that now that I do not have to pick my daughter up later thanks to the help of the other mom, I can go home, pick up my son, and head off to ski with him for a couple of warm afternoon hours. He is practicing a few things: how to do a 180 in the air off the jumps in the terrain park, and also how to teach skiing. It is a win win situation for me, as he happens to be a very good teacher and has me 100% more confident and focused on using varied pressure of my feet to steer, among lots of other things. He watches me and makes suggestions, and by the end of the afternoon, he has persuaded me to go down “Hell’s Gate”, an extremely steep icy slope named so as to dissuade middle aged novice skiers to even think of attempting it. This is what a good homeschooling day looks like. We are taking advantage of the weather, our moods, our discounted season pass, our geography, and our flexibility. We will do some math tonight in front of the fire, and go to our once a week homeschool cooperative tomorrow.

Raising Bad boys

My two older sons spent their highschool “unschooling” years home, alone. One exception was that both of them played soccer on organized teams and went off to casual “pick up” games when they were happening, both near and far away. The other exception was our tight friendship with one or two other families who we saw a few times a year. The older boy focused on computer animation, and his next youngest brother, computer programming. This year, the oldest one will graduate, while his younger brother just entered college (for computer programming)a8333-img_1134.

Now, near the end of his 4 years, the eldest has become extremely critical of the expensive art/animation school that he so desperately wanted to attend 4 years ago. Scornful of their cheap protocol that changes when their employees shift, irate about departmental battles that end up putting barriers between students and classes they want to take, and upset about the constant upgrading of equipment irregardless of whether it is actually error-free and ready for students to use, he tells me that the other students dislike him because he is complaining too much about the school. From a distance, I worry that he is not coping well with the “real” world because of his carefree years of studying at home. There was no office here at home through which one had to get papers signed and activities approved. He was in charge as much as anyone else. Perhaps this did not prepare him for cow towing to authority and dealing with less than perfect policies designed to manage complex situations.

But guess what happened next? He got very upset upon being informed that he will not be able to take a special 3-d class in which students would be mentored by a very famous American car company. He has been complaining since he compared notes with other interns last summer at his fabulous gaming internship in LA, that other schools offer students like him the chance to specialize and gain expertise in the aspect of computer animation that they plan to specialize in. Now, at his school, he is being told that there are only 10 seats for this special class in which students will be mentored by an expert from the company. As he is possibly the top modeling student in his program and a senior, he really cannot understand how he could be closed out of this opportunity. Why didn’t they require portfolios if seats were so limited? He gets me to proofread several emails to the department head, the teacher who will be in charge of the class, and his academic advisor. He reproves me for starting to pull out the “big guns” in the messages we are drafting…”No”, he says over the phone, “Everybody is trying to help me get into this class, so we need to keep it pleasant.” But the deadline looms. On the night before the deadline, he decides to use his heavy artillery. He has realized that he showed his portfolio to the head executive at the car company last year, and he has his email address. He fires off a polite inquiry with his reel of work samples attached. The next day, he is called into the President’s office, but the President is not there. He is on vacation in Aruba (I made that location up) and my son is put on a conference call with the President of the school and the car company executive and they inform him that an 11th place has been created in the class for my son.

A week later, I am doubling over with laughter as he tells me over the phone that he scored an interview for a 3-d modeling position with a company he has wanted to work for since he was 10 years old…..in spite of the fact that they had filled their interview slots randomly upon not getting enough applicants and in spite of his having missed their deadline ( which wasn’t posted clearly at the school according to my son) He sent his reel to the recruiter, and meanwhile one of the randomly selected students who had no particular investment in her interview, told the recruiter about my son during her interview, and that they would be crazy not to interview him. The recruiter then remembered his name from previous years of being impressed with his work and said he’d been wondering where his application was. He was then offered an interview, which in turn, yielded the much coveted second interview. (stay tuned)

This is the son who has tended to lack confidence; he often thought that the other kids on his soccer team were all better than him even though the coach did not think so. It is extremely gratifying to see him not taking “no” for an answer.

It is thrilling to see him drawing the lines between the dots…he will owe a huge sum of money when he graduates and there have been many moments in the last four years where I wanted to hang myself by my fingernails for letting him go into a debt like that. What could we be thinking? But now, seeing not only his desirability to employers, but also his self taught confidence and conviction, I feel better about our decision to let him go out on a limb monetarily. Afterall, unlike many of the other students whose parents are easily footing the bill, he is holding the school to its promise of providing him with a top education in the field of computer animation. He is forcing them to let him into the car company class that can yield a top level internship this summer. Again, my goal is to encourage other parents to trust in their children’s ability to forge their own path, and as odd as that path may seem now and then, it is the strength of one’s own conviction that really must be nurtured in our children.

The academic efficiency of Playing

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Having grabbed the time right after my kids’ homeschool geology class ( or ” block” as the more Waldorfian of the parents referred to it), 3 of us parents met with the teacher. She wanted to talk with us about future possible classes and how things had gone with our kids so far. It was a fruitful meeting, as it turned out that each of the parents had a different idea about how the class fit in to their child’s or children’s “studies”.While I had come to the meeting hoping to reduce the number of classes per week from two to one, one of the other parents was hoping we could get back to the initial concept of meeting three times a week. This parent explained that she was aiming for a real “block” study program that would keep her daughter engaged in study every day….that she did not relish having to scramble for additional study materials that might not relate well to the block being administered by the teacher. I, on the other hand, explained that I was trying to do Pre Algebra lessons with the help of a methodical Saxon Math text book about 3 times a week, and that my two kids were also currently enrolled in a Biology class with homework in addition to their own pursuits. We had been having such busy weeks that the math was falling by the wayside.

The teacher shared her perceptions of the kids. She had divided them up a bit by age, but made exceptions when their educational style didn’t match their age grouping, so there was an older kid in the younger kid group, etc. She off handedly referred to how my two kids obviously came from a more structured educational background. I was so surprised to near this that I remained silent. The teacher was actually very perceptive about the kids, but she was entirely wrong about my kids’ educational background. They had been lavishly and whole-heartedly “unschooled”. As a matter of fact, the teacher knew for example that my 15 year old son was just nearing the end of remedial reading lessons, as we had not detected a double vision problem until he was almost 13 and still could not read. My older two boys had also followed this wonderful trajectory. It consisted basically of the theory that the absolute freedom to play until one outgrows playing is the key to educational success. Once they were 14 and 15, the older two had been quite quick to want to make up for lost time with math for example, and had worked on their own with Saxon math texts and then worked one on one with a tutor. They had taken advantage of college level classes and a US. History reading study group under the tutelage of a lawyer. They both approached learning with enthusiasm and creativity. So the assumption that my younger two came from a scholastic orientation was quite funny. The teacher was mistaking their enthusiasm and unfettered engagement for “previous preparation”. I thought to myself that in a certain sense, she was right. They had been allowed to find and collect rocks throughout their childhood. My son had even gone with my husband and I one day to learn what we could about an amazing local geological site from our neighbor who was a Geology professor at Columbia University. My son ended up suggesting the site to the teacher by showing her some of his photos of it, and she wound up taking the whole class there on a field trip.

Nothing like playing until it isn’t fun anymore. It is a more efficient system…kids who are not allowed to play will insist on bringing it into the classroom for twelve years, which makes lessons take a much longer time….