Friday, May 18, 2018

Habitually Truant

My oldest child has a criminal record that begins when she was in kindergarten.

That's the first time we received a letter from her school, informing us that she was habitually truant and in violation of California Education Code 48260.

According to the principal, who signed the notice, her attendance was so deficient that if we "continued to fail to meet (our) obligation, (we) would be guilty of an infraction of the law, and subject to prosecution pursuant to Education Code 48290-48296."

Then, she levied the following shocking allegation.

Four days. WITH FAMILY.

So egregious we posed her for a mug shot.

That kindergartner is now graduating from 8th grade. She's too old to pose in a wife beater with a placard (5 is such a precious age!), but I'm pleased to say we have come a long way. In kindergarten, she had 5 unexcused absences. This year, she had 29.

In the past nine years it seems, we have progressed through the seven stages of truancy. They range from shock, shame and guilt, through questioning and resistance, to planning a seven-day trip to Disneyland in the middle of October.

When we lived in Virginia, where she attended 1st through 6th grade, absences were reported to a voicemail that required parents to specify their child's ailment from a list of options that included fever, vomiting, rash, diarrhea and sore throat. My kids always begged me to make this call on speaker. Evidently there's something about hearing the school secretary say "diarrhea" that just never gets old.

Once, when I called and honestly reported that she had a "stomach bug," I received a call back a few hours later, requesting more specific details. This struck me as so intrusive that I reacted defensively by giving the information they requested, and then some. I think it was the point when I offered to provide a stool sample that they marked her excused and ended the call.

Last year, the Washington Post published a list of acceptable reasons for a child to miss school. It included strep throat, influenza, pink eye and hand foot and mouth disease (which, by the way, included the caveat, "especially if they are unable to control their drooling." Gee, you think?).

Our family also has a list of acceptable reasons to miss school. Over the years it has included visiting Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty, solar eclipses, weddings, mission farewells, visits to grandparents, the beach, Disneyland, and their mother's PMS.

Before proceeding, I must clarify that this post is a confessional, and not an advocate. I completely understand the reasoning behind truancy codes, and importance of consistent attendance. Absences create an undue burden on teachers, who are my HEROES, and require them to invest time and attention that diverts from other important aspects of their job. Also, it is my understanding that most schools are funded using a formula that incorporates average daily attendance, so that absences mean fewer dollars allocated.

But. Watching my daughter turn from a kindergartner to a freshman faster than I can say "habitually truant" has also taught me that childhood is crushingly fleeting. The joy and heartbreak of watching her and her siblings grow and gain independence has prompted me to adopt a "What will we remember more?" approach to raising them. Whenever the option of a second-grade history lesson or day at a museum presented itself, the museum always won. And when we've had opportunities to take vacations that create memories beyond recess and worksheets, we've taken them, even when they haven't fit within the confines of winter break or early release days.

Also, when they are in school (which is the majority of the time!), I make a concerted effort to compensate. I love their teachers exceedingly, and shower them with gratitude. I'm the first to volunteer to assist, and provide classroom supplies, cupcakes for parties, and children who are prepared, respectful, smell good, brush their teeth, and never tattle.

Which is why, at the beginning of this school year, when mothers I follow on social media were posting their inspiring annual family mottos I decided that we need one too, and selected after much consideration, "Erbs have Unexcused Absences."

It may have been deprecating at first, but as the year has progressed it has evolved from evoking feelings of sarcasm to sentimentality. Jolie is on the precipice of high school, and with the pressure of college acceptance on the horizon I know that soon we'll no longer have the luxury of of compensating for absences with a simple stack of makeup work. In four years she will be out of the house, and when she is I know I won't regret a single call to the absence voicemail to excuse her to spend extra time with us.  She missed 29 days this year but is ending it with a 4.0, which makes me proud, and an accumulation of family memories, which makes me prouder.

Earlier this year, after back to back trips to California, Arizona and Idaho, her younger brother came home from school one day to tell us that a boy in his class had never missed a day of school. "Not one in his whole life Mom," he said, "Not even since kindergarten. That's called perfect attendance."

And then, just as I was beginning to feel guilty and a little defensive he said, "Isn't that sad?"

Friday, May 11, 2018

38 Things I Learned From My Mother

1. Listen more than you speak

2. Write thank you notes

3. Wait a few seconds after the light turns green before proceeding into an intersection

4. Get ready every day, even if you have no plans to leave the house.

5. There are few problems that can't be solved by a day at the mall with your sisters

6. The best food is Mexican

7. How to make the perfect chimichanga

8. Be your child's parent first. If you do that right, you can be their friend later.

9. Never leave for vacation with a messy house

10. Always have one book on your nightstand that you're currently reading, and one on hold at the library that you plan to read next

11. Control your day, or it will control you. Before you do anything else, make your bed and a to-do list

12. Iron your clothes. Rowenta irons and velvet hangers are best

13. There's a Seinfeld quote for every situation

14. The most important occasion of the day is family dinner. Make something delicious, set a beautiful table, and don't let anything take priority over it

15. Stay informed on world affairs and current events

16. Wrap presents beautifully, and when giving someone food you can do better than paper plates and saran wrap

17. See's Candy has medicinal benefits

18. Lock your doors

19. Dress according to your season. Warm undertones look best in warm colors, and cool in cool

20. The person in front of you takes precedence over the person calling on the phone

21. When your house is clean your mind is clean

22. Family before friends

23. Quality friends above quantity

24. Things are funniest when they're not supposed to be funny

25. Homemaking is a science guided by the five senses. What does your house look like? How does it smell? What do you hear? What do you taste? How does it make you feel?

26. There's a season for everything in life. The season for raising young children is fleeting and critical, so go all in. There will be plenty of time later for other pursuits

27.  It's better to be overdressed than underdressed

28. Lipstick isn't for everyone. Just people with lips.

29. Isn't your dad wonderful? Aren't we lucky?

30. Vacations aren't about where you go, but who you're with

31. Beaches are nice. Mountains are better.

32. Less is more. If you don't love it or use it, donate it

33. Children gain confidence from predictable routines. They should always know what to expect, what comes next, and what are the consequences of their choices.

34. Santa Clause is generous

35. Work before you play

36.  When your husband or children walk through the door, stop what you're doing, welcome them, and let them know you're so happy they're home

37. You are only as happy as your saddest child

38. Call your mother every day

Mom, thank you ♥ (#2 ✔️)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Ms. Pettibone

My 11-year old daughter Leah has had quite a year. There has been school of course, and her weekly tumbling class, but she also learned to fish. And came within three feet of a brown bear. After that she got her first job, at a bakery, but took time off for a trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In between those, she managed to squeeze in a Queen P concert, trip to South Korea, where she competed in the Winter Olympics as a figure skater, and shuttle to Mars.

Really though.  I can prove it.

To do so, I have to go take you back to August and set the stage. Literally. A black, wooden, custom-built stage with glittering tassels and bright lights that sat in anticipation, ready to illuminate the stars as they arrived.  Not actors in a play, but ten and eleven-year old children who had been cast in the coveted role of students in Ms. Pettibone's fourth grade class.

Leah is one of those students. The stage is just one of countless ideas dreamed up by Ms. Pettibone to allow children like her a chance to shine. When another teacher asked why there was a stage in her classroom, she replied, "Why isn't there a stage in your classroom?" It's part of her daily, tireless effort to ensure that every student feels important, appreciated and capable.

As the mother of four children who have attended five schools in three states, I have observed over 30 classrooms, and never seen anything like the phenomenal environment created by Ms. Pettibone.

Ms. Pettibone or, I should say, whoever happens to greet the students on a given morning.

Once, for example, it was Her Honor Pettibone, sitting at her judicial bench ready to to prepare the class for a writing test by hearing persuasive evidence they gleaned and presented from a text

On another day, it was Queen P, a rapper whose forte is multiplication 

and PV, a bear who roams the forest teaching place value 

Last week, students arrived to discover that she had mysteriously been replaced by Nikki Watts, a special agent from Washington DC. The classroom had been transformed into the CIA, and as they entered it they were digitally "fingerprinted," issued security badges, and given the task of saving hacked files by practicing their language arts. With highlighters. Beneath a black light. After navigating through a maze of glowing lasers. 

In February, they stepped through the doors of Room 304 and into South Korea, where they were named athletes in the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. The wall was covered with pictures of every student as a gold medal athlete. Each subject was tackled as an event, and thunderous applause could be heard as they beat personal records.

On another occasion the room was "Text Structure Raceway." Students sped around the room with toy cars, reading and studying informational text in order to cross the finish line and earn a trophy. 

Or the time they left earth, landed on Mars, and were challenged to find their way home. 

I could go on, and on. Leah and her class have also learned while baking pies, completing scavenger hunts, and fishing from inflatable pools.

Ms. Pettibone is remarkable.

And, remarkably, her creativity isn't the quality that impresses me most.  She once said that she understands the struggle with self-esteem that can affect her students, and has therefore made it her mission to ensure that each of them feels important.  She writes  heartfelt personal letters enumerating their strengths, attends their extracurricular performances on weekends, and makes sure they have a friend to play with at recess.  At parent teacher conferences, she goes beyond test scores and quantitative measurements, and talks to parents about their child's kindness and confidence, the joy they bring to her life, and their unique talents and potential.

Once, Ms. Pettibone mentioned during a lesson that she needed a good night's rest to be ready for her job, and a baffled student replied, "You have a job!?"  It was the perfect indication of the way she is perceived. Not as someone who simply shows up for work every day, but as a beloved part of each child's life - Teacher, mentor, advocate, cheerleader and friend.

When you have a child that struggles academically and socially the way Leah does, the thought of sending them to school can be agonizing. The gift of Ms. Pettibone is that her classroom is the place where Leah feels most confident. She has made more progress this year than any prior, and I can say that without considering a single grade or test score.

They say that teaching is a thankless job. Thanking this teacher enough is an impossible one.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Dr. Shame

When my daughter Leah was in first grade, she was prescribed a patch to correct the vision in her left eye.

The first time I put it on her, I told her two things.

First, I promised that if anyone made fun of her for wearing it, I would personally come to the playground and watch them "accidentally" trip and land on their face.  She was horrified, but I swear I meant it.

Then, I told her that I was so, so sorry.

Leah has a neurological disorder. I could write an entire book about her, and someday might, but for now suffice to say that she is the most adorable thing you'll ever meet, but that life has handed her a multitude of hurdles to clear.

Her deficiencies manifested one by one from time she was born. It took years to diagnose her, and just as long for me to obsess over where I had gone wrong. First, I decided it must have been mercury exposure from the tuna I ate when I was pregnant with her.  When that theory didn't pan out, I decided it was the medication I took for morning sickness. Or the helmet therapy we elected to correct her skull shape.  Maybe exposure to mold in our California apartment? For every moment I watched her struggle, I found new ways to incriminate myself.

Then, when she was in first grade, we added vision to her list of battles. Her pediatrician noticed her straining to read the eye chart and suggested we have her evaluated, so I scheduled an appointment with a pediatric ophthalmologist at Children's National Medical Center.  This is where she was diagnosed with amblyopia, a condition where the brain favors one eye over the other, and prescribed a patch as treatment.

I had never heard of amblyopia and had a thousand questions, none of which the doctor had much patience for. He spoke mostly over my head except for one thing he made very clear. "You shouldn't have waited until she was seven years old to bring her in," he told me. "If you hadn't, this could have all been avoided."

Then he handed us a box of patches, told us to come back in six weeks, and left the room.

I hated that doctor, whom I would thenceforth refer to as "Dr. Shame," and Leah hated those patches. They gave her headaches. They hurt to peel off. Kids stared at her when she wore them. And it was all my fault. If I had brought her in at an earlier age, like he said, like a good mother, it could have all been avoided.

It weighed on my conscious for years. With every patch, pair of glasses and ophthalmologist appointment, Dr. Shame's admonition echoed in my head.

Until, one evening, I went to dinner with my cousin.

Her challenges are far more consuming than mine. Thirteen years earlier she received a misdiagnosis during pregnancy, and as a result has a child with a serious disability. His diagnosis was followed by years of whys, what-ifs, medical record procurement and malpractice attorneys. She said she became obsessed with receiving justice for her son until one day, after another legal dead end, a nurse at the malpractice firm told her that in her opinion, what had happened "can only be classified as a fluke."

That was the turning point for her. After all the confusion of consultations, files, x-rays, lawyers, etc., she said the only thing she knew for sure was that her son was not a fluke. No child is a fluke.  He is exactly the person he is supposed to be, and even with all of his challenges she wouldn't trade him for anything. She said she hung up the phone, dropped the case, and made the decision that from that moment on she would transfer all the energy she had exerted seeking justice for her son, into loving and enjoying him exactly the way he is.

This was a turning point for me too.

I wondered, what if Leah is exactly the way she's supposed to be? What if the eye patch, the amblyopia, and the learning disabilities are all perfect components of the life she was meant to live? And subsequently, what if none of it could have been prevented or changed, no matter how much tuna I ate when I was pregnant, or what age I took her to the ophthalmologist?

When I considered it from this perspective, I could say without reservation that I wouldn't have Leah any other way. She tests my faith and patience, but is the very reason I've been able to develop both. She thwarted my plan to be a perfect mother, but instead allowed me to raise a perfect child. She's naive but innocent. She's often ostracized, but is incapable of excluding others. It takes her longer than most to understand things, but when she does the joy is tenfold.

My opportunity as her mother isn't just to tolerate her challenges, but to embrace, learn from, and celebrate them.

I am the luckiest.

I suppose I can even celebrate Dr. Shame. Depending on how I reflect on his comment, it can either be a prescription for resentment or healing, and I choose the latter. At the end of the day it's all patchwork isn't it? I'm grateful for what he helped me see more clearly.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Yawn Effect

When I was sixteen, my parents went to dinner at the Red Robin where I worked as a hostess. It was a Friday night and we were slammed, which meant that even with the preferential treatment I was not above administering, they waited in the lobby for over twenty minutes to be seated.

As they did, they said, they noticed something strange. The couple in front of them both yawned, as did members of the family next to them, and several people that walked in after.  Yawns are contagious of course, but this was more like an epidemic.

Just as they were beginning to suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, I called their table. As they stood to follow me they turned, looked past the partition adjacent to which they had been seated, and saw this

It was was an enormous print, framed and hanging just within eyesight of everyone that had been facing them as they waited.  They were so amused, that my mom tracked the picture down and bought a copy for me to hang in my room at home.

She gave it to me with a lesson. This, she told me, is to remind you that you're affected by the people around you, whether you realize it or not.

As I mentioned, I was sixteen at the time, an age when friends can make you or break you. And this wasn't just wise parenting. It was a scientific fact.

Research suggests that others' moods can spread as infectiously as their germs. Psychologists call it emotional contagion, a process by which feelings and emotions transfer from one person to the next, causing them to unconsciously copy one another.

Or, as I've heard it put another way, spend time with bank robbers and pretty soon you'll be driving the getaway car.

We've all felt it. People can inspire you or deplete you. When I spend time with someone whose spirit animal is Eeyore - pessimistic, gloomy, complaining - I notice every dark cloud on the way home.  On the contrary, what a joy are people who are joyful. I have smiled because someone else was smiling, heard laughs that have elicited my own, and caught the bug of other people's infectious enthusiasm, optimism, or capacity to dream big.

This phenomenon also applies to social networks. A 20-year Harvard study concluded that if neighbors within a mile of you see an increase in happiness, you are 25% more likely to see one too. Your tribe matters. I never thought I would get hooked on dirty sodas or wear jandals with socks, but I moved to Utah two years ago and guess what?

For better and worse, I have seen evidence of the yawn effect throughout my life. It's been said that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, which means that when I was a teenager, I was the average of Katie D, Amy, Tanita, Jack, Stacey, Jeffrey and Eli (I never was good at math). They were happy, confident, inclusive teenagers with an unwavering sense of right and wrong. To this day I'm grateful for their influence.

When I went away to college and my circle of friends changed, I developed a more competitive nature. After moving to California and enlisting with yet another tribe, I learned to be more laid back. Surrounded by accomplished mothers in DC, I tended more toward self-improvement.

In no other circumstance however, has the yawn effect taken on as much meaning as it has since becoming a mother. When I yawn my kids yawn, proverbially. When I'm unhappy they're unhappy. When I sing along to the radio and point out how beautiful the mountains are, they sing and appreciate mountains. When they step on a Lego and mutter an expletive? Yawn effect.

Twenty-plus years later, the yawning girl is now the screensaver on my phone. She still serves as a reminder of the effect we have on others, though when I look at her these days she doesn't elicit a feeling of caution as much as she does a sense of responsibility.

Friday, April 13, 2018

In with the Old

My husband and I both grew up just west of Phoenix, in Glendale Arizona. Our neighborhood was suburban, but if you were to drive about ten minutes north when we were kids there was nothing as far as the eye could see. Nothing but orange groves, cotton fields, and a few old farm houses scattered here and there.

Then about 30 years ago, developers bought up most of the land, built Arrowhead Towne Center - a million square foot shopping mall, and from there it was a domino effect. Arrowhead was followed by a megaplex, strip malls, restaurants, hotels, MLB spring training facility and eventually NFL stadium (go Cardinals!).

But right at the center of all this change, there was a little broken down farmhouse. And somehow, with everything changing around it, this home managed to stay put. I have tried unsuccessfully to find records of the eminent domain battle that must have taken place over that house, but I can only imagine.

Because literally, on one side of the avenue was the mall, south of it a movie theater, then on the corner of the intersection was a brand new shopping center with a Jack in the Box. And in the PARKING LOT of that Jack in the Box sat this house. With people living in it.

I used to sit in a line of cars at that drive through and scratch my head wondering how on earth the house remained. At some point in my adolescence, while waiting for my tacos, a thought occurred to me. That house taught me a lesson that I'm now trying to teach my children.

At the time it was built, it blended in with its environment. It looked like it belonged. But as everything around it changed, it began to look more and more distinct. Conspicuous. Odd even.

There have been occasions in every phase of my life that I have felt distinct, conspicuous, and even odd because I believed or acted in a way contrary to what was popular. Having survived high school, I can look back now and be grateful I held my ground, and credit parents who taught me that when deciding what to do, one thing I didn't need to take into consideration was what everyone else was doing.

I want my kids to be confident, comfortable farmhouses. The moral compass of society is changing at a rapid pace, and as the definition of right and wrong evolves I hope they will be more concerned with standing the ground of their principles than with trying to blend with their environment.

When they were babies and we lived in Santa Barbara, I was fortunate to be surrounded by mothers much wiser and more experienced than I. There was one in particular, Leslie, who has raised her children into five confident, accomplished adults. I remember when they were in high school, she would have them repeat, over and over and over, "It's okay to be different, if different is good."

The Jack in the Box farmhouse is no longer there. I wish it was, and that I could go back and knock on the door. I would ask its residents why they held out for decades. What was it about the house that was so dear to them, that they insisted on staying put? How did they withstand the pressure of developers for so long, and how did it feel to see the surrounding landscape change so drastically? I'm certain they would have something to teach me.

I would love to visit the old Jack in the Box itself while I was at it, but it's also gone. It too was demolished, and replaced with an In-N-Out, appropriately. Out with the old. In with...

I'd like to go back there anyway and buy my kids hamburgers.  Through the window we can look at the corner of the parking lot where the house used to sit, holding its ground. And hopefully, between dipping fries I can help them understand the difference between things that should evolve throughout their life, and things that never will. Truth. Principles. Right. Wrong.

Although as much as I enjoy an In-N-Out burger, nothing compares to the Jack in the Box tacos of my youth. Am I right? It's an inconvenient truth, but no one has been able to convince me otherwise.

Habitually Truant

My oldest child has a criminal record that begins when she was in kindergarten. That's the first time we received a letter from h...