Dinner Grades

The other day, I was brainstorming dinner ideas, which is not an infrequent occurrence, and I suddenly realized I had a pot of pasta with green onions in the refrigerator. This pasta had started out to be pasta salad for a school event on Wednesday. But after an incident at school that day, the event had been postponed until the next week. Half of the pasta had been made into salad for a pot luck on Friday, but the rest of the pasta (complete with green onions) was still in my fridge. In limbo. And there was my dinner starting point.

I turned to the trusty Internet to find a recipe that would work for my particular pasta dilemma. Oh, and my daughter is currently testing out a vegetarian diet, so I had to find something vegetarian yet hearty enough to satisfy two ravenous boys. Not too tall of an order, I suppose.

I searched pasta and green onions since those were the ingredients already mixed together. Chicken… nope, bacon… nope, shrimp… oh, come on. I finally stumbled on Spaghetti with Skinny Green Onion Sauce. It was made with peppers, onions, and tomatoes with a base that included tomato paste and cream cheese. I could easily swap out the spaghetti for the pasta I had! I went to work, hoping the recipe would turn out as good as it looked.

As we sat down and began to eat dinner, a quiet fell over the diners at the table. That’s always a good sign. A minute or so later after several bites, C said, “This is really good, Mom—I give it an A+!” (as if grading dinner was a thing). He paused for just a second, then he looked me straight in the eye and added, “That’ll bring your grade up.”

Next to him, his younger brother’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped in a split second of shock. Then he pulled himself together. “That was rude!” he commented, and I burst out laughing. The thought of being graded on my cooking was humorous in itself, but the fact that this meal would “bring my grade up” made me wonder what my grades had been on previous meals.

Too bad I’ll never know. But at least dinner was a hit!

 

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Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.

Water

I was in the basement moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer. It was quiet in the basement, despite all manner of teen antics that were presently permeating the first floor. I live in a townhouse-style condominium, and as with most condominiums, this one was built quickly and cheaply. Sound travels from floor to floor, from room to room, and—pretty much—from end to end.

I concentrated on sorting the items that needed to go into the dryer from those that should be line-dried, attempting to ignore the laughter and shouts from above—sounds that clearly indicate mischief is afoot. But then C came tumbling down the stairs, his feet sending vibrations through the house before he skidded to a halt on the second to last stair.

“Can you just keep yourself busy down here for like ten minutes? I’ve got everything under control!”

“Um… no,” I told him, the gears in my brain grinding to a halt. “What’s happening up there?”

But he had already begun the sprint back up the stairs. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ve got it under control!”

I sighed as I hastened my sorting, knowing his story might be more than a bit skewed, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was going on. J came down to get away from the ruckus and breathe, the boys’ rough play proving to be overwhelming. “They got a lot of water on the floor.” And then she proceeded to tell me that one boy threw a cupful of water at the other. “But they’re cleaning it up,” she added.

I took a deep breath pushing the minor complication from my thoughts. After all, it was just water. If my boys need to involve some “weapon” in their fights with each other, I suppose I should be happy that they choose to fight only with water. It’s (generally) easy to clean up, and (with the exception of frozen water balloons) it doesn’t hurt.

Let’s face it: my house has a long relationship with water. In the early days of parenting, I had toddlers jumping out of the tub and running down the hall “to get something,” with no thought for drying off first. I had little ones playing “car wash” and “baby bath time” on my kitchen floor. Water balloons, sprinklers, and pools filled my summers, and snow play with its soaking wet mittens, boots, snowpants, and jackets filled the dark afternoons of December through March. Rain, “frogging” in our pond, puddle jumping, water pistols and super-soakers.

A late-stage teenage water fight? I’ve got this! After all, what’s a little water between brothers when it’s all in fun?

Tough Lessons from the Road

A few months back—probably in the fall when the weather was good and the roads were clear—there was a discussion among some of my Facebook friends about motorcycles and pushing the limits of speed. These people were jovially comparing their top speeds, as if hitting 120 was a great accomplishment.

Recently, my 16 year old has been talking about getting a motorcycle, and I am not thrilled at the prospect. While I hope he will ride responsibly if he ever does get one, there is always that temptation to just test how it might feel to go a bit faster than one should. Meanwhile, I have always lived with the paranoid and constant fear that when a motorcyclist speeds past me on the highway, I will encounter the rider up ahead, splayed out in the road after a momentary misstep.

The other day, we were on our way back from a college visit, because really, shouldn’t we just continue to look at colleges since I am now four years into the process: one kid, then the next, and now the youngest? We had just merged from one highway to the next, and I was finding my place among the several lanes. A motorcycle with a young rider suddenly flew past us at an alarming speed, weaving in and out of the cars as he flew. He was living out the rush of a lifetime. A state trooper pursued him, sirens blaring, but he continued his reckless journey unabated.

As we crested the top of the hill, we had an almost two-mile view into a slight valley and up another hill. The motorcycle was a small dot moving along the road up ahead—easy to spot as it traveled faster than the cars around it. The trooper had backed off, knowing that continued pursuit would increase the possibility of the danger.

We traveled another couple miles and… Chaos. We spotted the motorcycle in a crumpled heap. W let out a fearful, “Oh!” and I gasped, the tears springing almost immediately. This was just too much. This sight—the scene of bike, the rider, and the chaos that comes before  emergency personnel arrive—is one of those scenes that I will never unsee. It is one that will quietly creep alongside me and rear its ugly head each and every time a motorcycle recklessly passes me. My once paranoid fear is now realized, confirmed, and etched in my brain forever.

And while I would not wish this sight on anyone, this lesson is one that only the road can teach—either by example or by experience. This lesson is best learned by example. I believe the message came screaming through to my son without my need to speak a word. This young rider had gathered enough speed to send himself headlong into whatever it is that comes next.

Each and every day, we walk the thin line between this world and the next. Depending on our choices, some days, that line seems much thinner and more vague than others—both as fine as the silk of a caterpillar hanging from a tree, and clearly visible to the naked eye. Without warning, we can slip from one side to the other.

One of the toughest lessons to learn is that each and every day is one of those days.

Just once…

I went grocery shopping on the way home from work yesterday. Grocery shopping is probably my least favorite job of the week, so I would definitely consider it a chore.

It was Friday afternoon, and the market was crowded with faceless shoppers on their way home from work. The only thing that would have made it worse was if there had been an impending snowstorm when everyone has to go out for bread and milk. Who knows why….

Anyway, I picked up everything I thought we might need for the majority of the week since I don’t want to go back right away. I got bread and milk and meat and veggies. The grapes looked good—green with a hint of blush (and they were not mushy)—so I picked up a couple pounds them. I might have gotten more, but I’ve learned over the years. If I get grapes and they are a touch too sour or the flavor isn’t just right, no one eats them.

I arrived home to two teens who could help me unload the groceries while I started dinner—it was fairly late by this time. I pulled the grapes out of the bag and tossed them into a colander and washed them. I tried one, and it was the perfect flavor and firmness. I ate a couple more as I made dinner.

When J came into the kitchen to set the table for dinner, they were still in the colander in the sink, so she tried one, as well. Her reaction was nearly identical to mine. “Ooo, those grapes are good!” she commented, stuffing a couple more into her mouth.

“Umm, dinner in two minutes!” I told her.

“They can be dessert!” she informed me, eating a few more.

When dinner was nearly done, J brought the grapes to the table. With two teens digging in, those grapes didn’t stand a chance. By the end of the meal, there were three grapes remaining. The two teens were too stuffed to eat even three grapes more.

Just once, I would like to come home from the market and not have to return in another day or two to pick up something that we have run out of. Apparently, this week is not my week. At least I can take comfort in the fact that they’re eating healthy!

 

The Middle of the Night

Many years ago, when my children were very little, I was in a writing group. This was a group of women who met every Wednesday to write. Unlike many writing groups, we did not meet primarily to critique each other’s writing. We spent much of our time actually writing with the option of sharing our work at various points in our session.

This blissful few hours each Wednesday night was an oasis from the trenches of early parenthood and my early days as a single mom. During this time, there were no diapers, no schedules, and no crying babies. It was me, this group of women, and our pens and notebooks.

When I was void of ideas, I would often start my freewriting with, “It is two o’clock in the morning, and I am….” I found this starting point could lead me in a variety of directions and was often all I needed to jump-start my writing brain. Because I am usually not awake at two a.m., crazy things would often happen on the page—a meandering sort of writing that could lead anywhere.

One memorable piece started with “It is two o’clock in the morning, and I am weeding the garden.” In the piece, I was weeding hastily, taking out the day’s frustrations on my garden. And in my haste—and the dark and the furious pace at which I was working—I accidentally pulled up something that was not a weed, but was a thing of beauty. It was, at the time, a reminder that beauty was all around me and I needed to take the time to appreciate it.

These days, there is a bit of a wrinkle to the middle-of-the-night writing prompt. The wrinkle is that I live with teenagers, and on any given night, I could write about what is actually happening in my house in the middle of the night.

It is two o’clock in the morning, and from the comfort of my bed, I hear the refrigerator close and the microwave open. It must be snack time. Either that, or all of the food in the house is being sucked into the black hole that exists just beyond the microwave’s false back. It is amazing how much food seems to disappear in the middle of the night….

And I can continue to write, documenting more of my night. Four thirty in the morning, and someone is stirring. A light comes on, and a teen is up, preparing to catch a bus scheduled for 5:30. As the heat clicks on and the wind howls just beyond my window, I remember the child out camping in the woods tonight, and I shiver.

I am usually not awake in the middle of the night, but crazy things often happen in my house—a messy sort of meandering night that is always a possibility when there are multiple teens and young adults residing in the house.

The College Experience

Over the weekend, I was walking through the streets of New York City with a woman who had been a stranger up until the walk had begun. We had been thrown together by our daughters, who had gathered for a meeting with a group of their soon to be college classmates.

As this woman and I walked, we talked about the typical things that mothers of teenagers talk about. We started with college and choosing the right school; we talked of letting go and stepping up. We discussed work and children and the challenges and rewards of each different child. Our conversation even wandered to the care of aging parents.

Somewhere in the middle of our conversation, when I mentioned that I, too, had attended the college our daughters would attend, she asked me, point blank, if my college experience had been a good one.

I paused and took a deep breath as I gathered my thoughts. College was an experience. I had been young, as most students are, and struggling to find my way. It was not the best of times for me. “Well,” I started. “It was college. And as we gather life experience, we learn that in any situation, there will be good times and bad times.”

I went on to explain that for the most part, college was a good experience, but there were some tough times and some moments of incredible growth. I was a perfectionist. I took a tough load of courses and I demanded the best work from myself. College—like life, I suppose—is tough, but when you are eighteen, you don’t yet have the life experience to know that this is the case. You have high expectations, and you don’t think it’s possible to be on a campus with so many age-peers and yet, experience loneliness. There are things that all college students should know before they leave home. Here are just a few:

College is not the best four years of your life. I know you’ve probably heard this, but if it were the best four years, why would people keep working and striving? The best part of your life comes much later, when you’ve figured out who you are and what you are about. It takes awhile to get there. Be patient and enjoy the ride.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just because you have gotten into your first choice college (or your second or third choice…), and most of the time you might be happy about that, there will be times that are incredibly sad or difficult or challenging. That’s the way life is, and these years prepare you to face the sad/difficult/challenging times later on. The campus environment can’t protect you from the challenges, but it does provide a good support network to find help if you need it.

Give yourself time. You are living away from home for the first time. You will need time to transition to your new life, adjust to your new surroundings, and familiarize yourself with your new schedule—just as you would in any new situation. Don’t make a snap judgment and go home after your first—or fifth—night on campus. If you find you are homesick, make a commitment to try one new thing each day—even if it is just to take a different route to class.

Power through. It’s not always easy to keep going when things happen or when life rears its ugly head and wants to take you down. But as with any situation, you have to keep moving in a forward direction. Eventually, generally sooner than you think, you will find yourself back on course, and you will be happy you kept moving.

Take advantage of all that you have available. College campuses have a wealth of resources available to students. There are professors with a vast array of knowledge. There are classes in many varied disciplines. If you think you want to try out a course in a new subject area, do it. You will also have activities and lectures and events available to you. Choose wisely, but take advantage of what is offered. If something looks good, check it out. Who knows when you may have another chance like this?

Surround yourself with people who energize you. It is a fact that spending time with people you are fond of will help you adjust to the newness of your surroundings. It will make you feel connected, and it will give you a network to fall back on, and you will have a chance to raise others up, as well.

Most importantly, enjoy! While you are studying hard and involving yourself in all that your college campus has to offer, don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Take a minute to toss a Frisbee with a friend, grab a coffee on the way to class, or take a P. E. class so you can fit in some exercise. You will be glad you did!