The Best Gift

blue-balloons-1193172

My grandmother loved to laugh. She had a bit of a silly sense of humor, which we first began to notice as children, when she made us birthday cakes on which she placed “trick” candles—the kind that we couldn’t blow out.

As I grew older, she would give me gag gifts. These were usually things she came across as she was cleaning out her house. One of the most memorable (because it went back and forth several times) was a crocheted miniature chair that she boxed up, wrapped, and addressed to me from “Nobody.” We had some fun with that chair, including the time I reupholstered it (in the same material she had just used to cover a chair in her home) and gave it back.

In my mind, the best gift I ever gave my grandmother was the silliest and the simplest. It was her birthday, and if my math and memory are right, I believe she was turning 90.

Now, if you have any 90-year-olds in your life, you know they really don’t need much. So I thought long and hard about what I might do for her. And finally, I knew what I would do. I went out and bought a mylar balloon that said, “Happy Birthday!” I put it in a cardboard box, sealed it up, and addressed it to her. In the spot for the return address, I wrote, “Nobody.”

When the package arrived at her house, my aunt handed it to her to open. “There’s nothing in this box!” she chided. “It’s empty!” But (thankfully) she went through the motion of opening it, anyway.

When she pulled open the flaps of the box, the single balloon floated to the ceiling. According to my aunt, my grandmother laughed and laughed and laughed. As my aunt went about her business that day, she would hear my grandmother start laughing all over again.

That was truly the best gift I ever gave. It was also the simplest and probably one of the cheapest—a single balloon in a box. But what I really gave my grandmother that day was the gift of laughter. And in return, I received a memory that I will cherish forever.

[image credit: FreeImages.com/John evans]

Summer Jobs

img_1998

Since there has been some talk of teenage jobs in my house of late, I got to thinking about some of the jobs I held in my early working life, jobs that were increasingly interesting and varied. I had some not so good jobs and some really great jobs. Being open to the experiences that come along is always a good way to approach life.

My very first job was stocking shelves in my father’s hardware store. But beyond my family circle, the early jobs I held were fairly typical high school jobs. I worked in fast food and motel housekeeping. The fast food job hung on for two years while I simultaneously worked other jobs. The motel where I worked (only for one summer) was owned by a man who felt the tips left by guests were his to fuel the bets he made on the horse races. When we arrived for our day’s work, he could often be seen making the rounds of all of the rooms before the maids went in to clean them. The only time we ever got tips was when the guests would hand them to us directly, which wasn’t very often.

My first summer home from college, I took a job in a gift shop. I worked long days, and the work was not the most interesting. However, it was better than flipping burgers. I didn’t go home smelling like food and feeling greasy, and the people I worked with were ridiculously mischievous. There was always a prank… or ten… in the works, and one never knew what would happen on a given work day. I fit in quite nicely. You said prank? I’m in!

That same summer, I created newspaper advertisements for my father’s business. I caught the attention of the ad salesman who also happened to be the salesman for the gift shop. He would often stop by to chat, and at his recommendation, I took an internship working in the art department of the newspaper during the January term of my sophomore year. That internship grew into a summer job that filled the summers before my junior and senior years of college.

The second summer at the newspaper, they allowed me to take three weeks off so I could go back to my college campus to work as a teaching assistant in a program for gifted upper elementary and middle school students. One of my professors was the site coordinator for the program, and he had offered me that position. The funny thing about that TA job is that one of my present jobs is for the same organization in their online program.

My all time favorite summer job—and one that was truly one of those opportunities that most people never have—was working in the photo lab of an art museum. I spent six to eight hours of every day during the summer in a darkroom. I cataloged the art work that was in the vaults, and I made prints from stacks of negatives. To this day, I am not sure why I did that….

But the most exciting part of the job was dealing with actual works of art. If my boss was working on a particular project in the studio, he would talk to me about it and explain what he was doing. He would tell me about painting and light and the best angle to capture damage or decay in a painting. He would explain how infrared reflectography would create an image that could  “see” the various layers of paint used by an artist. For example, this technique would show the various leg placements Degas used for his ballerinas before he got it right.

One day, as my boss was photographing some paintings from the vault, he called me out of the darkroom. He told me what he was doing, explaining his chosen angle and what it would show about the pieces in question. And then he handed me a seldom seen Monet painting that spent much of its time in the vault–for lack of wall space. Upstairs in the museum, these paintings were connected to alarm systems in rooms with guards. If a visitor accidentally leaned on a painting or touched it, an alarm would sound and the guards would come running. And here I was holding it in my hands!!

Yes, I held (in my hands) the very same canvas that was painted and held by Monet, himself. It was one of the amazing perks of that summer job. Because summer jobs are like that. You never know what might come up. The job might lead to a position that you will hold for many years, or it might just lead to an opportunity of a lifetime!

November

img_2560

Tomorrow is November 1st, and several of my friends will be taking on the challenge of NaNoWriMo, a month in which the goal is to write an entire novel or 50,000 words. While I have always thought this would be a great contest to participate in, I am realistic, and I know I wouldn’t get beyond day two.

However, in support of those of you who are gearing up to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge, I have decided to ramp up my blogging for the month of November. There are two reasons for this. First, I need to write more often, and second, my blog is feeling neglected.

I have downloaded a November blogging challenge from 2014, and I will use the prompts to fuel my writing of daily (or nearly) blog posts. The first day’s challenge: 20 facts about me. In my mind, I figure that’s 20 days of material right there!

Stay tuned, Friends. November will be a great month for us. You’re going to learn some things you might wish you didn’t know….

Monsters

There is a monster under my bed. Really. A monster.

Remember when you used to think there was something under your bed? You used to be afraid to get out of bed (or maybe you still are) because you felt that something might grab your ankles as your feet touched the floor? Perhaps this is an unreasonable fear from childhood that has carried over into adulthood.

And you can’t get rid of it. No matter how hard you try.

In the middle of the night, when all is dark and quiet and your mind is racing from some crazy dream you had, you think about getting up to use the facilities, and you can feel that hand closing around your ankle.

Rather than venture the few steps to the bathroom, you snuggle more deeply under the covers, avoiding the inevitable confrontation with the monster.

This morning, I awoke to find that my normal nighttime companion had been abducted by the monster under my bed. I am deeply thankful that I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night, as the monster might have chosen me instead of my much lighter companion. The evidence left behind by the monster was more than obvious, and I have recognized that this is a warning for the future.

There is a monster under my bed, and I (now) have evidence to prove it!

IMG_2252

Necessities

IMG_2239

In the living room, my son is trying to convince my daughter that some colleges don’t provide toilet paper. I’m not completely sure, but she doesn’t seem to be buying his story.

He and I had this discussion while she was in the shower. It started like this: he decided it would be good to add paper towels to his college packing list. That naturally devolved to the need to bring toilet paper, as well.

“I think you’ll find the school will provide that,” I stated, amused at the ludicrous thought that such a necessity would be overlooked.

“I hear some colleges don’t provide it,” he pushed the issue, spinning this new story as he spoke.

“Really?” I asked, recognizing he was going to make up something. “Like what school doesn’t?”

He threw out the name of an institution that one of his friends will be attending. Since his friend recently returned from his orientation, he would know first-hand if the school didn’t provide such a thing. It was a plausible story, but my son was joking, and I knew it.

“Can you imagine paying all that money for college and having to provide your own toilet paper?” I snickered. “That would just be ridiculous!”

Not to mention how that might work in a shared dormitory bathroom….

Yes, we have some crazy conversations in our house. And yes, I end up thinking about things I most likely would not otherwise consider. Sometimes, that would be a good thing.

Surprise Memory

IMG_2158

I was cleaning a drawer today, on a crazed hunt to find matches for the socks that had become separated from their mates months ago. Sometimes, the matches reappear in a future batch of laundry, and the individual socks linger in the drawer, one buried and the other floating near the surface. Once in awhile, I am motivated enough by the mess that results from my daily “stirring” of the drawer’s contents that I take the time to sit and straighten things out.

This morning in my straightening, I came across a pair of socks that I put in the drawer for safe-keeping, a pair that I frequently forget I have saved. It is a pair of teeny tiny baby socks that I received before C was born, 18 or so years ago. Each time I come across them, they catch me by surprise. The socks are so tiny that it’s difficult to believe he actually wore them in his first months. But he did.

Each time I stumble across these socks, I am reminded how quickly time passes. I finger the soft material as I mentally measure the passage of time in the exponential growth of my children. I click through each of their stages, from infancy to now.

I see smiles and a hint of mischief in their eyes, feel the warmth of their tiny hands in mine, remember random moments like how each of them would lick soap off their hands when I washed them after supper. I can hear their little voices, their footsteps, their cries. The socks bring back images and memories of so many of the things that have happened in our lives: the funny things they said and did, the experiences we had, the life struggles we faced. All of these things we did together.

Each new rediscovery of these socks is a gift. I find the socks, Itake a walk down memory lane, and then I place them back in the drawer where I can find them again in a month, a year, or two. Perhaps when I discover these socks again in six months or a year, when C is off at college, the walk down memory lane will be even more bittersweet.

 

[Image is a photo of the socks in the hand of the child who once wore them.]

Teens and Hints of Adulthood

13001199_1733344030236939_1103181138293098902_n

Twice in the past week, I have heard about a teen who has been kicked out of his or her home at 16 or 17 years old, essentially (in the parents’ mind) “aging out” of the need to be sheltered, nurtured, and—no doubt—financed. In one case, the individual came home from school on his sixteenth birthday to find his belongings outside the house, the locks changed, and a note on the door saying, “You’re 16. Get your own d**n place.” Happy birthday. In the other case, the mother decided she needed space for her newest project, so she told her daughter, “You need to leave as soon as possible.”

In both cases, the understandable response of the teen in question was to cry. No doubt, these tears originated from an array of emotions: grief for the loss of a “parent,” sadness and self-doubt at the depth of such rejection, fear and anxiety over the completely overwhelming thoughts involved in, what happens next? And in both cases, even though I do not know either of these individuals, my heart breaks for the young adults who are not yet ready to fly, but are being pushed out of the nest.

I have worked with teenagers for thirty years [which definitely makes me sound old…]. I have worked with teens in classrooms, in dormitories, on the playing field; I have worked with teens in large groups, small groups, and one-on-one. I have been a teacher, a coach, an advisor, a dorm parent, and a parent. From my [somewhat extensive] experience, I will say, it is a rare kid who—at 16, 17, or even 18—is ready to be self-sufficient. It is an even rarer kid who can pick him or herself up from such devastating total parental rejection and move forward unscathed.

As I look at my children, I can see the hints of adulthood emerging from their more-adult-than-child physical selves. I see responsibility coming through in more areas of their lives each day. I see them beginning to take the lead in situations in which they might have been followers in the past. I see glimpses of the adults they are becoming.

But their “formative years” are not over just because they are teens or they reach the age of majority. As they begin to navigate some of the biggest decisions of their lives to date, the groundwork may have been laid early in their lives, but the direction, the guidance… these things are such an important part of the parenting process. Guidance in these big decisions will help my children to learn to be better decision makers as they proceed through their lives. My willingness to be available as a shoulder, an ear, a sounding board will help my teens to grow their self-confidence and learn how to consider all sides of an issue. And it will let them know that they are not alone. If they stumble, I will be here as a safety net.

Leave my kids to their own devices and kick them out of the house? No friends, my job here is far from done. I only hope there is someone to pick up the pieces left by the parents who are done.

 

[Image is a picture drawn by my daughter and used with her gracious permission.]

Art vs. Science

There is a story I tell my children about self-advocacy. It is a story from my own high school experience, and though the story is antiquated due to my advancing age (at least in their minds), the story still resonates with them. As it is time to register for classes for the coming academic year, the story has come up once again.

Within the education system, there is a path that each student is expected to follow—the “cookie-cutter” path that allows guidance counselors and teachers to quickly check boxes and sign forms, moving kids through the system with the confidence that they are getting what they need. A student’s expected path depends upon post high school plans. (Because in high school, you know the direction your life will go.) If a student is planning to go to college, s/he is expected to take the “college prep” path. Those with more rigorous college aspirations demand an “honors” or “AP” path while those who are planning to go to trade school or get a job might choose either a standard or vocational path.

Each path comes with expectations for the courses that students should take along the way. And therein lies the problem. It has been my experience that this cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work for all students. It didn’t work for me when I was in high school. But back in my day, it was more difficult to stray.

Before my freshman year of high school, I sat down with my guidance counselor. Back in the day, guidance counselors knew each of their assigned students and did both course planning and college counseling. (What they do now, I have no idea and even less evidence, but that’s a story for another post….) My counselor listed the courses I would take my freshman year.

“What is this? ‘Earth Science’?” I questioned. “And why do I have to take it?”

“You’re college prep,” he informed me, as if I didn’t know. “That’s what college prep students take.”

“Why, exactly, do I have to take this class?” I tried again.

“Because you are college prep, and colleges like to see science courses,” he informed me.

“How many science courses?” I asked.

“At lease two, but definitely biology and chemistry. Physics is good, too.”

“So… where does Earth Science fit into that?” I pressed. “It almost seems that ‘Earth Science’ is not a required course. I’d like to take art instead.”

He stared at me, as if I had just slapped him. “I’m sorry. Did you say ‘art’?”

“Yes. Art. This one right here,” I pointed to Studio Art on the course offerings list.

He began to shuffle the papers on his desk dismissively, as if ignoring me would make me go away. “That’s not the usual course of studies,” he informed me without looking up.

I’m not the usual college prep kid, I wanted to say, but instead, I merely said, “That’s okay. I’ll take biology as a sophomore.”

He studied me intently for another 20 seconds before he signed off on my unusual course of study.

Sophomore year, I took biology, and junior year, I took chemistry. But at the end of junior year, I was back in his office. By now (three years later), he knew who I was and what mattered. To me. “Suzanne,” he greeted me. “What brings you in?”

“Physics,” I stated bluntly, shoving my course selection sheet across his desk. He sighed deeply, his shoulders slouching in defeat.

“Art?” he questioned.

“You got it!” I smiled. He signed off on my senior year course choice without further discussion.

Funny… I got into college without those extra two science credits. I continued my art path through college. To this day, I have no regrets. I seldom use science in the strict, “science” sense, but I have used art all my life.

This week, my daughter texted me a picture from her course of studies booklet. She is contemplating an interdisciplinary course, “Art of Science.” Now that’s a science course I could delve into!

IMG_0961

Re-naming

IMG_1924

Earlier this week, I renamed our cats. Because I’m crazy like that. They are, after all, CATS, and they don’t really care what we CALL them, as long as we feed them regularly and let them sleep on the beds. In fact, they’d be happiest if they OWNED the beds.

While I cooked dinner, the cats were swarming at my feet, their way of reminding me that they need dinner too, and I had a burst of whimsical inspiration I decided that the cats should all be named after characters from Shakespeare. I re-named them Puck, Lady Macbeth, and Desdemona.

“Who is Puck?” C asked when I announced the cats’ new names.

“He is a character from Midsummer Night’s Dream. A sprite.”

“And what play is Desdemona from?” he asked.

“Hmm… let me think.” Shakespeare’s female characters all blend in my brain while I try to sort them out—Ophelia, Portia, Desdemona, Regan, Miranda…. They are like bright colors swirling in the white paint of my brain. Desdemona is from….

But C was impatient, so he Googled it. “Othello. Desdemona is in Othello!”

“That’s right! I should have known that right away. One of my students was working on a paper for Othello a month or so ago.”

While I do think Desdemona is a very fitting name for my young lady kitten, the cat names… they were never meant to be serious. Perhaps we might keep it as a secondary name. The brief foray into renaming did accomplish a short discussion of Shakespeare, which is never a bad thing.

C is continuing to call the cats by their “new” names, and every time he does, I smile. My literary cats.

Just wait until I bring them to the vet. When Lady Macbeth (formerly Asia) shows up, won’t they be confused? Oh, I think I could have some fun with this….

Campus Hauntings

IMG_1126

“What time do we have to leave tomorrow?” I asked C on the evening before a college open house. He was in the living room, but I was working on dinner in the kitchen.

“Wait, what did you say?” was his response.

“I asked you what time we have to leave in the morning.”

“Oh, phew! I thought you asked me what time I am leaving.”

“You can go by yourself it you want,” I responded, testing the waters, completely not expecting that he would be okay with that.

“I don’t know where I’m going, and you’re the one who asks all the questions,” came his logical retort. And really, he’s right; I would not send him on a college visit alone—I have too many questions.

Because I work at a college and have spent my adult life—my entire life, really—in education, I have lots of questions. And because I work at a college, I know that I am more likely to get a candid answer from the tour guides than from the people who are paid to deliver the institution’s canned marketing message. Yes, I am one of those parents.

While we are touring colleges, the other parents are asking about the safety of the campus. They ask where to find the Health Center. They ask how freshman roommates are selected. I am the parent asking about the advising program, the student retention rate, the weekend activities, the students’ ability to start clubs and programs. I ask if students can rent textbooks at the bookstore… and how many students try to get by without acquiring textbooks. I ask how many RAs per floor, what their toughest job is, and which dorm is the “party dorm.”

And so on a beautiful New England fall day, we are walking around the campus of a small liberal arts college. Our tour guides are both hockey players, and it is clear from the jovial banter that they get along well. There are only three families in our small tour group, and it seems there is not an athlete among the prospective students. Once we get through the athletic facilities—the first stop on the tour, of course—we are outside for a walk to the academic building. We pass a graveyard. The tombstones are leaning, blackened with moss and pitted by hundreds of harsh winters. It is clear that this is a landmark cemetery, one that has had no new residents in a very long time.

The hockey players fail to acknowledge the landmark, but C and I discuss what a great setting this would be for a creative writing class. Our tour guides pick up on the cue and tell us that art classes sometimes visit the small graveyard.

We stop in a building to see both the largest and smallest classrooms on campus, and we discuss the academics. As we leave the building, we are led across the street. Small white clapboard houses, some obviously original New England architecture, line the side of the road, and my mind wanders back to the cemetery.

“So I have a question,” I venture, and the hockey players’ heads turn in unison. “With these older buildings, the cemetery, I just have to ask….” Out of the corner of my eye, I see my son take a step, broadening the distance between us. He knows what is coming. “Do you have any buildings on campus that are haunted?” There is a slight pause and one parent snickers. “Or buildings that are rumored to be haunted.” As we all know, rumors of ghosts are circulated on every campus, whether true or merely to scare the freshmen.

The tour guides snicker and joke about things they have done to each other. And then one of them tells a story about finding his room full of leaves when the screen was intact and his door was locked. But in general, it seems the answer is negative. Or maybe these two young men haven’t heard the rumors….

My son actually finds it somewhat amusing that I ask. And he knows this is just the beginning. I still have two more children with whom to visit colleges. By the time I’m done, I should have some great information for Ghost Hunters!