Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: Flowers in the Rain and Other Stories

Rosamunde Pilcher is an author that my mother has been recommending for quite some time. I usually jump on her suggestions right away, since chances are fairly good that if she likes a book, I will really like it too. She has recommended plenty of other authors that I've come to love: Jeffrey Archer, Maeve Binchy, Karen Kingsbury, Ted Dekker.

I decided to start with one of Pilcher's short story books, because I was looking for another good book to leave in the car for those moments when I am waiting for Trevor to come out from kindergarten. However, I hope that I didn't short-change Pilcher by making this decision.

I just found the whole experience of reading this book to be too choppy. Sean was talking continuously while we waited. At one point, I asked him to be quiet and I hurt his feelings (nothing quite like hearing your son cry because you asked him to stop talking so you could read!). When I took the boys to the park and tried to read, they kept coming over to ask for me to watch them on the monkey bars. It seemed like the whole reading experience was an exercise in futility.

However, Pilcher is a great writer. I can see why my mother has been singing her praises for some time now. She writes stories about down-to-earth people with engaging lives. Plus, the stories are always set in Great Britain.

I am sincerely hoping to attempt another Pilcher book and this time I will try a novel. I will also attempt to devote uninterrupted time for reading. My library stats reveal that September received the highest ratings of her books. Thankfully, there are many to choose from and my mom has assured me that they are all good.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Last Cake

Trevor had a fabulous birthday. He was not disappointed in the least (despite not getting the skateboard with the skull on the bottom of it, which he talked about non-stop the last few days before his birthday arrived).

Normally, I look forward to making a cake for my little guys. This time around, I think I finished with a bad taste in my mouth (and I don't mean that the cake didn't taste good ... it did). It was just that every step of the way seemed fraught with anxiety.

Trevor was very specific about his cake design. He wanted to draw the illustration for the front of the cake. Given his fixation on skulls lately, it was not surprising to see what he came up with:

Next, came my task of recreating that picture. I placed his drawing on my baking stone and covered it with waxed paper. I did the best I could to trace his outline lines, however the flames and teeth were quite tricky (too small for drawing with a frosting tip).

What a frosting bag fiasco it turned out to be! When I went to fill the frosting bags, they smelled like rancid oil. It was a nauseatingly strong smell.

I decided to try the Ziploc bag approach. Within one minute, the bag burst and frosting globs spilled onto the wax paper. I was so thankful that I was working on wax paper and could merely wipe it up and start again.

My husband had generously purchased a Decorator Bottle Set from a co-worker selling Pampered Chef items, but they required washing before use. Since my vinyl and cloth bags were smelly and the Ziploc option wasn't working, I decided to take the extra time and wash out the decorator bottles.

I was eager to try the new set out, but I found them very difficult to work with. For starters, the opening is so small that you have to use a butter knife or smaller to push the frosting in. I used a Popsicle stick and it felt like it took forever. Normally, I am such a fan of Pampered Chef items, but this one had me frustrated.

(In searching for the photo to include on the blog) I did read some tips. Many individuals find it far easier to fill the bag by scooping the frosting into a baggie and cutting of a tip then pushing into the bottle. The bottles did clean up nicely with the provided brush tool. Plus, many users identified the bottles as helpful for children's use ... so I will hang on to them and use them with the boys. In fact, perhaps I'll just have Trevor do the whole frosting job next time. He's quite the artist. He may just do a better job than I can!)

In the end, I rewashed the vinyl Wilton bags and used them despite the lingering odor.

As for the cake, Trevor wanted an Oreo cake. I decided to forego looking for an Oreo box cake and merely used a recipe from my Betty Crocker cook book and added one cup of crushed Oreos. Sadly, even the cake wasn't cooperating. It stuck in the pan and came out with giant pock marks:

I'm pretty sure all of these dilemmas can be placed squarely on my own shoulders. If I had been on the top of my game, we would have had all the necessary ingredients in time for me to prepare both the frosting and the cake in advance, the freezer would not have been so full of food that we couldn't fit a cake, and I would not have felt too rushed to adequately allow the cake to cool.

Still, there were many times along the way, when I heard the voices in my head arguing about this whole process. For one, as I was adding the food coloring to the frosting, I was thinking about all the damage that these chemical dyes are doing to our children.

As I prepared the cake, the voices were reminding me that the boys would probably have one or two pieces (requesting the skull eyes or flames or something from the middle of the cake) and I would end up eating the entire rest of the cake. This will certainly not help my bid for weight loss.

All in all though, the cake was a big hit with the two little boys ... and they are the ones who matter! Trevor loved his cake and has even had three pieces so far (eating the cake and not just the icing, as he is wont to do, but yes, requesting first the skull eyes and then the flames).

He also loved his presents. I think his favorite thing was a hoodie from Walmart that zips up over the head. He wore it to the doctor's office (he has poison ivy) and jumped out to scare the doctor:

His second favorite thing is the small Bakugan toy and his third favorite would be the spider web glass he is holding in his hand in the picture below:

Of course, after mentally declaring that maybe this will be my last cake, I found this adorable monkey cake over at Smitten Kitchen's blog (oh how I love looking at the tasty foods she whips up effortlessly and photographs flawlessly). Oooh, and the butter cream frosting has no artificial colors. And I've always been a big fan of monkeys. And ... okay, so maybe it is not my "last cake." Six months from now, I'll probably be looking for somebody who wants a monkey cake.

Friday, September 24, 2010

True Confessions: I Want to Kick the Dog to the Curb

As a very little girl, I wanted a dog. In fact, I fell in love with a small black puppy at a church picnic and was thrilled when the owner told me that I could take it home. I cradled the little thing in my arms in the car, until my parents realized, at some point, during the drive home that we had an extra body in the vehicle. They could not believe that the owner would have just given me the puppy, so they insisted that I take the dog back.

My love of dogs was as short-lived as that, really. Just a year or two after that touching scenario played out, we were at another picnic ... this time a craft fair where my mother was manning a booth. My brothers and I were waiting patiently for her to finish, when a large dog began chasing me. That thing tackled me to the ground and bit me, right on the buttocks!

At some point during elementary school, I know my walk home from school involved passing a fenced in yard containing one or two vicious dogs. Even though there was a fence to contain them, I was still fearful of a dog attack.

With my interest in dogs safely behind me, I would have never looked back, if it weren't for the pleas of my sons. When we moved to this spacious property, my husband had promised that we would finally be able to get a dog (none of the rental properties we had lived in had allowed for dogs).

I put the boys off for quite a while, but knowing the day was approaching I began researching what kind of dog we might wish to purchase. My husband had grown up with miniature poodles in his household. He was plugging for a poodle. But, I find poodles exceedingly yippish.

It was love at first sight when Trevor (at age one) crawled over and made friends with a gorgeous Goldendoodle on the soccer field at one of Bryce's games. I talked to the owners and they couldn't recommend the breed more. They mentioned the gentle disposition, the poodle-like mane which eliminates the prospect of shedding and is easy on those with allergies. Besides, the dog was stunning!

It isn't like I went into this arrangement without carefully weighing the options. The Goldendoodle breed sounded perfect for our wants and needs.

If only I could have known what this dog would be like before I encountered him in the previous owner's kitchen that fateful day almost a year ago. And it is not even that he is a BAD DOG. He does, indeed, have a gentle disposition. He would probably make a fine dog ... for another family.

I feel a twinge of guilt when I read on Facebook, the dolorous tones of others who are mourning the demise of their cherished dogs. The love they feel for their pets is so foreign to my experience, I cannot even fathom it. I begin to wonder, "is there something wrong with me? is it my fault that I cannot seem to establish a loving relationship with this dog??"

He looked so adorable in Stephanie's kitchen. She cried as she had to let him go because her husband had put his foot down. I hugged this stranger and assured her that she could visit him whenever she wanted. She came twice. Hasn't come in a very long time. Perhaps, she felt a small portion of my present sentiments. Who can say?

At our garage sale last Saturday (a successful four hour effort, despite the electronic Baby Tad which my husband diligently placed new batteries in and then GAVE away to someone for $1, less than it cost to fill the thing with batteries, no doubt), I placed a photo of Harley with tear-off portions bearing our phone number. We have had several inquiries, but no takers.

Yesterday morning, as I was blow-drying my hair, Sean walked into the bathroom holding his face, crying. The dog had nipped him and the triangle of flesh between his eyes was bleeding. I have to admit, I wanted to kick that dog. I didn't. I swatted his behind and put him in the crate for the rest of the morning.

There isn't a person in this family who loves that dog more than Sean. He spends most of his mornings nestled in the dog's fur, just loving on that dog. How dare the dog bite my little guy! I was incensed! Even Sean said, "I don't love Harley any more. I want to get rid of him, too."

And so here I am, owning it: I am NOT A DOG LOVER! I don't feel any affection for this dog. I can't even understand what made me think I would want a dog to begin with. Now that we have laminate flooring, the dog hairs seem to show up everywhere. It is just another endless task on my daily agenda. Not to mention, the poop scooping, the way he follows me everywhere I go, and his gigantic size.

I thought he might provide incentive for walking, but walks with Harley are merely an exercise in frustration ... not beneficial exercise for the body. He yanks and pulls. I've given up taking the boys along because they hang back and request to be carried (yes, conjure up that image of me being dragged down the lane with my arm yanked off by Harley's leash and the littlest guy hanging about my neck).

Others offer up bits of helpful advice. "Have you ever watched that show that has some sort of dog nanny on it??" "You should try a choke chain." "You should shake a can of coins at the dog whenever he is demonstrating unwanted behavior." "You need to let the dog know who the Alpha Dog is." "Pay someone money to train the dog for you."

It is fairly obvious that I haven't got a clue on how to train this dog (perhaps any more than a clue for how to reign in my boys). What is obvious to me, is that I am to the point of loathing this dog and fully regretting getting myself into this situation. I'm sorry, I just don't have it in me to be a dog lover.

If he attacks anyone in this family again, I can guarantee that I will personally drive him to the pound. I am done with this dog. However, I still am hoping and praying that some family will pick up the phone and give us a call. He could make another family very happy. Just not me! So why is it, that somehow makes me feel like a bad person?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Lightness and Unbearable Weight of Birthday Shopping

Why do kids want the most inane, pointless toys out there on the market? Trevor has a birthday coming up. On Tuesday, I took him on a special errand (killing time before his afternoon class began) to create a wish list. As I went back to the store to do the actual shopping, I repeatedly found my head shaking, thinking "there is no way in the world that we would get our money's worth out of that purchase!"

He wanted several different Halloween costumes and masks. We already have two large buckets full of costumes. He wanted Halloween decorations. We have more of those than any family really should have. I think people might begin to wonder if we have some sort of Satanic allegiance or something, given the grandiose display hubby and my boys put up at the end of every September (I wash my hands of the whole affair).

He wanted a four pack of finger skateboards to the tune of $10. Who really plays with those things? I mean, come on ... a skateboard that you push around with your finger???? I'm pretty sure the only reason he wants them is because he noticed skull decorations on the bottom of the boards. Trevor and Sean both purchased finger skateboards at the dollar store (rewards for workbook completion) and the darn things fall apart within minutes.

He wanted Nano bugs ... little bugs that wiggle around. Walmart sells something similar individually for $6 or two for $10. However, I doubt the play value of the toy (wouldn't you tire of that quickly?? so it moves around like a real bug ... big whoop!). Plus, it appears that you are supposed to place the bugs on some sort of arena with various off-ramps. The plastic arena runs $15. Ridiculous!

He wanted Bakugan and a Playstation 2 Bakugan game. He didn't even know what Bakugan were until we went to CBLI and a few boys there carried around the small circular toy. It is supposed to open up into a small monster when you gently drop it. The key word there would be GENTLY. I can't say my boys do anything GENTLY!

He wanted the "Cuponk" game. I did save the Target ad because our Target is too far away, but our Walmart will match the price as long as you bring in the ad. Target was offering this game for $9. Walmart's price this week is $14.95. FIFTEEN BUCKS for a ping pong ball and a plastic cup. O.K., it does have an eyeball painted onto the ball and the cup has skulls, but come on.

I outright told Trevor there was no way in the world I was paying that much money for a game we could recreate at home simply by purchasing a $1 packet of ping-pong balls. Trevor and Sean spent loads of time this afternoon and evening bouncing the ping-pong balls into a cup. Trevor did also inform me that the actual Cuponk lights up when the ball goes in the cup. I offered to shine a flashlight inside the cup when his ball went in.

There were $200 worth of "suggestions" on his finalized list. I think the poor kid is going to be disappointed. He already bears a grudge against the man in the red suit because he didn't bring something that was a "must have" last year. Disappointment is a part of life, kid. Get used to it!

We will remind him that he has so much to be grateful for, including a daddy to play Cuponk with.

This morning, in the town where we visit the library, a firefighter was returning home from his night shift. He was waiting to turn into his driveway, when the vehicle behind him smashed into his car, forcing it into the pathway of an oncoming truck. His wife and 3 year old twin children heard the crash from inside their home (as did his parents, who live next door).

We are reeling from this news. John and I keep going back to it and feeling again the devastation of such news. Our prayers go out to this grieving family. We hugged our sons extra tight tonight.

And, when Trevor's birthday arrives, we will thank the Lord for six loud, interesting, endearing years that we've had with our middle son. We will also thank Him for safety and protection and the chance to play Cuponk, without paying too much money!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: The Composer is Dead

Every once in a while, I read a book with the little boys that fills me with such passion I must share it on my blog. Last night, we opened a book by Lemony Snicket, author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, called The Composer is Dead. We noticed that it came with an accompanying CD and so I ran to get the portable CD player.

The boys listened to half of it last night (it was a bit longer than I had anticipated, with 16 tracks). Trevor actually came and begged me to play the second half, this afternoon, after he had finished his lunch.

It was utterly delightful! Like the Peter and the Wolf introduction to the orchestra which I heard when I was a small schoolchild, this book will no doubt be the modern version shared with schoolchildren today. I considered it quite an accomplishment for the musical bits to hold and maintain my small sons' attention spans. They remarked over the dolourous notes which accompanied the word "dead."

The story is introduced with the startling announcement that the composer is dead, no longer composing, but now "decomposing." An inspector is called in to investigate the problem and he proceeds to interrogate the members of the orchestra, providing ample opportunity for each section to shine and provide various alibis.

But, better than my explanation, you should really watch this brief video which captures in six minutes, the whole splendid affair, including commentary by the actual composer of the piece and the author of the book. You won't regret the time. And you may even find yourself following the link, to purchase this masterpiece for one of your nearest and dearest, perhaps as a present for an upcoming birthday or Christmas present. Indeed, the composer is dead, but a new love of orchestra may just be beginning!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Nicknames and Dreams

I haven't had hardly (seems I need another "h" word, but we'll go on) a moment to write this week. In the evenings, my computer has been taken hostage (there we go) by the eldest son and his endless homework assignments. (I was marvelling at the extensive access to information and images that students nowadays have. He even copied off a photo of our property from Google Earth to accompany an assignment on how his family came to be in this farming community.)

Today, there are just two things lingering around in my brain that I feel I must get down before the eldest returns home from school and usurps the computer again (Hardly - it is, after all, the weekend, and he will probably fail to recall that he has any homework until Sunday afternoon or evening).

I have spent most of the morning taking care of doctor appointments. I returned for a follow-up after having a whole slew of hormone levels tested. The results? I am deficient in Vitamin D, ferritin (the conveyor, or "ferry" of iron - which is why I feel like I have anemia, despite the clinical diagnosis never being verified), T3 and T4 (thyroid hormones), progesterone and testosterone.

Following that pleasant appointment, I scurried off to another location for my annual mammogram (significant ouch, this time!). Thankfully, the second visit was quick and I even felt I had enough time to stop to shop for a birthday present for Trevor (whose birthday is fast approaching).

All of that, is preliminary to my two pressing thoughts.

When I returned home, John had the two little boys set up with lunch. I filled them in on my action-packed morning and then asked after theirs. Trevor was supposed to have a Teddy Bear Picnic at school today, so I assumed the commentary would be fairly interesting. I wasn't prepared for quite how interesting the commentary turned out to be.

He raved about his treasure box treat (a plastic bat - right up his alley) for a week's good behavior. Then, he began to regale me with the story of a book the teacher had read called "What Color is Your Underwear?" (Every kindergartner I have ever known, loves the word "underwear" and any stories that treat the topic!)

It must have been an entertaining book! Then, Trevor non-chalantly said, "I told them that my mother's nickname for me is "The Naked Elephant!"

I was mortified. I have never in my life called that child an elephant, let alone a naked elephant!

We ended up discussing nicknames and I revealed a nickname I had been given back when I was in middle school. The other kids called me "Hairy Wendell." I had not shaved my legs yet, and had no intention of starting. Another nickname from those middle school years also came back to me. My brother, Mark, and I were the first two players in the trumpet section of our middle school band (all boys, except for me, the only girl, in first chair!) and thus, they took to calling us "Mork and Mindy."

I suppose neither of my nicknames were traumatizing. My husband was called "Soup," because until he was thirteen, his mother cut his hair and it often looked like it had been cut around a soup bowl on his head (I think my sister actually put a bowl on my younger brother's head and cut his hair once, when they were at a sitter's house).

How about you? Did you have an embarrassing nickname? Did your child ever attribute an embarrassing nickname that you hadn't really given??

The second thing I cannot seem to shake from my mind is the feel of a dream I experienced last night during my sleep. It was one of those dreams where I felt safe and connected and thoroughly valued. For the life of me, I cannot stop trying to hit rewind and get back to the feel of that dream all day today. It is haunting me.

I begin to think that it must be something of significance, since I yearn to get back to that spot so strongly. The taste wasn't long enough. It left me wanting a full course, instead of merely an appetizer, one that vanished with the dreadful break of day.

Have you ever had a dream like that? Did you get to the source of its significance? Were you able to finally replicate it in real-life, in the day-to-day moments that linger?

Now, I'm off to tend to "the naked elephant" and his brothers and to prepare for tomorrow's garage sale (besides purging endless paper for "the naked elephant's" recycling drive, I have also been busy purging anything and everything to hopefully bring in some extra quarters to cover the exorbitant costs of complete labs these days - over $1300!). Wish me luck and another good dream tonight.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Of Banana Bread and Broken Windows

Saturday morning, I noticed we were down to four well-spotted bananas. The boys didn't want banana pancakes, so I rooted around (my STACKS OF RECIPE PAPER - urgh) and found a recipe for Marbled Chocolate Banana Bread.

As I was making the bread, I was stunned to discover that the ingredient list is almost identical to my own recipe (which was greatly lauded, back in DeKalb, by the various people I shared with). Since this recipe was from Cooking Light magazine, they suggested 1/2 cup egg substitute and 1/3 cup plain low-fat yogurt. I didn't have the substitute, so I used my standard 2 eggs. Plus, I only had fat-free plain yogurt (which my husband eats ... I say "blech!").

Perhaps I tried to cut it before it had fully cooled, but it was almost too moist to cut into tidy slices (it crumbled everywhere and I scarfed down the crumbs before the dog could get to them). Flavor-wise, I did appreciate that addition of yogurt, and the marbled chocolate was a subtle, sweet taste experience. But I think I may still prefer my recipe for the simple fact that I miss biting into the chunks of chocolate chip. However, I'm pretty sure I'll be using this recipe from time to time and it does have a mouth-watering appearance.

I posted a photo on Facebook and immediately received some requests. This makes me happy because I really prefer baking when I can give away what I make. Back in DeKalb, I would bake five loaves at a time and take them to various friends. They enjoyed the bread and I enjoyed the compliments. It was a win-win. Somehow, I don't think I'll be eating this whole marbled loaf. John and Bryce have already both had several slices.

Of course, what would a Saturday be, though, without something to break it up a bit? So, my little guys obliged and decided to toss stuffed animals in the living room while I was making the banana bread.

What did we learn today? Elmo has a hard head!

Trevor tossed Elmo across the room.

Actually, because of the sunlight, this photo barely shows the damage done.

I let him sit in the guilt and fear of punishment for a brief spell before I went into his room and expressed how lucky we were. Amazingly, only the inner pane of glass shattered (which is probably another reason why it is hard to photograph the evidence of the crime). If the outer pane had shattered, we would have been forced to call someone to come cover the window with plywood, until we could call to have it fixed.

Plus, neither boy was hurt. It looks like the impact caused a rounded triangle (think three slices of pizza) to break away and fall between the two window panes. There were shards of glass all over the back of the couch, but the boys were across the room and didn't approach the glass.

The previous night we had been reading from Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories, a book from my husband's childhood. We had read a story called "The Splinters of Sin," about a young 5 year old girl who had disobeyed her mother and gone inside the work-site of a house being built. Ten years later, the small splinter that she had tried to hide from her mother began to fester and cause great pain.

Thus, Trevor immediately came to confess his disobedience (how many times do we tell those boys not to throw things in the house?? we even have a rule that the only safe place for tossing stuffed animals is in the stairwell - a rule that led to the demise of Woody). Hopefully, a lesson was learned.

I was recalling the many times we have begged him to stop trying to stand on his head on the couch. He would bound across the room and flip up onto his head on the couch, with his feet propelling backwards toward the window.

"Rules, boys, are not made to limit your fun, but rather to keep you around longer so that more fun may be had!"

Saturday, September 11, 2010

State Fair Recap

Somehow I failed to write about our last hurrah of the summer. On Tuesday, August 17th, I decided to take the little boys to the Indiana State Fair on my own. It went so well. I felt thoroughly blessed and glad that I had dared to attempt it.

Thankfully, we were able to take advantage of the Turkey Hill $2 Tuesdays. As a result, I only had to pay $2 to get in and the boys were both free. Plus, all rides were $2 and many of the booths offered $2 food and drink specials.

I purchased enough tickets for each boy to ride 5 rides. Trevor started out on a parasail ride that Sean was too little for. Then, they rode four together:

The gunny sack slide.

A smaller parasail ride.

The dragon roller coaster.

And the swings.

After that, I explained that Sean had one more, but Trevor was done. Sean graciously offered his last ticket to his brother, so Trevor could ride a gigantic ride that swings back and forth and spins around (called "Fireball"). I was surprised that Trev was brave enough to attempt it alone, but then he does follow in the footsteps of his big brother, Bryce.

They also enjoyed getting their picture taken near the super huge American Gothic statue.

As for the animals, it seemed like slim pickin's. We saw the bunnies and chickens and roosters, then headed to the horses and sheep. All the pigs were gone, except for the two largest boar and the two newly birthed litters.

I couldn't have asked for better behavior, even though it was a very hot day. I'm hoping they'll offer this same $2 Tuesdays special next year. We had a wonderful time together.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An Open Letter to Mr. Bouchard



Let me begin by saying that there are certain names that just seem to feel tasty on my tongue. Philip Bouchard is one of them. I think even way back when I was nine, I enjoyed the way Bouchard (Boo-shard) sounded.

I can think of a few other names like it. When I did my service corps work in the Philippines, I worked with a Salvation Army officer named "Raven Salegumba" (pronounced Ray-ven Sal-eh-goom-ba). That is another name that just sounds elegant and full of character. Her daughter's name was "Charis" (Car-iss), a shortened version of charity. There was a beautiful young Filipino girl named "Leah Nanlabi" (pronounced Lay-uh Non-lob-bee), whom I adored.

It is hard to know whether these names evoke strong affection because the names are beautiful, or because the people themselves are as beautiful as their given name. Somehow, when you pair a significant person with a distinctive name, the combination produces a completed image in your mind.

For me, Mr. Philip Bouchard, my fourth grade teacher, was a significant person with a wonderfully distinctive name, full of flair. He graciously acknowledged my enquiry and provided information for contacting him personally. However, I've been thinking that what I wanted to say to Mr. Bouchard, after all these years, is really something that could and should be shared openly. It seems there is something to be learned from my experience with Mr. Bouchard. Thus, I am writing my open letter here.

Dear Mr. Bouchard:

What a privilege it is for me to open my heart and share with you something of what you meant to me all those years ago when I was a nine year old girl. As a teacher myself, I know that the work often doesn't reveal the results immediately. You labor on, hoping that something you are doing or saying is making a difference in the lives of your students. Much of the time, you just don't get to see where it all leads.

I have many wonderful memories of my fourth grade year. I'm pretty sure it was the first year that I thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to school. I remember how special it felt to have an individual meeting, every week, with the teacher, one-on-one. I remember wanting to impress you and work as hard as I could.

I remember an experiment you did with a bunsen burner (or perhaps it was just a hot plate). I have vague memories of someone taking apart a transistor radio to see how it worked. It also seems there was some convoluted idea about making a refrigerator out of a cardboard box. (I have a feeling we discovered that the concept wouldn't work!)

I also remember Story Starters. This was probably my favorite thing, since I have always been very fond of writing. You would give us the first paragraph or introduction and we were supposed to come up with a story from those first sparks.

I remember standing by you at your desk, while we manipulated bottle caps to understand the concept of multiplication. Of course, my adult brain is saying "Yes, but when I worked at my son's elementary school, the kids were expected to master the multiplication tables in 3rd grade." Still, it was one of those "aha experiences" where a light bulb goes off in your head and something really makes sense for the first time.

I also remember hanging our book reports for display on the wall outside of our classroom. I remember recess on the playground, chasing the boys (that seemed to be our favorite game) and trying to play some crazy levitation game.

I remember a particular bully in our class, an intense, physical kind of boy whose name seems to be Billy, but I'm not positive on that. My family returned to Webster Groves for a visit a few years later and a neighbor informed us that Billy had been struck by lightening while holding some sort of metal rod during a storm. I felt horrible for having such conflicted thoughts about that boy, once I learned that he had died young. It was as if, in my childish mind, I had contributed to his final outcome because I had thought ill of him.

Sadly, this wasn't my first experience with premature death. I believe it was during the summer between my third and fourth grade years, that my friend Janet lost her battle with cancer. I was a sensitive individual and I am sure that your compassion as a teacher, in those months following that experience, was crucial in my life.

There are so many things that I believe you excelled in as an educator. You put me in the driver seat and taught me the importance of taking responsibility for my education. Indeed, I think you taught me that the sky was the limit with regard to what I could learn if I set my mind to it.

It makes me think of that adage, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." You taught me how to learn on my own and it was one of the most valuable tools I could have gained.

The lesson must have truly sunk in, because I used these same ideas when I first began teaching high school English. I dreaded teaching the grammar section. Grammar, to me, is so dry and boring. Besides, I'm really not that good at articulating the rules and reasons for grammar. Most of my learning in that area has come from reading well-written books.

So, I took the Mr. Bouchard method and put the students in the driver's seat. I assigned them to groups and gave each group a chapter. The groups were responsible for teaching the class the lesson, complete with visual effects, a quiz and a game to test how well the class had mastered the concepts. Those students blew me away. I still have the video of their presentations and probably even have a majority of the games they turned in, as well.

Another thing you obviously excelled at (especially after looking at the comments I received from other teachers on my report cards) was nurturing the positive rather than the negative. I couldn't have been a perfect student, but I think I felt your approval all the time. How important that is for a young child!

It reminds me of the year I worked with Ms. McKee, in her third grade classroom. We had a student whose name was Tyrus. Ms. McKee informed me, early on, that her goal was for Tyrus to have at least one year in his schooling where he wasn't saddled with the impression that "Tyrus stands for Trouble." Even if nobody else was willing to let that label go, she was going to do her darnedest to banish the label from his third grade experience.

Trouble did, indeed, seem to sit on his shoulder and go with him, with or without his consent. For example, during that same year, I had some surgery on my largest toe on my right foot. For weeks, I had to sit with my foot propped up during class. On the very day, when the doctor finally removed the stitches, Tyrus somehow managed to step back in line and place all of his body weight hard on my healing toe. The pain was excruciating. I was in tears. Tyrus felt horrible. Poor Tyrus!

But, Tyrus did have a good year, because he had a teacher who was determined to make it a year where the trouble label was set aside. She remained positive and he thrived! I'm not sure all of his teachers took this same approach, but I can vouch for his third grade year, that he was nurtured and appreciated for his strengths (man, that boy could put together a bike from junk he found on the street) and it did a world of good (Ms. McKee and I both went to watch him perform in a musical at his church that year - those things have to leave an imprint, right?).

You also made learning fun. The learning itself was far from the drudgery of standard classroom fare (teacher at the front, students in line, rote drills and all that). It is such a horrible thing when learning fails to be presented as fun.

My first year as a teacher, I worked in a small rural high school that was struggling to stay afloat. Fighting the obvious pull to incorporate with the nearby larger high school, they decided to become a charter school with a modern educational coalition. They were going to encourage the teachers to be coaches rather than dictators in the classroom. They were going to prove mastery of concepts by requiring a final portfolio of work. They were going to "change the world of education." All fine goals, in theory.

I was the sole English teacher. I had every single high school student in the building. Imagine my horror when I was informed that the annual exhibition would require each of my students to turn in a research paper to go along with their group presentation. The groups were made up of multi-level students (freshmen to seniors) and each group selected a country to study. The goal was for each group to demonstrate the interdependence of the United States with their chosen country. Some of my freshman were required to write papers that I didn't even think I could write, things like "How is the science of Romania interdependent with the science of the United States?"

It was the most horrible scenario I have ever been forced to enact. Parents were upset. Students were in tears. All I kept thinking was, "these poor students will never grasp how fun it can be to write a research paper because their initial experience with this process is going to be one of frustration and failure."

Thankfully, I didn't walk away from teaching based on that one horrible year and the coalition experience. I'm hopeful that some of those students were also able to put that failed exercise behind them and discover that learning can and should be fun.

Mr. Bouchard, you were an outstanding teacher! You motivated me. You made a difference in my life that was, probably, the first step in a path towards a teaching career.

I sincerely hope that what you gave has come back to you a thousand fold. If not, at least you can recognize that you were greatly appreciated by one little nine year old girl, whom you managed to light a fire within. I'm guessing you can't even see the thousand fold results because those results are still rippling out.

It makes me think of my GED student, Deb Snow. When she came to my class she was greatly distressed because she had worked for over twenty years for a company and then been let go. She couldn't find a job and was convinced that she needed to now go back and earn the education she had failed to finish before.

We worked together for many weeks, studying the books and reviewing the skills for writing coherent essays. Deb passed her GED and went on to take business courses at the community college. She told me once that she had gained a whole different perspective through that GED class. She came in full of anger towards the wrong that had been done to her and she left realizing that losing her job was the best thing that could have happened because it forced her to take responsibility for what she wanted and to follow her dream of starting her own business.

You are part of that. Your contribution to me, led to the contribution I made in Deb Snow's life. And, I'm pretty sure Deb Snow is now making contributions in the lives of others. Isn't that the most wonderful thing imaginable??

God gifted you with a vision for nurturing small children, not just helping them learn, but teaching them how to acquire the learning for themselves. I'm so glad you didn't hold that gift in a bottle. You gave it freely and it continues to grow. I am forever grateful.

Your former student,


Monday, September 6, 2010

Report Card Flashbacks

I have been diligently working to sort through endless piles of paper (I think I am a paper magnet ... plus, I know I have a problem with a tendency to want to save everything).

Tonight, I cleared away one full bag of paper for Trevor's recycling contest. As I was going through old manuscripts (so many things written, so few things published ... sob, sob), old magazines, letters and inspiring articles, I came across a folder full of my old report cards. Talk about interesting reading.

I really don't know what my parents must have thought about a few of these comments.

For first grade, it appears I had a whole team of teachers working with me. My math instructor K. Rhein, had this to say in the mid-year remarks:

"Wendy is a very bright girl. She is very enthusiastic and enjoys math. She needs to work more alone instead of worrying about those around her."

My reading teacher, Jeanette Winkler, offered a favorable remark at mid-year:

"Wendy is an excellent reader. Her ability to handle many kinds of material is remarkable."

But her June comment is perplexing:

"Wendy is an excellent reader. - [good to know that hadn't suddenly changed] However, I hope that she will also enjoy participating in other activities." [Could a first grade teacher predict that I might choose to read, while eschewing other important activities, like housekeeping??? What is she getting at, I ask??]

Then there was the end of year comment from Mrs. Nork (this was the only name that rung any bells in my head):

"Wendy went through a 'slump' for a while this year. I found it very hard to reach her. In the past few weeks she has brightened up and seems to care again!... I have enjoyed having her in my class." [Even back then, I was a moody little thing.]

Somehow the 2nd Grade progress report is missing. Hmmm - a bad year, perhaps? Parents didn't want to keep it??? Or maybe it was lost in their clutter?

For third grade, I had Mrs. Ruth Rose. For the first semester, she managed to sandwich a litany of complaints between two complimentary comments:

"Wendy is a capable girl. She does not use her time wisely. [Still a problem.] She is slow in completing work or getting ready for class. She does not listen carefully. She reverts to manuscript writing at times, but her cursive writing is quite adequate. It is a pleasure [really, are you sure, Mrs. Rose???] to work with Wendy."

On to 4th Grade. Oh, Mr. Bouchard how I loved you and how I love you, still. Mr. Philip Bouchard was an innovative teacher for the time. He taught on a contract system. Every Monday, students would meet with him at his desk and determine what they could accomplish for the week. Some kids might have viewed this as license for laziness, but not me. I remember having competitions with other kids for completing SRAs and other assignments.

Here are his brief comments:

"Wendy is able to take responsibility for her education and create valuable activities that she can work on independently."

At the end of the year, he wrote:

"Wendy has a great deal of talent that I'm sure will be used in years to come."

Where are you now, Mr. Bouchard, champion of my abilities?? I know that you married the Kindergarten teacher at the end of my 4th Grade year, but then, I changed schools and moved away. Who couldn't use a champion, like that?

What is astounding is that I would have considered myself to be a shy, timid, quiet school girl, back then. Yet, here are the comments from the back of my 5th grade report card:

"Attitude has improved somewhat!"

"Wendy is really trying." [As a teacher myself, I know how some of these comments can have double meanings - yes, that girl is trying ... trying my patience, daily!]

"Outstanding work in science."

"Wendy is a fine girl, but [there's always a BUT, isn't there?!] has her own ideas as to when she should start her assignments. She needs to improve in this area."

"Wendy's P.E. attitudes and self-discipline are barely adequate [teacher's emphasis this time, not mine] - she is capable of better work." [Hmmm - wondering if that was the year I was sent to the principal's office because I was paired for dancing with a handicapped student and was so terrified that I refused to dance with him????]

Apparently the problems lingered because the P.E. teacher slung another barb in the second semester comments:

"Wendy is too social to do her best in PE - her attitudes toward instructors can improve."

In sixth grade, my family moved to Alton, Illinois. I think I had a difficult time making friends that year. I know my best friend in 7th Grade informed me that "back in 6th grade, we thought you were maybe retarded or something, because you wore dresses every day and you never swung on the bars, just stood there watching all of us."

My mother doesn't remember requiring me to wear dresses, so perhaps someone had made a comment about me being too much of a tom-boy and thus, I wore dresses every day in sixth grade and watched everyone else at recess.

I do remember doing a report on England (the birth of an anglophile, for sure) and winning the short story contest with a story about a wizard who shows up as a substitute teacher and turns one of the pupils into a submarine. I also remember that my teacher was very nice (come to think of it, perhaps this was the year of the embarrassing principal visit).

Mrs. Arger had very nice things to say, thankfully.

"Wendy is a delightful child! She is well-behaved, well-mannered and cooperative and tries to do her best at all times."

She ended the year with a sweet commendation, "May the future hold for you, the best of everything always." (Not sure she needed the comma after you, but then writing report cards has to be a tedious and troublesome task for those elementary teachers.)

I don't really remember dreading the report card comments for Bryce. For most of his elementary years, I worked there at the school and knew all of his teachers. He was a pistol, that's for sure.

With Trevor, I am a bit anxious about his report cards. He is a very bright child, but, perhaps too much like his mother (talkative, independently motivated, moody and eager to be social, despite a social awkwardness). For now, his teacher always smiles and seems pleased with him. He has never had to move his behavior card from green to yellow or red. The teacher did tell me last Friday that he offered to give her drawing lessons. Ha! Now that is my Trevor!

And now I'm off to recycle some ancient report cards. Thankfully, the comments I might want to return to are all now saved here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

He May Be a Talker, But Boy, He Listens!

Tonight, as we were saying our bedtime prayers, the boys were adding on their own personal prayer requests.

Trevor spoke up and said, "And God, can you please give us lots of paper. We need lots of paper to take to school this month. Thank you, God."

Meanwhile, I was looking askance and trying to figure out why the boy would be asking God for paper, because last time I checked ... the very last thing we needed around here was MORE PAPER!

Once our prayers were said, I turned to inquire about the paper request. It turns out the kindergarten class went to the gym today, with all the other grades, for an assembly kicking off a new recycling contest. The classroom that brings in the most paper gets to have a popcorn party. (Rats, they didn't send home a PAPER to tell about the PAPER recycling contest!)

Trevor informs me that, beginning September 7th, they are to start bringing in grocery bags full of PAPER.

Just think ... if I could get my butt in gear and spend 40 hours a week going through my piles and boxes of PAPER CLUTTER, I think we might just have this contest "in the BAG!" I mean, I have to have more paper here in this house than any other house in the area. I'm sure of it! It would be like a full time job (sorting and organizing and RECYCLING), but hey, my husband would faint dead away in delirious joy and disbelief my kid could win some POPCORN!