Saturday, January 30, 2010

And So Become Yourself

I dedicate this blog to the two commenters: Jakarta Rocks and the ever-prolific Anonymous who wrote in and asked, “Woman, you live in a city with legions of educational opportunities and yet you chose to opt for e) None of the above. What’s UP with that?”

Okay, they were nicer and more circumspect in their questions. Perhaps the question was from the voice in my head. Either way, I felt this question needed answering and then I started gnawing my cuticles. I gnawed because I’m a well-meaning idiot who tries her best and usually screws up (See: most blog entries). And, yes, we can all agree I’m a bit of a goober but the instant I start writing about what I’m doing with my kid, I know that a percentage of the population reading this post is going to hear it as “You, reader, aren’t doing what I’m doing and that makes you bad. BAD. I take great pleasure in judging you. I also eat more cruciferous vegetables than you. And I floss.”

The minute anyone starts talking about parenting stuff, the odds go steeply upwards that someone’s feelings are going to be hurt. Remember, my goal here is to have a party at which everyone feels welcome so, if at any point during this explanation you feel as if I’m talking meanly about your family’s choice, remember this: last night, I let my child have Jamba Juice and a scoop of ice-cream for dinner.

You’re welcome.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has just over 694,000 students which gives it about the same population as Austin, Texas. After the 4th grade, a classroom can have up to forty students. A percentage of these students aren’t speaking English at home and need help to get ready for the standardized test which directly impacts both the teacher and the school, making this the educational elephant in the room. By Thanksgiving, even the teacher who left college eager to enlighten and support his students has settled into trying to get the best possible test results from the thirty-plus kids in his class. A good student is likely to be conscripted as a “teacher’s helper." You can deny this occurs if you'd like, but it has happened to no fewer than three kids I know. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking “But I live in Los Angeles and my local public school has been an incredible experience for my family!” then I’m thrilled for you and I hope you know how blessed you are. It doesn’t happen that often and it’s going to get rarer as the worst of the state's budget cuts trickle into effect. Did I say "trickle"? I mean "come crashing."

So why not private school? Daughter’s been in two private schools. One was good and one wasn’t. And let's just say it’s a lonely sensation to write a midyear tuition check to a school you suspect is essentially babysitting with silent auctions. But the good school was actually pretty good and we’d be back there if it weren’t for my being greedy. Not greedy with my money — although private elementary schools in Los Angeles can cost over $20,000 a year (not including silent auctions) — but with my daughter’s time. I want her to struggle a little bit in school, to work beyond her abilities, to take pride in mastering something hard and then I want her to play in the afternoon. I never found a school where you got both. Schools in LA, and I suspect most other places, tend to define themselves as “Progressive” or “Academic.”

Children who attend progressive schools have ample time to play in the afternoon and can often sing a solid Teach Your Children Well ; but their spelling will be a little lighthearted and, given the opportunity to study Spanish at their own speed, they might spend an entire year on the first chapter.

[That was me. My mother still pinches the bridge of her nose when she thinks of my year in the progressive school.]

At the academic school, children will make lovely cross-cut sections of the earth’s crust and read Canterbury Tales before they are completely toilet-trained but, to keep up with the workload, you and your child will work from the minute he comes home until eleven at night. See the mother over there dropping a shot of Diet Coke into a pint of Red Bull, weeping into her sleeve and mumbling something about PSAT vocabulary quizzes for her second-grader? That’s the mother of a child at an academic school. The kids learn a lot, but quite a few seem pretty burnt out before they leave middle school. Their mothers are burnt out well before then.

There are also religious schools but I didn’t look too deeply into those because I assumed the bolt of lightning smiting me as I crossed the threshold would be off-putting.

So it comes down to this: I want it all. I want my kid to work hard and play hard and stare off into space and work hard some more and dress the cats and decide to read more about Rasputin not because she has to, but because it’s a pleasingly disgusting story. She’s got all sorts of afterschool activities with people her own age and, knock wood, I don’t think anyone pegs her as the weird homeschooled kid.

They do, however, wonder about her mom.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dear Old Golden Rule Days

Here’s an interesting fact: when you home-school your kid, they’re always around.

This is my way of apologizing for my relative quiet and also bringing you up to speed. Yeah, we’re home-schooling again, have been since this start of the school year. But two years ago I loudly announced our general home-schooliness only to put Daughter back in school after a semester. This time, I wasn’t going to announce until it looked as if the Quinn Cummings Home School would last longer than a vase of cut flowers. Halfway through January, I’m feeling as if I can safely talk about this without lapsing into silence and staring moodily off into space.

Finding a math tutor helped. No, let me rephrase that; finding a math tutor meant my daughter and I now have a chance to make happy memories this year, not just memories aerated by sighing and seasoned with tears. A few parents who home-school suggested I let the math go and take it on faith that when it mattered to her she’d learn it; but she is half me. I am a person who decided to become an actor and eventually a writer because they seemed like two careers where no one would ever make me do long division. And it would have worked out perfectly were it not for the fact that I fell in love and had a terrific child and now am staring down mean, median and mode, which I’m convinced didn’t exist when I was in elementary school. And after two months of sighing and muttering and doodling and tears, I found a math tutor who is very good, very reasonable and has the happy luck to be very pretty. Being pretty shouldn’t matter in a tutor but studies have shown even newborns look longer at attractive people. Also, Daughter might be getting a subliminal message that being good at math gives you ringlets, which will encourage better work habits than pleasing her mother ever could.

Educationally, there’s a lot of writing and there’s American history and there’s science and there are Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes and I think the kid is learning a few things. I can tell you that I’m getting smarter, because it seems as if I forgot nearly everything I learned before twelve. Unfortunately, my new knowledge is in things which don’t actually matter once you’ve gone through puberty. Consort and I went to a cocktail party of work friends of his and I quickly realized that unless the conversation swung around to George Washington Carver, the Gold Rush or the prefix hydra, I wasn’t going to be contributing much.

Which brings us back to my first thought: when they home-school, your kids are always around. And this is lovely in its own way and I admit freely to enjoying seeing what kind of person Daughter is becoming when allowed to follow her own interests. But I’m never not Mom. I settle the kid down with a chapter to read, go to pick up an actual adult book and become distracted in ten minutes because even though I can still hear silence from her I instinctively know it’s the nonproductive daydreaming kind. A friend calls to discuss some deep, meaningful philosophic concept (or George Clooney) and I beg off because I’m supervising Daughter labeling the parts of a cell and if I stop supervising she’ll sketch dresses on the Golgi apparatus. And some dress-sketching and some wool-gathering is totally fine and even to be encouraged but some isn’t and if we don’t at least glance at the American Revolution she’s going to think the Battle of Bunker Hill took place in 1939 and what fiendish troll thought up factoring?

And then, if you’re me, you worry about your child having real time with peers, learning how to bump up against other kids socially without getting bruised psychically. This means I spend five afternoons a week standing on one sporting field or another, watching kids get commended on their hustle [As with mean, median and mode, I don’t think hustle existed when I was a child.] It’s nice to be outdoors once I’ve taken a Claritin and I’ve become quite the dab hand at handing out orange slices, but I’m hesitant to call it Quinn Time.

Consort is a brick, taking on far more of this educating than most fathers, but he’s working, and I want him focusing on his job. I’m focusing on my job, which is to make sure my daughter is happy, curious, brave and not one of those high-school kids who think Vietnam is in South America.

I’m exaggerating. My life isn’t that hard. Certainly there’s less shouting than when she was in school, doing homework every night. Then she was doodling jewelry on cross-sections of the planet Earth and we had to be out the door at 7:45am, a time neither Daughter nor Consort really believe exists. But the fact remains that the hardest lesson I learn this year might be how to give myself fully to the people I love without giving myself entirely away.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Never Were There Such Devoted Sisters

Finally! Quinn the slacker rouses from her hibernation and places paws on keyboard. If guilt were writing, I’d have done this blog days ago. Then again, if guilt were writing, I’d create the works of the major Russian writers on a daily basis.

To answer the inevitable question: no, Lu the cat hasn’t come back. I can only hope someone sees her tag or scans her for a chip and she comes home but I’m keeping my expectations pretty realistic. Oddly enough, we haven’t seen Victor/Victoria since Lu went missing. Daughter suggested they ran off to get married. Consort suggested Lu and Victor/Victoria have bought an RV and moved to Branson, Missouri, where they could live unnoticed because many people were shaped like them. I doubt this. Lu doesn't strike me as an Oak Ridge Boys fan. The fact remains, she’s gone to her next adventure and wherever she is, we love her and we hope she’s raising hell.

Luckily for me -- the parent not looking forward to a grieving child pining for her fur-football-with-halitosis sister -- there were the foster kittens to distract her. For the past four years we’ve fostered kittens. Every year, someone would see us enjoying the endless kitteny silliness and announce “You’re keeping this one” and I’d always explain that no, kittens are great fun but our job was to keep them safe and happy and get them ready for their family. Anne and Diana were just another couple of cogs in the feline wheel.

But no one told them that.

After the first week, we started letting them out beyond the laundry room, mostly because we didn’t have any choice what with them adhering to any mammal who passed through. Two weeks after that, we knew Diana wouldn’t sleep anywhere but nestled in the kid’s armpit, kneading the sleeve of her pajama top. Anne favored me, mostly when I was trying to work. Sensing my unspoken need, she’d spring neatly into my lap and commence to reducing the thread count of my pants. Both girls woke up for an evening’s workout just about the time I go to bed, which is five minutes before Consort starts his evening television ritual. One afternoon, during those few hours a day Consort and I are equally lucid, he told me the previous night, he’d stumbled across some Harrison Ford movie about...something. You know, average man, armed only with superior intellect, some FBI training and a thrilling score, does mano-a-mano battle with sadistic, evil guy who is usually kind of British.

Against his will, Consort got drawn in, even though it was on basic cable and a commercial popped up every five minutes. Fully awake, the kittens galloped through the room, bent on mayhem. Hours later, the movie finally reached the dénouement; Bad Sort-Of British Guy and Harrison faced off, a couple of more commercial breaks happened, and then the big fight scene starte-

The screen went black. The kittens had run behind the TV and unplugged it.

By the time he got the TV back on, there was another commercial. Then, Harrison, blood-flecked and triumphant, reunited with his family. Consort never got his guy-payoff. The kittens had ruined it. And he didn’t strangle them. In fact, he was laughing. We loved these critters. They were going to make someone great pets. They were great cats.

But apparently not on weekends. And especially not when they were being be shown to potential adoptive families. At the rescue place, they would huddle together at the back of the cage, glaring and hissing at people, making noises as if they had been found living behind Chernobyl. I came to pick them up one Sunday night and the woman who runs the place was crawling around under a bookcase. It seems Anne had sprung herself from the cage, raced under there and was batting at anyone who got near her. The rescue leader, usually an unflappable presence when it comes to cats, was flapped. This cat would not come out.

I leaned over and said, “Anne, pumpkin, I’m here. Let’s go home.” Anne shot out from under the bookshelf as if by slingshot, landing somewhere on my abdomen and leeching on. The rescue-group leader said, “We need to get them out of your house. They’re already so devoted to each other they have to be adopted together. And now they’re getting that attached to you.”

I agreed. In theory. I also begged for one more week with them because...I don’t know, they’d get less devoted to us after spending more time with us? That week passed, and then another, during which Lu left. By this point, we couldn’t possibly send them back during the week and it didn’t make much sense to send them for the weekend showings because they made such a dreadful impression. And then, late one night, I went in to check on the kid and straighten her quilts. I found Anne sleeping sprawled around the kid’s feet and Diana under the covers, nursing on the duvet. That's when I realized, Sometimes the family you get them ready for is your own.

Consort still has allergies. I Swiffer a lot more now. I bathe them in Allerpet. They don’t go outside, nor will they, which should keep the allergens slightly less horrifying. The air purifier runs 24/7. Consort is a saint and I’m very grateful for him. I’m also grateful for the insistent little orange presence currently purring in my lap as I write, reminding me again that in this life the unexpected can be pretty horrible, but it can also be pretty wonderful.

Here are the girls. Please forgive the background; their bed is next to the dryer, which is unsightly terrain but warm and purrish.