Thursday, September 15, 2011

the star sailors of sacajawea

Finn likes to relax with the latest issue of Vogue when I'm tucking him in bed at night. We flip through, working at a quick pace. We know what we don't have to waste time on, and we know just where we like to linger. His taste is sure, and when he sees a spread that pleases it, he shouts "STAR SAILOR!", pointing extravagantly at the page -- sometimes so extravagantly that I accidentally get knocked in the face.

Up with bright color and flowing, feminine, ruffly shapes. Up with glossy red lipstick, up with perfume samples. Up with Drew Barrymore and her lush features, her pearlescent, peacock-toned Cover Girl eye shadow.

Down with/boo to/spit on neutrals and all black-and-white photography. Down with boring, business-y shapes. Down with severe tailoring. Down with plain handbags. Down with minimalism. Execute minimalism, gangland-style. Toss the gun and stroll out into the street, cape fluttering behind you, never looking back.

Finn is the love child of Martha Stewart and Ziggy Stardust, the love child of Lord Byron and Kramer. He's the Black Stallion, he's a hothouse orchid. Brains coming out of his ears, and an almost wasteful amount of physical beauty. And I don't want to talk about the sensitivity, lest I disturb it from all the way over here in the other room. He's a one-off, I'm trying to tell you. I rarely talk about him here because he taxes my descriptive powers too much. You can see how much I'm revving the engine already. I promise you that these are the most accurate, least over-the-top descriptions available to me.

All children are totally special. I know it. I know. I really do. No "but" here.

But* I'm just watching my now-very-heavily-described, indescribable firstborn go out and interact for the first time in a big way with a world that is not exactly tailored for I call it a type?

*because it's down here



Today was day seven, and it was the first day that Finn went into class without crying and clinging to us. To Dave, I should say. After the first three days, it became abundantly clear that I shouldn't be anywhere near his classroom entry. I was already taking a quarter of a Xanax in the morning to try not to cry when he cried, and that dose was starting to look too small. (You're probably like, right, because: a quarter of a Xanax. I'm small, see? And, uh...sensitive.)

Finn would be fine first thing in the morning. No problem getting ready for school. We have a mixed CD in the car that's all Finn's favorite songs, and we'd listen to it on the way there. No problem during "Chicken Grabber". Looking good through "Staying Alive", especially while Fred bobs his head to the music. ("Staying Alive" is Fred's signature tune, has been from the first minute he heard it and began rocking out, and holy shit, does it suit him. Fred, my little man, you're a story for another day.) Not bad even through Booker T. Jones, as we're pulling up to the school. Things would start wobbling up on the playground as we waited for the school bell -- though he'd be maintaining -- and then as soon as that SUPER FUCKING LOUD STARTLING AIR RAID SIREN* of a bell rang, he'd shoot into misery.

*none of this aided by the fact that whenever the bell rings, all the children instantly scream.

When the bell blasts, all the kids line up outside their classroom and get ready for their teachers to throw open the doors for another day of totally! fun! learning! -- and for the other kids, that's exactly what it seems like. They're grinning and bobbing around and ignoring their moms and dads because they have all been to preschool. But, as I said in an earlier post, Finn only went to preschool for three days. (Topic for another day, if ever. To sum up: Hey, moms and dads! Send your kids to preschool!)

Bell rings. Finn crumples fast and hard. He's crying, grabbing on to me. I'm patting his head and rubbing his back and talking brightly to him while invisible gangs of thugs kick the shit out of my heart. I gesture for Dave to take over, since Mama is a more primal pull -- I've got that womb, see? -- than Pops. I stand a few feet away with Fred, blowing kisses and making little thumbs-up and tough-fist "You can do it!" gestures as the line moves forward -- forcibly, for Finn. Dave is moving him toward the classroom. Finn is trying everything he can. He's digging his feet into the asphalt and pulling backwards, and when that doesn't work, he's hanging off of Dad's hand with his feet off the ground, getting airlifted to his doom. It would be hilarious if it weren't so heartwrenching.

As soon as Dave has him in the classroom, I squeeze Fred in my arms and the tears come flying. Other moms hover sympathetically nearby, offering encouragement. I laugh-cry-talk with them, and pretty soon they're welling up, too.

I've never, with either of my babies, been drawn to do anything like a parent's group. That always seemed like far too broad a stroke. Parent's group? Mom's group? It felt like it was casting the net way too wide. "Hey, honey, I'm off to people group!" But in the last week and a half, I've changed. If you are the mother or father of a kindergartener, we are bosom buddies, a priori. I don't need to know one more thing. If your child has been in kindergarten for seven days like mine has, we might as well be buried together, you and I. We are that close.

And I have to say that this group of parents seems particularly delightful. I'm starting to get school spirit, frankly. Sacajawea Elementary and all associated with it kick ass as far as I'm concerned. Finn told me excitedly today that the principal, Barry Dorsey, stands on the playground and yells "Laaaaaaaaadeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez and......" and all the kids scream out "GENTLEMEN!!!!!!" And then...something? Finn didn't feel like telling me anything else, so I don't know what comes next. But just that nugget of information is perfect.

Where are we? Right, Finn's inside. And this little illustration stands for five out of the seven days he's been to school. He's in the Peace Corner. The other kids are patting his back, holding his hand. (I die at the sweetness.) A pretty little girl named Trinity who sits at his desk is telling him, "You don't have to cry EVERY day!" (Dave reported happily that yesterday Trinity began her wifely ministrations with Finn, telling him all about the good things they would get to do that day, even going so far as to reach over and adjust the zipper at the top of his jacket like she was straightening his tie. Finn, all what is this girl doing? -- and ever the smoothie -- kicked her lightly in the foot. Trinity said to Dave, "He kicked me!" but it was clear that she didn't mind and this wouldn't stop her.) (Oh, Trinity. Be safe out there.)

But let me cut to the chase. He's doing better! When I pick him up every day, he does not look remotely like a guy who's been to hell. I ask him about his day in the car on the way home.

I ask:

"What stories did you read this morning?"

and he answers:

"The Napping House. It was something about a Grandma and some animals and a boy."

or he answers:

"A very important story about little kids." "What happens to the kids in the story?" "I don't know."

or he answers:

"STAR WARS. I HATE STAR WARS. I don't like all the fighting." "Who was fighting?" "Nobody. It's Star Wars Alphabet."

or he says:

"Some story about a bear whose name begins with a C."

I think he's making friends? Maybe? I'm not sure. In any case, a lovely thing happened. I was asking him about the kids in class, and it came out that there was a boy he hadn't talked to yet that appealed to him. R.J. is his name. He murmured it fervently to me, hiding his face in my arm. "R.J.!" That's who he wanted to be friends with. I didn't know who R.J. was, but then Dave told me he's a little guy with a limp and a withered hand. And then Finn told me a couple of days ago that he'd become friends with R.J. at lunchtime. R.J. sat with him and point-blank asked him if he wanted to be friends, and Finn said "sure". I yelled the story to Dave as Finn relayed it to me, and when I got to the part where Finn accepts, I fucked up the story (of course) and said that Finn had said yes. Finn set me straight. "No," came the adjustment, "I said SURE."

Now, I have no idea if Finn has spoken to or hung out with R.J. since then. I asked him who he played with at morning recess today, and the answer was "A jump rope." He just ran around the playground by himself, dragging a jump rope. And that's what he was doing when I picked him up later in the day. Just playing by himself, as he always is when I pick him up, dragging a jump rope around. He's not with the other kids, he hasn't fallen into a game with anybody, and I can't see R.J. anywhere, or Ian, who seems to have made some tighter friends. But he doesn't seem distressed about it. He's just playing. It's cool. It's at least cool enough.

He told me this morning -- before his triumphant, not-traumatized entry into the classroom on his own steam (!) -- as we were getting him ready for school, "You know, by morning recess I'm usually fine." And he asked me how long it took me to get used to kindergarten. I have no idea how long it took me to get used to kindergarten, but that's totally beside the point, which was that it was time to begin bullshitting. "Let's see. What day of kindergarten is this for you? Day seven? I think it was...yeah. Right around seven days into it." He was satisfied, and breezily continued getting ready.

Tonight we looked at Vogue briefly before bed, and as I sailed past a page, he asked me to go back. I circled back a few pages, and asked what he was looking for. He said, "I thought I saw somebody who looked like R.J." When we determined that R.J. was not featured in this month's Vogue, we turned off the lights and I sang him to sleep.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

live from the peace corner

It's begun. My oldest, Finn, has entered kindergarten. We dropped him off for day two approximately an hour ago.

"Dropped him off." My, that sounds breezy. Peeled him, struggling, off our legs? Wrenched ourselves from his grip and airlifted ourselves out of the classroom as soon as his teacher, Mr. Norman, swung in to relieve us? Whatever it was, it was fucking difficult.

Let me back up a little. We put in a bid last spring for Finn to go to an alternative school that we fell in love with, but came up goose eggs. On our list of preferences we'd put approximately one zillion schools ahead of the one to which he'd have naturally been assigned, because I happened to go to that particular school in 4th grade when we first moved to Seattle from New York, and it was the worst year of my schooling life. Holy smokes, it was shitty. Abysmal educationally, barely livable socially. And even if it had improved bunches in 30 years (whiiiiich...we'll find out that it hadn't), the sense memory of walking into that place every morning would have made me queasy.

But we didn't get assigned to any of those zillion schools, and Finn was headed to Olympic Hills. Aaa! We were ready to make the best of it. We were going to embrace the "local is good" paradigm, get involved, shine it up as much as we could. But aaa!

And then three weeks before school was set to start, we got a letter from the principal of Olympic Hills saying that since they didn't meet testing standards, they were legally obligated to give us the option to send our child to another school that did. We were given a list of three alternatives, and on that list was our #2 choice.

Sacajawea! Sweet little Sacajawea Elementary. Seattle public schools are going to hell in a handcart, but Sacajawea is one of the few in town that keeps getting better and better. "A gem in the rubble", said the Seattle Times. A gem! In the rubble, sure, but a gem! We'll take it.

I took Finn to check it out a few days before school began. They'd posted class lists on the door, so we'd find out which kindergarten teacher he'd be assigned. Kit Norman, Room 3. I imagined Kit Norman to be a sweet old lady, but then a fifth-grader and his mom rolled up to the door and we fell into conversation. The boy, Ari, said to Finn, "You got Mr. Norman! He's the best."

Finn got a letter in the mail that day from Mr. Norman, welcoming him to school, and telling him about all the cool stuff they were going to do that year. They'd learn to read and write, they'd learn about animals and dinosaurs and insects, they'd play math games, they'd learn about Asia, and collect pennies to help their communities, and go roller-skating and go to the theater, and on and on. I didn't even notice the letter in the pile of mail until late that evening, after everyone had gone to bed. I read it and my heart swelled. The good vibes of Mr. Norman practically flew off the page. There was also a little form for Finn to fill out - "All About Me" - which we worked on together the next day. Now Mr. Norman knows that Finn likes gardening and watering plants and he wants to learn about all sorts of different trees. Big leaf maples and Norway maples, specifically, if we could be so bold. Mr. Norman knows that Finn likes baking buttermilk biscuits and blueberry muffins, and that he likes to play both hide and seek and "running hide and seek". ("It's easy to make up a new game," explains Finn. "You just take one game, like running, and put it together with another game." Polo Monopoly! Synchronized Twister! Pin the Tail on Kevin Bacon! He's right, this is easy.)

Finn wanted to wear two different plaid shirts and a pair of plaid shorts to orientation. He wouldn't budge on the shirts, but I convinced him to go slightly subtler on the pants. A neutral windowpane plaid, at least. And he had me draw two hearts for Mr. Norman - a large one containing a smaller, smiling one. And then he drew an arm and a hand coming off the smaller heart, offering a spiky flower. Then he went into the garden and picked some clover for Mr. Norman, which we wrapped in a small jewelry box.

Finn's never been to school. No, wait, not true. He went to preschool for three days. There are a few reasons behind this, but this post is already fixing to be ten miles long. Things conspired against, let's just say. So kindergarten, which is already momentous for all parents and kids, is a little closer to jumping out of an airplane than it is to jumping off a high dive for Finn.

Orientation went okay, as well as can be expected. It's just an hour, and you're with your mom and dad, so how bad can it be? Finn was a little nervous and weirded-out, but he handled it, and eventually he befriended a little boy out on the playground, a great little guy named Ian. (Before then, he just wasn't quite connecting with any of the kids out there, and so he kept pasting a cheerful smile on his face and coming back to play with steady old Fred, who's Sancho Panza to Finn's Don Quixote. Meanwhile, I was thankful I'd brought enormous sunglasses, because seeing him out there tentatively approaching kids and then thinking better of it - and then standing there awkwardly, and then playing with forced wildness with Fred - made tears shoot to my eyes over and over.)

Mr. Norman wasn't what I expected. I'd pictured a gentle bear, some kind of cuddly nerd all grown up. Unsurprisingly, that wasn't the actuality. Mr. Norman is more the golden-boy type, like a camp counselor or tennis star or student body president. He's blond and grinning and brisk. And he's great. He announced to us all that he adores his job, he could never imagine himself doing anything else, and that he wants to give kids the best possible first impression of school, to make it as fun as possible. It's rare to get a male kindergarten teacher, and even rarer to get one like Mr. Norman, who really does give off terrific light.

When the first day came, we walked Finn into the class and saw that - miracle of miracles - his assigned seat was right next to Ian, his new friend. (I'll tell you right now that I am giving credit for this miracle to my dear departed dad and father-in-law. As soon as I saw their names next to each other at their little desk, I knew that the grandpas had a hand in this. It's just like them. And furthermore, I think there was some heavenly string-pulling for Finn to end up at Sacajawea, since when I went down to public school headquarters to enroll him there, they were puzzled in the extreme. Olympic Hills was not, in fact, on their list of schools that was required to give kids the chance to opt out. But since I'd shown up, they'd see what they could do. Strangeness.) (I love fairy tales and I'll love them until the end. I don't like to embrace a prosaic explanation if I can find one that gives me goose bumps.)

The wall was lined with smiling parents, and the kids all seemed bubbly and ready to go. As the time came for us to leave, Finn got more and more nervous and then began to cry. I signaled for Dave to take over, and then grabbed Fred (who was ready to enter kindergarten that very day, judging by his enthusiasm for the space) and ran. I made it out the door to the playground and out of view of the classroom window before I burst into tears. Holy fuck. I laughed while I cried, because there I was, the living cliche, the brand-new kindergarten mom beside herself. Dave followed in a couple of minutes, and reported that Mr. Norman had swooped in to comfort Finn and to show him to the "Peace Corner", a groovy little spot in the classroom with a tiny couch and books and a big peace sign hanging on the wall above a basket of stuffed animals. Ian had asked, "Is he crying?" and Mr. Norman responded sweetly, "Yeah, sure he is. It's his first time going to school, so it's a big thing for him."

We went upstairs to the welcome brunch for new parents, but I didn't see one single Bloody Mary available anywhere, so that was a wash.

Oh, man. This will have to be a two-parter. You might think, "Hey, Tina. We're fine with just this one part. You're really more his mom than any of us are, let's remember." But you'll have to bear with me. There's more to report. The rest of the first day, the overwhelming kindness of the other parents, and Mama Crying In the Playground, Round Two. I promise I won't go on and on about this forever. It's just that the first time you jump out of an airplane, your diary entry that night is a little longer than normal.

Okay, then. Off to pick him up from day two. Blow on the dice with me for day three, readers.

P.S. I thought of a solution for this whole thing. I think all of us Rowleys should become huge stoners starting right now. We'll just all smoke weed right before school. Finn, too. All of us. Fred, everybody. We'll just get wicked stoned first thing in the morning. (A Great Toking Sound.) "Heeeeey, Sacajawea. What's the word?" Roll into school, drop him off, roll out of there, no problem. Learning will be fun! Shh, I think this is a no-fail plan.