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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Child of the 70's, Part 1: The Sad School Bus

On the first day of first grade, my mom waited at the bus stop with my twin sister and me, took pictures, saw us onto the bus, and waved us off with a very big smile on her face (she already had her tennis skirt on).   My sister and I climbed on the bus and sat together, which is what twins do. There was no one else on the bus, as we were the first stop.  A little ways down the road some older girls—third graders!—got on, and immediately started to make fun of us for sitting together!  Apparently this was not at all cool! Unbeknownst to us bus rookies, apparently, siblings were not supposed to acknowledge each other on the bus, unless by throwing things. 
To our great shock and horror, our very first bus ride to school turned into 45 minutes of unrelenting hair pulling, poking, pinching, insults to our lunch boxes —“Holly Hobbie stinks!” —and, despite the fact that we were huddled miserably in the seat, just trying to be invisible, and not exhibiting, either of us,  any signs of an inflated ego—we got hit with the ultimate insult among grade school girls: “You think you’re so great!” 

After a few weeks of this, Mantha and I stood dejectedly at the bus stop, considering our options. The torture showed no signs of slowing. Sitting apart wouldn’t help—we were already pegged as fair game on the bus. (After the first morning, Mom did not even walk up the driveway with us—she had no idea we how much we hated the bus. We both knew what she would say if we told her—“Oh girls, for pete’s sake, you’ll be fine!”) 

Manth said, “We could walk.”

I said, “Mom would be mad.”

Manth said, “She won’t find out.”

(We definitely weren’t worried about Dad finding out—Dad was at work, commuting 40 miles each way, and this being the 70’s, probably never set foot in the school until the Christmas concert.) 

It was decided. Giddy with relief, we picked up our hand-sewn book bags and our Holly Hobbie lunch boxes, and we headed down the road toward the school, about 3/4 of a mile away. When the bus came roaring up the hill a few minutes later, we darted nimbly into the woods and hid under the stone wall until the coast was clear (much like the four hobbits in the beginning of the first Lord of Rings movie.)  Maybe the bus driver would think we moved away! At any rate, he never said anything.

Although we had just started first grade,  we have an October birthday-- we were, at that time, five years old.

Our totally awesome dog, April —who apparently had somewhat stronger maternal instincts than our mom—was none too pleased with the change of plans.  She jumped up and started following us down the hill. We tried to get her to go home, but she was not having it. She knew her job. She  came with us all the way to school, looked both ways crossing the road, and waited outside the school with us until the bell rang. Then she turned around and came straight home.

At the end of that day, Mantha and I—having plotted together at lunch (and where, despite occasional teasing, we also sat together, and continued to do so for the next 12 years) lined up with the walkers instead of getting in the bus line. No one noticed. We strolled, triumphant, back out to the road, and walked home in the golden autumn air. No more pinching! No gratuitous abuse heaped on poor Holly Hobbie! No more being constantly informed that we thought we were so great! I still dream about that walk—every house, every stone wall, every patch of poison ivy turning red in the fall, every tangle of Concord grapes.  It was heaven

A few weeks later, one of the neighbors said disapprovingly to my mom,

“Don’t you think your girls are a little young to be walking to school all alone?”

My mom said, startled, “My girls don’t walk to school! They take the bus!”

The neighbor shook her head and said, “No, they don’t, Sara—I see Samantha and Jesseca walking by my house every morning, and back in the afternoon. In the morning your dog goes too!”

My mom said, “I wondered where the dog was!”

She told Dad—by that time, we were six!—and they decided that since it had been going fine so far, we might as well keep on doing it. We finally told them how much we hated the bus, not to mention the 45 wasted minutes, when we could be wandering down the hill at our leisure with April. 

Mom and Dad said we had better be careful when it was dark, or snowing, or both. They also must have talked to us about not getting in strangers’ cars under any circumstances, because the day I fell off my bike in 4th grade and skinned my whole face, our neighbor ,Mr. Skilling tried to bring me home, but I refused, because a) I didn't recognize him in a suit  and tie, and b) had a lot of blood running into my eyes. (My mom patched me up and made me go to school anyway—“Just think of all the fun attention you’ll get today!”)

Today I know five year olds, and I am not making this up,  who are not even potty trained. Their parents feel an “adult-centered”  potty training schedule will cause them too much anxiety. This when, my sister and singlehandedly figure out to ditch mean girls and get ourselves to school with no help at the same age. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If Farmer Boy Had To Buy School Lunch

In the elementary school where I taught in Denver, the school, oddly, lacked a full kitchen. With most of the school needing school lunch and no facilities to actually cook, the district put bids out to—weren’t the 90’s awesome!—fast food chains! We had Pizza Hut one day, Taco Bell two days a week, and pouches of fried nuggety matter that came off a truck and into a microwave the other days. (On Martin Luther King, Jr,  Day, in a hideously confused gesture of respect, the central kitchen served, and I am not making this up, watermelon and fried chicken.
Around the same time, soda companies had figured out how to break into the public school market by offering $10,000 cash for every vending machine placed in a  school. Our district decreed each school would get two. 

When the kids saw the Pepsi machines they went crazy. “All right!” “Yes!” “We get to have pop at school now—that’s so awesome!” And every day, despite the fact that they were all on free and reduced lunch,  nearly every kid showed up to school with $2.50 to purchase an 18 oz bottle of pop.  Since these  bottles were really too big for the kids to finish in their approximately 9.5 minute lunch period, the bottles of soda ended up all over the playground, spilled in the classroom, or used as weapons on the bus. This drove all the teachers (not to mention the bus drivers!) insane--we cursed the Pepsi corporation, the parents giving into peer pressure and shelling out precious cash every day,  and the fools in the downtown Administration building who had sold us out like this, every day.

Seeing my students swagger around with their damn Pepsi bottles made me think of a scene from Farmer Boy. When Almanzo Wilder--Laura's future husband-- was about eight, he went to the Independence Day celebration in Malone, NY, with his family. At the parade, his cousin Frank, a “town boy”, taunts Almanzo because he doesn’t have a nickel to buy lemonade. Knowing his father will disapprove, but determined to show up his nemesis cousin, Almanzo gathers up all his nerve and fearfully asks his father for a nickel to buy lemonade. To his surprise, his father holds up a half dollar:

“Almanzo, do you know what this is?”

“Half a dollar.”

“Yes, but do you know what half a dollar is?”

Almanzo didn’t know that it was anything but half a dollar.

“It’s work, son….You know how to raise potatoes?” 


“Say you have a seed potato in the spring—what do you do with it?” 

“You cut it up….Then you harrow—first you manure the field, then plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes, and plow them, and hoe them. You plow them and hoe them twice….Then you dig them up and put them down cellar.”

“Yes…and come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a good price, son, how much do you get to show for all that work? How much to you get for a half a bushel of potatoes?”

“Half a dollar,” said Almanzo.

“Yes,” said Father.”That’s what’s in this half dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.”

….Frank asked Almanzo: “Where’s the nickel?”

“He didn’t give me a nickel,” said Almanzo.

“Yah, yah! I told yiou he wouldn’t! I told you so!”

“He gave me half a dollar,” said Almanzo…. “I’m going to look around, and buy me a good little suckling pig.”

Which brings me to my next post: where children think meat comes from. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beef By-Products and You!

When I taught elementary school in Denver, the second grade took a field trip to the Great National Western Stock Show every year. (Coming from New England, I had never heard of the Great National Western Stock Show.) Before the field trip, two cowboys came to our classroom to give a presentation: Beef By-Products and You! They brought a large fold-out display of the thousands of places where beef by-products end up--petroleum! Vinyl! Some kinds of rubber! (Sorry, vegans!) The cowboy chuckled to the kids, "And I bet y'all thought it was all turned into dog food!"

The last thing the cowboy said was, "If you get lost at the Great National Western Stock Show--find a cowboy." I thought, God forbid we lose a kid at the Great National Western Stock Show! They will be carted off and made into petroleum, or vinyl, or dog food!

A week later we were off to the Stock Show. This was comprised of a convention center, covered rodeo rings, and several auditoriums all attached to each other, under an overpass, in a bleak, windy, no-man's land part of town. Unfortunately, the bus drivers dropped our entire group--127 kids, four teachers, twenty parent chaperones and assorted siblings--at the back door of the Great National Western Stock Show,  where  they had no idea what to do with us. The cowboy at the back door told me we would have to walk five blocks around to the front door.  All of us teachers--eyeing the wind howling through the dusty alleys around the convention center--said this was not happening--so we entered the bowels of the Great Western National Stock Show, and set off.

The cowboy was right: we would have been much better off hiking to the front door, where we would have been given maps, name tags, and a guide. After over an hour of walking past displays of commercial grain producers, representatives from slaughterhouses, combine dealers, and a slide presentation of common diseases of goats ("Yo Miss Timmons, what up with that goat?"), we finally found a section resembling a petting zoo. (A sign on one pen said "We will soon be hamburger!") Along the way, we lost the other three classes. This was before cell phones; we had no choice but to just meet back at the bus at 2:30.

By the now my kids were hungry, and we looked around for a place to sit.  A good half hour later--after some horrifying glimpses of modern de-worming techniques for sheep--we gave up on finding the picnic area and sat in some empty bleachers to eat. That is when one of my chaperones came up to me and announced that she had lost one of her four year old twins. She did even know how long he had been missing, because her older son had gripped her hand in the crowd and she assumed it was his younger brother.

 I thought I might possibly throw up in front of my entire class.

The kids sensed an emergency. They started to get restless and throw food at one another. One kid complained, "This whole field trip stinks real bad, Miss Timmons!"Another said, "That's because this is where they turn all them cows into vinyl, dummy!"

The mom of the missing child stared at me in mute panic.
"Don't worry," I said with a big smile, "We'll find him. " She smiled back, "I know. The Lord will take care of him." I stood up and clapped hands at the kids, "Lunch is over--we have to find the back door again--and go back exactly the way we came!"

Many groans from the kids. "I ain't looking at that nasty goat again!" "The tractors is so boring!" "It smelled so bad when we walked by the pigs!"

"Exactly the way we came!" I yelled over the protests.  "And everyone--" I added, "Look around for Jonah!" I held up the non-missing twin. "He looks exactly like this!"

The kids looked mildly interested at this. A few of the girls with younger siblings looked shocked. I met their eyes -don't freak out!--and they got the message. They all started poking each other, whispering among themselves, and looking at the missing boy's brothers with  pity.

We hiked, all forty of us, back past the penned animals, the bales of hay, the bovine pharmaceutical displays, the Today's Bean Farmer charity raffle table, the barbed-wire demonstrations.   We looked in bathrooms, under bleachers, in the food court--and in the lost and found child booth, where, to my great surprise,  we found a kid from another second grade class! He flung himself on me, hysterically crying. I told the cowboys we had lost a four year old and showed them his brother. They made an announcement over the loudspeaker--but I doubted anyone could hear it.  A minute the other  lost kid's teacher, who had been frantically trying to reach the lost and found, met up with us, her face white, her hands on her heart.

"Thank god," she whispered, "His field trip buddy left him in the bathroom! I thought I was going to die!"

"I'm still missing a sibling!" I hissed back. "He looks just like that!"  With bright smiles pasted on our faces, we went in opposite directions to keep searching.

Nearly two hours had passed. It was almost time to get on the bus. I ran through alternatives in my head: should I send my kids back on the bus with the other teachers and stay with the parent? Should we hold the buses? Should I call the principal? The police? Just was we turned the corner in sight of the back door, we heard a cry--there was our missing four-year-old, holding the hand of an enormous, disgruntled looking cowboy.  He was not a cheerful, turquoise-hatted employee of the Stock Show, but an actual cowboy, who looked like he had slept in his trailer after driving all the way from Wyoming.

The little boy, Noah, was smiling, holding tight to the cowboy's hand. The twin's mother knelt in front of him, gasping,"Noah, what happened to you?"

"I lost your hand, Mom, but Adam"--the oldest brother--"told me if I got lost, to just find a cowboy!"

At this the cowboy  grunted: "He ain't let go my hand for two hours."

Followed by, "I don't even work here!"

We thanked him so many times he got embarrassed. And this is why I love the West: the cowboy actually tipped his hat, and strode off.

The kids were all staring, "Can we go home now?"

"Now," I said, "We can go home."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

If Farmer Boy's Dad Had to Attend the Field Trip Meeting

When we lived in the Boston suburbs, the kids took a field trip in 3rd grade  to the town nature preserve. This was about two miles form the school.  Before the field trip, parents had to attend a  orientation, at which the science teacher outlined the plan for the day:  a three-hour ramble over well-worn paths, with observations of habitat and plant life. She asked if there were any questions.  

One dad stood up and announced, “We are  very concerned about the risk of sun stroke on this field trip. We don’t like Taylor to be out in the sun too long.” 

This was followed by,  
“Are the children going to be exposed any poison ivy on this field trip?” 
“Are there going to be any poisonous mushrooms?” 
“What is the plan for mosquitoes?” 
“Are the kids going to be walking though an area with the ticks which carry Lyme disease?”

And my favorite: “What about fisher cats?”

The science teacher—who apparently, had heard all this before— assured the parents that the kids would be steered away from poison ivy, mushrooms, and toxic exposure to the sun; would be wearing whatever non-toxic, gluten-free, organic insect repellent they brought with them, as required; would be checked for ticks, and would stop and tweet fisher-cat repelling whistles every four minutes. (Just kidding about the last part. What she really said was, Well, fishers are native to this area, but no, we won’t see one, as they are a) nocturnal and b) likely to be scared away by a group of  a hundred and twenty third graders on a field trip.) 

I was starting to wonder if any of these people ever actually went outside. 

Farmer Boys’ parents, needless to say, had a different approach to the dangers of nature. In Chapter VI of Farmer Boy, Almanzo went along with his father to watch ice being cut out of the river:  

Almanzo ran to the edge of the hole, watching the saw. Suddenly, right on the edge, he slipped. He felt himself falling headlong into the dark water. He knew he would sink and be drawn under the solid ice. The swift current would pull him under the ice, where nobody could find him. He’d drown, held down by the ice in the dark.  French Joe grabbed him just in time…..he felt a terrific crash and then he was lying on his stomach on the good, solid ice. He got to his feet. Father was coming, running.

Father stood over him, big and terrible.

“You ought to have to worst whipping of your life,” Father said.

“Yes, Father,” Almanzo said. He knew it. He knew he should be more careful. A boy nine years old is too big to do foolish things because he doesn’t stop to think.  Almanzo knew, and felt ashamed.

If Almanzo’s father could see nine-year-olds today—who, apparently, do not  have enough experience being outside the house to avoid poison ivy, sunstroke, mushrooms, or ticks, and whose parents think they are at risk of being attacked by elusive nocturnal animals in broad daylight—well, it’s a good thing he can’t see it.