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Before you think this is just another new-homeowner blog wherein I needlessly detail all the minutiae of our latest home-improvement project, and then make you seethe with jealously as you drool over pictures of recessed lighting, exposed beams, sparkling appliances, and gleaming woodwork, rest assured you will never have to see those pictures; our home will always be a mess. 

However, in our can-do, suburban spirit, we will always keep trying.  After all, how American can we truly be unless we are continually remodeling our home? 

For a while, it was a matter of putting out fires.  The drain was stopped up, so we had 3 real plumbers and Mr. Apron with a coat hanger make various attempts until we could finally wash our hands while leaving the water on.  The roof leaked, so we misguidedly replaced the windows (at the advice of a roofer who clearly had enough work elsewhere), then fixed the actual roof itself.  The 30-year-old oven scorched my precious cupcakes, so we had it hauled to the curb.  Our new built-in microwave was just the icing on the cake.  Sometimes when I enter the kitchen, I can’t believe that modern piece of appliancery is ours to keep. The giant air-conditioner that is responsible for making 2/3 of the first floor habitable all summer (well, this year, from April till mid-September) was just making a whole lot of noise, so we had that bastard replaced, too.  And on it goes.  However, none of our improvements have been strictly our choice, as in, “What do you want to tackle next?”  They’ve simply been old-house things that have up and died and demanded our attention.  And with the exception of the bright red backsplash I picked out to go behind the stove, none have been aesthetic, merely functional, practical, comfortable. 

Until now.  I chanced to mention to my parents that (one day) I’d really like to dig up our kitchen floor and lay down something beautiful and modern, as opposed to the vomit-colored cobble-stone design vinyl sheeting that was somehow impossible to keep clean besides.  The very week I spent up at my parents’ house, Mr. Apron became inspired to mop that stupid floor, after multiple failed attempts to Swiffer it, both wet and dry.  The week after he mopped it shiny clean, my father descended upon our house.  Ostensibly, he was there to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with us, but, after we returned from services, he was at once examining our kitchen floor as if a surgeon deciding the best way to remove a malignant tumor.  Before we knew it, he had changed his clothes, taken tools out of his car, and ripped up a corner of our floor. 

Just to see what was there, you see.  Just to peek and measure and investigate.  Under the vinyl sheeting, he found a layer of ¼” plywood.  And under that, he found vintage red and yellow linoleum.  Real linoleum, in 9” tiles, which probably means they were original to the house, which dates them to c. 1928.  For a moment I considered the appeal of the vintage tiles.  I considered the ease of just leaving them there.  I considered the incredible coincidence of the color scheme we had picked out for the final product – red and yellow.  We’ve been collecting red-handled kitchen gadgets from the 1950s; we’ve had the walls painted lemon meringue; we have a red vintage enamel-top table with red vinyl-covered chairs.  We have curtains in green, red and yellow fabric from the 1940s sporting all manner of kitchen gadgets. 

Alas; it was not meant to be.  The tile was in poor shape due to the tacks used to hold the plywood layer down, which had left thousands of neat little holes in the linoleum.  I thought, too, of resale.  Though I’ve sworn I’m never moving again, I do try to think of the mass aesthetic or practical appeal of the home improvements we do.  While I might adore the quaint appeal of the original 1928 red and yellow floor (without holes), someone else (who otherwise adores our home and wants to engage in a frenzied bidding war) might look down her nose disapprovingly at the “vintage” (read: “old”) flooring. 

Plus, my dad had already begun ripping up the lino, leaving us fewer choices in the matter.  Under that was solid wood floor.  Not the type you find in televised remodeling project homes, where they discover Mercer tile in the fireplace under layers of paint, and solid gold switch plates.  No, the type that is the sub-floor.  At least, there’s nothing beneath a subfloor. 

Not being able to turn back and pretend we didn’t know what lay beneath our feet, Mr. Apron and I dug in.  Dad left, giving us homework until the next time he visited: measure the floor, buy whatever flooring you want, and Rip. Up. Everything. 

Initially, I was petrified, but now that a corner had already been peeled back and dug up, it seemed the task had already begun, and that we had to move forward.  Even though it wasn’t pretty, and wouldn’t be a one-day project, we had a task ahead of us. 

I came home one night from work or tutoring, or my basket weaving course at night school, and found the refrigerator in the middle of the floor, and my husband of almost 4 years sitting in the space where the refrigerator used to be.  He was hard at work ripping up flooring.  The next day he tore out an 8 ft x 4ft chunk of flooring (vinyl + plywood together) in one He-Man-like gesture.  I think Mr. Apron has bought into the home improvement spirit.  He’s certainly turned up his doing dial.

Now, this story doesn’t have an ending yet.  Our cork flooring, which was surprisingly hard to track down, isn’t scheduled to arrive until Sunday.  After last weekend’s Adventure in Sanding, Dad will be back to help install this weekend.  It may actually get done, but that’s kind of not the point.  

I could just wait until this is all finished, put up my pretty pictures, and drone on and on about the Dali pattern in our Lisbon cork, how it’s naturally mold-resistant and eco-friendly, blah, blah, blah.  But I’m not gonna.

What’s most important about this project is that my dad heard my hopeful dreaming of new flooring, and decided to do something about it.  He’s not one to be afraid of failure on a project.  He’s not one to be intimidated by having never installed click-lock floating floors before.  He’s not afraid of delving into the unknown beneath the shiny vomit tile.  And that’s what I’m grateful for.  Who knows how many years we might have had to wait to love our kitchen floor? Who knows how many wasted hours I might have spent researching floor installation before taking a pry-bar to the floor itself?  I’m grateful for my dad’s support in this project.  I don’t feel like we’re taking advantage of his can-do spirit or his man-power.  After all, he made us tear up the floor ourselves, till our backs were aching and our fingers numb from ripping out tacks with vise grips.  After all, it was my husband who hauled 380 pounds of trash formerly known as flooring to the dump and flung it all into the abyss (Side note: genuine linoleum tile is a heavy motherfucker.  DENSE, y’all.)  We are doing most of the physical labor ourselves.  Were it not for my dad’s initiative, his support, and our blind faith in his know-how, we would never have even begun the project.  And for that I am already grateful, even as we traipse over foul-smelling backer paper of our unfinished sub-floor while waiting for the glorious cork tiles to come in.  It’s going to be beautiful.  Make no mistake, I may gloat. 

But first I’ll thank the Academy, and my father.

I am still finding myself getting “stuck”.  It’s hard to explain “stuck” except that it’s a sort of invisible force keeping me from doing anything productive with my time.

When I am stuck, I end up bouncing back and forth from the computer to the TV.  I’m not trying to catch a particular program (with On Demand, who really has to schedule their lives around programming anyway?), or find specific information on the Internet. I’m not choosing to watch a movie or writing a report.  I seem to be unable to do purpose-driven activities. 

Which is odd, since there are so many!  I could make a list, on a given evening, of all the things I want to do, but don’t seem to have time for – making lunches for work, baking cookies, sewing outfits for the hoards of new babies being born, finishing up paperwork from my last job, brushing the dogs, doing laundry, going to the gym – and I won’t touch a single item. 

Mostly this is a problem when I’m left alone to my own devices.  My husband has a number of evening commitments that keep him away from me for the bulk of an evening.  And while I continually reassure him it’s not his job to “entertain” me, I still prefer his company to my own.  When he’s home, I have no problem happily humming along at my own projects – hence he’s not entertaining me.  When he’s home, I have no problem chilling out to watch some TV without feeling bad about it.  When he’s home, I can make lunches, plan out the evening, and do purpose-driven activities.  Moreover, I don’t feel as bad about myself.  It’s not the doing or the inertness; it’s the loneliness.  I’m just not good at being by myself. 

Even as a child, I had a beautiful bedroom with a desk that was usually clear enough for homework, but I never did homework in my room.  Rarely did I even retreat to my room alone, except to escape from my brother, sleep, dress, or, on rare occasion, clean my room.  Reading, homework, art projects – these all happened in the shared parts of the house.  Homework was done on the dining room or kitchen table, reading likewise.  I just liked to be near people, to know they’re close by.  I don’t need them to talk to me, to help me, to “inspire” me or even entertain me, but I like them to be near me, just to keep me company. 

And when they’re not, I lose that outside stimulation, and I get stuck.  Worse than that, I judge myself harshly for my inaction, my mental freeze.  Sometimes, in a frenzy of self-loathing, and sense that my husband will be at last returning home soon, I’ll make moves to do some little thing, rushing to finish making lunches or unloading the dishwasher as he comes in the door, just so I can report I didn’t waste my evening.  Other times, I’ll find myself pleading with myself, “Just get up. Just get up.” And I’ll tell him that I sat in front of the computer all evening unable to move, wasting the whole evening. 

Wasted time: my sister and I have commiserated on this sense of squandered free time.  If I have a weekend or a week’s vacation, or a whole summer vacation, I’ll look forward to that free time, to the unscheduled, commitment-free expanse of freedom lying ahead.  I’ll squander a good piece of the time just dreading its eventual ending.  I’ll ruin my whole Sunday freaking out about work the next day.  I’ll waste 5 hours of my evening knowing that bedtime is impending.  And then, as I realize I don’t have anything to show for my blessed free time, I get angry at myself.  How dare I not do anything with it?  How dare I not make plans, get things accomplished?  How dare I spend my free time dreading its very end! 

I bounce back and forth, trying to incur as few outside commitments as possible so I can be home, be with my husband, have free time to pursue interests outside of work.  I am trying not to have 3 different jobs, but I know there is a bonus with my extra work, and it’s not just the money.  It’s being scheduled.  Even as I dread the year-long commitment that usually comes with taking on a new tutoring student, I know that as long as I’m working on math, or writing, or SAT prep, or Bar Mitzvah prep with my kiddo, I’m not home alone feeling stuck.  When I’m out, working in the evenings, I wish I were home, pursuing my alleged other interests.  When I’m home, alone, with ample opportunity, I find myself wishing I had something scheduled, planned.  At least when I’m accountable to other people, I have to show up for something.  My couch doesn’t care if I’m late.  And the dogs’ sense of time is appalling. 

I need to get unstuck, and it seems to be a two-pronged issue – the actual physical inertia of a lack of internal motivation to get up and “do”, and my reaction to the stuck-ness that perpetuates the self-loathing cycle and makes me feel bad about wasting time.

I know I was a picky eater as a child – my siblings and I all were – but my brother was far worse than my sister and I combined, so our relatively typical picky eating paled in comparison.  

Looking at the childhood brother clinically, from my view as a speech language pathologist (yes, we also work with children/adults on swallowing/feeding/eating/nutrition issues), he’s just barely sub-clinical.  He would have (today) been a kid that a responsible pediatrician or SLP would have monitored to make sure he continued to meet dietary needs, but wouldn’t have offered direct intervention. 

Sub-clinical or not, it was always a source of stress in our home.  My brother was definitely a picky eater, just below the threshold for “Problem Feeder,” a distinction SLPs will make for kids who eat fewer than ~24 distinct foods, often fewer than 20.  Problem feeders may only eat foods of a certain color (orange, red), or texture (only crunchy, only pureed), or may avoid entire categories of foods.  They melt down when confronted with a new food, and may have accompanying sensory issues, which is often the case with children on the autism spectrum who are problem feeders. 

While my brother’s food repertoire did have certain patterns, and he had more than one melt-down at a restaurant when something was not just right, he still doesn’t quite make it into problem feeder territory.  First, let us count his food repertoire:

1)      cheese ravioli smothered in pasta sauce

2)      spaghetti smothered in pasta sauce

3)      Kraft Macaroni & Cheese

4)      fast food chicken nuggets smothered in ketchup

5)      restaurant French fries smothered in ketchup

6)      Chef Boyardee pasta shapes (with or without meatballs) in tomato sauce

7)      poptarts (strawberry) liberally topped with cream cheese

8)      bagels (plain) liberally topped with cream cheese

9)      green peas (his one non-tomato sauce vegetable)

10)  cranapple juice or cranberry juice cocktail

11)  milk (on occasion; we’re not big milk drinkers )

12)  hotdogs or hamburgers on occasion, with the usual ketchup

13)  Quaker Chewy granola bars, in peanut butter and chocolate chip

14)  frosting off of desserts (he didn’t care for the cake)

15)  fish sticks dipped in ketchup

16)  tortilla chips and salsa

17)  potato chips

18)  challah bread

19)  mozzarella cheese sticks

20)  fruit roll-ups, fruit-by-the-food, fruit snacks (the only fruit-like product, outside of juice)

21)  soda

22)  ice cream (I forget which flavors, probably vanilla or chocolate)

23)  Friendly’s peanut butter cup sundae

24)  M&Ms, Reese’s peanut butter cups

25)  Other chocolate things

Phew; we made it to 25, plus there are all sorts of junk foods I’m undoubtedly leaving out.  Looking at patterns in the above, we can see he likes tomato-based products, applied liberally.  There is also brand and flavor specificity.  My brother had a continual issue with home-baked fries and chicken nuggets; as they were not deep-friend and packed with junk, they never tasted crispy enough.  Looking at the tendency towards salty, highly-flavored foods, one might label my brother a sensory-seeking child, which I would agree with entirely.  He likes crunchy foods (chips), soft foods (ice cream, cream cheese), chewy foods (fruit roll-ups, chicken).  I know my parents were frequently concerned with his protein intake, so he began consuming some tuna in adolescence. He’s since been turned onto steak, and enjoys ordering a steak (smothered, of course, with A1) when he eats out.  He does (and did) get into food “jags,”  and to this day (he’s nearly 27) eats a strawberry Pop-tart with cream cheese every day. 

One of the other issues, besides the obvious nutrition concern, is social.  A family is restricted not only when they eat out (we were stuck with American, family-friendly traditional fare for years), but also at home.  I think my sister’s and my food repertoire were somewhat stunted as Mom would have had to cook separate meals if we wanted to eat something other than what my brother was eating.  And then there’s the peer concern.  Something interesting happened on my brother’s early separations from the family.  When he went off to camp (3 separate times, for short sessions), he was faced with a distinct lack of the usual fare.  Though Mom had no doubt packed his suitcases with Quaker Chewy granola bars and Strawberry Pop-tarts (and still stocks the pantry likewise), he had a choice – to eat some of what was provided during meal times with his peers, or go hungry until he could eat his food back in his bunk.  At college, too, he learned that if he wanted to go out with friends to eat, or enjoy a meal in the dining hall (if that’s possible, given some of the “tofu and yam surprise” options) with roommates, he had to go along to get along.  As a result, he added foods like pancakes and kebabs to his ever-growing list of foods.  Recently, we have been able to go out to eat at ethnic restaurants, including Indian and Asian cuisine, which would have been unheard of. 

My brother is often deserving of the term “late bloomer”.  He’s been able to travel abroad, live alone, socialize with peers, and assume some responsibility for keeping himself alive nutritionally.  Amazing what a picky eater can do when confronted with a healthy dose of peer pressure.  Funny how they never tell you the positive effects of peer pressure during DARE assemblies.

Molly the dog is an enigma.  She is almost house-broken, until the weekend comes.  Our routines are not as rigid, our schedules not as predictable, and she gets more freedom.  Today, that meant she pissed on our bed, through the blanket, the sheets, and the mattress pad.  Why?  Well, she was left alone while we were working in the kitchen, hammering in extra nails to fix a bounce in the sub-floor.  The noise drove her upstairs, where we’ve been a little lax in our usual obsessive closing of doors to limit her access.  Is it our fault for not watching her?  Shouldn’t she be trained by now?  We know she can hold her bladder from 7am till 3:30 or 4pm, yet this accident (or, “On purpose” as we’ve been calling them) happened around 10:30am, in my best guess.  Physiologically, she can hold it, but does she choose not to, or have we, the responsible owners/trainers, not reinforced heavily enough, that potty happens outdoors? 

We praise lavishly, we even reward occasionally, the outdoor products.  In general, she stays in her crate while we are not home, and we always take her outside upon releasing her from her confinement, so as to give her a chance to relieve herself, and to relieve us in knowing she is “empty.”  We are never truly relaxed until she is empty. 

Yet the weekend is a slower pace, and that’s almost exclusively when she has her accidents.  In anger, we throw her in the crate, but this act of retribution is not even akin to putting out fires (laundry would seem to be its metaphor); it’s more to let her escape our wrath, the anger we have at ourselves for not prophylactically taking her out at 10am, or 3pm, or 7pm or whatever.  The other dog we adopted at age 4.  He has never had an indoor accident, except for the one time we gave him some high-quality, super-expensive food that made him shit 5 times a day, and he couldn’t hold it in the middle of the night.  I know dog experts say dogs don’t have consciences, that they don’t feel guilt, shame, or remorse, that they’re simply reading our reactions through tone of voice, body language, or actions.  I would argue that Finley does, though.  If he has flipped over a trash can (a habit of his from his youth), the dog gate fell, or he scratched a door out of anxiety from a fly’s presence (he’s a teensy bit neurotic), we will find him cowering, with his head low to the ground, tail down, nose downward. Even if we try to allay his feelings using cheery voices, happy greetings, and jovial head-petting, his tail may wag, but his bodystill  says, “I did something so wrong.  Will you find it in your heart to love me and not kick me out?”  He only requires 3 walks a day.

Why does she need more?  She simply does not understand.  She is too dumb to completely grasp the concept of voiding exclusively outdoors.  I know that, being part-lab, she will always be a few cards short of a full deck, but she has shown the capability to learn.  She has a release command for eating her food.  She will stop jumping if you ignore her and tell her to sit.  She will sit (when she feels like it) on command.  She will lie down (and roll over) when a treat is brought near the floor.  She will go up stairs on the command “up”.  She will stop pulling, briefly, on a walk.  She may not be all there mentally, but she isn’t eating drywall, and she hasn’t destroyed a shoe yet.  But if she is truly too stupid to grasp this concept, I blame myself.  I know she’s too dumb, and I don’t know what to do about it.  Which kind of makes it my fault.

One of the house-breaking books we brought home initially in March, when we brought Molly home, said there isn’t such a term as “almost house-broken” or “mostly potty-trained;” a dog either is, or she isn’t.  Since Molly continues to have accidents on the weekends, regardless of who is at fault, I guess she is as bad as the piddling puppy we brought home 6 months ago. 

Does anyone have any resources they love for “almost-trained” dogs?  Do you have any tricks or techniques to pass along for dumb dogs who don’t have an innate drive to please their owners?  Are we ever going to be able to use the crate as a PoMo coffee table?

My mug is missing. At my new place of employment, we are not only able to enjoy previously unheard of luxuries as “adult lunch”; we are also privy to tea.  One of my coworkers keeps an electric kettle on a one of the deep window ledges in her classroom.  She has a drawer full of tea bags, and all the accessories you could need.  I was told to bring in a mug, so I could reap the full benefits of a morning tea break (with my animal cracker snack), so I brought in a big blue mug emblazoned with the name of a school I used to teach at, the kind of mug you can wrap both hands around on a cold morning, and could use for soup in a pinch.

I used it for tea exactly once.  I washed it afterwards, and left it on the drain board to dry.  The next day, when I went to go retrieve it, I noted that someone had graciously put it on a mug hook above the sink.  I let it be.  The next time I wanted tea, I went back to the sink, looked at the mug hooks, and it was gone.  I had assumed that my proprietary mug rights would be respected, that if I put up my mug, I, and I alone, would be the one to use it.  Even if there had been explicit instruction that all mugs were for communal use (please-wash-and-dry-when-done protocol), I would have expected it to return shortly.  Tea only stays hot for so long.  And then I would have promptly taken it back to my office, where I would have hid it in my desk for my own personal private specific exclusive use. 

I’ve taken to furtively glancing around classrooms I enter, scanning the shelves and desks for my mug.  Unfortunately, I’m only in 4 rooms besides my office, and so far – no luck.  I don’t want to send out an e-mail to the entire staff, since I think that would seem petty and stupid.  I was supposed to bring in a mug I didn’t care about, since an environment of children (no matter how old or disciplined) is always subject to running in the halls and impulsive sporadic movements.  I kind of don’t care too much about it, but I can’t get another one, and I want to have some tea!  I even brought in my own contribution to the (expressly communal) tea bag collection, and now I can’t use it!

Pray for my mug.  I won’t rest until it’s home safely.

Every time I take a Jungian personality test, I come up INTJ.  The “I” (for introverted) often surprises people; they can’t imagine that the girl who wears chair-print dresses and drives an orange car is an introvert.  I do take a long time to warm up to new people, to the point where I’ve been told I seem stuck up and aloof.  Parties and weddings are Awkward City.  Thankfully I’m married now, so I almost always have someone to cling to, someone I know.  Otherwise, I’m liable to be the girl nestled into the couch nursing a Diet Coke, looking (and feeling) forlorn and miserable.  I may be an actor, but parties are not my scene. 

The “N” (iNtuitive) and “T” (Thinking) are no surprise at all, for I am a direct and logical, rational, reasoning person.  I watch commercials critically, shouting logical fallacies at the screen.  “Soft sell! Emotional appeal!” as some bank shows its softer side.   “Appeal to dubious authority!” as some sports figure I’ve never heard of stumbles his way through his lines, hawking TV or soup, or car insurance.  And, as I settle into watching Spongebob, “Bandwagon!  I need Sillybandz so I can be like my friends!”  I listen to conservative talk radio and do the same.  While I enjoy hearing the “logic” behind the various assertions that Michael Medved makes, what I enjoy even more is that superior feeling I get by shutting him down point-blank.  From the comfort of my car.  While talking back to the radio. 

As much pain as it causes me to be introverted at parties, the personality trait that seems to get me in the most trouble is my “J” (judging).  I don’t just assassinate Laura Ingraham’s pronouncements with my insights and rationale; I also judge her for it.  Harshly.  I am clearly right about things, and she (or someone else) is obviously wrong.  I cannot tolerate wrong.  I judge it, I criticize it, and I determine a person’s value from it.

Pronounce the word vapid “vay-pid” and you’re a fool.  Spell “chiseling” “chizoning”, and you have no right to be an English teacher.  Make a left turn from the wrong lane, and you’re an 80-year-old dementia patient endangering everyone else’s lives.  And don’t even get me started on grammatical and homonym errors.  If you spell grammar “grammer” you are dead to me.  If you don’t know what a homonym is, that just proves my point. 

No one is immune.  Coworkers I otherwise respect, my parents, public figures I support, innocent children.  Barack Obama (and I voted for him!) never uses gerunds correctly in his non-scripted speeches.  Since I heard my father (a first-class INTJ) observe this, every time I hear “Pronoun verb+ing” (I like you cleaning up your room) instead of the correct possessive form (I like your cleaning up your room), I cringe.  Good grammar is dead.  I am a dinosaur. 

The person I am harshest on is not my husband, though he might think so.  I can list his inability to calculate a gratuity, his tendency to throw away recyclables, or his skewed internal compass that once took him North to go to Virginia.  From Pennsylvania.  But the second I do this, I reflect back onto myself, and all my own inadequacies. 

I may have unreasonably high expectations of my husband and others, but I have even higher ones of myself.  Coming out of a store, I often can’t figure out which way we were walking.  I chide myself for not remembering which lane I need to be in to avoid the merge before construction.  I call myself stupid for forgetting to grab a check as I head out the door, for leaving library books to gather dust on my coffee table as fines mount, for neglecting to leave a light on for the dogs, for shirking my dog walking task and letting my husband do the lion’s share, all the while beating myself up if the puppy has an accident on my watch.  Which I of course ought to have prevented by taking her on a 5k walk.  I hate when I forget; I hate when I screw up. 

This week I’ve been working on forgiving myself for my own humanity.  As I sat in the car for 45 minutes, suffering through a seemingly interminable wall of traffic, for a normally 18-minute drive, I freaked out.  I had left a half-hour window for my drive, and I was going to be late, horribly, disgustingly late.  Others were going to think I didn’t care, that I didn’t know about traffic patterns, that I was disrespectful of their time.  The clock, with its endless advancements of the minute, mocked me.  The cars in front of me, mocked me.  The traffic report, tacit on my route, openly mocked me.  In the moments before I started banging my head on the steering wheel in frustration and impotency, I caught myself judging, “You are so stupid.” I countered (in my head, of course; we don’t need other drives thinking I talk to myself.), “No.  You couldn’t have known it would be this bad.  You have rarely driven this way at this time, and the one time you did in recent memory, the roads were clear.  You allowed extra time.  This is a rough break, and you’re not stupid.”  I’m not sure if I convinced myself completely, but I at least caught myself. 

As an INTJ, I’m supposed to be inclined to make long-range plans, to think about the Big Picture and the future.  And I’m supposed to pursue that sucker, whatever goal it is, till the bitter end. In this case, I need to harness all my I-ness to forgive myself a little humanity, that I might then be able to look out at my fellow humans, and let them go about their merry lives, making mistakes, doing things wrong, and, in general, just being human.

While I have probably been at my new job long enough to declare either undying love or unmitigated frustration, it still too early to pronounce anything in between.  I am still getting to know the other staff and their particular education stylings.  I am fortunate not to be shut into my “speech closet” all day long; in addition to individualized pull-out speech therapy sessions, I also get to “push-in” to all sorts of literacy classes across the grades.  As the bloom is not yet off the rose during this, my second week, I am filled with silent admiration at the planning and activities the teachers are implementing, and how they’re able to engage their challenging students with interesting lessons that look more like games in the eyes of their pupils. 

In one class, a teacher puts 8-10 similar objects (leaves, apples, shells, rocks) on a desk in the middle of the room.  They are all assigned a number.  Each student is assigned a number, too, to correspond to the object.  After first brainstorming associated adjectives, verbs, and concepts, the kids retreat to silent writing.  They are charged with writing a short paragraph that will describe their specific object in such a way that the class will be able to identify it.  What at first seems impossible (8 black oak leaves – come on!) becomes not only a writing exercise, but also a perceptual task.  It requires focus and concentration to see that your leaf has more holes than the rest, that the color is not uniformly brown, but that it has tannish blazes towards the tips.  It requires differentiations beyond “big” and “small”, beyond “brown” and “green”, and has a motivating factor (the guessing of their classmates) built in.  The teachers participate to model their prose.  It’s a really nice activity that can continue throughout the year.  The types of descriptions are limited only by the types of objects displayed.  It’s endlessly more useful and engaging that generating lists of adjectives and rewriting “The girl had long hair” into revealingly adjective-heavy sentences like: “The cute little silly girl had long, curly, brown hair.” 

Another class is integrating their study of grammar (common nouns, proper nouns, adjectives, verbs, different types of sentences) with their study of Native Americans, so the classes are all designing games that have to include elements of 6 different grammatical concepts, and 6 different regions where the Native Americans originated.  Many of the games draw heavily on board games like Monopoly, Life, Sorry!, and Candy land.  A few kids designed a card game that uses 3 dice they made themselves.  This teacher understands that in order to make sure his kids understand the grammatical concepts, they have to be able to apply them in a more challenging way than outlining sentences.  In order to think critically about Native Americans, they integrate ideas about culture, food, geography, tool use, dwellings, and pull it all together in an admittedly very strange-sounding game.  I believe all of the kids are choosing to work in groups of 2-4, so they’re also using group problem-solving skills as they make joint decisions on what the dice should look like, delegate who will work on which cards, and figure out how to play the game.  It’s no group project I’d like to be made to work on, but then again, I hate group projects.   

I haven’t figured everyone out yet.  I’ve made first impressions, and I’ve had coworkers fervidly whisper personality traits into my ears (“Oh, he’s NOT flexible.  Needs to have EVERYTHING planned.  Just look out.) and passed along as a by-the-way (“I think she needs the help more than the kid does.  She just reacts strongly.  You’ll see.).  I think I’ll be okay, though.  As long as they’re treating the kids and the rest of us with respect and decency…as long as I’m given the tools and opportunity to do my job…I can tolerate a little personality here and there.

Two very different young men came into my office yesterday.  One, S.,  had come directly from an assembly on “backpack safety” run by the OTs.  I tried to stimulate discussion encourage him to tell me about the presentation, and work on his speech and language goals in the context of a school activity, but he demurred.  “I don’t remember,” he insisted immediately after arriving from the assembly.  He told me there had been a quiz, and that he had gotten every question wrong, but he’d known all the answers, really; he just didn’t care.  I asked if he’d learned anything, trying to assess his recall.  He denied learning anything; he’d known it all before, but only offered one thing (which, of course, he’d known before) – that a backpack should not be more than 15 lbs, and his was grossly overweight. 

S. seemed not to mind not having The Answer to anything I asked.  He has dreadful word recall, and used words like “the thing” to refer to the assembly, and “they” to refer to his teachers.  Pretending that he was okay with not getting answers right, pretending he didn’t learn anything, pretending he was, essentially, too cool to care about being right or knowledgeable, seemed to be his defense mechanism. 

A., on the other hand, has a different strategy.  What looks like a kid avoiding hard work and trying to get by with the minimum effort results in a sixth grader writing “I like to dig” when asked to write a letter introducing himself, telling important things about him.  Teachers theorized that maybe “dig” was a word he knew how to spell.  A.’s receptive language and vocabulary are pretty decent.  Here is a kid who can give me synonyms for “tot” and “timber” without batting an eyelash.  His writing, his speech, and his reading are all train wrecks.  His reports show he’s a neurological curiosity, and has apraxia of speech to top it off.  I know he’s a bright kid who has complex ideas, and it pains me to see him reduce himself to “I like to dig.”  His sense of humor also seems to help.  When asked to list 3 reasons someone might want to immigrate to the USA, A. responded “jobs” and wrote simply “jobs,” though he had been given 3 lines to write on.  I pointed this out, and he pointed the prompt out to me, saying, “It says list.”  When I showed him the 3 lines, he said, “I write big.” 

A.’s sense of humor and his “avoidance” of challenging work may keep him from becoming embarrassed.  He is a kid who has been in speech therapy most of his life.  He knows he’s different; he knows his speech, reading, and writing are slow.  He may not have an aversion to hard work so much as an aversion to making himself uncomfortable among peers and adults.  

A naïve teacher or therapist might look at both S. and A. and label them “lazy” or “unmotivated”.  Their deficits have made them aware they are different, and as many times as we use the euphemisms “learning differently” or “differently abled,” these kids know what’s going on.  No one likes to be different; no one likes to be the kid who takes too long, or asks dumb questions, or gets the answers wrong.

Neither do I.

This is my last day of work at my old job.  I will start my new job on Monday, assuming a seamless transition between old and new, right?  Wrong.  I am terrified.  I will be leaving the world of preschoolers, leaving behind playing with play-doh and focusing on whether children could let you know they before they peed their pants.  It’s not that the standards are low.  Quite the opposite – modern preschool programs are positively bursting with standards aimed to ensure kids are getting a variety of stimulating experiences and developing across different domains.  But you can only expect to get so far with a preschooler.  You can only develop a 5-year-old’s language so far before discharging him.  While most kids have mastered the basics of language itself by the time they head off to kindergarten, language itself remains fairly basic.  No one is expecting a preschooler to explain the Treaty of Ghent, nor where didgeridoos come from.  More likely, preschoolers who can explain where the blocks go and how they got dressed that morning are the star pupils.  That’s enough.  As kids get older, more is (rightly) expected.  And that puts more of a burden on the adults supporting them.  

As I move onto my new job, I will still keep details (incriminating and otherwise) private, but I can bet I’ll still be needing a forum to tell stories about my students and vent about the adults I’m working with.  (It’s always the adults who cause the problems, no matter where you work.)  I’m going to be moving up, graduating from preschool and being promoted immediately to middle/high school.  On hearing this, most of my current coworkers, as well as friends and family, have one of two responses.  The first is that they’ll be taller than I am.  How comical.  Imagine the 5-foot-tall speech therapist looking up at the towering 12 year old.  Insert amusing mental image.  They were taller than me when I was their age, too.  The second comment is one of genuine curiosity.  Most people do not know what kinds of “issues” adolescents can have with their speech.  Are they still dealing with lisps?  Am I working on stuttering?  The misnomer that kids who seem to walk and talk okay, are okay, is quite pervasive, and frightening.  It shows me that most people have no idea what higher level language skills are, and what they’re used for.  It shows me they’re still mentally separating out the classroom work of reading, writing, math, science, and history, from the language skills used to comprehend, listen, sound out words, scan text, break down scientific vocabulary, and retell narratives.  

Ironically, when I would tell people that I worked with preschoolers on their language and speech skills, a comment I would often hear was, “What do you work on with a kid that young?  What could be wrong with them already at that young an age?”  Only the foundations of spoken and written language.  Only the fundamentals of communication and self-expression.  That’s all. 

The issues become more complex, the academic stakes higher, in middle and high school.  The kids don’t stand much of a chance of being “cured”, or “fixed,” as one could hope an articulation disorder might be.  More likely, they’ll develop strategies to help them organize their thoughts, mnemonics to work on classroom concepts, and many many visual supports to reduce the verbal load and cognitive demands of school work.  I had a professor in graduate school, who was so scatter-rained as an instructor she would often forget to give us quizzes, but who had brilliant therapy ideas.  Though she taught preschool and school-age language disorders (focusing on birth through elementary school, usually), she worked with middle school-aged students.  

Speech therapy is a pretty cool thing when you’re in preschool.  You get extra attention from an adult, you get to work on silly words or sounds, and there are often motivating toys, games, or prizes involved.  Right around third grade, being pulled out of class to go work on /r/ or /s/, or receiving extra attention in the classroom ceases to be cool and starts to be mortifying, for myriad reasons.  Because of this shift, my professor, in her work with middle school-aged students, began calling her work “Strategies”.  She would pop her head in a classroom to extract a student, and tell him it was time for “Strategies”.  I like this term not just because of the stigma-decreasing acceptability to the child, but also because the student really will be learning strategies to help him make it through school; to help him adapt his learning style to the way his class is taught; to help him tune out the distractions that plague him so he can focus on the lecture; to help him communicate effectively with other kids so they can work on a group project together; to support him to be able to approach school with a toolkit of strategies, so he can succeed.  

I am extremely fortunate in school.  The teaching paradigm that prevailed until fairly recently, worked for me.  Reading and sounding out words just made sense to me.  The way math was presented jived with the way my brain worked.  With my high verbal skills I understood math, English, science, French, and social studies as they were presented to me in school.  It wasn’t until an in-service on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, at my first teaching  job, that I had a revelation.  The presenter at the in-service put up a word problem on the overhead, and we were all given some time to solve it.  I had, of course, written out an algebraic equation, and I reached the answer quickly.  She asked us not just what answer we’d come to, but how.  And there were at least three different ways people had arrived at the same answer.  While my textbook algorithm worked for me, and was the most efficient way for me to solve the problem, it wasn’t the natural choice for others.   Previously, I’d thought that everyone who didn’t “get” math in school was less intelligent than me, that kids who didn’t pick up differential calculus on the first pass just weren’t able to grasp advanced math, and were just stupid or something.  

As I moved through the grades in “advanced” reading groups, I wondered what it was about reading that was so hard for the kids in the lowest reading group, or, worse, the ones who went to the resource room.  I can’t begin to get into their brains and understand how difficult it must be to read if you cannot sequence sounds, or struggle to remember when the C sounds like an S and when it makes the K sound.  I have a better respect, though, when I see the euphemism of kids who learn “differently”.  While in a traditional school setting, with a teacher who only presents one way to approach a concept, these kids may indeed look like they have a learning “disability”; however, if a skilled teacher is able to teach fractions with manipulatives and mnemonics, and break down the steps in finding least common denominators, then a child may be said to truly learn “differently”, if he can still grasp the concept.  

These are the students I will be working with.  They will present new challenges to me as I recall from my language development class those advanced language concepts we’ll be working on together.  I hope I’m able to work with them to support their ability to excel in the classroom, to help them be successful teens and achieve their highest dreams.  Even if they tower over me physically, I hope we’ll be able to see eye-to-eye.

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September 2010