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I’ve made peace with the fact that my kids will attend public school.  At least, I tell myself this, because it will happen.  We bought a house in a top-rated school district  to ensure it will happen.  But having lived in this area for 11 years now, my eyes have been opened to the variety of private schools that exist.  I’ve worked for two of them, and perhaps drunk the Kool-Aid.  Kids learn differently.  Public school doesn’t work for everyone.  There are choices, and private school isn’t all about blazers, galas, and lacrosse.  Maybe I have edu-crushes on the Friends schools because I want my kids to have the types of hand-on education I didn’t in my cookie-cutter public schooling?  A vicarious Quaker education?

Anyhow, preschool is a paid experience (at least until Pennsylvania finally enacts universal Pre-K), so I get to dip my toes into the worlds of admissions, applications, open houses, and choosing the “best” school.  My kids attend the two-year-old program at the JCC.  Is it enough?  Is this the mommy wars/competitive parenting poisoning what is overblown in importance for kids of educated middle-class parents anyway?  (There is research out there that if a kid comes from a home where he is read to and stimulated, no one preschool is “better” than another.  I wish I could find the link to that article…)  Or maybe my standards are impossibly high from having been immersed in preschool for 5 years, years which shaped my parenting and educational philosophies.  Much as I want my kids to do Quaker and Waldorf and nature preschool stuff (but not Montessori; don’t get me started), I also want to choose a place that, frankly, has the hours and tuition and location that makes our lives easier.  I have no interest in choosing a school that will require impossible logistics.  That’s the childcare portion of it again.  Beyond financial limitations, we can’t choose a place simply because they have a classroom I fall in love with, or an ideal curriculum, a gorgeous playground, or teachers who are kindred spirits.

Bottom line: I think it doesn’t matter in the long run where they go to school when they’re 2, 3, or 4, as long as it’s not those dumps in North Philly where I did early intervention.  But the other half of the equation is that I want them to be at a place I love.  A place I feel really good about.  And it’s kind of eating me up inside that all my “expert insider” preschool knowledge came down to the fact that the school day at the JCC goes until 3:30pm and Mr. Apron can pick them up then.  Frankly, that’s what made our final decision.  That, and we thought we’d use the JCC’s fitness center.  That’s happened…exactly zero times since September.

So what do we do? Switch them next year to the other program?  Uproot them from something that works, and from a place they do in fact enjoy going to school to play the lottery on a different program? Sacrifice our logistical sanity trying to work out the transportation, tuition, and childcare challenges for a school I feel good about?  Find an anonymous benefactor to subsidize private school education and a nanny/chauffeur to handle the logistics?  We’re lucky we have choices in preschools for our kids.  Once it all gets whittled down to our limitations, though, it feels a lot less like actual choice, and more a matter of playing Tetris with our kids’ education.

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I was sitting at lunch with my colleagues yesterday, one of few occasions I actually get to do so, owing to regular lunch-time meetings, or frequent lunch duty down in the “dining commons” (since they’ve upgraded the lunch program, the cafeteria’s name has had a makeover, too).  Colleague A had brought in rice crackers from the bulk section of a local cooperative grocery store, so they had no label.  “They’re rice, but they’re not gluten free,” she remarked, in case anyone needed to know. Then she and two of our colleagues proceeded to calculate how many Weight Watchers points they would have.

“Four points!  In 26 crackers!” Colleague B exclaimed, as if they had been slabs of cheesecake instead of innocuous crackers from a health food store.  “I only get 21 in a day.”

It turned out that Colleagues A, B, and C all are allotted only 21 points each per day, and they were already mentally tabulating the point overages that this week’s gluttony of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie would undoubtedly cause.

Just then, Colleague D came in from the soul-sucking task of lunch duty to report that a student had whacked his head and needed the nurse.  The nurse excused herself, and Colleague D continued her report from lunch, complaining about the 9th grade girls.

“None of them eat lunch,” she lamented.  “I don’t know if it’s anorexic behavior or a social thing.  I see some of them snacking – this one eats potato chips – but none of them eat during lunch time.”

My colleagues tsked disapprovingly, saddened by the pressure that mass media has played in these girls’ negative self-image and their resulting poor nutritional choices.

I just ate some crackers.

It certainly is a different world than the one I grew up in.  Or maybe it’s just a different community.

In a class I observed today, the kids discussed the meaning of their newest vocabulary word, poverty.  As vocabulary is not a subject taught lightly here, it was not merely taught as a synonym for “poor”; the teacher wanted to make sure his 6th graders understood relative poverty and standard of living, how a person owning in a house in Haiti might not have a TV, but would be considered wealthy, while a person in a similar situation in the United States could very well be in poverty.  He left their heads swimming with thoughts of kids so poor they can’t afford shore houses or annual trips to Vail.  I’m sure it will be a stretch for some of them to connect to a Mexican immigrant girl living the life of a migrant worker in the 1930s.

Ignorance, like poverty, is relative.  And just as these student struggle to relate to characters from stories of far off places, times, and socio-economic statuses, I, too, find myself amazed at the level of ignorance of Judaism in this community.  Note I did not specify the degree of ignorance; what astounds me is the dynamic of power the Jewish community seems to wield over a private school.

I don’t know if the changes between my childhood and the ones I’m currently observing are a result of shift in attitude and tolerance over the last 20 years, or merely in the presence of a more sizeable Jewish population in this part of the world than in the one I grew up.  I do remember the complete ignorance in my community in the late 1980s and early 1990s – not so long ago – and how it shaped my views of what is happening around me now.

My school district had not heard of the separation of church and state.  They put on Christmas concerts, tossing in a “Dreidle, Dreidle” to pacify the six Jewish students in the school.  They orchestrated crafts of countdowns to Christmas.  They let out all the Catholic students 30 minutes early every Monday for catechism, while the remaining 4 or so of us non-Catholics clapped out erasers and helped the teachers put up bulletin boards.  It was no wonder that the district continually had to be reminded each year about “our” holidays in the fall.  My rabbi had to, for each school a student in her congregation attended, call or write a letter explaining what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were, why we were to be excused from school, and how the Holidays were of great importance.  Still, they balked.  Still, we got confused looks at our excuse notes.  Still, we did our homework sitting in the religious school classrooms during breaks between services.

Last December, my jaw nearly dropped as I witnessed the suddenly very observant Jewish students present verbal excuses about not doing their homework for a period of 8 days.  The miracle in my mind was not that the oil of Hanukkah lasted all 8 days, but that the teachers simply accepted it.  Hanukkah is, for a child, a 15-minute observance involving lighting candles, saying 2-3 blessings (and not Catholic-style benedictions, either), and opening a gift.  Sure, there may be a night or two with family over, or a party, but do other family/party occasions warrant a week-long homework pass?

Kids take off “mental health” days leading up to and after their Bar Mitzvahs.  I think they’re at suit fittings and hair appointments.  Kids show up 2 hours late (or call out Jewish) the day after the first and second Passover seders.  Granted, the seders of my father’s youth (now we’re turning back the clock) used to involve a cover-to-cover reading of the Haggadah, and not the Maxwell House version, either.  I believe he’d be falling asleep in the matzah ball soup at 11:30pm.  Today, only the very observant still have marathon seders.  And their kids miss school as if they were the ones grating horseradish for the seder plate and making matzah balls out of their textbooks.  Do the adults call out from work, too?  Do they use the holidays as an excuse not to be meet deadlines or not to finish work projects?

What lesson are they teaching their kids about budgeting time to complete work in a busy week, about reading ahead in their textbooks so they can enjoy an evening with extended family, about being accountable for responsibilities that go on outside the protective bubble of their home/school life?

In spite of the Jewish families seemingly taking advantage of a) the school’s widespread acquiescence to Jewish holidays and customs, and b) the Jewish parents’ power (and tuition), there is still ignorance.  Though Thursday will be a school holiday (one I will not have to use a personal day for, nor acquire a note from my rabbi), the head of school decided to schedule a back-to-school barbecue for all staff…Wednesday night.

They don’t even know that all Jewish holidays start the night before.  Forget sundown, forget waiting for three stars to come out, forget even the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Friday, when several suddenly religious students will be out, you can’t schedule a barbecue for the beginning of the High Holidays when you have Jewish employees you would like to include.

So they moved it to Friday night.  I won’t even pretend to be insulted that Friday nights are always a holiday.  I won’t pretend there are any Jews on staff (or in the student body) who even feign that level of observance.  I am grateful they made the right choice to move the barbecue.  I am grateful they are trying to respect my religion and my customs. I am grateful no one has asked me in a long time why the Jews killed Jesus.

In spite of the families who take advantage of gentile ignorance, and use their checkbooks and their righteous indignation to cow the administration into special treatment for their kids (and people wonder why there is still anti-Semitism), it is still a more pleasant and more tolerant world to live in than it was in the community of my youth.

L’shanah tovah, y’all.  May your New Year be sweet.

Well, now I’ve done it.  On the same day the dog had his melt-down about descending the stairs, I totally caused chaos at work.  Rather my intended impending maternity leave caused massive miscommunication and now I’m certain that the stigma of the pregnant woman being nothing but trouble in the workplace is far from vanishing any time soon.

For years, I had labored under misapprehensions about FMLA time.  I knew it could be used after a year of employment, in jobs that employed more than a certain number of employees, as long as you’re not a top-tier, critical employee (e.g., The Boss) for up to 12 weeks each calendar year, and that its basic function is to hold a job while you attend to things like childbirth.  It guarantees the job will still be there while the new mother is coping with sleep deprivation, lactation, and how to set up the Pack and Play.  What I didn’t know is that, for women at least, those maximum 12 weeks are governed by a doctor’s orders.  They are not really “ours” to take as we please.  Some moms may want/need to return to work after 6 weeks; others may want to use the full 12.  I had only understood that maximum = 12.  I didn’t know that they were linked to a doctor’s appraisal of a woman’s readiness/ability to go back to work.  And I didn’t know they can only be taken in whole weeks.  My intention was to take 6-8 full weeks off, then to gradually reintroduce myself to the workplace, while my children were gradually being introduced to their childcare provider (as yet, undetermined, but Mary Poppins will show up one day soon, with references, we hope), while using up the rest of my FMLA time piecemeal.  It would look like I was back at work part-time, but I’d still be a full-time employee, just one using leave. 

Sick leave works this way, as does paid time off.  Short-term disability can sometimes look like this, for example if you have some chronic condition that has “flare ups” (which sounds disgusting no matter if it’s herpes, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, or fibromyalgia) which require occasional time off or treatment.  It might look like our HR employee, who will be taking Fridays off to get her chemo as she recently learned about a recurrence of lymphoma.  But apparently, childbirth and maternity leave does not work that way.  Once a doctor certifies you’re well enough to return to work on a Monday, you can’t magically be “disabled” on Tuesday. 

This doesn’t quite jive with my understanding of the purpose of FMLA, especially as it applies to, um, fathers.  I’m completely grateful and impressed that it does apply to fathers (as well as adoptive parents), recognizing their equal role as parents as well as their need to support the mother/partner in ways other than earning a paycheck.  However, are they ever “disabled” when they take their maximum 12 weeks a year to care for a newborn child?  Do the dads get to use their own discretion as to when they choose to return to work?  Can they use short-term disability to get paid for their paternity leave the same way mothers can?  It can’t be linked directly to the mother’s health, meaning that if mom’s doc says she can go back to work at 8 weeks, he doesn’t have to, right?  It can’t be.  The HR woman told me many spouses try to get the mom to take the first 12 weeks off, then let the dad take the next 12 weeks off, so the babies can have as much time at home as possible to bond with parents. 

So is FMLA for the physical disability of pregnancy/childbirth/recovery, or for the adaptation of the family to its new members?

Understandably, it’s confusing, and I still haven’t worked out all the philosophical kinks.  I still have to talk to my doctor and find out if she’ll automatically sign off for 12 weeks, or if she truly sends women back when she deems their bodies ready.  Mr. Apron still has to find out if he’ll be able to tap into short-term disability the way I will. 

And with all these nuances of the law, a misunderstanding is, well, understandable.  Truly, I can tell myself it wasn’t entirely my fault that HR didn’t know what I was planning on doing.  Truly, if I’m following The Law, I don’t have to tell my employer my intentions until 30 days before I intend to actualize them.  In reality, however, I told my supervisor my original plan back at the end of June, and she used the information to interview and hire my replacement. 

 

Not my long-term substitute, my replacement.  Some people in HR thought I was leaving in mid-October, when the new SLP will be starting.  So I had to explain that no, I’ll be training her while still working, so she can assume my caseload, my duties, and my rollie chair.  I had to clarify that I intend on working until the day my water breaks.  Whether that will remain a reality is anyone’s guess, but it’s my best case scenario.  My guess is that this misunderstanding was the result of word-of-mouth transmissions, and assumptions made by HR by looking at the new SLP’s start date.  No one officially asked me my last day or asked me to put it in writing yet. 

Then there’s the part that’s my fault.  In my original plan, to come back piecemeal, this was for several reasons.  I have already stated above that I wanted to make a gradual transition for my babies and myself.  This summer, my employer did not offer short-term disability insurance, so coming back to work part-time by using up my FMLA was a way of having some income.  This fall, through incredible coincidence, my employer will not only offer short-term disability, but, because it’s an initial offering, I can actually apply for and be accepted.  At 5 months pregnant.  And having some income while on maternity leave will enable me to stay home longer, if I want to or am approved by my doctor to do.  So even if I hadn’t misunderstood FMLA, my plans changed once the short-term disability insurance was on the table. 

 

My supervisor and HR team had planned on my coming back as a part-time employee, and budgeted accordingly. Even though they legally have to hold my job, as it is, or with similar responsibilities, with the same income, they thought I was choosing to cut back my hours.  And budgeted for my replacement to come on full-time.  And gave her a contract accordingly.  So my department is kind of one full-time SLP over budget.  And it’s kind of my fault. 

Now my subsequent responsibility is in part to market our department aggressively (truly something I never went to school for) in order to, essentially, make up for the discrepancy by bringing in money in the form of new clients, new initiatives, new programs. 

To say I’m beating myself up about it is an understatement.  While I know many others played a part in this HR/budget SNAFU, it’s all about me and my inconvenient procreation.

I am proctoring a final exam in biology, 7th grade science. They’ve studied the circulatory and digestive systems this semester, and this is their final test. I am also a “reader”, accommodating students whose reading fluency would negatively impact their ability to decipher words such as “esophagus” and “salivary”, and would be a barrier in their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. I read every single question, and every single answer. I pause, waiting an eternity for them to match 5. with C., before moving on. I have said the word “anus” in a calm, articulated manner, no fewer than 8 times.

Sometimes, I feel like a fraud, like my entire first year teaching here has been a crash-course in learning disabilities. Sure, I had a course in written language disorders, and one of my professors in my school-age language disorders class talked with us about her daughter’s struggle with dyslexia. We learned about acquired dyslexia in adults who have strokes, and about the theoretical models of reading. But really, I hadn’t worked with a single kid with dyslexia until I began this job. I knew next to nothing, and much of my experience in working with children with speech and language disorders was useless.

Even worse, as someone to whom reading, spelling, and writing came effortlessly, I was ill-prepared with reading strategies, and low on empathy. One of the buzz words in education – which often seems like a euphemism – is learning differences, not learning disabilities. While it may definitely be that dyslexia is a learning disability, these kids can still learn to become fluent, proficient readers, but they will have to learn differently. I did not know what that meant. I internalized spelling rules (when to doubling consonants, when dropping an ‘e’ before adding a suffix) as I learned to spell, but I had never been taught them explicitly (except for the rhyming ones: “I before E except after C, or when sounded as A as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’. Exceptions: Neither foreigner has leisure to seize the weird heights.”). And now I was being asked to support kids who need to know those tools, who need those strategies repeated and reinforced daily.

Suddenly, instead of working on “go car” and picture exchange communication, I was faced with 5-paragraph essays, topic sentences, main ideas, and open and closed syllables. Morphology, something I hadn’t looked at since reviewing linguistics for my comprehensive speech-pathology exams, was now front and center. Apparently, 6th graders with dyslexia study Latin roots. My 9th graders are studying Buddhism, and my 10th graders are knee-deep in an analysis of Romeo & Juliet that goes leagues beyond the iambic pentameter I learned so many years ago.

Mr. Apron said yesterday that my post-secondary education provided the background knowledge, so that I can figure out the underlying mechanisms, so that I can figure out applicable strategies and levels of support. In a way, I can use some of what I learned working with preschoolers; it just looks different. Now, instead of holding up a paper square with a picture of a toilet when calling a child to the bathroom, my visual support looks like pulling up a Google image every time a student says “what’s that?” when we’re reading through a book about the 1930s. Simplifying and breaking down directions is not so different either. They’re just following different directions, and using more pencils and MacBooks than crayons and Legos.

There is a tremendous amount of common sense involved in working with kids with dyslexia. For the ones with memory issues, you have to spell things letter by letter, not letting out a whole string at a time. For the ones with comprehension issues, you pull out all the visual aids, and reread and reformulate information until you’re blue in the face. You don’t give answers to kids struggling to express themselves; you gradually lead out of them what you’re fairly certain they already know by using cues, prompts, hints, and carefully worded questions. If a kid has difficulty with word recall – already today I’ve seen a girl struggle to recall the words “streamers” and “pipe cleaners” – you give them multiple choice questions. You don’t teach vocabulary by memorizing a verbatim definition; you teach new words in the context of a text, with a million different associations, connections, and shades of meaning.

Still, sometimes I feel like I’m faking it until I have absorbed enough terminology from the reading teachers, methodology from the writing teachers, and ideas from the English teachers. I feel like I’m expected to be all three, yet I’ve never taken a single education course in my life. Each time I sign up for a teacher discount at a store, I feel like I’m doing so fraudulently. Not because I’m not technically a teacher, but because I don’t feel worthy of the patience, expertise, and knowledge I have come to associate with the educators at this school, and the title of teacher that these men and women bear.

The kids invented some game during lunch-time today that seemed like a cross between no-tackle football and a very competitive version of keep away.  They somehow split into two teams, and were able to keep track of who was on each time while they shuffled a soccer ball back and forth in the gym.  They were also able to avoid the many kids playing basketball as well as the few stragglers still eating their lunches at the cafeteria tables at one end of the gym.  There wasn’t any scoring; no bounced touch-downs in the back hallway of the cafe-gym-atorium.  It only got a little questionable when one kid had a dead-lock on the soccer ball, and others were gently pummeling him while the entire mass encroached upon the metal bleachers.  Boys and girls played together, 6th and 7th graders organized teams independently while their less socially adept classmates hung out at the periphery, still trying to master the art of sharing a basketball.  Aside from the scuffles near sharp metal objects and my own fears of being mock-tackled or hit in the head with a flying ball, it was a pretty mesmerizing experience. 

My mentor teacher when I taught preschool was forever rolling her eyes when parents would mention signing their 3-4 year old kids up for t-ball, pee-wee soccer, or competitive knot-tying.  They should be allowed free-play; they should be allowed to develop their problem-solving skills and “rules” of play without coaches and referees and disciplined drills.  Structured play has its place, and competitive sports plays an assuredly important part in the middle school extracurricular activities.  But it’s nice to see this hodge-podge group of kids – some stars on the basketball team, some who usually don’t touch a ball – invent their own game, give it their own rules, and engage in some self-sustaining preschool-inspired free play.

I love the quiet moments before school starts.  I love being able to hear the clock ticking and the pipes banging as the heat decides to turn on for the morning. 

On a regular morning, I come in around 7:40am.  The other speech therapists usually aren’t in yet, so I have the room to myself. Kids drift in from their various school districts and carpools, congregating in the hallway by their lockers.  They speak in hushed tones, sipping tea or hot chocolate, still half asleep. 

By the end of the day, these same drowsy teens will be bouncing off the walls, eager to burst out of classrooms a minute early.  They’ll be trapped in advisory, unwilling to even sit down, ready for the climactic final bell that signals their release back to the bus and carpool mayhem. 

But for now, it’s quiet.  It’s calm before the storm.  It’s a time for me to recollect the things I forgot to finish yesterday, to have a moment’s peace to check my e-mail before the insanity kicks in.  

I’m by no means a morning person.  When the 2-hour delay was called this morning, I was the first one to hit the couch, setting the oven timer for another hour of sleep.  I tossed my glasses on the coffee table, peeled off my shoes, and relished another hour of slumber.  After I’d finished scraping my car out of its icy casing, I left for work.  I took my time on the unpredictable roads, but still arrived before 9:30am.  School probably won’t start officially until 10:15am, but the kids are already trickling in, a little more alert than usual.  Still, I have my time, my alone time without the clawing and licking from the dogs at home, nor the pressures of the workday at school.  Yet.

“Cool outfit,” my coworker said casually as I waited for a turn at the copier.  “The kids really enjoy your style, no joke.”

And as my heart melted into an oozy pile of love, acceptance, and validation, I assessed what it is exactly that I am wearing today that elicited such a comment. 

Definitely the most distinctive piece I have on today is a skirt made for me a former student’s mother.  It’s light blue hand-dyed old-fashioned chenille (like the blankets your grandma always had on the beds), complete with fringe tickling my knees.  To battle off the winter chill, I also am sporting an off-white men’s long underwear-style Henley I picked up at a genuine “dry goods” store in the Federal Hill section of Providence as it was going out of business, paired with a lurid red Orlon acrylic cardigan picked up for $4.00 at a job-lot style store, intended for use with school uniforms.  It’s a child’s XL, so the cuffs of my Henley peek stylishly out from beneath.  I also have on candy-striped knee socks (a trend I will never let die), which I’m hoping tie together the whole outfit with their lifesaver’s colors.  On my feet are T-strap Doc Marten’s from the late 1990s. 

The kids enjoy my style.  Ha.  When I was in high school, we would often arrive a few minutes before school started, and we’d find ourselves killing time by walking the main hallway.  As the school was a 1960s circle, we could just keep walking round and round without too much effort, which was all our brains could handle at 7:00am anyhow.  On these walks, a particular friend would enjoy counting how many oblique stares my outfits would elicit as we rounded the school.  Whether it was the bright orange Pendleton wool pantsuit, or my dress made from 26 neckties, she never seemed to tire of entertainment at my expense.  At a conservative Minnesotan school where our limited shopping diversity meant the trends were specific (yellow Columbia coats, Winona knits mittens, brown Doc Marten’s oxfords, American Eagle tank tops), hideous (white socks with Birkenstocks) and rarely defied, I stuck out.  Sure, there was the ROTC guy who always wore army fatigues, and the Marilyn Manson girl with her sullen black clothing, chains, and heavy eye make-up, but then there was me, and very little variety beyond that.

Over the years, my initial inability to figure out even simple trends like bootleg jeans, waffle knit shirts, or Umbro shorts (I never knew what a Tretorn was until this year), has morphed into some sort of defying-the-mainstream identity.  I wish I could be proud, confident, and somewhat oblivious like Jerry Spinelli’s “Star Girl,” but I’ll settle for some respect of myself as an individual, as a “cool teacher.”  Or, at the very least, a dork-tastic teacher with some respect from some teenagers for my “cool outfits”.

I never thought I’d see myself working with children taller than I am. At merely 5 feet tall, this would seem a ballsy assertion, but I never thought I’d make it out of elementary school as a speech pathologist.  Most speech-language therapy targets this younger set, with an increased focus on early intervention before kiddos even walk through the kindergarten doors.  While decent-sized elementary schools may employ 2 or 3 SLPs, middle and high schools have starkly shrunken caseloads that often mean an SLP is running among all the high schools in the district to comprise a full caseload.  Intervention in the upper grades, too, has a different focus.  More and more, these are kids who will be needing lifelong strategies.  I include in this group both kids on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, as well as kids in learning support.  These are no longer issues than can be “fixed” with some intensive articulation therapy or flashcard drills with verb tenses. 

I never saw myself working with an adolescent population because I really liked preschoolers.  I never thought I’d be taken seriously by a gaggle of 6th graders taller than me.  I never thought I’d be back in middle/high school dressing up for Spirit Week, either, but here I am. 

Yes, they’re taller than I am.  But one-on-one, which is how I usually see kids, middle and high schoolers can be quite rewarding to work with.  I don’t have to deal with classroom management, grading tests, or running parent-teacher conferences.  And I no longer have to sit on itty-bitty chairs and worry about boogers in the play-dough.  I miss the play-dough, but not the boogers. 

Still, I am now working in a middle/high school, and, as this week is Spirit Week, there is sprit run amuck.  On Monday, I was too tired and mopey to participate in Clash Day, which I’d ordinarily embrace whole-heartedly.  My closet is overflowing with garishly colored stripes, plaids, polka-dots, madras, and floral prints.  At 6:00 Monday morning, I just wasn’t feeling it.  I was also unsure how fully the student and faculty body embraced their spirit.  For 4 years in high school, I tentatively tried to participate in such themed days and holidays.  I was disheartened to note that few kids dressed up for Halloween, but I tried to keep the spirit by wearing an orange shirt. 

Now that I’m back in school, so to speak, I’m still feeling it out, still waiting to see what the other teachers do, so I don’t stick out too much one way or another.  For Halloween, I chose a pink tutu, something I have worn out in public in a non-costumed outfit, and something which is appearing on racks as apparel outside of the dance studio.  That way, if all the teachers were in costume, I’d totally be like, “Hey!   Me, too!” and if no one dressed up, I’d be all cool, like, “Yeah, I totally wear this any day, not just because it’s Halloween.”  Totally.  At my high school we had, in addition to Spirit Day, which always were safely celebrated by wearing a school t-shirt, Twin Day, PJ Day, and some others I can’t recall.  Since graphic novels and comic books have started entering the main stream (and cinemas), superheroes now rule.  We had Superhero Day at the request of the student body.  Since I’d pussied out of Monday’s Clash Day, I needed to redeem myself after seeing colorfully festooned students and adults alike. 

After school on Monday, I went home and worked on my transformation from mild-mannered speech teacher, into Wawa Warrior.  I had at home a large promotional t-shirt I probably picked up for $1 at a thrift store, emblazoned with the Wawa logo and some coffee/sandwich deal advertised on the back.  For future crafting purposes, of course, just waiting to be transformed.  Last night, I cut away the front around the neckline to fashion a cape.  The front (with logo) I cut into a strip and tied around my forehead à la Rambo.  Then, I got out the duct tape.  After a quick trip to Wawa for some half-caff for Mr. Apron, I had all I needed for my gear belt.  I taped sugar packets for flair, and holstered the coffee cups into my belt for some quick mock-dispensing action.  I was good to go.

It was a big hit.  I had achieved the perfect costumed combination of regional recognizability, comfort, and panache. 

Today was Crazy Hair day, so of course I tied my ever-growing locks up into tightly wound buns at four points on my head, and embellished them with various ribbons: red ball fringe, autumnal stripes, flimsy organza, and rubber ducks. 

Tomorrow is School Spirit Day.  I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I know I’ll do something.  I hope these kids aren’t the paint-the-face and tattoo-the-chest types. 

Back in high school, I tentatively tried to navigate the unspoken rules of social acceptability.  Though I was probably never in the right, and definitely never popular, I still cared how I appeared to others.   I wish I could have been like Jerry Spinelli’s “Star Girl,” mysterious and magical in the ways that made me different, instead of awkward and self-doubting.  While this is my first year, I’m still feeling out how things are done here – how much people socialize outside of work, what kind of clothing constitutes the adult dress code, whether adults dress up for Halloween.  I’m still testing, still comparing, still making sure I don’t stick out too much.  It seems like conformity, at least a smidgen of it, is a protective mechanism in high school.  As we work with kids who clearly don’t fit in, and are uncomfortable about socializing, it helps to remember that not everyone can be a “Star Girl”, with a devil-may-care attitude about our rainbow mohawks or our pop-tab chain maille or our pink army fatigues.  Some of us try to keep our differences hidden just a bit, so we can feel that much more at ease in new surroundings.

Peer pressure a funny thing – what it can make you do, or not do.  Peer pressure is responsible for my brother’s almost normal, borderline Eurotrash, um, fashion stylings.  And I think I prefer this (even with the sun glasses indoors) to his middle school uniform of track pants or sweat suits.  In high school, he suddenly became aware there was more to life than clothing that went swish, and my mother found herself in the GAP, trying, at his insistence, to ease his transition into high school with such novelties as jeans and khakis. 

Peer pressure is also an evil, terrible thing.  I’m not even talking about doing drugs and just saying no, and bullying (wait, maybe a little, but we’ll get to that).  I’m talking about my career research project in 7th grade Home-Ec, or Family & Career Skills, or Home and Consumer Science – whatever they called it in 1993.  In a unit that had us engaging in mock interviews, writing checks, and filling out job applications at McDonald’s, we were of course charged with researching and writing a paper on a career of our choice.  At that point in my life, I wanted to do interior design.  I don’t know where I picked up the idea, but I knew that I loved color and fabric, and that whenever the mood would strike me, I’d rearrange my room.  It’s not just a far leap to interior design.  I still cannot resist, upon entering a friend’s apartment or a house for sale, mentally knocking down walls and rearranging furniture.  Just mentally.  Until I get my jackhammer. 

But as I prepared to make my selection in 7th grade, D.F. also made his choice, and he said interior design, too.  In an era before such things as “Asperger’s” and “social pragmatic language disorder” likely existed, and certainly before they came into vogue, there was D. F., waiting for the psycho-educational specialists to find him.  I think back then society may have referred to him by the derogatory “idiot savant” designation.  He and another student, C. S., had each completed high school math by the end of 8th grade.  Because we lived in a small town, there was barely such a thing as advanced course work, and very little support for the gifted student, so D.F. and C.S. were pretty much self-taught.  They worked their way through textbooks, taking the New York State Regents when they felt they ready, and acing them all along the way.  I’m sure they’re on their way into Fortune 500s and discovering cures for diseases by now. 

But back in 7th grade, they were just awkward, dorky, snivelly, and the only 2 kids who wore their backpacks by both straps.  As soon as the words “interior designer” left D.F.’s lips, I was on the path to becoming something else, anything else.  So I chose to research “teacher”.

Somehow or another, Teacher stayed in my mind.  I think many children must think about being teachers when they grow up, as teachers are the profession they interact with most.  I knew doctor was out, as it took too long.  Lawyer was out, because it seemed incomprehensibly boring, and required you to wear blazers.  The whole idea of “business” remains a mystery to me.  I watch “The Office” occasionally, and while I can now identify with cubicle jokes and staff meeting agony, I still am no closer to understanding the daily jobs of middle management or the work-a-day cubicle-slave.  I just didn’t know about that many other professions, and, besides, I idolized my teachers, keepers of the answer keys and ultimate givers of positive feedback.  When you’re good at school, you kind of want to stay there forever. 

College opened up other worlds to me, but I still couldn’t quite see the correlation between undergraduate majors and the jobs available in the Real World.  Turns out that’s because there isn’t any.  And unless you’re brilliant like my sister, and major in social work, or have relevant skills like my computer science friends do, you’re pretty much lining up for minimum wage jobs, but with B.A. after your name. 

Sadly, I was considered too educated for many of the jobs I applied for.  I say this not to be a snob, but because I was very flatteringly told so, as I applied to job after job after job.  I couldn’t even get a mall job.  And I tried.  I put on my most epic look, and went down to Pacific Sunwear.  I got an initial interview, and never heard back. 

So I started teaching, not because it was my first choice anymore, but because it was there.  I worked at a private school, which is the only place I could work, given that I didn’t have any teacher certification, and I had majored in linguistics.  That’s almost as bad as classics, employment-wise.  I loved working in preschool.  I soaked up all the information my lead teacher/mentor doled out, and used it effortlessly in the classroom.  I loved the campus, I loved the kids, I loved the creativity.  I was still a little petrified on days when I’d sub for the lead, afraid the kids would find out I was a fraud, or not completely a grown-up, or had never taken a course in child development. 

They never asked.  I was lucky in that my mentor took a chance on me, on my interactions with children, on my babysitting and camp counseling experience, on my common-sense approach and my way with words, and my intuitive understanding of the 3- and 4-year-old mind.  Truthfully, though, it was not something I could envision myself doing forever.  Though the job was rewarding, the pay (private school + preschool + assistant + no certification) was abysmal, and I looked into my options. 

Let us forget for a moment my brain surgery, my burgeoning relationship with my then-boyfriend, or the full range of absurd career options my mother was trying to cram into my head. 

Did teaching enter my mind?  Absolutely.  Master’s in Education, certification, etc.  And it all meant graduate school.  Whereas undergrad had meant 4 years of self-indulgence, sleeping in, and selecting courses based on the workload and best schedule, graduate school might actually lead to some employable skills (besides, of course, work avoidance, which I had practically majored in).  

In evaluating my options, I considered my strengths.  I preferred working with kids in small groups.  Though my classroom management skills have become a strength I continue to rely on, I recognized that I didn’t want to spend my career at the front of a class of 25 or 30 school-age kids, or even 18 or 20 preschoolers.  I didn’t want to be the one responsible for teaching all the subjects, at elementary level, or dealing with adolescent drama, in middle and high school.  While preschool is great, and I will frequently profess it is my favorite age, I really wanted to get away from extraneous boogers, toileting, and shoe-tying.  I tell people that the reason I went to graduate school is so I wouldn’t have to change diapers (other than my own children’s). 

It’s not just the actual act of the diaper change, which of course is gross but necessary.  It becomes even less appealing as the kids get older.  Ask me how I know.  But as a speech pathologist, I get the benefit of returning a 5 year old to his classroom and telling the teacher he needs to be changed.  I recognized this power in grad school.

That, and I was terrified of full classrooms of children. 

From time to time, a great idea of a lesson plan or a curricular theme, or even a bulletin board design will invade my brain.  I’ll think of fantastic projects or writing activities I’d love to explore with different age groups.  I’ll think of ways I could improve the layout or decor of any classroom I enter, and I take mental notes upon entering classrooms what ideas I would hypothetically steal for my imaginary class.  When I was working in community-based early intervention, I couldn’t help but think of and suggest ways to improve the environment; it was my job.  I guess Teacher is still wired into my brain on some level. 

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to explore that unrequited calling.  Because it was Bullying Awareness Week last week, my school is exploring what the kids know about bullying and using it for several activities.  The speech pathologists were each charged with bringing a planned discussion and activity into several classrooms.  On Wednesday, as I reviewed my lesson plan, a teacher whose class I was to take over asked kindly if he could use that period as a prep to finish his presentation for an upcoming conference.  Translation: I had his kids alone, by myself, without him.  Twice. 

Well, after shitting myself and recoiling from the shock, I steeled myself against the prospect of two 7th grade classes.  And yesterday, I did it. 

I’ll not pretend everything went perfectly according to plan.  Some kids took a “pass” on the independent work altogether, while others dwelled on misremembered amalgams of news stories/internet memes related to bully-instigated suicide.  However, they were all engaged in the activity to some extent, and I made it through without letting on how terrified I really was.  Twice. 

 What’s ironic is that the other class I invaded had even more kids, and their teacher sat idly by at his desk, noodling around on his computer, or perhaps doing progress notes (which, as an SLP, I don’t have to do!  Perk!).  I wasn’t sure how engaged he would be in the discussion, as some teachers had interacted more than others, but he said only one thing during the entire class – he asked for relative silence during the independent work portion of the period.  And that was it.  He didn’t have to be there, but in my mind he provided a safe “out”.  I could royally fuck up, and he would be there to rescue me.  I could lose the kids entirely, and he’d step in to make it relevant.  They might threaten mutiny, and he’d give them the stink eye.  None of which happened, mind you.  It really was just me, acting as the Teacher, in front of a classroom full of kids.

If I ever get the hankering to be overworked, underappreciated, and have to deal with classroom issues like pencil sharpening, bathroom breaks, progress notes, grading papers, designing rubrics, assigning homework, and appearing confident, it’s nice to know I could do it.  As long as the school I taught at didn’t make me wear a blazer.