The Chaperone: Academy of Sciences Edition

The dik-dik: a creature whose name enthralls tweenagers everywhere. Photo credit:

1:17 pm: “Despair.” With freedom still 118 minutes away, I looked longingly at the jellyfish in their watery castle. Nothing would have given me greater joy than to watch them float for the remainder of the afternoon. It behooved me to focus on the task at hand, however: herding hormonal preteens through the gift shop while keeping all breaking, licking, and stealing to a minimum.

I’ll start at the beginning.

9:00 – 10:30 am: “Mutual Tolerance.” To be honest, the first hour or two had not been terrible; everybody was reasonably focused and amenable back then. Students swarmed the exhibition halls, copying each other’s answers to worksheet questions while I relentlessly counted heads. Long ago, when I brought my kids here on a regular basis, I let the youngest wear her tap shoes. That way I could hear her footsteps and snag her before she disappeared into the kaleidoscopic crowds. But these kids were my size, with long legs and All-Stars and limited impulse control, so I wrangled to the best of my abilities.

10:45 am: “Loss.” Unable to locate either of the teachers or even the vast majority of the other students from our school, I was forced to swallow my pride and ask for assistance from museum personnel. They raised eyebrows in disdainful bewilderment, spoke agitatedly into headsets, and filed us in front of a packed auditorium–to the embarrassment of all currently in my charge. Note: Middle schoolers do not like to be embarrassed.

11:00 am: “Reprieve.” In the Planetarium, most of the tough kids dozed off, which was a nice turn of events. I guess it’s tiring to ride that pubescent roller coaster all day.  Given a moment to relax and gather my thoughts, I might have gotten a few winks myself. Let’s call it meditating.

When I did manage to pay attention, I heard myself guffawing at the docent’s terrible jokes. How disappointing. What happens to humans when we reach middle age, anyway? And why isn’t there an exhibit at the Academy of Sciences that explains mid-life mysteries such as: how we hurt ourselves sleeping, or why pants become unbearably tight by 4 pm?

12:04 – 12:26 pm: “Lunch.” We desperately needed an airing out, but rain was dumping relentlessly. We sprawled on the floor of the cafeteria, where the noise level hovered around an impressive 140 decibels. I tried to keep the food fights to a minimum; failing that, pretended not to notice. Kids stole each other’s Cheetos, spilled a variety of contraband, and “group-chatted” with friends back at school, hooting and snorting until half-chewed food bits plastered their phones and friends. Several skirmishes were doused, and all cursing was ignored. Note: teachers occasionally adopt a Stepford Wife-type expression, perhaps because death and/or a partial frontal-lobotomy is necessary to avoid feeling pain in these circumstances. I adopted the same approach. It beats yelling.

What my face looked like, though I was too tired to shrug. Photo credit: DeLine Pictures, via DePauw University

12:46 pm: “Detonation.” All hell broke loose once we hit the touch pool. Due to some comment or action too small for the adult seismograph, Mia and Carmen were no longer speaking, so the other girls allied themselves accordingly. I had to choose: force all sides of the conflict to stay together and risk a full-on fight? Or give the aggrieved parties enough room to avoid bloodshed? Since only a few kids could torment sea stars at a time, I let my cranky quorum dissolve into disparate, dark caverns of tanks. I was lucky to know where five or six of them were at any given moment. The phones were out in force by then, no doubt broadcasting their social war to the larger middle school arena. I pretended not to notice—mostly so I could check my own and count the minutes to freedom.

2:10 – 2:29: “Education.” In the African Hall, I tried in vain to interest them in a replica of Lucy (the oldest human ancestor to walk upright) or in the adorable penguins that swam and pooped and watched the Nature Channel at the far end of the room. Instead, students gravitated to the diorama of stuffed dik-diks, doubling over as they read the explanatory signage loudly and repeatedly—a sign titled, “Dikdik Details,” and containing other unfortunate words and phrases such as: “sticky fluid.” Never mind that the fluid in question was produced by their under-eye glands. Hey, science experts! Couldn’t we have called this eye fluid tears, so that eleven-year-old boys might refrain from dry humping the nearby benches?

Dik-diks need a good scratch now and then–especially up there from whence sticky fluids spurt. Photo credit:

Oh, well. At least everyone temporarily forgot about World War III.

Note: the Dikdik is named for the alarm call it makes by blowing air through its nasal passages–often while lurching in a zig-zag pattern. I’m surprised they weren’t named “Drunken Idiots” or “Tween Boys.”

Another note: the Blue-Footed Booby is not on display at the Academy. I’d say I dodged a bullet there.

2:40 – 3:15 pm: “The Reemergence of Hope.” The schlep back to school was remarkably uneventful despite:

*a twenty-minute walk in the pouring rain

*100 wet, overstimulated sixth graders crammed onto a single city bus, and

*the fact that adults were outnumbered 25:1.

One of the teachers commented that this was a “great group of students” and that they were a “welcome relief” after last year’s cohort. I managed to maintain my new Stepford Wife expression while making a mental note not to volunteer for anything involving the current 7th graders.

3:15 pm and onward: “Dénouement.” I rewarded myself with vending machine coffee in a Styrofoam cup…and a big fat glass of wine with dinner.

What I learned: kids are great, but two is plenty. Also, we can’t possibly afford to pay our middle school teachers what they deserve.

The Curse of the P word

by Susan Messina via the Huffington Post.

Lately I’ve been experiencing a bout of nostalgia for simpler times. What happened to the good old days, filled with low expectations and mindless worksheets? I’m all for a robust education, but must we continually challenge the school community…right up until the very last day? Bring on the busywork!

I wonder how many times I’ve heard myself say, “I can’t handle my kids’ homework load.” I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I also know what broke me. The P word.

For me, the word PROJECT now sparks shortness of breath and a creeping despondency.

PROJECT means late nights, endless trips to craft stores, and insomnia for all. Honestly, providing comfort in the middle of the night is not my forté. I’m tired and cranky, too, short stuff.

PROJECT means trying not to have an anxiety attack while your child wields a box cutter in an unorthodox manner. That’s right. It’s actually scarier and waaaaaaaay more frustrating and time consuming to nag your child until she gets it done than to just whip something up yourself. Same goes for research papers, by the way.

It means stepping in blobs of clay, glue, and acrylic paint before tracking them into the living room rug–with no one to yell at but yourself.

PROJECT means not finishing the grant I have due because I am scouring a three-county area in search of blue tri-board, two-foot balsa wood planks, or tiny bells.

It means a tarp thrown over your dining table for 8 days while you sit on the floor with your plate in your lap. Or forgetting dinner altogether the night before everything is due.

It means explaining the concept of scale for the one billionth time while trying not to let the last straw show in your voice or demeanor.

When Miss 12 was in fourth grade, she embarked on the quintessential MISSION PROJECT. Four weeks later, after ruining three and a half weekends in a row and nearly ruining my marriage–not to mention having to completely ignore my other kid for twenty-seven days straight–I dropped her at school with her plywood/sugar cube/cardboard/fake plant baby. That’s when I found out that half the families had simply purchased mission kits online! Of course, kits were expressly forbidden in the teacher’s directions, but WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME THEY WERE DOING THAT ANYWAY? We could have distressed that cookie-cutter mission enough to look homemade, believe me. I didn’t go to art school for nothing.


I’m not sure what my kids have learned in the past few years, but I developed a conditioned response to PR#J@CTs: a craving for Xanax when I hear the word.

My secret fantasy: locking me and my Netflix account in my bedroom between the hours of 3:30 and 10:30 pm, Sunday through Thursday. Too late now. Maybe next year.

Addendum: Before I get any backlash, I should spell out my disclaimers. I’m all for project-based learning. I’m just…tired. It’s been a long, tough year on the homework front. It’s exhausting to have to be sitting on both my kids to yank out giant project after giant project. Sometimes, the phrase “independent work” sounds like music to my ears. And I’m not sure the project always gets at the learning one would hope. A couple days before her mission project was due, I turned to my daughter and asked, “So what is a mission?” AND SHE COULDN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION.

In addition, I think kids need time to absorb everything from the day, unwind a little, and develop other, less academic skills and interests: gymnastics, piano, drums, swimming, or just (gasp) building relationships with their peers. They need time to do what they want to do, explore their own creative realms. Please.

A Brief Study of the Hormonally Challenged

Artwork by Mel Bochner; photograph by Julien Foulatier.
Artwork by Mel Bochner; photograph by Julien Foulatier.

Many hours of my life are spent trapped in a moving vehicle crammed with middle school girls. In the clear minority, I have had to relinquish radio control and speaking rights in exchange for survival.

More than once, I’ve thought about that scene from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where Steve Martin says: “When you’re telling your little stories, here’s a good idea: Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.”

For some unknown reason–perhaps I was too exhausted to say no–I recently found myself chaperoning 400 sixth graders on their field trip to the Academy of Sciences. Now, I do love the Academy, but you can imagine how much inane commentary filtered through the scientific learning experience.

The trip also involved walking long distances with hoards of whiny youth and taking public transport without losing anyone. Imagine the expressions of the other folks riding the bus when they saw a group of 75 12-year-olds poised to board. Priceless. I’m sorry I didn’t snap a photo of that scene.

In fact, the only photo I took was of some poor stuffed creature who symbolized for me the gangly-awkwardness of this particular age of kids.

I mean, he’s getting some leaves, but he looks ridiculous.

I began to pretend I was an anthropologist, studying an unknown community of slightly shorter, hormonally challenged humans. When possible, I surreptitiously typed notes on my phone to review later. I only wish I’d taken more. A sampling:

“We had very, very different ideas about what toast is. It all has to do with the multiplicative inverse.”

“My feet hurt. I should have worn a wheelchair.”

“Everyone knows unicorns poop strawberry cheesecake.” Well, I do now.

My approach made the whole experience bearable.

As a special bonus, chaperoning “allowed” me to drive two extra carpool loads last week. Though I can’t take notes while driving, bringing a ton of snacks does cut down on the chatter somewhat. That will have to suffice until I can get a decent recording device set up.

Not Their Real Names



Mrs. Steinbeck taught ninth grade English; Mr. taught social studies across the hall.

They were constantly feuding.

While we were diagramming sentences, she would moon about, saying things like, “If only I’d met Ted Danson before marrying Mr. Steinbeck.”

During tornado drills, we crouched in the hallway with textbooks over our heads, while Mrs. Steinbeck dropped bombs. “It would take a pretty big wind to lift you up, wouldn’t it, Mr. Steinbeck?” she yelled, trying to get a rise out of him. He narrowed his eyes and tightened his jaw, but always kept his cool.

Then one day, Mr. marched right into our class, raging that Mrs. had stolen his desk chair.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, shrugging. “I’ve had this chair since the beginning of the year.”

She tried to continue our lesson.

“I know my chair,” he huffed through clenched teeth. “If I pick it up, the back right caster falls off.”

Mrs. Steinbeck sat very still. Nobody breathed.

“If that’s really your chair, Mrs. Steinbeck, you wouldn’t mind if I tried picking it up, would you?”

Mrs. Steinbeck stood very, very deliberately, staring him in the eye all the while.

He grabbed and hoisted it triumphantly in the air.

It hung there for a long, silent moment.

Then, lo and behold, the back right caster hit the floor.

Nobody said a word as he wheeled it out the door.

Now, back to dangling participles.

Charlie work for parents.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Charlie work, it originated on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and refers to the crappy jobs that no one wants to do–like cleaning toilets.

As parents, there are endless rewards and inspiring moments, and you can read all about them in a stack of Hallmark cards, or in one of those Chicken Soup-y books.

Then, there are the boring moments, like when your child is not quite sick enough–when pulling the shades and administrating tylenol is not sufficient–and you are forced to read Rainbow Magic Fairy books aloud all day long.

What remains after all the inspiration and the boredom is the Charlie work.  This category includes diaper duty, of course, but the bad jobs continue long past potty-training days.  Here’s the very tip top of my current list of Charlie work for parents.  Feel free to add to my list.

Attending assemblies.  Weirdly, I’ve heard some parents dig these.  I don’t know why.  They are always scheduled smack in the middle of the day, so you get to hunt for parking at drop off, pick up, AND assembly, but don’t have time to do anything useful in between except lament having to go.  You are funneled into a malodorous multi-purpose room, where the floor clings to your shoes with the lingering remains of corn dogs and barf.  Time to choose:  scrunch onto the end of one of those long clammy tables, or duel for one of the last rusty folding chairs in the back?   Choose wisely, because assemblies start late–REALLY late–providing ample time to reflect on “chicken fried steak” and canned peas.  An eternity passes.

The room swells with more and more children that are NOT YOURS and are consequently far less tolerable.  Someone is being gleefully squashed by their neighbors on the bench.  As the collisions escalate, crying starts, triggering an endless lecture.  Someone is making fart noises, and at least one or two small people have a sticky appendage lodged in a nostril at any given moment.  Make a mental note to use hand sanitizer at the next opportunity.  At last, the Principal waves awkwardly, taps the shrieking microphone, and makes the sign for “silent fox.”

Ears open; mouth closed.

The show commences.

Time grinds to a halt while everyone else’s kids do impossibly boring things that you can’t hear anyway. Then, when your own darling child finally lurches onto stage and does the most amazing thing ever, some asshole with a ten-inch lens elbows you out of the way and you miss the shot.

I’d like to see a greeting card for that mess.



How I ruined my kids’ chances of becoming President by microwaving their food in plastic containers before I knew better (plus a million other parenting mistakes)

Parenting was always hard work.

Except, perhaps, in Betty Draper’s world, where you hired someone to cook, clean, and raise your kids while you mooned about in your house dress.

That Mad Men model of parenting never appealed to me, though.  I like being involved–hearing what my kids are thinking, helping them solve problems, exploring the world together.  I’m certainly not advocating for a hands-off experience.  Still, when did parenting become so fraught with pressure and competition?  When did my goal to raise happy, healthy children devolve into sheer panic that my children will never achieve their full potential because I failed to be the perfect parent.  I admit:

a) I didn’t wait list my children for a competitive nursery school before they were born.

b) Those eighteen-dollar, über green metal sippy cups from Switzerland that I gave my toddlers contained bisphenol A.

c)  I’m monolingual.  Mostly.

e)  I avoid PTA meetings like the plague.

f) The robotics workshops for 3rd graders were completely booked up before I figured out how to log onto the registration site.

What’s going on here?

Am I really stressing out that my kids’ summer day camp might not be academically rigorous enough?  Do I really believe that a single parenting misstep will impede their potential progress forever?

Worst of all, I worry about their school.  Why is that?  The basics are completely covered, and my kids are doing well.  They have amazing gardening, art, dance, and computer classes.  They have science fairs, field trips, carnivals, committed teachers and parents.  Yet, whenever I talk with parents of children at other schools, I feel my blood pressure start to rise.  I get school envy.  Your kid’s class has launched a website?  They are learning Italian?  They went on a field trip to China?  I am driving myself crazy.  I keep losing sight of what is important here.  These are kids.  They are learning.  They are creative.  They are happy and growing confident.

At the end of the day, isn’t it more important to teach them to think for themselves and enjoy life?  Isn’t that a greater gift than a childhood resume cooked up by parents hell-bent on making sure their child has no leisure time whatsoever?  Play is important, too. Extended periods of unstructured time formed the basis of my childhood, and those were the times that I could choose my direction of inquiry; I could develop as the author of my own creative world.

Last year, I was weirdly elated when I dropped my girls off at a camp I like to call:  “Lord of the Flies.”  It’s just a hundred kids running amok, loosely supervised by pre-teens sporting color-coded bandanas.  Campers are singing inane and vaguely inappropriate songs, making endless lanyards, and building forts out of fallen branches.

I think it’s fabulous when children are immersed in another language, taken on a trip, introduced to science, opera, and history.  We seek those opportunities and seize them when we can.  But in the meantime, let’s not forget to take some time to play and enjoy each other’s company.  Life is good.

Don’t get me started

What is wrong with how public education is structured for kids?

I don’t know where to start with this question.  The original structure of the school day was devised to prepare people for factory work–hence the length of the subject periods, regular breaks, that sort of thing.  Accordingly, as a teacher I had to schedule a certain number of MINUTES PER DAY for Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, et cetera.  Nevermind that good investigations, projects, and discussions do NOT conform to those sorts of timeframes, and that it is much more engaging and meaningful to learn to read through the arts or social studies…or learn to write and do math in order to complete scientific explorations.  The results of segregated subjects and truncated work times are often superficial and interfere with real learning.  How can we ever go deep in any particular direction?

About a decade ago, a study (the TIMMS report) revealed that in Japanese schools, 9 and 10-year-olds were exposed to an average of four topics in mathematics over the course of an entire YEAR of instruction.  That means that children might spend months exploring fractions in a meaningful and comprehensive way.  Furthermore, teachers had release time on a daily basis to plan together and discuss how to reach children who might be struggling, as well as those who needed more of a challenge.  What a concept–teachers could work together to hone their skills.  In contrast, a fourth grader in U.S. schools was expected to cover 35 or 40 topics in the same amount of time, and there was NO paid time to collaborate with colleagues.  Here’s your teaching guide, buddy.  Sink or swim. Oof.  There is nothing lonelier than the first year of teaching.

To top it off, No Child Left Behind forced us to focus an egregious amount of our time and energy on TEST TAKING, particularly in “at-risk” schools.  I was told to throw out most subjects and focus on the very basics of language arts and math.  Seriously.  Oh well.  Funding had already been cut for all of the “extras” anyway: art, music, physical education went by the wayside.  What is the goal here?  Test-taking drones?  To be clear, visual, performing arts, P.E. are all still included in the state standards, they just are not supported by funding, resources, teacher training programs and personnel.  And no one is thinking about your school’s play or integrated visual arts projects when they peruse the standardized test scores in the paper.

To make matters worse, every few years the textbook industry fuels an overhaul and we have to introduce a new math or language arts curriculum:  buy all new texts and supporting materials, get new training, and then, just as we start to reach proficiency with any particular set of materials, we start over with new ones.  Furthermore, the pendulum swings wildly between the pedagogy du jour, when the most obvious truth is that not all children learn by the same mechanism, and we need an approach which addresses many different learning styles.

A friend of mine–a teacher and a scientist–mentioned to me that the way we teach science is all backwards.  “To prepare students to be scientists,”  he mused, “we need to set out questions without knowing the answers.  THAT’S what science in the world is all about.  Pose the questions–better yet, solicit the questions–and investigate together.”  Nevermind, if we set aside time for science, we won’t meet the API goals for this year anyway.