What’s for supper? Vol. 222: Back to Zuul

Sorry, there will be no follow-up Ghostbusters reference in this What’s For Supper. I just ran out of title ideas. We did go back to school, though. 

If you look closely, you’ll notice that all the food photos this week were taken either outside, or in my bedroom. This is because I’m spending half my time pining for the kids because they’re at school, and the other half hiding from them because they’re home.

Here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
Pork ribs, mashed potatoes, corn

Damien made his lovely sugar rub for the pork ribs, and cooked them on the grill. Scrumptious as always. Great little char, great caramelization, a little sweet, a little hot, nice and juicy inside.

You could make a big batch of this sugar rub and have it on hand in a baggie for just about any kind of meat, and it really makes it special. 

Jump to Recipe

I made seven pounds of mashed potatoes, and it wasn’t enough. Next time, a full ten. I also remembered too late about garlic parmesan mashed potatoes, where you boil the garlic cloves right along with the potatoes and then mash them in, then embarrass yourself with how much cheese you add.

 

Jump to Recipe

Next time! 

SUNDAY
Spaghetti carbonara

Always popular.

Damien made dinner while I languished or something. Oh, wait, I was doing school supply shopping! Really down to the wire this year. I remember the first year I did school shopping, when we were SO broke and having SO much culture shock after years of home schooling. I remember being so heartbroken and outraged that I was expected to buy a thumb drive for my innocent sixth grader. It seemed like they were trying to turn her into a faceless drone, enslaved to technology and commercialism. So, this year, Corrie got a P.J. Masks backpack and Frozen II water bottle and a shiny gold Wonder Woman dress and Lion King socks and whatever the hell else she wanted. And all Crayola, no Rose Art at all. You can judge for yourself if that’s progress or not. Anyway, Damien made dinner.

 

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MONDAY
Aldi pizza

For the first day of school, a nice, easy meal was in order, especially since I had somehow made myself believe school was still a full week away, so we had zero acclimatization to the new bed times. 

School is . . . okay. The kids are okay with masks. The school has set up tents for outdoor classes and lunch, and the kids sit on yoga mats, and no one spends more than 45 minutes in a room with other people, and they have fans going all the time. They do temperature checks every morning. They ask my five-year-old if she’s been out of the country (and I always listen closely for her answer, because you never know). It is okay. I have no idea if they’re learning anything. Corrie has learned a dinosaur song and a fishie song and has a friend named Greta. She has a classmate named Oliver who is silly. We have no idea how long this all will last, but for now, it’s okay. 

Mirabile dictu, no one in the school has life-threatening allergies this year, so we can pack whatever we want for lunch, so there’s that. In a few weeks, we’ll add in hybrid public high school and Catholic high school, and eventually the college kids will go back to college. Moe is in quarantine. It’s been several days since anyone called Clara “Hitler” for enforcing mask rules in the store.  Walmart is selling unscented hand sanitizer again, so you don’t have to go around smelling like fermented cranberry fart. It’s okay. How are you?

TUESDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, carrots and hummus, broccoli salad

I cleaned out the cabinet and discovered I’ve been diligently stocking up on sunflower seeds and dried cranberries, for some reason. So I poked around and found a recipe that uses both of them, along with broccoli and a basic dressing (mayo, white vinegar, sugar, pepper). 

Everyone liked it well enough, and it was a nice change from coleslaw. Vaguely autumnal. Some people also add bacon, but I was trying to pretend it was a vegetable. You could also put minced red onion.  Maybe a little blue cheese. But it was nice in its simple form. 

WEDNESDAY
Steak teriyaki stir fry, white rice

Feeling unambitious, I bought two bottles of ginger teriyaki sauce. I’m often unhappy with my stir fries because they are watery and the vegetables are overcooked, because I crowd the pan and overcook some ingredients while others are catching up. So this time, I cooked the food in batches and in stages. I heated up some sesame oil and cooked the strips of beef in batches until just barely not pink, then took the meat out of the pan. Then I cooked the broccoli in the meaty pan until just barely done, and then I added the red peppers and cooked them just a little. Then I put the meat back in and added the sauce and just stirred everything up quickly so it was heated through, and served it over rice.

Good results! The vegetables were crunchy, the meat wasn’t chewy, and the sauce did not get watery. I made a bunch of rice in the Instant Pot, and it was a tasty, pretty meal. 

Steak continues to be cheap, and I’m running out of ideas! We’ve had steak and cheese, steak salad, steak steak, and tortas. What else do you make with steak? Never thought I’d have this problem

THURSDAY
Carnitas with guacamole, corn on the cob

Not the very fine carnitas from J.R.’s Art Place that you cook in a pot until the meat’s all lacquered and lovely, but still not bad. I put a giant bone-in pork picnic in the Instant Pot with a can of Coke, some cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, orange quarters, salt, pepper, and oregano, and cooked it for 35 minutes on high. It wasn’t really tender, so I gave it another 35 minutes. It still wasn’t as tender as I wanted, but I was out of time, so I pulled the meat out and shredded what I could, and cut the rest off. Then I spread it in a pan and sprinkled it heavily with chili powder and salt, and crisped it up under the broiler.

I flirted with the notion of beans and rice, but it seemed hard, so we just had the meat with guacamole, and cheese, sour cream, salsa, lime wedges, and cilantro. 

I made some rather tomato-heavy guacamole with the few avocados that didn’t turn out to be all sad and grey inside. What the heck is wrong with avocados lately? They’re not overripe, they’re just blighted or something. What do you expect: These are Joe Biden’s avocados. Ask yourself if you’re really prepared for four more years of Joe Biden’s avocados.

FRIDAY
Tuna burgers, cheesy tomato soup

This may just be a fantasy. Most likely, people will request plain tuna with mayo. But I will offer the option of tuna burgers.

 

Jump to Recipe

And I will offer tomato soup from a can, and they can put cheese in it. Or they can act like it’s not even exciting that it’s finally almost soup season. But it is exciting! It is. 

 

Smoked chicken thighs with sugar rub

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • .5 cups white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp chili pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 20 chicken thighs

Instructions

  1. Mix dry ingredients together. Rub all over chicken and let marinate until the sugar melts a bit. 

  2. Light the fire, and let it burn down to coals. Shove the coals over to one side and lay the chicken on the grill. Lower the lid and let the chicken smoke for an hour or two until they are fully cooked. 

 

Garlic parmesan mashed potatoes

Ingredients

  • 5-6 lbs potatoes
  • 8-10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 8 Tbsp butter
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 8 oz grated parmesan
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Peel the potatoes and put them in a pot. Cover the with water. Add a bit of salt and the smashed garlic cloves.

  2. Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer with lid loosely on until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

  3. Drain the water out of the pot. Add the butter and milk and mash well.

  4. Add the parmesan and salt and pepper to taste and stir until combined.

 

5 from 3 votes
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Spaghetti carbonara

An easy, delicious meal.

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs bacon
  • 3 lbs spaghetti
  • 1 to 1-1/2 sticks butter
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • lots of pepper
  • 6-8 oz grated parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Fry the bacon until it is crisp. Drain and break it into pieces.

  2. Boil the spaghetti in salted water until al dente. If you like, add some bacon grease to the boiling water.

  3. Drain the spaghetti and return it to the pot. Add the butter, pieces of bacon, parmesan cheese, and pepper and mix it up until the butter is melted.

  4. Add the raw beaten egg and mix it quickly until the spaghetti is coated. Serve immediately.

White Lady From NH's Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 limes juiced
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Instructions

  1. Peel avocados. Mash two and dice two. 

  2. Mix together with rest of ingredients and add seasonings.

  3. Cover tightly, as it becomes discolored quickly. 

 

Tuna burgers

Ingredients

  • 1 can tuna
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • seasonings, minced onion, etc.
  • oil for frying

Instructions

  1. Drain the tuna.

  2. Mix tuna thoroughly with egg, bread crumbs, and whatever seasonings you like. Form into two patties. 

  3. Heat oil in pan. Fry tuna patties on both sides until golden brown. 

Returning to school? Don’t worry: It’s impossible

When I first started home schooling, my mother told me, “You know, the thing about home schooling is that it’s impossible.”

She was not only experienced but a pioneer, one of the first in the region to even attempt such a thing as home schooling. So she knew what she was talking about. But a ray of sunshine she was not.

It was the last thing I wanted to hear, that my new plan was impossible. Who could wake up each morning and willingly set out to do a thing that cannot be done? I knew I was born to home school my children. We would be courageous explorers on the sea of ideas, ravenous guests at a banquet of wisdom and culture. My children’s 12 years of school would be only the beginning of their education, and they would graduate with a lifelong thirst for learning.

Well, we did make a sundial one time. And a bean mosaic. All my kids can read and add and tell jokes, and no one has once suggested they would be better off learning how to make brooms. After six years of home schooling, we realized it was time for a change, and since then, we have tried private school, charter school, public school and this coming year, parochial school. We have at least dipped our toes into just about every form of educating children, and guess what we learned?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Ready for school? Take this quiz and see.

The department stores have been ready since the middle of May. The clothing catalogues have been ready since early June. The teachers have been ready for close to 72 hours now.  How about you, mom? Are you ready for BACK-TO-SCHOOL?

Here’s a quick quiz to find out how much gin to buy:

***

Clothing! Are you ready?

(a) Your school doesn’t require uniforms, but you do. Your children’s outfits for the next three months are chosen, monogrammed, pressed, and shrink-wrapped (with alternates for unexpected nippy weather) in a special digitized wardrobe that automatically yanks garments out of rotation if anyone in (ugh) public school is seen wearing them.

(b) Each kid owns enough clothes to go all week without wearing anything with holes, obvious stains, or beer slogans.

(c) You really need to stop stalling and get the winter clothes sorted and put away.

Lunches! Are you ready?

(a) You spent the summer perfecting the spreadsheets that tell you when to place bulk orders at Whole Foods so that the everyday staple pantry items (quinoa, bulgur, kefir, quingur, bulfir, and kefoa, which is pronounced “feh”) dovetail with the seasonal produce you expect to harvest from your garden, which you water using barrels that collect your hot yoga sweat, which, not to brag, is quite organic.

(b) You have a general idea of what your kids like to eat, and you try to pack it for lunch. If they don’t gobble up every bit of their packed lunch, they can always fill up on PBJ when they get home.

(c) You give yourself a gold star every time the school doesn’t send home a note saying, “Braedonica only had a pickled cocktail onion and a baggie of dog food in her lunch again. Please remember nutrition matters for young brains, sadface!”
By gold star, you mean “martini.”

Transportation! Are you ready?

(a) Yes, there is a bus that will pick up your child and bring her home, but, chérie, yellow is just not her color. So you’ve hired a dedicated Lyft driver for the morning and afternoon commute. He only drives an Audi, though, and that’s how it’s going to stay until a certain little offspring nudges that GPA up above 3.8.

(b) You’re going to be the mom waiting at the bus stop in a robe, or occasionally that mom driving frantically to school in a robe. So you’re not morning people, so big deal.

(c) You are seriously considering buying an RV and just living behind the school’s swing set until next June, because you’re really, really, really not morning people.

Homework! Are you ready?

(a) Per the training your child has received since he was at four months’ gestation, he doesn’t even want to play, snack, rest, or goof off until homework is completed, double-checked, initialed by both parents, autoclaved, and stowed away safely in the lightweight titanium binder etched with “For Your Consideration, Magister.”

(b) Your kids know they are expected to keep up with their work. They also know that Mom will forget to ask if they have homework half the time, and they only really have to do it when Daddy comes home before bedtime, because Daddy Always Remembers. Doing a little over half their homework earns them a solid C-, which is their version of the American dream.

(c) You know what we do for homework around here? We endure. That’s what we do for homework. Initial that, pal.

Extracurricular activities! Are you ready?

(a) It’s so hard, isn’t it? You beg and plead for the children to just relax and be kids, or at least choose an after-school club that is just plain fun, but every year it’s the same thing: “Motherrr, we simply can’t turn our backs on our commitment to fostering functional STEM literacy among the unwed pregnant cat population. Be the change you wish to see, Motherrr!” they say.
You worry, but you’re also proud. So proud.

(b) Each kid gets to do one thing, and that’s it. There’s only so much extra driving and extra check-writing you can stand.

(c) Extracurricular? As in besides school? They want us to do a whole other thing? Does weeping quietly in a corner count as extracurricular? Because we can do that.

Traditional Beginning-of-the-year Teacher Gift Ideas! Are you ready?

(a) Wait, what?
(b) Come on.
(c) Kill me.

***

ANSWER KEY:

If you answered mostly (a), you are so ready, it’s already next year, so why not stay home and read back issues of GOOP by the light of your own intense awesomeness?
If you answered mostly (b), you are like 90% of the population, so relax.
If you answered mostly (c), you can hang around with my awful kids, and we’ll all feel better.

***
Image by ThoseGuys119 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A version of this post ran in 2016. So sue me. 

I’ve been to eleven thousand school concerts, and I have something to say.

My late father-in-law leaned over and whispered, “This is the hardest part of being a parent.”

We were all in pain, physical and psychological; we were all chilled to the bone and exhausted beyond all reason. We felt as though we were losing our minds, as dismal, unintelligible noises assaulted our senses. We were all trapped, and no one knew when release would come. Worst of all, we had to keep clapping.

Yes, it was a school concert. This was sometime during the third hour of our exile in a school gymnasium. We manually held our eyelids open toward three fourteen-year-old girls making vaguely soprano whispering noises to the accompaniment of a sweating pianist. It was, if I recall, part of a salute to rockabilly in medly form. A medly which should have been called, “When Will Death Come?”

Well, my husband and I have witnessed nine out of ten kids sing their way through an awful lot of schools. Some of them had sensible, humane, even brilliant music directors, some of them . . . did not. We are proud of our kids, and we like them, and all. We support them, basically. Some of them are even kinda musical. But I have a thing or two to say. 

School concerts should not be three hours long. Never ever ever ever. I don’t care if it’s an excellent program bristling with stunning performances of world-class masterworks. IT SHOULD NOT BE THREE HOURS LONG. Anyone who has a school aged kid needs to be buying groceries, drinking gin, or asleep, and three hours away from doing those things is three hours too long. 

Songs should be age-appropriate. Since these are school children performing for their parents, exactly zero of the songs should be about sex or lust. You can get away with some innuendo in high school, but otherwise, basta. Let’s all get together and demand not to be put in a position where we look like a jerk for not wanting to clap after a nine-year-old girl belts out an anthem about her burning desires. 

And “dance teams” should be illegal. Hell damn fart. Where are the adults?

Kids shouldn’t have solos unless they are pretty good for their age. I realize this is crushingly harsh, and when I’m done with this essay I am going to go out and hit some flowers with my cane, but I still insist a solo is something you earn by being a little bit better than the other kids. I will make an exception if maybe a kid has overcome tremendous obstacles and has found a way to shine despite overwhelming adversity etc etc etc, and even though it’s not an objectively good performance, it really moves you. Fine. I just find it really hard to believe that all eleven terrible soloist are this particular type of shining star. I know these kids. They’re just regular mopes. Off the stage, mope. You dun sound so good.

Kids should perform things they are capable of performing, with maybe one or two “reach” numbers. If it’s the day before concert day and the sounds they’re producing make your skin crawl even mildly, go ahead and cut that number. Nobody in the audience is going to stand up and shout, “I say, choir master, I object! This program simply wasn’t long enough!”

If you let anyone beatbox, you should be shot. I don’t make the rules. 

The teacher does not get to perform. I’m sorry, am I your mom? Are we all your mom? No?  Well then! I guess we’ll just have to spend a moment of silence contemplating how sad it is that you ended up teaching the mouthbreathers in East Flupping Middle School chorus instead of dazzling Broadway, and then we’ll leave it at that, rather than enduring another encore of “How High the Moon” by Ms. Coulda Woulda Shoulda and Her Rather Startling Dress. 

If you want to include an emotional ceremony commemorating the special relationship the students have with the teachers, and you somehow didn’t do this during the rest of the entire year that you had together, you get three minutes. THREE MINUTES. When this folding chair has been biting into my thigh for over an hour already, my last remaining bit of patience will be entirely transformed into white-hot loathing if we have to pause the program while forty-three girls in heels they absolutely cannot manage pick their way across the risers and totter over to receive a carnation and a hug and an award for some choir in-joke, and then totter back while everyone giggles and claps and sighs. It’s not that I’m cold-hearted. It’s just that I hate you all so much. 

And what about the audience? Don’t they have any responsibility? 
Yes. They need to not sit there slowly and sensually scratching their husband’s back all throughout the show. Gah. 
 
Oh, and you can do a standing ovation if you want. I’m sitting down. I’m sitting down. 

Pseudoscience, shmeudoscience. I believe in graphology.

When I was in grade school, we spent an inordinate amount of time learning penmanship. We didn’t just learn a specific way to form each letter and call it done; we spent hours every week getting it precisely, excruciatingly correct.

We would send off writing samples in official yellow folders to some faceless penmanship expert who, I imagined, was installed behind a polished mahogany desk with a magnifying glass permanently affixed to her eye. Weeks later, our samples would return to us, critiqued. We would be scored on things like how wide the loops of our lower-case g’s were, whether the masts of our h’s swooned too far too the right, and whether, in our fifth grade intensity, we pressed too hard on our Number 2 pencils. We’d be graded individually and as a class, and we had to keep sending them back until we produced something deemed adequate. 

In retrospect, it was bizarre. Our schooling was not otherwise exacting or pedantic. Volleyball was big, as were popcorn parties. Science class circled constantly around the central idea of “the webs of life,” and we filled out copious worksheets about our feelings, and coloring in charts to show whether our behavior toward others could be classified more as Warm Fuzzies, Cold Pricklies, or something in between. But when it was cursive time, it was all business.

I imagine there was money involved. Some tightly-wound busybody with deep pockets and a fetish for handwriting would disburse a major grant to the school if all the young ones emerged with properly trained pencil hands, maybe. 

Except for a few stray Jasons and Heathers who were born knowing how to make a perfectly ornate capital G in all its ghastly glory, everybody hated penmanship lessons. But it hasn’t turned me against the idea of kids learning cursive. Science backs the idea that it’s important, if not as all-consumingly important as it was when I was growing up. Learning cursive helps kids’ brains develop, engaging both the left and right hemispheres; and people engage better and retain ideas better if they write notes out in longhand, rather than typing. My kids are learning cursive in their elementary schools, but it appears to be a simpler, more streamlined version, which is good.

I have another, more frivolous reason for hoping cursive stays around: I believe in handwriting analysis — up to a point. I don’t think you can tell everything you need to know about a person based on his handwriting; but I do believe you can tell something, especially if we’ve all started from more or less the same standard and then developed our own deviations.

My mother used to take a gander at the handwriting of the young men my sisters were dating, and she’d be enthusiastic or wary, depending on what she saw. And she was onto something. It’s not a science, but it’s not nothing, either. You can also tell something (not everything) about a person from how they dress, what car, they drive, their tone of voice, their personal hygiene, and so on. Some of it has to do with external circumstances and how we’ve been taught, but some of it expresses who we are. Something interior gets put on the page, flowing through the pen.

Take a look, for instance, at this handwriting sample from one Thomas Aquinas, shared by Weird Catholic on Facebook:

How much of this is how he was taught to write (and the quality of the pen and paper, and how much light was in the room, and how much of a hurry he was in, etc. etc.), and how much of it is his own personality expressing itself by deviating from the norm? I have no idea. But what I see (and yes, there are huge gobs of confirmation bias at work in my analysis. Whatcha gonna do) is:

Those horizontal marks over letters. What are these? Aquinas would have been writing in Latin. I’m not enough of a scholar to know if they are dots over i’s, or some other diacritical marks. Whatever they are, they are long (not just over one letter) and are heavier at the right than at the left, and they look aggressive and definitive and a little bit angry.

The individual letters are very upright, not slanting to left or right, which suggests self-control and rational thinking, and also a certain amount of reserve and coldness toward others. No rush toward the future, no pining for the past; and no inordinate dependence.

You wouldn’t mistake this handwriting for that of a shy or indecisive person, or a sentimental person. It’s confident, possibly arrogant, but not showy. The pressure on the pen is very consistent throughout. This isn’t someone with meandering thoughts or a lot of time to waste. The words may not be clear to the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the writer suffered from any sloppiness of thought

Anyway, it’s mostly just fun and games. If you want to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll readily agree, and I won’t even hold your cold pricklies against you for it.

It’s true, though, that when someone has been raised with a keyboard and barely knows how to form letters, you can’t tell much from the unpracticed chicken scratches they do produce. And that’s a shame. All my life, I’ve looked forward to the moment when I can walk solemnly up to my daughter, grasping in my trembling hand an intercepted love letter from her beau, and telling her, “This man makes his lower-case a’s with a little gap at the bottom! RUN AWAY NOW!”

Ah well. In the words of Thomas Aquinas . . . 

. . . yeah, actually I have no idea what he says. 

 

 

To Mrs. Rich, wherever she may be

Thanks for taking us out past the playground into the warm, dim, shadowy woods so we could drink our cartons of milk on a carpet of pine needles while you read to us about The Little Red Hen. I really liked it.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by Yogurt yeah [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Nervous about kids starting school? 10 things to remember

As I’ve mentioned a million times, we have tried nearly every form of schooling that is out there. The biggest change was going from home school to the classroom. Lots of adjustments, in our habits and our attitudes! Here are ten things we learned the hard way.

(Please note: this post is intended to help parents who have some trepidation about starting their kids out in school. All of the “lessons” in it come directly from my own family’s experience, and are not intended to mock, belittle, or stereotype anyone. If you insist on assuming that my motives are foul, just remember what they say: “assume” makes an “e” out of you and your, um, ass. Or something.)

1. A kid who is old enough to go to school is old enough to pack his own lunch. He’s also more likely to eat food he chose than food you chose for him; and food that gets eaten is always more nutritious than food that doesn’t get eaten, no matter what it is. However, an adult must inspect these lunches regularly to make sure they have more nutritional content than the bag in which they are packed. No, checking how heavy the bag is does not count.

2. Teachers do not want tea lights or magnets or paperweights or wreaths or adorably decorated clothes pins. They want gift cards to office and craft supply stores, or to Starbucks, and they want boxes of tissues and Clorox wipes. Or, they would settle for an involved parent. They would probably prefer an involved parent.

3. Being a Catholic means you’re going to be different, and kids need to learn, sooner or later, that it’s not the end of the world to be different. If your kids are going to be in an environment where they are the only Catholics around, they need to have constant reminders (in word and in deed) that Christians are bearers of Good News, not bearers of hostility and smugness.  Also, If you are a serious practicing Catholic, you’re just as likely to stand out in a typical Catholic school as you are to stand out in a secular school.  The wearin’ of the plaid is not a guarantee of an excellent faith formation and a wholesome environment, so pay attention.

4. Skip the personal bottles of hand sanitizer to be used every time your snowflakes come into contact with the outside world. We actually got sicker when I tried hard to sterilize everything, because kids do need to be exposed to some germs. Try and remind them to wash their hands before they eat, but just resign yourself to some sniffles and pukies, and get on with your life. But don’t let them share hats or hairbrushes! Trust LICE me LICE on LICE this LICE one. (If they do get lice, that’s not the end of the world, either.)

5. Most teachers are not the enemy. We’ve run across a few teachers who genuinely don’t like or understand kids, and sometimes a situation really is unendurable, and you need to switch teachers or even switch schools.  But generally, if a teacher is in the classroom, it’s because he wants to do right by your kid. So if there is a problem, start by believing that you can at least partially solve it together with the teacher, rather than by believing you need to protect your child from the teacher.  It’s much easier to communicate with someone when you go into it acting like you’re on the same side.

6. If you’re going to believe everything your kid says about what happened in school (“Mrs. Fleishhacker says that she was going to beat me with barbed wire if I didn’t wear matching socks tomorrow!”), then it’s only fair that your kid’s teacher should believe everything your kid says about what happens at home (“Here is my picture of my family eating breakfast! All those whiskey bottles are my mom’s”).

7. Yes, your kids will probably change somewhat when they’re put into a new situation. This is just human, and not necessarily a bad thing.  Be ready and open to embrace positive changes, as well as being on the alert to ferret out bad changes. Do be concerned about a kid whose behavior changes drastically — a cheerful, outgoing kid who becomes very quiet and withdrawn, or a cooperative kid who becomes defiant and obstinate. Some changes are normal when kids are adjusting to a new environment, but if you’re worried, trust your instincts and look into it. There could be any number of things going on: a bad teacher, a good teacher who is approaching your kid the wrong way, a bully, a character defect in your own child, not enough sleep, hunger, or any of dozens of physical, emotional, psychological, or situational problems that don’t have anything to do with school. Most kids go through rough patches at one time or another, so if this happens to your kids, don’t assume he’s lost or ruined or that you’re a failure; but do take it seriously if your kid is consistently unhappy for a long time.

8. A lot of kids crash right after school. It’s partly being tired and hungry, and partly because they’ve been trying really hard to be good all day, and their tanks are empty. If possible, just be grateful it’s not reversed, and do your best to wait it out until the kid matures a bit. Have a snack ready, and be prepared to give even older kids some decompressing time before you expect much out of him after school.

9. Remember that you are still in charge of your child’s education. If there’s something they’re not getting at school, you give it to them. If they’re hearing something that’s not true, correct it. If you need someone else’s help to educate your kids, that is not an objective failure on your part!  Remember that they’re still your kids, and you can and must be the primary influence in how they see and respond to the world.

10. You’re not going to get an ideal education in a brick and mortar school. You’re also not going to get an ideal education by home schooling, or by unschooling, or by semi schooling, or co-schooling, or private schooling, or charter schooling, or attending-all-the-conferences-and-working-yourself-into-a-damp-spot-on-the-carpet schooling. Some schools are better than others, but since we are dealing with finite time and human nature, there will always be gaps. Expect this, fill in what you can, and remember that your kids are people, not empty mason jars waiting to be filled up with the perfect combination of ingredients. We’re making people, here, not soup.

***

A version of this essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.

Dear Simcha: Some back-to-school advice

Dear Simcha,

I believe in predictability, order, and routine. The alarm goes off at 6:20. Breakfast is always ready on time. We’re well-stocked with clean clothes, toothpaste, and deodorant. I keep the kids’ shoes in labelled bins and their backpacks on labelled hooks. I give them a ten-minute and a five-minute warning when it’s time to leave. We’ve been doing this exact routine for three weeks, but we are still late every single day, and my children are often partly naked. And they all act like it’s my fault! What is wrong with them?

Signed,
Craves order

Dear Craves,

Well, it is your fault, you know. Don’t you know how important it is to have reasonable expectations?

For instance, you are expecting your children to act like rational human beings, even though the testimony of every mother throughout the course of human history, from the cave matron shooing her hairy little cavebabies off to twig-gathering school to the LuLaRoe’d, overcaffeinated yummy mummy weeping quietly into her suddenly deserted cul-de-sac, can tell you children are lower than the animals.

Animals, at least, respond predictably to stimuli and will act in service of their own self-preservation. Children, on the other hand, can zero in on the least helpful, most self-destructive course of action like a hungry pig after a truffle. Children crave order and predictability. Children are order and predictability’s worst enemy. You must know this.

Still, you have to get out that door. Your only recourse is train your kids to sing out adorably, “Daddy gets us ready every morrrrrrning!” According to the latest research, a kid who turns up wearing a stained leotard, Scooby Doo slippers, and grits in her hair is cute as long as Daddy got her ready.

***

Dear Simcha,

I make a point of serving my kids a balanced breakfast including protein and whole grains every morning. They also bring a full lunch and two snacks, and I keep cheese sticks, almonds, and dried fruit in the car for the ride home. Can you tell me why they are always hungry enough to take actual bites of each other’s arms by the time we pull into the driveway at 3:45?

Signed,
It just don’t add up

Dear It,

Well, I’ll tell you. On that very special day when a brand new baby first opens his eyes on this big, overwhelming world, a tiny fairy comes to him and whispers a very special secret into his ear:

“You’re not going to eat your lunch,” she tells him.

“Never mind why. Just know that it doesn’t matter what your mother packs. It doesn’t matter if she cooks it herself, and you requested it specifically, and it is monogrammed with a special lunch monogrammer purchased at some expense from Hammacher Schlemmer. None of this matters, for, o my child, you are not going to eat it! Your lunch is just there for the ride. It wants to go to school, and it wants to sit on your desk, and then it wants to go home again, to be thrown away completely intact, even unto the granola bar that was produced on machinery that does not also process tree nuts. It is the way of the world, little one. So shall it ever be.”

Your best bet, mom, is to buy a chicken, a goat, or some other non-discerning animal with a great hunger, so at least someone eats all that food. Then, when it’s nice and plump, you can sell it on Craigslist and buy some booze.

***

Dear Simcha,

Wow, you sure do complain a lot about school! It just makes me glad that we home school. So many people believe that home school is going to be hard, but in my experience, a full day of school work can be accomplished in mere minutes a day. I have never met a homeschooler who has regretted their choice or who has found their job difficult.*

Signed,
Just Sayin’

Dear Just:

I may have a public school education, but even I can tell one of two things is going on here. Either (a) You don’t actually home school, but you fully intend to, once you have kids of school age, once you have kids, once you get married to your secret boyfriend, Milo or (b) You do home school, and you do finish in minutes a day, but your kids can’t, like, read. Or add. And the youngest one is nineteen.

I have friends who home school for all sorts of reasons, but not a single damn one who will tell you that it’s always easy. Like every other kind of parenting, including parenting that involves a brick and mortar school, home schooling is sometimes easy and rewarding, sometimes hard and unrewarding, and sometimes easy and unrewarding, and something hard and rewarding. Sometimes it’s some combination of these things within a single hour. So say all my home schooling friends who are not liars.

If you have any choice at all (and not everyone does), you keep on doing it as long as the rewarding part outweighs the hard part. But saying it’s always easy for everyone? That’s just plain . . .

you know what, never mind. I gotta get back to that Craigslist guy about this goat. Baaaaa!
_____
*Actual comment I read on actual Facebook.

How ready are you for the end of school? A quiz

You check your calendar and realize there is yet another evening concert tonight. You . . .

(a) stride into the child’s room to make sure the concert apparel is clean and pressed, shoes are shined, and that the after-school snack you’re planning doesn’t include cheese, which can produce a phlegmy sound in the vocal cords. Oop, there’s just time to run out for flowers!

(b) sigh a little and adjust your schedule so everyone can get there on time. Maybe bring some work with you.

(c) barrel through the stages of grief as quickly as you can, then set to work figuring out why it’s definitely your husband’s turn to represent.

(d) contact your lawyer. This just isn’t right. This just isn’t right. 

As your child leaves for school, you notice that his shoes are pretty beat up. You . . .

(a) are relieved, because it’s been nearly four months since his feet have been measured and fitted by your on-call orthopedist. Optimal brain function is only possible when the body is cared for from top to toe.

(b) dig out a spare pair that are not perfect, but they’ll get the kid through.

(c) hope the gas station sells flip flops.

(d) growl, “Well, we got plenty paper bags. Here’s a marker; draw yourself a swoosh.”

You are packing a lunch for your kid and you make sure it . . .

(a) includes a lean protein, two servings of veg and one of fruit (local, obvs), a grain (because kids will be kids!), and . . .  let’s see, it’s Thursday, so that means the extra treat will be . . . cauliflower-based! Fun! Now, which mason jar conveys the most love?

(b) is reasonably balanced, won’t trigger anyone’s allergies, and may even get eaten.

(c) has some food in it, none of it used.

(d) is heavy enough to appear to contain food, for plausible deniability.

You are informed there will be three field trips next week, each one requiring a special lunch and extra snacks, early drop-off and late pick-up time, a sheaf of permission slips and release forms, and of course a check. And money for the gift shop. You . . .

(a) sprint to the phone to volunteer as chaperone. You always wanted to see how they sort industrial grit, and now you get to do it alongside a large group of middle schoolers! Win win!

(b) are just grateful someone else is organizing these things. It’s nice, really, that kids get to break out of the routine.

(c) shout, “FINE” and tear a check from the checkbook so violently that you accidentally clock the kid in the jaw, and when she stops crying, she admits that she didn’t want to go anyway because her best friends Braeydinn and Peyytun are being weird, so you decide to just skip it and get donuts together.

(d) take the kid by the hand and ask him if he really wants to go, grasping his hand tighter and tighter until he begs you to let go, I mean let him stay home and help you get caught up on laundry and really just be useful to you in any way you need, really.

You scroll ahead in your calendar to find out when the last day of school is, anyway. You . . .

(a) sit right down and write a thank-you note to the superintendent for all his hard work and wise and prudent choices over the year. Those guys just don’t get enough credit, you know? Six figure income, you say? That doesn’t seem like enough.

(b) sigh a little bit, but you have to be grateful there is such a thing as school. Some places don’t have school.

(c) massage your temples, breathe like your therapist wants you to breathe, and work toward a place of acceptance, by which you mean “only soft screaming.”

(d) decide that, as of this minute, you are homeschooling, dammit, and it is summer.

***

Scoring:

Come on, what do you want from my life? A+. You all get an A+. All right?

Image by Ian Chapin via Flickr Creative Commons

Dear Teacher

How I spent my summer vacation

How I spent my summer vacation

Alas. We spent our summer swimming, watching X Files, sucking down gallons and gallons of ramen, eviscerating countless watermelons, making a meticulous survey of the entire lifework of the master cinematographer Chow Yun Fat, and creating various kinds of heartache for your long-suffering soul sister, the public librarian.

Read the rest at the Register.

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