Today was the first day of school.
Elise headed off to eighth grade, and in typical eighth grade fashion, she decided the dress code rules did not apply to her. When I said, "Um... really? spaghetti straps and bra straps showing?" She said, "Oh I have a T-shirt in my backpack in case I get in trouble." Um. No. We are not starting off a new year with a dress code violation. I sent her back in to change. She seemed to have a great first day and likes her teachers so far.
Next we had nervous Nina heading off to middle school for the first time. Sixth grade is kind of a big deal, and thankfully, she survived. She only ended up in the wrong classroom once.
Then we have Addison...
who was clearly not at all nervous about second grade.
She and I are on our own now in the mornings. Nina was usually the one who kept us on track to make the bus on time, so it was no big surprise when we missed the bus this morning. As I was driving to school, it occurred to me that this was the first time in nine years of school that my kids have not taken the bus on the first day. Even in kindergarten, we always hustled them on to the bus, their backpacks weighted down with ten tons of school supplies. I drove along wondering how long the carpool line would be, assuming that many parents probably drive on the first day. Then, completely bewildered, I pulled up to a perfectly empty carpool line. It confused me until I looked over and saw the packed parking lot. Parents were walking kids into the building in droves. I briefly wondered, "Should I get out and walk her in? Is that what I am expected to do?" I quickly pushed that thought out of my head though. If she is independent enough to get off of a school bus and find her classroom on the first day, then she can get out of my car and find her way as well. With that, I dropped her off as the one lone carpool kid of the day. I haven't decided if that makes me a bad mom for neglecting my first day of school parental duties or a really great mom for encouraging my child to be independent. I'm just going to go with the latter... makes me feel better. Don't judge.
Addison had a great day, and wouldn't you know... she found her classroom, all by herself.
Growing up in Texas was hot.... like really hot... as in I owned a T-shirt that stated, "I survived the 1980 Texas heat wave." That was the year we had 42 consecutive days with a high temperature over 100 and reached an all-time high of 113. I went to Girl Scout camp for a couple of summers on Lake Texoma (the lake breeze being the only thing that made those platform tents tolerable) until my mom declared it was simply too hot to go to camp in Texas. The next year, she started sending me to Camp Illahee in the mountains of North Carolina for five weeks each summer. That was back when unaccompanied minors on summer flights were the norm. It was pre-9/11 and before the advent of helicopter parenting, so kids flew alone to visit grandma, stay with cousins, or go to camp. I would hop on a flight in Dallas with 8-10 other kids heading to camp in North Carolina. We would fly to Charlotte where we would change planes for the short flight to Asheville. Looking back, I feel so sorry for the flight attendants (or I'm sure they were called stewardesses back then) on that flight from Charlotte to Asheville. Campers from all over the country converged in Charlotte, and then we all took that same flight to Asheville. Can you imagine being the flight attendant on a flight that was 90% unaccompanied minors? As you watched the baggage being loaded onto the plane, it was footlocker after footlocker after sleeping bag after duffel bag. They must have hated those flights.
I loved my summers at Illahee. I made friends who I still keep in touch with to this day. Don't I look like someone straight out of Hayley Mills' cabin in the movie The Parent Trap in my Sunday white uniform?
We wore whites on Sundays and blues on Saturdays and for trips out of camp. This photo was taken at the Biltmore.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from camp - the hike up to Mount LeConte Lodge, rafting the Nantahala, organizing Surprise Day as a CIT, fried chicken and Biltmore ice cream for lunch on Sundays, the dances at the boys' camp, Camp Deerwoode, taking woodworking, weaving, riflery, synchronized swimming, diving, lifesaving, rappelling, and canoeing. When Addie asks me to sing to her at bedtime, she gets campfire songs from Illahee.
I always knew that if I ever had a girl, she would spend her summers at Illahee. Then... I grew up. I had not one but THREE girls, and discovered that the 3-4 week long sessions at Illahee are prohibitively expensive, especially times three. Also, sessions that long don't work out so well with a year-round school schedule. Neither our budget nor our schedule could make that dream happen, so off to Girl Scout camp they went. I'm not knocking Girl Scout camps. They are great for what they are - fun, affordable camps, with limited amenities and activities. My girls have enjoyed Girl Scout camp, but every year when we would drop them off or pick them up, I couldn't help but feel like they were missing out. It just isn't the same experience that you get at a bigger camp with a long history of traditions, (Illahee opened in 1921.) and campers who return to the same session year after year.
This year, we decided to try something different, Camp Cheerio, a YMCA camp. It has been around for 60 years, is priced about halfway between Girl Scout camp and Illahee, and seemed to offer the type of camp experience I had been wanting to find.
As we sat in the long line of cars to get into camp that first day with the windows open enjoying the cool mountain air, I think I was just as excited as Elise and Nina.
It all just felt right. We hadn't even gotten out of the car yet, and I knew they were going to have a great week.
Even the slide going into the lake looked just like the one at Illahee.
As we drove into camp we were greeted everywhere by counselors waving and yelling, "Welcome to Cheerio!" We got the girls checked into their cabins. (How cool are the bright colored footlockers these days? I don't think there was any option other than black when I was a camper.)
Pop culture decorating the cabin doors still seems to be going strong.. Ms. Pacman from the 80's to Taylor Swift now.
We dropped off their medicine, bought the requisite camp sweatshirts, hugged them good-bye, and left knowing they were going to have an amazing time creating camp memories to last a lifetime.
Every smiling picture we saw from camp during the week confirmed that they were having a ball.
The perfectly posed cabin photo even reminded me of the unit pictures we always took at Illahee.
I was feeling like I had finally found the perfect camp for my girls. Then Thursday came, a day that will sadly stick in the minds of many people for years to come. We got an email from the camp that evening that there had been a tragic zipline accident and a child had been taken to the hospital. By later that night, we saw on the news that the child had died. I can't even tell you all the feelings that were running through us that night... overwhelming grief for the family who lost a child, a heavy feeling in the pit of our stomachs that it could just as easily have been one of our girls, and worry for Elise and Nina - What had they seen? What did they know? Was this girl a friend or cabinmate? Did they need a hug from mom and dad? (We certainly needed one from them.)
When you send your child off to camp, you expect a few bumps and bruises, maybe a bee sting, sprained ankle or stitches. That comes with the territory of outdoor camp activity. I had to go to the hospital one year for stitches in my toe after a bizarre canoe accident at camp. You never in a million years though think that when you give your child a good-bye hug at their cabin that it is the last time you'll ever see them alive. I get overwhelmed just thinking about it.
On top of the fear, the grief, the anxiety, I had a much more trivial sad thought running through my head as well... "That camp seemed like everything I wanted for them, and now they will never want to go back."
We debated going straight to the camp the next morning to pick them up. We had visions of sobbing campers all over camp with parents rushing in to bring them all home. When I called the camp the next morning, that image couldn't have been further from the truth. I was told that if our children had witnessed the accident or had been a cabinmate of the child that we would have already been contacted directly. I was also told that camp was going on as usual with laughter, smiles, singing, and fun. Most of the campers didn't even know there had been an accident. Those that asked about it were told that she had been in an accident and had to leave camp but no more than that. Amazing. I had never been so grateful for the "no phones, no ipods, no electronics" camp rule. Despite the story being all over the news and social media, the camp was able to completely isolate the majority of the campers from knowing anything. Those young counselors are rock stars. The counselors had all been told Thursday night, but they put on a smiling face, and I suppose adrenaline kept them going.
Pick-up on Saturday was hard. All I could think about was that one family wasn't there picking up their daughter with the rest of us. I couldn't wait to see Elise and Nina, but I was on the verge to tears the whole morning. The camp program director and YMCA CEO greeted each car as we arrived at camp and answered any questions we had. We told them that we appreciated all their communication and felt like they had handled a horrible situation as well as they possibly could. We picked up the girls who were positively bursting with stories to tell us about all the things they had done at camp that week. Before we could even ask, they both declared that they were definitely going back next year.
Wow. Despite counselors and camp leadership likely in shock and grieving those last few days of camp, most of the campers were none the wiser. The week could have ended so differently for all those campers, but thanks to good decisions by the camp director and CEO, most of those campers had just as great a week as they have had any other year at Cheerio.
After about three hours of non-stop camp stories from Elise and Nina, Nina eventually told us that there had been a bad accident at the zip line. Sadly, two girls in Nina's cabin had witnessed the fall. Nina knew it was bad. She said one of the girls cried a lot and had counselors talking with her a lot (the camp had grief counselors there on site after the accident). Nina had definitely been affected by the accident and is still struggling with it to some degree, but the fact that it took three hours of non-stop talk before the subject came up tells me that the fun and adventures of camp overshadowed the sadness.
Later that evening, we told the girls the whole story, and we all shed some tears. Nina is still processing it all, but she is adamant that she wants to go to Cheerio again next year. She loved her time there.
I feel blessed, fortunate, and just plain lucky that our children came home from camp that week healthy and safe, but I feel like a little of my parent innocence has been lost. Those camp good-bye hugs will take on a whole new meaning in the future. Elise left for Costa Rica three days ago, and I think I hugged her and told her I loved her about 10 times between the parking lot and the airport. I'm pretty much holding my breath until their rainforest canopy zip line adventure is over. It is a little sooner than I'd like to have my child on a zip line again.
I'm thrilled that the girls had a great week at camp and that we have found a camp that reminds me more of my childhood camp memories. That was a hard week though, and my thoughts and prayers are still with the Burney family, the counselors who were working the zip line that day, the camp doctor and first responders, and the whole Camp Cheerio family.
"Making a decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."
~ Elizabeth Stone
I seem to have completely dropped the ball on writing letters to any of you on or near your birthdays. In the grand scheme of things though, it really shouldn't matter when I write these letters, as long as I write them once a year or so. At least I like to tell myself that. That said, you had a big milestone this week, so what better time to write a letter! Tuesday, you graduated from elementary school.
(First day of kindergarten picture)
You couldn't be more ready for middle school. At 5'7, you are now taller than every elementary school teacher you've had over the past six years. Not only have you physically outgrown the pint-sized chairs and desks, I think you have mentally moved beyond it and have just been ready for this chapter to come to a close.
After the ceremony, as friends in your class shed tears about their last day at the school and posed for pictures with every classmate, you eagerly held on to your diploma and exclaimed, "Can we leave now?"
It wasn't that you didn't enjoy your time there or aren't going to miss your friends who will be attending different middle schools. You had many happy years there and will definitely miss certain friends. You are ready to move forward though. You have seen what a great experience middle school has been for Elise, and you are excited about this next stage in life. You are ready for new friends, new challenges, and new experiences in a new school. For some of your friends, graduation day was an emotional day filled with sad goodbyes, reminders of elementary school memories and a slide show that tugged at their heartstrings. For you, it was simply the last hurdle to cross on the way to the finish line.
I am excited for you. I love that you are open to the new adventures that await you in middle school. As you love tell anyone who mentions middle school electives, your parents are making you take band next year. You love to point out what cruel parents we are to force this on you, but secretly, I think you may actually be looking forward to participating in band. You are such a music loving soul. You love to listen to music, find new songs on iTunes, and you thoroughly enjoyed playing the recorder in music class. Your one and only aversion to band is the stage appearance twice a year for the concerts. Your dad and I are taking the "we know what's best for you" role on this one. I predict that you will love it. Band has been such a positive part of middle school for Elise - the fun, the music, the band director, the friends, and the performances. We are hoping for a similar experience for you, and I think the many pros of band outweigh the cons of a little stage fright twice a year. How it all plays out remains to be seen though. We have assured you that if you hate it, you can drop out after the first year.
Right now, your major love is volleyball. You play any chance you get. Your goal is to be a manager for the middle school volleyball team in 6th grade and then play on the team in 7th and 8th. I think it is great that you've found a sport that you love. It is definitely a good fit for you.
Like band, volleyball was another activity we "forced" you to do. About a year ago, you had become rather sedentary. There weren't any activities, hobbies, or sports that interested you. We told you that you needed to choose something to do outside of school or we were going to choose something for you. You never made a selection, so without even asking you, I signed you up for volleyball. I didn't necessarily think you would love it. I wasn't even sure if you would like it. I just wanted you try something new. Of course, there was also that little overly optimistic voice in my head that said, "She has the height for volleyball... maybe she will love it, get really good at it, and get a scholarship." We are all allowed those pie in the sky parental dreams occasionally, right?
You played in a fall league for the team with the most losing record in the league. You lost every regular season game, but it hooked you. You had the time of your life. Last week, you started playing for a new summer league team which encompasses an older age group and higher skill level. I think you will grow and learn a lot as a player in this league. You plan to play in the fall again too. Volleyball has been great for you. It gives you a focus, an identity, a team spirit, and a great outlet for blowing off steam and getting some exercise.
Your other big interest lately has been sewing. You received a sewing machine for Christmas and have spent many hours designing, creating, and sewing. I think you enjoy the design aspect best. You are going to a week of fashion design camp this summer, and I'm anxious to see what you learn there. You have taken to doing a lot of "upcycling" - taking old worn out, outgrown, or out of style items from our closets and upcycling them into something new. This is one of your upcycled t-shirt creations.
I feel like this has been a big year for you... you have grown a lot, matured a lot, and really turned into the middle schooler that you soon will be. You have taken on more chores around the house and more responsibilities for taking care of yourself. If I need help putting Addie to bed or making her lunch, you jump right in. Of course, with this new tween maturity, we sometimes get the tween attitude as well. You have perfected a grimace that I have interpreted as a cross between, "I hate you", "You are the meanest parent ever", and "This is my evil look". Your glare with those piercing eyes can be a bit disconcerting. I'm hoping it is just a phase. Fortunately, you don't use it on us too frequently.
This coming year will bring a new school, new adventures, new friends, and lots of change. You seem wholeheartedly prepared and ready to tackle all of it though. And that... that is awesome.
I love you, Nina!
"If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here. I guarantee you that."
~ Michelle Obama, FLOTUS
Nina had three hours of English EOG testing yesterday. She has three hours of math testing today. Tomorrow is science. They have done nothing but study and prepare for these tests for weeks, and I just received this email from her teacher:
"For the science EOG tomorrow, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE make sure your child has gone into Study Island and completed the extra practice I gave them in science. Students should have already been working on it. They were given the assignment in class several days ago."
NO, NO, NO. I will NOT make sure she has completed the extra practice to cram the night before the test. In fact, I will go out of my way to make sure that she does not do it. I will set her in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and play a movie. I will take her to the pool and buy her a Choco-taco from the ice cream truck. I will order pizza and declare it a family game night. I'm not sure what our plans will be tonight, but they will definitely NOT include Nina doing additional practice tests. No. We are done. Testing has started. Test prep is over in the House of Estrogen.
I forwarded the teacher's email to J.C. with the comment, "Bullshit. She is not doing this.' He responded, "I'm going to make her do it twice." He's a real comedian, isn't he?
If you have been reading this blog for long, you know it is that time of year for my annual rant about End of Grade (EOG) testing, like previous posts, Just Another Day at School and Letter to the Common Core Standards Initiative. It is 4:00 a.m., and I was lying in bed awake stewing, composing a letter to Nina's principal and teacher in my head. I was never going to go back to sleep without actually writing it, so here I am sitting at the computer, awake in the middle of the night writing a letter.
I certainly won't send it yet. A first draft written at 4 a.m. is much too snarky to actually send without revising several times. At the very least, I need to re-read it in the morning when I'm actually awake and can have a coherent thought about a more appropriate tone for this letter. For now though, you get the rough draft.
Dear Mrs. R and Mrs. S,
I have been frustrated for years at the time, priority, and level of emphasis that <elementary school name> places on test preparation for EOG's. This year has brought me to my breaking point though. When did elementary school stop being about teaching kids to read, write, do math, and love learning? When did it become nothing more than an SAT prep course for fifth graders? Nina has had SEVEN WEEKS of required online practice test modules for homework, 56 practice test units in all. She was also given assignments in four additional online test-prep resources with instructions to spend "a good amount of time on each (including weekends)." Does no one else see the insanity in that?
Last night, Nina came upstairs almost an hour after her bedtime after doing test prep homework for two hours. She had a headache and was nearly in tears because she wasn't able to get a "blue ribbon" on every single test. I will admit that she had left too much of the weekly homework to the last minute, but she is an active kid with volleyball two nights per week, and steady pacing throughout every night of the week isn't always feasible.
My frustration is that I don't think any of this overblown prep work is for the benefit of Nina. I believe she would pass EOG's just fine after a bit of review of the science concepts that were covered early in the year and some hints on how to approach some of the typical reading comprehension questions. I would hazard a guess that the same is true for most of the kids in the classroom. All that this test prep has done is turn her into a tightly wound ball of stress. If she doesn't pass EOG's it will be because of the panic attack she'll have on test day. She was upset last night saying that she'll have to run a lap for each test that didn't have a blue ribbon. That was the best news I heard all night. At least she'll get outside and be active like an eleven year old should be. That has to be better for her health and development than hours in front of a computer doing online test prep. If I had known those consequences six weeks ago, I might have told her to blow off all of the assignments in favor of running laps instead.
If you could convince me that this prepares her for middle school, you might get me on board. It doesn't though. My seventh grader did great on EOC's last year by looking over her science notes from the year and not doing a single practice test. This is how it should be.
If the material has been taught well all year, the children have learned it, and they know how to fill in a bubble with a number two pencil, then they should be able to pass an end of grade test without two months of aggressive test prep leading up to it. If that much test prep is necessary for these kids to be able to pass the test, then something is wrong with the test, or something is wrong with the previous eight months of schooling.
Next year will be the first time in seven years that I won't have a child in third through fifth grade taking EOG's. I'll have a second grader and a sixth grader, so I have a one year break in the madness. I can't wait.
For any of you blog readers with elementary school age students, do your schools place this much emphasis on test preparation? Is this the norm?
This Halloween, we had an Elsa, a minion, and a teenager dressed in black jeans and a black shirt who claimed she was a "vampire hunter". Her mother made her put on a cape, so she at least had some semblance of a costume.
The vampire hunter deserted us for a friend's neighborhood. That's the cool middle school thing to do. Elsa had a great time in the gorgeous dress my mom made.
She trick-or-treated with Batman for a while and then hooked up with several other Elsas and assorted princesses. She was even brave enough to to reach over this not so dead corpse to grab candy.
The adult trick-or-treating was pretty stellar this year. I ended up with a glass of wine, a toasted marshmallow shot of Kahlua, and a Frito pie. Plus, I stole all the girls' Kit Kats. Score.
Then we have the minion. Weeks of planning went into putting together the perfect minion costumes with a friend. Minion socks, a minion jack-o-lantern, figuring out who would be the yellow minion and who would be the purple minion and then deciding they should both be yellow minions, making minion goggles... it seemed to be the grand master plan leading up to a perfect night of minion trick or treating.
Until it wasn't. Nina burst into the house sobbing, completely heartbroken. Apparently her minion partner in crime had left to trick-or-treat in another neighborhood with another friend. With tears streaming down her face, she declared, "I don't want to trick or treat at all!" It ripped my heart out just a bit to see her so upset. She had been looking forward to this night for weeks. I don't know how things fell apart, whether Nina had bigger expectations about being together that night than the friend, or whether the friend got a better offer and ditched her, but at that point, it didn't matter. She was learning that awful lesson that we all learn at some point... friends sometimes let you down, and it hurts. I gave her a hug, wiped the tears off her face, and told her not to let that ruin her night. I convinced her to go find another friend. By the end of the night, she had hooked up with four other girls and had a ball. Thankfully, the night was salvaged. She came home with a big sack of candy and a smile on her face. She still can't really talk about the whole minion ordeal though. It was definitely a night of Halloween heartbreak for one yellow minion and her mom.
Last weekend, I had a glorious child-free weekend with girlfriends at Myrtle Beach. We gabbed, walked, napped, swam, ate, drank, laughed, shopped, and relaxed. It was definitely a different vibe from our family trip to Emerald Isle last month, but both trips were fabulous. The beach is always my happy place. I love this quote from the book "Where'd You Go Bernadette?" (a great beach read, by the way).
"When your eyes are softly focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins. It's the same as a runner's high."
~ Maria Semple
I'm thinking these faces have some of those beach horizon endorphins coursing through them.
We did a lot of boogie boarding.
Elise did some jumping.
Grandparents came... my parents for the first part of the week...
And J.C.'s parents for the second half.
buried sisters in the sand,
got lost in a good book,
and some of us may have taken afternoon naps.
Overall, it was a very mellow, relaxing vacation spent with family. In other words, it was just about perfect.