Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another thing you need to tell me

I've said a few times that parents need to tell me beforehand if their child has any issues I need to know about. Parents tend to be very good (overly good) about alerting me to allergies. However, they're not as good at alerting me if their children have developmental or behavioral issues. Autism, ADHD, whatever. The kid might just be A Great Big Jerk -- I like to know that in advance, too.

Parents: One thing that you might want to bring to my attention is if your child has a severe anxiety disorder of some kind. Let me give you an example.

Last week I was teaching my favorite class of kids. One of the girls, a nerdy, bespectacled whiz kid named Beth* started to tell me halfway through that she missed her mommy. The girl is in third grade. She looked fretful and because she'd pulled the same thing last week, I told her that her mother would come for her in half an hour, and she only had to wait until then.

Five minutes passed. "I miss my mommy."

Fifteen minutes passed. "I miss my mommy."

Twenty-eight minutes passed. Two minutes left in the class. By now, she looked really troubled. She started crying. Her face got hot and flushed----she up and told me she was "feeling very hot." I sat her down and asked her to just breathe, and that her mommy would see her in two minutes and she didn't have to worry. She continued to stress, hyperventilate, and freak out----until she looked at me and told me she had to go to the bathroom.

I reached for her hand and said we'd go together. She shook her head and said, "I'm leaking." All of a sudden, she wets her pants. An eight-year-old girl just wet her pants. Not a little bit, either. Her bladder exploded. In the span of three seconds, there was a small puddle of urine on the floor. Five seconds, and it looked like someone spilled a two-liter bottle of lemonade.

This is not the first time I've had a child wet herself in my class. I had a five-year-old girl fuss and whine for a few seconds and then wet herself during a summer camp----weird, because she'd been just fine about using the bathroom before. But she was five. Five! I remember having accidents when I was five. Beth, on the other hand, is eight, and the accident clearly came as a result of some kind of freakish panic attack.

Immediately following the accident, it was like the dam breaking had relieved all her pressure. She immediately felt better. She didn't seem remotely concerned that she was sitting on a urine-soaked bench in urine-soaked pants, swinging her feet above a urine-soaked floor. The other students were starting to make comments and I had to swoop in and keep them occupied while one of the dads (the school janitor!) was kind enough to grab his mop and clean it up without me even thinking to suggest it (the last time I had to clean it up myself, so I'm so thankful he was there). She looked up at me, the red color fading in her face, and said: "Hey, at least it's cooling me down!" I appreciate the optimism, I suppose.

When her mother finally arrived, we were still cleaning up the mess. Beth still had wet clothes. Her mother didn't seem the least bit concerned. In fact, she acted like it happened all the time.

HELLO? If your child has a disorder which causes them to have panic attacks until they wet themselves, I NEED TO KNOW THIS. It would prepare me. Maybe give me a tip on how to help her cope with it. Maybe I could send her off to the bathroom before she pees all over the floor. Maybe I just wouldn't be fucking horrified by the situation if I knew it was coming. Do her teachers know? Did they find out the hard way? This is something you NEED to mark on her health form. Seriously.

Just... fuckin' seriously.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The stuff nightmares are made of

Do you ever get nightmares about work? As an actor, I grew up with the "actor's nightmare" --- the dream that puts you on stage without knowing any lines. This kind of thing is common. It's the dream where nothing goes right, where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. When I started working for this company, I started to get nightmares about what would happen if everything went wrong. If I wasn't prepared, or if the children didn't respond. Sometimes I have bad days at work, but they're never as bad as the ones in my nightmares.

Until today.

Today's party was surreal. Another Halloween-themed party, the day after Halloween (oh, goody). Now, the Halloween party is a little juvenile. It requires suspension of disbelief. I have to tell stories about imaginary characters and act like witches and vampires are real. For little kids, they are real. But once you hit nine or ten, or if you're just a jaded rebellious pain in the ass, this party becomes downright stupid. My first warning bell was that the birthday child in question was nine years old. That's a little old for this kind of thing. But... okay! I was feeling good, because the party also was only supposed to have ten kids. Easy peasy, despite the cotton candy add-on. (Cotton candy is the worst add-on to a party. It's sticky, it's messy, and the equipment is heavy as hell. Also, kids are assholes about it and pretend to get sugar rushes. They think it gives them the right to act like monkeys. But anyway.)

One thing the mother did NOT tell me, however, is that the birthday child is mentally handicapped. I would have liked to know this prior to him coming into the room at the start of the party. I've done parties for autistic children before, or children with mentally and physically handicapped siblings/friends. I just like to KNOW. I like to know what's expected from the child, if their behavior is going to be out of the ordinary, or specific ways how to handle the child----warnings about what they can and cannot do, etc, notes on their attention span, etc. Is that too much to ask for? But no, not a word from mom! Birthday boy was loud, restless, and irritating. He couldn't control himself, and continued to get up and wander around behind my table to look at my equipment and TOUCH my equipment----something that is not allowed. He wouldn't budge when I asked him. He wouldn't budge when I told him. I don't blame him. He doesn't understand. But I would have appreciated parental assistance in handling this kid. I barely got any.

AND YET, our mentally-handicapped friend was not my problem. I can handle a child like that. I could NOT handle all his snotty friends. Only ten kids. Should have been easy. But remember what I said about this party being a little juvenile? At the start of the party, I let the kids know that I'm going to be telling some stories, so it's just fun to roll with it and pretend along with me, even if you may not think it's true.


These kids were bastards. They were skeptics. They were at that age where challenging authority is cool. There's a huge difference between questioning something out of curiosity and being a bitch just because you can be. Yes, I have a balloon the size of an egg. Yes, I'm telling you that it's a vampire. Look, I drew a face on him! Just roll with it. Don't be an asshole and tell me it's a balloon and the fangs are magic marker and that I'm stupid. I just want to get through the experiment and move on. Every single act went like this. I present a story, I get called on my bullshit, or Birthday Boy toddles up to the table and starts grabbing things he shouldn't grab and lo, reveals the secret of the magic trick. Or, while I'm in the middle of something, another kid wanders to the corner where I have things HIDDEN and starts pointing at it and going OMG WHAT IS THAT. These kids were contrary, they were rude, they made every act take longer because all they did was argue with me----or raise their hands to say really obnoxious stuff when I think they have an actual answer.

Children TOUCHED the dry ice. I was halfway through my spiel about how dry ice is dangerous. I was holding it with gloves, telling them not to touch, when the child beside me reaches out when I'm looking the other way. And touches it. He then has the audacity to say "It's not cold!" to everyone around him. I very seriously stop the party to let them know that this is a serious safety warning and that touching it is very dangerous. I let them know that they can experience it by blowing on it and watching the carbon dioxide gas come off of it. The third kid to do this sneaks a hand under my hands while blowing and TOUCHES IT AGAIN. "It's not cold at all!" he says. You want to know why you don't feel the cold? Because it's so cold that it's killing the nerves in your fucking fingers, you idiot. How much do you want to bet I'm going to get a call like this is my fault?

But oh. Oh. OH, the final straw.

I was making cotton candy, and some kids stood on their chairs in order to be tall enough to see what was going on inside the bowl. I didn't mind that. The parents said it was okay and they weren't trying to touch anything. But then the kid beside and slightly behind me snaps out a hand and knocks my cute bat deely-boppers OFF OF MY HEAD. Not like a child who is curious and grabs because they don't know any better, but like a disrespectful, obnoxious ten-year-old brat trying to be an asshole. This is akin to walking up to a clown and tearing off their red nose, or kicking a balloon-seller in the shins just because you think it's funny. I was ready to cry. I was ready to lose my mind.

You ever see party entertainers in movies or on TV where they're abused and it's funny? Fuck you! It's sad. Next kid who touches my deely-boppers is getting hit with a sock full of rocks.

Homey don't play that.

Um, hello?

The label for this says "birthday parties." That's not really true. Every once in a blue moon I do a party that's not a birthday. For example, we have Halloween-themed parties that are often used as birthdays in October. Sometimes they're just Halloween costume parties. It's fun to see all the kids in their costumes----you can always count on a few Transformers, a Spider-Man, a Batman, a ninja, and one or six of the Disney Princesses.

Today was Halloween! I had a party at 4:45, which struck me as a little odd (and not just because when I booked it, I was told by my boss it was at 1:45). Weren't these kids trick-or-treating? Or did they hire me as a substitute now that their whitebread upper-middle-class neighborhood was full of pedophiles and killers who want to give their kids apples with razorblades? As it turned out, I was not a substitute. I was a time-filler. I was the appetizer before the meal. I was the sideshow before the circus.

Were the kids rowdy? Yeah. I was also told there would be 15 kids. There were 20. Yay! Fuck you. They were rowdy, and there were a bunch of older kids (12+) who were mouthy, who set a bad example, and who goofed around in a mocking way----which doesn't get the younger kids in an excited-for-science mood. All in all, the party went OKAY. Not that badly, but not something to write home about. The kids didn't care! Of course not! All they cared about was going out and getting candy afterward.

Apparently, that was all ANYONE cared about, because the second my party was over, everyone left. Twenty kids and all the parents, including the host mother. They all left. LEFT. They closed me in the basement and left. They went trick-or-treating. I cleaned up alone, thinking it was awful weird to not get a follow-up from anybody. Half an hour later I went upstairs and opened the basement door. The host dad was enjoying some wine with his friend and was freaked out that SOMEONE was in his home.

He forgot I was here, too! Fortunately their invoice was paid, and Dad and Dad's Friend helped me take my stuff back to the car. Dad also tipped me in a check because Mom left for trick-or-treating without tipping me in the cash that he'd apparently given her. The fact that I walked out with a tip stunned me. I hate Halloween parties. I then went to a grown-up Halloween party, directly after. My costume was an Overworked & Underpaid Professor.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This is the problem, see

I have a difficult child in one of my classes. He's seven years old, and for purposes of this blog, let's call him Nero. Difficulty paying attention, loud, fidgety, doesn't follow directions, and obstinate. OBSTINATE. Every so often I get a child who does not respond to any method of getting him to change his mind. Nero is this child.

Imagine the scenario: Class is just beginning, and everyone filters in, chitting and chatting and being little kids. Nero sits in the same seat he usually sits in, a spot that is designated by the regular teacher in that room as the "leader seat." The table leader sits in this seat. The kids give the seat special reverence and everyone wants to sit there. Louis*, another little boy at that table, asked me if he could sit in the leader seat this week, since Nero sat there the last two weeks. I politely asked Nero to move, and explained that it was fair.

He said no.

I asked him to move, less politely. He said no. This went on for at least a couple of MINUTES, because I'll be damned if I was going to let this child break me. The level of attitude was astounding. I've never met a child so stubborn. And then he said the one thing that made me understand him.

"When I'm at home, I get to do whatever I want."

Well, GEE. Ain't that just great. Dear Nero's parents: Your kid is an asshole. He disrupts the class, he's rude, he has no concept of proper behavior, and it's all your fault. Thank you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chill the fuck out!, Part 2

Dear Teacher:

Thank you for letting us use your room for our program. I understand that allowing a group of children and a person you don't know into your meticulously-designed classroom. Any number of things could happen. Items could go missing from children's desks. Projects could be messed up. Books can be moved. A mess could be left all over the place. All of these things have happened in the past because children don't know how to keep their hands to themselves when they see something exciting, and very often the instructor doesn't catch it. Sometimes the instructor doesn't understand how to properly clean up a room.

I received a call about your room being disrupted, that some xylophones were all rattled and knocked over. We discussed that if this happened the day before, it was not my class. I made it clear to my students that they are not allowed to touch any of the musical instruments when not supervised by the music teacher. I have the fear of God put into me about this, and I also know what it would be like to go into my workplace and have all my stuff moved or disrupted. If they knocked things over while getting their backpacks, I didn't see it, and I am very sorry. I will have them put their backpacks somewhere else.

But you sat in on my class to use your computer. I understand you might have work to do, but that freaks me out. I was expecting a phone call to the office for one reason or another, because our classes don't run the way yours do. At the start of class, the kids came in to put their backpacks down. One of the kids went to get something from his backpack, which he'd put behind the piano. As he bent over, his butt touched some of the keys and made a noise.

You RACED across the room in three steps to give him a verbal whipping, the likes of which I don't think I have EVER seen. It was an accident. Everyone who saw it knew it was an accident. He told you it was an accident. Holy. Fucking. Crap.

The more I work in elementary schools, the more I think that every person there needs a lot more vacation time. Or an in-school massage parlor... or an open bar.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chill the fuck out!

Dear Parents:

I am trained to handle your kids. I am also trained to handle the materials in my programs. I understand that you love and want to protect your kids, but where the fuck are your brains? Apparently, when I say this:

"This is dry ice! It's frozen carbon dioxide and it's much, much, much colder than regular ice. That's why I'm wearing gloves - because if I don't wear any gloves, the dry ice will cause frostbite! So it's very important that you don't touch this! I'm going to put this in some hot water. You can touch the gas over the cauldron, and if your hands accidentally skim the surface of the water, that's okay! Just don't put your hands in the water and reach in! Remember, don't touch the ice!"

SOME of you hear this:

"This is dry ice! It's super awesome! Look at it! Why don't you touch it? Why don't you reach into that cauldron and grab that block of dry ice! It's totally awesome! Yeah, frostbite rules! Safety? WHO CARES! I'm not your parent! I don't care about your wellbeing at all!"

Are you serious?

This has not only happened to me, but several other instructors as well, and not just with dry ice. We give perfectly responsible warnings. We watch your kids. And then you call the office and say we're irresponsible and are putting your kids in danger.

A former coworker of mine told me last night that he went to a birthday party, for which he had left a voice mail confirmation call the day before, saying "Hi, this is Jake*, and I'm doing your party..." Et cetera. He arrived, only to have the parent blockade the door after he said his name was Jake. "THE VOICE MAIL SAID YOUR NAME WAS JAMES!" She wouldn't let him in because she misheard his name. Freaked the hell out, argued, until he could repeat his voice message verbatim.

Between this and the peanut panic, my brain could explode from all the tension. I know you love your kids. I know the media scares the shit out of you people. But honestly? Chill out. Chill. Out. I can't take your paranoid insanity anymore.

If only all kids worked like you do

When it comes to teaching, some techniques work on some kids better than others. I can teach one class one way, and the next day none of those techniques will work. It depends on the ages, the interest level, and the area where the school is. I have an amazing charter school that I go to - I have twenty-three children and they're angels. I have another class of twenty-three children the same age and they are monsters. I can't even wrap my head around how to take care of them. I know that they need to have lots of hands-on work, but part of my job is helping them LEARN. The kids don't shut up. They are impossible to quiet down, and it's impossible to have a discussion with them. They don't follow directions. They talk back. They destroy equipment for fun. They fight with one another and don't know how to share. This isn't the first class I've had like this, where they're completely unmanageable.

Unfortunately, my workplace doesn't believe these places exist. We're trained to use a series of techniques to get kids interested, to discipline them. All kids, they say, will respond eventually. You can get any class quiet. This isn't true, I'm sorry. This is complete bullshit. When you have twenty-three kids who all decide they want to talk over you? They're going to talk over you, no matter what you do. I don't know where it went wrong. Did I at some point make the one misstep that causes them to disrespect me? Once you do that, you can't get it back. On the other hand, I'm also convinced they're just bratty. Any class that has the majority of kids coming up to me and saying, "What are we taking home today?" and holding out their grabby sticky hands is a class that's going to suck.

I've been told that one way of dealing with problem children is to give them something productive to do, or make them a special helper. Sometimes this works. Most of the time it doesn't, particularly when you have a kid who's just so full of bitch attitude that you want to hit him. My other problem with it is that it sends a message to the other kids that bad behavior is rewarded. Sure, it redirects them, but it makes the other kids think they won't be special helpers unless they are jerks.

I have a six-year-old named Moses* at one of my classes. He's incredibly difficult and disruptive in a class where no one is over six. Most kids that age tend to listen to me and follow rules. They haven't figured out how to be rebellious. But Moses is wild. It's all innocent, but he's just so darn annoying and disruptive to the other kids. He was messing up equipment and keeping his group from doing a task, so I had him sit out for a few minutes and had a talk with him. When he came back, he suddenly turned into a master architect. He built a massive and sturdy and beautiful sculpture out of marshmallows and toothpicks. He was quiet, he respected the equipment, and it took him forever to leave because he wanted to keep working.

I love him.

As a rule, this task tends to make kids really happy. Some of the sculptures are epic. I naturally assumed that when I got to my out-of-control class, they'd all respond like Noah. After a long fight to get them to listen, they'd quiet down and love it. They didn't. Instead I ended up with kids squishing marshmallows, begging to eat marshmallows, getting toothpicks sticky and sticking them to their faces, and ending up with white gook all over their hands. These kids are seven, eight, nine years old. My five-year-olds with no knowledge of geometry or physics could do this without making a disgusting sticky mess. What the fuck?

Monday, October 19, 2009

FYI, Kids Aren't Little Adults

A trend that I noticed at the school I worked at--and, for that matter, a trend with many other teachers/professionals/whatever--is the assumption that children should behave like little adults.


Kids don't behave like little adults, and their teachers, of all people, should know this. Children, especially younger ones, have trouble with the following:

1. Sitting still for long lengths of time.
2. Not talking for long lengths of time, especially when allowed to sit by friends.
3. Knowing when it is appropriate to ask questions and when it's appropriate to wait.
4. Staying calm when something fun is happening during the day, such as a holiday event or an extra long recess, etc.
5. Staying spotlessly clean.
6. Many other things.

I mean, come on. Kids are kids. They like to run and play and ask questions. They're curious--this goes away for most people as they get older. By and large, the kids I worked with were all still excited to learn... but they were equally excited to go outside and play with their friends at recess.

So no, children don't act like little adults. They won't sit idly through a boring presentation/lesson, they won't pretend to care about something that doesn't interest them, and they won't nod and understand if their school cuts their recess time.

Seriously. Just let kids be kids. Everyone needs a childhood.

Happy Halloween

Dear Party Mom:

I did your party on Saturday afternoon. You put me in the room the size of a bathroom and expected fourteen kids to cram in there with me and my table and all my equipment. You introduced me to your pets, you helped me out, you were friendly and chatty. The party was a lot of fun! The kids were enthralled and asked a lot of questions. I was surprised! It was a costume party, and all the kids were high on sugar and candy and the aftermath of going through a homemade haunted house. You tricked out the whole yard with Halloween activities. I don't even want to know how much it cost. Sure, a couple of the kids ducked out the back door to mess around in the yard for a couple of minutes when the dry ice went on for a little long----because most of the kids were really into blowing the carbon dioxide gas off of the cauldron. The kids had a great time despite being completely overstimulated with all these other things. Never once did I hear "I'm bored" or "When is it over?" or "I wanna make goo now" or "When are we gonna have fun?"----all of which I get from kids who can't sit still for an hour, no matter WHAT is going on.

I was feeling good when you helped me clean up. We talked about your pets, about my other job. You asked me about all the extra equipment in my kits, and I said I don't use it all for the show. I also held up a funny neon-green alien cup that has nothing to do with Halloween and said I don't know what this is for, because ... I don't. We laughed about it. You helped me carry my things to my car, you asked me how long I've been doing this. I told you two years, and I haven't done a Halloween party in a while. You know, a while, because it's Halloween. And it's seasonal. I don't get to do them often. But I'd just done one a few hours before.

You tipped me over thirty dollars, and I went home feeling like my work for the day had been completed with satisfaction.

So it really surprised me when my boss called me today to let me know that you'd called the office. You told him that you weren't satisfied with the party. You said that the kids were bored. You said I didn't know my equipment, and that the company gave her someone inexperienced because I haven't done the Halloween party in a long time. You said I seemed dissatisfied with the equipment.

But you said I was nice. So thumbs up to you.

My boss called me to yell at me today. My boss made me cry because of what you said. Because I thought I poured my heart into this performance, and I thought we were innocently chatting. I thought you were happy. You seemed happy. The kids seemed really happy. Everyone seemed happy. So I was shocked. Really. And betrayed. And offended that you would take the offhand things I said while cleaning up after the party and use it as ammunition against me for no apparent reason. You didn't want a refund, you didn't want to make me send back my tip. You made a point to tell my boss that you tipped me very well.

I don't know what your reasoning was. But my boss isn't mad at me, so you know. He yelled at me and I explained what I said, and he's convinced my version of events is correct. Do you want to know why? I've been there two years. Only one other performer has been there longer than me. We have a high turnover rate. Most performers don't last two months. They come in, thinking it's easy. They can't handle it. They walk out without finishing their afterschool sessions. They flake out. They balk. They run. They can't handle the kids. They can't handle the equipment. They can't handle the responsibility of getting places on time, planning itineraries, customizing performances for different groups and ages, memorizing scripts, being able to improvise, disciplining children in a school setting, keeping kids controlled in a birthday party setting, making confirmation calls to parents, making sure payments are made and delivered, keeping track of equipment, taking care of equipment, lugging equipment and loading and unloading and setting up and cleaning up and doing it all with energy, ease, enthusiasm, and grace.

You didn't get an inexperienced performer, lady. You got one of only three or four performers able to do the Halloween specialty party. At the party before yours, I was told by parents that they'd seen other performers from my company and I was head and shoulders above the rest. You got the best of the best. You know why? Because I give a damn. Because what you said to my boss, even when he wasn't angry at me, made me cry for half an hour. Because I felt betrayed by you. Because I don't just brush this shit off, take my thirty dollar tip, and go on to another day at the races. I care. I care about you, I care about your kids, and I care about giving you the best damn party I can. And when you're not happy, I don't sleep.

So in the end, my boss is right: I won't be chatting up customers again. It may be friendly, but I don't know what you're really hearing.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Too many

Parents, when did it become acceptable to have twenty-five five-year-olds at a birthday party? When?

You can't control them. I can't control them. Don't you invite 25 kindergarteners to a birthday party, give them snacks and cake and sugar, hop them up on Pin the Tail on the Donkey, give them to ME, and then tell ME that I did not control the kids. There are, like, fifteen of you hanging out in the back and you drank your beers and wine coolers and didn't lift a finger. They're five. I'm sorry. They can't sit for an hour. Forty minutes in, they're squirming. I should know this. No, I do know this. But you paid for an hour and if I come in under time you'll kill me. Or worse, not tip me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

99 pink balloons

If you read my post about the staggering differences between boys and girls, then you'll be surprised to know that yesterday I had two boys---TWO boys!---specifically request to be given pink balloons.

Two boys wanted pink balloons.


There is hope.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

They can be taught!

I don't know what it is about electrical circuits that make kids go nuts, but they had the best time today. All of the kids were given a board with a battery compartment, a light bulb, a buzzer, and a switch, and they had to use wires to light the bulb, sound the buzzer, etc. I gave them a few directions and then just ... let them have at it. Some groups did well and kept experimenting, some had difficulty... and two children stayed after for fifteen minutes while their moms waited, gathering up wires and hooking them to the board. Eventually, with about ten wires and a lot of jerry-rigs, they got the switch to turn the light AND buzzer on and off simultaneously. They were so proud of themselves, it was unbelievable. Hell, I was impressed. I can barely hook the thing up to get the light to go on.

Things may suck a lot of the time, but it's so worth it for moments like these.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mr. J

Okay, so I've been absent from posting for a while - my laptop died suddenly, and I had to replace it. So now I have a shiny new Mac that will be fab for updating blogs. :)

Anyway, last time I posted, I told you about Mr. A and his behavioral problems in school; this time, let's talk about Mr. J.

Mr. J was a pre-school kid, though he was in the Kindergarten prep class. The kids in this class are students who were just slightly too young to start Kindergarten during the current school year - maybe they missed the cut off date by a month or two in either direction (a lot of parents don't want their child to be the youngest one in their grade level, so choose instead to keep them home for an extra year, making them one of the older ones in their grade with the hopes of turning them into a social and academic leader). Mr. J was five and big for his age... not overweight, just tall and made of solid wiry muscle.

He was also extremely hyperactive. Like Mr. A, he was fine (for the most part) when his parents were there, but as soon as they left he went nuts. Mary, his teacher, worked hard to keep him occupied, and most of the time it worked just fine. However...

There were times when he had "episodes," or as they would say on the late great Wonderfalls, "a 'sode." These episodes were basically times when Mr. J lost it. It was never about anything big, always something little. One time he had a complete breakdown because his turn was done with the paints and the easel. Another time, because he didn't want to go out to the playground... or didn't want to come in. All kinds of things.

But there was one particular time when he had a 'sode that's worth noting. Lots of kids can get violent--usually it's towards other kids, and their teachers break them up, and by doing so the kids start to learn not to fight, and they develop social skills and all that. In high school you have to worry about students attacking each other more dangerously and sometimes threatening teachers, but Mr. J, this hyper little five year old, decided to take on Mary.

It was late in the afternoon, and the day had been extremely uneventful. The students were divided between two tables, working on a coloring project to help develop reading and writing skills, and Mr. J decided he didn't want to do it. I was working with a little girl who needed help writing something, and all of the students were so engrossed in their work that we didn't even notice right away that Mr. J had left the table and Mary had followed him.

Next thing I know, Mr. J is underneath my table, crawling between the students' feet and giggling this high-pitched laugh. Mary followed him around the table, spouting off typical teacher sayings: "Come out right now, Mr. J," and "if you can't control yourself, we need to go to the think spot."

When Mr. J refused to come out, Mary gave up and started to walk away--so Mr. J reached out from under the table, grabbed her ankle, and pulled her off her feet to the ground. She fell against the other table, knocked over a chair, and landed hard on her hands and knees.

And did I mention that Mary was pregnant? Yeah.

I have never seen a classroom of young children go so quiet so fast. Fifteen four- and five-year-olds sat in stunned silence with their mouths open. Mary ended up man-handling Mr. J out from beneath the table and carrying him by the underarms out of the room, Mr. J screaming all the while. She took him to the neighboring classroom, whose students were already dismissed, and dropped him off with the teachers there, who had no luck calming him down either.

When Mr. J's father arrived about ten minutes later, he was completely contrite and kept asking for ice cream and a new toy.

Just to put it in perspective, the previous school year Mr. J had another tantrum and kicked one of the other teacher's aides--we'll call her Ginny--in the chest so hard that she had a foot-shaped brownish-green bruise for a month.

So the lesson is this: parents--your children behave differently at school. If a teacher has done something to discipline your child because their behavior is out of hand, please help reinforce the lesson at home. Don't attack the teacher and insist your child is an angel and everything is the teacher's fault. You're entrusting your child to this teacher for the length of a typical work day. During that time, he or she is in charge of instructing your child in academics and in social skills... and if a child is acting up, not doing his or her work, or anything else that happens to be unacceptable, the teacher needs to take some sort of action without the threat of being fired because the parents think their child is the next coming of Christ.


Anyway, that's the story of Mr. J. He was pretty extreme, as was Mr. A. You wouldn't think pre-schoolers could do so much damage, but apparently they can! I'd be really interested to see these two boys in fifteen years to see how they turn out.


Things I hate about your school.

Dear School Secretary:

My job isn't easy. I don't get to go to work in the same place every day. I travel long distances with heavy equipment, lugging it across parking lots and down hallways, usually to the detriment of all of the muscles in my back. I go new places and have to talk to new people all the time. I deal with about a hundred kids per afterschool session. Every school has its own rules, idiosyncrasies, and insane rituals, which I have to memorize and follow. Here's a list of the things I hate but have deal with, smiling.

1. Parking lots with parent pickups.
Some schools have nice big parking lots and lots of spaces. However, when I arrive or an afterschool program, I usually find that I have to beat the parent rush. Not all schools have this, but a massive chunk of them do. Parents line the streets like vultures, waiting in their minivans and SUVs with stickers that say "My Child Is An Honor Student At _____" and logos with the school mascot. The elementary school mascot. The cars are lined up as close to the school as possible, and parking is not allowed except for the back of the lot----and that's if you can find a space. Sometimes when I have a long walk I'm able to drop my kit off at the door, park, and then come back for it, but not when there's a line of cars at the entrance... I know I love a good quarter-mile walk with my good old bin. (I wish my hand truck wasn't broken. I wish my job paid me enough to purchase a new hand truck that wouldn't break. Even so, even if I HAD a hand truck, your asshole school would have stairs, and lots of them. Handicap access? What?)

2. Prison lockdown.
I don't know when this started happening. Schools weren't like this when I was a kid. Doors are locked during school hours and in order to get into the building, you need to ring the doorbell and be buzzed in. I understand why, what with all the loonies walking around and wandering into elementary schools every day (tch). Still, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I suppose, except that everyone knows that the real loonies wait around in vans outside the school.

3. Visitor badges.
I get it. I do. The people who aren't on the staff at the school need to be accounted for. They can't just wander about willy-nilly. I don't mind signing the log. However, a lot of schools use sticky-label badges to mark their visitors, and they don't stick to my polyester lab coat. My lab coat has the name of my company on it and my professor name. I guess if I were a complete skeez I would wear this around when abducting kids, but ... no. Anyway, it gives you peace of mind and I'm glad to comply, but that damn sticky badge doesn't stick to my coat.

4. No prep time.
I don't think you get it. I don't arrive half an hour early to sit in the office and dick around. I arrive half an hour early to get into my classroom and set up, so that I don't waste time when the kids arrive. I need to have things set up and organized so the class goes smoothly, so the kids are happy, so the parents are happy, and so the school is happy. I need this time. Everything I have is shoved (neatly) in a bin. I have to take stuff out and find it and lay it out. I have to mix chemicals and lay out materials. If you tell me I have a 3:15 class and I can't get into my room until 3:10 when I arrived at 2:45? You were told I needed 30 minutes in an empty room. You knew this and you complied. Don't give me doe eyes and act like those five minutes are a big inconvenient gift you're giving me.

5. Earlybirds.
I need time to prep. Sometimes I have to set up secret things that the kids aren't allowed to see. Don't tell me I have to set up in front of the kids. They touch things, they crowd me, they ask questions. Set-up and clean-up are my zen private time. I'm not a babysitter, and I can't set things up if you give me a high-traffic area... say, a classroom that still has kids in it (which only pisses off the teacher), or the cafeteria, where all the kids are waiting for dismissal or other programs. No. No, no, no. I don't want to sound like a diva, but would you like it if you got to your office in the morning and had a bunch of kids talking and staring and trying to touch your stuff? I didn't think so.

6. Miscommunication.
School offices have a lot to deal with. Between parents being obnoxious and teachers being whiny, a school secretary has a lot on his or her plate. But you know what? Y'all need to fucking talk to one another. The principal needs to write sticky notes for his staff and let them know that I'm coming and where I need to be. Write it down somewhere. Put it on a calendar. This Professor gets cranky when you send her to the wrong room----the cafeteria, full of kids, with two other programs going on----force her to set up, and then have the principal redirect her to the proper room with five minutes to set up. That's like a triple-whammy and this Professor has a tantrum. Privately. Because I smile through it and hide the fact that I'm shaken and frazzled.

7. Your attitude.
Just... seriously. Would it kill you to be nice? Your job sucks, I know. It's got to be a bitch to work in an elementary school all day, every day, and take phone messages. But unlike you, school secretary, I don't live down the road, and I don't just amble in at 6:30 with my coffee and sit down and get ready to make miserable people more miserable until 3 or 4 PM. I'm sure your job warrants that level of crankiness, but if I can drag a sixty-pound bin across a badly-placed parking lot, balance it to ring your buzzer, carry it into the office, sign in, put on a visitor badge, and then lug my kit down six hallways and up a flight of stairs only to have you tell me you had my classroom assignment wrong and that my kids are coming in early so now I have no time to set up and STILL have a fucking smile on my face, so can you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Affiliate Blog!

Kait here, with an affiliate blog!

JL is my partner, my lady, my girl. She helps set up the programs that I work at. She deals with the parents while I deal with the kids. She sits in an office all day while I break my back dragging equipment around. She has a consistent location while I travel to the middle of nowhere.

Her blog is called Please Go To Voicemail, and I hope this will be the start of a long and fruitful blogging relationship.

If I had a nickel for every damn time...

News flash, children!

If I ask you a question and you have an answer, raise your hand. If you don't have an answer, don't raise your hand, because chances are, I will call on you.

Let's make this clear: the answer is not "I FORGET." The answer is NEVER "I FORGET" unless the question is "What happens when you get amnesia?"----and that is never the question.

The next time a child raises their hand with utmost enthusiasm and gives me an answer of "I forget," coupled with a giggle and snicker, which is then joined by all the giggles and snickers of all his little friends, this instructor is gonna have to open up a fresh can of whoop-ass. It is not the first time I have gotten this answer. In fact, I get an answer of "I forget" at least three times a week. Please. Stop laughing like it's the funniest thing you've ever heard. It's like you're the loser who just discovered LOLspeak and still thinks it's funny.

Also, I don't care if you're six. :)

Monday, October 5, 2009

I hope you hav a clazz, too, little lady.

My after-school programs started up again today. This particular kit is a stressful one to teach. Very hard to set up in a short amount of time, about 50 minutes of cleanup. Corrosive chemicals that the kids can't touch, so they're observing for most of the class and they hate it. Kids were good, all of them under 8 years old, so they got antsy about 40 minutes in. Antsy and hungry, which is to be expected given the fact that we're talking about kitchen chemistry today.

Feeling tired and a little frustrated, but that's how it goes. And it's all wiped away by the fact that I got this the moment this one girl walked into the class. A little card!



What's the deal, Dairy Council?

Don't get me wrong. I grew up drinking milk like a good child. I drank 4-7 glasses every day because that soon was the only thing I'd drink. I gave up milk a little over a year ago as part of several other health choices to shake up my diet. I read some books about the dangers of animal products and how they really ain't as good for you as the corporations would make it sound. I'm not going to go on a vegan rant here. I'm not that strict a vegan anymore, but the truth of it is, I learned a lot. Specifically, the way that the meat and dairy industries have essentially put substandard products into our school lunch programs.


So, on a fundamental level, it bothers me the way that milk is The Cafeteria Lunch Drink. Not only is it served, often without any other option for children who are allergic or lactose intolerant or being raised vegan or any other reason, but there are posters plastered all over the cafeteria. Images of popular children's icons (Miley Cyrus, the High School Musical cast, Shrek, etc) with milk mustaches with the phrase "Body by Milk" line the walls in almost any cafeteria. Now, I understand that if you're raising your child in a non-dairy way, you just send lunch with your child and forget about the school lunch. However, it's another situation where I feel like it's blatant propaganda. You must drink milk or you will not be healthy. (This, by the way, is not remotely true.) You will also not be cool. (This is also not remotely true, though fewer studies have been done.) I went to a school the other day where the only decoration in the cafeteria consisted of milk posters and magazine ads. Plastering the walls.

I found one school that didn't have one single milk poster. Only one, and it struck me so strange to not see a milk mustache that I actually wondered if I was in the cafeteria. I wondered if it had to do with the fact that this school had a child with such a deadly milk/peanut allergy that the child actually had to be partitioned off with cones so none of the other children went near him. I am dead serious. That's a whole other zany rant altogether.

I guess I just have a problem with advertising-as-decor. Children don't understand that it's an ad. It's the same as putting up posters for Coke or for a snack or for some hot new toy. I don't care who they have on the ads. They're still ads, trying to sell a product and convince a child that the product is not only good, but essential to your diet and level of coolness. It just skeevs me out.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I am sure I would agree if I knew her, young fellow.

Overheard today. Said by a second grade boy:

"I spitted on your girlfriend, okay?! I hate Amanda! She's so fake!"


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Study in Contrasts

In addition to after-school programs, I also perform at birthday parties. This Saturday, I had two very different groups of kids and two very different experiences. The outline of my day goes like this: I take a bin full of materials to your home or other location of your choice. I arrive half an hour early, I set up, I wait for everyone to be ready (ideally at the scheduled time) and then I do my show. I finish my show, I pack up, I take your payment----and hopefully a tip----and either go home or to the next party. I have had birthday parties that leave me feeling ridiculously good about myself, and I've had parties that make me question all my life choices. I've been tipped as much as $70 and as little as... nothing. (Please tip me. That $200-$500 you spent on this party? About $30 of that goes to me. You have no idea how hard this job is.)

So, Saturday:

The first party was at a rustic rented hall, about twenty kids. Mostly eight-year-old boys who decided it would be awesome to chase one another on the hardwood floors in big circles around the table. There were three little girls who huddled off to one side looking scared. The birthday boy was inquisitive and excited, and he couldn't have been happier to have a science party. He kept asking me questions while I was setting up, peppered with little science factoids that he'd learned in school and on the internet. Kid's really into science. Like, seriously. The family doesn't come off as all that wealthy, but since I didn't see their home I have no idea. Parents were incredibly pleasant and accommodating. Lots of kids, and I was scared for my sanity when I saw them running around. However, once it came time to start the show, they all sat down and listened and were really, really involved. They loved it. It went smoothly, I had a great time, and it was probably the easiest time I ever had controlling twenty kids at once. There were several parents there, and they all watched the show too (keep this in mind, it will be important later). For my efforts, I got two slices of pizza, lots of thanks from all the kids, and the dad remembered a $25 tip even though they'd already paid the invoice amount in advance.

The next party was in the basement of a massive brick house. More money than I could ever imagine. I remember being a kid and having friends with houses like this. I wasn't poor when I was a kid, but I definitely didn't have a house like this. It was all shiny and new and insane. Full bar in the basement, fridge and kitchenette, bathroom, living area... I didn't see the REST of the house, but I had a feeling it was all new and shiny and un-lived-in like anywhere else. When I arrived, I had to carry all of my equipment down the street, up the driveway, around the back, and into the storm cellar. My back was killing me (I injured it with birthday parties last year). I had a cotton candy machine to carry as well. All of the parents had drinks in hand and they were all looking at me like "WTF are you here for?" The only one who was remotely welcoming was the father of the birthday child. (As a rule, dads are the best, and always helpful.) Despite the fact that I arrived forty minutes early instead of thirty, the mother still acted like I was late. My setup area was crowded with children playing foosball, driving around toy trucks, and playing with way, way, way, WAY too many toys. All of the parents were chattering and it was ridiculously loud. The birthday girl was shy and it was obvious she really didn't care whether I was a scientist, magician, clown, or whatever. This wasn't about putting on a science show. This was about getting some entertainment to set her party apart from other parties. There was a bounce house in the backyard, too, did I mention that? Halfway through the party parents started chattering to the point where I had to shout to be heard. I had kids asking if it was over yet because they were bored. Keep in mind this was the SAME SHOW as earlier, and I didn't change anything. Different kids, who didn't care. Kids who have too much and are overstimulated. When I was done----all they cared about was me making them cotton candy anyway----the girl opened about a million and a half presents. I made a $15 tip. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, because any tip is a good tip, but I tend to make the smallest tips at the places with the most money. I'm also treated the rudest. Mom was not friendly to me. I got the feeling that she thought I was ... help. I don't know. Maybe she was stressed with all those fucking people in her house.

Maybe I'm just going through an economic crisis at the moment. Maybe I'm adjusting to frugal living. Maybe I just hate spoiled kids, but while I was cleaning up, I heard parents talking about another little girl getting a Coach wristlet for her birthday. SEVEN YEARS OLD, getting a designer wristlet. This little birthday girl opened up a Pandora bracelet while I was there. Designer jeans. I was horrified. No wonder these kids didn't care about my dinky entertainment. I can't compete.

Highly Recommended: Consuming Kids

I suggest that everyone who has a kid or works with kids watch this video: when I saw it, it completely explained a good 95% of the problems I have in dealing with children today. It's a fascinating documentary about the way advertisers are targeting kids, encouraging and enticing them to get their parents to buy, and how it affects child behavior, attention spans, attitudes, and learning skills. Part 1 is embedded here. The rest of the parts are all available on YouTube.

Might you be undermining the process?

Dear Parents:

I know you want to be seen as hip and cool. I know you want your kids to be seen as hip, cool, trendy, and irreverent. That's great.

However, you sent your child to school wearing a t-shirt that says: "I'm allergic to homework." Or something along the lines of "I'll do my homework (right away) (in a few hours) (whenever I feel like it) NEVER." Or "I'm only here for recess." I'm sure that you, looking back on your school days, find these shirts adorable and funny. I found three of these shirts on students (all boys) today. My opinion of your child suddenly goes from "hey, look, a kid" to "hey, look, a self-centered brat who hates learning." Not only does it immediately change my perception of a child and his behavior, but it also suggests to the kid that it's all right to be flippant about schoolwork.

So here's my advice: stop it. Your children don't buy their own clothes. You do. Don't send your child to school with an anti-school shirt. It's not cute.

Also banned: shirts that say "Diva", "Princess", "It's All About Me", etc. You think it's cute. We just think your kid's an asshole without getting to know them first.

Thank you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mr. A

When you mention behavioral problems in school, most people think of high schoolers: unruly teens who don't listen to their teachers, make fun of their superiors, goof off in class, and, in more extreme cases, get violent.

The truth is, behavior issues appear at every single age level--most people (parents, I'm looking at you) just don't realize how their kids behave when they're not at home.

Lesson Number 1: Your child DOES NOT behave the same way at school that he/she does at home.

So let's talk about one student in particular that I had in one of my preschool classes; we'll call him Mr. A. This child was three. Nothing particularly outstanding about his appearance--short (obviously), a little stocky, pudgy cheeks, dark hair, dark eyes (which, when my roommate saw a picture of him, she described as "dead, dead eyes," but that's neither here nor there). Mr. A was a last minute addition to the school roster, added in when another family suddenly withdrew their student a week before classes began.

On the first day of school, Mr. A was dropped off by his mother and father. Within the first five minutes, we found out that Mr. A's parents were divorced, really disliked each other, and fought constantly over how to best parent him. The father left first, promising to return later to bring Mr. A his lunch. The mother stuck around.

Mr. A sat happily on the floor throwing Duplo blocks at the wall while his mother told us lovingly of her "little prince." In the next few minutes, she referred to him only as a prince, an angel, and the best boy in the whole world. I kid you not.

And then she left.

By the time we got to morning recess, Mr. A had hit another student, had three screaming fits, and made two other children cry. We all prayed this was first-day acting out.

It wasn't.

Turns out, this was normal behavior for Mr. A. Within the first hour of every school day, he threw a screaming fit. Not just a bit of screaming and some pouting, but all out rip-your-lungs-out-of-your-chest screaming that invariably started with a long, loud wail you could hear all the way down the hall in each of the classrooms. When he finally settled down, he spent the rest of the morning hitting, kicking, and biting the children who sat next to him during circle time. When it came to play time, Mr. A liked to throw wooden blocks at the teachers' heads, beat the other students with toys and books, and draw on the walls with permanent markers.

Mr. A spent most of his time in the time out spot.

The teachers hoped that, with consistent consequences, Mr. A would learn how to behave properly in the classroom. He did not. In the very last week of school, he was still hitting and kicking the other students, often making them cry. Throughout the year, more than one parent approached Mr. A's teachers to tell them that their son or daughter was afraid to come to school because of Mr. A. Two days before school let out for the summer, Mr. A was covering the bottom of the slide with mulch and throwing it into other students' eyes. When I asked him to stop, he didn't--and when I ended up having to forcibly move him away from the slide, he responded by throwing mulch at me as hard as he could.

Let me tell you how fun it was to drag a screaming, thrashing, biting, and kicking toddler across an enormous playground to his teacher. He sat outside and screamed for over an hour before finally stopping and being allowed back in the classroom.

And despite all this, when his mother arrived, he smiled and tilted his head to the side and was perfectly behaved. She always greeted him with a hug and asked, "How's my prince today?"

Just wait until I tell you about Mr. J, the other violent student--this one liked to attack the teachers.


Friday, September 11, 2009

I'm in ur school, rilin' up ur kids

September! Head back to school, kiddos! I'm currently going through a work lull, thanks to the end of summer camps. Afterschool programs won't start up again until October, so things are dragging. In the meantime, I take a little "mini-event" to schools in order to advertise the afterschool programs. I invade cafeterias, get the kids excited, and then force the lunch monitors to deal with the little hellions afterward...

Or at least, that's what I used to do. I was told that we have to work to calm the kids down so the lunch monitors don't kill us.

Doing the mini-events is AWKWARD. Imagine going to a place you've never been, in a place where people kind of don't want you, and then waiting around while all the kids stare at you like you're a sideshow act, waiting for you to start. You can't start until they're all settled, and you try not to watch them even though you hear them whispering about you. Then you have your five minutes of fame, the kids start asking you the same questions ("Can I try that?" and "Will we get one of those if we do the program?"), and five more minutes where all the kids run up to you while you have to tell them to sit down. It's like being a rock star or something, but it's also just plain weird. I have to imagine that it's what being a celebrity feels like. Yeah? Yeah. I'm a celebrity.

Monday, August 24, 2009

First Day of School

Today was the first day of school here in this quaint little Midwest town. Of course, I wasn't involved in the first day happenings at any of the schools here since I'm leaving town in a week, but many of my friends work. And given that classes started today, it got me thinking about what the first day of school is like.

For one thing, the first day of school isn't really the first day of school. Now, in the week before the first day, there's Open House. I remember Open House when I was little - it was usually a time to briefly meet your teacher, walk through the school, then leave. Other times, there was no Open House--at least not until after school started, and then a week or two later, Mom and Dad came to visit and see the classroom and the art projects on the wall, because Open House was a time for parents to see what the school was like. Now, Open House is a mini first day. At some schools, it's an evening affair--at the school I worked at, it was a day-long event. Students and their families popped by whenever they wanted, regardless of when teachers were trying to eat lunch, plan, set up the classroom, or trying to go home and escape the frenzy because, by God, we were all off work twenty-five minutes ago. Anyway. Kids show up, meet the teachers, make their name tags, choose a cubby, play with books and toys, make some art projects, visit the playground... all things that, when I was a child, we did on the first day of school.

When the first day of school does roll around, though, the kids still have their nervous jitters. Off they go to school--usually with parents in tow.
Now, I noticed that there were different types of parents on the first day.

1. The Picture Taker
This parent was usually dropping off a kindergartner (preschool parents didn't mind so much - they didn't really consider preschool school, it was just a place to drop off kids for the day) or a student new to that particular school. The camera was out. Flashbulbs were flashing. A constant stream of, "Jack, look over here! Jack, smile! Smile for me, Jack! Jack, look at the camera! Jack, go stand by your teacher--now look at Mommy--yes--yes, that's good. Oh, just one more. Stand there by your cubby. Stand by the window. Smile. Smile. SMILE."

2. The Worrier
This parent fussed. You all know the type: the mother (the fathers never fuss) who crouches down and licks her finger to clean her child's face, fiddles with his jacket, fixes his hair... she attends to any number of minute details on her child before finally, reluctantly, letting him venture into the classroom looking a bit shell shocked.

3. The Questioner
The Questioner parent approaches the teacher with seemingly no regard for the tight schedule teachers keep in their classroom. This parent proceeds to fire off a string of roughly five million questions, ranging from What will you be doing today? to Now, tell me, what happens if there's a fire, an earthquake, and a tornado all at once? It usually takes intervention from another teacher, another parent, or a crying student to allow the beleaguered teacher to escape The Questioner.

4. The Lingerer
The Lingerer, well, lingers. This parent doesn't want to leave his or her child. Both mothers and fathers are notorious lingerers, especially for children who are new to school. Where I worked, since we had observation booths, lingering could get really bad. On the first day, a good fifteen parents would cram themselves into this tiny booth and watch their children sit through morning meeting... and the beginning of Literacy (a glorified reading and writing time)... and sometimes the beginning of recess. The worst of the lingerers would leave for a bit, and then return at lunch time. Listen up, Lingerers: your child will be okay. I know it's hard to cut the cord and leave them alone at school, especially that first time, but you need to do it. Your child needs to learn to be independent, and if you're hovering in the classroom all morning and personally bringing them lunch, they won't learn to stand on their own two feet. They will also be teased for having their mom or dad watching them all day long. Lingering for about ten minutes at the start of the very first day is considered okay, and after that, the teacher wants you to leave. You are infringing on the teacher's authority and teaching capabilities by hovering.

5. And last, but not least, the Leavers
The Leavers do just that: they leave. These are the parents who pull up to the curb, kiss their kids on the cheek, and then drive away. They trust that their child will be fine in school, so after a quick wave, they're off to work or pilates or whatever they do during the day. This parent returns on time to pick their child up at the end of the day, waves merrily at the teacher, and heads home.

While there are many types of parents, the kids seem to be pretty much the same. They're nervous. They want to make friends. They smile a bit at each other and sit quietly in the classroom, listening to the teacher, hoping it's going to be a good school year. They want to succeed. I have yet to meet a child who really wants to fail.

So for the students, when the end of the day comes, they have hopefully survived in one piece and come out of their shells. The second day of school is always easier, and their personalities start to shine through. All they need to know is that their teacher is okay, they have friends, and they're all set.


The Peanut Problem

When I was a child, my younger brother was diagnosed with a deadly peanut allergy. Ingesting peanuts, touching the oil, or breathing in the dust from peanut shells would send him into anaphylactic shock and probably kill him. Because of this, we had a strict set of rules to obey: making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich required two knives, one for each jar; everything had to be washed to keep peanut oil off of surfaces. My brother had to ask a friend if something contained peanuts before they traded or shared. He learned to read labels. We went through his Halloween candy and picked out anything with peanuts, which meant more Reese's for me.

And that was how it went. My brother never ran into trouble with the peanut allergy; his asthma and his animal allergies were more of a concern.

Now that I'm in a job that has me back in elementary schools, I've noticed a weird and slightly disturbing trend: the presence of the "nut-free zone." Classrooms are labeled "nut free." Certain isolated tables are labeled "peanut free." While I can appreciate a concern for an allergic child's well-being, why have peanut allergies been so blown out of logical proportion?

I recently had two epic peanut freakouts happen in the same day. The first went thusly:

It was the first day of an AAW where kids are encouraged to bring a snack. The first arrival has a trail mix snack that includes peanuts. Mother says that she knows peanut allergies are a problem and asks if we have an allergic child. Our rosters normally display any of this allergy information. Seeing that we had 22 healthy kids, we allowed the child to have his peanut snack.

Unfortunately, we had incomplete rosters. The second child to come in had a parent bearing an epi-pen and explaining very slowly that her angel has a peanut allergy and if she comes near peanuts she will surely die, and you'd better be trained in administering an epi-pen. We explained that this other child had a peanut snack but, knowing about nut-free tables, we said that we would sit her on the other side of the room and make sure the area was washed. The mother started to hyperventilate and tears filled her eyes. "That's just not acceptable," she said.

Not acceptable? My brother grew up with the same allergy and if I had a peanut butter sandwich, he could sit at the same table as me. He just knew he wasn't allowed to touch my damn sandwich. We were telling this mother that the child would be sitting at a separate table, which is exactly what's done in cafeterias these days. No more, no less.

We then conceded that we would split the room in half and have half the group go into another room to eat snack, while the peanut-contaminated child sat with the other half to eat. Even this wasn't good enough, but we finally got the mom to agree to this. She still looked ready to sob her eyes out, and asked us to make sure everyone washed their hands and the tables were cleaned.

Needless to say, nobody died that day.

I'd think this is just an isolated incident of parental paranoia but that evening I had a similar issue:

I was working the box office for a children's theatre performance when a young mother of a five-year-old girl came up to me. She had the same symptoms of the mother earlier in the day: glassy, watery eyes, shortness of breath, a panicked expression. She came to me to complain about the number of peanut candies that were offered at our concessions stand, and said there were more than last year, and if we're going to sell candy at a children's theatre, how dare we sell peanut candies! Because, she reasoned, if a strange child she doesn't know sits next to her peanut-allergic angel, and that strange child has a Reese's, her child will breathe in Peanut Fumes or the strange child will wipe his sticky Peanut Hands all over her and she will die. She was requesting a peanut-free section of the theater or for us to stop offering peanuts altogether.

Are you fucking serious? Would you go to the Cineplex and tell them to stop offering peanut items because children might be allergic? If your child has a chocolate allergy, do you do the same thing? Where the hell do you get the gall?

I understand that a peanut allergy is a serious one. It can kill your child. It can kill my little brother. I grew up in that environment. Has the peanut allergy gotten so much worse in the last 20 years?

Honestly, I don't think it has. In fact, I'd be willing to bet it hasn't. I'm going to blame the media on this one. Yes, a peanut allergy is deadly. So are a lot of other things. There have been so many horror stories about peanut allergies in recent years that it's sending new, frightened parents into a frenzy. If we were publicizing a deadly horse allergy or a deadly pickle allergy, we'd have a similar problem. Parents of young children are the worst kind of crazy and the media feeds on it. You can't turn on the news anymore without a story of a child dying because of this, that, or the other thing. Parents are scared. Unfortunately, we're also growing up in a time where lawsuits and making the Establishment solve your problems take precedence over personal responsibility. When I was a kid, it was all about teaching a child to read labels and how to handle themselves in a peanut-filled world. Nowadays, it's all about vilifying peanuts and all peanut products. It's about ostracizing kids who are allergic and making them sit at separate tables. It's about making kids who like peanut butter feel like bad people because they might kill their best friend. It's about laying the responsibility on everyone else instead of yourself and your child. Blame the schools, blame the food manufacturers, blame other kids and other parents. You force them to step up but don't take any steps yourself to make your child self-reliant.

It's necessary to tell school employees, camp counselors, and anyone who will be dealing with your child about any allergies your child may have, particularly if they're severe. On the other hand, it is not our responsibility to change the rules for your kid and change things for everyone else unless things are so bad that your kid will die otherwise. And if that really is the case, you might want to consider locking up your kid and never letting her go outside of her sterile, perfect environment.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's a-me, the new author!

Hello, hello chickadees! As Kait has already said, I'm Lauren - we went to school together, etc. etc. For the past two years, I've worked at a private school in the Midwest that was, frankly, a pretty interesting location. The school was run by and built on a college campus. Each of the classrooms was outfitted with an observation booth to allow the Education students to observe the children and teachers, thus learning about how classrooms operate. While I wasn't one of the teachers, I was an aide and, over the course of two years, worked in every classroom: three preschool classrooms, one multiage K-5 classroom.

Most of my stories come from the K-5 class or from the preschool room I was stationed in during my last four months working at the school. Unlike the other classrooms, which were full-day 8:00-3:00 classes, this preschool room was two separate classes: one in the morning for 2-3 year-olds, one in the afternoon for 4-5 year-olds who just weren't quite ready for Kindergarten.

Anyway, enough of that. Kait pointed out that neither of us set out to work with children, and that's true. In college, I majored in English with the goal of becoming a full-time writer. This is still my ultimate goal, but in the meantime, I sure like having a regular paycheck. In fact, while at school, I distinctly remember disliking the Education majors, because it seemed like quite a few of them were, well, really dumb. (Obviously not all Education majors are like this, but at my school? Hell yes, they were.)

Regardless, I ended up working with kids, and I'm even planning on pursuing teacher certification when I move down to Texas in a week or so. It's a nice life, I enjoy the sense of helping kids learn about the world in which they live, and really? It's an awesome feeling when a kid comes up to you to tell you that you're their favorite teacher.

While quite a few of the stories I have to share are critical of the US Education system, there are many that aren't. People need to know what it's like for children inside schools--the good and the bad.

That being said, since I did work in one location for two years and bonded with many of the kids and their parents, I won't be using any real names in my stories, whether for the kids, the college students, or the administration. If ever a name is mentioned, it will be fake.

So, that's enough of an introduction, I think. I'll be posting again soon with stories about pretty much everything you can imagine, including magic and dragons. Oh yes. :) For now, signing out.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

End of Summer

Due to a death in the family yesterday, my last camp (overlapping with the 3-day camp I just completed) is being taken over by another instructor. The funeral is Friday, which means he would have done the overlap (Wednesday) and the final day (Friday)... so he's agreed to just do all of it.

So, it's the end of the summer for me. I just completed my last AAW for the year. Unfortunately this means I won't be getting a lot of work until afterschool programs start up in September. Hopefully my other job will keep me able to pay rent and, y'know, eat. The AAWs keep me making a lot of money. Afterschool programs don't pay nearly as well, and there are six-week lulls between sessions. Hrn.

I said goodbye to rockets and aerodynamics camp and to my last crop of kids, the scary-quiet ones. They were less scary-quiet once the 13-year-old egged them all on. He continued to touch shit on my table today, including the combustible rocket engines... sticking them between his fingers like Wolverine claws, sneaking his tennis ball back after I confiscated it, etc. I rarely have a kid that I want to punch so much as someone who just looks me in the eye with this innocent face while he breaks a rule directly after I tell him no.

Other than that, we had a successful day, a good launch, beautiful weather. I'm exhausted, though. My aunt's death and the crazy August heat kept me up until 3:30 AM, and I only BARELY made it to camp for 9 (starting time) instead of 8:30 (setup time) after a snooze-button accident and getting stuck behind a slow truck on windy boondock roads. I'm hopped up on as much caffeine as I can muster which APPARENTLY actually works, and I have to go teach at the youth theatre tonight.

In fact, that's where I'm off to now. I haven't been there in what feels like weeks due to work (this youth theatre gig is volunteer and family-run). I miss it but I feel SO out of the loop. Can't wait to come home tonight and crash.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Adding a Co-Author!


While this blog is still shiny and new I've decided to add a co-author. Lauren and I went to college together and were post-college roommates before I moved back to my home state. With a BA in English, she ended up in a similar route: working at a teacher's aide at the college's lab school for elementary-age kids, used to train Education students. Never intended to work with kids, but bam. That's where she ended up. Her situation is intensely similar to mine but she offers another aspect: while I work with extracurricular programs and entertainment, traveling around to all different schools and dealing with parks & rec departments and parents-as-clients, Lauren worked in a school during school hours and observed that single school for a long period of time. I think together we can offer two sides of the same coin.

I leave her to introduce herself, and she and I will post... whenever we can.

- Kait

Boys Like Trucks & Guns... Mostly

It's a long-held fact that little girls and little boys are different. Little girls are supposed to play with Barbies, My Little Ponies, and Easy-Bake Ovens and walk the line between future actress/supermodel/diva and superhousewife-in-training. They like pink and purple. Little boys are supposed to play with G.I.Joes, Transformers, Power Rangers (I'm clearly dating myself with all these references) and either be future sports heroes/astronauts/etc or skilled-laborer-in-training. They like anything other than pink and purple.

What happens to kids who deviate from the norm?

I have a huge problem with the idea that girls are supposed to like one thing and boys have to like another. I'm a lesbian, yeah, but I played with Barbies and My Little Ponies and I was a girly little girly girl. I conformed to all the societal norms, I loved pink and purple. It's not about being gay or straight, weird or normal. What I've noticed in teaching is that boys and girls are trained from birth to believe that "this is for you, and this is not for you, and it's not acceptable for you to cross the line." A girl gets teased for liking robots. A boy gets teased for wanting to play with My Little Ponies.

Read the last two sentences again. I bet you probably giggled a little, or thought about giggling, at the bit about My Little Ponies. Why? There's something in the way we were raised that separates boys from girls, and it follows us our whole lives. And while it's semi-acceptable for a girl to like a boy's things, it's completely unacceptable for a boy to like a girl's things. This continues on through adulthood, these adults have children, and the cycle continues. The media perpetuates it. We see it all the time, particularly in this idea that boys are completely resistant to anything that girls like. Whether it's the color pink, Barbies, Hannah Montana, or any book featuring a girl as a main character, it's just not cool for boys to like it. It's gay. It singles out the boy as an object of ridicule.

I don't like this trend and I don't know what can be done about it. It's too ingrained in our culture. There will always be boys who complain about take-home toys being "girl colors," who whine whenever something is pink, who find it necessary to make loud noises of disapproval at the mention of anything feminine. It's part of our hypermasculine male culture and it's perpetuated by parents who ... what? Are they afraid of their sons being gay? I don't know. Are they completely controlled by media images of Male and Female? I don't know. It bugs me, this idea that boys and girls are trained that they're different. It keeps them from identifying with one another at a really young age... and most boys are taught a disdain for all things feminine from the time they're toddlers.

And for those boys who like "girl" things ...

I once did a birthday party for a child where the final event was teaching the kids how to make homemade slime. There were color choices: I had green, and I had pink. As an example, I made pink slime. When I went around to give kids colors, all of the boys chose green. For the girls, it was mixed. One little boy, the birthday child's younger brother, fidgeted and mumbled and eventually said "green." I gave him his green slime and thought nothing of it until his mother came and asked me if I still had the example slime I made. I stared at her and asked why. Slightly suspicious----though honestly, what the hell do I care if someone takes my example slime? The mother then proceeds to explain to me that the little boy (age four) liked the pink slime and really, really wanted pink slime... until he saw that all the other boys were making green slime. He was afraid that the other boys would tease him.

Just breaks my heart.

Why can't we like what we like without fear of peer pressure telling us we are less male or less female? A married, heterosexual friend of mine is completely open about the fact that he freaking collects My Little Ponies. Why? Dunno. Don't care. Does there need to be a reason? There needs to be more of that in this world. World peace starts with gender neutrality. Real men like pink.

Seriously. Don't touch my shit.


Dear 13-year-old:

I don't care if you're older than the other kids at camp. This does not make you exempt from the rules. When one of the rules is "Please don't touch the stuff I have laid out on the table," I expect you, as an older kid, to be a good kid and follow this rule. You are not special. You are not my assistant. I don't care if my stuff is on a stage instead of technically on a table, you little smartass. You do not have the right to go through my boxes of materials while my back is turned. When I say you get to have two balloons, and you pop one because you're dicking around with it, you don't get to go into my box of materials and get a third one when I'm not looking.

When I say something to you, I expect you to listen. I don't care if you're older than everyone else. If anything, you ought to be setting a good example, instead of encouraging the little ones into bad behavior. When I ask you to stop sitting on the stage and sit in your chair, do it. When I tell you to put your shirt back on, that doesn't mean you can take your shirt off again an hour later. I don't care if you're hot! It's air conditioned and it's your choice to run around during break. You don't strip down, dude. Not cool.

Lastly, what the fuck are you doing here? The age cap is 12 and even that's too old.

No love,

the Professor.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Teacher in the Closet

Today I received a rather direct question involving something I've been uncomfortable addressing in my classes.

(After me asking kids to introduce themselves, including ages.)
Supernerd: How old are you?
Me: I'm 24.
Clown: Are you married?
Me: No.
Clown: Are you dating anybody?
Me: (smiling sweetly) That's none of your business.

And it isn't their business. When I was trained back in 2007 to teach drama camp at an inner city YMCA, I was taught that kids are always going to ask about your personal life, and that you shouldn't ever answer. You're a teacher, not a friend. I'm of two minds about this. First, it's an innocuous question and there's nothing sinister behind it. The YMCA also wanted to teach me that giving a hug was bad, and how to properly touch a child so they can't go back and say you sexually abused them. That's stuck with me for a long, long time, particularly because I come from a theatrical background where hugging and physical contact is a huge part of the environment. I'm always careful with how I touch kids at my science job because of it. Kids come up to hug me and I wonder what their parents would say. I'm always hesitant; there's such a brouhaha over child abuse and what is (inappropriately) construed as sexual. I think our culture of lawsuits and media-fearmongering has made parents hyperaware of the idea that everyone is out to get their kids, and they're teaching their children to be hyperaware and afraid, too. Being aware is one thing. Being obsessed is another.

Along the same vein is the relationship question.

It's an innocent question. Sometimes it comes up indirectly with parents, sometimes it's asked directly by a student. I'm not comfortable answering. First of all, it really isn't their business. It's not relevant, no matter how innocent. But more importantly, here's the deal: I'm a lesbian. I'm in a two-year monogamous relationship with my partner. We live together. We have three cats. No matter how boring this is, no matter how un-sordid this is, I don't feel comfortable telling this to children. I don't want their parents calling my company, asking how they can allow a lesbian to teach their children, or how I brought up sexually inappropriate conversation. If I casually mention that I have a boyfriend or a husband, that's normal. If I say I have a girlfriend, it's inappropriate.

I'm not saying I have to bring it up. I don't want to. My life isn't their business. The answer to "Do you have a boyfriend?" is "No." The answer to "Are you dating anyone?" is either "Yes" (which brings up more questions) or a cheeky "That's not your business" (which doesn't).

It isn't that I have a hankering to discuss my personal life with kids or with parents. My problem is that I don't feel comfortable mentioning it. Mentioning one's homosexuality in front of a child carries a negative stigma. It's sexual, it's inappropriate, instead of an offhand mention that doesn't need to be brought up again. It suggests that there's something wrong with it. It makes me feel ashamed and secretive.

I feel particularly bothered by this incident: I was teaching acting class for a summer youth theatre, where my students are between the ages of 13 and 15. A slightly older crowd than my science-class fare, where budding sexuality is coming out.

Me: (Giving opening spiel)
The Weird One: (Somewhat out of the blue, I don't remember the leadup. Finger raised in proclamation!) I'm pretty sure that one of the kids in here is gay.
Kids: (Giggle, look toward me! OMG! How will I respond to that, how outlandish!)
Me: That's not necessary. That's not your place to say. It's nobody's business but theirs. (Etc.)

I stand by what I said. It isn't his business, and nobody has the right to "out" anyone else, especially at such a young age ... and particularly when "gay" isn't really understood and carries such a negative connotation, particularly to middle-schoolers. However, it really bothered me. This was weeks ago and it's still nagging at me. I said all of that and I stand by it, but I also know that one of the kids in my class might very well actually be gay. I don't know this; I don't know if he knows this or even thinks about this. And yet ... if he is gay, if he is questioning his sexuality in any way, or if any of them have questions ... what does that say to him, or any of them, that I treat it like some kind of taboo and secret issue? It's not my business to out a child. That's private. However, it's bothering me that I didn't say that being gay is an okay thing. It's bothering me that I didn't say, "Hey, who cares? I'm a lesbian, so what? Does it make a difference? Does it matter to you?"

But I was too scared that it would matter. I was too scared that it would be deemed inappropriate or invite giggles and discomfort and scrutiny, even with this group of kids. At this youth theatre, I know these kids. Half of them have me friended on Facebook. If they've read my profile at all they know I'm gay. And even in that environment I felt affected by this sociological stigma that any mention of homosexuality, even when it has nothing to do with sex itself, is somehow inappropriate for children.

I might not believe this, but I know that plenty of other people do. It keeps me scared. It keeps me feeling like I'm hiding something from parents, something that some of them might want to know, something that might affect their opinion of my ability to teach children. What would they do if they knew a dyke was teaching their kids? Would it make a difference? Would they care?

I like to think they wouldn't, but the fact that I don't know keeps me from the most casual mention of my partner. Sure, it's none of their business, but why does it have to feel like my dirty little secret?

New Crop of Kids

I started a new camp today. No, we can't actually call them camps, because of legal regulations that make a "camp" a "camp." Instead, we call them "awesome activity weeks," which to me just conveys the super-duper happy funtime of it all, and if it's not awesome, then... well, you're fucked with claims of false advertising.

Anyway, I have a 75-minute commute to work this time around. (ASIDE: With the AAWs, you train in one theme (we have several) and then you go wherever that particular theme was scheduled. I'm trained in three different themes and my shortest commute has been 40 minutes.) It's really very difficult to wake up at 6 AM when you're dealing with the tail end of a flea infestation and some aggressively cuddly cats who leap up to snuggle in bed and don't know the meaning of the word "No" and a toss onto the floor. I took one of my kittens off the bed thirty times (I counted) between the hours of 4 and 5 AM. Exhausted, I showered, woke up the girlfriend so she could call the vet (she sleeps until noon much of the time and wanted to call at 8). I dragged a 50-pound bin out of my third-story apartment and set it into my car, then made a quickie drive to CVS for pretzels and apple juice and cups for the kids to snack on in case they didn't have the fortitude to bring a snack (something I don't get reimbursed for because it's my personal choice to do this). For myself, I grab my bottle of No-Doz and a Starbucks Doubleshot for the drive there. I have a real problem with nearly falling asleep while taking a nice cozy drive through the boondocks. Unfortunately, caffeine seems to have no effect on me. You'd think after popping a couple of caffeine pills and drinking a coffee-flavored energy drink, I might be a little bit buzzed. You'd also think that after learning that despite doing this, my eyelids still droop a little, I'd learn to quit the useless caffeine habit, but to no avail.

But I digress.

By the time I arrive at my destination, I am totally awake (because I am no longer driving----it's driving that triggers it, which quite frankly terrifies me and makes me go to bed early). I arrive early, but the building is locked. I call the Parks & Rec Dept, my contact number for the AAW, which... is at another location. The girl on the phone hears a man with a leaf blower over on my end and tells me to ask him for keys. He does, in fact, have keys, and I'm allowed in. Room is set up, A/C is put on, all crises and panics over "OMG WHAT IF I AM NOT ABLE TO GET INSIDE" have subsided.

For this AAW I have seven kids----seven boys, ages 7-13. Now, the AAWs I do are marketed to ages 7-12. Normally, I do AAWs for ages 5-10. A lot of the material is way too complicated to kids under 7, but that's my normal age bracket. Once you get up to age 10, they get a little too jaded and a little too Know-It-All for my tastes. Surly, above-it-all, and fucking obnoxious. So you can imagine that a thirteen-year-old is just the epitome of all of this. I'm stuck with the challenge of keeping things grown-up and complicated enough for a thirteen-year-old boy who needs to be impressed, and making things fun and simple and magical for a seven- or eight-year-old.

Seven boys. I'm imagining boys climbing on walls, screaming and playing shoot-em-up tag with imaginary guns. Rolling on the floor, stacking Crayola markers end on end and having sword fights with them. I'm imagining having to curtail escaped monkeys at the zoo.

Weirdly enough, they're well-behaved. They're scarily well-behaved, to the point where I'm convinced their bored out of their minds. Boredom, however, tends to have the opposite effect: kids get restless and all hell breaks loose. And yet, the kids don't seem all that interested in what I'm saying or what they're doing. They're complacent and quiet and calm and though I've often dreamed of a group like this, I quite honestly don't know how to handle it. It makes me nervous. If I'm not spending 30+ total minutes of a three-hour day disciplining wild summer children, I run out of stuff to do! I specifically plan my lessons with the idea that a massive chunk of time will be spent on reeling people in! Thankfully, this is a truncated AAW (three days instead of five) and I can afford to cram in as much activity as I can.

The only trouble comes from the thirteen-year-old, who thinks he can touch my things on the table, roam around, and be generally obnoxious. But despite that he's quiet. I hope things are noisier tomorrow or else I'm going to explode from all of the nervous tension. It's like they're plotting my demise.


I grew up with the Traditional American Family. Mom and Dad married thirty-one years, younger brother, suburbs, white middle-class. Dad worked for an insurance company, mom stopped work to stay at home. My upbringing had its snags and grows less traditional as we all grow older, but as a kid, I lived that American Dream that's mostly nonexistent in reality. I tend to assume that other kids, particularly those growing up in the nice WASPy scenic-farm-and-town area, do too. And for the most part, they do. Most of the kids that I teach are kids who grow up with two parents and siblings and dogs and a lot of Stuff, which was why I was so jarred by one kid's storytelling session.

Billy (name changed) is eleven years old. He's a Supernerd in the most adorable sense. Tall, lanky, hair like straw, big eyes behind bigger bifocals. Wearing really badass temporary tattoos on both arms (adorable). He has siblings who are jocks and he's the nerdy kid who loves science, and he did nothing but profess his love of this AAW for the whole day. I was making conversation, asking if everyone lived in this town. Billy lives in the next town over and says the town was a lot better when it was all farm country, but there's been a lot of development. He then says he has two dogs and seven fish, and proceeds to list all of the pets he had while living on a farm (chickens, dogs, a super awesome goat), and says he wishes his house hadn't burned down (killing one of his dogs). He then proceeds to talk about his dad and the things his dad used to do with him, and then mentions that his dad doesn't live with him anymore and his parents are getting a divorce----but for "good reasons," he says with a sage nod. I say that it's probably best if it's for good reasons, not prying. Billy then tells me his parents are getting a divorce because his father was "very violent" toward his mother and "seriously injured her, and so they're getting a divorce." And that his father was into drugs and he and his mom both ended up in jail for a while (if they're still in jail, I don't know). He now lives with his grandmother.

Totally casual and sweet and nonchalant, perfectly willing to share this information like it flowed naturally from "I have two dogs and seven fish."

I just... holy shit.