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.