Friday, November 30, 2012

My grandmother's ornaments

Amongst the many boxes of Christmas decorations that we unearth every year the day after Thanksgiving, is a small bin of delicate keepsakes. Each precious treasure is wrapped individually in tissue paper nestled within its own box, many labeled with my mom’s or grandma’s handwriting. I thought these ornaments might be ready to make their debut this year, now that my sons are 12, 11, and 7. However, when someone tried to ring a china bell à la calling the cows home for dinner and another followed suit by shaking a German blown glass ornament like a maraca – which immediately ended up in shards on the floor – I knew this wasn’t the year.

I had no words for my son as I handed him the dustpan. These shards were part of a set from sometime way before my time and thus irreplaceable. The china bell and the remaining blown glass ornaments quickly rejoined the rest of the ornate and fragile heirlooms in their storage bin. I wouldn’t let my boys touch them or even look at them, and huffed off to put them back in storage immediately. I suppose that action in itself spoke louder than any words I could conjure.

While I do cherish these ornaments, they are not the most meaningful to me. My most-loved ornaments are the ones that are made out of Popsicle sticks, yarn, pipe cleaners, beads, or wood colored with markers. We also have cut-out photos, real birds’ nests, and origami creations fashioned from standard-issue sticky notes, as well as crinkle paper garland made from the discarded left edge of perforated loose-leaf paper. Some of these decorations are from my childhood – like my initial clumsy attempts at sewing with green embroidery thread on red felt – but most of them chronicle my boys’ lifetimes, in yearly chapters.

My ultimate favorite story is told by the hand-painted baby food can “ornaments.” At least, I think they are baby food cans. That is what my mom always said, but I can’t find any documentation that baby food ever came in cans. Suffice it to say, they are little cans about the size of a small vessel of tomato paste, painted brightly with stripes, candy canes, and dots. When my grandparents were first starting out, during World War II, they did not have very much materially. Legend has it; they drove an army surplus jeep with holes in the floorboards (this story always made me think of Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered car). They surely ascribed to the philosophy espoused by The United States Office of War Information on its posters urging Americans to "Do with less – so they'll have enough." ("They" referred to U.S. troops.)

My grandparents followed the part about “doing with less” long after the war, it seemed, if one could judge by the upright glass straw dispenser filled with leftovers gleaned from fast food restaurants (which I am sure were washed and re-used). The surplus paper restaurant napkins were in the next drawer down from the supposedly secret stash of hard candies, and my grandparents dried out paper towels for reuse next to their kitchen sink. My grandparents were the only people I knew who actually used a nutcracker: buying nuts already shelled was deemed frivolous. My grandfather’s cracking the nuts we all found in our socks (We hung my grandfather’s actual everyday socks on the mantel for Santa to fill.), first for “his bride” and then for the rest of us, was a common occurrence on Christmas morning.

My grandparents also had a storehouse in their basement with seemingly endless shelves of canned goods; no doubt bought at the opportune time these things were on sale. My brother and I learned to like mandarin oranges and olives a lot. We were sent home with bags of these, as well as broth and cranberry sauce. I am not sure it was because my grandparents had a glut of these items or if we just needed food. At the time it didn’t matter: it was just fun “shopping” in their basement.

I came to understand that the baby food can ornaments were an embarrassment to my grandmother, though initially, I couldn’t imagine why. When I was a kid, and we traveled over the river and through the woods to celebrate Christmas, they were the first things I looked for on the tree. When the time came that we didn’t sleep over at my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, my grandmother was only too happy to hand the ornaments down to my mother for our tree. Here we are years later and I, as the matriarch of my family, am the keeper of the ornaments. They are the first ones I put on our tree every year.

I know now that my grandmother was ashamed of not being able to afford “real” ornaments; that hand-painted baby food cans symbolized hard times for her family. (Ironically, because of the value of scrap metal during World War II, they were probably worth more than “real” ornaments.) But to me, the ornaments represent assurance – that Christmas would always be Christmas, no matter what; optimism – that there is light at the end of the dark times; and most of all devotion – that my family would stick together come what may, through thick and thin. There have been Christmases where I have wondered how I could afford the dog and pony show I thought I should put on for my boys to make their Christmas “magical” (never mind the gifts themselves), but regardless, we keep the faith in Christmas, hope for better times, and love our family and friends.

This year, because my boys started circling the same things in the toy catalogs (which had arrived in our mailbox before Halloween) that Santa had brought them in years past, I began to wonder if they could name any of the gifts they’d ever received at Christmas – even just last year. I doubted it. So, I decided to ask them what makes Christmas Christmas-y and initiated a list of favorite traditions on our whiteboard. The boys not only more than doubled the list, but also developed a rating scheme. They all agreed unanimously on the chocolate advent calendars, gingerbread houses, festive movies, and spending time with family (this got five check marks next to it, as opposed to the previous line items receiving two apiece). Runners-up included making fudge, decorating, and listening to Christmas music. Giving and receiving gifts didn’t even make the list. While I know they’d feel “not that good” about relinquishing this part, I am happy to know that it’s not the sole focus and that “Christmas” to them is more than just the one day.

After hauling the bin of heirloom ornaments back up to the attic that day after Thanksgiving, I waded -- knee deep in decorations – back through the fracas surrounding our Christmas tree, and noticed that someone else had already hung the baby-food can ornaments.

Boy to the World!

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. ~1 Corinthians 13:13

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Thanksgiving Tree

This is a picture or my family’s gratitude tree, which is in its 10th season this year. When I started this tradition, I had an actual faux tree on which we hung paper "ornaments" with colored pipe cleaners. Today it has evolved into a tree-shaped cutout on a posterboard displayed on an easel (securing the leaves with tape or glue sticks, and a very few tacks).

We take the tree out every year the day after Halloween and anyone who walks into our home between then and Thanksgiving is welcome to write something they're grateful for on a leaf and stick it on the tree.

If you zoom in you can see most of what people have written is very basic: life, love, family, friends, pets, and the occasional “oreos,” “my yoyo,” or “candy.” Some of the leaves go so far back they only have scribbles on them (with my translation on the other sides), or one of my boys’ names, when he was practicing how to write it.

A couple of the leaves say “electricity.” The ice storm of 2008 was a very dark time, not only because we lost our power but also because it was shortly after my mother passed away, at Thanksgiving time that year.

We did not put our tradition aside, though we were all very sad by this sudden and unexpected loss and it was bittersweet to see the cornucopia on the posterboard stating my youngest’s gratitude for his dog and his grandma. Still, we found things to be grateful for, even amidst great sorrow.

First Thessalonians 5:18 says give thanks in all circumstances. It doesn’t say we have to give thanks for all circumstances. I know so many people today who are facing trials they never imagined: illness, death, poverty, loss, failed relationships – unspeakable disappointments. What we need to keep in mind is something that my Sicilian colleagues used to say (that I had written on a sticky note in my cubicle during the early years of my technology career), “Si çiùri 'na porta e si ràpi 'm purticàtu,” which basically means “a door closes and a gate opens.”

A gate is bigger than a door. Let’s focus on the things we can be thankful for.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gimme a break! (part three): An open letter to teachers and administrators at Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School

open letter graphicThis article was published in The Groton Line today.

Dear school teachers and administrators,

I’ve discussed recess and lack thereof in the upper grades at Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School (GDRMS) in two previous articles, Thoughts on Recess and Whatever Happened to Recess?. Because of the enlightening conversations I had with both Mr. Steve Silverman and Dr. Tony Bent, I understand that there are opposing forces at work here. As Dr. Bent said, “There is a benefit from physical activity and movement. At the same time, schools are under pressure to improve academically and to get kids ready for high school.”

Is there a way we can meet in the middle with a best-of-both-worlds scenario?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a recent report titled, “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance.” This report suggests that providing recess to students on a regular basis may benefit academic behaviors and that teachers can incorporate movement activities and physical activity breaks into the classroom setting that may improve performance and the classroom environment.

Additionally, here is some anecdotal feedback I’ve received from local and worldwide sources, as well as from kids themselves.

One local mom shared, “I agree with your article 100%. I think it is much more important for 7th graders to have a 20-minute break outside to walk around or run around and burn off some energy than to sit for 20 minutes and read. Kids need more physical activity — every study we read says this. I was very disappointed to find out that my 7th grader no longer has any outside time all day.

Another said, “All kids, even the high schoolers, need some sort of down time and exercise during the day. In Australia, the school day for middle and high school starts around 8: 30 a.m., and there is a 20 min morning recess, a 45 minute lunch (kids go outside as soon as they finish eating), and the school day finishes at 3:30 p.m.”

One of my colleagues told me at her kids’ private school in North Carolina, the 5th-8th graders get 23 minutes for lunch and 23 minutes for recess. It is built into the day, every day. The middle school also has gym two times a week for 46 minutes and that is all gym/outside time there is no classroom work for gym. Typically the wellness lessons are special seminars during the school day.

A local mom of an 8th grader wrote, “According to my daughter and her friend, they don’t like not having recess at all. They feel like they are sitting around all day, only moving when changing classrooms and going to the rest room. In Japan, at the school in my mother’s city where my daughter has gone during summer vacation for the past eight years, almost all kids walk to school (two-three miles), gym class is offered every single day (swimming during the summer), as is physical (either indoor or outdoor) recess every morning and after lunch. The school system there really believes in the mind-body connection and the benefit of physical activity toward academic performance.

From my work teammate India: “Students have school from 7:00 a.m. to noon in some cities and noon to 5:00 p.m. in others. The morning shift is for small kids (up to age 10) and the afternoon shift is for older kids (ages 10 to 17). The interval time given in all the schools is generally 30 minutes. For the morning shift there is a break around 9:00 a.m. and for the afternoon shift it is around 2:00 p.m. This 30 minutes is for lunch; if in case you finish eating you can play during that time. Additionally, there is no hard rule of eating inside, one can go out in the playground benches and eat there too.”

“Kids get to go out to the playground for physical activities twice in a week; there is a separate period for that. And when a sports event or some other tournament is nearing, we have such period every day, it’s a half-an-hour extra period which is generally the last one.

“This kind of culture is generally followed by all the schools across India and has been for some time. Every school has their own way of dividing the times, but on average, each school devotes a few hours every week into physical activities, either sports, swimming, cycling, or whichever thing interest the child. Nowadays in India, the schools are trying to groom kids as “all rounders”—good in studies and good in physical activities as well.”

I asked a couple of 6th-grade boys, “How do you feel about not having recess next year?”

One replied, “Horrible.”

The other agreed, “Me, too. It’s dumb.”

My 7th grader is “bummed out” when he can see 5th and 6th graders outside enjoying recess when he’s walking between the North and South buildings.

His 7th-grade friend stated, “It’s boring not having recess. I don’t like it. We’re not active enough.”

“I miss recess,” said an 8th-grade girl.

Another 8th-grade girl thought if the school offered “physical or outdoor” recess, she and her friends are not sure if they would really have “physical” time. Instead they may end up chatting. Her suggestion is to have gym class every day instead.

According to another 7th grade boy: “I think recess in middle school is needed because most kids do not get enough exercise. Physical education for 176 – 264 minutes in a school week isn’t enough.”

However, this boy also commented that he thinks it’s better to have more time for classwork, and another 7th grade boy said he likes having 20 minutes of reading.

So, what is the solution?

My 7th-grade son suggested, “Maybe the kids who want outdoor recess could go out, and the kids who want to stay in can stay in. The teachers could be divided up to be with either group of kids.”

Additionally, perhaps we should not expect the same “playing” behavior as is seen in the younger grades. Maybe it’s either okay to let kids stand around and socialize (which is what a Westford mom of a middle-school girl says happens there), or maybe urge the kids to walk as they socialize, as the Groton mom of a 6th-grade girl suggested.

Another mom of a 6th-grade girl commented, “A walk around the school after lunch might be good to keep kids focused in the afternoon. I know I always feel better after I walk at lunch.”

Because team time is right after lunch, the time slot is already built into the day. Would you consider offering some structured physical activity options for team time such as “Walk-a-mile Wednesday” or “Free-throw Friday” for those who want it?

Or if there is some reason that makes a physical/outdoor recess option during team time completely impossible, would you think about other ideas to add physical activity to the school day as the CDC report suggests? What about taking a classroom outside (click here for an example of one innovative teacher at Wake Forest University) or adding more physical activity into the classroom (see “Let’s Move In School” or “Action Based Learning”)?

Thank you so much for your consideration.

Caroline B. Poser, mom of three sons (two in GDRMS and one in Florence Roche Elementary School)

P.S. Fifth and 6th grade teachers, please consider not withholding recess as a behavioral consequence. Kids need to get up and move their bodies and burn off some energy before they can sit still and focus. Keeping them in for recess seems counterproductive. Thank you.

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...