My Reading Chair: In Memoriam

Ten years ago, I had a six-month-old baby girl. I was just emerging from that newborn fog of dark days and very long nights. I was just beginning to recognize the world outside my home again. I was on the verge of “normal life.”

And then I went to a birthday party.

Something I ingested at that party turned my stomach in an oddly familiar way. A few days later, I noticed that my neighbors dogs smelled awful and I could smell them all the way from my house. Several days after that, I started actively looking for raisins. To eat. This is something I had never done. Ever.

It turns out, old wives tales about not being able to get pregnant while breastfeeding are nothing but lies.

So it was that I acquired “The Chair.”

My husband, being the thoughtful, kind, generous man that he is, realized this was a time for a time for big gestures. He did something unprecedented in our lives up to that point. He bought me a brand new giant, billowing, reclining chair. It was perfect. It had the right proportion of soft to sturdy. It was just the right height when I was sitting in it. When it was reclined my feet came over the edge at the most comfortable place.

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My six-month-old baby girl could sit with me in the chair even though my lap disappeared more everyday. Later, I could read to her while she sat beside me and I nursed her baby sister. Then I could read to the two of them while I nursed the next baby sister, and then their baby brother. The chair seemed to magically expand to accommodate the children. I have spent countless hours reading, what I imagine to be, thousands of picture books to my four children in that chair over the last ten years. I treasure those times of close, cuddled up, wiggly storytimes.

The Chair has been my refuge. It has held me up when I was too morning sick to move. It has laid me back when I just could not keep my eyes open one more minute. It has steadied me when I pinched a nerve in my neck during pregnancy number four. It has rocked me through heartaches I thought would break me.

Most notably, it has been my constant companion through an incalculable number of hours reading and hundreds of books. My love of reading was solidified in that chair. I have stayed awake nights in that chair, unable to put a book down. I have fallen asleep reading the same sentence fifty-six times in that chair. I have found bookmarks, pens for taking notes, post-its, small notebooks, small books themselves in the cracks and crevices of that chair. I have spent ten years of my life reading, almost exclusively, in that chair.

And now my chair is gone.

It is broken, damaged, rejected, and literally kicked to the curb.

Now when I read to my kids they are all sprawled out across an entire couch. Yes, it is true, now they can all sit without touching each other. Yes, it is true, now they can all see the pictures and pages without having someone’s hair in their face. But it’s not the same.

Now I have to read in a new spot. Yes, it is true that it is also very soft yet sturdy. Yes, it is true that it also reclines. Yes, it is true that I have even more options of where to sit and read now. But it is not the same.

My husband laughs and tells me my loyalty to inanimate objects is “cute.”

Is it still “cute” to go read in My Chair, on the curb, one last time?

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Books for Talking About Racism with Children: A Collection of Lists

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

This past week, the United States has had the metaphorical floodlights focused on one of our most enduring faults. Under the glare of these lights, we have been forced to look, full in the face, at the truth long spoken of by black and brown Americans, that racism is alive and well. Still. Today.

Now is our chance to face our collective historical and present truth, together, with humility, kindness, and respect. Now is our chance to teach the next generation, the generation under our care, a different way forward. Now is my chance to acknowledge that my words and actions may not change the world, but they can change me.

We have seen the brilliant quote by Nelson Mandela many times this week:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

But it leaves many of us asking, “How?” It sounds so simple. But what does it look like, to “be taught to love.”

We are the teachers and parents charged with teaching the next generation how to go forward differently. To do that, we must honestly face our history and teach it to them accurately. We cannot shy away from uncomfortable truths. As the James Baldwin quote above states, “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

But it is not enough to teach only the history. We must actively teach and reinforce accurate ideas about race. It is not helpful to teach children to be “colorblind” or to never speak about race. It is confusing and troubling to tell children to “not see color.” We all see color. These platitudes perpetuate the idea that our racial differences are a bad thing that should never be noticed. Let them ask questions. When we shun questions about race, we make it seem taboo. Our racial differences are not a taboo, divisive thing. It is our negative responses to racial differences that create a divide. We have to actively teach that God’s creation is beautiful, that skin comes in a variety of shades, all beautiful, all perfectly acceptable, and lovely. They need to see this modeled.

To help us navigate these discussions and prompt these conversations, there are many, many good books that you can read together. Over the past week, I have seen several excellent lists. I have compiled a list of my favorite lists. These books are fantastic resources for your home and/or classroom.

To these I would add my own Black History Month book list and three books that I have read in the last year: Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper, Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, and Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport.

Under the glare of these floodlights, may we have the courage, respect, and grace to face the truth and work towards change. Under the glare of these floodlights, may we begin new conversations. Under the glare of these floodlights may we mend.

 

 

 

10 Excellent Books for the New School Year

The year was 1985. My family had just moved to Nigeria, West Africa. While my parents were moving back to the country they grew up in, this was my first time there. I do not remember the move as traumatic, I remember it as exciting and right…except for school. I was terrified of starting school.

I was beginning second grade and this would be my third school in three years. My nerves were raw, my stomach roiled, and my emotions were a chaotic disaster. I could not identify it at the time but the shortness of breath, the accelerated heartbeat, and the feeling of overwhelming panic I experienced were the beginning of many years of mini-panic attacks. On paper, there was no reason for my visceral reaction to the start of school. My teacher was the kindest, most gentle teacher at the school. My classmates were accepting and fun. My environment was adventurous and freeing. But my emotions did not care. I was held hostage by fear, panic, and worry.

Over the years, I learned ways to subdue those waves of emotional struggle. But they never fully abated on each and every first day of school. Even through college I would walk through my schedule the week before school started just so I knew exactly where I was supposed to be at each point.

If at this point you are feeling the need to set up a GoFundMe page for my therapy, don’t worry. I am okay. See. I was a happy child. (Or maybe I am just working on perfecting my side eye. Just kidding, I was happy.) I went on to become a teacher. In a school. That shows progress, right?!

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The beginning of school invokes a visceral reaction in all of us. My own school age children are evidence of this, one is thrilled, counting down the hours, one is in denial, one is nervous and worried.

No matter which kind of school you attended, we all understand the nerves, the excitement, the apprehension, the “no, I don’t want to’s” that come with the beginning of each school year. As with all things in life, there are books to help with that. (Yes, you are right, I did already do a back to school list last year. These will be different books, I promise.)

What Do You Do With a Problem (Kobi Yamada) – This is one of my favorite new picture books. It gives an excellent analogy about resilience and problem solving even when you feel unable. This book would be perfect for the child feeling overwhelmed by the thought of starting school.

I’m Smart (Kate McMullan) – Following in the great tradition of the other “I’m…” books, I’m Smart introduces us to the school bus and the excitement involved in getting children to school.

K is for Kindergarten (Erin Dealy) – Not only is this a fantastic alphabet book about going to school, it also includes very cute ideas in the margins.

School’s First Day of School (Adam Rex) – We have all experienced the first day of school as children, but what does the first day of school feel like to the school building?

How To Get Your Teacher Ready (Jean Reagan) – This book is by the same author of the How to Babysit a Grandpa/Grandma books. It is a very funny story about the beginning of school.

Llama, Llama Misses Mama (Anna Dewdney) – Sometimes even when your fifth grader is happily sprinting off to her classroom, she needs to be reminded that it’s okay to miss her mama! (Not that I would know!)

Milk Goes to School (Terry Border) – Milk has a rude awakening when she gets to school and realizes that not everyone thinks she’s the creme de la creme her parents have told her she is. Everyone needs a little comic relief to calm those jittery nerves.

The Name Jar (Yangsook Choi) – This a is beautiful, important story of acceptance, learning about each other, and creating a welcoming classroom environment.

My Name is Maria Isabel (Alma Flor Ada) – Names matter. As teachers, we have to be careful to honor the importance of  a name.

The Hundred Dresses (Eleanor Estes) – This is an excellent book about bullying and the power of standing up for one another.

I will just be over here taking deep breaths and practicing every relaxation technique I know while I live, vicariously, through yet another first day of school. May all of their first days be filled with joy, acceptance, and a renewed love of learning.

 

 

In Defense of Buying Everything on that School Supply List, When You Can

My family is officially in the single digit countdown to the new school year. The emotions accompanying said countdown range from elated enthusiasm to deepening discouragement to nagging nervousness. (See what I did there? Don’t worry, it’s completely acceptable and not at all cheesy to alliterate as long as your writing about school. Yeah, let’s go with that!)

That’s how the kids feel. As for myself, I am, unsurprisingly, unprepared.

Woefully so:

  • There are backpacks to replace or clean.
  • Lunch boxes to assess and then replace or clean.
  • School clothes to appraise based on summer growth spurts or summer destruction.
  • Shoe sizes to reevaluate.
  • Manners to re-instill.
  • Brain drain to repair.

But all of that pales in comparison to the weight of responsibility that is school supply acquiring. I had to dig through mountains of “to be filed” papers from the end of last school year to find three separate school supplies lists.

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Let me tell you, school supply lists times three make for a very long and expensive shopping trip. In years past I have been known to have a spreadsheet with all the supplies needed along with the store offering the best deal on that item. It is a time-consuming but thoroughly enjoyable process. The subsequent store to store shopping, not so much.

Every year while I am out shopping for school supplies, there is a dull roar heard throughout the store of parental complaints. Parents are bonding on a level unseen since Kindergarten graduation over the atrocity that is the communal school supply list. You will hear no end of, “Why should I have to buy supplies for the whole class?” “I shouldn’t have to spend my hard-earned money on someone else’s child?” “The school should be providing all of this for the classroom.”

While it is nice to hold on to the ideals that the school districts can give schools budgets large enough that they are able to provide Kleenex and pencils for the classrooms or that every child can equally contribute to the classroom necessities, it is simply not the reality. We complain about school districts not filling the classroom with glue sticks and dry erase markers, but then complain about our taxes being raised to increase funding to schools. We complain about having to spend any out-of-pocket money at our own jobs, but have no problem leaving teachers to do the same. We complain about having to buy school supplies for the whole classroom rather than just our own child, but never get to know each other enough to find out what incredibly difficult life circumstance our neighbor is going through that may be preventing them from contributing “equally.”

The fact is, like we tell our children and students every day, life is not fair. And a little perspective goes a very long way. To that end, I suggest visiting an amazing website called DonorsChoose.org before embarking on your school supply finding endeavors.

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DonorsChoose.org is a site where teachers can post their classroom needs and anyone can donate funds to purchase those items. Take a minute to scroll through these teachers’ requests. It is a humbling and sobering experience. You can search by geographic location or greatest need or nearest deadline. Any way you choose to search the needs posted, you will be surprised by what teachers are up against when it comes to furnishing their classrooms.

So now, when I am standing in line thinking about how much it is costing me to help furnish my children’s classrooms, I think about those teachers’ requests. I think about the teachers who don’t have enough books for their students. I think about the teachers who don’t have enough notebooks and pencils. I think about the teachers who don’t have any playground equipment for their students at recess. Perspective is a powerful thing. It is something I sorely need when I feel like grumbling about my purchases of extra crayons and post its.

My challenge at the start of this school year is to not only graciously and generously (there’s that alliteration again!) give to your own child’s classroom needs, but consider taking it a step further and sponsoring a teacher’s dream on DonorsChoose.org. It will come as no surprise to you that many of the requests are for books.

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