Sunday, August 17, 2014

NOLA July, 2008

I spent the month of July, 2008 in the city of New Orleans. My purpose there was to work. At the time, I was involved in a project for a company that made library and textbook management software. In the Recovery School District of New Orleans, they had (they said) over 300,000 books to be entered into the system and subsequently barcoded at about 12 different sites. This wasn't unusual, especially for large school districts, but what was different was that schools were closing and merging, even while we were there. Another difference is that normally there would be people like me to lead the project, then temps were hired who did the actual barcoding. In this case, some bright bulb decided HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS could do this job just as well! Oh, and we're picking them up on a bus, so the day will start about an hour and a half late, end another hour and a half early, and if we have to switch schools when we're done with one, that will be another hour wait, but it was very important we finish on schedule. It wasn't pretty. Did I mention the vast majority of the schools weren't air conditioned? In July. In NEW ORLEANS?!

In retrospect, it's probably good the workers were high school kids. None of the schools we went to had done any organizing, even though they were told to by the district, and these kids had to search for, then heft huge piles of textbooks from various rooms to a holding area in order to get accurate counts and get everything encoded. These boys, 16, 17, and 18, were all Black. They had strong backs and youthful faces, and I teased them about being able to tell their football coach they'd done weight training for a month. They were getting paid $9/hour, good money for their ages. There were girls too, but over the course of the month, I found most of the people whom I worked well with were the boys, so most became "my" team members.

I still remember these boys. Kaelaun, whom we all fought over, because he was so particular about his work, with the cinnamon colored dreds, sinewy muscles of a young man in his prime with incongruous freckles sprinkled across his nose. Edward, with the beautiful green eyes, who at 16 had come out as gay, a difficult thing in the Black community, but was still a terrible flirt with the girls. Duane, whom I had to keep a watchful eye on, or he'd find a stack of books to hide behind and fall asleep. And Jamal. Oh, Jamal was my favorite. Other team members at my level didn't want him, because he wasn't quiet. He was twitchy, energetic, always rapping a little softly to himself. Unlike the other boys, he dressed for this hot and dirty work in khakis and polo shirts, because his girlfriend was on the project too, and he had a round head, like Charlie Brown. His movements made me think of my own son, who was 8 at the time. I let Jamal bring in an mp3 player, but I told him if it got too loud, or work didn't get done, he'd be forced to listen to MY ipod the next day, and I had country, opera, bagpipe music, no rap, though. He always followed my rules. If I needed something, I asked him, and he did it, no complaints. One day, he was assigned to another team, and the next day, he asked with a hurt look why I didn't want him. I had to reassure him it was an error. From then on, every morning when we assigned teams, he would announce he was on "Miss Donna's" team and stand next to me, hands on my shoulders, already a head taller than my 5'5" at 16.

Midway through were assigned to John McDonogh High School, known as John Mac to the neighborhood, where I had to fight with security to the point of calling the school district to be allowed to bring my much-needed scissors into the school. I guess I should have known it was a tough school then, but honestly, it looked like every other neighborhood in NOLA, some empty houses with FEMA symbols on the outsides, some renovated, some getting worked on, people on porches. There was a luncheonette a block away I walked to for air one sunny day at lunch time. I walked in, and all the student workers on my team were there.  I started to walk back to the school, and Jamal appeared, suddenly desiring to walk back with me. We talked of things we had in common, grandmothers who'd helped raise us, fathers who were absent, scholarships that were needed to get to college, and he was simply good company. It wasn't until later that day, when I returned to my hotel, where the staff had taken to asking where I'd been that day, did I realize I was in one of the roughest schools in existence.

I think about Jamal a lot, as I watch my son inch closer and closer to Jamal's age then. I wonder if he ever got to LSU, how long he and his girlfriend lasted, if he kept the promise he made to me to always use protection and not have a baby until after he finished college (I liked him THAT much, I felt compelled to have that discussion). Mostly, these days, I wonder if he's still alive. I realize, when I talk to my son, that I don't have to have the kinds of conversations Jamal's grandmother had with him at 13. I don't have to tell my son that even twilight hours aren't safe to skateboard to the store for the contraband energy drinks he likes so much. I don't have to tell him he is immediately under suspicion because of the color of his skin. I also don't have to worry when he goes to the pool with his friends or plays outside with Nerf guns, pretending to be zombies, that some police officer or neighborhood do-gooder might see the plastic gun that spews only soft arrows as a threat to life and limb and lay him on the ground in a pool of his own blood. Those aren't conversations I have to have, simply because my son is white. They're conversations no one should have to have, and it needs to end. I wish I could know if Jamal is safe today, but really, there's only a 50/50 shot, and that saddens me to no end.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Mom, the Advocate

In honor of the 13th year of my mom's passing this week, this one's for her.

My mom and I didn't have a lot. She was blindsided by my dad's request for a divorce when I was 5ish, before I started kindergarten. Little did she know he'd actually disappear, leaving her to shoulder the burden of running a household and raising a child alone, with no assistance whatsoever. My childhood memories include a lot of staying at other people's houses, staying with my grandparents, wanting her to come to school events, when there really wasn't the time in the day, but she'd try her best to make the time.

One thing my mom was, far and away, was my advocate when I went to school. She trusted and respected my grade school teachers, but she didn't take their word as gold, and she always, without fail, stood up for me if she thought it was in my best interest.  I've tried to model my own dealings with my kids' teachers after hers. Yes, this meant being a "squeaky wheel" when administrators expected her to be quiet and do what they wanted. There was definitely a reason I was known BY NAME ON SIGHT by not only my teachers but the principal, the secretaries, just about everyone. My mom had a way of making people listen and follow her directions.

Probably the biggest throw down of my academic career I remember was when I was in 5th grade. I was in the only split class, which meant a class of 4th graders with only six 5th graders in the room. There was some selling competition, I think candy, but maybe I'm wrong. What I do remember is the other two 5th grade classes were getting to go to Great America with their proceeds. The six 5th graders in the split class had to go to some play with the 4th graders. My bffs then were in the other 5th grade classes, of course. My mom, when she found the arrangements out very early on, asked the teacher if we six girls couldn't go with the other 5th grader classes instead of the 4th grade trip. She was told no. She asked the principal if there couldn't be an exception made. She was told no. She devised a plan.

My mom volunteered to be one of the three parents to chaperone the 4th grade trip. She then told me she was taking me out of school the day of the Great America trip, and we would go be with the other classes on our own. I had the BEST day, hanging with my friends, going on rides, generally having a blast. While I hadn't told anyone, someone, somewhere must have squealed like a pig, because when I returned to school the next day, the teacher, in open class, asked where I had been the previous day. I told her I was absent. She again asked me where I had been. Since I'm my mother's daughter, I asked why she hadn't asked the two other people who had been absent where THEY were yesterday. She replied that she KNEW where I was, with a smug smile on her face. I then asked, if she knew where I was, why was she wasting class time with questioning me. Yes, I was newly turned 11 during this exchange, and she persisted in doing it in open class, thinking I'd back down. Had she MET me?

It was at this point she sent me to the principal's office because I was misbehaving. I think it was probably so she wouldn't flat out smack me, as I'm sure she had the desire to. I walked into the principal's office with my slip of paper saying I'd misbehaved, first time ever, and the secretary did a double take. I insisted she call my mom. She actually did. A short conversation ensued, after which my mom asked to speak to the secretary. I learned later my mom told the secretary to make sure the principal didn't go anywhere, to get that woman who is my daughter's teacher down to his office, and we were having a meeting once she arrived from work. The secretary started to brush her off, and my mother told her not to make her repeat herself. They had a meeting, alright.

My mom, I could tell, had been working on her piece on the way over. She told them she had tried to go the nice route, but people were snotty and rigid, so she made a decision about her own child that didn't affect anything, because I'd done all my homework, there were no tests that day, and truly, I'd been teaching myself with this split class nonsense where the teacher came in and checked with us less than an hour a day. She tossed around words like "prerogative", phrases like "parental vs. educator influence" and then the magic one "school superintendent". See, in 1st grade, the superintendent had been our principal, and my mom had gone to bat for me over something else--maybe I'll tell that one tomorrow--and he told my mom after it was all settled he respected the heck out of her involvement for the sake of her kid, and when he was moving into his new position told her if she ever needed anything, give him a call.

Everyone was sent to their neutral corners, but not before my mom told my teacher that if she heard one syllable about her treating me in a mean or different way, she'd be back. And she was, because she'd been one of the three parents to volunteer for the other trip the following week. If my teacher's eyes were lasers, my mom would have been a pile of ash in the first five minutes, but they weren't, and the day went along as planned.

I have yet to have need for such a throw down over my kids, and I hope the day never comes. But there are those times when I've had to remind some teachers and administrators that they need to relax a bit, the kids aren't leaving 3rd grade and heading for Harvard, and I've also had to remind them that my kids are individuals, and I won't do anything to quash that, even if it would make class time easier for them. I do know, though, deep inside, I've got the ability and the genetics to Mama Bear out if the need should arise.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Drive-in Memories Revisited

So I talked about my very young childhood memories of the then-common drive-in movie theater. I've got another clear memory of them, and another reason I like them so much, that I'd like to share.

When I was about nine, my mom went back to college. She'd been divorced a few years, spent some time at crap jobs trying to stretch those ends, since my dad never paid a dime in child support, and she soon realized her much earlier decision to not attend college on her parents' dime wasn't a great one. As a result, she worked a lot of jobs that allowed her to work her classes and caring for me into her schedule. In those days, it was a lot easier to find jobs that would also let her work "under the table" and get paid in cash to get maximum financial aid. This meant many nights I spent sleeping on people's couches, on couches in ladies' rooms, etc.

One summer, she discovered Mrs. Pittman, the lady down the street, managed the local drive-in that was a ten minute ride from our house. Mrs. Pittman was this short and round little woman whom I was eye-to-eye with at the tender age of 10. She had lovely red hair sculpted into a complex bouffant, and she had a penchant for helping people. She gave opportunities to all kinds of people. They didn't always work out, but she always tried. Even though she wasn't even five feet tall, I saw her lay into men over a foot taller who dared to cross her. She spent her time managing the drive-in, but she spent her life giving out life lessons to teenagers and people who'd gone off the beaten path.

My mom worked in the ticket booth.  It also enabled her to bring her books and get reading done in between rush times. We would have dinner at home, then drive over to the theater, where she'd park super close to the concession building. I'd have blankets, pillows, and books to keep me busy until the movie started, and there I'd stay until close. The great thing was, when I was bored, I'd wander into the concession area, where, if I brought my own cup and bowl, I had unfettered access to popcorn and drinks. Yeah, I took advantage of that, but I went in more to help out the teenagers and observe them. As an only child, I was always comfortable with people who were older than I was, and MAN teens make for great entertainment! I was always aching to help, and that counter is where I learned customer service. I could make piping hot batches of popcorn, warm up hot dogs, get food orders out like nobody's business. The teenagers loved me doing their work, and I loved doing it.

Far and away, though, the best part of my non-employee youngster status at the drive-in was watching the movies.  My mom, ever the optimist, pointed our car in the direction of the movie she let me see.  It was a "twin" drive-in, meaning there were screens at each end, usually a family friendly side, while the other side had primarily scary movies, but definitely the choices were what we'd think of as R-rated today. Yeah, I turned around a lot. The sexy movies didn't interest me, but the scary ones did. Let's just say I STILL can't watch Amityville Horror without hiding my eyes.

At some point in the second movie, I'd fall asleep, and I'd usually wake up enough to stumble into the house in the area between 2 and 3 am. They were a couple of awesome "frat-boy living" summers, when I felt like a mini adult in some ways. My kids won't get what I did out of the drive-in, but I still make sure to take them anyway.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Know What Time It Is?

And no, it's not Hammer time. It IS, however, DRIVE IN SEASON! I get SO stinking excited about it, it's just not even funny. I love going to the drive in with my kids. It's SO worth the 45 minute drive, the messing up of the schedule, the crabby attitudes the next day. I LOVE it!

I've got two extremely fond memories of drive in movies from my childhood. The first features my mom and one of her best friends, Linda, prominently. We moved in next door to Linda and her then husband when I was about two years old.  As young couples in the 70s did, they formed a fast friendship built on proximity, barbeques, and card games with cocktails on Saturday nights. When I was about four, their daughter Sheri came along, and my mom and Linda bonded even further as young parents. About another year later, both husbands left their wives and children to do whatever it is abandoning dads do, and that's when the ladies truly solidified a friendship that would last a lifetime.

Our families did everything together. At four years younger, Sheri was the victim of my plans.  I know at one point I insisted on playing school and taught her to spell her name. Wrong. I taught her how to spell HER name wrong and insisted I was right. I'm sure Kindergarten was fun for her. Our moms thought of things to do that didn't cost a lot, and one was the drive-in. I must have been about six or seven, so Sheri was two or three. My mom had a big old station wagon that could have fit a twin sized bed in the back. She tossed my old crib mattress and some toys back there. Linda took her car, and off we went. They parked their cars so there was a space in between where Sheri and I could play.  When we tired of that, we went in the back of the station wagon and played with the toys there.

But THIS, this was the never ending drive in experience! Because the movies showing weren't just a plain old double feature, no.  It was a Planet of the Apes marathon! So even though Sheri and I were passed out in the back of the station wagon, we'd awaken every now and then to monkey faces sniffing and fighting with other monkey faces and humans too! I have a vague recollection of the light of dawn just starting to peek over the back of the drive in screen as the cars moved to the exit. Right then, I thought it was AWESOME that my mom had taken me to the drive in and let me stay out ALL NIGHT. I'm sure both moms paid a heavy price the next few days with kids who were totally off schedule, but in that moment, it was righteous cool.

Tomorrow, my other drive-in memory. . .

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hide the Jellybeans!

Our miniature chocolate poodle has long had a serious Jones for Tootsie Pops. No other kind of sucker, just Tootsie Pops. If the kids have them in their back packs for some reason, I've watched him gingerly unzip the pack and ferret around until he finds the pop. He then takes it into the living room, on a particular couch, his "treat spot" to devour his ill-gotten goods. I've cut him major slack, since the only other thing he likes to chew is writing utensils, which the kids used to leave lying on the floor. It was Coco and his chewing, not me, who broke them of that habit. 

I think we've found a new addiction. Megan has been building this "sculpture" in the kitchen that is a couple feet high and culminates in an empty water bottle with random bits of Easter candy. She has said it's "for Mother's Day" (dear God!) and I'm not allowed near it. It fell today, could have told you that would happen, oh wait, I DID say that would happen. Jelly beans everywhere! Even I am not that much of a lazy housekeeper to ignore, but school gets out in just over an hour, so I decided to make Megan clean it up. 

Coco, however, who has never shown an interest in Jellybeans before, is delicately picking up a jellybean, taking it to his treat spot, spitting it out to inspect, sniff, and generally observe, before chewing it up with gusto. Rinse and repeat. They may be gone by the time she gets home. 

Should I make her write the dog a thank you note?

Too Much Pressure

There was a baptism at church this past Sunday.  I love when those happen.  Gorgeous, squishy, unpredictable babies with a captive audience, really, what could be better? This Sunday one of the deacons who had a part in the ceremony was doubly pleased, as it was her grandson being baptized, and she was veritably oozing joy. Oh, and there was CAKE during fellowship time! All in all, it was a nice day.

And then the godparents came up. . . I wasn't clear on the relationship, but one part of the couple was related to the dad of the squishy gorgeous baby.  I hope it was the husband, because if the poor guy was related to the wife, I pity him.  See, this woman was the kind I think should be sequestered from the rest of us.  She was wearing a lovely aqua colored dress, all good.  Then I noticed that all three of her boys had on aqua colored shorts and MATCHING aqua/blue/white plaid shirts.  The aqua in the shirts matched her aqua perfectly. Ahem.  Ok, ok, all boys were under 5, youngest about 18ish months, so matching shirts in that age range wouldn't be a huge feat.  Then the husband turned around. His dress shirt was aqua (naturally) and his tie. matched. the. plaid. of. the. boys'. shirts. Dear God!

When my TWO kids were under five, I was lucky if we got out of the house on time and alive for any occasion.  This woman not only color coordinated but actually fabric coordinated FIVE members of the family.  I'm shocked she didn't have a matching belt in plaid.  I know saying these people should be shot is strong, but maybe we should just maim them, as a warning, because NO ONE needs that kind of pressure on a lovely spring day.  Or EVER, really. It just contributes to some mom bursting into tears over tomato or chicken noodle soup (been there).  Moms should be satisfied with whatever level of perfection they can achieve, even if that perfection includes sticky countertops and clutter aplenty.

Those who think I'm being unjust, just remember, she's already BRED!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Raining Chips!

Our kids' school district, since not long after we started with them, has been making "healthy eating" a big deal.  I put that in quotation marks, because if you look closely, there are conflicting messages.  Like they had early on banned "dark soda and juices" but clear soda was ok at parties.  That's a cleaning issue and has nothing to do with health at ALL. They don't allow chips brought in from home for snack time, but they sell baked chips in the lunch line, along with fries and other junk in the junior high. I was totally with them, until I discovered this. Up to that point, I, who always made sure my kids had fruit and healthy options anyway, was very rigid about not even the occasional bag of chips.  Now, I'm letting them take chips sometimes.

In light of this, and the fact I had to do a speed grocery dash the other day, in a moment of less than stellar judgment, I purchased one of those large bags with the smaller bags of chips in them.  It was on sale, and like I said SPEED shopping day, what can I say? Obviously, the kids were nearly hailing my virtues in the streets. They do know once this is gone, that's it for a while.

To avoid all conflict in the a.m., I've imposed the put your hand in, what you take out is yours rule. It's worked thus far, but this morning, the big bag was on top of our tall cabinet, where my 6'2" husband (I'm 5'4") likes to put things.  Normally, if they aren't everyday items, that's cool, I just have him come and get the item as needed.  But with his recent injury and EPIC baby complaining status, that could not be done. So I wheedled the edge of the bag I could reach until chips almost fell down.  That's when I came up with the whatever falls is yours rule. 

Brett was actually saying "come ON, cheese curls!" I think I'm in trouble.