“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
~Nelson Mandela

I think I’ve posted some of these photos before; maybe even in the very same arrangement: one next to the next; next to the next, but that’s only because after four years of living in this place, my time here has become a measurable epoch of my forty-plus years on this planet and I want to take note of it. Visiting this view each morning and every night has licensed it with a significance that I don’t yet fully understand. But I’m trying.

These photos were all taken from our back door over the past year or so. The water you see is the Hudson and the lights and the buildings belong to West Point Military Academy–which is flanked to the north (the right) by Crow’s Nest Mountain and to the south, by sixteen THOUSAND acres of land where the best and brightest eighteen year old aspiring American soldiers train for hand combat and chemical attacks. (Sixteen thousand acres just fifty miles north of New York City…think about that when you’re curious about tax implications and eminent domain.)

Our house here is creaky and old and drafty and cold and our bathroom is Pepto Bismol pink, but we get to wake up to this view every single day which, even after more than fifty months of mornings, persists as both a gift and a wonder. This view, and all of its iterations, leaves me awestruck when I think about the life that has happened–the battles with my heart  that I have fought and lost and the skirmishes with my soul that I have contested and won–during the time that it took for the river to freeze and then thaw; for all those leaves to darken and fall.

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly (errrr…or regularly until Gina and I got busy and distracted by rivers and vineyards) you know I’ve been lovingly envious of my friends’ journey and the opportunities they have EVERYDAY to see the world and themselves anew. The thing is, over the past few months; during this fifth winter of watching the same sky darken before 4pm and the same river steam like a volcano as it cooled and the same mountains stand majestic and still, I’ve begun to recognize the appeal of the endurance and opportunity in the stability.

Whatever really changes but ourselves–no matter where we are?

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On Friendship

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“…you were either one of her closest friends or no friend at all. She had neither time nor energy for the casual acquaintanceship…she craved the hard lock: two minds, hearts, and souls as one, nothing unsaid, nothing untold, nothing unsung.” (Linda Grey Sexton, writing about the friendships of her mother Anne Sexton, in her book Searching for Mercy Street.)

Over the course of my forty-odd years on this planet, the platonic friendships I’ve assembled have lasted about as long as my relationships with men. Meaning: not very long. Meaning: in the wake of my life there lay scores of scattered (and archived) parting emails and fading photographs of people with whom I was once intimate, but will probably never see again.

I’m not sure what to attribute this backstory to. It’s not genetic. I come from a family that boasts long marriages and enduring relationships. My grandparents were married for 56 years. My parents (who are still very much a couple) met in Latin class when they were both in junior high school and my mother’s best friend (who she speaks to several times a week) was with them on their first date. My younger brother has dutifully joined the ranks of enduring-relationship-devoteés and has been in love with the same woman (with whom he now has four children) since 1996. I won’t bother to tally up the boyfriends that have paraded through my life since 1996, but I will admit that there are two husbands in the mix…if that gives you any indication of my regimen.

I’ve always told myself that I just didn’t get the chip for commitment; that I must have stood in line for the ‘cut and run’ skill set instead. (Though there remains the anomaly of my relationship to my family of origin. It is fierce–especially with my mother–who I talk to nearly every day.)

It has not been my plan to say goodbye to people that I love so often, but I know that all of those broken friendships have created a high level distrust in my psyche. One that remains to this day.

In writing this entry, I want to find fault. I want to point the finger at my bad choices or the nastiness of the people that I chose to befriend, but the truth is that the resilience of relationships is as ephemeral as fog on the river at dawn. Who knows why some friendships (or marriages) endure. A woman I know has decided to stay with her husband after she found he was sleeping with somebody else for years. Another marriage (local in its familiarity) very publicly imploded after two members of the two parties, who were all four friends at some point, decided to swap partners. I also know of a marriage that sustains as it is, riddled with infidelity, dishonesty and ambivalence–but the royalties keep coming in– and the viability of such a relationship (romantic or otherwise) remains forever up for grabs.

One can never tell.

I remember standing in bewilderment in the hallway of middle school as a girl I adored handed me back the friendship pins that I had made for her and told me, quite optimistically, that things weren’t working out between us, but she was sure that I would find someone else to give them to. That my friend and I had been been growing apart for weeks (she was a cheerleader, I joined the band) wasn’t something I considered significant at the time. All I knew was that this person, my friend, was the individual I had told about the wiry chin hairs that got electronically zapped off my face every few weeks, and I thought that divulgence had bonded us for life. It wasn’t that I was afraid she’d tell my secret (she never did) but I was horrified that a relationship in which I could be so vulnerable and that seemed so serious–that WAS so serious–could end so casually, so indifferently; as if it had never been anything at all.

Such is life I’ve come to know. In my twenty plus years of adulthood I’ve lost beloved pets, dental insurance coverage, a marriage and roughly two hundred tubes of lipstick. The truth is, much of what we have in this life doesn’t last very long. Transience and endings are a part of our our existence Here On Earth and our lives are richer because whatever we are able to retain is more clearly discerned by all the other things that fall away.

So I’m trying, on this early summer morning, to make peace with the ridiculous, though enticing, sentiment that my girl Anne Sexton speaks of (in the quote up there at the top of this post) and to chill out. To let go of all those Facebook posts that remind me of the connections I’ve failed to make and to ignore the birthday party that I wasn’t invited to and not feel bad about the acknowledgement page that I wasn’t included on or the group photo that I missed.

Instead, in the interest of clearing out, I want to accept the friendships that I have now and delight in them as if they’ll be around forever.

You never know, though. I’ll let you know what’s left standing at summer’s end.

 

 

Pranzo a Casa di Luigi!

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Luigi is my Italian teacher. He’s an ex-consultant/engineer who fills his retirement days with market shopping, cooking, family and teaching Italian for free to “stranieri” (strangers) like me and my classmates, a merry band of Latin American and Polish girls. Since last October, I’ve been popping into his class, which is conveniently held at the library that I’ve become so fond of and that I wrote about here, once or twice a week. The course got off to a slow start, as our loquacious but well-intentioned professor figured out the right balance between telling us stories about his youth and work, and actually teaching Italian. Unfortunately for them, quite a few students dropped out before he got his groove, missing out on a pretty engaging and flexible class, where a little time was spent on grammar, but mostly the focus was on conversation about whatever tickled the group that day.

The charming Luigi decided to cap off the successful year by inviting our intrepid, if smaller group for a traditional pranzo (lunch) at his house last week. Never one to shun free food, especially free Italian food prepared by avid cooks in their own home, I was thrilled to accept their kind offer. And that’s how I found myself on Via Malcontenti, not far from the central Piazza Maggiore, in a well-appointed third-floor apartment, in front of a beautifully prepared four-course meal. We started with a deliciously fresh and frizzante white wine made by the maestro, himself, with grapes that Luigi grows at his house in the hills, north of Bologna. His lovely wife served it with cubes of focaccia and mortadella (the reason we Americans can spell B-o-l-o-g-n-a, even if Oscar Meyer wasn’t actually selling us the tasty real stuff!) My Mexican classmate had also brought a guacamole that we shared, not Italian food, but being that it’s next to impossible to find good avocados and cilantro in this town, I could have eaten the entire tray myself. Next, the primo piatto (first course) was a pasta, perfectly aldente, with a light panna (cream) sauce mixed with zucchini, prosciutto, onions and chopped fava beans. I left not one morsel, which I later regretted when the most delicious baked potatoes and roasted lamb was brought out for the segondo (second course.) There was not a centimeter of space left in my stomach, but I just had to have one. more. potato. Yes! Pasta and potatoes in the same meal. God bless you Italian people.

Luckily, there was a little breathing and digesting space after the main course, which was filled with lively talk, all in Italian, the only language shared by the five nationalities sitting at the table. I looked from the Polish faces to the Mexican and Colombian then back to the Italians, marveling at the fact that we could share this wonderful meal and share in each others lives, thoughts and opinions, all because we had made the effort to learn the same language. Simply being able to string together a recognizable set of sounds in the correct order allowed us to commune and joke and laugh and enjoy a beautiful afternoon.

Just when we thought the meal was over and it was time to go, out came a ridiculous dessert including a mango liqueur, fresh berries in a sambuca gelatin, and palle di Mozart (a chilled mixture of ricotta, almonds, amaretto cookies and coconut rolled into balls and covered in dark chocolate that our hosts had discovered in Salzburg.) Somehow… we all found just a bit more space for this sweetness. I wasn’t going to need to eat for a day, or maybe two, or maybe ever. After more than three hours at the table, it was time to say arrivederci, feeling profoundly thankful for having been able to share in a real pranzo Italiano, like the ones our hosts used to serve in the old days, when as they noted wistfully, everybody still came home for lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destination: Tennessee

Here is a photo-journal of our trip to the Destination Imagination Global Finals in Knoxville, TN. Noah and I spend four glorious days on (and another two traveling to) the campus of the University of Tennessee where we spent days walking around campus, hours preparing and rehearsing for Noah’s two challenges and many late nights pin-trading under the party tents. The experience was over-the-top from beginning to end, and I’m just beginning to acclimate to real life to a degree in which I can discuss it all. To be at a place to be able to write about it will take a few more days.

Still, I want to share some moments with you all now (after all the hype of my previous posts it’s just the right thing to do). The trip to DI Globals truly was a once in a lifetime thing (for both me and Noah) and though I realize that I’ve been speaking in hyperbole, I will assure you that I’m not when I say that I’m thrilled that I got to share the excitement and the over–the-topness of it all with my favorite person in the world.

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Here he is. Getting ready to fly. Noah’s a big fan of air travel. I, on the other hand, like to walk places. Luckily the weather was delightful on both days we had to travel and our flights were on time and, for the most part, relatively easy.

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When we arrived on campus we checked into our dorm room and then followed the crowd down to the square that served as the social center for kids from New York, Tennessee and Michigan. It took them about twenty minutes to start talking to one another and about twenty two minutes to find a ball and start playing a game.

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The opening ceremonies took place in an arena built to hold over 20,000 people. The place was nearly filled to capacity–a crowd much larger than the ones our kids from a town of 2,000 are used to hanging around.

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The opening ceremony consisted of a parade of states/nations, a rock band, the national anthem sung by an American Idol finalist, a laser show and this guy…who danced whilst hand-painting Einstein’s silhouette on a huge plexi-glass canvas.

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Early the next day, pin-trading commenced on lawns and under tents.

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For some folks, it got serious.

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The kids handled the pressure of their Main Challenge (and the giant room within which they had to perform it) with panache–even when their handmade, recycled tree fell during the middle of their skit.

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Post-Main-Challenge euphoria (or daze).

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Noah dressed up as Darth Maul for the Duct Tape Ball. Yep. A Duct Tape Ball. His entire costume (except those fancy socks and sandals) was fashioned out of duct tape. A World Record was set that night–the night that 3,000 kids covered themselves from head to toe in the stuff.

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Noah’s team was more than ready for their Main Challenge, but one of the trickier elements of the week was the Instant Challenge–when the kids are given a problem to solve and they have to come up with a plan to solve it in four minutes and then present their solution on the spot. Parents aren’t allowed to watch this part of the fun but, afterwards, the kids treated us to a little rap.

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Letting off some steam and nervous energy at the fountains–site of the the 1982 World’s Fair.

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A scene from the final night’s celebration. Noah’s team ended up coming in 17th out of the 90 teams that were competing in his age group in his division. Not too shabby for a group of kids from the sticks.

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Best photo of them all–Noah’s rendering of our descent into JFK. Home Sweet Home.

 

Time Travel in Nimes, France

Back in January, I wrote “Oh! The Places You Will Go!” about the joy of watching our kids see the stuff they learn in books (whether school-related or self-chosen) come to life when we’re traveling. I’m tickled by the wide-eyed moments of realization when they connect the dots and see that so-and-so was an actual person or that real people played, ate, walked, loved, etc, in this actual place. As I wrote last week, our Spring Break road trip was another opportunity to make these magical connections. In particular, our last stop in Nîmes, France, gave us a unique chance to visit the most well-preserved Roman arena in the world.

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At this point, both of our children have a heard or read their fair share about this ancient people, their architecture, their legions and of course, their gladiators, even getting to know the different categories of fighters, so it was a treat to visit a site that’s so beautifully preserved. The interior, although much smaller than the Colosseum in Rome, is that much more intact, and the facade is being refurbished back to a glimmering white stone over the next year. And the owners, culturespaces, have done a good job of intertwining historical characters and events into the venue with informative signs and a dramatic audio tour.

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Taking a break in the shade and listening about the arena’s history.

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Leeloo decides to listen directly to the wall.

Originally, we had hoped to visit the arena during their annual reenactment of The Great Roman Games, which looks incredible. Check out the trailer announcing this year’s production, The Accession of Augustus. Thousands of people will be involved in meticulously acting out the historic battle that took place in Greece to bring Augustus to power after the assassination of Caesar, all within the historic arena, with present day spectators looking on from the same seats that the townspeople used to watch day-long events in 100 AD! It’s happening in just a few weeks, May 17-18 this year, if you’re on this side of the Atlantic.

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Our tour last week probably can’t compare to witnessing someone’s rise to Emperor, but still, we managed to get a little transported back in time. For the kids, the best part was visiting the gladiators chambers on the ground floor where the combatants would have gotten ready for battle before walking out into the sand covered floor of the amphitheater. The gladiators’ wardrobe, metal and leather armor, swords, daggers, tritons, rope nets and the like, hang from wooden pegs on the walls as if they’ve just left a moment ago, carrying whatever was required to face wild animals, condemned criminals or each other.

After a few hours our learning about all the magnificent and terrible things that went down in Roman arenas, we stepped back out into the modern and very multicultural streets of Nîmes for a very civilized dinner at Bistrot Raoul. Our favorite breakfast of tartines and pain au chocolate the next morning were the perfect finale to our road trip. Can’t wait to hang a right at the top of the boot next time, and take our adventures into a whole other world and history.

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Bistrot Raoul

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Moments Just Before

Despite the warm temperatures that graced us earlier in the week, the world around me here in the Hudson Valley is still mostly grey. It’s the time of year that most closely resembles the short, dark days of autumn (though it is not autumn) because the angle of the sun casts shadows that mirror the ones it throws on the fields and over the river in November, too.

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Piles of matted leaves are clustered in the corners of parking lots and pushed up against the foundation of our basement in musty, moldy waves. The ruddy, brownish grass, still matted and stunned from the weight of all that snow and cold, is starting to mottle–taking on tinges of yellow and green–but most people’s lawns still look, well, dead.

We have miles to go before the trees in northeast U.S. get dressed up in their riot of color and chlorophyll (only then might we allow ourselves to forget, for a time anyway, the ferocity of the winter we just endured) and it is tempting to demand that the summer Be Here Now. We long for green and for warm and for flip flops. We wish, anxiously, to just get on with things already, but no amount of twitching or cajoling or complaining will cause the leaves to bloom.

Yes, I’m talking about the weather again today (if I were to do an inventory of the 50+ posts that I’ve written on this blog so far (which I recently did) I’d realize I mention it often), but I’m not going to complain about the temperature gradient or snowpack. Instead, the weather has gotten me thinking about change and inevitability and the way I’m noticing the elements of this spring this year, and the evidence of its slow but steady arrival (or its arrival closing in on us?) in a different, more personal way.

Sure, sure the metaphor of seasonal change = a person developing internally or discovering a new way of seeing or being in the world is a trope as old as time. See: The Winter of My Discontent. See: Spring Awakening. See: until the rain comes and overstays, we take sunshine for granted. All helpful sentiments. All true. All completely cliché. The wisdom of clichés, of course, being their very banality–an unoriginality contingent on the universality of the experience they describe (if the experience was peculiar or special, it wouldn’t warrant a cliché).

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In this case, all things (people, places, ideas, seasons) change whether we bother to bear witness to it or not.

The thing about staying in a place (a reoccurring theme on this side of the blog) is the need to be on the lookout for change and inspiration, to stay alert for the soupçon because, more often than not, the portions of revision won’t be obvious…or will be so ordinary you might miss them. The familiarity of the happenings of the spring in the northeast (root, shoot, blossom, repeat) makes me susceptible to becoming immune to springtime’s redesign of every branch and plant and shrub in my yard. And most impatient about the duration of it.

The same goes for the internal adjustments we try to make in ourselves. I’ve been attempting, as you maybe discerned from my posts about job seeking and the way I’m foraging around my life for seeds of contentment and peace, to better understand myself. To, perhaps, reinvent myself. To, at the very least, notice what I notice and then head in that direction when I’m looking for What Comes Next.

The thing is, I often miss the minuscule changes that are happening inside my own self, too. Instead, I fantasize about the glory. I yearn to arrive at the promised land, the place that represents the sum of the many infinitesimal adjustments and modifications I’m making along the way. (The poem gets published. The job gets offered. I’m walking around my yard in bare feet.)

Instead of noticing the miraculous, minute-by-minute, transformation happening around me or in me, I often insist on not looking until beauty (or a brass ring) slaps me in the face. I don’t bother to recognize that–forgive me for the additional platitude–the journey is the joy.

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I’ve always thought that sentiment was bullshit (and it might actually be just that). Who appreciates the airplane ride to Paris–don’t you just want to be in Paris? The same goes for writing a poem or designing a more efficient and pleasing cardboard box, or, you know, it Being Summer. I like having written the poem. I like it Being Summer. I’ve never thought about redesigning the cardboard box, but I like the idea of having done that, too.

The steps to that kind of creation (or transformation) are arduous, ugly, lonely actions; the very moments of life we most often want to avoid–similar to these muddy, wet days of spring when the buds are tiny and delicate, the warmer air still carries a chill. Harbingers of eventual triumph, yes, but still pitiful suggestions of the overall potential of things. (i.e. the germ of a poem, the awareness of the desire for a new kind of box, the one or two virescent shoots of grass in an ocean of brown ones.)

Perhaps these are the moments when we are most obligated to look; to see. The moments just before the opus. The breath right before the glory.

 

Another poem:

Part of Eve’s Discussion

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

~Marie Howe, from The Good Thief

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Journey to Binghamton

On Friday afternoon Noah and I headed to Binghamton. Not to be ill-mannered, but Binghamton, NY is hardly a tourist destination. It’s a large, sprawling manufacturing city located in New York State’s southern tier, about 15 miles from the Pennsylvania border and 150 miles from Cold Spring. (I will say that the car ride west along the Susquehanna River was very pretty). It’s not glamorous or even that interesting of a place, but we were’t there to see the sites. We were going to Binghamton so that Noah and his teammates could compete in the New York State Destination Imagination (DI) finals. (You can read about his adventure getting to the state championship in my post from last month here.)

The competition consisted of Noah and his team presenting their central challenge (in the form of a skit), completing an instant challenge (click the link for more information about that) and meeting & hanging out with the other kids  from teams around the state.

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Noah’s team (named “Stooges DI-ing for Sardines” (it’s a long story)) presenting for the judges.The kids built the entire set by themselves, including their time-keeping tree (in the middle by the cooler) and the recycled potato-chip bag tree (to the right).

As I’ve mentioned before, Noah loves to travel–distances both near and far–and when he gets to spend the night in a hotel, well in his eyes, it makes for all the better of a trip. This time the hotel we were staying at was packed with dozens of kids in town for the DI tournament, as well Noah’s teammates and their families–who were scattered in rooms up and down the halls of our floor. Talk about a party! Door slammed and elevators ran all night long. My parents drove to Binghamton for the weekend, too, and we shared a delicious pre-competition meal with them at a local hibachi restaurant before heading back to the hotel pool so the kids could blow off some of their nervous energy and have some fun.

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Excitement and nervousness meet in the water.

After a good, though truncated, night of sleep (the kids had to report to the competition venue at 7:30am) Noah’s team rocked the first portion of the day (see the first photo above), but then had several hours to wait until their next contest. Luckily, the folks who run DI are creative, energetic and thoughtful folk who knew that allowing 700 kids to run rampant all day would not be a good idea. So, in several classrooms (the event took place in the local public high school) games and mock instant challenges (see above) were set up and the kids could play and watch and get to know one another while having some good old-fashioned, non-device-manufactured fun.

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For this game the goal was to put a ping pong ball into cups that were taped to the floor and marked with point values….but without touching the ball. Light-headedness ensued.

I won’t lie, it was a very long day. Even with the distraction of games and a quick trip to Wegman’s (a most amazing supermarket) for lunch, waiting around until their 1:30 instant challenge call and then the 4:30 awards ceremony (so the kids could learn their fate (and whether or not they would be traveling to Knoxville, TN in May for the DI Global Championship)) was tedious. We played games and told stories and wandered the halls. The kids kicked soccer balls around on the grass and talked non-stop–agreeing and disagreeing about the quality of their performances and their chances of winning (the teams that placed 1st and 2nd would move on). Mostly we watched the clock.

Finally, at about 5:15pm the scores were ready and the winners were announced to a excited, exhausted, impatient crowd and…..Noah’s team won!

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Noah’s team (standing with the light blue shirts) accept their 2nd place medals while the crowd looks on.

Well, actually, they came in 2nd place in their division/age bracket which means that, if the fundraising goes well this month, we’ll be headed south for a week at the end of May.

At the Global Tournament, over a thousand DI teams gather from around the world to create and think and problem solve and make stuff out of duct tape (there’s even a Guinness Book of World Records attempt (involving duct tape) taking place), but I’ll tell you more about that adventure as its time gets closer.

For now, we’re just basking in the glory of the win.

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Standing for their official team victory photo.

Testing Time

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This week is the first round of the contentious State Testing that the kids at Noah’s school, and at public schools throughout NY state, must endure each year. In grades 3-8 (the children are aged 8-14) three-day tests are administered in the subject areas of English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics (and it’s three days for each subject). The kids in grades 4 and 8  have to take an additional (three day) science test, too.

These aren’t the tests that we parents remember from grade school–those end-of-the-week spelling quizzes we took on a folded-in-half sheet of lined paper or the photocopied ones that came from the teacher’s manual at the end of each math unit. These tests can’t even be compared to the more serious California Achievement Tests we were given back then (CAT TESTS–remember those?).

If you don’t remember them it’s because, all that time ago, elementary schools and teachers didn’t make such a big deal about things likes standardized tests. Yes, there were systemized examinations and, yes, they were annoying (though I remember them just being loooong), but the results of the tests were meant to offer a litmus test of the school’s rigorousness and a measure of the kids’ progress and learning in general and so therefore they carried little weight (or anxiety) for the individual students. Not the case for these Common Core English Language Arts and Math Tests (that data contained in that link is enough to make me start to twitch ).

For weeks Noah has been talking about these tests. He’s been annoyed by them (they’ve been practicing taking these tests since October instead of, you now, LEARNING NEW THINGS) (or playing outside). He’s worried about them (he likes to get good grades and these tests are intentionally tricky)(who ever said that overcoming trickiness measured future success? I think it just measures, well, trickiness). He’s also pleaded with me to get him out of them (there’s a whole movement dedicated to teaching parents how their kids can opt out of the things).

I’m not going to use this space or your time to argue for or against the politics of these tests. You can find a hundred thousand articles online and offline, that will outline both their evils and their usefulness. I’m also not going to get crazy (right now anyway) about the tests’ pedagogical value. All our lives we learn stuff that is meaningless and quickly forgotten and that is okay–vital to our sanity, even. Everything we do shouldn’t always be profound or erudite.

The thing that has gotten under my skin about these tests, however, is the robber baron of time that they have become. So much TIME talking and fighting and defending and preparing and scoring and reporting these tests. So much of the kids’ time. So much of the teachers’ time. And the parents’ and the administrators’ and the politicians’ time. So much time being spent thinking about these tests. Time that could be spent making art or music or poetry or planting gardens or reading to senior citizens or pulling weeds (of both the literal and metaphorical variety).

As I creep into middle age, navigating the inevitable passage of Time (time that seems to speed up incrementally with each passing year) has become the most challenging test I’ve ever taken. I cringe when I think of so many hours of our babies’ lives being frittered away so that there can be a record of how good each of them is at regurgitation stuff (by way of bubble sheets with number 2 pencils). What is the teaching in that?

If you read my post about homework you know that I think that downtime is as important (or more important) as any other kind of time during a child’s day. This testing business eats up kids’ time–time that could be spent doing a thousand other things–or nothing at all. That is the real kicker of these tests for me. The time suck of them. Because, really, what are we teaching kids about time and being present and living consciously when we force them to endure hours and hours of test prep? What are we teaching them about using their time wisely? What are we telling ourselves?

 

 

 

Talking About Testing While Trying Not To Burn The Sugo

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As I begin this post, I have to tell you that for the first time in 18 years, Stefan has left me in charge of making his much lauded arrabbiata sauce (spicy tomato sauce) for tonight’s dinner. We’re having a family from school over, and since he has some errands to run and tennis to do with the kids, I’ve been left here by the stove. I literally won’t move more than 5 feet from the stovetop for fear of burning the sauce, and forever being branded as not responsible enough to be left alone with pureed tomatoes, not to mention ruining dinner for everyone. Talk about a test!

But the conversation Christine has in mind for today is about an altogether different kind of test. (One sec…I must stir the sauce!) I hear that Noah and his schoolmates are enduring Statewide standardized testing this week, and I know that Christine has a few thoughts to share on the matter. When faced with the question of what kind of experience we’re having with testing over here, I realized that I don’t have much to say. We don’t really have tests in our regular curriculum. There is an international schools’ test that Zoel’s 5th grade took this year, but from what I understood, it involved writing several essays as well as answering other types of questions, so it was standard in that kids around the world have to answer the same questions, but no sheets of ovals were to be found. However, we opted out of it anyway because we weren’t going to be in town. It wasn’t a big deal. The principal didn’t get involved in the decision. (Ahhhhhh!  I forgot to stir!) And Zoel’s teacher was the first to note, emphatically, that we should not change our plans for the test.

So, how do I feel about testing? Awesome! Nobody here misses them – standardized or otherwise. The kids do assessments with their teachers periodically to gauge how their doing, but this information is only used internally to adjust the teaching if needed. (Sauce!) Leeloo does have a spelling quiz once a week, but it’s for 5 words so I barely consider it a test. And what’s the effect of this lack of testing? Not much from what I can see. They appear to be learning anyway. (Sauce! The smell of garlic, tomatoes and spices has now permeated the kitchen and it’s hard to think, except about stirring, which I guess is good for forgetful me and the sauce.) Once again, I don’t mean to say that our school’s curriculum or methods are perfect, because they aren’t, and I don’t think any school system can be. I’m just saying that tests do not seem to be the… (Wow! You get too deep into a thought and that sauce just wants to stick right down on the pan.) Tests don’t seem to be the key, ahem… ingredient, or even a very necessary element in gaining knowledge, at least not in these primary school years.

As far as I can see, the only solid purpose of a standardized test may be to prepare you to sit through the mother of all standardized tests, the SATs, but I don’t see why you would need to start practicing in third grade, beginning in freshmen year of high school would seem like enough preparation. (I think I’m almost there with this sauce. The color is almost crimson, the smell is sweet, garlicky, and peppery, and the consistency is that of a spreadable paste instead of a liquid. But now if I stop stirring for even a second, it’ll burn…) I suppose that the other meaningful use of the test is to gauge how a school, its teachers and its administration are doing, but of course, it can’t give you the whole picture, maybe only wave a flag to signal when a closer inspection is needed. And that hardly seems to be a good reason why our children would have to cram and prep the way they do. I’m pretty thrilled that we didn’t lose a month of teaching time to getting ready for the tests as I’ve experienced in the past. Here, we’ve probably lost a month of pure class time to many other things like performances, assemblies and presentations, but I’ll happily take this option. (Yes people! I think this sauce is done! Looks good… I can’t wait to hear what the chef has to say about my sauce!) As I’ve just seen in making this delicious arrabbiata, the learning was in the act of doing it. What are kids doing, hence learning, when they prepare and take these tests? After a few years of being part of the system and reading so many articles about them, I still haven’t heard a good answer.

Italian As A Second (or Fourth?) Language

Mamma mia!”, “Ma… Cosa fai?”, “Come stai?”, “Via!”, “Va Be”, “Aspetta!”, “Capito?“, “Vai!”, “Cosa facciamo?” and many other short phrases are now part of the things heard coming out of our children’s mouths on a regular basis here at home, at school and on the street. These are often combined with a hand gesture that is internationally recognized as Italian, the one that involves pressing all your fingertips against your thumb with your palm facing upward, and shaking the resulting pyramid of fingers up and down rapidly near your face, preferably while hunching your shoulders up, and craning your neck forward so that your chin sticks out. Yep, that’s the one.  Another favorite gesture is done by spreading all your fingers wide on both hands, pressing the fingertips together, then shaking the hands quickly under your chin. This instantly adds a level of stupefaction to whatever you’re trying to convey. For example, when you add this hand movement to “What are you doing?” (Che cosa fai?) you could alter the meaning of the words to express “What are you doing, you moron?!” or more subtly “What are you doing? Are you nuts?!”, depending on your facial expression while  saying it. Unlike Stefan and I, the kids haven’t seen these gestures in dozens of different movies and TV shows depicting Italians or Italian-Americans, so they don’t think of it as ridiculously stereotypical. This is simply how their grade school friends and teachers actually speak, with their hands moving about constantly.

Every day I see that they are taking in the language (gestures and all!) little by little, but that doesn’t stop me from being taken aback every time I walk into a room where one of them is communicating in this brand new language. Sometimes it’s Leeloo trying to explain something to her good friend, Emma, who is just learning English (“Vai!, Spiamo lei!” which means Go! Spy on her!), or it’s Leeloo singing to herself as she does her homework, either a pop tune from the radio (Quando una stella muore, fa male…; When a star dies, it hurts..) or a traditional song that she’s learned in school (Era una casa molto carina, senza soffito, senza cucina…; It was a cute little house, without a ceiling and without a kitchen…). In all cases, she has no idea that she’s switched to another language, she’s not trying, it just happens. Another time it might Zoel at an event, like one recently where he was wondering around with his sister, and struck up a conversation with a grandpa and grandma that were listening to the live music. By the time I made my way over there, they had been talking for 15-20 mins, so you can imagine my surprise, when I hear everybody speaking Italian. It’s not very sophisticated or fluid speech, but it’s definitely Italian! They’re asking him questions about the States and about their first few months here, and he’s answering, sometimes stopping to translate for Leeloo when she misses something. The Italian “nonni” are being very kind and patient as they listen and carry on the conversation for another 15-20 minutes!

I hear them both coming in the door right now from school , and as Zoel bounds up the steps he’s teasing Leeloo saying “Tu sei una fetta di torta!” (You’re a piece of cake!) and Leeloo responds  “Cosa?!!!” (What?!!! -I see the accompanying gesture in my head.) When they get up to our home office and see the subject of my post, they gleefully start telling me about all the parolacce (bad words) they’ve learned at school. The most printable one being un pezzo di cacca, charming in any language.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this for us, the parents who have been trying to get them to speak Spanish and French since they were born with mixed results, is that it’s happening without any interference from us. They have Italian class four times a week, and that’s helping them to understand the grammar and pick up vocabulary. Then there’s the fact that the majority of the students in their school are Italian. We made a conscious decision to go with the least international school we found when we started planning this experiment a year ago, and I’m thrilled we did. It means that games on the playground, side conversations in line, chit chat in the cafeteria – the fun bits of school – all take place in Italian, and when language is a conduit to entertainment, it seems to be a pretty compelling reason to get in there and figure it out.

As they go off to play this afternoon, behind me I hear Leeloo asking Zoel, “Should we do dinner in Italian tonight?” I like it. Molto buona idea, ragazzi!

 

In the clip below, Leeloo shows how “Eh… Buona Notte!” not only means “Good Night”, but  also, “Hey, Are you sleeping or something?”

Here, Zoel shows off the ubiquitous Italian gesture of stupefaction:

Leeloo demonstrates what her friend says when she doesn’t understand something at school: