End of the School Year

We made it!

My four sons completed an entire school year as virtual learners and I made it through an entire year of teaching preschool in-person. I absolutely never want to experience teaching and learning during a pandemic – or any other crisis – ever again but I think we made it as successful as possible. The boys also had some opportunities that may not have been available to them in a regular year – such as participating in online film festivals and attending conferences. I think we can all agree, however, that this year was incredibly exhausting and that we were glad to get to the end of the school year.

We had another birthday to celebrate since I last wrote a personal blog post. Our youngest son turned 12 at the end of May. We were lucky to have some lovely weather which enabled us to celebrate with an outdoor activity. I would call this crazy golf but it is apparently known as mini golf around here. Thanks to some childhood experiences, I find crazy golf makes me feel stressed and anxious so I chose to spectate rather than actively participate. The course was fun, well-designed, and had an appropriate level of challenge for kids spanning the ages of my brood. The 15 and 12 year olds even managed to achieve a hole-in-one each. Everyone indulged in delicious milkshakes at the end of the course.

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Over a year of being largely stuck at home meant our tired and shabby family living room was really starting to annoy us so our Spring project was refreshing that room. You can see what the previous makeover of this room like in a previous blog post. We did not undertake any major DIY but we replaced the carpet – as we still had the carpet installed by the previous owners, one that was really getting worn and grotty – and bought new sofas. The whole room now feels much lighter while still being cozy. I have more DIY and home organization projects to undertake over the summer break – things I could not get around to while everyone was learning and working from home – but my first big jobs are turning all of our rooms back to domestic spaces. The makeshift classrooms descended into chaotic rats’ nests towards the end of the school year and I am more than ready to transition them back and reclaim them.

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I am trying to get back into the habit of making regular time for art. It was absolutely impossible in the last couple of months, however, as my schedule was ridiculously difficult to navigate. I would have needed to clone myself to make it work smoothly. I, therefore, continued with my Post-It note habit, still taking inspiration from the movies my kids have been loving. These two examples both happen to be from Japanese movies, ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Hara-Kiri’.

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Two of our kids are moving on to new places in their education. Our 14 year old is now done with Middle School and will be heading off to High School in September. He has been learning to cook over the past few months and especially enjoys getting up on weekend mornings to make chocolate chip pancakes for him and his brothers. He is also really into digital art now.

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The big milestone is that our oldest son graduated from High School. This was a whole new experience for us as people as well as parents. My husband attended an international school so he did not have the American version of graduating. There were no festivities for me when I left school. My “milestone” was simply leaving my last school exam. I snapped my pencil in half and walked home. No celebration of any kind. The whole graduation thing was actually pretty overwhelming. Despite opting out of lots of “side missions”, there was an awful lot to keep on top of and process. Every time I thought I had a handle on what was required, I would realize there was another piece of critical information I was missing or something I did not understand. There was so much assumed knowledge in communications about graduation with no accommodations for we ignorant immigrant parents. Keeping on top of all the moving parts was actually quite a slog. Even the evening itself did not pass off without a few glitches but we (just) made it in time and had a lovely time marking the conclusion to our son’s school career.

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First Day of Virtual School

Can I just state that I deserve all of the acting awards for insisting to my kids that everything about online education would be functional (I made sure not to oversell with superlatives I could not deliver on) while behind the facade I was pivoting between screaming panic and weeping skepticism.  As a parent, I am obliged to create an atmosphere of calm for my offspring but there was one day earlier this month where I hid out in a closet so I could weep tears of rage and frustration.  Weird fact about me:  I really don’t cry very often but, when I do, it is usually because I am a human pressure cooker and it is a release of frustration.  I have had to contend with a sudden influx of a gazillion emails per child, some of which has content so opaque that I needed to be an espionage level code breaker to figure it out.  And some of those emails also contradict each other and contain broken links.  So that’s great.  Meanwhile my gigantic kitchen pin board is so chock full of print outs of schedules and associated material that it looks like a crime solving board from a police procedural show.  All I need is the red string.

However, the boys each have a designated study area – or areas in the case of one child – and their own chromebooks so everything looks organized and ordered.  Calm space for a calm mind, right?

I now have a Senior:

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A High School Freshman:

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An 8th Grader:

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And a 6th Grader embarking on Middle School:

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And apparently Peanut decided it was his first day as Cheerleading School Mascot:

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Luckily I was home for the first day of school.  Going forwards, however, I am back in my preschool classroom so the boys will be flying solo at online school.  This should not pose too much of a difficulty for my older children but it is a bit of a stressor when it comes to my youngest.  He is not only transitioning to Middle School – having to navigate different subjects and teachers and stay on top of a schedule – but he is also a student with an IEP used to having support.  Since he has both autism and ADD (of the inattentive kind), learning through the medium of a screen is far from ideal.  I have reduced my hours at work for the short term (thanks to some understanding colleagues) so that I can be home in the afternoons to function as his aide.  Hopefully he picks up the routine and operating systems quickly.  I am also thankful to have sons who have agreed to check in with him when they have breaks between classes or study hall.

It is certainly going to be a memorable school year!

July Projects

A lot of my time and emotional energy this month has been dedicated to the question of what school was going to look like for my boys in September.  It generated a whole lot of stress, to a pretty debilitating degree, as there was all sorts of information, thoughts, and feelings to navigate on the route to arriving at a decision.  It was one of those textbook rock and a hard place things where no matter what we decided we knew there was no completely right decision and we felt that as parents we would be failing our kids in some way.  We arrived at the decision to opt for distance learning, which we could make work for our personal family dynamic.  I then spent time making peace with that decision and figuring out the logistics of making it as successful as possible.  And then, just a few days ago, the school district announced that school would be virtual only for the first marking period at least.  So it turned out all those sleepless nights going back and forth on what to do were pointless.  I am still busy with yet more Zoom meetings about school but at least I know for sure what is happening now (no small thing for a control freak like me) so the only uncertainty remaining now is whether I will be working or furloughed come September.

Anyway, in much more positive news, we have continued to keep ourselves busy and occupied in the Pict household.  My husband continues to work from home full-time and the boys and I are filling our days with projects and fun.  Some of what we have to do might be boring (chores) but we are never bored.  We always have To Do lists longer than time permits and I don’t think that is a bad way to live so long as we can appropriately prioritize those listed items.  We have not done a lot that generates blog fodder this month but this post contains some snippets of some of the things we have been up to.

Despite being together 24/7 – which has the potential to be a powder keg of emotions and frustrations – the four boys are getting along really well together.  They are finding the right balance between time together and time apart.  The only arguments that have broken out are completely daft.  One argument was about whether the Turkish city was best when it was Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul, and another debate was about whether the best siege weapon was a canon, ballista, or trebuchet.  They managed to unite on catapults being the worst.  The boys also continue to make progress with their chosen summer projects.  The oldest is making a computer game on a Greek mythology theme, the 13 year old is learning Latin, and the 14 year has actually completed the online course he was enrolled in about the history of movies.  Incidentally, he (sporadically) writes a movie review blog which you should check out if you are a cinephile.

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My youngest son doesn’t have one big project he is working on as that would not be appropriate for him.  Instead he has been working on all sorts of smaller scale things, some with me and some independently.  One thing he did was complete that jigsaw puzzle that also appeared in last month’s blog post.  He also disassembled an old busted chromebook, made pizza from scratch, and painted a birdhouse he had previously made.  And then I remembered why we had never completed the birdhouse project before: because we don’t have a low enough tree branch to hang it from.  So now I need to problem-solve a way of attaching the birdhouse to a tree that does no harm to the tree.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Our oldest son passed his driving test!  That’s a milestone for him and also for us as parents.  He is actually not very enthused about the prospect of driving but we felt it was important for him to get his license and we preferred for him to be a new driver under our auspices.  We let him put it off for a year and then persuaded him to just get on with it.  Taking the test with Covid mitigation measures involved some peculiarities but maybe that made him less rather than more nervous.  He did great and we now have three drivers in the house.

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We have been tackling some overdue household projects.  It was not so much that we had procrastinated over them as that other projects had queue jumped because of something suddenly needing to be replaced or a household emergency.  One of those neglected projects was giving the kitchen a makeover.  It was not in the budget to overhaul the entire kitchen (which was installed in the early 1990s) and honestly it was not necessary as the cabinets are all still in really good condition and completely functional.  The microwave was, however, literally falling apart so Mr Pict installed a new one and then it was just a case of freshening up the walls with a lick of paint.  The dual aspect windows at the far end of the kitchen means I could not hang any art work on that large blank wall without it rapidly bleaching and the space is too narrow for hanging anything that might get bumped into.  I, therefore, had the idea to put up a large pinboard.  That way I can pin up all of the letters and notices and appointment cards the six of us generate and which usually get piled on the fridge doors.  Now the fridge doors can just be a gallery of the boys’ artwork and my weekly meal plan.

This was what the kitchen looked like just before we embarked on the project.

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And this is what it looks like now, the walls switched from magnolia to a silver grey.  It is a subtle difference but it is so much cleaner looking and so much lighter.

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My art space is the kitchen table at the other end of the kitchen.  We have a dining room so we don’t need that table for eating and, therefore, I can leave it set up so I can grab art time in little gobbets.  The problem with that permanent set up is that I sometimes accumulate a lot of clutter on my art table (which I share with the cats) and it gets a bit chaotic.  I, therefore, used this opportunity to streamline and simplify my art table set up.  I kept out only the things I use frequently and stored the rest away elsewhere.  Three of the four chairs were also too broken to be safely sat on so we got rid of those and got new ones.  I neglected to take a photo of the before scenario but you get a glimpse of it in this photo of one of my cats “sharing” my art space.

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This is what it looks like now.  Much less cluttered and more efficient.  Still shared with the cats.

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Another household reorganization project I had not gotten around to for ages was sorting through all of the bedlinen and making the linen closet more organized.  I forgot to take a before photo so you will just have to trust me that this closet was a complete and utter mess with far too much crammed in and no ability to tell from a glance what sheets were for which bed.  After the flood and the consequent reassignment of bedrooms and new beds, we also had some bedding that was surplus to requirement.  It proved to be a bit of a Twilight Zone project, however.  I pulled out all of the bedlinen and sorted it into piles: keep, donate, recycle.  I generated two large boxes for donation and six garbage bags for recycling.  You would think that would free up so much space in that closet but no.  Once I started to put the linens we were keeping back in, I was still struggling to fit it onto the shelves.  It is a shallow closet but that still makes no sense to me.  The boxes contain the sheets and pillowcases organized by bed size.  I need to come up with a neater way to store all of those bulky comforters and spare pillows.  Again: suggestions welcome.

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We have been so busy that we have mostly just been walking around our own neighbourhood.  We did, however, venture slightly further afield by going for a wander around Ridley Creek State Park.  Last time we went there it was Winter and we did not see another soul; this day, by contrast, the temperatures were in the 90s and it was swarming with people.  The parking lot was so packed that we almost decided to jettison the plan, since we are taking social distancing very seriously.  We walked a couple of the trails before we capitulated to the kids’ complaints about being sweaty and itchy.  Incidentally, just in case you were wondering, our 13 year old has decided he is not cutting his hair for however long quarantine social distancing lasts.  Brace yourselves for Cousin Itt appearing in my blog at some future point.

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On a whim (and inspired by several of Claudia McGill’s blog posts) we had an explore of Norristown Farm Park.  It was another baking hot afternoon so we stuck to one circuit without veering off to explore side paths or a bigger loop but we were still there for a few hours.  It was great to have points of interest along the way to keep the boys engaged and create natural breaks in which we could rest in the shade.

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I, of course, enjoyed seeing all of the decaying farm buildings.  While the kids were paddling in a stream, I went for a donder around a ramshackle building where I encountered a fox (who was too speedy for a decent photo) and lots of my national flower.  There was also a field full of sunflowers.  It has been many years since I saw so many sunflowers gathered together.  One of my brothers has a phobia of them so obviously I had to take plenty of photos to send to him.

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We will definitely go back and wander there again and poke around in some of the areas we never made it to – but when he air temperature is cooler and we are better prepared.

And, of course, we are still baking like crazy.  Despite the “pandemic pounds”, I cannot seem to stop baking.  I justify it was being an activity to engage my youngest son in but really it is just comfort food for the soul.  When we first went into lockdown, I had intended to learn how to make decent quality bread.  I used to bake bread with my Granddad but have never had huge success independently.  I have not actually embarked on that self-improvement project, however, partly because I have not had the time and partly because we have not been eating much bread so I don’t have the same inclination.  If we are still social distancing when the days get chillier, then I might be motivated to dig into that project.  Until then we will just keep churning out desserts.

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Since it is now a tradition to include the cats in these “Pict pandemic posts”, here are Peanut and Satchi “assisting” me with the reorganization of the linen closet.

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Flaming June

June started with a bang.  We had a few days of raging storms.  My kids enjoyed it when it was at the torrential rain stage.  They love summer rain storms because it is warm and they can run around and get soaked without it being uncomfortable.  The rain was soon joined by thunder and lightning and high winds.  Trees came down all over our neighbourhood and wiped out power lines with them.  Amazingly, given our past luck with such things, we didn’t lose power, suffered no damage, and didn’t experience any flooding.  We were very grateful.

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How is everyone faring with wearing masks?  Back in March, I never thought I would get used to it.  I have a more robust one with filters that I use for when I go grocery shopping and am in a confined space and I must admit I am still pretty wimpy with that one.  It still makes me feel a bit claustrophobic – and gives me even more admiration for those on the front lines wearing PPE all day every day.  If we are out walking, we use lightweight neck gaiters as we usually don’t have to come within even 10 feet of other people but it gives us the option of quickly pulling it up if we have to pass someone on a narrower trail path.  I am otherwise getting used to wearing masks.  I read some time ago that it takes 6 weeks to develop a habit and I guess that holds true for this experience.  We also now treat them as accessories.  I got the boys some masks in fun fabrics and I even bought myself one with thistle fabric on it.  Thistles are my national flower, of course, so it seemed apt.

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Our county moved from red phase into yellow phase in early June which gave us more freedom for getting out and about.  We remain cautious so don’t want to be around people as much as possible.  We, therefore, went for a trek around Gettysburg since the National Park covers such an expanse of land and we were familiar enough with it to be able to predict which areas might be busier.  As you will know, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he likes to visit Gettysburg every couple of years at least.  We have some places that we always return to but he tries to introduce us to a new area of the battlefield each time we return.

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This time, the new area for exploration was Pickett’s Charge.  That is, of course, the famous culminating action of the Battle of Gettysburg when an infantry assault by the Confederates ended in defeat.  We have actually seen Pickett’s grave because we are history nerds and I like cemeteries.  We were led to the Copse of Trees which I thought was just a copse of trees without the capitalization.  Turns out the Copse is of such historical importance that they are protected by a fence.  From what I can recall from Mr Pict’s lecture, as a distinct landscape feature, the copse was a focal point for the charge and also ended up marking the high water mark of the confederacy in this battle.  There is a monument to commemorate this fact at the spot.

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We then walked the field to gain a sense of the distance of the charge.  Or at least we attempted to cover the expanse.  We gave up about half way and turned back because we were getting covered with ticks.  Between the six of us, we picked off over a dozen ticks just while walking in that field.  We would have been exceedingly wimpy Civil War soldiers since we could not even handle parasitic insects.  Retreating from the field, we had a moment of rest and shade at the Pennsylvania Monument.

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As I mentioned before, there are areas of Gettysburg that we always head to: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  As we had suspected would be the case, Little Round Top was far too busy for our liking.  There were far fewer people than we have ever encountered there before but, of course, those previous visits were not during a pandemic.  We managed to maintain an adequate distance from everyone but it was too stressful an experience since some folks were not observing social distancing guidance and were also not wearing face coverings.  Devil’s Den was less busy but we were having to pass people at too close quarters for comfort so we didn’t stay long.

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June also meant we arrived at the end of the school year.  It has definitely been a memorable and challenging school year.  I absolutely commend my sons’ teachers for doing the absolute best they could with the resources they had and all at short notice.  However, distance learning was a bit of an ordeal to say the least and I am certainly relieved to have at least a break from it.  Goodness knows what school will look like in September.  I have to trust that the school district will strike an appropriate balance and shore up the resources for whatever option they decide to pursue.  Anyway, two of my children completed their final grades in their present schools and are moving on to pasture’s new in September – whether physically, virtually, or a hybrid.  Instead of the usual festivities, celebratory trips, and promotion ceremonies, they had car parades and virtual ceremonies.  I confess I think I actually prefer the car parades to the usual ceremony where we bake in the heat.

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Now that we don’t have distance learning to create structure and routine and keep everyone occupied, we have a long summer stretching ahead of us.  My boys are all at such a wide spans of ages, stages, and areas of interest that I can no longer impose unified summer projects on them as had been the case in summers past.  Instead, each kid has had to pick a project they are working on over the summer.  The three older boys are actually continuing with distance learning – taking courses on coding, cinema history, and Latin – and my youngest is going to work through a number of different projects, some with me and some solo.  Meanwhile, I have written myself a lengthy To Do list of domestic projects to tackle, some larger than others, and I always have my ongoing hobbies.  Most of our activities won’t be worth blogging about but our intention is to keep busy, productive, and stimulated during this socially isolated summer.

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June marked the 45th anniversary of the cinema release of my favourite movie of all time – Jaws.  I have written before about my fanatacism about this movie, including when I drew an illustration of the protagonists.  My 13 year old has inherited my love of the movie and an obsession with sharks.  You might recall that we took a trip last summer to visit the sites of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired the novel that was the basis of the movie. I have several Jaws items around the house, a Jaws board game, and a Jaws tea mug.  We, therefore, had to mark the occasion with a family watch of the movie on the anniversary.

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Also, am I the only person who is still doing a ridiculous amount of baking during this pandemic?  I am a really pretty good cook but I am no great shakes as a baker.  When it comes to the former, I use my experience to eyeball a lot of ingredients and I treat recipes as mere suggestions and make up meals from scratch.  The latter requires precision in measuring and actually following a recipe step by step.  It is too much like science for my Arts and Humanities brain.  I can bake things like cookies, brownies, banana bread, and basic cakes, but I am not great at anything more complex.  But for some reason I have been baking non-stop during this past few months and even more so since the kids’ distance learning wrapped up.  Like Pavlov’s Dogs, my kids now pretty much expect a freshly baked sweet treat.  This is not a good state of affairs.  I am gaining pandemic pounds for sure.  My youngest son is helping me with baking.  We recently made brownies topped with cookie dough.  We need an intervention.

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I have created a long list of home improvement type things I want to accomplish over the summer break.  It didn’t look like much on paper but already I think I might have been over-ambitious.  Our house ended up rather chaotic after the basement flood, then we switched rooms around with having created a new bedroom in the basement and my husband having to work from home for however many months.  Multiple rooms in the house, therefore, have to be reorganised and – quite frankly – ruthlessly purged.  I started with my youngest son’s bedroom.  I thought I would get it done in a day, maybe two.  Nope.  A week.  It took an entire week just to clean, sort, and organize his bedroom.  It generated five bags of trash and two large boxes of items to be donated.  Now my To Do list that once looked like a sprint now looks like a marathon.

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Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

Parent Fail is out for Summer

Today is the first full day of the summer break from school.  It is the first full day because really the summer break started yesterday except my kids had to be in school for two hours.  A whole two hours.  No sooner had I dropped my three Elementary kids off than my Middle Schooler was arriving home.  Pointless.  Anyway, today is the first proper day of the school break and I am every bit as excited about it as the kids.

Ten long weeks stretch ahead of us.  As a natural born pessimistic-realist, I know that being together 24/7 will lead to squabbles and frustrations, annoyance and irritation.  I know there will be yelling (by me) and I will experience rising stress levels trying to get chores done around the house with four kids under my feet and while said kids trail behind me scuzzing up everything I just tidied and cleaned.  I know that by the end of week five, my four boys will be veering between being best buddies who love each other to pieces to having to suppress the urge to poke each other’s eyes out and rip each other’s limbs off.  I will experience the untold joy of refereeing these special moments to ensure that everyone’s physical being remains intact.  I don’t need the stress of hospital visits or the additional chore of cleaning up blood after all.

But, despite all of this, I am still excited because we will get such a massive chunk of quality time together and the freedom to do the things we want when we want to do them.  No clock watching, no conflicting schedules, no deadlines.  I will be back in control and I am a super control freak so that is a good thing.  My rate of Parent Fails ought to taper off too because I will only be having to meet my own expectations.

I experience Parent Fail a lot these days.  With four kids in two different schools, I have a lot of stuff to juggle.  There’s a lot of homework to oversee, a great deal of demands, and inevitably I drop some of those many balls I am juggling.  Sometimes the balls roll into a dark and dusty corner and get forgotten about altogether.

This is a new experience for me.  Back home in Scotland I somehow managed to keep my head above water, stay organised and ensure everyone had what they needed at the right times.  In part that was because all of my school aged kids were in one school.  They also had much less homework to do and fewer demands were placed on parents as a result.  I am all for more homework and homework that is more diverse but it definitely adds more stress to after school time and supplies me with ample opportunities to fail.  It is, for instance, not unusual for me to write on Math homework that X kid could not complete that question because they asked me for help and I did not understand the question either.  Between different vocabulary, a generation gap way of doing things and ambiguous phrasing, even Third Grade Math can make me feel functionally innumerate.  Sixth Grade Math is an alien language.

Part of my issue is that I am still adjusting to solo parenting.  Just to make it clear, I am not a single parent and would never compare my experience to that of a single parent.  What I am adjusting to is solo parenting because I am having to handle most of the childcare on my own for the first time.  One of the benefits of living in a small, rural community back in Scotland was that my husband’s regular commute was five minutes door to door.  He was home in time to eat dinner with us, could use flexi time to nip out from work and attend a school event and was around to help with homework stuff.  Now his commute is longer (though still not long – especially not compared to what it was when he worked in London) and he works much longer hours and he also does a lot more out-of-state travelling.  I am, therefore, juggling all of the everyday balls solo.  Balls get dropped.  Parent Fails happen.

I used to be famous – maybe notorious – for my punctuality.  Back in my teaching days, I was so neurotic about the possibility I might be late that I once turned up for a conference so early that I helped the hotel set up the conference room.  About five years ago, I was so eager to be on time for a Child Protection training event that I arrived to find the venue locked up and in darkness.  There was one time when my watch stopped and I consequently did not arrive at school in time to collect my children.  The school staff and one of my friends reassured my sons that I would be there soon at the same time as assuming I must have been in some sort of mangling, incapacitating accident because I was never late for anything ever.  My oldest son later confided that he thought I must be dead because I was never late ever.  These days, however, “Apologies for being late” is a regular part of my phrase book.  Every time I have to utter that phrase, I feel less like my old self.

Every packed lunch I have made since April has been identical: peanut butter and jam sandwich with a piece of fruit, a fig bar and a bottle of water.  I ran out of motivation and ideas long before the PBJ rut kicked in but I dug deep until my cup of caring ran dry.  Honestly, the kids have not complained, not once.  That makes me wonder why I previously bothered to offer any variety.  It is so much easier just to do the PBJ production line each morning.  Still makes me feel like a Parent Fail, however.  I have forgotten probably as many as 75% of special dress days at school.  We arrive in the morning and I wonder why everyone is wearing crazy hats and then a vague memory clinks in the musty recesses of my brain that it’s Crazy Hat and Hair day and not one of my kids has anything other than their everyday head on.  Parent Fail.  Recently, I picked up an email reminder from my youngest’s teacher about the next morning’s egg drop.  Reminder?  I had not even the fuzziest recollection of anything involving eggs or dropping.  No distant bells ringing.  Nothing.  Having picked up this email at bedtime, I had to pluck the smallest Pictling back out of bed and ask him to figure out how we could protect his egg and save it from cracking and splattering when dropped from the roof of the school.  His idea involved military engineering and a whole collection of materials we did not possess at all.  Want to know what we came up with?  An odd sock from Mrs Pict’s Home for Orphan Socks stuffed to bursting with cotton wool with the raw egg encased in its centre.  Do you think it survived the drop? Of course not.  Parent Fail.  My finest moment of this school year, however, was when I ran out of bread and improvised by making peanut butter and jam sandwiches with strawberry brioche.  As much as my kids sang my praises and hoped this would be a regular thing, that was definitely a big Parent Fail.

Therefore, the prospect of a whole ten weeks when we can largely do our own thing without having to meet anyone else’s expectations, remember deadlines, fulfil anyone else’s projects, contribute to events, figure out the logistics of schedule clashes, is a joyful one.  One of the things we are going to do is a little homeschool style learning project to keep everyone’s brains ticking over which means I get to impose structure on the kids.  Nobody, however, is imposing structure on me.  Control Freak Parent is back in charge.  Boom!  More crucially, when I inevitably stumble into Parent Fails, nobody outside the Pict family need know about them.  Freedom to fail in private.  Ssssh!

Having reflected on my most mediocre mothering moments, however, I shall conclude this (rambling) post with the successes of this school year: everyone secured really good grades, everyone had fun times, everyone is healthy and everyone is alive.  Despite brioche sandwiches.

 

 

The Part-Time Empty Nest

As of a dozen days ago, all four of my sons have been in school full-time.  After over eleven years of having at least one child home with me for at least most of the day, I am now adjusting to being home alone for over six hours each day.

It feels good.  And it feels weird.

It’s good because really my little one was needing the stimulation of school and he is absolutely loving being a Kindergartener.  My role as a parent is to nurture my kids so that they can become gradually independent and emerge as fully-functioning adults.  Going off to school is a major early step in that process of becoming more independent and self-sufficient.  It also feels good because, after all these years, my crazy schedule can relax a bit.  Instead of trying to get chores done while one or more children goes behind me ransacking the room I just tidied so that it looks like raccoons have burgled the place, I can actually get things properly organised without having to have eyes in the back of my head.  Yesterday, for instance, I was putting our filing into our new filing cabinets and I had piles of documents all over the floor.  That would have been a recipe for a conniption had I attempted it while any of my kids were home.  The fact they are in for the full day also means I no longer have to run around at full tilt to get everything accomplished in the couple of hours I have before they return again.  Already that is making a big difference to my stress and exhaustion levels.  I am now building in breaks to my day where I sit down and actually have a hot cup of tea or a piece of fruit in the afternoon, breaks during which I also sketch and draw so as to have a bit of “me time” during the day.  I can actually go around the supermarket without it being a trolley dash and without constantly checking my watch.

The weird is the silence.  It is actually quite unsettling.  I am used to a house so noisy that the walls vibrate.  I grew up in a house full of people and hustle and bustle too so I think I am somewhat hard-wired to think of volume and chaos as being normal.  The silence feels abnormal.  At times I sing out loud to myself just to break the monotony of the quiet.  It is also weird and oddly uninspiring to make lunch for just one person.  And I miss the little horrors, their noise and their chaos, their wit and their laughter.

Then they come home from school and there are four lots of homeworks to oversee, four lots of letters from school to read, all while making the evening meal.  My once tidy hallway becomes a dumping ground for shoes and backpacks and lunchboxes.  The bickering starts.  The walls begin to vibrate again.  I am learning to look forward to my oasis of quiet each day that balances this out.

Small Differences: Games Day

This morning was Games Day at my sons’ Elementary School.  In their school in Scotland they had one afternoon at the end of each academic year that was Sports Day.  I had assumed that this was just a vocabulary difference but actually the two events were really quite different.

At their school in Scotland, there was an emphasis on athletics type events, not like proper track and field, but events with a sharp start, a clear finish and obvious winners.  The events, therefore, were things like flat (sprint) races, egg and spoon and obstacle courses.  By contrast, at their American school the emphasis was more on having fun while being active rather than there being much that would approximate a recognised sport.  So, for instance, there were events that involved carrying a stack of pizza boxes, transporting water from one bucket to another using a sponge and pairs of children throwing water balloons to each other until it inevitably burst.  With the younger kids, there was very much an emphasis on having fun – there was even a pirate hunt for pieces of eight – albeit while using gross motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination.  It was only when observing my Fifth Grader that I saw any competitive aspect to the event as they were divided into two teams and were scoring points during each event.  Some of those kids were fiercely competitive too, the veins in their foreheads bulging and screaming at their peers like drill sergeants.  Even so, however, the competition was between the two teams rather than between individuals which somewhat diluted it.

I think it would be fair to describe Games Day as organised chaos.  The gym teacher had clearly put a great deal of effort into preparing the kids for the events as they all seemed to know what they were doing but as an observer, not comprehending what the actual point of the game was, it often felt like I was just watching a pile of kids in tie-dyed t-shirts running around in frenetically random ways.  I didn’t care because I would personally rather be a spectator of kids having fun than of kids being bored waiting for their brief stint in a relay race.  Because that was another difference between our experiences in Scotland and here in Pennsylvania: the amount of time spent actively doing something.  As things were more tightly and rigidly organised in their school in Scotland, there was an awful lot of kids standing on the sidelines waiting for their turn to arrive because, of course, if you are going to have clear winners then you cannot have a whole pile of kids running in each race so they had to be broken into smaller groups.  Here, on the other hand, there was never a point where the kids were not actually engaged in an activity – except for when they had a popsicle break.  They rotated between activities that were already set up which meant there was no time lost waiting for the equipment to be swapped around or reset.  This did present a challenge for me, however, in that I had to keep dashing around the grounds as I moved between spectating the activities of my three different children (the fourth thankfully being in preschool so that he did not become a human hurdle as he has in previous years).  I am used to using slack periods to swap which of my sons I am observing.  Without such slack periods, I did an awful lot of speed walking.

It is my understanding that a lot of schools have phased out the whole idea of winners for sports day.  However, the school my sons attended in Scotland still handed out stickers for first, second and third places.  Two of them would at least win one or two events but my now 8 year old never managed to get a sticker.  This is because he does not care for sports at all and is not remotely competitive.  Last year he actually danced his way through the obstacle course.  Literally danced.  Remember how the Sharks and the Jets dance-fight?  He dance-sports.  Everyone else was across the finishing line while he was still pirouetting his way across the field.  He did not care one jot.  Regardless, however, I think that permitting kids to experience success and failure on sports day is no bad thing.  It’s part of valuable life lessons about not being capable of experiencing success in everything that you do and that you can derive pleasure from participating even when you don’t achieve complete success.  Furthermore, I tell my kids that not everyone has to be great at everything.  Sure, there are always going to be high achievers with the Midas Touch but most mortals will find that they are good at some things and not at others.  That’s absolutely fine.  I absolutely sucked at Sport and at Maths when I was in school but I was great in English, Art and History.  As such, I got to experience both celebrated success and abject failure.  Meanwhile, a student who perhaps struggled with academia got to experience success on sports day.  It’s preparation for life.  The school my kids now attend in Pennsylvania seems to be taking something of a compromise stance when it comes to the whole winning thing.  For the lower grades, there was really no winning or losing going on, even when they were in teams racing against each other – as with the speed stacking of cups – because no one appeared to be keeping score.  The racing was just part of the fun.  With the older grades, however, they were collecting points (in some way I just could not fathom) for their teams and one team would be declared the overall winner.  However, the teams were so vast and the experience of glory and defeat shared across so many that the impact of either position was diluted.  That didn’t stop the kids from being grimly determined to win or to endeavour to do their best, however.  There were still a whole load of inherently competitive kids.  But it did remove the focus from the strengths and weaknesses of individuals.  I understand that here in Pennsylvania there is a gradual phasing in of traditional team sports within school, with those sports replacing games – such as capture the flag – as the kids get older, so an event like this is probably good training in sportsmanship to a degree.

So it was a very different sports day experience for me this year than in previous years.  I think each event had its pros and neither had particular cons.  I have a feeling my kids enjoyed today better simply because they were always doing something and, of course, because of the newness of it all.  I think my favourite difference about sports day, however, was that I got to be outside in the sunshine watching my kids participating without being eaten alive by midges.

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Date Night at the Middle School

There have been two previous occasions when my children have been babysat by someone other than their grandparents.  For the eleven years that we have been parents, Mr Pict and I have organised our lives so that should one of us have a commitment the other would be home to care for the children.  We, therefore, have never needed much in the way of babysitting but have always gratefully accepted offers of a child-free night from generous grandparents when they have been around to provide such a service.  Those two previous instances of non-family babystting were as follows: the first was when I had to go and chair some very important hearings only to discover that Mr Pict had double-booked himself at work and could not, therefore, be home to care for the four boys which necessitated me enlisting the help of a member of staff from the preschool the kids attended and she watched over them that afternoon so that I could make my commitment; the second was when Mr Pict was having surgery some distance from home and my friends all banded together and organised themselves so that they could, in a sequence involving three hand-overs between them, care for my three oldest sons so that they did not have to miss a day of school or accompany us to the hospital.  To summarise, therefore, both times were emergencies and there was no fun social evening involved.

Last night we hired a babysitter for the third time.  We employed the teenage girl who lives across the street who had done a wonderful promotion of her services by welcoming us with brownies when we first moved into the street and proffering cookies a few times since.  The boys were initially resistant to the idea but soon accepted and tolerated the fact that it was going to happen whether they liked it or not.  They were indeed good as gold for the babysitter and were more compliant about bedtime than they usually are with us.  Good result.

But what were the Pict parents doing with their child-free evening?  Dining out at a restaurant with heavy flatware, pressed linen napkins and menus printed on cartridge paper?  Watching a critically acclaimed play at the theatre?  Going to the cinema to see a movie aimed at grown ups?  Well, of course, the title to this blog post has already given it away: our child-free evening was spent at the local Middle School.  Let down?  Us too.

The reason for our evening excursion was that we had been invited to the Middle School our oldest son will be attending from September to hear various members of staff explain how things operate in that school and at that grade level and to take a self-guided tour of the building.  Children were not to attend, hence the need for a babysitter.  Technically one of us could have stayed home but Middle School is a new venture for both of us as parents and the “two memory banks are better than one” principle also persuaded us that we should both attend.

Mr Pict had been to the school before – to learn about their math curriculum – but I had only ever driven past it.  I must admit, therefore, that the fabric of the building was disappointing.  It is definitely the poor cousin out of the schools in the school district as the elementaries are all in decent condition and the high school is brand spanking new and shinily impressive.  I would guess the building dates from the 60s as it has that sorry, ill-conceived, municipal feeling to it that certainly buildings of that era in Britain are prone to displaying.  I wonder if perhaps it was an era where people were trying too hard to be avant garde and take wildly different approaches from architects of decades past and reinventing the wheel and making it worse.  The building was an absolute warren of corridors that wound their way around weirdly shaped communal spaces and specialised rooms including a central library that was essentially a tube running through the middle of the building.  Mr Pict and I got lost despite clutching a map.  Our oldest son will definitely get lost.  The bathrooms looked beyond shabby, like you might catch a rare or even previously undiscovered disease should you be foolish enough to sit rather than hover and squat.  The type of toilets that had me training my bladder to contain itself between 8am and 4pm every school day when I was in High School.  

However, it is not a building that determines the quality of a child’s education and that, of course, was the focus and the priority.  The classrooms were spick and span and the student work on display was of an encouraging standard.  The list of clubs available was fantastic as we could identify several our currently apathetic tweenager would want to join.  Most impressive, however, were the staff members who spoke.  Of course they were saying persuasive and encouragingly positive things about the school and what our child(ren) would experience, learn and develop there but there was also something to their tone and manner of presentation that testified to commitment and passion and drive for success that would filter down into the students in their care.  As a parent who knows very little about the American education system or each grade’s curriculum (but is furiously trying to gen up) and who has never been in a Middle School, I left feeling informed and positive about the quality of education my child(ren) would receive there.

A waste of a “date night” it might have been, therefore, but it was not a waste of a night.

Next time, however, we are going to dinner.

Phillies

Apparently yesterday was the first home game of the baseball season for our local baseball team, the Phillies.  I write apparently because I have no idea about baseball, about sports generally.  To mark the first home game of the season, the kids at the Elementary School apparently all wear Phillies t-shirts.  My neighbour, therefore, thoughtfully phoned me up yesterday morning to not only inform me of this tradition but to also offer me some Phillies t-shirts for my three school aged kids to wear to school.  So here they are, my little mock Phillies fans, even though they have never seen a baseball game in their entire lives.

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