Monday, August 17, 2015

Why German Teachers of English Need to Get It Together

My eighth-grader came home from school with a question: "Mom, the teacher asked what the name of a large green space in New York City is, and guess what one girl said?"
"She said The Grand Canyon--but that's not the best part!"
"What's the best part?"
"Tell me the five boroughs of New York."
I told him.
"New Jersey isn't one of them, right?"
"GOD, no!"
But you know what? His teacher told his class--this is, you understand, a Gymnasium class, and a good Gymnasium, too--that New Jersey, snobbishly disregarded by Manhattan and even by Staten Island since time immemorial--that New Jersey really is one of the five boroughs.  She seems to have forgotten all about Queens, since the entire eighth grade class is probably now studying for a test in which they'll list the five boroughs of New York City as:

The Bronx
Staten Island
New Jersey

Once upon a time when I was young, the New York designer Donna Karan's DKNY T-shirts were so hot that The New Yorker ran a cartoon: instead of a svelte, sexy model, a lumpy, schlumpy, overweight matron in unattractive glasses and a do-rag galumphed along in a DKNJ T-shirt.  The caption? Donna Karan's nightmare.

New Jersey never was, and never will be, a part of paradise. Thus spake the New Yorker who had a commute from the Upper West Side to the industrial armpit of NJ for years, enduring a job that amounted to indentured servitude.

Meanwhile, folks, that large green space in the middle of Manhattan is still Central Park. The Grand Canyon isn't even green, my son pointed out . . .  and he's been there.  Smell the coffee, English teachers. And drink it. That English tea just isn't strong enough. Neither is that English accent.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How the Critical Mom Found the Lost Report Cards

Yes, they went missing. On the first day of school, our sixth-grader and her eighth-grade brother asked me to hand 'em over and I said, "Sure!" and opened the drawer in which they are kept--along with school photos and stuff that seems to jump in there by itself.
They weren't there.
"Mommy, I need them TODAY! The teacher said we had to have them TODAY. The signed report cards MUST be handed in ON THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL!"
Yes, I know. But doesn't the school keep copies? Apparently not. This is Deutschland, and nobody, apart from an air-headed American mom, would ever lose something so important as a report card. I can just see the German mommies shaking their heads and boasting about how many windows they washed that morning, knowingly nodding in my direction . . . because guess how many times I've washed our windows in the nine years we've been living in this house?
 If you guessed "less than ten," you're generous.
So, the report cards were supposed to be exactly where I'd put them . . . and I really do know where they are: I have downstairs drawers, for the report cards plus school photos and another upstairs drawer for the big stuff: the social security cards, the American certificates of birth abroad, my will, a treasury bond given to one child by a godmother, a bank account given to another by his godmother, the yellow health examination booklets, even my old blue "Mutterpasses."
So did the report cards get sloppily dumped in the play area? What I remembered was each child waving his or her report card around last July, insisting that, "It's my report card, Mom, and so I'm going to keep it in my room."
So I said no, we always keep them in these drawers, so hand 'em over. Very unwillingly, they did so. Then I saw the report cards again on top of the sofa . . . or did I? This was the stuff of wakeful ruminations and nightmares the last few nights. 
Then came the gaslighting:
 "But I do remember you all saying you wanted to keep them in your own rooms."
"You dreamed that, Mommy! Remember, I gave them to you!" 
I envied that look of sanctimoniousness on my daughter's face. I know how it is to want to be right.

I really did remember putting the report cards in the special drawer and then noticing that they were parked precariously on the back of the sofa, from whence they might easily have fallen to our anything-but-tidy floor.
 "Did we put them back in the drawer after you had them out here on the sofa?"
"I gave them to you, Mommy."
"I didn't even get to see them," said my husband, with a sigh. 
Oh, the guilt.
The night before last I woke from nightmares in which our house was being burgled by a band of child thieves from the next town . . . I couldn't sleep; it was raining buckets and thunder slammed through the air. I went up to my study to read the NY Times online. Then I remembered a Laura Ingalls Wilder story: Wilder and her husband were about to purchase a log cabin with their cherished hundred dollar bill, which had participated in their nomadic travels in a carefully-guarded wooden lap desk. Their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, remembered that they opened the desk and found that the bill was not there. They took every sheet of writing paper out of the desk and shook it; they took each letter out of its envelope, unfolded it, looked into the empty envelope. They turned the desk upside down and shook it, the felt covered inside lids flapping . . .Finally my mother said, "Well." She meant: No use crying over spilled milk. What can't be cured must be endured.
Blaming the folks with whom they were traveling was "Not to be thought of," said the in-my-best-dress-and-hat-and-gloves Wilder. She sat and removed her gloves and got back in her work clothes. They weren't going to get that cabin.  
But Wilder did not give up. She kept searching that desk.
So I kept searching those drawers. I took everything out. I put the report cards in the notebooks we'd long ago purchased. So now all the old report cards are organized. But where were the ones that needed to be signed?
Another sleepless night. 
Then I remembered the end of Wilder's story: she kept looking in that old desk until she discovered that the hundred dollar bill had slipped into a crack, and remained hidden.
I thought of the space between the desk drawer and the back of the cabinet. I thought of how the kids--and even me, sometimes--open the drawer, toss the report card in, and close it, without first pushing the contents down.
I opened one drawer, and reached into the space between the end of the drawer and the inside of the cabinet. Nothing happened until I wiggled my fingers and the drawer at the same time--then, hallelujah! Down fell some slightly accordion-pleated report cards, ready to be signed.
My kids stopped complaining.
My husband was pleased.
Only I was overjoyed--because then I knew that after all I was sane, that age had not so destroyed my memory that I'd forgotten where I put those report cards. I just knew I'd put them where I thought I'd put them. And I had! It's a happy day in a middle-aged lady's life when something like that happens.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Cosby Women and The Critical Mom

I always thought Cosby was corny, but I ought to have remembered that sentimentality, says Oscar Wilde, is the bank holiday of cynicism. Cosby's very successful stand-up comedy routines have been dubbed "observational humor," so I'd like to observe where the man is in the humor and I find banality--not a drop of wit. Is that a clue? Are there clues? He plays on our sentimentality. What a cute kid! What a face! Oh, that face.
If it looks too good to be true, you're safer assuming that it can't be true.
When I listen to Cosby's women, I think: there, but for the grace of sheer dumb luck, go I. How often did I listen to fools who, fortunately for me, turned out to be harmless, or to be weak enough for me to push them away? Too often, before I reached the age of reason, and because my mother told me absolutely nothing. It's not really her fault: she knew nothing.
So a friend and I sat around the dining room table with my eleven-year-old daughter, who is beautiful, and a copy of the New York magazine issue featuring the Cosby women, and an old CD of Cosby's I Started Out As Child. On that album, his is the face of a goofy cherub. We told my daughter that after Cosby drugged and used one young woman, and she awoke not knowing why she was in bed with him, groggy, and begged for help, asking, "How can I get home?" he said, "Call a taxi."
We said, if your hunches tell you something's off, pay attention--even if the place looks good. We said, always open your own drink, and if someone you don't know hands you a drink, leave it on the counter. We said, if you leave your drink on the counter and come back, or someone "freshens" it for you, just go get a different drink that you open yourself.  
And I said, "But there aren't that many men who are this bad," and I hope that's true, too.