25 May 2011

Mourning the End of Second Grade

Most kids are delighted at the end of the school year, looking forward to a couple months of family vacations and relaxation. And my kids definitely are excited at the prospect of the lazy days of summer. And yet, tonight when I gave my daughter, Arden, one last good night kiss to her as a second grader, she began to sob. She didn’t want to be a third grader, she said, because that would mean leaving her beloved Mrs. Y behind.

Arden has grown so much this year, making giant leaps into chapter books, writing poetry and stories, challenging herself to catch up to her best friend in leveled math. She’s received accolades and awards, and truly has had a wonderful year. And I knew she was attached to her teacher. Heck, we all are.

Our older daughter was lucky enough to have this same wonderful teacher for second grade as well. And Madeleine suffered a bit in the transition to third grade too, missing Mrs. Y terribly at the start of that year, even wishing aloud that she’d been “held back” so she could have another year with this brilliant teacher. And I remember that years before, Madeleine had refused to hug her preschool teacher on the last day of school, because she thought that if she didn’t say goodbye, it wouldn’t end.

Mrs. Y is one of those rare teachers who is able to find a lesson in each and every moment, one who knows that the most important ones can’t be measured by a test. She’s been teaching for decades and still finds wonder everywhere. She is one who teaches with such finesse, such enthusiasm, and such artistry, that I believe that I could learn a lot from her. I wish I could spend more time in her classroom, just so that I could absorb some of her magic. And everything she does, she does with an abundance of love and contagious joy.

Still, I was surprised that Arden was so upset. She’s always ready for a new challenge, easily bored, and game for most adventures. I thought third grade would be right up her alley, especially since one of her favorite things to play is “high schoolers.” And yet here I was, consoling her while she wanted more time in second grade.

Many years ago, when one of my daughters received her first helium balloon, she played with it all evening before she went to bed. Of course, when she awoke, the helium had dissipated, and the balloon no longer floated, but bobbed along the floor: now just an ordinary balloon. She was upset, and couldn’t quite grasp why her special balloon was no longer special. And I tried to explain, gently, that what made the balloon special was that it didn’t last long. Its transitory nature, the fleeting time with that balloon, was what helped to define that moment as something out of the ordinary. Fireworks, birthdays, special vacations, and so many temporary moments are special precisely because they are ephemeral.

And while an entire year with Mrs. Y doesn’t really qualify as ephemeral, it is time to move on to new challenges and adventures. Tonight Arden and I talked about bittersweet feelings. How it’s ok to feel sad about leaving second grade while also being excited about summer and the new challenges she’ll face at school next year. About how it’s hard to say goodbye to what’s comfortable and routine. About how it’s a little scary not knowing whose class she’ll be in next year or whether her friends will be there with her. And we talked about how Arden can always love Mrs. Y, and how Mrs. Y will always love her, but that Mrs. Y knows, too, that it’s time for her to move on. And how she’ll still be able to hug Mrs. Y, even when she’s no longer in her class.

Saying goodbye with grace is one of life’s hardest lessons. Letting go and moving on are often some of the most difficult tasks we face in our adult life. If many adults don’t have the skill set to manage this, how will an almost-eight-year-old? And while I won’t encourage Arden to wallow in her sorrow, it’s ok for her to mourn the end of second grade as she figures out how to face her future adventures. I do know that when she steps off that big yellow bus tomorrow, I will be waiting, ready to greet my new third grader with a kiss and a hug.

14 May 2011

Patient Curiosity and Charming Snakes

Several months ago, I wrote about the dead packrat my daughters discovered in the yard. We buried it, and a month or so later, after the snow had melted and the ensuing mud had dried, they went to dig it up, hoping to see its bones. But the burial ground had obviously been disturbed, and nothing remained of the rat except a few tufts of grey fluff. Perhaps a desperate coyote had claimed it for a meal?

Soon after that, another morbid discovery was made in Arden’s horse stable after an especially heavy snow storm. She found a small owl, dead on a white drift. With her unwavering curiosity, she expressed her desire to see this creature’s bones, too. But she had learned her lesson with the rat, and didn’t want to trust these bones to the earth and to the coyotes. And so the owl rests on our porch, in an open cardboard box.

With help from Audubon, we identified it as a screech owl. Grampa John, a wildlife biologist, told Arden she ought to put some insects in the box to help the process of decomposition. Our UPS man, the most joyous man I’ve ever seen – really – was intrigued by the most unusual contents of this box on the porch, and asked many questions about where it came from, what we were doing with it, and why.

And still we wait. The owl appears almost the same as when she found it. The feathers are intact, and if anything has changed at all, it’s the weight. I suppose it is possible for the cold winter air to mummify a bird. The box has been blown about by the April winds, but the owl is still there, on the porch.

* * * * *

Last week, it was Dan who found wildlife in our yard – a gopher snake of more than five feet, sunning itself near the garage. We love these snakes, and think of them as good omens, as lore claims they keep the rattlers away. He captured it to show the girls, and each of us held the snake and let ourselves be charmed by its good-natured indulgence toward us. Ever since he spent a summer snake-sitting as a child, he’s kind of wanted a snake as a pet. But ever since I learned that some snake species can live for thirty or more years, I’ve said no. I can make a lifetime commitment to a person – and even to a fellow mammal – but I’m not sure I can make one to a snake.

The snake reappeared shortly after we’d released him into what remains of our woodpile. In the meantime, we’d noticed no shortage of squirrels around the house – which did not bode well for our budding garden. We’d trapped one squirrel but had seen more, and had also found the hole they called home.

Dan caught the snake again, mostly to see if he could make it interested in the squirrel hole. With one flick of its tongue, the snake must have sensed its potential meals, and it disappeared down the hole. Not long after, the girls, who had been playing outside, yelled to us that they’d seen two squirrels running as fast as could be.

During an evening game of hide-and-seek, the girls noticed the two squirrels again – dead now, victims of the snake’s appetite. It appeared that this was truly a case of the snake’s eyes being too big for his belly. We disposed of the poor critters, and man, we love our new pet snake.

07 May 2011


When I first read Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl, I was just a little older than my oldest daughter is now. For me, like it is for most people, the book was devastating and inspiring, all at the same time. I came back to it again and again throughout my pre-high school years, looking for hope and courage in Anne’s words. I moved on to Elie Wiesel’s Night, and other Holocaust books – some biographical, others fiction – and I still read every single one I can get my hands on.

Then, it was a search for understanding, a desire to find courage and resilience in the terrible, unjust lives of people who were simply trying literally to endure. Now, I think I read more out of a sense of responsibility, a need to bear witness to these events which seem so long ago. I have had the honor of hearing many Holocaust survivors speak, and each time I am reminded that these were real people. They were just like you and me, but were targeted and victimized and murdered, for the simple reason that they were somehow different. Except they weren’t. Different, that is. They were people.

And so, when I learned that a Holocaust survivor, Thomas “Toivi” Blatt would be speaking in Prescott in honor of Yom HaShoah, or Days of Remembrance, I wanted my eleven-year-old daughter to join me.

When we arrived at the theater, I was surprised – and pleased – to see such a large crowd assembled, and then I worried that there wouldn’t be any seats for us at this ticketless event. We somehow made it up through the line, and were escorted to a pair of seats, and the ceremony began a few moments later.

Prayers were said, a short film was shown, and then candles were lit by local educators and librarians to honor victims of the Holocaust. Survivors in the audience were recognized: there were more than a half dozen. And then Mr. Blatt entered the auditorium. Even at 84-years-old and walking with a cane, Mr. Blatt looked like he could take on most members of the audience and walk away unscathed. The details of his ordeal during the war are in his book, From the Ashes of Sobibor, which I haven’t yet read, but his story was a completely different kind of Holocaust story from any that I have known.

I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak at schools, both when I was a student and since I’ve been a teacher. Last year I heard the story of a man who hid in the woods in Belarus for several years during his early childhood, among the armed partisans depicted in the film Defiance. There was the harrowing account I heard in Tucson of a woman who detailed what she lost. The most difficult loss, she said, even more difficult than losing her entire family, was losing her dignity. How, she still wondered, do you reclaim that? Her story was emotional and raw, tearful and angry.

But Mr. Blatt’s story is none of those things. His story is one of cunning and courage, of risk and audacity. The creative ways his family survived – up to a point – and the lengths they went to in their attempts to save their son were surprising, including purchasing documents to permit him to travel to Hungary in his early teens, where, they hoped, he would be safe. All was going well on the train until he was deemed suspicious, and while his papers checked out fine, the Gestapo guard somehow knew that young Mr. Blatt was a Jew. I wish I could relay the humorous exchange between Mr. Blatt and this Nazi who insisted on personally checking if Mr. Blatt was circumcised, but I doubt I could it justice without a Yiddish accent. Mr. Blatt is utterly human, but somehow larger than life, too.

Mr. Blatt and his family ended up at Sobibor, not far from their hometown village, or shtetl. Sobibor, in eastern Poland, was not a concentration camp like Auschwitz or Dachau. Sobibor was a death camp. Most of the Jews that were taken to Sobibor, including Mr. Blatt’s family, were immediately gassed after disembarking. Mr. Blatt survived because he was chosen to be a shoeshine boy for the Nazi guards.

In October of 1943, the Jews at Sobibor carried out an aggressive plan inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They killed the Nazi officers of the camp in order to escape into the woods. Mr. Blatt, age fifteen at the time, delivered false messages to lure some of the officers into situations where they were ambushed and killed. Half of the Jews - more than three hundred - were killed in the attempt, and while the remainder escaped, less than fifty ultimately survived the winter and the last eighteen months of the war. Mr. Blatt is one of six Sobibor escapees still alive today. The successful escape was so embarrassing to the Nazis that within days, Sobibor was closed, razed, and a forest of trees was planted in its place.

I was honored to witness Mr. Blatt’s story, and while I think my daughter struggled to understand this old man and his strong Yiddish accent, she was pleased that she went. This spring, she had studied the life of Eleanor Roosevelt for a living history project. And by listening to Mr. Blatt, my daughter was witnessing the story of someone whose life experiences had led to what Mrs. Roosevelt called her “most important accomplishment:” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My daughter was able to hear Mr. Blatt’s story straight from his mouth and to have history come alive for her through his experiences.

And so here’s to the power of our own personal histories. And here’s to the continuity of history and the power of connecting the dots between historical events and across generations. And, most especially, here’s to the strength, resilience and endurance of the human spirit.