finishing well

“Did you get an email from school? our middle schooler asked when he arrived home Tuesday.

“An email about what?” I asked.

“School’s done for the year because it’s so hot.” I hadn’t yet received the email. I was actually looking forward to getting a lot of things done the last two days I’d be home by myself… Instead, I get one more opportunity to adjust to a change in plans. Another abrupt ending. Feels like that’s been a recurring theme in the past year.

“Did you get an email?” our fourth grader asked when he came home later in the afternoon.

“Yes, I found out that school’s done for the year. How did your classmates respond to the news?”

“Some of them started crying.”

“Why do you think they did that?”

“Because it was unexpected,” he responded.

Couldn’t they just have just gone on and ended the year according to schedule? Lots of kids will be missing the closure they really could use right about now.

I still insisted they do their homework. I directed my middle schooler turn in the assignments due that day. I tried the same thing the next day. Since the work is all submitted online, his only counterargument is, “But WHY? They’re not going to grade it anyway.”

Because the teacher assigned it. Because the main reason we do homework is for the sake of learning. Because your education is at stake. No, I’m not talking about your grade; I’m talking about your education.

When I was a kid I had to feed newborn calves. Every once in a while there’d be a calf that didn’t want to take a bottle. The preferred way I dealt with those finicky calves was to tell Dad they wouldn’t drink. He’d take care of it, he’d say. But as I got older, that didn’t work any longer, and Dad would send me back to finish the job. He offered some tips, like try putting the calf in a head lock with your legs and then get the bottle in its mouth. Sometime that worked. Sometime it took more than half an hour to get some milk into a calf. Sometimes I got pretty irritated with my dad for making me do something so difficult. More than once I was surprised to discover that what I’d called impossible was actually possible.

Finishing up a few school assignments – even if they’re hard or take more time than a kid would like – seems like a poor proxy for the real-world experience I had on the farm, but it’s what’s before us at the moment. So the past two days have involved working on math packets and science assignments that my boys are convinced no other kid in their classes is actually doing. They are probably about as irritated as I once was.

When this week is over, we’ve still got time to enjoy our summer vacation. In the mean time, we might just be developing a little bit of grit.

a test of endurance

Our middle schooler went back to school today for his first day of in-person instruction in 13 months, on this first day of fourth quarter.

We survived distance learning. Many days were good, and it truly was a privilege to coach my kids through the challenges of time management, analytical thinking, and hard algebra problems – in some cases modeling how to find an answer when we don’t know. But I’m exhausted. I did a lot of reminding and redirecting. I tried to maintain screen-time limits. I expected them to do quality work. I even expected them to do their school work before giving in to the pull of online games. I earned the distinction of “meanest mom ever” for such expectations. I was frustrated at their unwillingness or inability to monitor themselves, particularly the older one. Mid-pandemic, I wallowed in mom guilt about not providing my boys with sufficient opportunities for social interaction. I planned and served three meals a day, day after day, week after week, in months that started to all blur together. (The kids did help with the cooking and the clean up, but ultimately, making sure it all got done rested on my shoulders.)

All was not in vain, I realized during a conversation with my older son on the last day of third quarter.

“I’m sorry for making your life difficult,” my teen had said, poking his head in our bedroom, where I’d silently retreated to get away from his brother who was whining about being on kitchen clean-up duty that evening. 

Many days he had made life more difficult. But parenting is worth the effort, I was sure at that moment. We had grown in patience and grace during this time, even if some days the evidence looked meager.

We’re ready for this fresh start. May the things we’ve learned serve us well as we face new, unknown challenges ahead.

This picture at the bus stop was from late February, when weekly middle school in-person support started (still all middle school classes were online) and the boys rode the bus together for the first time this year. The photo idea was vetoed this morning.

February lessons

I saw my ten-year-old off to school this morning – something we hadn’t done in a good 11 months. No one else was at the bus stop, not even his older brother who goes to the same school, because only elementary learners have been welcomed back so far. We waited in the below zero weather, thinking about how much more pleasant it is to wait for the bus in September, when you don’t even need a jacket. This is not the way I would have written the script. But I’m trusting that things have happened this way for a reason.

And if I were writing the script, I surely wouldn’t have included any broken bones, but that’s what I got earlier this month. Trusting that it has happened for a reason is a little bit harder when it comes to my broken wrist. Yet I’ve come to see that there are things for me to learn in the forced stillness, including things that I hadn’t known I need to learn. My new (metal) accessories were attached last Friday:

After a week with a rather bulky wrap around my wrist, I got a slimmer brace yesterday.

I’m rejoicing at the increased mobility and looking for ways to savor the moments that are rich and meaningful: helpful acts, kind words, and time spent with those I love best. Sure beats worrying or getting stuck in the “I can’t wait until…” mentality where I’m so preoccupied with what I want to happen next that I’m not fully living in the present.

a lesson in lunch prep

The library is one of the few places we go during quarantine. While browsing at Rice Street Library last week, our older son picked up a copy of the Bone Handbook by Jeff Smith:

While he was reading it, he pointed out that there’s a recipe for quiche in there. “Let’s make it,” he suggested.

“Good idea,” I responded, deciding not to mention that both he and his brother complain whenever I put a veggie-laden crustless quiche or frittata on the table. 

His ten year-old-brother grabbed the book when he had set it down and looked over the ingredient list. “As long as you leave out the green onions,” he said.

“Okay,” I agreed. “I could just sprinkle some on my piece after it’s baked.”

So I made the pie crust, fried the bacon, and delegated most of the other preparation tasks to our teen. He likes his vegetables raw, he pointed out. The unstated message was clear: resist any urge to add something green to the dish. So made a cabbage and kale salad to serve as a side. Once the quiche was in the oven, he jumped onto a Google meet with his Computer Applications teacher, and I was left to keep an eye on it during its time in the oven.

It turned out to be a lovely lunch, we all agreed. The leftovers were great, too, but one of the best parts is that he’s starting to take more ownership for his cooking lessons, which officially began last month as his mom’s addition to the studying-at-home curriculum.

someplace to go

“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are,” Mason Cooley wrote. We’re so thankful for our libraries that have been keeping us supplied with “places to go.” In our read-alouds recently we’ve visited Warsaw, Germany, Switzerland, and Mississippi, USA. But my sons have also been doing plenty of their own armchair travels to other locales, racing through the Bone series by Jeff Smith and the Yoda Origami series by Tom Angleberger.

fall 2020 “firsts”

The first day of school this fall was a first day like no other. We took the obligatory first-day pictures of our fourth grader

…and our seventh grader.

But no one got on the bus. The boys logged in for Google meets, though I think the middle schooler missed a few. Distance learning is no one’s favorite around here, but we’re focusing on the positives. No long bus rides. You can take breaks when you want. You get to have a hot lunch at home – and you don’t even need to pack it.

The back-to-school shopping was different this year too. In addition to typical things like jeans and shoes – which were still necessary because they’re both growing like weeds – we bought a globe, a couple of magazine subscriptions, and portable desks (actually TV trays). Now everyone has a designated work space (including mom and dad).

Another, perhaps more exciting, first happened this week. We got to return to our local public library for browsing. It was the first time since March that we could wander through the stacks. (Though we were thankful for contact-less pick-up to tide us over.) We came home with a nice selection of library books, which we can hang on to for a whole month if we wish.

Other firsts have included a socially-distanced outdoor fourth-grade meet up, joining a masked soccer league, and the first day of youth group. We’re developing resiliency as we figure out how to thrive in this new normal. Some days are exhausting, some days are tear-filled, and some days I feel like I’ve accomplished almost nothing. But I’m holding out hope that one day we’ll look back at this period of time and remember it with a certain fondness. Here’s to the memories we’re making!

some defining words of fourth quarter

ACEACE92-F184-4BAD-9B4B-8AB66499B421This week we’re closing the books on a school year like no other, complete with some big life lessons and the unique twists and turns of distance learning. Let’s recap by reviewing some of the defining words of this last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year.    

Racism. You got a glimpse into just how much racism continues to plague this nation. The disturbing images on the news in recent weeks have left us all grieving. It’s been a bit overwhelming to witness such injustice, rage, and brokenness in our system and in our city – even in ourselves. You’ve grown up in a household in which two different races and cultures are represented. You have seen that people with different skin colors can live together in harmony, that our lives are richer for the diversity within our family and  reciprocal friendships, and that different perspectives can be an asset when working together toward a shared goal. Your parents still have much to learn, but we hope we have at least been an example of recognizing our own shortcomings and working through misunderstandings with grace and humility. We are confident that you can be agents of positive change in this world as you discover your purpose in life and live out your part in the ultimate redemptive plan. 

Fragility. We rarely like to think about our own limitations, but this pandemic has reminded us of our vulnerability and our mortality. It has shed light on the truth that we are not as in control of our world as we tend to think. As concern and fear of the coronavirus spread, leaders felt they had no better option than to call a halt to life as we knew it. We stayed home. Nearly everybody stayed home – all the time. You heard stories of empty grocery shelves (didn’t see them yourselves because you were at home.) You’ve grieved the loss of our familiar routines. You’ve felt pangs of isolation, missing friends from school, missing all the casual, commonplace interactions in a given day. We have all felt emotionally exhausted. We have been crankier than usual. We have been more easily moved to tears – or emotional outbursts. We have gotten lots practice asking for and extending forgiveness. We’ve grown closer. And stronger.
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Resilience. You have shown yourselves able to adapt in the midst of adversity and stress. You have applied yourselves and learned the academic content your teachers delivered online. You have turned our kitchen into a science lab while floating foil boats, observing chemical reactions, and twirling convection snakes. You have become better problem solvers. You’ve asked good questions as we read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn together. You’ve been reminded that using one’s skills and time for the benefit of others is our responsibility and privilege. You have held on to hope. One day you will come to understand just how much fortitude you’ve gained by overcoming the challenges and frustrations of these past few months.

You’ve learned a lot this year – we all have – and we want to celebrate that learning. It has been a privilege to grow alongside you and help you develop in ways that will serve you well for years to come. 

distance learning from the perspective of a twelve-year-old

My middle schooler wrote a poem modeled after The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams:

So much depends

upon

the world wide

web,

connecting with distant

people

on an old

iPad.

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learning a bit of family history

Yesterday we visited my dad on the farm. While there, I helped orchestrate an interview that prompted him (Dennis) to share details about his growing up years, recorded here for posterity’s sake.

Dennis grew up on the farm, which has been in the Wolters family since 1892. To go to elementary school, he walked two miles to the one-room country schoolhouse in the neighborhood. One winter day, he walked all the way home with no gloves. He got pneumonia. His mother scolded him and told him it was the result of not wearing anything on his hands in such cold weather.

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Dad is the blond boy in the second row from the blackboard, third one back. His four siblings are in the photo too.

When he was growing up, weddings were held right on the farms. He named several families in the neighborhood who had built a garage or new shed in order to have a space to host these gatherings. As a kid, he never complained about going to such functions (or to church either). They took what ever opportunities that presented themselves to get off the farm and socialize.

Once he completed eighth grade, he rode the bus to school in Little Falls, about 10 miles from the farm. Grammar was a challenge for him in high school. They expected him to know what a subject and a verb were, he recalled, but he’d never learned that in grade school. After graduating from high school, he did a short stint in the Army. It was then he knew he definitely wanted to be a dairy farmer. His peers in the Army laughed at him. They believed he didn’t have enough money to farm. But he was determined.

He returned to his home and told his father Fred he wanted to buy the farm. Fred was a bit reluctant to sell, but his son gave him an ultimatum: sell me this farm or I’ll find another one to buy. So in 1965, Dennis purchased the farm where he grew up, 120 acres of land, 12 cows, plus all the buildings and machinery for $12,000. A hundred dollars per acre was the going rate at that time. It was a contract for deed arrangement. He had to make an annual payment, and if he wasn’t able to pay the portion of interest plus principle that was due, he lost it all. Making the first few installments were a challenge, but he managed to scrape by.

What he didn’t tell my sons, but I happen to know, was that he gradually added more cows and his income went up. Then he bought nearby land, increasing the size of the current farm to 359 acres. He has never taken out an operating loan. His approach, which has seen him through more than 50 years of farming, is save in advance and pay as you go. Now his son Wayne has taken over the majority of the day-to-day farm responsibilities (and the same business approach.) Dennis still plays an important role in getting all the animals fed and cared for daily; retirement isn’t in his vocabulary. They’re currently milking 132 cows. This is still considered a small family farm. (You’ve got to keep expanding just to stay in business, it seems.)

One of the unexpected silver linings in all this time off from school is that children can pursue learning opportunities with more input from their elders. We can encourage them to collect information from previous generations that may help them better understand their personal heritage and even perhaps their identity.