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What I Learn from Hallmark Christmas Shows

Tom has a weakness for the Hallmark Channel at the holidays (which, by the way, begin in July for Hallmark with a run of movies called, quite accurately, “Christmas in July”). I have tried to forbid these uber-premature Christmas shows in our home, and suggest that the more appropriate time for the Hallmark movies is as soon as Thanksgiving ends (just as it is with Christmas decorations—I’m talking to you, people who put your lights on in October “when it’s warm” AND TURN THEM ON!) or, if you really have to start early, a few weeks before Thanksgiving—so long as the weather is a bit gray and cold outside and most of the leaves have fallen.
(What can I say? I’m a purist. We enforce unwritten rules about these things in our family.)

The Hallmark movies run in the background, despite my rationing, for several weeks or a month each year during weekends and evenings as Tom works and occasionally glances up to say “oh, this is a good one” or “she was the angel in the one about the town without Christmas, remember?” The actors and actresses recycle—sometimes the gruff, graying character actor plays the town doctor, mayor, innkeeper, police chief. Sometimes the bright-eyed, glossy-haired actress in the fuzzy red sweater and big mittens and earmuffs is an angel, elf, orphan, big city CEO who works too hard. Archetypes abound: innocent children who see far beyond their years or the adults’ limited perspectives, busy men who have an awakening to what really matters in their lives, bitter grieving widowers who learn to laugh again, old women who bake, single firemen who happen to love rescuing damsels in distress and who are universally loved by everyone in their small town where there are never any fires… The plots are simple, reminding me of the deck of cards with settings/characters/conflicts I used to give student writers who said, “I’m stuck for ideas.”  

A classic trope goes something like this: we see a woman working busily at her desk on the night of the office holiday party (thank you, Charles Dickens). Her friend and colleague cruises in with a glass of wine and tries to persuade her to come play. The woman insists she has work to do and will be there through the holidays. Later, something will require her to drive a long distance on icy roads into the remote countryside—a boss’s urgent call, a client needing something delivered, amnesia…Her car will break down only days before Christmas outside a small town where the holiday spirit oozes warmth over this disbeliever whose past experiences caused a loss of faith in Christmas, family, love, and spirituality. The town mechanic may collude with the handsome sheriff saying the one part he needs for her car won’t be in on time in order to keep the lonely advertising genius there with them for the holidays (staying, chastely, of course, in a beautifully-appointed guest house owned by some chatty, lonely woman or a large family of children and their available father whose wife died of a tragic disease years ago). Eventually she will find love, and realize it, but not before some giant promotion she has been dreaming of is offered to tempt her away from Angel Falls or Reindeer Point, or River Crossing. Luckily, the local innkeeper is in need of a marketing assistant, and the job is hers if she will only marry the handsome widower and raise the children she has grown to adore (who also love her because she reminds them of their mother whom they do not remember well). They will bake cookies, trim a tree and look at the lights and talk about their childhoods. They will attend the town Christmas pageant or parade or singalong at the gazebo in the park. They will tell stories of how this has always been the tradition here in this little town where no one ever leaves except that one lonely woman’s son who calls at the last minute to say something made him decide to come home this year for Christmas to delight her and make us all a bit weepy.  

The people in this town do not watch or speak of the news or things outside this place. Their whole hearts are focused on each other and Christmas approaching. They don’t seem to know about poverty or tragedy or other scars on the world. They are relatively homogenous other than the different formative experiences that have made them into the archetypes they are, and they fiercely love Christmas and its magical transformative qualities. Cue the music. Oh…and it always snows beautifully in these places—light, fluffy flakes drifting through the air and piling in puffy mounds attractively on corners and shop windows. (Somehow it disappears before it gets gray and slushy, and no one ever has to shovel very much or salt the sidewalks.) Also…dogs. Dogs in Hallmark land lie gracefully on the rug by the fire or frolic in the snow and smile with tongues hanging out. They never eat decorations, poop in the snow, or ask to go out at inconvenient times. And I have never seen anyone feed one. They are magical, these dogs.

While it’s more fun for me than it should be to poke fun at this entire genre designed for grandmothers and shut-ins…and my husband, apparently…I do think we can learn something from the appeal of the Hallmark channel (which has expanded this year to TWO channels—one called “Movies and Mysteries”…ooooh!— and seems to have no shortage of advertisers of all types of polysyllabic pharmaceuticals and house cleaning products). The scary thing we could learn is the appeal of what they are selling: homogenous, non-diverse, small-town, old-fashioned perfection. Certainly, there’s something scary about that being ideal to people who may so deeply want that to be the truth that they cannot accept the reality of our messy, diverse, wonderful actual world or, worse, support trying to bring that world to pass in harmful ways.  I could travel down that dark alley with this line of thinking, but there are also some other more positive things to learn from studying the allure of these shows:

1. People love happy endings, no matter how predictable. Even cynics have to root for the angel-on-assignment-to-restore-Christmas-joy, hoping she will somehow be allowed by her heavenly boss to stay permanently in Reindeer Falls with the handsome fireman to raise a family and direct the Christmas pageant every year. (Not even the fact that most of the leading men are played by attractive gay actors interferes with my desire to see them “get their girl” at the end—although it has made me appreciate their acting skills as they play men swept up by the new woman in town and have to act all bro-y with the attractive mechanic guy at the gas station who would be perfect for them.) It’s impossible not to want to see that inevitable admission of love between our main girl and guy as well as the chaste kiss they will share while the whole town looks on and cheers or the kids spying on the stairs snicker and grin at each other because they’re getting a mooooother! So…what can I say? We’re sentimental saps who’ll believe anything. But that makes me smile. There’s hope for a human race of beings who yearn for happy endings. Perhaps someday we’ll work harder toward making them. 

2. People accept the possibility of magic and wonder all around us—even the very conservative audiences these channels gear toward. Many of the films have a magical component—an angel, an elf, a ghost, a wishing well, an enchanted Christmas statue, time travel, mysterious coincidence, a lucky talisman that’s an old locket or a key…or just some spiritual intervention that causes good things to happen to good people. The fact that these tropes repeat across movies tells me that somewhere we all long for things we cannot know are possible. Again, that makes me smile. Nothing wrong with people hoping the impossible is actually still possible in this world of ours. I especially like the belief in human redemption and the opportunity to change which have their own kind of special magic. Dickens nailed it long ago in his own Christmas classic, but I never tire of it, and apparently, neither do the Hallmark viewers.
It means there’s hope for all of us.

3. No matter how crazy we make the holiday season, people long for the simplicity of traditions and community—pulling out beloved decorations and putting them up together bya quiet fire, a town where people know each other and all fit in the church hall for a pageant year after year, a neighbor who bakes for you, people who notice you’re lonely and do something about it. The same things happen in all these movies because we want them to. People like watching people caring for one another and repeating rituals that represent home and continuity. We live in a busy, changing world where too many of us drive in and out on our busy journeys here and there without even waving to the neighbors, let alone baking for them. We often don’t take time for others or really feel known or seen or listened to deeply. On these shows, people live in small quiet places (where other than the shopkeepers and the waitress who runs the diner, they don’t really have to worry about going to work on a daily basis), so they take the imaginary time they are given by their writers to really know and care for one another…as we wish they would. As for the holidays, the fact that their fictional celebrations don’t ever change plays to our wish that the way they live and care for each other won’t change either. It’s a reassuring message in a rapidly-moving time. The idea that people can be stuck in a perpetual Christmas holiday as life carries a strange appeal.

4. In nearly every one of these shows I’ve seen, no tv/computer/ringing or buzzing phone or video games seem to exist. There’s no Alexa, no Siri, no Roomba, no smart home fridge with digital pictures on it beeping that it’s time to change the filter, no Amazon delivery parade of people dropping cardboard at the door. People do plenty of relaxing by the fire or hanging in the kitchen talking or getting things down from the attic. They do some occasional work outside, help with a community-wide town project, or stand with everyone in the city watching the lights go on in the park and singing carols. They spend time making a special gift to surprise someone (often in a barn workshop which everyone seems to have). They get outside and walk in the snow and cold, enjoying nature or watching the stars. They are never on a device or watching one, unless it’s a scene of someone in an office looking unhappy. Technology is not compatible with things that matter most…even on tv…ironically.

I could go on. The main theme of all these shows is, of course, love. Finding, reuniting, forgiving, falling deeply. The theme never grows old, and for some reason, it is especially potent at the holidays. Seeing people find one another under a sparkling tree or under the stars on a snowy night makes hearts swell and eyes grow moist. And while I often grouse that the people are too perfect, the communities too homogenous, the hair never mussed, the free time unrushed, the women slim and fit without saying no to cookies, and the clothes seemingly self-cleaning…I cannot deny that sometimes, just once in a while, and ONLY once December has come, I like to watch a happy ending or two and ponder all these things. 

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Wild Geese

Hoarse trilling on high heralds the flying vee.

Heard before glimpsed, onward they come, fleet

in full formation,

ragged-edged outliers, collapsing and rebuilding

the pattern, weak drafting off strong.

Wings beat in unison,

Incising cuneiform wedges against smudged gray clouds,

Skywriting news of shortening days and dwindling light,

Messaging the ending of the year.

In the sharp air, I freeze,

Lift eyes to track their path

As they streak past,

So purposeful, their call

to flight embedded in their souls.

For one brief moment, I know I could go with them,

Join the airborne caravan

trekking southward toward the light,

Follow the sky track to its end,

Bask in warmth till springtime turns us home.

I would lift into the air,

Fight the tug of earth with all my might

Until, aloft, I found my place behind a fellow traveler

And I would fly.

Honks and cries recede

Before the ragged outline fades from sight,

A breath and they are gone,

Sweeping the year along in their silent wake.

And I resume my journey home

on foot.

On Ignoring the Bait…

The run-up to the mid-term elections has been full of those grainy dark ads with an ominous voiceover warning us about the demonic actions of politicians on every side. It would seem that in order to run for office, you must have only the worst of intentions, a shady history you’ve been keeping a secret, and words you’ve uttered that if pulled out of context and flashed for a millisecond on screen will confirm you’re “not for us.” Oh…and a blue oxford shirt open at the neck with sleeves rolled up…you’ll need that too.

I’m done with the ads.

When a hopeful candidate recently called me to discuss her campaign, instead of getting off the phone as quickly as possible, I unloaded on her about campaign ads. I told her if I saw her run even one with the grainy footage and low voiceover, she would lose my vote. She explained that she is also against the negative “scary” ads, but didn’t have much control over PACS that don’t need her approval for their media spots. “Unfortunately,” she said, “focus groups show they work.” A little research shows these negative campaigns are, indeed, quite effective. People respond to fear. They can’t help it. As someone whose profession is steeped in recent neuroscience research about what happens when the brain is exposed to various stimuli, I know that’s true. Even the design of the ads with the shadowy images that come slowly toward you on a zoom are designed to trigger instincts of being preyed upon that will capture your attention. No matter how sick of the ads you believe you are, unless you can get the “reasoning” part of your brain engaged with knowing more about candidates, some vague niggling fear will rise to the surface when you see that name on the ballot with the most recent evil-looking ad. It’s instinct—built to keep us safe back when we were running from large animals and trying to make fire. We are being baited, and the primal parts of our brains can’t help falling for it. Only a thoughtful, intentional over-ride by our more evolved side can compensate for the urge to take that bait.

When I think about “bait,” I can’t help remembering an animal control team I called years ago to trap a particularly pesky rodent that had decided to live under (and damage) our deck. As I watched, one guy put the wire cage out in the yard and put a “bait” in it that included fruit and peanut butter. I was skeptical that the wily critter digging away at our foundation would even consider entering the big wire contraption when food abounded all around in nature. “Oh, he’ll come,” said the exterminator. “They always take the bait. You’d think they’d learn, but they can’t help themselves.” Two days later when they hauled the cage away full of furry, angry rodent, I realized he was right. 

I thought about all this again as I read the news these past weeks. The recent focus on the “caravan” of asylum-seekers coming toward the United States is simply “hate bait” for mid-term voters. Several thousand people mostly from Honduras are walking to our border, fleeing poverty, drought, unemployment, and gang violence in their own countries. Not unlike the waves of immigrants that brought my own ancestors to these shores, they are risking their lives for the hope of a better one here. I don’t want to over-romanticize a group of people the size of a large suburban high school. Just like any student body, they likely contain a mix of people with different intentions, characters, backgrounds, and skills.

In thinking about the caravan, though, I have tried to consider what I would do if my country became a place where I could not feed my family, where my children’s lives and mine were threatened by violence, where I had given up hope of things improving. I’m not a hand-wringer. I hope I’d pack a backpack and find the courage to head for something better with my children rather than sitting around waiting to die. So I picture our family…walking those daily miles for months toward a border. Hot, hungry, dehydrated, exhausted, sick, sunburned…but hopeful. What would we plan to do when we crossed? Find work and shelter. Get food. Try to rebuild a life. Not attack the people who opened the door. I prefer to hope with all the optimism of a child born in the United States of America that the caravan holds more people like me than different, people who would do the same.

I read both a conservative news source and a more liberal one daily, and nothing I’ve read convinces me that this is a group to fear. The number of them alone and the fact that they are still nearly a thousand miles away covering 20 miles a day in heat and without provisions should make us rethink the frenzied claims that they are “coming to get us.” Those claims are simply meant to amp up our fear and get us to reflexively pull a voting booth lever. Last year alone, close to 400,000 people were detained at the border trying to enter the country. This group is less than 2% of that number. If the other 395,000 didn’t overrun us, we are likely able to handle this “Carmel high school gymnasium”-sized group when they arrive applying for asylum.

Most people I’ve talked to understand the reason we are being focused on this march and the fanfare about troops sent south to repel “the invasion”, but I confess I have mostly talked to friends, and we are friends because we often see the world similarly. I’ve also seen people interviewed on the news who are, indeed, very frightened by the news of this group heading north. They envision them draining social services, committing crimes—one woman from Minnesota was even worried that they would hike north and break into her lake cottage during the winter while she is in Florida. She said she feared they could be squatting there, refusing to leave, when she returned in the spring. I worry that she will vote for whomever promises to keep her cottage safe from Honduran asylum-seekers and their children.

This isn’t a rant. It’s just the fatigue with the negative campaigning techniques talking. I wish we weren’t so ready to nibble the bait being placed out for us during this campaign season—stories told to invoke fear, commercials designed to evoke instinctive responses. Perhaps we can see the trap clearly for what it is and the bait as poison to our democracy. Then we could avoid it, vote  thoughtfully based on knowledge of the candidates’ positions and character, and save ourselves from being carried away.

On Homecoming…

In the last months, we’ve been experimenting with leaving the dog loose in the house when we’re gone. The puppy days are over, and she’s proved that we can trust her not to nibble furniture or mistake the dining room carpet for grass (and pee on it). She’s also calm enough that she doesn’t freak out when the Amazon delivery person looms at the door with a big brown box and tromps away through the yard (something that still startles me now and then, to be honest). 

Leaving her free was a relief for me. I had a little trouble feeling good about being away for any length of time knowing another creature was patiently (or not) waiting in a cage for me to come home and release her. (Maybe some people are better at that. I simply didn’t have enough dog experience to be cavalier about it.)

But the real unanticipated benefit of having a dog loose in the house while you’re away is the greeting when you return. Arriving home to an eager face and a demonstration of exuberant delight that you’ve done something so simple as come back to the place you started from is a new experience for me and not one I intend to take for granted. Most dog owners will tell you they love homecoming. A rush of endorphins floods though you when someone meets you at the door absolutely ecstatic to see you. My sense of homecoming begins the minute I pull in the driveway and see the little face in the dining room window watching for me. I cannot help smiling when I see her peering through the glass expectantly. By the time I exit the car and open the door to the house, she has run to meet me. An absence of five minutes or two hours is met with the same joyful welcome back.

It makes me wonder how often I provide that sense of “homecoming” joy for the people in my life. How often do we take for granted the simple gift of greeting and welcoming? How often as a family over the years did we remain engaged with whatever we were doing when someone came back from an errand or home from school/work, forgetting to acknowledge one another’s comings and goings? While we humans would feel silly racing to the door with yips of joy and face licking for our family and friends, surely we can do at least a little better and try to live up to the example of these pets of ours. A bright smile and happy greeting. A sincerely delighted “I’m so glad to see you!” or “Welcome home!” A bright “good-morning” as we see each other at work. These are easy things to do for one another. And…as I have seen with this puppy of mine…simple, powerful acts of love.

Dog Days of Summer

Last fall, I got a dog. My first dog. I lived more than fifty years without one. Mom was afraid of dogs and allergic to cats, so having a pet wasn’t an option in our family other than the rabbits we raised in the back yard and a few short-lived tadpoles and turtles. We gave dogs a wide berth in public, too, since Mom worried that we’d be bitten or covered in germs. Thus, as an adult, I was one of those people who visit your home and cringe when your dog greets them at the door. The lively wet licking, jumping, and enthusiastic sniffing always intimidated me a bit. 

And then one night, about five years ago, at a charity auction, I started petting a sweet white puppy on a leash who had been donated to the cause that night by a local dog breeder. The puppy was well-trained, and his handler demonstrated its skills to me when she saw how interested I was. I’m sure she believed I would be a big bidder that evening. The puppy stood patiently while I stroked the soft fur between his ears. His tail thumped on the carpet, and he looked up and met my eyes with that lively, happy, soulful gaze a golden retriever has. I had never seen a white retriever before, and the handler explained more to me about the breed. English cream goldens look just like the typical golden but with a slightly stockier build and cream-colored fur. They have the temperament that makes golden retrievers popular family pets around the world, and their black eyes and noses give their face an expressive look that I fell in love with on sight. 

Tom made me leave before the auctioneer started the bidding on the puppy.  I think he believed my impulses would get the better of me. But that evening began a period of what I can only call “courting” the idea of having a dog. I researched different breeds, stalked websites looking at puppy litters for sale, read up on puppy raising, asked friends about their dogs with an interest I’d never had before, and curiously watched people out walking with their dogs in the neighborhood. On the advice of a friend, I even visited a local English cream breeder to see if I found the adult versions of these dogs as wonderful as the puppy I’d seen. I did. In fact, when a big female came and lay down next to me as I sat on the floor with a pup in my lap and put her paw on my leg, I felt myself relax. The pictures my son snapped of me holding the puppy look as awkward as anything you’ve ever seen. It kept wriggling and nipping, and I had no idea what to do with it. But one photo captured me watching the puppies play with my hand resting gently on the adult dog at my side, my fingers deep in her fur like we had fused together. Joe joked that I may be the only person who ever went to look at puppies and liked the grown dogs better. I responded quickly that I had also enjoyed him less as an infant than I do now! 

A year ago, I made the decision to stop full-time work after thirty-two years and spend more time writing, volunteering, consulting, and traveling. Some people call that retirement. I prefer to think of it as Act II.  A month into it, my husband challenged me to stop talking about a dog and get one if I was really serious. He’s never been wrong when he nudges me hard on these kinds of things. I’m often hesitant about change. He embraces it, pushing me off the cliff so I can discover flight. At his urging, I took the plunge and we bought a puppy. Bailey came to us in late-October, and last month she turned a year old. The first months of raising her nearly killed me. Friends who know me well couldn’t believe I’d traded a completely free and relaxed time of life for getting up in the middle of the night and cleaning up “accidents” as well as complicating travel and social life by having to drop off a puppy with a kennel or hire a sitter. They weren’t wrong. I almost lost my sanity trying to surmount the steep learning curve of having a high-maintenance puppy (yeah…she had a few issues). There were tears. They were mine. I’m not proud of it, but to be candid, I also shed a few tears over my children through the years. Everything worth having is hard. We earn the best things in life with sweat equity and intense emotional engagement.  

We survived the early days. Bailey grew up a bit and got used to us. I suspect she also forgave a multitude of mistakes I’m not even aware of making. We’ve only had her nine months, and already I can’t imagine our home and my life without her. How do people survive without a dog? How did I almost miss this experience? Suddenly so many things I did not ever understand make sense to me. I now get why people take time off work to take care of a pet emergency,  and why my friends who’ve lost animals still weep when they talk about them. I understand why someone would run home from the office at lunch every single day no matter how stressful that is “to let the dog out.” I understand the tug of some creature patiently waiting for you, unconditionally depending on you to care for it, and loving you with its whole heart that makes you leave somewhere early to get home for them. I see now how a dog fills a home with its presence. Even when I’m the only person in the house, I’m not alone because Bailey is snoozing on the floor in the hall while I work. I never come home to an empty house; she’s always waiting, delighted to see me again. She follows me around as I do some chore, and even the most mundane task feels less boring because she’s watching with intense fascination. Vacuuming? Laundry? They are pure entertainment to her. I sometimes talk to her as she sits watching me, solving something I’ve been thinking through in my head as I hear the words aloud. Other times, I’m the one watching her,  wondering what she is thinking about all these crazy human things she observes from her favorite place on the floor.

This post is more than just a paean to my puppy. People with far more experience in this realm have written millions of words about the love between a person and a dog. I am new to this relationship, just beginning to realize all I did not know. I am still struck by the instant bond that occurs with other humans when we talk about our dogs. I mention I have a dog, their faces light up, and the connection is forged immediately. I have seen more pictures of the pets of strangers than I have in my whole life. I’ve seen them in four different states and two different countries just in the last few months. I’ve met every neighbor in a mile radius, people I only waved at before as I drove in and out during the twenty years we’ve lived here. Now I stop to chat with them on our daily walks. I know their names, and, if they have one, their dog’s. I sit in my chair in the driveway with Bailey nosing around in the grass, and people stop by to talk and let their pup off the leash to romp in our grass. My house is less clean. My floors often sport little tumbleweeds of white fur that I have to scoop up. I have to worry again as I did with children about whether a few sneezes means allergies or a cold coming on, whether picking at food signals a stomach upset, and whether sleeping all afternoon is a nap or an illness. I’ve put miles on my Fitbit in heat and rain and snow. I am outside every single day. I notice the birds and squirrels, leaves dancing off trees in the breeze, and clouds scudding across the sky. I have made friends with a vet, a dog trainer, people at two kennels, the staff at the pet store, and everyone at Lowes and Home Depot where I run her through the store to practice training. I have filled my photo roll with pictures of Bailey, and sometimes I laugh out loud at something she does. It’s hard to picture life without this kind of connection, joy, and hard work. 

So this is about more than a puppy. It’s about adding something unexpected to what was already a full and happy life. It’s about coming to know and learning late. It’s about being taught patience and learning to let some things go (like fur on dark jeans, spotless floors, and perfectly styled hair). It’s about connecting to other people and nature in a way I could not before, and it’s about seeing that life can continue to expand in ways we did not realize if we are only willing to open to possibilities.

When Children Are Watching

This morning, I read a New York Times editorial about our President’s etiquette in which the author included these words: “…he is violating Americans’ expectations of how presidents should behave — even of how adults should behave, particularly when children are watching.”

It got me thinking about why, as adults, we alter our behavior “when children are watching”. We do it so often, in fact, that the warning “not in front of the children” is a phrase that has connotions for all of us. In front of children, many of us try harder to be a better version of ourselves. Perhaps at some level, adults sense the hypocrisy inherent in what we tell children we expect of them and the version of behavior we present to them through our example.

As a teacher, I know what it means to watch one’s actions carefully—in even the smallest of ways—“because of the kids”. For thirty years, I worked with colleagues who called each other by first names in private but always courteously addressed one another as “Mr. X” or “Mrs. Y” in front of the children. It sounds strange, I know; nevertheless, the honorifics were instinct whenever they were present. I wouldn’t dream of calling Randy anything other than Mr. Ross in front of our students. I honestly believe if the science lab  caught fire, my teammate Stacy would have run in shouting, “Mrs. Froehle, Fire!” With children watching, we modeled respectful address and treatment of one another…always. It is second nature to educators to remember we are role models…in the hallway, in your neighborhood, at a restaurant. We know better than anyone how quickly a child takes your measure and tucks away what you are teaching. 

Unlike many professions, mine is also one where you must watch your speech carefully…because children are watching. Many a teacher can tell a funny story about letting or almost letting a bit of adult profanity slip in an emotional moment in front of the kids. A cold sweat breaks out as you realize the children or adolescents watching know what you said, almost said, or wanted to say. But you model careful dignity. You bite your tongue. Or you apologize with shocked horror as if you have no idea where that word came from. You show them such speech is not classy or dignified. You tell them you were completely wrong to utter it in this setting. They are watching. They are learning. They use language far more filthy on the school bus. You know it. They know it. You still act appalled at your verbal slip and fall. And you show them it matters how we present ourselves in these settings and always.

When you work with children watching, you try to model courtesy and citizenship in a community. You say “please” and “thank you.” You ask them to help you pick up trash off the floor in the hallway “even when it isn’t mine.” You model kindness. You shake your head gently or speak firmly when a child forgets manners, and you remind them of the better way. When they are cruel to one another, you hold them accountable for kindness. And you try to model what you teach in your own life. The parent who appears in your classroom door unexpectedly, irate, without an appointment while you are teaching third period, who somehow slipped past the front office secretary and is demanding to discuss the cheerleading tryout right now, dropping f-bombs and shrieking about fairness…you approach that person calmly, willing your own blood pressure to stay put. You ignore the false claims about your sanity and intelligence. You remind yourself you are a professional, that people get emotional about their kids’ lives and hopes and disappointments…but mainly, you remind yourself that children are watching. Thirty sets of eyes are on you. So you say firmly and calmly, “I’m not having this meeting right now, Mrs. X. I’m teaching class. If you want to discuss this, you’ll have to make an appointment or call me later.” 

You move to your phone and dial security to help this visitor out if you must. You then turn back to the kids watching, apologize that their learning was interrupted, keep cool, and you resume the learning without breaking a sweat because children are watching. Always watching. In the midst of challenging moments with other humans, you show that we can find a different way besides screaming at each other or calling names. How else do we teach children not to lash out when they are hurt? We show them it can be done.  I’m always stunned by the adults who prattle on about bullying and abstinence, and then are mean or out of control themselves. The mother who demands the school stop kids from being nasty to each other is active on a Facebook group where neighbors criticize each other or teachers at school in the ugliest hit-and-run comments. The guy at the basketball game gripes that kids aren’t respectful, then screams obscenities at the ref over a call he doesn’t like.

As a parent, I know my children were the often unseen audience for my life, and there were certainly times I did not show them my best side. Sometimes I simply had to say to them, “I didn’t handle that well. I’m sorry you saw me do that.” At the very least, in those moments, I was acknowledging to them that humans make mistakes and responsible people must own them and deal with the consequences. They got to listen to me agonize over careless words I’d said that hurt someone, and watch as I tried to make amends, and see me sad about the fact that “I’m sorry” doesn’t erase words a person cannot unhear. In other moments, I was more conscious of the ever-present lesson of my own living in front of them. When my husband and I navigated difficult life decisions; relationship disagreements; sticky situations with friends or work; or simply talked about the news, we held many of those discussions on purpose with the kids in earshot. We also chose very intentionally when to move those conversations out of their range. Some things are only for adult eyes and ears after life’s experiences prepare you to process them. 

Perhaps it is because I am a teacher that I cannot forget the basics of how our brains encode new information. The strongest learning happens experientially. Children really do learn what they live. They watch all the time. They tuck away what they see. They try it on for size in their own lives and play. Anyone who has watched kids fake a “wedding” with dolls or dress-up clothes or who has really listened to the running patter of little voices as they are pushing cars around or building with blocks or drawing something will hear familiar memes and stories being acted out in their own words, even things you didn’t think they noticed. In fact, trauma-informed care training is showing us that the things that happen when children are watching have lasting impacts far beyond the incident their little brains recorded…impacts we cannot undo easily.

So does it matter what we do when children are watching? Is it inauthentic to check our behaviors in order to try to show them the best of what people should be? I believe it matters deeply. “Do as I say, but not as I do” is no way to teach a child. Life will offer them many opportunities to be cruel, unethical, or disrespectful of people and institutions. The only countermove we have is modeling what is good as often as possible, letting them see us choose the right path even when it is hard, showing them what self-control for the greater good looks like, showing them how to treat others and how to live in dignity. Will we forget sometimes? Yes. But they never will. 

The Power of Play

img_0152At recess, our teachers set us free onto an asphalt playground as big as the sea and school grounds stretching endlessly around it. Alexander Hamilton Elementary sat on acres of land—an area too vast to cover in the time we had to play. Choices were necessary, and we had so many of them.

Behind the building, a paved parking lot held brightly painted four-square boxes, a row of hopscotch lanes, and four half-court basketball goals with boundaries and keys marked in yellow paint. Beyond the parking lot lay playground equipment simple enough to fuel imaginations—a jungle gym of steel gray bars with bits of rust we turned into a ship, a jail, a dog kennel, a zoo, or a rocket. I fell for what seemed like forever once from where I had perched on the very top bar in the crow’s nest, and had to leave recess early to let the nurse check my bones. She pronounced briskly that I’d only knocked the wind out of me, a phrase I pondered for its strangeness. Until then, I didn’t know I’d carried wind inside my rib cage.

Grass struggled to grow under the monkey bars—horizontal steel ladders in the air we went skimming across dangling by one hand. We never worried about falling. It felt good to drop to the ground, absorbing the shock with your knees, to check that your skirt was hiked down over the shorts you wore to hide your underpants, and rub sore palms against your aching armpits.  The old rusty merry-go-round surrounded by a ring of rutted dirt was dangerous when the eighth grade boys took over. They could get it spinning so fast the world blurred. We stayed back and watched them with round eyes, thrilled by their strength and rough talk. They taught us about danger and caution.

Swings blew in the wind on two steel sets, and beyond them grew a strand of oak and maple trees with gnarled roots that met the earth to create fascinating homes for acorn fairies we imagined. We built additional tiny dwellings there with twigs and leaves, busily discussing magic. Shade patches on the grass changed shape with the angle of the sun, and on hot days, we sank into their inviting coolness to rest and tie clovers or dandelions together into necklaces and crowns. Occasionally someone found a lucky four-leaf clover, and others gathered around to vet its authenticity or pronounce it fake as we jiggled pinched fingers to see if an extra leaf fell to the earth, rendering the extraordinary just another clover after all.

Farther to the west, a kickball game was always in progress on the “good” baseball diamond and on the uneven weedy football field, kids ran races and played tag. Some group was always throwing a rubber playground ball against the building while classmates with feet pinned bravely to the sidewalk tried to dodge without flinching. When they threw you out in kickball or hit you with the dodgeball, the loud smack covered your whimper and the stinging red mark would stay all afternoon. We played anyway, building playground courage every day.

Beyond the football goalpost, a huge unmowed meadow stretched until the nearest houses took over with their grassy yards. The field was full of gullies, rocks, twisted old tree limbs, broken bottles, trash, rabbit nests and mice…and probably ticks and spiders and snakes. But the recess duty teachers posted themselves way back on the parking lot and near the kickball diamond, and simply let us roam. We mashed the tall grass down into nests and built forts, “raided” each other’s territories and shrieked with glee as we snatched their treasure—a glass bottle or an elegantly-twisted piece of wood—and ran with it back to the safety of our own grass walls. A large boulder at the edge of the field grew warm in the sun, and I remember lying with my cheek pressed to the sparkling quartz stone soaking up the heat from it in my light blue windbreaker. The field’s twisted paths and mounded bumps of dirt were places we returned on weekends with our bikes to “ride the hills” and dare each other to take the tracks at top speed. Later, when the field was sold to a developer, we rode there to explore construction sites—clambering up open stairs and rappelling into newly poured basements.

On wet days, we left the fields and grass areas alone. Mud pooled in them, and dirty footprints made our teachers cross. “Stay on the blacktop today,” they called out before tweeting their whistles to set us free from our classroom lines. We jumped rope and made up games. I loved Statues. The “Swinger,” spinning furiously in a circle, held you by one arm, then let go to send you spinning off, dizzy and stumbling against the centrifugal force of your movement. You had to freeze as you landed, your mind furiously working to imagine what you would become when the “Buyer” pressed your nose to bring you to life. Would you be a robot? A ballerina? A lion? A queen? What would the Buyer most want to choose? If selected, you’d become the new Buyer…a peaceful transition of power no one questioned.

Together we created games, a dozen new versions of tag. In my favorite, you tried to elude the person who was “It” but you couldn’t step off the painted lines of the basketball courts. We proclaimed a “no reverse” rule so you couldn’t change direction once you started down a line segment. Eventually we revised the game further, and the bars across each free throw line became “free zones” where you could change course if you could scurry there fast enough before you were caught and frozen by “It.” I remember my mind working furiously as I tried to calculate the intersection of my friend speeding to “unfreeze” me and the rapidly approaching “it” who could render her helpless. Playground geometry in motion.

We laughed hard in those days. The playground was a stage to play out every story. Jump ropes could be jumped, swung low to trip those leaping over them, knotted to poles to take people prisoner, or turned into reins for horses. Sometimes I was a neighing thoroughbred racing like the wind dragging a shrieking classmate behind me. Sometimes I was the “rider” pulled along yelling, “Whoa! Whoa!” Anne Wilson was the fastest girl runner. She beat everyone in sprints to the grass from the imaginary start line we drew with our feet. The fastest boy title changed regularly. Once we had Anne race a boy while we lined the course everyone agreed was a fair distance. When she won, we all cheered and the girls felt a little faster that day.

As we grew older, we practiced playground flirtation. You let a boy know you liked him by running up behind him and stealing his hat off his head, then darting off giggling while he chased you to get it back. Over and over we’d repeat this trick, so you had to choose carefully whose hat you snatched. If your target was too obvious, people made up chants and rhymes with your names in them together. Strategy mattered.

We feel into patterns of our own making. Chinese jump rope was all the rage until it wasn’t, but for a while I worked hard at home to master “ankles” so I could move up to “kneesies” and amaze everyone like long-legged Kelly Watkins. Double Dutch went on alongside regular jump rope, so everyone could play. If you got stuck being a twirler for too long, you complained and dropped your end of the rope until fairness prevailed. Clacker balls on strings drove everyone crazy until someone brought jacks and a rubber ball from her Easter basket to school and started a movement. For one entire month, we played “Baby” with some of us assigned to be the children of the ones who played “Mother.” We acted out family life together. Some mothers were harsh; others let too much go. Those of us playing babies knew how to take advantage of their lack of knowledge. And they grew wiser.  In second grade, we engaged in “Puppy” and went around barking and yipping at the fifth graders until they either adopted us or begged the recess teacher to keep us away from them. When the puppies started digging in the giant sandbox area next to the playground, Mrs. McKee declared an end to it. She never seemed worried about the sand crawling with bacteria embedded under our fingernails; the custodian just didn’t like us tracking onto the doormats by the boiler room doors.

Snow in northern Indiana comes often and stays till March in giant piles pushed by ploughs to the edge of parking lots. By December, we could stand in line to get a running start to slide on shiny ice slicks left behind on the blacktop. Cathy broke her wrist when she fell, and we all signed her pink cast. We called the little fenced kindergarten playground “the playpen.” It jutted from the building two floors above the parking lot, and the long grassy hill that sloped up to meet it was slick and snow-covered all winter long. We couldn’t bring sleds to school, but your nylon snow pants, once wet, were perfect for sliding to the bottom where we sometimes landed in big piles of each other. We made rules about not going “boots first” into anyone’s stomach. No one broke them. Teachers watched benignly in their fur-trimmed snow boots and recess coats, twirling their whistles as we clambered our way up six foot snow piles ringing the hopscotch area and shoved down anyone who thought to claim sovereignty. Sometimes the shoving got rough, but no one respected any King of the Mountain who got there by hurting people, so we tempered ourselves. The big boys had their own part of the snow mounds where they could push each other harder, and we respected borders.

The sound of several long, shrill whistles blown at once recalled us three times each day to line up to go inside. Our teachers, fresh from a smoke, lunch in the lounge, or a coffee-laced gossip would come outside and count their classes to make sure no one was still off playing in the fields or on the edge of the school grounds where a drainage ditch emptied into a stagnant pond full of tadpoles and minnows. Once I was with a group who wandered that far, playing in reeds and cattails following the calls of frogs.  We didn’t hear the recess whistle. Only when we glanced back at the playground devoid of all life, school windows staring back at us like blank eyes, did we panic, racing to the back doors of the building and slipping inside. My teacher simply frowned when I breathlessly joined the line outside the drinking fountain. I never wandered so far and so carelessly again.

I remembered all these things last week as I sat watching my nephew’s flag football game in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. The game was close and tense—a league championship after a long season. The records of these teams were excellent according to the parents who clued me in so I could properly appreciate the talent before me. This competition would determine who would claim the gold plastic trophies lined up on the table under a canopy where a mother kept score by flipping the numbers on a stand-up chart. Adult referees joked with the father coaches good-naturedly as they griped about calls. During whistled time-outs, coaches ran onto the field with whiteboards to draw plays for the kids huddled around them. The quarterback on one team wore a Velcro wrist corsage with a list of the team’s strategic options so he could call them out if, for some reason, his coach became too incapacitated to direct their movements. Fortunately, he never had to use it; all the adults were able to perform their roles without help. Fouls were called, and mistakes pointed out. Exhortations to run faster, try harder, and throw better helped direct the children’s hands and feet in ways that drew applause or groans from their audience. We sat in lined-up canvas chairs watching their every move or paced the sidelines…each grown-up’s chance for happiness hanging on the next play. A mother next to me covered her face and couldn’t watch at one point. She was too nervous. Would the kids’ efforts render us victors or losers? At the end, one team won and the other lost. All the players lined up reflexively to shake hands and claim their snacks—years of practice conditioning them to know exactly how. Parents packed up the tents and chairs and coolers and water and flags and balls and nylon belts. They headed to the cars, dissecting the game’s ups and downs with their offspring and one another. Winning parents tried to graciously conceal their delight and model compliments to the losers; losing parents consoled themselves and their children by talking about next year and one play near the game’s end when the refs missed calling a foul that everyone clearly saw. Oh well. Baseball just started. Every weekend will bring a chance to try again for victory. The kids called good-byes to each other and hopped in cars to head home. Play time was over for today.

I watched them. And my heart ached for recess.