I was the kid who will ruin your school year.

As the library empties for two of our slowest months, I can’t help but reflect on my own childhood excitement as the school year approached. I suppose it’s no surprise that this present day librarian was unceasingly enthusiastic, kindergarten through senior year, about the first day of school. Even as a kid, I loved the fresh start of the new year, which when you’re eight, happens sometime toward the end of August, not the beginning of January. A new school year meant a new backpack and new crayons and new folders and notebooks. Just as neurotic as a child, I loved how clean everything was. All the crayons were freshly sharpened and there were no graphite smears on my kitten folders or tears in my new backpack. My new classroom was freshly decorated with fun themes that hadn’t yet faded into the background. I had a room full of potential friends awaiting me and I couldn’t wait to meet them and my new teacher.

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In the early years, when my mother put me in cute Disney-themed princess clothes, did my hair in pigtails, and helped me navigate the waters of childhood friendships, I imagine the feeling was mutual and that I blended in quite well with the rest of the class. I was too energetic and talkative to be the class pet, but I was well-liked and fit in with the other kids… until about halfway through the second grade. Indeed, it is a bittersweet realization, that as excited as I was to meet these new people every August, for the majority of my school years, they weren’t very excited to meet me.

I was eight when the shift occurred and you can actually see it in family photos. At the beginning of the school year, I was just an average kid. My clothes were never overly stylish, but no one’s were in the 90’s. I got in trouble on occasion, probably sitting out recess once a week or so, but I wasn’t a problem child. My parents weren’t helicopter parents, but they were involved and had me in after-school activities. As the year progressed, however, I gained weight, stopped bathing and brushing my teeth regularly, started wearing dirty clothes to school, and acting out. I once snapped at my teacher to stop calling our workbook by that name, because it was just a book and we weren’t babies. I made her so angry that she went to the classroom next door, grabbed a textbook, shoved it under my nose and told me that this was a textbook and that it was much harder… to which I rolled my eyes.

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That was the year I began picking on other children, ruling my friendships through fear of being on my bad side. I continued to do so in third grade and by fourth, when the district transferred me to a new school, I don’t imagine I had any friends who would miss me. I wore a dress on my first day of fourth grade, because I wanted to look nice and fit in, but had no concept or understanding of how to do so. Overweight and the victim of unfortunate genetics, I should have been wearing both deodorant and a bra, but wore neither. I made my teacher a present, because I just really wanted her to like me and I thought that a pickle jar full of Easter grass with her name on it was the key. It was not. She didn’t like me. I smelled. I was bossy. I was a bully. I made good grades and always turned in my work, but I was absolutely the kid in the class that every teacher seems to have, who keeps the year from being perfect. I was a hall kid, sent out for interrupting and mouthing off, for picking on other children and bossing them around. By fifth grade, I was no better.

I ate fast food every night and put on more and more weight. My fifth grade teacher blanched when she bought KFC for everyone as a reward and I asked for my usual of two breasts and a leg, something I wouldn’t order now. I was fat and I was mean. By middle school, I had few friends and anyone who rejected me was the recipient of my own cruel bullying, like the boy who didn’t like me back… who I threw soda on at a school dance, or the girl he did like, about whom I spread rumors. It wasn’t just one teacher who dreaded having me in their class, anymore. It was seven.

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What none of those teachers knew, of course, was that second grade was the year my parents began spending every evening fighting in the garage. There were no more family dinners at the table and my Gramma brought us fast food nearly every night, in an attempt to bring some happiness and normalcy back into our world. That was the year my mother stopped washing my clothes on the regular and checking to make sure I was bathing myself and brushing my teeth, because I was eight and incapable of taking care of myself.

Third grade was the year my dad snapped at me that I stank and was disgusting for not wearing deodorant, the first time anyone had mentioned I should and still, neither parent helped me to remember consistent and proper hygiene. It was the year I got lice on Thanksgiving and my aunt bought me my first training bra for Christmas, because my mother hadn’t thought of it.

Fourth grade was the year I decided to sleep in my clothes each night, so I wouldn’t have to get up early to get dressed and went to school sweaty, rumpled and tired. It was the year my mother took us to Disney World alone, because my father refused to go. I hit puberty that year, before the other girls, and was embarrassed that I needed to shave my legs and confused about why I had hair in other places that only grownups did. No one had told me it was normal, so I shaved it with a secret shame. I still have the scar from where I shaved my arms, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. That was the year that the golden boy everyone liked began to bully me relentlessly when no one was watching. When I told the school counselor, she didn’t believe me. 

I’m sure my teacher knew about my mother’s brain surgery in the 5th grade, followed closely by her grand mal seizure, during which I called the ambulance, myself. I doubt she knew my father left a month later and that my mother got me up at midnight every night to pray over a statue of Saint Thomas Moore that she buried in the flower bed, as if it were a magic spell that would bring my father home. She was convinced it had worked, when he returned a week later… and devastated when it didn’t after he moved out for good and took my brother with him, leaving me alone with her. That Christmas break, I broke my arm and my father refused to take me to the ER, dragged me to see Patch Adams in theaters and yelled at me for falling asleep. Despite being a nurse, my mother didn’t stand up to him. It wasn’t until two days later that my Gramma told her they could take me to the hospital or she could take me… and they discovered my arm was broken in two places. That was the year the other girls told me it was gross that my tongue was completely white, because I didn’t brush my teeth. I got my Gramma to buy me a new toothbrush, chose medium bristles instead of soft, and went home and brushed until my tongue and gums bled.

When middle school started, I couldn’t understand why my old friends, no longer forced to include me, had chosen not to do so. After a boy told me my shirt was too tight, early in the year, I wore a jacket every single day to cover my disgustingly fat arms. The boy down the street, who had chased me and kissed me on the playground in the first grade, now threw rocks at me when I took my dog for a walk. When the popular boys at school were over at his house, they joined in… even the ones who were usually nice to me. It was in the 6th grade that I started cutting myself. In the 7th, my mother told my father that she’d only get back together with him if I agreed. When I didn’t, he refused to come to my birthday party and we didn’t speak for several months. That was the year my mother started hitting me. That was the year I started sucking my thumb again. It wasn’t until the next year that my mother told me unspeakable lies about my father molesting me, to keep me from leaving her abuse for him. I wouldn’t speak to him again until my senior year of high school.

For most of my formative years, when my crushes, my friends, and even my teachers didn’t like me back, there was no one around to teach me how to handle the disappointment, the rejection, because my parents were too busy with their own drama… and it wasn’t until 8th grade that I was able to somewhat navigate these interactions for myself. Until then, no one liked me at school. No one liked me at home… except, perhaps, for my Gramma. No matter how angry and hateful I was, no matter how badly I smelled, no matter how dirty and mismatched and unstylish, I always had a warm hug from Gramma and that was my saving grace.

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In the next month, as I’m introduced to my new after school crowd at the library, I’m going to remember the angry, smelly bully I once was. I’m going to recall how much it hurt to be so disliked by everyone, how devastating it was to try to face it all alone… and I’ll remind myself that not all of those kids are going to be blessed with a saintly Gramma… to insist someone take them to the ER, to hold them when the bullies make them cry, to buy them toothbrushes and new bras. This fall, I’m going to try to remember that these aren’t the kids who keep my year from being perfect, but the ones who give my professional life the most meaning… because the smelly kid, the bully, the girl in the ill-fitting dress… they look to us, their teachers and librarians and school counselors, to be the few people who want them. I’m going to remember that it is so hard to be unwanted. We are their safe haven. We give them hope that things will be better, when no one else does.

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Teenagers are Starved

… for attention, structure, and loving authority figures. It’s not always reflected through school shootings, stabbings on behalf of Slenderman, or torturing animals in YouTube videos, either. Those are just the most sensational stories. No, more often than not, it’s young girls sending nude photos to boys, so they’ll keep talking to them. It’s 5th grade boys vaping so the older kids will think they’re cool. It’s widespread porn addiction, because they don’t understand how their bodies work or what these feelings mean and they have all the stimulation they could possibly desire in their pockets. It’s indiscriminate sexual experimentation, before they’re old enough to handle the physical and emotional complications. It’s the expectation that the latter will look like the former, because no one is talking to them.

While many have spent the past week, arguing about gun control with strangers online, as opposed to… I don’t know, looking at cat videos and posting photos of their coffee, like they do the rest of the time, their children are still floundering. The country is positively baffled as to why kids act the way they do and not one of them realize that we’re so busy arguing with each other, that none of us are actually guiding teenagers. Adolescence is one of the most confusing times in a person’s life and it always has been. The hot debates of gun control, bullying, and sexual education aren’t new. Mean Girls and body shaming aren’t new. Teenage boys using teenage girls and telling the whole school isn’t new. What is new, is the constant distraction in the lives of everyone who is supposed to care for these kids.

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Today, if parents aren’t too busy swiping left and right on dating apps, rediscovering themselves after the divorce, then they’re on Facebook, debating car seat safety and vaccines with someone from high school that they don’t even know or like. They’re thumbing through Pinterest recipes in the drive through line, instead of talking to their children about their day while sliding a frozen lasagna in the oven. It’s not entirely their fault, either. We live in a society that shares everything from day altering information, such as school closures, to life altering information, such as engagements and the deaths of loved ones, via social networking. If you delete Facebook and Pinterest, you’re considered antisocial or an isolationist, and I should know, here in my fourth month without either.

Dad: “You know your uncle’s mom died, though.”
Me: “Nope… not on Facebook”
Dad: “Oh, that’s right! Well, your uncle’s mom died.”

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It’s not just parents who’ve detached, either. Teachers, once a source of love and affection, are now so petrified of ending up on the news, that they won’t even hug their students… and that’s if they even have the time to connect with them emotionally, after the ludicrously detailed lesson planning, IEP meetings, and professional development days. The same is true of youth ministers and counselors and even librarians. Keep the door open and keep your hands to yourself or risk destroying your life.

As a result of our collective detachment from our youth, teens test boundaries, just as they always have, but… they find none. They use their phones in class and their teachers don’t dare confiscate them, for fear of parental wrath. Whereas once it was enough to be able to call the school and leave an important message for one’s child, we must now have instant access to everyone in our lives, just in case we realize they’ve deleted our DVR’d episodes of The Bachelor and we want to share our unhappiness. The reverse is true as well. Even 10 years ago, a child who forgot his homework would have to beg his teacher for an extension and ultimately learn to be more responsible; now he can text mom and beg her to drop it off on her only break. If she doesn’t, then lord have mercy on the teacher who dares to grade him down for it, teaching him only that there are no limits, no consequences.

It’s cyclical, even. We’re all so very exhausted, because we refuse to acknowledge the emotional energy expended in keeping up with 153 friends, and 12 different news feeds, that we relish the moments the young ones in our lives are distracted by technology, plugging them in the second they can respond to an iPad, in part because it’s a societal norm. As a result, we don’t see what it’s doing to them until it’s too late and we feel powerless to police their usage after years of such access and the privacy that came with the adults not caring what was on the screen, if it would only keep them quiet. As a result, such personal technology has become ubiquitous in middle school and beyond, so the parent who does refuse to gift their child with a smartphone, hobbles them academically, when every other student in class has internet access and therefore, the lesson plans begin to require it. No exaggeration, I never used my undergrad to teach in an official capacity, but I substitute taught in over 100 different classrooms in six years and increasingly saw kids without devices at a clear disadvantage.

This past Christmas, my five-year-old nephew spent all of dinner longing for Minecraft on his iPad, completely disinterested in the prospect of family time or even presents, because of technology and that’s the norm, with kids and their parents. We are wasting our lives staring at screens and teaching children to do the same. We spend hours a week keeping up with people we neither know nor care about, arguing with people whose opinions will never change, occasionally even finding ourselves in affairs with our marriages in shambles, as a result of an effort to feel another superficial connection, because we have no real connections in our lives and while we’re undoubtedly suffering as well, our kids are most definitely suffering. I say ours, because they are ours. Every society is judged on how it’s weakest and most impressionable members are treated and while we argue with each other online about the ways we’ve failed them, we are continuing to fail them.

I’m not asking anyone for perfection or even claiming to know what that looks like. I’m not insisting you can’t have a healthy relationship with technology, simply that many do not and the teachers, youth ministers, librarians, or other supportive authority figures aren’t capable of truly picking up the slack. Restore the balance, put down your phone/tablet/laptop, and ask the kids in your life about their day, because the general struggles of youth aren’t new, but being completely ignored by the adults in their lives who are supposed to care is… and perhaps if our children can go home from a hostile environment to a warm and involved one, once again, they’ll learn to cope with their emotions in non-hostile ways. As an advocate for teens and a former neglected teen, I am telling you, no matter how flawed we might all be, the most important thing we can possibly do for these kids is be present and force them to be present.

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Cheering for the Underdog: the Frustrations of a Teen Librarian

I’m a married, thirty-year-old woman, with a degree in education, who has every intention of having her own children… and I don’t like kids.

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That statement is usually met with confusion or melodramatic horror. How could you not like kids?!?! Well… like this.

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I substitute taught for six years and I work in a public library. Children are trying, yo. At best, any cuteness they possess is canceled out by the fact that they talk incessantly about things that do not interest me in the least and they don’t understand my sense of humor. I simply can’t relate to them. At worst, they’re loud, demanding, rude, have no respect for personal space, and everything they say is spoken through a whine. I’m not allowed to correct them, even when they’re disrupting the entire library, because it’s assumed that everyone thinks the above is adorable… mostly by the helicopter mom with her $200 blonde bob and insistence that the only reason her angel is screaming like Veruca Salt, while tearing books off my shelf, is because she has “extremely high functioning Asperger’s.”

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That’s not a legitimate diagnosis in the DSM-5 and hasn’t been since 2013. You Googled that. Poorly.

In fact, in defense of children as a whole, I understand that they’re still learning: to cope with their emotions, to use their manners, to moderate their voices. I get that it’s completely normal and healthy for a child to have a tantrum at the grocery store, because they can’t always have their way; at church, because sitting still is hard; at Christmas, because they’re just overwhelmed. I don’t hold that against children and it I’m still confident I want my own. I just don’t want to be around other people’s children; and I do hold it against some parents that they have a complete and utter disregard for the fact that there are absolutely settings in which it is entirely acceptable to assume they will require their children to behave or remove them, such as at a nice movie theater or restaurant, the ballet, church, the library. I’d estimate that a good third of my frustration with children can actually be blamed, not on the fact that they’re present, but on the fact that no one corrects them. Regardless of my reasoning, if I tell you that I don’t like children, I’m a monster. You know who everyone’s allowed to vocally berate at top volume, though? Teens.

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That’s right. I’m expected to understand that children are precious little gifts from God, no matter how much they annoy me. I’m supposed to get over it if your child starts screaming at the ballet, because babies exist and for some reason they have to do it near me during The Nutcracker; something I guarantee I will understand even less when I’ve gone through the trouble to get a sitter of my own, so I can enjoy some child free entertainment. In the South, I’m a biological disgrace to my gender, because I haven’t had “baby fever” for the last ten years… but the rest of American society gets to hate on teenagers, like they’re white millennials wearing leggings as pants and drinking pumpkin spice lattes, while they read Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s cool to hate teenagers… and that is complete and utter trash.

My dream job has always been teen librarian. My title has not. I began my first full time supervisory librarian position specializing in adults and so, when I stepped down from management, it was an adult position that was available for me at the Jackson branch. Sadly, it seemed my ship had sailed on teen librarianship… that was until our grassroots restructuring, last spring, when a specialization was demanded from everyone, and I threw my own managers for a loop by taking a chance and adamantly declaring that teens, not adults, were my jam.

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Since then, I’ve been the teen librarian for all five of our satellite libraries, primarily stationed at the central hub of the Cherokee branch; and I’m admittedly under-qualified for the dream job, into which I was mapped and transferred. I have wonderful mentors, but I can’t deny that, if I had actually applied for such a position, I wouldn’t have even been interviewed, with only my substitute teaching and bachelor’s degree as related experience. What I can affirm, however, is that my passion for teens would probably have ranked higher than that of most applicants. Whereas everyone else thinks the Ramona Quimby’s and Scout Finches are just precious, I love teenagers; from Carrie White, to Hermione Granger, to Ponyboy Curtis, to Cher Horowitz, to Regina George, I love them all… and just like the Little Orphan Annie’s and Matilda’s they need a champion, because when you’re a teenager, most of the adults in your life are jerks.

When they come to me, my library kids have just started middle school. They’re excited for the pending teenage years, when they suddenly realize, the understanding that was demanded on their behalf just three years ago, has completely vanished… but only for them, not for their younger siblings or the other kids in the library, the Eric Cartmans screaming in the children’s area. When they were four and terrified of the dark, everyone understood that this was the first time they really felt fear and coddled them for it. Yet, for some reason, now that they’re 11 and feeling every adult emotion for the first time, no one cares. To them, there’s seemingly no catalyst. They went from cute and clever and generally adored to gawky and mouthy and generally despised and I am telling you, they feel every bit of this dislike and they understand exactly none of it… and it’s the lucky ones who have only this struggle.

The problem runs deeper in the South, as many problems do. In a region where it’s assumed you’ll marry and have children by 22, most adults don’t really get a time to be young and selfish. Your twenties are the time when your primary focus should be yourself, figuring out what you want from life and how to make it happen. Your twenties are the best time to find a career path, decide what kind of friends you want, what kind of person you want to be with, if you want marriage, and if you want children. People don’t often live deliberately, around these parts, though. They follow the path laid out for them, by parents who never considered another path for themselves.

While this works out for many and happens to be exactly what they want, many others find themselves in their mid-thirties, trying to recapture this time in their lives, backtracking while they feel they still can. They look at their spouse and children, a decision they made at 22, that was really no decision at all, simply a default, and wonder what might have been. They finally admit that they’ve been unhappy for the last 10 years, but they’ve stayed for the children, so they wouldn’t miss those precious, adorable, early years and they just can’t anymore. The kids are older now and don’t need them as much, they rationalize, because feisty has turned into bitchy, and they aren’t as devastated by the idea of missing this phase. It’s time to think of themselves again… except it isn’t. Their teens’ brains are still just as different from adult brains as they were when they were five years old. They’re not done, even if they aren’t as fun to be around and they still need their parents. That’s when they come to me… when everyone else, often including mom and dad, hates them… and I’m left cheering for the underdog, while people stare in confusion.

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Last week, a man who lives catty corner to the library, started yelling at my teens for existing near his back yard. They weren’t even on his property and he started yelling obscene and racist things at them, so they would leave. Because teens are impulsive and reckless, one of them started throwing rocks and the man called the police. Naturally, they believed the 30-year-old’s story and arrested the 18-year-old rock thrower, as they should have done, because you don’t get to throw rocks at people. I spent 30 minutes on the back patio talking to one of the other kids, 16 years old, angry, and confused. I convinced him not to pick a fight with the guy, to avoid his lawn, and stay out of trouble. The man came to the library later that night and yelled at my manager for allowing “white trash thugs” to exist… “thugs”, I might add, who were do nothing inappropriate until he started screaming at them.

It was just the next day that the same kid I talked down came into the library in tears, because this 30-year-old man got a group of friends together and jumped him. For all his threats and bluster, from the previous day, he was just a hurt child, wanting an adult to care about him and I’ll tell you, I did. In the middle of a program, I invited him and his friends to sit down and eat pizza. I assured them that they would always be safe inside the library, that we wouldn’t let anyone hurt them and I apologized on behalf of all of the adults who look at his hoodie and baggy jeans and write him off, for the collective teenage hate that leads to this sort of violence.

I admit that teens can be mouthy and impulsive and disrespectful. They’re often confused and angry, because being a teenager sucks. They don’t know how to cope with the Mean Girls, the adults who make no secret of the fact they don’t like them, their parents who are suddenly too self-absorbed to care what’s happening in their lives, all their new and strange feelings that they’re told to simply not have, and they lash out. Sometimes it’s downright unpleasant for even me to be around them, but the only way to get them through that phase, is to provide them with loving mentors who care about them, like they had for the first half of their lives.

I get that sometimes whatever takes a parent away from their teenagers is unavoidable, be it divorce or remarriage or a new job, but when a twelve-year-old girl sits across from me and tells me her dad is moving to Puerto Rico for fun, I want to dick punch him for fun, because he is not done raising his daughter and he won’t be for six years! No matter how loudly I cheer for the underdog, I can only make so much difference and more than once I have gone home in tears, because of that fact. Even some of my coworkers villainize my teens, insisting they should know better, but why?!?! If you don’t take the time to teach a teenage girl how much physical affection is appropriate to show her boyfriend in public, she’s not going to know, especially not in the abstinence education capitol of the world! If you don’t teach a teenage boy how to control his emotions, he’s not going to know how to deal with the pain of his first breakup! If you don’t teach a 13-year-old what to share and not to share on social media, she’s far more likely to jeopardize her future! If no one is there for them, they’re not going to thrive, because they’re still kids.

Ultimately, if I have to put up with your screaming baby banshee throwing a tantrum in the children’s section, “because they’re just kids,” you can put up with the laughing teens in the young adult section, because “they’re just kids” and I will never stop cheering for the underdog.

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The One Promise I CAN Make to My Future Children

Dear Future Children,

I have six or seven unopened pregnancy tests under my bathroom counter, right now… and not out of hope, but paranoia. I’m not ready for you yet. You’re really more of a concept, an eventuality, and as such, I can’t make a lot of promises. I can’t promise I’ll never yell at you. I can’t promise that I’ll put my phone away every time you have a story to tell. I can’t promise that I’ll never send you to school sick, because I was certain you were bluffing. I can’t promise that I won’t look away for a second, missing the moment you climbed too high and fell and broke your arm. I certainly can’t promise to never embarrass you.

When you’re 11 and just starting to notice that other people judge you, and you forget to tell me that you need a cover for the report that’s due the next morning, I’m wearing my Star Trek pants to the store, or we’re not going. In 2035, when I catch you having a hologram chat with that boy you’ve been crushing on, I’ll interrupt to explain that it’s late and you’re now grounded. If you’re a cute redheaded girl, then I genuinely apologize for how much worse your dad will be on your first date.

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It’d probably be more accurate to just go ahead and promise that I will embarrass you. I’ll sing and dance to 50’s music, when I clean. I’ll use outdated words and phrases, like hogswoggle and hokum. I’ll wear t-shirts that say things like “Having fun isn’t hard, when you have a library card.” I’ll do these things even more when you complain. The one promise that I absolutely can make to you, though, is that I will never embarrass you online.

When you get stuck in the doggy door, I’ll text a photo to your grandma… but I won’t put it on Instagram. When you throw a tantrum at the mall, long after the acceptable age to do so, I’ll record it and send it to your father… but I won’t live stream it. When you have your first wet dream or your first period, I’ll update your Aunt Gail… but I won’t update Facebook. When you’re caught cheating on a test, I’ll make you tearfully tell your dad… but not Youtube.

The people who love you will know all of your embarrassing stories, just as those who love me know mine. That’s the cost of having family and you should never take that for granted. That photo of you, proudly wearing nothing but underwear and a princess crown, will make the annual family album. However, when you have a falling out with your best friend in the 7th grade, she won’t be able to tag everyone you know in it, along with the one where you smeared your diaper all over the crib.

I know that I’ll make mistakes as a parent. There will be times when I forget to sign your permission slip and keep you from watching that video in class. Maybe I’ll forget that your friend is allergic to melon. I’m sure I’ll yell at you for something, only to realize later that your father is to blame. In response, I’ll atone privately, not while wearing a sign around my neck on Facebook. In turn, I vow that you’ll receive the same courtesy. You’ll be lectured and punished, but it will happen behind closed doors. I’ll receive validation from your dad and Gail, not that woman I graduated high school with 25 years earlier.

When your first boss Googles your name, anything scandalous to be found will be your poor decision making, not mine. Large scale shame and humiliation will never be part of your punishment. When I’m angry with you for being a disrespectful brat, I’ll tell your grandpa, not all 157 of my closest social networking pals… only for you to read all about it four years later. I don’t know anything about being a parent. I can’t promise that I’ll be any good at it. I can, however, promise that I will not ruin your online reputation, before you even get the chance.

A World Without Grace

I was in class the day Grace came into the world. I left early, when I got Gail’s text, planning to visit her in the hospital. Gail and I, being Gail and I, she was comfortable telling me that she was exhausted and felt gross and didn’t want anymore visitors. I accepted that and met her little lady about a week later.

Me: “She’s all wrinkly… and red. When do they get cute?”

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This IS how I would hold a football!”

Don’t worry. It happened… eventually… and quite severely.

I tell everyone that I was Aunt Belle to Gail’s daughter, but in truth, Gail was not immediately comfortable with bestowing that honor. Understandably, she didn’t want to give a family title to someone who was not technically family, possibly confusing Grace if I wasn’t around much. Over the next eight months, however, Grace became a far more regular part of my life than most of my family, including my actual niece. Any time Gail would swing by to pick me up in her 1997 Bonneville, filled to the brim with crap, I would automatically check the backseat for Grace. Her presence would set the tone of the day, be it drinks and appetizers in the arts district, or having infant Christmas photos taken at Target. It didn’t matter, because I loved Gail and I loved Grace.

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While Grace never smiled, in her life, she adored Family Guy and the sex scenes of True Blood. It had to be something about the colors and movement, but that little lady would nearly knock her bouncer over every time Sookie and Bill rolled around naked in blood. What? She didn’t know what it was. She was a baby, though an admittedly clever one. I don’t think the fake cell phone fooled Grace past the age of six months. She’d just toss it aside and reach for Gail’s obviously more interesting toy.

Now, don’t misunderstand my affection for Gail’s daughter. I am not rewriting history with an easily pacified, giggling baby. Grace was beautiful, innocent, and growled at her toys…, but I don’t know that I’ve ever come across such a demanding child as that one. I think a lot of things played a part in this, one being that Gail was unemployed for much of those first months. There was always someone to hold Grace, entertain her, and respond to her high-pitched falcon screech. Naturally, she was quite the entitled little thing.

At Gail’s apartment, on the phone with my Gramma.
Gramma: “Is that the baby?!?! What are you two doing to the poor thing?!?!”
Me: “She’s fine, Gramma. Seriously. She’s been fed, changed, and there aren’t even any tears. She’s just yelling, because she wants Gail to hold her all the time.”
Gramma: “Well, pick her up, then!!!!”
Me: “Gramma, she’s not my kid. Gail wants her to get used to not being held constantly.”

Oh, how I wish we’d just held her constantly.

Regardless of Gail’s efforts to wean her of this habit, the day Gail finally had to leave Grace at daycare, she falcon-screeched so long that they had to rotate her to different rooms, because the teachers couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t blame them.

:: Hanging out with Gail and a screaming-without-tears Grace ::
Me: “Grace, you have got quite the set of little lungs, don’t you?”
Gail: “I can put her in the other room if it’s bothering you.”
Me: “No, that’s alright. She’s fine.”
:: three minutes later ::
Me: “Actually, could you?”


Grace.

Despite her vocal range, though… Grace was precious. She was entirely portable, so we took her everywhere, constantly talking to her and playing with her. The lady at the barbecue place had even begun to recognize her. I suppose, that since Gail and I had lost touch for a year and a half after high school, Grace was the ultimate test, particularly when I miscarried. She was just a couple of months old and I had a bit of trouble being around an infant. If anything, though, Grace brought Gail and I closer; like on the night Gail called me at 1:00 in the morning. She had taken Grace to spend the night with her ex-husband Shane, only to get a call that her baby falcon just wouldn’t stop screaming. I was just starting my student teaching and had to be up early, but I knew Gail wouldn’t call without reason.

Gail: “Can you just keep me awake while I drive out there? I’m so tired.”

We chatted for a bit and hung up when she told me she was there. The phone rang again, just a moment later.

Gail: “I forgot the car seat. I have to go back and get it and Shane’s yelling at me to just take her anyway.”

Britney Spears drives with baby Sean

… but Britney did it!!!

Gail being Gail, she was an intensely paranoid mom. If Grace sneezed three times, we were in the ER and I do mean “we.” If Gail wanted company and I was free, I was there. So it was, with my second or third trip to the ER, Gail officially dubbed me “Aunt Belle.” Grace had been sick for over a week. It was just a cold, but now she had a high fever. We knew she’d be fine, but they sent us home… and she only got worse. A few nights later, Gail called me late to ask for a ride back to the ER, since her Bonneville wasn’t reliable. When I got to her apartment, though, she told me that the nurse she spoke to said they’d just send her home again, despite the 104 degree fever. We briefly considered taking her to the children’s hospital in the city, but we’d be taking a sick baby into the cold, the hospital was far away, and we both had to be up early. Besides, Grace would be fine. The doctors weren’t even concerned.

Two days later, Gail and I had dinner out with Grace. We laughed at the weird cry she was making, assuming it was a side effect of the medication. That night she lost consciousness and would never awaken. She was dying and we had laughed.

Apparently, a cold had turned into undiagnosed pneumonia, which had turned into bacterial meningitis. I visited the children’s hospital two or three times over the next week. Shane caused drama, over Gail’s refusal to hug him, over her boyfriend Cam wanting to see the baby he’d also loved, probably over the flavor of Gatorade in the vending machine. Gail’s parents, sister, and grandparents wept and prayed. Gail slept beside Grace’s hospital crib. We all waited for news of how this would affect Grace in the long run and when Gail would be able to take her home.

I had intended to buy Grace a learning toy for Valentine’s Day. An education major, I wanted something that would help her grow intellectually. Not knowing what she’d be capable of after she got well, however, I bought her an infant stuffed giraffe that played music. I hated that it had the words “press here” embroidered on it and only managed to remove half of it with a seam ripper, when Gail called.

“If you want to see her again, you should probably get up here soon.”


Toughest drive ever.

“You have to have faith. Miracles happen all the time.” – Everyone

The intentions in the above statement are good. Maybe that’s why the entire world shared some version of it. A baby’s life, however, does not hang in the balance of how hard I pray, how much I cry, whether or not Gail kept a constant vigil at her unconscious daughter’s side or convinced herself that she’d be taking her little girl home soon. God has a plan and if that plan is to take someone you love, there is nothing to be done about it. Trying to convince a mother otherwise is unintentionally cruel. Gail and I, being Gail and I, realized this even then.

Me: “She’s really going to die, isn’t she?”
Gail: “She’s already gone. That’s not my little girl anymore. Everyone keeps telling me to have faith, that a miracle will happen. I just want to say ‘fuck you.’ My daughter isn’t dying, because I don’t believe in God enough.”
Me: “This really sucks… and you kind of smell.”
Gail: :: snort of laughter :: “I don’t actually remember the last time I took a shower.”
:: we both realize it’s snowing outside her window ::
Me: “She’s never seen snow.”
Gail: “I know.”

On February 13,  2010, I got the text message.

Gail: It’s over.
Me: Do you want me to give people your parents’ address for flowers?
Gail: We have plenty of flowers. I’d rather they donate the money to research of some kind.
Me: Okay.
Gail: Thanks for not saying the stupid things you’re supposed to say.

Over the next few days, I didn’t hear from Gail much. She texted once about how she finally understood the reason behind flowers at a funeral: they give you something to talk about, other than the obvious. Grace’s organs were donated on Valentine’s Day and Gail informed me that her heart, intestines, and liver had gone to two other babies.

:: months later ::
Gail: “I don’t think I’d undo it if I could. As much as I want her back, if her death meant the lives of two other babies, I don’t think I could trade that.”

She’s so much less selfish than I.

I texted more than once, asking for verification that Gail hadn’t killed herself. I didn’t realize that she thought I was telling a morbid joke, which, admittedly, wouldn’t be entirely out of character. She’d forgotten the time we went to lunch with Cam and she told us about a special she’d seen, over parents who’d lost their children. She didn’t think she could ever survive that and I wasn’t sure what that meant.

Gail and I, being Gail and I, most of the “concerned” messages came to me. Some of our friends from high school, with whom Gail had been close, were legitimately concerned. Malik told off Shane, in a way that made my comment about how if we could manage not to hit him, he could manage not to hit Cam, look like kitten kisses. The others, whom neither of us had seen in a few years, were shocked. They were worried. They wanted to know what they could do to help. I refrained from sarcastically asking if they had powers of resurrection. I was just so tired of the rest of the messages. The girl who had a screaming fight with me in our eleventh grade algebra class was just sooo sorry. If we ever needed anything, we were to let her know. Oh, by the way… “what happened?” Gail and I still joke about asking her for a casserole. Outside of a catty remark, I don’t think she ever spoke to Gail in four years. The friend of a friend, who was always nasty to both Gail and I, was soooo crushed and would see Gail at the funeral. Oh, by the way… “what happened?” Nothing infuriated me quite like them turning my shattered best friend into post-high school gossip: The Girl Whose Baby Died.

I was the only non-family member Gail let add anything to the tiny pink casket. The aforementioned barbecue place gives away their logo cups for free. In addition to the Valentine’s gift I’d given her (which Gail added), I tried to put one in Grace’s casket, without looking at her body. I missed and it rolled underneath. I ended up having to crawl around to retrieve it, holding up the line. Sigh. That’s not supposed to happen at a funeral.

I cried in my Gramma’s arms. My mom got angry that I chose my Gramma’s arms.

no wire hangers
There are apparently no wire hangers allowed at a funeral.

The program specifically stated that only immediate family was welcome at the graveside. I asked if Gail wanted me there and she said no. I took no offense and didn’t go. Everyone else, however, did. Later, Gail told me that they all stood there, watching, and when she got up and walked away, to wait for them all to leave, they looked at her like “That’s it?”

Gail: “Go fuck yourself. I want to say goodbye to my daughter in peace.”

She, of course, never said that… to them. Apparently, she was a disappointing show. She didn’t shed a single tear and had just stared catatonically at nothing. I received no response when I hugged her and told her I loved her. I don’t know what was worse, laying Grace to rest, or watching Gail go through that… or rather, check out of that. I gave her some Ramen noodles, because they’d take longer to go bad than the casseroles she’d surely be getting. I couldn’t afford any more and included a note telling her that I’d never be able to say the right thing at the right time, but I’d be available when she wanted someone to treat her normally and make inappropriate jokes to take her mind off the pain. I thought I wouldn’t see her for months, an idea that broke my heart after the loss of Grace. Apparently, however, being treated like glass got old fast.

When Gail and I hung out, during the next year, sometimes we talked about Grace and sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes, in the middle of an outing, Gail would tell me she needed to go home, that it was a bad day. She developed severe memory problems and people became tired of her flaking out on them. To this day, I regularly remind her when we have plans. Gail even handled the question “Where’s the baby, today?”, from the waitress at the barbecue place, with… well awkwardness, but she didn’t burst into tears.

“Wow. She’s doing really well.” – Everyone

No matter who dies, there is only so much time that can be spent rocking in a corner, chewing on your own hair. Bills have to be paid. Food has to be bought. You don’t go on with life, because you’re “doing really well.” You go on with life, because there is no other choice. When Gail received notice that she was going to be evicted, everyone thought it was cruel. We both acknowledged, though, that the world does not stop turning, just because yours falls apart. Businesses must still function, even if Gail’s mom found her crying in a heap, where Grace’s crib used to be. Showing surprise that someone’s doing so well implies that they really shouldn’t be.

Gail: “I love when people say that. I want to be like ‘Yeah, there’s lots of polka dancing.'”

Grace died four years ago, today. She was 8 months, 5 days, and 15 minutes old. She never had her Valentine’s Day or an Easter. She never drew a picture or ate dog food or shoved a bully at school. She’ll never have a fight with her mom, a first period, a heartbreak. She’s truly, physically, gone. At first, it was all that filled my head and certainly more-so for Gail. Time went on, though, and I’d realize, that I didn’t think about Grace at all the previous day. More time passed, and then I’d think ‘Wow. How long has it been since I thought about Grace?’ Then I’d feel horrible, because I forgot Grace. At the same time, I’m occasionally shocked at how much it still hurts, being without her. I don’t want to tell anyone, because she wasn’t my kid. She wasn’t even related to me by blood. Maybe I should stop being so dramatic and trying to make this tragedy about me. I’ve even told Gail as much.

Gail: “You were a part of her life more than anyone outside of my immediate family. We joked about you being her dad for a reason. You’re absolutely inclined to feel the way you feel.”

Mostly, I deflect feelings with morbid humor.

Gail: “I wish she’d just been deaf. It would have been just enough to keep Shane from wanting to deal with the hassle, but not enough to keep her from living a life.”
Me: “Yeah. We’d both know ASL ….and that would look great on a resume. Damn it, Gail!”

Emotions go with the last friggin’ horcrux, y’all.

horcrux cave
Right here.

There’s so much guilt in Grace’s death. Gail and I desperately wish we’d taken her to the children’s hospital that night. We blame the local hospital for falsifying records, claiming Grace was smiling and laughing, when Gail tried to pursue a lawsuit. Her parents blame themselves for leaving 22-year-old Gail to care for an infant alone, wanting her to stand on her own two feet. We all blame Shane for being a soulless prick. There is no fault, though. It was God’s plan. It led us here… and here is usually pretty good.

You see, A World Without Grace was supposed to be bleak and filled with sadness, something from a dystopian young adult novel or a Tim Burton movie. On rare occasion, it is. Christmas morning, Gail sent me a text, referring to my miscarriage and Grace…

Gail: “Our children would’ve been up for hours, already.”

She still gets frustrated, when she runs into someone who used to sit at our lunch table, and they fumble around more awkwardly than is normal of post-high school run-ins.

Gail: “Can’t you just not mention it? How about we just pretend that I’m not The Girl Whose Baby Died and you tell me about your life? I want to hear about your boyfriend and work, just like everyone else. I’m not going to burst into tears if you ask about mine!”

I’ve repeatedly suggested telling half of the people at our reunion that Gail had a mental break and doesn’t realize her baby’s dead, while telling the other half that I don’t have any idea what they’re talking about, creating the most confusing gossip ever.


That’ll teach ’em.

Most days, though? Life is really good. The New Year’s Eve, when we rented a motel room and took a taxi to the casino, Gail and I commented on how that wouldn’t be possible if I’d had the baby and Grace had survived. Gail wouldn’t have met Terry, because, hopefully, someone with a toddler would be a bit more careful about fucking a trucker off Craigslist. Just as I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my master’s degree and become a librarian, if I had had my baby; Gail wouldn’t be able to work for the post office, if she had a four-year-old. Two babies, who might’ve lived after transplants, almost certainly would’ve died.

Today, my heart is breaking for the four-year-old that’s not in my life. I’m swearing I’ll never have children and trying not to think about the three-year-old I would have, had things worked out differently. I fucking hate Valentine’s Day, because everyone else is happy right now or bitching over trivial crap, like not having someone to buy them flowers that are just going to die. I can’t get the picture of a catatonic Gail and a baby pink casket out of my head.

… but in six months, Gail and I will be drinking chick beer in my living room floor, giggling about my online dating disasters and her mother’s desperation to get her married off to Terry, as soon as possible. We may comment on how the world would be so different had our prayers been answered. We also may not… because for better or for worse, God intended we live in A World Without Grace.

gail convo 02-11-14

 

Original post date: February 13, 2014

Lessons in Parenting from Social Media

I don’t have children. For the time being, I don’t lament that fact. I, however, do work with children and have a bachelor’s degree that required quite a bit of child development and child psychology. As a research-oriented person, a Ravenclaw if you will, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine to read up on the latest case studies and articles on child development, such as the effect of technology on children, effective rewards and punishment strategies, how to deal with bullying, even color psychology. Things get cray up in here on a Friday night.

So, unlike many single twenty-somethings, I really don’t mind the constant Facebook updates from my mom friends. It’s a lucky thing, too, because in Shetland, that uterus has a much earlier sell by date than it would in say, any place that exists in 2014, as opposed to 1964. Fortunately, this allows me access to real time parenting research. As a result, here’s what I’ve learned about parenting from social media.

The names Prezlee, Ecstassi, Vyce, and Rebel will look great on resumes.

If he’s not old enough to drive, he needs to be in a rear facing car seat.

If I vaccinate, my baby will die.

If I don’t vaccinate, all the babies will die.

Walking through the room of a child in possession of Legos is like taking a barefoot stroll through the cobblestone streets of hell.

Leaving an infant alone for any period of time is extremely dangerous… unless it’s with an aggressive breed dog, in which case it’s adorable.

If I don’t breastfeed my baby for one year, they’ll probably die. If they survive, they’ll never truly love me.

If I breastfeed for one year and one day, they’ll picture me on their wedding night.

There are men who intentionally leave their toddlers in cars on a hot day. There are women who snap and drown their babies. Neither of these will compare to the day I call my daughter a princess. Surely, she is now doomed to grow up with no sense of self worth, no goals, no knowledge of the world beyond what her overbearing husband allows her.

God doesn’t know how to make children. I must help him via copious amounts of Photoshop. If no one’s wondering about my child’s glowing blue eyes and porcelain skin, I’m doing it wrong.

My toddler can have a concrete sexual orientation, but only if he’s gay.

If my kid doesn’t get a certificate or trophy, I should have one made, so he’ll feel accomplished, even when he isn’t.

If my child doesn’t have an iPhone by age 8, I’m depriving him of an understanding of modern technology and he’s likely to be kidnapped, because he was unable to call for help.

Teasing is not normal. If someone teases my kid for being short, there should be an assembly, a news story, and possibly a national campaign to ban the word “short.”

If my daughter plays with Barbies, she’ll develop unhealthy and unrealistic standards of beauty. The best way to combat this is by making her feel confident in her sexuality as young as possible.

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The Mommy Wars: As Witnessed by an Unwilling and Childless Casualty

As a Southern 26-year-old, I’m living a life that’s more Friday Night Lights than Sex and the City, (as evidenced by my incredibly dated television references). With that, comes a social media news feed that has long since tired of weddings and even first babies. Not only have I seen third and fourth children, but I’ve got multiple friends from high school who post about their infertility issues. Over sharing aside, this is pretty standard. We live in a land ruled by country music and religion; the former of which tells us that it’s only true romance if we make a lifetime commitment before we can legally drink and the latter of which tells us that there is no… way… out… ever. Sooooo, although I consider myself plenty young, I know a lot of moms and am completely aware of the ridiculous phenomenon that is the Mommy Wars.

If you’re unaware of the phrase, the Mommy Wars are waged between some mothers who aren’t just content to know that they’re doing their best, but feel the need to criticize every other woman’s best. While I don’t have children, I did have a pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage, in which I got just a brief taste of the Mommy Wars. You see, as a breast reduction recipient, who was still in school, I decided that breastfeeding was just not for me. In all honesty, it still isn’t, barring any out of the ordinary medical needs. For the near three months that I was pregnant, however, I got to hear endless opinions on my very personal choice. I still do. For a topic that breastfeeding moms take so seriously as being their decision, it was/is apparently not my right to decide against it. So, in addition to not really being ready for kids, I’m pretty glad to be left out of the Mommy Wars… or at least I thought I was.

Recently, there’s been a video going around Facebook and other social media, that I’m certain was made all in good fun. In it, a young mother, with her hands full, has taken to the Internet to express the difficulty she has keeping in touch and relating to her friends who don’t have kids yet.

“Wait, no. I’m actually thinking about all the free time you have. It’s so weird. You could leave here, drive to Vegas, see Britney Spears, or even take a nap.”

In my eclectic blogging tastes, I’ve read many mommy blogs expressing frustration with the assumption that stay-at-home-moms don’t “work.” These women rant about friends asking what they do all day, or insisting that they would be bored, or claiming they do all of those things and have full time jobs. Yes. All of those comments are offensive. However, they’re actually just as offensive as the many articles and blogs implying that a woman without children has no responsibilities or priorities or stress in her life.

Wait, wait, wait. How in the hell, did I get recruited into these ludicrous Mommy Wars for not having children? hope that the women who say things like this, can remember life before marriage and children in a more respectful way than assuming that we can all just drop everything and do whatever we want. I may not have children, but I’m still working two jobs, sending out resumes, preparing for interviews, paying all of my billstaking care of all of my errands and chores, maintaining friendships and family relationships, and looking for love.

That’s another thing, married mommies. You’ve found your partner and that’s wonderful, but can you not look back just a couple of years, and remember the stress and uncertainty of wondering if things would ever fall into place? Can you not remember being the only person who could take the car to get the oil changed, wait for the cable guy, drop the dog off at the vet, go grocery shopping, or pick up that last minute Christmas present? Can you not remember crying to your best friend about how you were going to DIE ALONE after another terrible date? Have you really forgotten the times you dug straight into a carton of ice cream and watched Bridget Jones’s Diary like a parody of the dating single woman? What about coming up with the rent, the car payment, the electric bill, the insurance, the grocery money, and every other expenditure alone? I’m accused of an inability to empathize, but you’ve been here and have apparently completely forgotten that we’re not all Carrie Fucking Bradshaw.

Speaking of empathy, this man writes a very nice letter to his friends explaining the shift in his priorities and friendships. Sure, it’s a nice thought, but even as someone with no children, I realize they exist. Dude, I know that you can’t ignore the child screaming at you to “LOOK! LOOK!” as they jump in the pool in exactly the same way they did the last 17 times. I don’t need an explanation for why you have to serve the children their hot dogs first or can’t ignore the fact that someone just took a shit in the bathtub. I get that their needs come before mine. I don’t expect you to go to bars with me until 1:00 in the morning. I don’t even do that with my childless friends. Perhaps the reason I’m acting annoyed with you, is that patronizing tone you’re using while apologizing for having to leave the conversation to deal with someone else’s bodily fluids.

I’m not saying that parents don’t have a lot on their plates. I’m saying that everyone does. We’re all busy and live in a culture where being busy is some kind of achievement to one-up. We all have different issues and problems and stresses, but for some reason, if that stress has ten little fingers and ten little toes, it’s somehow so far beyond our childless comprehension that all of our problems and priorities pale in comparison to yours. Assuming you’re not a librarian or a teacher, I don’t understand the precise stresses of your career, either. I can still listen, empathize, and be quiet while you take your work call. According to the Internet, though, if you’re a parent, suddenly everything I have to say has become about nail polish and designer handbags, because you’re talking about teething and vaccines? No. That’s not how it works. If I never have kids, my priorities still matter just as much as yours when you have child number six.

Fortunately for me, of the many mommy friends I have, no one has ever implied that my life and responsibilities are less important, or nonexistent, because they don’t involve raising children. Maybe I just have better friends. Maybe I’m just a better friend to my friends with kids. Maybe the Internet is just a place to exaggerate and vent. Regardless, I’m years away from tearing up my Mommy Wars draft notice, so it would be fantastic if I were left out of all of these battles.

*Clearly, I’m not the only one annoyed by this. Even Parenting magazine knows it gets old.

http://www.parenting.com/article/breeders

Three Ways Public Education is Doing Your Child a Disservice

Gail: So, remember how bored you were earlier?
Me: Lol. Yes.
Gail: Maybe you should’ve read some blogs. I have a GREAT one I’d suggest, but it’s only been updated once this month.

Gail, you hear these stories in person. You have a problem… says the woman who has watched nearly 30 hours of One Tree Hill in the last three days. GO NALEY!

It’s summer, y’all. Finally. That means no more 60 hour work weeks, usually opening with three 12 hour days in a row, where I’m required to be pleasant and awake. It means I have time for all of the car trouble that ended, literally, two days before the last day of school. It means I can sleep (… or not… GO NALEY!). I can cuddle and walk the dog after he doesn’t even blink an eye when I scream about how cute he is while running half naked through my apartment and ninja kicking nothing. And you know what?

I am so… fucking… bored.

I’ve cleaned my apartment, crocheted two hats, read two books, gone grocery shopping twice, developed a disturbing Flappy Bird addiction, had Niki over for one of our crochet and junk food nights, organized the kitchen cabinets, and washed every sheet and article of clothing I own… in five days. That’s in addition to The Great One Tree Hill-athon of 2014.

Sooooo… I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling the aforementioned dog (other than “I COULD JUST EAT YOUR FACE RIGHT OFF!!!!!!! HIIIIII YAH!”):

“I’m sorry I’ve neglected you, but now that school’s out, you are going to get sooooo sick of me.”

Speaking of school…

… as schools all over the country let out for an antiquated three months that were originally intended for tending the family farm, but are now just utilized in unlearning any real progress made during the school year… I bring you Three Ways Public Education is Doing Your Child a Disservice.

Now, if you read my blog, you know that not only am I a librarian, but I also have a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and substitute teach daily. Those are my credentials for this rant. Do I have a proposal to fix our public education system, as a whole? No. I really don’t. At least, I don’t have a solution beyond the exposure of each individual problem; because the more aware we are of the issues, the better we can combat them. For example…

Smart Devices
I know, I know. Kids these days and their phones, amiright? It’s an issue on everyone’s mind as they just send that one text message really quickly.

I’m not even going to suggest that the issue of device distraction is one confined solely to the younger generations. Just Monday, I was at lunch with my dad and actually said “Yeah. My generation is the problem. Dude, put down your phone!” Gail once compared the average first world relationship with technology to talking to someone in a crowded hallway, but I feel the need to add to that. It’s more like talking to someone in a crowded hallway, where there’s an orgy going on, and an adorable kitten trying to jump from one impossible destination to another, and 14 of their very best friends from high school telling them all about what they’ve been doing with their lives, but more importantly, fawning over your friend as he shoves picture after picture of his cat, his flat tire, his lunch, and that trailer for 22 Jump Street in their faces. My point?

Why are we allowing this as we teach our children?!?! I’m a substitute teacher, so I have it pretty easy. I only have to demand the attention of my students for the first five minutes of class, as I call roll and explain the expectations for the day. Regardless, you know what I constantly hear?

“He’s here. He’s just wearing headphones.”
“What page is this on?”
“Is this due at the end of the hour?”
“Wait. What worksheet? We have a worksheet?”

Parents, I know that you take a lot of blame for what’s wrong in public schools today, and honestly, that’s not fair. It is not your fault that your child, who has an aptitude for math, cannot seem to finish Hamlet. It is, however, your fault that your child brought their smart phone to class. It’s your fault if your child has 24/7 Internet access in his pocket, which he can use to access pornography (oh, yeah, that’s happened in class), watch Netflix (often shows he shouldn’t be watching), and ignore every single instructor to listen to his music and chat with his bestie all day long. 

I understand that Columbine and Sandy Hook make this a scary world. No. Really. Try spending a day in a public high school that’s just close enough to the country to know that at least 75% of these students have access to guns, but also just crowded enough to know that at least 50% feel like they don’t belong (also, just because it’s high school), without planning your reaction to gunshots. However, parents can contact their child just as easily with a phone that only has the ability to call and text. It does not need 24/7 Internet access, which a child does not need to learn. Unless…

Teachers, I know that you take a lot of blame for what’s wrong in public schools today, and honestly, that’s not fair. It’s not your fault that this student refuses to do his work, because he knows his parents will wreak havoc if you even try to confiscate his phone. It is, however, your fault if you create an assignment that requires the use of a phone. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a teacher leave a note explaining that the students are allowed to use their phones to look up information. God forbid you ask them to create something original, from their own minds, rather than regurgitate a Google search. Wouldn’t it be terrible to ask this of every student, rather than it being a perceived punishment to those with parents who’ve chosen not to allow their children to even own smart devices or those who can’t afford them? So yes, some parents are part of the problem for allowing students to bring these devices, but many teachers exacerbate the issue by creating a need for them. This need for smart devices makes a moot point of any efforts to control their usage. At this point, most schools have simply given up. The handbook now says phones are allowed. Students have the wifi password. They legitimately cannot concentrate without music playing…

… and teachers accomplish nothing. 

A Lack of Autonomy
During the last week of school, in desperation for the largest paycheck possible, I did the unthinkable. I substituted first grade.

It was horrible. My tubes tied themselves.

While I love the smart-assed, foul-mouthed, know-it-all teenagers, I just don’t get the appeal of small children. They tattle on each other incessantly. I can never figure out why they’re crying. They can never figure out why they’re crying. Even though they don’t even know me, they want to hug me and desperately want me to like them. They’re loud and sticky and it’s just too much pressure!

One thing that didn’t really phase me, however, was that these seven-year-olds had to be guided through everything. Each and every assignment they completed had to be checked by me, personally, before it was turned into the right box, which I repeatedly had to point out. All of the directions had to be read aloud. I had to answer numerous questions for which I knew they could find answers. Despite the fact that this was the only elementary school class I substituted all year, however, it was pretty par for the course.

When I substitute high school, I have to wait a few minutes to take attendance, or I’ll have to send a minimum of three students to the office, to let them know that they are, in fact, present. These kids know what time class starts. Most of them have their own cars, because Shetland’s a reasonably wealthy suburb, we have terrible public transit in the South, and children are just too fucking entitled. They have to be at the same place, at the same time, every single day. Regardless, principals walk through the halls and call out for students to get to class.

These students are, at most, four years out from having to file their taxes on time, submit that college application, or turn in financial aid forms. Still, I have to remind them when their papers are due and tell them exactly where to put them. They’re expected to read street signs, but ask for instructions, that are written on their papers, repeatedly. A third of them can join the armed forces, but they get daily reminders to hand in their enrollment forms.

I’m going to take off my teacher hat and put on my librarian hat for just a minute, y’all, and tell you that is no wonder I got several calls after April 15th, asking if we had tax help. Tax day is the same every year. It’s not a surprise and the W2’s you get in the mail, not to mention the hundreds of television and radio ads, are glaring reminders.

Customers want someone to stand next to them and guide them through every step of a job application. They don’t even want to try to work the copy machine, by themselves.

My good pal Ward actually asked me how to do laundry one day, at 22. 

I know we want to guide and protect children, but this is going too far. This ridiculous coddling of America’s youth is creating adults who cannot function. When you combine this with the problem of each child carrying a device that they think has all the answers, they feel there’s just no need to retain anything. We need to set higher expectations for our older children. I should be able to tell the difference in autonomy from a seven-year-old to a seventeen-year-old. One has more than 10 years until he enters the real world and the other has less than one. A corporate boss is not going to politely ask anyone to put the phone away six times per shift. She’s not going to wait five minutes before considering her employee late. The federal government is not going to let an overdue “assignment” go without a penalty.

Ribbons/Awards for Everything

I actually graduated from Shetland High School. On my graduation day, I even wore the Valedictorian cords… along with 23 other people. That’s right. The honor that used to be reserved for the individual who worked the hardest, is now bestowed upon a couple dozen, who also did well. I got a plaque, too.

If you Wikipedia millennials, we’re also referred to as “Trophy Kids,” because we pretty much coined the “participation trophy.” The other day, I was watching the basketball game in a bar, when a man across the room cheered for a free throw. I drunkenly shouted “Did you just cheer for a free throw?!?!” and my company informed me that I’d be paying for an bar fights I started. So, I redirected my ire at the screen, where the crowd was also cheering for no reason.

“Stop cheering! We’re not even doing anything! Fucking trophy generation!

Even drunk, this is one of my pet peeves. Now, don’t misunderstand. I am firmly in the millennial generation. I, too, received trophies for showing up. My dad just promptly informed me that that wasn’t a real trophy, because I didn’t win. I also received red ribbons for remaining drug free, at six years old.

What the hell, America? Why does a six-year-old get a red ribbon for remaining drug free? That’s like giving me a medal for not drawing social security. Why did we ever start awarding everything? It makes it all the more crushing when these kids don’t get awards for mediocre, because they always get awards for mediocre. Just last week, my cousin proudly posted on Facebook about how her son was the only kid who didn’t get an award in his second grade class. He was so crushed, that she went home and printed out two fake awards for actual accomplishments and told him the school had forgotten to give them to him. So, the kid who refuses to read, now has an award for reading. That was the perfect opportunity to explain that, if he wants something to signify hard work, he’s going to have to work harder. Not only does this cause these children to grow into the kind of adults who expect raises for the bare minimum level of work, it dwarfs genuine accomplishment.

“No, but I was the real Valedictorian,” isn’t a sentence that should have to be spoken. The title should still mean something. When I was around five years old, I actually remember explaining to my mother that she would be impressed over anything I drew, even if I just scribbled on paper. My dad? Well, I’ve already told you about his favorite sentence, when I was growing up. “That 93 is pretty close to a B. You’d better get that up.” You know what, though? When my Red Foreman Daddy brags about me? I know he’s proud. We owe that to children: legitimate pride.

A Call for Censorship

I am a librarian. Now, most people think that means I shush folks, shelve books, and push my glasses up my nose with my forefinger.

Indeed, I’ve done all of those things, but there’s more to it than that. As I’ve previously mentioned, librarians have a host of responsibilities. We help people fill out job applications, create resumes, send money to their spouses in prison, set up e-mail addresses, download e-books, recommend reading material based on age/interest/reading level, create programs people actually want to attend… the list is endless. We are public slaves… and we love it. One of our major platforms though, is the war on censorship.

No, really. If an angry mom has a tantrum, because a librarian gave her 10-year-old Thong on Fire (click the link! click the link!), it will be explained to her that the library does not censor or police information, but she’s welcome to come in and assist her daughter in choosing her reading materials. We dispense knowledgeWe do not control knowledge. I can no more pull Thong on Fire for its lewd content, than I can pull Heaven is for Real for its Christian content. I stand by this. It is a truly American viewpoint… perhaps one of the only ones left.

All that being said, however, maybe it’s time that we, as individuals, choose to censor ourselves a bit, particularly in regards to our children.

Sunday, the Midwest got a gust of cold wind and a brief flurry. Naturally, we were all stranded. I didn’t even go to Mass, because of how I almost died, last time. Gail, just being off for her one day (because being a mailman suuuuucks), texted me…

Gail: Wanna play a game? I’ll recommend a show and you recommend a show. We each have to watch two episodes.
Me: Okay. Hart of Dixie.
Gail: Bates Motel. The first episode is a little graphic, but it’s really good.

:: two hours later, referencing Gail’s “dark erotica” phase ::
Me: What the hell is with you and rape?!?! It’s like your freaking favesies! You think it’s the best of everything!
Gail: I said the first episode was graphic!
Gail: Which OBVIOUSLY means rape. Lol.

So, for the last few days, I’ve been watching Bates Motel. It’s easily the most disturbing thing I’ve seen since the week I marathoned American Horror Story, while ranting on Facebook about how the entire writing staff is made up of broken souls.

AHS is still in the lead, though I gave up on season 3 for a while.

Jane: What did it for you? The incest or the bestiality?
Me: The bleach enema.
Jane. Spoiler alert! I haven’t gotten that far!

These disturbing epics have gotten me thinking. Yes, they have to be the result of a group therapy effort gone awry, but I’m more interested in effect than cause. Now, I exaggerate a lot. I know that… but American Horror Story disturbed me to my core. I was genuinely upset by the school shooting episode. I work with teens every day and the idea of them being so afraid and alone, waiting for death, having just enough time to process all they’ll miss in life… ugh. I’m done writing about it. It’s too much. That’s also a pretty healthy reaction. I remember Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. Just the portrayal of similar events deeply unsettles me. As it should and as the writers intended. I, however, am an adult. 

I’ve discussed media’s effect on society before, but it’s been of greater concern to me, recently, how children are being affected. Just the other day, I discovered a fun correlation. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11.* The average age for first cell phone is also 11.* I’m not criticizing the idea of giving children a way to call for help. I am concerned, though, that just as puberty hits, we give children limitless and often unmonitored access to media… and that’s the norm. Children have always been curious, certainly; but that curiosity used to manifest itself in stolen peeks at dad’s Maxims or the wrinkled pages of an old bodice ripper found in the garage. Neither medium, however, was acceptably nestled in a child’s pocket at all times.

The danger does not only lie in obvious sites, either. Today, smartphones have numerous apps that parents don’t even consider a threat. Tumblr seems harmless enough, sure… until you combine the words “naughty” and “gif.” The same goes for the Kindle app. Maybe between Harry Potter books, your curious 13-year-old is also absorbing The Erotic Dark. YouTube is just a bunch of cute kittens, you say? Search for “ass kicking.” Just the words SnapChat are enough to make me want to home school… and all of these things are available from the very device that was given to them to keep them safe.

My question is, what is this media doing to children? What will the case studies look like in 15 years? When I was younger, video games were the primary concern. In fact, I firmly believe that video games are still an issue. Don’t get me wrong. Grand Theft Auto V’s protagonist, Michael De Santa, did not shoot up a movie theater in Colorado. Are we harming developing young minds, however, by normalizing this kind of behavior through media? Ten years ago, we didn’t even have all of this new access to media and we were still asking this question. Today, Netflix is a beautiful thing… until your nine-year-old makes it through half a season of Sons of Anarchy, before you even realize they’ve been watching it. This used to (primarily) be the plight of the neglectful parent. Sure, I was watching Sex and the City at age 12, but that’s because my mom was more interested in being my bestie than an authority figure. Now, what kid doesn’t have a smart device?

While the expanse of this problem lies mainly with electronics, even beyond that, erotica is publicly acceptable.For realz yo, my sister-in-law had a “Laters Baby” sticker on the car she drove to her job as a 7th grade reading teacher. That’s a 50 Shades of Grey reference, for anyone who didn’t catch it. At the height of its popularity, that book was all over Facebook. My sister-in-law wasn’t even the only teacher posting about it. Additionally, the covers of books in that genre used to be anything but subtle…

bodice ripper
Wait. His chest is disproportionate to… everything else. No, really. The gun looks tiny.

… today, the trend has shifted to the completely innocuous.

the gambleIn this one, he essentially holds her captive until she think it’s sexy…
like in The Beauty and the Beast.

So, even when you aren’t reading something on a Kindle/Nook/iPad, no one has to suspect that you need to change your panties, anymore.

Aunt Glenda: “Is that a Kindle, Belle?”
Me: “Yeah. It’s a Paperwhite.”
Aunt Glenda: “Can I see it?”

It took me an unexplainable amount of time to find any book that was appropriate for Thanksgiving dinner, before handing it over.

I reiterate that NO library will deny these books to anyone.

I’m not proposing that we all pretend it’s 1986. Technology is a beautiful thing, with many benefits and self-control can only be taught with moderation. I’m also not suggesting we, in any way, police the media consumption of adults. They’re old enough to compartmentalize and separate fantasy from reality. That’s no one else’s responsibility. Children, however, are the responsibility of society and, most importantly, their parents. We’ve entered this age where we’re so afraid to tell kids that they can’t do something. We’re terrified of setting limits and I see that in the students in my classrooms who cannot get through a single hour without some form of electronic media, be it music or texting or social networking. I see it in the kids who watch violent YouTube videos on their phones and the 6-year-old boy shouting “BITCH!” at the computer in the library. This is all happening right now. Children are becoming addicted to pornography, The Walking Dead is completely desensitizing them to violence and gore, little girls are sending pictures of their breasts to boys (22% ages 14-17)*, teens are encouraging self-mutilation and eating disorders, and no one is doing anything about it. We will see the day when a presidential election is compromised by a sext. So, my suggestion? Start telling children no. The library certainly won’t do it, because it’s not our place. Nor is it the place of Netflix, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapChat, Tinder, Samsung, and iPhone.

We don’t have the luxury of rating systems anymore, as we did when video games and movies were the scariest things out there. We have to create limitations ourselves. I’m not saying that I have the perfect answer for what those limits are, despite the fact that I see no reason anyone under the age of 18 needs 24/7 internet access, but they have to exist. Parents need to set limits that work for them, and find a way to enforce them. Schools need to reclaim the power and ban cell phones from sight. Parents should back them. Children should never touch a single electronic device in church, ever. The phone should be put away during mealtimes, and that goes for adults as well.  Perhaps an extension of the problem is that we’re too busy with media to take notice of youth. We can’t protect kids from everything, especially in this digital age, but that doesn’t mean we have to banish them to the town from The Children of the Corn, either.They need guidance. They need our effort. They need a little censorship… because things never work out so well when children run the show.

children of the corn

http://www.citizenlink.com/2012/01/27/the-new-normal-%E2%80%93-youth-exposure-to-online-pornography/

http://www.theonlinemom.com/secondary.asp?id=1981

http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-sexting

The Antagonistic Aunt: Why does this kid like me?

I’m gonna be upfront about something. It’s pretty politically incorrect. Here goes… I don’t like kids. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I want to be Carrie from Sex and the City 3…

crazy cat ladyI’m just saying that, odds are, in a random sampling of children, I’m not gonna like ’em. It’s not their fault. It’s yours. You’ve spent their entire lives clapping over their bodily functions, giving them trophies for 11th place, and telling them they can be anything they want to be, regardless of aptitude or drive. Of course they’re irritating.

AA013139
Don’t feel too accomplished, darlin’. Mommy’s gonna be just as impressed by this in 10 years.

When I was six years old, my daddy made sure to tell me that that trophy wasn’t a real trophy, because we weren’t in first, second, or third place. When I got an award for having all A’s and B’s, I was reminded that I’d probably have all A’s if every one of my report cards didn’t declare that I talked too much in class. The A’s I did have were never high enough. I’m pretty sure that the day I took my first steps, my dear ol’ dad responded with “Yeah, but can she run?”


No, daddy. I really can’t.

Now, some would say the man was too harsh. In fact, I’m pretty sure he would have put himself in that group, the day I told him I’d called Gail crying because of the 98.5% I got on that project. Maybe he’d be right. Okay, fine. He’d be right. The point is, he made me work for things and that included his praise. If more parents took a page from his book (but only one, y’all), maybe kids wouldn’t be so obnoxious. If society would stop pacifying the next generation with unlimited electronic entertainment to get them out of our hair and combating bullying by telling them that they can all be supermodels, maybe we wouldn’t be destined for Disney’s Wall-E. So, in an attempt to be the change I wish to see in the world, I’m practicing on Layla, my five-year-old niece… and you know what? The kid freaking adores her Aunt Belle. Just yesterday, she begged to come see me, hug attacked me on sight, and was ecstatic over the $2 coloring book I gave her. So, I must be doing something right… and therefore, I’m qualified to advise you with the following anecdotes.


Layla’s on the left.

Last summer, for Layla’s birthday, my Gramma, my mother, and I took Layla on a Day O’ Fun. We went to lunch, made a stuffed pony at the mall, ate cookies, and played on the playground. She was in five-year-old heaven. So, naturally, she thought she’d begin by asserting her authority, when we stopped at Arby’s for a bathroom break. Now, in my defense, I only antagonize the kid when she’s already being annoying. I mean, I’ve already tried to make the situation better, failed, and making it worse is the most amusing option left. So, as Layla sat on the toilet, having clearly finished her business several minutes earlier, but getting a thrill out of making me wait, I began to provoke her.

Me: “Darlin’, you’re not doing anything. You’re done. You’ve been done. Let’s go.”
Layla: “No. I’m not finished.”
Me: “Alrighty, then. You stay here and sit. You don’t need me to watch. I’ll be in the car.”
I turned the doorknob, moving as if to open it.
Layla: “NO! CLOSE THE DOOR!”
Me: “Okay, okay. I won’t wait in the car. Me, Mo Mo, and grandma will all go to the mall and make a stuffed animal for you, then we’ll just swing by and pick you up on the way home. You have fun!”

It was at this point, that Layla decided that she was, indeed, finished sitting for no reason, washed her hands and came out to the car, promptly declaring to my mother and Gramma…

Layla: “Aunt Belle said she was gonna leave me here!”
Me: “Tattletale.”
Layla: “I am not!”
Me: “Are too!”
Layla: “Am not!”

Yeah… I’ll let that trail off.

When I’m not blatantly riling the child, I get quite the kick out of making references that no five-year-old will understand.

Layla: “I don’t have a best friend. The other kids don’t like me.”
They don’t like her because she’s bossy and mean, but I don’t tell her that. See. I am nice.
Me: “Well, darlin’, you have to be nice to people if you want them to be your friend. Just be nice to the gentlemen fancy, and they’ll be nice to you.”
Layla: “But I’m nice to the gentlemen and the ladies!”

C’mon. That’s adorable and she has no idea I’m referencing a famous country song about prostitution.

fancy locket

Every time I see my little Laylabean, I tell her how much I love her. If she’s wearing a pretty dress, I compliment her. When she colors inside the lines, I tell her what an awesome job she’s doing. I always tell her how pretty she is. I don’t fabricate encouragement, because it’s not necessary. She has plenty God given graces from which to pull. It’s because of this, that I refuse to lie to her… which is more than I can say for my Gramma.

Me: “Layla, is that the watch Aunt Dee gave you for Christmas?”
Layla: “Yeah.”
Gramma: “She can tell time. She tells all her little friends what time it is, at recess.”
Me: “What? She can’t tell time.”
Layla: “I can, too!”
Gramma: “She can, too. She’s smart.”
Me: “I’m not saying she’s not smart, Gramma. I’m saying she’s five and she can’t tell time on an analog clock.”
Layla: “I can, too!”
Me: “Is it a digital watch? Layla, let me see your watch… that’s very pretty, Layla.”
Gramma: “She can tell time.”
Layla: “See!”
Me: “Darlin’, what time is it?”
Layla: “4:00.”
Me: “No. It’s 4:28. That’s okay, though. I don’t know any five-year-olds who can tell time. They don’t usually teach that until second grade.”

I am not going to tell my niece that she can do something she cannot do. Congratulating her for a pretend accomplishment negates all of the genuine praise I regularly provide. It’s just like when I was six and told my mother that she’d act just as amazed by scribbles on a paper as she was by actual effort. At least I knew my dad’s praise, though rare, was legitimate. If that makes me the evilest aunt ever, so be it.

evil aunts

Sometimes, though, it’s just fun to mess with the kid, because she is the most epic drama queen ever. At a year old, this kid would screech at the sight of an ant. Four years has not mellowed her, nor has her Mo Mo (my Gramma) playing into her every whim. Recently, I had gone to my Gramma’s to see Layla and we were sitting in the living room, watching some children’s movie about animated fairies and witches. Now, Layla was legitimately terrified of The Great and Powerful Oz. I don’t know what her mother was thinking taking her to it. Witches scare her. She’s five. That’s fine… or it was until the animated witch, in the movie she’d seen at least 20 times came on screen. Layla immediately got up, turned all of the lights off herself, crawled back into my Gramma’s lap and started crying about being scared.

Layla: ::shoving her face into my Gramma’s shirt:: “Ughhhhh! Close the blinds! They’re scaring me!”
Me: “Layla, you just turned off the light. If you’re scared, turn it back on, but quit bossing Mo Mo around.”
Layla: “Close the window!!!!!!!!”
Me: “Layla, stop telling Mo Mo what to do and close the blinds if you want them closed or turn the light back on. You turned it off.”
Gramma: “Oh, leave her alone. I don’t mind.”
My Gramma obediently gets up to shut the blinds. Layla curls back up in her lap, whimpering and sniffling. A couple of minutes pass and the room is still dark and now silent.
Me: “MUAHAHAHAHAHA!”
Layla: ::screams::
Gramma: “Damn it, Belle!”

What can I say? I am my father’s daughter.