To Kill a Mockingbird, err…To Kill a Kid’s Desire to Read

News of Harper Lee’s death dominated the internet late last week. It prompted some serious conversation at Chez Jax. “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of my favorite books, and the movie is at the top of my list also. The book is so dear to me that I refuse to read “Go Set a Watchman” because I really don’t believe the beloved Ms. Lee wanted it published.

At the same time, I received a note (the second in two weeks) from Ethan’s teacher about his reading grade. Part of the grade relies on students reading books and taking online quizzes about the book contents. Students can pick any book, as long as it’s within their individual reading level and part of the database program from which the quizzes originate.

Ethan LOVES to read. The kid will literally spend hours in his room reading. It’s awesome! As a former literature major, it truly warms my heart that my kid – my SON – loves reading. Unfortunately, the kinds of books Ethan likes to read aren’t on the program list. He likes reference books, encyclopedias, text books, and not-kid books. Seriously, the kid reads text books and encyclopedias FOR FUN.

As long as he’s reading, I encourage that. Read what you want, I say! Just read.

Because he’s not reading books in the database program, he can’t take the quizzes. (Reference and text books are not on the list.) So this quarter, he’s at 35 percent of his reading goal, even though he just finished David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers.” (Not on the list.)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was on the list, within Ethan’s reading level, and worth 15 points, which would put him over his reading goal for the quarter. I dug out my old copy and handed it to him, explaining I read it for the first time in the sixth grade.

He started reading it that day. The first chapter, he said, was slow, but he reasoned, most books start a bit slow. By the second chapter, he was hooked. He read it all weekend. And he took it to school today.

At 9:30, I received an email from his teacher:

Ethan brought To Kill a Mockingbird to school to read today.  I told him that book is not appropriate for his age given one of the adult topics in the book.  I did not tell him it was concerning rape.  He thought I was talking about racism, which is fine. Nevertheless, that book is appropriate for the higher middle school and high school student.  At SCHOOL NAME, we read the book in 8th grade and it is not on our AR list of quizzes for anyone but the 8th graders reading the book.  Ethan asked me to email you and explain that to you.  If you’d like him to read it that is not my business but it won’t work for his AR goals and I’d prefer that he not discuss the topic in school at this age. 

WTF. So my kid reads at a ninth grade level (this book’s at an 8th grade level), but books at that level aren’t appropriate? Color me confused…

Sure, the book includes racism and rape and a whole host of other social issues. Those SAME issues are talked about on morning drive radio, or the nightly news, or referenced in TV shows. Issues Ethan and I frequently talk about, openly, at the dinner table or before bed. Things that are part of our world. Things that I don’t hide from my kids. Things that require open and honest discussion.

I’m not raising my kids to live in a bubble. I want them to form their own opinions, to be able to dialogue about issues in our world. I don’t shy away from the “hard” topics. I want my kids to understand that there’s some nasty bad people and things out there – and some really good people who fight for what’s right.

Decision made: fuck his reading grade. I’m letting the kid read what he wants – even if it’s not on the “list” or deemed “inappropriate.” I’m going to tell him to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” BECAUSE his teacher doesn’t want him to – that’s reason enough to read it, talk about it, and learn from it.

And you get -1 for not having a second parent

I’m pissed. I’m sad. I’m literally crying in a Panera Bread right now. (Since it’s too early for a drink, I’m medicating through pastries and massive amounts of caffeine.)

The kids attend a Catholic school, which means there’s an expectation for parental volunteering. I could write PAGES on how I feel about volunteering and how it’s (mis)handled at the school and why it’s best for everyone that I do the minimum (lest I be seen as a raging, controlling, know-it-all bitch), but that’s not today’s point. At the beginning of the year, I signed up to help with “Friday folders” in Ethan’s class. Basically, once a week, all the tests and homework and notes to parents have to be sorted and put into the correct kids’ folder to go home. It’s usually less than an hour every three or four weeks. I can do it alone, first thing in the morning when I drop off the kids, and still have the rest of my day for grading, yoga and errands.

Generally, I don’t pay much attention to anything I’m sorting. Look at the name, put in the kid’s pile, move on to the next. But there was one assignment in which I was interested.

The kids were asked last week to talk to their parents about where they were when the Challenger exploded in 1986. The kids had to write (or have a parent write) the response for extra credit. I told the kids the story of where I was and how I learned of the explosion. It was long and convoluted (junior high, screaming crying science teacher, seeing it on TV in the classroom after lunch, watching endless coverage that afternoon/night, sister’s birthday celebration that night downgraded and somber, Chicago Bears Super Bowl decorations still out around my grandma’s house where my sister and I were staying while my mom was in the hospital and dad was out of town). See, lots of detail. I remember it well. So I wrote the response. It was an entire page.

Ethan added a second part of the extra credit – how many Earths would fit into the sun? (1.3 million, if you were curious.) And he turned it in.

Today those responses were part of the work to be sent home. Most were short – “my mom was in high school” – few went into much detail – “my dad watched it in the library at UWM.” Mine was by far the most detailed and longest. (And it was the only one written in green Sharpie. Green for science, get it? Color coding!)  Ethan received two points extra credit (one for my response, one for the Earth/sun question). Great.

But several kids in the class received THREE points on the extra credit assignment. One point for the Earth/sun question, one point for mom’s response, one point for dad’s response. The teacher made three check marks on the papers that received three points – one check next to the Earth/sun question, one next to the mom’s response, one next to the dad’s response. Three points.

Two-parent families, in which both parents contributed to the “where were you” assignment, were rewarded more than those in which only one parent responded. (And, quite frankly, the generic nature of the majority of responses – “My mom saw it on TV. My dad saw it on TV.” – make me question how meaningful some of the conversations really were, and, honestly, if some of the conversations actually even took place.)

Spoiler alert: in our household, there is only ONE parent capable of responding since the other is, you know, dead.

It feels woefully unfair. It’s exactly what I don’t want Ethan – or Lauren – to experience: “your dad is dead and you’ll never be on the same playing field as kids with two, living parents. Those kids will always get three points, and you’ll be stuck with two points. You can’t ever get three points.

Exaggeration? Yeah, sure.

It’s just extra credit, you’re thinking. Big deal, right?

Wrong. This is a kid who continues to struggle with his memories of his dad. A kid who is still coming to terms with his grief. A kid who is ANGRY that his dad chose to drink beer and vodka and whiskey instead of choosing to LIVE to see his kids grow up. A kid who is very aware that he is different because his dad is dead. Dead. Dead.

Yeah, to THAT kid (and his mom), losing out on one point is a much, much bigger deal. It’s symbolic of what’s lost and can never be replaced.

It’s another more hurdle to overcome. One more time in which he won’t have something others will, through no fault of his own.

He will always be one point shy of his classmates’ scores.

Fuck.

Updated: I sent the teacher the following email (yes, regardless of what I say in the first paragraph, I’ve already jumped to conclusions, but I needed to write/post this blog or I would explode with rage). I’m eagerly awaiting her response:

Hi (TEACHER NAME) –

While doing folders this morning, I saw something that really disturbed me. I wanted to ask about it before I make any assumptions.

On the “where was my parent when the Challenger exploded” and Earth/sun extra credit, some students received 3 points, while others (like Ethan) only got 2 points. The only difference between those who received 3 points and those who received 2 points was the inclusion of information from both parents (Earth/sun=1 point, mom=1 point, dad=1 point).

Please clarify the point system, and if Ethan did not get a third point because asking his dad is impossible. Thank you.

–J

 

Ours

“Beautiful children. Are they all yours?”

We stopped for lunch at a mom-and-pop restaurant in a smallish town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on our way home from spending Thanksgiving with B’s parents. (More on that another time.) An older woman behind the counter asked the question.

B was carrying his youngest daughter, following the server who was taking us to our table; Ethan was close behind, talking nonstop in B’s ear about something or other; and I was shepherding Lauren and B’s other daughter as we traversed the small entry of the restaurant, filled with knick knacks and tchotchkes for sale.

“Yes. Yes, they are,” I said, barely making eye contact with her as I made sure the girls’ heavy winter coats didn’t knock over something I really didn’t want to buy. I was busy holding the hand of one girl while directing the other by the shoulder.

The woman behind the counter followed it with, “But you both look so young…” and a sort of tsk-tsk sound.

Crazy lady, I thought. Of course they’re ours. What other kids would be with us? Does she think we found some kids alongside the road and brought them in for Swedish meatballs and limpa bread?

We were at our table at the back of the restaurant when it finally hit me what the woman meant.

“Are they all yours?”

Oh… are they OURS? Like O-U-R-S, mine and B’s? Well…

I felt a little foolish for  misunderstanding the woman. Yeah, they’re ours, but not technically O-U-R-S. Like if we start getting into if they’re our biological children and genetics and stuff… well, then…

But then, I realized I didn’t misunderstand the woman at all. YES, they are O-U-R-S. Damn, it, all four of them. For all their faults and all their goodness. For all the little arguments we referee. For all the cuddles we share. For the goodnight stories and kisses and late night movies and board games. For the helping make Christmas cookies. For the knock knock jokes at dinner. For the tears, for the laughter. For better or worse.

“Are they all yours?”

Hell, yes. Yes, they are mine. Yes, they are B’s. They, all four of them. They are ours.

I met with the plastic surgeon…and survived

Today I met with the plastic surgeon. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, but it was still weird.

I was the only patient in the waiting room, and I didn’t wait long. After some brief questions and blood pressure check, the nurse went to find the doc. He was in the room within two minutes with his PA.

“I know your story and talked to the other doctors, so there’s no reason to ask a lot of questions about your situation,” he started. “Change into the gown, opening in the front, and we’ll do some measurements and photos.”

Measurements and photos? The doc and PA came back into the room. The doc had a tape measure; the PA handled some papers. “Just stand right here,” he said, unwinding the tape measure.

On both breasts, he measured the distance from my nipple to my collarbone and underside of my breast. He measured the size of my areolas and the distance from the edge of the areola to the nipple. As he measured, he called the numbers to the PA. Turns out, I’m perfectly symmetrical – for now. 🙂

Then we walked down the hall to a locked room across from the nurses’ station. It looked like a photo studio with lights and reflectors and cameras and a computer. There were two blue lines on the floor. “Just put your gown there,” the doc said pointing to a chair.

“Are these blue lines for me?” I asked. (Of course they were.)

“Um,” I said, standing on the blue lines, awkward and topless, while he logged into the computer. “I’ve never taken THESE kind of photos before…”

He laughed and said I’d get used to it. “You’re in a plastic surgeon’s office,” he said. “This is what we do. It’s not your last time…”

He snapped three photos (forward and from each side) and uploaded them to the computer. Then we walked back to the original exam room where I redressed and waited for the doc to reenter the room.

He returned with a three-tiered cart full of stuff. I asked him to walk me through all options – from mastectomy to lumpectomy reconstruction options – and he showed before and after photos of each. We started with implants (which I don’t want). He recommended the “gummy bear” implant, which is fairly new, and from my research, a lot of women like them. (Nicknamed “gummy bear” because they have a thicker consistency than other implants, almost like a gummy candy.) They do look more natural, and the doctor is one of the leading surgeons using this kind of implant. It’s also the “easiest” option – little downtime, quick surgery, little follow-up necessary. No.

We talked about total reconstruction using either a stomach muscle or a back muscle. The stomach option (and the before/after photos he showed) is intriguing. Muscle, fat, and tissue from the belly button to the hipbone is removed and shaped into a breast. Totally natural looking breasts and flat stomach – but an 8-10 week recovery and possibility of necrosis. Additionally, with the stomach, there can be only one breast reconstruction surgery. If I were to get cancer again, the stomach would be off-limits. Awkward moment: I was asking about the exact area on the stomach and the doc asked me to stand and look in the mirror. He lowered the waistband of my pants a bit to show me, then he grabbed a handful of tummy. With the other hand, he grabbed my right breast and squeezed both. “Your tummy isn’t quite as big as your breast, so we’ll have to inject fat from another area,” he said. Um, maybe.

The option using the back muscle is similar, but would require a small implant under the relocated back muscle. No.

For lumpectomy, the plastic surgeon would come into the OR after the breast surgeon removes the area around where the tumors were. Without knowing exactly how much tissue will be removed, he’ll shape, possibly reduce, and lift the breast, making it look as natural and good as possible. Since the lumpectomy will require six weeks of radiation, all other reconstruction must wait. (Radiation can cause skin changes and change in the size and shape of the breast, so it’s best to wait until the skin is healed – anywhere from four to six months after radiation is over, or in my case, right after the spring semester ends.) I’ll have a few follow ups then to make sure I’m satisfied with the size and shape (if not, fat from the tummy, butt, or thighs will be lipo’d and injected in the breast). Once the right breast is satisfactory, he’ll work on the left breast to make them symmetrical – a lift at minimum, reshaping with fat injections at most. All follow ups will be out patient, and just an hour or two each.

I asked about next steps. “Choose what’s best for you and the breast surgeon’s office will schedule with us,” he said.

By the time I got home, I knew the lumpectomy was the best option. Surgery is scheduled: July 21.

Now I’m starting to get nervous.

———————————

In other news: I went out of town for the weekend. It was the first trip I’ve taken since… I don’t know. November maybe? Not sure if I could make the drive myself, I took my mom and the kids to stay with family, about half way to my final destination. We toured a dairy farm, and I was completely fine with walking (quickly in the rain) for part of the tour. Oxygen levels seemed fine, no heavy limbs or excessive yawning. The next day, I finished the drive (another few hours) to see friends and attend a concert. It was super awesome that the band members wore breast cancer bracelets through the concert in my honor. (We went to high school with the band’s drummer, and it was coordinated through him.) I spent part of the concert sitting, but I’m okay with that. Oxygen stayed on target, and even without an afternoon nap, I was okay with the late night (although when we got back to my friend’s house, I crashed). It was a long drive back on Sunday, but I survived!

Brief update, hesitant about plastics appointment, and GREAT NEWS!

It’s been 11 days since my final chemo, and I’m  starting to feel better. I can function on a normal night’s sleep (without sleep aids like melatonin or Advil PM) and only one small, hour-long (or so) nap in the afternoon. This is in contrast to last week’s 20+ hours of sleep a day. I can walk further distances without my oxygen dropping, but there’s still a way to go to build back my stamina. Taste is coming back; bone pain is gone; the neuropathy on my right side is the same (ugh).

I’m slowly crossing off the last few tasks prior to surgery – I have a few more appointments and tests before I can schedule the surgery date.

I meet with the plastic surgeon next week. Even with a lumpectomy, there could be reconstruction and shaping necessary, but I have a mind-block about seeing a PLASTIC SURGEON. I’ve put off scheduling the consultation for weeks. While any reconstruction would be the result of a medical issue, the thought of walking into a plastic surgeon’s office just seems…icky and vain. I have images of sitting in the waiting room among supermodels seeking ginormous boobs and lip injections or the Human Barbie Doll looking for her fifth nose job and butt lift. It’s my personal mental block, and I hope the visit next week puts that to rest.

But the BEST NEWS involves the mammogram and ultrasound I had yesterday. The mammogram was fairly routine and quick. But it took more than an hour in the ultrasound room because the tech couldn’t find the tumors. She eventually called the doctor to come in. The doc COULDN’T find them either. Finally, after much searching, pulling up the images from December and April to compare “landforms” in my breast tissue, and MORE searching, the doc finally found the clips that were placed during the biopsy. The tumors are so small now that the doc couldn’t measure them. They’ve changed from football-shaped masses with tentacle-like things in all directions (December) to smaller eyeball-shaped masses with “cat eye” tails on each end (April) to small, narrow, flat masses (now). The doc explained that given the current shape, what’s left is most likely scar tissue from the biopsy and/or the breast filling in the spaces left from the tumors. But basically, the tumors (the cancer) are GONE, at least the masses aren’t “cancer-like” on the ultrasound. The masses don’t look like cancer anymore. Six months of chemo worked! Of course, we won’t know anything for sure until surgery, but the images were so positive that the tech, doc and I exchanged high fives in the ultrasound room. Can’t wait to get the thoughts of the oncologist and surgeon on this latest imagery.

Given the decrease of the tumors, I’m comfortable now with the choice to have a lumpectomy. Just have to get through the plastic surgery appointment…