On the eighth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: eight dropped balls a’rolling
My summer teaching takes place online, allowing me the mercy of not driving to campus but, rather, typing at my students from a variety of places within my house. Always, always, I’m a better teacher when I’m not wearing a bra, so this summer set-up is ideal for everyone involved.
The downside to teaching from home during the summer is the tension that exists between the work I need to do and everything else in my life being a mere two feet away. Some days, I have 70 discussion posts to read and 22 activities to grade, yet all my hours are devoted to laundry, dishwasher, groceries, chauffeuring, pots & pans, sweeping, phone calls, and kids. With every hour that passes, the weight of the unaddressed teaching pushes my mood into a darker, harder nugget of resentment. Inside, I feel frantic and antsy, itching to turn my attention to student concerns. Then, once I do, I’m fine. It’s all good: my mood rebounds, and I’m ready to deal with the household again. This is the downside of not being a procrastinator: if I know there is something that needs to be done, such as grading, it killlllls me not to be able to sit down and deal with it. Repeatedly, I have explained this to my family, and while they hear my words and understand my logic, the reality is that my work is invisible, making it difficult for onlookers to understand how very much there is. There are no students sitting in the living room with plaintive eyes, no stack of essays on the dining room table. My work is inside the computer, and I am the only one who sees it and truly understands its scope. What’s more, and I won’t do the “oh, pshaw” modesty thing here, my family cannot fathom the intricacies and vexations of my job because I am extremely efficient at putting my head down and punching my way through massive amounts of material. I read fast. I type fast. I process fast. (On the flip side, ask me to change a flat tire, and you’ll have time to bake a Bundt cake using the remnant warmth of the engine before I’m ready to put the car into Drive.)
As an adult, and as someone who has worked from home, Byron is best able to empathize. He hears my need; he sees my frustration. If he is able, he intercedes between Life and Jocelyn’s Work, throwing his body over the laundry, dishwasher, groceries, chauffeuring, pots & pans, sweeping, phone calls, and kids and telling me to grab my laptop and run to a quiet room. He beseeches me to slam the door. However, in recent months, he has been working a job in an office, away from the laundry, dishwasher, groceries, chauffeuring, pots & pans, sweeping, phone calls, and kids. At that office, his work remains invisible to us back at home, but at least he has the time and space to complete it. And so we teeter on an an all-too-familiar wire: the family’s primary breadwinner struggles to find time to win the bread.
We could address this issue head-on, of course, and schedule hours each day when I leave the house with my computer and go somewhere else, say, a coffee shop or the library. In many ways, this would be the easiest solution. However, the realities of summer have me on driving duty at least three times throughout the day. As well, I’m only teaching two classes during the summer, so the hours I need to put in fluctuate; I can’t predict how much there will be to do on any given day, at any given hour. It’s student-dependent. This means I could potentially drive twenty minutes, get to a coffee shop, unpack my laptop, boot it up, finally manage to get onto the wi-fi, and find that I have three short discussion messages to review. Even more: it’s summer, and I like the free-flowing days, where we sleep as much as we like, eat when we want to, hang out as we see fit, and soak up the all-too-rare sunshine. Put another way: I can’t be bothered to put myself on a schedule. The cicadas are buzzing, and I want to feel their hum in my heart.
All things considered, it works best for me to do my teaching when I can and, when I can’t, to remind myself to relax, that it all works out.
As is true with most platitudinal thinking, this sounds easy in the abstract but is prickly in reality. When the Dropbox holds ten research papers, each requiring a half hour of marking, but there are seven loads of laundry tumbling across the bed, I have to talk to myself, out loud but inside my brain, and counsel, “The papers will wait. You will get to them when everyone goes to bed tonight. It’s okay. You will get everything done. Take a deep breath, fill up your D-cups, and put your worry on the shelf, Ms. Friend.”
And then, because I’m still skeptical of the voice inside my head–that annoying drone–I try shifting into woo-woo mode: “Listen, girl, at the end of your life, what will have been most important? Work? Clearly not. Time with your family? YES. So shut off your work brain for a few hours and get the fuck into the moment with the people around you.”
Any time I use “fuck,” I’m a little impressed and intimidated by myself, so I listen. Consequently, the woo-woo approach does the trick. I relax. I let go of the nagging voices of students whose faces I’ve never seen. I tell myself it’s a blessing to enjoy a few more hours unencumbered by their writing, which regularly interchanges “venerable” and “vulnerable” and patently refuses to acknowledge the existence of apostrophes. If they can’t be bothered to apply their human eyes and judgment to their own writing, why am I in such a hurry to get there?
So that’s my burden during the summer: asking a droning inner voice to refine a passive-aggressive mood with a well-placed “fuck.”
I was particularly grateful for this foul-mouthed voice one day when I’d crept away from Paco as he lay on the couch, reading, and settled myself at the computer (“Just ten minutes, to check in and throw a blanket over any fires…”).
It was as though the kid had a radar that detected the sound of my rump hitting a desk chair.
Three minutes after I put my hands on the keyboard, I heard his footfalls on the stairs. Quickly scanning a discussion post, I prayed he was heading for the bathroom. Tarnation if he didn’t have an iron bladder and a loving heart. He was heading for the mother.
Sidling up, spying me at the computer, he asked, waving his hand towards the open window, “Are you maybe wanting to do something? I was wondering if you’d like to go outside and play volleyball.”
After our previous attempts to play badminton were distinctly and literally a miss, we ignored the net in the yard for a few days. Every now and then, I’d tell Paco, “We need to make sure we use the net for something else so that we didn’t go to all that effort for nothing. I mean, really: there was duct tape involved in getting that thing vertical. So let’s try volleyball sometime.” My suggestion was greeted with indifference.
Naturally, the moment I started to read discussion posts, volleyball gained appeal.
As Paco’s invitation sank in, my hands hovered over the keyboard, frozen from purchase. My initial impulse was annoyance. REALLY? You see me with the dust buster in hand, and volleyball sucks. You watch me take a knife and scrape congealed cheese off a plate before putting it in the dishwasher, and volleyball is dead to you. But the second I ghost my way up the stairs to scroll through a few Multicultural Literature posts, you can think of nothing more exciting than volleyball? Young knothead, you are an evil genius.
Fortunately, my annoyance was countered by the droning internal voice that likes to swear when it reminds me of priorities. In this instance, the voice went squawky: “JOC-E-LYN. Mother of an adolescent who has just requested to spend time with her, on purpose. Shape the fuck up, and play some ball with your boy who hates to get off the couch. Look into his intelligent blue eyes and remember you have no idea what color your students’ dull globular orbs are.”
I had no choice. The voice had commanded me with the imperious “f—” word.
“Sure, pup. I’d love to play volleyball. Give me five minutes to wrap up here, and then let’s head out. While I finish this bit of feedback, why don’t you go down and put some sunscreen on.” His answering put-upon sigh and trudge down the stairs brought to mind Ethel Barrymore’s performance as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1905).
A few minutes later, we converged on the side yard, he on the upside of the net, me on the downside. Balancing the ball on his open palm, Paco swung his other hand under it, aiming for a serve.
Based on previous experiences, I took the opportunity to peer up into the trees, looking for quarrelsome squirrels.
“OWWWW,” came a voice, not that of a squirrel.
My dudes, Paco had made contact with the ball. With his hand. On purpose. The thing even flew somewhat upwards.
See how I’m increasingly awesome as a mom as this series of twelve posts carries on? Like, I took him out and let him figure out how to serve with a badminton racket, and then a few days later he hit a ball? All donations should be addressed to Jocelyn As Mother of the Year, c/o Long-Suffering Martyr City, Minnesota. I will be accepting through the end of the next fiscal year.
There was, of course, the part where he said “OWWWW.” So maybe don’t make a huge donation.
Turns out the puss couldn’t handle a fully inflated volleyball. Remind me never to hand him a 3-carat diamond, lest his hand hit the floor.
In addition to the pain caused by the big, hard ball, there also was the issue of space. Basically, two human bodies cannot possibly cover an expanse the size of our yard. The kid would hit it, and it would bounce on my side as I scrambled over twenty feet of grass, and then it would bounce on his side as he stood relatively still and watched it hit the ground. Clearly, we needed a new tactic.
Calling over to him, all of four feet away, I shouted, unnecessarily loudly because doing that makes me laugh, “Let’s just stand close to the net and hit it back and forth with our fingertips. Step forward, Lad.”
It worked. We volleyed. Back and forth, we tipped the ball with our fingers. You might want to consider upping your donation to my fund, before you sign that cheque.
Eventually, after a miss, Paco watched me grab the ball out of the hosta garden and, as I squatted amongst the greenery, he wondered, “Are there any critters that use the little Hobbit hut I made at Camp Grandma a few years ago?”
Because nothing gets by this groundskeeper, I was able to report that last summer I had seen our obnoxious chipmunk-striped-rat-thingie setting up shop inside the hut. ‘Round these parts, we call the little dude “Chippie,” and he is the bane of my existence. When he’s not digging up the flowers I’ve planted, he’s zipping by my feet as I lounge by the fire pit, scaring the holy motherfuck out of this rodent-phobic volleyball mom.
Inhaling a quick breath to hearten myself after having used a daunting “motherfuck” inside my own head, I threw myself back into the game. If I could wind things up and keep the fun a’flowin’, Paco might want to stay outside and play volleyball even longer, and if he wanted to play volleyball even longer, it just might feel like I hadn’t shut down my grading for naught.
So I ran with it, this concept of a chipmunk “setting up shop.”
“Actually, Paco, last summer I saw Chippie drive a moving truck up to the Hobbit hut. He was literally setting up a shop. I wasn’t sure what kind of shop it was going to be, but the first thing he did was hang up a sign outside the hut. It said General Mercantile.”
Because my kid is my kid, he chimed in, “Yea, then he unloaded a bunch of stuff from the truck and, before you know it, he had shelves full of nuts and seeds, all displayed for his customers.”
We were tickling ourselves with this scenario. “He had the odd piece of dog food, maybe a few dandelions, too, just so he could satisfy all his customers’ needs. But here’s the thing, Paco, since he was running an Olde Fashioned mercantile, Chippie needed to look the part. There he was, racing up and down the expanse of counters, grabbing a wee baggie of sugar for the squirrels–like they need any more energy?–and putting together a packet of nails for a snail, and do you know what he was wearing?”
No, Paco did not know what Chippie wore when he worked at his general store. Laughing expectantly, Paco clutched the ball to his stomach.
Lowering my voice confidentially, I revealed, “Chippie wore a little green visor, and on his sleeves, he wore those garter bands around the upper arms. There he’d be, standing on his hind legs behind the counter, and when a customer would come in with a big order, he’d grab a wee notepad and pencil from his breast pocket. That way, he could scratch out numbers, tally the seed sales, and present the customer with an accurate bill.”
Paco’s brain was in this scenario. As he pictured Chippie with a visor, writing up receipts, the whole thing struck him as ludicrous, in the best possible way. Shaking with giggles, he collapsed to the grass, boneless. Lying under the net, his body curled like a shrimp on ice, he gasped out, “I couldn’t stand up right now for anything.”
A tiny peep of his soft, still-childlike tummy gleamed between his t-shirt and shorts as he laughed and laughed, completely out of control. Eventually, he caught his breath long enough to muse, “But what did Chippy’s customers use to pay him?”
“Well, they had to use the currency of the yard, right? Maybe they used smaller seeds to buy larger seeds?”
Copping to my thinking, Paco exclaimed, “Oh, a barter!”
Yes, a barter: exchanging one thing for another, to the benefit of both parties.
A barter: like me giving my son time and attention, and, in return, him giving me a complete bodily collapse brought on by giggles.
I liked this barter.
Since that afternoon, the net in the side yard has been well used. Volleyball has evolved into a game we call Wackyball; whenever visitors come to our house, they are invited to play. In Wackyball, the only object is to keep the ball in play. It can bounce ten times before it’s returned. It can be kicked under the net. It can be hit seven times before it goes over the net. It can be caught and held, indefinitely.
In fact, there is only one rule to Wackyball: the game isn’t over until players fall to the ground, convulsed by giggles.
Wait, there’s actually one more rule: when my child falls to the ground, convulsed by giggles, the very last thing on my mind should be work.