"Can you start your reading at 7:15?"
"I don't think I have my book."
"I think you do."
"Did you … do not … do not cut your eyes at me."
My daughter smiles. Half Mona Lisa, half a little, well, evil. Then she laughs.
The smile disappears.
It is a long drive to school. This reading should have been done the night before. If I were speaking in person with other parents, I would be embarrassed it had not been completed the night before. I am sure one or two other mothers and several teachers would explain why it is important it be completed the night before to my face. As if only I have ever, ever had this conversation ever in the history of homework. I swear the next time I bring up homework and another parent pipes up with, "Oh, my son loves to read" to my face, I might pipe up with, "Yes, we are happily and deliberately raising our kids to be illiterate, thank you very much, we are very proud."
The truth is, I do not understand this "caj" approach to the fourth grade. I was not remotely caj. I loved sharpened pencils. And practicing dictation. (Remember dictation?) And every purpley, warm, inky worksheet that got churned out of the mimeograph machine until it caught fire and the school switched to Xerox. My kids like sharpened pencils, too. But I would have been horrified to quip that lunch was my favorite part of the school day when asked — which is what my kids say. This answer comes with sly smiles and, I am sure, rushes of adrenaline: "Ask again. We'll say P.E."
The caj approach extends to our house as well. It's not that they're messy, it's that … no, no, they are. They are messy. I am a girl whose dorm-issued wastebasket was the only one clean enough to hold the punch in for parties because I cleaned it regularly — they are messy, and I am in utter awe of how this came to be.
To be clear, they have the ability to be very sweet, are quite bright, and bits of my type-A side poke through in them here and there. When my son was born, we got my daughter a pink tutu, all tulle and tiny white flower buds, because she'd been moving around the apartment like a tiny ballerina.
"Ooooooo, K----, you look beautiful."
"Yep," my husband quipped, "You look good."
K twirled and curtsied.
"Yeah. But. I need lessons."
Mic dropped, she walked her two-year-old self away from us as if to say: I see your pink tulle and I raise you tap, ballet, jazz, and lyrical for the next five hundred Saturdays of your life, bitches, how 'bout dat?
The girl is not lazy.
I can't find a sharpened pencil in here to save my life and there's the schoolwork thing, which really I blame on Obama's mother, if I am being honest with myself. When I create my charts and stand in craft stores selecting stickers for those charts, or when I devise elaborate "work at home" plans in my head that I don't execute but think of sternly executing THIS time in my head, I think of Barack Obama's mother and how she'd make him do his work and how he became president and perhaps there is a sticker for that?
And I also probably, if I am being honest with myself, think of my own mother, who, like Barack Obama's mother, made me do my work. Not just homework, extra work. And it was around the same time that I was obsessively sharpening Ticonderogas and mimeographs that my mother and I had one of our worst fights ever. It was so bad, I couldn't even tell you where my sister Kerri was during it, and I know she was there, because she, like me, had her math book out. Blue for second grade (mine) and red for kindergarten (my sister's). I hated the kids on the covers, thinking they were so smart, knowing the answers, raising their hands: jerks. My mother had another thing coming if she thought I was doing one page of that book in summer: it was my job to let her know it.
On some level I should be proud of the caj in my children, because it's born out of feeling as if they belong, as if where they are is where they are meant to be.
First I thrashed my arms. That didn't work, my mother didn't seem to care. Quite the opposite: I think I saw her laugh, then quickly cover her mouth. So next I tried my legs. No laugh, but she didn't budge, either. We were doing those books no matter what. Still no sign of my sister, so I decided to roll around on the floor. This was a little fun, but I couldn't show it, that book was never getting opened, my mother was wrong. I rolled again. This was a mistake. My sister was smart to stay hidden.
"Other kids might … you can't afford … you're too smart to … I don't care what …"
I threw in an "I hate you" here and there, but my mother just kept going.
"… you can all you want, I don't care … finish that … yes you will … get up off the ground …"
I don't like to think of Barack Obama rolling around on the ground with a math book, but I think our mothers shared something in common. Each morning, at 7:14, I have the sinking feeling that if the three of us were at a playground somewhere, I might sheepishly and foolishly be defending my choice to deliberately raise nonreading children who would not appreciate a good mimeograph sniff even if it were presented on a silver platter.
On some level I should be proud of the caj in my children, because it's born out of feeling as if they belong, as if where they are is where they are meant to be. As an educator, I truly appreciate all learning styles, and I know my grandparents and great-grandparents — people who felt education of all kinds was crucial to racial uplift and equality — would be proud. My kids are fortunate enough to be alive where there is even the glimmer of caj in terms of their relationship to the world around them, even when it is still often co-opted and complicated by all the isms that ever were.
But for the love of Pete, we lose socks — how? When they come back with shoes? It makes no sense — and also not-the-cheap-kind water bottles. My daughter has, several times this winter, come home without her winter coat. This is Boston. In winter. Did I mention my wastebasket in college? Spotless.
I thought much was lost, until events miraculous and unfathomable, otherwise known as parent-teacher conferences. A time when my husband and I tentatively sit waiting for the moment when we explain our childhoods in inappropriate ways and also reveal we only went to some of the prenatal classes we were supposed to go to, because we thought it was a one-week class but it was really a six-week class and yes, we're sorry, but we are good people, really.
Recently, we were introduced to children who are "completely different than at home." Careful. Studious. CLEAN. I think these children would, if this were the '80s, even enjoy a nice ripply mimeograph or three. My husband and I were confused. There aren't enough sharpened pencils in our house for any of this to be true. I resisted the urge to text "WTF" to him multiple times throughout the rest of the day. Confounding: I have packages of stickers that only ended up on walls.
But. I come to realize that those generations — the possibly more stately ones I never met, and the ones who I can still hear yelling at my seven-year-old thrashing self — are nestled within both my children. What I need to appreciate is that they will be ready, in their own way, when 7:15 arrives.
Kirsten Greenidge is an Obie Award–winning playwright and the author of Baltimore, Milk Like Sugar, and The Luck of the Irish.