Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Early Childhood Education

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cocktail Hour

More on what my kid's been up to.

Girl Reporter

It’s been a good week for us writers. An anthology that contains a story of mine came out this week, and got a nice review in a national publication. The child is happy for me. Happy that I’m happy, happy that a magazine has my actual name in it, happy that—as she put it -- I got an A on my story.

She, in the meantime, has entered the literary pantheon of Jackson Elementary School.

When she comes home, she isn’t jumping up and down, or running in the door shouting at the top of her lungs. She just walks in the door, put her books on the table, gets a juice box out of the refrigerator, then stands in the middle of the kitchen, vibrating.

I give her about twenty seconds to see if any sounds are going to accompany the vibrations, but none do. She just stands there, looking at me and humming with so much energy that I’m afraid she might achieve escape velocity and take off.

“How was your day?” I finally ask. “Anything interesting happen?”

“Do you remember my homework from two weeks ago?”

“Not specifically.”

“We had to write about something that was really happening? And I wrote about when we met that famous baseball guy? Remember?”

“Oh, yeah. I thought that was a good story.”

She beams. “Well, my teacher liked it too. I got an A on it, just like your story. And she said if it was a picture, she’d put it on the bulletin board, but it’s kind of too long, so she didn’t. Then I thought she was going to give it back, I mean she did, but she also asked me if it was okay if she xeroxed it too. And I said okay, ‘cause I figure she has to keep files and stuff on account of it’s fourth grade and not just little kid classes anymore.” She pauses for breath and a long slug of Cran-Grape.

“But today she told me that she’d taken my story to the teacher’s meeting—“ She stops to see if I am appreciating the awesome significance of this. I am.

“And the teachers voted that when we go back after Christmas, for the whole rest of the year, I get to be the editor of the fourth grade page in the school paper. With my name on the page—every month! I thought you should know.”

“That is so great!” I give her a big hug.

“I know. I get to be a girl reporter!”

This has been her dream for a couple of months. Not to get on the school paper specifically, but to be a girl reporter. She has a crush on Dorothy Kilgallen, who has been dead for almost 35 years. The child may be the only nine-year-old on the planet who’s even heard of Dorothy Kilgallen, much less adopted her as a role model, but there you go.

It’s my fault. I love old game shows, and a few months ago I discovered that the Game Show Network devotes Sunday afternoons exclusively to rerunning the black-and-white panel shows I watched in the ‘50s and ‘60s. My idea of heaven. I guess it’s a genetic marker. My mother loved them, my daughter loves them.

Sometimes we watch them “live,” but mostly I tape them and we’ll watch one or two between dinner and bedtime on weeknights. I’ve always been partial to Betsy Palmer on I’ve Got a Secret. But the child loves What’s My Line?, and Dorothy Kilgallen—“whose popular column, ‘The Voice of Broadway’ is read coast-to-coast”—is her idol.

After two tapes, the child started to ask questions: Who was she in real life? What did she do when she weren’t being a smart person on TV? So I did a little digging, and discovered that Dorothy Kilgallen had been a crackerjack girl reporter in the ‘30s, had flown around the world on a Nellie Bly–topping stunt.

This fascinated the child even more. We spent an afternoon in the big main library, looking up everything we could find about Dorothy. In a 1937 Life magazine, the child found her own personal grail: an ad featuring “intrepid girl reporter” you-know-who. It took me two months of searching on eBay and the web to locate a copy of that ad; I had it framed and gave it to her for Christmas.

Some people’s kids have Spice Girls posters on their walls; mine has a picture of Dorothy Kilgallen proclaiming that “Camels are mild and soothing to my throat.” I hate the message, but it’s the child’s most treasured possession.

“So, girl reporter. When do you start?”

“Well, tomorrow I have a meeting with Ms. Meadows. She’s in charge of the whole paper. She teaches sixth grade, so I don’t know her. I’ve just seen her in the hall. She’s black and her hair is in about a million of those dread things. She looks really cool. And then Friday, after school, there’s a party for all the reporters from the first half of the year, so we can meet them and stuff.”

“Who’s the fourth grade reporter now?”

She makes a face. “Rachel Rosenberg. She goes to Lonny’s synagogue, except like every Saturday. I don’t hate her or anything, but she never laughs at my jokes. She’s always real serious and thinks she know everything. She’s an okay writer, but I’ll probably be better.”

I don’t laugh. I don’t tell her not to brag. Both of those urges flit through my head, but I bite my tongue and just let her savor the moment. “Do you want to do something to celebrate?”

“Well, now that I’m a girl reporter, I thought we could maybe have cocktails and then get take-out Chinese.”

“Cocktails? Just what kind of cocktails did you have in mind?” I am reeling, just a little, just enough that I’d like time out to make a quick phone call to the Committee for Ethical Parenting and find out what the protocols are.

“I thought a martini,” she says, and then notices the even-more stunned look on my face. “Not a real one. But I want a green olive—the kind with the little red thingy?—in a martini glass. With fizz water, I guess, because it’s supposed to be clear and 7-Up and olives taste icky together.”

I bet they do. No protocols. I’m on my own. “Okay. It’s your party. I’ll just have a beer. Should I call the Chinese place now, or do you want to do that while I make the drinks?”

She thinks for a minute. “I’ll call,” she says. “It’ll be good practice. Reporters have to be on the phone a lot, you know.” She reaches for the pink take-out menu.

“Order me the walnut prawns,” I say, and open the cupboard to dust off a martini glass.

Copyright ©2006 Ellen Klages

Monday, January 23, 2006

Pirates on Parade

Menacing the Boat

“What ho!” the child says, standing in the doorway of my office. She is wearing a black felt three-cornered pirate hat and brandishing a small rubber knife. I am reading my email.

“What ho,” I respond, with a little less enthusiasm, because it is morning, at least in my universe. I’m not sure what’s going on in hers. Besides the hat, she is dressed in a black turtleneck, my gray vest, and a pair of brown tights tucked into her black hightop sneakers.

“Have ye orange juice? I’ll not be getting scurvy,” the pirate child demands. She squints one eye and glares at me in an altogether non-threatening way.

“Is there none in the ice chest?”

“Aye, but it’s above me head.”

I abandon my email and shut down the computer. It will be easier to concentrate once she’s left for school. We go down to the kitchen and I pour her a glass of OJ while she gets a NutriGrain bar from the cupboard.

I let her finish half of it before I ask, “So who goes here this fine morning?”

“They call me Cap’n Pete,” she says. “The fiercest pirate on the seven seas. There’s a merchant ship in the harbor, laden with treasure, and I mean to take her.” Cap’n Pete polishes off the last of the cereal bar, crumples the wrapper, and lobs it toward the trash can. It falls a few inches short and skitters to rest next to the stove.

“Is that merchant ship sailing anywhere near school?” I ask, pointing to the wrapper, which she retrieves and tosses into the can. “It’s almost 8:30, so it had better be sailing soon.”

“School? Schools are for fishes, madam.” She cocks an eye at me to see if I get the pun. I give her a weak smile.

“I’m meeting up with the dreaded Lonny the Red, and we plan to loot and plunder.”

This is good. If she’s meeting Lonny, who’s in her class, then she’s headed in the direction of school.

“Will Lonny be dressed for battle as well?”

“Aye, that she will. For today we shall. . .” she falters, and I can tell she’s groping for appropriate pirate words to express something pirates never do.

After a few seconds she removes her hat and her dagger and puts them on the kitchen counter. “It’s a rehearsal for the school assembly thing,” she says, in her normal voice and cadence. “The fourth grade is doing Explorers, and Lonny and I said we’d be pirates. Pirates made going anywhere by boat pretty dangerous, you know.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“We get to attack an English vessel. We can’t attack the guys who discovered rivers and stuff, ‘cause pirates are just on the ocean. And we don’t get to kill anybody or sink their ships, on account of the guys in the play came home okay. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to study them.”

“Good point.”

“But we do get to menace Sir Francis Drake. They named a street after him in Marin.”

“I thought all the pirates were on the East Coast?”

That stumps her, momentarily. “I think most of them were. But Sir Francis Drake came from England so maybe we menace him before he finds out about the pointy end of South America and comes here and discovers Nova Albion. That’s what he called Marin, you know.”

I did know that, I think. It’s on a plaque out at one of the beaches. But since I couldn’t have come up with the actual name to save my life, I say, “No, I didn’t know that.”

The child beams, the way she always does when she knows something I don’t, knows a fact that a grown-up doesn’t. It’s a sweet feeling, as I remember, but one that you have to abandon around high school, when telling other people that you know more than them becomes a social liability.

“It’s time to get going, kiddo,” I say, looking at the clock.

“Aye.” She puts her pirate hat back on and tucks her dagger into the waistband of her pants, then sighs and puts it back on the counter.

“You’re going unarmed?”

She makes a face. “We have to. We have to use these dorky construction paper swords that look totally lame because we’re not allowed to bring anything onto school property that looks like it might be a weapon. There are kids that have real guns and stuff, or their brothers and their dads do. So nobody can bring one to school without getting suspended. Kids at other schools got shot, for real shot, you know, on the news.”

I do know, and it scared me then and it scares me now. And I know that if I were a nine-year-old pirate, I’d be pissed at having to leave my good rubber dagger at home and have to use some cardboard imitation. But I’m not nine. I’m a grown-up, and I’m glad the school is paying attention.

I’m relieved that she can’t take her rubber dagger to school. The next one might not be rubber, might not be in the hands of a pixie pirate, but an angry kid who wants to stick someone for real.

I salute her with two fingers to my forehead. “I’ll see that your weapon is stowed below decks until you return, Cap’n.”

“Aye, matey, you do that now.” She salutes me back and with a wink and a swaggering walk, heads off to meet Lonny the Red.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Mean Prison Baby

Okay, this Monday's offering is not a story, although there is narrative involved. Sort of.

Copyright©2006 - Ellen Klages

Monday, January 09, 2006

Random Objects

My First Blog.

It's gray and snowing outside, so I'm going to post random things from my laptop.

This is from a series of stories about a year in the life of my nine-year-old daughter. They are fiction, and they tickle me, so I thought I'd share some of them. Look for a new one every Monday (ish).

Forever Ashtray

The child is making something out of clay. It has gone from a snake, coiled into a circle about the size of a coffee cup, to a great mound of lumps and knobs and coils. It does not resemble any object in my known universe, but the child is proceeding with its construction very intently.

I know better than to ask what it is. Either this will eventually become obvious, or the question will make her feel bad that it isn’t obvious. Or she will think I am some sort of Philistine who can’t really appreciate art. In any case, I don’t ask.

She is working with a new kind of clay that she found at the art store. There is a little crafts and hobbies shop within walking distance from Lonny-with-a-Y’s house, and the child has a bit of money stashed away from a birthday check from my father.

He adores her, but is completely baffled about what a nine-year-old girl child might want or need. Until last year, he’d just send me a check with a card he’d signed, and I’d go buy the giant Lego set or whatever the major obsession of the season was.

But this Christmas he made out a check in her name and sent it in an envelope addressed just to her. She was thrilled. We agreed that she could spend it on anything she wanted, as long as it wasn’t dangerous, illegal, or so gross that I’d be uncomfortable having it in the house.

The Christmas money, as far as I can tell, has been dribbling away for the past month, quarter by quarter by occasional dollar, for small impulse purchases. Like this new clay.

It’s not “clay” clay, she explains to me while she works. And it’s not plasticine. which both of us agree is really pretty lame and useless. And it’s not Fimo, which comes in so many cool colors that you don’t have to paint it, but is very expensive.

This is some new kind of clay, a “modeling compound,” from Crayola. It comes in a soothing, familiar, nostalgia-invoking dark green and yellow box. The stuff itself is dun-colored. What’s cool about it, she says, is that it stays soft and clay-like even if you forget and leave it out overnight.

Unlike real clay that has to be tightly cocooned with Saran Wrap or sealed into Tupperware--or Play-Doh, which eventually dries out no matter what you do--this stuff stays pliable until you dunk it in cold water. It doesn’t get hard instantly. Not like one drop of water and you’re stuck with what you’ve got. You just put it in a bowl and leave it for a couple of hours and then it’s hard.

The way the child’s creation is growing, we will have to use a bucket.

“What happens after it hardens?” I ask.

She shrugs. “You can paint it. You can do just about anything with it, and it’ll stay that way forever. Like that ashtray thing you made for Grandpa.”

She’s impressed with the concept of permanence. When you’re nine, few things have been around for very long.

The summer before last we went back to the midwest for a week to visit my father, and I discovered that the ashtray he uses for his pipe ashes and cinders is one I made when I was about the child’s age. I told her this, and she looked at me as if I was seriously deluded. How could something that old still exist?

I turned the ashtray over and showed her my name, my first name, scratched deeply into the clay in big, shaky capital letters, along with the words ROOM 102.

“Is that you?”

I nodded and she shook her head in disbelief. She could not imagine me as a small child, as her peer, any more than, as a child, I could imagine that my own mother had ever been nine.

I’d seen pictures of my mother’s childhood, but they was so overlaid with who she was in my reality that the best I could do was imagine a very small woman who wore her hair in sausage curls but also drank scotch on the rocks when the sun was “over the yardarm.”

“Well, I guess Grandpa liked it,” the child said. She put the ashtray back on the coffee table and stared at it skeptically. It is not an attractive object. It is a kiva of clay, a roundish flat disk topped with a good three inches of coiled snakes. The snakes are not all the same width, and there are lumpy seams where I tried to mend breaks, hoping the repairs would be invisible. They aren’t. The glaze is an odd color--blue-green with an underlayer of sickly yellow, as if the southwest was getting just a little nauseous.

I have no memory of bringing it home from school. Was it a gift? Mother’s Day? Father’s Day? Both my parents smoked--Dad had his pipe and Mom a ubiquitous pack of Salems. Was it ooh-ed and aah-ed over? Or was it a polite thank-you and then onto the back of one cluttered counter or another, floating around that old house for 35 years, until my father noticed it and found it a convenient place to tap his ashes?

I couldn’t remember anything about its past, but I was tempted to tell him that I was touched that he’s still using it. It’s kind of a warm fuzzy feeling that I don’t associate with much of my childhood. But I was afraid to burst the bubble, afraid I’d discover that my father really had no idea which one of “you girls” made it, me or one of my sisters.

Back in our own kitchen, the child has added a small row of pea-sized balls to the perimeter of her creation, rolling each tiny piece of clay in the palm of her hand until it achieves roundness.

I’m curious to know if she’ll tell me about this “forever” sculpture when she’s done. She may be making it just for herself, or for a project that has nothing to do with me. But I suspect that at some point in the future, I will become its curator, and it would be nice to have a clue about what it is.

copyright ©2006 - Ellen Klages