Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blood, Frogs, and the Wicked Witch of the West

It was dark out there. There were shadows shaped like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz--in fact, I was dead sure I saw her riding her bike in the air past my window. Who could sleep with all that going on outside?

But he was patient and reassuring and even though I clung to him like I was being sucked under the pull of a rushing river, my dad took me outside. "See?" He pointed at our little tree in the front yard--the one that had transformed into the gnarled tree in the Wizard of Oz. "It's just our tree. It's the same as in the daytime." He pointed out everything in the yard and waited for me to stop shaking.

He killed the wasps that had stung my brother and me in the backyard of our new house, going in like a superhero to get rid of the nest. My brothers and I watched from behind the safety of the sliding glass door.

A lot of the other dads in the neighborhood worked at Boeing, with nothing very interesting to share, and they mowed their lawns in embarrassing outfits. My dad changed the oil in the car in his old Air Force pants and a pair of his old wingtip dress shoes. But he brought home amazing things from work--like the frog from his biology lab at the high school. Nobody else in the neighborhood got to dissect a frog or type their blood on the kitchen table.

He laughed when I practiced forging his distinctive signature.

He'd listen to entire plots from the Nancy Drew book I was reading and make funny comments. Even now, he'll listen to entire chapters of a book I'm working on, over the phone, from 3,000 miles away.

He got me a coveted spot on a soccer team, taught me the rules, and acted like I was good, even though everybody knew I sucked.

He taught me to appreciate what you have, to treat people with kindness, to share with others that don't have what you do,
and to never forget your sense of humor.

He taught me the importance of the written word, whether you are reading it, or writing it, yourself.

I love you, Dad! Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sneaky Kicks, NPR and the Sharp Scissors

There's nothing like a fight between siblings. My legs were skinny and poky and spindly when I was nine. Perfect weapons. My brother, Tim, was eight, and I'd wait to strike. I'd wait until he was watching TV--preferably a commercial, because that's when he was most engaged. Then I'd move in for the kick. It was a basic karate front kick, and it was delivered sharp and fast. Even though it seemed as if there was some planning involved, I never quite thought it all the way through. Because then it played out like a grade B horror flick. I'd run for the bathroom and lock the door. Really dumb, because you didn't have to be MacGyver to pick the lock in our bathroom. And there was no alternate escape route.

Sometimes I think our parents would wait to intervene, probably knowing I deserved what I got. But eventually they would step in. Our older brother, Tom, would scoff at us and tell us we were stupid-- or give Tim fighting tips.

Then there would be a cool down period and we'd be friends again.

It was worth it to be nice to my brother, because he was so much fun to play with. He's the type of person who can invent and create and imagine right on the spot. We made up an entire TV variety show in our backyard once, complete with opening theme song.

One thing that I know Tim and Tom and I shared, without a doubt, was the love of art, including music and writing, because our parents always provided musical instruments, sketch pads, special markers, and writing paper. They let us use the sharp scissors.

So now as twentysomething adults (okay
, twentysomething plus a little), the fighting has gone by the wayside, and we all still play music and draw and write. Hear from Tim today in his NPR interview at KUOW in Seattle!

And in honor of Father's Day, you can hear him read a very funny essay from his blog, Reflections of a Shallow Pond, on another NPR station, KPLU, where he publicly lambastes me for all of those nasty surprise kicks when I was nine--just kidding--he probably should, but he doesn't:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Band-aids, Throw-up, and Ghost Stories: Who Doesn't Live for a Little Good Conversation?

Her eyes got wide and she leaned forward so I could feel her breath on my arm. "It's a true story, Mrs. Leal! It's really true!"

We were reading good old HENRY AND MUDGE, and Henry, the boy in the story, was scared. We could see him cowering in a corner of the room. Why, you might ask? Because Henry's mother loves to tell ghost stories on Halloween, and Henry's mother thinks he loves them, she tells him a headless horseman-type story.

As my reader reads aloud the story-within-a-story, she nods, emphatically. "It DID happen, Mrs. Leal. That guy without a head? It happened in the nineties. You weren't born, yet. But my grandma was." Then she sat back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face. She had just shared a valuable piece of information with me.

I also had a self-satisfied smile on my face, because I realized I was a much better story teller than I thought I was. All those times when they asked me how old I was? I responded, "23," of course. (...depending on the day; sometimes I am 28.) So she was off a little on her math...double digits don't come into the first grade curriculum until late spring.

As I'm writing my end-of-the-year report cards, I always do it with a little sadness, because I realize they are moving on. I think about the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: "Why you want to leave me?"

So I thought I would relay a few quotes that show what truly awesome little beings first graders are...

They are generous...well, most of the usually means they don't want whatever it is anymore:

"Mrs. Leal? I have a cookie, and I only ate a little bit of it. I could give you half."

They are brutally honest:

"Mrs. Leal? Usually, when I swing this high, I get throw-up in my mouth."

And my favorite from last week:

A girl is proudly holding up the tooth she just lost and a boy next to her says, "Is that old?" She shakes her head and says, "It's yellow, because I didn't brush it last year. I got an electric toothbrush. I'm going to brush it tonight."

They often get sidetracked:

"Mrs. Leal? I wish I lived here. Each classroom would be someone's house, and I would watch the (security) cameras all day. (Pause) Who watches the cameras at night? A robot?"

They are incredibly intuitive:

(A boy was commenting on a fight that had just broken out next to him.) "They just need to be by themselves. They need a vacation from each other."

They are terrible liars (most of them):

"I didn't mean to pee on the wall." (Truly, I did not made this up.) "I just had to go real bad."

First grade is not for the squeamish. There is blood, Band-aids, throw-up, and the occasional missed urinal. But it is worth every minute of it.