Sept 15, 2013: Community

Happy Mexican Independence Day, all! (I have no idea, really—my calendar just tells me that 9/16 is Mexican Independence Day.…) What a week we’ve had! It started out bright and early Monday morning. Well, not actually bright, as Sam and I had to be at the hospital before dawn, but certainly early. One neat thing about going to the hospital at that hour was the view it gave us of the still-burning Morgan fire. (The fire on Mt. Diablo started near Morgan Territory Road, thus the name “Morgan fire.”) You’ll recall that in last week’s blog, I mentioned that the fire had started Sunday shortly after lunch and was still burning at 8 p.m., as I blogged. Well, it ended up burning for several days. It was a fast, intense fire. In the end, it burned more than 3,000 acres and required more than 700 firefighters, 85 fire trucks, and four water-tanker aircraft to put out. Thanks to all of the firefighters who came to fight the fire, I don’t believe any structures or lives were lost. Just a lot of burned, beautiful state park. Ah well, better park lands than lives lost, for certain! Though I’m told the residents whose homes were threatened now have to worry about landslides, because the trees on the mountainside burned and are now not going to “hold up” (I’m sure there’s a better technical term) the earth as well.

Anyway…we didn’t see a lot of the fire from our house, but we did see flames on the summit from our driveway—at one point the mountain looked like a volcano! But early Monday morning, when I drove Sam to Antioch for his procedure, I got a much better view of the fire, which was burning on that side of the mountain. Eerie…very eerie.

Sam’s appointment went perfectly! The doctor said his ear canals are very small, but she was able to get the tubes in without a problem. And I was actually thankful that Sam is still breastfeeding, because three different nurses and doctors warned me that when babies wake up from anesthesia, they will often cry inconsolably for 30 to 40 minutes. But not my groggy Sam! As soon as he was half awake, I just popped him on my chest, and he nursed sleepily for about 15 minutes, then was good as new. He took a two-hour nap afterward and was cranky for the rest of the day, but they told me that’s very normal. Plus, in addition to getting tubes put in, he was cutting a new top-front tooth the very same day—in addition to still working on that pesky last molar that’s been coming in for the last six weeks. (Sam’s teeth erupt very, very slowly. I saw the beginnings of that bottom molar before we went on vacation, so early to mid-August. It’s now mid-September, and it’s still not all the way through!) So Sam now has, in various stages of coming in, seven teeth—four molars, a bottom-front tooth, and his two top-front teeth!

Our other Monday event was Theo’s first violin lesson! I’ve heard that the best instruments to start young children on are piano and Suzuki violin. (Suzuki is the teaching method; the instrument is just a standard, child-sized violin.) Well, we don’t have a piano for him to practice on (yet, anyway—we ponder picking up a freebie one of these days, as we frequently see people who advertise, “If you pick it up, it’s yours!”). And he loves guitar, but when we tried guitar lessons, his hands just weren’t quite big/strong enough yet, so we need to wait another year or two. So, violin it is. And I have to say, he did really well. It’s just a beginner class through Parks and Rec, and I have to admit that I found the first lesson dreadfully boring. They were just learning how to stand correctly. Seriously—for five-year-olds, does that not sound excruciatingly dull? But Theo managed to hang with it for the required 30 minutes, and he asked when he could come back and actually play an instrument, so that’s a good sign. So, I went ahead and rented him a violin, and we’ll continue through the rest of the ten lessons and see how it goes. Thankfully, violin rental is a total bargain—only $19/month. So if he ends up enjoying this, it’s a very affordable pastime for him at this point.

I’ve let him play his rented violin at home whenever he asks, and he’s surprisingly good at getting decent sounds out of it. I was expecting a lot of screeching—I figured our playroom would sound like someone was slaughtering chickens in it or something. But he actually makes some rather pretty sounds come out of the violin—Chris and I were impressed. I love violin music, so I secretly hope he ends up enjoying it and wanting to play more!

And because getting up at 4:30 a.m. for Sam’s tube surgery and taking Theo to his first violin lesson wasn’t enough excitement for one day, I went to our first Parent Meeting at Theo’s school on Monday night. They have childcare available, but given that Sam was cranky and tired from surgery that morning and it was both boys’ bedtime, we opted to have Chris stay home with the boys while I attended the meeting.

And, okay, WOW. I’m going to take a moment to rave about how excited I am about Theo’s school! I think many of you know how much I obsessed over where to have Theo attend school. Really, I’m not an obsessive person in general, but there are certain things I obsess over—and my children’s schooling is evidently one of them. Especially because I know Theo, and I know that he does very well in situations that suit him…but he crashes and burns in situations that don’t. You know what I mean? He’s not one of those “stick him in any situation, and he’ll do fine” kids. Theo does great in situations that work with his personality, but he flounders in other situations. Preschool is a perfect example: He did well in his first Montessori preschool—small environment, not too many kids, teachers who were willing to work with his strengths and weaknesses to create a good space for him. He crashed and burned in his second preschool—awesome school in terms of environment, but lots of kids and teachers who weren’t able to work with him to modify some things. And then he did great at his third preschool—small environment designed for kids who face challenges in typical classrooms. Now, I’m not blaming his second preschool—teachers are human and can only do so much. That school had 30 kids and four teachers, and to make things work for everyone, they had to be more strict with the rules/expectations. That’s fine—I understand. But what it taught me was that I need to find a somewhat flexible environment for Theo, and one where he won’t be overwhelmed. It’s not as if we want his teachers to give him the freedom to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants—we just know from experience that a very structured classroom with rigid expectations does not work for him…and in fact, it’s just a recipe for disaster.

So finding that perfect environment for him became somewhat of an obsession for me. Because I want him to succeed, and I know he can succeed if we just set him up correctly. So Chris and I talked (so…many…times) and said, “What we really need is a very small gifted program. But it doesn’t exist—and even if it did, we couldn’t afford it.” C’est la vie.

But…but…BUT! Despite the fact that our school district has no gifted program, it seems that it’s exactly what we’ve found! Theo’s “enrichment” program smacks of a gifted program…with a different name. It offers all the core curriculum of any school, but with amazing opportunities for outside learning, and an approach that values out-of-the-box thinking. Plus, classes are capped at 10 students (though grades are combined, so there are 20 students in each classroom—still better than the usual 32 per class in our district). Perfect!!

At the Parent Meeting, I learned about some of the enrichment opportunities that will be available to Theo starting next year. The school as a whole does enrichment—as I mentioned last week, every Friday is enrichment day. But for first through fifth graders, there is additional enrichment offered one afternoon a week. The students can stay and participate in an different enrichment series each month. One month, for example, focuses on structural design, and each week the kids learn about structural design and building integrity. They learn about different types of bridges and why they’re built certain ways for stability. They learn how skyscrapers are built. They do hands-on projects to build their own bridge and skyscraper models! Then another month, they do robotics all month—each week they work to build and program robots. Another month is video production—they learn all about movie-making and get to put together their own movie. Another month is computer skills—they learn basics about word processing programs, spreadsheets, graphs, etc.

Unfortunately, kindergartners can’t participate in this after-school program for a very simple reason: They are dismissed at 11:30 a.m., and the teacher who is running this extra program teaches until 2:45 p.m.! But next year, when Theo goes to school until 2:45, he’ll be eligible to participate. And until then, the teacher running the program is going to work with the kindergarten teacher to try to bring some of these project ideas into the kindergarten classroom.

Also, the school is in the process of bringing Odyssey of the Mind into being at the school. I had never heard about this before, but now that I have, I’m jazzed! According to that great resource (ha!) Wikipedia, “Odyssey of the Mind, often called OM (although the official acronym is OotM), is a creative problem-solving competition involving students from kindergarten through college. Team members work together at length to solve a predefined problem (the Long Term problem); and present their solution to the problem at a competition. They must also in the spontaneous competition generate solutions to a problem they have not seen before.”

Evidently, the students work together in teams to solve problems in five categories:

  • Vehicle: involves building vehicles of different sizes that must perform specified tasks
  • Technical: involves building “innovative contraptions”
  • Classics: incorporates knowledge of architecture, art, and literature
  • Structure: requires the designing and building of a structure using only balsa wood and glue, and competing to see which structure can hold the most weight
  • Theatrics: requires the team to act, sing, and dance based on a given theme

The beauty of this program is that students are rewarded for creative thinking—teams actually qualify for additional awards for having the most creative solutions to problems. The program is designed to reward creative thinking and risk-taking.

So…love it!! I can see this as being soooo up Theo’s alley. (Lately he’s been coming up with creative solutions for how to fix my tummy problems, which is very sweet of him but also very interesting—he comes up with some intriguing ideas!)

The funny thing is, I had told some people this week that I feel like Theo’s teacher just gets him—she seems to find him quite amusing and manageable, rather than like a pain in the rear. (You might say, “Of course she wouldn’t think he’s a pain in the rear!” but you’d be surprised—we have encountered adults who just can’t handle Theo. His nonconformist, likes-to-challenge-the-system personality just really irritates some people. Most adults really like him, but we’ve run across a few who just seem to find him aggravating—and so, that’s always a concern for us when he enters a new situation like a new school.) So anyway, I see now why she “gets” him. This Odyssey of the Mind program is going to be introduced by some adults and a local high-school student who has competed pretty successfully in it. That high-school student happens to be…Theo’s teacher’s son! And she actually pulled me aside one day and said, “Theo was cracking me up in class yesterday. He reminds me so much of my son! I told my son he has to meet him.”

So…score! Of course she gets him—she’s got one at home like him! Could we get any luckier? I think not!

So I’m feeling very optimistic about school for Theo. He’s doing very well overall. His teacher told me she has to separate him from the group occasionally, but he is able to compose himself and rejoin the group quickly. And really, that is excellent news—I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect progress, and that is certainly progress! And his teacher seems very calm about it and very positive, so I’m happy about that. Evidently Monday through Thursday of this past week went well for Theo, but Friday was a rough day—he spent a fair amount of time sitting with the teacher instead of the class. But, she seemed unfazed by it and simply told Chris (who picked Theo up that day), “I don’t know whether it was what he ate for breakfast or maybe just the end of a long week….” My suspicion is the latter, since he hadn’t had anything out of the ordinary for breakfast, but I know why she brought that up—one day this week, he lost his snack I had packed for him (I still don’t know where it went!), so she gave him an apple bar. It had gluten in it, and he was rather spacy when he came home. So I mentioned to her that I appreciated her giving it to him and that I certainly didn’t mind her giving him gluten, but that we’ve found it does seem to have an effect on his behavior, so just to be forewarned that if he eats gluten in her class in the future, he might have a little more trouble concentrating than usual. (He usually doesn’t really misbehave after eating gluten—just gets kind of spacy and unable to focus. He definitely appears “more autistic” after eating it than when he doesn’t have it in his diet! I don’t know what there is about it, but he just seems to focus and function better without it.)

So anyway, it’s all good. He’s doing well. He’s settling in. He seems reasonably happy. His teacher seems reasonably happy. So we’re all happy. 🙂

Theo’s school also had a welcome potluck this week (Friday evening), so we went to that. Unfortunately, it was pretty sparsely attended! But there were a few families from his class there, and he enjoyed playing with the kids. When we walked into the multipurpose room, in fact, a little girl started yelling, “Theo! Theo—we’re over here! Come play with us!” So I was delighted to see him being included! Sam was a cranky little turkey, but I can’t blame him—it was bedtime and we couldn’t put him down on the multipurpose-room floor to crawl. (Frankly, although I’m generally not a germ freak anymore, that floor was filthy. Plus, lots of kids running around, and I didn’t want him to get trampled.) So we stayed for an hour, had some pizza, Theo played, and then we left. Alas, the pizza was not Theo’s friend. Much like Chris’s, Theo’s dairy allergy seems to depend on what he eats. For example, he can eat things baked with butter and milk, and he does fine. But if he eats straight yogurt, he gets hives. And he recently ate pizza and did fine…but Friday night’s pizza (he had one slice) caused him to break out in a rash. Sigh…okay, no more pizza….

Saturday, we ventured across the Bay to the Hiller Aviation Museum. We had discount passes for Open Cockpit Day, so off we went! Sam wasn’t really in the mood to participate, but Theo enjoyed it. His favorite part, though, was looking at the inner workings of the glass elevator in the building. “Look at the hydraulics, Mom!” he exclaimed. 🙂

And on Sunday, we had a play date with Theo’s best pal from preschool, Gavin. The boys played at the park for 2 ½ hours while Sam played on the grass and inhaled fish crackers and veggie straws (they’re like potato chips, but made out of veggies—along with the fish crackers, they’re the only solids he’ll consistently eat). Then we went across the Bay to the Ferry Building for some lunch, just because it was a lovely day, and our weekends are kind of spoken for between now and Christmas, so we wanted to take a leisurely drive for lunch. (Chris is going to a game day next Saturday, and then we’re babysitting the one after that. And then the first Saturday in October, I start teaching.) So, it was a fun, busy weekend. I also had lots of chances to play with my new camera lens! I’ve wanted a zoom lens for years, but I didn’t want to pay the price. However, a local person was offering one for sale at a steal, and I snagged it. Yay! This will work well, since I’m Theo’s class’s official photographer. 🙂 (In addition to volunteering in the classroom two hours a week, we each had to sign up for a parent job. I chose class photographer!)

Before I sign off, I want to ramble about something that’s been on my mind all week: community. This week, I really had a chance to see community in action. When the fire broke out, the community of Clayton banded together in a way that I found quite inspiring! I grew up in a fairly unfriendly community. In our first house in Cupertino, we had great next-door neighbors. My parents were friends with them, and they had two sons who I played with. In fact, I’ve kept in touch with Mrs. Harrison through the years. And there were a few other nice people in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t really a community feeling—we didn’t have block parties and such.

Then we moved to another house in Cupertino, and the neighborhood was relatively unfriendly. In fact, I remember distinctly one of my neighborhood friends informing me, “My parents are having a party for all the Chinese people in the neighborhood. Sorry, but your family can’t come.” At the time, and still now, that surprises me. I understand her parents wanting to connect with people in the neighborhood…but why be so exclusionary?

So community…well, that’s not really something I grew up with. Cupertino is very fast-paced and very “out for yourself” in many ways. My school was competitive, many of my classmates were competitive…you get the idea. And that’s fine—I’ve always been somewhat of a solitary person anyway. I had a few very close friends growing up, and that was fine with me!

But now I’ve gotten older and sometimes want to connect more. And I’ve found that community can be fun. When I was in graduate school, I was part of an excellent community of people like me, who loved to read and who appreciated good writing, well-crafted stories, lively debates…. I loved it. I thrived! I had a group of friends, and it was excellent!

Then I had kids, and I became part of the “mommy community.” I gained friends who have kids and who raise their kids with the same general goals that Chris and I have. We might go about it a little differently and have different views on certain things, but we largely all have the same goal: to raise happy, well-adjusted kids. And I like that community.

And I began to see why people are drawn to church. There is the spiritual aspect for many, of course—but I think that a large part of it is community, too. I know that my sister, who is very devoted to her church, loves the community that she is a part of through her church. She gets great pleasure and support from that community. And I think that’s excellent…though for me, organized religion doesn’t happen to be my personal community of choice.

But I like this idea of community—of finding a place where we fit and find comfort and pleasure. So to see the community of Clayton band together and work to support the firefighters was very inspiring. People dropped everything to take food, water, and supplies to the fire station (so much that the fire station eventually had to say, “We have too much! No more, please!”). People with land and/or trailers offered to help complete strangers transport their animals and livestock to safe places. Children made big signs thanking the firefighters, and they were hung in strategic locations around town where the firefighters were sure to see them. It was just cool.

And now, Chris and I, with our ideas about possibly buying a house at some point, are thinking more and more, “Yeah, let’s make it work. Let’s try to stay in Clayton. This is a great place to build a life.” Sure, it’s a long commute, and that is certainly a factor…but the people here and the sense of community is a big draw. Not to mention the safety. (I’m a freak about sex offenders—don’t ask—so I look these things up. Clayton has 11,000 residents, two of which are registered sex offenders. Neighboring Concord has 120,000 residents, with 350 registered sex offenders. Yikes. I realize Concord is 10 times the size of Clayton, but it has almost 175 times the number of registered sex offenders!)

But I digress. The other community that I have become a part of is the Down syndrome community, and wow—they stunned me with their awesomeness this week. I was stunned and heartbroken, all at once. It came to our attention that a little boy named Blake was fighting for his life. Blake was born the exact same day as Sam with the exact same diagnosis (Down syndrome with no other medical issues). And he sounded like Sam—happy little guy who loved music and charmed everyone who met him. Like all too many kids with Down syndrome, he got a simple cold that spiraled into more. One day he had a simple cold, and the next day he was in the hospital. And he stayed in the hospital for months, with things going from bad to worse. His parents started a Facebook page to keep people updated on his condition. One community that I’m a part of is a group of mothers of children with Down syndrome born in 2012 and 2013. I’m a member of a few online communities for special needs, but this one happens to be my favorite—I just really like the people in it. So one of the mothers decided that we should create a get-well card for the little boy and his parents, and she single-handedly created a beautiful e-card for little Blake. Unfortunately, Blake passed away that evening—and I cried a lot, as did a lot of my community friends—but my heart was warmed at the outpouring of support for little Blake and his parents. He’s half a world away in Australia, but he could’ve been right next door.

Card for sweet Blake.
Card for sweet Blake.

The really amazing thing is that the mother who took charge of creating the card is facing some very difficult medical concerns with her own son. I have no idea how she had the time or the energy, but she did a beautiful job.

And so, I’ve thought a lot about community this week. First the fire, but then little Blake’s passing (and another similar community outpouring of support that I won’t mention here because it involves a surprise for one mother in the group, and on the off chance that she reads my blog, I don’t want to ruin it!). And I’ve realized how important community has become to me. All of my communities—my family, my friends from way back when, my newer friends from grad school, my mommy friends, my community here in Clayton, my new friends I’m making with parents at Theo’s school, and last but certainly not least, the Down syndrome community.

Honestly, to be cheesy and cliché, I feel like my cup runneth over. I am so lucky to be a part of so many excellent communities of people. To all of you who are part of a community that involves me in some way, thank you. You make my life a happy place. 🙂

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