Friday, September 30, 2016

September Book Report: Top Secret 21 by Janet Evanovich

I am a fan of mystery novels and read a good number over the course of the year.    I like a mystery with a strong sense of place and it was this feature that first attracted me to the Stephanie Plum mysteries written by Janet Evanovich.  I’ve been reading the series for many years now; I started with the first book, One for the Money.  I first read it in 1996, when I was living in Nebraska.  The series, set in Trenton, New Jersey, was as far from home as I could imagine.  Filled with visits to Italian delis and Polish bakeries, the series were entertaining and clever, with great dialogue and a sense that both a happy ending and a trip to Cluck-in-a-Bucket would cure all of the heroine’s troubles.

21 novels later, I still find the series an easy read, always familiar and entertaining.  Though I couldn’t know it when I first began to read the novels, in 2002 I left Nebraska for New Jersey and moved to a house quite near the Chambersburg neighborhood in which Stephanie Plum is working.  There was no Cluck-in-a-Bucket but there was Cluck University and it sure looks (and tastes) as described in the books.  The bakeries were on nearly every corner and the pizza was Jersey-style and abundant.  The streets of the novels, from Nottingham to Olden, were already familiar to me when I arrived.

I don’t live in that part of New Jersey anymore, but I love the books as much as ever.  Top Secret 21 was an entertaining read in a month that always feels exhausting.  It was a reminder of the things I find charming about my little corner of New Jersey and a welcome respite from the busy back-to-school season.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: September 28

Last weekend featured two days of lovely weather, with sunlight and breezes and temperatures that never went past the low 70s.  It felt like Fall had finally arrived.  This week has featured more of the breezy Fall days with temperatures cool enough in the morning to warrant a sweater and afternoons gently kissed by sun warmth.  We are headed into a rainy patch of days that will be cool and damp.  Fall has taken hold.

The dogwood tree is soaking in the Fall days, slowly moving toward turning all of its leaves to a golden red color.  I always find transitional seasons lovely, filled with beauty and anticipation about the season to come.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

On Salad

JT isn’t the world pickiest eater, but for years he’s certainly been in the running for the title.  Mostly, I lived with his pickiness because my gentle attempts to get him to try something new were always met with gagging horror followed by accusatory looks.  He can still recount a time when he was three years old and I tried to get him to eat broccoli.  He tells this tale to anyone who will listen and delivers the “she made me eat broccoli” punchline in the same tone as one would say “and then I was made to eat the live mouse.”

There were occasional deviations from his world of bread, turkey and ham sandwiches, pizza, spaghetti, and chicken fingers.  He has always loved tacos and eats avocado by the bucket full.  But mostly he did not experiment. 

Several years ago, our school got a new lunch facility (called the Dining Commons because prep schools give everything a fancy name) and lunch was now included with tuition.  This freed me from lunch-packing drudgery.  I figured that JT would just eat a turkey sandwich every day and that would be the end of it.  Instead, he tentatively began to explore new foods.

I’m not saying that he greeted Indian food day with a cheer.  I am saying he began to try chicken parm and lasagna, even the occasional bowl of chicken noodle soup.  He branched out ever so slightly.  Then his cross country coach began to make nutrition suggestions and disciple of hers that he is, a whole new variety of foods entered his world.

For starters, he gave up soda entirely and now travels everywhere with a water bottle the size of an infant.

He discovered he liked tomatoes.  From that came a try at salad, especially if home-grown tomatoes are in the bowl.  From salad came cole slaw, which he thinks is just a different kind of salad.  I suspect he understands cabbage is not lettuce, so this is an actual experimentation achievement.

Greek and Icelandic yogurt (less sweet; more protein) began to be consumed.  

Fruit outside the trifecta of banana, apple, and orange entered his world.  Strawberries, blueberries, mangoes, blackberries, raspberries, kiwi…….he will give most fruits at least a tentative try.

He tried refried beans, liked them, and then tried garbanzo beans in a salad.  Sold.

Peanut butter and nuts were welcomed…..walnuts, pecans, and a handful of almonds as a snack on race days.

Most suppers at my house involved a salad for one.  Now the boy joins in, embracing new flavors and even, on occasion, a little carrot with his tomato and lettuce.  

I feel like I am ever closer to being able to send him out in the world as a human with vaguely normal eating habits.  Parenting victory!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

12 Months of Miss Read: September

The backstory: At the start of 2016, I pulled out my very favorite Miss Read book, Village Centenary.  The novel is structured in months and each chapter explores a month in the year of a village school that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  This year, my own school is celebrating its 250th anniversary and as we think of our past and look to our future, I thought that Miss Read would make a lovely companion for me.  For each month of 2016, I plan to read Miss Read’s reflection on the month.

Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English author who wrote between 1955 and 1996.  Her novels were tales of every day life in small English towns.  Village Centenary is set in Fairacre, an imaginary Cotswold community.  As is the case in nearly all of the Fairacre novels, the novel is written in the first person and it is through our narrator, school teacher Miss Read, that the story unfolds.

September with Miss Read
Miss Read and her students returned to school in September.  My students also came back and together, Miss Read and I made the adjustment to the busier days of school.

We started our school year with a musical concert to celebrate our school’s 250th anniversary.  Miss Read is planning a celebration for her own school’s 100th anniversary and September found her reviewing the historical costumes her students will wear as they re-enact scenes from Fairacre School’s history.  The author behind the Miss Read series, was a school teacher herself before she took up writing and she clearly never lost her sense of the life of a teacher.  Miss Read gets to the end of September a little tired but settling in to the pattern of her school days.  She always takes pleasure in her work, even when there are challenges on the horizon.  Miss Read and I have that in common, which probably explains why I always come back to these stories.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pretty Packages

I had need to send some packages out West earlier this month and as usual, ribbon was involved.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Middle School Thoughts: Time Management

For the first two years that I worked in the Middle School, we were grades 5 through 8.  The 5th graders were held in a sort of protective custody which gave them an opportunity to observe the freedom that older children enjoyed, while still functioning in a cocoon.  The next year, as 6th graders, they were mostly ready for the responsibility of lockers and coming to class with the right materials, having learned the ropes through observation.  The system functioned fairly well, though even with limited freedom, 5th graders are prone to poor decision-making, the sort that always seemed surprising in kids not yet in the throes of adolescence.

Last year, 5th grade returned to the Lower School and we became a more traditional three-grade Middle School.  6th graders joined athletic teams to make them 6th, 7th, and 8th and our music classes also featured all three grades.  Last year’s 6th graders had been in the Middle School for a year and the transition was fairly seamless.  This year, with 6th graders who are new to us, has been an interesting reminder about the developmental changes of tweens.

The good news is that 6th graders are eager to embrace the independence that we offer.  That eager excitement helps to blunt their anxiety.  We have a gentle transition at the start of the year, where we remind them of expectations and also offer ready assistance.  As we move into the third week of school, most of the 6th students have eased into the expectations, though there are moments when they hope to retreat to childhood.  There is still plenty of support, but now it comes with a more direct reminder of our expectations.

This week, my 6th grade group had 10 minutes to sum up answers to questions about the failure of the Roman Empire.  We’ve been working with this material since school began and they were ready to answer two questions in 10 minutes.  Most of the students got after it but a few answered the first question and then stalled.  My reminder to get to it was met with sweet smiles and more stalling; one student told me, “I’m thinking.”  I smiled and said, “think faster” but I could tell he wasn’t persuaded.  A few minutes later, class ended and I collected the answers.  The two boys with half-empty pages panicked a bit, each telling me that they would take it home to finish.  When I said no and took the papers, they were stunned.

I smiled and said we’ll keep practicing to use our time wisely.  But both boys left the room rather sobered.  The next day, I handed back the answers with comments but no grades —— this was a practice reminder about using our time wisely.   The guilty boys were relieved.  I expect a lesson has been learned.  And I have been reminded about the need for a careful transition into the world of more independent learning.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: September 22

Today, Fall officially takes charge of the seasons and with its arrival I’ll be posting weekly pictures of my backyard dogwood tree.  The leaves are already beginning to turn.

After a wet August, most of September has been dry and hot.  September usually brings us more rain and the unseasonable dryness likely means we’ll have a less vibrant display of fall leaves.  That’s rather a shame as fall around here is often splendid.  

I’ll enjoy the beauty that does emerge and remind myself that each season has its value, imperfect or not.  That's rather like life itself and it's a lesson that bears repeating for me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Last of Summer's Bounty

Fall officially begins tomorrow, but so far the week’s weather has felt very much like Indian summer, with warm days and cool nights.  This time of year always feels fleeting and while it lasts I am enjoying the flowers I can still pick from my garden.  

They make the dining room cheerful when breakfast is eaten at sunrise and when supper is served in the twilight.  They are a reminder to enjoy the season’s bounty while it lasts.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Back to School Supper

It is a tradition around here that on the weekend before we return to school, I make a fried chicken supper.  The older JT gets (and the closer he is to leaving home for college), the more these small traditions mean to me.  And Sunday chicken supper is an especially happy one.

This supper had all our favorites, including corn muffins with honey butter, grits casserole, and cole slaw.  There were garden flowers on the table, as befits a late summer supper.

The grandmother who taught me to make these foods is always close in my mind when I set out to soak chicken in buttermilk and fry it up.  I always admired the way she could cook by memory. Now I am the one cooking by memory and I do it to equip my son with memories and traditions that I hope will last a lifetime.  That’s happy!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Bulletin Board

I’ve always had a bulletin board display in my classroom and when I moved to the Middle School, the bulletin board came to my office.  Each August, I remove the items from the previous school year and then reconstruct the board for the coming school year.

Many items change, though there are a few themes that are consistent.  I always have a few pictures from my summer adventures.  This year, that’s JT and T in Kansas City at Kaufman Stadium.  I’ve got JT, his grandmother,  and his cousin C in Kings Canyon among the Sequoia trees.  An updated picture of my tall nephews and JT are there, as they are every year.  There is always a little baseball; this year that’s the Kaufman Stadium photo as well as the Kansas City Monarchs jersey and the postcard of Buck O’Neil, both obtained at the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame in Kansas City.  I added in a picture of JT in the St. Louis Cardinals bull pen.  I’ve got a St. Louis Cardinals logo as well.  

There are stickers and things that amuse me; reminders of the spirit I hope to bring to my work.   There are photos I made and like; this year’s pumpkins will be swapped out for other seasonal photos as the year progresses.

I also pick a few items of historical significance.  There is something presidential; this year’s honors went to George Washington on an antique postcard and a card with pictures and quotes from Washington, Lincoln, and FDR.   There are a number of campaign buttons from my collection; Hillary Clinton buttons are on their way.  I don’t have a T-rump button and I won’t be buying one.   I also include an item that reminds me of the focus of one of my American history class; this year that’s Harriet Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, the man whose 1857 court case shook the nation into understanding just what it would take to end slavery.  Buck O’Neil, alive a generation later, and playing baseball in a segregationist nation, is yet another reminder of what I will teach this year.

There are always flowers —— this year it’s a lovely zinnia seed pack (these were planted in my backyard garden) as well as the antique postcard of a flower market in San Francisco.

The bulletin board is meant to be brain candy, fodder for my memories and imagination.  It’s made up of items and mementos that make me smile and make me think.  It’s hopeful and happy and its creation is one of my favorite traditions for the start of the school year.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Real Life Texts with JT: Digital Parenting edition

The backstory:  Like most families, JT and I often communicate by text message.  Typically, we’re exchanging need-to-know information.  But sometimes, need-to-know is complicated, as it was earlier this week when he was at home and I was at Middle School Back to School Night.

JT:  Do you know what time you are coming home

As an experienced reader of JT’s texts, I sensed the urgency in this message and opted to ignore the poor punctuation.

Mama: Yes, around 10:30.  Do you need anything?

JT:  I can’t find a shirt to wear tomorrow.  I have no clue where my 2 blue shirts are and the white one does not fit

He’s referring to dress shirts.  The next day was a dress-up day at school and he needed a shirt and a tie.

Mama:  In your closet fresh from the dry cleaner.

JT:  Alright thank god.  Still gonna need something for pic day on Friday

Mama:  There are two shirts in that dry cleaner bag.

JT:  Sweet.  Also, I fucked up and forgot to tell you I am supposed to bring treats for advisory Thursday so do u think its possible to get Munchkins from Dunkin I’m sry.

I pride myself on providing homemade treats and on the next day a late-afternoon cross country race was scheduled at a course more than an hour from home, so this late-breaking news created a bit of a jam up, which our hero well knew.

Mama:  I may let you live…we will get a treat together because I am awesome.

JT:  Thanks m8.

Oh, 16, sometimes you can be charming.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Runner

Since the 7th grade, JT has run for the cross country team in the fall.  He started running under the direction of the amazing Coach L, a man who is as gentle as he is strong and whose patience with kids is extraordinary.  Those Middle School cross country years started slow, though JT ran well and liked it immediately.  When he started high school two years ago, he joined the cross country team in the fall.  This coach, a different Coach L, is funny and strong, and a fan of a work ethic.  JT respects her and looks to meet her ambitious expectations.  For two years running, he’s earned the Iron Man award, a distinction given to team members who never miss practice.  JT is a never-miss-practice kind of kid, so this challenge was right up his alley.

JT is a moderately good runner, with the tenacity to go long distances and enough energy to finish strong.  He’s an even better teammate, who has steadily brought his friends into the sport.  Last winter, when the cross country season had ended and wrestling was just under way, he and a group of wrestlers headed out on the cold mornings for some extra runs to maintain conditioning.  Something truly clicked on those mornings and a runner was born.

Throughout the spring and into the summer, he ran nearly every day.  He made easy 5 and 6 mile distance runs; he ran sprints; he ran tempo drills.  He was excited for the start of practice; the arrival of weekends finds him consulting Coach L’s instructions and going out for a run.  

On the weekends, Lucy the cat takes over coaching duties.  She's gone from supervising a little boy who played with Playmobil and ran around in the back yard to supervising homework and athletic practice.  She watches from the window when JT steps out the front door.

She stays in the front window while he stretches outside, a watchful eye on her boy.

She looks on as he consults his watch and sets his timer.

And then he is off.  

Lucy retreats for a nap, but stays downstairs because her boy will be back soon.  She must be ready to supervise the post-run shower and snack.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Real Life conversations with T: Tortured by Tunes edition

The backstory: Saturday’s steamy hot morning found JT out early, warming up for the first cross country meet of the year.  T and I headed out to IHOP to score some breakfast before we went to the meet.  We made our orders and then sat and talked while we waited.  Soon, the IHOP soundtrack began to intrude as we realized that it was an odd array of songs, all of them with an ear worm quality and none of them like one another.  Abba, Glen Campbell, Leonard Skynard… was a dizzying assortment of songs you never wish to hear again.  Pancakes arrived and we tucked in while the disordered playlist sang on.  We finished eating and T made an announcement:

T: Let’s get out of here before Karma Chameleon comes on.

We paid cash and got the hell out.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


The finest in Middle School don't-forget-your-combination technology.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Getting My School Legs

The first day of school was Tuesday.  That evening, our school had a performance to celebrate our 250th year and so yesterday wasn’t a school day.  I did go to work, but I was in summer mode, with wet hair and flip flops.  Last night, I struggled to fall asleep, my mind whirling with all the things that need to be done.  This year, we’ve adopted a new schedule, one with longer periods and a rotation.  We needed the change, but it certainly leads to a more complicated new school year.

From today on out, we settle into our regularly scheduled days.  And by settle, I mean start to teach and live with the new schedule we’ve adopted.  So much planning has proceeded these weeks that I can no longer sort out what excites me and what terrifies me about the new schedule.  I’m ready to start living with the days we’ve planned.

As anxious as I am to settle in to the normal routines, I still got up this morning and longed for an extra cup of coffee on the front porch.  So I may be ready to really get the school year underway, but I’m clearly not ready to say goodbye to the relaxation of the summer!

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

September 6: First Day of School

Today is the start of my 15th year at my school; JT starts his 14th year at a school that has been - and remains - the center of our lives.  It’s a privilege to walk into the 11th grade on the same campus where your mama once walked you to pre-K 3.

Well, I certainly feel that way.  JT is still hoping for a career in which he is well-compensated for showering, watching sports, reading Sports Illustrated, and eating food that he neither prepared nor paid-for.   Until that opportunity materializes, he goes to school.  He’s excited about PE class and his sports teams; he intends to tolerate the rest of it.

Here we go!

Monday, September 05, 2016

Saturday at Costco: September 3 edition

Early in August, T and I rolled into Costco on a Saturday morning.  Most customers had full shopping carts but T and I were bemused by one elderly man who needed no cart and had braved the parking lot for just one item: A Costco-sized bag of prunes.  T and I looked at one another and shared the same silent thought: I hope that works out for you, sir.

For reasons of crowded lines, poor decision-making,  and Jersey-style parking lots, I try to avoid Costco on Saturdays.  But I work for a living and sometimes I have no choice but to roll into the insanity on a Saturday.  There is an upside to this kind of poor decision-making on my part: Costco’s Saturday shoppers often provide me some very confounded amusement.  In this spirit, I am pleased to offer a new occasional feature here at Sassafras Mama: Saturday at Costco.

On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Costco shoppers really dialed up the crazy.  On this day, I saw the following:

1.  A man with long dreads, wearing shorts, a dapper buttoned sport coat, and sunglasses.  He had plenty of gold chains but no shirt under the jacket.  It seemed like a collection of odd fashion decisions for a jaunt to Costco but he was working it, so who I am I to judge?

2.  A man with a cart that was empty but for 12 roasted chickens. 

3.  A man with the usual assortment of Costco items, as well as 2 dozen bottles of fish oil pills.  

In the interests of fairness, I disclose that I came to Costco wearing a skirt, a t-shirt, and flip flops.  Not a thrilling combo, but not shocking.  I bought the following: a package of chicken breasts, bacon, and 4 cartons of ultra-pasteurized half and half. 

Carry on, Costco shoppers.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Calm Before the Storm

Literally.  It’s Saturday morning on Labor Day Weekend and the remnants of hurricane Hermine are headed our way.  Right around the same time the worst of the storm is expected to turn up, we have our first day of school with all of the children back in the halls. 

In a way, both will take their toll.  I’m ready for the storm, which isn’t expected to be all that horrible in my neck of the woods.  As for the return to school, I’m also ready.  More than that, I'm eager to see kids and start the learning.  This year, we have a new schedule and it’s a huge departure from the previous, complete with block periods and rotating days.  I’m excited for the change, though a little nervous (of course).  I’ll teach 6th and 7th graders and I’m looking forward to that challenge.

I’m not looking forward to the way that the return to school kicks my backside, but after more than 20 years of teaching, I know that September's exhaustion won’t last.  Before I left school on Friday, I set up my lessons for the next few weeks, wrote “welcome back” on the board, and generally paused to reflect on the expectant air in the hallways.  The first day of school, with its buzzing excitement, clean lockers, crisp new clothes, and fresh school supplies never gets old for me.

That’s happy!

Thursday, September 01, 2016

In the Backyard Neighborhood: September 1

Right on schedule, we had a rainstorm Wednesday night and this morning, the first day of September, temperatures have cooled for the hazy morning.  The backyard neighborhood is still sporting plenty of green but there’s a sense that those days are coming to a close.  The peach tree has lost a few yellowed leaves and the hosts along the garage paint the upcoming scene in this corner of the yard.

I’m not really ready to embrace the new season.  Transitions have never been my strong suit.  I suppose some cooler temperatures will mellow my attitude.  But right now, September just feels like busy early mornings, long days at school, and grown-up clothes.  Once I settle into the swing of things, I’ll embrace the new season and laugh off my earlier resistance.  That’s how it always is for me.  So for now, I’ll ride the wave confident that the outcome will be pleasing.