Adios, Middle School

If my calculations are correct – and really, feel free to check because I am not known for counting, much less calculating – my youngest child’s last day of 8th grade this week brings our family’s 19 years in our town’s public school system to a close and ends what for me has been a lovely era of my life.

Of course, that’s how I remember it now. It’s easy to feel all gooey about school Halloween parades of days gone by from the comfort of the cozy chair in my office. Back then, I could have done without having to find a parking spot about a mile from the school (#alwayslate) and hauling myself – and whoever I was pushing in the stroller or dragging by their sticky little hand – behind the elementary school to squeeze through the crowd so that our little cherub dressed as a ninja/ghoul/sexy witch could see us as he/she made their way along the parade path.

As you would expect, I am a very different person now as a 50-year-old lady than I was when my oldest started kindergarten in 1998. I was 32 with three little kids at home and kinda excited about letting somebody else take care of at least one of my children for a part of the day. I was getting tired of filling those days with story time at the library and hauling everyone in and out of the car seats in our mini van for a trip to the grocery store. And, I thought, it would be nice to go to the gynecologist without hearing a small voice close to my feet trapped high up in the stirrups saying in horror, “Mom … your fanny” (I did not make that up).

Alas, our town still had half-day kindergarten back then, so it wasn’t until the kids hit first grade that I started to see some relief of the constant mothering. In fact, about 10 years later, and after about 16 years home with children full time, I ended up shipping my fourth off to a full-day program when our town’s half-day situation just wasn’t enough. Let me tell you, that little bus that came and scooped him up every morning and then deposited him home nice and tired in the afternoon probably saved at least two of my older children’s lives.

When the oldest began kindergarten, I think I was about as clueless as he was in the ways of Big Kid School. I had no idea how things worked. I mean, I was still trying to figure out preschool. For instance, I didn’t realize that those pastel-colored flyers that came home in my son’s backpack at the end of each day, tucked between pages of penciled letters and numbers, contained vital information. Back before school websites and CODE RED ALERT texts and emails, moms had to rely on finding and retrieving sheets of paper to find out, say, when to expect Back-to-School-Night.

I learned about my child’s first back to school night while standing one morning at the bus stop when another mom – you know, the kind of mom who somehow made you feel bad about these things – informed me it was later that evening. The same night I had plans to take a train into the city to meet my old work-wife for some fancy fashion thing she’d asked me to, and I cried at the conundrum; the injustice of something standing in between me and a night away from washing squirming little bodies and enjoying conversation about things other than children’s sleeping habits and grisly details about a recent stomach virus.

In the end, I put on a pair of high heels and toddled into the city for a lovely, grown-up evening, but inside I felt like a Bad Mom. Way before it was cool to be a Bad Mom.

And who knows? Maybe it made me an even Better Mom. I certainly never missed another back-to-school night, and with four kids, I had a lot of them.

Of course, I still have four more years of Back-to-School nights when my youngest enters high school in the fall. But there are plenty of things – annual events and activities – that have defined the pattern of the school year around here for as long as I can remember. Some ended when the kids timed out of our elementary school and moved to the middle school in fifth grade, and some have been traditions since our family’s Ice Age. Here are a few:

  • Box Tops: For as long as I can remember, I have religiously clipped little squares off boxes of cereal and Ziploc products to earn the kids’ schools 10-cents-per-square. I even bought toilet paper megapacks at Costco for the bonus 5-Box Top coupon. I’d tuck them in a sandwich bag taped to a side cabinet near my sink in the old house and send them in when the bag got full. In the new house, the Box Tops started in a sandwich bag in our junk drawer and now they seemed to have spilled out and float amongst all the rubberbands, matchbooks and mystery screws. Let me know if you’d like them.
  • Band and chorus concerts: Since 2001, when my oldest was in third grade, spring and holiday music concerts have been a staple in our school calendar. Singing and learning to play an instrument wasn’t even an option for the kids. It’s something I made sure they did, with varying success. My oldest daughter swears she mimicked playing the clarinet throughout middle school, and my younger daughter used her reluctance to play an instrument as an excuse for her near-daily visits to our school nurse during my divorce. After my umpteenth visit to discuss my girl’s agita, the nurse patted my hand and said, “Mom, let go of the flute.” And so I did. But I’ll miss sitting in a darkened gym listening to a bunch of kids play the theme from Star Wars and marveling how the music teachers get them to do that when I can’t even get my own kids to learn what day to put the garbage out. What I won’t miss is the panic that set in the morning of pretty much every concert ever looking for black bottoms and white shirts that fit and weren’t a wrinkled mess.
  • Class trips: Back in the day, every grade piled into a bus and went somewhere over the course of the school year and as a busybody parent who was often and Class Mom for one of my kids, I often got to tag along. Over the years, I went pumpkin picking and visited museums both near (in Newark) and far (Natural History in NYC) and a zoo in The Bronx. We visited sites of historical significance and attended local performances of The Nutcracker. I sat at long tables in museum basements that smelled of old sandwich to eat our bagged lunches and got to know the kids’ teachers and their classmates. Later, I’d do overnight stints with my three older kids to a state park where they performed team-building exercises and square danced in the lodge at night. I rode along on the bus for a few nights in Washington, DC with my daughters and chatted with parents and teachers as we herded our group of teenagers through our nation’s capitol like a litter of kittens through a yarn factory. My most recent chaperoning gig was to Six Flags with our middle school band and really, nothing brings two mothers together like a rollercoaster ride packed amongst a bunch of overheated teenaged boys on a 90-plus degree day in May. I’ll always remember the taste of that freshly-baked cider donut they handed out after picking pumpkins with my daughter’s first grade class, or all the snow that fell the year my younger daughter’s seventh grade class had their three-day outdoor adventure in the woods. How it floated down as we hiked to our various activities, crunching under our boots and added magic to an already special outing. But mostly I’m thankful that all those trips let me get to know so many of the teachers who were an important part of my children’s lives.
  • First day of school: Before we had to worry about maniacs coming into our schools – when parents could just pop through the front door to drop off homework and lunches without undergoing a screening process akin to trying to visit an inmate at Riker’s – parents would gather each year in the multi-purpose room of our elementary school to watch our kids line up with their classmates on the first day of school. They’d form little clusters along the walls with nametags pinned to their crisp polo shirts and sundresses – clutching their new Transformer and Lisa Frank backpacks – to meet their new teachers. At the appointed hour, they’d rise and line up and say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing a few patriotic songs and every year, as I stood packed in the room surrounded by all those little voices, I’d lose it. Nothing makes me choke up like a rousing rendition of “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag.” Then they’d file out to start their new school year and I’d wipe my eyes and go home and get on with my day, happy to have one less person in my shopping cart.
  • Everything else: Field days, Christmas tree lightings, Memorial Day parades and band performances, Family Fun Night (an oxymoron if ever there was one), Art shows, Book fairs, fruit sales, Rec sports and summer camp, paper report cards (RIP), picture day, bake sales, aforementioned Halloween parade, school dances, our 8th grade graduation ceremony and probably lot of other things I’ve already forgotten.

Now that all four of my kids have graduated, it’s probably time for me to graduate from middle school, as well. I knew it was time, too, when I realized not long ago that I’d become one of those parents who was resistant to change. Who liked things just the way they were. The same ones who annoyed me when I was a young upstart and thought some of our school traditions needed tweaking. Now, some of my beloved traditions are starting to change and I’m glad to be getting out when I am and before I say something I regret on Facebook.

Now, there are probably only a handful of parents left in the school system who remember that sweet first day of school ceremony for the little kids or even paper flyers. Who filled out forms for countless gift wrap and cookie dough fundraisers or manned the sand art room at the dreaded Family Fun Night. We are a dying breed. The Brontosauruses and T-Rexes of our school system.

To all you younger parents I say: take good care of our schools. Go the the art shows and encourage your kids (boys, especially) to sing in the chorus. Volunteer when you can. Get to know the teachers. Even run for the school board. It all seems like such a pain now, but I promise you’ll never regret it. All the concerts and tree lightings and meetings will add up to countless happy memories. At least they did for me, times two (I think I just did algebra).

Everything looks shiny as I look behind me. Everything, that is, except Family Fun Night. That just made me sweat.

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How many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.

These are the questions that keep me up at night.

My oldest just graduated from a giant state university located in the South so you know what that means, right? It’s time to make hotel reservations for his sister’s graduation for next year. Exactly. How’d you guess?

She goes to the same school, which was convenient for her brother’s graduation this year because the kids and I could just crash at her apartment as most of her roommates had gone home for the summer. It was close to campus and cheap and worth the three nights I spent sleeping on a pullout couch and keeping shoes on my feet at all times. But when it’s her turn to don a cap and gown next year we are going to have to ante up and find another place to stay.

I had heard from other parents that booking hotel rooms within a 30-mile radius of the campus was a highly-competitive affair. I knew I’d have to get my game on if I was going to score a place to stay that wouldn’t require 45 minutes of driving and keeping my shoes on my feet at all times (I have a thing about walking barefoot in places that skeeve me out).

But I wasn’t quite sure what I needed to do. I never really developed a solid strategy. I didn’t realize, until it was too late, just how cutthroat I needed to be.

Here’s the thing: I can never really seem to rise to these types of occasions. It’s probably why my blog has yet to become the national sensation that I’d always intended it to be and why I’m still single. I just can’t seal the deal.

So I asked around. Sent some emails. Made some calls. Eventually, I made a list of the top 5 places I’d be willing to stay and noted when each would start taking reservations for May 2016.

And then I waited.

Somewhere along the way, I decided I only wanted to stay at a Hilton property so I could use/earn points, which narrowed my list down to 2 hotels. “No problem,” I thought.

I’d been calling the Hampton Inn every few days and the nice Southern person I would get at the other end of the line would tell me they hadn’t yet started taking reservations for next year’s graduation. “Well, do you know when that’s going to be?” I’d ask, and invariably I’d be told, “No, Ma’am,” and to keep checking back.

It seemed like a pretty laid-back affair and lacked any sense of urgency, which I took to mean it was no big deal. Like they’d be giving rooms away like Chinese babies (please see the movie “Juno” for further explanation).

So when I called the hotel again at the beginning of last week, I was pretty freaked out to discover that rooms had gone on sale the day before and were gone, gone, gone.

I tried to convey my sense of dismay, my complete outrage to the amiable person on the other end of the line but couldn’t really come up with any solid reason why that wasn’t fair, other than to lamely whine, “That’s not fair.”

“Okay, no problem,” I thought to myself. I’ll just be more on top of my game to nab rooms at the swankier Hilton Garden Inn. I knew they were opening reservations on Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. and made appropriate reminders using all caps on my iPhone.

The appointed hour came that day and I quickly dialed the hotel’s main number and was greeted with a busy signal. And then I tried again. And again. Still busy.

After a few more tries, I dragged the future-graduate out of bed and enlisted her in dialing duties as well. We sat side-by-side at our kitchen table and time-after-time dialed the number, hit the speaker button, and were greeted by the busy signal.

About 10 minutes in, the phone on the other end started to ring. We screamed and I tried to calmly switch off the speaker and put the phone up to my ear and listen. It rang, and rang and rang. After about a minute-and-a-half, the phone went dead and a few seconds later, I heard the unmistakable beeping, indicating a dropped call.

My daughter and I stared at each other in disbelief and then went back to dialing.

Eventually, we began to get a little giddy.

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” I shouted at the phone after the 20th busy signal using a terrible British accent . “IT IS I, AMY ELIZABETH BYRNES!”

“I WILL DE-TROY YOU!” yelled my daughter, imitating her 3yo cousin’s now-famous line we oft quote in our house sounding like robots.

Every once in a while, the phone would start to ring and we’d excitedly listen as it droned on and on, only to eventually cut off after a minute and 40 seconds.

We started noticing patterns like that.

“PLEASE,” I moaned, slightly hysterical as the phone rang in my ear, “don’t give me the 1:40.”

And then I heard the click on the other end.

We began to take note of how long we’d been furtively dialing our phones. How many attempts we’d made by certain points.

“I’m closing in on 100!” I reported. “I’m feeling good we’re getting in at 100!”

To which the busy signal said, “Fuck you.”

We confidently predicted success at 111 and then 222 but by 333 we were starting to lose a little faith in having a successful outcome.

“I wish I knew more about statistics or math,” I grumbled to my daughter at one point. “Isn’t this, like, a word problem or something? Isn’t this like trying to figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a fucking Tootsie Pop?”

We sat at the table in our pajamas and called and called the hotel for well over an hour and we probably were greeted with the endless ringing over a dozen times. We went from making outrageous threats to the hotel staff – like driving down and going all White Walkers on them and shit – until we decided they could somehow hear us and were afraid to answer our calls. We then switched to pleading with the faceless hotel staff, promising to keep our rooms very clean and telling them I have very nice hair (we had pretty much lost our minds by then).

And then, at 11:27 a.m. – 87 minutes after we’d begun, someone picked up on the other end at my 408th attempt.

“HiHiHi!!” I shouted like a lunatic and started fumbling with my words. “I’d like to make a reservation for graduation next year!”

To which the woman at the other end amiably responded in a friendly Southern drawl, “I’m sorry but we just sold our last room for that weekend.”

Reader, I held it together. I used neither expletives nor raised voice to convey my dismay. I told her we’d been trying for an hour and 27 minutes and pictured her sitting at the front desk of some crappy hotel hundreds of miles away rolling her eyes at me. I asked if they had a waiting list or something, ANYTHING, to make me feel better. Hoping she could throw me some kind of bone for my efforts. But she merely suggested I try calling back between now and next May to see if there were any cancellations.

“It’s not fair,” I said meekly as I hung up the phone and faced my daughter in defeat.

In the end, I reserved two rooms at a Quality Inn about 20 minutes from main campus, just off the Interstate, that could also accommodate any pets I might be thinking about bringing with me that weekend. Their TripAdvisor reviews are less than stellar but it beats staying even further away or sleeping in my car.

I guess I’ll check in sporadically over the next 10 months to see if anything opens up and I am on one waiting list at a place I initially turned my nose up at but now am treating it like it’s the Ritz Carlton or something. Getting in will be like winning the lottery.

Once again, I don’t really have a moral for this story. I don’t really know what I would have done better in retrospect. I guess I was reminded that sometimes, life isn’t fucking fair and that sometimes, they forget to put that gooey center inside the Tootsie Pop.

Amy shares way too much about herself at ‘A’ My Name is Amy. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter@AMyNameisAmy.


IMG_2597I ran out to the CVS in town around dinnertime last week to pick up some graduation cards and on the way home, I drove past the middle school and immediately began to cry.

Sloping up the school’s lawn, in front of the big white gazebo and under a perfect June sky, were the familiar blue plastic folding chairs that are hauled out of storage annually to set the stage for what has become one of my favorite nights of the year.

In short time, those seats would be filled by moms, dads, siblings and grandparents of the graduating eighth grade class. They’d be flanked by teachers, friends and well-wishers standing along the sides to witness yet another generation of kids move on from our school community. This year I even noticed one couple sitting off to the side in beach chairs like they were at a soccer game, just taking it in.

I went with two of my kids to cheer on our neighbor and we stood watching the graduates slowly walk in pairs from the red brick school across the lawn where they gathered in front of the gazebo.

We clapped and hooted for younger siblings of kids my older children had graduated with and we pointed out dresses we liked or how grown up some of the boys looked, all spiffy in their jackets and ties. Between the three of us, we knew who a lot of the kids were.

In our small town, which graduates around 85 kids a year, the graduation dress code dictates that the girls wear long white or pastel dresses and the boys wear white dinner jackets.

Before any of my own children had graduated, I thought the notion of little boys wearing rented tuxedos was ludicrous, and considered starting a campaign to change the dress code to a navy jacket and khakis.

But then my own son walked across the lawn looking smart in his fancy white jacket, joining the legion of young men who had graduated from our middle school and carrying on the tradition, and I was hooked.

Before the ceremony, they gather the kids together to take a photo of the graduating class lined up in front of the school, capturing one of the last moments of their childhood. That iconic picture will soon hang in the school’s hallway, just past the main entrance, joining a long line of graduating classes dating well over 50 years. Rows and rows of young girls with their hair just so and the boys with red roses pinned to their lapels have smiled for the camera.

So far three of my children have taken part in that tradition and their pictures are among the collection lining the school’s main entrance, where they will remain, frozen in time, with thousands of other children, many of whom eventually move back to town and continue the cycle with their own children.

And I’d like to be frozen too. I want to remain in that sweet slice of time.

So when my eyes filled with tears at the sight of all those blue chairs, it wasn’t for my children that I cried.

It was for me.

I cried because I don’t ever want this tradition to end for us. I want to spend one day every June feeling utterly entrenched in a community watching a beloved tradition unfold. I want to know who the girl is giving the speech or the boy who’s playing the piano and know exactly who their parents are and what street they live on.

I’ve loved raising my children in a small town and being immersed in my community. It’s been so satisfying being a part of something so much greater than me and taking part in so many traditions.

When my parents split up the summer between sixth and seventh grades, everything I knew, any traditions we had, came to a screeching halt. I left the tiny Catholic school that I had attended since first grade and we moved to anther part of the state and my mom got remarried. It was like the rug had been pulled out from under me and it took me years to regain my footing.

So when my own marriage came undone five years ago, I didn’t want our four children to feel as untethered as I had at 12. So utterly disconnected from everything I had known.

And for the most part, we kept it together. We stayed in our house and the kids still went to the same schools with the same friends and could count on third grade violin recitals and Civil War Day in the seventh grade.

I cried a second time earlier that day last week, when I went to the elementary school in town one last time to see my youngest child “graduate” from the fourth grade in anticipation of moving over to the middle school in September.

My two teenage daughters and their dad joined me for the ceremony that morning and the girls and I linked arms and walked down the school’s hallways to the gym one last time. I started to tear up at the sight of the artwork hanging along the walls and the little backpacks lined up outside the classroom doors and thought of the thousands of times I must have walked those halls over the last 15 years on my way to conferences or to help the kids celebrate a holiday or the end of school.

At the end of the ceremony, we all moved outside the school’s entrance to “clap” the class out. Another new tradition, the fourth grade walks through the school one last time en masse while the younger grades applaud as they file by.

My 16-year-old and I stood with the crowd waiting outside for the class to emerge and stared up at the school. We agreed it had been a great place for singing in countless concerts, dressing up like pilgrims or counting pumpkin seeds and making homemade applesauce, and she put her head on my shoulder and we cried that it was over.

“We had a good run,” I said and she nodded and we looked up to see the kids come out the front door and the crowd began to clap.