You must do the thing you think you cannot do.  –Eleanor Roosevelt

Today was Peter’s first day of fourth grade.  Yes, we’re done homeschooling.  We went in on Monday, picked up the paperwork, got a tour of the school, and met his new teacher.  The secretary told us that Tuesday was Family Science Night, so we went to that.  We got to see science fair projects and physics demonstrations by university students, and Don got to see the school.  Yesterday we went in to drop off the paperwork and ask a few questions, and we ended up going to the classroom with Peter’s teacher because we got there just before recess time.  She answered my questions, showed Peter where his coat and backpack would go, and gave him some math problems to solve on the board to get an idea of what he knew.  So he was at the school three days in a row before he started today, which I think made him feel more comfortable.  He knows at least four kids in his grade (though only one in his class; there are three fourth grade classes), as well as a few kids in other grades, through Cub Scouts and our neighbors, which also helps.

Don drove Peter today, just because it was his first day, and he rode the bus home.  He’s looking forward to riding the bus both ways tomorrow.  I appreciate the fact that the bus stop is in front of our next-door neighbor’s house and Peter is old enough that I don’t have to go out with him.  As long as he gets out the door on time, it’s easy for me.

Peter seems positive about his experience so far and the teacher wrote a note in his agenda that he had a good first day.  We’ll see how it goes once the novelty wears off.  I picked a Thursday start so that he could go for two days and then have a weekend to recover before having to go for a full week.  As it happens, he gets spring break after that full week, and then a four-day week when he returns.  So it won’t be until mid-April that he has a second full week of school.

The first three days of this week I was focused on getting everything ready for Peter–filling out paperwork, buying supplies, visiting the school, etc.  Now that he’s in school, I need to shift my focus to figuring out what Simon and I are going to do with ourselves during the day.  I certainly haven’t been neglecting Simon, but I haven’t given him as much attention as I would have liked.  We’ll do more preschool-type things and more fun outings.  I’m confident that some days I will be totally fried by too much time with him, but I hope that overall, this change will lead to a better quality of life for all of us.

Since Simon just turned three, my approach to St. Patrick’s Day this year was to treat it as a special day for the color green.  Of course, we wore green clothes (with the exception of Peter, who couldn’t find his green hoodie that says “Ireland” on it, even though it was on the floor next to his bed).  We did an art project by putting a paper in a shallow box, squirting green paint on it, putting a golf ball in the box, and tipping the box to make the golf ball roll through the paint.  After the paint dried, we cut them into shamrock shapes.


We made homemade play dough; I like it better than the store-bought kind because it’s softer and it smells good.  The recipe calls for two packages of Kool-Aid.  I was bummed when there wasn’t any green Kool-Aid at the store, but then inspiration struck and I bought one package of yellow and one package of blue.  Our play dough came out a fairly pale green, but it was green.  It was a big hit.  Simon and I played with it for an hour.  Peter joined us later on in that time and built a castle and a variety of other buildings.

Green play dough

For dinner we had green macaroni and cheese (though it ended up with more lumps of spinach than an even green color because there wasn’t enough spinach for my food processor to work effectively), green beans, Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness smoothie, and green Jell-O for dessert (I wanted to make key lime squares and have all green foods without using food coloring, but it didn’t happen).

The only New Year’s resolution I made this year was to make a special dinner once a month, because I felt I was being rather lazy in doing cool things for my kids (spending any amount of time on Pinterest can make you feel that way).  In January, we had a winter-themed dinner (with snowmen made with mini powdered sugar donuts, snowman-shaped pancakes, “snowballs” that were Crispix muddy buddies, and hot chocolate), and decorated with paper snowflakes and frost paintings (made with an Epsom salt/water solution on blue construction paper; when the water dries, the Epsom salt kind of looks like frost crystals).  Oh, and blue and white streamers.  February was Valentine’s Day.  I don’t remember what we ate other than the pink and white heart-shaped marshmallows and the strawberry syrup I bought for the pancakes.  We decorated with heart-shaped window clings, paper valentines, and red streamers.  St. Patrick’s Day was our special dinner for March.  I promised Don that we’d have a healthier dinner than the last two, which were overly sweet–it was pretty easy to pull that off with a green theme.  I bought green streamers too.  Streamers are a cheap and easy way to make the dining room look festive, at 97 cents for a roll that will last for many occasions.  I don’t yet have a date or theme for our April special dinner.  (Easter is special anyway, just like the boys’ birthdays were special in February, so those don’t count.)

The end may be near

Our homeschooling journey may very well be ending next week.  On Monday, frustrated once again with reminding Peter over and over to do his morning chores and feeling like it was not productive to keep threatening to send him to school whenever I get worn down, I came up with a simple point system.  If he gets his morning chores done to my satisfaction before 9 am, he gets a point.  If he finishes between 9 and 10, he gets 0 points.  If he doesn’t finish by 10 am, he loses a point.  Achieving 5 points gains a reward of his choice.  Reaching -5 points means we go register him for school.  We started on Tuesday; four days in, he has -3 points.  Maybe he’ll wake up and take it seriously next week, but somehow, I just don’t think he will.  At least this way, it is under his control.  His behavior is making the decision, not me being tired and frustrated.

How we will adapt to getting him dressed, fed, packed, and out the door to catch the school bus at 7:40 am remains to be seen.

Not embracing winter

Don accuses me of not embracing the winter here.  He is totally correct that I haven’t embraced it.  I don’t have the time or equipment to take up cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or ice fishing.  Even if I did, I don’t have the motivation for it.

I’ve long viewed winter as a season to “get through.”  It creates a hostile environment.  I can’t just casually step outside my door like I can in the summer.  I have prepare myself by putting on boots, a heavy coat, gloves or mittens, and a hood or hat.  I have to spend more time putting all the same gear on Simon (at least Peter can dress himself).  Then I step out into snowdrifts and bitingly cold wind.  The snow creates work–it has to be plowed and snow-blown.  It turns simple chores, like taking scraps out to the compost bin, into challenging feats.  Our Jetta and snowplow truck have both gotten stuck in our driveway multiple times, causing stress and wasted time.  Air temperature readings of -15 F and wind chills of -20 to -30 F make me want to hole up in our house and avoid unnecessary trips anywhere.

Don found a graphic from the National Weather Service yesterday that said the highest temperatures in the UP were below the lowest temperatures in Alaska; that didn’t exactly make me feel better.  Sometimes I feel cheated because the winter here is more severe than in many parts of Canada (particularly southwestern Ontario, where we lived for the past five years), but we don’t have the benefits of living in Canada.

Our big, old house is not the most energy-efficient.  We spend a small fortune heating it, yet it’s rarely warm enough to be comfortable.  The living room, where the pellet stove is, is the only room that ever actually feels warm, but it also has major drafts.  The rest of the house is usually between the low and mid 60s F.  We mostly avoid eating in the dining room because it’s so cold–there are large windows on two sides, an unheated laundry room on the third side, and the other side opens to the kitchen, which for some inexplicable reason has no heating ducts.  Unless all four of us are eating together (which is more rare than usual, since Don has been so busy at work this semester), we eat at the kitchen counter–the boys sitting on the two stools and me standing up.  My personal hygiene has taken a hit; it’s hard to find the motivation to take a shower when the bathroom is so cold.

I just keep telling myself that it will end.  It won’t be this cold forever.  Another couple weeks and we’ll warm up to freezing, the giant snow piles will start to melt, and it won’t be torture to be outside.  I cling to that hope.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have really struggled with homeschooling this year.  The first week or two was a honeymoon, but since then, it’s been hard.  A month into the school year, I was wondering if I’d made a mistake, if I should just bail and send Peter to school.  Not being a quitting sort, and remembering that sending him to school isn’t fun either (getting him up early, fed, dressed, and out the door on time to catch the bus, packing lunches, getting him to do homework), I kept on trying.  I adjusted the workload so we were only doing 80% of what I had originally scheduled for a week (knowing that that would extend our school year longer, but figuring it was worth it if it reduced our stress).  Peter is not great at focusing on getting things done unless they are his own projects and it could easily take him until lunchtime to do his morning chores–all of going to the bathroom, eating breakfast, cleaning up after his breakfast, taking his vitamins, getting dressed, feeding the cat, emptying the dishwasher (if necessary), shoveling the porch (if necessary), and brushing his teeth.  Then there was his schedule of academic work to contend with.  We mostly kept up with the work we did together, but he wasted time and goofed off and sometimes actively fought me about his independent work.  I tried just letting him be and trying to get things done that I needed to do around the house, letting him experience the consequences of goofing off by not being able to play on the Wii or the computer or read his books or magazines for pleasure until his work was done.  I tried staying on his case, checking on him every 5-10 minutes to remind him what he was supposed to be doing.  Neither was very satisfactory.  He regularly ran into the evening hours and the weekends before he finished what was scheduled.  It’s not like I was piling on an excessive load; he ought to have been done by early to mid-afternoon every day.  He ought to have had plenty of free time to read and build things and go outside and play and do all the things that kids do and learn from.  The way it’s been going is just not my vision for homeschooling.  By December, I was totally burnt out and ready to take him in to start school in January.  A three-week break (including a week-long Caribbean cruise for my husband and me, while the boys stayed with their grandparents), renewed my energy enough to keep trying.  I tried re-organizing his morning chore expectations, changing his checklist to put breakfast last, reminding him of kids in history who would wake up at 5 am and do farm chores for two hours before breakfast.  It helped, but not enough.  Burnout started to creep back.

For a long time, I’ve realized that this is not sustainable.  I spend so much time and energy on Peter–writing lesson plans, doing lessons with him, trying to get him to do his work, checking his work after it’s done–that my life is not balanced.  I’m not keeping up with the housework as well as I should.  I’m not doing enough fun preschool-type things with Simon.  I’m not getting other things done that have been sitting on my to-do list for months.  Most of all, I’m stressed with fighting him all the time; it’s not the relationship I want to have with him.  Yet, I’ve been resistant to sending him to school.  As noted above, there are stresses with having kids in school too.  Academically, I don’t think school would meet his needs very well.  Socially/behaviorally, I think he’s better off at home and out in the community, rather than in school.  And in my own personal experience of attending seven different schools for kindergarten through high school, the schools that I started mid-year were the schools where I felt that I didn’t fit in socially, whereas the schools I started at the beginning of a school year were the ones where I had friends, so I kept trying to convince myself to at least hang in there for the rest of the school year and then send him to school next year.

Last week Peter didn’t finish his work until Sunday evening, despite the fact that I only gave him four day’s worth of work for the week since Simon and I both had colds and I wasn’t up to doing lessons.  This week (another four-day week since I gave him a day off for his birthday on Tuesday), he didn’t finish his work on Wednesday and then wasted so much time on Thursday that he didn’t finish his Wednesday work until Thursday evening, putting him an entire day behind; on Saturday morning, he had a full day’s work to do.  Yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, I sat down at my computer.  I usually do lesson plans on the weekends, so I thought I should probably get started on that.  Then I thought I ought to do some lessons with Peter (who was goofing off instead of getting his independent work done).  I was so tired from fighting with him the past couple days that I didn’t want to do any of it.  I just wanted my weekend to be a break.  So I gave up.  I decided to take him to the local elementary school on Monday to register him, let him have one last day at his homeschool Lego robotics class on Tuesday, and have him start school on Wednesday, which is our state’s Count Day (when the number of students enrolled in a school determines their state funding).  I figured if I was going to send him to school, he should be there on Count Day; I would feel guilty enrolling him afterwards.

I spent the afternoon with thoughts rolling around in my head.  I thought about having to buy Peter a lunchbox and find his backpack.  I thought about what school would be like for him.  I thought about not having him around during the day, about just Simon and me being home.  I didn’t want to send Peter to school, but I couldn’t go on the way it was.  Then a letter came in the mail.  It was for Peter, from a friend he had made in Scouts before we moved here who was also homeschooled.  I remembered her mom’s relaxed attitude toward curriculum.  I thought–maybe we could try unschooling, just to get through this school year.  Then at least I wouldn’t have to send Peter to school in the middle of the school year, which I really don’t want to do.

I looked up some info on unschooling on the internet and it resonated with me more than I expected.  As a self-professed “curriculum junkie”, I always thought unschooling was sort of lazy and haphazard.  But remembering back to when I was a kid, reading books surreptitiously in school because they were more interesting than the lessons being presented, wishing I could just be left alone to do my own thing, I realized how much I would have liking unschooling, and that it would have been a good educational method for me.  Peter is much like me, happily spending hours in books, imaginative, enjoying projects of his own creation.  I think unschooling will work for him.  Rather than being just a way to get through the year, I’m excited about this change.  It will take some of the pressure off me so I can get my life into better balance.  I think Peter will enjoy it.  However, after a careful consideration of our current subjects, I’m not comfortable doing 100% unschooling, so we will “almost unschool”.  I’m going to retain math and French, because I’m not comfortable waiting for Peter to decide he’s interested in learning math and because I don’t want him to lose his French language skills.  Besides that, his learning will be self-directed.  He can read books, magazines, textbooks, ask me for lessons in the subjects he likes, watch educational tv, look up stuff on the internet, write letters/stories/comic books, build projects, do experiments, continue his Lego robotics and gymnastics classes, play outside, and I’m going to get us signed up to do some volunteer work.  Either it will go well and will save our homeschooling journey, or it won’t and Peter will start 5th grade in the fall at the local school.

Seven months in the UP

Today marks seven months since the boys and I arrived at our new home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Don came a couple days earlier).

The summer was wonderful, with long hours of daylight, pleasant temperatures, and all the gorgeous greens and blues of the trees and the water (there’s lots of nature here).

The winter has been challenging.  Winter anywhere with a young child is a challenge, though, and we now have a high-end snowblower (we started the winter without a working snowblower), so future winters should be somewhat easier.  November and December were really rough; we got dumped on with snow and the sky was always gray and dreary.  In my totally non-scientific observation, we’ve had more sun in January than in all of November and December combined, which has helped my outlook considerably (at least I feel hope that someday it will end).  The snow also seems to have eased off somewhat.  We still have plenty on the ground and have gotten a few light snowfalls, but nothing major lately (knock on wood).

Adjusting to living in the US again has been interesting.  We have Canadian satellite tv, and I still get my news online from CBC, so we feel more connected with Canada than the US in some ways.  But obviously, our local environment is American.  I notice it most with health care; I really dislike having to use American health insurance.  The whole system is so complicated, and we have a high deductible ($3500 for the family), so basically we have to pay for everything.  I don’t like questioning whether or not it’s worth the expense to go see a doctor or to take my kid to the emergency room, or making decisions like holding off on getting something done until after New Year’s so it can count towards the next year’s deductible, knowing that there’s no way we would hit the current year’s deductible.

I also miss my grocery stores (Superstore/Loblaws) because of certain products they carried that I can’t find here, along with Bulk Barn, where I could buy cheap spices, small quantities of things that I didn’t need much of (instead of having to buy a whole bag of pretzels because I needed 8 pretzels for a craft), candy, and exotic treats.

Another adjustment has been to having propane heat, using a pellet stove for supplemental heat, and having a septic system.  It makes me think more about how warm we heat the house (not enough for my comfort, but I feel like I have to put up with the chill) and what kinds of chemicals go down the drain.  We also have started a compost bin, which is something I’ve wanted to do for years; I feel good about not throwing away organic waste.  Something that does bug me is that we can’t recycle glass here, and are more limited in other things to recycle (for example, we could recycle Tetra-Paks and certain plastics in Ontario but we can’t here).

Although I was born here and grew up here, I like Canada better and would prefer to live there.  But we are here and expect to be here for the long haul, so I’m doing my best to focus on the good things here.  Probably the best (other than the natural beauty) is the homeschool partnership program through a local school district.  Peter is taking a Lego robotics class there once a week.  They are paying for him to take gymnastics lessons, which he is enjoying (he decided he didn’t want to play hockey this year).  They also are paying for us to get a non-resident family membership to the best public library in the area (which is awesome because the tiny library that we otherwise are stuck with has terrible hours and has been a real disappointment).

All in all, we are settling in and adapting.  This is a good place to live and raise a family.

A little boy in Haiti

A week ago, I returned from a long-anticipated trip to Haiti, where I volunteered at an orphanage for a week.  I have been interested in Haiti for about eight years and have studied Haitian Creole off and on in my spare time during those years, but for a combination of financial and personal reasons, I wasn’t able to go there until now.

One of the children I met who touched my heart was a little boy, whose name and picture I cannot post here for privacy reasons.  At 23 months old, he was abandoned at a hospital, weighing only 10 pounds.  Haitian social services transferred him to the orphanage about two and a half weeks before I came.  He had been weighed the day I arrived and was up to 14 pounds, but he was still quite weak, unable to sit up unassisted and sometimes too tired to hold his head up.  He made little noise and certainly said no words.  When offered a toy, he tucked in his thumb and tried to grasp it with just his fingers; I kept moving his thumb around the toys so he could get used to the feel of a proper grip.  His rare smiles showed a mouthful of white teeth in his thin face, the best evidence that he really was as old as he was said to be, because his size and behavior were more like those of a younger baby.

Although I can’t share his photo publicly, I assure you that he is a real boy.  I met him, I held him on my lap, I fed him spoonful after tiny spoonful of food with a consistency of pudding while he cried in protest, I held a sippy cup for him to drink from, and I carried him around and sang to him until he fell asleep.  But I shouldn’t have been the one to do those things for him; I was just a short-term volunteer, there for a week and then gone.  His mother should have been the one to do those things.

As a short-term volunteer, I was only given limited information about the children’s backgrounds.  Knowing that I cannot know the answers, I wonder.  Is his mother alive?  Does she know where he is now?  Does she wonder about how he’s doing and pray for his well-being?  Will she ever see him again?

I can only imagine the desperation she must have felt, making the decision to leave her child in the hope that someone else would care for him.  No parent should ever have to make the decision between abandoning her child and watching him starve to death.

After flying back to Miami, on the drive from the airport to my hotel, I saw a billboard advertising the opportunity to lease a Maserati for $699 per month.  To see such poverty and then such excess was striking.  The classic American attitude toward the poor–“they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps”–doesn’t work in such cases of extreme poverty.  You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t even have boots.

If you’re the praying type, please pray for this boy and his family.  And pray for the people with Maseratis, that they might be moved to use some of their money to help those who can’t afford to feed their children.


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