A road through the past

I’m in favor of modern, paved roads, when it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to drive on them (more on that later). Nine times out of 10 times, modern roads are helpful. But if you’re the fool who carries historical maps inside your head, modern roads can befuddle you occasionally.

On our summer vacation, we took a day to visit Gettysburg. This was a risky move, as the battlefield was an enticing attraction to only two members of our five-person family. I have always been a reader of American History. Big Brother has an interest in history as well. He took an 8th grade Civil War class last spring and was eager to see the field.

For the others, interest in Gettysburg was less acute. My wife likes to visit famous places, but once somebody tells her who won, she feels like she’s got all the info about the battle she needs. Buster believes when you go someplace with a cannon on every hill, you should be allowed to blow up something. Big Man just wants a hotel with a pool.

Sorry, Buster. All those guns are just for looking at.

It was a hot, humid day, but everyone bore it well. My wife was a trooper, driving us around and stopping wherever I asked so we could examine the monuments and walk the ground. I used the map in my head to answer Big Brother’s questions.

By the time we got to Little Round Top, it was the heat of the afternoon. We all climbed to the apex and took in the view. I wandered to the left, trying to locate the end of the Union battle line. Big Brother followed, and suddenly we were on a sacred quest to find the monument to the 20th Maine.

The beaten path ended, and we found ourselves exploring through underbrush. Now that the hunt had begun, the younger boys took up the chase, rushing downhill through the weeds to keep up. My wife followed out of concern for her wayward boys, issuing a constant bugle call of poison ivy warnings.

In the overgrowth, we discover the monument to the regiment in line next to the 20th. We must be close. Big Brother forged ahead, convinced he would soon be standing upon that hallowed spot.

He stopped short, clearly befuddled. When I came up to him, I understood why. He stood at a clearing with a paved road running through. We followed the road to an intersection, wondering how we could have missed the marker.

At the intersection we noticed a park ranger addressing a small group across the intersecting road. Then we knew our mistake. The modern roads had messed up the maps in our heads. The monument was just where it should have been, and just where we might have looked, had the Union line been bisected by asphalt in 1863.

No matter. We found our Holy Grail. A 13-year-old solidified his connection to the past. Even his tired and sweaty little brothers seemed satisfied. Their dad was happy about many things at that moment.

We didn’t see everything, but we couldn’t leave without finding this.

Mom had gone to get the car. When we felt the air conditioning inside, she became Gettysburg’s greatest hero.

EPILOGUE

A month later I got the Pay-by-Plate toll in the mail from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The toll for driving from the Ohio border to the Gettysburg exit, one way, was $67. Paved roads are getting to be trouble.

Oh, look: a bird!

Yesterday was Parent-Teacher Conference day in our house. We had a total of six conferences for our three boys, all of them on Zoom. The meetings went fine, but they were sometimes awkward. This is not surprising because teacher conferences are often awkward and Zoom always is.

I don’t know how it is for parents of girls, but parents of boys can be confident the teacher will, at some point in the discussion, say a sentence like: “He’s a smart kid, but he sometimes gets distracted and loses focus on the task at hand.”

Yes. We know. We’re the ones who have to tell him to put on his shoes 18 times every morning.

It would save a lot of time if we could just assume this truth for every boy at every conference. You can still tell us he’s a smart kid if you want, but the rest is just repetitious ceremony at this point.

We had conferences with four of Big Brother’s middle school teachers. It was a tie. Two of them claimed he was quiet and low-key; two said he was too chatty in class. Past experience gave the credibility edge to the chatty votes, but it bore further investigation.

“It depends on if I have friends in the class,” Big Brother explained. “In Language Arts I sit next to a kid who hasn’t said three words all year.”

My poor boy is having his chattiness stunted by introverts.

“Why don’t you use your Superpower for talking in class to bring him out of his shell?” I asked.

Big Brother shook his head. We both knew if we made talking into a purposeful task, he’d get distracted and lose focus.

The two elementary school boys got good reports from their teachers. Big Man’s 2nd grade teacher raved about what a helpful and cooperative boy he was. She has never had to chase the barefooted Boy Wonder with a pair of socks. This boy would go barefoot at the North Pole. You’d think a pair of socks was a straitjacket on his soul. Yes, he’s cooperative, until his toes once again taste the sweet breeze of freedom.

Big Man’s dream: a barefoot school, concerned with what’s going on outside.

Buster is a good 4th grade citizen, but don’t expect him to volunteer any answers unless he’s specifically called upon to do so. No teacher has ever said Buster was chatty in the classroom. They don’t realize it, but he’s chatting up a storm. Inside his own head, he’s making up jokes, singing songs, and doing a few silent thought experiments. He knows the answers; he’s just waiting for the right questions.

I was going to write more on this topic, but I’m still a boy at heart, and if you could talk to my teacher I’m sure you would hear that I sometimes get distracted and lose focus on my task. No word yet on whether I’m a smart kid.

If you keep asking me to lie for you, how are you ever going to learn to do it for yourself?

Buster came home from 4th grade with a job application. This labor shortage must be getting pretty bad, I thought, if they’re recruiting workers in elementary school. On the bright side, if it were an application to work in a restaurant, maybe he’d get a gig as bartender and I could score some free drinks.

It turned out it was only an application for one of the classroom chores listed on the back of the paper. There are classroom tasks for the kids to do, and they must choose which one they’d prefer and apply for it. This strikes me as a creative exercise for the students, but I’m still a little disappointed at the lost dream of free drinks.

Buster was not as appreciative of the exercise as I was. First, he couldn’t decide which job he wanted. He asked me to choose for him, but I refused. I wasn’t going to spend the school year hearing him whine that I had picked out a lousy career for him. Besides, it wasn’t my choice to make.

Take care choosing your 4th grade job; you could be doing it a long time.

At last, he decided to apply to be the class “Substitute.” This is the kid who does the job of any of the more ambitious kids when they call in sick. The choice didn’t exactly scream “initiative” at me, but it was his choice.

Next he had to explain why he wanted this job. This was a huge hurdle for the boy. He fretted and pouted and whined, begging me to answer this for him.

I told him I couldn’t explain his choice. He was the only person who could do that. “Just write down why you chose that job,” I told him.

“I don’t know why,” he whined. “I just picked it randomly.”

“Then write that down,” I replied. I knew he didn’t feel like that was as adequate answer. Also, I had a feeling it wasn’t 100% true.

“I can’t say that!” he protested.

“Is that why you picked it?”

“Kind of.”

“And?”

“And you don’t have to do much.”

Aha! The truth comes out! Imagine a nine-year-old boy wanting to avoid doing chores! Scandalous!

“But I can’t put that down as my reason,” he said. “Can you tell me what to write?”

“No. I can’t. This is where you have to think for yourself. If you don’t want to tell the real reason, you have to think of something else that makes sense.”

“Can you just tell me?” he pleaded.

“No. This is why you go to school. To learn how to think, so you can lie plausibly.”

After more pouting, he settled upon the explanation that he liked to do a variety of jobs, which I thought was as credible as it was disingenuous.

Some people work hard at useful tasks, and some people work hard at excusing themselves from such tasks. Sometimes the excuses end up being more burdensome than the original tasks. I wonder if, in all his application angst, that truth ever occurred to Buster.

Don’t be a Puzzled Penguin

In the past six months, I’ve learned more about being a first grader than I have since I was a first grader. Part of each of my days is spent in first grade, learning to read and do addition and subtraction. Part of each day is spent in third grade as well, learning to read a little better and do multiplication and division.

There are a lot more parents, like me, in first grade this year than there were in the 1973-74 academic year. As I recall, it used to be mostly little kids, but now parents are having to figure out how to use all the many online tools that make the remote learning elementary school go. Fortunately, we all have a six or seven-year-old nearby to help us.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle, but in order that we don’t get too frustrated, we call it a symbiotic relationship: Big Man wants help with his homework; before I can begin to help him, he must teach me how to use the online platform that jealously guards this day’s homework inside its electronic labyrinth.

It can be taxing, but we’re getting through it together. Our two heads combined are enough to graduate one of us from first grade. I just hope it’s the one still full of potential.

Along the way, we’ve have had some adventures and met some characters. One of the noteworthy entities I’ve met in electronic first grade is the Puzzled Penguin. The Puzzled Penguin shows up occasionally on one of the arithmetic applications.

I first met the Puzzled Penguin when Big Man and I encountered a math problem that went something like this:

                The Puzzled Penguin thinks 7 + 5 = 10 + 3. Is he correct?

Before I had even finished reading the problem, Big Man announced with certainty: “Nope, he’s wrong!”

I was amazed at the speed of his calculation. “Wow! How’d you do that addition so fast?”

“I didn’t add anything.”

“Then how do you know he’s wrong.”

“Easy. The Puzzled Penguin’s always wrong.”

“But why is he wrong?”

Big Man shrugged. “Because he’s dumb?”

“I mean why is he wrong in this case?”

“Because he’s still dumb?”

I put the screen squarely in front of him. “Okay. Do the math and tell me why he’s wrong.”

He gave me an exasperated look. “I already told you the answer. Because the Puzzled Penguin is always wrong.”

As he was speaking, Buster entered the room. “Oh, the Puzzled Penguin,” Buster mused. “I remember him. That dumb bird is always wrong.”

The only thing we learned about arithmetic that day is that penguins are consistent.

Believe me, we’ve tried to help him.