Monday, August 31, 2015

All Aboard My (Non-Confrontational and Respectful) PTO Soapbox

Last week a uniquely honest and humorous fundraising letter was sent home to parents from the PTO at their students’ middle school. The letter went viral (it was shared close to 200,000 times, last I checked) within just a few short hours, and the comments made were overwhelmingly positive.

As the mother of a third grader and a first grader I absolutely understand why so many parents have praised the letter and the alternate style of fundraising it outlines. Regardless of our children’s ages, we are busy. Overwhelmed. Frustrated, even. Many of us feel like homework, sports practices, music lessons, church activities, and social events have taken over our lives, leaving little time and energy left for family and absolutely no time and energy left for the “extras” that often accompany school.

Parent Teacher Organizations/Associations have, over the years, gained a less-than-favorable reputation for attempting to squeeze every last cent out of their schools’ already over-extended parents. I don’t doubt that a handful of these organizations deserve this reputation, but others have been branded with it unfairly.

The PTO at my children’s elementary school, on whose board (disclaimer) I serve, will hold three true fundraisers this year. With the money raised, we pay for, among other things, field trips, alumni college scholarships, guest speakers, school-wide family events, staff appreciation, teacher grants to fund classroom materials and equipment not covered by the school or district budget, and a number of special projects like playground upgrades, auditorium sound systems, and literacy libraries. The school could operate without PTO, but the education, opportunities, and experiences available to our students would look considerably different.

We choose our fundraisers carefully. Our first and biggest fundraiser focuses on character development and physical fitness. Yes, it’s a “thon”, as in the kids collect pledges to run laps, but the preparation for doing so involves so much more than talking about raising money. These kids train for the run, and along the way they learn about responsibility, kindness, perseverance, honesty, and respect through the character lessons provided by the program.
My kiddos LOVE our annual fun run, and I treasure the opportunity to 
share in their excitement while simultaneously supporting their school.

Our second fundraiser is a ~dreaded~ product fundraiser. We run this fundraiser eight weeks before the holiday season with the honest goal of making parents’ holiday shopping a little easier. We also change the product sold every year, so that if you purchased candles and candle warmers for your family members and friends last year, this year you can gift them personalized tumblers.

Our third fundraiser is run entirely in-house, meaning PTO receives 100% of the money donated. It is another “thon”, but this time, instead of focusing on character development and physical fitness, we focus on academics in the form of a spell-a-thon. Our students work diligently to learn their grade-level words and then spell them correctly on a spelling test, knowing that their hard work directly translates to support for their school.

So yes, three fundraisers a year. But PTO also hosts additional in-school and community events – movie nights, math and literacy events, and talent shows – that don’t involve asking parents to donate toward the PTO budget. Many believe these organizations exist just to raise money, but the presence of these PTO-driven, non-fundraising events prove otherwise.

We (PTO) want school to feel welcoming and inclusive to everyone. Students should of course want to come to school, but parents should also feel comfortable visiting the building and joining the team of administrators, teachers, specialists, and volunteers helping make education and experiences happen at school. PTO asks parents for help not just because the organization needs help, but because the organization wants parents to know they’re welcome.

I’ll be the first to admit that the fundraisers I mentioned above – along with every other fundraiser out there – have their flaws. But the PTO does its absolute best to make fundraising easy for parents.

You’re probably thinking, “if you want easy, go with the alternative fundraiser”. And we just might, if raising money were the only goal fundraisers aim to accomplish. “Make a donation now, in whatever amount you feel your school needs and can financially afford at this time, and we promise to leave you alone for the remainder of the year.” In all likelihood, most PTOs could meet their annual budgets going this route.

But we (PTO) also want to help children learn how to combine forces toward achieving a common goal. After all, not every problem or deficit can be solved simply by Mom or Dad writing a check. By involving children in the fundraising process – training for the run, practicing the assigned spelling words – they begin to understand, even as kindergarteners, the positive impact they can have on their school. They learn that individual and team-based hard work make a difference.

The fundraising letter was shared with the best of intentions, and my co-PTO Board members and I loved it. We sent it back and forth and laughed about all of the silly bullet points and dollar amounts we could include if we sent such a letter to our parents. Please understand that this post is also shared with the best of intentions, to help parents understand why we (PTO) do what we do, why we give what we give, and why we don’t just ask you for the $75 you would have spent on a dress for our Frozen-themed gala.

Oooh, now there’s an idea…watch for a Frozen-themed gala, coming soon to an elementary school near you.

I’m kidding, OF COURSE.


A special thanks to MomsEveryday for helping me share this post.

Friday, August 28, 2015

High Five for Friday (8.28.15)

1. Last Friday night Will graduated to a Tae Kwon Do red belt. Since his first lesson two and a half years ago, Will's goal has been to earn his black belt, and for the first time it truly feels like he might get there.
Given the emphasis we've always placed on not hitting/kicking, it's
strange to watch your 8yo jump roundhouse kick a 9yo in the head. 

Congratulations, Will!
After training as a red belt for four months, Will will attempt to test out of red and graduate to red/black. Red/black is the only transitional ranking, given to students who have completed the red belt requirements and are training to test for their black belts. After four additional months of training as a red/black, Will will hopefully test for his black belt next April.

2. Both kiddos had an excellent first day of school. Hallie gave me a hug and kiss and ran to begin working at her desk, while Will allowed me to discretely hug him before he pulled away and joined his buddies in a conversation about football. They left me so quickly that I barely had time to whisper my traditional "work hard and be kind" in their ears.

I cried all the way home for the first time ever.

3. We live in a college town, which means that a week or two before the public schools start back, 50,000 college students return in droves.

While swimming with friends last week, two young women joined us at the pool. Cell phones in hand, they climbed aboard their rafts, took a selfie or two, and set sail in the deep end of the pool. We wondered how long they'd last, given the enthusiastic games of Marco Polo, hide-and-seek, and "see how big a splash we can make jumping into the deep end" our kiddos were playing here, there, and everywhere.

The pool area offers very few places to hide, so when I thought of a clever - although slightly odd - idea, I called Will over and whispered it in his ear. He smiled and hurried off, not slowing until he reached the corner of the pool where the young women lounged on their rafts. From across the pool I saw him extend a greeting as he jumped into the water right next to them. Then, just as the "it" friend finished counting, he took a deep breath and ducked under the water…and swam down a few feet underneath their rafts.

Now you see him, now you don't. Repeat.

He stayed hidden beneath them until he ran out of breath, at which point he popped up, filled his lungs, and swam back down. Meanwhile Will's new friends took a few pictures - which I imagine are now on Facebook and Instagram tagged with #crazykidsthesedays - and enjoyed the attention they thought he was giving them. Little did they know that Will cared about only one thing: hiding from Kaylee and Paloma.

4. This week brought with it a smorgasbord of anxiety. I lost sleep over the kids heading back to school and have consistently felt unsettled, nervous, and nauseous about a number of commitments and decisions ahead of us. But…I made it! Conversations with friends, lots of exercise, "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", one chocolate candy bar, four chocolate chip cookies, a little wine, and a handful of special moments spent with my kiddos kept "anxious" from turning into "overwhelmed". High five!

5. Happiness Highlights:
I agree wholeheartedly and do my very best to choose happiness
every day, but an occasional reminder to stay the course doesn't hurt.
Tux doesn't like it when Will focuses on anything other than him.
Tom spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington
DC. He had a little free time, so he took advantage
of the sunny, 74-degree day and wandered around
town visiting monuments and museums. He
deserved a day to do something so relaxing.
And then Tom spent Thursday and Friday
in Michigan, flying/working in this little tiny
plane. High five that he landed safely.
Though I've missed Will and Hallie this week, my first solo trip to the
grocery store in three months - no car cart, no one begging to ride, no
one begging to walk, no one fighting/crying/whining - was glorious.
I haven't written about the weather recently,
mostly because it's "sunny with a high of 100
degrees" every day. Except yesterday morning…
when this is what I saw on my phone when I rolled
out of bed. Granted it was 93 degrees by the time
I walked to pick up the kids from school, but it
was a small taste of sweet relief from summer.
Happy Friday, friends!

Linking up with High Five for Friday!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The New Year Starts Today

Making resolutions on the first day of a new calendar year has never felt right to me. Other than how I (fail miserably at trying to correctly) write the date on an occasional check, nothing changes on January 1st. We return home after celebrating Christmas and New Year's Eve with family and pick up exactly where we left off - same grades in school for the kids, same work schedules for Tom and me, same evening activities for all four of us - the previous year.

In September, however, life changes dramatically. The kids begin new grades, work with new teachers, and make new friends. Tom goes back to teaching after spending the summer working outside the classroom. I restructure my days to fit in as much work - of both the paid and volunteer varieties - as possible between the hours of 9:30am and 2:30pm. Our evenings suddenly become a juggling act, with Tom and I acting as the circus performers and trying desperately not to drop our soccer, Tae Kwon Do, basketball, dance, gymnastics, swimming, disc golf, homework, and dinner "balls".

Starting the new year in September, when change comes naturally and causes me considerably less stress, makes sense. And so this year, to see if doing so leads to better results, I plan to kick off my New Year's Resolutions this week.

Here they are, in no particular order:
  1. Step away from work, and therefore close my computer (unless I need it for a dinner recipe), between the hours of 2:45pm and 7:30pm.
  2. With Will, Hallie, and/or Tom, visit at least one new Texas restaurant, park, attraction, performing arts venue, or sports arena every month.
  3. Read one book a month. (Yes, Mockingjay for the fourth time counts.)
  4. Start taking pictures with my DSLR camera again.
  5. Go on one lunch date with Tom each month.
  6. Go on one dinner date with Tom each month.
I have no doubt the upcoming year will throw many a curveball in my/our direction, just like every year before and every year yet to come. That's why I see these resolutions as a reflection, generally speaking and big picture-wise, of what I hope the next 12 months will look like for our family rather than a set of strict, specific "rules" for me to follow.    

I woke up on Monday morning excited to send the kids off to school and jumpstart our new year. I woke up this morning just as excited to begin working on my New Year's Resolutions. And I know that when I wake up on New Year's Day, I'll be thrilled to have already tackled half of my goals for the year.

Happy New Year, friends!


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tuesdays With Tux (8.25.15)

Hallie burst into the kitchen with a huge smile on her face. "Tuxie Wuxie decided to sleep on my bed this afternoon! Tuxie Wuxie is sleeping on my bed for the first time EVER!" She could barely contain her excitement as she considered the possibility that Tux might actually want to spend his afternoon in her space, rather than in Will's.

"Come see, Mama," she begged.

At that moment I happened to be elbow deep in a sink full of hot, soapy water and dirty dishes, so I suggested Hallie take a picture of Tux with my phone and then bring the phone back to me so I could see the scene. This is the picture she took:

I laughed out loud when I saw the photo. OF COURSE Tux was sleeping on Hallie's bed…Will was on Hallie's bed.

I couldn't burst Hallie's bubble, so I just smiled and commented on how comfortable Tux looked. Which he did, on that day in that moment. He hasn't been back since.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Work Hard and Be Kind

Every morning since Will's first day of kindergarten I have sent him, and then Hallie, out the door with a hug, a kiss, a declaration of love, and a simple request.

"Work hard and be kind."

Today Will and Hallie begin a new school year, complete with new teachers, friends, expectations, responsibilities, and experiences. I wish for them a year overflowing with academic learning, emotional growth, and opportunities for physical activity, creative expression, laughter, and fun.

I also wish - and hope and pray - that as they navigate the educational and social paths ahead of them, they remember my simple request. I hope they remember that while grades are important, report card percentages matter less than the hard work that went into them and the learning that occurred along the way. I hope they remember that a victory in the classroom or on the playing field means nothing if others were pushed down in order for them to rise up. And I hope they remember that kindness goes further than indifference, cattiness, and cruelty combined.

When they feel discouraged, frustrated, sad, or even angry - which they will undoubtedly feel at some point throughout the school year - I hope they hear my voice in their heads, reminding them that hard work and kindness matter most of all.

For fun, here are pictures of Will and Hallie on their very first days of school. Will started around the time he turned two because I'd gone back to work and preschool served as our daycare, and Hallie started at two-and-a-half because she wanted to go to school with Will more than anything else in entire the world. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

High Five for Friday (8.21.15)

1. Last Friday night Hallie went on her very first sleepover. She and two friends spent the night at their friend Kara's house, and all four girls made it the entire night! Kara's mom Mandi happens to be one of my best friends, so I wasn't at all worried, but as someone who didn't successfully spend the night at a friend's house until the sixth grade (I tried time and time again, but my mom always had to come pick me up late at night), I feel a great deal of relief knowing that neither of my kids suffer from that particular kind of anxiety.

2. Hallie needs 10-11 hours of sleep, so the six or so hours she caught at the sleepover weren't enough to keep her functioning the following day. The girl who hasn't napped in three years cried herself to sleep, snoozed hard for two full hours, and then cuddled with me for another 30 minutes. It was glorious. Except when she cried herself to sleep - that part was painful for Hallie, me, and Will.

3. In what was one of my most brilliant plans to date, I scheduled a date with Tom for the evening after the sleepover. So while Tom and I went to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (so good) and out for dinner afterwards, our lovely babysitter Peyton handled feeding and putting our exhausted kiddos to bed.

(And in true Tom and Erin fashion, we ended our date doing something others might find completely unromantic but suited us perfectly - shopping for discs golf discs.)

4. I love it friends take pictures of Ferris Wheels for me. The first picture is of the wheel at the Wisconsin State Fair, and the second and third pictures are of the wheel at the Ventura County Fair in California.

5. Happiness Highlights:
It took 30 minutes, but eventually they
figured out how to "share" the whale.
Another member of the Ferris family has
begun training for American Ninja Warrior.
These two cuties have been disc golfing with their
dads the last couple of weeks - they're adorable.
I was up at school helping a friend in her classroom,
so Tom and the kids had to fend for themselves for
an entire Saturday afternoon. They baked cookies,
and then made a meme about it. Yum!
The first female NFL coach and first female NFL official in a photo
taken before one of last weekend's preseason games. Made me happy.
Happy Friday, friends!

Linking up with High Five for Friday!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Hallie Chestnuts a 'Nan

Every year on the 4th of July we watch the Nathan's Hotdog Eating Contest on ESPN. For years a Japanese Eater named Takeru Kobayashi won the golden belt, however in 2007 he lost to Joey Chestnut, a newcomer with a new style of eating.

Tom and I refer to Chestnut's eating style as the "bite and push" method. He takes a bite and pushes the hotdog farther into his mouth. Then he takes another bite and pushes the hotdog farther into his mouth again. He never sets the hotdog down or even lets it break contact with his lips. (It's unclear where in the process chewing and swallowing occur.) After watching Chestnut for a few years, Tom and I renamed the "bite and push" method after him, as in "Will, are you going to Chestnut that hotdog?"

When she was itty bitty, Hallie loved bananas, as in she ate two each morning for breakfast and on some days, a third as an afternoon snack. (Back then Will loved bananas too, so I bought between 20 and 35 bananas at the grocery store every week.) She ate them quickly, usually finishing both breakfast bananas in about three minutes…and she ate them Chestnut-style.

Without further adieu, here is baby Hallie, showing us how to "Chestnut a 'nan".

Thanks for watching this summer's Throwback Thursday videos! Until next summer, Throwback Thursday!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It's Not Always Easy, But It's Usually Worth It

Monday's post about big kids prompted a flashback of sorts to my own childhood.

If I had big kids in my life, I don't remember them. But as the oldest sibling in my family, the oldest cousin on one side of my extended family, and the oldest girl in my large camping family, I remember plenty about being the big kid myself. I spent many a holiday playing with and taking care of my younger relatives.

My parents were careful not to ask too much of me as a big kid, and they made an effort to balance the time I spent in a supervisory role with time spent on my own, with them, or with friends. For example…

My sister Sara didn't grow to love roller coasters until her teenage years. Prior to reaching that level of maturity, she could only muster enough courage to ride the simplest, slowest kiddie rides. These rides couldn't hold adults, so my parents would silently eye-plead with me to accompany Sara on the kiddie ride of her choice. The reward was a ride on the tilt-a-whirl with my dad, so I always agreed…and here's what always happened:

Sara joined the back of the line enthusiastically, but as we inched closer and closer to the ride, she grew quiet. When our turn to climb into the race cars (or firetrucks or helicopters or boats) arrived, I took her hand and gently pulled dragged her into our chosen mode of faux transportation. And then, when the ride lurched forward, Sara started to cry. Seconds later her cries turned to screams. 

I was far too old and big to be on the ride in the first place, and then there I was, sitting next to a SCREAMING child who was also borderline too old and big to be on the ride. As we slowly circled, I simultaneously tried to console Sara (she never cared much for my consoling though, so it did little good) and shot my mom looks that said, "I want more than a ride on the tilt-a-whirl for this. I want six rides on the tilt-a-whirl and a ride on the scrambler and an ice cream cone and the new Kokomo cassette tape for my walkman".

Between our bi-annual visits to a favorite amusement park near my grandparents' house in Green Bay, the county fair, and other festivals with rides, this scenario repeated itself no fewer than 12 times throughout my late childhood/tween years. In those moments I was mortified, but as I grew older I eventually understood how important it was to my parents that I acted the role of Sara's big kid. (I also understood that I could take 100% of the credit for the daredevil amusement park rider Sara became.)

This summer my mom, Sara, and I took our four kids to one of our favorite amusement parks in Wisconsin. When the time came to try out the kiddie rides, Hallie and Lily wanted to ride together (just the two of them), which left Carter all by himself. It took just one silent eye-plea for Will to climb aboard car after firetruck after boat with Carter.

Will helped Carter buckle up, showed him how to honk the horns and ring the bells, and only complained once about how his knees kept banging against the firetruck steering wheel. I think he understood - at a much earlier age than I did - how important it was to me and Sara that he act the role of Carter's big kid.

After the kiddie rides a deserving Will rode the bumper cars, the roller coaster twice, and the tilt-a-whirl four times in a row before we went home.

And now that's enough about the big kids. Stay little, little ones.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tuesdays With Tux (8.18.15)

Will and Tux have developed a new game. Tux hides on the trundle beneath Will's bed, and waits, surprisingly patiently, for Will to climb out of bed or reach down and pick up something he's dropped on the floor. Then with a speed and agility seen only from frisky kittens, Tux attacks.

And then they play again, and again, and again, until I finally go in and make those boys Go. To. Sleep.

Monday, August 17, 2015

God Bless the Big Kids

I don't often share an article or blog post as the foundation for one of my blog posts, but this particular piece spoke to me so loudly that I knew I had to build on it here.

"Big Kids are a parent's unsung heroes…Every time you've shared your treats, danced with our preschoolers, tickled our cranky little ones and made them giggle in delight, you've done everyone an enormous service. You've helped us carry some of the burden of parenthood, and when we were weary and irritable, you stepped up with a smile and your youthful enthusiasm and restored our hope for the future.

Sometimes adults ask a lot of you…On behalf of grown-ups everywhere, I apologize for this. We aren't perfect. We get tired and harried and we often feel like we are thisclose to needing a straitjacket. But that thing you did where you had your brother pretend that he was a kitty so that he would finally go potty so we could leave? That was genius, man. That's why we need you guys so much. You're old enough to be responsible and have some authority now, but at the same time, you're still a kid, and that means you're young enough to still see the world with fresh eyes and new ideas, and you come up with creative solutions to things that sometimes adults are too jaded and "over it" in that moment to think up themselves.

I am grateful that we have you, so that my 4-year-old can go to your gymnastics practices and your piano recitals and your middle school spring musical and see in her future the possibilities for the things that she can do if she works hard the way she's seen you do. That's a life lesson only you Big Kids can teach her, and you do it without even trying.

As the mom of one of the "little kids," I thank you. You guys are awesome, and I know that pretty soon, when these little kids turn into a new set of big kids, they're going to be awesome too because they had you guys to show them how it's done."

I abbreviated the original post for space, but every word belongs to Victoria Fedden via Scary Mommy. You can read the post in its entirety here

As I read Victoria's words I found myself repeating, first to myself and then out loud, "yes. Yes. YES. THIS. OVER AND OVER AGAIN THIS".

Will and Hallie have known and learned from incredible big kids since we moved to Texas. Friends' older siblings and older sibling's friends. Student Council members at their elementary school. High school student helpers at Tae Kwon Do, soccer camps, and dance lessons. "Stranger" kids at the park. These big kids have, in their own unique ways, made my road as a parent a little less difficult to travel. They have also, and perhaps more importantly, set a simple yet beautiful example of how to behave responsibly, treat elders with respect, work hard, play hard, and treat others with kindness.

These kids have a piece of my heart, and "thank you" just doesn't seem adequate.

Though Will and Hallie still have plenty of big kids in their lives, throughout the last couple of years they themselves have, in certain circumstances, taken on the big kid role. Will in particular, as the oldest child in his family and the oldest cousin on both sides of his extended family, has begun to understand how significant his influence over his sister, cousins, and younger friends. He slips up occasionally - he's only eight, after all - but most of the time he holds hands, gives piggy back rides, ties shoes, reads books, and teaches sword fighting (his specialty). My heart swells with pride when I see him set the very best example he can, following the lead of those who set their very best example for him.

It takes a village, but the village isn't made up of just moms and dads and aunts and uncles and grandparents and grown-ups. The village needs big kids.

God bless the big kids.