Yes, Virginia, You Can Learn Something from Cranky Elves

IMG_4272I suppose if it were a scene from the movie Bad Santa, it would have been amusing: Santa ambling up the mall hallway, candy cane cane in hand to steady his gait, his anticipating groupies—ages ten and under—waiting (perhaps not especially) patiently for his arrival back from his scheduled dinner break.  Chaos abounded—as is to be expected at this most festive time of year.  To get a handle on things, both my mother-in-law and I virtually simultaneously inquired of two of Santa’s “elves” where we should line up.  Both pointed to our right, so line up we did. We were the first to do so.  So, once Santa seated himself and visited briefly with weeks-old twins, my three boys made their enthusiastic way up to his capacious chair.

We choose this same spot every year.  First of all, Santa’s beard is real; and, not immaterially, he is also patient and kind.  And it is always the same Santa (or certainly appears that way) since the time my oldest son, now nine, was an infant.  In recent years we have taken to going the day after Thanksgiving—yes, Black Friday.  For our children, the magic works: They see Santa arrive in New York City at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at noon the previous day; so it makes sense that by six o’clock the next evening he would have made his way to Providence, Rhode Island.

It dawned on my oldest last year that Santa was more a magical construct than an actual hirsute gentleman in a red velvet suit.  But he played along this year—and at times seemed the most fervent of the three.  The boys made their lists, and with their devoted grandparents in tow, we made our way to see our friend.

When the boys approached Santa and began their simultaneous holiday monologues, I stood nearby—hoping to garner a few ideas from their stream-of-consciousness litany but also ready to wrangle them for the obligatory picture for which I was ready to plunk down probably ten times what it costs them to print it.  In the middle of my youngest’s conversation with St. Nick, one of the photographer “elves” came over to us, pointed to another family and said, not without a decided edge, “Excuse me, they were next.”  I was a little taken aback.  Interrupting a child’s visit with Santa seems rather irreverent—especially when the interrupter is sporting an apron that says “I’m Santa-Approved.”  But I didn’t want to argue; so, in my best parenting (read: sarcastic) voice I said, “Well, Santa, I guess we’ll have to come back.  Your elf said these folks were next.”

Now, whether they were or not I cannot say.  They were situated clear across from where we had been told by the elves in authority to line up.  We thought we were following the rules; but if someone else were truly next, then next they should be.  But the woman who was purportedly “next” told me she would wait—that my children should continue their visit since they had already started.  And she was right.  But the elf photographers seemed a little chagrined.

They tried to take some photos, but since they were already put out, they pictures weren’t coming out especially well. The photographers were losing what was left of theirIMG_4280 limited and collective patience, and it was showing in their efforts.  No one expects a work of art from their “Visit with Santa” photograph, but eyes open shouldn’t be too much to ask.  One of the elves said resignedly, after snapping six times, “We can only do a couple more.  That’s it.”  He snapped two more—one of which was a perfunctory effort at best, the other just okay; but I was increasingly aware that our time was up.  People were waiting—not to mention the woman who gave up what she believed to be her spot for us.  So I simply said, “Why don’t I just snap a few with my camera, and we’ll call it a day?”  I took one photo—with just two of my three children (the oldest had already left), and I was told I needed to make a donation—that anyone who takes pictures with his or her own camera (and is thus not going to purchase one of their products) needed to make an obligatory one-dollar donation to what I am sure is a worthy cause.  Wanting this to be over—and not a little disappointed that this was going to be the first year in ten we would not have an “official” picture—I put down a dollar in coins on their desk.  One of Santa’s elves then literally and not a little invasively dropped the six coins back into my wallet and said, “We don’t want your money.”

At that point, I asked for the name of the person in charge of their operation.  Santa moved on to the next child, my own children went back into the recesses of the mall with their grandparents and father.  A business card was handed to me.  It invited my comments and offered a toll-free number.  I extricated myself and called. A man picked up.  I asked him if he were in charge, and he said he was not—that he was a person in charge but not of this particular area.  And though he said he was out to dinner, he offered to help me.  After some finagling, I finally found the person who could address this and had a serious chat with him about common courtesy and reasonable expectations.  I handed the phone over, and he spoke to his employee; and I walked out with a photo package, an extra 5 x 7 print, and a ceramic photo frame—all free of charge.

But I also walked out with something else—in addition to elevated blood pressure.

IMG_4276If you ask my children what they will remember about this visit with Santa, I am sure it won’t be this thread of the story.  August will remember he asked Santa for a “fire-breathing dragon” and a “coffee maker” (he’s four).  Edgar will remember he wrote his own Christmas list for the first time and that Santa could read it.  And Oscar will remember he got his own chai tea from Dunkin’ Donuts and traipsed through the mall looking a lot like his coffee-cup-carrying dad.  Though all three knew I was complaining and that I walked away with everything I initially wanted—and for free—it wasn’t their focus.  And nor should it have been.

But still this leaves me wondering what sort of legacy I am leaving my children.  Though I do, in earnest, try to pick my battles, as the age-old wisdom goes, I tend to pick a lot of them.  I have a hard time letting injustice or disrespect simply go.  I speak up not for attention or to get free goods (believe me, I would rather have paid their exorbitant fee and not have had this story to tell); but for me, there is seldom a choice.   Blame my childhood or some other influencing factor, but if someone is rude, inappropriate, or unkind to me or my children, I speak up—without exception.

And while I hope my children will ultimately feel comfortable speaking out against injustice, I don’t want them to feel my at times crippling compulsion.  I want them to have the wisdom to occasionally let things go, to know when it’s simply not worth their mental or physical energy to engage.  I don’t know if my speaking out ever changes anything, but I know it influences my children.

Our 2013 holiday picture will hold a different kind of memory for me.  It will sit above my desk, where I tend to pen the bulk of my life’s invectives, and remind me that sometimesIMG_4282 people have bad days, sometimes they are in over their heads, sometimes they don’t know any better because they haven’t learned any better, that not everything needs to be a battle, that we are all imperfect and need to be more tolerant of one another.

An auspicious message to start the holiday season brought to me by a couple of the most disgruntled of Santa’s elves . . .


Tales of a Fourth-Grade Philanthropist

I think back to myself in fourth grade . . .

If you had asked me to identify the Philippines on a map, I would not have known where to point–not even remotely.  And if you had told me when I was nine years old that there was a terrible storm in this part of the world and people were suffering, I might have felt sad; but then, pretty quickly, I would have recovered, poured myself a bowl of cereal, and plopped down in front of the television with my Barbies or, possibly, a book.

I certainly wouldn’t have envisioned there was anything I could do.

IMG_3914And there is the first difference between my nine-year-old self and this amazing nine-year-old boy I get to call my son.

When we talked recently about the devastation in the Philippines, Oscar felt what he felt–what all of us felt and feel.  He was horrified and broken-hearted.  But not long after these emotions took up residence in his consciousness, he switched gears and asked what the people there needed and what he could do to help.

We discussed how when people are in need of common necessities–food, clean water, shelter, medicine–the very best we can do is to raise money for organizations that help to get these provisions to the people who need them.

Oscar approached his teacher about running a fundraiser at his school.  She told him to craft a letter to the building principal, which he did on Tuesday.  He had the day off from school for Parent/Teacher conferences and spent time during that day putting his letter together.  We forwarded the letter, and Oscar received a very enthusiastic YES.

Since then he has been busy organizing a bake sale and putting together a flyer, a Facebook event, and a Red Cross Fundraising Page.

I asked Oscar about his fundraising goal.  He said at first $500, then upped it to $1,000.  But then he whispered, “My real goal is $10,000 because the people in the Philippines are suffering and really need the money.”

They do indeed.  And the world needs more people like Oscar, people who understand that though we can’t always prevent human suffering, we can always do something about it.

He is my role model and reminds me of all that is good in the world.

How I ever got so lucky I will never know.

[If you would like to donate to Oscar’s fundraiser, here is the link: .  Thank you so much!]

The Stories Inside Us

It was getting late—a little chilly and a little dark.  But they had asked with such earnestness, and we all needed a little fresh air on our faces.  So I said yes to a playground run at 5 PM on an early November evening in New England.  And in a wink we were off.

The playground was blissfully all ours for about fifteen minutes.  My sons played, ran, and did what they needed to do after a full day of being cooped up in the house.  Things were going so well as to engage my maternal magnanimity; I was just about to suggest a post-playground dinner and movie.

But then the atmosphere changed.  Decidedly.  Two, then three, then a dozen children hopped the fence of the playground.  They took over the equipment, yelled—at times at each other and then at no one in particular—and hurled expletives the likes of which even I don’t use, wouldn’t use.  They were destructive, knocking over equipment, flexing their muscles, and, most notably, flying solo.  They oldest was, perhaps, twelve, the youngest no more than six.

My children moved to another part of the playground minutes into their arrival.  They did it effortlessly, I would argue almost instinctively.  And though they could see me and I them, they asked me to leave the area where I was sitting and come over to where they were playing.

I stood in the middle of the playground—my children on my right, the other group of children on my left.  And I was struck by the two worlds on display.  On my left was a vision of my childhood—all manner of lack of supervision, socially unsettling behaviors to the uninitiated, posturing in the extreme.  On my right were little boys—certainly not angels but the product of a very different experience, starting with a parent who was present.

My children said nothing and played heartily, but I could see they were aware, could hear the vocabulary lesson coming from across the way.  But they never flinched; and despite the very audible and unnerving  commentary flying through the shared air, I opted not to leave.

It would have been very easy to scurry away, to scoop up my children and save them, at least for this moment, from having to listen to and, yes, learn the lessons being proffered.   But I didn’t.  I stood still amidst the chaos.  I let it play out.  No one was in danger, and I thought better they should hear this vulgar vitriol with me nearby—let them see how to respond, how not to respond, then, later, how to make sense of it all.  That was the parent in me, the adult.

526816_10200150851908291_325707335_nThe child in me stayed for a very different reason—for the familiarity this scene imparted, for the strange sadness it elicited, for the opportunity to allow my adult self to see exactly who I was when I knew no better, to see the theater of my own youth.

When we got in the car, Oscar, my nine-year-old, said, “Mom, those kids were really using some bad words.  They were swearing.”

I immediately became defensive, thinking the next statement from my son, a young man who has enjoyed and is enjoying a very comfortable childhood, was going to be of the judgmental variety.  So, I cut him off and said, “They were.  But that doesn’t make them any less than you, you know.”  I would have wagged my finger, I suspect, had I not been driving.

He then said, more gently than I knew a nine-year-old was capable of being, “I know, Mom.  They just don’t know.  They’re only doing what they know.”

And I thought about the wisdom of his words—about how we all are only doing what we know, that is until an intervening influence steps in and shows us another way of doing, another way of being.

My sons do not want for influences, do not want for direction.  They don’t have to wait; they don’t have to hope.  The red carpet is rolled out for them; they just have to choose to walk it.  The path of our playground companions on that day is different.  It was mine and has hurdles and thorns my own children will never know.  DSC_0026

I took my sons out to dinner that night—nothing fancy, naturally—paper placemats and crayons upon arrival, but a treat nonetheless.  And as much as I tried to be present for my children, at that moment and in that place, my mind was with the dozen children I left behind, the children who weren’t going out to dinner, who, if they were as much like my young self as I suspect, might not even have dinner unless they make it themselves.

Oscar asked me, as he doodled a tic-tac-toe game on his placement, what I was thinking about.

But instead of telling him, I picked up a crayon and put my “x” on his grid.  His story is different from mine, and he had heard enough of mine for one day.

Keep Your Ad and Magic, Toys R Us

There is a petition circulating on the internet asking Toys R Us CEO Antonio Urcelay to pull a recent advertisement which chronicles an outing with a group of children from the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.  The children were led to believe they were going on a field trip to the woods but instead were brought to Toys R Us.  There they were allowed to pick out a toy—courtesy of the company.  The children’s joy at the toy store was infectious compared to their initial reaction to the purported field trip—which was more resigned complacency if not boredom.

And therein lies the root of the petition, which accuses Toys R Us of making a mockery of environmental education and putting an unneeded if not dangerous emphasis on consumerism.

While I appreciate the passion of those who have already signed, I will not be one of them.

As a parent, bringing magic to my children’s lives is one of my greatest joys—and the element of surprise plays a big part.  Just yesterday I listened to a colleague tell the story of his eight-year-old nephew whose grandparents surprised him with a trip to Disney.  His suitcase was packed and in the trunk.  He got in the car thinking he was going on an errand.  They arrived at the airport and asked him if he wanted to go on a trip.  He thought they meant to New Jersey to visit relatives.  They said, “How about instead we go to Disney?”

Or what about the parent who says to his son or daughter, “Let’s go to the library,” but instead takes a detour to the local movie theater  and surprises him/her with a movie date?

My colleague’s parents were not making a mockery of errand-running or visiting relatives with their ruse.  The parent who went to the movies instead of the library is not dismissing literacy.  In both scenarios, the adults were trying to create a little bit of magic for children—exactly the premise behind the Toys R Us event.

Now, for those who feel Toys R Us went too far in portraying the children as bored at the prospect of going to the woods, I get it.  I am a teacher.  I understand the discomfit we all feel when children, the greatest truth-tellers on our planet, yawn or otherwise seem disinterested in what we have planned.  But we know they do.  As parents, we correct and let them know it’s not appropriate; advertisers, I suspect, might capitalize on the juxtaposition.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the author of the petition refers to the children who participate in this experience as “disadvantaged.”  As a child who grew up “disadvantaged,” I admit I may have a heightened sensitivity to the use of this adjective to describe a child’s situation which has nothing to do with him or her and for which the child bears no responsibility; however, as much as the author feels this ad does a disservice to the efforts of environmental educators, I feel slinging adjectives onto children is equally dangerous—maybe even moreso.  I remember how it felt as a young child to be termed “poor,” “disadvantaged,” or “needy.”  I am forty-five years old and can still feel it.

In truth, raising children is all about balance.  Children should be in nature.  They should also play with toys.  But no matter, they should be allowed to experience and believe in magic.  And at the very least they should be safe from adults hurling discriminating labels that wreak havoc with their self-concept—because no amount of magic can make that better.

[NOTE:  As of this afternoon, the word “disadvantaged” was removed from the petition.  While I am certainly grateful for the removal, it remains disturbing that roughly 600 people read and signed the petition with the word included.  Further, it is equally disconcerting that the content of any petition can change once people have signed it.  Please think about this before you sign your next petition.]