When our kids started kindergarten a few years ago, they started developing a life away from us. Summer vacation gives us more connection to their lives, so I’m not a big fan of the first day back to school, when they return to the old brick pile. The penitentiary. The coal mine.
Things will happen every day that we won’t know about, and even though that will include kids shoving stuff up their noses, I feel left out. Plus, school-year dinner conversation is different than in the summer. The boy just entered second grade. His probation officer, the girl, just entered fourth grade. I start with the boy.
“What did you do in school that was cool?”
“Really? Because, I’m daddy. So, I’m curious.”
“Nothin’. I hate chicken.”
I change my approach.
“What did you learn today?”
“Really? You didn’t hear anything you hadn’t heard before?”
He grunts. There’s the hint of a smile. He’s messing with me.
But if I ask another question, I’ll wish I hadn’t. I’ll get a labored rendition of “I woke up and ate breakfast and got on the bus and went to school, then the teacher said blah blah blah, then we saw unicorns and we killed the unicorns and we ate the unicorns and we came home and did chores and had dinner and then you asked what we learned in school today.”
If he heard “knock it off” at school, he’s right. He heard nothing new. I am told they behave differently there.
For answers, I need to go to the village voice, sitting opposite the boy. Nothing will be left unsaid, and the report will include unauthorized tidbits about the boy.
I won’t just get that a game was played in gym. I’ll get a rundown of the rules, rosters, scores, instant replays and what made the kids laugh. I’ll get a report on the classroom, the current studies, what song on the radio the kids have made up alternate lyrics for, a rendition of that song, who threw up at lunch, who got in trouble and what the boy did on the bus.
Can we play the alphabet game? Sure. We do this year-round, but mostly during the summer. We go around the table, each saying a word beginning with the next letter in the alphabet according to our category, such as “animal.” We get stuck on “X,” so “X” is “X-ray fish” regardless of the category.
The boy pretends he can’t think of anything, which is frustrating beyond measure, and the girl won’t stop making suggestions for everybody, which is equally frustrating, even with clever suggestions. The boy refuses to use suggested words. His response must be his own, even if we must wait until sunrise and even if the girl suggests every word he could have known. The game always seems to end with him, as we plead, “Just say ziti! Say ziti!”
Some nights, the kids request Captain Underwear; a challenge I usually decline. But there’s more time during summer, so I try to improvise a tale of the endearing, heroic Captain Underwear, who spots trouble from his secret lair while monitoring a thousand television sets. He arrives by scooter to save the day, proclaiming, “It is I, Captain Underwear,” whereupon his underwear slingshots into the face of the monster or evil genius.
Now that the youngsters are back in school, our dinners have become a hurried, rote, borderline chore. We’ll have our fun, but it won’t be like summer. I can’t wait until June.