Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Stuck in the Middle

I'm realizing all over again that long-term subbing can be a very tricky minefield to negotiate. 

I'm "in charge" of a classroom but I'm not a permanent employee, so I have precious little legal protection even with all of my responsibilities for curriculum, discipline, grades, IEPs and progress reports. 

I'm making the decisions for a classroom while waiting for the "real" teacher to return, so I can't stray much from their established routine, whether or not I agree with it.  The open-ended nature of the teacher's medical leave is the issue, since no one knows when she can return.  It could be weeks, months, or to the end of the school year.  Hello, limbo.

I'm getting caught between the existing classroom staff and the school psychologist and counselor over a student behavioral issue.  (I'm caught between, "This is how it's been done for years by Mrs. X," and "We need to do something different here and it can't wait.")  I'm going to err on the side of the psychologist's recommendations.  After all, they're REALLY in charge in this situation since it will be a formal behavior plan.  We'll see how that goes over with the classroom staff - they're pretty wonderful, but it's still a three-way tug-of-war over who's "right" and who's "responsible" and the elephant in the room, "What will the returning teacher say when she gets back and finds her classroom discipline plan has been seriously revised?"

Phooey.  I'd rather go play in my garden than think about all this (as I was doing for much of the day, while teaching).

I think I'll go do some winter sowing. . . .

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Garden Vision

Lilac 'Little Boy Blue' (also sold as 'Wonderblue,' 
a shorter variety that gets only 6 feet tall)

I don't know about other gardeners, but I've been through various phases in my life as it relates to my yard.  I've been through the "I have no idea what I'm doing, but I'm going to throw some stuff in the ground and see what happens" phase.  I've gone through the "I know a little bit, so I'm going to try all sorts of stuff and see what I like" stage.  I've been bitten by the "I love this plant and I must try to plant as many varieties of it as possible" mania.  I've "gone organic," I've created a "square foot garden," I've done the "front yard cottage garden-cum-Victorian border" thing.  I've even had the "how the heck did I end up with so many plants crammed into this small yard?" epiphany.  Now I'm coasting through the "working full time with tween/teen kids suburban garden upkeep hit-or-miss marathon."  I've kept elements of my previous garden incarnations, though.  They all have influenced me in some way as a gardener.  I don't know that I have a gardening philosophy as such - it's more a loose collection of garden ideas that have stuck with me while other interests or fads have been left behind.  Here's where I am in the garden looking forward in the winter of 2013:

A garden is an open-ended project, a love affair that changes over time.  Enjoy the ride, and embrace the changes.  Stasis isn't an option - stasis is dead.  My yard won't look like a picture in a magazine, posed and retouched and enhanced and almost plastic.  Living systems change and grow, and sometimes wither and die in their season or through accident or infestation, so we should work with them, not against them.  It's good to have a vision, but keep it real.  (Same thing with marriage and children, I might add.)

Oriental lily 'Bergamo.'

Find what you like and what grows well for you, and use it generously.  I still have quite a number of the plants I've loved over the years, often multiples of each kind.  Peonies, irises, daylilies, daffodils, tulips, nicotiana, zinnias, hosta, ornamental grasses, columbine, shasta daisies, poppies - if it's a good thing worth using once, it's worth using with judicious repetition.

Use as little chemical intervention in the garden as possible.  I'm not 100% organic in the yard - we had to resort to some commercial weed killer in the front yard to get the upper hand on a huge ground ivy infestation.  But we're mostly organic in the yard, and have healthy soil full of worms.  We can't control runoff and wind-blown chemical spray from our neighbors who do use commercial lawn services, though.  We don't live in a bubble.

Provide some habitat and help for local birds, animals and insects.  We don't have a wild yard, but we have a patch of wild plants at the back of the yard, in the "Four Corners" area where our yard meets three neighbors' yards.  All over the yard I plant flowers that attract insects and hummingbirds.  I've got a bluebird house, and a continuously-stocked bird feeder and hummingbird feeder.  Every little bit helps.  I love watching the birds, and having the hummers buzz us on the porch when I put up a fresh feeder of nectar.  (I also love watching Molly the cat chatter and twitch at the window at those feathery, tasty morsels so close, yet so far away.)

Crocuses - such a joyful pop of color after a dreary, gray winter.

Plant what you like, not necessarily what's popular.  I don't care about "garden fashion," "IT plants," "must-haves," and being trendy.  Some new things are fun to try each year, but a garden of novelties and "standout personalities" can become a visual cacophony.  If I try something new and I like it and it grows well, it can stay.  If I don't like it, there's no point in growing it any more. Someone else will grow it somewhere else.  Good for them.

Milkweed.  I've let it grow in the wild part of our yard, for monarch butterflies.

Nothing tastes as good as home-grown food.  I try something new in the veggie patch every year.  I want to grow and preserve more of our own food, so that's something I'd like to learn more about this year.  It's easy to start strong in the spring, then slack off in the high summer and lose produce to bugs and weeds and neglect.  I always seem to be working on consistency in tending my vegetables.

Work a little, often.  Just doing a little weeding every day makes the chore much more do-able, especially with a large yard.  Same thing with dead-heading, and edging.  A little every day keeps any one thing from becoming an overwhelming mess or problem, or a backbreaking weekend-long chore.

Don't be afraid of bold color.  Have fun with your palette.  But don't forget to have places where your eye can find "rest" too, with neutral or muted colors to give your eyes a break, or greens to punctuate the color theme.

The crabapple tree in our old yard.  Soooo fragrant, I really miss it.

Stand back and LOOK at the garden at least once a week.  I'm good at close-ups.  Witness how many hundreds of pictures of individual flowers I have on my computer.  But I have to remind myself to stand back and look at the garden as a whole, checking for balance, symmetry, and health, for places that draw the eye and places where the eye can rest.  Rhythm, fragrance, texture, sound - it's the little things that make the big picture special, I think.

Ask for help with the big things.  I'm not 25 any more, by a long shot.  I've got a husky teen and a strong tween, and they can lend a hand once in a while.  Safety Guy helps with the mowing and with hauling baskets of weeds to the compost bins.  Princess likes to help weed or harvest vegetables (sometimes - it depends on her mood, you know!).  My husband is always willing to pitch in if I need a hand with something heavy or strenuous.  Many hands make light work, right?  And we all enjoy the benefits of the garden.

Pay attention to your yard.  Look for the microclimates, those pockets or patches of ground where certain conditions will allow specific plants to flourish.  Too dry, too shady, too whatever is just an opportunity to try something different.  Really make a habit of looking closely at your plants.  You'll also be able to catch problems while they're small, rather than going out one day and saying, for instance, "Goodness, didn't I have a shed in this corner, instead of this monster trumpet vine the size of an elephant?"  Or, "Didn't I have a bunch of nice tomatoes coming along here, but now I've got great honking big striped caterpillars eating my plants?"

Put a comfortable chair or two around the garden, where you can just sit and enjoy it.  I have my rocker and some Adirondack chairs on the back porch, and a bench on the front porch facing the sunset.  Different views, same result:  peacefulness.  Make places to just rest - after all, to my mind that's one of the main benefits to gardening.  After all that work, rest, peace, and satisfaction.

Stokes' aster.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

O Sunny Day!

We're having another gloriously sunny day in a week-long run of mostly clear weather.  We've had some snow, but never a large amount (the lake effect stayed north of us for once), and we've had more sun than we usually get this time of year.  When it's been gray for a number of days, a patch of sun here and there seems really fine, but those teases pale when you get a truly CLEAR day. (The corollary to this is that it has been brutally cold all week, clear at night with a glowing almost-full moon, and well below zero most mornings.)  I just had to go out with my camera a couple times early today to try to capture some of the beauty of the bright sun on the fluffy, new snow and frost.  We had a soft coating of the kind of snow that is so delicate and light that you can see every single snowflake, all of them reflecting the light like a million tiny mirrors wherever you look, as if the Lord decided to glitter and bejewel every common object with uncommon grace.  The sky is ultra-blue and the air is crystalline.  No more talk - just pictures.  Enjoy.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What To Plant? - Perennials Edition

Aquilegia canadensis, or Canadian columbine, 
an Eastern North American native that does well in gardens too.

Last week I did a post about some of my favorite annuals, things I grow from seed or purchase almost every year.  I really enjoyed going through my old garden photos - such good memories from my old garden, and new memories in this one.  This weekend I'd like to share some of my favorite perennials.  Again, since I garden in Central New York, not far from the Adirondack Mountains, I'm in a borderline climate zone 4/5 situation.  My garden suggestions would grow well in the Midwestern, Central Atlantic and Northeastern U.S., parts of the Pacific Northwestern U.S. and Canada, and the more southerly parts of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick/Newfoundland/PEI, Canada.  Obviously I don't plant these every year, but over the years I've grown many of these, from seed and from nurseries.  Many of these are workhorses in the garden that I wouldn't be without.  Some grew really well in my old garden, and not so well in the new one (different microclimates), and vice versa.  Enjoy the pictures and commentary, and maybe you'll find an idea or two for your own garden.

Clematis 'Henryi' - one of my favorite plants in my old garden.

Clematis - I don't know how you say it (cleh-MA-tis or CLEM-uh-tis), but I love this plant in its many forms.  In my old garden I had a gorgeous 'Henryi' growing up our light pole.  It was a vigorous plant that would have been happy to continue growing up from the light into the crab apple tree above it.  In a good year the flowers were bigger than my hand, and always snow white.  In my new yard I've planted the variety 'Silver Moon' by the back deck, and I hope the clematis will bloom this year.  Clematis are funny in their growth, in that they seem to do nothing their first year, then grow just a little in their second year, and burst into luxuriant growth in their third year (often called "sleep, creep, leap").  This will be 'Silver Moon's third year, and I'm hoping for some great silvery lavender flowers.

Yellow columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) is so elegant and delicate.

Columbine - I've always loved these classic flowers, associating them in my mind with family vacations in Colorado when I was a kid.  I'd love to grow the classic blue and white form in my garden this year.  I've already got a stand of the Canadian columbine (red and yellow), and a vigorous pure yellow variety.  They are so graceful, and self seed prolifically.  I'm not a fan of the double or dwarf varieties, since both look rather dumpy and inelegant to me.  All columbine aren't that long-lived as perennials (3-4 years being typical), but their self-sowing habit ensures they perpetuate themselves pretty well.  If you want to perpetuate a particular color or variety, you'll want to buy fresh seed or new plants every so often - columbine are notoriously quick to hybridize among themselves.

Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt,' an old classic, widely available.

Peonies - When my husband was laid off from his job in November of 2008 (on Election Day, actually), that next weekend I went out into my garden and dug up all of my peonies and put them in plastic-lined cheap laundry baskets.  I put the baskets in cardboard boxes sitting in our driveway turnaround.  I was afraid we'd have to move mid-winter, and I'd have to leave them all behind if I didn't dig them up before the ground froze.  It takes several years for a peony to mature from a small division to a blooming plant, and I wanted that "head start" at the new house.  Those tough perennials sat through the entire winter in the driveway, alternately exposed to the drying wind or covered with snow and ice.  They sprouted in the spring, still in their baskets, then they were moved and bloomed in May and June on my parents' front porch (in their baskets) while we waited to close on our new house.  They eventually made the move up to their new home in CNY in July, where I finally planted them again.  Eight months out of the ground!  Most of them made the transition well, and have bloomed ever since.  Talk about one tough plant!  I've got 7 or 8 varieties now, all gorgeous in their own way.  They're an heirloom plant:  invest in some nice ones now and your grandchildren's children will be enjoying them.  I still remember the ones at my grandmother's house. . . .

Sedum flowers are tiny, but in clusters they make a nice show 
and are irresistible to bees and other pollinators.

Sedum - This plant comes in many forms and varieties.  My favorites in the garden are the taller varieties, like 'Autumn Joy.'  They grow quickly in the spring, and form a shrub-sized neat mass before drying to ornamental flower stalks in the fall.  Their little green rosettes at the bases of the old stalks are an early sign of spring, and I look forward to seeing them every year.  Sedum are tough, and shrug off dry conditions.  I also like the groundcover variety called 'Angelina,' with its chartreuse foliage.

Daylily 'Changing Latitudes,' with its lovely 
patterned violet-to-lavender eye and green throat.

Daylilies - I love daylilies.  They're my favorite perennial, hands-down.  But I've gotten away from collecting them for collecting's sake, and I'm just as interested in them for their landscape use as their individual flowers now.  No one could possibly collect the tens of thousands of named varieties that are out there anyhow.  I have an embarrassing number of them as it is (dozens and dozens), and more that I've grown (both from purchased seed and from seed harvested from my own plants that I've learned to hybridize).  I don't need any more daylilies.  Every year, though, I enjoy looking through daylily catalogs, and most years one or two daylilies just happen to come home with me from nurseries.  At least they give good bang for their garden space, with attractive foliage starting early in the spring, striking blooms in the summer, and very good hardiness.  Their strappy, bright green young foliage is a welcome sight in the spring, and helps the garden look filled-in while waiting for warmer weather and later things to get going.  In the northeast, I grow mostly dormant and semi-evergreen varieties.  Gardeners in the southern United States grow more of the evergreen and semi-evergreen varieties.  Some evergreens have very ruffly, fancy flowers that open much better in hot weather.

Tall bearded iris 'Edith Wolford' is one tough lady, and gorgeous as well.

Irises - This is another plant I really enjoy.  They grew spectacularly at our old house, but I've had mixed results with them here in the new yard.  Still, I persist in trying to find the perfect place for them, hoping for those luxuriant blooms and their heavenly, almost grape-y fragrance.  Last winter, when it was unusually warm, we had very little snow cover combined with wide temperature fluctuations, and many of my irises didn't survive.  I planted several different kinds of tall bearded irises again last fall, and I'm hopeful that this more "typical" winter will allow them to establish and grow well this year.  I don't want to be without these statuesque grand dames of the garden.  I love the old-fashioned varieties, and you can still find heirloom irises blooming around old homes and farms where they've grown for generations.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' beside our back deck, late December 2012.

Ornamental grasses -  I've come to the conclusion that ornamental grasses are one of the best and least expensive plants someone can use for big impact and extended-season interest in landscaping in the Northeast, especially the tall, graceful Miscanthus varieties.  They're slow to get going in the spring, but by summer they're making graceful fountains of leaves that wave in the slightest breeze.  They "bloom" in the late summer, then dry to a gentle golden-beige in the fall.  Many of the grasses stand tall through the middle of winter, catching snowflakes and adding warm color to a white landscape.  I cut off the dead stalks to a few inches above the ground in late March or early April, before new growth begins.  My favorite variety is Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus,' which has medium green leaves with a fine white pinstripe down the center.  I've also noticed that even if you buy two plants at the same time from the same place, they may not be identical - there is often some small variation in their growth habit.  I have two by our back porch, purchased at the same time.  One is slightly taller, and blooms about two weeks earlier than the other.  So, even though nursery plants are usually propagated vegetatively from root division and are essentially identical, there is some variation depending on the parent plant.

A plain green no-name hosta I got from a church that had too much of it 
and gave me a couple wheel-barrow loads for my yard.  
It was lovely in its simplicity, and tough as nails, 
growing under hemlock trees in dry shade. 
This photo is from mid-spring, late in the day.

Hosta -  Hosta are a great plant for partially shaded areas, and many are also tolerant of dry areas under trees or close to foundations.  There are hundreds of different varieties of hosta now, with every imaginable combination of leaf size, texture, and variegation, as well as white or lavender flowers.  I've got several different ones on the north side of our new house, but I had many more at our old house, which had much more shade in the yard.  Most hosta grow quickly and are easy to divide, so you can have more than you ever wanted after a few years.  Some varieties are positively thuggish in the garden, and you have to keep on top of them so they don't overrun their neighbors.  Others mind their manners and just form nice clumps.  All hosta are attractive to slugs, but organic iron phosphate slug bait or diatomaceous earth are simple to spread every couple weeks during the growing season if you need to control the little pests.

Aster 'Bluebird,' a magnet for bees and other insects.

Asters - Fall in the Northeastern U.S. is incomplete without asters.  There are many varieties, from all over the northern temperate world.  My favorite variety is 'Bluebird,' which is 3-4 feet tall, with blue-lavender flowers with a bright yellow eye.  It grew magnificently in my old garden, but I'm having trouble establishing it in our new one, and I'm not sure why.  Maybe I'm being too nice to it here:  in the old yard, it grew in two locations, beside the street where it got all of the salt and road grit in the winter, and got baked in the summer, and beside a retaining wall, where it again got baked in the summer.  In the new yard it gets more moisture in one location and is sulking, and in the other hot dry location it's not thriving either.  I'll keep trying with it - it's just too good to give up on.  I need to remind myself to cage it when its young, because the stupid rabbits snack on it.

Gaillardia 'Amber Wheels,' 2012.

Gaillardia (Blanket Flowers) - I didn't discover these for myself until a few years ago, when I grew some from seed.  They are ridiculously easy to grow from seed, and some closer-to-wild varieties self-seed recklessly, so they can become a bit of a nuisance.  There has been a lot of interest in recent years in breeding new kinds of blanket flowers, and a couple years ago I planted 'Amber Wheels.'  It's WONDERFUL, I'm really smitten with this plant.  Subtle it is not, but it's a bold, sturdy plant with a wave of long-lasting bright flowers.  Once the first wave starts to go brown, you can cut them off and get a second, smaller wave of bloom later in the summer.

Echinacea 'White Swan,' considered an "oldie" now among coneflowers.

Echinacea (Coneflowers) - Echinacea seem to be the new "it" plant for breeders.  All of a sudden (although you know it's taken breeders over a decade to develop all these varieties) it seems like there are a profusion of forms and colors of echinacea, when before there were just shades of mauve, pink, rose and classic white.  Still, there's a reason they're so popular:  they're tough, easy to grow, and pretty.  They're not what some would call refined plants - they're not delicate or elegant; they're more of a sturdy "country girls with an attitude" kind of plant.  They're widely adaptable and tolerant of a wide range of soils and conditions, and attract beneficial insects.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Running Fast, Barely Keeping Up

I'm exhausted.  I think I'd like to spend Saturday 
like my cat B.C. - sleeping, in a sunbeam.

It's been a long week, with one day to go.  My new job is slowly settling into a sort of routine.  I took this job knowing that I'd be picking up a lot of pieces after the special ed teacher's long illness, and a merry-go-round of subs for the past almost two months.  I just didn't realize how many pieces I'd have to pick up!  Add that I started one week before the end of the quarter, just in time to do the quarterly testing and grade reports, and I've had a busy week, with a busier week ahead.  The marking period ends tomorrow; the grades are due at the main office Thursday 8AM.  Deadline time!  And, I didn't manage to dodge the cold germs, so I'm trying not to infect everyone in the classroom while I teach, and just hanging on since I know I can't take time off while getting everything set up, graded and submitted this week and next.

Thankfully, I've got some really great co-workers who have stepped up to help me, from the two aides in the classroom who (thankfully) know where everything is, and what the routine should be, to the other special ed teachers who will guide me through the multiple assessment and reporting mechanisms I'll need to use in the next week.

The kids are getting used to me, and I'm getting to know them.  I think we'll get along really well once we reach equilibrium (that is, after the testing is done, and the kids settle into knowing what to expect from me).  I think we'll be able to have some fun, and the next science unit (animals and habitats/ecology) and English/Language arts and History units (tied together with the theme of Colonial America, using an adapted version of "Last of the Mohicans") should be good too.

I've got a lot to learn, and I'm sure I'll make mistakes (I've already made a few "routine" ones which the kids have been quick to point out, and a few teaching ones that the aides have discreetly pointed out).  Still, I'm looking forward to my time with this class.  I hope their regular teacher recovers her health, obviously - but I'm also enjoying stretching my skills again.  I hope it will be a good ride, for all of us.

Monday, January 14, 2013

First Day

I love how blissed-out Cookie is in the Princess's lap.
Such happiness, such relaxation, such trust.

Today was my first day in a new long-term substitute teaching position.  Technically it's a 15:1:1 classroom (15 kids, one teacher, one aide, for those of you who don't "speak" special-ed-ese), but there are currently 7 students, two aides, and a teacher in this room.  An eighth student will be added soon, but it's still a wonderful small group of kids with two veteran aides.  I am so blessed, and in spite of my pre-job jitters, I think this will work out okay in the long run.  The only shadow on my week is the cold that seems to be stalking me - begone, foul germs!

The kids have varying needs but their abilities are reasonably clustered for instructional purposes.  I'll teach the major subjects (English, social studies, science and math) as well as some life skills.  Most of the kids participate in one or more regular grade-level elective classes (gym, art, technology [what we called shop class an eon ago], Spanish), and I'll help with those too for homework and extra time for certain assignments.  It's a nice, diverse way to spend the day - always moving, always changing subjects, but still a routine without too much variation day to day.

I don't think this will be totally stress-free, though.  The learning curve is steep, since this week is the end of the marking period and time for quarterly reports in core subject areas.  I have precisely one week to learn how to pull all the information together from several sources (computer-based assessment, information from the aides, and teacher records, which are very spotty since there have been a number of subs in and out of that class for the past two months) and submit it for final grades.  But, I'm not responsible for what has/has not been done for the past quarter.  I'm just the messenger.  The next quarter, that's going to be on my head, as it should be in a long-term sub job.  But for this week, I just want to finish out the last review and tests and gather my thoughts and make plans for moving forward.

I'd like to plan some fun activities, some hands-on stuff, but for now I have to focus on the basics.  I'm getting to know the kids, they're getting to know me, and I'm not going to make any drastic changes in classroom routine or discipline.  As we go along, I'm sure I'll do some things differently from their regular teacher, but I'm not out to reinvent the wheel.  This class has an excellent foundation and routine, and I'll run with that and just supplement it where I need to, for fun or instructional benefit.

So far, so good, and I'm hopeful I'll have a good time in this class for as long as I'm needed there.  Right now that looks like several months, but it could be more. I'll just ride with it and enjoy the kids and the steady employment. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Balancing Act

The Princess and Sophia, last October.

Sometimes it's desperately difficult to balance the needs of our kids, Safety Guy with his Aspergers, and Princess with her neurotypical ("normal") needs as his younger sister.  Life with Safety Guy hasn't been easy, and in some ways Princess has had to grow up quicker than other girls her age.  And, we've reached the point in their development where her emotional maturity has equaled and is starting to pass his.  It's like having emotional twins in the house, and it isn't fun at all - both stuck around 11 years old, and neither one of them good at backing down from a confrontation or disagreement.

It's absolutely crazy-making for my husband and I.

Last night the kids had another in a long (seemingly never-ending) series of spats.  Safety Guy was rude to her, she was rude back, he yelled, she kicked him, he swore and yelled more, she yelled more - it was ugly.  All the while I'm trying to intervene and separate them.  I sent Princess upstairs for kicking and grounded her for the evening, and told Safety Guy he was grounded from his electronics and to go to his room for a while to calm down.  He stalked off to the family room to watch TV, and we told him he couldn't watch TV.  He stormed to the basement and his man cave to watch TV, and we told him he couldn't do that either - he could be down there for space, but he'd lost his electronics privileges for his language and behavior.  He lost his temper again (or should I say, even more), and after a verbal confrontation with his father he stomped upstairs and immured himself in his room.  Finally.

I hate it when that happens.  I hate it when Safety Guy can't back down, and makes a simple situation complicated and much, much worse.  It makes me crazy when Princess provokes Safety Guy, knowing full well how he'll react.  I hate it when the kids egg each other into greater drama, and neither of them is willing or able to back down.  These are the times that Aspergers sucks, and so does sibling rivalry.

Because that's part of this mix too - sibling  rivalry.  Princess resents the attention that Safety Guy's Aspergers has always required.  She often doesn't understand why we have to be flexible in how we discipline him, based on how much of each situation he understands and how much of it is intentional bratty teen boy behavior versus unintentional Aspergers misunderstanding and sensory overstimulation and other autism-related issues.  She doesn't understand why she should be disciplined for her behavior when he does the same things and his discipline varies.  They're about 50/50 on who starts these conflicts, but she hates to be caught provoking him and will usually deny it vehemently even when caught in the act.  Princess sometimes seems willfully blind to the discipline SG earns for his choices - even when they earn the SAME DISCIPLINE for the SAME BEHAVIOR at the SAME TIME she'll complain that she didn't deserve it (which I'd call bratty tween behavior and being deliberately obtuse).  She is jealous.

We try very hard not to hold her to a higher standard of behavior.  She is, after all, not quite eleven years old, and shouldn't have to act like an adult.  But that has de facto been what has happened at times, when we've had to say to her in private, "You understand more than he does about certain things, and it's not fair for you to provoke him, knowing that he will overreact to what you do.  You can't provoke him then yell at him for acting just like you knew he would.  You can't hit him, knowing that he knows he CANNOT hit you back, because you're a girl and his sister.  It's NOT FAIR and you cannot treat him like that."  But that takes more emotional maturity than the average tween has - and she is, after all, a pretty typical tween.

I've heard of families where the kids get along and help each other, where they aren't jealous or mean, where it's mostly smooth sailing in their relationships.  I think those families are either myths, or pulling off a huge charade.  (If your family is really, truly that peaceful and cooperative, please don't tell me right now - I don't think I'd take it very well.)

So while most days go along with mostly good behavior from both of our kids, occasionally one or the other of them will start a confrontation that turns into a perfect storm of poor choices, ending with both kids grounded for varying amounts of time depending on how far they pushed each other and their parents, their actions and words, and who started the whole mess.  Yesterday Safety Guy started it by being very rude to Princess, and she escalated it immensely by kicking him.  It went to hell in a hand-basket from there.

Nobody won.  And even though such storms tend to be brief and really don't happen as often as they used to (once every week or two seems to be average for us right now), their effects still linger.  Safety Guy sulked in his room all evening, and still blames her today for his grounding.  He didn't sleep well, and is still angry with her, but he did admit to me last night that he shouldn't have used the language he had.  Princess and I had (another) talk last night about why she should not (cannot) hit him or otherwise provoke him physically.  She first denied she kicked him in the leg at all, then said she may have LOOKED like she was trying to kick him but she "was only stretching," and then only grudgingly admitted she may have kicked him but just lightly, but she was not repentant about it at all.  (I have to say, I didn't believe her initial story - and I could tell she wasn't telling the truth as her story morphed.  I HATE it when she lies.  She tried to get out from under her consequence, but we told her it had to stand.)

After our talk she did her best to be silly and cooperative and nice to me. But she refused to apologize to Safety Guy.  She holds grudges, and hates to admit she's done something wrong.  I know that personality trait will hurt her in the future, and that breaks my heart to anticipate.  I can guide, talk, reprimand, cajole, discipline, reward, and do everything but jump through hoops to try to teach her these social and self-control skills, but she's at the age from now on where life's lessons are going to come hard and fast.  We'll continue to do our best, but she's going to learn the hard way more than once to guard her tongue and her actions.  The same is true for Safety Guy.

A lot of the daily balancing act between the kids my husband and I do almost unconsciously.  It's unbelievable how much you have to anticipate and head off potentially aggravating or even explosive situations when you have a child with autism.  Someone who has never had full-time care of a child on the spectrum cannot understand the constant, never-ending anticipating and diversion we go through to make each day function without major behavioral trouble.  Spontaneity is not our friend; quick change is not a happy thing. Everything must be thought out ahead of time.  From simply modifying the language we use as parents with our children (being specific, breaking requests into steps, avoiding figures of speech, using phrases or words the child responds to best, etc.), to avoiding situations that will cause discomfort or distress to the child, to heading off conflicts and verbal confrontations between the child and others before they can even start, to keeping daily routines stable, and giving our kids time to adjust to changes in routine or new things - every moment of every single day is an obstacle course.  You are never not mindful of your child's needs and responses in every possible situation.

On top of that, you have to balance the needs of that exceptional child with the needs of the whole family.  You have to try to keep one child with extra needs from overshadowing the other family members.  And yet, inevitably, you find that the whole family revolves to some extent around that one child's special needs.  No matter how hard you try, the uncomfortable truth is that you have to tailor a lot of your family life to accommodate that child.  You can't avoid it.  And the other family members have to make sacrifices for that to happen, whether they want to or not.

No wonder Princess is sometimes jealous of her brother, and resents what his presence means in our family.

No wonder having a child with special needs is very hard on a marriage, and many marriages that result in children with special needs (especially autism) don't survive the stress.  The child isn't at fault, but the stress is still very real.

I pray for grace.  Often.  I am not what anyone would call a "prayer warrior."  I don't have the "gift of faith" that some are blessed with; faith is hard work for me.  But I still pray, for myself, for my family, knowing that God hears, and He is merciful even when trials make Him seem distant, aloof, even cruel.  My view is limited; His is not.  I need grace to live my life, love my family, and keep on moving forward.  So I still pray.
I'm glad He hears and loves and acts.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

What to Plant? - Annuals Edition

A cream-colored California poppy, with a tiny visitor.

The time has come, the Walrus said. . . to talk of what to plant in the garden this year, of course.

I've got a list of annuals I like to plant almost every year.  Here are some of my favorites that I can't seem to go through a garden year without.  Many of these I grow from seed myself by winter sowing, some I direct sow in the spring, and some I buy commercially.  I garden in a borderline zone 4/zone 5 climate in Central New York.  The photos are mine, unless otherwise credited.  (WS means I winter sow them, DS means I direct sow them, and C means I buy them.)

You can't beat tall zinnias for big color.

Zinnias - I use various tall ones in hot colors, and if I can find it, the dwarf variety 'Profusion Fire' is a perfect edging plant by my front walk.  (WS, DS and C)

Sunflowers - I grow an assortment - they're my husband's favorite flower. (WS and DS)

Cosmos 'Daydream,' a very tall cosmos at about 4 feet, with 4" flowers.

Cosmos - Simple and easy; I prefer the smaller varieties, although the tall ones make quite a statement planted in a clump if you have room. (WS and DS)

Nasturtium 'Alaska' - a variegated dwarf variety.

Nasturtiums -  I use them to edge the long garden wall in front of the house - the trailing, old-fashioned kinds are wonderful. (DS)

Violas - They're good filler in shady areas, and I love their cheerful little faces. (WS and C)

Cherry-red calibrachoa on our back deck a couple summers ago.

Calibrachoa - These are also known as Million Bells, and I like them for the big containers by my front
porch. (C)

Annual portulaca has such joyful flowers, in many colors, some quite bold.  
This one is more subdued, but you can see the flash of magenta in the middle.

Portulaca grandiflora - A cheerful little plant, and tolerant of dry conditions once established. (WS and C)

White heliotrope -  I've never seen this from seed, and as plants only very rarely - but I go out of my way to find it because of its wonderful vanilla scent. (C)

Fuchsia 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt' - This is a bronze-leaved bushy plant with dark coral-orange tubular flowers - I try to overwinter it indoors each year, with mixed success since my cat Molly likes to eat it. . . . (C)

Annual phlox, a very dainty plant with lovely simple flowers.

Annual phlox - These must be the easiest thing ever to winter sow, and they come in a rainbow of colors. (WS)
Salpiglossis, with their bold veins and bright colors, 
are wonderful to examine up close.

Salpiglossis - This is also called "painted tongue," an inelegant name for a glorious flower, which I grew for the first time last year and loved - its flowers are so beautifully patterned in jewel colors and veins. (WS)

A dark russet and gold single variety of marigold - my favorite combination.

Marigolds - These are indispensable in my yard, and I ring my cherry tree with them every year.  I prefer the dark russet and gold ones, solid dark russet, or the solid clear yellow ones - I'm picky.  (WS and C)

Nigella 'Miss Jeckyll Blue' - such intricate, unusual blooms.

Nigella damascena -  The variety 'Miss Jeckyll Blue' is wonderfully textured in flower and foliage, and self-sows well. (WS)

Tall, fragrant nicotiana 'Jasmine' - 
it needs staking, but its evening-borne scent is divine.

Nicotiana - I love both the tall, evening-fragrant variety 'Jasmine' and the short, chartreuse-flowered 'Lime Green.'  Both will self-sow year to year, but I refresh my stock of them every so often with fresh seed.  (WS and DS)

Salvia - Plain old annual Salvia splendens is a marvelous container plant.  I love the pure scarlet ones.  (C)

Coleus - I love their stained-glass colors, and I use them in shady spots, although some are quite sun-tolerant.  (C)

Snapdragons - I like the variety 'Tower White,' which has managed to almost perennialize in my front flower bed, even though it's an annual.  It's the toughest annual I've ever grown. (WS)

California poppies - I love their bold colors and ferny foliage.  (WS)

A. manihot, from the Select Seeds catalog 2013.

Abelmoschus manihot - A long name for a simple yellow hollyhock relative.  I got my first seed of this from a seed exchange about 8 years ago, but I didn't grow it until about 5 years ago (proving the seed stays viable for a long time).  It's gorgeous, an ethereal creamy yellow color with a tiny dark reddish eye.  I grow it in a container; it likes to be well-watered, and droops pathetically if it gets even a little dry.  It sets seed quite readily, so I've got lots for this year. (WS)

I'm a sucker for a pretty flower, so I usually come home with all sorts of impulse buys and orphans from nurseries even when I have my list of favorites at hand.  I try new things every year - never very expensive, but it's nice to try new plants from seed or seedlings.  In a day or two I'll make a list of my favorite perennials, then some of my favorite veggies.  Gardens are as individual as their gardeners.  What do you like to plant where you live?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Opportunities, Fear and Hope

It's been an interesting week for me at work.  First I was called in to work for a teacher whose daughter was having her first baby, so the teacher would be out of town for a few days.  Her class is small and self-contained, and the students have some very challenging issues, but I decided to jump in for the three days.  It went well over all, but it wasn't easy.  Then, during that three day odyssey, I was asked by the principal if I'd consider taking a long-term sub job for another special ed teacher with an ongoing health issue.  The job is open-ended:  the teacher could be back in weeks, months, or not until the fall - or later.  This teacher also has a small, self-contained classroom, with students with very different needs from the last class I worked in.  I agreed to take the job, knowing that it's for an unknown duration.  I hope the teacher recovers and can come back to her classroom, but I'll be there for as long as I'm needed for her kids this school year.  I start there in a week.

I had another long-term job in the fall of 2011, that went for 10 weeks while a teacher was on maternity leave.  For whatever reason (I'm not sure why), that job didn't freak me out the same way this opportunity is doing to me now.  I'm quite a bit more anxious about it this time, and I think it's because the class will have the students plus two additional staff (a classroom aide and a 1:1 aide for one student), and there's the potential that I might want to apply for a permanent position in the school soon.  There's more at stake for me, and I'm wary of the interpersonal stuff with the classroom staff, which isn't meant to be any complaint about the two people working in that room right now.  But I've carried some serious fear and anxiety with me from those first long-term sub jobs for all these years (15 plus years!), and I want to finally put those fears to rest, and tear down the walls of those strongholds.  I don't need to drag this fear around with me any more.

My first teaching jobs (all long-term subbing, 8:1:1 classes, 4 positions over three years at one school) had multiple staff in the room (4 at a time) - classroom aide, 1:1 aides, and monitors (for students with aggressive behaviors).  During the end of the second full year sub job, two of the staff made a serious allegation against another staff member working in the room.  I reported it immediately to my principal.  Two of the three staff were promptly reassigned.  It was really painful, because I thought I knew all of them fairly well; it was a betrayal of my trust in them.  My principal told me that he wanted to hire me full-time for the next fall for that class, and I waited through the summer to hear officially.  I didn't hear about the full-time job, but I was still asked to report for teaching at the usual time in August anyhow, which raised some red flags for me.  The first day I was back, I was called in to the principal's office, where I saw him and the administrator directly above him.  The administrator told me that I would not be offered a full-time position based on what had happened with my staff the spring before (that I should have known what was going on between them, and that I wasn't the "kind of teacher" they wanted to hire permanently").  But I was told that I could stay on as a long-term sub for the year if I wanted to, with no employment after that.

I was absolutely crushed.  Shocked.  Blind-sided.  My principal couldn't look me in the eye.  I decided to keep the sub job - it was too late to apply anywhere else for a full-year position, and I didn't want to go day to day at that point.  We wanted to start a family; we needed the money, or so I thought.  I wasn't thinking clearly.  Looking back, I should have told them to take a flying leap and walked out.  I was used, scapegoated.  The aides kept their jobs, were reassigned with a letter in their files, a slap on the wrist.  They were union members.  I was not protected by the teachers' union as a sub.  I was used so the administration could say they'd "done something" and still cover that class for the year.  I was good enough to teach the same kids in the same room for a further full year, but not good enough to hire permanently.  What a load of B.S.

The teachers' union rep in the school, a wonderful teacher and co-worker of mine, asked me if I'd consider being used as a test-case to get union representation for long-term subs.  I thought about it, but declined.  At that point we didn't know how long we'd live in the area, and I was afraid of being black-listed if I made waves.  Administrators talk.  All it would have taken was a bad word from that one person and my reputation would be trashed throughout the county.  I couldn't take that chance.  She said she understood, and tacitly agreed that my fears were legitimate.

So I finished out teaching that school year, and left at the end, expecting our son.  I left with no mark on my record, no formal reprimand in my file, but the deep-seated feeling that I was NOT GOOD ENOUGH and that I couldn't trust any superior in the school administration to stand up for me and do the right thing.

Fast forward 15 years.  I'm grieved and appalled that that experience has stuck with me so deeply and for so  long.  I'm taking this long-term sub job, and hoping to apply for a permanent teaching position in this district  at some time in the future.  I hope I can trust this principal, this administration, these staff.  And I think I can - but I thought I could trust before, and I got hurt.  I'm not sure if deciding to go through this again is faith, or insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result).  But this is a different school, different people, a different ME.  I would like to really BELONG in a school someday, to be part of the team for good, not just be a pinch-hitter or temporary teacher.  I hope I can find my place, and continue to teach and influence students to make good choices with their lives.

I hope.  And so I'll try again.