Category Archives: Parenting

The Bully of Bret Harte Junior High

On Thursday night I went to “Back to School Night” at my son’s middle school here in Benicia, and I was extremely disappointed because the hallways and classes were clean and neat, the teachers were bright, young and motivated, and all in all it seemed a wonderful place of learning. What the heck has happened to the American educational system anyhow?

I went to Bret Harte Junior High in Hayward. It wasn’t called “middle school;” it was junior high, and it consisted not of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades as Hank’s is, but of seventh and eighth only. A few of my fellow students at Bret Harte were old enough to have mustaches and serious whiskers, and some of the cars they drove were stolen.

Many students at Bret Harte went on to high school, college, and flourishing careers. Others now have their pictures displayed in the “Most Wanted” books at the post office. Bret Harte was so tough that even the rats in the hallways carried guns. In shop class they taught students how to make toy guns out of soap, a potential job skill for those who went to prison and needed to break out.

By far the baddest dude at Bret Harte in my day was Robert Jones, the school bully. He intimidated even the teachers and principal to such a degree that they gave him his own office. The sign outside of it said, “Head Bully.” If you acted up in class, the teachers didn’t threaten to tell your parents, they threatened to send you to Robert Jones and let him deal with you. That straightened you up fast.

Jones was as big as Danny DeVito but he could lick any man twice his size, including cops. He was an equal opportunity bully, picking on both seventh and eighth graders. But seventh graders like myself were his main victims. We used to post lookouts around campus to warn us when he was walking down the hall. One lookout would pass the word to the next, “Jones is coming! Jones is coming!” like Paul Revere warning the colonists about the redcoats.

Jones traveled with a posse of fellow bullies, but he really didn’t need to. He was an army of one. If for some reason our early warning system failed and he happened to appear, unannounced, in the hallway in which you were standing, God help you! Every kid in the hallway froze on the spot, praying to himself, “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me.”

When he passed by students pancaked themselves against the wall, trying to become one with the lockers in the hopes that he would not see them and harm them. Being a little guy, Jones had an instinctive grudge against big guys. He seemed to always target the biggest guys, lifting them up bodily and depositing them in the nearest trashcan.

When we were talking with Hank about what he had heard about Benicia Middle School (this was before he started, about two weeks ago), one of the things he mentioned was “canning.” This was what he called the practice of dumping kids in trashcans, which he had heard can happen in middle school and high school. We reassured him that that was unacceptable behavior, and that if he ever saw or heard of anything like that to let us know or his teachers.

I did not share with Hank (or his younger brother) my memories of Robert Jones who, now that years have passed and I am safely away from his clutches, I view with some fondness. After all, he showed great restraint for a bully. After throwing a seventh grader in the trash, he did not then set the can on fire. For this he deserves praise.

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Filed under Hayward, California, Parenting, Personal

The Daring Quest: Growing Sunflowers, A Photo Essay

Sunflowers are such calm, quiet, peaceful things, unlike boys. But my two boys, Hank and Gabe, are raising sunflowers in our backyard as part of The Daring Quest, and we want you to see the results so far, beginning at the, well, beginning.

Adding Fertilizer

Saturday, May 9, the day before Mother’s Day. Here are Jennifer and Gabe preparing the soil and planting the seeds. Each of us has our various jobs: Jennifer and I shovel dirt and mix in chicken manure to improve the soil in the bed, Hank stays inside the house working on his Alaska state project for school, and Gabe occasionally wields the shovel but mainly collects bugs that he finds in the dirt.

Handful of bugs

Lured by the prospect of seeing something gross, Hank comes outside to see Gabe’s bag of bugs. “Dude,” he says, “that’s awesome.” “Do you want to feel them?” Gabe asks. “No,” says Hank. I confess during the shoveling that in all my life I have never planted anything before-not one fruit, not one vegetable, and certainly not any sunflowers. “That’s amazing,” says Jennifer. “I’m so happy to be part of your first experience.” Hank adds, “I’ve never planted seeds in chicken dung before.”

Thursday, May 14. Gabe and I water the sunflowers. Like the American economy, no green shoots are visible yet. Watering the sunflowers quickly turns into watering Gabe. He starts running around the lawn giggling and exulting as the spray from the hose soaks him like a spring shower.

Hank picking off seeds_1

Sunday, May 17. Success! Here, Hank explores the eight to twelve tiny shoots that are suddenly bursting from the chicken manure soil. This is a testament to the wisdom of The Dangerous Book for Boys, our guide for The Daring Quest, which recommended sunflowers because they grow very fast and children (and their parents) can see immediate results. Afterward Gabe and I go up to my office to download the pictures he has taken, and I teach him how to use the Kodak photo editing  software. He quickly catches on and crops the photos and saves them to the desktop without my help. “I can do it,” Gabe says. “I know you can,” says his father.

In a moment Hank follows us into my office and learns to use the photo editing tools too. The two of them take turns editing photos, and it occurs to me that while the boys are ostensibly growing sunflowers, they are also learning some of the skills I hold dear: writing, editing, photography, design, publishing.

Tuesday, May 19. Before the finals of “American Idol,” I water the sunflowers and the other plants in the beds, something I’m doing much more than I ever have in the past. I feel more connected to the sunflowers because I helped plant them and they’re part of The Daring Quest. This seems a good lesson for teaching children as well: A thing that is done for them will never matter as much to them as when they do it themselves.

Saturday, May 30. I am brushing my teeth when Gabe runs into the bathroom to tell me something. This is not unusual. It is almost impossible to take a shower without Gabe coming in to tell Jennifer or me-whoever is in the shower at the time-his latest breaking news about how he can’t find one of his Warhammer toys or how he had a dream last night about a peanut butter sandwich. But this is truly a dramatic development. “I have good news and bad news about the sunflowers,” he says. “The good news is they’re growing. The bad news is they’re being eaten. By snails, I think.”

Springing into action,  I go down to the garage, find a bag of snail-killing pellets, toss some handfuls in the dirt, and create a snail Maginot Line along the edges of the bed. Take that, you pesky varmints!

Wednesday, June 10. The sunflowers are growing, and growing. According to Gabe’s measurements, the tallest is more than twenty inches high, and there are a bunch of other plants that are nearly as tall.

Growth!

Thursday, June 18. Gabe measures again and the tallest is now two feet high. Two feet! It’s a miracle!

Big Growth!

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Eat a Peach: A Day in the Life of a Work-at-Home Dad

Peach Can For a work-at-home dad, the two most frightening words in the English language are: Summer vacation. The boys are out of school now, which means that the “work” part of “work-at-home” pretty much disappears. Here is one day in my life this week:

7:41 a.m. Kiss the wife goodbye as she leaves for her blessedly steady job with salary and benefits.
7:42-8:00 a.m. Race upstairs and take shower. Do morning stretches. Run back down to fix double-bag English tea. Transport tea back up to my office, turn on laptop.
8:01 a.m. Sit down to check my e-mail and possibly do some writing before the boys wake.
8:02 a.m. Boys wake. Both visit me in my office. Start turning things on, pulling things out of drawers, telling me their dreams. To get them to leave, I agree to fix their breakfast.
8:20 a.m. Take Hank to swim practice. Also mail a book order at the post office, which makes me feel good because at least it has something to do with making a living.
9:50 a.m. Return to pool to get Hank. On return trip home, announce to the boys that we are seeing “Up” this afternoon.
10-11:15 a.m. Boys actually play contentedly without fighting or yelling, I suspect because of the movie carrot I have dangled in front of them. This gives me a chance to check the e-mails I didn’t get to earlier.
11:30 a.m. From upstairs I hear the boys ‘ voices getting louder, a clear signal that the peaceful calm of the morning is about to turn ugly. Rush downstairs to put food in their mouths.
11:45 a.m. During lunch I do not notice that Gabe is eating peaches out of a can. But I do notice when he starts drinking the peach juice out of the can. I tell him how disgusting this is, and he stops.
11:59 a.m. I drink the rest of the juice from the can when the boys aren’t looking.
12:07 p.m. Gabe accidentally pulls the toilet roll dispenser off the wall and hands it to me asking me to do something with it.
12:24 p.m. Pack snacks for the movie. Find leftover Gummy Worms to throw into the snack bag with the Pirate’s Booty white cheddar puffs and Capri Sun juice drinks. Offer the boys a box of raisins for a “healthy treat.” Both emphatically turn it down.
12:44 p.m. Grab snacks and 3D glasses and we’re off. Nope, not quite. I ask Hank to make sure the front door is locked. He says it is. I walk back and check the door. It isn’t. I lock it.
1:12 p.m. Stop at Costco before the movie to look at bicycles. While there, we walk past the Books section and I think wistfully of all the authors who are home at this very instant working hard on their writing.
1:45-3:35 p.m. See “Up” in 3D with our 3D glasses (totally recommended, by the way, a terrific movie for kids and adults). Note with pleasure the references in the movie to snipe hunting, showing that Kevin Nelson, Writer is on top of the latest Hollywood trends. (See our recent post on snipe hunting.)
4 p.m. Return home. Gabe leaves to go ride his bike on the court, complaining that the other kids are making fun of him because his bike is too small. Hank asks if he can have some peaches. I say yes.
4:05 p.m. I notice that Hank has poured entire can of peaches into a glass, not a bowl. Gabe walks in the door and copies his brother. Oh well, at least they’re not eating from the can.
4:36 p.m. Count the seconds until 4:45 p.m. when my wife returns from work and I get to take a walk.
4:46 p.m. Oh no, she’s a minute late! Where is she? This isn’t fair. Doesn’t she know I’m home with the kids all day and…Ah, there she is. “Tag you’re it, honey.”

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More Work-at-Home Dad: Why Children Learn to Read. So They Can Work the TV Remote

KN with flipperIn my never-ending quest to prepare my sons for the real world, now re-branded The Daring Quest, I have spent countless hours teaching them how to operate a television remote. Holding the flipper in the palm of your hand and manipulating the controls with your thumb while stretched out on the couch watching “Man vs. Wild” or “The Brady Bunch Movie”-this is a lifelong learning skill I feel confident my sons will use all their days. And my daughter too. Now in college, Annie can handle a remote with the skill of an expert.

This morning, while playing on an old laptop of mine, Hank discovered a 2005 journal entry in which I talked about teaching Gabe, then four years old, how to use a remote. Here is what I said:

The flipper is our name for the TV remote. Gabe wanted to turn on the TV and video and I was trying to teach him how to do it. The top of the remote says “Mute” and “Power” and some other words. I said to him, “Find the P. Where’s the P word?”
“The P word?” he asked.
“There it is: Power,” I said. “That’s why you learn to read. So you can work the flipper.”

I actually said that: “That’s why you learn to read. So you can work the flipper.” Around this same time, apparently during a sterling period in my career, I also noted this in my journal:

I mopped the floor this morning to feel useful and productive. That’s how bad it’s gotten for me: I’m mopping the floors to feel useful. I have been developing my floor mopping techniques, however. I’ve used powdered cleansers in the past. Put a heap in a bucket, add water, and mop. But I find that they, or at least the one I used, did not leave the floor with much of a shine. Now I use a liquid cleanser. It seems to give the floors a bit more luster. [AND HERE IS THE RELEVANT PART OF ALL THIS…] I mopped the kitchen and three bathroom floors this morning, while Gabe practiced his reading while using the TV remote.

You’re not sticking your children in front of the TV. You’re giving them a chance to practice their reading while they operate the remote, allowing you to do something else in the house. And I sincerely hope that something else is not mopping.

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Boys Will Be Boys: Snipe Hunting

Travis and his brothers

Here at Kevin Nelson, Writer, we are introducing a new feature: Boys Will Be Boys. It is separate from, but not unrelated to, The Dangerous Quest, my attempt to do every challenge in The Dangerous Book for Boys with my sons in a year. It came about after I put out a call a couple of weeks ago for “inappropriate” childhood activities, and I was deluged with emails from men remembering all the hell-raising they did as boys.

We’ve already discussed 52-Card Pickup and Arm Farts, Pull My Finger, and Competitive Belching. In the weeks to come we will share more of these tender moments of boyhood, such as lighting farts, shooting rubber bands in class, chasing a babysitter with a dead mouse, setting off firecrackers, catapulting water balloons through open windows, and putting a shotgun shell on a fallen log, shooting it with a BB gun, and watching it explode.

Our initial offering is a childhood classic from Travis Roste of Minnesota: snipe hunting. Travis, the father of two daughters who has been mentioned in this space before (see here), grew up in a family of five boys and two girls. Above is a picture of three Roste boys: Travis and twin brother Trevor on the outside, and another brother Chad in the middle. When Travis and Trevor were young, their dad Myron took them into the woods to go snipe hunting. Here is how Travis remembers it:

“I grew up on a hobby farm, out in the country. It was a fantastic place to play and explore. I don’t have a lot of pictures when I was a kid, a couple of dozen, but hardly any of them show my dad. He wasn’t the kind of dad to pose for pictures. You had to kind of get him in a candid shot when he wasn’t looking.  He didn’t want his picture taken if he could help it. He was the old-fashioned type of dad. Didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He showed us he loved us by taking us fishing and hunting and things like that. He’s 71 years old now and in great shape; he cuts wood and is active.

“My dad took me and Trevor snipe hunting in the woods not far away from our house. Here’s how you play: Go to a woodsy area when it is getting dark. Tell your boys to hold a burlap sack open to catch the snipe. You turn a flashlight on and put it in the bag, and tell them it will attract the snipe. Then tell them you are going to walk around in a big circle to drive the snipe toward them, but that they have to hold the bag perfectly still. Otherwise the snipe won’t come and they won’t catch any. To make sure they believe you, tell them that you did this as a kid.

“That’s exactly what my dad did told us, and Trevor and I went along with it all the way. We held the sack with the flashlight in it while my dad drove the snipe to us, as he said. We sat there for a long time while it was getting dark. Finally, when we didn’t see our dad anywhere, we went back up to the house, and there he was inside laughing at us. He told us that his dad had taken him snipe hunting too. We didn’t really get the joke too much back then, but of course we do now. It’s a grand tradition in the U.S. and we were glad to be part of it.”

Myron Roste and friend

Myron Roste and a friend.

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That’s Inappropriate! 52-Card Pickup, Arm Farts, and More

kevin-nelsoncropped1Man, talk about an unexpected turn of events. Last week I stumbled onto the most surprising and astonishing discoveries to date in The Dangerous Quest:

Competitive belching. Pull My Finger. Indian rope burn. Ringing the doorbell of someone’s house and running away, aka Ring and Run or Knockout Junior. Rubberband fights. Spitballs. Prank calls. Secretly placing Saran wrap across a toilet bowl so that when someone goes to the bathroom … aw, you get the picture. Dog poop in a flaming bag (on someone’s doorstep). Lighting a match with your teeth or pants zipper. Riding strips of cardboard not just down a grassy hill, but also down the stairs of your house. Tossing firecrackers into the sewer to wake up the neighbors. Egging houses. Toilet papering a house (a common suggestion). Filling someone’s bathtub with instant mashed potatoes. Letting frogs loose in the community pool. Wet towel snapping in a locker room on someone’s bare bum. And on and on and on.

I plan to talk about all these activities, in all their glorious and inappropriate detail, but first let me explain how I came to hear about such things, and how innocently it started. The other night after dinner Gabe, Hank and Jennifer were playing Fish, and I sat down for a hand. After a few minutes Jennifer asked if we were going to teach her how to play Texas Hold ‘Em because she had missed out on our games a few weeks ago when I had shown the boys how to play poker. (See Playing Poker—And Dress-Up.) I brought out a jar of pennies for gambling, and each boy dealt and shuffled a couple of hands. I drew a terrific hand—a two-to-six straight—and raked in the last pot.

After we were done, just as a lark, I asked Gabe and Hank, “Wanna play 52-Card Pickup?” Both eagerly nodded their young, angelic faces. I had them cold. Two easy marks, aged eight and ten respectively, and they had no idea what I was about to do.

I held the deck in my right hand, bending it slightly, thumb on the bottom, middle finger on top, index finger pressing gently against the back with the top card facing out. Then I let ‘er rip, spraying the cards across the kitchen floor. The joke is, of course, that whoever agrees to play has to pick up the cards. The boys were absolutely delighted, laughing hysterically while Gabe ran around picking up the cards so he could do it too.

I was equally delighted-but also slightly aghast. “Haven’t you ever played 52 Card Pickup before?” I asked. Both boys shook their heads. “Don’t you have any bad influences down on the street corner teaching you these things?” I continued. “No,” they repeated. “Oh well,” I said with a laugh. “I guess that’s my job.”

If I wanted to go all sociological on you, I could talk about the deterioration of our neighborhood social structure and how young boys and girls today don’t play outside as much anymore because of the lure of electronic games and computers and because their parents are afraid to let them out of their sight because they might get snatched by a kidnapper. The idea of “free play”—kids just going outside to play with other kids in the neighborhood—has been largely replaced by “play dates” scheduled and organized in advance and usually being held inside the safety of the home or in the fenced-in backyard. But even if kids did want to play outside, where are they supposed to go? Here in suburban northern California where I live, there are precious few empty lots or open spaces left anymore, because real estate is so expensive and everything has been or is being developed. Even the parks, lovely and welcome as they are, represent another form of land development.

So kids in the neighborhood don’t play with other kids on the streets as much as they used to, and maybe that’s a good thing in some ways because cars and giant SUVs are whizzing by all the time and there truly are poisonous people out there, pushing drugs and destroying innocent hearts. But, on the other hand, when boys in the neighborhood aren’t playing outside with other boys, especially the older ones who teach some bad things but also many good things, how are the younger boys ever going to learn such inappropriate activities as arm farting?

I actually showed Gabe how to arm fart a few months ago, not as part of The Dangerous Quest but as part of the normal teaching that fathers do with their sons to prepare them for adulthood. I guess the experience was touching for me on some level because I wrote about it in a notebook. This is what I said:

“11/14. I showed Gabe how to do an arm fart this morning. Maybe there’s a more delicate way to say that: simulate a gaseous explosion by the use of the arms. Nah, that’s not right. An arm fart. Gabe started it by saying that Hank knows how to make farting sounds with his arm. Always the adult, I said, ‘So do I,’ and proceeded to do it. He wanted to know how, and this is what I told him: You stick your left hand under your right arm and make a sort of cup with your left hand to form an air pocket. Then you flap like a bird with your right arm and this blows air out of both sides of the cup that you’ve formed, producing the simulated gaseous eruption. Actually, there’s nothing gaseous about what you do; it just sounds like a fart. But Gabe couldn’t quite get it. He started out by placing his left hand flat on his armpit, which of course didn’t work. Then I took my shirt off to show him exactly how I did it. Then he took his shirt off too. I showed him how to cup his hand over the armpit, which actually is a natural indentation and thus the site of a perfect air pocket. Gabe did it once or twice but mostly struggled with the concept. He’s young. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. We’ll keep trying. I’m sure he’ll get it.”

Reading this now, I realize that I have not practiced arm farts with Gabe for months and have no idea what degree of competency he has achieved since our first lesson. We may need to work on that. Nevertheless, it did occur to me that there might be other inappropriate things that boys do that I might not know about, and so I decided to ask some of my friends for their suggestions. And, at that moment, things got wild.

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Pull My Finger, or Why You Can’t Take the Boy out of the Man

Finger. CroppedSo, as I was saying, in the truly genuine desire to find out more about the secret lives of boys, I sent out this blast email to a bunch of men I know:

Okay fellas, I need your help. As part of The Dangerous Quest (what, you’re not hip to that? See it and subscribe at: kevinnelson.wordpress.com), Gabe, Hank and I were playing cards and I taught them 52-Card Pickup, which they had never seen before and loved. So it occurred to me that younger boys today are not hanging out at street corners enough and learning enough inappropriate games and activities from older bad influences. They need to know, in essence, all the activities such as 52-Card Pickup that we played when we were boys and that mostly you tend to learn from other boys. So I need you to come up with “inappropriate” games/activities that you played (no sex or drugs and alcohol, age 12 and under) or know about. These I came up with myself: Arm farts. Ring and Run. Spitballs in class. But I’m looking for more. Help!

I sent this only to men at first (the ladies would get their chance later and their response was much different), and in all my years of writing emails to people, I have never gotten a response to match this one. It was instantaneous and overwhelming, like a damn breaking. In less than a half hour I had gotten twenty-four inappropriate boy activities—and they were all different. There were very few repetitions, and this has held true even as I continue to send the email out to other people not on the original list and hear from them.

I’m not saying to people, “Oh, I’ve got that one. Gimme something else.” People are sending me original, unique activities all their own. There’s a lot of inappropriate creativity being shown out there.

One of the most commonly mentioned pranks is toilet papering somebody’s house-and this is something it seems every young person has done, boy or girl. “TP-ing” appeared on the inappropriate lists of both the guys and the gals-that is, when the gals chose to get back to me. Whereas one man (Gary Grillo) ripped off eight inappropriate things in a single email (tipping outhouses over, pulling out chair when a person is about to sit down, etc.), and another (Bob Newlon) sent a two-page, single-spaced treatise on how to hook junk metal pieces to the bumper of a moving car so that it drags the metal down the street, the women tended to be more muted in their replies. While there were some glorious exceptions to this rule (thank you, Katie Lynn!), they were hesitant about the whole thing.

There are many reasons for this I suppose, but one thing I see already is why so many stupid, crude and inappropriate Hollywood comedies are made by, for and about guys. Generally speaking, we like to do stupid, crude and inappropriate things because we think they’re funny, and often they are. And this doesn’t change much even as we get older and become (it is hoped) responsible adults and fathers. You can’t take the boy out of the boy—and you can’t take the boy out of the man either.

For instance, Pull My Finger was one of the inappropriate activities suggested by Scott Lynn, a Silicon Valley software engineer, father of two, and the husband of Katie Lynn. When I asked him what that was, he said, “I thought for sure you’d know “Pull my finger.” When you know you need to fart, you ask someone to “Pull my finger” and then let it rip. I had a friend ask me this recently.  When I didn’t he said, “Come on.  Give me an assist.” He’s fifty-one!” Although he thought it was a little “weird,” Scott grudgingly agreed to his friend’s request, for after all, what are friends for? More to come, and some of it of a far more inappropriate nature.

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