Closets, bookcases, and tables

“I also have something a little bit hard to talk to you about this morning,” I began. My sixth graders gazed back at me partly in wonder and partly in fatigue, as it was our first day back from mid-winter vacation. I cleared my throat, suddenly unsure of what I wanted to say. The words I’d thought of the night before as I laid awake staring out the window danced around my mind in haphazard order.

I licked my lips and tried to imagine what I would want a teacher to say to 11 year old, Prince, or even 7 year old, Princess. As long as I was imagining things, I began to try to imagine a world where this conversation didn’t even need to happen. Since that was about as likely as Harry Potter captaining a new Quidditch team at my school, I began by trying to find out what they knew already.

“If any of you have been following the news at all over break, you may know that something terrible happened at a school in Florida.”

Many students nodded at me.

The room was silent. They were listening. I had their attention. They heard me.

“I know we spend time talking about these things from time to time and we practice these drills together. I wanted to review some of that with you again this morning.”

Some students glanced around at each other, but most were fixated on me.

“I have a lot of closets,” I said, gesturing to the wall of large closets in my room. “I will fill those closets with as many of you as I can.”

I walked across the room toward the large rolling bookcase and table. “The rest of us should hide behind that rolling bookcase and we can turn that table on its side and hide behind that. If we place them right next to each other, it will provide cover for a lot of us. There’s also the corner behind my desk.”

As I mentioned each space, they turned to look at it and then back at me. They were probably thinking what I was thinking. It wouldn’t be enough. Bullets could rip through the table or the closet doors.

“Of course we could evacuate, if it’s safe to do so. We would leave the school entirely and go to our rally point.” I reminded them about where that was.” They glanced out the window in the direction of our rally point.

“What if the fire alarm goes off?”

“Well,” I paused and swallowed. “If the fire alarm goes off and we’re in a lockdown because there is a dangerous intruder in our school, we have to stay here and hide. We have to wait until someone tells us that we should really evacuate.”

A couple more questions followed, but not the typical “What if” questions that are common after a drill. These were serious questions from students who seemed to have been spending some time thinking about what could happen.

“I will do whatever I have to do to keep you all safe and unharmed. I promise you that.” Then I wondered what that would really mean.

Would I really be brave enough to shield my students with my own body and never see my own children again?

Would I really be able to risk leaving my own children without their mother?

I’d like to think I would, but I don’t actually know what I would do.

I hope I never have to find out.

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Though she be but little…

She swallows the spoonful of applesauce in one motion and I’m happy she didn’t try to chew the beads of medicine on top. Now we wait. We wait twenty minutes or so. We wait for what I don’t know. Something. Some kind of change in Princess.

Imagine a single pill that could minimize or even extinguish most of your problems.

Would you take it?

Many would say yes without hesitation.

What if it changed the essence of who you are as a person?

Still yes?

I bet fewer would take a pill that changed who they are.

But, if it made most of the challenges disappear, it would be tempting.

This is what I’m grappling with right now. To medicate or not medicate.

Princess meets the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. She has for a while. It’s only in the last couple of months, though, that the conversation of medication has come up. It’s only in the last couple of months that her attentional difficulties have caused problems for her at school. As a kindergarten student, there are more demands placed on her academically than there were last year in pre-k, when the issues first began to surface in a consistent pattern. So, we discussed the idea of a medication trial. Try out an ADHD medication to see what happens.

The idea of using stimulant medication on my 6-year-old daughter makes me uncomfortable. The idea of giving her a drug that could drastically change her personality terrifies me.

If you met her, you would see that she has more spunk in her tiny fingernail than most do in their entire bodies. She is exuberant and vivacious. She doesn’t walk; she skips. She doesn’t talk; she sings. She doesn’t breathe; she buzzes. She is a force. When Shakespeare wrote, Though she be but little, she is fierce, he certainly had Princess in mind. It’s scary to think about how this medication could potentially change her. I fear losing our quirky little girl to this medication.

Yet, we are trying it out. We are considering it. We wonder if, perhaps, it will make her feel more settled. If it will help her to focus better at school and on her work. If it will make her somehow happier. Right now she hates going to school. Could it be that this medication makes it so that she begins to enjoy school because she’s better able to “do” school? Maybe she can’t help skipping or singing or buzzing. It could be that she literally cannot settle herself. This could provide her relief that she doesn’t even know she is looking for. We aren’t sure.

And that’s what makes this decision so difficult.

We just aren’t sure.

We are making a decision for a 6-year-old who doesn’t know any different way to be. Maybe we will give her the first dose and notice how much calmer she is and think it’s a good thing and continue with the medication. But maybe her calmer ways are a good thing for us. Maybe it is more convenient for us to have a calmer child. Maybe she is happiest just as she is. But we see a calmer child and equate that with “better” and continue on with administering the medication. How will we know we’ve made the right decision: to medicate or not medicate? How will we know if we are doing what she would want us to? I have to hope that some intuition will kick in in the coming days and weeks as we see how this all goes that guides us in this decision.

What’s hard to ignore is the anecdotal evidence gleaned from families who successfully use these medications every day. Their children actually report feeling happier on the medication than off. The statements about overall improved quality of life are hard to ignore. That certainly counts for something. Right? If Princess could be happier, shouldn’t we give it a try? Shouldn’t we do it?


And so, we wait.

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New beginnings…

“This is where we used to live…” The Barenaked Ladies song “The Old Apartment” plays on a loop in my mind. There’s so little left that it’s hard to make a full box with a singular collection of items. We stuff random objects into boxes and add funny labels to the outsides after they are full. The walls are bare, the closets are empty, and the Photos app on my phone is full.

We are selling what was our first house this week. We will hand the keys to the setting for so many memories to strangers. The last night in our house, I didn’t want to go to sleep. I felt like I could stop the transaction, if I simply stayed awake. It didn’t work. We still closed on the transaction to purchase our new home and on the transaction to sell our old home.

I know I should be excited. I’m supposed to be excited, but I’m unsettled. I’m anxious. I know that home doesn’t have to be a specific place, but rather a space shared with specific people. I know that home doesn’t have to be this particular house, but can be whichever dwelling I occupy with my family. I know that home can have many meanings, but this little blue cape is full of so many milestone moments for my family. It’s our first house house. We’ve owned condominiums and townhomes, but this is our first single-family house. This is our first yard. This is the place where Prince learned to ride his bike. This is where Princess broke her arm. This is where Prince had a medical scare that shook us to our core. This is where Princess had her first swingset. This is where Prince stayed home alone for the first time. This is where we lived when we received Princess’ diagnosis. So much has happened for our family here. It’s hard to imagine NOT living here. It’s hard to imagine other people making memories here.

“I know we don’t live here anymore,” the song continues. I know that this isn’t the setting for our memories anymore. I know that I’ll take them with me and that we’ll create new memories in our new home. It’s just so hard to say goodbye to your first.

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Introverted Extrovert

“Do you have a pencil?” he asks.

“I need another copy of the timeline,” she says.

“Can I go to the bathroom?” he asks.

“Please take out the homework and get started on the warm up,” I say.

Students shuffle around their materials. Some take out the homework. Some begin working on the warm up. Some continue their side conversations.

“What was the homework?” she asks.

“Read chapter 23 and answer the study guide questions.” I hold up a copy of the homework to help jog her memory.

She stares blankly at the papers in my hand.

“Let’s go. Let’s get the homework out and be working on the warm up,” I say again.

More students take out the homework and more begin the warm up, but some continue their private conversations.

“Homework out. Do the warm up,” I say. I hope that by using fewer words I’ve gotten the attention of kids who tune out easily.

It’s the first minutes of class and I’ve been bombarded with questions and comments. I’ve herded students from the halls into their classrooms, given instructions, written hall passes, answered questions, begun checking homework, nudged students toward the warm up assignment, and prodded students to take out their materials. I’ve done all this and more that I’m absolutely forgetting and we haven’t even begun class yet.

I’ll stay “on” like this for the next three and a half hours until students are dismissed for lunch. I’ll have thirty minutes to eat, use the bathroom, check email, and check my phone to make sure that the kids’ schools haven’t called with some emergency. Then, I’m back “on” for another hour or so until dismissal.

I teach three ninety-minute grade eight English classes a day. I absolutely love it and couldn’t imagine spending my days elsewhere. Believe me, I’ve tried to find fulfillment outside of the classroom, but it wasn’t for me. Regardless, as an introverted teacher, I find the classroom experience exhausting in a way that is slightly different from someone who is extroverted. Teaching is absolutely an exhausting profession. But for an introverted person, it’s exhausting on a different level. I can’t take “recharge” breaks when I need them. I need to be teaching my classes according to the school’s schedule. I can’t just decide that I need a few minutes alone to catch my breath. I have to push through that discomfort and keep going until it’s break time. My last job outside of the classroom allowed me to work from home, if I needed. If I couldn’t work from home, I could work with headphones on tuning out what else might have been happening inside the office. I was able to climb inside the space I needed to recharge. I missed being in the classroom, though. I missed interacting with the students.

So, I’m back in the classroom. Back to the grind of almost no recharge moments throughout the school day, but feeling fulfilled by my work. I have to take care to protect the recharge moments outside of school. I text over talking on the phone. My kids come home and head to iPad land for a bit before beginning their homework. This lets me have some downtime myself. I decline the midweek playdate and delegate the midweek birthday party to my partner in crime. It’s nothing personal. I simply need to protect the outside of school time as sacred recharge time. I need to preserve the energy I do have for my family so that I am up for homework help, dinner prep, and couch cuddles.

You could say that I’m an extrovert out of necessity and an introvert by nature.



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The one in which I get political for a second…

dsc_0846I’m scared.

This week, the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Department of Education Secretary, and I’m scared.

I’m thoroughly terrified.

I’m frightened about what this means for my daughter with special needs. I’m frightened about what this means for me, a public school teacher in a high-needs district.

If you’ve been following the news, you may know that Betsy DeVos has been a controversial nominee for the position of Secretary of Education. Her background is concerning and her priorities questionable. Ms. DeVos has absolutely no experience working as an educator, in any capacity. She has not been a classroom teacher or an administrator. Yet, she now leads the federal Department of Education, with the mission of “[promoting] student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

When Trump was elected, I tried to accept the voter’s decision and move forward. I tried to have faith in the system of checks and balances. However, that system has now failed my daughter and has failed me.

How can someone with no experience in public education be tasked with managing the federal Department of Education? She attended private schools. Her children attended private schools. This is the equal access referenced in the Department’s mission?

She’s a champion for school choice, private schools, charter schools, and the like. She is not a supporter of the public education system that provides access to free and appropriate education to the nation’s children day in and day out. She has no concept of what it’s like to teach students who rely on free public education. What are her qualifications for being confirmed to run the Department of Education? Please, don’t show me her bank account. That’s not a qualification.

She has funded organizations that provide vouchers to students and their families to attend a school other than their assigned public school. This diverts funds away from the public school. If she invested the millions that she’s investing into these private organizations into public school systems, a vast majority of the “problems” she has with public education could be solved. For one, we could afford pencils. Instead, she diverts funds from the public schools and funnels those funds into schools that are unmonitored and staffed with individuals who are not held to the same standards that public school teachers are held to. Further, these schools handpick their student body. If I hand selected each student in my class, my test scores might skyrocket, too. (Ironically, the test scores at the school choice programs that DeVos supports in Michigan, her home state, are well below the national average. Thus, her programs don’t seem able to keep pace with the nation. Meanwhile, my students continue to make modest and steady gains each year in a public school.) Instead of hand selecting my rosters, I teach everyone. I teach the hungry, the homeless, the tired, the indifferent, the bored, the above grade level reader, the below grade level reader, the behavior problem, and any other student stereotype you can imagine. Every single one of them has a seat in my class and I’m proud to be their teacher. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’m not only scared for what her appointment means for me as a public educator, I’m also scared for my daughter. If the public school system we know is dismantled, where does that leave her? Princess is a special education student with a disability. She relies on access to free and appropriate public education and protection under the Individuals with Disabilities Act to make progress. Interestingly, the IDEA website has been having “technical issues” since DeVos’ appointment this week. Coincidence? Alternative schooling choices like charter schools and private schools won’t work for Princess. They don’t offer the range of special education services that she requires, first of all. The teachers are unlikely to have the advanced training and qualifications necessary to provide her with appropriate support and specially designed instruction. Teachers at charter schools and private schools aren’t required to obtain the same minimum qualifications as teachers in public schools. Every teacher I work with has at least a Master’s degree. Some of us have more than one. We take continuing education courses because we need 150 professional development points every five years in order to renew our teaching licenses and to remain current with trends in public education (SEI Endorsement anyone?) Second of all, they are unlikely to accept a child with special needs into their program. So, where does that leave her? In a public school that has no funding and that’s made up of all of the students who are deemed unacceptable by the alternative schooling options? Where does that leave me?

I’m scared.

I’m scared for the future of public education in our country. I believe that people should have choices. Absolutely. However, those choices should not come at the expense of the public education system that’s been in place in our country since the late 1800s.

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On this day…


With all that’s happening in our world, I’ve been avoiding social media. I wouldn’t say that I’m off it entirely, but I definitely have been limiting my time spent scrolling through my newsfeed. I have mixed feelings about this avoidance, but that is for another time…

One of the reasons I do login to my newsfeed is to scroll through my “memories”. On This Day lets me reminisce about the kinds of things that were important to me, things that I worried about, or things that happened to me over the years that I’ve shared with Facebook. Recently, a memory from four years ago appeared. In my post, I begged Princess to begin speaking with words and complained about the difficulty it caused. As I scrolled through the old posts and pictures, I paused at this one. I felt guilty for fixating so heavily on expecting that she communicate with words, simply for my convenience. She clearly wasn’t ready to speak at that point. And, if she were never able to speak, that should be okay, too. Instead, I was fixated on what I wanted her to do, as opposed to what she was ready to do. I didn’t think of her and how challenging it must have been for her to live in a house with three people who could barely understand her and whom she could only minimally understand. I didn’t think of the fact that I might have been pushing her too hard and too fast.

She communicated with us, but not with words that we understood. She made sounds, used gestures, and brought us physically to what she wanted. It was frustrating for us to not always understand what she wanted from us or for us to get for her. In retrospect, I realize how much more frustrating it must have been for her to not be able to make herself understood. I wonder what she thought and felt. Was she angry with us for using too many words? Was she desperate to use words herself to communicate? I don’t think I’ll ever know.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until we brought Harry, our cat, home that Princess began communicating with words. When Harry first came to live with us, Princess brought him into the closet in which she liked to play. He happily accompanied her. It was an easy relationship for her. He didn’t speak, so she didn’t have to expend a lot of energy trying to understand him and he wasn’t constantly telling her to “use her words” or asking her “What?” all the time. She could just chatter to him in whatever way was easiest for her and it worked. Princess quickly exited the closet and began playing with Harry and her toys in the main parts of the house and, much to our surprise, began speaking in words we could understand more easily.

Princess is halfway through kindergarten and speaks in words and sentences. Sometimes her articulation and sentence structure make it difficult to understand her and sometimes she struggles to find the words she is looking for, but for the most part, she is able to speak to us in ways that help her communicate her wants, needs, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. I never ask her to “use her words” like I did before I realized how frustrating that command could be. Now I ask her to help me help her, when she and I are having a hard time understanding each other. It’s not just about her making sure that I understand her. It’s about me making sure that I find a way to understand what she’s trying to tell me. It’s something that she and I both face and both work on every day. Seeing my post from four years ago begging Princess to speak in words made me feel guilty for focusing so much on how I perceive communication, but it also helped me see how far we have all come in this journey. I posted that before we received her ASD diagnosis and before we better understood Princess’ unique developmental trajectory.

Regardless, I’m happy to have visited On this day… and spent some time remembering. I look forward to the next installment and evidence of how much has stayed the same and how much has changed.

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Other people’s children…

“Well, you could teach your kids after you drop me off at school, but you have to come pick me up,” Princess says for the third night in a row after I’ve kissed her good-night.

“She’s mine. I want her all to myself,” Prince says when I talk about returning to my classroom next school year.

Scott interjects and tells him to relax, but he continues.

“If you work next year, you won’t be able to come to my birthday lunch at my school because you’ll be with your kids at your school,” Prince says. He emphasizes the your twice at the end of his sentence. I think he might cry. I can’t tell. This is the first I’d heard about the birthday lunch tradition.

For the 180-day school year, my own two children share me with the 75-80 children on my roster. These other children don’t physically come home with me every afternoon, but they are with me in spirit almost 100% of the time from September to June.

My students are on my mind a lot. I’m wondering about them and worrying about them in a way not entirely unlike how I wonder and worry about Prince and Princess. I think of the girl who was upset that her mother left before her name was read at 8th grade graduation. I wonder how the boys are doing in the Memorial Day baseball tournament. I worry when another boy tells me that he “makes more money” when he’s not at school. I make silent prayers that another girl’s father actually makes it to her after school volleyball game, like he promised that morning because when she talks about his being there, I see a smile that touches her eyes for the first time all year. I celebrate when they’re accepted to the high school of their choosing and comfort them when they aren’t. I listen to them agonize about drama with their friends.

Before I had kids, I thought teaching was the perfect job for a parent. Summers off. Same vacations. Similar daily schedule. It seemed ideal. From the outside. And it was in the beginning. When Prince was in daycare and before Princess was in the picture, teaching was perfect. However, when he began school, things got complicated. His school events were difficult, if not impossible, for me to attend. I had to be teaching my own classes. Scott was able to run out for an hour or so in the middle of the day, watch a concert or volunteer in the library, and it wasn’t a big deal. But, I couldn’t do that. If I wanted to attend something at school, I needed to schedule a personal day or use a sick day. With only two personal days each school year, I had to be especially selective about which events I attended. I couldn’t sign up to volunteer in the library each week or to chaperone every field trip.

When we look at the math, I technically spend more time away from my kids than with them every day. Many working parents do. It’s not uncommon. I think the difference with teachers is that I spend those hours with other people’s kids each day. When we add in how much time outside of my school building that I spend thinking about other people’s kids, it’s no surprise that my own children feel jealous. I have approximately six hours each school day outside of my school building while my own children are awake. In that six hours, however, I also need to cook dinner, do laundry, clean, oversee homework, supervise baths and showers, get kids to after school appointments and activities, and probably at least five other things I’m forgetting. Even weekends aren’t sacred. I’m not at school on weekends, but I am writing lesson plans and grading papers. So, I spend seven days a week with my students.

I’m constantly worrying about other people’s children, in addition to my own. What I can’t figure out, though, is why I stay. I could still be doing curriculum development. I could try to transition to corporate training. I could do something else. We could try to live on one salary. We’re used to almost all of my paycheck covering childcare expenses, so we could maybe even make it work for me to not work at all.

This last option would make it so that I am able to focus 100% of my energy 100% of the time on only my two children. So, what’s stopping me? What’s holding me in my classroom? Anyone who has spent any time with a 13-year-old, 8th grader will tell you that they can be challenging. Managing 28 of them in one classroom for 85 minutes can be quite the trick. Many days I leave school at dismissal feeling like I had no impact on anyone. If I kept track, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there are more “meh” or bad days than there are rewarding days. A few days a year, though, the lightbulbs go off and the wheels spin.

Scott and I have been around and around on this conversation about my plans for next year. He says I should do what’s best for me and that we can make whatever I decide “work.” He says that I shouldn’t factor in the passing comments of Prince and Princess too much and that they will be okay and only want me to be happy. But, what’s best for them IS what’s best for me. Isn’t it? Won’t I be happier if they are happy? Aren’t they telling me they will be happier if I am 100% available to them? They’ll only be at this stage for a short time. My classroom will be there. I know that I won’t regret the time that I give to my family. I know that there is a big chance that I will regret not taking advantage of this opportunity. But still, taking the step seems impossible.

Monday was day 180. My classroom is packed up for the summer. The file cabinets, the desk, and the closets are cleared out for a new teacher. I talked to my principal. I told her that I wasn’t going to be able to commit to teaching full-time in the fall. She asked me to take some time to think about it and let her know for sure in a couple of weeks. I agreed to that. The boxes with my personal items remain on the counter in the back of the classroom waiting to be moved home or unpacked for another 180 days.

Disclaimer: I realize that I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have these choices and that I seem like (or am) a spoiled brat for resenting the choices I have. Regardless, these are the choices I face and they’re not easy for me. You might long for my problems and you might be thankful to not have them. It doesn’t make my situation or your situation any less than it is.

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I walk the line…

“Because you’re mine, I walk the line…”

Although I’m almost 100% sure that the meaning behind these lyrics from one of Johnny Cash’s best known songs is vastly different from how I relate them to my own life, I find that this notion of our being changed by someone’s presence in our lives is universal.

Moms have to walk a fine line with their kids. We want to protect them and keep them safe, but we also want to raise resilient kids who are able to persevere through challenges and get up from set backs. We want to help them, but not too much because we want them to be independent. Should I put the homework folder that’s been sitting on the dining room table since before dinner the night before in his backpack or leave it to him to remember to get it in his backpack or face the consequences at school? Should I intervene when Prince and Princess are arguing or let them work it out and learn to resolve their own problems?

I walk these lines constantly as a mom with two school-aged children. I walk other lines with Princess. I tiptoe along lines about how much therapy to schedule and what kinds of programs to give the green light. I walk lines about how assertive to be with the school about IEP development and progress monitoring. I’m lucky these lines are theoretical because I’d be tangled up, if they were literal.

Princess’ lines are trickier for me because they blur, sharpen, fade, and darken over time. Their consequences seem almost more substantial for the long term, compared to the potential lasting damage that slipping a homework folder into a 3rd grader’s backpack might bring. Princess’ lines hover on therapy programs and frequency. When I think about the kinds of programs her in-home therapists are working on with her, I worry if I’m making the right decisions. Should I ask them to do more? Should I ask them to do less? Should I cancel all therapy entirely and just let her develop on her own trajectory without any interference at all? It’s a minefield.

If I cancel all therapy and let nature take its course, so to speak, will she be angry with me when she’s older? Will she wish that I’d done more? If I push therapy, will she be angry with me? Will she wish I’d done less and let her be who she is? How can I know the answers to any of these questions? Only time will tell, but ultimately, she is the one who has to live with the results of the decisions I make today.

I read about adults on the spectrum and their therapy experiences with people forcing them to make eye contact or to act “normal.” Preventing them from stimming because it made them look “weird.” Drilling and rewarding “typical” behaviors, while punishing “autistic” behaviors. Therapy goals written to make the child indistinguishable from his or her typically developing peers, thus, changing the child and his or her personality in major and fundamental ways.

“I wouldn’t change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.” This is a well-known quote within the autism community…maybe beyond. I don’t want to change my child. I love her exactly as she is. But, not everyone feels about her the way we do. If she changed, her life could be so much easier in a lot of ways. But, she wouldn’t be who she is.

If she changed, friendships may come more easily for her. She would get some of the things she’s desperately craving, but at a cost. We’d lose her. We’d lose the person she is right now. The person we love deeply.

So, how does a parent reconcile this?

I don’t have the answer. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll do for Princess. We take it one move at a time. In the Vision Statement we wrote for the IEP we’re currently developing with the school district, we expressed that we hope that she will continue to grow and change as she learns more about herself and how she sees herself in the world. We hope that she will develop strategies for navigating and understanding her world in a way respects who she is, so that she may develop positive peer relationships and enjoy a smooth transition to her early elementary academic environments.

We walk the line of teaching her strategies for navigating and understanding her world in a way that both respects who she is and supports the development of positive peer relationships. That’s the line. Trying to find the strategies that won’t compromise who she is. Trying to find the strategies that will help her get what she wants out of life.

Because she’s mine, I walk the line.

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It’s 2016, do you know where your food comes from?

It’s been a busy week for food allergy families. Hostess recalled 710,000 cases of snack cakes and donuts due to allergy risks from undeclared peanut residue. The FDA is investigating the presence of low levels of peanut residue found in flour and flour products. These flours and flour products were widely distributed to businesses and restaurants across the country. And today, major news sources are covering a story about a Panera franchise that is facing charges of unfair and deceptive business practices after employee negligence resulted in the hospitalization of one customer in January and a second in February of this year. The negligent act? A dollop of peanut butter added to a grilled cheese sandwich prepared for customers who specified that the sandwich was intended for someone with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts.

Earlier this year, the masses were up in arms worrying about where their next burrito fix would come from after Chipotle was at the center of a major E. coli and/or norovirus outbreak. The news was going wild over the issues that continually cropped up about Chipotle. Despair and frustration about having to find new lunch spots was all over social media. Yet, the E. coli issue wasn’t intentional. Conspiracy theories aside, not one Chipotle employee was ever found to be intentionally adding E. coli to burritos or tacos. What’s happening at this Panera restaurant appears, on the surface, to be intentional.

As a parent of a child with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and all tree nuts, the Panera situation frightens me to my core. Eating at restaurants is always a risk with an allergic individual. Restaurant kitchens are busy, fast-paced places. Mistakes can happen. But, when we do eat at restaurants, we always ask to talk to the manager to ensure that what we’re ordering for Princess (and for ourselves, since she seagulls off our plates from time-to-time) will not only be safe in terms of the ingredients, but also prepared in a way that minimizes the risks of cross-contamination. It takes extra time and we sometimes feel like we’re bothering the restaurant manager, but we would rather be annoying than be planning a funeral or riding in an ambulance, so we do it. The server and restaurant manager always add a note to our order that specifies that the food will be served to a peanut/tree nut allergic individual. This note alerts the kitchen to take the precautions of cleaning the surfaces, switching gloves, using clean utensils, etc. to keep our food as safe as it possibly can be. We’ve been very lucky about not having a reaction after a restaurant meal.

Please, don’t even start with the “Why would the parents even mention peanut butter on an order for a grilled cheese?” crap. Honestly. That’s what it is. Crap. There isn’t peanut butter in pizza either, usually, but there are pizza places in our town that we cannot order from because they use peanut oil in their sauce. If we hadn’t asked about the allergy, we may have experienced a very different outcome for our Princess. It is critical that individuals with allergies let the kitchen, server, or manager know about an allergy to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. These families didn’t identify the allergy to confuse anyone. They identified the allergy so that precautions about cross-contamination could be taken to REDUCE the risk of an allergic reaction. It is standard to specify an allergy any time someone orders from a restaurant. Restaurant menus ask patrons to tell their server about food allergies. My family does it and many other allergy families we know do the same. It’s a safety measure. It’s not meant to provide the kitchen staff with an opportunity to mess with people’s lives.

So, what I’m wondering is, if this happened in January and then again by the same franchise in February, how is it only newsworthy today nearly six months after it happened? Why was there not better coverage of this situation when it first happened? Why was unintentional E. coli at Chipotle all over the news, but something that was equally, if not more, life-threatening and potentially intentional not covered?

When the restaurant manager was asked about the situation, he apologized and explained that there may have been a language issue. However, Massachusetts state law states that as of February 1, 2011, all food serving establishments must have on staff a certified food protection manager who has been issued a Massachusetts certificate of allergen awareness training by an allergen awareness training program recognized by the department. The food protection manager is responsible for ensuring that employees are “properly trained in food allergy awareness as it relates to their assigned duties.”

Why was this employee not appropriately trained? Where was the ServSafe certified manager, while the employee was adding dollops of peanut butter to grilled cheese sandwiches? Why was the same ‘mistake’ allowed to happen a month later at a second location owned by the same franchise? Where does the buck stop? Does it stop when the customer suffocates because his or her throat swells up? Does it stop when the family is planning a funeral for a child?

The bottom line is that families need to be able to trust. We need to be able to trust that all reasonable precautions to minimize the risk of a reaction will be taken in the kitchen. We can’t live in a fictitious world of never going to restaurants or only making all of our own food at home from scratch ingredients. It’s not realistic or fair to ask food allergic individuals to live in a bubble. Furthermore, the FDA continues their investigation related to peanut residue found in flour and flour products. Even if I do skip restaurant meals, it seems that I may not even be safe to make foods at home in my personal nut-free kitchen. We didn’t ask for our children to have this frightening allergy. We are simply trying to keep our children alive in a nutty world and striving to educate our children about how they can best stay safe with their allergy. These families did the right things and were lucky that they were able to stop the reaction before it was fatal.

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The perils of Tetris

I’ve seen the faces the other kids make when Princess does something “weird.” She bounces too much or stands too close or breaks some other unofficial rule. That’s when the eyebrows furrow or the eyes widen or the neck juts out. That’s when a step or two is taken back. But Princess doesn’t notice. Princess wants only to connect. Princess wants to be friends. Princess doesn’t notice, but I do.

Princess is desperate to make a connection with a girl her age. She absolutely loves people. It destroys me to see her try as hard as she does and get nowhere.

I know she can come on strong. When she sees someone she thinks is a friend, her excitement cannot be contained. It escapes her body through her hands in wild waves and her feet in boisterous bounces and her voice in spirited speech. It is out of her control because she is just so overjoyed at seeing your child and having the opportunity to connect.

I know that kids see these things and think she is different.

I know that kids think different is bad and that it’s better to avoid the kid who is different. What I don’t know is where these ideas about “weird” and “different” come from. When did it become weird for a five-year-old girl to bounce on the balls of her feet or to wave wildly at a friend? Princess doesn’t think your child is “weird” for not being enthusiastic or waving back. She doesn’t think your child is weird for being different from her. So, why does your child think mine is weird for doing these things? Where do these ideas come from?

Aside from her visible excitement at the possibility of forming a friendship, what is so different about Princess? She likes to watch YouTube Kids and play with Shopkins. She likes to sing and dance and play with makeup. She likes to take care of her dolls and go to Build a Bear and play Calico Critters. Are these things “weird” too? Who creates the rules about what’s “weird” and what’s “okay”?

Princess and I have a long road ahead navigating the rocky terrain of female friendships. Female friendships are hard enough. Female friendships when one female doesn’t naturally understand the subtleties of nonverbal communication are an even bigger challenge. This is the element that so profoundly affects me. Princess doesn’t notice the faces, the eyebrows, the eyes, the necks, the steps away. Princess doesn’t notice them. She doesn’t understand the nonverbal cues that reveal someone’s disinterest in interacting or talking. She thinks everyone is as excited to see her as she is to see them. And that’s when my heart breaks. I see her get rejected and then I see her not even realize it and carry on without pause.

Your child doesn’t have to be friends with my child. I realize that not everyone will be a friend to everyone else. I am a realist. But, there is no reason for your child to be unkind to my child. There is no reason for your child to turn and walk away from mine, when mine is happy and excited to see yours. There is no reason for your child to make the faces, furrow the brows, widen the eyes, jut the necks, or step back from mine. This is especially true, if my child is treating your child with kindness and respect.

While I want Princess to make that oh-so-coveted connection, I don’t want her to change to fit your child’s definition of normal. There’s an unattributed quote that I love and that speaks to my thinking on this issue, “Tetris taught me that when you try to fit in, you disappear.” I don’t want her to reign in her excitement at seeing other kids or at the world. I don’t want her to fit in only to disappear. I want her to find people who are just as gung-ho about life as she is. I want her to find friends who can’t contain their excitement when they see her. Friends who appreciate her bouncing, waving, and chattering. Friends who maybe bounce, wave, and chatter at her the way she does them. So, we’ll have to be a bit more patient. Until then, I’ll celebrate the bouncing, the waving, and the chattering.

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