gillis and her big mouth

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Month: March, 2015

This House is on Fire

Mondays are notoriously busy in this house, and sometimes it can feel like an ugly way to start the work week. After school staff or committee meetings are followed up by either a sports practice or play rehearsal drop off/pick up, which in turn is followed by a dance class run up to the other side of the county. When all of this is said and done, it’s time to get home and start the feeding and grooming schedule for the evening. Some weeks my husband is home on a Monday and he will make a lovely dinner while all the running around takes place. It’s a wonderful thing to come home to a nice dinner, and this was the case yesterday.

Our son, August, was busy at the kitchen/bathroom table creating vehicles for his Lego creations when Greta and I came home from her dance class. He told us that there would be a big surprise with dinner. He had set our places in the dining room and there was a game, a puzzle of sorts to figure out which seat belonged to each of us. My husband and I made eye contact as he was chopping vegetables and he smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Hey, it kept him out of my hair and he wasn’t, for once, plotting world domination.”

I set my things down, went upstairs to get out of my tights and into my pajamas, and promptly forgot about the dinner game to come. When I came down the stairs, I was directed into the dining room. From the looks of it, the puzzle to solve was invisible. There were placemats with plates, napkins, and silverware set up in pretty normal patterns. Each seat had a glass filled with water at it, although not all of the glasses were the same. Aha! I thought I had cracked the code. We had to find our seat based on the drinking glasses! I went straight for the shorter, wider glass thinking that was me because my son has mentioned my height to weight ratio before in unfavorable terms, and it seemed like a logical symbol. I was quickly steered away from that seat and into one that was the farthest away from the one my son claimed. I hadn’t noticed that there was a large gap between the place I was to sit and all of the other seats. I looked over at my husband who was carrying in a plate full of roasted vegetables and we exchanged glances and smirks.

As we all sat down, August told us to pull off small paper tags he had taped to the sides of the tablecloth, these were our place cards. The front of each place card was colored in black, the reverse side had a picture on it. These were the puzzles. Finally it was starting to make sense. We all turned them over. Greta was the first one to figure hers out.

“Is it a man with a fedora walking with a turtle who also has a fedora on using a cane?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied. How specific and interesting I thought.

Next was my husband who correctly guessed that his picture involved a castle and guards wearing hats.

August then showed us his picture of an elaborate pirate scene on a boat.

I was still stumped about my picture back in the nosebleed section of the dining room table. There were no figures on it whatsoever. No people, animals, or discernible structures, just an area of red marker and an area of black marker. I was reminded to guess.

“A Star Wars space ship?”

“No, there’s not even a vehicle on it,” he said, sounding incredulous that I could have made such a colossal mistake.

“A castle.”

“Nope. Guess again.” Now his tone was triumphant.

I looked at it again. Some red marker above some black marker. That was it. Was it a close up of a superhero costume? A ladybug? It felt like a test, everyone else’s made sense. Even I could see the turtle’s hat and cane. This was like a Rorschach test, given by a five year old, and I was failing miserably.

“Doyou give up?” he asked, gleefully.

“Yes,” I said with resignation.

“It’s a house on fire,” he chirped.

At least the food was good.


Six Word Reflection on This Year’s Slice of Life Challenge

Thirty days of hectic word barfs.

49 Left of 49

With 49 days to go until I am no longer 49, I’m feeling reflective. I know I’m no longer middle aged. If my genes bear out I’m about 5/8 aged and if I’m lucky I have 20-25 more years of relative good health and activity. This doesn’t scare me or make me want to create a bucket list. It does make me think about a f*ck it list however. There are some things I’d like to jettison from my life.

I’d like to truly not care about what other people think of me. This doesn’t mean I would not care about other people, just that I would live the idea that what other people think of me is none of my business – allow them to have their thoughts which I don’t get involved in trying to change or influence even if they are about me.

Being less cautious about telling the truth when it is difficult to do so would be a step in the right direction. This is an inconsistent skill set for me. I’ve lost both jobs and friends due to my mouthy truthiness, and I need to ignore that tape in my head at times when speaking the truth, from my perspective, is an important thing to do.

Rather than being anxious about what is to come, I want to spend my time in the present moment feeling whatever feelings I’m going to feel about what is happening now. It’s a little scary how much of my time is spent thinking about something other than what I am actually doing. Except when I’m cleaning the toilets, I can’t make that a Zen moment no matter how hard I try.

If I could stop comparing my life to the lives of others, that might be a healthy thing. I have everything that I need and knowing that I don’t have the luxuries and lifestyles that others have is okay. My lie is rich and beautiful as evidenced by the piles of Star Wars drawings, sports hair ties, and goldfish crumbs lining the bottom of my purse.

Making excuses about why my house is messy, why my work isn’t finished, and why I’m still overweight can all be things I leave in this decade when I move onto the next. The truth is, everyone has their own battle going on, no one cares why I’m a chubby slob, they are concerned that no one sees them as a chubby slob. Maybe they should join me in not caring about what others think of me. We would have some fun club meetings.

Putting the tablet down and making more time for the things that bring me joy, like listening to music, watching dance performances, dancing myself, hiking, spending time at the ocean and in the city, hosting gatherings, thrift shopping, hitting up tag sales, and reading would be a welcome shift.

This is a partial list, not much of a manifesto I suppose, but it’s a start. If I can keep these ideas in the forefront, in a low-key, non-anxiety producing way (I am supposed to be having more fun dammit!! Why am I not having fun????) than I think the new decade will be just fine. And that’s all it needs to be.

Ode to Winter

You are like a party guest who had too much to drink,

Overstayed their welcome,

Made boorish and rude comments to all the other guests,

Broke into the wine cellar and drank all the good stuff then

Trashed the parlor,

Spewed hatred and vitriol,

Staggered around, too wasted to leave

We had to put you up for the night

Then you sprained an ankle, couldn’t move

Laid up day after day

Week after week

You seemed strong enough to move on

We prepared for you to take your leave of us

Then you fell down the stairs

And apparently broke every

Bone in your body 

We redecorated the guest room for you

Bought all of your favorite foods

In the hope that you would recover

Not sue us for negligence

And eventually move on

And still 

Here you are

Don’t you have anywhere else to go?

Living Dangerously

Once again I’m trying to read the signals the universe is sharing with me, but I’m not meeting with success. Today my email feed was full of promotional junk from a security system, an acne fighting line of products, and a drug rehab center. Apparently something I’ve been doing online has triggered a profile for me that resembles a pockmark faced drug dealer in need of a home alarm. Honestly, it has made me a little depressed. My life just isn’t that exciting. The closest thing I have to an addiction is my retail habit, which consists mainly of consignment store purchases and bargain shopping online for things other than guns and drugs, unless you count the ill-advised MCT Oil purchase, which is technically a food supplement. Still, some algorithm out there has pegged me in a different light. I seem risky and dangerous somehow and now I’d like to live up to that a little. Makes me feel like walking, no running, through a mattress store with a pair of scissors so I can cut off all the Do Not Remove tags. 

Pigfeet is Why I Brush

“Why do you brush your teeth after lunch everyday Ms. Gillis?” Kelsey asked.

“Yeah, no offense, but it’s kinda weird to see you in the bathroom doing that,” said Tessa.

“Well, would you want me working with you at your desk with hummus breath? Or onion breath? Probably not. You should be thankful I’m weird enough to brush my teeth after lunch everyday!” I replied.

The truth is, I don’t like bad breath, mine or anyone else’s. I’m often acutely aware that my mouth isn’t all that fresh and I brush my teeth at least five times a day most days. I carry little gel strips that I can place on my tongue to give it a burst of mouthwash freshening without using mouthwash. Oftentimes, I have gum stashed away in a bag or my car console, but I don’t break the gum out at school. I’m aware that I chew it like a cow, that’s part of the joy of gum actually, but I don’t want to break the school rules. ┬áIt’s poor form for adults to ask children to adhere to things that they are not willing to abide by themselves.

When I became a teacher I knew I didn’t want to be like the dreaded Miss Montigny, my sixth grade teacher. This woman had stale breath on a good day and rancid breath on too many days. She also had a strange cadence to her speech that caused her to draw vowel sounds out for longer periods than was necessary, giving you a double dose of her breath. Bad breath was only one of her sins. She had a collection of smelly shoes in the teacher’s closet, leading generations of students to call her “Pigfeet.” She wouldn’t allow students to eat in her classroom but she often nibbled on the snacks she kept for herself, doing so in front of the class. She told us it was because she had low blood sugar. When she allowed the few students she didn’t hate the privilege of “cleaning her desk” they would often pilfer a few cookies or crackers from the sacred drawers and pass them around, much the same way prisoners might share confiscated cigarettes. We reveled in any attempt to get back at her for her stingy, mean ways.

I recall one day when she had reneged on a promise to take us out for an extra recess. It was a beautiful fall afternoon and for some reason she said she would take us outside if everyone did their work and it was quiet. We all helped each other accomplish this to the best of our sixth grade abilities, but when the time came to go outside, she said we weren’t going out because we hadn’t been quiet enough. She had never told us we had gotten loud. Either she thought eleven and twelve year olds should be able to remain silent for forty minutes while working on a fill in the blank worksheet, or she was sadistic, or both. When she told us that we hadn’t made the grade, heavy protests erupted. She told us we were too noisy and we hadn’t worked hard enough then she singled out one poor boy in the class who she said hadn’t finished all of his work. At this point I had reached my limit. I jumped up on my desk and called Miss Montigny a liar, only I put another word in front of the word liar to modify it with the utmost outrage that my limited vocabulary could muster. This did the trick. The class was then lined up to go outside, and we walked down the stairs toward the doors. At this point I was separated from the rest of my class of course, and brought down to see the principal, Mrs. Tower. Mrs. Tower tried to reason with me and tell me that she understood my frustration but my anger did not justify my disrespectful behavior. I would not stop arguing for my case and I would not agree to apologize to Miss Montigny because I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. In the end, I chose to stay in for recess for a number of days with Mrs. Tower so that I didn’t have to apologize to or serve detention with Miss Montigny.

Whenever I think about skipping my after lunch tooth brushing, a memory of my sixth grade teacher jolts me. At the very least I always grab a breath strip and let it dissolve on my tongue before class begins.

Bombs Away

Yesterday I was walking with my son who was working very hard at stepping only on the yellow stripes painted on the asphalt to mark the entrance way to the parking lot at the school. As he pulled my arm down and lunged forward with each step he told me, “there are two kinds of bombs you know.”

“Really? What are the two kinds of bombs?” I asked.

“The one with the handle and the one that’s round and has a curly stem at the top. Those are the two kinds of bombs,” he said.

“Where did you learn about these bomb types?” I asked.

“On t.v. I’ve seen them a million times,” he said.

I chuckled, grateful that my kiddo was not getting information about pipe bombs from a kindergarten classmate. I also cringed inwardly realizing that he had more t.v. time than might be healthy -as if any t.v. time is inherently healthy. These days he is enamored of all the good guy vs. bad guy narratives in a variety of forms – print, t.v. and movie. Someday I know video games will be added to the mix. The games he likes to play at recess all center around good vs. evil. He and his friends borrow characters from Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a variety of other beings they have concocted to act out epic scenes of destruction and redemption on the snowbanks and wood chips of the playground. I don’t necessarily fear that watching too much t.v. will thwart his imagination, it certainly didn’t kill mine and I spent a good portion of my waking hours with virtual friends like Josie and the Pussycats, Wonder Woman, and Marcia Brady. I do worry about the shows he is attracted to because they tend to reinforce stereotypes about gender roles and they include more violence than I am comfortable with having him see. I’d like him to be interested in more nuanced stories so I keep introducing books, shows, and movies that are less black and white in their structure. He tolerates them and will grudgingly admit to liking a few of them, but left to his own devices, he will always choose hero vs. villain. Heck, the kid now hums the Imperial March from Star Wars under his breath fifty percent of the time and I half expect to see a sweep of gleaming black cape enter the room behind him.

Having a son later in life after being raised in a family of seven girls put me on a steep learning curve. I work at not imposing my preferences on my son while instilling my values in him as much as possible. Curiosity about the world comes naturally, empathy less so. Some big ideas need to be revisited frequently, mainly the one about competition and cooperation not being mutually exclusive all the time. In the meantime, I play along with many of his narratives. I battle it out with Lego minifigures making sure I play my part, although honestly he makes sure I play my part. I read every Star Wars Clone Wars book he brings home from the library and I race and wrestle with him as much as my body and ego can manage. He’s becoming fast enough and strong enough now that I don’t have to go easy on him, so I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep up with the physical stuff.

It’s uncharted territory for me, raising a boy. Sometimes I feel as though a bomb has landed in my yard and I want to disarm it very gently while holding onto its essential parts. Other times I fear it will detonate somewhere down the road when I can’t get to it in time. Most of the time I just hear it softly ticking, wanting to be known for what it is, nothing more, nothing less.

Where the Magic Happens


This is where the magic happens. This is the space where I blow dry all ten strands of hair on my head and sweep the Maybelline Great Lash across my eyelashes in preparation for the daily battle. 

I came home from a conference last month to discover that the wallpaper and sink had been removed from the room where I get ready for work each morning. All of our bathroom supplies now live in part of the kitchen waiting for a renovation to take place. The kitchen sink holds both dish sponges and toothbrushes. Q-tips and cotton balls decorate the counter. It all seems manageable until someone needs a bandaid or an oral thermometer. When these events happen, it’s Code Red time with arms flailing and plastic baggies flying until the needed supply is located and secured. When the emergency subsides, the cabinet drawers are placed neatly back on top of one another once again.

I’m sure this will be a distant memory soon, it had better be soon, but for now I weigh and measure the importance of every grooming act. Is it really necessary to wear makeup today? Will it warm up or can I get away with wearing a hat all day to avoid styling my hair? Is that snag on my fingernail worth sifting through boxes to find the file? 

It’s not pretty, and lately neither am I, but I have faith that one day we will both shine again.  


‘Tis the Season

Today was the first day of standardized testing in my classroom for the year. Prepping the room for it reminded me of my first experience administering a state test. I was teaching in a fourth grade classroom and we were taking the long composition section of the MCAS test. I was given very little information about my role other than that I had to stay in the room until all of the students were finished with the test unless I was relieved. I was also told the test was untimed, meaning students could take all day to complete the test. Perhaps you see where this is going, but I certainly didn’t.

We had been developing our composition writing skills for months. We wrote pieces in class with elaboration, worked on sentence variation and word choice, transitions, and details. We drafted, conferenced, revised, and published. The state test allowed for drafting in the test booklet with the final draft going into the answer booklet. This was one of the rare things I was actually allowed to tell the students and point out to them – don’t forget to put your final draft in the answer booklet.

Students who finished the test before lunchtime read books and tried to contain themselves as best they could. As lunch time rolled around, most of the students went to the cafeteria and I was left with a few students who were still writing, rewriting, and polishing their work. One student in particular caught my eye because she was still working in her red test booklet, not in the blue answer booklet, meaning that she was still drafting three and a half hours into the test session. I reminded her that the final draft needed to be done in the answer booklet. By recess, I was relieved by another staff member in order to eat my lunch, and the students were supervised while they ate. 

When I returned to the classroom, I was relieved to see the student who had been working in the red test booklet  was now working in the blue answer booklet. She and I were now the only people in the classroom, my students had been parceled out to other places as I continued to supervise the lone test taker. This continued on into the afternoon. During this time I cleaned off my desk, straightened all the cubbies, created new organizational systems, and still my student worked on and on. A neighboring teacher stopped in after bringing her class to the art room for class and supervised a bathroom break for the student and then one for me. I also asked her to find out if I was supposed to stop this at any time. Was I really supposed to let her work until dismissal? Could I truly not say anything to her? 

My principal stopped in shortly thereafter to check in and she let me know that yes, the student could work on it all day and no, I was not to speak to her about it until five minutes before dismissal when I should collect her test materials. I was beside myself. Was this poor girl slaving away on this simple narrative prompt about her “best day ever”  in an anxious state? Was she stressed out and agonizing over every word? It all seemed inhumane, but I had never done this before and I wasn’t in a position to go against my administrator.

Finally the time came to collect the work and I alerted the student that she needed to finish up. She protested saying, “But I’ve only done the artwork, I haven’t written anything yet!” She held the page up and indeed she had decorated the entire border of the test margins with dozens of woodland creatures all articulated and shaded beautifully. She managed to scrawl out one or two sentences before her bus was called. I have since managed to figure out a way to administer these tests so that students can almost understand what is expected of them. Almost.

Questions That Arise at 2:33 a.m.

What is that noise?

How many ibuprofen can safely be taken for shoulder pain in a 24 hour span?

What is the definition of sleep apnea?

Why are sleep talkers so inarticulate? 

Why are hotel rooms always so hot?

Seriously, what is that noise?

How many other people have slept on this mattress to make it such a concave, taco shaped bed?

How many times must I poke someone before they will roll over and stop snoring?

Will anyone awaken if I program my phone to play white noise?

Why did the marimba tone blast out of my phone instead of the white noise I thought I programmed?

Where did I leave my glasses?

How is it possible to step on a Lego piece here at a hotel?

Did we pack band aids?

For the love of all humanity, what is that incessant noise?