Winter’s First

The black mouth of the sky grimaced and stretched wide, gagged out snow, snow, snow.  So much snow, it swallowed up our voices as we struggled towards the car. We’d left the car so blithely, parked between the yellow lines. Only a few hours later, under its uninvited shroud, the car looked like it had attempted battle with a giant marshmallow. Devoured swiftly, after a brief struggle. We swept snow away with our arms, and backed out through the drifts, navigating through the clogged streets, the falling snow coming at us so thick and heavy; it almost seemed as if we weren’t moving at all. In the morning, the windows in our house were darkened, clotted with the heavy snow that left the rooms in strange shadow. Sunday morning, and visitors, unable to return from whence they had come, pouring out of bedrooms, making coffee and bacon and pancakes. Husband moving up and down the street, bent against the wind, gaining slow inches with his shovel. Still a month before Christmas, the willows still clinging to their green, but the winter, impatient, bursting out at the seams.

The day creeping past, the snow heavy on the moments, making them drowsy. I doze in a chair with my book, pull out Christmas decorations, even though I’d planned to wait another week. The street is buried in snow; I’m not going anywhere. People all day, in and out of hot baths. The washing machine spins, gives the dryer a turn, and then takes on another load. A roast simmers in the slow cooker. The snow plough comes by, and husband goes out again with the shovel, to clear the end of the driveway. I turn to the computer, write comments for report cards, trying to find a shape or a purpose in being snowed in.

When darkness falls, incarceration ends, and the guests shuffle out to the car, promising texts upon safe arrivals. Sleep is uneasy that night, wondering about snow days, bus cancellations. The higher-ups refuse to surrender to snow. Either that, or they roll over in their beds and go back to sleep, letting the workers in the trenches face the music. Schools are open, buses are running. I creep along in my car, dodging children who have to walk on the roads because the sidewalks are buried. In the parking lot, many of the spaces are under two feet of snow. I find a bit of cleared area and squeeze my car into it. Into the foyer, stomping snow off my boots and peering over the tops of my steamed-up glasses. In my classroom, I fill the water centre with warm, sudsy water, and wonder how many of the children will show up at school. Most of them do. When I go outside to meet them, I see that the school yard is buried. My little students struggle through the drifts with sleds and plastic shovels. When we come in later, some of the kids are crying. Cold feet under drenched socks, and little red fingers, peeled from soggy gloves. Wet pants and running noses. It takes forever to get the children fixed up and comfortable. When it’s time to go out again, the coat room is a mess of mismatched boots, wet coats on the floor, mittens still dripping. “I can’t find, where are my, he took my…” One by one, I steer them, waddling in their snow pants and mismatched mittens, guide them out the door and into the snow. They could be cartoon characters, with only their eyes peering out from under drooping hats and hoods, the rest of them hidden beneath the bulk of their layers. Back inside and then, we do it all over again when it’s time for the last of the long day to come to its tired end.

The sunk already sinking, I make my way to the grocery store to replenish the depleted supplies at home. The wind has risen, whips snow into my face. Catching a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the door, I see ageing and weariness, hair tussled, wild, bedraggled. What a mess. The day. Me. I plod through the aisles, and when I am finally done, I push the filled cart back outside, through ruts of snow and dirty slush, and it’s dark now, totally black, and crossing paths with people on their way in, no one smiles, myself included. I heave groceries into the trunk, my hands bitten with cold because my gloves are buried away somewhere, in a purse, in a back seat. Traffic moves leadenly along, tires spinning in snow, and traffic lights seem caught in endless red, and I sit idling for long intervals, waiting in the car, my frozen finger jabbing at the CD player, trying find a song to sing, to fill the time, to take me out of the mess of the day. Elton mourns that sorry seems to be the hardest word, and the Eagles remind me that there is a new kid in town. I don’t wanna hear it, ahh, ooh…. I think of the friend who’d sent me a sad message at the beginning of this long, snow-crammed day, feel the sting of her tears that have somehow found their way to the backs of my eyes. My snowy day has been nothing like Ezra Jack Keats’.

Supper eaten, dishes done, yet another load of laundry spinning, and the lunches packed. An aunt calls about radiation appointments for my mother-in-law. She is so tired, so sick and weak. I’ve had a cold and haven’t been able to visit her. A germ from me could level her. I look at a picture of her on the fridge, her and the three girls when they were little, just yesterday. She looks young and strong, more like their mother than their grandmother. But it’s winter now.

Eyes heavy and fighting to stay open, to claim just one hour of quiet thought, before sleep brings me to the door of another day, just like this one.

Some nights, there aren’t enough candles. Outside, in the long dark, the clouds break open, and the wind-strewn snow sweeps through the frozen streets.

For Oma and the Darlene’s

When I was headed back to work after my sabbatical, my mom worried. After a ten-year stint in the library, my new assignment was Kindergarten. “You’re going to be so tired,” she said. “It’s too much.” My mother has always been concerned about my working, ever since I had kids. That’s been twenty-seven years now. Although she never criticized my having a career, she has made it known that her firm belief is that a mother should stay at home with her children. “A working mom has so little left at the end of the day for her kids.” There were many days over the years when my children were growing up when I could not justifiably argue with that.

Mom’s answer to her concern for me was to offer her help in my classroom. She maintained over the months before my return that she was going to do that, and sure enough, come September, my seventy-one-year-old mom drove herself up to the police station to get her criminal record check done, and a few days later, delivered her clean record to the front office of my school. She was ready to go.

We talked about what the children would call her when she was volunteering, and quickly agreed that the kids should call her “Oma.” She’s a Dutch lady. My kids call her that. The neighbours’ kids call her that. Oma arrived on her first Tuesday and Heather (the Early Childhood Educator who team-teaches with me) and I introduced her to the twenty-eight students sitting on the carpet.

That was in September, the craziest month. Fifteen minutes into centre time on her first day, Mom made her way through the jumble of blocks and legos on the floor, past the craft table and the floor strewn with scraps of paper, through the throngs of playing or laughing or squabbling or building children, came over to me and said, “I couldn’t do this job every day for a million dollars!”

Yup.

But the brave soul kept coming back. “Oma!” the kids cry with delight when she comes through the door. She smiles and waves and rolls up her sleeves.

Tuesday is Oma’s usual day. She times her arrival for when the children begin their first lunch and then stays through their centre and table-top times. With twenty-eight three, four and five-year-olds, there are a lot of needs. It is sometimes a challenge for Heather and I to even to manage a brief conversation with all of them in the course of a day, although we try. When Oma is there, the children are treated to someone who has time…time to sit down with a child on her knee to read a story, time to take a distraught student for a walk in the hall, time to help with a painting or a craft, time to kneel in the washroom and rub the back of a little girl who is throwing up.

Oma quickly ascertained that I was going to be fine in my new assignment, and turned her concern to the kids. She admits quite freely that she comes to school for them. (I’m almost 52; is it blatantly obvious how immature it is for me to be jealous?) Last week, when I was off sick, she changed her day and went into school because she knew that Heather and the kids would need her more when I wasn’t there. One night, she called and asked, “How are the kids?” I started to tell her about what my four kids were up to, and she stopped me. “Not those kids,” she said. “The kids at school!” She calls frequently for updates on how they are doing, and to offer observations of things I may not have noticed while she was there. “It’s crazy in your classroom,” she says, “But I love it. I wouldn’t miss it!”

My mom’s tender eye and compassionate outlook have certainly softened my own experiences with my class. Teachers have to be a little hard-nosed sometimes. On the first hot lunch day of the year, only the kids who had pre-ordered got pizza, and the JK children who hadn’t didn’t understand why they weren’t getting any. There were a few tears. Heather and I knew they would get over it–they all had lunches and weren’t going to starve. But Mom was aghast! “They’re too young to understand!” she exclaimed. “Next time, I’m bringing in pizza and giving it to all the kids who didn’t order! This isn’t right!” We had to talk her out of that one, but Heather and I are both touched by the way Oma champions the cause of upset children. She helps me to see the kids in different ways, ways that may not have occurred to me otherwise.

But, this is not about me. This is about the kids! I am amazed at the impact a volunteer can have on a classroom. When a child needs just a few minutes to talk about a problem or share an observation, someone to offer a few words of encouragement or praise, repeat an instruction, redirect their attention at an important time, a volunteer makes an enormous impact.

I am so grateful for Oma, and for our two other regular volunteers, who each bring their own special gifts and talents to our students and offer themselves so generously. The gains our students have made thus far can be as much attributed to their efforts as ours. They are so very much appreciated.

We sincerely thank you, and welcome you as often as you would like to come!