Politics & Policy

A Little Learning

“I wish we had a houseboat,” says Phoebe from the back of the car, out of the blue.

”Really?” I say absently, changing lanes. She and I are late to fetch the other children from school and my eyes are doing a rapid circuit from the road to the speedometer to the rear-view mirror and back again.

“What is a houseboat?” she asks. No, no, I think with amusement, silently rewriting her dialogue, first you ask what a houseboat is, then you say you want one

“It’s a sort of boat that people live in.”

“With carpets? In case it rains?”

“Carpets?”

Over the boat, I mean.”

“Maybe sometimes…” I say to her, and “Come on, come on, come on–” to the fellow in the Subaru just ahead of me who is slowing down. Doesn’t he realize that in Washington yellow traffic lights mean, “put on a burst of speed?”

“And drinks? And only pie to eat? Only pie?”

Only pie? I laugh out loud. “I am sure that people on houseboats do eat pie,” I tell her, “But they can eat roast chicken and peas and regular foods, you know, as well.”

At three-and-a-half, Phoebe has lately been vouchsafing glimmers of a rich and bewildering interior life. Talking with her these days is like taking a hike in the Rockies and catching the barest glimpse of the hair on the back of the arm of a Sasquatch; you become aware that you are in the presence of something large and meaningful, but elusive. At this very moment she probably has a bright, clear mental image of lapping waters and yachts piled high with Turkish carpets and blueberry pies. Alas, it is impossible to extract such details by asking about them. Like the Sasquatch, no sooner do you approach than they vanish.

Some time later, Phoebe pipes up again.

“Can sharks climb?”

“No.”

“Can tigers?”

“Ye-es,” I reply uncertainly, and turn into the school parking lot, where several hundred children appear to be mobbing a line of vehicles.

“Some mice eat crackers,” Phoebe assures me, as we come to a stop. “Some.”

I have never understood the appeal of those ads that show parents expressing jubilance at the return of their children to school. One I remember from a big-box office-supply chain showed a middle-aged couple capering about while their children glumly loaded up on spiral notebooks, #2 pencils, and glue sticks. Is one supposed to identify with this? Do other parents really long to institutionalize the little buggers so that Mother and Father can get on with the carefree, exciting business of adult life?

Perhaps they do. I suppose I can’t blame them. Our children have now been back at school for several days after the nonjudgmental, nondenominational “sparkle season” holiday, and it is tidier and quieter at home. I am able to get on with the carefree, exciting business of adult life, and a madcap rollercoaster it is, too, what with replacing the cracked lavatory in an upstairs bathroom, getting the front-door handle repaired, and returning to the exquisite nightly torment of packing lunchboxes. (One day, I suspect, it will emerge that Alberto Gonzales secretly empowered U.S. soldiers to break the will of al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo by presenting them, night after night, with half-empty refrigerators and bags of dried legumes and making them “Fill the Lunchbox.” Judge Gonzales’s chances of making it to the Supreme Court will be finished, of course, but after such unspeakable torture, so will the suspects.)

Our freshly de-institutionalized children pile into the car and even though I knew perfectly well that I missed them after the long holiday en famille, I am surprised by the degree to which I really did.

“Mummy, did you know? All people are made of bones, blood, and flesh,” Violet announces as I buckle her in.

“Not flush, flesh,” Paris corrects, sliding in beside Phoebe and slamming the door. Hi Deedster,” he says amiably, chucking her under the chin.

“Ow!” she shrieks. “Paris hurt me!”

“That’s what I said–”

I didn’t do-”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” I say, and, “Stop making a fuss,” and, “That’s right, and so are animals.”

Molly turns around in the back seat. “I need to invent a name and an emblem for my class,” she calls over everyone’s heads, “it’s part of my homework.”

“Ugh,” I say, despairingly, getting back in my seat and driving us all away. “What is the pedagogical point of that? Next thing you’ll be bringing home a Vasco da Gama crossword puzzle.”

“Mummy,” she says dryly, “I already did bring home a Vasco da Gama crossword puzzle.”

“How about the American flag and a cross?” Paris suggests.

“All animals also,” Violet says, “have skin.”

“Nah. Something more exciting,” Molly says and the phrase “home schooling” scrolls unbidden across my mind like the crawl at the bottom of CNN. I shake my head to get rid of it.

When we get to the park, Paris and the Littles race off to fling themselves on the climbing equipment while Molly and I find a bench. She has brought her notebook out of the car to work on her class emblem. So far she has drawn a capital ‘T’ with what look like curly flames racing along its base.

“Gee,” I say, “What’s the ‘T’ for?”

“The Tsunamis,” she says, still penning away.

“Freak waves kill nearly 200,000 people,” I remark, “and you want to use the tsunami as the emblem for the fifth-grade class?”

“Good point,” Molly says briskly. She balls up the piece of paper, and pulls out a fresh sheet. This time she draws a heart, and mine sinks. I almost prefer the Vasco da Gama crosswords.

At this point, Paris yells for me to adjudicate a race he’s organizing with a boy who is almost his size, but evidently much younger.

“Okay!” Paris shouts, “You watch us, Mummy. We’re going to run all around the edge of the park, and the winner gets here first!” He slaps his palm down on the concrete, and makes a comical wince.

“Um, sweetheart,” I say carefully, nodding towards his competitor, “You may have an age advantage.”

“I’m four,” the smaller boy says loudly.

Paris smiles at me. “I know. Ready? Go!”

They begin to race, Paris zooming along at exactly the speed of the other boy, but with swift, tiny steps. Then, like Dash in The Incredibles, he streaks ahead, lets the other boy catch up, and streaks ahead again. The younger boy is doggedly pelting around the park as Paris begins running in circles, yelling. The boy’s mother looks on with a huge smile. Just as the four-year-old gets to the finish, Paris swoops in for a dramatic photo loss.

“D’oh, you beat me!” he shouts. He falls down and leaps up again, holding his backside and yelping like a cartoon wolf that just came down the three little pigs’ chimney. The other boy shrieks with laughter, and hops about grabbing his backside, too.

“Burning bottoms,” I murmur.

Boys with burning bottoms,” Molly amplifies, coming to watch them.

Bellowing boys, both with burning–”

“Big, bouncing bellowing boys,” she giggles, “with beastly burning–”

Someone pulls on my jacket. It is Phoebe, with another random announcement.

“I can run faster than a tiger,” she informs me.

“How do you know?” I ask. “Have you ever caught one?”

“Ten times,” she replies, then smirks and runs away.

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