What To Do With a Clammed-up Kid

Just when some kids need to talk most, they clam up. When they sense danger, they retract to somewhere inside. And the more you probe, the tighter they lock their shells. And this isn’t good.

Like you, even small kids can have big feelings. Threats cause fear or embarrassment or anger to sweep over them. And the amygdala in their brains triggers their first instincts—to flee or fight or freeze. This all happens to you, as well. But you have something kids don’t have—a fully-developed frontal cortex. Here’s where reasoning and decision-making and planning happen. This part of your brain helps you talk down your fear and bring logic into the mix.

This is why your kids need you. To do for them what their brains are not yet ready to do.

If kids aren’t the clamming-up type, you don’t have to guess their feelings. You know they’re mad. They’ve got plenty to say, and they stand there and fight. By keeping cool and playing it right, you can gradually bring some sound thinking their way.

But the clamming-up kind flee into their shells and then freeze. You’re left only to guess.

Poking around doesn’t help. Like the clam, they tighten their locking muscles. So how can you find your way into the shell?

I’ve found it works better to go in the backdoor than to pound on the front door.  My favorite strategy is called joint engagement, which is just a fancy term for sharing a moment where you focus on something together. Maybe it’s a jigsaw puzzle or a bike ride. Maybe it’s doing the supper dishes or weeding the garden.

“I remember being full of dread once,” you might say as you pull out a dandelion root. Without looking at the kid, you tell a simple story. Then, just let it sit.

Or read a book aloud together. Books like Roll of Thunder and Number the Stars and the Narnia series show kids who have at the same time deep fear and strong resilience. In someone else’s story, kids can discover themselves. They are given a vocabulary to express their own embarrassments and fears and angers. With the focus off them, they might relax enough to open their shell.

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,”—Orwell

They were the last class I taught—the Class of 2020. And the other night London City Schools lit up the stadium in honor of these students who won’t be wearing caps and gowns to march down the aisle.

“Drive to the football field,” the Facebook posts said all day. “Turn on your lights and honk your horns and show these seniors you care.”

The weather that day reminded me of the beginning of Orwell’s book 1984.

“Listen to this opening sentence,” I’d tell students when I introduced the book: It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“Something’s wrong there, Mrs. Swartz,” they’d say.

And all day as I thought about going to the stadium, I too felt that the clocks were striking thirteen.

These students were wearing masks instead of mortarboards, distancing from grandparents instead of inviting them to open houses, wondering if college dorms would open in the fall instead of going to college tours, and fearing that a collapsing economy would rob them of careers.

And all this happened just as they were on the cusp. All year, as they checked out my groceries at Krogers or when they stopped by my porch, they had been telling me their hopes—to be an engineer, to play for the Ohio State Band, to teach, to get accepted into medical school, to play college football.

They were also vulnerable. I knew their middle school wounds—one had been beaten by her dad, another one bullied by his classmates. For one the letters had danced on the page making it impossible to decipher a sentence. Another had been on a lonely search for friends who could appreciate his sharp and quirky mind. One had stuttered and another ticced and yet another had been so shy she could barely lift her eyes to mine.

Throughout that bright, cold April day, I thought about these students.

And when the sun set, my husband and I joined the caravan of cars driving around the football field. Our lights were on and our horns blaring. I smiled and waved and tried to convince myself this wasn’t a funeral.

The Class of 2020 is beginning adulthood in strange times, when the clocks seem to be striking thirteen. This is not the time I would have chosen for them.

But I’ll be interested to see what they do with it.

One of My First Friends Has Died

One of my first friends has died. And because of the pandemic, Nathan’s burial was private—with his wife and children and grandchildren. So his family and his friends have missed the comforts of the usual mourning rituals.

At my home in Ohio, I followed posts about Nathan’s diagnosis of an aggressive lymphoma, his move from the hospital to hospice at home, his swift decline, and the last vigil his family held. And one morning I read that Nathan had died in the middle of the night.

That day my mind went back.

As children, Nathan and I had seen each other six days a week—at Yoder School on school days and at Sunday school on Sundays. When we could, we sat by each other at church and at school. And more than once we found ourselves in trouble for whispering . . . or worse. I never saw Nathan’s citizenship grade, but I had some explaining to do for my report cards. And when we learned that my family was going to move far, far away to Flint, Michigan, we fell into a mutual sorrow.

But we grew up. We each found spouses and established our own families. And through the decades we found occasion to see each other.  Once when Steve and I were college-poor, brand-new parents, and living on cornbread and beans, Nathan and Mim shared our table when they traveled through Flint. Just a few years ago, we stayed at their house in Virginia. Photos of grandchildren were scattered all through their house.

I last saw Nathan at a funeral home, next to his father’s coffin. Nathan was a history professor and archivist and had written a book. His mind was as sharp as ever, but Parkinson’s disease had weakened him, so he sat on a chair. His hand trembled when he reached out to shake mine. But his eyes still held the same spark that I remembered from second grade at Yoder School. That’s what used to get me in trouble—his eyes signaling he had something compelling to say.

My last conversation with Nathan was by telephone. The publisher of 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭 wanted me to clear a scene I had written about him in my memoir.

“Read it to me,” he said when I explained.

And after I read, he said, “That will be fine, Phyllis. That will be fine.”

I’ve often heard my parents talk about their friends dying. So far, this hasn’t happened much to me.

But now it has.

The Guy I Saved from a Paddling Teaches Me a Lesson

In my book 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, I used a fake name for Lee Beachy. I had lost track of Lee, and he’d probably never read my book. But what if he did? And how would he feel about people knowing that back in second grade I saved him from a paddling? So in my book I called him Amos, just in case.

And wouldn’t you know! A few weeks after Yoder School was published, Lee found me. He read an interview my son David wrote for the Anxious Bench blog. Lee contacted David, who forwarded his email to me.

Lee and I began chatting by email. He reminded me that he had broken his left arm on a playground sliding board. He told me that he’s a father of four and a grandfather of one, that he works for a global bank, and that he has an idea for writing a book.

And he told me how he had spent a recent vacation day—reading Yoder School. He liked the book, he wrote. But he said nothing of the scene about him.

“If I catch you one more time sitting and staring,” the teacher told Lee one day when he kept leaning back and staring at the ceiling, “I will paddle you.”

I’m in the front row, wearing a blue dress. Lee is directly behind me, wearing a striped shirt.

I still remember the horror I felt that day. I had never seen anyone paddled at Yoder School, and I thought a paddling would dirty the school forever. So I made Lee my project. I scooted my desk closer to his, and every time his eyes strayed from his books, I poked him with a pencil. He didn’t like it much, but he also didn’t want a paddling. So after each poke, he obediently turned back to his work. The day was everlasting, but finally the yellow school buses pulled up under the classroom windows, and school was over. I had saved Lee from a paddling.

But even though Lee had read all this, he said nothing about it.

Just last week, Lee wrote again, this time about the coronavirus. His son, he said, was getting married that day—a field wedding with only immediate family and adequate social distancing. And he had some advice for me: Tell your grandchildren to write about their experiences with the virus. This is the stuff that makes up the fabric of history.

Good idea, I wrote back. And then I gathered up my courage.

“Did you recognize yourself in Yoder School?” I asked. “You were the kid I saved from a paddling.”

Lee didn’t remember that afternoon. But he could easily imagine it happened. From a very early age, he told me, he avoided using paper to tackle a problem. He didn’t like using an eraser. He preferred to do math in his head, without recording each and every step. And when he wrote a sentence, he liked to edit with his mind, before he wrote.

Back in second grade, Lee’s teacher had thought he was shirking when he stared at the ceiling. And so had I. Actually, though, I could see now that he had been working harder than I was.

I needed this lesson from Lee.

Daydreaming can more than a pleasant pastime. Daydreaming can produce innovative ideas, bring breakthroughs, and develop problem-solving strategies. In their minds people can not only set goals but also imagine the steps they would take to meet them.

Problems arise, of course, when daydreaming overtakes daily functioning. Lee had to learn, he told me, to do more than provide the “final answer.” He had to learn to show sequence and process.

Still, I’m glad Lee had a rich life of the mind back in second grade.

And he’s glad I saved him from a paddling.

“My back-side thanks you,” he wrote, “for your compassion and care in my tender years!”

Why We Played Cooties

When I was a kid we played Cooties. By that time, kids had already been playing this game for decades, ever since the 1918 Pandemic.

“Cooties!” we’d yell as we tagged someone on the playground.

And all the rest of recess that person tried to infect the rest of us. But sometimes we’d have mercy on our friends.

Clicking a ball-point pen on their arms, we’d chant, “Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you’ve got your cooties’ shot.”

We were, after all, the first of the Round-Scar Generation, sporting dime-size scars from small-pox vaccinations on our upper left arms. And we had grown up with the fear of small pox and polio and whooping cough, which meant you couldn’t catch your breath.

Cootie GameBut my favorite Cooties game came from a box. With this dice-rolling table-top game, we tried to be the first to build a cootie—on purpose and piece by piece. Our cooties, when built, had heads, antennas, eyes, mouths, and six legs each.

Cooties from WordKids played the earliest version of cooties during the 1918 Pandemic when perhaps a third of the world’s population was infected and children were particularly vulnerable. They played later versions during the last smallpox outbreak in the United States in the late 1940s. And like me, they played it in the 1950s when the polio epidemic put their cousins onto crutches and into iron lungs that kept them breathing.

Kids have always played out their fears. This is why I stabbed my dolls with needles before getting vaccines and why I played No Bears Are Out Tonight, an evening running game that pushed me into the dreaded dark. And this is how the cooties games helped me explore fears of infection that lurked in my mind.

During this coronavirus shutdown, my eight grandchildren have been on my mind. And I’ve decided to send them a new version of Cooties. And in true coronavirus form, I’ll order a set for myself so we can play it together via Zoom.



A Coronavirus Kind of Spring Break

“Guess what Grandma,” my oldest grandson said on a Zoom visit last night. “I’m stuck at home with the coronavirus, so I’m reading your book.”

Joel and I had thought we’d be together this week, that he’d come to Ohio from Illinois to spend spring break with me.

But instead of talking as we rode the bike path or grilled hamburgers or played ping pong, we met virtually.

“What’s really cool,” Joel said, “is that I was just learning about your time in my modern American history class.”

His teacher, Joel told me, had covered Sputnik and the polio vaccines and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Civil Rights. And just when school closed for the pandemic, they were talking about the Vietnam War.

“That was a bad time, Grandma,” Joel said, “a really bad time. And you lived in it.”

And, he continued with the hint of a snicker in his voice, “You lived during Flower Power, with the hippies.”

Joel wants to go back to school. Mr. Kauffman just talks to us, he said. He makes history alive and interesting. I want to hear more.

In my book 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, Joel is at page 70, just ready to read about the afternoon my teacher Mr. Deaton dumped a stack of Orwell’s book 1984 on top of his cluttered desk. I still remember that afternoon—how Mr. Deaton raked his long hair out of his eyes and perched on the edge of his desk. He sat there in his leisure suit with bell bottom pants and no tie, regarding us for a moment like he was trying to decide what to say.

Mr. Deaton was, after all, about to introduce us to a new and troubling world, a dystopian novel that warns about what happens when times turn bad.

“What I like about reading your book,” Joel said, “is that it puts history into a story. I like to know what you were thinking and feeling.”

And what I like about Joel reading my book, is that, perhaps in some way, I can give him company for his journey.

I’m disappointed that Joel and I didn’t spend spring break eating dinner together every evening. But in a new dystopian kind of a way, we are spending spring break together.


My Ninety-One-Year-Old Mom Takes on Coronavirus

Want to know how to quarantine? Take lessons from my ninety-one-year-old mom.

“Don’t worry,” she told me through the glass of her screen door. “I know how to do this. When I was a child, the health department posted a quarantine sign on our front door.”

So I’ve been dropping groceries on her front porch. And she’s been leaving them there in the cold for four hours to kill my germs and the germs of everyone at the store.

“Guess what I’m doing,” she said when I called the other day.

I never would have guessed. She was ironing a letter she had written. She wanted to sanitize it before she sent it.

“That’s what my mom always did when we were quarantined,” she explained.

In those pre-antibiotic days, my grandma knew all the tricks. If her family had been exposed to the measles or whooping cough or mumps, or, even worse, scarlet fever, she kept them home from church and school for three weeks. When people were sick, she boiled their dishes after they ate. She didn’t worry about running out of tissues. Instead, she used old sheets to make hankies and washed and ironed them between uses. And when she took her babies out in public she had at the ready a clean diaper to drop over their faces if someone coughed.

My grandma had reason to be careful. She had, after all, lived through the 1918 Flu Pandemic that infected perhaps a third of the world’s population. She had seen the graves of six children—all from one family—who had died in a diphtheria epidemic. And when her cousin’s three-year-old daughter died from scarlet fever complications, she couldn’t go to the service in the graveyard. These stories from my grandma became part of my mom’s diligence against germs.

“How did you know who was in quarantine?” I asked my mom.

And her answer was instant.

“Rubbernecking,” she said. “We all had party lines. So if we heard someone had scarlet fever, we called people on other party lines. And the word just spread.”

As the coronavirus swept toward Ohio, I expected to explain quarantining to my mom. Instead, I got myself an education.

Kitchen-Table School

Because of the coronavirus quarantine, my grandchildren and their parents are now together—working from home. And this takes me way back to my childhood, to the kitchen table in Flint, Michigan. There we all gathered to study after supper, even my mom. She was working on her high school diploma. Like most people in her church, which distrusted too much education, she had stopped going to school a few days after she started seventh grade. Her dad had walked into her classroom and handed the teacher a farm deferment.

“It seems a shame to take a child from school when she wants to stay,” her teacher had said.

But my mom had followed her father home to work on the farm.

But by the time we moved to Flint, the church had relaxed its rules, and my mom wanted a high school diploma. So with seven kids to feed and clothe and bring up in the fear of the Lord, she went back to school. Semester after semester, enrolled in the adult program of the Flint Public Schools, she completed classes one by one. And in the evenings, she did her homework right along with us.

There in the kitchen, it mattered that I found a powerful sentence to open my speech for Mrs. Brunett’s class. After all, Mom, just across the table from me, sitting between my two brothers, also searched for a sentence for the paper she was writing. My mom, I could tell, had a goal in mind. And she was working toward it.

You’d never seen seven prouder kids than on the night our Mom graduated from Flint Public Schools. We dressed up and sat in a straight row with our dad during the ceremony. Afterward, we presented Mom with a cake Dad made and decorated, and her eyes shone.

Since that time, a half century has passed, and a few weeks ago I never imagined my grandchildren would be doing school around their own kitchen tables. But while they are there, I hope they look across the table. I hope they catch diligence as they hear keys clicking under their parents’ hands. I hope they watch as their parents push through problems toward their goals and then try a little harder at their own schoolwork.

I’m sure that long-ago time around the kitchen table in Flint seemed more idyllic to me than it did to my mom. And I’m quite certain that a tableful of grandchildren seems more fanciful from a distance than it does up close. Still, a grandma can dream . . .

Enter Quietly; Patient Sleeping

Last week, I sat in my dad’s hospital room. I watched as the IV dripped pain medication and the crease lines on his forehead eased. I saw his eyes droop. I dimmed the lights and his breathing deepen. And finally he slept. But a moment later, the door flew open, the lights switched on, and a cheery voice asked if any visitors wanted a cookie.

“None for you!” she said to my dad who peered out from under heavy eyelids. “You’re on a special diet.”

So we tried for sleep again—pulling the widow shade, straightening the sheets, and adjusting the pillow.

But the interruptions kept coming—the phlebotomist after blood, housekeeping to empty the trash, beeping from the IV pole, a volunteer with a therapy dog, the intern with questions my dad had already answered five times. And when the nutritionist came in to see if we had any questions, I couldn’t help myself. I shushed her, like a bossy mom.

Through all these interruptions, though, I knew my dad was in a good hospital. The people who drew blood from my dad and fed him and took his blood pressure and made decisions about his surgery and gave him pain relief were experts. I’m glad my dad was so checked-on—and with such efficiency and professionalism.

And I had to admit, that from that bedside perspective, I recognized myself.

Way too often, I had been the expert bursting through the door of my classroom ready to ply the tools of my trade on students, as if they were objects. I had seen them as a means to fulfill my professional goals as a teacher—to raise test scores, for example, or to boost attendance rates. Too many times, I was so aware of a diagnostic measure I was about to dispense that I forgot to notice drooping eyes.

I’m glad my dad’s hospital had therapy dogs and cookies and people to draw blood. But I also I wish they had a sign to hang on a closed door: Enter Quietly; Patient Sleeping.