Have you ever played that old reading game "Apple Butter?" It's supposed to go like this: You're reading aloud, two or more of you, in class or at home (because all families worth the name read together at home), and when you want to pass the turn on to the next reader, you say "apple butter," as in "I do not like green eggs and apple butter." You get to name the next
My dad introduced me to the game, along with everyone else who was a fifth- or sixth-grader with me. We mostly played it at school. I never had him as my "main" teacher, but we split up for a few specialized subjects. I had him for mythology and health. And detention, sometimes.
I always wondered why the game was dubbed Apple Butter. I didn't know what apple butter was -- I always had this rich, buttery, sugary, appley confection-condiment in mind -- but I imagined it had very little to do with Madeline L'Engle, the American Revolution, Poseidon, or health class. Still, the game rocked. (To be fair, "quiet ball" rocked in sixth grade, so we may have been an easy audience.) It always became a bizarre hybrid of bonding, learning, connecting, and tormenting one another. A game of pass it on.
I've since asked around, and almost no one remembers the game by this name. Maybe you called it "popcorn" or "the game that means, thank god, that I don't have to read for very long." Who knows. Memory is a funny thing.
In his class, it wasn't called anything. Instead of saying "apple butter," we'd call out the next person's name, as in "There was the brain, there was IT, lying pulsing and quivering on the dais, soft and exposed and KIM!"
Or "The digestive system is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, the rectum, and the DAD! I mean ... oops. The rectum, and the Mr. Hosey."
(Much class laughter. The dad-as-teacher thing never quite got old.)
The game was lame, sure, but you should've seen it. Pass it on. It's a great game.
Have you seen a kid who can barely read squirm and fidget and physically ache for his turn to read aloud? I have. (His turn ended with "Athena burst forth from the head of Travis.") Pass it on.
Have you seen sworn enemies (at least, it was sworn before morning recess) make up over the personal grooming unit? I have. ("Make sure to clean your ... Melissa! Heeheehee.") Pass it on.
Have you seen weird kid -- the only kid whose presence still made his classmates want to pantomime "sanitize" a chair before sitting, the one who smelled kind of like waffles and always wore the same dingy Bart Simpson shirt and didn't talk, just chewed his knuckle; the kid you didn't want to offend but, by God, you weren't going to be seen liking -- have you seen that kid get picked by the cool one, and get his moment in the sun? I have. (His gem: "Mucus is secreted by Mr. Hosey." Heaven only knows where the reproductive unit would have taken us.)
We pass a lot of things on around here, and I don't just mean my chinless profile, pale skin and nasally voice. Sarcasm -- from my father's every-ready remarks to my own sardonic take to my son's emerging wit, which would make me strangle him if it didn't make me burst with pride. Reading -- from my father's love of the classics, mythology, L'Engle, and baseball stories and my mom's obsession with Stephen King (no one ever sees that coming, somehow), to my and my son's devouring of anything written.
We pass on compassion -- my mom for the environment and cats, my dad for an entire community that somehow became his family, my son's almost-painful concern for all animals. He cried when a cricket died on his thumbnail tonight.
Sometimes, though, I think we mostly pass on plain old passion -- for learning most of all -- and the deeply rooted conviction that for anything to be worth doing, you should be learning something, and if you're learning anything, it is by definition fun.
I was discussing my son's progress so far this year. He's got 99s and 100s on nearly every assignment, but he's dragging. He's bummed.
If he's not learning something new, he can't really see the point. It should be exciting.
"I wouldn't worry," someone told me, "It happens all the time. If it's not too awful, I wouldn't worry."
What? What kind of a half-assed standard is that? If it's not bad, it's fine? No. Sorry. And why would it happening "all the time" make me happy?
If it's wonderful, great. If it's provocative, fine. If it's difficult and infuriating and frustrating; if we cry and yell every day for a week, great. Well, not great. But maybe necessary, definitely important. The fun always comes after those times. It's certainly better than "not too awful." "Not too awful" is stagnation. It's self-centered I-don't-have-to-learn-ism. It's getting by. It's less than your best, which is never even close to OK. I don't want my son to get by.
My son loves learning. He writes, reads at least a few levels above his grade, sees things in ways no one else does, and has an imagination like you wouldn't believe. He created an entire fantasy universe -- completely original, not a riff on an existing one -- when he was four. He's amazing. I'm going to go out on a limb (we pass that on too) and say he got it from me.
He's also pathologically inattentive, impulsive, and stubborn like you really wouldn't believe. It's like arguing with an eight-year-old male version of myself. Which makes me realize: Damn, I'm an asshole. I'm going to stand on firm, well-trodden ground and say he got that from me.
It's easier to leave well enough alone. Just do your dang work. Get it freaking over with. Get by.
This morning he was gasping, writing, gasping, writing, and gasping. GASP. Writewritescribblewrite. GASP. Writewritescribble. GASP.
"What on Earth are you doing?" I asked.
"I made a game out of it," he told me. "I can do three of them before I have to take another breath. It's fun."
"Hey, Mom? Can we read out loud tonight? Can we take turns? And then, can we take the camera you passed on to me ... can we take it out before the sun sets?"
Later, he happened to ask for the "old kind" of sandwich, and I remembered: the first food he "made" himself was a peanut butter and apple butter sandwich, ages ago.
Turns out, apple butter is this cinnamony applesauce-type spread thing. It's really pretty gross. Somehow, I still imagine it as the best treat in the world.