Lessons don't always go as planned, especially when your kids are the students

My 17-year-old and I recently traveled to Raleigh, N.C., for a soccer tournament. The event was a college showcase and welcomed high-school girls and college coaches from all around the country.

Many of the participants arrived by plane or drove hours and hours. While our 300-mile trek paled in comparison to that of many others, the trip was a big deal to me. I did not love the idea of missing school, but I looked forward to bonding and exploring with my daughter on a journey to a new place.

For many teachers, the thought of taking time off is dreadful. First, there are the “sub plans.” Creating lesson plans for substitute teachers is time-consuming. As a Spanish teacher, I try to leave plans for substitutes that require little knowledge of the language, while still creating activities that will feel meaningful and help students improve their knowledge of the language and its associated cultures. This is no easy feat! 

Once the sub plans are created, it’s time to cross your fingers and hope you get a good substitute -- or any substitute. If not, your coworkers will be called on to cover your classes during their already-too-short planning periods.

And that’s just the teacher's perspective. 

As a parent, tournaments that start on Fridays make me cringe for the kids and the classes they’ll miss. My daughter’s team played its first game on a Friday, but we left on Thursday to make decent time for the drive. That means she missed all of her Friday classes, and a few afternoon classes on Thursday. She’s in 11th grade -- arguably the most academically challenging year of high school. Needless to say, she returned with more than just a few hours of make-up work.

Being the NerdyTeacherMom that I am, I contacted her teachers, to make them aware of the absences. But I specifically reached out to my colleague, Mr. Chiarella, who teaches my daughter both AP English and African-American literature this year. I asked him to recommend a book that we could listen to on the drive down, to maximize drive time and help her to not feel so behind.

I was thrilled with my seemingly brilliant idea and excited that my daughter would still be engaged in learning while on the road.

Being the NerdyTeacherDad that he is, Mr. Chiarella recommended not one, but three books that would be included in a soon-to-be-announced literature project: Kindred by Octavia Butler, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and The Nickel Boys by Coulson Whitehead. I giddily grabbed all three from Libby, the app I frequently use to borrow books for free from the public library. I did a little jig when I saw that all three were all available in audio form! I was totally willing to use my credits or pay for them outright on Audible, had they not been available at the library.

Since The Nickel Boys was already on my Goodreads “Want-to-Read” list, and it was the shortest of the three titles, I decided we would listen to that one first.

“I have a surprise for you! We’re going to listen to an audiobook! It’s going to help you in school -- and it will help the drive time pass quickly.”

“Please, mom!” My enthusiasm had been met with a groan and an eye roll.

“What? Just give it a chance! It will be fun!”


I waited until we were cruising comfortably on I-95 when I passed my phone to my tech-savvy teen and asked her to start the audiobook.

“Ugh! Can we at least wait until we get to Virginia?”

“Fine,” I said through my teeth. We were about 45 minutes away from Virginia. I turned on National Public Radio instead. My daughter mumbled something and placed an Airpod in each ear.

In Virginia, I pressed play on The Nickel Boys myself. Her body language made it clear she wanted no part of it. Curling her body to the side, she looked out the passenger window as if someone in the next lane would rescue her from an annoying mother.

I persevered. I sprinkled in commentary about how I had read two other books by Whitehead and how awesome of a writer he is. I pointed out that he had won a Pulitzer Prize for the very book we were listening to. When we finished the prologue, I paused the audio. 

“Should we keep going?” I asked with anticipation, thinking that she’d gotten as hooked into the storyline as I had.

“I’m going to read it, mom. Just not now. Please.”

I thought about the miles, hours, days we had ahead of us. I thought about how quickly the years have flown by and how grateful I was to be able to take her on this trip. I contemplated. What kind of memories would we make on this rare girls’ trip together? Should I make her listen to the audiobook with me? Will I be a “softy” if I turn on music instead?

I caved. I grumbled and fussed, mom-style, about how I was trying to help her academically and how she hadn’t really given the audiobook a chance. Then I handed her my earbuds and barked at her to plug them in for me. I would listen to the book myself. And I did. For a chapter or two. I shared a few comments about how good the book was and how she was missing it. 

Then I started to feel bad. I had my earbuds in. She had Airpods in. We were inches apart in the front seat, yet we were each doing our own thing. This was not what I had envisioned for our mother-daughter-bonding trip. I stopped the book, took out my earbuds, and started talking so much that she was forced to stop her own music to respond.

We completed the road trip not having heard any of the three recommended books. But the kid said she enjoyed her “vacation.” For that, I am thankful.

I finished The Nickel Boys a few days later. And yes, I raved about it to my daughter. I started Kindred, too, and I've already told her how much I think she’ll enjoy the book.

While I want to blast audiobooks throughout the house in hopes that my family will develop a strong desire to read or listen to great books, I’ve come to the realization that listening to audiobooks is more of my thing than theirs. I have to accept that everyone has their thing. And I have to accept that my children’s teachable moments are not always going to follow my lesson plans.


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