It occurred to me recently that Nate will return to school in a few short weeks, and in that time we must make great strides in our ninja training. And I do mean “we,” because one thing we agreed upon when I found out I was pregnant with Sam and would thus mutate into a stay-at-home mom, is that I would be responsible for martial arts education. Our house is becoming a dojo, and I am the sensei.
So, one recent morning, when Nate came down for breakfast dressed only in his underwear and his ninja headband, I decided we really need to get serious about this training. I can’t in good conscious send him back to school without decent sword-fighting skills! What kind of mother would I be? His plastic ninja sais were tucked into his underwear and poked out into his thighs. He instructed me to address him as Raphael and asked me “why there’s nothing to eat up in this joint.”
After refusing to serve him pizza for breakfast like the ninja turtles – and really, only because we didn’t have any pizza – it was time to begin. So, instead of digging out the sight word flashcards, I gathered up our foam sword, homemade toilet-paper-roll nunchucks. plastic sais from Target, and the vacuum cleaner extension tool, which we typically use as a bow. But no wooden spoons! Do you know how many wooden spoons I’ve already lost to ninja training? Nate sleeps with a set of wooden salad tongs we got as a wedding gift, but I’ll get to that later.
Now in reality, I don’t know much about ninjas, but I have seen The Karate Kid and Beverly Hills Ninja – two highly acclaimed movies – so I feel adequately prepared to serve as a sensei, though I will have no trouble handing over both boys to a more experienced master when they surpass my knowledge base. So, that should take about a week. Here is a summary of our training regimen:
Picking up sticks in the backyard – I owe some credit to recent, violent summer storms for this one. Since we can’t mow the grass when the yard is littered with sticks, I convinced Nate that he would become a better, stronger ninja if he dragged these to a pile on the patio while Sam sat and ate rocks. Oral rock consumption is a different approach to training that I’m not totally familiar with, more of a Chuck Norris style, I believe. I’d think it would yield a rougher, tougher, more rugged ninja, but keep in mind that this is the kid who literally shakes in his boots when anyone utters the word ‘chipmunk.’
Face painting – Because when a ninja grinds a piece of sidewalk chalk into dust in the garage, the natural inclination is to smear it all over his or her face. And legs. And arms. And the inside and outside of a freshly washed car. And the kitchen cabinets. And his brother. It’s an intimidation tactic. You should have seen the way the cashier at Old Navy that morning trembled as we approached the counter! I mean, sure, she was also definitely judging the lack of supervision that had to occur for their little bodies to be that red, but she was too frightened to say anything. As other mothers at Trader Joe’s shielded their little ones from Nate and Sam as they sprinted around the store, lusting after free lollipops, the employees did double-takes, clearly wanting no part of the sticky, sweaty red messes that they almost tripped over. And I stood proud as I debated whether to buy soy-based ice cream sandwiches for my ninjas or the regular dairy kind. Nate and Sam know how to cause panic! Our training is working.
Staring down chipmunks – Chipmunks are our common enemy. We respect them, but we fear them. From the safety of inside our home, we watch the little varmints scurry across the driveway and play in the bushes out front. Occasionally, they pause to stare back, taunting us with their superior agility and quickness. But if they so much as flinch in our direction, we all screech and close the curtains.
Nate told Sam this morning, “Sorry, Sam – this is no time to be brave,” and he turned their attentions from the window back to their PBS cartoons. Learning to face our fears is a gradual process. Maybe we’ll start with spiders and houseflies.
Agility jumps over weapons – At least I think this is what they were aiming for. It actually resulted in a lot of tripping and stumbling, especially on Sam’s part. Which resulted in bruises. And tears. Ninja training is not for the weak.
Jumping back and forth between sofas – Usually, with breakfast in one hand, the other hand out for balance, and this activity can last all morning if I let it – or until Sam gets distracted with racing some matchbox cars on the floor. Or dragging his lacrosse stick around in search of a ball. Or riding his little Batman car.
Sam has extrapolated this jumping practice to the pews at church, too. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not people are sitting in front of us, nor how solemn or sacred the moment is. He’s fully committed to standing at the very edge of the bench, reaching forward to the back of the pew in front of him with one hand, while using the other hand for balance, and trying to hurl his lead leg ahead. “Are you serious?!” my husband or I whisper each time he does this, trying to peel his surprisingly strong little fingers off the wooden seatback and hoping that we’re simply imagining the glares from the older ladies seated around us. But, as embarrassed and irritated as we are at those moments, we’ll undoubtedly be thanking him some day, when he grows into an accomplished ninja and saves us all from an evil world domination-seeking martial artist. Or a giant English-speaking snake. Or an oversized can opener. Because these nimble, limber moves he’s showcasing in the presence of the Lord are just the skills he’ll need to protect the world.
And then, when he army-crawls underneath the kneelers to peer up menacingly at the churchgoers in front of us, we’re not even mad. You can color us impressed. And what a valuable skill! Who knows what type of future ninja mission will require such elasticity.
Fighting someone diligently typing on her laptop – This one doesn’t seem fair to me. I’m busy, stop swatting at my head. It seems to go against ninja virtues to fight two against one, right? Please tell me I’m right on this.
Searching for missing toys – In particular, toys that I have gotten rid of without their knowledge or consent. This is a win-win for me. First, I’m downsizing, preparing to be an empty nester in sixteen and a half years. And second, what a great way to keep them occupied for an indefinite length of time! “Keep looking…here’s a shovel, try the backyard…of our house in Baltimore”. And they think it’s a puzzle-like mission – a ninja brain exercise – to which they manage to devote all their focus. For about seven minutes.
Literature and puzzles – Ok, I don’t think flipping through a Sesame Street book will help them with their training. I can’t think of a single ninja-like character on that show. Maybe this is a different type of of mental gymnastics?
I overheard Nate tell Sam while they were in Ninja Turtle character, “Leonardo, we need your brain!” Clearly, they understand the value of scholarly pursuits and an adept, versatile intelligence: problem solving, planning a tactical assault, inventing new weapons, and identifying colors, shapes, letters, and numbers.
Preparing for worst-case scenario – “I have to go fight Sam. He’s mutated” is what Nate told me casually in the kitchen one morning. This is a test. This is only a test. As far as I could tell, Sam had not mutated. I didn’t find green scales on his extremities or a hard shell on his back. No webbed feet, and I didn’t detect any special powers. His hair was still blond and his eyes still a very pretty shade of light blue. But it’s good to be prepared for such a rare, mystical phenomena. So now, Nate and Wally and I are all prepared for how to handle Sam in case he mutates. In case it ever happens and you’re nearby, call us to help!
Sprinting – Lots of sprinting. Sprinting everywhere. Back and forth between the dining room table and the bay window in the office. Back and forth between the edge of Nate’s bed and the doorway to Sam’s bedroom. All throughout the grocery store, while weaving in and out of browsing shoppers and shopping carts and employees loaded down with boxes of produce and non-perishables, innocently preparing to stock the shelves. I often lose them for a moment – or two, three, four, or five hundred – and then I’ll turn the corner into the cereal aisle and find them, together, talking to a well-meaning employee who must have inquired about the whereabouts of a parent or guardian. At those times, Nate’s usually speaking for the both of them, introducing themselves to the stranger while Sam squeals and giggles and does quick feet in front of a moving shopping cart, determined not to let this social moment disturb his conditioning.
Sleeping with weapons – This is why my salad tongs have spent several months tucked inside Nate’s Thomas the Tank Engine bed sheets. Meanwhile, Sam sleeps with a foam sword next to his crib. Nate told me that he always needs to be ready. Besides the chipmunk, current bad guys we keep a lookout for include….well, they’re mostly imaginary, actually. But! Nate’s told me before that he’s a little wary of older girls – around the ages of five or six. They make him shy, a truly rare occurrence. Yeah, weapons will make it less awkward.
We also make a point to hide weapons throughout the house. I’ve mentioned the vacuum cleaner extension tool and the toilet-paper-roll nunchucks, but let’s not forget about the lacrosse sticks, golf clubs, baseball bats, tennis rackets, and hockey sticks – Casey Jones, anyone? – that litter the house. And throwing stars, which are what we call any toy smaller than a baseball, are everywhere! Hardcover books, The Hungry Little Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and Walter, the Farting Dog, just to name a few, make great shields during battle and can currently be found in every room of the house. Never be caught off guard.
And Tighe helps with the training, too. The other night while I was cleaning up dinner – a momentary, if grease-stained moment of clarity for myself – I overheard him getting them ready for bed upstairs. “Get your PJ’s on and then we can fight.” Then, a few minutes later, “Ok, who’s ready to fight me?” Never waste a moment – while you’re resting, your nemesis might be getting bigger, faster, stronger.
I could go on and on and on about ninja training. I’m slowly becoming an expert. We’ve still got a ways to go – I’d love to refine their Ritz Cracker loving diets, for example. Or send them out on independent (of me) practice missions – to the grocery store, perhaps. But, my self-imposed word count limit nears. As does the limit of my readers’ – both of you (hi, Mom!) – attention spans. Plus, laundry awaits. But if you need some advice on how to start your own pre-school dojo, please contact me. Step one: reproduce.