Educational Inequality


I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent higher education scandal. You know what I mean. The story that recently broke in the news in which we were shown proof that the rich and famous are able to buy their way into the best universities, whether or not they are prepared, equipped or eligible.

It was a public kick in the face to all of us who have used the regular route to college for our kids. You know: get decent grades, apply with a decent essay, apply for financial aid, hope for the best.

But it wasn’t a surprise to a lot of us to learn that the rich, powerful, famous elite are able to simply write a check in order to be given that which the rest of us have been struggling desperately to achieve.

I was not surprised.

I wasn’t even particularly outraged. I was kind of…..accepting. Head nodding. Yawning a bit.

And this is what I was thinking today.

The educational inequality of the United States starts way, way, way before we are paying our way into our most elite universities.

The educational inequality in the US starts at birth.

It does.

For example:

Today I spent an hour painting with my granddaughter. She is 3 years old. I am wealthy and privileged enough to be able to take care of her and her brother every day while their parents work.

I am also wealthy and privileged enough to be able to buy good watercolors, decent brushes, good paper.

I’m talking about maybe 30 dollars worth of materials, so I want you to understand that I am not rich.

Still.

I was painting with Ellie today. We were mixing colors and chatting and using our special water color paper. Her baby brother was asleep, so this was one hour where the two of us were able to focus on each other.

“I love this special Nonni time,” said my sweet girl. “I love painting with you!”

And I loved it too.

But I was thinking about this fact.

If I was a less lucky grandmother, I might not be able to provide this moment to my girl. If I hadn’t retired from teaching in a good school district, I might not be able to stay at home and watch these two kids.

If my daughter was a single Mom, she wouldn’t be able to provide me with the financial support to watch these kids. If she hadn’t been born white, middle class and ‘neurotypical’, she might not be able to work while her kids are here with me.

I am not special.

I am not particularly talented.

But I am able to buy a lot of good art materials that I can use with my grandchildren. I am able to buy them interesting books. I am able to spend my time at home with them, taking them outside to play in the melting snow. I have enough money to buy seeds and soil so that we can plant flowers together.

What does this all mean?

It means that just by the luck of birth, just by the luck of the draw, my grandchildren will have a bit of a hand up on their peers. They will have been exposed to art and science and books by a grandmother who was a teacher. They will have had access to materials for building, for creating, for art, for reading and writing, that many kids will not have seen.

It means that they already have a bit of step up.

Not because they are smarter, or more artistic, or better or more deserving.

But because we live in a country where we have decided that it is acceptable to allow our richest, most privileged children to walk a special, guarded, golden path. It is because we have come to believe that if one is born into poverty, one deserves to stay there. And that if one is born into wealth, one is entitled to all of the best that life has to offer.

It was a wonderful day for me. It was a lovely chance to connect with my most beloved girl.

But it sure made me think.

Who Is At Fault?


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I used to be a teacher. For many years, I was one of those people charged with keeping our children educated, safe, confident and skilled. One of the many charges that I took so seriously during those years was the charge to prevent children from bullying each other.

I was a fifth grade teacher. My students were ten and eleven years old. I was told that if they bullied each other, part of the fault was mine.

I understood. My classroom spent time every single day talking about how to interact with civility, with kindness, with generosity. I remember talking to them about the fact that they did NOT have to be friends. They did NOT have to like each other.

“But, here’s the thing,” I would tell them, “You are all members of this very same classroom community. You must treat each other with respect and care. If you don’t, our entire community will suffer. We will not achieve our goal of learning what we are supposed to learn if you are mean to each other and if you fail to support each other.”

And I taught them that if anyone of them became a bully, they all had a moral obligation to stand up to that bully and to protect the victim. I taught them not to be bystanders. I taught them not to let the bully get away with intimidating the weaker members of our community.

Those children understood what I taught. More importantly, they carried out those lessons every single day. To quote one of my students, some five years after he had left my classroom: “We learned that we were all really friends. In Karen’s classroom, everyone stood up for each other.”

So here I am. Four years after my retirement. Wondering how it is that we expect ten year olds to understand and carry out lessons that our actual highly paid, internationally renowned leaders fail to grasp.

How is it that we ask our fifth graders to stop being bullies, to stop intimidating each other, to stop calling each other names, but we let the most powerful people in the country do exactly that? How is it that we expect our youngest children to act in ways that we don’t demand of our so called “leaders”?

When Donald Trump calls his adversaries names, when he labels them as “enemies”, when he asks his followers to attack them, he is behaving in all of the ways that we won’t allow our children to do. He is the absolute epitome of the ignorant, hateful bully on the playground.

The bully that every public school teacher is expected to stop in his tracks.

So.

Where is Congress in this current bullying situation? Where are the leaders of the GOP? Where are the people who we expect to protect us from the ignorant, hateful bully on the national stage?

Why are they acting as bystanders, those silent observers who encourage the bully by not stepping in?

If we can demand that our public school teachers stop bullies, we can damn well demand that our members of Congress do the same. We can demand that our nation’s governors stand up the bully. We can demand that our media outlets stand up to that bully, and that they label his lies as lies.

If you all can ask the average classroom teacher to do it, then you better be absolutely sure that on Nov 6 you will be voting for people who will do the very same thing in Washington.

Bullying is wrong. It’s wrong on the elementary school playground and it’s wrong when it happens on the national stage in front of hundreds of people at a political rally.

Our leaders should be held, at the very least, to the same standards as our public school employees.

 

 

For Orlando and Aurora and Newtown and Littleton …….


 

I wrote this short story three years ago. I posted it then, and I felt better.  So I’m going to post it again tonight. I’m doing it because I was on Facebook and Twitter. And I am disgusted and disheartened by what Americans are saying to each other.

“Ban the Muslims, keep the guns.”   

“My automatic weapon didn’t kill anyone today.”

“What don’t you understand about the 2nd Amendment?”

So. I am so man and so frustrated.  This story is my fantasy. I wish I had the courage to really do it.  If you like the story, pass it on. Maybe we’ll all feel better.

 

“Righteous Anger”

It was Friday afternoon, an hour after the last kid had gotten on the last bus.  I was packing up some weekend work when my best friend, Betsy, popped her head into my classroom.

“Glass of wine before we head home?”, she asked hopefully. Before I knew it, we  were seated at a table at Joe’s, a bowl of popcorn chicken bits in front of us, matching glasses of white wine in our hands.  We started off talking about the week, as usual.  Which kids were having trouble with the math, which kids were way behind in their reading and which parents were driving us nuts.  We sipped and laughed and ignored the calories we were scarfing down in those greasy little blobs of chicken fat.

It was a typical Friday evening.

Then the news came on.  We were sitting across from the bar, and the screen was in full view. We didn’t pay too much attention to the first couple of stories, but suddenly the screen was filled with the smirking face of Warren LaDouche, head of the American Gun Owners Gang.  As usual, he was managing to keep a straight face as he somberly explained all of the reasons why it was necessary to arm public school teachers.  I don’t know how he manages to avoid breaking into gales of maniacal laughter when he says things like, “If every teacher were armed and ready, they would be able to respond to these attackers in a timely manner.”

Betsy grimaced, and took a healthy slug of her wine as LaDouche  went on with fake sincerity, elaborating on his plan to have armed guards standing at recess and loaded guns in every classroom.

“This guy is just sick!”, Betsy hissed, leaning forward across the table so far that she almost landed in the chicken bits.  “I know!”, I hissed back.  “I cannot believe that  NO one out there is calling him out for this crap!”

“Its so obvious that AGOG just wants to sell more and more guns! They don’t give a damn who dies in the process!”

“Everyone knows that they are paid for and supported by the gun manufacturing companies.  But the government just refuses to stand up to them!”

“I can’t believe that people are listening to this crap! They are actually thinking about making us carry guns instead of making the damn things illegal and getting them off the streets!”

We sat there for a while longer, sipping, eating, listening to the bullshit coming from the screen.  The wine ran out just as the news report came to an end. We had lost our happy Friday night mood by then, and we were quiet as we paid the bill and headed out to our cars. I threw my purse onto the seat and turned to give Betsy a hug goodbye.

Uh, oh.  I knew that look.  Betsy was frowning and puffing out her lips in deep thought.  She twirled one lock of greying hair around her finger in what I knew was a sign of concentration.

“Bets,” I began, but she put her fists on her ample hips and launched right in, like she always does.

“What if we do something ourselves?  What if we take some kind of action that just cannot be ignored?  I mean, this is just not right!  I refuse to carry a rifle in my classroom!”

The image of Betsy, armed and dangerous, almost made me laugh, but I knew better.  She was serious, and she was mad.  And she was my best friend.

I sighed, and said, “I don’t know what we could do, hon.  But if you think of something, you know I’m right there with you! I’ve got your back. Have a good weekend.”

By the time I got home and started dinner, I had all but forgotten the press conference and the conversation after it.  My husband came home. We had dinner and talked and then I settled down on the couch with my knitting.

It must have been about 10 pm when my phone suddenly rang.  Everyone who knows me knows that I am usually out cold by 10 pm on a Friday, and I was in fact already under the covers when the call came in.  I would have ignored it, but I always keep my phone close by in case my kids need to reach me.  I picked it up, located my bifocals, and saw Betsy’s name on the screen.  What on earth…..?

“Hey, Betsy!  What’s wrong?”

“I have a plan. Don’t say anything, don’t argue, just listen to me.”

I took a deep breath, settled back on my pillows, and listened to her.

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And that’s why I found myself on my couch two days later, my laptop open and my credit card in hand.  My heart was hammering away, and I could feel nervous sweat pooling under my arms.  I had gone to several web sites to find the best deals, and now I was ready to order.

“It’s perfectly legal”, I told myself as I got ready to click “Add to cart”.  The fact that what I was about to do was legal was the root of the whole problem.  I sat up straight, gulped, and hit the button.

As promised, my purchase arrived within a week.  I read the little “how to” pamphlet that came with the packages, and called Betsy to see if she had read hers.

“Sarah, this is ridiculously easy!! I can’t wait to try them out.”

“What?!  You can’t try them out!  Betsy, don’t!”

“Oh, I’ll be careful…..”

“Betsy! No! You’re the one who made up the plan! You said we’d wait until the last minute so no one would know!”

She grumbled a little, then gave a sigh.

“OK. Then I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

The next morning, early, I kissed my sleeping husband on the cheek, and grabbed my very heavy bag.  I placed it carefully in the back seat of my car, and headed out to pick up Betsy at her house.  I had told my husband that I would be away for the next few days, the first part of April vacation, relaxing with my dear friend.  I had lied.

After Betsy placed her own very heavy bag in my trunk, we headed onto the highway.  As we headed south, she reached over and squeezed my hand.

“We are doing the right thing, Sara.  Someone has to do this. They haven’t left us any choice.”   I nodded, but kept my eyes on the road in front of me.

We reached our destination without any problems, in just under 5 hours. We parked on the street across from the surprisingly modest house.  We waited.  We ate the last few M&M’s in the bag between us.

“I need to pee.”, I complained.

“Hold on, hold on.  He’ll be here soon, I’m sure.  I called his secretary this morning, remember? I told her we wanted an interview, and she said his last appointment today was at 4.”

“What if he goes out to dinner?”

“Oh, just hold it, will you?  Sheesh. You’re a teacher, for God’s sake. You can hold off for hours.”

Just as I sat back to wait, a big gray car pulled into the driveway.

“It’s him!”  Betsy clutched her chest, breathing hard. “Oh, my God, oh, my God!”

“Calm down!  We have to get over there, quick!”

We piled out of the car, straightening our skirts and pulling down the backs of our sweaters.  As we hustled across the street in our sturdy Dansko clogs, each of had a big “teacher bag” over one shoulder.

We looked like two middle aged elementary school teachers. Because that’s what we were.

We were also two angry old ladies on a mission.

And we were armed.

As we approached his driveway, Warren LaDouche cast a wary glance over his shoulder.  I smiled with every ounce of fake cheer I could muster.

“Oh, my goodness, Betsy, you were right!”, I squealed, “It really IS Warren LaDouche!”  I waved my free hand as I scurried up the long drive.

“Mr. LaDouche!  Oh, my goodness!  Please, can we have your autograph!” That was Betsy, huffing and puffing with excitement as she hurried up behind me.

Just as we had predicted, ole Warren was so full of self-appreciation that he fell for our story right away.  What could be less threatening than a couple of chubby older ladies? He smiled at us, showing yellowing, uneven teeth.

“Can we have your autograph? Please? We’re teachers!  We’ll just be so excited to show your signature to our friends back at school! You’re, like, the hero of the schools!” As we chirped and fluttered around the smiling man, we had maneuvered him closer to his back door, and the car was now between us and the neighbors.  It was nearly dark, and we knew that there was very little chance that anyone would see what was about to happen.

I gave the signal that we had agreed upon. “Let me just grab a pen from my bag!”

Warren still stood there smiling as Betsy and I simultaneously reached into those big canvas bags and pulled out the semiautomatic handguns that we had purchased on line.  Mine felt like it weighed a thousand pounds as I swung it up into the shooting position that I had seen in the pamphlet.  My arm hurt already, and I was pretty sure that I was about to have a heart attack and wet my pants, all at the same time.

“Open the door and walk inside, Warren.”  Betsy sounded slightly less panicked than I felt, but I knew that this was the key moment. If he believed us, we could pull this off.  If he laughed in our faces, it was all for nothing.

The thought of having spent almost $2,000 for nothing sent a jolt through me.  The thought of this man allowing ever more deadly guns to be brought into our schools sent a wave of rage right behind it.

I surprised myself by jabbing the muzzle of the gun right into Warren’s pudgy midsection.

“Open the damn door, Warren.  NOW!”

He was breathing fast, and his beady eyes were scanning the street, but Warren reached for the door.  He inserted a key and took a step.  I kept the gun firm against his waistline.

“You two have no idea what you’re doing.”  I was gratified to hear that Warren’s voice was shaking.

“Oh, you’re wrong, LaDouche.  We followed AGOG’s advice to the letter.  We have our guns, two bags full of ammo magazines and all the time in the world.  You were right! It does make us feel more powerful to have these things in our hands.”

As we had planned, I held the gun on Warren while Betsy checked him for weapons (ew…..).  We were slightly amazed to find that he was carrying a handgun under his jacket!  Yikes!!!  He hadn’t even tried to reach it!  We exchanged a look of terror as Betsy emptied the chamber and put the gun in her bag.  I pushed Warren into a kitchen chair, then Betsy pulled his arms behind his back, and attached him firmly with two pairs of handcuffs (also purchased on line without a problem).

We stood looking at each other, our eyes huge, our mouths hanging open.

I was still flooded with adrenaline, but I was starting to shake.

Betsy dropped into a chair that matched Warren’s, her gun clanking against the table.

I suddenly remembered my earlier problem, and gasped, “Betsy!  Keep the gun on him!  I gotta go!”

Somehow, I managed to find the bathroom and use it without shooting myself.  I washed my face and made my way back to the kitchen.

Warren was sitting quietly, looking steadily at Betsy’s gun.  He looked smaller cuffed to his kitchen chair than he had on TV.

For a moment, I just stood there.  All three of us seemed slightly stunned by the events of the day.  But time was moving on, and I knew that we had a lot to do.  I gave myself a little mental head slap, and turned to Betsy.

“OK, kiddo. Get the iPad out.”  She looked at me blankly for a minute, then smiled.  Betsy loves new technology, in spite of her age, and she was excited about the video we were about to make.

We spent a few minutes arranging the items on Warren’s kitchen table, finding a good spot to prop the iPad so that the sound and visual quality would be as clear as possible.   We sat ourselves at the table, with Warren in view behind us.  We had explained our plan to him, and that’s when he had finally come out of his stupor.

“You stupid bitches!”, he had snarled, “You can’t do this!  No one will believe you.  You can never outmaneuver AGOG!”  We finally had an excuse to do what we had been hoping to do all along.  We were teachers. We had been teaching ten year olds to recognize and appreciate symbolism in literature.

We gagged ole Warren with an ugly green dishtowel. How’s that for a metaphor?

At last we were ready to go.

Betsy started the recorder and I began.

“Hello, my name is Sara Williamson, and this is Betsy Manchester. We are elementary school teachers with the Braxton Public Schools.  We are armed.”  (The camera cut to the two guns, and the huge pile of ammunition clips and magazines beside them.)

“We have just kidnapped Mr. Warren LaDouche, chairman and spokesperson for the American Gun Owners Gang, commonly known as AGOG.”  (Betsy moved the iPad camera to Warren, who by now looked both ridiculous and apoplectic.)

“This…….man…..is trying to convince the American people that we will all be safer if we allow every citizen to own as many weapons as he can carry.  He wants you to believe that by carrying a weapon, you’ll be protecting yourself from so called bad guys.”

I held up the gun and clip that we had taken from Warren in the kitchen.

“Well, he was carrying this when we grabbed him.  We pulled out our guns before he pulled out his, and that was the end of his resistance.

Being armed with a dangerous weapon did not do one single thing to keep Warren here any safer.  As you can see, we took his gun away, and now he’s handcuffed to a chair.  We can shoot him time we want to.”

That last line made me gulp a bit, but I grimly went on.  Betsy was handling the filming, saving each clip and keeping the camera pointed accurately.

“Ladies and gentleman, you can see that Warren LaDouche and his friends at AGOG are full of….” I paused to find a proper word.  After all, I am a teacher of young children.  “Full of horse manure.  They are lying to you.”

“Let’s think about background checks, shall we?  AGOG and its supporters feel that there should be fewer required background checks.  We are here to tell you that even the ones we have now are not anywhere close to sufficient.”

I held my gun up to the camera and said, “No background check can keep you safe if guns like these are out there in public.  We bought ours from a licensed gun dealer online.  We both went through the required background checks.  We passed with flying colors. You see, we have no criminal history and we have never been diagnosed with a major psychiatric illness.”

Now I stood up, gun in hand, and walked over to Warren.  I pointed a shaking finger at him.

“This man wants you to believe that we should bring guns into our classrooms!  He wants you to believe that we can kids keep safe, we can keep our families safe, we can keep our movie theaters and grocery stores and neighborhoods safe as long as there are guns flooding all those places.  As long as we run background checks to look for criminals who intend to do harm.”

I was working up a head of steam now, thinking about the little ones in my classroom, thinking about those babies at Newtown, thinking about Aurora and Columbine and the streets of every city in the nation.  I held up my gun one more time.

“I’m here to tell you, right now, that more guns will NOT keep you safe.  Background checks will NOT keep you safe.  Anyone can get mad enough and desperate enough to use one of those guns for its intended purpose.  Even two aging fifth grade teachers can get angry enough to buy guns and use them to kidnap and threaten someone they hate. We passed the checks, we paid our money, we bought these guns legally.  And we can use them right this minute to blow Warren LaDouche to bits.

Think about that when you consider whether or not we need to ban guns like the ones that my friend and I are holding right now.”

I nodded my head to Betsy, and the camera went off.   I started to cry.  Betsy came over and put her arms around me.  We held each other for a few minutes as we cried.  Our guns lay forgotten on the kitchen floor.

Three hours later, Betsy and I walked into the police station in Warren’s home town.  We had spent the time at a local Starbuck’s, fueling up on lattes and scones.  Betsy had spliced and edited the movie clips into one short film, running for about two minutes in length.  Then we had uploaded it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter. We had emailed copies to all of the major news outlets, including CNN.  We finished our drinks, ate the last crumbs of our last desserts as free women, and headed out the door.

As we entered the police station, we were recognized almost immediately.  We held our heads up high as the buzz raged around us, and the Captain was summoned.  We remained silent as we handed him our note, giving the location of one angry but unharmed Warren LaDouche and telling him that our guns were unloaded and stored in the trunk of the car. After he had read the note, the Captain scratched his head, told his men to go get the guns and free LaDouche.  Then he escorted us, fairly politely, into his office.

“Weren’t you ladies scared about what you did?  Aren’t you worried about the consequences?”

I gave him a withering look, and smoothed out my wrinkled skirt.

“Captain, we teach fifth grade.  Nothing scares us.”

The Pioneer Child


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Yummy Veggies, Nonni!!!!

Well.   It was certainly an interesting day in the life of this Mamma Nonni.

My Ellie and I were invited to a baby shower in honor of one of my young former teaching colleagues, and I was beyond excited to be going.

In the first place, I think we have established the fact that I am somewhat baby crazy.  I mean, what could be more hopeful, inspiring or uplifting than the promise of a new life?

But in the second place, this would be the first school-wide event that I would be attending since my sudden retirement last June.

I desperately wanted to be there!  I really admire and love the teacher who is about to become a first time Mom. She will be such a lovely and loving mother, and I am so happy to be able to help set her on that path.

But I also wanted to be there because I really miss being part of the wonderful community of professionals that I left behind last June.

And my sudden departure from the school in the spring had left me feeling very shaky about my place in that community. Would I still be welcome? Did I still have a place in their hearts and memories?  I wasn’t entirely sure.

When I was invited to this shower, I knew that I had to attend.   I wanted to be there for the baby and the Mom, but I also wanted to be there for ME.  To remind myself that I had done good work for many years at that school, and that I really could always come back for a visit.

So this morning Ellie and I got ready for a big day back at my old school. Her Momma had dressed her in a cute little onesie that was both gender neutral and adorable.  We had a morning bottle and a morning diaper change. We had our AM nap and some floor time sitting up and stacking blocks.

All was well.

I started to get us ready for departure a full 30 minutes before our deadline.  I packed the diaper bag with extra clothes, a clean burp cloth, a rattle and three bottles of milk. I made sure that Mavis Hamwater, Ellie’s favorite rag doll, was close at hand. I put on my good clothes, brushed my teeth, slid in some earrings.

And scooped Ellie out of her swing.  I leaned in to kiss her neck.

Ewwwwww.  Cheese.  Really old cheese.

My baby smelled like spoiled milk.

Quickly, fully aware that I wanted to arrive at school before bus dismissal time, I stripped her down, washed her up and popped her into an adorable pink onesie and cute purple socks.  I buckled her into the car seat and sped on down the highway to the place where I had spent so many hours, days, weeks, months, years.

As we got closer to school, my heart began to race.  Would I still be welcome? Would anyone notice or care that I was here?

I pulled into the parking lot, smoothed back my hair, and got out of the car. I double checked the diaper bag, and then lifted my sweet Ellie out of her car seat.

And I felt the slimy warmth of the bright yellow ooze that was leaking out of her back side. What on earth……?

Ellie has begun to eat solid food.  Her poop has gone from benign deposit to toxic sludge, all in the space of a week.

Holy Poop, Batman!

My sweet baby girl had produced enough toxic waste to coat herself all the way up to her hairline. In fact, as I looked closely in horror, I could see that there was poop actually IN her hair.  And up to her neckline.  And down to her knees.  And there was poop dripping from her backside, down her legs and onto the pavement of the parking lot.

There was poop on my sleeve and on my hands and even under my fingernails.

What the hell was I supposed to do?

I couldn’t gather her up and carry her into the school building: I would have been covered in sticky yellow goo and I did NOT bring any clean clothes for myself.

No. I would have to change the poor kid in the parking lot!

So I opened the back door of the car, and laid the baby down on the seat.  It was very cold out, and a pretty hefty snow squall had hit us just as we’d arrived at school.   I knew that I had to strip off all of poor Ellie’s clothing, but I didn’t want her to freeze!

So I draped her crocheted blanket over my shoulders as I leaned in the backdoor of the car.  As fast as I could manage it, I pulled off her clothes (smearing more poop in her hair) and then wiped her down from head to toe with wet wipes. In spite of the fact that the car was running and the heat was on, the poor little baby was shivering in the cold by the time I got her all cleaned up.

I put on a new diaper, and a clean onesie and a new jacket.

I wrapped her in a poop free blanket, and gathered her into my arms.

And as I walked back into school, I started to think about those brave Pioneers that I used to teach the kids about, back when I was a fifth grade teacher.  I remembered the stories of strong, unshakable mothers who raised their children on the open plains.  I pictured myself as just such an explorer, courageously facing the unknown.  I straightened my spine, lifted my head, and held Ellie close to my heart as I walked back into the school that I hadn’t seen in more than half a year.

I felt like a Pioneer Grandmother with her Pioneer Child.  Entering the wilderness, heart in her throat.

Until I was greeted by so many familiar, beloved faces, greeting me, welcoming my Ellie, celebrating my return.  “We miss you!”, they said.  Mothers of students, teachers of students, and most importantly, the students themselves.  “Come back to us!” “We wish you were here!”

I held my little Ellie, so happy to have her in my arms and in my life.  I embraced my friends and my students.  I was so happy to be back.

Suddenly, I saw myself not so much as a Pioneer, but more as a settler, secure in her place on the village green.

Happy Baby, dear Laura!  Thank you, thank you to my friends and colleagues and to the wonderful kids who greeted me today! I miss you all!

 

Life is a tender thread


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When a life begins, we greet it with so much hope and love.  We hold our precious little ones in our arms, gazing into those mysterious eyes.  We whisper, “Be safe!”   We pray, “Be healthy!”  We promise, “I will protect you.”

But life is not so simple.  Life is not a smooth, straight road, leading us from birth to a quiet death in our old age.

Life does not promise us health or peace or love or joy.

Life is such a tender threat. It can be snapped by so many unforeseen things.  It can be broken in a heartbeat.

Today was a day when I was given the great gift of sharing lunch with a former student. She is beautiful, accomplished, happy.  She will be getting married soon.  We have known each other for 13 years, and I have been so blessed to have watched her grow and thrive.

Today was a day when I heard the awful news about the sudden death of another former student.  She was beautiful, kind, sweet, thoughtful.  She was cautious, unsure of herself. I remember her as hesitant to answer a question. I remember her face lighting up with pleasure when she was right.

Life is a tender and fragile thread.

Every minute that we spend with a young person is a gift, in which we both give and receive.

Tonight I am filled with joy at the knowledge that one of “my” kids is thriving. I am filled with sorrow that one is gone.

Hug your children.  Hold them close. Tell them that they are your greatest gifts.

 

I Hate to Brag. Wait, no I don’t…..


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So ahed of the curve, this family

I have been following, with great interest, the recent study out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

You know, the study that says that we need students who are more concerned about how they can help others than with how they can help themselves.

The study that is entitled “Turning the Tide”.

I am intrigued by this study because I so completely embrace and welcome its message.  I admit that after having fought through so many years of watching public education turn into a race for top scores, I find it somewhat frustrating to see that those ideas that I have always believed are suddenly being embraced by the pinnacle of educational wisdom.

I am trying to stay positive about this shift, and not to be bitter about it.  And you know why?

Because I have somehow managed to raise three young adults who encourage and inspire me to remain positive and who seem to always understand varying points of view.

Let me put this another way:

Paul and I have raised three children who were way, way ahead of the educational curve. All three of them grew up understanding that test scores did not equal personal worth. All three grew up understanding that the greatest sense of happiness and fulfillment would come from what they could give back to their communities.

One of my children is a teacher. One is a teacher aide in a school for severely emotionally challenged adolescents.  One is a success coach for people in a struggling community who have been given jobs in community services.

None of my kids went to the Ivy Leagues.  None has a three figure income.

But here is what they have: jobs that make them proud.  Jobs that give back.  Jobs that take care of others.

And here is what they have that I could not have predicted: Communities of other young, inspired, altruistic people who work hard every day to fill their communities with learning and art and music and kindness.

My sons are surrounded by other “Millennials” who make sandwiches for the homeless and put on shows with local artists and who support small farmers and local businesses.

These young people are the anti-80’s generation.

They knew, even without Harvard telling them, that life is not about making money.  Life is about making friends, giving back, enjoying life, giving love and getting it back.

My children are way ahead of the curve.  They are my inspiration and my teachers.

My kids and their incredible community of caring friends are the reason I have so much hope for the future.

I hate to brag, but either Paul and I did an amazing job, or we managed to not screw up the natural tendencies of our kids. Either way, all I have to say is, “Gee, Harvard, took you long enough to catch up!”

Gee, Harvard, Ya Think?


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So apparently there is a new study out of Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Well, of course there is. That’s what they do.

Anyway, this particular study has caught my eye, my ear and my ire.

This is a study of the college admissions process, which Harvard has suddenly decided is too focused upon standardized test scores.  Yep.  Harvard has miraculously come to the realization that students need more than a list of high scores in AP classes and SAT’s and other acronymed tests in order to succeed in college and in (ahem) life.

This is, of course, NOT a surprise to any teacher in the country.  It is not a surprise to all of the groups of teachers and parents who have been pushing back against the increasing pressure to have all children succeed on the same standardized measures. It is NOT a surprise to the Badass Teachers Association, or “BATS”, of which I am a member. It won’t be a shock to United Opt Out, which I fully support.

It sure as hell isn’t a surprise to me, and I didn’t even apply to Harvard.

We should not be surprised that our “top” scholars these days are anxious, insecure, dependent upon adult affirmation and external rewards.  We start testing kids in kindergarten, and we don’t stop until they drop out, get that Ivy League Degree or end up in the hospital.

We should not be surprised that High Schools and Universities around the country are reporting increasing rates of depression, anxiety, school phobia and alcohol and drug use.

We tell five year old babies their “reading levels” so that they can choose “just right books”.  In other words, we rank order the kids from the minute they get in the door of our public schools. We give them reading tests, spelling tests, handwriting assessments, motor screenings, math tests.  Worse: we tell them the scores.

One of the hardest fights for me in my last few years of teaching was my insistence on not holding young readers to their tested reading levels. I refused to label the books in my classroom library by “reading level”.  I WANTED kids to try to challenge themselves!  I understood that it feels good to plow through a book that seems tricky.  You feel kind of smart at the end!  I also understood that “reading level” didn’t measure the child’s interest in the text. It didn’t measure the power of reading the same book that your best friend is reading so you can talk about it on the way to school.

I hated the reading assessments. Not because I didn’t want the kids to show progress, but because I did.

But I was told to measure them. I was told to give them their levels.  To show them their math scores. To make sure that they felt the pressure to improve, improve, improve.

Don’t even get me started on the pressure that they felt to pass the MCAS and now the PARRC.

Let me just tell you that I once had a child with autism who took one of those stupid tests with me.  He was smart, a strong reader, intuitive, an excellent  math student.  But he was autistic.  He tried to take the MCAS, but it was too much for him.  He gave up and tore it in two.

Then he put his head down and sobbed.  “Now I’ll never graduate from High School”, said this fourth grader. “I’ll never go to college or get a good job or get married.  And I would have been a good father!”

So guess what, Harvard?  This old teacher lady didn’t need your study to tell you that test scores aren’t the best measure of student success.  She didn’t need it to let her know that kids today are so anxious about “success” that a lot of them have forgotten about “happiness”.

How to Handle Disruptive Students


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Lesson number one on how to handle your classroom:     Show the kids some respect, connect with them, be a human.  This will earn you some degree of respect which is the only real authority that you will ever have.

Lesson number two:  Understand that you can never make a person do what you want him to do.   Accept the fact that your classroom is not your kingdom. You are not the supreme ruler.  Until you understand that the classroom is a community of people with a shared goal, you will never have control.

Lesson number three: You will be defied.  You will be questioned.  Weren’t you ever an angry adolescent, even for a minute?  The hallmark of adolescence (and in fact of childhood itself) is to test the limits, to question the rules, to challenge authority.  Work with all that passion, for God’s sake. You are a teacher because (theoretically) you want to have a hand in shaping the future. If you wanted to be a tyrant, you probably should have picked another career.

Lesson number four: Keep you eye on your goal.  You are here to teach this material to ALL of those students in front of you. ALL of them.  So if one student is disrupting the lesson, your goal is to return to the teaching. It is not to assert your superiority, your strength, your power over that student.

Final Lesson: If the situation deteriorates, and you simply cannot teach your lesson to ALL of those kids in the room, then remember that your goal is to calm things down.  Your job is to deescalate the confrontation.  If you need help, call for help from an educational expert.  Maybe your principal.  Maybe the school psychologist or counselor.

For the love of god, do NOT call the police just because some little girl defied you in front of the group.

It is not a crime to say ‘no’ to an adult. It is not a crime to be angry. It is not a crime to be an unhappy teenager.  You don’t call the cops to move a girl out of a public school classroom.

And if you do, and if that big, strong, uniformed officer STILL doesn’t have enough authority to control that child, then the school had better take a good long look at itself, and its culture and how well it is reaching its goal of educating all students.

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I was a public school teacher for a LONG time. I have taught kids with Oppositional/Defiant Disorder, ADD, Schizophrenia, Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, Learning Disabilities and unnamed behavioral challenges. I have had kids swear at me, threaten me, throw chairs at me, refuse to write or do math or look at me or leave the room.    Never once, not ever, did it even occur to me that it would the right thing to do to use my superior physical size and strength to overpower that child. Never once have a laid hands on a child in anger.

The video from S. Carolina is absolutely disgusting and truly appalling.  I fault the teacher who has been completely unable to create a respectful environment in his class. I fault the school for its lack of planning for how to respond to a defiant teen. I blame the administrator for calling in a police officer, a person trained in crime control, not in developmental psychology or best educational practice.  And I fault that bully of an officer who let his ego and his biceps bring violence into a classroom.  As a “School Resource Officer”, it was his job to do the absolute opposite, and to prevent just that kind of violence from happening.

And don’t bother telling me that the girl hit him first.  Just don’t even go there.

Oh, I do so miss them


I remember back when I struggled so much with the sadness of the empty nest. Back then, it was the children who had left me behind. I missed them terribly, and had to give myself the time to grieve.

Now I find myself facing a different kind of emptiness.  This time, I am the one who has left the children.

Last June I retired from teaching, well before I was ready to go.  I left before I had finished the job.  Before I had reached my best, before I had grown too old and tired to love the children.

But I retired, having read the handwriting on the wall.  I understood that I was no longer seen as relevant or valuable, at least not by the people who do the evaluations.  My usual well respected questions were no longer welcome, but were now seen as insurrection.  All of the knowledge about children that I had gathered and learned over my 30 years of teaching were suddenly “outdated” and in need of replacement.  When I couldn’t manage to forget what I knew, it was time to move on.

So I said goodbye to a job I loved and was so proud to do.  I took myself out of the world of “teachers”.  I left my wonderful school behind.  I left the comforting support of my colleagues and friends.

I’m the one who left the nest.

So today I am sad. I miss those children so much! I miss the bright eyes, the goofy grins, the lame bathroom jokes.  I miss the rapt faces as I read out loud. I miss the morning meetings and the “sharing” stories of soccer games and birthday parties and new puppies.

I miss the flushed faces of children coming back inside after recess on a cold day. I miss the hushed conversations in the hall as I help a group of girls work out a social struggle.

I miss the math lessons, the moments of “lightbulb” realization.  God, I miss the hugs and the little drawings and the poems and the handmade bracelets.  I miss knowing that they are happy to see me.  I miss the incredible validation that comes from the realization that they trust me, and respect me.

I miss seeing those children make progress. I miss the moments when they surprise themselves.  I miss seeing them slowly come to the realization that they disagree with my interpretation of something, and gather the courage to challenge me.

I miss being a teacher. I do.

I miss the hugs that came at the end of almost every day.  I miss having all those smiling little faces saying, “See you tomorrow!” as they headed out the door.

I wasn’t ready to go.

I miss it.

Taking Care of Momma


Today was the first day of school in my former district. My friends all gathered for long, most likely boring meetings and discussions.  A big room full of adults, talking about teaching.

I hate to be left out, but I was delighted NOT to be in that big room with the AC on high and the meeting packets on the tables and the latest mandates under discussion.

As it turns out, I was at home, surrounded by a group of wonderful teaching friends who are no longer teaching. There were fellow retirees, a teacher on maternity leave, a teacher who has stayed home to be with her kids, and my own daughter at the start of her own maternity break.  We had good food, a lot of laughs, prosecco with sherbet, a little gossip.

I wasn’t too sad to be away from school today.

But on Wednesday, the kids will come back to school.  The kids, wearing their new sneakers and their nervous smiles.  The kids will come into the classrooms, where they’ll be greeted by their teachers and introduced to their new classmates.  The new fifth grade families will be created, and I will not be there.

On Wednesday, I’ll be sad. I’ll be thinking of the kids I will never know. The kids I could have loved and supported.  I’ll be feeling a little bit lost on Wednesday, knowing that no children will be rushing in their front doors to yell, “Hey, Mom! She’s NICE!”

But I will be OK on Wednesday, even without a new group of children at my feet.  I’ll be OK because my son, my youngest child, will come home to spend a day at the beach with his Momma.

He tells me that he just loves the beach, and that he can’t wait to swim and hang out on the sand.  But the truth?  The truth, I’m pretty sure, is that this smart young man knows that his Momma is going to need a good distraction on the first “real” day of school.

So we’ll have our iced coffees, and we’ll pack the car and drive to the beach. We’ll jump in the water, walk along the shore, find some pretty shells. We’ll eat our sandwiches and our chips and we’ll probably stop for ice cream on the way back home.  And I’ll be distracted and entertained.  And I won’t be sad that I’m not at school on the first day, holding up the first “read aloud” book of the year.

Beach day with my boy

Beach day with my boy