Saturday, July 08, 2017

Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t It? (Chapter 1: June 1997)

Last month marked twenty (20) years since I got my first tattoo.  I decided I would celebrate this anniversary by telling the stories of each of my tattoos.  If you talk to anyone who has ink, they can relate how each piece has its own story.  There’s some person, place, or incident tied to each permanent piece of body art for most people.  That’s the case with me, so here begins a series of blog posts recanting those tales.  Get ready to learn a lot about my personal life.

Most people have never seen this tattoo, as it is on my left hip.  It’s not really something that shows in polite company, unless we are at a pool or the beach and I am partaking of swimsuit-wearing activities.  There isn’t just a story behind the artwork itself, but also how it came about.

In March of 1997, I left my now ex-husband.  At some point in the months leading up to that ultimate split, I had mentioned the idea that I was considering getting a tattoo.  My then-husband declared, “As your husband, I FORBID you getting a tattoo.”  Yeah, he forbade it.  So it was sure as hell going to happen once those words were uttered aloud in my presence.  This marked the turning point in my decision to leave in a lot of ways.  I’m definitely more vocal and steadfast NOW in my feelings that my body is MINE to decide what to do or not do with, but I think this little interchange sparked that idea into my 26 year-old mind.

I knew I wanted a Tasmanian Devil.  Now, this goes against what I fundamentally believe regarding tattoo art.  Don’t get your face or neck inked.  Don't get something offensive and/or that you will end up regretting. Don’t put someone’s name unless it’s your parent, maybe a sibling, or a human you created/helped create. Don’t pick something that is trendy or tied to a certain period of time in pop culture.  These are my rules.

But Taz was my nickname in the co-ed fraternity I co-founded, and the Tasmanian Devil was our mascot.  So I pretty much felt like that was what I wanted.  Never since have I gone with such little firm idea of what I wanted permanently affixed to my epidermis.  But hey, I was a baby in the body art world at the time.

So I talked my girl Smitty (my college BFF Chris) into going with me, and we looked in the phone book and stuff (hey, it was 1997, and Yelp was not yet a thing) for a tattoo place.  We went to one close-by in Bound Brook, NJ, but we didn’t get a good vibe there.  I can’t remember how we ended up settling on Tattoo 46 in Dover, NJ (I thought it was on Route 10, but it turns out it was this one on 46) -- given that she was in Manville and I was in Clinton, so it was quite a hike by car -- but that is where we ended up.  I also can’t remember how Smitty decided she would get her navel pierced.  But she did.  And I didn’t like any of the Taz art they had on the wall or in the books, so we actually left and went back a couple nights later, because I realized I knew which depiction of Taz I wanted.

You see, some years earlier, when I was in college I think, my mother had bought me these pajamas that were a t-shirt and boxer-style shorts, and the shorts were festooned with all these Tasmanian Devils, arms crossed over his chest, wearing stars-and-stripes boxers.  So when we returned to the tattoo place, I had those with me.

I held the little mini-tail of hair (it was 1997, after all) at the back of my head, and I whined “ouch, ouch, ouch” the entire time the guy did the tattoo . . . until he finally said, “Shut up, Diane.”  (Later tattoos didn’t hurt nearly as much.  But of course, in the intervening period, I’d had a c-section and some yucky follow-up surgery related to it, so my pain threshold was in completely new territory by then.)

So, within three months of leaving my ex, right around Flag Day of 1997, I had a new piece of body art.  Smitty later had to ditch the navel piercing, as it kept getting irritated and infected when her short self would spend summers on ladders painting houses, as poor teachers like us were sometimes found to do, for, like, the foods and the rents.

Shortly after this incident, I moved out of my apartment because I had decided to move to California.  My stuff went into storage, and I slept on my folks’ couch for a few nights before my parents, my aunt, and I headed to England for a trip.  On my first night on the couch, Dad had already gone to bed, and Mom and I were up talking.  I said to her, “Can you keep a secret?” And she eye-rolled, because she knew this meant “can I tell you something you can’t tell Dad?” and she remarked, “Do I want to know?”

So I showed her the tattoo and she eye-rolled again, remarking that we would not be telling my father.  And then, after a pause, she asked, “Is that from those pajamas I bought you?”  And then I think she eye-rolled again when I told her it was.  I think she felt somehow complicit in my “crime.”

It gets better.

We went to Britain, and I showed all my friends and family members, except my Dad, one by one, my new tattoo.  This involved pulling one side of my jeans down to reveal my left hip.  I even showed my two aunts (Dad’s sisters), the older of whom was scandalized.  That was my Auntie Reta.  A proper English lady if ever there was one.  My other aunt, Dad’s sister Eileen, was the opposite personality.  She was bawdy and loved to laugh -- LOUDLY.  She was usually saying things that left the rest of us scandalized.  So, we were all having a meal at the local pub, The Old Oak in Coupe Green, Hoghton, Lancashire, when my Auntie Eileen suddenly says, “So you might as well tell your father about your tattoo, Diane.”  Oh, the looks around that table just then.

So I had to take Dad outside the back door of the pub and show him my new ink.  I don’t think he was happy, but he didn’t really say much.  I think part of him was proud it was a patriotic image.

And here it is, having taken up residence on my left hip for two decades now:

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Resistance Under the New Regime

Friday was a hard day for me.  I wore all black, from head to toe.  I had planned to do so since the day after the election.  Despite making the conscious effort to avoid all coverage of a certain person (whom I will not name) getting a rather highly-publicized start to a job in Washington, DC that day, I had to listen to parts of the coverage being played in a classroom near my office.  That was unpleasant.  I ended up spending part of my day chatting with students and a counselor who stopped by my office.  Another colleague stopped by to check in on how I was doing.  That felt good, but the day was still somber.  Let me tell you why that is.

Almost twenty years ago, I left an abusive marriage.  I then moved across the country, from New Jersey to California, to make sure I never had to bump into him anywhere.  I wanted to start a new life, far removed from everything about him.  I’ve kept tabs over the years, and seen more evidence to support my decision to get as far away as possible.  Let me tell you about my ex.

He bankrupted himself, and me, and has since filed bankruptcy at least one more time.  He has been taken to court by the government for tax evasion.  He has made his money by tricking other people out of theirs, with empty promises.  He was a womanizer.  He cheated on me.  He was emotionally and financially abusive.  He overspent and was extremely irresponsible with finances, and didn’t seem to care about who would have to clean up his mess.  He touts himself as a deeply religious Christian man.  He forbade me to get a tattoo (I now have five.)  He body-shamed me and any weight I gained, despite being more overweight than I was.  He tried to cheat me out of half the proceeds of the sale of our house, because when we married, he lied about putting my name on the title of the house.  There are other things that happened that are far too personal to share here.  But you need to know that his facial expressions, mannerisms, and vocal patterns were hauntingly like a certain person who just moved into the White House.  The sneers, the gestures, the voice raised in perpetual anger: I am all too familiar with these tactics.  I know what someone like that is capable of behind closed doors.

Every time I have to see, hear, or watch the new occupant of the White House, I am forced to face my abuser all over again.  I moved across a continent to get away from that, and I have been very successful in establishing my new life free from that horrible burden.  I learned from that experience what I would never put up with in my life again.  I started from less than nothing (thanks to that bankruptcy) and I have done very well for myself.  I have a family and a great career.  I overcame the effects of my abuser.

So like I said, Friday was hard.

Saturday started out quiet.  I walked to the light rail station alone, wondering how the march in San Jose would go.  I wondered how many other cities in America would also host marches.  As I approached the station, I saw the platform full of people.  My heart raced just a little.  That’s a lot of people, I thought, and while I am not a fan of large crowds, I’m not phobic, so I walked on.  As I got closer, I found that people were figuring out how to buy tickets, and there was a line.  I’ve never seen so many people on that platform, and I’ve never seen a line so long to buy light rail tickets.  Everyone was friendly.  There were a bunch of pink hats and signs with lots of different messages.  Everyone was helpful.  I was starting to feel really good about this.  A train came by.  It was too full for any of us to get on.  Another train went by, southbound, and it was clear that people had gotten on farther north to ride to the southern terminus (one stop beyond mine) to just be able to get on a train.  Uh oh.

We were able to get on the next train, but it was tight.  For the next several stops, people got on to what was already a packed, standing-room-only train.  It was mostly white people.  Lots of women, but quite a few men too.  It occurred to me that a majority of them had never used public transit before.  There was this one black man in my car, next to whom I stood for most of the ride in, who had to be feeling a little weirded out.  He just looked like he wanted to get where he was going.  But after a few stops, he spoke to a few of these first timers.

When we finally poured out at the Santa Clara Street station, it was clear people didn’t know where to go.  But I did, so I stepped around people, some of whom were trying to find the friends they had come down with, who had gotten into different cars of our train.  I thought about getting a bottle of water somewhere, but I also just wanted to get to City Hall.  it was amazing.  The police and volunteers were all friendly and helpful, and worked really hard to keep people safe and within the designated areas.  It was PACKED, but everyone was so cool.  No one got out of hand.  Everyone made room for each other.  We read each other’s signs and shirts, snapped pictures, smiled, high-fived total strangers.  We joined in with each other’s chants.  Parents tried to keep their kids from getting cranky.  Friends spotted each other.  Lots of people were on social media, checking in, trying to share the moment or their location or both.  Instagram couldn’t handle it for a while there.

A friend from work texted me and I tried to find him, but I ended up finding another friend instead, so I walked with her and her friend, and met two of their students.  No one was violent.  No one was angry . . . just fired up for change.  I no longer felt the somber despair of the day before.  I felt hope, for the first time since November 8th.  I was surrounded by tens of thousands of people who I could tell are committed to not lying down and just taking whatever the federal government tries to throw at us.  We chanted “Si se puede” and “yes, we can” and “this is what democracy looks like” and “this is what a feminist looks like.”  We walked along 4th and through El Paseo de San Antonio.  When an ambulance needed to drive through a street we had to cross, my new friend jumped out and helped the lone traffic officer by yelling “ambulance!” and using her body, arms stretched out, to let everyone know why we had to stop for a minute.  People were like, “yeah, priorities.”

Store windows had posters in them too.  Kids and parents stood along the route with signs.  A few bemused folks leaving a gym were like, “okay, that’s a lot of people…”  But no one was scared.  No one felt threatened.  I felt empowered.  “America,” I said to myself, “we are going to be okay.”  As long as we keep at this, of course.

We got to Plaza de Cesar Chavez amid the fitting cries of “Si se puede,” and there were speakers and poets and local politicians, sharing their vision for how we can spread this energy into action.  Along the paths that only weeks before had been lined with Christmas trees and holiday decor for Christmas in the Park, there were now easy-up tents with tables full of local activism groups, sharing information and helping people find out how they can make a difference locally.  I stopped by LGBTQ+ Safe Place for Youth to pick up some materials for my school’s GSA. (Gender Sexuality Alliance)  There were a few food trucks.  Along the route, I had met up with several colleagues from the school where I work.  I briefly bounced between them and my friend I had been marching with.  Later, I just wandered alone for a while, listening to the speakers, taking pictures of signs, petting a dog I met, and taking it all in.

This is not typically the way I spend a Saturday.  I’ve never really been an activist before.  I thought of my parents a lot throughout the day.  My Dad, always a Republican, would not have been okay with how things have gone.  My Mom, always a Democrat, would have wanted to march.  Part of me, sadly, was glad they were not around to see the past year in this country.  Part of me was sad that my Mom was not walking beside me.

I thought of my students, many of whom are the children of immigrants.  Most of their parents arrived here on work visas.  Some of them walked here and were undocumented.  I thought of the kids I know in the GSA.  It’s hard enough for them to be open about who they are.  Some can’t outside of the safe spaces in our school.  They must be so worried for the future, on top of their very real everyday anxiety.  I thought about my Muslim students.  I never know what to say to them.  How much do they fear?  How much support do they believe they have from the rest of us?  I thought about all the students of color I know.  How can they pretend they don’t know about all the terrible things a certain “politician” has said about them and their families?  How much must it hurt them to acknowledge that they heard him? That they’ve read what he’s said and done, and they see all these other Americans telling them to “get over it” and “you lost.”

I am in a position of immense privilege, and I know it.  I am a heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, white American female.  I was born here.  The only “strike” I have against me in the New Regime is my gender.  It could be so easy to just go along with things and pretend that it won’t affect me.  But the very thought of that turns my stomach.  I look into the hopeful faces of our future every day when I go to work.  I have to stand up.  I have to march.  I have to find a way to make a bigger difference than I already do.  But most of all, I have to keep loving these kids, and their families, and the strangers around me every day.

We can’t let the evil and the falsehood win.  Yesterday helped me believe that I can be a part of the resistance.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Reflection

My mother and father were immigrants to this country. They didn't flee persecution, but they did come for a better life in the United States. Growing up during and after World War II in Scotland and England, things were not always easy, but they certainly had it way better than many of our nation's immigrants. My immigrant parents came to this country as white English speakers, whose accents were met with delight rather than derision. The same is true for my immigrant husband (from Scotland).

My parents were proud Americans. They loved this country. They were also proud of their British/Irish heritage. No one ever made them choose. It seemed they were the "acceptable" kind of immigrants. My parents loved America, and they VOTED. Every year, every election, no matter how big or small, how significant in other people's eyes. They voted. They believed it was their duty as citizens. I grew up visiting the polls with my mother. I was shown first-hand how important a duty, responsibility, and privilege it is, as an American, to vote.

My father passed away in March of 2008. He never got to see our nation's first African-American President take office. My mother did. But then Mom passed away two years ago. She never got to vote for the first female candidate for President (but I KNOW she would have).

Our area has permanent vote-by-mail voting. We always drop off our ballots rather then sending them in the post. In honor of my parents, I voted over a week ago. In honor of all the immigrants, perhaps especially the ones who have been made to feel unwelcome, or who have been expected to throw away their heritage, blend in, and pretend they aren't from somewhere else, I cast my vote for the candidate who cares about ALL people.

I hope you will honor all of our nation's immigrant ancestors, as well as the people who were brought here against their will in ships, and the ones who were driven off their lands, and the future Americans who will risk everything they have, including their lives, for a taste of our freedoms, and VOTE.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How I Use Remind to #teachsmall

When I heard about this hashtag and idea “#teachsmall,” I wondered to myself, how do I “teach small” with my own students?  What does “teach small” even mean?  And then a former student, a young lady who just graduated high school after having my Digital World class in her final semester, answered the question for me.

My pocket buzzed, and I took out my phone.  Now that Madi had graduated, we could be friends on Facebook, and so she sent me this message over Facebook Messenger:


Just like I had done for them all semester using the Remind app, this former student saw something relevant to what we had studied and used in class, and she shared it with me.  Of course, I then sent it (via Remind) to all the students I had last year in both semesters’ Digital World classes.  By the next morning, that message had received three stamps: two stars and a check.

So then I scrolled back through some of the messages I sent my DW students and my group of advisees over the past few months.  I found myself chuckling out loud at the memories.  

For me, #teachsmall has meant sending the kids a funny meme as a way of reminding them of something coming up in class.  

It has looked like a group selfie of our advisory every time we’re together, shared with them using Remind.  This became especially poignant when the kids learned that one of the group would not be in our advisory next year.

#teachsmall has meant contacting the kids when I am not in school to share with them what I am doing at a conference that relates to what we’re learning in class.

And it has meant staying in touch over summer vacation, sometimes just to tell them I miss them.

Now, some people may balk at my communication with students.  They may judge its appropriateness.  I can live with that.  When a former student’s eyes light up and she greets me with a smile and a high-five every time our paths cross, I know that my communication choices made a difference in forging a caring relationship with a young person.  When another former student stops by my office almost daily for candy, but spends most of the time talking to me about daily life stuff, and -- that one time -- even explained to me what aspects of economics I was witnessing in a class Minecraft experiment (because he had taken economics and I never did) I am reminded that those connections we make with students are what sustains them.  And what sustains us.  What sustains me.

I became a teacher because I love students.  Even now, as a majority of my job involves working directly with teachers more than their students, I relish my own classes, my advisory, and the times I go into other teachers’ classes to work with their students.  Young people bring a fresh energy and enthusiasm -- and let’s face it, I work in a high school, so also sarcastic wit -- to each day and each experience.  I frequently remind teachers that serving students is the sole reason we became educators (or it should be).  But another reason, I admit, that I became a teacher is the way the students serve me.  They remind me what it means to attack each day like the adventure it is.  And “teaching small” has enabled me to keep in touch with that.

So, how do I #teachsmall? I use the Remind app to update my students, send them reminders, let them know I am thinking of them, make them laugh at something I know only we will “get” because of that thing that happened in class that time, and sometimes ask them questions to which they can “stamp” their replies.  This year, I can begin to use the Chat feature to carry on a private-but-safe conversation with a student when needed when just one more kid needs to bring back that permission slip. Or when that one student seems to be a little off-kilter and I can privately check in and let him or her know I have noticed and I am here if they need help.

I like to think that #teachsmall has a synonymous hashtag: #dailysmile

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Two Americas

Here I am, sitting at LAX, one of the busiest airports in the country, and possibly the world.  My one-hour flight has been delayed by about three hours, so I have some time to sit around and people-watch while I wait.  Two Los Angeles Airport Police officers just walked by.  One had a massive rifle.  So that's a thing.

I have been on dozens flights in the past year and a half or so, and I've been to at least fifteen different airports. One thing I see in just about every airport is a class divide that is almost always along race lines.  People of all races travel.  But the majority in most airports are white.  Not surprising, given our country's population demographics.  But the majority of people doing seriously hard work, likely for low pay, are people of color.

I stopped to get a pizza and soda here today.  The woman scooting by with a cart of water and soda bottles to replenish at the counter was Latina.  All the cleaning workers and food service workers and various attendants here and there have skin much darker than mine.  This is something we are accustomed to.  Perhaps too much.  Because when the caucasian gentleman sitting near me finished his beer and pizza, he got up and left his mess for someone else to pick up.  He had to walk past multiple garbage cans to leave the little food court area.  But his assumption, likely, is that it's someone else's job to pick up after him.  (For the record, I bussed my own space, thankyouverymuch.)

I see this at supermarkets too, and it's a pet peeve of mine.  People bring their shopping carts out to their cars, empty their purchases into their trunks, and leave the carts where ever they damn well please.  Yes, it is someone's job to come out and get the carts.  But can't you make someone's day at work a little easier and smoother by putting your cart in one of the designated places for them?  It also helps keep everyone else's cars from getting dinged.

On that note (helping others have a nice day at work), what about treating people with respect, kindness, and dignity while they're doing their jobs to serve you and your needs?  I smiled, made eye contact, and spoke with the woman who was carting all those beverages in to restock.  I made way in the line for her cart to get through.  The young lady ahead of me helped move some water bottles to their intended location in the cooler before I could reach them.  Am I telling you this because I feel I deserve accolades?  No.  I just think it's common sense to be nice and help people.

The airline worker who checked in my bag was super helpful to me today.  She woke up this morning, I am sure, being Black in an America where people are still getting shot for looking like her in the year 2015.  I couldn't locate my email with my confirmation number, although I was already in the express bag check lane, and she politely took my ID and got me all set in mere moments.  I thanked her twice, called her ma'am, and wished her a great day.  I've seen people in my many travel experiences forget such basic manners because THEY'VE GOT PLACES TO GO, DAMMIT.

And let's not forget to dress comfortably when we travel.  Don't think I haven't noticed, white teenaged girls of America, how you fly in pajama pants and a skimpy tank top, rolling your eyes, and keeping your earbuds in, when young black men are wearing chinos and a polo shirt and smiling and thanking and calling everyone sir and ma'am, maybe just so they will be shown some respect.  If that ain't white privilege, I don't know what is.  White youth can do pretty much anything in this country, it seems.  But if a young black man sags his pants, we get national news media asking "where are the fathers?"

White people can pierce and tattoo the hell out of themselves (present company included on the tattoos), but a Mexican dude gets his baby's name on his arm and he's a banger.  White guy dresses scruffy and grows an out-of-control beard, and he's a hipster.  Black or brown guy does it, he gets arrested and/or assumed to be homeless.

No lie, a blond girl just walked by in blue socks (no shoes) with pot leaves on them.  Would a Black girl even dare?

This is what I am saying.  We live in two Americas.  And they happen parallel, side-by-side at the same time, everywhere you go.  Sometimes they are separate.  Do you think I will ever find myself in the neighborhood where many LAX food service workers live?  I wonder how often they find themselves at some of the nice restaurants I got to eat in while I've been in LA this week.  But more often than we realize, we find ourselves sharing the same space.  Too many people who look like me just seem to breeze through airports, supermarkets, shopping malls, movie theatres, seeing right through the people who work hard to make their time there clean, pleasant, and convenient.

We have certainly come a long way in this country, but we still have so far to go.  White privilege is a thing.  It doesn't make white people evil.  It means we've had it really good for a really long time.  Usually on the backs of people with darker skin.  We don't have to stop being white.  We just have to stop acting like it hasn't done us any favors.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Recipe for Teacher Success

Sometimes, it takes a high school sophomore or two to remind you what’s important.

Earlier today, I was reading and “grading” my students’ reflections on the coding experiences I put them through this semester, and I was really blown away by some of their personal epiphanies.  I really enjoyed commenting back to them, as I think I’ve now been through enough time on this planet to say I might know just a FEW of the “answers.”  After I finished, I posted the following “recipe for teacher success” to my Facebook and Twitter:

1. give kids a hard task
2. have them write reflectively
3. read reflections (bring tissues)

It didn’t take long for someone to respond on Twitter with a step 4: “give kids a hard task based on reflections.”  Absolutely right.  If we’re going at this whole education thing the correct way, that is the natural next step.  Some people call it “life.”

One of my students, whom I teased about whining when the coding activities got frustrating, shared that she learned she has a tendency to give up too easily.  She found herself relying on friends for help, or avoiding the task at hand, but then eventually prevailing when she just forced herself to push through it.  I loved that I was able to respond with encouraging words, suggesting that now she can see this predilection on the horizon in future situations and self-talk her way through or around it.  

She also quipped one of my favorite lines of student writing I’ve read in a while: You know how kids don’t want to eat their broccoli at dinner? That was me with coding.”

This was the perfect opener, on their last formal writing piece of the course, for me to recognize her very effective conversational yet well-crafted writing style.  It reminded me of my own blogging.  Which is how we find ourselves right here, right now.

Another student observed that text-based games like the Zork series seem to act like programs themselves, that require particular commands in order to be completed.  (We had modified a text adventure style game in Trinket one day in class.)  I had never thought of that before.  Just the act of playing a computer game, which had to be programmed by someone else, consists of commands and other actions that require thinking like a programmer.

Though one of the students in the class determined that these activities, learning coding through games, solidified for her that she has no desire to pursue programming again, many of her classmates discovered that programming was more fun and accessible to them than they had ever imagined.  After all, they took this course with me to avoid taking a programming class.  Since one of my goals was to alter their perception about computer science and programming, and to change their ideas about whether coding is “for them.”

I’m really sharing this reflection of my own because I feel so grateful to get to work with young people and try new things with them and witness how they respond.  I feel as though if I don’t tell somebody -- everybody! -- then maybe my lack of gratitude would jinx the whole thing and I could lose it all.  But also, because it seems I have discovered a kind of secret sauce that many of my amazing friends in EdTech have also found.  This recipe for teacher success is a recipe for student success, for meaningful educational experiences, for happiness, for true reflective practice, for so many things we need more of in schools (and in life) but that our testing-crazed and over-committed lives frequently rob from us.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Haircut Day

Today, it’s a Saturday in May, and I am spending most of it grading. Deadlines, you know. But I needed a break, so I thought I would write about last Saturday. As weekend days go, it also had a singular, very focused purpose: getting my son a haircut.

Now, you need to understand that my son is eleven and has mild autism and has been growing his hair long because he wants it that way. And my husband and I have been walking a tricky tightrope of give-and-take, since hubby isn’t super into the boy having his hair long (though he is coming around somewhat), and I feel very strongly that I want him to be able to have power of this aspect of his appearance and his life.

First things first, though: we are all about the hygiene. Both my husband and I work with children. Other people’s children. Sometimes smelly children. I have leaned over many a pre-teen head to give guidance at a computer and had to hold back on the retch I’ve felt welling up. I have a super-sensitive olfactory gift, you see. Another aspect of hygiene is appearance. Neither my husband nor I can handle an unkempt appearance. We just can’t. Don’t try to fix us; we’re fine.

So we have set up rules about bathing and washing hair daily, brushing hair several times a day, using deodorant, brushing (and flossing and rinsing) teeth, and so forth. It’s hard enough to have autism. Being the smelly, dirty, weird kid is especially hard to bounce back from. And we start middle school in a few months. People with Asperger’s and autism are especially prone to a condition called “not giving a damn about personal hygiene.” So we’re vigilant, to say the least.

And so we find ourselves on a lovely Saturday with a boy who doesn’t want anyone coming near his hair, and me promising we won’t do anything drastic. And then it occurred to me: this isn’t just about being eleven and wanting to exert some control over a matter of one’s personal style. Getting a haircut is a rather sensory experience on a lot of levels. A person you don’t know very well touching your head. Loudly buzzing clippers right next to your ears. Strange smells and foreign noises while you sit on a chair that spins and goes up and down under someone else’s control.

On the drive to my hair dresser’s salon, I asked Cameron if there was more than one reason he was not happy about getting his hair cut. I told him that I understood that he wants to be old enough to decide about his own hair, which he agreed was part of what upset him. I also asked him if maybe all the sensory experiences I just described were upsetting to him.

Yes. Also, the last time his Dad took him for a haircut, the lady cut off more than even my husband told her to. So not only does the boy have no control, even his father can’t protect him from too extreme a cut.

We’ve done most of Cameron’s haircuts at home, with clippers. That is no longer an option or something we will consider. Scissors only. And neither hubby nor I are qualified to wield those.

I brought Cameron to my own hairdresser, who has been doing my hair since before he was born, I think, and whom he knows and at least respects and likes. I had already texted her in detail about what was up. She was really great. She explained to him, reassured him, and was really gentle and calming the entire time.

He still silently wept through the entire ordeal, but that wasn’t her fault. 

All we did was have her trim some dead ends and do a small amount of layering to the top and sides, so it would fall more neatly when he combs or brushes it. She complimented the length he had grown it, and she told him how much she likes how the back gets curly. I couldn’t have asked for a better performance by her, emotionally and professionally. His hair does look really nice. Most people can’t even tell it was cut, just that it looks neater.

But the build-up, the ride there, the talking him down during and after, and the therapeutic discussions and choices made for the remainder of the day were hard work and they were very draining. I negotiated my way through getting him to actually eat something when we went for lunch on the way home. I talked him into having some of my fries, and by the time we got to the front of the line to order, had even wrangled him into getting a chicken sandwich. I let him get whatever he wanted to drink (no beer, wine, or artificial sweeteners, though).

When we got home, he was free to do whatever he wanted. I am pretty sure he played with Lego in his room and rode his scooter outside for a bit. To be honest, I was so wiped from trying to maintain emotional control, that I don’t completely remember the rest of the day. I know I took him for sushi on the Friday night as a positive start to the weekend, to sort of buffer it all.

This is the kind of thing that can be really challenging about even the mildest of autism. People think your kid’s a little quirky but they expect him to be able to do everything a neurotypical kid can do, just the same way or at the same level or speed. I had a pretty busy and eventful week at work, but we had Haircut Saturday, followed soon after by Dentist Tuesday (with x-rays, a cleaning, and the news that we need to have two of his teeth pulled next week), and frankly, a lot of my life becomes a total blur on a semi-regular basis.

I just wanted to blog about this lest ye think that it all sunshine and rainbows over here in autism family land. I tend to share pictures and blog posts about the small victories, because that is what I want to remember. But a lot of our most important lessons on this journey come out of the difficult, painful days.

#makeschooldifferent Challenge

Yesterday, I was tagged in a tweet that brought my attention to this very cool challenge.  Diana Neebe blogged her response and tagged me in her list of five educators, all of whom I love and respect immensely, and I am very much looking forward to hearing their thoughts on this.

The origin of this challenge is Scott McLeod's April 13 (2015) blog post.

So here goes my contribution:

When it comes to education, we have to stop pretending that . . .

1. Standardized testing is ever going to give us any useful data beyond what we already KNOW about our students.  Testing only shows us who is good at taking tests.  Actually, let me revise that statement.  Poor performance on standardized tests is great for pointing out who comes to school hungry, overtired, stressed out, impoverished, neglected, or victimized by racism and classism inherent in our society's systems.  We need to stop using test scores to tell us what we already know, and then ignoring their message.  Rather, let's solve those societal problems and stop giving tests at all.

2. "The way we've always done things" and "BGUTI (better get used to it)" are good reasons to keep doing things that are ineffective, harmful to students, or both.  Students, parents, families, teachers, administrators, and everyone else involved in education deserves better.  Do you still have a VCR you use daily?  A record player?  A rotary dial phone?  In every other aspect of life, humanity has discovered, developed, or invented better ways of doing things.  And that's not just with regard to technology, though that's the easiest place to find contemporary metaphors.  Adults, think back to your own school days.  Do you remember all the things you learned from worksheets and workbooks?  How about lecture and note-taking?  I know that my own strongest and most positive memories are from the times I was actively involved in creating something: music, a poster for a project, a model.  Some of the memories weren't even all that positive, but they stuck.  Worksheets? Not so much.

3. All students learn in the same way, at the same rate.  If there is one thing that having a son with autism has taught me, it's that I was wrong a lot in the past in my assumptions about students who need to do things differently.  One famous quote that is often misattributed to Albert Einstein is about how if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.  While that is more about everyone having their own strengths, it also applies to how we learn and how quickly we learn.  If we could make our education system truly more individualized and personalized, we could eliminate a lot of the negativity surrounding education.  A potential subtitle for this point could be "We have to stop pretending that homework doesn't suck."  Don't even get me started on homework.  Kids that need extra practice are tortured by it, and are likely practicing concepts incorrectly. Kids who "got" the concepts in class and who sail through their homework probably don't even need to be doing it. The divides we see among students are widened because kids who need extra support are often in homes where there may be no one available to provide that support during homework time. And kids who have special interests or activities outside of school, the things they love because they're good at them or successful there when they aren't in school, often have to choose between homework and what they love and can succeed in.

4. Teaching is a profession anyone can do, especially when they drop out of something "better."  Too many people in our society view the career path of teachers as something we've settled on because we couldn't make it as anything else.  And society also seems to expect that all these all-but-failures they've somehow okayed to be in the classroom can get it together to completely transform their kids, despite all the factors working against us. So teachers are given no respect, but are expected to perform miracles. And despite all they are up against, most of them do.  But it's never enough.  And then people wonder why we can't keep good teachers, or why no one wants to enter the profession in the first place.  We need to change society's view of and value placed on teachers.

5. Education is about anyone other than the students themselves.  There's a lot of talk in this country today about our societal ills and how if parents would just do their jobs, if teachers would just do their jobs, etc. But when people "just do their jobs," young people are often given the short shrift.  By the time students are old enough to figure out that someone may not have done right by them, it's often too late to win them back to having a positive outlook about their own futures.  In the meantime, while we're racing to run off copies of a quiz, or grading piles of homework, students need us to stop and get to know them.  To ask why they're upset. To check in on how things went in that competition or performance they just had. To find out what they like about the book we're reading.  To validate what they didn't like about a project.  During August trainings, I've heard teachers (myself included) joke about how school would be so much fun if it weren't for the students showing up on the first day.  And I've heard some people say it who were NOT joking. I've heard complaints about the kind of students a teacher "has been given" as if they were talking about an STD they caught by accident.  I've known educators who simply do not like kids.  And I've asked, sometimes out loud, "Um, WHY did you go into teaching?"

I think all of my ideas point to a bigger picture of having our lenses all out of focus when it comes to accountability.  I am a professional.  I have two degrees. I have over two decades of experience in the classroom. And I have a very good track record. Allow me to do my job and be accountable to my most important stakeholders: my students. Honor that as a teacher, I make great sacrifices to do right by them every day, and even on weekends and holidays.

I am also a parent.  Please like my kid.  Get to know my kid.  Give him a chance to show you that he IS capable and that he CAN do and learn, even if he needs more time or different methods than other kids. Especially now as he enters adolescence, he is looking to everyone BUT his parents for validation that he and his very existence are not mistakes.

I've been absolutely blessed. Not every step of my path as an educator and parent have been easy or positive, but I have spent much of my time in both roles in relatively cushy situations. I am valued where I work. I am given the resources I need. My son is loved and appreciated and encouraged in his schools (past and present). I am well aware, however, that so many educators and parents experience the myths I've outlined above daily. And I've received my share of snide remarks about my choice of profession.

Finally, and partly in hopes of a post that is more positive to follow mine, I need to tag five educators to continue the conversation in their own spaces.  Who are five people whose views I would really love to hear on this? I choose Rushton Hurley, Julia Fallon, John MillerJon Samuelson, and Karen McKelvey.  These are all people I've spent time with in various situations, solving the world's problems over a drink or a meal or a ride to the airport, and each of them has made me better at what I do.