Thursday, April 02, 2015

Superlative Disease

I live in Silicon Valley. And I work in one of the most prestigious private independent schools in the country. In Silicon Valley. So I am surrounded, it seems, by a culture of fastest, smartest, youngest, first, best. You would think that in a place known for innovators who took unconventional routes to success, we wouldn’t be so wrapped up in these superlatives we keep using to define ourselves and set ourselves apart from one another. You would think we could focus more on the journey than how quickly and amazingly we reach the destination.

My ex-husband used to say he planned to make his first million by age 30. Sad for him, I suppose, that instead he was bankrupt and divorced from an amazing woman (that would be me) before he turned 33. When we have these labels as goals, do we hurtle toward them at all costs? Do we miss the journey because we are hyper-focused on the destination? Do we forget to be human -- and to treat others humanely -- along the way?

I worry about my students, my advisees, and my son. My students took my class, for the most part, to avoid taking programming. They have already labeled themselves as being not inclined toward computer science. Is it because they feel they can’t be the “best” at it? I get one semester to dispel myths and transform mindsets. My advisees are wonderful, adorable freshpersons. They still have three more years of high school after this one. Three of them intend to take AP Chemistry as sophomores. I’ve been working on them and their parents. Is it really necessary? What edge do they think it will give them to take it next year rather than as juniors or seniors, if at all? And at what cost? The other six are, for the most part, enjoying high school as the final years of their childhoods. And I get to enjoy it with them. Don’t need no AP Mania harshing my mellow, y’all.

I think I have decided to not allow my son to take AP courses. His passion is history, and I think he’d be frustrated and bored in a class that is basically a year (or even TWO!) of preparation for one big test. Tests are not my kid’s friend. I want him to continue to enjoy and explore and interact with history. Not to see how much of it he can cram in his head and keep there until May. As for other APs, I’d need a pretty good argument. If I thought he’d pursue art, I’d let him do those.

And to what future doom am I cursing my child by denying him the choice of AP classes and all that stress? Gee, I don’t know . . . a life? My son will never be an amazing student. At least not as long as school is done to kids the way it currently is. But he already is and will continue to be an amazing person. And I will opt for that any day of the week. You know what his superlative is? Being the best HIM there is. I dare not do or say anything to squash that joy and wonder and, yes, sometimes struggle.

I had a ninth grader tell me she felt school was so competitive, so she always had to keep pushing herself. Why? I asked. Says who? I exclaimed. And then I told her she doesn’t have to play that game. She told me she wishes she was already an adult. No way! I uttered. I begged her to enjoy childhood while she still could. I told her that I try to act like a kid as often as possible to see if I can still get away with it. Childhood rocks. Adulthood kinda sucks sometimes.

But what about that spectre of competition she senses haunting her? It follows her home from school and creeps around when she’s trying to enjoy a tv show or read just for fun, I am sure. It keeps her up late studying and preparing and working. And it wakes her up early to get just a bit more studying in.

We need to exorcise these ghosts of a made-up belief system around education and achievement in our country. We have one side saying our kids aren’t competing on the global stage, and the other side making them crazy with worry about their future. That future is going to be filled with the kinds of problems you don’t solve by studying for tests. The drought in California? The global need for new fuel sources? Future food shortages? Climate change? All the A+ test grades and 4.0-plus GPAs in the world are not going to keep our species from destroying ourselves and our planet.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Home is Where You Remember to Drive to After Work

In the past month, I have made a trip to Boise, moved house, and made a trip to Portland. I’m exhausted. My lower back hurts. I’ve got a lot on my mind.

If there is one thing that moving from a 3-bedroom house to a 2-bedroom apartment teaches you, other than the fact that downsizing is good for the soul, it’s that needing to get rid of tons of stuff will expose neuroses you didn’t know you had. Also, storage units are expensive.

The past year has been really challenging. Just read any blog posts I’ve written in the past ten months if you need to get caught up. I also realized something else really significant during the move: the fourteen years we lived in Willow Glen cover a LOT of major life experiences. We were ten months in one house, and then thirteen years and two months in the one we just moved from. Fourteen years TO. THE. DAY. (That day being Valentine’s Day, coincidentally.)

Standing in the echo-y empty living room of the house, it hit me. Both my parents had visited us and slept in that house. And an aunt. And all my siblings at one time or another. Plus two of their partners and all three of my sister’s daughters. It was the house where I brought my son home from the hospital. That house had seen late-night feedings, nosebleeds, vomit, diaper changes, potty training, and checking for concussions. Several of those. (Kid’s got a hard head.)

The walls of that house witnessed me finding out my Dad had died. Coming to grips with my son’s autism diagnosis. Finding out Mom was sick. And then learning Mom was gone. Those same walls looked on as I earned my Master’s degree online. And as I taught online classes and participated in weekly video broadcasts. Song parodies and videos. Helping raise another person’s child. Taking in her boyfriend. Telling them they had to go.

Meals with family and friends. Christmas trees and cookies for Santa. Annual school portraits. Arguments over the dumbest of things. The only home my son had ever known.

Don’t get me wrong; I wanted to move. I suppose it would be nice to be able to come up with a down payment on a home we could own, but this is Silicon Valley, so I’ll settle for a pool I don’t have to clean and grounds I don’t have to keep. We’ve traded nearby train tracks and the 280 freeway for light rail and 17. We’re not as close to the airport. We’re a tiny bit closer to the mountains and the ocean beyond. We almost overlook the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and we hear the bells of St. Lucy’s on a regular basis. We have all our own furniture, and eventually we’ll put stuff up on the walls. I like it.

But after the year I’ve had, it just feels like one more fork in the road of life where I’ve had to decide how to proceed . . . and be prepared to live with the consequences of my choice. I definitely wanted out of that house. But I am not used to this new home yet. It will come.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

When NO to One Things Means YES to Another

(This was written January 21, 2015.)

My life has gotten REALLY busy. That is part of why I haven’t blogged in a while. Another part is that, while I have plenty to say, I haven’t been able to get my head around HOW I want to say it. And I was waiting to tell some folks something in person before I shared it widely.

And that was the worst introduction I’ve ever written. So let’s just dive in, shall we?

I’m wrapping up my second year as Director of the MERIT program here in the Bay Area. It’s an amazing year-long professional development cohort situation for teachers, and I absolutely love it. As I wrap up my second year, I have decided to wrap up my being Director at all. We typically serve three years as Director, and that had been my plan all along. But then, life loves to throw us curve balls when we have the audacity plan that far ahead, doesn’t it?

Many people who know me personally know that this past year has been eventful, but not necessarily in the good way. Last May, we found out that our son’s learning challenges are caused by autism. Shortly after that, we discovered that my mother had stage 4 cancer. I traveled to the East Coast (or close) seven times between April and December. There was a Spring Break trip to Boston with my son, a conference in Atlanta, and three trips to see Mom (the final one being for her funeral). I also went to Pittsburgh in August for an EdTech thing. The last of the seven trips was to spend the holidays with my family in New Jersey. Because we all really needed it.

All those trips made my year INTENSE. My husband, as always, stepped up and did even MORE than he usually does with taking care of everything around the house and seeing to all our son’s needs during the five trips Cameron didn’t take with me. And this has meant a lot of new adjustments, given what we’ve learned this past year about how our son learns and functions. It made me start to look at things I could cut out of my professional life to make more time for my family’s needs.

When I was in Napa in October at a conference, I found out that the dates of CUE Rock Star Lake Tahoe would conflict with the MERIT Summer Institute in the summer of 2015. My son goes with me to Truckee for this event every year, and I wanted to continue that tradition. Applying to be part of that event’s faculty would mean I would have to step down from my MERIT Directorship. I realized that after the year we’ve had, I did not have the strength to tell my son that Truckee was off because I needed to work another year for MERIT. I had to make a choice.

I chose my son.

It’s not that the MERIT program has caused me to have to neglect him or anything. It’s just a big commitment, and I didn’t want to start feeling resentful. I also chose to stop teaching the grad school class I teach online for San Diego State. For a few years at least. I’ve thought about starting a Doctoral program in another year and a half or so. That’s on hold in my mind until we get a handle on the transition between elementary school and middle school for my son.

But I am the kind of person who doesn’t like to turn her back on a commitment. It’s always been hard for me to say NO. But with a full-time job that is busier than any I’ve had before, and my family’s needs changing as they have, I’ve learned that in order to say YES to my family, I need to say NO to the rest of the world sometimes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

If Michael Brown had been Michael White . . .

Last night, it was really hard for me to go to bed.  I was tired.  I’d had a long day at work and afterward.  I needed sleep.  But the news was full of the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision to not even indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  So no trial.  No hashing out of the testimonies and evidence in court.  No attempt at justice for his survivors.

And all I could think about was this: if Michael Brown had been a white kid, the police officer would not have shot and killed him.

I’m not looking for debates and arguments.  No one is going to change my belief in this.  

In seven or eight years, if my blond-haired, blue-eyed son and his African-American classmate walk into a store together, they will follow the other kid around.  It doesn’t matter that his Dad is a wealthy and famous professional athlete.  If they walk down the street together as teens-becoming-adults, people may wonder if my kid is okay, and if this young Black man is bothering him.

And I will never have to teach my white son how to act when he gets stopped by the police, just so he doesn’t have to fear being killed.

That is just how it is in this country.  And in some places, like Ferguson, Missouri, it is a lot worse than in others.  

This didn’t start in Ferguson.  It didn’t start with Trayvon Martin or even Dred Scott.  It began when Europeans stole people from their homelands and brought them to this continent and Europe and South America and the Caribbean against their wills.  It began when white people broke up Black families and turned people into property.

It continued as white people denied Black people education.  As they split up enslaved people from the same African cultures so they couldn’t communicate with one another or even offer each other comfort in their imprisonment.  This continues, in a different, insidious form, even today.  We see it in school systems that offer less and lesser to people of color.  Nowadays it comes down to socioeconomics.  But . . . surprise, surprise . . . socioeconomic stratification in this country has always been on racial lines. Why? Because of centuries of denied opportunities.

These days, you will hear white people talk about the way Black people speak, act, dress, express themselves through music and other media, and it is almost always with derision.  Everything about being Black in America descends from what white people have put in place.  Oh, but NOW you don’t like it?  Maybe early white Americans should have thought of that when teaching Blacks to read was punishable by death.

If your ancestors had been kidnapped, beaten, raped, abused, considered property, and KILLED simply because of their skin color, you’d be seriously pissed off too.  When we look at the historical conflicts in Europe . . . let’s take the Irish and the English . . . these are viewed and discussed in academic terms.  Former “terrorists” (depending on who you ask) are now leading politicians.  The subjugation of one people by another is looked back upon with regret, pity, compassion, and understanding.  (NOTE: as a person of English and Irish heritage, I take no sides in this one.)

Rebellion and protest are in our nation’s DNA.  In school, we study the American Revolution.  Rebels are heroes.  Wanton acts of violence and unrest, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, are put in the spotlight as proud moments in our history.  The murders of Loyalist neighbors, and their banishment to Canada or elsewhere tends to go unmentioned.  But it was all good, because these were white people fighting for white freedoms.

But in the year 2014, Black people aren’t allowed to be angry when police officers kill their sons and brothers.  When their people are routinely arrested and incarcerated at a hugely disproportionate rate to whites.

And I’ve seen wealthy white kids using the N-word with their friends and posting pictures of their drug paraphernalia on Facebook and Instagram.  No one even bats an eye.  A Black kid walks down the street, and he MUST be up to no good.

If you’ve got a problem with me and what I am saying, don’t try to change my mind or convince me it’s not about race.  Unfollow me and unfriend me on social media if you want.  I don’t hate cops, and I don’t condone rioting or looting.  But I am also clever enough to realize that white, straight, female me has NO CLUE what it’s like to be Black in America.  And I am still angry about all these dead Black kids.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"No Brainers" and My Son, the Scarecrow

Yesterday, my son told me something that I can’t stop thinking about.  We had already been discussing school and how he feels there, especially in math class.  Math is his hardest subject.  It just always has been.  He has some special issues where math is concerned.  No one denies that.

What he told me, though, was how he felt when a teacher poses a “no brainer” and he doesn’t know what to do.  That was the term he used: “no brainer.”  I don’t know if he heard that from a teacher or what.  His dilemma is as follows:

“If I raise my hand and get called on, and I get it wrong, everyone will know I don’t know it.  But if I don’t raise my hand and I am the only one not raising my hand, everyone will know I don’t know.  They will talk about me outside of class, about how I don’t know anything.”

He is ten years old.  In case you have not read about me and my son before, it may help you to know that he has mild autism.

My son seems to believe that he is the only one who doesn’t know everything when it comes, especially, to math.  Also, he can’t understand why anyone would like math when it is so hard.  He thinks he is the only one like this.  He’s like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

The Scarecrow wanted, more than anything, to have a brain.  By the way, can I just say that neither a scarecrow nor a tin man have a heart OR a brain?  So that’s a whole thing right there.  But I digress.  Let us continue to suspend disbelief so I can keep using this metaphor.

At the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), the Scarecrow learns that he is, in fact, smart after all.  When it came time to need to solve a problem and have “smarts,” he came through.  He wanted the Wizard to give him a brain, but he had it all along.  Like the Scarecrow, my son wants someone to make him be good at math.  He wants external validation that he is good enough academically, and that he can do things other kids can do.  It just takes him longer.  And he might need some additional tools.

So is my son internalizing the idea that if he can’t correctly answer a “no brainer” in class, then he doesn’t have a brain?  Or that the brain he has isn’t good enough?

We have tried to help him understand that his autism is a difference in neurology.  He has a brain (and all the stuff connected to it), but his is wired differently than most other people’s.  He reacts differently to things.  His senses perceive more of some things, and maybe less of others, compared to his peers.  What he has begun to sense a lot of, very recently, is that being different isn’t just hard for him, but it’s hard for the people who work with him.  And he doesn’t understand why they might feel impatient with him (as he perceives it) or maybe not like him (again, his take on things).

When we use glib terms like “no brainer,” and when we react to kids in ways that might increase their anxiety, we certainly don’t mean to upset them.  But for a kid like mine, who is mostly trying to figure out how the world works and his place is in that world, I’d like to ask everyone to consider their word choices and their voice tones, and all those other additional meanings that can be attached to what we say.  There’s a little ten year-old Scarecrow over here who wishes his brain was like everyone else’s, and doesn’t realize yet that it will never be.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Bullied Kids Become Forgiving Adults

There’s been this article going around on the Internet recently: 17 Things Former Bullied Kids Do A Little Bit Differently As Adults.  It resonated with me on a number of levels.  I did experience some bullying as a kid.  I also experienced it in my first marriage.  And yes, it has shaped who I am as an adult.  In a way, it has made me a better educator and parent, because I know what to look for, what to ask, and how to empathize.

There are also some items on that list in the article that used to be a lot more true of me as a younger adult than they are now.  Time heals wounds, sure.  And as we age and mature and gain wiser insights from our experiences, we learn that our coping strategies and defense mechanisms are sometimes just that: masks and maneuvers we don’t always truly need.  But there is another silver bullet to overcoming bullying: forgiveness.

Some time this past year -- I don’t really recall exactly when -- Facebook suggested I befriend someone I kind of knew in high school.  Funny thing (not really) was that this person had bullied me during my first year of high school.  I guess it was kind of short-lived, but it was scary as hell and while it went on, it was relentless.  I’m not going to reveal too much about the person, and you’ll see why in a moment.  But I do need to tell you a bit about what happened so you can appreciate the progress I needed to make in myself to reach a place of forgiveness.

This older student was in two of my classes.  So was at least one of her friends, and I guess some other kids they knew.  In gym class, she threatened me one day out of the blue.  It continued here and there, and carried over into my art class.  The teacher was out for an extended illness, and as we worked on our projects with a substitute there for supervision purposes, this aggressor broke apart projects of students in other class periods and threw pieces of them at me from her table partway across the room.  Again, no provocation by me.  I was a freshman just minding my own business.

After gym class one day, as I returned to the locker room to change, the bullying girl and a couple of friends were waiting, menacingly, just inside the locker room door.  I had to detour into the teachers’ office to say, “I’m not going in there.  There are these girls that are going to beat the crap out of me if I go in that locker room.”  I ended up at the vice principal’s office, my Mom got called in, and it got dealt with, I guess.  And knowing our vice principal, I am sure he said that if they retaliated against me for telling on them, he’d call the police.  As it was, my mother threatened to have the police down there that very day if it wasn’t stopped immediately.

In the intervening years, I never knew what became of this young lady, except that I heard she had worked in a place I had once worked, with my sister I think.  If you’re reading this, and you’re from where I’m from, stop trying to figure out who it was.  It doesn’t matter now, as you will see in a moment.

So like I said, Facebook thought we might like to become friends.  I found that . . . well, kind of amusing.  Thirty years later.  So I didn’t request a friend add, but I did decide to write to this woman.  I sent her a private message via Facebook:

“Hi _______.  Do you remember me from high school? You and some other girls were in my art and gym classes when I was in 9th grade. For some reason, you decided to harass and threaten me. As far as I can tell, I had never done anything to cause these attacks. I know that you later worked with my sister. Looking at your Facebook, it seems like you are at a happy place in your life. Having been an educator myself for over 20 years and working with many kids over the years, I guess I have to chalk up the way you treated me in high school to some stuff you were maybe going through back then. I just thought that since Facebook suggested you as a friend for me, I would get in touch and tell you that I am happy that you are happy.”

She wrote back the very next morning and apologized.  I was on the right track that she had gone through some difficult times back then and took some of it out on me.   I’d be willing to bet that she never even remembered bullying me until I reminded her of it.  Her apology was sincere, and I was really moved by her offer to try to make things up to me.  I simply responded “all is forgiven” and I later did add her as a friend on Facebook.

And I am really glad I did.  I can see that she has encountered difficulties in her life and has triumphed over them.  Things I have never had to face.  I am encouraged and impressed by her bravery and strength.  Would I have known these things had I just snorted and clicked “ignore” at Facebook’s friend suggestion?  Even more importantly, would it have just been so much easier to consider myself superior in some way, after she expressed sincere contrition, by just “moving on” and considering it in the past and behind me?

What kind of Christian would that make me?  What kind of human being?  Bullying is bad.  It’s not okay.  But it doesn’t just arise out of nowhere.  People who bully others, whether they are children, adults, pet owners, commenters on social media, teachers, clergy, ANYONE . . . are hurting, damaged people.  And since we all are potentially in that same boat, aren’t we all just one or two thoughtless comments and snide remarks away from being the perpetrators ourselves?

So these difficult experiences did indeed mold me into a certain kind of person.  I have those reactions and feel those emotions outlined in the article.  But by confronting the experiences I had, and opening them up to look inside what they truly were, I was able to give myself and another person some healing and peace.  So let’s be careful when we throw around the term “bullying.”  And let’s also stop blaming the Internet.  It was, after all, a social network that enabled me to initiate this reconciliation with someone I would never have encountered otherwise.  And let’s just be kind to each other.  And forgive those who hurt us.  And tell them so.  For everyone’s sake.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This movie sucks. Why can't I leave the theatre?

It seems to be that there are two kinds of people who know about my mother’s death: those who want to know how I’m doing, and those who are just getting on with things like nothing happened.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I often find myself falling into the latter category.

To help set the scene a little, let me recap the timeline of the past year where my mother and I are concerned:

April 7-11, 2014 - my son and I go to Boston and New Jersey on Spring Break. I am well aware that my mother is getting older and her memory is a lot worse.  Other than that though, she seems mostly fine.

June 4-11, 2014 - after learning from my sister that my mother has cancer, I fly home for a week to help with hospital and house stuff, and to get the full info on our course of action, and (while I am in New Jersey) go with my sister to plan the prepaid funeral arrangements for whenever the inevitable comes.

September 24 - October 1, 2014 - I go home, at my sister’s request, to just be there, help out, and say goodbye. My Mom doesn’t really understand who I am, can’t really talk, and is close to the end.  I actually believe she may pass while I am in New Jersey.  She doesn’t.

October 5, 2014 - Mom dies.

October 7-11, 2014 - I fly home again, we have the wake at the funeral home and the memorial service at Mom’s church. I get back home and return to work.

And here I am, just a few weeks later, VERY well aware that I have not grieved.  I have not mourned.  I have not faced in complete reality the truth of my mother’s passing.  When it finally came, after just four short months of agonizing waiting (and sometimes wondering from afar how bad it was getting), I was not sad.  I had just seen my mother, held her hand and leaned in close to her ear to tell her it was okay to let go and join Dad in Heaven, and I knew I didn’t want THAT to continue any longer.  I knew I was powerless to change the effects of this illness or the fact that it had hit my family so suddenly and ruthlessly.  I never raged against my lack of control.  I just took it in stride.

But I know that I AM sad.  And that it does hurt.  But who has time to just put everything aside and cry?  Work is still there.  My son still needs tons of oversight in all things academic.  Commitments still must be met.  People are still counting on me for lots of things. I feel as though I am watching a movie I don't want to watch anymore, but I cannot get up and leave the theatre.

Is it that I have crafted a persona of having everything in hand and not sweating the bumps in the road, and I have to maintain that?  I don’t care about image in that way.  I don’t care much what people think.  But I make it a policy to never let people down.  I’m not even concerned about people seeing me show emotion.

I just don’t have the time.  I’m too busy to lose it and go through half a box of tissues and look a mess and be late for whatever’s next.  Especially not over something I can’t change.

I couldn’t change it when we got the diagnosis.  So I compartmentalized it into a thing my family and I were going through.  I couldn’t change it when Mom was never going to set foot in her own house again.  When she took a turn for the worse.  When it spread to her brain.  When she lost the use of her right side.  When she needed oxygen.  When we decided to start the morphine.  When I held her hand and thought “good bye” so I wouldn’t have to say it out loud.  I couldn’t change it when I got on a plane to come home, knowing I’d be making a return trip very soon.

Every step of the way, I couldn’t change it.  I couldn’t fix it.  I couldn’t make it better.  So what would be the point of losing my composure?  It would scare my son and make people want to comfort me.  It would let cancer get the better of me when I don’t even have the disease.  It could indicate a lack of faith in what happens after we die.

I appreciate when people ask me how I’m doing, or when they express their sorrow for my loss.  But I don’t want them to.  Is that normal?  Is that a thing?  It was so thoughtful of people to send flowers or a card or leave a message for me in email or on Facebook.  But I don’t want to be that person who had that thing happen.

Should we call this denial? Or postponing the inevitable?  Or am I heartless?

When I can’t remember entire conversations, or even people that I have met, and I don’t know what day it is or what I was supposed to be working on, does that go with the territory?  Do I claim the “my Mom died” excuse, and if so, for how long is that acceptable?

Should I be concerned when I can’t stay awake so I go to bed and then can’t fall asleep?  Do we chalk it up to having lost a loved one?  Is it fair to do that when I act like nothing has happened?

When does it stop?  When does my life go back to whatever I used to consider normal?  Do I need to set an appointment with myself to have a nervous breakdown?  I’d really rather not.