NPR and the Teacher Shortage Crisis

Image result for why teachers quitAs I was riding along the other day, my favorite topic came on NPR:  teacher shortages and why no one wants to become a teacher anymore.  I hooted.

The announcers tossed out loose statistics that had no edges.  Here’s one I remember from 20 years ago:  3 out of 5 new teachers quit within three years of starting their careers.   Apparently, hiring and retaining has only gotten worse.

But before I get into why this is true, let me say what I always think when I hear about this loss:  What are these freshly hired, and quickly disenchanted workers supposed to do now with that degree?

Back in the day, universities placed education majors in their “field experience” the very last semester of their schooling.  Honestly, if you never experience the real work until you are almost finished with your degree and suddenly discover this is not the fantasy you had, what then?  You are still likely to go into the career, hoping that once the kids are really yours, maybe you will like the career better.  The stats say no.

Teachers are leaving in droves long before retirement.

Many universities have wisely started putting college students into real life settings as soon as possible, trying to give future teachers a taste before it is too late to set them on a more palatable career path.

One young woman comes to mind.  A freshmen from a local college, she hoped to be a Middle School teacher and was assigned to spectate one of my high level and one of my low level senior classes.  She came twice a week without a warm word for the kids, behaving as if it were just me and her against the world. She’d choose a desk with her back to my class and roll her eyes.  When my students were gone, she would openly express how much she hated certain kids, and dreaded coming to my first period.

You guessed it: she couldn’t tolerate my low level Seniors who struggled not only with grammar but with sitting still and being polite.  I loved the hell out of them.  They made me laugh and were always game for something different, and slowly I taught them to enjoy Shakespeare and to become friends with the various structures of the verb “to be.”  But my student teacher cringed over how loud that one laughed. “God. . .you could cut glass with that cackle.”  Or how that one talked back: “Didn’t his Gran-momma teach him nothing?”

I felt no qualms at saying to this 27-year-old university student, “First, as a new teacher, the likelihood that you will get the cushy classes with well-behaved teenagers is nil. Second, if this stuff is setting you off, you might think about choosing a different career.” As a college freshmen, she had all the time in the world to study business or law instead. I have no idea what became of her.  I was just glad that she was at the beginning of her college adventure and had time to change her mind, so that some poor, undeserving class would not end up with her anyway.

But that disillusionment between reality and what teacher-wannabes fantasize is only part of the problem. 

The NPR report interviewed former (and current) teachers who complained about pay and respect, long the issue.  Yes, trying to buy bread and pay the mortgage is a pretty good reason to leave a profession.

However, I never whined about the pay in the beginning; few government employees are going to make it rich off their salaries.  I counted my fabulous benefits as part of my pay.  As long as the state kept up with inflation in other regards, I was okay.

Lately, more often than not, pay increases do not keep up with the cost of living.  In 1995, starting pay in one county in my state was 31K, in another 26K.  Twenty years ago, starting pay in my county was 36K.  Today it is 41K.  How does $5000 cover the fact that the median house price in our area is now $250K, more than double, from $119K in 2001?

Lack of respect rather than lack of funds is even harder to accept.

Some people have dreams of showing up naked to work, or forgetting that they have some big meeting.  In my nightmares, my classroom gets out of control, like a big, mouthy, spontaneous party and I’m the voiceless person no one notices. . .And children are not stupid.  They have been led to believe that “Those who can, do. . .Those who can’t, teach. . .”  Why should they automatically respect me just because I am a human being?

The concept that teachers have to earn a child’s respect  is so strongly part of modern day society. Today’s television depicts children and teenagers as far superior in brain power and social credibility than any adult on the show. . .if there is an adult on the show; and most teachers on children’s television act crazy, cruel, or half dead.   No wonder students can be so insolent.

But is this really a new problem?  Books and movies from earlier decades  prove there have always been some classrooms that are out of control.  Ever read To Kill a Mocking bird or The Chalkboard Jungle, written long before my time, where students are threatening the lives of their teachers?  This idea  that back in the day children behaved. . . but they are misbehaving now is quaint.  Teachers have always needed a bag of tricks for good classroom management.

However, though history proves disruptive kids have always acted up,  when it comes to today’s discipline rules, there is a difference between generations.

When my parents were students, they could be expelled for chewing gum:  my generation, I was paddled for skipping lunch period to go to McDonald’s and cell phones equaled a panel (expulsion trial), but today  children carry guns and cellphones to class.

So maybe it isn’t the kids, but the administration’s rules that have changed that new teachers can’t deal with?

Differing rules and administrative attitudes along with differing teaching environments can drive teachers away.

Schools can vary dramatically, where at one, the biggest problem is cheating and at another the heaviest load is violence on a daily basis.  Decades ago in a rough south ATL school, droves of kids would amble into our classes 10-20 minutes late, and there was nothing done about it from bottom to top.  There, a school-wide,  full-blown riot  sent a teacher to the hospital after police in riot gear stormed the place; covered up, the event made the nightly news only as a simple fight between two boys. Today my son’s high school will give him a detention for that sort of tardiness and the halls are empty when the first bell rings; plus, in contrast, the news reported a massive cheating scandal across a grade level because the principal was cracking down seriously and wanted the public to know.

Where and when and who make a difference in teachers’ careers.  The “tougher” the school district, the harder it is to keep teachers.    Why stay when faculty know the teacher up the road is making the same money for far less stress.

Some of the hardest “misbehavior” for a teacher to deal with now is a total lack of concern for due dates or grades.  And parents are not on our side, believe me.  Nor is administration.  The latest trend, particularly in urban areas, is to allow multiple retakes of tests or to assign loose due dates. What teacher has the time to rewrite every quiz, test, exam, and then re-administer these to kids repeatedly, or ethically grade a semester’s work from their students in the last  few weeks of school?  And are teachers being paid for this repeated effort?  Of course, not!

If an architect has to revamp a drawing four or five times until the client is happy, he gets paid for every single version, every single hour.  If a doctor has to retest for more possibilities or repeat a surgical procedure, he earns a ton of new money . .teachers don’t.  I had kids who would not study at all, hoping they could pass without effort first. And THEN, if they performed poorly, they would ask to retake the test once they studied.  Makes perfect sense to me.  I would have done the same as a kid.  But as a teacher, my afternoons could be filled with retesting rather than planning or advising.

To me, a bigger, but related problem to discipline and lesson planning is that  teachers seem to be required to be entertainers now.  No longer can a teacher say, “Read this,” and then explain how to or what to.  We have to come up with activities that compare to a NASA or Disney World experience, smile and pander and drop one-liners every few seconds. Though I usually would try to oblige, I once had a teen rate my lesson on a day I was stressed and exhausted and just wanted them all to sit quietly and read. (Teachers have those days, too, now and then.) Typically my biggest fan, he said as he left the room,  “Ahh, you really missed this one, Ms.  I give you a D for today.”

I wish I could blame television for that  annoying expectation.  But district Bigwigs are the ones behind this idea that we need to be Jerry Seinfeld, Abraham Lincoln, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Nye the Science Guy all in one.  Teachers can be down rated on their principal visits (AKA reviews) if a girl in the back row quickly checks her makeup in her phone screen; we are supposed to be that on-our-toes about holding a kids’ attention.

And bosses are often the worst in education; often they are men who went into education to be a coach and really never wanted to teach social studies, or worse,  left the classroom because they hated teaching.  I had more than one boss who had never been in the classroom, which means we have people telling us what to do who do not know how to do it themselves.

One woman in particular had jumped from counselor to assistant principal, and we suffered all her grand ideas. . .you know. . .old stuff that was new again, yet she had no interest in listening to experience.   She believed naysayers were automatically negative, rather than being smart or weathered.  She would curry the young, new teachers,  and punish those that did not cheer her every move.  (Ever taught a freshmen Lit class with forty kids while the other freshmen lit teacher has six students, but the administrator refuses to balance the numbers?  Talk about punishment.)

At first, I thought this boss’s attitude was a sign of ageism, until I realized she just wanted sycophants, and figured the newbies were easier to shape in that regard, and the experience teachers impotent against her.

Unfortunately for students, the new boss’s  and her proteges’ inexperience made them all ignorant of how their “newly discovered” bullets were not magic.  Whole Language, Basal Reading, Phonics?  In, out, and in again based on the whims of administrators who never taught.  I had one boss who threatened to fire or at least transfer us if she ever caught us teaching grammar or mechanics in isolation, so trendy was her latest idea.  At no point could we map and practice exercises on the board showing kids how to use apostrophes or conjugate verbs. . .

As pay-for-performance becomes more of reality, teachers are becoming more cut throat, more willing to toss each other under the bus in order to secure the whatevers from the powers that be.  Performance is often marked by how well one teacher’s kids do compared to other teachers’ students.  My ex-husband, an elementary school teacher was given a PDP-a Professional Development Plan is the equivalent of a shape up or ship out warning-because 20% more of his students did poorly on a statewide test compared to his peers’ students.  Four of each of the other teachers’ kids failed, five of his did.  So ONE child more and he deserves to be fired?

The fact that he actually had more students overall than the other three teachers did not matter. . . Notice the way the numbers were skewed? The principal wanted to prove to the public and her bosses that she took standardized testing and performance-linked jobs seriously, so whomever had the most students fail at any grade level, got a demerit and a threat, no matter the fallacy in logic.

With those sorts of principals, teachers are less likely to share good lessons even when forced to collaborate if they can earn the favor of a boss by having better scores or better favor.  (Just one kid more?)

We already muscle for rank over classroom location, subjects like AP, class sizes.  Now throw in pay for performance, and add in a faulty way of measuring performance, and what sort of peer environment is percolating?

Plus, we know that the concept of better is very loose.  I’m sure that in every profession there are those people that do a half-assed job, yet still gain accolades.

Why wouldn’t new teachers or even seasoned teachers quit if they have other options?  And is this the environment parents want their children in?

Finally, the dirty truth that no one outside of teaching gives a shit about. . .the biggest reason teachers jump ship:  The hours seriously suck if a teacher really is going to do a good job. 

Sure, anyone can never read student essays, arbitrarily jotting a grade on the top. (I worked with a woman who would say, Freshmen don’t need to fail. . .” and would give out high grades to undeserving students.  How easy is that!!)  But if you do want children to learn, and you do have an ethical system about who earns excellence, then you have to put in hours that no other profession requires.  This is why people gripe about pay.

Yes, new lawyers and new doctors have ridiculous weeks.    But when I was first bringing home 31K  with 7 years of college and two degrees, multiple certifications, my buddy the Ob-Gyn was freshly hired at 180K.  His 70 hour weeks were well-rewarded.  And. . .what’s more he was paid while he was still in training, whereas student teachers basically work a fulltime job (their field experience) for no money.  True, the doctor’s education cost big bucks, but his school loans can be paid back with that salary within a year or two.

Grading student work is a whole extra job.   My work day, I had to be in the door by 6:45 and not out before 3:00.  Those are the required hours, but all teachers are there much longer.  And if not, they are still working when they get home and through the weekends.

Teachers are in the classrooms or monitoring the hallways for 7 hours straight and are not supposed to be caught grading at those times.  Our attention should always be on the children. That 8th hour assigned as a required planning period is eaten up with meetings and responsibilities, or just plain rest.   The lunch break is 20 minutes tops; since teachers are last out of the room and first back, this short time gives us just enough minutes to run to the restroom and stuff a sandwich in our mouths.  And in some states, teachers have to dine with (and monitor) their students, so it isn’t even a break.  Some bosses don’t mind if we try to catch up in those minutes between classes, or in the mornings;  others require us on duty in the hallways the second the bell rings.

Yes, I get summers off which is one reason I don’t sweat the salary, but if you do the math of how many hours I worked in 10 months,   NOT COUNTING the required extracurricular activities that young teachers are contracted to do,  I worked enough hours for a year-round job and then some and made peanuts.  Now toss is how most new teachers cannot get a job unless they contract to also coach some sport or activity an extra 20 hours a week at cents per hour, and you can see that we build up resentments over being exploited like crazy.

When I taught at a local university as a part-time adjunct, people would ask what I do. You know, meeting someone at a dinner or some event, they’d hear my answer and sometimes become a little self-conscious;  they’d make some humorous, self-deprecating remark about their grammar-as if I were policing them silently in my head-or wonder aloud about how smart I must be.  But now, upon hearing I teach high school, there is a completely different response as if the air had just shifted and a nasty smell had arrived.  You can see their respect level drop as their eyes dart away or worse, they confront me about their negative opinions about public education.  I am the same person, with the same credentials, but the respect I earned was very different.

I find that hard simply because what public school teachers do is so essential and honestly so much more important than being a university adjunct, and I love my work and my students.  I assume this is a remnant of a time when children’s teachers were often servants and are now civil “servants”.  But it is a sad trend that simply makes a hard job easier to leave for many people.

Those of who stay,  are we masochists? 

No, some stay because there are no other options.  Some stay because we can schedule around our children.  Most stay because we love what we do and know how important we are.  A month ago, I was vacationing in a mountain town three hours away.  A young man pushing a stroller stopped me on the streets of the charming village, and asked me if I remembered teaching him.  I certainly did, though so grown now, in his thirties, I barely recognized him.   He said, “I had to tell you what you meant to me,” and introduced me to his family, asked if I was on social media.  Two weeks ago, dining with old friends, one of them asked me if I recalled teaching a certain student named Jane.

My friend, said, “Well, I ran into her with her family and she was asking about you.  You taught her freshmen and senior year,”  Yes, I replied.  “Well, she says even with college, you are still the best teacher she ever had and still looks at one of the projects you had her complete.”  I had just had one of those nightmares about losing class control that morning and sure did need to hear that!

Then last week,  I was dining with my boys at a local steak house and heard a familiar cackle split the air.  The girl whom that  college student hated was now a graduated, young woman working her way through college as a hostess.  She caught sight of me and ran across the foyer, yelling, “OMG,  I can’t believe it’s you!” and hugged me so hard I thought I’d fall over.

Those experiences, knowing I made a positive impact is what makes the profession worth staying for many teachers!  But unless something changes to bring in more strong educators, what will become of the profession?





Teaching Old Teachers New Tricks . . .(or my opinion about a stale issue)

Image result for digital classroomEach morning,  I often do a little reading before I get on with my day.  Doing so today made me think about how, more than a decade ago, students from some class I did not teach had to survey various people for their opinions on impending tech in the digital world.  When teachers often only had dry erase boards or even chalkboards to illustrate their lessons, I was asked: Do you read anything online?  Do you read novels on tech devices?  Do you prefer paper books to digital books?  Do you think digital reading will replace paper books?  Could you teach with only digital information or will we always require paper?

Apparently, for years,  I was their lone interviewee who could accept or even predict the demise of paper textbooks, paper and pen assignments, paper novels, so powerful the hold of ink and wood pulp on our population in the past.  I’d roll my eyes loudly whenever the topic rose in meetings or faculty rooms when others would whine their discontent.  I had a wild imagination then about all the things I could do with technology if I could design it my way.  Picture a classroom with walls of screen like in Minority Report. . .the fresh images, charts, and “motivational quotes” that I could match to each day’s lesson alone would be astounding.  (The ADD kid would be overwhelmed by the noise my digital, visual landscape created.)

Within a few years of first answering these kids’ surveys, I was requiring my own students to complete massive, argumentative research papers-you know those quintessential “topic” papers English teachers love-without the cumbersome index cards of meticulous notes from education yore, or even the “more modern” expensive, photocopied pages of books and magazines that some teachers required as “proof of authorship.”  Students could, if they chose, never touch a piece of paper at all.

“Woe is me,” cried a few of my peers, even some of the young ones.  “What about teaching kids to use a variety of print sources, you know. . .go pull a book off a shelf?  Pick up a print magazine?   What are you doing, Keren, letting these children only use the internet for their research. . .What kind of teacher do you call yourself!!!”

As if books and magazines, even encyclopedias are not on the internet.  (Even back then they were easily accessible online to students with the right passcodes.)

This morning, I opened up my laptop and perused The NYT for updates on Trump’s latest shenanigans, read a teary article about daughterhood from The Texan, poked my nose in a few nonfiction books I want to start. Immersed in the words on the screen,  I suddenly thought about that survey and then about grading those essays, my students having provided digital copies of all their research, highlighted in various colors to match their organized plots.  Orange for this area of fact, pink for this area of opinions, or whatever categories they chose, etc.

How much easier it was for them to cut and paste a passage or phrase from the digital work into their properly quoted and cited writing,  no longer hand-copying it onto a 4×6 card and then retyping it back into their paper.  In those old days with archaic methods, seeing if they had misquoted or mis-paraphrased was more difficult for me.  Their digital sources often helpfully provided a bibliography entry of their own title, simplifying what was necessary to copy into their paper’s works cited page.  And though I still taught them where to find this in printed books or magazines, how simple for students who struggled to grasp where to put an author or title in the required order when it was there already on the source.  When to use a comma, a colon, a period in the entry was already completed for them most of the time.  Some apps highlight what piece of info to use in APA or MLA citations, too.

Grading,  I could use the “review” feature on the writing app/software we used, and leave common remarks.  Infact, they could have a number of drafts that showed all the changes up to the final. All of it, the research, the providence of source material, the writing, the substantiating, even my reviews and remarks and grades were all submitted to me digitally.  Instead of a mile-high stack of plastic covered three ring binders from 150 students, I carried a small box of thumb drives.  Eventually,  I did not even need those, for as technology caught up, I could access our server and thus, their work, from home.

I think, however, about my college roommate, a budding writer who would lay out her notecards all over the mangey royal blue carpet of our apartment, moving them to rethink her vision.  Typing out, and then cutting up her essays into pieces and moving bits here and there, like a jigsaw puzzle, helped her think. . .She still does this before any publication is ready.

There are apps that help do that now, too;  writers can create a visual post-it board or organize a multiscreen view, move their beloved tidbits back and forth and see all in one tree or circle or staircase. . .whatever image they seek for guidance.  And interestingly, one might worry that by having so much of the organizing and finer points of editing completed for students by an app might make the students lose something in translation, some element of analysis and vision missing, perhaps.  No. Instead I found that their thinking was actually deeper and more clear.  Something about not trying to keep track of all the moving parts of the research paper methods of my youth allows today’s learners to think about the topic, the argument they are making, with less worry about the form.

Back in the day, my peers  when surveyed would say, “Never!  I need to hold the moldy pages of my favorite novel in my hands, smell the ink, enjoy the blurb filled covers. . . Never,  No!”  And to them novels by tablet would never replace their enjoyment of paper books.

And even as I admit that I do prefer a damp, inky magazine to my iPad when lounging on the beach. . .my son is completing his 12th grade summer reading on his phone. And only a few weeks ago, wanting to get a head start on the school year, he finished his online economics class-opening to end-without touching a piece of paper.

Sure, technology has created some major headaches for teachers, too; I was ignorant about the sheer difficulties of upkeep, the replacement of missing keys or cords that kids stole, the holes that might appear on the white boards or laptop screens.  And worse, the simplicity of cheating that technology offers is depressing;  but  I’ve taught my students that if I can Google one of their sentences and find anything similar to it, they’ve plagiarized.  (It’s a good lesson in learning to paraphrase or summarize properly.)

Of course, one can easily purchase an essay now online and call it one’s own.  But you know, twenty-five years ago, I was doing my required volunteering at the GSU writing center.  All adjunct professors had to provide some of their time there, and in came a phone call on our 1-800 grammar hotline.  I have no idea how a woman from another state found us, but she was looking to buy a research paper for her son.  Could we sell and mail her one?  I said, “Ma’am, we don’t do that sort of thing here.”  She said, “Well, I’m sure somebody somewhere does,” and hung up.

What once was on paper is now digital.  Faster, simpler, but the same. . .Are any teachers still fighting this?  Any readers?


#Mine Only. . .Appropriate

Related imageIn a country that has recently hosted moralistic movements like #Black Lives Matter and #Me, Too, though I support the essence of each, I’m surprised that there has not been a Mine Only campaign.  Between the Chinese qipao Prom dress-wearing white girl of this week and the hoop earring controversy last year (white girl wearing them, again. . .to the consternation of an African American woman), maybe we need a hashtag where we can list all the things that belong to each of us individually.

Today is a great time to wade through this murk.  The 5th of May.

Mexicans?  Cinco De Mayo belongs to you only.  The rest of you Non-Mexicans slurping down margaritas and shrimp tacos be damned. Germans?  October fest is yours.   Anyone else drinking beer in the month of October, listening to polka, you are insensitive slobs.  Again Asians?  Ramen/Pho.   All those non-Asian college students surviving on the cheap little packets, are you honoring Asian culture or your empty wallet?  And those restaurants that are popping up everywhere.  How do you dare to pad your bank accounts by feeding non-Koreans?

But food is such an easy cultural target.  What about creative works or the clothing and jewelry that caused my hashtag in the first place?

Men?  Blue Jeans first covered your hard-working butts.  How dare you girls and ladies steal what rightfully belongs to the rough riding male ranch hands or miners.  How cute you look does not erase your insensitivity to these hard-working men.  Or maybe we should go so far as to say pants in general. . .back into dresses you get, Women.

European Catholic?  Lace.  It is a primarily a 16th century catholic invention that the Italians, Irish and Scotts perfected. Any woman of another culture, you need to find a less offensive way to be sexy.

African-Americans?  Rap.  This old argument about white rappers stealing a truly African-American cultural powerhouse might have some relevance here.   If so, then Appalachians?  Blues.  Some old folks of Scots origin argue that their mountain instruments and ditties led to the development of blues, though others say this is not so.  I guess, every new musician needs to study the roots of their music before they venture out.

Or Americans?  Sneakers (AKA trainers, kicks, awts). Anyone outside the US, you are misappropriating our United States culture.  You need to stop.  Or if we want to be really particular, white American men only should wear them, since these rubber soled shoes were created and perfected by white men.  And since they were created after black men had been utilizing their freedom and their vote in America, we cannot really use the slavery/stolen identity/cultural loss replacement argument here to forego the importance of misappropriation, right?  And maybe even basketball that helped popularize those same Chuck Taylors and Converse shoes in the first place. . .created by a white man at a white college.  Who cares that some of the greatest athletes in the history of the world who have ruled that sport are not of European descent.  Let’s get these cultural thefts cleared up NOW.

As one anonymous Jennie said when quoted repeatedly in the spat of articles about the Chinese Prom dress, while she is Asian, she still would not wear Korean or Japanese dress for they are not her cultures; to do so would be shameful.  So African-American women: stop wearing Kangas if you are not Kenyan or forego the Buba or Iro if you are not Nigerian. A quick 23 and Me test will clear it up if you don’t know for sure.  Though, in truth, research about traditional African dress are rife with details about tribal wear, not national wear, and the origins of cloth versus skins.  So. . .what then?  Get it right, People!

Who wore the nose stud first, who wore cuffs around the wrist first, who used silk or silver or turquoise first, who wove linen first, who used eyeliner and lipstick and sandals and. . .and. . .and. . .???

I’m not ignorant.  The fact that the Chinese have been so supportive of the Utah teen wearing a beautiful dress of Chinese origin, but a Chinese-American man was the first to reject with such hostility is very telling.  The Chinese are the Chinese.  They still own their own culture and all its icons, and see themselves as sharing that dress with the Utah girl.  Whereas so many Americans who are not primarily of European descent see themselves and their traditions erased in many ways. . .became too “American” by either force or by tough assimilation,  (If you want a job, you must dress and speak our way said the white man, never mind that the Scots gave up their kilts and the Russians gave up their kartuz and kosovoratka, as well.) that there is a turn-about-is-fair-play logic.

Why wouldn’t a Chinese-American man think,  “If my ancestors had to wear a three piece suit to work here, instead of a Changshan, you white men have actively rejected my culture, so you cannot then later, revel in it or profit from it.  It is mine.”  Just as the angry woman felt about the hoop earrings: you stole my identity, robbed me of history, you can’t have what’s mine anymore.

#Mine Only.

And they live in a time where saying so doesn’t get them killed.

But as I pointed out, when does it stop?  Is it actually racist to cross cultural lines in clothing and creativity, an act seen by some as similar to black-face wearing vaudevillians?  I see racism as the active subjugation of another race, whether through ridicule, laws, unwritten traditions or violence.  Is that what I do when I wear kohl eyeliner? Or put on my red leather moccasins?

When do we stop being the African, Ukrainian, Native, Chinese- American and allow ourselves to all be Americans who can embrace all the heritage that blankets our society?  When can we see it as gaining and honoring rather than losing or stealing?  I like the way Keziah Daum is responding. She loved the dress and felt beautiful in it.  She still loves the dress no matter how hostile the opposition.   And she is so young that any of the events that led to the hostile backlash are so fathomless to her now.



‘Thwart’ Needs a Makeover

Image result for thwarted

Thwarted.  Once a negative term I always associate with Espionage and the Cold War Power, hideous villians in Disney movies, Maniacal maneuvers by power hungry Megalomaniacs.  The Spy,  The Terrorist,  The Evil Queen, all thwarted from their dastardly deeds.    I’ve deemed it a negative term, but in this context it is the actors thwarted who are negative.  The word itself is posing a positive result.  Cruella Deville is thwarted from wearing a Dalmation puppy coat.  The Nazis from World domination.  Bin Laden from poisoning the water supply.

So then, if I am thwarted, am I the evil that is blocked from ill intent?  I’m just one little person trying to do well, no snake trying to bite anyone.

It doesn’t seem accurate to say my wish to publish was thwarted.  My summer plans to travel through Europe?  My love of tennis?  My appetite for lobster?  Thwarted? Thwarted? Thwarted?

I need a new word for when positive plans are halted in mid-rail for negative reasons:  how about FUN-TORTED, a sniglet combining distort or contort and fun?   Or even better, REAPABORTED. . .a blending of gains ended mid-development?   My fantasies to be a world famous, self-supporting painter reapaborted.


That sounds accurate, even painful.  We thwart the bad, and life reapaborts the good.  My hopes to own a home on a Martha’s Vineyard cliff are reapaborted by my wallet.


via Daily Prompt: Thwart

The Lost Art of Learning through ‘Free Range Parenting’

water nature person people girl explore mud puddle soil child family children out interaction tadpoles water based paints

I was a lucky girl.  My parents not only allowed me to play outdoors freely, they often demanded I go outside and find something to do:  Don’t return until the streetlights flick on.    Reading an article recently in The Atlantic ( that discusses the dissonance between classes and races when it comes to this “new” concept called “Free Range parenting,” I had to laugh.  While the author makes a valid and stimulating point, I was thinking about her lost opportunity to discuss the benefits of this “Free range parenting.”  I mean, for millennia, parents of all races and social strata have practiced it until the aberration of the 1990s when fearful parents began to cling to their children and control their every move.

Luckily, for the sake of a child’s creativity and intelligence, as well as the sake of teachers everywhere, we are swinging back to allowing our children to play like I did as a child.

Typically, when people criticize today’s lack of childhood “free” play, they target organized sports because they believe there are lessons in relationships and authority lost in the modern multitude of organized teams, today’s prime, often forced, activity for children and their parents.   However, the benefits I gained through “free-range” playing were not only an understanding of interpersonal dynamics, but also the foundations of a budding scientist and artist, maybe even an academic.

In my adventures outdoors, I set shoe box traps for rabbits, laid out dandelion pulp for mice and brought home accidentally dug up baby moles. We rescued baby birds and placed them gently in nests, then would hide, waiting to make sure their mothers returned; they always did.  My friends and I captured all sorts of insects: lady bugs, red and black ants, daddy long legs, pill bugs, deadly black widows, trapdoor spiders, bumble bees, honey bees, hornets, wasps. . .We played with most and killed the scariest, smooshing them when we were too young to respect their rights.

Various reptiles and amphibians amazed us, causing us to sit still and watch them hunt.  My brother and I would scoop up frog eggs or new tadpoles and bring them home to watch them gain their legs and lose their tails, returning them to ponds when they were hopping frogs.  We’d attempt to rescue lizards who gave up their own tails when our cats grabbed them excitedly, but more often the speedy reptiles would keep on trucking sure to grow more. . .All of this taught us naturally the foundations often illuminated in early biology lessons: exoskeleton, endoskeleton, regeneration, eggs versus live birth, mammal versus reptile, etc.

While left to our own entertainment, we kids would find chunks of quartz that we thought were diamonds.  When my father told us where we might find more, we’d try to break open rocks searching for what treasure might be inside. How many  pirate, explorer fantasies did we act out that developed our literary sense. Pieces of mica that looked like mirrors and glass made us think, hmm, is this how a mirror is made? Did this lead to the invention of glass?  Shale that we could crunch with the tires of our bikes made us feel as powerful as superheroes. The coal that kicked up when we were walking on forbidden train tracks was so pure and black, making us wonder, really? Future diamonds?

We’d pick up chalk-like rocks to draw on the tarmac, marking our four square and hopscotch games, even the bases for kickball.   And of course, sand and mud were everyone’s favorite media.   A girlfriend and I used to shape figurines of ladybugs and snowmen out of the clay in our yards, paint them with our cheap tempura paints, and try to sell our artwork by the side of the road in front of our house.   Imagine how much more interesting geology lessons are with this personal knowledge of the variety of rocks that make up Earth.

And then comes the blending of geology and physics that I learned on my own.    My friends and I played in creeks, looking for crawdaddies, racing leaf boats, building dams.  We built castles and motes and canals in the sand. The movement of water, creeks, and rivers, brooks and ponds, even oceans and tides all showed us the power and etherealness of water.  The weight of it, the random choice that it takes as it tracks through our fingers, the holes and patterns that it makes in the rocky, sandy, mucky edges and piles of pepples  held our imagination.  The power water has to move and float us and suck us under was wonderfully frightening.  With these experiences I could easily understand what the teacher told me about erosion and flooding and water tables beneath the ground.

In the warming Spring, we’d race one another, rolling down grassy hills or skating too fast around curves.  We’d climb trees, sometimes falling from too high only to have the the wind knocked out of us.  We’d build teeter totters out of logs and rocks and ledges where we could balance and play king of the hill. Or we’d grab onto thick vines to swing across what we imagined were deep ravines, pretending we were Spiderman. My brother and I would ride our bikes into ever shrinking circles or figure eights, losing control when the wheels were moving way too slowly.

All this movement, whether we knew it or not, gave us a personal understanding of gravity, weights and balances.

In fact, when my pal Bitt Nelson rode his bike over a ramp we had set on a pile of sand at a construction site, and flew too far, only to bash his face on a sand loader, forcing his front teeth into his sinuses, we certainly adjusted ourselves.  We didn’t stop riding, but we learned faster than he ran home crying what we had to change not to repeat his catastrophe.

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And when summer came, sitting on hot car hoods, standing in shade to find relief from the scorching sun, noticing how much hotter the black tar is versus the white painted line down the middle of the road, the cool of grass, the heat of concrete, the burn of asphalt, we learned quickly about heat transfer and what could relieve it.  We learned the simple exhaustion that comes from spending the whole day physically rushing and rough housing and playing, planting, digging, climbing.  How hungry we’d get playing and then begging our mothers for something to snack on, assuring her it would not ruin our dinner, quickly understanding why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  All these moments created a vague knowledge of energy.

Years ago, when we played our disorganized sports-the impromptu baseball and football games run by only children- true. . .we learned negotiation and authority as people do say, but also the geometry of boundaries, the physics of messing around with a ball. Sometimes games were not impromptu but scheduled, by us, for us.  See you Saturday, right?  Behind the Olsen’s house? 

We figured things out ourselves, like what qualities draw others to a person, like those in Brian Culpepper who was often our favorite captain of street football games or meadow baseball.  Why was adorable Theresa Olsen always picked last in games of football? (Not because she was too slow or too uncoordinated or even too unpopular. . .she was finicky and prissy and whined too much.) Yet we let her play, for we also learned to be nice from each other, allowing the little kids who could never score join the teams because they were ours, a part of our neighborhood.  We shared which neighbor’s yard was welcoming and which neighbor was off limits.  We’d say, Don’t hit it so hard that it goes into Herr Golembush’s yard, don’t run so fast that you can’t stop before you slam into the Nelson’s rose bushes.  The Base is the yellow yield sign, the ball is a foul if it passes the camellias. . .

How often when they play an organized team sport are today’s children welcome to just goof around and test the ball?  Seeing how fast the ball could roll up, down, or over a hill, how fast hitting it squarely mattered, the arc of the hit, the lob, the toss, the strength of the bounce, the angle of the bounce. . .They are told how to hit in today’s games.  And do they learn which player is the best at the game themselves without being told?  Or whose yard is the best for that game that day?  Or who is on whose team?  Almost never.  Adults decide the who, what, where, when and why of each sport, directing children on how slow,  how fast to play, and even what to see and what not to see.

I suggest not only should children play disorganized sports with no adult supervision, but just play.  Just simple, imagination-full play.  Yes, The Atlantic makes a valid point about the unfair judgment over which children play “free range” the most, but her point should be that more people, if not all people should be encouraging it.

Great teachers often use what children already know to create scaffolds between knowledge and understanding. But what if there is nothing to scaffold from? Through the play of my childhood, I built the foundations of all the sciences and some math: biology, physics, geometry, geology, chemistry, even meteorology as I watched in the sky the evolution of the clouds, hoping I would get to swim or fish or play ball.  Do today’s generation of children arrive in class with this foundation anymore?  Do they know what shale or tadpoles or a robin’s egg even looks like?


(Over)Killing Racism in the Book Club?

Reading While White  I swiped this logo from  a site of the same name because. . .In my book club group last night, I was accused of splitting hairs when I pointed out that I was surprised to find racial stereotypes in our reading of Like Water for Chocolate.  Set in Mexico during the revolution, the main character, Tita has a sister who overcome by the main character’s own emotions, becomes hot with passion, and while naked runs off with a stranger on horseback and commences to a sensuous coupling right then and there as they ride off into the sunset.  Later we hear how she was so filled with desire that she worked in a whorehouse in order to feed her needs; even hundreds, possibly thousands of men could not quench her sexual thirst.  Later the same sister dances at a wedding, exhibiting enviable moves that no one in the family knew she had.

Tita discovers through secret love letters of her mother’s that this horny, promiscuous, dancing sister was the child of an illicit affair with a Black Man. Uh-Oh. Tita then says, “Oh, I know now why my sister is so sexual and can dance. . .” or something to that effect.

This is the same character who has earlier complained of how white people stereotype her Mexican people and are unwilling to learn their medicinal-spiritual ways. . .so I said to my group, “I was pretty surprised to read what she said about her sister, those racial stereotypes.  What’s up with that?”

A few of us joked that maybe the author wrote this in the time of Archie Bunker and just had not learned yet anything about how offensive racial profiling was.  And isn’t “black rhythm” in music, dance and sex the most common, stale of stereotypes.

Another woman suggested that perhaps the author did this intentionally to show authentically how people really thought back then.

One woman pulled up Trump’s latest racist vitriol on her phone to illustrate it “Isn’t just back then. . .”

I said, “Maybe it’s authentic, but Tita was so sensitive to racial stuff directed to her.”

Another woman responded, “Maybe it was to underscore how people can be hypocrites.”

Two of the quieter women in the group grumbled at us, well at me primarily.  One said, “Geez, I didn’t read that at all,  I didn’t catch Tita saying anything racist. . .where did she say that?”  I agree: it was a quick comment.  Easy to overlook.

The other one rolled her eyes, and said, “Keren’s just splitting hairs now, really. . .”  And then leaned over to grumble something nastier more privately to her seat mate, but clearly annoyed that I had even brought this up.

She’s grumbling because I am the same one who disliked the now celebrated book—soon to be a movie near you—The Pecan Man.  Sure, it’s a quick, even enjoyable, little read that is self-admittedly derivative of so many other well-done southern books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, even The Help, etc., with its small-town southernisms, its testy, feisty, but gentile white ladies, and their black servants with a heart of gold.

Our book club discussions always start with a survey of who liked the reading.   For The Pecan Man,  I was the only one of 20 readers who didn’t raise her hand, and suddenly I was beset by demands to know why.  One after the other I was confronted, as if I hurt their feelings by disliking what they enjoyed.  And then after about the fifth person angrily said to me, “You think she stole this?” because I had said book was derivative, I said, “Ok,  I can defend my opinion all evening, but I know you don’t want that. Here’s my perspective on why I don’t like this book.”  And I shared my thoughts about it not only being a knock off of sorts, but just another white hero book.

Aside from this common plot line, I was really, REALLY disappointed in how, even in this modern age, we still are learning lessons about racism from white characters who rescue black characters.

I am white, yes.  And I certainly cannot relate to racism, though I am sensitive enough to know it hurts.  How much it hurts, how much it affects people of color is not something white people can begin to understand.  But I have taught children of color for decades; they are my family to some degree.  And I abhor bringing some of these novels before them, even To Kill a Mockingbird.   Any book that teaches what it’s like to be an African-American or a Mexican or a Native American, etc.  from a white person’s experience seems ludicrous, especially when there are fantastic books out there, (much more real and painful books of course).  Black Boy,   The Invisible Man,  The Bluest Eye are some of the classics; some more modern takes are Loving Day, Between the World and Me.

Yet, here we are still reading the sweet Little Pecan Man in schools where the main character is white, and yes, she learns about her own hypocrisy, but she and (mildly, possibly) another white character are the only ones who are actively trying to make change.  All the black characters are impotent: either too angry, too scared, too shackled to do anything but die or go to jail, and must lean on the main character. Really?  Still reading this type of plot line in this day and age?

Plus, I added: How good is it for kids, of any race, to continue to read work where the white man saves the day for people of color?  How weak do the black characters still need to be?  In fact, in The Pecan Man we are supposed to see going to jail as a heroic move on a black man’s part, and not because he was arrested for protesting, but for assuming the responsibility for a crime he did not commit.  Sure the book is set in the 70s, but it was written in today’s world, and it is being assigned in schools now.

And as a white woman among black students, how sensitive is it to “teach racism” to black children who live it everyday from a white main character?

Some of my reading group peers were receptive to my point of view, others just rolled their eyes. But it is why the one woman thought I was splitting hairs about  Like Water for Chocolate.  She saw me as “just looking for racist stuff” now. . .a rabble rouser for no good reason.  (I stifled my urge to accuse her of voting for Trump primarily because the comments in the book were quick, short though stood right out to me.)

Am I splitting hairs?  Is it important to notice and voice when you see unnecessary racism in literature or movies?  (Where the racism in Mudville is integral to the plot, Tita doesn’t need to connect her sister’s behavior to being black does she?)  Is it important to find more relevant novels where blacks are their own heroes?  Sure, it is wise to teach children that not all whites are evil, but when the ultimate lesson is about a racist culture or about stereotypes, what is best?

What do you think?  Do I keep quiet from now on?  Would you?  Or am I just stirring the pot?

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So You Dream of Sarah Lawrence College

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Sarah Lawrence College.  Those words show up yet again on the lips of a young female lead while I’m watching a movie. The writers of these scripts know that Sarah Lawrence is famous for being a number of things: the black sheep of the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters (though not one of the actual seven); expensive education for families who can helicopter their children home for the weekend with their own choppers; artistic and demanding liberal arts icon.

Speaking its name, characters automatically define themselves as people who have big dreams and the necessary ambition to achieve them.  For characters from “the wrong side of the tracks” like Lady Bird, in the similarly named movie, wishing to attend that school also illustrates her desire to cross over those dividing rails from poor to so wealthy that one can afford an education that competes to be the most expensive in the country. Kat Stratford, though more upper-middle-class than poor, was ready to ditch the dull, suburban, cookie-cutter mentality of her peers in Ten Things I Hate about You.  Allie Hamilton in The Notebook illustrates she is the maverick of her wealthy family by returning to her small town from Sarah Lawrence.  Even Mia Thermopolis, a forgotten princess in The Princess Diaries attends SLC.  Mia is the perfect symbol: a smudgy, outsider sort of girl who somehow knows deep down that she is meant for better things, and in this case, she’s blood of royalty. . .she just doesn’t know it yet.  Desiring SLC helps to underscore her crowning.

No other Ivy League school is depicted in this way in fiction.  Sure, in film Harvard or Princeton exudes wealth and snobbery, as Smith and Barnard equal smart, wealthy and serious, but few characters see those places as transformational. Sarah Lawrence represents more, and with more depth, a chrysalis, maybe a crucible.

And having attended, I agree with the writers or directors for their choice.

However, I have a love/hate relationship when I am sitting in a movie and suddenly any character shares the same dreams I had so many years ago: to be an SLC graduate; my experience both met my expectations and also completely disillusioned me.

I write this now to all the young, not-so-wealthy students who look to SLC with starry, unaware eyes.

First, a disclaimer, I attended as a graduate student, so my experience is different from an undergrad’s:  no dorm rooms, no easy access to all the Victorian charms of the campus, fewer classes for fewer years.  And I came in with a college experience in hand which may have stunted or broadened my view.

What I loved so much about Sarah Lawrence College that was so special:  The classes are small, very.  NO huge lecture halls filled with three hundred students where Phd. and Masters candidates grade all papers.  In all of my classes at SLC, typically 8 to 18 students sat around a conference table.  The faculty members do corral the lectures, or in SLC’s case, discussions, but quickly they expect the students to become leaders of the topics.  At no time did a teacher stand at a board and bore me (though I wonder what a math or foreign language class is like there).

What’s even more wonderful is that the students were invested and came prepared to lead the discussions.  And they were smart, clever people, informed, ready to analyze the world.  They were not there to make A’s, but to learn and share knowledge; earning an A was simply a by-product of their enthusiasm.

If you Dreamers like remaining in the background, SLC is not for you: you cannot hide your ignorance or laziness in a sea of anonymity; but I imagine you would not be interested in the first place if you were a wallflower.

Grades were only assigned on transcripts for students who needed to transfer out of Sarah Lawrence, and few students ever bothered to view these transcripts. Otherwise, no individual assignment received a grade.  Papers and projects instead received detailed commentary rather than a simple letter assessment and number range.  At the end of the term, the teacher wrote a summary of the student’s overall performance.  Subjective perhaps, but more meaningful to me.  As an undergrad in a typical university, I was very good at figuring out a simple hoop to jump through for an A.  I couldn’t do that at SLC, thank goodness.  So Grade Grubbers, beware.

I also loved that for every class I met with my “Don” every other week for my own personal research. (Though I would prefer their name to be less Godfather-like, a Don is what SLC names the class teacher, since the college did not have ranked/tenured professorships.)   These meetings were like having a totally separate class.  This meant in writing classes, almost all my work was reviewed by my Don if only a few times by peers in the workshops.  In typical university writing classes, one’s creative writing is critiqued only a few times each semester by the class and professors alike.

My Psychology of Emotion class, made up of graduates and undergrads, discussed the research/readings of the week assigned to all of us.  And I also met with my Don to choose a line of study that was just mine; I had to develop and keep up with it under her vague guidance.  The journey was my own.  She was ultimately impressed by my work (where I used strategies I had learned as an undergraduate in a Methods of Research class).  She was down right excited that I seemed to know what I was doing among a group of students who were wading around in theories but no evidence.

Which brings me to a list of complaints (though I am not finished with my compliments.) Teaching these sorts of solid strategies is not something SLC would be likely to ever do, too methodical and pedantic.  Think of SLC like a large Montessori school for undergraduates with a healthy dose of the Socratic method tossed in.  To learn something as rigid as scientific, objective research practices as defined by the APA seems almost counter intuitive.  I wondered what sorts of dreamy, non-validated, non-empirical conclusions the other students in that class surmised in their personal studies without this foundation.

The methods of exploration and discussion at SLC certainly encourage, sometimes even force students to deepen their knowledge, but some of that knowledge does need to be concrete and structured, perhaps even rote.  What would biology look like at SLC?  Do students memorize the skeleton?  Or do they have deep discussions about the evolutionary differences between the female vs. male skeletons.  I have no idea, though I’d hope both. But remember this is a liberal arts school designed for fresh, creative thinkers, not a research university churning out doctors and engineers.  Plus, my personal research component in my SLC psych class was not encouraged at my undergrad school because it was too busy teaching me those rote lessons.

My next complaint is an important one though it actually might apply to all college and universities.  No Don has been trained on how to teach.  Aside from those Dons in the Early Childhood program, they’ve had zero foundations classes in teaching, or communications classes, or even ethics and law courses related to teaching.  (Perhaps this isn’t necessary since public school teachers study all this which seems to make little difference in the quality of education in our country.)  What this means, however, is that folks who lead classes at SLC are hired for their publications and their work, not their ability to lead or pass on their skill or their honesty and interpersonal skills.  Not every great writer knows how to help amateurs develop into better writers.  Not every director knows how to show future directors how to work the editing machine.

That last complaint literally happened to me. In a Writing and Directing for Film course (where a few famous directors jelled) I had to learn to use a fancy editing machine I had never encountered.  This was before regular, middle-class kids like me had access to digital editing in our homes, before computer programs for such were affordable.  This was for reel/real film, and had plenty of complicated gadgets, entries and exits, buttons and screens.

The teacher met each of us in our bi-weekly one-on-one time to show us how to run the machine.   He showed up to meet me with no handouts, no drawings.  I was supposed to just listen to him as he told me how without demonstration, then as I was listening, I was to work it once, and then remember everything he said for all time. I guess.  And not only that, he got irritated when I started jotting down notes.

“Stop writing and just listen.”

Okay. . .what if I am not that sort of learner.  What if hearing and doing once isn’t enough for little ole me?  And honestly, how hard would it have been to photocopy some simple reminders for nine students?

This underlies a certain laziness that some instructors could, and did, easily fall into at SLC:  compile a list of topics on the syllabus, let the kids lead the class, sit in on meetings with nine separate students and make them do the talking. . .drink coffee and relax.  When the “real work” of reading student papers arrives, make a few standard comments, ditto, and return.  This Writing and Directing for Film teacher was a bit like that on the surface, until he would discuss my work. Then I got real insight.  Plus, we had a number of good laughs in our one-on-ones at the expense of the young men in that class who were strongly influenced by David Mamet at the time and thus believed that tossing in tons of curse words made their work deeply emotional and dramatic, too.  Of course, being ethical, the Don broached a discussion in class after it became too obvious to ignore.

One of my roommates, another middle-class girl from a western state who was in the Graduate Poetry Program had to deal with a Don who was a famous poet, but one of those ride-his-reputation-lazily sorts that she often complained of.  Plus, he had a tendency to surround himself with the prettiest girls, producing rumors of his sexual-conquest-nature.   He came to my city once (long after I had graduated) for a reading.  I helped host a gathering afterward where he was still giving the attention to the lookers in the group like the rockstar he saw himself as. Even his recent obituary, describing how he had left SLC and moved south to my city to teach at a public university, awkwardly hints at his “social” nature.  This sort of possible lechery is pretty common at many colleges and universities, but the one-on-one coursework that I loved at SLC may, on the flip side, open up opportunity that students must steel themselves against.

There is something too personal sometimes about the closeness at Sarah Lawrence, which might allow some unnecessary conflicts with teachers, too.  Such conflicts probably wouldn’t happen with “anonymous” and “distant” teachers overseeing too many students in too many classes at traditional universities and colleges.

In my Graduate Fiction Workshop, we were reading and discussing important short stories.  Here I was assigned to read Katherine Ann Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” for the fourth time in my education (but the fifth reading of my life). The first time I read the story, however, was on my own out of curiousity.   Porter’s work is a cannon example for symbolism and irony, southern irony by the way, the harshest, most darkly-humored sort.  (Read anything by Faulkner, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, or David Sedaris, and you’ll see. . .)

After each reading, I simply became more soldered to my own first conclusion: Granny was jilted by her lover, but ultimately, she was waiting for death and Death would not come for her.   She had “weathered all” and when ready to stop life, was jilted by Death.

Now THAT’s some southern irony for you.  I do not recall the high school discussion other than the class being divided on this issue of whether Granny lived or died, and the teacher not telling us if this is what it was about, but agreeing it was possible.  My undergraduate discussions were very similar, except that after we read the story, we were then privy to an interview where Katherine Ann Porter herself would not admit whether Granny died.  These were the days before the internet and easy access to all literary explanations, so one can be certain that most student reactions were personal.

All of these former class discussions took place in the south. . .we think in metaphor and symbolism more than the puritanical north.  We personify death in our daily lives and literature, and are more likely to see Death as the suitor who jilts Granny as she lies there in her bed all day long, so hopeful.

Yet at SLC, in my graduate class, I was the only one who saw the jilting this way, and the teacher not-so-gently ridiculed me, arguing to the group as if I were a dumbass who could not grasp that, “No, Granny was jilted by her lover, and the candle snuffs out, symbolizing her death.”

Truly, what sort of good southern writer would pen a whole story about an old, dying woman worrying about once being jilted at the altar?  How boring.  Oh, no, Porter’s title is about the real jilting.  The candle snuffing out is simply Death laughing at Granny, a play on an overused symbol.

The teacher was treating me like such a moron, that I finally got defensive and naively said, “I’m not the only one who thinks this. . .I’ve read this a number of times, and each of my classes and teachers thought this was possible.”

And this “leader” says to me in front of everyone: “You need to learn to read deeply instead of parroting what some high school teacher tells you. . .”  I was mortified.  I couldn’t even tell her about the interview; she cut me off and said, “That’s enough about that.”

I had come to my own conclusions, and I’d still argue I am right.  My point is not that I have to be right, nor do I have to have the professor or Don sooth my tender feelings when I need to consider another possibility or truth.  Importantly, my experience really is about intellectual discourse and good teaching practices. 

Sarah Lawrence touts itself as the center of intellectual variety and depth.  In what context does SLC ever argue that the majority thought rules?

But let’s say I am/was wrong.  My perspective was at least intriguing. Alas, I could not begin to utter these words then.

I should never have been put into a defensive position; I should never have been dismissed so summarily.  And most definitely, based on SLC’s supposed interest in diverse thinking, I should have been allowed to explain the southern cultural difference.  However, the Don was as disinterested as could be in diversity that was not “popular.” (A Ukrainian immigrant’s kid, Military Officer Brat, now residing down south.)

Had this Don been a better communicator and leader, she would have stopped and allowed me my own reader’s response instead of belittling me for being on a different path, especially a response that is not off the grid.

Could be she just flat didn’t like me. . .but should that come into context here?  Does it ever say in any of the SLC brochures: “We intend to graduate likable people?”

But then, perhaps she was simply harboring resentment toward me for another event that had occurred at SLC, which leads me to my next complaint.

The faculty then was political beyond typical politics of other schools, especially the writing faculty.  It was small, tightly knit, and seemingly expected everyone on staff to be on the same page.  I had no idea of this.  I had no interest in this.  I was interested in their talents and their insights, but I was unaware of their interior issues.

While there, I served as the treasurer of the Graduate Student Council, a group funded by the student activity fee.  Students petitioned us for money to pay for events, and one petition was for the writer, Cynthia Ozick.  Apparently at the time, though Jewish herself, she had an unpopular opinion about Judaism and Israel.  To be honest, I did not even recall who she was.  I had read her works before, and liked them, but she did not take up space in my head the way other writers had.   Still, she had clearly impressed the group of students who asked the council to fund Ozick’s visit.  The council voted and handed over small change to pay for the woman’s train ticket, dinner, and reading fee.

Wrong move.  Members of writing faculty, primarily Jewish themselves, had some dish with Ozick’s politics and became livid.  Since I was the only writing student on the council, I became a target for their anger.

“You should have known.  You should have asked us!”

Really?  Graduate student councils are in the business of checking with faculty before making decisions about student-funded, student-requested, student-attended author readings?  It had never occurred to me.  I had been on a Visiting Lecturers Committee at my undergraduate school, chairing readings by people like Kurt Vonnegut, Garrison Keillor, and Elie Wiesel that drew full city-sized arenas, and we answered to no one over who came and went. Pleasing our faculty was never part of our agenda.   But at SLC,  I was told I should have known better since visiting authors reflected on these writing faculty members.

If I had been sagacious and gone to the writing faculty and said, “Hey, what do you think of this author?  Should she be allowed here?”  Would they have told me a reason why not? Would I have seen it as a good reason to deny her? Probably not.  I might be wrong, but I believe Ozick is still a talented, respected author, and students have a right to hear dissenting, educated opinions.  Does this fit with how SLC sells itself as open-minded?  No.

The irony is that I was completely innocent of any of it.  I was even accused of doing so to cause trouble, though I was simply an ignoramus. Causing trouble might have been the intention of the group that petitioned the funding, but I am not even sure of that.   A better reaction might have been for the faculty to let the students hear Ozick, and then hold a chat afterward to educate us on their reactions to her rather than to blackball the woman.   More than likely, that would have been too subject to the community spotlight.  Better to passively censor whatever Ozick might say than openly deny what she does say.

But I got the sense that internal clucking and fission was the nature of that particular faculty dynamic (and student body).  So the SLC experience is completely colored by the intimate, particular group of teachers that are in residence while you might attend, Dear Dreamers.  You could end up with the joy of Dons like Joseph Campbell, one of life’s natural educators, or an angry finger in your face.

Another sly group at work caused yet another conflict for me.   Each term, different faculty members took over the Graduate Fiction Workshop.  At that point I knew nothing of our latest Don, other than there were some students who groused about her taking over. To me, she came across as warm, boisterous, slightly goofy, but loving.  That was my take on her after our first class.

Then I came to my first one-on-one meeting where writers share whatever new ideas we have.  I brought my journal of thoughts and story beginnings, as I might have with previous Dons.  She welcomed me in her roomy office, asked me to sit, and after a moment of polite exchanges asked me what I was working on.  I opened my journal and within minutes she was literally shouting at me and accusing me of incomprehensible things.

This woman I barely knew seemed off her rocker, and I was dumbfounded. My first offense was that my work was hand-written and not neatly typed for her perusal.  I’d never brought typed-up perfect work at a first sit down since we are just getting to know one another, and we were not “turning in work” yet.  I still often write first drafts in cursive rather than typeset.  My second offense was apparently that I had been seen socializing with people whom she regarded as enemies.  I had no idea what she was talking about when she stuck her finger in my face and said heatedly, nearly snarling, “I know about you!  I knew you were trouble from the moment I met you!”

I was startled for she erupted so suddenly and unprovoked. Imagine standing in a grocery store and some stranger suddenly screaming at you and accusing you of unknown offenses.  This is what her behavior felt like to me.

I said, “What?”

My initial response was to glance around for video feed. If the show Punk’d had yet existed, I would have been certain.  She was so filled with vitriol.  No one had ever spoken to me this way, even times when I probably had deserved it.  My second thought was she is confusing me with someone else.  I tried to ask her what she was talking about, “I don’t know what you mean?  I think you think I’m someone else. . .”

She yelled, “Oh, I know you.  I know who you are.  I was warned about you!” I was sitting right next to her, side by side, so she could see my journal and with each sentence, her spittle was landing on my cheeks.

This had happened after the Cynthia Ozick debacle, but before the Jilting jilting.  Yet, neither of those could explain this attack.  Who talks like this? And who was talking about me to her? Whaaat?

Now, I’m thinking, okay she has Alzheimer’s, she’s drunk, she’s insane.  I pleaded, “Ms._____________, I honestly think you’ve got me wrong.”

“No. . .it’s you!  You horrible person.”

Given a natural fight or flight situation, when attacked, I almost always fight.  “You’re crazy, Lady!”

She continued, “Look how disrespectful you are!  Bring me such shit!””  She ruffled my journal pages in my face. “What the hell is this?  NEVER bring me something that is not typed!”

Her face was red and right up in mine, “You will never make it here!  I do not want you in my class.  You’re out!  You’re out of this school!”  I felt like I was in some 1930s movie;  I could hear You’ll never work again in this town! echoing through the walls.

We heard a sharp rap on the wall. This startled us both. Grace Paley, whom I loved, had an office right next door, and I was beet red with embarrassment that she could hear this outrageous confrontation.  Paley had seen me go in as she had welcomed one of her current students into her office.  Was she telling us to quiet down?

I started to defend myself and my decision to bring my journal, but this woman screamed “Get out!  Get out!” I just said, “Holy Shit!” and got up and left her office, she still yelling at me to not come back until I apologized. . . for what, I’m not sure.

I fled in tears and found Linsey Abrams who taught the workshop the previous year, and she let me in her office, astounded and probably worried that I had been physically attacked.  I was in such a panic and crying so hard that I couldn’t speak.  All I could think was that I was going to fail this crazy woman’s class and be drummed out of SLC.

Eventually I learned that there was some group of students who had tried either to get the new Don fired or at least stopped from teaching at the graduate level.  And that she must have had me confused with that group.  I was not yet the sort of person who felt that much power that I might plead with a school board to undermine a faculty member. . .and I also had no idea who she was before she walked into our first class. None of this truth mattered.  I had become her target in that brief, hot moment.

However, the next week in class she acted like nothing had ever happened and smiled and joked with me and the class. And then when I had to return to my one-on-one, she met me at the door, hugged me, (you can imagine how stiff I was) and said, “I’m so glad you came back.  Let’s start over.  Abrams told me you always write drafts by hand. . .” as if THAT were all that had upset her.  As if her reaction to handwritten notes were normal.

Obviously, there was something going on with this woman. Though in her sixties then, she went on for twenty more years of publishing, so I don’t know what it might have been.  She turned out to be a supportive, spirited and interesting teacher though waffling and forgetful.  But the experience marked me, and though I only told my roommates, the story got around.  I think there were students who liked her and thought I was one of those that had undermined her.  There were others who did not like her, and wanted me to report her actions to a higher authority.

Again, the small, intimate style of Sarah Lawrence allowed events that could not and would not occur elsewhere.  Or perhaps the entitlement that goes with being rich allowed this student body to think they had the power to oust their leaders?

I just kept my mouth shut and tried to lie low, which was sad because this teacher, this woman and writer, was worth knowing more deeply; she had accomplished amazing things in her life time, one of which was to start the Women’s Seder, now an international Passover phenomenon.  But whatever political machine that had gotten in her way and caused such rash behavior was too big for me to truly let my guard down again with her.

My mistake, to those of you with dreams of being an SLC graduate, was that I was an outsider in all of these cases or complaints.  And though older than the undergraduates, and world-travelled, I was inexperienced in their mores.

I was not one of the rich kids.  I was not one of the transfers from one of the other ivy league schools or a graduate of expensive private boarding schools whose parents knew people on the SLC board (and knew whom to complain about and to whom to complain).  I was not privy to these behind-the-scenes politics and strings that stained this community of leaders who studied, worshiped and debated in groups outside the school.  Instead, I had come from a system where students and teachers had very clear boundaries and too many moving parts to bother with small issues.

Plus, like I said teaching, being great teachers was not the priority for some of this faculty.  They seemed to be hired based on how they got along with one another, how they fit some ideal.  Not whether they were right for the students.  And perhaps this woman who screamed at me tyrannically should have been retired earlier, but was being protected by her colleagues?  Or maybe the Graduate Fiction Workshop, with its own special baggage, was a tough group to lead so, hey, her colleagues foisted her on us and maybe it was insulting for some students to complain?  Maybe if I had been the person she thought I was, her reaction would have been rightly placed?  I have no idea.

As an outsider who only had two years to become an insider, I was clueless. 

The worst faculty experience, however, came the next year.  I entered an African-American Literature class led by a man of great repute.  I had read and studied a number of celebrated works by African Americans, and I had loved and been inspired by all of them.  As with many courses there, students had to pass interviews to be allowed entrance into the class, and I was excited to be one of the 15 women in the group.  I was one of two white girls “accepted.”  In so many ways this great class taught me much that I later was able to impart to my own students; it allowed me a tenuous grasp of issues that are nearly incomprehensible that I would not have otherwise.

I also learned to keep my mouth shut more than open. The other white girl was an undergraduate from Boston who kept trying to explain how she could relate to the racism and prejudice in the novels because poor Irish kids went through the “same thing” where she was from.  She was too young to understand her ignorance.  And no one in the group had any interest in validating her experiences.

I was feeling proud that I knew enough to sit quietly and absorb.  I now suspect that the whole reason I was there was not because I had anything to offer the group.  I was so open and willing to learn, and the Don decided to teach me not just about the insights in the literature, but a mean lesson.

I owned a bootleg tape of a rare interview with Zora Neale Hurston that a professor from my undergraduate school had given me; (yes, she was African American herself, and it is important to share that here).   I loved how Hurston played with the reporters as she sang old, very bawdy ditties to these uptight, overtly polite male journalists; I proudly shared it with the Don of this SLC course, who seemed as excited as I was when told him I had it.  We listened together in his office, and he asked to borrow so he could make a copy.  I nervously handed over my only tape.  After months, I had to repeatedly ask him to return it, worrying it would be lost.

He did not lose it.  He supposedly shared the copy with a buddy from People magazine. Finally, the Don told me I would never get it back because, “I’m really sorry, but my friend says he doesn’t believe this tape belongs in the hands of a little, white girl.  I wish I could help you. . .but he won’t let you have it back.”

He said this with a smile on his face.  So one professor of color happily wanted to educate me about Hurston, but this man from SLC wanted to educate me about life.

Stunned, Flummoxed, I came home and cried to my roommate, and knew there was no authority I could tell, and nothing I could do about it.  He had my grade in his very subjective hands, and this is when “no grades” on assignments gets iffy.   If he decided to, at the end of the term, fail me, what records did I have that I was performing well previously.

It’s not like I could prove what he had said either, our one-on-ones were private.  And who would have thought to tape all our behind-closed-doors sessions secretly just in case something truly unethical occurred.  Again, his actions underscore what I mean about faculty not necessarily being teachers.  What did he teach me?  Hate?  No, I can see more than that, but his lesson was wrong.

I came to SLC to have that artist’s experience, to enjoy all the things they advertise, talented writers, small classes, intelligent peers, and even the NYC experience. I did get that.  And I will never regret going though some of the teachers had hurt me personally.

As I said, that advertised experience is probably different yearly depending on the group of teachers that swing in and out of Sarah Lawrence College’s gates, and the students who sit next each other.  Which is something else you dreamers should ponder.

Middle class, and below middle class kids/students are distinctly different from the rich kids, the ones who already know how to use the film editing machines because their parents bought them one for their 5th birthday.  Different from the majority whose parents vacation with famous artists, directors and writers; the same famous folks who then sit and discuss at the host’s dinner table the politics of Cynthia Ozick or the injuries behind Cultural Appropriation.  Different from the ones who could host Grace Paley for the weekend,  from the ones who no longer care about seeing the Nutcracker for Christmas because their Daddies have taken them back stage since they were two years old,  different from the ones who reside overlooking Central Park in the same building where Yoko still lives without John, and who look at you blankly because you find that thrilling.

You will not be able to Uber your way into NYC for a party, and must take the train.  You will not be able to drop $1700 for a pair of boots that look just like the ones you are already wearing because they have tassels and yours don’t.  You will not be able to pay a local from Bronxville to type and edit all your journals, essays and stories or an actress to perform in your first student film.   Your clothing from Target will look not so much like Goodwill chic, as well, Target, and calling it Tar-Zhay will simply embarrass the other students for you.

These are not people who are looking to learn from the diversity offered by middle class or poorer students (who are supposedly accepted in order to secure diversity.)  As much as SLC argues for this, the rich majority doesn’t find it intriguing or cool, but droll and annoying.  Afterall, you cannot chip in when they want to literally jet over to Martha’s Vineyard for a lobster roll.

And Dreamers, you will probably not move to Spain upon graduation and run an organic Iberian pig farm, or backpack through China until you come back to start a Yoga pants line for Bergdorf’s, or open a soon-to-be Fortune 500 company offering solar-powered water filtration tanks for third world countries no matter how many of the school’s graduates seem to achieve such between the pages of the school magazine.  Those lofty pursuits cost big start up bucks:  You won’t graduate with a dime to your name after paying the $60K yearly tuition.  Plus, you will have to work your way into the world on your own.  Even with a Sarah Lawrence College degree, you still have a Dad who cannot open career doors for you by rubbing elbows with investors; your Mom still cannot buy you a company. Neither will SLC plot it out for you or hook you up.

But. . .But you will have an education that no one else has.   Your peers will be smart and curious and insightful. And talented.  TALENTED.  TAL-EN-TED. You will sit in classes with future JJ Abrams, Julie Shigakunis, Julie Hesslers and Dani Shapiros-my peers.  Or Alice Walkers, Yoko Onos, Barbara Walters and Carly Simons who came before me. Or Jordan Peele, Brooke Anderson, Adam Goldberg who came after.  You could possibly be mentored by the likes of Grace Paley, Joseph Campbell or Mary Karr all former teachers.  You will experience a learning ideal that strengthens your perspective, opens you up to pushing yourself past the normal limits set by other schools.

You will also have an education to brag about. I’m certain that just the name Sarah Lawrence has opened a number of doors for me, earned me my first faculty teaching position at a State University, (though I “only had” an MFA,) and weirdly made a few folks swoon at cocktail parties.

Understand, Dear Dreamers, that the drive that will open SLC to you is the same drive that will allow you to be successful whether you matriculate there or not.  The SLC experience is one I will cherish forever.  IS that worth $60K a year?  Maybe.  You’ll have to tell me.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the nooks and crannies first!   Just go in knowing that what they sell you is not always there, unless YOU bring it and establish it.

I recall one of my very last group lessons.  Grace Paley had put together a long Saturday workshop for just the Graduate Fiction Program students on short, short stories, her specialty.  She and the group loved my writing I shared.  One of my peers named Annie, who was a year behind me, responded that she wished I had shared more of this sort of work in the other classes.   (Realize that of all the fiction you write only a very small percentage will be presented to class simply because of time constraints.)

I said, “Why? I bring the stuff I am struggling with, the stuff I need help with, not my BEST work.  I’m not here to impress you, but get help.”  She looked surprised.  She sat back and said, “Huh.  Wow.”

My obvious annoyance was truth.  Often in weekly workshops my peer writers were too concerned about being special or even politically correct than on solving their own or your writing struggles. They might want your characters to be more dynamic than real, more feminist than weak, less perpetuating of the human condition, while you might simply be examining reality for a different purpose.

And then later Paley asked those graduating second years to share advice to the first years, sort of like passing batons. I remarked on how whispered complaints over how the student council would not help with the cost of graduation and gowns, among other things, had surfaced to me (on the council).  I said, “You know, I hear whining and finger pointing, but few people are willing to step up or even directly ask; none of you came to the council meetings to vote though you all are welcome. It’s like those people who complain about the president but don’t vote.  Only five dollars of your activity fee comes to the council. Not enough to cover your gowns and boards.  What’s more I’ve experienced people going behind closed doors to make trouble for this teacher or that student.  My advice?  Next year get involved, go to  council, and change things rather than assuming. . .be more open and honest.  Solve, don’t create problems.”

Again, Annie reacted.  She said, in awe, “Keren, this is the first time I really feel I know you. I really respect you for saying this.   And that story was great. I wish I could see more of that. I wish I had time now to get to know you.”  (Disregard that she had not really bothered to try before.)

I said,  “I appreciate that, but one more thing, you all need to try and help writers do what they are trying to do with their work.  Like I said, I bring things I’m struggling with, not the stuff I’m happy with.  And instead of help, I get all this advice on how to make it yours not mine. . .Like Shapiro’s work (which became her first published novel and focused on a troubled, seemingly selfish woman transforming herself).  Her writing honestly is the only stuff right now coming out of our group that is ready to publish.  But you all wanted to insult the main character, the events, change the people over to something you respect, to some other ideal.  THAT’s not DANI’s story.  Next year, try to figure out what your classmates need and give them that, not what you want them to write.”

The others sat there dumbfounded.  I’d found my voice at the last second, maybe because I knew I was leaving and there could be no more blow back.

BUT, Dreamers, learn from me.  If you are lucky enough to be accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, and you choose to embark, Use your voice early on. Bitch openly if a Don steals your property or doesn’t give you clear, written directions, or forces your valid opinions down or screams in your face like she is having a stroke.  Tell off the peers when they are trying to make you them, or are undermining the sanctity of the group.   No matter how tightly held the line of the community pushed you away, push back.  Then you just might get the SLC experience it brags about in those brochures you have been collecting.

Good Luck, and may I see your name as a famous graduate of Sarah Lawrence one day, You black sheep, You.