Soft Racism in Schools: The Policy of Lower Expectations

The other day our local CBS affiliate reported on its evening news that a powerhouse local school district was under fire for its racist expectations. They interrupted earlier shows dangling this inflammatory and enticing accusation all evening. Ah, I thought. . . Finally! What a number of us have complained of for years is coming to light. I had once literally said to an administrator at my school, “One day, someone is going to sue this place.” And here it was.

The  actual broad cast then presented a hard hitting reporter thrusting his mic into the sweet face of a Mom (African American) who had filed a complaint. The basis of her grievance was she feels the curriculum is too easy on her child; no one at her child’s school expects anything of her because she is black. On the rare occasion her daughter receives homework, it isn’t even graded.

The news reporter then nodded as if this mother had just detailed a KKK orchestrated assassination.

They quickly cut to an interview of the School Board spokesperson, the same county suit who has been speaking into news reporters’ cameras for as long as I can remember. Whatever the accusation has been, she is there to deflect it. She assured us, and Ms. Jones, that in all honesty, “Each school in this school district follows the same curriculum, the same standard objectives. There is no difference in the curriculum or standard objectives from school-to-school, or child-to-child”  She did not lie. She did not tap dance.

End of report.

No one explored if Jones was saying that the white children in her daughter’s school received more homework or more challenging lessons. Noone sleuthed to find whether there was a difference between the grades or assignments of whites and blacks in the school, or between schools of the district.

That was the Station’s full expose.

What groundless, empty reporting. Not even deep enough to be called yellow journalism. Why would anyone assume the school is racist because a mother’s child didn’t get any homework? Where were the Bernsteins and Woodwards?

In my frustration, I wanted to call the station and give them real grounds for their accusations. On a selfish level,  I am contracted not to speak to the media.  On an honest level, I don’t think the CBS affiliate would care even if I did go public. Just casting shade in the direction of the system is enough to make the news folks happy. Worse, breaking my contract won’t stop what so many people are complicit in.

Any teacher in the county knows what Mrs. Jones was trying to say: there is no real, Jim Crow sort of racism going on in this rich, suburban powerhouse. But there is still an insidious “soft” racism occurring daily, particularly in the primarily black schools, often passed down by the schools’ administration. . .often black administrations.

The county in question has eighteen high schools with 2000-3000 students in each. Approximately, eight schools are primarily white, and six primarily black, with four schools being more evenly diverse. All have representations of all races.

Of the “white schools”, 60% of students carry a 3.0 or above GPA on 4 PT. Scale. Of the black schools, 54% carry similar GPA. Looks impressive and almost equal. But when you examine standardized tests like the SAT or the Milestones or in the past the EOCTs, you see a different picture: the racial achievement gap here is nearly a hundred points different on average. This verifies plenty of different possibilities, one of which is grade inflation. If only 6 percent of the population of a black school’s student body can earn a 90 or above on a science-based standardized final, how can 30% of its kids earn an A in the class, while at the white schools, 24% earn in the high 90’s on the same test, yet then earn an A in the class at a much lower rate?

My high school has the third highest graduation rate in the county.  BUT, it consistently remains on the bottom end of the standard test score range.  Let’s save the argument over whether the tests are racially biased. Instead, look at Monique Jones’s accusation. Grade inflation is just one part of the problem.

When working at a white majority school for a white principal, in my personal experience, no administrator ever defined how many kids should pass my class. Noone except the occasional teacher whose class seemed impossible to pass ever got his hands slapped over failures versus pass rates. Even at a school with primarily African American students, with a white principal, in my own experience, I did not hear anything about pass rates. However, at both black schools where I have taught, both head principals, African-American, made passing rates clear. Twenty years ago, in another county I had to witness one of my colleagues suffer a verbal reaming because 20% of her students were failing. These kids did almost nothing in her class or at home to earn a grade; No matter, she was forced to “improve her pass rate.”

At the school where I am now, a few years ago, under a new black administrator, we had been told we had to have a 90% pass rate; then a year after that, it became a 95% pass rate. I’ve reported before that the one teacher who never has any failures at all is rubbed in our faces as a much better teacher than the rest of us. No matter how low her students’ grades are, come the end of the semester, they pass and she is heralded as a better teacher, and rewarded as such. The administrative message is clear: do not fail kids, even those who have failed themselves.

The message is also: do not expect as much from African-American kids as we do from white kids. And I underscore that often black administrators are behind these low expectations to illustrate how complicated this horrible puzzle is.  Society finds it easy to point fingers at traditionally racist institutions when the leaders are white.  And sometimes they are.  But what do we do when the lower expectations for my black students come from a black infrastructure? Graduating high school is important for one’s future success and for one’s self-esteem, and these administrators are-through grade control- trying to manipulate how many of our black students meet that goal, but at what cost?

Here are several effects of this “no fail system” that are typically, but not exclusively found at majority black schools. Zero homework policies, as Ms. Jones complained. Many children of all races across the country don’t bother with homework these days, so administrators protect grades and graduation rates by encouraging teachers to be spare with homework. Some school boards don’t even support failing a student if the failure is due to a lack of homework completion. I have personally been asked by my principal why a student had to read all of a novel or story-often assigned as reading homework; couldn’t the kids learn the same thing from reading a short passage? Black schools, mine included, tend to have more safety net programs, too, where if a kid fails a class, he can take a quick “recovery” session where he completes a two week project after school to earn a 70 in the class he had failed.

At another local majority black school, (and in our school’s ninth grade academy) their solution to failure is this strange “do over” policy, where students have a free pass to retake the same unit test or quiz over and over till they get it right;  Or they enjoy no real due dates for assignments and an turn in missing work as late as they want. Who cares if they still knew nothing by the time they pass the test on the third try, but had simply memorized that “B” was the right choice?  Who cares that the teacher cannot ethically grade a whole term’s work in the last few days of school?   At least the students aren’t failing the class.

Meanwhile, a child of any race just down the road at a white majority school has four novels to read a semester on his own time,  fails an essay test if his handwriting displeases the teacher (which happened to my son), and goes to summer school to retake any class he fails.  Much higher academic standards prevail at this nationally recognized white school than at the majority black schools, and done so without safety nets.

Let me also take a side alley and say that the number and type of discipline referrals vary from school to school. Black children (or white children) at a majority white school will be arrested if they get naked and have sex in the stairwells. They will go to the alternative schools for throwing a punch, just as their white classmates will, but at a black school, teachers follow quotas over how many discipline referrals actually can be filed and how many get past the principal into a child’s  discipline records.

The two naked sex participants at my “black” school were forgiven because of this new term “culture rehabilitative bias,” a flashy term used to describe the idea that people of a lower class don’t know any better, and thus, should not be punished for poor behavior, and if they are, then the punishment is racist. Huh?  Who doesn’t know that having sex in a school stairwell (completely naked, no less,) is forbidden?  Apparently, low-income black children according to our school government live under rocks.

Again, because of administrative attitudes, my students at my black school suffer from lower expectations.

Partly to blame for this pressure is the way principals are rated in order to secure their jobs and receive promotions. . .CcRP, NCLB, AYP, Pay for Performance, what ever is the trendy government threat. Each small detail of success earns a few points towards a school and its principal’s “score.” Students’ results on the SAT, EOCT, Milestones, CRCT, IBST,  Milestones, AP exams, etc.,  can earn or lose points for the principal’s composite.  Even how many kids take AP  courses (whether they pass or not) can affect the principal’s score. Discipline referrals-the amount and the type, graduation rates, and failure rates earn or lose points.

A principal cannot control test scores unless he breaks the law, as did a group of recently convicted administrators and teachers in another local district. But the other elements can be controlled through viable threats and rewards of the teachers.

Funny that no one actually expects our African-American kids to perform, or frankly any child of any race in a black majority school. And here is where the racism rests.

My black students with whom I work are as bright and capable as my white students have ever been. My school over the last two decades has undergone a racial shift, and while the raw intelligence of all of my students has remained the same, the expectations have changed. Administrators of both races often cite economics and home life as a factor (excuse) for their varying policies and demands. They cite these differences: My school, 30% of kids have both parents at home, 40% with college degrees, and recall it is a Title I school. The white school just across Main Street, 76% of the students have both parents at home, 87% of the families have at least one parent with a college degree. And it is one of the wealthier schools in the county.

Ok. Does that mean really, that I should automatically believe my students are too incapable to earn a grade on their own and I should give it to them?  (On that same note, universities have a system to rank course grades from each school, fully aware of grade padding that goes on at certain schools; does this mean the black child with a 3.0 from my school who doesn’t get in, while the white kid with a 3.0 from a more demanding school does, is a victim of the university’s racism or my school’s lower expectations?)

Does this mean that when they are signed into my AP courses against their will just to boost some principal’s pointless score, I should dumb down my lessons? (And do they deserve to suffer in huge  40 seated AP classes, much larger than the high scoring white schools, with their 22 seats, in order to gain points that the principals are afraid cannot be won through scores? ) My administration seems to think so.  Yes, administrators dishonestly  argue in their defense that some of the kids who are forced in will benefit; And this will be true.  But many will fail, and then I am forced to pad their grades.

Does it mean that when students at my school violently jump a stranger in the bathroom for his shoes, they deserve to get a detention rather than a police citation?    I have witnessed a “gang” style hit with a group of young men kicking another student in the head; one of the students threatened to “kick [my] ass” if I said anything.  The assistant administrator wanted me to simply ignore zero tolerance  rules for teacher threats since the kid apologized at the administrators bidding. Yet, at a majority white school, a kid did a little pelvic thrust dance when he insinuated a teacher was “helping him” after school.  No threat. Nothing more than that and he was removed from the school system for a year.

No, the county assigns the same curriculum and standard objectives in writing to every school, true. But the daily delivery of these objectives is VERY different from school to school.

The news reporting on Ms. Jones’s complaint could dig deeper. They would find that soon, even the testimony that the curriculum is the same, might not be true.

Next year, at all the Title I high schools (which all happen to also be majority black) the county is rolling out something called Academic Academies. Students choose a major, and then supposedly all their academics and electives will be tailored toward this major. This  design has had great success in “building grades and graduation rates” in other urban areas in the country. So Language Arts, for instance, is supposed to look different in the Science academy than in the Media academy, though, so far we still haven’t received any training on how this will work; we have only received the same curriculum as every other school (and academy). Feels as if  we Title I schools are becoming trade schools.

The newspapers have quotes from administration about how awesome this change is, the “new wave of the future” and “cutting edge education.”

Okay, if so fabulous, why not implement this method in the whole county? Or if it needs “test-running”, why not at a few various schools of varying profiles for comparative results?  Why just the majority-black schools?

Soft racism?  Or just plain, old racism?

Ultimately, all these differences in expectations and policies say to my smart, capable students that they are different, they do not deserve the same education, and that they cannot handle the demands of academia like white kids can.

This is what Monique Jones is onto.  She knows that her daughter is not learning as much as kids at majority white schools (but could). She just doesn’t really know how to prove it. I hope she gains momentum and gathers other parents who want their children to have not only degrees and a GPA, but an actual education; her daughter deserves it.  Maybe receiving this lament will help her.

Of, course, when I have vocalized such concerns, I simply suffer the “get on board” and “Be a team player” admonishments from my administration.

Bitter Praise: A Piece of Letting Go

Do you know that nice person, not a bad sort, sometimes funny, sometimes good company whose persistent need of praise, validation, and attention just makes you eventually froth at the mouth? Wise people write our their venom in a letter and then throw the piece away. I am not doing that here.

I have several of those needy people under my social roof. One I finally cut loose last week because I finally decided the returns of her friendship were too diminished by my irritation over her incessant ego and bragging. If you do not recognize such person, you might not really be able to relate to my bitter rant, and might be better off moving on to a breezier, more self-actualized blog.

I am getting meaner as my physical disabilities become more definite. In many ways, that is completely untrue. I find myself treating people in public more kindly, more openly. My family. . .I am happier to them, around them, partly because I recognize on a very literal level how quickly and fully life can be changed. But times when I deeply physically hurt, I do have to work not to bite others like a dog.

In this new mean streak, I have begun gleaning and tossing not just the outright rude, but the drains, the irritants. I no longer have the energy to pretend that they matter more than the people who do matter. . .like me. Or my loved ones.

At this rate, I should be alone soon.

Exhibit A, let’s call her Ms. Brittle, my Colleague/outside work buddy who manages to take every discussion quickly to its knees, only letting up once the focal point has returned to her. No matter WHAT you need to discuss-a shocking weekend arrest, your emergency appendectomy, near fatal car crash? Within minutes, you will be instead discussing the time her brother almost got a citation, the time she thought she had appendicitis, or how she almost sideswiped a parked car. . .relevant, perhaps, but not quite the same, and all presented without sympathy or acknowledgment of the person who really needed to talk in the first place.

I spontaneously broke my back inexplicably. No event. One early morning last October, Disk T-8 slipped out, and lodged in my spine, partially paralyzingly me from my rib cage down to my toes. Surgery removed the disk, but also the backs of four vertebrae, part of one rib, and left me with 14 pins, three rods, fused bone from collar bones to my waist, and on going partial paralysis and crushing pain. After living in the hospital for a month last fall, I improve in eensy increments; I still use a cane, have limited abilities (after living a very active lifestyle) and though I am working hard to forge a new path with this altered body of mine, I occasionally succumb to depression.

Said Ms. Brittle called on such a day, listened very briefly. . .like maybe four sentences. . .and launched into a very long, detailed story of how, once, when she hair-line fractured one bone in her foot and was wearing a temporary boot, she had to stop jogging for months. . .so, she “understood me.”

Whaaaaat? What the heck is the right reply to people who steal topics and focus on themselves with unrelated anecdotes? She often finds herself at the end of her conversation, sort of stumbling along, lost thread, because there really is nothing left to say.

Ms. Brittle calls herself a people pleaser, and laments what a burden it is. I snicker (as do a lot of her colleagues); oh, no, my Dear. You are not in the business of pleasing people. You are a praise seeker. People pleasers can only think of what others want and need. You crave validation.

She details her great teaching within her classroom in unsolicited emails to us all (should anyone care to copy her or receive her advice). Any administrative praise at work becomes quick emails and a FB post. If a student says something complimentary, she repeats it. She is one of those who often posts her children’s every function several times a day on Facebook, posts each lap she runs, or square she stitches on the fundraising quilt she is creating.

Lots of folks post that sort of thing. . .somehow the way she does it doesn’t seem like news. There is a difference between saying, “Enjoyed the gorgeous sunset while jogging this evening,” and “Score! Got another minute closer to my marathon rate!” A difference between, “My students rocked their AP exam,” and “I got more fours out of my kids than any of the other AP LIT teachers here.” There is reporting, and then there is bragging.

There is nothing that isn’t brag worthy for her. . .meals made, jokes she cracked in class, number of blog viewers, quizzes graded.   I recall at the end of the last school year, she had tallied how many essays she had reviewed for the year. At the time, she taught five groups of AP Lit. She, the martyr, figured because of that, we should feel admiration and pity when she sent the  total amount in an All Staff. What did she think: non-AP kids weren’t writing, and we, their teachers, were not grading? She was obviously surprised when a number of hostile people replied with grueling numbers of their own.

I have even heard her manage to make apologizing for trying to decline her assigned prom duty into a boast: “I am not one to shirk my duty like some people without first calling. . .” Calling before not showing up at the last minute makes her better than the others who just plain didn’t come.

She even once group messengered us this note to our boss, after boss chaired a meeting: “I will have you know, today I did you a favor, so you owe me. When I swallowed a scalding mouthful of hot cocoa, I refrained from screaming out bloody murder and interrupting your meeting! You’re welcome.”

Again. . .whaaaat? Every ounce of me had to fight not to counter post: “Oh, barf!” I am sure she thought her bragging demand was cute. I see it as strangely, self-absorbedly, ignorant.

Her ignorance bleeds into a sort of foot-in-mouthism. She once told the wife of a sober alcoholic, that she couldn’t bring herself to see Denzel Washington in Flight; “I can’t imagine him playing an alcoholic; he’s just too dignified to be believable as an alcoholic” Huh? She said to me and another Mom, both of whom are happily remarried to men who became fantastic step-fathers to our children, “If, God forbid, I were ever unlucky enough to get a divorce, I certainly would never remarry; I could never do such a horrible thing by bringing a step father into a child’s life.”

She is so self involved she obviously can’t hear herself think. I am sure whatever the topic is, her brain immediately shifts to herself, her imagination and experience. To her, the rest of us are just a rapt audience, rather than human beings with important stories, emotions, and knowledge of our own.

Enter Ms. Brittle’s end: This year, when I entered the hospital, my school shifted my teaching schedule around. I teach the sort of classes that, because of credentials, long term substitute teachers cannot teach: AP Lang and the Literary Magazine. Brittle ended up being assigned to take them over-she happily gave up her openly hated College Prep classes.

Somehow within a month SHE was the heroic victim. I don’t know what I was, but lying paralyzed in bed with a foot and a half of stitches, was far less deserving on the empathy scale than taking on two new course preps.

Instead of asking me to clarify or help, she stood in the hallway and cried tearfully to colleagues when I sent her an email asking her about various aspects of my classes. What is happening about fundraising for the magazine? What help do you need with Argumentation for AP Lang?   I cruelly overwhelmed her with my curiosity.

Good Lord! You mean I am the bad guy here? Poor, poor girl, Ms. Brittle is, burdened with gifted students and the expectations of their former teacher.  Her laments and complaints about her work load and my expectations went on for months, but always under the disclaimer, “I just want to do my best for the kids.”

That first semester, what made her often cry is that she wants praise, and being dumped into an uncharted course load made her uneasy. What if she didn’t do a praiseworthy job?

Interestingly, she didn’t even try.

Both those courses are what we call product-result bearing courses. Teachers can be judged by their kid’s AP test scores, and by their magazine’s success. When this Ms. Brittle believed I would heal and return to these courses the second semester, and thus, be the person upon whom the results would reflect, she applied very little efforts. She didn’t fund raise, advertise, or handle submission meets for the magazine. She let former student-editors run the show while she disengaged like a typical sub, rather than a teacher. What did she care? She fully expected that I’d return and be stuck with unmet goals.

She did the same thing in AP; AP Lang is a nonfiction course, not a novel or poetry course. It is densely entrenched in essays and argumentation. She-trained in AP Lit, not Lang- ignored my advice, lesson suggestions, etc. Instead, she took one of her old literature lessons from a novel, and together she and the class read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for eight weeks. (EIGHT??) She never even bothered to collect the class set of AP writing manuals from my classroom. If I had returned, I would have found kids who were two months behind. (And the irony of Faulkner’s title is not missed, here.)

But around her, she was gathering people’s praise for her burdens like white cat hair on black pants. They patted her head when she moaned about feeling anxious, they cooed over her every little endeavor. Let me be selfish here a minute: How did this painful, life-altering event that was really about my body and my students’ needs become her tragedy?

I am SOOO glad that I was able to give her the opportunity to feather her cap and revel in sympathy. Uggh! I, like many other of my colleagues, have had new course loads shoved on me when people have suddenly been fired, retired, or gone into premature labor. We did our job. We didn’t cry or brag. When I took over the magazine, needing new software, a new publisher, having no lesson database and no one with experience to help, I don’t recall any pats on the head. But then, I don’t ask for them. Constantly.

Cut to several weeks into second semester. Suddenly when she realized I was not coming back, and results would reflect her work, she stepped it up. First, she texted me numerous, “I feel like vomiting, I am so upset by this” messages, (which only verifies that she had not taken the courses seriously previously; also note, she was not saddened for me that I was still not able to work.) Then she finally, actually opened all my data folders and checked out the official AP Lang College Board website for the first time. She started fundraising for publishing costs. (And let the Facebook bragging begin. I never once posted pictures of all the cookies I baked and frosted, or hotdogs I donated for sales. . . I should have, I suppose). I had to suffer so many FB posts about the laborious hours she endured quilting for an auction or grading for AP.

She would call me only when she needed info like how much money she’d need to budget or a telephone number. Understand our school magazine was my baby; yearly, we won national contests, the top awards. I have always been proud of my former students, and I praised them openly in texts, email, FB. But I say, “Please congratulate these students. . ..”.

I felt like each time Ms. Brittle called, she needed advice, but strangely, she also battled against it. I’d say, “One thing to make sure you have done is. . .” and I’d hear in response, “Oh, I already figured that out on my own.” I’d start, “Keep Jesse from. . .” and I’d get, “Oh, don’t I know it. I already have Jesse wrapped up!”

Well, good. Why are you calling? It certainly isn’t to see how I am doing.

Such a weird dance. She’d whine about the steep learning curve, ignore/deflect my advice, then text me things like, “Finally created a layout on my own! Win! Let me send it to you.” She was seeking praise and validation for her choices. But also didn’t want to receive advice because that might hint at her inexperience or ineptitude. Sort of like when you are teaching a defensive teenager to drive, and it makes them angry when you instruct them: “I know that, already!”

And don’t think I am ignorant of my own bitterness. I am physically disabled from being with my students, and she doesn’t have the sensitivity to refrain from reporting her constant success? She can’t even lower her ego long enough to allow in a little advice from the veteran?

So I stopped taking her calls. She worked herself down to only bragging in text/FB posts. Originally, I had thought maybe she was just too anxious and self-conscious, so I tried to make her understand that these were her kids, now. I had only been with them for two months. Be free, let go. She let go in terms of my control, but not in terms of my compliments.

Last week, I finally got sensible enough to protect myself from her blabbing. Our school system is in the running for the Broad Prize, a very prestigious award that goes to one urban school system in the country. For one day, teams of reviewers will drift through the school, watching teachers and kids interact. Whose classes receive visits are highly orchestrated and timed. And obviously, any savvy principal will select students that are bright, well behaved, lively, so the 19 classrooms on the schedule are top heavy with gifted students since they are least likely to pull out a cigarette in class or say, out loud, “What fucking homework?”.

Guess whose class was one of the nineteen? One of my former AP Lang groups. Did Ms. Brittle say, “I am so proud of my students for being chosen?” Nope. Of course not. Instead she literally posts, “Look at me, I am so honored to be one of only nineteen people in the whole school. One of only nineteen. . .”

Sigh. I blocked that shit very quickly, and finally Defriended her a few weeks ago; that night I went to sleep with a sigh of relief, sort of like when you finally find and remove that annoying strand of lint from your eyeball.

But then this week: She begins texting me, asking if I can come to school this week. I cannot drive, so this takes planning. Judging from the time of year, I knew the magazines were back from the publisher. I knew that she wanted me to praise and validate. (A bit more background. This past January the magazine from Spring 2013 earned top honors from National Scholastic Press Association. I should have received certificates or plaques with my name on them; in the past, I tended to scan and give copies of these awards to the staff. No matter how often I asked Ms. Brittle, who got them out of my school mailbox, I never receivedthem; she has “lost” them. ) So I answer her question with a question: What’s up? She tells me the class wants me to come in so they can present the magazine to me. Of course they do.

Other than a few kids, this staff barely knew me before I was hospitalized. Though I received numerous calls, cards, texts, etc.. From former students who did know me, members of this literary mag class were pretty silent. They did not nurture any ongoing student-teacher connection. That had not bothered me. Why should it? After a seven month absence and loads of pain meds. I cannot really recall their names or faces at this point. I declined the invitation.

Through a few terse, self-righteous texts she finally reveals that the staff had not just dedicated the magazine to me, but NAMED it after me. Huh??

You soft-hearted people are thinking, oh, sounds so sweet, such a tribute. . .but really it is not about me or even for me; using my name is about this teacher, Ms. Brittle. Even when it looks like she is finally considering someone else, it really still is all about her. Truly . . .imagine me standing in that classroom on my cane, receiving this magazine that I had almost nothing to do with from kids I do not really know, who have certainly shown no interest in me. Why exactly am I there? For me to feel good, or for Ms. Brittle to feel good?

I am uncomfortable with show. I hate how awkward it will be when people buy a literary magazine with my name on the cover. My name. Like I am dead. Would it have been more considerate to wonder if I would even want my name used that way? Yes. Does Ms. Brittle think that way? Nope. Because in her mind, nothing could be better than anyone devoting an entire ANYthing to her.

I am the woman, who when a finalist for Teacher-of-the-Year, begged my principal not to make me sit on stage during the ceremony. When last year’s graduating class voted me “most inspirational teacher”, a page in the annual, I told only my husband. Anyone else only learned it if they bought or read a yearbook. When my admin said I was the only teacher in the school who didn’t receive any bad bubbles in the worst category on the yearly student perception surveys, I never told a soul. I know it seems conceited to report it now, but I usually do not repeat such things in broad ways. My behavior is foreign to this woman, who would have broken a finger trying to post these honors on FB at lightening speed.

The students of this course were still getting to know me; they had me for two months; this year’s magazine group was relatively fresh and unattached, so to put my name on the cover seems like a grand, showy, look-at-us gesture, orchestrated by someone who is an expert at grandstanding.

If you know teenagers, you know that when tragedy befalls a student or teacher, particularly death, huge numbers of them fall into histrionics. They sob, and beat their breasts, and plan giant candle light vigils; they skip class to sit in the gym with grief counselors. Because, somehow, they all knew somebody who sat near the dead kid in the ninth grade once, so they are devastated. Somehow this stranger’s death is really their own suffering, their own moment to be dramatic.

That’s what I feel here. Ms. Brittle should have recognized it for what it was and kept me off the stage. She should have taught kids a more personal, less intrusive way to deal with tragedy. She should have had the sense to think about what I would be comfortable with.  And frankly, the title was probably her idea in the first place, a way to draw attention to her “people pleasing” ways.

Last year’s NSPA award, also with my name on it, means so much more to me than this magazine since it reflects my team’s hardwork. In Ms. Brittle’s mind, I imagine she was very proud of herself for getting the 2014 magazine published, hoping I would fawn over it, and more hopeful that she would be caught and praised for so thoughtfully putting my name on the cover. A teacher’s name on a lit mag is really difficult to ignore; plus, it’s there forever. Once again, my injury has given her a chance to gain attention.

So when she happily asked me to come to the surprise party, so they could present “her” magazine to me, and I declined with a terse, “No, I would rather have received a few sincere, personal notes here and there, not a grand gesture,” she was stumped, then hurt, then righteously indignant. That’s okay. I’m fine with that. I got used to being the villain way back when I was still in the hospital. I wonder if she will ever understand how much it helps me to let her go.

See. I told you I was feeling mean.

Failure is an option: Mom’s Memory


I realized something about motherhood this week, that I think is good for grown children to know.

My Mom was unable to attend our Mother’s Day barbecue, and I missed her. In our call, she reminisced happily about when I was a child: I had gone through a chef stage when I was about 9 or 10, and omelets were my gourmet obsession. Omelets with cheese, omelets with mushrooms. . .with spam or olives or pearl onions or pickles, all definitely (over) spiced. Whatever happened to be in the kitchen that I found inspiring was folded (clumsily) into a pan of half-beaten eggs. I recall distinctly enjoying that feeling of creativity. And I would serve these creations to Mom before she was even awake.

One morning, I mixed one with Spaghettios. I had been so talented and awesome with all the others (as evident in her praise), but this time, though she did her best to hide it, she couldn’t bring herself to eat more than one eensy bite; of course she hurt my feelings.

Somehow this moment is one of her favorite memories: The plate filled with undercooked egg, that stringy white bit that is attached to the yoke, still lying there like a bleached worm, jiggling with runny Spaghettios. It made her want to vomit, yet she laughs about it now.

Yeah. Sure. Hilarious.

But this Mother’s day, I realized something: somehow some mothers seem to remember our failures as fondly as they recall our success. Of course, Mom is very happy I have degrees, a warm, happy home, a good job, healthy, happy children, a good marriage. Yes, she trusts that I will take care of her in her old age, all things a Mom can be proud of. But she joyfully recalls the time I shattered the front window of the Chevy with a stone I was throwing at a kid’s head, or the time I made another neighbor hatefully angry when I took him up on a dare to paint his house with rainbows. How was I to know he wasn’t serious. I was only eleven.

She giggles hysterically about once feeding my oldest child pickles or lemons (because he demanded them, that’s why) before he was old enough to know what they were and that he wouldn’t want them. The faces he made! What about the ridiculous waaay-tooo-old for me high heels I had convinced my grandmother to buy when I was thirteen that I could barely walk in, stumbling about like a cartoon. Or how about the time I didn’t bother to check if I-75 went all the way to Virginia, and ended up driving straight on to Kentucky. I am great with maps, but I was going from memory, arrogant me. So who cares that at eighteen years old, I could navigate myself from one end of the country to the other. The resounding memory for Mom is that I ended up in Kentucky by accident. Oh, she loves that one.

Until this weekend, it irked me that she enjoys rifling through her memory bank for my failures. What is wrong with this woman? Does it make her feel superior? But then, I thought about my own sons. I don’t only love reminiscing about the first time I held them, or any time they have behaved nobly. It was also sweet when my oldest was still only able to crawl; the dryer bell buzzed abruptly while he was nearby. He almost stood up and ran down the hall and into my arms, it frightened him so much. When he was six and pretty disinterested in his soccer team, whenever the ball came his way, he’d squat down like a frog and leap over it, much to the horror of his coaches. My youngest son, when he was five, threw a butter knife at a friend’s sleazy boyfriend, and shattered a window pane. (Like mother, like son). He thinks long and hard about his Christmas gifts, and has given me bracelets that are child-sized, purses the size of Montana. I don’t care. I love telling those stories. Just like my Mom didn’t care that she had to try her very best to swallow a gelatinous mouthful of Spaghettios, oozing raw egg whites.

As her memory is beginning to fail, it matters to me more that she recalls me as I really was, has always loved me as I am. I think more than anything our children’s “misses” expose our true parenting more than their successes. How I handled Graham failing math in the ninth grade, or how I handled Evan’s temper tantrum over his GiGi’s Christmas gift, says more about my parenting than their trophies, their excellent grades, their scores. Children are imperfect, just as we, their parents, are. To pretend they are perfect is to ignore who they fully are. It is with great love and pride that each Mother’s day, my Mom thinks back to herself lying sleepy under covers one morning, my shining face waking her to deliver yet another masterpiece of an omelette.

Seeking a Placebo: God, Me, and Everything.

Some people can be hypnotized.

Some of us see signs. Everywhere.

Some can turn off the pain of hot coals singing our feet.

And many of us feel certain God watches over us.

But then. . .some of us cannot.

Years ago, I was watching a film on how people “see the bright light” during near death experiences, a documentary that explored the spiritual and/or biological evidence and theories surrounding the universality of this phenomena. People from far ends of the Earth have commonly described the brilliance and sense of wellbeing at coming closer to this light. Historical references crossing centuries cite the same experience. As I watched, for one brief moment, I had such complete faith that there was “more” beyond “here”, the most blissful tranquility simply settled over me.

I said brief moment. Too brief.

I am the person who says to those pitching the intricate design argument, “Well, if this is all too complicated to be random, then who created God? Or did he randomly appear?” If one must be begotten. . .

Believe me. I would rather feel the peace than questions.

My husband’s faith on paper sounds like my own. Like me, he does not imagine a God who is fatherlike, listening to our every word, magnanimously answering prayers. He does not believe in predestination, hell, or even destiny. But, unlike me, in practice his faith is deep, sure, comforting; he willingly goes to his knees to give thanks, to empty his heart of fear or pain. He lives as fully in the moment as anyone I know, trusting that with sense, all will be as it should.

On those nights when I am still awake when the morning’s alarm rings, I envy the easy sleep my husband enjoys. His profound ability to hand his day over to God is undeniably complex, yet simple.

When I use the word God. . .I might mean the rain, or the Earth, or Jesus, or love. It really doesn’t matter. To my husband, it is the unknowable, the essential, the everything of all. We agree on this, yet his relationship with God fits him so well.

And more than anything. . . I want what he has.

To find this relationship isn’t as simple as reading The Bible, or the Koran. It will not come to me by studying the wisdom of prior or modern religious leaders. As much as I loved reading Joseph Campbell’s expertise on comparative religion, his knowledge and historical exploration of humankind’s faiths enlightened me, but also stunted me. This scope allowed me to see how essential to man a belief in a parental otherness is, but also made me very aware of man’s creation of God. The truth of those conflicting observations made me all the more aware of how important spiritual understanding beyond myself can be, but also made me so conscious of the false underpinnings of it.

My faith suffered a stroke.

I have hints of this peaceful faith I seek when I watch my family of cardinals return to our forsythia each year, or when my youngest son tucks me in at night (he switched the roles on me last year when I came home from the hospital). Finding a colony of trout lilies each spring, listening to a talented student sing wholeheartedly, lying with my ear against my husband’s heart as we fall asleep. . .all connect me to my God.

But then my brain interrupts with worries that mankind won’t truly move forward until we give up this father figure that all cultures seem to have, give up religion, and take on the awesome responsibilities of the universe ourselves. But. . .then again. . .How lonely and scary, and even a little dangerous.

So I waffle spiritually. My husband has no inner conflict here; peacefully changing what he can take responsibility for, moving through the world as if it is all up to him, but relying always on God for comfort are not contradictions to him. He’d just smile at you pleasantly when you try to argue this point. His belief is a living example of what phenomenologists call Epoche. His faith is so deeply felt that it needs no debate because of it.

Faith is found within me rather than without me. This concept is dawning on me, oh, so barely. So ephemeral a thought, that when I think on it, it evaporates.

I suppose I could design my own Eat. Pray. Love. experience to search for my spiritual peace. (But I am certain I’d end up never leaving the Italian leg of that journey, glorifying pasta, gelato, and Michelangelo every single day.)

What I am certain of is this: Twenty years ago, a pharmaceutical study on a new cancer drug was taking place with several groups. One observed side effect of this medication was extreme eyelash growth (among other more painful effects). Patients’ eyelashes literally could grow an extra inch. Unexpectedly, many members of the control group receiving the placebo, and no medication at all, discovered their eyelashes growing. The power of their mental system was so deep that their bodies physically altered, simply because they believed they were receiving the medication.

Do you see how astonishing that is? Unlike the hair on our heads, eyelashes have a set length. How can believing they will grow, actually shift the genetic predisposition of their length?

What limits can faith in anything have then? Does it matter that a “God of his Understanding” exists literally to my husband? No. What matters is that when he hands over the stress of his day, he believes fully that all will be the way it should be. He doesn’t try to define the “should be”. In fact, he doesn’t try to decide what that even looks like. He simply trusts that he will be able to face what comes his way because to him God is essential.

I do not mean to demean any religion by suggesting that faith is as baseless as those sugar pills, but I want that power of the placebo. I want to believe so deeply that no matter what the reality is, no matter whose belief system turns out to be right, I can be hypnotized into feeling no resentments, I can trust that everything will be okay. Not only will I see signs of greatness everywhere, I can walk on coals and no longer feel any pain. It is the belief that matters.