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?

 

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 (https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/04/free-range-parenting/557051/) 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.

Image result for images of child riding bike over ramp

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?

 

One Foot (and a Whole Heart) Still in Childhood

 

My youngest son, Evan, is now a freshmen in a local high school.  He was anxious about going because he’d heard the rumors that every rising ninth grader hears: the upper classmen target you; in fact, they will target YOU specifically especially if you are short.

All summer he has been measuring himself against me, having grown about five inches in the last year.  I now look at his chin.  But this doesn’t mean he is tall yet.

The men in our family are average height. . .not short, not tall.  They tend to range between 5’10” and 6”, if you leave out a set of cousins whose Dad was 6’5”.  The man was not a blood uncle, so my sons can forget that gene pool.

My youngest was born an average length and a solid weight of 8 lbs. 4 oz.  But he has been below the curve of average size most of his life.  Some of this is heredity; some the fault of the ADD meds he has had to take which curb his appetite. But no matter what I do to circumvent these effects, my boy is simply built like his Dad in bone-skinny, and me in height-short.

I am certain he will catch up to his peers soon since he is still hovering on the child side of puberty, while many have gone far beyond.  And having taught high school for years, I know a growth spurt when I see one coming on.  I’ve watched countless boys 5 foot and some odd inches leave ninth grade and come back men in the fall of their tenth grade year, or even the eleventh. . .or twelfth.

No big deal.

To me.

But to him, he knows that there are ADULT males at the school: seventeen and eighteen year olds who weigh 250 pounds and roam the halls looking for kids like him to carry around by the hair.    Good thing Evan is witty.  And he tries very hard to hide these superstitions, too, posturing as older and wiser than that.

But here’s the thing that makes my tears well.  My youngest is still the youngest of not just my family, but of his peers in terms of maturity, and I’m watching him struggle with leaving childhood behind.  He shifts between being stoic and manly, and whiny and emotional, between knowing things he shouldn’t yet, or oddly innocent of common knowledge.

A few weeks ago, he did express this fear of these giant upper classmen and their possible hazing of the freshmen.  I comforted him by saying, “That’s mostly rumor and lies.  Seniors and Juniors are far too busy just living their lives, dating, working, applying to colleges.  The tenth graders are the ones to worry about. . .”

“Whaaat?”

“I’m just kidding.  Sort of.”

We smiled, but we both knew it was simply one of those rites of passage he’d have to face, just like the inevitable teasing he and his buddies have gone through as their voices began to squeak and squawk into something deeper. (His is still wavering up and down.)

Then toward the end of the week, I had to get a document notarized.  As we waited for the UPS store to open, he said, “How am I going to handle being an adult?  I hardly know anything.  Like Notary. What the heck is a Notary? There’s so much I don’t know.” He listed a few things from the previous week that were news to him.

I said, “Relax.  No ninth grader knows what a notary is.  I’m sure I didn’t at your age.” And then  I explained their duties.

But he’s right.  There is so much Evan doesn’t know that I or his brother did know at his age.  My youngest, because of his dysgraphia, is not a reader, and readers are filled with information, even if much of it is useless.

“Well, you know how you fix that. .Read more, watch more news, get out of the house and do more stuff. . .” I said, mentioning how he had been attached to the same pajama bottoms day in and out all summer.  “The more you experience. . .the more you know.”

Luckily, this is our son who loves to travel with us, and he does love new experiences, so his fear of being an adult ignoramus is somewhat baseless.  But I knew I was listening to a child face his future as a man who had to “know stuff.”

Then this past weekend. . .after snapchatting or tweeting or whatever young teens are doing now, with a girl who might or might not be his girlfriend. . .he came downstairs and asked if we could watch Harry Potter together.  After thirty minutes of digging, we located our DVD collection.  We hadn’t touched them in probably four years or more.

Tony and I sat with Evan, inside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, while we watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, for the Brits.)  At the moment Harry enters Olivander’s store to get fitted for his wand, my youngest raced upstairs looking for his two wands that we had bought the year Universal opened its version of Diagon Alley.  Again, I had to help poke around to find where the toys were.

And my boy, who just a few days before was yucking it up with me as we viewed a particularly adult version of Key and Peele, spent the rest of The Sorcerer’s Stone watching with a wand in both hand.

Yesterday was Evan’s first day of high school.

And many of you might know, there is a vast mental age gap between middle school and high school.  Students go from being led in a formal and silent line down the hall to the cafeteria, to near autonomy at lunch time.  Their lockers in middle school are usually inside their homerooms and assigned to them.  In high school, they buy them if there are any left over, and rarely see the little closets all year.  He’s moved from a school with 1300 pupils, to one with 3400.  He has more teachers, more subjects, and more strangers in his life than ever before.

He came home exhausted.  We went over his homework, and organized his new notebooks to his teachers’ liking.  I fed him pancakes and bacon, a special breakfast-for-dinner occasion.  He asked to watch Chamber of Secrets, another Harry Potter, this time without the wands.  And my child, beat from getting up at 5 a.m. and navigating pending adulthood, went upstairs to go to bed early.

When I came up to kiss him good night, I found him already sleeping.  But not in his room. . .instead, he was curled up in my bed, on my pillow, soundly out.  How many years has it been since he stopped climbing into our bed at night?

And I can’t tell which made me more weepy: the joy or the pain that both come from watching him cling to his childhood, or from knowing this would be probably one the last few moments I could baby him.

In a few weeks, he won’t even remember how uncomfortable starting high school was.  He will be fine.

 

Where’s the Hair?

Image result for hairy chest caveman

Men’s body hair?   I for one don’t understand where it is disappearing to.  Well, the chin, obviously, since hipsters everywhere are trying to impersonate Rip Van Winkle.

I’m beginning to miss body hair in general.  The other day, my youngest son was glancing over my shoulder while I was poking through a magazine.  On one page was an ad for a hair removal product.  The pretty model held an old photo of herself as a pre-teenager.  Her arm used to be covered in black down.  Not too crazy, just the sort that Italian girls might have sported when I was a kid.

Son said, “EWWW. Yuuuuck.”

“Huh?” I replied, as he pointed to what was grossing him out.  “That hair?  So what?”

And here’s the thing: he says, NOT something about her or other girls, but about himself: “I hope my arms don’t ever get like that.”

Well, my beloved kiddo, they MIGHT!

I was expecting him to say something negative about girls, but apparently very few girls even at his young age have any arm hair any more.  Are their parents shaving it off?  Waxing it?  They are not old enough for laser. . .I think.

I find his reaction so very ironic because when he was an infant, one of his self-soothing gestures was to suck his thumb while he gently yanked and smoothed the hair on my arm. . .or his father’s or his grandparents’.  I mean, my arm hair is  a smattering of blonde, or at the very darkest, light ginger growth, but it is graspable.  Oh, the sweet memories of his nursing, while he played with the little hairs on my wrist.

I’m sure there is some deep Freudian something at the root of his pubescent yuck of a hairy arm on himself.  I’m not sure I want to go there.

But more than likely, it is simply modern culture that is destroying his future self-esteem, should he grow up to be as fuzzy as his grandfathers.  Or Mom.

I know the trend of shearing the body to the skin is nothing new on the female side of the genders.  Years ago when I was divorced and had jumped back into the dating pool, I tried the waxing.  My arms suffering first, which bled,  stopped me from trying the wax in a more hairy, more tender region for sure.  In fact, my arm hair became ingrown, once the somewhat curly bits started filling in, causing a rash the likes of smallpox.

I had to go on a first date on one of the hottest days of the year wearing long sleeves. And of course, the date asked me, why the hell are you dressed like that?

Because YOU IDIOTS have decided hair is gross.

Even farther back in time, before the naked pubic bone trend, while I was teaching in a southern, “traditional” school, meaning a place where the men still saw themselves as the lions of the home, we came to a reading passage in a book which mentioned something about hair on a girl’s legs.

A young man shouted out how disgusting that was.  A young lady next to him said, “Lots of women around the world never shave their legs or their armpits.”

“Not their armpits?!!” he griped.  “That’s just plain dirty!”

“So,” I said,  “Really?  Why don’t you shave your armpits then?  Somehow YOURS are nice and clean? And hers,“ pointing at the girl  ”Are dirty?”

“Well. . .yeah!” said the boy.

I said, “HOW?  Don’t men sweat more?  Don’t they have more hair?  If so, how is it cleaner exactly?”

He started turning red.

I continued, “I think you should stand up now and say to all the ladies in class that you are simply a cleaner human being than they are, but that you could be even cleaner.  And then offer to shave your pits.”  He put his head down on the desk to shut me out and said not another word.

The hypocritical thing is that I did shave my pits then.  And I had no intention of stopping and no intention of men ever doing it.

I’ve accepted that this is just how things are.  So much so that a few weeks ago when everyone was up in arms over Sansa Stark being graphically raped by Bolton in Game of Thrones, and more so when R. R.  George Martin stated this was simply realistic to the time period setting, I couldn’t be bothered to ask, “If you are trying to be realistic to a time period then why is Cersei not covered in leg hair, or worse, why does Cersei have a ‘narrow landing strip’ of hair on her pubis.  Pretty modern. . .”

But the bald woman has become so “normal” I stayed out of that argument on misogyny.  I figured it was the actress herself who wouldn’t be caught dead with hairy legs on T.V..

BUT NOW. . .men are joining the changing trend .  And I don’t like it.

I happen to love a hairy chest, arms and legs on my men.  Whether a tiny smattering in that concave area between the pecs, or a thatch from shoulders to naval and below;  Think 1980s Alec Baldwin or Sean Connery? YUM!

I feel badly for men in general, and my sons specifically, that now they are beginning to suffer the grooming demands of a hair-fearing culture.  Sure, I can see the appeal of a slip-and-slide chest that some women crave.  But the vanity and the procedures behind maintaining such is so unappealing.  If it is natural, okay.  If not, don’t go there, Guys

I also feel badly for the young ladies whose mental picture has been so shaped by their culture that they cannot love a downy chest the way I can.  The Black silk that lines my husband’s stomach.  Tingly nirvana, Women!

And I hate that my children may have ANY itch of self-loathing due to the demands of hair-hating women.  My oldest son whose chest is fuzzy blond does pick and pull at it, and has wondered aloud about shaving it.

I cannot tell him that when I was back in the dating pool years ago after his father and I split, I dated a MUCH younger man. To my shock, the guy groomed his privates and shaved his chest. And even as recently as he had done so, I was completely turned off by the mere stubble on his stomach, and the weird crew cut feel of his pubis.  Of course, I guess men are used to that feel from their wives or girlfriends . . .but I’m not going to discuss that with my son.

Not quite.  I simply said, “Not all women want a naked little boy chest.  Some women prefer MEN.  Keep your hair.”

Come on!  If we can shape people into this current baldy viewpoint, let’s reshape them back to the other.

When a Parent Backs Off

I have two sons, with almost eight years between them. On most days, watching us from a secret Big Brother-like camera, our interactions and love are enviable. Some days you might consider calling DEFACs, or whatever family services acronym works near you. Both of my sons are gifted, based on their IQs. Both sons, to varying degrees have ADHD; my youngest, whose ADD is bad enough to warrant meds. also suffers from dysgraphia, the outie to dyslexia’s innie, and a mild memory issue. These keep him locked in special education, rather than soaring in “gifted” classes.

All things school came easily to me. Sure, I whined over the real life value of torturous calculus, but once I stopped weeping, I did it. For my youngest, this is not the case, and it makes it hard for me to relate. The current structures of the American school system frustrate him even more than you could understand. He faces ridiculous tests that, being a teacher myself, I know often cover irrelevant information, or worse the test writers phrase questions in such a way that the original intent of the objective is lost.

(For example, “Objective: students will apply a variety of sentence patterns in their writing.” Resulting Multiple Choice Test Question: “Read the following sentence, then choose the correct pattern that correlates with these sentences” is different from being able to actually create varied sentences. Thus, kids are drilled on recognizing these pattern types. Worse this question carries as much weight as recognizing poor verb usage, because each objective gets a question on the multiple choice test. I think the average American should be able to use verbs, but not label a sentence’s pattern as SVDOIO, right? Do most people even KNOW what I just wrote?)

Besides pointless testing that determines his future, every year my son meets teachers who, because of pay for performance rules that measure their failure rate, seem less interested in breaking his code and reaching him than in covering their asses. From the moment they meet him they begin collecting evidence of why it isn’t their fault he is failing, and send me messages, which go straight into their files: “Your son is very smart but he did not do his work. Your son sat and stared off into space. Your son took an hour to do what took everyone else ten minutes.”. Then they dust off their hands and say to themselves, they’ve done all they can do.

Because there is controversy over the existence of ADHD, some teachers just shrug it off, and gossip among themselves about my parenting, thinking if I just took his video games away, that boy would learn to work. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Apparently, I put my child into the stigma saturated hellhole called Special Ed, because I want him to have more time on his Play Station, playing Destiny. I’m trying to cover up his “poor work ethic” by damaging his reputation with riding “the short bus.”. I prefer him to be called “dumb” by his mainstreamed peers, rather than cracking the whip.

I go through this the first few months every school year until his teachers realize I mean business, and I expect them to do their jobs, explaining, “The fact that he stares off in to space and cannot easily put his words on a page is WHY he is in special Ed. You cannot simply say he isn’t working and then wash your hands of him. That’s like saying about your deaf students, they can’t hear my lessons. You’ll have to solve that at home.” They squirm and get pissed off and often decide to pit themselves against me, sending me little CYA notes almost everyday.

Apparently, in order to allow a child to fail, teachers just have to say, I assigned XYZ, and he didn’t do it.

But here’s the thing about special education. It is supposed to be SPECIAL. If you recognize that my child is “super smart” and YOU are the expert, then you need to figure out how to get knowledge into his head, and then glean evidence that he knows it in some other way.

When we were kids, teachers could do just that: shape a lesson in a special way for a special kid. Can you imagine Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller in today’s schools? Would she have said, “Ma’am, your child seemed to stare off into space when I assigned that reading passage. She fails because she didn’t complete her work.”. The girl went off to Princeton because she had a woman who cracked her code.

SO, each year, I get riled up; it takes me months to get teachers on board with the whole it is your JOB thing. I understand their frustration; I struggle during his homework time. ( I mean WHY does a kid who can do the word problem in his head have to explain his process in WORDS? Why can’t he just write the answer in numbers? And why does it take my kid two hours, filled with tears and hair loss.) I get the teachers’ frustration But they are his teachers not I. If I were,I could adjust his lessons; if I were, I’d have a special degree in his disability, right?

I was particularly riled up this past week, facing the, “your kid’s lazy” crap from a fresh batch of teachers. I have a number of “Twelve Steppers” in my life who advise me; from an anti-codependent stand point, trying to change his teachers is too controlling of me. I’m supposed to “let go and let God.” I hear, your son is old enough now, he can suffer his own consequences.

I heard the same advice when my oldest was in the ninth grade and not working up to his potential. But what if he flunks? Well, summer school. Well, what if he doesn’t get into a good college because of that! Well, he’ll figure it out on his own.

I yelled, punished, rewarded, all things a parent does to try and get their kid in line. But I eventually took the advice and let go. He got himself through, improving as time went on. He began improving. No, he did not go the Harvard, though he had the IQ. He goes to a community school by choice to save money, and lives at home still, and we have a calm, loving friendship now. The twelve steppers say it is because I backed off.

But I just don’t think that advice will work with my youngest. To say that he has to live with the consequences of his actions assumes he has a choice here. His disability doesn’t allow him many choices. He cannot choose to spell that word right or even notice it is wrong. He cannot choose to ignore the misbehaving kids in the next row (and special Ed classes lump learning and behavior problems together. There are plenty of actions he struggles to ignore.) So does that make me codependent because I am trying to control his education?

Really?

Sorry. I’d rather continue to mother him properly and be labelled a control freak than let him slip through the giant cracks in our education system. Too many of his teachers would be relieved to just ignore him.

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.