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.

The Son who Loves those ‘Dorky Fantasies’ and the Mom who Loves him.

This started back when he was still small, probably six or seven. He could read, but I was still in the habit of reading to him each night. We had already finished as many Harry Potters as had been published by then, (which I loved; the dry humor always reminded me of Roald Dahl of my own childhood.) But Graham was now ready for The Hobbit, a natural boyish progression in the land of Fantasy fiction.

My own brother had tried to work me through all those plots too, when I was a child. He loved Tolkien, along with futuristic books like Dune, and anything by Ursula Le Guin. We were both children of the library. Being the hero-worshipping younger sister, I tried my hardest to fall in love with The Hobbit, but I didn’t get very far. It did inspire me to try writing my own inner Earth fantasy with talking bugs and moles and elves, complete with colored drawings. I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, even The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series sort of bored me. I was more of a Jane Eyre, Little Women, April Morning sort of girl.

But then came my son. . .and a copy of The Hobbit.

This is honestly the only time I have fallen asleep while reading. . .and this was reading out loud. I’d get into the rhythm of pronouncing made up lands, made up people and made up vocabulary, and I’d just doze off, the book smacking me in the face. It was like reading to my son in a foreign language; I completely disconnected from my own voice. Oh, I tried. I’d literally prop my own eyelids up with my free finger tips. My poor boy would begin poking me because just before the book would nosedive, I’d start to ramble and mumble.

“Mommy. . .MOMmy! READ!” He was so hurt. Sadly, he finally took over and just read The Hobbit to himself. This might have been both my greatest failure and my finest success as a Mom.

Later came the Lord of the Ring movies. (I got to skip the books, halleleuah.) I adore movies, and I wanted to love the series to the point of obsession, just like everyone else on the planet. (What could possibly be wrong with any movie with Orlando Bloom, anyway?) Though I was a willing viewer of Part 1, Father and son had to force me to Parts 2 and 3. There is only so much Fight, Flee, Inspirational Speeches, Fight, Flee, Inspirational Speeches plot sequencing a woman can stand. Sure. Sure. We loved calling each other Precious for months, too, but I fell asleep during much of the films. They exhausted me.

When Hollywood finally got around to The Hobbit, my second, much younger son had been indoctrinated. So the whole family along with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law had to go. How could I say no. I literally walked out when the first reverent candle-lighting dwarf sing-a-long cropped up. Was I the only one who wanted to both groan and giggle at the sheer silliness of its pretension? Somber Dwarves, Hobbits, AND Gregorian chants? Too much. My family caught up with me rewatching Jack Reacher in another theater.

SOOOO. . .along comes my oldest son wanting to share his beloved Game of Thrones series of books. Luckily, The Hobbit all those years ago had not fully stopped our readers’ dialogue. He loved my Watership Down, I enjoyed his The Giver. But I knew with maps and zombielike creatures, I was heading into Tolkien-like territory with the GoT collection. Winter was coming, for sure.

I made it through the first two books okay. Admittedly, I ate through them in a week. No small feat at 800 plus pages each. Graham loved it and me for it. He could hint at what plot developments would come next, (where-spoiler alert-everyone must die!) He relished how many times I had to reference his giant Westeros map since my eyes are too old for the teensy ones in the books. . .even with “readers”. He could share my hatred of the same evil characters, but become defensive when I was getting offended by how incestuous every family was. The Lannisters, the Targaryans, the Wildling Craster, even a moment with the Greyjoys. . . what was up with author George R.R. Martin and his sister that this is the titillating plot he leans on so often. . .really? Luckily my son was old enough to discuss my distaste. . .

But by Book 3, I was suffering the Tolkien headache, the issue of a repetitious, never-flipping-resolved plot line. Remember that movie The Neverending Story with its addictive song? Whenever Graham came into my room for a plot discussion update, I just began singing, “It’s the never-ending stooooooreeeeee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee! eee!”

And as much as I loved connecting with Graham, I was starting to hate Martin. I didn’t want to face anymore dreary, muddy, starving, freezing, blood-drenched scenes where people I liked died. Horrendously. I gave up. I stopped. I found myself for the first time wanting to Wikipedia a damned book just to skip to the end, though I didn’t because, well, like I said: everyone dies. I figured I already knew the end.

A year later, I am home on medical leave, which leaves me time for reading. Out of reader’s desperation, I picked up Book 3 of Song of Ice and Fire (the real name of the series) again, only to find it as my favorite of the four I have read so far. After finding the chapter where I left off (pretty early, like chapter six or so) and after picking through Graham’s memory bank, I jumped back in.

I could not recall why I had gotten so burned out, for I enjoyed every word of the rest of that book (except maybe when he drones on with a bunch of minor characters’ names and histories-I skip those). Maybe it takes Martin a few books to finally find his rhythm? Maybe he stopped focusing on the incestuous and the sodomous? Whatever it is, I began to enjoy his characterizations, his ability to make us both love and hate a character (always a sign of a great writer.). Why in the world can I love the Jaime Chapters? How could Tyrion be my favorite voice? Why did I like the Sansa chapters and Graham hated them?

Graham is now of the age that he can discuss the deeper elements of fiction, the literary critical theories that apply. He was better versed than I at this, in fact; he knew what all the experts were saying about pretty much everything to do with the novels: theories on Martin’s psyche and process, analysis of Martin’s views on females, his use of famed mythology crossed with fictionalized history, and on and on. We have had some very intellectual (and pretentious) conversations, my son and I.

I’ve gotten so fond of the series (I am up to his fifth and final book, and I’m holding off just to savor it) that I take umbrage with the back cover blurb, calling Martin “the modern age Tolkien.” Whaaat? I’ve never hit myself in the face with any of George R.R. Martin’s books.

And let me say, Graham and I agree: Martin’s grasp of the greys of the human spirit, when it comes to the age-old good vs. evil themes, is so far superior to the stark whites and blacks of anything by Tolkien.

I know I was slow to the conversation on the GoT hubbub. But that’s okay. The books washed away my failings as a Hobbit reader and allowed me access back into my now grown son’s “dorky fantasy” world. (Those of us feeling left out use the word “dorky” as a defense mechanism, you know.) He can’t wait till I can bring myself to watch the actual TV series. I don’t relish watching the sex scenes with my “child” in the room. I’ll try to be as mature as Graham and not actively squirm. I’ve already checked out IMd and approved the pics of who plays whom. Wonderfully, one day soon, my youngest son, will be old enough to join the conversation as well. ..

Thanks, George Martin! May mothers everywhere embrace this chance to be on the same page as their sons.

Prejudice on Prejudice: Self-delusion


I live in the South. I should not have been as shocked as I was.

I say that, but I have often tried to defend the South, protect it from its own reputation. Back in grad school, Sarah Lawrence, famed for its liberalism in gender issues, gender equality, rich-kid black sheep, politics, agri-awareness, gluten free before most knew what gluten was, I had a roommate from Minnesota, still a dear friend. She came home with me one summer for a few weeks as college roomies tend to. Her very first crossing of the Mason-Dixon line. I quickly discovered she stepped off the plane feeling guarded, ready to step into activist mode just in case she witnessed inevitable acts of racism.

I laughed at her, really. What decade did she think she had deplaned into? What I watched instead was a young woman who had never really experienced integration. Here, she sat on buses, ate in restaurants, walked through galleries where workers and customers alike were black and white, socializing, equal. She liked to view herself as open-minded and completely racial-bias free, though reared in a 99.9% white city, attending the most expensive college in North America, where the only students in the one African American Literary studies class were all of the 27 African-American SLC students and one little white gal from the South, me (not her). It was tough for her to whisper to me in the Peachtree Diner that she just didn’t expect so many black people. She wasn’t a racist; just inexperienced. Easy to judge race relations isn’t it, when you never actually HAVE any yourself, right?

I returned to this theme when my husband took me for my second visit to San Francisco, his home town, famed for always being forward in human rights issues.
Again I found myself defending my South. We had spent the day sight seeing with one of Tony’s closest friends and his wife. Before they collected us at our hotel, we had encountered a completely naked man riding his bicycle around the Embarcadero fountain. Our youngest son who was nine at the time was so utterly shocked. Wasn’t that against the law (as his more modest older brother had threatened each time our youngest  streaked  the house after his baths)? He wanted to report this naked man to the local Mountie, who simply shrugged. Nine year olds are the fonts of Right vs. Wrong, and tattling. We quickly realized that hundreds of naked men, fleshy and taut alike, were straddling bikes for an annual protest of some sort. Hilarious little story we were sharing later with our friends-slash-tour guides.

Somehow this discussion transcended into parenting issues: whether living in SF where men can dangle their testicles out in public is as kid friendly as the South, where they believed racists bloomed on every veranda. Who would ever choose to raise children in the dirty South. . .? I defended this prejudice from folks who had never been to the South except maybe to gas up the family jet on their way to Europe.

I didn’t ingratiate myself when I asked just why they didn’t live or shop in Oakland? Why I didn’t see any African Americans sitting in this, their favorite restaurant, where we were enjoying each other’s company. I shared my observations of my former roommate’s visit. I don’t think they understood my point that they were as segregated as could be, but saw themselves as so evolved. Again, easy to judge when you don’t have any real race relations of your own to reflect upon.

I think what they heard me say was that racism is okay when you actually do have to rub shoulders. No, no. Not at all. My point was that the South in many ways has advanced much beyond where much of the rest of the country has, and one cannot know or praise his or her own metal unless it has been tested.

Last summer another close friend from California came to stay with us. Mike has three sons, two of whom are of mixed race, African-American and Thai. His youngest son and ours are great fast-friends, lego lovers, video game enthusiasts, mud grubbers in general. They see each other as cousins the way sons of good friends do. Again. . .sigh. . .Again, I was faced with that chip-on-shoulder mentality, the second Mike deplaned. He felt defensive in his son’s honor. I am not sure what he expected. Insults? Spit? After taking the boys to Walmart for a squirt gun run, he came home feeling exposed. He believed people were staring at this white Dad and his dark-skinned child.

“Both blacks and whites were looking at me funny.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes! Man, it was weird.”

“Are you sure?” I laughed at him. “Noooooo. Really?” I was not buying it.

“Well. . .I think so. . .” he waffled.

I launched into the story of my former college roommate, her assumptions. Mike acknowledged that he had never seen so many various races in one suburb before, just like my roomie had noted years ago. My hubby snorted at him, too, and said, “I think you’re just too sensitive.”

I teach at a local school, which is integrated, but majority black. If I was forced to guess, I would say that a good 25% of my kids are of mixed race, with one parent being white or Latino and the other African American. No one is giving each other the stink eye at Open House PTA nights. I can probably look up the stats since census loves to pigeon hole us. But my point to our friend Mike was this: “I’d bet that seeing you and your son is more ‘normal’ to the people you run into here than to the circles you encounter out West.”

Yes, I was right. His son attends a school that is primarily white. Mike knows very few other integrated families. But because being so liberal is knee-jerk there, Mike assumes that his segregated community isn’t nearly as judgmental as my South is. He was projecting his fears onto these Walmart shoppers.

What should we call this prejudice, the South-is-all-Racist-ism? Southernerphobia?

So here I am. . .a history of defending the new South, feeling that we have crossed bridges that other people haven’t even witnessed yet. So when I say I was shocked, but I don’t know why since I am in the deep South, I’m ironic.

This past Sunday, my mother-in-law who retired here from San Carlos, California, five years ago loves to throw St. Paddy’s day parties. She had us, my sister and brother-in-law, and several of her neighbors over for Corned Beef and Cabbage. I finally got to meet the famously sweet, Gloria, a retired baker who had been praying and baking for me for months now. I had eaten some of her most delicious strawberry cakes, lemon pound cakes, and tea cookies, for she knew I had been hospitalized and recuperating from major surgery, and gave to me because she loves her neighbor; it’s what Godly Southern women do. With her elegant upswept hair, her feminine sweater-set and pearls, she bear-hugged me and drawled about how many prayers she had been sending to God just for me to get better.

Somehow, even though we have been taught repeatedly to never discuss religion or politics in social settings, the discussion shifted to politics as it does in a social setting. Started on the topic of beer, shifted to “best beer”, to Yuengling, then to Obama’s favorite beer being Yuengling.

Sweet little old cake baker opens her mouth, “Oh Lord, not Obama. . .”starts to hesitate, but says, “Oh, I’m sure everyone here agrees with my vote. . .” Scary, words, those.

My dear sister-in-law laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t know. A bunch of us are from California. . .heh heh.”  As in Hint. Hint.  Don’t go there, Lady.

This doesn’t stop old lady from saying with such sharpened vitriol, “I just don’t know why somebody hasn’t SHOT that black boy yet!”

My mouth fell open.   She was so Certain we agreed. Probably proud that she had politely said ” boy” instead of the forbidden N word. I HUFFED at her, but she kept talking on and on, and all I could do was say as gently as possible, “Really! Okay, enough of that. We do NOT all agree with you. That is enough of that talk. Stop it now.” And I stormed into the kitchen, well, as fast as my recuperating body can move.

I am not coddled here;  I have experienced and witnessed acts of racism from my peers and students;  (“White people smell like wet dog” to “Oh, I can’t learn here if it’s going to be all black . .. “) BUT I had not heard anything that racist since I was a child stationed with my Dad outside of Boston. I had definitely  never heard anything that unpatriotic, that TREASONOUS in person. Ever.

How could I break bread with this woman in a few minutes and sit down later to a plate full of her cake? I did not want to ruin my sweet Mother-in-law’s dinner simply because a particular breed of bird was singing her breed’s tune. Luckily, my reaction was enough to cow the lady, who was morosely quiet during dinner, and who then skittered away soon after her last bite.

But I felt all my defense of how far we’d come in The South was just a waste of my breath. Was it? Or is she just some old lady squawking what seemed normal to her generation? SHE is why my friends come here with their defenses up; no matter how ivory tower some of my friends might be, there is always some Genteel Christian Racist to help them feel liberal.

Can Competition and Collaboration Co-exist?

Is true collaboration possible in a competitive environment?rolling

I recall a rush of articles about the American Business Model decades ago
asserting that though the foundation of capitalism was competition, as our world went global, Americans needed to examine a new model: cooperation, collaboration.

Group work? Seriously? Sure, we learned in Apollo 13 that a small group of men collaborated with an inner tube, a box and some toothpaste to bring home a space capsule of Americans. . .but how often do we really need to do that?

Group work over individual accomplishments has gone in and out of fashion in the classroom far longer than businesses have attempted it, because it cuts the grading work load by half for teachers, (though we slyly argued that it helped in student engagement, and we quoted all the business magazines about the futuristic wave of collaboration.) However, Americans notoriously have a love-hate relationship with group work; we all know that one person seems to get the brunt of the work, others resent feeling unheard by control freaks, and still others exploit riding on the backs of the workhorses. This has been sticky enough-uncomfortable and unnatural to our competitive roots-so much so that whole businesses have developed just to cash in on ridding us of our ignorance of how to behave productively in group-work situations.

And when that fails, group work in schools is discouraged, considered unfair, even sometimes called lazy. There was a point as recently as ten years ago when my own school made group work against the rules, simply because of potential law suits in “truth in grading.” (Read, Parent A didn’t want Parent B’s kid to affect or benefit from Parent A’s kid’s work/grade.) So out the door group work flew. Slowly as power changed hands in my school, people forgot it was against the rules, and it became again de rigueur, to the point where it is now the trend, not just in the classroom, but in the conference rooms among teachers, across the nation.

The American redesigned business model has finally filtered into the mandates (not just the personal preferences) of our teachers’ work lives. Instead of working in isolation, building our lessons from books, online sites, and our own creativity, we are encouraged to, in some cases forced to, meet with our colleagues and plan, even submit, lessons together on often a weekly basis.

By now, however, I question in a different way those articles of years ago: can competition and collaboration thrive together? Sure athletes can be friends with those against whom they compete, partly due to admiration, partly due to common burden, but they rarely will share their secrets to success if it means the opponent has an edge over them. Think of what the NFL goes through to make sure the opposition doesn’t get hold of their play-books. Omaha! Omaha! Omaha! Indeed.

In the education setting however, we are forced to collaborate, but then often we are held in competition. Teacher of the year? Teacher of the month? Teacher who gets verbal accolades of any kind. Those things alone might not slow us from sharing. . .but a fan base of students might. Or far worse, a conniving powerful administrator.

I have sat in collaboration groups where Teacher So and So is held up as superior. . .”The rest of you should be more like him. . .” He is notorious for not playing well with others; he balks at collaboration; he shoots holes in other people’s ideas vocally, cruelly. Okay, how much of that is arrogance?

And how much of that is trying to keep more of the praise spotlight for himself?competition

The same conniving administrator, whose job depends on students’ scores, likes to pit teachers against each other, making it seem like a friendly competition to see whose state mandated test scores will be higher. (Then administrator rewards winner with smaller class sizes, the room with a window, the course everyone covets teaching. Puppy-treats to teachers.). So then. . . why would teachers share lessons with each other if this comparison results in honor or rewards from winning? (Wouldn’t that be like Microsoft passing along tech ideas to Apple?) Recently, when someone noted how different a colleague and I are in style, I heard from conniving administrator: “Ewwww. I can’t wait to compare your AP scores. . .it will be exciting to see whose are higher.” Does this encourage my colleague to help MY students do their best?

In one weekly “team”, members were once told that another teacher, let’s call her Ms. CheaterButt, had the lowest failure rate (as in zero kids ever fail her classes; we collaborators all know she just passes kids because she doesn’t believe 9th graders should fail, even students with a 27 average days before grades are due suddenly pops out with a 70.) Then we heard we have to sit there and learn “from her” how to design our lessons because she beat us at some unseen competition called “failure rate rally race.” Again, we would have, at one point, happily shown her how to design her lessons so that she doesn’t just have to arbitrarily pass her students, and we certainly don’t want to take any of her lessons. But we won’t now. Instead, we resentfully sit quietly on top of our knowledge. . .while conniving administrator sings CheaterButt’s praises. This particular collaboration group got so competitive that the only time people shared any novel, effective ideas at the weekly meetings was when the conniving administrator occasionally appeared; suddenly we were cutting each other off at the feet to dazzle our boss.

I admit it: I am sometimes guilty of not wanting to share simply because I like being my kids’ favorite teacher. I am a natural competitor. I like having lessons students both enjoy and learn from, and yes, then silently lording it over my pals when kids want me, not them, for a teacher. Who doesn’t. This is probably the same as an actor winning the People’s Choice Award. But the trouble is, this attitude isn’t good for students. Yes, it motivates me to come up with good plans. But it keeps many of us from wanting to share lessons. I force myself to ignore my inner emotional beast because. . .well. . .it is the right thing to do. I have friends with whom I collaborate nicely, and I always have, even before it was fashionable; and I am always open to sharing with anyone, competitors and cheaters alike. But even then, the open ranking of my being “better” can cause people not to want share with me, or even hear my ideas (Oh, she thinks she is such hot shit. . .) Competition when it comes to collaboration does not necessarily lead to mature thinking. . .

In one of those popular American Business Model articles of years past, there was a story of an American Technology Company that had opened a location in Japan, hiring some of the brightest, most innovative people in the country. They were hoping to have fresh ideas, growth, etc.. The employees were set up in groups, departments, teams as they saw themselves. The company started a program, where individual employees could suggest ideas for improvement, cutting costs, enhancing productivity, design ideas. The single employee who suggested that month’s best idea, would win a dinner to a local restaurant. Months went by with not one idea in the box. The company repeatedly upped the stakes, even offering a weekend trip away, to no avail. NO ideas. Where were these Japanese brains, the American owners wondered.

Eventually the American manager heading the idea box pulled one of the Japanese managers aside and asked for his opinion. What he found was that competition among individuals of a team was considered bad form, dare I say dishonorable. To take an idea for improvement, to call it your own, to lay claim to the individual rewards was an insult to your team members, since very few of us work in a vacuum. This concept of pitting fellow employees against each other was distasteful, and went against the sense of community and family that was traditional in Japan. As soon as the company began rewarding teams, departments for successful ideas, the box was full of innovative ideas.

The lesson learned here has filtered to some of the most successful American companies today: Apple, Google, Ford, even Starbuck’s. They have all embraced collaborative thinking, and team reward to obvious results.

collabThis sticks with me as I continue to be forced to collaborate under the rule of a competition loving boss. Are children benefiting from such open individual comparisons between teachers? Is it really good for me to be Teacher-of-the-Year, “Most Inspirational Teacher”, or will it cause my peers to withhold their successful lessons from me, and thus my students. . .? Yes, I hate group work for the same reasons everyone else does: I sometimes end up writing more than my share of documents, or doing more research than others, but collaboration isn’t group work exactly. It’s idea firing. It’s sharing of what works, what can be improved. If honors, awards, titles, and even Pay-for-performance falls to individual comparisons between teachers, who will ever want to pass along effective plans? Only those with children’s best interests at heart. I’d like that to be every teacher, but it is unlikely.

Five Things You Hate about Teachers and What You Can Do About Them. . ..

5. We Have Summers Off.

(And Christmas, and Easter, and Thanksgiving. . . ) so many breaks, you’d expect EVERYone would try to become teachers. I can’t count how many times people work this issue into the conversation once they discover I am a career teacher. Currently, close to two-thirds of newly minted teachers quit the profession within three years of gaining a full-time teaching position, never to return. Maybe they were women with a “Mrs. Degree” who were just waiting for Mister Right to marry them, so they could work at home raising their own kids and not yours. Maybe they landed a rewarding spot on American Idol. But whatever it is, the summer breaks were just not long enough to keep that two-thirds in education for a career.

Just the other day, a man I had just met, literally, said to me, out of the blue, upon discovering I am a teacher, “You know, I hear these complaints about them teacher salaries (I had not been complaining about a thing.). . .Y’all got three months off in the summer, go get a job in the summer if you all want more money instead of sitting on your rear ends.” He said it with a pleasant smile like it is completely socially acceptable to insult someone you just met about their profession as so many people do to teachers.

I just sighed and did not correct his grammar, nor his incorrect count of how much time I have off in the summers. I didn’t even try to discuss how many hours we work in a year stuffed into ten months. . .or how many redundant classes I have to take each Summer.. . .or explore the salary scale/experience/pay-per-hour-worked ratio compared to other careers. I learned to stop doing that a long time ago. I simply smile now and say, “Oh, I agree. Why don’t you go into teaching, so you can enjoy summers off?” and walk away.

4. We can’t be fired.

I know. That dirty thing called tenure. First, be honest: every job has due process, every single one. If you have not enjoyed due process when you were let go, then either you were screwed and you need a lawyer, or you were laid off. Teachers get cut when there are not enough jobs, and we sometimes meet the nasty end of due process. I have known teachers who have lost their jobs for being drunk, stoned, or just bad. I have known drunk docs and immoral lawyers who are still practicing, protected by members of their profession. All it takes in any case is a boss who is willing to do the paper work, willing to go through due process, yet often they are too busy, or too political, or even too lazy to do so.

To fire a teacher brings public scrutiny that doesn’t happen in most jobs. (How often do most jobs and their failings get accounted for in the media? Education is always in the media. In fact, I recently heard yet another dig at tenure on Tim Allen’s latest comedy.)

But imagine you have a principal willing to do the due process and bring on the public scrutiny: to prove someone is a weak teacher is difficult since the standard for quality varies and seems subjective Sure, you’d think that the public would all agree about who is good, but people really don’t. For instance, the guy who curses in class, yells at your kids till they cry, has a high failure rate, but gets great results on Nationally Normed Tests. . .or the teacher who is positive, supportive, motivates quality projects from children, coaches everything, has a high pass rate, but a somewhat questionable result on national tests. . .which educator is best? Not everyone values nationally normed tests as the only indicator of talent in a teacher. Many principals face these conflicts: teachers who have strengths and weaknesses. It is rare to hire perfection, which is what we want in our teachers. And the principal also knows the old adage: the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know.

Due process takes any boss precious time to document; when a principal finally succeeds at letting the weak teacher go, and then hunts for someone better, he or she takes months sometimes to find a strong applicant. You’d think in this economy, there would be talent climbing out of our pores. But, no, not so. And trying to hire qualified replacements in classically “tough” schools with higher crime, higher failure, is nearly impossible; few apply. So stop thinking that we can’t be fired. We can, just as easily as you. The difference is that when people lose a job in most industries, the boss just makes their colleagues pick up the slack. Principals cannot do that.

3. We were often “C” level students in college or high school.

The most embarrassing statistics prove this true. While that doesn’t describe me or many of my fellow teachers, it is generally correct. What’s worse, teacher’s education programs are notoriously tedious in work load, but lacking in intellectual demands, so we are talking about “C” students in non-rigorous degrees. What are you willing to do about it? You demand excellence from medical students and law students and even engineers, why not education majors? (Well, I personally think there should be no such thing as education majors; I am as appalled as you when I discover one of my children’s teachers is a numbskull).

Much of my explanation about tenure and summer breaks applies here. The trouble is. . .whenever any state does raise standards, folks stop going into the profession (or worse, fewer folks qualify), and then there is a teacher shortage. With that, we are forced to hand out provisional teaching certificates to people with no training at all just to fill the seats. Does this problem exist because academically sound graduates have plenty of work options. . .? School systems are victimized by supply and demand (Not enough high level graduates going into education), by their funds (richer counties hire the better candidates), by even the colleges and what they are doing with their students (some colleges are paper mills).

2. We are with your kids more than you are.

Admit it. When you first sent your babies off to school, aside from the secret joy you felt that you had more free time, or that your day care bill was going down, you were uncomfortable with someone else being so central in your child’s life. Studies in child development show that children shift their hero-identity focus from parent to teacher around first grade. So instead of a child believing your word is like God’s, now it’s “Mrs. Belachik says this. Mrs. Belachik says that. ..” ad nauseum. This does not sit right. In fact this sits so poorly that I have watched my friends and neighbors tear apart teachers behind the closed doors of Bunko Games, Book Clubs, and Scrap booking meets, discussing their children’s teacher’s clothes, their personal lives, wedding faux pas, pregnancies, husbands, as if we teachers are cast members of Housewives of Education County, not the professionals who love their kids. Jealousy is an ugly beast to feed.

Add in that we are around your kids for 8 hours a day in elementary school while you are with them, once they finish their bus rides, perhaps 6 waking hours- some of which they spend away from you with buddies, computers, television. . .You should be a little jealous. Even in high school, teachers seem to spend more time with your kids than you do, since as teens mature, they spend even less time with their parents; today’s families rarely eat, ride in cars, or watch television together.

1. We are the government (who once controlled you.)

I know you try to overcome this truth by acting like you are the boss who pays my salary. Never mind that you pay the salaries of anyone who provides you a good or service. . .what makes you so irritable is that this salary you pay us just pops right out of your paycheck and moves into a system that the media loves to tell you is failing.

Think of how we feel. Imagine when you have been shaped to question any form of government, its intentions, its policies, its spending, its system of “checks and balances”, its buddy politics. . .and then you go to work for that very government. It is your boss.

Most people I know who stand around at cocktail parties complaining about the governor, the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, etc.. are the same ones who complain about education. Ironically, they don’t seem to know that any education system is one of the most political machines out there. Who sets the education budget? The government of that state. Who defines standards? The government of that state (along with people who moved out of the classroom usually within seven years of their teaching career to become politicians/lobbyists on some governor’s panel.) Who runs your local system? A board that campaigns for office. Who puts principles into power over your teachers? That very board. How does one get notice to earn a position of power from the board? Play into that board’s belief system. Who earns leadership roles under those same principals? The ones who say, “Yes!” to his/her every whim, no matter how ridiculous it seems. The system is designed to eliminate individual insight and creativity, and endorse sycophantic behavior. I imagine this is true in the business world too, or comic strips like Dilbert wouldn’t be so popular.

Teachers are at the mercy of any politician who is staging a campaign to his constituents. If you voters make it sound like you want higher standards, he says he will attach pay to performance. He doesn’t care what it does to your kids in the long run; he doesn’t even care if it’s a valid performance evaluation system. (Before you get all up in arms over student testing linked to teachers; I am all for it, once it is fair, infallible, irrefutable, and valid.) If you demand more discipline, then he creates a zero tolerance law. Or the opposite, if you are tired of zero tolerance rules, suddenly there are no rules. . .

And here’s a dirty secret. Many politicians use studies to prove whatever their whims are. Now those same studies were typically performed by students in education programs. . .education programs that are not rigorous. . .education programs that don’t care that the study sample was too small, or even “made up.” Education programs that never truly require validity testing in their published studies. Yes. True. Scary. (Did you not see my answer to number 3?) And if the studies are performed by a group that is not in an education degree track, then the group is trying to make money for their products, or a political lobbying group. The evidential studies the politicians lean on are not standardized studies like the sciences perform. They are filled with flaws, and distortions.

What can you do about a;; of this?

So then here we teachers are, hated for our free summers, hated because we are par-educated, hated because we get to see your kids more than you, hated because we are “the man” and toss in that, even though we suffer from the very government you do, we whimsically were at once in charge of you when you were a student. We gave you tests someone else told us to give, we demanded that you read things that some board approved, and sometimes we were rude to you because we were too busy with the other 37 kids in class. Probably. No wonder you hate us.

Resentment doesn’t bring change. Don’t just vote your people into office; examine the promises they make against reality. (You Floridians once actually believed your governor when he promised to cut the sizes of English classes in half. Californians at one point believed that every kid would get a state provided laptop. HELL, a whole load of people believed The Clintons and then The Bushes that everyone could be above average by this century. Really? Do the math.) Examine who moves into power and why in your entire education system. And definitely pay attention to how the money is spent.

Help come up with a clear cut picture of a good vs. a bad teacher. Discuss this seriously with your friends and coworkers. Principals and parents now have their personal opinions that vary vastly. I have known bad teachers-ones that seem illiterate-whom parents will defend to the end. I have known great teachers whom parents want to lynch simply because they weren’t passing out “A’s” like candy. So collectively, as a country we have to agree with what defines good teaching. As it is now, many of you don’t even agree about norm testing. And if you know of teachers who are truly bad, like grading arbitrarily, sleeping at their desk, drinking from their cupboards, writing illiterately in their email. . .document it, take it to the board, force the principal into due process. Don’t just criticize it.

Require improvement in the talent pool. I personally believe teachers should have to have Bachelor’s degrees in a tough core subject, then complete a rigorous Masters degree in Education before being credentialed. Getting into these graduate programs should require stellar GRE scores, not the current, lower than national average scores. Then, prior to being certified, teachers should pass boards that are as strict as those for other important professionals.

Ask yourself why this profession doesn’t draw/keep its intellectual talent. What can we do to make it more, say, palatable to smarter people? You know the answer to this is very difficult to find, which is why you probably are not a teacher with your summers free. It’s a tough, sometimes completely unrewarding job; as a taxation-based field, it can never offer financial rewards on par with other intellectually demanding careers. My own scores and records could have led me to med school or law school. But I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t care about the money. I hate blood and I hate legalese. My career rewards are my students’ success. But this isn’t enough to draw everyone to teaching.

Since the certification methods are unlikely to change, you must press your administrators to hire folks from the toughest colleges, with the highest scores on whatever test is most current for certification. Make it public. Make it embarrassing if you have to. Right now, pretty much all level colleges, from the “we take anyone with a pulse” community colleges to the private Ivy League offer teaching degrees. Only three in my state now offer law or medical degrees. You want “smarter” teachers, you have to change THAT-selectivity in education programs.

About your jealousy…It doesn’t matter how normal it is for your kids to transfer hero worship to us; even I, as a parent, want to clock a teacher now and then when I think she thinks she knows more about my kid than I do. I completely understand your discomfort. Once I became a mom, I learned how to communicate with parents of my students, for I suddenly related to what they fear. Build a relationship with your child’s teachers. I can tell you as a teacher, for parents who talk to me as a partner, not a servant, not an enemy, not a rival, somehow, I am psychologically unable to neglect their child. I try hard to see my children’s teachers as part of my team and make sure they know it.

There is much you can do to improve education. Do something. Don’t just walk up to a teacher you have just met and unload your personal bitterness. We are not the enemy, no matter how much you hated your 11th grade calculus teacher.