Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our Daughters

I remember, being in eighth grade, and wanting to grow up to be a teacher in the inner city. I devoured a constant stream of books about teacher success stories that could have easily been made into Disney movies. I was inspired and I believed that I too could change a piece of the world. My girlfriends also had dreams of growing up and pursuing careers. Nobody discouraged us from being whatever we wanted; we went on to college and graduate schools. Some of us pursued careers, some of us became full-time mothers and some tried to balance the two. This was before Title IX opened up playing fields to equalize access to athletics, before sexual harassment was outlawed and bias for college scholarships and financial aid was banned based on sex.

According to Dan Kindlon, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, my daughters are profoundly different from who I was at their age. He studied 900 girls and boys in grades 6 -12, from the US and Canada and concluded in his book, Alpha Girls: Understanding the new American Girl and How She is Changing the World:
This generation of girls can be labeled, “alpha girls” because data shows they outperform boys in grades, honors, high school graduation rates and college entrance. That this new girl power is characterized by ‘emancipated confidence’ that is raising self esteem, reducing depression and altering gender roles among girls and women.
Last night I was at my 12 year old daughter’s basketball tournament. Before the game, the opponents were sitting together in a group, waiting to go into the gym. As I watched them, I stubbornly realized that they really are different from who I was at that age and they are growing up with very different expectations. There were basketball teams for girls my age, heck, my mom played basketball in high school - but girls’ athletics was not given the legitimacy that it has today. We didn’t have Recreation leagues, Little League, summer sports camps and sports clinics. Of the four teams that were out on those two courts, last night, 3 of them had woman coaches. Today, girls believe they can be as good or even better than boys, their playtime counts and their competition is just as important. And it is. Those girls played hard, aggressive basketball. And this confidence carries over to their school performance as well.

Annually, I attend the Awards nights at our high school. I have been tracking this phenomenon since before my son graduated in 2005: By my rough estimate, at least 2/3 of the academic awards always go to girls. The National Honor Societies, whether for foreign languages or general academics, consist of a strong majority of girls and my kids tell me that the presence of testosterone in the Honors and AP classes is almost non-existent. I can’t remember the last time our high school valedictorian was male.

And it’s cool now for girls to be jocks or to be smart or even better to be both. When I was growing up, it was acceptable to excel in tennis or track, but enter the culture of male dominated sports and watch out. My best friend was captain of the girls’ basketball team. She was smart and an incredible athlete, but boys shied away from her - way too intimidating. We were class presidents, team captains and honors recipients. In fact, according to Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics, “girls have been ahead of boys in precollege education for well over 100 years: in high school graduation rates and in constituting 2/3 of honor students”. Here’s the difference: we weren’t taken seriously until the women’s movement accelerated change through Title IX, and other political and legal advancements.

In an article about this study in Harvard Magazine, the author acknowledges:
Today, there is a “paradigm shift in the way parents think about their girls’ options in the world. There’s a whole generation of girls whose creativity and intellect are being supported by their families. Their mothers and fathers are cheering them on, coaching them and setting the bar high, so that their ambition can soar and take them high”.
The playing field is leveling off and for the first time, girls and young women have an opportunity to realize their potential. They do have more self-confidence and great self esteem. They are definitely more empowered.

But, if Dan Kindlon is going to label these girls, “Alpha Girls”, then I take offense. The term “alpha girl” was coined to describe those horrible middle school bullies who rule the school, set the trends, decide who will be popular and who will be relegated to the lowest rung of the social ladder. We all knew them and even though they now have a title, they existed way before any of us were even born. The fact that Kindlon chooses this term to describe this present generation of young women is insulting and perpetrates the exact stereotype that women of my generation are trying to erradicate - that successful, professional women are backstabbing, power-hungry, disingenuous bullies.

And what about girls who do not have educational or economic advantages? Although Kindlon points out that there are “alphas” in the inner city, they are less widespread among low-income and minority girls. I believe there is still a lot of work needed in these communities before this entire generation of girls is on equal footing with the boys. The girls that Dan Kindlon characterizes still represent a fraction of the entire female population.

Putting the disparity among socioeconomic groups aside for a moment, I want to believe that my daughters are on the cusp of economic and social equality and they no longer have to “confront the psychological demons that used to affect girls and women in this country”, like I guess I did. Or at least I am told I did by the psychologists who wrote about my generation. But at the end of the day, the big issues remain unresolved. With 72% of American mothers working outside the home, the work/family challenge is widespread. “From a women’s rights point of view, that’s still the hardest hurdle to overcome.”

This is not just about women. I accept that our girls are different than we were. So this creates issues for both sexes. Now it’s about choices and the ability to choose the kinds of family couples will have, how child-rearing responsibilities will be shared and the division of labor. Unless this generation opts not to procreate, then all the strides that have been made to get girls on equal footing with their male counterparts will be for nothing. Once women enter the workforce and want to have a family, what choices are they left with?

I opted out of the workforce. I didn’t make it into the inner city to teach. If I was a young mother today, I wonder if my choice would be different. Would I be caught in this wave of equality and expectations that women can “have it all”? Would I believe that I could pursue my professional dreams and have a large family and raise my own kids? I really don’t know. Maybe my decision was easier back then because I didn’t believe I could “do it all”. Maybe the choices are becoming different now.

My wish for my daughters is that when the time comes for them to choose, their options will abound with flexible work hours, telecommuting, reasonable maternity and paternity leaves and other creative solutions that we don’t even know about yet. I sincerely hope they can have it all. But I am afraid, that I may be expecting too much, still too soon, and this may only, possibly, be a reality for my granddaughters.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Really, now.

Dear Random Woman in the grocery store parking lot,

I know it was only a parking space.

Let me refresh your memory. The parking lot was so packed, that shoppers were being stalked by drivers who were waiting to park. You had one of those golden spaces right out front. In parking lot culture - you were the Queen. Remember, you were there with your husband and two daughters who must have been about 9 and 11? You only had a few bags left to unload from your cart. I stopped and waited for your space. I am sure you saw me put my directional on because our eyes met.

You had two choices: to hurry your family along and gracefully participate in this parking lot economics, or drag your feet and intentionally and methodically slow down progress. Predictably, and unfortunately for me, you opted for the latter. I saw it coming- it was as if my car blinker signaled your brain to move in slow motion. And then, what timing. Someone appeared out of nowhere from across the way, whom you hadn’t seen in a while (or at least you made it appear that way). You flagged her down to introduce to your whole family. You could really drag this out for a while now. You held me hostage, sort of. I know I was free to leave but the daunting line of hapless drivers was your ransom. Do you remember I rolled down my window and asked you nicely if you were leaving, reminding you that the traffic was like, excuse the pun, a parking lot??

Do you remember you acted surprised by the sound of my voice, but then assured me you were leaving? So I waited. Patiently. And then there was absolutely no correlation between your words and your actions. I noticed my fingers had started tapping the steering wheel, and I promise it wasn’t to the happy beat of my music from the car radio. I would have moved on if you told me that you wouldn’t be leaving - but you chose instead to play your version of a game of chicken. You knew as well as I did, that you couldn’t wait to get out of there - you probably couldn’t even stand this woman. You probably had a whole checklist of other errands to do before the holiday - oh yeah, the holiday, Christmas.

It’s also comforting to know that you found a mate with whom you share such common values. The game seemed so familiar to him and he played along so willingly. But your young daughters looked embarrassed. At one point, I thought I saw one of them even shrug helplessly at me.

Two young shoppers caught the gist of the scene when they saw my flashing blinker and the coffee klatch that had unfolded in front of me. They walked right up to my car and offered their space to me. With determination and kindness they quickly unloaded their cart and backed out and let me maneuver my car into the space. One of them even returned the cart while the other one moved the car. I hope your daughters were watching. Actually, YOU should hope they were watching so they could see that there actually are decent people in this world. They obviously aren’t going to be learning about decency from you.

I am writing now because I refrained from confronting you when I got out of my car. I didn’t even look at you. I was too embarrassed for your behavior and I was above the notion of becoming another story of crazy holiday parking lot incidents. Trust me, I had more than a few words to say to you.

I am perplexed by your blatantly selfish behavior. I am embarrassed for your children. I am infuriated by your rudeness. I am dumbfounded that any human being could feel so self-important. I am not sure who won our little game of chicken, and honestly, I could care. But I do know that I walked out of my car feeling like a winner because in the end I was touched by kindness. I would rather live in my world that embraces people like those two young girls than in your ridiculously selfish one. You, on the other hand, have to live with yourself everyday and to me, that seems pretty painful.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Can't Get it all done...

"Why did you do all this for me?" (Wilbur) asked. "I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you." "You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift my life a trifle. Heaven knows, anyone's life can use a little of that."

~from Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Today I came the realization that writing everyday -- especially about the troubles in our world, is way too large and (depressing task). The solutions are overwhelming and who wants to feel overwhelmed every time they read a posting? Besides, on many days I can barely find the time to do, although I would love to make writing one of my "must -dos". I commend any blogger who can post daily - and post with meaning -- my “friends” who visit me often seem to achieve this with great skill… perhaps I am not organized enough, in my mind or in my life, to do this….yet.

But I will work towards that goal. In the meantime, I am not abandoning my idea of WMD’s, just tempering it a bit. On Monday it seemed like a great idea. Today, life got in the way, bit it's all good and that’s fine with me...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

High School Dropout A Silent Epidemic - We Must Do Something (WMD'S #1)

Every 29 seconds, another student gives up on school. This translates into more than 1 million American high school students every year. Nearly 33% of all public high school student and 50% of all black, Hispanic and Native American students fail to graduate from public high school with their class.

Take a moment to forget about the question I have posted earlier, about whether our high school graduates will be able to compete in the global market in the 21st century. What about the one million students per year, who barely have a chance to compete here in the United States?

What surprises me most about high school dropouts, is the major reason why they drop out. I naively believed that it was due mostly to personal reasons, such as helping support a family, pregnancy, or care for a family member. From a study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I learned that nearly 50% of all dropouts do so because their classes are not interesting. Furthermore 70% have said they were not motivated to work hard and 66% said they would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them. Only 1/3 of all students dropout because of family or personal situations.

Our schools are failing our kids. As I read this study further it is unquestionably clear that dropping out is an act of last resort. A fair percentage of these students enter high school unprepared and are destined to fail. We all know “those” kids -- the one’s who struggled early on either academically, emotionally or socially. Teacher and peer expectations are lowered, kids become underachievers and before long it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As unhappy as some of these kids may be in school, none of them look forward to the day when they are old enough to drop out. The study pointed out that dropping out is not a “sudden act, but a gradual process of disengagement”. In other words, there is time to intervene before that last act is committed.

I realize the seemingly insurmountable challenges that teachers and other school officials contend with on a daily basis and I applaud their efforts to confront these challenges. I have only researched the tip of the iceberg when looking for nonprofit, for-profit and government agencies putting forth enormous efforts to help fight this problem. But here is my position.

If you look in the eyes of any child, no matter the age or socioeconomic background, and believe that each one individually wants to succeed, find happines and be a positive and contributing member to our society, then there’s the first step. Kids need someone who can believe in them. Every child wants to grow up to be something - ask any preschooler - they all have an answer. So much can go wrong during this process of growing up and graduating from high school and we come out the losers. There is so much potential that goes untapped because kids get lost along the way.

So, what can we do? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Think about becoming a mentor. I have had the privilege of being a mentor for the last years and I promise anyone who volunteers to give one on one time to a child will reap benefits that are far beyond anything you can imagine. Here is the website of which is the national clearinghouse for mentoring advocacy and programs. Check to see if your town has a program already in place. January is National Mentoring Month.

2) Check out your school district to see what its high school graduation rate is and how it compares to other towns in your state and the United States. Then decide if there is something you want to do about it if you are unhappy with the statistic.

3) Find out the presidential candidates stand on this issue.

4) Further educate yourself on the issue. This will get you started, or this

5) Think about education reform. Take a look at these stories and websites: NPR did a story today about Boulder's school system and an innovative approach to education, Edin08is a fairly new initiative, have a look.

And finally, here’s something to remember:
“Make a habit of two things: to help or at least to do no harm" ~ Hippocrates

Monday, December 17, 2007

Band Aid - Do they Know It's Christmas

This YouTube Video of Bob Geldoff and Band Aid, in 1984, singing about famine in Ethiopia at Christmas time is a fitting way for me to introduce something new to Minivan Diaries. I have been enjoying writing and thinking about issues that are important to me, educating myself and anyone else who wishes to read my blog. However, at times I feel frustrated at not going beyond the issues to offering some solutions.

So I am beginning a daily post on important causes and issues of interest in my community, my state, the country or the world that affect kids. I propose turning the negative and hopeless implication of the awful acronym, “WMD’S” into positive action. Instead of “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” let’s think, “We Must Do Something”. And hopefully we can all think positively about making this world a better place for our kids. Along with my posts, I will try to include ways to help or get involved and at the very least always offer resources to learn more about it.

I enjoy thinking and writing about general observations and rambling thoughts that may pass through my brain - so there will be other posts too -- but I am excited about this new addition and I hope you will be too. So keep a daily (I hope!) lookout for WMD’S. We need not fear them, we just need to become educated, have some dialogue and find ways to help!

..and just think, this was produced 23 years ago - how much progress has been made?

Friday, December 14, 2007

18 in '08

Whenever I listen to John Mayer’s song, “Waiting on the World to Change”, it makes me sad for this generation of young adults who believe they are disenfranchised. His lyrics resonate with young people. Yet to me, his words sound hopeless: rather than believing they can play an active role in addressing the world’s problems, they’ll just “wait on the world to change”. I have to believe that the current administration has been partly to blame for their cynicism and feelings of hopelessness. But we are less than a year away from the next Presidential election and now is the time for them to realize that their voices are important and must be heard. The first step is to vote. There will be over 29 million people between the ages of 18 and 24 eligible to vote in 2008.

There is a new documentary, directed by a Haverford College freshman, entitled “18 in ’08”. Young people should get hold of this film and watch it - then they should pass it on to somebody else they know and so on, and so on until it has reached this entire cohort of people - waking them from their passivity and stirring them to action. If the candidates only realized the potential influence this demographic has in deciding our next president, they would be campaigning hard for their votes. Instead, because they are “waiting on the world to change” we are not hearing the voices of this generation nor are they asking the tough questions and demanding answers.

I recently wrote a post about the documentary, 2 Million Minutes. I feel a similar sense of uneasiness after viewing this film. What is the future for the young people of this country? What roles will they play academically, economically, politically and socially? John Mayer sings:

Me and all my friends
We're all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There's no way we ever could
Now we see everything that's going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don't have the means
To rise above and beat it

My hope, is at the very least, they will realize that their vote counts and it will be the first step to discovering that they can’t “wait on the world to change” or it will be too late.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Childhood Obesity Revisited

The other day, my kids reminded me of the dessert policy I instituted when they were young. They could choose to either have: 2 small items, like two cookies, or 8 M&M’s. Don’t ask me how I came up with this crazy formula. But I do remember firmly adhering to it and except on special occasions they knew never to even ask for special dispensation.

When they were too young to know any differently, there were no sweets or junk food in our house, at least not for them. As they got old enough to know better, I declared that complete abstinence would create cookie monsters, so “that food” became permissible but only in a natural, controlled rhythm. I do admit to sometimes finding empty candy wrappers and chip bags under couch cushions and under beds, but I allowed these digressions to pass without confrontation. I attributed it to youthful spunkiness and small acts of rebellion - allowing the guilty parties to believe that they had gotten away with something. Instead, maybe it should have been my wake up call.

By the time my kids became adolescents, they could easily have been labeled “chunky”, or “full”, or dare I say, overweight? Although I knew they weren’t skinny, they were very active, avidly playing all kinds of sports and most importantly, they had great self esteem, lots of friends and definitely no body image issues. Today, when I look back at their pictures they were definitely “overweight”. Back then I grappled with how to deal with the problem. Or was it a problem? They were far from obese, lead busy, active lives and quite honestly were very happy. The last thing that I wanted for my kids to believe was that their size mattered. Who's problem was it really?

So we framed it with discussions about eating healthy and the importance of being fit. We always had healthy meals and rarely ate fast food. Removing the sweets and chips from our cupboards was not the answer. I believed that teaching my kids how to eat in moderation and to enjoy food - every type - was a life skill they needed to learn. Removing temptations, instead of learning how to manage them, is no way to enjoy life. Perhaps this approach was a leap of faith, and either it worked or they just grew out of it. As they passed through adolescence, they eventually shed their extra weight.

But how would have I felt if their pediatrician actually labeled them “fat” to their faces at their annual physicals? I am positive I would not have welcomed this harsh reality check. Not only would I have been insulted, I never would have condoned such callous and insensitive behavior from our pediatrician. The American Medical Association has recently proposed such a recommendation:
"We need to describe this in medical terms, which is 'obesity.' When we talk to an individual family, we can be a little more cognizant of their feelings and more gentle, but that doesn't mean we can't discuss it," Washington said. "The evidence is clear that we need to bring it up."

In our ambitious attempt to confront these important issues, physicians still need to be mindful of the power in which they are vested. All adults, for that matter, cannot underestimate the potential damage their words can cause. Stigmatization can do as much harm to children as their overweight bodies. All my kids are average weights now. But they each have gone through different weight phases in their short lives. Had there been intervention by a teacher, a physician or even the government it may very well have had a detrimental affect on them. Who is to say what the best practice is?

It is crucial that we act on the obesity epidemic in our country. However, this call for action needs to be balanced ever so carefully with our responsibility to protect our young people from living a lifetime of never feeling good enough unless they are a size 2 or flaunt a sculptured body of muscle and fine lines. It’s a balancing act on a tightrope that requires master skills to gently make the way unfailingly across that wire or we risk raising an entire population of unhealthy as well as unhappy adults.

Children deserve time to be kids and to not feel like failures because they are overweight - especially when it’s not their fault. Parents, media, schools, economics and social factors are what is responsible for who they are and who they will become. They deserve to be healthy and to have a chance at living happy, normal, productive and fulfilling lives. Fixing the obesity problem in America is far more challenging than we may even begin to imagine.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Childhood Obesity - A Threat to our Public Health

About 33% of US children and adolescents between the age of 2 and 19 years old are overweight and 17.1% of those are obese

“If we don’t take steps to reverse course, the children of each successive generation seem destined to be fatter and sicker than their parents.” Dr. David Ludwig made this statement in an editorial he wrote in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, in response to the findings of two published studies of childhood obesity. Both studies looked at the effects that childhood obesity will have on the future health of overweight children. One study followed 277,000 Danish students for decades by evaluating detailed health records. The study found,
…the more overweight a child was between ages 7 and 13, the greater the risk of heart disease in adulthood. The older the children are, the higher the chance for later heart risk. So, for example, a boy who was heavier than his peers at age 7 had a 5 percent increased risk for later heart disease, but a boy who was heavier than his peers at age 13 had a 17 percent greater risk.

If these findings aren’t startling enough, there’s more. The most obese child in the Danish study was at a 33% greater risk for heart disease in adulthood. Yet, the fattest boys in the entire Danish sample are barely considered overweight by US standards. Barely considered overweight by US standards! Think about the implications of that finding. This means that the risk for adult heart disease for Americans is most definitely even greater than 33%.

Now combine this information with the findings out of UCSF which state that:
if the number of overweight children continues to increase at current rates, then by the year 2035, the rate of heart disease will rise to 16 percent or as many as 100,000 extra cases of heart disease attributable to childhood obesity.

Although it may not seem like it now, it won’t be long before we are standing on the threshold of a Public Health crisis. The economic costs of this strain on our health care system will be enormous. A surge in serious illness (and obesity also increases the risk for Type 2 diabetes, kidney failure, limb amputation and premature death) translates into lower worker productivity, job loss and in the end a dying economy.

Pretty bleak forecast and in the meantime, not a lot is being done to turn this crisis around. Our kids continue to lead more sedentary lives, snack on junk food, eat fast food for meals, be inundated with ad campaigns for these dangerous foods and then be served them in their school cafeterias.

I don’t mean to say that nothing is being done to attack this epidemic. The State of Arkansas began a health report card for all students in grades K -12. At the end of every year students are sent home with a report their weight, BMI etc. Apparently there have been some positive results. When the fact that their child is overweight is staring them in the face some parents and kids take action; however, the program is purely elective, so it is unclear which families are opting in and which families are not being counted.

School systems have instituted nutrition and exercise programs with some success. For example, a research group, The Healthier Options for Public Schools, followed 3700 students in a Florida county over 2 years. School districts instituted an intervention program in 4 schools and the results were measured against two schools that did not have a program. The intervention program included dietary changes, increased exercise and nutrition awareness. There were dramatic changes in the kids who had intervention, however, when those students returned from summer vacation, most had reverted back to their old habits.

The good news is, that with education, changes in lifestyle and healthful diets, this trend can be reversed. The broader and more daunting question, is how? When the cost of healthy eating is often too high for low-income families and fast food has become the norm because families are too busy to sit down for a meal, and our entire population has become sedentary, it appears that we are doomed to fail our children. The issues are economic, cultural and political. But if we do not create a comprehensive national strategy to attack this problem, it will soon be too late.
We have in our communities a perfect storm that will continue to feed the childhood obesity epidemic until we adopt policies that improve the health of our communities and our kids," Frank Chaloupka, an economics professor the University of Illinois at Chicago.

So what do we do? There are countless competing issues. On the one hand, we have a culture that is unhealthy and overweight and on the other hand we have a “body image” obsessed society. There are issues of self esteem, bullying, and stigmatization attached to obese kids yet we also want to teach our kids to like themselves for who they are and not for what they look like. The one thing is clear, however, we cannot stay on this trajectory and if we do we will be doing a terrible disservice to this future generation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2 Million Minutes to Face the Competition

I have finally had an opportunity to view the documentary, 2 Million Minutes.

Briefly, the film focuses on 6 high school students, two each from the United States, China and India. Each pair attends the same high school, which by the way, are all top performing schools in their respective countries. The students represent the stereotypical profile one would expect to see: the American students are high achieving and successful but are not particularly academically motivated, the Chinese students are high achieving, intense and focused and the Indian students are high achieving and hard-working but seem internally conflicted by the external pressure of their parents and Indian society. The film explores cultural attitudes about education and whether or not American students will be able to compete in the global economy in the 21st century.

I immediately wondered how the students were chosen for the film. All six of them were very bright and ranked in the upper end of their classes. At first, I thought they purposely profiled “typical” high achieving American students but picked “extraordinary” Chinese and Indian students to make a more drastic point. But as I continued viewing, I realized that all the students seemed pretty typical whithin their own cultures. As extraordinary as the Chinese and Indian students appeared to me it was evident that I was judging them through my American eyes. Although I was impressed by their commitment and fortitude, I realized they were clearly not the most distinguished students in their countries. However, those typical high achieving students in China or India are more similar to our most extraordinary students in America.

I was prepared to watch yet another documentary that mocked our broken system and hailed the Asians as superior in their methodology and resolute in their academic rigor. It is not what I found. Instead, I watched a thought provoking dialogue about the potential crisis that America may face if we don’t,

wake up and realize the new threat, the fact that we are competing with anyone anywhere in the world and we’re going to lose. We are not going to be the leaders in the next 30 years or so unless we wake up and realize that. And it takes decades to create a high performing scientist or engineer. Because these things unfold over time, people tend to overlook them. It is a crisis because by the time one recognizes what has happened it takes time to remedy the situation.

Despite the warning, I couldn’t help cheer a bit for the American students. I found comfort in their individual spirit and wholesome attitude about finding balance in their lives. The openness of our society breeds opportunities that don’t exist in other countries. As a result our high school students face different challenges and expectations. The opportunity for economic mobility, the freedom to decide what’s going to help them lead happy and fulfilling lives also adds a certain pressure that students in these other countries cannot relate to.

And then I thought about yesterday’s announcement of the winners of the 2007 Siemens competition in Math, Science and Technology. All three winners for the individual and team competitions were girls (which is fodder for another time). I went to the Siemens website to read the bios of the National finalists. I expected to find science “geeks” whose lives were absorbed only by academics. To my surprise, I found public school kids who not only excelled in the sciences but were captains of sports teams, newspaper editors, community activists, literary geniuses and accomplished musicians. Even those extraordinary American science students find time to balance their lives with other interests and commitments.

What motivates these kids? Is it their schools, their families or some internal drive that has been nurtured by a combination of both? Why are they the extreme examples of our educational system rather than the norm? Do they represent the models for our future? It would be interesting to interview these students to hear about their experience and interaction with the American educational system as well what expectations they have for themselves. I would venture to guess, that their core values may not differ much from the two students interviewed for this film. Chances are they are also seeking balance and happiness in their lives but is there a place for these values in the global market?

Although I believe that our educational system is in terrible need of repair, I don’t believe that the Chinese or Indian systems are models we should necessarily aspire to. There is no question that our students face greater challenges than earlier generations and they will certainly confront the competition of an ever increasing, highly motivated and incredibly sophisticated international workforce. But I am not sure what we, as a nation, are willing to compromise to stay ahead or even remain in the race. By who’s rules will this generation play by?

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton sums it all up in the film:

It’s not to be #1 necessarily in everything. It’s not to knock the Chinese or the Indians down, it’s to be part of an increasingly, hopefully more valuable set of human minds doing more and more complicated and more productive things.

I don’t think we need a crystal ball to look 30 years into the future, but the bigger question is, what are we going to do about it and when will it become too late? 2 Million Minutes is the springboard from which we must begin to dive into these issues.

Friday, November 30, 2007

25th Day of Kislev

A few years ago, my daughter and I were watching the local news. Thanksgiving had just passed and the station had taken a viewer’s poll to ask how people felt about Christmas decorations going up before Thanksgiving. I will never forget one viewer’s response because it brought us a good chuckle. The viewer had suggested that Thanksgiving be changed to September to allow everyone more time to shop. It seemed like forgive me, such a stupid comment. What stopped this woman from beginning her Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving? Was there something about this Christmas ritual that we didn’t understand? Or had she lost the true meaning of Christmas… and Thanksgiving for that matter?

Hanukkah begins next Tuesday, December 4. Some may wonder why it bounces around the calendar from one year to the next. Actually, it doesn’t. It begins on the same date every year on the Hebrew calendar - the 25th night in the month of Kislev. The Hebrew calendar is based on the moon, unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the sun. Therefore, new moons dictate the beginning of new months and those days are always different when matched to our Gregorian calendar.

So, I need to finish my holiday shopping by Tuesday - hence the reason for a lack of postings this week. Family duty calls. Family traditions and the promise of 8 nice days of celebration, including a holiday party on Sunday, have sent my typing fingers into a frenzied state way beyond the keyboard and froze my blogging brain. Instead, I have been shopping, cleaning my house, sending gifts off to relatives, wrapping presents and thinking about ways to make this Hanukkah memorable and special for my family.

When my kids were young, their questions were relentless about why we don’t have a Christmas tree, and why Santa doesn’t visit our home, and why we don’t decorate our house with lights or put candles in the windows --- like “everybody else”. Our quaint New England town is so beautiful this time of year. As you drive down our street every house really does have candles in the windows and white lights wrapped painstakingly around trees and bushes. Our house is the only one that doesn’t and I needed to help them understand that we’re “not like everyone else”, at least during the month of December.

December is my annual reminder that I am a minority in this country. Synagogues have even coined a phrase for this phenomenon: the “December dilemma”. Rabbis run workshops to help parents deal with kids’ questions and their desire to celebrate Christmas. No matter where I go in search of Hanukkah wrapping paper, candles for the menorah or dare I ask some decorations, I am always relegated to a small corner of the store with a few token decorations, some wrapping paper (if I am lucky) and paper goods that usually are leftover rejects from the year before. Sometimes I feel like people are staring at me, even feeling sorry for such uninspiring selections when the whole rest of the store boasts aisles of festive Christmas goodies. If they do, they shouldn’t. I like it this way. But it’s taken me a while to get here.

While growing up, my family never made a huge deal about Hanukkah. We usually lit the menorah and we got some presents. But the big stuff, the good stuff was saved for Christmas. Yes, my Jewish parents celebrated Christmas. And as a kid, I loved it. But after I grew up I started thinking more about my own identity and what Judaism meant to me, and Christmas just didn’t fit into the picture.

I realize that Hanukkah is a very minor holiday and some Jews will argue that it should remain that way. All the hype about Christmas, catapults Hanukkah to the head of the pack of other more important Jewish holidays. Be that as it may, the reality is that Christmas is a really fun holiday for kids, and when you are on the outside, peering through the snow covered glass and seeing those chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming to town, it’s tough being a Jewish kid this time of year. I believe that creating traditions around Hanukkah is fine. Making the holiday fun and festive and special helps kids realize that although they may be different, it is an opportunity to use this distinction to create something special.

Therein has been my challenge over the past 20 years - to help my kids feel proud of being Jewish in December. From the issue of Santa - I never told my kids he is just pretend, out of respect for their friends (believe me, it would have been so much easier if I did), which meant endless explanations as to why Santa doesn’t come to our house -- “no, it’s not because you have been bad”! Christmas trees as religious symbols -- they are called “Christmas trees, for a reason!” Christmas concerts in schools, classroom Christmas parties, stores decked out with Christmas decorations etc. My kids were bombarded.

So, it became my project. I educated teachers and went into my kids’ classrooms and cooked potato latkes and taught everyone how to play dreidel. We listened to Hanukkah music. As a family we read lots of Hanukkah stories (I have a huge collection of picture books that I collected over the years). I pull boxes down from the attic too! We’ve collected decorations over the years, have our own traditions around the eight nights and even paint and decorate a “Hanukkah box” every year to hold all our gifts. I realized that the envy doesn’t come from wanting to celebrate Christmas; it comes from wanting to celebrate something.

Families need traditions and rather than wallowing in the Christmas hype, I would much rather enjoy the season for what it is because it is part of the fabric of our community. After all, we are a nation of many cultures and it’s exactly that diversity that enriches all of our lives. I am confident that my kids don’t have any Christmas angst. I have taught them to take it all in and enjoy the Christmas splendor with Jewish eyes and then freely share their holiday with other’s. We celebrate Hanukkah with all it’s brilliance, the beauty of lighting the menorah (there is nothing more magnificent than our family standing together before all of our 6 glowing menorahs on the 8th night), celebrating with family and friends, exchanging gifts, preparing favorite holiday foods, reflecting on the meaning of the holiday and listening to beautiful traditional music.

So when most of you are running frantic in a couple of weeks, I will be recovering from my eight days of celebration with my feet up, enjoying the craziness around me, and probably posting a lot more in my blog.

Monday, November 26, 2007

7 words or less...

Legend has it, that at one time there was a World Championship of the Beauty of Languages. The Republic of Estonia took second place after the Italians with the phrase: “'sхida tasa ьle silla' (Go slowly over the bridge). In celebration of the country’s 90th birthday, the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science is sponsoring a competition to choose the most beautiful language of the world. Students from every corner of the globe have been invited to participate. The entries must contain an audio presentation of a sentence made up of one to seven words.

A Beauty Pageant of Language… for students. What a unique opportunity for a global competition where beauty takes on an entirely different meaning. A student would have to ask: What does beauty mean to me? Is it outright physical attractiveness that is most important, and how can that be conveyed in words? Would it mean that the words’ sounds are the most important criteria? Or perhaps a child might conclude that beauty is a combination of special qualities and therefore might choose words that are pleasing in both sound and meaning?

A child, at any age, is bombarded with images of beauty through the media, in school, with toys and video games, books, even within their own families. To take the object out of one’s interpretation of beauty is an interesting challenge. Unlike viewing beautiful artwork or beautiful scenery or beautiful people, this challenge is different. It reaches deeper into a person’s soul to discover beauty that can’t be seen. It would be fascinating to hear the 7 or fewer words our kids would choose. I am not sure what I would choose.

Instead of judging beauty by its appearance, it is judging beauty the way it should be judged. It would be quite a lesson to be taught and what a gift if a child is able to learn it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Gardener Plants Seeds for the Future

There is a man by the name of Catalino Tapia of Redwood City, California, who came to the United States, from Mexico, at age 20 with $6 in his pocket. Over the past 43 years, he has worked as a baker and a machine operator. His education never went beyond 6th grade. However, through hard work he eventually built a successful gardening business. He married and raised two children. One son graduated from Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley and is now an attorney in Los Angeles.

This story is not about this young immigrant’s rise to success, although it easily could have been. It is about a man who sees the inimitable value of education and his philanthropic vision. Mr. Tapia, with his son’s legal help, founded The Bay Area Gardener’s Foundation. It’s purpose: to give college scholarships to low-income students from the Bay area. He is a man of modest means, and from what I gleaned from an interview I recently listened to, of modest personality, as well. He believes “it is his duty to pass along the prosperity he has earned, to draw community members together for a shared goal and to be accountable for the well-being of the next generation.” Hmmm.

His Board consists of a dozen other immigrant gardeners and other community members who see the value in helping struggling students take the edge off some of their financial responsibilities by offering funds for books, transportation and other incidental expenses -- costs that may not amount to a lot for some, but for others it is the difference of working an extra job to raise these funds. Any student who has at least 2.5 GPA is eligible, even if he/she is an undocumented alien. Everyone on the Board agrees that, “"no matter what, they're going to have their education. So even though they don't have their papers and even though they might not be able to get a job with their Social Security number, no one will be able to take away their education."

The main group that the Foundation has reached so far has been Latino High School students. Only 13 percent of U.S.-born Latino adults in California have a bachelor's degree, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. For immigrant Latinos, it is 5 percent. This is a startling figure. The US Congress has failed to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), on numerous occasions. This Act, if passed, would allow undocumented students who grew up in the US to qualify for a permanent Green card. What better incentive to encourage students to continue their studies?

Education is the vehicle by which millions of individuals can better their lives. In one little corner of our country, one man has made this his mission and I applaud him for his sincerity and commitment to his cause.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we might all take a second glance at how we can reach out to other communities by volunteering our time or resources. One of the Bay Area Gardener Foundation donors said it perfectly:

“It's extraordinary to see a body of people who are struggling to make it in America also struggling for other people's children. ... Is that not grasping the American dream?"

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hello, Nice to Meet You

I have been writing this blog anonymously because, especially as a novice, I am most comfortable writing this way. It feels safe. If my writing is terrible, nobody knows that I am the author. If I offend people, I don’t have to take their fury too personally. If I stir up controversy, it is a quiet risk. And, I never really need to take true responsibility for what I write because nobody knows where it comes from. Ah, the beauty, and the curse, of the World Wide Web.

Then, somebody whose writing and ideas I respect immensely convinced me that I had to put my actual name to my writing. If I want to have any credibility, it has to start with an honest relationship between reader and writer. Hiding behind my words means camouflaging some real truth - particularly the truth about me. It seems pretty hypocritical that a lot of what I end up writing about involves expectations of truth and honesty and I can’t even reveal who I am. Not that anybody really cares anyway -- this is more about me than any reader.

It is significant for me, because from this point on my words are truly my own, they do not belong to some anonymous person typing away on a random keyboard. I am ready to take ownership of my writing because what I write means a lot to me and I deserve to take the credit and the fall for whatever comes my way.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

College Tours: Does your Guide Own a Mac or a PC?

In response to a parent’s question regarding the necessity of owning a laptop in college, the two leaders of our tour responded:

“I have a Mac”, the other, “I have a PC”.

I laughed the way my youngest daughter describes a laugh that you can’t let anyone see: “I was laughing inside my head”. Other than my daughter and her friend, I don’t think anyone else saw the humor, but it was as if we were watching a Mac commercial unfold in front of us. As the tour progressed, I kept seeing it over and over again -the stark differences between these two students: in their appearance, their response to questions, their knowledge about the school, their perceptions, their outlooks.

College tours are supposed to give you and your child a good sense of a school - to help you decide if it would be a “good fit”, as we are forever reminded by guidance counselors and admissions directors. This is my third go around on the college circuit and still I am baffled. If either my PC or Mac friend had been the sole leader on this tour, our impressions of the school would have been entirely different. In fact, we may not have even stuck around for the whole thing. So many times we have literally crossed a school off the list because of a disconnect with the tour guide - and in some excruciating cases we’ve even “ditched” early by hanging back and making a run for it.

It was only pure luck that we got this dueling duo -- nobody could decide how to fairly divide our relatively small group, so we agreed to all venture out together. You have to figure that every school attracts a spectrum of students, but there also had to be some common thread that bound these two, something that attracted both of them to the same school and something that the admissions office believed would make them both good “fits”. They both were very friendly and outgoing, qualities that make great tour guides - but it was so evident that their interactions, viewpoints and experiences at this school were profoundly different.

By the end, as frustrated as the two guides may actually have been with each other, at their expense, unquestionably this was my best college tour. How else would we have seen such a rich portrayal of the life of a student on this campus? And as colleges and universities have certain reputations for attracting certain “types” of students, there is no doubt that all types exist on every campus. If these two could co-exist on this small campus, and even be enthusiastic about it, just like the Mac and PC are finally on speaking terms, then it is encouraging to think that the admissions offices use some broad criteria to find that “best fit”.

I have learned over the years that the college search process is entirely subjective. Sure, Admissions offices offer objective measures like test scores, grades, admission rates and student/faculty ratios to help us evaluate whether a school might be a good choice, but in reality it’s the tour and the information session that packs the greatest punch. It affects our decision every time. It’s the same with acceptance decisions. Applicants submit their objective criteria but in reality it’s the subjective materials, the essay, the application and the recommendations that have the greatest influence. In the end, the choice to apply and the choice to admit is equally based on the gut feelings of the decision makers themselves.

I imagine when College Admissions Offices hires their guides, they have a set of “guide criteria”: good public speaking, friendliness, attitude, and enthusiasm about their college experience. For the future, it may be worth it for them to also ask whether they own a Mac or PC and then, they should pair up the two students to give joint tours. It may be the only way to get a true picture of a potential college. Either that or we should go back for multiple tours and visits - and who has the time for that?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Just an update on two posts: The ten-year old who started one of the California fires and the fate of the students involved in the anti-war protest in suburban Chicago.

Regarding the California incident, there will be no charges filed against him. From the Associated Press today:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A 10-year-old boy who admitted starting a 38,000-acre fire last month that destroyed 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County will not be charged, prosecutors said.
There was no evidence of intent by the boy who accidentally ignited brush outside his home by playing with matches, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said in a statement Tuesday.
Authorities are referring the case to the Department of Children and Family Services to determine if further steps are necessary. No other information about the investigation was released because the case involves a minor.
The blaze was among more than a dozen major wildfires that blackened over 800 square miles from Los Angeles to the Mexican border. In all, 10 people were killed directly by the wildfires.
About a week after the fires were ignited, sheriff's department officials announced that they had interviewed the boy, who lived with his family in a trailer home on a ranch in Santa Clarita, and that he acknowledged starting the blaze.
Officials presented the case to the district attorney's office, but law experts had said prosecutors would have trouble getting a conviction against the boy because it would be difficult to prove intent to cause harm.

And in the West Morton High School case, the following from the Chicago Sun Times:

No students will be kicked out of a Berwyn public high school over an anti-war protest, the school superintendent said late Tuesday.

Of the 18 students suspended after a Nov. 1 sit-in at Morton West High School, 14 are due back today, Supt. Ben Nowakowski said in a statement. The remaining four, who Nowakowski said "bore more culpability for the disruption," can return Friday.

Many of the students had been threatened with expulsion.

"I don't regret the protest because I brought a lot of people to this question -- about Iraq and what it's doing to our country," senior Joshua Rodriguez said.

He and other suspended students and parents protested the possible expulsions, along with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and other activists, garnering national attention.

Rodriguez and others insisted their protest -- both against the Iraq war and military recruiters at their school -- was peaceful.

"They did deserve some punishment but not eight days nor the threat of expulsion," said Adam Szwarek, whose son was suspended.

"I don't think [my son] made a mistake. There is still an issue here: the military recruiters that are allowed to run rampant throughout the school."

But Nowakowski said the students severely disrupted the school day, forcing him to lock down classes.

He insisted the punishment had nothing to do with clamping down on free speech.

My final comment:

I want to believe that at the end of the day, those whose fate lies in the hands of others can expect fairness; that those in charge will act responsibly and without prejudice - so that everyone: judge, jury and the accused are all satisfied that any ruling has been handed out deliberately and with merit.

Both these cases seem resolved as such - although one could argue in the West Morton case that even though the students' exoneration was the sought after result if I were those West Morton High School parents, I would still want an explanation as to the uneven intervention on the part of the students - I am still one to always emphasize process before product.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Two Million Minutes - A Global Examination

NOTE: I viewed the film on December 5 and I have written a review

I found this You Tube video while reading an excellent blog called, "Education for the Aughts". This film documents the educational experience of 6 high school students, 2 each from the United States, China and India. The trailer alludes to the fact that the United States needs to finally have a serious dialogue about the standards of American education. Is our system adequately preparing our students to be able to compete in the 21st century? It is an interesting discussion because along with academic rigor does there also need to be a shift in our own societal expectations of the value of intense academic preparation and competition contrasted with our own perceptions of leisure time and relaxation. The bigger question is not only WILL our students be able to compete, but will they WANT TO?

The film has been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival and hopefully it will make it onto the big screen. For more information, go to the film's blog: What Should America Do?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Case of the Morton West High School: Who Really Should be Punished?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st Amendment to the US Constitution

The 1st Amendment represents the most fundamental right that every US citizen believes is inalienable. Regardless of whether they have studied their civics: kids know about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly - it is what being American is all about.

According to the New York Times, on November 1, 2007, the students at Morton West High School in suburban Chicago, staged a peaceful anti-war protest in their cafeteria. By the time it was over, more than a dozen students were suspended and they now face expulsion. There are two versions of the story. In a statement by the superintendent, the 1st version is as follows:

the students were informed by school administration and Berwyn Police that their actions constituted a disruption to the school day. They were afforded the opportunity to take their protest outside where they would not be impeding the educational process and, if they did so, they would face no disciplinary action. Several members of the group elected to return to their classes. Other members of the group locked arms and refused to move from their location.

After some time and negotiation, the students ultimately moved from the cafeteria to an area of the hallway adjacent to the principal's office.

The Student version continues:

Students report that they were promised that there would be no charges besides cutting classes if they took their protest outside so as not to disturb the school day. The students complied, and were led to a corner outside the cafeteria where they sang songs and held signs while classes resumed.

In either version, the students eventually complied and continued their protest in their designated space. What followed is most disturbing. Apparently school deans, counselors and even the Superintendent himself tried to change the minds of a few of the students, particularly those with high GPA’s. The school called the parents of many of the protesters, but not all of them, and offered them the opportunity to pick their students up before the close of school guaranteeing a 3-5 day suspension, the rest, 37 students were given 10 day suspensions and expulsion papers. And even worse, students, whose parents complained, were offered reduced punishments only if they signed a confession that singled out the student as the organizer of the protest.

This scenario, although much more serious in its implications, is not all that different than one that occurred in our local high school. The students, acting on reliable information, staged a sit-in in protest to a change in policy at the school. With a video camera running, the principal immediately asked the assembly to disburse. Outraged, he gathered student leaders, who had no involvement in the sit-in and threatened their leadership positions if they did not identify the protesters. The students refused to comply. Nobody was expelled but four students were suspended. Although this story was rather insignificant compared to the Morton West High School incident, there are some striking similarities.

Students should be prepared that a sit-in or protest, unless certified or organized with the administration’s support, could result in some consequences. Certainly in the case of the Morton West high school students, expulsion is definitely extreme. However at least they were given an alternative place to gather, our local students were flatly told to disburse. However, the real disturbing facts are what occurred after both of the incidences.

In both cases, students were being pressured, almost bullied to “finger” the perpetrators. The administration dangled a reward of a reduced punishment
in the case of the Morton West students, and a threat in the case of our local high school students. Where is it written in any administrator’s job description that he/she may brandish their positions of authority in such an irresponsible and a repressive manner?

Furthermore, in the case of the Morton West students, how narcissistic are those administrators who felt compelled to play “God” by protecting the reputations and records of those higher achieving students by warning them that it would be in their best interest to disburse? Whose idea was it to call some parents and give them a head’s up to their sons’ and daughters’ potential punishments if they didn’t collect them by a certain time? What kind of system is at play?

It is impossible to take an administration seriously when the leader can wantonly create rules to fit his/her needs? Are these the lessons we want our children to learn? The basics like 1st Amendment rights to Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly are no-brainers, we expect our kids to learn about this in school, and if they experience it first hand, all the better. These lessons fall under an academic heading such as social studies or civics.

But how do you categorize the finer nuances of a learning environment that are equally important, such as fairness, truthfulness and integrity - qualities that as parents we expect our teachers and administrators to not only model for our kids through their own actions but to expect in every student that walks the halls of our schools? There is no purer laboratory than a classroom or school environment in which to teach these concepts. Yet, it seems that in both cases, the schools failed miserably and our students walked away with learning an entirely different lesson and not a lesson any reasonable person would be proud of.

Issues like Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly are protected by our Constitution and there are legal avenues when these rights appear to be violated. Classrooms have historically been venues where these issues are often raised. However, there is obviously no Constitutional right to expect fairness, truthfulness and integrity from our teachers and school leaders, only a moral compact and a code of ethics that parents have entrusted in them and an expectation that they will act responsibly, fairly and in the best interest of each and every student.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Short Reflection

I felt privileged to attend the installation of our new Rabbi last night. The service was joyful and warmth permeated throughout the entire congregation and guests. The benediction was given by our new rabbi's father-in-law who is a minister. Yes. A minister. Thank goodness for open-mindedness - The benediction is a Franciscan Benediction that every person should hear at least once and live by for a lifetime:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Child's Accident and the California Fires

It is now known that a ten-year old boy accidentally started the Buckweed Fire in Los Angeles County last week, one of 15 fires that in total forced 640,000 people from their homes. The Buckweed fire charred more than 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes and dozens of other buildings in northern Los Angeles County. Five people were injured. The emotional impact of the losses, has surely also had a devastating impact on the Agua Dulce residents as well as those in the surrounding area.

The boy was living in a trailer home on The Carousel Ranch where one of his parents is a ranch caretaker and helps care for the horses. They have lived there for about a year. The Carousel Ranch is a non-profit organization, which is dedicated to, according to its website, “providing developmental therapeutic and recreational programs for disabled and disadvantaged children through horses”. This is a supportive environment to say the least; it is evident from the website. Ironically, and somewhat eerily, at the bottom of the website is a news feed, with the #3 story headlined as: SCV Fire Started By Boy Playing With Matches.

Here’s a description of Agua Dulce, where this boy lived and went to school.

Agua Dulce has the best of everything that California has to offer. Great climate, peacefulness, beauty, opportunity, low to no crime, great school, Air park, and, we're only 30 miles from "the city". … relax, kick your shoes off and loosen that tie; when you come to Agua Dulce you've come home.

If you go to the school district website, and browse the two elementary school pages it is evident that a lot of effort goes into creating a supportive and enriching environment with high academic and behavioral expectations. It sounds like an idyllic community. This boy probably attended one of these schools. He had friends and teachers. It seems like until that fateful day on October 21, he lived a pretty normal life. The director of the ranch has described the family as peaceful and those who know the boy say he has no history of behavioral problems. Even his fireplay was not terribly abnormal. According to Dr. Jeff Victoroff, associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California,

“At least one study suggests that if you take a population of boys between kindergarten and fourth grade, 60% of them have committeed unsupervised fireplay, which is to say that fireplay is a common and absolutely normal part of human development.”

The director of the ranch asked that the boy be removed. He is living with relatives somewhere in California. How do these parents begin to sort out all these issues? Even though he had no malicious intent, his actions had grave consequences. How do they help this child understand the devastation he caused to his neighbors’ and to strangers lives while protecting him from the psychological burden of living with his actions for the rest of his life? “He acknowledged that he was playing with matches, and accidentally, in his words, ‘set the fire’”.

How many times, as adults, have we done something really stupid and wished we could take back that one-second mistake? I remember so clearly wishing I could, while in the emergency room with my then 3 year old daughter who had fallen out of a shopping cart, onto a cement floor, flat on her back. I knew better than to allow her to stand up in that cart and if I could have only taken that second back -- but it was too late. Fortunately she was fine, but it could have changed all of our lives forever.

This boy could not take that second back either and his and his family’s life is changed forever. Although doubtful there will be criminal charges against the child, the parents may be facing civil suits for millions of dollars that they are clearly in no position to handle. Since they have lived in the area for only a year, you have to wonder if they have any close relationships with the people in this community… and it’s that very community that their son set fire to. As much as Agua Dulce is in need of support, and their devastation is not in the least bit minimized, this family also needs assistance.

Sorting this out is not an easy task. How the authorities and citizens of this community handle the upcoming weeks and months will require a lot of soul searching. The losses have already been great.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Maya Angelou - A Brave and Startling Truth

You Tube of the Week

View this video - Maya Angelou speaks volumes about the world in which our children are growing up through her poetry put to pictures.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Year in a Life

According to one of my favorite songs, Seasons of Love, from the Broadway Production, Rent, there are 525,600 minutes in one year. I now have less than 525, 600 minutes to capture my Kodak moments for a whole slew of milestones in the lifecycle of my family.

Yesterday we celebrated my daughter’s 16th birthday. There are 113,760 minutes until my mom’s 75th birthday. Exactly 89,280 minutes later my husband will turn 50, and 53,280 minutes after that my daughter becomes a legal adult, turning 18. She will have been 18 years old for exactly 76, 320 minutes when she graduates from high school. 63,600 minutes later my youngest turns 13 and 28,800 minutes after that, my son turns 21. Another 28,800 minutes later, our entire family will gather for the final event of the year - my youngest daughter will be standing at the bima in the sanctuary of our synagogue, reciting the Torah as she becomes a Bat Mitzvah and our last child to step into the world of Jewish adulthood.

It feels like a race. Fortunately it’s not because if it were, I would be the last one to cross the finish line. My hope is for the minutes to pass slowly so I can savor every precious morsel of joy and celebration that we will have the opportunity to share with family and friends. I realize how fortunate our family is to stand on the hands of the clock as it ticks away the minutes approaching these family milestones. I know how to measure this year in the life and I will use our 525, 600 minutes wisely.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Young Life Lost is a Loss to Us All

I have a big yellow labrador retriever that accompanies me on my morning walk. Usually we hike the endless trails that surround our town with a friend and her dog. Some days however, when we can’t make it to the woods, I walk him alone along the streets near our home. I enjoy these walks as much as the hikes. It is sequestered time for thinking.

The route that I choose to take most frequently on these solo walks, takes me past a cemetery that has headstones dating back to the 1700’s. The cemetery is nestled into the woods along a picturesque country road. This time of year, the backdrop of the autumn leaves makes it especially remarkable. This is not an historical cemetery. There are simply family plots held by local families for generations.

About a year and a half ago, one of those teen tragedies struck our town. Two boys were involved in a car accident, leaving the passenger dead. The boys had been best friends since childhood. The passenger was a local kid who was a graduate of our local high school. It was never proven whether the driver was drunk or just hit a slippery patch of road. The cause is not the point of my story.

This young man is buried in the cemetery that I walk by. I didn’t actually realize this until the headstone was placed at the grave, a number of months after the funeral. For eighteen months I have watched this family grieve. Although I never knew the young man, I find him profoundly in my thoughts.

Through the seasons, I have watched offerings come and go. The gravesite is adorned with colorful flowers and plants, trinkets of all sorts- momentos that have such personal importance to the visitor who left it, and a beautifully hand-carved birdfeeder that welcomes life to this unfortunate final resting place. He must have been brimming with life because he continues to be celebrated in death.

On rare occasions, however, I will walk by and notice the flowers wilting, weeds sprouting and the area around the gravesite looking unkempt. It makes me wonder why the family, who is fastidious in its expression of love has let the grave site fall into such disrepair. Could it be that they are becoming more used to life without their son, or is it simply that they just got too busy with life that they can’t deal with death? I wonder how often they visit him. Always, within days, the wilted flowers are gone and replaced with more spectacular flowers than before. Just as some days we are more involved in our kids' lives than others, I suppose it is the same with this family. We spend our entire lives caring for our kids, this is all the caretaking they will ever be able to do for him.

The other day I noticed a Happy Birthday balloon tied to the headstone. An even deeper sorrow touched me. For the first time, in all the months I have passed by, I walked over to the grave and paid my respects. The day before would have been his 23rd birthday. I was struck by objects I never saw from the street: beautiful shells, small ceramic pieces with his name beautifully crafted onto the piece, engraved sayings on rocks. At the bottom of his headstone was an engraved quote by him: “This is life, live it to its fullest. I’m gone”. I discovered that this was his Senior quote in his high school yearbook.

My kids get annoyed with me when I tell them I refuse to go to sleep until I know they are safe for the night. They may think it’s because I don’t trust them but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. I just love them so much that I could never imagine my life without them. I could never survive the nightmare that this family endures. Teens and cars and accidents- it’s the one variable we can’t control - an accident.

I stood for a moment, thinking about this young life that is gone. I started to leave, and then picked up a pebble and walked back to place it on his grave. In my tradition, placing a pebble on a gravesite suggests the continuing presence of love and memory, which are as strong and enduring as a rock. Some days after I pass by the cemetery I want to call the family to let them know that I think about their son often; even though I never knew him, he is constantly in my thoughts.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Victimization of Nate Fisher

The Nate Fisher case is obviously emblematic of a much broader problem in our country. It was almost as if Jeffrrey Zaslow could forsee Mr. Fisher's future when he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, “Avoiding Kids: How Men Cope
with Being Cast as Predators”. He writes how our kids are being taught to fear men and men are opting out of engaging with kids for fear of being cast as predators.

Because he is a male teacher, because he suggested “questionable material” and because he asked a female student “how she felt about it”, the student's parents essentially were given carte blanche to make an accusation against Nate Fisher. And these accusations were immediately deemed justifiable. It didn’t matter that his accusers had never met this teacher and that their child had only been in his class for two days. It also didn’t seem to matter to any official that this teacher's very own students who had spent an entire year in his classroom immediately and boldly came to his defense.

Is there such blind enforcement of Reporting Laws that no matter what claim is presented by a parent or a student, school officials are required to report immediately, with no questions asked? The potential destruction of somebody's life is at stake here. Laws are only as effective their enforcement. And perhaps therein lies some of the problem. In our vigorous quest to mete out sexual predators, we are harming a few innocent people along the way. Those few individuals are still people who have lives to live, reputations to uphold and passions to pursue. Are there going to be fewer men who choose teaching as a career? Fewer male coaches? Fewer male mentors and camp counselors and doctors and club leaders and religious leaders? A frightening prospect but not an unlikely one. If laws are written to protect citizens, Nate Fisher was deserving of protection as well and the system failed him.

Nate Fisher has become another story in Mr. Zaslow’s report. Never mind that his promising career may be finished. Perhaps even more depressing is that he will forever feel personally scrutinized. I can’t help but wonder if the parents of all those student supporters, who never once during the previous year ever questioned Mr. Fisher’s intentions, suddenly started second guessing themselves and their children. Nate Fisher will always have a cloud of doubt over him.

And what about those students who came to his defense? Were their words, testimonies and observations worth nothing? What happened to their voices? One of those teaching moments - again. How disempowered they must feel or is there maybe an uneasiness among them now that perhaps they misjudged this guy, since after all, he did resign and the administration willingly accepted it. It was like, “poof” he never existed.

Think about this, from the same Wall Street Journal article:

"Good parenting and good education demand that we let children take risks," says Mr. Frederick, a career coach. "We install playground equipment, putting them at risk of falls and broken bones. Why? We want them to challenge themselves and develop muscles and confidence."

"Likewise, while we don't want sexual predators to harm our kids, we do want our kids to develop healthy relationships with adults, both men and women. Instilling a fear of men is a profound disservice to everyone."

Thanks to Karoli for getting me thinking some more about this. Her posting should be read by everyone.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Family Dinners - Am I a Failure?

I remember the day, 15 years ago, when we attended the bank signing for the purchase of our home. The realtors and the lawyers said they wished they could have videotaped the transaction to use as a teaching tool. It was the smoothest and most cordial signing they had witnessed in all of their combined memories.

The family we bought the house from was building a new home in town. During the months leading up to the sale, we had become friends. They had five kids, with their two youngest corresponding in age to our two oldest. At the time, my son was five and my daughter was two. Over the years, our families spent many hours together. We shared their trials of homebuilding, and they crossed their fingers that nothing serious would break down in the house they just sold to us. I felt guilty changing wallpaper and repainting and their kids loved being able to come back to the neighborhood and swing on their old swing set and play with old friends. We shared birthdays and holidays, illness and joy.

Being about eight years behind them in parenting years, I often used them as a meter stick of what was to come. They had kids in all grade ranges, from high school down to preschool. My oldest was first embarking on kindergarten, and they weren’t that far from sending their first child off to college. Upon reflection, I realized that we were in such different places in our lives, and to her credit, my friend embraced me, despite my having an infant added to the mix. Maybe she loved the chaos, maybe she just missed that “new baby” smell, or maybe she just saw a kinship in me.

Whatever the reason, we found ourselves at each other’s houses a lot. I remember being in her kitchen, frequently in late afternoons. She was a great mom, devoted to her kids, their schools and their activities. But something always bothered me. It seemed they never all sat down for dinner together. She was always preparing dinner for somebody to eat early or giving them cold cereal or pulling out leftovers. I had always believed that dinnertime was such an important family bonding time, yet this family that seemed so bonded, never ate a meal together. I have to admit, I was perplexed and a bit judgmental - how could she not see the importance of the family dinner? I never asked her about it but I admit feeling a bit disappointed in my mentor.

Had I asked her about it, I probably would have heard this: “We all used to sit down together, but now it’s impossible, the kids have sports practices, job obligations and evening meetings at the high school. I have meetings as well. We do the best we can.” Oh, I guess having three young children whose lives I was in complete control of allowed me the luxury of deciding when we would all eat. I say this because I am now in the same position my friend was in, twelve years ago. Although I don’t have very young children, like she did at the time, I still have a 12 year old, a child who deserves to have those family dinners we had when my son, my oldest, was 12.

I raise this point because a couple of weeks ago a Columbia University study recently found that “teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades in school and much less likely to have substance abuse problems”. That’s a powerful message being sent to the millions of families who can’t or don’t embrace this family ritual.

I refuse to accept that my family is guilty of the same. However every Sunday night, as I peruse the calendar for the week, is another Sunday night when I realize it is an impossible dream. Practically every weeknight, somebody has to eat early because of practice, a club or a job, or somebody is eating late, for the same reason. Most nights, I will sit down early with the kids for dinner, but then my husband misses out, and honestly it doesn’t feel like a family dinner without him. Although he still gets home at a reasonable dinner hour, it’s often too late because at least one of the kids, or myself, needs to leave for a meeting or the kids are starving and want to eat before they begin their night of homework. Sometimes we will sit with him while he eats, but not very often.

So far, 3 out of my 4 kids who are teenagers or beyond (in the case of my son) are excellent students and nobody has any substance abuse problems. Should I fear for my youngest, since she hasn’t shared the foundation of family dinners that we had when her siblings were her age?

Here’s my rationale: I believe that the benefit of the “family dinner,” is more about having the opportunity for families to communicate and share a continuous dialogue. By sharing nightly meals together, kids can count on the fact that you, the parent, are checking in and talking about their day, sharing views on events in the world and asking questions. It creates a regular venue for all of this to occur. But that’s not to say that it is the only place that it can occur. Often, we will find ourselves sitting around later in the evening and having the same kinds of conversations that might have occurred earlier around the dinner table. It doesn’t happen every evening, but it happens frequently enough, that perhaps it serves the same purpose. I’ve always enjoyed the spontaneity of these discussions and they often last much longer than a quick dinner where everyone is rushing off to do whatever has to get done.

So, I admit that I feel guilty that we don’t all sit down together around the dinner table every night. We won’t give up trying and some weeks we are more successful than others. But maybe my rationale isn’t so bad, because the quality of the interactions that my family does have may be just as beneficial as sharing a meal around the table. Or maybe I am just rationalizing.

And my friend, with the 5 kids - I probably owe her an apology. My mother has always told me, you never truly know what it feels like until you are living it yourself.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Nate Fisher case is still in the news

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I found this posting on a blog called, The Beat. It is a posting of the facts from the mother in the Nate Fisher case. After reading it, I now have some of my questions answered:

Here is what she wrote:

"I am the mother of this student. I can tell you the facts on our side of this, and you can make your judgment from there, but at least your facts will be right.

My daughter arrived in her English class on the second day of school, (the first day was used for books and roll taking ect)

Since she was not in the school system the year before she was not assigned a summer reading assignment before arriving in her new high school.

Her brand new English teacher asked her to stay after class so he could give her an assignment to read over the labor day long weekend and give him an oral report on the next school day. He gave her a choice of 5 books, 4 of the books were about civil war, the lone ranger and Tonto and military fighting. One book was about shooting pool, or so she thought - This would be Eightball (issue #22). The teacher pointed out eightball and told her this is the one he thought she would like the most. He also told her it might have a little bit of mature content in it.

She said okay and put the comic in her bag and off she went. - The comic stayed in her bag until Saturday when we were all driving in the car heading to a family picnic - My younger children and a friends child are in the backseat with my daughter and I hear a strange giggling coming from the back. Any parent knows the kind of giggling I’m talking about (the kind where you should immediately ask what’s going on). So I said to the group of children - “what’s so funny you guys!” So the kids reply - We are laughing at the reading assignment from her teacher - “The two kids are doing it” - So I said - Give me that!

I took the comic from the kids, and I started reading it.

Now let me tell you, I am not shocked by much, but the first page I turned to was the fluffy blue bunny page - and I was shocked. Why would this teacher think my 13 year old would want to read this! I could not imagine what this teacher had in mind with my daughter by giving her this comic. I was fearful that I knew what might be on his mind!

Also let me tell you that when I went to the police and the school, we were not on a witch-hunt - we weren’t out to get anyone fired and we were really hoping this was all a big mistake. We thought possibly that maybe some kid stuck this in his classroom as a joke and that happened to be the one she picked up thinking it was about playing pool.

I showed the school and the resource officer what was given to my daughter and they were very surprised, this is not part of the allowed reading material for teachers to give. They said thank you and we will be in touch later and let you know what we find out.

So the afternoon goes by and my Daughter gets off the bus, I ask her what happened in his class that day and she tells me that - He pulled her aside after class and asked her how reading that comic made her feel.

She told him that she really thought it was disgusting and inappropriate and he said yes, I told you it might be a little bit mature.

Well when I heard this, I was really disgusted. What can I assume in this day and age was this teachers motives?? I put her back in the car and I went back down to the school. I asked to see the principal again and I told him what was said to her after class.

Now I want to say - this next piece of information was just what I was told by the school - I didn’t hear the teacher say this personally.

I was told that the teacher gave it to my daughter because he thought she would like the material. But - He said he had it as a college graphic Adult reading assignment in a college class several years before.

That was a college class he signed up for and he knew the course material. Not something handed to him by a teacher in high school and told to read.

`Again, I would like to STRONGLY attest to the fact that I am not against mature reading material being discussed in a classroom setting. I have no problems with nudity, violence, or any other topic discussed in a setting that promotes learning. Had this piece of material been given to the class as a whole as an assignment on modern day graphic novels and the literary benefits of them, there would be no problem.

There would be no problem because it would be part of a curriculum, clearly meant for learning.

Had the teacher suggested this graphic novel to my daughter, advising her that it is of mature content, and asking her to obtain it on her own with her parents consent, then I would have no problem with it.

This is where I have a problem. This teacher gave my daughter, and ONLY my daughter, a graphic novel of mature nature, without the knowledge of the administration, as an extra curricular assignment. This was done after class to my 13-year-old daughter. Yes she was 13 at the time of the incident. She has since turned 14. That may help to alleviate any confusion about her age. In dealing with these situations, parents these days can’t take chances. I will never know this teachers true intent, but I do know that he is at least guilty of extremely bad judgment.

I do not have the blind faith to assume that everything is OK. My duty is to protect my children. I will not compromise that."

Now, I still walk away with the same conclusion:

One of our jobs as parents is to make sure our kids are safe. I certainly understand this mother's reaction to do everything possible to protect her daughter. I am sure she was fuming and shocked - especially being new to to town - wondering how this could have happened.

However, at what cost and to what extremes do we go to protect our children? Isn't it also our job to be good role models for our kids, especially when they are teenagers and they judge our behavior so scrupulously? By rushing to the police, and notifying school officials, she denied the teacher any opportunity to explain himself. He was guilty way before he even had a chance to prove his innocence, or at least his poor judgement. This was a perfect opportunity for a Parental Teaching moment -- to demonstrate how adults work out differences by gathering facts, communicating, trying to understand both sides of an issue, and in this case, realizing that people, even teachers are human and they make mistakes.

Forgiveness would have been much better lesson to learn.