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.