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Collecting Carrots

5 Oct

An early release day meant we all ate lunch in the classroom today, kids filing into the cafeteria to pick up sad little sack lunches of peanut butter and jelly “uncrustable” sandwiches, cheese stick, apple, baggie of baby carrots, milk — chocolate or regular.

The two or three kids with lunches packed from home were flooded with offers to trade something, anything, my kingdom for a few Pringles, oh my gosh you have Pringles, I will be your friend and you can have my Xbox if only you will share your amazing wonderful Pringles.

The kids gathered in clumps, some giddy at being able to eat on the rug in the classroom library, some holding court at my U-shaped table for small group reading, a few gathering around my desk to keep me from feeling “lonely.”

Miss? Can we grade spelling tests, file papers, have a sticker, braid your hair?

I love unplugged moments like this, unencumbered by assignments and tests, please don’t talk while I’m talking, line up in ABC order, don’t make me sign your agenda.

Just magical, awkward fifth graders trying so hard to keep their balance teetering on the edge of adolescence.

Then I spotted him.

Collecting carrots.

Most of the kids had tossed them aside, the orange scourge of the sack lunch. But he was carefully gleaning the carrots from the abondoned bags, filling up a sack to slip in his backpack. I said nothing, but stopped a few kids who were throwing out apples.

“Just put those here on my desk.”

Later, with a conspiratorial wink, I tucked them in alongside his carrot stash. After school, I watched him show his little sister the bounty of his foraging.

I went back into the school, smiled through a dozen parent conferences, graded a few hundred papers, grabbed a quick dinner with co-workers.

Then, driving home, remembered the carrot collector, pulled off the road, and sobbed until my head hurt and no more tears would come.

They weren’t really for my carrot collector. I can make calls, get help, make sure he always goes home with a backpack of food.

I saw him.

But in a crowded classroom, a daily agenda packed with test worries and paperwork requirements… who slips by? Who is the child overlooked, unnoticed… left behind.

This is what I want to tell my legislators and policy makers.

While you chase rabbit trails of better tests and more tests and higher-stakes tests, you are losing sight of the carrot collectors, our most vulnerable children who will never achieve academic excellence when they are hungry and struggling to have basic needs met.

Maybe they need more rigor and RTI, but more than that, they need more teachers in smaller classrooms, so that someone sees it when they are gathering snacks to survive the weekend, when they are teary every other Friday because the parent with custody that weekend is dangerous and threatening, when they are late to school because they can’t set an alarm when the power is turned off.

I do not fear accountability. But I want to be held accountable for the things that matter. Did I give kids the individual help they needed to succeed? Did I feed their curiosity for learning so that they see other options beyond the life they are living now?

And for God’s sake, did I notice when they were collecting carrots?

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22 Things You Need To Know

3 May

1. The acid-washed jeans you kept from high school don’t look good anymore.

2. Mullets are not coming back

Galileo

3. Galileo was right, Ptolemy’s Theory is wrong.

4. Your life would be no different if the popular kid in 4th grade had invited you to his/her pool party.

5. Dungeons and Dragons was never cool.

6. You would not have been in Gryffindor because you would not have been admitted to Hogwarts. Ever.

7. We really landed on the moon.

8. It is not made of cheese.

9. Bigfoot is a tall guy in a costume.

10. Hitler is not secretly living in South America with a new identity.

11. Bristol Palin is not a star or a dancer.

12. No one likes Hugh Hefner for his personality.

13. You’re too old for tube tops this time around.

14. You really are going to use algebra after high school. All the time.

15. However, you won’t ever need to know what a gerund is.

16. No, “it” won’t actually make you go blind.

17. Cat’s don’t try to steal your breath. They can’t be bothered. Unless you ate tuna before bed.

18. Your dog’s tongue does not magically get sanitized between licking its butt and licking your face.

19. That is not Donald Trump’s real hair.

20. President Obama was really born in Hawaii.

21. Osama Bin Laden is really dead.

22. You don’t need to see the pictures and/or video. So stop clicking on those Facebook links. It’s a virus and you look like a moron.

Brown-Eyed Boy

23 Oct

Strange, the things we remember.

I can’t remember his name, 12 years later. But I can picture the huge brown eyes, the red hair that fell across into them, still waiting for its first haircut. He was about a year old, round-faced and robust looking if you could ignore the IV tubes and the oxygen cannula. His mother — young, unmarried, overwhelmed. I can’t picture her any more either. Forgive me. We had our own details to remember.

His glassed-in room in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit was across the nurses’ station from our daughter’s. Heart patient, of course; that’s what the wing was for. A miserable fraternity we’d never asked to join. But we were going through initiation nonetheless. Psychological warfare in the waiting room, hazing by sleep deprivation and terror.

His mother and I would talk during the shift changes at 7 and 7, when doctors made rounds and we had to leave lest we overhear another child’s health details. As if we didn’t know them already. Bonds forge fast in a PICU waiting room.

So we learned them all, the defects that brought our children there. Tetralogy of Fallot, Ventricular Septal Defect, Transposition of the Great Arteries, Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

On the scale of “serious heart defects,” a ridiculous hierarchy, he had one of the easy ones: Ventricular Septal Defect, or a hole in the heart. One surgery, fix the hole, recover, go home. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.

I envied her, to be honest. Our daughter’s defect came with a lot of question marks. Secret meetings we couldn’t attend where doctors talked about treatment options and quality of life versus risk and gave her genetic tests to be sure she was worth the trouble. Of course, they didn’t say it like that. 

They wrapped explanations in gentle blankets of “we need a complete picture,” and “there could be complicating factors for long-term survival.” They whispered things like “palliative care.” Which sounds much kinder than “we could just keep her comfortable and let her die.”

And I understood those choices, I really did. But in the end, because our doctors wanted to save this blue-eyed girl, they chose the route that gave her the best chance. 

I never wondered then if the fact that my husband and I were both educated members of the media, and our daughter had double-coverage private insurance played a role. Twelve years ago, I just  thanked God for putting us in the right place, at the right time, with the right surgeon. I still do.

But this brown-eyed boy, and his young, single mother, had a different story. They had a managed care program with a reputation for stingy payout. So when the brown-eyed boy was born with a tiny hole in his heart, the insurance company said, “let’s wait it out.”

Sometimes, holes close on their own. That’s a lot cheaper. So they refused to approve surgery. And the young mother and the brown-eyed boy waited.

But the hole didn’t close. So finally, the insurance company relented, and scheduled surgery.

 You remember, right? Ventricular Septal Defect, or a hole in the heart. One surgery, fix the hole, recover, go home. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.

The problem is, the brown-eyed boy’s heart had to work much harder because of that hole. Overworked hearts get enlarged. The muscle walls get thick, more rigid. Sometimes, they’re not ready to start beating again after open-heart surgery. And so it was for the brown-eyed boy’s heart. It couldn’t find a rhythm and wouldn’t beat on its own.

Surgeons fought back with bypass machines, and medication, and everything they could. We were at one of the best hospitals in the world for babies with heart defects, and the fight was valiant. Helpless spectators, the mother and I sat in the waiting room during shift change and talked and prayed and hoped together that her brown-eyed boy would open his eyes again.

Then one day, she didn’t come to the waiting room. The delay had proved deadly. He was gone, and so was she.

I think of that brown-eyed boy a lot these days, as the health care reform debate dissolves into so much silliness and death panel discussions and screaming at town hall meetings.

But what I wonder, is what made my blue-eyed girl more valuable than that brown-eyed boy?

While she practices for Shakespeare plays, texts her friends and fights with her brother, what would he be doing? Suiting up in pads and helmet for football practice, writing a book report, refusing to pick up his room?

I can’t buy the argument that just because we were born into families that valued education, blessed with bright minds through genetics,  happened to have good insurance, our baby was worth more.

I hear the argument that quality health care is not a right, and I ask, “why can’t that change?” We used to say that about education. We used to say that about women voting. We used to say that slavery was an economic necessity that would bankrupt our country if we abolished it. We grew up. We made progress.

I’m not a politician or policy maker. But when I think of the brown-eyed boy, I wonder how many deadly delays it’s going to take.

What The World Will Look Like Today

9 Sep

Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson

 

Enjoy your 15 minutes, Congressman Joe Wilson. Thanks for the distraction from the actual issue of health care reform. Because you know, that’s not anything important for us to figure out. It’s way more fun for us to discuss your little outburst.

You Rock!

Joe Wilson

 Make your own statement at Photofunia.com.

Indoctrination

7 Sep

I admit it. I’m worried this week about my children being indoctrinated.

Within a mile of our house, we have a McDonald’s, a Taco Bell, Taco Cabana, KFC, Jack in the Box, DQ and a Sonic. They can sing the commercials or tell you the slogans of pretty much all of them, and know at any given time what the Happy Meal/Wacky Pack/Cabana Kids Meal prize is.

The other girls in Middle School indoctrinate my daughter about the need to be popular, the importance of names like Aeropostale, why it’s just not cool to take a shower after gym, and why having a “boyfriend” is important for a sixth-grader.

The boys in elementary school tell my son only nerds have to play E-rated video games, and tell him the Halo and Doom and Mortal Kombat are way more fun than Wii Sports.

My kids are indoctrinated by Hannah Montana, the Wizards of  Waverly Place, the Transformers, Ben 10 and a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

Sure, I swim against these tides. It’s what parents do. We teach our children our values, share our wisdom, encourage them to think for themselves. I fight indoctrination tooth and nail.

But this?

Obama’s Speech to School Children

This “indoctrination?” I say this.

Bring. It. On.

Take the bully pulpit, Mr. President.

Tell my son, whose birth family was torn apart by addiction and violence, “Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”

Tell my daughter, struggling with the pressure to conform, worried about popularity, that “Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is,”

If their schools lack the courage to stand up to the fearmongers and won’t play your address in the classrooms, we will read it at home. Because sir, I need all the back-up I can get. We’ve got a great support system. Good neighbors, committed teachers, a church family, grandparents, lots of friends who share our values.

But if you are willing to take time away from wrestling with our nation’s present struggles, and encourage the guardians of our country’s future? Mr. President, we don’t agree on everything. But in this, you be my guest.

Indoctrinate away.

Common Ground

4 Sep

In the neighborhood coffee shop, the Christmas tree is still up in the corner, decorated with ribbons and tissue-paper flowers, trying to pass itself off, I suppose, as a Fiesta tree, although that event has come and gone as well.

A table of ladies have their laptops out, lunching and working on a volunteer project for a local animal rescue group. One of the tribe is late and lost, and a woman in Birkenstocks is animated as she gives directions, making hand signals the person on the phone can’t see, creating imaginary streets in the air in front of her.

I smile. I do this, too. Still prone to get left and right confused, so I draw maps with my hands to double-check myself.

She  laughs and jumps up, exclaiming out the window  “I see you, I see you! No, you drove by!”  She runs out the door to flag down her flustered friend and soon, they are both coming inside, hugging and buzzing with the business of catching up.

The older couple sits on the red leather chairs, catching up with their granddaughter home from college for the long weekend. They tease with the shop owner, who is wearing a t-shirt pledging her allegiance to the rival team. 

“We’re not supposed to get along, I guess,” laughs the shop owner. But they do, of course, with interaction as warm as my green tea chai.  There is plenty of room for common ground over chicken salad sandwiches.

The businessman in the lavender shirt has chosen a seat far in the back, typing on spreadsheets and sending emails, meeting with clients.

As the business concludes, his voice gets louder as he starts telling a story.

“So this conservative black guy is handing out ‘don’t tread on me’ stickers, and of course THEY don’t like that. THEY don’t want anyone black to disagree with them so THEY start beating him up.” He gets angrier. His voice rises.

“So of course people start bringing guns and things to the rallies for OUR own protection, and then THEY turn it into something that says WE are the radicals when THEY are the ones at fault.”

“It’s what THEY always do,” he says with certainty. “Start something and then cry about it when WE fight back. It’s how THEY are.”

I feel myself getting angry and defensive. Part of me wants to confront him, challenge him to prove his ridiculous anecdotes. I want to ask him why, even if the incident ever happened, that bringing assault weapons to a town hall meeting is the right response. I want to tell him that stories like his epitomize everything that is wrong with the political discourse in this country, that we would rather demonize the opposition than solve problems.

But more than angry, I feel sad. In the 40 seconds of overhearing his story, I have become a “THEY.” Not the woman two tables over writing on her laptop, finishing up a green chai latte before meeting the school bus. Not the wife, not the mom, not the churchgoer, not the neighbor, not the friend.

Just a “they.”

And of course, he has become my “they,” too. Not the businessman worried about making ends meet, finishing his iced mocha before heading to another meeting. Not the father, the husband, the neighbor, the churchgoer, the friend. Just a “they.”

I walk past his table to take a call outside, and it’s like it has a force field around it. He doesn’t look up, I don’t say hello. I sit down and start writing this story.  I expect to end it throwing up my hands. There’s no reasoning with “them.”

But then, as he leaves, he walks past a dog waiting outside for its owner. It barks and he bends down, making silly faces and clicking sounds as he extends a hand. The dog stops barking and comes over, letting him scratch behind its ears.

I smile at the scene out the window, and he sees me and smiles back. He waves as he gets into his car.

Suddenly, he’s not a “they,” but a dog-petter, a waver who uses his signal before he changes lanes. 

I take a deep breath, rewrite the ending. Decide next time, I will start a conversation. Maybe,  find common ground over chicken salad sandwiches.

A Very Special Leno

20 Mar
President Barack Obama, Jay Leno

President Barack Obama, Jay Leno

Mr. President, I totally feel your pain. Trying to give yourself a little self-deprecating kick and instead shove your foot right in your mouth.

I have to admit, when you described your bowling skills as “Special Olympics,” I laughed. Then I cringed for you. Because dude, you can NOT say that on television.

However, I understand about the bowling. I dropped a bowling class in college. On the line marked “reason for dropping,” I wrote “my coordination levels do not match up favorably with the skill set required for this class.”

I also understand because I have applied the same “special” description to my pictures from the finish line of the Rock-n-Roll half-marathon last fall. My gorgeous friend Julie enthusiastically grabbed my hand as we crossed together, and suddenly thrust our arms skyward in an joyful gesture.

I, caught off guard by the move, was captured by the race camera in a  flailing pose that can only be called awkward if you’re generous about it. 

Or, as I have described it, “she looks like my Special Olympics minder helping me understand me the race is over.”

I’ll guess that some of you are laughing at the description. Some of you are deciding I am awful and insensitive.

Some of you are thinking “I really want to see that picture.” 

… Uh, no.

I will say, though, that I was making fun of no one but myself when I said it, and I know the President wasn’t either. But sometimes, our mouths have to catch up with our hearts.

The President has been quick to apologize, and in the conversation that has ensued, I’ve found myself re-thinking some of my  quips, pledging to work a little harder on erasing hurtful language from my vocabulary.

I hope those political opponents gleeful at his misstep will eventually do the same. Get off your high horse and check the mirror.  It makes a great national teaching moment.

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