Sink or Swim… Er, Float

11 06 2009

Ruthie with cute, pink, ruffled floaties.

Ruthie floating not-on-her-own. Notice the cuteness. And the pinkness. And the ruffles. Oh, the ruffles!

Last Sunday, Ruthie and I, along with a very dear friend, broke into a local neighborhood pool while its patrons were at church. Thankfully, there was only one family there, and they were lounging at an angle that would allow us (and by “us,” I mean my dear friend) to inconspicuously jiggle the gate in just the right way with just the right amount of pressure so that it would open without the key. Once I saw the gate swing open, we plowed through and set up camp in a nice, shady corner where we could eat lunch.

Ruthie loves the pool, but I’m trying to break her into her floaties this year and have been, thus far, unsuccessful. I’ve gone to great lengths to find cute, pink ones; they even have a ruffle. She’ll put them on and wear them in the baby pool, on the steps of the big pool. She even ate lunch with them on. But she won’t let them hold her up. I’ve tried coaxing her to simply stand on the third step and lift her feet, I’ve tried luring her out into the middle of the pool with motor boat sounds and bubbles, but always she is stubbornly resistant to the very notion of using the floaties to FLOAT! I finally got her to let me hold her in the pool and drag her around with her arms out “like an angel.” For a solid half hour, I pushed and pulled her all over the pool, but as soon as she felt my grip loosen, she’d freak out and pull her arms down to her sides. Which made her sink. Which made her swallow water. Which made her even more fierce in her determination to not let me go. I even tried just pulling away real fast, but she had a death grip on my index fingers and I didn’t have the heart to rip them away. All I could think of was that swim teacher who told me to swim to him and kept walking backwards, all the way down the pool. I thought I was going to drown. When I tried to pull away from Ruthie, her face had the look of sheer terror that must have come over my own face when that jerk wouldn’t stand still.

I wanted her to see that she could trust the floaties, that they would keep her up. Having seen tons of kids her age positively leaping into other pools that I’ve high-jacked this summer, only to bob right back up to the surface with those floaties sticking up out of the water. I thought kids just knew that floaties would keep them up. While I can remember being afraid to swim, I can’t ever remember being afraid to float. The problem is that Ruthie has no confidence in her floaties. Her refusal to rely on them to help her float actually makes her sink. In order for them to work, she has to kind of relax into them. But because it’s new and scary, her whole body tenses up at the possibility of me letting go, she jerks her arms down, and her head goes under.

This whole experience struck me as somehow significant and metaphorical, but I couldn’t quite pin it to anything until I came across this passage from Oswald Chambers:

Naturally, we are inclined to be so mathematical and calculating that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing… Certainty is the mark of the common sense life, gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all of our ways, we do not know what a day may bring forth. This is generally said with a sigh of sadness; it should rather be an expression of breathless anticipation.

And brilliant E.L. Doctorow insight  that Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I, like Ruthie, am on the cusp, the brink, the brim of lots of unknowables. I have a new job in a new school system teaching a grade that I haven’t been with in over four years. In recent months, I have experienced tremendous changes in my personal life as well. I have no idea what my life will look like in the fall, or even in, say, July. For the past six weeks, my shoulders have been in knots and I often catch myself holding my breath for no particular reason. I am tense because my life is new, different, and, well, scary.  When things seem out of control to me, my tendency is to run straight through as fast as I can. This tends to send my life spinning even more out of control. And so, as I quelled the frustration that I felt at Ruthie’s resistance to letting go and trusting the floaties, I realized that I may need to do the very same thing in my own life: trust more and fight less.

Ruthie resigns to the baby pool (with ponies, because ponies make everything more Fashionable, and thereby, more fun.)

Ruthie resigns to the baby pool (with ponies, because ponies make everything more Fashionable, and thereby, more fun.)

Ruthie never did float on her own in the big pool. She resigned to the baby pool, where she kept her floaties on and bobbed around like a little shrimp. That is until she confessed that she needed to go “poopee” (however you spell that) and we realized that you have to have a freaking key to get into the bathrooms. It was nap time anyways.

“To fight aloud, is very brave”

30 05 2009

There is nothing more irresistible to me than a bookstore on Saturday morning. I spent the better part of an hour at Books A Million this morning, roving the shelves, armed with a cup of coffee. I get lost in the titles and the covers and the sheer number of books. Getting lost is something I’ve been very keen on this past year. I can’t ever quite tell what will make me lose myself until I’m doing it. I positively swam through the store, hanging on as many words (that were not mine) as I could. It was a relief, to read and not to write or to think of writing. For the past year, I’ve thought of nothing but writing, but I have written virtually nothing. Meandering through that space crowded with words meant to incite, capture, invoke me, the reader, I could feel my shoulders loosen and my stance shift. My knees grew bendier and I rested on my joints. My face became open, and I began to craft some writing in my mind. While I would normally rush somewhere to put it on the paper before the words left me, I tried to relax into the words, repeating them over and over. And then I came across the Dickinson poem that is the title of this post, and the words became cemented in my mind. I left with six books and the resolve to write. Something. Today.

I came home, put on some music, then decided against it and opened the windows, and began reading my earlier posts. I didn’t realize I began this venture two years ago, when Ruthie was only 18 months old. My third or fourth post (Taking the Long Way) speaks to the way I feel now. And it occurred to me that my life is terribly, wonderfully recursive. I keep coming back to the same places, and each time I revisit them, I am a little stronger, a little braver, a little older. I am trying now, even as I type this, to be okay with the possibility of coming off as a complete fool. I am also trying not to write what might be considered a bit of an over-share without compromising any of the truth of what has led me to the key board today. The truth is that I am exactly where I was two years ago, only less afraid and more alone. Scared and alone are two of the shittiest aspects of the human condition, if you ask me. And I am always both. But today, as I sifted through those titles and browsed the books I had selected, it occurred to me that everyone is scared and everyone feels alone (which, of course, is why it’s a part of the human condition and not the Whitney condition). All of my favorite things–- books, films, music, art –-capture those two features of what it means to be human. It is a painful condition, the human one. Which is why I found myself in the bookstore today, seeking a connection, through language, to humanity. Which is why I am writing today, seeking to establish my own connection, in my own words, to humanity. 

I’m finally reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, as per Emma Bolden’s recommendation. At the very beginning, Anna, the person who keeps the notebooks that she (unsuccessfully) divides herself into, has an insight that I can’t stop thinking about. It is during a conversation with her best friend that Anna has this sort of epiphany:

But now, sitting with Molly talking, as they had so many hundreds of times before, Anna was saying to herself: Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they? What it amounts to is that I’m scared of being alone in what I feel. (Lessing, 10)

It is this thought that has kept me from writing through the past year. When I write, my thoughts are permanent and vulnerable, pulsing under the lens of my readers’ discerning eyes. If I simply think my thoughts, then they are mine, and mine alone, and I have no way of knowing whether or not I am alone in those thoughts. When I put my ideas and experiences into writing, then I risk knowing that I am alone in my thinking. But with that risk comes the possibility of being affirmed and understood. It is with hope and trepidation that I continue to write, even now, when there is so much at stake (namely, myself).

Undoing Unteaching of “Those Kids”

9 04 2009

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article that really every educator, and every person whose tax dollars go into public education, should read. During my tenure as a teacher in a rural community where 12% of the adult population has a college degree and just over 65% have a high school degree (data taken from, I have often felt misunderstood by my colleagues and my peers. In this article, Kylene Beers, the president of NCTE, brilliantly (and succinctly) captures the cultural beliefs governing so many “underachieving” schools. The tricky thing about cultural beliefs, those because it is beliefs, is that they are usually taken for granted and thereby invisible. Beers stares down some pretty damning evidence of the kind of deficit thinking that has tainted the public educational system since its inception in the mid-1800s, when Horace Mann and his contemporary cronies established public education as a means of educating the poor. Please, please, please take a moment to read this. It’s short (only 4 pages), and it will rawk your brain!

The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor

Futi Kunga

8 04 2009

Two nights ago, Ruthie discovered Futi Kunga in our kitchen pantry. What follows is the story of our new found friend Futi and how she came to be.

I was washing dishes in the sink because we don’t have a dish-washer. Er, we do have one, but it sits on the back porch because it has to be wheeled over to the sink in order to work. When I wash dishes, Ruthie usually plays in the pantry or with the magnets on the refrigerator. I could hear her babbling, but I was mostly just focused on not breaking a glass. When I (finally) finish with the dishes, I turn to Ruthie and begin the whole let’s-get-ready-for-bed process. Actually getting in the bed takes at least an hour of prodding, changing, whining, resisting, and brushing teeth with princess toothpaste. I tend to be fairly impatient about moving things along at the end of the day. So I was standing behind her, nudging her away from the pantry, and cooing, “C’mon, bud. Time for bed. Let’s go. C’mon. Let’s go. C’mon…” Ruthie whipped around, eye brows raised in her most serious serious face and whispered to me.

“Futi Kunga’s in there, Mom. She’s got those beans. You see those beans down there? Futi Kunga’s gonna eat um, Mom.” (I keep our canned food on the very bottom of the pantry.)

I asked Ruth if Futi might want to come to bed, and she (again with the most serious serious-face) said, “No. She’s not comin’ with us in the bed. She’s gonna sleep in there tonight.” I nodded, like, “Oh, right. Of course.”

Once we got in the bed, I learned that Futi Kunga had come from the dungeon––a place that, for Ruthie, is the most terrifyingly awful place she can imagine, so terrifyingly awful that the word is uttered with the weight of words-you’re-not-supposed-to-say. But, and this is important, “Futi did not drive there.” We don’t know how or why Futi was in the dungeon, but we do know that she got out (because she’s in our pantry).

So what’s Futi been doing since she moved in? Well, yesterday, Futi ate a banana Ruthie left for her, and tonight, we read Futi a story about bunnies. We went to tuck her into the pantry for a good night’s sleep on the canned beans, but Futi insisted on sleeping in the other side, where the vacuum cleaner is.

Pause and Shift

21 01 2009

I am out today on sick leave. I should be writing the paper that was due last semester. I should be getting some laundry started. I should be drinking water instead of coffee. I should be reading about web development for my class tonight, or addressing invitations to Ruthie’s birthday party at the very least. I am in my last semester of grad school. Three years I have been in grad school and it has officially rendered me brainless. I am too serious. I am too intentional, too resentful. Everything is personal. I wake up gritting my teeth. Every question is an interrogation, every request an imposition. And here I am sitting at my computer: paralyzed by the desire to write, and overcome by the dull conviction that I don’t have anything interesting to say. 

So I reread Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which was, to me, inspiring. I can’t imagine writing anything under such pressure. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading as much about her as I could find on the internet. I’ve found that I like her– she’s honest, thoughtful, and insightful. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, she talked about the task of composing the inaugural poem:

JEFFREY BROWN: So — so, have you made a start? How do you — how do you go about this? What is it that you want to accomplish? 

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: What I want to do in the composition of the poem is to be very quiet and very humble before the forces that make me able to write poems.

It’s a very, very big challenge. It’s a very extraordinary moment. And I think the fact that Barack Obama has decided that he wants to have a poem as part of the inaugural is tremendously significant, to say that here is a time when we can listen to language that shifts us a little bit, that allows us to pause for a moment and contemplate what’s ahead of us, to think about how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us, all of those things can be possible in the moment of pause and shift that — that a poem makes possible.

So, I’m just trying to be very serious and very quiet and very humble as I — as I try to — try to write something.

I am neither a quiet nor a humble person, but I can reside for a small time in the moment of  pause and shift

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.


(These lines were clipped from the New York Times transcript of Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of “Praise Song for the Day.” Sadly, the transcript does not reflect line breaks.)

Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis


Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900

Morning Drive

17 10 2008

I drive 27 miles on the interstate to get to work. The speed limit is 70, which means that I generally go anywhere from 65–90 mph. This morning I was running behind, so I did my best to keep the speed around 77 while I put on my make up, checking the clock at every exit to see if I had succeeded in defying time. I also listen to Morning Edition on Fresh Air. There was a horribly sad story today about a man and his wife, whom he met in Iraq, and how utterly miserable they are in Ozark, AK. So I’m driving, listening, getting ready, and probably checking my phone for emails.

When I got to exit 70, which is 7 miles before my exit, there were cars stopped in front of me. Or, they were going very slow. I moved over to the left lane and checked my phone again. I’m thinking all kinds of urgent, frustrated 4-letter word combos. I slammed my fist on the dash repeatedly, which sent my eye shadow tumbling to that place on the floor of my car where my reaching for it only pushes it further away. By this time, I was definitely LATE, with make up on half my face, and, to top it off, there was a dark brownish-golden smudge on the freshly shampooed carpets of my *clean* car (a feat that takes such considerable effort that I believe it’s been a year since it’s been this clean). I grabbed the phone to call another teacher, and began to fume in my mind about how much it sucks to miss work when you’re a teacher. I mean, if you have a regular adult job with adult people, it’s just not the same. However, if I don’t show up for work, 150 8th graders are going crazy in my classroom with no lesson plans, no teacher (unless it’s a co-worker who is on their *planning* period). So I make the call and then text him with lesson plans 10 minutes later just in case.

After 15 minutes or so, the sun came up and I realized that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for a while because there was a truck in the right lane that had gone off the road and there were only 3-4 cars in front of me. All I could see was the back of the truck at an angle and the front, sort of jack-knifed down off the road. There were some people gathering around the cab, but the driver was walking around seemed just fine. Another teacher (from Valley, but not from my school) was parked in front of me and she was kind of nosy––walking around, talking to people, talking on the phone, fixing the way her shirt would get bunched up by the waist of her pants. I borrowed her phone to call the school again because my phone died. She told me that when she drove up, she noticed the smoke coming up from the truck and pulled off to the side.

Soon after, a helicopter came, and two ambulances, followed by a bunch of random people who parked on the exit ramps and walked down through the damp, tall grass to see what was happening with the truck. Under the cab of the truck, there was a anoth truck––a white Chevy. Inside of the Chevy, or what was left of it, there was a person. Trapped. Everyone stopped for this wreck (and there were 2 other cars involved in the wreck, 4 cars in front of me, and so on) was just standing around. Not speaking. Not moving. People who drove by on the other side of the median slowed down, some pulled over, some got off the exit and walked down, waiting 50 yards or so away. While the firefighters worked on the mess, the truck driver was taking pictures with his disposable camera. Click. Wind, wind, wind. Click. I could hear that from where I stood on the shattered pieces of windshield on the other side of the road near the yellow line.

The two men who had on jumpsuits (I guess they flew the helicopter) stood close to the white truck with a stretcher. Waiting. Then someone put a black thick-looking tarp over it. Next were two white shoes poking out of the carnage, followed by the body, head turned to the side. I can remember being shocked at how straight his body was when they pulled him out––like when Mary Poppins pulled that floor lamp out of her carpet bag. All of this happened behind a white sheet that two firefighters held up, but I was on the other side, I was on the inside, I was behind that sheet. My view was not protected and I could not look away. One man––a big guy, a firefighter––sat on the bumper of the yellow truck they came in on and leaned over with his hands on his knees like he was going to throw up. He squeezed his fingers into his eyes real hard and shook his head. Another one came up and put his head close to the big guy’s head. By that time, the black bag was sealed and strapped onto the stretcher. I saw the helicopter fly away, but I don’t know whether or not the stretcher was on it. After that, there were several people in big blue hats waving us off and shouting for us to leave. I don’t know where they expected us to go, but I went and sat in my car anyway.

I write this because it was a strange kind of alone standing there on the interstate. Everyone was alone in their own minds, but together in our being drawn to move closer, to hold our breath, to stand on the tippy-est parts of our toes to see what death looks like. I’ve never seen that before. And I was, we all were, so close to being the one on that stretcher. That man was sitting in traffic just like I had been 45 minutes prior. Maybe he was late. Maybe he was wearing his seatbelt. Maybe not. It wouldn’t have mattered because that truck couldn’t stop. And if he had been only one car ahead, or only 4 cars behind (as I was), he may have been standing next to me on the shattered windshield, on the road, holding his breath and waiting for what they were doing to pull out of that car.

I know this isn’t as light-hearted as what I normally write. It feels strange to have this sitting above the post about Ruthie in a shopping cart and planting mums, but there is no place to write or talk or think about death that is not strange or uncomfortable or easy. It doesn’t follow that after witnessing this awful thing, that I turned around and had a “normal” day. I went to school, ate lunch, emailed a few people, and now I’m sitting here writing on my blog. I’m not sure what I believe happens after a person dies, but I do know that I won’t ever say again that I’m ready for my life to begin. That I’m ready to be finished with the rushing around and the living month-to-month. It’s just so hard not to live for the next best thing. It is so hard to be in the moment living, paying attention, focusing on the now.

Punctuality: Thief of Time

27 08 2008

He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.” (Oscar Wilde)

Those of you who know me best know that I am habitually late. Despite my best intentions to be on time, to be timely, to be timely and one time, I am not ever timely. Nor am I apt to be on time. Once, as I was passing through the living room from the front door on the way to the kitchen, I caught a Dr. Phil show in which a young woman was being confronted by her friends for her gross disregard for all things time and timeliness. She barely made it to the show on time as a result of her missing the flight to the-city-whose-name-escapes-me-where-Dr. Phil’s-show-is-taped-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience. Dr. Phil, in his notoriously didactic preacher-man style, used this young woman to illustrate the act of “running late” as one that is purely selfish. The young women laughed it off as a petty crime (as I have done many times myself). But Dr. Phil was insistent: You are selfish! According to Dr. Phil, If you are chronically late then you have no consideration for others, especially those who are waiting, waiting, checking their watches, expecting you to show up, hoping against hope, waiting––on you. Er, me. 

I would argue that I am no more selfish than any punctual specimen. However, I will admit to being ish-y  when it comes to all things time. I have yet to find a way to see my commitments as exact points in time. I am an –ish person. I may not be at work by 7:30, but you can be sure that I will make it by 7:30ish. 

This ishness is experienced as an insurmountable wall separating me from society. I cannot pretend to an a priori knowledge of time. If I were to posit myself within the spacetime continuum, I might be found near the edge of the speed of light with my fingernails dug into the lip of the black hole. If I could just swing my other arm up and out against the strain of the laws of physics, the Kate Spade calendar chirping  of appointments and to-do lists aligned neatly beside crisp depictions of watering cans and galoshes. If I could just claw my way out from under the unopened bills, the receipts, the bank statements, the ungraded papers, the graded papers to be filed, the files to be discarded, the phone numbers scribbled on the back of the Starbucks sleeve found in the backseat of my car. If I could just, if I could only, then I might be able to meet you for coffee this afternoon around 3:00. Let’s call it 3-ish.

A Human Profession

14 04 2008

If you are an educator and/or a human being, you need to order this book immediately: Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. Lareau is a dynamic ethnographer/sociologist who looks into the extent to which parenting ethics affects/effects the way that a child will perform in a given institution (namely, school). She follows lower and middle class families (Black and white from both socioeconomic levels) to discover patterns across social strata with regard to child rearing. Her findings are astounding and enlightening. I promise.

Pierre Bourdieu says that individuals from different social locations (i.e. lower class vs. middle class) are socialized differently. Seems obvious, right? Now, think about this: Susie teaches her son how to talk to adults by engaging in conversations with him (“What did you do today, Johnny?” …”Well, why didn’t you explain that to your teacher?”…), whereas Sally rushes home to fix dinner before her next shift. The only words Sally has time to say to her boy are “Billy, don’t touch that.” and “Eat your dinner.” Now, if Sally were Susie, she would have said, “Don’t touch that because I need it for work tonight, so I don’t want it to get messy and your fingers are dirty.” So what’s the big deal? Johnny will expect his teachers to explain why when he is disciplined and he will also be able to engage in discussions about why he doesn’t understand the material because his parents have taught him how to do that by showing him that he can speak to adults and encouraging him to explain himself when he is not understood. Meanwhile, Billy is uncomfortable speaking to adults and he becomes so used to responding to directives, that he doesn’t argue back when he doesn’t agree with something a teacher disciplines him for and he doesn’t explain how the teacher’s judgment was wrong. He merely goes along with it, perhaps displays an attitude, refuses to explain himself when the teacher asks him “what’s wrong?” and holds the general assumption that school is “unfair.”

Now, these are highly generalized examples which I have constructed to convince you to read the book, but Lareau’s findings confirm that the way that children and parents interact with the institution of school have an awful lot to do with their social positioning. Furthermore, Lareau draws on Bourdieu’s theory that the way that a person is socialized determines what a person deems comfortable and natural. So, why haven’t we considered that parenting is different across different social strata? Because we assume that everyone is brought up the way that we are… OR! We assume that if a person is brought up differently from us, they must have “known better” at least. (It’s important for me to mention here that Lareau’s study finds pros and cons for both lower and middle class ways of parenting… this made it an especially interesting read for me as a parent as well.)

As educators, we have a responsibility to know our students… and their parents. We often label parents as “uncaring” without considering the possibility that parents care for their children in different ways. Lareau and her researchers make some very interesting observations about the ways that teachers interact with children of different social classes and the ways in which families interact with the school (and teacher as extension/part of the school). Learning will not take place in an environment where we assume that everyone has had the same socialization that we have had.

Bourdieu argues that what we consider natural is relative. Parenting is historical–– it changes across time periods and it varies from place to place (i.e. people parent differently in America than they do in Germany). [Foucault did a similar theoretical jog when he began writing The History of Sexuality, should you be interested. In fact, should you not be interested, you should read Foucault. As an educator, Discipline and Punish particularly resonated with me.] Since parenting ethics has changed over time, we know that there is no “natural” or “more natural” way to parent.

Unfortunately, the institution of the school requires us to make assumptions about students based on their performance on tests that they may or may not have the cultural tools they need to succeed on. We ask for students to display their knowledge in a manner of ways that confirm whether or not the child has been socialized properly (according to… whom?) This is becoming scarier and scarier as we fall deeper and deeper into the cracks of NCLB. It seems that in our effort to “close the achievement gap” between groups of students, we are actually falling into gaps that are much more fatal. We are actually reinforcing and amplifying gaps between social classes by placing such strong emphasis on arbitrary tests. As educators, we are forced to spend so much time “documenting” that we often fail to focus on the more humane question of who we are teaching and what their individually specific needs are in terms of preparing them for a world that might go against their norms. We need to focus on providing our children with the cultural tools that they need to experience success in a business-driven world, but we need to do this without subtracting from the personal culture of that student. We need to confront our classrooms with the mindset of Annette Lareau and with an awareness of how society works.

The Great Debate

22 01 2008



I have seen countless talk shows featuring stay-at-home moms vs. working moms. I would have to declare it a draw. Both walks of life have some considerable compromises (which is what entitles us to be named “mom”). For me, I think I chose the right path: that of working mom. Mostly because I lack the patience that stay-at-homers must have. I think we should start calling stay-at-home moms Gladiators. “Stay-at-home” suggests a certain passivity that staying at home with a two year old does not any any shape or form allow.

Yesterday, I spent the day with Ruthie since Adam worked the holiday. I spend the weekends with her all the time, but usually, Adam is there as well… or at least he’s an option if I need to get anything else done. So Ruthie and I vacuumed the living room and the bedrooms together–she with her little Dirt Devil that lights up and makes a strange clicking noise that sounds nothing at all like a vacuum cleaner. Then I took her down to the basement to do the laundry. She threw in the Downy ball and cried when I wouldn’t let her pour in the detergent. We “folded” clothes, which meant that she wadded them up in a ball and I smoothed them out and folded them as she handed them to me.

We went to Party City to buy her “Thomas Birthday,” which wound up being a Dora one since those were the first party goods she saw upon entering the store, causing her to pitch a death-defying fit in the shopping cart. She then wailed when we had to put the Dora balloon in the back behind her seat, insisting on holding the balloon’s hand on the way to the grocery store. We made it out of the grocery store with one more balloon that the clerk insisted on giving her even after I told her we had some in the car. Then we went to Chick-fil-a for lunch, where Ruthie ate 2 and a half nuggets and a few fries before insisting on climbing in the claustrophobic playroom that reminds me of those commercials where bacteria is visible on every surface, writhing in technicolor nastiness. It took her 20 minutes to climb up in her socks, which caused her to slip a lot. I intercepted her as she shot out of the yellow tube and carried her out. Thankfully, she looked up at me and nodded, saying “Time to go now, Mommy.”

Once we got home, I was relieved to see that it was 1:00, nap time. She slept for a total of 25 minutes before she cried hard enough to get her put in the big bed, where she slept soundly for another hour and a half. During this time, I finished cleaning and got ready for her birthday dinner with Adam’s side of the family.

We had pizza (her favorite) for dinner, which she adamantly refused to even entertain the thought of eating. And, finally: CAKE. She would not have a mere slice of cake. Instead, she insisted on dragging her finger along one side of the cake as I deceptively cut pieces from the other side so she would think she was indeed eating the entire cake. She coaxed the icing onto her little spoon, “C’mon blue,” and wiggled with pure satisfaction.

After opening a score of oversized toys that make all kinds of zany and annoying sounds, she finally passed out at 8:30. And I did too.

I’m writing this from work, where I have many similar challenges with less severe personal costs. For instance, if I lose my temper, I am not staining my child’s opinion of me or shaping her idea of how people deal with stress. Rather, I will be blown off as being a tired teacher (a creature rarely conceived of as having any emotive capacity). If I can’t think of something to do next, I just ask the students to read their novels. No problem. At home when I can’t think of what to do next, I put Ruthie in front of Dora and pretend not to feel terribly guilty about it. I have nothing but respect for stay-at-home Gladiators. I admit that I am not one of them. I won’t say I couldn’t be because everytime I say that, I get tested in ways that prove me wrong. I’d rather not be tested right now.