Category Archives: parental units

Thought For Thursday: Counting Chickens

So, I don’t remember how much, if anything, I’ve told you all here beyond this entry, so if I’m repeating myself, I apologize.

I had another visit to Dr. Wong’s private school (let’s call the place Classical Private School, or CPS for short) last Wednesday.  I arrived in time to meet the social studies teacher and sit in on the opening rituals (the Pledge of Allegiance, the recitation of their school’s creed (which ends in “so help me, God”), and a moment of silence/prayer), and then participated in the first class of the day, which was a lecture in a Western Civilizations class (they’d just covered the Black Plague and were heading into the Italian Renaissance).  I didn’t ask specifically, but I think that all the students in the school (there are currently 17) were attending the class, and all of them were engaged, even the moderate-to-severe ADD student in the front row.

After the class, I had a chance to talk to a student to learn about what her typical day is like, then Dr. Wong took me into the lobby to meet and chat with Dean Michaels, who’s in charge of professional development at the school.  We had a long and really engaging discussion, the three of us, and we covered a lot of ground in terms of what the ladies think the school is lacking (and what my skills can remedy), what the vision and objective of the school is, and how important it is for them to not just be teachers, but to be models for balanced citizenship.

It was right about this time that Dr. Wong looked at me with a bit of concern in her expression and said, “I sense some hesitation from you, Chili.  Is there anything wrong?”

Well, no; not WRONG, exactly, but she wasn’t mistaking some trepidation on my part.

I decided to ease into it with my logistical concerns.  Were I to come on board, I’d be the only staff living farther than about 15 or 20 minutes away (it’s a good 50-55 minutes from Chez Chili to CPS on a dry day with the wind at my back).  Despite our being in the same state, we inhabit very different climate zones, and while they may only get a dusting of snow in the city, I might be buried under 7 inches and not be able to get to work, and we’d need to have a contingency plan for the once or twice a year that’s likely to happen.  I also wanted to be clear that I’d need to have my workday shifted toward the morning (school runs from 8:50 to 5:30).  I can be the first person in the building at 7:30 if they want me there, but I’d like to leave no later than 2:30 every day.  Neither of these things seemed to be an issue for Dr. Wong, so I moved on to what was really worrying me.

You see, I’m a liberal.  There, I said it.  I know; shocking, right?  Well, the entire construct of CPS is very, very conservative, and I knew, going in, that I was going to have to “come out” to Dr. Wong in a way that made clear my values and priorities, and that sooner was much better than later.

I chose to bring my sticker-covered water bottle with me that day instead of opting for the unadorned black one because I felt that leaving my “regular” bottle at home was somehow hiding something.

I told the ladies that, were I to come to work for the school, I would literally be the only religiously unaffiliated (I believe I used the term “enthusiastically unaffiliated”) member of the community.

The issue of abortion came up when Dr. Wong told us that she was still getting her deceased mother’s mail, and that a solicitation for donations to Planned Parenthood came to the house the other day.  Dr. Wong admitted that she used to be pro-choice, but changed her mind after converting to Catholicism.  Dean Michaels said she grew up Catholic (and anti-abortion), and it wasn’t until she became pregnant herself that she realized what an awesome responsibility a child was and changed her position to become pro-choice.  I told the ladies that I steadfastly believe that every human being needs to have full sovereignty over their bodies, and that anything that infringes on that turns them into a slave.

I let the ladies know that being an LGBTQ ally is an integral part of my identity.

I was pretty sure that that was going to be that, but they surprised me.  By the end of the conversation, both women seemed even more excited about the possibility of my coming on board.  Dr. Wong acknowledged that there would likely be parental drama, but that she was fully capable of handling it (she told me a story about an encounter she had recently with an evangelical mother who objected to the fact that Dr. Wong was talking to students about creation stories, and a student went home to report that Dr. Wong said that Adam and Eve is a “made up story” and, well, hilarity ensued). Both women were enthusiastic about the idea that I would bring a new perspective to the party; Dean Michaels said “if we’re going to walk our walk – really walk our walk – we need to be open to a diversity of voices.”

Well, then, I’m your girl!

For the rest of the afternoon, I was introduced as “Mrs. Chili… she’s a liberal” to staff and students, which was a little weird but reinforced the idea that Dr. Wong was willing to accept – and kind of embrace – the fact of my philosophical position.  I have been invited back next Friday to lead the school in a writing workshop; they want to see me in front of a classroom and introduce me to the students.

As I left the school, Dr. Wong surprised me by giving me a hug to say goodbye (she didn’t strike me as a hugger).  It was a lovely gesture that made me feel I didn’t blow a hole in my candidacy by coming out as a lefty liberal.

I’m pretty sure I’ll have a job there next year if I want it.

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Wordy Wednesday: A Shot of Hope

For a long time now, I’ve been worried that I was never going to be back in the classroom.  After all that happened to me at CHS, I was feeling pretty burned; for all that the place was pretty laid-back and permissive, I still managed to get into trouble, so it stands to reason that it’s highly unlikely I’m going to find someplace where my enthusiasm, passion, and ethics won’t be a liability.

I met Jay for coffee this afternoon.  He’s a teacher at a different charter school (and a hell of a photographer; hit that link and go on over and click around.  Leave some feedback; he’s looking for some interaction), and the parent of one of my former students.  We’d been tangentially in touch since before I was dismissed from CHS; he and I clicked when we first met, he was very supportive of my efforts to kick his recalcitrant daughter in the ass, and we share a very similar perspective on politics, spirituality, and the underlying purpose (and ethics) of education.  Anyway, I left a comment on his blog about a particularly stunning portrait he’d posted of Sweet Pea, and a few emails later, we’d set up a coffee date.

I left that hour feeling much better about where I am professionally.  He told me a lot of things I really needed to hear (though, let’s be clear, I don’t think for a second that he said them because they were what I needed to hear; he’s not like that at all).  He confirmed for me a couple of things that I deeply suspected but really didn’t want to admit (I’m over that now, by the way; I’m done telling myself stories to try to make it hurt less).  He told me that not only should I go back to teaching, but that I very likely had to; we share a proclivity of spirit that compels us to work with young people, and he recognizes in me the same drive that moves him to do the work that he does.  He essentially told me that I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else – that I could do other work, certainly, but that I would never be as fulfilled as I will be teaching.  I don’t think he’s wrong.

Jay also offered me a glimmer of hope that there may well be a place for me in a classroom.  I’m going to chase down a couple of contacts tomorrow (and send out a couple of resumes, as well) and see what becomes of it.  While I’m not going to force myself into a situation where I have to change who I am to fit in with the culture so much that I don’t recognize myself anymore, neither am I going to give up entirely on the idea of being a teacher.  The truth is that I miss the kids too much to abandon the work, and I love who I am while I’m doing it.

Onward.

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Wordy Wednesday: The Conversation We Should be Having

Go get yourself comfortable; this could take a while.

By now, 5 days after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, we’re pretty well steeped in the hysterical rhetoric coming from both “sides” of the political spectrum; the “left” is screaming for rational gun control legislation and humane mental health services while the “right” is advocating arming teachers and eliminating “gun-free zones.”  The fighting is as predictable as it is pointless; background checks wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy, the guns used in the shooting were obtained legally, guns are not the problem, you can’t plan for the crazy people, there’s evil in the world and there’s nothing you can do about it, The Second Amendment….

Blah, blah, blah.

This is not the conversation we should be having.  We don’t have a gun problem; we have a humanity problem.

Are there reasonable things that we should be doing as concerns guns and weaponry that we’re not doing?  Of course there are.  I’m not going to go into them now, though; I’m betting you’re sick of hearing about them (I am) and anyone who knows me, even if they only know me here, knows that I have both feet firmly planted in the pro-gun control camp.

I don’t want to talk about guns or lobbies or the NRA.  I want to talk about culture.

A few months ago, my grandfather observed how difficult raising kids is “nowadays.”  I kind of called him on that; I said that raising kids is just as hard now as it was when he had kids, or when he was a kid himself, and that it might in fact be easier given all the modern conveniences and health care and safety equipment.  He shut me down, though, and this is how he did it; “When I was a kid, we didn’t have a telephone, but my mother would know that I’d done something wrong before I even made it home.  The whole neighborhood watched out for everyone else’s kids.  If I did something I wasn’t supposed to, my friends’ mother would take it out of me at the scene, then my mother would take it out of me when I got home.  When my kids were little, it was still like that.  No one looks out for anyone else anymore; they’re all too worried about lawsuits.”

While I’m not sure it’s the lawsuits that people are worried about, Grampa’s point has merit; we don’t look out for each other anymore.  We have drawn very clear and very rugged lines around our lives, such that it is the rare person who will step up to correct another person’s child, or even to offer to help someone else.

Case in point; the other day, I was in a department store.  Little kids love to hide in the clothes racks (I did, and I bet you did, too), and, look at that!   I found a small person in a clothes rack.  I looked up and didn’t see an accompanying adult, so I asked the kid where her grown up was and stayed with her until said grown-up appeared (which, I might add, was not immediately, and when the grown-up did arrive, she was not in the state of panic I would have expected of a parent of a small child in a department store around Christmastime, but I digress).  She scolded the child and ignored me completely, which left me feeling as though the help I offered by staying with the kid (or, not for nothing, discovering her whereabouts in the first place) was both unnecessary and unwelcome.

I have been “spoken to” many times in the course of my professional life for “caring too much” about my students; for being interested in them as human beings, for listening to them when they spoke about their lives or their frustrations or their goals, for offering advice and support and, yes, love.  It wasn’t my “job” to nurture them as people, it was my job to stuff “knowledge” into their heads, to provide opportunities for them to spit that knowledge back out, and to assess their competence in doing so.  I was told that it was the counselor’s job to take care of the kids’ emotional needs, but then listened as that same counselor said, out loud and in public, that he didn’t “do” crying kids.  A facebook friend observed that “Hell, I remember when everything shifted. Prior to my junior year in HS (that was 83-84?) the counselors went from just that, someone you could go to get help or just talk, into someone who helped with ONLY curriculum and college placement. Now they see a kid with a problem they call the idiots at CPS and all hope is lost for the poor child!

I don’t think he’s wrong.

We don’t take care of each other, plain and simple.  We aren’t allowed to check in to make sure that things are okay at home; pediatricians were asking, not too long ago, for legal permission to inquire about guns in the home.  They were told ‘no.’  When a teacher sees something in a kid’s behavior that raises red flags, we’re told that we have to wait until there’s a clear and obvious crisis situation before we’re allowed to call someone else, who may or may not intervene.  We mind our own business and keep our heads down.

The message that sends is that there’s no one to go to if you need help.  If you’re in trouble, if you’re confused or frightened, if you’re bullied or harassed, if you’re feeling hopeless, there’s nowhere for you to go unless you’re threatening yourself or others; the situation needs to be escalated to crisis mode before there are any systems in place to help you, and by then it may be too late.  There’s nothing that can be done; you just have to suck it up and deal with it because you know what?  Life is hard.

I’m calling bullshit.

The problem we have isn’t with guns, though guns are certainly an exacerbating factor.  The problem we have is that we don’t know how to manage a basic level of common human decency.  We don’t know how to care about one another, and we don’t know how to accept that care without its being perceived as some sort of judgment about our fitness.  We’re so wrapped up in ourselves – our rights, our privileges, our perceived greatness -that we fail to recognize that our lives are inextricably wrapped up in others’ lives, too.  We listen to our politicians use violent rhetoric and watch them work tirelessly to further disadvantage those who are already behind.  Our entertainment glorifies violence and the loner; the rugged individual who keeps to himself and does whatever he has to do – up to and including hurting others – to ‘get the job done.’  We have, as a culture, completely swallowed the myth of isolation; that we are alone in the world, that the only things we get are the things we get for ourselves, and that everyone else should, at best, be viewed with suspicion.

I reject that mentality wholesale.  We can totally fix this gun problem and this mental health problem by just being decent to each other.  Let teachers care for their students.  Ask for help when you need it (and accept it when it’s offered).  Be willing to think and look critically at the habits and traditions you follow, the ways you solve problems, and the ways you talk to and treat other people.  Think cooperation before competition, and abandon the idea that someone else’s success means that there’s less for you.  Hold a door open, yield the right of way, look people in the eye and really listen.

Let’s try being decent and see what happens.

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Quick Hit: Vindication

I attended a seminar yesterday on the Constitution and the ways in which the document continues to change and evolve as society does.  It was a fascinating day – much more so than I imagined it would be – and I’m eager to sign up for the rest of the programs in the series.

One of the panels featured a lawyer who does extensive work with issues of privacy.  After her session, I made my way to the front of the lecture hall to try to get a moment or two with her, which she graciously offered me.  I quickly told her to story about what happened to me at CHS last year, giving her a thumbnail sketch of the proverbial ‘facts of the case,’ but stopping just short of the fact that I was let go at the end of it all.

Her very clear and unhesitating diagnosis of the situation was that a school representative, working with the express permission of a parent, has the right to disclose personal information of a medical nature about said parent’s minor child.  It seems that  HIPA has a clause that allows for the release of information by the subject party or the subject party’s legal representative – in this case, a parent – and, in the absence of a clear school policy forbidding such disclosure (which there wasn’t), there is absolutely no wrongdoing if said school representative gives information about a student to the school community.

The attorney literally gasped when I told her that I’d been let go as a consequence of the story I told her.  She went on to tell me that I absolutely had actionable cause (which I’m not going to pursue) and that this never should have happened.

I said the things that I said that day with the express permission of Sweet Pea’s parents (and Sweet Pea concurred when she was well again and I was catching her up on what was going on at CHS).  I knew what I was doing was right when I was doing it, but I walked away from the conversation yesterday feeling incredibly vindicated.

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Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Why English Class Matters

My younger daughter is on the middle school field hockey team.  One of her teammates has a mom who took it upon herself to look up some information about warm-up jackets for the girls.

I think this is a lovely gesture and I fully intend on purchasing a jacket for Bean.  I have been routinely horrified, however, by this mom’s abysmal writing skills.  Unless she’s not a native speaker, there’s really no need for this:

At long last I have the data on jackets. We will order from Collins sport In Randolph the cost is about 48 dollars to be finalized when we give a count. I have printed off photos of the two choices women’s cut and men’s cut either can be ordered we do not all need to get the same. We will have  Field Hockey embroidered on back , name on sleeve and school field hockey logo on chest or a generic one if he cannot find a specific fern wave one. The link to the pictures are in the email. Also we need to pay up front. I have typed out a flyer/ order form and checks need to go to Collins sports no cash please. I would assume if you want to pay with credit card you can call them as they are local just let us get the order organized. Look for the pictures and form and info letter tomorrow with the girls.

(for the record, I have no idea what a ‘fern wave’ would look like)

This email went out to 35 families and the coaches.  It was followed up this afternoon with this literary gem:

A reminder that we will be placing the order for the jackets this week so please have your order information and check or payment information in by Tuesday or at least make contact by then . Thanks so much . We fad a good response so far the girls will look wonderful in then. Most are buying big to last a few years . We are only referencing town not middle school so they won’t outgrow them!!

I… I just… I have no words…

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