Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Truth About Back to School

(Fond end of school award rituals captured from years gone by...)

The time honored tradition of back to school holds a variety of emotions for most people I know. With a strong belief that a good education is the key to a better life, we dutifully prepare children for the schedule and routine that will dictate the next nine months of their lives and ours. We do everything that we can to make their life ready for learning - or do we? Today I ponder the truth about "Back to School."

Our entire family was not ready to go back to school. My Real Simple magazine highlights the ritual of one group of mothers who collectively toast the start of a new year, but most of my friends dread it. Literally, at the last possible minute we're cross checking book lists, supply demands and uniform codes - as if life depended on it. Doesn't it though? For our children to be prepared, don't we have to ensure that all of their needs are met? Well, common sense tells me yes. Snarky end of summer blues tells me no.

I secretly look at every person in the mall and wonder if their children can read or write. I know that they will be dressed to meet a fashion standard regardless of uniform code - but I don't know how much this has to do with true learning. I believe in being prepared to learn but I've come to resent the need for new tennis shoes, a new fall wardrobe, or the inevitable list of supplies that could teach a small village I'm sure. My resentment may come because our finances are so tight, or maybe because I hear the coded language that follows the observations that I share. Sometimes I share the observations - wondering is it racism, a matter of class, or both.

1. Why does a child who needs tennis shoes from the donation program get picked up in a Lexus?

2. Why does the backpack drive come complete with parents who have a fresh manicure, pedicure and hair appointment within the last 7 business days?

3. Why does a child who can go 3 weeks without duplicating clothes not carry books home at all? (He did indeed attend the event in #2)

4. Why does a child with free or reduced lunch get dropped off in a late model car?

5. Why are there voucher programs accepted signs now proudly posted on every store I shopped at in the last month - where the average home value is $300K?

You can tell me about the stereotypes I'm making if you want to, but the conversation is starting to bother me too. My neighbor is a school administrator and sighed in disbelief after he told me story after story of the child that they helped...when it seemed as if the parents had not made a better decision - that they could have easily made. Maybe its because I had to listen to a woman tell me why she understood my private school decision because of the lack of "serious rigor" in my Suburban School district that had evolved from "working class people to the west." She was surely serious as I looked at her clueless behind with disbelief. Hello...I would be one of those working class people. The local school performs well, but the lack of diversity just grieved my spirit for my children - couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. It either makes me really dedicated to their education - or a fool for buying what I could get for free. The later is real high on my list some days.

We didn't buy all new school shoes this year - we worked with what we had and supplemented the obvious gaps. We brought new backpacks because the old ones had holes, not because we were excited about this years' selection. We scrambled like crazy people today looking for the components of the "dress uniform" which is worn one day a week - and why you might ask. Because the children who have clothes rolling out of their drawers and closets - have 1 dress uniform each, because we paid 3 sets of tuition in the last month. And although they have what they need to make it through each day - school started on August 11th. We have yet to make the shift from sun and fun to "back to school" - we managed tears with less than a full week of homework completed. Transferring to a new school means new uniforms and countless clothes without a purpose nowadays. Sigh. Hiss. Sigh.

Although no one has come forth to organize the mother's social for my peer group, our networking has begun. Can you pick up the children next week? Can you feed mine on Thursday of this week? Will you tell me the assignment from last Friday? What time is the PTO meeting and who had the audacity to think the dinner hour was smart? So as I see the umpteenth request for donated school supplies, or I see the line at the check out counter for back-to-school essentials, it isn't lost on me that this is only one aspect of preparedness for learning. What about listing good parental guidance and common sense on the list - can we get some of that? I doubt it. Last year I dealt with bullying, mean girl syndrome, racism, and a boatload of things I thought my private Christian school would handle better. Nope. In a true false test you'd be in trouble I tell myself.

1. Breakfast - did I make it? Will they eat it?
2. Sleep - are they showered? How fast can they get in bed? How many hours did they get?
3. Homework - is it written down? Is it completed? Is it correct? What needs to be studied?
4. Activities - are they relevant? Is the time commitment reasonable? Am I asking too much of them? me? husband?
5. Clothing - does it fit? Is it where it needs to be? Is it in the closet, drawer, basket, washing machine, dryer?

I'm astutely aware that the Back to School ritual means different things to different people. I've started my own snarky observations of those around me. School for some is daycare at best. I'm concerned at the core for latch key children, followed by my own reality check that if I'm not careful I'll have kids splattered around the city in aftercare. (Also known as no care in many mom circles.)

As we set the course for this year, ever so slowly, I've got to wonder what will we all learn and what will we all accomplish by the time June rolls around. We do a lot of busy work - but are we teaching the skills, values and lessons that we need to? I feel it every time we put gas in the van, assess the soles on those tennis shoes, write 1 of 3 checks for the privilege of learning...but the real preparation, is that financial at all? Just maybe we should be teaching high expectations, study routines, and cooperative parenting 101, while our children are sent off to learn the state mandated concepts we so aptly do in the few waking hours they have now that Summer is officially over. The Truth about Back to School .... it is starting to appeal to my cynical side for the difference between being "prepared to learn" and capitalism 101, fashionetta 214B, and remedial priorities.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Celebrate Today!

There are no little events in life, those we think of no consequence may be full of fate, and it is at our own risk if we neglect the acquaintances and opportunities that seem to be casually offered, and of small importance.
~ Amelia Barr

I was feeling the pressure to write, produce, and be more today... I settled on the simple reminder that 4 is only four once - and it lives not within my fingertips, at the command of my computer or in the never ending schedule
of obligations contained within my mind.

And for one who believes herself to be one who encourages, lifts, embraces,
and befriends fiercely - the cheerleaders for everyday motherhood and the ability to simply be - are a dying breed. Unlike a "vacation" reminder in my email options, maybe my life should often read - "busy today. trying to live it. life." But affairs of the heart are rarely as succinct as their authors lonely attempts to capture them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bernie Mac and Cosby...Something In Common

On a recent road trip I brought breakfast for 5 at Cracker Barrel and encountered a Box Set of the first season of the Cosby Show. We weren't making good time, we had already stopped twice, and I figured the DVD's couldn't hurt. The fact that they were $14.99 didn't hurt either, so I decided to give them a chance and test out the kids interest. We have success!

The fact that I found the Cosby show at a rural Indiana Cracker Barrel speaks to what happens when stores are caught behaving badly...all of sudden there are opportunities that never existed before. Cracker Barrel isn't the only culprit, there are a variety of restaurants and stores tired of being sued, so they have embraced, well tolerated, diversity. No, not really. It's all about the bottom line...and in this case I believe, great move.

My 4, 6 and 8 year old have practically memorized the season 1 episodes, inquiring dutifully about whether my husband and I would respond the same way or wanting to know where are they now. I have had several discussions about the role that the Cosby Show played in the formative years of many, many children...when I also thought about the less talked about side of the show. Cosby was not the perfect husband off screen, Claire ended up with a real life divorce, Vanessa struggled to have a career thereafter, and poor Denise went from nude vixen to recluse. None of it takes anything away from what they did magically on screen.

Fast forward, to when I learned of the death of Bernie Mac. I heard many stories about his comedy routines. I know that he gained much fame from those legendary shows - but it is not what I will remember him for. When I think about shows that I can watch with my children, the Cosby Show isn't the only one. The Bernie Mac Show had me laughing out loud more than once as a parent, as I sat with my children and cracked up over the plot of the day. With a particular affection for Vanessa, I remember being so thankful to see a beautiful dark brown child on screen, a comfort to my daughter. I think to myself about the numerous episodes that revolved around private school, fitting in, trying to make the team, etc. and the issues parallel my universe as a parent. I have a lot of respect for the writing, the stories and the family life that was on screen - and will add Season 1 to my video library as my own Bernie Mac tribute.

For some reason I think I was more reluctant to forgive Bernie Mac's missteps - like the Ho joke at an Obama fundraiser. I'm not sure why, because based on the criteria I try to use in guiding my family entertainment and investment - he surely fits the bill. Beyond adult entertainment, his television show touched many a family with current scenarios and challenges ripe for laughs and discussion. He was a devoted husband for 30 years, and while some play a good husband - I assume that some really are able to survive the Hollywood scrutiny. With 13 years of marriage under my belt, 30 speaks volumes of his life off screen, as well as on. And now, as I think about the shows that bring the most laughter to my children who memorize every word of every show they are allowed to watch...the Bernie Mac show will give us new fuel for trips, even those just down memory lane.

R.I.P. Bernie Mac 2008

"In order for us to live as a family, we need to set down a few 'house' rules. First rule: It's my house. Don't get me wrong, this is our home. But it's my house. Mi casa es mi casa. Second rule: In my house is all my stuff, and you are not to touch my stuff without my permission" -Bernie Mac

Back to School BLUES.....

I have a paper and pen fetish so I understand with no lack of clarity that my children like school supplies. I'm trying to renew their interest in school as well.

The kids see the ritual of securing Wide Rule Paper, spiral notebooks and an assortment of writing utensils in the same way I used to have "Trapper Keeper Envy" as I walked the aisles of the stores in the 70's. I can remember 30 some years ago, praying that my grandmother would take me school shopping - because she believed in new everything. Toss out the list sent by the school - my grandmother brought new underwear, slips, socks, undershirts, multiple versions of all school supplies imaginable and an assortment of hosiery, purses, hair supplies and earrings too. She didn't believe in new schools too much though, she picked a team and stuck with it. Being prepared meant something very different for my grandmother, as my mother figured out how to pay tuition. (A tradition my grandmother started with private schooling...)

I would hope for my mom to embrace the basics, but I relied on my grandmother for all of the cool choices, including my 2 pair of back of school shoes. I had a difficult elementary life after all - one had to be prepared. On this year's shopping list for said 4, 6 and 8 year olds... a Brand New School. A Black one this time! Thus, I break my week long silence for the Back to School Blues.

We attended a predominately white Christian school for two years, and I must have said 1,001 times, "at least we have the love of God in common." Well, not quite so fast - after two years and a boat load of heartache, we made the switch back to what we know. Our only reason for ever changing schools was a relocation that meant we had to make a new selection. Prior to that we would annually do a cursory scan of the environment in our home state, check test scores, compare tuition, and confirm in our mind that we had made the best possible choice. My husband from a public school background and my lifetime in private schools makes for a great combination. One new realization that we've added to the mix - Diversity does Matter, and saying we have God in common doesn't really cut it when you're alone, isolated and repeatedly subjected to the Caucasian Card. (Yep, when race cards really don't apply and cluelessness rules good sense.)

Anna Quindlen writes an intriguing fact of life article regarding being Black in American, in the latest edition of Newsweek - something that my 8 year old daughter can relate to. It is really pretty bad when a 4th grader understands the peculiar challenges of being Black in a white world, something lost completely on her clueless teacher for the last year.

The tough stuff builds character the article goes on to say, but how much character do you need to build at age 8? We went through more than tough stuff, we went through a regression of resilience, high performance and a strong resolve for science achievement spiraling down the drain. For what? Teasing, lowered expectations, why doesn't your hair (just fill in the blank), you can't be my friend, "I don't see anything wrong", MESS! I was hoping for a great command of the English language, the ability to multiply 3 digit numbers, a practical application of the Scientific Theory...but what we got was a crash course in the difference between being white and financially elite, and being working class and invested. We didn't fit in. The two are not the same

We value diversity and made the mistake in thinking everyone appreciates the value of a classroom more representative of the real world - false assumption. We have effectively traded in the joy of "don't label anything, drive through drop-off and pick-up, room moms akin to the mafia hierarchy, and more 1/2 days than the world knows what to do with" for a starkly different experience. The private Black School experience merits a blog post. Imagine that...they actually want our children. They want our volunteerism. They are invested in keeping us there. We like that change - but there are differences.

1. There will be lots, and lots, and lots of homework. Why? Because the Black private school ethic is different. There is an urgency in good education. They believe that children can, should, will and better learn. I was used to being told that children should play and be children...but it didn't work. While my daughter was busy being a child, she was regressing from a teacher who expected nothing from her and rewarded her occasional compliance.

2. Expectations are different. When a child who scores phenomenally on standardized tests and receives a final term grade of a C with a crack pot - well it makes you wonder. Communication at a parent level is different when the school has a partnership with you - when you are a number that doesn't really matter - you are told, "no one has ever looked at a 3rd grade report card in real life." I still wonder if that is something any intelligent person should tell a parent paying for education.

3. You label, well everything and the kitchen sink. No lie, we labeled for more than an hour on Sunday and I'm still believing there is a pencil, folder or paper clip that escaped our home without a Sharpie or label imprint. This is definitely in stark contrast to the "group supplies" approach. But, I think I'd rather label all of my Target, Walmart and Staples loot - than have my child labeled, or be labeled as "one of those troublemaker parents." (My pic is probably in their office!)

4. Electronic prowess. I have landed where there is a clear and consistent expectation that my children will believe in their value, their ability to learn, their level of excellence and their obligation to show it. We'll just have to do it sending SOS signals. When I got a supply list that included a disposable camera, I was grieving the days of digital camera access for every administrator and staff member in each classroom. I may have to do just 1 PTO fundraiser, just 1.

And although I could easily go on - it has led to Back to School Blues. Not because I mourn the routine or being away from my kids - I don't. I mourn the experience of families like ours in environments where their children are not encouraged, educated or esteemed. Sure, I know that there are failing school systems everywhere - we moved from Detroit mind you. But, there are still others, paying for and seeking alternative education with marginal success. Although we paid to attend one of the schools perceived to be a tremendous community asset, we'll be countering the negative impact for years to come. I wonder how many others are in the same boat?

We teach our children, embrace being their first teacher, pay for access to the "best and the most recognized" ...only to realize all that glitters is not gold. I'll sacrifice some of the nuances that I will admittedly miss, to eliminate the nuisances that were slowly eroding the potential of a tremendous kidlet. I am thinking simultaneously about Akeelah and the Bee and the swim movie Pride - and I believe that both will serve as entertainment this week. Before we prepare children for this wonderful "melting pot" of experiences that will await them - we must invest in their demonstrated understanding that they are high achievers, wonderfully gifted, capable of all things. As Anna Quindlen noted - they get tougher because of what they go through - but they shouldn't have to be battered black and blue by insensitive and unskilled teachers to learn. For some child and his/her family this school year - they'll be battling more than academic achievement this year. They'll be battling for their esteem - and I wouldn't wish that on anyone - no matter what race, socio-economic group, religion, whatever. (except the haint that tried to steal my daughters' esteem...I can think of a few choice battles she rightfully earned.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Express - Stories in Living Color

I have a friend (yep, I did mean to imply one) who keeps me on my toes and has been simultaneously responsible for many a blog post. She's in prayer right now trying to ensure that her non-biological children end up enrolled in some school this week, and don't show up on her doorstep. How does this relate to the upcoming movie, The Express?

I was working on my own made for television movie, starring my children, in a movie just like this. In fact, it was the modern day version - a 2008 write up of what happens when smart, articulate, curious, outspoken African-American children go to a non-diverse school and lose themselves. I'm a fan of Remember the Titans...I think about Denzel in that movie and I get ready to have waterworks when it occurs to me, Disney. The movie is written by Disney. Not that many of the experiences are not portrayed in some accuracy, but its the movie version.

My children, however, are not actors. The things that they internalize are real. So, after a year of racist teachers, name calling in the lunch room, being alone at recess, tears after school, racist comments at camp...we're writing a different story. In my heart, I just thought we'd conquer the cruel world. In my reality, my children are 8, 6 and 4 - and what we have conquered is a belief that all is fair in life, or education.

Today, I guess, I'll start writing my own Pride. Great Debaters. Or some other story about African-American children who have to be twice as good, twice as fast, twice as disciplined, twice as motivated - just to compete. Problem with that script, it's not original at all. It's life. And I'll add The Express to my collection when it comes out, as yet another example of life as it was - and life as it is - because our children still go through it each and every day. This isn't Disney - our stories are true, and our kids are daily "Living in Color" for the world to see.