Saturday, June 2, 2018

Are Minorities Discouraged from Taking Upper-Level Classes?: The Elephant in the Room

As a public school teacher for sixteen years, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all.

I’ve seen Standards come and go (and despite the brouhaha about Common Core, it’s really not that different than anything that’s come before). I’ve seen standards come and go (I have hope that they’re starting to come back).

I’ve seen parental attitudes change from, “I cannot believe my kid did that! There will be major consequences at home!” to “You’re targeting my child”/”He was only doing what every other kid does and gets away with”/”Your course is too challenging for my child”/”Your course doesn’t challenge my child”/”School problems stay at school”/all the excuses.

I’ve worked with caring, inspiring, passionate, gifted teachers and administrators. I have worked with administrators and teachers that undoubtedly should have chosen a different profession. I have been bullied so badly by an administrator and two teachers in a district I once worked in that I developed PTSD related to being raped as a college student and the abuse I suffered at the hands of my ex-husband. I have worked with administrators, faculty, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, and lunch ladies that have gone out of their way for me, and I have tried to always go out of my way for my colleagues.

I have loved each and every student that has been in my classroom. I love them unconditionally, accepting the faults that each carries as I hope that they accept my faults and shortcomings. I taught them reading and writing, and I believe that I taught most of them well. I further believe that I taught them patience, kindness, acceptance, manners, and, yes, respect.

One of the reasons that teaching has never been dull for me is that I take the time to get to know my students. I try to connect with them quickly and strongly. They are people, after all, and if we can connect over dogs or movies or music right away, if they know that I remember (and care) when their birthdays are or that they, like me, have lost a parent, that I struggle with ADHD, that it always hurt me that my sister is “the smart one” in the family, the end result is that they know I care about them. They matter to me and they know it, so if it matters to me if they know how to use commas or use good evidence to support their argumentative essay or analyze the responsibilities of friendship in Of Mice and Men, they have a solid history of rising to the occasion.

I would go to the mat for my students, and they know it; however, I also have high expectations for them, as students and as people, and they know that as well. I have never pigeonholed them by socioeconomics, or race, or sexual orientation, or gender. I have not altered my expectations for them.

This is important, so if you’re just skimming this long piece, please read this part closely: I used to tell myself that I was colorblind, that I treated the black kids, white kids, gay kids, poor kids, rich kids exactly the same.

It’s even possible that I did.

But how many of us have seen this comic?

The gist of it is that some people are simply born well-equipped to succeed very easily in our educational system, and some are born doomed from the start.

I hate this comic.

I hate it because it makes it about the test … and it should always be about the students.

All children come to the educational table with strengths and weaknesses. There have been educational philosophies intended to bolster the one and ignore the other. There have been movements to teach “Executive Functioning Skills” to all, when the students that need them are going to need far more than a cookie cutter weekly lesson on notetaking to truly develop any substantive results and those that already possess strong notetaking skills still have to sit through the lessons because “reinforcement won’t hurt them”.

Students bring their life experiences--the good, the bad, and the ugly--into the classroom with them. Skin color, sexual orientation, gender identification, which end of town you hail from … those are key parts to who a student is. Ignoring that fact is a grave disservice to not just students but people in general. As an approaching-middle age white woman raised in an affluent family, how can I presume to understand what it feels like to be anything else?

And haven’t my life experiences shaped who I am and the decisions I make? Am I like any other other approaching-middle age white woman raised in an affluent family? Of course I’m not. I was seven months pregnant at my high school graduation. I drank heavily in college. I was raped by an acquaintance. I was hospitalized for a month with pancreatitis in my twenties and for a month with post-surgical complications when I was forty. I have lost a parent. I suffered horrible abuse from my abusive alcoholic/addict ex-husband. Would anybody know those things about me by looking at me? I repeat, though, haven’t they shaped who I am? Would pretending they never happened be doing me any favors?

I heard a colleague become very angry at a recent training intended to drive home the idea that it is doing kids a disservice to say, “I don’t see Bobby as a black kid. I just see Bobby as a kid” or “I don’t see my cousin as a lesbian. I just see her as a person.” “I’m colorblind!” she said over and over. With that mindset, we are taking away a huge part of the experiences people have had as a result of the hand they were dealt.Teachers cannot even begin to tap into the difference we can make to children if we refuse to see their colors, their shapes, the fact that they work a full-time job to help their mother pay rent.

I’m pretty sure this colleague is in the minority, but it is a vocal minority.

Teachers that take the time to know their students--and I believe that most of us truly do--will take into account the many and varied experiences, good as well as bad, that each child has experienced. To do otherwise is to do a disservice.

We look at where they are at when they come to us, and we do everything in our power to push them ever higher. We show them pathways, we encourage them, we are open and honest with them when we think they are making a mistake, and they will and do listen to us.

Sometimes, though, they ignore us. This is true of students from all races, creeds, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, mental illness, addicts/alcoholics, and so on.

Sometimes, no matter how much we care, no matter how much we try, teachers can only do so much.

And here is the elephant in the room, the elephant that nobody wants to talk about, the elephant that frightens me terribly even as I write this. I am, after all, a public school teacher that loves her job, and I do not want to be squashed by that elephant.

I think my point can best be made with an anecdote.

My first teaching job was at a middle school in a large city. I had a minority student, “Victor”, in my Honors class. He was a strong student and an incredibly nice kid, the kind of kid that would stop and help you if you dropped a huge jar of M+Ms in a busy hallway. Victor was a straight A student across the board, and he could have pursued and excelled in any career path he wanted.

Increasingly, Victor came to school with bumps and bruises. Once, he had a tooth knocked out. Because I was young and idealistic--and most of all “colorblind”--I pulled Victor aside and asked what was going on. “Just some guys giving me grief,” he said, cheerfully enough. “It’s no big deal.” I wasn’t so sure about that, but Guidance told me that it’s a common occurrence and, if it happens off of school ground, there is nothing they can do.

I thought they meant fighting and tried to forget it.

One day, I was leaving work and Victor was sitting on the sidewalk in tears, his vandalized and unrideable bicycle next to him. I ran over to him, and he quickly stood up and wiped the tears from his face.

“I’m fine, Mrs. L,” he said.

“What can I do to help you?” I asked. “Do you want a ride? Do you want me to bring your bike to a repair shop? I’ll pay to get it fixed, Victor. This is horrible. We need to call the police.”

Victor looked stricken at that. “Please, Mrs. L, just leave me alone.”

“But … why, Victor? You are such a nice kid, such a smart kid, why would anyone do this to your bike? Why would they beat you up?”

“You really don’t know, do you?”

Almost in tears myself (please remember, I was twenty-four at the time), I shook my head.

“They used to be my friends, but now they don’t like it that I do well in school. They keep saying I decided to ‘go white’.”

“‘Go white’? I don’t understand.”

“In my neighborhood, in my family, we don’t take honors classes and get straight As and awards from principals. We stick together. We don’t try to be better than what we are.”

“But … you’re a straight A student in Honors classes. You can do anything you want, Victor.”

“I know,” he said with a sunny smile. “That’s why I don’t let this stuff bother me.”

The next day, Victor was not in school. He had been badly beaten for talking to a white teacher outside of school. He came back to school a few days later, determined as ever to break the mold. I left the district to take a job closer to home, but I remember thinking that Victor would be okay; he would be a success story.

I returned to that district at the high school level two years later, missing the size and the diversity and the unique challenges that I loved working with.

I saw Victor once, in a crowd of students in the same minority group as he. He saw me, did a double take, then looked away. Confused, I went on my way. I did ask around, though. Victor was a D/F student in low level classes. He was involved in gang activities. Rumor had it he’d been in police trouble on several occasions. He was no longer “a nice kid”.

I have no idea what happened to Victor, the story that transpired in the years I worked in a different district. I do know that he changed dramatically, that he had clearly made the decision that ‘going white’ was no longer his path.

It was not the school staff that did this to Victor, nor was it necessarily his family. Victor had, somewhere along the way, lost the strength to stand up to his peer group. He had accepted his peer-defined identity of who he should be as a minority, and that identity did not value Honors or AP classes, never mind school itself.

Nobody wants to talk about the power of peers when it comes to minority groups possessing an “Us versus Them” paradigm, but that is the very base of it. I say that from fifteen years in education.

It is the elephant that nobody wants to name because we fear being labeled racist even as we squawk about being colorblind.

I take each child that I am given the privilege to teach, and I work with them from where they are at on what they are able and willing to give and receive. I truly believe that most teachers do the same.

So why am I writing this today?

The city I live in is in upheaval over student representatives being added to an ad-hoc school board committee tasked with exploring ways to include student voice on the school board. Each high school principal was asked to choose a representative from their school. The principals, I’m sure, worked hard to ensure that these representatives were not white, Harvard-bound males. It is a diverse city, and ignoring that diversity would be wrong. Principals know their student body, and they know the student that would best represent its unique voice.

What has happened is that a group focused on community organizing, a group made up of exclusively of minority students, a group that has made derogatory and false statements about their schools, a group that has misrepresented adult leaders as students to the press, has pushed their way into the ad hoc group made up of the principal-selected representatives.

Among other things, this group has been vocal about minorities being discouraged from (or even forbidden from) taking upper level classes. They blame the schools. They blame the teachers. They blame the school board.

Victor was the most extreme case I’ve seen, but based on my experience as a teacher it is the peer groups that want to keep anyone from defecting, from ‘going white’. The opportunities are there, for minorities and for all students, if they are willing and able to work to achieve them. They are encouraged by teachers. In fact, teachers and school administration would love it if their upper level classes were a perfect balance of diversity. What a feather in the school district’s cap that would be!

But teachers and citizens that are not of this minority group do not want to say anything. They don’t want to name the elephant because “Racist” or “Sexist” or “Prejudiced” is not a label anyone wants to wear. It would be all too easy to dismiss anyone who tries to raise this issue with one of those labels without ever addressing the issue itself.

And that group? They do not want to talk about the elephant in the room either, but perhaps they should if they truly want to engage in a dialogue that leads to understanding.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Parents vs. Schools Regarding Required Summer Reading: Both Miss the Point

My eighth grade daughter has "recommended" summer reading activities. 

She is expected to come up with three goals, write out a plan as to how she is going to accomplish them, and fill out a chart of her "summer learning activities" (this requires an "Authorized Signature", which I assume means me??, and a spot on the grid to write how it made her Grow).

There is also a suggested reading list with books selected from the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)’s 2017 Summer Reading List for Grades 6-8. I haven't heard of any of them, and I'm pretty sure my daughter hasn't either. None of them exactly pique my interest, and I'm a voracious reader (I should note that this particular daughter is not, although you can see from the pic below that she once enjoyed books)

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting, child and indoor

There is also a link to a lesson plan that teachers were apparently supposed to go over with students at the end of the school year. According to my daughter, this did not happen, and the message she got from her teacher was not to waste her time because nobody cares anyway. Part of me wants to applaud her teacher for her honesty with her students regarding this.

The whole thing is asinine, in my opinion as both a parent and a certified English teacher.

And, as you can imagine, some people in my city are going wild on the issue. Largely on Facebook, of course, but this is probably where you'll get the most honest feedback.

Some samples (All SIC):
* "I don't agree with [mandatory reading over the summer] at all. Both my boys are working full time and involved with family activities. They work hard in school all year and this is the time for them to just be kids. I'm not going to spend my summer forcing my boys to read. It's time to relax and recoup. It is not a time for more school-related pressures."

* "Most kids were burned out of reading after the reading challenge in elementary school making them read makes them despise it."

* "Between football starting next week--ugh--working, visiting family, and dare I say it, just being a kid, there leaves little time to get all this done. It's too much."

* "I think summer vacation means vacation away from school. If you had a vacation off from work and they asked you to do something over that time period you'd think twice about it. J/S."

There are many, many more, but that probably makes the point. And, to be completely fair, there are lots of intelligent, invested parents rebutting these kinds of statements.

Like me, they seem to focus on the idea that kids should be reading *something* in the summer, not just a book from an arbitrary list. Like me, many are appalled that some see reading as such little value. Like me, the idea that having to find time for reading is troubling bothers them.

Children should NOT stop learning because it is summer vacation. My daughter has learned, to give a small sampling, how to put up a pool and monitor chemicals, how to cook a meal, how to hike, how to teach her little sisters to swim, how to beat Super Mario Brothers, how to zipline, how to do different types of French braids, how to survive her first sleepaway camp, how to play the ukelele, how to master gymnastics skills she's been practicing ...

She has also been reading, albeit reluctantly.

She reads a graphic novel series that her father buys one of each month for her. She's reading Thirteen Reasons Why because she was interested in the difference between the book and the Netflix series and whether the story was helpful or harmful to teens (we are both English teachers, so she's heard lots of conversation on that topic) and wanted to be educated enough to weigh in.

She is currently at sleepaway camp (I miss her so much ...), but when she gets back, we are going to require structured reading time. We are going to know what she is reading and discuss it with her. We are going to recommend books to her and read them along with her. She will not love this, of course, because she is not a natural reader, but she will go along because she understands that reading, that learning, is important.

I am not going to require her to fill out those forms but instead keep a log of what she's read and a sentence or two of reflection.

I am going to encourage her to continue swimming, hiking, hanging out with friends, playing with her little sisters, going to Canobie Lake, and whatever else allows her to be a normal thirteen-year-old in 2017.

We made a decision a few weeks ago to cut off her iPad and wireless access on her phone at 10:00 pm. She's certainly gotten more sleep, which has also made a difference.

We are also going to make an effort to go to more museums, historical sites, and that sort of thing.

That is what learning is about ... and learning should happen in the summer. Reading must happen in the summer if we want to keep our children's reading fluency and knowledge base where it needs to be.

Should the school set out a canned summer  learning recommendation list for all students without taking into account what happens at home? No. Families that value summer learning have, with all due respect, long since put things into place that are far more meaningful than what's been offered.

Families that do not value summer learning need more than a bunch of printouts (and poor printouts, at that). They need to be educated on how to turn experiences into learning, which is far more valuable than how to break down a goal into parts. They need support and explanations and suggestions for how to make learning an integral part of every day.

Am I way off base with my frustration here?  

Saturday, July 8, 2017

We Won't Treat Your Pain: A Different Type of Opioid Epidemic Victim

Just to get this right out front, I feel terribly for victims of the so-called Opioid Epidemic. I don't think anyone wants to have their lives controlled by pills or needles.

I recognize that addiction exists, that it is a legitimate condition, and that every single human being experiences addiction in some way, shape, or form. People have the capacity to be addicted to everything from exercise to crystal meth to chocolate to weed to cheeseburgers to tobacco to muscle relaxants to caffeine to ... well, you get the idea. Addiction is real.

For a long time after the words "Opioid Epidemic" came to be, I rolled my eyes and was not especially sympathetic.

Part of this, of course, was being married to a violent and abusive alcoholic, which developed in me the erroneous mindset that those allowing chemicals to change who they were must be weak and pathetic people indeed.

The other part was an annoyance that people tried drugs like heroin in the first place. I mean, it wasn't like every American school child in recent memory hadn't been told the dangers of drugs. I don't know anybody younger than fifty that wasn't educated about drug abuse in schools, that wasn't fully aware that shooting heroin was a dumb idea. I wasn't aware then (because I didn't care to read too closely) that those addictions were often born as the result of prescription pain medication.

I have lost people close to me from drug overdoses. There is actually a current mini-epidemic among people I went to high school with that is just breaking my heart. I am saddened and distraught that people I know, love, and respect have lost a battle with a formidable enemy.

Anyway, does it do any good to say, "Well, they never should have started in the first place?"

And then I became a victim of the Opioid Epidemic myself, if not the traditional type, and I slowly realized that the problem is much larger than people dying of overdoses, families struggling to keep it together after the loss of their loved ones, first responders and public schools trying to figure out the situation with Narcan.

I'm guessing most people have seen this meme, right? Things are pretty out of control.

So how did I become a victim, albeit not the way you would think, of the Opioid Epidemic that has so badly shaken America?

In mid-April, I had a surgery that was supposed to be pretty straightforward. Prior to the surgery, the doctor gave me a prescription for 20 oxycodones to have at home. Filled it, put in the medicine cabinet, used it sparingly alongside ibuprofen and Tylenol when I was released from the hospital, no problem.

A couple of weeks later, I developed a complication. Went to the doctor, used the rest of the oxy while dealing with significant pain, no big deal.

I don't want to get into detail about the additional complications other than tell you that they resulted in two hospitalizations, one of which was ridiculously lengthy. While in the hospital, I was able to have oxycodone every four hours once the Dilaudid pump was removed.

Anyone I e-mailed or texted during this time, I apologize. I was largely in Lala Land.

When I was discharged for the final time (well, knock on wood it's the final time), I had prescription painkillers. I also had pain, and a limited number of prescription painkillers.

The pain, though ... unspeakable pain. Keep-you-up-all-night pain. Sleep on the couch watching Grey's Anatomy because it was too hard to concentrate on a book pain (and for anyone that knows me, I can always concentrate on a book).

I called the surgeon about the pain, and they had me come in. Not unexpected, they said. Try Tylenol, they said. (I was, at this point, already alternating Tylenol and ibuprofen around the clock). Call if it gets worse. It got worse, so I called the next day and they had me come in. Not unexpected, they said. Have you tried Tylenol? Well, try alternating it with ibuprofen. Call if it gets worse. It got worse again, so I called the next day. Have you tried an ice pack? How about heat? Oh, and Tylenol should help.

I finally called my Primary Care doctor, who made a joke about all the reading he has done about me over the past few months. He's been my doctor for years, and I was very frank with him. I explained that I was in pain, horrible pain, hadn't slept in a week, and the surgeon's office did not seem to care. I was not, I told him, looking for a heavy duty prescription, but surely there must be something between Tylenol and oxycodone. He thought for a moment and said, "What did they give you in the hospital?" I told him, and he asked if it worked to control the pain.

"Well," he said, "there are a couple of in-between things I can give you, but it seems logical to me to give you what worked. I'm going to give you five oxycodones. Take it as directed, don't sell it, you know the drill. Call me if you use it all, and we'll reevaluate."

I did indeed know the drill. I needed two of those pills, by the way, then the pain was manageable with ibuprofen and Tylenol.

There were further complications, of course, but my new surgeon (because I was totally all done with the other guy) actually gave me prescription pain medication when she did a procedure. Not a lot, but the same message as my PCP--we will evaluate if you use it all. I needed it for a few days, then I was fine with ibuprofen and Tylenol.

I'm not getting into detail about what was going on, but suffice it to say that my pain wasn't in question, even by the yahoo that told me to use an ice pack. Bloodwork and CT scans supported the fact that I was in excruciating pain. This wasn't me going in and asking for pain medicine with no documentation of obvious pain. It was "Tough it out because we do  not want to be seen as contributing to the Opiate Epidemic".

I'm not saying that doctors were a little loose with the narcotics for many years, by the way. Far from it.

Ten years or so ago, I experienced recurrent pancreatitis because my liver was messed up. Pancreatitis, by the way, makes childbirth seem like a paper cut. This went on for years as they tried to fix the liver damage, and I had a standing prescription for both Percocet and Vicodin. I would call the doctor, say which I needed more of, and they'd call it in. I mean, it was ridiculously easy to get narcotics, and I know that many, many people developed opiate addictions as a result of a situation like this.

I am lucky; I do not have a propensity for opiate addiction, I guess. I've struggled with other addictions over the years--caffeine, cheeseburgers, tobacco, probably even alcohol at certain times in my life. However, opioid narcotics have never been something I've used other than for short-term pain relief.

So here is my issue with the Opioid Epidemic ...

Yes, the ease with which doctors doled out narcotics unquestionably led people to become addicts and, when the prescription pad was put away, those people turned to heroin. Doctors were irresponsible. This is a tragedy, no two ways about it. I know people that have experienced this. I know people that have died from this.

That being said, it is equally irresponsible for doctors to allow patients to suffer terrible pain, which has been happening since new regulations came with the term "Opioid Epidemic" in 2015.

I have huge respect for my PCP and my new surgeon, who have the courage to balance the dangers of opiates with the need for them. Their mindset of giving small quantities of opiates when medically indicated while being incredibly responsible in overseeing the usage of said medications seems like how it should be.

For over a week, when I was crying in pain non-stop, when I was humiliated by a doctor's office telling me to take Tylenol and use a heating pad when I'd already told them I was doing all these things, when I did not sleep and was grouchy to my family and friends, I was a victim of the Opioid Epidemic.

Doctors refused to provide the necessary help because they were afraid ... but I will tell you that pain, true and unspeakable pain, is something people should not have to experience if there is a way around it. I said to myself more than once, usually at two in the morning when I hadn't slept for an increasing number of nights, "I understand why Kurt Cobain wanted to kill himself over his chronic stomach pain ... and also how he became a heroin addict."

There is no earthly reason for someone to try to exist in the pain I was in, especially long-term. A week may not seem long-term, but when you are the person living with the pain, it is a cruel reality that cannot be put into words.

The Opioid Epidemic is generally understood as having victims that are killed by addiction. This is true, and it is terrible.

But there are other victims, too. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Strange, Sad Skunk Story

I'm pretty sure that most pet owners have a skunk story ... it sort of goes with the territory. 

This is Howard, a lab/boxer/shepherd mix. He is a very good dog. 

Image may contain: dog and indoor
Howard has had several run-ins with skunks over his almost four years. They have inevitably ended with him sprayed, rolling around in the backyard trying to get the spray off, and shivering miserably in the bathtub while Jeff washes him with Dawn dish soap (we learned pretty quickly that tomato juice was not the best thing for getting skunk odor off). 

I have cursed a lot of skunks.

Yesterday, though ...

I let Howard outside into the fenced-in backyard, just like I have a hundred times. He climbed down the porch stairs, started heading to the area way in the back where he does his business, then I suddenly saw him move very quickly with a small black and white animal in his mouth. I knew it was a skunk before I smelled its defensive spray.

I should mention that I've had a couple of major surgeries in the last few months, and that I am still recovering from numerous complications. I am not supposed to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk; this includes my two-year-old and, I quickly surmised, a 55+ pound dog.

Since I knew I couldn't realistically break up the melee physically, I did the only thing I could think of. I yelled, "Howard, stop! Let it go! Howard!"

I was as surprised as anyone when he dropped the skunk and ran into the backyard, where he started his roll of shame to get the skunk smell off. The skunk ran into the tangle of flowers next to the garage, and I walked on the other side of the yard to get my dog.

I had to hold onto his collar, but he came with me willingly, and I got him onto the porch and locked the door. I didn't want to bring him into the house since I knew I couldn't lift him into the bathtub, so I went inside and got a couple of wet towels and the Dawn. I cleaned him up as best I could, and the smell was very faint. The skunk had looked very small to me, so I'm pretty sure it's "skunk glands" weren't too strong yet. I didn't see any blood in Howard's mouth or on the white fur that's on his neck and chest.

I called Animal Control, but they were, as usual, all tied up for the day. I called Howard's vet. The police called me back and asked if the skunk was still there. I couldn't see it in the growth of flowers, but I was too afraid to go looking too closely. They said if I couldn't see it, Animal Control would not be able to make it ... there was no point.

When Jeff got home from summer school, he went out and looked for the skunk. He found it in the flowers, dying and covered with flies. This was one of the times, he told me, when he wished he had a .22 because the skunk was clearly suffering. Every time he tried to get too close, the little skunk lifted its tail, so Jeff sprayed water from the hose in its general direction and, when he went to look, the poor skunk was drinking some water. It was as comfortable as it was possible for it to be.

I asked Jeff if he had thought about killing it with a rock or something like that, and he said he couldn't. A gun he could point and look away, but actively killing an animal he was looking at, in a way that might cause it more pain along the way, was something he could not do. I told him this was one of the reasons I love him and that I felt exactly the same.

When we got back from the concert for Ari's music camp, the skunk was dead. Jeff buried it, and I am so grateful that he is able to do things like that, because I just couldn't. 

The skunk Howard killed was just a baby. Later that night, as he was coming home from the store, Jeff saw a mother skunk with six babies on the street near the house. This broke my heart.

The thing is, adult skunks are a nuisance and a danger and completely unnecessary when you live in what is pretty much the inner city. During the summer, Jeff has to go out at night and do a perimeter check before he takes Howard out because, if he doesn't, Howard will sometimes encounter a skunk and get sprayed.

But this was a baby skunk, defenseless, separated from its mother, probably petrified, and hiding in the safest spot it could find.

And my dog, my sweet and gentle dog who sleeps in our bed and is infinitely patient with my children, found it and killed it.

I know Howard was doing what dogs do. I even think he might have been more aggressive than he otherwise would have because I was the one taking him out and he has been especially protective of me since I'm not well. If it was an adult skunk, I might even have been relieved that we wouldn't have to deal with it anymore (although I'm not sure Howard would have been the clear victor if it had been an adult skunk). I know my children go running into the backyard to go in the pool or on the play structure without doing a skunk check. 

But it still makes me sad. 

The worst part for me is that Howard didn't kill it outright. It laid in the flowers suffering for most of the day. It's easy to say, "It was just a skunk", but its mother and siblings were looking for it last night. They didn't get to see it one last time, and it died alone and scared.

Perhaps I'm emotional because of the severity of my medical situation over the past few months, but this was a terrible and tragic reminder of the fragility of life.

RIP, Baby Skunk.  

Image may contain: one or more people, people sleeping, dog and indoor
Image may contain: 1 person, dog

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Call Me a Bleeding Heart Liberal, but I Will Always Keep Trying to Help (Even When I Get Burned)

When I was driving into work on Tuesday morning, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I decided that I'd give my students a King quote for their quickwrite. The one I chose was:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

I projected the quote onto the screen and had my students write about it for eight minutes, then we had a discussion. It became an incredibly deep discussion, which is always exciting when you're a teacher. As we were wrapping up and transitioning to Romeo and Juliet, one of my students asked where the quote came from.

When I told them, one of them noted, "Oh, Martin Luther King ... so THAT's why you chose it."

It was ... and it wasn't.

Let's face it, America is going to change when Donald Trump becomes president. Trump's candidacy and election have scarred me deeply on a personal level, and I spend far more time thinking about unhappy things than I should.

During that drive to work (it's about forty minutes), I got thinking about the people that say, "Invite a Syrian refugee to stay with you!" or "Why don't you pay higher taxes if that's how you feel?" I know people that say these things. I even like some of these people.

But I don't understand them.

Why? Because I have an inherent need to help, to fix, to make life better for others. My mother used to tear her hair out over it (I once gave away a brand new and evidently very expensive jacket to a child on the bus that had no jacket and lived in a very poor neighborhood); she referred to me as "a social worker", and it was not meant as a compliment.

I understand my mom's frustration now, since I have tried desperately to help people before and gotten burned badly as a result. The student I lent $100 and never got back (I no longer loan students money as a result). My abusive alcoholic ex-husband. You know, the usual suspects.

There are a couple of recent attempted random acts of kindness, however, that have gone shockingly awry. Those are the ones that keep me up, those strangers that myself and my family went way out on a limb for, and we ended up feeling guilty and sort of like the bad guy.

This summer, a woman and her three children moved in across the street. We noticed immediately that she was always hollering at her kids, even yelling swears and epithets like, "I'm going to kill you!", but a DCYF report was pointless unless we had "video evidence". It upset all of us, needless to say.

One summer day, when it was 98 degrees and humid (which, in New Hampshire, is unbearable and, if you're me, means you're not leaving the air conditioner for anything), I was watching out the window as this woman tried to move a couch into her house. It wasn't going well, and her kids were running into the traffic, throwing rocks at her to impede her progress, and poking a dead bird with a stick. She finally sat down on the couch, put her head in her hands, and started sobbing.

I called down to Jeff and told him that I was going to go try to help her get her house inside. Being more suited for this duty (and well aware of how pleasant I am after three minutes in the heat), Jeff volunteered to go in my place.

Long story short, we were soon babysitting the kids every Monday night while their mother went to visit her ex-boyfriend in jail. We'd feed them, keep them from hurting each other, and try to teach them some manners and control. In return, they would break our kids' toys and throw epic, loud battles when it was time for them to go home.

Once school started, the thankless babysitting gig got to be too much for us, so she stopped asking after we said no once (I think one of our kids was legitimately sick). It was honestly something of a relief, although it made us all sad that the kids were stuck getting screamed at all the time.

Anyway, over Christmas vacation, I got a text from her out of the clear blue sky asking if we could watch the kids for two consecutive days from 8-5:30.

I said no.

No reply, no "Thanks anyway", no "Thank you for all the times you did watch them", nothing.

That stung.

The other situation involved a guy that wanders around neighborhoods asking to do odd jobs for cash. I was petrified of him, but Jeff would hire him to mow the lawn or something. It got to the point where he was doing bigger jobs, but he was also coming over ALL THE TIME trying to find jobs to do so we'd pay him.

It got out of control when he was injured in an accident, and we felt bad for him and fronted him money that we couldn't afford to front. He then came and did the agreed-upon work, but he wanted to be paid for it. It got very ugly, and he spent a lot of time begging Jeff to hire him again.

He said no.

So even bleeding heart liberals have a breaking point, I guess. Being taken advantage of and used isn't pleasant ...

However, I would rather live a hundred scenarios like these then not try at all. You see, I know that the few times mine hand has gotten burned for reaching out and trying to help, memorable and painful as they are, is both a warning and an affirmation.

I could stop trying to help people in need. Yeah, those people going on and on about the Syrian refugees when we have people in need of help right here--I don't see them stepping up. I did, and I'm not sorry. If my fatal flaw is a desire to help others, then so be it.

I would rather help other people genuinely and at their level of need than sit around looking down at them.

It was easy to look down on the screaming and incompetent mother, the would-be handyman who we suspect fell off the opiate wagon after being put on painkillers following his accident. I'm not proud; I looked down on both of them, both before and when I was trying to help them. This is not something I'm proud of, but I'm being completely honest here.

I take pride in being a good person, one who helps others in times of need, but there is a part of me that knows that pride is dark and ugly and perhaps influences how some situations end up. Who knows?

My students got talking about King's quote vis a vis being a good and "loving" person and driving out the darkness through that, but they also recognized (and vocalized) that we are all a balance of good and bad.

I can tell you from personal experience, some dark will not allow any late, no matter how brightly you may shine; some people will never allow love to replace hate. It's just the nature of the human beast.

I have always tried to help, particularly the downtrodden, and I will continue to do so no matter the cost.

If that makes me a bleeding heart liberal, so be it.

I am a work in progress, and I will never stop trying.

Image result for Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dear Trump Supporters: There is No Timeline for Bringing a Sexual Assault to Light

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the victim-shaming started vis a vis Donald Trump's latest debacle (why don't we call it "Pussygate").

I've spent the last week in a state of shock as I heard Trump boast gleefully about his inappropriate behavior with women. I've been distracted, I've been having panic attacks and nightmares, and it's only getting worse.

My feelings are at a fever pitch today as I've read about women coming forward to allege that Trump's "locker room talk" went way beyond words, that he actually did many of the things he boasted of to Billy Bush according to numerous women, including former People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff. 

And these women are being crucified by Trump supporters, who are making comments about the convenience of the timing, that they are shooting for optimal financial opportunity and publicity, and even one of my Facebook friends writing, "I have a hard time believing women who jump on the bandwagon 15-30 years later." 

I do not talk about the night I was raped. I have written about it here on this blog, where I have a degree of anonymity and privacy, but I still cannot talk about it.

I do not know my rapist's last name. I do not know where he lives. I do not want to know. I have been fortunate, if you want to call it that, to fall into what could best be classified as "date rape by an acquaintance", which means I've never had to see the monster again.

If the man that raped me--Tom--suddenly started running for public office, if his face was all over the news, if he was spreading hatred, I'm still not sure I would have the courage to come forward publicly. Why would I? The statute of limitations on that crime has run out, and any physical evidence is old and probably useless. 

The vast majority of women (and men) who suffer sexual assault are not going to want to make it a public thing. Those that have the strength to do so immediately, you have my utmost respect, by the way. It eats me up sometimes to think that Tom has probably done what he did to me again because I didn't go to the police (or my mother or a rape crisis center) right away when physical evidence existed, and I could have stopped it by reporting it. I didn't have the strength, though, and I hate myself for that. 

Here's what happens in the aftermath of a sexual assault.   

You have to deal with the physical first. My rape was extremely violent, and there are physical ramifications that still exist today. If you're smart, you get tested for STDs ASAP (I was sort of smart...I did get tested, but I did not share my reasons for wanting this testing done with my doctor). 

After that, you try to find your life again. This can take a long time. Sometimes I think I'm still working on it, nearly twenty years later. You crave normalcy and try to avoid at all costs anything that will bring back the rape in your mind.

By the time you get to the point where you're "okay", you do not want to go back down that rabbit hole. Why would you?

And so you live your life. You slowly learn to live and love and trust again. You do the best you can. Some days are better than others, and blah blah blah.

I wrote that I would probably not have the courage to bring Tom's name forward even if he became a public figure, and I meant it. 

There would, however, be one exception: if Tom was caught on a hot mic joking about raping stupid college girls that didn't know enough not to put down their drinks, particularly if he was running for President of the United States, I would come forward. I would share my story, no matter what people might say about me. 

There is no timeline for bringing a sexual assault to light, and I'd wager a guess that about 85% go unreported. However, we all have a line. That would be mine, and if Tom crossed it, if he lied about who he was and what he did to me that long ago night and how he basically ruined my life, I would still feel a moral obligation to speak up, to not let the sleazeball get away with it anymore.

I suspect Natasha Stoynoff knows that line well. 

Although she no longer works for People, the magazine ran her story. In fact, People might well have been the only major publication that would run it as they were no doubt able to match up her story with a timeline of their own. Was Stoynoff a family friend of the Trumps until that day? Did her professional relationship with them change afterwards? Do the details in her story jibe with what the magazine knows?

Well, a magazine that reports on celebrities believed in Natasha Stoynoff enough to run the story, risk alienating Trump as well as other stars, and issue a statement explaining why they ran it. That would really be going out on a limb for a publication company that depends on maintaining good relations with the people they want to interview and report on.

So to all of you muttering about convenient timing and payouts, please just stop. 

Living with the aftermath of a sexual assault is something no amount of money can assuage, and there is no convenient timing, only the right timing for you in your own personal situation.

That Donald Trump brought about this reaction in so many women speaks to how horrible their experiences must have been, how frightened and damaged they were, and how truly deplorable a human being he is.

He brought about the timing--and the collapse of his house of cards--all on his own.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Trends on Facebook Today, and Why I'm Scared for America

I confess, I have an unhealthy addiction to Facebook.

I like to know what's going on in the lives of my family and friends, obviously. I'm an introvert--increasingly so all the time, it seems--so Facebook is something of a lifeline for me in terms of maintaining relationships that are difficult to hold onto otherwise. I like to stay on top of current events. I enjoy clever memes. And, yeah, I gravitate toward spoilers and theories about The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. And quizzes about '90s music, iconic movies, and Stephen King books, which I usually ace. Go, me.

Usually, there is a pleasant balance of personal, educational, and entertainment offerings on Facebook to keep me going back.

Today, was different. Where were the pics of cute kids wearing "3 months" stickers? The memes about dogs and thunder? Even Donald freaking Trump?

I guess the first thing is that there are many cancer scares going on in my circles. Tumors removed. Cells regrowing. Radiation therapy. Some of my peeps are sharing positive news, but in general the Big C is beating down many that I love. It's pretty depressing, yet I love that they have the courage to share their journeys when many don't. On any other day, it would make me pensive and thoughtful and probably increase my chats with God (yes, we have a relationship).

Today, though...

And the son of one of my sister's old friends was in a very bad car accident. A bright, handsome, kind-hearted boy who volunteered his time and openly loved his momma and baby sister now lays in a hospital bed with swelling in his brain, a brand new tracheostomy after removing the breathing tube didn't go well, and the real possibility of a permanent shunt. The boy is still unconscious, but it seems likely that there will be some degree of permanent damage. A lot? A little? Only God knows, and only time will tell. He is strong, and he's a fighter, but the hopeful tones of the daily updates have darkened a bit. I chat with God about Tyler, too.

Today, though...

People are angry about the shootings of African-American men Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota at the hands of police officers.  People are angry that a militant named Micah Johnson went to a peaceful demonstration against officer-involved shootings (and both Sterling and particularly Castile were pretty obviously victims of heavy-handed police officers, yet the demonstration was by all accounts peaceful until Johnson destroyed it) and killed five Dallas police officers. People are angry that President Obama is doing nothing, yet Obama characterized the Dallas shootings as "vicious" and "despicable" (further, he has tried desperately and taken much heat for trying to keep assault rifles out of the hands of people like Micah Johnson, but that's an inconvenient truth that nobody really wants to talk about). People are angry that "Black Lives Matter" has become "a thing". People are angry that "Black Lives Matter" has had to become "a thing". People are angry because they are incapable of seeing how you can be both appalled at the brutal murders of two men by police officers abusing their power yet hold police officers as an entity in the highest regard.

People are angry because they are scared. Philando Castile was trying to comply with an officer's request to get his ID after informing the officer that he had a license to carry and was armed when he was shot. In front of his girlfriend. And her four-year-old daughter. We want to tell ourselves that this doesn't happen in our country. It did, though...Castile's girlfriend had the presence of mind to videotape it.

And Sterling? A homeless man was harassing him for money. Threats were made. Police were called. Two officers had him on the ground. He had no gun in his hand (one of the officers took it out of the pocket of his pants). He was shot in the back multiple times. And what are people talking about? That he had a criminal record. Why? Because they are scared and shocked that this happened, and even though his prior criminal activities have nothing to do with this situation, it seems to make people feel better about his death to imply that he brought it upon himself, at least a little, through past bad acts.

I could never be a police officer, and I respect those that are tremendously. However, police officers that do go too far, that act without thinking, that kill before understanding the situation when there IS no pressing emergency requiring multiple bullet wounds in the back or shooting off the arm of a compliant cafeteria worker in front of a young is a problem, and the dawning awkward reality that this is happening increasingly to African-Americans cannot be ignored.

All lives matter, and we need to make sure to focus on our black brothers as well as our blue brothers in the aftermath of this latest ugly chapter. All colors, all races, all people need to step up to the table and say, "What can my part be to solve this problem?"

Make no mistake. It IS a problem, and it's not going away. Instead of spewing hateful rhetoric on Facebook and Twitter, let's try to solve it together.

Any ideas?

Are Minorities Discouraged from Taking Upper-Level Classes?: The Elephant in the Room

As a public school teacher for sixteen years, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Standards come and go (and despite the brou...