Posts Tagged ‘school’

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

March 13, 2011

I’m hiding out in my bedroom with the door locked, pretending I don’t know anyone’s home. I don’t want anyone to bother me or tell me what to do. I just want to play my records and write in my journal. More than anything, I don’t want anyone to make me study for that test on Friday. Oh, but wait. That’s not me. That’s my son. I’m not the one in 7th grade. I’m not the one getting D’s in Math and Science, or having grumpy teachers send notes home telling me I better get my act together. I’m a grown woman. I’m the mother of two. Or am I? I’m starting to have doubts.

I remember well. I graduated high school back in the 80’s and when I did, I threw off my cap and gown and said, screw this shit. Thank God I never have to go back. I went on to college, then grad school, met someone, got married and had kids. I struggled and I overcame adversity. And when I had my very first, tiny little bundle of joy, I promised that things would be different. That he would not have to suffer through what I did when I was a kid. That he would never know the horrors of looking down the gaping mouth of a screaming teacher, telling him to “wise up.”

But sadly, that was a crackpot notion. I was promising to stop a runaway train with my bare hands. A feat that simply cannot be done.  Kids have to go through their own personal struggles and no one can protect them after a certain age. Lesson learned.

Or not.

My sixth grader brought home a D. So, I sit with him night after night after night trying to get him to understand how to multiply and divide fractions. But I’ve forgotten myself. How do I multiply fractions? I haven’t done it in years. The frustration of not getting it returns.

  1. Simplify the fractions if not in lowest terms.
  2. Multiply the numerators of the fractions to get the new numerator.
  3. Multiply the denominators of the fractions to get the new denominator.

I send him back to school on test day, sure that he will get an A. I wait. I wonder. I pace the halls. I Freudian slip and say, “I wonder what I got?”  But he returns with another D, and I’m crushed. How was that possible? The both of us went over this a million times. So, I do what any desperate parent does who lives vicariously through her kids: I yell at him and take away his video games. Maybe, by accident, it just slips out, I even berate him for not being able to understand the material. The guilt-laden words, “C’mon, what were you thinking?” make their way from deep inside my stomach, up my throat and out my mouth.

To top it off, I get the dreaded letter sent home about his performance. He’s not paying attention in class; he’s fooling around with his friends; he needs to be more respectful to his teachers; he needs to stop drawing cartoons in his notebook; this is his third detention in six months; if his behavior and his grades don’t improve he will likely be kept back.

Sure, it’s his behavior under scrutiny and they’re his grades. But really, they’re mine. It’s me back in middle school, floundering around, doggy-paddling to stay afloat. I was a rotten student. And every bad grade he comes home with is a blazing reminder of my own poor performance back in the day. Every detention he gets, it’s me who sits with the shame. And every parent-teacher conference or note sent home is not about his behavior, but mine. Of course, you could say this is narcissism at its finest. Whatever happens to others becomes internalized and thus, happens to me. The apple is the tree. It’s all about me, me, me. Yet, my children are an extension of me. There’s an interconnectedness there that cannot easily be disconnected.  And so, I empathize with their plight, particularly when I too have lived through the same. Isn’t it called compassion? At least that’s what I tell myself it’s called.

In fact, I sat through one of his conferences just recently and listened to all of teachers say the same thing. And I’m sure I heard it this way: you need to stop fooling around, Tracy. School is no joke. It’s time to get serious. And as I sat in my little 7th grade chair, so low to the ground, like a shrinking violet, with my knees knocking under the desk, I could feel my heart pound and my face get hot with humiliation for not being a better student.

It’s not just me. My sister-in-law is about to register her son for Kindergarten, but she’s in a panic. Once he gets on that bus, all by himself, she said, she can’t protect him. She was a shy kid too. She knows how rough it will be to take that twenty-minute ride to school, knowing no one, and having no one to hide behind or talk to.

Another friend of mine watches in horror as her teenage kids get into trouble, oftentimes with the law. “I was so bad when I was a kid,” she told me. “And now I’m watching my sons get into the same kind of mess.”

The wheel goes around for everyone. And yet, there’s a reason we as parents must shoulder our kids’ burdens. Isn’t it too much to ask a shy five-year-old to handle a bus ride by himself? Isn’t it too much to expect a seventh grader to perform flawlessly in every subject when, like his mother, he is a dreamer too?

I so often believe it is.

And so, is the lesson learned here to hold on for dear life? To live through things again and again until you get it right? Even at the expense of others? Or does the girl with zero confidence who is still holding on for dear life, need to let go of the death grip she has on her son who, by no conscious choice of his own,  reminds her everday of her own past failures? Perhaps the lesson is to remember  how rotten it felt to not be believed in or, to not be loved above all else, despite your limitations. Lessons, lessons, lessons. They are learned at all ages, And perhaps I need to let go. Not of my son, but me. I need to forgive the girl who made so many mistakes and lazed around the house without an ambitious bone in her body or a shred of self-motivation. I need to let go of that wasted time that I often foolishly think I’ll ever get back. Humans! The only animal on the planet capable of so many deep-rooted pschyological weirdness. Alas,  I did bloom. I was a late bloomer. And as Sharon Olds says, “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” But, in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s about the tree shaking the apple off its limb and letting it roll where it chooses. It’s about saying: I may be suffering right along with you. You’re not alone. But you’re free. You are your own person. And I love you unconditionally. 

I take back everything I said…

June 23, 2010

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes

Dust balls

August 25, 2009

So. I’m invited to this woman’s house over in one of those new, treeless McMansion developments. Her name is Gisa, and as she explains, it’s short for the Germanic Gisela meaning “to pledge” (why I even mention this will make sense later). The development, like all suburban upper-class new construction sprawl is a development I’ve passed many times before, but never felt privileged enough to enter—us middle class types know well enough to stay out of cul-de-sacs called things such as “The Sanctuary,” or “Le Grande,” figuring membership cards are required in order to lurk around. But, her son and my son go to preschool together and as she wanted her little Merlin to grow up with “the people, ” for whatever reason, she denied him a private education.  I’d be in the parking lot of the school waiting for the closing bell and Gisa would always pull up with minutes to spare in this hideously grotesque conversion van with like, 20 doors on it. She never wore makeup and just moved here from Germany. I thought, yes! My kind of friend. Surely we have lots in common. So, she invites me over one afternoon. And as a mother who is incessantly looking for ways to occupy her kid, let alone herself, I took her up on the offer. Besides, I thought, it might be nice to bring a pie or something. If that conversion van is any indication of her newly acquired “status,” in this country, a pie will certainly be appreciated.

So, we head out, one Tuesday afternoon, me and my son, in my 2003 mini-van, driving a bit farther than our town’s comfort zone. According to my printed-out Mapquest directions (I don’t have a GPS) it’s the next left. I pull onto her street and one by one the houses get bigger and bigger and as they do, me and my mini-van seem to get smaller and smaller. Huge houses, then mansions, then estates. Her house is, of course, one of the biggest. I’m intimidated by the size let alone the two front doors. I didn’t know houses had two front doors. After about ten strenuous minutes of hoping that some previously learned, front-door etiquette comes back to me I end up choosing the door on the right. This one leads to the mud room for people who might have dirt on their feet (that’s us). We say our hellos and I hand her the pie, which she casually places atop the laundry machine and quickly redirects our small talk back to the fact that we need to take off our shoes.

A few awkward moments later, we go in. And even though I’m catching site of a three-story high cathedral ceiling, a fireplace with Texas longhorns above the mantle and not one living room but four, all I keep thinking of is the atrocity that I’m wearing sweatpants. My favorite line from Seinfeld re-runs streams through my brain when Jerry tells George that “wearing sweatpants in public is like telling the world you’ve given up.”

Oh well, I think. At least they’re not gathered with elastic at the ankles.

So as Gisa leads me around, from room to room, I secretly feel like a third class citizen from coach peeking into first class. But suddenly, I notice what I’d like to believe is a personality tick—Gisa, as it turns out, is hyper-neurotic about dust. In instances like these, you can only hope for such an obvious shortcoming. “See? See? Do you see the dust?” she says to me in her thick German accent upon entering each expanse of a room. Her finger courses over blond wood table tops. But there’s no dust. Literally. It’s as if there’s a plastic bubble free of all pathogens encircling the house and all its immune deficient inhabitants. I’ve never seen a cleaner place.

I think of my home. My little rancher. I have dust balls bigger than Arizona tumbleweeds. They roll around my floor like city trash caught up in a wind pocket, attacking me and my socks and my kids. I have the massive lint ball that hovers between the laundry room and the kitchen. There’s the clump of my husband’s chest hair under the baseboard heater in the bathroom. And there’s the ever-present motionless entity of dust and Fruit Loops that, fortunately, live under the sofa in the living room and cannot be detected by the untrained eye.

No, I say. I don’t see the dust.

As we make our way back to the kitchen, hovering over her granite bar and cherry wood cabinetry, I come to the bitter conclusion that this woman and I have nothing in common except maybe the van. I think: this is how envy gets a hold of people. This is what the Christians warn about, coveting thy neighbor’s goods. This is not “keeping up with the Joneses” because you’re not even one of them. Maybe you clean for them. But you’re certainly not a Jones.

I think how it takes massive amounts of confidence to be content within your own life when you are confronted with so much luxury and wealth. And despite the fact that every appliance in her house was shipped over from Germany, all her furniture too, that she’s got a sunken tub in the master bedroom with Andalusian tile and a fireplace the size of my living room, four walk-in closets, and a bathroom in all five bedrooms…despite all that, I think of my little life and I wonder how I can still feel quite proud of what I’ve got.

Very possibly, I think, it’s because I’ve got nothing. As a child growing up, we had nothing. My family came from nothing. My grandparents before them came from nothing. For generations we affectionately and proudly described ourselves as “peasant stock,” vindicating the obvious deficiency of worldly goods. Instead, we assigned value to immaterial things– our voices, our musical talents, our minds, our creativity, our humor and our closeness as a family. Those were the things that really mattered. Not all the “stuff.” Even my unconventional religious upbringing– a combination of Buddhism, Christianity and Native American spirituality–taught me the importance of giving up all but a few necessities in order that we may not be deceived by unconsciously clinging to worldly possessions. So, it is at these moments, when I am faced with such abundance, that I recall the worth and value in that which cannot be seen, touched, shipped overseas or purchased with a Visa card.

Gisa and I notice how well the kids are getting along. And aside from the occasional assault upon the children she makes to not touch the white walls, she seems happy that Merlin has found a friend. I want to say that I imagine it’s quite lonely for the little guy being so far from him native country and family. I even want to tell her that her obsessive-compulsive fear of dust is merely a manifestation of Freudian guilt for having too much stuff. But I hold off. I don’t want to seem contemptuous.

“How about we come to your place later this afternoon? You can show me your house,” she says. And I choke on my Chai tea latte she just whipped up for me on her espresso maker from Norway.

I have a pizza box still sitting on the counter from the weekend, month-old oatmeal ground into the Berber, and the lingering smell of a diaper that was discarded three diapers ago is possibly still wafting out of the family room. I imagine little Merlin playing some middle-class version of blocks at my house, rolling around, as kids do, on the floor. It would take eons to pick the dustballs off his Karl Lagerfeld designer toddler wear.

“Well,” I manage to say, “I’ve been having problems with my Audi (I don’t have one). I simply must get it into the shop. And, to be quite honest,” I add, as I clear my throat, “my cleaning lady took the month off (don’t have one of those either). The place is a little messy.”

So much for pride in peasant stock.

She tries to be laid back about the fact that I might have a messy house. “You don’t have to clean on my account,” she says, but she flinches and quickly adds, “another time might be better.” Her name in German doesn’t so much mean “to” pledge, I think, as it means to keep a bottle of Pledge handy under any circumstance.

I coolly agree.

We head back into the mud room to put on our shoes and say our goodbyes. Tonight, she says, she and her husband will take a stroll through “their woods” (three acres worth). He’s a triathlon. An Ironman. A glass designer by day. Oh. I say. How nice. I’m headed over to Wal-Mart to buy a pizza cutter. Mine mysteriously disappeared (could have been the dust ball in the kitchen). We don’t have much more to say. Finally, she asks me, “you work out?” I know she’s referring to my sweatpants.

My son is a dreamer; deal with it

November 21, 2008

 

My boys’ conferences were yesterday and I was already preparing for a hard time from Dani’s teacher. It’s not that I dislike her. It’s that she just doesn’t  understand that her job is not about creating perfect kids, it’s about teaching. 

Dani will not conform. He plays around, is easily distracted, draws cartoon characters all day long, never knows where he is in the lesson, and can’t sit still. Classic A.D.D if you ask me. But it’s more than that and I think that this is where schools go terribly wrong. If the kid isn’t society’s definition of PERFECT, then he needs a label. A new label. He needs to be redefined to fit another perfect model. The perfect model of A.D.D. perhaps, or worse. Schools are horrible proponents of stripping children of their identities so that they may be taught in a specific way. And if they cannot be taught, they then become candidates for “behavioral modification” or drugs. 

So she says to me, as if I didn’t already know, “Dani’s not stupid, y’know. He’s very bright. He just doesn’t pay attention.” And if he paid attention, he’d be perfect. Right? And you’re job would be a hell of a lot easier.

So, I say to her, “from the time we had our last conference, I have reinstated the math tutor, I have reprimanded him, taken away the computer and all other electronics, I have hugged him when he gets an A, and sat with him nightly over homework to help fend off the Ds and Fs. I have preached the importance of paying attention and getting good grades and have admonished him for telling “lies” and trying to avoid work. On your part, you have made sure he takes all the right books home and you’ve gotten on him for not following along in class. I agree. He can be lazy. He is scatter-brained and he doesn’t have the capacity to remember what you asked of him two seconds ago. 

“But let me ask you, after all that effort on our parts to make him a better student and he is STILL the same, what then is the lesson here? Is it that WE are to blame for not getting on him enough? Is it that HE is to blame for being so lazy and not paying attention to US? Or is it something else? Might it be that no matter what, he is simply Dani and that it is his nature to not conform to our way of doing things? There’s only so much effort you can put into forcing the left-hander to write with his right hand.”

She wasn’t convinced. 

I told her about randomness and the theory written up in Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives. How the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, lectured to a group of pilots, years ago, on positive reinforcement and how it is supposedly applied to making better students. He initially said that positive reinforcement causes people to achieve and become better at certain tasks, but negative reinforcement does not. But when Kahneman mentioned this during the lecture some of the flight instructors said that it wasn’t true and contradicted their experience.

“‘I often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. ‘And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers and by and large the next time they improve.”

Kahneman took this contradiction and realized that it was, indeed, true. That the reason for it could be attributed to something known as “regression toward the mean.” That is, “in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely by chance, by a more ordinary one.” When we reinforce a good behavior or reprimand a bad one, it appears that our criticism or reinforcement is causing the behavior of the student to change. But in actuality, it is not. The student exhibits his own level of experience and knowledge at the rate he, personally, has the capacity to or, in my son’s case, the willingness. Of course, positive versus negative reinforcement will have an effect on the student’s emotional well-being, but not his ability to perform tasks or skills. 

 

In Dani’s defense, he is simply a Dreamer.  He’s dreaming up fight scenes, and animation moves, and traveling to Japan to save the kingdom. Obviously inappropriate behavior during class. And quite frankly, it bothers the hell out of me when I ask him to clean up his room or do the dishes only to have to remind him a MILLION times. And don’t think I don’t feel pain for him that he can’t understand how to divide fractions. But on the flip side, he is creating amazing things. He has self-taught himself a computer animation program and is making actual cartoons. His vision, skill and love of drawing is amazing. And his stories of adventure are characteristic of a soon-to-be writer or artist. 

What’s more, he has a huge capacity to learn. When he wants. He’s merely opposed to it as it is offered in this particular setting. 

He is ten years old. He is beautiful inside and out. He is creative. He is a dreamer.  And in my book, he is allowed to be all those things. I understand that schools must set a standard of behavior so that teaching and learning can occur. And I do understand that if Dani wants to go on to college some day or get along in the world, he will eventually have to play by others’ rules. But any teacher that is going to tell me that “he’s not stupid” as part of her description of him, is not someone with any sensitivity or knowledge as to who children are and what they’re all about, inherently.

Perhaps, I am just a disgruntled mother.

I secretly wanted to say, “Well, Mrs. M., it’s not that you’re stupid, but I just don’t think you’re cut out for this job.”

The City

November 19, 2008

I went over to the University of Penn tonight to have a coffee with Maggie and then go to this info session on a “master’s of applied positive psychology.” I’m glad I went, but..i was largely apathetic. I need something a little more concrete, and no one was really talking in terms of “action words” when it came to discussing the actual application of this knowledge. Sure they said things like, “I created a company that teaches corporations the skills of positive intervention.” But, please. Get out of the ivory tower and describe the WORK of positive psychology.  Give me a title. A name. I “coach.” I “teach.” I “counsel.” “I help people get along better in the workforce.” But nothing like that. Which led me to believe that “positive psychology” is one of those amorphous niches that you must create for yourself, and that Marty Selegman is merely looking for an army of salespeople to go out and sell his amorphous ideas.  

Sure, I’m all about happiness (see Authentic Happiness, Seligman), but these people were just too damn happy, almost to the point of shoving it down your throat. That may sound hostile, but perhaps I am jaded. It’s not the happiest time in my life. But come on already with the fact that we should ALL be HAPPY. Buddha makes more sense: he did not deny that there is happiness in life, but he pointed out it does not last forever. Eventually everyone meets with some kind of suffering.

And speaking of which, I was given a fleeting glimpse, a little gem of a gift, as I noticed a look of absolute frustration and disgust on the director of the program, Dr. Pawelski. He was rather annoyed that his colleague wasn’t following along the format quick enough as he had designed it. You could almost see him mumble under his breath, what are you doing, you stupid fuck. It was kind of funny and really added to his sickly, pale, worn out professor of philosophy look. 

So…it’s back to the drawing board for me. And once again, a change of plans. Perhaps a master’s in creative writing. Much more concrete. Writer. 

 

KVM called me afterwards. There was a launch party for a new food and culture magazine called Table Matters, and of course, it’s right near 13th and Locust. I wasn’t very comfortable with that. So…we parked in an obscure lot, put our dark glasses on, took a back road down Samson to 13th and made it to Apothecary unseen. Shockingly, who do we bump into but Frank Sherlock, heading in the opposite direction. With signature scarf.

Anyway. It felt good to get out. To be in the city. To see weirdness. I had some horrible drink made with gin. I hate gin. But the people were happy. The food was great. And KVM and I laughed out asses off over the usual. I was home by ten. And now I am bleary-eyed and tired and know that when I wake up, I will pay.