Friday, January 28, 2011

Does LAUSD Penalize Students for Investigating Educational Options?

My kid, like a lot of other kids this time of year, is looking into middle school options. Trying to be the conscientious parent, I sent Nicole’s teacher a note far in advance saying that we would miss one day of school the following week because she was going on a middle school tour and interview. In other words, she was going to miss a day of school to try out another school. Nicole collected all the work that was going to be done in class that day, stayed up late worked on it that evening (after attending classes during the day at the other school) and turned it in completed the next day. But the school wouldn’t accept the note I sent in because it said the district only considered illness and death of an immediate family member as excused absences. I remember getting irritated the last time I took my kids out of school - it was for the funeral of my brother’s mother-in-law, a dear lady who was like a grandmother to my kids – and I was told that because she wasn’t an immediate family member, it would be considered an unexcused absence. So basically, my husband and I will have to drop dead before the school will allow our kids to come see us into the hereafter. How comforting. But visiting another school to which you are considering sending your child, even if it is another LAUSD school, is called it an unexcused absence and according the LAUSD attendance policy – have fun with that little bit of light reading – after 3 full days of unexcused absences or three tardies of more than thirty minutes, my kid will be marked as truant, which can lead to consequences that include fines and prosecution of the parents. Really? So a kid gets dinged for trying to investigate educational options, perhaps ends up with something stinky on her record and her mom and dad get a visit from the city questioning what type of parenting we’re engaging in, which is a question I ask myself enough already. Particularly yesterday when I didn’t have time to get to the store to go shopping and found the only thing in the house for dinner that wasn’t unidentifiable, leftover from Thanksgiving - yes, that is cranberry sauce in the Tupperware on the top shelf- or made with so many preservatives and sugar that it won't spoil for another 18 months, were the fixings for macaroni and cheese and quesadillas – a carb and dairy fiesta without a vegetable or fruit in sight! Needless to say, my daughters loved it.

So I go and try to speak with the teacher about it. His hands are tied because it comes from the district and he suggests I talk to the principal, who says his hands are tied because it comes from the district. You’re getting the idea here - it comes from the district is the code word for buzz off and stop bothering us and we’ll placate you by passing you on to some anonymous person at the district office who will (because we know how flexible and accommodating large bureaucratic offices can be, particularly one like LAUSD who listens to its constituents about as well as my husband hears me when I’m asking him to take out the trash) ignore you. So I go talk to the office secretary – who oftentimes can move mountains when those above her can’t and I’m told (or dare I say talked down to) that I’m making more out of it than I need to, that those policies are in place for children who are habitually truant and that I should ignore the situation and just let my kid get the five unexcused absences that she is going to receive after we visit the other schools we are considering for sixth grade.

Surely I can’t be the only parent who is taking their kid to look at other schools and who is dealing with this issue, so I asked around to find out what the other parents were doing and most of them said they were lying and saying their child was sick. Clearly, I was the fool for trying to be conscientious and help my kid stay caught up on their work and told the school what we were doing. Silly me. I guess in my mind I couldn’t possibly imagine that you would be penalized for going to another school – even other LAUSD schools who schedule their audition/interview times during the LAUSD school day, ensuring that you will receive a tardy that day. Ah, the wisdom of the system. So, basically, LAUSD forces you either to lie or face the consequences for trying to get a good education for your child.

So, after bothering the secretary a second time, risking her wrath as she's raising her voice at me to stop worrying about this, it comes out what this is really all about…money. Foolish me. It’s always about money. Every day that a child is absent from school, the school loses funds from the state – I don’t know how much exactly, someone once told me it was $30 per day per student, but I don’t know for sure - but to keep from losing that money, they want your kid in school, even if your kid is involved in the academic endeavor (not going to Disneyland)of trying to figure out where they are going to go next on their educational journey. What if a kid does something stellar - wins an award, gets some type of recognition, has a chance for a special internship day and misses school? Unexcused! Next time I’ll know to lie.

So, does LAUSD penalize students for investigating educational options? Feels like it to me. And while I know these policies are in place to address the issue of kids facing real academic and attendance problems, why punish the kids trying to do the right thing along with those who are in serious academic trouble due to truancy? Don’t just lump them all in together under a blanket policy or staff who feel unable (or unwilling, I’m still cranky about how the school handled it but maybe because I’ve only had one cup of coffee today – no cream in the refrigerator because I still haven’t done the grocery shopping) to help. This is why the system is broken in so many ways, big and small. Unable to meet the needs of all, they focus on the punitive and not the supportive, the rigid and not the flexible, and on the ordinary rather than the extraordinary.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

There is a street a few blocks over from my house that is very pretty. Tall palms trees and sidewalks usually filled with dog walkers and kids rollerblading. Impromptu games of hockey are played in the street. Doors are left open during the day as children run from house to house visiting their friends and there always seems to be someone sitting on a lawn chair enjoying a soda and chatting with a neighbor. There is even one of those portable basketball nets that someone has moved to the curb where their trash cans would normally be, inviting anyone with a ball to shoot some hoops. At Halloween, the neighbors on that street go all out, elaborately decorating their homes, dressing in costumes to hand out candy to the kids and drinks to the adults and so many people flood the block from the surrounding streets that you feel as if you're part of a Mardi Gras crowd. They are no less festive at Christmas. Most of the street put up light displays, winding long strands of white lights up the tallest palm trees or wrapping them around the trim of their homes. On the Fourth of July mini flags are posted on the lawns and kids decorate their bikes with red, white and blue and follow a fire truck up and down the streets in a makeshift parade. It feels like a happy street, not unlike the one I live on - only with better coordination on their holiday celebrations. Last week, a woman on that block tried to commit suicide at six in the morning. She misfired and shot herself in the face. A surgeon friend of mine told me they often see that in the ER because despite how determined someone is to commit suicide with a gun, they often flinch when pulling the trigger and instead of firing into their mouth, they shoot up or to the side, causing a non-fatal (but still awful) injury.

I'm up at 4am on most mornings. Not by choice. But I find it is the only time of day where there is true quite in my life. My family is asleep, most of my friends back East are still snoozing or just waking up and going to work so I can't even distract myself by calling another time zone. I write from 4 to 6 before I start my day. I heard the ambulance cut through the silence of my early morning work time. Its sirens where loud but brief, followed by two police cars which raced to the scene. I didn't find out where they were going or know what had happened until I read a small article in a local digi-paper, not even an article really, more of a police scanner report describing the incident on the lovely little street a few blocks over.

I asked friends of mine who live on the street if they knew who it was and how she was doing. But none of the three I asked were even aware it had happened. They were asleep in their beds or in the shower or listening to talk radio while getting ready for work. They didn't hear the ambulance which was gone long before they left their houses for work or to take their children to school. No one on the street had told them about it. It happened and it was over.

I was caught off guard by how much I was saddened by the incident. I felt badly that behind all those doors on that lovely little street there was someone so sad, so desperate, a woman my age, with kids and a husband and maybe a dog or two, that she would try to kill herself at six in the morning and no one, not her neighbors, her friends, or even her family knew how badly she was suffering. She might be another mom at our school or someone I pass and smile at while picking out ripe fruit at Trader Joe's or wave to when I take my infrequent early morning power walks down her block. It felt like we should have known, shouldn't have missed her pain. But somehow, because everything on the outside seemed as perfect and idyllic as the street she lives on, everyone missed what was going on behind closed doors.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin and Abe

My seven year old got confused between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. She kept insisting that her first grade teacher taught them about Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the work he did to help people during the Civil War. It was a hilarious conversation as I tried to explain the two different time periods and what went on during each. She looked at me blankly, almost sadly, feeling sorry that I didn't have my facts straight and continued to insist that King was a great leader during the Civil War.

A friend of mine who teaches community college told me of a similar incident with her students. She gave them a test about the Civil War and in their essays, some of the students wrote about Martin Luther King, bus boycotts and the March on Washington. Are kids today just not paying attention in class or is it that this history, which seemed so recent thirty years ago, happened so long before they were born and is now so far in the past that it is tough for them to incorporate it firmly into their knowledge bank?

I remember growing up in the late 70s and early 80s and knowing old folks who had participated in the Civil Rights Movement, who had suffered under the Jim Crow laws of the South, who had been turned away from lunch counters, threatened for integrating neighborhoods and who had satiated their thirst at water fountains marked "Whites Only." These weren't stories heard in class or read in history books. These were tales told by grandparents, aunts, uncles, the neighbor on the stoop, my first boss, who was famous as one of a group who integrated a southern college with armed National Guard escorts, walking through a crowd of angry protesters spitting and hurling things at her. Even as a very young child, I vaguely remember once or twice taking road trips to visit grandparents without stopping because my folks were concerned that we might have trouble finding a motel that would be okay to stay at because we were black. So recognizing what the work of the Civil Rights Movement meant for underrepresented groups is something that feels so immediate. Yet despite exposing them to books, museum exhibits and movies -including one I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. - Our Friend, Martin - the Civil Rights Movement is still only a vague concept to my children (and apparently others), history that is in some ways as unconnected to them as the Boston Tea Party, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Women's Suffrage Movement. They don't understand the ramifications of those events in history, they only experience the benefits. Is it a wonder then that they can confuse the Civil War with the Civil Rights Movement?

I worry that in our rush to push only science and math in schools, we will continue to lose touch with our past - with a visceral understanding of people, events and social movements which dramatically transformed our world. I still get shivers when I think about the Hiroshima survivor who came to speak to my class in third grade. Her perspective on WWII and the bombing in the Pacific was something I never would have gotten from a history book, something that helped me understand that historical act in a way that was connected to a person, not something done to an anonymous group of people. It made me look at history differently, and unlike my children and many others today who mix up when Abe and Martin were doing their things, I will never confuse WWI with WWII even though both happened long before I was born.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What the ER Nurse Said

My new resolve to give my daughter more autonomy this week ended in a call to poison control. I'm a hoverer. I've come to admit that. Like an alcoholic who must state it before recovery can begin, I admit that I (sometimes, okay maybe most of the time) hover over my children. So I vowed that this year, because they are growing older and should be given more opportunities to be independent, I would stand back more and let them be - without my instructions or corrections or jumping in and taking over. So when one of the the baby picture frames broke, I asked Nicole, who is very into crafts, if she wanted to fix it by gluing it back together. Nicole eagerly agreed and began to set up the pieces and get out the glue. I walked into the front hallway for a minute (maybe even less than that) and I hear Nicole wailing the word "Mommy" as if it were an ambulance siren. I ran into the kitchen and saw her holding her hands in front of her, shaking.

She cried, "The glue is all over me!" But I couldn't see any glue on her hands. So of course, not thinking, the first thing I did was to grab her hands to see what she was talking about. Now the glue was all over me. But it wasn't the white, easy to remove with soap and water Elmer's glue which she has always used. It was Super Glue. The kind that has the commercials where a guy's hardhat is glued to a steel beam suspended off the ground and it holds up his weight. That glue. I was furious (at both her and myself), and slightly hysterical as vague memories of dire warnings about not getting Super Glue on your hands flashed across my memory and I could feel the glue tightening on our skin.

while we were still sticky and not hardened, I gently separated our hands and made sure our fingers weren't stuck together without tearing off any skin. I tried to calm down and make sense of what had happened in the nano second that I was out of the room. Nicole has never in her life used Super Glue. At first, I wasn't even sure where she found it. She said that when she didn't see the white glue in our kiddy art drawer, she looked in the junk drawer which doubles as a place for all our hardware - hammers, nails, assorted screws, and apparently, a new, unopened tube of Super Glue - all of which accidentally came spraying out when she used scissors to cut open the tube when she coudln't get it to come out of the nozzle. See how much you can miss in a nano second?

I called Natalie, who was in the other room playing a computer game and completely ignoring the screams from the kitchen (I imagine maybe the sight of blood might have coaxed her from her game, but I'm not even sure about that),and asked her to get my cell phone so I could call someone to figure out what to do. My hands were covered in glue, so I didn't want to touch the phone and end up with it as another appendage. I was able to reach David, but he was in a meeting and could only utter the words, "nail polish remover," before hastily jumping off. I sent Natalie, who at this point was anxious to get back to her computer game, into the bathroom to retrieve the nail polish remover. I poured it into a dish and Nicole and I began soaking our hands in it. At this point, Nicole was crying, complaining that her hands were going numb and asking if the doctors were going to have to cut off her fingers. I pushed the fear down long enough to lie to her and say, no, it wasn't all that bad. But my fingers were starting to go numb as well.

I interrupted Natalie's game again and had her call the emergency advice nurse at Kaiser to see what they could reccommend. The nail polish wasn't working and our fingers were starting to look red and whatever is in nail polish remover that strips the polish, was doing the same with our skin, not the glue. The nurse took down my information, details on the incident and then said without any emotion whatsoever - which is always what people do when trying to keep you from panicking, "I think I should connect you to poison control." That made me panic. Maybe Nicole was right and we were about to lose some digits.

Within a minute, she'd connected us with the state's poison control center and I was talking to an exceedingly calm young man who quickly assured me, "Super Glue incidents happen all the time." Breathing a very deep sigh of relief, I could listen as he told me the very simple and surprisingly easy way to get the glue off. He cautioned not to use nail polish remover - way too harsh - but instead to bathe our hands in Vaseline and then wrap them in plastic for 30 minutes. After that, it would peel off - and it did.

I was angry at Nicole and at myself. I assumed that on her own, she would know that if she couldn't find the white glue she was used to using, she would ask me to help her find it, not investigate and try to use toxic, dangerous bonding agents. She is smart, knows better and should have used her common sense. But the same could have been said about me. I should have stood there and watched her line up all the items for her project, giving her more detailed instruction - like use the white glue - instead of assuming that she would make those choices- and then left her alone to repair the frame. But now we both know.

I started to shake a little when I thought about what could have happened -Super Glued eyes or other vital parts - and I let her know what the consequences could have been, reminding her that we were lucky. I wanted to scare her a little so that next time she would ask before opening something she'd never used before and was unfamiliar with without asking at least if it was something that could kill her. And I wanted to scare myself a little to remind myself that allowing freedoms doesn't mean freedom without guidance. But in the end, the resolution to our sticky situation was in a little bottle of Vaseline. If all of life's problems could be solved so easily.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Chipped Children and Other Signs You Are a Hover Parent

The other day, my daughter Nicole was scratching a mark on her arm. It was a raised bump which looked slightly larger than a mosquito bite. She took a break from itching to ask me, “Mommy, did you chip me?” Images of my kid as a chipped tea cup raced through my head.

I cautiously asked, “What do you mean by chipped?”

“You know,” she continued, “Like when dog owners put a locator chip in their pets so they can keep track of where they are.”

I was floored. My ten year old thought (and worried) that perhaps the mark on her arm was where we had somehow secretly inserted a tracking device (aka a chip) so that in addition to supervising her in the traditional way, we could digitally be up in her business at all times. My husband, David, whose humor can sometimes be drier than a Santa Ana during fire season, responded without hesitation, “Yes, we chipped you in the hospital the day you were born and have been tracking you ever since.”

Nicole looked worried. David laughed in a rather maniacal way and walked out of the room. Nicole turned to me and whimpered, “Mommy, really?” I assured her that even if the technology was available, and honestly I don’t know if it is for humans – if so, I know a lot of women who would use it on their husbands before their kids – we would never consider “chipping” her. I wondered how long she had worried about the possibility and what in my behavior as a parent had made her think that I would ever go to such extremes to be aware of her activities.

For years, I have thought of myself as the parent who supervises, but also trusts my child. Not a hover parent, constantly into their children’s business, orchestrating every moment of their waking hours, but a parent who was engaged and involved, but who also taught their kids how to function on their own so that they could be trusted to make good choices when I was not with them. But her chipping question made me wonder if my perception of myself as a non-hovering parent was correct. If she thought I would go to such lengths to know what she was doing, maybe I was being overprotective. Or perhaps it is just as she gets older – by her own definition, now a tweenager – she is pushing the boundaries of what she wants to do and what she can do. Or maybe it is a little of both. Regardless, I’ve been feeling for a while that I have to readjust, rethink what I’m comfortable with her doing now, when and with whom. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it until she asked me the chipping question. Now I know I have to loosen the strings of attachment and let her go further out into the world on her own – and that is never easy, even for the most casual of parents, let alone one with (dare I admit it) hovering tendencies.

So as I head into the new year with a tweenager on her way to middle school and a second grader who has firmly crossed another growth milestone and no longer needs or wants my assistance with things I’d come to love doing for her – picking out clothes in the morning, combing hair and styling it with bows and ribbons – I have to learn to let go more, do less. I get knots in my stomach at the idea of them walking around the block without me. They’ve never been to sleep away camp and or been left with their grandparents for more than a day or two and the idea of sending them alone on a plane has never been under consideration. But soon, Nicole will be taking a school trip from L.A. to D.C. in the spring and the kids will be unable to contact their parents by phone for a week. She will be on her own with fifty fifth graders and a few chaperones and as much as I want her to go and know she will be fine, my impulse is to keep her from going, from being so far from my supervision. The school says part of the reason the kids and parents aren’t allowed to call each other during the trip is that cutting them off cold turkey helps to keep the kids from being homesick. But I bet it also helps keep the parents, many who are letting their kids go away on their own for the first time, from going crazy (and consequently making the teacher/chaperones crazy).

It’s ironic in a way. When your kids are at home (making you nuts) you want them out of the house. When they are away, you worry and want them to come home. Then they learn to drive, go off to college, graduate and move away. All the things you hope and plan for them. And yet with each step, each stage, there is a part of you that is hesitant to let them do it. It’s want you want for them, but what you don’t want, too. Growing older, being more independent and going out on their own is what (in theory) as a parent you try to prepare them for. But the reality of letting them out from under your supervision is a lot harder than the theoretical letting go. Both my daughters complain that their friends get to do more than they do. Some of that is normal kid manipulation to get what they want and I bite my tongue to keep from snapping back with the standard parent chestnut, “If your friends were allowed to jump off a cliff would you do it, too?” But I realize that some of their complaints are justified and that perhaps I have been slower than others to let them do more. So for me, I know that 2011 has to be the year to let the helicopter I thought I didn’t own come crashing to the ground.