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This will be the final installment in my Why You Should Vote FOR Issue 81 series, followed — I hope! — by tomorrow’s Thank You message. I had a couple other posts drafted in my mind but Halloween and pumpkin carving, muffin baking, costume crafting followed by Mark’s birthday complete with a party got in the way.
But I do feel like this campaign has covered every base we can think of, and I hope we have no regrets when those ballots are counted tomorrow evening. So, without further ado, my final plea:
In my last post, I wrote so much about the responsibility our school district has in educating poor children that it almost sounded like they are our only audience. Indeed, they are not. Our schools serve many children from highly educated, professional middle and upper middle class families. And they do it well.
The very thing that is our district’s greatest challenge is also its greatest strength: the extremely diverse range of backgrounds, cultures, abilities, needs, values, educational levels, priorities and perspectives of our students and their families. We are not just one thing to one group, pigeon-holed as a poor urban district or an affluent suburban one. We are a little of this and a little of that. And while that is difficult and expensive, it is also incredibly valuable. For every special ed teacher and guidance counselor, social worker, intervention program, or night school for teen moms, there is also an advanced science and math class, foreign languages starting in kindergarten, award-winning vocal and instrumental music programs, Power of the Pen, Model U.N., courses for college credit, and extra enrichment programming. And kids from all backgrounds participate in and benefit from those wide and varying opportunities. And it is this rich diversity, this microcosm of real world problems, challenges and achievements, that make our district so unique.
I am proud to send my children to these schools and I am proud to do it as a choice. I know many others who could afford to send their kids elsewhere but don’t because they know that they’re getting all they need and then some in CH-UH. I know families who have pulled their children out of the area’s most prestigious private schools precisely to access the academic rigor they’ve only found in the Heights Schools. Our district’s graduates go on to the nation’s top tier universities, state schools and community colleges. Some move straight into trades and others join the military. Some become or are already parents. These students represent the broad and varied world in which we live. And our schools are working hard every day to prepare them for it.
I sometimes wish the discussions around this bond issue focused solely on the physical realities of our buildings. But the conversations have veered, as they so often do, into the realm of what our children deserve. “Our” children, “their” children, “those” children. Blame has been placed on the shoulders of kids and especially teens who don’t always behave the way we want them to. I actually saw a comment on someone’s Facebook page that suggested that the district construct new buildings for the kids who “want to learn,” and use a GPA cut-off point to determine who gets to move into them and who has to stay behind. “Let the others earn their way to the nice stuff by improving their GPA in the existing spaces,” this woman said. And, because she just couldn’t help herself, she added, “They’ll only destroy the nice stuff anyway.”
Wow. Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be?
Let me tell you something about my own kids, who happen to be high achieving and well-behaved elementary students. If left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they would sit on the couch and play video games all day. They’re not hard-wired with some “want to learn” gene. They do their homework and practice their instruments because I make them! Because my husband and I model responsible behaviors every single day and have since they were born. Someday, by the time they’re in high school, I imagine they’ll be self-motivated and self-regulated enough to do what’s right without being told. But if and when they get there, it will only be because we laid the foundation here at home.
There are plenty of kids without that. Who are essentially going it alone, without the guidance or role models that are inextricably linked with success. Some of these kids will find something deep inside themselves and will thrive against all odds. Others will squeak by, doing just the bare minimum. And some will be disruptive and even destructive, fighting back against a world that has always seemed unfair to them.
Leaving those kids in classrooms that are swelteringly hot, with leaky ceilings and moldy locker rooms, while waiting for them to “prove” themselves, is not the answer.
I believe that my two sons deserve physical spaces that are inspiring, comfortable, safe and healthy. I believe that they shouldn’t be subjected to wild swings of temperature or rusted, leaking roofs or over-stretched mechanical and electrical systems that are costing all of us way too much to maintain. I believe they deserve state-of-the-art science labs and modern technology, access to the best athletic, musical and performance spaces, and buildings they can be proud of. And I believe that the kid sitting next to them in class, the one whose mom works three low-wage jobs and may not have time to read to him or ensure his homework is completed, deserves the same kind of spaces. And even the kid next to that one, you know that kid? The one whose mother failed to show up at her scheduled conference — again — because she didn’t bother to read the reminder that came home because she doesn’t bother to read anything that comes home … I believe that kid deserves the best kind of spaces in which to learn. If we’re gonna make this issue about who deserves what, about how we value our children and the children of those around us, then so be it. I value all of them. Even the ones who are failing. Even the ones who screw up. And I believe that they all deserve safe, healthy, inspiring, comfortable and, yes, beautiful school buildings.
That’s why I will vote FOR Issue 81 tomorrow. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me.
I had a job interview last Wednesday. For a third grade position at Boulevard. This is really good because it means the district has hired back all the previously laid off teachers and is now finally looking at outside candidates.
The interview was all going well — my experience and enthusiasm make me fairly confident about my performance for such things. Until they asked the final question: What makes you the best candidate for this position? And in the split second while I considered how to sell myself for this job, I realized that I didn’t want it, that I wouldn’t accept it if offered. I only want to teach at Fairfax. I am in the extremely fortunate position of being able to turn down anything that doesn’t perfectly meet my needs or mesh with my life. And, nothing against Boulevard or its staff or families, but if I hold out and manage to get something at Fairfax, even if it’s down the road, my kids’ lives won’t be disrupted all that much. I could go from not working at all (well, that’s a debatable description of my current situation) to working full-time without any change in childcare whatsoever. My kids could leave after me in the morning and walk to school on their own, needing only to lock the door behind them. They could go home by themselves after school if they weren’t engaged in some PTA-run activity like racquet club or tumbling class or bike club. They wouldn’t need before-care or after-care or anything outside of what Mark and I could provide ourselves.
So, I paused for a moment before saying, “I actually don’t think I am the right candidate (now THAT’s not what they tell you do to at job interviews!) because I only want to be at Fairfax.” Hmmmm, that was followed by an awkward moment. We chatted a tiny bit longer and then it was ,”Ok, thanks, goodbye and good luck . . .” I emailed later, apologizing for wasting anyone’s time and explaining myself a bit more articulately, which the principal responded to with appreciation for my honesty. And that was that.
Back to wait and see. Choosers can’t be beggars, after all.
Take a good look at this picture. Really, I mean, click on it and take a nice good look at the enlarged version.
Look at those faces — the delighted smiles, the obvious bonds formed over the course of a season playing side-by-side, the pride and (no doubt) exhaustion. Do these look like losers to you? They don’t to me. And that’s pretty darn remarkable because this photo was taken at 11:15 last night after the Rangers lost their twelfth straight game, a perfectly imperfect season without a single win in it. And not only did they lose all their games but, in most of them, they got trounced. The mercy rule was the only thing that got us out of dreadfully long innings in which batter after batter was walked all the way home.
They are a young team, clearly lacking the experience at kid pitch of their competitors. They struggled all season with finding a single player they could rely on for consistent pitching. One kid would strike guys out in one game and walk every batter the next. And their fielding was, let’s be honest, here, rather atrocious. All Bad News Bearish with balls rolling between their legs, uncertain hesitation at critical moments, and cringe-worthy overthrows while runners gained base after base. It was rough, on all of us, . . . rough.
But, it was also completely inspiring. Because these kids cheered like mad, encouraged along by their level-headed coach. They smiled and shouted and hugged each other after games. They patted each other on the backs for small accomplishments and big mistakes, and they learned one of sport’s — and life’s — hardest lessons: how to lose well. These boys and one girl are excellent losers and that is a skill that will take them far in life, buoying them when things get tough and humbling them when things go well. I can’t wait for the day any one of these athletes is on a team that crushes their opponent, because I hope they remember what it felt like to be that player.
And last night’s game — a single elimination playoff game in which they faced the number one seeded team — was positively spectacular. Because if our kids can’t field, they sure can hit. And they were on fire, with every single player hitting hard and hitting well. They had faced this team twice before: in a 24-0 loss to open the season and a 19-8 loss midway through. Well, last night’s final score was 23-19, a scramble-from-behind, messy and completely victorious loss (no, that’s not an oxymoron in this case, trust me). The game had tons of exciting moments, including our first and only and much-needed grand slam in the second inning in which we saw the score rise from 9-1 to 9-8. But my very favorite moments were smaller and quieter, as my favorite moments so often are: when one of our pitchers accidentally hit a batter in the foot (not an uncommon event in this league — the pitching gets a leeeeettttle wild) and as soon as the batter took first base, our guy ran straight over to apologize and make sure he was okay. And when one of Braedan’s best friends struck out to end the game and Braedan walked right up to put his arm around his buddy and assure him he’d done well.
These kids may have lost week after week, game after game, but they did it with their heads held high, with smiles on their faces, and with some of the best displays of sportsmanship I’ve ever witnessed. And I couldn’t be more proud.
We are at that time of year, as we are so often are, that is filled with milestones and anniversaries. Some of them are good, some bad, all tinged with reminders both subtle and glaring of where we’ve been and where we might someday end up. Last Wednesday was Austin’s kindergarten musical performance, not an obvious cancer milestone in anyone’s life, but filled with significance nonetheless. It should go without saying that there is just something about watching five and six-year-olds go through a song and dance routine, all waving their arms slightly off rhythm, scrunching up their faces and waving to their parents one minute, the perfect image of mature composure the next. All coupled with their eager filing from risers to stage to recite their carefully rehearsed but poorly enunciated lines, and the whole thing is just adorable to the point of tears.
But for us, it also stood in stark contrast to Braedan’s kindergarten musical three short — and very very long — years ago. That day, way more dramatic than this, is described here. And let me tell you, it was not as easy as I made it sound in that rather upbeat review. It was instead filled with a lot of anxious clock-watching, as I wondered if I would yet again break the heart of my elder child in my desperate attempt to keep my younger child alive. So it was with enormous relief that we watched Austin sing his songs and wave his hands and recite his line (inappropriate though it was for a child who can’t pronounce his Rs): “And you would be right, with most of those terms . . . You see, ladies and gentlemen, we are the worms!” with no pending hospital visits, no Sophie’s Choice decision looming in our near future, no fear of what the next day, week, month might hold. Instead, it was all sweetness and pride, worms and snakes, and even Braedan and two other older siblings were invited to provide comic relief in the form of cheesy bat jokes.
Austin on my lap three years ago
Austin last week, ready to perform
Austin on stage, reciting his line
Braedan on stage (far right), reciting his line
And if anyone is really paying attention, you’ll notice that Austin was wearing the same shirt last week that Braedan wore to his kindergarten show. We, of course, went to the Colony for dinner that night but I have no pictures of grilled cheese-induced ecstasy.
But, if you want a real milestone, a truly significant, did-it-again milestone, here it is, hidden in the midst of this post about a school concert . . . Austin had an abdominal ultrasound today. We opted to do it back at Rainbow, even though his new oncologist is at the Clinic, because only this particular radiologist knows what to expect from his crazy misshapen kidney. So we’ll have an additional appointment in a few weeks, with a chest x-ray and labs and a physical, but for now, from today’s scan which looks at his kidney and liver and is the thing that really matters most to us, Austin is three years cancer-free. Yes, that’s right. That’s what I snuck in here at the end of this silly little post. AUSTIN IS THREE YEARS CANCER-FREE. Ka-pow.
Sometimes I don’t realize just how sheltered my children are.
My mom and I took the boys to Washington DC for a few days over their Spring Break. It was a great trip to a truly beautiful city, one the boys tackled with gusto on their Razor scooters as they weaved in and out of traffic on sidewalks and streets and covered a full seven miles on one day and six the next, my mom and I speed walking behind them. They loved the carousel and the Spy Museum, were massively disappointed that the paddle boats on the tidal basin were closed due to wind, and had mixed reactions to the war memorials. Braedan was old enough to be awed by the awe-inspiring list of names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, asking over and over again, “All these names, mom? All these people died??” Austin, only six, tugged on my hand and whined, “Can I ride my scooter now? Can I ride my scooter now?” as we tried to quietly pass those visitors running their fingers over the names of their loved ones.
But the single thing that defined our trip above all else was Braedan’s reaction to the homeless people. He noticed them our very first evening, as we walked back towards our hotel after a nighttime viewing of the White House. There were three, huddled under blankets in the entryway of an office building, and he was stunned. I hadn’t realized before how infrequently we walk the streets of our own downtown and see anyone begging (not that they don’t exist in Cleveland, it’s just that my kids aren’t there to see them). He stopped immediately to question us and then eyed the bag I was carrying with the desserts my mom and I had been carefully saving til later. “Do you want to give one of these?” I asked, somewhat begrudgingly. But I forgot my sweet tooth as I watched Braedan rush back with a plastic fork and a slice of cheesecake to wish a homeless man a Happy Easter. “I get lots of treats for Easter,” he announced to us with a proud bounce in his step. “I told him this was his Easter treat.”
He was not so easily satisfied in his quest to make a difference though and began carefully planning what he would order in restaurants to ensure he had leftovers appropriate to give away. He would usually scope out the scene outside the restaurant prior to entering to determine exactly who he would return to with his take-away box (somehow, “doggy bag” just doesn’t feel right in this context). This became the main topic of our conversations as well, as Braedan asked careful and impressively mature questions on the subject at every meal, including “Are homeless people educated?” and “Where are their families?” My mom and I spent a lot of time talking about the many complex reasons people become homeless, the services available to them (especially for those with children), as well as the many issues to be addressed when trying to “solve” the problem. We covered everything from affordable health care to jobs with a living wage to access to high quality education, plus mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and poor personal choices.
Looking to the future, he announced that after he makes millions of dollars for the app he’s planning to design (what this million-dollar app is going to do, he has yet to explain), he will give all that money away to homeless people. I tried to bring him back to the present by suggesting he use his role as a student council member to organize a school food drive, which he eagerly jumped on . . . until I told him there are homeless people and food kitchens in Cleveland too. “No!” he said with certainty. “I want us to collect canned food and send it to Washington DC!” Humph, I guess we need to head to downtown Cleveland and stroll the streets one of these nights. Under some bridges might help too.
One evening, after he gave his leftovers to a woman smoking a cigarette, which I commented was one possible reason people may choose not to donate to her, he said, “Yeah, but mom, even people who make bad decisions deserve food.” As for my job as a bleeding heart liberal mother, I have two words: mission accomplished.
I guess that last one should have been titled The Year in Picture. This one can be the Year in Pictures.
2012 started with a family trip to Jamaica, with requisite swimming, horseback riding and playing with cousins:
Once back at school, Braedan was the youngest kid in the district to join Ski Club. He enjoyed it immensely despite record little snowfall:
At the end of February, Mark and I went to Charleston, South Carolina with friends. A wonderful weekend in a beautiful and charming city:
March was dedicated almost entirely to St. Baldrick’s events, from the Bluffton Basebald trip to our Cleveland Heights event to the always fun downtown head-shaving. I was surrounded by bald people all spring long, which could not have made me more proud:
Then we ventured off to Colorado for a spring skiing adventure, complete with an ambulance ride to the medical center for Austin’s low oxygen levels:
We fully expected May to kick off the grand two-year cancer-free celebration, only to instead plunge into sixteen days of darkness and despair upon believing Austin’s cancer had returned yet again. A lucky double rainbow and a long overdue MRI provided intense relief at the end of the month and our good-year-gone-bad reverted to great.
Then it was summer and all the joyous relaxation that comes along with it, including endless hours of baseball. baseball, baseball, swimming and waterskiing in Chautauqua and biking through Europe:
And of course, our tenth wedding anniversary and our super celebration-of-everything party:
Fall meant back to school for Braedan and off to school for Austin:
More travel, this time for Mommy and Daddy on their own:
Plus birthdays and fall sports, school events and some “little” surgeries, a lot of lost teeth and holidays, holidays, holidays. Of course, this was all interspersed with fighting, crying, whining, random ailments and injuries, complaints about school and battles over homework, boredom, sibling rivalry and the like. But I suppose that’s what makes it all worth it. The year ended with a few days of skiing in Chautauqua in near magical conditions:
It was definitely a year to remember, filled with significant milestones and an awful lot of globe trotting. But what matters most is what remains: health, happiness, family, friends, luck, love, laughter. We’ve got it all.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we can revert back to our old roles. Our seamlessly we become who we once were: the patient and the advocate, the comforter and the distractor. It’s as if we never left that old hospital world; it all feels so familiar, so deep in our bones, even in a brand new space.
We awoke super early Friday morning, if you can call 3:45 “morning.” Driving down the driveway at 4:30am to arrive in pre-op by 5:30 made me ever thankful that we lived so close to our hospital for all those years. (We ended up at Akron solely for insurance reasons — which will change in the new year — and, aside from follow-ups won’t be driving back there again.)
By 7:30, Austin was walking down the hallway hand-in-hand with an operating room nurse, with just one backward glance, but no tears, as he marched off to surgery. A quick hour-and-a-half later, he came to in the post-op room and we were by his side, offering popsicles and comfort. The ENT said his tonsils were enormous, but came out with no problems. And the hand surgeon was very pleased with how his finger repair went, no nerve damage despite many layers of scar tissue. He has a heavy red cast up to his elbow, only there to keep him from using his hand. The doctor wasn’t even sure he was going to give him a cast until he asked me how active Austin is. Once the words “gymnastics” and “cartwheels” passed through my lips, he knew just what to do. (And I’ve seen Austin do three cartwheels already, using the cast as a study foundation.)
We spent the afternoon mindlessly rotating between the floor playroom and his bed, trying to make the minutes pass by a little more quickly. A couple of books, wandering aimlessly through the halls, cajoling with sherbert and applesauce. Three good hours followed by the miserable half-hour leading up to the next dose of painkillers, followed by the miserable half-hour it takes to kick in. Hospitals are just plain boring, there’s no way around that. Akron was a lovely place; we went downstairs for a dramatic reading of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and met Ronald McDonald on one of our walks. That evening as we sat on the bed eating dinner, a troupe of carolers in Renaissance costumes came singing down the halls. And a volunteer knocked on the door to read Austin a bedtime story.
So, it was fine, but still, it’s a hospital and I can’t help but feel trapped when I’m there. And they’re all amazingly the same, the colors of the cupboards to store your clothes and the placement of the buttons on the walls, the smell of the rubber couch I slept on and the feel of the sheets that have been washed ten thousand times. Austin did okay throughout the night, well, as expected, I guess. He was up at midnight and 4am needing medicine. But he ate surprisingly well Friday evening, chowing down an enormous l tray of soft foods for dinner. We were released by 10am on Saturday and safe at home an hour later.
He played hard and happily that day and I thought I’d for sure send him to school Tuesday, if not Monday. But yesterday was worse and today he took a three-hour nap in the morning, so we’re laying low. His hand is fine and he’s driven to be independent, managing to snap his jeans and write his name with both his left hand and his casted one. But his throat is very painful and he’s struggling to eat anything at all. Even popsicles hurt going down.
But we truly believe this could be our last overnight in the hospital for many, many years. We called it an Austin tune-up, just getting everything into tip-top shape for years and years ahead of normal, regular childhood. I imagine that the next time he sleeps in a hospital bed, he won’t scoot over halfway through the night and beg for me to slip in beside him. It’s sort of bittersweet, that thought, but as hard as watching my baby grow up may be, I will always take it over the alternative. Always.
About this time last year, I wrote a couple of posts about helicopter versus free-range parenting, found here , here and here. There must be something about the start of the school year and the intense focus on rules and safety that brings these issues to the forefront each fall, because I’m at it again. And now, a new term has entered our lexicon, and it’s not a good one: bulldozer parents. No, they’re not knocking you over with stories and Facebook posts about how fabulous their kids are nor are they overtaking everything in their paths with their zealous parenting strategies. They’re called bulldozers because they attempt to clear the paths in front of their children, removing any obstacles, dangers or hardships before allowing their little ones to travel on ahead.
We are doing no one any favors here, people. Kids — shocker here — are actually pretty smart: they can figure stuff out. They can deal with hardship. They can be independent. And they must be forced to, in situations that are relatively safe and relatively risk-free, early in their lives or they’ll never ever be able to do it later when it really matters. If we clear every bump and tree root from our kids’ paths when they’re eight, how on earth are they going to deal with bumps and tree roots and, god forbid, bears, when they’re twenty?
I was talking about this with a friend who works at a local university and she said she’s witnessed college students going in to their professors’ office hours to discuss a paper or grade accompanied by their mothers. Let me repeat that: she has seen college students, legal adults, old enough to fight in wars and vote in elections, who bring mommy along when they need to discuss something difficult with a professor! Hello? How is this person going to have a real job, with angry customers or clients? Or raise their own kids? Or do any of the tough things that are a part of grown-up life?
This post is driven in part by a recent reiteration of a long-standing district rule that states that only 4th and 5th graders can ride their bikes to school. I am working with a certain pro-bike city council person to get the district to change this rule and one of their stated concerns is that people backing out of their driveways in the morning won’t see small kids on their bicycles. Well, I don’t want my kids to get run over on their way to school, but guess what? I told them to look for moving cars in driveways as they ride. Just like we tell them to look for cars before they cross the street. And guess what? They do it!
I want my kids to be happy. And I want them to be successful. And, of course, I want them to be safe. But I also want them to be resilient and independent and to know what to do in difficult situations. And in order to gain those skills, they should have opportunities when they’re young to test themselves in relatively safe situations. If they’re walking to school by themselves and someone gets hurt, they should be able to figure out how to handle it: Is it minor enough that they can just keep walking and deal with it when they arrive at school? Should someone turn around and run back home? Is there a friendly neighbor whose house they can stop at? Figure it out, kids, use your heads and solve the problem.
If there is something they don’t like at school, a rule they believe is unfair . . . figure it out. Write a letter to your principal (our new one welcomes such student input), bring it up with a teacher you trust, organize your friends. Don’t just stand around and whine, . . . do something. If they can do these things now, in elementary or middle school, think of how much more capable they’ll be by the time they have to walk in to office hours (or battle) ten years from now. We may think we are helping them by clearing their paths, but we’re really stunting them and allowing them to enter adulthood completely unprepared.
And none of us want that.
This child’s road to kindergarten has been littered with eight-hour surgeries and the side effects of chemotherapy. More CT scans in two years than the recommended allowance for an entire childhood. Central lines and blood pressure medications fit for a retiree.
But despite the bumps in the road, the twists and turns and inevitable hills, the outrageous and unexpected detours, this child has reached his destination. The child has, against all odds, started kindergarten:
And it was surprisingly smooth. I’ve gotta admit that for the past few years, this day has loomed large in front of me. If I were a stage actor and needed to make myself cry, all I would have to do is imagine walking out of that building on the first day of school and the tears would start rolling. Honestly, I’ve cried about it many times already as I lie in bed at night just thinking about it. But today was different. We walked, the four of us together, the boys’ backpacks bulging with tissue boxes and Chlorox wipes. Then there was the chaos at school of students and parents trying to find their new teachers before the flag raising. I had one quick moment when a friend asked how I was and I got choked up, before anything significant had even happened. But I hid behind my sunglasses, not wanting to make Austin any more nervous than he was already was.
Into the building we went, down the hallway hand in hand. I left him in his classroom to join the parents for paperwork and Q&A. And that was another moment; I had to go into an empty classroom first and gather myself, right on the verge of a full-blown sob fest. But that too passed, as I was swept up in the mundane tasks of listing emergency contacts and ordering gym shirts. Then another goodbye, this one harder for him than me (but no tears). And that was it. I walked out chatting with parents and friends and headed down the street to my quiet house.
I did it. We did it. He did it. Austin is alive and well, as healthy and normal-looking as any child in that building. He is something we were never sure he’d be: a kindergartener. And next year, he’ll be a first grader. And then second and third. Before I know it, he’ll be a middle schooler. And he’ll graduate from high school and he’ll go on to college.
Because he is alive. And he is well.
He did it.