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There’s something about your own kid growing up that makes it feel unique to you, as if no one else has ever had the surreal experience of watching their child — the one they’d rocked to sleep and pushed on a swing — suddenly morph into a tween or a teen or (horror of horrors) an actual adult.
I’m feeling that way with Braedan right now, as we look ahead to his 5th grade promotion ceremony, a mere six weeks away. From this little critter, so eager to walk to his first day of kindergarten . . .
. . . to the mature and confident (and sports and tech-obsessed) eleven-year old he’s become.
I am so glad he’s spent this six-year journey of growth and discovery at Fairfax School. I’m one of those parents who doesn’t actually think you should shop around for schools. Might sounds strange coming from a former teacher, in a world where all good parents search through every possible option to pick the very best for each individual child. I had fleeting moments of guilt, in those early days, for not putting more effort or thought into it. But I tend to think, unless something’s seriously wrong, you just attend your local neighborhood public school and take what comes. That’s what most parents did in my day. All the kids on the block, with the exception of a few Catholic families, simply went to their public school.
Now there are state rankings and test scores and data to pour over, tours and interviews and “educational philosophies” to consider. Like so much of modern parenting, picking a school for a five-year old requires an advanced degree. And causes undue stress, because no option out there is ever going to be perfect and yet our kids will still be okay.
In our case, we signed Braedan up for the one we could walk down the street to and that was that. He hasn’t always been thrilled with school, he had one year in particular that was less than stellar. But it helped him grow, it taught him he could be resilient and thrive in any environment. And taken as a whole, especially from this reminiscent vantage point, Braedan’s elementary experience has been wonderful. He’s had teachers he loves who he knows love him back. He’s learned an extraordinary amount (way more than I learned when I was a student in the same building). He’s had the chance to enroll in after-school activities that range from drama and racquetball to cycling and skiing. He’s done things few elementary kids have the opportunity to do, like sing on the stage at Severance Hall or spend three nights in the Cuyahoga Valley with his classmates exploring the great outdoors.
And his friends. Well, being that he’s a very social creature (understatement), his friends have been the highlight of it all. And he is friends with everybody. Especially this year, with his grade so deeply connected by their role as building leaders and their shared history, I can think of very very few children he wouldn’t call friends.
I’ve watched him rally his schoolmates around causes he believes in, like Purple for Becca Day or St. Baldrick’s. In kindergarten he was the lone shavee in that building. By second grade, he had a few friends alongside him. This year. . . take a look.
More than anything else, I’m so happy that he and Austin both attend school in a building and in a district where there is such a high premium on nice. That’s the biggest difference I see between the Heights schools I attended in the 70s and 80s and the Heights schools of today (I guess Heights has changed, after all). I don’t think we were particularly cruel or anything, but we were much more concerned with being cool than with being nice, even by 5th grade. Kindness and tolerance and acceptance are now celebrated and honored from kindergarten through 12th grade. Of course, this isn’t the case for every single child every single day across the board (they are human). But when I hear from parents who’ve moved their kids from local private and parochial schools into Heights schools (and especially into Heights High), one of the things they rave about the most is how nice their children’s peers are.
I’m so proud of Braedan for all he’s accomplished in his first six years of schooling. And I’m so excited for all the incredible opportunities that lie before him as he moves into Roxboro and eventually Heights.
But I still can’t believe that this little LeBraedan is actually growing up . . .
We may never get to use the word “survivor” to describe Becca Meyer. But let me tell you, that girl is surviving.
Yesterday, today, and, we certainly hope, tomorrow, she is living a life so filled with love and laughter and friendship and family that some may be rightfully envious of her. She is alive and she is thriving — running, jumping, playing and doing it all with a full-sized dose of spice and sass.
Take today, for instance. Today was Purple for Becca Meyer Day at Fairfax School. The Student Council created a long list of Spirit Days for the month of May and Braedan’s suggestion was this one. It was carefully planned for a Thursday because Becca’s at a hospital in Pittsburgh every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. I knew that Braedan was nervous that people might not participate, or that it would only be the girls in purple, or that (worst fate of all) Becca wouldn’t notice. He wrote his own message to read over the PA system on Wednesday afternoon reminding people of the day and why it was important, closing with, “It doesn’t matter how you look because you’ll be doing something good for someone else.”
We found purple t-shirts in the bottom of my kids’ drawers and were all ready. And then Becca threw up yesterday. On her car ride back from Pittsburgh. Which could be a sign that the time had come, that the end was about to begin. As I put the kids to bed last night, I debated whether I should tell Braedan that tidbit of truth to prepare him for the possibility that she might not be at school on her very own day. But he was riding high after a super successful trumpet quartet with three of his best friends, and I was holding tight to the hope that Becca’s was just a passing sickness, some normal explanation for normal vomit with a normal outcome.
Well, she was at school today, in head to toe purple, as were many of her schoolmates. I was most impressed with the number of kids, boys and girls alike, from kindergarten through fifth grade donning that royal color. And Braedan was most pleased. And — all that really matters — Becca was most pleased. And full of spice and sass.
At dismissal time, she marched out the door arm in arm with her best friend since birth, both purpled to the hilt. They encountered a beloved teacher in our building, who had sprayed her hair purple for the day, and she pointed it out to Becca, who promptly stuck her hands on her hips and said, with a personality bigger than her poofy princess dress, “No. You. Didn’t. That’s PINK!”
Today, she is surviving.
My, what a difference four years can make. Last night was the fabulous Fairfax Cabaret, an every other year talent show that takes place on the high school stage. There’s a full stage crew, spotlights, headset microphones and all the accoutrements of a professional production. And it is so much fun, with everything from piano and violin solos to groups of girls singing and swaying to Beyonce. It is, at its essence, classic Cleveland Heights, capturing all that we love about our school and our district.
Because it’s only every other year (just too much darn work for the PTA to do each year), we’ve only been to two prior to this one. And the first, held in January 2010, was quite a different experience for us. Braedan was in kindergarten, Austin was in treatment, and I was understandably absent from all volunteer activities at school. On this rare occasion, we left a severely immuno-compromised Austin home with a sitter so Mark and I could take Braedan to the big event. It was the end of a horrible week, in which Austin’s mediport had failed during our week of in-patient chemo and he’d had a surprise mediport-repair surgery (“Surprise!”) scheduled mere minutes after he consumed two grapes for breakfast (two grapes!), rendering him unable to be anesthesized for a full and excruciating eight hours. That particular surgery, which was supposed to be “quick” and after which we expected to go home, was instead long and unsuccessful and left Little A with a PICC line instead of a mediport and left the two of us in the hospital for yet another night. We were on edge, exhausted and beat down, by the time we arrived at the high school for the next night’s festivities. I don’t remember much about that particular show, aside from multiple tear-filled conversations with people who innocently asked me how Austin was doing.
But all of this is beside the point, or maybe it is exactly the point, because last night, four short (and very, very long) years later, Austin was up on stage doing this. He’s the first one to somersault toward stage left (your right) and is in the far right of your screen for most of the performance (or the front of the right line of dancers). Click the HD button in the bottom of the screen to get a clearer version.
And of course, we cannot let this review of the night go by without highlighting the brave and confident and funny and super cool Braedan, in his Cabaret jammies:
And now I can confidently look ahead to Cabaret 2016 and Cabaret 2018 and all the years after that.
You know I’m still here and I’m gonna keep posting on the Patch too. The naysayers (and that’s an awfully benign term to describe some of these people) are hurtful and nasty and not very smart-sounding and I’m trying hard to ignore them. Not that I’m unwilling to engage in conversation with people who have valid questions or concerns about the issue, but I certainly won’t engage with people like “Michael Schwartz” (who I’ve heard doesn’t even exist, but is simply some cold-hearted coward hiding behind an alias hurling insults). I actually haven’t read any of his comments since the first night, as I know it’ll only enrage me and I would much rather save my energy for this campaign than waste it on him.
So, to you, “my dears,” I say thank you for your support, thanks to those of you who’ve been brave enough to venture onto the barren editor-less wasteland that is the Patch and post your own pro-81 comments (although I strongly advise against addressing the usual suspects in any direct dialogue), and thank you for encouraging me to carry on. Carry on, I will. The opposition is loud, but they are few. We have right on our side and I do indeed believe that we will win this thing.
That being said, here is installment number 4 in my why-we-need-to-pass-Issue-81 series:
Section 8. Yup, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today, the latest in a long line of sub-groups blamed for all society’s ills. If poverty is the third rail of school conversations in this community, as Sam Bell said so beautifully in his piece, then Section 8 is the third rail of poverty conversations. Throughout this campaign, I have heard and seen comments time and again like, “If only our city would stop letting in those Section 8 people,” or “The schools’ problems would go away if we got rid of Section 8 housing.”
And it makes me wonder: Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be? Are we really the type of community that says, “We don’t want you here. Go away and take your problems with you”? Should we build a wall up to keep the poor people out?
It happens to be illegal for a municipality such as Cleveland Heights to limit or prevent those people using Section 8 housing vouchers to move here or to prevent landlords from accepting them. We are required to allow their residence in our city. Not only legally, but, in my opinion, morally.
We happen to be an inner-ring suburb, first stop on the way up the ladder out of the urban centers. Families move out of East Cleveland and Cleveland into Cleveland Heights precisely because they know our schools are good. Because we are seen as a land of opportunity, a safer place, a chance for them and their kids to have a better life.
I think this is a good thing. It’s not easy, I know that. We all know there’s a higher rate of crime committed by those living in Section 8 housing than by the rest of the general population; the city’s statistics prove it. But this is our role today. This is, I think, our job. And it may be a burden, as our social service agencies have more and more people in need of the help they provide, and as our schools become the receiving ground for hundreds of children with few of the skills they need to succeed. It means we have to work harder. Not to keep them out, but to bring them up. Our schools have to work harder, designing programs and hiring extra intervention specialists, socials workers, special education teachers, and psychologists to meet the many and varied needs of these children. And we all have to work harder, to adjust our expectations and find ways to learn from and with each other.
Now I realize this sounds very noblesse oblige, let-me-in-my-infinite-middle-class-wisdom-teach-you-how-to-be-a-better-member-of-our-so-called-shared-society, but so be it. I believe that Cleveland Heights and University Heights have a unique opportunity to actually make a difference in people’s lives, to provide their kids with an enriching educational experience and open up the world of opportunities that all children deserve. That is what we do. That is who we are.
Of course, this should have very little to do with the facilities discussion at all. The buildings and their needs should be evaluated separately from the children inside them. But some seem to think that because most of those kids are poor, they somehow deserve less.
And I think that’s bullshit.
And so, just like that, another year goes by. My sweet boys finished school on Thursday and suddenly I find myself the mother of a rising first grader and a rising fourth grader.
Austin had a truly fabulous year: learned to read, made new friends and thrived in every possible way. After all that back and forth about when to send him to kindergarten, I can finally say that we did the right thing. I know a woman, the grandmother of some kids at Fairfax as well as at local private schools, who has tutored in our building the past few years and she recently said that if she had a kindergarten-aged child and could choose any single teacher in all of Northeast Ohio for that child to have, she would choose this one:
Braedan’s year was okay, with one good teacher and one, well, I don’t want to use this as a place to publicly criticize someone, but let’s just say we’re glad the year is over.
But he does have truly wonderful friends.
As for mama bear, I have finished my fourth and final course and have freshly renewed certification to teach first through eighth grades in the great state of Ohio. Unfortunately, the single district in which I’m willing to teach (ours) laid off 32 teachers in April due to a reduction in force and cannot even look at outside candidates until all those teachers have been rehired. Although information is hard to confirm (and that’s putting it lightly — I swear, this stuff is guarded by the CIA), it seems that most of the elementary classroom teachers have indeed been rehired by now and I am still fingers-crossed-hope-hope-hoping that there may be a spot left over for little ol’ me.
But for now, we look forward to a summer of friends, relaxation, Chautauqua, waterskiing and baseball, baseball, baseball.
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.
You’ve heard it all over the media these past eight days: The teachers in Sandy Hook were heroes. And they were. No doubt about it. But they were also just teachers; they were doing — in a most basic and ordinary sense — what teachers do, all over the country, each and every day.
Teachers support and protect and nurture the children in their care. No matter what. I know, I’ve been there. My first three years of teaching were in an elementary school in the City of Compton, outside of Los Angeles. And while there were many stereotypes about Compton that were proved wrong by my students and their families over those years, it was nonetheless an impoverished city besieged by gang violence. And so, of course, there were shootings. Not school shootings, in the sense we now know them. But shootings right outside our school, that we could hear and, one time, even see. Gun violence that definitely placed me and the eight and nine-year-old children in my care in grave danger.
I learned pretty quickly what to do when the code red alarm would go off. I’d check outside my door and grab any child walking by (which one time caused great stress to the teacher who had allowed a little boy to go to the bathroom right before a shooting) and lock my door. Then we’d sit on the floor on our reading rug, under the windows that lined the back of the classroom, facing a residential street. We were close enough to the windows that if stray bullets came through, they would fly over our heads — or so we hoped. I’d read and sometimes the kids would share their stories of friends and neighbors and cousins who were shot, the way my sons talk about their summer vacations. We’d wait, with no cell phones and not even an intercom or building phone to contact the office (these schools were lacking in so many ways). And after a while, the All Clear bell would sound and we’d go about our day. No heroics, just grown-ups keeping children safe and calm, acting like the teachers they were.
In the last month of my last year there, I was coaching soccer after school on our asphalt playground. And we heard gunfire. More than I’d ever heard before, so much that I almost thought they were fireworks. I looked about, at the kids running across our “field,” enjoying their last moments of practice, and at the moms with their baby strollers lined up on the wall, ready to walk them home. One nodded at me (she knew the difference between gun shots and fireworks) and I blew the whistle and started to gather up my kids, right when the Code Red alarm sounded. I stood on the ramp to the trailer that served as our library and shooed the moms and the children, strollers and soccer balls, into the door. It was automatic. I didn’t fear for my life, standing out in the open as I was. I simply did my job.
As I stood there waving my arms, “In, in. Faster, let’s go” (in English and Spanish), I looked up over their small heads and saw a guy on a bike racing down the street on the other side of our fence. He was pedaling furiously and looking over his shoulder with his hand at the waistband of his sweatpants . . . where he was holding his gun. It was a bike-by, for crying out loud. And I was close enough to see his face. Suddenly, three guys from a house across the street burst out their door, jumped off the porch and chased after him, on foot. (What exactly they were trying to accomplish is beyond me.) My last kid was whisked through the door and I was safely behind them, though I already knew that the danger had passed.
The next day, the police came to school to record my statement and I easily picked the guy out of a photo line-up. A month later, I was packed up and on the road to San Francisco (not a moment too soon, according to my dad, who’d spent the past three years being nervous for me when I wasn’t nervous for myself). That fall, I received a phone call from the Prosecutor’s Office and they flew me down to LA to testify against this guy in court. A known gang banger, he had threatened a young teenager that morning for telling his friend to say no to gangs. Payback, that very afternoon, was getting shot in the face and leg (thankfully, he did survive). It was the shooter’s third strike and in California, that means you’re out. I was, as you might imagine, a very credible witness, white teacher lady and all. When it was the defense attorney’s turn to cross examine, he mocked me and my story, “Oh, I’m sure you were veeerrryy heroic, standing out there and letting all your students inside before you, while you just calmly surveyed the scene,” and on and on as if I’d embellished my role with undue heroics.
“No,” I told him. “I wasn’t playing the hero. I was doing my job.” What I did that day on that playground was automatic. I didn’t think about it, I did it. When you are a teacher, your students really are your “kids,” and you will do whatever it takes to keep them from harm’s way.
Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, and Mary Sherlach did not intend to be heroes when they walked into work at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. They intended to be teachers.
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.
I’m not going to keep harping on the start of the school year (I’ll have other things to harp about soon, I promise!), but here is the link to an article posted on the St. Baldrick’s site last week. Which contains, as Mark pointed out, the best single line description of Austin’s personality to date. Enjoy….
Well, I changed my mind because I know a lot of you don’t ever click on links (I can see these things; the WordPress blogger is all-knowing), so here it is (no copyright laws are violated because I wrote the darn thing):
Starting Kindergarten After Battling Childhood Cancer
August 30, 2012
It’s that time of year again . . . the smell of freshly sharpened pencils in the air, the sound of school buses rolling down the street and the stack of paperwork for parents to fill out each evening. As I sit at my kitchen table completing the blue Who’s Eligible To Pick My Child Up From School form and the goldenrod Emergency Contact form and salmon Photo Release form, I am stopped in my tracks by the green Medical History form.
It’s nothing surprising, just your usual list of vaccinations and set of Yes/No questions: Has your child ever had heart problems? Seizures? Allergies? Surgeries? Kidney problems? Other? And then there’s my favorite: “If yes, please describe,” followed by one-and-a-half single-spaced lines. They actually want me to explain my child’s dramatic and life-threatening three-year illness in less than seven inches of space?
I don’t think so.
So, instead, I neatly write “Please see attached” and proceed to type up a 370-word addendum that describes in dry, emotionless language Austin’s diagnosis with bilateral Wilms tumor at the age of ten months, his four initial abdominal surgeries, his eight months of chemotherapy. Next paragraph includes his relapse, additional surgeries, twelve rounds of radiation, six more months of chemo. Last paragraph details his daily blood pressure medications and the restricted diet he follows due to the fact that he’s lost his entire right kidney and half of his left.
There. Done. Ready to repack his folder and send him off to kindergarten, a milestone we were never sure we’d reach. But nowhere in those myriad school forms did I truly capture my child. Any teacher who sits down to read those sheets would fail miserably to picture Austin in their mind. I can almost guarantee that they would imagine a sad, sickly boy, struggling to keep up with his classmates and opting out of gym class. Scarred and scared, feeble and hesitant.
There is no way they could conjure up the real Austin, the last kid you would ever describe as feeble, cartwheeling across the lawn, executing perfect front flips on the trampoline (or bed or couch), racing around the block on a two-wheel bike. No way would they picture this boy, spunky and clever, both brave and shy, extraordinary in so many ways, and yet so very very ordinary.
But I will let him go, with a heart both heavy and thankful, into the world of big kid school, where he can define himself. And I will know that those completed forms stuck in his backpack are only one tiny part of this truly remarkable boy.