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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.

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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.

When I was in eight grade, we had an assembly and, while I can’t remember what on earth it was about, I do know that the man up on stage opened up by asking us our definition of success: What does it mean to be successful? I quickly rose my hand and offered my answer: “Being happy.” And I got laughed at.

Now, I was a very popular middle schooler and knew that my peers and classmates weren’t laughing at me so much as at the radical notion of success being defined, not by money or fame or power, but by something as ordinary and seemingly achievable as happiness.

But, after the death this weekend of another icon of my middle school years, I stand by my pronouncement. I was never a huge Whitney Houston fan, she didn’t sing my favorite ever song and I certainly hadn’t given her much thought over the past ten (or twenty) years. But, as I found myself singing “Greatest Love of All” and still knowing every single word by heart, I must acknowledge that she is undoubtedly part of the soundtrack of my life. From eight grade graduation to school dances to “One Moment In Time” (and imagined greatness on the field hockey field), her songs and her voice provide a backdrop to my adolescence.

And, as she joins others from those mid-80s glory days (The Kind of Pop, of course, and movie stars like River Phoenix, who we all loved), I know that the brave fourteen year old girl who equated happiness with success was right. I would take my life over their’s any day.

You’d think we parents would learn after a while that so many of the things we worry about regarding the development of our children seem to eventually just resolve themselves. I remember fretting over the fact that Braedan was the last kid in his playgroup to learn to walk.  This was a wonderful group of moms I’d meet at Heights Parent Center when our first babies were just a few months (and sometimes just a few weeks) old. We started getting together multiple times a week, mostly for ourselves (it was way more about the moms than the kids back when they were still babes in arms), and collectively watched as each child learned to sit up (Braedan last), crawl (Braedan last) and walk (Braedan definitely last). There was nothing wrong with him; he was simply content wherever he was placed — happy to look around or play with whatever toy was within his reach; he truly had no need to move. But right at that moment when I started worrying aloud to Mark (“But, honey, they can all walk. Even the ones who are six weeks younger than him!”), he walked.

Of course.

And so it has gone with each and every stage, and so it continues to go. Austin, whose shyness I was so worried about just a few months ago, has completely opened up. He’s not broadcasting his every move to strangers, but he has ordered his own meal in a restaurant and occasionally says thank you to the moms hosting him for playdates. He started his Pre-K year today, without a moment of hesitation. He let me walk out that door without shedding a tear, a first that’s been a long time coming.

And Braedan is suddenly Mister Independent. I’ve long worried that our generation of parents hovers too much, organizing our child’s every moment, tracking our child’s every move. So I’ve been pushing him since last spring: “Just go, Brady, just ride your bike down the street, just find someone,” when he’s bored. And finally, he’s doing it. Well, not quite riding down the street and befriending strangers (even I might warn against that), but heading off with friends to play at the school playground, without Mom but with little brother in tow.

Last week, I needed to pick up Austin when Braedan was home with a friend and he said, “Aaaaww, do we have to go? Why can’t we just stay here?” I thought about it for all of 30 seconds and said, “Ok, fine. Here’s my cell number, stay right here in your room and play.” I was back within nine minutes and they were — of course — totally fine.  He’s still only seven, but I was babysitting by the beginning of third grade, one small year ahead of where he is now. (I know that sounds crazy, but tell them, Caryl, it’s true.)

Tomorrow he and the neighbor girl will walk to school unattended. That may not seem like a big deal to those of us who walked without parents from kindergarten on, but not many people seem to do it anymore. I think it’s such a good and important way to gain independence. More than just the walking safely — it’s being able to manage yourself enough to make it there on time. I don’t remember any of us ever wearing watches as we walked our three-quarters of a mile four times a day (those were the days when we still went home for lunch), but we were never late. We knew how much we could play along the way and still make it on time. We were in charge.

So I am thrilled with these recent developments. Not that I want my beautiful babies to grow up too fast, but I do want them to be confident enough in themselves and capable enough to do things on their own. I want them to feel that sense of efficacy — that oh-so-important “I can actually do this” feeling of success.

It’s their time.

Last night as we were leaving Braedan at my parents’ house and were all standing around hugging and saying long goodbyes, my dad and I hit upon the realization that today could be the day that we finally rid Austin of his cancer.

Today is our day.

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