Excerpt From Jan. 17 Newsletter

Here’s an excerpt from my latest newsletter. Please subscribe, folks!

It’s January Jersey. Which means the sky is a greige color that all the designers are putting on their walls.

I know all about griege, because we’re in the middle of a painting project at home. Between being grounded in the house with various medical testing for Ian and a dull spot in between writing projects, I have some time on my hand. I decided that it was time to rent a steamer from Home Depot and tackle the last two rooms in our home that still had the previous owner’s wallpaper on the walls.

So, our bedroom furniture is covered with plastic tarps, and my office is inhospitable, until we can finish the job. When we embarked on this plan, I expected to finish off in a week or two. In reality, we are still a month of weekends away from applying any paint — griege or otherwise – on the walls. 

I have a writing topic on hold. The topic is all approved by an editor, but we’re just waiting for one of the presidential candidates to bring up a specific education topic. The candidate is not cooperating, so I’ve done a little background research and am just waiting. And catching up with my other job, which is housewifery. 

I never planned on being a stay at home parent, who works gigs on the side. I planned on having a prestigious job in the university or a policy think tank. That’s why I wasted most of my twenties in graduate school and finished the PhD. But here am I. Drinking rosé with the soccer moms and spinning away the muffin tops on Monday mornings. 

On most days, that’s just fine. I have time to paint walls, check in on my mom, make sure the college kid has filled out the right forms for next year’s dorm assignments, attend IEP meetings, talk with the lawyer about the guardianship papers, and arrange appointments with a contractor who has to fix the hole in the foundation by the garage. 

Other days, I get impatient with my situation. Freelancers don’t get the choice assignments or get paid very well. I miss teaching college classes, even six years later; though I don’t miss grading papers, which always sucked. I miss the identity of a full time job. 

As a neurotic progressive, I also feel guilty. Others don’t have the option to have a flexible job. I’m able to support my kids, both the special ed and the typical one, so they’re two steps ahead of kids who don’t have a parent like me. Which is totally unfair. In a world that is falling apart, I’m staring at Benjamin Moore paint colors so long that I have actual opinions on Grey Owl grey versus Metropolitan grey. I should be out there in the thick of things, making changes, instead of looking at Pinterest boards. 

I handle the guilt by writing. Writing is a source of guilt, too, because writing is becoming more and more of a rich person’s game; there are fewer and fewer traditional journalism jobs. But it is an effective soap box. I also join local political organizations and progressive parents groups. 

There is a growing parental political movement happening. Parents — okay, mostly women — are showing up at board of ed meetings and state house protests. They’re forming letter writing committees. They’re organizing fundraisers for political candidates. Not all of them are progressive, of course. One group of parents in New Jersey just pushed back against a new vaccination law. Other groups are too focused on changes in our own privileged town, and aren’t advocating for all kids. But there are other parent groups that line up more with my political leanings. 

This situation isn’t getting a lot of attention from the press, because most journalists have full time jobs in the cities. Even the education reporters aren’t showing up to Board of Ed meetings. I am. And so, weirdly enough, being a stay at home parent gives me a professional advantage. Life is funny that way. 

So, on this greige day, I’m working and not working at the same time. At noon, I’ve got a date with Lauren at the hair salon who will make my hair a more uniform red and give me a good Jersey blowout. And we’ll talk. She’ll tell me about her mixed race family and her husband’s contracting hustles. We’ll talk about her middle school son and his struggles in school. I’ll walk out of the salon with sleek red hair and some fodder for half a dozen articles. 

At some point, I’ll figure out how to make more money from all this working and not working, but that’s for another day. 

OPINION: Marching band sets the right tempo for many special-needs kids

With plumed caps and braided epaulets for miles, marching bands are a staple of the high school football game. Students stride purposefully around the field with piccolos and tubas, and synchronize their steps to Billy Joel medleys, homages to Mary Poppins and even a snappy march or two from John Philip Sousa. Girls in flared skirts and knee-high boots triumphantly wave flags or twirl wooden rifles. 

In some ways, marching bands are anachronistic today. The frozen smiles and stiff-legged choreography of these bands harken back to a 1940s Esther Williams technicolor movie. The twirling rifles feel vaguely sinister in this post-Sandy Hook era. Yet they hold a certain magic, too — a place of innocence and sincerity not found elsewhere in the dystopian world of the modern American high school. They hold a different kind of magic for the kids who participate in this activity.

Along with the A/V club and the stage crew, marching bands have long been safe places for kids like the socially awkward girl, Michelle, from the 1999 cult flick American Pie, who annoys everyone with tales about band camp. The typical participant is not a super star on the football field or in student government. 

Marching bands also draw in kids with various learning differences, including those with high-functioning autism. For these students, marching band is an activity in which they can participate with peers. With its unique combination of exercise, dance, music and rigor, it also may be a place where they heal.

More here.

The Slacker Boys of Generation Z

The 20-something writers who cover education on the national stage might have more time and energy than this old girl, but I have a few tools in my arsenal as well. My greatest advantage is that I don’t see the school beat as a stepping stone onto other topics. I like schools and have studied them for years, so I’m not putting tons of energy into learning about health care or the military. Schools get all my brain power.

Another advantage that I have is that I’m a parent. There’s nothing like experiencing a situation first hand to give one a good spidey sense about whether a topic is going to be hot or whether a new report is totally off base.

I’m not just a parent. I’m an active parent, who participates in school functions and parent organizations, and regular attends school board meetings. I’m also hopelessly social, so I regularly talk to other parents about their kids. All these experience provide article and blog fodder.

Over the past holidays, I bounced around various cocktail parties and learned some good stuff. One parent of a college-aged boy told me that she was disappointed with her son’s efforts in school. She said that he has been talking more and more about looking at alternatives to college. He and his friends have discussed the fact that they aren’t interested in following in their parents’ footsteps of BAs from prestigious colleges and good paying jobs that put them into suburbs like this one. They want a more laid-back life style.

She mentioned a kid — a son of a friend of a friend type of thing — who was a surfer in California living out of his car. His parents would have paid the rent for an apartment, but the kid (anybody under 25 is still a kid to me) preferred to live a simple life out of his car. He didn’t see the point in paying someone rent for a place that he didn’t need.

She wondered if kids today were rejecting our modern suburban lifestyles. Was this a return to the Gen X slacker days? Was it happening because there’s just so much stress and anxiety in their culture today? Were they going to move to more laid-back areas of the country, because the cost of living is so high around here.

Her question didn’t seem way off, since lots of other people are clearly avoiding are area. New York State is losing population is such numbers, that they might lose Congressional house seats.

Or maybe it’s a boy thing. I was chatting with people on Twitter this morning about an article that said that boys are alienated from schools today. Now that I finished my marching band article (coming soon), I’m going to do a series of article about the college dropout problem. One facet of that discussion is that boys are dropping out at greater rates than girls.

There’s been some small buzz about Gen Z and college, but I think we’re going to start seeing more stats on this soon. I talked to a girl last year, who told me how annoyed she was by her college education, so maybe it’s not just a girl thing. I’m going to ask more questions about all this soon.

If all this is true, I’m not upset. A little rebellion every now and then is a good thing. If the status quo sucks, then I hope that young people say “fuck it” and cause disruption.

Internet Slow Down

Over the past 16 years that I’ve monitored traffic statistics on this blog, I’ve learned several things: 1. People have a hard time getting their brains back to work on Mondays, so they use the Internet to procrastinate for a while. 2. People use their summers for good stuff, like vacations, and unplug. 3. People are too busy to look at the Internet between mid-December and January 2nd. 4. But after January 2, they’re back looking at their screens.

Online writers, like myself, and editors are probably the ones that look at unplugged time as bad things. We demand your eyeballs! I had an article accepted in late December, but everyone decided to hold it until January 2. I have to do some serious cuts on it before then, so I should get in a couple of hours this morning.

Then I have to prep the kitchen for more cooking, because friends are stopping by. We’re doing a super casual dinner with Steve, my mom, and I all making something different at the same time. Short ribs and polenta are on the menu, along with lots of other little stuff. I can’t get too loaded, because I’m running a 5K tomorrow morning at 11am.

Here are some things that we’ve been talking about IRL:

Obama’s best of books, movies and TV shows of 2019. While I was watching Fleabag, I kept thinking, “I’m going to have watch this all for a second time.” It was THAT good. We’re in the midst of Watchmen and loving it. We also enjoyed: Working Moms, Game of Thrones, Schitt’s Creek, The Crown, and Russian Doll.

The crazy dude who stabbed people at the Rabbi’s house in Monsey is a big topic here, because we live about twenty minutes from Monsey. My brother, who is a local reporter, spends a lot of time covering similar communities in the area. Anti-semitism is disgusting and should be called out with equal vigor as other forms of prejudice.

Check out the house where Harry and Megan spent the holidays.

What are you all doing for New Year’s Eve?

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Hi guys. I’m probably taking the week off. Between cooking and entertaining, there isn’t going to be too much time to spend here. I’ll be back the following Monday with pictures of The Feast of Fishes, new dresses, and boys in suit jackets. And some thoughts about the impeachment, for sure.

Please have a joyous week whatever your holiday flavor! Tell me what you’re doing, please. I love hearing stories from the readers.

Parenting Philosophy

Here’s an except of my latest newsletter. (Sign up, folks!)

 When Steve and I started our family, we were still in graduate school. Having kids while we were working on our dissertations was not in the original plan, but it took a whole lot longer to get to the writing stage of our dissertation than expected. 
 
In Jonah’s first year, we alternated dissertating and baby minding (morning shift for me, afternoon for him). We kept paid work to a minimum in order to finish as quickly as possible; Steve taught one or two classes at the Bronx Community College, and I left my job at the policy center entirely. We survived on WIC checks and help from my folks. 
 
Since we couldn’t afford to go out or have a social life, we spent a lot of our downtime gazing down at our new baby imagining his future, as most new parents do. With (soon to be) PhDs parents, we figured that our blond babe would be a school super star. After all, we had hacked school, so we imagined that we could pass down those tricks to him and the doors to Harvard would open wide. A couple of years later, Ian came along, and we eventually learned that one of the downsides to assorted mating is an increased chance of autism. 
 
 As the kids moved through elementary school, Steve and I used our education to help the kids, but not in the way that we expected – the unexpected is a huge theme in my life. 


 


At some point, when Jonah was in middle school, we began to resent the massive presence that school had in our lives. Homework took up whole evenings. Entire weekends were spent on a soccer field or a track field or some other after-school activity. Our kid’s happiness was dependent on his grade on his history exam. Family conversations around the dinner table involved homework, tests, and grades. Forgotten homework would lead to angry conversations. Why were random and, often times, dumb assignments was having an impact on my relationship with my son?
 
Home schoolers often leave the public school system, because they don’t like the secular or liberal values that are passed onto the kids from the teachers. While the thought of spending years cooped up with my kids gives me hives, I do have a lot of sympathy for those who want to opt out of the system. Because the system is grinding kids up. It makes them jump over arbitrary hoops and assigns marks on their jumping skills. If they were learning worthwhile stuff, okay maybe, but lots of times, the things that were learning was worthless. 
 
Sometimes Jonah would bring home an assignment in social studies on a topic that Steve or I know super well, like the Federalist Papers or the interwar years in Germany. We would have to reteach those topics to Jonah, because we didn’t feel like the teacher knew his/her stuff. Lately, Ian’s been working on some really crappy writing organizer that’s supposed to teach him how to write paragraphs. I write for a living; no professional writers uses that sentence-evidence-sentence-evidence formula. 
 


In the end, we used our education to un-educate our kids. We were forced to offer a counter balance to the dystopian world of the modern teenager. We took both boys to do fun things that had absolutely nothing to do with achievement and winning. We went to museums, because we just like learning about stuff. We went for hikes, where we looked at snakes, and jumped over creeks. We wandered into restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, because eating new foods is fun. 
 
My education did come in handy, when we realized that Ian had autism, and I had to learn a whole bunch of special education laws really quickly, in order to advocate for him in the best way possible. I’ve also “scienced the hell out of” his unique brain, but that’s a story for another day. Mostly we used our educations to show the kids that there is a lot to learn outside of school and that learning new things was awesome and didn’t need a reward. 
 
The heavy shadow of the school building is felt strongest in upper middle class communities like ours. Stress and the heavy demands from school is a form of privilege in a way. But for the kids who are dealing with some toxic cocktails of stress and depression, it’s simply horrible. I know five and six year old kids who are having meltdowns in schools about stress right now. This is child abuse, plain and simple. 
 
Schools are products of their communities, so administrators are ratcheting up expectations and pressure in response to parent demands (and in response to town officials who want high school rankings to maintain real estate value). And communities like ours are scared shitless about the future for their kids. They’re worried that their kids aren’t going to get a ticket on the middle class train without perfect grades and an acceptance letter to a top college. They’re so worried about it that they’ll put themselves in massive debt to pay those private school tuitions, and send their kids to high schools that ruin them emotionally.
 
So, we pushed back. Not entirely. Our oldest got decent grades and was in a varsity sport, but we resisted school demands enough to be subtly subversive. We decided that it was more important than our kids were sane and happy, rather then they win a perfect SAT score. We tried to not let schools drive our family life. Because schools should be a side dish, not the main course of a family. 
 
Every family should have their own things that make them happy, that define them, that bind each other together. We like art museums and hikes, but for other families, it might mean Mets games or fishing trips or baking. I’m agnostic about those family definitions, as long as it’s not school. We can’t abdicate the joy and the creativity of raising a family to a government bureaucracy that won’t remember your kid’s name next year. 
 
My philosophy? Kids and family first. Schools last, by a lot. 

Blaming Parents For Inequality in Schools

In education circles, pundits are currently making two arguments simultaneously that don’t sync up.

First, school choice advocates have pointed towards Democratic political candidates who send their own kids to private schools, while publicly opposing charter schools, and accused them of hypocrisy. Elizabeth Warren, for example, sent her son to a private school in Texas.

You can’t have both – private schools for your own kids and public schools for everyone else — conservatives say. The left says, let’s ignore the choices of these political candidates, because these people are parents first, politicians second. It is possible to do the right thing at that moment for your kid, while advocating for better schools for everybody else.

Second, several articles lately have said that parents who use rating systems, like the Great Schools website, to help choose their homes, are… well… let’s just say it… basically racist. Great Schools evaluates schools based on state standardized test scores, number of kids taking AP classes, SAT scores, teacher-student ratios, and some other publicly available data. Then it assigns the school a grade from 1-10. The 10 schools tend to be in more affluent, white neighborhoods. The lower scoring schools tend to be in low income, urban areas.

In the old days, real estate agents used to steer white parents towards white neighborhoods and black parents towards black neighborhoods in a practice known as redlining. I’m not sure if I’ve written about this on the blog, but when we were little, and my parents moved from an apartment in the Bronx to our first home, my dad forced his real estate agent to show us a home in a neighborhood that had been redlined for black families. He bought the house, and we moved into a home next a lovely African-American family. The dad was a hotshot at IBM. But mostly stories like that didn’t happen.

Redlining was vilified, and the practice ended. Well, sort of. Now, parents self-segregate into towns that have people with similar incomes and use websites like Great Schools as a shortcut, when making those decisions. It’s de facto segregation, rather than de jure segregation. Still, not wonderful, but de facto segregation always been tolerated in our society, because of argument #1 above, which states that parents have to do what parents have to do. Also, it’s a matter of freedom, a value that is highly prized by Americans.

We moved to our current town about nine years ago, primarily because we were seeking better schools for our kids. We didn’t need a website to tell us that our town had a good school system, because anybody who lives in Northern New Jersey can tell you exactly which schools get their kids into college and which ones don’t.

Of course, there are limitations to those ranking systems and reputation. We’re in a town with very large schools, so that meant that oddballs like Ian are lost in the shuffle. Our school now ships him off to a smaller public school about 30 minutes away, where he is thriving. I think Jonah might have done better in a smaller school with less stress, too, but he survived.

Schools aren’t the only reason that we moved to this town. We like it well enough that we will probably stay here, after Ian finishes school. But schools were a major factor in our original decision to move to this town.

By moving here, it meant that we’re not in a school that could benefit from me — I’m a big mouth at school board meetings, and I volunteer a lot, too — and that my good test taking kids aren’t boosting test scores for that hypothetical town either. But, like Elizabeth Warren, I had to do what was right for my kids.

Now, I would just like greater consistency in edu-punditry. If we give Democratic politicians a hall pass for choosing private schools for their kids, then we can’t vilify middle class parents from making those same choices. Rather, I think we should look at ways to make schools in poorer neighborhoods more desirable, to offer parents positive reasons — better school facilities, higher quality teachers, unique school offerings — to move to low income, urban areas.

But we’re entering a dark time for schools. It’s clear that no more money is coming. Reforms aren’t working. Reformers are walking away. When that happens, parents who make rational choices for their kids become the bad guys. That’s just not cool.