For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.

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Grooming (Tale One)

I always seem to find out about tasks that I should be doing as a parent way too late.

Last December, Jonah returned from school for a month-long break. He spent the first three or four days mostly horizontal in bed. Which was FINE by me. Every college kid needs a bit of recovery after a long semester. Then there were the holidays and grandparents to entertain, so he was busy with family stuff.

After that, he had almost three weeks of nothing to do other than hang out with friends, go to the gym, and get in my way while I was doing my work. There wasn’t enough time to get a job. Maybe I yelled at him to clean his room or read a book, but it was mostly just downtime. I wasn’t terribly concerned though. I seem to remember that I spent my winter breaks from college being mostly slothful.

Turns out college kids around here don’t waste time anymore. Around the last week of that break, my friends starting asking me whether Jonah had used the break to find a summer internship or was taking a quick online class. Uh… what?

One friend told me that her daughter had used that time to line up interviews with alumni from her school. Every college now has a website of alumni who are open to giving students informational meetings. They host groups of students, tell them about their jobs, give tours, and then the students discretely leave their resumes on the worker’s desks with the hope — fingers crossed — that someone will call for an unpaid internship over the summer.

When I was in college, I worked as a secretary’s assistant in a local solenoid valve company. No, no, that’s not done any more. Your first job has to be at a fancy company in Manhattan. Jonah’s summers spent waiting tables are not resume-worthy. And in order to get those jobs, it’s necessary to pound the pavement all through January.

Now, I don’t mean to be judgy about kids getting internships and having a fully professional resume before they graduate from college. That’s just the new normal. But you know what was interesting about all those conversations with my friends? They all helped their kids with the task.

The parents found out about the alumni websites through the college’s parents newsletter. They told their kids to look on it. They helped them navigate the websites. They helped them create resumes. They nagged them to get out of bed and find an internship. They told them that they didn’t need a job to bring in spending money for school. The parents arranged the whole thing.

Grooming children to become UMC professionals is a Herculean task. It starts in utero and doesn’t end until the mid-20s. (This is just one tale. I have more.) How much of it is bullshit? I’m not sure. Maybe in ten years, I can line up Jonah with his friends – some have parents who are more clueless than we are and others have parents who actually read the parent newsletter — and see who’s successful and who’s happy (not necessarily the same thing.)

I’m a little suspicious about over-prepping kids for a career. I’m a huge believer in the benefits of downtime and exploration and random goofiness with friends. I think it’s good to be bored for a while. But do I believe in those values enough to let my kid sit on the sideline again next January break? Or will I also be surfing the God-damned alumni website for potential job prospects for my kid? I’m not sure.

Why Parents Help Their College Students

At Saturday’s luncheon to celebrate my niece’s Confirmation, my brother-in-law discussed a recent business trip to check out a building in Florida that had been designed by his firm. “Boy, do they do shoddy construction work in Florida,” he said.

“How can you tell that the construction is bad”, I asked. “Don’t you have to look behind the sheet rock to really know if the building is badly built?”

“Nah, I can just walk through the building and see all the problems.”

My brother in law has been an architect at one of the top companies in the world for nearly 35 years. Something like a misaligned electrical socket, which would totally slip by me, speaks volumes to him.

I was a student, a researcher, and a professor in higher ed for 25 years. My husband, my father, and nearly all of my friends are or were in the business for years. I, too, can spot shoddy work a mile away; instead of misaligned electrical sockets, I see adjuncts.

In my last post, commenter “scantee” speculates that UMC parents help out their college-aged children because of economic panic. That is very much true. There are a host of other reasons, too, including better technology. I wrote an article about parent involvement in college for The Atlantic a couple of years ago. Another reason that I didn’t write about in that article and didn’t realize until I sent my kid away to college is that college ain’t what it used to be.

I send my kid to one of those massive, 30,000 undergraduate public colleges. The college is ranked very highly, and it’s nearly 1/3 of the price of the similarly ranked private schools. All good things. But the way that the school keeps that price low is by skimping on workers.

My kid is finishing off his second year of college. He’s had almost no classes yet where he’s had a tenured or tenured track professor who is able to remember the students’ names. Most of his classes have been in large lecture halls with hundreds of students with a big name in the front of the room. The discussion sections are led by rotating grad students and adjuncts who are intellectually and financially insecure. A few of his classes have been small classes led by adjuncts. One was so bad that she was fired in the middle of the semester. Two of his classes have been hybrids, meaning that they mostly happen online.

Most of the classes have been very academically rigorous. I have no complaints with the material that he’s been covered in his classes. Expectations for the students are very high. The problem is mostly the lack of connections between teachers and students. No chit-chat in the hallway about books or the weather. No role models. I hear that those connections happen in one’s senior year when the students take seminars, but that’s a long way away.

Administration is even worse. The first semester, he went to academic advisement to help him register for classes. They put him in the wrong Physics class, so that first week, he had to scramble to add/drop a class and return books.

They’ve set up such a complicated system for gen ed requirements that going to advisement is almost mandatory. So, the next time he needed help with knowing which classes would satisfy the gen ed requirements, I drove down to the school to see what was what. I let him lead the meeting, but I wanted to be there to make sure he asked the right questions and to make sure that mistakes didn’t happen again.

Ugh. The woman was adept at telling my kid which class satisfied which requirements, but she couldn’t go beyond that. Jonah said he was interested in combining his interests in science and politics. What did she suggest? She couldn’t tell him the difference between the majors of public policy, political science, and environmental policy. She told him to talk with three separate advisors in those three different departments in three separate schools within the college.

Setting up times to talk with those advisors was also a hassle, because they were each located on different campuses there. (There are five campuses at his school, which can only be reached with a twenty minute bus ride.) And then each needed an appointment. It could take two weeks for Jonah to get the answer to his very simple question about majors, so I called a buddy in the policy department at his school, and she told me what was what.

I’ve decided that his school has shoddy construction, but we like the price. So, I step in when needed to handle the problems with instruction and advisement. And it’s not only my kid who has had problems. I occasionally am put on the cellphone to answer pol sci questions from his friends and housemates. Only about half of boys at his school graduate in four years. It takes a long time to navigate that system.

Well, this blog post is long enough and I want to get to the gym. More tomorrow.

Parents and Privilege

Jonah is in the midst of high misery and despair that is Finals Week. He’s a smart kid with bad study skills, a cellphone of distractions, and a mediocre public school education. Sometimes just being smart is good enough for him. Sometimes those other issues bring him down.

This semester, he’s been trying out a new major, political science. He took Introduction to International Relations last semester and got a good grade without any help from me, so we were playing around with the idea of combining his interest with science with political science. So, he signed up for two more pol sci classes this semester. Turns out that I’ve taught both of those classes before.

As I’ve said, political sciences classes are pretty much the same from school to school, and haven’t changed much since my dad started teaching those classes back in the mid-1960s. Plato is always Plato. The powers of the presidency have been the same since FDR. So, when he called to share his review guide for the American final, I looked at it and told him what to study. I told him what the final essay question was probably going to be.

I spent some time worrying about whether I should be counseling him on his classes or how much I should edit his essays for political theory. In the end, I gave him as much as help as I would any student coming into a professor’s office hours. I wouldn’t write his introduction to his paper on MLK for him, but I did make the sentences clearer and told him when he had misunderstood the essay prompt. I certainly couldn’t go into the exam room and take his final exam for him. He had to do all the readings. He had to do all the memorization. His essays had to be his own work.

Still, I helped. And I worried that it might be wrong. What about all those kids in his classes who didn’t have parents with PhDs? Did he have an unfair advantage?

One of the concepts that he has to tackle in his theory exam tomorrow is the notion of fairness. The idea that all humans should start at the same place on the starting block and that the person who crosses the finish line first is the person with most talents and who put in the most effort. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? My kid is starting a race about 200 yards ahead of the other students.

Ian has been doing really well with math. In the past couple of years, he’s gone from the lowest level of special ed math class to the medium level to a regular class. This never happens, and the public school doesn’t quite know what to do with him.

He’s in Algebra I right now, but he’s so far advanced that we hired a tutor to teach him Algebra II at our dining room table on Saturday mornings. I’m sure the school won’t let him skip a grade, so he’ll have to study Algebra II with the other kids next year, and I guess his tutor will keep going onto Trig or Calculus.

Again, Ian is advancing because of us. Yes, he has a talent and an incredible work ethic, but he’s getting this opportunity and bypassing the regular hoops that other kids have to deal with, because we can afford to make our rules.

It’s impossible to equalize parenting. Even if every child in the country attended the exact same school with the exact same curriculum and resources, the secret sauce of education — parents with time, money, and education — can never be equalized. I can’t stop helping my kids with their homework or showing up at their band concerts or reminding them that a paragraph can’t have twelve sentences. I stop myself from crossing a line that I’ve set for myself, and my kids certainly tell me to back off when I go too far, but I’m still there.

The elite high schools in New York City are in the midst of a rebellion, because only seven African-American kids were admitted to elite science schools for next fall. School admissions are based on the results of one standardized exam. Kids with parents who get them to the test prep classes are doing better than everyone else.

NYC schools are trying to figure out how to make the system more fair. Do they get rid of the test altogether? Do they create quota-system? Do they dismantle the whole system of elite high schools? And it’s all because of the parents and the test prep classes.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it’s impossible to tell a parent not to help. While I worry about equity, at the same time, I’m going to drill Jonah on the social contract in Rousseau, and I’m going to get Ian extra math help.

District 75: ‘The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’

Almost 30 years ago, I walked into my class of 12 teenagers with acute disabilities in a District 75 school in the South Bronx feeling young and nervous. I had no formal training as a special education teacher, just a master’s degree in political theory and an emergency teaching certificate from New York City.

My students included Jason and Jorge, both of whom had learning disabilities and degenerative neurological disorders. They have likely passed away by now. Vanessa was a sassy 18-year-old with Down syndrome. Nearly blind and in a wheelchair, Robert loved to show off his autistic splinter skill of calculating which day of the week your birthday would fall on in five or 10 years. Sharonne, who wore a helmet, was so rattled by daily grand mal seizures that she was never able to remember my name.

My class was the highest functioning in the school.

On top of severe neurological, cognitive, and physical disabilities, my students also had all the challenges that go along with living in a high-poverty urban community. Every Monday morning, we fed children bowls of cereal we brought from home because many didn’t get enough food over the weekend. Classroom books and supplies were decades-old hand-me-downs from the previous teacher. Sometimes Jorge, who was in a wheelchair, couldn’t come to school because drug dealers had knocked out the elevators in his high-rise public housing building.

More here

Many Families Aren’t Sending Their Kids to Small Liberal Arts Colleges Anymore. Mine Isn’t, Either. Here’s Why

college with clocktower

In January, two small liberal arts colleges, Green Mountain College in Vermont and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, announced that they were going to close or merge with other schools. They joined the ranks of other small schools that have closed in recent years, such as Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, and Marygrove College in Detroit. Sweet Briar College in Virginia was flatlining in 2015 before being resuscitated from certain death, thanks to extreme fundraising efforts by alumnae.

Small private schools suffer from a multitude of problems, including endowments that are tangled in strings, a declining interest in liberal arts, a decreasing pool of college-age kids, competition from online education, and growing administrative expenses. But most importantly, they can’t get families like mine to send their kids to their schools. They don’t have enough students who can pay full freight and are interested in the slower pace of a small liberal arts campus.

More here

Travel and Trees

I finished tying up all the loose ends on some malingering articles just in time for next week’s trip to North Carolina. In fact, I finished a couple of days earlier than I expected, so I’ve been using the past two days to get caught up on house and family chores.

I tackled the vacation-work travel folder yesterday and typed up itineraries, booked a train, and fixed the frequent flier miles. We actually haven’t gone anywhere that requires a plane for ages, so the frequent flier situation required talking with somebody in Bangalore to get everything up to date.

We’re taking our first European vacation this summer, since our honeymoon. 22 years. Steve and I travelled extensively in Europe before we had kids. He lived in Austria for a year and student-taught in Germany. I had an English boyfriend at one point and a sister in Madrid. But then kids came, so we found ourselves on a lazy river in Orlando Florida instead of a cobblestone street in Florence.

No regrets. The lazy river was fun, too.

This July, we’re going to London, Edinburgh, and Inverness for ten days, and am totally psyched. We’re staying in adorable airbnbs in Scotland, which is the only way to travel with two nearly adult boys. They need their own rooms, and we need ours.

Before we go there, I need to finish more research on my odd, odd family tree. I must find out which side they were on at Culloden, so I can imagine them either under a headstone or executing officers.

I’ve still been haphazardly researching my family tree. The Fitzgerald side is complicated because there were about four hundred years, where they only seemed to have four names for their sons — Garrett, William, Maurice, or Edmund. And there’s a mash of family legend polluting the research of others on the Internet. I need some quality time to read through the peerage charts to see who’s who. But in the meantime, I’ve been reading some wikipedia entries on some of more colorful cousins.

There’s Lord Edward FitzGerald (1763-1798), an Irish revolutionary, who married Pamela, the illegitimate daughter of Louis Phillippe II, the Duke of Orleans. He died while resisting arrest for treason. And there’s his mom – Emily FitzGerald (1731-1814), who was sleeping with her kids’ tutor. DNA tests have shown that Lord Edward’s dad was really the eccentric tutor, not the Irish Duke. The Scottish side is equally crazy; I need to get this sorted out before we go.

We’re planning on making travel a bigger part of our lives. I even bought color coded packing cubes (I love OCD travel supplies). Getting older sucks in so many ways, but having the time and the resources to travel again, is definitely a perk.