Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A True Story

Overheard at a holiday party this week....

Her: (warmly) Hi!

Him: (somewhat hesitantly) Er, how do I know you?

Her: (a trifle irritated) You're my gynecologist.

Me: (complete silence - too many punchlines for words!)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What I Needed to Know I Learned In My Child’s Kindergarten

You know those quintessential kindergarten teachers you meet in picture books? They are always ready with a hug and a song, an endless supply of delightfully messy projects and deliciously nutritious snacks. They have a block area, a dress-up area, a big bucket of junk, and a welcoming lap. They have a reading corner crammed with colorful overstuffed pillows. They understand the importance of play. Mary Jo is one of those teachers, and then some. Her reading corner is a refinished antique claw foot bathtub which overflows with the comfiest pillows anyone’s ever snuggled into. That tub is where my daughters learned to love reading.

Because my girls attend a school with multi-age classrooms, their kindergarten teacher stayed with them for first and second grade as well. My daughters were born just over three years apart. Three years, three weeks, and two days to be exact. There isn’t any correct period of time between having children. Every age has its advantages and disadvantages, but the particular gap separating my daughters came with one unforeseen bonus. It allowed each of them to have the incomparable Mary Jo for three years straight. It presented me with six consecutive years to count my children’s blessings.

The result was six years of essential development in which my daughters built dynamic structures out of blocks, painted sensational pictures, created mysterious potions involving borax (mysterious because I am still not clear what borax is ever used for outside of potion-making), learned how to cooperate with others, and went on nature walks to discover the greatest joys in the simplest things. The ultimate result is that my girls love learning and, even in their relative advanced ages of twelve and nine, can’t wait to get to school every day.

Shortly after my youngest said her tearful goodbyes to Mary Jo at the end of second grade, she received a sweet letter from her teacher conveying beautiful wishes written personally for my daughter’s future, wishes which expressed knowledge of who my child is as no one else could have articulated. Truly touching sentiments which brought tears to my eyes that I will treasure forever.

Accompanying the letter was a newspaper article Mary Jo had found. It was about kids and summer time, how middle-class children today are formally scheduled for such a giant portion of their summer vacations – swim team, camps, classes on every subject under the sun. When they are home, they spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet and with video games instead of playing baseball in the sandlot. The author mourned the carefree days of her youth, playing in the street until nightfall and being allowed to get bored. This is a tricky issue.

I live in a large city but it is not just urban dwelling parents who worry about our children if we let them out of our sight. We know instinctively that they need to have the freedom to run and make their own mistakes and figure out the pecking order in the neighborhood. We also know that very real dangers may be lurking around the corner. I have a hard time allowing my children to walk the dog for more than a couple of blocks without taking a cellphone with them. That is not the world I grew up in, nor the one I want to live in.

I have rarely seen my children more happy than on a family vacation to Siesta Key, on Florida’s west coast. The beach was wide and mostly empty, of people and obstacles. We all loved time on the sands before sunset. My wife and I strolled and enjoyed the time to connect that only vacations can bring. Our girls ran wild for what seemed like miles. Naturally, or perhaps environmentally cautious, they would turn to check in once in a while, but essentially they had the freedom of the whole beach. It was a magical time and one we find hard to duplicate at home. The story serves as a good reminder to take more vacations, but also brings up an important question. How can we find a balance between protecting our kids and giving them space to grow up to become independent thinkers and adventurers?

A wise friend once told me that she thought it was important that children learn an essential lesson in life: how to be bored. The last time we moved house, while my wife and I were packing and organizing in the weeks leading up to the move, the kids got into the habit of watching more television than they were used to. From our point of view, it kept them quiet and out of the way. For them, it gave them some respite from the chaos.

After we moved to the new house, we didn’t get around to plugging in the TV for a few weeks. We were all busy creating our new spaces. Something else unexpected happened. My daughters re-discovered the joys of finding their way out of boredom without a television. They made a city out of moving boxes, they played cards together, they painted, they got to know the new kids in the neighborhood, they read books, they spent their time doing all the wholesome things we imagine kids did before the dawn of TV. When we eventually did connect the television, they were already in the habit of finding other things to do. They still don’t watch too often. They have discovered some child-friendly websites which keep their attention on the computer screen more than I would like, however they continue to create, to play, to read, and to run in the sprinklers.

In the summertime, my family tries to find a balance for the girls between camps, classes, and pure unadulterated downtime. Even I wouldn’t expect my children to entertain themselves for three whole months, time that was once set aside for them to help me bring in the harvest. However I do think they need to learn how to pull themselves up out of the well of boredom.

In the article that Mary Jo sent me, the author made a great point about how unstructured downtime allows the creative spirit to flow. Neale Donald Walsch makes the same point in his popular book Conversations with God. If we’re always busy, or spending our free time in front of a screen, how can we let the underlying seeds of our creativity begin to poke their heads into the light? Are we raising a generation devoid of poets, writers, actors and songwriters if we deny our children the space to find their way out of boredom?

As a part-time writer who has a full-time teaching job and a family, both of which require great chunks of my time, I struggle with these very questions. It’s not that I cannot make the time to write, but I find myself with very little downtime in which to simply cogitate, to let the ideas flow. If I structure my life so that I am continually busy, constantly keeping occupied by the list of things I have to do, I will never learn to find my way out of boredom. I will minimize the development of my creative abilities. The artist in me yearns for that kind of time. The responsible adult hates to give it up.

There is infinite wisdom in Robert Fulghum’s famous essay All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of his recommendations goes like this: “Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” I know Mary Jo agrees with this sentiment.

As teachers, she and I have talked about the difference between the work we are paid to do and the work done by our friends and relatives in the so-called ‘rat race’. My work was once dismissed by someone close to me who claimed that “those who can do, and those who can’t teach.” Baloney. Not only have I worked alongside incredibly talented teachers who could be outstanding artists, managers, engineers, and stockbrokers, I have personally trained former architects, lawyers, soldiers, and salespeople to become teachers. They wanted to contribute to the common good. The way Mary Jo describes it, those of us who teach may not be turning a profit, but we are affecting the future by molding young minds.

I know that Mary Jo has been instrumental in teaching my girls to live what Fulghum calls a balanced life. Under her guidance and tutelage, they learned some and thought some and drew some and painted some and sang some and danced some and played some and worked some every single day. They continue to do so. With the tragic cultural shift towards standardized testing and away from arts programs in our public schools, much of what Mary Jo teaches every day has been tossed by the wayside. It shouldn’t be. It is through the kind of learning that goes on in Mary Jo’s kindergarten, first, and second grade class that our collective future lies.

I want my children to know facts. I want them to know how to balance a checkbook, read the smallprint, speak a foreign language, and learn the lessons of history. I also want them to exist in the world as artists. I want them to create their way out of boredom, out of a problem, and out of the box. I want them to be independent thinkers and adventurers. I want them to work well with others, to find the joy in learning, and to love life.

I know that they have received an outstanding start at the hands of an unbelievably talented educator and friend. I am filled with awe and gratitude.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Science Fair

My sixth grader is beginning her first science fair project. It’s a vast undertaking, a mammoth enterprise incorporating multiple pieces and parts. There are forms to fill out and permissions to procure. Her teacher has given her a substantial heap of instructions. Rubrics abound. She feels excited and ready for the job. Not me. It brings up all my insecurities.

Science teachers scare me. At our school, we have wonderful science teachers. All women. Delightful people. They are talented and engaging teachers; they behave in public; you could even invite them out to dinner and they wouldn’t embarrass you. But there is something that sets me on edge.

It may be that they are just way smarter than I. They know the periodic table by heart, they can discuss the intricate details of oxidation and photosynthesis, they are immune to disgusting smells, they know the difference between Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and they are comfortable handling creepy animals.

One of the science teachers at my school keeps two tree pythons in a large glass tank in her classroom. She actually lets her students touch these insidious creatures. The kids encourage the snakes to crawl around their waists and necks and they even bring them outside at recess. There is nothing worse than minding my own business, supervising kids at play, nursing my steaming cup of coffee, and thinking about how much more fun it would be to be lying on a beach in Mexico, when some irksome middle schooler ambushes me with a deadly reptile, forked tongue inquisitively probing my outer ear. I think the science teacher puts them up to it.

I was never very successful at science at school. I think it was an early sign of my unwillingness to follow rules. I was taught that science required me to stay within the lines. It bade me adhere to strict principles, abide by specific guidelines. It forced me to acknowledge that certain laws were not negotiable. The liberal artist in me couldn’t deal. I wanted to create, to experiment without a hypothesis, to throw a whole bunch of hydrochloric acid into the beaker and see what would happen. My English and history teachers loved me. I always failed science tests.

My science teacher’s name in elementary boarding school was Mr. Parsons. He had one of those bushy mustaches which were so fetching back in the seventies. Mr. Parsons was a former policeman, a fact which clearly made him uniquely qualified to teach fourth grade chemistry. He used to hurl blackboard erasers at my head if I talked in class. The wooden kind. He was a sadistic son of a gun. Maybe this is why I didn’t learn very much science. I think Mr. Parsons was hired because the headmaster had a thing for his wife’s alabaster skin and winsome smile.

In high school, my chemistry teacher was Mr. Packard, he of the throbbingly large nose and the insipidly monotonous voice. Chemistry under his guidance only existed in formulas, never in action. I copied down pages upon pages of molecular formulas, but don’t recall touching any equipment with my hands.

Mr. Hinge taught physics. After one year, he gave it all up to become a priest. I never got the chance to ask him where he stood on evolution.

My biology teacher was Dr. Upshaw. While not a medical professional, he took it upon himself to perform exploratory examinations on all incoming freshmen. Why I am not quite sure, but one was trained not to ask such questions in English boarding schools. Dr. Upshaw was a prober and pronounced the letter “s” as “sh”. “Looshen your troushersh” is a phrase I will not readily forget.

But that is all in the past. Thirty years later, I am learning to become open-minded about science. My daughter and her lab partner are encouraged to think outside the box, to design their own experiments based on what they find interesting. They are conducting a study of whether exercise affects short-term memory. This is cool stuff. I’m hoping it will shed light on the fact that the longer I go between visits to the gym, the harder it is to find my car keys. I have been assuming that it was just age, but there may be method behind my madness.

The budding scientists are developing an excellent understanding of the scientific process which will set them in good stead as they discover the wider world. They are holding themselves accountable and having to keep excellent records, traits from which I could learn as tax day rolls around each year. They have to discuss their results and be open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Dr. Upshaw needed a strong dose of that. They also get to design a really eye-catching poster – with colorful accents, intriguing vocabulary, appealing pictures, and attractive graphs.

My daughter’s science teachers are doing amazing work. Science is teaching her to think for herself, to use her resources wisely, and to be inquisitive about her world. Where was that when I was in school?