Throwback Thursday: I swear

For the past month or so, our girls have had a bit of an obsession with swear words. They’re not using them in everyday conversation (not that I’m aware of, anyway), but it’s clear that they have recently been introduced to a whole bunch of “bad” words (at school? with friends? I honestly don’t know…) and they’re finding this knowledge fascinating.

We haven’t had an issue with curse words (aside from a small misunderstanding a couple of years ago) since the girls were little – but, hoo boy, that was a good time…

It was 2008 and Annie was approximately 18 months old when, as I was changing her diaper, I heard her mutter something that sounded like, “fuggin’.” There was a definite g-sound in the middle of that word – not a k-sound – so it was a bit ambiguous; perhaps I’d misunderstood. Knowing that if I made a big deal out of any word, and especially if I freaked out over it, it would instantly become more attractive to her, I decided to approach things delicately.

Um, sweetie, what did you just say?

“Fuggin’!”

Hm. Wow. Where did you hear that word?

“Daddy say, ‘fuggin’ diaper.'”

Well, then. Not so ambiguous anymore.
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Annie, 18 months

I attempted to reason with her and explain that that wasn’t a nice word, but given that she was so little, it wasn’t easy to “reason” with her. The first time she said fuggin’ while we were out and about, it caught me so off-guard, I responded quickly and animatedly — which, as everyone knows, is the surest way to guarantee that your toddler will continue his or her inappropriate behavior. After all, what’s more fun than getting a rise out of your parents? NOTHING, really.

“Reasoning” with her hadn’t worked, nor had becoming upset, nor had reprimanding her; if anything, they made things worse. So I decided that the best course of action would be to ignore her entirely when she said that word so that it would lose its appeal all together and she’d just forget about it. My plan worked… but it would take a good four months.

In the meantime, Annie tested out fuggin’ everywhere she could. She said it while we were running errands. She said it while picking Ella up from preschool. When cashiers at the grocery store would smile at my adorable cherub all buckled into the seat on the shopping cart and ask her name, she would smile right back and say, “My name is Annie. FUGGIN’!!” When a single utterance wouldn’t do, she took to repeating the word over and over – at top volume, of course. One time, we blasted into the children’s section of the library with her running ahead, yelling FUGGIN’! FUGGIN’! FUGGIN’! at the top of her lungs.

And all the while, I looked like an absolute lunatic because I was (seemingly) doing nothing to prevent or remedy the situation. Yup, that’s my kid – the one screaming obscenities. Doesn’t bother me a bit. Isn’t she darling?
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FUGGIN’!!!

Parenting is a blast, y’all.

After months of receiving absolutely zero attention for her potty-mouthed antics, Annie gave up. Fuggin’ left her vocabulary as quickly as it entered; I didn’t hear her or Ella utter another swear (or almost-swear) word for years.

The allure of these illicit words is clearly growing, however, for both of our girls. Just this past weekend, our neighbor (who is a year older than Ella) rather gleefully informed us that Ella and Annie know all the swear words. “Yeah!” her little brother chimed in, eyes wide. “They know the d-word and the h-word and the f-word and the s-word and the c-word and the h-word and…” This would have been charming in and of itself, but it was made even more so because the conversation was had in front of our four and six year-old neighbors – and their parents.

Our daughters are awesome role models. So glad you moved next door.
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And one of Ella in 2008, age three, for good measure.
Would this face ever say anything inappropriate??

Nick and I quickly ended the conversation, telling the girls we’d discuss this later, but part of me wanted to clarify things a bit. How were you using these words? Were they actually a part of your conversation, or were you just naming them – like calling out Jolly Rancher flavors? Were you quizzing one another? Did you say them to our young neighbors?? And wait a minute – how did our other neighbors know for sure that you knew what the swear words were… unless they knew them all, too???

(Also – what do you think the c-word is? ‘Cause I didn’t learn the “real” c-word till I was, like, twenty.)

Eventually, we had a talk with our girls and explained that we absolutely understood the allure of saying these words. “But mom,” they said, “they’re just so funny!” There’s something thrilling about it; I get it. (I distinctly remember being in second grade and learning all of the words to “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” from the musical “Cats” [I’m sure that this level of geekdom surprises no one] where one of the lines is, “Have you been an alumnus of heaven and hell?” I had a friend at the time whose mom [or grandma; that part of my memory is fuzzy] absolutely despised swear words and remember thinking it would be an absolute hoot to be over at my friend’s house and sing that line from “Jellicle Cats” right in front of her mom – so that then I could respond innocently, “But Mrs. So and So — it’s just a line from a song in ‘Cats’!” and watch her eyes bug out when she realized I wasn’t swearing but practicing art. MAN, did I know how to push boundaries!)

So, I understand about curse words; I really do. I know that my girls will test them out, that they’ll say them with friends, that they’ll whisper them in corners. I also know that they’re both such straight arrows, sharing swear words with friends is pretty daring; it’s not like we caught them stealing or smoking underneath the bleachers.

Still, we explained, there’s a time and a place for those words — and saying them in front of our four and six year-old neighbor is not okay. They agreed and said they wouldn’t.
So far, so good… although I know that surely we’ll cross this road again.

Shit, man. Kids say the darndest fuggin’ things.

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We Have Been Chopped

If there’s one thing that can be said about our family, it’s that we love to eat. (It could also be said that we tend to sing a lot and that we always have dog hair on our clothes, but eating is more fun.) Rather conveniently, we also love to cook — all four of us. One of our favorite things to do together is watch cooking and baking shows, from Cake Boss to Restaurant: Impossible to The Next Food Network Star to MasterChef Junior.
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We stumbled upon Cake Boss in 2010 before the show’s popularity skyrocketed; the day we visited Carlo’s with my mom and stepdad, Buddy flew to Chicago to be on Oprah… and everything changed!
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Naturally, the girls are blurry so that the baked goods could be in focus…

We have also logged a lot of time watching Chopped, the Food Network show where the four contestants receive baskets containing “mystery ingredients” (i.e. rice cereal, squid, jelly beans, and cucumbers), all of which need to be incorporated into their final dishes to be presented to the judges… within 20 or 30 minutes. The moment those baskets are opened, we four backseat chefs get to work calling out what we think could/should be done with the ingredients, oohing and ahhhing and gasping and groaning at the chefs’ crazy and awe-inspiring creations.

Although Annie and Ella are very comfortable in the kitchen and, for years now, have been combining… unusual… foods just for the fun of it, they have long opined that it would be truly great to participate in their own version of Chopped — to be given mystery ingredients and then to create something, not only edible but delicious, out of them.

A good many years back, my dad and GrandMeg had gotten to know one of the chefs on Kiawah Island. Eventually, Chef Patrick left the restaurant business to focus on a more entrepreneurial, private chef approach; since then, he’s made several fabulicious meals at my dad and Meg’s house (on Kiawah) for special occasions. For Christmas this year, my dad and Meg very generously “gave” us dinner with Chef Patrick.

Normally when Patrick does his private chef thing, he does all the cooking; occasionally, he gives basic cooking lessons. Seeing that we were going to be in close quarters with a top notch chef who might be able to really teach us a thing or two beyond what we already know, I sent Meg the following email proposing something a little bit different:

When we watch these cooking shows, what impresses us the most is how the chefs are able to think on their feet, how they understand foods and flavors and how to work with the ingredients to create delicious dishes with amazing flavors… We can cook any recipe well; we want more!
So, THAT’S what we’d like to learn. How food works. What ingredients go well together and why? What basic sauces go with what foods, and how do we make them on the fly? What are some simple ways to elevate basic meals to something more flavorful? If we’re getting dinner on the table in a hurry, how can we mix things up so that it tastes different even if we’re pressed for time and using more or less the same ingredients?
So, you know… Essentially Culinary School 101. 😉
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Meg then forwarded my rather, um, broad request to Patrick, who responded like this:
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I think a great place to start would be stocks, sauces and soups and then go into flavor pairings. We could cover the different areas of taste buds on the tongue which make different combinations of food taste so good together… Also covering ingredients you may have sitting in the pantry which could be used to whip up or add flavor to a dinner would be great.
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We could also get the creative juices going with a couple of surprise baskets with different ingredients in them like the show Chopped and see what y’all can come up with for dinner. You could all decide what you could make for dinner with whatever is in the basket. Of course it will be more like some blue plastic boxes. Sounds like fun to me!!
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I was dumbfounded. We get to pretend like we’re on Chopped? But with a real, live, uber-talented chef to guide us? Are you freaking kidding me?? When I read the email to Ella and Annie, they could barely contain their excitement. DREAMS DO COME TRUE, Y’ALL!
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For the first few days of our spring break, we simply took in Kiawah and Charleston, like always, and enjoyed hanging out with family… but really, we were barely containing our excitement for our dinner with Patrick. When at last the day arrived, Chef Patrick showed up and, as promised, lugged in several blue plastic boxes and set them on the counter. Once he’d gotten everything ready, he invited the girls to do the unveiling; they were more than happy to oblige.
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One box held proteins – chicken, sausage, etc. The others held vegetables, fruits, and starches – squash, carrots, parsnips, peppers, white and sweet potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, kiwis, fresh herbs. Additionally, like the contestants on the show, we could help ourselves to the “pantry” – a section of the counter on which Patrick had spread out staples like pasta, garlic, onions, cream, salt and pepper, chicken stock, etc.
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As soon as they looked everything over, both girls immediately had ideas about what to make. Rather than just listen to their thoughts, Patrick had the (genius) idea of inviting them to draw their finished dishes so they could really envision their creations as actual meals instead of just ingredients.
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Next, he checked out their illustrations asked them to describe their “recipes” while he wrote down the key ingredients.
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Yes, that coat does have the Super Bowl insignia on it because Patrick was one of the chefs at this year’s game. So, that’s not cool or anything…
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Once he’d gotten a feel for what the girls wanted, the fun really began. See, ’cause while their ideas were very original and creative, they weren’t necessarily… doable… in their original form. Not wanting to disappoint or discourage them, Patrick considered their suggestions and, working with each girl, tweaked them into something more polished.
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Or, in other words, the tables were turned and suddenly Chef Patrick became the Chopped contestant. Take these random ingredients and make something amazing out them HAHAHA GOOD LUCK.
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Annie’s idea was fairly simple: chicken and pasta with mushrooms and red wine. With Patrick’s guidance, they agreed upon pasta with grilled chicken and mushrooms in a sundried tomato, pesto, and red wine sauce.
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Annie’s drawing was… interesting…
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Ella’s idea was a bit more out of the box. Originally, she envisioned “sausage and potatoes with basil-stuffed raspberries.” After much discussion, with Patrick gently trying to figure out how the heck to incorporate raspberries with the sausage, he and Ella decided on Italian sausage and potato cakes with a raspberry basil balsamic glaze.
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You’ll notice the raspberry glaze drizzled nicely around the outside of Ella’s plate…
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Then it was time to get to work. Although Patrick absolutely ran the show, we helped out in every way that we could – chopping vegetables, chiffonading basil (I don’t know if you can  add -ing to chiffonade but I’m doing it anyway because it sounds way more chef-y to be “chiffonading basil”), browning sausage, boiling potatoes, cutting chicken. When we got to forming the potato cakes (a combination of Italian sausage, white potatoes, onions, basil, and olive oil), we were really winging it – even Patrick admitted he’d never attempted anything like this before, so there was little “advice” to be given.
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Over the course of the several hours it took to pull everything together, Annie and Ella grew antsy and would occasionally wander away to play. As their dishes were nearing completion, we called them back in to show them how things were looking — that Chef Patrick was nearly finished with turning their ideas into a real, honest-to-goodness dinner.
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Watching Patrick add salt to the sauce for the pasta.
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Checking out the nearly-complete raspberry glaze.
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Finally, after an evening of thinking and prepping and cooking, everything was ready. We set the table, gathered up the two main courses, and sat down, anxious to see if the final dishes would be anything beyond merely edible.
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Annie’s pasta with chicken and mushrooms in a sundried tomato, pesto, and red wine sauce. (Obviously, I’m not a food photographer… Carry on…)kiawah cooking15Ella’s Italian sausage and potato cakes (raspberry basil balsamic glaze to the side).
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You guys? They were more than merely edible. They were delicious.
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The pasta was light and fresh but filling. The sausage-potato cakes, the ones that Ella and Chef Patrick invented on the spot and then had to actually make doable? SO. FREAKIN’ GOOD. The potato and the sausage combined beautifully, the texture was just right, and the onions and basil added the perfect amount of flavor; even the raspberry sauce was fabulous, a sweet-ish (but not too sweet) complement to the saltiness of the cakes. We were in heaven; when Patrick joined us (we insisted that he eat with us because duh), he agreed, somewhat stunned, that their collaboration had turned out pretty damned well.
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Just a wee bit proud of herself… 
Oh! And you can see the raspberry sauce in the tureen, too.kiawah cooking17Thumbs up!
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After dinner, Annie helped Chef Patrick assemble two super-easy pudding fruit tarts. They, like the main courses, were absolutely dee-lish.
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It got late, so she changed into her jammies…
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It’s a month later and still we can hardly believe it: our girls created recipes off the top of their heads (recipes that were inspired by Chopped-style baskets!) and then a world-class chef took their ideas and turned them into dinner. CHEF PATRICK MADE THEIR RECIPES! It’s like we sent an idea to JK Rowling and she wrote a story based on our thoughts! Holy crap, people!!
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Or, at Annie succinctly put it:
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They say that, if you’re aiming to cultivate happiness, focus on experiences and not things; you’ll soon grow tired of the latest gadget, but the memories you make while doing something incredible will provide you with lifelong joy. I can say, without a doubt, that the memories of our evening spent watching Patrick make magic (and dinner!) with our girls will continue bringing us happiness for – well, pretty much forever. How unbelievably fortunate we are, and how grateful we are to Chef Patrick (and my dad and Meg) for making it so!
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We have been Chopped… in the best possible way.

Finding my religion

I am not really what you’d call religious.

We do celebrate Christian religious holidays like Christmas and Easter – but we also eat latkes and spin dreidels during Hanukkah, just because we enjoy it. Ella and Annie were baptized in our wonderful, little Episcopal church back in Westchester; Ella’s (phenomenal) godparents are Jewish. I took the girls to church weekly for years, but I’ve never read the Bible. In fact, I’m unfamiliar with most biblical stories unless they’ve worked their way into popular lexicon.

I would probably be a great People magazine Christian. “Joseph’s Eleven Brothers: Where Are They Now?”

With that being said, religions have always fascinated me, both from a personal/ spiritual and a historical/ anthropological perspective. Theology is really cool; understanding the beliefs of different religions is something I believe in, deeply.

Still, I haven’t exactly felt that belief, myself. I mean, I know that I believe – in God, in Jesus – but it’s never really moved me. I really wish it would.

I want to figure out how to make sense of my liberal social politics, my love of science, the voices of my friends who feel that people who believe in God are either stupid or blind, my negative experiences with organized religion… but also that part inside of me that just knows there’s something more out there, that does believe in God, that wants to reconcile that belief with all the rest of the stuff I’m lugging around.

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Cyclops Easter egg!
I know this photo seems oddly out of place; I think it’ll make more sense in a minute…

Basically, I want to attend a church run by Anne LamottGlennon Doyle Melton, and maybe Brené Brown, too. These women rock my world. They curse. They openly support gay rights. They don’t take the Bible literally. They doubt. They wonder. They encourage and enlighten and broaden and brighten and inspire, not to mention that they’re freakin’ hilarious. BUT ALSO they feel super-tight with God and Jesus and don’t feel weird about saying so. I want me some of THAT religion.

Alas, these three amazing women live nowhere near me… but I’ve found the spirit of their messages in the new little start-up church that I’ve been attending since October, Sophia Community. Every week, we gather together, read from the liturgy, and discuss it (“Um, what the heck is going on here? Why on earth would this be in the Bible? I really don’t like this passage.”). We wrestle with finding meaning in the words, even though we don’t take them literally. We pray, hard. It’s a completely safe space; every viewpoint is encouraged. There are no right answers, and I have loved every minute of it.

Still, I’ve been waiting for the Big Moment — I mean, I’ve been reading biblical passages, I’ve been talking and thinking and opening my mind! I am talking about Jesus and it doesn’t feel totally weird!!! Surely my spiritual epiphany is just around the corner. COME AND GET ME, GOD!

Well, it’s been a lot of months and no bolts of lightning. Damn it.

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Just one more sentence and these photos will make sense, I promise…

When my grandma asked us if we were going to church on Easter (AH HA!) morning, I quickly answered (maybe a little too quickly) that we were not. We used to for the sake of “tradition,” but when the girls began absolutely dreading the service and Easter morning became a combination of wrestling match meets bribery meets hysterical sobbing, I decided that the church traditions I really enjoyed on Easter were a) the music and b) wearing new clothes. Forcing Ella and Annie to sit through the service by shoving jelly beans in their mouths and threatening to take away their Easter baskets if they didn’t stop braiding the bookmarks in the hymnals just didn’t feel right… so we stopped going.

Instead, for the past several years, I’ve pulled up the “Hallelujah Chorus” on YouTube and we’ve all slapped on new duds on our way to brunch and all has been right with the world.

Well, almost all. A lot of people seem to get really excited about Easter – like really, really excited. They exude this JOY about it that seems to go beyond excitement over Cadbury caramel eggs (it must be caramel; the creme eggs are gross). I, myself, get pretty psyched about those eggs and I love watching my girls with their baskets… but true joy at Easter has been basically nonexistent for me.

This year, especially with all of my new Jesus knowledge, I wanted to find Easter joy. Joy is fun. Joy is feeling. I wanted to FEEL Easter.

So, after the girls had gone to bed the night before the big day, I decided to haul my Bible and, for the first time ever, read the four New Testament accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection. The stories were interesting enough (I honestly had no idea that they were completely different from one another; I mean, it’s the same story four times – how different can it be? HAHAHA WRONG) and I was genuinely bummed out by the way that Jesus died, but I wasn’t moved. No joy for me.

When Easter morning came around, the girls waited patiently for us to come downstairs so that they could earn their eggs. Yes, that’s the right word – earn. The previous day, Nick and I had told them that we didn’t have the energy to create an elaborate scavenger hunt for their eggs and baskets (as we did last year), but we could either hide their eggs or they could earn them. To our surprise, they chose B: earning their eggs.

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Nick and I hemmed and hawed over whether or not to make the tasks fun/silly or actual work. In the end, we chose a combination of both… with heavy emphasis on the silly… and wrote them down on little cards, to be chosen at random in the morning.

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This is what awaited the girls when they came downstairs: a bowl with tasks to earn their eggs, the eggs themselves (one completed task = one egg), small baskets in which to put their eggs, and one final egg each that told them it was time to go find their actual baskets.

And so, on Easter morning, Annie and Ella sang to us, played the piano, made our bed (holla!), engaged in some Harry Potter trivia, cleaned the kitchen floor (for real), and played cards in order to get their eggs and baskets. As we dealt the fourth hand (’cause nothing says “He is risen” more than competitive card games), Nick and I looked at one another and said, “This is already the best Easter ever!”
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Giggling over Cad (a family card game).

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An Easter duet (okay, so it was “Heart and Soul,” but it totally captured the exuberant spirit of the day).


Even the more “serious” tasks were met with gleeful enthusiasm… Chocolate and presents are powerful bribes motivators, y’all!

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We dyed eggs with my grandma, listened to “The Hallelujah Chorus,” got all fancied up, and went to brunch; we were totally knocking this Easter out of the park. Then, on our way home from the restaurant, the girls leaned forward in the car and said, “Ummm… So, what is Easter again?”

You’d have thought, after being dragged to church all those years, something would have stuck. Apparently not. (Except the jelly beans.)

Have you ever tried to explain Easter to young kids? Holy crap – it is THE CREEPIEST story EVER. Murder… coming back from the dead… walking around, talking to people… HOW WEIRD IS THAT?!?! Jesus is basically a zombie and everyone thinks it’s great. Let’s celebrate by dyeing eggs! Oh, and a bunny came to the house last night and dropped off a basket! Yay, Easter!!

So I told Ella and Annie the story, they nodded their heads (“Oh, right… Jesus came back from the dead… I remember now…”), but I could see that, even though they’d heard me, it wasn’t making any sense. They didn’t get why Easter was so special.

I understood. I mean, for the past 39 years, I haven’t gotten it, either.

Mostly, I’ve been okay with this. Easter’s just strange; no need to “get it” to have a good time. As the day went on, however, I grew unsatisfied with my answer. Because, frankly, Zombie Jesus isn’t a very happy thought. Just ’cause the Bible says it’s special doesn’t make it feel special – not for me, anyway. I wanted more.

And as I thought about it – as I considered why Jesus’s resurrection was such a big deal beyond the zombie mechanics of it – I felt something shift. I found myself calling the girls back and saying, “I want to talk to you a bit more about this. You know how I’ve told you that the Bible says that Jesus was dead, and then he wasn’t, and that’s what Easter is? And you know how you think that sounds really weird – probably because it is really weird? Well, I think there’s more to it than that.”

So I told them what I’ve learned, starting with ideas I’ve heard from Sophia Community, from Anne Lamott and Glennon Doyle Melton. As I went on, though, I discovered my own ideas — about why Jesus was different from the people who’d come before him, how he was really an awfully cool and amazing guy, how radically new his message was — not about God and the bible and “being saved,” but about us. About how we’re just right exactly as we are, about how we don’t need to do any more to be worthy of being loved; we are, with our flaws and imperfections, exactly who we are supposed to be. We are each enough, and we are loved, and we can do this.

It doesn’t matter if the story if real, I told them. It doesn’t matter if it ever happened. It doesn’t even matter if Jesus was real (although I think most scholars agree that he was, in fact, a real actual human; the whole divine thing is up for grabs). What matters – for me – is the message that Jesus, or even the idea of Jesus, spread: the message of love, of connectedness, of wholeness, of you are good enough just as you are. I have no idea if any of this really happened, but it doesn’t make a difference; the message, and how that message makes me feel, is what matters.

And as I spoke, I felt this very unfamiliar thing burbling up inside me – a little like indigestion, except it was happiness. It was joy.

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Easter brunch in our fancy duds. Tradition, preserved!

The week before Easter, we were visiting family in Charleston and had the honor of attending my cousin’s daughter’s baptism. Before the big day, we were chatting with everyone, including my cousin’s father-in-law – a retired Episcopal priest who was in town to perform the baptism (and visit with his baby granddaughter!). Annie happened to casually slip into conversation that we used to go to church, but hadn’t in a while (kids are such fun), and then followed up with this gem, “What even *is* religion? I don’t think I have religion.” 

As I was struggling to craft a response that would explain that, of course, we have religion and how much I love my little Sophia Community and that I haven’t completely led the kids astray — TO THE RETIRED PRIEST — my cousin’s father-in-law just smiled at my little heathen and answered, without missing a beat (I’m paraphrasing slightly here because I don’t remember the exact words, but the sentiment is true and real),

“Oh, Annie, I promise you you’ve got religion. What religion boils down to – no matter which one it is – is that we’re all in this together, and we’ve got love in our hearts, and we’re helping one another. I watched you tonight, helping out, laughing. Everything you did, you did with such love. Your love came from inside of you and you gave it to all of us. That’s religion; I saw it. You have definitely got religion.”

All these months, I’ve been looking for my religion – in church, in books, online, in discussions. I’d hoped, if I figured out enough, if I learned enough, that I would find God or Jesus or something; I’d hoped I would feel it.

Turns out, my religion’s been right here inside me all along. (This is sounding an awful lot like The Wizard of Oz…) It’s in card games on Easter morning, it’s in the “You were great!” text from a friend, it’s in the holding open the door for someone at the mall, it’s in your husband and mom and dad being proud of you, it’s in the hugs that my girls give me each night before they go to sleep.

I still don’t consider myself religious, but I have definitely got religion.
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My little heathens and me all gussied up on Easter. 
They are my religion, every last one of them.

 

Throwback Thursday: Animal Lover

(If you’ve tuned into this blog because of my post about standardized testing, welcome! Although I’m passionate about that cause, I don’t write about it very often… but if you’re looking for stories about parenting, chocolate and wine, traveling, or people [that’d mostly be me] getting into ridiculous situations and blunders but still trying to find the humor in everything, then I hope you’ll stick around!)

The other night, we were watching TV and this commercial for Scrubbing Bubbles came on. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you a play-by-play (you’re welcome): you hear delightful bathtime sounds coming from behind a mostly-closed (bathroom) door which, when opened (by the mom-lady) reveals two young girls using the bathtub to “wash” what can only be described as this… filthy thing. Okay, it’s a dog of some sort — a tiny, disheveled, exceedingly bedraggled-looking dog that snarls at the mom-lady as soon as she opens the door. (Her horrified gasp when she sees the creature staring back at her is maybe my favorite part of the commercial.) There is mud and dirt and soap absolutely everywhere and the girls are begging, “Can we keep him? PLEASE?”

Anyway, the dad-guy comes in and scares the mom-lady with his horrified gasp (actually, maybe this is my favorite part of the commercial…), and it’s mayhem everywhere, but no worries! Scrubbing Bubbles is what you need for this type of mess – cut to the clean bathroom (which the mom-lady has wiped down, of course, because stereotypes), all is well, the end. I pretty much love this commercial, not only because it makes me laugh… not only because I – like most parents – can relate to this chaos… but also because it reminded me of a little, um, encounter I had in my own mom’s bathroom with my own… thing… many years ago.

I’ve always had a soft spot for animals. I also had no problem getting dirty as a kid (who’m I kidding – even now, if I can only find one stain on a sweater, I declare it good to go). Add to those qualities my ADHD impulsiveness and, well, let’s just say I probably didn’t always use the best judgement when it came to critters and such.

There was the time in kindergarten or first grade when, walking home from the school bus, I found a squirrel carcass in the road, picked it up by the tail, and proceeded to bring it home to show my mom, unceremoniously plopping it on the kitchen table. There was also the time only a couple of years ago when I opened the garage door to find myself face to face with a raccoon. Not wanting to be attacked (it was hiding behind the storage bins and could have made a run for me at any moment), I called Nick from my cell phone – he was in the living room at the time – and told him to come and get rid of the raccoon. Well, that’s easier said than done; while Nick hit tennis balls its way and poked at it with a hockey stick, this fellow hissed manically and jauntily ran across every shelf, knocking over anything that got in his way like Steve Martin as Ruprecht the Monkey Boy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Meanwhile, I’d nicknamed him Jasper (after the pet raccoon in a Little House on the Prairie episode) and kept calling out helpful advice like, “Please be good to Jasper! Don’t hurt him! Jasper just wants to be free!” At one point, Jasper essentially hurtled himself at Nick, practically foaming at the mouth, before finally scurrying out the door.

So, I have a very good track record with wild animals.

One fall (I think it was fall, although I could totally be making this up; the season isn’t important so let’s just go with it) many moons ago, Nick and I were visiting my mom’s house down in Westchester. I remember spending the night at her house, which means we were still living in Denver at the time and had just come back east to visit, either for a holiday or for wedding planning. Anyway, as we pulled into the driveway, I noticed this… cat… loping across my mother’s lawn.

You guys, this poor little fella was not in good shape. He seemed young – maybe young enough to still need his mama – but it was clear that he hadn’t been with his mama in a long time. He was filthy, with no collar, as though his owner hadn’t been taking very good care of him. He was unnaturally thin and his unusual spotted/striped fur was patchy – like maybe he had a disease? – and his tail was completely devoid of fur until the very end, where it poofed out in a little fur explosion. He was… meowing? Sort of? and seemed very hungry, so I immediately took pity on this sweet creature and concluded that we needed to show him a bit of kindness.

My mom and Nick, heartless miscreants that they are, wanted no part of rescuing this darling kitty, so I had to take him on all by myself. Now, I’m not entirely crazy, so I knew better than to just pick him up – rabies and whatnot – so, after donning a jacket and a pair of my stepdad’s work gloves, I gathered the pathetic furball into my arms and brought him into the house.

I remember two specific things about that moment: a) that he was a lot heftier than I’d anticipated (I didn’t know cats were so sturdy!) and b) that my mom’s dog, Jazz, began losing her mind the instant I set foot inside. Jazz, a beautiful Shetland Sheepdog, had many wonderful qualities, but being quiet wasn’t really one of them; still, she surprised me with the ferocity of her barking. I mean, frantic, maniacal, WHAT IS THAT THING YOU HAVE BROUGHT BEFORE ME barking.
jazz
In true TBT fashion, this is not only a throwback photo of Jazz but of Nick and me, too, circa 1990-something. I could’ve removed the sticky notes that my mom added, but they’re my favorite part…

I was all, “Jazz, this is just a cat… A poor, abandoned kitten… Chill out…” and she was all, “WTF ARE YOU DOING I WILL DESTROY IT.” Fearing for the safety of both the dog and the stray, I decided to take my little lost lamb into the bathroom and lock the door. Once inside, I set it in the bathtub and leaned in for a closer look. I don’t know much about cats, but this one had obviously been through the wringer. His ears were pointier than I expected them to be, with little caps of black across their tips, and his face had this extra? fur that came down from the sides, like jowls. And he kept making this… noise? that was not exactly purring but more like low growling.

That seemed odd, but given that I have absolutely zero experience with cats, what did I know? He was obviously emaciated, so I knew I needed to feed him. I left him in the bathroom with a saucer of milk (my mom was thrilled with this decision) and called animal control to ask if there was somewhere we should bring him in because his owners must be missing his sweet face, duh. The woman with whom I spoke informed me that a) the whole cats-like-milk thing is a myth and I was probably hurting him (why are we perpetuating this terrible myth?? Poor buddy!), and b) that many cats are, in fact, outside cats, so the best thing to do would be to let him go so he could return to his family.

But you guys. What if he never made it home? He had certainly been out on his own for quite a while; what if he needed me?? Alas, my mom pointed out that, noble as my efforts were, Jazz and this wandering being couldn’t coexist; since Jazz had been there first – and since it was, you know, my mom’s house and she wanted nothing to do with it – I had to let him go.

And so I brought my growling little bundle out onto the back porch, put some tuna in a bowl (cats and tuna aren’t a myth, right? RIGHT?), and reasoned that if he was truly hungry enough, he’d be back for more and then I could sweep him up and bring him into an animal shelter. IF YOU LOVE SOMETHING, SET IT FREE! IF IT COMES BACK…

We never saw it again.

We did, however, see his likeness several months later. I can’t remember exactly where we were, but I know it was back in Colorado, in the mountains, in some kind of nature-y shop. Nick and I had stopped in because we thought we might find a suitable gift for his dad among the bird feeders, bird books, and wind chime-y things. As Nick was paying for our purchase, I picked up an animal guide and began flipping through it.

And that was when I saw him. Or, at least, when I saw a photo of an animal that looked exactly like the one I had carried into my mom’s bathroom:
bobcat
(It wasn’t this exact photo, but you get the idea…)

YES. THAT WOULD BE A BABY BOBCAT.

BECAUSE I BROUGHT A BABY BOBCAT INTO MY MOTHER’S BATHROOM AND ATTEMPTED TO GIVE IT MILK.

Well. That might explain the pointy ears with the black tips… and the mangled, matted fur… and the black puff at the end of its tail… and why he was heavier than I’d thought he’d be… and the unusual fur pattern… and the growling… and OMG I HELD A DISEASED BOBCAT AND IT GROWLED AT ME.

It might also explain why Jazz reacted as though I was bringing something more menacing than a kitten into the living room. Because, I don’t know, dogs have a really good sense of smell and can tell when you’re holding an animal that could SWALLOW THEM WHOLE??

I screamed for Nick, which kind of scared him, but he came over anyway and looked at the picture. For a moment, he was silent. Then he said something like, “Thank God you put on gloves when you picked that thing up, otherwise who knows what might have happened?” 

I married him anyway, despite the sarcasm.

————

In addition to the dozens of deer who live near us, there have been some random fox sightings in our neighborhood. If anyone would like to get up close and personal with one, just let me know; I appear to have the magic touch. I’ll even buy new gloves for the occasion.

It Is Time

(An earlier version of this post was published last year. For a variety of reasons, I’ve updated it and am putting it out there again… because here we are again. If you’re looking for the text for the original post, you’ll find it here [scroll to the end].)

Plain and simple, I believe that the current standardized tests in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, given annually from grades 3-8, are poorly designed and age-inappropriate and, ultimately, should be entirely revamped. I’ll go one step more: I think that a lot of families have no idea what’s happening.

Lemme break it down.

1. Testing isn’t going anywhere
Tests have been around since the dawn of schooling (and probably before that; you know that cave people were totally devising hunting “challenges” for one another). Standardized testing in the United States has been around since at least WWI. Pretty much anyone who’s lived in the USA over the last 40-50 years has heard about our “failing” education system, how we don’t “measure up” to other nations, etc. – so, clearly, something had to be done. Hence, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed which, in 2002, turned into No Child Left Behind where – I’m simplifying here – in order to receive federal funds, schools needed to prove that their students were showing academic improvement. That act was met with such vitriol, this past December, the Obama administration rejiggered it into the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Whether or not American schools are, indeed, “failing” is up for intense debate, but the fact remains that standardized tests have been around forever. They offer one small snapshot into one moment of a student’s academic year. Taken alongside the numerous other evaluations that are performed throughout any given school year, they can contribute a few brushstrokes to a child’s academic progress canvas. If these tests are well-written, developmentally appropriate, and accurate, they can also provide some sort of (small) basis with which to compare schools and teachers.

I’m down with standardized testing, as a general concept. I think most parents, teachers, and families are.

2. Common Core confusion
States adopted the Core standards with a very specific goal in mind: money. Not education reform, not improving student learning, not evaluating teaching practices or helping teachers to better their approaches, but cold, hard cash. See, there was this thing called Race To The Top (RTTT) that was rolled out in 2009-2010 that essentially said (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly): Hey, governing people! Want to earn more FUNDING for your states for education? THEN COME COMPETE FOR IT!! All you have to do is prove that you’re evaluating teachers more stringently, identify and turn around failing schools, promise you won’t prohibit the formation of more charter schools, adopt some common standards, and create some nifty data systems! The faster and better you do that, the faster you can earn MORE MONEY!!! It’s like a carnival up in here!

In theory, a set of shared standards isn’t such a bad idea. I like the Common Core benchmarks, broadly speaking. I like the idea of everyone in the US learning some basic, shared content. I like the thought that, if your kids changed schools or districts or moved across the country, you could count on them not being too far behind (or ahead) because everyone’s learning the same stuff at the same time, from poverty-stricken inner cities to wealthy suburbs.

In practice, because of the whole SHOW ME THE MONEY thing, the standards were written in a bit of a hurry – and, many people assert, they were written without any educator input. No, for real: according to many experts, not one single K-12 educator or child development expert was included in the creation of these standards. So they’re a bit off-base in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate for each grade level, by which I mean that they’re asking kids to know a heckuva lot more, and to use an awful lot of more complex thinking, than they’ve done before.

Which, in itself, might not be so bad — maybe even inspiring and hopeful — if the standards had been adopted at a reasonable pace with teachers being given adequate support and training to properly teach the new material.

But because there was money on the line, and because states had to act super fast if they wanted their share, they adopted Common Core with lightning speed. There was no gradual roll-out. No trying-and-seeing to determine if this set of standards was reasonable, achievable, or appropriate. No oversight by anyone in the field of education. Buckle up!

3. Many of the tests are poorly written
Even so – even with way more complex standards written by non-education people that were put into practice before anyone had a chance to review them – things might have been okay had the accompanying tests that were meant to measure performance been good, strong, accurate evaluations. But many of them are not.

For one thing, they – like the standards – are written by non-educators. (I understand that in New York state, the tests before the Common Core-based evaluations were also written by non-educators, so this is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their authorship, the tests have been found to be riddled with errors. The test questions themselves, especially on the ELA portion of the exam, are often written at reading levels two to nine grades ahead (asking, say, third graders to read and evaluate passages that are actually appropriate for 5th- 12th graders).
Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 5.43.27 PM
These are taken from the PARCC ELA test…

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 5.43.48 PMYes. Our eight year-olds are probably familiar with the idea of “luring” someone into “a false sense of security.”

Many of the test questions are vague or even deliberately misleading, which makes choosing the answer more of a guessing game than a true demonstration of understanding.

4. The results don’t mean anything
Given that the tests are badly written, error-filled, and are developmentally inappropriate, it seems safe to say that their results don’t really mean much. Additionally, since student results aren’t provided until the end of summer (or even into the start of the next school year), the child’s teacher can’t use the scores to adjust his or her instruction to better serve those kiddos.

Sure, in theory, a teacher could look at the results from last year’s class, see a deficiency in a particular area, and think, “Oh, I guess I didn’t do a good job teaching Main Idea. I’d better work on that with this year’s batch of students.” In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of teachers try to do exactly that. But the information that teachers are given – at least in New York – is rather limited.

Teachers aren’t allowed to see the actual questions from the test, nor to know ones were answered incorrectly – they only receive a broad overview of concepts and standards and whole-class percentages rather than individual student breakdowns. Did last year’s students really not understand Main Idea, or were the Main Idea questions vague? Were they deliberately misleading? Were they “sample” questions that are thrown out there each year just to see how kids do on them? Were they just plain incorrect or filled with typos?

Even if the data was reliable – there’s one final catch: the passing score changes from year to year and is determined… AFTER THE TESTS HAVE BEEN SCORED. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but I’m not. Movable passing scores!!

5. Teachers are more than just a (faulty) number
Here’s where things get really personal for me. Let’s just backtrack for a moment and pretend that the current tests are awesome. Let’s pretend that they are appropriate, accurate, and superbly written. Even if this were the case, I think we can all agree, still, that they represent merely one moment in a child’s education, several hours out of their lives. They don’t actually demonstrate all that children have learned – not even the best tests in the entire world – because most of what we call “learning” cannot be shown in a two-dimensional standardized test.

What standardized test results really show us is how well individual children tested on a particular day. And yet many states have decided that test scores do accurately demonstrate how well teachers are teaching, often counting the scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

And let’s not forget about the rest of the teachers. Tests are given at only at certain grade levels in certain subjects – meaning that that the majority of teachers do not teach these subjects/grades. K-2 teachers? 9-12 non-Regents class teachers? Gym, music, art? Science (students are tested in science but not in every grade), social studies/history, foreign language, library, computer, home ec, graphics…? 

And yet 50% of their evaluations are also based on test results. Based on the performance of students they may never have laid eyes on IN SUBJECTS AND GRADE LEVELS THAT THEY DO NOT TEACH.

This is fair, appropriate, or okay because… why?

6. Greed is a powerful motivator
For decades now, politicians have been talking about how American education is failing. Thus, politicians find it pretty easy to gain financial backers for education reform. After all, once a school is determined to not pass muster, something must be done — new curricula, new textbooks, new resources.

One of the largest supporters of Common Core is Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its adoption. While I believe that Bill Gates genuinely wants to help, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft and Pearson – one of the largest producers of Common Core materials – have banded together to get additional Microsoft resources into schools.

Many people have taken issue with the fact that companies such as Pearson [which authored a) the Common Core standards, b) the great majority of the current Common Core tests, c) the “modules” of instructional materials that are sold to schools to prepare students for said tests, d) and – as of 2015 – the teacher certification examinations in eighteen states] is a business company, not a company run by education or child development professionals. (I acknowledge that pre-Common Core, tests were still written by contracted, outside companies; that still doesn’t make it right.)

That would be galling enough, but even more maddening is that Pearson is positively rolling in the money it is making off of its materials. Since Common Core was adopted so quickly, school districts had to act fast to provide their teachers with adequate curricula resources. Who better to provide that than the author of the Common Core standards? Enter the Pearson instruction modules! Need additional support materials? Pearson’s got those, too!

7. Teacher demoralization
I’m just going to put it bluntly: because of all of this Common Core testing and the hoopla surrounding it, many of our teachers* feel like crap. They have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the jobs they were doing weren’t good enough. No matter how well-liked they were, how many kids graduated from their classes, how many years they’d been teaching, how many children they taught to read or how to multiply, how many hours they stayed after school, how many hungry children they fed, how many concerts they attended… it wasn’t enough. They have to change, fast. And if they don’t? Their very jobs are at stake.

All of the teachers I know – the ones for whom I sub, the ones with whom I sub, the ones with whom I went to college, the ones with whom I used to teach, the ones who teach my own children, or the ones I’ve met along the way by happenstance – have said, unequivocally, how much they love teaching. They love their students. They are fiercely proud to be educators. But it is getting hard – really hard – for many of them to continue. You hear talk of those who are seriously considering leaving the classroom because they can no longer teach; now, they have to teach these modules, teach to the test, jump through hoop after hoop. It’s exhausting and maddening.

Losing our teachers would, obviously, be a tremendous problem; that problem is compounded by the fact that there has been a steep decline in the number of new teachers being certified in recent years. Even those who do decide to enter the profession don’t stick around for long.

To be sure, teachers have often felt under-appreciated, misunderstood, and underpaid, but rarely has their ability to do their job been so strongly questioned. Never have they been so micromanaged. We are losing some of our best teachers. We aren’t getting enough new ones. This is happening right now, all across the country, and it is terrifying.

(*Obviously, I realize that I’m speaking in very broad terms here. I have not interviewed every teacher in the nation. But I am certain that the teachers with whom I have spoken – and this is a helluva lot of teachers – have expressed their dejection, sadness, and frustration.)

8. How do we get an objective measure?
Many people who acknowledge the shortcomings of these particular tests maintain that we need them because we need some objective measure of how our kids are doing in school. We need some way to compare teachers, schools, and performance, from rural West Virginia to suburban Idaho to inner-city Houston. We need to be able to determine teacher growth and student success. Kids from the most poverty-riddled communities deserve access to the same quality education as their most affluent peers.

I hear that. I absolutely believe that all children deserve a quality education; the disparity is, indeed, unfair. I also think it would be great to, say, move across the country and be able to glean, at a glance, how a school or district compares to another.

But here’s the thing: I think we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist – not because we haven’t figured out how to do it, but because it’s just not possible. Maybe education and learning aren’t things that can be measured any more than a musical performance can be measured. Maybe teacher growth and student success aren’t confined to numbers. Maybe a one-size-fits-all assessment works nicely for obtaining a driver’s license but not so well for determining whether or not fifth graders can identify subplot or if their teachers are doing their jobs. Test scores do not indicate success or failure; they are merely numbers.

9. Quite whining! How about some solutions or ideas?!
I’m not saying that we should give up. I’m saying I think we need to – dramatically – change our approach to how we evaluate education, students, and teachers. In my Magic Wand World, I’d take a (lot of) page(s) out of Finland’s book (it is well-acknowledged that Finnish students perform among best in the world at international exams) and our teachers would be as well-respected as as well paid as our doctors.

Since it’s unlikely that we’re going to adopt too many of Finland’s ideas, I suggest that we work with what we already have to reconfigure our view of success.

  • We should de-couple the current standardized tests from teacher evaluations, period.
  • We can keep the Common Core – as I said, I like those standards – but only as a portion of what each child should learn; we need to leave the rest up to individual states, districts, schools, and teachers.
  • We should give teachers several years to become familiar with the Core standards so that they can rework their lesson plans, see where there may be deficiencies, and take it from there.
  • Standardized tests aren’t going anywhere (in the USA), but we should have new, fair, developmentally appropriate tests that have been written by educators from across the K-12 spectrum.
  • Those tests’ scores should come back before the school year is over so that the students’ current teachers can use the data to inform their instruction.
  • And then those numbers should be just one of many other things that combine together to form our opinions of teacher success and student learning. Let’s factor attendance into the equation. Graduation rates. The percentage of high school graduates who go onto college. Post-graduate success. AP exams – how many are given? What are the scores? Teacher-student ratio. Teacher retention; how many are still teaching there after three years? Five? Ten? Extra-curricular activities. Class sizes. Poverty levels. Parent involvement. Principal and superintendent evaluations. Student portfolios. Additional test scores.

Education “success” cannot be measured by any one, single thing. I will happily sing you the praises of my daughters’ elementary school, which I adore, but none of those praises – from small class sizes to close relationships with other families to the devotion of the teachers to their annual Halloween parade – has anything to do with test scores.

10. Become informed… and then do something
I’m not really the “take a stand” type. More typically, I talk and think a lot. I write letters, I sign petitions, I discuss with family and friends. With this, it was different. I’d been talking, for years. I’d been signing petitions. I’d been writing letters, dozens of them, from the governor to my locally elected officials.

Finally, last year, it became clear to me: talking, thinking, letter- writing, and petition-signing weren’t working. Our legislators weren’t listening. And in the meantime, our children and teachers were suffering.

Enough was enough. And so, after much research and consideration (and after having participated the year before), our 4th grader opted out of the tests. She was extremely nervous about taking them – and we were extremely upset that her teachers were being evaluated based on student scores on poorly-designed tests – so it seemed like an appropriate solution. Turns out, many, many parents and children in New York state came to the same conclusion. As I wrote last year:

To paraphrase the incomparable Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. Parents and teachers are speaking up. We are knowing better. I hope, as our voices swell – whether our children take the tests or refuse them – that our politicians will hear us and that, some day, they will do better, too.

You know what? Our New York legislators heard us. BY GOSH, THEY HEARD US! Our voices swelled and our message was clear: This situation needs to change. And so the change has begun. Test scores are no longer being used to evaluate New York teachers (CAN I GET AN AMEN!). Students may now take as much time as they need to complete the exams. As of next year, Pearson will no longer be writing the tests or curricular materials. NEW YORK IS TRYING TO DO BETTER.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Because of the changes that have been made, my husband and I did not feel as strongly about refusing the testing this year, instead leaving the decision to our daughters (after sharing the above information with them, to the degree that they can understand it). Our oldest, again, has opted out; her younger sister is taking them. We feel very comfortable being a house divided.

No, the tests aren’t perfect (then again, what is?). With the exception of tying them to teacher evaluations, everything else remains (essentially) the same, so there remains (much) work to be done. (While I appreciate the removal of the time limit, it seems that some students are taking up to 6 hours per day to finish their tests… which is not exactly “doing better”…) Still, I acknowledge and greatly appreciate that changes are being made. It’s a step in the right direction.

Some analysts and educators argue that high-stakes tests should be banned, period. Others claim that the tests are successful. Although they’re reaching different conclusions, they’re doing so after having thoroughly done their homework (a pun!).

And that is what I encourage everyone to do: learn more, then go from there. Find out who writes the tests in your state and how teachers are asked to teach the material. Read up on others’ opinions about how valid and appropriate the tests are. Discover when the test results are returned, what information the teachers and schools receive, and how they apply that information. Learn whether or not your child’s educators are evaluated based on test scores. Inquire about what your options are.

Then, if you feel that the tests are not measuring up, ask for better. If you feel like they’re cutting muster, speak up! Maybe that looks like writing letters. Maybe it’s signing petitions. Maybe it’s attending town hall meetings. Maybe it’s talking with neighbors and teachers and administrators. Maybe it’s opting out. Maybe it’s opting in. Maybe it’s a little of everything and a lot of other things, too.

No matter how you feel about Common Core and the state tests, I think we can all agree that our nation’s children deserve awesome. Let’s work together to be thoughtful, committed citizens. Let’s help our children receive the awesome they deserve. Heck – let’s change the world.

 

Now and Ten

We have reached that strange, familiar-yet-unfamiliar place: neither separate nor together, too close or too far, always. She wants me to listen but not overhear, to offer advice but to allow her to figure it out on her own, to catch her and set her free, all at the same time.

Some days, she is exactly who she has been all these years. Our exchanges are easy and bright, familiar and relaxed. We both find our footing and walk forward together. Other days, it’s as though she is an entirely new and different person. Nick and I ask each other, “Wait… where did she go?” The ground beneath us is unsure, our steps tentative, maybe even backward.

And then suddenly, without warning or preamble, she bursts through again, radiating humor and happiness and contentment. Nick and I say to one another, “Oh look – she’s back!” Of course, she has always been there; just sometimes, there are a lot of clouds obscuring our view.disney01

So it’s been for a while now, but recently everything feels intensified. The clouds, when they come, are thick and far away, offering cover that we cannot quite peek through. They blow over more quickly, however, and when she returns, she is more sparkling than ever before. Or perhaps I just appreciate her light a little more, somehow.

These past few months have brought a helluva lot of figurings-out and thinking-abouts and growings-up – I was going to say for her but now I realize it’s been for both of us. As she navigates her space, she has been pulling me close, both physically and otherwise. Sit by me, Mama. Can I read this to you? Would you come talk with me, Mama? 

Still, she is working hard to be Independent and Strong, and I am constantly reminded that, despite her small stature, she is no longer a little girl.

But sometimes… When I go to tuck her in at night, I slip her hair behind her ear and just watch her breathe, the rise and fall as steady and peaceful as the tide. When she plays the piano, I am struck by her beauty, by the gracefulness of her fingers. When she asks if I can pick her up and hold her (yes, even now), I no longer even pretend that she is too big. She is, of course, but these moments are so rare, I’ll gratefully oblige.IMG_0195
“People say we look alike…”
Taken on the plane. Shared with her permission.

Spring break was last week; as before, we visited my dad and stepmom in Kiawah and it was wonderful. Our final flight home had us taking off well past bedtime. If we were lucky, we’d get home before midnight. The girls were troopers in the airport, but they were exhausted by the time we took our seats on the plane.

She wanted to sleep – desperately – but couldn’t find a comfortable position; snoozing while traveling is just not her thing, an unfortunate trait she inherited from me. She tosses and scrunches, stretches and curls up, but nothing feels right. I murmur sympathetic noises over my crossword puzzle, illuminated by the blazing personal light that I’ve clicked on above us.

When she shifts again, I notice the exhaustion on her face, her whole being drooping like a wilted flower. I tug my sweatshirt from behind me, where I’ve balled it up to get it out of the way, and drape it across my right side. I hold out my arm, reaching around her shoulders. “Here, sweetie. Come, pull in beside me.” Unexpectedly, she does, tucking herself in against my chest. Within minutes, I can hear and feel that her breathing has slowed. I reach up with my left hand and and turn off the light.

Unable to work on my crossword, I just sit, my arm around her, my chin resting on her head. I sniff her hair; it does not smell like shampoo or sweetness, as it did when she was a baby, but instead of chlorine and sunscreen and salt and sweat – a perfect encapsulation of a day well spent in the sun, by a pool, having fun. I inhale deeply, taking her in, as though I can see her dreams radiating around us.

After ten minutes or so, my eyes have fully adjusted to the lack of light and I take up the crossword again (with one hand), somewhat half-heartedly. As we begin our descent, there is some slight turbulence. She slides forward a bit, away from me, her head tilting. I tighten my grip on her shoulder and attempt to do 39-Across.

By now, she has slid even further down. Her head is lolling forward; I’m afraid that she’ll awaken. I move my hand from her shoulder to her head, pulling her back in to me. Once more, I put down my pen. It is awkward and a little uncomfortable sitting like this, my hand pressed to her forehead as though feeling for a fever, leaning into her with each bump and dip so that she doesn’t tip right over. But I don’t care. I don’t know when we’ll be sitting like this again. I can do so little to protect her these days; these moments feel like a gift. We stay just like that until the flight is over.

When we land and finally arrive at our gate, her eyes flutter open – although she is so tired, they can hardly remain so. She says she wants to come with me to get the car (rather than wait inside for the luggage with Nick), despite having to walk in a downpour to retrieve it. She is patient and quiet when the CD player consumes our parking ticket and I have to produce my driver’s license to exit the ramp. Once we get home and I am tucking her into bed, she insists that she wasn’t actually sleeping on the flight – she was merely resting.

But minutes later, when I check on her and find her fast asleep, I watch the rise and fall of her chest again, like it had been on the plane, like the tides, and I know she was mistaken. I sniff her hair one last time – still perfect – and leave her to her dreams.

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