My Convertible Life

Saturday, July 9, 2016

And now he's eleven

My breath catches in my chest each time I look at this photo, taken earlier this year.
That's my son, who I've seen nearly every one of the past 4,015 days, but there's something about this picture that just stops me in my tracks. I realize the tuxedo -- rented for his junior cotillion ball -- is cheating a little, but it's his face more than his ensemble that really does me in.

Seems like every year I've written a post on or (ahem) around his birthday simultaneously celebrating and bemoaning the way he just keeps on growing up. In many ways, this year is no different. He's older than he was, younger than he will be -- and growing faster every day.

Over the past year, he started going to the pool on his own, spent his first week at sleep-away camp, competed on the swim team, played more hockey, joined the Battle of the Books, learned the fox trot, took his first out-of-state school field trip, got his own email address, taught himself to make chocolate cupcakes from scratch, graduated from elementary school, went kayak-beach camping with his dad.

And in August he will start middle school, an event which seems both thrilling and terrifying -- at least to me.

There are so many things, both big and small, that I cannot protect him from. The world around us seems like it's going to hell in a hand basket -- so much fear, anger and ugliness that I cannot explain and feel powerless to stop.

Maybe that's part of what I love about this picture. In his sweet, handsome face, I see both the baby he was and the man he will be -- and in that, I see hope.

In this particular moment, I'm not even exactly sure what that means. He's still just a kid who forgets to put his breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, purposefully torments his sister for sport and has started having tween-age mood swings that threaten to undo me. But when he's not occasionally sulking in a corner for no apparent reason, he's a really nice guy with a creative mind, a big heart and a fierce sense of justice. That all seems like a good start.

Plus he looks great in a tux.



Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The truth about neighborhood schools

It's no surprise that respondents to a recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools survey say they want their kids to attend school close to home. Of the more than 27,000 people who completed the survey, 86 percent said that a school's proximity to home is very or extremely important.

As a parent, I get that.

From a purely practical sense, being able to get to my kids' school in about 10 minutes certainly simplifies my life -- particularly on the days that I'm dropping them off in the morning, then back for a lunchtime reading group, then back again in the afternoon to pick them up. And knowing that my children don't have to spend an extra hour on the bus to get home each day certainly makes them happier.

What's important to note, though, is that the question specifically asked about the value of "location/proximity to home." It did not ask about "neighborhood schools." This may sound like semantics, but it's an important distinction.

While the question is fine, how the answer gets translated causes apples-to-oranges problems. My house is exactly one mile from two different elementary schools, although technically neither one is in my neighborhood. But the idea of having a school that belongs to the neighborhood where you live -- an idea fed by continued use of the phrase "neighborhood school" by media, researchers, parents and politicians alike -- is one that parents often cling to.

The real truth is that "neighborhood schools" -- that Norman Rockwell vision of every child in a 12-block radius skipping down the sidewalk to attend school together -- don't really exist for most families anymore. Just within the few blocks closest to my house, the elementary-aged kids attend two charter schools, three private schools, three magnet schools and two base schools. Particularly as districts like Wake County offer more theme-based and magnet programs and with the cap lifted on the number of charter schools that can open across the state, parents have more choices than ever -- and they're taking advantage of those choices to find the right fit for their families.

As education innovators try to move away from outdated classroom approaches that aren't preparing students for today's world, why should we cling to this Rockwell imagery that supports old thinking?

Here are some other problems with the notion of "neighborhood schools"...

  • Neighborhoods tend to be economically isolated -- that's not really news, but it does impact school demographics. In recent years, the Charlotte area was named on the top 10 list of large metros where the wealthy are most geographically segregated and Raleigh isn't dramatically better. That means that pulling a school's population from within a specific neighborhood is likely to give you only a specific economic group. That tends to create a system of low-poverty schools and high-poverty schools.
  • If your high-poverty neighborhood creates a high-poverty school (those that serve more than 50 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch), you're more likely to have higher teacher turnover rates, lower volunteer rates and lower academic scores (see here and here). In North Carolina's new letter grade system, schools' grades essentially became a proxy for poverty levels. Note that it's not a question about how successful low-income students can be -- it's an issue of how well a low-income school can function.
  • Researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving. Creating diverse schools -- racially and socioeconomically integrated -- results in benefits for students as well as the communities they live in.
  • In the same CMS survey, more than 70 percent of respondents said they valued exposure to children from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Wanting proximity to home doesn't mean that respondents don't care about diversity. 

Now what?

Unfortunately, I don't have an easy answer, any more than I did six years ago when my son was in kindergarten or 20 years ago (gulp) when I was teaching in a predominantly black high school. But I do have a suggestion:

Stop complicating the matter by continuing to use the phrase "neighborhood schools" -- the term is loaded with more baggage than any kid can cram into a backpack and suggests an us vs. them divide that won't help any community.  (I'm looking at you, reporters, researchers, politicians and even parents.)

Instead, let's try the following:
  • Talk about student assignment plans that minimize travel time from home as much as is reasonable without isolating students into neighborhoods.
  • Allow educators to focus on how we can get the best academic and social learning experience for all students. 
  • Engage parents, businesses and communities in the conversation about how to ensure successful graduates -- check out this Wake County event on April 29.
  • Start building up our whole community rather than walling off into subdivisions.

Friday, March 25, 2016

#WeAreNotThis

In case you missed it, the Pope is on Instagram now. Pretty sure he's just copying my favorite @circuspadre, but it works. Today, for Good Friday, he posted a photo from outside the Colosseum in Rome with this caption: "Everything in these three days speaks of mercy."

If only the North Carolina General Assembly would speak with mercy this week.

Instead, their legislative voice spoke only of fear and discrimination as they went into special session on Wednesday and voted to (among other things) prohibit cities from passing nondiscrimination laws, exclude groups of citizens from protection against discrimination in North Carolina and ban transgendered people from using public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

As I binged through Twitter and Facebook yesterday (see #WeAreNotThis), searching for some reasonable answer as to why my state legislature has its head up its collective ass, I found nothing to help -- although this clip from John Oliver at least made me feel less alone. Then I saw a post from my friend Mamie, who happens to be a Presbyterian minister and a generally fabulous person. Although she no longer lives in North Carolina, she's still very much a Tar Heel -- and she's still fighting for those of us who are here.

With her permission, I'm sharing her post with you here. It's a letter she's sending to the CEOs and consumer affairs divisions of NC-based companies who have not yet spoken out publicly against the ridiculous discriminatory laws passed this week.

***

As a Tarheel born and bred, I have been horrified to see the changes happening in my home state. Living now, as I do, away from North Carolina, I see the pity and concern people have for those who are “unfortunate” enough to live in a state wracked by hate and discrimination, evidenced publicly by the repugnant actions taken by the current legislature. Any doubt remaining as to their oppressive intentions were put to rest yesterday when House Bill 2 passed into law with the signature of Gov. McCrory. The law goes well beyond its name and supposed intent to monitor bathrooms around the state. It takes away local protections for LGBTQ citizens, veterans and pregnant women as well as flaunts the desire of our forebears to be free of discrimination because of religion.

You have no doubt seen the threat that Walt Disney Studios has made to leave the state of Georgia if it passes a bill not unlike HB 2, and my neighboring state of Indiana lost 12 conventions and $60 million dollars after passing their “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” -- a law much closer to that just passed by North Carolina than its name would imply. The economic growth and prosperity of the state is now under threat, as is the reputation of any company who chooses North Carolina as its home. Red Hat CEO and President Jim Whitehurst, Biogen and Dow Public Policy all spoke out against this bill on the day it was hastily introduced. American Airlines, Wells Fargo and even the NCAA are concerned about this legalized discrimination. You can join their chorus in continued pressure to change the law so that equality and fairness are not undermined in North Carolina.

You are a leader in industry in the state, and as such, I urge you to speak out in favor of diversity and justice and against the codification of fear and weakness. Being based in North Carolina, your name and balance sheet are also on the line, and any silence you choose will speak. Your ability to attract a full-range of highly qualified, critical thinking, flexible and compassionate work force will be damaged by this law, and no tax breaks are worth diminishing the humanity of others. Please make the weight of your voice heard by the legislators and the people of North Carolina.

***

Everything in these three days speaks of mercy.
Todo, en estos tres días, habla de la misericordia. 
Tutto, in questi tre giorni, parla di misericordia.
Tudo, nestes três dias, fala de misericórdia.
Au cours de ces trois jours, tout parle de miséricorde.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Signs You Have the Right Friends, Part 1

I recently emptied and reorganized the cleaning supplies/medicines/extra toiletries shelf in my linen closet. At left is the photo of items left over and no longer needed at my house that I then emailed to a select list of friends to see if anyone wanted something from the pile.

Within two hours and a dozen email exchanges, I'd not only found homes for all the stuff, I'd also been treated to hilarious stories of children using tampons as toys, requests for an extra box of sanity if I find any and one friend who wondered what category of sponges I was offering because she couldn't see the photo at first.

Nothing profound, but I couldn't stop laughing at the electronic trail we created based on a reject pile.

These are my people -- friends who a) don't think it's weird that I'm trying to give them my linen closet leftovers, b) help me clear out my house and c) entertain and distract me in the process.

Sometimes my life feels a lot like that shelf -- everything just kind of jumbled on top of everything else, much of it useful but not always accessible, some of it expired or unnecessary, all of it completely crammed in together. I'm just grateful I don't have to take care of it all on my own.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Learning the #$@&%*! language

As one of the millions of big and small decisions my husband and I make as parents, we agreed that we wouldn't keep words a secret from our kids. And by "words," of course, I mean the "bad words." It's an age-appropriate, as-needed sort of lesson set, but we figured that all those bad words would seem less alluring, less powerful -- and (hopefully) less likely to get hurled at us -- if the kids knew what they were and knew they could ask us about them.

So over the past few years, we (my husband, mostly) have been dealing out a few choice ones now and then during bedtime chats with Junius. We started with the less controversial ones -- like explaining that the S-word isn't actually "stupid" or that the D-word isn't actually "dumb." As he got older, the words got a bit stronger, including the F-word, the A-word and so on.

Junius seems to savor these tidbits of verbal exotica and feels empowered not to use them. In fact, his favorite swear phrase, borrowed from this book, is to shout, "Curses and foul language!" Try it -- t's really quite satisfying.

We've only just started sharing the first words with Pippi, or so I thought. Which brings me to a little story that just needed to be captured somewhere, so here goes...

* * *

One day this fall while we were standing around at school pick-up, my friend H was sharing concern that her daughter (Pippi's friend) had somehow wandered into another person's virtual house in Minecraft and read an inappropriate word that was plastered on the wall. H was consulting Junius, as a former Minecraft fan, about how her daughter could have gotten into someone else's space in the online game.

Junius, after clarifying that he no longer played Minecraft (because I guess 5th grade boys don't want to get lumped in with 2nd grade girls), told H he wasn't sure how that could have happened. Then he asked the all important question: "What was the word?"

My friend looked at me, I nodded, then she told him: "Well, it was the F-word."

Junius gasped quietly and looked gravely concerned, immediately understanding why H was worried about her young daughter's experience.

Somewhere during this conversation, Pippi had strolled up unnoticed and was listening in. As she watched her brother frown knowingly about the seriousness of the matter, she leaned in a little closer to H and looked up at her.

"Mrs. H?" she asked in a hushed voice. "Was it fuck?"

* * *

So there you have it. No good parenting deed goes unpunished.

If your kids are playing with my kids and come home with some new vocabulary, you're welcome. And my apologies

Friday, July 31, 2015

Ten

"Bye, Mom! See ya!"

And just like that, he pedaled down the driveway and into the street, his drawstring pool bag bouncing on his back as he pumped his legs to catch up with his friend.

I tried to act cool, like it was totally fine that he didn't need me. At all. And I immediately regretted telling him that he didn't have to call me when he got to the pool. I may or may not have texted a friend just now to let me know if she was there and could see him.

Ten.

Who knew it would be so big?

Already, in his first three weeks of double digits, Junius has spent a week at sleep-away camp, filled his own Spotify account with Pitbull and Bruno Mars, and started going to the neighborhood pool by himself. He makes his own breakfast and lunch almost every day. He searches the young adult shelves at the library and calls his own friends to make plans to play. He occasionally employs Axe deodorant to combat the inevitable pre-teen boy smell.

Someone please hold me.

Walking away from him at summer camp earlier this month nearly broke me. But I survived -- and, more importantly, he thrived. He made friends, ate new foods, learned to sail, spent the night on the dock, earned a new nickname, did the whip/nae nae (how is that even a thing?). He claims to have mailed me the self-addressed, pre-stamped post card I put in his bag, but it never arrived. The other cards were still packed when he got home because he was too busy having fun to worry about them.

At age 10, he is already stronger and braver than I was at 27.

In spite of all his grown-up-ness, he still snuggles with me occasionally, tells me he loves me, lets me rub my hand across his fuzzy buzz cut, asks for us to read to him at bedtime. I try to remember to enjoy these moments instead of losing them in life's distractions.

A friend recently pointed out that I have eight more summers with him before he leaves for college. That statement sent my heart plummeting into my shoes and my brain scrambling to make plans for every one of those summers so he'll spend them all with me.

But then I remind myself that's what it's all about. Watching him grow and change and yes, even leave me behind -- that's why we're working so hard at this crazy parenting business. It's a gift to see him moving away from me, one bike ride and camp drop-off at a time.

While I was writing, my phone just rang. It was Junius, calling to let me know he's heading home from the pool.

He really does love me.
_______________________

In case you want to join me down memory lane, here are links to past birthday posts about the boy:

  • Nine: The Last Single-Digit Year
  • Eight: A Champion Boy
  • Seven: How Big Is 7?
  • Six: Mr. Big Stuff
  • Five: Things I've Saved
  • Four: Junius Fest 2009
  • Zero: The Official Announcement

Friday, May 1, 2015

Music from Lost Time

Tucked way in the very back of my upstairs hallway closet, there's a storage bin filled with pictures, maps, brochures, coins and other bits from the year I lived in Cardiff, Wales. I filled that bin when I returned to my parents house after the year studying abroad and have moved it from house to apartment to duplex to apartment to at least three more houses over the past 15 years.

My intent, of course, was to make a series of photo scrapbooks that would capture all the beautiful places I went and all the things I accomplished that year. I planned to have albums that I could flip through to treasure the memories or share stories with my children of the great adventure mommy had before they were even an idea.

And yet, more than a decade later, everything is still shoved into that same plastic bin -- much to my husband's chagrin.

Thankfully, treasured memories aren't dependent on neatly organized photo albums. Sometimes, a particular scent or sound -- or even a cartoon glass -- can be enough to conjure up the most vivid picture of a day long gone.

Today it was Spotify that served as my Proustian madeleine, courtesy of a playlist built around a mix tape that had been my sound track during that year in Cardiff. A fellow American scholar studying at Oxford became one of my favorite friends that year -- we visited each other and marveled that we, with our parallel lives and similar tastes, hadn't crossed paths sooner. The mix tape she made for me offered an entire Gravity's Pull album on one side, harkening back to the days when we didn't know each other at UNC, and a collection of tracks from Nancy Griffith, Nikki Meets the Hibachi, Shawn Colvin, Del Amitri, Shannon Worrell, Soul Miner's Daughter, Rebecca Riots and more on the other side.

I listened to that tape, my walkman tucked into the pocket of my weather-proof coat, every day for months as I walked to class, to the city centre, to a friend's flat, to the train station, to museums and galleries and castles and pubs. The songs rang of strength and friendship, searching and wonder. They were my constant partner as I found myself able to live so far from home, able to succeed on my own in a way I hadn't been sure was possible.

When I came back to the U.S., I was still listening to that same tape as I walked the halls again at UNC, where I found myself surprisingly ready to meet the man who would be my husband.

This morning, more than a decade gone by, I listened to Dave Matthews hum out his "Christmas Song" on the Spotify playlist that I finally built based on that mix tape. There's no tape deck in my car anymore, but I didn't want to give up the tape -- iPhone to the rescue.

Although I was driving roads in Raleigh, running ordinary errands on this ordinary day, I had the extraordinary sense of being transported through space and time I thought were lost. I felt the blessings of being known by a friend discovered in a moment when I needed that connection more than ever. I recalled the confidence borne out of finding my own way. I pictured the path I walked from my flat toward the capitol, the details of my room, the oceans of daffodils filling the gardens, the faces and voices of people I haven't seen since I returned home after we completed our degrees.

And I smiled to myself, holding the treasure of that year and that entire dusty storage bin in my mind.