My Convertible Life

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thursday Soapbox: The Public's Schools

I have a confession to make: As the mother of a rising kindergartner, there's a tiny part of me that hopes all the "neighborhood schools" candidates get elected to the Wake County Board of Education on Oct. 6. You see, as a mom, I'd really love for my son (and, in a few more years, my daughter) to attend the elementary school in our neighborhood.

What's not to love? We could walk to school in 20 minutes, joining with our friends along the way to form a daily elementary school parade. He would be in school with kids he knows, whose parents I know. He'd be at a "good" school that's safe, familiar, stable and on a traditional calendar. Norman Rockwell himself would probably want to paint a picture of it all.

Even before I became a mom, I couldn't fault the parents who complain about (and then form yet another group to fight) annual reassignments that resulted in instability, uncertainty and sometimes long drives for families around the county. Now that I am a mom, I understand their concerns in a whole new way.

But I know too much. I am more than a mom -- a former teacher, a public education advocate, a citizen, a taxpayer -- and I cannot in good conscience support an approach that will lead to the re-segregation of schools, no matter how lovely my personal scenario might seem through the eyes of motherhood.

As a parent, my job is to do what is in the best interest of my own child. But the teachers, administrators and elected officials in our community? Their job is to do what is in the best interest of ALL children, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or who their parents are.

There are plenty of arguments on all sides of the debate around "supporting diverse schools" or "supporting neighborhood schools" (which aren't mutually exclusive in theory, but generally are opposites in practice). I don't have the time or energy or clarity of thought to wade through them all. But here are few things that, from research and personal experience, I know to be true:
  • Schools with high concentrations of poverty have a harder time being successful than schools with fewer low-income students. It's not some kind of hogwash about having poor kids sit next to rich kids so they can learn better. It's simply that students living in poverty, no matter how smart they are, come with additional challenges (like being hungry or not having adequate health care or having a single parent who can't be home much because she's working two jobs) that schools must try to address.

  • Schools with high concentrations of poverty tend to have higher rates of teacher turnover because they're tougher places to teach. That usually means more teachers with less experience and a general instability within the school culture, which means that teachers suffer and students suffer. And that's all students in the school, not just the poor ones. Studies suggest that students in poor and minority schools are twice as likely to have an inexperienced teacher and are 61 percent more likely to be assigned an uncertified teacher.

  • Advocates for a "neighborhood schools" approach who claim that additional funding will be given to schools in poor neighborhoods to help them overcome their challenges are full of crap. Particularly in today's world of slashed budgets, the money won't be there -- or if it does come, it won't last long. And, unless you're Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children's Zone, it won't be enough to make a difference.

  • Wake County's diversity policy is imperfect -- and I think the district sometimes does a poor job of implementing the policy, leaving families feeling ignored and snubbed -- but maintaining integrated schools is the right goal. The district is not "out to get" anyone and derives no pleasure from disrupting parents' vision of how school should be. They are simply wrestling with making the best decisions they can in support of the nearly 140,000 students in the district.
As for the election on Oct. 6, unfortunately I don't get to vote because I don't live in one of the districts on this year's ballot. If you are eligible to vote, I certainly don't presume to tell you who to vote for and am not endorsing any candidates. But I hope that, regardless of where you live, you'll consider that, as parents, we have the luxury making decisions based on our own children. Our school districts must consider all the children at once.

* * *
I may have to write on this topic again -- I've been struggling with this post for weeks and am still not satisfied. It's a complicated issue and I'm inclined to wander off on a million different tangents. In the meantime, if you'd like more information, read Making Choices, a report I co-wrote in 2003 when I worked at Wake Education Partnership, or Striking a Balance, a 2008 report from the same organization. And feel free to comment, argue, debate -- just be polite about it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Making Music Together

When I was four years old, my mother took me to Kindermusik classes -- some of the first in the U.S. My mom then became my first piano teacher, starting me on lessons that would last through three other teachers until I graduated high school. I also studied flute and sang in school and church choirs. Later, my mom became a Musikgarten teacher, singing and dancing with other moms and babies.

Given that history, and the fact that my kids really love all sorts of music and dancing, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I finally took Junius and Pippi to our first music class last week. But better late than never -- all three of us had a great time singing, playing, dancing and jumping along with Ms. Angela and the nine other mommies and 12 other children. In addition to being great fun in a musical learning environment, it's also one of the few activities I could take the kids to at the same time -- not a lot of kids programs are open to both a 4-year-old and a 19-month-old.

During the class, Ms. Angela encouraged all the mommies to sing regularly to their children. "No matter what you think your voice sounds like," she said, "your children will think it's the most beautiful sound they've ever heard." I liked that advice and decided this was a good time to stop listening to NPR in the car and start singing along with our new Music Together CD.

So on our way to Nanna and PopPop's house last week, I put in the disc -- the kids were smiling and clapping and trying to sing along. And I'm thinking what a great mommy I am that I can take them to this fun class and then sing with them in the car and how happy they must be to hear my beautiful voice.

Then Junius pipes up from the back seat. "Mommy," he says. "When you are singing...?"

And I'm waiting for him to say how much fun it is when I sing and he can sing and Pippi is learning to sing and how much he loves me...

"Mommy, when you are singing," he says, "I can't hear the music. Mommy, please don't sing."

His comment left me speechless, thus having the desired effect.

I'm just hoping he won't complain when I start singing even louder in class this week.

Image from Music Together.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday's Five: Girl Reads

My paying job took me to an elementary school media center yesterday, which gave me an opportunity to wander around the shelves remembering all the books I loved when I was a young reader. It's funny how just the book cover can bring back so much of each story, probably because I read them all again and again.

Here are five books I loved when I was a girl, before I graduated to the Sweet Valley High series (admit it, you loved Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, too) -- maybe boys read them all, too, but I think of them as being "girl reads." Hopefully one day Pippi will enjoy them, giving me an excuse to read them again.
  1. Anastasia Again by Lois Lowry: Of the series of novels about Anastasia, this was my favorite -- and the one that made me want to live in an old house with a turret. I adored Anastasia and her little brother Sam as if I had known them in real life.

  2. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery: Another great series with another mischievous girl, I had the box set with the first three novels in it. I think I liked these more than the Little House books, but not sure.

  3. Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt: I had forgotten the title of this book (the first in a series that includes Dicey's Song) until I ran into it again on the shelf -- but I hadn't forgotten how amazing and brave I thought Dicey was.

  4. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume: Is there a girl in America who grew up in the 80s and didn't read this book? How else would I have known about training bras and menstruation?

  5. Nancy Drew Mystery Stories: I don't have a favorite one, but I still have four Nancy Drew books in my collection (two of which were my mother's, now on Pippi's shelves). Always just the right amount of scary, with a matching sweater set.
Did you love these, too? Or were there other favorites on your shelf in 5th grade?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Other Writing Gig

Haven't had much time for blogging this week because I've been busy working on this (released today). It's not nearly as much fun to write, but the pay is better. If you're looking for information about gifted education in the U.S. (or, more specifically, in Guilford County), follow the link.

In the meantime, I've been storing away ideas about all the posts I'm hoping to write now that this project is finished -- funny quotes from my kids, books from my childhood, articles from my year abroad and a soapbox post about public schools.

Hope to get to some of them soon -- my head is getting crowded. Or maybe that's just the allergies that seem to have attacked me today.

Also, in case you were wondering, I have it on good authority that the recent change in barometric pressure is what's making my kids act extra crazy this week. Thank goodness it's not bad parenting.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cardiff: First Week

I was hoping to have another Cardiff post for you by now, but two things have slowed me down:

1. My journal entries are fascinating. To me. But to you, maybe not so much. I'm reliving moments I had long forgotten, but not sure how much is worth sharing. Culling through for good stories to share, but I keep getting lost in the flood of memories.

2. My articles and e-pistles home are all trapped on the hard drive of my old laptop. It was cutting edge when I took it to Cardiff, but now I can't get it to access the internet and it won't read my new flash drives. Hopefully my IT department (aka, my husband) will remedy that problem soon.

In the meantime, here are a few choice lines from my journal from the first week overseas:
  • "Tonight I am courage on Xanax." [It had been prescribed before I left to help manage my extreme anxiety.]

  • "Today one of the old ladies in the International Office told me I have a very British face. I hope that's a compliment."

  • "Later that same day, an Indian student told me I look like a slimmer version of Gillian Anderson [I wish!]. Then a Japanese girl told me I look like an American. Do I say 'thank you'?"

  • "Heard a radio ad today for a used car lot. Just didn't have the same effect as used-car dealers in the U.S. With a British accent, the "200 cars that MUST SELL NOW" sounds strangely polite and formal."
The rest of the journal entries from those early days are consumed with pitiful homesickness and tedious logistics as I tried desperately to get settled. Hope to have a better post for you soon...

Image from Fused Film.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday's Five: Before Pixar

A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with Ty Burr, the author of a great book about watching old movies with your family. He talked about how his daughter chose to have a Katharine Hepburn party for her ninth birthday with a screening of Bringing Up Baby. Listening to the story, I thought his daughter might be the coolest nine-year-old on the planet.

As someone who only discovered old movies as an adult, I loved the idea of introducing classic films to children in ways they can enjoy. I mean, Cars and Toy Story are loads of fun to watch, but I want my kids to know there was film life before Pixar animation. We'll start on the list for toddlers in Burr's book soon, but in the meantime, here are five "retro" movies that Junius has already enjoyed:
  1. The Love Bug (1969): We refer to this one simply as "Herbie" at our house. If your child likes cars, this story is a good alternative to Lightning McQueen. We also liked the sequel, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. We're holding off on the updated version with Lindsay Lohan until he's older.

  2. The Muppet Movie (1979): This one is known at our house as "the one with big Animal," to distinguish it from the other Muppet movies. Yes, there are guns and some scary bits, but I just love the Muppets and the songs are so great.

  3. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968): More cars (you're noticing a theme for Junius) and other fun inventions. And singing a song with the words "chitty" and "bang" is just crazy fun for a four-year-old.

  4. The Music Man (1962): Juni's current favorite in our DVD player -- and I love listening to him march around the house singing about 76 trombones. Plus, it has Buddy Hackett in it, who was also in The Love Bug.

  5. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974):Okay, so this isn't a classic old film. But it's a lesser-known old-school Christmas special and one of my all-time favorites. Catchy tunes and important lessons about faith, friendship and hard work.
Photo from The Music Man Square.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Handsome Guy Wins Heart of Younger Girl, Romance Ensues

News of Patrick Swayze's death this week has no doubt prompted thousands of blog posts. This post comes by specific request from one of my BFFs, with whom I watched Dirty Dancing many times and who emailed me yesterday to say, "If I still had a Netflix subscription, I would move it to the top of my queue."

When Dirty Dancing came out in 1987, I was in 9th grade. It was an awkward, but hopeful time for me. As a high school freshman, the movie played nicely into my imaginary world (along with Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink), where the handsome, popular, older guy suddenly noticed quiet, smart, younger (and let's be honest, somewhat dorky) me and swept me off my feet and into the time of my life.

Sadly, that never quite happened in high school. But it didn't stop me from watching Dirty Dancing over and over and over again, particularly at sleepover parties with my girlfriends. Although we never discussed it, I assume we were all thinking the same thing:
"If it can happen to Baby, it can happen to me! No one will put me in a corner!"
As it turned out, the handsome, popular, older guy did notice me in (grad) school one day, years later when I'd convinced myself that those things didn't happen in real life. There was less leaping and dancing in my version (and fewer cut-off jean shorts), but just as much knee-weakening and heart-fluttering. Now when Pippi is old enough to watch Dirty Dancing, I'll be able to tell her -- after she finishes mocking the 80s -- to believe in the dream, to trust that true love will find her, to know that she is beautiful.

Of course, then I'll tell her that she has a 10 o'clock curfew and isn't allowed to go anywhere alone with a boy. And just like that, I'll find myself identifying less with Baby and more with Baby's parents. Wow.

Photo from Virgin Media.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

For My Husband

As I walked down the aisle eight years ago today, arm-in-arm with my parents, my hands were shaking so badly that I thought I might drop my bouquet. It wasn't so much nerves as excitement and emotional overload.

When I got to the front of the church, I took my soon-to-be-husband's hand, kissed him on the mouth and promptly stopped shaking.

After the wedding, I got a lot of teasing about how I was supposed to wait until the end of the ceremony for the big kiss. But it was totally worth it.

We might have surprised a few people with our choice of song for our first dance, too -- although not our next door neighbor, who didn't realize he'd been listening to us practice our shag moves (no, not that kind of shag) every time it played.

Happy anniversary, my love. Only 42 more years until you get to renegotiate the contract.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Floyd, Fear and Flying Far

Ten years ago tomorrow, I boarded a plane at the Greensboro airport en route to Cardiff, Wales.

I was terrified. I don't like to fly under the best of circumstances, but my connector flight to D.C. was to be the last (tiny) plane out before the airport closed due storms from Hurricane Floyd. The turbulence from bad weather alone would have been enough to tie my stomach in knots.

But my fear of going halfway around the world to live for a year -- without my family, friends or even a passing acquaintance -- meant I hadn't eaten or slept much for the few days preceding the flight, leaving me a weak, sniffling disaster with a passport and a whole lot of luggage. If not for the support of one of my dearest friends who waited with me at the D.C. airport and another BFF who made a care package to keep me entertained on the flight to London, I might not have survived the trip.

When I arrived at my flat in Cardiff the next day, alone and exhausted, I was certain I had made the biggest mistake of my life. That night, I began my first journal entry with these words:
"I am courage. At least that's what Mom said when I called her from my host Rotarian's house sobbing at 5 p.m. She said that courage isn't being unafraid; it's being afraid, but still facing your fears. So, here I am, facing them."
She was right, of course (moms usually are), although it took several weeks before I believed her. And the year, spent studying magazine journalism at Cardiff University as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, was one of the best decisions I ever made.

In celebration of that decision and in thanks to my parents for helping me find the courage I needed a decade ago, I'll be posting excepts from my year abroad over the next month -- some snippets from my journals, but also copy from feature articles I wrote while I was there. Since I wasn't tech-savvy enough to be on the forefront of blogging in 1999, I'm taking this opportunity to relive the experience now -- hope you don't mind coming along on the trip.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thankful for Blue Skies

Friday's Five will return next week. Today's date simply required a different post than usual.

Today is a day for remembering, a date that has become a proper noun -- Nine-Eleven. For many people, today means mourning the loss of loved ones, recounting stories of where they were when they heard the horrible news, honoring those who worked so hard to save the lives of others, wondering how eight years have passed so quickly. It is a day that reminds us of endings.

For me, today also brings memories of beginnings. I got married on the Saturday after 9/11, on what would have been an ordinary, blue-sky wedding day but what became a much-needed reminder that there was still life to celebrate in spite of the extraordinary tragedy of that week.

Although several family members and friends were unable to make it to our wedding (no flights from California or Texas -- and as my brother-in-law said, by the time their flight was officially canceled, they couldn't have driven to North Carolina in time), we were fortunate that our "big day" still took place as planned. And we were truly honored by the extra effort many friends and family made in order to be there with us, driving long distances or (in the case of two friends) catching the first re-scheduled flights out.

It was a beautiful day, that Saturday. I was a crazy bride, and probably owe apologies all around, but it really was beautiful. And it was such a blessing, on that day of all days, to be able to sing and dance and laugh and love and kiss and hope and be thankful.

This photo, taken by my cousin on the afternoon following the wedding, appears to be simply a shot of the country club where we had our reception -- at first glance, I thought this picture did nothing more than show how perfect the weather was that day.

But look closely -- although it's hard to make out in the scanned-in reproduction, there are two telling signs of the week captured here. See the flag? Even four days later, it is still at half-staff. And just above it? A fine white line of jet exhaust. Flights started taking off from PTI that morning.

This picture captures nothing of the ceremony or the celebration that kicked off our now eight years of marriage. But I treasure it as a reminder of how fortunate we are to be living a beautiful, ordinary, blue sky life.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Back to School

Is it tacky to do a big dance in the preschool lobby after dropping your kids off for the first day of the new year?

I mean, I know that it can be a tough day for mommies (and daddies) taking their little ones for the first time. I remember that day, three years ago -- Junius was delighted with all the toys, but all I could think about was that my baby didn't need me anymore.

But today, I am positively overjoyed to take them both to their very lovely preschool with their very wonderful teachers and come home to get some work done for paying clients. And it's not their first year, which made the dropping off even easier. So yes, I did a little dance groove on my way out of the school, humming the Sesame Street "Preschool Musical" song to myself.

This summer I learned that I'm really not cut out to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom (I had already suspected it, but this was my first extended period of time home with two children when we were not in the midst of moving). Most of the time I'm okay with that, but occasionally I have pangs of guilt and inadequacy about not wanting to be with my children all day every day. Then a friend reminded me yesterday that being a SAHM is a skill (and a talent), one that she and I have never had to develop because we've always been working a part-time or full-time job. Those moms who do it -- and do it well (bless them!) -- know that it takes serious effort to make that time at home work for everyone. My friend assured me that we could both learn how to be full-time SAHMs (without the help of preschool) if we had the opportunity.

It made me feel better to hear her say that. For now, I'm going to trust that she's right. And I'm going to say a little prayer that I not have the opportunity to prove her wrong.

P.S. The photo above is one of several I tried to take this morning before we left for preschool. Why oh why is it so incredibly difficult to get both kids facing the camera at the same time? I'm not even asking for smiles -- just both of them showing me their faces. Argh.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Perfect Storm

In the weeks leading up to our beach trip, I was increasingly nervous that our annual vacation would be ruined by a hurricane. The summer's weather had been strangely quiet despite predictions of a rough season, so I feared Mother Nature was storing up for a disastrous storm.

As it turned out, the weather was mostly beautiful while we were at the beach. But I was right to be worried -- although it may not have made the news where you are, there was a big coastal tempest by the name of Hurricane Pippi:

Hurricane Pippi brought sunny skies and nice breezes, but also 5 a.m. wake-up calls, nap strikes and perpetual motion accompanied by serious teething. When she wasn't chasing the sea gulls or running into the ocean, she was attempting to remove her swimsuit, rolling in the sand, stealing our friends' snacks, yelling at the top of her lungs and tasting shells.

And as if that weren't enough, there was the Friday evening adventure to urgent care to check her wrist that may or may not have been sprained by her mother (who was holding Pippi's hand and jerked on her arm to keep her from sticking the other hand in a bag of poopy diaper -- you know the move because you've done it a million times before). She was fine by bedtime, but her anguished sobs and complete refusal to use her left hand had us scared for a few hours.

All in all, it was a wonderful vacation with family and friends. But now I need a week to recover from Hurricane Pip. Thank goodness preschool starts on Wednesday!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Definitely Not the Duggars

Four summers ago, we met the T and H families here at the beach. They had come down together from Charlotte, but it was a happy coincidence for us that we were staying next-door to families who each had a one-year-old like us. We bonded over early morning playtime on the beach (why can't these little ones understand the joy of sleeping in on vacation?!) and had so much fun that we made plans to return to the same place same week every year.

Since that first summer, our group has grown from three babies across three families to nine kids and four families (two with three kids each). For my children, it's all the fun of having seven extra cousins without any of the work. For me, it's a joy to have interesting people to talk with and share life with, outside the busy context of our "regular" worlds back home.

One of the topics of conversation this summer has started with the lead-in, "So are you guys done?"

Over the past year, my husband and I seriously considered joining the three-is-the-new-two approach to family planning (I mean really, I have SO many friends with three kids now). In fact, it was a tougher decision than I expected. After growing up in a family of four, I always assumed I would have two kids as well -- but it's such an amazing thing to create a tiny person out of nothing and then watch him or her grow, it's almost addictive. Our children are beautiful, healthy, funny, smart and interesting (if we do say so ourselves), so why wouldn't we want more? Plus, maybe if we had another one, I'd get one who looked even remotely like me (although probably not).

But my response to the question this week has been, "Yep. We're done." Followed immediately by a long-winded explanation of why we made that choice, including a host of reasons like...
  • our age (I was already "advanced maternal age" when Pippi was born, which is still several years younger than my husband)
  • our cars (which are paid for, but can't hold more than two car seats)
  • our energy levels (severely depleted after not sleeping through most nights for the past four years)
  • our marriage (which doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves while we try to manage everything else)
  • our concerns about a third c-section (which means a longer, more painful postpartum)
  • our finances (which are holding on for the moment, but would get thin with more family members requiring food, clothes and college funds)
I'm not sure why I can't just answer, "Yes -- our family is complete," and leave it at that. Maybe it's because, ultimately, I'm afraid I can't handle a third -- just not organized enough or patient enough or creative enough to manage any more than the chaos I already have. My tenuous hold on sanity and good parenting might not survive two more little hands pulling me in every direction, accompanying me on every trip to the toilet, making demands on my every waking (and sometimes sleeping) minute. If I'm honest, I think we're done because I'm done.

But then I hold a sweet new baby, sniff that fresh baby head, cuddle those tiny rolls and creases. In that moment, I think maybe just maybe we rushed into the decision to stop, maybe there's another baby in my heart, maybe we really could manage three.

And then that sweet new baby starts to cry or spit up or fuss and I remember how hard and exhausting and lonely those new babies can make me feel. And I'm over it.

Thankfully, our beach friends aren't done yet, so maybe there will be more sweet babies to hold and snuggle and sniff next year -- and then (thank goodness) quietly hand them back to their parents.

Note: If you don't get the title of the post (or if you have suggestions for a 19th "J" name), go here. And if you haven't commented on my post for the contest at Triangle TRACKS yet, Friday is your last chance.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Body, Myself, My Daughter

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, we were visiting my grandparents on the Chickahominy River one summer. I vividly remember walking out onto the pier in my one-piece swimsuit, when my Nana saw me and declared, "Why, dahlin' -- look at you! You've got hips!"

In retrospect, I am certain that Nana meant it as a compliment. At the time, I was mortified. Horrified. Wanted to melt into a puddle and slide off into the river and sink deep down into the muddy bottom. At that age, I was self-conscious enough about my body and the effects of puberty (or lack of effects, in some areas) that the last thing I needed was to know that someone else was noticing me -- even if that someone was my grandmother who loved me very much.

Now, more than 20 years later, I'm still afraid that people might look at me in a swimsuit and critique what they see. The truth is that probably no one is paying that much attention to me and that I am my own worst critic.

But I'm trying hard to get over that -- after two babies, I'm starting to realize that I actually looked great in my 20s, so I trust that I'll think I looked good in my 30s when my 40-ish self is looking back at photos. That's the thought that motivates me to put on a bikini when I'm at the beach -- that, plus the fact that it makes my husband very happy to see me in one.

But what worries me even more than how I look is how my body-image issues might affect my daughter.

Right now, Pippi is roly-poly round and absolutely gorgeous -- her toddler belly pops out in front of her, she has tan-lines in the pudgy creases in her forearms and thighs, and every ounce of it is beautiful. She's also completely uninhibited (see photo -- she's preferred to be topless at the beach all week, too) and has no thoughts about what her body should and shouldn't be. I want so much to help her stay like that, to always believe that she is beautiful and that her body is exactly how it should be.

But given that I haven't managed to feel that way about myself in three decades -- and given all the forces around her that will shout about the need to be thin or have big breasts or look a certain way -- how do I teach her to hear a different, stronger voice inside her head?

I think it might start with me, my voice, and the voices of other people who love her. Maybe if her father and I and her grandparents and our friends all talk about being healthy and confident, then she'll have some defenses built up to fight against those other voices.

When she was a newborn, my dad would hold her and say to her, "You are SOOOOOOOO beautiful," in this sweet, sing-song voice. She always smiles at him when he says that, like she knows exactly what he means. Hopefully, when her Nanna and Nonna comment on her pre-teen body one day, she'll smile and say, "Thank you -- I think I look so beautiful, too."