Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ready for college?

            The physical education teacher at Pip and Polly’s elementary school likes to play a game where he lines up a class of students along the baseline in the gym and then calls out a simple yes or no question. Students who answer ’yes’ run to the other end of the gym and back. Students who answer ’no’ stay on the baseline. The questions are sometimes silly like “Do you like pizza?” and other times stray into how they view themselves. One of his favorites in this second strain of questions is “Will you go to college?” Two days ago Pip was talking about this game at the dinner table and commented that when that question comes along he always runs. “In nine years,” he said, “I’ll be ready to go to college.” My immediate reaction to this statement was that I’d prefer that he not be quite so sure.
            In the No-Child-Left-Behind era, everyone is expected to go to college. This is not just a social expectation. It is an economic necessity. Virtually every entry level job requires a college degree as one of the basic credentials. It is a marker of rudimentary educational achievement and an easy way for filtering out the first layer of applications from stack of resumes.
            But college was not designed to be like primary and secondary school. Attendance in kindergarten through twelve grade is a legal requirement. As such schooling in those levels is provided free of charge to all children. The quality of this instruction certainly varies and what a student gets out of it depends greatly on how much of themselves they invest in learning the material, but there is no choice involved when it comes to taking part. The legal and structural framework views an elementary or high school student as being too young to make a decision about this for themselves. They are required to go.
            At its core, an institution of higher learning, however, presumes just the opposite. The very nature of the college environment assumes that a student who is attending college does so of their own free will. The most prominent indicator of this basic assumption is that all colleges charge tuition. Students are paying for the educational instruction, the skills training, the exposure that colleges provide. Students are not taking part in a grand social project. They are investing their own financial resources – sometimes delayed through the use of loans - in a product. They are buying the services the college provides.
            As such it is ultimately the student, as customer, who decides how much of that product he or she is interested in using. They can go to class or not. They can pay attention and take notes or not. They can do the work or not. College instructors have a responsibility to provide quality material and support for students to learn that material but unlike primary and secondary school teachers they do not have a responsibility to get all students to a certain level of competency. In college, the final responsibility for learning things shifts heavily towards the student.
            This shift in responsibility for learning – the shift from no will to free will when it comes to one’s education – requires a readiness that goes beyond having the ability to do college level work. This shift requires a student to understand why they are doing the work and what it is supposed to be doing for them. This is a tricky proposition. In my own case, when I entered college I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about what I wanted to do after it was all done. I chose to study electrical engineering because it was a challenge and I figured I could get a good job with that degree. But that wasn’t enough to push me into getting the most out of my college education. I did what people told me I needed to do to get a good grade but I didn’t engage the material on my own terms and for my own purposes. As such I struggled with motivation at various points and rarely pushed myself to do the kind of extra work – reading ahead, exploring a topic on my own, asking questions that branched off from the presented material – that leads to something more than a degree. This did not make my college education a complete waste of money, but it did mean I got much less out of it than I could have.
            With Polly and Pip I hope to make the understanding of this shift in responsibility for learning a part of their own evaluation with regards to when and where to attend college. At this point the subtleties of a discussion about free will won’t make sense to them but encouraging them to imagine what they might do when they are older does. I want them to get into the habit of looking beyond college to craft a vision of what they want to do with their lives then figuring out how college can help them do that. I don’t want college to be a default next step in the already programmed slate of education – a thirteenth grade if you will. I want them to see college as a choice they have made for themselves to get them started towards whatever it is they want to achieve.
            To accomplish this, I have made it a habit to regularly ask them about what they want to do when they grow up. This seems like a simple and almost childish question on the face of things but it is fundamentally important, not just because it gives me a sense of what they like but because it forces them to repeatedly articulate a vision of their future. The key to making this exercise work is to get them to tell me why they want to do something. For example, Polly has frequently said she wants to be a veterinarian and when I ask her why she tells me that she wants to help sick animals feel better. For me the second part of this vision is vital because there is plenty of boring administrative work that goes into being a veterinarian and without having a strong sense of why that work is important, of why she wants to do it, the administrative aspects can grind her into the ground.

            All of which brings me back to Pip. Unlike Polly, Pip doesn’t have a real missionary view of what he wants to do in life. He’s curious about lots of things and enjoys learning for the sake of learning. At various times he’s expressed an interest in designing airplanes and rockets or building robots or experimenting with chemicals. This week when I asked what he wanted to do when he was older he said he might like being a chemist working to develop new medicines. All of these are great ideas, and they indicate certain directions of interest that we can explore. However, none of them yet qualifies as a strong vision for what he wants to do and who he wants to be. This isn’t a problem now but it is something we will have to help him develop before he will be actually ready for college.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


            Twenty years ago this fall I started my first year of college. In the dorm room next to mine there lived another freshman, let’s call him Rick. Rick was a pugnacious kind of guy, short and muscular, a wrestler in high school. He could be charming when he wanted to, but he also had a tendency to cross into the territory of the obnoxious windbag. He wasn’t really sure what he was doing in college – I think he was planning to major in business - and I always imagined him eventually washing out and winding up selling cars or vacuum cleaners or insurance.
            What I remember most clearly about Rick is that he loved to talk politics. He was the first real, hardline conservative I ever met, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh when Rush’s act was still confined to AM radio. Rick would poke and prod at almost anyone in an attempt to get them into a political discussion then overwhelm with a bull rush of numbers, policy positions, and odes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan. If you weren’t prepared for it, he could leave you speechless. He’d answer every half-hearted objection to the free market’s distortion of everyday life or uneasy defense of the role government in giving people a chance to succeed with a torrent of sneering counters that came so quickly it was hard to single out any one crack to push back against. He knew the contour of the ideological positions on both sides and dared you to match yours against his.
            The thing was, however, I never felt like Rick actually cared that much about the ideas themselves. Where I was inclined to take a position and chew on it some, tweaking the possibilities, looking for ways to make one group’s ideas work toward the goals of another, Rick wasn’t looking to actually solve a problem. He was looking for the confrontation that could be created by the problem. What Rick really wanted was the fight. He wanted to draw you in, punch you down, and walk away smirking. He wanted the power that came with winning. He liked politics for the sport of it and taking up a position on the angry right allowed him to come out firing at just about anyone.
            When I see Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I can’t help but think about Rick’s approach to politics. Trump is showman, not a politician. His ideas about tax policy, immigration, social issues, and various other topics often lack any cohesive logic, are impossible to implement, or are just plain incoherent. He doesn’t have any allegiance to the broader goals of the Republican Party nor does he have a fine-tuned vision for what the future of America should look like. (I think a Trump presidency would ultimately be a giant money grab for those who have the right connections. He would actually make worse the very thing people are looking for him to change.)
            What he does have is a fighting attitude. His appeal to voters is mostly based on the idea that as a rich guy he isn’t owned by anyone but himself and that gives him the freedom to say what he really thinks. To prove this, he plays a sensationalist game. He’s aggressive, mean, and rude. He’s a classic bully stomping around the playground calling other kids names, making fun of their clothes, and stealing their balls from them. He picks fights because he knows the other candidates are not prepared to face his aggressiveness. He can overwhelm them without having to know anything more than his chosen lines. It’s Rick’s playbook writ large.
            And because of that, I can’t decide whether Rick would love Trump or hate him. Trump is essentially playing Rick’s game on a national scale. As a candidate Trump is the rhetorical spawn of Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the like - conservative personalities who have built up identities where attitude is much more important than thoughtfulness. Their political strategies are based on taking the frustrations many people feel in their daily lives and giving those people targets - liberals, women, gays, immigrants - for expressing that anger. They seek to create an emotional blowtorch and keep feeding it with whatever they think will generate more heat. It’s what drew Rick into political discussions in the first place.
            But I wonder if Rick’s own sense of righteousness doesn’t go kick in when he actually listens to what Trump says. It’s so far off from the lines Rick used to spout that I wonder if Rick feels a disjuncture. Trump’s tone sounds right, but the policies Trump proposes don’t. Does this bother Rick? Does it prick his instinct to chomp down on anything that doesn’t align perfectly with his own? I don’t know. The answer to that question, I think, will go a long way to determining how far Trump will go in his presidential campaign.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Singing in the Choir

            Pip likes to sing. Within two weeks of entering kindergarten, he was performing “This Land is My Land” every chance he got. When the big winter show came along, he put the songs on a loop in his head and constantly brought verses to the dinner table. In the springtime, Eva cobbled together a soundtrack of the 1980’s pop songs in that year’s end of the year show and we belted out “I Just Called to Say ’I Love You’” and “Beat It” whenever we went anywhere in the car.
Interestingly to me, this attraction to singing wasn’t something he talked about in specific terms. He didn’t consciously identify himself as being good at singing and didn’t look to show it off as something he knew a lot about. He just enjoyed doing it and gravitated towards doing more when opportunities arose. He tried out for solo parts when he could and when he didn’t get them, he didn’t go on to something else. He kept coming back and trying again. Last spring, when the school did an arts evening and invited kids who were interested to perform a short piece of music, Pip signed up. He sang God Bless America and did so with a sweet joy that made me smile.
            Back at the end of September a note came home from Pip’s music teacher at school. She and her husband are the conductors for the music program at one of the churches in town, and the note invited Pip to audition for the boys’ choir if he was interested. We like the music teacher – she is one of those people who manages to be serious without being mean – and were willing to let Pip check things out. A strong musical education isn’t one of the priorities we had for our children, but we liked the idea of Pip working in a situation where excellence was expected and performances were taken seriously. For his part, he was very interested in seeing what it was all about though it was hard to separate the privilege of being invited from a true interest in the choir itself.
             So a week ago he went to a trial practice. It was a full one, starting at 4:30 and running past 7:00 with a short break for dinner in between. It was a full exposure to the grind of a choir practice and when I picked him up, he was ecstatic. He talked about the numbering system for following the music and the psalm the choir was working on for that Sunday. Then we took him back on Friday for another practice, and he came out happy once again. There was this whole new world of symbols and structures for him to absorb. He spent the weekend asking what a perfect fourth meant and what were the differences between major and minor scales. He was ready to keep going back as much as he could.

            I’m glad he’s excited. Performing music is one of humanity’s more life-affirming acts. It requires concentration, finely detailed workmanship, and persistence in the face of failure. It can bring one a special awareness of the world’s myriad contours and emotional striations. Plus, it’s expressive, energetic, and fun to turn one’s body into an instrument of beautiful sound.
            With all that said, I’m not yet completely onboard with Pip doing choir. For one thing, we’re suddenly trying to insert a three-to-four-time-a-week activity into an established schedule of eating, sleeping, doing homework, and playing that has been working quite well for us. Meals are getting out of whack. Schoolwork and play expectations are not properly aligned. We are ferrying him back and forth a lot while trying to figure out what to do during the time in between. While there is nothing extraordinary about all of this in the grand scheme of things, I just wasn’t ready for it yet. I’d had the idea that we’d gradually ease into a busier schedule as Pip moved into middle school, and I don’t like having that timeline blown to smithereens.
            But, more importantly, there is a growing up moment here for Pip that makes me irredeemably and irrevocably sad. For almost nine years, Pip has been a constant presence in my life. We did little situps together when he was an infant. We watched construction equipment demolish and rebuild a school when he was two. I wrote a large chunk of my dissertation with him sleeping in my lap. I mowed the yard with him on my back. I taught him to read. I taught him to ride a bike. When Polly was a baby we entertained her together with stories and stuffed animals and silly games. All three of us went on runs together, me pushing a double stroller while Pip and Polly pointed out wildlife along the way.
After kindergarten started, our time together was reduced, but we still have time to run around outside, play ball-tag and hide-and-seek. Pip kicks balls around as I rake the leaves or the two of them will play with the hose while I wash the car. The shouts, giggles, thumps, and whirls of Pip and Polly’s play is the soundtrack of my working life.
Now suddenly I’m losing another large chunk of the time we have left together. On Wednesday and Fridays now it’s come in from school, have a snack, do some homework and then go back out the door. When Pip gets back he eats dinner and goes to bed. Sunday mornings will be much the same.
            And what makes me even sadder is that he’s doing it without me. One of the things I loved about having him do soccer is that I could be there with him, coaching and playing. My favorite moments from soccer were always the ones where we had a few minutes together to kick the ball or shoot before everyone else arrived or after everyone else left. Choir doesn’t allow me to do that. I have to drop him off and pick him up. I have to watch from out in the audience and let someone else have the joy of helping him learn. I don’t like it. He’s my kid. Ava and I worked hard to get him to be the kind of person we want to spend time with and now that time is getting siphoned off by other people. It’s the way life works, but it still sucks.

            Now, I know that just as with school, we’ll get used to the new patterns and find new joys within what Pip learns and does. (In fact, it’s happening already. On Saturday morning while Polly went to gymnastics, Pip sat down at the piano and played for fun. Then we played some short duets together. He was focused on the rhythms and cognizant of the various markings in the music in a way he had not been a week before. It was a really wonderful hour.) But for all the good things about school – and there are lots of them – I’m still tempted from time to time to pull both kids out and teach them at home. At this point it isn’t even about the speed or efficiency with which they could learn. I’d do it to grab as much working time with them as I can. I like this time in our lives together, and I can see it slipping away. Choir practice is only a symptom of a much larger pathology. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pollysaurus Rex

            For the last several days, Polly has been in a tonal funk. Everything she says seems to come out with an edge of shrillness, whininess, or disdain. Her attempts to be funny come off as mean. Her patience for anything that does not go her way exists somewhere in the range between very limited and non-existent. She has teared up at not having as much pepperoni on her pizza as she might have liked and has complained frequently about being tired or cold or hungry - though not for the food that’s in front of her. And she’s been pushy about being right, making an issue of silly things such as the time being 6:47 instead of 6:45. On the whole it’s been a rather unpleasant week.
            This kind of harshness is symptomatic of a person who feels a bit off, and Polly has certainly had her share of annoyances to manage. To start with, she has a tooth in her bottom jaw that is exceptionally loose. For the past week, it’s been flopping around in her mouth and jabbing into her gum whenever she tries to bite into something. At least once at every meal she’s been giving a small yelp of pain and having to swish blood out of her mouth. On top of that the replacements for the two front teeth she lost a couple of weeks back have started to push their way into view. While this kind of cutting doesn’t keep her awake at night like it did when her baby teeth came in, it seems to be enough of an irritant to disrupt her sleep from time to time. She got up in the middle of the night last Thursday to use the bathroom, something that she never ever does, and spent an hour or so after that rolling around trying to get back to sleep.
            On top of the pain from teeth going out and teeth coming in, Polly is also dealing with a case of the sniffles. She had a mild fever during the middle of the week and a hacking cough towards the end that led us to keep her home from school on Thursday. (We dealt with an extended cough this past spring and wanted to head this off before it got too established in her lungs.) The cough hung on throughout the weekend, and Polly still felt off enough on Saturday to skip out on her gymnastics class.
            Lastly, amidst all the off-kilterness of being sick and having a mouth in pain, Pip had his last two soccer games of the season. Polly enjoys the idea of going to watch Pip play soccer, but I think she feels left out as well. It isn’t an immediate or conscious reaction because she gets excited for him and asks to go to the games. However, I think the waiting around and watching, the feeling of being outside of the main action of the day, wears on her in subtle ways that wind up making her feel unfulfilled and anxious. As a result she often gets snippy and short towards the end of a soccer day. When you combine this with an already volatile situation, it can make for a very unhappy child.


            This is not the first time we’ve cycled through such a situation with either kid and in the process we’ve found that the only real solution to all of this irritation is patience. The loose teeth will fall out. The new teeth will come in. Her cough will subside. Pip’s soccer games will end. Polly will get a couple of good nights of sleep and she will return to being the happy, effervescent sprite who draws animal pictures for friends and sprints joyfully out the doors of school each day.
            The challenge is what to do in the meantime. The habits of making mean faces and using harsh words have a tendency to hang around long after the irritants that initially triggered them are gone. If you’re not careful they can become normalized to the point where no one in your immediate circle even realizes how ugly they are. At the same time, we know that constant correction only grinds everyone down and runs the risk of grounding in a child the idea that they just don’t do things right. This latter result is the worst of all worlds in that the child may stop even trying to do what you ask of them because at some level they’ve come to believe they’re incapable of it.
            Being aware of this balance Ava and I have made it a habit to frequently tell Polly that she’s a “good kid” even in the midst of another line of whiny complaints. We work with her to come up with non-inflammatory ways of correcting unwanted behavior such as asking her to tell us what kind of signal we should use when she’s doing something wrong. Her current choice – a single finger tap on our chin - is a good one because it’s wordless and allows us to smile at her while also providing the necessary reminder about how we want her to act. We’ve also used taps to our noses and talked about throwing a hurtful phrase or negative attitude “out the window.” She seems to particularly like this image.
            How much of this effort really matters in the long run is difficult to discern. As with any parenting technique, we don’t have a control group against which to measure the true effectiveness of any of these interventions. At the same time, it feels better to be doing something positive than just sitting around waiting and wondering when things are going to get better. Perhaps keeping ourselves from grinding down is what really matters in the long run.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Not swinging for the fences

            I’ve missed writing an entry over the past couple of weeks because I’ve been working on a short story for a journal. The deadline for the story was October 15, and I got started on the story a bit late in the game. As such much of the time I would usually dedicate to putting together a blog entry was turned over to developing and refining the short story instead.
            The reason this particular story took on such importance for me is somewhat complicated. I finished a novel this spring and over the summer began figuring out how to get it out into the world. In the process I have come to understand what people mean when they say the work of writing a book is only half finished when the writing is done. After that you have to convince several layers of people that what you have produced is interesting enough and marketable enough for them to dedicate their resources towards publishing it. Not having any immediate contacts, I went about trying to stir something up. I identified over one hundred agents that were open to queries from new authors. I put together the requisite materials to send to them along with a letter that was both professional and inclusive of some individualized details. I mailed out the queries ten at a time and then waited, hoping someone would take a flyer on me.
After going through this cycle a couple of times, I began to feel like I was playing the lottery. There is a big prize out there and to get to it you have to play the game, but the numbers are such that your odds of breaking through are ridiculously small. It’s not a matter of quality. There are many stories out there. Some are great. Some are horrible. Both types get through the process and into publication. But for a person like me without any other contacts, credentials, or previously published work, it’s mostly a matter of dumb luck.
This is a horrible position to be in because you have to keep doing the same thing over and over again with the hope that at some point it will produce different results. This creates a feeling of powerlessness that leads people to consider all kinds of desperate measures: phone calls to agent and publisher offices despite explicit instructions not to call, ambushes on agents at writers’ conferences, repeated spamming of agents and publishers in hopes of getting through. Some agents used to exploit this desperation by charging fees for even reading a query and its associated materials. While this practice has faded, it seems that they can still get away with charging for face time at writers’ conferences (one in my area was advertising fifteen minutes of one-on-one time with an agent for $25).
In September I began looking for ways to change the balance of power. Agents and publishers need good material from authors. They can’t make money without it. The question is how to become known as someone who is producing good material and thus someone the agents and publishers want to have working with them. The answer, I’ve decided, is to get material out almost anywhere I can and then use those publications to leverage further publications. It’s basically finding the bottom of the writing ladder and methodically working my way up. One could also think of this in baseball terms as going for singles and doubles instead of swinging for the proverbial home run.
What this means practically is that I am backing away from my agent query efforts in favor of two other strategies. The first is to find a smaller regional publisher for the novel I’ve already completed. It isn’t doing me any good sitting around on my computer. Better to get it out and have a few people in my area read it than have it grow stale waiting for a big break. The second strategy is to try to publish short stories in journals of increasing importance. This strategy is a long term effort, but it has the upshot of getting me more practice at creating and crafting stories and regularly engaging in the process of publication. Whether this will ultimately get me where I want to go is uncertain. However, I like the idea of working on something much more than sitting around hoping that someday somebody will stumble upon me.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Quantum Leaps

            It seems about every two weeks for the last couple of months I have found myself writing about how Polly and Pip are aging right before our eyes. Much of this has to with the new school year and the changing levels of expectations that occur as they move up from one grade to the next. These moves create quantum leap moments when the kids are suddenly asked to do things they haven’t before, and we have to figure out how to make those things happen in ways that promote good long-term habits. For Polly last year it was adjusting to kindergarten and learning how to manage her feelings after a long day at school. For Pip, it was shifting his expectations for doing homework from the ten minutes every other day of first grade to the thirty minutes every day of second grade. Both challenges were at the time overwhelming and fraught with their share of tears but thankfully in time we all adjusted to these new realities.
            This year Polly’s leap involves spelling words. Polly watched for two years as Pip has done his spelling words – writing them out on Mondays, putting them in alphabetical order on Tuesdays, going through them with me on Wednesdays, and doing a mock test on Thursdays. She hovered over his shoulder through it all and took turns calling out words. She even created her own spelling lists from time to time. So when her turn came around three weeks ago, she was close to ecstatic. The moment she got home she whipped out her list of twelve words and did all the assigned exercises for the week right then and there. Then she brought the list over to me and had us run through them three times to make sure she had them all right. The next day she had us do the same thing again.
            While I was thrilled by her enthusiasm, all of this spelling required me to do some balancing. Pip still had his words to do as well and I needed to figure out how best to split my time among the both of them. This was particularly true on Thursdays when both wanted to do their mock tests at the same time. The first Thursday I didn’t handle their competing pulls very well. In the middle of doing Polly’s words Pip came in ready to do his. Polly got frustrated at the interruption, and Pip got annoyed because I wasn’t ready when he was. This in turn made me upset with both of them for having unreasonable expectations of what I could actually do.
            The next Thursday, after establishing a schedule beforehand, things went much smoother. We started with Pip and Polly reprised her roll of looking over my shoulder while I called out his words. Once those were finished we flipped around on the couch and did the same thing for Polly. The whole affair went so smoothly I happily ran through Polly’s words a second time so she could organize them according to their first letter.
            It was nice having us all working together for a few minutes that day. It reminded me of some of my favorite moments with them: the evenings in the winter when we settle in on the couch and I read to them. Pip leans in at my shoulder to watch the words go by on the page. Polly hangs out on my other side coloring or fiddling with a stuffed animal. It has been a while since we’ve done that with each other and it made me happy to have the spelling words bring that memory back.


            Pip’s challenge this fall has been to take greater responsibility for organizing his schoolwork. Every day he come home now with assignments in spelling, reading, and math. At school his teacher expects him to write down his assignment off the board each day, collect the proper classroom materials to bring home with him, and get it all done and returned the next day. While he had the same responsibility last year, the amount of material and the level of attention to these details expected of him are significantly higher. The teacher doesn’t remind him to get his worksheets into his folder. She doesn’t check to see that he’s written things down correctly. She has a formal set of consequences established for those who do  not get their work done on time.
            While Pip is eight years old and it’s probably time for this shift in responsibility, the change is still taking some getting used to. Pip’s already had to use a homework pass after he left a worksheet at school and had to face one of the consequences when he failed to write down his spelling words after he alphabetized them. He’s never been punished at school for absentmindedness, and this new regime is requiring him to recalculate what it means to be a good student. This is all well and good but a touch frustrating for me to watch. I don’t mind having consequences for failing to do what you need to get done. That’s a necessary part of life. However, I like it much better when I’m in control of those consequences instead of the teacher.