Friday, June 26, 2009

Life Sentence

Life Sentence

My mother no longer says my name to me. I visit her once a week. I bring her candy which I have to leave in the hands of the caretaker as there is an issue with regard to extricating some melted chocolate from her purse. She is, as always, sitting ramrod straight, chocolate besmeared handbag primly on lap. Her face lights up when she sees me. She knows that Richard and the boys are significant too but her response to them is foggier. I talk to her but nothing I say registers. She asks the same questions over and over but she cannot process incoming information.

The huge television plays Turner Classic movies. My mother and her two elderly roommates are comforted by the black and white images, a Hollywood better-than-real world to ignite the tiny spark of nostalgia that God has left them. My mother played hostess for hundreds of movie parties in the screening room my father designed on Fulton Avenue. There was a balcony with a mural of a Paris street scene and cigarette boxes and fancy lighters placed strategically and Moscow Mules in chilled copper mugs. When my father left she’d sit alone in the dark den on a Naugahyde loveseat working crosswords and watching KCET.

We visit her at the board and care and Some Like it Hot is on. My mother has seen it a million times. Marilyn, at her peak of bursting ripeness is seducing Tony Curtis and it catches Mom’s attention. “That woman is kissing him. Why is she kissing him?” and then she is gone again. I have nothing to say to her. It is nice to see her meticulously groomed, in pristine surroundings and surrounded with patient affectionate caregivers. It is a lovely place to sit a while and I wish I could but I cannot get out of there soon enough. I stay for fifteen minutes and the caretaker walks me to the door and says, “She loves it so much when you come. Every night she cries ‘Layne, Layne, Layne.”

Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest piece in the Atlantic
"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" warns us off marriage but, on this week of my 18th wedding anniversary, I will say that I love being married. Getting married is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life and if Himself feels otherwise he knows better than to express it, let alone submit this for publication in a national magazine. And he is no less hungry to be published in a national magazine than I am. The short of it is that after Tsing Loh’s extramarital affair was discovered, her husband of twenty years neatly packed and labeled all her possessions, moved them to the front yard and thoughtfully covered them with a tarp. It seems that many of her married friends have secretly confessed to her, that they no longer have sex and also would prefer not to be married. I intuit that her circle is not a credible control group but her findings lead her to the conclusion that marriage is an anachronism.

It is smugly superior of me to claim that my own research subjects/ intimate friends are more reliable but I suspect that they are. The sixteen year old hangs still with a gaggle of kids he’s known since Mommy and Me and many of our own friends are their parents. There have been a few divorces but most of us continue to slog it out and find it gets easier as the children grow more independent. Tsing Loh says that most of her married friends no longer enjoy connubial relations. My research is less scientific and comprehensive than Alfred Kinsey’s but I don’t think this is the case with most of our social circle.

I try to find accurate statistics on the Internet as to what percentage of married Americans surveyed admit to having had a relationship with someone other than a spouse but the numbers are disparate-- some surveys say 30% and others report as many as 60%. I am not going to get into the infidelity thing except to say that I am probably more of the European disposition that it happens constantly and it’s only because Americans are uptight about sex and our society has become more and more punitive that it receives so much attention.

Apparently true to statistics and as Mark Sanford sneaks back from Argentina and weeps for the press, one or both of the partners in a number of our friends’ long marriages has had an extracurricular romantic relationship. And they choose to stay married and consider their marriages happy ones. I ask my first choice for divorce attorney, Dianna Gould Saltman in what percentage of her cases is infidelity the cause of divorce.

She responds: “This is a little "chicken or egg." If someone's spouse announces he never wants to have sex again and she then develops an affair with someone, is it the "cheating" that brought down the marriage? Or if one spouse cheats but doesn't leave and, when the other spouse cheats, the first spouse leaves, was it spouse #2's cheating that brought down the marriage? Also, if someone develops a romantic relationship with someone outside the marriage but never has sex with that person, is that "cheating"? You'd be amazed at the number of cases I get like this. I can say that probably half the cases I get involve someone developing a relationship outside the marriage, but I can't say that that relationship is the reason for the breakdown of the marriage.”

I wish though there was a statistic for the number of compassionate mature adults who quietly mend their marriages and avoid retaining Dianna’s services. The pre-scripted American infidelity reality show is insufferable but has inspired for many mere mortals the blueprint for a programmed reaction to extramarital relationships. Boo and hiss the ambitious man, career hopes dashed, bawling contritely on CNN. Now weep at the stoic dignity of the humiliated wife. This is the price of opting for the political life in such a priggish country, a price that’s unfortunately exacted disproportionately on the children of the indiscreet. Chelsea Clinton OMG! But Ms. Tsing Loh is not running for office. Did she cynically expect that her confessional article in the Atlantic would spur enough controversy to boost her book sales now that she has an extra residence to maintain?

Given American tight assedness about such things, it seems imprudent to make a public confession about such shenanigans if you are the parent of a young child. I ask a writer friend, whose famous writer mother has recently written a memoir, about Tsing Loh’s postmortem of her marriage and she responds, “…it seemed fairly tame compared to other memoirs in terms of ‘mothers writing memoirs which send their kids to the couch.’(It was nothing compared to my mom's memoir, which had some fairly explicit oral sex descriptions, which I basically had to just separate myself from.)”

Perhaps Tsing Loh’s public confession was more discreet than it might have been. She also makes a good point that we, the children of the swingin’ sixties, often cling to our bleak marriages to spite our reprobate parents who married and divorced at the same rate Patty Duke popped pills in Valley of the Dolls. Himself was not a child of divorce but he was such an alien creature to his well meaning working class adoptive parents that he has other issues he can talk about on his own blog. My parents got divorced when I was seven. Infidelity was an issue, but as with Dianna’s clientele, there were deeper underlying causes, amongst them, the naturalness with which both of my parents lied. I stuck through some icky points in our marriage to prove something to them because I felt personally betrayed by their divorce. The first act in the movie of my marriage was propaganda for my parents to prove I was better and that if they had been better people they would have toughed it out and made me a better home. “I love my children enough to endure what you didn’t love me enough to endure” might have been an apt title.

Maybe I say it too often, but regardless of real or perceived transgressions, the complete passage to adulthood requires you to stop being angry at your parents. As I strive to shed my anger, I examine what I experienced as meanness and selfishness to find at the very core, an inability, borne of fear and self hatred, to tell the truth. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it dawned on me that this legacy hobbled and demeaned me. I try to accept that my truths, even though I’d been raised to lie on automatic pilot, are just not that weighty or shameful. What a sweet gift to gradually cast off a lifetime of humiliating secrets to my beloved and to be held more fast and discover that it’s not a movie, but miraculously real.

Himself gets screwed because I am spread too thin to properly regale him with Father’s Day, wedding anniversary and birthday falling so close together, within seven days. We’re not big celebration people but on a couple of cool summer evenings we lie in bed and remember trips we’ve taken. We drove through France one summer, the two lamest people in the world unable to even COUNT in French, just holding open my wallet for toll collectors and getting stopped by police and never figuring out if we were going too fast or too slow and they got so exasperated that they just shrugged and waved us away.

The sixteen year old asks if I’ve seen a movie and I say that I haven’t and Himself says that I have and reminds me of the theater we saw it at and who we were with and feeds me detail after detail until it returns to me in tiny vague flashes and I am finally I am able to conjure an image or two from a screen we gazed at twenty years ago.

We recite long rosters of bygone pets. When we met there was Bowser the dog, and cats: Clarence with six toes, Louie a big sweet gray tuxedo, Beatrice, a meek affectionate little calico, Baby Sunny who had some brain chemistry off and an insatiable appetite for buttered popcorn and a gray and white cat whose name we cannot remember. Himself often wonders how many cats I would have now if he hadn’t married me. For anniversary dinner the You Tube videos of the keyboard cat is the evening’s puerile entertainment. On birthday morning I grab our indolent cats, brother and sister who sometimes curl up together purring until with no apparent provocation they explode into a hateful screeching fight, and squeeze them together, legs swinging, into an involuntary happy birthday dance on the bed until one scratches me.

My mother doesn’t recognize me on my brief visits as the one she cries for in the night. She sits finely clothed and regal as the movies of her youth roll by on endless loop. She lived alone for almost 40 years and there is always someone with her now. Usually, not me. Sandra Tsing Loh dismisses the whole institution of marriage, instead of facing that maybe her dishonesty and not a flawed and corrupt institution, was the catalyst to the crash and burn of her own. I am down to two cats now and my beloved knows most of the shittiest stuff there is to know about me and he still loves me. Details of our twenty year history fade and clinging together in our bed in the cool summer nights we whisper and try to remember.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 19, 2009

12 to 15 Pounds of Flesh

12 to 15 Pounds of Flesh

Spuds says hasta la vista to the town-without-pity charter school he’s attended for three years. In September he will join brother in the Altadena foothills where I know he will be treated with kindness. Peter, Paul and Mary croon "Lemon Tree" when I visit the office. I do worry about the academic quality and our experience with the 16 year old’s teachers has been a mixed bag. Spuds sports a buzz cut these days and I drop him at school for the last day ever and kiss his spiky head and smell the sweet cheap shampoo I am pleased that he prefers. I drive the boys to school and make their lunches, force on them humiliating goodbye kisses and interrogate them about their homework on automatic pilot. This is just a phase of my life, which like the other phases will end. Many of our friends have kids leaving for college in September and someday we will wake to an empty nest. I know that I will be proud of wherever my boys arrive on their journeys but I am bereft at the thought of them leaving me to get there. I arrive at work with a hectic day in store and Spuds calls. He has forgotten his lunch and field-trip slip so I repeat the 16-mile round trip thinking maybe bereft might be too strong an adjective.

For nearly nine months I sit on the sofa watching all the prison documentaries I’ve amassed on the DVR. Sometimes I get up to bake something but more often I bribe Spuds to follow a recipe while I bark instructions so I can eat by barely getting off my couch. I am at work wearing the largest loosest pants I own. Black, of course. Suddenly I feel like my thighs are going explode them and I can’t wait to get home and change. To further punish myself for this despicable fatness, I peel the pants off and don a housedress-type thingie, which my mother would have referred to as a muu-muu. I sit on the couch and polish off a box of crackers.

Last fall starts out with a bang at the office and then, suddenly in October, there are no orders. I lay off employees who’d worked for me for decades and a few guys continue to report for work everyday, even though there are no paychecks. From October through May, business is down approximately 95% from the previous year. I run through the inventory of shitty things that have happened to me, and because watching the family business slip away is so tainted with a sense of personal failure, and there are so many employees who have been loyal and hardworking for decades who are harmed, I believe that this is the saddest and most frightening experience of my life. The first week of June, orders begin to come in and the billing for this month is comparable to June of 2008. I don’t know if it’s a fluke or the worst is over but after spending nine months catatonic in a sea of cookie crumbs on the couch, able again to issue paychecks, I am sensate now and overcome with disgust and boredom.

Despite lack of therapy and organized religion, I surface occasionally from my vegetative state and mine the disaster for opportunities. I write letters to Jewish prisoners and I would be falsely modest if I did not say that this probably makes a big difference in the quality of their lives. The extra benefit that I never anticipated is that the letters I receive in return are rich and transcendent and hugely comforting. Similarly, I have my teaching credential reinstated and spend time tutoring kids in writing for a few hours a week instead of stuffing my face and listening to the phones not ring at the office. Here too I make a bit of difference. I feel good about the penpal and tutoring projects but both have awakened me to the pathetic state of both our justice and educational systems. This is so jarring and powerful to me, that even though business appears on the upswing, I am too invested now to abandon these issues. What begins as an effort to distract myself from my crumbling world and superstitiously clean up my karma becomes a very heavy thing. But, my examination of American criminal justice and education also keeps my personal sorrows in perspective and helps redefine for me “quality of life.”

The counterpoint to the reaching out, is the staying in. Himself and I attend a memorial service and I realize that this is the first social event we’ve been at together in about nine months. I haven’t even been to the movies. I have human contact via the office and bootcamp but the rest of time I run errands and drive the kids around, endure excruciating visits with my mother, cook, and sit on the couch watching t.v. and overeating. Ironically, I suspect that the last nine months, free of social obligations and restaurant meals has been, for my beloved introvert, his happiest time in our marriage. I am reminded for the first time in many moons of our historic polarities when he bolts from the memorial service to the car, heedless of my desire to say hello to some of our many friends or need to use the bathroom. Nevertheless, it is time for me to get off the friggin’ couch.

It is a wonderful sign that it matters again that I fit into clothing other than schmattas and have interaction with human beings. The damage I might have done when faced with such discouraging circumstances could have been much more profound than social isolation and between 12 and 15 lbs., depending on the time of day I weigh myself. I make some social plans, some with and some without Himself. I know that despite his contentment at moldering at home, he will, because he is more attached to me than to his diagnosis of introversion, grudgingly appear a bit in public at my behest. I stock up on protein bars and vile drinks and subsist on this with supplementary Coke Zero, coffee and sugar-free cough drops. I presume we can reenter society without my beloved being too much of an asshole about it and that before long my black cords will sag a bit like they used to.

Perhaps we have endured the worst of the financial crisis but no matter what, I hope that I never again take my freedom and my education for granted and that I consistently demonstrate this to my children. My little letters and tutoring keep me from sinking into cynicism but Himself, dispirited by trying to teach what he loves at an institution that does not value what he has to offer, has difficulty, as the British say, keeping his pecker up. John McWhorter’s piece at the New Republic will most likely give him the same jolt as a Costco value pack of Viagra.
"Why Do Students Have to Wait Until 21 to Commence?"

McWhorter, like me, left high school early for an early college admission program but unlike me and more like Himself, now sees college as being largely irrelevant for those still in their teens and thinks that for most, vocational training should begin at age 16 or 17. McWhorter cites a report (link here but inactive as of today) by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The recommendation of this commission is that formal mandatory education stop at 10th grade at which time examinations are administered to channel students into either upper secondary academic programs, more specialized post secondary programs, or vocational, technical or community colleges, based on state board qualifying exams, much like the British system.

McWhorter points out how much remedial instruction is required when high school graduates, often even honors students, begin college. He points out that college is irrelevant for many students and Himself would heartily agree, that this is often the case. The commission notes how much labor is being outsourced to better-educated, lower-paid workers outside of the U.S. American students and young adults place anywhere from the middle to the bottom when compared to other students on achievement in mathematics, science and general literacy. I tutor a bunch of bright and amiable 10th graders and find most unable to compose a cogent sentence.

McWhorter mentions the eloquent letters written by Civil War soldiers, most of whom had no more than the 8th grade education, the norm in those days. I do not know exactly why modern students are so much less successful than those of times bygone. Part of it due to a decrease in reading. Before radio, film and television, people were much more reliant on reading for entertainment. Having taught writing for many years, I’ve found that it’s a thankless battle to teach this craft to someone who takes no pleasure in the written word.

People whine about college courses not being relevant to students’ lives but I think anything that promotes critical thinking is productive and maybe even a future engineer’s life might be made sweeter with a little poetry. Why are we so determined that every intellectual pursuit result in a financial payoff? We will probably live many years longer than our parents, why the huge rush for relevance? Why, given the lack of employment opportunities, are we so eager to knock kids out into the workforce?

The commission also points out that the qualities of imagination and creativity are perhaps more important than high SAT scores in characterizing American innovation and enterprise. I’m afraid that manacling kids, fresh out of 10th grade, to a vocational path will prevent us from nurturing that which is best about our culture and has defined our contributions to the world. Let’s keep ‘em at least through 12th grade, although Harold O. Levy "Five Ways to Fix America's Schools" makes a compelling case for making education compulsory through age 19. It doesn’t matter what the number is. Our educational system is a big mess and turns out tons of kids who cannot read or write coherently. I hope we are able to look to the past and to the future and figure out what it will take so that our kids are able to read and write and think and imagine. And take pride and pleasure in doing so.

My friend, filmmaker John Cannizzaro, curates a great program of animation at the Echo Park Film Center and it is apt that this is my first foray into the world now that ample butt has been pried from crumby couch. The house is full and enthusiastic and films are chosen by nationality as audience members spin a wheel of chance. John’s own work and that of his pal Mark Cosmo Segurson are accompanied by a live orchestra. Independent filmmakers, particularly those with the patience to create stop frame animation are a rare breed and I am filled with pleasure at their work as well as with the international classics they have painstakingly collected. After nearly nine months of entering the office and smelling thousands of deteriorating films and seeing the rows of empty workstations, this is a rebirth of wonder, a reminder that I love what I do or at least I do when I approximate making a living at it.

This will be my second fatherless Father’s Day and the father of my children’s first. Himself’s birthday and the 18th anniversary of our marriage approach too. We are letter writers and not present givers but I cut off my nose to spite my face and order for him a replacement pair of wife-cancelling headphones, the original having died after years in the excellent service of making my voice completely inaudible to him. This is the consolation prize he gets because now that I am off the couch he will have to endure additional human contact and perhaps a bit of diet-induced crankiness. I pray the worst is over and there will no more cold sweats when the payroll lady calls. I don’t think I will ever feel the same about money again and wonder if I will ever again be able to buy a single thing without looking at the price. I will try very hard to give my kids movie money without looking so stricken it spoils their fun. To my beloved, I wish a happy Father’s Day, birthday and anniversary and thank you for being a wonderful father and for marrying me and being born, from which spring every sweetness in my life.

Perhaps the tetchiness of having eaten nothing but protein bars for a couple of days hobbles me in crafting a nimble ending here but all that comes to mind is the man who is asked why he lets his wife hit him on the head with a hammer and he says it’s because it feels so good when it stops. Well it does.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Banality of Sweetness

The Banality of Sweetness

Himself teaches Monday and Thursday nights and returns after my bedtime. The kids fend for themselves with leftovers. They eat on the couch in front of the t.v. and I don’t even give a crap if they don’t use napkins. Alone in my bed I have to be careful to insert bookmark and remove reading glasses by myself before I doze. Other nights, when the light goes off and we adjust our pillows and I fall against him, I drink in that this is the best moment of the day. I have broken myself now of the lifelong habit of after dinner grazing but before this, the one benefit of him working late was that I could eat whatever I wanted, regardless how crunchy or crumbly or smelly, in bed. Now that avenue of pleasure is closed to me and Monday and Thursday nights are simply to be endured. I struggle often to sleep through the night and sometimes resort to Atavan, but last night I woke up to find my beloved returned and beside me reading. “You’re here,” I mumble. He smooths my hair and whispers, “Go to sleep.” I drift off again but for a brief moment there is a rush of peace and I am thankful for whatever it was that caused me to wake up.

Stephanie Lazarus, a well-respected LAPD detective was arrested for murdering twenty-three years ago, Sherri Rasmussen, who had married her ex-boyfriend. Sherri was a nurse and the close friend and roommate of my most stalwart friend, protector and advocate, Jayne. All of us girlfriends have known for years that Jayne’s roommate had been murdered in an unsolved crime. A few months ago Jayne received a call out of the blue from a detective reporting that the case had been reopened. She was asked to submit a DNA sample herself. It is good that the murder is solved. It is rotten to have all this dredged up again and to look at how much life you have lived in the twenty-three years since another’s was taken.

I wonder if Stephanie Lazarus has an odd relief from that little kernel of fear that I can’t imagine would have ever absented itself. For twenty-three years she has known that if she were discovered she would spend the rest of her life in prison. Now that is sure and certain. In my mind’s eye I see gray dullness, finite and infinite, emerging from the decades that she must have been spent on edge and wary.

Sherri’s father had long suspected that Lazarus was involved in his daughter’s murder. Sherri had noted to him that Lazarus had shown up at her workplace and harassed her and had even broken into her condominium. He wrote a letter to the LAPD detectives in charge of the case implicating Lazarus and made many phone calls. He was told, “You watch too many movies,” and he finally gave up. Perhaps more interesting than the disposition of Ms. Lazarus will be the repercussions for what seems irrefutably to be an LAPD cover up.

Stephanie Lazarus will probably die in prison. Will those who mourn Sherri, who herself died on the floor of a Van Nuys condo, after being beaten and bitten and finally shot, find comfort Stephanie's punishment? Will closure come with the vindication of Sherri’s dad’s suspicions and the revelation of widespread police corruption? It is good that an unsolved murder is solved but I do not believe that anyone will be made to feel better or find any comfort in this. Sometimes it is correct and righteous to permanently lock a person up and if Ms. Lazarus is found guilty she is probably one of those persons. I am glad I am not one who decides such things.

Our compassion for the victims of crimes has perhaps compromised our faith in mercy and redemption. The California Three Strikes Habitual Offender Law, in the form of Proposition 184 was passed in 1994. It doesn’t seem that draconian to give folks three chances and then put them away for a long time or even forever after that. After the second strike, the offender is sentenced automatically to twice what the sentence would have been for a first offense. After three strikes, the sentence is 25 years to life. The law, however, is written in such a way that Leandro Andrade received two twenty-five year to life sentences (and sentences cannot be served concurrently under three strikes) for stealing 9 children’s videotapes. The Supreme Court refused to consider this a cruel and unusual punishment and Andrade will be 87 when he is eligible for parole, quite a debt to society for having stolen, among other titles, "Free Willy."

Under Three Strikes, many juvenile felony offenses count and for many inmates, first-- and often second-- strikes are for juvenile crimes. Time elapsed between crimes does not mitigate three strikes. Also, strikes are not amassed on a per case basis, but by counts. Multiple charges in a single case often add up to three or four strikes. Second and third strikers can only reduce their sentence time by participating in training, work or education by one-fifth, reducing many inmates' motivation to participate in self-improvement activities. Non-strikers are eligible to reduce their sentences by one-half for participation in such programs.

For an example of how this law has altered sentencing I’ll use the crime of receiving stolen property. If the iPod I bought from a very skinny girl with tattoos from Craig’s List happened to have been hot and 35 years ago as a teenager I had been busted twice for a felony like injuring someone in a fight or selling pot, before three strikes my sentence would be about two years. Since three strikes, I would be put away for 25 years to life. At present, 44 percent of inmates serving under the three strikes law were convicted for serious or violent offenses but the other 56% were convicted for non-serious, non-violent offenses. It currently costs about 35k a year to house an inmate but this jumps to about 50k for inmates 50 or older and three strikes has driven way up the average age of a California prisoner. The Three Strikes Law is estimated to cost about five hundred million dollars a year and for the sake of fiscal prudence and to end the proliferation of what seems, despite what the Supreme Court (which I really hope Obama has another few cracks at) ruled, cruel and unusual punishment, I hope Three Strikes is modified to pertain only to criminals who are potentially violent and with more latitude for the consideration of individual circumstances.

Every prison in the state of California holds at least twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. Many inmates are crammed into gymnasiums, often in triple bunks. Medical, psychological, educational and vocational services are inadequate to meet the needs of the population and in the face of our enormous deficit these programs will inevitably be reduced even more. Sadly, the parole protocol doesn’t do much to reduce the chances of recidivism either.

Upon release from prison a parolee receives two hundred dollars and a referral to a parole officer. Because of funding allocations, with few exceptions, parolees are returned to the communities where their arrests took place. Take a moment to consider this and fully digest how boneheaded it is. Parolees are seldom released to halfway houses or transitional programs and with the resources of only $200.00 and a parole officer with a huge caseload, are expected to find housing and employment, stay off drugs and build a new support system in a neighborhood that most likely is not teeming with role models. This, thanks to three strikes, will follow, for many, 20 or more years of incarceration. What kind of job could you get if you’d never touched a computer, your references, if you had any, were more than twenty years old and you had a felony conviction? It would be enormously cost effective and reduce recidivism if the last two years of a sentence were spent in a transitional community parole program.

Stephanie Lazarus, by virtue of having been able to live with herself for twenty-three years after being driven by sexual jealousy to take a life, is probably not fit to live among us and probably will not ever again. But I hope we are able to look at victims of drugs and poverty and fucked-up families and stupid impulsive immature choices with more compassion and that as a society we reaffirm our belief in mercy and redemption.

Prisoners are unlikely to seek out psychological services lest this brands them as weak. Perhaps, Lazarus bought into the LAPD culture, that like prison culture is driven by testosterone, and felt, like many folks, that partaking of mental health services betrays a character deficiency. For many, even if they don’t ascribe to the stigma that only weak lesser people need to see a shrink, these services are simply not available. The kids who most need excellent schools are the most likely to be languishing in rotten ones. Until these two enormous social problems are remedied, I see little hope of making much of a dent in the ancillary evils of substance abuse, violence and crime. My dystopian vision is a California where the availability of mental health services dwindles, bad schools are left to molder and the Three Strikes Law remains in force unchanged and all I can see are vast prisons, infinite gray dullness.

I will post this piece and lock up the office, thankful for having survived another week, this one better than the last, which was also better than the one before. I will buy a challah and we will make Shabbat. I will light the candles and pray for my little family. I hope my boys will forgive the selfishness that has radically changed their world and meant that so many of the things they'd taken as a given have been taken. I hope to be good enough to nurture the optimism they’ll need to do good themselves. I pray for everyone who loved Sherri Rasmussen. It is time that is the healing balm and not punishment and vengeance. I pray that Stephanie Lazarus strives during her life in prison to make reparations to those who loved Sherri and to the human race and to herself. I pray for my penpal. My whole family is blessed by his prayers for us. I hope that the world he returns to in 2017 is better equipped to welcome him back than the world of 2009.

My beloved is not working late and I will not have to worry about falling asleep with my glasses on. His long slender fingers will tame my wild Jew hair as they have for the twenty years in which it's gone from brown so dark 'twas nearly black to gray. Nearly every day ends for me with this sweetness and it is this final moment of wakefulness, almost banal in it's ordinariness, that reminds me that the world can be a sweeter place and of my obligation to help make it so.

Friday, June 5, 2009

School Daze

School Daze

The CHP are poised with radar in front of a school in Altadena and I am pulled over for going too fast. I drive five days a week 13 miles to the 16 year old’s school and then 9 miles to drop Spuds at his and then 9 miles to my office. It takes around 90 minutes. Spuds is in a carpool so we repeat the route in the afternoon and drop off two kids on the top of Mt. Washington two days a week. Spuds is driven home with carpool three days a week and the 16 year old endures a sometimes two-hour bus/train trip. I walked to elementary school, rode my bike-- although it would have been a ten-minute walk-- to junior high and rode a bike and then drove a car to the local high school, my driver’s license rendering me unable to self-propel.

I burst into tears as soon as the cop returns to my car with my ticket. I know that this will make Spuds late for school and he will be forced to spend the first period sitting on a dirty rug on a cement floor as punishment. There are other parents who log more miles to escape their home schools and kids whose parents don’t get the intricacies of the system who languish in the schools some of us would turn tricks on Santa Monica Blvd. to avoid.

My party line for rationalizing leaving Grant High School for an early college admission program was that it was stagnant and stultifying but having to resort to sending my own kids to farflung and problematic (but less unsatisfactory than any of our other options) charter schools, I realize what an exemplary institution it was. The counselor there intuited that I needed out, mainly of the house, and helped me find an early admission program at a school that fit my anarchic tendencies and whose idiosyncratic standards increased the likelihood of my acceptance for admission. There was no investment required of my parents. I was on the college track the day I began kindergarten at Riverside Drive Elementary School. My parents were seldom compelled to advocate on my behalf. The school took care of it. I stayed in touch with many of my high school teachers long after graduating college. As of yet, neither of my boys has made a significant connection with a junior high or high school teacher.

I had trouble with math and have never had an ability to remember numbers. I need telephone numbers repeated several times before I can write them down correctly. I have never completely memorized the multiplication tables. My parents and most of my teachers shrugged off these struggles, because I was a girl. I finally passed Algebra One, in 10th grade, when most of my friends were in Trig, and only because it was a total dumbbell class and was graded on a curve and you got extra points for showing up and I squeaked by with a C minus. I landed, in tenth grade though, with Fred Carrington for geometry. He was the best teacher I ever had. He imparted his passion for the beauty of mathematics with such an enthusiasm for sharing it with us, that I, slightly hindered by the times table thing, earned a B and a wonderful sense of accomplishment when everyone else had accepted my inevitable failure. I always tried to channel Fred Carrington before I taught a class. Several months ago, I was able to track down his e-mail and send him a note, thanking him. In searching him out, I discovered that he had won a prestigious Disney teaching award. This dashed my fantasy that after a lifetime of unacknowledged toil, my letter would be the crowning jewel of his career. I did get a nice note back and I know it made him happy that I remembered him so fondly after so many decades.

A charter school is essentially a private school that agrees to meet certain criteria in order to receive public funds. Generally, these schools get the same amount of money as regular public schools (about 12k per kid per year in California). Unlike public schools though, charter schools have to pay rent and often have inadequate support staff and less qualified teachers. Nevertheless, across the board, charter school students outperform public school students on standardized tests.

We have been involved in three different charter schools. One disintegrated ala Lord of the Flies and I have strong and mixed feelings about the other two. Both were started by moms looking to create an alternative for their own kids. All of the founders share a distinctive, nearly palpable, visionary quality. All are either loved unquestioningly and with cult of personality obeisance or hated forcefully by the parents. Some of us swing back and forth.

The principal/founder at the 16-year-old’s-school is one of the most genuinely gentle souls I have ever met. She is elusive though and does not publish her e-mail address. She holds by prior appointment, first-come first-served, telephone chats with parents on Thursday morning only. The focus of the school is building community and philosophy and resources dictate that the common good always takes precedence over the needs of an individual student. It is hard to get calls returned and the dissemination of information is pokey or nonexistent. I have had to advocate a number of times and always feel guilty when I ask that my kid’s specific needs be given consideration.

We let Spuds make the choice to transfer to the school his brother attends in September. His current school sponsors no social activities, clubs, athletics or anything smacking of fun. The academic and performing arts programs doggedly enforce what sometimes seem like impossibly high standards and graduates have been admitted to very competitive schools. It is a totalitarian regime and parent input is unwelcomed and ignored. Big brother’s 10th grade class reads mainly politically correct middlebrow contemporary fiction. Spuds is reading Marshall McLuhan. We explain to Spuds that his chances of getting into the college of his choice and his prognosis for success thereat will probably be better if he stays where he is. We appreciate the rigorousness of the school, but Spuds, faced with the joylessness, chooses to go for the basketball team and mediocre popular fiction.

Himself will get on his immigrants sucking resources out the mouths of our kids rant when I whine about how my own public school education was far superior, even though we drive all over creation, to the best we can wrangle for our kids. Other kids don’t have parents who can drive to charters or pay for tutors or talk about Kafka at the dinner table. Nearly 86% of white kids graduate from high school but only 52% of Hispanic kids do. There are those who accuse Latino families of not valuing education but Mexico and El Salvador, with the most miniscule of resources for education, have 91% and 81% literacy rates respectively. My former students who began their education in these or other Hispanic countries held the teaching profession in higher esteem than any other group of students I ever worked with.

The L.A. Times reported ("Spitting in the Eye of Public Education") on the Oakland area American Indian Charter Schools whose teacher recruitment bulletin reads "We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply." It reports the school’s test scores are among the highest in the state. It also reveals that it is suspected that the school has concealed efforts to handpick students (all charter admissions should be via lottery) and there are other legitimate concerns, but the reality is that most (98%) of the students are minorities and economically disadvantaged and their families have rejected the bleeding heart liberal warm fuzzy promote ‘em so that they don’t feel bad approach we’ve taken with minority kids since they’ve come to represent such a high percentage of our students.

The statistics look different and become more meaningful, and sad, when income is weighed beside race as a factor. This chart compares SAT scores based on race and family income:

white -w black-b Hispanic-h Asian-a

v-verbal, m-math
income x $1000.00

income---wv--wm--bv- bm--hv--hm--av--am
under 10--409 460 320 315 330 386 343 482
10-20----- 418-459 337 369 349 403 363 500
20-30----- 428-471 352 382 369 420 397 518
30-40 -----433-478 362 393 384 431 415 528
40-50 ---- 439-488 375 405 399 446 432 537
50-60----- 446-498 382 414 409 456 444 549
60-70----- 453 506 385 415 415 458 453 558
over 70----475 533 407 442 430 478 476 595
overall-----448 4 98 376 426 356 388 418 538

Himself teaches at private for-profit technical college that does a lot of recruitment of minority students and gives lip service to humanities only to the extent necessary to fulfill the requirements of the Bachelor of Science degrees they sell. The climate has been corporate for years and the students are considered consumers and it is not a goal of the institution that their course work foster personal growth. The curriculum has gotten more and more boilerplate in the name of "consistency" and "efficiency;" the "General Education" faculty are now mainly facilitators and have no latitude whatsoever in the choice of reading or writing assignments. My beloved is in love with learning and is one of the most dynamic teachers I have ever seen. His employer, which values his PhD merely because it looks good for accreditation, has effectively broken his spirit and cynically has deprived his students from partaking of his gift.

Students at “real” colleges often fare no better than the victims of technical schools that depend on selling the promise of employment to potential students. Himself publishes and presents at conferences frequently and the administration of his college has not been supportive of his efforts to grow as a teacher and a scholar and in fact has disparaged this a number of times. Ironically, this type of activity and the prestige it generates are the life blood of non-technical colleges and often there is such great pressure to publish and present that students are given the short shrift. The faculty is so busy amassing accomplishments to dazzle tenure committees, that there is no time or incentive to actually mentor students.

The New York Times reports ("Next Test") about a new charter school being started in Washington Heights. The teachers are to be paid $125,000 annually and have been recruited with excruciating care from all over the country. When I taught, I put at least two hours of prep time into each hour I actually taught, plus many additional hours grading student work and I spent time before and after school and on weekends working with individual students. It probably works out to about $4.00 an hour so $125,000.00 per annum is almost fair.

I worked in about a dozen different schools and just as I find now at the kids’ schools, there were some competent and committed teachers and administrators. Then, as now unfortunately, there were also a frightening number who were lazy, stupid or actually mentally ill. Good teachers are often disrespected and kicked around and the union keeps this from being even more rampant. The union also has to go to bat for loser teachers and there has been much written lately (see the April '09 L.A. Times series "Failure Gets a Pass") about how nearly impossible it is to get rid of even a dangerous teacher. Most charter school teachers work without the protection of a union. It makes me sad that good teachers are therefore more vulnerable to being treated unfairly and underpaid but the counterpoint is that it is easier to remove someone who’s unfit.

The new state budget only bodes to make things worse. I speak with the director of the 826 tutoring program where I volunteer. He is a former high school teacher who is more than likely taking a big pay cut to try to level the field for kids whose parents can’t afford tutoring. He sighs that he spends most of his time fundraising and that they lack the resources to augment the youth and enthusiasm of the tutoring corps with workshops to build their actual teaching skills. He asks me how I think new tutors should be trained after I make a big fat case that they should be and I don’t know what to say. Most of the students I work with at 826 are Hispanic and this is a group that has been largely failed by U.S. educators. I reject the “you can do anything you believe in/feel good promotion” philosophy which hasn’t done anyone much good but the “no college-tainted oppression liberators need apply” doesn’t seem any more promising.

The problem seems overwhelming and I am not equipped to plug into an educational philosophy in the search for answers. The challenge to level the field becomes even more daunting in the face of the financial crisis. I will continue the daily rush hour pilgrimage to the charter school. I don’t know what I’d say to the new young tutors except maybe if you don’t desperately want your students to love what you are teaching with the same passion that you do, then you should try to change the world via a different venue. “Those who can’t, teach” is cliché enough to have lost meaning but teaching is often regarded as something that anyone who has ever been taught in a classroom can do. A true aptitude for teaching is probably even rarer than a natural aptitude for athletics but good teachers are far less valued than good athletes. Perhaps it’s easier for the indifferent and lazy, indeed, those who can’t, to endure the dispiriting state of the educational system.

My penpal reports that the system has burned out a lot of the inmate population and many attend educational and vocational classes only to occupy space and earn credit towards parole. He writes about his fears for the future when he is released after twenty years of incarceration and the beacon of hope he has found in his classes with Mr. Koontz, his vocational program instructor. It seems inevitable, in the face of the current mess, that this program will be eliminated but he asks that I take a few minutes to speak on his behalf and write a letter asking to save his class and I ask you to do the same:
Office of Secretary-CDCR
Attn: Mr. Matt Cate
1515 S. Street South Building 5th Floor
Sacramento, CA 95811-7263

Re: Vocational Air conditioning and refrigeration
Instructor: Mr. Koontz
Unit 2 CCI-Tehachapi

My Marshall kids read me their first drafts of an essay about a peer’s life changing experience and my group’s results are not stellar but the topics, deportation, miscarriage, and father’s arrest are brave. One of the girls was particularly taken by last weeks reading, a girl’s description of her drug addict mother from an anthology of teen writing. I mention that I could tell that it affected her. Her first reaction is the embarrassment of how uncool it is for the old white lady to have decoded her a bit. Then, she looks me straight in the eye and smiles broadly in thanks for having noticed. Faced with thirty tenth graders lacking enthusiasm for writing, in the last period on a Friday afternoon, two weeks from the end of the year, Andy Molnar, the young teacher, and I suspect perhaps a college-tainted oppression liberator, is generous and energetic towards the task of coaxing writing from the unwilling. The kids like him and not just because he is young but because he consistently reminds them that their feelings and observations matter. He tells me proudly after class that some of the student writings from this assignment have moved him to tears. I tell him that he has done nothing short of changing these writer’s lives by giving them permission to express themselves so freely. He tells me that he received a layoff notice from the school district.

The Parents we Mean to Be (reviewed here yesterday at Amazon by Himself) by Richard Weissbourd-- I have pimped even to people who don’t have kids, cautions us not to try to remedy our own childhoods through our children. Looking at my kids and my role in their lives with this filter has preoccupied me. Himself reads the first fifty pages of the book and says that it makes some good points but complains that it is not enjoyable reading to which I respond, “duh,” as of course it would be much more pleasant to escape with a story than to have much of your core operating system challenged. Separating my own childhood from the rearing of my children leaves me feeling at sea. The more I learn the less I know but the essential truth to parenting and teaching is that both are best done with love and that is really hard to teach.