PSA: Social distancing at the length of a small gator

Hey friends: as a public health professional, I’d like to offer up a video that I thought did a great job of explaining the purpose of social distancing.

Thanks for all you are doing to protect our most vulnerable friends, family and neighbors.

If you’ve ever felt called to serve but never had time, this is the moment! All we’ve got to do is work at home, keep kids learning, chill out, do a puzzle, get a little bored, watch some movies, go for walks with our household members, ride bikes, give each other 6 feet (as my FLA husband knows, about the length of a small gator) and generally behave like there are no hospitals available to you for awhile.

As I recently heard Minnesota’s Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm say, #stayathome means social distancing is no longer a suggestion, it is a requirement. It is specifically required of those who do not work in “essential service” to our community. For those of you who do not, honor those of us who do: #stayathome.

Tweens and teens are especially vulnerable to isolation – it is practically developmentally inappropriate to ask them to stay home with their families for weeks with no social contact with peers. Yet, we’re doing it. This is hard. In public health, we plan for some weak links. Let’s make sure, as grown ups, we are not the weak links. In fact, if you’ve never considered yourself a role model, this is likely something you can absolutely nail for our kids and their grandparents!

Children and youth need time outdoors to play in order to grow and thrive. We all need to exercise in order to boost our immune systems and care for our chronic conditions and mental health. Please do. At the length of one small gator or more.

At the end of this, I invite each and every one of you over for a visit on our front porch. For now, I’d like to invite you all to break out your drums, bells, noise makers and voices, step out onto your stoops, and hoot and holler together each Monday evening at 5 PM from wherever you are.

Please share!

Need help?

Remember: It is ok to keep the bar low right now – the kids are all right. If things are not all right in your household, we have to learn to ask for help. Here are some resources: 

Minnesota crisis textline and suicide prevention: 741 741

Children’s mental health and crisis response in Minnesota

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is only a phone call away: 1-800-273-8255.

If you are in need of assistance with medical care or health insurance, Community Health Centers are a trusted resource across the U.S.

At Minnesota Community Care, we have completely transformed in order to meet the essential health care needs of our patients, offer screening for respiratory illness, and provide resources via social media to families and youth on managing anxiety, isolation, and school at home.

United Way supports 211 helps people across North America find local resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Here are some great home-learning resources from Common Sense Media: Wide Open School.

World-wide Free Forest School has published tips on how to get your kiddos outside and learning everyday! 

 

 

My son has a super-power. Does yours?

“I’m here with your 3rd grader,” my son’s special education teacher explained on the phone.

I waited. Please don’t say he threw up. Did he swallow bits of his shirt collar again? Maybe it’s just a fever.

“Tomorrow he’s going to tell me what you did to celebrate. For the first time in 4 years, he tested at grade level in reading today.”

I had to pull over. I cried on Lake Street for the arguments we had before I learned he wasn’t being lazy or stubborn. I cried for the phone calls and the emails and the classroom visits and IEP meetings. I cried for the books we’ve read, the camps we’ve attended, the tutor we insisted upon-yes-even in summer.

I released the anxiety we have felt as we rapidly approach the end of the 3rd grade, knowing only 25% of kids who cannot read at grade level by then are predicted to graduate.

I cried with gratitude for the generous grandparents who have financially supported his needs, the hours of creative problem solving his tutor has dedicated to him, the kindness and patience his teachers have provided him and the skills his special education team employed to get him this far.

I released the guilt that we hadn’t done enough.

We knew going into kindergarten that something was different about him despite the fact his pre-K screening was normative. Come to find, he had all the hallmarks of Dyslexia. We asked about testing and our assistant principal suggested we wait–see how he does.

In Minnesota, kids without a diagnosis qualify for special education through the discrepancy model. They receive services if testing shows their ability level and performance level are disparate enough to suggest a “specific learning disorder.” Parents are often encouraged to wait until first grade to test because it is very difficult to qualify on the discrepancy model as a kindergartner.

The only other way to qualify for special help is a diagnosis and 504 plan. We were told by our pediatrician that Dyslexia, which we suspected, was an educational diagnosis. Insurance would not cover the $2000 neuro-psych testing. And guess what? School psychologists cannot diagnose Dyslexia because it is a medical diagnosis–an ugly catch 22.

So we had to let him fail first. This is what it looked like.

He was behind when he started kindergarten. He sat in a classroom feeling baffled while kids around him captured things he could not even see. He loved his teacher and she loved him but he cried before school everyday. He had tantrums after school. He chewed his clothes and his own lips to pieces. He had eczema. And honestly, I am fairly certain he had the best kindergarten teacher in this world.

By first grade he called himself “stupid” often. He told us he hated himself. He had emotionally “dropped out” of school and developed anxiety.

“Oh,” they said. “Now THAT is a medical diagnosis. NOW insurance will cover testing.”

Still at reading level A, the school then wanted to test him. His teachers knew he needed extra help. The educational psychologist described the findings and called it a “specific learning disorder.” Though he was in the 2nd percentile for reading, he scored in the 96% percentile for comprehension when stories were read to him. The psychologist looked me in the eye and nodded his head as he said, “I cannot make a diagnosis of Dyslexia.” Consistently in this process, the school appeared to be going above and beyond what they were allowed to do for him.

He would now be removed from his classroom for two hours a day of specific instruction in reading and writing.

He also received accommodations. Our school has coordinated assistive technology, shielded him from unnecessary standardized tests, placed him in classrooms with student teachers and provided him extra support. Unfortunately, with a classroom of 30+ kids, this often just means expectations are lowered for dyslexic kids and they are excused from some activities, like spelling tests and reading aloud.

Though his teachers were incredibly supportive and skilled, he made very little progress in reading or writing in first grade. The primary skill he learned was pretending to understand.

He had delightful friends but they accidentally hurt his feelings daily. “Why can’t you can’t read that?” Some laughed at him, not understanding. He developed strategies to avoid attention. He got amazingly good at deducing what was happening in books and worksheets from the context. He became more and more introverted and more and more creative, also hallmarks of a dyslexic brain.

His special instruction had a ratio of one teacher to five kids at most. The tools that our wonderful, big-hearted, special education teacher had were blunt instruments for a group of kids with a wide variety of challenges: lower IQs, ESL, Dyslexia, ADHD, unknown. She was not provided adequate resources or training to meet the disparate needs of all those children. This is happening across the country–our situation was not unique.

We found a grant for her to attend an Orton Gillingham reading instruction training. This is a sharp tool. OG is one of many evidenced-based strategies for teaching struggling readers that is multi-sensory, going beyond Response to Intervention models. Within months the following school year, she told us her training was creating change for kids who were unresponsive to everything else she had tried–it worked.

She helped us find him an after-school tutor and introduced us to Grove’s Academy, a school that incorporates evidenced-based practices like OG into the classroom experience for neurologically diverse learners. I asked him if he would be willing to spend six weeks of his summer at reading camp. He looked at me, blue eyes welling tearfully, cheeks blown out and angry red under a flop of white hair. My mini Einstein. He shook his fists and stomped his foot and screamed, defiantly, “FINE!” and walked away. Another hallmark of Dyslexia: our son is tenacious.

Grove’s was able to say out loud what public school psychologists could not, “the findings of his test results are consistent with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia.”

You may be against labels. So are lots of parents and educators and therapists and pediatricians. But let’s be real–Dyslexic kids without a diagnosis have labels for themselves and they live with the labels others assign them: stupid, lazy, stubborn, defiant, disturbed.

Nothing, NOTHING, has helped his crumpled heart more than when we told him, “You have Dyslexia.”

“Buddy. You know all that testing we did? And you know how it is hard for you to read like some of the other kids? Well, we found out there is a reason that you’ve been struggling. Your brain is unique. The way you learn to read has to be unique too! They call it, “Dyslexia.”

He jumped up into my arms and crushed me in a hug. He was wearing a cape. He said, “I have a super power!”

Unless you have a child with Dyslexia or another learning difference, I can’t imagine you can truly understand the significance of early illiteracy on your self-confidence and sense of wonder. In grade school, we go from learning to read to reading to learn. Wilder entered school excited to use his gifts and talents to learn. It took him less than a school year to realize that there would be destructively little time in his school day for what comes easily to him: creating stories and art, reasoning scientifically, empathizing with others. Grades one through three are really all about reading.

But he is getting better over time at advocating for himself. His support team in school works together to ensure his days contain successes and opportunities to use his assets. He understands that despite the fact he has to work harder to do a lot of things, he is exceptional at some things. He is also getting better at failing with self-confidence.

Let’s go back to that phone call. She knew it was a significant moment. She knew how hard he worked to get there. She was determined that we celebrate him. His teachers are incredibly committed and skilled–they offer multi-sensory approaches, individualized instruction, relationship building, positive reinforcement, high expectations. When we celebrated that night, we toasted the educators he has on his team and the resources they have been able to engage on his behalf. I want kids with dyslexia everywhere to have these opportunities and from what I have learned from other parents, we are very fortunate.

A group of parent volunteers and teachers have spent thousands of hours at the Minnesota state Capitol attempting to get lawmakers to insist public schools provide kids with reading disabilities an equitable and appropriate education: Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota.

This week I sat before a Senate committee asking them to provide the Minnesota Department of Education a Dyslexia Specialist. We would like to see: early identification that avoids early school failure, classroom instruction in reading that incorporates strategies which will work for all learners, and grants for teachers to access professional development in Dyslexia.

They only appeared moved by this…

I’d like you to picture something you learned to do for the first time recently. Do you have any new hobbies? Professional skills? Anyone trying Twitter?

Now imagine your first attempts. Was the learning curve steep? Did you ever doubt your abilities when your colleagues learned faster? As you experienced success, did consistent progress keep you engaged?

At the beginning of 3rd grade my son was at the same reading level he was at when he entered kindergarten. If you had made no progress in 3 years, would you have kept going? Would you feel anxious? Depressed? Might you act out?

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people have Dyslexia. ​(Connecticut Longitudinal Study)
  • 50% of adjudicated youth tested were found to have undetected learning disabilities (National Institute for Literacy, 1998)
  • Approximately 80% of people with learning disabilities have Dyslexia which makes it the most common learning disability ​(American Academy of Pediatrics 2011)
  • 3rd grade reading proficiency scores can be used to predict the number of new beds needed in prisons 10 years hence ​(OhioHigherEd.org)

I am hopeful these upstream efforts will reduce the emotional burden of Dyslexia, especially for the most vulnerable kids who may or may not be identified because the expectations on their learning and behavior were unjustly low from the beginning. There’s no reason to let these kids fail when we have the tools available to enable their success. Despite limited resources, our child’s school is effectively supporting him. I can’t stop there. All these kids deserve to know that they have super powers.

 

Heavy hearts, hands full: what to say to children when the bully wins

I am sharing my Facebook update here from last night at 2am. I’m broadcasting it wider because I have had so many uplifting  “thank you’s,” “shares,” and comments since then. If I can bring a little light and solace today, it will warm my heavy heart:

It’s 1:57 and I’m thinking about what to tell my kids in the morning. Here’s the plan:
1) Trump is now our President but it does not make him your role model.
2) It is now, more than ever, important to be kind to others, respectful of women and inclusive to differences.
3) I told you love wins and now you are seeing someone who acts like a bully win. People pick bullies to protect them when they feel weak and afraid. If there are lots of people among us feeling that way, we have work to do.
4) Sometimes grown ups make mistakes. I think as grown ups we’ve made a mistake by giving an important job to someone who bullies others.
5) You are safe. It will be ok. The world is full of good people.*

*I am afraid for us all.

Yes, we have a ton of work to do.

img_0001 Hello this is Shawna and I am calling from the Hillary for President campaign. No I’m not a “jerk.” Nope not an “intruder.” No it’s not “illegal” to call at your kids’ bedtime but I feel your pain. Oh nice, you voted already? Woot Woot! Waited for 70 years? You cried? You’re crying again. Yes I understand. Yes I believe my grandmother would too. First time voting? Exciting! I hear you, but I’d still pick a candidate. Well, which one best aligns with your hopes for the future? Congratulations and thank you for choosing to vote! Standing Rock? I can imagine. So disheartened. Let me find out…Ok how about 9 volunteers Saturday morning? Meet you at Little Earth? Absolutely. Well, I suppose because I want to look back on the first campaign for a woman President and feel I was a part of it. I definitely think door knocking is still worthwhile. Minneapolis, yes, but it’s a big state. I believe her candidacy has merit–I’m not just voting against him. Yup. Totally understand. The emails concern me less than the lawsuits. No but I am raising boys. I don’t want to have to tell them our President is an inappropriate role model. Pot roast? No I can wait. Most important to me? Access to health care. I’ve been reading her policy for two weeks. His? A 10 minute read. Yes the whole thing. Do you know where to vote? How about this weekend? Vote early and the lines are shorter. No, legally your employer has to both allow you time and pay you for that time. I’m not kidding. It’s a misdemeanor. Yup. Text me and I’ll report them. Our kids’ school is a polling place and this is the first time I’ve ever wondered if they are safe there on voting day. Right? Sad. I’m glad we know more about our country now too. Yes, we have a ton of work to do. More than I’d hoped as well. Yes I’m with you. Yes I’m with her.

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I’m with her. No, really. I’m with her.

Contractions, kindergarten, middle school and tomorrow

IMG_7276My material is growing up. It’s going to middle school tomorrow. And 3rd grade. On Wednesday, kindergarten. Pretty soon, their stories will be their own—not mine to tell.

I’m sitting here with two glasses of wine and a glowing candle. When it goes out, I’ll stop writing and go to bed. For now, it is suspending me between summer vacation and children who grow up too fast. I had a toast with the 2nd glass, poured for my husband who can’t stop folding laundry. He also did some chores tonight that he’s had in the works for years. We have different suspension systems.

Tomorrow when I wake up I have to pack lunches and deliver my babies. It doesn’t feel that different than impending births. They still kick me in the ribs–especially my youngest. In utero, he once kicked me so hard it knocked me off course, foreshadowing the kid to come. At nine months, he climbed out of the crib, de-diapered, crawled down the stairs, ascended our countertop, removed a bottle of children’s IB profen from the cupboard and finished it as I rounded the corner after finding his crib empty.

Whenever I speak sternly with him, he responds, “Geez, Shawna,” as if we should be working things out woman to man. He is enterprising and canny and luckily, cute.

I am hoping his kindergarten teacher sees him that way too.

Speaking of small men, my oldest has turned twelve. I anticipate I will soon have a bearded transportation engineer on my hands and it will be time to retire to the lake and start selecting a nursing home. My rational self reminds me he still plays with toy trains.

I shared with my husband last week, “After they grow up, it seems like life will just be hard.” He reminded me that life with little ones is actually really, really hard. And no, we should not adopt a baby girl now.

I don’t actually want more babies. I want to know today who I will be with no babies in my house, the same way I anticipated who I would be once motherhood began.

Yesterday I ran 9 miles. Today, I walked the dog, hiked with the family, swam with my middle son and did some stairs. I have no babies to rock all night and toddlers to chase all day. I may break up more arguments, clean more wounds and talk through more hurts, but I feel a bit like a stretched out balloon that now takes more air to refill. For the first time in a long time, I have both a capacity I did not realize before parenting and time to fill it with a few more things for me.

Or so I think today. I am also still in transition to full time work outside of the bouncy castle that is our home. So far, though far busier, it feels less hard on my body. Sometimes, I speak in paragraphs and finish cups of coffee. But I am entering the unknown and nervous. Reprieves have tended to come and go like contractions over the past thirteen years.

I remember when my oldest was crying in my arms at the JCC when he was about a year old. A beautiful older woman who spoke very little English walked up to us and started to gently rub his brow. He fell asleep. She said, “Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems,” and walked away.

At this moment, I feel ill prepared for the heartaches of big children. I have worked in teen health since 1996, but it is so different with my own. Puberty, acne, choices, disappointments, bullies, grades, first loves, stress, insecurities, hormones…all lay ahead. I am more nervous for me than I am for my middle schooler because I am equally excited for him and self-discoveries ahead. How in the world could I stretch this balloon any thinner? What will it feel like for me when their lives feel hard to them and I can’t fix it?

My kindergartner is excited for school. My 3rd grader whimpered as I held him tonight, “I don’t want to grow up,” and “Do I have to go to school?” He is my tender-hearted, wispy-haired artist. I tell him I have a good feeling about this year for him. I swallow my own tears. The kicking of ribs and contractions have yet to cease.

We did not know how hard childbirth would be. Yet the babies arrived. Why fear what lies ahead when it seems we never knew our capacity to begin with?

The candle is flinching. It’s time to let tomorrow come.

I get it, duck mom.

This morning I passed through my fence, lunch bag, brief case, computer bag, errand bag, birthday gift, dog leash (yes attached to dog), coffee cup (somehow) in hand, and reached the other side slathered in bird poop.

It was as if I traveled through a bird shit portal. So not J.K. Rowling-cool.

I ditched my stuff in my car and pursued my five-year-old on foot. He was picking flowers off our crab apple tree for his daycare “mom.”

That was the lovely moment. The one I will remember. The one that will lead me to say things to young moms when I am sixty like, “Oh, the days will go so fast. Cherish every moment.”

I washed off the poop at daycare and headed out for the day: this was 9 a.m.

Before that, I had checked my 11 y.o. child’s throat and breath for signs of strep (you know that smell), rummaged through piles of dirty laundry for pants skinny enough for my 8 y.o., and dressed and redressed that 5 y.o. cutie pie three times before he was satisfied, including face paint.

I also scrubbed the toilet naked and had to get back in the shower after my hair made contact with God-knows-what. I sent myself a mental note to scrub the toilet before showering in the future–as if I hadn’t already learned this twenty times over.

I plucked an unwieldy hair from my husband’s nose as he drank his coffee. So satisfying.

I clipped the 30 finger nails of said children.

And fed them chocolate cake for breakfast.

Yes I did. From a box.

I delayed: breakfast, vitamins, probiotics, skin care, exercise, hair-do and make up. Seriously, what else are the stoplights on Hiawatha for? Furthermore, what are those vents for if not blow drying?

After 9 a.m. I helped neighbor moms rescue some toads. I returned a run-away dog. I changed out of my white pants–who am I kidding? I dropped off  forgotten lunches and homework at school. I sent the emails for the important school committee thingy. I called my legislator and my mom and dad. They are all fine, aside from the Alzheimer’s and such.

As I approached my office, I saw a mama duck cross a busy street with seven ducklings. Once safe, she jumped up a six-inch embankment they could not mount. She did not look back. She fed herself in the grass on whatever ducks eat in grass.

In a few minutes, she jumped back down into the quacking fuzzy mess. They swarmed, and she led them away again.

I get it, duck mom.

By 9:30, I arrived at “work.” I put down my bags. I sipped coffee. I greeted co-workers that smelled good and had clean faces. I got an update on our hurdles for the day. I was very glad to step up to each and every one of them.

This Gentle Helper

Photo on 1-16-16 at 10.04 AM“Mom, are you are a princess or a queen?”
“I’ll be the Queen. What is dad then?”
“He can be the Prince until you retire. Then he can be King.”
“Sounds fair.”
“And I am your Royal Wizard,” replies my enrobed seven-year-old.

He pulls out a satchel.

“I have here my wizarding goods. An extra wizard robe and hat. Two magic bandages. A pack of magic pills. Super magnifier. Enchanted sponge. Dark magic. Coconut oil. Mint oil. Wizard crystal. A flaming mirror. A bonker. An oil I made – you should smell it. Petrified wood. Enchanted petrified stone. A cork. Fire in a bottle. And last but not least, flexipotion. If I attach this to the medicine and my ears, it will warm me up.”

His collection is adapted from my childhood Fisher Price doctor kit. He appears to equate wizardry with healing. I inquire further, “what are your plans for our kingdom, Royal Wizard?”

“I am thinking I could help those homeless refugees. Fresh food, fresh water, fire in a bottle and some other potions. A house in a box. You need magic. Unfold it. Tap it with a wand, say “pigtail” and out pops the house.”

What would the Queen do without her Royal Wizard?

It is zero degrees outside today with a -20 degree “real feel.” We are discomforted only by the cancelation of plans to ski. We do not anticipate homelessness, ever, for ourselves or our offspring. We have no need of wizard’s work. But this wizard has big plans.

Across the globe, other families do need his help. They are homeless and growing colder everyday. Or they are in refugee camps. Some are housed among inhospitable neighbors and cannot find work. Others have faired better and are creating new lives. But they are not home. It is unlikely they will ever go home. According to World Vision, “the crisis in Syria affects more than 12 million people,” well beyond the scope of a seven-year old Royal Wizard.

Yet he doesn’t turn his back. He’s thinking, “what could I do?”

O that men like this gentle helper, who saved a wounded man and treated as his neighbour an unknown stranger, may be found all over the world.
Disease is spreading, war is stalking, famine reigns far and wide.
But when one mortal relieves another like this, charity springing from pain unites them.

This prose, translated from Latin to English, is lifted from Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium and tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In September, I listened over the shoulder of my choir director as he played the haunting chords and read to me from this score. Our choir, MacPhail Center for Music’s adult ensemble, Sonomento, had just begun rehearsing this piece for our January 31st concert. It was the week stories of children drowning and boats capsizing and families walking hundreds of miles began to break our hearts. Through wet eyes, I said, “This is about Syria.” He agreed. “You know who our neighbor is…” He looked up, uncertain where I was headed. “The American Red Cross. We can’t sing this without singing for them.” Surprised, Craig revealed, “Britten actually composed this Cantata for the 100th anniversary of the International Red Cross in 1963.”

In that moment, the opportunity to do something on the behalf of the refugees presented itself to us. MacPhail sits a few short blocks from the American Red Cross in Minneapolis. The International Red Cross has been tirelessly involved in refugee relief efforts across Europe, the Middle East and the United States. Our January concert became a collaboration between MacPhail and the International Red Cross.

Music is not a house in a box, but it has magical healing properties, bringing people together and expressing what we fall short of in words.

Misericordia translates, “mercy.” The Cantata concludes,

Who your neighbour is, now you know.
Go and do likewise.

Be a gentle helper. Consider a donation to the Red Cross. Learn more about the crisis. Consider volunteering on behalf of refugee families in Minnesota with a church based or nonprofit program.

And on Sunday, January 31st at 7pm in Minneapolis, come hear us sing for our neighbors near and far.

Aliens are eating the moon

11707549_10153466072893762_5651498996068497509_n6:30 in the morning: The room is dark. I attempt to fish earrings out of my jewelry (and miscellaneous junk) box. I get one on and the other’s backing will not take hold. I peek at it in the light of the glowing alarm. It’s not an earring backing. It is someone’s baby tooth.

Parenthood is so weird.

At a recent interview: My interviewer, a pregnant thirty-something in a nice maternity suit, asks me about the “five year blank” in my resume. I tell her I was home full time with my kids, but as she can see, I chaired committees, fundraised thousands of dollars, spoke professionally at hearings and rallies, wrote a blog, coached, managed, scheduled, entertained, taught, multi-tasked, created, evaluated, led and negotiated like a boss during that time. She responds, “It’s not that I don’t respect what you were doing, it’s that while you had the privilege of taking time off, other people were working hard.”

Parenthood is so easy.

An hour into my workday: My boys’ school calls me to retrieve my sick son. Two of three have thrown up in the past week–it is his destiny. We make it home. He has the best aim of all of them–I am weary of scrubbing and grateful he is last. We read some Magic Treehouse. I snuggle kids with sore throats and fevers. I do not snuggle pukers. I make up for it with Sprite on crushed ice and a straw, popsicles, saltines and unlimited screen time. Until he actually felt sick, I am pretty sure this kid was jealous of sick 1 and sick 2. He’s attempted fake-sick everyday since I first made jello. We get a nice rotation going of couch, porcelain, shower, couch. After a long rest and two vomit-free hours, my husband takes over while I go for a run. Upon my return, he is quite proud of getting a full glass of water into the child. Post run and shower, I approach the bed to check my cutie-pie’s temp. He projectile voms a full glass of water and orange jello straight onto my chest and down to my feet.

Parenthood is a puke train.

I am singing my favorite song. My youngest starts to sing along with me. “Mom, do you want to be a rocket star when you grow up?” I say, “Yes–of course.” He inhales sharply, “You can sing and play your guitar and I can play my…” he trails off and returns strumming his ukulele. We sing. He stops thoughtfully and looks at me; “Wait but mom you already growed up and you are not a rocket star.” He suggests that if I make my hair crazier, perhaps I could still be a rocket star. He asks, “what are you then?” I say, “I sing in a choir. I am a mom. I write and I work for schools.” He says, “That is so sad.”

Parenthood–damn. I’m doing my best here, small man.

After a long week home with sick kids, I take the dog for a walk. I generally follow the rules but it is about as good a day for bending them as I’ve had in awhile. No one is around–I let her off leash. She runs toward the willow fort the neighborhood daycare kids built. She poops just outside the door. I realize I’ve forgotten a bag so I pick it up with two large leaves. Even green leaves crumble in the fall. Dangit. It is then I realize two things. One, I do have a bag. And two, she pooped on a dead squirrel. What the hell? Unfortunately, I care about the daycare kids. Dangit dangit. The thing has adhered to the ground in some sections so I have to dig a little with a stick. I first decapitate it (not my intention). Bit by bit I bag the squirrel. I have not flinched nor faltered. The doorway of the willow fort is clear.

Parenthood is so rewarding.

The school district sends home a letter: “If your child misses three more days of school this semester…asking you to be responsible…could result in a hearing…your child’s education is important to us.”

Parenthood is gratifying.

I wake up to my eleven-year-old making pancakes before school this morning. He tells a joke I genuinely get and we laugh. Later, his best friend stops by while biking home (alone) from the library–wait–didn’t I just pull you two there in a wagon last week? I can’t keep up. I secretly liked it when my son was sick and we watched big-kid movies and played monopoly all day. He now smirks during movies when there are scenes with girls. We’ve talked about “stuff” including whether he relates to those moments? Yes, he says, but it seems unrealistic that boys in movies never have boyfriends and girls in movies never have girlfriends. How would someone feel? Whoa–empathy–didn’t you just learn to share toys?

Parenthood is ephemeral.

We are outside under an eclipsing moon. As it grows darker my “baby,” age four, reaches up as far as he can stretch. “Pickle me up” he says because he knows I cannot resist. When I situate him about my waist, he has to stretch himself down to my shoulder to rest his head. I hold him a little lower. I think, trying not to think, I can barely hold him. Arms shaking slightly as we stand very still, I ask him what he thinks of the eclipse. He says, “aliens are eating the moon. Let’s go inside.”

Parenthood is heavy.

A friend shares with me decisions she’s untangling about her career and upcoming changes. She exhales and gestures toward her daughter who is laughing with her friends one hundred feet away. “You know, at the center of so many choices I make is something that is constantly changing and will someday, “poof,” leave my home forever. It goes faster than I ever expected.” I relate. “Poof:” it will feel like a fleeting shadow to have woven an entire career, lifestyle, finances, emotions and even our physical space around. If I am the moon, they are the aliens.

Parenthood is being eaten alive.

Our children come along and make everything look as different as night and day. But they never stand still. In practically the same moment we are eclipsed, we reappear.

Parenthood is knowing the moon will survive.

Princess for a Day

Today on the way home from school I readied my kids for a trip to the bakery by giving them each $2. As I was getting out of my car a woman asked me, “can you give me enough money to buy my kids and I a loaf of bread?” I don’t always give money to the men (it’s usually men) on the corner we pass in our car everyday. They stand on the wrong side of the street for me to give them money–which is a nice excuse for me to avoid deciding if I think I should give them any.

But she asked me on foot and in front of my kids. She was so brave and so polite, standing a safe distance with her hands in her pockets. At first, with iPhone in one hand and credit card in the other, I told her I didn’t have any cash. This is also a convenient excuse.

She said, “Ok thank you. Have a good day.”

What am I to say in response? “You have a great day too?”

I remembered I had a coin purse in my car that had been there since the coin meters were replaced downtown. Money I could put aside and forget about for years.

“Actually, can you wait a second?” I climbed in my car. “Thank you so much,” she responded.

“Do you know what a loaf of bread costs these days?” Because I don’t. I just throw it in my cart (I think to myself).

“I’m sorry but it’s probably over $2.50 at this store. We just moved here and it hasn’t been working out like I hoped.” She kicks the dirt as I search. “My kids and I are staying with my sister but we’re homeless. I tried Family Partnership but they weren’t that helpful.”

I just spent the morning at the Minnesota Legislature on behalf of parents everywhere. I’ve done this kind of work in committees across health, environment and education over the last decade. Today I observed the House Education Innovation Policy Committee. In this moment it hits me that the whole reason I am at the Capitol is to do what I can to make sure money gets put into the hands of the people that need it most.

I have my opinions on how that money should get allocated: early learning scholarships, career and technical education, smaller class sizes, better assessments of student growth, teacher development, concurrent enrollment, American Indian education, special education, free breakfast, help, hellllllpppp HELP!!!!! It is so incredibly complicated.

And here, I almost missed an opportunity to put money directly into the hand of a parent who needed it.

We chatted a bit. I gave her some ideas. Told her not to give up on Minnesota. We take care of our own here.

At least I want to believe that we do. Most days, the truth is, it seems so hard with such limited resources to get the people the help that they need. Sharing is hard work.

I sometimes wonder why I care so much. Why can’t I quit these kinds of jobs and sell cupcakes?

UnknownWe were watching Star Wars with our kids a few weeks ago when Princess Leia bent down and put the message in R2D2. The Princess. The wise and brave Princess–daughter of a Senator–she would save the world. I loved her. I said to my six year old as we watched together, “I think I’ve always wanted to be Princess Leia.” He looked up at me, “If you are the Princess, I am your clone.”

And when it was over I said to my ten year old, “I’ve been to church, I’ve been to the Capitol, I watch the President on TV, I travel, I search and I wonder, where are the wise people, the great and noble Senate that is trying to save the world? Maybe there isn’t one!” The kid doesn’t skip a beat. “Oh there is, mom, don’t worry. It’s just in a galaxy far far away.”

She turned left to the grocery store with my quarters and we turned right to the bakery. “Oh shoot boys; it’s closed! It wasn’t our turn today.”

In 20 fast steps they catch up to her and give her their $4.00.

Just for a day–the Princess and her clones.

It was so easy.

School Funding is a Warm Sweater

school funding is a warm sweaterI was recently standing around the printer for teacher’s use at my son’s public elementary school, waiting for my Lego League rules to print. In the 23 minutes I waited, 9 teachers popped in and out to see if their print job was done. “Yes,” they agreed. Printing and copying in this building is under-resourced right now.

This is an excellent public school with an amazing staff and campus. This is the same school that has a state-of-the-art adapted playground under construction. The same school that started receiving Title One funding for ELL, special education, and targeted efforts to close its achievement gap last year. And, the same school that can only afford to have a nurse on site 4 days a week (though this is more than most)! These discrepancies illustrate the complicated mess of algorithms that is public education funding.

A recent MinnPost article by Beth Hawkins likened our school funding challenge at this time to “the gradual opening of faucets after a reservoir has been refilled.” This image, however, leaves out some nitty gritty, yet significant, details, such as the fact that the reservoir is not actually full. Much of what it takes to educate Minnesota’s students is still funded by an entirely separate pool managed by voters who will choose to open or not to open the levies.

In addition, the fingers on the faucets are not those of administrators or educators or even school board members: it’s lawmakers. Which means, those faucets will dribble open (and shut) as they campaign for their offices, are educated by stakeholders in the first weeks in office, debate at the Capitol, hear influential commentary from constituents and special interest groups and make compromised decisions based upon popular beliefs, myths, and influences well outside of what is best for Minnesota students.

This is a dim view. The truth is, this is also the messy business of democracy at work and the spending of tax dollars. Almost every stakeholder, no matter their view, believes strongly they have children’s best interest at heart. Let’s try a softer image to better understand what happens at the school level, and why there are printer shortages and amazing playgrounds in the same building: an old sweater.

Let’s think of each district as its own sweater—Minnesota has 341 sweaters that were knit by the state itself. Within the weave of each sweater, there are strong and tight threads that maintain the basic integrity of the garment. There are also snags; loose threads that got hung up on unexpected obstacles. When snags became holes that will eventually become runs, threatening to destroy the utility of the sweater, the holes were patched. Sometimes patches are provided directly to that sweater by voter levies, benevolent philanthropists, grants, or parent fundraising. Sometimes the sweater has to go back to the original knitter for repairs, but this takes awhile: a very long while.

And then there are times that the knitters send all the sweaters patches, some bigger some smaller, some perfect fits and some that just barely cover the holes. The educators and administrators and school boards knit them into the fabric at the local level.

Sometimes there are particular spots that tend to wear and pill. Administrators are also in charge of deciding whether to pluck off the pilling bits or dry clean the whole thing to see if it improves overall. Sometimes shrinking the sweater in the wash is the only thing that will keep it from unraveling.

Thankfully, it is very rare that the knitters will recall a sweater, or even threads. Generally once it’s knit it’s knit. As the sweaters age some threads get loose, some remain strong, some snag, some simply dissolve.

It is also important to understand that, each thread, each row, each cross-stitch, was done according to the knitter’s pattern at the state. Though the sweater is under the care of each district’s administration and school board, fundamentally, they do not have the freedom to tighten lose threads by pulling on adjacent threads because each was tied by the knitters into different funding sources. In other words, in this system, furnace repairs cannot be paid for with salary freezes. New printers cannot be purchased with playground money.

Luckily in Minnesota, we really appreciate our sweaters. It’s cold here. We need to stay warm and generally, our sweaters endure under even the harshest of conditions.

 

Written for the Minnesota grassroots nonprofit, Parents United for Public Schools