Education does not necessarily equal learning…

…nor does it always confer a love of reading. I’ve ruminated on this particular subject for many years, probably because my 5-6th grade teacher was so very BAD at her job. I went to an elementary school so small it had double classrooms—in other words, fifth and sixth grade was smooshed together and the total number of students equaled maybe twenty per classroom.

Anyway, I remember feeling very betrayed when I got to fifth grade, because my 3-4th grade teacher was so very GOOD at her job. I had no idea until that moment that adults could totally suck at their jobs. It was a harsh awakening. I was a straight-A student and when I hit fifth grade, I had every expectation that this would continue. It did, but not because of my teacher, and not because I worked harder than before. It was mostly because I was genetically gifted with the ability to absorb information.

My teacher, for the first time in my life, actively disliked me. As an adult, it gradually dawned on me that she probably disliked me because I was so very bright and wasn’t afraid to show it. At that age, I had no filter. I said whatever the hell I thought (I must admit, I have backslid into that mode of behavior recently, with intention). I’m sure I must have been belligerent or just disdainful towards her (it seems to run in the family).

The lesson I learned from those years, though, was this: school can totally suck.

I mean, I knew it before… I was bullied. But the learning always made up for the misery. I loved cracking open new textbooks. I loved reading. Until fifth grade, I thought that would continue for always. It didn’t. Instead, I learned that learning on my own was way more fun than learning in school. Books became my solace, and have continued to transport me throughout my life.


Recently, my son has run up against this same wall. He’s trying to figure out why his high school and earlier schools did not really prepare him for having to write a paper in college. For some reason, the education system seems to think that PowerPoint presentations and projects with colored pencils are the way to teach writing. Sure, he had to write a little—the standard five paragraph paper complete with outline, but there was not very much practice with writing the way I remember it from my days in high school. He’s wondering why he feels like a widget in an education factory.

Perhaps I’m remembering wrong. Perhaps no school can ever teach the basics and we’re all just fooling ourselves. I know that most states and our federal government seem to fall short of creating a consistent curriculum for every school. I know that some great teachers manage to teach well, but mostly DESPITE the standard curriculum. They have to teach around all the required testing. Mediocre teachers drone on and on at the head of the classroom while the students die of boredom in their seats.

My gut tells me the heart of the problem lies in two things: we treat our teachers badly (poor pay, district politicking, standardized tests, etc.), and we assume that every child can be a star. The truth is, some kids are better at building things with their hands. Some are great at math, but suck at reading. Some are fantastic writers, but struggle with word problems. People have different talents and intelligence levels. When did we start assuming that everyone would be good at the same things? I find that confounding.

We need to stop assuming that access to public education means everyone will be brilliant at everything. Broad access to education was meant to create a literate society. It has done this, for the most part, barring poverty-stricken districts (my grandparents had an 8th grade level education—their parents were mostly illiterate). We also need to remember that the US is composed of wildly disparate individuals and cultures. We are not Japan or Finland or China. We are not a homogenous society. This creates challenges that no one else in the world faces. We’ve done okay. We can do better, I’m sure. However, the biggest issue for me personally is this: education does not necessarily equal learning.

I have spent my entire life fighting against the drudgery of school in order to convince my children that learning itself is cool, even if school sucks. This has been an uphill battle. Why? Because they spend most of their lives in a classroom, just as adults spend theirs working. It’s hard to separate learning from school when the majority of your time is spent there. Perhaps this is yet another lesson everyone must figure out on their own. I’m not certain. What I find most confusing, however, is this: I grew up in a depressed area, going to poor schools. Why are my kids so much more disillusioned with education than I was, when they had the opportunity to go to “good” schools with lots of district money?

I think it’s because when I was growing up, great teachers didn’t have as much oversight, and so they were able to do a much better job at teaching. The flip side is that the bad teachers I had also had much less oversight, and created much more damage. Our society has decided that it’s better to limit the good teachers and force the bad ones into the same track, thereby averaging everything out.

Which is the better way? I have no idea, so I think I’m going to go read a book now. I bet I learn something.

Ode to my children

Warning: incredibly sappy blog post ahead.

My older kid’s 18th birthday is tomorrow. In January, my younger son will turn 16. The thing is, I’m not the kind of person who looks backward a lot. Sure, I remember when they were babies (okay, I remember the screaming and the legos and the giggling), but I don’t have photos hanging on my wall or propped up on my desk. If I want to look at baby pictures, I have to go dig them out. The photo up above? I haven’t set eyes on that one in maybe ten years. It’s from 1995. Jeremy was 1 year old.

The surest way to grieve the past is to focus on it incessantly. The first thing that usually pops into my head when I think about the boys being little is all the times they almost died. Which, just, no. I’m not going to focus on that. Maybe it’s different for other parents. Maybe their kids don’t have allergies or heart defects or possible Marfan’s or that brain damage incident or whatever, but I’ve had all too many close calls with the great black hole of grief to ever go poking at the beast on purpose. I want to focus on the good stuff. Usually that’s the stuff that’s happening right now in front of me.

Both of my kids are crazy intelligent. I don’t really know how to explain what this is like. It leads to unexpected conversations and sometimes devices that scare the shit out of me being left on the steps and the odd sensation of knowing that they can solve math problems in their head (how do they do that?). A lot of people talk about having intelligent kids and everyone (according to the articles I read) wants intelligent kids, but many of them, when faced with the reality, pretty much are like: WTF. Hey kid, why won’t you follow the directions on the box? Why is it so hard for you to listen and do all the stuff everyone else does at your age?

Smart kids are difficult. Directions are boring. Putting things together the way you’re supposed to is boring. Toys with instructions are boring. Games are infuriating and boring (until you figure out how to reprogram them). These kids do weird shit like talk when they’re six months old or not talk at all until they’re four years old (then they speak in complete sentences with multisyllabic words that most adults don’t use or understand). They’re BORED all the time. School is usually BORING BORING BORING and “I’ve already read the entire textbook and this class is pointless now, Mom” by the third week of September.

A lot of people have bright kids. Not many people dodge school officials and psychologists like I’ve had to for the past sixteen years because really smart kids are kind of … not normal. Doctor’s charts have been a source of hilarity in my house for years. I’ve had to read up on my college statistics class so I could understand what the hell outlier meant. The funniest thing about all of this? No one believes you. Smart kids are supposed to get straight As. Most of them don’t. Smart kids are supposed to just be brilliant, easily, in totally predictable ways. They’re not.

Smart kids hate having to learn how to do things that are tricky, like riding a bicycle or tying their shoes or using a pencil (though scissors can be mastered at age one year). That stuff that requires muscle memory and practice is torture. Smart kids can intelligently discuss physics and the socio-political jokes from The Daily Show in their early teens, but learning how to grocery shop? Not so much. Smart kids figure out how to fool their teachers in kindergarten, but butt heads with their eighth-grade homeroom teacher. It’s kind of weird and cool and terrifying, at the same time.

As a parent, I have learned how to roll with most of this. I harp on the important things: don’t forget your epi-pen. Don’t expect the world to make sense. Learning that people act irrationally most of the time is, perhaps, the hardest thing to teach them. I even stumble over that one, still.

It’s weird, though, getting to this point. A parent of kids like this must be hyper-aware of the things society expects from children at certain ages, and know how to either hide their kids’ peccadillos or not give a shit, depending on the situation. My job has been to keep them away from the “specialists” and do-gooders, so that they can figure out who they are without the labeling that seems so prevalent these days. I wanted them to be bored at the right times. Slotting kids like mine into piles of activities makes them crazy (and me, too) and doesn’t help them figure out how to calm their racing brain at midnight enough to sleep.

I worked hard at showing them how cool it is to learn new things on their own because I’m convinced that public education, in many cases, is intent on stifling that urge. Jeremy reads the same books I do, the kind of books you don’t get to crack open in school until you’re in college or beyond. Zachary doesn’t like to read (which everyone thinks is at odds with being smart, and really isn’t) so I spend a lot of my time talking to him about online gaming and the internet and watching hilarious videos that he sends me and discussing the ethics of a modern society versus hunter-gatherer cultures among other things.

I spend a lot of breath forcing them to relax and take a break and not to worry so much about school. I have never been so convinced as I am now that education in our society and a love of learning is mostly incompatible. Public education teaches to the average and to the below-average. Gifted education? Hah. It’s a joke. It mostly consists of piling more BORING projects that require colored pencils and poster board on top of the regular classroom work.

All of this is to say one thing: I HAD NO IDEA what I was getting into. Dear everyone who wants a baby: the pitter patter of little feet thing is a LIE. Sometimes they crawl. Sometimes (like Jeremy), they never crawl, they roll. Sometimes they BREAK THEIR CRIB (Zachary did this. I’m not kidding) or figure out how to flip over their pack-n-play. They take apart their plasma night-light. They invent their own language and would rather go to a museum than have a birthday party.

My kids did NONE of the things everyone told me they would do. But you know what? I don’t mind. They’re the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I can’t wait to see what we do together tomorrow.

Death looked over my shoulder but I stuck him with an EpiPen

I don’t often talk about my kids online. They’re teens and I feel it’s inappropriate to discuss them or post pictures without their permission. However, when I finished reading my email this morning, the urge to speak up was overwhelming. Both of my sons have severe food allergies. That photo you see above? It’s been part of my daily life for sixteen years. It’s been part of my sons’ lives since forever. We don’t go anywhere without an EpiPen, prednisone, and Benadryl. In fact, we usually carry extras around because my paranoia knows no bounds.

Yesterday my seventeen year old had to go to a computer science competition practice after school. They were serving pizza, and like usual I told him that as long as he knew where the pizza came from and could ask about peanut ingredients, it’d be fine if he ate some. He refused. He told me that he was really tired of always having to worry about his allergies and didn’t feel like expending the energy to check with the pizza place (we generally call and speak with the cook/manager). He packed food from home for himself. Then he told me something that made my blood run cold. He said that in another club of his, the kids often gave him a hard time when they ordered pizza. They asked him why didn’t he ever eat it and made fun of him—all the usual stupid shit teens (and adults) do to those who don’t conform to their idea of normal. Disgruntled and frustrated, my son told me that there’s another teen in the club with a peanut allergy. Apparently, this kid eats pizza and a lot of other things without worry, care, and most disturbingly, WITHOUT CARRYING AN EPIPEN.

There are two reasons why this freaked the hell out of me. One, since when were kids giving my son a hard time? I had no idea. He’s a teenager and that means he has assumed a certain amount of responsibility in his life. He doesn’t tell me every single detail of what happens at school and that’s fine. However, if I’d known the other kids were doing this, I would’ve been more than delighted to go to his club and give a detailed description of how much fun we had that one time when I had to rush him to the hospital. Anaphylactic shock is AWESOME! Watching your kid’s eyes turn glassy and his whole body turn bright red? TOTAL GREATNESS. I mean, what could be better than wondering if your kid is going to stop breathing? Or, you know, LIVE? I could’ve described how cool it was watching the ER staff hook him up to multiple IVs. How damn wonderful it was watching them rush around my son, controlled urgency in every movement.

I suppose you can tell I’m being a bit sarcastic here.

The other thing that bothered me is that my son told me the other kid didn’t carry an EpiPen. This saddened me greatly. I know a number of people with severe allergies (food, environmental, etc.) who really should carry an EpiPen but don’t. EpiPens are not large. They can save your life. Some researchers are even working on a new version of one that is as small as a credit card. You’ll be able to carry it in your wallet. There are two reasons why most people don’t carry one: 1. too much bother and 2. other people make fun of you when you carry an EpiPen.

My son doesn’t deserve to have to deal with stupid kids giving him a hard time about his allergies. Kids suck. High school sucks. I remember when my peers made fun of my glasses, my crankiness, my general “you’re not like us”-ness. Whatever. I got over it. That stuff didn’t threaten my life. The thing is, my kid could DIE. The stuff he has to deal with could KILL HIM. Sure, most parents worry about their kid getting hit by a car, falling in with the wrong crowd, or just doing something dumb—I worry about what my kids eat. The food they put in their mouths can kill them if they don’t know what’s in the ingredients. And what do their peers do? Oh, hey, look at him! He won’t eat the pizza, he’s such a dork!

My nephew is allergic to casein (the protein in milk). My younger son has a heart defect and thinking about that sometimes scares me to death. Another nephew has multiple health issues (liver transplant). I’m used to worrying about shit I can’t control. I’m used to expecting the worst at the most unexpected possible moment. What really pisses me off though is the complete and total narcissism of our society. Homophobia, racism, bullying—these things make me angry. Why do teens act like this at school? Why do they treat kids like my son who has allergies, or gay kids, or non-white/non-black/non-hispanic (oh yes, racism knows no bounds, believe me) kids like crap? Because the adults in their lives act like that and we all learn by example.

We tell our kids that it gets better. That when people grow up, they magically turn into fair, nice, respectful individuals. Um, no they don’t, not all the time. How about we stop lying to our children? Adults suck just as much as kids do. Many grow up and get a clue and manage to learn how to treat other people well, but many don’t. And until we stop lying to our kids about this, the fake culture of “people are nice” is going to persist. Peer pressure is an incredible thing. It creates riots. It makes teens act like jerks. It can also move an entire society from hatred toward peace. Toward equal rights. Toward research that improves our planet and saves our children’s lives. Let’s admit to our kids that we’ve messed up. Acting like that is not okay. In order to change the world, in order to make sure teens don’t continue to propagate evil, we adults have to start owning up to our own shameful tendency toward pointing fingers. We need to not pass this crap on to the next generation.

In my email this morning I received a note from my local chapter of a food allergy support group. In it was the news that yet another teenager had died from eating cookies that he thought were safe. They rushed him to the hospital but he’d stopped breathing within minutes of eating the cookies. His brain was dead. The thing that stood out to me the most? This boy DIDN’T CARRY AN EPIPEN. I don’t know why, but I can guess: his friends/peers probably made fun of him.

What do I have to say to every kid with an allergy (or who is different)? Stand up for yourself. Stand up to adults (if you can safely), to other kids, to whomever you have to and tell them that your life is more important than their need to make you conform to their idea of normal. Oh, and carry your EpiPen, for crying out loud. Hide it in your pocket, your backpack, your purse, but don’t ever, EVER, leave home without it.

ETA: Having a food allergy does not define who you are. I’ve made it a point to teach my kids this idea. Their life is not their food allergy. They are not a label, an illness, a paranoia. The thing is, no one else in their life should be defining who they are by their food allergy, or illness, or the color of their skin, or whatever, either. When other kids give them a hard time about what they eat, they are, in essence, saying: Oh hey, you’re the freak with the allergy! Sucks to be you.

Yeah, no. It doesn’t suck to be a kid with a food allergy unless you let it define your entire life. Don’t let it. Don’t let anyone else do it, either.

I once knew a woman who wrote by sticking a pencil in her mouth. I know a man with Parkinson’s who uses a voice recognition device to write. I think of them as poets.

Sonnets and Static

I wrote twenty sonnets this month. No, seriously, twenty (and I will be deleting them from soon, so read them while you still can). I read somewhere that when artists want to learn something, they draw it 100 times. I wanted to learn how to write a sonnet. I’d been writing free-verse with the occasional foray into forms for years but I want to be a writer, not a one-hit-poem wonder. In my life I’ve written technical manuals, insurance books, safety manuals, letters, resumes, stories, poems, and done a slew of other writing-related things, yet there is always something more about writing that I don’t know. I suppose there always will be, for which I am profoundly grateful.

About sonnets:
Some people asked me how I did it. How did I write so many sonnets in a row? I have a system. I decided to study cloud forms at the same time which provided a framework. I already know I like to talk about relationships and emotion; that provided subject matter. When I sit down to write, I open up one thesaurus in my browser and two rhyming dictionaries. I choose the last word of the lines based on how many other words rhyme with them, and how interesting the words are to me before I write the line, with a few inspired exceptions.

I chose consciously to enjamb most of the lines, saving end-stopped lines for when I truly wanted to make a point because I think that fundamentally changes the traditional nature of the sonnets, bringing it into the modern era and making it more palatable to the modern ear. I say to everyone who asks: follow the punctuation, not the lines when reading aloud; follow the lines only with the eye. I also stuck mostly to iambic feet, with the occasional trochee substitution and in one poem, an amphibrach at the end, for my meter. When I begin, I chant a fake iambic pentameter line to myself and settle down to work. That’s basically it.

About static:
I recently bought Jack Gilbert’s new book, “The Dance Most of All,” and on first glance it seems to be more of the same. He’s one of my favorite poets and I’m certainly looking forward to reading his new poetry (it’s all so comfortable), yet I can’t help feeling as though he discovered one way to do something and hasn’t varied since then. His poems all look the same: like a herd of horses, they’re different colors and even breeds and beautiful, but still, all HORSES. I’ve noticed that other poets tend to do this, never changing that one style that works, that brings them recognition and awards. It’s a trap.

Both beginners and old-hands fall into this trap, in which there are two sides. On one side you write only for yourself, on the other you write only for other people. The best work of any poet straddles the sharp line in-between: where you understand how much information a reader needs to relate to your poem and you also understand that you must push the boundary of sameness and move into artistry. Most of the stuff I’ve read in journals now, respectable journals and respectable poets, is so random that comprehension is also random. These poems do not even pretend to speak to a reader. Most of the other stuff I read is all too conscious of the reader and fails to provide that spark of difference that moves the poem from ordinary into innovative. Boring, boring, boring, both sides.

I don’t want that. I don’t want to write the same kind of poem over and over for the rest of my life. I don’t want to write only for myself and I don’t want to write what is fashionable right now. So, I wrote twenty sonnets and learned how to manage iambic pentameter and rhyme and to my amazement, twenty was enough. I moved on to a type of stream-of-consciousnes poem whose form I invented for myself in a burst of sheer joy one night. It will be another chapbook, yet another unpublished chapbook. I have three finished so far, and one full-length collection, all still unpublished. And now, when this new set is done, I will have four. Absurd. Still, at least they are all different (except in voice, which you can’t run away from and is another topic completely).

2009 Ellen La Forge Poetry Prize

So hey, I’ve recently been informed that I’m the winner of the 2009 Ellen La Forge Poetry Prize (formerly the Grolier Prize). I entered six of my astronomy poems from last year’s NaPoWriMo and I’m still a bit shocked over the whole thing.

The editor of the Ellen La Forge Poetry Prize Annual informed me that my poems were a “unanimous choice,” which is, apparently, unusual. Everything about this has been a surprise to me. Needless to say, I was thrilled. And I get money, which is astonishing for poetry. I’m trying to work out how much I made per poem, but any sort of math that involves numbers larger than two confounds me. Which is why I became a writer in the first place, of course. 😉

PS- several friends were kind enough to do the math for me and one informed me that I earned a repeater number per poem. Which is cool. This is why I have friends. I would never be able to tip properly if I didn’t.