May 2010


On Thursday afternoon the light in my apartment was so enticing I wanted to take pictures of everything. The textures of the cotton fabric, the embroidery, the chenille of the armchair, the billowing curtains in the window breeze and the plant on the nearby radiator cover caught the light in ways that made me want to touch them, and to capture them with my camera.

My home is not extravagant, or exotic, or terribly impressive in any way. I am lucky to be in homes which are, was in one last night for dinner which made me feel that I had travelled to wonderland. I share my home with children, whose parents pay me to take care of them, often to the surprise of the children, who will ask me with earnestness what is that piece of paper in my hand, check traveling from home to me in backpack, payment for their care.

I think a lot about the comfort and beauty and texture of home versus the comfort and beauty and texture of school. When I see a child at the end of a long school day settle into a soft armchair in my living room to read a book, it makes me happy and sad. In my mind’s eye, I can always see the child who is sitting on the school cafeteria stools doing homework at the very same time, part way across town. When I see the cotton fibers close up, with small birds embroidered upon them, I think of my good friend, who gave me those pillow covers because I had the lamp shades to match and of her house and how much more beautiful it is than mine, her artistic eye and hand have made it a place I just love to be.

The house I was in last night was incredibly rich in beauty and design, made so by it’s inhabitants, who have laid mosaic tile in original designs all along the floors and walls, particularly of the bathrooms, the most intimate and beautiful spaces I could have imagined, and who have collected art from many cultures, fabrics, furniture, rugs, figures, prints, hand made things of beauty from around the world arranged in a way that makes them right at home in the interior life of a family in Somerville whose home would be hard to imagine from the street, even with its purple siding standing out against the bricks and gray and colonial yellows nearby.

So, this morning I wake up thinking about transformation and particularity, about privilege and what that means, about comfort and beauty and texture, and what place those needs, and I will say needs, have in our lives, in our homes, in our schools, and in our child care programs.

My home upstairs has a color scheme, curtains, furniture, rugs, dishes, that feel like home. There are collections of things that have been handed down through family, given to us as gifts, or collected by us over time from travel, yard sales, sales racks, beaches and woods, arranged behind glass doors, on tabletops, in cupboards, on windowsills. We have house plants, vases, American Girl dolls, playmobil castles, Magic Cards, all kinds of things somewhat forbidden or ignored in our downstairs apartment, which is a day care space, and which has slowly, if surely evolved from a place much more like school or child care center, with almost no soft furniture, white walls and shelves of children’s toys and equipment, child-sized wooden and plastic furniture, to a place with a bit more softness and color, and adult or real life stuff, couches and chairs and a love seat in upholstered fabric, collected off curbs, from yard sales and neighbors and LL Bean, a rug from Crate and Barrel, glass and ceramic dishes from Goodwill, yard sales, IKEA and my upstairs kitchen replacing plastic baby dishes, flowers entering gradually, the only plants that stays more than a week are two stalks of bamboo who continue to thrive since their arrival in a holiday bouquet from families, rooted in water in a tall and heavy crystal glass vase that was a wedding gift to me and my ex-husband from someone I can’t now remember.

Somehow, the softer and more homelike the place gets, the more privileged I feel, and the more distant from the worlds of public school, traditional school, institutional child care, and I wonder, does this comfort separate us in ways that are unfair, that limit us in some way, is it wrong to live in a place of comfort and beauty, to invite children into my home for child care, for after school,for summer care, for homeschooling, to wish for the day care space to feel more like home, less like an institution? Is it fine as long as it is for child care or summer care or after school care, but would it be wrong for school?

I find myself moving between many worlds, wanting to know what is fair and right. Maybe I can’t. Probably I can’t. Still I need to try.

The private school my two boys attend is a comfortable, beautiful, textural place. As one day care mom said in our day care kitchen this week as we talked about school and schooling and homeschooling and private and public and family options. “Why does it have to cost 20,000 for children to be allowed time outdoors to run and play and to be happy and healthy?” Or something close to that. Their school doesn’t cost nearly that much, and I wanted to say that, but it costs enough that I didn’t bother. It separates us still from those who sit on hard chairs and play on asphalt rather than climb trees and roll in grass. Which many kids in the suburbs or the country do, the mom pointed out. But that seems not to be the solution, either, moving to the suburbs, at least for us, that doesn’t create a new equality or comfort or engage us in a way that feels sustaining.

I thought of Deborah Meier and her comparison of compulsory schooling to prison.

I thought of the readership of this blog, and how it is declining, and I wondered if I have gone off the deep end, become irrelevant to most of the world, in my little corner of privilege, comfort, home/school wanderings into ideas of beauty, freedom, love.

I thought of my sister and of her asking me if I was still comfortable in public school settings.

I thought of another parent whose child is leaving the pubic school system and his remark that there is nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t a good fit.

I thought of the discussion after dinner last night in which my sons and I and our hosts and the other dinner guests debated various forms of schooling, and of Deborah Meier’s description of not being able to find the right words to communicate about the things most important to her in education when she is in a place where people don’t share her views.

I thought of myself and how hard it is to do things unless I believe in them, and of the difficulty I find in working in places where my beliefs don’t align with the mainstream, where I am told my way is wrong.

Sunday morning luxury, to take the time to have and write these thoughts, more privilege, before I am off to Whole Foods to buy food and maybe flowers for my family and the day care, before I take my child to the parade where he will play his rented saxophone, which he has learned to play in his public school, before I pack the car and drive my van and my children to our place in the country, where we will bike and read and swim and eat delicious local food, before I drift away into yet another world of comfort, beauty, and texture of the rural variety, city life, country life, isolation, community, ever widening or ever shrinking circles of connections, have I just dropped the pebble in the pond and are the circles expanding, or has the pebble sunk to the bottom and are the circles disappearing, don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.

Which in itself is a place to be.

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When I took a writing class in college, one assignment was to use a photograph and to tell a story from the photo. Today I charged the camera battery, procrastinated paying for more storage on the day care blog, and wondered what to do with my last batch of uploaded pictures, if I am not yet able to send the whole batch out to families.

Here I am. Looking at the pictures of my daughter’s playmobil castle, which has lived in the midst of the after school project room for the last several years on a table I got for ten dollars at my neighbor’s yard sale along with four chairs, atop a table cloth to cover the warhammer paint stains from my boys’ days of making small worlds. This past week we had the ceiling painted to cover the water damage from a recent roof leak and flood. The painter miraculously painted the ceiling without moving much of anything in the overful project room, but the playmobil table was left in some disarray. I worried that my daughter would be upset. Instead, on Wednesday, when she got home from school to find her friend and the friend’s mother waiting for us here, the three of them got to work putting the castle to rights.

The pictures above show a little of the progress of creating order out of chaos. This is one of my girl’s favorite things to do, folding clean laundry into piles, making her castle table into a work of art, putting her clothes into her dresser in various ways, organizing her room. She takes after her mother, who complains often enough about house chores, but when it comes right down to it, gets a certain necessary pleasure out of creating a home worthy of love and company.

I’ve been thinking a lot about worlds these days, small and big, and our power to restore order or to create it out of chaos. I’ve been watching and photographing the kids as they make their birthday cakes with sand and sticks, their fairy houses out of wet sand and apples, their guns and swords out of any long thing, their homes out of blocks and people and furniture, their meals out of sand and flowers or toy food and dishes, their art out of almost anything. Restores the order to my brain and heart to find these bits of evidence of the next generation taking charge in a way I can admire and also at which I can marvel, often with true disbelief at the incredible beauty our children create, everyday, in the name of play.

Powerful, creative beings, children.

My life day to day is awfully good. My kids and I have delicious food, a home and resources to maintain it, a place in the country shared with friends, a van that runs, new clothing when we need it, all the basic needs are covered. We also have friends and family and a community that keep our spirits nourished. I love my job. I am healthy. We have good, if exorbitantly expensive health insurance and access to skilled care when we need it. As one blog reader reminded me, perhaps the biggest privilege I/we have is CHOICE. My kids now go to an alternative public school and a private school, both options which require resources to choose and maintain the choices. Not that these choices don’t come without consequences. I drive carpool many hours of each week. We may not go on any vacations this year or for a few years involving planes or rented cars or hotels or admission fees. Nobody is going to knock down that kitchen wall I have been fantasizing about for years and put in windows to the yard, opening up the view. Good will and the Gap and Old Navy sales racks are going to keep putting clothing on our backs. Retirement is a distant hope, not a plan. But for now, life is good, and I am incredibly grateful.

So, today when I say Walking Between Worlds, I mean walking into the worlds of the bigger picture or of the lives of those for whom life is not so good. I don’t have to walk far. I live in a city full of people who live with far less than I can fully imagine. Many of the children in my daughter’s school are just such people.  I am grateful to know them and their families, and small pieces of their stories. That is the sort of walking I want to do more of, and one of the primary reasons that for me, being engaged in public school life in my district is both rewarding and my primary mode of civic engagement.

In the even bigger worlds, sometimes reading the e-mail in my inbox or turning on the news on the drives to and from school is more walking than I can stand. I am learning, though, to open my eyes and ears and to take it in, and slowly, step-by-step, to respond, if not effectively, then in basic ways with trial balloons. Here are some attempts to do the right thing.

Two pieces caught my attention this week, and I have struggled with appropriate responses. One was an article in the NY Times describing cuts to child care subsidies in California, which I read because of a piece in ExchangeEveryday, both which I will share here. The images of mothers struggling to work without child care were with me as I walked and rode the bus from my house in Somerville to the tony neighborhood of Cambridge where Len Solo and his teachers and parents from Graham and Parks took me into their worlds for awhile, current and past lives I wished to walk into with my public school fantasies of what could be so frustrated in the current climate of education and in my home district in Somerville. A lot of issues of haves and have nots these days. A lot of shift in policy and politics overwhelms me and I don’t know how, how, how to respond. So, here is my tiny bit, a link to the article about the incredible suffering which is likely to occur on an enormous scale in California, and which is already occurring all around the country, to varying degrees, as the number of child care subsidies continues to be much lower than the number of children and families who need them. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/business/economy/24childcare.html?th&emc=th

Below I will cut and paste the piece from Exchange which gave a nutshell version of what is happening. As I reread it, I notice that the book which is recommended below the advocacy piece is one I found incredibly helpful when I was learning to be a community organizer at Choice, my kids’ alternative public school, several years ago. It is called Stick Your Neck Out: A Street Smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond. I loaned it to a friend and would love to get it back. Meanwhile, if you are interested, definitely try to read it. I am not sure I can rightfully copy and paste an ExchangeEveryday piece, but I don’t know how else to share it. I still have technology to learn.

I also want to pass along news of federal legislation (? not even sure that is the correct term?! I have a lot to learn!!) which would allocate federal funding for public school teachers, who are predicted to be laid off in record numbers with enormous consequences. A public school teacher and blogger from the Education for Human Greatness group, Kenneth Bernstein, has been following this issue and has shared his thoughts with our group this week. Please, if you are able to advocate on the federal level for funding to keep more of our teachers working, read these pieces, too, and do what you think you can to stem the flow of trained teachers from our systems and all the damage that will do on so many levels, not least of all to our kids and to the future of our country. Crises abound. Awareness is only the beginning. I have to start somewhere. Reading, writing, passing information and ideas and words along are my beginning. Don’t know what next.

Here is the piece from Kenneth which I received this morning, and am passing along to you. Scary stuff, but worth the read and any reaction you can give.

Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, has an op ed in today’s Washington Post advocating for the funding to prevent massive teacher layoffs.  That is the focus of this diary

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/5/28/870733/-key-White-House-official-says-to-keep-the-teachers

which I ask that you read.  You can then decide the appropriate response

thanks

and peace

Kenneth J. Bernstein

Here is the piece from ExchangeEveryday on the child care crisis in California. Again, I am not sure how to share this other than cutting and pasting. Still learning.

The Terminator Returns
May 25, 2010

A watermelon will not ripen in your armpit.
-Armenian Proverb

California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, best known for his movie role as the Terminator, is terminating most state funding for child care.  This was the stark news revealed at the 2010 Spring Institute of the Child Development Policy Institute (CDPI), an event for which Exchange Magazine was one of the sponsors.  At the Institute a number of experts including Jean Ross of the California Budget Project and Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny, Chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, laid out the stark facts:

  • The state budget for 2010-2011 shows a projected deficit of nearly $20 billion.
  • If the state were to close all prisons and all 2- and 4-year colleges, these drastic actions would only cut the deficit in half.
  • The Governor’s proposed elimination of child care fund ing includes programs such as General Child Care, Migrant Centers, Resource and Referral, Allowance for the Handicapped, and Local Planning Councils.
  • The child care cuts are scheduled to take place on July 1, 2010.  If no solutions are found, on that day services for 142,000 children would end, and hundreds of agencies across the state would be forced to lay off most of their employees or close altogether.

To follow this issue, go to the CDPI website.


Practical Ideas for Becoming an Effective Advocate


Today my four asked why we couldn’t eat our oatmeal outside. Why, indeed? We only had to wash the tables. Which of course, the children loved to do.

Today I was focussed on the children’s interactions with the natural world and all its infinite materials. We collected apples again. We wondered how many different flowers there are on our way from day care to the park. We touched and smelled and marvelled. My neighbor Michael was out watering his front garden when I was off to school and I admired his perseverence. “It’s all for the kids,” he told me again, and again I was amazed at how the wonder of children can transform the world. On the way home from the park, we had to stop and touch and admire his garden and I told the kids his words, and confident beings that they are with their own importance, they were not surprised.

Part way home my five picked up a long and fluid stick. He bent it in an arch, and I commented on how it was the same shape as an arch over another neighbor’s garden, which we had also admired along our walk. He agreed, then shaped it into another arch, and asked which letter it was. I wondered aloud, watching my boy with his beloved stick, and my girl with her shorter one, having photographed my ones with their birthday candle stick stuck in sand castle cake, “Why do you think it is that children love sticks?”

“Because they can be guns and rockets.” he answered, reshaping his stick into a gun.

“Because you can make things from them,” added my four, admiring her stick and putting it behind her ear.

“Because they can transform,” added the five, making his stick into new and different things as we talked.

“Sticks” added my one, and I asked her if she had used a stick at the park and she said yes and I told the others about her birthday cake with stick candle.

For much of the next block we talked of sticks, made stick things, adored our sticks. In the back of my mind, I questioned all the no stick rules we have created over the years, wondered how we might bring sticks inside, what direction a Reggio Emilia teacher might take this theme, wondered, as always, what next, what next, what next?

Took a glorious bike ride on my new/used bike tonight after a nice dinner of greens, hard boiled egg, roasted potato, and maple syrup dressing. (Had a similar salad last night. When I told the kids at lunch about the roasted potatoes, they all thought we ought to make them for lunch some day.)

When I was a girl, I loved to ride my bike. As a young adult, when  I would go home for a visit, I would reconnect with the rural world by biking after dinner, or walking with my mom and sister around the long country block, passing by farms and barns and houses of people we mostly knew.

When my kids were little, and even before that, really since I left home at seventeen, I haven’t been in a biking habit. I never got comfortable biking in the city before my kids were born, then once they were, I didn’t know how to ride with confidence with a baby in a seat on the back, with a pregnant belly, with young kids negotiating city streets. Then my kids grew so fast and our time grew so full that for a long time we didn’t have bikes for one or more of them that fit, and I only imagined biking with my kids.

This fall, my friend Michael, who loves to bike, claimed an abandoned bike and reconditioned it for me. It is a lovely thing, silver gray, lithe, no gears and only one brake, simple and just right for me. I can lift it, swing my leg over it in a skirt, and off I can go. Trouble is, for months and months I didn’t. But tonight I did. After dinner, at nearly eight o’clock, I took that baby for a spin, and it was great. I biked through familiar neighborhoods, down the bike path, along the water’s edge by Spy Pond, back along the path and through the streets and accross Alewife Brook, smiling all the way, not falling or scraping a knee or even hitting a major bump. It was quiet and peaceful. The breeze today is so gentle I found myself taking pictures in my living room of curtains billowing about the windowsills. Imagine that on your face. Lovely. I remember now, that feel of biking after dinner, the energy coming back into my legs and arms and back, not a girl, but younger somehow, freer, more part of the world around.

When I came home, I felt good. I remembered in the fall when the house was first quiet without kids or partner, burning candles and drinking tea every night. I learned that at Gilchrist on my retreat, where tea and candles were provided, and a fire place, for some of my first night’s alone in many, many years.  Peace as the sun sets and hoping for the energy to do a little desk work now, before book and bed.

This afternoon I found a blog or website put together in part by a friend of a friend who once visited the day care in search of care for her girl. We didn’t have the right space at the right time, but she impressed herself upon me enough that I had hoped we would stay in touch. The site is MindfulMama, http://www.mindful-mama.com/ and the entries I read made me happy, felt just right. One of them reminded me to reconnect with things I used to do and love as a way of taking care of myself, which would also end up with me taking better care of kids. Tonight biking was that thing.

Funny thing is that Mindful Mama seems to be written for working mothers of young children, who may find it especially hard to find time for themselve, but in my newly arrived state of singleness two or three nights a week, I find myself with more alone time than I have had in years, still searching for ways to fill it that put me in touch with deep joy and satisfaction. Little by little this old dog is getting there, learning new tricks and relearning old ones, day by day and night by night.

Reminds me also of something Len Solo said at his book talk this week about one teacher who worked with him at the Graham and Parks School. The teacher said that at some point while working at Graham and Parks (a learner-centered Open Classroom style school), he realized that in order to keep up with the kids, he was going to have to keep learning himself. I really get that this year. I find myself learning so many new things that the whole concept of how we learn is new again. As I learn new things either with the kids or on my own, I want to share what I’m learning, and that makes me a better teacher and caregiver.

Reminds me also of John Holt, who describes learning to play the violin as an adult as a turning point in his understanding of learning and how to work with children. I haven’t yet learned the violin, though that is on my list of wishes. Just relearning to ride a bike makes me feel alive in some new way I expect will change the way I see things. As with most things of interest to authentic teachers and caregivers who share themselves with kids, somehow the biking will find it’s way into my life with children, hopefully making our shared lives richer.

That was another good idea from Len Solo — one of the chapters in his book is called “Living Well Together”. Reminded me a lot of Living and Learning Together, and Eating Delicious Food. There is a lot to be said for the vision of The Good Life many of us aspire to in our personal lives aligning with our shared vision of The Good Life for our schools and child care centers and the many other community settings where our children are growing up. Maybe this summer I’ll collect some bikes and ride with our bigger kids. What do you think?

When I was a girl the night was lonesome and dark. The night sounds were ethereal, calves being separated from their mothers bawling like no sound any city person ever has heard, screech owls, screeching raccoons brawling in the trees, or something horrifying I could not identify or pinpoint, only feel as fear. There were also peep frogs and silence and bright stars in the country nights and a room alone with three windows looking out over fields and woods all around.

In college, Taking Back the Night was a march for women to feel safe against violence. I walked proud at Cornell, alone after a late night of studying, or with a male friend who agreed to escort me from the library, arms at sides swinging powerfully, chin up, eyes wide open.

At Teachers College, I walked down the middle of 121st Street on my way to Whittier, my dormitory, with keys stuck between my fingers as protection, all on my own, I wanted to go out and I wanted to go home, and that was my way of being safe.

I thought of these words Take Back the Night in the shower this morning. I have to begin my shower earlier, so I have more time to write after thoughts come. I’ll be brief. I thought of homework and taking back the night from that for my two boys. The peace in our house without that commitment and struggle and the space that has made for other things, safety out of fear and conflict, creativity, conversation, love.

Then I thought of all the meetings I have been to in my life of trying to save the world on my own little terms and how many nights I gave to causes that in the end I began to find too far from my heart, too futile to continue at the expense of myself and my kids, and then I thought of this year of separation and divorce, of Gilchrist where many women, including myself, found ourselves out in the dark at night. I walked my first walk near midnight last year on Independence Day, drawn out by distant bangs of fireworks to photograph the night sky, wound up in a small chapel praying for my spririt to return, afeared of a sound outside that was most likely a deer, came back in the morning to find the pressed down grass nearby.

And then there was the fear of being alone in my own house, the sadness I found there without my family and routine, and the walking out into the night of the city again on my own, to readings, to talks, to walk in the dark and be amongst the young and curious again, saving my city soul.

Time for cleaning, carpool, work. morning time again.

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