Friday, April 26, 2013


I’m going to begin this blog with that ages-old, tired, lame high school debate trick. I’m going to define the word I’d like to discuss. Honestly, folks, it needs to be done this time. Please really read this definition; try to get your mind around it.

exceptional (adjective)
      1. Forming an exception: RARE
      2. Better than average: SUPERIOR
      3. Deviating from the norm: as
    a. Having above or below average intelligence
    b. Physically disabled

Have you read that? Have you absorbed it? Okay, now, let’s get down to it.

Do you know anyone—anyone at all—who does NOT fit into that definition?

Let’s take me, for example. I am definitely rare; I’m sure many people would say, “Thank goodness for that!” I am an exception in lots of ways: I dislike condiments, I’ve never seen E.T., and I memorize weird things (like the text from a nightshirt I had when I was eight) but forget important ones (like whether I fed the dog last night).

In some ways, I’m better than average. I am probably superior to most people in memorizing thirty-year-old nightshirts. On the other hand, I fall far below average when it comes to the kind of intelligence that lets you learn a series of actions by imitating someone else’s actions and I always diagram three-dimensional situations backwards—just ask my physics, math, and costume design teachers.

I might be considered physically disabled by my fear of heights. It completely prevents me from doing certain things, like riding open escalators. I also have flat feet, knocked knees, and a more-than-usually-lazy left leg.

Does any of this keep me from functioning? No! I ride elevators instead of escalators. I’ve read maps, followed sewing patterns, and even designed costumes. I had to work a little harder at it, but I earned a black belt. I just start from where I am and take the next step. And I’m not alone in that. THAT is the one universal thing about how everyone learns.

Let me repeat that: EVERYONE learns by starting where they are and taking the next step.
Yes, EVERYONE. And, no, he's not really playing a song--but he may someday.
Now is the time on sprockets when we rant…

So, let’s discuss the concept of “Exceptional Student Education.” Based on our definition of exceptional above, which students are NOT exceptional? When you consider the variables (traditional intelligence, emotional intelligence, and all the seven other types of intelligence, social maturity, learning style, perceptual differences, physical differences, experiential differences, cultural differences, neurological differences, and personality types) how can any one student be exactly like another?

They can’t. There is no norm; average is an arbitrary designation that applies to, at best, one or two of those variables. Any child who makes it through the modern American school system without being considered exceptional just hasn’t been caught yet.

Yes, I said caught.

Ever since I read it—in junior high or high school, I forget which—“Harrison Bergeron” has been my nightmare. If you haven’t read it, do. Kurt Vonnegut foretells a future in which everyone is physically forced to be average. And the folks in that world do a pretty good job covering the major variables listed above.

Stop and think about education today, though. Do we see where our children start and take them to their next step? Or do we use social pressure to squish a large number of them into the average mold (ignoring any exceptions that we can possibly ignore—that we haven’t caught) and then trim off the ones that won’t fit, shunting them into exceptional classes and schools?

Is the point of our current system to educate each child or to treat the largest possible number of them in the exact same way for a set number of years?

I realize there are huge practical considerations involved in revolutionizing our education system, but I believe it starts with a new mindset among consumers (taxpayers, parents, guardians, mental health professionals, advocates, relatives, educators, doctors).

Rather than squabbling over resources for each exceptional group, let’s look for ways to address that one universal: every child starts somewhere and then takes the next step. Let’s look at the success of multi-age classrooms, the success of Finland, the success of team teaching, the success of peer teaching. Let’s educate, value, and compensate teachers who have the ability to work with children as they come to us.

Let’s look at the success of martial arts, a centuries-old system that operates on the principle of setting high expectations and progressing at an individual rate through the steps. The steps are the same for each student, but the journeys are individual. No student is “not enough” because each student must only do better than he or she did last time. Every student can take ownership and responsibility and pride in that.

Let’s abandon useless conventions like strict age-grade level correlations and trigonometry being a “better” math than accounting. Let’s embrace real-world learning like the students who designed a 100 mpg racecar. Let’s admit that not everyone needs to know how to scan a poem to live a fulfilled life.

Yes, I, the poet revolutionary, just said that. Not everyone needs—or wants—to know how to scan a poem.

Most of all, let’s make it a good thing to admit that, in some instances, we are the fish and will never be able to climb the damn tree. But we sure would love to challenge a three-toed sloth to a race through a coral reef….

Disclaimer: My family is lucky to live in a county with great schools and our children have been blessed to work with some gifted educators. But I’m going to write about what I see and what I think about the system, whether our children are navigating it pretty well or not.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Working It

Today was Take Your Child To Work Day. This annual holiday, this national celebration, this cornerstone of American society completely passed our household by—at least, until I started seeing all my friends’ adorable pictures popping up on Facebook.

I thought, Awww! Look at him! He’s getting so grown up.

And, Wow—she’s really helping. Awww!

Then I thought, Aw, crap. How did Big A. wiggle out of this again?

To be fair, I’m sure Big A. would LOVE to take the kids to work with him. We’re just out of it—we didn’t know it was today. I mean, *I* only took a kid to work with me because it’s our default setting. Every day, they’re in my hair  office  general laptop space while I edit. As for my mom job, they go with me to get groceries and to get my hair cut and to the bank and to the gynecologist…. You think I’m kidding? I assure you, I’m not. 
So today S. went off to school as usual—but, then again, she’s rehearsing all day for the spring musical revue. That’s kind of like one of my ex-jobs, so she’s good.

And, as usual, I dragged Little A. around with me all day; today we were doing errands for my Girl-Scout-troop-leading job. He was a good sport about it, although I think he got a little tired of listening to “Come On Get Higher” by Matt Nathanson.

I briefly debated taking the song off repeat based on the innuendos involved, but then I decided that A) not even super-genius boy would catch the innuendos, and B) having mom in a good mood outweighed any premature exposure to entendre.

Ironically, this led to Little A. joining me at my poet job later on. As we ate lunch, we had this talk.

“Mommy, I’ve got that part stuck in my head—‘pull me down hard and drown me in love.’”

He’s got that tone of voice. This is going to be A Conversation. Okay, we’ve talked about poetic language before. And I’m an English major. I can spin ANYthing. I got this.

“So, what does that make you think about?”

Little A. shrugs, eating away at his lunch.

“Normally, pulling someone hard hurts, right? And drowning is bad, right?”

Little A. meets my eyes and nods. Clearly, this is what he was getting at. “Yeah.”

“But what else is he talking about?”

Little A. lights up; now HE’s got this. “Love. And love’s a good thing!”

“That’s great! And have you ever wanted a good thing so much that you just can’t say how much you want it?”


“Or have you ever wanted lots and lots of something good, like wanting to eat chocolate ice cream even after your tummy is full?”

Crickets. After Little A. thinks a minute, he shakes his head.

“So you wouldn’t want to drown in love, even if it’s really good?”

Little A. giggles. “Noooo.”

I get whimsical. “What about Legos? Would you want someone to drown you in Legos?”

Little A. gets excited. “Yeah! Police Legos! Lots and lots of police Legos!”

And we moved on.

So there you have it: Legos trump love when you’re a five-year-old boy. That’s probably why pre-K boys don’t write a lot of pop hits. And why poets don’t take their kids to work. At least, not literally.

And I think we’re going back to Roger Day and Sweet Honey in the Rock in the car….

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Voices In My Head

I’ve always been highly susceptible to what those crazy kids nowadays call “ear worms.” Songs get stuck in my head like nobody’s business. Medleys do, too—my own medleys where a scrap of one song feeds into a snippet of another and then sometimes a third and it all repeats again and again and again….

I even used to be able to memorize entire plays. Shakespeare and Moliere, Shaw and Brecht—many classic shows have echoed around up there. I remember one night, while I was directing Pygmalion, I dreamt that I saw the lines floating in front of me. That experience sticks out in my mind because the words haunted me visually, as opposed to…well, whatever you call it when you hear something in your head.

Now, it’s more a string of storybooks. Lots of Sandra Boynton, The Little Blue Truck, and Dr. Seuss. Dear lord, Dr. Seuss! I just read Horton Hears a Who to Little A. tonight and, as I did dishes afterward, I swear my thoughts all started scanning and rhyming. “A person’s a person, no matter how small… daDAda daDAda daDAda daDA, daDAda daDAda daDAda daDA.”


While often irritating, this quirk of the mind can be quite useful, too. When I edit a book, I hear the author’s narrative voice in my head, which allows me to pinpoint jarring spots and to suggest changes that will blend in with the overall narrative. At least, I hope that’s what it does!

Of course, this has led to some funny situations. I edited a fabulous, powerful book about a teenage girl and her gang who bullied every kid they came across. (Unfortunately, it hasn’t been published—it portrayed bullying with terrifying, thought-provoking realism.) So, the narrative voice of the book was a little…rough. Lots of “Bleep this” and “Give me your money, you bleeping bleep” and “Like I give a bleep.”

Well, S. was two and a half at the time and just outgrowing naps. So we’d created “quiet time” in the afternoon, a time when S. supposedly played in her room so Mommy could do some work. I’d settle down and get the “bleeping” law-of-the-jungle voice going through my head, then hear the pitter-patter of little feet.
                “Mommy, can you open this box for me?”
                What the bleep do you…
                Deep breath.
                “Sure, sweetie. Then you can go play, okay?”

I focus again. The main character hops into my brain. “Look, you little bleep. I’m going to cut you…”
Little feet pitter-patter.
“Mommy, does Mickey Mouse like cheese?”
What the bleep? I don’t bleeping know!
Deep breath.
            “I guess so, sweetheart. Most mice do.”

Back to work. Some poor high school girl’s got her head in the toilet. But before the narrator has even had a chance to get going, little feet pitter-patter.
                “Mommy, will you read to me?”
                “Sure, sweetie.”

She knows I’m a sucker for The Lorax.

Friday, April 19, 2013

You Work from Home?

I get pretty predictable reactions when I say I work from home.

Mostly people make vague, general comments just to say something—comments like, “You’re sick? Good thing you work at home.” Or just the generic, “That must be nice.” That one comes up a lot! I also get the occasional, “I could never do that.”

How is it really?

I’m not going to lie—I like it. I like being available when my family needs me, I like working in mom clothes, I like the fact that I worked when my kids were little without needing to find daycare. I like doing laundry and answering emails at the same time. I like my dog on my feet while I work. I like the fact that, when I finish, I’m done. I have no timecard to punch. I even like the work I do—a lot!

I’m a very lucky girl.

Or course, there are challenges. I’ve yet to be without kids for more than three hours a day, so there is a lot of prioritizing and multi-tasking. When I do sit down—exhausted—after bedtime, it’s so I can get to work. And usually sleep gets prioritized right off the bottom of my to-do list.

Don’t even get me started on phone calls! I mostly work online, but, on the rare occasions when I need to talk to someone during business hours, I have to make sure the kids are not home, are unconscious, or are tied up. So, basically, not home.

Editing requires concentration and attention to detail. I can do a lot of the reading, note-taking, commenting, and outlining in my one to three hour chunks on weekdays. However, the final making of the edits, the part when I need to keep every thread of the story and all my suggestions in my head, requires sustained concentration. That part, I do on weekends when Big A. can do all the parenting.

So, every three to four weeks I disappear for about three days. And by that, I mean that I work from about eight in the morning (I have breakfast with the family) until about two in the morning. Sometimes I have dinner with the family, sometimes I can even do bedtime, too. Some longer books take two weekends in a row.

I have to say that my family handles those weekends beautifully! They have their different-yet-awesome Team Dad vibe without me and I love catching glimpses of it when I come up for coffee.

And that brings me to the geography of the whole situation…. My “office” is one of those nifty armoires with storage and work surfaces that pop out, then fold up so that it looks like normal furniture. It’s in the great room—the only non-bedroom space in our house, the kitchen/ family room/ living room/ dining room space—and it’s directly next to the tv.

Remember the whole “requires sustained concentration” thing? On working weekends, I move my “office” to a bed tray. In our bedroom. On our bed. Of course, I have to move back out if Big A.’s ready to sleep before I finish for the day, but it works well enough. The only hitch is that I’m getting too old to sit crisscross applesauce for 18 hours at a stretch!

Our big, beautiful bedroom windows open onto the pool. We are so blessed to have a pool and Big A. and the kids take full advantage of it on their weekends, nine months out of the year. And, as I watch them out the window whenever I look up from my laptop, all my feelings about working at home—pro and con—bubble up.

I love hearing their laughter as background for my work, seeing glimpses of their happy faces going by, and knowing they are having a blast with their daddy. I love that he gets this “alone” time with them and that I get it during the week. I am so grateful that I can earn money for our family doing work that I love while they play with their dad.

But sometimes…sometimes giving up one or two weekends of whole-family time every month gets hard. Time is precious. Sometimes I want to act like the dog does when we go off on our bikes; I want to press my nose to the window and whine. Sometimes I want to just watch tv after the kids go to bed, sometimes I think longingly of ergonomic desk chairs, sometimes I wish I could get coffee without being accosted by children who share long, wandering stories that completely distract me—but, really, I’m grateful that I can work at home.

So that’s what working at home is like for me: it IS nice.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Up/Down or Around&Round

I've always loved the Grandma quote from the movie Parenthood. You know, the old school Parenthood and the time when Grandma talks about how she liked the roller coaster better than the merry-go-round. This one.

As the more optimistic of the two people in our marriage--you may all feel free to laugh; it won't hurt my feelings--I've always considered myself a true roller coaster fan. (Interestingly, I DO love actual roller coaster rides. Big A. does not. It's true.) I've been a bit superior about that, in fact, and you know what that gets you...

Life has undoubtedly had some majorly roller coaster-esque moments for us lately. In fact, it's been hard to write anything here with some pretty big-ticket concerns floating through my head 24/7. Amazingly, the last two weeks have been utterly...transforming? relieving? joyous? full of gratitude and giddy disbelief?

Miraculous might not be too strong a word!

So now that we're on the downhill? uphill?--I don't know, which one's better?--slope, I'm thinking hard about that roller coaster and that little old merry-go-round.

Add to that the fact that I'm starting to transform from a stay-at-home parent to a drive-everywhere-parent. Lately I've noticed that I can put as much as 60 miles on my car in a day...without going more than five miles from home!

I must be going in circles.

And yes, I know all the life-organizing, fuel-efficient, advice column wisdom about consolidating errands and driving the most effective route. Thank you. That's not the point.

I'm trying to say that the little old merry-go-round looks beautiful to me right now. I love the painted horses, with their ribbons and their roses--even the ones with the strong, manly colors. I love the mirrors and lights, the bouncy music, and the really cool mechanisms overhead--the ones that move the horses. I even love the stationary swan cart with benches, the one where grandmas tend to sit, guarding giant diaper bags.

Why do I love this ? Because I'm here with everyone I love and I have a chance to look at them, to watch them laughing, to blow them kisses.

I'm not too frightened, too scared, too sick, too excited, or too thrilled to wait for Little A. articulate a complex, beautiful thought or for S. to tell me an endless story about shenanigans on the bus. I can look Big A. in the eye rather than just clenching his hand as we scream on our way down.

I still agree with Grandma. I still plan to enjoy every minute of that roller coaster ride. I'm just taking time to enjoy the merry-go-round right now.