Friday, October 29, 2010

"Waiting for Superman" Tells It Like It Is

A few weeks ago I got a facebook message from a friend inviting me to see "Waiting for Superman." She had been telling a mutual friend that she wanted to see it, and he had suggested I might also be interested. Frankly, I had never heard of it, and I very rarely go to the movies. As the Mommy of a toddler, it's both time and cost prohibitive. But once I looked into it a little, I knew I needed to find a way to make it work. Did I want to go see a documentary about the state of public schools in the US? Yes. Yes I did.

So, I went. And I watched. And a lot of it was really painful. But not for the reasons many other current and former teachers are claiming. For me, it was painful because it was so very true. "Waiting for Superman" tells the story of public schools the way I experienced them as a teacher. I wish it wasn't true, but it is.

Now, before my facebook friends list shrinks to about half, (although I would hope my friends would be willing to hear me out) let me get a few things out of the way. I went to public schools. I was served well by public schools. My husband also went to public schools, where he was served well. Our daughter, even in a town where there is tremendous pressure to attend private school, will attend public school. (although, this is because we decided when she was just over a year old to move someplace where she could attend public schools. If we were still in NYC, we would make a different choice.) Both of my sisters, my mother-in-law, and two sisters-in-law (my brother's wife, and my husband's sister) have taught in public schools. And they were all phenomenal teachers.

But here's the part I don't talk about very often, especially not publicly. Of those six women (including myself) in my family who have taught, NONE remain teaching today. One retired as scheduled. (but, as I understand it, exhausted and frustrated.) One retired early. (because she was exhausted and frustrated) The other four of us just quit for a variety of reasons. But among the top of our list of reasons is the fact that the system is broken. (leaving us... exhausted and frustrated)

From the reviews I have read of "Waiting for Superman," (and I've read a lot) there seem to be four central ideas regarding the film that really have people pissed off. 1. That it suggests teachers are bad, 2. That it suggests charter schools are the answer. 3. That it suggests home life has nothing to do with student success, and ignores the fact that the students whose stories are told all come from loving families. 4. That the film itself is purely propaganda because it tells such a one-sided story. I don't think any of this is true, but let's look at each idea.

1. Teachers are bad

"Waiting for Superman" examines a lot of bad teachers. Or, as many reviewers would have us believe, it has the audacity to examine bad teachers. We can bury our heads in the sand if we like, but we need to be aware of the fact that there are many, many bad teachers out there.

I've hesitated- fingers frozen over the keyboard- for probably a minute now, still afraid to type these next few sentences. What am I afraid of? Hurting friends and family? Well, let me be really clear then. If you are a teacher, and you are my friend or family member, I don't mean you. You are all fabulous. So here goes.

I taught with someone who didn't care for one of his classes, and he didn't know what to do with it, so he made it a study hall and gave everyone an A. I taught with people who just fell into their positions who were in no way qualified, and, once there, were fully protected by the union. I taught with people who made racist and otherwise hateful comments regarding students, and when I complained, I was told I would get used to it.

I ALSO TAUGHT- in fact I MOSTLY taught, with amazing teachers. Teachers who cared about their students and were gifted educators.

But the fact remains, there are really bad teachers out there. And in any other field, they would be fired. But they are protected by the union, there is nothing that can be done. "Waiting for Superman" exposes the teachers union as a major lobbyist. When I was a teacher, I was often intimidated by the meetings, and we didn't even have anything major going on. But it was more than the intimidation factor. The contracts themselves seemed unfair. I worked harder. I was better. But I was still paid less than some of those horrible teachers who had been there longer.

2. Charter schools are the answer.

"Waiting for Superman" is not suggesting charter schools are THE answer. It's suggesting better teachers are ONE answer, and that the teacher's union is often standing in the way of improvement in teacher efficacy. The filmmakers suggest, then, that families who are dissatisfied with their local public schools send their children elsewhere- someplace where the teacher's union is not in control. One option is private school. The families we follow in the film do not have the option to go to private schools, but live near charter schools with proven success. So, they enter their children in the lottery to attend these better options. They are ONE option, probably the BEST option, for THESE FAMILIES.

3. What about the families?

"Waiting for Superman" does not, in any way, suggest that home life is not a factor in student success. It also does not suggest that physical, emotional, and metal health are not a factor. Or the economy. Or the political climate. Or the weather when it's really hot or really cold outside and students can't concentrate.

But seeing as there is little the school system itself can do to change home life and the economy and the weather, "Waiting for Superman" doesn't highlight these aspects. It focuses more on the parts we can change, which feels more helpful to me.

4. The film is merely propaganda, as it is so one-sided.

First, I would argue this one-sidedness. The film DOES state that there are fewer charter schools that are succeeding than public schools. You just had to be paying attention. And it DOES highlight successful teachers, and successful public schools. But anyone who has ever taken a script analysis class can tell you that trying to show two sides of a story is just not effective storytelling. And it is, after all, a movie. Constantly going back and forth between "the public school system is broken" and "but there are some great public schools and public school teachers out there" (much the way I am doing in this blog...) waters-down the message. We're supposed to leave feeling conflicted, our hearts breaking for the kids who most certainly are getting "left behind." And we're not supposed to have a clear answer. We're just supposed to know it needs to be fixed.

I have more to say. But I'll save it as answers to my hate mail.

Crazy Straws, Nerf Balls, and Coffee Filters (Oh, My!)

I don't know why we can't just buy a costume. There are many lovely costumes available for purchase, and they are probably less expensive than what we end up spending on the parts needed to assemble something homemade. But we both feel the same way. We will make Lily's costumes. So there we were last night at Toys R Us, trying to find all the right pieces. Did it matter that there was a big silver heart on the front of the sweatshirt? How would we get the Nerf ball to stay on the crazy straw? And more importantly, how would the crazy straw stay upright on the headband? And did it matter that it would show? Should we cut holes in the hood so it could go underneath? No, she could wear this again.

We put Lily right to bed when we got home and got to work. Step one had Ryan over the stove melting plastic. Sewing the headband to the hood proved difficult and ineffective. Good thing we had nice strong tape. Then I realized the curling ribbon was in the spare closet in Lily's room. That's OK, we had twine. And in under and hour, voila! The costume was complete.

I had to wait until this morning to try it on her. (although I really wanted to wake her up. But I remained patient.) She tipped her head backwards in order to see what was on top of her head, and continued to try to see for long enough that I laughed so hard I snorted. I carried her into the bathroom, not sure that would work- did she even understand mirrors? Not really. But she took one look at her reflection with that silly hood and smiled, then giggled, and accepted the hood as appropriate attire. I changed her out of the costume immediately, of course. We need to keep it clean for the party at "The Lion King" tomorrow, (yes, the Broadway musical. We know people.) and trick-or-treat on Sunday.

But I know that it works, and it fits, and she likes it. And someday, she'll be the girl who just wants her parents to buy her a damn costume from the store. But until she's old enough to know better, she's the girl with a designer and a music theatre teacher for parents. And we don't buy costumes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Move Over Laura Ingalls

Things in my apartment that do not currently work properly.

1. My phone. The button at the bottom that takes the user back to the home screen does not work. At all. In order to get back to the home screen, I have to shut off the phone and restart it. As an iPhone addict, this is more than just a nuisance. It is life-altering.

2. The TV. It just shuts off and turns back on. Whenever it wants. Granted, we got this TV around the time we got married, so sure it's not HD or anything, but it should WORK for goodness sake. And Lily doesn't understand the word "broken." So she throws herself on the floor and cries when she pushes the button and nothing happens. Don't get me wrong, she's not obsessed with TV. She's obsessed with buttons.

3. The microwave. I tried to use it a few weeks ago and it sparked as if there was metal inside. (there was not.) I stopped it, had Ryan look at it, he had the same result, and it has been unplugged ever since. But it holds our little bride and groom cow quite nicely, so it is still good for something.

4. The computer. It's "fine." But it's six years old (a dinosaur, in computer years) and isn't even fast enough to watch videos online. (Netflix. Perverts.) And since it's a desktop, it's stuck here in our room, which means I can only use it when Lily is sleeping, or when Ryan is home to watch her. But if Ryan is home, I don't want to be stuck working in another room. And there are two times during the week when I have a break for HOURS and could be writing, but have nothing on which to write.

Now. There are people without food water and shelter. And there are people without love. And I have a lot. I know this. Seriously, I do, and if you point out what I have as a response to this post, I'm calling you out for not paying attention. But we get used to modern conveniences, and when they stop working, I for one get very whiny.

Does anyone know of a reality show that gives people technology makeovers? Kate Kenny? Anyone?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jacket Required

You would think it's gross.

You would look at it, all dirty and smelling like beer and stained and worn. And then you would look at me, dressed some days in Ann Taylor, other days like a West Village artist, and you wouldn't get it.

And I wouldn't care.

It is my band jacket. And once a year, I'm wearing it all weekend.

It's OK. I didn't get it either. When I heard as a freshman that they were going to "initiate" my jacket, I told my Mom in confidence that I didn't want them to. Why would I intentionally make my jacket look old? And then, the day arrived when it was time to pick it up from Baron's Men's Shop. I was a little excited- I had seen all the other band members in their jackets, and I would have one of my own.

And the guy handed it to me. And it looked ridiculous. The letters were blindingly white- screaming "OHIO" at me from the back. And the sleeves were all stiff and new. This was clearly the jacket of a freshman.

"OK," I conceded- a little- "maybe there's something to this jacket initiation thing."

I handed my jacket to my Big. Reluctantly. Other band members ran around the field with freshman jackets- marching on them, wrapping them around trees, cleaning their car engines. But my Big made a little mud puddle, and methodically covered each of the letters and the patch on the front, turning the white to a dark brown. And he took his key and carefully put a hole in the patch that's shaped like the State of Ohio. The hole was right over the place where Springfield would be, had it been a real map. And then he asked if I wanted beer pockets.

"I'm sorry. What pockets?" I asked. Innocently. I was a very good little freshman.

"Beer pockets. If I rip the lining out of one of your pockets, it opens up to the inside of the jacket, and you can fit at least a six-pack in there." Of course, some jackets could fit more like a case. But mine was very small. "Makes it easier to get to and from parties without getting caught."

But I didn't drink. I was sort of known as a freshman for not drinking. Well, that and being a cheerleader. But mostly the not drinking thing. So I would not be requiring beer pockets. And, unlike many of the other Bigs, he honored this.

And then, he scratched his initials- TV- into the button second from the top. Followed by four other older band members. JT, and MW, and AK, and EH. And he started to make a diamond Ohio which, even today, (gulp) seventeen years later, remains just one triangle and a line. In fact the only things that have changed about my jacket since that day- aside from it getting more worn, of course- are my Tau Beta Sigma pin, and the small black ribbon I wear on my name patch on the inside to remember Jud and Frank. (who will always be with us at Homecoming)

I wore that jacket for the next five years, much to my mother's dismay. "What are you wearing over your formal dress to the Band Banquet?" she would ask. My band jacket. Obviously. I sat on it when it got too hot. And I used it to wipe the snow from my car. I wore it all over that gorgeous campus, and it let the world know that I was a member of one of the most honored organizations at that school.

It comes out of the closet today, ready to accompany me to Athens, where I will wear it. All weekend.

And you'll probably tell me you think it's gross. But I'll know you're just jealous.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Standing on the Metro North Platform, Waiting for the 10:39 to Larchmont

There are many things I could have done to avoid this.

Better financial planning, for starters. We always think we have a plan, and then something comes up, or something falls through, or it's Columbus Day so class is cancelled and I need my paycheck today not tomorrow when it would come in the mail.

Or I could have asked about the car yesterday, while Ryan was still at work with access to his calendar, rather than waiting until this morning to call, discovering too late that he has appointments all morning.

Or I could have gotten up earlier, making it more likely, upon discovering that we had to walk to the train station, that I would arrive- baby and stroller and diaper bag with diapers and bottles and wipes and bottle and sippy cup and all- on time for the 9:02, rather than watching it go by.

Or I could have thought more rationally, realized there was no way I was going to make the 9:02, and waited peacefully at home for another 45 minutes, rather than rushing out in a panic, leaving me at the train station with a toddler and nothing to do for 45 minutes.

Or I could have kept up with the laundry, making it possible for me to pack an extra outfit, so that when we went to the park to wait for the 9:55, and Lily got soaked from head to toe on the playground equipment, still wet from last night's rain, I had dry clothes for her.

Or I could have brought the smaller stroller, so that when I arrived at the station and discovered that the elevator was broken, I could have carried Lily and stroller up the stairs myself, rather than needing to ask a young man who, in reality, is probably not as strong as I am, for help.

But I didn't do any of those things. 

So, here I stand, on the Metro North platform, Lily in her new outfit from the clearance rack at Gap kids, me in a sad thrown-on t-shirt with my hair in a sad thrown-back ponytail but finally wearing some make-up applied in a train station restroom, exhausted and a little defeated, waiting for the 10:39 to Larchmont.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The No-Fail Pie

I am good at a lot of things. I teach really well. And I can sing. And I can teach people how to sing. And I'm good at things that have nothing to do with teaching or singing. Like writing, or so I'm told. But it turns out there is at least one thing that I just cannot do.

I cannot, to save my life, make a pie.

I made this shocking discovery the week of the Carol Brady experiment, while trying to make a raspberry pie for my husband as June Cleaver. Oh, sure, it turned out alright I suppose. And Ryan absolutely loved it. Ate every bite. But I knew better. I knew it wasn't quite right. The crust just barely covered the pan. And it took me four tries. And it was tough. And just... not perfect. June's pies were perfect.

For a while, I was willing to let it go. But then I got some encouragement. My Mom bought me a proper pie plate. And a friend of hers gave me a recipe for a No-Fail pie crust.

Then, a few days ago, a friend of mine jokingly referred to me as the kind of girl who doesn't make pies. It was a joke, and made sense in the context of the conversation. And I said I took it as a compliment. Because I am a working woman, and an academic, and a really fun Mom. But people don't necessarily think of me as the girl who sits at home and makes pies.

But it got to me. I can be the girl who doesn't make pies. But I cannot, and WILL NOT be the girl who CAN'T make pies. I just couldn't accept it.

So I went to Whole Foods, and got myself some apples, and at 8:30 at night I set out to make a pie. And by 10:30, it was all I could do not to throw myself on my kitchen floor in hysterics. (fortunately, it's a very small kitchen floor. Even someone as little as me would have trouble finding the room for a full-on fit. So that kept me upright, if nothing else.)

I just couldn't get the crust off of the counter. I mean I COULD NOT get that crust off of the counter. The No-Fail crust. The one I wasn't supposed to be capable of messing up. And yes, I floured the counter. And the rolling pin. And yes, I know to roll it up over the rolling pin and then unroll it into the pie plate. It was too sticky. I slid a knife under my third version of the crust (repeating to myself that one is not supposed to over-handle the crust or it gets too tough. But what choice did I have?) Finally, on my fourth try, I was able to get several large pieces into the pan, which I mashed together with my fingers. So it sort, kind of looked like a pie crust.

I lifted my big bowl of apples- which were starting to brown because peeling them and coring them and slicing them took me ninety minutes- and dumped them into the pie plate, knowing I still had a top crust to deal with. But I planned to cheat- a lattice top is far easier, since I only have to get the crust to come out in strips. Then I just have to make it look like a pie. I'm an artist. I can do that.

I put my desperate pie attempt into the oven at 11:45. It takes fifty minutes for a pie to bake, and I was already exhausted, but I refused to let this beat me. Halfway through the baking process, Ryan woke up from the sofa to find me surrounded by dishes with flour all over the counter.

"What in the world are you doing?" It was a fair question.

"Making a pie." An obvious answer. "You can go back to sleep if you want. I'll wake you when it's ready."

I opened the oven with very low expectations. But honestly, it looked like a pie. I may have done it! Until I cut into it, to find a watery mess. The slice I had carved out for myself fell apart entirely on my plate, making it more of an ice cream topping than a stand-alone dessert. And I assure you, that's what it became.

It's been a few days since my pie debacle, and I've had some time to reflect. I sit here, at my computer, eating another slice of my gooey, not-very-sweet mess, and I realize. This is not about pie. Well, OK, in the very most literal analysis, it's a little bit about pie. But it's more about that No-Fail crust. If it's supposed to be No-Fail, and I couldn't do it, where does that leave me?

My years of struggling with infertility brought up some really interesting issues in therapy. And I distinctly remember the day when my therapist and I discovered that one of my biggest hurdles was understanding the failure. To be perfectly honest, I have had very few failures in my life. I applied to one undergraduate program, and one graduate program, and later, one more additional graduate program. I applied to one teaching position when I graduated. The year after I graduated from NYU, I went to only six auditions. This is because I booked four of them. My best friend and I decided to start a theatre company. So, we did.

And I don't say all of this to proclaim how cool I am. I tend to do things at which I excel. This makes success much more likely. I go to the auditions for which I know I'm right. I pick jobs and schools that I know are right for me. But in all of my successes, I never learned to fail. And I'm starting to realize- this is a problem.

So now, I'm stuck with a decision. Do I practice, and learn to make the perfect pie? A big part of me says yes. Because that's what I do.

But maybe I won't. Maybe I'll take this as a failure. I'll be the girl who totally can't make pies. Because in the grand scheme of things, maybe that's not so bad.

Who am I kidding? You know I'll be at Whole Foods tomorrow.