Old enough to remember…

I wrote to the author of this hidden little piece, below, in today’s New York Times: “Thank you for sharing this – I think back to all the Sunday rides we took as a family – it was my mother who was the adventurer – spontaneously calling out – turn here! – to my dad, who just did whatever she told him to. And I giggled at the adventure – for no more cost than an ice cream if we found a place, or some french fries, maybe. Sometimes, summer tomatoes from a fruit and vegetable stand. No worries about the price of gas.

I was much too structured with my children – wish I had transferred the carefree spontaneity of my mom (but I suppose there’s still time)…

My treat on my birthday – which today is – is to spend most of the day with my all-too-grownup girls – I hope for giggles and memories – less worry and fret – less planning and structure – as our world’s concerns have descend upon them like a heavy cloak.  I can no longer protect – distract – cocoon them – with arts and crafts, or food, or entertainment. I suppose there were worldly concerns in my childhood, back on those dusty Sunday road trips – but I don’t remember what they were.

This world’s dark and ominous cloud needs aggressive bands of sunlight – people who can drag us out with inconsequential moments of wonder.

Maybe that’s my role now.  I’ve done far too much planning and prodding and pulling them along. So I’ll go back to the moments … some of which have already been forgotten.  “Do you remember that? When we went to Maine, just the three of us? When we went to the beach in our clothes because we didn’t bring suits?”  – “No, not really…” Sigh…

Maybe they are not “old enough” yet – to remember. Anyone near my age will know what I mean…

I encourage them to write, to journal, to blog, to keep boxes of memories…because one day something will come back to them…and they’ll giggle and pause – and maybe, when it is their time they will take their little ones spontaneously to Maine – or to the Cape – without a reservation, with no bags packed.  Or, they could go on a Sunday drive – and shout out, “turn here”!

Thanks to author Christina Baker Kline…

“At the steering wheel my father consults his large paper map, turning it this way and that, squinting at the small blue lines that squiggle through tiny Maine coastal towns. He’s heard that the author E.B. White’s house is somewhere around here, and he’s determined to find it.

My mother, next to him in the passenger seat of our rusty gold station wagon with my baby sister on her lap, raises her eyebrows at my other two sisters and me, free-ranging in the second row. It’s the early 70s, and seatbelts haven’t caught on yet. We gaze back at her, knowing that once Dad gets an idea into his head, it’s almost impossible to stop him. We range in age from 1 to 10 (I’m the oldest), and all of us are literally and figuratively along for the ride. Besides, we’re excited at the prospect of meeting this author we already feel we know. We’ve been lulled to sleep every night by the soft cadence of my dad’s Southern accent as he reads us stories about a wise spider and a hapless pig, a resourceful mouse and a mute swan.

Dad pulls off the road into the dusty parking lot of a country store with a lone gas pump, and gets out of the car. We hear him chatting with the attendant through the open window. “Sure is nice around here.”

The guy shrugs.

My sisters and I glance at each other. Rural Mainers tend to be stranger-wary and small-talk averse. But as usual, Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “You lived here long?”

“Ayuh.” Amazingly, before long, and with only a little coaxing, the attendant is telling Dad about his grandkids and his lobster boat and pointing off into the distance, giving him the intel he’s come for. “Mr. White lives right over that hill there. Privet hedge in front. Can’t miss it.”

Back on the road, my sister Cynthia ventures, “Isn’t it rude to show up on someone’s doorstep without asking?”

Dad grins and winks at us in the rear view mirror. “He’ll be flattered.”

We pull up to the farmhouse to find a courtly white-haired man trimming the hedge with a set of clippers. “It’s him!” Dad whispers. He rolls down his window and leans out. “Hello, good sir!” The man seems a little nonplussed. “I have a car full of young readers here who’d give anything to meet their favorite author. A word from you, and they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives.” What choice does the poor man have? Within a few minutes, the famously reclusive E.B. White is demonstrating to a cluster of little girls in bathing suits that when you crush pine needles between your fingers and hold it to your nose, the smell is as strong as patchouli. And Dad is right — we never will forget it.

The writer E.B. White passed along an appreciation for the scent of crushed pine needles to the author and her sisters when they arrived at his house unannounced in August 1973. Credit Courtesy of the Baker family.

My childhood was rife with moments like this. Dad was always going out on a limb, befriending people who didn’t necessarily seem to want new friends, trespassing on private property, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in quest of adventure. His philosophy was that you don’t need money or plans, only a willingness to be present in the moment and to go where inspiration takes you. If you don’t, you’ll miss the entire point of being alive.

Raised dirt poor in rural Georgia by a mill worker mother and a father who often went to the bar rather than home after work, Dad learned early on that his quickest route up the social ladder was through charm and smarts. He got himself to college — the first in his family — on a football scholarship, then used seminary to springboard to a doctorate in a foreign land.

As a young academic in the ‘60s, he grew to reject traditional values and had scant respect for the social codes of privilege. At parties, he could often be found talking to the bartender or a 95-year-old Irish grandmother in the kitchen rather than the hosts. A Southerner through and through, even after moving to Maine, he was constitutionally incapable of walking down a street in New York without stopping to chat with doormen, bodega owners and homeless people. He never met a taxi driver whose story he didn’t want to know. Dad’s unorthodox and sometimes embarrassing friendliness got him, and us, into trouble now and then. Some people didn’t take kindly to probing questions. Others found his puppy-dog openness suspect or unsophisticated. But his innate, bottomless curiosity about the world also taught his four daughters to be open to new experiences and comfortable with improvisation. Even now, in his late 70s, he lives each day with a kind of purposeful recklessness, asking provocative questions and seeking new experiences in the belief that he can break through to something better, more meaningful, more satisfying.

Though my parents had little money, they took us on adventures all over the world. Driving through Scotland in a rainstorm, we pulled over to the side of the road and rode the wild ponies grazing by the fence. We coaxed a stray lamb over to our rented R.V. to feed it. One year my father switched houses, cars, teaching jobs, committees and pets with a professor in Melbourne, Australia, sight unseen. Another year our family of six flew to Crete without a plan; at the airport Dad bought a map and started asking random strangers, with the help of a woefully inadequate Greek phrase book: “What should we do?” “Where should we stay?”

This spontaneity meant that we missed flights, lost luggage, drove on perilous roads late at night, stayed in some cold-water hovels, and sometimes went hungry. But it also yielded beautiful surprises: an undiscovered beach, a fisherman’s hut with a breathtaking view, a hillside breakfast of goats’ milk yogurt and fresh honey that I still remember 35 years later. It led to his daughters’ sense of the world not as a huge frightening place but as a wonderland ripe for discovery.

The Maine farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting “Christina’s World” was not yet a museum or even open to the public when my father got it into his head — soon after our ambush of E.B. White — to take a family field trip there. Following his usual routine, he pulled into the small village of Cushing and asked a local how to find the Olson house. When we arrived (no doubt trespassing), we picnicked in the field where the woman in the pink dress in the painting had lain. Looking up at that weathered gray house on the hill, and hearing the story of the woman with my name who spent her lifetime there, I was entranced. Years later, I drew on that experience to tell my own story of the painting in my new book.

There’s no doubt that my dad’s endless curiosity has shaped who I am. I often find myself — to my own kids’ embarrassment — chatting with strangers in lines, accepting spontaneous invitations, and seeking out-of-the-way adventures.

I think the most important thing I learned from my dad is that when you go out on a limb there’s a risk it will break, but you’ll get a whole new perspective on the world. And if you’re really lucky, it can feel like flying. ‘

“We have met the ‘enemy’ and he is us.” – The Parent/Teacher Rift

images

The assistant principal of the J.F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick, Subhash Chander, wrote a commentary in the Providence Journal, which ran on September 13th entitled, “Parents must do more than just buy school supplies”.  At first read, I thought – absolutely – excellent points. Well said. But then I noticed the one-sided view that this principal chose to use in addressing parents. And I could actually see a finger waving back and forth, admonishing me, the parent. I started to remember my experiences in my encounters with teachers over the years, when I would ask questions, or suggest something. That awful, tenuous, careful push-pull feel of it all.

Like a presidential rebuttal I feel compelled to respond and ask this of Ms. Chander, “what is a teacher’s responsibility”? And not to plagiarize in any way, I’ll use some of her own phrases. As an administrator are you focusing first and foremost on reinforcing with your teachers, what it takes “to be ready for the school year”?

When sentences begin with, “To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest….” you’ve already lost the ‘we’re a team’ point.

My children are in their mid 20s now. They were educating in public schools in the Cranston school system. They went on to public university education, then beyond to advanced degrees. They have good jobs, here in RI.

No, I was never a helicopter parent. But, I was always ‘there’ – for events, concerts, parent teacher meetings, etc. I even had a strange few years on the PTO. I looked at homework assignments, provided a good dinner and study time at home, pulled back on extra curricular activities when I could see that was interfering. I did the dreaded dioramas and helped in the equally dreaded poster board presentations. I struggled to understand the new rubrics. I agreed to let my kindergartener not worry about mispronouncing words, as the new reading methods didn’t are about that (don’t ask about a 20-something’s pronunciation faux pas, to this day). I gave up on the old math of memorizing “times tables” to the new math (have you gone to a farmer’s market and watched the young people struggle to make change from a $10 when you have spent $5.71 – watch it – it’s the “new math”). That “better way” of doing math far exceeded my ability to understand and keep up at some point around middle school.

They excelled academically and are thriving as individuals. Given a poor teacher year or a year fraught with unresolved school issues, they managed to get through pretty much on their own resolve.

My visits to the schools were few. But they were almost never well received; my requests never greeted with openness and a ‘spirit of cooperation’. Teachers were unavailable, unaccommodating, wouldn’t look you in the eye, didn’t return phone calls, for the most part. Of course, there were a few outstanding gems, to be remembered for a lifetime.

images-1

This principal writes, “To Parents: the least you can do is take an interest in your child’s education” – let me write this: “To Teachers: please take an interest in your student’s life”. Talk to them. Ask them on a daily basis what they do outside of school. Ask them what’s important to them. Don’t ever assume they have all the support they need for academic excellence. Ask them if they need extra help. In talking to your student, please let them know that you will stay in touch with mom and dad. And do it. And when you talk to the parents, do so in a friendly and inviting way – do not stop maintaining those connections, even if you find parents are very busy and may not have the time to talk to you when you can talk to them. After all, these days, it is easy to stay in touch with parents using electronic media.

Always remember that you are accountable. And that teaching effectively is your primary responsibility – and you will be reviewed on your performance. I have no doubt that you are busy and overworked and under resourced.

Think of ways to welcome parents to your classroom – establish a hotline if that works well for you. Teach your students to respect education and of course the people who teach them every day. Provide an environment in the classroom that fosters respect for all people. Show your students that you respect their parents, too. Never disparage your student’s parents, or home situation in front of your student.

As teachers it is imperative that you share your student’s educational journey not only as “the teacher”, but also as “a person”. Let your students feel that you are their best support in education. Encourage them to discuss anything with you, that they don’t need to hide the fact that they may need something they are not getting in the classroom or at home; let them know you are right there for them. Create an environment of open discussion around topics related to education. Create that environment with your students’ parents, too.

Yes, “children who are ready to learn are easiest to each.” Remember, parents who are welcomed and know what they can do to help can be your best advocates. Know that some parents will fail their children, and be ready to help support these young people as best you can; it is not their fault. Nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a promising future for your student through education. After all, this is why you chose to do this for a living.

parent-child-teacher-partnership

Here is the link to the original op ed, and it is printed in its entirety, below…

http://www.providencejournal.com/opinion/commentary/20140913-subhash-chander-parents-must-do-more-than-just-buy-school-supplies.ece

The back-to-school frenzy is over and schools have finally opened. Kids have gotten their wish lists taken care of and parents have spent or overspent their budgets in their desire to get their children ready for the new school year. The students are back to the classrooms after a gap of almost three months and teachers are ready to roll out the new academic year.

Are the children ready for the school year?

This is a question that baffles all at the end of every long nonproductive vacation. What does it precisely mean to be ready for the school year?

Because few students faced serious intellectual challenges during vacation, the teachers are going to have to design remedial course work to prepare them for the curriculum. It is every teacher’s wish that the summer vacation would be devoted to some productive academic activities. During the summer break, learning invariably takes the back seat and a sizeable chunk of the year is devoted to unproductive activities only remotely related to education. Hence many students end up losing one-fourth of a year’s worth of education. Staying stagnant and inactive for three months, a child’s brain is sure to regress.

Do the parental responsibilities end with the provision of school supplies?

Education of children is a complex matter and cannot be entrusted to specialists alone. True, teachers are entrusted with this responsibility and paid for it. But children’s education is a joint responsibility of parents and teachers. Teachers cannot fulfill this responsibility singlehandedly.

The majority of the teachers do fulfill their professional obligations to the best of their abilities, but children spend a good part of the day at home or in their communities. That is where parents have a role to play. By doing little things, parents can make a significant contribution toward the success of their children in school.

To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest in your child’s education. It starts with talking to your children on a daily basis about whatever transpires at school every day. Never think that your children have grown up enough to handle their educational responsibilities on their own. The more involved you become in your child’s education, the more successful your child is going to be.

In talking to your child, please stress that you will stay connected with his or her teachers. No matter how unwelcome children find your visits to, or contacts with, school, do not stop maintaining those connections. These days, it is easy to stay in touch with the teachers using electronic media.

Always remember no one is more accountable for the education of your child than you as parents. You do not need to be a college graduate in order to help your child become a responsible student. All you need to remember is that education is important for all, and as parents it is your prime responsibility to continue to inculcate love of learning relentlessly.

I have no doubt that, as parents, you are busy ensuring the supply of things of daily needs and are quite hard-pressed for time. But please note that nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a more promising future for your children through education.

Thus you should establish a hotline with your child’s teachers, and help teachers feel comfortable communicating with you. Teach your children to respect education and the people who provide education to them. Respect for teachers is a cornerstone of successful education. Never disparage your child’s teachers in front of your child.

As parents, it is imperative that you share your child’s educational journey with them at a highly personal level. Let your children feel that you are their best support in education at home. Encourage them to discuss anything and everything with you as this way they will learn not to hide things from you. Create an environment of open discussion in the house around topics related to education.

Remember that children who are ready to learn are easiest to teach.

Subhash Chander is assistant principal of the J. F. Deering Middle School, in West Warwick. He is a former professor of English in India.