Monday, November 28, 2011

Catherine Grace

"A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men."
                                     --Martin Fraquhar Tupper

There's a baby in our house...well, not quite, a baby in my sister's house.  Catherine Grace.  She was born on November 22, 2011 and those of us with number focus think it's a very cool birthday: 11.22.11. Good birthday karma.

Babies, oh babies.  I've been blessed with four tiny bundles to love and squeeze and hold in the middle of the night and whisper and sing and create silly nicknames for and I know I sound greedy but it really doesn't seem like enough.  Look what they do...just grow up and away they go!  Having a baby in the house brings a quiet sense of wonder, a reverence and a feeling of connection to the bigger world and yes, even the universe.  It forces you to pause and soak in that baby goodness.  Holding someone so very fresh and brand new always creates in me a feeling of possibly, if I play my cards right, just maybe being privy to the secret of life.  If I just hold him long enough, I'll know that connection to the heavens.  If I snuggle in close, I might understand for a moment the incomprehensible. 

How can it happen?  It's as magic as a butterfly.  How do the cells know to become eyes, heart muscle, skin, toes, bones and ligaments?  How can the heart beat so steadily and just keep going like the never ending waves in the ocean?  How does the baby know your voice when it's been hearing it all muffled and under fluid for her whole life? How can two completely different people together create a baby that has a little of her daddy and a little of her mommy and yet be the only one on the planet, forever irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind?  It's a breath-taking and breathless time and it stuns me each and every time.

Holding Baby Catherine Grace, my whole world stops.  I'm taken back to holding each of my babies for that very first time.  My heart is so full with the job and privilege and gift of motherhood.  I remember being soooo clueless, soooo tired, soooooo full of doubt and misgivings and honestly wondering how anybody thought I could be capable enough of mothering this brand new baby named Jack.  

Seeing Mary Kate for the first time, I was awash with the joy of having a daughter.  The possibility of pink. I had convinced myself that I was having another boy and so upon hearing the words, "You have a daughter!" filled with disbelief I begged John to "check again".  Hearing Jack call her "Mary Cake" for the first few days of her life renewed in me the deliciousness of babyhood...yes, she was better than cake! 

Holding Patrick for the first time I was filled with a sense of the familiar. I "knew" him in a way I hadn't felt with Jack or Mary Kate and the instant message that came through loud and clear from the universe in those moments I simply spoke robotically to John: "This is Patrick.  He has Down Syndrome and is exactly as he should be." I was comforted by that message but felt an incredible urge to "circle the wagons" and begin protecting him. Little did I know that he would need no protecting.  

And then there's Caroline. "Out of the everywhere and into the here." Never thinking I would be crazy enough or lucky enough to have a fourth baby, I couldn't believe that she was here.  To this day, I still whisper in her ear, "Thank you for coming" as she sleeps. I knew she was there "out of the everywhere"...could feel it, and one late night I asked her to come. I know it sounds bizarre.  And I guess that's what makes it even more real...yes, the bizarre happens and she is living proof.  Someday, she'll get her own blog story about that fateful night. Watching the kids love her, protect her, dote on her and envelope her in love has been amazing. 

Babies.  Every single baby deserves to be wanted, cherished and held tight in a cocoon of love. So many are not.  Many, many babies are thrown away and discarded because of bad timing, the wrong gender, a cleft palate, an extra chromosome.  Holding Catherine Grace reminds me to fight for those unwanted babies.  There are couples waiting in deep sadness for a hole to be filled.  They are waiting to be chosen as an adoptive family.  They are waiting to raise enough money to be able to adopt.  They are waiting and trying to muddle though layers and layers of bureaucracy trying to wind their way though a maze that has their baby at the end. If for some reason, you find yourself unable to love a baby at the moment you are pregnant, know for certain that there is someone in the world who will love your baby if you just give them a chance. I promise.

I know of many families who have adopted special needs kids, baby girls from foreign countries, children out of the foster care system, kids with the worst stories possible and yet still their family finds them. I know of one family in my own town who adopted a little girl from India with tremendous burns all over her little body, severe health issues, a need for constant vigilant care and still her mom stood up and said, "She is mine."and with her mother's ferocious love she has transformed and blossomed and become the very clever and capable little girl she is today. 

Reece's Rainbow is an organization that connects orphans all over the world who have Down Syndrome with their adoptive families. If you are looking for a charity to donate to this holiday season, they might be the one.  They offer you a chance to have a Christmas Angel ornament supporting a particular child for $35.  If you're not careful, you might fall in love and bring a baby home.  That's what happened to Jennifer and Hector Sanchez when they got the Christmas Angel Ornament for baby Sophia in December of 2009.  Today she is home with her forever family, thriving and growing in astounding ways, and keeping her three older brothers busy. And the ripple of seeing Baby Sophia exactly where she is meant to be has led to numerous additional adoptions.  The Herrington Family will be making their way overseas in January to adopt their special bundle Baby Olivia.  

Miracles happen everyday.  Babies are born.  Families reach out and scale mountains to get to their children. The unwanted are welcomed and the discarded are treasured. During this season of waiting for a Blessed Holy Child, I can't help but think of the many babies waiting. Love is at the center of babyhood.  May all children feel it and know it and be surrounded in it.  Just like precious Catherine Grace, my little spot of holiness in an ordinary day. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Child Left Behind -- Ironic Isn't It?

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” 
- Ray Bradbury

I'm really bothered.  There is a dirty little secret in education and it is called No Child Left Behind.  Ask any educator what they think of it and you will get an earful. It has a fantastic premise: "Setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education."  Who can be against such a thing?  
Which is why the bill passed with huge bi-partisan support in 2002 and the heavyweights of politics signed on: proposed by George W. Bush, co-authored by John Boehner (R-OH),  George Miller (D-CA), Ted Kennedy (D- MA), Judd Gregg (R- NH).  It sounded great.  It was going to reform education and make teachers accountable. It was going to make sure that every child in every school improved and made progress or else.  It was the "or else" that changed everything.  If the improvements didn't happen every single year, your school went into "Program Improvement".  Eventually your entire district would go into Program Improvement.  

After ten years of NCLB, 80% of the districts in the state of California are in Program Improvement.

Should we guess which districts these are?  The poorest and the most diverse.  No duh.

What happens when your entire district is Program Improvement?
no field trips
no art
no science
no social studies
no writing of any significance
no literature
no PE
reading and math take up most of the day -- with constant re-teaching and fill in the bubble testing

Here's where it gets really bad.  The teaching is literally taken out of the teachers' hands and a "scripted curriculum" is given.  The teacher must be on the same page, on the same day, at the same time as all of the other teachers at the same grade level in the district.  People come in and check and make notes of where you are.  Any professional respect has vanished.  Any feeling of competency is gone.  Teachers with 20-30 years of experience in the poorest, most diverse districts are treated with derision and disrespect.  Morale at these schools is at an all time low.

It used to be that if you taught in a poor, diverse district your students had a chance, a real chance to grow and learn and make progress and lift themselves out of poverty.  They had opportunities afforded them that their family life would never provide: science camp and outdoor education in 6th grade, a field trip to a farm, an observatory, a play.  As a first grade teacher in one of these districts I started out my year with a field trip to the city library by city bus.  We had them get their first library card and check out their first ever book; 75% had never been to a library and sadly, many did not even know what a library was.  Although the economic and family situations of my students were often disastrous there was always the hope and love of school.  Reading big books or fantastic stories and poems, singing songs, playing outside games, creating art projects and doing science experiments naturally ignited their curiosity and fired up their wonder.  
That is all gone now.

Today, students in Program Improvement districts are treated to heaping mounds of reading drudgery and worksheets.  There are math worksheets and the unforgiving pace of constantly moving ahead regardless of mastery and leaving behind most of the class.  The second language learners are given ever more opportunities of re-teaching and more worksheets.  It is grim.  
And yes, I'm bothered. 
Real bothered.

I keep waiting for the big wigs to shout this insanity down.  But, how can you say out loud that you are against NCLB without looking like a teaching lightweight?

Of course, I am for high expectations and equal opportunity.  Who isn't?
But, I am not for condemning an entire segment of our society to educational gruel while the haves continue to have all of the enrichment and joy of learning.  

Most of you don't know education's dirty little secret because you are part of the lucky 20%.  Your district is wealthy or perhaps your children attend private school -- either way your child's school is full to the brim with opportunity, joy and educational privilege.  You naturally thought all children were given real opportunities for learning. Well, No Child Left Behind left behind an entire chunk of our population. Check out the drop out rates. 

And where is the grace in all of this?
It is in the incredible resilient spirit of both the students and teachers in the desperate schools.  After ten solid years of this, those teachers still come to school each day with hope in their heart and faith that their students can learn and grow even with drudgery.  They work to provide a moment of lightness: skipping to recess and calling it PE, singing while they take attendance, assigning the fun stuff for homework.  
The students still come to school with bright eyes and high hopes.  Their parents, with no real knowledge of the system, still put their faith in the school. 
Those teachers are heroes.
They haven't left town, retired or put their hands up in the air and waved a flag of surrender.
They are still there, regardless of the rancor, the disrespect and the impossibility of their situation.  
They believe in the kids.

And now here is the Kryptonite of No Child Left Behind that no one wants the poor and diverse to know:  we can dismantle it.  We have the power.  All we have to do is to choose not to take the test.  If enough parents make that choice, the test becomes invalid.  Suddenly, Program Improvement has no weight. 
Trust me.  No one wants you to know this or do this as a parent.   
There will be incredible push back and repercussions but what can be worse than TEN years of drudgery??? TEN more years?  Entire generations of learners thinking this is the only way?

I'm ready for a fight.  Bring it on.

As a parent at one of those schools, I'd opt out of the test. Bring the legislators with no educational knowledge to task.  Ask them to think up some new way to have high expectations and accountability.  I'm all for it.  I'm against teaching to the test and pure drudgery.
Our poorest, most disadvantaged kids need way more than that.  
They need the wonder and joy and excitement of school.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, I'm not quiet any more.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Home Is Where the Heart Is

   "My home is not a place.  It is people." -- Lois McMaster Bujold

I've heard it said, "You can't go home again." and I've worried about that.  Because if that sentiment is true, what happens to Jack, my oldest who has left home and is in the very first few months of college?  Is it possible that he won't ever return home with the same heart, the same self, the same Jack-ness that we love and adore? What does that mean?  Where do we go from here as a family?

I had some crazy feelings of excitement and trepidation as we ventured onto an airplane just John and I headed to Los Angeles to see Jack for the first time in two and a half months. I was simultaneously tortured by the idea of seeing him for just a few hours and thrilled with any time at all.  Like a wilted flower, any drip of water would do.  When it became clear that we would for sure get to see Jack, John's face was lit up with a smile that wouldn't stop.  He kept looking at me, smiling.  I kept brushing him off.  I just wasn't sure.  Were we going to be cramping Jack's style?  Would he want us there?  How was it going to play out?  It felt unreal and dream-like and I couldn't quite picture it at all. Most of all, I wondered, would Jack be the same? 

We got to his dorm and took the elevator up.  We walked the halls that at the beginning of school had been freshly painted, new and clean. Today, they were dirty, lived-in and rather collegiate looking. We knocked on the door and found three room-mates missing and three girls sitting in the living room with Jack in the classic.  We introduced ourselves and heard their stories. Zoe from Dallas, Aubrey from San Diego, and Jordan from LA.  All were together and friendly and polite.  Zoe gave us the run down of the plans for the day.  We made small talk and visited until Jack popped out, clean and ready to go. We hugged and took a good long look at the newest incarnation of Jack: college guy.  He was smiling, excited and happy.  He was ready to show us around and we followed his lead and got ready to go.  Zoe, ever the cruise director, handed Jack a list of phone numbers that he could use since he had misplaced his phone. 

First stop: book store.  We walked across campus and noticed mothers and fathers and sons and daughters just like us.  We felt part of something and yet a cloistered bubble of three at the same time. We decided to get some red for the football game and put on our required USC clothes.  We watched guys paint their entire bodies, we saw Trojans and cheerleaders and families and fraternities and an entire college scene that seemed scripted and watched Jack maneuver and make his way.  He greeted friends as he passed through and knew instinctively where he was going.  He guided us through it all.  He seemed comfortable and confident.  This was his turf and he wanted to share.  He showed us where he practiced volleyball, where he filled out paperwork for the screenwriting program, where he hung out with friends.  Best of all, he was genuinely himself, nothing was lost or missing, totally himself but with a bit more.

I don't know when I first felt this, maybe it was eating a hot dog at the Parents' Barbeque amid red and gold swaying balloons or it could have been as we were rushed along with the sea of red making its way to the Coliseum, but I knew that my heart was here.  It didn't matter what I was doing or the thousands of people beside me, as long as I was with Jack, my heart was here.  It was then that I realized for perhaps the first time that my heart is indeed cut into four very large pieces and they are outside of me.  

I guess since my kids have always been under my roof and generally with me that I was tricked into thinking that my heart was in my home.  But being with Jack and feeling a piece of myself there, I know now that my heart is wherever my children are.  Somehow, in the strangest way, I feel comforted by this.  I feel as if I have unintentionally made four horcruxes and stitched a little piece of my soul into Jack, Mary Kate, Patrick and Caroline.  They may travel the earth but they have my heart and that is where my home is -- wherever they are.

We kicked the flagpole and wished for good luck.  We resisted the bacon wrapped hot dogs with sizzling vegetables tempting us on our way to the stadium.  We walked by the rose garden planted in the early 1920's and filtered our way into the LA Coliseum.  We went down into the student section almost onto the field and were greeted by Jack's friends with a warm welcome.  We basked in the balmy southern California sunshine, the sublime joy of an afternoon of nothing but football and Jack and started learning the Trojan way.

If you've never been to a USC game let me tell you one thing: they live large.  They must have taken lessons from the British because nobody does Ceremony and Pomp better than these guys.  Out comes the fairy tale white horse with a Trojan atop.  He leaps off the horse and plunges his sword into the soil.  A cheer releases from the thousands of people and the game begins.  The band with full regalia plays its heart out.  The cheerleaders give it their all.  Gigantic flags are waving with an individual U and S and C and a Trojan all working together.  Smoke comes billowing out of a side entrance and with music playing, cheerleaders yelling and the crowd chanting, the football players rush onto the field.  

The game was fantastic...triple overtime and a heartbreaker of a loss...but that was beside the point.  We were with Jack.  Suddenly, we had to rush to the airport. We had to kiss our sweet son good-bye.  We got a glimpse of his world and had to head back to ours, where three other hearts were waiting.  We knew that we had found our way back home and that Jack would too.  Thanksgiving isn't that far away.

Change is inevitable.  Babies grow up.  Kids move out and we must adjust our sails or get stuck in stagnant waters.  This week-end, the grace that filled me up was learning that my home and my heart are where my people matter where on the planet that takes me.