03 December 2005

Middle School Dèja Vû, All Over Again

For ten years I've been a member of a group of women — 1/5th of them men — that are involved in some way with the Web. It began as "webgrrls SF," but within a couple of years became San Francisco Women on the Web. I am on a few professional lists from which I get a ton of email, but this list is the one I've been on the longest, and in many ways it is closest to my heart. I even attend a live event once in a while. A fellow early participant in these events was this sweet, nutty guy named Craig who had this weird idea about doing some kind of web listings bulletin board. As the Web has grown up, so has Craig's list, and so has Women on the Web San Francisco. There are writers, coders and other technical geeks, designers, marketing people, project managers, photographers, filmmmakers, musicians, caterers and many many more talented people on this list. I know that if I need something: advice on who should host my blog, suggestions for a spa to take my squeamish East Coast relatives, or just to process an unpleasant business experience I can write to sfWoW and get what I need. I give back to it too, when I can. For example, I happen to have the address of the very best inexpensive but very comfortable small hotel in Paris. And, no, I'm not telling just anybody. But I owe it to sfWoW, because they' ve always been there for me.

So recently there have been some sfWoW postings about blogs, and I wrote that it was hard to keep up with because, aside from my business, I had middle school homework to do. Then a couple of very nice, well-meaning fellow "Wowsers" who do not currently have middle-schoolers under their roofs wrote in wondering why that was, and whether it was the right thing to do or not. "No one ever helped me do my homework in middle school!" they claimed, in that "When I was a boy..." tone, you know, like Michael Palin going "We dreamed of living in a cor-ri-dor!"

Which forced me to write a Middle School Parent Rant. I started a riff which got into a groove which took me on a trajectory that went off like, like something that takes off really really fast.

I had something to say to those non-middle-school-parents who think it's wrong for parents to help kids do their homework. I didn't think it was right either, when my kid was little, attending the smallest alternative public elementary school in the SF school district, in the sprouty old Haight District, with about 15 kids per class. Back then, I also had a boyfriend with a daughter who was in middle school, a daughter who I thought should be allowed to sink or swim on her own, too, and I complained often that he was doing too much of her homework. But now I know why.

Now my son goes to the second-highest ranking Middle School in the SF School District. I am glad he didn't end up going to the number one Middle School because I hear they give "too much homework." I can't even imagine what that's like. I was initially all for it, but now I know what "too much homework" really means.

There are 38 kids in each of Liam's classes. This means that each teacher cannot make sure each kid understands the homework assignment, or even what is going on in class from minute to minute. One of Liam's teachers is is rather soft-spoken and likes things done a very particular way — not that there's anything wrong with that — but Liam was spacing out on him totally from day one, from the first row. So, being in Early Seventh Grade and still a little Unclear on the Concept of homework generally, he gave up paying attention to Social Studies homework for several weeks, because he kind of felt it was hopeless. My 12-year-old son didn't know what to do and just decided to pretend Social Studies didn't exist, something I remember doing in college when...well, all of college, one particularly hazy semester. So being that Liam couldn't drop out of Seventh Grade like I dropped out of Junior Year, he sort of shoved it under the table.

Then his Social Studies teacher called me, which was considerate of him. I had trouble hearing him on the cell, and I was also in the doctor's office doing something demeaning, like begging for an extra month of pills in case of a natural disaster while wearing a backless paper dress. Liam was terrified when I found out about the Social Studies problem. But I know I have a good kid, and my first response was, what on earth is going on that would freak him out so much that he would do this? Liam is by nature a rule-follower; I knew he must be pretty freaked out. He was having a little Management Skills problem.

In Middle School, boys have a lot going on: they're growing like weeds, their bodies are doing weird things, their friends are forming rock bands, their voices are changing. They are being flirted with by cute girls from all over the globe and don't know how to feel or act, they're really, really disorganized, and their #1 priority is not to look like a dweeb. Boys generally are a couple of years (like, 25) behind girls in maturity. Girls tend to be more organized. And somewhat artsy boys with some attention issues (like my son) zone out easily: he didn't have strong enough glasses and he was living in a fuzzy world and he liked it that way. During Fourth Period, Liam liked being an impressionist. Social Studies was situated between Gym and Lunch and it's hard to focus right after working out, when you're hungry. He was granted permission to eat a piece of fruit or liquid yogurt in Social Studies, but this offer was recently rescinded by his teacher, who said he was abusing the privelege by moving on to his whole sandwich and even dessert. I personally think he was trying to work up the nerve to order a pizza to be delivered to his desk like Spiccoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Liam also lives in two households that are sometimes not communicating optimally.

So Liam's parents were told by his teachers to keep track of his notebooks and his papers and his projects and especially to keep on top of what he needs to do for homework. This is the first time he's got all different teachers for different subjects, and it's a challenge; it's not like he needs to sink or swim just yet. For heaven's sake, he's twelve. He gets to wear training wheels. He's a baby adult.

Another reason kids need help with their homework is all those "cool" teachers who like "creative" ( 3D or Powerpoint presentations or audio-enhanced) assignments/projects, for which they are so busy being creative they often underestimate the time required for kids to do them. There is no law that says they need to test-drive these on real 12-year-olds. They just get a bee in their bonnet, and Assign!

Recently Liam was asked to do a 6-panel comic for Social Studies about the Muslim faith. The teacher told me we'd love this assignment because he knows I am a cartoonist. Initially I was enthusiastic, but I was appalled soon enough, as he gave only 3 days to pencil, ink, write, and letter a 6-panel comic. I am a professional and this process takes me a week! I suggested Liam use stick-figures due to the time-crunch, and they looked kind of tribally postmodern. All the figures were men anyway. But it was rejected because Mr. K said it was "offensive to Muslims." None of us has been able to figure out why it was offensive, but he was asked to do the whole thing all over again. Perhaps I'll post the original here if anyone is interested in seeing it and you can tell ME how it was offensive. I'm still trying to figure it out.

I called the teacher and said that professional cartoonists need to edit sometimes, but you are permitted to do your edits over the art by whiting it out or pasting paper over the original, so Liam shouldn't have to do the whole thing over. This of course leads to another much more interesting topic, which was whether it's okay for a teacher to "reject" an assignment because he disagrees with a student's point of view, and this is indeed an issue. Had I gone down that path I would still be in the Principal's Office arguing about the First Amendment, which reminds me of the Billy Bragg album called Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. It just seemed futile. So I decided to pretend Mr. K was Liam's finicky editor and to have him make the changes and hand the damned thing in and get it over with.

Since Liam's stepmom (let's call her "Martha") and I are both artists and of course wildly creative, and his dad's also a writer, we all work together on ideas for these "creative projects" and help bring Liam the materials to build stuff. One project that worked out very well was his Labor Day project for English. I suggested Liam research the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the internet which is gory and fascinating and great Labor History and my grandmother's friends died in it, and I didn't even know about it 'til Ken Burns' documentary on New York City, in my forties, which is ridiculous since I grew up there. Liam learned all about Labor Day in a very riveting, memorable way. (This Cornell Web Exhibit is fascinating). I did go from store to store on 24th Street to buy a bunch of those tiny Guatamalan dolls to use as people to jump out the windows, because none of us — even ambitious Martha — had the time to make them. (Here is a photo of Liam's project. I am particularly fond of the squished shopgirls on the map of NYC. They are made of Halloween blood.)

The point of school is LEARNING about the world, and I had to ask myself: did Liam learn from this? Of course he did. I don't want it to be about learning that you are bad if you want to spend the evening talking with amusing houseguests or shelling peas or snuggling with mom reading a book rather than doing oodles of homework. Homework should be manageable: it should fit into an ordinary workday, i.e. there shouldn't be more than 2 hours of homework a night. Generally. With a few book reports and tests to study for, this should be enough. Some kids are set up better to do homework than others: they are genetically predisposed to doing things more efficiently, or have faster web connections, or have a nicer space to do homework, more or fewer siblings, fewer chores, or don't have to worry about which house they left which books in. I try to do my best.

I object to the fact that it is quality family time that is impinged upon by the school system's inability to take proper care of our kids' education during the time allotted. I think a GOOD school that is run well doesn't have to have so much homework, as the children are working hard and are focussed during the school day.

I don't DO his homework, but I make sure he knows what he's supposed to do, and listen to him say "Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom..." every 5 minutes while he's doing it, because he's excited about what he's doing and wants to show me. It's hard for ME to focus on MY work or write my blog while this is going on. And, being a City parent, I want him to do well enough so that he goes to a decent high school and not the one in my neighborhood, which I hear isn't very good, and if he winds up there I'll have to shoo away visions of Columbine and worry that kids he plays with after school might have guns in their houses. [I am exercising enormous restraint here because I would like to fly off into a tangent about how if all our neighborhood schools were good, and government subsidies were going to public schools rather than K-Mart, children would be able to walk to school, and not have to have their moms or dads waste petroleum products and precious blogging time by driving across town twice a day to drop them off and pick them up.]

Still, there is nothing like The Arts to get across the essence of the thing, so at the risk of having written the world's longest sfWoW post I wrote a short playlet of what life is like here at home between 5:30 and 7 PM on a typical weekday middle-school family night. I don't think the folks at sfWoW liked it much because, so far, almost everyone's ignored it, but maybe since you already like my writing you'll enjoy it. It may sound familliar to you, and I would love to learn how you manage this delicate time. In any case, thank you for reading this.


Liam (doing English homework at diningroom table): Mom, how do you spell "interspersed?"
Mom (trying to work on other side of room while burning dinner): Look it up, honey, the dictionary's right over here.
Liam: But it's not IN the dictionary, I tried looking it up in class. Just tell me how to spell it.
Mom: No, Liam, it is in the dictionary and you just have to walk across the room and get the dictionary, which is next to my desk under the little green table, and look it up yourself.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-i-r-s-e-d?
Mom: No, Liam I don't think so. Go get the dictionary.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-e-r-s-e-d?
Mom: Yes, ok, yes, I think so. Liam will you check on that rice over there please?
Liam: What does it mean? I have to write the definition.
Mom: Get the dictionary.
Liam: Does it mean, like, spread out all over the place?
Mom: (sigh) Yes, Liam, that's what it means!
Liam: OK, I'll put that.
Mom: Are you supposed to write the dictionary definition or define it in your own words?
Liam: Um...The dictionary...no, in my own words is ok....uh... (trailing off)
Mom: Are you sure? What is the assignment? [Mom gets up from desk, sniffs, goes over and sees that the bottom half of the Trad'r Joe's Instant Risotto has become a black frisbee stuck to the bottom of the pan] Oh shit, I have to deal with this...
Liam: I have to use it in a sentence.
Mom: So use it in a sen---wait! OW! Ow! WAIT LIAM! I JUST BURNT MY — [phone rings, it's a client who owes me $1500] A sentence, yeah. Liam, I have to get this [puts up special hand-signal we have for when Liam shouldn't talk to me because it's a business call.]
Liam: I can't use it in a sentence. I don't know what to write.
Mom: [hanging up] What have you written so far? [goes over to table which is near the kitchen, sees Liam's loose-leaf page with some sloppy scribbling-out and several Manga-style pictures of warriors and various Japanese instruments of torture drawn around it] Liam! This is a mess! You can't turn this in!
Liam: Oh, she said it's ok.
Mom: No, it's not ok, I want you to do that page over. Where's your sentence?
Liam: Well, I couldn't really think of anything so...
Mom: Well, think of something.
Liam: I need HELLLLPPPP!!!
Mom: [trying to figure out whether Blackened Risotto might not be all that bad...] Interspersed. Think of a sentence using interspersed.
Liam: Mom---!
Mom: Liam! I am not speaking to you any more. You do your own homework, and if you can't, fine. Suffer the consequences. I don't care if you flunk out of middle school. But let me tell you, if you do really badly they'll kick you out of the GATE (gifted) program, and you'll have to go to a crappy high school, and crappy high schools have tough kids that often aren't very nice to skinny kids with glasses, and they'll eat you for breakfast. So if you don't want your life to totally, totally suck, I would (comes over and lovingly pulls Liam's head and neck out of the socket between his shoulders, pushes his shoulders down off his ears, straightens his chair) SIT UP STRAIGHT AND TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND START A NEW PAGE AND GET THIS STUPID THING OVER WITH! YOU'RE UP TO THE JOB!! Sit up! Put your butt in the chair!! Face forward!!
Liam: (whining) I'm hungry. Is dinner ready yet? (pauses; looks wryly at the contents of the pot in Mom's hand; smirks) How about "There are a few little yellow grains of rice interspersed between the burnt ones?"
Mom: Yes, Liam, that's excellent. Among the burnt ones. That's fine.

01 December 2005

The Carefuls

An early gig at the famous Mather Club, right.

My girlfriend Catherine and I have started a rock band. It's all pinched-looking moms with glasses — well, so far we've been lucky — and we're called The Carefuls. True, we don't have as many lower-back tattoos as some other girl bands, but we make up for it with our vast experience doing middle-school homework. Having a kid in middle school isn't absolutely required — but it helps.

Our first release will be two songs (we just can't get over that old-fashioned "A" side "B" side thing). The "A" side is "You'll Put Your Eye Out With That," and side "B" is "When Peter Gets a Job." We have a few other songs in the works: a spirited cover of the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting," and others: "I Ovulate for Tim Robbins," "Ask Me if I Give a Shit" and "I Googled your Mom for her Cranberry Mold Recipe."

We're looking for gigs — after the holidays, of course, when we have a little extra time, all those pesky crafts projects are off the dining-room table, and the kids are back in middle school. Anyone interested in talking to us, especially on the air, especially Terry Gross, can contact us here.