Privilege

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IMG_E1701I’m on the campus of an Ivy League college so that my daughter can attend a soccer camp for high school girls.

The above statement reeks of privilege. How many teenagers with some promise in the field of soccer are able to travel to and attend such a camp? How many parents can afford to take the time to bring them? Furthermore, our daughter’s skill has been developed over years of participation in expensive club soccer, an opportunity unavailable to many youngsters in America.

I’m not trying to apologize for my ability to give my child opportunities or advantages. But neither can I ignore that many of the things my family takes for granted in our lives are the result of white middle class privilege. Conservatives may roll their eyes at the idea of “white privilege,” but recognizing the pervasive influence of race and social class on upward mobility is well overdue in our society.

Americans like to think our democracy assures that the American Dream is equally available to anyone willing to work hard. But the limitations put on some Americans, particularly African Americans, date back to the days of slavery. With a legacy of enslavement, brutal treatment, being denied an education, and Jim Crow laws keeping the races separate, black Americans have never been able to catch up to whites in terms of equality of opportunity.

The separate and unequal world of African Americans comes to light in the excellent Showtime series The Chi, a show set on the south side of Chicago. In the series, characters struggle to make ends meet and often find that the only way to make real money is to “hustle” – that is, to find illegal ways of making money. They live in a blighted neighborhood where gangs control various streets and a gangster mentality even infiltrates the lives of impressionable middle schoolers. And even those who tow the line with gainful employment and an attempt to raise morally upstanding children find their loved ones victimized by the random violence on the streets.

It’s hard to square the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story of American opportunity with today’s world in which black youngsters working a paper route have the police called on them for no reason other than the color of their skin. Young black men, in particular, live under a cloud of suspicion that would make any white person positively murderous with rage if they were to experience it. For instance, filmmaker Daveed Diggs recalls that when he was in his 20s, he was pulled over by the police about 36 times in 3 years.

I’m not trying to suggest that whites apologize for being white. However, we need to support efforts to even the playing field, such as affirmative action and police reform. We need to make a serious investment in minority neighborhoods to bring true economic opportunity. Most importantly, we can’t sit smugly in our white privilege and insist that we’ve gotten where we are purely by dint of hard work.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to afford my daughter opportunities in life that will, I hope, lead to success and happiness for her. All I’m asking is that as a society, we work to make opportunities available to all, regardless of the accident of their birth.

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Teacher Appreciation

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I’ve been noticing lots of Facebook posts about Teacher Appreciation Week. Although it’s been decades since I dusted the chalk off my hands and left teaching, I still consider it one of the great highlights of my life.

My inspiration came from a tiny, curmudgeonly old English teacher named Mr. Stringfellow. Mr. Stringfellow was a legend in my high school for being grumpy and exacting. So I was a little scared on the first day of senior year when I walked into his British Lit class.

At the front of the classroom stood a small man slightly hunched over, with black hair, glasses, and a deep scowl. We started right in with Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, and I was smitten. Although it proved true that Mr. Stringfellow had stringent standards and did not suffer fools gladly, he also lit up from within when reading or discussing great literature.

Mr. Stringfellow taught me how to analyze literature deeply. He would stand at the front of the room and intone the words of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Once he read my essay on Lady Macbeth out loud to the class and proclaimed, “This is the closest thing I’ve ever read to a scholarly paper in high school.” I wore the back-handed compliment like a badge of honor.

There have been other special teachers in my life. Mrs. Rollow inspired me to become enthralled with journalism. Her question to us on the first day of class, “Which is more important: a free society or a free press?”, ignited a lively intellectual debate. In the age of Watergate and the Washington Post reporting that eventually brought down a president, I aspired to become an investigative journalist. There wasn’t much scandal to be unearthed in my suburban high school, but I still reveled in my days as reporter and then editor on the school newspaper.

Away at college, I kept thinking back to these two inspirational educators from my high school years. Aside from their obvious passion for their subject matter, Mr. Stringfellow and Mrs. Rollow loved their students and tried to get the best out of them. Where Mr. Stringfellow was exacting and begrudging with a smile, Mrs. Rollow was delightfully wry and witty.  But I looked up to them both with something akin to hero worship. My decision to teach was a natural outgrowth of their inspiration.

The impact of great teachers cannot be overstated. Their long hours and indefatigable efforts to help students achieve deserve recognition, not only every year, but every day of the year.

Here’s to great teachers past, present, and future. They truly change lives.

Back to School Reading

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As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

What’s Really Going on At College Campuses?

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3CC1A18D00000578-4182824-image-a-52_1486039078314Much is being made in the media about violent protests against conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulis and Ann Coulter being invited to speak at Berkeley and other college campuses. It is being billed as a growing intolerance of free speech on the part of college students.

But I believe something else is going on here. A recent Los Angeles Times article detailed how radical fringe groups on both the left and right converged on the UC Berkeley campus to take advantage of the protests occurring there. These groups show up at scheduled peaceful protests and marches in order to incite violence and get media coverage. (“For many at Berkeley rally, it wasn’t really about Trump or free speech: They came to make trouble,” Paige St. John, The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2017)

Administrators are then forced to shut down events in order to protect the students, thus giving conservatives cause to cry foul on the grounds of free speech infringement. Similar skirmishes occurred shortly after the election of Donald Trump. These troublemakers notably cover their faces and wear black. And they give peaceful protesters, who also have free speech rights, a bad name.

I realize there have been cases of college students themselves shutting down speaking engagements, such as the appearance of Black Lives Matter critic Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College. It should be noted that CMC President Hiram Chodosh stated in no uncertain terms that the college is a place for honest inquiry and exploration of ideas, and the blocking of campus buildings would not be tolerated. Furthermore, MacDonald’s speech did take place and was streamed so that those blocked from the venue could listen to her remarks.

I must confess that I’m disturbed by the types of speakers that conservative student groups have been inviting to their colleges and universities. With the exception of MacDonald, who does have some valid research to back up her opinions, the speakers that have been the focus of so much media attention are hate-spewing extremists such as the aforementioned Coulter and Yiannopoulis. Or alternatively, we have Charles Murray, whose dubious “scholarship” has posited that blacks have lower IQs than whites. If I were a college student, I would certainly protest the appearance of such figures on my campus.

Yet I do believe firmly in our First Amendment and the right of people to say what they wish, no matter how hateful, to their chosen audience. I am old enough to remember the famous 1977 case in which a small group of Neo-Nazis demanded the right to march through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois. The case ignited a national furor, and the Nazis’ rights were defended by the ACLU. Although the group was successful in gaining a permit to march through Skokie, they ultimately decided on a Chicago march instead. The positive thing to come out of the incident was the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. (“Remembering the Nazis in Skokie,” Geoffrey R. Stone, Huffington Post, May 20, 2009, updated May 25, 2011)

But let’s not kid ourselves. College students are not becoming intolerant of “alternative viewpoints” so much as protesting the continued demeaning of people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. They have a right, on their own campuses where they are paying tuition, to express their disapproval of speakers to whom they object – if they do so in a peaceful manner that does not infringe on the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker. It is a challenge for college administrations to assure that these disagreements are allowed to play out peacefully and without outside interference from fringe elements. But it’s a challenge they must rise to for the safety and freedom of all.

 

In the Scrum

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18157322_1591400950892487_212723468669144388_nLast weekend, I had the opportunity to watch my son and his team compete in the Rugby National Championship in Denver, Colorado. Four top teams from small colleges across the country met to battle it out on the field in a sport that is unfamiliar to most Americans.

Until my son started playing rugby in his senior year of high school, I was unfamiliar with such terms as “line out,” “ruck,” “knock on,” and “scrum.” Fans at his games were mostly mystified by this sport that looks like football but is so different from that iconic American game. Luckily for us, our announcer would explain each referee call and other action so that, slowly but surely, we are learning the ins and outs of a game developed in the UK during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

My son’s success in rugby is not at all a surprise to me. When he was four years old, he told me he wanted to play that game where “all the guys pile on top of each other.” Sure enough, by age 10 he was playing tackle football and enjoyed laying out his opponents from his spot on the defensive line. Total fearlessness made him an excellent defensive tackle. He had the good fortune to be accepted into a great college in California where he continues to play American football and his more recent passion, rugby.

Over the weekend, I was able to see the camaraderie of the young men both on and off the field. And as I watched the odd formation known as the scrum, I saw it as a kind of metaphor for the relationship and purpose of these boys who are quickly becoming men. In the scrum, teammates literally hook themselves together in a unit, bearing down and pushing against a group of opponents, both sides attempting to move and gain possession of the ball. It’s a moment of intensity and even intimacy, as the teammates are joined in a single goal.

The Claremont Colleges Rugby Football team became the National Champions in a resounding victory of 65-0 against the Tufts University Jumbos. Words can’t express how elated my son’s team was at their tremendous feat. During the awards ceremony, they were irrepressible, cheering each other and teasing, clearly a band of brothers. But what meant the most to me was the award my son received: one for being the heart of the team off the field. Knowing that he means this much to his fellow teammates and coaches is to me the most meaningful thing to come out of his rugby experience.

Long after these young men hang up their football and rugby cleats, they will be out in the world working, raising families, and contributing to society. After seeing how they have connected with each other and how they have committed to being the best at something tough, gritty, and fierce, I have no doubt they will do great things. And I am so very grateful that my son is a part of something bigger than himself, something that will serve to make him more selfless, determined, and bonded to others as he continues on his journey to adulthood.

Do-Si-Don’t

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This morning my daughter informed me that her PE class was beginning a square dancing unit. Her comment brought back unwanted memories of dizzying circles, do-si-dos, and high school boys’ sweaty palms.

It has always amazed me that square dancing is a requirement in many high schools’ PE curricula. Why do we force boys and girls to learn an outdated and decidedly countrified dance form in the midst of suburbia? The answer can be traced back to Henry Ford, who thought that teaching square dancing in schools would help children learn social politeness and cooperation, as well as keep alive a cherished American custom.

Many state legislatures have passed resolutions naming square dancing the official state dance. So generations of American children have been forced to listen to recordings of a square dancing caller shouting out commands: “Swing your partner! Do-si-do! Allemande left!” I recall that when I was in high school, it was all we could do to stop laughing hysterically and actually follow the prompts.

Square and social dancing were the bane of my existence in high school PE. And that’s saying something, coming from a completely non-athletic and largely uncoordinated person. As a naturally shy girl, I was intimidated by having to hold hands with boys in gym class. Even more uncomfortable was the ballroom dancing segment, during which boys and girls were alternately expected to cross the gym floor and ask someone to dance. I’m not sure which was worse: standing on the sidelines waiting to be asked to dance or having to traipse across the room and ask a boy to dance.

Ballroom dance, at least, has some practical application later in life. At the very least, the mothers and fathers of the bride and groom at a wedding will want to be passable at slow dancing. I actually enjoyed my ballroom dancing course in college. I lucked into partnering with the best dancer in the class, so we consistently received high grades – until he asked me out and, when I refused, stopped seeking me out as a dance partner in class.

I’m all for offering interesting alternatives to dodge ball in high school PE. However, I fail to see the benefit of teaching our youth square dancing. I hope my daughter’s square dancing unit will be mercifully short so that she can move on to more interesting  topics. Zumba, anyone?

A Safe Space

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In the past few months, protests have roiled college campuses as many students have become fed up with a system that fails to address racism and cultural insensitivity on the part of both students and staff. From Yale to Missouri to the Claremont Colleges in California, these students have assembled to demand change and, in some cases, to force college administrators to resign.

Many in the media have decried what they see as political correctness run amok, particularly in the demand for “safe spaces” on campus for students of color and other minority groups, such as gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. While I agree that creating these permanent safe spaces for minorities is a bad idea, I disagree on the reasons put forward by these pundits.

Critics of the safe space movement argue that students these days are too sensitive and should not be coddled. I disagree. When students are subjected to racial epithets, culturally denigrating costumes, and exclusionary attitudes, they are not being babies. College administrators need to be firm about disciplining acts of bullying, whether they be physical or verbal. A young woman subjected to leers and catcalls, a Hispanic or Asian student told to go back to where they came from, or a student mocked for his or her sexual orientation all deserve to be protected from such bullying.

Critics will argue that these prejudices exist in the real world, so students may as well get used to dealing with them. I have news for these critics. Minority members are all too familiar with discrimination in their so-called real lives by the time they get to college. There is nothing wrong with a college fostering some sensitivity towards people’s differences.

Another argument is that minority students’ demands have shut down debate and true academic inquiry on college campuses. While there may be cases where students have gone to extremes in their definitions of hate speech, for the most part, students just want to be respected. There is a big difference between an argument in a college course over a racially sensitive issue, for example, and hurling racial slurs at each other.

Whites need to concede that most colleges intrinsically cater to their culture. Because whites are in the majority on most college campuses, white culture is seen to be the norm while other cultures are looked upon as different or even alien. A case in point is the protest that erupted over Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students referring to “the CMC mold” in an email to a Latina student. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2016) The dean meant well. She was trying to explain her determination to assist minority students, but her language betrayed the reality of many college situations. There is a “mold” that non-white and non-heterosexual students do not fit.

All those things being said, I think designating permanent safe spaces on campus for individual groups is a mistake. For one thing, all students should have access to all campus facilities. It’s not right to say that a certain space is only for, say, Asian students to congregate in. I also think providing so-called safe spaces puts the administration in the business of promoting segregation. While I firmly believe individuals have the right to associate with whomever they want, I don’t think such segregation should be encouraged by the college administration.

All colleges should be safe spaces in which students of varying races, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations should be able to explore, learn, meet, argue, and grow as individuals. College administrators should absolutely address students’ grievances, and I applaud these young people for standing up for what they believe in.

Our society seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have our first black president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. On the other hand, we have frustration and underemployment for many middle class Americans. It’s not hard to see how such uncertainties can create a backlash as we look for a scapegoat. But our colleges are a key part of our future, and we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of background, if we are to continue our tradition of excellence in America.