The Kids aren’t Here

Our family includes many teachers, most in public school. Our kids have attended public schools, parochial schools, private schools, been homeschooled. Homework and talking about school happens at the kitchen table, in the car, while raking leaves.

It was a surprise that a school system where I have volunteered is struggling with absenteeism of 32 to 50 percent . And that reflects the national pattern of over 8 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year. At this rural school there is poverty, students are widely disbursed, transportation options are limited. There are stories about kids needed at home to help care for siblings or other family members. Anxiety or bullying issues make attendance difficult.

In general, some parents feel schools don’t meet their kids’ needs. Some parents find the public education system to be monolithic in protecting traditional, seats in the chairs methods when other models exist. A teacher I respect told me that the process of pushing bright, unorthodox kids to adjust to rules that are necessary for control in classrooms of 28 students is sad, but ultimately prepares everyone for living in the real world.

School representatives cite anecdotal reasons for kids’ absenteeism. There may not be a ride available if a bus is missed. A doctor’s appointment can be an hour drive from school. Parents don’t feel their kids miss much if they stay home. The family needs to be away to care for relatives. A child is needed to care for younger or older relatives. The parents plan an extended vacation. Some claim to intermittently homeschool. A child is being bullied and administration is not responsive. A child suffers from mental health issues with no help during the school day. Travel for extracurricular activities eats up hours. When bad grades start, kids know they’re bound for summer school and give up.

Across the larger education sector, how does a child miss 30 days of school without prompting a remedial plan? How does a school system support learning in one-third to one-half of their enrolled students who are not present? What do students need to learn today and how is that delivered? So much money and so much policy maintain traditional archetypes when other societal archetypes are adapting or falling aside.

Schools are not unlike trains running on tracks installed a hundred years ago. There are reasons old rail beds have become hiking and biking trails. Like other social systems, the pathways to completing an education relevant now, and in the future, have changed.  School buildings, curriculum, teacher preparation systems, and teaching methods need dramatic review and overhaul. Fewer test scores, more involvement in the big world.

The question is not where are the kids, but how can we be sure there are good reasons for them to be here?

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Pure Nostalgia and a Weird Convergence

Seeing the paint-by-number ‘artworks’ decorating Hot Plate, a neighborhood breakfast place, plunged me into nostalgia.

At 10, nothing was better than making art that looked ‘real’ or perhaps I should say, ‘recognizable.’ Horses fascinated me and I labored at drawing them, using my horse statue for reference. One birthday, I received a paint-by-numbers kit for a horse portrait. Dip the cheap brush into the dime-sized plastic pots of paint, dab it in the blue-outlined shapes and voilà—my horse looked like the one shown on the box! Success!

A weird convergence.

Until my husband read the historical note in Hot Plate’s gallery, I’d never known that the Craft Master Corp., which made the paint-by-number kits, was headquartered in Toledo, my hometown. At first I thought, “That figures,” then I reminded myself that Toledo is also home to the Toledo Museum of Art, at the other end of the art world spectrum.

While crunching home fries and laughing at the paintings of questionable landscapes, sad clowns, and plucky dogs, I marveled at the paint-by-numbers concept. Someone had to curate images, analyze and isolate the placement of highlights and shadows, and choose the appropriate colors. Today, that function can easily be done in a graphics program, but in the 1960s that wasn’t the case.

The appeal of paint-by-number kits (popular in the 1950s and 1960s) and Bob Ross’ PBS show, “The Joy of Painting”(mid-1980s to mid-1990s, now immortalized on YouTube and in popular culture) is the idea that ordinary people with little or no artistic training can have an outlet for their creative impulses and paint something they’ll be pleased with.

On the paint-by-numbers box was the slogan, “Every man a Rembrandt!” We l l l, not exactly. But for my 10-year-old self, there was a real pleasure in making a painting that turned out.

No More Guilt with Every Bite

At the pottery studio where I take classes, someone recently brought in a box of donuts to celebrate a Hallmark holiday. They were left on the counter with a note that said—Enjoy!

The conversation among women in the lunchroom that followed was depressingly familiar. “Ooooh, they look so good, but I shouldn’t be eating this,” said a woman who cut a chocolate frosted donut into quarters and took one. Another woman chose a whole plain donut, the smallest one she could find and said, “I worked out last night, so it’s OK.”

I’ve seen this behavior again and again—among young women as well as older ones and with thin women and heavier women. Interestingly, I’ve rarely seen men do this. Most of the time they help themselves to a treat. Or they don’t. But men don’t seem to participate in the chorus of guilt, denial, and shame about eating and enjoying anything that has fat, sugar, or salt in it—in other words, anything that is considered a treat.

Many people forego sweets or salty snacks because of concerns about diabetes or heart disease. I respect their need to abstain and recognize that the box of donuts—while meant to be a generous bit of fun—is a trial.

But what I’m referring to is the ingrained habit many women have of not allowing themselves to simply enjoy a treat. First, they must apologize for wanting it, then if they have some, they feel excessively guilty. Or if they take a portion, they feel compelled to justify it: “I had a salad for lunch, so I can have a piece of cheesecake for dessert.”

Why? Because in our culture, it seems like everyone feels they have the right to monitor or criticize a woman’s weight. We learn at an early age that what really matters is being thin and attractive, despite the many positive messages to the contrary.

I’ve made those same apologies and given the same justifications. But seeing how often this conversational pattern occurs makes me sad. And angry. I wish women felt they had the agency to eat whatever is appropriate for our own health and weight without defending or apologizing for our decisions.

I’d love to see a group of women savor a treat without guilty apologies. To refuse to characterize the moment as “pigging out.” To hear them exclaim, “This is so good!” and own their enjoyment.

Santa and the Spirit of Christmas (Spoiler Alert!)

We began an elaborate hoax when our sons were toddlers. Santa lived with his elves in a toy shop at the North Pole. He drove a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer. Somehow Santa brought presents for kids all over the world all in one night. Sometimes I wondered why I was perpetuating the myth, when I would just have to explain it away later.

As little guys, our sons couldn’t distinguish make believe from so-called reality. There was God, who they couldn’t see or understand, Power Rangers who got rid of bad guys, and Barney, a singing purple dinosaur. Why not Santa? Plus, the fiction was bolstered by family, at daycare, in stores, and by songs, movies, and books. The idea of Santa would have been hard to resist, especially since their friends and neighbors were also being indoctrinated. But when it came right down to it, we likedthe idea of magic and spreading joy.

So, we were committed. When the boys mentioned toys they liked, we took note and occasionally reset expectations (Santa brings presents to so many kids. He probably can’t give 160-piece Lego sets to everyone.) We hung stockings and filled them with never-seen-before candy on Christmas Eve after the guys were asleep. Along with the wrapped gifts from us, we set out unwrapped gifts from Santa. We encouraged the boys to leave cookies and milk for Santa. My husband and I enjoyed the cookies, but left one with a bite out of it along with a thank you note from Santa. Christmas felt magical.

Eventually, our sons grew older and began to wonder if Santa was real. Then I explained that Santa was make believe, but the spirit of Christmas isn’t. At Christmas, many people are more generous, more loving, and act better than they have to. Over the years, people have done incredible things in the name of Christmas, like the Christmas Truce of World War I in 1914. As part of my explanation, I also swore my guys to secrecy. They were under strict orders not to tell their friends what they had learned—they should let other kids’ parents explain it. Our sons understood the responsibility and wanted to help keep the magic alive.

I don’t know how our sons will handle the topic of Santa if they have children, but if they carry on the tradition, I’ll be a willing co-conspirator.

A Home for the Marys?

The sound of breaking glass might have been heard beyond our garage walls. An hour of cleaning had yielded a large bag of stuff for Goodwill and a number of items that had no second use. The noise was the crash of an engraved mixed drink carafe with a matching stirring stick and two small engraved glasses. These were wedding presents that were very personalized and never used. The thought that there might be bad jokes in a stranger’s home because our name lends itself to humorous pronunciations didn’t feel okay.

Like many Boomers, our cabinets are crowded with generations of glassware, quilts, boxes of photos and family Bibles. As our parents passed, their treasures became ours to maintain.  Anyone want a few sets of 50thanniversary champagne glasses with my parents’ names? Again, their last name has a few quirky pronunciations that are better kept out of strangers’ parties.

A crystal statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary we received one Christmas has a sister that my mother owned. They both stand, hands folded, behind wine bottles on a top shelf in the pantry. Taking more shelf space was a beautiful glass Christmas ornament on its own pedestal that was once the most valuable useless item we owned. Add two clear glass platters decorated with horses and sleds to carry dozens of holiday cookies. Plus one that has a lobster engraving, a total mystery. And the green platter with Thanksgiving in a lovely scroll that I never saw used at my parents but came to rest in my home.

That ornament will hang on our tree this year and later fend for itself in a box of its peers. The pedestal is gone. Someone will be thrilled with the glass platters. Maybe even use the Thanksgiving one. Three orphan wine glasses wait to be used on Thanksgiving before starting the next purge. They are lovely, but we already have dozens of lovely glasses. Let a bride-to-be furnish her wedding table with these things instead of throw away items and benefit Goodwill in the process.

But those statues are another story like a box of rosaries upstairs. Is there a Goodwill equivalent for Catholic stuff? The Marys don’t really deserve to be mistreated or become white elephant gifts.IMG_5858