23 April 2011

Spring

Some five thousand years ago, a theretofore obscure and unlikely prophet led an entire race of people out of slavery and into a new land where they could live in freedom.  About three thousand years later, a similarly unlikely young prophet, descended from those same former slaves, was put to death in Roman-occupied Palestine during (or right before) the feast that commemorated his ancestors' delivery from slavery.  Something out of the ordinary happened three days after that young man's death.  They say he came back and reassured his friends that something better waited for them on the other side.

Saint Paul wrote that if the Resurrection did not really happen, then Christians are to be pitied above all men (I Corinthians 15:19).  For they believe in something preposterously unlikely, insanely optimistic, and crazily hopeful.

I have a little lilac bush that grows at the side of my house.  It's a sad little bush, really, because it's bent and twisted, and it grows in an odd direction.  But I watch it all winter long, and I count the days until it bursts into purple blooms.  Then, for a week or so, my entire yard is filled with the world's most exquisite fragrance.  It is the smell of spring, which brings with it the memories of the crazy, hopeful stories of my childhood.  I pass those stories down to my children now, not because I believe them categorically to be true, but because I want my children to grow up in freedom and hope, well-grounded in the faith of their forefathers, prepared to meet the future with kindness and charity.

I wish you a happy Passover and a blessed Easter, and a spring full of possibility and joy.

Jennie

15 April 2011

Residency

I write a lot about life in the big city.  But though I was born and educated there, I don't live in the city.  I live in a small town in New Jersey right across the Hudson River from the big city.  Life is good in our small town.  My neighbors are friendly, helpful people.  Our downtown area is safe and vibrant, but not too big; we have a good diner, a reasonably good supermarket, and a nice place to grab a cup of coffee with a friend.  There are farmer's markets and street fairs in the summer, and our public library hosts cultural events of all kinds, all year round.

And there are really, really good public schools.  Our schools are the envy of most of the state of New Jersey and maybe even the nation.  My children are privileged to live in a place where they can safely walk to a school that will give them a first-rate education.  In fact, our schools are so good, it appears that people from all over come to our town to take advantage of them.  People who don't live here and don't pay the relatively high property taxes that finance our schools.

I was surprised when I first heard the whispers, a few years ago, that our schools had apparently been invaded by nonresidents.  After all, it seemed to me to be pretty difficult to pretend to live somewhere that you didn't really live.  We all know each other here, and there is a pretty high level of parent involvement in the schools.  The kid whose parents don't live in the neighborhood is sure to stand out like a sore thumb.

Besides, the process for enrolling a child in one of our schools has always been positively draconian.  Two years ago, when I attempted to enroll my oldest daughter in the high school, I was turned away because I could not produce a paper copy of a utility bill that had been mailed to me at my house.  (I pay my utility bills online, so I had no paper invoices.)  The mean lady behind the counter would not accept my bank statement or my driver's license.  She dismissed my claim that I had two other children already enrolled in the system.  Rules are rules, and in this little town, they don't bend for anyone.

Given that a twenty-year resident can't get her kid into the high school, it struck me as odd that Someone Who Didn't Live Here was apparently managing to sponge an education off of all those good, honest, old-fashioned folks who still write a check every month to Public Service Electric and Gas.  The problem was so bad that the town actually paid someone to track these evil children down and kick them out.

Well, thank goodness for that.

Except that it apparently didn't work.

So now there's a new plan.  Now, if you are a parent registering a young scholar, whether for the first or thirteenth time, you must appear in person at the Board of Education building on a designated date with "FOUR proofs of residence AND your child's ORIGINAL BIRTH CERTIFICATE with the raised seal or a passport with family census.  Homeowners must provide at least one of the items [listed below] in BOLD plus 3 additional proofs."  (I have copied this instruction directly from the flyer I got in the mail from the Board of Ed.  The emphasis is theirs.  Or hers, I should say; the flyer is signed by our superintendent.)

Four proofs of residence?  And what exactly is a family census?  I've examined my passport pretty closely, and all I can see is a pretty ugly double-chinned portrait of myself and a few stamps from countries across the Atlantic Ocean from here.  I don't see anything that even remotely resembles proof that my children live in any particular town.

I try pretty hard not to write about politics, mostly because I am aware of the distance between my views and the mainstream.  I am prepared to take a fair amount of grief for saying this out loud, but I'll do it anyway:

What is wrong with a system that has come to this?  Where children are forced to sneak around to get an education of a quality their parents' paychecks don't deserve?  Where self-righteous residents proudly display their tax bills to a bureaucrat so they can demonstrate that they are entitled to enroll their children in a better school than other parents?  Is the accidental education of a child - a CHILD - a societal wrong that merits this sort of Arizona-legislature-type action?  Is the wrongful seeking of knowledge a crime in our society?

I, for one, am willing to overlook (and, yes, to pay for) the occasional errant education.  And, in the long term, to help look for a more workable solution for all of the children.  Education of our society as a whole is a better investment than giving the homeless guy a dollar in Starbucks, and, as we have established, I do that sort of thing all the time.

Jennie

12 April 2011

Teaching

This is Sarah.  She will be sixteen next month. 


Yesterday, I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.  (She will be grown up soon, so I thought it might be time to start giving the subject a little thought.)  Sarah can be anything she wants; she has the intellect to be a brain surgeon and, in my humble opinion, the looks to be a supermodel.

When Sarah was in first grade, she was diagnosed as dyslexic.  She does not have the form of dyslexia that results in the reversal of letters, such as when people mistake a "b" for a "d" or a "7" for an "L".  Rather, she has a form of dyslexia that makes it difficult for her brain to store words and symbols that she has seen before.  To explain this simply, she decodes - or "sounds out" - every individual word she comes across, whether or not she has seen it before.  As you can imagine, this makes for some very slow reading, especially at the beginning, when every printed word is new.

This form of dyslexia is not unusual, and it is strongly hereditary.  And it can be treated, with intense effort.  There are people who suffer from this form of dyslexia who grow up to be great things - Nobel prize-winning scientists, renowned inventors, and respected criminal defense lawyers, just to name a few.  The great actor Henry Winkler, for example, who starred as Fonzie in the sitcom Happy Days and who is the co-author of the hysterically funny Hank Zipzer series of children's books, suffers from exactly the same affliction - or "learning difference," as he likes to call it - as Sarah.

Elementary school was a struggle for poor Sarah, who found herself left behind by her peers around the third grade, when their reading speed took off.  I read aloud to her as much as I could, and I ordered her audiobooks to listen to as she followed along in the printed text.  We bought voice-recognition software to assist her with her written assignments.  I assured her that people with dyslexia actually tend to have higher-than-average IQ's, and that she was by no means to doubt her intelligence just because she processed written words more slowly than most people. 

Unfortunately, Sarah's grade-school teachers were not so understanding or accommodating.  They routinely chided her for her slowness and attributed it to laziness.  When she got frustrated, which was often, she tended to tune out, which infuriated her teachers.  But it was not until one such teacher called her lazy and stupid, to her face, that I withdrew her from the local public school in a fury and enrolled her at a private school that specialized in helping children with language-based learning disabilities.

Suddenly, Sarah was in an intellectually-stimulating environment filled with children whose concerns were similar to her own.  Her teachers not only understood her issues, but they were specially trained to deal with them.  Visual art (a common talent among dyslexic children) was encouraged and made a part of the daily curriculum.  The language arts teacher had a daughter who was dyslexic; the history teacher was himself dyslexic.  He shared stories of his childhood struggles with his students, and they in turn bonded with him and worked hard to please him.  I think putting Sarah in that school, rather than the public middle school, might have been one of the smarter decisions I had ever made.

Sarah told me yesterday, in answer to my question, that she might be thinking about becoming a teacher.  She is patient with children, and she knows what it is like to need an understanding adult's support when things get difficult.  Now that she is excelling in the mainstream public high school, the possibility of teaching, one day, is a completely attainable goal for her.

As is, of course, any goal she sets.

Jennie

P.S.  Sarah has approved every aspect of this post except for the picture, which she absolutely hates.

06 April 2011

Beggars and Choosers

Good morning, everyone.  Apologies for having taken so long to write my next post.

I really, really hate taking the bus to and from the city, so I will go to great lengths to avoid it.  There is no direct bus service from New Jersey to the Bronx, where my husband's main office is located, so he drives in every day, and I usually go with him.  He drops me at the subway on the way to his office.  Most Fridays, he has a very early meeting in Manhattan, so he leaves home at the crack of dawn.  To avoid taking the bus, and to get a lift directly to my office, I get up early and go along with him.

This can mean that I am sitting in the Starbucks across the street from my office at 7:00 on a Friday morning.  I get a huge skinny vanilla latte and a seat by the window.  I put on my headphones and pull out my knitting and knit for an hour.  And then I am still the first person in the office at 8.  No one in my office notices or cares.  But I have managed to avoid the bus, so I feel like I am ahead.

Last Friday morning, I was sitting in my window seat, knitting a sock for my son, sipping at my coffee, and watching people walk by on Broadway, when I was approached by an unkempt-looking man.  He had not bathed or shaved in a while, and his shoes were held together by duct tape.  He wore a jacket that was several sizes too big for his gaunt frame.  "Excuse me, miss," he said.  "Can you spare a dollar?"

I am often approached by people on the street asking for money, but it's a little unusual for something like that to happen indoors.  I heaved a sigh, put down my knitting, and reached for my purse.

He misinterpreted my sigh.  It was not a sigh of annoyance, but rather a sigh of pain (I am recovering from a broken shoulder, and picking up, putting down, and reaching for things is still difficult.  I don't wear my sling to work, so there are no outward and visible signs of my injury).  But a sigh is a sigh, and so he apologized.  "I'm sorry, miss.  Just a dollar.  I'm hungry, you see?"  He spread his arms wide, as if to demonstrate the breadth of his need.

I am not starving - that is obvious to anyone who looks at me.  I don't own a lot of fancy, expensive clothes, but I was neatly dressed.  I had a $5.00 cup of coffee in front of me that I had purchased not out of thirst, but expressly for the purpose of killing time.  I dug around in my purse and handed the man a dollar.  He executed a little bow of thanks and walked over to the counter, where he bought a muffin with my dollar and some other change he had in his pocket.  He then disappeared into the crowd on Broadway.

There was a well-dressed, executive-looking young man a couple of seats away from me, furiously typing away on his iPad.  He looked at me disapprovingly and said, "If you give money to guys like that, it just encourages them to come in here and disturb people."

I give money to "guys like that" all the time.  Not enormous amounts of money, but change or a single bill - whatever I have on hand.  Sometimes I take them up to the counter and purchase a meal for them myself.  Once I bought a pair of mittens for a woman who was huddled on the street.  When I worked near Grand Central Station, I went through a stretch where I bought lunch every day for a homeless man who sat outside the deli.  One of my coworkers told me that he resold the food to buy drugs.  I don't know whether that's true.  I just know that I am lucky to have what I have, and that my religion does not allow me to tolerate suffering, real or perceived, in other human beings.  I can't solve all the world's problems, but I can certainly spare a dollar now and then.

What I am knitting:  I am still working on a pair of socks for my son.  I have finished the first one and have moved on to the second, but progress is slow.  I am also knitting a gift for someone who reads this blog regularly, so I can't give you details until it's finished.

What's in the crock-pot:  Pot roast.  It's almost exactly the same as beef stew, but easier on the shoulder, because you don't have to cut the meat up into small pieces.  It's nice outside now, but by dinnertime it should be raining and cold, so this seemed like a pretty good plan.

What's in the future:  I am working on a short story, and I have signed up for an online writing class that starts in May.  Please wish me luck.

Jennie