Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Children and Activism

I recently came across a blog post about a musician I admire. Apparently the musician is about to have a baby with her partner, and this blogger seemed concerned that she would no longer write and perform songs with the same activist spirit she has shown for decades. The idea was that, once she has a child, she won't care about the world any more. Instead, her focus will shift to her family, and her songwriting will stagnate.

Immediately I fumed about the ridiculousness of the fear. Here is a musician who has written and performed heartfelt, often politically driven songs since she was a teenager. Thirty years into such a career, it seems unbelievable to me that a child would cause any shift in her dedication. And besides, I figure if she writes about having kids, I'd enjoy that music anyway. I laughed about the blogger's irrational fear.

Then I started reflecting on my own life. I always knew that 27 would be my favorite year, and it was certainly my most challenging. After completing a rigorous graduate program in Urban Planning, I had joined Teach For America. Since I was a child, I had known I would make a difference in the world. I wanted to help people, and had been focused on the challenges faced by urban youth. Finally, I had found a job that offered me the opportunity to start to accomplish that. At 27, I embarked on my career as an educator in Oakland, CA.

Two and a half years later, I became pregnant with my first child. I didn't think it would change my life direction at all. I would have a baby, find day care, and return to work. I'd take my allotted maternity leave, for which I would meticulously prepare, and I would return to work a couple months later, with no changes. Two fathers at my school, my principal and my curriculum coordinator/mentor, didn't believe me, but I knew they were wrong. I wasn't the stay-at-home mom type, and I loved my job. I was motivated; I wanted to change the world, and I was good at my job. I helped my students, and I learned from them. I confidently told them I'd return after 6-8 weeks, and they smiled knowingly.

Things started to change even before Chris was born. I planned to work right up until the baby was born. But on a Friday afternoon, two weeks before I was due, I went into my principal's office in tears. I told him that I had done the unthinkable in my class that day. I had put in a movie because I was too exhausted to teach. He assured me that many teachers had done far worse, but when that didn't comfort me, he called my long-term sub. As I waited in his office, he told the sub to come in on Monday. After he hung up he told me that the rest was up to me. I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted, or to start maternity leave on Monday. I came in for a couple days to get the sub situated, and then waited at home until Chris was born.

I planned to return to work on January 2nd that year. My dear friend came to visit to meet the baby in early December. She was the last in a string of family members who had flown across the country to meet the newest addition, as we had no family nearby. When she left I called my principal to check on my classes. Again, he saw through me. I was worried about something, and I didn't know exactly what. Finally my principal said directly that he wanted me to come back, in whatever capacity would work so that I would stay. We decided to push my return to the end of the semester, which added about three weeks to my maternity leave. Somehow 6-8 weeks had turned into 3 months. I ended up returning part time, to teach only 3 classes instead of 5.

As the year progressed, the pull of family strengthened. By February we were looking at apartments in Boston, and then Cambridge, and then Somerville, and then Medford, Natick, Hopkinton, and ultimately my hometown of Hopedale. John and I decided we would move back east, and both look for jobs. He could do flexible consulting work, and with the help of family, I would be able to work in a city or in another capacity where I could still make a difference. We purchased our first home in May, a half duplex in Hopedale. Without even looking, John was offered a job at MIT that was too good to turn down. I decided to wait until we settled in, and he finished his initial job training, to find a job. In June, I left the job I loved, where I felt I had an amazing impact on the students, who in turn impacted me more than any other experience in my life.

That September I started looking for a job. I found one that seemed perfect for me. The position was an education planner, and it combined my skills very well. I could help shape schools into the future, and have an impact on a larger level. The position came with extensive travel, as I would visit urban and rural schools across the country, and maybe some internationally. I attended the job interview the day I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I was such a perfect fit for the job, that I was able to work out an alternate, part-time option. For the next 2 years I was functionally a stay-at-home mom, doing sporadic work to help the education planner they hired when I turned down the job.

Three years ago I received a call from the principal of the local suburban high school. He asked if I might have any interest in a part-time position, teaching 8th grade English. I was only mildly interested. I had grown accustomed to staying at home with my boys, and was planning to continue it for another year or two, until they were in school. I ultimately did apply for the position when it became available. When the job increased from 60% to 80% time, I almost turned it down.

I ended up taking the job, and this year it increased to full time. Now I teach English and coach soccer at the local high school. I walk to work, one mile, down a tree lined street. My 6am walk is the best part of my day. I enjoy the exercise, the beauty of the trees silhouetting the sky as the sun approaches the horizon, the serenity of the street, which will soon come to life. I greet the dog walkers, the occasional joggers, and the newspaper delivery man. I take in the chilly air.

As I walk, I listen to music, much of which is written by the musician who is about to have a baby. Her lyrics question the state of the world, explore the possibility of peace, encourage equal treatment of all people, and implore me toward activism. Some mornings I am able to convince myself there are actions I can take in my life today that will make a difference in this world. Most days I consider what I can do next, and when I will do it.

When I pull open the door of the high school, the heat surrounds me and I rush to remove my hat and gloves and unzip my coat before it suffocates me. I reluctantly remove the headphones from my ears. I smile and greet my coworkers, turn on my computer, make a cup of coffee, and chat with the teacher next door. I go through the motions of my day, and look forward to the next morning's commute.

I still hope the blogger is wrong about the musician I admire, but I think she may have described my life perfectly. Perhaps it was my own fear that had me fuming from the start.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Chris is officially a kindergartener, and he couldn't be happier. He loves his teacher, has made a new best friend, and bounces his way into and out of school each day. He told me tonight that he wants to go to school every single day, and it's the best school ever. So far, so good.

He's been starting to read better on his own, and really started to express his views on life, which has been really standing out lately. A few items that I want to write down so that I don't forget them later.

1. The Reindeer Civil War
For the last month or so, we have been in the midst of a reindeer civil war. As told by Chris - the California Reindeer are fighting the US Reindeer, because the US reindeer stole the CA's land, and they were there first. He has tried a number of diplomatic negotiations, during which he calls his commanders on imaginary cell phones and suggests what they could do. First, he tried telling them that really, they're all the same underneath, since he was born in California, and now lives in the US (seems there's a bit of a distinction being misunderstood here...). That didn't work. Then he tried having them print the "US flag" on one side and the "CA flag" on the other. That didn't work. Then he invited them to have drinks together. That didn't work. Then he told them they should share the land. That didn't work. Then he replaced all their bullets with marshmallows. After that the war has fizzled, but apparently is still being fought. Meanwhile, Alex had a war of his own. He solved his by making reindeer stew.

2. Goals
I had to fill out paperwork for Alex's school, which asked for "social and academic goals." Not knowing what to write, I asked Alex what his goals are. He said he didn't know. Chris said - "Do you want to know my goals?" I said sure. He said "My goal is to make the world a better place. It's my social and academic goal." Well, okay, then. The next question was "Favorite Song." I asked Alex, and he said "Doe-A-Deer." Chris said "Let It Be Me," and then asked when we can go see the Indigo Girls again.

3. Peace Pretzels
I asked Chris about lunch at school today. He is enjoying eating with his new friend, who is also allergic to peanuts. Today there were others at the table, too. He said some were nice, but others were fighting. He tried showing them his "peace pretzels" (pretzels he chose for snack because they're in the shape of peace signs). Apparently this didn't stop the fighting.

4. No allowed eating...
Chris and the 10 year old girl next door have been having an ongoing disagreement about the merits of being a vegetarian. He said it is mean to eat meat because it's animals and they don't need to die. She answered that it's mean to not eat meat, because then you eat more vegetables, and that's their food, so you're starving the animals by eating their food. They debated for a while, and then Chris drew a sign with a person killing a cow and a big "no allowed" sign over it. He hung it on the window by the front door. Jenna then write "Eat Cows" on a piece of paper and hung it up. Chris threw a fit and she added "Don't" above it. By the next morning, our door was filled with "no allowed" signs, including "no allowed killing..." cows, goats, sheep, chickens, and dogs.

5. Hate
Chris told John at dinner that he hated the fork John gave him. John told him that he didn't mean "hate," he meant "don't like" and that "hate" is much stronger, like for something that you never want to see again, and that the sight of it is just awful. Chris said, "Okay then, I know something I really hate... war!"

I'm certainly curious to see where all of this is headed...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Let It Be Me" and the power of a song

It's been another year since I last posted a blog, but today was pretty special to me.

Chris's absolute favorite song is an Indigo Girls song written by Emily Saliers called "Let It Be Me." He first heard it about a year ago when he and Alex were fighting in the car. The song has a line "This is not a fighting song." I turned it on and told them they couldn't fight while this song was on. They not only bought it, but Chris started requesting "not an arguing song" frequently, and asking for it to be repeated 2, 3, 4+ times whenever it came on. A year later, he knows all the words, asks for it all the time, and sings it daily. A couple weeks ago he woke up in the morning and told us that he slept great because when he had nightmares, he "shined his life like a light" (a quote from the song) and all the bad went away. He asks me to explain the meaning to him (he enjoys the term "metaphor" and will ask "what is that a metaphor for?"). To me, the song is about being the good that the world needs, and spreading that to others. I've told him that I think that song is perfect for him, because it reminds me of him. Of course he's only 5 and I'm his mom, so I'm biased.

When I mentioned out loud to John a month or so ago that Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls would be at a Newbury Comics in Boston one afternoon, Chris overheard, and there was no question that we'd be going. He understands that she did not write "Let It Be Me," but she sings it, so that was good enough for him. He does like many of her songs as well (both solo and her Indigo Girls songs), but he has been on a mission. He decided he would sing "Let It Be Me" for her. I told him I didn't know what to expect at the appearance. I'd never been to anything like that before. All I knew was that she was doing an acoustic set, and then maybe signing autographs. I didn't know how she would react to him. I was worried he'd be let down, and honestly, I was afraid I'd be let down. I have a lot of respect for both Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, and I was afraid of setting us up for disappointment. Turns out I had nothing to worry about.

Chris wrote Amy a letter. It said "Amy, May I sing Let It Be Me for you?" He signed it "Chris (heart) Amy Ray (heart) Chris" and he drew her a picture of the train and trees on the way in. As we approached the front of the line, employees came by to tell everyone that there would be no time for posed photos, to have your stuff ready to autograph, and to not hold up the line. I started to get worried, and I prepared Chris (and myself) for the possibility that she wouldn't have a chance to even look at his note.

When we got to the front, he brought her his letter, and Alex handed her a CD to sign. I tried to rush them by prompting Chris to read it to her, saying that preschool handwriting can be difficult. In an attempt to calm me down, Amy assured us that his writing was great, and she could read it perfectly. She read it out loud, and when she realized what song he was asking for, she said she was going to give his letter to her friend, Emily, because she wrote it and it would make her happy. Chris told her that he knew that Emily wrote it. This was possibly the best thing she could have said to Chris, since more than anything else, he truly enjoys making people happy. Then he explained his picture to her, and she told him he was very creative and pointed out that his tree looked like a guitar as well. I continued to try to rush him along, and Amy continued to try to calm me down. She asked if he wanted to sing for her. He was being shy and nervous, so to help him get started, she sang with him. He flew through most of the first verse in a whisper. She talked to Alex for a minute, which helped Chris relax a little and sing more. She joined in with him periodically as he sang. Of course the boys were both more calm than I was. I brought a tee shirt to have her sign, and when she asked me to whom she should sign it, I froze for a minute. In the end she told us to come see the Indigo Girls when they come to the area in July and they'd sing "Let It Be Me" for him. I said something like "Are you sure?" and she said yes, and that we should bring a sign to remind them.

As we rode the train home, I was struck by how many people were made happy by the exchange, and how appropriate it was that it was all sparked by a song about spreading good things in the world. John, Chris, Alex and I left on cloud nine. Amy seemed to enjoy the boys. She made a point of saying she would pass Chris's letter on to Emily, who wrote the song, as it would make her happy. Perhaps most interestingly, when I looked at the pictures John took, I realized that all the people waiting in line behind us were smiling and watching. Even these strangers, who had to wait in line longer because we took so much time, were happy.

I hold both Amy Ray and Emily Saliers in very high regard, and they both lived up to it today. One by her graciousness and generosity of spirit in person, and the other through the power of a song she wrote two decades ago.