Monday, December 20, 2010

Turn To Your Art

When I was pregnant, I gave up my daily practice of formal meditation because I had morning sickness so bad and for so long, that I could barely make it off of the couch to use the bathroom, let alone sit before my altar. My husband reassured me that my spirituality would adapt and evolve along with me as I grew into my new role as a mother, and he suggested I try giving up my fantasy of flying off on the wings of a Goddess for a more Zen-like form of spirituality, finding moments of connection “on the fly” from then on. He was right. I haven’t managed to make it back to the meditation altar. My meditation at this point in my life is getting up at 5 a.m. to watch the news and drink two cups of coffee before everybody else wakes up and grabs on to me before I can.

My relationship to my art (which is also part of my spiritual practice, as it is with most artists), has had to adapt to my changing identity, too. I may not always paint, draw, or write on a daily basis, but I do create lots and lots of things (all the time), some of them obvious and tangible, some not. All mothers and teachers do this.

As a child, my art saved me. I escaped the pain and uncertainty of my home life by recreating my own happy world, one that I could escape to, to avoid the real life I had been born in to. When I drew, painted, crafted, or wrote, I was the master of my own universe, and I was in control. I credit my talent and the ways that I expressed myself for getting me through my very difficult childhood. I came out of it with only a few scars, not nearly as many, I believe, as I would have, had it not been for my art and a safe place to go. Creating a safe and healthy place to express one’s self is another important reason why I advocate for the arts in schools, but I don’t talk too much about that publicly because it isn’t appropriate. The adults in charge are preoccupied with money, time, and their own careers. To talk about a child’s soul is pointless because the Status Quo knows nothing about such things, for it has no soul. Even though I don’t talk about children’s souls when I argue for the arts publicly, they are in my heart and mind. Protecting them is what gives me the will to keep up the good fight, even now, in the face of soullessness in Los Angeles. I rely on my creativity to lead effectively, and I rely on my creativity to keep me happy and sane while leading, raising my kids, and trying to survive in L.A.

I have always made money on the side by doing all sorts of freelance work. When I was younger, I was a sign painter, illustrator, a draftsperson, a cartoonist, calligrapher, and painter. When desk top publishing came along, I created a small, monthly magazine which helped me develop new skills; publishing, marketing and selling advertising. At the age of 25, during a deep, meditative moment, I realized that it was time for me to leave my home in Colorado, to see if I could make it as an artist in Los Angeles. I knew that if I didn’t go then, I might never go, for the timing was right - I was young, single, and fearless. I packed my clothes, dog, and art supplies and headed off to California. I had about $400 in my pocket, and no job, but I didn’t care. I was determined to give it my best shot. If I failed, I could always go back to Colorado, satisfied in the knowing that I had tried, when some exceptionally talented, funny and smart people in my family never did. Close members in my family were just as talented as I was, but they withered up and collapsed in on themselves, which scared me to death. I didn’t want to end up like any of them.

Soon after I got to L.A., I got a job as marketing manager for Denecke, Inc. Mike Denecke, owner, had invented the TS-1 Time Code Slate (the electronic clapper board that is regularly used and shown in videos, commercials, etc.), amongst other post production products used in film, video and recording studios. I created a comic strip called, “Father Time” (a caricature of Mike and an entourage of behind-the-scene characters who don’t get enough credit for being part of the team that produces successful shows and helps make stars). The strip was used to market Denecke products. Mike had a huge impact on me. He was raised by professional, classical musicians (his mother was a flautist in a symphony in Minnesota, and his father, the conductor). He would speak highly of his parents, especially his mom, who encouraged him as a child to go for his dreams, and reminded him that everybody is born with a gift, he just needed to find out what that was. He did. He became a classically trained guitarist (having studied with Andres Segovia), a sound engineer and an inventor. Mike believed in me and encouraged my talent. As an artist himself, he knew how important it was to give me, and his other employees, space. He trusted us. He was a great “boss”. I strive to show the same sort of confidence and appreciation for the talented people I have chosen to hire over the years. I worked for Mike for seven years, developing a line of comic books, calendars, ads, t-shirts, mugs, etc. I only left so I could care for my newborn son. A few years later, Mike died of a heart attack. I like to think I’m having one of those Zen-like, “fly by” moments whenever “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest comes on the radio. Mike recorded that song in a hotel room in Paris in the early seventies. I get to say “Hi Mike!” whenever I hear that song.

As I look back at my creative career over the past 30 years, I see that the most prolific times in my life have always been when I was the most stressed, or was at some sort of impasse. Becoming a mother was a life changing experience for me, as it is for all women, and I was fearful that I would abandon my own dreams and goals for a life lived in service to others. I chose to be a wife and mother, and I wanted to stay home with my son, but I didn’t want to lose myself in that. So I threw myself into my cartooning. Painting would have to wait because having toxic, messy, permanent paints around with a baby in the house was not something I wanted to deal with. So I chose to put all of my energy into my cartooning because it was clean, easy, and I could be interrupted, a lot. Anyone who has stayed home with babies and toddlers knows what that means. You can’t complete a thought, let alone finish an involved creative project. While my baby slept, I cranked out a couple of new strips and went about the business of self syndication. I created a line of greeting cards and calendars. I was determined to keep my own art alive, and thus keep my own self alive, in my new role as wife and mother. As my son grew, I became more and more interested in teaching art to young children, so I started doing that. I really, really loved it, because I love preschool aged children. They’re a kick and I get to be a big goof when I’m with them. At the same time, my father in law had come to live with us because his health was failing. The added stress of caring for an aging, depressed family member put a lot of extra pressure on me. To get through it, and to mitigate the guilt I suffered due to the resentment I had towards an innocent loved one who needed my help, I turned to my art. I had the old shed in our backyard converted into a studio for myself and proceeded to throw myself into painting landscapes of the San Fernando Valley. By this time, my son didn’t need my constant supervision, which meant I could break out those messy, toxic paints. My studio, and my art, gave me a place of my own. I painted over 40 canvases. It made me feel better. I also opened my studio up to teach more art classes. Teaching art turned into full blown activism after my son entered public school at the age of five. I was outraged by the lack of arts education in schools, so I channeled all of my creative energies into starting and running a nonprofit organization that gets the arts back into schools. Another crisis! I took it on, head on, and have managed to lead it over the past eleven years in the most creative fashion I know how, even now, during one of the most devastating financial periods in our nation’s history.

The economic crisis has put us all into crisis, and I have once again turned to my art. I have had my heart broken by what has happened to my country, my state, my city, and the school system that I have worked so hard to improve. The greed, lack of heart and conscience, and hypocrisy that surrounds me just seems to be getting worse. The wide spread anger, disgust, and apathy is really getting to me. I am pissed. I feel so defeated by forces outside of my control.

So, just like when I was a kid, I am once again an innocent victim of circumstance, and have turned to my art to get through it. I distract myself by being constructive. I have thrown myself into my own work, painting, cartooning, and writing like never before. Through painting, I can really be alone with myself – getting away from “them”, so I can release my anger, frustration, and fear through the process of creating. Through my cartooning and writing, I can say things that I haven’t been able to say as a nonprofit leader, PTA president, or woman with kids in tow. My art is freeing me. I love it. I’m excited. I’m as happy as I would ever hope to be, all things considered, and I have a lot to show for myself.

Trying to save the arts for others has turned me to my own art, so I can save myself. Fellow artists: Turn to your art.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To Sirs, With Love

It’s been over thirty years since I last played my alto saxophone. That was when I was a teenager, playing in the school band. I had played consistently for eight years throughout my public schooling in Colorado. I was pretty good, and I will always be grateful for the many opportunities that playing music afforded me, even though I didn’t pursue a career in music. I grew up to be a visual artist and an arts education activist. I started a nonprofit organization in southern California to give kids the same arts education experiences that I had growing up.

We raise money and donate music programs to low income elementary schools. We buy the instruments and pay for the weekly instruction during the school day. Our graduating fifth graders move on to middle school with the ability to read and play music (unheard of in the Los Angeles Unified School District today). For existing middle and high school music departments, we raise the funds necessary to purchase much needed materials as well as offer assistance towards the costs of competitions and other expenses. We also produce a number of different arts festivals.

A couple of years ago we created a Battle of the Bands for middle schools as a fun competition to win cash prizes. It also gave teen rock bands the opportunity to get more public exposure, as well as give parents a chance to meet different music suppliers and program providers in an exhibition area. As the RSVPs started to come in from different band directors, and as we got to know more and more teachers through the production process, my own memories of playing in such festivals and competitions started to come back to me. I realized, on a much deeper level, just how lucky I was to not only have had such music programs offered to me in the schools I attended, but that I had the best music teachers around. I appreciated them as much as any kid could at the time, but now, as an adult with over eleven years experience of running an arts education nonprofit against all odds (dealing with the bureaucracy of the LAUSD and steering a public charity through the high seas of the recession), and getting to know more art and music teachers who are dealing with the same challenges, I have grown to appreciate my former band teachers all the more.

We invited every single public middle school teacher to participate in our Battle of the Bands. About half of them declined, not wanting to give up a day on a weekend to do it. The rest of the teachers accepted our offer happily, which insured that our festival would be a rewarding and successful event. The school bands that won reminded me of my former school bands. We seemed to win everything. We won because we were good, but how good could we have been were it not for great teachers?. After the festival, I reflected more on how fortunate I was to have had such incredible support and guidance. I wanted to find my old band teachers and thank them.

I will never forget C.J. Shibly from Isaac Newton Junior High School, or Ross McClure from Evergreen Junior High School. Because of them, I got to be in a marching band, a concert band, and a jazz band in junior high school. We played in parades and performed at school sporting events. For three years at Evergreen High School, I had the good fortune of having Jim Stranahan as my teacher. He was straight out of college - young, energetic, and very, very optimistic. He was cool. He was also an incredibly talented musician in his own right. In the three years that I played in his bands, we cut two albums (one in a studio and the other live at a national competition in Miami, Florida). We played every competition he could get us in to. He even got us gigs playing private parties (one was a gig at McNichols Sports arena for a pro basketball game). All of those weekends and evenings…..he gave up a lot of his own time (and money, I’m sure) for us.

I started searching for my old band teachers so I could let them know how much I appreciated what they had done for me as a teen. I decided to look my former band mates up, too, to see if any of them had pursued careers in music. I found some: Doug Jackson went on to play guitar for well known rock bands like Iron Butterfly, Kenny Loggins, and Ambrosia. Our pianist, Willie Hammond, is a working musician in Boulder, Colorado, and Nate Birkey is a successful trumpet player with his own jazz quartet in New York City. We were just ordinary kids, going to public school. We took the music classes that were offered to us. What would have become of Doug, Willie, Nate and me if we hadn’t had those music classes and those incredible music teachers?

As a parent myself, I argue that music education is vital and necessary, not just because it improves academic scores and keeps kids in school, but because no education is complete without it. Every kid should know how to read and play music, whether they grow up to be musicians or not. The experiences and rewards derived from playing in school orchestras and bands last a lifetime. If I hadn’t taken band for eight years, I may never have met my best friend, Greg Ruland, or traveled to Florida, or set foot in a recording studio, or had a chance to really listen to others, or take so many risks by working through stage fright, putting myself out there so I could bust through my own teen fears when it was my turn to play a solo. I would have been denied the opportunity to honor my deceased father by playing on his silver plated sax, or to give my grandfather (a retired jazz musician) a reason to be proud of me. On top of all that, I would have missed out on the rare opportunity of having an adult outsider validate and show concern for the problems I was having at home. My family had been torn apart by divorce, death and alcoholism. Very few adults dared get involved, even my own family members. Most of them looked the other way. Jim Stranahan did not. He couldn’t fix anything for me, but he could let me know that he could see me, and that he cared. I’ll never forget the day he took me aside to ask me if anything was wrong. I told him. My secret was out. Nobody else had ever done that for me before. He was a true artist, connecting to me and all of his students, not just through music and his training as a teacher, but through his own heart.

I never did find C.J., Ross or Jim. I presume they are all retired from teaching now. I hope they’re all happy, healthy, and playing music. Wherever you are: Thank You.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Honor of Pay it Forward Day, I took a new mom out for coffee and filled her in on how to play the Magnet Game

As is the tradition with all reluctant public school moms in Los Angeles, we share information with each other about schools – turning each other on to great schools with open enrollment, charter schools, private schools, home school programs, work permits, how to sneak in to public schools in the better zip codes of the San Fernando Valley, and how to navigate the magnet school point system.

Magnet schools started over 30 years ago in response to the mandatory busing that was imposed on students to integrate racial populations and give kids from lower performing public schools a chance to get a better education by busing them to better schools. The magnets were created as an alternative to mandatory busing, as a voluntary integration program to promote desegregation.

The magnet school student bodies are based on racial quotas. The schools have to maintain a certain ratio of all races. The students are selected through a lottery system. Some magnets specialize in a specific academic area or are arts based. They tend to attract students who perform well in school (scoring better in English and Math), and have higher attendance and graduation rates, with very low drop out rates. This is due, in great part, to their parents placing a high value on education and seeking out these magnet schools. They are persistent and savvy enough to work through the complicated system. Generally, magnet schools have a great deal of parental support. They also attract new teaching methods, exceptional teachers (gifted schools offer extra training for their teachers), and special curriculums. They have safer campuses and are more racially diverse. There are 169 magnet schools and centers in Los Angeles. If you live outside of a two mile radius of a magnet elementary school, the school district will provide free transportation (three miles for middle and high schools).

The LAUSD established magnet schools in 1976 to help prevent racial isolation in the school system in order to comply with the California Supreme Court's order to voluntarily integrate. Some magnets are school wide, and some are a schools within existing schools, led by a magnet coordinator. Originally, magnets were designed to combat low academic achievement, low self-esteem, lack of access to college opportunities, interracial hostility and intolerance, and overcrowded schools.

Thirty years ago, the racial demographics of LAUSD were quite different, and the courts intervened to make education fairer for minority groups. Today, the demographics have changed dramatically. Only 9% of the student population in LAUSD is white. The demographics have changed, but the model has not. Names are still drawn in a lottery based on race. Parents still seek this alternative out, but not because they want to avoid forced busing, but because they want to escape their low performing neighborhood schools. Magnets have been the most attractive alternative to the average LAUSD school (charter schools are gaining in popularity now, too). The magnet system has gone from being a system that once promoted fairness amongst the races, to being an unfair public school alternative, privy to the savviest of parents. The racial demographics may be even and balanced, but the system is anything but fair. The only kids who attend magnet schools are kids who come from households that place a very high value on education. Parents who are unaware or uninvolved prevent hundreds of thousands of children from being able to take advantage of the magnet system.

Now, thirty years later, the United States Supreme Court has pondered whether magnets in other states are violating the Constitution by making enrollment decisions based on skin color. This could mean that LAUSD’s magnet program could be at risk. Those who don’t get in may one day fight the system as not being constitutional. Until then, it’s every Angeleno for himself. After spending two hours with my new mom friend, going over the Magnet Game, I set her loose with a checklist for the day (she took the day off from work to deal with this BS): first she was go to the highly gifted magnet middle school to inquire on their admission policies, then she was to walk in to a certain, really great elementary school in a very desirable part of the Valley to find out if she can enroll her two children on a work permit (she works two blocks from the school). After that, she walked in to another school near her work, just to make sure she covered all her bases, and then, based upon the plan that emerged from talking to these three schools directly, she bubbled in the proper magnet selections in her Choices brochure, slipped them in the mailbox, crossed her fingers, and said a prayer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It’s That Time of Year Again: Magnet Mania for L.A. Moms (Better Known as “What the Hell Are We Going To Do For Middle School?”)

Tis the season: the Choices brochures have gone out and Los Angeles moms are confronted, as they are every year at this time, with whether or not they want to try and get their kids into a magnet school via the annual lottery system known as “Choices”.

My own experience with Magnet Mania started before my first child entered kindergarten thirteen years ago. On the advice of several of my mom friends with older kids, I was encouraged to apply to the only magnet school in the Valley that had a kindergarten, not because it’s a great school and I would want my son to go there, but because I would hope that he WOULDN’T get in. The neurotic strategy? The more parents who do it, the more we all increase our chances of our kids not getting in, giving them extra points each year that their names don’t get drawn. The points pile up over the years, giving your child an advantage when you want them to get into the magnet middle school you want, many years in the future. Every time you apply and don’t get in, you are awarded four more magnet points. The object of the game is to have as many points as possible when you go ahead and apply for middle school. Since our neighborhood school is a PHBAO (Predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Other Non-Anglo) school, that gives my kids an automatic four extra points, which means, if they don’t get their name drawn before I want them to, then they’ll be WAY AHEAD of the other kids when it comes time to try and get them into the school we really want. Confused? You should be. It is CONFUSING!

All of us savvy moms are hip to how all of this works, giving each other pointers on points, so we can keep playing this confusing game, most of us reluctantly, because it’s our only hope for escape – escape from the dreaded Los Angeles neighborhood middle school.

I was playing the magnet game, like I was instructed to, for four years, with my eye on the one school most of us savvy moms want our kids to go to – the one where your kid can attend school with the same kids from fourth to twelfth grade (which, by the way, is four blocks away from our house, but it is not open to any neighborhood kids, because it is an exclusive magnet school attracting kids from all over the Los Angeles area, many of whom get up at 4 a.m. to ride the bus for a couple of hours to get to that school.) I have talked about this insane system from time to time to my husband over the years, and he does what most men who have been married a long time do: fake interest and pretend to listen. So when the magnet school I hoped my son WOULD NOT get in to called a few days before the first day of third grade to say that a spot had opened up for him, my husband, who was the only one home at the time, exclaimed, “Great! My wife will be so happy!”, not knowing which magnet was which, accepting the spot. When I got home, he shared the good news. I was anything but happy. All of those years of playing the Magnet Mania Game. All of those accumulated points……wasted! If you don’t accept the open spot, you lose ALL of your points. And if you do accept the spot, but don't enroll, you still lose all of your points.

So when it came time for my second child to play the magnet game, I had two extra advantages: my own past experience, and my daughter's stellar test scores. That means she has a special folder with a prestigious label, with a guaranteed spot on the fast track, if we choose to put her on it. After two years of applying to the number one elementary magnet school in LAUSD, my daughter got in. Phew.

But she, and all of the other kids attending this outstanding school, would not have gotten in, were it not for the anxious efforts of their savvy moms. If your mom doesn’t play the game, you can’t get in. The first year I applied to this school, I had to drive all over the Valley to various public libraries during the winter break, to find a Choices brochure, because I never got one in the mail. I finally found one, but it was the Spanish version. That was a problem because I don’t speak Spanish. So I had to go figure out what it said so I could fill it out properly. What ethnicity should I check? She’s Chinese but my husband and I are Caucasian. Magnet Maniacs recommended “Caucasian” because fewer Caucasians are applying, and we could justify it because we’re Caucasian. Magnets need more white kids for their “Caucasian quotas.” Better not take any chances, I thought, so I checked Asian. I got it filled out and out into the mail by the deadline, without knowing Spanish. Pretty savvy of me.

The rejection letter came a couple of months later, in Spanish. I had it translated, to make sure it was a rejection letter, not an acceptance letter. I double checked the translation by calling downtown to talk to a live person at the Student Integration Services. I didn't want to take a chance on blowing it and losing any points, because of the language barrier. I also wanted to request that my daughter’s language status be changed to “English” so she would be in the correct data base. After dealing with the school district for 13 years, I have grown to expect a 50/50 success ratio when dealing with district employees, since accuracy, consistency and professionalism in LAUSD is anything but the norm. If you call downtown and ask three different people the same question, you’ll usually get three different answers. So I had to be ready. I even prepared myself for my daughter being known from now on as a Spanish speaking Caucasian from Cambodia. I’d have to wait a year to find out if they got it right, when the Choices brochure arrived in English (if ever.) It did. Another phew.

Miracle of miracles: my daughter ended up getting into the top elementary magnet school in LAUSD. There were 24 open spots and she got one of them. Phew again! It really is a great school. She’s a very, very lucky girl. I can relax about middle school! PHEW!!!!!

You see, many of us savvy LAUSD moms opt for magnets for elementary school because we’re really worried about middle school. That’s right - middle school. If you can get your kid into a magnet, any magnet, in elementary school, then chances are very, very good that she will get into a middle school magnet as well. Middle school is the scariest time for us L.A. moms. Savvy moms do not wait until fifth grade to decide what to do about sixth grade. They start freaking out before kindergarten.

Does all of this sound ridiculous, absurd and confusing? It is. But that’s LAUSD: ridiculous, absurd, and confusing. And unfair. May the best savvy mom win.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jealous at Thanksgiving

My husband, David, is the patriarch of the family. Ready for it or not, he inherited the position several years ago when the last of the elders passed away. So now he is an Elder. My husband – the old hippy, who came of age in L.A. in the sixties, who took EST training back in the day, who saw Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, over and over again, in an altered state… is the new Patriarch, along with his sisters and cousins, who also came of age in L.A. around the same time. They are the new Elders? How weird is that? The children of the sixties are in their sixties now, man.

So now, at our family get togethers, instead of hearing old stories from the former Elders of characters who lived in a time, and in a land that few at the table had any recollection of, the conversation has turned to another time…….and a very different past. And, they’re talking about a new present – the New Elders are all sharing about the latest concerts they have gone to. They’re back in the saddle again! Why? Because they now have expendable income, time, and more importantly, energy. Their kids are all grown!

But not us. Our kids are the youngest of this generation. Our second child is still quite young so she requires a lot of time, attention and energy, which is exhausting for me, because even though I’m the youngest of the new group of elders, I’m tired. I go to bed right after my daughter does, because I’m pretty wiped out from being the mom of an eight year old, amongst the many other things that I cram into my days (which includes inspiring young people to play music!). I get up early, BEFORE her, so I can ready myself for the day ahead.

I’d love to be going to concerts right now. I’m a rock and roll mom. But I’m tired! And broke. I’m asleep by the time any show starts. We’re not going to concerts again, or the theatre, or any other high ticketed events for grown ups. Not yet.

Thanksgiving is coming up. Which means I’ll get to hear all about the shows that the other elders have seen since Passover. I’ll try to be thankful. But I’ll also be jealous. Time to plug in a Tom Petty CD and take a nap…….

Saturday, October 30, 2010

November 2nd Won't Come Soon Enough For Me

Election day is three days away and I am really looking forward to it, not because I’m eager to cast my vote as a responsible member of a democratic society, but because I want to GET IT OVER WITH. This has been the sleaziest, longest, most obnoxious and painful election cycle I have ever seen. The only thing on the ballot that makes any sense to me here in California is Prop 19 (which will make it easier to legalize marijuana), and I don’t even smoke pot!

I started paying better attention to politics when Bill Clinton became president. For the first time in my life, I felt like our president was my president, for he was a regular guy, born of regular people, from a regular place. Prior to that, I had always seen our elected officials as privileged people, separate from me, who couldn’t be trusted. I became much more interested in what happened in Washington. Bill Clinton made me feel like the common man would finally be taken care of, because he was a common man. I was genuinely shocked by how much his enemies HATED him, and how much time and money was wasted on trying to destroy him, by going after him for such ridiculous, personal things. That confirmed for me what I had already believed about politics - that it wasn’t about representing the people’s best interests, or about governing at all. It was all about power, money and greed. There really is no place for the common man in politics, except on election day, after we are forced to have to endure months of sleazy TV and radio ads, full mailboxes of fliers printed on tons of wasted paper, carrying unread political messages and attacks, wasted space on our answering machines of ridiculous automated messages, over exposure on the news, conflicting polls, and long winded talking heads and political pundits who, like the candidates, never seem to shut up.

After I became a mother, I started paying much closer attention to politics, at the national, state and local levels. I did it for my kids. I decided to no longer keep myself in the dark out of disgust, but to get involved, because I wanted a better world for my kids. By paying better attention, however, I had to open myself up to the ridiculous claims and promises made by candidates. They all say the same thing, every two years, and then never make good on their promises, once elected. It never changes. Everybody claims to care about education and children. This really angers me, because if they all cared as much as they said they did, we wouldn’t keep hearing the same thing every two years, for they’d be making different promises. It’s insulting to me as a voter, because I’m not as stupid as they think I am. That’s what the Status Quo counts on – keeping us stupid and afraid, so it can keep functioning as it always has. But when we give in to our apathy, we play into the Status Quo’s strategy to manipulate the masses, proving Bill Maher right: Americans are too stupid to be governed.

The Status Quo counts on intelligent voters to be so disgusted that they won’t even bother voting. The dumber ones, who are much easier to scare and control, always show up. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if public education is a disaster in this country, not because the problems are so insurmountable and complicated, but because that’s the way the Ruling Elite wants it. The masses are much easier to control if they’re uneducated and preoccupied with their own survival. One of the many reasons why I fight so hard for arts education is because the arts teach kids how to think for themselves, question authority, and reach outside of the box for ideas and solutions to problems - traits that are not at all encouraged by institutions that want to maintain a hold over the masses. So is it any wonder, then, that without the arts in schools, mandatory scripted curriculum and standardized tests, and medications like Ridalin, that kids are so much easier to control?

I’ll be voting on November 2. I won’t stay home in disgust. I’ll show up, but it won’t come soon enough for me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

The Women’s Conference started today at the Long Beach Convention Center, and First Lady Maria Shriver lined up the biggest and brightest stars to help her wrap up her final year as host for this annual event for women. As much as I admire and respect Maria, both for her work with this conference and for her efforts to raise awareness for Alzheimer's and other causes, and as much as I admire many of her friends and colleagues who spoke at this conference, I can’t help but think, as I watch the news coverage of the conference, of the many, many amazing nonprofit leaders who I know here personally in Los Angeles who are doing incredible work, without endowments, fortunes, or the political, family and celebrity connections that Maria Shriver has. They are all small miracle workers, and they’re doing amazing things with meager resources, without any help from celebrities, politicians, or millionaires. It’s a tragedy that some of them have had to close their doors because foundations, corporations and individuals aren’t giving to charity now. The recession is hurting all of us, but it’s hurting the most vulnerable amongst us the most of all. The privileged in this country may sympathize, but they will never empathize. They have no idea what it’s like to live so close to the edge. While they’re waiting for their bottom lines to come back up to pre-recession levels so they can start “giving again”, people are going bankrupt, getting sick, or dying. Their bottom line is basic survival.

All Maria has to do is make a few phone calls and she can get hundreds of celebrities to show up to a charity event. And she can actually get the media to come out and cover her charity events, even small ones. No one I know has had that sort of pull with the media, celebrities, or politicians. In fact, most nonprofits can not afford to hire celebrities to endorse their causes, because stars make these appearances for a fee.

Maria Shriver, even though she and her family have done a lot for the common man, have no idea what it’s like to actually be one. She doesn’t send her kids to public schools. She has never been broke or alone. And while she has made many a phone call on behalf of the common man, she, just like the rest of the privileged class, is anything but common.

Two years ago, about a dozen of us commoners, known as the Burning Moms, crashed The Women’s Conference to protest that public education wasn’t on the agenda (but beauty tips and how to improve your love life were). We showed up in our pajamas and slippers (to show how tired us moms were from killing ourselves from fundraising for our kids' schools) with a long banner that read, “Public Education is a Women’s Issue”. The cops kicked us to the curb, literally, and made us leave the front steps of the convention center because it wasn’t a “Free Speech Zone”. We were forced down on to the street, where a local news team was parked. We thought that might be a lucky break for us, but they took no interest in our cause.

The Burning Moms started four years ago when local writer/performer/NPR personality/public school parent Sandra Tsing Loh organized a three day camp out and three hour demonstration at our state capitol in Sacramento to protest the cuts to public education. She got a bunch of us activist moms and their kids together to organize a protest rally. My job was to do arts and crafts activities with the kids, and have them design all of the signs for the demonstration. We had live music, barnyard dancing, street theatre, a kazoo band, and a few speeches. We sold home made brownies for $250 each to show that bake sale prices are going to have to go way up in order for us to cover the cuts to education.

At a private lunch with former Governor Gray Davis, Sandra and I learned that these demonstrations happen every day at the capitol, and legislators have grown immune to them. You have to be very, very creative to get noticed. So we got creative, with street theatre, music and messages from real, live kids. After the rally, we took our kids up to our legislators’ offices to lobby them. Our kids got to tell them how they felt about being short changed by the cuts to education. It was an incredible learning experience for our kids. Did anyone listen? No. Because we couldn’t get any big names to take an interest in us. And we didn’t have any money......or media attention.

So how do you solve a problem like Maria? Are money, connections, family name, Hollywood insiders, knowing powerful people, and being in the political know how the only way to get ahead in this country? Can positive, sustainable, long lasting change be made without it?

Ask a small nonprofit leader.

Monday, October 18, 2010

They Haven’t Heard the Last of Me

I saw “Waiting for Superman” this weekend, directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), a film about the public education crisis in America. I feared learning more horrible truths about the state of public education in our country. But I didn’t. I’ve heard it all before. Is that good or bad? Either way, it’s pathetic.

I know how bad it is because I have made it my business to know. I have been an active public school parent for the past eleven years. I am one of the few parents, at least in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who continually researches issues on public education in our city, and goes above and beyond what should be expected of any parent to try and help make things better, for all kids.

There are about 672,000 kids enrolled in LAUSD. But there are only a handful of us really active parents. Some parents contribute to their child’s school via the PTA (if the school is lucky enough to have one), or by making some sort of financial contribution to their schools’ direct appeal campaigns (which, of course, are conducted by schools in more affluent areas where students have parents who are resourceful and sophisticated enough to not only give to such a campaign, but who can actually organize one. Poorer schools, which make up the majority of LAUSD, do not have direct appeal campaigns or PTAs, which means that schools function with little or no parent support.) Those of us who are actively involved in our children’s schools are in the minority. The rest of the parents in LAUSD are nowhere to be found. They leave everything to the school district, teachers, and the few active parents to do the work for everyone else. I have been calling these parents out for the past couple of years, but nobody really wants to hear it, because criticizing parents isn’t politically correct at this point in time. The media and the general public would prefer to keep pointing the finger at governments, school districts and teachers’ unions (which all deserve it), but they’re leaving uninvolved parents alone. Why is this?

I am glad that the movie got made and I hope everybody sees it. When they do, I hope they keep in mind that there are millions of kids across the country who don’t have parents like the ones in this movie. Many of America’s kids are powerless and invisible because they do not have anybody advocating for them, keeping up with what is going on at their schools, or even helping them with their homework. Their parents or guardians are totally clueless. There are many variables as to why this is, but never the less, no child should have to bear the burden of neglect or lack of interest by the adults who are entrusted to care for them. Remember that for every child featured in this film whose parents have entered their names into charter or magnet lotteries, there are thousands of kids who have parents who are either unaware of such alternatives, overwhelmed by life, or just don’t care. That’s right. I said it. They don’t care. These kids have no one on their side. Many politicians, union leaders, and overpaid administrators claim to care about these kids, but most of them are just using them. They’re exploiting the "at risk population" for their own political agendas. If everybody cared about these kids as much as they said they did, we wouldn’t need Superman.

The most active parents fighting for public education right now do it, not just for their own kids, but for all kids. We’re a small, but mighty pack of annoying small dogs, biting at the heels of the big dogs, trying to keep them a little more honest with our constant barking and nipping. We have an important role to play, for we hold up tiny mirrors that reflect back to the people in power, exposing their hypocrisy, forcing them to stick to the issues, and keeping them from sweeping things under the rug. We can’t fix all of the problems, but we can keep nudging the ones who can. Sadly, though, I have noticed that the yelping, nipping and the circling of the big dogs have all but stopped. Fewer small dogs are out there, responding to the negative news stories that keep showing up in the papers, local TV news shows, or radio stations. Social networking sites that keep us informed on issues are still reporting, but very few are weighing in on many posts, or even initiating any discussions, because they are too weary to respond. They have had it. I have never seen anything like this before.

The little dogs have run out of steam. And worse, they have run out of hope. They are reserving all of their energy and meager personal resources to take care of their own. That’s what I am hearing.

I, too, have laid down my tired, small legs to take a long, well deserved nap. I can’t bark anymore. And my family, just like all families I know, can’t afford to keep spending any more of our own money bailing out our schools. We no longer have any expendable income.

I hope that with this movie, “Waiting for Superman”, people will find the energy to jump back into the public discussion about how to reinvent public education in this country, Not reform it. Not improve it. Just tear it down and build it up again - from scratch.

That means that all of the many crooks, profiteers, do nothing administrators, union leaders, and politicians who are guilty of robbing our children of a quality education should go, for they are the ones that keep the system the way it is. They can not be allowed to keep making obscene amounts of money whether kids learn anything or not. Truth be told, they like the system just the way it is.

There is no silver bullet, no one answer to fix this crisis. No one person, no Superman (not even my hero, Michelle Rhee), can handle this issue alone. Let’s start all over again. As a parent, here’s what I’d like to see happen first to rebuild public education in America:

1. Run it like a business (not your typical, corrupt American big corporation, but a solid, mid sized business where things run efficiently, the employers value their employees, and the employees value their jobs). If everyone in the school district understood (from the custodial workers, office personnel, and teachers to the principal) that they needed to go to work every day with a good, PROFESSIONAL attitude and make a sincere effort to give an honest day’s work for a day’s pay (like the rest of us), and that they could get fired (just like the rest of us) if they don’t. A change in attitude of all school district employees would be a great start to rebuilding the system, because most inept employees that I have encountered over the years have, at best, a defeated attitude about their jobs and the school district, or worse, they’re down right lazy and rude, attitudes that would cost them their jobs in the real world.

2. Unions must finally budge on common sense issues (like bad workers need to go, and good workers need to be rewarded - just like in the real world), before they will earn the public’s respect and trust. Admit that they are workers’ unions and stop claiming to be child advocacy organizations. Quit exploiting our kids and quit protecting bad and dangerous teachers and administrators. To end the culture of mediocrity in public education, the unions have to make the first move.

3. Insist on high expectations from parents. Get them to understand that their children’s education may be “free”, but that every parent has got to make some significant contributions to their schools. We can no longer use the district “happy talk” to make excuses for bad parenting. Immigrants need to be trained on how important and necessary their involvement is. Middle class parents need to be less self involved and more involved in their schools. And the upper class needs to take a greater interest in the rest of us.

I think the root of the problem is greed. Too many people benefit from the system being so dysfunctional. The average American, whether they will admit it or not, is too focused on their own, small worlds and wants. More despicable than this, is that most of the privileged and powerful in America just don’t care about the plight of the many. Even those who appreciate and compensate their housekeepers, nannies and gardeners well, turn a blind eye to where their employees send their children to school. This is immoral. Education should be a moral issue, not a political one.

Americans need to care less about themselves, and more about each other. We need more leaders with guts who lead with a conscience. If all else fails, abolish private schools and force the politicians and wealthy individuals to send their kids to public schools. Superman would definitely show up for them, with bags of silver bullets.

As for me, I have opted to take this tragic and painful time and channel it into something more creative and productive. I’m painting like never before, and I have a writing partner. We’re writing a script about a couple of pissed off moms who take on the Status Quo.

So listen up Status Quo, I may be tired and hoarse, but you haven’t heard the last of me yet.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Live and Let Live

I’m horrified by the news of the four teens who were driven to commit suicide in the past month, all because they were tormented by others for being gay. I’m growing increasingly more intolerant of the word “tolerance” whenever the media covers these stories. “Tolerance” is not the right word.

We need to be tolerant of people we’re stuck with, people we just don’t like. Such individuals as a lousy boss, a stinky, old, big mouth aunt at Thanksgiving, inconsiderate neighbors, clueless parents at school, volunteers who don’t do anything but create more work for everybody else, anybody who is a regular part of our lives, but rubs us the wrong way. We tolerate each other because we have to.

But when we use the word “tolerance” when referring to someone’s sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, what we’re really saying is that I (the superior person) will tolerate you (the inferior person) because I am clearly the better person.

Let’s try replacing the word “tolerance” with “acceptance” when participating in the national conversation about bullying.

When I teach art to little kids, they hear me say, over and over again:

1: There are no wrongs in art (in their own art, or in the art of their neighbors, so criticism of either one is never allowed). Their art is a part of them, a reflection of them, and cannot be bad or wrong.

2. Artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, and scientists never become famous for doing what everybody else has already done. They become famous because they’re different from everybody else.

In making these my two “rules” for making art in the classroom, I have tried to not only give children permission to be creative without fear, but I have also tried to create a school culture that values all sorts of differences. Children come to understand that not only are we all different from one another in many ways, but if they want to grow up and be a famous person one day (as all little kids do), they will HAVE to be different. My young students trust me because I’m so different, and because they all think I’m famous.

One of the lessons I like to teach is Vincent Van Gogh. I talk about how, when Vincent was young, the kids made fun of him for being different. It really hurt him and he never got over it. He kept that inside of him his whole life and was never happy, because it ate him up inside. I tell them that when a few kids teased him, the rest of the kids would sit in silence, and not stick up for Vincent, even his friends, which hurt him even more. This always leads to a discussion on how we should always stand up for anyone we see who is being picked on. I don’t give too much attention to the bully or the victim in this discussion. I like to focus on the silent bystanders, which most of us are at some point or another. We are participating in the torment of others if we witness it and stand by and do nothing.

We need real arts teachers in our schools (not people who have been taught to teach a lesson or two, but real artists, musicians, writers, and performers). They bring passion and love for what they do to the learning experience. And they send out the message, just by being who they are, and educating kids on the accomplishments of other creative people, that it’s not only OK to be different, but it’s something we should all strive to be. Only the art teacher can pull this off. A classroom teacher who is taught to teach art, music, or any other arts discipline, cannot convey this, because they have a different role to play in their students’ lives (my son’s fourth grade teacher was a former military officer. The values that he passed on to his students from his former career, were immeasurable and significant, but would have conflicted with what he would have been expected to do if he was asked to teach mime, for example). Kids need arts teachers – for what they teach them about the arts, for what they teach them about themselves, and for what they teach them about the world. And some kids, like the four who killed themselves, may literally need their arts classes for sanctuary. Band, art, drama, choir rooms…..they’re not only places where great art is discovered, passed on, or made, but they are literally places where kids can go to get away from that which torments them. Arts teachers are the messengers, and living proof, that being different is the ideal.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ten Reasons Why Everyone Should Care About Public Education In America

By Spike Dolomite Ward, a heartbroken public school mom

So you don’t have kids, don’t want kids, can’t stand kids, and could care less about what you hear on the nightly news regarding the further deterioration of public education in America. Or you have kids, but also have a lot of money, and can afford to send your kids to private school (away from “the element” some of the more “high bred” parents have said), or you are retired and are done with the whole business of raising kids and could care less about what is happening at the school at the end of the block, where your own kids went, back in the day when parents all sent their kids to the school at the end of the block, during a time when there was no such thing as one private school for every public school, magnets, charters, or work permits in the more elite zip codes. Why should you care?

1. Because this is America. We are not third world, even though many of our schools are.
2. Because well educated people don’t break into people’s homes in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping to steal their stuff so they can sell it out on the street and thus pay their way through another miserable day of their own private hells.
3. Because well educated people grow up to get really good jobs. And when more and more people get better paying jobs, they pay more taxes. And when they pay more taxes, local services improve, such as police, fire, and street maintenance.
4. Because neighborhoods have lost their hearts. We need the neighborhood schools to open their doors again to be the center of the town squares where things happen and people get together.
5. Because investing in public education opens our own small worlds, where we can all become a part of the greater good, and continue on with our own life long educations.
6. Because Americans have been living for themselves for far too long. Looking out for Number One has made a bunch of zeros out of all of us.
7. Because we all need the kids of today to be smart enough to get us out of the messes that we have left for them.
8. Because when we’re old, we’re going to have to depend on the next generation to take care of us. Will they take good care of us, when we haven’t taken very good care of them?
9. Because every kid in America deserves a great education, no matter where their parents come from, how much money they make, or what color skin they have.
10. Because John Adams said so! He wrote, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

LA Unified Needs More Than a Garden Hose to Put Out This Fire

Measure E didn’t pass last week. Yet, there wasn’t much fuss made about its defeat. No big public outcry (Scott Folsom called it a half hearted attempt at a half measure in his weekly online newsletter, 4LAKids). No big important interviews. Very little publicity. In fact, it’s been pretty quiet. Those who have followed the hype and propaganda are asking, “Why so quiet?”

It’s quiet, because those of us who have been fighting the good fight (for or against) have run out of steam. We’re depressed. Of the 300,000 or so who actually voted on it, not much has been said publicly about the outcome. I personally did not vote for Measure E. Not because I’m anti-arts education, anti-public education, anti-school libraries, anti-low class sizes, anti-teacher, anti-kid, anti-taxes, or cheap. I voted “no” because I do not trust LAUSD. It’s that simple. They promised way too much with Measure E. That alone should have made voters suspicious.

The well meaning arts education community took it on as the one thing that would save the arts in schools. TV ads were run, claiming Measure E would save the poor little children in LAUSD. Celebrity public school dad Brian Austin Green sent out emails to everybody who had signed Wonderland’s petition, asking them all to vote for it. Schools sent fliers home in backpacks promoting it, as well as recorded telephone messages, encouraging parents to support it. Such campaigns definitely got people out to vote in favor of Measure E, but it didn’t persuade those of us who have heard it all before, and it certainly didn’t sit well with people who are tired of being taxed in general.

According to the latest data from the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder County Clerk, 20% of the 1.9 million registered voters voted on Measure E. It didn’t get the 2/3 needed to pass. Who voted? People who care about public education, supporters of arts education and libraries, teachers, friends of teachers, responsible voters who always participate in the democratic process (even if they aren’t passionate about everything on the ballot), and anti-tax citizens.

I could relate to the many Naïve Hopefuls who took to the streets with their puny little demonstrations (I drove my kids up to the state capitol two years in a row to demonstrate on the capitol steps with the Burning Moms, as well as protested with the same group outside of the Governor’s Conference for Women, asking Maria Shriver to put public education on the day’s agenda instead of cooking and beauty tips, and I supported the Lemonade Initiative a year ago). I felt for my friends in the arts education community who sent out e-mails and posted positive messages on Facebook. I was that idealistic once. And if I was a parent in any other school district, I might still be that idealistic. But I know too much now. No amount of PR and hopeful rhetoric could sway those of us who have been jaded by the system to buy what LAUSD was selling. We didn’t believe them. Not when so much money goes towards feeding the beast before feeding the children.

When I was a new parent ten years ago, I voted out of pure emotion and ideology. I voted for every bond measure or proposition that would benefit public school children. I was too naïve and idealistic to know that everything didn’t always have immediate or real impact on children. Fast forward ten years and take a look at the faces of my many friends, colleagues and relatives after I outed myself as being against Measure E a few days before the election. My arts education friends were shocked. My teacher friends felt betrayed. But my fellow active LAUSD parent friends…………..they were right there with me. They’ve been burned. They’re burned out. And now we’re watching LAUSD burn down.

I’ve done my part in trying to make things right for kids who attend public schools in my community. I’ve stepped up and served as PTA president at my daughter’s school when I didn’t want to, and didn’t have the time, but someone had to do it, so I stepped up. I’m doing my best to keep the arts education nonprofit that I started ten years ago going during this recession. I show up for meetings, conferences and rallies. I send letters to newspapers. I blog. I even researched running for school board. But I decided against it when I realized that nothing was ever going to change, because LAUSD is too big. I will continue to advocate for the many kids in my community whose parents are politically powerless and poor, even if I end up pulling my own daughter out of public school. That’s sad.

I’m sad. I’m tired. And I’m very concerned about the innocent victims who have no other choice other than attending their neighborhood schools. And more than that, I’m sickened to know that so many over paid adults benefit from LAUSD being so dysfunctional. They want things to stay just the way they are.

The embers that has been smoldering in LAUSD has been glowing for decades. But now the hot embers have been fanned into a full-on blaze. It will take more than a garden hose such as Measure E to put out this fire. It’s time to start pulling kids out of the burning buildings.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I'm Not Voting for It

E-mails are circulating, talking about it. Smiling little faces are asking for it on TV. Facebook is covered with posts asking people to support it (most come from members of the arts ed community, many of whom do not have children in the school system). A rally is planned for Saturday to get publicity for it. What is it? Measure E - a $100 parcel tax that should fill in $92 million of the $640 million deficit for LAUSD next year. The big promise? 1,200 jobs will be saved, school libraries will stay open, class sizes won’t increase and the arts will live on!

Do I believe it? Not for a minute.

When I started a nonprofit over 10 years ago, I hired a consultant to work with me on how to understand and navigate the school system. One of the best pieces of advice that I received from the first consultation was that whatever I did, I needed to follow through with my promises, because teachers and schools will have a hard time believing me, since they are so accustomed to LAUSD making and breaking promises to them over and over again. They had grown to expect it.

And now, ten years later, I can attest to that myself. Every time the district makes a promise, or comes out with a new, great plan, we just shake our heads. We’ll believe it when we see it. Well meaning district reps ask, “Where is the support?” They don’t get that the support they seek (usually around election time) doesn’t come, for one simple reason: they haven’t proven themselves to be worthy of our trust.

The school district is too big. I don’t think it will ever be able to right itself because too many (highly paid) adults benefit from the system being so dysfunctional. The district’s primary purpose is to manage liability – not to educate children like their mission statement says. We all know it and that’s why we get so irate whenever the district holds our children up and proclaims how much they care. Just like a dysfunctional family, kids are neglected or ignored until the adults in charge need something from them. This is one of those times. The truth is, our kids are just dollars and data to LAUSD and the lawmakers in Sacramento. Nobody really seems to care.

I’d rather donate $100 to my kid’s school for the next four years where I trust that every penny of it will go to good use. So I’m not voting for it. I’m not voting for it because I do not trust LAUSD.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Back to the Status Quo

It's been two and half months since the scary incident at my daughter's school when a maniac parent (in a hurry) drove up onto the curb and nearly missed hitting my daughter as she was walking into the back gate of her school in the morning. After witnessing such horror, I jumped into fast action and got a lot done insofar as taking on the dangerous and careless parents at our school. I arranged for an officer from the LAPD to come out to our next PTA meeting to talk about drop off and pick up hazards, as well as invited representatives from our city council's office and neighborhood council. I sent out a memo to all of our parents, letting them know about the close call my daughter had, and invited everyone to attend the next PTA meeting so they could learn about what they could do to help keep the daily threats under control (this memo was also a call out to the problem parents to let them know that the rest of us weren't going to be intimidated or buillied by them anymore - not that any of them would actually read the memo or show up at the PTA meeting, or any PTA meeting for that matter, because problem parents don't tend to read any news from the school or show up for parent meetings.) The LAPD was out every other day, making surprise visits and writing tickets left and right. A box was placed on the front counter of our main office so people could anonymously report repeat offenders so we could turn them in to the LAPD. Parents were informed about the LAUSD police and how they could report offenders online. It was GREAT! I was the the most loved and hated mom at the school. I went door to door, in the neighborhood, to invite our neighbors (who are also negatively impacted by the daily carelessness and rudeness of our parents) to our next PTA meeting. I blogged about it. I wrote an Op-Ed to the LA Times (not the first time, so I wasn't surprised when they didn't publish it because they don't tend to publish stuff that demeans parents in any way. It's not PC). Emails were getting passed around to other PTA presidents throughout our PTA district. People were writing me and calling me, telling me horror stories about the many close calls that they have had at their schools. They were holding me up as the great truth teller of the Public School Parents. I was a Valley folk hero! The word was out!

And then the day came: the PTA meeting. The LAPD. Representatives from city and neighborhood councils. Neighbors. Our principal. And who else? The same, small group of parents who show up for everything at our school. The loyal, hard working, selfless, quiet advocates for our neighborhood school. Where was everybody else? Where they always are: not there.

So it's back to the Status Quo. The same old, same old. The same parents picking up the slack. The same issues. The same day, day after day. And the problem parents? Nothing has changed there, either. It's just as dangerous in the mornings and afternoons as it was before. The cops are gone, so it's back to rushing, shoving, speeding, yelling, honking, double parking and dangerous U turns. Another unintended consequence of a free society: we're all free to be careless, selfish jerks.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

From Green to Burnt Umber

My son was born in 1994. That was one of the happiest days of my life, but it was also a worrisome day for me, because that meant I had only five years to figure out where to send him to kindergarten. From everything negative that I had heard about LAUSD, I was sure that my son would be permanently harmed or disabled if we actually sent him to a public school in Los Angeles. The message I got from the media and my new mom friends was, "Good mothers do not send their children to LAUSD". So, like so many other moms in Los Angeles, I went temporarily insane as I frantically searched for the perfect school for my perfect child. The idea of moving outside of the district or sending him to private school was shot down immediately because we couldn't afford it. I consulted with my saavy new mom friends who had kids older than my son, to seek their sage advice about what to do. They all knew how to navigate the public school system. What I learned from them made me even more neurotic and fearful than I was before. I learned about the many different options inside the LAUSD, all ways of getting out of sending my kid to the neighborhood school: magnets, charters, open enrollment, lying about where we lived, homeschooling, and then revisiting relocating or finding a way to pay for private school. I was a wreck. There was a public school at the end of the block......but we couldn't dare send him there......not after all I had heard........not if I wanted to be a good mom........

When my son was four, I decided to go spy on that neighborhood school during their Open House night. I'd get to the bottom of the media reports and mommy talk. I was surprised by what I found. I didn't find any zombies, illiterate kids, or teachers speaking every language but English. I actually discovered pleasant classrooms, happy kids, delightful, competent teachers, and the old community feeling of "school". I went home that night and suggested to my husband that we actually try out that neighborhood school for kindergarten. "How bad could it really be? If it turns out that the school really is bad for him, then, well, we could pull him out!" Ha! A novel idea (my husband was relieved to learn that I had finally spun out of my self imposed insanity, had come to my senses, and was ready to accept what was being offered at the end of the block).

Enrolling my son in our neighborhood public school turned out to be a good thing for him, for many different reasons. Sure, there were times when I got really frustrated with some of the bumps along the road, but I always tried to stay focused on the Big Picture, and stay committed on being part of the solution, and not the problem. So things always seemed to work out. Enrolling him in a public school initiated me into the clan of public school parents. I did everything I could to support his school, educating myself on how the public school system worked and how I could best serve the school with my own talents, skills and experience. I joined the PTA, I volunteered to teach art in his classroom, I served on the school site council, I attended LAUSD sponsored meetings for parents, and I started a nonprofit to support arts education in public schools of my community.

As an artist with a cartooning background, I was conditioned to pay close attention to what was not being directly said to an audience, but to look for the real story on the faces of the secondary characters or people behind the scenes. So when I would attend general meetings for parents, I would really listen to what the frustrated parents with high school students had to say during public comment. Because, it seemed to me, they were the ones who knew the most. They had no agenda other than what was best for kids, and not just their own kids, but all kids. Any parent who gives that much, for that long, is doing it for the greater good. Their frustrations, while I didn't understand most of them because I was a new, green parent, made an impression on me. Their disgust and impatience with the district officials did give me cause for legitimate concern. I trusted them over the district officials, because they weren't selling anything. They weren't trying to convince us of their latest, newest Big Idea. They were just sharing their real experience - all of which was accumulated over a long period of time, on a volunteer basis. None of these parents were getting paid outrageous salaries by the LAUSD to come out and talk.........

I remember one meeting in particular regarding breaking the district up into mini districts. When one mom of a high school student asked why they should believe that this would make any difference, based upon the many failed attempts to improve the system before, the new "mini superintendent" responded with, "We can only hope........" I thought to myself, "What kind of answer is that? We can only hope? That is not an answer". I looked around the room and saw numerous frustrated faces, some of whom were down right mad. I didn't understand much of what was said during public comment at that meeting ten years ago, but I could understand that these active, "old timer" parents, were really, really upset. They had had it.

I've been thinking about those parents in that one "mini-district" meeting a lot lately. Now that my son is of high school age (and we did end up pulling him out of the system when he was supposed to go to middle school, because the system had failed him by then), and I have given ten years of my life to the advancement and support of public schools in my community, I share their disgust and fury. I too, am frustrated and disgusted. I'm tired. I'm disenchanted. I've run out of steam. I'm all used up. I'm an old timer now.

I feel like I've come full circle, and I'm teetering on the edge of public school parent insanity again. But this time it's not because of all I've heard on the street or in the media. It's from my own experience. Like those old timers I encountered when I was a kindergarten parent, my frustration is showing on my face. I too, am speaking out, based on my ten years of serving in the trenches as an active public school parent in LAUSD. Now, with the budget cuts (increased class size, lack of supplies, the elimination of many programs, the district's desperate attempts to keep kids from leaving so they don't lose more money, the unions digging in their heels on behalf of their own members, the lack of morale in all schools from the administration to the kids, the simmering resentment and blame towards scapegoat minority groups such as immigrants, the economically disadvantaged, and the disabled), I am concerned for my seven year old daughter. Should we keep her in the neighborhood public school? Is she safe? Will she get the quality of education she deserves and needs? Will she want to go to school anymore? Should we move? Should we send her to a private school? Should we send her to charter? How about a magnet? Can she get in?

Here I go again...........but I'm not green this time. I'm burnt umber.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Another Elephant Enters the Room: Lousy Parents

My daughter almost got hit by a car on her way to school today. Right in front of me. This mom, like so many other parents in a hurry every morning, made a three point turn in the middle of the street and then drove up on to the curb, AS MY KID WAS WALKING BY. I totally lost it. I went off on this mom, in front of a lot of other parents and kids. I was so furious that I drove straight to the police station.

Every day, I am upset by the many close calls that I see going on in front of the school. But I try to keep my cool because I'm the PTA President and I don't want to make a scene in front of the kids (plus, you never know if one of these wacko parents might be violent, so it's best to keep your cool). So, as PTA President, I've looked for ways to "empower" and "educate" parents (as if they were children) on how to be a "safe driver" when taking their kids to school. Because that is the politically correct thing to do. Well, enough already! I've had it with being politically correct.

I have had it. I've had it with selfish, careless, lazy, and dangerous parents. I'm sick of keeping my mouth shut and I'm sick of politely ignoring the other elephant in the room of public education. Lousy parents!!!! Lousy parents are a big part of what's wrong in public education today. But nobody dares talk too much about that. We look the other way or make excuses for them because it's not p.c. to call a lousy parent a lousy parent. So here goes. Time to call a spade a spade. Or a lousy parent a lousy parent.

You know you are a lousy parent if:

You let other people raise your kids (contrary to quiet popular belief, being an immigrant or poor doesn't automatically make you an inferior parent - being too self involved does).

You don't help your kid do his homework or show up at parent teacher conferences.

You are in the principal's office all the time, blaming the school for everything under the sun, but you never show up to any PTA meetings, family nights, or other school activities. You just complain. And your kid is out of control.

You don't know who your kid's friends are and you don't care.

You don't know your own child's strengths and weaknesses, so you're not available to help him develop or correct them.

You don't teach your child basic social skills so they can get along with others in a classroom setting (and then later in the bigger world) - you leave that for the school to do.

You blame everybody but yourself for your own faults and failures.

You spend money on things that result in denying your family food, shelter and clothing.

And finally, and most important of all, if you endanger the lives of innocent kids walking to school in the mornings by double parking, driving too fast, sailing through stop signs, making U-turns in the middle of the street, or dropping your kids off on the wrong side of the street and then pushing them into oncoming traffic. You are more than a lousy parent, you a threat to society.

To all of the parents who step up and fill in for the lousy parents at every school, going above and beyond by caring for neglected kids who are innocent victims of lousy parenting (that goes for private schools, too - lousy parents can be found everywhere, but private schools have a way of getting rid of them because they're bound by contract law and not constitutional law, public schools are stuck with them!)........thank you. You are exceptional parents and we all benefit from your thoughtfulness and generosity.

And to anybody who wants to defend lousy parents by offering up excuses for their neglectful behavior: DON'T. I'm in no mood. My kid was almost hit by one today.