Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fifth-grade Graduation

"Egbert" graduated from the fifth grade this evening (actually, it was called a "stepping-up" ceremony). The whole idea of graduating from elementary school seemed rather silly to me, and Egbert had said he didn't want to go, so I didn't think much about it. But his teacher talked him into it, and in the event, I was very glad we had gone. The ceremony was held in the hot, un-airconditioned gym, which was so filled with the extended families that the proceedings had to be delayed while more chairs were brought in, but such a feeling of community, and intergenerational pride and connectedness, was worth the heat.

The 26 kids in the school's graduating class ranged from a tiny boy who was probably only 36" tall to a girl who was nearing six feet. The boys were dressed in Tshirts; polos; shirts and ties; two boys wore suits. (Egbert had requested a tux, but settled for a shirt and tie with his shorts and tevas.) The girls wore sundresses and heels, a pantsuit, or skirts and tops. They each received at least one award, for such diverse accomplishments as participating in art exhibits, proficiency in physical education, politeness, improvement, diligence, poetry writing, creative writing, math excellence, musical excellence... there was a history prize from the DAR, three minority-student achievement medals from a sorority... I can't remember them all. A couple of the kids really racked up the awards, including some of Egbert's friends--the two smartest girls in his class, and the boy who is the funniest-looking but sweetest and least-affected child I know. Egbert got his share: math excellence, excellence in technology (he's one of two kids who help teachers and students troubleshoot their computer problems), poetry writing, and for being the best speller in the school (he's a derivational-constancy speller!). As the english teacher was building up to the announcement of this award, the kids started to call Egbert's name, and when she finally called it, they all joined in unison. It was very sweet.

The kids were serenely proud, for themselves and each other. They have matured so much in the past year--this was especially obvious in the video slideshow at the end, featuring photos from this year and the preceding few years. The real affection that the teachers and the principal have for these kids (most have been at this school their entire lives, and some are second and third generation graduates) was palpable.

(On a weird note, one of the stepping-up kids was the son of one of my clients, whose case I won in court on this very same day (though he's still incarcerated, on a different charge). It was odd to hear the boy's name called, and to see this sweet, shy, skinny boy proudly accepting his awards (and accolades for being the fastest runner in school) and to think that this morning I was arguing his father's case.)

This elementary school is tiny, with only 175 kids (preK to 5th). It's a poor school--in a poor rural area of the county, with the highest proportion of free/reduced lunch-eligible kids in the division (59%), and the population includes more than 40% minority students. It's also an historical school--it's built on a site that was originally purchased by local black families,  who held barbecues to raise the funds to buy the land and build the school for the community's black children in the early 20th century. The school still is named after the first teacher those families hired to teach their children. Several documents from that era are displayed in a case in the school's lobby. Those families donated the land to the county after the demise of massive resistance, and the integrated county elementary was built, and still stands today--a little the worse for wear, since the county has not upgraded or even invested in infrastructure maintenance in years.

The school division is considering closing the three smallest elementary schools--including this one--all in the southern part of the county. Parent push-back has been much stronger than I think was expected by the school board or the committee tasked with looking into alternative plans (including building one big combined elementary school--which seems to be the plan they're trying to push). The sell didn't go over too well--at the forum I attended, they had an interactive power-point presentation that consisted of info-bites from a commissioned study, and polled the audience with questions derived from the study, such as "will children have a longer or shorter bus ride at a new southern feeder pattern consolidated elementary school" -- which attendees would answer with a clicker. The results of the instant poll would show that, for instance, most parents believed kids would have a longer bus ride, but... lo and behold, the correct answer was that actually most kids would have the same or shorter, and none would have a longer! All the questions went like this; the intuitive answer always turned out to be incorrect. Ah, what a great way to get buy-in from parents--telling them that everything they think is wrong! Strangely, smart people can be really dumb when it comes to understanding how people really feel and react. The powerpoints were a disaster, and only served to increase the frustration, sense of powerlessness, and anxiety of the parents who are faced with the loss of their community school--the one that most of them attended themselves.

The presentation focused on things such as small school/larger school performance, achievement, economy-of-scale, etc, but didn't address intangibles such as community--how is that measured? Even the kids got exercised by the consolidation proposal: Egbert's debate club debated the issue at their final tournament. There have been subsequent meetings, petitions circulated... it will be interesting to see how it's resolved.

Before he started at this school, I had been really worried about Egbert's transition from the freedom of Montessori to a public-school third-grade classroom, but actually he adjusted really well, and felt much happier in an environment that included both more structure and more attention than the large Montessori he'd left (his first montessori school was so unique--a one-room school house, with a kindergarten class of 5 kids--that it was in a class of its own). We had struggles with homework at first (montessori doesn't do homework, and it took a while before his third-grade teacher (now his art and advanced-math teacher) figured out the appropriate quantity of homework for eight-year-olds)--and there's the ongoing issue of how different he is from most of the other kids. But for the most part, he's been really happy there, and has loved all his teachers, who are sweet, nurturing, and fun--really engaged with the kids, and knowing them all individually, which is one of the best things about a small community school.

I feel Egbert is ready to move on to the broader social horizons of middle school (though as MS's go, this one is small, too!) but I'm so glad he was able to "step up" with 25 other kids he's now known for three years, in a nurturing environment, with teachers he'll remember for the rest of his life. Watching him as he sat there in his white shirt and red tie, looking both serious/grown-up and young/sweet, he seemed simultaneously to be my child whom I love so intensely, and an unknown young man out in the world. I suppose that dichotomous perception will only increase in time as he turns more of his attention into the world... bittersweet.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Some thoughts on being a freak
Although I've been concerned about the transition to middle school as Egbert prepares to leave his tiny elementary school, there are two things I'm looking forward to: one is the gifted program teacher, the guy with the funny name (not too many names contain Ws, Ys, Zs, and a silent T), whom Egbert has developed a little guy-crush on, and who is just about the coolest teacher ever (I mean, how many teachers do you know with the Elvish glyph for "Gandalf" tattooed on their forearm?); the other is the possibility that there will be a peer group of other freakish kids for him to relate to, as the entire fifth grade of his school totals only 26 kids, and he's the only freak.

I've already discussed some of the ways in which he's a freak there: an atheist in a school full of religious, the only one who won't say the pledge... but he's also one of the most academically-advanced kids in the school (and you know how well-liked THAT makes you), and just... different, in innumerable ways. Even the other smart kids have mixed feelings towards him (he got into an argument with one girl, formerly his best friend in the school, over whether Phillip Pullman intended to destroy the church by writing the "His Dark Materials" series. He got a little over-emotional about it, which didn't help).

Since I didn't go to school past the third grade, I missed out on the whole peer group thing during that apparently most-important peer-group period: high school. But it didn't matter. I'd not have had a peer group in the rural school district we lived in even if I had gone. After all, I did belong to 4-H, but a lot of good that did me: I was invited to the home of one of the other girls--once. And, I went on a weekend trip when our 4-H district was hosted by another 4-H district. We participated in various activities such as bowling (that's the only one I really remember, because it was so traumatic). I was so weird, apparently (I'm still not sure how or why) no one would speak to me--not even the girl whose bedroom floor I slept on. She just stared at me blankly whenever I said anything.

I also took gymnastics at the local Y. One day in class a few girls were whispering together and finally one of them asked me to read the sign on which the gym rules were posted. I assumed that they were trying to make the point that I had broken a rule, so I looked at the sign, saw no rules I'd broken, and asked what I'd done. They told me to read it aloud, so I started to -- only to learn that, oh, we just wanted to see if your parents taught you to read. So much for that potential peer group.

I finally found a sort of peer group when my parents sent me to a summer camp for freaks (well, they were Unitarians, but same thing, for the most part). (Actually, I got a scholarship and raised most of the rest of the money myself, by making and selling butter (what kind of freakish way to raise money is that for a 16-yr-old?)). But, finally! I found other kids who not only knew who Phil Ochs was, but could also play his songs! Who went on protests at nuclear power stations! (yes, that was a camp activity--as was swimming at a nude beach). Although I was extremely shy and introverted, I deliberately signed up for the scariest workshop (improv drama) as a way of breaking out--sort of a self-imposed shock therapy. It did work, and I had a great time, and went back the next year as well, but none of those kids lived anywhere near me, so no real peer group there, either. However, I did finally know that I wasn't going to have to live in a cave when I grew up.

I'm not super worried about Egbert finding a peer group, really. While I still may be somewhat socially maladroit in consequence of my lack of childhood experience in relating to peers (an important skill,  I was recently informed [my somewhat defensive response: "I don't think normalcy is something to aspire to"]), there are advantages as well. For one thing, as an outsider, you develop strengths that popular kids don't: more empathy, more compassion for underdogs, and the ability to see things from a different perspective. Of course, one of the biggest advantages is not needing to depend upon external validation for one's self-concept (because, you ain't gonna get any). There are other advantages as well--you don't discriminate against others for not being like you, and your tastes are not limited to those of whatever group you are oriented to. So, for instance, while I lacked for same-age peers, I've always had friends of all ages, and to this day have more friends who are not my age than those who are, and my life has been more interesting because of it (well, I assume so, anyway).

Egbert already has more going for him than I did--he's less of an introvert, so he's less isolated to begin with, and has more self-awareness than I did--he already knows he's a freak, and he accepts that. He also has a more forceful personality than I did at that age. And while I tended towards accentuating my differentness as a defensive mechanism, he just goes about his way without regard for judgment. It is my hope, though, that Egbert finds more friends in middle school (he does have friends that he's known since preschool, but they go to different schools, and scheduling/logistics are always a problem) with whom he can share his enthusiasms and ideas, and have fun with. I don't care if they're his age, or have horns or blue hair. I just want them to be smart, thoughtful, kind, think for themselves, and appreciate him for who he is. If not, he can just be a freak. Worked out okay for me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Atheism vs Spirituality and the Democracy of Knee People
Last night, towards the end of a very long car trip, "Egbert" suddenly asked me, apropos of apparently nothing after a long period of silence, "do you consider yourself to be spiritual?"

I thought for a second and then answered that I did--did he? "No, I'm an atheist, remember?" I suggested that one could not believe in god yet still believe in the existence of spirit. He then asked if I considered myself an atheist--which I sort of do, in that I don't believe in a deity, or an entity that is "god" --but, I also believe that it's ultimately unknowable and so in that sense I'm agnostic. Then again, I have a complicated belief system that includes a sort of interconnectedness of spirit (on which concept he has not registered an opinion). Egbert's stated belief is that if there was a god, he would have shown himself to us by now. (I decided not to complicate things by discussing the many ways in which many people have believed that this "showing" has in fact occurred.) We have talked about god many times in different contexts, and his consistent position (except for a few weeks after his father managed to convinced him he was wrong) has always been that there is no god (however, he does believe in ghosts, so his empiricism or materialism or whatever it is has its limits).

Poor Egbert is his school's token atheist. It's a public school, in which everyone is religious--his homeroom teacher even prays during the "moment of silence." He's been told many times by other kids that he's going to hell for not believing in god. He's become a sort of freak exhibit--I think kids dare each other to ask him if he believes in god so they can be titillated by his answer. And (aside from the several other ways in which he appears to his classmates to be weird) he also doesn't recite the pledge of allegiance.

Because he attended Montessori school through second grade, Egbert had never heard of the pledge of allegiance till third grade. I had completely forgotten about this ritual, and didn't think to talk to him about it before the first day of school. It wasn't till I dropped him off at his classroom, and was walking out of the school and heard it over the loudspeaker that I remembered. That evening I asked him it about it. He said he had stood with everyone and listened but didn't know what was being said. I explained and he decided he didn't want to recite it. I didn't (honest!) suggest that he not recite--I left it completely up to him, telling him that it was his choice whether or not to recite and he was required by law only to respectfully sit or stand during the recitation.

I thought it interesting that Egbert would independently decide not to recite the pledge, since I stopped saying the pledge when I was a kid--at some point, I think perhaps second grade, and certainly by third (last grade I completed...) I check in with him about it sometimes, because I don't want him to feel he must maintain a position forever if it becomes burdensome; but, despite some ribbing he receives, he still stands firm. (I suppose we're both stubborn or perverse enough to be more unyielding when opposed.) We did actually compose an alternate pledge--one which we felt we could recite wholeheartedly: "I pledge allegiance to the people of the United States of America, and to the Democracy for which we stand, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

It's interesting to me also that he is willing to out himself as an atheist, when his atheism has cost him some friends over the years, even before his current religious environment. In first grade, he had a friend whose family were free-will Baptists, and Egbert told him there was no god, which did not go over well. I explained that he couldn't tell people that, for two reasons: first, for people who do believe in god, denying his existence is hurtful to them. And second, it was as epistemologically wrong to say that god doesn't exist as to say that he does--since god's existence can be neither proved nor disproved scientifically, either belief is a matter of faith, not fact. Although he understood this, and modified his position from "there is no god" to "I don't believe in god," it didn't help save his friendship with his very best friend in first and second grade, a Lutheran (although it's possible this loss may have had as much to do with him teaching his friend to sing Mme Thenardier's part in "master of the house," which I was rehearsing at the time for a concertized version of Les Mis).

During the car trip, prior to thinking deep thoughts about spirituality, Egbert entertained himself by filming a series of "knee people" videos. The knee people are characters created by filming one's knees wearing hats and/or glasses while providing voices for their commentary. The knee people live in a country called the Democracy of Knee People, and like to eat gingersnaps (just in case you ever entertain them, and want to know what to serve). The knee people don't seem to struggle with their cosmic views, apparently unaware of the fact that they're only a small part of a larger sentient organism....

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inaugural Celebration Concert

After agonizing over whether or not to go to the inauguration, I settled on a compromise-- the pre-inaugural celebration at the Lincoln memorial. In the event, it didn't feel like a compromise: I ended up feeling that I had chosen the right event to attend.

Since I was able to find very few and very incomplete descriptions of the event prior to going, I didn't really know what to expect. Was it just going to be a rock concert? A huge party? Would Obama speak? The issue was clouded even more when my son, "Egbert," woke up vomiting several times in the middle of the night. When I called my friend in the morning to tell her I wanted to delay our start so Egbert could take a shower and eat breakfast and then see if he was holding things down and feeling okay enough to brave the weather, travel and crowds, she thought we just shouldn't bother: we were getting too late a start, it wouldn't be worth it, there would be too much traffic, she couldn't find anything saying Obama would even be there. We decided to get off the phone and go online (yeah, we both still have dial up) to see if we could find out more. I found an item on the official website that said Obama would kick things off. I called her back and talked her into it.

We picked her up and drove up to the first metro station, at Vienna. There was no place to park in the lot, and there were lines in the metro station, but this was the first indication that there would be any real crowds (Rt. 66 was clear, and while signs announced that it would be closed ahead, we were getting off the road well before that). We found a space easily in the parking garage, though, and were able to bypass the lines (which were for the farecards as it turned out). We got into DC with a minimum of hassle. Once on the mall, we began to get a sense of the occasion, as thousands of people were streaming toward the memorial. My friend hadn't dressed warmly enough, so we tried to buy her a sweatshirt from a vendor, but most had only tshirts (we did find one later). We moseyed along, as we had plenty of time before things got underway, but when we got to the secure perimeter, it had just closed (they closed it early because of the crowds--it looked as if there was still plenty of room inside, but I think they felt they couldn't handle the swarms of people wanting to get in). The closing of the perimeter was itself confusing, because people kept going out, and we'd see more people going in, but military guards kept telling us it was closed, so we gave up. (The only nastiness of anyone that day that I saw, was a couple who began loudly complaining about this). We walked around for a little while, trying to see where we could get a good view of the memorial, but as things got underway we ended up at a jumbotron near the WWII memorial--the closest one outside the perimeter, which meant we couldn't see the memorial at all, as there's sort of a dip there. The crowd was packed in like sardines, and occasionally couples and groups of people would move through the crowd, holding hands and holding their bodies sideways--we'd lean against the people behind us and hold our breaths so they could get by. It was hard to tell exactly when the event started, as they were showing things on the screens beforehand, and then Bishop Gene Robinson gave some kind of invocation--the sound was muffled you couldn't hear much of it, so we weren't sure if it was part of the event at first or not (later we learned that part wasn't broadcast on TV). When the announcer told everyone to "please remain standing for the national anthem," everyone in the crowd laughed, as of course, packed in as we were, no one could have sat down if they'd wanted to.

As the event began, we realized it was going to be a real celebratory event, not just a concert. The performances were about the occasion, not about the stars' egos, and the speeches and readings were meaningful and thoughtful. People danced, clapped and sang along. The woman directly behind me screamed when Obama came out, but screamed longer and louder when Denzel Washington took the stage. I pointed this out to her and we all laughed--it was that kind of day. My friend and I got tears in our eyes several times (Egbert didn't, and decided that this meant that he's "not an emotional person").

The whole event felt very uplifting and unifying. Denzel's reiteration of the "we are one" theme was reflected by the shared connectedness. People helped others to stand and balance on the jersey barriers for a better view, and then to get down. They were patient, and shared information. They smiled sympathetically at crying babies.

One instance of that group cooperation I didn't at first understand: I observed from a distance a fire truck parked on the closed-off 17th street between us and the reflecting pool, with three firefighters standing on top. They were constantly taking photos--without stop. At first, I could only guess they were taking pictures of everyone in the crowd in case something happened, but since they just seemed to be pointing and clicking that didn't make much sense either. My friend thought they were just taking photos of the event for themselves, but that didn't make much sense: they'd have had dozens of rolls of film or memory cards of the same scene.

When our joints began to ache from standing for so long, we decided to walk around and see if we could get a different view, and as we approached the firetruck, we saw what they were doing: since they had a better view than those of us on the ground, they were taking photos for people with their cameras. Dozens of people stood around the firetruck, cameras held aloft, and each firefighter would take a camera, click a few shots toward the memorial, turn around and click a few toward the monument, bend down to hand that camera back and grab the next one. For over two hours, they did nothing but take hundreds of photos with hundreds of cameras. I hadn't brought my camera, because I couldn't find the film I thought I had, and though I had originally planned to stop and pick some up, when our start was delayed, I scrapped that plan. Today, of course, I found my film (in the basket with the lentils and beans, naturally!) But, it didn't really matter, as my friend is a professional photographer and brought her camera bag with her.

Up by the monument it was easier to see the memorial. The way it was lit inside made it hard to tell if you were seeing Lincoln inside or some stylized black-and-white banner hanging from the columns. We finally decided it was the actual statue but looked weird from the lighting (which, looking af the photos on WaPo's website today, cast double shadows on the wall behind). The jumbotron speakers didn't do the best job of amplifying the sound--you had to be in the right spot, and sometimes the sound seemed to fade in and out. It also wasn't synchronized with the video very well--and especially when Obama was speaking, it was disconcerting to see his mouth move and then a few seconds later to hear what he'd just said.

After Obama was done, Pete Seeger and then Beyonce finished things up with "this land is your land" and "America the beautiful" (respectively). By then we were walking away, tired and cold, towards the National Gallery (where we got some hot chocolate and saw Franks' "The Americans" exhibit), but we could still see and hear as we passed the jumbotrons along the way. As it happened, taking time out to go to the gallery enabled us to miss the worst of the crowds leaving the mall. The metro was packed but manageable, and people were sharing their perceptions and experiences on the train. We made it home (stopping at a Five Guys on the way) around ten, excited, happy and exhausted.

"what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you - Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there." --President-elect Barack Obama, January 18, 2009.