Safety, yes — but from two steps back, please

I must have done something in a past life that has left me with this bizarre sense of guilt.  I’m not talking about the usual stuff — the Mom Guilt, that I’m not doing enough, good enough for my kids, or the Eco Guilt, when I forget my cloth shopping bags and have to get a plastic one, or the Politico Guilt, where I can’t wait for the stupid midterm elections to be over because I can’t stand to see any more of those damned negative ads at six a.m.

Nope.  This is the guilt that has no name.  It’s the feeling I get when a pass a police car — or, even worse, when one follows me for a mile or so.  I wonder if I’ve committed some random traffic violation, or if the kids are quietly misbehaving and I can’t hear them because Taylor Swift is warbling too loudly from the speakers — like the time when Cooper stood up under his seatbelt and hung out of the window and I got pulled over and reprimanded because he wasn’t buckled up properly.  There’s always a not-so-faint sigh of relief when trooper and I part ways.

Or like the times I’m in the grocery store or Lowe’s and Joanna or Ellie do something naughty, like help themselves to apples or climb up a lighting display, and I have to give them the what-for, and they start crying and screaming for Daddy, and I have to wonder if the other shoppers think I’m a child abductor or something.

Or when I’m waiting at the bank for my deposit to be finished (remember when you used to do that instead of using the ATM?  The tellers still have lollipops, in case it’s been a while for you.)  All those security cameras.  Me, just standing there, waiting.  Nothing to do.  Nothing to read.  Shifting from foot to foot.  Surely I look guilty of something, despite the kicky handbag from Talbot’s my sister gave me.  

It’s good that we live in a society that works hard to protect us from bad people, that provides the means for locating said bad people if a crime does occur.  It’s nice to have well-meaning citizens around who would intervene if a child was in danger.  But sometimes the constant monitoring starts to feel a little too Big Brother-ish.  Since I’ve already got two of those, I can do without a third, especially one that is omnipresent. 

Sure, let’s work together to create a safe and healthy world for all people.  But if you wouldn’t mind, take a step back.  Maybe two.  I just have a silly thing about others invading my personal space.

Free speech does not mean hate is okay

I had big plans for my first post here in a couple of weeks — lots on my mind.  Then I decided I’d just write a quick note of praise for my daughter, Eloise, who got an award today from the elementary school.  Ellie is part of a book club whose goal is to encourage kids to read 1000 books before they finish kindergarten — this being what research shows is necessary for learning to read.  Still in preschool, Ellie has completed 250 books and received a certificate from the principal, in front of the entire school.  She was bursting with pride — and so were we.

But then I sat down to the computer, and saw that a friend posted her Boston Herald column today.  In it, Lauren Beckham Falcone argues the case for eliminating the cruel, insulting word that too many people fling around carelessly.  Retard.  

Now, I’ve been guilty of using it in my life, when I was a teen — never to describe a person, but situations or behavior — and I was wrong.  I could blame youth and the culture in which I grew, where it was a common epithet.  I’d still be guilty and mean.  There’s no way to use that word without a demeaning connotation (unless you are using it in it’s intended form, which almost no one ever does, be real.)  It’s a word I’ve pretty much eradicated from my vocabulary.  Now it’s my job to teach my children that the R word is unacceptable.  (Right now they are young enough that the harshest mean word they know is the S word — stupid — which I forbid them to use.  Also the H word — hate.  And the SH — shut up.)  It’s also my job to teach them to call out anyone around them who uses it.

If only more parents agreed.

Lauren writes far more eloquently on the issue than I, so read her column.  What actually prompted my post today was her readers’ comments.  Most people were pretty peeved with her — suggesting she lighten up, get over it, stop her liberal whining.  Really, folks?

It’s disheartening to think that so many in our community could actually argue that the word is a valuable one, and using it is no big deal.  One reader actually said, sarcastically, I’m guessing, that we should stop saying “fat” since she was offended (since apparently she is fat).  Um, honey?  Go for a walk. Cut out the Snickers.  Take control of yourself, which you can change.  You weren’t born obese. 

Okay, you can’t legislate language.  I’m a huge believer in free speech.  And you can’t make cruelty illegal.   There will always be cruel people.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for change.  It’s what we’re famous for, here in the US.

Words come and go in our ever-shifting language.  I’m pretty sure we can get along without this one.

A teachable moment

Just before Thanksgiving, all the parents in our school were informed of the existing policy in Massachusetts regarding gift giving for teachers.  In a nutshell,  it’s a violation of the law to give a gift worth more than $50.  It’s a violation for a group of parents to pool their money for a gift valued over $50.  The only exemption to this is if the gift is intended for classroom use, such as books or software, supplies or materials.

Thus began the brouhaha.

Newspaper articles and talk shows focused on this hot-button holiday issue.  Some parents are in an uproar, feeling that they ought to express their gratitude in any way they like.  Teachers don’t make a huge salary, and, some say, the holiday season is a great opportunity to give these hard-working educators a little something they wouldn’t be inclined — or able — to get for themselves.

Others are in favor of supporting the existing regulation.  Some say this annual ritual is akin to slipping the hostess a twenty for a fast seating.  Some claim that parents who, for all intents and purposes, tip their children’s teachers are hoping the teacher rewards the child with better grades or simple favoritism.  Others point out that even with the $50 limit, teacher gifts can get expensive, especially if you have more than one child (hmm…groceries or teacher gifts?).

Whatever side you’re on, the fuss shows a general dim view of teachers.  On the whole, teachers don’t get into the business to make money or reap the benefit of seasonal generosity.  If they do, they couldn’t have been too bright in the first place and ought to be dismissed for that singular act of stupidity.  No, most teachers start their careers with at least a minimal sense of service, a desire to help make a difference in the lives of children.  How that changes over many years in the system is anyone’s guess, and maybe these are the educators who enjoy the festival of tipping.

But I would venture that most teachers are as touched by a child’s hand-made card as they are by a gift card to Bertucci’s or a bag of Lindor truffles (or a Coach bag, if you happen to teach in that kind of town).

Time for me to ‘fess up.  In my first year of teaching I was employed by a small Catholic school in southwestern Connecticut.  My salary was a whopping $18,000 a year.  Yup.  This wasn’t 50 years ago.  More like 15.  But I was 24, living with my parents, and happy to be doing a job I loved, at a school I enjoyed immensely. The parents were painfully aware of our piteable salaries, and Christmas gifts rolled in. I mean, seriously.  It was a little embarrassing to pack my car at the end of the day.  Most were tokens, ornaments or plants or a bag of chocolate.  I was touched by the effort, and every year when I decorate my tree I remember which child gave what decoration, and I wonder where that child is today as an adult, whether they yet have children of their own.  That year, the parents en masse collected funds and gave each teacher a cash bonus of $500.  Seriously.  That was fantastic.  $18K doesn’t take you very far, even living at home.  But it only  happened once, and I never expected it then or ever.  A couple of years later, when I worked at a private school on the South Shore of Massachusetts, the gifts were fewer, but equally heart-felt.  I loved that surly middle school students would sit down to pen a thank you note and offer a”Happy Holidays!”, even if their parents made them.  I know, I’m a dork, but I still have some of those cards in a box in the basement.

I really believe teachers don’t need more, don’t expect more.  It’s the parents who get in a bunch about it, and interestingly, it’s the parents in wealthier communities who find this issue to be most disturbing.   Parents with vacation homes who give the gift of a week of skiing.   Seats to a Sox game.  A spa weekend in the Berkshires.  It seems more like an effort to one-up the neighbors than to say a simple thank you to someone who is doing a good job.  Maybe some do expect preferential treatment for their kids, maybe they don’t.   I can’t say.  But I do wonder how the teacher feels, what his or her perception is of that parent’s expectations, how the teacher must wonder what others think whenever the child of a overly-extravagant gift-giver happens to get an A.

This is a teachable moment for parents and children alike.  What message do we want to send our kids in this already stuff-crazy season? 

I’m an English teacher, so I turn to a book.  The definition of a gift = “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”  (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

The best gift a child can give to her teacher is an honest thank you.  Instead of shopping or collecting money or making collages and scrapbooks, maybe we parents should spend that time with our kids and talk about why we appreciate our teachers, why teachers are worth far more than the world pays them.  Maybe we parents should, in a giant surge of grassroots activism, gather our huge numbers and spend our time changing the way teachers are compensated for a job that society deems thankless but for this one time a year.

Teachers don’t need chocolate or gift cards.   Show thanks with support and advocacy.  Let that be the lesson for the kids.  Put your money where your mouth is.

Not $50.  Priceless.

The road to hell, paved with good intentions….

File this under Unbefreakinlievable.

In case you missed it, an Arizona couple is suing Wal-Mart after a store employee in the photo lab developed some of the couple’s family pictures and determined that a few bathtime photos of their three young daughters were pornographic.  The pictures were passed on to local authorities.  Despite the determination by doctors and social workers that nothing was wrong, the investigation continued.  Kids were removed from home for a month.  Couple was required to register as sex offenders.  Mother suspended from job for the duration of the investigation — one year.  After that time, a judge threw the case out.  Because, after all, nothing was wrong.  (Read the story as reported on Good Morning America on Monday.) 

Pardon my language, but WTF?

What parent hasn’t taken a picture of their own uber-cute child in a bubble bath?  Or snug in a towel following said ritual of hygiene?  Or taken a picture of a loved one hugging a child — wrapped in a towel or in a bathing suit or summer shorts?  

To view innocent pictures as perverted speaks volumes to the mindset of that employee who set into motion the wheels of this ridiculous train.  

The couple is outraged, emotionally shattered, and drained.  And what of the agony of those children?  What scars will they carry from this ordeal?  And will Wal-Mart and the local police or that original so-well-intentioned employee be there to mend the wounds?

We all can appreciate our society’s efforts to protect its most innocent members, but this is another example of when those efforts spin out of control.

Like this couple, we try to teach our children to be proud of their bodies, whatever the form that body is.  In a world where sharp focus on one’s appearance leads to devastating consequences like anorexia, bulimia, obesity (and us with three daughters!) self-confidence is paramount.  Love your self, your mind, your body.   To learn that lesson, to nurture and develop as best as you can, you’ve got to know yourself, your mind, your body.

Most kids love to be naked.  Our job as parents is to teach them that there is a time and a place for everything, and the family home, especially the bathroom, is where showing a little skin is okay.  Do we avert our eyes in shame when drying off a toddler after her bath?  Should we remove ourselves from the room altogether and hope for the best?  And if a parent snaps a picture of an irresistibly adorable moment (when naked child chooses to accessorize with a tiara and bedroom slippers but nothing else, or when he piles a two-foot bubble hat onto his head while still in the bath), if a mom or dad captures these moments — for their sweetness or plain hilarity — as the priceless memories  that they are, that’s our business as parents.

Thank you, world, for helping us keep the kids safe when we venture outdoors.  But unless you have some hard evidence that something is actually amiss, keep your Victorian noses out of my home.

(In a not entirely related vein, far more concerning is the exploitation of children for profit that our society seem to be applauding rather than questioning — the recent trend of kids, well, their parents, really, making a buck as precocious adults.  Check out Lauren Beckham Falcone’s recent column on the topic.  And hey, Arizona Wal-Mart staff, you might want to spend a little more time investigating a popular activity in your neck of the woods — preschool beauty pageants.  Nah, not at all as troubling as a naked tush.  My mistake.)