Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's All About The Delivery

This weekend we went to Disneyland for one day, Saturday, between two nights in a hotel room adjoined with a room inhabited by our four cousins. It was a rip-roaring, somewhat sleep-deprived good time, punctuated by snack stops, mild meltdowns, and trips to the Disney store to choose that one elusive, sanctioned souvenir*.

By Sunday, after trips to the hotel pool and IHOP, our kids were DONE. They'll sleep in the car for the drive home! we predicted gleefully, simultaneously locking our daughters into their carseats and the key into the ignition. The hour-and-forty-five-minute drive ensured well-rested kids by the time we hit our 'hood, we figured. Our evening would be peaceful.

Alas, the instantaneous slumber we expected was not forthcoming; by the San Onofre Rest Stop exit we still had two slap-happy sisters to contend with and one who needed to go potty.

People without kids might not know what sleepy kids look like. People without kids often don't know what sleepy kids act like. Heck, even I stared at my own first child in wonder when I first realized that a tired youngster, instead of exhibiting the normal signs of exhaustion, like LYING DOWN, acts like a complete MANIAC. I am not sure what weird genetic twist of fate turns tired children into whirling dervishes, but it defies all sorts of logic. Our normally sweet five-year-old becomes a devil. Our normally devilish three-year-old...well.

The first sign of trouble was the manic giggling. On the surface, two girls giggling in the back of the MPV appears harmless. Good fun, one thinks. They're being cute, you might add. But there's cute giggling, and then there's grating giggling. Call me cynical.

But my husband and I know better; maniacal glee is the gateway to mayhem. One eyebrow raised, my husband and I were giving each other knowing glances. Looks that meant, Do we start the idle threats now? Nah; we should hold off as long as we can, since we're only to San Clemente. Anyway, kids know they're pretty safe in the car: what are you going to do, parents? There's only so much whipping-your-head-around-and-glaring that can be done before surrender.

Soon they began thwacking each other with their *stuffed fairy dolls and shrieking. And, you know, it's hard to drive when kids are shrieking or yelling or screaming. Okay, maybe it's not so much hard to actually drive, but it's grit-your-teeth annoying.

Lucky for us, they were running out of energy and ammo. After trying a few feeble utterances of "poopybutt" and "fart," there was relative quiet.

But then I watched in the rearview mirror as our three-year-old leaned forward and looked sideways to gain the attention of her elder sister. Next, facing confidently forward, she grinned and said, "Fucks fucks fucks." She crossed her arms and nodded at her sister like, What do you think about THAT?

Her older sister was appropriately scandalized and thrilled. Nothing like the little sister accessing that naughty word heard in the 'hood a few weeks back and tossing it out at a most unexpected but opportune time (not the first time she's used language strategically, by the way). Brava, Sis!

Both pairs of beady eyes burned into the rearview mirror to witness our reactions. Which were, for the record, fairly understated: "Don't even THINK about repeating that word." And then we turned the radio up and vowed to ignore any further vulgarities issuing from the third row.

And wouldn't you know, they were both asleep in mere minutes--only a few exits away from home, of course. Dammit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Strip Searches and Torture

This week, both Barack Obama and the Supreme Court have grappled with the issue of individual rights and the safety of the greater community.

Obama approved the release of memos detailing the legal justification for interrogation techniques used by the CIA under the Bush Administration. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a case regarding a woman who, as a 13-year-old girl, was strip searched by school staff when it was suspected she was concealing prescription-strength Ibuprofen meant for distribution.

Because I am a Vice Principal and the latter situation involves the search of a teenager at a public school, some of my buddies have asked for my thoughts. And I've been thinking.

Tonight on my way home from work I heard an NPR interview with Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force reservist/intelligence expert. Kleinman was responsible for halting some interrogations he witnessed and became a controversial figure in Iraq among his peers.

He made a few key points that struck me. As Col. Kleinman began to investigate and question the interrogation techniques used in Iraq during his tenure there, a common rationale offered by military personnel included that if they themselves were captured by the enemy, they would expect similar treatment. Kleinman's response was that our adversary's standards shouldn't determine our own, nor lower our standards. Our standards, ostensibly, are why we are there in the first place.

Our values, he noted--the ones of which we are so proud as Americans, the freedoms and liberties--are precisely what our armed forces are overseas to protect.

It's the temptation to justify a relativism of rights that's so hard for society, and individuals, to grapple with.

A vice principal, for the record, should not be lightly compared to a soldier. However, in my position I do view myself as a protector of the rights of our students. On most days, that job has me protecting the right of students to their education, the right they so often appear to squander as they meander across the quad, late to class.

But on some days it's vital to remember that ALL our students are our constituents--the ones breaking the rules as well as the victims. And unlike how criminal cases are handled in the courts, individual administrators often serve simultaneously as prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge.

That's a delicate balance to preserve--ensuring the protection of each individual's rights and that policies are consistently followed. It requires having respect, compassion, and understanding for the children in our care, both innocent and guilty.

So I imagine myself the parent of the student who claims to have procured her extra-strength Ibuprofen from another; I imagine myself the parent of the accused. I concern myself with both the potential danger posed by a student distributing drugs on campus and the gravity of accusing a child of that act.

Schools have certain broad liberties to search; we do not need probable cause or warrants, only "reasonable suspicion." Even the Court agrees that "reasonable suspicion" is fairly vague.

But there are certain places we haven't gone nor do I imagine myself comfortable venturing. So much of this job requires building trust and relationships: a far better strategy for ensuring the safety of students on our campus, in my view. That often means drawing lines, sometimes acknowledging there will be no answer, once in a while understanding there will be no neatly-tied-up investigation nor consequences.

So we muddle through, using our best instincts and our humanity and caring for kids.

Fortunately, I have never been in the position of feeling the responsibility for imminent safety of people in my care as dependent upon my gaining a key piece of information or evidence, as our military investigators do, I imagine. I have the luxury of working with children and not insurgents. Our students are a relatively free but captive constituency. We generally have time to work with them, and we trust that serious talks in an administrator's office can be preventive measures.

But we have something in common, I would suggest, American soldiers and vice principals: our actions and interactions represent our stations, our institutions, and the culture of our communities. There's a lot at stake.

Which is why the Federal Government is concerned about the liberties it grants both of us.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Creation of an Evolution Explanation

Last night, our daughter, nearing her bedtime and exhausted from multiple after-school events, peered at me over the back of the couch with her patented crazy-intense questioning gaze.


"Yes?" I acknowledged, half engrossed in work and Facebook.

"Mama, how do they make people talk?"

"Make people talk?"

"Yeah, you know, how do you make someone talk?"

My mind went to my office at school, where earlier in the day I interrogated a student without using torture, and was somewhat unsuccessful at making him talk.

"I'm not sure what you mean, honey."

She was growing increasingly exasperated, and her bloodshot eyes began bugging out of her head.

"MOM. I mean, like the FIRST PERSON. How did he TALK?"

"Huh. Well, I think he probably wasn't alone, and people learn to talk by listening to one another. Babies learn to talk by listening to their parents. When people first started talking, they had to make up words for things, and then share those words. Like..." I pointed. "Pillow."

"Okay. So, how did the first person get here? Before there was anyone else?"

"Before there was anyone else?"


Oh, heck. Really?

"Welllllllllllllll...Some people believe that God made the first person. But me? I don't know."

Now, I don't want to be glib about what is a Big Age-Old Debate, but it occurred to me that Creation makes for a nice simple five-word answer to your five-year-old's question about Where Did We Come From. It's only slightly tempting for me to suggest (as my Theory on the Evolution of Creation) that the writers of Genesis had some inquisitive offspring.

But, back to my response to our curious kindergartner, which frankly, wasn't so graceful.

"Other people think that over time, animals changed and kind of turned into humans. You know, like monkeys?"

Wait, NO. That's wrong! Not like monkeys! Evolution explanation faux pas. Back up, Fer.

I don't think I've felt so dumb in a long time, trying to explain evolution to my kid (almost as dumb as I once felt attempting to describe how airplanes fly). At some point, I used her little blond cousin, a lone tow-head with three brunette siblings, as a clumsy example of how changes in appearance can occur in a population. I apologize, family! My nephew is no mutation! Sheesh.

And then I remembered a multiple-choice test from back when I was learning for the first time about evolution--maybe in middle school? What I recall is a question asking something like, Which of the following is an example of evolution? And one of the answers was: Giraffes stretch their necks to reach leaves up high on a tree. Over generations of stretching, giraffe necks lengthen.

Now, I knew this was the Wrong Answer. Mama giraffes stretching their necks, I'd been told, would not result in babies with longer necks. But still, it was so tempting to pick that answer, with its certain childish logic. It stays with me to this day, so that like a stubborn thought bubble above a cartoon person, I have to chase out of my head the image of a straining giraffe whenever I hear the term evolution.

But I carried on with my attempt at imparting adult wisdom.

"No, not like monkeys," I amended. "Actually, like apes. Apes don't have tails."

"Which ones are apes?"

"Gorillas. And also chimpanzees. And orangutans!" I was gaining momentum. "So, you know, over time, babies are born that are more like humans and then they have babies, and pretty soon, you have people."

People, of course, who teach each other to say "pillow."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Outwit, Outsmart...

Parenting--and being Vice Principal, for that matter--requires a fair amount of Calling the Bluff. I am aware that responses to calamities which fall under the umbrella of "I See Your Fuss; I Raise You with Careful What You Wish For" can appear callous to the uninitiated. For example:

Child: (Falling down, moaning, then wailing) "MOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMY! My leg is hurt! I can't waaaaaaaaaaaaaalk!"

MOOOOMMMMY: (Cursorily checking victim and finding no fractured limbs) "I can take you to the hospital. Shall we go get in the car?"

Child: (Eyes wide) "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO." (Sniffle) "I'm okay."

Mommy: "Great. Go play."

The trick is learning to recognize the nuances of Drama versus Trauma. My experiences with toddlers and teens have taught me that much anguish is mere mild discomfort heightened by Drama. As a parent, one's best strategy is to see their overreaction, and raise it.

On Tuesday, our kindergartener began "feeling" her impending nightmares at about 2PM. "The scary stuff just keeps coming in my head, Mama," she whimpered. "I know that I am not going to be able to go to bed tonight."

She was, in effect, laying the groundwork for a rerun episode of I Will Not Sleep Tonight without a Fight. Thanks to her advance planning, I was afforded ample opportunity to determine an appropriate response.

It's not that I don't sympathize. I have my own fears, and I can easily recall my father patiently comforting me as I worked through a fire phobia when I was six years old. But there's just that legitimacy piece that required investigation: was she being truly fearful, or truly resourceful?

"Why don't you make a list of the things you're afraid of?" I suggested. "And then we can...do something with that list." I bought myself some time while she got to work. When she produced her Tally of Terrors, I sent her back to illustrate it.

Her inventory included skunks spraying (I'm with you, kiddo), Halloween, real mummy, doors open, robbers coming, and strangers. Fair enough.

"Let's send your list to the un-Scary Fairy," I proposed, impressing myself with my out-of-nowhere inspiration. "Then she'll write back with some advice on how to feel better about your fears."

We packaged up her worries, addressed them to the "un-Scary Fairy," and she added a quick P.S. to the back of the envelope: "stinky sleepovers."

"Stinky sleepovers?" I asked.

"You know, when you're at a sleepover and then suddenly the room fills with a terrible smell?"

"Has that ever happened?" My curiosity was piqued.

"NO! But wouldn't that be scary?"


She waited for the mailman for a while and then forgot to stalk the box so I could grab back the improperly addressed letter. And when it was time for bed she was too tired to be afraid. Ha! Mommy wins again. Or, for once.

The un-Scary Fairy wrote back yesterday in fairy-like Amienne font, suggesting that strangers and robbers were fairly healthy fears to have (keep practicing safety measures!) but mummies? Did anyone ever see a "rele momey" walking around, anyway?

The one in her picture is cute enough to hug, don't you think?

Saturday, April 4, 2009


In honor of National Poetry Month, I bring you my daughter's first book of verses, entitled "Poutrez," or "Poetries."

My favorite selection from the collection is "Note Cat!" I transcribe it below, with a translation following. Enjoy.

Note Cat!

Cat wate ded you do
You rect up my pating
Now wate will you do!

Look wat you dane
You scracht up my blacit
Now see wate you do!

Naughty Cat!

Cat, what did you do
You wrecked up my painting
Now what will you do!

Look what you've done
You scratched up my blanket
Now see what you do!

Also included in her debut anthology: "I Wish to Be a Prinsses," "See the Wold," and "The Dragin is Cameing."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Feeling Like a Half-Ankled April Fool

I believe I am a member of an exclusive group of educators who actually want to be at school on April Fool's Day. I love April Fool's Day; I love the stretchy feeling of my arm being pulled and the chagrin when I recognize it; I love pranks; I love dorky teenagers pulling dorky pranks; I am a dork; I love April Fool's Day.

As luck would have it, LAST YEAR, April Fool's Day was during Spring Break, and THIS YEAR I sat in a conference room being trained on very un-funny Language Arts Curriculum Guides, Companion Texts, and Ancillary Materials. I practiced using Graphic Organizers, Planning Matrices, and Analytical Scales. I shared Professional Experiences, Checked My Cell Phone, and Watched the Clock. I Stared Glumly down at my ankle, adorned with a fake tattoo my students would have totally fallen for today.

For two years straight I have been deprived of the joy of spending the day surrounded by lame attempts to pull one over.

Each April 1 I am reminded of my dad's best trick, a simple one. I was in high school; April Fool's Day was on a Saturday. My bedroom faced the street. Just after sunrise, my father crawled into my room and woke me up, hissing, "There is a fire in the back of the house! You need to get out; the rest of the family is already in the front yard!"

He directed me to the ground and followed, watching me crawl out the front door in my pajamas, half asleep and panicky. I distinctly remember turning around on all fours when I reached the sidewalk and wondering hazily where my siblings were, only to find my father standing on the front doorstep overcome with humor at my expense.

"APRIL FOOL'S!!!" he proclaimed, pointing at me with glee.

Ooooooooooooh, how I wanted revenge.

The following year, my mother and I hatched a plan to place an ad in the paper for his new convertible Mazda RX-7. It would run for only one day, April 1, a Sunday: "New Mazda RX-7 for sale. Must sell. Best offer."

The first calls came early in the morning. He dismissed them, explaining that they had the wrong number. After a few more inquiries--and one in particular in which the caller asked for my father by name and confirmed that he did indeed own a white RX-7--Dad grew suspicious. He spent the remainder of the day admitting to callers that he'd been had by his daughter. I was jubilant.

Tricks on my dad are not to be undertaken impulsively, as I learned April Fool's Day year I was eleven and misspelled the name of his "boss" on the letter explaining that he would have to be let go--the same letter with a handcrafted facsimile of his workplace's letterhead.

One can't have a brilliant April Fool's Day joke every year or folks would come to expect it. During one of my last years in the classroom, I shamelessly capitalized on the fact that Orville Redenbacher, popcorn legend and resident of my high school's town, had recently passed away. His estate had included an incredibly generous donation to our school, I told my students. The only catch was that henceforth our sports teams would be dubbed "The Mighty Kernels." Some students laughed; some were aghast: regardless, they believed me. It was awesome.

Before I realized that I would be off campus for April Fool's Day this year, I carefully set aside the temporary tattoos my brother and sister-in-law brought back from their honeymoon in Tahiti. They were just real-enough looking, I figured, to fool someone into thinking I had finally decided to illustrate myself. And even though I knew I wouldn't see my students, who regularly comment on changes to my hair and weight, I put one on anyway.

Gravely understimating the girth of my ankle, the tat only went halfway around. Oh well, I rationalized, if anyone asks, I'll say it took too long and I have to go back to finish the artwork.

Alas, no one asked. It's possible a handful of people wondered why I put a silly temporary tattoo around half my ankle.

You just wait, PEOPLE. Till next year, fools.