Woman in the White House?

If you went to the movies in the Filmore in San Francisco in the Nineties you might have seen my best friend and me in the front row in sunglasses. M insisted the color saturation was better behind shades. My friend also liked to point out, as we sat through the 15 previews before our movie, how many of the films we were being sold featured a bunch of old white men. “Why the hell do I care what they have to say,” she’d ask.  She is black. I am not. Just about everything I know about the world from a non-white perspective is thanks to M.

In many ways we are the inverse of each other. When she had a broken family, mine was intact. When her mother was dis-enfranchised, mine worked for the poor. Her father was a pro football player, while mine was a painter. When she was an un-diagnosed dyslexic, I was a celebrated student. I’m still learning how much needs to change in society so these differences don’t matter. But in this presidential race, we have something distinctly in common.

We are both women a lot of kids. And we are both mothers of girls.

I love Bernie as much as the next liberal. I love his scruffy hair, his determined passion, and his New York accent. I love hearing the sound of the word Socialism uttered with pride and not disgust. Most importantly, I love what the Bern is doing to and for the Democratic Party. He’s reminding us of the values this party had when our parents voted for (or against) Jimmy Carter: prioritizing the needs of the poor over the wealthy, the sick over the healthy, the children over their keepers. We embrace difference, despise discrimination. We face and try to defeat racism. We vote to empower the people, not institutions. And we are feminists. 

I know, it sounds simplistic to say that gender matters more than policy when you listen to the rallying cries of Bernie. I am madly in love with the words that man utters. But I have a couple of problems. He’s white. And he’s a straight man.

What do you think of when you hear “All the President’s Men?” What do you think of when you hear “All the President’s Women?” Who is making decisions and who is giving blow-jobs?

 OK, I’m being crass but that is the reality for women seeking positions of power: it’s not expected at all. Look at this list of female heads of state. The map shows it best. The U.S. is right up there with Russia and the Middle East in not supporting gender equality in the top spots in government. Women’s rights are a huge aspect of the values of modern Western countries yet we have yet to elect one to the presidency. Isn’t now the best time to make it happen? Why not?

We have a supremely qualified woman running for the highest office in the land and liberals are dismissing her because…she’s not radical? First, please tell me the last time a radical liberal landed in the White House. Next, please tell me how Bernie will do what he intends to with a Congress that will laugh him back to the tofu aisle at the Brattleboro food co-op. Finally, there simply is no more radical or progressive candidate than Hillary. She is a woman, an accomplished woman who knows her shit. Hire her!

As women, we know when we are equally or more qualified than the man who is getting the job. We know when we are being subtlely harassed while our male peers are allowed to work unbothered. These are realities I know my three girls will encounter when they enter the workforce. But I want them to face these obstacles in a world that has already seen a female American president. Role models matter.

The significance of Barack Obama’s presidency as the first black commander in chief is not lost on any black mother, father, child, or citizen in this country. The problems of race and being black have not gone away, but their hope has a picture that looks like them in the frame. The significance of Hillary Clinton winning the election would not be lost on the women and girls in this country either. Studies show that female role models impact girls in a big way.

When I hear Bernie and the cries of his supporters I think of M saying, “Why would I want to listen to another white man who thinks he has all the answers?” Who knows, maybe she is voting for him. We haven’t discussed it. But I’m not.

The thing is, we have a very qualified person running for the highest office in the land. She knows government, she understands politics, she has women’s backs, and black folk like her. I don’t want to mess this up for my girls. I’m voting for Hillary because SHE is the radical vote.

MJ at the Assembly Health Committee Hearing and Governor Brown's Signing Statement.

And then immunity won the day

What started with a pretty mild Facebook post by me about the Measles outbreak 6 months ago became a letter to the editor and then a Moveon petition, an I <3 Immunity icon, a grassroots team, and now California law.  I admit I did not know quite what I was getting into when I became involved in vaccine politics.  But I knew my purpose.

Unlike my parents who were at times threatened and ostracized for their beliefs, I’ve had a pretty easy time in my generation standing up for what I believe: women’s rights, gay rights, social justice, ending discrimination and racism. I’ve lived in 8 cities in 5 states and 4 countries. But in my age group in those years progressive politics were the way. I did think I was the rebel by piercing my nose and getting illegally tattooed at 16.  But that was superficial stuff.  It was my parents, the old depression era kids who were the courageous ones.  At a time in our lives when most parents seek a safe and happy neighborhood for raising a family they chose to move us to the urban hotbed of civil rights activism in 1970.  They lived and breathed and raised in us the change they wanted to see. They lost friends and made many more.  It was awkward and chaotic at times but it was our life and the values it imprinted on my sisters and me are permanent.

It startles and saddens me that speaking out on this cause, a common sense public health measure, has drawn more ire than any position I have ever taken. It’s an important cause but it does not deserve the drama.  My colleagues and I have been stalked, bullied, harassed, insulted and mocked for speaking up in favor of vaccines for schools.  With the issues of terrorism, racial violence, prison reform and poverty, I find it disturbing that vaccines for schools causes such unwarranted hatred toward good people.  That the plight of having to homeschool if they don’t participate in vaccine requirements is equated with discrimination for immutable characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, disability is appalling. This is not a moral dispute, this is a dispute of the privileged who enjoy two very different versions of reality.

I did not dedicate my life to the poor, the sick, the needy.  But because of early training from my activist mother I have a deep appreciation of what it means to care about our public.  The public is us – all of us.  This vaccine law that just passed in California doesn’t protect my kids, vaccines already protect them.  This law protects us.

Six months of intense work culminated in two days of excitement.  I had the honor of being there to greet Senators Pan and Allen as they exited the final Senate vote on Monday.  And then Tuesday morning as I was taping  signs on boxes of letters of support I heard news that the Governor had signed the bill as soon as it had hit his desk.  I cried with relief, hugged the first person I saw and trembling, shared a photo of us holding the faxed letter to our team.  Reason had won.

In support of the bill, a group of parents and grandparents organically developed to become Vaccinate California, co-sponsor of the legislation. At the core of this group are some amazing humans I can now call my friends: a pediatric oncology nurse, attorneys, a law professor, an autism advocate, a Spanish teacher, school nurses, an immunologist, a pediatric trauma doc, delegates, scientists, a software developer, science teachers, mothers of medically fragile children, a school administrator, an actor, a filmmaker, writers, myself a designer. It was like the UN of diverse intellectual achievement.* If you doubt the authenticity  of this bill’s public support in it’s passage I can tell you it had broad and diverse support.  Yes we had impressive endorsements by entities, but it was the individuals who signed up to help pass this law who were most impressive to me.  Not one of these people I am referring to benefits financially from this work, yet poured hours of priceless time and energy into grassroots organizing to try to make this state safer for all, especially the most vulnerable.  I have learned immensely from these people and hundreds of others who have communicated with us over the course of this project.  I learned about science, the law, government, politics, social media, organizing, psychology, ethics.  What I learned most was the power of collaboration, having a shared sense of purpose, and the value of remaining positive and civil and focused.

I also had the honor of meeting the Senators and Assemblymembers who authored this bill and the staffers – a special breed of people who juggle labyrinthine schedules, their own babies, a nonstop stream of unpredictability, and in the case of this bill a torrent of both inquiring and assaulting phone calls. Good smart people are running this state.

Whatever your position is on the topic (there are two) I will say this:  our political process is intact. Tens of thousands of Californians spoke up to protect public health by ensuring all schools are equally protected against certain diseases, a bill was drafted, vetted through four legislative committees with more testimony than any other bill in recent history, voted on seven times, and signed by the governor.

A Libertarian will never see this law as a good thing.  I understand, but I’m not Libertarian.  I see government working for us, with limitations and with our help. I want our taxes to pay for the safest roads, the cleanest water, the clearest air, the best schools and healthcare, the fairest society, the strictest gun control, and the cleanest bill of public health. I will never say that is too much to ask.  I am happy to say I have met lawmakers who have the conviction and smarts to work toward these goals.  We do need laws to govern and protect and this is one of them.

Throughout this project I have been constantly reminded that there are other pressing causes besides vaccines. I feel much more strongly, for instance, about racial discrimination and educational parity than immunization law, but I did not have a clear role to play in those issues at the time.  This cause arrived on my doorstep in Napa because of the peculiar community I found myself in with a newborn and kids at school: one in which I initially felt akin but then discovered to be science skeptical, vaccine averse, and disease vulnerable. The pro vaccine voices were there, but they were silent.

During the final hearing on the bill in the Assembly Health committee after testimony in which I spoke, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a vociferous supporter of this bill, was emphatically stating the public health reasons for this policy change.  I was sitting in the front with my 2 year old in my lap when a woman from the opposition stood up behind us and began screaming and waving her arms.  It was a frightening and chaotic few moments while the sergeants removed her.  In the mayhem as MJ clutched my neck in fear, the only thing I made out from the woman’s howling rant was “My child is more important than yours Gonzalez!!”

A kid just died from Diphtheria in Spain.  His parents didn’t vaccinate because they believed vaccines were dangerous and now they are both angry and mourning the unnecessary loss of their child. That child was also important, but no more or less.

I hope now that this law has passed more people like me feel empowered to speak up in favor of vaccines; not to start an argument but to make the matter of fact statements: “Yes, I vaccinate my kids.  It’s important for their health and the health of others around them. Yes schools should require vaccines just like they ban guns, smoking, and foods that could cause a deadly reaction in allergic kids.”

Legislation is a collaborative process.  Questions that were raised at the very beginning about homeschool options and medical exemptions, two of the primary concerns I heard after the bill was introduced, were explored in committee and articulated in amendments.  But those clarifications of language were not acknowledged as such by the opposition. What we still hear is this: vaccines are bad, this law is bad, everyone who supported it is bad.

I did not create this problem or seek to be divisive by speaking up.  I offered my voice as a parent, provided my skills as a designer, and my passion as a children’s health advocate to the coalition of many working toward this solution. I do hope more vaccine skeptical parents take a second objective look at the facts,** ask questions of actual experts in medicine, open their minds to the possibility that vaccines are a safe and reasonable requirement to participate in school.

*The biggest debt of gratitude I have is for the leadership and friendship of the brilliant, patient, compassionate, tireless, and fierce Leah Russin.

*Some good resources for questions on vaccine science are:

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Vaccine Education Center
Vince Ianelli, MD’s list of vaccine references
The Vaccine Page on Facebook:  provides respectful support for parents and others wanting to learn about vaccines
Warning: Do not rely on NVIC, as it is the biggest mouthpiece for the anti-vaccine movement, consistently disseminating counter-factual and deceptive material. The name is misleading.

Information about the law can be found here.

A Herd of Vulnerability


There’s a measles outbreak in California that took flight at Disneyland this month. It  frankly sounds benign to those of us who have never encountered the disease.  But before a vaccine was introduced in 1963, 4 million people a year were infected. Hundreds died annually and thousands were permanently disabled.

Minds don’t get changed by argument or data or science. Minds are changed by direct personal experience with a traumatic event. I was aware of the science and politics around vaccinations only when I became a mother thirteen years ago. The first conversation I had was with Dr. Granader, a seasoned pediatrician working at St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco. While I held my hours-old baby in the standard issue newborn blanket, he answered our questions about the risks of shots. He said vaccine refusals were a new trend that had been troubling him. He told us side effects are a miniscule risk whereas the diseases they protect our children from are horrific. When he did his residency it was before the pneumococcal vaccine had been introduced. Children came into the ER and never left or if they did, their lives and brains were permanently damaged. And then the vaccine was introduced and the cases stopped.  He said as a doctor he wasn’t in the business of performing miracles but he had seen how a new vaccine can indeed be miraculous. He gently told us he had decided to stop taking patients who used the personal belief exemption. He had known the before and the after and would never forget the lives lost.

The California Department of Public Health tracks the vaccination rates for all schools, public and private, in the state. I knew anecdotally that our kids’ school had a lower than average rate of vaccinated kids but my children were up to date with their shots and not at risk. Then I became pregnant and suddenly this information took on new and perilous meaning. When I looked up the school’s rates I was surprised to find our immunization rate wasn’t just low, it was below the level that provides societal protection, called the “herd effect”. This is the immunity that a vaccinated public provides those people who cannot be immunized: babies, immune-compromised, chemo patients, etc. Some diseases are more contagious than others and there is no perfect target percentage. But in general, herd immunity is in effect when over 80% of the population is immunized.

The most recent report shows the rate of personal belief exemptions in California has doubled in the past 7 years from 1.5% to 3%. But what this statistic doesn’t show is those un-vaccinated children are not distributed across the state. The increase is concentrated – highly –  in groups like the close-knit community where my kids go to school.

When I drill down into the publicly accessible data on the California Department of Public Health’s website it’s the religious schools and the Waldorf schools – public and private – that show the increase. At my kids’ school, the rate of exemptions for personal belief (a form parents can fill out instead of submitting a vaccination card) went from 23% in 2007 to 51% in 2014.   On the other hand, our neighborhood public elementary school (where we would go if we hadn’t gotten into the charter school), has a 1% personal belief exemption this year. There is one child in 114 kindergartners whose parents signed a personal belief exemption. At my kids’ school the number is 21 kindergartners out of 41 enrolled and the number increases every year.

In January 2013,  legislation was passed requiring personal belief exemptions to be signed by a health practitioner. Parents have to confirm they were counseled by a healthcare worker on the risks of their choice. Previously, only the parents signature was required. Our Deputy Health Director, Dr. Karen Smith, told me last year she hoped this change to the law would result in reducing the number of exemptions. Since the law changed, however, our school’s rate of exemptions jumped 14%.

Ironically,  as we cluster more in like-minded circles like charter schools where our belief systems are reinforced, we make ourselves more vulnerable. It becomes as normal to do the exemption as it is normal to vaccinate elsewhere. We support each other in finding health practitioners sympathetic to our beliefs. And as our world narrows to this tiny public school with a very specific ideology, we begin to forget the role we play, biologically, in the larger public.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in the United States at a time when safe drinking water, clean air, highway safety are all ordinary features of daily life. Regulations imposed by the legislative process have made this so.

What is more American: the freedom to opt-out of public health in favor of private belief? Or the freedom to send your kids to public school without fearing for their exposure to a deadly, vaccine-preventable disease? Don’t schools – particularly public schools – bear a responsibility for educating parents and protecting their students?

We are all doing the best we can with our kids with an overwhelming amount of information.  What school is best for our child, what books, what medicine, what kind of discipline. And every family has their own protocol for maintaining good health: vitamins, exercise, organic food, alternative or mainstream doctors.  But these are personal choices pertaining to private health (and luxuries many can’t afford). Vaccinating our children is about participating in public health.

To the parents who opted out of vaccines this year: please re-consider your decision.  At least get your child vaccinated for those diseases which pose the greatest risk to the weak in society.

We are a healthier public because of the advances in medicine, not despite them. This is a good time to be alive and raising children.  But as Michael Specter says in his book, Denialism: “Prevention is invisible…Nobody celebrates when they avoid an illness they never expected to get.” I hope this Measles outbreak serves as a warning and this wave of vaccination denials wanes because of the triumph of reason and not tragedy.


Crack in my Consciousness

Epicenter of the Napa earthquake 2014.

Epicenter of the Napa earthquake 2014 – at my kids’ school taken by Fiona Medaris

Update: We are OK! Just sweeping, mopping, putting stuff back on shelves, throwing crap furniture away, trying to remember how to sleep dreamlessly.

When I was a kid, in Connecticut, I would lie awake planning for disasters: tornado, hurricane, lightening storm, flood, tsunami, earthquake.  Eventually, I had a defense strategy for each path of natural destruction.  Tornadoes were easy – the manual is written in the Wizard of Oz: run to the cellar.  Hurricanes the same, but use lots of masking tape on windows and keep an eye out for flooding (see flood danger for more info).  Lightening storm protection involves the use of a lightening rod on the roof, and avoid bodies of water larger than a dixie cup as soon as you hear thunder. Flood danger: have a boat at the ready.  Tsunami: surf it out.  And then there is earthquake.  This one worried me the most.  How do you escape a shaking planet?  I settled on grabbing my two favorite stuffed animals – a Le Mutt dog and a raccoon, and running outside to leap over the cracks as they opened into small canyons in my backyard, being sure to protect my head from falling trees and bicycles at all times.  Of course this never happened.  As I grew into adolescence and beyond, I remained somewhat cautious, but got over my more outrageous weather phobias, especially since thunderstorms were just the stuff of summer and the hurricanes I encountered never amounted to more than broken branches and excited weather reporters.  Otherwise, planetary weather events seemed to happen in exotic states far, far away and I became lulled by the safety of my part of the world.   Then I moved to California.  It was five years after Loma Prieta and 20 years to the month before I woke myself by screaming for the first time in my life.

I was dreaming that I was sitting in my bed and my body was in some kind of extreme danger. As my conscious brain was sound asleep, my primal brain did all the explaining, in a loud desperate wail to wake the fuck up. The bed was a boat in a terrible but dry and airless storm, rocking and shaking while glass broke and heavy things fell and voices shouted in the distance. Then the voice was so close, it was a loud howl from my own throat and my husband was shushing me and it wasn’t a dream.  But it was dark, all deep night dark and we were hurtling into uncertain rubble to find the children.

I think the shaking had stopped by then but I don’t know.  We stepped with blind confidence into the girls’ room, my husband ahead of me.  I remember sweeping my arms around me asking if he had the baby, and Helen, our ten year-old.  He said yes more than once.  I was confused, still not really awake even, just moving toward my children somehow.  I said I would get Henry in the adjoining room.  But as I felt toward the door, I could feel the shape of the piece of shit IKEA wardrobe obstructing my path.  It took an effort that seemed eternal to sort out which way to hoist the thing upright to free the door, while calling him with my (calm and reassuring?) trembling voice.

I finally understand now the significance of  the amygdala, the almond sized portion of our brain called the fear center.   What I encountered was an idiotic argument between the attempted rationality of my cortex (still sleeping) and my fear manager, the amygdala.  I have been aware of the heightened alertness in the presence of perceived danger in various situations over my lifetime.  But never before had I felt like there was an autopilot function in my body that could make the right decisions.  Yell for help. Fetch your children.  Flee to safety.  Don’t flail and vacillate.  I did all of the above.

Once I had removed the barricade, reached my preternaturally calm son, and assured myself for the fifth time that Michael had the others, we found ourselves finally outside, assessing our needs: turn off gas, find flashlight, get pants, pee, sweatshirt, shoes, keys, fetch the last child (at a friend’s), re-assess.  And I had the now absurd worry of looting and water supply.  We got Frances after a short drive through the lightless streets, surprised at how many of us chose to drive at 3:30am, 10 minutes after the biggest event of our lives.  I couldn’t remember if the car is a good place to be at such a time.

With all four kids in our midst, safe and mostly calm, we could face the strange night.  We prepared for aftershocks, and knowing the house was a disaster zone of some unknown description, decided to camp out on the back deck.  I dragged pillows and blankets and a toddler mattress into a tiny formation of comfort that held us for several hours.  Some of us slept.  Oddly, I had no fear for myself, just a powerful need to be with and protect the clan.  Listen to them breathe, be on the look-out for falling meteorites or other debris. Henry and I mostly lay awake – he excited, I alert.  The quiet was deep as it is when the hum of so many devices is suddenly hushed.  But then that quiet made the punctuations that much more invasive.  A transformer burst and fizzed, lighting up our yard, sirens screamed at long spaced intervals, an obscenely loud mosquito sang in every ear.  And then the helicopters began.

At this point we had heard from family in London that the epicenter was near and the magnitude was 6.0 at least.  I lay there thinking of what daylight would reveal, how like in scary movies daytime brings relief from the worst, I began to long for the sun to rise.  And as it did, more helicopters came, texts began buzzing in our pockets from east coast family.  And we embarked on the clean up phase.

Most of damage is chimneys, dishes, many bottles and barrels of wine.  A 13 year old boy remains in serious condition.  Historic buildings downtown are in shambles.  This does not rate on the scale of disasters worldwide.  We were lucky – it happened in the dead of night.  Our infrastructure is intact.  The city is full of fire engines from the whole Bay Area.  We are well taken care of and boring them with our short list of emergencies at this point.  But I know this quake has altered the attitude of many in our complacent world that the earth can somehow can be gotten.  It can’t.  We are riding on an ocean of unknown currents.  Build as many castles as you please, but they may come slipping, tumbling down without warning or explanation.


violinFailing, it turns out, is a good way to understand learning. This fall I took a dozen practice tests for the GRE hoping to apply to graduate programs. But after repeatedly bombing the most basic questions, even after review, I realized that I couldn’t make up for 11 years of bad or missing math in the space of five weeks. Motivated yes, but I was surprised to discover I am slow, thick, and draw blanks under stress.

What causes me to fade away in the face of new math concepts (or old ones I have forgotten)? I have plenty of potential culprits: a highly distracting household, not enough sleep, and of course lack of adequate time. It could also be a diminishing brought on by age, or due to an over-production of hormones from repeated childbirth. Whatever the reasons, I know freshly, first hand, what it feels like to think I have digested a concept only to feel queasy with emptiness when asked to prove it. I know what it’s like to have someone explain something again and again, slowly and reasonably, and finally still not understanding, I give up asking.

I am an adult at the beginning of middle age. Given the right lessons and enough time to study, I know I would make it. But without this “presumed competence” I am left to feel stupid and stuck.

There is a big difference between feeling challenged and feeling like a failure. How does a teacher find the sweet spot where the most advanced students feel what it’s like to fail and the greatest strugglers get to rise to the challenge no one thought they could reach?  I’m beginning to think this could happen even if these students are allowed to remain in the same room.

My eighteen month old can pretend to read, spin till she’s dizzy, and follow simple directions that take her around the house (good fun on a lazy Sunday). For a baby, we think she is remarkable. But she calls my husband “Momma” and otherwise still relies on grunting to communicate. Is this a problem? No. As a wee one, she is given the wide berth of infant development. In babies we are charting progress that can’t be rushed any more than wintertime or a head cold. We presume her ability, pointing forward with our expectations at whatever pace her body sets. How different would this baby look if we presumed the opposite?

My sixth grader can play a few minuets on the violin, knit a sock, build a balsa wood model airplane. But simple math equations can still stump him. Is this a problem? Most certainly yes.

The range of acceptable development slams down from a wide breezeway in infancy to a mere sliver once the kids start school. And if your child falls outside the norm, this is usually where the trouble begins. And even with the best intentions, when trouble begins, expectations often end.

The systems that have been built over generations to teach the basics work only most of the time. When problems show up, like my son’s math challenge, the teacher will try to adjust, but if it’s too extreme, the student is removed to be taught elsewhere. If the special teacher is great and the methods are well tuned to the child, removal could be a good solution. But in so many cases the strategies for handling these learning differences don’t bring the students closer to grade level. At times, for my son, “the resource room”  has felt like a holding cell of learning.

I do not blame the teachers . We are lucky to have an exceptional teacher who advocates for my son like a parent. The problem is a broader one: how most mainstream and special ed teachers are taught to look at and respond to learning differences. “We are in the midst of a swelling torrent of knowledge about learning,” according to cognitive neuroscientist, Torkel Klingberg. But the application of this knowledge into teaching methods lags far behind the research. Many of the teachers I have talked to – resource and mainstream – are also frustrated by this disconnect.

Insanely, identifying your child as having a disability is the only way to insure accountability and create an infrastructure of support in public schools in California. The concept is a progressive one: measure the child against a rubric of his own abilities, not against the larger group. Shield him from competition and failure while building skills at a foundational level. But what if this progressive methodology were turned around and applied in the whole classroom instead of reserved for the special, failing few?  Is there a way to change the fundamental dynamic so that a broader range of learners can flourish in the same setting?

In a suburb of Chicago, a school  district transformed their physical education program by changing expectations and dispersing the rat race. Every child received their own heart rate monitor which they used to chart their progress and set their individual goals. They increased the amount of recess from 30 minutes a week to 45 minutes a day. The results were dramatic in both physical fitness and academic performance.

The Individualized Education Plan was established after the American Disabilities Reformation Act of 1973 was passed. Under this law, children with identified disabilities were given the right to an equal education. Schools are required to develop a plan to address the specific needs of a student and record progress toward educational goals. This was hugely important legislation, finally making education possible for blind, deaf, physically or mentally impaired children who otherwise would have been shunted to institutions or silenced by lack of access. We have ramps, handicap accessible bathrooms, professional aides in classrooms all because of this act and the specific definitions of disability.

But in the case of learning disabilities, the definitions can be somewhat nebulous. I work with a small group of students from my son’s class, all bright, articulate, engaged kids from loving, healthy families. Though I only see them once a week on a volunteer basis, I can tell they are absorbing the material I am giving them. They are clearly kids who learn in a different way and at a different pace from the rest of their class. But the label of disability for all of these kids, including my son, seems misplaced. Yet they all have IEP’s with math and other learning problems. They are kids for whom the teaching strategies so far have not worked. But because they don’t fit in with the other twenty-seven kids, they have been removed.*

A close friend in high school dropped out the day she turned 16. That was a few months after she was first identified with dyslexia. She had joked and charmed her way through ten years of school never learning to read with fluency. If her dyslexia had been identified in 2nd grade, how different would her educational outcome have been? Andrew Solomon, talking about his dyslexia, credits his mother’s incredible feat of intensive homegrown therapy for allowing him to overcome his disability enough to become a successful writer. Identifying an issue is important. But only if a valid plan is in place for helping resolve the deficit. Andrew Solomon’s mother had goal in mind and a plan in place for getting her son what he needed.  Unfortunately, his unique intervention story is impossible to institutionalize.

The conundrum of disability is how one’s identity becomes inextricably linked to a fault, forever resigned to a status as “other.” For many deaf people, the lack of hearing ability is seen as an identifying characteristic to be celebrated, not a problem to be mourned or solved. But if the deaf activists get their way and no longer are considered disabled, just different, they lose the protection of the ADA. In this case, to discard the definition of disability is to lose the chance of help.

A huge hole I glimpsed a few years into my son’s IEP was the lack of “resources” in the resource department. When my son was identified as having serious issues with math, I asked for a teacher or therapist with math related learning expertise. They had none. I asked what program he would be put on to rise to grade level, and I was told they had no program in mind. In the IEP process a great deal of effort is put into writing up goals and assessing kids, but proven strategies for actually meeting those goals don’t necessarily exist.

One way around this problem is to radically expand the definition of normal. For the first hundred years of public education, kids were taught in multi-age classrooms. I wonder if this kind of mix could allow for the natural variance in abilities to be better accommodated than the typical age construct in which we currently live and learn. Obviously this kind of radical change is unrealistic, but somehow we must look straight at the question of where ability ends and disability begins.

I have noticed that the more I “presume competence,” the more likely my son is to rise to the task. There will be disappointment too. But what is comforting about someone living down to your lowest expectation? Disability is a pernicious assessment of a person. Not because it is false, but because it is, in a word, disabling. In order to make real progress with struggling kids, the paradigm has to be turned inside out.

One reason my son still plays violin after most of his class quit is due to the fact that I played it for nine years when I was a child. I am no musician, but I am just proficient enough to guide him through his pieces, give him bits of theory, and mostly tell him when he is horribly flat or holding the instrument like a barbell. This may seem like minor stuff, but it has made the difference in his ability to keep going. He wants to do it because it’s hard. He’s able to do it because there is help in reach. This is a kid who couldn’t play the recorder with his class, who couldn’t keep up with bean bag rhythm games. He had occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy for auditory processing. How could he possibly play this unforgiving instrument requiring fine and gross motor coordination and precise auditory feedback? It’s not about natural ability. Two year-olds can play the violin. It’s about desire, expectations, instruction, and commitment. At first, the class would carry him along when they played. Now they have mostly given up and he is left standing, playing better every week, needing my help rarely. Every time he picks up the instrument and someone says a positive thing about his ability, he is driven to do more, practice harder, make beautiful music. He is doing something a lot of people can do better, but most people can’t do at all. What matters more is that he used to be unable to play and now he can. This is success, like the heart rate monitors that pushed kids to push against their own limits for their own goals.

I want to see my son and his peers in the math group join the larger class again, not because their test score are suddenly higher, but because the class is forced to embrace a broader spectrum of learners. I’m not suggesting we go back to the days when disabilities and learning differences were ignored and children who could have gone on to great success went without services, often failing out of school. We should still identify learning challenges for what they are. But then we must offer strategic, proven interventions while letting the child continue to participate in her learning community as much as possible.  And the learning goals need to be fiercely held to with the commitment and confidence of Andrew Solomon’s mother.

*I just learned that one of the students in this group had a terrible time in the regular math class last year and her confidence has gone way up after being removed. Clearly, removal can be positive. But still pull-outs need to be goal oriented, which they are on paper, but not in practice.

Recommended reading (books that inspired this post)

Far From the Tree  Solomon, Andrew. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner, 2012. Print.

The Learning Brain  Klingberg, Torkel. The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Proust and the Squid   Wolf, Maryanne, and Catherine J. Stoodley. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.



Shooting zombies for homework

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and…play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”  – Mark Twain from Tom Sawyer

The head of the video game giant Capcom, Kenzo Tsujimoto, owns a great swath of land in Napa.  My husband worked for him for a while, though he hardly interacted with him directly, and always through an interpreter.  But on one occasion, Kenzo happened to be nearby as Michael emerged from his old, trundling diesel Mercedes.  He peered from beneath his white straw hat at the carseats packed in the back and the man who had made a billion dollars on Streetfighter said in firm, accented English, “Don’t let your children play video games.”  Why?  What did he know?  Michael didn’t ask, but assured him our children were well protected. We had long before decided that although we let them watch the occasional movie, video games would not be part of their media diet.

We have invoked this story as needed over the years as the best defense against our critics, mostly other parents who insist we are Luddites, sheltering our children from contemporary culture. But here we had a message from on high:  the head of one of the biggest gaming companies in the world knows with absolute certainty that the stuff he’s feeding our children, if they can get their hands on it, is some kind of terrible, brain damaging junk.  Or is it? New research says that Kenzo may have it wrong.

In 2001 Daphne Bavelier, a researcher at The University of Rochester was developing a simple test for vision in the hearing impaired.  She was confused to find that her graduate student and all of his friends scored wildly high on the test while Bavelier showed average results. Was this a statistically rare pod of geniuses?  No, the skill difference turned out to be the result of logging many hours playing video games.  The troubling part for parents is that the games they were into are the kind that even the most techno-indulgent find abhorrent for children.

Piles of research and anecdotal accounts show that violent video games have a negative impact on behavior.  And in my circles in liberal, neo-hippie Northern California, this is a popular position.  But these findings are not so clear-cut.  There is no link, for example, between violent video game play and actual violent crime.  And when the child has positive influences, including parental involvement, and strict boundaries, the differences in behavior largely disappear.  On the other hand, it turns out that intense, violent games do profoundly impact our ability to learn.

The effect covers various regions of the brain, a phenomenon chased by education specialists called, “far transfer.”  The gamers don’t just become better at shooting their target, they become better at just about everything related to learning.

Attention is the beating heart of education.  Without it, the brain is like a radio station between signals.  Ironically, video games are often on the list of culprits in the epidemic of attention disorders. But I wonder if by lumping dissimilar activities into one category of offenders we lose the picture of what is actually affecting us for good and bad.

In terms of attention, it is likely the way we engage with media that has an ill effect on our executive function. Watching videos while texting; updating Facebook while emails plink in may feel like benign multi-tasking, but, according to neuropsychologists, it’s actually exhausting us. The brain has no downtime in this scenario.  Even keeping the background visible on my monitor as I type, taxes my mental process, taking energy away from the sentence at hand.   When attending to multiple streams of information, the brain has no opportunity to deeply engage in any one activity where understanding develops.

In his book, The Shallows, Nick Carr makes a case against our current culture of the Internet and multi-tasking.  “With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast.  Our little thimble (working memory) overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next.” He compares this to reading a book, a potentially absorbing activity where information has a chance to drip in a constant single stream, where long-term memories have the chance to be forged.  In a single shooter video game you can do nothing but defend and survive your way to the next level.  It is one form of entertainment that, like that rare good book, is utterly immersive.  Not all games are created equal, however, and the most blatantly terrible ones may be the most compelling for our brains.

Throughout single person shooter games, the user is constantly re-orienting herself in space; paying close attention to an ever-changing situation and looking for clues to make her next move.  The heart is pumping blood to the brain, adrenaline is emitted keeping the user alert, dopamine and epinephrine release feelings of pride and happiness as the enemy is vanquished.  As a result, according to Bavelier, vision, spatial judgment, response time, hand-eye coordination and most importantly,  attention all improve.   These positive effects can take a few sessions to be realized and remain for months, possibly much longer.

In one study, high school age gamers out-performed surgical residents in a mock laparoscopic surgery.  A number of other studies have repeated this finding that accuracy in laparoscopic surgery is more closely associated with the amount of time the doctor has spent with a gaming console rather than in actual surgeries.  So video games are the ideal training environment for hand-eye coordination in a virtual environment.  But how are these visual attention skills relevant to the average person?

Staying focused on safely navigating a steel and aluminum beast is a huge and perilous task for the mind. The radio is playing, the kids are caroling in the back,  the phone rings at us through a hands-free device as we hurtle a 4,000 lb. machine at sixty miles per hour.  In 11 million accidents last year in the U.S., 33,000 lives were lost.  I recently took a mind-numbing drivers education course after getting pinged for not regarding my speedometer before the policewoman did.  I wasn’t even late not late, I was just spacing out.  After finishing the ten hours or so of instruction and testing to keep points from my record, I am no smarter.  I am humbled by the $300 ticket, but I doubt I am a safer driver because I briefly memorized and promptly forgot how many feet of braking distance is required in fog.  Yet what if I had been required to play an action video game instead of click on multiple-choice questions?

Distinguishing gradations of grey, holding on to several pieces of information at once, focusing, are all characteristics of good drivers.  I’d like to know the gaming habits of my surgeon, but since this relationship may never come to pass, a statistically more pressing concern is other drivers on the road.  I can see a future where gaming is a necessary component of safety training.

What about education? In a study by Christopher Sanchez that demonstrated the far transfer effect of gaming (also quoted in the SciMind article where I first encountered Bavelier’s work), he took two groups of students and gave them a lecture on something they previously knew nothing about: plate tectonics.  One group was given a competitive spelling game before the lecture.  The second group was given a single shooter video game to play.  When they were asked to write an essay on the lecture, the action gaming group scored higher in retention of facts and the ability to make connections to the material.  They also did better on a spatial reasoning test.  In another study, he demonstrated how the spatial reasoning gender gap was closed by giving girls the same exposure to action video games as boys.   Spatial attention and the ability to mentally rotate objects have been linked to ability in science and math.   This implies that we could potentially close the science and math gender gap with video game training.

The surprise factor of these findings reveals how little we understand about the ways new technologies affect us.  What I like is that they are optimistic discoveries.  Our brains are malleable and gaming technology is powerful.

Right now there is a plethora of programs that claim to upgrade our brains.  But experts remain skeptical about the benefits for the broader public.  In the arena of therapeutic interventions, it’s a different story.

Though we generally shun the screen as our kids’ entertainment source in my house, we have pursued some screen-based therapies for our 11 year old son. He struggles academically with auditory processing and more recently identified, a working memory deficit.  His teacher reported that H couldn’t remember multi-step instructions, do long division, organize his workspace, or keep track of the rules of a game.  None of this was a huge surprise, but the concern was amplified by the realization that remediation attempts were not sticking.

While looking for programs to address math learning disability, I landed on one designed specifically for working memory, called Cogmed.  Developed by the Swedish neuroscientist,  Torkel Klingberg (also author of  The Overflowing Brain and The Learning Brain) it is the only program I found with a solid research basis, including a double blind study – the gold standard in scientific research.  It also has the biggest price tag and requires clinical oversight.  I didn’t want to make H’s brain into a test kitchen for brain apps, and did want to tackle what suddenly appeared to be a tamable beast, so we took it on.

The results for H were good.  His ability to hold on to information and to recall both got noticeably better.  He quoted a line from a play he had seen a day earlier.  He’d never quoted anything, ever before.  Though he would emerge from the therapy in a brief grizzly fog, his overall mood mellowed and matured.  The neuropsychologist who supervised his therapy told me that before Cogmed she had little to offer her patients who suffered from working memory disorders.  Now, she claims, it fixes these people.

Good working memory allows us to dial phone numbers, read with comprehension, organize, plan, follow driving directions, along with just about every task you can think of. It is the brain’s way station where  information is held until it serves its purpose or is discarded. Poor working memory is like an emergency room with one bed that handles patients on a first come first serve basis: you might die waiting. A person with bad working memory may seem disorganized, easily distracted, or unable to follow instructions, characteristics of ADD. Until recently it was thought that one’s capacity was relatively fixed.  But even in the elderly, working memory can be improved.

Though we saw a change for the better, I would not say Cogmed fixed my son’s deficit.  The effects are supposed to be permanent.  In my son, as far as I can tell, the most dramatic changes seem to be fading after just a few weeks.  Since I don’t want to subject him to a daily test, I have to rely on my gut when it comes to his abilities.  How many times did he forget his lunch this week?  Did he play games at recess or run off frustrated?

One of the games requires recalling the locations of red dots as they move around a circle.  Another task is a series of numbers which you must repeat, backwards.  The exercises get progressively harder as you achieve more, and ratchet back if you miss a few.  The games are challenging, but the truly unfortunate aspect of Cogmed is that they are excruciatingly boring.  They even provide a printed chart to manually mark progress  since the exercises are not compelling in themselves.    In her breathless manifesto on how gaming will change the world, Jane McGonigal says, “Games developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work.”  Yet when a poorly designed game misses this key, motivational piece, it’s not a game at all, it’s drudgery.

As Gabe Zicherman says in Gamification by Design, “…once teachers and parents got involved (in game design), they systematically extracted the fun…Kids could smell that shift from fun to work a mile away.” The success of the Cogmed program, despite its rudimentary game design, is a testament to the power of this activity on brain function even without a compelling visual or narrative framework.  Imagine the deep response when this kind of brain therapy tool is paired with a truly gifted designer.  I’d be bribing H. to stop, not start.

The thought of my kid blowing up virtual victims in the name of cognitive therapy goes against my most closely held principles of parenting and education.  But as I recover from mental whiplash, I am reckoning with the benefits of such an approach. Bavelier and others are working with game developers to try to maximize the benefits of gaming while minimizing the brutal violence.  And I expect Cogmed is working to improve the appeal of their beeping robot.  But that future may still be years away.   In the meantime, I think my son will be pleased to put therapeutic interventions aside and take up some good, bloodthirsty, gameplay. If I am reading Bavelier’s research correctly, and a $60 game is capable of affecting the same brain regions as Cogmed, I’m ready to take the plunge, guns and all.

I’m happy to report to Kenzo that we will be disobeying his orders because despite Capcom’s best efforts, his games may actually be doing some good.

some of the materials that informed this post:
Lydia Denworth Brain Changing Games, SciMind, January 2013
Daphne Bavelier on TED
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
Gamification by Design by Gabe Zichermann

8×13 = 104

How do I know this?  It’s a picture I was asked to tack to a spot in my mind over and over until it stuck.  Now that three digit number lives on a skinny black platform right above 117 and right below 91.  If I had learned my 7’s 8’s and 9’s  this way, who knows where I’d be now?

9 Lines

I never got past my sixes in multiplication.  I couldn’t bear the tedium.  I had a way of counting on my fingers by pressing them imperceptibly against my scalp as I crouched over my work.  I was an excellent student, but secretly a math dum-dum. The thing with math skills is that if you’re reasonably competent in other areas, you can slide by with various crutches  – until you can’t.  For me, that point was freshman algebra, when math finally became interesting and I began failing.  I loved the introduction of letters, the symmetry of equations, the process of simplifying.  I understood the concepts but I got too many details wrong.  Since I didn’t know in my bones what 6 times 8 was, I couldn’t recognize when my calculations were going awry.  Jacob, always my equal in school shot past me to Physics and pre-Calculus.  I skipped off to France.

Not “getting” math didn’t ruin my chances for higher education. Writing got me through what I needed.  Also, our culture seems to expect most kids to do poorly in math, especially the girls.  But my math handicap did neatly remove the possibility of pursuing anything outside the arts.  I bring my own experience up only to highlight the conflict in our culture and the absence of a strategy in our educational system.  Certainly our standards have been raised since I went to an infamously failing public school system thirty years ago.  But the strategies for meeting those standards are missing.  Especially when it comes to math.

As every parent of a third grader knows, though the teaching of concepts happens at school, the sweat and struggle involved in memorizing the multiplication facts is left to the parents.  And last I checked, we are not the most qualified bunch of number drillers.

I tried everything with my son: flashcards (store-bought and handmade), beans, songs, dances, games, bribes, star charts, computer programs, verbal drilling, all resulting in good old fashioned sighs of disappointment and frustration.  I was grasping and failing.  By third grade we knew our son had a learning disability, further complicating matters.  His processing is slower than typical kids, his working memory is challenged, but otherwise we don’t have a “diagnosis” of his difficulty.  And it’s not like he was left to his own devices.  His teacher had him pulled out for one on one instruction in math since the class was on entirely different material.  His tutor was devoted, creative, resourceful.  But after a year of this attentive instruction, he was stuck in a loop of forgetting.  He’s in the fifth grade still doing 2nd grade work.

I began to ask what, beyond re-mediating, could be done for his math?  What is out there to help kids who don’t get numbers?  I asked every therapist, teacher, and special education person I could find.  No one had an answer, beyond IXL or Khan Academy (yes, I know of these) How we learn math, it turns out, is little understood.  In a follow-up meeting with the head of special education curriculum for our district, I was told “Math just hasn’t been a priority in the past ten years.”

Returning to the image in my brain of a house with nine rooms where 13, 26, 39, 52, 65, 78, 91, 104, 117 live, I have found the answer.  David Berg, Ed. has developed powerful math pedagogy that has the potential to reach every kind of math learner.  Instead of creating a curriculum, he started the Making Math Real Institute where he and Michael Curry, his associate director, teach teachers, resource specialists, and thankfully, parents, how to teach math.  The strategy I learned for memorizing times facts is just one aspect of the program, but an important one, called “Nine Lines.”  As with every part of Making Math Real, it’s based on sound cognitive neuroscience research about brain functioning.  It reminds me of the “Memory Palace” technique used in Ancient Greece.  I will not attempt to address the science of Making Math Real in this post, but essentially, Nine Lines optimizes our ability to “image” information in a specific location.

I tried out the technique on my two daughters, both pretty typical learners, and they got it.  Now my fourth grade daughter asks for more every few days as she ratchets through her times facts.  She feels empowered, she tells me.  She’s learned a way to remember.  Then I tried it on my son.  He made more mistakes than the girls did, but he too found the images of the numbers were fixed where we had tacked them in his brain.  Most importantly, he enjoyed the exercise.  He felt smart in a way he rarely does.

The different brain (disabled, slow, fast, injured, genius) is a good place to learn about the typical brain.  I have learned so much more about my typical self and my typical kids from the therapists, special ed teachers who have worked with our special needs son.  Because, of course, none of us fit quite perfectly into the system.  I have found something that is going to give my son the best chance of re-joining his classroom by middle school and doing what he wants in life.  And I am confident this approach will give my daughters a different outlook on their own intelligence as well.  Face it, math skills are at the root of what we all call, “smartness.”  And our country ranks 25th in the world for math.  Arne Duncan should know David Berg.

Meltdown Mountain

Why do kids hate to hike?

Mt. Konocti

Mt. Konocti

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.
– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I recently re-read the book The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl, in which the child’s brain is celebrated as a source and agent of wonder.  The authors reference the Romantic poet William Blake who spent his career trying to regain that naïve curiosity. I do not disagree with their central thesis about the importance of studying brain development.  But faced with the constant experience of my own children, romantic notions of childhood are replaced with frustrating reality.  The young brain may be designed to learn, but not necessarily to care.

I was a reluctant Girl Scout. I found hiking hurt and it bored me. I went along when the activity was foisted upon me, but as a city kid this was thankfully rare.  If I made it to the top of a mountain on a hot, sweaty hike,  all that mattered  was that I could eat my soggy sandwich and return home faster than we came, toes shoving into the tips of my shoes in the hasty path down. The view, to me, was mockery in its yawning stillness – the great anti-climax.

This Christmas, since the kids are of a certain durable age – too old for piggy backs, too young to stay home, we decided to push their endurance and climb Mt. Konocti, a 4,000 foot volcano above Clear Lake in Northern California. We’ve gone on more physically rigorous excursions than this, but for some reason, none so emotionally brutal.

They say the air in Lake County is the cleanest in the country and on a still, cold day, I believe it. The winter chill seems to give increasing clarity with every blink. Though my husband and I felt beckoned by the mountain this afternoon, the kids were moaning their refusal, appreciating nothing but their despair even before we set out. I wondered aloud why the kids were so afflicted by this activity, and to myself, why were we afflicting ourselves with the struggle. Why bring the kids along at all?

I sleep better, I think better when I run on a trail rather than a treadmill. The Japanese have a word for the practice of “bathing in forest air”: shinrin-yoku. A fair amount of research supports this sentiment, particularly for improving executive function, and especially in developing brains (see The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature). So dragging the children along, like forcing the issue of salad with dinner, may sully your peaceful moment, but the struggle has value.

Until this trip I blamed my own childhood allergy to hiking on poor fitness and Depression era parents. They made us walk and city bus it everywhere but there was never an excursion into nature for the sake of it. Leisure time was foreign terminology, like disposable income.

Our kids have grown up differently. They are all sun-drenched, water-soaked Californian, and sufficiently active. Still, there was complaining, yelling, stumbling, reversing, even some rock throwing as we tried to get them up this not very steep mountain. The poor behavior can be blamed in part on the fact that my modern, well-fed children have never seen true hardship (if we had needed to cross the mountain, this would have been a different scene). Still, their fundamental lack of appreciation for the experience was confounding. I was reflective, they were agitated.

We carried on like this, slowly tumbling upward, the day darkening with each bend in the path. And finally, by leaving a couple of children floundering in their misery just in the wake of the peak, we reached the top. And there it was: the view. It was spectacular. We nudged each child over the last hump of difficulty so they could see the full moon, impossibly pink and huge, hovering above the horizon. At our backs, the sun set as its mirror image dressed in orange while the trees  just below us were lit like polished copper. I don’t remember what I exclaimed, but my nine year old rolled her eyes and sighed, “I don’t get why grown ups always have to say how beautiful everything is.” The others murmured agreement.

I’m a photographer. Light is my medium and I watch it wherever I go. And this was the most fantastic display of natural light I had ever seen. Yet to them it was as boring and pointless as the views I had dismissed as a Girl Scout.

Why was my perception as an adult so different? Is this beauty so commonplace to them as Californians that it does not strike them?  Their school (Waldorf methods) teaches reverence from preschool onward. Was this effort backfiring? Or do children of this middle childhood age really not see meaning, beauty, significance like adults?

The child’s entire being is tuned to the future. Their hormones are dedicated to growth, their neural connections are being constantly sculpted in the profoundly active process of learning. Gopnik, Metlzoff, and Kuhl say “The most interesting thing about [babies] is their infinite capacity for wonder.”  But after the brief toddler years (the last time I can remember my children in rapture over a bug or flower) where does that wonder go?  I’m not suggesting children have lost this capacity because of technology or modern life, but that we are looking at it incorrectly.  A child stopping to review the day or a moment is putting a machine on pause for no purpose.  They are all absorption and no reflection.

Now that scientists have the ability to see the living brain through MRI’s, we know, literally, the color of our differences. As our brains develop, grey matter turns white. This is due to the development of a fatty layer around the neurons called the myelin sheath, which doesn’t completely develop in the frontal lobe until our mid-twenties. This coating allows for quicker neural conductivity across longer, broader regions of the brain. It provides for better decision making and stronger impulse control. Actions and consequences are connected by a superhighway in the mature brain. But in the young brain, that super highway hasn’t been built – it’s a tangle of city streets. The sheath aids in drawing connections between concepts, and as more myelin is laid down over the years, it contributes to what we call the “wisdom” of elders. But the paucity of myelin is part of what gives kids that endearing (or maddening) randomness about them.

I have a friend in the design world, John Bielenberg, who celebrates the unmyelinated brain. He believes it makes better designers because the younger set do the wacky and the risky better without the stabilizing influence of mature thinking. He has developed a program called Project M where he brings recent college graduates together to engage in design ventures for the greater good. He says that because they lack all the white matter he has, his young cohorts are better at “thinking wrong” and coming up with more innovative, world-changing designs. The elders, on the other hand, are simply maintaining life, regurgitating ideas, and following well-worn paths.

Maybe it is the white stuff in John’s brain that makes him the old dog unable to generate the creative storms like PieLab and Common Hoops, both of Project M. But it is that same old dog who came up with the idea of bringing these young, un-myelinated brains to the table. If the young are the seeds of Project M, John is the seed-bed. His old brain provides the infrastructure for this project to exist. Focusing on myelin alone in brain development is an oversimplification of a profoundly complex process. But it highlights one important physiological aspect for how we are different beings from our children.

As I stand looking out over the hills of Lake County, I’m bringing together everything I know to regard that moment. The stillness of the rock, trees, and dirt allows my brain to work more efficiently. And despite the family struggles at my feet, I am calm. I am thinking of winters in my childhood, colors in my palette, geography I have seen and read about. My old, white brain drags their young, grey brains here because I know what’s good for them until they do.

I would argue that although I am far more cynical than my 8, 9, and 11 year-old combined, it is the adult brain that has greater capacity for awe.  Children learn without trying and should be given every opportunity to do so.  But next time one of them rolls their eyes as I smell the forest air, I’ll try to remember it doesn’t matter.   It is easy for me to forget how vastly different their minds are from ours. Not because their experiences are different from mine, but because they are simply children, headed forward, not yet looking back.

Entertaining the Plausible

The first post of this blog on parenting, technology, and education was supposed to be a book review. But current events have swept aside such organized meditations and I am compelled to reflect on the moment.

On Friday morning I was in my kitchen in California talking to my sister in Connecticut as we have been doing daily, recently. It is just a year since our mother died, and this loss is still reverberating through our lives, the anniversary bringing the grief in sharper relief. This was the emotional backdrop to my week, and to this brief conversation.  My sister said she would have to call me back because there was screaming in the school where she was doing a practicum. She needed to investigate.

Neither of us had been aware of the news that morning. I was on a crash diet from social media and limiting other news outlets until the evening.  But as I hung up the phone, I began to imagine what that screaming could be. Sounds of gunfire ricocheted around my imagination, images of children choking with terror, teachers trying to engulf the fear with helpless arms. I felt fear for my sister’s safety. I could hear the calls for gun control in Congress and the defensive replies from the NRA that guns don’t kill, deranged people do. I texted my sister to please tell me the screaming was nothing. She wrote back instantly, “Goodness, no! Just a kid throwing a tantrum.” I exhaled and to calm my still rattled nerves, I decided to polish the surfaces of my various devices before settling back into studying. Lifting the lid of the iPad, a NYTimes alert appeared, “Mass shooting at Connecticut elementary school.” Thirty miles from my sister’s school where I had just vividly imagined such a tragedy (5o miles from my home town), an entire classroom of first-graders and their protectors were lying dead, riddled with the bullets of modern warfare from one disturbed young man.

If I had a spiritual bent, I might say my soul had some inkling that evil was afoot; that on some level far below conscious thought I knew what had happened. But since giving birth four times and burying two parents, and still with no discernible godly connection,  I seek more pragmatic explanations when coincidence appears divine.  The reason my brain invented a large-scale tragedy as one was taking place is that such an act is not unimaginable, it is plausible. Twenty years ago I probably would not have first thought of murder by assault weapon when the verb “to scream” was mentioned in the same sentence as the noun “school.”  But every time we hear of another terrible event on our soil, from our people, it becomes an expected event in the national narrative. We have storms, elections, sporting events, and mass killings. Remember Oklahoma City, the Amish schoolhouse, Columbine, to name just a few.

All those events, as they shatter individual lives and families and permanently scar the psyches of those closest to the dead, become fodder for more death and more fear. The waves of grief become content for crime dramas, movies, statistical analysis, sociological studies. The news cycle devours these stories and regurgitates the details in a repetitive stream devoid of meaning. An attempt is made to make sense of the senseless, but mostly we resort to describing with breathless fascination HOW it all took place. And in this era of sharing, we jump on each other’s tweets and Facebook posts to say words of condolence, outrage, activism, or test the waters of humor and reveal our compassion fatigue. Some pose as perpetrators themselves and use the platform to wield more hatred.

There is simply too much contact, too much noise. The human side of this – the pain, loss, grief, love cannot be communicated through these channels. It is drowned out by the overwhelming power of the story’s existence- it happened. And by learning of it, another troubled person gets the idea to play it out in real time with new victims. Adam Lanza was a first grader in 1999 when two teenagers stormed Columbine and killed 13 people.

Normally I am a news junkie, but this week, I am indulging in quiet. I have not yet told my children, ages 8 through 11. Their last day of school before break was on Friday and if the teachers learned of the tragedy during the school day, they did not yet share it with the kids. I have kept the news off and the Sunday New York Times, with it’s black epitaph, was flipped over. I haven’t figured out how to tell them what happened.

They know about wars and 9-11. They have been to more funerals than weddings in their short lives. Death is not a secret. But for various reasons we do shield them from popular culture. We don’t allow video games.  TV is nearly invisible, movies are a rare treat and the news comes via radio and newspaper. I take some heat for this from friends and family who think sheltering the children will keep them in a perpetual state of naiveté. And I am ambivalent about our restrictions at times.  But this week I am grateful we have made this choice. It has given me the space and time to think. I am not worried that they will be distraught – I predict they will take the news in pleasant stride,  as they live firmly in their own reality, untarnished by world-weary cynicism. I dread the telling because in that moment they will learn as so many children have learned this week, that a person in this country can buy weapons at will and murder a class of first-graders.

What a parent utters to their child is not drama, or fantasy, it’s the truth, as far as they know.  This terrible news becomes a fact that will become tied to the many other facts they are compiling as they progress through childhood. I’ll try to explain how it’s not something to be feared, but a sadness to reckon with. I will say how rare and bizarre and horrible it is. And that will be that.  In this moment of roiling national debate saturated in grief, I am grateful that T.V., YouTube, Facebook are not sharing this information with my kids – I am.  Next year my son will be in middle school and this cocoon will be busted, I know.  But for now, I appreciate the quiet and control I can briefly conjure.  The barrage begins to numb and soon this news seems almost normal. And the greater tragedy in all of this, if there can be one,  is that reality begets fantasy and fantasy begets reality. As we tell the story to our nation’s children, through every orifice of media technology, over and over, we make sure it will happen again. It’s not just the guns, or the mental state – it’s the shared imagination. This is plausible.