Sunday, September 9, 2012


Etiquette Lesson

All images today from Google.

This morning, Miss O’ is enjoying the glories of the cold front blow-through, the blue skies and cool, dry air—that mother-loving cool, dry air breezing in the always-open windows, when an actual mother begins yelling out on the playground, “Charlie, stay here, I’m getting my ball…” and “Charlie, don’t…” and I hear tennis balls against the concrete wall. I don’t mind ball noises—it’s a purposeful sound, people out being physical, engaged in an act of concentrated effort (I'm still talking about tennis, for the love of Mike). Sure, the repetitive sounds get a little annoying, but I go with it. This community playground (which gets a lot of use by people of all ages, all day, every day) happens to abut where I live, and I knew that when I bought the place.

What I cannot abide—and this is partly because I’m highly auditory, a defect which makes every thrum and high pitch of machinery a misery to be around—is purposeless noise: car basses turned up just because the drivers are assholes; teen boys yelling, “Get it, nigger!” because they are fucking stupid; or, as was the case this morning, incessant kicking against or hitting of the chain link fence that stands against my building. I let it go for a minute, two minutes. That’s it.

I open my kitchen door to the porch—a wooden deck built over the trash alley, which affords me outdoor space—and I step up on a chair and look over the deck wall through the chain link. I see no adult, other than a man playing tennis. I can’t see a mom, but finally I spot the source of the noise down below.

“Hon, could you stop doing that please?” I am looking down onto two kids, dark bowl haircuts, arms swinging. They are about three years old, holding little tennis rackets they are using as noisemakers, a movement that bespeaks not experiment so much as boredom. Finally I see their mom, who is almost out of sight to the right, and she says nothing. The pounding continues—it’s unbelievably loud. “Kids?” I say, as kindly but firmly as I can without being a dick (they are only babies), “I’m up here. Look up.” They do, even as they keep hitting the fence. “Could you stop making that noise? Thank you." I say it again. Again. The mother, fiddling around in a bag, says nothing. Their father (I realize) sees me but keeps playing tennis. “It’s very loud in here,” I explain. Finally, they toddle over to their mom. "Thank you," I say again. I hear her say in baby talk, “That lady said...too loud….” She never acknowledged my presence.

This reminds me of a time many years ago at Staples, in the week before school started. Miss O’ was in the pen aisle selecting her ink colors for the grading year, when a young rascal around age five was running, yelling, and being a boisterous boy. He careened into my cart, shoving me into the stacks, and his mother, who saw this, said nothing. She continued shopping. The boy had run himself into a post and was heading back my way, and I announced to him loudly and firmly, “You need to stop.”

He stopped. He looked at me. His mother said, “Hey, what gives you the right to speak to my son like that?”

Oh, friends of Miss O’, you can only imagine this moment, the flash of my eyes, the hardness of my voice.

“I’ll tell you what gives me the right,” I intoned, huskily. “In about ten years, he will be in my English class, and he will be my problem. I will not put up with this.” I pointed to my tipped cart, my scraped arm.

She grabbed her son’s hand and left the aisle. I have no idea if she learned a damned thing. I suspect he did, though.

Lest anyone reading this thinks I want to fix your children’s behavior, I think The Onion has expressed my pain best of all. What I love is that EVERYONE is taken to task in this little op-ed:

Is Anyone On This Bus Interested In Disciplining My Son?

No sensible person has too a hard time when kidson a subway, at the store, or on the playgroundcry out the cranky because they are tired, or hungry, or restless. Sure it's annoying, but that's life with kids. What people do have a hard time with are parents who, when their kids are doing deliberate acts against others that can be stopped, choose to pretend their kids aren’t bothering anyone, when clearly their kids are bothering people. Do you follow me?

So what did I expect from the mom and dad this morning? “Charlie, [girl child], come over here, please.” I expected the mom to look up and say, “Sorry if they bothered you,” which opening would have allowed me to say, “Thank you for understanding. Have a fun day.” As it was, I left shaking my head as one child continued to hit the fence, and the mom sounded unmoved.

All the teacher in me can think of is just what I said to that mom at Staples back there: In a few years, your kids are going to be someone else’s problem. Why couldn’t they be someone else’s JOY instead?

At Home

I read an article the other week, which I can’t find now, about a study that found that kids who misbehaved at home were actually well behaved at school. The logic was that kids who were allowed to express their anger or moods at home, and were disciplined or got to talk about it, didn’t feel the need to act out in class.

The O’Children could have been the subjects of this study. You never in your life saw kids hit, kick, scream, or play cruel practical jokes on each other the way the O’Hara kids did. Oh, the belts that flew! The “go to your rooms” that were screamed! And school year after school year, report card after report card, our parents were astonished to find that not only were their kids among the best behaved, we were often real role models for other kids.


I will tell you this: If I had EVER careened into someone’s cart, I would have heard my parents profusely apologize and been hauled out of the store by one arm. If I’d been making disturbing noises out in the neighborhood (and I’m sure I did), and someone complained, I would have been told to stop. Then I would have heard my parents apologize, and afterward heard them ask after the kids (or garden or pets) of the offended party.

That’s how I was brought up. I kind of remember all my friends being brought up this way. I’m sure I was wrong. You know why? The study also found that children who behave well at home are often hellions out in public. And who among us doesn't remember all those repressed, super-religious kids who went nuts for drinking and sex in college? Hell, high school. Sixth grade...

When School is Home

Miss O’ wants to explore the merits and downsides of home schooling versus public schooling. (I won’t talk about private school, for simplicity’s sake.) It’s a subject that has come up for me as a result of Facebook posts about home schooling, and in light of the U.S. political conventions of the past two weeks. This probably doesn’t seem connected, but it is. I just have to get there. God knows how I’ll do it.

I’ve known and continue to know parents who home school their kids. There are a number of reasons parents might choose to do this. Three of the reasons have merit.

In one case, parents see a real opportunity. I have a friend, Molly, whose husband was an airline pilot, and so members of his family could fly anywhere for free, on standby—including on international flights, where there were often open seats. Molly had met her husband at a reunion of Peace Corps volunteers, and so between them they had any number of friends who lived all over the world. Look at this combo! Molly realized that with her degrees in engineering and history, she was capable of teaching her kids at home, AND that she and her kids could study ancient Rome and then, you know, fly there. For free. And stay with friends. For free. And then they could return the favor and have the friends visit them, so Molly could take her kids sightseeing right along with the guests. And that is exactly what she did. Her older child, a daughter, was really social, so Molly became a Girl Scout leader, and her son became a Boy Scout. They also had music lessons, dance lessons, that sort of thing. They did this until the daughter was high school age, and her brother was ready for middle school. And by all accounts, they got this fabulous global education and adjusted to public school classrooms just fine.

In a second case, a relative of mine, who lives in a really poor community with a poor school district, had a son who just was falling through the cracks. While her other kids did fine in school, this one was only getting into trouble, struggling in all subjects, and private school or tutoring was just out of the question financially. So his mom found out how to home school him and did it. She spent four years being his high school teacher for every subject, having to learn it all herself in order to do it. At one point, she re-enrolled him, but it was no good—he just fell into all his old habits. Back to home school! And together, they got him to graduation.

In a third case, the child in question is ill. There’s no more to be said about that—it has to be done because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. There may be additional concerns, too. My friend Susan said to me:

I can add one more reason to homeschool, and that is learning disabilities. Not always, of course, because sometimes the school system is fabulous. But I run a Twice-Exceptional group in Denver for parents of kids who are both highly gifted and learning disabled, and the conversations always touch on schools that can't provide adequate help with the dyslexia or dyspraxia or whatever the issue is. When I ran a homeschooling group, a large percentage of the boys had ADD. By being homeschooled, they had short classes, with lots and lots of activity breaks throughout the day.

In all of these cases, home schooling makes complete sense to me. Sometimes it's a really useful, even necessary, option.

Now to where it really bothers me. It’s a personal prejudice of mine, which I freely admit, but I have to explore it nonetheless, maybe even more so because of that.

It’s on Facebook that I see the posts: Parents who home school their kids, who boast of the wonderful quality family time, how wonderful their kids are, how smart, how much they are learning together. These parents are Christian, invariably, as they also post about Sunday school attendance and evangelical principles. They are also conservative politically, proudly announcing how their 10-year-old daughters support Paul Ryan because he is Pro Life and would never kill a fetus.

And that, for me, is where I move from suspicious of all this wonderfulness to plain old disgusted that a 10-year-old is weighing in on a complex personal and sexual issue that rests with an anonymous woman, her doctor, and her god.

"It says here, Kitten, that a fetus..." 
(I'm trying to imagine what would happen if I taught such things in my public school classroom.)

A Little Story

So years ago I got a kid in my sophomore Humanities (enriched English) class who had been home schooled all his life up to that point. His guidance counselor had sent a note around to let all his teachers know that he might need a little extra support. (Now keep in mind that he is one of about 140 or so students I will have that year, all of whom have stories and needs, while I teach my three preps of, say, Humanities 10, English 9, and Theater Production, and direct three plays for the drama club of 150 or so additional students.)

The kid, whom I’ll call Paul, was as sweet a kid as you can imagine. He had this real calm about him, and an almost total lack of anxiety or, for that matter, intellectual curiosity. When he didn’t turn in his first assignment, I asked him about it as I returned papers. He seemed lost. “What assignment?” and then “Oh, I guess I didn’t feel like doing it.” He was very pleasant about it. So Miss O’ had to take him aside and explain, kindly but firmly, that it just didn’t work like that. “Well, I’ll turn it in tomorrow,” he offered. And Miss O’ had to explain that it just didn’t work like that, either, as she was the hard ass teacher who never accepted late work. However, Miss O’ not being a douche, she made an exception because all of this was new to Paul.

By the middle of the second quarter, it was clear that this whole “structured school” business was not working out for Paul. He had a D in my class, and probably every class, but his contributions to discussions on stories were superb. He was insightful and assured. And while he couldn’t always manage to turn in written work, he was really trying. One day I got a glimpse into his backpack as he was “filing” one of his rare returned papers, and there was the messiest mound of cast-off loose leaf you ever saw, shoved above and between notebooks and textbooks. I made him an offer.

So later that week, Paul came to the auditorium after school, where Mrs. Williams and I were directing the fall play. I found a folding table in the back, set it up, and told Paul, “We have to get you organized.” As the drama club rehearsed, I had Paul take out all his papers and organize them by subject. I told him to get me when he finished. Then I told him to organize each of the piles by date, either oldest to most recent,  or the other way around, whichever made sense to him. He did.

“Do you have a notebook or folder for each subject?” He did not. I had brought in extras (rescued from locker cleanouts the year before—I’m resourceful that way, and was given this tip by lots of other teachers. One of our end-of-year duties was to help clean out lockers). I told him to pick one notebook for each subject. I had a marker and labels, and we labeled each notebook. We wrote the class period on them, too. “You know how I have a folder for each class’s returned work on the wall?” He nodded. “And you’ve seen how I have a matching folder for each class’s work they have just turned in?” I saw the light bulb go off! I showed him how he could use colored post-its to make tabs to divide each notebook into areas for notes, returned work, and homework pending. He looked astonished. I actually think he teared up at one point.

“I, uh, I never had to do this before,” he said.

“Of course you didn’t,” I said. “You should have seen me falling apart when I was first teaching." All this packed up, I added, "Now you know how to do it, but it takes practice to keep up with it. Just make sure you catch up on it every week. Stay with us after school here whenever you want, if it will help.” And he did. He even started doing tech work for the drama club.

All the time he was struggling, his teachers would call home, or request a conference through Guidance, and to no avail. His mother would always say,  very sweetly, “I’ll speak to him, but this is your problem,” and what could you do?

During an international folktale unit toward the end of the year, I had the kids write a story from their life experience (something they had learned a lesson from) and fictionalize it in the form of a folktale. Paul wrote an astonishing story called, simply, “Fat,” about a woman who was too fat to leave her home, and how the world had to come to her. I found myself weeping as I finished it. When I returned the tale to him, I asked, quietly, “Am I supposed to read into this what I read into this?” And he nodded.

And that’s why Paul had been home schooled.

Why Going Public Matters

So, as I have learned, people may home school their children for any number of reasons. Being a parent is hard, and parents have to decide what's best for their kids. It’s a free country. I get it. And still I have to express this: If you are home schooling your kids because you want to protect them, hold them close, and filter everything they watch, experience, learn, encounter—in the form of texts, subjects, people, ideas—you are doing your child not only a tremendous disservice, but you are also robbing society of a possibly astonishing point of view: your children’s. Only by rubbing up against opinions and ideas we have never imagined can we really know what we think or how we feel. Only by witnessing actions we ourselves would not think to take, do we know what we might do. And your kids' participation in a class could offer unique insights to others. 

In addition, when deciding to home school, you are making a choice to limit your kids' exposure to texts, concepts, skill sets, and ideas to your own (limited) knowledge of texts, concepts, skill sets, and ideas. However much you work to become a good teacher, you are only ever you. (Even the formidable Miss O' would not wish herself to be anyone's sole instructor for a decade.) And there is an emotional attachment, you see, that can blind  even the most observant parents to some of their children's needs and failings, things that a trained, more disinterested teacher might see readily. (This includes an understanding of learning disabilities such as dyslexia, which was left undiagnosed for all 12 years of homeschooling for one kid I know. When he went to take a college placement test, it turns out he actually couldn't read. Apparently his mom had been reading his tests, and the texts, to him.) 

It is as an educator, then, that I am responding to a recent spate of anti-politics Facebook posts, all of which are from politically conservative people: The posts scream out for all of us to “get along” or else “stop posting politics!” all but admitting that they themselves are going to vote for the Conservative ticket this November.

It’s a hallmark of these conservative, home schooling parents that they cannot see the irony of their call: Even as they just want everyone to play nice, they don’t really want to engage. They hide their kids from the public world as much as possible, shuttling them between home and church and theme parks—places protected from reality; more than that: places where “reality” is proclaimed not to exist at all. 

And in November, they will slip out of their home cocoons and head to the public polls to vote Republican, never to be heard from until it's time to vote Republican again.

See, I was raised to engage, to talk it out, read up on it, take it on, see what I can do to help the other fellow. I have had countless, fact-filled, example-laden arguments with my parents over gay rights, with my father over abortion rights, with my brothers over who ate all of the pie. Dammit! So, while I am very much an "in your face" and "won't back down when I'm righteous" sort,  I freely admit that I have loads to learn, can change my mind on things, all that; so I am totally baffled by citizens who don't want to engage. We all can't "get along" when a large portion of the national population is in denial of the ideals of a good-sized other portion of the national population. It's incumbent upon ALL of us to read up on ALL of it. It's why I don't "Unfriend" or "Unsubscribe" (the latter I have had to do only once--abusive stuff) on Facebook. Or proclaim how "sick" I am of reading other people's views. (Or seeing their dinners. Or their play by play football analyses...)

In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, President Bill Clinton defined the choice in November:

 “My fellow Americans, you have to decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities – a we’re-all-in-it-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

That line wasn’t just a line: It’s the definition of what the conservative and liberal parties, as they exist in America in 2012, stand for. As for some of my conservative Facebook friendssome of whom are home schoolersI do not see how they can usefully participate in a society that they fear, are "sick" of, and therefore remain ignorant of.

It is through CHILDREN that so many of us grow and learn, through their adventures out in the world, their run-ins with kids and adults, the moments when they have to face the consequences of their own choices and behaviors, without you, the parent, there to forever tell them how wonderful (or how awful) they are, and without you indoctrinating them into your system of beliefs.

As Miss O’ has said a hundred times, if you cannot accept anyone challenging your belief system, you don’t have a belief system. You only have fear.

And as another fine liberal president said, “The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself.”

Another name for fear is willful ignorance, which often manifests itself by banging a verbal tennis racket against your neighbor’s chain link fence. And I'm back to where I came in: No sensible person minds noise when it’s purposeful. Telling someone to stop banging should be the start of a conversation: “It’s making a lot of noise in here, and I can’t work.”

Now let’s say hello, and solve it.


  1. Hi Miss O!

    Unfortunately your little episode with the 3 year olds (why they were by themselves is beyond me) is something that happens more and more. This may be due to the fact that so many parents want to be the "nice guy" and forget (or neglect) that they need to be the disciplinarian as well.

    I think you and I must come from the same mold, because my parents would have never tolerated that kind of behavior either. I also try to emulate this with my kids.

    For example, just yesterday we were at dinner, crammed together in a booth - my wife and I on one side, baby in a high chair and the 3 / 10 year old on the other side.

    Well, low and behold Brayden (the 3 year old, go figure) turns around and starts to stare at the other table "butting in" on their conversation and of course all the while... yelling.

    On the inside I found this rather hilarious, but I told my son to turn around and hush up. I also apologized to the gentlemen that were having dinner together. This in turn, turned into a "if their not making noise, they're not being kids" response from the other table, which I certainly appreciated.

    By the way, I never quite thought about it in the way that you put it in regards to the whole Christian homeschooling thing. I considered homeschooling, but your input here just further validates my decision that public school is best for my kids.

    - Travis, the conservative Christian and father of three very boisterous boys and student that you taught back in the day. Love ya' Miss O! :-)

    1. Hi, Travis--
      Angel, thanks for reading and responding so thoughtfully. You understand that I write to explore. My whole point is that life should be approached from a position of love and wonder and reason, and not from a position of hate and fear and ignorance. I love your story of the guy in the restaurant--raising kids is the hardest job on earth, and I am so glad to hear of how lovingly you are doing it.
      Love to all of you,
      Lisa O'


  2. Hey Cousin. I always enjoy readin your blog. But, cant help but weigh in this time, with a loving (hopefully) disagreement. You said:

    "And still I have to express this: If you are home schooling your kids because you want to protect them, hold them close, and filter everything they watch, experience, learn, encounter—in the form of texts, subjects, people, ideas—you are doing not only your child a tremendous disservice, but you are also robbing society of a possibly astonishing point of view: your children’s."

    I do not want to over simplify, but, it is my job to protect, hold close, and filter. It is my teach them what I believe, and, more importantly, what the God I serve expects of me, and them. I answer to a Higher authority, not to what society dictates as right or wrong. There is far too much garbage. It has to be filtered. You don't have to experience murder to understand that murder is wrong. My children will have a point of view, a belief system. It is my prayer that it will align with the Creator of the universe, not with the created, fallen world. But, there is no guarantee what they will believe, No matter what text you choose or what television show they can or can not watch. The fact is they grow up. Like you said, they might rebel and drink, party, and hate the God I serve. But it won't be because I protected them. I think society has proven this. There is no perfect formula. Parenting is hard. Period. I guess I just won't believe that my children will not have their own opinions just because I shared mine with them. Conservative or liberal, Christian or Muslim, your children will be influenced by their environment. But, they will grow up and leave. What happens then is not up to me. Yet, can we really say that if their beliefs do not agree with those of mainstream society then their beliefs are then wrong, and the "fault" of their homeschooled, conservative upbringing? This seems very narrow to me.

    I love your writing. I love you. I love your blog. I know that this was not the complete focus of your blog, but I wanted to weigh in on this portion. And, just so you know, I would have been spanked into next Tuesday if I'd of done any of those things as a kid....and so would my kids. Just so you know.

    1. Hi, Cousin! I totally hear you. I contend--and I knew this would be a contentious blog when I wrote it--that it is one thing to educate, filter, parent; and another to insulate. What you've brought up is the reason I write--to figure out, to explore. I think what troubles me is that some parents may "insulate" and "deny" is a way that is not only unhealthy, but unrealistic, however helpfully and lovingly it's meant. As a childless educator, I can advocate for a larger knowledge of the world without the emotional ties of being a parent. I see myself as a balance, as an advocate for the independent human inside the child. Not to belittle our own problems in American, but If you haven't, I strongly recommend the op-eds and books of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. He travels the globe fighting sex slavery and sex trafficking; promoting AIDS prevention in Africa; and any number of global initiatives to improve our lives everywhere. The thing is, we are only TEMPORARILY okay, only TEMPORARILY not invaded, without illness, without disease, what have you. Whatever the beliefs or whatever the spirit guiding us, can our children THINK? Can they solve future earth-based problems? That is what consumes me as an educator. Politics, in the end, is so much bullshit. Isn't it?
      Love you. Thank you for reading and responding. I think we'll both we considering stuff. XXOO

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    3. p.s. Sorry for all the typos back there, and not to deny your religion and your God, but as an educator I cannot help but focus on Earth-based problems, because the life we know, in the here and now, is on Earth. Cancer, love, fear, death--it's here and now. And I guess I can't help but worry about how our kids are prepared to live on the planet, and the future of that planet. That's what being a earth-based pagan is all about. Love you.

  3. Here's an interesting Carolyn Hax advice column from the Washington Post today that ties in:

  4. Another excellent post on education! I hope you're writing a book because this feels like another great chapter :)

    1. Hi, Scott! Thanks for being a faithful and supportive reader. This has been an exciting post as it has generated a host of conversations! I love it. I have been given so much more to think about, and I hope it's been of use. Somehow I don't myself getting a fabulous "Julie and Julia" blog book deal out of posts to do with, uh, teaching and shit. :-) But I write to calm my fevered brain anyway. Kisses!
      Lisa O'

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