Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons from Lizard Skin: Throwing in the Towel when the Time is Right

When we brought Aditya home from the hospital as a newborn, I was full of new-mother, hormone-fuelled, big dreams.  I would stare in awe at the little guy's perfect face and think, "I'm going to change the world for you."  And then the chronic sleep deprivation set in.  I couldn't spell my name, let alone change the world.  So by the time his first birthday rolled around I had pared down my to-do list considerably: as a symbol of my devotion, I would simply start by making all of his and his brother's birthday cakes from scratch, starting with the low-sugar, completely organic applesauce muffins that I made the first year.  At his first birthday party, Aditya poked and prodded his muffin, squished it and then pulverized it, and during the process even took a tentative lick or two. The rest ended up as crumbs dusting the floor in a concentric ring around his high chair.  Undaunted, each year, I'd make a cake from scratch.  One year I set the oven on fire. One year I couldn't get the cake out of the cake pan and scraped the sawdust-like material out while I dissolved in frustrated tears. One year I forgot to add oil, resulting in a hard but edible creation, and another year the cake came out perfectly. But the icing on that cake, oh the icing. The home-made, whipped-from-scratch icing had rubbery flecks in it, the largest piece of which had the feel and consistency of lizard skin. Unfortunately I hadn't realized this until I took my first triumphant bite ... and choked up a disgusting little rubber morsel. My mistake?  I had added the gelatin in its solid power form and not pre-dissolved, and it had caked up (pun intended) and congealed in its own little rubbery way throughout the entire batch of icing, which had been, sadly, already spread all over the perfect cake. That was the last year I made cakes from scratch.

Lizard skin from cake icing: my crowning cake-making achievement

Calling it quits when the time is right is a skill.  And now, it's time to call it quits on the Great Homeschooling Adventure.  Its demise was largely brought about by the Berkeley Unified School District (here referred to as BUSD) itself:  after having multiple, desperate conversations with the district office, the Admissions Office, an elementary school's PTA president, and indirect exchanges with a certain school official who seems to be related in some way to Voldemort, it became clear that we nevertheless were going to lose the battle.  The battle was about the fact that as participants of the district's Independent Study program, we were at a significant disadvantage in finding after school enrichment programs for our boys to participate in. We fought the good fight, with the independent study teachers, program director, and one PTA member on our side, but we lost anyway.  The crux of the matter:  I wanted the children to participate in programs with other school children so that they could make new friends, and I also wanted several significant blocks of time away from them so that I could prepare logically constructed homeschooling lessons as well as accomplish some tasks for the amazing little company, Lineagen, that I work for back home.  The best, most straightforward way to achieve this, I thought, was to sign the boys up for after school enrichment programs at the local neighborhood BUSD school, but no. This was not to be done, since the fact that we were homeschooling created a logistical mess for the Unified District powers-that-be.  In the end, since we couldn't beat 'em, we joined 'em, and we're very happy to have, at last, the solution to all our woes.  It turns out, once you get past the Admissions Office and its convoluted processes for school assignments, life can be quite good.

The boys were at first very loathe to try out a new school -- because the one that mom taught was "fun, and easy" -- but by the time we finished the tour of Rosa Parks Elementary School (a public school within the BUSD, but a 20 minute drive from where we live, and with NO parking), they were in love with the idea of going to "real" school again.  I was thrilled that they made new friends on their very first day there (yesterday), and how they both came home bubbling with excitement.

And here's the change in the boys that was so remarkable to me:  my boys had used various behavioral strategies to avoid school work every day when I was teaching them.  Every five minutes, they were whining about something or other, they were too hot or too cold, they needed a snack, they needed a drink, they were fidgeting in their seats, something hurt, something itched, something wasn't comfortable, or they were wandering around the house at a loss for what to do despite the clear instructions and worksheets given them. I was frantic with the thought that, in my presence, they were not capable of displaying the mental focus of a goldfish. And despite my admonitions and (from my point of view) downright inspiring lectures on the value of education and self-discipline, this behavior pattern continued for the three long weeks we homeschooled.  (In retrospect, I understand what was going on and bear no hard feelings: to these boys, the roles of 'mother' and 'teacher' are played by two very different types of people.  One nurtures and loves them and, to some extent, coddles them and caters to their needs. The other teaches them, asks them to do their best, expects discipline and proper behavior, and elicits effort and consistent focus.  They were testing me to to see which of those personae was going to win out during homeschooling, and rightly so.

Switch to our meeting this Monday with the Principal of Rosa Parks, a kind man with a warm smile and an obvious and genuine affection for children.  He ushered our family into his office, where our children took seats without fidgeting, folded their hands, sat quietly, and snapped to attention.  I nearly gaped at my own children,  barely recognizing the well-behaved beings they instantly became. At one point, Rohan sat bolt upright in his seat.  His hand shot in the air.  I gave this bespectacled boy a double-take. Was this the same child, who couldn't sit still for me for five minutes at any given time over the last three weeks, who had been sitting patiently through fifteen minutes of administrative mumbo jumbo, and who was now raising his hand to ask a question?  (Incidentally, his burning question was whether or not kindergarteners got their own desks at this school.  He grinned so hard his dimple showed when he learned that in fact, they did.). Aditya's performance matched Rohan's:  he sat quietly and looked oddly interested in the scintillating topics of school busing routes and the cost of hot lunch. Clearly, these boys were made for public school. We had, at last, come to the right place.  (Of course, it also helps my little geeky heart to know that they are now enrolled in Berkeley's environmental science magnet, which boasts its own lab and dedicated science teacher, wheee!)

So, the Homeschooling Adventure has come to a sudden and bittersweet end.  Bitter for me, since I had entertained fantasies of the three of us having wild adventures in the Bay Area for an entire year, sweet for all of us because the wild adventures were in reality less adventures, and just plain wild:  think of all three of us stumbling around, without direction, hot, cold, itchy, hungry and uncomfortable (by the children's report, any way) at the same time, and just plain lost in academic wilderness.   Sometimes, it's good to know when to stop a thing and cut your losses and move on.  There are some who brilliantly succeed at homeschooling, and I am not one of them.  Just as there are some who make the most scrumptious, moist, made-for-heaven cakes from scratch, there are those of us who don't. It doesn't mean we love our children any less, it simply means we need to know our limits and accept when our love should be expressed not with offerings of lizard skin, but in some decidedly different way.

So, here we go again:

And once again, the boys seem extremely concerned about the whole proceeding:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Extracurricular Activities

My efforts to teach some semblance of a core curriculum notwithstanding,  Suresh and I seem to have been covering the extracurriculars fairly well.  In addition to visiting many dear Bay Area friends and meeting (some for the first time!) their wonderful children, we've done our best to pack our weekends full of adventures and new experiences. Here's a glimpse of what we've been up to.

This was the San Jose Lego Kids Fest, where throngs of people waited in line to see Lego's newest offerings and participate in Lego Challenges, and every five minutes the name of a lost parent or child was announced over the loudspeaker for pick-up. Thankfully, I was not to be found among the lost. This time.

Despite the allowed diet of only celery and lettuce (no carrots, please!), the local livestock seemed appreciative and inordinately voracious, considering how many celery bunches had been offered to them immediately before ours.  This is Tilden Regional Park's Little Farm in Berkeley:

 ... and this is us getting a little silly in a tree just outside Little Farm, where a flock of wild turkeys had just fled into the woods.  It's a good day when you can out-silly a bunch of turkeys.

Two weekends ago, this fierce ogre got himself into a duel, complete with styrofoam scimitars, with a young roaming vagabond who was advertising a role playing club for teens during the Solano Stroll and Parade. It was an honorable duel, resulting in a draw when it was apparent that the scimitars might give way before the combatants did.

      Meanwhile, Ogre's younger brother checked out the rides.

Lush and verdant forests of Northern California will always have a hold on me. We had planned an easy hike in Muir Woods, but got waylaid by the more challenging allure of the Dipsea trail:

Finally, last weekend we took the ferry across the San Francisco Bay to enjoy the Autumn Moon Festival in Chinatown.  There was a showing of traditional Chinese music, Lion Dances, Chinese yo-yo demonstrations, and of course, Dim Sum and moon cake eating.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ode to a Dung Beetle

There's been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Ho-Venkat household lately, and that should explain the relative silence that's befallen this little corner of the internet quite tidily. Don't worry, the wailing isn't coming from Suresh, who described his delightfully planned, well-tempered days at the Simons Institute in his post here, and who just today enjoyed a "Vendor Fair" at Google in which snack vendors thrust free samples into the hands of Google employees in an attempt to win bids for Google's (free-food-for-employees) business.  No gnashing of teeth is being conducted by the boys, who are quite happy to go hopping on their pogo sticks in the backyard in lieu of doing schoolwork.  No, I am the sole wailer and gnasher, but I've been doing enough of it lately to make up for the others' slack.

The reason for all this sturm und drang is simply this:  I am not an elementary school teacher and I am not fitting very well into that role. It's been almost four decades since I've been an elementary school kid myself, and I've forgotten basically everything that I learned back then. Lack of materials or thoughtful, well-crafted teaching ideas from our coach -- the school district's elementary independent study teacher -- aren't the issue. In fact, the numerous blogs and websites with clever teaching ideas, free printables and downloads, and curricula galore only make matters worse ... I am deluged with others' ideas, overwhelmed by their cleverness, humbled by the fact that so many brilliant teachers of elementary school materials exist, and then I am downright discouraged that I am not one of them.

In the midst of this worry that my children will not be able to graduate from elementary school because of me, I was reminded recently of an NPR piece I heard almost a year ago on dung beetles. Dung beetles make their lives living off of other animals' excretions, and while fascinated by this I am also a bit repulsed by them, too. Dung beetles eat poop, they live off of poop, they feed their babies poop. When they find some fresh dung and fashion it into a nice round ball, they appear to get so happy that they climb up on top of it and dance, shimmying this way and that on its smelly surface. I know, because I've seen the nature specials.  Apparently, some researchers discovered last January that what they are actually doing is not a dance of happiness, but rather are checking the Milky Way to get a sense of their bearing.  Yes, the lowly dung beetle stares up at the skies and can navigate their dung ball back to their nests using the Milky Way. To show this, the researchers placed little cardboard hats atop the dung beetles to block out their view of the skies.  When they wore the hats, the beetles rolled their balls around in hopeless circles.  The team then confirmed the observation using a planetarium's stars to show how the beetles used the stars to orient themselves.

I never thought I'd say this, but I'd like to be a bit more like the dung beetle, and take off my cardboard dunce cap and look up at the stars and gain some grounding, some direction, some sense of bearing. Instead of floundering around in the dark, at a loss for direction, I could climb up to the highest point, raise my arms to the skies, do a little jig of happiness.  If I can be more like a creature wholly unconcerned about what the world thinks of him or her, and just focus on getting the right stuff back home to my kids and family, then I can see the world as all right again. Of course, I would like to be a little more like the dung beetle minus the dung.  But, I am also the mother of two boys, and I know that might be too much to ask.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why I Joined The Outliers (No, that doesn't say "Outlaws." Yet.)

I know people homeschool for a variety of reasons.  Some homeschool because their children are wildly gifted, and require far more academic stimulation than what a normal public school can provide.  Some homeschool because their children have special health needs, and they flourish better under the watchful eye of someone who can serve simultaneously as caregiver and teacher. Some families don't want their belief system sullied by the "Theory of Evolution" being taught in the schools, and as you can imagine (since I trained with a wonderful evolutionary biologist, Michael Akam, during my two years as a masters student in England) I don't quite fit into that category. In any case, homeschoolers have a reputation for being outliers, and not particularly a group with which I readily identify.  In my efforts to conduct a stately and dignified walk through life,* I didn't really consider it an option. From my safe vantage point, it seemed messy. Harried. And, in some cases, as with the anti-evolution homeschoolers, liable to veer off in startlingly dangerous and completely uncontrolled directions.    (* I am facing a wholesale failure on the 'stately and dignified' part of this statement as well, but that is a story for another day.).

I would most accurately describe my reasons for homeschooling as, "Harmless and Misunderstood Mom Left with No Other Choice." Here is the story, for those who have asked, of how I was misunderstood and therefore left with no other choice. (For the record, I have, unfortunately for me, always been harmless.)

First off, the Berkeley rental market is what you might call a tad competitive.  It turns out that the world wants to live in Berkeley, and Berkeley is ready and willing to welcome the world ... for a price.  That price merely includes a significant portion of your salary, your first born child, and perhaps even the donation of a kidney or two, but it decidedly does NOT include your cat.  Your cat, you see, can scratch unwitting landlords, landlords who may not necessarily even be in the vicinity of said cat. They might get scratched by your cat while on sabbatical themselves, in France. Somehow. Please don't ask me to sully this assertion with an explanation of the necessary physics involved, you understand that a landlord of Berkeley is speaking, do you not? It can also pee on hardwood floors, leaving a stain that requires the replacement of floor boards not only in that Offensive Spot, but of the entire home's hardwood contents so that every board still matches every other board, leading to thousands of dollars of loss. The cat's mere presence in the home also creates an environment in which no other person who is allergic to cats can live. Ever. No matter how well you clean the place, no matter how large the pet deposit.  You see, Berkeley is AFRAID OF CATS.  And it can afford to be, because the whole world wants to live there. All you have to do is say, "By the way, I have a ca ..." and before you utter the consonant sound, the owner is on the phone calling the next person in line for an appointment and your own Application to Rent has gone up in smoke.

 Here is a picture of our feline offender looking, well, downright offensive.

So my results for getting us a home: FAIL.  Results for school? Also FAIL.  While in Berkeley, I visited all the schools in the Albany School District. I visited three in the El Cerrito School District. And I visited, or rather, attempted to visit, six in the Berkeley District.  At the majority of these schools' doors, I was turned away.  Why? Because I was not a card-carrying member of the Harmless Population.  I would ask a secretary at each of these schools why I couldn't meet the principal, why I couldn't see a sample of some third graders' academic work, why I couldn't stroll the halls and visit a classroom. And each time I was given the same answer: Ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, no one without affiliation to the district (read: proof of residence) could enter the halls. I was limited to talking to receptionists about their places of employment because, well, I was Dangerous until proven Harmless. And I wasn't about to get a proof of residence and be anointed Harmless any time soon, because I had: A Cat.

At countless places I was told to never-mind about being Dangerous until proven Harmless, because, well, they were full for kindergarten and third grade anyway. Or maybe they were full for one of the grades I was interested in, but not the other, so I could face scurrying around in my car every morning shuttling one child to one school, and the other child to another.  As I visited schools' front offices and attempted to shrink in size from my fully threatening stature of 5'3" to something a little less Dangerous-seeming, I learned that Berkeley, in an effort to equalize opportunity regardless of wealth or geographic boundaries throughout the district, employs a complicated and inscrutable method of school assignment. This method, which nearly brought another father in the district office to tears as I waited in line behind him trying to look as Harmless and Cheerful as possible, involves taking into account results from Parent Preference Forms filled out by the Harmless Residents in March, coupled with a "random lottery" assignment system. Which, by the way, can be completely rescinded and changed up to ten days past the start of school.

"You mean, I am moving my kids from a school and friends they love in Salt Lake, to potentially two new schools in Berkeley at opposite ends of the district, and I'm asking them to get used to that, and then you can change it all ten days in?" I asked the district incredulously, all the while wishing I'd had the word "Harmless" printed on my business cards.  "Yes," they answered. "And we can't tell you which school your children will be assigned to until you move here in August, and even then, it could change."

I left Berkeley feeling defeated.  Feeling as though I could happily preserve my sanity by staying in Salt Lake. Did I choose the reasonable, stately, dignified choice?  Sadly, dear reader, you know I did not. I chose to buck the system. To veer into the the Dangerous and Unknown. I chose to be an Outlier, made all the more batty for that.