Tag Archives: teachers

The Naked Audience

I had a public speaking engagement coming up. In fact, my publisher had arranged to have me do a reading/signing of my first book, Bipolar Me, at the local Barnes & Noble.

I do suffer from anxiety but, perhaps surprisingly, this did not have me paralyzed with fear. For one thing, I had supportive friends. Although the most common advice given to people who do public speaking is to picture the audience naked, a friend of mine offered to picture me naked instead if I thought it would help. And my husband offered to stand in the back of the room and shout, “Show us your tits!” if I started to freeze up. Such helpful friends I have!

Perhaps the reason that public speaking doesn’t terrify me is that I studied speech and debate in high school. Once you’ve been in an extemporaneous speaking contest and drawn the topic “If a chicken had lips, could it whistle?” there’s little that can daunt you in the future. (For those interested, I said, no, it could not.)

I also have some experience teaching college and business school English. Sometimes this endeavor was fraught with peril. Once I was teaching a lesson based on a reading about AIDS and one of the students informed me she had heard that it started in Africa with people “messing with monkeys.” I told the class that I denied that was what happened.

One student piped up, “People do screw sheep, you know.” (He did not say “screw.”) I knew this was meant to disconcert me. “Mr. Chadwick,” I replied, “can you please tell us what disease you can get from screwing sheep?” (I did not say “screw” either.) He did a perfect spit-take, the only one I have ever caused or indeed seen in real life.

(I referred to my students as Mr., Ms., or any other courtesy title they were entitled to, on the theory that if they were required to call me Ms. Coburn, I should extend the same dignity to them. But I digress.)

I had even done public speaking at business functions. Once I had to address a group at a power breakfast meeting, introducing a new magazine that the publishing company I worked for was launching. I even opened with a joke. (“I thought that since we’re launching a new magazine, I should open with a toast. My husband said, ‘A toast? At breakfast?’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘how about cinnamon raisin toast?'”) There were gratifying chuckles.

Another time, I was asked to give a humorous talk at the retirement dinner of my boss. (Again, my husband was prepared to stand in the back and heckle.) I borrowed a technique I had seen used at a business conference and created an imaginary slide show. I used one of those little clicker gizmos that nuns used to carry in Catholic schools to “advance” the slides and then described whatever scene I wanted to set up a punchline. (“Here’s a picture of Carl dressed as The Big Bad Wolf for Halloween. The next day he called in sick with distemper.”) Afterward, they gave me $100, so I suppose now I can call myself a professional stand-up comic.

My Barnes & Noble talk, though, didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Only two of my friends showed up (plus my husband). Luckily the event was held in the bookstore’s cafe and I managed to suck in a few patrons, especially during the question and answer session. I had to skip my introduction, as the audience already knew me, and cut my joke, too. (“What is bipolar disorder like? It’s like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it.”)

Anyway, I counted the appearance as a success. I read a few short pieces from my book, which I had cleverly printed out in large type beforehand so I wouldn’t squint. I signed a book for one of my friends and a bunch for the store so they could put “Signed by the Author” stickers on them. One member of my accidental audience asked for my autograph and a few words of wisdom, though she didn’t buy a book.

And the store said they’d be glad to have me back when my second book, Bipolar Us, comes out later this year. No joke.

Lies We Tell About Bullying

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

Early Childhood Education: Then and Now

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Back in the ’80s, I edited a magazine called Early Childhood News. It was aimed at owners and operators of day care centers (as we called them back then), though there was content that was of interest to employees as well.

Times have changed. But how much? A lot of what concerned early childhood educators back them reverberates through the field today, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Here’s what the experts are saying now.

Abysmal Economics. Back in the ’80s, child care worker pay was a big concern, as was the cost of child care. Government subsidies to child care centers and workers seemed like the answer but went nowhere aside from Head Start. Many mom-and-pop child care centers popped up in homes around the country, a good number of them unlicensed; they were the only kind many parents could afford. As low as teacher pay was in accredited centers, professional child care was out of reach for the poor and even for large parts of the middle class.

Not a lot has changed. Government being largely unresponsive on the subject, and child care tax credits making little actual difference, parents began to turn to employers as sources of care. Alas, only a few forward-thinking companies provided any on-site care for their employees’ children. The Baby Boomers were aging out of the parenting years and, as good a benefit as it seemed, child care in the workplace never took hold.

One thing that hasn’t changed as child care workers morphed into early childhood educators is the fact that salaries remain so low that such work cannot provide a living wage. NPR had this to say about salaries for a typical worker:

Why would she teach preschool when she could make a heck of a lot more money teaching kindergarten? … In some places, we pay early childhood teachers less than fast-food workers, less than tree trimmers. As a country, we’ve acknowledged the importance of early learning and yet, when you look at what we pay those educators, it doesn’t add up.

This despite the fact that preschool teachers are increasingly well educated – NPR reports that 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor’s degree for the main teacher in the classroom and 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor’s degree. Even in a credentialed center with educated teachers, salaries still put early childhood workers below the poverty line.

Still, parents find it difficult to pay for child care. Care.com’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey reports that:

One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care. Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.

Yet child care is a service that few can do without:

American families will go to great lengths to pay for child care. In fact, 26 percent would put themselves in debt or further debt to pay for child care, and parents report they’ve saved less money (54 percent) and made major budget cuts (41 percent) to pay for the rising cost of care.

Even family planning is affected. The same study finds that “one in three families (33 percent) say the cost of child care influenced their family planning, in that they either waited longer to have children or had fewer children than they would have liked because of child care costs.”

Education versus play. The term “child care” seems to be fading out in favor of “early childhood education.” Along with that change comes an increasing focus on academics.

While it is true that many children come to kindergarten unready to learn, a debate still rages about what the role of the child care center is – early education versus play. “Academic” centers abound, to the extent that some of them appear to be mini-kindergartens. Some parents apparently eat this up, perhaps thinking that for the to-them-exorbitant price of child care, their children had better be learning something.

PBS, in a focus on teachers, had this to say:

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” [Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] says.

Play-centered environments have their champions as providing that kind of readiness. They say that play-centered learning is more than mere play. In play-centered (or as they often say, “child-centered”) environments, children can learn not merely socialization skills, but preparation for learning without all the academic trappings. Preschools that feature exploratory science equipment (such as water tables and sand tables), well-stocked libraries of good-quality children’s literature (and story time to go with it), art areas, and other manipulatives and play centers are actually imparting valuable lessons about the way the world works. The NEA is a particular champion of play-centered care.

These two trends, the economics of child care and the push-pull between academics and play, are likely to continue. Absent better salaries for both workers and parents, early education centers will have to choose between offering learning and play if they cannot convince the public that they are two sides of the same coin.

 

Why a National Curriculum Makes Sense

I can hear the cries of outrage now: Local control! Washington bureaucrats! Educational fascism! One size doesn’t fit all! Who wants to be like France or Japan?

Settle down, now. I don’t mean that one central authority should determine everything taught in America’s schools.

But I do think some standardization is long overdue.

Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book Savage Inequalities revealed massive problems with local funding in education – a system that rewarded already wealthy districts with more money. Local curriculum standards are also fraught with inequalities.

Some of the problems are due to state standards, while part of them are promulgated by local politics.

Let’s start with states. Only a few states drive the textbook industry. (I’m looking at you, Texas, California, and New York!) Textbook producers must tailor their content to the requirements of these large, influential states. Other states are lucky if they get a textbook supplement for their state or region.

When those textbook-dominating states wish to present a, let’s call it, idiosyncratic view of, say, history, much of the nation has to go along with them.

Difficult as it would be to arrive at a consensus U.S. history, given that some states appear to believe that slavery, for example, was a good or at least neutral, thing and others present U.S. presidents as paragons without regard to their flaws or challenges, a balanced, factual approach would be welcome. Not that we shouldn’t teach students to weigh various factors and form opinions – we certainly should, in pursuit of those critical-thinking skills that everyone talks about.

But in some areas of the curriculum, facts are facts. Students who live in districts or states that deny evolution are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to college biology, geology, history, and other classes. Schools that advocate “teaching the controversy” of creationism (or intelligent design, or whatever they’re calling it now) are doing their students a disservice. If you want the Christian Bible in K-12 schools, teach it as literature or in the context of comparative religions throughout history. It’s not like school shootings are caused by comparative religion classes.

And let’s talk sex education for a minute. Again, factual information, presented at age-appropriate times, is crucial. As the saying goes, “If they’re old enough to ask, they’re old enough to know.”

Presenting sex purely as reproduction is also problematic. The clitoris is not essential to reproduction, so there’s virtually no mention of it in discussions of sexual anatomy – in fact, in many states it’s forbidden. Non-reproductive but related topics like consent should also be covered.

And let’s dispel the notion that teaching kids about sex will make them have sex. Kids are going to have sex anyway – might as well see that they have the facts about it, if only to lower rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, which most people agree. Yes, that means teaching about condoms and how to use them.

So, what does my vision of a national curriculum look like? Actually, lots of things would be left up to local schools. They can spend time teaching the history of their state if they want, for instance, although with the mobility of current society, the students may end up living in another state entirely. Maybe that time could be better spent elsewhere.

I have no preference as to whether reading is taught via phonics or whole language. It should probably be a combination of both. In fact, most subjects should be taught with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences in mind.

But when it comes to courses that are currently neglected, there are ones that I think need to be taught early and often. Civics is a big one: our town for youngsters, our state for the slightly older, and our nation for everyone.

Subjects to cover in those courses? The three branches of government (with an emphasis on what each can and cannot do, instead of the usual lip-service mention of checks and balances); the Constitution; and The Bill of Rights would be a good start. And no just memorizing the numbers of the Articles or Amendments! Students should graduate with an understanding of how these documents are supposed to work.

Other suggestions for a national curriculum?

  • STEM, but not to the exclusion of the arts.
  • Practical subjects such as budgeting and banking and credit, which could be taught in math or practical home skills classes.
  • Art and music appreciation at the very least, with not all attention in music given to the three B’s. Something modern would be nice, or even a unit on musical theater.
  • Physical fitness focusing on lifelong pursuits and health.
  • Keyboarding and use of common office software.
  • Hands-on pursuits such as woodworking, cooking, and gardening, but not segregated by sex.
  • Foreign languages to begin in grades K-3, when a child has the best chance of learning them fluently. ASL at any age.

Yes, I know that teachers already have too much to teach. A number of these subjects would have to be electives or mini-courses – gardening, for example. And we’d have to reconsider the time spent teaching to the ridiculous proliferation of “high-stakes testing,” which has too much effect on funding and not enough on actual, productive learning. And we’d have to give enough money to the schools to accomplish all this (see Savage Inequalities, above).

Who should determine the national curriculum? I don’t know, except that actual classroom teachers and school administrators should be involved as well as education theorists or bureaucrats. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has never spent time as a public school classroom teacher should have much of a say.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with all – or perhaps any – of these ideas. But as long as my tax dollars support our public schools, I’m as entitled to have an opinion as anyone else.

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need it find help before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

Who Needs the Department of Education?

Once when I was traveling with my mother, we met a woman from Australia and discovered that, despite the fact that we all spoke English, we still had cultural differences. My mother told her about this wonderful vest I had with all the pockets so I could keep my money, passport, photo equipment, maps, bus schedules, brochures, snacks, and other gear handy. (It was from Banana Republic.) Slowly I realized that to the Australian woman, “vest” meant “undershirt,” and she was getting a very odd idea of how I carried around my travel supplies.

She also said that she couldn’t understand how there could be a different speed limit in every state, especially since we had 50 of them. (Australia has six.)

“That’s nothing,” I said. “You should see the liquor laws. Those can vary by county or even city or township – when and where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor, if they allow it at all; what days and times liquor stores can be open; and so on.”

That’s not unlike how the education system in the United States works. “Local control” of education is held sacred in many schools and districts, even if it means that students in one state learn about evolution while others don’t, or that school boards have control of curriculum instead of states, or that children in certain states use textbooks the content of which is dictated by people in other states.

It’s a patchwork and a hodge-podge, and a big mess. Attempts to make school funding more fair, to eliminate de facto segregation, and to standardize curriculum are loudly and effectively resisted.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, is at best a loose cannon. Her nomination was confirmed by only the slimmest of margins – hardly a ringing endorsement for her agenda. And what is that agenda likely to contain?

More patchwork, more hodge-podge, more mess. In addition to waving the banner of local control, Ms. DeVos is a proponent of private and charter schools, which suck students and money away from the public schools. And she promotes the practice of home-schooling, which can be beneficial or not, depending on the skill and oversight of the home-schoolers, and what they teach their children.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we may not have to deal with whatever changes Ms. DeVos would like to make, since shortly after her confirmation it was announced that the entire Department of Education was slated for destruction.

Why do we even have a Department of Education? It was broken off as a separate Cabinet-level department from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now called Health and Human Services). For over 35 years, its function has been to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” It had almost no influence on curriculum or standards until 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. It has been opposed since its inception as being unconstitutional because education is not mentioned in that document.

Most of the Department of Education’s mission has been related to ensuring equal access to education, promoting legislation that particularly addresses access to education for children with disabilities. Under the Department’s aegis, these children have been determined to be entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education.”

Ms. DeVos has expressed opinions at odds with the laws that guarantee these rights for disabled students, especially IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents of children with disabilities and educators who work with those populations were particularly vocal opponents of her confirmation.

What this all means for education is a profoundly unsettled question. What will Ms. DeVos be able to accomplish before the Department disappears out from under her? Will the laws regarding access to education be weakened or even repealed? It’s almost certain that more and more matters will revert to local control, with all the confusion and inequities that system fosters. Will parents who want specific educational outcomes for their children be forced out of public schools and into home-schooling or private schools (if they can afford them)? Will families have to relocate to districts or even states with compatible educational programs and goals?

Increasingly, it’s going to be difficult to call the U.S. system of education a system at all.

The Obligatory Mothers Day Post

Mother’s Day is fine if you have either a mother or children. Otherwise, it’s difficult, confusing, and even annoying. And for some people, worse than that.

Let’s think about this.

Grunge vintage floral backgroundChildless women

According to U.S. Census data, less than half of women are mothers. Yet childless women are ignored on Mothers Day. For childless-by-choice women, this is usually okay, except for reminding them that they are not participating in what society tells us is the greatest experience in life. And on Mothers Day, all women are assumed to have children. Try eating out and see if you aren’t handed a flower just because you are of an age to reproduce (or have ever been at an age when you could have reproduced), whether or not you have children in tow.

But for women who are childless – and not by choice – Mothers Day can be a day of profound sorrow. Infertile women; women who’ve had miscarriages or even some who’ve had abortions; women without partners who believe a child needs a father; women whose children have died from disease, violence, or suicide can find Mothers Day an occasion for mourning rather than cheer.

 

Mandatory Cheer

And let’s talk about how society requires that people be joyous and appreciative on Mothers Day.

First, we know that much hoopla regarding Mothers Day is promoted by the greeting card, florist, jewelry, perfume, beauty products, restaurant and any other industry that can think of a way to get you to buy something “for Mom.” Churches, civic groups, and other organizations are on the bandwagon too. Mothers Day sermons, “Best Mom” contests, and modeling dough handprints abound.

In the midst of all this glowing praise, we seem to forget that not all mothers are good mothers and not all children are good children. Who would want to be reminded that Mom was abusive? That a hoped-for child is a drug addict? That the relationship between mother and child is irretrievably broken for any reason?

 

The Deserving Others

And whom else do we leave out on Mothers Day?

How about single fathers?

How about people whose mothers have recently died?

Do we forget about adoptive parents in the flurry of sentiment over giving birth?

Do we neglect foster parents, too?

And aren’t there teachers and counselors and other caregivers who give as much love and promote a child’s healthy growth by being a mother-figure – sometimes a child’s only one?

In our zeal to celebrate motherhood, do we forget that there are many kinds of families, and that families of the heart are as important as families that share DNA?

And what about mothers-in-law? I had a wonderful mother, whose memories I treasure and whose passing I grieve. She was kind, and giving, and determined to do the best for her family. But now I have a mother-in-law who is devoted, and generous, and someone I can proudly cal “Mom.” Isn’t she worthy of honor and celebration, too?

So what’s the take-away for me? That I have deeply mixed feelings about the holiday and how it’s celebrated? Yes. That I have had good mothers and mother-figures? Yes. That I know not everyone’s experiences of motherhood and raising children are ideal? Yes. That I think society puts too much pressure on women to be mothers? Yes. That I deplore the commercialism and no-thought gifts that get so much emphasis placed on them? Yes.

Am I a mother? No.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to opinions on the subject.

Color My World

Pencils Abstract Background

I don’t know anyone who admits to coloring within the lines when they were kids. Coloring outside the lines was a sign that you refused to accept the rigid dictates of uptight coloring book manufacturers and compulsive kindergarten teachers. It was a badge of freedom and creativity and, for some, poor fine motor skills. It was how the more inhibited of us let our freak flags fly.

Now coloring books are back again, only this time for adults. Or at least adults who color within the lines. Elaborate rose windows and fantasy castles await, ready to be embellished with wee flower petals or swirled ribbons of psychedelic hues.

These grown-up coloring books are touted as the next best thing to meditation, so I thought I’d give it a try. My brain could use the time off from my mundane-but-still-complicated life. However, meditation (and yoga) are pretty much out for me, as my lotus-sitting days are long past and I need help to get up off the floor. Coloring seemed a reasonable, less physically challenging alternative.

I took up the hobby despite the fact that I gave up needlepoint years ago when my eyes refused to cooperate with close work and my hands began to tremble at the touch of nearly blunt needles. At least, I figured, I couldn’t draw much blood stabbing myself with a pencil.

I began coloring around the Christmas holidays – a mistake because of its sudden popularity. The store where my husband works sells coloring supplies, but he had to fight for the very last box of 72 colors. (I haven’t told him that blueberry, aruba, denim, mediterranean, and tidal wave are all the same shade of blue. Berri, wildfire, rose petal, and terracotta are all pink.)

At last, with 72 pencils and coloring book in hand, I’ve joined the coloristas. My book offers Spirograph-type geometric designs, assorted animals, and a few Rorschach-style shapes. I color them all with stunning inaccuracy and near-random color choices, producing mediterranean owls, rose petal turtles, and pages that look less like a cathedral window and more like the Grateful Dead’s laundry basket.

But I don’t care. It is soothing and sort of creative, plus I don’t have to frame the completed pages or clutter up the refrigerator door with them. They can stay in the book where only I can see my freak flag flying.

I’m certainly not going to show them to any kindergarten teachers.

A Little Means a Lot

You know those pictures you see of a celebrity presenting an oversized novelty check to some person or organization? Well, I had that experience once – as the giver, not the givee.

At the time I was the editor of a magazine called Early Childhood News, which was for child care center owners and operators. It included articles on legal issues, safety and hygiene, playgrounds, food, self-esteem, volunteers, and more – polls on interesting topics and annual toy awards, to name two.

It was a small magazine (in terms of circulation), so our author payments were not extravagant.

Once I asked a person who was quite well known in the field to write an article, and asked whether I should send his check to his home or university office.

When I told him how much (or rather, little) it was, he said, “Just donate it to a Head Start program.”

So I called the Dayton Head Start program and told them that I had a $200 donation for them, courtesy of the professor.

To say they were flabbergasted would be an understatement. When I came to present the check (a normal-sized one), they figuratively rolled out the red carpet for me. I toured the facility, I met all the administrators and teachers. I had my picture taken presenting the check. (I was glad that I had worn my good green dress that day.)

Until that moment I never realized how such a relatively small sum could have such a big effect. It meant they could buy supplies without caregivers having to dip into their own meager funds. Or provide a special treat or party for the kids. Or purchase books that would enrich children’s minds for years to come.

To me it was modest compensation for what was an ordinary transaction in my business. For the professor, it was an amount too small to bother with. For Head Start it was a windfall.

I think we sometimes fail to realize what even our smallest good deeds – or ordinary actions – can mean to people and groups that struggle. I still had a lot to learn.

That fact was again brought home to me again when I heard someone tell a story about an educational conference she attended. When the topic turned to snow days, she said to the teachers, “I bet you really look forward to those.”

She was met with a profound, awkward silence.

Finally, someone explained it to her: “On snow days, we know that some of our students won’t get a good, nutritious breakfast or a hot lunch. They’ll go hungry.”

It’s a bit embarrassing to think about. To most of us, a snow day means relaxing with hot cocoa, staying in bed an extra hour, or baking cookies with the kids. To teachers and the children they serve, it may mean something a lot less heart-warming.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought of that effect of snow days either. Like the woman at the conference, I thought of snow days the way they had been for me in my childhood – a break, virtually a vacation. Because that was all I saw, I thought that was the norm. And for well-off suburban kids like me, it was.

A free or reduced-price school lunch program, or a local food pantry, can mean the difference between hunger and a full tummy to a child. A small donation can help a nonprofit service fulfill its mission to improve children’s lives. In this time of talk about budget cuts for social programs and safety nets that become “hammocks” of dependency (as Paul Ryan believes), let’s spare a thought – or even a small check – for people, especially children, to whom hot, nutritious food; safe and loving care; and enrichment for the mind are luxuries.

It’s something we often think about during the Christmas season, but need is year-round.

Frog Hair, Gunga Din, and an Old Cow

My father had his own peculiar way of speaking.

It wasn’t just his Kentucky accent, which can actually be found throughout most of southern Ohio where we lived, and even up into Michigan.(1)

Because we lived in Ohio since I was three, my dad was concerned that I might start “talking like a Yankee.” When we would go back to Kentucky (which we did frequently) he called it “getting elocution lessons.”(2)  I ended up able to speak what was known as “Network Standard,” and also to lapse back into a Kentucky accent when it would annoy my sorority sisters.(3)

So my father was not alone in his manner of speech, but he did have his own peculiar vocabulary. I suppose that somewhere amid the hills and hollers there are people who still speak like this, but in suburban Ohio, he was near-incomprehensible.(4)

Here are some of my father’s favorite expressions and what a normal person would say in the same circumstances.

“Finer’n frog hair split four ways” = “I’m great, thanks, and you?”

“Hangin’ in like Gunga Din”= “I’m great, thanks, and you?”(5)

“Like an old cow pissing on a flat rock” = “My, it’s raining hard.”(6)

“A real frog strangler” = “My, it’s raining hard.”

“Give me a box of Band-aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome and I’ll have this cow back up on her feet and giving milk in ten minutes” = “Gosh, this steak is too rare.”

“If he had another nickel, he’d have bought a red car.” = “My goodness, that car is certainly bright red.”(7)

Most of my father’s odd expressions came from his upbringing in rural Kentucky, but some of them he borrowed from the Old West. This habit only increased when he retired from civil service on a disability and went back to his roots. He started wearing flannel shirts, cowboy hat and boots, or sometimes sneakers. He abandoned the Vitalis and Aqua Velva for chewing tobacco and small, disgusting cans of pemmican he ordered through the mail.

Young children were fascinated by his cowboy persona. Once while in a restaurant wearing his Wild West get-up, and crutches owing to his disability, a young lad asked whether he had been shot by an Indian, much to the embarrassment of his mother. My dad loved it. On another occasion, he addressed a young boy as “little pard,” (short for “partner,”) only to have the child respond indignantly, “I am NOT a little fart.”

My mother was tolerant of his idiosyncrasies.(8)  She had to be. His pet name for her was “Old Squaw,” which these days, of course, would be politically incorrect for oh-so-many reasons.(9)

All in all, my father’s language was in some way reassuring. It was a family thing. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world understood him. We did.

(1) This is a result of the southern migration up I-75, also known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” Thousands left the southern states for industrial jobs in Ohio and Michigan car plants.

(2) My high school speech and debate teachers disagreed with him on the necessity of this, or at least his definition of same.

(3) My college membership in Delta Phi Epsilon is one of my darkest secrets and I hesitated to reveal it. In fact, just pretend you never read this footnote.

(4) Once at a party he fell into conversation with a shy, soft-spoken young lady. The next day we learned that each had thought the other must be from a foreign country.

(5) Very few people know where this expression comes from. You may recognize “Gunga Din” as the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, but that’s not where my father got it. Early rock and roller and country superstar Jerry Lee (“The Killer”) Lewis used to use the phrase in some of his songs. No one knew what he meant by it then, and no one knew what my father meant by it either.

(6) People often ask, but there is no real reason that it has to be an old cow. It just is.

(7) I occasionally use this one myself, once totally confusing a friend’s Puerto Rican boyfriend.

(8) Though once in a while even she didn’t get what he was talking about. Once, when getting ready for a trip, he told her, “Pack and tie,” which had something to do with loading a covered wagon (I think). She thought he said, “Pack a tie,” and she did, though she had no idea why he wanted one.

(9) Some say girls marry their fathers. I don’t know about that, but I did marry a man whose term of endearment for me is “Old Boot.” Not usually in public, though.