Awkward Moments

My employer, having recently laid off 10% of its IT workforce, did what a company has to do when such things happen, and put instituted a major personnel reorganization.  As expected, I’ve been moved to a new department with an entirely new mission.  I’m not upset about this at all – I am far more comfortable with change than I am with stagnation.

My new boss, whom I met for the first time last week, very wisely sent out questionaires to all the employees he now manages, in order to get a decent handle on our skills and current responsibilities.  There were also several housekeeping questions (upcoming time off, etc).  And a question which brought an answer out of me that was quite unexpected.

The question was “Area of Professional Interest”, meaning the typical “Where do you want to take yourself professionally in the next few years?”  I answered the usual answers: upgrading certifications, learning the latest toolset, cross-training within my new department.  But then, without thinking much about it, I added this:

Long range: Go back to school to complete BA or BS degree.

After I hit “send”, I looked at the form again, and said, “What the?  Where did THAT come from?  I haven’t even considered college in over 20 years!”

And now, I’m left sorting out why I have this desire I’ve left dormant for more longer than your average college graduate has been alive.  You see, if I were to do such a thing, I would want to do it for the right reasons – not as some mid-life crisis self-indulgence, certainly.  My own kids’ education HAS to come first.

Being from a blue collar family, I have the typical working class view of higher education: it is a means to an end.  It is training more than enlightenment.  Learning for its own sake is important; as a Christian, I consider it my duty to “think God’s thoughts after him”.  Lintilla and I have built our family life where learning is something we just do, like eating.  Our kids have accepted this.  But, I can’t help where I come from and how I was raised: In my view, formal education should prepare a person for a specific job or career.  I know you may disagree with this, but I’m too old to change who I am.

So, that brings up an interesting question.  If I put in all the extra work it would require to get a degree (I would basically be starting all over), to what end?  In my chosen field, I am pretty highly compensated (till the healthcare industry collapses, at least).  I don’t see how a newly minted BS added to my resume would help my career, considering I’d be over 50 when I completed it.  I can imagine the most common comment being, “You did it backwards, didn’t you?”.  No, I’ve gotten this far without a degree; if I stay on this path.

I’ve made it no secret that, mid-life, I’d love to switch careers and become a writer.  Journalist, columnist, author – it really doesn’t matter; I could be happy with any of them.  But, here’s the problem.  Anyone who’s paid attention knows a J-school degree, still based on the old industries that are dying, is becoming worth less and less.  An English degree?  Yeah, I’d have a ball getting it, but I just don’t see what that would buy me.

I don’t want to bore you with anymore details of my musings; just know that the world is open to me…I could go in almost any direction.  The specifics I can work out, maybe with a little career counseling.

But, one thing is certain:  there is a part of me that desperately wants to right this ancient wrong.  I have few regrets, but this is one of them.  I was supposed to have been the son who would be the first to get a degree; my brother, in his 40’s, acheived that distinction instead (and I am proud of him!).

And then there are those awkward moments, when I’m having a conversation with this or that person, and I’m wowing them with my intellect and creativity.  Then, the subject changes to which school I graduated from.  When I tell them, there is a change in their eyes.  you can almost see the person’s mind working overtime, reworking the view of who I am and where I fit in relation to them.  He or she, in that split second, takes me out of one box, and puts me in another. 

I am diminished in their eyes.  They don’t say it out loud, but it’s still there to see.

A lifetime of those awkward moments eats away at a guy, you know?

So, I’m going to see what I can do about it.

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Conduction Junction, What’s Your Function?

One of the pitfalls of sending your kids to a school where most of their classmates are in a higher socioeconomic range is the disparity in science fair projects.  We gave up trying to keep up with the Joneses years ago, but it’s still impossible not to look at my kids’ homemade, hand-made projects like they are Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree in comparison to the store-bought projects they are competing with.

That being said, this was the most fun year ever.

Trillian, self starter that she is, conceived and executed a pretty in-depth study of taste buds, and whether they change as we age.  She had men and women from 10 different age groups at church take part in a blind taste test of Coke and Diet Coke, and lemonade sweetened with sugar and Splenda.  Amazingly, the data showed something we didn’t expect – there was almost no difference in taste-ability with age, but there WAS with gender (girls/women were typically more accurate).  Trillian made a great display, and I’m quite proud of her.

But Zaphod really made things fun this year.  He had originally chosen a project that was FAR too complex (it’s something I might have attempted at the end of trade school), so he quickly found a very simple backup project.  He wanted to measure the relative electrical conductivity of several materials, including different guages of pencil lead.

This is right up my alley, something I studied extensively in my time at Nashville Vocational Tech.  I was quite pleased when he asked me for help.

I had a ball, teaching him about conductivity and resistance, about Onhm’s Law, voltage and amperage.  He already understood A/c and D/C from our trip to the Edison house in Ft. Myers, FL. Zaphod had really gotten into a film about the current wars between Edison and Westinghouse in the 1880’s from a film we saw on the subject, so he ahd a basic understanding of the two types of current.

We rigged a rheostat using a 6v battery, 16 guage stranded wire, and the bulb from a 6v flashlight.  Zaphod loved learning how to strip the wires.  We measured conductivity by placing the bare leads 2.5 inches apart, then 1 inch apart.  (He was actually measuring in centimeters, but metric measurements never took with me).  We recorded the brightness of the lamp visually on a scale of 0 to 4.  We couldn’t afford a light meter, so exact measurements were not possible.

We even used materials like stainless steel and aluminum foil.  I did, however, draw the line at a glass of water (although this, too would have been fine with me), because I knew Lintilla wouldn’t be comfortable with it.

In short, Zaphod and I found something we could actually bond over.  Those things are getting few and far between, so I savored every moment of working on this project with him.  He is, in general, smarter than I, so it was nice to venture into an area where I am confident in my knowledge, and he trusts me.  It also brought back a lot of good memories from 1983 for me.

Zaphod took his Explore test last week, and he and Trillian are taking the Iowas next week.  That’s the downside of this time of year.  Their brains have to be about to explode.  In two weeks, they are on spring break.  I am going to order them not to do any heavy thinking during that time.

Stay Classy, Pith

Today, the Scene’s Pith in The Wind has a couple of posts (so far) about the NAACP’s opposition to the school rezoning plan passed last year.  (NOTE: The NAACP’s arguments should be read, considered and debated in full.  This is an issue where they have gerat moral authority.)  The posts at Pith are informative, which makes this pullquote all the more distressing.  Writer Jeff Woods says:

Here’s the choice for superintendent Jesse Register and the school board: Kill the plan and unite the city behind the district’s new leadership, or wage a long, protracted fight to spare white kids in Hillwood the terrible trauma of going to school with inner-city blacks.

Jackass.

How dare you.

Obviously, Mr Woods, you know nothing about the facts on the ground.  Yet, you insult the entire population of one particular area of town.  How progressive.

I’ve got to say it again, because I don’t feel better yet…

Jackass.

Here are the facts.  The inner city kids you claim to be championing ALREADY do not go to school with “white kids from Hillwood” – at least not in any great numbers.  Did you not read the great article last May in the Tennessean?

The bulk of Hillwood students come from the poorest areas in the school’s 90-square-mile attendance zone. And because Hillwood is now an island populated by students from other places, the people living in the upscale neighborhood surrounding it have no stake in the school and don’t want one.

So, in effect, Hillwood IS at the current time an inner city school, sitting in the middle of one of Nashville’s wealthiest neighborhoods.  What do the kids bussed to Hillwood gain from the current system, except for a 45-minute bus ride per day?

But I don’t really want to discuss the merits of the rezoning plan with you.  I am not 100% sold on the idea myself.  Yet, you poison the waters by preemptively insulting me and my neighbors?

I would direct you to my Emily Evans’ (no Eric Crafton, she) wonderful research on the subject.  She actually spoke to her constiuents, and listed the major reasons why the vast majority of parents in her district send their children to private and magnet schools. 

The main reasons were Influence and Control, Plant and Equipment, Teachers,Safety, the Age Divisions of public schools (K-4, 5-8 and 9-12), School size, and Academic Excellence.  Read the whole thing.  Without it, you cannot possibly have the proper context to discuss Hillwood’s situation.

I’ll let you in on a secret, Mr. Woods.  If Hillwood were all lily white, and only had an enrollment from the neighborhood, yet still had the academic and safety record it has now, I would not send my kids (who are not white, BTW) there.  If Hillwood had an enrollment of only inner-city kids, yet had the academic excellence and other programs of my kids’ current private school, I WOULD send my kids there, saving myself A LOT of money in the process.

One final thing:  why is Hillwood always the negative example, when Hillsboro is in the exact same situation?  Hillsboro, which happens to sit in a more, er, progressive part of town, always seems to get a pass in these matters. 

I am no longer going to sit back and let others define my motives.  I’m sick and tired of it.  Educate yourself, Mr. Woods, and then we might could discuss the issue properly.

Humility

For the second time in as many years, it has happened.  Last week, we met with our kids’ teachers.  The one concern, out of all the meetings for both kids, was Zaphod’s algebra homework.  The teacher said that he tests well, but he turns in incomplete answers on his homework because he doesn’t properly follow directions.

(I should add here that the kids are doing just fine.  This was a singular nitpick)

Now, Zaphod does his homework in the car on the way home (in order to free up time for important things like video games), so my solution was simple: no homework till he gets, well, home.  Also, I would start checking his algebra homework daily. 

(Lintilla has already given up, because algebra wasn’t her strong suit 30 years ago – she doesn’t remember any of it now.  But, the stuff Zaphod is working on is about at the level I use every day in my line of work – that’s kind of sad when you think about it.)

Anyway, Monday was the first day of this new policy.  And just like last year, when he got his grade, he got more answers wrong on the homework I had checked than any homework he had done previously.

It’s not that I don’t know the material.  My work programs use much of the same algebraic logic, and they work just fine, thank you.  No, I think what’s going on is that Zaphod gets his habit of not understanding instructions from me.  Many of you probably already know this from episodes of my responding on your blogs to things you didn’t say.  For a man with a flair for spouting flowery prose, my comprehension skills are crap.

Now, I have to write the humiliating email to the teacher, explaining why my son is now on his own when it comes to math homework.  If I want him to get good grades, I need to stay as far away as possible.

It is a good thing to get knocked down a notch or two every now and then.  We often become so full of ourselves, we refuse to see that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do.

I pray you get the same epiphany, no matter how painful it might be in the moment.

Important (Part 6)

Anyone who has read this blog or my comments anywhere knows that I am absolutely schizophrenic when it comes to wisdom and knowledge.  I have quite the love/hate relationship with the concept of knowledge and education, for its own sake.

One moment I come across as an pompous, know-it-all blowhard.  The next, I’m all Will Rogers, spouting anti-intellectual populism.

But, hey, we don’t all come out of the womb in the form we are now.  Many things have contributed to this strange personality quirk of mine.

Always, always in the back of my mind is the mindset of someone raised in a blue collar family.  I will always have a part of my mind that takes a utilitarian view of education.  One goes to school to learn skills that are applicable for a specific career, along with a few other life skills.  Anything else is just wasting time, the sort of thing rich folks do to keep from getting bored.

The funny thing is, any close examination of Maslow’s hierarchy will tell you that my dad wasn’t too far off from the truth.  I seriously doubt my sharecropper grandfather had too much time or inclination to devote to pondering Jean-Paul Sartre’s theories of existentialism.

Yet, once I entered my teen years, I discovered that not only was knowledge for its own sake fun, but that I had inherited my mother’s gift of being an effective communicator.  People were drawn to what I had to say – and I really loved the feeling of that.

So, I became an “intellectual”, as I understood it at the time.  I purged my southern accent.  I joined the forensics and debate teams.  I read all the great works of literature, kept up feverishly with current events, delved into intense study of the Laws of Logic and the great philosophers.  I never allowed myself to lose an intellectual argument (and this was years before the internet!)

I was, in retrospect, an insufferable little snot.  It’s a wonder my dad did not drop kick me across the living room when I would start pontificating at him like I was God’s gift to knowledge.  He let me know one time that he didn’t appreciate my talking down to him; the funny thing is, I had no idea I was doing it.  It was then that I decided to pull back, and attempt to put knowledge and intellect at the proper place in my life. 

I’m still working to find that perfect balance.

Now that I’m getting older “wisdom” has become more important to me than “knowledge”.  I think that any person over 35 has an innate desire to be seen as wise. (Just as any person under 35 – and beyond – has an innate desire to be considered “attractive”).  An I’m not alone.  Read any blog of a person around or above my age; the tone is that of a wise sage pontificating.  It doesn’t matter the subject or the political bent.  We oldsters flash our nuggets of wisdom as wantonly as drunk coeds flash their breasts at Mardi Gras.  And for the same reason. 

My religion places an utmost importance on study.  Without getting into any debates about sola scriptura, let’s just say that my particular flavor of Christianity has as a fundamental tenet that belief HAS to be informed by study of scripture or it is the blind belief that nonbelievers love to caricature.  We have to know what we believe, and why we believe it.

It amazes me how many people who profess belief in Jesus Christ have very little idea what’s in the Bible.  It also amazes me how dirt poor, uneducated people can possess masters-level knowledge in soteriology, biblical exegesis, eschatology, and other high-minded concepts.

Now that I’m a parent, my relationship with knowledge seems to have come full circle.  We have ordered our household so that learning is just something we do every day.  Instead of Nick and MTV, Discovery and the History Channel rule at our house.  We make regular trips to museums (science and art), and it seems like we are constantly looking stuff up on the internet. (This usually starts with “Dad, why is it that..?” or “Dad, where do xxx come from?” – search engines are really overworked at our house)

Most importantly, Lintilla and I view ourselves as our kids’ primary educators.  Their teachers are subcontractors, but we will always be the primary contractors.  So, our kids take the absolute opposite view of education than I did at their age.  Education is not a means to a career, per se, it’s just something that we do.

But, I also want to pass along a sense of perspective to the children.  Knowledge is AN important thing, but it’s not THE important thing.  Education does not make the heart of man any less evil.  For all our advances in science, technology, and “awareness”, mankind still treats itself pretty much the way it did 3000 years ago or more.  In fact, one must always be careful to weigh an intellectual concept against existing moral concepts.  As Vicktor Frankl (psychiatrist and holocaust survivor) once said:

If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment–or, as the Nazi liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

This is not to say, obviously, that I think that education makes one evil.  I believe that evil is a subtext of human existence.  It is within us all, and we can’t educate ourselves out of it.

About The School Board’s Rezoning Plan

I’ll break my personal ban on politics for this one post, because I’d like to speak about an issue with which I am well acquainted.  For once, I’m not just spouting hot air; I think I actually have something to say that has direct bearing.

Maybe I’m wrong – maybe my egomania and paranoia have convinced me that the world does indeed revolve around me.  However, as of right now, I’m convinced that the school board rezoning plan passed last night was a direct message to me, and others like me.  To understand why I say this, you have to read this past article in the Tennessean.  Please read it all, otherwise, you’ll think I’m an old blithering idiot.  Here are a couple of astonishing excerpts:

Hillwood [high school] is a microcosm of how public schools across Metro Nashville have lost a large portion of the middle class and suffered as a result. Now a harsh spotlight is shining on the school system and the people who run it. The question is whether Nashville has the will and wherewithal to make the changes that will revive the faltering school system…

The city’s top leadership is challenged to find ways to bring those middle-class students back. If they don’t, the district faces a much tougher task educating the historically harder-to-reach low-income population and getting back the support of the city’s residents.

As it stands, Metro’s dismal reputation drives both families and businesses across county lines…and many from the middle class who have remained in Nashville have opted for the private school route, willing to pay pricey tuitions to escape the public school system.

Despite the city’s growth, so many families have left that fewer students are enrolled in Nashville’s public schools today than in 1970.

That last one just blows my mind.  1970?  When Nashville was just a sleepy, big small town?  Wow.  Anyway, the jist of the Tennessean article was this: Hillwood (the school to which my kids are zoned) is surrounded by million dollar homes occupied by families who do not send their kids to the school.  There is no arguing this point (and Hillwood is not alone, or enrollment could NOT be below 1970 levels).

Just to be clear, I do not have one of those million dollar homes.  My neighborhood, a little over a mile away from Hillwood, has no McMansions – our street is primarily lined with 1960’s ranch homes that were quite large for the time they were built, but very average today.

One side note – I don’t think the proposal passed last night constitutes re-segregation at all.  The Nashville public schools are already segregated, economically.  Hillwood is a suburban school in geography only. 

Anyway, as one of those who sends his children to private schools, there is a tenor to the article (and the proposal passed yesterday) that I find highly insulting.  The underlying theme seems to be “if we get rid of all the poor people (subtext: African Americans), the middle class (subtext: white folks) will come back”.

Maybe my councilperson Emily Evans (who has written on this subject before) can give her insight, but I’d swear that’s what this is all about.  As a side note, please read the post by Evans; it’s quite informative.

But the thought behind the proposal ticks me off every time I think about it.  As Evans said, “People make educational choices for all kinds of reasons.”  In our case, my wife insisted that we send our kids to the private school she from which she graduated. (It was formerly a catholic girls’ high school).  We did not even bother to apply at any other schools – it was this one or public school.

Evans is right about why the school board is taking such a drastic move:

In most cities, people like those who live in the 23rd district form the backbone of the public school system. They are more likely to have the kind of job that lets them out of work to participate in parent-teacher conferences or volunteer as a tutor or teacher’s aide. They are more likely to have a parent that does not work outside the home and is available to organize and execute fundraisers. They are more likely to be educated themselves and as a result have high expectation for the education of their children. They are also generally politically aware and inclined to become activists in support of public education.

I graduated from Hillwood.  26 years ago, parental involvement was already dying.  I was one of those kids “bussed” to Hillwood – they had closed Bellevue High two years prior.  Hillwood was just too far away for my family to treat it as our neighborhood school, with all the involvement mentioned by Evans.  And this was 26 years ago.  I know it has gotten progressively worse since then.

My son enters high school in 3 years.  He and his sister are performing at college level in most of their subjects.  Most of his friends are moving on to one of the Nashville catholic high schools.  His sister is right behind him, desperately wishing to attend the nearby all girls school.  My kids have never know anything else but a standard of the highest achievement. 

I really don’t know the answer for the MNPS system.  I just have a hard time seeing how sending my kids to Hillwood, after all these years in private schools,  would be beneficial to them.  It would be beneficial to Lintilla and me, for sure.  Sometimes I daydream about what I could do with those tens of thousands of dollars a year we spend on tuition.  I could say goodbye to all those problems caused by sending my kids to a school where 90% of the student body has richer families than they do.  I could also free up all the time we  spend exposing the kids to different cultures and economic levels, and just let the school handle that.  Hillwood is relatively nearby, and on the way to work.  Yes, for me, sending the kids to Metro schools would be pretty cool.

But, I’m afraid the life we have chosen has gathered too much momentum.

I fear I sound like an elitist, and that just is not the case.  I wish the same opportunities my children have had for all children.  I am willing to pay to see that happen.  I don’t know how (vouchers are a discussion for another day), but I would love to see the children of my friends in Bordeaux, Woodbine, Melrose, north Nashville, and elsewhere given the same education my kids are getting.  I’d love for them to be classmates of my children.  I’d love to see ALL kids challenged at the highest levels.  I would love for my kids’ 99th percentile scores to be more like 75 – not because my kids didn’t test as well, but because the norm is at a higher level.  This would be the absolute best thing for our city and nation.

Maybe this whole re-segregation thing will work, in the long run.  I don’t see how.  The problem with MNPS is not with the racial makeup; however,  the people who argue that we should make the schools part of their neighborhoods have a point.  Parental involvement and engagement is key.  So, we’ll just have to wait a generation before we know if this was such a good idea.

Pardon This Moment of Parental Pride

They had the academic awards ceremony at my kids’ school last night.  It’s rough, because it’s easy to get caught up in the whole competitive nature of these things.  It’s an academic-oriented school, so for many of the kids and parents, last night was their Raison d’être.

Last year, we left the ceremony wondering what was wrong with our kids, since they had only won a few awards, while a some others won anywhere from 7-10.  The next day, I looked at Lintilla and said, “What are we doing?”  Our kids are well-balanced, very good students, and all around good kids. Isn’t that what we wanted when we prayed for children?” 

We promised ourselves that this year would be different, and I’m proud to say, it was.  We kept things in perspective, and made sure to let the kids know that we are super-proud of their accomplishments this year.

Zaphod won an Accelerated Reader award, which wasn’t a surprise.  That boy has a book in his hand at all times.  He reads for pleasure, which came in handy during his recent grounding.  He led his class in Accelerated Reader points.  For those of you who are curious, he prefers science fiction/fantasy, just like his old man did.

Trillian won an award for excellence in science, and another one for social studies.  She is very, very strong in these two subjects – I don’t think she got below an A on either one this year.

Now, she was upset because they don’t start honor roll until 5th grade, and she would have made it this year.  Zaphod was upset because he didn’t have perfect attendance for the second straight year.  We reminded him that his mother had a major medical diagnosis this year, and that he had perfect attendance for the days Lintilla wasn’t in the hospital.

I want to also add that Zaphod took his Accelerated Math test yesterday, got 100%, then turned around and took another in the same day!  I’ll be doggonned if he isn’t going to get an “A” in that class, the one that got him grounded last six weeks, the one we were afraid he’d get another “D” in.

We pushed the heck out of him this six weeks, when it came to math.  We asked him every single day, “Did you take a test today?  Did you take a test today?”.  I’m somewhat surprised that all that pushing ended up having spectacular results.  It occurred to me that, had I pushed my kids in this way in all their classes this year, they’d be the ones getting award after award after award.

But this, I will not do.  There is so much more involved in raising my kids than just academics.  There’s music, and church, and fishing, and the proper way to eat over-medium eggs.  There’s laughter, and service, and games of Monopoly, and political discussions (we’ve actually had a few lately).  There are scales to play and bases to run.  There are cakes to bake and sleepovers to attend.

And soon, very soon, there will be attentions turned to the opposite sex.  But I’d rather not think about that.

Our parental motto from the beginning has been; Smart is Easy.  Good is Hard.  What that motto really says is where we place our emphasis as parents.  We have chosen to focus on the latter, and I think we’ve been somewhat successful.  The kids are not perfect, but they really are “good” kids.  I’m quite proud of them.

We chose an emphasis that probably means they won’t be valdedictorians.  I can live with that.  All we’ve ever asked of them academically is try their best.

I really am a proud papa today.