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Archive for the ‘education’ Category

My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

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A week ago I finished a job as event coordinator for a large academic conference in Boston.  Although the organization bills itself as a “North American Society…” there were people in attendance from all over the world, and I — an undergraduate English major who studied romanticism quite a bit — was so far out of my league I wondered where my studies of Wordsworth and Shelley had gone.

I had four students acting as assistants for the conference. Three of them were graduate students, one was a rising senior, and all of them are headed for careers as college professors or researcher/writers in the field of romanticism.  They were terrific, each one of them in their own way, so smart and engaged and energetic.  The grad students were put on panels and so, received the opportunity to present a twelve minute paper on a subject they were studying, and to field the questions of the audience who wanted to explore their topic (or tear their thesis apart).  This was a wonderful opportunity for them, and when they weren’t helping at our registration desk or running around taking care of other errands, they were off in seminars, taking full advantage of the visiting professors who came from Australia, Ireland, across Canada, China, Denmark, and more.

Each one of these women is already impressive.  And each one of them is going to be something important, really significant, and soon.  You can see it in their drive, in their conversations with one another, in their eyes.  It made me not only remember my own days in graduate school, when I grabbed every opportunity I could get to work in professional theatre and dove deep into studies of Georg Buchner and the existentialist playwrights, days when I thought I would die of happiness just working for the eighteenth hour straight on Elizabeth Ashley’s new play, about to come into the Colonial Theatre, or work on a grad student production of Percey Shelley’s play “The Cenci” (talk about obscure romanticism).

Along the way I got a boost from some people (mostly women) that helped.  The costume designer and now business consultant Betsy Leichleiter, who sent me off to Boston’s theatre district to work because she thought I had the right stuff.  Theatre publicist Nance Movsessian, a warhorse of a woman who was legend in Boston theatre, who taught me about communication in an arts setting.  Roberta Rogovin in New Haven, who thought that I had what it would take to make the City of New Haven a place where the arts could not only survive, but thrive.  And then, as I branched away from theatre and the arts and toward other non-profit settings and the world of religion,  Denny Davidoff, an advertising and marketing powerhouse who, with former Unitarian Universalist Association Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, not only taught me about the business of religion but about how to make your career and your life focus on making a difference in the world.

These were my uncommon women, the people who were there to give me a hand along the way, sometimes a kick in the ass as well, and who pointed me toward the next challenge and the opportunities that lay ahead.  As one of my graduate assistants at that conference agonized over a professor who had torn into her thesis, I wondered if some mentor would be there to keep her headed in the right direction.  Soon enough, one of her professors (not a woman, but a mentor and advocate for sure) showed up to help her refocus on what was important.    “If you didn’t get questions about what you wrote, it wouldn’t be worth saying.  You’re doing fine.  Keep going.”  And my comment:  “Everyone I’ve talked to at this conference has talked about how wonderful you are as a teacher.  You told me you wanted to be an English professor.  You already are.  Your students value you.  Keep working toward the goal of being the best professor you can be, and you’ll be on the right path.”

This week I’ll be at a dinner, held by another ‘uncommon woman,’ one who has been an author, one of the first female Fulbright scholars, and a foreign bureau chief for a major news outlet.  She’ll gather with a number of other impressive women around her table and they’ll be talking about their lives, who they have mentored, whether they now mentor others.  It should be a heady conversation.

I have no idea if my life will put me in the place where I need to be lifted up, again, by one of my uncommon women.  But I know what the value is of such people in our lives.  So often they show up at just the right moment.  Knowing when to say something or give you a kick in the ass is part of the treasure that such mentors hold…part of what make them so uncommon.

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It’s less than two weeks before Christmas, a time when the pressure on parents to think about how they can fulfill their children’s wishes and dreams mounts apace.  It’s a time of holiday parties, of too much to do and too little time, of baking treats, visiting with friends and — in our house, anyway — thinking about the arrival home of our adored younger child, whose face we last saw (at least, without the aid of Skype) on August 29 as we drove away from New Orleans.

She’s had a good first semester at Tulane, and we’ve survived empty nest syndrome reasonably well.  And now, it’s time for a reunion.  And while my head has been filled with all the things we might do when she comes home — all the things I’ll cook for her, the Zumba class we’ll go to together, picking out the Christmas tree and decorating it, with eggnog in hand — the illusion was shattered today.

I’m from Connecticut, you see.  A dear friend lives in Newtown;  I know where Sandy Hook is.  More than that, the elementary school where our younger child was educated is right down the street from us.  Many days, Ben or I would walk her there, say goodbye as she went in the door, wave to the principal, thank her teachers for all they offered her.  So I really can not imagine what nightmare the parents of Newtown are living through right now.  How in the world could you have been planning for the holidays with your five- or eight-year-old one minute and find out, in the next, that the child has been blown away by a gunman?

What do we say, collectively, to those parents?  What do we say to the families of those who have lost a loved one…those families of educators who devoted themselves to our children, so that they would have the opportunity to grow and contribute and flower in their lives?  And why, in the name of all that is valuable in life, do we continue to believe that — because of this country’s struggle for liberty and the value of individual rights — we must have the right to bear firearms, allowing this catastrophe to happen over and over again?

By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t either of my children who died today.  By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t my nephew, who teaches in a charter school, or an extended family member’s second grade son, or my cousin, who is a school librarian.  But it could have been.  And it should not be.  Not ever.

We proudly proclaim that, as a country, we are the most powerful nation on earth.  And then, people who suffer from mental illness or who have lost their way in life use the rights we continue to proudly claim, to buy firearms and in one horrible moment, blow away the lives, the futures, of twenty small children and the teachers who cared for them.

Too often, we take our lives and our existence for granted, take our privileges as citizens of this country as ‘inalienable rights’ that can lead us astray.  There must be another way.  Because, for those good people of Newtown and for us as a nation, life as we know it will not be the same.  And we owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sure that the gun laws in this country are different so that this sad drama does not keep repeating.

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She longs for adventure, my younger child.  She yearned for a chance to do something really different, to go somewhere she had never been, to help others, to explore at least a little piece of the world.  Money is tight:  I’m still seeking a full time job, eighteen months after my last one ended.  We – like so many – have had to cut back, do without or with less, and hope like crazy that the economy and our fortunes will improve.  So such explorations didn’t seem a likely bet this summer.

But our exploring child wouldn’t let go of the dream.  She worked like crazy at her job (at the fabulous Rancatore’s Ice Cream), she asked her grandparents for exploring money.  And an anonymous donor appeared to give Abby a grant to travel to parts yet unseen, showing her (and us) what the kindness of friends, if not strangers, is about.  It was enough to make it all possible.

So today, we put Abby on a plane for the Jazz City, headed for two weeks – in the hottest part of the summer in that very steamy part of the country — to work on Hurricane Katrina restoration with the St. Bernard Project, and then to work on Gulf Coast oil spill recovery in an estuary.  She’ll meet other teens, learn about the amazing culture that makes New Orleans such a remarkable stew of music, the Mardi Gras Indians, creole language, fabulous cajun food.  She’ll sweat and get dirty, meet people whose lives are very different from her own, and – we dearly hope – grow in ways that she, and we, didn’t expect.

We took her to the airport this morning to begin the journey.  She was nervous, but she was pumped.  We were unsettled and already missing her.  Yet we know it’s the right thing, coming at the right time.  The right way to enter her final year of high school, the right way to learn more about the America she lives in.  She’ll always be our baby, but as she disappeared into the security line at the airport this morning and then emerged in the distance, waving goodbye, we realized she’s launched on the first of what we hope will be many, many adventures that help her expand her view of herself and her world.

The kindness off friends and family made this adventure possible – and all our hearts are deeply grateful.

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Last night, Ben and I went to Lexington High School for a presentation of “Songs of Ourselves:  A Celebration of Diversity”, the culmination of a unique poetry and music project.  Our friend, the talented poet and performance artist Regie O’Hare Gibson, had run the project,  along with his colleague, Robert Rivera – a gifted cellist and composer.  The two worked with freshmen at the high school on writing poetry and presenting it with music, both written and improvised.  Twenty-five pieces were presented in the 1.5-hour presentation, and a jazz combo and a classical ensemble were on stage to add live music to the performance.  The poems were read by Regie and two students.

The excellence of the writing was smashing, and the music was perfectly suited to the poems being read.  The student readers, rehearsed by Gibson, were also excellent, and all the people on stage were clearly excited by the work that had gone into the presentation, which was recorded by the local cable television station for rebroadcast.

What completely jazzed me (pun intended) were the topics presented through the writing:  memories of childhood and middle school, the importance of Starbucks (and its competition with Peets Coffee, the other major caffeine dispensary in Lexington center), elderly relatives and neighbors, visiting foreign countries, being in nature, what it’s like to live in a town like Lexington.  The whole program showed us what it’s like to be a teen today in this typical American town.  And it also showed us just how talented these teens are, guided by their teachers and Gibson.

Rivera’s work with the student musicians was equally impressive.  They offered music that enhanced each piece, and for the last piece, which Gibson had written from snippets of many of the poems the students had produced, all the musicians improvised with style and sensitivity.

I love what the poetry unit at the high school does.  My own daughter, Abby, wrote some amazing pieces during her poetry classes, including this one:

My friends and I
run along the grass
towards the rocky shore
We speak of the things
that happened that day:
all the excitements
and fun,
the games we had played.
The smell of smoke
drifts toward us,
familiar,
like an old friend.
We begin to hear laughing
and singing.

We crowd around the fire,
reaching for sticks and cramming
as many marshmallows onto them as will fit,
all of us as excited as a pen full of puppies.

Now for the fire:
some plunge the treat
deep into the flames, waiting
for the gooey mess
that is soon to come.
others linger by the edges of the fire,
wanting that delicious golden brown.

But the marshmallows all end up
the same
squished between chocolate
and graham crackers,
the perfect trio.
As I bite into this dessert,
bits of marshmallow
and graham cracker
stick to the corners of my mouth.

I laugh with my friends
as we walk back to our rooms,
already wanting to start the next day.
And to think that this moment
will only be
once
upon
a star.
(Abby, June – 2007)

Lexington, typical American town where the Revolution began, has become a pretty diverse American place, at least in some senses.  The town cultural composition is now twenty percent Asian, is home to people from many economic groups (although overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class), offers many religious traditions, many cultural backgrounds.  And, yes, Lexington High School is a very, very good school – currently regarded as one of the top five public schools in the state.  The efforts of a herd of teachers and administrators caused “Songs of Ourselves” to come about, and the Lexington Education Foundation helped make it so.

Most of all, though, this project showed us, once again, what the arts in education can do.  Too often, these days, as very difficult decisions have to be made about what stays and what goes in city and town education budgets, the arts end up on the cutting room floor.  “Songs of Ourselves” offered us a look at what it means to be a teen today in this little town, and showed us what kind of gorgeous magic can be unlocked when you swirl together a few talented artists, a group of dedicated teachers and administrators, the funding support of an organization that wants to support the best in education, and a group of students willing to risk.  It’s delicious, and it’s worth our support as well.

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Last week, I performed in a one-night-only show that I couldn’t wait to do.  It’s a show that unites Revels, Inc., the remarkable dance-music-theatre organization that brings the arts and education together in wonderful ways, with the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA — the school that educated Annie Sullivan and later, Helen Keller.  Revels and Perkins have had a close relationship for eleven years.  That relationship extends to the Revels Music Director, George Emlen, teaching the Perkins students many pieces from the Revels repertoire, focused on the spring, May Day, and (in some years) the sea.  Education director Michelle Roderick has also worked with the students, showing them what a sword dance ‘feels’ like, how May Day is celebrated in the British Isles, and more.

Into this, the Revels Repertory Company performers come (including me), to partner with Perkins students and sing traditional songs including “The Helston Furry,” “The Padstow May Song,” the medieval “Miri it Is,” “Mairi’s Wedding,” and more.  We are accompanied by members of our children’s company, dancing and singing and making merry (miri) through the aisles of the auditorium.  David Coffin, the mainstay of the Christmas Revels productions, is there to play his recorder and lead the audience in several pieces.  But the Perkins students are the real stars of this show.

All of them are blind or partially sighted.  A number have hearing loss or other challenges as well.  They have all worked hard to learn the music for this show, and they are excited to be performing with us.  Carefully we teach our partners how to perform the Circassian Circle Dance, counting out the beats for them and calling the steps.  We narrate what’s happening on stage, what’s coming next in the show, where we have to move, how many steps to walk down to move from stage to floor level.  It takes awareness and sensitivity and skills one doesn’t ordinarily call on to make everything work.

Perkins has existed for over 175 years.  With Samuel Gridley Howe as one of the school’s guiding lights and Charles Dickens as one of its champions, the institution has a remarkable history and offers services that now reach around the globe, serving blind, deaf-blind, and visually challenged individuals.  The Perkins slogan is, “All we see are possibilities.”  When I work with the Perkins students, so many of those possibilities become clear, and they overtake the challenges.  These students are enthusiastic, willing, and excited to be involved with Revels.

Too often we tend to think about individuals with physical or emotional challenges as disabled, lacking the ability to participate.  But in this venture between Revels and Perkins, it becomes clear that the students really are differently abled…and it’s up to us to find the best ways to unlock the potential that’s there.

For me, this is a huge gift, an opportunity to stretch in different ways, share my joy of the performing arts with someone new.  And it’s hard to beat the pleasure of performing in front of an audience of excited Perkins students, faculty, and most of all, parents, weeping with joy as they watch their children doing things they never believed were possible.  More than this, the students themselves find that they can do things they were yearning to attempt.  One student, John Castillo, has an absolutely first-rate baritone voice and is a gifted percussionist.  Another is a smashing violinist.  Still another plays the accordion with great ease and ability.

The Revels partnership, which brings the remarkable directing skills of Artistic Director Patrick Swanson to the Perkins productions along with Emlin’s musical talents, exposes the Perkins students to music and theatre in energizing, thrilling form.

I walked away from the evening grateful for the work of my partner, Marta, and thrilled to have had a chance to work with the Perkins students and faculty members.  And all around, I have to agree that — with this partnership — there’s nothing but possibility for all who helped this one-night-only production get onstage.

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